Ancient History & Civilisation





The antiseptic whiteness of a scientist’s laboratory; glowing stained glass under the dim arches of a Gothic cathedral; a shabby back room where a man in a preposterous turban bends over a crystal ball. Three different environments and three different systems of thought, as distinct from each other, surely, as the three angles of a triangle.

Up to this point we have been talking about life in ancient Egypt in its more concrete aspects—activities, occupations, objects. This is fine so far as it goes. But beneath the practical everyday world of food and furniture, funny stories and love songs, lies another stratum—the level of attitudes and ideas. In a culture like that of ancient Egypt these abstractions are seldom explicitly stated; yet they are, rather than the shape of pots or the canon of art, the really significant and definitive aspects of the culture. Although the Egyptians sat on chairs and liked to drink beer, their view of the universe was not the same as ours, and one of the basic differences lies in the way they thought about the three categories we are now discussing: magic, science, and religion.

Magic: The use of means that are believed to have supernatural power…to produce or prevent a particular result believed not obtainable by natural means.

Science: Accumulated and accepted knowledge that has been systematized and formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operation of general laws.

Religion: A personal awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being or of supernatural powers controlling one’s destiny.

Normally, definitions are a good way of beginning a discussion. They nail down the terms to be discussed and prevent ambiguities. But let us suppose that we are conversing with a Theban priest of the Eighteenth Dynasty. We want him to tell us about Egyptian science; and in order to explain what we mean, we give him Mr. Webster’s definitions.

The priest would not disagree with the definitions; he simply would not know what we were talking about. We would have some difficulty in translation, to begin with, since the ancient Egyptians had no word for “science.” They had no word for “religion” either. Magic? There is a word which we translate by that term, but our priest would not apply it to the same things we do. He would scratch his shaven head as we tried to explain the difference between “natural” and “supernatural,” and if we finally succeeded in getting across “an organized body of knowledge, systematized…and arranged in accord with certain laws,” he might very well give us a lecture on the systematized Egyptian calendar of religious festivals and the rituals appropriate to them.

The point is one which cannot be made too often or too emphatically. To the Egyptians, as to many other peoples, the categories which we have distinguished were not mutually exclusive. They were not even separate. If a man came to an Egyptian doctor with a broken leg, the physician might apply a splint, rub the leg with a mixture of honey and herbs, pronounce a magical incantation, and hang an amulet, like a religious medal, around the sufferer’s neck. We would say that he had employed several different methods of healing, only one of which could be considered effective. But the Egyptian patient would have been highly indignant if his medical adviser had only used the splint.

It would be an oversimplification to say that the difference between an Egyptian doctor and a modern M.D. is that the former believed in magic. We have two problem words: “magic” and “believe.” What does magic suggest to us? A series of kaleidoscopic images—Swami Hassan with his turban and crystal ball, a cute little Merlin out of Walt Disney, damned Faustus and the pale shade of Helen. Magic…one of the most evocative words in the language, ranging from glamour to horror, from the glimmer of Titania’s wings in the moonlight to the old women screaming in the fires of the Inquisition. Magic to primitive man was something altogether different.

I am going to try very hard to avoid the word “primitive” here, though I may not succeed. It’s an old anthropological term, with implications of inferiority and wrongheadedness. And no, I am not being politically correct when I reject it; the word itself exemplifies the attitude I’ve been complaining about: the notion that all other systems of belief are less valid in all cases than our own. They are not invalid in the context of their own cultures, and who is to say that we have attained the ultimate heights of knowledge? Not me.

First let’s tackle the word “believe.” The Egyptians and a lot of other people believed in magic. The sophisticated reader may find this statement obvious to the point of tedium. He already knows that.

The sophisticated reader may think he accepts man’s faith in magic. He probably does not. This is one of the great problems facing historians, archaeologists, and ethnologists—the difficulty of really accepting a theorem which is, we like to think, so alien to our own point of view. Of course, it is impossible to get inside another man or woman’s skin and think the way they do. When we interpret a culture as different from our own as that of ancient Egypt, we are translating. We cannot even break down the facets of culture into chapters suitable for a book without violating the essential unity of the lives of these other people; and everything we say about them is said in our words, each of which has a backlog of associations and meanings which are not those of the culture in question. We cannot solve this problem, we can only remember, constantly, that we are translating, and that something is always lost in translation.

