Life is fraught with danger. Thus, it is not surprising that throughout the ages, people have taken safety precautions. One of the ways this was done in Coptic Egypt was through the use of amulets, protective charms believed to ward off evil.

Amulets had been known in Egypt long before the Coptic period, but during this time an interesting change took place. The old spells were often interfused and replaced with short citations of Scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In many cases, these citations took the form of a phrase or an incipit.

Meaning “it begins” in Latin, an incipit refers to the beginning of a work—be it a book, song, poem, prayer, musical piece or (in the modern world of computer science) an encryption code. With texts, an incipit usually signifies the title or opening phrase.

Amulets containing incipits of Biblical passages have been uncovered from Egypt and are the subject of a recent book by Joseph Sanzo.1 Like any good tradesman, ritual specialists who made amulets would customize them to suit their consumers’ needs. The Biblical passages they selected were often meant to address particular concerns or ailments. Common incipits include Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Septuagint), the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9) and the beginnings of the Gospels.2

Written on vellum, the Coptic amulet shown above dates to the seventh or eighth century C.E. It has the titles and initial words of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as magical symbols along the bottom of the page. This piece of parchment was rolled up, placed inside a case and then worn by an individual.