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July 11, 2016

1,300-Year-Old Book Of Egyptian Magic Deciphered

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Researchers have decoded an ancient Egyptian book of spells they are calling an “Egyptian Handbook of Ritual Power.” It contains incantations for everything from attaining success in a business venture, to love spells, to curing disease. The 20 page illustrated codex is thought to date from the 7th or 8th century, some 1,300 years ago, which seems to have been a pivotal time for the history of mysticism in that area of the world.

The codex is written in Coptic and comes from a time before the rise of Islam in the Middle East. Most Egyptians at the time were some flavor of Christian, though the belief systems were much more muddled than they are today. The spells, some of which have to do with banishing evil spirits, make repeated reference to biblical characters, but also some unknown deities like “Baktiotha.”
Some earlier writings in the book seem to relate to a sect of early Christianity called Sethians. This group worshiped the character of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. The Sethians were already on the decline in the 7th century as most Christians considered them heretics. The progression from older to newer parchments in the codex follows a trend toward more orthodox Christianity, making it a potentially important document.
The Handbook of Ritual Power would have been used by a ritual practitioner of some sort, though not necessarily someone associated with the clergy. There is little record of who used documents like this one. People wouldn’t want to have been widely known for practicing magic, even if they believed themselves to have actual power.
The origin of this Handbook of Ritual Power is also a mystery. It was obtained by Macquarie University (where it now resides) from antiquities dealer Michael Fackelmann in 1981. It is unclear where he obtained it, but the recently deciphered text points to a possible origin in upper Egypt, possibly Ashmunein or Hermopolis. Wherever it’s from, it’s an fascinating little slice of history.
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