Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘Egyptian’

Prophylactic Magic

It is true that in the private sphere many Egyptian magical practices were associated with standard life-crises, such as the dangers of childbirth, or with sudden disasters, such as an accident or an infectious disease. Magic may be a form of “crisis management”, but it was not only resorted to when a crisis had already happened. A high proportion of Egyptian magic was prophylactic. It aimed to prevent trouble by setting up a magical defence system for an individual, a group or a place.

Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 14

The Appeal of Magic

The appeal of magic was twofold: it identified the cause of your troubles and it promised hope in even the most desperate situation. Magic was described by Malinowski as ritualized optimism. In the sense that it satisfied the participants, Egyptian magic worked. Protective magic presumably gave people the comfort of believing that they had taken all possible precautions. This may have made tragedies such as the death of a child a little easier to bear.

Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 16

Too Dangerous To Depict in Art

In myth, the gods are more vulnerable. They are subject to passions and emotions, they quarrel, fight, and even die. This vulnerability was largely taboo in Egyptian art. The power of words and images was greatly increased when they were carved in stone to last for eternity. A terrible event, such as the murder of the good god Osiris, was too dangerous to show. Portraying even a temporary triumph for the forces of evil or chaos might empower them to act in the world.

Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 18

Alchemy is a Very Broad Church

Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.

A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the [Kabbalah], is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.

There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century [C.E.] the alchemist [Zosimos] wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art—gold—comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century [C.E.], a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.

If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.

There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.

Mark Booth, The Secret History of the World, pp. 338-40

Magic and Religion Enjoyed a Symbiotic Relationship

In [ancient] Egypt, magic and religion enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Rituals which would count as magic under [Sir James] Frazer‘s definition, were more commonly performed by priests than by any other group…. Magicians are often said to be distinguishable from priests because they have clients instead of a congregation, and because they are not expected to exercise any moral authority. However, this description would also cover most ancient Egyptian priests, who were paid specialists in ritual rather than moral teachers. The theory that magic is always unorthodox and subversive, part of a religious and political counterculture, does not seem to apply in Egypt where ritual magic was practised on behalf of the state for at least three thousand years.

Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, p. 12

Pervasiveness of Warfare In Early States

Whether or not warfare was essential to the rise of the state, the rise of the state certainly marked a decisive break in the history of warfare—the most important turning point until the gunpowder revolution in early modern Europe, which brought with it a still more potent form of political and military centralization. The cultural balance of power, in which most human societies had been trapped for thousands of years, was replaced by the political balance of power, which has endured to the present day. The cultural trap had loopholes: People could escape from it by “forgetting” about their grievances when “remembering” them would have been inconvenient, by ritualization, by arbitrating their disputes, by moving away. But there was no escape from the political trap, except in circumstances of unusual geographical isolation like those of Old Kingdom Egypt. The political type of warfare, heretofore an occasional and not particularly successful experiment in human history, now broke free of all constraints. War ceased to be an ancient ritual of earth and became a struggle for power and wealth between ruling groups claiming descent from the gods. They began the progressive elimination of primitive societies and primitive ways of war, a process that today is practically completed.

The sheer scale and pervasiveness of warfare in early states justifies these conclusions about its central importance. All early states had standing armies, all were expansionist, and all engaged in chronic interstate warfare that resulted in fewer and fewer states. In Egypt, with its extremely circumscribed geography, the process resulted almost at once in the unification of the Nile Valley under a single ruler, whose theocratic functions thereafter overshadowed his military functions. In Iraq, much less circumscribed and divided among many powerful city-states, the process of unification took longer and was never permanently successful, and the militaristic character of the state became much more pronounced. Not until the twenty-fourth century [B.C.E.] did Sargon of Akkad unite all the cities of the plain into the first hegemonic empire.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, pp. 37-38

Emphasis mine.

