Spells, charms, incantations, amulets, and magic wands—people in the ancient world used every available means to influence the course of events, manage anxieties, find love, discern the future, stay healthy, and protect themselves.

The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice by Robert K. Ritner (1993) by Robert K. RitnerInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Defining magic

What is magic? In the Penguin Book of Magic, Brian Copenhaver suggested that finding a universal definition of magic encompassing the wide range of socio-cultural practices and perspectives across all time and space is likely impossible. Each culture and subculture, each era and epoch, each region and space developed concepts of magic specific to their time and place. Our own notions are largely influenced by "Western" concepts stemming from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In an effort to develop a working definition, the Oriental Institute's own Dr. Robert K. Ritner described magic in his book on Egyptian magical practice as an attempt to influence the course of events through intentional action beyond the laws of cause and effect (as understood by modern ideas). As you will see in this exhibition, many practices of ancient people that we today label "magic" had this exact intention behind them of influencing the course of events: to promote healing, offer protection, find love, and compel the gods. 

Decorated Mummy Case (Ptolemaic Period, 300–50 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Using magic

In the ancient world, magic could be used by the living, the dead, and even the gods. Making magic work often involved a combination of ritual actions, symbolic imagery, performative recitation, written texts, and appropriate material ingredients. When combined these elements created a powerful sense of agency in the practitioner, who sought to manipulate reality. For example, the cartonnage fragment shown here derived from a mummy's foot covering. On the bottom you see the depiction of sandals under which are scorpions. Standing the mummy upright ritually re-enacted the crushing of the venomous scorpion under foot in an effort to ward off any potential stings. In this instance ritual actions and magic imagery were likely combined with intoned words to enhance the efficacy of the practice.

Spells against sickness (Neo-Assyrian Period) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Texts of ritual power

Texts, and their aurally recited counterparts, were often integral parts of magical practice. This clay tablet was inscribed with a series of incantations to treat a type of sickness called sagallu (an unidentified illness). Such tablets could serve as reference handbooks in a library or as a memory aid for a ritual practitioner. To treat sagallu some texts called for the use of animal tendons, lamb wool, and amuletic stones to aid treatment.

Stela of Horus on the Crocodiles (Persian Period–Ptolemaic Period, 400-300 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Horus on the crocodiles

Internal disease and poison were frequently treated by a combination of approaches now misleadingly considered “rational” and “magical.” Animal bites, especially from snakes or scorpions, were a common problem in Egypt, and a popular magical treatment option was the healing stela, or cippus, showing the triumph of the god Horus over the beasts sent by Seth to harm him. The patient is identified with Horus, and the god’s cure becomes the patient’s salvation. First attested in the Eighteenth Dynasty, the Horus cippus acquired a standard form in the late New Kingdom that would continue into Roman times. A central image of the youthful Horus tramples multiple crocodiles beneath his feet while grasping in both hands wild animals of the desert: snakes, scorpions, lions, and gazelles. Throttled in his hands, these hostile forces are rendered helpless.

A protective head of Bes appears above Horus, and rows of divine figures and standardized texts cover all remaining surfaces. Patients did not read the texts, but drank water that was poured over the surface and thus “charged” by contact with the carved images and spells. Portable versions, like the one shown here, were carried by travelers for protection. In its function, the Horus cippus thus became a predecessor of the later St. Christopher medallion. Outside of Egypt, examples have been found in Lebanon, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Rome.

Apotropaic Knife Wand (Middle Kingdom, 1600 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Magic "wands"

The apotropaic (Greek for "turning back/warding off") knife was an object common to nurseries of the Middle Kingdom. Carved from a hippopotamus tusk, the ivory knives are engraved with a series of knife-wielding figures including the goddess of childbirth, Taweret, and the vulture goddess Nekhbet. Though often described as "wands," the pieces are counterparts to the knives held by the deities depicted upon them. Inscribed examples state that the divine figures provide "protection by day and protection by night." By both their material and decoration, the knives are closely associated with the hippopotamus Taweret, and thus with the protection of mothers and newborn children. Signs of ancient wear suggest that they may have been used to draw protective circles in the sandy floor around a child's bed.

Statue of Pazuzu (Neo-Assyrian Period, 934-610 BC)Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Magic amulets

This figurine represents the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, referred to in inscriptions as the “king of the evil lilû-demons.” Pazuzu’s appearance fits that of a demon of the evil winds that brought destruction and disease to humankind—his leonine face, scaly body, large razor-like talons, scorpion tail, and wings of a bird. Because of his appearance and demonic strength, Pazuzu was invoked in antiquity as a protective force to expel other destructive demons, making him a complicated and ambiguous figure.

The Assyrians and Babylonians placed figurines and plaques of Pazuzu in their homes as protection against the harmful forces of the world, while pregnant women wore Pazuzu-head amulets, fibulae, and pendants in order to ward off the lion-headed demoness Lamashtu, who threatened to snatch and devour their newborn children. In addition to the oblong base, this figurine was also equipped with a suspension loop on top of its head. Pazuzu amulets could be worn or hung on the wall or in other parts of the house.

