Egyptian Demons and Magic: Exorcising Evil Spirits
Most of us are familiar with the images of the deities, kings and queens of Egypt; but for every one of the famous scenes reproduced from those times, smaller, more obscure supernatural figures are far more numerous. Many of these entities fall into a category of supernatural beings known as demons or daemons. They also have an ongoing existence after the pharaonic culture, the end of Paganism, the rise of Christianity, the coming of Islam, and even into our own modern era.
There is a clear continuity for these entities through time. When it comes to the old Egypt, the study of these supernatural entities is still in its infancy. Swansea University hosts a Demon Things database, established in 2016, and for budgetary reasons has a restricted timeline of 2000-1000 BC - but already it has thousands of entries.
Egyptian scene with demons. (Author provided)
Historically, the existence of something recognizable as demonic is first recorded even before written records, in images from Ice Age rock art. These entities have human bodies but with an animal head, the so-called “goat demon” being one of the earliest. Perhaps because this could also be a human wearing an animal mask, we call them demons rather than monsters.
Monsters first make an appearance much later after the invention of writing, and are usually human-headed but with an animal’s body. For instance, the terrifying Pazuzu as seen in the first few frames of the horror movie The Exorcist.
Bronze statuette of Pazuzu, circa 800 BC – 700 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
My first exploration of the role of the demon in Egyptian magic was published in my book, Supernatural Assault in Ancient Egypt . Here demons are discussed alongside an Egyptian exorcism cult known as “Zar”. The meaning of Zar is uncertain but is likely from a north African language transplanted into Arabic as a loan word meaning “to visit” or “a visitation”.
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The Magical Folk Tradition of Zar
The Zar cult is a folk magical tradition from the North African and Near Eastern world, principally Egypt and Sudan, but also Iran. It makes use of music and dance to “exorcise” intrusive spirits or Djinn. I first learnt of the cult from I. M. Lewis’s classic study of Ecstatic Religion a study of shamanism and spirit possession.
I was also much inspired by a chapter in Jan Fries ’ book on European trance technique known as Seidr, which he found analogous to the Zar tradition. In his book he reproduced an important foundation myth, as told to anthropologist Enno Littman’s in the 1950s. A female practitioner, known as Mama (Baba for male) told him that Zar was first performed in ancient Egypt to cure a King’s daughter of a mysterious ailment.
These days Zar rites are still very much practiced in Egypt, but tend to be seen as a women’s mystery. In fact, I’ve even been told that the tradition is only really accessible to women, but in as far as this is true, which it definitely isn’t in Iran or Sudan, it would be a modern development. In Egypt, the Zar tradition is entangled with “Belly”, more accurately Beladi dancing. Beladi means “village dancing” a style of dance originally practiced in Upper Egypt by men in combination with a martial arts tradition of stick fighting.
A Zar ritual. (Mehr News Agency/CC BY 4.0)
Possessed by Ghosts
In the 1930s Hans Winkler met several spirit mediums in Egypt and was able to record their stories in a lively account as “Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt”. His principal informant was Abd al-Radi, a man regularly possessed by the ghost of his uncle, from which state he passed messages to those who came to seek his help.
Winkler combined this work with groundbreaking research on desert rock art, Sigils and “Characters” of Islamic sorcery, thus connecting the Islamic and pre-Islamic world of magical signs and symbols. As a Nazi, he soon returned to Germany and died in military service.
Islamic stamped amulet, 19th-century India. Executed on a very thin white paper, the amulet comprises a number of magic squares, Qur'anic verses, and divine or holy names all intended to bring good luck or provide protection to its owner. (Public Domain)
Over the last few years, several new studies have extended this work. Since the 1980s the academic study of magic has been revolutionized by practitioners and academics such as Robert Ritner. He unraveled the details of ancient Egyptian demonology and showed how it eventually emerged as the driving force of all Egyptian magic.
