Coptic Culture

Christian Teachings and Thought, Part III

by Ed Rizkalla

                        “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” Heb 13.8

                        Iycouc Pi,rictoc `ncaf nem voou @ `ncof `ncov pe@ nem sa `eneh

                                                يسوع المسيح هو هو الامس واليوم والي الابد


The Coptic culture has its genesis in the ancient Egyptian history and mythology. Christian teachings and thought have greatly influenced Coptic culture, norms, and values. They enhanced and invigorated some of the ancient Egyptian cultural attributes, norms and values, whereas they modified and changed others. In previous articles, the writer

outlined some of the fundamental differences between ancient Egyptian and Christian beliefs. Magic played a prominent role in ancient Egyptian beliefs, e.g. in preparing their dead for the journey to afterlife, the ancient Egyptians provided their mummies with magic spells to overcome potential adversaries, and if the need arises, manipulate the gods. Assman (1) notes “the priest or magician…assumes the identity of a god…The magician speaks to the gods as a god.” The pervasive use of magic is also illustrated by the story of Moses and ancient Egyptian magicians changing their rods into serpents, Ex 7.8-13.


Judeo-Christian beliefs admonish against and forbid the use of sorcery and magic, as works of Satan and demons. It should be noted however, that many who subscribe to a post-modernist world outlook, tend to view the belief in God, Satan, all religions and magic as superstitions. Saint Athanasius in his book “The Life of Anthony” (2) admonishes against the ancient Egyptians’ tendency to use magic. Tim Vivian, a well-renowned contemporary scholar of Coptology, in his introduction to Athanasius’s book “The Life of Anthony” notes that “Anthony…broadens his attack against pagan practices in Egypt: ’where are the incantations of the Egyptians? Where are the apparitions that the Egyptians [Greek: magicians] work magic with?’ The cross Anthony declares, has put an end to these practices…he calls on them to use ‘their words filled with cunning, or by whatever skill you wish or magic’ to heal some people afflicted by demons…he immediately demonstrates that Christians do have power. Calling on Christ, Anthony signs the afflicted ‘three times with the sign of the cross’ and heals them.”


In our day and age however, most people all over the Middle East, including many among the Copts of Egypt, tend to believe in magic-related beliefs, e.g. worry about envy and influence of the evil eye, fear adverse magic, and seek advice from fortunetellers. In his early years in Egypt, the writer recalls Copts who used to seek guidance from fortunetellers, or worry themselves sick about envy and the influence of evil eye, or seek protection from evil or adversaries by procuring magical charms. A common practice among many shopkeepers including some Copts, calls for the use incense to protect their businesses against the influence of the evil eye. Needless to say, all these magic-related beliefs do not make sense, and more importantly are contrary to the spirit and words of Christian beliefs. Perhaps, the media in the Middle East is partially to blame, as they help perpetrate these beliefs. However, the influence of the media- good, bad, or indifferent- does not provide a good enough explanation or excuse as to why some Copts would take part in unchristian practices. Saint Anthony’s words continue to ring true in our day and age ‘The cross…has put an end to these practices’. The writings of Father Marcos Aziz Khalil (3) (4) provide examples of contemporary Christian teachings and thought admonishing against these practices.


In this series of articles, the writer started by outlining some of the fundamental differences between ancient Egyptian and Christian beliefs, and provided examples for the influence of Christian teachings and thought which resulted in modifications and or changes in long-held and cherished ancient Egyptian traditions and customs. Among these changes are divorce and mummification of the dead. Christian teachings and thought brought an end to the mummification of the dead and the associated use of magical spells; however some beliefs in magic continue to persist. The Copts are generally known for their knowledge, wisdom, predisposition to strive for excellence, and the ability for self-examination and constructive criticism. However like all other mortals the Copts also share in the weakness of the flesh and folly. We pray Christ the Lord, the author of our faith and all good virtues, to forgive us our sins and folly, and to grant us his grace. For with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ sin and folly will be no more.


As the writer drafts this article, Christians all over the world are about to celebrate Easter on April 12th according to the Western tradition, and on April 19th according to the Coptic Orthodox tradition. Please permit me to wish you all a joyous and blessed Easter.  Perhaps these words by Tim Vivian provide an apt conclusion “The world that the Life of Anthony envisions at first seems to be a world of darkness; but within that darkness, as it were, Christians stand with lighted candles to proclaim ‘The Light of Christ’. The sound of those voices on Eater Eve at first seems to be swallowed by sin and death; then the light of the resurrection bursts forth on Easter morning, and with it the words ‘Christ is risen’.”


The peace of the Lord be with you all. Irene Passe.



(1) Religion and Cultural Memory, by Jan Assman, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2006

(2) The Life of Antony by Athanasius of Alexandria, The Coptic Life and The Greek Life, translated by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis with Rowan A. Greer, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2003.

(3) Magic and the deeds of the Devil (Arabic), by Father Marcos Aziz Khalil, The Theban Legion Magazine, number 89, February 2009.

(4) Magic and the deeds of the Devil (Arabic), by Father Marcos Aziz Khalil, The Theban Legion Magazine, number 90, March 2009.


Acknowledgement: The writer would like to acknowledge and thank the staff of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, for their assistance with research for background material for this article.


Ed Rizkalla is a management consultant and freelance writer. He is the founder of Pharos on the Potomac Group (POPG), a non-profit organization at Annandale, VA.

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