In ancient Egypt there was no word for religion — the closest thing to it was heka–magical power. Heka literally means ‘the activating of the ka,’ the ka being the spiritual ‘double’–or life force within the human body which survives it after death—and also the vital force shared by mankind and the gods. It is the universal life energy, the creative power circulating through the spiritual and physical worlds which makes creation possible. Thus magic preceded the creation of the gods and was believed to be even more powerful than them. In the Pyramid Texts the magician’s power is extolled: ‘The sky quivers, the earth quakes before me, for I am a magician, I possess magic.’

Heka was personified as a god of magic, associated with the power of the written and spoken word as well as medicine and healing. He accompanied the sun-god Ra on his barque during its daily journey through the heavens, along with the gods Sia (divine perception) and Hu (divine speech). He was depicted as a man holding two serpents crossed over his chest. Heka’s female equivalent was the goddess Weret Hekau, meaning ‘Great of Magic,’ or the ‘Great Enchantress’ who was often depicted in the form of a cobra, as were several other Egyptian goddesses. Egyptian magicians in their ceremonies carried cobra shaped bronze staffs, possibly associated with Weret Hekau.

Ishtar holding double serpent wand. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BCE.

Serpents symbolize fertility, rebirth, and immortality and are associated with magic and shamanism world-wide. The caduceus wand of the Greek god of magic and healing, Hermes, consists of two serpents symmetrically entwining a staff. Its earlier prototype can be found in the double serpent wand wielded by the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, which likely is a form of the serpent god Ninghishzida, a Babylonian fertility deity.

Similarly in Hindu Tantrism, dual serpents symbolize kundalini–the psycho-spiritual force awakened by the yogi at the base of the spine which rises up the spine and chakras leading to enlightenment. Serpents also served as the helping-spirits of shamans. The Kalevala epic of ancient Finland tells of Sami shamans who shapeshift into serpents during their otherworldly journeys. Andamanese and San shamans ascended in visionary flights to the heavens on the back of rainbow serpents.

Egyptian magicians summoned the power of heka through the use of sacred words, images, and rituals. Using the principle of sympathy—’like affecting like’—they attempted to influence the course of the cosmos through magic, circumventing ordinary laws of cause and effect. All things on earth were believed to be linked to their divine archetypes, therefore by using their corresponding words or images in magic the power of the neters or gods could be invoked to manifest the will of the magician. The word was believed to have power to manifest that which existed on the causal-spiritual level, especially when spoken with intention and proper intonation. Words gave life to the things they represented, exemplified by the god Tehuti, or Thoth—inventor of speech who brought the world into existence through the power of his words.

Hieroglyphs, called mdju netjer – words of the gods – were also believed to be inherently magical as they possessed the indwelling presence of the deities. They were regarded as living things imbued with the life of that which they signified. Besides their use in temple inscriptions, hieroglyphic signs and images of gods were also used for practical magic, sometimes drawn in ink on the skin of a person for healing or protection.

Writing was considered a magical act. The written word is one of the characteristics distinguishing magic from shamanism, which is predominantly an oral tradition. The earliest magical literature of Egypt, the Pyramid Texts, likely codified older shamanistic rituals, in the opinion of Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch. Likewise some of the most important Egyptian deities probably date from prehistoric shamanism. Animal deities and theriomorphic animal-headed humans, typically found in the paleolithic and neolithic, are preserved in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. In contrast to the shaman who sought their own visions and spirit-helpers, however, the literate Egyptian priest-magician worked with deities and knowledge established by religious tradition—and to a large degree transmitted through written texts.

Besides the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other funerary texts, much of the archaeological evidence for Egyptian magic is in the form of written spells on tomb walls, coffins, and inscriptions on monuments and statues. Writing was also used for amulets and healing spells, like those written on a piece of papyrus then hung around a patient’s neck, or worn on the afflicted part of the body. In the Greek Magical Papyri dating from Greco-Roman Egypt, spells were written in myrrh-based ink which was washed off and the mixture swallowed, a practice which still exists in Arabic magic to this day.