Gods and Their Demonic Emissaries
The god Seth or Set is often advanced as the archetype of the demonic entity and leader of the demonic horde. Seth’s “trickster nature” is well-known, but many of his “ambiguous qualities can be shared by other gods.” So, for example, in what is arguably the world’s oldest dramatic text, The Contendings of Horus & Seth, the otherwise good god Osiris threatens a demonic attack against the other gods in a celestial tribunal if they do not hurry and make a decision! The lioness goddess Sekhmet can also bring disease, being responsible for the annual epidemics of plague to strike Egypt in the dangerous interregnum between the old year and the new.
Set, an ancient Egyptian deity. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Those who succumbed were struck down by one of her seven deadly arrows often personified as demonic emissaries. Demons such as Hatayw, Shamayw, and Akhw are common names in the Egyptian language. Hatayw is often translated as ‘Knife bearers’, ‘murderers’, ‘night spirits’. In the Late Egyptian language, the term is shortened first to Hawet, then Demotic Hayet, finally Coptic Shayet all meaning ‘inspiration’, ‘exorcism’, ‘doom’, ‘fate’, ‘fury’, or ‘curse’, depending on the context. Shamayw are ‘wandering demons’. Akhw variously as the ‘undead’, ‘transfigured dead’, ‘ghosts,’ rather like vampires. So perhaps Anne Rice’s fictional placement of the original vampire myth in ancient Egypt does have some basis in the mythology.
Ram-headed demon, hands outstretched probably to hold two snakes. From a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt. End of the 18th Dynasty, around 1325 BC. (Jon Bodsworth/Public Domain)
In the final millennial of ancient Egyptian history these demons became protectors in personal names such as Pa-na-hatayw or Nas-na-hatayw (both meaning “he of the slaughtering demons”). In Ptolemaic Thebes there was a full-blown cult of the Hatayw (genies) that had its own dedicated prophet or Hem-neter. Later still one finds the cult of syncretic deity Tutu (twtw), originally an oases god who rose to national popularity in Egypt. Tutu’s name means “image” of the “collectivity” of disease-bringing demons!
Magic often involves interactions with disease entities, supernatural or divine personifications of terrible plagues or smallpox. Late classical cultures of Hindu Tantra and Kaula have the same deeply ambiguous, “daemonic” goddesses. This is a clear example of where one fights fire with fire. So although “the Egyptians did not live in terror of their gods’ capricious whims nor was Egyptian theology fixated on the vindictive or jealous nature of a god in the manner of Genesis 20:5, healing spells often paired demons and gods together as possible causes of disease.
The Biblical ‘Fifth Plague of Egypt’. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)
The late Egyptian tale or Report of Wenamon has an episode in which Hatayw is translated as ‘frenzied’, and is used in a significant way to mean becoming possessed by a spirit, which then issues instructions to Wenamon to flee the city:
“when he sacrificed to his gods...the god seized one of his noble youths, [a medium] making him frenzied, so that he said: "Bring [the god] hither! Bring the messenger of Amon who hath him. Send him and let him go." Now, when the frenzied youth continued in frenzy during this night, I found a ship bound for Egypt, and I loaded all my belongings into it. I waited for the darkness, saying: "When it descends, I will embark the god also, in order that no other eye may see him."
Hatayw is also used in the account of the Bentresh Stela, a monumental inscription of Persian times, although falsely ascribed to Ramesses II, presumably to give it extra clout. Evoking the name of a famous ancestor is standard practice in magical texts, Solomon being the most widespread example; see for example the pseudo-eponymous Testament of Solomon. It serves to give extra authority, that those hearing the contents, including spirits, will not risk contradicting—just in case.
