Heka, Egyptian magic (I)


Heka, or ḥk3w in the ancient Egyptian transcription, is a word that combines multiple meanings: it is, mainly, magic, but understood as the creative power, but also the sustaining force of the world, as well as the magical act itself and its rituals. . The hieroglyphs used for his name contain ka, that is, the life force. Each act of magic is an act that continues to create with the same power of Creation, and Heka is said to have existed before all the gods:

<< Oh, noble ones who stand before the Lord of the Universe (the All), behold, I arrived earlier. Respect me according to what you know>> (Texts of the sarcophagi, 261)

Its survival in the Coptic language indicates that its pronunciation must have been close to the word hike. Although it had an iconographic representation similar to other divinities (humanized, often with two snakes, among other attributes, varying between man or child), it is an extremely broad concept. Heka is in the celestial boat, accompanying Ra on his solar journey, to defend him from Apophis. Although he was a divinity that was present in many of the ceremonies, and evidently in magic, he never had his own temples, but he was worshiped in different places and schools in Esna, Memphis or Heliopolis. (In Kemetic neo-paganism, however, it occupies an important place.) Only in Mnephis did Heka retain his image as the primordial god, while in Heliopolis, Heka was the son of Ra, and in Esna, the son of Khnum (Jnum).

The Egyptologist Wallis Budge (1857-1934) once said that in Egypt the belief in magic even preceded the belief in God. In fact, the Egyptians did not have a word to define religion, and as can be seen, they did have a word for magical practice. In any case, the truth is that religion and magic flourished in parallel in Egypt, and that there was no room for any atheistic thought. Therefore, magic must be understood, when talking about ancient Egypt, as a palpable reality, loaded with symbolism. Its relationship with the divine is clear not only because of the power of the divinities, but because their permission to use it is understood.

<< (The god) has created magic for them, as weapons to reverse the impact of events, watching over them both day and night.>> (Instructions for Pharaoh Merikare (X Dynasty))

The issue of magic in Egypt is complex, first of all, because with the discoveries of the 19th century everything Egyptian took on a mystical and mysterious aura that continues today; secondly, because our definition of magic is somewhat different from what the Egyptians had, since our definition is a practice that seeks control over nature and the invisible, while in Egypt, Heka, as a creative power, imbued all the universe and, consequently, was present in everyday life, including religion, which produces problems of separation, if it is necessary in this context; and thirdly, because such a field of action provokes an incredible variety of acts: there was priestly magic and popular magic.

Priestly magic had a close link with the divinities, and very clear functions: to protect the pharaoh and his interests, both in life and in death. This involved protective magic, medicinal magic and curse magic, to eliminate the pharaoh's enemies. The Egyptian priests were trained in all the sciences to be able to fulfill their functions: astronomy, religion, medicine, history, mathematics, letters, and magic could not be an exception, since their knowledge provided power over both human beings and animals. as about the gods themselves. They were taught in the so-called Houses of Life or Pr-Ankh, buildings attached to the temples.

Popular magic, for its part, consists of spells and amulets, more like the way magic itself is understood in the Western world, and had its heyday from the Late Period (730-330 BC). However, there is much less information about this type of magic, taking into account the difference in the archaeological records found between them: while regarding priestly or official magic we have the Texts of the Pyramids, the hypocephali of mummies, the stelae. funeraries and the cippi of Horus, as well as sculptures with inscribed texts, along with medical texts, the truth is that on popular magic we have much fewer primary sources, focused on amulets, tertiary sources, mentions, or magical texts already from the Hellenistic period, with the fusion of traditions that it implies. See a simple example that includes names and ideas from multiple traditions:

<<I call upon you, the headless one, who created the earth and the sky, who created the night and the day, you the creator of light and darkness. You are Osoronophris, whom no man has ever seen. You are Iabas, you are Iâpos, you have distinguished the just from the unjust. You have made the male and the female, you have produced seeds and fruits, you have made men love one another and hate one another. I am Moses, your prophet, to whom you entrusted your mysteries, the ceremonies of Israel; you produced moisture and dryness, and all kinds of food. Listen to me, I am an angel by Phaphro Osoronnophris>>

This text has been included in invocations and spells of occult orders since the 19th century, precisely because the fusion of names and ideas is convenient for magical thoughts and universality. For our part, Paphro Osoronnophris seems to refer to "Pharaoh Ausar Unnefer", a pharaonic representation of a god of the dead.

However, such exaggerated distinctions were not always made between the two types of magic and we have sources of spells that could be used by both. Of course, the greatest magical-religious ceremonies took place at the time of death and its subsequent embalming, which is why it is from the monuments and funerary objects where we get the most information about magical texts intended for the well-being of the deceased.

There is another division of magic according to its purpose: funerary magic, ceremonial magic, and individual magic. All three could be used by priests, however, the last one is the most common at a popular level, given that there was a lack of certain superior knowledge for the development of religious and funerary rituals, for which priests and officials were resorted to. corresponding. Popular magic, after all, was not official magic. And of course, "official" Egyptian magic is always beneficial, even when it seeks to harm the enemy, since that enemy is the pharaoh's. However, much of individual magic, and especially the magic of foreign peoples, is always considered negative. The proliferation of individual magic from the Hellenistic period and Roman Egypt involves a lot of cursing, binding, amulet creation, divination, and spirit invocations. Heka magic, however, is always a neutral force, the use of which is up to humans.

Magic in Egypt has two ways that allow its understanding and functioning: the first is perception or conceptualization, that is, the feeling and knowledge of its existence that takes place "in the heart." The second way is enunciation, the verbalization of spells out loud. The main form of magical power was the voice, the word, so incantations, as long as they were recited properly, could alter reality. This may be the meaning of the representation of Heka as a child or young person who puts his finger in his mouth, something that, on the other hand, has been interpreted in modern occultism as an initiatory gesture.

Magic words (hekay or hekau) also had value when written down, as was the case with amulets and talismans. It was especially useful in the case of amulets for the deceased or the sick. In the case of the magical representation of figures and images, or accompanied by texts, they can also become reality. For this reason, in the representations on the walls of the pyramids, the different phases and procedures that the deceased will carry out in Amduat, the afterlife, appear. This is not just a narrative, it is a reality that will come to life. The ushabti or small human figurines will come to life and serve the deceased, as indicated in chapter VI of the Book of Exit to the Day or Book of the Dead, whose text is written on them.

<< Oh, Ushebti, if the Osiris of (name of the deceased) requires any work to be done there in the Other World, or if any unpleasant task is imposed on him, like a man faced with his obligations, you must say: Here I am! ! If you are required at any hour to serve, to cultivate the fields, to water the banks, to carry sand from east to west and vice versa, you will say: Here I am! >>

They are believed to be substitutes for ancient human sacrifices, which justifies the magical thinking of their transformation. In the same way, when representing some wild animals, the image is cut, because it is not important that a dangerous being survives and could attack the deceased. The same was done with the enemies, who were represented decapitated, defeated, subdued, so that it would be like this in real life. The four doors of the wind of the North (Osiris), South (Ra), West (Isis) and East (Nephthys) were also represented in the sarcophagi, so that when they opened them, the deceased would have power over said divinities, or altars and food so that the ka of the deceased would not go hungry; When this was not possible, a prayer was written on the funerary furniture through which, every time someone read it, the ka would see his needs satisfied again. Many consider that this union of text and image also had an anthropological and educational function: in a culture where the literacy rate was very low, it must have been important that both text and image were used so that magical and practical protection could be achieved and effective.

