Setna, Papyrus of
An ancient papyrus said to have been discovered by Prince
Setna Kha-em-ust, son of Rameses II of Egypt, under the head
of a mummy in the Necropolis at Memphis. The Egyptologist
Alfred Wiedemann stated in his book Popular Literature in Ancient
Egypt (1902)
‘‘The first text, which has been known to us since 1867, tells
that this prince, being skilled and zealous in the practice of necromancy,
was one day exhibiting his acquirements to the
learned men of the court, when an old man told him of a magic
book containing two spells written by the hand of Thoth himself,
the god of wisdom.
‘‘He who repeated the first spell bewitched thereby heaven
and earth and the realm of night, the mountains and the depth
of the sea; he knew the fowls of the air and every creeping
thing; he saw the fishes, for a divine power brought them up
out of the depth. He who read the second spell should have
power to resume his earthly shape, even though he dwelt in the
grave; to see the sun rising in the sky with all the gods and the
moon in the form wherein she displays herself.
‘‘Setna inquired where this book was to be found, and
learned that it was lying in the tomb of Nefer-ka-Ptah, a son of
King Mer-neb-ptah (who is nowhere else named), and that any
attempt to take away the book would certainly meet with obstinate
resistance. These difficulties did not withhold Setna from
the adventure. He entered the tomb of Nefer-ka-Ptah, where
he found not only the dead man, but the Ka of his wife Ahuri
and their son, though these latter had been buried in Koptos.
‘‘Ahuri told all the trouble that the possession of the book
had brought upon her husband and herself, but her tale of woe
produced no effect upon the intruder. Setna persisted in his
undertaking, and at length, by the help of magic, he gained his
‘‘But as in many other tales among many other peoples, success
brought no blessing to the man who had disturbed the repose
of the dead. Setna fell in love with the daughter of a priest
at Memphis, who turned out to be a witch, and took advantage
of his intimate connection with her to bring him to ignominy
and wretchedness.
‘‘At length the prince recognized and repented of the sacrilege
he had committed in carrying off the book, and brought
it back to Nefer-ka-Ptah. In the hope of atoning to some extent
for his sin he journeyed to Koptos, and finding the graves of
the wife and child of Nefer-ka-Ptah, he solemnly restored their
mummies to the tomb of the father and husband, carefully closing
the tomb he had so sacrilegiously disturbed.
‘‘The second text, edited two years ago by Griffith from a
London papyrus, is also genuinely Egyptian in its details.
Three magic tales, interwoven one with another, are brought
into connection with Saosiri, the supernaturally born son of
‘‘In the first, Saosiri, who was greatly Setna’s superior in the
arts of magic, led his father down into the underworld. They
penetrated into the judgment-hall of Osiris, where the sights
they saw convinced Setna that a glorious future awaited the
poor man who should cleave to righteousness, while he who led
an evil life on earth, though rich and powerful, must expect a
terrible doom. Saosiri next succeeded in saving his father, and
with him all Egypt, from great difficulty by reading without
breaking the seal a closed letter brought by an Ethiopian magician,
whom he thus forced to recognize the superior power of
‘‘The last part of the text tells of a powerful magician once
dwelling in Ethiopia who modelled in wax a litter with four
bearers to whom he gave his life. He sent them to Egypt, and
at his command they sought out Pharaoh in his palace, carried
him off to Ethiopia, and, after giving him five hundred blows
with a cudgel, conveyed him during the same night back to
Memphis. Next morning the king displayed the weals on his
back to his courtiers, one of whom, Horus by name, was sufficiently
skilled in the use of amulets to ward off by their means
any immediate repetition of the outrage.
‘‘Horus then set forth to bring from Hermopolis, the all
powerful magic book of the god Thoth, and by its aid he succeeded
in treating the Ethiopian king as the Ethiopian sorcerer
had treated Pharaoh. The foreign magician then hastened to
Egypt to engage in a contest with Horus in magic tricks. His
skill was shown to be inferior, and in the end he and his mother
received permission to return to Ethiopia under a solemn
promise not to set foot on Egyptian territory for a space of fifteen
hundred years.