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What is Heka?
The word heka can mean several things, each contributing to our understanding of the complexities of ancient Egyptian magic. The function of heka is described in the Instruction for Merikara, the Middle Kingdom teaching of the Pharaoh Amenemhet I (c. 2000 BCE):
“He [Re] gave them [mankind] the heka as a weapon in order to ward off the effect of dangerous events.”
Heka was seen as a gift from the sun god Re to mankind (his offspring), a manifestation of his creative energy as an embodiment of his Ba (his soul). It empowered man to create using words and actions, mirroring the sun god’s creation of the universe. Heka can be seen as the creative force or life-giving energy connecting the objects, links and symbols of life with the universe, like a subtle tapestry of energy, which the magician must learn to read if s/he is to effectively work magic.
Heka is also the inherent magical energy (mana or personal power) found within living beings. Different creatures were perceived as possessing different amounts of heka. The gods had the most heka. The pharaoh (as a channel for the divine energy) also had a lot of heka, as did people who were considered unusual, such as dwarfs and people with birth defects. Red hair was considered a sign of having much heka, due to the magical associations with that colour. And of course the other class of being with a lot of heka was the dead, hence the use of spells calling on the dead to assist with performing rites.
Today the practice of heka is open to anyone who wishes to pursue it. Although we do not have the worldview of the ancient Egyptians and much of their material has been lost, we do have some major advantages that make heka more accessible.
For a start literacy and numeracy are the norm, rather than being restricted to the rich and priestly castes, as was the case in Egypt. Technology has made the power of the written and spoken words, so vital to Egyptian magic, available to all of us. For this reason you do not need to have a university education or have studied Egyptology or classics to appreciate Egyptian magic. Freedom of information has brought truth to the statement that magic is for all, or rather meant that is accessible to all who have the desire and dedication to pursue a magical life.
As well as being the term for magic, Heka was a god, indeed he was the god of magic. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say he was magic, being the divine personification of magic. He is sometimes shown in images as appearing among the crew of the solar barque. He was depicted as a bearded man wearing a lion nemes headdress.
Another definition of heka is given in funerary spell 261 of the Coffin Texts, from a Middle Kingdom sarcophagus. The spell is entitled “To become the god Heka”, and reads:
“I am he whom the Lord of all made before duality had yet come into being … the son of him who gave birth to the universe … I am the protection of that which the Lord of all has ordained … I am he who gave life to the Ennead of the gods … come to take my position that I may receive my dignity. Because to me belonged the universe before you gods had come into being. You have come afterwards because I am Heka.”
The hieroglyph used from 1000 BCE to write his name was interchangeable with the concepts of god and power. Visually the hieroglyph depicted the hindquarters of a lion, and may well be linked with his attribution as one of the sons of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. In this form he was shown as a young child with a solar disk on his head.
With Sekhmet’s son Nefertem (purity) being considered to be an avatar of the Sun God Re, it is possible that Heka may also have been seen in this light. This presents a line of apostolic succession of power, from Re to his daughter Sekhmet, and hence to her sons Heka and Nefertem, who also embody the qualities of Re between them.
One of the titles of the god Heka was The one who consecrates imagery, referring to the ability of the god to empower creative thoughts and actions and translate them into their physical equivalents in the physical world. So Heka was also perceived as the animating and manifesting force of every ritual act. In this context heka is thus both intent and action: the cause, the act and the effect.
From the point of view of Sau (the magical use of amulets), this title is extremely suggestive, as any amulet or talisman is ultimately an image that is given form and then consecrated with the power of Heka. So not only is Heka the god who consecrates the image, but it is his power that is relied upon to create the image.
Another title of the god Heka was Lord of Ka’s, referring to the soul. This is a significant title, as all mankind and even the gods have ka’s. In the Middle to Late Kingdom Heka becomes seen as the ka of Re, with Re declaring, “Heka is my ka.” From this perspective Heka can be seen as being as significant as Maat as part of the underlying force and flow behind the whole of the cosmos.
Coffin Text spell 648 stresses not only the role of Heka as Lord of Ka’s, but also as the power the gods used, and the inherent magic of the word:
“His powers put fear into the gods who came into being after him, his myriad of spirits is within his mouth. It was Heka who came into being of himself, at seeing whom the gods rejoiced, and through the sweet savour of whom the gods live, who created the mountains and knit the firmament together.”
