Sacred Sorcery: Magic in Egyptian Life (and Death)

…The sky encloses the stars, magic encloses its settlements, and my mouth encloses the magic which is in it…  – The Book of Going Forth by Day, spell 31

The past couple of weeks I’ve devoted to the physical world, which I know can be a little dry, so I thought this entry I’d devote to the world unseen and talk about heka – Egyptian magic. 

Heka, as some of you are familiar from The God’s Wife, is the Egyptian concept of deified magic, and is really several separate things, in part because “magic” is a broad idea in ancient Egyptian culture. Spheres we think of as intellectually distinct like the supernatural, medicine, and prayer are part of a fluid whole to the Egyptians, and the lines are very blurry. The person most likely casting spells for the average Egyptian was a priest, and many of them were also doctors. But first of all, Heka is a god. 

The god of magic, not pants.

Heka’s name is literally the Egyptian word for magic, he-ka: activate the ka. Ka is generally labelled as the Egyptian word for “soul,” but this, too, is a little more complicated than that. A person’s soul was believed to have several parts (at least nine), but the ka was a person’s vital essence, literally the part that made the difference between a living being and a dead one. But one can see why that divide might be seen to be ruled by a mystical force. The idea of heka as a fount of magical power also comes from this. The god Khnum (a manifestation of the supreme god Ra) was said to mold children on a potter’s wheel, and it was his wife,  Heket, who breathed ka into every child. Ka was given by the gods, and as a result, retained some of their power. 

And you thought she was just a derpy-faced frog goddess.

But just because one’s soul had the ability to do amazing things didn’t make that a foregone conclusion. Otherwise the history of the Egyptians would have been like a 10,000-year X-Men comic. There’s a new take on the building of the pyramids for you…

Remember, heka means to activate the ka, so you have to unlock that part of your soul if you want perform magic. So, how do you do that? 

Ok, not quite…

Well, also remember that I said magic isn’t solely cauldrons and wands in the Egyptian world. Medicine is magical, too (like Paul Simon said!), and like any good prescription, you’re going to need a formula. Rws are the sacred texts and spells used to activate the ka’s abilities. These, accompanied by seshaws – the proscribed rituals – would bring forth the ka’s power to do anything from interpret a dream to exorcise a demon. 

This is all well and good, you say, but I need some concrete examples. How would I go about getting the help I need in my everyday life, Egyptian-style? Luckily for all of you, you’re likely to have a major ingredient of bona fide Egyptian heka right at home in your fridge. 

Beer was a staple of the Egyptian diet and of its medicine, when mixed with the appropriate chaser. Your local priest of Amun (or the deity of your choice) could mix milk, oil, or a rw into a cup of beer for you to drink to alievate your medical or spiritual issues. Conversely, a concotion of groud galic and beer could be sprinkled around one’s house to ward off ghost, snakes, scorpions, and presumably, vampires. You know, in case Ovid’s Lemuria beans let you down… 

I am completely on board with a exorcism that gets you wasted – Ovid

Here’s a rw-text to get you all started: This ale of Horus in Khemmis which was mashed in Pe, which was mixed in Dep – drink it foaming! The sem-priest is standing up at his duty. You are the creation of the trapper who vomited Znst-plants, laudanum, and lotus-flowers. Do drink the beer – it is to drive out the influence of a male or female dead that is in this belly that I have brought it. [Papyrus Hearst, from The Egyptian Myths (Garry J. Shaw)] 

So your house and body are ghost-free, but you probably have a hangover. Never fear, the Egyptians have a wonderful deity for medical complaints. Let’s summon Imhotep! 

No, not that one…

The historical Imhotep was one of history’s first great polymaths. Priest, architect, and advisor to the Third Dynasty (2600s BC) pharaoh, Djoser, Imhotep was admired for his wisdom in his lifetime, and his reputation after his death grew to such an extent that he is one of the very few non-royal Egyptians to have been deified. 

He was someone who arguably did use the power of his ka to build a pyramid.

