Ancient Egypt: Its History and Culture
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography

  For best results save the whole webpage (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.


Execration rituals

    In the eyes of the Ancient Egyptians the world was a dangerous place, where the unexpected might happen at any time, and its order had to be defended day in, day out. Kings, as rulers of the world, had to fend off daemons and gods like Seth who might disturb the cosmic order, actual and potential political foes who might endanger their rule and thus Maat, and almost everybody must have known someone whom they suspected of harbouring them ill will. While ordinary people could do little to ensure the daily rising of the sun and had to trust the priesthood in the temples to do so with their daily liturgies, they did have magic at their disposal to protect themselves from their enemies, be they human or daemonic. The easiest way to do so was by wearing amulets or reciting spells, but this was at times deemed insufficient. The need for a more substantial defence against evil was the so-called execration ritual, the abasement and (generally symbolic) destruction of one's enemies together with spells performed by experts in magic. As time went by and the idea of an afterlife grew stronger and more widespread, people came to realize that the deceased, less able to defend themselves than the living, were in special danger, both from the dangers lurking in the underworld and from humans disturbing the peace of their tombs. The execration rituals, originally performed for protection in the here and now for an individual, or, more often, for a group of people, came to be part of the funerary rites.[1]
    The early execration rituals had official purposes, serving to defend the country and its ruler. They were performed as far off as Beth Shean in Canaan, where the Egyptian sphere of influence came into contact with those of foreign powers and had to be protected militarily and ritually.[2] A pot sherd was found there bearing the inscription:
Enemy in/of the house of the red ones
intended as a defence of the realm of Maat against Seth,[3] who, as god of the foreign countries, stood for the world of chaos they were part of. From the Late Period onwards private persons began to modify texts found in temples and employ them as personal magic. The Egyptians of the Graeco-Roman period, when private execration rituals experienced a heyday, often used ancient formulas translated into Greek, a tradition which later influenced the magic of the Arabs.[4]

The ritual

    The execration rituals consisted of the destruction of dedicated objects, of animals[7], rarely of humans, and the recitation of magic spells, their written records being referred to as execration texts. The course of the ritual is fairly well understood, thanks to text like this one:
You will depict every enemy of Re and every enemy of Pharaoh, dead or alive, and every proscribed deed he might dream of, the names of their father, their mother, and their children—every one of them—being written with fresh ink on a sheet of unused papyrus—and their (own) names being written on their chest, they themselves having been made of wax and bound with bonds of black thread; they will be spat on, they will be trodden with the left foot, they will be struck with a knife and a lance, and they will be thrown into the fire in a blacksmith's furnace.
Papyrus Bremner-Rhind [5]

The physical destruction of the enemy

    The destruction of the enemy was generally symbolical, in the case of daemons and gods understandably so. Humans, probably mostly so-called rebels or foreign prisoners of war, were apparently only rarely put to death as part of an execration ritual. Animals considered the embodiment of some god or daemon were sacrificed more frequently, e.g. crocodiles were slaughtered as symbols of Seth at Edfu and Dendera.[6] But most often it was objects specially made or prepared for the purpose, which were destroyed. Red pots bearing the enemy's name were frequently smashed, figurines symbolizing him broken, sheets of papyrus inscribed with his name stamped into dust or burned, and the remains were buried in the ground.[7]

Inscribed execration figurine [12]

Killing humans

    Depictions of decapitated warriors date to earliest times. On the Narmer Palette ten headless corpses of fettered enemies are shown layed out in two rows, with their heads placed between their legs. The ritual killing of enemies has thus a long history and did not cease in later times. It has been suggested that the bodies of dead, possibly sacrificed enemies covered with uninscribed sherds of non-inscribed pots found in a pit at Avaris were buried there as part of a purification ceremony accompanied by an execration ritual, performed after the expulsion of the Hyksos. [13] Similarly at Mirgissa in Nubia the body of a decapitated man has been found buried upside down in a Middle Kingdom pit, together with a number of broken red clay vessels and figurines of prisoners. It is unknown who the deceased was or why he was killed, but the way of his death is consistent with the ritual execution of a rebel or criminal, and the burial place suggests that he was probably of Nubian origin.[14]