Magical statuary played an important role in the religious and magical practices of Egypt. Cult-images of the gods were placed in the innermost chambers of temples and cared for by ‘oracle priests’ who presented them with food and incense several times a day, clothing them in the morning, and sealing their chambers in the evening. This was essential as the ba or soul of the patron god was believed to inhabit its statue. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch writes: ‘The daily liturgy was designed to persuade deities to manifest themselves in the statues kept in the holy of holies and to bestow blessings on king, people and country.’ During important festivals cult-images were removed from their shrines and carried in procession where the public consulted them as oracles, and in some cases put on boats and sailed along the Nile. It is likely these effigies of the gods became powerful ‘magical talismans’ in their own right. I can attest from personal experience that some of the large statues of Sekhmet the lion-headed goddess continue to emanate power to this day.

Statues also served as guardian figures, such as those of the dancing dwarf god Bes which were placed around temples as well as households to protect during childbirth and ward off demons and bad luck. Bes can be traced back to pre-dynastic times and his cult is thought to have originated in Nubia in present day Sudan. The four sons of Horus (see above illustration) were represented in Canopic jars placed in tombs which guarded the internal organs of the deceased.

Tombs contained numerous ushabti — magical figurines of otherworldly servants (picture below) —made from a wide range of materials such as mud, wax, dough, wood or stone. These were animated by magical spells for the purpose of waiting on the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. Wax figures were frequently used by magicians for spells. The practice of making wax models of ‘enemies of the state’ and then destroying them was common practice in Egyptian temples, used as a means of holding the forces of chaos at bay. 

Papyrus of Ani with four sons of Horus
Ushabtis and Decree Plate on display in The Louvre, Paris, France.

The ancient Greek writer Pseudo-Callisthenes chronicles the use of wax figures by pharaoh Nectanebo II (360-342 BCE) the last native ruler of Egypt, which he used to protect his kingdom from invasion by sea:

…he retired into a certain chamber, and having brought forth a bowl which he kept for the purpose, he filled it with water, and then, having made wax figures of the ships and men of the enemy, and also of his own men and ships, he set them upon the water in the bowl, his men on one side, and those of the enemy on the other… and uttering words of power he invoked the gods who help men to work magic, and the winds, and the subterranean demons, which straightway came to his aid…the figures which represented his own men vanquished those which represented the enemy, and as the figures of the ships and men of the hostile fleet sank through the water to the bottom of the bowl, even so did the real ships and men sink through the waters to the bottom of the sea.”

Egyptian magicians also performed spells of magical transformation into the gods, identifying with them for the purpose of acquiring their power—similar to the shaman’s use of shapeshifting into animal-helping spirits. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, spells of transformation into hawks, phoenix birds, the Eye of Horus, and various deities are recorded. A spell to assume the form of a horned snake reads: “I am a horned snake, long of years, lying down, born every day…”

Jeremy Naydler proposes that many of the ritualized poses depicted in Egyptian artwork transformed the priest-magician into a human hieroglyph—an icon of the god—causing the divinity’s heka to manifest in them. A similar technique known as the “assumption of godforms” is practiced by modern ritual magicians. This involves visualizing oneself in the form of particular deity and assuming its identity. By doing so, the magician aspires to a transcendent state of consciousness through which the powers of the deity can manifest, while still remaining in conscious control, in contrast to states of ‘possession.’ Deities such as Thoth, Isis, and Sekhmet were believed to be great magicians, but through the power of heka the human magician could coerce even the gods. 

Egyptian magical spells sometimes plead with or command (decreed) a god to carry out the magician’s desires—even threatening them with punishment if their demands are not met. This was not due to irreverence or disrespect for the gods, but was rather based on an understanding of the symbiotic relationship of the divine and human worlds. The deities were sustained by the worship, rituals, and offerings of the magician, just as her or his well-being was dependent on their benevolence.


The Tree of Visions: Visionary Traditions of the Western World – Shamanism, Magic & Myth From Prehistory to the Present – David Nez (2018) 

The Tree of Visions brilliantly traces the lineage of thought and practice of western esotericism. Winding throughout our history and within many cultures, this book illumines our desire and quest to be fully human, fully planetary and fully alive.

© Cormael 2018 10/09

Thoth holding two serpent staffs