Ancient Magic

In one tale, Chief Priest Djadjemankh turns a wax ship into a real shop rowed by a bevy of semi-clad women for the pharaoh Snefru. The King is having the time of his life until one of the rowers drops an amulet in the water of the lake and the boat stops completely. Thinking on his feet, Djadjemankh, stacks up the water on one side of the lake, finds the amulet and the pleasure punt continues. 

The Ancient World was full of able magicians, according to these two books, written by two well respected scholars aiming at a popular audience. 

My favourite story is the tale of King Snefru and his Chief Priest Djadjemankh, who turns a wax ship into a real shop rowed by a bevy of semi-clad women. The King is having the time of his life until one of the rowers drops an amulet in the water of the lake and the boat stops completely. Thinking on his feet, Djadjemank, stacks up the water on one side of the lake, finds the amulet and the pleasure punt continues.

Not all practitioners were so talented. Have a thought for Tullus Hostillus, a King of Rome, who was incinerated by lightning whilst performing a ritual. He bungled the words and asked for the wrong thing. Or Simon Magus, the First Heretic, who fell from the heavens whilst challenging St Peter to a competition of levitation.

Magic in the Ancient World

Magic was commonplace in the ancient world. Sayings like “touch wood” may come from a practice of touching wood to placate Pan the god of Panic. Confetti thrown at a wedding may come from the Roman practice of throwing nuts and apple slices, symbols of fertility and fecundity, at the bride and groom.

Like now, people in the ancient world wore amulets. In Egypt the most basic form of amulet may have been a knotted length of string. As a magical practitioner tied the knot, she would say magic words. The knots kept the magic in place.

Other amulets from Egypt, often in Faience, portray various gods. Isis nursing her baby Horus was a popular topic. In the Roman period, amulets carved in gems or precious stones well popular. The colour of the stone was believed to have magical properties. Cornelian and Chalcedony were popular. These gems may have had health properties. Pliny reports that certain stones were effective against stomach complaints and various other ailments.

Magic and Medicine were perhaps indistinguishable. People would incubate in temples across the region hoping to receive a visit from a healing god in their sleep. The most famous healing god was Asclepius, but this was not unique to him.

Bad Magic

Magic was not totally bad then.

But it was associated with nefarious practices, even if this was fairly mundane. Curse tablets (often on lead) have been found all over the Roman world, including in Bath. These curses are perhaps quite mild. Love spells were really love curses, maddening the victim into a tizz.

Roman Emperors banned magic at various times. Magic was then perhaps only disruptive when it caused harm or overturned the state.

Ammianus Marcellinus reports how some magicians performed an act of definition using a piece of equipment very similar to an Ouija board. They had accidentally discovered the name of the next emperor.

The accusation of poisoner was a common one, often directed at women. Both Livia and Agrippina are considered poisoners in popular history.

Mysterious beasts

The natural world had a magical power of its own.

At times, animals were tortured or killed for their magical potency. The wryneck, a bird, was tormented as a love potion. Cattle were slaughtered and their innards read as a sign for the the future.

Neither author talks about sacred animals in any detail. The Egyptians identified specific animals as incarnations of particular deities. Tame crocodiles were kept essentially in a zoo in the Fayum. Sacred birds were kept in Rome. The geese were sacred to the god Juno. Chickens were taken alongside armies. People would watch closely how they ate corn in order to presage the future.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed in a plethora of supernatural beings, some of whom we would recognise today.

Several authors describes stories about beings similar to the werewolf. In the Satyricon, Niceros a friend of Trimalchio tells how he once saw a friend turn into a wolf. They are walking at night by a cemetery. His friends urinates in a circle, takes off his clothes and turns into wolf. When Niceros goes to the clothes, they have become stone. He flees. Later he hears that a wolf got amongst a flock of animals. A spear was thrown at it and the wolf ran away. When he sees his friend, he is lying in bed with a previous wound.

I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first.

What is magic?

The purpose of neither book is completely clear. They both claim to be guides to performing magic, but they are really both introductions to magic

It is notable then that what is magic never really answered? A top five chart of ancient magicians is revealing listing a heretic, an astrologer, a poisoner and two mythic women. Magic perhaps is a term of abuse not a systematic set of practices linked to a wider view of the world. That various divinities were called up in support of magic in different areas, suggests local beliefs, rather than a systematic reading.

Magic could be everything, but it was also a specific set of practices.

Lucian tells a story about a young sorcerer’s apprentice who has a look at his master’s magic book, whilst his master is away. If this sounds familiar it is because it’s essentially the plot of Disney’s Fantasia via a short story Goethe. The image of a wizard has not profoundly changed in nearly 2000 years.

Magic is perhaps the gap between expert knowledge and popular knowledge. In Egypt people would often drinking or eat texts in order to imbibe the magic printed in the worlds.

Associations of magic still cling to Egypt in the popular imagination. Are we looking at the anxieties of Western civilisation towards a colonised power? The return of the uncanny. Perhaps. Neither book really unpicks this.


The tone is light as befits a popular text, but leads to confusion. Matyszak’s book has little boxes with spells. Sometimes these are actual spells and sometimes they are just a space for his trademark humour. One spell recommends getting the innards of various rare animals to open a door, another says to drink cocoa to go to bed. The tone is so dry, you might easily miss the irony. But that is perhaps its charm.

Both books are handsome editions and would make a fitting present.

Ancient Egyptian Magic by Christina Riggs and Ancient Magic by Philip Matyszak are both available from Thames And Hudson.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics