The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. This week’s topic: Heka
…In ancient Egypt there was no word for “religion.” The nearest thing to it was in fact the word commonly translated as “magic” – heka.” (Naydler, Kindle edition, Loc. 2274)
What is magic?
We refer to this word all the time in the PPRW community. Those in witchcraft traditions perhaps use it most frequently, but there are many of us following historically-informed, recon-styled paths that also have a place for magic in their practice. This often has to do with the fact that many of the pre-Christian, ancient religions we model our own modern religions after also had a place for magic in their practice. In many ways, though, magic often feels, nowadays, like something that was once much stronger, much more prevalent, and much more believed in throughout the world…but the modern age, the coming of “rational thinking” and “science”, has destroyed its charm, its truth-value, its effect. Perhaps it is a lack of belief that drives such thoughts, or the “pushing out” of anything magical from the majority of world religions (especially the Abrahamic ones), with the word “witch” now carrying a misguided amount of negative connotations. Perhaps it is the fault of fantasy authors, who describe magic in a strictly physical, and somewhat limiting, way – the burst of a fireball from the end of a wizard’s wand. Without knowing it, these authors, who in many ways were inspired by the myths of the past, have given magic an impossible standard. Say “one word” and manifest a physical object?
There is a power in language, a power that the Ancient Egyptians, of all people, fully and deeply realized. And with language, comes knowledge – perhaps the ultimate power of all. The word magic comes from the Greek word magos, which derives from the Persian roots mog, megh, and magh – which signify “priest”, “wise”, and “excellent.” From these roots also comes the word maghdim, or the “sacred philosophy.” Paracelsus eventually defined what came to be magic in terms of these roots: “Magic is the greatest wisdom and the knowledge of supernatural powers…acquired by obtaining more spirituality and making oneself capable to feel and to see the things of the spirit.”
It should be noted here that the Ancient Egyptians considered the Greeks to be children when it came to spiritual understanding.
In Ancient Egypt, you see, magic was a God. Heka, the word for magic (as described above), was also the name of a God. And the God Heka, appropriately, came into existence as the first utterance of Atum. It was through speech that He manifested. And so He is God of the Divine Word, which is magic.
So if Heka is the God, is magic, heka (lowercase) is the ability to wield magic. What does that mean? Well, if Heka is the God of the Divine Word, of manifestation through speech, then it would follow that to wield magic would be to have the ability to also manifest things into existence with speech.
To understand, to harmonize with, and then to activate heka in given situations is the sacred science and practice of magic. It follows, therefore, that a path of inner development is the prerequisite for the ability to wield magical power. For the personality or the ego cannot command gods: only Heka itself can. So the magician is one who has made him- or herself a clear channel for transmitting Heka.” (Naydler, Kindle edition, Loc. 2313)
Still with me? So Heka is the God, and heka is the practice of channeling that God, and manifesting into existence that which is desired through speech (the Divine Word). But what Jeremy Naylder explains is important: not just anyone can perform heka, and furthermore, not all speech is heka. From a Kemetic standpoint (obviously this may or may not apply to those practicing magic from other traditional paths) those who can perform heka are those who have practiced, and those who have devoted themselves to the seriousness of channeling a God’s power.
That doesn’t necessarily mean heka cannot be used unless it’s a very important occassion, it just means one should take heka seriously no matter what. Even if you are simply performing a spell to help you get over a cold, which may or may not be life threatening, understand that the act of using heka is still one that requires a certain amount of responsibility. Whatever the intention, heka must be approached with a certain amount of respect (for the Gods), and a certain amount of self discipline. Take your words seriously, and understand, before you do anything, that there will be repercussions – usually good, but maybe also bad, depending. In my opinion, what separates normal, everyday speech from an act of heka (the Divine Word) is the mindset and the space we put ourselves into: we must believe that what we are doing is powerful, and we must be ready to “channel Heka” in whatever way works for us.
That being said, in many ways, our everyday speech is in part a smaller, or lesser, form of heka, despite a lack of intention to “channel the God” or do a formalized type of spell, curse, etc. Why?
…Heka is intimately connected with Ma’at, the “right order” of the universe established at the beginning of time, to which it was considered vital to attune political, social, and moral life. Heka and Ma’at…seem as brother and sister here, performing the same essential gesture in relation to the solar principal. …For the Ancient Egyptians, any alignment of the physical with the spiritual, of earthly with heavenly forces, required the activation of Heka, and resulted in Ma’at.” (Naydler, Kindle edition, Loc. 2572)
Every word we say matters. Every insult, every word of praise. This is because speech itself, which is an aspect of Heka and heka, is inherently tied to Ma’at. Remember what it means to uphold Ma’at? If not, I can remind you here, here, and here. In any case, being the best person we can be has a lot to do with upholding Ma’at, and in that sense, our speech matters. What we say to ourselves, and what we say to others. Think about the power of words in your daily life, just for a minute. How good do you feel when someone tells you you’ve done an amazing job with the recent project you had through work or school? How bad do you feel when someone makes fun of you out loud around others? Words can hurt, and words can heal. There have been medical cases when a person has been told of an improvement even if there wasn’t one, and improved anyway due to the hope of hearing those words.
So for me, heka can be boiled down into two categories:
- Active heka: formalized spellwork or witchcraft; using magic for an intended purpose; “channeling the God” – what the Ancient Egyptians would have referred to as “what magicians do.”
- Passive heka: our daily speech - what we say to ourselves and to others; being mindful of our words at all times; this could apply to both written and spoken words
In Ancient Egypt, magicians and high priests were those who performed the ritualistic or “formalized” heka that I have decided to call “Active heka.” I think it is possible nowadays for any of us to be able to perform such acts if we are in the right space and mindset, but I also don’t think it wrong if you choose not to take part in Active heka. I personally do not do so often. I would barely call myself a magician/witch/etc. That’s not a bad thing! It just means I don’t have as much practice, nor do I find it something I need to do often. I “save” it for when I really need help with something or someone else really needs help with something…not because I don’t think magic should be used frequently, but because I am not very good at it yet, so it takes a lot of energy and time for me to do a spell or something magic-related. As a member of the Kemetic Orthodoxy too, I find that having a system of hierarchy (in a sense) for this sort of thing – having high priests, for example – is sort of a comfort…it means there are mentors and teachers out there who can help with Active heka needs, and it gives me a solid sense of how much time it can take to get “good” at this kind of thing. I hope to learn more in the coming years.
However, as a translator and writer, I find that it is most important for me to personally pay attention to my Passive heka all the time. What I write and what I say really matters. Just recently, for example, I had a minor fight with a close friend…and you know how it started? Because of something she said to me (well, wrote in an email, rather). It was because of her wording. After we talked it out, I realized her intentions and her mistake, as did she, but it really drove home for me how important it is that we respect people with our words, and when we have an issue with someone, that we pay attention to how we explain it. Letting anger, hate, and other negative emotions enter into our speech or writing can really effect a situation. Part of living in Ma’at is understanding that, and acting accordingly (which is in part why I wrote this post to begin with, a while back).
Going back, now, to the beginning of this post, when I mentioned modern fantasy novels and the idea of “casting a spell” – saying the words and manifesting something physically, and how many people nowadays have come to view that as “ridiculous” or “impossible.” Perhaps, with the above knowledge of Ancient Egypt now at our disposal, it does not seem so farfetched that magic would work that way. What does it mean to manifest something? Every time we use our words to describe something in a novel, we manifest a whole world for the reader to imagine. Every time we tell someone we love them, and mean it, we are manifesting love – often following up our statement with a physical hug, kiss, or embrace of some sort. When we are cruel with our words, we can often cause tears - the physical manifestation of sadness or betrayal or pain.
The truth of the matter is, magic does work that way in the real world.
Magic is its own science, one that does not need to contest with the law of physics, for example, but exist alongside it.
One of my absolute favorite scenes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where they must open the door to Moria with the “password.” Gandalf assumes, based on the inscription above the doors, which reads “Speak, friend, and enter”, that if you are a “friend of Moria” you simply need to tell the doors to open, and they will. Of course, this doesn’t work. He gets upset and tries many different words. Finally, it is one of the Hobbits who notices that perhaps they are going about it the wrong way – that the inscription really reads, “Speak ‘friend’ and enter” – as in, say the Elvish word for friend. Gandalf does so, and the doors open.
The point of this story is that words, on their own, have power. We may love someone, “speak as a friend”, but if we say the wrong thing, we can still hurt that person. We can make people we don’t love romantically think we do, if we aren’t careful with how we speak to them.
So it is with a mindfulness, with an intention, coupled with the use of words, that allows us to be successful – allows us to uphold Ma’at, and make the best out of any given situation.
Remember – the word “abracadabra”, perhaps the most famous “fake magical word” of all is actually based on a real word, a Hebrew/Aramaic word, that literally translates to “I create as I speak.”
Magic, in the modern sense, doesn’t seem so silly now, does it?
- Naydler, Jeremy. Temple of the Cosmos. Inner Traditions, 1996. (Kindle edition)
- “Philosophia Sagax” in F. Hartmann, Paracelsus: Life and Prophecies (New York: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1973), P. 103-4
- Henadology: Heka