Ancient Egyptian codex deciphered, revealing 1,300-year-old spells and invocations

Ancient Egyptian codex deciphered, revealing 1,300-year-old spells and invocations

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An ancient Egyptian codex written in Coptic and dating back 1,300 years had been deciphered for the first time, revealing that the 20-page book made of parchment contains a series of spells and invocations, including spells to counter evil possession. The codex reflects a fusion of religions, as some invocations call upon Jesus, while others refer to divine figures from the Sethian religion, considered heretical in the 7 th century AD when the text was created.

According to a report in Live Science , the codex is currently being held in the Museum of Ancient Cultures at Macquarie University in Sydney. However, having been purchased from an antiquities dealer in the 1980s, its origins are unfortunately unknown. The dialect used in the ancient text may suggest an origin in Upper Egypt, perhaps around the ancient city of Hermopolis.

"It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner," write Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, who are professors in Australia at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, respectively, in their book, "A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power" (Brepols, 2014).

The Egyptian codex, which researchers are calling the “Handbook of Ritual Power”, includes a series of invocations with drawings, followed by twenty-seven spells, including prescriptions to cure possession by evil spirits, spells to bring success in love and business, and magical formulas to treat ailments such as a ‘black jaundice’, a potentially fatal infection that is still around today.

A coptic codex with magic spells

A coptic codex with magic spells (5-6th century AD), similar to the parchment that has been newly deciphered, which dates to around a century after this one. ( Wikimedia)

Fusion of religions

Interestingly, the book of invocations and spells reflects a fusion of religions. It was written during a time when many Egyptians were Christian and this is seen in a number of the invocations that call upon Jesus. However, other invocations appear to be associated with the Sethians, as evidenced by one of the invocations which refers to Seth as “the living Christ”.

The Sethians were a gnostic sect influenced by Platonism, which flourished in the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries AD. They attributed their ‘gnosis’ (knowledge) to Seth, third son of Adam and Eve and Norea, wife of Noah (who also plays a role in Mandeanism and Manicheanism).

During the time the codex was written (approximately 7 th century AD), the Sethians were viewed by the Church as heretics, and by this era, Sethianism was already becoming a dying religion.

Baktiotha, the mystery god

One of the mysteries in the ancient codex is the reference to a divine figure named Baktiotha, whose identity is unknown, but which could be another name for ‘the Christ’.  Live Science reports that one of the invocations reads, "I give thanks to you and I call upon you, the Baktiotha: The great one, who is very trustworthy; the one who is lord over the forty and the nine kinds of serpents”.

It is not the first time that a Coptic text has been found that refers to Baktiotha. In a book titled ‘Ausgewahlte koptische Zaubertexte’ , author Angelicus M. Kropp refers to a Coptic spell that is rich with motifs from Gnosticism. According to Kropp, the spell appeals to Christ, who is invoked by the exotic name Baktiotha.

Choat and Gardner have said that the codex appears to have been written before all Sethian invocations were purged from magical texts. It therefore reflects a rare insight into this ancient, but little-known religion.

Featured image: A priestess making offerings to the spirit of a cat on an altar. ‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin ( Wikimedia)

By April Holloway


The drawings and imagery strongly resemble shamanic writings from Java, Indonesia. These writings were handbooks for the students of medicine men made from birch bark. I owned such birch bark book before I donated it to a local museum that specializes Javan culture. The images look exactly like I found them, same "style" as you will.

This kind of fusion between mainstream religion and magic was actually pretty common. It represents a kind of "hedging your bets" mentality and is found all over the world. The village wise woman of medieval Europe had spells and curative invocations that included prayer like statements. Although this was dangerous should someone with religious authority decide to initiate a purge on such practises (particularly, post Reformation). "Voodoo" type traditions also fuse rituals that have shamanistic origins with a Christian hagiography overlaid; as do many central and South American popular expressions of spiritualism, and are still going strong today. Theologically, it seems that this fills the gap between faith and action: Christianity requires one to make prayers of intercession and have faith that God will make the intervention required. Casting spells requires only the ability to perform the required actions correctly to get the result because one is tapping into a force that can be controlled. As a simple example: in the era before effective medical science, looking around at your fellow toothless peasants, one could draw the conclusion that curing toothache was low on God and the saints' list of priorities. So seeing what the wise woman had to offer as well as lighting a candle in church was a sensible approach to the problem!

Tsurugi's picture

So why the increasingly arcane symbols and elaborate rituals? I understand that some ritual is to facilitate focus, but it seems like over time it became a belief that the secrets of magic lie in the details of ritual rather than in the focus of will.

Gee, perhaps results? Spells, prayers, and any direct focus of intent and desire WILL create a vibration that takes life(Beginning a series of events) and form, both attributes course and body manifesting in a way that responds to the given individuals output/mental state. Now, whether or not the person is aware of these effects is one consideration, as is their expectantcy. Energy working does not work like hocus pocus, hollywood inspired fantasy, but is a serious science involving the direct interplay between our conscious energy and the forces around us. If I desire something, I do not create a meditation expecting the object or situation to pop out of thin air, but rather I understand that my directed energy is like any other natural force in this world, and moves with and against and among myriad other energies, and will not only take time and patience, but also may manifest awkwardly, involving aspects of your goal but being off in ways. I could go on, but I'll cut this could-be novel short and close with a simple statement: Spells work. I know from oh, so personal a level. You only need three things. Will. Awareness. Work.

DeAegean's picture

Why did people think magic spells worked? Something must have happened for them to believe that you can cast spells that have an effect.


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