Four thousand years ago, the civilization spanning the length of the Nile, from Nubia to Memphis and across the fertile delta to the Mediterranean Sea, was already ancient and highly sophisticated. So revered for its advancements in almost every discipline of the day, early Greeks believed that all knowledge emanated from Egypt.
But it’s the Egyptian religion, and particularly its occult aspects, that really took hold of the imagination of ancient observers, because, unlike contemporaries in the east, Egyptians sought to enlist their gods in the service of man. They did so by means of incantations and the use of magic amulets, or talismans, imbued with supernatural powers.
Magic Amulets In Egypt
Substance, color, and shape were all relevant features of an Egyptian amulet. And in such a landscape it’s no surprise: ancient Egypt was brimming with precious gemstones and metallic elements. They’d become experts at fusing these to make alloys, or “khemeia,” which were believed to inherently possess magic powers. In later times, after the demise of the Pharaohs followed by the Ptolemies and then the Romans, Arab conquerors in Egypt would add “Al” to the ancient word for alloy. “Al-Khemeia” eventually made its way into the English language as Alchemy.
Over the course of the millennia, the practice of wearing magic amulets came to be more associated with the dead. During mummification, priests would invoke the gods through these talismans to provide assistance to the deceased in the afterlife. And though the Egyptian pantheon was crowded, for the purposes of a discussion on afterlife rituals the core three deities were Osiris, god of the Underworld, his wife, Isis, and their son, Horus.
Drawing on instructions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, priests ritually called on this divine family to do the bidding of the deceased in their care. Below is a list of ten magic amulets that were commonly used in this cause.
The Egyptian Amulet Of The Heart
The relevance of the human heart in ancient Egypt is comparable to modern man’s notion of the brain. According to the famed British Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptians viewed it as the “seat of power and life.” It was believed that he who possessed “mastery of the heart” would be strengthened in the underworld.
So its mummification was, naturally, quite important. In fact, the organ was turned into a magic amulet itself. And its associated symbol was a jar because the corpse would customarily have its heart removed and secured in one.
The jar had to be made from lapis-lazuli, a dark blue stone favored by pharaohs for its reputed supernatural powers. Lapis came to Egypt from Afghanistan by way of ancient trade routes across Mesopotamia and was regarded by all the civilizations along the way as highly noble. So it only made sense to use it in the protection of the most critical of organs both in life and the underworld.
After death, it was believed the heart amulet would go to Osiris’s Judgment Hall, where it would be weighed against a feather. If the scales balanced, Osiris would grant the deceased eternal life. If not, the heart would be eaten by the treacherous beast Ammut, severing its connection to the gods forever.
The Amulet Of The Scarab
Most modern associations with scarabs are likely grotesque in nature. But in ancient Egypt, they were eminent on the lengthy roster of sacred animals. Their symbol came to represent resurrection after death, or eternal life, and creation.
Endemic to Egypt, scarabs take flight during the hottest part of the day. One can imagine a swarm of them obscuring the sun on a midday soar in the desert heat of ancient Thebes. Because of this, they came to be associated with the solar cycle, the source of all light and life on the planet.
Representations of scarabs using limestone or green basalt were extremely common Egyptian amulets. After removal of the heart during mummification, a scarab would often be placed in its void. “Words of power,” according to Budge, had to be written on it following directions from the Book of the Dead. Then the scarab would transform into a magic amulet — protector of the physical heart and source of new life in the deceased.
Magic Amulet Of The Buckle: The “Blood Of Isis”
The buckle of the girdle of Isis was made with carnelian or red jasper. These semi-precious stones varied in color from orange to blood red, and represented the rage and power of the gods.
The buckle was thought to allow the deceased access into every part of the underworld. Through the intercession of Isis, the Great Mother and goddess of healing, this privilege of free movement was enabled.
Before the buckle adorned an Egyptian mummy, it had to be ritually dunked in ankham flower water. This was a crucial step that unlocked the magic properties of the amulet, according to the Book of the Dead.
The Egyptian Amulet Of Life
Pervasive in ancient Egypt, the symbol of life can still be seen plastered amongst the hieroglyphs on every extant temple. It’s almost always shown being wielded by one of the gods.
Unlike many of the other amulets, there wasn’t one substance out of which the life symbol necessarily had to be made. It was, however, almost always worn as a pendant on a necklace by both the living and the dead.
The Amulet Of The Vulture
The vulture was a protective amulet that harnessed the power of Isis to safeguard the dead in the afterlife. Its wings would be shown at full span in a display of power as it gripped a symbol of life in each of its talons.
This magic amulet was typically made of gold mined from the resource-rich Eastern Sahara. And it was inspired by the lore surrounding Isis’s motherly protection.
The Book of the Dead cites two instances in which she saved the life of Horus: (1) during his birth in a swamp full of deadly snakes, and (2) during his epic battle with Seth, the god of violence and chaos when she transferred her powers to him and secured victory over evil.
In this same spirit, she would ensure the safety of the deceased wearer of the vulture’s magic amulet in the afterlife.
The Amulet Of The Eye Of Horus
Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was represented as the falcon hieroglyph or sometimes the falcon head on a human form. He was considered the personification of time and husband to the fertility goddess, Hathor — often depicted as either a cow or a female countenance.
The Egyptian amulet could have been made of any multitude of substances: carnelian, porcelain, lapis-lazuli, wood, or other. But to access its deifying powers, reserved exclusively for deceased pharaohs, the Eye needed to be crafted with lapis-lazuli and plated in gold; then sacrifices had to be made to it on the summer solstice. Afterward, another magic amulet made of jasper had to be displayed on the Egyptian mummy before certain spells were recited which would usher in his transformation from pharaoh to god.
The Collar Of Gold
It’s no secret the ancient Egyptians had a penchant for luxury. But few things scream ostentatious wealth quite like a six-stringed collar made of pure gold. What’s worse is that its glittering opulence would only be appreciated for a few hours before being wrapped up for an eternity.
According to the Book of the Dead, the collar of gold was to be placed on the neck of the deceased on the day of his funeral. Its power gave the mummy the ability to escape his wrappings in the underworld.
The Amulet Of The Papyrus Scepter
A restoration of youth and beauty in the afterlife was the result of wearing the magic amulet of the papyrus scepter. It was most often made of emerald, a greenish-blue stone so valuable in ancient Egypt that Cleopatra unabashedly flaunted it as her favorite.
Egypt’s Mount Smaragdus, located in the Eastern Sahara between Thebes and the Red Sea, was so abundant with the precious stone that it was nicknamed Emerald Mountain. And from ancient times until the Age of Exploration, the mines of that very mountain remained the world’s primary supplier of them.
Though copious within Mount Smaragdus, the overall limited quantity of the stone meant that only pharaohs and the upper echelons of dynastic society would have access to the papyrus scepter amulet.
The Amulet Of The Soul
“Khu,” or spirit, in ancient Egypt is analogous to the modern notion of a soul in the West. Egyptians believed that each person had two distinct elements: his body and his eternal spirit.
This Egyptian amulet was placed on top of the chest of a mummy to enable the unification of spirit and body in the underworld. Its figure was a hawk with a human head, and it would typically be made of gold and inlaid with various types of precious gems.
The Magic Amulet Of The Serpent’s Head
Similar to the buckle of Isis, the serpent’s head was made of red jasper and carnelian. Its colors, closely associated with the goddess, warded off evil.
The serpent’s head would be placed on a mummy to invoke Isis’s protection from snakes in the underworld. Also known as the Great Snake Goddess, Isis was often depicted vanquishing them in her effigies.