The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (nhc vi,6) is a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and his son, during which they experience visions of the eighth and ninth spheres, above the seven planetary spheres. The paper aims to show that such experiences were not merely literary fiction, but actively pursued and allegedly obtained by those who followed the course of spiritual formation known as the Way of Hermes. A comparison with the Greek and Demotic magical papyri shows that these texts all show signs of “ritual realism,” meaning that correct ritual performance necessarily provides direct access to the divine realm, which should be experienced as real. It is furthermore argued that the Coptic translation of the text, and its presence in the Nag Hammadi codices, might be explained by the interest of Egyptian monks in visions of the divine.
The study of rituals and religious experience in antiquity is complicated by the fact that many of our most important sources are literary, giving us a highly abbreviated or idealized picture of how the participants would have experienced the ritual proceedings. Alternately, our non-literary sources often give us mere lists, documenting for example animals to be sacrificed at festivals or biblical passages to be read at specific days of the year. Modern scholars, naturally having no recourse to observation and therefore being unable to provide a “thick” description of rituals, must instead extrapolate from scant sources to gain a realistic and probable picture of the rituals in question, taking comparable practices into consideration.1
If we are ill-informed about ancient rituals, the case is even worse when it comes to ancient religious experience.2 Even in studies of contemporary religious experience, it has been acknowledged that researchers do not have unmediated access to such experiences but rather to their narratives, which can be colored by ex post facto rationalization, exaggeration, or ideological adjustment.3 What is more, not only the narrative but also the experience itself is arguably framed by culturally conditioned expectations.4 For instance, while Christian mystics may claim to experience visions of the Trinity, a Muslim might experience the oneness of God, while a Hindu may experience a number of different gods. Thus, against the argument of many theistic apologists adducing religious experience as valid proof for the existence of God, reductionists will admit the cross-cultural human capacity for experiences of superhuman presences, while bracketing the truth claims of such experiences.5
Since the seminal work of William James on the Varieties of Religious Experience, it has been recognized that such experience covers the gamut from less intense emotions arising from regular participation in communal religious rituals, to the highly intense or ecstatic states of mind in which supernatural beings are perceived as real, and the sense of self dissolves into a “mystical union” with the divine.6 This article considers an experience of the latter kind, as it is represented in the Nag Hammadi treatise Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (nhc vi,6). Since both the religious experience and its narrative are culturally conditioned, and since visionary experience often requires training and preparation in a group setting, before we study the case presented in the Discourse, it is helpful to first consider the Way of Hermes, which mapped out a route of spiritual progress leading to the visionary ascent.7
The aim of the paper is to show that even though the Discourse is an idealized representation of the visionary ascent, the people who followed the Way of Hermes actively pursued such experiences through ritual practices comparable to those described in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. The secondary aim is to suggest that the presence of a Coptic translation of the text in the Nag Hammadi codices indicates that Egyptian monks themselves wanted to experience such visions.
The Nag Hammadi codices yield a multitude of tantalizing references or allusions to ritual practices of which we are otherwise ill-informed. A case in point is the Sethian baptism of the five seals, alluded to in several treatises but never fully described.8 Some of the treatises are more liturgical in nature, such as the Valentinian fragments on anointing, baptism, and the eucharist (nhc xi,2a–e), but most are literary, framing ritual experiences within narrative constraints. This is also the case with the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and his son. As the dialogue unfolds, the interlocutors experience visions of the eighth and the ninth spheres above the seven planetary orbits.9 This is one of three Hermetic treatises contained in the Nag Hammadi codices, which together constitute the last three texts of Codex vi. The other two texts, the Prayer of Thanksgiving (nhc vi,7) and the excerpt from the Perfect Discourse (nhc vi,8), better known as the Asclepius, were already known to scholarship in Latin and partially in Greek before the Nag Hammadi discovery. So it is largely the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth that has led to a reorientation of Hermetic studies. Up until the 1970s, the dominant view was the position championed by André-Jean Festugière, who argued that the doctrinal incoherence of the Hermetic corpus would have made the existence of a Hermetic religious community impossible.10 Consequently, the treatises should be considered as products of armchair philosophers, garbing their vulgar and eclectic Platonism with a thin veneer of Egyptian glamour.
In the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, however, we find references to a tradition of spiritual direction. The leader would be a father giving birth to spiritual sons who together constitute a brotherhood. There are also concrete references connecting this tradition to the Egyptian temple of Hermes, that is Thoth, in Thebes. These factors, among others, led the most influential recent scholars of Hermetism, Jean-Pierre Mahé and Garth Fowden, to argue that the internal incongruities in doctrine were due to the different stages of teaching of a Way of Hermes, which would have been practiced by fraternal groups in a mixed Greco-Egyptian cultural milieu.11 Fowden and Mahé both argued (separately, it seems) that the stages would have progressed from a world-affirming monism for neophytes to an increasingly world-denying dualism for more advanced students. Mahé also claimed that the rite of rebirth, known from the treatise On the Rebirth, was a different literary representation of the same rite as that portrayed in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, which would have completed the initiation.12
Conversely, I have argued previously that the beginning stages of the Way of Hermes teach the candidate to despise the body and the material world in order to cleanse himself of material passions, a prerequisite to undergo the rite of rebirth.13 In this rite, the candidate is expected to have alienated himself from the world—but after the rebirth is completed and he has been filled with divine power, he is once again reintegrated with the world. In fact, he identifies himself with the demiurgical mind of the world, which resides in the eighth sphere. And yet there is no visionary ascent in On the Rebirth, although the disciple is told to aspire to such an experience:
- My father, I would like the blessing through the hymn that you said I would hear from the powers when I arrived at the Eighth.
- Just as Poimandres predicted the Eighth, my son, it is proper for you to hasten to release yourself from the tent, for you have been purified.14
The prediction mentioned likely refers to Corpus Hermeticum 1, where Poimandres tells Hermes about how an enlightened human at death will leave the body and passions behind, as the soul ascends to the eighth sphere.15 It is, however, unlikely that Hermes is encouraging Tat to hasten to die, but rather to leave the body behind and experience the ascent even before death. The notion of quitting the body before death—in preparation for the final ascent—is found in other Hermetica. For example, “For you must first leave the body before death, my child, and be victorious in the struggle of life, and having been victorious thus ascend.”16 The rite of rebirth does not entail such an ascent but provides the disciple with divine power, which is necessary in order to see God: “If you do not make yourself like God, you will not be able to understand God: For the like is intelligible to the like.”17 The divine power given by the rebirth could thus be identical to what is in other treatises called “the power to see God” (θεοπτική δύναµις): “Truth is nowhere on earth, Tat, nor can it come to be on earth, but it is possible for some of the humans to understand something about truth, if God were to give them the birth of the power to see God.”18
Since the introductory dialogue in the Discourse presupposes a prior rebirth of the candidate, an intertextual relationship between the two texts is quite likely, and the visionary ascent must be seen as a follow-up ritual to the rebirth. It is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, or the Way of Immortality as it is called in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth.19 However, as in all ancient texts we gain no direct access to the practices and the experience of the rite, but rather an idealized, paradigmatic narrative of how the divine Hermes Trismegistus initiated his son, called Tat in other treatises. Is there then any way to gain a deeper understanding of the visionary ascent portrayed in the text, and to test the hypothesis that this represents an actual religious experience?
We may, in fact, deduce two different types of religious experience from the text. Each must be explored separately. The first is the experience of the members of the Hermetic community, who practiced a rite of ascent similar to how it is represented in the treatise. The author must have been a leader in this community, and other members would presumably have read the treatise in Greek as a preparation for the rite of ascent. The second experience is that of the fourth- or fifth-century readership of the Coptic text, who might have pursued visionary experience and used the text in quite different ways than its original author might have intended.
