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Lesson 8) Sacred Texts and Spells

A new addition has been made to the Room of Runes for this lesson. Bookstands dot the dim classroom, each holding something different. Some stands are holding what appear to be recent works, but many contain single pieces of incredibly aged parchment. Looking around, students can see pages with familiar-looking hieroglyphics, some cursive handwriting that looks like hieratic, and a few others bearing stone-like slabs.

Professor Wessex strides into class a bit earlier than usual, taking time to check over each stand thoroughly, as if inspecting the display for the slightest bit of damage. Once her rounds are finished, she heads up to the front of the room where she scrutinizes the notes her quill has left her this morning. Seemingly satisfied that nothing is amiss, Professor Wessex takes a breath and addresses the class.

Good morning, class. At this point in the term, we have covered nearly all I had planned for you this year. There are not many more skills I intend to impart to you. Rather, we will focus on more information you need to absorb in order to be able to function (at least at the lowest of levels) as a linguist, curse-breaker, magiarchaeologist, magianthropologist, or well-informed historian this lesson. The sole thing we need to do today is to cover some famous texts from ancient Egypt before moving onto said practical work. Some of you may have heard of these before, and rightfully so, as they are crucial parts of ancient Egyptian culture in both magical and Muggle circles.

Ancient Egyptian Texts
The first thing we must address are any pre-conceived notions about what constitutes these “texts”. While there were some actual papyrus sections of some of these “books”, quite a few were never actually found together in print form, and others were only rarely found in what we would consider a traditional book -- pieces of paper bound together -- until all the pertinent information was gathered and recorded by modern professionals. Regardless, they all bear the name “text” for ease of reference to written work. For example, when researchers refer to the Coffin Texts, they are in fact referencing a number of hieroglyphic spells inscribed on coffins or tomb walls of laypersons. The numerous spells found in the Coffin Texts were only collected into a book --actually, into several volumes-- much later, after magical and Muggle scholars had examined thousands of tombs and the spells inside them.

Today, we will be briefly covering as many of these texts as novices can sufficiently digest in one lesson. Naturally, this means we will only be covering a selection of the most famous and important ones, and there are many more in existence. The stands in this room today show a small, but varied fraction of ancient Egyptian texts. Some are part of Hogwarts’ own collection, others are on loan to the school for a short time due to connections I have in magiarchaeological circles, and a few come from the Wessex personal vaults. I am sure that that is all the warning you require to keep your hands to yourself.

Naturally, many of the texts we will discuss today are not represented here, as they grace museum exhibits or private collections; however, alternatively, there are many papyruses, texts, and even stone slabs in this room that we will not have the opportunity to discuss due to time constraints. Should you wish to examine them after class, they will remain here for the rest of the week, though you are not permitted to view them without my direct supervision. The first text we will be speaking of is one belonging to my family.

Papyrus Berlin 3048 // Elskert’s Papyrus
In magical circles, the piece was renamed “Elskert’s Papyrus” after it was lost to the Muggle world. While discovered by a team of predominantly German Muggles, it fell into magical hands due to the timely interference of one Danish researcher, Elskert Oldenburg. When it was originally examined, the small team of Muggles thought it to simply be a recording of a marriage contract between two persons: a pharaoh of the Twenty-Second Dynasty -- Takelot I-- and his sister, Queen Kapes. However, unknown to the rest of the Muggles, there was a magianthropologist on the team. Upon Elskert’s inspection, he discovered there was far more to the text than met the eye. As he was the only magical person in the group, he had no choice to keep his findings to himself, and come to a decision on his own as to what he ought to do with the artefact. In part due to the less-than-cooperative feelings in the group inspired by multinational tension, the Danish wizard absconded with the text under cover of a wild diversion. Oldenburg left the contingent of German and Austrian researchers to eventually wonder, when the dust settled, what had ever become of the papyrus.

When further examined by magical scholars, Elsert’s Papyrus was discovered to have interesting magical significance. On a purely textual level it did serve as a formal record of the marriage. However, it became immediately clear that there were a number of hieroglyphic spells embedded in the text. One was an early, textual predecessor of the Unbreakable Vow. Once the names of the two individuals were placed on papyrus, the pair were bound together in marriage. Owing to the pharaonic practice of keeping concubines, this “binding” likely only truly applied to the woman to insure that all children were legitimate.

The second spell on the papyrus is much more interesting to researchers and spell theoreticians. The spell, thought by the Muggles to be part of a blessing on the pair’s marriage, was actually to ensure the health, holiness, and power of any children fathered by the union. This spell is of such importance because it helps to explain why the pharaonic line remained remarkably healthy and hale despite the millennia-long practice of marrying brother and sister, or even father and daughter.

The Book of the Dead // Papyrus of Ani
Also known as “The Book of Coming Forth By Day” or the “Book of Going Forth By Day” as well as many other variants, this book is likely one of the most famous as far as ancient Egyptian funerary texts go. The book is composed largely of spells and instructions to assist the deceased in passing on to the afterlife. While the text is too substantial to go over in its entirety, apart from general spells worked in amongst hymns and praises to the gods, some highlights are the 42 Negative Confessions and the Seven Arits.

The 42 Negative Confessions provide an interesting look into the cultural values of ancient Egypt for historians and magianthropologists, in that each of the confessions is a denial of wrongdoing. If a person is able to deny each of the 42 wrong-doings, they will be found worthy and, thankfully, not devoured. Some of these confessions related to magical practices include: “I have not uttered curses” and “I have not worked witchcraft against the king.” These confessions were uttered by every single person, magical or otherwise, which shows how large a part magic played in ancient Egyptian society, as well as showing how well-accepted it was. Note that the crime here was cursing people (particularly the king, or pharaoh), not magic in and of itself. Some of the more astute of you may be wondering how priests would be able to create curses to protect the tombs without breaking this edict, but it’s necessary to keep in mind that this simply did not fall under their definition of curses, as the magic was put in place to protect the dead and their belongings. If you stumbled into their traps, you were far from innocent in their eyes.

The Seven Arits, another section of great interest, in fact refer to seven gateways through which the deceased must pass in order to move on to the Afterlife. Each arit, or gateway, is guarded by a small host of gods and goddesses, including a gatekeeper, a watcher and a herald. The text details what offerings must be made and what incantations and praises must be said to pass through each one. While there has never been any proof found that these seven gateways are anything other than concepts linked to the Egyptians’ beliefs about life, death, and theology, a small contingent of scholars, magiarchaelogists, and curse-breakers maintain otherwise. This small group believes that, due to the intricacy of the spells listed, they were not just idly put together, but were intended for a real purpose. Additionally, these persons point to various references to ancient “gateways”, “arches” and other general “go-betweens” in a large number of civilizations all over the globe as proof that real magical gateways may indeed have actually existed. Whether or not these theories have any credence remains unknown, just as where exactly these gateways might lead.

The original Papyrus of Ani is currently housed in ancient Egyptian wing of the British Museum of Magic via the care of Ruger Baldric who liberated it from Sir Earnest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge-- a Muggle who had originally come into possession of the document, but for some unknown reason cut the original papyrus scroll into 37 individual pieces. Needless to say, after Baldric’s restoration, it has been carefully guarded since, and though is available for public viewing in London, is not among the documents displayed here today. 

The Pyramid Texts
Moving on, we come to a text that the magical world does not possess, at least not in the original form. However, this is for good reason. The Pyramid Texts are composed of hieroglyphic spells carved directly onto the walls, sarcophagi and, in some rare cases, large pieces of wood in the tombs of numerous important pharaohs housed in the vast necropolis of Saqqara. Many versions of this “text” exist, in that each tomb contains a selection of different spells. While the Book of the Dead is likely the best known funerary text, the Pyramid Texts easily win the title of oldest. The current most ancient example, found in the Tomb of King Unas, dates back somewhere between 2,400 and 2,300 BCE.

The spells found in the various incarnations of the Pyramid Texts are often repeated or reused for more than one pharaoh or queen, simply substituting names to repurpose the incantation. However, due to the large number of total spells, each Pyramid Text-- or, indeed, each tomb-- is unique in its combination. Because of this, many different paper-bound compilations of the spells exist, with the most useful being Kurt Sethe’s Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, or Die Altaegyptischen Pyramidentexte, partly because it includes facsimiles of the original hieroglyphics, rather than just providing Muggle translations. However, as those of you that possess even the barest spark of intelligence will note, the entire text is in German. Which is why, despite the fact that it remains the most comprehensive compilation by a magical author, various Muggle-authored translations, including Samuel Mercer’s The Pyramid Texts are more popular. Should you desire to do some outside research, I myself own both texts, and the German Die Altaegyptischen Pyramidentexte is housed in the foreign-language section of our library. You may also be interested to discover that many of the shortened examples in your assignments are based on these spells.

The Coffin Texts
Our brief discussion of the Coffin Texts marks the last time we will be referring to funerary texts today, despite the existence of many, many others. Like most ancient Egyptian funerary works, the Coffin Texts have a significant portion of overlapping material with others, including the Book of the Dead and the Pyramid Texts. Like the Pyramid Texts before them, the spells that comprise the content of this “text” were actually found carved into burial areas, and therefore began not as a book, but as a collection of related spells. Of course, both have their own distinguishing features. The primary difference that marks the Coffin Texts as special is that while the spells in the Pyramid Texts were reserved for royalty, the spells in the Coffin Texts could be used by all Egyptians, though they were particularly popular among regional rulers of the various nomes and other administrative officials, including scribes.

We will not be stopping for too long to discuss the Coffin Texts, as we have seen translations of the spells in them starting as early as your third lesson and they have also served as inspiration for the shorthand versions produced in your assignments. However, we have not covered their background information and so there are yet a few things of import to note. Firstly, although many tombs contain repetitions of the same small selection of spells, when they are all accounted for, the Coffin Texts consist of 1,185 unique incantations. As their name suggests, these spells were inscribed on the bottom of wooden coffins, but can also be found in places as varied as stela, bits of papyrus, or even masks that covered the mummy’s face.

The spells of the Coffin Text have been copied meticulously, requiring eight volumes in total to record them, by the late Adriaan de Buck. While Adriaan possessed no magical background knowledge, his volumes are still very worthwhile, as they contain flawless renderings of the original hieroglyphics and his work was aided by notable Muggle-born wizard and Egyptologist, James Peter Allen. Thus, all eight volumes are available here in class and in the library for your perusal.

Westcar Papyrus

This piece was discovered in the late 1700’s by a team of English curse-breakers excavating a scribe’s tomb in their free time. The small tomb for a well-to-do scribe had been deemed not worth the effort by Gringotts goblins-- in fact, they believed it so below their notice that it was never rated per the Gringotts Census1.  As the goblins expected, the curse-breakers found no gold in the tomb, but there were riches of an entirely different nature to be claimed. The team procured the original, hieroglyphic copy of the Westcar Papyrus. The richly-illustrated find enjoyed immediate popularity after it was examined and placed in the British Museum of Magic. In light of this development, the museum released the only other known copy -- a hieratic text with the same information (now discovered only to be a shorthand copy of the original)-- back to its prior owners. The text had been appropriated from the Muggle family Westcar some 50 years prior, after extensive memory modification. Following some discussion by the Ministry, a safe plan to release it back into the hands of the family’s next-of-kin, Henry Westcar, was concocted and enacted without endangering the Statute of Secrecy and the inferior copy now resides in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

The text records five tales of magic performed by various prominent priests and magi of the period. Many magianthropologists draw parallels between it and the Tales of Beedle the Bard, in that all five stories show not only the magical practices of the time, but also the cultural values of the magical community. Each story has a lesson to be learned. One such tale details the use of heka by a priest in order to exact revenge upon his adulterous wife. The priest enchants a wax figurine of a crocodile to behave as if it is alive, but even more interestingly, complicates the spell somewhat so it only triggers when the figurine touches water. The crocodile captures the man with which his wife has lain and the priest keeps him underwater for seven days without killing him, simply storing him there until a more convenient time. After this, the priest calls the still-enchanted crocodile back to him to do his bidding and fetch the adulterous man from the bottom of the river before exacting his revenge on both the man and his unfaithful wife. We won’t go into the details of exactly how he gets his revenge, but suffice it to say that it shows a grisly slice of the kinds of curses Egyptians were capable of.

This work not only provides cultural insight and preserves largely historical tales, but also was crucial in reinforcing the understanding of various magical practices. Firstly, it supports the findings linked to animated wax figures used in tombs, and indicates the existence of sophisticated charms and transfiguratory spells in ancient Egypt. As these two fields do not typically spring to mind, it was a very interesting find.


Amherst Papyrus // Leopold II and Amherst Papyrus
Uniquely, this document is the one of the few ancient Egyptian texts we will be discussing today that is not hieroglyphic. Instead, this papyrus fragment is recorded in the hieratic script which you will remember from Lesson Five. Moreover, this fragment is one of the few that records the judicial system in ancient Egypt. It details the trials, crimes, and confessions of Egyptian grave robbers, as well as the punishments that were meted out. This is, of course, fascinating information to magianthrologists and historians, as there are markedly few recordings on this topic. However, this is not the only information that can be gleaned from the Amherst Papyrus.

Currently on display in the Musée d'arts in Brussels, the two so-called “halves” of the Amherst Papyrus enjoy moderate interest levels from the Muggles that visit. Unbeknownst to the curators in Belgium, however, there is a third “half”. As many know, the papyrus was found by soon-to-be King Leopold in the mid-1800’s while on a trip to Egypt. What history has neglected to mention was his female companion. Historically, Leopold II was a man that had many mistresses during his later tenure as King of Belgium. One of the lesser-known (and some might say, more fortunate) ones was Hoshair Kadinefendi, or Besime Khater. On Leopold’s trip to Egypt, Khater --one of the current Egyptian ruler’s concubines-- accompanied him on his voyages. It is unknown whether this was a calculated political move on the part of the Khedive (or viceroy) of Egypt or if this was a plan formulated by Khater herself.

