Egyptian Magic and Alchemy

By Ramona Louise Wheeler

Enchantment, conjuring, mesmerism and levitation have their momentary charm. The most powerful magic has been and always will be the power of self-control. The hero of every story is the one who can rise to any occasion, however fantastical, unexpected or mundane — living fully in the moment, ready and able to do whatever must be done.

Yogis who can produce real oranges out of thin air will tell you that it is, by far, easier to buy oranges in a market. Real hero-magicians do not draw attention to themselves with love potions or levitation — the goose who lays golden eggs is slaughtered in pursuit of her internal wealth. That is not just a fairy tale; the metaphor is fully functional today.

If levitation, conjuring or love-charms are your goals, however, even these require first that you learn to control your own nervous system, your own psychic energy. Conscious control of your mental tools is the pre-requisite of every magical act.

“Who then is this? In Other Words:”
The roots of this requirement are deep, and reached their first and greatest flowering in the teachings of ancient Egypt. The surviving stories of the magician who could transform his wooden staff into a living serpent and back again are very old, some from the earliest dynasties. There are two important clues to the nature of Egyptian magic in those stories: the power of metaphor, and the metaphor of the serpent.

Egypt’s wealth may have been the gift of the Nile, but her powerful and long-lived civilization was the gift of metaphor. The average Egyptian was educated by metaphor. The higher the degree of education, the more eloquent and imaginative the use of metaphor. They used metaphor with endless delight and deliberate intention. They were the first culture to use illuminated texts to impart spiritual and psychological realities and patterns. Egyptians lived with the imagery and value of spiritual metaphors in every gesture of their culture and with every artifact of their lives. Every ritual and recitation was the conscious and intentional activation of the power and mystery that lie beyond the metaphor, that greater revelation toward which the metaphorical image is directed. The mystery of being, the mystery of divine essence toward which the Egyptians’ metaphors were directed was, however, quite different from our modern perceptions. Divine power was not separate from humanity in some distant, self-contained God. Osiris lives at the core of every being. The gods and goddesses are metaphors of the functions and powers of the immortal soul within. Re (earlier spelled Ra) is not the Sun up in the sky, but rather the divine light of consciousness which illuminates the inner dimension of the divine and immortal soul. “He is Re. In other words, he is Osiris.” (Hymn: The Awakening Of Osiris.) Magic comes from within. Identity is the source of divinity. When Egyptian magicians invoked the power of magic, they reached down within their innermost selves to find it. In the Egyptian worldview the most powerful force in the universe was a fully illuminated human being.

The Serpent Staff
A serpentine staff is a symbol of the magician. The ancient Egyptians perceived soul and consciousness to consist purely of light and energy. The link between this immaterial stuff and the substance of the body is the serpentine nature of the human nervous system. Living nerves burrow and writhe throughout our flesh just as snakes burrow within the Earth. The limbless snake moves by sheer willpower. Re-consciousness communicates with its biological container using the psychic energy which flows through the nervous system. The countless serpents which swarm through Egyptian religious iconography, from the mighty Apophis to the least ornamental detail of cobras in rows, are metaphors of the profound potential and power of the human nervous system. They are constant reminders of the necessity for conscious control. Just as the serpent is deadly if out of control, an out-of-control human being is dangerous, not only to him or herself but also to everyone around them.

There are hints everywhere in their writings and art of a specialized secret training, known as “The Coiling Pathway Of The Serpentine Embraced.” The imagery and language are to similar the disciplines of Yoga: meditation focusing on the flow of energy from consciousness through the spinal column, with the goal of gaining full control over biological existence. Hindus and Buddhists use the same serpent-metaphor to this day in teachings of the seven chakra. Contact between ancient Egypt and the Orient goes back as far as 1700 B.C., via the trade route known as “The Silk Road.” The primary symbol of the “Serpentine Embraced” is the origin of the caduceus symbol we use today to represent the healing arts. The wings at the top of the caduceus represent “winged thought,” by which consciousness communicates with its biological container. Self-healing through conscious stimulation of the immune system has even become an acknowledged, documented fact of our modern lives. “The light bulb has to want to change,” is more than a punch line.

Red-headed Egyptians
Among the many curious corollaries between Egyptian and Celtic magical iconography are the loop, the circle and the knot. String technology is very, very old. The Pyramids themselves were measured out by “string-stretchers,” the surveyors of Egypt. String technology is more than weaving, knitting, bowstrings, wicks, nets and measurements. The uses of string provided ancient metaphors for binding forces of every kind, physical, spiritual and emotional. DNA itself, the key that unlocks living identity, is a “magical string” with profound potential. The knots and loops and circles of DNA activate the creative forces of biological existence, binding our flesh and consciousness together. Scientists today, high priests of Thoth in the Twenty-first Century, theorize that the ultimate nature of reality is a structure of cosmic strings weaving and unweaving through multiple dimensions of being. The Egyptians would have agreed.

