Chapter 20 - Sobek's Servants
The Egyptians believed in magic, which they called heka (see hieroglyphs left). In chapter 20 we see Puyemre use curse magic, and later he controls crocodiles. On this page we shall learn about various aspects of Egyptian magic.
Spells for Daily Life
Magic spells were written on papyrus and might be spoken by a magician (usually a priest). They could be used for all sorts of purposes, such as protection from dangerous animals like scorpions, snakes, and crocodiles.
The magician might use a magic wand to help him cast the spell. These were usually made of hippo tusk ivory and were carved with mystical creatures.
He might also use other objects, as we shall see below.
Examples of spells:
How to make a love charm - Make a figure of a dog eight fingers long out of wax and gum. Write magical words on the figure where the ribs are. On a separate lead tablet, write the names of demons who are being called on to help. Then place the tablet on a tripod and the dog on the tablet. Recite the words of power written on the side of the dog and the names written on the tablet. If the dog snarls the spell will not be successful. If it barks it will be successful.
A Love Spell
Hail to thee, O Re-Harakhte, Father of the Gods!
Hail to you, O ye Seven Hathors
Who are adorned with strings of red thread!
Hail to you, ye gods lords of heaven and earth!
Come make (name of the woman) born of (her mother) come after me,
Like an ox after grass,
Like a servant after her children,
Like a drover after his herd!
If you do not make her come after me,
Then I will set fire to Busiris and burn up Osiris.
Curses and Harmful Spells
The tale of Webaoner in chapter 13 shows us that the Egyptians believed in harmful magic. One pharaoh, Nectanebo, was supposed to be a great magician. He could control other kings by magic. If Egypt were being invaded by sea, Nectanebo would make wax figures of the the enemy ships and soldiers, as well as of his own fleet and men. He would place them in a basin with water and say the magic words, which would cause winds. The enemy ships would sink and the Egyptian ships would triumph. And so it would happen in real life. I don't think.
Egyptians could curse by writing names on objects such as pottery, and then breaking the object. They believed names had immense power. If you erased a person's name from their tomb or temple, then you were effectively destroying their ka - so they could not survive in the afterlife. The same went for images of the person, from walls or in the form of statues. This is what happened to Hatshepsut, although a few statues and cartouches were left alone, so perhaps Thutmose III didn't want to destroy her ka completely.
Right: statues of Hatshepsut at her temple; most have been destroyed
Here are two evil spells:
To Make a Man Blind: Drown a shrew-mouse in water and give the water to the victim to drink.
To Make a Man Die: Grind up a shrew-mouse and place it in a man's food. He will swell up and die.
What's so bad about a shrew-mouse, I wonder?
The Book of the Dead
This was another series of spells, but these were to guide a person's soul to the afterlife. Click to read more.
Egyptian doctors were generally priests. They knew a little about surgery and could mend broken bones, cuts and the like. With illnesses, however, because they knew nothing about the true causes of disease, they resorted to magic. This was a mix of magic words and substances like potions or ointments. Often these substances were pretty nasty and might have made a person worse, not better. Here are some examples of medical magic:
Indigestion: crush a hog's tooth and put it inside four sugar cakes. Eat for four days.
Diarrhoea: Mix 1/8 measure of figs, 1/8 measure of grapes, 1/32 measure of bread dough, 1/32 measure of pit-corn, 1/64 fresh lead-earth, 1/32 measure of onion, 1/8 measure of elderberry. Sing: Hetu! Again: Hetu!
Splinters: Catch one mole, kill and cook it and drain the oil. Take a worm's blood, cook and crush in oil. Mix in ass's dung and fresh milk. Apply to the opening. The splinter will be drawn out.
To tell if a Child will Live on the Day it is Born: If it cries 'ni' it will live. If it cries 'ba' it will die.
Right: part of the Ebers Papyrus, which contains over 800 remedies.
Amulet is another word for a magic charm - an object that could be worn (as a necklace, ring, bracelet, etc.) and would give some sort of magical power. The Egyptians loved amulets and made millions of them, of many different types. Some were to be worn during their lives, others to be placed on mummies. They could be made of colourful stones like lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, and jasper, or of metals like gold, bronze, and copper, or of wood, or bone. The most common material, though, was faience. Faience is a sort of opaque glass, made by grinding sand or quartz into a powder, adding water to make a paste, and baking. The faience goes hard and the glaze rises to the surface making it shiny like glass. One of the most common types of amulet was the scarab. Another was the Eye of Horus. Here are some others:
Left: an assortment of amulets including a hand, headrest, papyrus, fingers, heart, and objects used during the burial rites.
Right: an ankh (=life), together with a djed (=stability) and a was (=prosperity or dominion)
The Egyptians believed that dreams could be used to get advice or prophecies from the gods, or for healing. Usually a person would sleep in the grounds of a temple, after praying to the god for help. Hatshepsut's temple was thought to be a great place to get help from gods, even a thousand years or more after she died.
There is a famous story about the pharaoh Thutmose IV. One day he was tired from hunting and went to sleep on the sand near the Great Sphinx, which lay partly buried in the sand. In his dream the Sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand, he would become pharaoh. As he indeed did, although it's hardly surprising as he was Thutmose III's grandson. He recorded his dream on a stela (a block of stone) and placed it between the paws of the Sphinx - which is where it is still today (see right).
Another pharaoh, Merneptah, the son of Ramses II, also had a dream before a battle with the Libyans. The god Ptah appeared to him in the form of a statue, and told him not to be afraid - to banish his fearful heart - and then handed him a sword. And of course he went on to win the battle.
Dreams could have all sorts of meanings, and papyrus scrolls have survived which tell us how Egyptians interpreted their dreams. This would have been the job of a special priest. Here are some examples:
Killing an ox: Good - it means the removal of the dreamer's enemies from his presence.
Drinking blood: Good - it means putting an end to his enemies.
Seeing a large cat: Good - it means a large harvest is coming to the dreamer.
Uncovering his backside: Bad - it means the dreamer will be an orphan.
If a priest told a dreamer his dream meant something bad was going to happen, the priest could then sell him a magic spell, charm, or potion, to make sure it did not come true. Very clever.
Priests could also use magic to make sure someone had a required dream. One spell involved drawing a picture of the god Bes on the left hand, and wrapping a strip of black cloth consecrated to Isis on the right. A special message also had to be written, using ink made of cow's blood, dove's blood, frankincense, myrrh, ink, cinnabar, mulberry juice, rainwater, and the juice of wormwood and vetch. Phew!