Egyptian Magic Part 3

Part Three

Priests, House of Life, and Books

The king of Egypt was the “Lord of the Ritual”. Theoretically, he was the only priest who could perform the daily temple ritual and the festival rituals and thus preserve maat, the order of the universe. In reality the priests were the official representatives of the king and performed the ritual for him. The priests were required to know the temple ritual and achieve high levels of purity. The distinction between priests and the layity developed over time. Encyclopedia Britanica classifies the priests of ancient Egypt as major priests or prophets, minor priests, singers, musicians, scribes, and temple employees. (3b)
Before looking at the priests specialists as described by Sauneron, we should let him describe the institution known as the House of Life. The House of Life can be thought of as a library or the offices where the work of the scribes and scholars was done. We know that the temples at Memphis, Abydos, El Amarna, Akhmin, Coptos, Esna, and Edfu had a House of Life near them. In these offices the sacred wisdom was developed, and the texts were studied, copied, and assembled. Sauneron suggest that instruction may have been given. The story of Satni tells us that they contained magic books. The main activities of the House of Life were preparing works necessary to the performance of the cult, maintaining old manuscripts, developing theology and temple liturgy, and preparing the magic books of protection and astronomical tables. The House of Life was involved in the preparation of the temple inscriptions and in short, prepared every written thing that a priest would need or be interested in, including medical books and literary works. (37)
There were a number of specialists associated with the priesthood. There were funerary priests known as the “servants of the ka” who supported the funerary cult. (38) There were practitioners of medicine who worked from rational and magical frameworks. (39) There were time keepers, astrologers, and dream interpreters. Finally there were the scholars and scribes of the House of Life. Some of these scribes known as priest readers, magicians, and “scribes of the divine books” performed state and private magic. For the state they made rain, preserved the order, and protected the divinity within the temple. Privately they performed divination, exorcisms, and a variety of other services. Sauneron includes the making of magical prescriptions, against fever, scorpion bites, and illness. The priest reader also made love charms.

Zabkar tells us about the priests “who penetrate into the words of god and are skilled in writings…who have penetrated into the archives of the library” and are said to “interpret the mysteries of the Bas of Re”. The sacred books referred to are so because they contain the temple ritual and keep god within the temple alive and overthrow his enemies. These books are “beneficial to those who read them and observe them on earth and beneficial to them in the necropolis”. (41)
We have knowledge of the more definite nature about specific books and texts. The Encyclopedia Britanica cites the Pyramid text, the Coffin Text, the Book of the Dead, the Book of the Two Ways, and the Amduat. The Pyramid texts are those that were inscribed in the subterranean rooms of the pyramids of the kings and queens of the 5th and 6th dynasties. They contained spells and magical texts of necessity for life in the hereafter. The Coffin texts found on coffins of the 1st Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom contain mythological texts, temple ritual texts, mortuary cult texts, and extracts form the Pryamid Texts. The Book of the Dead derived somewhat from the Coffin Texts contains a great many spells for the use of the individual after death, This book dates from the 18th dynasty to the Late Period. The “Book of Two Ways” and the “Amduat” are guidebooks for the hereafter. (3b)
A final example of Egyptian books are the sacred books of the temple at Edfu as they appeared in an inventory list on the walls of the temple.
“The books and the great parchments of pure leather, enabling
the beating of the devil;
the repulsion of the devil;
the favoring of the hour;
the preservation of a ship;
the promenade of a great ship;
the book for launching the king on procession;
the book for the conduct of the cult;…
the protection of the city, of the house, of the white crown of the throne, of the year;
the book to appease Sekhmet;
the book for hunting the lion, repelling the crocodiles,…driving off reptiles;
knowing the secrets of the laboratory;
knowing the divine offerings in all their detail…and all the inventories of the secret forms of the god, and all the aspects of the associated gods, copied daily for the temple, every day, one after the other, for the souls of the gods dwell in this place, and do not stray from this temple ever;
the book of the temple inventory;
the book of the capture of enemies;
the book of all writings of combat;
the book of temple regulations;
the books of guards of the temple;
intructions for the decoration of a wall;
protection of the body;
the book of magic protection of the king in his palace;
formulas for repulsing the evil eye;
knowledge of the periodical return of the two stars [sun and Moon];
control of the periodical return of the [other] stars;
enumeration of all the places [sacred], and knowledge of what is there;
all ritual relating to the exodus of the god from his temple on feast days.” (42)

Words and Writing
Before turning to specific practices of Egyptian magic, we should look at Egyptian concepts about words and writing under the heading of cultural background. The following is taking from S. Sauneron’s “Priests of Ancient Egypt”.
The word hieroglyphics means “divine words”. The Egyptians believed that at the creation, the agent of the creator was the word. Words were considered to be the “audible expression of the deepest essence of things”. We can say that “to pronounce a word, a name, is not only a technique creating in the mind of the hearer a picture which haunts that of the speaker, it is to act on the thing or being mentioned, it is to repeat the initial act of the creator…”. The language of hieroglyphics was never a social instrument, “it always remained for them the sonorous echo of the basic energy which sustains the universe, a cosmic force”. Studying their language gave an explanation of the world.
If words represent the essence of things then similarities between words represent relationships in nature. Following this principle, the priest took up the study of proper names, especially of the gods, to get insight into their natures. The phonetic elements of a word correspond to little pictures, and the whole word consisting of these little pictures builds a visual scene, so that a thing or a name of a god or an idea is accompanied by a picture. Studying the phonetic spelling of a god’s name can describe the god and point to his function in the natural scheme of things. For 3000 years the Egyptian priests studied their hieroglyphics to look for their hidden meanings. Sauneron sums up the attitude of the priest towards words and writing as their having had the highest faith in the power of the old magic books, believing in the creative power of sound, and believing in the original divinity of language. (43)

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