Egyptian priests and magicians used the sacred circle as the beginning of many rituals, from the start of a building project to the birth of a child, enclosing human actions within a sacred, sanctified space. Priestesses of Neith and Sashetta invoked their divine counterparts for the opening rituals, establishing sacred boundaries and recording the event for eternity. The magical knot of Isis was the “security code” that sealed up the magic circle, activating the power within. Many different rituals were sealed with such sacred knots. Priests and magicians functioned as partners rather than antagonists: priests defined and maintained the divine landscapes in which all humans lived and breathed together; magicians reached down into the private places of the individual soul and brought forth the heart’s desire.

Another symbol linking Egyptian and Celtic magic is the pentagram /pentacle. The ancient Egyptian form is the hieroglyph for a star — but with a very specific metaphorical intention: the Egyptian pentacle is a circle with a dot in the center, emblem of Re-consciousness, with five symmetrical limbs arranged equally around the center, and enclosed within a circle. This is an idealized abstraction of a conscious soul shining in the sky. The night sky was believed to be the visible portion of Duat, a place that was both heaven and the underworld, that place of eternity that was beyond every horizon, the goal of the deceased soul on its “great journey” to the next life. Duat was the partner dimension to waking reality, the “other shore” of the river of time. Thus the original intent of the pentacle symbol is to mark out a fully individualized luminary, a “Golden Horus” shining over the world. The Celtic use of the symbol to hold supernatural beings reflects this same concept, an idealized container for a being that is pure energy.

Just Wave Your Wand
Practitioners of the Serpentine Pathway used iron wands in the shape of a serpent, either in a long wave, or coiled. Other kinds of magicians used wands carved of white stone, from which dangled small carvings of sacred animals. Ivory wands, boomerang-shaped, were used by local magicians, engraved with figures of Bes and an individually chosen menagerie of animals, some real, some fantastical; frogs and snakes evoked the first stages of creation, when frog- and snake-headed deities divided the land from the waters. Also used were sacred birds, representing divine thoughts; giraffes and antelope with entwined necks were images from the earliest days of the Egyptian culture. These wands were used to create the ritual gestures that defined sacred spaces, and opened passageways between the two dimensions of reality. The animal theme invokes the natural forces of the landscape, drawing on their powers of magical protection. Surviving examples of these various wands suggest that the images on the wands were chosen by the individual magicians themselves, invoking their private muses and spirit-guides.

The Egyptians invented the concept of the written contract, and many magical formulae were, in effect, contracts between the magician, the client and the divine powers involved. Such contracts were sealed with magical knots, using materials that provided their own sympathetic magic.

Heka is the Egyptian for “magical speech.” It is reflected in the Roman goddess of magic, Hecate, and root of the word “hex” and related concepts. Egyptians had an even more powerful word than heka: hu, meaning the power of both royal and divine commands. The power of the spoken word and ritual chanting were essential to Egyptian magic; many rituals and charms involved forms of self- or auto-hypnosis — neurological self-control empowered by the spoken word. The counterpoint was the term monach, “chiseled in stone,” that had the power of eternity. Commands given by divine powers, such as Isis, were “chiseled in stone.” “Monument” is actually an Egyptian word; it means to be made permanent in stone. In the Im Duat, we encounter the image of the four stone stela, labeled the “Four Terms” of Osiris. On these are written: “To control Osiris, (Soul.) To control Tum, (Time.) To control Khopry, (Enlightenment.) To control Re, (Consciousness.)” In the Medieval text, Rosarium, we read: “Our stone is from the four elements.”

Religion and psychology are deeply entwined in Egyptian sacred writings and art because, in their world, divinity was securely planted within each human body: Osiris, the divine soul, lives at the core of each person. They did not turn outward to the divine, but inward. Thus every act and gesture of being human was part of a divine landscape.

Alchemy: Egypt’s Legacy To The Future
“The highest technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
~ Sir Arthur C. Clarke

“Egypt” is not an Egyptian word. It is, rather, the Romanization of the Greek word for the ancient empire of the Nile. Ta Mery, meaning both “Land Of Love” and “Beloved Land” was used, as well as “The Two Riverbanks,” and Khemmit, meaning “Black Land,” referring to the wealth of Nile mud that made the land so fertile. It is from Khemmit, via Arab scholars of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, that we have inherited the word and concepts of Alchemy.

One of the earliest and most influential works on the evolution of alchemy was the Hieroglyphica, written in the sixth century by a Greek monk, Horapollo, (Horus Apollo) on the island of Andros. The book was rediscovered in 1419, and eventually published in Venice in 1505. It subsequently went through many translations in the Sixteenth Century, and, despite its cryptic nature, was a major influence in the subsequent evolution of alchemy into modern science. One of the most famous, the Monas Hieroglyphica, was translated by the English astrologer and mathematician, John Dee, and published in 1564. This work made the Egyptian symbol, the ankh, sacred to Isis, important in alchemical circles. Many astrological symbols were evolved from the ankh in combination with the hieroglyphs for Re, for Thoth, for Earth and water. The Eye Of Horus, symbol of wholeness and integrity was later streamlined into Rx symbol for pharmaceuticals and health care.

Scholars of the Middle Ages may have had access to some now-unknown papyri of the sacred books of ancient Egypt, known collectively as Shat Im Duat, “Writings About Duat.” These were the very first illustrated manuscripts: books of breathing, the sky, days, and hours, all based on the story of the divine being making the journey through time and between dimensions of reality. Perhaps elements from the Egyptian texts survived in oral tradition provided by Coptic Christians and Arab Scholars. Egyptian books were destroyed in the early Fifth Century A.D. by the Catholic Church’s decree, yet their themes and images turn up in alchemical art as early as the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries:
· There are ladders to heaven, thresholds to pass over, divine gateways, and putrid matter that produces divine energy out of itself.
· In the alchemical works, Egyptian deities and divine figures are replaced with “philosophers,” and angels, arranged in groups of nine and twelve similarly to Im Duat texts.
· The procession of Re-If, “Body Of Re,” through the transformations of the hours is reflected in alchemical distillations and processes.
· The steps leading up to Osiris’ throne in eternity became the steps leading up to the ultimate secrets of alchemy.
· The creation of the Golden Horus, expressed in Egyptian hymns and poems as the goal of the journey to the Next Life, is the root of the metaphor of the creation of gold in the alchemical vessel. Both refer to the distillation of self-identity.
· Alchemists also recognized the necessity of “cutting up the body” of the base, material form in order to release the immortal energy at its core. Tapping this immortal energy source was the ultimate goal of the alchemical process. Becoming that immortal energy source was the goal of the ancient Egyptian sacred texts.
· The progression of the calendar was potent magic in ancient Egypt. They assigned individual divine guardians to the hours of the day and the night, and to the days of the month, and this practice was converted to alchemical sequences of angels. Just as the ancient Egyptian “horoscope” told what days and hours were best for ceremony, ritual and magic, the angels of the alchemical calendar told what magical activities were permitted in which hour, or day of the week. The basic concept of divine eternity interfacing with the progression of time remains in the alchemical metaphor.

Sir Isaac Newton, one of the fathers of the modern scientific method, was a secret alchemist, a fact only recently revealed. By the time of Newton, alchemy was an illegal art, and its practitioners risked prison and hanging. Much of their scientific research was couched in highly metaphorical terms for that reason, but the sources remained true to their Egyptian roots. Alchemists use altered vocabulary and purpose from the ancients, but at the core of alchemical work lies the same impulse that developed both the ancient Egyptian nation and modern science: the belief that the universe around us and within us is a “picture book” whose secrets are there to be unlocked by the human mind.

By Divine Decree: Go Ye Forth And Play The Game!
There is a modern corollary to both the sacred texts of ancient Egypt and the secret works of alchemy: the magical world of electronic games.

The storylines of most games run on a surprisingly similar path to the ancient texts of Egypt and of alchemy. The sense of solving puzzles and unlocking secrets is a powerful motivating force in both. Most work around a similar structure: a series of scenes, chambers or passageways which have to be mastered and traversed before moving on to the next level. Gateways, doors and dimensional thresholds must be passed. There are obstacles and adversaries, magical helpers, magical objects, divine protagonists, mysterious advice and poetry offering fabulous clues. Rewards draw the player along against every manner of opposition: the crowns of pharaoh and the Sun, the crowns of the royal elements, the crown of Middle Earth, and so on. Variations among the players and settings fit into similar patterns.

All three mythological systems — ancient Egypt, alchemy and electronic games — are structured on the same pattern, that of the universal human being evolving by means of the universal human nervous system through to a state of unique, conscious identity — the hero-magician. Electronic games allow each of us to be the hero of our own story, taking Egyptian magic full circle back to Osiris, the hero-magician of everyone’s soul.

There is a caveat: Ancient Egypt sustained an empire for five thousand years by knowing the difference between inner and outer reality, by knowing how to control both. Alchemy brought forth modern science by separating inner realities from outer realities, and focusing on control of the material world. Electronic games are only magical if they make you a better driver, a better pilot, a better listener, a better problem solver — an illuminated human being. You cannot win if you do not know when to turn off the game, and listen to life.

Translations of the Hieroglyphica have been posted online. The John Dee translation, Monas Hieroglyphica is available at: A wonderful book, with a wealth of alchemical art from the earliest days of alchemy, was recently published by Taschen Books: Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob. It is available at Barnes and Noble, $12.95. I highly recommend it, especially for the visual delights of medieval paintings that are rarely seen in art books. Translations of the Shat Im Duat are available in textbooks on Egyptian literature. (The most famous, known incorrectly as The Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead, was titled: Por Im Hru, which means “Emerging While Awake.”) My most recent translations are at: “Walk Like An Egyptian: . Carl Jung’s writings on alchemy, Symbols Of Transformation and The Mysterium Coniunctionis, are in-depth explorations of the psychological values of alchemy. They are, however, densely written, requiring a scholarly and committed approach. Contemplation of the images themselves will always be the most effective and personal way of discovering the magical action they invoke.

About Ramona Louise Wheeler
Ramona Louise Wheeler is the author of Walk Like an Egyptian, My Daily Horus Scope, and more. Visit to learn more!