I have accused my sophisticated reader of not really believing that which he thinks he does believe. I will prove my point by citing an example.

There once appeared, in a learned Egyptological journal, an article by a learned Egyptologist on the harem conspiracy under Ramses III of the Nineteenth Dynasty. The plot itself was the sort of thing one expects from an irregular institution like a harem: one of the ladies had decided that her son ought to be the next king instead of the legitimate heir. In order to insure this desirable goal it was necessary for the old king, Ramses III, to be sent to join his father the Sun somewhat ahead of schedule. The lady succeeded in interesting a number of important officials in her project, but it failed in at least one of its aims. Owing to the ambiguity of the official record, we do not know whether Ramses III actually was murdered by the conspirators or not; but the legitimate crown prince, later Ramses IV, discovered the plot in time to save his throne and his own neck. The plotters were tried and executed, except for a few who were only deprived of their ears and noses, and a few others—perhaps the most highly placed—who were “allowed” to commit suicide.

One passage in the text is particularly interesting. In order to seize power and reach the inner precincts of the palace, the conspirators had made writings “for enchanting and for confusing…and [they] began to make people of wax so that they could be taken inside” (the palace or the harem itself).

The most reasonable interpretation of this passage is that the plotters used magic. The waxen images are magicians’ props, known from all over the world. The written spells controlled the will of the loyal guards and courtiers who protected the king.

This is the accepted explanation. However, the author of the article I mentioned does not believe that the plotters used magic at all. His counterarguments deal with the passage I have quoted, and necessitate new and hitherto unknown translations of such words as “enchanting” and “gods.” Egyptian is a good language for this sort of argument, because its vocabulary is still not completely fixed; new meanings do turn up, now and then, for known words. As for the significant phrase “made out of wax,” the author wants to make it a figure of speech, not a figure of magic. Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language has probably noticed the infuriating propensity of prepositions in other tongues to mean almost anything. The preposition we translate “out of” can, by some stretching, be made to mean “into”! Things which are made “into wax” are made malleable, susceptible to influence.

These arguments are plausible, although the figure of speech is an English idiom rather than one the Egyptians would have used. But the philologist who tampers with established vocabulary must have motives purer than Caesar’s wife. He cannot invent new meanings in order to support a preconceived theory. The author of the article states his theory quite candidly: “The conspirators were in too risky a situation to entrust the outcome of their plot to magical procedures.”

The reader can see, I am sure, the point of this discussion. The author of the article on the harem conspiracy does not “believe” that the Egyptians believed in magic. He “knows” that they did; Egyptian culture is full of examples. But when he comes right down to a specific case, one in which he would certainly not have trusted to magic, he wants to give his friends the Egyptians credit for an equally practical (another loaded word) approach.

I have gone into this at some length, not to pick the bones of Scholar X, but to show that if he can commit such a basic blunder, the rest of us had better beware of complacency. Of course, it was in just such a risky situation that the Egyptians would have used magic.

Magic was not a game, or the last resort of the incompetent. It was a tool—possibly the most important tool of all.

In terms of Mr. Webster’s definitions, pyramidology and psychic research can be called “sciences.” In case the reader is unfamiliar with pyramidology, let me beg, in the names of Breasted, Petrie, Erman, and Champollion, that he will never, ever, confuse it with Egyptology. Pyramidology is the study of the mystic and prophetic import of the Egyptian pyramids. No one who has read the volumes published by pyramidologists (or pyramidalists) can deny that the subject is organized, accumulated (only too much so), accepted (by many people), systematized, and based on what its followers claim are general truths. Possibly some of them are general truths. But it is certainly not a science. Nor would I include psychic research in that category, although its tenets have been formulated, and a formidable mass of documentation has been collected by its numerous adherents.

Obviously there is something wrong with our definitions. They do not really distinguish between the three categories we are discussing, even in our terms, and they certainly have given us no insight into Egyptian magic. Let us tackle the problem in another way; let us take our categories in pairs and try to distinguish the essential differences between them.

