Sorcery in Egypt
By Marco C. Pantelakis for LIBERTY Blog
Egypt’s Islamic character maybe one of its defining elements, yet Marco Pantelakis discovers that the ancient and mystical art of black magic is still practiced in many Egyptian homes, and still holds deep meaning.
Egypt’s boisterous capital lies at the foot of the pyramids of Giza. The trianglular-shaped ruins seem to emerge out of a separate dimension just to confuse the observer, while their oblique edges cast a grim shadow over a city that seems unaware of their presence. The atmosphere is almost surreal, as Cairo today seems to have no connection whatsoever with the silent tombs of the pharaohs. A similar feeling of alienation fills the traveller that wanders across the old city centre, where the medieval mosques and the thousand-year old Al-Azhar university emerge in the midst of the tourist market of Khan al-Khalili, an actual hive of local sellers displaying a colourful variety of statues of ancient Egyptian gods and pharaohs. The traveller will soon realise the magnitude of the identity conflicts that harass contemporary Egypt; a land where the shrines of Sufi brotherhoods stand next to papyrus workshops, a country where the memories of Nasser’s secularism still resonate in the songs of contemporary artists and countless minarets release their overlapping prayers into the sky. The depth of these inner contradictions is well summarized by the words of Yusif al-Qardawi (as quoted by the French scholar Gilles Kepel): “Egypt is muslim, not pharaonic; it is the land of ‘Amr Ibn al-’As and not of Ramses […] Egypt is men that let their beards grow….it is the land of al-Azhar.” The traveller will ask themselves whether or not there is any link between modern and ancient Egypt, or if any memory of the past survives in this cradle of conflicting forces that exist in this country.
The answer to this riddle began to take form in the mind of the writer after a brief conversation with the owner of a small grocery store in Cairo’s al-Mouhandessin district. After being asked how to get to Giza’s pyramids, the grocer failed to hide his emotions. He referred to the pyramids as al-haram, meaning forbidden or taboo, as he and many other locals are wary of the old pharaonic tombs. Some sort of belief in the magic of ancient Egypt still seems to exist. This was again confirmed during a trip to the Great Pyramid after an encounter with the funerary chamber’s guardian, whose feelings of superstitious fear and devotion became apparent during the course of the visit. It recalled the story of curses associated with Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. It was difficult to tell if these beliefs were solely confined to the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings; however in the following weeks, it was clear that in contemporary Egypt there are still those who practice and engage in the magic of antiquity.
There are two streams of high and low magic. In the past, the former had a religious purpose; it was for the use of the priesthood and was accessible through a specific initiation process. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is believed to have aquired this sacred knowledge during the course of his stay in Egypt. On the other hand, regular Egyptians could practice a form of magic, or sorcery. This was meant to help ensure good health, protection or cause harm to someone they dispised. According to the works of the Latin writer Apuleius, this form of witchcraft must have become popular in Egypt during the Roman era. From a “technical” standpoint, the ancient practitioner would proceed by gathering the required magical instruments and ingredients (such as amulets, incense, stones, human and/or animal blood and fluids) in order to construct a ritual that would be performed at a specific time in order to better exploit the astral and lunar flows of energy that were thought to influence every earthly business. The spell would eventually be cast towards the desired target.
Many contemporary Egyptians still rely on similar procedures to achieve their desired goals in life, even if it includes harming another individual. Rituals are usually carried out discreetly behind closed doors, even though they are betrayed by the rich smell of incense which wafts under doors and windows, pouring onto the streets, and is easily noticeable by walking through some of Cairo’s neighbourhoods. Some sorcerers even dare to carry out their practices inside the ruins of the ancient temples. The furnishings and design of a modern sorcerer’s home resemble those of his ancient predecessor. Statues and images of gods and goddesses who are the sorcerers chosen protectors adorn the house. The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet or the cat-shaped Bast are important figures. Protectors are summoned when there is a perceived danger from a rival sorcerer, or when they are needed to fulfill a certain request. However, in spite of these similarities between contemporary and ancient practices, a sorcerer will often enrich their methods with foreign elements, depending on their social and cultural background. The modern sorcerer may mix their ancient Egyptian methods with formulae and symbols derived from the Jewish Kabbalah, the Qu’ran, the Bible and even Eastern Tantric traditions.
One could argue the survival of ancient superstitions is quite common even in modern societies. Peasants in Greece still keep an eye-shaped talisman in their homes, as it is supposed to protect them from misfortune. In his momentous treatise on the origins of magic, Sir James Frazer provides extensive evidence on how an astonishing number of traditions are unconsciously widespread among modern Europeans, but their origins lie in the rituals practiced by primitive societies. And yet, modern Egyptians have not just passively inherited a set of superstitious beliefs, but on the contrary they have kept alive the practices of ancient Egyptian sorcery. They have given it renewed energy and life by merging it, in a syncretic manner, with a number of non-Egyptian traditions. In spite of Egypt’s historic makeovers that have repeatedly seen its identity shift under the influence of its occupiers, be it Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman or European, the smoke of incense still soars silently within the homes of many Egyptians, as they call out the names of ancient gods in front of small consecrated stone statues.
Marco Pantelakis travelled to Egypt as part of his graduate studies, which led him to develop a deep interest in political Islam and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He speaks English, Italian, Greek and is currently focusing on Arabic. He currently works as a political adviser in the European Parliament.