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Alchemical Metaphor in the Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1)

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Among the most difficult—and fascinating—of the Coptic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, is the Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1). Particularly mysterious are its opening pages, which describe the repeated descents and ascents of a savior-figure, who liberates spiritual light from the darkness with which it was once mixed. This liberation is described as, among other things, a series of obscure reactions between light, darkness, fire, heat, and weight—images whose meaning and motivation have yet to be explained by modern research. This contribution demonstrates that these and other metaphors used throughout NHC VII,1 derive from the contemporary metallurgical practice of tincturing, a practice which occupied a central role in the development of Greco-Egyptian alchemy. The essay concludes with reflections upon contemporary research into Gnosticism, alchemy, and esotericism.

  • 5

    Ibid., 5.21.2–3. All translations offered in this piece are my own, unless noted.

  • 7

    Ibid., 5.22.

  • 9

    See generally Wisse, ‘Introduction’, 18–20; Roberge, Paraphrase de Sem, 8–25; Schenke, ‘Einleitung’, 546: van den Broek, Gnostic Religion, 120.

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  • 11

    Roberge, Paraphrase of Shem, 32; similarly, ibid, 48; idem, Paraphrase de Sem, 67–68.

  • 12

    Tardieu, ‘La naissance du ciel et de la terre’, 411.

  • 14

    Principe, Secrets of Alchemy, 9–10; Keyser, ‘Alchemy’, 355–358; Taylor, ‘Survey’, 109; Sheppard, ‘Gnosticism and Alchemy’, 88.

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  • 15

    Forbes, Metallurgy, 158–159, 207, 213.

  • 20

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 168–169; Tait, ‘Theban Magic’, 169–171.

  • 21

    Principe, Secrets of Alchemy, 10–11, 13.

  • 30

    Hopkins, ‘Kerotakis Process’, 330. For more on dry vs. humid vapors, see Martelli, ‘Greek Alchemists at Work’, 298.

  • 39

    Ibid., 4.12–25.

  • 41

    Ibid., 4.27–5.6.

  • 42

    Ibid., 5.13–22.

  • 43

    Ibid., 5.22–6.4.

  • 52

    Ibid., 12.7–31.

  • 57

    Ibid., 14.25–15.4.

  • 58

    Ibid., 15.19–16.8.

  • 59

    Ibid., 18.35–19.1.

  • 60

    Ibid., 19.4–20.20.

  • 61

    Ibid., 21.4–12, re: 5.27–30, 39.17–24.

  • 62

    See also Roberge, ‘Anthropogonie et anthropologie’, 229; DuBois, ‘Contribution’, 156.

  • 63

    Fischer, ‘Paraphrase des Seem’, 264.

  • 66

    Ibid., 398.

  • 67

    Fischer, ‘Paraphrase des Seem’, 264.

  • 69

    Sevrin, ‘A propos de la “Paraphrase de Sem”’, 75.

  • 76

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 114; see further below.

  • 77

    Ibid., 47.20–31: ⲧⲕⲗⲟⲟⲗⲉ ⲅⲁⲣ ⲙ︤ⲡ︥ⲡ︤ⲛ︦ⲁ︥ ⲉⲥϣⲟⲟⲡ ⲛ̄ⲑⲉ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩⲃⲩⲣⲣⲩⲗⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲧⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ· ⲁⲩⲱ ⲧⲕⲗⲟⲟⲗⲉ ⲙ̄ⲫⲩⲙⲏⲛ ⲉⲥⲟ ⲛ̄ⲑⲉ ⲛ̄ⲛⲓⲥⲙⲁⲣⲁⲅⲇⲟⲥ ⲉⲧ`ⲡ︤ⲣ︥ⲣⲓ̈ⲱⲟⲩ· ⲁⲩⲱ ⲧⲕⲗⲟⲟⲗⲉ ⲙ̄ⲡⲕⲁ ⲣⲱϥ ⲛ̄ⲑⲉ ⲛ̄ⲛⲓⲁⲙⲁⲣⲁⲛⲧⲟⲥ ⲉⲩⲣⲉϣⲣⲉϣ· ⲁⲩⲱ ⲧⲕⲗⲟⲟⲗⲉ ⲛ̄ⲧⲙⲉⲥⲟⲧⲏⲥ ⲛ̄ⲑⲉ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩϩⲩⲁⲕⲓⲛⲑⲟⲥ ⲉⲧ`ⲧⲟⲩⲃⲏⲟⲩ·

  • 78

    Ibid., 6.11–15, 13.15–18, 14.16–19, 14.25–28, 15.19–23, 16.5–14, 16.23–26, 17.16–24, 18.4–9, 20.26–29, 43.6–9. Cf. here Zos. Pan. Omega, 9.8–10 (tr. Jackson), where ‘middle’ (τὸ μέσον) signifies the ‘mu’ in the name ‘Adam’—as well as the zone ‘south’ (ἡ μεσημβρία), ‘the ripening fire in the midst of these bodies, the fire belonging to the middle, fourth planetary zone’. In a hymn (‘testimony’) uttered twice in NHC VII,1 the four zones are invoked (31.22–32.5, 46.13–47.5), perhaps in reference to the tradition mentioned here by Zosimus—code for the name ‘Adam’ (the First Human Being). In any case, NHC VII,1’s use of the term ‘middle’ for a fourth, fiery zone probably draws upon an interpretative tradition known to Zosimus as well.

  • 81

    Tr. Caley, ‘Stockholm Papyrus’, 987; for text, see Halleux (ed.), vol. 1 of the Budé series Les alchimistes grecs, whose numbering of the fragments is followed here. Other formulas about beryl include frgs. 39, 47, 48, 63 (with hyacinth); CAAG 2.362.12–22. For emerald, see P. Holm. frgs. 17, 21, 30, 32, 34, 37, 42, 74, 76, 83, 84.

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  • 83

    On the latter point, see Colpe, ‘Heidnische, Jüdische, und Christliche Überlieferung’, 114; Wisse, ‘Introduction’, 21; van den Broek, Gnostic Religion, 122.

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  • 93

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 114.

  • 95

    E.g., Johnston (ed.), Religions, 640–656; Emmel, ‘Coptic Gnostic Texts’, 48.

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