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Warding Off Evil Spirits―Egyptian Style
by Bob Brooke

 


People everywhere want to avoid disease and other misfortune, and many use amulets to ensure their well-being. Today, a person might wear a bracelet made of beads with a concentric circle design to combat the evil eye or keep a lucky penny in his or her wallet or even have a St. Christopher’s medal hanging from the rearview mirror in their car.

But the Egyptians took amulets to the extreme. They used amulets for much of their history, from the Pre-Dynastic Period around 4400 BCE to the Roman Period in the 4th century CE. Early amulets often took the shape of animals, while only a few represented gods.

Ancient Egyptian amulets were both decorative and practical. People considered them as having powers to protect the wearer. Not only the living wore them but also the dead. Amulets were abundant and cost very little, so people in all levels of society could afford them.

Amulets held different meanings, depending on their type or form. Small amulets depicting gods and goddesses induced the protective powers of the deity. On the other hand, small representations of anatomical features or creatures suggest that the wearer required protection over a specific body part, or that he or she desired the skills of a particular animal. Amulets depicting animals were very common in the Old Kingdom Period, while representations of gods gained popularity in the Middle Kingdom.

Amulets worn by the living were generally used for the dead as well, since their benefit also applied to the afterlife. Amulets representing a goddess or god, for example, occur in both spheres, as they were meant to invoke the deity’s specific powers. It’s possible that a deity amulet was used with a very specific hope, but since a god or goddess usually had multiple meanings, several functions might have been addressed at the same time.

Types of Amulets
The magical powers of ancient Egyptian amulets depended on several things, such as the amulet’s shape, decoration, inscription, color, material, and words spoken over the piece or acts performed with it. People wore amulets on their bodies to transfer the powers of the amulets directly to the owner. Some were pierced or featured a loop, allowing a person to hang them as pendants on a necklace, Among many other possibilities, they could be incorporated into rings or enfolded in a piece of fabric that was then attached to a string, so that amulets could be worn without having any means of suspension themselves.

Ancient Egyptian amulets represented animals, deities, symbols, or objects in miniature. People believed that certain things found in nature, such as a claw or shell, had magical powers and therefore could function as an amulet. There were also so-called textual amulets, usually consisting of a short magical spell written on a piece of linen or papyrus that was then folded and put on a string. Theoretically, anything could be made into an amulet through a magical act. Archaeologists often identify an ancient Egyptian object as an amulet based on its shape and size, and—in some cases—its use as a pendant.

One of the most common amulets used by the living and the dead is the wedjat-eye . It depicts the healed eye of the god Horus and is actually a combination of a human and a falcon eye, as Horus was associated with the falcon. In Egyptian mythology, Horus’s eye was injured or stolen by the god Seth and then restored by another deity named Thoth. The wedjat-eye embodies the healing power used on it and thus symbolizes regeneration. Appropriately, its ancient Egyptian name means “the one that is sound (again).” A wedjat-eye amulet was thought to transfer the power of regeneration onto its wearer and to generally protect the individual.

Scarabs were symbols of life and regeneration, and as amulets they could transfer these powers. Most commonly, their flat undersides were incised with very short inscriptions or with symbols or other images, which had further magical meaning. Scarabs inscribed with the name and title of the owner were often used as a seal by pressing the underside into a lump of clay that would then bear an impression of the incised decoration.

The Egyptians preferred to use faience for man-made amulets. Amulet makers could produce it in green and blue colors, favored for their association with life and regeneration. They also employed semiprecious stones, the colors of which often had a specific meaning. The Egyptians associated the color red, for example, with dangerous forces but also considered it to be protective. They also used expensive materials such as gold, silver, and electrum for the amulets used by the higher classes of Egyptian society.

Funerial Amulets
Archaeologists have discovered amulets inside the wrappings of mummies, thus giving the deceased powers in the afterlife. Those who prepared the mummies often placed amulets on the mummy or in between the bandages. While amulets worn by the living were often small, on average ranging from about ˝ to 2 ˝ inches, funerary ones such as winged scarabs could be as large as nearly 10 inches wide.

Funerary amulets peaked in the Late Period from 664 to 332 BCE, when many new types appeared that were only beneficial for the dead, such as the two-finger amulet. Funerary amulets often referred to the belief that after death, the heart of a person would be weighed against maat, the principle of truth and justice. Only if the individual had lived a righteous life before his or her death was the person allowed to live on in the afterlife. Understandably, the Egyptians feared a negative outcome, so they designed special amulets to ensure a positive judgment, such as heart scarabs. These depict a large scarab beetle with a text inscribed on its underside that linked the amulet to the weighing of the heart.

Symbols Used in Amulets
The cobra symbol comes from the word iaret, meaning “the risen one.” The Egyptians used cobras rising up in protection on the front of the headdresses of gods and pharaohs, suggesting the amulet may have been an emblem of royal and divine power and authority.

Another symbol is the hare. While its origin is unknown, it may have been used in amulets to symbolize fertility due to their abundance in the Egyptian desert

The lion amulet would have endowed the wearer with ferocity and bravery, as well as the regenerative properties that the Egyptians believed lions possessed.

The Egyptians believed that amulets in the shape of scarab beetles represented the sun god, Ra. They believed that the scarab beetle rolling its ball of dung across the dessert mirrored the journey of the sun across the sky from day to night. As the beetle laid its eggs within the dung, it became a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.

Amulets of vultures represented the danger to be averted rather than the intended characteristic of the animal. In this case, the fear may have been of being devoured.

When an amulet depicted a part of the human body, it supposedly protected that specific part of the body from harm or illness, and when placed on the dead, connotations of bodily unity and the integrity of the mummy itself.

The ancient Egyptians believed the heart to be the seat of intelligence and the origin of feeling and action. Heart amulets have been found placed on the torso of every mummy.

Ancient Egyptians had gardens and loved to plant flowers. Sometimes, they strung real flower heads together to be worn by mummies or by the living, and although their precise significance is unknown, flower imagery and amulets signified new life.

The lotus stood for rebirth and creation. Lotus flowers opened during the day and closed at night, thus illustrating the journey of the god, Khepri, who rolled the sun across the earth, and in doing so created day and night.

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