Glimpses of Egyptian Magic – Part 1
By Leslie Marlar
According to Paul Bohannon in his “Africa and Africans”, Egyptian culture is basically African culture with intrusions from Asian culture. (1) I suspect that like its culture, Egyptian Magic is basically African with influences from Asian neighbors. If this is true, a proper study of Egyptian magic would include a study of Egyptian magic and culture, African magic and culture, and Near Eastern magic and culture. This paper is an intitial survey done within the time constraints of a semester and this is why I call it only a glimpse. In it I will be trying to uncover the general flavor of magic in Pharaonic Egypt. The word general is used because it seems that although Egyptian magic and religion changed and developed over its long history, old concepts and rituals were still faithfully maintained aside the new things. (2) Finally, I’m not concerned with whether magic worked but with what magic was in the minds of the Egyptians.
In order to look for Egyptian magic, we first have to define it. According to Encyclopedia Britanica, magic covers a wide range of phenomena, rituals, and practices; and exists at the core of many religious systems. It is a social and cultural phenomena found in all places and times at varying levels of importance. It tends toward manipulation rather than supplication. And it is involved in everyday life in order to explain events and bring about desired ones. In structure it consist of spells, materials, rites, and the ritual condition of the rite performer. In function, magic symbolizes important cultural matters; and as an instrument, attempts to produce, protect, or destroy. Finally according to the same source, magic and religion can be distinguished by looking for the following: the power that the activity is being directed to; the individual who does the activity; and basic differences in function between magic and religion. Magic attempts to achieve beyond normal competence and religion focus on the relationships between God and man, man and man, and man and nature. (3a)
The first thing that we can do in relation to Egyptian magic is dispense with the last item in the Encyclopedia’s definition of magic. In Egypt the same gods were interacted with for both magic and religion, and an inspection of the spells in the “Book of the Dead” will show a great deal of religion in addition to magic. (4)
The next thing that I would like to do is give my own definition of magic. This definition is based on a study of C. C. Zain’s Brotherhood of Light writings, and a survey of African magic as expressed in its art. (5)
Magic is an old universal religion concerned with the interaction of men and unseen forces and men and unseen entities. The existence of magic is predicated by a belief in the unseen and its practice necessitates a knowledge of the unseen. It can behave passively or actively by receiving something from the unseen or having an effect on the unseen. Magic seems to express itself in two different ways which are brought together by a third magical activity. The first type of magic exists within a magical culture, a structure created by the people of the culture. It can consist of special words, actions, people, things, conceptions, and a whole host of unseen things and forces. The second type of magic is a personal type in which an individual interacts with the unseen by developing and using the unseen part of himself – his soul. This individual has to have certain natural talents and needs special training in order to be able to develop and use his soul in order to interact with the unseen. An excellent example of this type of magic is described in Charles Wagley’s article about the shamans of the Tapirape Indians. In this Wagley describes the shaman’s practice of going to sleep, dreaming, separtating his soul from his body and sending it off to interact with things both physical and unseen. (6) The third magical activity is divination. Divination is the process of gaining information. In divination some process is started and then interrupted. In most cases, what is interrupted is a particular meaningful pattern which is chosen over other possible meaningful patterns. In some cases only the mind of the operator is involved, and in others, gods are called upon for help. Divination seems to combine the psychic powers of soul magic with magical culture. An example of divination is the use of tarot card spreads. The deck comes from modern magical culture and its use stimulates the psychism of the diviner. The interruption of the meaningful pattern is stopping the shuffle of the cards.
In this search for Egyptian magic, I will try to describe the magical culture through which Egyptian magic operates. I will look for the cultural magic that rest on this magical culture, and also look for Egyptian divination and soul magic.
Egyptian Magic (cultural Background)
The Egyptians of Pharaonic times were extremely religious and magical. They seemed to completely combine religious concepts and practices with magical concepts and practices. Their culture seemed permeated by both. Using my definition of magic, which tends to combine religion and magic, let’s look at the cultural structure upon which Egyptian magic rested.
The Unseen World
The world of the Egyptian was different from ours. In his world gods and beings of light (transformed souls) existed in heaven; and gods, monsters, and the souls of the dead existed in the underworld. (7) On earth, good and evil spirits competed for the body. (8) And everything had a ba (soul or magical force): people, the moon, stars, the sphinx, temples, parts of temples, statues of gods, towns, doors, threshing floors, and sacred books. (9) The name of Memphis translates to the “House of the ka (like the ba) of Path” (a god). (10) E. A. Wallis Budge (Egyptologist of the British Museum) gives a long list of mythical/magical places like Sekhet-Aanru, the islands of the delta where the souls of the dead were thought to live. (11) And throughout all of this there existed maat – “the cosmic force of harmony, order, stability, and security….”. (12)
In modern western society man is thought to be body and mind. In Egyptian society, according to Budge, man was thought to be body and sahu and ab and ka and ba and khaibit and khu and sekhem and name. (13) Let’s look at the function of each of these according to Budge and others. In the material that follows Budge seems to be restricting the functions of these expressions of man to his existence after death except where this is obviously not the case.
