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Decapitating Demons May Be the Oldest Fearsome Entities of Ancient Egypt

Decapitating Demons May Be the Oldest Fearsome Entities of Ancient Egypt

According to Discovery News, a researcher from Belgium has discovered the oldest depictions of demons in ancient Egypt, showing that demonic entities populated the ancient Egyptians’ imaginations as far back as 4,000 years ago. The fearsome entities of the past were believed to have gripped their victims and cut off their heads.

During the International Conference on Ancient Egyptian Demonology at Swansea University, U.K., the oldest depiction of ancient Egyptian demons was presented. Wael Sherbiny, a Belgium-based Egyptologist, and independent scholar who specializes in the religious texts of Ancient Egypt made the discovery.

During his research, he found two demons on two Middle Kingdom coffins that were about 4,000 years old. Another one was portrayed in a 4,000-year-old leather roll the researcher had previously discovered on the shelves of the Egyptian museum in Cairo. The roll was stored and forgotten for at least 70 years. The oldest and longest Egyptian leather manuscript had been untouched by other researchers for decades.

Ammut, a female demon from ancient Egypt with a body that was part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile—the three largest “man-eating” animals known to ancient Egyptians. A funerary deity, her titles included “Devourer of the Dead,” and “Eater of Hearts.”

Ammut, a female demon from ancient Egypt with a body that was part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile—the three largest “man-eating” animals known to ancient Egyptians. A funerary deity, her titles included “Devourer of the Dead,” and “Eater of Hearts.” (Public Domain)

As Wael Sherbiny wrote in his abstract for the conference:

''During my intensive research on the composition of the so-called Book of Two Ways which has been going on for the past seventeen years, I discovered, to my surprise, a large number of iconographic details in the supposedly-published material that were simply skipped by the Coffin Texts editors. These include inter alia a number of new pictorial renderings of various supernatural entities. In my paper a brief reference will be made to images of the supernatural entities I discovered on the oldest surviving leather roll from Ancient Egypt (2300-2000 B.C.), the discovery of which I announced in the last International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence. ''

The three demons are not unknown creatures to scholars studying ancient Egyptian texts. The first two demons were called In-tep and Chery-benut. The fist of them was pictured as a dog-like baboon. The second was an unspecified figure with a human head. The name In-tep, may be related to the demon’s practice of severing heads as a punishment for any unwelcome person who intruded in a sacred space. These beings appeared as guardians at the entrance of a building, such as a temple, which contained several chambers guarded by other demonic entities as well. The third demon was called Ikenty, and he was believed to be a guardian of a fiery gate that led to a restricted area concealing a divine image.

The text analyzed by Sherbiny was connected with the moon god Thoth and the bark of the sun god. The drawings show the demons in either a purely zoomorphic or anthropomorphic representation. All of the demons were already known from texts connected with different periods in ancient history. The first two were presented on polychrome drawings from the New Kingdom Period (c. 3,500 years ago), but Ikenty is also known from a Middle Kingdom (1870-1830 BC) coffin.

The sun god Ra, in the form of a Great Cat, slays the demon snake Apep, who embodied chaos.

The sun god Ra, in the form of a Great Cat, slays the demon snake Apep, who embodied chaos. (Public Domain)

The conference where Sherbiny’s research was presented was a part of the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project. This project is made up of a group of researchers from around the world, including scholars from Germany, Greece, UK, USA, and other locations. It focuses on liminal entities in Ancient Egypt from its earliest times (Predynastic) to the Byzantine period. In this project, the word ''demon'' was used to refer to any being that does not belong to the Ancient Egyptian categories of human, god, or animal.

Guardian demons of Spell 145 of the Book of the Dead.

Guardian demons of Spell 145 of the Book of the Dead. (Rita Lucarelli/UCLA)

The Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project has been led by Kasia Szpakowska of Swansea University. Swansea University has supported projects connected with ancient Egyptian demonology for the last few years.

Until now, it was a little-known topic and many researchers had never explored religious practices at the household level before. The results of the research by Szpaowska suggests that in the ancient Egyptian individual experience (as in that of many cultures), unexplained problems, diseases, ailments, environmental threats, and anxieties were all explicable as caused, or embodied, by demons and their powers.

Sehaqeq, the headache demon. Ostracon Leipzig, Ägyptisches Museum Georg Steindorff. Inv.-No. 5152.

Sehaqeq, the headache demon. Ostracon Leipzig, Ägyptisches Museum Georg Steindorff. Inv.-No. 5152. (Rita Lucarelli/UCLA)

The motif of demons affected many ancient sites, such as temples, but also funerary practices. The project led by Szpakowska deals with both priestly theological speculations, and the individual response to chaos. On the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project’s site researchers have created a database on demonology, which will allow others interested in the topic to better understand the demonic entities of ancient Egypt.

Featured Image: The demon Ikenty is represented as a large bird with a black feline head on a Middle Kingdom coffin. The same demon appears as a large bird on a much older leather roll. Source: Wael Sherbiny

By Natalia Klimczak

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