Ancient Egyptian Handbook of Spells Deciphered

Researchers have deciphered an ancient Egyptian handbook, revealing a series of invocations and spells.

Researchers have deciphered an ancient Egyptian handbook, revealing a series of invocations and spells.

Among other things, the "Handbook of Ritual Power," as researchers call the book, tells readers how to cast love spells, exorcise evil spirits and treat "black jaundice," a bacterial infection that is still around today and can be fatal.

The book is about 1,300 years old, and is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language. It is made of bound pages of parchment - a type of book that researchers call a codex.

"It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner," write Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, who are professors in Australia at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, respectively, in their book, "A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power" (Brepols, 2014).

The ancient book "starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power," they write. "These are followed by a number of prescriptions or spells to cure possession by spirits and various ailments, or to bring success in love and business."

For instance, to subjugate someone, the codex says you have to say a magical formula over two nails, and then "drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side (and) one on the left."

The Sethians Researchers believe that the codex may date to the 7th or 8th century. During this time, many Egyptians were Christian and the codex contains a number of invocations referencing Jesus.

However, some of the invocations seem more associated with a group that is sometimes called "Sethians." This group flourished in Egypt during the early centuries of Christianity and held Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, in high regard. One invocation in the newly deciphered codex calls "Seth, Seth, the living Christ." [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

The opening of the codex refers to a divine figure named "Baktiotha" whose identity is a mystery, researchers say. The lines read, "I give thanks to you and I call upon you, the Baktiotha: The great one, who is very trustworthy; the one who is lord over the forty and the nine kinds of serpents," according to the translation.

"The Baktiotha is an ambivalent figure. He is a great power and a ruler of forces in the material realm," Choat and Gardner said at a conference, before their book on the codex was published.

Historical records indicate that church leaders regarded the Sethians as heretics and by the 7th century, the Sethians were either extinct or dying out.

This codex, with its mix of Sethian and Orthodox Christian invocations, may in fact be a transitional document, written before all Sethian invocations were purged from magical texts, the researchers said. They noted that there are other texts that are similar to the newly deciphered codex, but which contain more Orthodox Christian and fewer Sethian features.

The researchers believe that the invocations were originally separate from 27 of the spells in the codex, but later, the invocations and these spells were combined, to form a "single instrument of ritual power," Choat told Live Science in an email.

Who would have used it?

The identity of the person who used this codex is a mystery. The user of the codex would not necessarily have been a priest or monk.

"It is my sense that there were ritual practitioners outside the ranks of the clergy and monks, but exactly who they were is shielded from us by the fact that people didn't really want to be labeled as a "magician,'" Choat said.

Some of the language used in the codex suggests that it was written with a male user in mind, however, that "wouldn't have stopped a female ritual practitioner from using the text, of course," he said.

Origin The origin of the codex is also a mystery. Macquarie University acquired it in late 1981 from Michael Fackelmann, an antiquities dealer based in Vienna. In "the 70s and early 80s, Macquarie University (like many collections around the world) purchased papyri from Michael Fackelmann," Choat said in the email.

But where Fackelmann got the codex from is unknown. The style of writing suggests that the codex originally came from Upper Egypt.

"The dialect suggests an origin in Upper Egypt, perhaps in the vicinity of Ashmunein/Hermopolis," which was an ancient city, Choat and Gardner write in their book.

The codex is now housed in the Museum of Ancient Cultures at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Originally published on Live Science.

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An Egyptian handbook records love spells, exorcisms and a cure for black jaundice (a potentially fatal infection).

A young, short man with a slight resemblance to Michael Jackson, a woman with an elaborate hairstyle and an older woman who could slip, unnoticed, into today's society -- all died some 2,000 years ago but now facial reconstructions of the ancient Egyptians have brought them back to life.

The reconstructions were unveiled today at McGill University's Redpath Museum.

"People are amazed by mummies, but never more so, I've found, when they can see the face," said anthropologist Andrew Wade of Western University.

The high tech process, involving CT scanning and multiple scientific disciplines, recreates what the three individuals looked like as they were laid to rest nearly 2,000 years ago.

Here, a mummy is set to go into a CT scanner.

Mummies of a young male, a young female and an older woman were virtually unwrapped using CT scanning. Models of their bone structure were then created.

Barbara Lawson, a curator at the Redpath Museum who also worked on the project, added that all three mummies were scanned at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital as part of Western University's IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database Project.

Forensic artist Victoria Lywood undertook the actual reconstruction work, which was based on the 3-D high-resolution images along with ultrasonic images and anthropological research.

A step in the process involved sketching what the individuals would have looked like.

Some have detected a facial resemblance, at least from the front profile, with the late pop star Michael Jackson. Jackson was, in fact, very interested in Egyptian history, which might have influenced some of his personal style.

The Theban male died between the ages of 20-30. His mummy was purchased in Thebes, his likely place of death.

The young man was "relatively short in stature," according to Wade.

Lywood is one of the world's leading experts on such recreations.

"I reconstruct modern-day skulls, archaeological remains and fragmentary skulls," she told Discovery News. "The oldest I have constructed was from 6,000 years ago found in Israel. While there were people of all sizes throughout the ages, my experience is that skull size was much smaller than modern populations."

This Ptolemaic female was a "late adolescent girl or young woman of average height and elite status," Wade said. "Her age at death is estimated at between 18 and 24 years."

Her mummy was found "in a tomb pit in the solid rock near Hawara el-Makta in Fayum (Lower Egypt) and acquired in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century and donated to the Redpath Museum in 1895," Lawson said.

Clearly ancient Egyptians prized fashionable coifs, given the complexity of the young woman's hairstyle.

Her hair must have been fixed before mummification, perhaps in hopes of sending her off to the next life looking her best.

The hairdo of a young ancient Egyptian female was reconstructed on a modern woman.

The reconstructed young woman is shown here without her wig. Clearly her hair was a big part of her look.

The oldest individual of the three was this woman -- likely a tall, upper middle-class adult between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.

If she were alive today, this woman (at least based on her physical appearance) would probably fit right in with modern society.

As Wade said, "Humans have been physically pretty much the same for the last 2,000 years...That's not to say that evolution has stopped working on us, but the time frame of 2,000 years is just a drop in the bucket for noticeable physical changes and we've reduced the need for physical changes by adapting culturally."

The three ancient Egyptian people died at somewhat different times and never knew each other. But, as reconstructions, the early Egyptians will spend even more time together, because they will star in a new display in the Redpath Museum's World Cultures gallery starting in February.