Ḥeka: Understanding Egyptian Magic on Its Own Terms
Misreading Other Cultures
The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (49b), states:
עשרה קבים כשפים ירדו לעולם, תשעה נטלה מצרים [ואחד כל העולם כולו].
Ten measures of witchcraft descended to the world; nine were taken by Egypt [and one by the rest of the world].
Is that really what ancient Egypt was about?
A Humorous Anecdote
In my research on Egyptian magic and how it was perceived, I came upon a footnote to the above quote that gives a brief description of tractate Kiddushin:
Talmud (Rabbinic writings from Orthodox Jews), Kiddushin 49b (literally the sanctification). It is the first part of the matrimony that creates the legal bond within the mutual bond.
Seeing that a quote about witchcraft is cited in a tractate ostensibly about matrimony, I understood this to mean that the Jewish wedding ceremony mentions the power of ancient Egyptian magic. As I know very little about Jewish wedding ceremonies, this seemed possible though quite strange, and my curiosity was piqued; why would the magical capabilities of ancient Egyptians be relevant in a marital ceremony? Well, as it turns out, of course, it isn’t, and I had misunderstood the footnote.
I tell this anecdote to point out the ironic fact that, in this case, an Egyptologist (me) did to another culture what other cultures have done to Egypt for millennia, namely, extrapolating incorrectly about how a group thinks and acts based on snippets of partially understood information. This is what we see when it comes to outsider depictions of Egyptian “magic” in pre-modern treatments.
How Ancient Egyptian Magic Has Been Misunderstood
In modern times, magic is synonymous with “parlor tricks” and sorcery is a subject for fantasy novels and movies. The idea of magic as a form of “trick” goes back to Greco-Roman times, whose word for magic and magician conjured the notion of “fraud and huckster.”
In Western religious traditions, the stance against magic is even harsher. The Hebrew Bible, admittedly, never denies the efficacy of magic or sorcery, but it repeatedly forbids the practice as something anathema to YHWH, condemning practitioners to the death penalty. See for example, Exodus 22:17:
מְכַשֵּׁפָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה.
Do not suffer a witch to live.
Christianity too views magic and sorcery as oppositional to the divine, associating it with forces of darkness and witchcraft.
For a long time, studies of Egyptian magic focused on ḥeka(ḥkꜣ) as understood through a modern Western lens, and thus, focused on spells and malice. In reality, ḥeka is much broader and more pervasive than this, and the concept lacks clear boundaries between ancient Egyptian magic, religion, and medicine. Ḥeka was not limited to active rituals but it was a power that permeated life.
Ḥeka: The Cosmic Force
In the Ancient Near East, “magic” did not have a negative valence, and its practitioners were often temple priests. In the ancient Egyptian schema for how the universe functioned, magic was neither positive nor negative; it was instead a cosmic force that could be used to destroy or to protect. This cosmic force, which the Egyptians called “ḥeka,” must be understood within its original context or it will certainly be misinterpreted.
Ḥeka in Hieroglyphics
Ancient Egyptian magic can be understood as either a natural force (ḥeka), or as a god in human form with the same name (Ḥeka). The word ḥeka, when written in hieroglyphs consists of the mono-consonantal hieroglyph, ḥ (a twisted rope) and the bi-consonantal hieroglyph, kꜣ (ka), two parallel arms pointing up, a sign also used to express the ancient Egyptian concept of the vital force called ka.
Following these two symbols, either next to them or below them, is the hieroglyphic determinative, a sign indicating the general idea of the word, whether it was a name, a concept, a location, etc. For ḥeka the determinative is a papyrus scroll, which is the symbol for both writing and/or an abstract concept. The word also includes the three strokes sign, which signifies plurality.
When another determinative, a seated god, is added, it indicates that the text is referring to the god with the same name (Ḥeka) who embodies the concept of ḥeka.
Ḥeka the All-Pervasive Force
In origin stories, the creator god, Atum, uses ḥeka to make the world. As a result, every aspect of the universe is made of ḥeka.Because of this creative act, ḥeka made deities, humans, land, water, animals, plants—everything. It has been likened to an “all pervading coercive power—comparable to the laws of nature in its coerciveness and all pervadingness—by which in the beginning the world was made, by which it is daily maintained and by which mankind is ruled.”
Ḥeka the God
The god Ḥeka is an embodiment of the force of ḥeka. (A better-known example of a concept with a corresponding deity is that of maat [mꜣʿt, order] and Maat the goddess.) The relationship between concept and god Ḥeka is best summed up by Ritner who states:
At the stroke of a word, Magic penetrates the ka or vital essence of any element in creation and invests it with power, either generative or destructive.
Ḥeka is sometimes seen in Egyptian art in the boat of the sun along with other personified elements, namely Sia (perception) and Hu (Creative Utterance). In addition to other roles, he was a force that “held the universe together and brought life into being.”
Good and Bad
Indeed, one of the most important roles of the god Ḥeka is accompanying the sun god on the boat through the evening to battle the demons of the duat (realm of the dead) nightly and rise again in the morning. In this conception, Ḥeka (the god) uses ḥeka (the power) to thwart the mythical serpent, Apophis, who is trying to stop the sun god’s boat and prevent the sun from rising, thereby allowing chaos to reign. Significantly, the power that every god uses, even Apophis in his endeavors to keep the sun from rising, is also ḥeka.
