Most of us are familiar with the images of the deities, kings and queens of Egypt; but for every one of the famous scenes reproduced from those times, smaller, more obscure supernatural figures are far more numerous. Many of these entities fall into a category of supernatural beings known as demons or daemons. They also have an ongoing existence after the pharaonic culture, the end of Paganism, the rise of Christianity, the coming of Islam and even into our own modern era. There is a clear continuity for these entities through time. When it comes to the old Egypt, the study of these supernatural entities is still in its infancy. Swansea university hosts a Demon Things database, established in 2016 and for budgetary reason has a restricted timeline of 2000-1000 BCE but already it has thousands of entries.
Historically, the existence of something recognizable as demonic is first recorded even before written records, in images from Ice Age rock art. These entities have human bodies but with an animal head, the so-called “goat demon” being one of the earliest. Perhaps because this could also be a human wearing an animal mask, we call them demons rather than monsters. Monsters first make an appearance much later after the invention of writing and are usually human-headed but with an animal’s body. For instance, the terrifying Pazuzu as seen in the first few frames of the horror movie The Exorcist .
My first exploration of the role of the demon in Egyptian magic was published in my book, Supernatural Assault in Ancient Egypt . Here demons are discussed alongside an Egyptian exorcism cult known as “Zar”. The meaning of Zar is uncertain but is likely from a north African language transplanted into Arabic as a loan word meaning “to visit” or “a visitation”.
Magical Folk Tradition of Zar
The Zar cult is a folk magical tradition from the North African and Near Eastern world, principally Egypt and Sudan; but also Iran. It makes use of music and dance to “exorcise” intrusive spirits or Djinn. I first learnt of the cult from I. M. Lewis’s classic study of Ecstatic Religion a study of shamanism and spirit possession , I was also much inspired by a chapter in Jan Fries ’ book on European trance technique known as Seidr which he found analogous to the Zar tradition. In his book he reproduced an important foundation myth, as told to anthropologist Enno Littman’s in the 1950s. A female practitioner, known as Mama (Baba for male) told him that Zar was first performed in ancient Egypt to cure a King’s daughter of a mysterious ailment.
These days Zar rites are still very much practiced in Egypt but tend to be seen as a women’s mystery. In fact, I’ve even been told that the tradition is only really accessible to women, but in as far as this is true, which it definitely isn’t in Iran or Sudan, it would be a modern development. In Egypt, the Zar tradition is entangled with “Belly”, more accurately Beladi dancing. Beladi means “village dancing” a style of dance originally practiced in Upper Egypt by men in combination with a martial arts tradition of stick fighting.
Possessed by Ghosts
In the 1930s Hans Winkler met several spirit mediums in Egypt and was able to record their stories in a lively account as “Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt”. His principal informant was Abd al-Radi, a man regularly possessed by the ghost of his uncle from which state he passed messages to those who came to seek his help. Winkler combined this work with groundbreaking research on desert rock art, Sigils and “Characters” of Islamic sorcery, thus connecting the Islamic and pre-Islamic world of magical signs and symbols. As a Nazi, he soon returned to Germany and died in military service.
Over the last few years, several new studies have extended this work. Since the 1980s the academic study of magic has been revolutionized by practitioners and academics such as Robert Ritner. He unraveled the details of Ancient Egyptian demonology and showed how it eventually emerged as the driving force of all Egyptian magic.