There has not been much work done on the Hermetic visionary ascent. Wouter J. Hanegraaff treated the visionary passages in the Poimandres (Corp. herm. 1), On the Rebirth (Corp. herm. 13), and the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth as evidence that the Hermetists cultivated altered states of consciousness as a core component of their way of spiritual progress.20 Anna van den Kerchove has also taken the visionary narratives to reflect real ritual experiences, as has April DeConick.21 I myself have compared the visionary ascent with the spells meant to achieve divine revelations in the magical papyri, and it is this thread that I will resume presently, now emphasizing the experiential dimension and what Richard Gordon has called “ritual realism.”22
Although we do not possess the Greek original of the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, we can see from the Greek parallels to the Prayer of Thanksgiving and the Asclepius that our translator stays close to his Vorlage.23 While realizing the limitations of working from the Coptic translation of a literary representation, it is nevertheless possible to follow the progression of the dialogue as if it reflects a ritual that actually took place. This would have been a rite of initiation, as the son of Hermes attains a new state at the end of the ritual. After beholding the eighth and the ninth spheres, the initiate is in a state of perpetual silent hymn-singing, connecting him to the supernal realms even after his return to quotidian life.24
In fact, only two of the twelve pages of the treatise detail the actual visionary experience. First, there is an introductory dialogue in which Hermes explains the order of the ritual tradition, and how his son now will join his spiritual brothers.25 Then there is a hymnic prayer to the Father of the universe, accompanied by the chanting of vowels and sacred names, and a ritual embrace.26 This triggers the vision itself, which is followed by a closing prayer.27 Finally, there is an exhortation from Hermes to write down the vision and preserve it hidden in the temple of Hermes at Thebes.28
Importantly, Hermes initially instructs his son that, in order to reach the eighth and the ninth spheres, it is necessary to keep in mind the progress and edification that has come through books.29 This progress, we learn, has overcome the deficiency of the disciple.30 The previous teaching of Hermes to Tat should thus be understood as leading to this culminating moment. Since many of the other treatises of Hermes also contain references to the beatific vision, the expectations planted here would have primed the disciple to be receptive for the present experience.31 In fact, preexistent beliefs have been found to facilitate altered states of consciousness, or at least to lead to the interpretation of sensory changes in line with existent beliefs.32 By mastering these prior teachings, the disciple has proven his worth as a member of the fraternity, which he now asks to join.33
In response, Tat is told that he will find his brothers praying together with him.34 The treatise mentions only two people present—Hermes and Tat—and the brothers are described merely as a spiritual presence. It is possible that solitude was considered more conducive for obtaining this sort of visionary experience. At least the magical papyri that contain directions for obtaining direct visions of the god often instruct the practitioner to find somewhere dark, silent, and secluded.35
Perhaps the Hermetic disciple would only be allowed to join the communal hymn-singing after the visionary ascent, at which time the earthly fraternal choir would reflect the powers of the eighth sphere that sing hymns to the ninth. As the Poimandres informs us, it is the wish of the Hermetist to join these powers after death, and the present vision provides a taste of this blessed afterlife.36 This is quite in line with Egyptian mortuary literature, where the colophons often inform the reader that the spell will secure a blissful afterlife, in which the deceased will join a heavenly choir to the sun god.37 Often it is also claimed that the spell is beneficial for the living, as in “Another spell for sailing in the Great Bark of Re” in Book of the Dead: “As for every blessed one for whom this is done while he is among the living, he shall not perish but shall be a holy god. Nothing evil shall befall him, and he shall be a blameless blessed one in the west.”38 A similar phenomenon is found in the Qumran community, who worshipped together with the angels.39
When Hermes is confident that his son is keeping his earlier instructions in mind, he proceeds with the prayer, which must be recited in a specific state of mind:
My son, it is suitable for us to pray to God with all our thought, and all our heart and our soul, and to ask him for the bounty of the eighth, so that it reaches us, and that each one receives from him what is his: your part is to contemplate (ⲣ̄ⲛⲟⲉⲓ), while as for me, my part is to be able to speak the word from the source that flows to me.40
I have translated the verb νοεῖν as contemplate instead of the more common understand because it is clear that the disciple is not meant only to understand what Hermes says, but also to enter an altered state of consciousness, a sort of meditation, in which he will be susceptible to receiving the desired vision. Anthropologists of religion have noted such deep states of meditation as one of the techniques for inducing visionary experience.41 Other techniques would include sensory or social deprivation, which we do not find a reference to in our text, though in the treatise On the Rebirth, the disciple had to make himself a stranger to the world before the ritual.42
