• Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri IX: Judaism and Coptic Magic

    The Jewish people – the ethno-religious group who trace their origins to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – have a long relationship with their larger neighbour, Egypt, even leaving aside the complicated questions of the historicity of the Exodus story and the pre-exilic kingdoms. In the fifth and sixth centuries BCE there was a significant Judaean community in the city of Elephantine in the far south of Egypt, many of whose members served as soldiers in the army of the Persian kings who then ruled Egypt. This city was even home to a second Jewish temple – one of two attested in Egypt before the destruction of the main…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri VIII: The Bible and Magic

    In our first post on Christianity in magic, we discussed AMS 9, a large book filled with amuletic texts. Among these were the first verses (incipits) of five texts from the Bible – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Psalm 90 (Western Psalm 91). As we noted then, these were intended to be copied onto smaller objects and worn as a way to protect the body from sickness, demonic attacks, and misfortune. This week, we’ll discuss the use of the Bible in “magical” practice in a little more detail. This discussion will draw extensively upon a recently published study of such practices, Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri VII: Monks and Magic

    Two weeks ago we discussed a book of amulets which showed how “magical” practices could be entirely Christian, and we noted that the book’s format suggested it might even have been produced by monks. The idea that monks played a prominent role in the practice of magic in late antique Egypt has been promoted recently by David Frankfurter, whose book Christianizing Egypt argues that most of the surviving magical texts that we have were copied by monks. We do indeed have several texts which seem to come from monasteries or monastic cells, although many more have no clear provenance, and, as we saw in the case of the ancient town…

  • Religion in the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Religion in the Magical Papyri VI: Christianity and Magic

    In our previous posts we have discussed “pagan” and “gnostic” influences in Coptic language magic, so readers would be forgiven for thinking that all such texts are full of Greek, Egyptian and Sethian deities. The bulk of our manuscripts, however, date to between the fifth and eleventh centuries CE, a period for most of which the majority of Egyptians were, at least nominally, adherents to some form of orthodox Christianity. Christianity was the dominant worldview, and the magical texts therefore reflect this, and seem to adhere to some kind of Christianity, even if they are not always strictly orthodox. But what does this “Christian magic” look like? AMS 9 is…

  • 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…

  • 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…