The biblical story of Exodus 7:11-12 talks about the alleged existence of some "secret arts" that the magicians of Egypt made use of to accomplish the feat of turning staffs into serpents:

11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs.

Of course, the point of this question is not to discuss whether this particular story and its alleged miracles actually happened. Rather, I'm interested in the historical background of the Egyptian "secret arts" that the text claims to have existed at the time. From the viewpoint of secular history, were there in Ancient Egypt magicians that claimed to possess "occult knowledge" that would allow them to perform preternatural acts such as converting inanimate objects into animals or anything of that sort?

Notice that I'm not looking for historical evidence that Ancient Egyptians actually did this, but at least that they claimed that they were able to.

  • 2
    Materialistic explanation would be that magic & religion were strongly intertwined in those times. Old Testament is full of examples of Jewish god being stronger then Egyptian gods. For a mindset of people back there (or even today) , god that could do more for his priests and followers was more worthy of worship.
    – rs.29
    Mar 27, 2021 at 15:17
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    This is a great question. Similarly, we can study the history of European witchcraft through various sources without saying that it is or is not actually "magic", however you define that term.
    – Robert Columbia
    Mar 27, 2021 at 18:04
  • Though I am thoroughly unrehearsed on the topic, I was under the impression that the staff-serpent relationship was largely more symbolic than literal, similar to the kundulini serpent in Hinduism.
    – Graviton
    Mar 27, 2021 at 23:21

1 Answer 1


Westcar Papyrus

According to the World History Encyclopedia there are ancient Egyptian writings named the Westcar Papyrus and regarding magic and miracles dating as far back as approximately 2040 BC.

Stories from the Westcar Papyrus, World history encyclopedia

The Westcar Papyrus, dated to the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (1782 - c.1570 BCE), but most likely written during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE), contains some of the most interesting tales from ancient Egypt. The papyrus takes its name from the man who first acquired it, Henry Westcar, who purchased the piece c. 1824 CE. Westcar never disclosed how he came into possession of the scroll nor where, and so no one knows in what context it was found or its original location.


These stories, which include a Wax crocodile which is brought to life by a magician to devour people, are believed to have simply been made up stories, though as the world history encyclopedia explains, this is just an opinion and speculation. "Perhaps they were meant to be taken literally".

World history Encyclopedia

There were originally five stories in the manuscript but the first is missing (and, according to some scholars, so is the conclusion of the papyrus). It is assumed that the work began with some kind of invitation by Khufu to his sons to tell stories about great wonders of the past or perhaps it was a competition among the sons to tell the best kind of story. This is, of course, speculation as no internal evidence in the texts suggests its beginning.

Westcar Papyrus by Keith Schengili-Roberts, Wikipedia Westcar Papyrus on display in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin

Execration texts

There is no doubt however that the Egyptians did believe in Magic to a certain degree.

According to the world history encyclopedia there was such a thing as the execration texts that were used to curse evil spirits and enemies of the Egyptian state.

World history encyclopedia, execration texts

'Execration' means to denounce or curse a person, entity, or object one finds detestable, dangerous, or offensive in some way. These texts were not only curses but specific formulae designed to ward off or destroy harmful entities before they had a chance to harm someone or, in the case of physical or mental illness, to drive the evil spirit out and banish it from returning.

Execration texts, therefore, are the earliest known form of exorcism and were used regularly. Over one thousand of these ritual texts have been excavated thus far in Egypt. The best-known execration texts in the modern day are the famous curses inscribed on tombs warning of punishment for any who entered the tomb unwelcomed or unpurified. The famous 'Curse of Tutankhamun' also known as 'the mummy's curse', well known from Hollywood movies, is the best example of an execration text.

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