The Beginners Guide to Magic in Ancient Egypt
Updated: Nov 5
Did you know ancient Egyptian Magic started with the Pharaoh?
Magic wasn't entertainment - it was used by the locals, priests, priestesses, and Pharaohs alike.
Magic, or Heka, as it was known, was considered a natural force present throughout the universe.
It cured the sick, protected the young, destroyed enemies, and restored balance.
People needed protection from demons, angry gods, and even curses!
Magic provided all that and more.
Magic and the Pharaoh
The king was referred to as Hekau, or a possessor of magic.
They didn't necessarily perform magic, but having descended from the gods, the Pharaoh was thought to be comprised of magic within their entire body.
Therefore, the Pharaoh's servants had to be skilled in handling such Heka (magic).
Beard shavings, trimmed nails, or hair of the Pharaoh could be used for powerful magic and, in the wrong hands, could be deadly.
Magic wands in ancient Egypt
Wands were symbols of authority used by magicians to summon and control powerful beings.
Although wands were sometimes included among grave goods to protect the dead, they're mainly shown with nurses suggesting they were primarily used in birth rituals.
Most were discovered from the late Middle Kingdom up to the Second Intermediate Period.
Although there is evidence of the wands being repaired & passed down, no two wands are the same as they were unique to the first magician who wielded them.
What were ancient Egyptian wands made of?
This magic wand is believed to be a Birth Tusk. It's fashioned from the ivory of a hippopotamus, and its purpose was to ward off evil.
It's no accident they used hippo ivory.
Hippos were a significant threat in ancient times and were associated with strength and fear.
Hippos just might scare off a demon or two!
What do the symbols mean?
It made sense to include gods and goddesses on a wand because it was made to embody the spirit of the figures carved into it.
This wand has a jackal at the edge, Heqet, the frog goddess of fertility, and a winged griffin ready to defend with knives.
The sa-sign glyph looks like an x with a loop on top and is used for protection.
This wand shows Tawaret (hippo goddess & defender of women & children), a Was scepter & Ankh (divine authority & eternal life), a lotus (rebirth), and a standing lion (possibly Sekhmet, protector of the Pharaoh and goddess of war).
All these deities share one primary function - to protect.
Knotting magic and amulets
Knotting magic was common among the locals.
Knots were widely used as amulets because the Egyptians believed they bound and released magic.
By tying a Knot in a strip of linen, a magician could create a simple amulet to help someone in difficulty.
Some cloth had drawings on them and were tied while magic spells were spoken.
The number of gods on a strip of cloth corresponded to the number of knots.
Each knot strengthened the magic and increased the power of the gods drawn onto the linen.
The knot was worn as an amulet by the person who needed its power and protection.
Later these magic knots would be known as Tyet Knots, Isis Knots, and the Blood of Isis.
They were often displayed on the tombs of pharaohs and queens for protection and decoration.
The Master of Secrets and incantations
Not just anyone could perform spells. You needed a skilled magician to conjure protection from the gods.
One of the titles given to those who practiced magic was "Master of Secrets."
A master of secrets understood that incantations must be spoken in a specific order at the precise moment.
They also knew what objects and actions would best execute the spell.
There were 3 elements to ancient Egyptian magic:
1. "Djed Medu" or the words to be said (incantation)
2. A gesture or action
3. A physical object that bridged the words and actions together
What might you find in an ancient Egyptian magician's toolbox?
1. Papyrus scrolls with magic spells
2. Wax or wood figurines
Every magician's techniques were unique to them, as were their wands, tools, and secret spells.
The Book of the Dead
Ancient Egyptians took the afterlife to the next level.
The book of the dead is a how-to guide for safe passage through the underworld to eternal life.
It includes magic spells intended to protect the deceased as they journey through a series of moral tests.
The Pharaoh was buried with numerous spells from the book of the dead, and sometimes the whole book! The walls of royal tombs were also decorated with spells for safe passage.
While the average Egyptian couldn't afford an entire book of magic spells for their tomb, they still had access.
Single spells were written on papyrus and sold like anything you might buy at the market, except these were sacred grave goods to preserve the soul in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian magic was the bridge between the Earthly and the divine.
From the king to the average Egyptian, whatever the situation, magic could help...
Heka, or magic, was a natural part of everyday life in ancient Egypt.
It was a universal force conjured by those skilled enough to do it.
*All photos by the author