Heka: the Ancient Egyptian God of Magic and Medicine
To an ancient Egyptian, magic was everything. Magic was the force that helped create the world, it sustained the world, it protected the inhabitants of the world, and it kept the people connected to the gods, both in this life and the afterlife. At the center of that divine and transcending power was a deity known as Heka.
Known as the god of magic and medicine, Heka was an omnipresent deity that kept everything in the world and the afterlife ticking. He was present at every stage of the individual’s life as well as in the afterlife.
Heka was not only a god, but he was also the personification of magic in itself. He was a concept as well as the practice of magic itself. He was the force that priests and physicians called upon during their rituals.
The land of ancient Egypt and its thousands of gods and goddesses were said to be sustained by none other than a force/magic known as heka. From that perspective, Heka, the ancient Egyptian god of medicine and magic, can be considered the greatest and most important ancient Egyptian god of all time.
Heka does not have an imposing fascination in the minds of many Egyptologists and scholars simply because he is not a typical kind of god. Instead, modern scholars reason that ancient Egyptians worshiped him as that omnipresent force from which all the gods in the pantheon, including the likes of Ra, Isis, and Amun, derived their powers. Similar to the concept of truth and order (i.e. Ma’at), the god Heka did not need to have any ritual worship and temple to honor him. He was simply the embodiment of magic in itself.
What else is known about the Egyptian god Heka? What is his origin story? And how did his depictions, worship and significance change over the centuries?
The article below explores the origin story, powers, symbols, and meaning of Heka, the Egyptian god of medicine and magic.
The importance of Heka (magic) in ancient Egypt
To the ancient Egyptians, magic was everything. It was part of their medical practice as well. As a result, the god of magic, Heka, was extremely important. The magic Heka possesses rivals the one possessed by Isis or Nephthys. None of those gods would have had any of their powers or magic were it not for Heka’s omnipresent force behind them.
The ancient Egyptians also believed that magic was the single most important element at the time of creation. Without Heka, the universe or cosmos would not have sprung into existence. Thus without Heka, the creator god Atum/Ra could not have emerged from the primordial water (Nu) to begin creating the world and the gods.
Owing to the above, Heka is regarded as one of the oldest ancient Egyptian gods. Stories about him predates the dynastic periods in ancient Egypt (i.e. the Predynastic Era – before 3100 BC).
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Depictions and appearance
The ancient Egyptians often depicted Heka with human features. In a number of ancient Egyptian arts, this god can be seen in an exquisitely designed royal attire. A symbol of his royalty, as it was common with other gods, Heka is shown with a regal curved beard.
Often times, he seen wielding a staff that has two serpents curled around each other. The ancient world commonly associated serpents with healing. Notable examples are the Sumerian god of healing Ninazu and the ancient Greek god of medicine Asclepius. This explains why the caduceus (a staff with two snakes entwined) is the go-to symbol for health organizations and bodies across the world today.
Did you know: In the Late Period (525-332 BCE), Heka was sometimes depicted as a child?
Heka does not have any parent since he was the colossal primordial power from whom everything in the universe, including the gods, drew their powers and abilities. A foremost deity, he has no origin story. He existed and will always exist, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs.
However, in some ancient myths, Heka was regarded as the son of Egyptian deities Menhet and Khnum. All three of those deities were part of the triad of Latopolis in the Egyptian city of Esna, which is located on the west bank of the Nile.
Due to the belief that he sustains the universe and all the Egyptian deities, Heka was sometimes considered as the primordial father of all the Egyptian gods, including Atum, the creator god.
His role as the personification of magic meant that he was associated with all the deities in the Egyptian pantheon. As the one that sustains everything in the universe, Heka owned the universe long before the first Egyptian deities came into existence, according to the Coffin Texts. The Coffin Texts refer to a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary spells that were discovered on coffins made around the First Intermediate Period (c. 2180 BC–c. 2050 BC).
Heka is particularly associated with two Egyptian deities – Sia and Hu. Those two deities supported Heka’s power when the universe was being created by Atum. Sia and Hu also support Heka in maintaining the world. Collectively, they play a vital role in every phase of the individual’s life, from birth to death and then to the afterlife.
Significance of Heka in the Egyptian pantheon
In ancient Egyptian religion, the immense power of Heka is what allows the gods and goddesses to function. Without Heka, Egyptian deities will neither exist nor will they have any powers or abilities. Without those deities, then the world as we know it would not have existed. This is testament to just how Heka was invaluable to the ancient Egyptian people.
Heka was linked to the heart and the tongue. According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, both of those body parts were considered the creative hub of the human being. The heart was seen as the seat of one’s personality, thought and feelings. The tongue served as the conduit through which those thoughts and ideas could be expressed.
As stated earlier, Heka was associated with the deities Sia and Hu, both deities were in turn associated with the heart and the tongue respectively.
Sia was the personification of the heart, while Hu personified the tongue and authoritative speech. Together, the two deities were said to derive their powers from Heka. This means that human thoughts, perception and insight all come from Heka.
How Heka (magic) enabled ancient Egyptians to communicate with their gods
Ancient Egyptians believed that Heka’s power was the force that kept the world stable and functioning. Drawing on this same power, the priests could act as the link between the gods and the people. Thus without magic, the people could not communicate with the gods.
