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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Index of Hymns, Historiolae, and Poems in the Greek Magical Papyri

Like any good researcher, I like things that are free, because academic, scholarly, and other research-oriented texts can be pricey, especially when you get into niche topics, and even more so when you start getting into out-of-print works.  That’s why sites like Google Books and Archive.org are invaluable for someone like me, because we have whole libraries available at our fingertips, at the press of a button, all for free.  But, alas, not everything is; due to (sometimes very reasonable) copyright laws and (sometimes very unreasonable) publisher policies, not all such books are able to be put online for free without getting into piracy (which is an entirely different topic that is neither here nor there).

When it comes to researching the Greek Magical Papyri, although Hans Dieter Betz’ version is the de facto translation of what’s available into English, Karl Preisendanz’ version is legendary, and in many cases forms a “critical edition” for the Greek along with his German translation.  The original version of the texts were put out in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and as such, are out of copyright and considered works in the public domain.  For that, I would recommend people check out the University of Heidelberg’s online resource for them:

  1. Volume One: PGM I through PGM VI
  2. Volume Two: PGM VII through PGM LX, including Christian magical papyri and ostraka

However, there was another, more recent version of Preisendanz’ books put out in the 1970s, which has some extra supplemental information, one of which is a list of hymns and historiolae given as an appendix to volume two with the help of Albert Henrichs.  Because of how recent this work is, it’s not in the public domain, which means you still need to buy a copy of it (or pirate it).  This is somewhat unfortunate, because I couldn’t easily find a list of what Preisendanz listed as hymns and historiolae otherwise, even though Betz himself refers to it (e.g. footnote 56 to PGM I) and other authors, like Ljuba Merlina Bortolani in her Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt, also make use of such an organization system.  Knowing exactly what these references are would be incredibly helpful, but without having access to this more recent version of Preisendanz’ volume 2, I appeared otherwise out of luck.

So I kept an eye on used book lists—new, the book costs upwards of $150 on Amazon—and, happily enough, I did find a relatively cheap copy of the text over on AbeBooks, which I’m happy to present.  The bulk of the book seems otherwise identical to the original version, but again, it’s that extra supplemental material I’m interested in.  To that end, what follows is a list of Preisendanz’ and Henrich’s entries for the hymns, historiolae, and poems—all called Hymns in other texts—given in the PGM using their number system.  Although Preisendanz and Henrichs also give a copy of the original Greek with some notes on other references, both academic and original, pertaining to the content of the entries listed above, the Greek is otherwise basically the same as what’s in the rest of Preisendanz’ original stuff, albeit with fewer marks regarding suggestions or hypothesized text where possible, although for the hymnic and poetic entries, he does mark where some metrical and prosodic information would fall when necessary.  However, importantly, Preisendanz and Henrich exclude any instances of barbarous words from their hymns, so bear that in mind when making comparisons.

List of hymns:

  1. To the All-Creator: PGM XII.244—252
  2. To the All-Creator: PGM III.550—558
  3. To Hēlios: PGM IV.939—948
  4. To Hēlios:
    1. PGM IV.436—461 (except lines 18, 19, and 21)
    2. PGM IV.1957—1989 (except lines 26 and 27)
    3. PGM VIII 74—81 (except lines 7 through 10)
    4. PGM I.315—325 (except lines 1 through 6, 9 through 11, 18, 21, 22, 26, and 27)
  5. To Hēlios and the All-God: PGM III.198—229
  6. To Typhōn: PGM IV.179—201
  7. To Typhōn: PGM IV.291—273
  8. To Apollōn: PGM I.296
  9. To Apollōn: PGM II.2—7
  10. To Apollōn: PGM VI.22—38
  11. To Apollōn and Apollōn-Hēlios: PGM II.81—101, 133—140, 163—166
  12. To Apollōn and Daphnē: PGM III.234—258
  13. To Daphnē: PGM VI.6—21
  14. To Daphnē: PGM VI.40—47
  15. To Hermēs:
    1. PGM V.400—420
    2. PGM VII.668—680
    3. PGM XVII.b (entire)
  16. To Hekatē-Selēnē-Artemis: PGM IV.2242—2417
  17. To Hekatē-Selēnē-Artemis: PGM IV.2786—2870
  18. To Hekatē-Selēnē-Artemis: PGM IV.2574—2610, 2643—2674
  19. To Hekatē-Selēnē-Artemis: PGM IV.2522—2567
  20. To Hekatē-Selēnē-Artemis: PGM IV.2714—2783
  21. To Aphroditē: PGM IV.2902—2939
  22. To the All-God: PGM I.297—314, 342—345
  23. To the All-God: PGM XXIII (entire)
  24. To the Chthonic Ones: PGM IV.1399—1434
  25. To the Chthonic Ones: PGM IV.1459—1469

Notes on the list of hymns above:

  • Hymn 4 is composed of four different overlapping entries which mostly appear continuous when some lines are omitted or shuffled around from the original entries.  Preisendanz and Henrich list the bits that didn’t fall in as an addendum to this hymn.
  • The hymn to Hermēs is marked as Hymn 15/16 in Preisendanz and Henrich, so no separate Hymn 16 is listed here.
  • Hymn 15/16 is also composed of overlapping text from several PGM sources, although (the entirety of) PGM XXIIb is the longest and forms the base for this.
  • Hymns 11, 19, and 23 are taken from several sections of particular entries of the PGM, which Preisendanz and Henrich interpret to be a single hymn each, each broken up by ritual directions or other non-hymnic text in those entries.

List of magical historiolae:

  1. PGM IV.1471—1479
  2. PGM XX.6—20
  3. PGM XXIX (entire)

And one last interesting poem, the “Evocation of Wrath”:

  1. PGM IX.12—13

As another note, I mentioned Bortolani’s book as well.  That book is a wonderful reference for some but not all of the hymns and references made in Preisendanz and Henrich; of the thirty entries given total, Bortolani only discusses fifteen.  Because I also picked up a copy of her excellent book—an amazing resource detailing the specific connotations, structure, usage, and purposes of these various hymns from the PGM—I’ll also go ahead and give a correspondence between her numbering and that of Preisendanz and Henrich (noted as “PH Hymn”), along with the specific PGM entry numbers for that particular hymn:

  1. PH Hymn 8, 23b: PGM I.296—327, 341—347
  2. PH Hymn 4 (excluding 4d): PGM IV.436—461, 1957—1989; PGM VIII.74—81
  3. PH Hymn 5: PGM III.198—230
  4. PH Hymn 2: PGM III.549—558
  5. PH Hymn 3: PGM IV.939—948
  6. PH Hymn 9: PGM II.2—7
  7. PH Hymn 11a: PGM II.81—102
  8. PH Hymn 13, 14: PGM VI.6—44
  9. PH Hymn 1: PGM XII.244—52
  10. PH Hymn 25: PGM IV.1399—1434
  11. PH Hymn 17: PGM IV.2242—2347
  12. PH Hymn 20: PGM IV.2522—2267
  13. PH Hymn 19: PGM IV 2574—2610, 2643—2674
  14. PH Hymn 21: PGM IV.2714—2783
  15. PH Hymn 18: PGM IV.2786—2870

I should also note that Bortolani breaks up these hymns into two overall sections: her Hymns 1 through 9 are those “to the male deity”, and Hymns 10 through 15 are “to the female chthonic/lunar deity”, as both have definite differences in purpose, tone, and style.  Unlike Preisendanz and Henrich, Bortolani retains the barbarous words where they appear.

With that, perhaps this can give researchers of the PGM a little extra nudge when encountering references to particular hymns by number when people refer to Preisendanz and Henrich, or Bortolani as well.

The Royal Praises from Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum

Like with the wonderful Praise of the Invisible and Visible God that I wrote up (or, rather, rewrote from the original material from prose into something more structured) back in January or the simple Hermetic prayer rule and “prelude prayers” I discussed back in February, there’s plenty else in the Corpus Hermeticum that can be thought of as ripe material for coming up with prayers, devotions, and hymns for the Divine.  Much of it, of course, is prose rather than poetry, as the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t really written as hymnal stuff, but there are frequent exhortations to “show devotion”, instances of thanksgiving, and other praises given to the Divine that are to ignore.  It’s what makes the Hermetic canon so hard to consider in a strictly philosophical or scientific light apart and away from mysticism or faith; as Willhelm Boussett has said, “the Hermetica belong to the history of piety, not philosophy”.

One of the more odd inclusions in the Hermetic canon is Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, which has the title “On the soul hindered by the body’s affections”, but which A.D. Nock suggests was a later assignment by a redactor, and which only really applies to the first few paragraphs of the book.  The bulk of Book XVIII, instead, focuses on giving praise to God, both in his own right as well as a prelude to give praise of kings (more the general class of kings rather than any king in particular).  Brian Copenhaver includes Book XVIII in his translation, but Clement Salaman pointedly does not, noting that:

Scott and Nock-Festugière agree in regarding [Book XVIII] as not belonging to the Corpus.  It is manifestly inferior to the other books, both in content and in style (Festiguère refers to it as: ‘Cette insipide morceau de rhétorique’ [Copenhaver translates this as “an insipid piece of rhetoric in rhythmic prose”]).  No real single theme develops, but merely disconnected remarks relating to the praise of kings and of God.

I’ll grant it that, to be sure: it lacks either the atmosphere of the temple or clarity of the classroom that so many of the other parts of the Hermetic canon have, and rather suggests something more of a philosopher at a courtly symposium.  Still, it’s not hard to see why this would be bundled with the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum, given how it treats the soul as affected by the body’s weaknesses by way of an extended metaphor involving musicians and their instruments, as well as its sincere (and rather beautiful) praise to God.  What’s weird is the “royal panegyric” that Book XVIII also gives a praise and hymn to kings and their virtues generally.  It’s not like the Hermetica doesn’t involve kings at all; after all, Book XVI (“Definitions of Asclepius to King Ammon”) is written as a letter to a king, Book XVII preserves an interaction between Tat and an unnamed king, and the 24th Stobaean Fragment (the middle part of the Korē Kosmou) discusses the various natures of souls and how some souls are specifically kingly and royal ones.  In the broader context of the Hermetic canon, and given the important role of the king (rather, pharaoh) as incarnated divinity on Earth in ancient Egypt, it doesn’t make too much nonsense to have something treating the topic of kings or praising their virtues, if indeed they are a force of divinity here explicitly and locally manifest in the cosmos as opposed to implicitly and ambiently manifest.

To that end, I decided to rework the praise bits of Book XVIII into a pair of prayers that I call “The Royal Praises”.  The first part is the one I think more people will find more useful: “The Royal Praise of the Almighty”:

Come, come all, let us hasten and praise the Almighty!
In all things do we begin with God and the power above, and so too do we end.
In the end of all things do we return to the beginning, from God unto God!
The Sun partakes of all in its rising, the nourisher of all that grows,
its rays stretched out like great hands to gather in the crops,
its rays partaking in the ambrosial radiance of the harvest;
like crops in the warmth of the Sun do we take in the wisdom of God,
like crops under the light of the Sun do we grow under the light of God,
and like crops from the Earth, in beginning with God we return to God,
our praise becoming the bounty of God that waters every shoot we plant.

O God, Whole of the All, wholly pure and undefiled, Father of all our souls,
may praise rise up from a myriad mouths in a myriad voices to you,
even though none can say anything worthy of you or before you,
for no mortal speech can equal your might, power, or presence.
As the child cannot properly praise their father,
still the child exclaims their love with all their strength,
and, honoring their father as they can, receives his love and mercy.
So too may we praise you with all the strength of our souls!
For you, our Creator, are greater than all of creation;
let all our praise always confess your boundless power and endless extent!

To praise you, o God, is in our nature, in our hearts, and in our very souls,
for as your descendants, like attracting like, we are like unto you,
and as your children, seeing ourselves in you, we can only love and praise you.
Yet even should you grant it to us before we even ask,
we still ask for your forgiveness, your forbearance, your mercy, and your grace.
As the father does not turn away the child for their lack of strength,
but delights in their coming to grow and to know him,
so too do you delight in us coming to know you and all your creation,
for the knowledge of the All confers life unto all,
and our understanding becomes our praise to you for all that you give us.