Magical Brick of Thutmose III (New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1479-1425 BC) by Thutmose IIIInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Warding off demons

In ancient Egypt small clay bricks were placed along the walls of the burial chamber to ward off demonic forces approaching from north, south, east, and west. This magic brick derives from the tomb of Tuthmosis III, whose name is found in the cartouche in the last line. White hieratic text contains part of the ritual instructions to place the brick on the eastern wall facing west. Feet remain from an Anubis jackal who served watch and repelled the "striking power of the angry one" mentioned in the text.

Oracular Amuletic Decree (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasties 22–23, ca. 945–715 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Textual amulets

This papyrus was inscribed in the hieratic script with a decree delivered by the oracle of the goddess Nekhbet on behalf of a lady named Taibakhori. In the text Nekhbet promises to keep Taibakhori safe from all manners of danger, including the malevolent intentions of ghosts, demons, and evil magic. Taibakhori would likely have worn this amuletic papyrus around her neck in a small container. New research by Terry Wilfong comparing these papyri to Ethiopic magic scrolls suggests that the very thin and long layout was used to match the length of the scroll to the height of the owner.

Magic Curse to Cause Impotence (0600/0900) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Preventative magic

In addition to healing magic, clients often sought out a specialist for protective spells. In this Coptic text written on paper a woman named Touaen invoked the "binding of Jesus Christ" to bind the "male organ" of a man named Pharaouo and cause him impotence. By doing so, Taouaen hoped to prevent Pharaouo from having intercourse with her by magical means.

Incantation Bowl with Inscription (Sasanian–Early Islamic, AD 200–800) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Incantation bowls and household magic

In Late Antiquity, the population of southern Iraq believed in demons and took steps to protect themselves against them. People would go to a sorcerer, who would write the spell in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction in a spiral around the bowl. Sometimes, as in this example, there would be a demon drawn in the center of the bowl enclosed inside a circle. Sometimes the demons are chained.

The bowl would be turned upside down after the recitation of the spell, thereby trapping the demon inside. Bowls have been found buried in houses and apparently would have also been buried in graveyards. The bowls are written in Aramaic-derived scripts that would have been used by Jews, Christians, and a related religious group, the Mandeans. It therefore gives us insight into the religious practices of minorities living under Sasanian and Islamic rule.

Book of the Dead Papyrus of Nesshutefnut (Papyrus Ryerson) (Ptolemaic Period, ca. 250 BC)Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Driving out pests

Magical practices would have been a part of everyday life in the ancient world. In fact, there was little to no distinction in remote antiquity between magical and practical remedies. Any available means were used. In this Book of the Dead papyrus, we see the owner Nesshutefnut symbolically dispatching a variety of noxious or aggressive creatures: crocodiles, snakes, and bugs. Nesshutefnut took this papyrus with him to the grave where the papyrus would aid his transition to the afterlife. However, it is likely that these spells had their origins in the household where the nuisance of pest infestations were very real and required diligent efforts to remedy and prevent.

Jar Stand Inscribed with Hieratic Letter to the Dead (First Intermediate Period, Dynasty 11, 2199-1976 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Calling on the gods and the dead

As other objects in this exhibition have demonstrated, ancient people routinely called on the gods for protection and cures. In ancient Egypt, relatives who passed away became powerful spirits in the company of the gods. They could be called on to intercede on behalf of a petitioner. This jar stand has a letter written by man to his deceased relatives asking them to prevent him from being harmed by any affliction. He would have sweetened his request by placing a dish of offerings on top of this jar stand in the tomb chapel for the dead.

Eye of Horus Amulet (Iron Age II) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Multicultural magic

All across the ancient world people used practices that we today label as "magical" in order to alleviate their anxieties and establish control over more chaotic forces in the world. Although such practices varied greatly across time and space, there are also many similarities inasmuch as these are human cultural products. People all over the world continue to believe that wearing powerful symbols is useful and helpful. These beliefs are truly multicultural. As an example of this cross-cultural inspiration, this eye of Horus amulet was not discovered in Egypt, but at the site of Megiddo in Israel. The amulet symbolized healing and health based on the healing of Horus's eye in his conflict with Seth. A search of the internet will reveal that many people continue to wear such amulets to this very day.

Credits: Story

Magic in the Ancient World, an online exhibit produced for Google Arts & Culture, was curated, designed, and arranged by Foy Scalf with objects and digital images from the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum, in collaboration with Matt Welton and Tasha Vorderstrasse.

Texts written by Robert Ritner, Kiersten Neumann, Kate Grossmann, and Tasha Vorderstrasse were adapted from the following Oriental Institute Publications:

Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Edited by Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer. Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2012.

Highlights of the Collections of the Oriental Institute Museum. Edited by Jean M. Evans, Jack Green, and Emily Teeter. Oriental Institute Handbooks and Guides 2017. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2017.

100 Highlights of the Collections of the Oriental Institute Museum. Edited by Jean M. Evans, Jack Green, and Emily Teeter. Oriental Institute Handbooks and Guides 2019. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2019.

Robert K. Ritner. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 54. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1993.

© Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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