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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 119

The Gibberish of Magic

All this is, of course, of the nature of sympathetic magic, and we can observe from it how often the spoken word can partake of the character of proto-science. But even in the case of the spoken word we have a cleavage between the two systems, for we find that it may consist, as in these last examples, of sympathetic allusion to an incident in the life of a god, or else of mere gibberish, which certainly constitutes it a part of the magic of wonder. A great many of these seemingly nonsensical spells consist of foreign words and expressions, some of them of Syrian origin. It is well known that the shamanistic class in savage communities is prone to invent a secret language or dialect of its own, and that the vocabulary of such a jargon is usually either archaic or else borrowed from a neighbouring language. For example, we find in one magical formula such a sentence as the following: "I am he that invokes thee in the Syrian tongue, the Great God, Zaalaêr, Iphphon. Do thou not disregard the Hebrew appellation Ablanathanalb, Abrasilôa."

The Tale of Setne

A tale which well instances the high standing of the magician in ancient Egypt and the use of magical models or figures is that related in a papyrus of the Ptolemaic period regarding the prince Setne, who had studied to good purpose the manuscripts in the Double House of Life, or Library of Magical Books. He was conversing on one occasion with one of the king's wise men who appeared sceptical of his powers. In reply to his strictures upon the efficacy of magic Setne offered[Pg 266] to take him to a place where he would find a book possessed of magical powers written by Thoth himself, and containing two potent spells, the first of which was capable of enchanting the entire universe, and so powerful that all animals and birds and fishes could be commanded by it. The second enabled a man in the tomb to see Ra rising in heaven with his cycle of gods; the Moon rising with all the stars of heaven; the fishes in the depths of the ocean.

The wise man thereupon very naturally requested Setne to tell him the repository of this marvellous volume, and learned that it was in the tomb of Nefer-ka-Ptah at Memphis. Thence Setne proceeded, accompanied by his brother, and passed three days and nights in seeking for the tomb of Nefer-ka-Ptah, which he eventually discovered. Uttering over it some magical words, the earth opened, and they descended to the chamber where the actual tomb was situated. The book, which lay in the sarcophagus, illuminated the place so brilliantly that they required no torches, and by its light they perceived in the grave not only its original inhabitant, but his wife and son, who, buried at Coptos, had come in their ka-shapes to reside with their husband and father. Setne informed them that he desired to remove the book, but Ahura, the wife of Nefer-ka-Ptah, earnestly requested him not to do so, and informed him how its possession had already proved unfortunate to others. Her husband, she said, had given up most of his time to the study of magic, and for the price of a hundred pieces of silver and two elaborate sarcophagi had bought from the priest of Ptah the secret of the hiding-place of the wonderful volume. The book was contained in an iron chest sunk in the middle of the river at Coptos; in the iron box was a bronze box; in the bronze box a box of[Pg 267] palm-tree wood, which again contained a box of ebony and ivory, in which was a silver box, which lastly contained a gold box, the true receptacle of the book. Swarms of serpents and noxious reptiles of all kinds guarded the volume, and round it was coiled a serpent which could not die. Nefer-ka-Ptah, his wife and child, set out for Coptos, where he obtained from the high-priest a model of a floating raft and figures of workmen provided with the necessary tools. Over these he recited words of power, so that they became alive. Shortly afterward they located the box, and by further magical formulæ Nefer-ka-Ptah put the reptiles which surrounded it to flight. Twice he slew the great serpent which lay coiled round the chest of iron, but each time it came to life again. The third time, however, he cut it in twain, and laid sand between the two pieces, so that they might not again join together. Opening the various boxes, he took out the mysterious volume which they had contained, and read the first spell upon its pages. This acquainted him with all the secrets of heaven and earth. He perused the second and saw the sun rising in the heavens, with all the accompanying gods. His wife followed his example with similar results. Nefer-ka-Ptah then copied the spells on a piece of papyrus, on which he sprinkled incense, dissolved the whole in water, and drank it, thus making certain that the knowledge of the formulæ would remain with him for ever.


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