O God, o Good of the Beginning, o Ever-Shining, o Immortal,
alone containing the limit of divine eminence, encircling the All that is all that is!
Always flowing from your own energy from beyond to within the cosmos,
from yourself above in Heaven to mankind below on Earth,
you send the message of promise that leads to the praise that saves us,
to the work that lifts us, to the way that guides us beyond to you!
For beyond there is no discord among beings, neither dissonance nor difference;
all think one Thought, all have one Knowledge, all share one Mind.
One sense works within them all, one charm unites them all:
love, divine love, love of the Good that makes all act together in harmony as One!

When it comes to the bit in the first paragraph about the Sun and its rays like hands, Copenhaver notes that:

The image of the sun reaching down with hand-like rays became an artistic motif in the Egypt of Akhenaton; the sun’s rays were a manifestation of heka, a magical power that energizes the universe, but [Festugière] sees this allusion to solar magic as an empty metaphor in this “purely literary” text.

Although the reign of Akhenaten was removed from the writing of the Corpus Hermeticum by about a thousand years, give or take a few centuries, it is a compelling image of the power of the Sun, and given the importance of the Sun in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book XI, “the sun is an image of the cosmos…the human is an image of the sun”; Book XVI, “in this way, the craftsman (I mean the sun) binds heaven to earth, sending essence below and raising matter above”), it’s not surprising how this image might be carried through the centuries into Hermetic symbolism and praise.

The second part is a shorter hymn (the panegyric proper of Book XVIII), the “Royal Praise of Kings”:

As the Creator has all power and presence in the cosmos of his creation,
so too does the king possess all power and presence in the order of his kingdom.
We praise God, and so doing, we praise the one who takes his scepter from him,
o divine among us mortals, o arbiter of our peace,
o king of kings, o image of God on Earth, you who are our king!
In singing our reverent love of God, we know to praise what is divine;
thus do we hymn and glorify the king, even as we hymn and glorify God! For in raising
our voice first to the Supreme King of All, the Good, the God,
we must then lift our song to those whom God has established in his might!
O foremost of the security of the people, o prince of peace of the world!
Authority, victory, honors, and trophies were established by God for you!
As God is the source of your dominion, so too are you the source of our hope!

The virtue of a king, the name of a king, is to be the judge of peace,
and with such peace comes prosperity for which we cannot but give tribute!
Setting his kingly grace kindly upon even the highest of worldly powers,
achieving over all discourse and discord the mastery that brings all peace,
panicking all barbarian armies and outdoing all their tyranny,
the very name alone of the king is the very symbol of peace!
For the king’s threat drives the enemy off with fear,
and the king’s statue succors the tempest-tost with haven;
for the icon of the king brings the warrior quick victory,
and the presence of the king gives the besieged an aegis.
Let us always praise and proclaim, treat and tribute the king,
that the king, free in peace from threat and harm, may ensure the same for all!

In our day and age, when we’re so far removed from any real notion of divine kingship or the divine right of kings (unless you’re an old-school British royalist or Japanese imperialist), it’s weird to give such praise for such a human being who happens to be a ruler over other people.  We typically conceive of rulers as coming into power through worldly means for rather less than cosmic reasons (cf. John Bradshaw’s “in the name of the People of England of which you were elected king” at the trial of King Charles I, conceiving of kingship as something random, arbitrary, and unearned).  But the Korē Kosmou (the 23rd through 25th of the Stobaean Fragments) discusses mortal kings as being in a league different from other kinds of humans.  From Litwa’s translation:

…On earth dwell humans and the other animals, ruled by the current king. Gods, my child, give birth to kings worthy of being their offspring on earth.  Rulers are emanations of the king, and the one nearest the king is more kingly than the others. Hence the Sun, inasmuch as he is nearer to God, is greater than the Moon and more powerful. The Moon takes second place to the Sun in rank and power.

The king is last in the rank of the other gods, but premier among human beings. As long as he dwells on earth he is divorced from true divinity. Yet he possesses a quality superior to other human beings—an element like unto God. This is because the soul sent down into him is from that realm higher than the one from which other people are sent. Souls are sent down from that realm to rule for two reasons, my child.

Some souls, destined to be deified, run through their own lifetime nobly and blamelessly so that, by ruling, they train to hold authority among the gods. The other group of souls are already divine and veer only slightly from the divinely inspired ordinance. They are sent into kings so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment. On account of their dignity and nature, they suffer nothing like the others in their embodiment. Rather, what they had when free (of the body) they possess while bound to it.