BODY – The body called the khat suggests the idea of something liable to decay. It represents the body in life and the mummy form in death. As a mummy, it needs preservation but does not leave the tomb or reappear on earth.
SAHU – This expression of man is a spiritual body that grows out of the mummified form. It has obtained a degree of knowledge and power and glory and becomes lasting and incorruptible. It can converse with its own soul and ascend into heaven and dwell with the gods, their sahus, and the souls of the righteous.
AB – The heart according to Budge is “the seat of the power of life and the fountain of good and evil thoughts”. Encyclopedia Brittanica descrbes it as the conscience. At the judgment of the deceased it is the heart that is weighed against the figure of maat (cosmic order). (3a)
KA – Budge describes the ka as an abstract personality with an independent existence. It can separate from the body, move from place to place, and visit with the gods of heaven. Budge translates it as image, genius, double, character, disposition, and mental attributes. Funeral offerings are made to the ka after death ( the ka needs food) and the ka was thought to dwell in the statue provided for this purpose in the tomb. According to Encylopedia Britanica the ka is the vital force of the individual. (3b) Budge in his “Egyptian Magic” says that if not fed the ka will wander outside the tomb and eat and drink repulsive things. (14) In “A Concise Dictionary of Egyptian Archeology” Broderick and Morton describe the ka as a spiritual double. They cite that at birth there are two entities, the body and the ka. (15)
BA – Budge defines the ba as the immortal soul. He gave the word the literal translation of “sublime” or “noble”. The ba is mobile, capable of going to heaven and associating with the souls there, and capable of transforming itself into any shape. In the “Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization” by Posener the ba is described as the power of action outside of the person free of the limitations of space. (16) In Zabkar’s “A Study of the Ba Concept in Ancient Egypt” the ba is defined as a manifestation of a being’s power and as a personified agent of an individual for whom it performs functions. (17) It is also something one has, is, and can transform oneself into. (18) The deceased lives in and through his ba and he wants it to become divine and run into no barriers. (19) The ka and ba enjoy pleasures and operate fully on a psychic and physical level. (20) A quote from the “Book of Transversing Eternity” concerning the ba says, “…thy majesty goes forth as a living ba…”. “Thou alightest in the storm-wind, thou hoverest as a Shadow, thou makest transformation to thou heart’s desire; thou ascendest to heaven without thou arm being restrained, thou descendest to the underworld without being repelled, thou travelest upon the ways of gods of the horizon and makest thy seat among the Westerners.” (21)
KHAIBIT – The shadow like the ka and ba is considered by Budge to be able to separate from the body and able to exist separately and fully, moving around at will and partaking of the offerings.
KHU – The khu is another eternal expression of man that Budge translates as “shining”. He goes on to call it shining one, glorious, intelligence, and spirit; and shows that the khu seems meant for heaven. Zabkar gives us the quote, “The Akh (khu) belongs to heaven, and the corpse belongs to earth.” (22)
SEKHEM – Budge defines this expression of man as power or form. Wiedemann describes the sekhem as the outward appearance. (23)
NAME – In Budges’s “Egyptian Magic”, he tells us that the name was a part of a man and that the possessor of a name of a man could work good or evil on that man through curses or blessings. This reminds me of the ancient Jews being so grateful to know God’s name. It gave them access to Him.
In Budge’s book on magic he shows two pictures from the Papyrus of Ani. In these two pictures we see depicted Ani’s mummy, animate body, shadow, ba, and khu. It is interesting to note the pictured forms of these parts of man. The animate body is probably the ka. The shadow looks like a living Ani. The ba is a bird with the head and face of Ani. And the khu is shown as a bird. (24) We can analyze these forms and check them for varying levels of earthliness, mobility, and transformation. The shadow and ka are earthly, mobile in a human way, and not transformed other that that they are now alive. The ba is less earthly, has undergone transformation, and is much more mobile in its bird form. The khu is also less earthly and equally mobile like the ba, but has undergone a complete transformation. This seems consistent with what has been mentioned above in reference to the shadow, ka (double), ba (soul), and khu (spirit).