Lilinah's Introduction to Magic
Focus on the Near and Middle East

Chapter 10:
**** "Dead Letters": Messages to the Underworld ****


Ancient Egyptians believed that deceased persons continued living in the netherworld pretty much the same way they did on earth and that they would be aware of what happened on earth after their death and, if favorably inclined, they could help the living. Some time before the Middle Kingdom, the practice began of writing letters to the dead to enlist their help.

Almost always these supplications were written on bowls, which could possibly contain offerings as well. They were placed in the tomb of the deceased to whom an appeal was being made. The entire text had to be written in the bowl, so often they were brief and lack details of the reason for the request.

The request was written starting on the rim and running around and down. It contains five basic parts: (1) address to the deceased: To X (name of supplicant), born of Y (name of supplicant's mother); (2) a standard formula of greeting, (3) praises of the deceased to persuade them to help, (4) the statement of some wrong done to the writer, and (5) an appeal for help from the deceased.

(Brier: p. 200 & 201 text; 202 on a ceramic vase stand; 203 & 204 on papyrus; 204 - see Bibliography)


The Phoenicians, on the other hand, had special amulets for the dead to protect them from the terrors of the afterlife or the equally feared cycle of rebirth. Amulets have been found in Sardinia and Carthage dating from the 7th to 5th Centuries BCE. They are engraved on small strips of papyrus, silver, or gold and enclosed within a small perpendicularly mounted metal cylinder (rather like a mezzuzah) and buried with the dead. Often the inscriptions include animal figures and hieroglyphs, sometimes "nonsense" hieroglyphs which look a lot like Egyptian, but are not quite right.

One example of the contents of an amulet is not quite 11 inches square. It is covered with approximately 250 different Egyptian figures and includes 2 Punic inscriptions "Protect and guard Hilletsbaal, son of Arisatbaal" and "Guard and protect Hilletsbaal, son of Arsi."

Greek and Hellenic

Greek and Hellenic magical letters most often were to request aid from tellurian (Earth-oriented) or chthonic (Underworld) deities. These were written or drawn most commonly on lead strips, but sometimes on potsherds, tiles, or bowls. Tellurian or chthonic deities or spirits were invoked during a ritual, especially Hermes, Hekate, and Demeter. Then the magical "letter" was dropped down a well or into a tomb or grave, because these places were close to the Earth and the Underworld, where the deities invoked had their domains.

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