On Prayer Beads, the Number 108, and Chants for PGM and Hermetic Works

I’ve always had a thing for prayer beads.  I’ve got a few posts dedicated to the use of misbaḥa, sure, and my Preces Castri prayerbook contains quite a few such prayers adapted to the prayer beads of Islamic practice, but it goes well beyond just that set of 99 beads.  I’ve played around with Christian rosaries before, too, though I never really stuck much with them given my lack of Christian practice, although I’ve created a few chaplets here and there using the usual Roman Catholic format of beads; besides the rosary, I’ve also made good use of a prayer rope, the customary prayer-counter tool of Orthodox Christianity.  While I’ve also experimented with making my own custom sets of prayer beads, none of them really hold up to the simplicity and stalwartness of using the mālā, the prayer beads common to a variety of dharmic and Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.  I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with them, but for those who aren’t, a mālā is most commonly a set of 108 beads, with a single separate “guru” bead that marks the start and end of the mālā, itself usually decorated with a tassel or similar bead-based decoration.  Depending on the specific tradition in which they’re found, other separator beads may be found on the mālā as well, like in some Tibetan Buddhist practices.

Why 108 beads on a mālā?  108 is a sacred number in a lot of dharmic and Asian religions; I’m certainly no expert, but the number pops up repeatedly in these spiritual traditions: the number of attendants of Śiva, the number of saintly devotees of Kṛṣṇa, the number of mental afflictions as well as the number of dharmic phenomena according to Buddhism, the number of sins people are born with in some forms of Japanese Buddhism, and so forth and so on.  As a result, the number 108 has become popular in a wide number of religious or spiritual contexts, even in Western ones, and even makes appearances in pan-spiritual fiction nowadays (like in one of my favorite webcomics, Kill 6 Billion Demons).  Even on mālās that don’t have 108 beads (excluding the guru bead or other separator beads), they’re usually set so that it’s a clean divisor of 108, like 54, 36, 27, 18, or even just 9, so that some number of repetitions of them gets you to 108 (so twice on a 54-bead mālā, three times on a 36-bead one, etc.).  Given the abundance of reasons for this numbers sacredness in Asian religions, or at least given how often it pops up in them, it makes sense for prayer beads related to these traditions to have this number of beads on them.  Plus, it’s just a good number with a lot of factors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, 27, 36, 54, and 108 (with a prime factorization of 2 × 2 × 3 × 3 × 3).

Still, despite the simplicity of mālā and my affection for them (they’re honestly just so simple and clean compared to the other prayer beads I’ve ever used), I’ve had a hard time justifying their use in my own non-dharmic Work.  I mean, prayer beads of 100, 49 (7 × 7), 120 (being a third of 360), and the like, sure, I guess—but I never really got the hang of them, and something always felt off using such things, even when I custom-built prayers or chants that made explicit use of those numbers.  It’s always something about the 108-bead mālā that keeps drawing me back to it.  Given the proliferation of strands of 108 beads for prayers and repetitions across, like, a third of the world’s landmass and religions in so many freely-exchanged and open practices, it’s not a concern over cultural appropriation about using the mālā for my own non-dharmic devotions or work, but more that I’ve never consciously found anything that could make the number 108 stick for me.  Sure, I could go with 36, being the number of decans, and then multiply that by four to get 108, but that seemed to be a bit of a stretch, especially given how much of my work isn’t necessarily decan-related.  I just…couldn’t easily get the number to fit, and since I like things being plugged into each other whenever and however possible so long as it’s a strong enough connection to use, I’ve never put 108-bead mālās to use in my Hermetic and personal spiritual work.

And so it was a bit ago when I was reading some scholarly book or text on Hermeticism—I forget exactly which, unfortunately, but it came up all the same in the context of classical Hermetic and Greco-Egyptian religion—when something so completely, gloriously obvious smacked right into my face: that the number 108, when counted in Greek numerals, is ΡΗ, transliterated as Rē.  Those who are familiar with Greco-Egyptian spirituality or the Coptic language would immediately pick this out as a late form of the name for the Egyptian solar god Ra, and indeed is one we find time and again in texts like the Greek Magical Papyri.  Such a small thing, perhaps, almost coincidental, but the moment I saw this enumeration literally spelled out for me, it just made the mālā click for me.  To be sure, my work involves the planets and stars in general in all their heavens, but it cannot be denied that Hermeticism as a whole has such a huge solar focus in it, given the Sun’s role as demiurge and the most natural physical symbol of divinity present in the cosmos, to say nothing of the most commonly-accepted etymology of the name Poimandrēs (yes, the divine teacher of Hermēs Trismegistos from CH I) being Coptic ⲠⲈⲒⲘⲈⲚⲦⲈⲢⲎ (p-eime nte-rē) or “the mind of Rē”.  I mean, heck, from SH 2A.14, we have this little gem:

Tat: “What then, father, would one call true?”

Hermēs: “Only the sun, which is beyond all other things unchanging, remaining in itself, we would call truth. Accordingly, he alone is entrusted with crafting everything in the world, with ruling and making everything. I indeed venerate him and worship his truth. I recognize him as Craftsman subordinate to the One and Primal (Deity).”

Sure, we can also find other reasons for why the number 108 might be important for Hermeticism: it could be considered the sum of 12 + 36 + 60 (signs, decans, and terms of the ecliptic), as 1¹ × 2² × 3³, having 12 factors total, roughly the number of diameters of the Sun between the Earth and the Sun itself, roughly the number of diameters of the Moon between the Earth and the Moon itself, and so on and so forth.  All these are extra things to consider, but it was really the numerology of Rē and its enumeration of 108 that did it for me.  Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the presence of the number 9 in 108 (being present in many of the factors, as well as being the sum of 1 + 8); being the triple-triple, this number has connections to the Moon, both to the goddess Selēnē (and to Hekatē, Artemis, and Persephonē as she appears repeatedly throughout the PGM) and to Thōth as a lunar deity himself.  As it turns out, there really are enough connections between the number 108 and various bits of classical Hermetic, Egyptian, or Greco-Egyptian practices that enable this number to be used for sacred purposes in such works, and this extends to the use of a strand of 108 beads for chants and prayers as well.

To that end, I’ve got my good old rosewood mālā ready to go—but what about what to chant?  In my Preces Templi prayerbook, I have one section called “Meditations on Piety”, selected one-line statements on divinity and piety from various Hermetic texts, like “God is the glory of all things, who is both the Divine and divine Nature” from CH III.1 or “I think; I remember; I am thankful” from CH I.20.  I have about 25 such one-liners there, which I intended to be used as brief meditations or fodder for contemplating and holding in mind the teachings of Hermēs from the Hermetic texts like CH, SH, and DH, but these also work brilliantly as chants to be used on prayer beads, too.  This is a great start, to be sure, but something that I did my best to not include in that prayerbook were strings of barbarous names and words of power, especially those from the PGM, PDM, and PCM.  Sure, there are a few such prayers (generally those included in the “Hymns to Aiōn” section) which did include them, but as a rule, I tried to keep the prayerbook a book of prayers and not a book of incantations, and so I elided out such divine language when and where possible.  However, for the purposes of chants, barbarous words actually are rather useful, and many of those of the PGM and similar texts give us a Greco-Egyptian parallel to the use of mantras in dharmic religions, some of which are simple statements which can be understood in one language or another, others which are as mysterious and sensical as the barbarous words from the PGM.

To that end, I’d like to bring up a few that I think would be good for use.  We know that, although a good few barbarous words that come up in Greco-Egyptian magical texts are once-off things, there are many others that come up time and time again as specific formulas.  It can be hard at times to figure out their etymologies or what they might mean in human terms, but we can sometimes get a sense for their purposes or function based on the contexts in which they arise.  Of course, there are times when we can figure out their origins, as some of these barbarous words were only barbarous to the Greeks, but make (sometimes) perfectly good sense in Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, or other languages spoken at the time (especially the barbarous words that are really just late Egyptian/early Coptic, making these languages something like a Hermetic parallel to how Sanskrit is used in Buddhist chants).  And, of course, though I’d like to experiment more with them using my 108-bead mālā, there’s nothing mandating you have to do such chants 108 times; rosaries or misbaḥa would work just as fine, depending on your sense for number mysticism and numerology, or you could make other custom numbers of prayer beads (such as a 120-bead strand done three times with five counter beads on the end to finish it for a total of 365 chants).

One final word of caution, however, before we get into these chants.  Although I encourage many of my readers to try these out and experiment with using them for chants or prayers, and although I haven’t gone through and just picked out phrases of barbarous words willy-nilly from the PGM, it should be noted that these words did (and still do) have functional power, which is why they were used as part of ritual invocations and incantations to begin with.  Whether they serve as names by which we call the gods or whether they effect certain changes in the cosmos merely by their being spoken, it’s always good to be familiar with where and how they appear in the PGM and similar texts because we can get an inkling as to what they were used for.  Although the PGM is a nigh-endless treasure-house of barbarous words, I tried to focus on ones with a general-enough appearance so that their being taken out of context may not cause problems for those who use them in this manner given how many disparate contexts they often appear in.  While this list shouldn’t be considered a definite or final one for potential chants from the PGM but merely my thoughts on what might make good chants, take care as to what else you might use for such chants and that their being used as such won’t threaten to cause problems.

ΗΙ ΙΕΟΥ … (ĒI IEOU …) from the end of PGM XII.270—350.  There’s a long string of barbarous words, each segment starting with these two words; the translator of this in Betz notes that these two words correspond to Egyptian i iꜣw meaning “O hail!”.  To that end, I’ve personally taken this phrase as a brief invocation and greeting to a god, such as ΗΙ ΙΕΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ (“ĒI IEOU ABRASAKS”) meaning loosely “O hail to you, Abrasax!”.  In a way, chanting this can be thought of akin to the Sanskrit chant “om namaḥ NN” like in “om namaḥ Śivāya”, or to the Buddhist refuge chant “namo Buddhāya”, and can be a great way to invoke or salute any deity.  In this, I think this chant is probably among the most useful and most flexible; just insert the name of whatever god you want to salute, and you have a simple chant.

ΨΙΝΩΘΕΡ ΝΩΨΙΘΕΡ ΘΕΡΝΩΨΙ  (PSINŌTHER NŌPSITHER THERNŌPSI) The “THERNŌPSI” formula so called by Betz, as seen in PGM III.186, PGM IV.828 (aka the famous “Mithras Liturgy), and (maybe) PGM VII.216, as well as in the Pistis Sophia (book IV, chapter 136; book V, chapter 142).  Nine syllables, permutations of the three syllables ΨΙ, ΝΩ, and ΘΕΡ, which can be translated (as far as ΨΙΝΩΘΕΡ) as either “the high/highest God” or “the sons of God”, or perhaps even as “the son of the (female) falcon” (in some cases where a bēta is present, as in PGM VII, though this translation seems unlikely).  In PGM III, it’s used as part of an offering; in PGM IV and VII, it’s used as part of a phylactery, and in PGM IV specifically as part of a phylactery used in a process of spiritual elevation, immortalization, and revelation.  In the Pistis Sophia, Jesus uses it in invocations to God as the Father of the Treasury of Light, a highest-of-the-high kind of divinity, for forgiveness, purification, and salvation in the course of spiritual ascension.

ΑΒΕΡΑΜΕΝΘΩΟΥΘΛΕΡΘΕΞΑΝΑΞΕΘΡΕΛΘΥΟΩΘΝΕΜΑΡΕΒΑ (ABERAMENTHŌOUTHLERTHEKSANAKSETHRELTHUOŌTHNEMAREBA) The ABERAMEN formula, which appears in a number of PGM rituals (sometimes with variant spellings) like PGM I.262—347, PGM III.67—68, PGM V.172—212, PGM XXXVIII.20—21, and others.  This is a palindrome around the centermost N, and in this name can be found the name of Thōth (as ΘΩΟΥΘ) as well as ΛΕΡΘΕΞΑΝΑΞ which is one of the forms of the Sun in PGM II.64—183 (and one of my own so-called Solar Guardians, specifically that of the south who takes the form of a fiery falcon), though it also appears in a number of Sēt-focused rituals, as well.  The old Voces Magicae blog (now defunct, but the Wayback Machine has an archive of some of the pages including this one) talks about this word abundantly, and it seems to have some meaning to the  effect of “power of the waters” or “lord of the waters and of the formulas controlling the cosmic powers”.  It also has a presence in the Pistis Sophia and is used for Jesus in a sort of merged entity with Hermēs-Thōth.  To break this name up to make it more pronounceable, I’d say something like: ΑΒΕΡΑΜΕΝ ΘΩΟΥΘ ΛΕΡΘΕΞ ΑΝΑ ΞΕΘΡΕΛ ΘΥΟΩΘ ΝΕΜΑΡΕΒΑ (ABERAMEN THŌOUTH LERTHEKS ANA KSETHREL THUOŌTH NEMAREBA).

