The deceased stands with offerings before the god Osiris.

Every little thing they did was magic … or was it?

From royal rings to humble rocks, mystical objects were believed to shape human events throughout history. The powers they held reveals much about the hopes and fears of the people who believed in them.

The Egyptian gods (from left to right) Nephthys, Isis, and Osiris receive gifts from the deceased in a detail from the Book of the Dead that dates to 1075-945 B.C.
Image courtesy of Alfredo Dagli Orti/Shutterstock

History is filled with objects—books, rings, weapons, even plain old rocks—that people believed were imbued with supernatural powers. The most valuable could confer protection, the right of kingship, or healing, including the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Stone of Scone, and the Fountain of Youth. Other objects apparently cursed their ill-fated owners, including stones picked up by tourists at Australia’s sacred Uluru. Lore about these objects has become myths retold in books, movies, and epic poems—King Arthur’s Excalibur and the Holy Grail foremost among them. 

The reality behind these powerful objects is often obscured. In fact, the romantic nature of the stories swirling around them encouraged people to keep believing, even with little evidence to prove their validity. True or not, each of these ordinary objects holds an extraordinary legend that delves into the culture and traditions of its time.

For the ancient Egyptians, physical death was just the first step on a perilous journey into the afterlife, as the soul lived on to face the judgment of the gods. Therefore, the deceased needed spells and instructions for navigating their way to immortality. These directions, written up as nearly 200 spells in the Book of the Dead, could be inscribed on sheets of papyrus pasted together, but they also appeared on walls, coffins, amulets, bricks, and even mummy wrappings of upper-class Egyptians. The spells included guides to the dark world’s portals and protection against its dangers—some even transformed the speaker into powerful animals, such as a falcon. Whether the incantations truly guided Egyptians into the afterlife remains a mystery, the beautiful art and scripts of the spells themselves live on in stone and papyrus.

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