Image courtesy of Effy Alexakis
Image courtesy of Effy Alexakis

Coptic Codex

The papyrus collection in the Museum of Ancient Cultures contains over 600 texts on papyrus. One of the most impressive is a 20 page parchment codex, an ancient book which contains invocation including both Christian and Gnostic elements, ritual instructions, and a list of twenty-seven spells to cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business. The codex probably dates to circa the 8th century AD and comes from Egypt. It is written in Coptic, which is the final stage of the Egyptian language, and descendent of the Hieroglyphs. The codex has been the subject of study for Associate Professor Malcolm Choat, who has now published the text with Professor Iain Gardner of the University of Sydney as A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power.

After a long invocation, the codex outlines 27 spells, or prescriptions, which offer healing or remedies for other problems people might have, for example:

  • “Someone who is possessed: Say the formula on linseed oil and pitch. Anoint them.”
  • “Love charm: Say the formula on wine. Let them drink.”
  • “A binding (spell): Say the formula over a new potsherd (and) bury it at the door.”
  • “When someone has a magic on them: wormwood, wine. Let him drink (it).”
  • “Black jaundice: Black cumin, pepper, wine; let him drink (it). Or if it is that of the gold (i.e. yellow jaundice): milky water, wormwood; and let them wash (in it) and drink (it). Boil the water.”
  • “For every staunching of blood: Say the formula on a dry gourd. Let them eat (it). If it is in the body (i.e. internal bleeding): apply with vinegar.”

These spells or prescriptions demonstrate how similar magic and medicine were in antiquity. So as well as being part of the history of magic and religion, this is also part of the history of medicine.

The edition of this codex is the first volume in a planned series to publish the important texts in the papyrus collection. Macquarie University is the only place in Australia where Coptic Studies and papyrology are taught, and the University has been awarded more than three-quarters of a million dollars in Australian Research Council funding for projects in the area of papyrology and Coptic Studies over the last decade.

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