Spellbound in Brooklyn - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Spellbound in Brooklyn July 14, 2009
by Morgan Moroney


Relief of Khaemwaset
19th Dynasty XIX, reign of Ramesses II (ca. 1279-1213 B.C.) (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)
Relief of Queen Nefertiti kissing one of her daughters
ca. 1352-1336 B.C. (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

Egyptian magic was much more than hocus-pocus

Housed in a small gallery off the Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian wing is "Magic in Ancient Egypt: Image, Word, and Reality," an exhibition on view until October 8, 2009. Highlighting 20 objects from the museum's collection, it emphasizes how magic and religion, magic and science, even magic and health care, were inseparable in ancient Egypt. Despite its small stature and lack of videos or interactive computer displays, which sometimes overwhelm artifacts in exhibitions nowadays, "Magic" was an enjoyable presentation of a fascinating subject.

For the Egyptians magic, known as heqa, was neither scary nor strange, good nor evil, but a force present in nearly every aspect of their lives. For example, the exhibit examines the power of images. In the home, gods were worshiped as protective deities through depictions such as two representations on display here, both of the god Bes, guardian of children and pregnant women. One is an 18th Dynasty relief (1549-1298 B.C.), the other a Third Intermediate Period statue (1064-656 B.C). Magical amulets, such as an Eye of Horus (wadjet eye) on display, were worn for protection against evil and disease. Amulets were also wrapped in mummies to safeguard the deceased and heal incisions made by embalmers during mummification. The exhibit also presents an 18th Dynasty ancestral bust, an example of images of deceased family members kept in the home and in funerary chapels, and appealed to by the living for help in their daily lives.

Images and texts depicting royalty also held great power, sometimes equal to that of the gods. A relief of Khaemwaset, a son of Ramesses II, and a famous sage and magician, is included in the show. Royal and magical men such as Khaemwaset were often publicly revered and sometimes worshiped even centuries after their death. A large stele of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.) from a temple in Nubia is worn and weathered not because of vandalism or exposure to the elements but because it was a touching stone. The image and name of Ramesses were rubbed for magical purposes and the stone's loose particles, dissolved in water, were also drunk, giving the drinker magical and religious power.

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Faience figure of Bes with Child
ca. 1075-656 B.C. (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)
Faience wadjet eye Amulet
664-30 B.C. (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)
Stela of Ramesses II
ca. 1279-1213 B.C. (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)


Sculptor's model of the head and forelegs of a lion used as a gargoyle
Late Period or Ptolemaic Period (664-332 B.C. or 332-30 B.C.) (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

A relief depicting Nefertiti kissing one her daughters is an example of deliberate damage: Nefertiti's face and name are chiseled out. Nefertiti was one of the queens of the pharaoh Akhenaten (1360-1343 B.C.), who outlawed the traditional Egyptian religion during his reign and promoted the worship of the sun god Aten. After his death Egypt returned to its old practices, and many depictions of Akhenaten and his family were defaced, especially their names. The Ramesses and Nefertiti carvings are clear examples of the magical power of both depictions and destruction of names.

We tend to believe magic is evil, strange, or just the hocus-pocus of entertainers. This exhibit not only demonstrates how ancient Egyptian kings and commoners used magic, but it also calls attention to instances of Egyptian magic that the modern viewer is likely to be more familiar with. For example the large introductory panel refers to the magicians Moses interacted with in the court of the pharaoh, and also tells how some accused Jesus of being a magician who trained in the Egyptian court. One interesting object in the show connecting Egyptian magic to Judeo-Christian tradition is a lion-headed "gargoyle" that most likely adorned a temple dating to the Late (525-332 B.C.) or Ptolemaic (332-30 B.C.) periods. The stone head was "a sculptor's model of a gargoyle. It was used to show sculptors how they should make such objects," says Edward Bleiberg, Egyptologist and Brooklyn Museum's Curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art. The open-mouthed lion functioned exactly the same as gargoyles found on Gothic cathedrals: to drain water and ward off evil spirits.

"Magic in Ancient Egypt" is not monumental in size or content, but the show is a good warm up or cool down when either taking on or finishing up the museum's excellent Egyptian collection, which, even excluding the rest of the museum's galleries is worth the schlep out to Brooklyn.

Morgan Moroney is a student of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.