Practitioners of Ḥeka
In Pharaonic Egypt, ḥeka was an integral part of religion. As such, it is not surprising that the primary practitioners of ḥekawere often priests, who had access to temple and palace libraries and could read ancient books that contained recitations to “ward off fate.” Ḥeka was not solely in the hands of temple personnel, however. Scorpion charmers used ḥeka to rid people of poison, and midwives also used it to help bring life into this world. Additionally, wise women worked in the realm of healing and used ḥeka to rid individuals of harmful spirits.
The King Destroying Chaos
The force of ḥeka could be utilized to accomplish a number of magical purposes. For example, Egyptian imagery often depicts the king destroying enemies and maintaining maat (order).Religious texts describe foreigners beneath the feet of the king, and the Egyptians actually made sandals, footstools and the royal dais with images of enemies upon it; thus, ḥeka makes the symbolic ritual action effective. A religious text correlating to such imagery reads:
Horus has laid hold of Seth, and has set him under you in your behalf so that he may lift you up and quake beneath you.
Proxy Curses (Sympathetic Magic)
Wax figures (like voodoo dolls) were used by individuals as proxies to do harm to another individual. The “Rite for Repelling the Angry One” states “If this spell is recited against an enemy of NN, evil will happen to him for 7 days.” Wax figures were also used in this way in religious ceremonies within the temple.
Apotropaic magic, where fearsome or dangerous images are used for protection, are so common in Egyptian imagery we see it in every image of a pharaoh. For example, the golden uraeus (cobra) on the brow of the king was thought to represent the king embodying the power of the goddess Wadjet. Images of two rearing cobras represent Nekhbet and Wadjet, goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt. These protective goddesses are often paired with a winged sun disk. Combined, the symbol hovers over the king, creating divine protection.
Amulets were used to protect the living wearer or the body of the deceased. People also wore protective textual spells on papyrus or linen as jewelry.
Another action taken against potentially harmful combatants is the encircling of a mother or child with an ivory apotropaic wand. Such objects were likely used to draw circles in sand or clay to create a protective area around pregnant women, mothers and children or the marriage bed. Clay versions of such objects are sometimes found in tombs as well, since the deceased needed protection in the dangerous journey through the afterlife.
These wands, which are shaped as throw sticks (an early weapon used for hunting), are decorated with many mythical creatures who often hold knives. These creatures are described, through inscriptions, as “fighters” (aha), “protectors” (sau) or “gods” (neteru). The accompanying spell, which is often also inscribed, reads:
Words spoken by these gods: We have come to protect the lady of the house, NN.
Life Saving/Life Giving Ḥeka
Child birth and fertility were indeed important concerns in the ancient world as death in childbirth was common and infant mortality rates were high. Ancient Egyptians believed that pregnant women and small children had to be protected from the ghosts of women who had died in labor and may be vengeful. Midwives could help protect women and small children through spells, amulets, and herbal remedies.
Ḥeka was seemingly evoked during liminal stages of transition from one state of being to another in birth and in death. As both birth and death were transitions to new stages of “life” in Egyptian thinking, the cosmic force of ḥeka that was necessary for creation was also essential here. The tomb is thus a space where ḥeka is at work in tandem with ancient Egyptian religion. Since ḥeka was a force of creation it was also a force of re-creation and was thus integral in a tomb setting just as it was essential in bringing new life into the world.
Cutting the Viper’s Neck: Avoiding Negative Consequences of Ḥeka
Tomb images and their accompanying texts, such as an offering formula and images of food for the owner, were also expected to provide actual sustenance in perpetuity for the tomb owner. There was a transformative element of images and words within a tomb context, ultimately for the benefit of the deceased. Nevertheless, magic is potent and could have negative consequences.
For instance, the horned viper is a hieroglyph for the phonetic sound “f.” But it is also a viper, a dangerous animal. The Egyptians feared the consequences of its presence during funerary rites, meant to bring the dead to life, so to speak. And thus, within a tomb context, the “f” must be destroyed with a knife or its head cut off so it could not come to life magically and harm the mummy.
The All Encompassing Force of Ḥeka
Ḥeka was not only present in birth and death, but present in every person, god, goddess, and object on the earth. The ancient Egyptians could not have conceived of a world without ḥeka, a staple component of the ancient Egyptian worldview. It was a natural force that could be harnessed and manipulated by deity or man for either harm or protection.
It was the predecessor to medicine, the potent aspect of religion, and without it the Egyptians thought the sun would not rise again and their soul could not survive into the afterlife. Ḥeka softened the blows of fate and let humanity harness a world beyond its control.
Egyptologists have always attempted to fit ḥeka within the conceptual space of what modern scholars understand as “magic.” But ḥeka does not neatly fit into this category. Ḥeka is not the sorcerer’s malevolent power that can be used and put to the side. It is instead a force that created and propelled the universe, but could also be manipulated by the actions, words, objects and images to bring about a desired result.
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April 9, 2017
January 19, 2021
Dr. Flora Brooke Anthony is Assistant Professor (PT) at Kennesaw State University. She received her Ph.D. in Art History from Emory University, having majored in ancient Egyptian art with a minor in ancient Greek art. She also holds a master's degree from the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis. She is the author of Foreigners in Ancient Egypt: Theban Tomb Paintings from the Early Eighteenth Dynasty (2016).
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