• The papyrus. Photo credit: Effy Alexakis & Macquarie UniversityThe papyrus. Photo credit: Effy Alexakis & Macquarie University

Ancient Egyptian spell book discovered at Macquarie University

Experts at Macquarie University have deciphered an Ancient Egyptian codex for the first time to discover that it’s actually a spellbook.  The codex has been kept in Macquarie’s Museum of Ancient Cultures since 1981, but this is the first time anyone has been able to "read" the ancient Coptic text.

The codex is an invocation including both Christian and Gnostic elements, ritual instructions, and a list of twenty-seven spells to cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business. Associate Professor Malcolm Choat, Department of Ancient History and Director, Macquarie Ancient Cultures Research Centre; and Professor Iain Gardner, Chair of the Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney have edited and published a new translation of the text: A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power.

"The type of Coptic used makes us think it might come from the region of el-Ashmunein (ancient Hermopolis) in Upper Egypt" says Associate Professor Choat. "Coptic is the final stage of the Egyptian language, and descendent of the Hieroglyphs. Based on the handwriting, we think the codex was written around 700 AD."

After a long invocation, the codex outlines 27 spells, or prescriptions, which offer healing or remedies for other problems people might have, for example:

  • "Someone who is possessed: Say the formula on linseed oil and pitch. Anoint them."
  • "Love charm: Say the formula on wine. Let them drink."
  • "A binding (spell): Say the formula over a new potsherd (and) bury it at the door."
  • "So that any person be subject to you and give glory to you: Say the formula first before you go out – within your house – and before you speak with the person."
  • "When someone has a magic on them: wormwood, wine. Let him drink (it)."
  • "Black jaundice: Black cumin, pepper, wine; let him drink (it). Or if it is that of the gold (i.e. yellow jaundice): milky water, wormwood; and let them wash (in it) and drink (it). Boil the water."
  • "For any sickness: Say the formula on a first (pressing) oil. Anoint them."
  • "For every staunching of blood: Say the formula on a dry gourd. Let them eat (it). If it is in the body (i.e. internal bleeding): apply with vinegar."

The translation of the codex is part of a larger project to translate over 600 papyri in Macquarie’s Museum of Ancient Cultures.  The University received substantial funding from the Australian Research Council over the last eight years towards the project, as it is the only university in Australia where Coptic Studies is offered.

The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt, where Christianity was the major religion from 400-800 AD. The Coptic language is a direct descendant of Demotic Egyptian but it has been near-extinct since the 18th Century.

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