In conjunction with Sia (Perception) and Hu (Creative logos), Heka was involved in the creation of the first time and the separation of heaven and earth. This is one of the reasons why these deities are shown in the solar barque of Re, as they are all part of the process of first creation, which the magician returns to by creating a sacred space and performing magic (heka).
This is also why he is “Heka who opens his two eyes that the two lands might see”, for he is the agent of Re, whose perception (Sia) and utterance (Hu) empowered by magic (Heka) ensures the continuances of the cycle of daily creation.
Heka is also referred to as the Elder Magician, emphasising his primal nature as the first child of Atum-Re, and distinguishing him from younger deities of magic who draw ultimately on his power, like Isis.
As has already been mentioned, Re declares that Heka is his ba, and this is stated unequivocally in The Book of the Heavenly Cow, where Re declares:
“I am the one who made heaven and who established it in order to places the ba’s of the gods within it. I shall be with them for eternity which time begets. My ba is Heka. It is older than it [time] … the ba of Re is in Heka throughout the entire land.”
The association between Heka and Maat is indicated in one of the Vienna Papyri, where Heka is described as “Controller of the House of Natural Law”. Natural law is the function of Maat, so this implies the function of magic as part of the normal functioning of the universe, within the balance of Maat.
The title Wer-Hekau, meaning Mighty of Magic, is derived from heka. This title was used by several of the major deities, all of whom were particularly linked with magical powers, specifically Anubis, Isis and Thoth.
Originally Weret-Hekau (the Great of Magic) was a cobra goddess, whose form may have survived into serpent wands, but she was assimilated into other deities like Isis at a very early stage. She also had a lioness form, thus possessing the qualities of the two most common powerful creatures amongst the deities.
Heka needs to be distinguished from other forms of magic to appreciate its usage in ancient Egypt. As well as heka there was akhu, the spells or enchantments practised by the dead; and sau, which was amuletic magic.
It should be stressed that heka was largely used as a preventative form of magic, a sort of ancient crisis management, to help deal with events like animal attacks, infectious diseases, disasters, and of course the perils of childbirth. Anti-social magic (i.e. cursing) did not really form a part of heka until the Roman influence in the latter days of ancient Egypt. As such heka is ideal for anyone wishing to develop themselves through pursuing a positive magical and spiritual path.
The one example of heka being used as black magic comes from the 19th Dynasty. The Harim Conspiracy involved several functionaries using written magical spells, wax figurines and potions to attempt to kill Ramesses III. The conspirators of this failed attempt at regicide received the death sentence and also the ultimate punishment given to traitors and enemies of the state. All traces of their names were removed from existence, as if they had never existed, so that their being was annihilated.
The major instance of heka being used in a manner that would be seen today as black magic was the practice of cursing against enemies of the state by the Pharaoh, such as enemy armies. Details of such techniques are recorded in the so-called Execration Texts, which are not covered in the current volume as they are not relevant to the personal practice of Heka. This however was not seen as cursing, as it was an effort to protect the sovereignty of Egypt. In such instances sympathetic magic on a grand scale might be resorted to, with models representing enemy ships or troops being ritually destroyed.
If somebody was having problems, with illness or bad luck, this was often viewed as the actions of beings with heka. It could be an angry ghost, a sorceror, or an angry deity that the individual had offended. To this end the individual was seen as the victim of circumstances, and there was no guilt associated with seeking a practitioner of heka to help fight off the negative influences being experienced. By restoring the correct balance problems were resolved, again demonstrating the nature of heka as being the natural and correct flow of energy towards harmony within the universe.
It has been suggested that there was a separate class of magicians operating on the fringes of society performing heka for the masses, but evidence now indicates that the practitioners of heka were usually none other than priests, acting as magicians and earning an income outside of their temple duties. Priests served one month in four in the temple and spent the other three months with their families, were they were not bound by all the same taboos and strictures as when serving the gods in the temple. During this time in the community they were thus available to assist members of the community who might need their aid.
The word heka continued to be used through until Roman times. After this it was succeeded by the Coptic word hik (xik), which was equated to the Greek word mageia (and hence magic).
( Extract from the book – “Heka – The Practices of Ancient Egyptian Ritual & Magic by David Rankinewww.heka.co.uk)