There were also the so-called magic bricks, which contained curses and warnings for the demons of the cardinal points, threatening them if they dared to enter the tombs. It seems that these bricks were responsible for the popular "curses of the pharaohs" that spread so widely in popular culture. However, there were prescriptions and warnings in the so-called private tombs, so that no one impure or with bad intentions could access them, since someone could access them if they wanted to pay their respects. An example of these texts lists

<< (...) to anyone who takes a brick from my grave, or who removes my corpse, or who damages the images or wants to erase my name>>

These fears were not unfounded, considering that, in effect, all the images and names of Hezi, an official of the Fifth Dynasty, were destroyed, except for one at the back of the chapel, so that we can say, romantically, that the spell worked.

All processes related to death have, of course, a strong magical-religious component. The clearest example was the Embalming Rite, in whose preparation everything has recitations, images and symbols, before, during and after. The funerary texts of the well-known Book of the Dead contain formulas and practices of a magical nature. The purpose of chapter CLXIII was to ensure that the body of the deceased did not decompose, and the words of power had to be recited in front of three images: A snake with legs and a solar disk, an Udyat or Eye of Horus in whose pupil there will be an image of the God. with the raised hand with the face of a divine soul, and an Udyat in whose pupil will be an image of the God with the raised hand with the face of the goddess Neith, and with feathers and a back like a falcon. If this was done correctly, the deceased

<< (...) will not be rejected at any door of the underworld, he will eat, drink and perform natural functions of his body as when he did when he was on earth.; and no one will rise up to shout against him; and will be protected from the hands of the enemy forever and ever>>

We find a similar ritual example in chapters CLXIV and CLXV, where the words of power had to be recited before figures of concrete appearance:

<<(...) before a figure of the god with raised hand, who will have feathers on his head, his legs will be very far apart, and the middle part of the figure will have the shape of a beetle; It will be painted blue with lapis lazuli paint mixed with qamai water. And they will also be recited (the words of power) before a figure with a human head, whose arms and hands are separated from the body; on his right and left shoulders there will be a ram's head. And the figure of the god will be painted on a piece of linen immediately over the heart of the deceased, and the other over his chest. But don't let the god Sukati, who is in the underworld, know about it.>> (CLXV)

On the other hand, funerary texts are guides for the deceased himself, so that the words he addresses to the gods are also words of power or heka. If we return to chapter 261 of the Sarcophagus Texts, which ends like this:

<< I have come to take my seat and receive my dignity, I belonged to the Universe (the All) before the gods had come into existence. Descend, you who have reached the end. I am Heka.>> (Texts from the sarcophagi, 261)

It contains a presentation before the gods such as Heka, and since in the original Egyptian text there are no determinants of divinity, some scholars consider that the ambiguity is sought precisely to show the "transformation" of the magician or person who recites those words into the divinity itself.

Likewise, it is not necessary, although it is common, for the deceased to present himself as different gods, but words of power can also be pronounced so that the deceased can save himself from certain monsters of the Beyond, invoking the divine figure or his protection. This would be the case of the so-called Isis Buckle Amulet, on which the following is engraved:

<<May the blood of Isis, the powers of Isis, and the words of power of Isis take effect to protect this powerful>>

Despite the denial that we made at the beginning of the initiatory attitude of divine gestures, it is true that the gestures in Egypt had a magical aspect, such as pointing with the index finger and the little finger as an act of protection, a gesture that, by the way, we find in many other cultures.

Unlike in the religious aspect, for the magician it is not necessary to mediate or request a god to obtain what is desired, but control over magic allows the person to modify or take personally what he wants, as well as attract power divine or pour it on the person concerned. Heka was a power and practice used by both humans and gods, especially Isis or the personification of magic herself, Urethekau, who over time came to personify Ra himself. Hekay can be understood as much as the ritual, as the words, as the one who says them.

