Hermeticism FAQ: Part II, Texts

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I here), let’s continue today with Part II, on the texts that inform our studies of Hermeticism!

What is “the Hermetica?”

There is no one single classical text called “the Hermetica”, although this term is sometimes used to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period.  Confusingly, however, several modern authors and scholars have used the term “the Hermetica” to title their own books containing Hermetic texts:

  • Brian Copenhaver, “Hermetica”, containing translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Perfect Sermon
  • M. David Litwa “Hermetica II”, containing translations of the Stobaean Fragments, Oxford Fragments, Vienna Fragments, and various other fragments and testimonia of Hermetic doctrine
  • Walter Scott, “Hermetica” (in four volumes), containing his (highly edited and amended) version of the Greek and Latin Hermetic texts along with his thorough analysis of them
  • Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, “The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs”, containing their (heavily remixed, reordered, and re-Egyptianized) version of Hermetic texts

While one may use “the Hermetica” to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period, in order to reduce confusion, it is recommended to use a different term, e.g. “the classical Hermetic texts” generally or the name of a specific such text instead.  When referring to one of the above texts, it is better to clarify by stating the author’s name, e.g. “Copenhaver’s Hermetica”.

What is the “Divine Pymander”?

When Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin from Greek in the 15th century CE, he used the title of the first “book” (what we might call a “chapter” nowadays) as the title for the entire translation.  This was like titling the Old Testament “Book of Genesis”.  A few later translators working off Ficino, like John Everard, also used the same title.  Depending on the context, “Divine Pymander” may refer to either Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (the technically correct meaning), or to later translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole.  As a result, to reduce confusion, it is recommended to refer to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum as just that, and refer to the specific translations by their authors, e.g. “in Ficino” or “in Everard”.

What are the “philosophical Hermetica”?

There are plenty of different Hermetic texts available to us from antiquity, and although the distinction isn’t always so clear or fixed as some scholars would like to believe, one group of texts is known as the “philosophical Hermetica” (or the “theoretical Hermetica”).  These texts focus on the religious, philosophical, cosmological, theosophical, and otherwise doctrinal side of Hermeticism, and generally consist of dialogues or letters between Hermēs Trismegistos and his students.  Although they may mention them at a high level, the “philosophical” texts generally lack any details regarding anything practice-oriented, like the study of astrology, the consecration of talismans, the ensoulment of statues, or the like; in other words, there is little “magic” or “ritual” in the “philosophical Hermetica”, even if such things are assumed.  Examples of “philosophical Hermetica” include (but are not limited to) the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean Fragments, and the Perfect Sermon.

What are the “technical Hermetica”?

As opposed to the “philosophical Hermetica”, the “technical Hermetica” (or the “practical Hermetica”) focus on the practical, technical, or skill-oriented parts of Hermeticism; rather than being more about belief and doctrine, these are about practice and technology.  As such, these have the bulk of the “magic” and “ritual” that the “philosophical Hermetica” lack.  However, due to the overall distaste many historians and scholars have had for studying magical things, the “technical Hermetica” have received much less attention than the “philosophical Hermetica”.  This isn’t to say that they don’t exist or haven’t been translated, but aren’t as codified and haven’t received as much popular attention as the “philosophical Hermetica”, and due to the messy nature of magic and magical texts, there are plenty of overlaps between explicitly Hermetic practices and implicit ones.  Further, “technical Hermetica” continued to be produced well after the last of the “philosophical Hermetica” were written, so “technical Hermetica” can also reasonably include post-classical and modern texts.  Examples of “technical Hermetica” include the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios, and the Picatrix.

Is the Corpus Hermeticum the Bible of Hermeticism?

Given the popularity and fame this collection of texts has received over the past 600 years, it sure seems so, doesn’t it?  Of course, the Corpus Hermeticum is just one of several collections of Hermetic texts, and despite its importance for the study and practice of Hermeticism, should not be considered the most or only important such collection.  It is unclear whether there ever even was such a “primary text” of Hermeticism.  That being said, considering Book I’s role in the Corpus Hermeticum as giving us the founding myth and initial revelation of Hermēs Trismegistos, even if it was never intended to be a “Bible” for Hermeticism, it may be considered as such by those who choose to do so—though it is best taken together with similar texts such as the Perfect Sermon and the Stobaean Fragments for a more comprehensive reading and study.

What about The Kybalion?

Despite how much this book loves to call itself Hermetic, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text.  Rather, it is an invention of William Walker Atkinson, a prolific author and an early pioneer of New Thought, an early New Age movement, and who wrote under the pen name “The Three Initiates” (along with his other pen names like “Theron Q. Dumont” and “Yogi Ramacharaka”).  Although The Kybalion claims to be based on an ancient Hermetic book (also called “The Kybalion”), no such text has ever been discovered, the doctrines within it do not match with those of either the philosophical or technical Hermetica, the terminology used within it is foreign to classical texts of any kind but rather match cleanly with New Age terminology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, and generally lacks any notion of theology or theosophy present in the actual Hermetic texts.  Although many modern occultists love the Kybalion and despite many people becoming interested in Hermeticism because of The Kybalion, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, and is only “Hermetic” in the sense that it has been adopted by many modern Hermeticists rather than by any virtue of its own.  The best discussion regarding The Kybalion and its (non-)Hermetic nature is the essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” by Nicholas E. Chapel.  This isn’t to say that The Kybalion is entirely without worth—for some people, New Thought can be profoundly useful—but the fact remains that it is not Hermetic, and so there’s no need to discuss it in a Hermetic context or as a source of Hermetic doctrine or practice (not that there’s much practical stuff in it to begin with).

What about The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean, and is it the same text as the Emerald Tablet?

The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean is another entirely modern and New Age creation, much like The Kybalion, and so is also not Hermetic, and also goes pretty far afield into extremely New Age topics and discussions that are nowhere found in actual Hermetic texts to the point of it being sci-fi.  The name is based on the Emerald Tablet (or Tabula Smaragdina), a short extract of a medieval 7th century CE Arabic book on natural philosophy and alchemy called the Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqā) attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.  The Emerald Tablet is a fascinating, though exceedingly dense and cryptic text, and has received much attention over the centuries since its first translation into Latin in the 12th century CE, though it is entirely unclear if this was a creation of Islamic Hermeticism or medieval Islamic alchemists, or whether it is a translation of something earlier from the classical period.

What’s the deal with the Emerald Tablet, anyway?

The Emerald Tablet is a well-known Hermetic text, though exceedingly short, and is less of a discourse and more of a cryptic poem.  Due to its crypticness, it’s received much attention since it entered the European mindset, and much ink has been spilled about how it might have any number of mystical or mythical origins, including a supposed ancient Chinese antecedent.  It is something of a puzzle, but it relies on early Islamic alchemical symbolism (which was the basis of much of Western and European alchemy) in order to communicate a notion of how to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone by means of transmutation of the four elements.  It is this text that the famous adages “‘tis true without lying” and “as above, so below” come from.

Are the Hermetic texts corrupted or incomplete?

It is true that, over the past 2000 years, we have lost some Hermetic texts, and those Hermetic texts that have survived have not always done so in a pristine state; sometimes there are lacunae in the texts, sometimes marginalia or external notes have become incorporated with the texts, or sometimes the language is so garbled as to be rendered difficult to comprehend.  While these are definite problems, our understanding of the texts (with the help of modern scholarship and comparison with related texts in similar or contemporary religious and philosophical traditions) is better than ever, and many of these problems have been resolved in a way that preserves (or recovers) the original meaning of the Hermetic texts themselves.  So, while some parts of the Hermetic texts are corrupted or incomplete, they are uncorrupted and complete as a whole, and are still quite understandable today with the same meaning and impact as they had 2000 years ago.

What about the Hermetic texts that we’ve lost?

We only have what has survived the knife of time and the redactor’s pen.  We know for a fact that there were more Hermetic texts written than what we have today, and we even know that some of the texts we do have are missing parts (like how Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum is missing its entire introduction, and the title applied to Book II is actuall the title of a separate text that originally came before what we have today as Book II).  We can only hope that there are still manuscripts out there, whether hidden away in desert sands or preserved still in mouldering monastery libraries or museum collections, that contain as-yet undiscovered Hermetic texts.  Until then, we make do with what we can, and try to fill in the gaps as reasonably as we’re able.

What are the core texts of Hermeticism?

The “beating heart” and root of much of Hermeticism are found in the classical Hermetic canon, which can be thought of as consisting of the following texts from the “philosophical Hermetica”:

  • The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of 17 short texts
    • This is the most famous and most well-known collection of Hermetic texts today
  • The Perfect Sermon, also called the Asclepius
    • This is also the most famous Hermetic text along with the Corpus Hermeticum, especially before the recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in western Europe in the 15th century CE
    • The most popular version of this text is preserved only in Latin.
    • Sections 21 through 29 of the Latin Asclepius is also preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.8)
    • The final thanksgiving prayer is also present in Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.7) as well in Greek as part of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM III.590—611)
  • The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, a collection of 49 “definitions” or summary-teachings preserved in Armenian and translated into French and English in the late 20th century CE
  • The Stobaean Fragments, a series of 29 Hermetic extracts of varying lengths by John of Stobi in his 5th century CE Anthology
    • One of the most famous series of Hermetic texts in the Stobaean Fragments is the Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the 23rd through 26th Stobaean Fragments
  • The Oxford Fragments, a series of five Hermetic extracts 
  • The Vienna Fragments, two badly-preserved Hermetic texts
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a short text describing a ritual of spiritual elevation and divine ascent preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.6)

As regards the “technical Hermetica”, however, there is much more variability in terms of what texts one should consider as “core” to Hermeticism, especially given the varied nature of them and how well they may or may not integrate or harmonize with the “philosophical Hermetica”.  Important among these, however, can be considered (though by no means are limited to):

  • The Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greek magical rituals, spells, and invocations as practiced in a Greco-Egyptian context
  • The Demotic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Demotic Egyptian and containing a stronger Egyptian pagan presence
  • The Coptic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Coptic Egyptian and containing a stronger Christian presence
  • The Centiloquium of Hermes Trismegistus, a series of 100 propositions regarding astrology
  • The Picatrix, or the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a medieval collection of rituals, prayers, and recipes from Islamic esoteric traditions preserving aspects of earlier Sabian, Harranian, and Hermetic practices and beliefs

In what order should I read the texts?

One after the other, usually from the front towards the back.  More seriously, though, because each text is considered a single treatise on its own, and because none of the collections build upon each other, it doesn’t generally matter what order you read them in (at least as far as the “philosophical Hermetica” are concerned).

What are the differences between different translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, etc., and which should I get?

As a rule, always go with more modern translations instead of older ones.  It is true that the translations of Ficino, Everard, and Mead were greatly important in the history of Western esotericism, but we have more texts at our disposal today with better contextual understanding than what was available to earlier translators.  As a result, modern translations (especially those based on the critical Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum produced by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière) are going to use more source material with better ability to understand and transmit the text than what was done in earlier times.  To that end, the best English translations available today of classical Hermetic texts are those produced by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, and J.-P. Mahé (as well as including more notes and references that further help elucidate the translated text, usually missing from earlier translations).  Older translations may be used, but should be cross-referenced with modern translations when possible to make sure that the meaning of the text is properly understood.

What happened to Book XV of the Corpus Hermeticum?

The earliest translations of the Corpus Hermeticum did not always follow the same convention as what modern translations use, and depending on the underlying texts that Ficino or other translators used, different Hermetic texts might be present not part of the usual collection of the Corpus Hermeticum.  As a result, Book XV of these early translations contained a Hermetic text that properly belonged to a separate collection and was not part of other Corpus Hermeticum manuscripts.  In order to maintain the convention of numbering certain books from the Corpus Hermeticum the same for the purposes of ease of reference, no modern text in the Corpus Hermeticum is counted as “Book XV”.  It’s not that “Book XV” is a “missing Hermetic text”, just that we conventionally don’t mark any text as “Book XV” (like how some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but immediately go from floor 12 to floor 14).

What else should I read to learn more about Hermeticism?

Plenty!  Many works of Hellenistic time period, including those regarding Stoicism, Platonism (whether early or middle or new), Aristotelianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Egyptian religion and philosophy, and the like are helpful for getting a better contextual background for approaching and understanding the Hermetic texts.  Similarly, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and related texts like the Books of Jeu are also helpful to see similar influences at play that played out differently from the path that Hermeticism took.  In addition to these source texts, modern scholarship is also helpful to understand more subtle shifts and developments in these texts and the traditions that produced them that are not immediately apparent from the source texts themselves.  Some scholars and authors to read on these fronts include, in no particular order nor is this an exhaustive list by any means:

  • Brian Copenhaver
  • Clement Salaman
  • Jean-Pierre Mahé
  • Charles Harold Dodd
  • Walter Scott
  • Arthur Darby Nock
  • André-Jean Festugière
  • Wouter Hanegraaff
  • Gilles Quispel
  • Roelof van den Broek
  • Garth Fowden
  • Kevin van Bladel
  • Christian Bull
  • Christian Wildberg
  • Peter Kingsley
  • Antoine Faivre
  • Hans Dieter Betz
  • Eleni Pachoumi
  • Algis Uzdavinys
  • Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  • Zlatko Pleše
  • Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
  • Jonathan Peste

On Gender in Hermeticism: Analysis, Ranting, and Questions

Whew.  After giving that whole battery of citations from classical Hermetic literature yesterday, you might be tired, and I wouldn’t blame you.  Still, I should point out that amidst the many different texts that are extant, it was just those 15 that I could only really bring up in the topic of sex and gender within Hermeticism without getting into the more technical or scientific stuff that goes over the nitty-gritty of how biological reproduction actually works (which is getting outside the scope of gender and sex in general).  That’s all that there is, just 15 small excerpts, amounting to but a few pages among many hundreds that talk about everything else.  Suffice it to say that it’s just not a major topic within Hermeticism, but it’s still there even in some small way, and it would behoove us to get a better understanding of what’s there and what it actually says.

One of the biggest issues we have when faced with discussing notions of gender in a spiritual context, especially when it comes to Hermeticism and what the classical Hermetic texts have to say on the topic, is that it’s become common in a lot of New Age and otherwise modern magical and spiritual traditions to overlay binary and largely Western notions of gender with spiritual metaphors, conflating the two to a point where it becomes hard to separate out the symbol from the referent.  All this stuff we see, read, and hear about “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” is extremely dependent on your perspective, and it’s not always there in the currents we talk about.  Trying to use notions of gender to describe spiritual realities is risky, because once you phrase things in terms of gender (which is, for the most part, based on an immaterial parallel to biological sex), you’re limiting yourself in ways that sex and gender themselves are limited that are not always appropriate to what’s being actually discussed.  As a result—especially now that we’re at a point in our cultural worldview where we can more freely and honestly evaluate what gender is, what it means to be or do gender, how gender is conditioned or developed from societal roles, and the like—we end up with a hot mess that we don’t need and never needed to deal with, but here we are all the same.  This is made all the worse when we work from our modern perspectives on gender and need to understand what “gender” even meant to people from a different temporal, cultural, geographical, and philosophical context than what we grew up within, and trying to overlay our ingrained notions with older or different ones is bound to cause so much strife and conflict that it’s honestly best to start from first principles.

So, based on the excerpts we identified last time, what are some of the takeaways we can glean from the excerpts we pointed out as a whole?

  • God is androgyne, here meaning “beyond male or female”, “transcending male and female”, “neither male nor female”, or “both male and female”, depending on your cultural perspective and understanding of this word.
  • The essential human (Anthrōpos) is androgyne in the same way that God is androgyne, since the essential human is made in the image and likeness of God with God as the “father” of the essential human.
  • By extension, all things are inherently androgyne on an immaterial level (i.e. that of the soul).
  • Every instance of “androgyne”, “male”, or “female” comes about in the context of (immaterial) creation or (material) procreation.
  • Differentiated sex only comes about and only makes sense in the context of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Sexed bodies were only made (in the sense of the male being sundered from the female) for the purpose of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Male and female, as biological sexes, are both “full of fecundity”, but have different functions of fecundity, and it is their union that creates the act of procreation, as the combination of male and female returns both to an androgyne (and thus primordial human, or God-like, state), triggering new creation.

In other words, if we take this all together, then what we (or at least, what I) arrive at is the conclusion that sex is only ever about bodies, which agrees with the modern distinction between “sex” and “gender”, and doesn’t (unless you reach to make it fit) doesn’t apply to things that don’t have bodies.  However, what sets the modern notion of gender apart from the doctrines of the Hermetic excerpts pointed out before is that there is no such notion of “gender” in the Hermetic texts as we understand it nowadays; moreover, there doesn’t need to be, because the soul which inhabits (sexed) bodies is (along with God) androgyne to begin with; there is no such thing as a “male soul” or a “female soul”, or even a “male energy” or “female energy”.  To an extent, this makes sense, since the notion of gender as a thing separate from sex is a relatively modern idea and model of human identity; after all, for most of history, “gender” was something you considered when figuring out what sort of word suffixes to use in linguistics.

Consider again CH I.17—18:

As I said, then, the birth of the seven was as follows. (Earth) was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.

All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

Taking this as a basis, we know that the first seven human beings were androgyne, along with all other animal life, in a sort of primordial/antediluvian Hermetic “Golden Age”.  It was only after “a cycle ended” that differentiation in sex was started.  It’s not really explained why such a “cycle” would have to “end” for this new cycle to start, except that’s what cycles do; Scott points out in his commentary that the language in this is vaguely Stoic, but this doesn’t cleanly line up with Stoic cosmology, and also hearkens to Hesiod’s mythic “ages”.  In this, I’d mark the first start of biological life in the sense that we’d understand it to be at the start of this second age rather than in the ideal first age, since biological life requires biological reproduction, and we don’t see any sort of thing discussed or mentioned in the first age.  We end up with several possibilities here:

  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were all that there were, and no new humans were made in the first age.
  • Maybe Physis made more androgyne humans than just these after their creation, and they just weren’t discussed.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans parthenogenetically made more of themselves.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were already making more through combinations of themselves in ways that couldn’t be described as “sex”.

Of these possibilities, only the first possibility (that it was just the seven original androgyne humans existing for an age without any further ones) seems the most likely to me.  After that, we have biological life properly starting, which requires the differentiation of bodies along sexual lines to function properly.  Splitting bodies into two just happened to work best, I suppose; after all, there’s much philosophical ink spilled about how there’s always a median third between any two things.

On this point, a friend from the Hermetic Agora Discord put something into my mind that works really well:

Also, the thing about gender is that it is a social construct.  Take this mushroom for example: “One species of fungi, Schizophyllum commune, really shines when it comes to gender diversity. The white, fan-shaped mushroom has more than 23,000 different sexual identities, a result of widespread differentiation in the genetic locations that govern its sexual behavior.”

It’s just that evolution pared it down to two for most animals to make things easier. But even that is wiggly. There is a species of all female lizards.

We know through the investigation of modern science that biological sex gets really, really weird.  Like, there’s no brooking this debate; we know for a fact that there are more biological sexes than just saying “XY= male and XX = female”, and cases where what we’d consider “male” and “female” for one species is turned on its head or rendered a moot point entirely for other species, where sometimes it’s something from birth and other times through temporal and temporary circumstance afterward.  To believe otherwise is literally to believe wrongly; when belief in what is invisible or imperceptible and which cannot be logically proved one way or another is one thing, but to not believe in the dazzling complexity of biological processes and traits that lead to a dizzying array of different sexes in pretty much every species is the equivalent of not believing in gravity or the Pacific ocean.  I mean, as that one popular anti-transphobia rant (which I believe can be attributed to a New York biology teacher) that circulates the Internet from time to time goes:

First of all, in a sexual species, you can have females be XX and males be X (insects), you can have females be ZW and males be ZZ (birds), you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others), or you can be one of thousands of sexes (slime mold, some mushrooms.) Oh, did you mean humans? Oh ok then. You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice — effing — versa. Don’t use science to justify your bigotry. The world is way too weird for that shit.

Likewise, this thread from @RebeccaRHelm on Twitter (minor editing for readability):

Friendly neighborhood biologist here. I see a lot of people are talking about biological sexes and gender right now. Lots of folks make biological sex sex seem really simple. Well, since it’s so simple, let’s find the biological roots, shall we? Let’s talk about sex.

If you know a bit about biology you will probably say that biological sex is caused by chromosomes, XX and you’re female, XY and you’re male. This is “chromosomal sex” but is it “biological sex”? Well, turns out there is only ONE GENE on the Y chromosome that really matters to sex. It’s called the SRY gene. During human embryonic development the SRY protein turns on male-associated genes. Having an SRY gene makes you “genetically male”. But is this “biological sex”?

Sometimes that SRY gene pops off the Y chromosome and over to an X chromosome. Surprise! So now you’ve got an X with an SRY and a Y without an SRY. What does this mean? A Y with no SRY means physically you’re female, chromosomally you’re male (XY) and genetically you’re female (no SRY). An X with an SRY means you’re physically male, chromsomally female (XX) and genetically male (SRY).

But biological sex is simple! There must be another answer.  Sex-related genes ultimately turn on hormones in specifics areas on the body, and reception of those hormones by cells throughout the body. Is this the root of “biological sex”? “Hormonal male” means you produce “normal” levels of male-associated hormones. Except some percentage of females will have higher levels of “male” hormones than some percentage of males. Ditto ditto “female” hormones. And if you’re developing, your body may not produce enough hormones for your genetic sex. Leading you to be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally non-binary, and physically non-binary.

Well, except cells have something to say about this.  Maybe cells are the answer to “biological sex”?? Right?? Cells have receptors that “hear” the signal from sex hormones. But sometimes those receptors don’t work. Like a mobile phone that’s on “do not disturb”. Call and cell, they will not answer.

What does this all mean? It means you may be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally male/female/non-binary, with cells that may or may not hear the male/female/non-binary call, and all this leading to a body that can be male/non-binary/female.  Try out some combinations for yourself. Notice how confusing it gets? Can you point to what the absolute cause of biological sex is?

Is it fair to judge people by it? Of course you could try appealing to the numbers. “Most people are either male or female” you say. Except that as a biologist professor I will tell you the reason I don’t have my students look at their own chromosome in class is because people could learn that their chromosomal sex doesn’t match their physical sex, and learning that in the middle of a 10-point assignment is JUST NOT THE TIME.

Biological sex is complicated. Before you discriminate against someone on the basis of “biological sex” & identity, ask yourself: have you seen YOUR chromosomes? Do you know the genes of the people you love? The hormones of the people you work with? The state of their cells? Since the answer will obviously be no, please be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are, and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Again: biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be.

To put it flatly, we know more about biology and the processes of biological reproduction today than we ever have before.  Not that we know everything and not that the methodology of science and interpretation of scientific results aren’t also subject to cultural biases, of course, but we know quite a bit more than what people did 2000 years ago when the authors of the Hermetic texts were living and writing what they wrote subject to their own models and interpretations of things.  It is true that many (but not all) species of visible animal life, humanity included, do (for the most part) procreate based on there being two sexes—but we also know that this is not the case for all animal life, and the ancients didn’t have the means to accurately quantify or qualify that, and without any observable instance of it clearly being understood, it didn’t form part of their models or mythic languages.  When the Hermetic texts do claim a model or theory of binary sex, they only limit it to biological reproduction, and that based on observation (especially that of human reproduction from a common but not universal case).  At the risk of making a bold claim when it comes to the gods: if Hermēs is the god of knowledge and science, then it’d behoove us to adapt the teachings and doctrines of earlier ages that came before to what we have now based on better knowledge of the matter given the good it stands to do for us with the minimal impact it makes on the meat and bones of the tradition, and I think this is something that could use some good updating for that very reason.  This is all the more important for us given how prevalent mystical notions of “male” and “female” are in so much of modern spirituality (even modern Hermetic ones!), but given how complicated the matter of sex is—and given how the meaning of sex only matters for the purpose of biological reproduction with any other instance of “sex” appearing in the Hermetic texts is used metaphorically based on the common case of most human coitus—we need to understand that notions of sex as they appear in the Hermetica are both outdated as well as intensely limited.

I admit that I’m (by all accounts and understanding of the term) cisgender, and I don’t have the same experience of transgender, agender, genderqueer, or other nonbinary people; for that reason, I won’t speak for them or their experiences, and this limits me to an understanding of these texts from my own point of view.  From my point of view, biological sex just doesn’t matter except for the purposes of having sex and engaging in biological reproduction (rendering my own identity of being cisgender moot), and even then, there’s a lot more happening out there than just “male” or “female”.  To construct whole models of magic, spirituality, religion, and cosmology based on the outdated binary notion of “male” and “female” alone is (at best) limiting at best and (at worst) based on utterly wrong notions of how things actually work.  Besides, as I’m emphasizing here and elsewhere, because biological sex is only about biological processes and (with the one textual exception of the theory of the soul being impacted by elemental factors from SH 24.7) not at all about the soul, there’s nothing “male” and “female” about the soul, about theurgy, about magic unless you take metaphors too far and force them to be.  And, worse, because the metaphor itself is so limited, even the use of the metaphor of biological sex being used to explain spiritual and non-biological processes is (without deliberate and careful elaboration and clarification) misleading to the point of harm and damage (which can, frankly, explain so much about modern occulture).

The issue for us as modern people with more knowledge about how things work in dealing with texts that provide models and theories of how things work is reconciling these benefits of having modern knowledge and understanding with where the ancients were coming from.  I pointed out that excerpt from Lactantius for a reason (FH 13, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

We have evidence that the ancients involved in these models and metaphors conceived of all creation as an act between male and female, without both of which being present creation could not occur; this is evidence that they literally could not conceive of creation otherwise outside the paradigm of biological procreation, which is a doozy of topic for a whole series of discussions on its own.  We have myths abounding from any number of cultures and religious traditions of cosmogonies being produced from one or more syzygies of male and female‚ some of which fed into the scientific theories of the day to explain procreation and creation generally, and some of those fed into the texts we now have as being the classical Hermetic corpora (like the male-female pairs of gods from the Hermopolitan Ogodad).  But we also have creation myths which don’t rely on such things (like the Heliopolitan myth of Atum masturbating to produce some gods, as well as sneezing and spitting to produce yet others).  These could be interpreted as being extrapolations of male and female dynamics within an androgyne entity (such as the hand of Atum being supposedly the feminine principle within himself), but that model of gendered interpretation doesn’t always work (what’s the female principle of him sneezing and spitting to produce Shu and Tefnut?), when a simpler model that does away with gender entirely can.  In truth, while we do need to understand where the ancients were coming from in order to understand what they were talking about with the proper context, we also have a buffet of perspectives contemporary even to them that we can draw on and synthesize together, and when combined with our modern knowledge about things that simply wasn’t available to them back then, we can go much further in developing more nuanced, helpful, and balanced approaches to spirituality and religion—or at least worldly interactions—than what they had available to them as well.  Some things don’t need to change, to be sure, but other things should when it makes sense to.

But, again, none of what we’ve been talking about as far as biological sex applies to the soul, to heavenly realities or entities, or to cosmology because the Hermetic texts admit and state that they don’t apply.  The notion of people being only male or female, and that at an essential level, is very much a relatively modern Western one; various cultures across the world, even in the premodern West, have had different notions of what androgyny (in the sense of being neither male nor female, both male and female, or something else entirely) could manifest as, and it’s an embarrassing and shameful thing that we’re stuck in a general culture that only views two sexes as being “valid”.  It could even be argued that notions of being a particular gender rely on, assume, play into this stance regarding fixed and well-defined biological sexes, and while many people use the notion of gender to free themselves from a stifling cisgender identity imposed on them, it may still be a stumbling block for others no matter how they look at it (hence agender and other nonbinary genders being made more known and accepted, even if only by the people they apply to themselves).  After all, gender really is a social construct, and while many people tend to accept that phrase on face value, its full import is that it literally has no basis in physical reality except what society constructs one to be.  From a Hermetic standpoint, this is obvious, since the soul is just gonna be the soul, and notions of gender would only apply to a (ramshackle, socially-conditioned) noetic/mental construction of the self more than anything more.

And this raises what we need to understand and reinterpret now, in light of modern discoveries of biological sex and reproduction, what the Hermetic texts mean when they say that God or the soul is “androgyne”.   I’ve been saying it all along: while it can be understood to mean “having characteristics of being both male and female”, it can also be used to mean “neither male nor female”—which is honestly the better way to discuss God and the soul, because both God and the soul arose before physical procreation arose and are therefore above it entirely.  Male and female only arose for the purposes of biological procreation, and rather than thinking that there existed something essentially male and essentially female as separate essences or energies within the soul (and, thus, God), I claim that it would be better to understand this in a more roundabout way: that God split the original seven androgyne (perhaps better “metagender”? “undifferentiated”? “non-sexed”?) humans and all animal life into smaller more-specialized pieces so that, taking the implication that there was no generation or procreation in the first age according to CH I and thus everything being in unchanging ungenerating stasis, sex first arose with this sundering to benefit humanity and animal life according to its environmental and elemental nature (about which SH 23—26 says much!), which (as my friend from Discord mentioned earlier) happened to be heavily bimodal for some species.  But we also know that it’s not strictly binary, and that the human body (which is a generation of fate, and thus a product of the Logos of creation) doesn’t have to fall on that binary or even that bimodal distribution; as such the revelation of CH I from Poimandrēs to Hermēs uses metaphorical language to explain to Hermēs something comprehensible but which doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of how things come to be (just as it doesn’t with all the other aspects of cosmic material creation, e.g. on a molecular or atomic or quantum level).  In this, I’d rather interpret the Hermetic notion of “androgyny” to be beyond, prior to, and without gender (the very word “gender” connoting generation, i.e. biological reproduction through sex).  This still fits with the texts themselves with minimal to no conflict in terms of doctrine or metaphor, while still admitting the bimodal distribution of apparent biological sex which, being common to most people in one form or another, allows for the use of metaphors structured around it.  So long as we don’t take those metaphors too far, we’re golden, and beyond the point at which they no longer become useful or for those for whom it was never useful, other metaphors can (and should) be made to describe creation and spiritual rebirth (as in how CH IV describes it compared to how CH XIII describes it).

So, what in the Hermetic corpora can support the “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” bit so common to occult theories that pervade our spiritualities and religions?  Of the 15 extant citations from classical Hermetic literature I drew up last time, only one (DH 10.1—2) actually supports that, with another (AH 21) being debatable because of variants in translation that don’t equal the views of each other.  That’s really not a whole lot of ground to stand on, and it only properly describes and relates to the act of procreative sex—and, even more specifically, the moment of sex where semen is released from one to the other.  That’s it; that’s the whole context and basis for it, and it’s an extremely limited one.  If we take instead the notion of the Coptic AH 21 into account rather than the Latin AH 21, it’s not that the male “gives up” something for the female to have, but that they both exchange with each other, and in the process, come out with something greater than the combination of its parts.  This renders the model of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” meaningless, or posits that it’s really the ejaculation of sperm as its own thing (and not the one from whom it ejaculates) as the “third thing in the middle” rather than there just being two, making this a trinary system instead of a binary one.

That still only makes sense if you limit your notion of “sex” to be that of strictly penetrative, procreative sex between men and women; while I can’t speak to trasngender or nonbinary views and experiences, as a gay man, I can speak to my experience of sex, which isn’t about procreation at all; there’s a lot more going for sex for me than procreation (which isn’t something I want or plan to engage in anyway for a variety of reasons), and there’re no fixed roles during sex between gay men.  I mean, just as there were plenty of views (and social/cultural moralizing) about androgyny and nonbinary genders (as we’d perceive them) classically, there was just as much about sex both procreative and recreative.  Taking that into account as well as my experience, I also have to adapt that rather than just accept that sex is only for procreation, because procreation isn’t a thing I’m doing or aiming for.  Just because my sex isn’t procreative, of course, doesn’t make any less divine than procreative sex between heterosexuals, I can tell you that; it doesn’t operate on the same way, even if (or when) there is an exchange of a sort via semen.  To me, making a notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” based on heterosexual sex (and penetrative sex, at that—there’s more than just that, trust me) between cisgender people alone to be a model for magic and spirituality is incredibly limiting, misses the mark for me, and has little Hermetic ground to stand on when the actual context of that ground is so much more limited than what many New Age people want to make it out to be.  The only thing that would lend this model validity on the level people ascribe to it is if, knowing that the soul is androgyne and has all the powers of creation (both within the All of creation and pertaining to the actual work of creation), it could not be used to its fullest in general except when it is paired with another soul inhabiting the body of the opposite sex in the actual act of procreative sex, and we just don’t see that claim being made.  It only matters for the purposes of procreation, nothing else seemingly impacted by it.  The value people give to this notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” far outweighs its actual weight in Hermetic texts, doctrines, and practices, because that very notion is literally limited to just the act and work of procreation.

Likewise, if you take this one step higher based on the revelation of CH I, the accounts of Anthrōpos and Physis embracing each other doesn’t really support this view unless you (again) really stretch to read it into it.  Physis is described as being the one who “took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him” and “made love with” him—Physis is the active one in that relationship, not Anthrōpos, who is described as more passive in that relationship, except and unless you consider Anthrōpos’s enraptured (notice the passive verb there!) approach towards Physis to be a moment of activity to begin with.  The only thing that makes Anthrōpos the “father” in that relationship is that he contributes “soul and mind” by means of the life-breath to Physis in the way a (conventional) male would contribute semen to a (conventional) female during procreative sex; everything else is Physis’ doing.  And this cuts to the heart of the major issue with seeing “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” because it implies that the act of contributing semen is somehow “active” because of…well, let’s be honest: it’s because of longstanding misogyny, people not understanding the mystery of how the internal (and even external) organs of women work compared to the obviousness of what happens with a man, and patriarchal power structures that favor men over women that have been around for literal millennia and which themselves are refuted by the Hermetic texts (outside of the Korē Kosmou).  All this, because—again—the soul (which is the focus of Hermetic theurgic practice) does not have gender and only bodies do for the purposes of procreation; everything else is humane bullshit.  Taking all this into account, it’s better to say that the spiritual role of procreation by means of sexed biological reproduction is to induce change into the cosmic system among human life so that it does not remain static, and for that, there needs to be differentiation to induce further differentiation.  After all, consider what Hermēs teaches Asklēpios in CH XIV.7:

You need not be on guard against the diversity of things that come to be, fearing to attach something low and inglorious to god. God’s glory is one, that he makes all things, and this making is like the body of god. There is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself; such conditions are immediate consequences of generation, like corrosion on bronze or dirt on the body. The bronzesmith did not make the corrosion; the parents did not make the dirt; nor did god make evil. But the persistence of generation makes evil bloom like a sore, which is why god has made change, to repurify generation.

Unchanging stasis will accumulate corruption and continue to be corrupted; change, which absolves generation of persistence, purifies creation and generation.  Perhaps this is why God sundered humanity into different sexes after the first age, so that the corruption of stasis from the first age will not take root in ours.  Just as the planets keep moving in their cycles so as to remain in their orbits around the Sun, for if they stood still but a moment they’d start their inevitable fall right to the Sun, so too do we need to keep moving in our orbits with our own cycles of change so that we (and humanity as a whole) does not fall into permanent decline and decrepitude.  Likewise, knowing what we know about the risks of inbreeding, introducing variation and difference into a system can keep it healthy by ensuring that certain traits are constantly shuffled up so that no problematic trait becomes too dominant.  It just so happens that the biology of it all has it easiest to do this with most people having one of two sexes, but depending on how individual bodies arise, their changes and differences from what is otherwise considered common are likely part of a greater plan and design of Logos to make even greater purifications from decline in whatever ways are best for the individual at hand.  That said—at the risk of repeating myself one too many times—this is only ever about the body, and not at all about the soul, and all souls have the same origin (God) and same nature (androgyne/genderless), and it is the soul that is the essential human in us all, not the body that we inhabit.  That’s one of the biggest lessons that Hermeticism teaches: you are not your body, and to confuse yourself with your body is to “drink of death”.  To extend that, to treat non-bodied things as being bodied and as having the qualities of bodies is a categorical mistake.

Are there problems or issues with what I’m claiming?  Certainly.  Here are a few I can come up with that should be resolved at some point, whether by me or by others who are thinking about this as well:

  • For one, while I’m aware that what I wrote above about how gender isn’t a thing according to the Hermetic texts, I’m not saying that gender is invalid nor how one discovers, identifies with, or is a particular gender; I’m only saying that it’s not a thing associated with the soul, and more associated with society and how that impacts our personal view of ourselves from a mental/noetic point of view.  This claim that “gender doesn’t actually exist” may not be something safe or helpful for some people to hear at their individual points in their own paths of life.  If you need the notion of gender to help you, then use it; if you don’t, then don’t.  (Big Buddhist parable of the raft vibes here.)
  • From a more magical or occult perspective, are there times when physical/biological sex matters?  Perhaps!  The material form of material goods, supplies, and tools in magic does matter at points; there are often times when a specific kind of tree, a specific animal, a specific rock is needed for a ritual, and there may well be arguments to be made that, based on the biological and occult differences between male and female in terms of bodies, there may be different specific needs for one or the other in particular rituals or contexts that operate from a materia magica-centric perspective.  After all, if biological sex matters for biological reproduction, and we use biological processes and symbols in magic and that there are occult virtues in everything that don’t necessarily pertain to the soul, then it stands to reason that there may be a case when the presence or absence of certain biological traits related to sex may be beneficial or required for particular occult operations.  Can such things be substituted for or argued around to where they don’t matter?  Probably, and probably just as likely as sex mattering from an occult physical perspective outside of coitus; it depends on the specific nature of the ritual, the spirits it works with, and the cultural and religious context in which the ritual applies.  This is an extremely delicate topic with a lot of different answers all vying for attention at once, so consider each case carefully and listen to what the spirits involved ask and require as well.  To wit: if a spirit (or group of people) insists on a particular sex that you or someone else cannot fulfill, then maybe don’t listen to or work with that spirit (or group of people); that’s also an entirely practical and reasonable approach, because spirits aren’t infallible just because they’re immaterial, and people aren’t infallible no matter who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Does what I claim above apply to non-Hermetic traditions of belief, spirituality, and religion?  I dunno, ask what those other traditions say.  I’m only writing from a Hermetic perspective using Hermetic evidence to clarify Hermetic doctrines; I’m not going to talk about what other traditions do or don’t believe, as that’s not my focus in these posts nor my place to do so.  Other traditions and traditions may need to struggle with this as well, or it may be a moot point entirely where they never had problems along these lines to begin with.  Likewise, the symbol set of any particular tradition or practice would need to account for this (cf. my musings on Puella and Puer among the geomantic figures), and reconsider what it means to be or exemplify characteristics we consider to be gendered or sexed.
  • I realize, after the fact, that many of these same issues I mention here pertaining to sex and gender can also be applied to other aspects of traditional belief, like there being seven traditional planets and the like, that also need updating.  This is just me picking my battles, I suppose, but let’s be honest: the precise number, arrangement, and correspondence of the heavens is a lot less of a pressing concern than when someone asks out of fear and concern whether they can be a Hermeticist at all because they’re trans since they heard something about all things having to be neatly and cleanly male or female, when gay men are still excluded from spiritual communities because of mistaken BS-based notions that their sexual dynamics are either (more politely said) incompatible with existing male-female energetics or (more commonly thought) just wicked and debased, when women are constantly at a disadvantage (both in occult communities and outside of it) because of longstanding cis-het patriarchal issues in most cultures that view their bodies to be lesser than those of men, and so on.  All these problems result from incorrect (lamentable, horrible, despicable, damaging) views on gender and sex that have no place in Hermeticism or amongst humanity at all.
  • Given the Hermetic notion of fate that comes about by means of the Logos being the organizing principle of the cosmos (something almost certainly inherited from Stoicism), it stands to reason that we all have the bodies we have for a reason, regardless of how we feel about it.  This can be a problematic thing for some trans people who feel that they were born “in the wrong body”, as much as it is people born with congenital diseases or conditions.  I don’t have an answer to that besides appealing to God, suggesting only that each person needs to figure out what their fate is and how to live in accordance with it as best as they can; sometimes the body can be worked on and improved upon just as a mechanic might work on their own car as a hobby or out of necessity, sometimes the body they have is meant to do something that another body could not handle, sometimes they have mental quandries that need to be worked out instead of their bodies being worked on.  There’s no one answer to this, no more than I can tell someone what their true will or perfect nature might be.
  • Can the use of biological sex be a useful metaphor for some people?  Undoubtedly; honestly, this is why notions of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” have stuck around for so long, because most people do get that and how it can apply as a metaphor to describe spiritual or occult processes, and more people than not are cisgender and heterosexual.  The problem is in declaring that it’s a “law” or “principle” merely because the biological symbol this metaphor makes use of is more common than other things that happen and claiming that all things need to fit in that model, which then necessarily forces things that aren’t part of that male/female or heterosexual paradigm into uncomfortable positions merely to make it fit.  A better approach would be to use a different model that’s more inclusive or which resolves such things without having to use sex-based metaphors to begin with, and I don’t readily have a model at hand that can do that without just saying “active/passive” or “emitting/receiving” without using gendered language—which, if nothing else, is a start.  This notion that nothing is ever truly one or the other may well agree with the “law of gender” that the Kybalion and other texts state, but my issue is with using a gender-based metaphor and using gendered language to describe it in the first place, which causes so many problems that there’s really not much of a baby to throw out with the bathwater at all.

I’m sure there are other problems and questions that can arise from this discussion, but at the end of the day, for those who are still wondering: no, there is nothing in Hermeticism or the classical Hermetic texts that deny, conflict with, or raise issues with being queer, whether along lines of sexuality or gender.  Anyone who tells you that you can’t be gay/transgender/nonbinary and be spiritual is lying to you out of (either intentional or socially-conditioned) bigotry.  Yes, it’s true that we all need to “figure ourselves out and get right with God”, but that applies just as much to the people shrieking it and the people that are unfortunately shrieked at—that’s the whole point of Hermeticism, after all, the whole point of “know thyself”, and it doesn’t need to be shrieked at all in anyone’s face.  Still, that doesn’t mean you need to pigeonhole yourself into some narrow gendered bullshit that society or (bad) occulture mandates you to be in, nor that you need to relegate yourself to bad cis takes from the Victorian era about “how things just are” when they just factually aren’t.  It just means you need to figure out who and what you are, then use that knowledge to reclaim your own divine, pure, essential nature—which goes well beyond the capabilities of any metaphor or nonsense so-called “principle” to describe.

The Three Versions of the Hermetic Thanksgiving Prayer

Another year, another Thanksgiving has gone by.  I meant to get this written last week or so, but as we’ve all been discovering this year, linear time is a lie.

Around Thanksigiving each year, I like to draw attention to the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving.  It’s one of the more famous prayers from the Hermetic texts, made especially well-known in its appearance in the final section of the Asclepius.  However, those who have a sharp eye will also pick up on its presence in two other locations: one in PGM III in a ritual to establish a relationship with Hēlios, and the other in the Nag Hammadi Codices.  What’s fascinating is that we have three versions of the same prayer, each preserved in a different language (Latin in the Asclepius, Greek in the PGM, and Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Codices).  Getting access to the Latin and Greek version is easy enough—Preisendanz is the most easily-accessible critical edition of PGM III, and the Asclepius is everywhere in the Western world since the time of Ficino—but getting access to the Coptic text was a bit more of a challenge, because for the longest time all I could find was versions of the Nag Hammadi texts in English translation.  However, not that long ago, I got my hands on a copy of volume 11 of the Nag Hammadi Studies, a part of the Coptic Gnostic Library from Leiden, which gives the only complete collection of  the Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi Codices in full, both in Coptic and in English translation.  Once I found this, I wanted to finally do something I’ve been aiming to do for a while: a side-by-side comparison of these three texts to see exactly how far they’re alike and how far they’re not.  Happily, it seems that the scholars who worked on this specific section of the Nag Hammadi texts (Peter Dirkse and James Brashler) had the same idea, and gave a side-by-side comparison of the three versions of the Prayer of Thanksgiving in their publication of it.  Between their notes and my own observations, I’m thrilled to finally be able to show off a bit of fun stuff on my blog for this.

First, a bit of context.  The Prayer of Thanksgiving is in all three sources as a pretty-much perfectly-preserved (or as perfectly as one can expect over 2000 years under the knife of time and the redactor’s pen) Hermetic prayer, and is more than just a simple hymn of gratitude to God.  In each text it appears in, it seems to fulfill a ritual role in a broader context, though its wholly self-contained structure suggests that it .

  • In the context of the Asclepius, Hermēs recites this prayer with Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn outside the temple (facing east at sunrise or south at sunset) after the long and holy sermon he gave to them inside.  Similar to the Coptic text, the final line of this final section of the Asclepius ends with the note “with such hopes we turn to a pure meal that includes without any flesh of animals”, phrased as a spoken end to the prayer.
  • For the Coptic Nag Hammadi text, this prayer appears immediately after the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth; the placement suggests that it was recited by Hermēs and Tat(?) immediately after their ritual work described in that text, especially given the incipit introducing the Prayer of Thanksgiving (“this is the prayer that they spoke”) and the closing lines of it (“when they said these things in prayer, they embraced each other and they went to eath their holy food which has no blood in it”).  Immediately after the prayer comes the “Scribal Note”, a small addendum by whoever transcribed the prayer indicating that it was sent to someone who was likely already familiar with many such Hermetic texts or prayers; after that comes a Coptic translation of several sections from a now-lost version of the Greek Asclepius (though notably of a slightly different lineage of texts than what the Latin Asclepius preserves).
  • For the Greek text from PGM III.591—611, the Prayer of Thanksgiving occurs in the middle of a longer oration as part of an operation to “establish a relationship with Hēlios”.  After calling on the names, forms, plants, stones, birds, and animals associated with the twelve hours of the Sun in its daytime course through the heavens (much like the Consecration of the Twelve Faces of Hēlios from PGM IV.1596—1715, yet with more attributions yet in much poorer shape) and after a short hymn in verse (Preisendanz’s Hymn 2, which he says is addressed to the “All-Creator” and which I find to be an exceedingly appropriate companion to CH III) along with general requests, this thanksgiving prayer is used. 

The introduction to the Prayer given by Dirske and Brashler is highly informative, as is Jean-Pierre Mahé’s introduction in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts edited by Marvin Meyer, as well as Copenhaver’s notes in his Hermetica.  A few highlights from their analyses of the text in question:

  • From Dirske and Brashler:
    • This prayer is “especially significant for the clear evidence it presents of the existence of [classical] Hermetic cultic practices”, and “the prayer itself is certainly liturgical, as its balanced language attests”.
  • From Mahé:
    • This prayer is “particularly appropriate to conclude a dialogue describing the final stage of [a] Hermetic initiation”.
    • Although the prayer describes “the three gifts of mind, word, and knowledge…to be granted simultaneously”, other Hermetic texts (like the preceding Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth) suggest that these “fulfill successive functions on the ‘way of immortality’).
    • “Knowledge divinizes human beings not by itself alone, but jointly with word and mind, which both remain indispensable to cover ‘the way of immortality’ up to its end” (cf. CH I.26: “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).
    • There is a description of sacred sexuality in the text, especially in the final parts, and Mahé interprets “light of mind” as a male principle and “life of life” as a female one, coming together to describe God not just as someone with both male and female sexual organs but also as one who never stops impregnating their own womb.
  • From Copenhaver:
    • Some scholars argue that the presence of the Prayer of Thanksgiving with a rubric (directions to face before the prayer, instructions for a ritual meal afterwards) in the Asclepius without other magical rituals present, as well as at the final part of a magical ritual in the PGM, suggests that “the survival of a thanksgiving for gnōsis in ‘a magician’s handbook testifies to a certain amount of sharing between Hermeticism and the magicians who produced the Greek Magical Papyri”.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual texts themselves in their original languages with Romanized transliteration.  First up, the Sahidic Coptic text from NHC VI.7, page 63 line 34 through page 65 line 2.  For the Coptic transliteration below, note that the schwa letter (“ə”) transcribes the supralineal stroke above a letter, indicating a weak/movable vowel or one that turns the marked consonant into a vocalized one.    

# Coptic Transliteration
1 ⲦⲚ̄ϢⲠ̄ ϨⲘⲞⲦ Ⲛ̄ⲦⲞⲞⲦⲔ̄ tənšəp hmot ənto’tək
2 ⲮⲨⲬⲎ ⲚⲒⲘ ⲀⲨⲰ ⲪⲎⲦ ⲠⲞⲢϢ̄ ϢⲀⲢⲞⲔ psukhē nim awō phēt porəš šarok
3 Ⲱ ⲠⲒⲢⲀⲚ ⲈⲨⲢ̄ⲈⲚⲰⲬⲖⲈⲒ ⲚⲀϤ ⲀⲚ ō piran ewərenōkhli naf an
4 ⲈϤⲦⲀⲈⲒⲀⲈⲒⲦ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲞⲚⲞⲘⲀⲤⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ eftaiait hən tonomasia əmpnute
5 ⲀⲨⲰ ⲈⲨⲤⲘⲞⲨ ⲈⲢⲞϤ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲞⲚⲞⲘⲀⲤⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲒⲰⲦ awō ewsmu erof hən tonomasia əmpiōt
6 ϪⲈ je
7 ϢⲀ ⲞⲨⲞⲚ ⲚⲒⲘ ⲀⲨⲰ ϢⲀ ⲠⲦⲎⲢϤ̄ ša won nim awō ša ptērəf
8    
9 ⲦⲈⲨⲚⲞⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲒⲰⲦ ⲘⲚ̄ ⲠⲘⲈ ⲘⲚ̄ ⲠⲞⲨⲰϢ teunoia əmpeiōt mən pme mən pwoš
10 ⲀⲨⲰ ⲈϢϪⲈ ⲞⲨⲚ̄ ⲞⲨⲤⲂⲰ ⲈⲤϨⲀⲖⲈϬ ⲈⲤⲞ Ⲛ̄ϨⲀⲠⲖⲞⲨⲤ awō ešje wən usbō eshalec eso ənhaplus
11 ⲈⲤⲢ̄ⲔⲀⲢⲒⲌⲈ ⲚⲀⲚ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲤ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲖⲞⲄⲞⲤ Ⲛ̄ ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ esərkarize nan əmpnus əmplogos ən tgnōsis
12 ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲤ ⲘⲈⲚ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲀⲢ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲔ pnus men jeka’s enaərnui əmmok
13 ⲠⲖⲞⲄⲞⲤ ⲆⲈ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲀϨⲈⲢⲘⲎⲚⲈⲨⲈ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲔ plogos de jeka’s enahermē newe əmmok
14 ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ ⲆⲈ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲚⲀⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ tgnōsis de jeka’s ennaswōnək
15 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
16 Ⲛ̄ⲦⲀⲢⲚ̄ϪⲒ ⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ əntarənji woin hən tekgnōsis
17 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
18 ϪⲈ ⲀⲔⲦⲤⲈⲂⲞⲚ ⲈⲢⲞⲔ je aktsebon erok
19 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
20 ϪⲈ ⲈⲚϨⲚ̄ ⲤⲰⲘⲀ je enhən sōma
21 ⲀⲔⲀⲀⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ aka’n ənnute hən tekgnōsis
22 ⲠϢⲠ ϨⲘⲀⲦ Ⲛ̄ⲠⲢⲰⲘⲈ ⲈⲦⲠⲎϨ ϢⲀⲢⲞⲔ ⲞⲨⲀ ⲠⲈ pš[ə]p hmat ənprōme et-pēh šarok wa pe
23 ϪⲈⲔⲀⲤ ⲀⲦⲢⲚ̄ ⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ jekas atrən swōnək
24 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ answōnək
25 Ⲱ ⲠⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲎⲦⲞⲚ ō pwoin ənoēton
26 Ⲱ ⲠⲰⲚϨ̄ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲰⲚϨ̄ ō pōnəh əmpōnəh
27 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ answōnək
28 Ⲱ ⲦⲘⲎⲦⲢⲀ Ⲛ̄ϪⲞ ⲚⲒⲘ ō tmētra ənjo nim
29 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲈ answōne
30 Ⲱ ⲦⲘⲎⲦⲢⲀ ⲈⲦϪⲠⲞ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲪⲨⲤⲒⲤ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲒⲰⲦ ō tmētra et-j[ə]po hən t[ə]phusis əmpiōt
31 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲈ answōne
32 Ⲱ ⲠⲘⲞⲨⲚ ⲈⲂⲞⲖ ϢⲀ ⲈⲚⲈϨ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲒⲰⲦ ⲈⲦϪⲠⲞ ō pmun ebol ša eneh əmpeiōt et-j[ə]po
33 ⲦⲈⲒ̈ϨⲈ ⲀⲚ ⲞⲨⲰϢⲦ̄ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲔⲀⲄⲀⲐⲞⲚ ⲞⲨ teïhe an wōšət əmpekagathon u
34 ⲞⲨⲰϢⲈ ⲞⲨⲰⲦ ⲠⲈⲦⲚ̄Ⲣ̄ⲀⲒⲦⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞϤ wōše wōt petənəraiti əmmof
35 ⲈⲚⲞⲨⲰϢ ⲈⲦⲢⲈⲨⲢ̄ ⲦⲎⲢⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲚ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ enwōš etrewər tēri əmmon hən tgnōsis
36 ⲞⲨⲀⲢⲈϨ ⲆⲈ ⲞⲨⲰⲦ ⲠⲈⲦⲈⲚ ⲞⲨⲞϢϤ̄ wareh de wōt peten wōšəf
37 ⲈⲦⲘ̄ⲦⲢⲈⲚⲤⲖⲀⲀⲦⲈ ϨⲘ̄ ⲠⲈⲈⲒⲂⲒⲞⲤ Ⲛ̄ϮⲘⲒⲚⲈ etəmtrensla’te həm peibios əntimine

Yes, I know line 8 is empty.  There’ll be some oddities in how this and the following Greek and Latin text are arranged or how the lines are numbered; bear with me, and it’ll make sense further on.

Next, the Koiné Greek text from the Papyrus Mimaut (Louvre P. 2391) column XVIII lines 591—611, aka PGM III.591—611 (broader entry PGM III.494—611, possibly continued through line 731).   Unfortunately, the final two lines (after the end of the prayer proper) are in too poor a shape to read.  For the Greek text here, Dirske and Brashler used Preisendanz’s version of the PGM emended with suggestions from Mahé and “an independent collation from published photos” of the papyrus.  (I know I’m using my idiosyncratic style of transliteration here, so just bear with me.)

# Greek Transliteration
1 Χάριν σοι οἴδαμεν Khárin soi oídamen
2 Ψυχὴ πᾶσα καὶ καρδίαν πρὸς σὲ ἀνατεταμένην psukhḕ pâsa kaì kardían pròs sè anatetaménēn
3 ἄφραστον ὄνομα τετιμημένον áphraston ónoma tetimēménon
4 τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ προσηγορίᾳ têy toû theû prosēgoríay kaì elogoúmenon
5 καὶ ελογούμενον τῇ τοῦ πατρὸς ὀνομασίᾳ têy toû patròs onomasíay
6 Ὁς Hos
7 πρὸς πάντας καὶ πρὸς πάντας pròs pántas kaì pròs pántas
8 πατρικὴν εὔνοιαν καὶ στρογὴν καὶ φιλίαν patrikḕn eúnoian kaì storgḕn kaì philían
9 καὶ ἐπιγλυκυτά την ἐνεργίαν kaì epiglukutá tēn energían
10 ἐνεδίξω enedíksō,
11 χαρισάμενος ἠμῖν νοῦν, λόγον, γνῶσιν kharisámenos ēmîn noûn, lógon, gnôsin:
12 νοῦν μὲν ἵνα σε νοήσωμεν noûn mèn hína se noḗsōmen,
13 λόγον δὲ ἵνα σε ἐπικαλέσωμεν lógon dè hína se epikalésōmen,
14 γνῶσιν δὲ ἵνα σε ἐπιγνώσωμεν gnôsin dè hína se epignṓsōmen.
15    
16    
17 Χαίρομεν Khaíromen,
18 ὅτι σεαυτὸν ἡμῖν ἔδιξας hōti seautòn hēmîn édiksas.
19 Χαίρομεν Khaíromen,
20 ὅτι ἐν πλὰσμασιν ἡμᾶς ὄντας hóti en plàsmasin hēmâs óntas
21 ἀπεθέωσας τῇ σεαυτοῦ γνώσει apethéōsas têy seautoû gnṓsei.
22 Χάρις ἀνθρώπου πρὸς σὲ μία Kháris anthrṓpou pròs sè mía:
23 τὸ γνωρίσαι σε tò gnōrísai se.
24 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
25 ὦ φῶς νοητόν ô phôs noētón,
26 ὦ τῆς ἀνθρςπίνης ζωῆς ζωή ô tês anthrōpínēs zōês zoḗ.
27 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
28 ὦ μήτρα πάσης φύσεως ō̂ mḗtra pásēs phúseōs.
29 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
30 ὦ μήτρα κυηφόρε ἐμ πατρὸς φυτίᾳ ō̂ mḗtra kuēphóre em patròs phutíay.
31 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
32 ὦ πατρὸς κυηφοροῦντος αἰώνιος διαμονή ō̂ patròs kuēphoroûntos aiṓnios diamonḗ.
33 Οὕτο τὸν σοῦ ἀγαθὸν προσκυνήσαντες Hoúto tòn soû agathòn proskunḗsantes,
34 μηδεμίαν ᾐτήσαμεν χάριν πλὴν mēdemían hēytḗsamen khárin plḕn:
35 Θελησον ἡμᾶς διατηρηθῆναι ἐν τῇ σῇ γνῶσει thelēson hēmâs diatērēthênai en têy sêy gnôsei;
36 Μία δὲ τήρησις mía dè tḗrēsis:
37 τὸ μὴ σφαλῆναι τοῦ τοιούτου βίου τούτου tò mḕ sphalênai toû toioútou bíou toútou.

Finally, the Latin text from the Asclepius, section 41.  The Latin here is taken from Nock’s and Festugière’s Hermès Trismégiste vol. II, pages 353—355, compiled from a number of Latin manuscripts written in the 12th or 13th centuries.  Because the text is in Latin, no transcription is needed here.

  1. Gratias tibi / summe exsuperantissime / tua enim gratia tantum sumus cognitionis tuae lumen consecuti,
  2. Nomen sanctum et honorandum,
  3. nomen unum quo solus deus est benedicendus
  4. religione paterna,
  5. quoniam
  6. omnibus
  7. paternam pietatem et religionem et amorem
  8. et quaecumque est dulcior efficacia
  9. praebere dignaris
  10. condonans nos sensu, ratione, intelligentia:
  11. sensu ut te cognouerimus,
  12. ratione ut te suspicionibus indagemus,
  13. cognitione ut te cognoscentes gaudeamus.
  14. Ac numine saluati tuo
  15. gaudemus,
  16. quod te nobis ostenderis totum;
  17. gaudemus
  18. quod nos in corporibus sitos aeternitati
  19. fueris consecrare dignatus.
  20. Haec est enim humana sola gratulatio:
  21. cognitio maiestatis tuae.
  22. Cognouimus te
  23. et lumen maximum solo intellectu sensibile.
  24. Intellegimus te,
  25. o uitae uera uita.
  26. O naturarum omnium fecunda praegnatio;
  27. cognouimus te.
  28. totius naturae tuo conceptu plenissimae aeterna perseueratio.
  29. In omni enum ista oriatione adorantes bonum bonitatus tuae
  30. hoc tantum deprecamur,
  31. ut nos uelis seruare persuerantes in amore conitionis tuae
  32. et numquam ab hoc uitae genere seperari.

Having the original texts in their original languages is nice, but now it’s time to actually get to the translation.  Although these are all fundamentally the same text, a side-by-side comparison will show the differences in both their orders and their specific wordings.  To better establish a concordance between the different bits and parts of the Coptic, Greek, and Latin texts, I essentially used the Coptic text as a base to give each part of the prayer a number, which is why the numbering in the above sections looks so weird, but it’ll help make the concordance easier to handle.  Take a look:

# Coptic   # Greek   # Latin
1 We give thanks to you.   1 We give thanks to you,   1 We thank you,
            1a o most high and most excellent,
            1b for by your grace have we received the great light of your knowledge.
2 Every soul and heart is lifted up to you,   2 every soul and heart stretched out to you,      
3 o undisturbed name   3 o inexpressible name   3 Your name is holy and to be honored,
4 honored with the name of “God”,   4 honored with the designation of “God”   4 the only name by which God alone is to be blessed
5 and praised with the name of “Father”,   5 and blessed with the name of “Father”,   5 with ancestral reverence,
6 for   6 for   6 because
7 to everyone and everything   7 to everyone and to all things   7 to all things
8 [comes]            
9 the fatherly kindness and affection and love   9 paternal kindness, devotion, love   9 paternal kindness, devotion, love
10 and any teaching there may be that is sweet and plain,   10 and yet sweeter action   10 and whatever virtue may be more sweet,
      8 you have displayed,   8 you think it good to display
11 giving us mind, word, and knowledge:   11 having granted to us mind, word, and knowledge:   11 granting to us mind, reason, and knowledge:
12 mind so that we may understand you,   12 mind in order that we may understand you,   12 mind in order that we may understand you,
13 word so that we may expound you,   13 word in order that we may call upon you,   13 reason in order that by means of hints we may investigate you,
14 knowledge so that we may know you.   14 knowledge in order that we may know you.   14 knowledge in order that, knowing you, we may rejoice.
15 We rejoice,   15        
16 having been illumined by your knowledge.   16     16 Redeemed by your power,
17 We rejoice   17 We rejoice   17 we rejoice,
18 because you have shown us yourself.   18 because you have shown yourself to us.   18 that you have shown yourself to us completely.
19 We rejoice   19 We rejoice   19 We rejoice,
20 because while we were in the body   20 because while we were yet in molded shapes      
21 you have made us divine through your knowledge.   21 you deified us by the knowledge of yourself.   21 that you have thought it good to deify us for eternity
            20 while we are yet situated in bodies.
22 The thanksgiving of the man who attains to you is one thing:   22 The thanksgiving of a man to you is one:   22 For this is the only human gratitude:
23 that we may know you.   23 to know you.   23 the knowledge of your majesty.
24 We have known you,   24 We have known you,   24 We know you
25 o intellectual light.   25 o intellectual light,   25 and the greatest light perceptible to the intellect alone.
            27 We understand you,
26 O life of life,   26 o life of human life.   26 o true life of life.
27 we have known you.   27 We have known you,      
28 O womb of every creature,   28 o womb of all nature.   28 O pregnancy fertile with all natures,
29 we have known you.   29 We have known you,   29 we know you,
30 O womb pregnant with the nature of the Father,   30 o womb pregnant in the nature of the Father.      
31 we have known you.   31 We have known you,      
32 O eternal permanence of the begetting Father,   32 o eternal continuation of the impregnating Father.   32 eternal continuation of all nature most full of your impregnating activity
33 thus have we worshiped your goodness.   33 Thus having worshiped your goodness,   33 For worshiping the good of your goodness in this whole prayer
34 There is one petition that we ask:   34 we ask only one favor:   34 we pray for just one thing:
35 we would be preserved in knowledge.   35 that you might will that we will be preserved in your knowledge;   35 that you will to keep us preserving in the love of your knowledge
36 And there is one protection that we desire:   36 and one protection:      
37 that we not stumble in this kind of life.   37 that we not fall away from a life such as this.   37 and never to be separated from a life such as this.

Notes on the side-by-side comparison:

  1. For the most part, it’s clear that the Coptic and Greek versions are nearly identical in structure, although the Greek version seems to have dropped lines 15 and 16 (“we rejoice, having been illumined by your knowledge”), and the Coptic lacks any explicit verb corresponding to “you have displayed” on line 8 present in both the Greek and Latin (though this appears after the list of the gifts of God).
  2. The Latin version, on the other hand, is much more variant, with several lines appearing out of order compared to the Coptic or Greek text (e.g. lines 21 and 20), extra adoration to God (lines 1a and 1b), or outright missing lines usually due to structural simplification or modification (e.g. line 15).
  3. Line 2, “every soul and heart is lifted up/stretched out to you”, echoes CH I.31: “accept pure speech offerings from a soul and heart that reach up to you” (ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σὲ ἀνατεταμένης).  The Greek text from PGM III is corrupt at this point, so the Greek from the CH is used to emend it.
  4. Line 3 in Coptic has “undisturbed” (ⲈⲨⲢ̄ⲈⲚⲰⲬⲖⲈⲒ ⲚⲀϤ ⲀⲚ “him not being disturbed” from Greek ένοχλεῖν “to disturb, trouble”), but the Greek uses ἄφραστον “inexpressible”.  This is one of several bits of evidence that the Coptic prayer was a translation from a Greek prayer, but from a different textual lineage from what was used in PGM III.  The use of “undisturbed” here is difficult for me to parse, but based on the use of the Greek “inexpressible”, perhaps it’s in a sense of “one who cannot be disturbed by calling”.
  5. Line 5 in the Coptic and Greek pretty much agree exactly (“praised/blessed with the name of ‘[the] Father'”), but the corresponding line in Latin is weird.  I assume some corruption crept into the Latin text over time, so it kinda got the overall gist of what was being said (religione paterna) even if not the precise meaning.
  6. Line 10 uses the adjective “sweet”, but the different texts use it in different ways, and evidence here suggests that the Greek text has the better structure and meaning.
  7. In line 10, although the Coptic uses “teaching” (ⲤⲂⲞ) to translate Greek ἔνδειξιν, the Greek text from PGM III uses ἐνδείξω.  It may be that the original prayer in Greek uses ἐνδείξω and a Coptic translator misread the final -ω for -ιν, changing the verb into a noun.
  8. In line 10, the Coptic uses “plain” (ϨⲀⲠⲖⲞⲨⲤ from Greek ἁπλοῦς), which is likely a translation from the Greek ἐναργήν (“visible”, “palpable”, “manifest”), which was sometimes confused for ἐνεργήν (“active”, “effective”).  Alternatively, it may have been confused for ἐνεργίαν/ἐνεργεῖαν (“energy”, “activity”), which would relate better to both the Greek ἐνεργίαν and the Latin efficacia.
  9. Line 13 is a fun one: “word, that we may ____ you”.  Each version gives a different word here: the Latin gives “investigate by means of hints”, the Greek gives “call upon” (ἐπικαλέσωμεν), and the Coptic has “expound” (ⲈⲚⲀϨⲈⲢⲘⲎⲚⲈⲨⲈ, from Greek ἑρμηνεύειν meaning “interpret”).  It’s the use of the Coptic-Greek word here that is a fun link to Hermēs, given the long history between the Greek name of the god and the word “to interpret”, which can also be used for “to give voice/utterance to” or “to put into words”.  I like that, but there’s no clean way to translate that with the richness of the pun here, so the best English translation might be the one from the Greek, in my opinion.
  10. The Latin text, given that it’s a translation from an earlier Greek one, is fairly dutiful in how it represents the original Greek despite how the English translation might look.  The two Latin verbs cognouerimus and cognoscentes correspond to Greek νοήσωμεν and ἐπιγνώσωμεν, meaning “to understand/think” and “to discern/come to know”, respectively.
  11. The word “light” or “illumination” (ⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ) on line 16 the Coptic suggests that the corresponding Latin should read “light” instead of “power” (lumine instead of numine).
  12. Lines 19-21 are interesting; all the texts agree on what’s being said (“we rejoice, for while we were yet in the body, you made us divine through your knowledge”).  However, this does admittedly fly against several Hermetic texts that state that divinity and divinization/deification cannot be done while in the body (e.g. CH I.26, CH IV.7, CH X.6).  However, CH XIII talks about how spiritual rebirth does occur in the body once one receives the divine mercies of God to chase away the tormentors once physical perception has been transcended.
  13. Although line 21 has Greek ἀπεθέωσας (perhaps better spelled ἀποθεώσας) and Coptic ⲀⲔⲀⲀⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ (“make gods”, I think?), the Latin has consecrare, which isn’t the same thing as deification, just “make holy”.  Copenhaver in his notes to his translation of the Asclepius points out a possible modesty or shyness on the part of the Latin translator (or later redactors) about using the term “deification”, especially in light of an increasingly Christian audience.
  14. There’s a nuance to the phrase “we know you” in lines 23 through 31.  In Greek, this verb is in the aorist tense, which has no direct correspondence to an English one; it indicates an undivided events (like the individual steps in a continuous process) or to express events that happen in general without asserting a time.  Knowing God is a divinely simple action, complete and indivisible unto itself, and the use here is almost like a completed action; it’s like a cross between “we know you indefinitely and without restriction” and “we have undergone the process to make you known to us”.
  15. Although line 32 has the translation of “permanence” from Coptic and “continuation” from Greek (διαμονή) and Latin (peveratio), even the Greek word is used in both senses/translations, so I don’t know if there’s much of a difference here implied by the use of “permanence” vs. “continuation”.  Likewise, the Latin word used here can also be used for “persistance” or “perseverance” or “duration”, as can the Coptic word.
  16. Line 35 in the Coptic reads “knowledge” (ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ), but should probably be emended to read ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ (“your knowledge”) which would make it agree with both the Greek and Latin and to agree with its own line 21 above.

I’m honestly glad I had the chance—and enough of what few meager language chops I can bring to bear—to actually take a look at all three texts side-by-side.  It’s this kind of analysis that helps me (and, more than likely, a good few of us) get a better understanding at the text itself as well as the other texts in which it appears as a component.  Plus, it helps us come up with a sort of “synthesized” version of the prayers; lacking any original, we can still make an attempt at coming up with a “uniform” version that bridges the gaps between its different appearances between the Asclepius, PGM, and NHC.  I’ve done so before on my old page write-up for the Prayer of Thanksgiving, which I’m going to update as a matter-of-course now that I’ve done this analysis, but I think I should make a slight update to (if not a new stab at) what I had before as a synthesized version of the prayer.

We give thanks to you!
Every soul and heart reaches up to you,
o ineffable Name
honored as “God” and praised as “Father”,
for to everyone and everything you have shown
fatherly kindness, affection, love, and sweetest activity,
granting to us mind, word, and knowledge:
mind, that we may understand you;
word, that we may call upon you;
knowledge, that we may know you.
We rejoice, for we have been illuminated by your knowledge.
We rejoice, for you have revealed yourself to us.
We rejoice, for you have made us incarnate divine by your knowledge.

The thanksgiving of mankind to you is this alone:
that we may know you.
O Light of Mind, we know you.
O Life of Life, we know you.
O Womb of every creature, we know you.
O Womb pregnant with the nature of the Father, we know you.
O eternal permanence of the begetting Father, we know you.

Thus do we worship your goodness.
Thus do we ask for one favor: that we be preserved in your knowledge.
Thus do we ask for one protection: that we not fall away from this sort of life.

The Prayer Whispered In The Temple

I have to admit: it’s not the being home and away from friends, family, and colleagues in person for three and a half months that’s getting to me, nor is it the fear of being Kissed by the Lady of Crowns.  It’s not being shut in with the same people whom I love every day, even when the little things add up that frustrate and annoy me, more than ever before given that I’m home all the time and can’t escape it.  It’s not the hypothetical worries of financial solvency in a time when the economy is constantly degrading and when there are threats looming on the horizon of the next bank statement.  It’s not seeing the cracked and corroded political system of my country implode with constant protests the whole nation over for over three weeks, with more and more people being murdered in grotesque ways every day.  It’s not seeing people I’ve heard about or know die, sometimes naturally, sometimes unnaturally, and usually before their time.  It’s not seeing global climate change catch scientists by surprise with trends that are happening a century earlier than expected.  It’s not seeing the constant war, famine, plague, and death sweep the world (when has it ever not?) in ever-encroaching circles.

It’s not any one thing, but it’s…kinda all of this at once.  (Except the working-at-home-indefinitely bit, I sincerely dig that.)  I know I enjoy at least some measure of safety, however temporary, secluded and swaddled in comfort as I am in my home, free to spend my time mostly as I please, but…

I’m a staunch believer in the claim of Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun”.  We, as a species, are pretty much the same as we were 60,000 years and more ago: we still have the same fundamental needs of sleeping, eating, fucking, and wondering, and everything else is just accessorizing and window-dressing.  We still love and hate, we still learn and ignore, we still live and die, as we and every single one of our ancestors always have going back to the beginning of humanity.  It’s this cyclical continuity that, although it might have been dreary to the author of that book, gives me hope and comfort in that, no matter how bad things get or seem, everything can be survived and surpassed, one way or another, just as it always has been before.  But…it’s hard even for me to not realize that, even if the melody is the same, the key of the music can and does change, and although the lyrics may rhyme, it’s never the same thing being said.  And in that, things may never have been good, depending on whom you ask, but on any large scale by pretty much any measure, things are definitely not great right now, and despite what I want to see, it also seems like things are getting less great by the day.

Despite the breadth of my writings, my focus in my various spiritual practices is decidedly on the small-scale.  Sure, I do readings and consultations for clients, and I study and practice rituals in case I need them should the need arise, but I don’t need a lot, seeing how much I already have; in a way, I’m kinda living one of the messages of the Double Sice bone in reading dominoes, where your material life is in a state of fulfillment so now you need to turn your sights higher.  Instead of trying to advance myself worldly, I do what I can to maintain things in a state of peace and satisfaction for myself, my husband, my housemates, my family, and my godfamily—those near to me and dear to me, and those for whom I can do the most at the time being.  It’s not that I’m being greedy with my power, but necessarily rationing it; even with what little I’m doing to maintain my standards of living, I still have high standards of living, and keeping up with it all can sometimes be soul-wearying and heart-tiring.  (How much worse, then, for people who have it worse?  Why can’t I help them more beyond offering mere words or some meager support here and there, especially in the face of Just So Much where any gain feels like a loss?)  And that’s not even bringing up the work and Work that will surely need doing once the current situations pass—or, if they don’t, and some of them won’t, the work and Work that will still need doing even then.  Gotta save some spoons for what comes later.

