I’ve been approached by two people today about a new book of magic that’s just been released – one link to a Livescience discussion of the book, and another link to the title at Brepols. As I’ve had it sitting here for a while, I might as well get down to it.
The Coptic books of magic and amulets have been known for quite some time to scholars of that place and time. These specialists have coined the term “ritual power” to avoid the associations that the term “magic” has with modern readers, and to nullify the conceptual divide between religion and magic. (If you read the Livescience article above, you can see just how well this works.) On the other hand, these texts haven’t gotten much attention from modern occultists, who are more interested on one end in the works edited by Mathers and Waite, and on the other in the Greek and demotic magical papyri, a largely pagan set of writings with fewer links to Judaism or Christianity. As it turns out, the Coptic works might be considered successors to the magical papyri, as the religious specialists of pagan Egypt joined the Coptic clerical community and brought their practices with them.
That brings us to the present work, a short handbook from the seventh or eighth centuries at Macquarie University at Sydney edited by Malcolm Choat and Ian Gardner. Most of the text of this work is a lengthy invocation or set of prayers to a number of spiritual beings, including the almighty and mysterious Baktiotha, Jesus, David, and other figures. Among these are references to “Seth, the Risen Christ,” drawing parallels between the text and the Gnostic sect of Sethians thought to have died out centuries before. All of this is written in florid language filled with nomina barbara (barbarous names), lists of angels, and vowel combinations reminiscent of those in the magical papyri.
At the end of this section is a brief handbook of magical remedies and prescriptions. Some of these are strictly material, using one substance to treat a disease, but more call for phrases from the text above to be said or written. For example, one spell for business calls for the names of the spirit Eremiel and his followers to be written on eight potsherds, to be placed in each corner of the shop’s door, inside and outside. Possession may be cured by saying a magical phrase over pitch and linseed oil, with which the patient is anointed.
The rest of the book consists of an extensive introduction, two parallel texts with little magical content, the transcription of the Coptic, endnotes to the text, indices to the words of power, color reproductions of the manuscript, and a CD-ROM of the images thereof. Now, generally I’m a big fan of this level of detail, and all of this apparatus is great for anyone who’s a specialist on these topics. On the other hand, I think that more casual readers who pick this up will be disappointed – especially as the price is rapidly approaching $100. When one realizes that the continuous English translation takes up only six pages of the book, and that the only sizable illustration is posted on the story above, it gives one pause to recommend it.
For those who do want to read more material like this – much more material – I’m going to recommend another book instead: Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith’s Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. (I’m betting it was the publisher who added “magic” to the title.) Meyer and Smith’s book collects a wide range of Coptic texts like the one above, perhaps sans the Gnostic touches, which provide many more examples at almost half the cost, halved again if you buy it used. That book is a solid collection which has gained little attention from casual readers, and I recommend it highly. Then again, if you want to delve into Coptic writing, or investigate a document with intriguing late Gnostic elements, the Brepols release is the one for you.