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The World of Egyptian Demons

Thousands of supernatural beings, including protective cobra spirits and knife-wielding turtles, guarded ancient Egyptians in life and death


Monday, April 25, 2022

Egypt Demon GazzelleThe pantheon of Egyptian gods is filled with mighty human-animal hybrid deities such as Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship; Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification; and the warrior goddess Sekhmet, a divine lioness who possessed healing powers. Ancient priests and scribes left behind millions of textual references to these gods, and their names and titles fill many modern scholarly volumes. But the ancient Egyptians also acknowledged another group of divine human-animal hybrids, magical creatures that scholars call demons. These were supernatural beings that took many animal forms and were thought to live at the threshold of the divine and real worlds, and to be able to move between them if called upon by either gods or humans. Egyptologists know very little about these entities, though it is clear that while demons were capable of causing great harm, they could also be a benevolent force and help maintain maat, or the cosmic order. “They could be something like genies,” says Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska. “They would come to one’s aid as often as they acted as fearsome, dangerous creatures.” Images of demons first began to appear in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). Before this time, worship of the gods was highly centralized and mediated by the pharaoh, but during the second millennium B.C., all Egyptians were able to directly participate in religious life.


Szpakowska and her colleagues at Swansea University recently completed a project that cataloged as many of these overlooked demons as possible by analyzing figurines and other artifacts that depict the strange beasts. They recorded some 4,000 unique magical beings whom Egyptians worshipped and feared for at least two millennia. It’s possible these demons—who likely numbered far more than 4,000—were more important to Egyptians’ everyday experience than were the remote gods venerated in the land’s great monuments. “An Egyptian demon is really any divine being not worshipped in a temple,” says Szpakowska. “And they were everywhere.”

Secrets of Scotland's Viking Age Hoard

A massive cache of Viking silver and Anglo-Saxon heirlooms reveals the complex political landscape of ninth-century Britain


Monday, April 25, 2022

Galloway Scotland Viking Age BullionWhen it comes to Viking hoards, archaeologists know to expect the unexpected. Hundreds of these caches containing tens of thousands of objects that were hidden for safekeeping and never reunited with their erstwhile owners have been found buried beneath fields throughout Scandinavia and across Great Britain and Ireland. While many Viking hoards share similar characteristics—notably large quantities of silver—no two are identical. Thus, when a new trove is unearthed, what it might yield is endlessly unpredictable.


Almost from the very moment it was discovered eight years ago in southwestern Scotland, in the region of Galloway, a particularly enigmatic collection of early medieval objects has evoked the sense of finding something truly unexpected. Discovered near Balmaghie, in the historical county of Kirkcudbrightshire, the assemblage, now known as the Galloway Hoard, dates to about A.D. 900. Numbering around 100 artifacts, it is the richest, most diverse, and most curious collection of Viking Age (ca. A.D. 793–1066) artifacts ever unearthed in Great Britain or Ireland. While it consists of no less than 10 pounds of Viking silver, it also boasts Anglo-Saxon jewelry, religious relics, precious heirlooms, and the largest collection of Viking Age gold objects found anywhere in the British Isles. These artifacts, which span the pagan and ecclesiastical and the Viking and Anglo-Saxon worlds, continue to astonish the researchers who are still trying to understand the hoard’s unprecedented elements. “Anything that you look at in this hoard has something unusual about it,” says Martin Goldberg, principal curator of medieval archaeology and history at National Museums Scotland. “There’s a whole range of things that we have never seen before.”


Galloway MapIn 2014, an amateur metal detectorist surveying Church of Scotland land located a number of silver artifacts buried in a shallow pit. He notified local authorities, and an archaeological team was dispatched to the site, where they subsequently unearthed 22 ancient silver objects. The collection seemed to have all the markings of a Viking hoard. “The Vikings had an insatiable demand for silver,” says University of Oxford archaeologist Jane Kershaw. “They used it in lots of different ways—for display purposes, as a statement of wealth, and as currency.”


In the 400 years between the decline of the Roman presence in Britain and the Vikings’ arrival in the late eighth century A.D., silver had been relatively scarce on the island. But when the Scandinavians began to permanently settle in the British Isles and take over land formerly belonging to Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, they brought huge quantities of silver with them, often acquired through trade with the Islamic caliphates to the east. “New sources of silver were coming into Britain, which is why the Viking Age is sometimes referred to as the Silver Age,” says Goldberg. People often buried their silver at this unsettled time as a way of safeguarding their wealth, creating subterranean bank deposits that could be added to over time, or of hiding their valuables in the face of roving bands of dangerous raiders. Many of these stashes were never retrieved.

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