On Hermetic Tormentors and Egyptian Sins

It’s weird how research can lead you in a direction, and land you in a place, completely different from what you anticipated.

I’ve been on something of a Coptic kick for a while now, courtesy of Tobias’ post regarding Helleno-Kemetic practice over at Sublunar Space, when he brought up the very good observation that the hymns and songs used in the Coptic Christian Church are a direct descendant of otherwise ancient Egyptian musical practices.  As a result, I started listening in to a variety of Coptic hymns, and beyond the sheer beauty of it, it got me thinking about the use of Coptic as another language for Hermetic magical and religious practice.  (As if I really needed yet another language to learn.)  This led me to look into the different dialects of Coptic.  The modern Coptic church and modern Coptic speakers, such as they are, use the Bohairic dialect, based in Lower (northern) Egypt, though classically speaking, it was the Sahidic dialect that was more common as the lingua franca of Coptic, based in Upper (southern) Egypt.  Being a popular dialect common for writing texts in, is well-attributed and attested enough to study as a religious language for Hermetic stuff.

Sahidic Coptic’s area would include Hermopolis, aka Khemenu in ancient Egyptian, aka Shmun in Coptic, aka El Ashmunein in Arabic.  The placement of Hermopolis in this dialect area is important, as this was practically the city for Thoth worship as well as the worship of the  eight primordial creator deities of the Ogdoad (hence Hermopolis “city of Hermes” and Khemenu “City of Eight”), and according to some modern researchers, is a natural locus for the development of Hermetic practice and texts as well as some PGM texts (especially PGM XIII).  This is a natural draw for my attention, so I began to look up the history of this city in ancient Egypt and some of its religious practices.  This led me to begin researching the system of nomes, administrative divisions used in ancient Egypt.  I suppose it’s good to know that Hermopolis was found in the Hare Nome, Nome XV of Upper Egypt, but that’s not all that important on its own.

It was when a separate line of research of mine, diving into Egyptian texts for material to write new prayers with, combined with this information about nomes that I hit on something fascinating.  Many people are familiar with the Egyptian Book of the Dead (aka “The Book of Coming Forth by Day”) and the various scenes and trials of the afterlife, including the famous scene of the Weighing of the Heart.  For those who don’t know, the story goes like this: upon dying, the soul of the deceased is lead from its body and set on a perilous path through the Duat, the Egyptian underworld, culminating in being led by Anubis into the presence of Osiris to be judged.  The judgment would consist mostly of having the heart of the deceased weighed on a scale against the Feather of Ma`at, the goddess of truth itself: if the heart is at least as light as the feather, then the soul was judged to be pure and was admitted into the afterlife of the righteous.  If, however, the heart was heavier than the feather, then the heart of the deceased would be devoured by the fearsome beast Ammit, condemning the dead to “die a second time” and never being permitted to the true afterlife and instead forever being a restless and wandering spirit.

Leading up to this judgment of the scale, the deceased is to recite the 42 Negative Confessions (or the “42 Declarations of Purity”), oaths that describe how the deceased refrained from committing particular sins, crimes, or errors while in life.  That there are 42 such confessions here is important: each sin that was denied (e.g. “I have not stolen”, “I have not uttered curses”, etc.) was linked explicitly to one of the 42 nomes of ancient Egypt, each with its own assessor (or the Ma`aty gods) who watched over the judgment of Osiris, Anubis, and Ma`at as a sort of witness or court.  In this, there was a sort of moral code that the whole of ancient Egypt upheld in unity, and which could be seen to exemplify what morality and goodness looked like to the Egyptians.  Of course, as might be expected, different funerary texts and different versions of the Book of the Dead describe somewhat different sets of sins, but there’s massive overlap between them all.  There is some unclarity, too, in our knowledge of which assessor is linked to which nome, but we do know the names of at least a good few of them.

The number 42 caught my eye: it’s a pleasing number, to be sure, and yes, it is the number of nomes in ancient Egypt.  It is also, however, the product of 6 × 7, and since there are seven sets of six sins, this naturally made the leap in my mind to the seven planets.  No, it’s not the case that all things that come in sets of seven can be linked to the seven planets, I’m not saying that, but the description of some of these sins did bring to mind the irrational tormentors from the Corpus Hermeticum like we discussed a few months ago.  Between Book I and Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, we have a good idea of what the classical Hermeticists would decry as bad, immoral, or unethical behavior that results in our being tortured and hindered from achieving our true end.

My thought was this: what if we could look at the various sins of the Negative Confessions and organize them according to the tormentors associated with the seven planets?  So, I plotted out the various sins, and came up with my own little association of different crimes or sins of the Egyptians and mapped them to the seven planets based on where they fall along the tormentors described by Book I and Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum.  Because there are multiple sets of sins from different funerary texts, there’s no simple one-to-one matching, and there’s no clean division in some cases into seven groups of six (e.g. there are lots more crimes relating to temple observance as well as good conduct in speech compared to sexual missteps), so I tried to combine and collate them where possible, and filled in the gaps where necessary with equally viable entries in the sin-list of the Egyptians.

To that end, this is the list I came up with.  Note that each planet is described in a joint fashion as “The Sin of X with the Tormentor of Y”, with X being provided from the list of irrational tormentors from Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum and Y from Book I.  It’s kinda clumsy, as Book I and Book XIII aren’t precisely talking about the same thing, though it’s tantalizingly close.  In the cases of sins in quotes, e.g. “wading in water”, those are phrases from original Egyptian texts that I wasn’t really able to fully piece together, but had to either figure out contextually or give my own interpretation of such a sin.

  1. Moon ­— The Sin of Increase and Decrease with the Tormentor of Ignorance
    1. Causing pain in general through misbehavior generally or through unknown missteps
    2. Neglect of property, both in the carelessness of one’s own property and the lack of respect for the property of others
    3. Making ungainly distinctions for oneself, i.e. polluting oneself by hubris and having one’s name submitted to the authorities for good or evil out of hubris and self-acclamation
    4. “Destroying food”, i.e. the causing of affliction, tears, grief, and hunger through wanton destruction
    5. Taking more food for oneself than what one needs, including general indulgence and the stealing of food
    6. Depriving the needy, whether of food specifically or sustenance generally, including children, orphans, and the poor
  2. Mercury — The Sin of Evil Machination with the Tormentor of Sorrow
    1. Eavesdropping and prying into matters
    2. Sullenness, i.e. grieving uselessly or feeling needless remorse
    3. Transgression of human and mundane law
    4. Quarreling, i.e. violence by words or thoughts
    5. Crookedness, e.g. tampering with scales or other instruments used for measuring
    6. Disputing, attacking people for one’s own ends with words or law without care
  3. Venus ­— The Sin of Covetous Deceit with the Tormentor of Intemperance
    1. Babbling and needlessly multiplying words in speech
    2. Slighting others through through words, especially someone of a lower rank to someone of a higher rank
    3. Debauching another in any non-sexual way
    4. Disturbing the peace and stirring up strife
    5. Debauching another in any sexual way
    6. Adultery, i.e. deceitful or objectionable sex outside the bounds of what is agreed to within relationships
  4. Sun — The Sin of the Arrogance of Rulers with the Tormentor of Lust
    1. Damaging a god’s image or otherwise defacing or damaging the property of the gods
    2. Transgressing divine and cosmic law
    3. “Wading in water”, i.e. defiling the sacred springs, rivers, and other bodies of water of the gods, or otherwise messing with the natural world to defile and corrupt it
    4. “Conjuration against the king”, cursing or blaspheming against a ruler or leader acting with the divine license and power of the gods or otherwise acting appropriately and respectfully of the law both mundane and divine
    5. Killing the sacred animals of the gods, including the irreverent slaughter of sacred bulls as well as otherwise hunting, trapping, or catching animals from the sacred precincts of the gods
    6. Reviling the gods, e.g. cursing the gods or treating them with contempt, including blocking their processions
  5. Mars — The Sin of Impious Daring and Reckless Audacity with the Tormentor of Injustice
    1. Impatience, i.e. acting or judging with undue haste
    2. Terrorizing, including physical violence and threats of abuse to others
    3. “Being unduly active”, i.e. acting out of passion rather than reason, especially rage
    4. “Being loud-voiced”, i.e. speaking arrogantly or in anger
    5. “Being hot-tempered”, i.e. being angry without just cause
    6. Murder, i.e. the desired and intentional killing of those who do not deserve it
  6. Jupiter — The Sin of Evil Impulse for Wealth with the Tormentor of Greed
    1. Rapaciousness
    2. Wrongdoing, i.e. the general practice of evil against others for one’s own gain
    3. Stealing the property of other humans
    4. Stealing the property and offerings of the gods, the dead, and other spirits
    5. Robbery with violence
    6. Dishonest wealth, including the use of malefica against another for one’s own gain
  7. Saturn — The Sin of Ensnaring Falsehood with the Tormentor of Deceit
    1. “Being unhearing of truth”, i.e. being unwilling to know the truth or or willfully ignoring or remaining ignorant of it
    2. Falsehood, i.e. to not tell the truth to others (including exaggeration, depreciation, or omission) to mislead others for one’s own ends
    3. Lying, i.e. uttering untrue statements, including slander or libel of others
    4. Blasphemy, i.e. lying about divinity
    5. Hoodwinking, i.e. leading others into wrongdoing
    6. Perjury, i.e. to not tell the whole truth in a court of law whether mundane or divine

It’d be even cooler if there were 49 sins; this would give us a sort of primary-secondary planetary pair to arrange the sins by, such that we could say “such-and-such a sin is the sin of the Sun of Saturn”.  Alas, there’s just 42, for the reasons already described above.  But, if we consider the tormentor of the planet as a sin unto itself as a sort of primary, overarching, or root sin, then that would fulfill the same need: the tormentor-sin would be the root of all the other sins associated with the planet.  Thus, the list of sins above follow a more-or-less planetary order: the first sin of the Moon is given to Mercury (skipping over the Moon itself), the second to Venus, the third to the Sun, etc., and the first sin of Mercury to the Moon, the second to Venus (skipping over Mercury itself), the third to the Sun, etc.  It’s a loose scheme, honestly, and I’m not 100% sold on some of them, but it’s an idea to toy around with in the future.

Now, I’m not saying that these things are really Hermetic; there’s no real list of crimes or sins in Hermetic texts, nor have I found anything resembling a code of conduct for Hermetists/Hermeticists.  Still, it is nice to consider how to flesh out the things that trigger the various tormentors along Hermetic lines, and it’s also good to tie in Egyptian practices and beliefs back into Hermetic stuff given Hermeticism’s Egyptian origin and context, no matter how much Hellenic and Mediterranean philosophy gets mixed into it.  Besides, I’m not trying to rewrite or cop the Book of the Dead or other afterlife practices or beliefs here, but rather proposing a set of prohibitions for those who might consider taking their Hermetic philosophy to the next level through changes in their daily behavior.

One way we might apply this list of planetary sins, beyond simply observing the prohibitions regarding them of course, would be to take one sin from a given set each day, or each set as a whole day by day, and meditating on them.  I recall Arnemancy bringing up the practice of Mussar, using Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues as an example, but we could expand on that in this way.  For instance, we could dedicate a particular Wednesday, the day of Mercury, to one of the sins or to all six sins as a whole, contemplating it in the morning and dedicating oneself to observing that prohibition, and then contemplating and reviewing the day in the evening before bed to see how well one stuck to it and how one could improve on observing it.  Taking each sin day by day would take place across six weeks, or across seven weeks if we also include the arch-sin/tormentor of a given planet itself to bring up the total number of sins from 42 to 49.

If one were to use a whole set of sins for a given day, one could take a slightly more ritual approach to this by announcing a dedication to each of the six directions, e.g. saying “I will not engage in eavesdropping” to the East, “I will not engage in sullenness” to the South, “I will not transgress the law of this world” to the West, “I will not engage in quarreling” to the North, “I will not engage in crookedness” downwards to the Earth, and “I will not engage in disputing” upwards to Heaven.  This could be preceded and/or followed with the declaration of “I will not engage in evil machination” (the arch-sin/tormentor of Mercury) taking the place of the divine center, or this could be included in each of the six declarations said to the directions, e.g. “I will not engage in evil machination through sullenness”.  It’s an idea, at any rate, and could be good for a stricter spiritual practice that focuses on purity through abstinence of wrong behavior.

Something that struck me late in writing this post, I admit, is the lack of mention of drunkenness.  I did throw this in under the fifth (Jupiter) sin of the Moon, “taking more food for oneself than what one needs” as a form of indulgence, but that’s really more about stealing food than overindulgence in it.  Moderation is certainly a virtue, but this got me thinking a bit: overindulgence in a way that shifts the state of the mind doesn’t do much on its own, but it’s works that impact the well-being of other people and the world that matter.  Thus, being drunk isn’t a sin, but committing violence or adultery while drunk is—but it’d be as much a sin anyway even if you weren’t drunk.  After all, as Hermēs Trismegistus preaches in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, everyone is in a state of sloth and drunken stupor in their mindlessness as they are; what more could booze really do when we’re already at the bottom of the barrel?  Despite the noetic focus of much of Hermetic work, when it comes to day-to-day living, it’s generally the action that counts instead of the thought.  After all, without Nous, what true thinking could you have anyway that animals themselves wouldn’t already have?  And with Nous, why would you engage in wrong behavior to begin with?

As magicians and spiritual workers, obviously we have a variety of things to study as far as the practice, technology, and technique goes for our various disciplines and types of Work, but it’s equally as important to study the philosophy, theology, and cosmology behind the practice.  This goes hand-in-hand with living life in the proper way as a way to indirectly implement the philosophical components of our Work and as a way to assist and ground the practical components of it, as well.  Merely adopting a set of purity rules or fasting is good, don’t get me wrong, but considering broader notions of morality and good/right behavior should play a bigger role in this as well.  While I won’t ascribe cosmic importance to these rules above beyond a basic planetary correspondence, and while I’m certainly not saying that this is a good stand-in for what to deny while standing before Osiris, I think it’s a good set of rules to live by for a good number of people who want to lead a good life respectful of other human beings, the cosmos, and the gods themselves irrespective of the specifics of one’s religious tradition.

5 responses

    • Commit to doing better in the future. :P I’m not a big believer in the usual notion of “sin”, except as transgression. If you mess up, fix what you can, learn from it, and do better in the future. We all err from time to time; get back on track and stay on track as best as you can.

        • It helps that the Hermetic view of what happens after death is substantially different from the classical Egyptian view, so it’s happily somewhat of a moot point. Still, that doesn’t excuse us from doing what we can do in this life while we have it to be as good as we can, advancing on our path as far as we can in the body while we have it to continue our overall path of spiritual progression after we leave it!

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