Also, Heka’s magic is what influenced people fates. Ancient Egyptians and priests could only beseech the gods using the power of Heka.
In the afterlife, Heka’s power was equally as potent as it was in the land of the living. His power is what sustained the dead in the afterlife, enabling them to hear, speak, and eat. He was also revered for guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife, according to the ancient Egyptian funerary texts.
Heka and Ra’s sun barque
Heka occupied a distinguished place on Ra’s sun barque. He was part of the Egyptian deities that protected Ra when he journeyed through the underworld on a daily basis. Heka’s role is to protect Ra from the evil actions of the serpent Apophis (or Apep).
Heka’s association with the afterlife meant that he also offered protection to Osiris in the underworld. It was through Heka’s magic that Isis and Nephthys brought Osiris back to life.
Heka’s involvement during the creation of the world
In the beginning, the creator god Atum tapped into the power of Heka. This enabled Atum to emerge from the primordial water – a chaotic soup called Nu. Sitting atop a primordial mound (i.e. benben), Atum proceeded to create the world.
What this means is that Heka existed at the time of creation. It’s even said that he existed long before the world was created. His significance in this creation story is that had it not been for Heka’s magic Atum could not have created the world.
Heka and Medicine
In ancient Egypt, medicine and magic were bedfellows; thus they could not exist without one another. Physicians used magic in dispensing treatment to people afflicted by diseases. It was believed that magic made the medicines given more effective.
As the diseases that afflicted people were said to be caused by bad forces and demons, it stood to reason that the physicians use magic to expel those evil forces from the sick person’s body.
And say an ancient Egyptian physician wanted to invoke a god, he/she could not invoke the god without heka (magic).
Many of the ancient Egyptian medical texts and medical spells relied heavily on the power of heka.
Heka in ancient Egyptian amulets and charms
Ancient Egyptians often had in their possession amulets that were believed to be imbued with the power of Heka. Many of those amulets were believed to ward off evil spirits away from the holder. Amulets and charms could also be placed in one’s home to keep the family safe from evil. Those amulets often times had symbols like the Eye of Ra, the djed, the ankh, or the scarab for protection.
Beginning around the Middle Kingdom Era, mothers would often sing the Magical Lullaby to invoke the spirit of Heka in order to protect the child from evil spirits.
In so many regards, Heka wasn’t a mere god. He was beyond and above all Egyptian gods as it was from him that the gods drew their powers from. Heka was a concept and an art. He was the force that kept the universe alive. In that role, he was seen similar to the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, the deity of harmony, order and truth.
As a result of the above, ancient Egyptians did not erect any specific or formal temple in his honor. They most likely believed that building a cult or temple in his honor did not do enough justice to just how omnipresent and omnipotent he is.
It’s been revealed that as far back as the Predynastic era (before 3100 BC) ancient Egyptians invoked Heka. That practice would continue (particularly among physicians) until the early Christian era around the 4th century CE. It means that he was invoked in the Ptolemaic Dynastic era (332-30 BC) and the Roman Egyptian era as well. Evidence of this can be seen on the walls of the ancient city of Esna.
Heka features a number of times in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom as well as the Coffin Texts of Egypt’s First Intermediate Period.
Due to widespread worship of Amun beginning around the New Kingdom era, reverence of Heka diminished slightly. Regardless of that the ancient Egyptians believed that the worship of Amun or any other god by extension meant the worship of Heka.
Heka’s name simply translates to ‘magic’ or ‘power’. Some of his commonest epithets include, “the first work”, “Empowerer of the gods”, “God of power”, and “he who consecrates the ka”. In the Coffin Texts, he is known as the “Lord of the Kas”. The ka was one of the vital parts of the soul, according to Egyptian religion. Heka’s power allowed the ka to link with the ba in the afterlife. By so doing he came to be known as the deity who not only watched over the human soul, but also empowered it.
Heka gives the human soul energy. He also elevates the dead person’s soul.
How did the ancient Egyptians pray to Heka?
Heka was revered as a god of immeasurable power and authority. He was even feared by other gods. As a deity, his power was everywhere, including in the land of the dead. Ancient Egyptian texts like the Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts highlight the invaluable benefits of magic (heka). In the latter text, Heka was said to be the owner and overall ruler of the universe long before the other Egyptian deities came into existence.
Other Heka facts and myths
- The role Heka plays in the Egyptian pantheon can be compared to the notion of the Logos, a universal force that permeated all things. This notion was held by Greek and Roman Stoics. Similarly, Neo-Platonists called theirs the Nous.
- Heka did not need to have a formal cult or a worship site or temple because he was the monumental force that sustained everything in the universe. He was the personification of power and magic while the goddess Ma’at personified harmony, law and order. Neither of those deities had a formal cult or temple in ancient Egypt.
- Ancient Egyptian priest did not need to invoke Heka directly as the god existed in all the other deities. Invoking say a deity like Isis or Horus was tantamount to invoking the power of Heka since he was the force behind every Egyptian deity.
- Heka is beyond a god; he is the divine force that maintains and allows the world to function. Moreover his force permeates everything in the universe. How it was born and how it works are things that Heka determined.
- Heka was the invisible but potent power behind all the ancient Egyptian gods.
- Present during creation, Heka is the one who sustains the entire Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses.