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Egyptian and Jewish Magic in Antiquity


Since  Antiquity, people turned to  magical practices in  order to  protect  themselves against demonic attacks or the ‘evil eye’, heal the sick, determine the outcome of commercial or sentimental affairs, and,  in  certain instances, harm their  opponents. The richness of archeological and textual sources attesting to magical beliefs widespread among ancient cultures often collides with the complexity – or, perhaps, impossibility – to define what is ‘magic’ and what enters under this ambiguous category. The meaning of the term ‘magic’ radically changes whether we assume an etic (internal) or emic (external, or scholarly) perspective, whether we study one culture rather than another and, even within the same cultural framework, when we switch from one period to the next.

Yet, despite these methodological difficulties, in many fields of historical and cultural studies, scholars began to understand the importance of isolating and analyzing, often with an interdisciplinary perspective, the magical tradition developed within a specific culture. In the different scholarly fields, the fruit of past research on magic has brought not only to the recognition of an important and previously underestimated cultural sphere – that of magic – within a certain cultural tradition, but has also given valuable insight into other socio-cultural aspects of a specific civilization. In addition, the historical research on magic as well as studies focusing on the history of specific communities have deeply benefited from transcultural comparisons between different magical traditions. However, such comparisons must be carried out very carefully, since even if magical beliefs and practices naturally appear like intercultural phenomena, they always develop with certain specificities within a given society and in a determined era.

Magical beliefs and practices represent an essential cultural trait of both the Egyptian and the Jewish civilizations for many centuries and even millennia. Both in the fields of Egyptology and in Jewish Studies the research on magic – respectively on Pharaonic and Jewish magical traditions – has brought promising results in the last decades. Nevertheless, except for few studies aimed at detecting and analyzing those features of Pharaonic magic which entered the Jewish magical tradition of later periods (Bohak, 2000; Bohak, 2008; Ulmer, 2009), there have been no attempts to compare and examine together the scholarly achievements in the fields of Egyptian and Jewish magic.


Bohak G. (2000). “Rabbinic Perspectives on Egyptian Religion,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 2, pp. 215-231.

Bohak G. (2008). Ancient Jewish Magic: A History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ulmer R. (2009). Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash, Berlin: Walter De Gruyter.

Egyptian Magic

The scholarly debate on the definition of magic in ancient Egypt is still ongoing in Egyptology, because of some yet unsolved terminological issues related to the use of this term within the ancient Egyptian system of religious beliefs. At the basis of this issue there is a problem of translation of an ancient concept into a modern English word. “Magic” derives from the ancient Greek μαγεῖα, which is attested in Greek from the Fifth Century BCE with a negative meaning: μαγεῖα was a practice against the gods, almost opposed to the ancient Egyptian concept generally translated with “magic”, Heka, which was personified as a god and played a central role in the creation of the cosmos. Therefore there was no contrast, in Pharaonic Egypt, between magic and religion, the former being an integral part of the latter. Moreover, the evidence of numerous ancient Egyptian magical texts exposes us to a few additional and multi-faceted concepts of magic as a divine, transcendent emanation (baw), as a performative power/efficiency (akhw) or as a spell/spoken word (ra). We can distinguish different categories of ancient Egyptian magic, the most popular of them being “defensive magic”, which also includes funerary magic and was especially used in order to prevent evil in all its forms and to seek protection from it. Many sources, both material and textual, testify to the practice, in ancient Egypt, of curative and divinatory magic as well, but the inextricable relationship of the various magical practices with religious rituals, funerary cults and medical praxis makes it difficult to set aside “magical texts” as a clearly defined textual category. Therefore, although at present we have a number of reliable translations and commentaries of a few central collections of magical texts (Borghouts 1971, 1978, Leitz 1994, 1999, Fischer-Elfert 2005), much work remains to be done in order to define what kind of texts, both from the royal and private spheres, were used with a magical purpose and which is their specific “magical” lexicon. Moreover, magical texts from Pharaonic and Greco-Roman Egypt still need to be matched and integrated with in-depth studies on magical iconography, archaeological remains and objects of magical intent. Last but not least, many of the magical spells, especially from the New Kingdom (between the 16th and 11th Century BCE), present terms or passages in foreign languages, most of Semitic origin and which have been only recently studied according to a comparative approach with Near Eastern magic (Fischer-Elfert 2011). At present, a comparative study of ancient Egyptian magic with the magical practices of the neighboring countries and in particular with the later traditions of Coptic, Islamic and Jewish magic, remains a desideratum.


Borghouts, J.F. (1978). Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts, NISABA, 9; Leiden.

Fischer-Elfert,  H.W. (2005). Altägyptische Zaubersprüche, Stuttgart.

Fischer-Elfert, H.W. (2011). „Samanu on the Nile. Transfer of a Near Eastern demon and magico-medical concept into New Kingdom Egypt”, in:  M.Collier – S. Snape (eds.), Ramesside Studies in Honour of K.A. Kitchen, pp. 189-198.

Leitz, C. (1994).  Tagewählerei:  das  Buch  h3t  nhh  ph.wy  _dt  und  verwandte  Texte,  2  vols. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 55; Wiesbaden.

Leitz, C. (1999). Magical and Medical Papyri of the New Kingdom, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 7, London: British Museum Press.

Jewish Magic

The exorcism of demons, the use of apotropaic amulets, the uttering and writing down of spells and incantations as well as other magical practices are widely attested in Jewish culture since Antiquity. Yet, with the fortunate exceptions of Blau, 1898; Montgomery, 1913; Trachtenberg, 1939; Margalioth, 1966, and few others, earlier generations of scholars in Jewish Studies deliberately ignored – often due to ideological biases – the vast production of Jewish magical artifacts and texts. Only in the last decades has the research on magical traditions within Jewish culture begun to emerge as an autonomous field of study under the wider category of Jewish Studies, greatly enriching our knowledge of the Jewish magical beliefs and practices.
The inner contradiction within the Jewish world, since Biblical times, between the condemnation of magic and its actual performance has often made it difficult to provide an overarching and unambiguous definition of Jewish magic, particularly if attempting to follow – as it is desirable – an emic perspective, i.e., a perspective  that  is  reflected by  Jewish  culture itself  (Bohak, 2008,  3-4).  When approaching textual and archeological sources scholars are, in fact, challenged by the difficulty of understanding what should be considered magic and what should be acknowledged as specifically Jewish magic.
Despite these theoretical hurdles, scholars have begun to isolate an ancient magical tradition within Jewish culture, which is deeply rooted in the Bible but that considerably changed throughout the millennia, being continuously enriched by its contacts with other magical traditions and yet carving out its own independent path in history.
While the available evidence on Jewish magical practices are relatively scant for the First and Second Temple Period (except for those attesting to the Jewish exorcism), from Late Antiquity onwards there are abundant archeological and literary sources from both Palestine and Babylonia attesting to a considerable number of people from all layers of the Jewish society – from the well established rabbi to the illiterate tradesman – who shared magical beliefs and resorted to magic. Moreover, contrary to what we might have expected, in the Jewish world magic often was used by the elite as a means of social and religious control. The Jewish magical tradition, mostly transmitted and performed in an oral manner in the First and Second Temple Period, underwent throughout Late Antiquity a massive process of scribalization. In addition, from this very period onwards Jewish magic has demonstrated a remarkable tendency to absorb several elements from other magical traditions – chiefly from the Greco-Egyptian one – but also to re-shape them in its own Jewish way.
A great amount of Jewish magical  texts  and  objects  still  await  scholarly  identification, publication and analysis. Only when this challenging work is completed and when, in parallel, comparative studies are conducted with the magical traditions of the neighboring civilizations, will we gain more insight into the different magical practices developed within Judaism, into the history of the Jewish magical tradition as a whole and, more generally, into different aspects of Jewish culture.


Bohak G. (2000). “Rabbinic Perspectives on Egyptian Religion,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 2, pp. 215-231.

Bohak G. (2008). Ancient Jewish Magic: A History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harari, Y. (2010). Early Jewish Magic: Research, Method, Sources, Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik and Yad Ben-Zvi (Heb.).

Margalioth M. (1966). Sepher Ha-Razim: A Newly Recovered Book of Magic from the Talmudic Period, Tel Aviv: Yediot Acharonot (Heb.).

Montgomery J.A. (1913). Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur, Philadelphia University Museum, Publications of the Babylonian Section, 3; Philadelphia: University Museum.

Trachtenberg  J.  (1939).  Jewish  Magic  and  Superstition:  A  Study  in  Folk  Religion,  New  York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House (repr. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

The EJMA Conference

The research on magic in the fields of Egyptology and Jewish Studies would be extremely enriched by the exchange of accumulated knowledge between these two disciplines. A re-examination of the Egyptian and Jewish sources on magic and a re-thinking of the magical beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and Jews in light of an interdisciplinary comparison remains a desideratum. The great antiquity of cultural exchanges between the Egyptian and Jewish civilizations and the presence of Jewish communities in Egypt in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, together with the fact that  one of the biggest collections of Jewish magical texts was in fact preserved in Egypt – by the Jewish community of Fustat –, are but few of the many reasons that justify a scholarly investigation on the mutual contacts between the Egyptian and Jewish magical traditions, on their transmission, conservation and transformation during a millennium and a half, from a comparative perspective. 

The EJMA Conference represents the first step of this ambitious scholarly project. By bringing together established scholars as well as promising younger scholars and students in the fields of Egyptology and Jewish Studies, we have the ambition to develop, for the first time, a methodology aimed at re- examining and comparing the data on ancient magic obtained respectively in these two fields of research. 

The EJMA Conference focuses on the historical continuity and change of ancient Egyptian and Jewish magical practices from Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. Our aim is to study the similarities, the differences, and the points of contact between these two magical traditions. Particularly, we attempt to isolate ancient Egyptian magical features which entered the Jewish magical tradition, especially in the land of Egypt, such as the magical texts from the Cairo Genizah. In addition, we are interested in assessing the impact of Pharaonic magic on other early medieval magical traditions, i.e. the Coptic and Islamic ones.

The period covered by the conference spans from ancient to medieval Egypt; particularly, the textual and archaeological sources examined in this academic forum belong to the Pharaonic, Greco- Roman, Coptic, Jewish and even Islamic communities who lived in Egypt at the time. 

The main goals we hope to attain with the EJMA Conference are:

  • isolating a magico-technical vocabulary, which characterizes ancient texts of magic and, possibly, achieve a common and intercultural terminology on ancient magic.
  • following some linguistic and ritualistic developments in magical texts, both within a specific culture as well as cross- culturally,
  • understanding some of the magical names and nomina barbara we find in later texts, most of which still remain incomprehensible to us.
  • reconstructing the ritual dynamics of different magical practices on the basis of textual and material comparisons within the same culture or between different cultures - and especially those which dwelt in Egypt - both from a synchronic and diachronic perspective.