In either case, the noted witch and alleged Seer positioned herself at Leopold’s side for his entire trip. For her troubles, when he discovered the papyrus, she subdued him (theories on how this occurred range from rudimentary Stunners to illicit dances involving several veils and large amounts of alcohol) and, due to a clandestine education, was able to read enough of the text to guess at its meaning. For one reason or another, Khater retrieved only the magical fragment of the papyrus and left the Belgian prince the other two pieces, along with what is presumed to be an outrageously painful headache. Thanks to Besime Khater, the magical reference-- which details the casting of a number of curses used in both legal and funerary practices-- is currently housed in the Museum of Magical Antiquities in Egypt to this day. There, witches and wizards can read about the Enchantment for Impaling, the Foot-Stopping Hex and the Curse for the Removal of the Nails, along with a handful of others.


Ramesseum Medical Papyri
Actually a compilation of multiple documents, as its name suggests, the Ramesseum Medical Papyri is a collection of 17 documents based around healing practices in ancient Egypt. As you know from your first year of Ancient Studies, in ancient Egyptian civilization, healing recognized no difference between magical and mundane methods of medicine. While this is certainly not the only medical papyrus, it is notable specifically for its use of hieroglyphics instead of hieratic script, which was more common for the purpose at this time.

Due to the fact that it is inscribed with hieroglyphic symbols, these papyri detail a fair few written spells that healers (also often referred to as “exorcists”) used in treating their patients. However, this is not the principle reason this document is considered a windfall in academic circles. These documents contain full recipes for numerous potions used in healing practices in ancient Egypt, a discovery which sparked more than a decade of experimentation in the potions community upon its discovery. Sadly, the collection of papyri has been lost since the break-in at the magical wing of the Louvre during the First Wizarding War. It is unknown whether the piece was stolen or simply destroyed in the chaos, but in any case, all that remains are notes from various scholars.

Insinger Papyrus
Easily one of the most recent documents from ancient Egypt, the Insinger Papyrus is an excellent record of what are known as “Egyptian wisdom teachings”, or what we might better understand as proverbs. Allegedly on display in the Dutch Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the demotic2 papyrus records over 800 proverbs regarding daily Egyptian life and gives incredible insight into cultural practices and products.

A cleverly-crafted copy of the original papyrus does actually reside in the Netherlands in the aforementioned museum, though, with a few crucial differences. While ancient Egyptian Muggles were not squeamish about magic in their civilization, the current sociopolitical atmosphere is slightly different. The original was removed in the early-mid 1800s during some confusion following a change of ownership and the establishment of a permanent building in which to house the artefacts. 

The Zittaert Museum in Roermond, Holland holds the original copy, complete with proverbs that are obviously magical when translated, including3: “Stars unseen spell potions unclean,” “Powerful magic can be found in the smallest jerboa,” and “A curse is doubled by the fool who curses himself.”

While that is all the time we have for today, let there be no doubt that there are hundreds of other texts covering various topics in ancient Egyptian society. Countless others, such as The Book of Traversing Eternity (one of many precursors to the Papyrus of Ani, though had a more alchemical tendency), the Harris Magical Papyrus (which we discussed in an earlier lesson), the Book of Gates, the Amduat, the Book of Breathing, and the Turin Papyrus name just a few of the many others that are well worth a look if you are in a particularly well-stocked library.

Your assignments following this lesson vary widely in purpose, and should test the limits of your cumulative knowledge. You may wish to refer back to previous lessons and revise before attempting them, particularly Lesson Five, in which we go over the most efficient procedure for deciphering the intent of an unknown spell. 

1. If you require a refresher on the Gringotts' Census of Pyramids, refer to Year Three, Lesson Three of Ancient Studies.
2. Demotic, predecessor of the hieratic script, is yet another form of shorthand used immediately before the current script, Coptic, was popularized. The two scripts-- hieratic and demotic-- share marked similarities as the latter developed from the former.
3. These translations have been provided by Ghanaian linguist and historian Osei Dasor, and made to rhyme (like some of the originals) when possible.

Original lesson written by Professor Venita Wessex
Image credits here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

Delve deeper into the world of Egyptian hieroglyphs! This year, we will unravel the complex layers of meaning in hieroglyphic inscriptions as well as study their use in powerful magical enchantments.
Course Prerequisites:
  • ANCR-401

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