• Coptic Curses

    Coptic Curses II: Flaccid, Limp, and Lying like a Corpse

    This week’s post takes another deep dive into one example of a curse from Kyprianos, our database of Coptic magical texts. Chicago, Oriental Institute Museum E13767 is a sheet of paper cut into a rectangle that measures 6cm in height by 16 in width. One horizontal crease suggests that it was folded vertically only once, while 15 vertical creases suggest it was folded multiple times, or rolled and squashed into a small package of only about 3cm in height and 1cm in width. Bought from a private collection for the Oriental Institute Museum in 1929, it is unfortunately unknown where the manuscript was found. The handwriting of this text suggests…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri XI: Magic between Languages

    The previous post in this series introduced the different languages used to write magical texts in Egypt from the second to twelfth centuries CE – Demotic, Greek, Coptic – and discussed their changing usage. In the second and third centuries most magical texts were written in Greek or Demotic, while Greek alone dominated in the fourth century. Greek was then replaced by Coptic from the fifth century, and Coptic itself began to decline in the tenth, as Egyptians increasingly began to speak and write Arabic instead of Coptic. But throughout this period, many Egyptians would have been able to speak, and even read, more than one language, and this is…

  • Coptic Curses

    Coptic Curses I: Finding a Bowl, Damning a Thief!

    This week’s post takes a deep dive into one example of a curse from Kyprianos, our database of Coptic magical texts: Vienna, Nationalbibliothek K 08304 Pap is a sheet of paper that is roughly square, measuring 7.3cm by 7cm. This square appears to have been folded once horizontally and once vertically, producing a smaller package of 3.6 by 3.5cm. First published by Viktor Stegemann in 1934, who dated the handwriting on this sheet of paper to the 10th or 11th century CE, a translation of this curse appeared more recently in the collection of translations of Coptic Texts of Ritual Power by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, where it was…

  • News

    Coptic Magical Papyri on the Road: The 29th International Congress of Papyrology, Università del Salento, Lecce, 28 July-3 August 2019

    This year’s summer conference season ended with the International Congress of Papyrology, one of the largest events in our field, with over 400 attendees visiting the city of Lecce in the sunny south of Italy. As usual, we will only discuss the papers touching on ancient magic here, but the range of topics was very diverse, touching on subjects from the economics of Ptolemaic Egypt to newly discovered ancient novels, and the future of the discipline of papyrology, and the abstracts for the other talks can be found on the conference website. Andrew T. Wilburn (Oberlin College, Ohio) presented a fascinating paper looking at the relationship between magical texts from…

  • News

    Coptic Magical Papyri on the Road: Greek Curse Tablets of the Classical and Hellenistic Periods, Athens

    Last weekend (7-9 July 2019), I was fortunate enough to serve as a chair for the third conference in the series “Curses in Context”, organised by Christopher A. Faraone and Sofía Torallas Tovar of the University of Chicago at the Norwegian Institute at Athens. This fascinating conference series is aimed at understanding the material remains of curse rituals in the ancient Mediterranean – the short texts, usually written on lead, with which speakers of Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Coptic, and other languages tried to destroy their enemies and seduce potential lovers. These texts are particularly important for our knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean – not only because they are rich sources…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri VI: Writing Materials

    Our previous posts in this series have defined and problematised magical texts, and the difference between applied texts and formularies, before looking at their spread over time and space. This week we’re going to look at them as physical objects, focusing on the materials or “supports” on which they are written.  These can tell us a great deal about the production and function of their texts, and their place in the history of writing. Although our project is called “Coptic Magical Papyri”, a more accurate, if less catchy title, would be “Coptic Magical Manuscripts”. Alongside papyrus, Coptic-language magical texts were written on a wide range of other materials, including parchment…

  • 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…

  • 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…

  • 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…

  • 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…