Ancient Egyptian demonology

Demons abound in the media today—from TV shows, to tales of possession, to the labeling of political policies as ‘demonic’, to the channeling of spirits for healing. Some of the most prevalent rituals in the ancient and modern worlds are those designed to target demons and those that make use of their power for benefit. The amorphous residues of these beliefs are still tangible in the surviving archaeology of Ancient Egypt.

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Clay cobra figurine representing fiery power of the sun placed in a room to protect inhabitants from demons (image courtesy of the author, based on the original ÄM 21961 now at the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin).

Defining this category of ‘demons’ is not easy as there is no obvious uniformity to their natures or intent. Some harm, some help. Some inhabit the afterlife, others walk the paths of the living. Some assault in gangs while a few have individual names. Although they played a crucial role in the Egyptian understanding of the cosmos—some were blamed for a host of physical and psychological afflictions, others were petitioned for aid—demons have remained peripheral to most scholarship focussing on Egyptian religion or ancient ritual practice.  While gods such as Osiris, Isis, and Ra are familiar, the darker side of religion and ominous entities such as Sehaqeq, or Fiery-breath have remained in the shadows.  This project aims to illuminate this darker and more private side of Ancient Egyptian religion that impacted daily lives, driving individuals to access the supernatural realm through rituals.

Since there is no universal definition of demon (any more than there is one for god), one of the goals of this project is to help develop the criteria for defining these entities so they can be brought together to construct a modern demonology of Ancient Egypt. The time period (2nd millennium BCE) and data for this project have been restricted to make completion feasible. Initial investigations include the Coffin Texts and the material remains of objects used to attract or repel demonic entities. These include ivory “wands”, headrests, figurines, as well as components referred to in spells. These will be the basis for an initial typology of demonic entities that includes structural, functional, and essential characteristics. The approach combines philological, iconographic, and archaeological analysis of the material, textual, and representational evidence. The analysis will be data-driven (a process increasingly used in the sciences) to allow for the development of hypotheses that might otherwise never be considered. 

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Headrest of Qenherkhopshef (19th Dynasty, Deir el-Medina) decorated with apotropaic entities to protect his perpetual sleep. While this one was used in death, others have been found that were used in life (BM 63783 © Trustees of the British Museum).

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An ivory 'wand' used to draw a protective circle around vulnerable individuals past which demons cannot cross.  (BM 38192 now at the Egypt Centre, Swansea, © Trustees of the British Museum)

 

The main goals of this methodology are to:

  • create a data-driven categorisation, typology, and classification of Ancient Egyptian demons and related paraphernalia from the second millennium BCE;
  • establish an interactive database that can be augmented by other researchers;
  • apply new methods of data visualisation to convey results effectively and engagingly.

We will combine science with traditional humanistic study and digital technology to create an open-ended interdisciplinary collaborative project. The database will be available to other scholars working on demons from other time periods to input their own data and tap into our formulae for their analysis. In sum, we seek to establish a shared tool that unifies research and puts Ancient Egyptian demonology on the map.

Dr Kasia Szpakowska
Swansea University

Kasiawas awarded a Research Project Grant in June 2012.

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Book of Caverns, fifth division, scene 9 showing the damned decapitated, bound, and upside down, burning in cauldron perpetually heated by fiery cobras, Tomb of Ramesses IX (image © Francis Dzikowski/TMP 1999).