Imhotep the god was a perennially popular avatar of healing, and as a solver of problems. And in the year 2020, he seems like just the sort of person to call on for advice. Now, as Arsinoë shows, one typically can only summon a god for advice in a dream, but fortunately for us, we have a rw for that. Thanks to Imhotep’s enduring popularity, the British Museum as a Greek papyrus scroll from the 3rd century AD (a stupid-long time after the mortal Imhotep’s death) that tells us exactly what we need to do: 

1. Find a gecko 

2. Drown it in a bowl of lily oil (sorry gecko, but it’s been a rough year) 

3. Engrave ‘Imhotep of Memphis’ on a ring made from an iron shackle 

4. Dunk said ring in your bowl of lizard-juice 

5. Hold the ring up to Polaris and say seven times: “Menophri, sitting on the cherubim, send me the real Imhotep, not a deceitful demon instead of the god” 

6. In your bedroom, burn three grains of frankincense in a bowl and pass the ring through the smoke 

7. Say seven times: “Lord Imhotep, appear!” 

8. Wear the ring on the right index finger when you go to bed 

9. Profit  

[The Egyptian Myths, Shaw] 

The most well-known rw is of course The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or as its name is more accurately rendered, The Book of Coming/ Going Forth by Day. The Book of the Dead is a series of rws that are meant to guide a person’s ka through the Duat, the Egyptian afterlife. It’s basically a series of cheat codes designed to help you defeat the various puzzles and adversaries that populate the underworld – everything from spells to reunite your soul to your physical body,  to making it through the Duat’s uncountable magic gates and portals, to making sure you give Osiris et al the correct answers when your heart (ib) is weighed against the goddess Ma’at’s feather of Truth in the House of Hearts. That last one is especially important; Anubis weighs a person’s heart for righteousness and the appropriate rw is for getting one’s heart not to snitch to the gods about all the bad stuff you did during your life. Below are the forty-two negative confessions as listed in the Papyrus of Ani, one of the more complete versions of the text we have, to help achieve that end: 

I have not committed sin. 

I have not committed robbery with violence. 

I have not stolen. 

I have not slain men and women. 

I have not stolen grain. 

I have not purloined offerings. 

I have not stolen the property of the gods. 

I have not uttered lies. 

I have not carried away food. 

I have not uttered curses. 

I have not committed adultery. 

I have made none to weep. 

I have not eaten the heart [i.e., I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse]. 

I have not attacked any man. 

I am not a man of deceit. 

I have not stolen cultivated land. 

I have not been an eavesdropper. 

I have slandered no man. 

I have not been angry without just cause. 

I have not debauched the wife of any man. 

I have not debauched the wife of any man (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god). 

I have not polluted myself. 

I have terrorized none. 

I have not transgressed the Law. 

I have not been wroth. 

I have not shut my ears to the words of truth. 

I have not blasphemed. 

I am not a man of violence. 

I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace). 

I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste. 

I have not pried into matters. 

I have not multiplied my words in speaking. 

I have wronged none, I have done no evil. 

I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King). 

I have never stopped the flow of water. 

I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger). 

I have not cursed or blasphemed God. 

I have not acted with evil rage. 

I have not stolen the bread of the gods. 

I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the spirits of the dead. 

I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city. 

I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god. 

Aside from magical daring-do, heka could also mean to wield power or influence. The Ptolemies used the god Heka in this sense by having him be the deity that proclaimed a newly enthroned pharaoh as a son (or daughter) of Isis during their coronations. This was also important for “Little H”  heka, because in addition to Isis being a mother goddess, and at one time in her immortal life, Queen of Egypt, she is the goddess of magic. Isis’ personal heka was the strongest of all of the gods, and her knowledge of lore is unmatched. 

One of her epithets is “More Cunning Than a Million Gods,” and many of the stories we have from Egyptian mythology reflect that. She is able to resurrect the body of her husband, Osiris, by magic, and impregnate herself with said body to produce their son, Horus. 

Ew.

Her battles of wits and wizardry with Set are numerous, and despite one of Set’s epithets being Ur-Hekau (He Who is Great/Powerful in Heka), Isis always wins. In one story, Isis even uses her superior magic to trick Ra into revealing his hidden name to her. The hidden names of the gods are the source of their power, and by giving it to Isis, Ra in some ways elevates the goddess over himself, the lord of creation. 

Ra was not pleased.

In short, she’s definitely the sort of god you want on your side while you try to work on your own heka. And that’s sort of the point of all of this – mortal kas were not especially powerful on their own, but with the right focus, one could use one’s own life force to summon the aid of kas of the gods and their powers to solve the various problems of Egyptian existence, during life or even post-mortem. Just remember, dear readers, that one of the most important ingredients in any successful heka is intent, so make sure you understand what you’re after before you start. Otherwise you’ll just end up drunkenly babbling about not knowing what a khenfu cake is to a very confused Imhotep tonight… 

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