A Reconstructed Hymn to Hermēs-Thoth from the Greek Magical Papyri

Looking through the various hymns of the Greek Magical Papyri so helpfully listed by Preisendanz is a good boon for devotional work; to be sure, the PGM is full of magical spells for all sorts of ends, both for weal and for woe, but there’s a good bit in there that’s definitely more priestly than magely and more devout than spooky.  After all, so much of these rituals are still calling on the gods themselves, and although a good number of the hymns (usually the ones to female and chthonic deities, as Bortolani noticed) do seek to constrain, slander, or bind the gods, others exalt them and praise them for their own sake in the course of a magician seeking their succor.  One of these hymns—technically three—is a hymn to Hermēs, which is found in three separate locations throughout the PGM.  Although they all have similarities with each other, there are also some interesting differences between them, as well; it’s hard to tell which would be older or the original form of the hymn, but in comparing them, it’s also possible to merge them together into one.  That’s what I’ve done to increase my prayer arsenal a bit by coming up with a…well, I guess a “reconstruction” of sorts, and I’d like to show it off today and point out some interesting bits about this varying hymn.

First, let’s take a look at the version of the hymn from PGM V.400—420.  The broader section of the PGM here is PGM V.370—446, an elaborate dream oracle involving 28 olive leaves, ibis eggs, and other ingredients to make a statue of Hermēs in his Greek form “holding a herald’s staff”, charged with a roll of papyrus or the windpipe of a goose that has a spell written on it along with the hair of the supplicant, enshrined within a box of lime wood.  This shrine is to be put by the head before going to sleep to incubate a dream revelation.  Although there are barbarous words used in this ritual, they’re more for the papyrus than to be spoken, although there is a (seemingly unrelated) spell of compulsion and a conjuration of a lamp present as well.  As for the hymn, which is to be recited “both at sunrise and moonrise”:

Hermēs, Lord of the World, who’re in the heart,
o circle of Selene, spherical
and square, the founder of the words of speech,
Pleader of justice’s cause, garbed in a mantle
With winged sandals, turning airy course
Beneath earth’s depths, who hold the spirit’s reins,
O eye of Helios, o mighty one,
Founder of full-voiced speech, who with your lamps
Give joy to those beneath earth’s depths, to mortals
Who’ve finished life. The prophet of events
And Dream divine you’re said to be, who send
Forth oracles by day and night; you cure
All pains of mortals with your healing cares.
Hither, o blessed one, o mighty son
Of Memory, I who brings full mental powers,
In your own form both graciously appear
And graciously render the task for me,
A pious man, and render your form gracious
To me, NN,
That I may comprehend you by your skills
Of prophecy, by your own wond’rous deeds.
I ask you, lord, be gracious to me and
Without deceit appear and prophesy to me.

Then the hymn from PGM VII.668—680 (broader section PGM VII.664—685).  Again, this is another ritual for a dream oracle, this time writing your request on linen in myrrh ink wrapped around an olive branch and put beside the head before one goes to bed.  This hymn is to be said seven times to an otherwise unspecified lamp, presumably left burning while one goes to sleep.  The hymn is followed with barbarous words similar to the inscription of the papyrus/goose windpipe from the PGM V procedure, also to be recited with the hymn proper:

Hermes, lord of the world, who’re in the heart,
O circle of Selene, spherical
And square, I the founder of the words of speech,
Pleader of Justice’s cause, garbed in a mantle,
With golden sandals, turning airy course
Beneath earth’s depths, who hold the spirit’s reins,
The sun’s and who with lamps of gods immortal
Give joy to those beneath earth’s depths, to mortals
Who’ve finished life. The Moirai’s fatal thread
And Dream divine you’re said to be, who send
Forth oracles by day and night; you cure
Pains of all mortals with your healing cares.
Hither, o blessed one, o mighty son
Of the goddess who brings full mental powers,
By your own form and gracious mind. And to
An uncorrupted youth reveal a sign
And send him your true skill of prophecy.

And then the hymn from PGM XVII.b, which is the entire papyrus.  There’s no procedure here, just a prayer given, no barbarous words, and the condition of this entry is poor given the number of lacunae.  However, based on the text in the prayer, it also appears to be used for another dream incubation/oracle/revelation ritual:

[Hermes, lord of the world], who’re in the heart,
[O orbit of Selene, spherical]
[And] square, the founder of the words [of speech]
[Pleader of justice’s cause,] garbed in a mantle,
[With winged sandals,] who rule [expressive] speech
[Prophet to mortals] . . .
For he inspires . . .
. . . within a short time . . .
[Whene’er] the fateful [day arrives] again
. . . [who send] some [oracle] that’s sure, you’re said
To be [the Moirai’s thread] and [Dream divine],
[The all-subduer, Unsub]dued, just as
. . . may you judge . . .
You offer good things to the good, [but grief]
[To those who’re worthless.] Dawn comes up for you,
For you swift [night draws] near. I You lord it o’er
The elements: fire, air, [water, and earth]
When you became helmsman of [all the] world;
And you escort the souls of those you wish,
But some you rouse again. For you’ve become
The order of the world, for you [cure], too,
Man’s [every] ailment, [who send oracles]
By day and night; [send] me, I pray your [form],
For I’m a man, a pious suppliant,
And your [soldier]; and so, [while I’m asleep],
[Send to me your unerring] mantic skill.

We can see that, although all three prayers start the same and sorta end the same, the PGM V and PGM VII hymns are much closer in form and structure than the one from PGM XVIIb, which seems to have more praise and description of Hermēs than the other two, but even that does still sync up with the other two hymns at times.  In that light, seeing the connection between certain phrases (even if worded slightly differently or in a different order), I compared and contrasted the three versions of the hymns and developed my own “reconstructed” hymn.  Perhaps “reconstruction” is too strong a word; what I really did was weave these three variants of the hymn together into one.  To do so, I largely used the basis of PGM XVIIb and added in the content from PGM V and PGM VII as necessary and where possible; I didn’t delve too deeply into the Greek here, and I did change some of the wording to be both more literal and more descriptive as far as the translation goes based on Betz, but in the end, this is what I came up with.

O Hermēs, Lord of All the Cosmos,
o you who are in the heart,
o wheel of the Moon
both circular and square,
first author of the words of speech,
o you who persuade for Justice’s sake,
o mantle-garbed, wearing winged golden sandals,
driver of spirit riding ’round the airy course below Earth’s abyss,
o eye of Hēlios,
first founder of full-voiced speech!
With your immortal lamps,
give joy to those beneath Earth’s abyss,
to mortals who have finished life.
Prophet to mortals,
you’re the one said to be the thread of the Moirai and Dream divine!

O All-Subduer and Unsubdued!
To the good you offer good things,
but to the craven you give grief.
Dawn rises up for you,
and for you swift Night draws near.
You became master over the elements,
over Fire and Air and Water and Earth,
when you became the steersman of all the cosmos.
You escort away the souls of those whom you wish,
but of some you rouse back up again!

For you have become the order of the world,
emissary of oracles both by day and by night.
You cure all pains of all mortals with your healing attendance.
Come to me, I pray, o blessed one,
o great son of mind-perfecting divine Memory,
in gracious form and gracious mind!
For I am one who is a pious supplicant, I am one who is your soldier.
Render your form graciously and reveal yourself to me,
that I may fathom you by your mantic arts and by your virtues;
I ask you, o Lord, be gracious to me,
without deceit appear to me,
send forth your sacred sight to me!

You can tell that I didn’t bother keeping with the original line-based structure or dactylic hexameter meter of the original hymn; that’s a job for a poet better than me, while I focused more on the content and meaning of the hymn.  I broke out the lines more or less into individual phrases that made sense to me, which also explains the relatively long line length of the hymn compared to the originals, and reworded a few things to be clearer based on my own understanding of the Greek diction and grammar used here. I did try to keep this a more literal translation than what’s given in Betz, though the end of the hymn is a bit weird; all three variants of this hymn are all focused strictly on a dream divination, so it constantly references “oracle” or “art of divination” or “mantic skill”, which I rendered more obliquely as “sacred sight” in the final line.  A bit of a twist on my part, to be sure, but this is a twist that encapsulates both a theophany of the god as well the oracular power of the god at the same time, in my view.

