The Egyptians imagined a world in a state of perfect equilibrium conceived by the solar demiurge. But this resplendent universe was under constant threat from a large number of malign forces that might spring from the shadows: every being, every place, even every object might at any time be prey to malevolent forces and agressive intentions. The gods themselves, in their originally ambivalent form, sometimes proved hostile and then called up innumerable cohorts of dangerous genies, messengers of illness and death. The demiurge had not, however, left mankind without resources in the face of these perils; himself endowed with unlimited power, heka, a true dynamic universal force, he had given humans the use of it so that they might combat adversity in the terrestrial world.
In Ancient Egypt there was no conflict between religion and magic; each, by its own means, contributed to the maintenance of the ideal original world. The Egyptian disposed of an entire 'supranormal' arsenal for the maintenance of this equilirium for his own benefit. If the 'official' religion assured — by the celebration of the daily rites and the festivals — that the world ran well, the heka extended and reinforced these observances at the level of individual and popular rituals. In this context, amulets — favoured receptacles of heka — contributed effectively to the prevention of any event — be it an illness, a poor harvest or a disappointment in love — that might thwart the 'normal course of events'. What then were the criteria on which the efficacy of amulets, whose number increased in Egypt to the point where one is tempted to speak of production on an industrial scale, was founded? It was only in the most exceptional circumstances that the direct intervention of the magician, the sau, was required to ensure that the amulet fulfilled its potential:
Certain texts, however, mention a spell to be recited over this or that talisman, to invest it with its full efficacy; first of all, it [usually] concerns necklaces or of strips of linen with knots at [more or less regular] intervals, which were not able, by their form atone, to ensure the protection of their wearer. S. Sauneron, Le Monde du sorcier
The object acquired its full efficacy as soon as it was made, immediately it came out of the mould. No special consecration was necessary, the amulet was operational at once, since its efficacy resided in its form, in the material from which it was made, in its colour, indeed in the very symbol which it represented.
The sacred form thus provided the protection sought. Taweret protected women in childbirth. Ptah protected craftsmen. Thoth protected scribes, whereas Sobek kept the crocodiles away. The regalia carried and worn by the pharaoh, such as the sceptres and the crowns, receptacles of divine and royal power, thus became a recognised means of partaking in the immortality of the king.
Certain spells from the Book of the Dead deliberately emphasise the importance of the choice of the material that will endow the object with its full potential, aside from the actual symbol represented. It is thus specified in Spell 155 that the djed pillar, symbol of stability and durability, should be made of gold:
To be said over a golden djed-pillar embellished with sycamore-bast, to be placed on the throat of the deceased on the day of interment. As for him on whose throat this amulet has been placed, he will be a worthy spirit who will be in the realm of the dead on New Year's Day like those who are in the suite of Osiris. A matter a million times true. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,
The importance placed on the choice of material for the making of amulets is very ancient, as attested by evidence from as early as the Gerzean Period: red jasper for a heart, carnelian for a bird, turquoise for a ram, limestone for a bull's head, ivory for a vulture.
In fact, the Egyptians used a great variety of materials to make amulets. Before the historic period, the materials were mainly of organic origin: shells, the bones and teeth of various animais, ivory. Talons and claws used as amulets have been unearthed in Predynastic burials; these were later reproduced in semiprecious stone and in metal. On the other hand wood, a more perishable material, was rarely used to make amulets. Semiprecious stones began to be used towards the end of the Predynastic Period, and their use developed significantly afterwards. The symbolism of their colours played an extremely important part in this development.
Although the list below is not exhaustive, the semiprecious stones most commonly used were:
- Amazonite, a green variety of microcline, one of the feldspars. Like turquoise, it was a symbol of life eternally reborn. It was in use from the end of the Old Kingdom on.
- Carnelian, a red or reddish-brown to orange transluscent variety of agate. The colour red stood for positive concepts related to blood and to universal dynamism, but also for negative concepts, manifestations of the god Seth, murderer of Osiris, lord of the desert regions and of devastating storms. Without any doubt, in using carnelian to make an amulet, the Egyptian had only the beneficent aspects of the colour red in mind.
- asper, an impure form of chalcedony with bands or patches of red, green or yellow. Red jasper, symbol of life and of the positive aspects of the universe, was used above all to make amulets. It was imperative that certain amulets, such as the tit amulet, or knot of Isis, were made of red jasper (at least ideally), as specified in Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead. The more rarely used green jasper was especially indicated for making scarabs, particularly heart scarabs.
- Lapis lazuli was one of the most highly prized semiprecious stones in Ancient Egypt. This 'azure stone', symbol of the nocturnal sky, comes from northeastern Afghanistan and is an aluminosilicate of sodium and calcium. Imported to Egypt since the Predynastic Period, it was worked throughout the dynastic period and in the late periods gave rise to minuscule amulets evocative of joy and delight.
- Serpentine is the generic term for the hydrated silicates of magnesium. It came mostly from the eastern desert, and occurs in many shades of colour, from a pale green to a dark green verging on black. Used from the earliest times, it was sought especially for making heart scarabs.
- Steatite, also known as soapstone, is a mineral of the chlorite family; it has the great advantage of being very easily worked. Steatite amulets are found in contexts from the Predynastic Period on, although in subsequent periods it was usually covered in a fine layer of faience and was used in the manufacture of numerous scarabs.
- Turquoise, opaque stone, sky blue to blue-green; turquoise is a natural basic aluminium phosphate coloured blue by traces of copper. Closely linked to the goddess Hathor, it was extracted mainly from mines in Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadim). The Egyptians were particularly fond of the greenish shades, symbolic of dynamism and vital renewal. In the Late Period turquoise, like lapis lazuli, was synonymous with joy and delight. Many other types of stone - such as limestone, quartz, rock crystal, haematite, obsidian and basalt - were also used to make amulets.
The working of these various stones was still fraught with difficulties, despite the fact that the technology was becoming ever more efficient. However well developed the techniques of production, they could not fulfil an ever growing demand. Then a new technique - occasionally attempted under the Old Kingdom if not before – was to flourish on a grand scale under the New Kingdom, from the reign of Amenhotep III in XVIIIth Dynasty on. The technique in question is the mass production of faience amulets cast in moulds. The term 'faience' is commonly applied to various much later ceramic wares made in Europe. The Egyptian faience from which amulets were made, however, is not a ceramic at all. The cores of faience amulets were generally made of a sandy substance, or ideally of quartz; this was covered in a thin siliceous glaze, coloured by adding copper salts, which were varied to produce varying shades of blue or green. The production of these amulets - which were cast in terracotta moulds - expanded prodigiously, until the scale of the output bordered on the truly industrial. This technology made it possible for all Egyptians, even the most humble, easily to acquire such amulets, imitations of types ideally made of carved turquoise or other semiprecious stones.
The Egyptians produced metal, as well as carved stone and cast faience amulets. Amulets were not, however, made of copper – the earliest metal known to man – until the Old Kingdom, although gold was used together with turquoise in amulets which form elements of the well known bracelet of King Djer of the lst Dynasty. Silver, which was imported from Asia Minor and was often more valuable than gold to the Egyptians, appeared during the Old Kingdom. Although silver was sometimes alloyed with gold to form electrum, it was hardly ever used alone in the production of amulets. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was much used when the use of iron was restricted during the Graeco-Roman period.
Colour is also important from the earliest times. It is no accident that heart amulets were made of red jasper in the Protohistoric Period; the choice of colour was deliberate and the colour was deliberately sought. Red, symbolic of life, thus became the assurance that the deceased would continue to exist in the hereafter. As a symbol of life after death, red is not peculiar to Egypt: the Magdalenians in Europe used red ochre in some burials, attesting to comparable beliefs. From an identical point of view, green - symbol of new or flourishing vegetation - conveyed ideas of growth, flowering and renewal, whereas white – the colour of milk - conveyed notions of fecundity and abundance.
A large number of amulets drew their efficacy from the very symbol they embodied. Certain hieroglyphs thus served as amulets because of their meaning: the amulet ankh, symbol of life, would assure its possessor of a happy existence. The djed pillar would act as a receptacle of stability and durability, whereas the the hieroglyph wadj - the small papyrus column - would develop the potentiality of greenery and permanent regeneration. In general, the efficacy of all amulets was reinforced when they were 'uttered' at favourable times, and more particularly at the beginning of a new year.The rites celebratated within the temples at these times, such as that of the 'Union with the Disc', recharged the entire universe with dynamic forces. It was precisely at this time, in this favourable context of vital renewal, that one acquired for oneself or gave one's close relations and associates the small objects that were in some way themselves imbued with all the positive elements of the renewed cycle.