Update 05 – Interlinear Magic

Dear Friends,

I am writing with an update about my book, Interlinear Magic: An Anthology of the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri.

I am excited to announce the first of several free “preview” translations (English-only) on the InterlinearMagic.com website. More will follow over the next several weeks.

As of this writing, I am still shooting for an April 30 deadline for the complete draft, with a potential June date for shipments. An additional delay seems likely, however, because of a couple of unexpected obstacles that came up over the last two months. First, the new Magic in Hieroglyphs course I just finished teaching involved a lot more preparatory work than I anticipated, and thus I got less work on the book done than I would have liked in February and March. (Because of this, I have decided not to offer any new courses until the book is sent off to the printer.) However, the research involved in preparing the course materials and translations for this class produced an unexpected benefit related to the book.

One of my goals with the Hieroglyphs course was to increase my (and my students’) understanding of the ancient Egyptian precursors to the Greco-Egyptian magic of the PGM, especially in the domain of esoteric knowledge that was the purview of Egyptian priestly circles. The sheer volume – as well as the significance – of the connections we made during the eight weeks of the course far exceeded my expectations, and many of these new findings have found their way into the book. In some cases, I came to realize that Greek phrases in the PGM that had been puzzling me could be explained by a much earlier Egyptian mytheme or divine epithet. Although I can’t (yet) say that I can explain every piece of obscure symbolism in the PGM, diving deep into the magical traditions of Pharaonic Egypt has led to some remarkable discoveries that I am excited to share with you.

To give just one example, consider the phrase “in an empty breath” (ἐν τῷ κενῷ πνεύματι), which occurs both in the Stele of Ieou (also known as the Headless Rite) and in three “separation” spells (to separate allies or lovers) from PGM 12 and 14. My preferred translation of πνεῦμα as “breath” may have actually prevented me from seeing this sooner, but when I considered “air” instead, suddenly it all made sense, especially in light of my recent reading in hieroglyphic texts. The Egyptian god Shu, one of the twin offspring of Atum, the primordial creator god in the Heliopolitan Cosmogony, was the key to understanding this. The name/word Shu, as it is spelled in Egyptian (šw), typically refers to air, but with a different semantic determinative (an extra meaning-sign used to distinguish words that are spelled the same but have different meanings) can also be the verb šw: to be empty or devoid. It was a widespread practice among Egyptian priests and scribes to play on words and divine names with a similar spelling, so “empty air” as šw šw(t) suggested itself as a probable epithet of Shu in Egyptian that had been translated into Greek and incorporated into these rites.

One of Shu’s main functions in Egyptian myth is to separate Heaven (Nūt) from Earth (Gēb), and he is often portrayed in iconography as visually holding up his daughter Nūt to separate her from his son Gēb, as in the famous Greenfield Papyrus in the British Museum. Thus, Shu as the primordial Separator in Egyptian myth makes him the perfect deity to invoke in rites intended to separate lovers or allies, as well as in the Stele of Ieou, an exorcism ritual to separate a daimon from its human host. This is just one example of the many instances of hidden Egyptian lore in the Greek-language papyri.

The second obstacle came with the realization that the introductions/commentaries to the individual ritual-texts were rapidly becoming too unwieldy, especially given the many cross-references between rituals (a problem which was exacerbated by the addition of extra rites from the Kickstarter). The solution for this required additional restructuring of the volume. As a result, the multipart General Introduction for the volume has grown significantly and may exceed 100 pages when complete. This includes additional sections on Egyptian creation myths and their local and temporal variations, especially as they relate to the Greco-Roman period of the PGM.

I am quite happy with the results of all this extra research and writing, not only because the book nears completion, but because this will be a tremendously useful volume (even to its author). Although I never intended for this book to be an exhaustive scholarly commentary, nevertheless it has grown far beyond what the word “Anthology” in the title would indicate, rapidly becoming a detailed reference guide that will be highly useful to students of the PGM.

I remain grateful for your support and patience, and I welcome your questions or comments at any time.


Brian P. Alt, PhD

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