Religion and Magic in Amarna: Battling Forces from Different Realms—Part I
The ancient Egyptians held magical practices in high esteem and used it for a variety of purposes in almost every sphere of life. Their worldview was not restricted to that which occurred on earth, but also in distant, unknown realms inhabited by demons and deities. But King Akhenaten’s religious revolution brought about great confusion in the minds of the populace who were accustomed to worshipping a multitude of gods from time immemorial. They believed that these beings dictated the course of events from birth until death—and in the hereafter too. With pharaoh’s diktat that only the Aten was to be worshipped – only through him and Nefertiti – did the dependence on magic cease altogether?
Travertine (Egyptian alabaster) magical water jar of Sithathoryunet, possibly a daughter of Senusret II. Discovered in her tomb in the Fayum Entrance Area, Lahun. Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12. (Metropolitan Museum of Art CC0)
Advent and Importance of Magic
Magic, called Heka (HkA), played a major role in the life and afterlife of the ancient Egyptians. Even though up until the Roman period Heka was the word for magic, there is no single, clear-cut definition; so scholars translate it as a force of nature that can also assimilate the attributes of a divine being in human form. The theological manifestation of Heka is also present in tomb and temple imagery from as early as the Old Kingdom. The god Heka appears amidst the crew of the solar barque, depicted as a bearded man wearing the nemes headdress; and also as a hieroglyph since 1000 BC. An early royal testament called The Instruction for Merikare (2025-1700 BC) states that Heka is the benevolent Creator’s (sun god) gift to humanity “to ward off the blows of the effect of dangerous events”.
Dating to the Greco-Roman Period (332 BC- 312 AD), this scarab is perhaps the best-known type of ancient Egyptian amuletic jewel. Resting on a gilded wooden base, this particular example comprises glass paste, wood and is embellished with gold leaf. The scarab's flat surface is incised with an inscription from Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
In the Fifth Dynasty funerary temple of the Pharaoh Sahure, Heka heads a procession of nome (regional) deities bearing offerings to the king. An ancient explanation for Heka reads “the one who consecrates imagery”. Funerary spell 261 titled “To become the god Heka” from a Middle Kingdom sarcophagus throws light on these words: “I am he whom the Lord of all made before duality had yet come into being… I am he who gave life to the Ennead of gods… Because to me belonged the universe before you gods had come into being. You have come afterwards because I am Heka.” In Late Period documents and on the walls of the Ptolemaic temples of Dendera, Edfu, Kom Ombos and Philae, Heka appears as one of the fourteen kas of the sun-god Re, an idea that was already present in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts.
Egyptologists and anthropologists have for long pondered the reasons why magic influenced ancient Egyptian society overwhelmingly. While some specialists contend that magic was a manifestation of a primitive and degenerative form of religion – and was therefore an illegitimate, evil practice with no pious rituals associated with it – others strongly oppose this conclusion. Dr Emily Teeter says, “Despite the Egyptians’ reputation for sorcery, scholars disagree about what constituted magic in ancient Egypt, and especially where the division between magic and religion lies.”
The beautifully illustrated Book of the Dead of Qenna, who, uniquely included a passage that describes a deceased person’s activity in an afterlife location called the “house of hearts.” In the typical presentation, Spell 151 centers on care of the mummy by Anubis and other gods. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. (Photo: Rob Koopman/CC BY SA 2.0)
Prof Joann Fletcher informed the present writer, “I think it’s all a matter of modern terminology – certainly in the modern West there is still a tendency to use the word ‘religion’ to validate certain practices and imbue them with a sense of authority, whereas the word ‘magic’ is usually used in a far more dismissive manner to suggest separate practices carried out by those who society seeks to repress. Yet for the ancient Egyptians religion and magic were often one and the same.” And so, a priest or magician could even control the gods to do his bidding. In an email communication with the present writer, Dr Bob Brier averred, “I think there is no doubt that magic came before religion, so it certainly isn’t a degenerative form of religion.”
Large limestone amulet figurine of goddess Sekhmet, the lioness, holding the Eye of Horus Wedjat in her left hand. Harrogate Museums and Arts. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ancient Beliefs Shape Religious Thought
But what propelled this exceeding necessity to seek magical remedies? Prof Fletcher explains, “Since the ancient Egyptians believed their world was controlled by hidden forces – be they the gods or souls of the dead – they sought to control these through specific rituals, either carried out on a large scale within temples on behalf of the state or on a more personal level within the home. And while modern scholars tend to describe temple rituals as ‘religious’, both these and smaller-scale domestic rites involved magic.” The state, therefore, also had a major stake in this form of religion—backed by rituals and magic. Be that as it may, magicians did not constitute a distinct class until the twilight of Pharaonic culture.
Part of the Pyramid Texts, a precursor of the Book of the Dead, inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Teti I the first Pharaoh of the Sixth dynasty. Saqqara. (Inset) A close-up of the sacred writings. (Photos: Chipdawes and LassiHU)
A study of village life in contemporary rural Egypt by the anthropologist Winifrid Blackman revealed the fellahin (peasants) too have very complex beliefs. The villagers spent a surprisingly high proportion of their meagre incomes on spells, amulets and rituals purchased from women and men with specialized magical knowledge. In ancient Egypt too, every community would have had someone familiar with an oral tradition of magic. The appeal of magic was twofold: it identified the cause of one’s troubles and also promised hope in even the most desperate situation. For this reason Sir Alan Gardiner defined Egyptian magic as “private religion”, and Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, categorized it as “ritualized optimism”. The best definition of all is probably the one provided by Sir Wallis Budge who declared that magic was “the handmaiden of religion”.
An eye made of glass and obsidian from a coffin belonging to the Late Period (724-333 BC). As an amulet, the popular Wedjat eye symbolized health and protection. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Prof Fletcher says that the vastly changed landscape and obliteration of entire cities that flourished in ancient times has rendered it hard to ascertain the levels of influence magic had amongst the populace in public and private settings, “It is very difficult to directly compare the formalized, state-based rituals practiced within temples with those practiced within the home, since the evidence is overwhelmingly one-sided. On a physical level, very few mud-brick homes have survived whereas there are countless temple walls with such ‘spells and incantations’ carved into their stonework. And this is also the case with ancient literary texts relating to magical practice, accessible only to the 1% literate elite of royals, priests and scribes in contrast to the other 99% of the population who were unable to read, presumably learning their magical words verbatim. All we can do is infer what kind of magic they practiced within settlements based on a limited amount of physical evidence - the masks, wands and figurines which at least give some glimpse into the secret world of everyday ‘magic’.”
The author expresses his gratitude to Prof Joann Fletcher for her invaluable inputs in this series.
Top Image: As an amulet, the popular Wedjat eye symbolized health and protection; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, 1994
Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 2003
Anna Stevens, Private Religion at Amarna: The material evidence, 2006
Margaret Bunson, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 1991
E. A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, 1967
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A book of readings, Vol 2, 1976
Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, 2002
Emily Teeter, Ancient Egypt, 2003
Joann Fletcher, (Documentary), Ancient Egypt Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings 1, 2013
John Romer, (Documentary), Ancient Lives, 1984