Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project

The Ancient EgyptianDemonology Project (AEDP) organized and coordinated by Kasia Szpakowska (Swansea University, Wales), Rita Lucarelli (Bonn University, Germany) and Panagiotis Kousoulis (University of the Aegean, Hellas), with the collaboration of distinguished scholars from eight institutions. The aim of this ambitious, trandisciplinary research project is to study certain lexical, iconographical and chronological criteria for the formation of a category or categories of beings that could be mapped together and systemized to become a “demonology” within the cultural framework of Ancient Egypt. The time span covered is large (from the Old Kingdom through the Roman Period, roughly 3000 B.C. - A.D. 400) as are the source materials.

The AEDP seeks to answer questions related to the innermost aspects of the demonic idiosyncrasy in ancient Egypt based on certain textual and iconographic articulations: a) to what extent can such a negatively polarized term be safely assigned to denote and describe diverse attitudes and roles in the Egyptian cultural environment? b) What would the criteria be for the formation of a category or categories of beings that could be mapped together and systemized to become a “demonology”, especially when the majority of them do not possess an apparent ontological essence or a clearly defined denotation in the Egyptian belief system? c) What are the causes for the genesis and formation of the demonic in Egyptian thought and ritual prāxis that there is no need for a concrete terminology to be conceptualized as such? d) What do we distinguish the demonic from the natural, divine or human in ancient Egypt? What criteria should we use?

The AEDP objectives are:

  • Thorough study and analysis of the available material, includes textual sources (spells, funerary texts, temple and artifact inscriptions), iconography (vignettes on papyri, temple and tomb reliefs, apotropaic and healing statues and stela, Horus-cippi and decorated artifacts), and objects (cobra clay figurines, headrests, apotropaia, ingredients of spells, and figurines of hybrid animals and lesser deities of syncretistic nature and function).
  • Categorization, typology and classification of the Egyptian demonic entities and names that maybe structural, functional, or essential. These maybe based on epithets, iconography, phylogenesis and ontology, harm/protection caused, counter-deities or anti-god beings, archaeological context (temple, settlement, refuse, etc.), use context (priestly, funerary, private). Also, changes and developments of the demonic identity across times: demons changing to gods, changes in iconography or in the perception of (harmful vs. beneficial). The exemplification of the criteria necessary for creating a classification system of demons and demonological practices that reflects the cultural framework of Ancient Egypt will be crucial component of the Project.
  • Creation of a data-driven classification of ancient Egyptian demons and related paraphernalia. To map this ancient metaphysical world, modern digital technology will be applied. The topic will be approached from various perspectives, and as much detail as possible will be recorded into an interactive database (accessible through a website), allowing data to be shared and augmented by other scholars and researchers. New methods of data visualization to convey the results effectively and engagingly to scholars and the public will also be applied.
  • Associated rituals (including materials). Our knowledge of demons has traditionally been embodied in the textual evidence; particularly ritual prescriptions designed to ward away or destroy malign entities. However, there is much material evidence that is perhaps more difficult to discern, and has been overlooked that can further our understanding of these rituals, and that raises new questions regarding the identity of ritual practitioners and agents of ritual transmission through the ancient world. This ritual material crosses borders of the Mediterranean world, both physically (where similar items or texts are found, sometimes locally transformed, in a range of locations) and intellectually, revealing patterns of transmission, adoption, and rejection of specific components and praxis. Interpretations situating these beliefs within the context of the religious and social ideology of ancient Egypt.
  • Aspects of religious and interaction with the demonological discourse of the Late Geometric and Archaic antiquity, as these aspects have been documented in assorted religious artifacts—the so-called Aegyptiaka—from mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and Crete will also be re-evaluated. The Aegyptiaka are mainly scarabs, faience figures in the shape of Egyptian divine and demonic entities and symbols, as well as faience vases and could shed light to the acceptance of the Egyptian popular piety and magic from the Greek world of the first half of the 1st millennium BC. Thus, Ancient Egypt would provide a useful case study to situate a broader study of demonology and ritual in the Mediterranean world.
There are three major research axes (exemplified further below), which roughly correspond to the three millennia of Pharaonic history. Each theme is subsequently divided into specific topics that reflect the research interests and specializations of the team members and their collaborators:
  • 3rd and 2nd millennia demonology with a special focus on private religious practices, icons, demons responsible for psychological afflictions, weapons, devices, apotropaic clay cobra figurines from Egypt and the Levant; Creation of a data-driven classification of ancient Egyptian demons and related physical paraphernalia (Kasia Szpakowska);
  • 2nd and 1st millennia demonology with a special focus on demons populating the ancient Egyptian Netherworld and attested in the funerary papyri from the New Kingdom to the Greco-Roman Period such as the Book of the Dead, as well as on demonologies of the ancient Near East (Rita Lucarelli);
  • 2nd and 1st millennia demonology with a special focus on anti-god entities (e.g. Apophis), venomous agents and associated demons, ritual phylogenesis and manipulation of the demonic within a specific cultic or magical environment, as well as on the transfer of ideas and the mobilization of certain demonic motifs and hybrid personae in archaic Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean  (Panagiotis Kousoulis).
The ultimate goal of the Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project is to illuminate the darker and more private side of religion that impacted daily lives, driving individuals to perform rituals—the amorphous residue of which is still tangible through the surviving relics, scraps of text and fragments of artwork. The impact of this research would not only be in the area of Egyptology which has hitherto focused on beneficent major deities and the more positive and temple-oriented religious practices, but would also be of significant impact for our understanding of ancient and modern religious and beliefs, practices, and interaction. Some of the most prevalent rituals in the ancient and modern worlds are those designed to target demons and those that make use of their power for benefit. The earliest roots of these beliefs have survived in the archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Although demonic entities played a crucial role in the Egyptian understanding of the cosmos—being both blamed and appealed to for a host of physical and psychological problems—they have remained peripheral to most scholarship focusing on Egyptian religion or ancient ritual practice. This project will  therefore be of great significance not only to other Egyptologists, but also to all who are interested in the topic of religion, ritual and theology. Because religion was integrated into all aspects of life in those cultures (as it is in many still today), this also furthers our understanding of society, culture, and life in the ancient world in general. Finally, while the more positive aspects of Egyptian religion are known to much of the public, the latter is less aware of the prevalence of demonic entities, and the important roles they played.

No comments: