For over 200 years, Yale has been known as a center for intellectual advancement. Every year, thousands of students manage to push the academic envelope even further. Yalies find cures for cancer, analyze Shakespearean tragedies and mobilize political awareness nationwide.
And then, there’s ancient Egyptian scorpion magic.
Translating ancient texts does not usually lend itself well to exciting senior projects. But Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major Karl Waern ’04 might argue with that assertion — and with good reason. Last year, for his senior project, Waern translated part of an Egyptian scroll that contained anti-scorpion spells.
“The project was an essay, whose topic was the first few pages of Papyrus Chester Beatty VII,” Waern said. “That papyrus consists of anti-scorpion magic, and I essentially had a close look at its beginning — about 65 pages worth.”
According to Waern, ancient Egyptians considered magic and medicine to be closely tied, if not inseparable. In translating the text on “magic,” Waern was actually uncovering the Egyptians’ knowledge of scorpion behavior and their methods of treating scorpion sting victims.
Here’s where Waern’s project jumps forward a few thousand years. In order to understand better just how much the Egyptians knew about Scorpion behavior and the effects of scorpion venom on humans, Waern decided to brush up on present-day biology.
“My interest in biology led me to read up on scorpions from a modern scientific perspective, as well as to read some of the medical literature available on the effects of scorpion envenomation,” Waern said. “I quickly realized that the Egyptians had understood scorpion behavior and the effects of envenomation very well in certain respects, and I also learned some things that they had not understood so well.”
The combination of Egyptology and modern biology is an interesting idea, to say the least. But the mix allowed Waern to shed new light on his dusty scrolls.
“The long and short of it is that the spells became much clearer with the help of a bit of modern biology,” Waern said. “So far as I can tell, this is the first time that an ancient Egyptian spell has been analyzed from such a perspective, and that, of course, made pursuing the project much more exciting for me.”
As with most senior projects, the practical applications for Waern’s work are few and far between. Perhaps you could hire the recently graduated Egyptologist-biologist as an escort on your next desert excursion in case any scorpions should find their way into your boots. Or maybe you should just stick to EMTs.
— Dan Adler