On the Hermetic Hieroglossa

Yes, another post about the Hermetic canon, Corpus Hermeticum, Stobaean Fragments, and whatnot.  But this time, it’s not about introducing a prayer based on the work, but about the work’s own comments about itself.

Something for me to bear in mind is that, as an amateur classicist, I don’t really read Greek (though I am learning!), whether modern or archaic or Koiné or any point in between.  Nor do I read any variety of Egyptian.  In fact, the only real classical language I have any grasp of is Latin, and even that requires some assistance (I wish I had kept it up more through college, my current translations be damned).  Annoyingly, despite working from home full-time in light of the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, it seems like my spare time has gone down somehow, and with the added stress of waves vaguely at everything, it’s hard to focus.  Thus, though I had set out three months ago leaving my office for the last time (until such time as things get safer to go back) with desires to learn Sahidic Coptic, I haven’t been able to do anything about that along those lines, much to my annoyance.  Even if I had time to learn Sahidic Coptic, there’s also the much-needed modern Spanish I still need to work on, to say nothing of Lukumí/Yòrubá and Koiné Greek, or Yiddish, or any other number of languages I should be studying for any number of (rather quite valid) reasons.

But why Coptic?  I mentioned a while back that Coptic got sprung up for me as an interest, and although an obsessive one like how reading dominoes came about for me, it’s gone nowhere, unfortunately.  But I still wanna learn it; after all, Coptic is the only surviving Egyptian language we have left, and unfortunately, it’s also effectively a dead language, kept around liturgically in the Coptic Church much as Latin is in the Catholic Church.  Of course, there are movements to try to revive it and make it a spoken, living language again, but as with Latin, it’s not all that far-reaching.  However, even then, what the Coptic Church uses is Bohairic Coptic, a derivative of a northern (Lower) Egyptian dialect which has taken on far more Greek influence through the Church, while I’m more focused on Sahidic Coptic, which was more common across Egypt, it’d seem, especially in southern (Upper) Egypt, especially in and around Thebes and Hermopolis—and thus would be more closely related to the classical philosophical texts (e.g. Corpus Hermeticum) and magical texts (e.g. PGM/PDM/PCM) I’m such a fan of.

Coptic—in any dialect—is the last stage of the Egyptian language to survive, which otherwise dates back some six thousand years, an incredibly long heritage for a language.  It didn’t remain the same for all those millennia, of course, since Egyptian, as all languages do, evolved and mutated and spread, sometimes developing multiple dialects and offshoots along the way.  Perhaps at least as impressive as its age, of course, is also the fact that it’s been one of the longest-living languages (language families?) to ever be written, with written records of Egyptian dating back some five and a half thousand years.  Although the writing system of hieroglyphs remained largely the same since their institution until their use ceased across two thousand years, the spoken language continued to develop, with Middle Egyptian (c. 2000 bce to 1350 bce) becoming the “classical” form of the language, with Late Egyptian following on that until about 700 bce, Demotic after that until 400 ce, and Coptic rising on the scene as a different set of dialects and writing systems with heavy Greek influence arising around 200 ce.  My point is that Egyptian is old, and its writing system the foundation for the well-known Phoenician writing system, itself the ancestor of most alphabets and abjads—even perhaps the Indic abugidas, too—used across the world today.

So why bring all this up?  I was reading more of the Corpus Hermeticum the other day, this time Book XVI, a letter of Asclepius sent to Ammon.  It starts off somewhat perplexingly, saying that it contradicts earlier teachings and lessons (perhaps as a sign that Ammon is now spiritually developed enough to take on deeper and more profound truths?), but it quickly gets into a bout of what some authors have called “linguistic nativism” (Copenhaver translation):

…furthermore, it will be entirely unclear (he said) when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity.  But this discourse, expressed in our paternal language, keeps clear the meaning of its words. The very quality of the speech and the (sound) of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of (Egyptian) usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Let’s be clear here: Asclepius is outright saying that Greek is no language for true philosophy as befits the Way of Hermēs, and that those who wish to translate Hermetic teachings into Greek do so foolishly as they end up distorting the meaning of the texts.  Thus, Asclepius encourages Ammon to stick to using “our paternal language”, i.e. Egyptian, because it “keeps clear the meaning of its words”, as it avoids such distortion and vacuity that the Greeks seem to be so fond of.  Egyptian has “sounds that are full of action”, and “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”.

