It is a commonplace that ancient Egyptian religion and magic—and the Egyptians themselves—were “obsessed” with death and the afterlife. After all, we have all these mummies and tombs and Books about the Dead and Osiris being reborn and so on. However, while we like to distinguish the physical world from the spirit world and often from the underworld and heavens, the distinctions between these “worlds” are rather more often blurred, even in the Egyptian sources. While death is a state to prepare for—if you’re affluent and well-born enough to do so in ancient Egypt—the Dwat is less Egyptian “Underworld” than an Egyptian “Otherworld.” I’ve noted that the spells in the Book of the Dead often include elements that seem very pertinent for journeying and dream work, not just for a soul wandering in the afterlife hoping to avoid monsters. Along these lines, like most any form of magic, Egyptian magic is very much driven by image and performance, and image should be understood in terms of something broader than a mere picture.
Image Magic and the State
Many folks are probably familiar with the basic premise behind sigil magic: turn a statement of intent into an image, a sigil, that you then communicate to the unconscious and spirit world in order to nudge reality into making that image of the intention manifest in physical reality.
Saintly magic often works along similar lines: get an image (icon or statue) of a saint, and that image provides you a focus to communicate your intention to the saint (along with probably some votive offerings and praise and other devotional actions/prayers) so the saint can pursue the manifestation of your intentions. Of course, you may also have other “images” that can surround work with a saint or other spirit, let alone imagery or motifs associated with the saint that are especially pertinent. You might address St. Peregrine with cancer petitions and intentions because of that saint’s association with cancer rather than, say, St. Guinefort.
In comparison, consider the following examples from ancient Egypt, via Naydler:
…Anubis, the god of embalming, leans over a mummy. This is a common enough image in Egyptian art, especially of the New Kingdom…”Ah, that is Anubis, god of embalming, leaning over a mummy.” On reflection, however, we recall the fact that embalmment was actually carried out not by a god but by human beings. Or was it? At certain stages of the rites of embalming the body, the priests of Anubis responsible for the process wore masks in the form of a jackal’s head over their faces.
…the king’s day commenced with a ritual known as the “toilet ceremony,” which began before dawn, and in which the king was washed, censed, and given balls of natron to chew. Each of these ritual acts was magical. They corresponded to the cosmic and mythical event of the sun god’s rebirth from the waters of Nun (washing), becoming Horus-of-the-Horizon (censing), and being reborn into the Upperworld (chewing natron). The king then ascended the stairs of the Temple of the Morning at exactly the same moment as his heavenly father Ra rose above the horizon. Just as the sun was purified and reborn each morning in the Temple Beneath the Horizon, then ascended into the sky, so the king underwent the same daily ritual.
We know, for instance, that the ritual Songs of Isis and Nephthys that were sung at the temple of Amon-Ra at Thebes were performed by two virgins “with the hair of their bodies removed, their heads adorned with wigs, tambourines in their hands, and the names “Isis” and “Nephthys” inscribed on their shoulders. For the purposes of the rite, the two virgins were identified with the goddesses not simply through role playing, but through the power of the name.
On the one hand, I can see how these are very much all image magic, ritual actions performed by priests or similarly sacralized actors in the image of gods and myths. If you’ve read Eliade, this is the invocation of sacred time (or First Time for Egypt) in a ritual, sacred space.
On the other hand, I cannot help but think of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I’ve written before on Machiavelli, and he describes how princes secure and maintain their power through two primary means. The first is violence. The second is political theater and the importance of seeming versus being. A successful prince must cultivate the appearance of qualities that bespeak princeliness, power, and authority—that cause fear and awe in his subjects and in his foes. Christian princes must seem virtuous, religious, honorable, generous, merciful: they should be so only when being so does not jeopardize their power and the security of the state. Thus, it is better to seem virtuous so that one can, as needed, avoid being virtuous. Political theorists have observed how Machiavelli describes princes and statecraft in terms of theater and appearances, and they have argued that he exposes the principles behind which the state crafts and frames its power. I’ve observed that the appearance of princely power precedes or predicates actual power. As an example, I pointed to Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation procession through London, filled with ritualized performances of English, British, Christian, and Tudor images, motifs, and myths of power and royal authority.
Now, I and others have characterized this statecraft in dismissive terms: it’s illusion. Beneath her regalia, the Queen is a grandmother and great-grandmother. One can imagine the Queen dressed not as Queen but as someone’s granny in sweatpants and sweatshirt, and the glamour of the Queen is exposed.
Of course, the Queen remains the Queen, unless deposed.