The destruction of figurines

    In most execration ceremonies objects were substituted for bodies. Figurines, representations of the enemies in fetters, spat upon and destroyed in burial rites and temple liturgies, were made of clay, wax, wood, or stone. If they were used in private ceremonies, they were often inscribed just with the name of an individual. Others, like a number of statuettes found buried in the floor of a chapel at Saqqara, represented enemies of the state, like foreign chiefs and kings, or of the world order, and were probably destroyed in official rituals.[15] The figurines were often buried, sealed up in the ground, but at times they were destroyed by covering their heads with linen and enclosing them in a ball of clay which was imprinted with the marks of netting and inscribed with hieroglyphs meaning 'to seal' and 'to beat'.[16]

Execration texts


Execration texts on pot sherds
© Naunakhte on Wikimedia, GNU Free Documentation License
    Often execration texts were written on the objects themselves which were to be destroyed. They generally consist of the name of the enemy against whom the ritual was enacted, of groups of persons, of places, of tribes or nations.[27] They may also contain insults against the execrated,[26] however they are not magical by themselves. The magic is worked by the whole ritual.[28]
    There is often something legalistic about ancient Egyptian magic, with its pedantic enumerations and definitions. In the following text the authorities were certainly not taking any chances with any potential enemy or any possible offense, be it in deed, in speech or in thought:
Gods ...[... ...]... spirits ...,
the ruler of Kush
A, born by B, born to C, and all the stricken ones who are with him, the ruler of ... etc. (follow the names of 4 more Nubian rulers, their descent and their dependents, all negroes of Kush, of Mwgr ... etc. (19 other Nubian tribes follow), the bowmen of the Southland, their champions, their couriers, their allies, their confederates, who will rebel, who will plot, who will fight, who consider fighting, who consider rebelling in this whole country; the ruler of Iiink A, and all the stricken ones who are with him ...etc. (30 more Asiatic rulers divided over 15 different regions follow), all Asiatics of Byblos, of Yuwati ... etc. (18 other regions follow, partly the same as before), their champions, their couriers, their allies, their confederates, the Bedawin in Asia who will rebel, who will plot, who will fight, who consider fighting, who consider rebelling in this whole country;
the Firstcomers in Tjehenu and all the Tjemehu and their rulers, their champions, their couriers, their allies, their confederates, who will rebel, who will plot, who will fight, who consider fighting, who consider rebelling in this whole country;
all people, all nobles, all common people, all men, all castrated ones (?), all women and all authorities who will rebel, who will plot, who will fight, who consider fighting, who consider rebelling, any rebel who considers rebelling in this whole country;
the dead one
A, the male nurse of B, the educator C ... (7 more persons to follow),
every bad word, every bad speech, every bad slander, every bad thought, every bad plotting, every bad fighting, every bad disturbance, every bad plan, every bad thing, every bad dream in every bad slumber.
An execration formula on a Middle Kingdom vase [8]
    The Second Intermediate Period king Nebkheperure-Intef lived in dangerous times, but seems to have warded off at least one attempt against him in which the nomarch of Coptos, Teti, was involved, What happened to Teti is unknown, but a decree, addressed to the officials and priesthood of the town and the troops stationed there, detailed his punishment: He and his line lost all his offices in permanence and no one should ever be allowed to speak in his favour on pain of becoming the victim of the royal wrath himself.
    The dead too had enemies, some of them belonging to the spiritual world, others being human. An inscription in the tomb of a lector-priest addressed himself to the latter. The deceased appears to have been less worried about his tomb being broken into and plundered–a simple threat of tit-for-tat was all he deemed necessary to protect his grave physically–than it being entered by people who had not undergone the appropriate purification rituals:
As for anything you can do against me in this my tomb of the necropolis, [the same treatment] will be inflicted on your property, for I am an able lector-priest, to whom absolutely no magic remains secret.
[As for anyone who] will enter this my tomb in a state of impurity, after having eaten something disgusting that disgusts the able spirit, without purifying himself for me. as he is supposed to purify himself for an able spirit who did what pleased his lord, [I shall] seize [him] like a bird, I shall heap on him the terror I inspire, so that the spirits and those who are on earth will see and be frightened because of an able spirit.

The ritual of breaking the red pots


Purification by water prior to breaking the pot
Scene from the tomb of Maya
    Apparently the oldest of the execration rituals, dating to the Old Kingdom, was the ritual of breaking the red pots. It is the best known of all execration rituals thanks to the great number of physical remains, depictions and descriptions. The breaking of the pots was part of the funerary offering ceremony, or perhaps rather of the purification by water rite which accompanied it.
3 times half loaf offerings and reversion of offerings, 3 times removing the footprints and breaking of the red pots, once lay (down) the royal offering, wash, sit down by the offering, once libation water, incense fire, an offering which the king gives to the Osiris Ni-ankh-pepi.
Saqqara2, Unas- cemetery, Mastaba of Ni-anch-Pepi [10]
    Originally, the breaking of the pots may simply have been a means to prevent the reuse of the vessels after they had served their sacred purpose; giving their destruction an additional meaning may have been a later development.[11] Breaking them would have removed any magical power that might have adhered to them.

Keeping Apophis and Seth at bay

    The serpent daemon Apophis was the quintessential evil. According to the creation myth of Esna, he came into being from a drop of spittle:
But they (the anterior gods) repelled a drop of spittle from her mouth, which she had produced in the bosom of the initial water; it was transformed into a serpent of 100 cubits, which was named Apophis. Its heart conceived revolt against Re, with its associates that issued from its eye.
The creation myth of Esna [17]
    Apophis was thus part of the creation itself, the order of which he attempted to destroy. Many magical spells refer to the mythical nightly struggle between Re and his followers and the serpent:
Spell for warding off the Rerek-snake in the realm of the dead, by NN:
Back! slide (away), retreat as the Apophis, the Enemy!
May you swim in the waters of Nun, to the place where your father orders to have you slaughtered.
Keep away from this abode of Re, where you are threatened to be broken.
I am <Re> who is in his <breaking> (?)
Back, Enemy!
Book of the Dead [18]
    An enemy of the sun like Apophis was a danger to the whole of creation, and the actions taken by the priesthood in support of Re were accordingly vigorous. Apophis could assume various shapes, animal forms such as that of a hippopotamus, an oryx or a tortoise, or he could be embodied by humans–evildoers, rebels or foreign foes.[19] Any execration ritual performed against such enemies helped to weaken Apophis and preserve the universe. During the annual Festival of the Uplifting of the Sky and the Creation of the Potter's Wheel for instance the statue of Khnum was taken out of its shrine in the Revelation of the Face ceremony, and then followed a recitation of the Book of Destroying Apophis, which described the fight between the daemon and Re, and the sun god's victory.[20]
    While few Egyptians had a good word to say about Apophis, Seth was to begin with a much respected deity. According to the myth he ruled over part of Egypt und defended Re on his nightly journey against Apophis. As late as the New Kingdom pharaohs chose names containing the name of Seth. But by Graeco-Roman times Seth under the name of Typhon had become the incarnation of evil who had killed his own brother Osiris and had wanted to do likewise to the Horus child, though in some places like the Dakhla oasis and the Fayum he continued to be venerated as an apotropaic deity.[21] But execration rituals against him took place in public all over Egypt, with the spectators taking part in heaping insults upon the Enemy.[22]
