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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Magic to Charm and to Kill


Popular imagination has long painted the Egyptians as masters of magical arts. In the Book of Exodus, the king was attended by “wise men” but also by “sorcerers.” This reputation continued in Classical literature. Lucian (2nd c. AD) related that Pancrates was trained in magic by the goddess Isis and that he was able to bring inanimate objects to life – a tale made famous by Goethe in the Sorcerer's Apprentice (1797). Another magician, Harnuphis, created a miraculous rainfall that was commemorated on coins struck by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. For centuries, much of the world agreed with Clement of Alexandria (3rd c. AD) who called Egypt “the mother of magicians.”

Toward a Definition of Magic in Ancient Egypt

Despite the Egyptians' reputation for sorcery, scholars disagree about what constituted magic in ancient Egypt, and especially where the division between magic and religion lies. In James Frazer's classic definition from The Golden Bough (1906–15), magic is a means of manipulating and controlling supernatural forces for one's own purpose whereas religion involves worshipping and appeasing those forces. Applying this definition to Egypt is problematic – communication with the gods in order to influence personal affairs was an established part of mainstream Egyptian cults. Indeed, most Egyptian rituals involved making offerings to the god in the effort to produce a specific outcome. Does that mean that there was no magic in Egypt, or does it mean that the bulk of Egyptian religious rituals are in fact better thought of as magic?