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An Ancient Egyptian Spellbook Has Been Translated

It’s like the researchers have never seen a horror movie

A Coptic depiction of Christ and of Abbot Mena dating to around the same time as the recently translated book of rituals. (Leemage/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In the later half of the first millennium, Christian and Sethian Egyptians recorded rituals, incantations and spells meant to “cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business.” Recorded on a papyrus codex in the Coptic language of ancient Egypt, the text—which may be 1,300 years old—has now been translated for the first time, says LiveScience.

Researchers first found the text just a few decades ago, in 1981, housed amongst the extensive papyrus collection at Macquarie University in Sydney. Researchers Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner only recently translated it. They found instructions for rituals including, for instance, one meant to subjugate someone: the “codex says you have to say a magical formula over two nails, and then 'drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side (and) one on the left,'" Live Science reports.

Scholars tend to treat mainstream and fringe beliefs differently: the ritual practices of large societies are often called “religions,” while those of smaller societies are often deemed “magic,” write Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith in their 1999 book Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power.

A more useful, less value-laden term than either “magic” or “religion,” which one scholar after another is beginning to propose, is “ritual.” We human beings, in our worship practices, engage in rituals everywhere, in all parts of the globe and in all types of societies.

… It is only recently that scholars have tried to escape from the “religion/magic,” “we/they” hierarchy. One obvious problem with these contrasts is that any culture, whether small-scale or complex and industrialized, is a conflicting structure of elements that includes both the rational and the irrational. So in the religions of the first-world nations, where material benefits are prayed for, where victory in battle is invoked, and where individuals wear charms for luck or protection, just what does it mean to say that magic is something practiced by other, more primitive people?

What will future researchers think, for instance, of the pre-game ritual of football players, asking a power greater than themselves to help defeat their enemy?

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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