The Magicians Khamwaset and Meryra
Egyptian Sorcerers in the Bible
In the plague narrative, the book of Exodus describes ancient Egyptian sorcerers turning wands into snakes, water into blood, and conjuring up frogs out of nothing, though they failed at creating lice. The defeated magicians (ḥarṭummīm) state that the magical power to bring about lice comes from “the finger of God” (Exod 8:15), but the Egyptian people do not notice God as much as they notice Moses (Exod 11:3):
גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
Moreover, Moses himself became great in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
It is likely that the Bible is suggesting that the Egyptians saw Moses as a supremely powerful magician. This may also be the meaning of Stephen’s claim in Acts 7:22:
Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds.
Lucian and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice:
A Greek Portrayal of an Egyptian Magician
The ancient Israelites were not the only group who told stories about the prowess and potency of Egyptian sorcerers. In 150 C.E., the Greek satirist, Lucian, wrote a collection of “tall tales” called Philopseudes (meaning “The Lover of Lies” or simply, “The Liar”); in the final story, the narrator (Eucrates) tells how he served as an apprentice to an Egyptian magician name Pancrates who possessed supernatural powers:
[H]e would actually ride on the crocodiles’ backs, and swim about among the brutes, and they would fawn upon him and wag their tails… Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes, and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to walk about, so that everyone took it for a man. It would go off and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more, or the pestle a pestle.
The anecdote ends when Eucrates learns the incantation to bring the objects to life, and asks for a broom to draw water. The broom does so, but as Eucrates doesn’t know how to undo the spell, he ends up flooding Pancrates’ home.
Influence on Western Perceptions
Both the biblical story and Greek stories such as this left an indelible mark on western society. The Hebrew Bible became a cornerstone of the main western religions, and the exodus story has been retold countless times, whether in children’s books, in churches and synagogues, or even in movies. Although less well known, Lucian’s story also became a Western classic and has been reinterpreted through Goethe, set to music by Paul Dukas, and animated by Walt Disney in the movie Fantasia.
Egyptian Stories about Egyptian Sorcerers
Egyptians too were fascinated by their sorcerers, and tales that survive from ancient Egypt often revolve around magic and accounts of powerful magicians. In these tales, however, the audience had an emic (i.e., insider) understanding of magic that differs from what modern readers and non-Egyptians (both ancient and modern) understand as Egyptian magic.
The protagonists of these tales, at least some of them, may once have been historical personages, considered wise sages during their lifetimes, and about whom fantastical stories were created posthumously. To give the reader a sense of how the Egyptians spoke about their magicians, below are two examples of actual Egyptian stories, each about a different powerful sorcerer: Meryra and Khamwaset.
Meryra the Magician Creates a Man of Clay
Stories of a magician named Meryra date back to the 13th century B.C.E. In one such tale, the magician descends into the Egyptian afterlife to save a sick pharaoh by winning him a longer life from the god Osiris. While the magician is gone, the king’s other magicians, jealous of the protagonist’s capabilities, plot against him and convince the king to marry Meryra’s wife and kill Meryra’s son.
Before this happens, however, Meryra thwarts his rivals by creating a “man of clay” (rmt n sꜣtw)—in Jewish parlance, a “golem”—which he then sends to the living world. This clay man “orders the pharaoh to burn the jealous magicians in the furnace of the goddess Mut in Heliopolis.” The pharaoh dares not disobey the supernatural visitor and does what he is told.As a result, the jealous magicians are burned, a fate met by model or real captives during execration rituals.
Khamwaset and Naneferkaptah: A Ghost Story about the Inaccessibility of Divine Wisdom
The best-known magician (at least to Egyptologists) is Khamwaset; his name means “He who appears in the Thebes.” Although the tales of him are fanciful, they are certainly based on a real historical figure—we have statues of him, shabtis of his, and even a pectoral with his name on it. The historical Khamwaset was the fourth son of Ramesses the Great (1279-1213 B.C.E.). A high priest in the cult of Ptah at Saqqara, Khamwaset is also known for being the first Egyptologist: he excavated and restored Egyptian temples that were already over 1000 years old.
In one story, Khamwaset is thwarted in his attempt to get his hands on a secret magic scroll written by the god of wisdom, Thoth. The ghost (ba in Egyptian) of the book’s previous owner—also a Pharaoh’s son—Naneferkaptah and his sister/wife Ahwere, appear. They tell Khamwaset the dangers of the book and dissuade him from taking it. Naneferkaptah speaks of the powers he had in his lifetime when he possessed the book, such as battling powerful serpents, creating people out of wax, and raising a boat full of people that sunk into the Nile. But these powers brought along with them even greater troubles, and he (Naneferkaptah) is killed in a boat accident, presumably brought about by the god Ptah.
Khamwaset ignores the warning and takes the book anyway, but Naneferkaptah’s ghost appears to him in the guise of a beautiful and important woman, Tabubu, the daughter of the prophet of Bastet. Khamwaset is so stricken by her he insists they sleep together, but she makes him promise to sign over his property to her and her children. For good measure, she even insists:
I am of priestly rank, I am not a low person. If you desire to do what you wish with me, you must have your children killed. Do not leave them to contend with my children over your property.
Khamwaset agrees to this and,
She had his children killed before him. She had them thrown down from the window to the dogs and cats. They ate their flesh, and he heard them as he drank with Tabubu.
Afterwards, when about to finally consummate his marriage, he wakes up from this vision and finds that he is standing naked in public in front of the Pharaoh, Rameses II, his father, who thinks he must be drunk. He rushes home, hugs his still living and happily undevoured children, and realizes that his vision was from the ghost of Naneferkaptah, and he returns the book.
The theme in this tale, as well as in other tales revolving around Khamwaset, emphasizes the importance of the inaccessibility of ancient written spells to even the most learned magicians, and embellishes the effectiveness of ancient Egyptian magic.
The Power of Egyptian Magicians in Egyptian Thought
Ancient Egyptians thought of magic (ḥeka) as a cosmic force that could be used by humans or the gods. Magicians were simply people who, through their wisdom, had the ability to harness that power and use it to cast spells, grant healing and protection, and perform other magical rites with serious real-world effects. Thus, the stories of Khamwaset and Meryra would have been plausible to ancient Egyptian readers.
The fables that the ancient Egyptians told of their magicians certainly influenced non-Egyptian story-tellers, who wrote their own stories about this colorful caste of people. The legendary effectiveness of Egyptian magic was appreciated by ancient non-Egyptian storytellers, even if they did not quite understand the Egyptians’ specific beliefs about their gods, how spells work, or the role that magic (ḥeka) played in the ancient Egyptian world view.
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April 9, 2017
September 22, 2023
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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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