Medicine, Magic and Mantics in Ancient Egypt: Discussions on Technical Language and New Sources

5-6 October 2023

Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig
(Karl-Tauchnitz-Straße 1, 04107 Leipzig)

About the Project


Aims and Concept

The collaborative research project Scientific Papyri from Ancient Egypt (SciPap) is pleased to announce its 4th international conference jointly organised with with the research project Structures and Transformations of the Vocabulary of the Egyptian Language: Texts and Knowledge in the Culture of Ancient Egypt (Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig).

A number of hieroglyphic, hieratic, Demotic and Coptic texts of a scientific and technical nature have survived from ancient Egypt, which are linked to the modern concepts of medicine, magic, mantics and astrology. They aim to restore, maintain or improve a person’s health and well-being, sometimes at the expense of others. To this end, injuries were treated directly, demons were invoked as supposed causes of illness, preventive magical measures were taken, gods were consulted and manipulated, and omens were interpreted.

Medicine, Magic, and Mantics in Ancient Egypt will facilitate new research into the sciences of ancient Egypt. The conference aims to open scholarly and public access to hitherto unpublished texts from the above-mentioned fields of knowledge and to promote dialogue between researchers working on scientific texts written in hieroglyphic, hieratic, Demotic and Coptic. Further, the aim is to stimulate research into the lexicographical and phraseological aspects of these scientific and technical texts and to work out possible differences to the general vocabulary.


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Ida Adsbøl Christensen

ISAW, New York University

Theoretical information on astrological houses in P. Carlsberg 71

This paper presents a discussion of astrological theory and technical terminology preserved in the Demotic astrological manual P. Carlsberg 71. This manuscript represents the remains of an example of a treatise on personal astrology; that is the branch of astrology concerned with the fates and fortunes of individuals as opposed to universal astrology, which deals with entire nations and their rulers. The text is one of more than 50 astrological treatises written in Demotic that survive from the temple library of the ancient site of Tebtunis and dates to the Roman period (1st-2nd century CE). The astrological papyri from Tebtunis remain virtually unpublished resulting in a relatively limited knowledge of ancient Egyptian astrology, although considerable scholarly effort has been devoted to the edition of this material over the recent years. P. Carlsberg 71 represents a particularly valuable source, since the surviving fragments contain examples of classifications and explanations of heavenly bodies and astrological concepts. Such emic insights into Egyptian astrology are rare and offer a unique opportunity for expanding the current understanding of Egyptian astrological terminology and theory. This paper will focus on a part of the manuscript dealing with the signs of the zodiac and the astrological houses. It will explore the technical terminology employed in P. Carlsberg 71 with attention to the possible connections between Egyptian, Greek, and Mesopotamian astrology.

Anke Blöbaum

 Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften

The conception of the body and its parts in the Oracular Amuletic Decrees and beyond

The text corpus of the so-called Oracular Amuletic Decrees (OAD) has been known since its first publication in 1960 by I.E.S. Edwards (Edwards 1960). Since then, further texts could be assigned to this corpus (Quack 1994, 5-8; Bohleke 1997; Fischer-Elfert 2015, 82-95, 203-219, 250-252; Koenig 2018). The texts, which were primarily but not exclusively made for children, contain spells or promises from various gods for the protection of the amulet owner. These spells detail dangers as well as potentially dangerous situations from which the amulet owner is to be protected. The contribution focusses on body protection, which presupposes a concept of the body and its parts as a vulnerable, object-like entity without its own perspective for action.

In this respect, the texts show an extremely rich vocabulary for describing the body on the one hand and for designating possible dangers to which a body can be exposed on the other. An analysis of this vocabulary as well as its use serves as the basis for the following considerations: What conception underlies the description of the body in the OAD? To what extent do these texts draw on medical knowledge about the body and its functions? What is the relationship between the description of the body in the OAD and anatomical lists from religious or funerary contexts? In addition, fundamental questions arise: What perspectives does such an analysis offer and what are its limits? How reliable are the findings with regard to further interpretations?

The study is based on a complete reworking of the Oracular Amuletic Decrees, which is part of my work in the project “Structures and Transformations of the Vocabulary of the Egyptian Language” at the Academy of Sciences in Leipzig.


  • Bohleke 1997: Brian Bohleke. An Oracular Amuletic Decree of Khonsu in the Cleveland Museum of Art. In: JEA 83 (1997), 155–167.
  • Edwards 1960:I.E.S. Edwards. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum. Fourth Series: Oracular Amuletic Decrees of the Late New Kingdom. 2 Vols. London 1960.
  • Fischer-Elfert 2015: Hans Werner Fischer-Elfert. Magika Hieratika in Berlin, Hannover, Heidelberg und München. ÄOP 2. Berlin 2015.
  • Koenig 2018: Yvan Koenig. Un nouveau décret amulettique oraculaire Pap. IFAO H 40. In: BIFAO 118 (2018), 233–240.
  • Quack 1994: Joachim Friedrich Quack. Die Lehren des Ani. Ein neuägyptischer Weisheitstext in seinem kulturellen Umfeld. OBO 141. Göttingen/Fribourg 1994.

Alexander Brawanski (keynote)

Universitätsklinikum Regensburg

The Ancient Egyptian drug inventory for the treatment of eye diseases: Searching for patterns

The treatment of eye diseases plays a prominent role in ancient Egyptian medicine. The question was investigated whether overlapping drug patterns can be found in recipes related to eye diseases, which would allow a grouping of these diseases, and thus reveal some sort of overarching treatment concept. To this end, a database of 146 prescriptions from various medical papyri was created. These data were then analyzed statistically and using data mining techniques.

It turns out that the majority (75%) of the drugs are used alone or in combination quite specifically for a disease. Based on these drugs or their combinations, diseases can also be clearly identified by the database. The maximum reasonable combination density, we used for this purpose, extends up to three drugs.

In a second step, significant combinations of drugs were screened with the question, which drugs are often used together, and whether a grouping of the diseases is possible by this. First, drug combinations (rules) are found that occur with a certain frequency. Second, the rules can be used to group the diseases into three clusters (groups). For this grouping, however, ultimately only 12 drugs are relevant, so that despite these statistically positive results, the clustering of the diseases does not contribute to a medical – philological interpretation, because the relevant amount of drugs responsible for this is simply too small and not specific enough. In summary, the majority of drugs are disease-specific (primary drugs). Adjunct drugs (secondary drugs) appear distributed across various prescriptions. Of these, some occur in fixed combinations, but their number is too small for any further disease specific conclusions. In general, no overarching concept for the treatment of eye diseases can be identified. Some medical and philological implications of these results will be discussed.

Camilla Di Biase-Dyson

Macquaire University

Metaphors in Ancient Egyptian healing texts: Building blocks of scientific language

Figurative language, including metaphor, metonymy and personification, are employed in medical literature even today to explain otherwise invisible, intangible or elusive functions of the human body, such as weakness, fever or inflammation. The necessity to explain the inexplicable also seems to have been felt by the scribes composing the healing texts of ancient Egypt: figurative language was employed to describe body parts, bodily functions as well as pathological conditions of the body. In this talk, procedures will be presented that can help researchers identify and describe metaphors in an analytical and replicable way (Di Biase-Dyson 2017). Following this, case studies from the healing texts will be presented to see how figurative language was being used and to consider whether figurative language contributed to what might have been a register of ‘scientific’ or ‘technical language’ in ancient Egyptian textual expression. In so doing, this research contributes to unresolved issues within studies of healing texts, contemplating whether the metaphorical language can be taken ‘literally’ (Ritner 2006) or as part of a figuratively inclined explanatory apparatus (Nyord 2017), and assessing the extent to which the language was simply a layperson’s language (Westendorf 1999) or whether that language was being developed within these texts as technical language (Pommerening 2016).


  • Di Biase-Dyson, C. (2017) Metaphor. In J. Stauder-Porchet, A, Stauder & W. Wendrich (Eds), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles (link).
  • Nyord, R. (2017) Analogy and metaphor in ancient medicine and the ancient Egyptian conceptualization of heat in the body. In J. Wee (Ed.), The comparable body: Imagination and analogy in ancient anatomy and physiology. Studies in Ancient Medicine 49. Leiden: Brill, 12–42.
  • Pommerening, T. (2016) Heilkundliche Texte aus dem Alten Ägypten: Vorschläge zur Kommentierung und Übersetzung. In A. Imhausen & T. Pommerening (Eds), Translating Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Methodological Aspects with Examples. Berlin: DeGruyter, 175–280.
  • Ritner, R. K. (2006) The Cardiovascular System in Ancient Egyptian Thought, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 65(2), 99–109.
  • Westendorf, W. (1999) Handbuch der Altägyptischen Medizin. Handbuch der Orientalistik 36. Leiden: Brill.

Sylvie Donnat

Université de Lille

The text-image relationship in amuletic papyri: The case of the description of the hierocephalic crocodile in P. Louvre 32311

The papyrus Louvre 32311 is part of a group of textual amulets acquired by the Louvre in 1995, which also includes the papyrus Louvre 32308 (the papyrus of Mutemheb) published by Yvan Koenig in 2004. The papyrus Louvre 32311 was written for a female individual called Taiset. On palaeographic and onomastic basis, it may date to the end of Dynasty 20 at the earliest and most probably to the post-ramesside period. Inscribed with ten lines of hieratic script (7 full lines and 3 short lines), it has also a set of drawings, including six squatting deities and a hierocephalic crocodile. It presents two invocations (lines 1-5 and 5-10), each one beginning by a vocative. The first of the two invocations describes (specifically on lines 1-2) a divinity that has a composite appearance, and emphasizes the notion of ba. Despite some uncertainties about the reading of the text, it is likely to be related to the hierocephalic crocodile drawn at the bottom of the sheet of papyrus. After an examination of the text of the description and a comparison of its phraseology with other textual descriptions of composite or polymorphic deities, the text will be compared with the accompanying vignette. The question of the text-image relationship in textual amulets will be then considered.

Korshi Dosoo

Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

Divination in Coptic magical texts

The Coptic magical corpus shows many signs of continuity with the older Graeco-Egyptian magical tradition, yet one case of disjuncture is in the near absence of divination rituals. Divination is a concern in about a third of the surviving Graeco-Egyptian recipes, but only about one percent of the Coptic corpus. This creates something of a paradox, since divinatory practices, such as bowl divination, have a prominent role in several of the magical traditions which are apparently dependent upon the Coptic tradition, such as Arabic-language Egyptian and Ge’ez-language Ethiopian magical practice. This paper will explore the evidence for magical divination which does survive in Coptic—recipes for dream, bowl, and thumbnail divination—discussing their relationship to earlier and later practices, and exploring some possible explanations for the marginality of divination in the Coptic language texts.

Marina Escolano-Poveda and Kim Ryholt

The University of Liverpool and The University of Copenhagen

Demotic handbooks on decanal astrology

Presentation of a project (together with Kim Ryholt) for the publication of two Demotic manuals on personal astrology based on the decans. The texts are similarly structured to two other manuals currently being prepared for publication by Lingxin Zhang. Whereas the latter were aimed at women, the present texts were instead written for men. The category seems otherwise unattested within both Egypt and the Graeco-Roman world in general. However, it is clear that Greek translations once existed, at least in Egypt, and an abridged version is preserved in Hephaistion’s Apotelesmatika.

Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert

Universität Leipzig

Eye-paint, orpiment, and jaundice: Demystifying a hitherto unknown hieratic sign in a Berlin treatise on ophthalmology

pBerlin P. 15339 provides a broad range of eye recipes from the Late New Kingdom including instances of two hitherto undocumented hieratic signs. One of them is a variant of child (A17) + knife (T30) for m:sdm.t – “galena”, the second one is a composite sign of the human eye (D4), crossed by a slash and determined by the grain of sand (N33) on plural strokes. Despite the recipe’s titles missing, it is argued that we are confronted with a yellow(ish) mineral. The most likely candidate for this ingredient seems to be ḳnj.w – “orpiment”, well-known from MK stelae and NK tomb paintings. The pharmaceutical connection between eye-paint and orpiment finds an etiological explanation in a rather unexpected place, and this is the contendings of Thoth and Seth in pJumilhac copied at some point in the late Ptolemaic Period. A lexicographical approach of the root ḳnj – “yellow(ish)” may help explain the Ebers recipe no. 416 and its multi-colored antidotes to fight ḳnj.t, another clear case of chromoanalogical proceeding in Egyptian pharmacopeia. A yellow(ish) disfigurement on the sclera of the eyes may indicate one of the first symptoms of ḳnj.t – “jaundice”.

Marco Frenschkowski (keynote)

Universität Leipzig

Categories of reality in ancient lexical lists and in late antique lexicography

The categories by which we perceive culture and reality have become the subject of cultural studies critique in quite a number of ways. Post-colonial critique has questioned these categories with good arguments as Western hegemonic forms of domination when used for non-Western and non-modern societies. Some categories, such as “religion”, have become particularly problematized with regard to  their descriptive value. The lecture looks for possibilities to get a view on the segmentations by which ancient cultures and languages perceive themselves.

The word lists and lexica of antiquity, especially late antiquity, provide important material on how these cultures constructed social, cultural and religious reality. A comparative semantics, which asks about the mental lexicon of languages, can be supplemented by observations from the composition of terminology in these texts. Some widely divergent examples of Greek, Latin, Iranian (Frahang ī Pahlavīg), Chinese (Erh ya) and other lists and lexical texts  will be used to demonstrate the usefulness of this question. Paradigms of cultural domains can be named even if the corresponding languages do not have their own special abstract terminology for them. The paper also hopes to shed some light on our modern cultural segmentations, such as the concept of religion in particular.

Anne Grons

Philipps-Universität Marburg

Healing across phraseological(?!) borders: How to differentiate between “medical” and “magical” healing approaches in Coptic medical recipes?

The corpus of Coptic healing texts offers a wide range of therapeutic approaches, some of which – from a modern perspective – are categorized as “medical”, “magico-medical” and/or “magico-religious”. The latter include, for instance, amulets, healing spells, prayers, anointing with holy oil, laying on of hands and others. Of particular interest in this context, however, are the medical recipes. Here there seem to be two possibilities: Recipes that contain magico-religious elements and those that dispense with them entirely. Accordingly, they can either prescribe only the administration of drugs (i.e., on an herbal, mineral or animal basis) or link the use or application of drugs to magical rituals. When working with such texts, one question that always arises is whether and how one could distinguish between such “magical” and “non-magical” medical (or pharmaceutical) approaches to healing. A very modern question that probably did not arise for the late antique users. However, in the context of my completed dissertation project, I felt forced to narrow down the corpus of recipe texts in order to be able to deal with the amount of material in a reasonable time frame. I therefore decided to work primarily on those texts that appear to be “purely” medical and without magical elements. Whether and how I managed to do this will be the central topic of my lecture. And although the question of whether such texts should be separated at all is a very central and very controversial one, I do not want to make it the focus of my lecture. Rather, I would like to point out approaches on a less content-related, but more phraseological and purely textual level and present and discuss possible criteria for differentiation.

Ivan Guermeur

École Pratique des Hautes Études

The hand of Atum and the fight against incubi: An unpublished passage from Brooklyn Papyrus 47.218.2

A passage from Brooklyn Papyrus 47.218.2, a compendium of iatromagic formulae for the protection of the parturient and her child, features in its last part (col. x + VIII) a hand of Atum and his fingers. The fingers are identified by name, and they are called upon to help the sleeper fight off incubi and other harmful creatures that take advantage of the night to enter his body. The passage presents a number of reading and understanding difficulties that can be discussed at this workshop.

Amber Jacob

ISAW, New York University

Magical instances in Demotic medical texts

Although the interconnectedness of medicine and magic in ancient Egypt has been increasingly acknowledged in scholarship, the question of their connection in Demotic textual traditions has remained ambiguous. While Demotic magical compendia have been shown to contain incantations for medical concerns, the Demotic medical compendia that have been fully or partially published to date have revealed no instances of magical practice. This has led to the question of whether Demotic medical texts came to exclude magical formulae entirely or whether the seeming omission is simply an accident of preservation. However, recent work on the unpublished corpus of Demotic medical receptaria from Tebtunis has unambiguously revealed that medical and magical content continued to be closely intertwined in Egyptian medical compositions of the Graeco-Roman Period. This paper will present the evidence for magical instances in the Demotic medical papyri from Tebtunis, including a section on incantations for the belly (P.Carlsberg 170 + P.Berkeley 57) and a section on the health of mother and child (P.Carlsberg 172).

Svenja Nagel

Universität Heidelberg

Between sexual enhancement and control: Aphrodisiac recipes and their adaptations in the Demotic and Greek magical papyri

A vast corpus of Demotic and Greek magical handbooks with collections of recipes as well as activated texts and objects produced in the course of magical rituals is preserved from Graeco-Roman Egypt. Spells concerned with the field of sexuality and love form a major part of the categories represented in these sources. Apart from complex techniques for attracting a target person by compulsion, for separating existing relationships, or for boosting the user’s own charm and attractivess, more basic recipes for preparations to enhance sexual pleasure (aphrodisiacs) and/or control physical functions related to sexuality are also attested. This paper is based on research conducted within the collaborative DFG project “Sexual dynamis and Dynamics of Magical Practice in Graeco-Roman Egypt: Erotic Spells in the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri (PGM and PDM) and their Cultural Traditions”, and will present an analysis of the subcategory of aphrodisiac recipes. In particular, it will focus on recipes targeted at women, which are attested mainly in Egyptian language. First, an overview of the individual texts, their contents and ingredients, but also their format, terminology and organisation within larger handbooks will be provided. In the second part, I will discuss the underlying cultural traditions, such as the relationship to traditional Egyptian medical texts, and finally turn to the transformation this subcategory underwent when it became adapted to Greek language formularies as well as to other subcategories of erotic magic, especially those featuring strong compulsive elements.

Tanja Pommerening

Philipps-Universität Marburg

Medical reenactemts: Emic and etic perspectives

By reprocessing ancient Egyptian medicines, one obtains a wide range of information that can help us advance scientifically in various fields. The lecture will show by means of examples which results on the lexicographic, medical-historical, pharmaceutical-technological and pharmacological level can be derived from such experiments.

Lutz Popko

Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften

Publishing a masterpiece, from Stone Age to Digital Age, and back to the analog world: The Papyrus Ebers replica

The Ebers Papyrus, now kept in the “Papyrus- und Ostrakasammlung” of the University Library of Leipzig, Germany, has been the flagship of ancient Egyptian medicine for more than a century due to its length, content, state of preservation, and age. At the time of its discovery it was perfectly preserved, only a few columns were lost in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In this talk, I will give a brief overview of the publication history of this masterpiece, starting with the amazing lithographic facsimile edition made in 1875, which still preserves the columns that are lost today, to the making of the replica that is on display in the University Library. A subsequent visit to this replica will give the speakers of this workshop an impression of what this papyrus once looked like, before it was cut into pieces, and even long before it was found.

Tonio Sebastian Richter

 Freie Universität Berlin

Al-Rāzī in the Egyptian countryside: A 9th-/10th-century Coptic archive of medical and alchemical manuscripts and its intellectual background

Five Coptic alchemical manuscripts and two Coptic medical papyri can be assigned to a single archive. This archive testifies to a community of literate persons in a provincial town of 9th/10th-century Egypt who used and produced collections of medical and alchemical recipes, and apparently engaged in healing practice and metallurgical experiment. The language of the texts depends on Arabic technical terminology to a degree as to prove that the Coptic manuscripts bear in fact witness for Arabic alchemical traditions. Likewise has the historical reality of linked medical and alchemical endeavors its earliest representatives in 9th-century Arabic scholars, such as the famous philosopher, physician and alchemist Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyāʾ Al-Rāzī (865-925). The proposed paper attempts to examine the intellectual background of the Coptic medical and alchemical archive and its protagonists. 20th-century historians of alchemy had maintained prejudices about the Arabic alchemy of Egypt as a learned Glasperlenspiel of merely mystical, hermetic, and allegorical allusions. The Coptic texts shed now a completely different light on the scientific stature and aspiration of alchemists in Upper Egypt in the age of al-Rāzī. They prove the existence of an experiment-based, non-mystical alchemy of the kind known from the contemporary writings of the Corpus Jabirianum and Al-Rāzī. As will be seen, materia chymica, laboratory apparatus, and technical procedures found in the Coptic medical and alchemical archive overall resemble those known from Al-Rāzī’s Kitāb al-asrār.

Sofie Schiødt

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

Understanding myth in medicine: A discussion of the mythological narratives in an herbal treatise

The Egyptian medical corpus contains a wealth of information on myths, both in the form of simple references or allusions to them but also entire mythological narratives. The overall purpose of the myths is to situate disease and treatment within the divine realm in order to function as explanatory models. A unique herbal treatise dating to the New Kingdom contains a number of myths, both well-attested accounts and entirely obscure ones. Proper understanding of the content and purpose of the treatise is contingent on comprehension of these myths which revolve around the Heliopolitan Ennead, namely the gods Osiris, Horus, Seth, and Nut. In this talk, I present the myths recorded in the herbal and discuss how they are used as well as how they were adapted to fit the context of the herbal.

Christopher Waß

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Of signs, words, and phrases: Some remarks on the use of Egyptian writing systems in the so-called Papyri Demoticae Magicae

Although often noted by scholars working on magical-medical texts of the late Roman period from Egypt, the juxtaposition of demotic and hieratic script in the so-called Papyri Demoticae Magicae has received little attention. The lecture will give an overview of the use of hieratic and demotic script in the Demotic magical papyri in order to identify trends for the mixing practise of the two Egyptian writing systems in one single text. The analysis is based on over 100 individual texts preserved on P. Louvre E 3229, P. BM 10070 + I 383, and P. BM EA 10588. All three papyri are generally dated to the late second or early third century CE. To approach the problem of script-switching in the Papyri Demoticae Magicae, the focus of this lecture will be on the analysis of the individual texts. It also addresses the question of manuscript-specific observations concerning the use of demotic and hieratic script. In addition to the historic linguistic analysis of the different texts, the individual textual functional units (i.e. title, instructions for use, incantation, and, if present, further remarks within the texts) are examined. Special attention will be given to hybrid writings (e.g. a demotic word with a hieratic classifier), individual words that are almost exclusively written in hieratic in the texts of the Papyri Demoticae Magicae and some stereotypical phrases that appear several times in the texts.

Lingxin Zhang

Georgetown University

Concerns for women’s health in Graeco-Roman Tebtunis

At least two divinatory texts from Graeco-Roman Tebtunis address concerns about women’s health and reproductive health. These texts are the two Women’s Astrological Manuals (PSI inv. D 35 + P. Carlsberg 684 & P. Carlsberg 100 + PSI inv. 2183v. + PSI inv. D152) and the Sand Divination manuals (Quack and Ryholt, 2019, 257-62). This talk explores the potential connections and differences between these two texts, while situating them against an array of interventions for infertility known to us via Graeco-Roman textual records, including narratives, fertility petitions, and temple inscriptions. By introducing this assortment of materials, my talk aims to highlight the discrepancies between the ancient Egyptian concept of reproduction and its interventions as preserved in the magico-medical corpus. My preliminary findings indicate that, while the ancient Egyptians believed that both male and female principles were necessary for successful conception and reproduction, the magico-medical corpus from (at least) the Graeco-Roman time is disproportionally concerned with female infertility. The lack of attested prescriptions to enhance male fertility raises the possibility of gendered bias.


We’d like to thank our generous sponsors for making this event possible:

  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation)
  • Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU
  • Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig*

* Die Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig ist Mitglied der Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften. Diese koordiniert das Akademienprogramm, das als derzeit größtes geistes- und kulturwissenschaftliches Langfrist-Forschungsprogramm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland von Bund und Ländern getragen wird. Diese Maßnahme wird mitfinanziert durch Steuermittel auf der Grundlage des vom Sächsischen Landtag beschlossenen Haushalts.