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Egyptian Papyrus from Macquarie University with proposed Coptic Love Spell

French Academic Detects A Little Bit of Love Magic on Egyptian Papyrus

A French University lecturer has announced that he has deciphered an Egyptian magical spell written on a piece of papyrus.  The spell has baffled experts, because of its enigmatic language and imagery as well as its fragmentary nature but the academic seems sure it adds up to a Coptic love spell. The deciphering of the spell helps us to understand the Coptic culture of Egypt in the Middle Ages. However, there are still questions about the papyrus and its contents.

Egyptian magic

Ancient Egypt was a civilization preoccupied with magic, spells, and charms and Egyptians became renowned as magicians in the Ancient World. Even after the Islamization of the country, it appears that the native population still continued to practice ancient magical practices and to cast spells. The document is believed to belong to the Christian Coptic tradition . Copts are the Christian minority in Egypt and have a culture whose origins lies in Ancient Egypt and the Classical World.

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 )

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 )

The papyrus with the magical spell is the subject of controversy. It is part of the papyri collection of the Macquarie University in Australia, but it is not known when it was purchased or who donated the document. Then there is the question of ownership, if it was obtained after 1972, then it is legally the property of Egypt. However, there is no controversy over the authenticity of the papyrus.

The papyrus with the magical spell

The papyrus shows an image of two winged creatures which are similar to birds. They are connected to each other by a band, chain, or some believe a penis.  One of the creatures is poking its beak into the others and the two are apparently held by an outstretched arm.  One of the bird-like figures has a nail or something similar in its head.  The Daily Express reports that it  ‘dates back around 1,300 years, to a time when Christianity was widely practiced in Egypt’.

The papyrus contains crude sketching and fragmented Coptic text. (Effy Alexakis, ©Macquarie University)

The papyrus contains crude sketching and fragmented Coptic text. ( Effy Alexakis, © Macquarie University )

There is also some text on the papyrus that surrounds the two bird-like creatures.  This is written in Egyptian Coptic, which is still widely spoken. The text is incomplete, and some words are missing but some are legible. The papyrus includes references to Christ and the child of Adam. Live Science reports that it also ‘mentions Ahitophel, a man who betrayed King David, according to the Hebrew Bible’.

Korshi Dosoo, of Strasbourg University, who claims to have deciphered the spell, noted that there are subtle differences between the two-winged beings or creatures. One creature has what appear to be small horns or ears.  This is, according to the French lecturer, an effort to show that the creatures are two different sexes. He argues that the figure on the right of the papyrus is a male and the one on the left is a female.

Based on this the academic argues that the papyrus is a Coptic love-spell, designed to help a person to attain the object of his or her affection.  Based on other examples, the papyrus could have been part of a book of magical spells that were recited by magicians at the behest of clients. The spell was recited by a magician and was part of an elaborate ritual. The image of the two bird-like creatures would have enhanced the chances of the spell working.

Fragment of ‘fake’ Coptic text known as the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. (Image: Karen L. King)

Fragment of ‘fake’ Coptic text known as the ‘ Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ . (Image: Karen L. King)

Who used the Coptic love spell?

Live Science reports that the ‘fragmentary text makes it hard to determine what exactly the spell was used for’. Dosoo believes that the spell was probably used when a young man was unable to marry his beloved. There are Coptic literary texts that record that young women were largely confined to home and had to marry someone approved by their parents.  As a result, desperate and lovelorn young men would resort to love-spells to help them to obtain their beloved.

The deciphering of the papyrus is a significant achievement. It is demonstrating the continued importance of magic even at a time when Egypt was largely Christian or Muslim. The document indicates that magic was widely used and that love-spells were probably popular, because of young Coptic women’s lack of freedom. However, the fragmentary nature of the text means that the interpretation of the French academic may be challenged.

Top image: Egyptian Papyrus from Macquarie University with proposed Coptic Love Spell          Source: Effy Alexakis, ©Macquarie University

By Ed Whelan

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