rllafevers (rllafevers) wrote in enchantedinkpot,
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TOTW: A Primer On Egyptian Magic

A number of years ago when I was casting about for a milieu for my next book, I began researching all the different areas of magic that fascinated me. I quickly discovered that many of the magical conventions and ritualistic concepts we have of Western magic could all be traced back to Egyptian magic. It also reawakened  all the fascination I had felt for ancient Egypt back when I was a child.

I was surprised to learn just how profound an influence the magic of the ancient Egyptians had on Greek and Roman magic, Renaissance alchemists, and Victorian occultists. All were able to trace a significant portion of their roots back to ancient Egyptian magic.

About ninety percent of the magic that happens in the Theodosia books is based on ‘real’ Egyptian magic. Fortunately, many of the actual rituals and rubrics followed by ancient Egyptians themselves when practicing their magic have been recorded in ancient papyri and on tomb walls. Most of the time I was able to use their rituals and spells whole cloth, and other times I used the philosophy behind the magical act but tweaked the specifics to make it work for Theodosia’s purposes.

The ancient Egyptians believed that some things in the world contained heka, or magical properties. The gods and goddesses, the pharaoh, the dead and their spirits, all possessed innate heka.

Additionally, people or objects that were markedly different or unusual were thought to possess heka: two-tailed lizards or heart-shaped rocks, for example. In almost complete opposition to later medieval thought, those who suffered from physical anomalies or were handicapped in some way were thought to have heka, whereas medieval thought associated them as having been touched by the Devil.

Egyptian magic consisted of trying to call upon or influence the heka found in the world around them. Although, the Egyptians didn’t necessarily think of it as magic—it was their religion. Those whom we might call magicians, they thought of as priests.

The majority of the spells, rituals, and offerings made by the Egyptian priests were meant to do one of two things; either invoke the gods and spirits favor so they would send them good luck or to avert ill favor and keep the gods and spirits from sending mischief or disaster their way. One of the names the Egyptians gave these restless spirits was mut—which meant the dangerous and disgruntled dead. They were the ones who were most likely to linger and try to cause harm or disaster.

Of course, most of these disasters that the Egyptians experienced were natural disasters, the annual flooding of the Nile, scorpion bites, snake bites, attacks by hippos or crocodiles, illness, and injury, war and famine. Not surprisingly, the Egyptians had an entire pantheon of gods and goddesses who personified these natural phenomena and disasters.

Many of these gods and goddesses had both a good aspect and a dangerous aspect. The cat goddess Bastet, for example, was a fairly gentle goddess, but she could also become Sekhmet, the fierce personification of the destructive power of the sun. However even as Sekhmet, the Egyptians would call on her power when they were sick, as they felt her ferocity was needed in order to battle illness.

Some gods and goddesses were considered benign and helpful to humans, Isis, Ra, Osiris, Horus, and Thoth, were all considered protectors and on the side of the Egyptians. Seth, was the god of chaos, and as such, was regarded with great suspicion. Egyptians tread a fine line, needing to call upon his special strength and power for certain circumstances, but not wanting to unleash his full power on the world. Nor was he necessarily evil. Just dangerous when provoked, as chaos itself often is.

These gods were the driving force behind Egyptian magic and there were a number of ways the priests could call upon these gods’ power, most commonly through ritual and spoken or written spells.

One of the cornerstones of Egyptian magic was that words had power (no mystery why a writer would be drawn to that!) Both the written word and the spoken word had the power to invoke or create magic. Many of their spells involved writing something down in hieroglyphic script—which actually means sacred writing. They had a different script they used for every day, mundane things. Once the spell had been written down, it might be buried under a particular plant that was sacred to Isis, or buried near a river that was sacred to Osiris.

Even the act of speaking words created power, and inflection was a primary element. If one didn’t use the correct inflection, the magic wouldn’t happen. Some speculate that this is where the concept of strange and bizarre words like abracadabra came from.

In spell rituals, every element of the spell had a very specific being there and a role to play. From what something was made out of, it’s color, where it was placed, its size, its shape, and where the spell or ritual took place, the time of day, all those things were very consciously chosen. Iron rings, sheets of lead, wands of bone, amulets, scarabs, all had a specific purpose.

Spells might be buried near a sacred temple or a plant or stream favored by one of the gods in order for it to be close to or absorb that god’s heka.

Different stones and wood had different associations. Basalt, for example, was closely associated with the Underworld while willow wood was considered sacred to Osiris and therefore had magical significance.

Wax was considered neutral, able to be used for “good” magic or “bad” magic, depending on the intent of the user.

Gold invoked the divine power of the sun god. The skin of the gods was said to be made of gold. Their bones were made of silver, which was also associated with the power of the moon.

Iron had heka for a very special reason. Back in ancient Egypt, most of the lead came from fallen meteorites and was therefore considered a metal that came from heaven, giving it quite a lot of heka.

Due to its malleability, lead was somewhat like wax in that it was able to be bent to the magical intent of the user.

Colors were a huge component of magical ritual and protective amulets.

Red – associated with fire, blood. Symbol of life and regeneration. Also anger and destruction.
Blue – Associated with the heavens, the flood waters of the Nile, also life and rebirth.
Yellow – the color of the sun, eternal and everlasting
Green – growing things, fertility, life itself was green
White – ritual purity and cleanliness
Black – night, death, the underworld, but also, due to the fertile black silt of the Nile, associated with resurrection.

Egyptian priests or magicians often used the concept of opposites to fend off ill spirits. For example, the Underworld was supposed to be upside down and backwards when compared to the real world, therefore whatever humans liked, demons must naturally hate, and vice versa. So demons loathed honey but loved dung. And there is a surprising variety of dung called for in ancient Egyptian recipes and spells (camel, crocodile, ibis, hippo, etc.)

A big focus of Egyptian magic was getting through the Underworld safely so that their souls, or ba, could become transformed. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a text full of funerary spells and tricks that would help the recently deceased find its way through the perils of the afterlife and all the demons that stood between it and transformation. It is also a primary source of a number of the spells and rituals that we know of today.


One of the things that had allowed Egyptian magic to reach so many parts of the world and so many subsequent ages was its ability to evolve and assimilate with other invading cultures. When Alexander conquered Egypt, he and the Ptolemies went to great lengths to incorporate the Egyptians’ mythologies and beliefs with their own, a sort of Graeco-Egyptian fusion of magical systems. The Egyptian gods became linked with their Greek counterparts, the most well known being Hermes Trismegistus, a primary shaper of occult thought and practice. Not only that, but scholars flocked to the new Alexandrian library to learn the mysteries that had been handed down for centuries. Even though that library was completely destroyed in the fourth century, snippets and fragments of Egyptian magical practices lingered on, studied by a few medieval scholars. The more widespread re-discovery and translation of the Hermetic texts was thought to be a contributing factor in the renaissance. Ancient Egyptian magical lore experienced another big revival around the late 19th century and earliest part of the 20th century. (Which coincided nicely with the time and setting of Theodosia. An accident? I think not. ☺ )

Egyptian magic is so huge that clearly this is just a brief overview. However, if any of you have specific questions, please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll see if my research covered the answer to that!
Tags: egyptian magic, r. l. lafevers, topic of the week
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