A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power eds. by Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner (review)
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Reviewed by

Grant Adamson, Malcolm Choat, Ian Gardner, ritual, Coptic, ancient Gnosticism, Sethian, ancient Christianity, Egyptian, Egyptian magic

Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, eds. A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power. The Macquarie Papyri 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp xiv + 132, xii color plates, CD.

While this critical edition with English translation is aimed at specialists in Coptology, papyrology, and late-antique Christianity, it will be of general interest to comparativists because, among other reasons, it adds to the number of examples of “magical” texts for use against magic. In this case, the Coptic word translated into English as magic is hik (see spells 17–18).

The handbook published here in editio princeps (as P. Macq. I 1) should be dated to the seventh or eighth century CE and may have come from Upper Egypt, according to the editors’ judgment of the paleography and dialect. In their edition, they divide the text into three main parts: eleven pages of invocations, one page of ritual instructions with a drawing, and four pages of prescriptions (i.e., spells). The editors argue that the first part was originally composed as a Sethian Gnostic text. This hypothesized original text was mythological in nature but also had practical applications and probably included the ritual instructions of the second part as well. Only later was it combined with the prescriptions of the third part of the handbook, by a redactor who did not understand Sethianism. A fair amount of Sethian material, then, has become confused in the present artifact, based on the analysis of the editors.

Such a tripartite division of the text is apt, and the manuscript itself features drawn lines separating it into at least three parts. Furthermore the Sethian material is limited primarily to the first part; there is some in the second, brief as that part is, but none at all in the third. The material in question is distinctly Sethian and overall quite extensive. It’s also apparent that the first part of the handbook circulated as an independent text at some point, since other versions of the invocations survive but are lacking the ritual instructions and the prescriptions of the second and third parts. These other versions of the first part of the handbook were published previously (P. Lond. Copt. I 1008, P. Berl. inv. 5527) and are reedited here. They feature less Sethian material or none at all, hence the editors conclude that the original text of the first part went through a process of de-Sethianization and orthodox Christianization as the invocations were variously rewritten and copied. The text has not been [End Page 239] de-Sethianized so much as garbled in the present artifact, again based on the editors’ analysis.

Yet the first part of the handbook may not have been originally composed by an actual Sethian of the kind that produced the Apocryphon of John and its related classic Gnostic texts but instead by someone who simply had access to Sethian material, as the editors themselves point out. In that case, the handbook and its sources would not necessarily advance our understanding of the practice of ritual power among Sethians—which is otherwise described in accounts of their “magic” from Celsus, Origen, and Plotinus in the second and third centuries CE, and which is plainly attested by the famous Brummer gemstone amulet, featuring the lion-headed creator god Ialdabaoth and the names of the planetary rulers in Sethian myth.

Either way, the handbook is important for the study of Sethianism in that it shows how Sethian material could be received and reapplied long after the production of the Nag Hammadi, Berlin Gnostic, Tchacos, and Bruce codices with their Sethian tractates. This reception and reapplication could certainly be seen as confusion from the perspective of classic Gnostic myth, but in context of the handbook’s production and use in the seventh or eighth century, the manuscript must have had its own internal logic. To illustrate, it seems that Sethian material that would have referred to lower deities in classic Gnostic myth has come to refer to higher deities in the present artifact. Ialdabaoth remains a lower deity, while his characteristic leonine features are given to...