Princess Ahura: The Magic Book, c. 1100 BCE
We were the two children of the King Merneptah, and he loved us very much,
for he had no others; and Naneferkaptah was in his palace as heir over all the
land. And when we were grown, the king said to the queen, "I will marry
Naneferkaptah to the daughter of a general, and Ahura to the son of another
general." And the queen said, "No, he is the heir, let him marry his sister,
like the heir of a king, none other is fit for him." And the king said, " That
is not fair; they had better be married to the children of the general." And the
queen said, "It is you who are not dealing rightly with me." And the king
answered, "If I have no more than these two children, is it right that they
should marry one another? I will marry Naneferkaptah to the daughter of an
officer, and Ahura to the son of another officer. It has often been done so in
And at a time when there was a great feast before the king, they came to
fetch me to the feast. And I was very troubled, and did not behave as I used to
do. And the king said to me, "Ahura, have you sent some one to me about this
sorry matter, saying, "Let me be married to my elder brother?'" I said to him,
"Well, let me marry the son of an officer, and he marry the daughter of another
officer, as it often happens so in our family." I laughed, and the king laughed.
And the king told the steward of the palace,"Let them take Ahura to the house of
Naneferkaptah tonight, and all kinds of good things with her." So they brought
me as a wife to the house of Naneferkaptah; and the king ordered them to give me
presents of silver and gold, and things from the palace.
And Naneferkaptah passed a happy time with me, and received all the presents
from the palace; and we loved one another. And when I expected a child, they
told the king, and he was most heartily glad; and he sent me many things, and a
present of the best silver and gold and linen. And when the time came, I bore
this little child that is before you. And they gave him the name of Merab, and
registered him in the book of the "House of Life."
And when my brother Naneferkaptah went to the cemetery of Memphis, he did
nothing on earth but read the writings that are in the catacombs of the kings
and on the tablets of the "House of Life," and the inscriptions that are seen on
the monuments, and he worked hard on the writings. And there was a priest there
called Nesiptah; and as Naneferkaptah went into a temple to pray, it happened
that he went behind this priest, and was reading the inscriptions that were on
the chapels of the gods. And the priest mocked him and laughed. So Naneferkaptah
said to him, "Why are you laughing at me? "And he replied, "I was not laughing
at you, or if I happened to do so, it was at your reading writings that are
worthless. If you wish so much to read writings, come to me, and I will bring
you to the place where the book is that Thoth himself wrote with his own hand,
and which will bring you to the gods. When you read but two pages in this, you
will enchant the heaven, the earth, the abyss, the mountains, and the sea; you
shall know what the birds of the sky and the crawling things are saying; you
shall see the fishes of the deep, for a divine power is there to bring them up
out of the depth. And when you read the second page, if you are in the world of
ghosts, you will become again in the shape you were in on earth. You will see
the sun shining in the sky, with all the gods, and the full moon."
And Naneferkaptah said, "By the life of the king! Tell me of anything you
want done, and I'll do it for you, if you will only send me where this book is."
And the priest answered Naneferkaptah, "If you want to go to the place where the
book is, you must give me a hundred pieces of silver for my funeral, and provide
that they shall bury me as a rich priest." So Naneferkaptah called his lad and
told him to give the priest a hundred pieces of silver; and he made them do as
he wished, even everything that he asked for. Then the priest said to
Naneferkaptah, "This book is in the middle of the river at Koptos, in an iron
box; in the iron box is a bronze box; in the bronze box is a sycamore box; in
the sycamore box is an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box is a
silver box; in the silver box is a golden box; and in that is the book. It is
twisted all round with snakes and scorpions and all the other crawling things
around the box in which the book is; and there is a deathless snake by the box."
And when the priest told Naneferkaptah, he did not know where on earth he was,
he was so much delighted.
And when he came from the temple, he told me all that had happened to him.