I also broke up the hymn into three sections, with the first and last containing text (almost entirely) common to at least two out of three variants of the hymn, and the middle section containing content from PGM XVIIb.  There’s one line from PGM XVIIb that is in the first section given how it flows (“Prophet to mortals…”), and likewise two lines in the last section (“For you’ve become the order of the world” and “…and your soldier”); I keep these here, even if they’re not part of PGM V and PGM VII, given the flow and grammar of the hymn, but they’re minor additions that fit well all the same.  My reasoning is that, because PGM XVIIb is the weirdest variant but still contains some of the content of the other two variants in PGM V and PGM VII, I use that as the skeleton of the whole structure and fill in the rest as necessary; this basically assumes that the variants in PGM V and PGM VII had the content from PGM XVIIb fall out at some point, and that these are condensed or shortened versions of the hymn.  It’s a pretty big assumption to make, to be absolutely fair, but it also allows us to make the most out of all these variants together at once in the cleanest way.

While all of the content of the hymns from PGM V and PGM VII are accounted for, there are a few lines from PGM XVIIb that I couldn’t do anything with on account of their incompleteness (“For you inspire…”, “…within a short time…”, “whenever the fateful day arrives again”, “…who send some oracle that’s true”, “just as…may you judge…”).  Betz notes that some of these bear similarity to Homeric verses, but the context isn’t clear enough to offer a firm reconstruction of these missing parts of the hymn.  It’s likely, given these parallels to Homeric verses that describe going down to the underworld (which PGM XVIIb seems to elaborate on heavily in Hermēs’ role as psychopomp), that these lines describe something similar.  This is just an outright guess, but something appropriate might go something like this (with boldface text being what survives and can be reconstructed by Betz/Preisendanz):

Prophet to mortals in life, guide to mortals in death,
for you inspire quickness in the mind and daring in the heart
and takes mortals below within a short time before taking them up and
whenever the fateful day arrives again
you return them to Hadēs, you who send some message that’s true

This conjecture references the descent of great heroes like Odysseus into the underworld to progress on their quests while alive though they’ll go back down once more for good at their proper time, and also recalls the processes of ancient Hellenic necromancy through dream incubation by sleeping upon or by the tombs of the dead to receive revelation from them, which would be facilitated by Hermēs leading the dead from the underworld up again to our world briefly before taking them back down.  Again, this is all just purely a conjecture on my part, and I’ve got no clue what sort of language could be used to fit the dactylic hexameter of the hymn here.  Still, something along those lines could be considered appropriate, but we just don’t have the means to know definitively one way or another without finding another variant of this hymn that mentions these.  Because of that, I’ve omitted them from my “reconstructed” hymn.

There are a few interesting things to note about this hymn and the phrasing of it.  To be sure, there are definite Hellenic influences and symbols in this hymn, and an interesting thing to note is the description of Hermēs as “garbed in a mantle” (χλαμυδηφόρε).  It’s not all that weird to think of Hermēs wearing a cape or cloak while traveling on the road, and we certainly see Hermēs wearing it in many old depictions, but we should note that, by the time of the writing of the PGM, the chlamys was cemented firmly in the minds of people as being Greek military attire.  In that light, the supplicant referring to themselves as Hermēs’ “soldier” (στρατιώτῃ) in PGM XVIIb solidifies this militaristic view of Hermēs, along with shifting notions at this time of the chlamys being worn by not just soldiers but officials (especially rulers and emperors) in charge of soldiers.  Betz notes that a supplication referring to oneself as a soldier is found in PGM IV.154—285 in a hymn to Typhōn (Preisendanz reconstructed hymn 6, note boldface text):

I’m he who closed in heaven’s double gates and put
To sleep the serpent which must not be seen,
Who stopped the seas, the streams, the river currents
Where’er you rule this realm. And as your soldier
I have been conquered by the gods, I have
Been thrown face down because of empty wrath.

Perhaps in a particular milieu in Roman Empire-period Theban Egypt, being considered a soldier of some god was more esteemed or noble (or had more means accessible to them) than just being considered a servant or devotee of the god.

Up at the start of the hymn, all three hymns refer to Hermēs as the “orbit of Selēnē, spherical and square”.  We might also translate this phrase (κύκλε Σελήνη, στρογγύλε καὶ τετράγωνε) as “circle of the Moon, round and four-sided”, but the sentiment is basically the same.  This would appear to be a reference to Hermēs in his Egyptian form as Thoth, a god of the Moon and the cycles of the lunar month.  While I’ve seen one or two passing references to an identification of Hermēs with the Moon in non-Egyptian contexts or influences, I can’t really find anything along those lines concretely, so I’m pretty sure this is an Egyptian influence in this hymn.  “Spherical and square” (I prefer “circular and square”, personally) seems paradoxical, but each of these words could be interpreted in several ways.  “Spherical” most likely refers to the “wheel of the Moon”, but it could also refer to the actual planetary star of Hermēs himself (or, likewise, of the Moon).  “Square” could refer to Hermēs’ traditional presence as hermai, the four-sided posts at crossroads in Greece., but interpreted as “four-sided”, could refer to the four weeks of a lunar month, reckoned by the New, First Quarter, Full, and Last Quarter Moons.  It’s an interesting appellation of the god, either way.

There’s also the explicit association of Hermēs with “the thread of the Moirai and Dream divine” (Μοιρῶν τε κλωστὴρ…καὶ θεῖος ὄνειρος).  Sure, all the gods fulfill and carry out Fate, but to describe Hermēs explicitly as the “thread of the Moirai” is something stark, indeed.  Likewise, although Hermēs is certainly one to send dreams by means of sending sleep (cf. Orphic Hymn LVI to Hermēs Chthonios, “thine is the wand which causes sleep to fly, or lulls to slumb’rous rest the weary eye”), but to identify him explicitly as Dream itself is not altogether common.  But, by the same token of Hermēs being the “thread of the Moirai” in two of the hymns, he’s also the “prophet of events” in the other (Μοιρῶν προγνώστης); sure, we might interpret this as just a general divinatory allusion, but the Greek here might be more accurately translated as “prognosticator”, which has medical overtones, as this was also a term used for medical specialists and physicians. 

This, coupled with Hermēs being described as the one who “cure[s] all pains of all mortals with your healing attendance”,  gives him a bigger role than just a diviner, but also one who heals the fatal problems of fate itself.  “Healing attendance” here is “healing cares” in the other hymns translated in Betz, but this is just a single word in Greek: θεραπείαις, origin of our word “therapy”.  In this, we might even consider Hermēs to take on a presence closer to what we might expect of Asklēpios, the son of Apollōn, hero of physicians and medical workers, whose temples were also famous places for dream oracles and prognostication for and through dreams.  It’s hard to avoid this, too, given that Hermēs is described here as the “eye of Hēlios”, which works equally well in the sense of Thoth being born from the eye of Horus and Asklēpios being the son of Apollōn, as well as Asklēpios’ later identification in Hermetic literature with the 27th century bce Egyptian chancellor Imhotep, who was also a high priest of Ra.  But, as Asklēpios, he then becomes Hermēs pupil, making a complete circuit of associations.  Interesting loops we can weave between all these things, huh?  Still, even given all these solar allusions, Hermēs here is not being described as the Sun, but as a derivative and relative of it, and it’s this that is something distinctly Thothian in nature.

Perhaps not as surprising, but definitely as stark, is the description of Hermēs here as a cosmic all-ruler.  This is a definite Egyptian influence from Thoth being considered as such, giving Hermēs a much grander, more powerful role than what we might otherwise find in a purely Hellenic context.  From “offering good things to the good but grief to those who’re worthless”, we see Hermēs elevated from being merely a psychopomp of the dead to being a judge of the dead, much as we’d find Thoth weighing the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at; from seeing him becoming “master over the elements…when [he] became helmsman of all the cosmos” and becoming “the order of the world”, we see him being a truly powerful organizing principle and organizer of the powers of Nature itself; even the cycles of day and night serve Hermēs in this prayer.  Hermēs as “all-subduer, unsubdued” positions Hermēs truly as “lord of the cosmos”; even the Hellenic notions of Hermēs being a god of communication and language are strengthened here by the same attributes of Thoth being called out and given to Hermēs. 

At the end of the day, the PGM Hymn to Hermēs is definitely a hymn to praise and call on the god, but in its three variants we have surviving to us, it seems that it (along with many other hymns in the PGM, especially those focused on male or masculine deities) was always centered on the revelation of oracles through dreams and sleep.  Sure, there’s enough prayer and praise in there to tweak it slightly to make it more general purpose, but the very description of Hermēs as being “Dream divine” and the repeated requests for sending prophesy and dreams, especially with a confirmed use of this hymn related to putting sacred objects by one’s head while asleep to receive information in dreams, makes this a fine-tuned hymn for receiving revelation from the god.  Even if one were to make it slightly more general-purpose by tweaking the requests at the end, we still are left with a powerful prayer invoking and praising the power of a truly syncretic Hermēs-Thoth, all-powerful in his way in ordering the world and not just guide to the dead but their judge, too.  While there are still a few mysteries left with this prayer, especially given the poor quality of one of the hymn variants that also seems to have the most in store for us, what we have left is still beautiful and still potent.  This hymn, as written, does ask for the prophecy and appearance of the god, but I think it’s still general-purpose (or generalizable) enough to be used as an all-around invocation of the god, whether Hermēs or Thoth, but especially Hermēs-Thoth the Thrice Great.

4 responses

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  2. This is cool, and inspired me to an invocatory prayer, using the elements of the PGM humn(s) but more suited to my own monotheistic orientation:

    To Mercury or Hod an invocatory prayer

    In the name of the One God and First Mystery
    o you living Mystery whose names include
    Hermes, Mercury, and the Sephira Hod,
    awaken in your proper place in our heart,
    brighten and move in the circle of the Lunar mind,
    the orbit both spherical and square;
    you who give basis for the arising of words,
    stirring full-voiced speech
    to plead the cause of verity and uprightness,
    and of the working of God’s love in us
    o come swiftly and help us now.

    To the good you offer good things
    and the cover of a mantle of light
    while to those to turn from the good to worthless things
    you give the causes of grief that they covet.
    Needle bearing the thread of destined events,
    yours is the work of a helmsman, and of a sure guide;
    you transmit heaven’s order, and give
    new health to bodies and souls.
    Lovely Dawn welcomes you, swift night embraces you;
    the elements of air, fire, water and earth heed your signs,
    the forms of nature answer to your transformations
    magic and miracles spring up in your footsteps.

    Come now as with winged feet and bearing
    the very Cadeuceus of God, moving swiftly —
    for our time is short and the ends draw near;
    make your airy course through Earth’s depths
    bearing spirit’s reins and immortal lamps
    to give joy to those in the depths of material creation
    and signs of life to those finished with this life.
    Give me, o give us this same joy
    and these same visions of holy things
    and true messages from higher spheres
    and the gift of full mental powers, the grace
    of radiant form and gracious posture.
    Reveal by day or by night a true sign to us
    and bestow to us the skills of insight and prophecy.

    For I and I and we are here as humble petitioners
    who would be worthy servants
    and so we ask for this most precious gift:
    beyond any power of deceit or self-deception
    in the radiance of the Vision of God
    establish in us, in our mind forever and without fail,
    sure sight and true understanding.

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