In previous posts we’ve talked about some of the characteristic features of Coptic magical texts: they often begin with speech acts directed to the supernatural beings they summon, phrases such as “I invoke you” or “I adjure you”, and they often contain the magical signs we call kharaktēres, and the magical words we call voces magicae – both understood as divine languages containing superhuman power.
There is an important subset of Coptic magical texts, however, which don’t follow this model, the group which I like to call “charms”. These take the form of short stories, often called historiolae, set in the mythic past, whose characters are gods, saints, and other superhuman beings. These texts were intended to deal with specific problems – sickness, perhaps, or trouble in love – and the narratives reflect this. In the historiolae, the superhuman beings find themselves encountering these same problems, and they manage to resolve them by using their superhuman powers. This then creates a mythic precedent which the user of the charm hopes to draw upon, bringing the power of the divine realm into the human sphere. Let’s take a concrete example, a text from the 8th century P.Berlin 8313, a text probably written in the Fayum Oasis:
Horus the son of Isis went onto a hill to rest. He cast his line and he pulled in his net, he caught a falcon, a quail, a wild pelican. He cut it without a knife, he cooked it without fire, he ate it without salt on it, and he was in pain, and his belly ached. He cried out a great cry, saying, “I will bring my mother Isis to me today. I want a demon to send to Isis my mother.”
The first demon Agrippas came to me, he said to him, “Do you want me to go to Isis your mother?”
(Horus) said, “How quickly do you go? How quickly do you return?”
(Agrippas) said, “I go in two hours and I return in two.”
(Horus) said “Go (away), you will not do for me.”
The second demon Agrippas came to him, and he said to him, “Do you want me to go to Isis, your mother?”
(Horus) said, “How quickly do you go? How quickly do you return?”
(Agrippas) said to him, “I go in one hour, and I return in a one.”
(Horus) said to him, “Go, you will not do for me.”
The third demon Agrippas came to him, the one-eyed one, the one-handed one, and he said, “Do you want me to go to Isis, your mother?”
“How quickly do you go? How quickly do you return?”
“I am there in the space of one breath of your mouth, I return in the space of one breath of your nose.”
“Go, you will do for me.”
He went onto the mountain of On (Heliopolis), and he found Isis, his mother, with an iron head, kindling a bronze furnace. She said to the demon Agrippas, “Why have you come to this place?”
(Agrippas) said to her, “Horus, your son, went upon a hill to rest. He cast his line, and he pulled in his net, he caught a falcon, a quail, a wild pelican. He cut it without a knife, he cooked it without fire, he ate it without salt on it. He was in pain, and his belly ached.”
She said to him, “Even if you did not find me, and you did not find my name, the true name that the sun carries to the west, that the moon carries to the east, that is carried by the six altar stars that are beneath the sun, you could adjure the three hundred sinews that are around the belly, saying ‘Let every sickness and every suffering and every aching be healed that is in the belly of NN son of NN be healed now, it is I who calls, it is the lord Jesus who grants healing.’”P.Berlin 8313
We can’t do this fascinating text justice in one short post; for now we will focus on a few details. As you can see, it belongs to the relatively rare class of Coptic texts which mention the traditional Egyptian gods long after their cults had disappeared, here Horus and Isis. In fact, it shows very close parallels with a text nearly 3,000 years older, which we will explore in a future post. But at the same time we can see the influence of its Christian context – the three demons who help Horus are probably named after Herod Agrippa I, the king of Judaea who persecuted the first Christians, and Isis gives the third Agrippas a spell calling upon Jesus.
Let’s return though to the model of the charm, and look at how this example demonstrates its key features. In this story Horus is walking in the mountainous desert when he encounters a problem – a stomach ache caused by eating a wild bird. As we can see from the end, the charm is intended to heal a sore stomach, so we have a mirrored situation – the patient with his stomach ache in the present in which the charm is being used, and Horus with his stomach ache in the mythic past. Horus cries out for help, and with the help of the third Agrippas he is able to reach his mother Isis, a famously powerful magician. She will certainly help Horus – he is her son, and she is a mother goddess – but the way her response to the request is phrased is very important: “even if you did not find me… you could adjure the sinews that are around the belly…”, she says. Here she is promising that the magical formula that she is giving will work even if she is not there, creating the mythic precedent for using the charm in the ritual present.
Up until this point, the two situations – Horus in the historiola and the patient in the ritual – have been parallel, but as the text ends, they merge. Isis speaks the adjuration in the story, and the ritual practitioner reciting the charm would have been speaking these same words – he or she would become Isis, speaking the crucial formula, and pronouncing the name of the human patient. As simple as it may seem, then, this charm uses several interesting narrative techniques to try to guarantee its effectiveness – using a narrative to create a parallel mythic situation, having Isis guarantee the effectiveness of the formula, and finally collapsing the division between mythic and ritual time.
Here we have only scratched the surface of this text, and the fascinating larger genre of Coptic charms that it belongs to. In future posts we’ll explore the subject in more detail – the ancient predecessors of Coptic charms, and their relations in medieval and modern Europe and Near East; what the presence of “pagan” Egyptian gods tells us about the culture of Christian Egypt, and how these charms were christianised.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Blumell, Lincoln, and Korshi Dosoo. “Horus, Isis, and the Dark-Eyed Beauty. A Series of Magical Ostraca in the Brigham Young University Collection.” Archiv für Papyrusforchung 64 (2018): 199–259. URL
A discussion of the tradition of Coptic charms, focusing on examples containing Egyptian deities.
Erman, Adolf. Aegyptische Urkunden aus dem Koeniglichen Museen zu Berlin: Koptische Urkunden. Vol. 1. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1904, n° 1, pp. 1-2.
The original publication of P. Berlin 8313.
Frankfurter, David. “The Laments of Horus in Coptic. Myth, Folklore, and Syncretism in Late Antique Egypt.” In Antike Mythen: Medien, Transformationen und Konstruktionen, edited by Ueli Dill and Christine Walde. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009, 229–251. URL
A discussion of Horus and Isis in Coptic charms.
Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 1999, n° 49, pp. 95–97.
Another English-language translation of P. Berlin 8313.