Magic and science have much more in common than one might suppose. Like science, magic was an attempt to formulate principles through which the forces affecting man could be understood and manipulated. These principles had to be based on assumptions about the world. When the assumptions were false, man got magical principles; when they were correct, he had science. In this sense magic might be called a bastard, or pseudo, science, for primitive man had no way of telling false assumptions from true assumptions.

This interpretation of magic as a pseudoscience has been challenged, naturally; what scholarly theory has not? The challengers maintain that people knew quite well the difference between magic and the rational techniques which may be called primitive science. When a Trobriand Islander plants a garden he is careful to weed and water and protect his plants. He uses magic too; but, says Dr. Bronislaw Malinowski, he would smile if you suggested he grow crops by magic alone, without water or weeding or seeds.

Much as I admire Dr. Malinowski, I am not sure that he is making a significant point. His Trobriand Islander might smile if it were suggested that he grew crops by rational methods alone, without magic. To the people who believe in it, magic is just as important as the water or the seed.

It might be claimed that primitive (sorry) men used practical techniques, primitive science, whenever they could and only resorted to magic to cover areas in which unpredictable factors—luck or chance—might affect the results. But garden magic was not used only to ward off destructive storms or kill pests; often the spell covered the whole process: “Make this corn grow!” Furthermore, this distinction assumes the impossible: that primitive man’s definitions of the predictable and the unpredictable were the same as ours, and that he made our distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In one sense all of his life was supernatural, shaped by powerful forces which acted directly on his fragile body and his few possessions. He did the best he could, with his seeds and his watering can, and then he plastered the whole process over with a thick, protective coating of magic. To assume that he recognized a qualitative difference between his rational and nonrational techniques is to make an assumption which the evidence does not justify.

One of the differences between magic and science, then, lies in the validity of the assumptions which underlie their structures. However, it is not always easy to distinguish between false and true assumptions. The best way of recognizing a true assumption is to see whether it actually works out, in practice. It is an ironic fact that when magic works, it is no longer magic, but science. Hypnotism, once an adjunct of the black art, is now semirespectable and unglamorous; the beginnings of the physician’s craft are to be found in the hex bag of the tribal witch doctor.

Let us consider a theoretical case in order to see how plausible such false assumptions may appear. Imagine that you are a Neanderthaler whose mate has been taken away by a bigger, fiercer Neanderthaler.

Even a caveman had sense enough to avoid combat with someone who could tear him limb from limb; still, our caveman resents the theft. Now he has no one to gather firewood, and toast his chunk of mammoth over the coals, and carry his baggage when the tribe shifts hunting grounds. He has to do all these menial chores himself. It upsets him. Standing well out of his rival’s sight, so that his behavior will not be interpreted as a challenge, he has a temper tantrum. He stamps up and down; he bellows; he waves his pointed stick and pretends to thrust it into the body of his enemy; if he knows any bad words, he swears. After he has exhausted himself and his store of invective he collapses onto the ground and wipes his perspiring brow. And then, of course, he feels much better. Who wouldn’t, after such an enjoyable release?

The performance in which our Neanderthal man imaginatively thrashes an opponent who is too big to be thrashed otherwise has an immediate, practical result. It relieves him. Suppose something else happens. Suppose next time the hated rival goes hunting, the mammoth catches him, instead of vice versa, and rams a horn into him. One need not rely too heavily upon coincidence to assume that this happened now and then; life was hard in those far-off days. Now what is our hero to think? A rudimentary sense of sequence, reinforced by hatred and a desire for revenge, may enable him to connect his fit of rage, which was followed by a strong emotional reaction, with the subsequent accident. He has killed his enemy! He knew at the time that something important had happened; he felt so good!

