Unlucky in love? Today, you might try your luck on Tinder, read dating advice articles, or console yourself with a large tub of Ben & Jerry's in front of Bridget Jones. But back in ancient Egypt, lonely hearts and slighted lovers would often turn to superstition and wizardry to change their fate. (Presumably to little success.)
Korshi Dosoo, an expert in Egyptology and Coptic texts, leads "The Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt" at the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg in Germany. His most recent work, published in the Journal of Coptic Studies, involves an ancient Egyptian papyrus he believes is a fragment of a centuries-old magician's handbook. All that remains is a single sheet of yellowed papyrus showing a curious-looking diagram and what appears to be the instructions for a love spell.
"The form and contents of the papyrus leave no doubt that it belongs to the genre typically described as 'magical” papyri'," Dosoo explains in the paper.
These are short-ish texts that either detail spells and rituals to aid a person in their day-to-day life whether that be in love, health, or success, or are produced during such rituals. Dosoo believes that this particular item is from the late-seventh to early-eighth century, making it roughly 1,300 years old – when the Egyptians had swapped hieroglyphs for Coptic and Christianity had established itself in the country.
Large chunks of the text have been destroyed, making it difficult to decipher the text. Still, Dosoo has translated what is left from Coptic (an Egyptian language using the Greek alphabet) to English:
"I call u[pon you...] who is Christ, the god of Israe[l...] and (?) of Akhetobēl ... [...] the women (?)... you will dissolve […] … and every child of A[dam…] the king (?). You will give grace to the face of [… I in]voke you y the […]… now…"
It doesn't give a whole lot away but it does make several Christian references, including "Christ", "Israel", "Adam", and "Ahitophel", the man the Hebrew Bible says betrayed David.
"Christian literary texts from Egypt which mention love spells often imply that the problem is not that the woman doesn't love the man per se, but that he does not have access to her, because she is a young unmarried girl protected and secluded by her family, or already married to someone else," Dosoo told Live Science.
In the paper, Dosoo also mentions a word that can be translated to "musk" – an ingredient imported from India and often used as a magical offering to attract people.
But perhaps more interesting than the words themselves is the roughly drawn picture embedded in the text. It seems to show two birdlike creatures linked by parallel lines that Dosoo suggests represents a chain, a bond, or possibly a penis. These two animals are almost identical except that the one on the right also appears to have ears or horns and a line and a circle on its head, which may be to represent sexual differences, Dosoo says.
This reflects a common theme among ancient love spells – two creatures facing each other (one the magician's client and the second their target). In contrast, separation spells were often depicted with one or both the targets facing away from the other.
But Ancient Egyptians used magic like this for more than just love. In 2014, researchers deciphered a similar Coptic text that gave instructions on how to control another person. Something we suggest you do not try at home.