The ancient Egyptian ‘magic’ decoded

This ancient Egyptian papyrus, now at Macquarie University, is decorated with an image of two bird-like creatures. A magical spell written in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet, is shown in the figure. Credit: Effy Alexakis, copyright Macquarie University

An ancient Egyptian papyrus with a picture of two bird-like creatures, possibly with a penis that connects them has been deciphered, revealing a magic spell of love.

“The most striking feature of [the papyrus] is her image,” wrote Korshi Dosoo, a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg in France, who published the papyrus recently in the Journal of Coptic Studies.

Dosoo is estimated that it dates from around 1300 years, to a time when Christianity was widely practiced in Egypt. [Crack Codices: 10 of the Most Mysterious Ancient Manuscripts]

In the figure, the winged creature on the left seems to poke its beak in the open mouth of his counterpart on the right who also seems to have a nail through her head. A person’s outstretched arms around the creatures.

Both beings are connected through what Dosoo said could be chains, bands or a penis. The creature has the right to have two ears (or horns), and both beings have what looks like feathers, or scales on the front of their body. The small differences between the two creatures may be as an attempt to show sex differentiation, Dosoo said, noting that the creature on the right may be a woman and on the left a man.

A magical spell written in Coptic, an Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet, around the image. Only fragments of the text have survived through the years, with a portion of the deciphered spell read, “I call you … who is Christ the lord, the god of Israel …” The next part of the spell includes the words: “you will be solving” and calls it “every child of Adam,” which, according to the Hebrew Bible, the first man on Earth and lived with a woman with the name Eve in the Garden of Eden before being expelled by God. The fragmented text also mentions Ahitophel, a traitor of King David, according to the Hebrew Bible.

What was it used for?

The papyrus seems to have been a page of a larger text, and possibly a handbook that was used by a magician, Korshi said.

The hypothetical magician clients may have been under the impression of the image on the papyrus. “An observer, we could say that the picture would have enhanced the performative aspect of the ban — the client, the weird drawings an impressive addition to the overall atmosphere and impression created by the ritual,” Dosoo told Live Science. [7 Amazing Archaeological Finds from Egypt]

The fragmentary text makes it difficult to determine exactly what the spell was used for, but Dosoo said that he believes that it is possible in connection with love, possibly in cases where there was a complex situation, such as a love triangle, or where a man was in love with a woman he could not marry.

“Christian literary texts from Egypt that mention love spells, it is often assumed that the problem is not that the woman does not love the man per se, but that he has no access to her, because she is a young, unmarried girl is protected and sheltered by her family, or is already married to someone else,” Dosoo told Live Science.

Mysterious origins

The papyrus is on the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, but how it got there is a mystery. The university has no signs that is sold or donated, the papyrus, or when the acquisition occurred, Dosoo said.

The university has a collection of about 900 scrolls, of which the largest part was purchased by or donated to the university between 1972 and 1985; only in 2007 that the university stopped the purchase of papyri or to accept them as donations. Many of these 900 scrolls were bought by Anton and Michael Fackelmann, who were antiquities dealers who were active in Austria, in the 1970s and 1980s. Among these papyri is a “Handbook of Ritual Power” (the contemporary researchers call it), that’s a long magical text, which also dates back to around 1300 years. However, while this handbook is of the Fackelmanns, it is not clear whether the newly appeared magical papyrus is also of them.

The university of the history of the collection poses a problem for scholars. In 1972, a UNESCO treaty prohibiting the sale of antiquities that were removed from their country of origin after 1972. It is not certain when this papyrus, and other writings in the collection, were removed from Egypt.

With the continuous plundering of plaguing Egypt’s archaeological sites, many scientists are not comfortable working with material that may have been taken from Egypt after 1972. of the reason is that some scholars believe that the publishing of such material can help those who are trying to plunder and sell archaeological remains from Egypt. There is also the question of property, because, as an artifact from Egypt after 1972, then it is possible the legal owner may in fact be the government of Egypt.

Many of the university papyri to be published. Despite the lack of information about when the recently deciphered papyrus was acquired, or who it was acquired from, the committee decided to publish the papyrus, pointing to the uncertain origin in the journal article.

Originally published on Live Science.


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