The Ancient Egyptian outlook to the supernatural and the divine was centred upon the concept of heka: the animating and controlling force of the universe.

It was seen as a force employed by the divine to maintain the natural order of things. In this worldview, the boundary between human and divine was porous.

Accordingly, it was entirely permissible–even admirable– for people to try to persuade deities. Texts in royal tombs that were addressed to the deity mingled praise with threats and prayers with demands and supplications.

Heka was predominantly expressed through the spoken and written word. It was also expressed via rituals that were linked to particular stones, plants and incenses. Heka could also be triggered by making statues and figurines.

From the dawn of Egyptian history, kings were portrayed as striking bound sculptures of enemy prisoners to favour their own fortunes over others. Models of people were even placed in tombs to work on behalf of the deceased in the next incarnation.

This was a system of thought where religion and magic merged; as well as priest and prayer; and magician and spell. Through them, the deity was implored, cajoled, threatened and even coerced; in their attempt to get the deity to give them what had been asked for.

Heka was morally neutral and could be used against public and private foes as long as the quarrel was a just one. Egyptians believed in frightening and dangerous spirit entities; some which were inherent to the cosmic framework and others that were the ghosts of deceased humans.

While magical protection was invoked against them, they were not considered evil. They were a mixture of good and evil. If they–like the deities–could be turned against enemies; they became powerful helpers. It was considered possible and even admirable, for a proficient magician to make a supernatural being into a personal helper. The reverse was also possible.

Significance was attached to knowing ‘the true names’ of such beings as this would confer power over those who came into possession of such knowledge. By the early part of the last millennium BCE, Egyptians had acquired a reputation in the region for excellence in knowledge of most kinds. They were also seen as skilled in their use of herbs and medicine.

The concept Heka referred to the deity, the concept and the practice of magic and prayer. Since magic was a significant aspect of medical practice, a physician would invoke the deity Heka in order to practice heka.

Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

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