Now the character differences that develop among kings are distinguished not by a distinction in their soul. All royal souls are divine. The differences arise by virtue of the soul’s angelic and daimonic retinue during its installation. For such great souls descending to such great tasks do not descend apart from an advance parade and military escort. For Justice on high knows how to apportion dignity to each soul, even though they are pushed from the placid realm.

In the Hermetic view, there are particular people who are incarnated with a specific role to play in the world, and that role is to be divine as they are already among the foremost of souls in nature and rank; it is this that makes one a king when incarnate, assuming that kings live otherwise good lives “so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment”.  And, knowing that the Egyptians conceived of kings as not just being divine beings on Earth, and knowing that they strove to immortalize and deify them after death, we can conceive of this as being the end-game for the metempsychosis of humans: to refine ourselves through the knowledge of God to become more and more divine, and thus become as divine as a human can possibly be before being outright deified by other humans.

Admittedly, this notion is hard to swallow for many of us nowadays who would much rather an egalitarian view of souls (which, admittedly, much of the rest of the Hermetica would seem to encourage) and who don’t agree with the divinity of rulership (I mean…look at the current state of the world, and tell me that there’s anything new under the Sun).  Still, I suppose there’s plenty that could be said about a more generalized notion of “kingship”, either as something relatively detached from governance and dominion of people as a geopolitical power, or perhaps (and better) closer to what my mentor, Fr. Rufus Opus, discusses in his Seven Spheres:

I feel the same about the term King. To me, a King is anyone who rules, regardless of their gender. The need for different words to differentiate between genders is silly, in my opinion.

But the LOGOS pointed out something really important. The things we seek, they are part of what automatically comes with a kingdom. They are secondary manifestations, the results. Look at Kings. They have everything they need, and then some. LOGOS was saying, look, don’t go after that stuff; that’s what other people do with their lives, people who have not been chosen to know who they are, who have not had their divine nature and true paternity revealed to them. Instead of going after all that stuff, or the means to get that stuff, focus instead on the Kingdom. Learn that you are a King already. Learn what that means, learn the art of being the Royal You. Train yourself, improve yourself, be Kingly, and you’ll find that you have a Kingdom of a God all around you, and that you are its ruler.

But what are Kings?

Kings are people who were personally (or through the source of their noble lineage) positioned by fate and fortune and gifted with the quality required to lead their world naturally. They were linked to the gods either by favor or by blood, and they received a Kingdom as a result of their nature and the quality of their deeds. They were noble.

What he says in his introduction to Seven Spheres smacks of what Isis tells Horus in the 25th Stobaean Fragment.  If we broaden the notion of “kingdom” to be one’s whole life and sphere of influence, then each and every one of us is a king—regardless of our external gender, station, or condition.  It’s being able to carry ourselves as such, to rule our lives as such, that makes us so: it’s a matter of waking up to the reality of the matter and behaving accordingly.  Those who can are kings, and those who can’t aren’t.  After all, if God is with you, who can be against you?  If you’re living your True Will in tune with your Perfect Nature, then how could you not be among the royalty of souls?  And if royal souls are divine, then divine souls must also be royal ones.  And are Hermēs, Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon not thus kings?  After all, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the final part of the Asclepius, does Hermēs not say “we rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body”, or as I personally phrase it based on the similar prayer from PGM III.494—611, “we rejoice, for you have made us [who are incarnate] divine by your knowledge”?  If the knowledge of God makes one divine (literally deification, even while alive), then it must also make one a king, at least in some sense.

I’m sure there’s more that can be discussed along these lines of what it means for deification and kingship in a Hermetic context, especially understanding the historical and cultural implications of the such and how that might compare or translate to the modern world, but that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’ll leave this with these two brief rephrasings and restructurings of Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum to use for further devotional works to the Divine.

