Egypt’s nightworld

An interview with Dr Kasia Szpakowska

Learn more about the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians in this interview with Kasia Szpakowska of the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project.

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Dr Kasia Szpakowska is Associate Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University and Director of the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project. Her research focuses on ancient Egyptian private religious practices, dreams, gender and the archaeology of magic. She recently gave a lecture at Montclair University in New Jersey. Richard Marranca, a humanities professor at Montclair, interviewed her and the results are published below.

Richard Marranca: Ancient people thought that dreams were messages and inspirations from the gods, that in dreams one could travel, that dreams could be healing. In Greece, priests at the temples of Asclepius encouraged dreams. Did Egyptians have similar beliefs?

Kasia Szpakowska: The practice of sleeping at a temple in order to receive dreams seems to have begun only during the Ptolemaic Period (so around 332 BC). To put this in perspective, the unification of Ancient Egypt under one ruler occurred around 3200 BC, so for most of their history they don’t seem to have practiced incubation. Neither did they seem to travel. Starting in the New Kingdom, from around 1300 BC, pharaohs were visited by gods in dreams, and we have two reports of non- royal individuals having contact with the goddess Hathor.

RM: What was the Egyptian word for dream?

KS: The main word for “dream” was resut, which comes from the root meaning “awaken.” So, in a sense a dream was an external phenomenon that one could see, or one could see something in or as a dream. They did not have a verb such as “dreaming”.

RM: Pavor nocturnes or night terrors. You mentioned such terrors in your fascinating talk at Montclair State University. What are they?

KS: Night terrors occur at a different stage of sleep than nightmares and are rather uncommon. The phenomenon that is recorded in Ancient Egyptian texts has the symptoms of our more common nightmares.

RM: Can you tell us about some of the famous Papyri like Leiden and Chester Beatty in terms of their dream and nightmare content?

KS: Papyrus Leiden I, 348 (Ramesside Period) seems to be an incantation to guard against nightmares. It begins stating that it is to ward against “terrors that fall upon a man in the night” which matches one of the most common symptoms of a nightmare – that inability to move like something is on top of you.

Papyrus Chester Beatty III is a complex composition from the Ramesside Period. Most of it is made up of dreams and their interpretations. They follow the pattern of “If a man sees himself in a dream, doing X” followed by an evaluation of “good” or “bad”, followed by the interpretation. A large number of these are based on puns. For example, “If a man sees himself in a dream eating the flesh of a donkey, good, it means a promotion.” While the pun does not work in English, in Ancient Egyptian the word for donkey was Aa, and the word for promotion was sAa.

The composition also includes a section where a “follower of Seth” is described. It seems to be both a personality type (a brawling, loud, confident man) and a physical type (red hair is emphasized). After this the description, there is a series of dreams that are labelled as ones that a follower of Seth can see. Finally, the papyrus also includes a spell to keep away nightmares. Unfortunately, both the beginning and end of the papyrus are lost.

RM: At the lecture, you mentioned the duat, the world of the dead. Can you tell us about this? Can you tell us about the Afterlife in ancient Egypt?

KS: The Ancient Egyptians called the land beyond the duat. This was a dimension inhabited by the gods, the dead, and intermediary beings both good and bad. There are beautiful descriptions and depictions of the duat in the tombs of the kings who are buried in the Valley of the Kings.

RM: What are some of the reasons Egyptians wrote to the dead? Do you have any favorites letters?

KS: One might think that the Egyptians wrote to the dead in order to tell them how much they are missed. However, they usually ask for favors from the deceased, especially in disputes. It seems as though when the courts didn’t give a response that the living person wanted, then that individual could write to a dead relative, asking if the deceased could intercede on their behalf with the divine tribunal. Since the dead were in the duat with the gods, they had ready access to them, whereas the living at that time (late Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period), did not have direct access to the gods.

One of my favorites is a beautiful one from man to his wife, that does not relate to a dispute of any kind. Rather, he begs his wife to expel the pain that in his body and asks that he may see her fighting on his behalf in a dream. He then promises that when the day has dawned, he will set up offerings on her behalf.

RM: You mentioned that “entities can cause physical and mental afflictions, such as colds, fevers, plague, terror, nightmares, etc.” Is there a medicinal cure for this, or just a supernatural cure?

KS: The prescriptions generally were a combination of faith, calling upon the gods, as well as ingredients. Faith is powerful indeed, and even today we are not often sure why how medicine works, we just know that it does—particularly when a person believes it does.

A good example of this is aspirin. The mechanism by which it works was only discovered in 1971! In Ancient Egypt, when the cause of an affliction was not readily obvious but the symptoms were, the source could be blamed on an invisible malignant being. It would follow that part of driving out this being would involve calling upon the help of a beneficial god or supernatural being. An analogy might be diseases, which are blamed on bacteria that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These are cured by the patient ingesting antibiotics, which themselves contain elements that combat the bacteria.

RM: And what are early depictions of demons in pyramids and temples in Egypt? Were these figures zoomorphic?

KS: There are no illustrations at all in the Old Kingdom pyramids. At the end of the Fifth Dynasty and throughout the 6th they have Pyramid Texts inscribed on the inside, but there are no depictions. The depictions of “demons” really does not begin until the Middle Kingdom, and even then it is never in pyramids – which are once again bare inside – nor temples.

RM: Can cobras, beds, headrests, scarabs and such protect us?

KS: Well, I don’t know that they can help us, but decorating their beds, headrests, and chairs with images of protective guardian beings (AKA beneficial “demons” or “daemons”) certainly seemed to work for the Ancient Egyptians. It is intriguing, because the development of this practice, and then subsequent abandonment, may reflect a particularly turbulent time for them. It may be that they reflect a particularly anxious time in society, or perhaps the prevalence of disease (even plague may have played a role). After a few centuries, the practice was abandoned, either because those guardians had proved ineffective, or the issues that had instigated their development were no longer in play, or new problems arose that required a new form of protection. It is intriguing!

RM: Are you interested in Carl Jung’s archetypes, or modern dream research? I recall one example of synchronicity: Jung was describing a golden scarab at the same moment that a scarab beetle was tapping against the window. Jung let it in.

KS: What an interesting story! The idea of archetypes is certainly crucial to my current research on the development of the iconography of these guardians as manifestations of hopes and protection. They certainly follow patterns, and one could call them archetypes. I am curious as to how specific features and characteristics are shared across other cultures as well (and which are idiosyncratic to Ancient Egypt). I also follow modern dream research, especially that related to how the content changes depending on the society and politics of the times. Sadly, we have so few actual dream reports from Ancient Egypt that we cannot make many correlations.