Dangerous Magic in Bloomsbury

During the summer I taught a Bloomsbury Summer School on the topic of magic in Ancient Egypt. Having never had the pleasure of teaching an entire Bloomsbury course before (though I had contributed to others’ courses), I confess I hadn’t really anticipated what I was in for! That sounds as if I didn’t enjoy myself - the exact opposite is true in fact, I have rarely (never?) enjoyed teaching face-to-face as much as I did that week. Nor have I ever been quite so exhausted after a week of work - physically and mentally!

Starting the week, the students contributed their ideas about magic. We revisited these at the end of the week, and had a lively discussion about the place of Egyptian magic!

Starting the week, the students contributed their ideas about magic. We revisited these at the end of the week, and had a lively discussion about the place of Egyptian magic!

The course was a general and broad-ranging introduction to magical practice, magical texts, magical objects and the place of magic in Ancient Egypt, with sessions that ranged from ‘Dangerous Magic’ (curses and execration rituals) to ‘Healing Magic’. We covered the way that magic interacts and interrelates with ‘religion’, ‘medicine’ and ‘literature’, we looked at the development of magical practice and the use of magical objects over time, and we covered many magical texts from different perspectives. I was fortunate enough to have an extraordinarily well educated, intelligent and curious class of students, and we had many very thought-provoking discussions around the definition of magic, whether magic and religion can be defined as separate areas to any meaningful extent, and how the person of the magician (being identical with the person of a priest) offered the greatest clue to the place of magic in ancient Egypt. 

During the week we were fortunate to be able to visit the British Museum to view the Harris Magical Papyrus (P. BM EA 10042) in the Study Room - the curators were very welcoming, and the students enjoyed seeing the papyrus and thinking about the ‘text as object’ as well as discussing the contents of the text. For example, we looked at the fragment below, where the determinative/vignette shows the standard of Neith surrounding two crocodiles - both an appropriate illustration of the protective nature of the spell, and a magical amulet of protection in its own right. 

Neith around the crocodiles - the juncture of writing and magical action

Neith around the crocodiles - the juncture of writing and magical action

We also enjoyed some hands-on sessions in the fabulous Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, (see slideshow below) looking at objects from a tiny, beautiful Predynastic amulet (final image below) to a Third Intermediate Period ‘concubine figure’ and had very interesting discussions about how objects are classified as ‘magical’ and whether this was always justifiable, and what it adds to the discussion of magic overall. 

Highlights from the Petrie Museum hands-on sessions

Dr Luigi Prada talking about the Metternich Stela

Dr Luigi Prada talking about the Metternich Stela

During the course, the students were lucky enough to hear from two talented guest lecturers - Dr Luigi Prada, the Lady Wallis Budge Junior Research Fellow, and Mr John Johnston, who spoke on Late Magic, the Reception of Magic and the Future in Egyptian Magic. Our guests were the perfect combination of expert scholars and excellent speakers, and their knowledge, passion and humour was appreciated by everyone!

My favourite session, though, and the one from which I feel I, as the course tutor, learned the most, was an ‘experimental archaeology’ session on ‘Magical Gestures and Determinatives’ in which we took a selection of magical spells with lengthy ‘rubrics’ - the red-inked instructions on how to perform the spell - and attempted to recreate the performance of the spell with various props. We learned that although it might be easy to interpret the presence of these ‘instructions’ as an indication that magic was far less mysterious than would commonly be assumed - that they were a handy ‘how-to’ guide for a non-specialist - in fact, the instructions were far less definitive that we’d thought. For example, a spell in which the rubric instructed ‘Stretch out your right hand and your left hand and then make 7 knots and set them before the poison. If the poison passes the 7 knots which Horus has made in his body, I will not let the sunlight shine on the ground, I will not let the Inundation dash against the embankment, I will set fire to Busiris, I will burn up Osiris!’ seems simple enough - make 7 knots, right?

Isis and Nephthys work on their 'knotty' problem!

Isis and Nephthys work on their 'knotty' problem!

When the pair of students who chose this spell to work on came to actually perform this ritual, they disagreed on how the 7 knots should be made - were they 7 knots on 7 separate lengths of (probably) flax? Should the knots be made in a single length of flax, spaced at intervals? Should the flax (or rope, string, other?) be knotted into a circle or loop (a powerful magical symbol associated with Isis)? Should the knots be tied one over the other, forming a large obstruction in the length of flax? Both students were keen knitters, and their experience in this area opened up the very interesting question of whether the instructions in spells like these are deliberately vague, maintaining the mystery of magical practice, or whether they relied on the experience of magicians which implies that there was some standardisation to magical training and education (otherwise, how would all magicians know how to do this ‘correctly’?) or (possibly) did it imply that actually the ritual gesture was open to interpretation and less fixed than we imagine?

Another group of students gamely took on a complicated spell for healing, with a fabulous reconstruction (complete with terrifyingly convincing noises from the ‘patient’!) of how magic may have been used in a very immediate way as part of the practice of healing. 

Healing a patient through experimental archaeology!

Healing a patient through experimental archaeology!

Multimedia magical experiments

Multimedia magical experiments

This session will form the basis of my contribution to the forthcoming ‘Curses Night’ at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, on November 17th, 6-9pm. If you are in London that evening, I hope you’ll come along and join in the fun! 

The magic course will be made available online in the New Year - and I look forward to enjoying it as much as I did this summer - perhaps you’ll join me? Sign up to the HieroEducation mailing list to receive priority booking access and exclusive discounts.