With a subject like magic, one of the first things you have to do is define what you mean by “magic.” One of my personal definitions is, “magic is what happens when we DO religion.” This works for me because I tend to consider all my spiritual practices as magical. You’ve no doubt heard a number of others, such as Crowley’s famous statement that magick (with a k for him) is “the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”
Or Dion Fortune’s version in which consciousness is changed in conformity with will. Starhawk, in The Spiral Dance, defines it as “the art of sensing and shaping the subtle, unseen forces that flow through the world, of awakening deeper levels of consciousness beyond the rational” and emphasizes that magic is natural, not supernatural.
The ancient Egyptians would have agreed on the naturalness of magic. Magic or heka is considered an essential energy of the universe, is in all things, and is meant to be used by us.
For the purposes of this post today, in which I want to touch on how women in ancient Egypt interacted with Isis for magical purposes, I’d like to narrow the discussion to practical magic, that is, magic intended to have an actual effect in the actual world. I was reminded of another term for this type of practical magic from the introduction to Ancient Christian Magic by Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith. They argue for discarding the term “magic” because of its many negative connotations in favor of the more neutral “ritual power.” This applies pretty well to practical magic, the type of magic Meyer and Smith were studying. In practical magic, we almost invariably engage in some type of ritual that is intended to invoke power that is, in turn, directed toward an end.
I’m also reading a dissertation by Meghan McGinnis on this topic. Her focus is late antiquity, which is the period from which we have the most records of personal magic, including the Magical Papyri as well as literary references to magic, which may or may not be based in fact. In late antiquity, magic has a more ambiguous reputation—even in Egypt—than it did in earlier Egyptian society. When it came to women, things were even more complicated because magic used by women was seen as sneakier than magic used by men. This is, of course, bullshit; but that sort of thing was in the atmosphere and stayed in the atmosphere there and elsewhere for a very long time. And it still persists. Hence female magic users are often described as “witches” (in the negative sense) while men are often described “mages” or “priests.”
For women in ancient Egypt, practical magic might be undertaken for fertility, healing, love, and business; fairly typical human concerns, though the fertility topic tended to land more heavily in female laps for the obvious reasons.
Interestingly, in Egypt, it seems that use of practical magic among men and women was less “gendered” than it was in much of the rest of the magical world. Let’s take the example of love magic. According to McGinnis, in much of the world, you’ll find women using persuasive, seductive magic on men, but men using demanding, binding magic on women. In Egypt, you’ll find the same spell used for men or women. An example is the “Isis Love Spell” in which the text tells how to use the same spell for women or men. It says, “say these things on behalf of women” (that is, when doing the spell for a woman on a man). It continues, “But when [you are speaking] about women (on behalf of a man) then speak conversely so as to arouse the females after the males.”
In Egypt, the same applied in cursing magic and protective magic, though it seems to have been women’s responsibility to magically protect the children. Health and healing were the place where things diverged given the differing health concerns of women, including both fertility and contraception. Here we often find Isis being called upon to heal. One of my favorites is this one for healing inflammation of the uterus:
Write it [this formula] on a piece of silver when the moon is waning, and repeat it while you pour warm sea water [over it], utter the name [the magical names in the formula below] Perform it very well. Do this for 44 days.
“I invoke you, great Isis, ruling in the perfect blackness, mistress of the gods of heaven from birth, Atherneklesia Athernebouni Labisachthi Chomochoochi Isi Souse Mounte Tntoreo Iobast Bastai Ribat Chribat Oeresibat Chamarei Churithibath Souere Thartha Thabaaththa Thath Bathath Lathai Achra Abathai Ae. Make the womb of … attain the condition from god and be without inflammation, without danger, always without pain, now [say this] two times, at once, [say this] two times!”
The incomprehensible words in the center of this formula are magical names. Most likely they are divine names and epithets that were corrupted by scribal error and/or misunderstanding over the many years that the formulae were copied and recopied. As unknown magical words, they gain their own kind of power. I personally LOVE these magical words from the papyri.
Women also wore amulets to keep their uteruses safe and healthy, including the famous Knot of Isis and an obscure amulet called a “vulva stone” mentioned in the Coptic medical texts, but of which we know little.
Women also made pilgrimage to sacred sites to help them conceive. At Isis’ temple at Philae, some pillars have grooves worn in the stone as women raked their fingernails on the stone to scrape bits of it away so that they could take it with them, possibly to ingest as a fertility potion.
I’m not aware of any spells that ask Isis to do harm, as some spells invoking other Underworld Goddesses do. However, we do find curses in which the curser asks that “the sacred rites of Isis that mean peace be turned against him;” a more passive-aggressive way of cursing.
And of course there were Isis formulae for divination—by direct vision, by dream, and by a method using palm leaves and the letters of the Coptic alphabet, probably similar to tarot cards in that each letter would have a specific meaning.
After looking at practical magic from a gender perspective, I am pleased to see that magic seems to have been an equal opportunity affair, with the exception that women were more concerned with fertility, women’s health issues, and the protection of children—at least in Egypt. Use of magic seems to have crossed socio-economic lines as well with both the poorest of the poor and wealthy businesswomen using it to further their aims. We know royal women used it, too; witness the famous “harem conspiracy” of dynastic times in one of the royal women used it to promote her son’s kingship.
Magic continued to be used by women and men even after Egypt was Christianized. From an earlier period, we know there were female magical specialists such as “the wise woman.” This title continued to be used in the late period and some of these wise women turn up in the literature as the enemies of various Christian monastics. Clerics speak against “hags who sing charms.” And we have the Late Antique comment of one rabbi that, “all women must be sorceresses.” And so it begins…