for National Geographic News
The ancient Egyptians believed themselves superior to their neighboring nations in almost every aspect.
But newly interpreted symbols—the oldest Semitic passages ever deciphered—reveal that the Egyptians turned to outside help for magic.
The passages, inscribed on the subterranean walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara, reveal that the Egyptians enlisted the magical assistance of Semitic Canaanites from the ancient city of Byblos, located in what is now Lebanon.
The Canaanite spells were invoked to help protect mummified kings against poisonous snakes, one of ancient Egypt's most dreaded nemeses.
According to the incantations, female snakes—acting as mediators for Canaanite magicians—used their multiple mouths and sexual organs to prevent other snakes from entering the mummified rulers' remains.
The passages date from between 2400 to 3000 B.C. and appear to be written in Proto-Canaanite, a direct ancestor of biblical Hebrew (see a timeline of ancient Egypt).
In fact, experts say, the inscriptions may help them solve several long-standing mysteries of the Bible and ancient Egypt.
The passages were first uncovered in the 19th century, but they have remained a mystery to scholars for generations. (Related: "Egyptian Dentists' Tombs Found by Thieves" [October 23, 2006].)
Experts had attempted without success to decipher the serpent spells as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts composed in hieroglyphic characters.
But in 2002 a colleague asked Richard Steiner, a professor of Semitic languages and literature at New York's Yeshiva University, if the texts might be Semitic.
"I immediately recognized the Semitic words for 'mother snake,'" Steiner said at a recent lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he presenting the findings.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES