An Ancient Egyptian Spellbook Translated
by Justine Alford
Photo credit: Ms. Effy Alexakis. Macquarie University Ancient Cultures Research Centre
A duo of Australian researchers has deciphered an ancient Egyptian handbook that belonged to a ritual practitioner some 1,300 years ago. This “Handbook of Ritual Power,” as it has been named, was found to contain a number of spells and invocations (the act of summoning a diety) that instruct the reader how to cast love spells, exorcise evil spirits and cure various ailments, to name a few.
The book is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language, and contains 20-pages of bound parchment. Handwritten books, such as this, that are made up of bound sheets of paper or similar materials are referred to as a codex. According to researchers Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardener, who describe the text in a new book, the beginning of the codex consists of a series of invocations that end with drawings or “words of power.” This then leads to various different spells which have a variety of purposes, for example curing possession or disease, or bringing about success in life.
One of the spells, for example, is designed to control another person. To do this, the practitioner must chant magic words over two nails and then “drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side, one on the left,” the researchers write.
According to the pair, the spellbook was likely written between 600-700 CE. Around this time, many Egyptians had become Christians, which would explain why several of the invocations reference Jesus. However, other parts are more in the style of another group, the Sethians, who held the third son of Adam and Eve (Seth) in high regard.
Historical evidence suggests that Sethians were regarded as heretics by church leaders, and by the time this book was written, they had mostly been wiped out. Given that this book contains both Sethian and Christian references, the researchers believe that the codex may be a transitional document, forged before Sethian spells were purged from ritualistic texts.
The researchers are not sure who this book was aimed at, but they don’t believe it was necessarily solely intended for priests or monks.
“It is my sense that there were ritual practitioners outside the ranks of the clergy and monks,” says Choat, “but exactly who they were is shielded from us by the fact that people didn’t really want to be labeled as a ‘magician.’”
Some of the text suggests that it was geared towards a male practitioner, but the researchers do not rule out the possibility that women could have used it as well.