ΧΑΒΡΑΧ ΦΝΕΣΧΗΡ ΦΙΧΡΟ ΦΝΥΡΩ ΦΩΧΩ ΒΩΧ (KHABRAKH PHNESKHĒR PHIKHRO PHNURŌ PHŌKHŌ BŌKH) This is one that was noted by SUBLUNAR.SPACE as being a series of words whose enumeration adds up to 9999, which is hugely significant and holy on its own right (being the maximum number before increasing in magnitude by an order).  This appears in several PGM spells like PGM I.42—195, PGM II.64—183, and PGM III.165—186, as well as on several Abrasax stones from contemporary periods.  This string of names keeps coming up in solar contexts, and can be considered a powerful sacred chant on its own to call upon the power of the Sun.

ΦΡΕ ΑΝΩΙ ΦΩΡ ΧΩ ΦΥΥΥΥ ΡΟΡΨΙΣ ΟΡΟΧΩΩΙ (PHRĒ ANŌI PHŌR KHŌ PHUUUU RORPSIS OROKHŌŌI)  Another string of barbarous words which also comes out to 9999, as found in PGM IV.2373—2440.

ΑΩΘ ΑΒΑΩΘ ΒΑΣΥΜ ΙΣΑΚ ΣΑΒΑΩΘ ΙΑΩ (AŌTH ABAŌTH BASUM ISAK SABAŌTH IAŌ) Although SUBLUNAR.SPACE above disagrees, these are the usual choice for the “six names” to be used on the crown and recited as part of PGM V.96—172, the famous Stele of Jeu or the Headless Rite.  (Although ΑΒΡΑΩΘ is given in Betz, this is a typo, and should be ΑΒΑΩΘ instead when the original papyrus is consulted.)  ΑΩΘ, ΑΒΑΩΘ, and ΣΑΒΑΩΘ can all be seen to be connected, in the sense of the heart/wing-patterns of building up or disappearing away a sacred word that we elsewhere see in the PGM, and which Baal Kadmon pointed out as being a formula in its own right, with ΒΑΣΥΜ ΙΣΑΚ being a garbled Hebrew phrase for “in the name of Isaac” (ba hašem Yiṣḥāq), so the whole thing could be interpreted as an invocation of the god of Isaac, the God of Israel.  Its presence here in the PGM doesn’t detract from its Jewish origins or meaning, but rather expands it into another form of the pancosmic pantokrator deity, and although SUBLUNAR.SPACE may well disagree with this being used for this purpose (and his logic is definitely sound in doing so, even I have to admit!), invoking these names as a chant may help those who wish to do further work with Akephalos generally or the Headless Rite specifically.

ΨΟΕΙ Ω ΨΟΕΙ Ω ΠΝΟΥΤΕ ΝΕΝΤΗΡ ΤΗΡΟΥ (PSOEI Ō PSOEI Ō PNOUTE NENTĒR TĒROU) From PGM III.1—164, this invocation comes towards the end to refer to “the brilliant Sun who shine[s] throughout the whole inhabited world, who ride[s] upon the ocean”, but the translator notes that this phrase is equivalent to the Egyptian pꜣ šy ꜥꜣ pꜣ šy ꜥꜣ pꜣ ntr nꜣ ntr w tr w or “Pšai, Pšai, o god of all the gods!” with “Pšai” being the Egyptian god of fate corresponding to the Agathos Daimōn.  This is similar to what we also see in PGM IV.1596—1715 (the prayer for the Consecration of the Twelve Faces of Hēlios), ΨΟΙ ΦΝΟΥΘΙ ΝΙΝΘΗΡ (PSOI PHNOUTHI NINTHĒR), meaning “Pšai, the god of the gods”.  Either would be a good invocation-chant for the Agathos Daimōn/Pšai.

ΑΧΑΙΦΩΘΩΘΩΑΙΗΙΑΗΙΑΑΙΗΑΙΕΗΙΑΩΘΩΘΩΦΙΑΧΑ (AKAIPHŌTHŌTHŌAIĒIAĒIAAIĒAIĒIAŌTHŌTHŌPHIKHA) A palindromic name from PGM I.262—347 and PGM IV.436—461 among others as a name for Apollōn-Hēlios-Horus, one that is “in number equal to the very Moirai”.  The translator in Betz notes the presence of ΘΩΘΩ twice, meaning “Thōth the great” (Egyptian dḥwty ꜥꜣ), though Bortolani talks about this name more: it could be read as having 36 letters, and thus the same number as the decans (which could be seen as an interpretation of fate-gods like how the Moirai are), or which can instead be broken up into three names ΑΧΑΙΦΩΘΩΘΩ ΑΙΗΙΑΗΙΑΑΙΗΑΙΕΗΙΑ ΩΘΩΘΩΦΙΑΧΑ to represent the three Moirai from Greek mythology themselves or, instead and in a more solar light, as the Sun in its dawn, midday, and sunset phases and thus as divine representations of the three times of past, present, and future or birth, life, and death.

