Are Books Magical? – The Power and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah

I was initially excited to study Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah because I had no previous history with it. However, once I realized that it was going to be the subject of my first blog post, I struggled to choose a topic to cover for a close reading. I tried to identify a few of the story’s important themes, and finally settled on “Magic.” Since Magic is a pretty broad topic, I thought that I could discard all of the modern perceptions I had of Magic–stuff from fantasy books and television shows–and instead focus on all the ways that this work, by itself, explicates Magic for its audience. This was especially useful given the limited knowledge I have about the story’s external context, primarily the history and culture of the ancient Egyptians, but I’m ultimately unsure whether it helped me understand the story to a greater degree than I had previously.

One question that I kept asking myself throughout this assignment was if the Egyptians thought of reading as a magical act. It seems like an unnecessarily ignorant question on its face, but my curiosity arose from the story’s introduction of magic in the opening paragraph. The story’s protagonist, Prince Khamwas, is introduced as a “learned scribe and magician,” which led me to form some beliefs about Magic that stuck with me as I continued to analyze the text. The first thing that a reader is likely to recognize is the existence of certain things with magical properties, which is, at first, simply books and people. The term “magician” suggests a distinction between magical and non-magical (i.e. realistic or easily explicable) things. I also found it interesting that the occupations of scribe and magician are listed beside one another, seemingly held together as one; to me, that indicated a connection between the written word and the world of the supernatural. 

The more that I continued thinking about these two subjects together, the more interested I became in searching for textual evidence that linked them. Moreover, I had a couple of theories about the significance of Magic in this context. The act of acquiring knowledge was probably of great importance to this society of ancient Egyptians, and perhaps only a limited number of individuals had the ability and education to read and apprehend certain types of “sacred” texts. I wouldn’t be surprised if a very limited number of scholars (including the Princes) took advanced class in mystic studies—alongside more traditional forms of reading/interpreting—in order to earn their titles of “magicians and scribes.” Both explanations might explain the reverence that the Egyptian audience has for the “study” of Magic in practical terms.

However, the story, as it begins to introduce Magic to its audience, the reader is shown that both the Book of Thoth and the tomb of Naneferkaptah possess qualities that are, in the modern sense, unreal or unbelievable. Thoth’s book “radiated a strong light,” and Prince Khamwas’ discovery of the Book temporarily resurrects the spirit of Ahwere, even though she was buried far from the area surrounding Naneferkaptah’s tomb (pg. 76). Later, the Priest of Thoth claims to Naneferkaptah that the book’s spells can “charm the sky, the earth, [and] the netherworld… [and] discover what the birds of the sky and all the reptiles are saying,” as well as reveal to Naneferkaptah the sun and the moon wherever he may be (pg. 78).

On one hand, it is clear that none of these things are shown to be something that a book ordinarily provides for a reader. On the other hand, I’d like to think, in the second case at least, that the “spells” of Thoth’s book are roughly analogous to the impact that the written word can have on a reader. Perhaps the story (Setne Khamwas, that is) is communicating the pretty complex notion that a written work has an incommunicable, natural power that it can give to someone who reads it. Here, in order to avoid taking cues from similar metaphors in modern literature, it seems necessary to point to the emphasis that the Norton places on Egyptian oral tradition. I would like to think that, because the oral tradition of storytelling was probably more widespread, the written word would seem much more abstract and powerful to the population of Egyptians who enjoy stories this way and who are (presumably) unable to access information and knowledge the way that the wealthy, educated elite can. Taken another step further, it might be possible that the knowledge of animal behavior and basic navigation could have been exaggerated by these storytellers to tell a slightly more “magical” series of events, although I’m not sure whether this was done to add entertainment value to Setne Khamwas or if I should take the storyteller’s understanding of this phenomenon literally.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I was not sure if this allowed me to gain any additional insight into the story of Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah. If I had more time available to me, I would like to study a few other, sporadic mentions of Magic in the middle and final portions of this story; namely, the character Thoth and how his existence within the story sort of unravels some of the theories I made throughout this post. The most that I can say about the path I took through this story was that it certainly led to some unexpected places, and that I felt extremely rewarded each time that I drew a connection from the story back to the theme I had chosen.

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