The Shabaka Stone

This will be a blog mainly about my research in Ancient Egyptian magic, with special attention paid to the difficult bits: the bits that don’t seem to fit, that are tangled up, or that don’t seem to make much sense.  Often it’s the wrinkles that give the best clues about what lies beneath.

I expect I’ll write about other things too, though, from time to time.

The Shabaka stone, photo © Michael Sheppard 2016
The Shabaka stone, photo © Michael Sheppard 2016

To kick things off, here’s a photo of the Shabaka Stone, a stela from Memphis dating from around 710 B.C. and now on display in the British Museum.  Inscribed on it is an account of how Ptah created the world. Nowadays this account is known as the Memphite Theology.

I’ll be looking in detail at the text itself in my book…at least the sections of it that have survived, because as you can see from the image, it was later used, presumably by someone who couldn’t read the hieroglyphs, as a millstone.

At first I wondered whether this was the purposeful desecration of a holy text, or simply the work of an ignorant and presumably hungry peasant.  But as I looked further, I began wondering whether something else rather more magical was going on…

Strangely the mutilated text, after describing how Ptah used utterance to create the world, starts comparing the dwelling-place of Ptah to, of all things, a granary that sustains the land of Egypt:

[Ptah] is Ta-tenen, who gave birth to the gods, and from whom everything came forth, foods, provisions, divine offerings, all good things...The Great Throne that gives joy to the heart of the gods in the House of Ptah is the granary of Ta-tenen, the mistress of all life, through which the sustenance of the Two Lands is provided

In fact this was the second time that this text had repurposed itself for food provision. The Stone’s introduction says that it is a copy of

…a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end.

So the first time this text was forgotten, it gave itself as food for bookworms to eat.  The second time it became a millstone, helping to sustain the people of Egypt when they, like the bookworms before them, could no longer draw sustenance from its words.

While the last blasts of Egyptian paganism, such as the Hermetic text The Asclepius, screamed apocalypse as Christianity took hold of the land, this stela quietly got itself a new job grinding grain—and keeping those who ate its bread connected to Ptah’s granary. Ptah was still working through the stela, compassionately providing his more recent, Christian children with his blessings in a manner in which they could still receive them.

Sources

Miriam Lichtheim gives a full translation of the surviving portions of the Shabaka Stone in Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, pp. 51–57.

The Stone itself is on display in the British Museum.  Visit its page on the BM’s website for a great deal more information about the stone, as well as to find out its current location in the museum.

The Asclepius is included in Brian Copenhaver’s Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation.  This is the best modern translation available of the Hermetica, but it’s pretty expensive.  Unless you’re going to make an in-depth study of the Hermetica, G. R. S. Meade’s version is probably fine.  It is out of copyright and freely available online.

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

2 thoughts on “The Shabaka Stone”

  1. …and this blog starts off with a bang. What a great insight, and seeing beneath the appearance of things. I look forward to more. There is too little on Egyptian magic these days.

    1. Thanks Anna! That’s one of the reasons for the book: much of the stuff I’ve seen on Egyptian magic has started to look quite dated, largely because the sources being used are old translations or out of date texts. ‘Personal journey’ books hold up better, but don’t have as much focus on the techniques used by the Egyptian magicians and priests themselves, and there’s a lot we can learn from those old birds.

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