There’s an undercurrent here of everything I’m doing being all the running I can do just to stay in the same place.  Even with a legion of spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods at my back supporting me and uplifting me, there’s just so much to tackle on even such a small scale as my own personal life, even without broader problems that so many of my friends and online colleagues I see suffer routinely or constantly.  Even with keeping to a quiet, daily routine of the same-old same-old, logging into work every day to earn a paycheck to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, it’s hard to not hear the klaxons growing louder every minute and every mundane, routine thing I do seem increasingly, surreally, laughably absurd in comparison, and operating under this kind of farce is tiring.  It gets harder and harder to chop wood and carry water when the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the insidious question arises in my mind: “what happens when there’s no more wood to chop or water to carry?”, not out of a sense of completion, but out of a sense of running out through faults both mine and not my own.  I’m not saying this to complain (maybe a little?), but…even if nothing else, it’s hard to look forward to the future in general with more than a modicum of hope, and even that feels forced more and more often.  None of this is me just being self-pitying and grieving uselessly, but it’s hard to not feel the pressure of everything bearing down with no end in sight, and it gets to everyone at different rates and in different ways.  And, so, I turn to those same spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods in prayer and contemplation as a way to resolve this pressure.

In my various searches through the rich body of Islamic prayers and supplications, I found one that struck a particular chord with me: the Munajāt, or the Whispered Prayer, of Imām `Alı̄ ibn ‘Abī Ṭālib (as) in the Great Mosque of Kūfa.  This supplication attributed to the first Shia imam invoked during the lunar month of Sha`bān is simple, if a bit long (though nowhere near as long as many other such supplications).  The structure of the prayer can be broken down into two movements: the first movement calls upon the blessing of Allāh on the day of the Judgment at the end of time, when all else fails and there is nothing good left in the world, while the second movement calls upon the mercy of Allāh according to his various attributes and epithets, and how the imām relates to Allāh by them (e.g. “you are the Creator and I am the creature…you are the Powerful and I am the weak”).  It’s a touching monologue of a prayer that emphasizes the connection between the divine and the mundane, the immortal and a mortal, the One and a one.  In some ways, it kinda encapsulates a particular kind of mood I often find myself in nowadays.  Not to say that I feel the world is ending, but…when things keep looking like they keep getting worse, when the world looks like it’s all downhill from here, it’s hard to keep the mind from thinking about what it’s like at the bottom of that hill.  Even in the pleasant summer nights that make me pine for a walk on the beach under the stars, wind-rustled dunegrass on my left and moon-soaked seafoam on my right, there’s a poignant and quiet terror laced throughout the humidity that fogs the heart more than it does my glasses.  It’s not the impermanence and dissolution and passing-away of things in a world that constantly changes that I fear, I suppose, but rather the lived process of waiting for it and undergoing it at the slow, painful pace of the day-by-day.

All this reminded me of that infamous part of the famous Hermetic text of the Asclepius, specifically sections 24—26.  In this part of the dialog between Hermēs Trismegistus and his disciples Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, Hermēs begins by praising Egypt as the image of Heaven, and how Egypt is the temple of the whole world, where the gods themselves reside on Earth and where all good order is maintained, and why it is necessary to revere not just God but also humanity made in the likeness of god and the ensouled statues of gods that we ourselves make from divine nature.  “And yet,” Hermēs continues after such praise, “since it befits the wise to know all things in advance,” Hermēs foretells the future of this temple of the world, a harrowing prophecy and prediction of the ultimate fate of Egypt and the world as a whole, a cataclysm and eventual apocalypse that, although ultimately ending in a renewal of all that is beautiful and good, necessitates the utter destruction of everything that is, both by its own hands and by divine impetus.  In some ways, it’s not unlike the Stoic notion of ekpyrosis, the periodic conflagration and destruction of the cosmos that is renewed through palingenesis, or the recreation of all things to start a new cycle—except, when seen from a personal perspective on the ground instead of an academic theoretical one, it’s…well, terrifying, and makes Asclepius weep on the spot in that point in the dialog.  (In some ways, one might argue that more than a fair chunk of the prophecy has been fulfilled, and that we’re well on our way to the rest, at least on some timescale or another.  Such people who argue thus have a point that I can’t really argue against, except maybe vacuously.)

In this, I saw a bit of an opportunity for inspiration to strike, given my recent introduction to the Munajāt.  I did a bit of prayer writing and rewriting, and adapted the Munajāt through a Hermetic lens, substituting the Islamic cataclysm with the Hermetic one from the Asclepius. Instead of using Islamic epithets and names of Allah, I scoured the Hermetic texts for the various epithets and attributes of God with a Hermetic understanding and approach.  Not living in Egypt myself, I spatially generalized the prophecy a bit to take place more generally, but the effect of the wording is the same for me as it might have been for Hermēs and his students.  Nothing new under the Sun, after all.  It’s not my intention to rip off or appropriate the Imām’s prayer, but to make use of it in a way that better befits my own practice, communicating the same sentiment with the same devotion and reverence to, ultimately, the same One.

In keeping with the structure and theme of the Munajāt, there are two movements in this Hermetic rendition of the Whispered Prayer, the first seeking protection and the second seeking mercy. Although it might be odd to see such an emphasis on protection and mercy in a Hermetic prayer to the divine, both of these things are extant in Hermetic texts, too: in the Prayer of Thanksgiving given at the end of the Asclepius, also extant in PGM III as well as the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a plea for “one protection: to preserve me in my present life”, and in Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, when Hermēs describes to Tat the method and means of rebirth, he says that it is unobtainable except for those “to whom God has shown mercy”, and that “whoever though mercy has attained this godly birth and has forsaken bodily sensation recognizes himself as constituted of the intelligibles and rejoices”.  In this, the goal of Poimandrēs as given in the First Book—the end of the Way of Hermēs—is fulfilled.

And, to be frank, both divine protection and divine mercy sound like good things to pray for, both in general and especially now, especially in this admittedly dour mood of mine.  We should pray and work for everything else good, too, to be sure—good health, long life, prosperity, happiness, peace, and all the rest of the things we seek in life—but maybe it’s also appropriate to think about what what we ask for instead when none of that can be found or given.  In this, too, I suppose there is hope; it might be small and distant, but there is still hope, because there is always, and must always be, hope.  Even when all I can eke out is just a whisper of a prayer from my heart, knowing that even the deepest refuge of the strongest sanctuary must one day still fall, that hope that I whisper for is enough and will have to be enough.  So sit satis; let it be enough.

In reciting this prayer, after every supplication, silently recite “Oh God, my God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to us all”.  In keeping with the Munajāt, it is preferable to recite this prayer in a low, hushed, or whispered voice.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all devotion will have been in vain.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all worship will have borne no fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the gods will have abandoned the Earth and returned to Heaven.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all reverence will have fallen into neglect.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the divine teachings will have been mocked as delusion and illusion.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all religion will have been outlawed and all sacred traditions lost.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the reverent will have been executed for the crime of reverence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all temples will have become tombs.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the dead will have outnumbered the living.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when darkness and death will have been preferred to light and life.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the cosmos will have ceased to be revered and honored.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the world will have been filled with barbarity.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the people will have turned to cruelty against each other.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the rivers will have filled and burst with blood.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the lands will have crumbled under stress.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the seas will have ceased to be navigable.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the winds will have stalled lifelessly.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all earth will have become sterile, bearing only withered fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the heavens will have gone dark.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the bodies of heaven will have ceased their courses.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the voices of divinity will have gone silent.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will have ceased to be worshiped and glorified.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will dissolve all the world in flood, fire, and pestilence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will restore the world to worthiness of reverence and wonder.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will return all that is good and sacred to the world.

O God, you are the Father and I am the child;
who else can be merciful to the child except the Father?

O God, you are the Creator and I am the created;
who else can be merciful to the created except the Creator?

O God, you are the Unbegotten and I am the begotten;
who else can be merciful to the begotten except the Unbegotten?

O God, you are the Pervasive and I am the blind;
who else can be merciful to the blind except the Pervasive?

O God, you are the Invisible and I am the mistrustful;
who else can be merciful to the mistrustful except the Invisible?

O God, you are the Good and I am the one the one immersed in evil;
who else can be merciful to the evil except the Good?

O God, you are the Pure and I am the one immersed in defilement;
who else can be merciful to the defiled except the Pure?

O God, you are the Complete and I am the one immersed in deficiency;
who else can be merciful to the deficient except the Complete?

O God, you are the Perfect and I am the one immersed in excess;
who else can be merciful to the excessive except the Perfect?

O God, you are the Still and I am the one immersed in motion;
who else can be merciful to the moved except the Still?

O God, you are the Unchanging and I am the one immersed in change;
who else can be merciful to the changed except the Unchanging?

O God, you are the Imperishable and I am the one immersed in decay;
who else can be merciful to the decaying except the Imperishable?

O God, you are the Beautiful and I am the one immersed in crudity;
who else can be merciful to the crude except the Beautiful?

O God, you are the Ineffable and I am the one immersed in babble;
who else can be merciful to the babbler except the Ineffable?

O God, you are the Cause of Liberation and I am the one immersed in torment;
who else can be merciful to the tormented except the Cause of Liberation?

O God, you are the Cause of Temperance and I am the one immersed in recklessness;
who else can be merciful to the reckless except the Cause of Temperance?

O God, you are the Cause of Virtue and I am the one immersed in vice;
who else can be merciful to the vicious except the Cause of Virtue?

O God, you are the Cause of Truth and I am the one immersed in deceit;
who else can be merciful to the deceived except the Cause of Truth?

O God, you are the Cause of Mind and I am the one immersed in ignorance;
who else can be merciful to the ignorant except the Cause of Mind?

O God, you are the Cause of Life and I am the one immersed in death;
who else can be merciful to the dying except the Cause of Life?

O God, you are the Cause of Light and I am the one immersed in darkness;
who else can be merciful to the darkened except the Cause of Light?

O God, you are the Propitious and I am the one given favor;
who else can be merciful to the one given favor except the Propitious?

O God, you are the Gracious and I am the one given grace;
who else can be merciful to the one given grace except the Gracious?

O God, you are the Merciful and I am the one given mercy;
who else can be merciful to the one given mercy except the Merciful?

O God, you are the Glory of the All and I am the one who is in the All;
only you can be merciful to all in the All, for you are the Glory of the All!

O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me,
and be pleased with me by your mercy, your grace, and your favor,
you who are the source of all mercy, all grace, and all favor!
O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me and to us all!