From everyday healing to treachery in the court of King Ramesses III, magic pervaded every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. Geraldine Pinch delves into the underworld…
In Egyptian myth, magic (heka) was one of the forces used by the creator to make the world. Through heka, symbolic actions could have practical effects. All deities and people were thought to possess this force in some degree, but there were rules about why and how it could be used.
Priests were the main practitioners of magic in pharaonic Egypt, where they were seen as guardians of a secret knowledge given by the gods to humanity to ‘ward off the blows of fate’. The most respected users of magic were the lector priests, who could read the ancient books of magic kept in temple and palace libraries. In popular stories such men were credited with the power to bring wax animals to life, or roll back the waters of a lake.
Real lector priests performed magical rituals to protect their king, and to help the dead to rebirth. By the first millennium BC, their role seems to have been taken over by magicians (hekau). Healing magic was a speciality of the priests who served Sekhmet, the fearsome goddess of plague.
Lower in status were the scorpion-charmers, who used magic to rid an area of poisonous reptiles and insects. Midwives and nurses also included magic among their skills, and wise women might be consulted about which ghost or deity was causing a person trouble.
Amulets were another source of magic power, obtainable from ‘protection-makers’, who could be male or female. None of these uses of magic was disapproved of – either by the state or the priesthood. Only foreigners were regularly accused of using evil magic. It is not until the Roman period that there is much evidence of individual magicians practising harmful magic for financial reward.
By Dr Geraldine Pinch
Last updated 2011-02-17
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