It is tempting to look at ancient Egypt’s use of state and religious theater in similar terms: it’s a performance designed to awe the commoners so as to produce the actual power by convincing the public to grant that power to the pharaoh and the Egyptian elite. That’s primarily how Machiavelli and those he inspired seem to have understood the Renaissance expression of these performances.
Naydler steadfastly bucks against such a modern, materialist perspective, and Egypt had too great a reputation for magic—even today—for that to be merely the case. And while Naydler often adopts a romanticized take on how the elite ruled Egypt by enacting the gods, by living as expressions of the gods, the fact remains that, in many ways, the Egyptian elite spent millennia framing and portraying Egypt as entangled with the stars, with the heavens, with the gods, as locating the gods’ earthly expressions in the pharaoh and the landscape. The priests assiduously curated Egypt’s official histories and genealogies, their kings’ victories in mythic, epic manners: this is ancient Egyptian “fake news” and propaganda backed up with a keen understanding of enchantment.
None of this should seem particularly new to most folks who are already familiar with Eliade and enchantment, let alone Egypt. Much has also been made of late of the occultism at the periphery of modern statecraft, from psi research to, well, mysterious glowing orbs. And despite Machiavelli’s disenchanting gaze, the hermeticism of the Renaissance very often had operational magical agendas. Yes, it was propaganda and marketing and “fake news”; it was also recognized as an extension of the hermeticism that ultimately came out of Egypt.
None of this was new to me, really, but my recent work with the PGM brought something else to the fore that helped put Egypt and these practices into greater relief. Once I got a sense for how I’m supposed to say the barbarous names, and once I figured out how I can perform the uttering of those names, I realized that whatever is on the other end of those sounds is live and active. I have gotten results and responses from workings before, but I have had some of the most immediate and blatant results and responses from the PGM’s names.
So, as I ponder ancient Egyptian statecraft and princely enchantment, I wonder how much more effective that image magic and ritual theater becomes when you have words that very much get the attention of the pertinent forces and beings. It’s easy for us moderns to perhaps imagine that the Egyptians “created” their gods and divine beings, that they’re just ritualized egregores, especially when there’s so much theater involved. But the barbarous names emphasize to me that there’s someone else on the line, as it were.
Although the shape of many PGM spells is very similar to that of many other kinds of spellcraft, I’d describe many of those PGM spells as entailing the following components:
- Time your operation to work best with the intention and with the being you’re planning on getting to help you.
- Describe and/or image/depict the spirit or god or being the spell invokes or petitions: spells do so through Orphic hymn-style descriptions of the being or their qualities and epithets and roles, and they can also do so through offerings and technical hermetica. This component I would argue puts the sorcerer in resonance with the being in question: it provides the being an image through which they can act into our realm, but perhaps moreso, connect better with the sorcerer.
- Deploy the barbarous names associated with that being or associated with beings that can exercise influence over the target being. This component plugs the sorcerer’s magic into the desired current or into the spiritual world/forces that can get shit done. In some ways, it’s a version of #2.
- State the intention. The sorcerer states what they want the being to help accomplish.
I wonder how much Plethon, Ficino, and Bruno knew such words—versions of some of them survive into the grimoire tradition, of course. Elements of the hermetica were available to them. Ultimately, I can’t help but see how the theater plus the right words matter. That’s not counting the technical hermetica and knowledge of how to deploy herbs, stones, and animals into this process.
A Luciferian and Promethean Tangent
In having this statecraft on my mind, I also thought of Peter Grey’s Lucifer: Princeps. This Egyptian image magic and hermeticism has typically been the province of the elite, but elements of its principles are conserved in necromancy and witchcraft. The distance between wearing a uraeus or a ceremonial Anubis mask and wearing a parchment crown is only a matter of how much your arts and crafts budget is.
The enchantment of divine authority requires good, authentic seeming props/regalia for a physical audience: Queen Elizabeth cannot command respect wearing a paper crown and a plastic sonic screwdriver as a scepter. We know that clothing and jewelry have always been markers of status amongst humans, and the richness of that regalia or clothing can let you pass as someone of that station. There’s a reason sumptuary laws were a thing. Theater companies in Shakespeare’s London had explicit license to dress up as princes and aristocrats and clergy within the theater during performances. Even then, critics of the theater often expressed anxiety about how easily audiences could accept a bunch of commoner actors on stage as being royalty, at least for the duration of a performance.
Meanwhile, we’ve all probably had a laugh at Crowley and Mathers in their Egyptian drag. And you can imagine someone wearing a parchment crown and lamen coming up to you and going on about how they’re Solomon or Faust or something. And you might reasonably laugh at them. But that’s where I think we have to imagine things from the perspective of the other side of the spiritual mirror. That stuff works. It may look silly to other humans, and you might feel a bit Harry Potter at first, but we’re talking images, still.
