Magic and superstition in ancient Egypt
On a grey November day in London’s Hyde Park we passed beneath a cluster of leafless trees, their skeletal branches alive with the chatter of hundreds of starlings. Suddenly, the birds fell silent. A long moment passed. And then with a single hum they rose as one body and took flight. We were amazed at the uncanny unison of the flock, alerted by a signal undetectable to us that had pulled them as if by a magnet from the bare branches.
The delight we felt at this wild display would have been denied to an ancient Egyptian. Not because they didn’t appreciate the wonders of nature - they were keen observers of the world around them – but their attitude to birds in flight was thickly layered with superstition and legend. They saw the simultaneous movement of a flock as evidence of control by an invisible, evil, force. They used cruel ‘throwsticks’ to break up the flocks; weapons that symbolized the victory of order over chaos. Convinced that imperceptible forces of evil might destroy the peace as suddenly and ruthlessly as a crocodile lunges from calm water to drag an unwary bather to his death, they lived in constant fear that could only be abated with ritual and magic.
Hunting birds with a throwing stick. Image source .
The startling visions in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds , would have disturbed an Egyptian’s soul. The image of thousands of birds possessed by an invisible, malicious force would speak directly to their greatest fear – that chaos could overwhelm the fragile universe at any time unless kept at bay by the force of magical ritual.
Ancient Egyptians would have been horrified by the depictions of chaos shown on a modern movie screen. The evil enacted in The Mummy or The Scorpion King would be deeply shocking to them. The mere process of representing an idea, whether benign or malevolent, through words, dance, music or drama was considered tantamount to making it a reality. The primary purpose of art was not entertainment. The creative process, in all its manifestations, was respected because it was considered part and parcel of the formative magic that brought the world into existence. The idea of carelessly conjuring up movie screen size images of evil would be considered reckless, to say the least. To represent evil, even in art, was to enhance its power. When it was absolutely necessary to depict malevolent gods care was always taken to minimize their size. They must never be given more power than they already possessed by allowing the perception to prevail that they were larger than life.
Our currently popular vampire movies would be more easily accepted. Combating demons with rituals and charms was regarded as a natural undertaking. Indeed, the custom of wearing foul-smelling garlic necklaces to ward off an enemy originated in Egypt. The shape of the garlic clove was reminiscent of a demon’s fang. Egyptian magic fought like with like.
In the twenty-first century magic, science, religion and mythology could not be more separate entities. Each is a distinct specialty. Each offers its own ‘experts’ and practitioners who jealously guard the gates to their individual secrets. The modern magician is more showman than storyteller. His stories are rudimentary compared to those of his predecessors. In contrast, in ancient Egypt the priest and the magician received the same education. They studied the same myths and called upon the same gods and goddesses in their magic. Priest and magician were, in fact, the same person. When they performed ceremonies and cast spells they assumed both roles simultaneously.
Amenhotep, high priest of Amun, and Ramses IX - Wall relief on second axis, Karnak temple of Amun-Ra, Egypt. Image source: Wikipedia
These roles were only differentiated by whom they served. When they attended to the royal family, especially the Pharaoh, they were esteemed as priests and entrusted to perform critical rituals considered essential for the preservation of the Kingdom. These duties emphasized what might be called 'calendar magic'; magic performed at specific times of the day and on special days of the year. When these same priests served the general public they assumed the role of magician. But the same deities were invoked and the same rituals carried out as those enacted in the splendour of the royal temples.
In short, the magician was a priest in private practice.
Ancient magicians played an integral part in orthodox religion; casting spells to protect the royal family as they practiced their consciously optimistic profession. Although it was accepted that evil would never be conquered, this depressing reality was balanced with the belief that the forces of darkness could be contained through careful ritual, ceremony and the discreet practice of the sacred secrets held by the esteemed court magicians. Nothing corrupt or degrading was allowed to stain these duties. The magician/priests were not judged by their glittering showmanship but by how well they served the purpose of goodwill and their Pharaoh and how successfully they brought prosperity to the land.