Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri XIII: Types of Magic

This week our project has hit another milestone – we now have all published Coptic magical texts (and a few unpublished ones) entered into our database. This is quite exciting for us, as it will make the process of editing and re-editing texts much faster, and we hope to make them available to the general public in the near future. Full information on the database will appear below, but in this post we’ll use the data we now have to explore the types of magic found in Coptic texts. 

The most common type of practice in the Coptic magical papyri is healing – practices intended to deal with health problems ranging from scorpion stings and snake bites, to fevers and gynaecological problems, such as difficulty in childbirth and abnormal menstrual bleeding. 

Closely related to these are rituals of protection –  those which involve creating amulets to protect humans, livestock, and their homes from disease and the attacks of bandits, wild animals, disease, magic and demons. Telling healing and protective texts apart is often difficult – it seems that often practitioners would create an amulet to heal a sick person, and that the patient could continue to wear it to protect them from getting sick again in the future. As a result, many of the texts in our database are classified as both healing and protection. In fact, where the purpose of a ritual or applied text isn’t explicit, we usually assume that it is intended for protection and/or healing – this is the case of amulets containing copies of Psalms or other sections of the Bible, which we know many Christians wore for protection, and turned to when they were sick.

The next most common type of ritual is the curse. These are rituals intended to harm other people, inflicting them with sickness, death, and misfortune, either directly, or by attacking their property – their homes, livestock, or business. Even though these might fall into the category we would consider “aggressive” or “black magic”, even the cruellest curses often represent themselves as defensive – their users represent themselves as victims, who must turn to supernatural forces – God, the Saints, angels, or even the forces of Death and the Devil – to protect themselves.

Pages 12 and 17 of P. Heid. Inv. Kopt. 686 (Faiyum, late 10th century): on the left is a prayer attributed to the Archangel Michael (depicted at bottom right), while on the right are a series of recipes for which the prayer can be used – a curse to put someone into a coma-like state, a reconciliation spell, a spell to ensure fidelity, another to protect animals from evil sorcery, one to protect a children in childbirth, and a general ritual of protection.

Related to curses, but not quite as common, are love spells, intended to force one person to submit sexually and romantically to another, or to make sure that one partner in an existing relationship remains faithful. Interestingly, this is only one of a number of types of rituals we find in Coptic magic for manipulating relationships – the separation spell aims at destroying an existing couple, and might have been used by a jealous suitor, or parents or other community members who disapproved of a relationship. Other rituals – virginity spells and curses against virility aim to prevent people from consummating relationships, by ensuring that women remain virgins, and that men are unable to perform sexually. The opposite of separation spells, reconciliation rituals, are about as third as common; as their name suggests, they aim to cause two individuals who have fought to reconcile with one another.

Less frequent than love spells, but more common than separation rituals, are favour rituals. These aim to provide individuals with kharis (“favour” or “grace”) – general good fortune and social success. In a sense these can be thought of as generalised love spells – causing the whole world to fall in love with someone – and some examples actually combine favour and love spells, giving an individual both favour in regards to people generally, and with one person in particular.

Exorcism is another common purpose, which again often overlaps with healing and protection spells, since the understanding of disease present in the magical texts does not always clearly distinguish between the attacks of demons and more mundane causes of physical and (according to modern classification) mental disease. Many of the texts which can be most clearly classified as exorcisms are long and elaborate, drawing on the language of the official church, and they reveal the existence of a complex demonology, including ranging from ‘spirits’ (pneuma) and ‘demons’ (daimōn) to the more exotic entēr (literally ‘gods’), and beings of which we know nothing, such as the Aberselia and Apalaf. 

