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.

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.