A Hymn to Hermēs Sōtēr

I know I don’t speak a lot much nowadays about my devotional work with Hermēs, or at least as much as I used to.  Admittedly, my focus and practices have shifted over the years, and as an arrangement I entered into willingly on both my terms and the terms of the god, my devotional work with the Son of Zeus and Maia waxes and wanes over time.  But, through it all, despite it all, and even because of it all, Hermēs has never left me, and I have never left him.  Even with my house more full of more gods than I would ever have anticipated, I still maintain my own practice and service to the god, and lately I’ve been spending more time getting back in touch with him since the last Mercury retrograde period ended.  It’s…well, not gonna lie, it’s pretty nice to do this again, and to remind myself why I got his emblem emblazoned on my flesh all those years ago.

Lately, between a renewed sense of his presence and a concern for the world, I was moved to write a simple hymn for the god.  It’s nothing special, but it’s something I wanted to share and spread, a hymn to Hermēs Sōtēr (the Savior).  Although he’s not usually considered among the usual savior-type gods, I feel like there’s something to be said for the blessings of swiftness, slyness, and quick motion (in the sense of both speed and life) that we could call on from the god in our time of need.  So, in this day of Jupiter and in this hour of Mercury, I dedicate these words to the god of my heart who accompanies on my ways.  May these words ring out in the air around me and throughout the entire world as a small token of my honor to the god, that all people of all cultures and all habits and all tongues may come to honor, sing, praise, and exalt the god who guides all men, spirits, souls, heroes, and gods!

Hail, Hermēs, o bright and swift savior through the paths of all the worlds!
O you who loves to be a close friend to mankind,
o you who cuts to the heart, knowing all that is within,
o you who stands keen watch at every cross and every fork,
o you who cannot be denied by any god or any man!

Son of Maia and scion of Atlas who knows the secrets of all the stars,
messenger of Zeus and all the gods who delivers words hither and thither!
Giving to all minds the wit to discern the gods and all their many works,
giving to all hands the skill to join in the very work of the very gods,
great are you who established the heavenly rites of offering and worship!

Ram-bearer, wand-bearer, leader of robbers and thieves!
You care for the well-being of all flocks of all kinds, kind Hermēs!
You lead them away amid motley heart-broken cries, sly Hermēs!
You defend them from those who would devour them, fierce Hermēs!
Driver of herds, shepherd of the living, o guide of all the dead!

Be kind to us, lord of the world, for all our travels and travails in it!
Lead us to the right place at the right time in the right way on the right day;
keep our hands as clean as they can, yet no dirtier than we need them to be.
By your guidance, keep us safe on our roads from all the awful nosoi;
by your wiles, o Hermēs, lead them afar by a different road entirely!

Be gracious, lord of the world, who collect the goods of gods and men!
Lead us all to sweet safety, to calm harbors, to a place to call our own,
to a shelter unafflicted by blight or the waste of terrible, hateful decay!
Let your lyre soothe the raging hearts of the bright children of Mother Lētō;
stay their fatal arrows, o lord, but when let fly, take us out from their flight!

Come, lord savior Hermēs, and hear this my heartfelt prayer;
be kind and be propitious to all those who seek your care.

Most people who are familiar with the god will understand most of the references, but I admit the one to the nosoi is probably a weird one.  These were a class of daimones in ancient Greek belief, the spirits of plague and sickness; for the Romans, these would be considered the Morbi, like Morbus (Disease), Pestis and Lues (Pestilence), Macies (Wasting), and Tabes (Corruption).  In Homeric literature, plague and disease was typically seen as being the arrows sent forth in wrath from the bows of Apollōn and Artemis, the two children of Lētō, but I also felt that the nosoi are a useful thing to ward against on their own right.  After all, there are two approaches to health, sanitization and inoculation, and in the absence of one, we must resort to the other; in the absence of vaccines or other defenses against the attacks of heavenly arrows or hellish claws, we must evade them entirely, and who better among the theoi to help lead us on the route to escape than Hermēs himself?  Who else but Hermēs to help us, the one among all the gods closest to the cries of all humanity, most familiar of all tongues, who guides us both in our world and in the next?  After all, although there aren’t all that many connections between Hermēs and plague, as Kriophoros (“Ram-bearer”), Hermēs is one who has helped before to save people from pestilence and plague, and with later connections of Kriophoros and Christ, lends a definite savior link to the noble son of Zeus and Maia.

May God and all the gods be charitable and propitious unto us all, and grant us all all life, all prosperity, and all health.