Another common technique is chanting, and indeed Hermes’s prayer to God is followed by a sequence of the seven vowels, to be chanted in succession from alpha to omega. The seven vowels likely represent the planets, the Hebdomad that Hermes declares they have reached right after the chanting of the vowels.43 The vowels are interspersed with thirty-six extra omegas, which I have interpreted as representing the thirty-six Decans, the Egyptian gods of ten days each, that according to a Hermetic excerpt in Stobaeus make up the layer between the Zodiac and the “circle of the all,” which must mean the hyper-cosmic Ogdoad.44 The disciple would accordingly understand the chanting of the vowels to represent the ascent of the soul through the seven planetary spheres and the thirty-six decans to the utmost edge of the universe, close to the eighth. The disciple would either chant the vowels or have them chanted to him while in a meditative state, and this would render him susceptible to receive the sought-for vision. The performative use of seemingly meaningless sounds in ritual practices intended to lead to visionary ascent is attested in comparable traditions, such as Jewish Merkabah mysticism.45 Furthermore, the chanting of the seven vowels and the utterance of practically the same divine names—ZOZAZOTH and ZOXATHAZO—is well attested in divinatory spells in the magical papyri, which further indicates that our visionary ascent has a background in actual ritual practice.46
After the chanting of the vowels and the uttering of the secret names of God, our two interlocutors embrace each other with love, and this gesture triggers the coming of the luminous power which grants the vision.47 The ritual gesture of embrace corresponds to what is said directly after: “I am mind, and I see another mind that moves the soul. I see the one who moves me from a holy sleep.”48 It is unclear who is speaking here, but it is likely that Tat has been roused from his trance-like state by the embrace of Hermes and identifies him with the mind that moves him. It is also clear later in the dialogue that Tat identifies Hermes with the divine mind, effacing the differences between the subject and object of the vision: Hermes, Tat and God are all divine mind. The practice of ritual gestures and utterances performed by a spiritual master in order to obtain visions is similar to tantric gurus’ use of mantra and mudra, where the mantras have a transcendent source, although spoken through the mouth of the guru, and correspond to different cosmic levels.49
Following the embrace is an affirmation, probably uttered by Tat, that he is beholding what he is supposed to behold:
I see, yes, I see ineffable depths … I am mind, and I see another mind that moves the soul. I see the one who moves me from a holy sleep. You give me power. I see myself. I want to speak. Fear holds me back. I have found the beginning of the power which is above all powers, the one that has no beginning. I see a source bubbling over with life.50
These affirmations of the disciple are reminiscent of the responses of the boy mediums of Greco-Egyptian divinatory spells, as we shall see.51 There are several types of divination spells used in the Greek Magical Papyri, of which the most difficult and prestigious seem to have been those invoking a face-to-face encounter with a divinity.52 A simpler form of spell would involve the evoking of visions through gazing either into a bowl of liquid reflecting a source of light, or directly into a light, or to cause a ritually prepared boy to look into the bowl and report his visions.53 In the latter spells, the ritualist must ritually prepare a dark chamber and have the boy gaze into the bowl while he chants the formularies into his ears in a soft voice. The boy, being a virgin and unsullied by bodily desires, was considered a suitable conduit to receive visions of the gods.54
The goals of the visions in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth and in the spells are quite different. The vision in the Discourse is meant to effectuate a change in the candidate, whereas in the spells, the boy is merely a medium, a means to the end of obtaining an oracle from the gods. Yet the procedure is similar. In both cases the ritualist performs actions to engender a vision in the disciple. In the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, Hermes experiences the vision along with Tat. This is also the case in the so-called Mithras-Liturgy: the spell is first given as a personal face-to-face encounter, and then followed by instructions to allow a fellow initiate to partake in the vision.55 As in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, the ritualist must first ascertain the worthiness of the initiate, keeping himself pure with him for seven days, recite a prayer containing the seven vowels over him, and then “say the successive things as an initiate, over his head, in a soft voice.”56 The initiate should also inhale deeply, possibly the fumes of the psychoactive sacred incense cyphi.57
Another spell from the same papyrus goes into more detail on the ritual. First, the room should be prepared, a hymn should then be sung to the sunrise and repeated inside the room in front of a lamp, with the eyes closed. When the eyes are opened, a “god-bringing spell” is uttered, which will make the divinity manifest.58 As in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, the ritualist assumes a divine status as Thoth, the Egyptian Hermes, and chants the seven vowels as a baboon, the animal of Thoth.59
Since the chanting of the seven vowels and the sacred names appears in the magical papyri, it is not unlikely that some of the techniques to attain altered states of consciousness mentioned in the handbooks of magic, although omitted in the narrative of the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, may have been included in the underlying ritual. But even the ritual elements explicitly mentioned in the treatise—a meditative state and chanting—are attested in anthropological literature as sufficient for obtaining visionary experiences.60
Another element in the magical papyri is that the authors allow for the possibility that the ritual procedure will fail, and a vision will not appear. For such cases, supplementary rites are provided, upping the ante to make the divinity come forth. This is what Richard Gordon refers to as “ritual realism”: the presence of the god should be empirical, not perfunctory, and if it is not experienced then measures must be taken to correct the faulty ritual.61 Especially illuminating are the procedures with boy mediums referenced above. After the medium has stared into the bowl and the ritualist has uttered the requisite hymns, the medium is asked if he sees the gods, to which he should answer in the affirmative.
Some examples are in order. In a lamp divination, Osiris, Isis, and Anubis are asked to let the boy medium fall into a trance and make Hermes Trismegistus appear to him in a luminous form. After the prayer and the recitation of sacred names, the boy is supposed to affirm that he has received the vision and say, “I see your lord in the light,” and the ritualist may then ask what he likes.62 In an oracle of Sarapis, the boy medium, after the prayer and vowel-chanting, must state “I prophesy,” and is then supposed to see four men carrying a throne. These men are supposed to be crowned with olive branches, and a censer should precede them in the procession. The ritualist asks the boy how they are crowned and what precedes them in order to test him. If the boy gives the correct answer, his vision is authentic.63
In a Demotic vessel divination, the boy keeps his eyes shut while the ritualist says the prayer and sacred names. He then commands the boy to open his eyes. If he sees the light he should call out an affirmation: “Be great, be great, O light! Come forth, come forth, O light! Rise up, rise up, O light! Be high, be high, O light! He who is outside, come in!” But provisions are made in case the boy does not see the light: “If he opens his eyes and does not see the light, you should make him close his eyes while you recite to him again.” The boy is asked to affirm his visions several times in the divination.64
In another divination spell in the same manuscript, the formulae should be repeated until the light appears, but again failure is foreseen as a possible outcome: “You should make him open his eye(s) so that he can look at the lamp, and you should ask him about what you wish. If obstinacy occurs, he not having seen the god, you should turn around and recite his compulsion.”65 In yet another divination in the same papyrus, the prayer and sacred names should be recited seven times over the boy’s head, then the boy is told to open his eyes and asked if the light has appeared. If it has not appeared, the boy himself is supposed to utter a formula.66
All of these are instances of high ritual realism as defined by Gordon: the correct performance of recitation and techniques, together with the requisite purity of the practitioners, were thought to bring about the empirical presence of a luminous divine being. If this presence fails to manifest itself, it means that the rite must somehow have been botched, and supplementary techniques are applied. The fact that the magic texts conceive of the possibility that the rites might fail, and that no vision will be obtained, lends the spells a ritual realism: the divine presence should be experienced as real.
The ritual procedures to obtain visions in the magical papyri make it likely that such an experience is also reflected in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth. The exclamation of the son of Hermes in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, “I see,” affirms that the rite has been successful, like the responses of the boy mediums, and that the luminous power has indeed come down from above to grant him the vision. However, this seems only to be a preliminary vision to the vision of the eighth sphere. Hermes tells his son that all the powers of the eighth sphere sing hymns in silence to the ninth, and when Tat asks how they can sing in silence, Hermes says that this is something that cannot be explained by words.67 Tat then addresses a prayer to Hermes as divine mind and asks that his soul should not be bereft of the divine vision.68 In response, he is asked to say or sing a prayer in silence. After this silent hymn, Tat experiences the vision of the eighth sphere: “Father Trismegistus, what shall I say? We have received this light and I see the same vision in you, and I see the Eighth and the souls and angels that are in it singing hymns to the Ninth with its powers. And I see the one who has all their power creating with the spirit.”69
This new affirmation confirms that Tat has experienced the beatific vision and has found what he was looking for.70 The vision of the eighth and the ninth spheres that was experienced by Hermes is now also experienced by Tat. From now on, says Hermes, it is proper to keep a reverent silence about the vision, and to sing silent, interior hymns to the Father until the day the initiate dies. These instructions mean that Tat has also joined his brothers, the spiritual sons of Hermes, and has completed the Way of Immortality. All that remains is to sing a prayer of thanksgiving to God, once again containing vowels, and to erect a votive stela of the beatific vision in the temple of Hermes in Thebes. This fiction, that the text was originally written in Egyptian hieroglyphs on a stela, serves to connect the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth to the primordial Egyptian past of Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of the Hermetic tradition.
The question remains if the treatise was meant for internal or external consumption. Both options are possible and indeed are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the treatise could have been read by adepts of the Way of Hermes as a preparation for the rite of ascent, letting them know what to expect so that they would be more likely to actually experience the luminous vision. As mentioned above, expectation and training are conducive to intense religious experiences. Reading the treatise would also teach the initiate the ritual responses that he should utter to let the officiant of the rite—playing the role of Hermes Trismegistus—know that the desired vision has indeed been seen, in a manner similar to the responses of the boy mediums in the magical papyri.