But, at that point, we have commoners, cunning folk, witches, bored clergy, and college students dressing up and enacting rituals that princes and priests once had exclusive authority to do. For an audience of humans and spirits and gods, you want the costly, stately regalia; for an audience of gods and spirits, you can probably get away with props—consecrated, prepared props that will have a presence or appearance to those beings, but props that can convince their audience to pay attention, to believe you are a Manasses or Circe, rather than Biff or Brenda.
This jailbreaking of princely hermeticism is practically Luciferian and Promethean in nature. I say practically because I’m crossing cultures in making these comparisons, probably because the Egyptians were so thorough at erasing or reframing their rebels. Every rebellion against the king is a rebellion against Ra is a rebellion against Ma’at and thus ontologically Wrong. Rebels were Sets and Apeps. You see something similar with Christian depictions of rebellion. The Elizabethan Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion frames all rebellion—from children against their parents to subjects against their monarchs—as images of the original, Luciferian rebellion, which humans had been re-imaging, re-enacting, since the Fall.
This is where Lucifer: Princeps comes to my mind: Lucifer brings the means to imitate and be god-like to humans. As the first author of rebellion, Lucifer also becomes its best teacher. In a similar manner, we can read this rebellion in Promethean terms. Yes, Prometheus steals divine fire to bring to mortals, and while we usually read that “fire” as literal fire and the craft and cunning that emerges through mastery of fire, there is also that divine fire, that divine fire of creativity and imagination that is the image and power of the gods.
The Khaibit on the Wall
In discussing the Egyptian division of the soul into different parts or aspects—ka, ba, khat, akh, and so on—Naydler notes that the ba often is depicted as hanging out near the khaibit, or “shadow,” which is near or associated with the corpse. As that part of the person that is perhaps most individualized—the ba is often depicted as a bird with the head of the deceased—there is the sense that the departed self dwells near its corpse after dying, near its tomb. Naydler observes that eventually the ba must turn away from the khaibit to journey to the realms where it can become heavenly and join with its akh self.
Naydler frames the tendency of the ba to dwell near the khaibit in terms of the ba recognizing and affirming its identity through observation of the physically-identifiable corpse. That is, while disembodied, the ba reminds itself who it is by gazing down at its corpse: Oh, hey, that’s me. However, I wonder if the ba is using the shadow and corpse to have a foothold into the physical world: ghosts and tombs. Once the shadow is disrupted or gone, or its connection to the ba is severed, the ba will head on to whatever it finds in the deeper realms of light associated with the akh. In a way, the khaibit is a fetter that binds the ba to the mortal, physical realm. That fetter is often seen as a tether or burden, but it also operationally makes it easier to see into or act in the physical world.
I found myself comparing this to another line in Egyptian magic. To what degree might the ba and its relationship to the shadow and the corpse be analogous to the creation and animation of a statue in order to bring a god close to the physical? That is, within this cosmology, could statue-animating magic create something like a khaibit to bring the god or spirit close to and in contact with the physical? This seems to be a reasonable way to understand the ba‘s relationship to the khaibit.
I can also see from a necromantic perspective that ancestral shrines or necromantic focuses—say, an image, or even a relic or icon–can be enchanted or consecrated to provide a foothold for a spirit, ancestor, saint, or even an angel or other spirit to come near the physical. Some beings have far more “shadows” in our world, or in a region, than others. After all, from a Flatland perspective, the shadow is a fewer-dimensional projection from a deeper-dimensional thing: for example, 3D beings cast 2D shadows. Hermeticism allows us to make shadows of those deeper-dimensional beings in our dimension.
At that point, I wonder if the akh or that akh-reality is then that hyperdimensional existence away from a 3-dimensional frame of reference, and that hyperdimensional reality exists within a deeper-dimensional hologram of everything that is an expression of the sun/Ra as creator of our world. Humans in this world may perceive such a reality as like “limitless light” because, well, 3D minds have a hard time making sense of higher dimensions. But, I can see the khaibit becoming a way that an ancient Egyptian person would understand intersections with deeper dimensions.
I would also wonder if, at that point, all the ritual performance of godhood amongst the elite in Egypt create khaibit to bring the gods close and linked with the semi-divine’d elites—that is, the elites become the shadows the gods cast into this world. If we can engineer the shadows of such beings, and if someone’s shadow is present, then surely the being casting the shadow must also become present.
Featured Image: dimitrisvetsikas1969 | Pixabay
 I hope to spring for a translation of the Coffin Texts before too long. This footnote survived from an earlier draft, so ignore. Though, y’know, I’m still planning on getting a copy.
 Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996), 153.
 Naydler, 148.
 Naydler, 154.