BMCR 2007.04.45

Through A Glass Darkly: Magic, Dreams and Prophesy in Ancient Egypt

, , Through a glass darkly : magic, dreams & prophecy in ancient Egypt. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006. xiv, 274 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781905125081. $90.00.

Recent years have seen a profusion of academic inquiry into aspects of ancient Egyptian magic.1 However, more remains to be clarified, particularly with respect to the function and implementation of Egyptian magic through time and across social strata. In addition, new texts and objects utilized in magical rites are constantly being identified. Through a Glass Darkly: Magic, Dreams and Prophesy in Ancient Egypt is therefore a welcome addition to our growing corpus of scholarly material on ancient Egyptian magic, offering fresh perspectives on some well-known texts and artifacts, as well as new sources for the study of Egyptian magic, dreams, and prophesy.

Originally presented at a conference of the same name held at Baskerville Hall in Wales in September 2003, the contributions have been edited into one coherent volume by Kasia Szpakowska, herself an expert on dreams and nightmares in ancient Egypt. The essays are arranged in alphabetical order by the contributors’ last names, a format I follow below.

Readers will likely find it convenient that each contribution to Through A Glass Darkly is followed by its own set of endnotes and bibliography, most of which have been updated to 2006. An index of relevant terms can be found at the end of the volume, and the majority of the papers concerning material culture are amply illustrated with (black and white) photographs and line drawings.

Szpakowska’s introduction, “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” provides the aim of the conference (“to offer presentations highlighting current investigations of phenomena related to magic, dreams, and prophesy in Ancient Egypt”) and summarizes the contents of the volume. Szpakowska also notes that the topics addressed encompass a considerable time span (ca. 2600 BCE – 200 AD again correcting the erroneous impression that the Egyptians were not much interested in magic in general, or in divination in particular, before the Late Period.2

In “Display of magic in Old Kingdom Egypt,” John Baines investigates a limited group of amulets depicted on non-royal monuments of the Old Kingdom: the shen, bat, Isis knot, and the enigmatic object he calls the ‘chest pouch.’ Baines concentrates on the chest pouch, observing that unlike other amulets, it seems not to have been attached to a particular status or ritual, and thus probably had an independent meaning. Baines interprets the object as a miniature bag (or bags) containing magical or medicinal material, and suggests that “if what it contained rather than its form or the material from which it was made was significant, it could be an exclusive and powerful item that at once displayed and concealed.”(15). Baines concludes that the elite display of these amulets was a means of both asserting privilege through access to magical resources, and exerting control over materials that were believed to aid the maintenance of the world and the self magically.

In “Corn-mummies, Amulets of Life,” Maria Centrone traces the pictorial, textual, and archaeological attestations of the organic figures known as “corn-mummies” in order to determine whether existing examples of the object are the archaeological remnants of the Khoiak Osiris Festival. Centrone finds that “the textual descriptions and graphic data differ considerably from the surviving corn-mummies”(35), including the fact that actual corn-mummies often incorporate elements such as wax regalia or clay balls that are not referred to in the texts, leading her to conclude that the corn-mummies cannot be precisely connected to the Khoiak celebrations. Nevertheless, Centrone assesses the objects as ‘amulets of life’ utilized in some type of Osirian rejuvenation ritual, still underscoring the magical properties inherent in these earthen figures.

In “Emergent flints,” Carolyn Graves-Brown explores the magical aspects of an unusual category of object: the naturally-occurring flint nodules from the Theban hills which were collected, sometimes painted, and placed in chapels or incorporated into stelae by residents of Deir el-Medina. Graves-Brown also discusses the treatment of suggestively-shaped stone curiosities at other sites, revealing the pervasiveness of the practice. To Graves-Brown, the simulacra reflect Egyptian, and particularly Theban, notions of emergence, creation, the feminine form, the celestial realm, and the underworld. She concludes that such flint objects have strong creational aspects, and that the altered nodules were “not just amusing doodles reflecting the given environment [but] a reaffirmation and a means to understanding and even a means of ideological creation.”(58). One regrets only that images of these curious flints were not included in the essay.

Moving from material to textual concerns, Leonard Lesko’s “The End is near” provides a close reading of two funerary spells in which the gods predict a decidedly pessimistic end to the world: Coffin Text spell 1130 and Book of the Dead chapter 175. Lesko observes that, despite their chronological separation, both spells seem to be connected in their theology and Herakleopolitan nature, and suggests that CT 1130 and BD 175, as well as the Instruction for Merikare, are all connected to the fate of Herakleopolis at the end of the Tenth Dynasty. Lesko proposes that “the pessimism, fatalism, and divine retribution that we see in these texts”(67) in fact stem from the authors’ real life experience with the collapse of their capital, providing us with a historical motive for these extremely religious spells.

An additional textual study is Alan B. Lloyd’s ” Heka, dreams and prophesy in Ancient Egyptian stories,” in which he analyzes the role of these three phenomena in Egyptian literature. Proceeding from Papyrus Westcar to the Setna Cycle, Lloyd stresses the prominence of heka (magic) and the increasing importance of dreams. Lloyd concludes that dreams are utilized as a metaphor for a state of unreality and as a means of communication between the human and the divine, whereas prophesy can be used to highlight the innate wisdom of gods or to advance the narrative at a crucial point. heka, the most common of the techniques, functions “almost always a positive, cosmicizing device” (90) and can be used for entertainment, as well as moralistic, purposes.

One of several comparative contributions, Scott B. Noegel’s “On puns and divination: Egyptian dream exegesis from a comparative perspective” considers the use of punning in Egyptian and Mesopotamian dream books. Noegel reviews punning as an exegetical tool in Mesopotamian divinatory and literary tales, and analyzes the Kushite-era dream stele of Tanutamani as an Egyptian example of the punning strategy. Noegel then considers the question of a cultural exchange between Egypt and Mesopotamia, concluding that, given the lack of evidence for punning as a divinatory hermeneutic prior to the Chester Beatty dream manual, Egyptian priests may have adapted the tradition from Mesopotamia, perhaps at a time of political and economic uncertainty. This contentious hypothesis will surely continue to be debated, particularly as new Egyptian dream texts, such as those introduced by Quack in this volume, continue to emerge.

A second comparative contribution is Daniel Ogden’s “Lucian’s tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in context.” In this essay,3 Ogden reacts to the claim that the Apprentice tale is unique and without significant affinities in Classical literature. To refute this notion, Ogden first provides Greek parallels for the story-type, and then presents an eight-part schema that can be applied to magic-themed Graeco-Roman literature, from (Pseudo-)Thessalus to the Setne romance, and even to a recipe from the Greek Magical Papyri. In applying the schema directly to Lucian’s tale, Ogden is able to demonstrate how the piece conforms to a popular story-type with which Lucian was certainly familiar and which may have had its origins in Egypt. At the same time, Ogden’s exercise highlights Lucian’s creativity in “playfully transferring and mingling motifs between his traditional tales.”(135). With its welcome English translation of the Apprentice tale, versatile motif schema, and comparative approach, Ogden’s study will no doubt be much referenced in future textual analyses.

An additional literary analysis is Richard Parkinson’s “Sinuhe’s dreaming(s): The text and meanings of a simile,” a portion of the author’s more extensive study of Sinuhe and its manuscripts. In this essay, Parkinson focuses specifically on the variant texts of the dream-simile in Sinuhe in order to discern both its local implications and overall effect. Parkinson’s analysis tracks the complicated relationship between the existing manuscripts and, using the Berlin manuscript to assess the role of the dream-simile, suggests that it consciously alludes to the phraseology of dream manuals, indicating yet another intertextual genre in the poem. Parkinson further suggests that the dream-simile acts as not only a vehicle for conveying Sinuhe’s innermost thoughts, creating a sense of intimacy between the audience and the performer/protagonist, but also as a way of encouraging the reader to self-reflect. Finally, Parkinson reiterates that the dream-simile in Sinuhe is not static, but changeable as the poem is copied and edited, allowing for different views to be expressed at various historical moments, reminding us that ” Sinuhe is not single, but multiple, just as its potential meanings are, both within any community of readers and across time.”(167)

Joachim Quack’s contribution, “A black cat from the right, and a scarab on your head: New sources for Ancient Egyptian divination,” is a vivid reminder of the countless magical texts waiting to be discovered and studied among the world’s papyrus collections. Here Quack introduces a few recently-identified hieratic and demotic divinatory texts, including a long demotic manuscript from the Fayum containing “terrestrial omens.” Quack relates these Egyptian omens to Akkadian divinatory texts (such as those discussed by Noegel in this volume), but remarks that he has yet to find evidence of direct translation. Quack also introduces two late hieratic dream books and two new demotic dream manuals, and then turns to some peculiar strips in Berlin that seem to have been used as divinatory aids. Finally, Quack comments on P. Vienna D 12006,4 suggesting that that text also includes instructions for reading a stone die. Altogether, Quack’s presentation heightens our awareness of the available sources for dream interpretation and divination in the Late Period.

In “The dreams of the twins in St. Petersburg,” an expansion of the eighth chapter of his Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt, John Ray revisits the twin girls Taous and Tawê, known from the second century BC Serapeum archive. Ray focuses on the twins’ recurring appearance in the recorded dreams of the temple recluse, Ptolemaios, and his excitable brother, Apollonios, as well as the twins’ own dreams. These meticulous dream records enable us to penetrate the mind of these ancient personages and identify certain fixations, like Ptolemaios’s obsession with finances, Apollonios’s identity crisis as a Greek-Egyptian, and the twins’ preoccupation with their mother, revealing something of a biography of these characters. Ray reminds us that Ptolemaios recorded his dreams so that they might be interpreted, although the interpretation process is not elucidated. In total, these dream accounts provide a glimpse into everyday life at the Serapeum, as well as deeper insights into the minds of these characters, demonstrating in many ways how little human preoccupations have changed over the millennia.

Returning to material culture, Robert Ritner catalogues extant examples of the quintessential Egyptian magician’s tool in his essay, “‘And each staff transformed into a snake’: The serpent wand in Ancient Egypt.” Ritner identifies nine wood and bronze serpent-shaped wands dating from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period in various museum collections, and ties their iconography directly to Coffin Text 885, an anti-snake spell. Ritner also traces two-dimensional depictions of the serpent wand, discusses iconographic and textual attestations of multiple-headed snakes (as some extant wands bear two cobra heads), and even elucidates the Egyptian origin of the caduceus. In the end, Ritner successfully demonstrates that although the serpent wand is often associated with Mosaic practice, it is firmly entrenched in indigenous Egyptian religious iconography.

In “A lost dream episode,” Anthony Spalinger probes a lesser-known source for Egyptian dreams: a royal dream attested in the war annals of Amunhotep II. Recorded on the Memphis version of the king’s military records, the dream, in which Amun gives the pharaoh power, is followed by an account of burning live prisoners, two events which Spalinger believes actually occurred and must be connected. He finds that connection in their calendrical setting, remarking that “this series of unusual, indeed singular, actions on the part of the Pharaoh occurred at the precise time when an age-old change of kingship came to pass,” that is, the date when Amunhotep II ascended to the throne as Thutmose III’s coregent. Although Spalinger is careful not to discount the literary value of such episodes, he favors reading them as the actual experience of a soldier on the battlefield, events which were strongly influenced by the king’s upcoming accession. Unfortunately, as Spalinger notes, we are not able to determine whether the king’s dream was symbolic.

The final contribution to the volume, Willeke Wendrich’s “Entangled, connected or protected? The power of knots and knotting in Ancient Egypt,” returns us to material culture and the amuletic function of knots. In an essay enhanced by numerous charts and illustrations, Wendrich reviews the four main types of knots known from ancient Egypt (stopper, linear, circular, and fabric) and traces their range of functions in religion, magic, mythology, and medicine, including a detailed study of textual references to knots and knotting. She arrives at the captivating conclusion that the very act of knotting was intended to anchor magical utterances and that “knots represent tangible proof that words have been spoken and rites have been acted out: they are the material residue of volatile words and performances.”(253) Wendrich further argues that the connotations of knots and knotting in Egyptian funerary, mythological, and magical literature are unequivocally positive, and decidedly different from references to fetters, nets, or binding. Lastly, Wendrich delineates the deities associated with knotting and rightly situates the privilege of magical knotting in the hands of learned priests. This comprehensive study, full of textual, material, and comparative evidence for the curative and apotropaic purpose of knots, brings new insight to yet another physical manifestation Egyptian magical practice.

A few minor comments and corrections to insert: In a few instances, sources referenced in the text do not appear in the subsequent bibliography (e.g. Rothenberg 1988, cited by Graves-Brown (49); Schmidt 1995, cited by Ogden (133 n.44). Also, the “bronze statuette of the goddess Beset holding two cobra serpents outstretched as if wands” referenced by Ritner (206) is not a bronze statue, but a wooden statuette with bronze serpents inserted into the fists.5

In short, Through A Glass Darkly is a useful collection of essays that broadly covers the current state of research on Egyptian magic, dreams, and prophesy, and contains material relevant to scholars both in and outside the field.


1. E.g. Jacco Dieleman, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE). Leiden: Brill, 2005; Kasia Szpakowska, Behind Closed Eyes. Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2003; Yvan Koenig, ed. La magie en Égypte: à la recherché d’une définition. Louvre Conférences et Colloques: Actes due colloque organizé par le musée du Louvre les 29 et 30 septembre 2000. Paris: Documentation franc,aise: Musée du Louvre, 2002; Marc Étienne, Heka: magie et envoûtement dans l’Égypte ancienne. Les Dossiers du Musée du Louvre 57: Exposition-dossier du département des Antiquités Égyptiennes. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000, to cite just a few of the most recent publications.

2. See also the remarks of Quack in this volume (175).

3. A companion to his recent article, “The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Pancrates and his powers in context (Lucian Philopseudes 33-6).” Acta Classica 47 (2004) 101-26.

4. Recently published by Martin Stadler, Isis, das göttliche Kind und die Weltordnung: neue religiöse Texte aus dem Fayum nach dem Papyrus Wien D, 12006 recto. Vienna: Verlag Brüdr Hollinek, 2004.

5. Manchester Museum 1790, image available online (search terms “1790 Ramesseum”, field = anyfield).