27 Mars 2013
Magic in our western world is seen as extraordinary, something we do not see every day and mostly magic is beyond that which we define as logical. It is immediate, we whip our wands and something happens or we say in incantation and the change happens. There are some people who still believe (semi-) magical powers, such as the powers of nature and an earth goddess (like wiccans), or voodoo rituals where there are offerings to a god but also the ability to hurt another person. There is absolutely no judgment whether this is right or wrong but Egyptian magic works quite differently than this.
Magic was thought to come from the Egyptian gods themselves (through magic they created the world) and was then bestowed on the Egyptians by the creator god. Magic was practiced by the most respected and well-educated men in the entire country, the priests in the state regulated temples. Besides their temples duties and rituals these men were taught how to practice magic. They were given spell books, wands, amulets, oils and other necessary attributes to practice magic. Egyptian medicine was often completely interwoven with magic, so heavily that the difference is hard to see by modern eyes.
Concepts and categories
Egyptian magic is based on the concepts of sympathetic magic, the idea of associative thought and possibility of the transference of qualities between objects by touch or resemblance. For example, an comb which Hitler has used may be considered to be more evil because an evil man has touched it. Qualities of Hitler (in this case his evil nature) is partly transferred to the comb. Sympathetic magic can be divided into two subcategories: homeopathic magic and contagious magic. Homeopathic magic operated on the idea of similarity between ideas, objects or people, whereas contagious magic operated on the idea that things that have been in contact once, however briefly, will always remain in contact. For example, homeopathic magic allows for magical dolls who represent a person and then that person can be harmed or helped through manipulation of that doll. Contagious magic can transfer a person essence to an object, for example small plucks of hair can be added to a homeopathic doll to ensure that the magic works on that specific person.
Egyptian magical practices can is divided into three categories of : productive,- destructive and defensive magic. Productive magic was used to increase business or products from farmlands and is relatively common. For example, magical spells or rituals to ensure a good harvest or a prayer to a god that one’s investments will proof fruitful. Destructive magic is rare and mostly used in state regulated rituals for the protection of Egypt as a whole. For example, in order to keep Egypt’s foreign enemies submissive, destructive rites were performed in state temples. Clay figurines of Nubians or Asians were made, hands bound behinds their back, and then destroyed by burning them or rendering them otherwise harmless. There is also a spell where the figurines are made out of bread dough and then completely burn them. However, we now see this as destructive and maybe dangerous behavior but for the ancient Egyptian this was completely normal and accepted because it was for the protection of the land.
Defensive magic was by far the most used in Egypt. It was practiced to protect the weaker members of society, such as pregnant women, women giving birth, infants, the sickly, the elderly. Objects and spells were placed in and around the household as a precaution against evil forces. We may accept that every ancient Egyptian household had its own collection of spells and magical objects to protect the house and its inhabitants. These spells were enhanced by accompanying gestures and amulets or other objects. The threats in and around the house comprised of diseases, stings and bites from dangerous animals and all the transitional phases in life. Vital points of transition in life were birth, puberty, becoming an adult, marriage, parenthood and death. Defensive magic in private spheres was used for the avoidance of personal harm and, unlike religious activities, undertaken simply when it was required in times of need, and a household would need constant protection. It is possible that these efforts were undertaken by the ancient Egyptians on a regular basis, such as daily protective spells for young children or rituals on specific celestial events.
All the gods in ancient Egypt were invoked for protection, help and guidance. However, there are a few gods who were specifically meant for the protection of women and children and invoked the most by ‘regular’ ancient Egyptians. Two gods stand out in the Egyptian pantheon; the dwarf god Bes and the pregnant hippopotamus goddess Taweret.
Bes can be presented in several ways; in profile playing an instrument, frontally squatting, or strangling snakes (and sometimes he is accompanied by the goddess Taweret). Bes was a grotesque looking genie or dwarf who warded off evil spirits and demons with his looks in difficult times, such as childbirth. He was a hybrid god, with feathers, a lion’s mane and tail. There are images of Bes beating a drum or tambourine, these images were particularly popular because this noisy act was believed to repel the malevolent spirits away from women (especially in childbirth) and young children. However, Bes was not only associated with the protection of women and children, he was also the protector of those who were asleep, like he protected Re in the underworld against his enemies. He was the protector of the dead, and he was associated with warfare, to ensure a victory over human enemies. Bes was also the god of celebration and by playing his music he helped deliver babies and scare away evil spirits.
Taweret was a deity in the form of a pregnant hippopotamus with a crocodile tail and lioness’ muzzle, a fierce and very frightening creature. This deity was able to scare of danger and evil-spirits with her looks, and hippo’s were known for their fierce protection of their offspring. Therefore this goddess was primarily associated with the protection of children and to aid a women in childbirth, she was the guardian deity of all (soon to be) mothers. There are many amulets in the form of this goddess worn by women in all circles of Egyptian society. It is believed that men could have worn rings with her image for Taweret’s protection and regenerative qualities. Taweret was very popular in magical practices of daily life in the New Kingdom, along with Bes.
Animals were also often made into amulets to be worn on the body, but not just for protection. A frog was seen as an animal that could spontaneously regenerate itself and was therefore seen as a powerful fertility symbol. Wearing a frog could enhance fertility, as could many other amulets. In a society where child mortality was as high as it was in ancient Egypt, is was of essential importance to have many children, and once the babies are conceived they needed to protected.