Now this is one of the places at which magic and science part company. Sequence is not causality, although it is easily mistaken for it. One morning about 4:00 A.M. I may put on a flowing yellow robe and do a dance on the balcony. An hour or two later the sun rises. Here we have not only sequence but intent, and a contrived similarity between the “cause” and the “effect”—the yellow robe and the graceful bounding leaps with which I will, no doubt, imitate the rising of the solar orb. Did I make the sun rise? You may laugh, intelligent reader, but if I went about it properly I could probably collect a few people, even in our day and age, who would believe it. We talk very glibly, many of us, about cause and effect, but in the complex, everyday world the causes of particular phenomena are not easy to isolate. What causes two people to fall in love? What causes a plant to grow, a bird to fly, a child to catch measles? What is the cause of war or of a Mozart symphony? What makes my geraniums die while my neighbors’ plants flourish? Even when we can pick out a single “cause” it has to be qualified. I suppose a child catches measles because he picks up a measles germ; but he may wallow in germs without contracting the disease if he has natural immunity, or if he has had measles before—or for other reasons which as yet elude us. Let us make allowances for our ancestors. It is not surprising that they could not tell good causes from bad causes, when some modern logicians wonder whether they exist at all.

But back to our Neanderthal hero, flushed with success and triumph. If he has enough imagination to make the connection between his tantrum and his enemy’s death, he will also see the implications. This is a great discovery! Perhaps he is noble and altruistic; if so, he will rush home after the hunt and explain his new invention to all the neighbors, so that they too can influence men and mammoths. Chances are, though, that he will not. Chances are that he will tell them about it, and then explain that he is the only one clever enough to do the job. So he becomes a witch doctor, or shaman, or warlock—the first of a long line of workers in magic who lived for countless ages on the credulity of their fellows.

We have already established the fact that it is not easy to distinguish a true “cause” from something which is not a cause at all. Still, a genuine cause should consistently produce the same result. Would not the patrons of a magician notice that he could not always get results from his spells?

No, they wouldn’t. People don’t see the things they don’t want to see; they have selective imaginations. A success is remembered, a failure forgotten, just as plea sure remains longer and more vividly in the memory than does pain. Furthermore, the magicians were men of superior intelligence and craft; if they were not, they probably didn’t last long. This is another of the symptoms of magic that distinguishes it from science—that much of its effectiveness depends on the personality of the magician. The scientist who eventually discovers the cause of cancer may be an unpleasant fellow personally, but his character will have no effect on the cancer virus, or what ever it turns out to be. A good magician, however, must have a lot of personality, or that quality called “charisma”—the ability to move men.

There is no profession in which charisma is more useful than in magic (except, of course, for politics). Take the field of medicine, which was, until relatively recent times, riddled with magical techniques. The “psychosomatic” ailments, which may include everything from backache to blindness, are not affected by modern surgery or medicine; but imagine the effect upon them of a powerful assertive personality, reinforced by the patient’s belief in magic. Certainly the sufferer would be relieved. Even the pain of physical ailments would be alleviated. “Yes, Doc, I do feel better!” Today the doctor’s bedside manner may help or hinder his patients, and the importance of “mind over matter” in some illnesses is being recognized. In magical medicine the bedside manner was 90 percent of the battle.

A really clever shaman could also experiment with herbs and drugs, the proper use of which would increase his percentage of cures. The practical application of the magician’s intelligence could thus bring under control certain aspects of a given magical problem, which would make him much more effective. Take hate-magic—spells designed to defeat or cripple or kill an enemy—one of the most important subfields of the black art. The use of poison as an aid to witchcraft is well known, even in comparatively recent European history. The man who pays the magician his fee is satisfied with results; he doesn’t know or care whether it was incantations or arsenic that laid his enemy low.

An experienced poisoner, then, could set up a respectable practice in “spelling” people to death. In love-magic some practical auxiliaries might also help—anything from bribery and blackmail to advice to the lovelorn: “Comb your hair once a week and file your teeth to sharper points.” Even in weather-magic, where charisma is admittedly limited in effect, the shaman could employ his superior intelligence to observe phenomena which his duller-witted contemporaries might miss. If he could not produce rain on call, he might be able to predict it ahead of time, from cloud formations or recollections of seasonal variations. If he were called upon to stop an eclipse, all he needed to do was to keep on waving his arms and chanting until the shadow over the sun passed away. And in the last extremity, if all his efforts resulted in crashing failure—he could talk his way out of it. Adverse magic from some rival sorcerer, failure of a supporter in observing the necessary rituals—any such argument, if emphatically pressed, might convince his hearers. Being a cynic, I am inclined to agree with those anthropologists who believe that the most successful magicians may have been men who didn’t believe in magic. An honest man, overcome by failure, might admit that he didn’t know what had happened to thwart his spells. In some cultures he would not survive such an admission very long.

