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

In: Aries
Dylan M. Burns Universität Leipzig

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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.

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