As part of our ongoing webinar series The Art of Arab Fashion, we talked to Egyptologist, Dr Colleen Darnell, about Magic and Jewellery in Egypt.
Dr Colleen Darnell
Dr Colleen Darnell, an American Egyptologist, teaches art history at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut. She specialises in Late Period uses of the Underworld Books, ancient Egyptian military history, the literature of New Kingdom Egypt, and Egyptian revival history.
She regularly visits Egypt where she and her fellow Egyptologist husband works on the Elkab Desert Survey Project. They also manage fascinating Instagram account where they share their love of Egypt and vintage clothing, accompanied by stories about their work and studies. @vintage_egyptologist
Magic and Jewellery
The conversation between our host, Dr Reem, and our guest, Dr Colleen, both consummate conversationalists and great storytellers, focused on jewellery and magic in Egypt from ancient times through to the Islamic period and present day.
According to Dr Colleen, some of the earliest artefacts from the Nile Valley are jewellery. With the development of more complex art and the invention of the hieroglyphic scripts by around 3000BCE, it became possible to assign definite meanings to jewellery that include its role as a form of magical protection for the wearer.
Dr Reem shared her insight on modern Egypt, the use of zar amulets and the significance of script, numbers, and symbols in both amulets and adornments.
In ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics, symbols, and rituals were all used in magic practices. According to Dr Colleen, it is important to understand the intersection between magic and religion. “Magic was given to the people by the gods to ward off evil or bad events and we should not see magic, and the associated jewellery, as separate or counter to religious practices. Instead, magic was considered a private ritual that taps into the same realms of divinity as rituals performed in temples. It was not considered negative or black magic. Spells were also used in conjunction with practical medicine, in the same way we use holistic or complementary medicine today.”
The Scarab or dung beetle is one of the most recognizable ancient Egyptian symbols or amulets. The name – Khepri – meaning to transform, develop, or manifest, relates to the sun rising in the East as if pushed up by a dung beetle. Scarabs were used as amulets in both everyday life and during funeral practices to give protection in the afterlife.
Scarabs were used in everyday life as a seal for documents or goods, and in many cases belonging to women who used it as a seal while managing their household economy.
Heart scarabs were placed on a mummy during funeral proceedings. Pictured here, is the back of a heart scarab inscribed with a verse from Chapter 25 of the Book of the Dead, imploring the heart of the deceased not to testify against the living in the afterlife.
The Eye or Udjat gets its name from the word Udja meaning healthy, whole, or sound and can represent either the sun or the moon. The Eye can either represent the eye of Horace or Ra, bringing with it the backstory of the gods and their battles which lends the eye its power. Or it can represent a female deity or a goddess.
The eye appears in many forms of jewellery and amulets and was worn by the living, as well as being buried with mummies to accompany them to the afterlife.
Colleen showed two examples of jewellery found in the tomb of Princess Sithathoryunet, dating back 4000 years. These pectorals used hieroglyphics to relay messages, requests, or statements. We saw the same practice recently when Michelle Obama wore her VOTE necklace.
According to Colleen ancient Egyptian jewellery carried many layers of symbolism as pectorals could be interpreted as both hieroglyphs and symbols, while the material (stone and metals), as well as the colour of the jewellery, also represented specific meanings and values.
According to Dr Reem, the use of symbols and materials in amulets and jewellery continued into the Islamic period in Egypt. As examples, she mentioned the amulets used during Zar dance rituals, the use and meaning of magic numbers in jewellery, as well as Koranic inscriptions on silver pendants.
Symbols also carry meaning and often transcends culture, religion, and geographical boundaries. The Seal of Solomon or the 6-pointed star now generally associated with Judaism were, and still are, prominently used in Islam as well as in the Coptic traditions, while the Crescent, commonly associated with Islam has its origins in the Roman empire.
Past, present, and future
A one-hour talk can only ever touch the surface of this fascinating topic, yet the conclusion is that what we wear, or what we choose to adorn ourselves with, carry a depth of information about ourselves, our culture, our identity, and our beliefs. Jewellery is never just decorative – it is a language which when used mindfully and with purpose, can relay messages, protect, and bless both the wearer and the observer.
In conclusion, Dr Reem emphasised “The past, present, and future are connected. That is our role at The Zay Initiative – to make the present and future relevant and understandable by preserving the history and bringing the past to life.”
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