Ancient People Were Deeply Religious

Ancient peoples were deeply religious. In the Bronze Age, for example, Hittite and Egyptian accounts regularly give the gods a role in military campaigns. No Hittite scribe would think of recording a victory without thanking the gods for having marched in front of the army and thereby having granted the king success. No ambassador would swear to abide by a treaty unless an assembly of the various gods had witnessed it. In his poem about the battle of Qadesh (1274 [B.C.E.]), Pharaoh Rameses II declares that the god Amun spoke to him and sent him forward.

Even in the rationalistic heyday of classical Greece—and later—gods and heroes were commonly seen in the heat of battle. Sometimes their mere presence provided encouragement to the soldiers. At other times, divinities gave specific military advice. And sometimes they even fought! At the decisive battles of Marathon (490 [B.C.E.]), Salamis (480 [B.C.E.]), Aegospotami (405 [B.C.E.]), and Leuctra (371 [B.C.E.]), for example, contemporaries thought the gods and heroes took part.

Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, pp. 74-75

Money in Ptolemaic Egypt

For centuries in Egypt there had been no true currency with which to buy and sell goods. Most markets operated on a barter-and-exchange system. For very large-scale transactions it was possible to pay in gold or other precious metals, but the idea of coinage was still relatively new. True monetary economies had emerged in the city-states of the Mediterranean beginning around 650 [B.C.E.], probably first in Lydia, whose later King Croesus had made himself a byword for fabulous wealth. Ptolemy I had made some attempts to follow suit, issuing coins called staters just as Alexander had, but outside Alexandria these were as much demonstrations of royal power as they were useful coins. His son, however, now massively extended this scheme with the creation of a state-run banking system with local branches throughout the towns and villages of the country, all reporting back to the central bank in Alexandria. From these banks a coin-based currency was introduced, backed up by a system of written “bills of exchange”—promissory letters which could be exchanged for real money, or, as we would call them, banknotes. The entire rural economy was to be centered on these local branches, which provided the capital—seed grain and tools—that the farmers needed. They also provided massive state-aided infrastructural schemes such as the creation of a reservoir in the Southern Fayyum oasis which held 360 million cubic yards of water and irrigated 60 square miles of arable land. This was not pure largesse, however. Nearly all the grain produced by farmers was taken into the royal treasury in the form of tax. More land under cultivation meant more grain, and more grain meant more money in the Alexandrian coffers.

The driving force behind this economy was, of course, the immense quantity of grain produced in the Nile Valley. The annual flooding of the Nile, which ran through an almost rainless desert, made this the most productive agricultural land in the known world, where the sun always shone on the crops, but never dried their roots. Such valuable land was largely owned by the crown or the temples and leased to farmers, who were free men and women who often used slave labor to maintain their estates. Such estates produced a vast surplus, much of which the state took. Yet Ptolemy’s system also allowed for a degree of individual enterprise, as banks could handle private financial transactions, provide loans, and broker deals.

Whatever capital was left could be spent in the thriving open markets. Traditionally Egyptians had acquired the necessities of life they couldn’t produce for themselves by direct barter—effectively swapping a loaf for a pint of milk. The Greek immigrants, however, greatly encouraged the development of markets throughout the whole country. These were often held in the precincts of temples, and records exist of the temple taxes levied on the traders. In the town of Oxyrhynchus, for example, had you taken a stroll into the courtyard of the temple of Serapis on market day, a chaotic vista would have opened up as you passed through the first pylon. That day the peace of the temple would have been shattered by the cries of stallholders, all hoping to relieve you of some of the coins in your pocket. Here the local farmers and traders sold local vegetables, wood, olives, rushes, bread, fruit, wool yarn, and plaited garlands from wooden stands, each of which had been licensed (for a fee) by the temple. Among the crowd you might pick out the priests of Serapis, moving between the stalls, checking their goods and imposing the appropriate import duty on everything from olives, dates, cucumbers, squashes, beans, spices, and rock salt to pottery, green fodder, wood, and dung. The throng would also have attracted other traders offering more sophisticated wares, from the bulk grain dealers looking to turn a profit back in Alexandria, to the tailors, leather embroiderers, tinsmiths, butchers, and brothel keepers who always gravitated toward a crowd.

Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, pp. 77-78