Demons in Ancient Egpyt

What would you be scared of haunting your dreams or what creature from the depths of the underworld could cause you a headache? For the last of my blogs in October and in keeping with the spooky season, I have chosen to have a look at demons in ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians considered there to be two main types of demons who affected the living world, these were the messengers of Sekhmet and those associated with the netherworld[1].

Figure 1: The coffin of Seni from el -Bersha On the floor of the coffin is a map of the duat shown in the ‘Book of Two Ways’. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA30841

A quick note on the Underworld

Demon is a loaded term so let’s get this out of the way first. When we think of demons, we generally think of hell and the denizens of it. So, from the outset, we need not think about demons in the realms of Christian hell. Although referred to as demons most inhabitants of the Duat were not intrinsically evil, they might have been dangerous to humans but their actions were commanded by the gods[2].  In early Egyptology the ‘Household deities’ such as Bes and Aha are sometimes described as benevolent demons, although it is probably only a reflection of the generally unfocused use of the term demon in Egyptology[3].

The Duat is what the ancient Egyptian used to refer to as the realm of the dead with the earliest depictions of this place appearing as part of the Book of Two Ways on wooden coffins from the early 2nd Millennium. This shows the two routes taken by the Sun god through the underworld east to west by water and west to east by land both routes are guarded by a series of terrifying beings which early Egyptologists called demons. [4]

The caverns that the sun god had to journey through often contained worlds in miniature some mimicked the mortal worlds containing deserts, rivers, islands and others not so much with some caverns containing lakes of fire[5]. (Figure 1) For this reason, demons are strongly associated with water a story from the second millennium BC tells the tale of a prince who becomes involved in a battle between a demon and a crocodile in the depths of a pool[6]. But this fear was not bound to fiction written amulets have been found that promise to protect the wearer against supernatural beings living in river branches, canal pools and wells (Figure2).

Figure 2: Papyrus Amulet text protecting a male child against all illness https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10321

Messengers of Sekhmet

This type represents the lioness goddess Sekhmet in her evil aspect as well as encompassing other spirits such as the discontented dead, evil spirits and even sleepwalkers[7]. This type was through to be especially prevalent at the end of each year and hat to be warded off by the benevolent demons of Osiris and his followers[8]. These demons lived on the edge of the created world and were there forming the forces of chaos which at points affected the afterlife and lives of humans[9]. Sekhmet was an aggressive solar goddess who was the instrument of divine retribution and shown with the body of a woman and a leonine head often topped with a sun disc[10]. I have written a little bit across different blog posts about Sekhmet so maybe next week I will do a wrap up of Sekhmet.  Rameses II claimed that Sekhmet the Great rode with him in his chariot ready to destroy the enemy with her fiery breath[11]. She seems to then be taken to embody all the negative qualities of the sun such as sunstroke drought and famine. Sekhmet and the goddess Hathor both have a sevenfold form in the destruction of humankind both of these goddesses show their sevenfold form; Hathor being a gentle and beautiful woman as a positive force of magic and Sekhmet the terrible bloodthirsty lioness [12]. The dark equivalent of the seven arrows or Sekhmet always brought evil fortune also grouped as the messengers of Sekhmet or the slaughters of Sekhmet[13]

Figure 3: Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Tameniu, chantress of Amun showing knife-wielding demons with backwards heads, snakeheads and many more! https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10002-3
Figures 4 (Top) /5 (Bottom)
Figure 4 Wooden figure of a gazelle(?)-headed guardian demon https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA50703
Figure 5 Wooden figure of a turtle-headed guardian demon
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA50704

Underworld Dwellers

Demons of the Underworld are the second type and these were the most terrifying for the ancient Egyptians. The most well-known was Ammit the devour of hearts, who we met in last week’s blog, of the unrighteous who features prominently in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead[14].  The being shown in these vignettes could have a fantastic array of beings. Shown on human bodies but the heads of animals birds reptiles and insects, some have double-headed or heads that face backwards[15] (Figure 3-5 statues). Others hold knives, or have torches as a head alongside this they also had alarming names such as ‘Blood-drinker who comes from the Slaughterhouse’ and ‘Backward-facing one who comes from the Abyss’[16]. But there is also another creature that lurked in the underworld that could be considered an arch-demon, the chaos serpent Apophis. Apophis was the great adversary of the sun god re and the embodiment of the powers of chaos and dissolution, darkness. During the sun gods nightly journey through the underworld, Apophis would attack the solar barque by the great serpent whose roar shook the underworld[17]

Not all ‘demons’ are bad

Magic for the ancient Egyptian closely ties to their beliefs and customs around demons and spirits. Magic was not just a defence against the forces of chaos and evil but that it might also be used to evade the deities who inflicted suffering upon them as a wider divine plan[18].

An example of one such deity is Seqet the scorpion goddess she is shown early on in the Pyramid Texts as a friendly deity with her name meaning she who causes (one) to breather. This flattery is a typical way that the ancient Egyptians tried to neutralise a dangerous force. The logic follows that if the poisonous goddess can be persuaded to, show her calm more caring side her power then can be used against scorpion bites as you were fighting like with like.

Figure 6: An example of an Apotropaic wand of hippo ivory engraved with fearsome knife-wielding demons amongst them you can see an Aha fighter and the goddess Tawere (both on the left side). https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545740

The idea of combining the fierce and protective powers of a deity can also be seen in Tawaret and a group of objects referred to as magic knives or ‘Apotropaic wands’ (Figure 6). Taweret was a hippopotamus goddess who I explored in my blog on hippos. She is often shown holding a knife and touching the ‘sah’ hieroglyphs which means protection especially when she is shown on wands, which is my main interest here [19]. These wands a flat curved objects and are usually made of hippo ivory and decorated with supernatural beings and divine creatures. Although referred to as knives these objects were not actually knives but derived from a type of throw stick that was used against birds, flocks of birds were a symbol of the forces of chaos in Egyptian art and so these objects could symbolize victory over these forces and in private a magical emblem used to exercise over demons. The other name for these apotropaic wands is derived from the word apotropaic which means something ‘believed to protect against evil or bad luck’ [20].  The use of hippo ivory further channelled the powers of Taweret and the hippopotamus into the hands of the wielder.

The creatures shown on these wands include lions, panthers, cats, baboons, bulls, turtles, snakes, frogs and crocodiles. Some even include more monstrous creatures such as the Seth animal, griffin and a panther-like creature with a long neck. The demons shown on these wands were given the general name of Aha ‘fighter’. This name comes to be applied to most creatures who appear on the wands with the fighters often brandish knives torches or lamps some even gripping or stabbing snakes and other dangerous animals (Figure 6)[21]. These are protective objects harnessing the power of these protective beings some have protective inscriptions on the back. An example from the Met reads “Recitation by the many protectors: We have come that we may extend our protection around the healthy child Minhotep, alive, sound, and healthy, born of the noblewoman Sitsobek, alive, sound, and healthy”(Figure 7).

Figure 7: Another example of an Apotropaic wand this ones long inscription gives clarity to its protective purpose https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544149

So, although there is a lot for the ancient Egyptians to be scared of when it comes to demons and spirits, they also believed that these ‘evil’ spirits could be tamed and could aid them. To be fair if I could have knife-wielding spirits protect me, I feel like that has to be a good thing although definitely would cross them.

References

I have used the book Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pincha a lot as a source for this week’s blog and would highly recommend giving it a read if you find this topic interesting as it takes a detailed look into the manners, customs and beliefs held around magic by the ancient Egyptians.


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[2] Pinch Magic in Ae Page 34

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[4] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 33

[5] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 34

[6] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 35

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[8] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[9] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[10] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 41 187

[11] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page188

[12] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 37

[13] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 37

[14] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 94

[15] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 35

[16] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 34

[17] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 221

[18] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 36

[19] Pinch, G., 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 40

[20] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/apotropaic

[21] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 41

2 thoughts on “Demons in Ancient Egpyt”

  1. I really enjoy your post. I’m not an Egyptologist, but have a general interest in the subject matter. Your posts are always interesting, well researched and well written. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    Like

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