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This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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Magic and Medicine


Limestone Harpocrates cippusGreeks and Romans were ambivalent on the subject of magic; we have inherited not only their word (Greek mageia, Latin magia), but also its negative connotations. "Magic" in a Greek and Roman context is foreign and dangerous; it is a polemical word used to discredit religious claims of which the speaker disapproves. There is little to suggest that Egyptians made the same moral distinction between religion (public, official, pious) and magic (private, spurious, malevolent). From the Old Kingdom (2649–2134 BCE), the divine force heka (represented by the Egyptian god Heka) was invoked by Egyptians to maintain created order and to bring about divine intervention in this- and other-worldy affairs. The Ptolemaic and Roman periods see a quantitative increase in amulets, healing statues and magico-religious papyri for personal use, which may or may not indicate a qualitative shift in Egyptian religious belief and practice beginning in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 BCE).

Medical texts also had a long history in ancient Egypt. Besides prescribing remedies that we today would recognize as effective, prescriptions often included the recitation of incantations. At Tebtunis, as elsewhere in Egypt, medical practice was probably a function of the priests at the temple. Texts of medical content excavated at Tebtunis, included a damaged medical treatise (P.Tebt. II 678), a collection of remedies for the eyes (P.Tebt. 273), a fragment of Herodotus Medicus (P.Tebt. II 272), and an illustrated herbal (P.Tebt. II 679 +P.Tebt. Tait 38–42). Some of these texts appear to have been excavated in the temple enclosure and, together with medical equipment from the same location, may indicate that priests were actively engaged in the practice of medicine at Tebtunis.


Limestone Harpocrates cippus Limestone Harpocrates cippus
Ptolemaic period (4th – 1st centuries BCE)

As the child of Isis, Horus was worshipped in the form of Harpocrates (the Greek transliteration for "Horus-the-child"). A popular myth describes how Isis cured her son's scorpion bite. From the Late Period, images of Horus-the-child standing on crocodiles and holding dangerous snakes and scorpions were carved on small stelae called "cippi." On this example, a demotic spell invokes the myth to ward off evil and provide cures for illnesses and snakebites. The face of the protector god Bes, now lost, would have appeared above the child's head.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20317



Throughout Egyptian history, amulets and jewelry incorporating amuletic elements were essential personal adornment for both the living and the dead. Figurines or plaques of deities, animals, potent symbols (such as the ankh or Eye-of-Horus) or texts folded and worn on the body afforded the wearer magical protection. Amulets might function in a number of ways; they could, for example, ward off malign powers or imbue the wearer with characteristics of the image, such as the strength of an ox.


Faience Bes amulets Faience Bes amulets Faience Bes amulets
Ptolemaic period (4th – 1st centuries BCE)

There were no temples dedicated specifically to Bes; instead, he was the preeminent protector of the household, instantly recognizable by his frontal orientation (nearly unique in Egyptian art), leonine mane and tail, and dwarf-like, bandy legs. His amulets were most often of a glazed composition called faience; the green or blue color may represent prosperity and fecundity.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20688, 6–20997


Papyrus amulet against fever Papyrus amulet against fever
Roman period (1st century BCE – 4th century CE) (No large image linked.)

An inverted triangle is formed by a magical word repeated with the successive omission of the first and last letters, reading the same across or down one side and up the other. The text below asks a deity called Kok Kouk Koul to save a woman named Tais "from every shivering fit, whether coming every third day, fourth day, daily, every other day, or coming at night, or of other type(?)." Recent studies have correlated the variety of fever symptoms (described by this and other amulets) to different strains of malaria in an effort to discern mortality patterns and causes of death in Roman Egypt.

P.Tebt. II 275


Medical texts

Represented below are three examples of Greek medical texts from Berkeley's collection. Egyptian language medical texts from Tebtunis are held by other international collections, for example, Copenhagen and Oxford.


Illustrated medical text Illustrated medical text
2nd century CE (No link to large image available.)

This is the earliest example of the genre of illustrated herbals to survive from the ancient world. The format corresponds to that described by the elder Pliny. Each section is prefaced with the name of a plant followed by a color illustration and a description of its medical properties and those medicinal preparations that might be made from it.

P.Tebt. II 679


Fragment of Herodotus Medicus' De remediis Fragment of Herodotus Medicus' De remediis
Late 2nd century CE (No link to large image.)

... Not only on account of ... but also the state of health; for it would in some way spread greatly from this point, until a change comes. At the times of aggravation there are many causes of increase. If during the paroxysms the patient is also attacked by severe and unbearable thirst, not because of the malignity or complication of the diseases but owing to some peculiarity of the affection, this must of necessity be taken as a mischance and relieved even if such a treatment is not required by the stage of the illness. Such will be judged to be the case if the increase of thirst is out of proportion to the height of the fever. The constitution of the patient must also be taken into consideration; for if he has general endurance but is nevertheless unable to bear the thirst ... (here the papyrus breaks off)

P.Tebt. II 272


Medical prescriptions for the eyes Medical prescriptions for the eyes Medical prescriptions for the eyes
Late second or early third century CE (No link to large images.)

Headings describe the ailment to be treated and are followed by a list of ingredients and the amounts required to mix the desired medicament.

P.Tebt. II 273