Lucie’s letter to Mr. Tom Taylor, April 18, 1863
‘The Christianity and the Islam of this country are full of the ancient worship, and the sacred animals have all taken service with Muslim saints. At Minieh one reigns over crocodiles; higher up I saw the hole of Æsculapius’ serpent at Gebel Sheykh Hereedee and I fed the birds—as did Herodotus—who used to tear the cordage of boats which refused to feed them, and who are now the servants of Sheykh Naooneh, and still come on board by scores for the bread which no Reis dares refuse them. Bubastis’ cats are still fed in the Cadi’s court at public expense in Cairo, and behave with singular decorum when ‘the servant of the cats’ serves them their dinner. Among gods, Amun Ra, the sun-god and serpent-killer, calls himself Mar Girgis (St. George), and is worshipped by Christians and Muslims in the same churches, and Osiris holds his festivals as riotously as ever at Tanta in the Delta, under the name of Seyd el Bedawee. The fellah women offer sacrifices to the Nile, and walk round ancient statues in order to have children. The ceremonies at births and burials are not Muslim, but ancient Egyptian.’
The filtering of ancient Egyptian tradition into the modern world of Islamic and Coptic Egypt is still very apparent today. Many rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths – feature small fragments of ritualistic behaviour that can be attributed to the world of the ancients. I will be covering each of these life events in turn in future posts.
Many modern traditions revolve around protection from irt bin(.t) (ancient Egyptian), in Arabic ayn al-ḥasūd (the eye of envy) or as we know it, the ‘evil eye’. Protective amulets are worn or placed around the house to repel envious thoughts (bad looks) from neighbours or to protect from afrit (ghosts/demons/Djnn) or against illness and attacks by poisonous creatures.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) used to say: U’eedhukuma bi kalimat Allah al-tammati min kulli shaytanin wa hammah wa min kulli ‘aynin lammah (I seek refuge for you both in the perfect words of Allah, from every devil and every poisonous reptile, and from every evil eye).’
The Metternich Stela (see below) is a magico-medical stela which dates to the thirtieth dynasty of Egypt around 380-342 B.C. during the reign of Nectanebo II – these types of stelae were used to protect the ancient Egyptian people from dangerous animals such as crocodiles and snakes. The main function was for the magical healing of poisons, mostly caused by animals. Water was poured over the stela and collected in a basin below. The water was then drunk by the person suffering from the poisonous ailment.