Grind up a worm and smear it on your head, and what will you have? A noxious, mess on your head, that's what. You won't have hair, unless you had it before, though the formula is designed to grow hair on a bald pate. This conclusion may seem too obvious to deserve mention; yet one is vexed by the suspicion that many of the people who buy books on magic, Egyptian or otherwise, harbor the delusion that the principles described therein are genuinely efficacious.

Bob Brier points out that no one has written a popular book on Egyptian magic since Wallis Budge attacked the subject in the 1890s. In fact, no full-length book, popular or otherwise, has ever been written by a reputable scholar. Egyptologists approach the subject cautiously when they do talk about it, and for good reason. There is no such thing as Egyptian magic. Or, to put it more accurately, it is virtually impossible to separate this arbitrary category from other aspects of ancient Egyptian life. Dividing cultures into neat, separate boxes labeled "religion," "science" and so on is a tricky business at best, for scholars inevitably tend to use the analytical categories of their own cultures, which may give a totally misleading picture of another way of life. Distortion is even more liable to occur when the culture under analysis is known only from acheological remains and fragmentary texts. And of all the nasty, tricky little boxes to open, the one marked "magic" is the trickiest. One man's magic is another man's religion -- or science, or philosophy, or perhaps parapsychology.

Brier recognizes this latter difficulty, and discusses it briefly. His definition of magic is glib enough, but it is not particularly useful, for it cannot be applied to Egyptian culture. Many of the topics discussed in the book -- pyramids, mummifiction and mortuary literature, among others -- are viewed by Egyptologists as aspects of Egyptians would have thought about this, but I am inclined to suspect they would have been annoyed to see a goodly part of their theological system dismissed as "magic."

I am also inclined to suspect that Brier has been led astray, in part, by his reliance on Wallis Budge, no less than 10 of those books are cited in the bibliography. Budge, an energetic and unscrupulous official of the British Museum, is a leading contender for the title of the worst Egyptologist who ever lived. Many of his books have been reprinted in recent years; it can safely be said that not a single one of them deserves resurrection. In addition to being hopelessly inaccurate, they are marred throughout by Budge's bland, Victorian contempt for the ignorant heathens who were the subjects of his study. This attitude was not uncommon in 19th-century scholarship, but Budge carried the prejudices of his class and his era to an extreme.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system I can return to "Ancient Egyptian Magic." The digression is not irrelevant. By following Budge's categories, Brier perpetuates his biases and misinterpretations. Even Budge's contemporaries disagreed with his bland decision to reglegate much of Egyptian religion to the category of pagan superstition. In the 20th century such an attitude is inexcusably parochial, as well as uninformed.

The inadequacies of this volume are particularly apparent in the chapter titled "Magicians," one of the few that has some legitimate excuse to be in the book. No modern scholar can possibly discuss magic without betraying his own ethnocentric bias, but he ought to at least endeavor to ascertain what the ancient Egyptians may have thought about it. They did have a word for magic, and they had several words which can be translated as "magicians." There is throughout an idenntification of magician with priest, which is logical enough if one assumes, as Brier does and Budge did, that Egyptian religion is tantamount to magic. It is logical, but it is very bad scholarship; and if the Egyptians did not take offense at Brier's other comments, they would certainly be infuriated at the labeling of the pharaoh as "the most powerful of magicians."

If a respectable book on Egyptian magic could be written -- which is questionable -- it would probably have to be co-authored by an Egyptologist and a cultural anthropologist. This book doesn't even make a beginning.