The Egyptophiles among you may have heard the ancient Egyptian story usually called Setna and the Magic Book. It’s the one where the son of Ramesses the Great learns of a previous prince who aspired to magical knowledge and had discovered a magic book locked inside a series of chests and sunk in the bottom of the river. And now the son of Ramesses wants it for himself. Ring a bell?
I’d seen reference to that story again and again over the years, but I’d never read the whole thing. Turns out the tale is much more interesting than I’d thought. For one thing, the main story-within-a-story is being told by a woman, Ahura, the daughter of King Merneptah. What’s more, she’s dead when she’s telling it! And since it’s a tale of magic, both Isis and Thoth figure in the story, too.
So for today’s Isiopolis, I’d like to tell you Ahura’s tale, which comes from 1100 BCE.
The sons of Rameses go to the tomb of a former prince, Naneferkaptah, who supposedly had a most amazing magical book. But when they get to the tomb, they find the kas of the prince and of his wife, the princess Ahura, quite present in the tomb. Ahura warns them away from seeking the book of magic as she relates her tale:
The princess starts by explaining that she and Naneferkaptah were the only children of the king and he loved them both very much. When they were grown, the king decided to marry them to the children of one of his generals. But the queen objected and said the siblings should be married to each other.
The next paragraph is a bit unclear but is a bantering exchange between Ahura and her father. Apparently Ahura, too, wanted to marry her elder brother, Naneferkaptah, and had sent a message to her father saying so. He played grumpy, then they both laughed and Ahura got her way.
She and Naneferkaptah were married. They loved one another and Ahura soon became pregnant with their child. The king was happy and sent precious gifts. When Ahura bore her child, he was named Merab, meaning Beloved Heart, and his name was registered in a book in the House of Life.
Naneferkaptah was very keen to learn from the ancient writings and spent much time reading in the Memphis cemetery and deciphering the sacred inscriptions on the monuments. One day, a priest saw him at his work and laughed at him. The priest said that what the prince was working so hard at was worthless compared to the magic book the priest knew of, which was written by Thoth Himself and which “will bring you to the Gods.”
The priest told Naneferkaptah that—quoting here—”When you read but two pages in this, you will enchant the heaven, the earth, the abyss, the mountains, and the sea; you shall know what the birds of the sky and the crawling things are saying; you shall see the fishes of the deep, for a divine power is there to bring them up out of the depth. And when you read the second page, if you are in the world of ghosts, you will become again in the shape you were in on earth. You will see the sun shining in the sky, with all the gods, and the full moon.”
Well, Naneferkaptah was completely excited and promised the priest whatever he wanted if only he would tell Naneferkaptah where the book was. The priest wanted enough silver so that he could have a rich funeral, a wish the prince readily and easily granted.
So the priest told him, “This book is in the middle of the river at Koptos, in an iron box; in the iron box is a bronze box; in the bronze box is a sycamore box; in the sycamore box is an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box is a silver box; in the silver box is a golden box; and in that is the book. It is twisted all round with snakes and scorpions and all the other crawling things around the box in which the book is; and there is a deathless snake by the box.”
Then Ahura says, “And when the priest told Naneferkaptah, he did not know where on earth he was, he was so much delighted.”
She, however, was not happy about her husband’s desire and felt a sense of foreboding. But the prince would not be dissuaded. Taking the royal boat, Ahura, and Merab with him, the prince sailed to Koptos.
There was a temple of Isis in Koptos and so all the Isis priests came to meet the arrival of the royal boat. The priests entertained the prince and the wives of the priests entertained Ahura. And so they feasted and “made holiday” with the priests of Isis and their wives.
After four days, the prince was ready to go after his prize. He had apparently learned enough magic that he could create a crew of magical workmen and tools. The prince “put life into” the boat and crew and sent the magical workers off to find the book in the river.
This they did. The book was enclosed and guarded just as the priest had said it would be. Naneferkaptah put a spell on the magical guardians and fought the “deathless snake,” finally cutting him to bits and placing sand between the pieces so they could not rejoin.
The prince opened chest after chest, finally finding the book. He read it and—as promised—he could enchant the heavens and all the rest of the promised powers were his. So he had the magical workmen take him back to where Ahura waited for him, in her words, sitting “like one who is gone to the grave.”
Now this next part, I found very interesting. Ahura herself asks to read the book. She does so and she, too, can now enchant the heavens and has gained all the other powers as well. Since she cannot write, she asks Naneferkaptah to write everything on the book down on papyrus so that he could dip it in beer, then drink the dissolved words, and thereby know everything that was in them forever.
So back they go to Koptos and “make a feast with Isis of Koptos and Harpokrates.” But by now, Thoth had learned of the theft of His book and the killing of His magical guardians, which really kinda pissed Him off. So Re decrees that Naneferkaptah and all his kin could be killed. Ouch.
And so tragedy strikes. First the child Merab falls in the water and drowns. His father magically brings the body up and enchants the child so he can say what happened. Thus Naneferkaptah and Ahura learn of Thoth’s anger. They return to Koptos, have their child embalmed and buried, and head back to Memphis.
But on the way back, the same thing next happens to Ahura. She drowns, is magically brought up, then embalmed and buried in Koptos.
With such disaster befalling his family, Naneferkaptah could not return alive to his father. Tying the book to himself, he drowns himself in the river. None of the crew knew where he was, so they returned to Memphis and related the entire sorry story to the king.
In mourning, the king and his court went to the boat, only to find the body of Naneferkaptah in the inner cabin of the boat—still dead—but at least available for proper rites and burial, which the king has done.
The king also orders the magic book hidden once more. Ahura concludes, “I have now told you the sorrow which has come upon us because of this book.”
The story of Setna and his further adventures with the kas of Naneferkaptah and Ahura continue, but this post is long enough for now and I’ll tell that on another day.
There are a number of interesting things about this story. Importantly, it is told by a woman. She is no mere appendage, but a main player. It is also interesting that Ahura can read, but not write. So even a princess did not necessarily learn to write. You can also see some of the main mechanisms of Egyptian magic: magical servants, magical guardians, consuming the words of a spell to integrate the magic into yourself, necromancy, and of course, the power-conferring magical book itself. It was also interesting to see the involvement of the priesthood of Isis and Harpokrates in Koptos. In my fantasy version of the tale, they would warn the prince of his coming folly. But I guess you don’t mess with a royal on a mission.