Of course, CH XVI along with the rest of the CH is written in Greek; either this letter of Asclepius to Ammon was originally written in Egyptian and translated into Greek (possible, though it’s astoundingly humble for the translator to keep this section!), or it was written originally in Greek and written to intimate that the reader is getting some intimate sort of taste of lost, ancient wisdom.  I mean, imagine the absurdity and paradox of it: a set of texts written in Greek yet which deny the validity and use of Greek.  True, Greek was one of the larger linguae francae of the classical Mediterranean world, and was held to be a language quite well-suited for philosophy—the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal contemplative diary in Greek—but we should remember that the Egyptians as a rule didn’t think highly of other cultures as much as other cultures thought highly of that of the Egyptians.  It’s now largely agreed-upon that Hermet(ic)ism is rooted in Egypt, and although it bears heavy Hellenic influence, its Egyptian core component cannot be denied.

So what was the “original language” of the Hermetic texts and teachers?  I mean…well, we simply don’t know.  The Egyptian flair present in Book XVI may well just be that, an affectation of style and drama to set the stage for a letter-based discourse (which itself is flair because we know with almost absolute certainty that this wasn’t actually a real letter, much as some letter-styled entries in the PGM aren’t real letters).  All our surviving Hermetic texts from this area are, for the most part, only in Greek; there are a handful of Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi find, and the Asclepius survives only in Latin although it almost certainly relies on an older (I don’t want to say “original”) Greek version.  But there are also older quasi- or proto-Hermetic texts that we find, like the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, written in Demotic; such wisdom literature, like the older Instruction of Any, were written in Middle Egyptian.  Without knowing more about the history and origins of Hermetic texts, we simply just don’t know what the “original” Hermetic language might have been, and there are good arguments for either Demotic Egyptian and Koiné Greek.  Frankly, based on the overwhelming abundance of literature in the language that survives, Koiné Greek may well be the original language of the Hermetic canon, but maybe that’s just an accident of history and survival.

But let’s take the notion of Egyptian—whether Demotic or Coptic or whatever—as being the only worthwhile language seriously, at least for now for the sake of argument.  I mean, given the huge emphasis on the power of the spoken word so prevalent throughout Egyptian belief, it makes sense; why use anything else when the very words “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”?  In this light, Egyptian may well be a “true language”, a language that doesn’t just represent things as symbols but whose very words actually are the very things themselves.  This is what logically follows from the Egyptian notion of power in speech; it’s less a matter of “linguistic nativism” and more a matter of cosmological accuracy to describe Egyptian as this, and Greek (and, for that matter, other languages) as being void and wasteful.  That being said, though, many languages say the same things about themselves, like Hebrew being the language that God used to create the world, and the like, so maybe we shouldn’t take this claim all too seriously.

Still, even if we don’t distance ourselves from the notion that the Egyptian language is the only “true language” in the sense of its words being “true words” and its names being “true names”, it would follow that this truth follows from the language being spoken correctly (as far as pronunciation is concerned) and used correctly (ditto but for grammar and semantics).  In that light, well, which stage of Egyptian are we talking about?  After all, each stage had developments as far as grammar, semantic drift, and pronunciation went that would render them mutually unintelligible (making one “right” and one “wrong”), so are we talking Old Egyptian, Middle, Late, Demotic, or Coptic?  And even if we can figure out a general stage, what about dialect?  If Coptic, is it Sahidic, Akhmimic, Subakhmimic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, or Oxyrhynchite?  If Bohairic, because it’s still relatively in use today, are we talking classical Bohairic as used between the 4th and 9th centuries, or will modern Church Bohairic suffice, or neo-Coptic revitalizations based on Bohairic?  Because older forms of Egyptian weren’t really represented outside spoken language, we can’t really figure out much about pre-Coptic dialects, but we do have evidence that there were differences indeed, e.g. a scribe joking about a colleague’s writing being as incoherent to him as “the speech of a Delta man with a man of Elephantine”.  Besides, we don’t actually know for sure how non-Coptic varieties of Egyptian languages were spoken because we have so little information to go on regarding their vowels; the usual transliteration method we have for Egyptian hieroglyphs is more of convention rather than a linguistic guarantee that certain words were pronounced in certain ways, and though we can work backwards from Coptic as well as glosses in other texts from other languages, we simply don’t know for sure beyond a few guesses, and even those are limited.  Heck, even our exact knowledge of how Coptic words were pronounced can be spotty at times, and those are written using a full alphabet with vocalizations and everything!  So, if “true language” is predicated on the proper pronunciation and use of “true words”, then wouldn’t the very real fact of linguistic mutation and evolution throw a wrench into that?  At what point does “Egyptian” stop being “Egyptian”, and how “Egyptian” does one need to get in order for the language to work that way?

Perhaps more importantly, to whom would this matter most?  As many modern folk will attest, although the gods and spirits may well like being addressed in their own language (and may prefer to communicate in it, if possessing their mounts, who may or may not be competent in it), it’s almost universal that they’ll understand any language spoken to them.  This is likely the case in Egypt, too; over five thousand years of linguistic development, although certain registers and forms of the language were kept around for priestly use and ritual, it’s not like every common Egyptian person who wanted to go to the gods with their own prayers and supplications knew the formal registers used by the priests in their temples, and used whatever form of the language they could as best as they could to communicate, and surely the gods heard and understood (and answered) those words just as clearly as they did those of the priests.  I mean, consider the Demotic Magical Papyri, written in—you guessed it—Demotic Egyptian.  Those are rituals and spells that directly called upon the gods, often for one-on-one interactions, that were composed in Demotic, not in the classical Middle Egyptian that might have been more highly revered.  And it seems like those rituals worked just fine, and those who use them still get a kick out of them, too—and since few people today have competency in Demotic, they’ll typically use whatever language the PDM are translated into, like English or German.  In this light, maybe the stringency that Book XVI puts on Egyptian (which, though?) is just flair and linguistic nativism/supremacy with nothing really backing it up.

This really all recalls the issues with the so-called “Adamic” language, the language of Adam and Eve that was used as the first language humans ever used, notably to communicate directly with God.  Recall that, in the Book of Genesis, Adam named all things; in what tongue?  Whatever he named those things would be the first, and thus “true”, name for those things, and it wasn’t until the Tower of Babel that other languages came about and the Adamic language was lost.  Hebrew claims to be the survival of this Adamic language—again, recall how Jewish philosophers and kabbalists claim that God created the world through the Hebrew language and the 22 letters of the Hebrew script—but other people took issue with this, such as John Dee, who “received” (developed) his Enochian language from the angels as a recovery of the original Adamic language (nevermind that its grammar and phonology is almost exactly that of English).  The allure of an “original” or “true” language is a strong one for people in pretty much any system that puts a heavy emphasis on the magical power of language, but from what we factually know about language and how it works, there’s likely no such thing, and magic and prayers still tend to work in pretty much any language.

I mean, for that matter, also consider the introduction of Greek words and names in Egyptian magic, again turning to the Demotic and Coptic magical papyri.  Coptic script gives a powerful benefit to Egyptian language because of the introduction of the seven written vowels (taken from Greek), which no earlier form of Egyptian reliably had in their writing systems (whether hieroglyphic, hieratic, or demotic).  Obviously, vowel strings and intonations are big in PGM-style work, but as far as Hermetic texts go, we see it come to a head in “The Eighth Reveals the Ninth”, which notably uses the vowel strings in an invocation of the Divine—yet the text later instructs Hermēs’ student to inscribe the book in hieroglyphs.  But this very instruction would be effectively impossible to render accurately without the use of vowels, which don’t exist in hieroglyphs.  Again, this very well could be (and most likely is) just a flair for the dramatic in this text, but it does raise something important: if vowel string intonations were important for Egyptian magical practice (and there are contemporary records that they are), how could that be transmitted over text when the text doesn’t have a reliable way of transmitting that?

This is where the notion of initiation and teacher-to-student transmission comes in.  It may well be that Egyptian writing systems were used not just to transmit information but also to obscure it, especially the specific pronunciations of sacred words and names.  Sure, the bare-bone skeletal structure of such words and names might be there, but unless someone teaches you and gives you the missing key for such pronunciation, the text will do you no good because you lack the instruction required to understand and apply it, even if you can still read it.  In this, we have an act of initiation, and this ties in well with the notion that much of PGM-style magic may not work for some people who lack the requisite “hook-up” into the Powers that Be (or Were, in some cases).  Many magicians from that time period of Egypt, after all, were also ordained priests who had the proper initiations and rituals performed on and to and for them to allow them access to particular powers and rituals that, frankly, we today lack.  Unless you can hack your way into such a power, or hotwire such a connection to gain access, some people argue that PGM-style magic may not work for you.  In this, we modern mages who can get PGM magic to work end up getting it to work either by stumbling across the key to it as a blind man fumbles in a dark room, or through other side channels that can still be exploited one way or another.  (I don’t fully agree with this notion, but I don’t deny the logic of it.)  In this, as a good friend on Twitter phrased it, the first revelation of truth is the supremacy of the Correct Word™, and eventually you reach the point where All Words are One Word™.

But this is still besides the point of what Book XVI claims, that Egyptian is the only true language worth discussing matters of truth in.  And…well, is discussing truth in any language possible at all?  I mean, the Second Stobaean Fragment (SH II) basically says no, we can’t (Litwa’s translation):

…For a human being is an imperfect animal composed of imperfect members, a tent made up of foreign and multiple bodies. Yet what is possible and correct, this I speak: the truth is in eternal bodies alone.