And he said, "I shall go to Koptos, for I must fetch this book; I will not stay
any longer in the north." And I said, "Let me dissuade you, for you prepare
sorrow and you will bring me into trouble in the Thebaid." And I laid my hand on
Naneferkaptah, to keep him from going to Koptos, but he would not listen to me;
and he went to the king, and told the king all that the priest had said. The
king asked him, "What is it that you want?" And he replied, "Let them give me
the royal boat with its belongings, for I will go to the south with Ahura and
her little boy Merab, and fetch this book without delay." So they gave him the
royal boat with its belongings, and we went with him to the haven, and sailed
from there up to Koptos.
Then the priests of Isis of Koptos, and the high priest of Isis, came down to
us without waiting, to meet Naneferkaptah, and their wives also came to me. We
went into the temple of Isis and Harpokrates; and Naneferkaptah brought an ox, a
goose, and some wine, and made a burnt offering and a drink offering before Isis
of Koptos and Harpokrates. They brought us to a very fine house, with all good
things; and Naneferkaptah spent four days there and feasted with the priests of
Koptos, and the wives of the priests of Isis also made holiday with me.
And the morning of the fifth day came; and Naneferkaptah called a priest to
him, and made a magic cabin that was full of men and tackle. He put the spell
upon it and put life into it, and gave them breath, and sank it in the water. He
filled the royal boat with sand, and took leave of me, and sailed from the
haven: and I sat by the river at Koptos that I might see what would become of
him. And he said, "Workmen, work for me, even at the place where the book is."
And they toiled by night and by day; and when they had reached it in three days,
he threw the sand out and made a shoal in the river. And then he found on it
entwined serpents and scorpions, and all kinds of crawling things around the box
in which the book was; and by it he found a deathless snake around the box. And
he laid the spell upon the entwined serpents and scorpions and all kinds of
crawling things which were around the box, that they would not come out. And he
went to the deathless snake, and fought with him, and killed him; but he came to
life again, and took a new form. He then fought again with him a second time;
but he came to life again, and took a third form. He then cut him in two parts,
and put sand between the parts, that he should not appear again.
Naneferkaptah then went to the place where he found the box. He uncovered a
box of iron, and opened it; he found then a box of bronze, and opened that; then
he found a box of sycamore wood, and opened that; again he found a box of ivory
and ebony, and opened that; yet, he found a box of silver, and opened that; and
then he found a box of gold; he opened that, and found the book in it. He took
the book from the golden box, and read a page of spells from it. He enchanted
the heaven and the earth, the abyss, the mountains, and the sea; he knew what
the birds of the sky, the fish of the deep, and the beasts of the hills all
said. He read another page of the spells, and saw the sun shining in the sky,
with all the gods, the full moon, and the stars in their shapes; he saw the
fishes of the deep, for a divine power was present that brought them up from the
water. He then read the spell upon the workmen that he had made, and taken from
the haven, and said to them, "Work for me, back to the place from which I came."
And they toiled night and day, and so he came back to the place where I sat by
the river of Koptos; I had not drunk nor eaten anything, and had done nothing on
earth, but sat like one who is gone to the grave.
I then told Naneferkaptah that I wished to see this book, for which we had
taken so much trouble. He gave the book into my hands; and when I read a page of
the spells in it, I also enchanted heaven and earth, the abyss, the mountains,
and the sea; I also knew what the birds of the sky, the fishes of the deep, and
the beasts of the hills all said. I read another page of the spells, and I saw
the sun shining in the sky with all the gods, the full moon, and the stars in
their shapes; I saw the fishes of the deep, for a divine power was present that
brought them up from the water. As I could not write, I asked Naneferkaptah, who
was a good writer and a very learned one; he called for a new piece of papyrus,
and wrote on it all that was in the book before him. He dipped it in beer, and
washed it off in the liquid; for he knew that if it were washed off, and he
drank it, he would know all that there was in the writing.
We went back to Koptos the same day, and made a feast before Isis of Koptos
and Harpokrates. We then went to the haven and sailed, and went northward of
Koptos. And as we went on, Thoth discovered all that Naneferkaptah had done with
the book; and Thoth hastened to tell Ra, and said, "Now, know that my book and
my revelation are with Naneferkaptah, son of the King Merneptah. He has forced
himself into my place, and robbed it, and seized my box with the writings, and
killed my guards who protected it." And Ra replied to him, "He is before you,
take him and all his kin." He sent a power from heaven with the command, "Do not
let Naneferkaptah return safe to Memphis with all his kin." And after this hour,
the little boy Merab, going out from the awning of the royal boat, fell into the
river: he called on Ra, and everybody who was on the bank raised a cry.
Naneferkaptah went out of the cabin, and read the spell over him; he brought the
body up because a divine power brought him to the surface. He read another spell
over him, and made him tell of all that happened to him, and of what Thoth had
said before Ra. We turned back with him to Koptos. We brought him to the Good
House, we fetched the people to him, and made one embalm him; and we buried him
in his coffin in the cemetery of Koptos like a great and noble person.
And Naneferkaptah, my brother, said, "Let us go down, let us not delay, for
the king has not yet heard of what has happened to him, and his heart will be
sad about it." So we went to the haven, we sailed, and did not stay to the north
of Koptos. When we were come to the place where the little boy Merab had fallen
into the water, I went out from the awning of the royal boat, and I fell into
the river. They called Naneferkaptah, and he came out from the cabin of the
royal boat. He read a spell over me, and brought my body up, because a divine
power brought me to the surface. He drew me out, and read the spell over me, and
made me tell him of all that had happened to me, and of what Thoth had said
before Ra. Then he turned back with me to Koptos, he brought me to the Good
House, he fetched the people to me, and made one embalm me, as great and noble
people are buried, and laid me in the tomb where Merab my young child was.
He turned to the haven, and sailed down, and delayed not in the northof
Koptos. When he was come to the place where we fell into the river, he said to
his heart, "Shall I not better turn back again to Koptos, that I may lie by
them? For if not, when I go down to Memphis, and the king asks after his
children, what shall I say to him? Can I tell him, "I have taken your children
to the Thebaid and killed them, while I remained alive, and I have come to
Memphis still alive?=" Then he made them bring him a linen cloth of striped
byssus; he made a band, and bound the book firmly, and tied it upon him.
Naneferkaptah then went out of the awning of the royal boat and fell into the
river. He cried on Ra; and all those who were on the bank made an outcry,
saying, "Great woe! Sad woe! Is he lost, that good scribe and able man that has
The royal boat went on without any one on earth knowing where Naneferkaptah
was. It went on to Memphis, and they told all this to the king. Then the king
went down to the royal boat in mourning, and all the soldiers and high priests
and priests of Ptah were in mourning, and all the officials and courtiers. And
when he saw Naneferkaptah, who was in the inner cabin of the royal boat---from
his rank of high scribe---he lifted him up. And they saw the book by him; and
the king said, "Let one hide this book that is with him." And the officers of
the king, the priests of Ptah, and the high priest of Ptah, said to the king,
"Our Lord, may the king live as long as the sun! Naneferkaptah was a good scribe
and a very skillful man." And the king had him laid in his Good House to the
sixteenth day, and then had him wrapped to the thirty-fifth day, and laid him
out to the seventieth day, and then had him put in his grave in his
I have now told you the sorrow which has come upon us because of this book.
The Tale of Nefrekeptah
There are other tales of magic from Egypt, notably the stories of Prince
Setna, son and court scribe of Rameses II, and Setna's young son, Se-Osiris.
While reading ancient texts, Setna discovered the story of Nefrekeptah, who
had been a much more powerful magician than he, because he had read the 'Book of
Thoth'. Determined to find and read this text, he asked his brother to accompany
him to find the tomb of Nefrekeptah, son of Amenhotep.
When Setna had made his way into the tomb, to the
central chamber where Nefrekeptah was laid to rest, he found the body of the
prince lying wrapped in its linen bands, still and awful in death. But beside it
on the stone sarcophagus sat two ghostly figures, the kas of a beautiful
young woman and a boy - and between them, on the dead breast of Nefrekeptah lay
the 'Book of Thoth'.
