Theory of 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”.

Image of the recto of P.Würz.Inv. 42 - woman at the top standing between two boxlike figures, with Coptic text on either side and below.

P.Würzb.Inv. 42 (recto)
© University Library Würzburg

“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 of Egypt until the ninth century CE, and it continues to be used to this day as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, again in much the same way that Latin is still the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Papyri” refers to the writing material used in Egypt from ancient times, made by separating the fibres of the papyrus plant which grew by the Nile, and pounding them together to form long sheets which were employed in the same way that we use paper today – the word paper, comes, of course, from “papyrus”. But here we are interested in all of the different objects which form part of the field of papyrology – portable written objects from the ancient Mediterranean and neighbouring areas. In practical terms, this means that we are interested not only in texts written on papyrus, for example, on parchment (the treated skins of animals), rag paper, metal sheets, and ostraca – fragments of pottery and limestone flakes often used to write short texts in Egypt. In fact, our scope is even broader than this, because some interesting Coptic magical texts are written on the walls of monks’ cells or of tombs.

“Magic” is the hardest word to define, and we will discuss some of the different theories and definitions of magic in more detail in future posts. In this project we’re using it in a fairly specific way to refer to a type of text found written on papyri from Egypt in Coptic. These texts show certain similarities of both content and form. In terms of content, they typically contain curses, love, protection, healing or divination spells, and the rituals they describe typically follow certain patterns. In terms of form, they often use the same verbal patterns (like “I invoke you today”), and often contain images of humans, animals, angels and demons depicted in a recognisably stylised way, as well as the mysterious symbols known as kharaktêres (literally “characters”), which are intended to be a divine language.

P.Würzb.Inv. 42 (verso)
© University Library Würzburg

To take a concrete example, the image used here is of a piece of rag paper known as P.Würz.Inv. 42, dating to the 10th century CE. It is an applied curse text, an object created in a ritual for a man named Victor, and intended to bind a woman named Semne, making her unable to speak, or more specifically, to speak against Victor. As a curse, it meets our criterion for content, and if we look at its form, we can see that it fits this criterion too. At the top is an image in the typical “magical” style, showing Semne, her limbs splayed and her hair on-end, with menacing box-like “demons” on either side with kharaktêres on their bodies. 

Interestingly, we can see that whoever copied this text took two tries to get the image right, since there is an unfinished first attempt on the back. The text calls upon a series of beings, including the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raguel, beginning with the phrase “I adjure you” and ending with the urgent command “quickly, quickly, quickly!” – both typical of Coptic magical texts.

But who was Semne, and why did Victor want her silenced? Why did he decide to call on the archangels, and did he carry out the ritual himself, or hire another person, a “magician” to do it for him? This text opens a little window into a drama that took place over a thousand years ago, but we can only see so much. To get a fuller view we need to consider this text alongside other evidence – literary and archeological evidence for the society of tenth-century Egypt, but also the other magical papyri, which may help us to understand the ways in which this text is typical or atypical. This task – comparing and contextualising these texts, and in the process broadening our window onto the past – is what this project is all about.

Further Reading

van der Vliet, Jacques. “Magic in Late Antique and Early Medieval Egypt.” In Coptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra, 145–152. Cairo – New York: American University in Cairo Press: 2014.
A good introduction to Coptic magic

Brunsch, Wolfgang. “Ein koptischer Bindezauber.” Enchoria 8 (1978): p. 151-157.
Original edition of P.Würz.Inv.42

Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 1999
Translation of P.Würz.Inv.42 on pp.151-157 (no. 102).


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