Religion and Magic in Amarna: A World of Confusion in Akhetaten—Part II
The population that inhabited Akhenaten’s brand new city, Akhetaten, in Middle Egypt was ill at ease with the massive religious uncertainty their monarch had unleashed. A question mark hung over not just their very way of life, but also the age-old magical practices that they resorted to in order to combat challenges throughout their lives. However, backed by new finds, in their effort to brush aside common misconceptions, Egyptologists are now beginning to piece together a surprising story; one that reveals even members of the Sun family were not averse to worshipping – or acknowledging – Egypt’s most ancient deities in Amarna.
The hybrid hippopotamus goddess Taweret functions here as a magical jar made of glazed steatite. As usual she stands upright and is shown as a fusion of a hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, and human. She protected women in childbirth and it is possible that a small magic papyrus, maybe a spell for mother and child, was stored in this jar. Second Intermediate Period–early Dynasty 18. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ( Public Domain )
Amuletic Objects and Potent Spells
The Egyptian cosmos was divided into three disparate worlds that included the land of the living, the Netherworld, and the divine world. The threat lay in the fact that an enemy could emerge out of any of these places; and worse, could assume any form if he came from a realm not of this earth. In such instances, the magician was tasked with trapping the tormenter in a tangible form to inflict damage on the being; hence, the birth of amulets and talismans. In religion, we implore the gods to aid us — we are at their mercy; but in magic, we reverse that relationship and attempt to control supernatural forces to do our bidding.
Egypt’s geography and weather made it an appealing place for venomous reptiles and insects such as snakes and scorpions. Since Heka encompassed magic, healing and the practice of medicine; magicians called “Sau” supplied charms to ward off the ill effects of bites and protect the wearer from harm. Among the many types of depictions, the god Horus is also shown as a nude boy trampling on one or more crocodiles and gripping snakes, scorpions, and sometimes desert animals such as lions and oryxes. In such representations, a head of Bes is shown above the Horus figure.
This statue has the visual form known for the god Bes, but the form was actually adopted for depictions of numerous other gods, usually ones related to Horus. Bronze; gold, electrum, auriferous-silver, copper and copper-alloy inlays. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ( Public Domain )
Called ‘Horus cippi’ or ‘Horus on the crocodiles’ stelae, these objects were produced from about the thirteenth century B.C. to the second century A.D. with some images being installed in sanctuaries within temples. The rest of the sculptures were found in houses and tombs. Even water poured over the ‘Horus cippi’ whilst prayers were recited was considered “holy” and was said to have medicinal and healing properties. “Magic was not just a defence against the forces of chaos and evil. It might also be used to evade the deities who inflicted suffering on people as part of the divine plan. Personal manifestations or emissaries of these deities were greatly feared,” reveals Geraldine Pinch.
The central scene of the Metternich Stela (Horus-stele or ‘cippus’ stone slabs) shows the figure of the child Horus, or Harpocrates, associated with the newborn sun, with the head of the god Bes above him. He stands on two crocodiles and holds dangerous animals (snakes, scorpion, lion, and antelopes). The inscriptions are a set of thirteen spells against poison and illness. Reign of Nectanebo II. 30th dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
One class of object that survives in vast quantities is the amulet. Amulets were extensively used in everyday magic to protect both the magician and his client. Perhaps the most important occurrence of portrayals of Bes were on the ubiquitous magic (apotropaic) wands and amulets which were commonly employed by Egyptian priests and magicians as a part of their rituals in casting spells to combat or discourage forces of evil. One text advises the magician to invoke a series of gods by name: ‘Come to me, ascend to me, unite yourselves for me after [you] have brought up for me anything bad, any bad revolting matter [?], any bad sickness that is in this body [of mine] … It is to make an end of the sickness that is cleaving to you, oh gods there that I have fetched a herb … Make an end to any bad sickness that is cleaving itself to me!’