Honouring the kas, Setna begged them to let him take the papyrus. If
they would not let him take it, he had the magic power to take it from them by
The ka of the woman, Ahura, let it be known to Setna that the papyrus
brought nothing but trouble to Nefrekeptah. She knew this, because she had been
Nefrekeptah's wife, and the ka of the boy had been Merab, their son. She
and her son's bodies were lying at Koptos at the very edge of Eastern Waset
She and Nefrekeptah had been children of the pharaoh, and had wed by custom.
Soon, their son had been born, yet Nefrekeptah cared more for knowledge. He
thirsted after the wisdom of ancient texts and magic spells from ancient tombs.
One day, while studying ancient shrines, a priest came and started taunting
"All that you read there is but worthless. I could
tell you where lies the 'Book of Thoth', which the god of wisdom wrote with his
own hand. When you have read its first page you will be able to enchant the
heaven and the earth, the abyss, the mountains and the sea; and you shall know
what the birds and the beasts and the reptiles are saying. And when you have
read the second page your eyes will behold all the secrets of the gods
themselves, and read all that is hidden in the stars."
Nefrekeptah would do anything to get the text. The priest asked for a hundred
bars of silver for his funeral and that he would be buried like a pharaoh when
he died. Without hesitation, Nefrekeptah did as the priest asked, desperate to
find where the ancient wisdom of Thoth was kept.
"The Book of Thoth lies beneath the middle of the
Nile at Koptos, in an iron box. In the iron box is a box of bronze; in the
bronze box is a sycamore box; in the sycamore box is an ivory and ebony box; in
the ivory and ebony box is a silver box; in the silver box is a golden box - and
in that lies the Book of Thoth. All around the iron box are twisted snakes and
scorpions, and it is guarded by a serpent who cannot be slain."
Hurrying home, Nefrekeptah joyfully told Ahura about his meeting with the
priest, and where the 'Book of Thoth' lay. But Ahura feared that evil would come
of this. She begged her husband not to search for the papyrus. She felt in her
heart that only sorrow would come of this.
Rather than listening to his wife, Nefrekeptah set off to pharaoh, who
approved his mission. Setting up the royal barge, Nefrekeptah took his wife and
son to Koptos. Reaching their destination, the priests and priestesses of Isis
welcomed the family, and Nefrekeptah made sacrifices to the goddess and her son
On the fifth day, Nefrekeptah left his family and worked great magic at the
First he created a magic cabin that was full of men
and tackle. He cast a spell on it, giving life and breath to the men, and he
sank the magic cabin into the river. Then he filled the Royal Boat with sand and
put out into the middle of the Nile until he came to the place below which the
magic cabin lay. And he spoke words of power, and cried, "Workmen, workmen, work
for me even where lies the Book of Thoth!" They toiled without ceasing by day
and by night, and on the third day they reached the place where the Book lay.
Removing the sand, Nefrekeptah raised the Book till they were at a shoal in
the river. And it was as the priest had said - around the iron box, snakes and
scorpions twined. They were living, moving beings, ready to kill anyone who
dared go near the box. Yet at Nefrekeptah's magic cry, they became quiet and
Unharmed, Nefrekeptah went to the iron box, which was guarded by the serpent
that could not die. His magic was useless against the reptile, so with his
sword, Nefrekeptah lopped off its head. Immediately, the serpent joined
together, and made ready to stop the magician from reaching the iron box. Once
again, Nefrekeptah beheaded the snake, and tried to toss the head into the
river. Yet again, the serpent's head flew to the body and the reptile was alive,
protecting the iron box.
Nefrekeptah saw that the serpent could not be
slain, but must be overcome by cunning. So once more he struck off its head. But
before head and body could come together he put sand on each part so that when
they tried to join they could not do so as there was sand between them - and the
serpent that could not die lay helpless in two pieces.
Opening the iron box, he found a bronze box. Then a box of sycamore wood. A
box of ebony and ivory followed, then a box of silver and finally one of gold,
as the priest had said. Opening the gold box, Nefrekeptah found the 'Book of
Reading the first page, Nefrekeptah found that he suddenly had power over the
heavens and the earth, the abyss, the mountains and the sea. He understood what
the beasts and the fishes were saying. Reading the next spell, he found out the
secrets of the sun in the heavens, the moon and the stars. He also could see the
gods themselves, who were hidden from the eyes of mortals.
Taking the papyrus, he ordered the workmen to return him to Koptos, where his
wife was waiting for him. Offering her the papyrus, Ahura read the first and
second spells, and had all of the knowledge that her husband had learned from
Then Nefrekeptah took a clean piece of papyrus and
wrote on it all the spells from the 'Book of Thoth'. He took a cup of beer and
washed off the words into it and drank it so that the knowledge of the spells
entered into his being.
As they left on the Royal Barge to return home, their son Merab fell into the
river and sank out of sight. Using the Book, Nefrekeptah said the correct spell,
but the little boy was dead. There was no magic that could bring him back to
life. Calling Merab's ka, he asked his son what had caused his death. The
parents knew that it was not a normal drowning.
And the ka of Merab said, "Thoth the great
god found that his Book had been taken, and he hastened before Amen-Ra, saying,
'Nefrekeptah, son of Pharaoh Amenhotep, has found my magic box and slain its
guards and taken my Book with all the magic that is in it.' And Ra replied to
him, 'Deal with Nefrekeptah and all that is his as it seems good to you: I send
out my power to work sorrow and bring a punishment upon him and upon his wife
and child.' And that power from Ra, passing through the will of Thoth, drew me
into the river and drowned me."
Heartbroken, they left Merab's body for embalming at Koptos. Soon, the burial
of their son was done, and, though sad, Nefrekeptah said that they should return
home. Pharaoh should know of what happened, and though sad at the loss of his
grandson, he would rejoice in the fact that they had the 'Book of Thoth'.
As they set out, they came to the place where Merab had drowned. Ahura felt
the power of Ra take her, and snatch her off the barge. She fell into the river,
and she too was drowned. Calling for her ka Nefrekeptah heard the same
story, and returned once more to Koptos for his wife's burial.
Setting out for home once more, the boat reached Mennefer (Hikuptah,
Memphis). Pharaoh boarded the vessel when it reached port, only to find that
Nefrekeptah himself was dead, the 'Book of Thoth' bound on his chest. Pharaoh
buried Nefrekeptah with the Book, and the kas of Ahura and Merab came to
watch over the man they both loved.
"And now I have told you all the woe that has
befallen us because we took and read the Book of Thoth - the book which you ask
us to give up. It is not yours, you have no claim to it, indeed for the sake of
it we gave up our lives on earth."
The Tale of Setna
Rather than heeding the words of the ka, Setna still wished for the
knowledge himself. Again he asked for the Book, or he would take it by force.
The two ka were in fear of Setna's powers, and drew back. Now the ka
of Nefrekeptah came out from his body to face the magician.
Offering Setna the change to win the Book in a game of Senet,
Nefrekeptah and the mortal settled down to play. Nefrekeptah's skill at the game
was great, and each time Setna lost, magic was cast upon him so he sank into the
ground. When Setna's head was the only part of his body above the ground, he
called out for his brother to help him. "Anherru! Run to the palace and beg
pharaoh for the Amulet of Ptah. Set it on my head before the last game is lost,
and I will be saved!"
Doing as bidden, Anherru begged the favour of pharaoh, then rushed to the
priests at the Temple of Ptah. They gave him the Amulet, telling him to rescue
his brother from the evil contest with the dead. Making it back to the tomb,
just as Setna was making his last move, Anherru leapt forward and dropped the
Amulet of Ptah on Setna's head. Before Nefrekeptah could make Setna disappear
into the ground forever, Setna sprang free and grabbed the papyrus from the
corpse. He and his brother fled from the tomb.
As they went they heard the ka of Ahura cry,
"Alas, all power is gone from him who lies in this tomb."