ΑΧΘΙΩΦΙΦ ΕΡΕΣΧΙΓΑΛ ΝΕΒΟΥΤΟΣΟΥΑΛΗΘ ΣΑΘΩΘ ΣΑΒΑΘΩ ΣΑΒΡΩΘ (AKHTIŌPHIPH ERESKHIGAL NEBOUTOSOUALĒTH SATŌTH SABAŌTH SABRŌTH) A phylactery to be said to the Moon from PGM VII.317—318, which I’ve mentioned before as part of a simple lunar ritual that can be done, but which appears in other prayers like from PGM IV.1399—1434.  Betz notes that ΝΕΒΟΥΤΟΣΟΥΑΛΗΘ is a common word used in conjunction with both the names Aktiophis and Ereshkigal, and is generally tied to the lunar goddesses of the underworld, especially Hekatē, in the PGM, though its origins are otherwise unclear (but may have connections to the Babylonian god Nebo or the Egyptian “lady of Uto” nbt-wꜣdt).  Ljuba Bortolani, in her Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt: A Study of Greek and Egyptian Traditions of Divinity, notes that these three words ΑΧΘΙΩΦΙΦ ΕΡΕΣΧΙΓΑΛ ΝΕΒΟΥΤΟΣΟΥΑΛΗΘ would correspond to the three phases of the Moon: waxing, full, and waning.  Whether one choses to use just these first three words (which can be found repeatedly throughout lunar-related spells in the PGM) or the full string of six (only given in PGM VII.317—318), both would be an excellent lunar-related chant.

ΜΑΣΚΕΛΛΙ ΜΑΣΚΕΛΛΩ ΦΝΟΥΚΕΝΤΑΒΑΩ ΟΡΕΟΒΑΖΑΓΡΑ ΡΗΞΙΧΘΩΝ ΙΠΠΟΧΘΩΝ ΠΥΡΙΠΗΓΑΝΥΞ (MASKELLI MASKELLŌ PHNOUKENTABAŌ OREOBAZAGRA RĒKSIKHTHŌN HIPPOKHTHŌN PURIPĒGANUKS) The famous “MASKELLI” formula, which appears in many different parts of the PGM, sometimes in full and sometimes just as “MASKELLI-formula”, indicating that it was a common enough magical formula to be known by many different authors of the PGM and similar texts.  Again, Voces Magicae wrote about this formula, too, and notes that it’s found in love spells, coercion spells, curses, and other rituals; it has ties to Hekatē and other lunar goddesses, as well as to the deity Anankē/Necessity.

ΙΩ ΕΡΒΗΘ ΙΩ ΠΑΚΕΡΒΗΘ ΙΩ ΒΟΛΧΩΣΗΘ ΙΩ ΑΠΟΜΨ ΙΩ ΠΑΤΑΘΝΑΞ ΙΩ ΑΚΟΥΒΙΑ ΙΩ ΣΗΘ ΦΩΚΕΝΣΕΨΕΥ ΑΡΕΚΤΑΘΟΥΜΙΣΑΚΤΑΙ (IŌ ERBĒTH IŌ PAKERBĒTH IŌ BOLKHŌSĒTH IŌ APOMPS IŌ PATATHNAKS IŌ AKOUBIA IŌ SĒTH PHŌKENSEPSEU AREKTATHOUMISAKTAI) This string of words appears in a number of rituals in the PGM, like in PGM III.1—164 and PGM XII.365—375, generally in invocations to Sēt.  Admittedly, such rituals also tend to be malefic and malevolent in nature, such as to cause “evil sleep” or death, so invoking this series of barbarous words shouldn’t be taken lightly.  That being said, although Sēt had some rough parts to play in some Egyptian myths, he was far from an evil deity (even if the most common interpretation of the word ΠΑΚΕΡΒΗΘ is “the evil doer” but which also appears in solar contexts), and often had a strong protective or defensive aspect to play in a number of other myths and cults throughout Egypt.  A good example of Sēt, at least in his syncretic form as Sēt-Typhon, being worked with as a deity of high mystery can be found in PGM IV.154—285, though I also note that this formula doesn’t appear in that text.