Researchers in Australia have deciphered an ancient Egyptian handbook, revealing a series of invocations and spells. Among other things, the “Handbook of Ritual Power,” as the book is called, tells readers how to cast love spells, exorcise evil spirits and treat “black jaundice,” a sometimes fatal bacterial infection that is still around today.
The book is about 1,300 years old, and is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language. It is made of bound pages of parchment — a type of book known as a codex.
“It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner,” write Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, who are professors at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, respectively, in “A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power.”
The ancient book “starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power,” they write. “These are followed by a number of prescriptions or spells to cure possession by spirits and various ailments, or to bring success in love and business.”
Researchers believe that the codex may date to the 7th or 8th century. Many Egyptians were Christian during that time, and the codex contains a number of invocations referencing Jesus.
However, some of the invocations seem more associated with a group that flourished in Egypt during the early centuries of Christianity and held Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, in high regard. One invocation in the codex calls “Seth, Seth, the living Christ.”
The opening of the codex refers to a divine figure named Baktiotha whose identity is a mystery, researchers say. The lines read, “I give thanks to you and I call upon you, the Baktiotha: The great one, who is very trustworthy; the one who is lord over the forty and the nine kinds of serpents,” according to the translation.
“The Baktiotha is an ambivalent figure,” Choat and Gardner said at a conference before their book on the codex was published. “He is a great power and a ruler of forces in the material realm.” Historical records indicate that church leaders regarded the Sethians as heretics, and by the 7th century, the Sethians were either extinct or dying out.
This codex, with its mix of Sethian and Orthodox Christian invocations, may in fact be a transitional document, written before all Sethian invocations were purged from magical texts, the researchers said. They noted that there are other texts that are similar to the newly deciphered codex, but they contain more Orthodox Christian and fewer Sethian features.
The identity of the person who used this codex is a mystery. The user of the codex would not necessarily have been a priest or monk. “It is my sense that there were ritual practitioners outside the ranks of the clergy and monks, but exactly who they were is shielded from us by the fact that people didn’t really want to be labeled as a ;magician,’ ” Choat said.
a Magical Name in P.Macq.
Despite the brevity of this description, it is clear that Baktiotha is an important figure within these texts, and part of an elaborate mythic schema.
The Serpents The decans were a series of 36 stars or constellations located close to the ecliptic whose risings, or later, transits, served to keep track of hours, ten-day periods, and ultimately years; the decans were positioned so that a new one rose or transited at intervals marking the hours. During the period in which they served to tell the hours of the night they were said to be ‘working’, thus earning them their designation, ‘those who work’. Twelve such hours would typically pass each night, and over a period of ten days each decan would rise and transit one hour earlier. The whole cycle would take a year to complete, beginning once more with the heliacal rising of the decan Sothis (Sirius), signalling the inundation.