…Now if our frame did not possess truth from the beginning, how can it see or speak the truth? It can understand only if God so wills.

Every reality that is upon earth is not true, Tat. Rather, it is a copy of truth—and not even every truth is a copy, but only a few of them…

…Truth is hardly upon earth, Tat, nor can it arise there. Few among human beings can grasp anything concerning truth—only those to whom God grants the power of vision.

CH VI.3 likewise states that there is no true good in the world, nothing good like how God is good (Copenhaver’s translation):

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asclepius, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.

Consider what this means: if no good can exist in the world, then one cannot likewise speak it into being, no matter how “true” their language is.  This could be an argument against the Egyptian notion of such power being in speech alone, at least as far as the Good and truth is concerned.

But perhaps most striking, and most powerfully against the claims of the supremacy of the Egyptian language in Book XVI, is that of Book XII.13—14 (Copenhaver’s translation):

“Even among humans, my father, does speech not differ for each nation?”

“It is different, my child, but humanity is one; therefore, speech is also one, and when translated it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece. My child, you seem to me to be ignorant of the excellence and importance of speech. The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father. Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul. Thus , the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.”

“When translated, it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece”; this statement, directly from Hermēs spoken to Tat as opposed to the statement of Asclepius written to Ammon, is probably more authoritative on this stance than anything.  Rather than relying on notions of “energies of things” being directly within the words themselves as Asclepius claims, Hermēs here says that the reason and meaning in speech—the Logos within logos, as it were—is what counts and what matters more than the method of its delivery.  Just as a Greek human, Persian human, and Egyptian human are all still human (“humanity is one”) despite all their cultural and physical differences, so too are the things that they say all still the same thing (“speech is also one”) despite all their phonological and grammatical differences.  What matters is the “reasoned speech”, the λόγος, that we all come in contact with, because it’s this that proceeds directly from God as the image and mind of God, and which inhabits Nous itself.

For me, CH XII seals the deal that the linguistic supremacy of CH XVI is just empty flair for the sake of window-dressing, but I should also note something more profound here.  Just as Mind is not the same thing as mind—a holy Nous compared to common nous—we can also say that Speech is not the same thing as speech—that holy Logos is not the same thing as common logoi.  Compare the holy prayer of Hermēs given at the end of CH I: “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.”  The Greek here is δέξαι λογικὰς θυσίας ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σέ ἀνατεταμένης, ἀνεκλάλητε, ἄρρητε, σιωπῇ φωνούμενε, literally “accept [these] word-sacrifices from a soul and heart stretched out to you, o Unutterable One, o Unspoken One, called by silence”.  In other words, though a “sacrifice of speech” is what Hermēs gives, God can only properly be called out to by silence itself, not through any words; it’s the silent Logos that comes from the heart and soul, not spoken logoi that comes from the mouth, that matters in matters of religious and spiritual activity.  The spoken words, on the other hand, are more for us than anything else.

In that sense, I mean, consider the more mythical aspects of Hermēs, the messenger god of communication and thus of language in general, and Thoth, the god of order and writing.  The Way of Hermēs, though it’s right to show honor and veneration for Hermēs-Thoth (especially if you follow a pagan or polytheistic path), is not centrally focused on him; as Hermēs Trismegistus bids and teaches Tat, Asclepius, and Ammon, the focus of his Way is to a higher divinity, a higher truth that goes well above and beyond other gods and realities.  These tools of language are just that, tools, and are not a means to an end, no more than Hermēs Trismegistus is the recipient of worship of the Divine that he teaches.  This is the gnōsis that even Hermēs Trismegistus cannot teach, that which cannot be stated but which can only be revealed by the Divine itself; everything else is a means to that end, including language.  In that light, there is no “Hermetic hieroglossa” except whatever we might find most efficacious for ourselves; there is power in one’s own native language, after all.  Rather, and perhaps more accurately, the true language of Hermēs is no language at all, because the matter of what matters cannot be spoken about with human language.  In that, silence is the only true tongue, and holy silence at that.

Now, of course, that’s as far as the holy philosophy side of things are concerned.  There is also the use of specific languages and words in ritual, which is an entirely different discussion, and which can have a variety of ends and answers—and far be it from me to say that we should abandon the barbarous words or divine names we use in our rituals and spells, or that we should switch up customary or conventional languages used in ritual at will just because we can.  All the above is about the discursive philosophical language in which we should teach and explore the Way of Hermēs apart and away from ritual practices.

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