Modern Western societies view magical thinking as irrational and thus they tend to consider this as the opposite to scientific, i.e. “rational” thinking. In contrast to this modern interpretation, ancient societies regarded magic as a natural device for explaining and controlling natural processes. In ancient Egypt in particular, magical practices complemented the use of pharmacological agents in medical treatments. Therefore, the Leipzig Academy project will focus on evocative texts in the 2nd corpus module. This includes texts that were used for the prevention of illnesses, personal enemies, a premature death and other kinds of evil, and also texts for the healing of a patient who is already suffering.

Magical texts of a curative nature are mainly preserved in collections of individual spells on large papyrus rolls. For practical use, single spells were extracted from these handbooks and copied on to separate papyrus sheets, and placeholders for proper names were then replaced by the actual name of the patient. Such a personalized papyrus sheet was either given to the beneficiary as a physical object, or the magical incantation proper was applied to their body using magical procedures, such as licking the ink or burning the papyrus and inhaling the smoke. If papyrus sheets were given to the beneficiary as physical objects, it was common to wear these as amulets around the neck in small containers that were attached to a string. This string was often knotted seven times, which was a magical number, and these knots would either protect the wearer in advance from any life-threatening situation or would cure acute health problems for now and forever.  

Diseases and somatic and psychosomatic symptoms were only one kind of threat that the ancient Egyptians had to face. Other kinds of threats were represented by revenants and dangerous animals. Poisonous snakes and scorpions, for example, were an everyday threat to life, and numerous spells to ward these off or to heal their bites and stab wounds and the subsequent symptoms together fill extensive papyrus rolls.

Incantations from Egyptian magical texts generally consist of a three-part structure: They start with a heading, which mentions the purpose of the spell; next comes the incantation proper, and finally they conclude with a descriptive part, which provides instruction for how often the spell should be recited, and about the necessary magical requisites or illustrations to be painted on the papyrus amulet (so-called vignettes). The incantation proper was usually written in black, while the heading and the descriptive parts were mostly written in red – except for some specific sacred words and names, because red was the color of Seth, the murderer of Osiris, and writing them in red would activate his negative powers. In theory, such spells should be written on “new papyrus”, i.e. a papyrus sheet that had not been used before. A papyrus that had already been written on, rubbed off and recycled for reuse, a so-called palimpsest, would have had no effect according to Egyptian thought; because the efficacy of the recitation could have been contaminated even by the tiniest trace of any kind of previous text, and thus it would have been doomed to failure. This demand for a “new”, unused writing surface conformed to the requirements for the foundation of a new temple: it must be built on untouched terrain. In everyday life, however, this demand was often not met, as can be proven by numerous spells that are actually written on such palimpsests.

pDeir el-Medineh 45

Divine helpers are invoked as assistance against a personified disease and dangerous animals. Illustration from a magic spell (pDeir el-Medineh 45)

The aim of this project is to translate these magical texts, to identify their technical terms and to discuss their place in the Egyptian lexicon, as was done in the previous module dealing with medical texts. The lexicon for warding off or for exterminating a demon, for example, shows a large variety of terms of a military nature. The agents of the underlying concept of “enmity” can be fought off on the battle field, as well as in the domestic context. These battles do not require fundamentally different terms and phraseologies: Incantations and other magical practices are in the most general sense a fight against “everything (imaginably) evil”. The magician acts on his battlefield by threating gods and demons, and also by destroying objects that represent his enemies, as with e.g. so-called “execration figurines”. This recalls the so-called 2nd verdict of medical texts, which mentions the healer’s “fight”.

Medical and magical texts do not only share similarities, but also show differences in many parts of their lexicon and their phraseology. Magical texts address, for instance, demons or gods and not the physician, i.e. a human being, as texts of a diagnostic or therapeutic nature did. The addressee of the latter is usually a generic masculine “you”, and the patient seems to be totally absent, at least from the text. Magical incantations, on the other hand, mention the patient by name, and we have to imagine an actual invocation, in which the magician adopts a divine role and is thus on an equal footing with other gods and their demonic messengers. These procedures can be interpreted as types of “mini rituals”, which are comparable to the elaborate rituals within the Egyptian temple. Examples for the latter type are the ritual for waking and feeding the god every morning, and the ritual for the destruction of Apophis, the arch enemy of the sun god. The “mini rituals” from a private environment and the temple rituals therefore share some structural and functional features, though they differ considerably in terms of their scope and material expenditure.

Apart from inscribed amulets, other weapons also existed in the arsenal of preventive and curative conjuring practices. Non-textual amulets of many shapes – often in the shape of an animal – were mass-produced and worn at all times in ancient Egyptian history, both during someone’s lifetime and in the afterlife. These objects, however, are not included in this module because of their uninscribed nature; Joachim F. Quack has prepared a monograph on this topic, which is currently in print.