Some of my favorite surviving texts from the ancient world are the Græco-Egyptian Magical Papyri.
Usually known simply as the Greek Magical Papyri, they are a collection of magical texts, written on papyrus rolls in Greek and Demotic Egyptian and which date from the 2nd to the 5th centuries CE. I prefer to call them Græco-Egyptian rather than just Greek, for while they were written largely in Greek and they reflect a hellenized Egyptian culture, they are actually from Egypt (the city of Thebes, modern Luxor) and the magical techniques they employ are almost purely Egyptian. First published in English in 1986 as The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells and edited by Hans Dieter Betz, the Magical Papyri are an anthology of ancient books and extracts from books which were translated by an international team of scholars. There’s more on the Papyri in this previous post.
As you might imagine, I have been through every amazing page, searching out the “Isis formulæ,” that is, the texts that strongly involve Isis. I thought I might share some of those with you today and provide a little commentary.
Here, for example, is a protective spell:
Taking sulfur and seed of Nile rushes, burn them as incense to the moon and say,
“I call on you, Lady Isis, whom Agathos Daimon [the Good Spirit] permitted to rule in the entire black land. Your name is LOU LOULOU BATHARTHAR THARESIBATH ATHER-NEKLESICH, ATHER-NEBOUNI EICHOMO CHOMOTHI Isis Sothis, SOUERI, Bubastis, EURELIBAT CHAMARI NEBOUTOS OUERI AIE EOA OAI. Protect me, great and marvelous names of the god [add the usual]; for I am the one established in Pelusium, SERPHOUTH MOUISRO, STROMMO MOLOTH MOLONTHER PHON Thoth. Protect me, great and marvelous names of the great god [add the usual].
“ASAO EIO NISAOTH. Lady Isis, Nemesis, Adrasteia, many-named, many-formed, glorify me, as I have glorified the name of your son Horus [add the usual].”
Here, Isis is a Moon Goddess, evidenced by the offering to the moon given before speaking the words of power. The first line refers to the Isis-Osiris myth familiar at the time: while Osiris—here called Agathos Daimon, the Good Spirit—went on His civilizing mission, Isis ruled Egypt, the Black Land. The mysterious words are magical names of Isis and are commonly found in the Magical Papyri; they are exceptionally powerful names. In addition to the names of Isis, we also see what are probably names of Thoth, Egypt’s other Great Divine Magician. Where it says, “add the usual,” the person would add their own name to personalize the spell.
This spell is for a receiving a vision or Divine answer to a problem:
Look to the east and say: “You are the one who thunders, the one who rains and hurls lightning at the right time and dries in the same way; come to me, reveal [add the usual or write whatever you want, and annoint your hand].
Preparation of the ink: 3 dried figs, 3 stones of the Nicolaus date, 3 fragments of wormwood, and 3 lumps of myrrh; mix together, then pulverizing them, write the following formula. Isis uttered it and wrote it when, after taking up Osiris, she fit together his separated members. Asklepios saw Osiris and admitted that he could not put together someone who was dead even with the help of Hebe or of anyone else.
This is the formula: “Come to me, SESEGGENBARPHARAGGES SABAOTH, for I conjure you, daimon of the dead, by bitter Necessity; open your ears and hear the holy words.” Also say frequently the stele given below. [not given].
This spell partakes of the magic of writing as well as words of power. The magician makes a magical ink, then writes a formula that Isis used as She worked the great magic of resurrecting Osiris. Most likely the magician who wrote down this spell was an Egyptian for he or she noted that Isis accomplished this great magic, but the Greek God Asklepios, even with the help of Hebe, could not do what the Great Goddess Isis did. The notation of “not given” at the end, means that the papyrus from which this formula came did not include the “stele” promised in the spell.
And here is another divinatory formula, this one for a perhaps Tarot-like method that seems to have used correspondences to the 29 letters of the Coptic alphabet and 29 Deities:
Great is the Lady Isis! Copy of a holy book found in the archives of Hermes: the method is that concerning the 29 letters through which letters Hermes and Isis, who was seeking Osiris, her brother and husband, found him.
Call upon Helios and all the gods in the deep concerning those things for which you want to receive an omen. Take 29 leaves of a male date palm and write on each of the leaves the names of the gods. Pray and then pick them up two by two. Read the last remaining leaf and you will find your omen, how things are, and you will be answered clearly.
Here, Isis and Thoth-Hermes work together to find Osiris. You can easily see how this divination would, indeed, work. Because the number of letters and Deities is odd, when you pick them up in pairs, you will always be left with one: the one that corresponds to the Deity with your answer. I really want to try this sometime.
And finally, one more spell. This one is from a book called Ancient Christian Magic, by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith. These are all texts from Coptic Christian Egypt. They use the same techniques as Egyptian magic always had, but switching out the names to Christian Deities and Angels. But not always. In several cases, the Christian magician just kept all the old Egyptian words, but added at the very end: “the healing is done in the name of Jesus.” Here’s one that is supposed to be an amulet of Isis, and they kept Her name in place:
TIKMARTIK KATHAKARA [. . . ] this [. . .] written amulet that Isis has written [. . . ]
I bind the sky,
I bind the earth,
I bind the [. . .],
I bind the four foundations of the earth.
I bind the sun in the east.
I bind the moon in the west,
for I do not permit it to rise.
I bind [. . .]
for I do not permit it upon the earth.
I bind the field on the earth,
for I do not permit it [. . .]
I make the sky into bronze,
I make the earth into iron [. . .]
With all the binding, this must be either a protective amulet or one in which the magician claims to restrict the natural order of things until the Deities cooperate and help achieve the magician’s desires. This was a common technique of Egyptian magic.
And there are more Isis spells, but I think that’s enough to chew on for now. I love these spells because they are so very real; used by real people for real problems and calling upon their very real and powerful and loving Goddess—Isis, Great of Magic.