But the ka of Nefrekeptah answered, "Be not
sad: I will make Setna bring back the Book of Thoth, and come as a suppliant to
my tomb with a forked stick in his hand and a fire-pan on his head."
Returning to the palace, Setna told pharaoh all that had happened, returning
the Amulet. Rameses counseled Setna to return the Book, as it had caused much
evil and he would be forced to return it eventually, but Setna would not listen.
He took it with him, and started studying the great spells, reading from it to
those who sought his wisdom.
One day, Setna saw a beautiful maiden, who he immediately fell head over
heels in love with. Soon he learned that her name was Tabubua, and that she was
the daughter of the high priest of Bast, at Per-Bast (Bubastis). Setna soon
forgot everything, except Tabubua. He even forgot the 'Book of Thoth', desiring
only to win this girl as his own. Before too long, he received a message from
her, saying that if he wanted her, he was to meet her in secret at her desert
palace outside Per-Bast (Bubastis).
Setna made his way thither in haste, and found a
pylon tower in a great garden with a high wall round about it. There Tabubua
welcomed him with sweet words and looks, led him to her chamber in the pylon and
served him with wine in a golden cup.
Setna, who was already married, spoke of his love for Tabubua. She replied
that the two of them were destined to be together, but she could not endure a
rival. She asked him to write up a divorce from his current wife, lest she come
between them. And she asked him to give her children to him, that they could be
given as sacrifices to Bast, lest they plot evil against her, their step mother.
In his ardour, Setna said that it would be as she wished, and immediately
wrote out her requests, writing that his wife should be cast out to starve, and
that his children should be given to feed the sacred cats at the Temple of Bast.
And when he had done this, she handed him the cup
once more and stood before him in all her loveliness, singing a bridal hymn.
Presently terrible cries came floating up to the high window of the pylon - the
dying cries of his children, for he recognized each voice as it called to him in
agony and then was still. But Setna drained the golden cup and turned to Tabubua,
saying, "My wife is a beggar and my children lie dead at the pylon foot, I have
nothing left in the world but you - and I would give all again for you. Come to
me, my love!"
When he reached out for his new bride, a change suddenly came over her, and
she became a corpse, and she and the palace disappeared, leaving Setna alone and
naked in the desert.
Reaching home, to his great relief, Setna found his wife and children alive
and well. He had learned his lesson. He took the 'Book of Thoth', intent on
returning it to Nefrekeptah. Telling Rameses what had happened, the pharaoh told
his son that the only way he would not die, now, was to return the Book to the
tomb 'as a suppliant, carrying a forked stick in your hand and a fire-pan on
In humility, the Book was returned. Nefrekeptah, though, told him that the
dream of Tabubua would come true unless he would bring the bodies of Ahura and
Merab to be buried with him in his tomb. They had no wish to be parted forever,
wishing to be together when the 'Day of Awakening' came to pass.
Travelling speedily to Koptos, Setna searched for records of the burial
details of Ahura and Merab. Search as he might, he could not find a single clue
as to their burial spots. In despair, thinking that the death of his family was
near, he offered a great reward to any who could help him. Before too long, an
old man came to speak with him. He remembered his grandfather's grandfather
showing him the tomb of the woman and child.
A house had been built on the spot, at the edge of Waset, and Setna bought
the house to pull it down. When the house was demolished by Pharaoh's soldiers,
Setna had the men dig beneath it. Soon they came to a rock-cut tomb, deep in the
earth. Inside the tomb lay the bodies of Ahura and Merab. The old man suddenly
transformed, and he turned into the ka of Nefrekeptah and faded from
sight. Setna then took the bodies back, and buried them with great ceremony in
Then at Pharaoh's command they heaped sand over the
low stone shrine where the entrance to the tomb was hidden; and before long a
sandstorm turned it into a great mound, and then leveled it out so that never
again could anyone find a trace of the tomb where Nefrekeptah lay with Ahura and
Merab and the Book of Thoth, waiting for the Day of Awakening when Osiris shall
return to rule over the earth.