Blog #4: Magic by any other name

What can we understand of Ancient Egyptian “spells”? Were they magic, medicine or prayers? Maybe they were all three?

Heka, the Egyptian neter/god of magic, is well represented in the writings of Ancient Egypt from the very beginning of their written literature in the Pyramid Texts circa 2,500 BCE into the New Kingdom writings (Ritner, 1993).

Figure. Heka attending Khnum. Heka appears directly behind the chamber room of Khnum, on the right-hand side, holding the snake’s tail. His hieroglyphic name is to the right of his shoulder. From the burial chamber in the tomb of Ramses I on the West Bank, Luxor.

Figure. Heka attending Khnum. Heka appears directly behind the chamber room of Khnum, on the right-hand side, holding the snake’s tail. His hieroglyphic name is to the right of his shoulder. From the burial chamber in the tomb of Ramses I on the West Bank, Luxor.

Heka is recorded as being one of the first neters created after the world was formed. While Maat, the neter of cosmic order, love and justice, is well recognized in Ancient Egyptian culture, Heka her equivalent is rarely discussed. Together they are the first born after the great Atum initiates creation. Heka seems to represent that special spark of life that is necessary to animate matter into life. Literally the name means “activating the KA” or the soul. Versluis (1988) in The Philosophy of Magic emphasizes that the Egyptians considered magic an essential force of life.

So how could the neter of the essential force of life be missed in the general understanding of Egyptian culture? This most likely results from modern day’s difficulty in dealing with the more-than-material aspects of life. We have become a culture of “doubting Thomases” who refuse to believe unless we can all stick our fingers into physical wounds. Our unquestioning trust in science and engineering eliminates any attention to the more-than-physical, such as that which animates life – Heka.

There is no recognized word for “religion” in Ancient Egypt (Naydler, 1996 page 124). It is a modern concept that magic and religion are opposite extremes of one another. While organized religions continue to recite texts for the betterment of individuals and groups of individuals, “magical” texts are seen to be either foolish or aberrant depending on your point of view. Ritner (1993) explores the difficult task of distinguishing magic from established religion. One thing is certain, starting with the Romans, non-orthodox practices were and continue to be suppressed and oppressed.  Such oppression was still actively practiced with the persecution of witches into the 1700’s in America and the treatment of Voodoo practices into 20th Century New Orleans. One man’s religion can be another man’s magic – and vice versa.

Magic as medicine: Heka played an active role in Ancient Egyptian medicine with Heka’s priesthood administering to the sick with recitations, application of remedies and articles of belief. Egyptians used both surgical information as well as incantations (West 1993, page 120). While recognizing the obvious medicinal benefits of some medical practices such as setting a broken bone, modern studies are exploring the more subtle influences and benefits of what could be considered magic in health outcomes, such as the known effects of a patient’s positive attitudes. Alternatively, the “broken heart syndrome” or “dying of a broken heart” is an example of a non-physical negative stimulus that results in a very real and observable outcome ( Chinese acupuncture is only one example of mainstream modern day medical practices that some consider to be operating at the level of magic. While some subtle influences are being recognized as effective in addressing human health, many people around the world continue to purchase and use materials , such as magnet bracelets, that have not been proven to be effective by truly medical-scientific studies.  Some modern day medical superstitions, such as the use of endangered animals, even threaten components of our world ecosystem. As with our difficulty in agreeing on the application and usefulness of “magic” in the modern world, it is no surprise that we would have difficulties evaluating the role of Heka in a culture of 5500 years ago.

Magic as magic: There are many examples of scrolls, medallions and objects that were used in Ancient Egypt to promote good outcomes of the Pharaoh and individuals as well as to promote negative outcomes on the enemies of Egypt (Ritner 1993). It is not difficult to find examples of similar beliefs persisting in our modern day world. “Worrying oneself to death” may be an example of the modern day concept of magic. It is hard to know if a voodoo doll would hasten the process. Certainly the belief in the consumption of animal parts for good luck is resulting in real and disturbing threats to present day animal populations, such as some shark populations. Maybe it is part of the human condition to just want to do or believe something – as opposed to accepting a nihilistic point of view in which nothing really maters. Magic plays a role in the outlook of an individual and on societal levels.

So as much as we strive to force concepts into distinct boxes, Heka in Ancient Egypt is a concept that modern society can’t rip, tear and squeeze into a convenient classification that can be denigrated and ignored. Heka was the neter of both magic, medicine and of that which enlivens the soul of every living thing.


Nayder, J. 1996. Temple of the Cosmos. Inner Traditions. Vermont.

Ritner, R.K., 1993. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization No. 54. Oriental Institute of University of Chicago. Chicago.

Versluis, A. 1988. The Philosophy of Magic. Penguin Books, UK. 

West, John Anthony, 1993. Serpent in the Sky. Quest Books.