• Case Study

    Bricks of birth: “The names of the three bricks upon which Mary gave birth”

    The National Library in Vienna houses a unique document – a fragmentary sheet of paper from the 11th century CE Vienna Nationalbibliothek K 10335 Pap, containing the following short magical text:  “The names of the three bricks upon which Mary gave birth: Akramak, Ouaramak, Akr…”  Why is this text so interesting? It seems to attest to the use of birth bricks in 11th century Egypt, and their association in Egyptian Christianity with the birth of Jesus. The tradition of using birth bricks is attested in pharaonic Egypt in two different contexts – in the funerary domain, and in the domain of childbirth. In 2001, the American Egyptologist Josef Wegner discovered…

  • Case Study

    Jesus and the Unicorn: Easter and the Harrowing of Hell in Coptic Magic

    As we saw in our Christmas post, the Coptic Church celebrates the major Christian festivals at a different date to the Western churches because it uses the older Julian calendar rather than the now dominant Gregorian calendar. For this reason, Coptic Christians, along with the members of several other Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, will celebrate Easter (Coptic ⲡⲁⲥⲭⲁ, paskha) on the 28th April 2019. While modern Christians, especially those in cold climates, often think of Christmas as their major celebration, Easter is the first festival attested in the ancient church, and remains for many the most important. We find the basic outlines of its story in each of the…

  • Case Study

    Giant Fish and Judicial Prayers: Jonah in Coptic Magic

    The story of Jonah, in its general outlines, is probably one of the best known in the Bible. Jonah was an Israelite prophet commanded by God to go to the people of Nineveh in Assyria to warn them that their wickedness had doomed them to divine punishment. For reasons explained at the end of the story, Jonah decided to disobey, and fled to the city of Joppa (modern Tel Aviv-Yafo). Here he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, identified by modern scholars as southern Spain. As Herman Melville has a preacher tell it in Moby Dick (1851): With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah… flouts at God, by seeking…

  • 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…