Love and hate in “magical” papyri

papyrus

This excerpt from a papyrus shows the Archangel Michael, who is accompanied by two angelic forces. © Elke Fuchs / Institute of Papyrology, University of Heidelberg

At the transition from ancient Egypt to the Christian and Islamic era, hundreds of papyri were created in which people from the 4th to 12th centuries wrote down love spells, vows of revenge and other “magical” incantations in the Coptic language. A research team from the University of Würzburg has now compiled, evaluated and scientifically commented on these papyri. They provide a unique insight into the beliefs and lives of the Egyptians at that time.

After the glorious period of the Pharaohs, the Egyptian empire went through several phases of profound change. In ancient times, the empire was initially under the rule of the Ptolemies and later the Romans. In the second century, in connection with the Christianization of the Middle East, the demotic script and language previously widespread in Egypt was replaced by Coptic. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century and brought Islam with them, Arabic became the dominant language and script in this region.

Popular belief in a time of upheaval

Despite these changing influences and religions, people's everyday lives at that time were primarily characterized by popular beliefs: "The Christianization of Egypt ended the cults of the numerous gods of the pharaonic period, but it did not end the belief in a world full of superhuman powers," explains Korshi Dosoo from the University of Würrzburg. Instead, people transformed their former gods into angels and saints who served the Almighty God - or into evil beings who wanted to harm his creation.

Closely related to this was the belief in magical incantations that were written on papyrus, parchment, paper and pottery shards. Worn in an amulet around the neck or hidden secretly in an adversary's house, they were said to, among other things, heal illnesses, curse enemies, evoke love or hate, or allow a glimpse into the future. Such “magical” papyri were also common during the Coptic era in Egypt. “About 600 of these texts have survived; “The largest published collection to date only contains around 100 of them,” explains Dosoo. “The rest were previously scattered in numerous books and articles and were therefore only accessible and known to a few specialists.”

Love spells, protective amulets and wish lists

That's why Dosoo and his colleagues have been conducting a research project over the past five years collecting and evaluating these scattered Coptic papyri. They are now being published for the first time in the anthology “Papyri Copticae Magicae” together with scientific notes. The texts that are now accessible provide an exciting insight into the thoughts and beliefs of people on the threshold of the transition from traditional Egyptian religion to Christianity and Islam.

“With these texts we get a direct insight into people’s private lives at that time. They convey to us their true emotions and not just the ideal of religious practices,” explains Dosoo’s colleague Markéta Preininger. The “magical” papyri, for example, are about protection from death or demons, appeasing enemies or fulfilling very specific wishes. In some cases the spell was intended to cause married couples to separate, in others it was to eliminate physical ailments such as fever, headache or insomnia. Love spells were also prominently featured. They were intended to make someone you love or even help women get pregnant.

As the researchers emphasize, the texts that have now been evaluated and published do not include all magical papyri. “They estimate that this first volume will be followed by several more – possibly seven,” estimates Dosoo. At least funding for Volume 2 has already been secured. This means that over the next three years the research team will be able to research love and hate, curses and wishes and a whole host of emotions from a long-ago era.

Source: Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg; Specialist article: Coptic Magical Texts, Volume 1: Formenies, archive for papyrus research and related areas – Supplements Volume 48

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