• Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in Coptic Magic V: Magic and Gnostic Ritual

    Last week we introduced Sethian Gnosticism, used to refer to a particular body of Gnostic texts, so-called by scholars because of their shared features, in particularly the importance of Seth as a revealer and saviour. This body of texts is also called “Classic Gnostic”, since it contains many of the features typically associated with “Gnostic” systems.* In our last post we also looked at how some of the figures which occur in the Sethian system – such as the luminary Davithe – also show up in magical texts. In most cases, we suggested, this is a result of shared cultural background rather than the dependence of Sethian or magical texts…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri IV: Sethian Gnosticism and Magical Texts

    Gnosticism is one of the major areas of research within Coptic Studies, and yet, like magic, it is a controversial concept, deconstructed by its specialists to the extent that most scholars use the term “gnosticism” in scare quotes, or avoid it altogether. Yet studies of Gnosticism continue to appear, perhaps demonstrating that, despite its problems, the term still has some usefulness. In this post we will use “gnostic” and related terms as shorthands, but it is worth remembering that these are problematic labels, which may not have been those used by those we would call “gnostics”. Readers of this blog may already know that “gnostic” comes from the Greek word…

  • Case Study

    A Coptic Magical Christmas

    In Coptic, Christmas is p-houmise m-pe-Khristos (ⲡϩⲟⲩⲙⲓⲥⲉ ⲙⲡⲉⲭⲣⲓⲥⲧⲟⲥ), “Christ’s Birthday”, and in the modern Coptic Orthodox Church it has been celebrated from at least 433 CE on the twenty-ninth of the month of Khoiak. In the old Julian calendar this corresponded to the twenty-fifth of December, but since the calendar reforms of Pope Gregory in 1582, Coptic Christmas corresponds to the seventh of January in the now-dominant Gregorian calendar. In orthodox Christianity, Christmas represents one of the most important moments in history, when God became man, and was born through a virgin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few Coptic magical texts that attempt to draw upon the power of this…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri III: Manichaeans and Magic

    In one of the earliest surviving Coptic letters, a man named Makarios wrote to his son: My son, my beloved one who is greatly honoured by me: the child of righteousness; the one whose good reputation is in my mouth at every moment, whose testimony remains in my heart; (whose) name is sweet in my mouth, my beloved son Matheos. P. Kell. Kopt. 19 ro ll.1-4 A good Christian, he continues by imparting some paternal advice: Do not earn fault or mockery by your… conduct. Study your Psalms, in Greek or Coptic, (every) day. P. Kell. Kopt. 19 ro ll.12-14 But what might be surprising to us is that although…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri II: Greek Gods in Coptic Magic

    In the fifth century – the period when Christianity was settling in as the dominant religion of Egypt – Shenoute of Atripe (ca. 347-465 CE), head of a monastic federation in Upper Egypt, gave a sermon in which he attacked heretics, pagans and the orthodox Christians who fraternised with them. The sermon is known as The Lord Thundered, and it lives up to its name. Shenoute speaks of the wrath of God which will descend upon the pagans, and asks rhetorically how their false gods will save them: Where is Zeus, or his son Ares: the one who took the form of a wild boar to show his impurity? And…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri I: “Paganism” and Christianity

    Religion and magic have a complicated relationship; Jewish and later Christian law often banned practices that were understood as magic, but as we saw in the previous post, Coptic magical texts are full of “religious” elements – mentions of the Christian Trinity, the saints and angels. The period that we are studying in this project – roughly the fourth to twelfth centuries CE – was one that saw huge religious changes in Egypt, and magical texts offer us a fascinating perspective on these changes. This post will briefly sketch how Egypt turned from a “pagan” society into Christian society over the course of the first through fifth centuries CE. In…

  • Coptic Magic

    What is Coptic Magic?

    For our first ever blog post we thought it might be useful to introduce what exactly we mean by those three words, “Coptic Magical Papyri”. “Coptic” is the simplest to define. Coptic is the latest written stage of the Egyptian language – the descendant of the older stages (Old, Middle, Late and Demotic Egyptian) in much the same way that modern Italian is the descendant of Latin. While the earlier stages of Egyptian were written in hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts, Coptic was written using a modified version of the Greek alphabet, which became standardised in the third century CE. Something close to Coptic was probably the main spoken language…