Coptic Amulets

Coptic Amulets II: Sending an angel to give grace

This week’s post takes a deep dive into one example of a favour spell from Kyprianos, our database of Coptic magical texts: P. Heidelberg inv. Kopt. 681 is a sheet of parchment, cut into a long rectangle measuring 29.5cm by 10.9cm. Unlike the healing amulet we looked at in the last post in this series, this sheet was not folded nor worn as an amulet. This is because this sheet is a formulary – a manuscript containing one or more spell(s) with formulas to be filled in, rather than an activated text – a manuscript containing the name of the person who would benefit from, or be cursed by, the spell.

The flesh side of the parchment, the inward-facing side of the skin, is inscribed with 52 lines, the first 27 of which are a spell which command a cherub, a type of angel, to bring favour. The remaining lines of the parchment contain a spell for the quite the opposite purpose – a curse. This parchment, dating to the second half of the 10th century CE, is one of nine manuscripts which Iain Gardner and Jay Johnston (2019) have demonstrated belong to a collection of related texts – “the Heidelberg Magical Archive” – and one of six written by the same scribe, who identifies himself in one of them as the Deacon Iohannes. A translation of this healing amulet into German was first produced by Bilabel and Grohmann in their publication of many of the manuscripts inscribed with magical texts from the Heidelberg Papyrus Collection, and a translation into English appeared more recently in the collection of translations of Coptic Texts of Ritual Power by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith, where it was translated by David Frankfurter.

The Angelic Figure depicted on P. Heid. inv. Kopt. 681

The upper half of the parchment sheet is dominated by a drawing of an angelic figure, with a highly-stylized crown upon its head, as well as equally stylized wings. This figure appears to be the angel invoked in the spell. The composition begins with a ‘banner’ of seven ring-sign characters derived from the Greek letter ⲭ and seven six-pointed stars, and then a series of voces magicae – “magical names” – flank the figure to its left and right.

Arōm, Arōm, Iaō Sabaōth, Arōmaō, Elōeielēma, Arōmana, Makhēpōt, Arōmanaēl, Salabaoōth, Araka, Markhēkhou, Aratamou, Panieilou, Ariō, Arina, Khaēl, Aratabnē, Akhaēl, Araksa.

An offering of aromatic substances to be burnt then concludes the section to the right of the figure:

Offering: mastic (gum), agarwood (resin), storax (gum), musk.

Under these voces magicae to the left of the figure, the invocation to Ariō begins, and continues across the breadth of the parchment until the horizontal line which sections off this spell for favour from the curse that follows.

Say: I <adjure> you (s.) today Ariō, the great cherub of the Father Almighty, (by) the voice which came from the mouth of the Father Almighty.

Behold, I shall send the angel before so-and-so.
Give grace to him in the presence of Michael!
Stand them at his right hand until I give grace to him, so that you (s.) complete them!

Give grace! Give silencing! Give peace! Give suppression! Give a gathering! Give love! Give every craft!

You (s.) shall complete them for me quickly! Yea! Quickly!

As suggested recently by Gardner and Johnston, the letters of the name of the cherub invoked in this spell Ariō are ⲁ-ⲣ-ⲓ, which have the numerical values of 1-100-10 – fulfilling a ‘rule of three’. The element Arō is also found in many of the voces magicae listed to the left of the figure, and it is likely that the figure depicted is in fact Ariō, called “the great cherub”, a type of angel.

Below this spell, two further lines of voces magicae, playing yet again on the name Ariō are also found:

Ariō, Arina, Arōma, Arōmanaēl, Arasa, Arōmaō, Tharmaōth, Marmariōth.

Ariō is described as the “Great Cherub of The Father Almighty”, and it is by his voice, i.e. his order, that the angel – “the great cherub” Ariō – shall be sent before the person named when the spell is applied to a client. The Archangel Michael is also mentioned, because the client is to receive grace in his presence, and supernatural beings, perhaps Michael and the other angels, are to stand at the client’s right-hand side, before the angel then completes a host of commands for the client.

These commands specify that the client is to receive “grace” (favour, the general quality of being successful and attractive to others), “a silencing” (of enemies), “peace” (happiness), “suppression” (of enemies), “a gathering” (perhaps referring to customers at their place of work), “love”, and “every skill” (perhaps referring to an occupation). All of these positive traits can be brought under the umbrella of “favour”, for they will ensure that the client’s health, wealth, and relationships remain favourable to them. Important, then, is not only that all of these positive outcomes are listed, but also that the command is given for these to be completed for the client “quickly”!

This first spell from this parchment sheet is a fine example of a formulary that would have been used as a ‘master copy’ by a practitioner of Coptic magic. From this formulary, the practitioner, who was likely the same as the Deacon Iohannes identified by Gardner and Johnston as the scribe who wrote several other manuscripts of “the Heidelberg Magical Archive”, would have been able to copy this spell, and its accompanying figure, onto another manuscript which would have served as an amulet. This amulet would have had the name of the client inserted where this spell says “so-and-so”, and it could then have been worn by that client, who subsequently received all the forms of favour specified in the spell.

Yet again, these brief case studies highlight the fascinating insights that can be drawn from just a few lines of Coptic text among a corpus of more than 500 Coptic magical papyri. We will keep bringing you these studies in future, including the curse that is inscribed in the second half of this formulary parchment!


Bilabel, Friedrich, and Adolf Grohmann. Griechische, koptische und arabische Texte zur Religion und religiösen Literatur in Ägyptens Spätzeit. Heidelberg: Verlag der Universitätsbibliothek, 1934.

Gardner, Iain and Jay Johnston. “‘I, Deacon Iohannes, Servant Of Michael’: A New Look at P. Heid. Inv. Kopt. 682 and a Possible Context for the Heidelberg Magical Archive”. Journal of Coptic Studies 21 (2019) 51-53. URL

Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 1999.

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