In its preventive form, magic was considered in pharaonic Egypt as one of the normal elements of religion. It was a prerogative of divine power and of all who had a share in it. The progressive weakening of the concept of the authentically sacred in the Late Period led also to a degeneration of this view of magic. Oriental and, later, Greek influence hastened the movement toward an idea of magic imposing the will of the user upon the gods, for ends that were sometimes not very reputable. Christianity was unable to eradicate it completely. It is therefore difficult to make any distinction between magical objects used by pagans or by Christians, especially in the first millennium A.D. Nevertheless, it does not appear that the magical role attributed to images during the pharaonic period was passed on to Coptic Christians.
Amulets had always been held in honor under the pharaohs, in particular those used in burials between the bands of linen wrapping mummies, and they persisted into the Coptic period. They consisted of written formulas on papyrus and later on parchment, or figurative forms, drawn, painted, or sculpted, notably in intaglios. In this last technique, Gnostic motifs are mingled with Egyptian, Oriental, or Greek gods (such as the intermediary beings Iao and Sabaoth), or even with Christian symbols.
Mirrors, in ivory or hollow bone, square or round, bearing incised geometric motifs, were fairly numerous among the magic objects. The image of the holder, reflected by the polished metal and seeming to be introducing another world, must have been at the origin of this style of decoration.
Dolls in human likeness stiffly carved or incised with geometric motifs have subsisted until recent times in both Christian and Islamic Egypt. Clay or wax dolls in the likeness of the victim of a magic spell and covered with inscriptions go back to the Egypt of the Middle Kingdom. Under Roman domination such dolls were combined, in a kind of adoption of the Hellenistic tabulae defixionum (“formulae of imprecation”), with a bristling of needles piercing thirteen vital places of the body, according to the directions given in the magical instructions of the second century A.D. The only figure that has come down to us intact is a daintily modeled doll from the third century in the Louvre.
A fresco from a chapel in BAWIT carries evocations of male or female demons that are connected with magic. Above the demon Alabastria, pierced with a lance by Saint Sisinnios, are presented baneful animals—a hyena, an owl, a crocodile, an ibis, two serpents, and a scorpion. It also includes an eye pierced with a dagger between two swords. This eye is evidently not that of the Egyptian god Horus, which has beneficial power; it must be an intrusion from late Greek or Latin sources.
- Bonner, Campbell. Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco- Egyptian. London, 1950.
- Bourguet, P. du. Un ancêtre des figurines d’envoutement percées d’aiguilles, avec ses compléments magiques, au Musée du Louvre. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 104. Cairo, 1980.
- ___. “Magie égyptienne.” In Dictionnaire des religions. Paris, 1984.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J