What allows an act of hekay? We have different examples of this, which offer prodigious images that move away from the idea of a "flat" ritual with no visible effect. In this regard, the narratives can be considered excessively literaturized, but they are still stories from antiquity. The Westcar papyrus (ca. 16th century BC) tells us several stories, such as the case of the scribe Tchatcha-em-Ankh, who through the pronunciation of hekay gets the waters of the river to open so that the pharaoh can return him to a young woman from her boat a turquoise fish that has fallen into the water, or the priest of King Nebka, who, knowing that his wife is unfaithful, models a wax figure, casts a spell on it and asks a guard to throw it into the water. river, near where the adulterers pass, so that the bewitched figure comes to life and devours the man, and later the woman is captured and punished.

Other texts comply more with the generic ritual of magic: reciting an incantation, in this case to Atum and Horus, while preparing magical ingredients to be used on the client. See the preparation of the so-called amulets of Iunu (Heliopolis).

<<(...) No member of yours will be without a god, who will put his seal on whatever he finds, while the amulets of Iunu are held tight in his hand.

The words about ceramic balls must be said. The limbs of man will be enchanted, saying this incantation against a dead woman who steals like an imploring woman (?). He must be hit four times with it. Placed under a man's head, no dead man or woman will be able to pursue him>> (Leiden Papyrus, 348)

We have another example in this spell against the attack of crocodiles:

<<Oh, egg of water and saliva of the earth - the shells of the divine Ogdoad - the great one in the sky, the great one in the underworld... who is prominent on the Isle of Knives, it is with you that I have escaped of the waters. I will emerge with you from your nest. I am Min from Coptos.

This spell is to be said over a clay egg, which is to be placed in a man's hand on the bow of a ship. If something comes to the surface, it should be thrown into the water.>> (Papyrus Harris)

In the two examples presented we find that the person who is protected by the spell is "transfigured" into divinity, he appears or appears that way to the enemies (in the first case the spirits, in the second, the crocodile), which that produces fear in them.

Resorting to a power considered superior, in this case divine, is an act more than evident in magic of all times, and Egypt is no exception. The presence of the gods intimidates evil spirits and animals, and offers protection and effectiveness in the case of human enemies. Against the person who casts the evil eye, we have a spell that says:

<< The arrow of Skhemet is in you, the heka of Thoth is in your body, Isis curses you, Nephthys punishes you, The spear of Horus is in your head. >>

And after this, the guilty person was "blind", ethat is, he lost his ability to harm through sight.

A spell against nightmares summons Isis:

<< Come to me, mother Isis! Look, I have seen something that is far from me, in my own city!>>

Then the reciting continues as if "Isis" responded to her own son:

<< Look, my son, Horus, come out with what you have seen, may your silence end and your nightmare retire. A fire will break out against what has scared you. I have come to see that I can expel your afflictions, that I can annihilate all ailments. I greet you, good dream! Let the night look like the day. May all the ailments brought by Seth, son of Nut, be removed. Ra is victorious over his enemies, I am victorious over my enemies! >>

And then the man had to eat bread and herbs soaked in myrrh and beer.

However, as in the Greek magical papyri, "threats" to the gods had a certain presence in magical texts. One of the cases may be the creation of an amulet to win the love of a woman:

<< I greet you, Re'horacte, father of the gods! I salute you, seven Hathors, clothed in red linen! I greet you, gods, lords of heaven and earth. Let the woman (name) born of (name) come to me like a cow after the grass, like a servant after her girl, like a shepherd after his cattle.

If they (the gods) do not make him come after me, I will set Busiris on fire, and I will consume Osiris in fire! >>

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Borghouts, J.F. Ancient Egyptian magical texts. Religious texts tr. series. Brill, Leiden 1978

-Frankfurter, D. (ed.), Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic. Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2019

-Silverman, D.P. Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2003

-Wallis Budge, E.A., La magia egipcia. J. José de Olañeta (ed.) Barcelona, 2005.

Related posts:

> Heka, eyptian magic (II)

>Eyptian talismans

> Greek magical papiry (I)

>Greek magical papiry (II)

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