Far less common than the other kinds, but still worth mentioning, are business or “gathering” (sōouh) spells. As their name suggests, they are intended to help businesses, ranging from travelling merchants to artisanal workshops. The term “gathering”, often found in these, refers to the idea that the angels and spirits invoked in the spells will “gather” customers and cause them to spend their money (!). Perhaps related to these are some much rarer rituals – four texts ask to grant their user a good voice, either to help them as singers or as public speakers, while two are intended to help their users to be more successful in fishing

Finally, less common than business rituals, but more than spells for a good voice or fishing, are divination rituals. Divination was a major concern in the Graeco-Egyptian magical texts from earlier Roman Egypt (the best known of these are the Greek Magical Papyri), but they are comparatively rare in Coptic texts. Most examples of these are rituals which will allow their users to have prophetic dreams, but a few seem to be intended specifically to find treasure and/or lost property. 

While we’ve sketched out above a rough picture of the overall frequency of types of spells in the Coptic magical texts, it’s worth looking more carefully at the distribution of these spells in the two categories of texts – formularies and applied texts.

We can see that in applied texts, healing and protection are by far the most common type of practice, accounting for 52% and 61% of texts respectively (note that there is considerable overlap between these two). Curses then make up the next largest category (20%), with the remainder being made up separation, love, favour, and business spells – with less than ten of each surviving among applied texts. Why is this? We might guess that, since everyone got sick at some point in their lives, a lot of people may have used healing or protective amulets. By contrast, curses and love spells may have been more closely associated with the “magic” forbidden by the official church. Alternatively, we might guess that the reason may be attributed to archaeological factors – perhaps amulets, worn by people, are more likely to survive in tombs and in excavated settlements, whereas curses and love spells, buried at doors or at crossroads, might be more often lost. More work will be needed to explore which of these reasons – or other reasons – might explain the divergence.

When we turn to formularies, we find much more variety, with every type of spell being attested, although there is still a clear pattern. Healing and protection rituals are very popular, but so are curses, and love and favour spells. The other types of spells are represented by less than 5% of texts each, but this still translates to between 3 (good voice) and 23 (separation) texts. While, with applied texts, we have to ask how closely our surviving material reflects what originally would have created, we can probably assume that the texts in formularies represent fairly accurately the kinds of rituals in which ‘magical’ practitioners who used the Coptic rituals were interested, since they are just lists of recipes, which probably wouldn’t have been treated very differently depending upon their contents. They suggest, therefore, that the focus on healing and protective texts is not just an accident, but that these probably were the activities that most practitioners engaged in the most. Nonetheless, some practitioners offered a wide variety of other services – harming enemies, manipulating relationships, improving business, and even foretelling the future. 

More information on Coptic magical texts in the Kyprianos database

The database distinguishes between manuscripts and texts, storing them in separate but linked tables; the manuscript represents the physical object, and the texts represent the textual units written on the manuscripts. In the case of a small amulet, the amulet would be one manuscript entry, and the text written on it would represent one text entry. In the case of formularies, the formulary (perhaps in the form of a roll or codex) would be one manuscript, but each recipe written on it would be a different text.

The database contains 509 manuscripts containing magical texts written in the Coptic language (there are a few more with Coptic script, but not written in the Coptic language). These manuscripts contain a total of 972 texts; 202 of these are unpublished. The remaining 772 do have published text, and the Coptic text of all of these have now been entered into our database. The texts are at different stages, however – some represent final, checked editions; most contain only the published texts, which need to be checked against the original manuscript, or high-quality photographs, before re-translation.

All of the texts (published or unpublished) have been assigned a type, describing the category of ritual practice to which they belong. As well as the types listed above (love spells, curses, healing, etc.) they will be defined as magical (as opposed to or as well as “liturgical”, “medical”, “alchemical” etc.), and described as belonging to a formulary or applied manuscript. Readers will have noticed that the number of texts of uncertain purposes – 226, or 23% – is quite high; about half of these (105) are unpublished, though, and so it is likely that as our project progresses we will be able to publish, or better translate, many texts, allowing them to be categorised. 

We would like to thank the Database and Dictionary of Greek Loanwords in Coptic project in Berlin, as well as our contributors Bill Manley and David Tibet, who kindly provided texts which are currently in the database.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *