Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review: Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power

Edited by Marin Meyer and Richard Smith, 1994

Pros: good introductions to each section, lots of explanatory notes, variety of texts

Cons: only has a few pictures in instances when illustrations are present in the text

Ritual has long been a part of spiritual practices, Christian or otherwise.  These texts, written in the Coptic language of Egypt (invented as a way of transliterating Egyptian hieroglyphs using Greek letters), shows how Christianity amalgamated older traditions of using words as protection against the evils of the world.  The texts presented in this book mix Egyptian gods and Christian stories to create amulets, love spells, curses and more.

There’s a fantastic mix of texts presented here, many for the first time in English.  There are extensive end notes, though a casual reader will get enough information from the introductions to the individual texts - which are, in some cases, longer than the texts themselves. 

It’s interesting seeing the variety of names of power called upon for the different purposes: Mary, Christ, archangels, Biblical figures, ancient gods and more.

My only complaint with the book is that some of the manuscripts included diagrams.  In a few cases the translator copied the picture, but in many more cases only a notation stating there was a diagram is included.  Actual photographs of some of these manuscript pages would have been welcome to get a feel for how the text and diagrams worked together and to see the original images.

I would advise reading up on the ancient Egyptian religious practices or the Book of Coming Forth by Day (now known as the Book of the Dead) before reading this though, as you’ll get a better idea of how much of the Coptic Christian tradition was borrowed from what came before it.

If you’re interested in magic and ritual practices, and how they developed, this is an interesting book.

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