Another reason why magic seemed to work was because it did work; it worked because people believed in it, and they believed in it because it seemed to work. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds. Expressed hostility and malevolent intent can certainly cause anxiety and fear, nervous indigestion, and illness. A curse can kill—if the victim believes in it. Conversely, a potent protective charm may act as a psychological prop, increasing a person’s self-confidence and, consequently, his effectiveness. No, it is no wonder people used to believe in magic. The real wonder is that we no longer do so. Do we?

How many of us really understand the principles of such a common house hold device as the ordinary land-line telephone? We know it works by scientific laws, not by magic, because various authorities, from our teachers to Popular Science magazine, assure us that this is so. But if, starting next week, the teachers and Popular Science said that the messages are carried by little fairies who run along the wires from town to town, a lot of us would be just as happy to accept that explanation. And if the right people told us that human blood makes the corn grow taller, some of us would go right out and sprinkle the corn. Not believe in magic? Who, us? We have our faith healers and our demagogues and magicians who sell us spells entitled “positive thinking” and “how to win friends and influence people.” Surely, there is a sound psychological basis to such spells; so was there to much magic. We are science-minded, modern people, but there are those among us who refuse to have children inoculated and who deny themselves blood transfusions, on the ground that such acts are contrary to the will of God—although I do not recall that He has ever expressed Himself on either of these subjects. Some of us still march around in funny costumes carrying signs proclaiming our superiority to other races and religious groups, and others think it’s okay to blow up children in order to make a point. Most of us are not science-minded; we are not even rational. We live in an intellectual climate which accepts “science” as a vague general principle, but we “believe” in science just as uncritically as the Egyptians believed in magic, and most of us can’t tell a theory from an unsupported premise. It is not because we are more rational than our remote ancestors that we find it hard to understand their system of thought. It is only because our kind of magic is different.

If there is some science in magic, there is also a lot of magic in some religions. Conventionally, magic and religion are distinguished by the means employed to affect the supernatural beings with whom both fields deal. Magicians command and threaten demons; priests adore and beseech gods. Once again, the standard definitions fail. The priests of some ancient religions seem to have adopted a blackmailing tone more suitable to a shaman than to a humble worshiper: “Either you bring the rain, Great Spirit, or no offerings!” Sometimes magicians invoked the assistance of supernatural beings, gods or demons, but they could, and did, use spells which required no outside aid—spells which, it was believed, worked directly upon the object to be affected, as our caveman’s ritual gestures and curses “killed” his enemy. The supernatural beings invoked by ancient magicians were normally divine rather than diabolic, so that the professions of priest and magician often overlapped. Indeed, the notion of magic as a “black art” did not gain real strength until after the spread of the mono theistic religions. Their Gods were jealous gods, and their priests regarded themselves as the only legitimate intermediaries between man and the supernatural. The Egyptians were not so narrow-minded; there was a goddess of magic, and as we shall see, the Egyptians sought immortality not only through moral rectitude, “which the god desires,” but through the crudest of magical trickery—spells which would deceive or control the divine tribunal which judged the soul.

In Egypt religion and science had their areas of overlap too. The gods were the first scientists—Thoth, who invented numbers, Khnum, the divine potter, Osiris, who taught men the science of agriculture. And some scientists, such as Imhotep, became gods. Church and state were never separated in ancient Egypt, and a learned man served the temple and the king without feeling that he was serving in two different capacities. Architects and physicians were often priests as well. The famous “House of Life” attached to some temples was probably not a university but a scriptorium, where scholarly books were written and stored. Medical lore was part of this heritage, and doctors were included among the staff.

Sorcerer, scientist, and priest—the three categories were not so far apart after all. If we recognize this, and accept the sincere belief of man in the phenomena we call magic, we will have acquired a key to many of the otherwise baffling beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.


Since we have just demonstrated, at some length, that we ought to try to look at the world as the Egyptians looked at it, we will have to talk about magic, so far as is possible, in their terms. It is “no fair” to construct an artificial subject called “Egyptian magic” and dump into it all the activities we would call by that name.