The Egyptians, because of their belief that Typhon was of a red complexion, also dedicate to sacrifice such of their neat cattle as are of a red colour, but they conduct the examination of these so scrupulously that, if an animal has but one hair black or white, they think it wrong to sacrifice it; for they regard as suitable for sacrifice not what is dear to the gods but the reverse, namely, such animals as have incarnate in them souls of unholy and unrighteous men who have been transformed into other bodies. For this reason they invoke curses on the head of the victim and cut it off, and in early times they used to throw it into the river, but now they sell it to aliens. Upon the neat animal intended for sacrifice those of the priests who were called "Sealers" used to put a mark; and their seal, as Castor records, bore an engraving of a man with his knee on the ground and his hands tied behind his back, and with a sword at his throat.
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris [23]
    Great execration rituals against Seth were held at, among other places, Busiris and Lycopolis and were festivities attracting large crowds. For these occasions cakes were baked bearing a mark in the shape of a bound donkey, a Sethian animal rendered harmless by the magic of rope and knot. The fate of these cakes is unknown, but one may suppose that they were destroyed, probably eaten by the spectators. At Edfu, after hunting crocodiles and killing them, all citizens ate some crocodile meat,[24] ritually annihilating the god's flesh. In the Festival of the Kites Seth was ritually killed in order to to protect and purify the temple.[25]
[1] Dunand & Zivie-Coche 2005, p.165
[2] Higginbotham 2000, p.44
[3] Higginbotham 2000, p.45
[4] Mirecki & Meyer 2002, Part 4, p.440
[5] Dunand & Zivie-Coche, p.126
[6] Frankfurter p.67
[7] according to Coptic texts the animals killed included frogs and the objects might be made of copper, papirus or blood (Gwynn et al. 2010, p.412) apart from the more usual wood, wax, clay or stone
[8] Borghouts 1978, pp.11ff.
[9] Dunand et al. 2005, p.166
[10] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften: Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Ni-anch-Pepi => Opferkammer => Nordwand => Opferliste
[11] Van Dijk, pp.185f.
[12] Ritner, p.138
[13] Hawass & Brock 2003, pp.187f.
[14] Darnell & Manassa 2007, p.133
[15] Willems 2001, p.319
[16] Willems 2001, p.318
[17] Dunand & Zivie-Coche 2005, p.64
[18] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, B. Backes (ed.), L.Kairo J.E. 96810 (L.Ahmose-Henut-Tjemehu) => Tb 039
[19] Dunand & Zivie-Coche 2005, p.123
[20] Dunand & Zivie-Coche 2005, p.291
[21] Frankfurter 2000, p.113
[22] Frankfurter 2000, p.205
[23] Plutarch, Chapter 31
[24] Frankfurter 2000, p.54
[25] Muhlestein 2008
[26] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.60
[27] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.60
[28] Ritner 2008, p.142
J. F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian magical texts, Brill, 1978
John Coleman Darnell, Colleen Manassa, Tutankhamun's armies: battle and conquest during ancient Egypt's late eighteenth dynasty, John Wiley and Sons, 2007
Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE To 395 CE, Cornell University Press, 2005
David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance, Princeton University Press, 2000
David M. Gwynn, Susanne Bangert, Luke Lavan, Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity, Brill, 2010
Zahi A. Hawass, Lyla Pinch Brock, Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century: Archaeology, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2003
Carolyn R. Higginbotham, Egyptianization and elite emulation in Ramesside Palestine: governance and accomodation on the imperial periphery, Brill, 2000
Paul Allan Mirecki, Marvin W. Meyer, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Brill 2002
Kerry Muhlestein, "Execration Ritual". In Willeke Wendrich, Jacco Dieleman (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angele, 2008s.
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, Loeb Classical Library, 1936
Robert Kriech Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008
Shaw & Nicholson 1995
Jacobus Van Dijk, The New Kingdom Necropolis of Memphis, Groningen, 1993
Harco Willems, Social Aspects of Funerary Culture in the Egyptian Old and Middle Kingdoms, Peeters Publishers, 2001  
Aspects of life
Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. Thanks.


CSE xhtml validated