When we have insomnia, or a headache, we turn to modern medicine for solutions. But the Ancient Egyptians had a much more mystical cure for common ailments. Media Fellow Rowenna Baldwin reports on some supernatural goings-on at the British Science Festival...

As I entered the darkened room, I got a sense of the mysticism that was going to unfold in Dr Kasia Szpakowska’s talk on the imagined realm of Egyptian supernatural beings. Dr Szpakowska, Associate Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University, was dressed to set the mood for her presentation, wearing a fantastic outfit complete with images of vampires. She wanted to remind the audience that our culture also has its demons.

She said the Ancient Egyptians were people just like us, trying to combat the physical and emotional problems of daily life. Trusting in, or fearing supernatural beings was their way of understanding and dealing with the aches, pains, and worries of Ancient Egyptian life.

But these beings were “not quite gods, not quite human, and not quite animal” - they had a special purpose in Ancient Egyptian life.

To help us understand their role, Dr Szpakowska tells the story of the young King Tutankhamun who would often wake up at night, plagued by nightmares. As a King, he was not without troubles in his waking life either. In order to protect himself, he had the foot of his bed decorated with images of strange beings, which were made up of various animal and human parts.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that these beings or demons were the both the cause and the cure of their physical and emotional afflictions. While we might turn to paracetamol to cure our headaches, the Ancient Egyptians turned to a ‘good’ demon who would fight off its malevolent, headache-causing counterpart, often brandishing a butcher’s knife. To court the demon’s protection, Egyptians would carve its image on spiritual objects, and everyday objects, like mirrors, or even coffins. Crucially, only good demons were ever depicted, while malevolent beings were described in texts. This was because the Ancient Egyptians believed that if something was drawn, it would come to life!

Kasia showed us some examples of the ‘good guys’. One was a little frog with a knife. Another appeared to have the head of a hippo, the spots of a leopard, and a crocodile on its back. As well as wielding a knife, it also had some snakes thrown in for good measure. As the audience tried to identify some of the demons and their components, Kasia introduced us to the human-like character known as ‘Bes’. Not to be confused with Bez of Happy Mondays fame, though perhaps some would say his energetic tambourine shaking has warded off a few evil spirits for them. Bes was a jack of all trades when it comes to solving problems and was also associated with fertility. Pictures of him were very common in ancient egypt, which Kasia thinks explains why he came to have a name whilst many others remain nameless.

Demons played a part in the lives of all Ancient Egyptians, whether rich or poor. For them, these imaginal beings were “as tangible and real as angels and demons”, Dr Szpakowska explained. She drew parallels with our modern day superstitions of gremlins in the machinery or how people hang dreamcatchers to ward of nightmares.

Following the talk, wewere taken on a ‘Demon Trail’ by Kasia, where we got a closer look at some of the Egypt Centre’s fascinating collection. Kasia’s enthusiasm for the artefacts and the stories behind them was infectious. She explained, it is through archaeology that we can discover how an Ancient Egyptian would have coped with the same hopes and fears we have today.

For those wanting to explore the demons and the imagined realm for themselves, the good news is that today saw the launch of the project’s database or ‘demonbase’. The demonbase categorises over 4000 beings that have so far been found on 200 objects. You can search, for example, for ‘feline’ beings or even  inanimate objects, and discover beings that can’t be found in general books of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Dr Szpakowska and her Research Assistant, Amber Furmage, hope that you will get involved and give your own interpretations of what the beings might be.

 As for me, I’m off to the Egypt Centre’s gift shop to buy my own Bes…


Dr Rowenna Baldwin is a Manchester Metropolitan University Media Fellow. She is a Senior Research Assistant at the MMU Policy Evaluation and Research Unit.

Banner image credit: UNE photos.