What are these activities? They would certainly include the following: cursing (including killing); curing; erotic magic; agricultural (including weather); divination; resurrection. Since magic and medicine are hard to untangle, and since the Egyptians did not, as a rule, try to untangle them, we will discuss curative magic under medicine. Resurrective magic, designed to reanimate the dead and insure them a happy existence in the hereafter, is perhaps the area about which we have the most information. We would call it magic since, by our system of belief, any attempts to win immortality except the ones set forth in our own creeds are nothing but pagan superstition. This is a little hard on the Egyptians, who undoubtedly thought they were being properly religious. So we are going to talk about resurrective magic under mortuary beliefs.

This still leaves us with a respectable body of material. However, not all our categories are represented in ancient Egypt, or else they are represented only by hints or casual allusions. We know very little about weather and agricultural magic, and most of what we do know would have been called religious by the Egyptians—if they had possessed a word for religion. The prosperity and productivity of the country did not depend on rain but on the annual rise of the Nile, whose inundation watered and fertilized the soil. The river itself was a god, named Hapi, and the great mortuary god Osiris was connected not only with the resurrection of the dead but with the rebirth of the new grain. Great state rituals, conducted by the king or his representatives, honored these gods and assured the yearly inundation on which the crops depended. I suspect, from what we know of other societies, that the ancient fellahin (peasants) of Egypt may have had their own magical ceremonies to make sure the crops were abundant. But nothing is known of this, if it was done.

Spells designed to curse and kill an enemy conform more closely to our definition of magic, in that they are normally free of invocations to a god. Egyptian cursing texts were written on rough pottery bowls or on figurines, which were then flung down and smashed to bits. The inscriptions name the enemies whose lives are to be broken as the bowls are smashed. Many examples name rulers of cities in Syria or Nubia, so they must have been official state curses. Others name Egyptians: “Ameni shall die, the tutor of Sit-Bastet.” These may have been private grudges. With the meticulous thoroughness which I like to consider typically Egyptian, another text curses: “Every evil word, every evil speech, every evil thought, every evil plot, every evil thing, every evil dream,” and so on, through a long list of evils. In the cursing ritual, the efficacious elements are two in number: first, the ritual act, which is an application of the principle of imitation (as the bowl is “killed,” the enemy is killed); second, the power of the word, which is also twofold. The identity of the enemy with the object to be broken is assured by the writing of his name upon it; the phrase “he shall die” is a homicidal attack, magically speaking.

Some of the “magico-medical” texts also give spells for destroying an enemy; they are more complicated than the quick and easy smashing of an image, but they include the all-important verbal element. The medical texts are full of love charms too; several, which I find rather sad, are designed to make a man’s wife love him. Some of these spells would only work with a wife or concubine, for their successful application depends on the man being on fairly intimate terms with the lady he wishes to encharm. Love charms may be considered a legitimate part of the physician’s art; they often involve a prescription to be applied externally or taken internally. Others, surely related to love charms, are designed to “make an old man into a young man,” or just to make the old man look young—hair restorers, wrinkle removers, and the like.

It has been argued that divination—attempts to predict the future—and related fields such as astrology are not really magic, because magic involves a conscious act, an attempt to control what is going to happen. This is quibbling, I think; nobody wants to know the future unless he hopes to guide his behavior by that knowledge, if only in a negative way. June is an unlucky month? We abstain from doubtful activities, or even stay home in bed. The tarot cards inform us that a tall dark man will bring trouble and sorrow? We confine ourselves to short blond men. The fatalism which resigns itself to misery, bad luck, or illness without trying to avoid such predictions would not bother resorting to divination in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief, the Egyptians were not astrologers; they did not have the concept of the zodiac on which, if I understand the problem correctly, modern astrology is based. But they did have charts of lucky and unlucky days, which remind us of the paragraphs that appear regularly in many newspapers, purporting to tell us how to regulate our conduct according to our horoscopes.

In the Egyptian charts, each day is divided into three parts and marked with signs meaning “good” or signs meaning “bad.” Thus, for the fourth day of the month, Paophi, we get this: “Bad, good, bad. Under no circumstances go forth from your house this day. He who is born on this day will die of the plague.” The next day, the fifth, is consistently dangerous: “Bad, bad, bad. Under no circumstances approach a woman. On this day men shall make offerings to the gods…. He who is born on this day shall die of lovemaking.” Perhaps some people might not consider this such a bad way to go. Even better is the prediction for the man born on the sixth, which is “good, good, good.” He will die drunken.

Another method of foretelling the future was by dream analysis. One papyrus gives over two hundred interpretations of dreams. Here are a few:

If a man sees himself in a dream:

·         —seeing a large cat: good; it means a big harvest

·         —plunging into the river: good; it means cleansing from all evils

·         —seeing his face in a mirror: bad; it means another wife (!)

·         —looking into a deep well: bad; it means taking away his property

These interpretations do not follow the theories of Professor Freud. However, it is possible that the Egyptians did not consider the dream papyrus to be true magic; the symbolic images which kept popping up in their dreams may have had as much rational validity for them as the modern interpretations of other dream images have for us. If we want to be certain about what the Egyptians regarded as genuine sorcery, we must refer to their own descriptions. And there is one ancient papyrus which, in my opinion, gives us some pertinent examples.

The protagonist of the tale is no less a personage than the great King Khufu of the Fourth Dynasty. One day he called his sons to him and asked them to amuse him with tales of wonderful events. Thereupon the first son related how a magician punished his unfaithful wife. He made a waxen image of a crocodile. When it was thrown into the river it came to life, growing to normal crocodile size, and when the wife’s lover came to the water to bathe, the crocodile seized him. The adulterous wife was burned.

The second story told by the princes described an equally talented magician who folded up a lake, leaving the bottom dry so that one of the royal ladies could retrieve an ornament she had dropped into the water. The greatest magician of all, however, was one who lived during Khufu’s reign; when his younger son told the king about this man, Khufu ordered that he be summoned to court to display his spells. The old man, whose name was Djedi, had the best trick of all. He could put back a head which had been cut off. Khufu asked him to do it and offered a criminal, condemned to death, for the experiment. But the wise man replied, “Not a man, O sovereign, my lord!” and used a goose instead. I have always liked this story because its spirit is so unlike that of many later Oriental fairy tales. Even a condemned criminal is rejected by the old magician; for to work magic on men, the “cattle of the gods,” that is forbidden.

These tricks, then, are real magic, regarded by the Egyptians themselves as marvels. Other examples can be found in other stories, such as the ones we have quoted earlier in this book. The crocodile image is particularly interesting because it is a very ancient example of a type of sorcery which has flourished until modern times in many parts of the world. It also confirms our belief that such waxen images were used by the conspirators in the plot against Ramses III.

The talented wonder-workers in the tales related to King Khufu were not called magicians; in the text they have the title “lector priest.” This title designated one of the classes of priests who served the temples and who specialized in a knowledge of the sacred writings; they were, perhaps, the scholars of the hierarchy, and they were often skilled in magic. Doctors were part-time magicians too; as everyone knew, illness could be caused by demons or by the spirits of the dead, and a physician had to know how to deal with them. But the greatest of all the practitioners of magic, old Djedi, was neither a priest nor a physician. Not only could he restore the dead to life; he knew the numbers of the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth, the key to powerful magic, and he could foretell the future. Knowledge of the magic art was not restricted to priests; there was a title of “magician,” and another title which has been translated as “amuletman.” The amulet-men sometimes formed part of the staff of royal expeditions sent into the deserts for copper or stone, and we suppose that they supplied the workers with the little charms which could protect them against some of the dangers of the barren, waterless waste. But it is likely that all of them had had priestly training and priestly affiliations.

No, magic was not a toy or a parlor game. The wrinkled, balding official who paid a doctor for a prescription to make himself young—in order, perhaps, to win the heart of a foolish girl who preferred good looks to wealth—was not playing games. Magicians were on the royal payroll; and magic could be, as in the case of the cursing texts, a tool of international relations—we can hardly call it “diplomacy.” But let us not call it superstition. It was inextricably interwoven with the practices of a religion that suited its worshipers well enough to endure for almost four thousand years—a pretty impressive record.

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