The Bentresh Stela. (CC BY 3.0)
The Possessed Princess
This stele contains a long account of the relationship between Great King Ramesses and the distant princedom of Bakhtan, perhaps Bactria on the Pakistan/Afghan border. After a successful diplomatic exchange between the two kingdoms, they cement the relationship with a marriage of the Bactrian prince’s sister, who becomes one of Ramesses many royal wives. Years later, news arrives from the young queen’s homeland that a mysterious malady had seized the body of her younger sister, Bentresh, who is possessed by a spirit called an Akhw.
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Ramesses summons priests from the Theban House of Life attached to the temple of the moon god Khonsu, experts in magic and demonology. One is dispatched to Bactria to investigate and reports that the princess Bentresh is indeed possessed by a spirit and that he is an enemy whom he can defeat, although the priest first needs a special statue to finish the job. This kind of image-magic involving statues is the bread and butter of ancient sorcery. A statue representing a special form of the moon god called “Khonsu-who-determines-fate” is duly dispatched from the temple to Bactria.
Khonsu, an ancient Egyptian god depicted as a mummiform child with a moon disk on his head. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
After a very long journey the “god” arrives and preparation are made for a magical protection to cure the stricken princess. Then the spirit speaks to Khonsu, saying: “welcome in peace, great god, who expels disease demons! Bactria is your home, its people are your servants, and I am your servant! I shall go to the place from which I came, so as to set your heart at rest about that which you came for. May your majesty command to make a feast day with me and the prince of Bactria.” Then the ‘god’ motioned approval to his priest, saying let the prince of Bactria make a great offering before this spirit.
While all this was happening the prince and his soldiers were very frightened, but they did what was required, organized a great feast for the entire day and at the end of it the spirit departed and the princess was cured. The technique of animating statues with divine entities is a core technique of Egyptian magical practice. The way the statue indicates its desire usually involves some kind of forward or backward movement, rocking or changing of position.
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The story is remarkably similar to the foundation myth of the modern day Zar cult as told to Enno Littman in the 1930s! It again shows that the “exorcism” in antique magic does not involve violent expulsion of a spirit, at least not as the preferred option. “Exorcism” is much more of a dialogue or transaction, which in this instance ends in a wild party at which all participants, including the sick person, undoubtedly had fun.
Both texts, the Voyage of Wenamun and the Bentresh Stela, use a similar technical magical word for the process of expelling the demon. This is the Hatayw – which has connotations of frenzied fury but also ecstasy leading to catharsis. It can be a power the magician casts or throws at a hostile entity, or a power that possesses the magician bestowing the ability to conjure and prophesize.
From the earliest times in the Old Kingdom it denoted a class of disease entities, but later, in the twilight of Egyptian culture, it meant the magician’s power to enchant and conjure. It is from this base that the technique passed westwards into the grimoire traditions of Europe and eastwards to fuse with the religious impulse that in about the eighth to ninth century became Kaula and Tantra.
Demonology may well be making a comeback in our time as a complimentary therapy, an older version of the talking cure perhaps. Some research shows that Christianity’s “Manichean” approach to demons may be bad for one’s mental health. The ancient documents above demonstrate a more nuanced approach to a demonic reality, so the jury is still out as to whether this had a positive or negative effect on the ancient mind.
Top image: Bronze head of Pazuzu, 900-612 BC; Detail. Source: Public Domain
Updated on June 24, 2021.
Mogg Morgan (2011) ‘Supernatural Assault in Ancient Egypt’. Mandrake of Oxford
Pedram Khosronejad “The People of the Air: Healing and Spirit Possession in South Iran” pp131-167 in Shamanism & Islam ed by T Zarcone & A Hobart, IBTaurus 2013
I.M.Lewis (1971) ‘Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession’.
Fries (1996) ‘Seidways, shaking, swaying and serpent mysteries’. Mandrake (June 21, 2009)
Te Velde LA I (1975); Meeks in Carelli, P; Vennus, Athribis, No 141 pp135-7
Lichtheim, M (1980) Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol III The Late period p 90sq. New translation in Simpson, W (ed) Literature pp361-6 col 611 35-36