On the other hand, despite its protestations of secrecy, it is also possible that the treatise was meant for external circulation from the beginning, to act as a sort of advertisement so that prospective disciples would know that the Hermetic tradition offered a concrete spiritual paideia leading to a beatific vision. Prospective readers would then be someone like the young Plotinus or Justin Martyr, who both eagerly sought spiritual guides. The former found the Platonist Ammonius Saccas, whereas the latter became frustrated with Platonism and found Christianity to be a more direct route for experiencing the divine.71 Other would-be initiates, spurred by the text’s promise of a direct vision of the god in the eighth sphere, might have sought out and found a Hermetic teacher. Surely the more direct route of producing the vision through ritual means must have appealed to many. It might have led some to seek out a Hermetic spiritual guide, as is recommended in Corpus Hermeticum 7, That the Greatest Evil Among Humans is Ignorance of God:
Therefore do not let yourself be carried away by the many currents, but those of you who are capable of holding on to the harbor of salvation, by making use of a countercurrent and mooring there, seek out a guide who can lead you to the gates of knowledge, where the shining light is, pure of darkness, and where no one is drunk but everyone is sober, gazing with the heart towards the one who wants to be seen.72
This safe harbor is precisely where the son of Hermes has moored after the beatific vision, taking his place with his spiritual brethren. Regardless of whether the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth was written with external circulation in mind, it later found its way to the book collection of a group of Christians in Upper Egypt.
At some point, probably in the first half of the fourth century, the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth was translated from Greek to Coptic along with other Hermetic texts. The scribal note in Nag Hammadi Codex vi indicates that the scribe had several more Hermetica available to him in addition to the three he included, and since the scribe had a fairly poor command of the Coptic language, he was probably not the translator of our competently translated treatises.73 This indicates that a significant number of Hermetica translated into Coptic must have circulated in fourth-century Egypt, which is now confirmed by the discovery of a Coptic translation of the Hermetic treatise On the Rebirth in the Tchacos Codex.74 In the fourth century, the Coptic language was tightly connected with the monastic movement, and recently the hypothesis of the monastic provenance of the Nag Hammadi codices has been forcefully restated by Hugo Lundhaug and Lance Jenott, who suggest that Pachomian monks with Origenistic leanings might have been responsible for the copying and reading of the treatises.75 The monastic interest in the works of Hermes Trismegistus might be due to his status in some circles as a prophet preparing for the gospel, from whom the Greeks ostensibly stole their philosophy.76
Many monks were interested in having visionary experiences. Antony and Pachomius had several visions, and they both derived authority from their visionary experiences.77 For example, they both reportedly used their visions of torments in the hereafter to admonish their brethren to greater vigilance.78 This accords well with Max Weber’s theory of the importance of supernatural charismatic authority in religious social formations, such as cenobitic monasticism.79 According to the First Greek Life, Pachomius became so famed as a seer that his personal charisma collided with the institutional charisma of the church, and he had to defend himself at a synod in Latopolis. There he claimed that his visions did not come at his own volition but only when God willed it.80 The exceptional status of a seer could be in conflict with the need for humility, which is why it is emphasized that visions were only shared with a few of the more advanced brothers, for their edification.81
Yet the number of visions experienced by Pachomius and his successor Theodore testify to their importance for monastic authority, and the emphasis that Theodore shared visionary experiences with Pachomius in the Vitae might have been a way to smooth over his assumption of leadership after the turbulent periods of Petronius and Horsiesios, at which point visionary experience was increasingly downplayed and leadership routinized.82
Antony, Pachomius, and Theodore are of course foundational figures of Egyptian monasticism, but there are also indications that other anonymous monks experienced or sought to experience visions. The Bohairic Life of Pachomius states that the elder monks often had visions, and that they saw throngs of angels escorting the soul of Pachomius into heaven upon his death.83 In another instance, when a brother asked him concerning his clairvoyance, Pachomius downplayed visions and emphasized brotherly love instead.84 Indeed, Pachomius warned against the desire to see invisible things, since they might frighten and disturb the visionary, yet this warning together with the anecdote of the questioning brother suggests that many monks did desire to experience such visions by themselves.85
The desire to experience visions, or at least to hear of them first-hand, is widely attested elsewhere in monastic sources, not only in the Pachomian federation. For example, in the Apophthegmata patrum we hear of the great monk Silvanus, known for his abstention from food and water, who spent a whole day in his cell, rapt in ecstasy with his arms stretched towards heaven.86 His disciple Zacharias relentlessly questioned him about his visions, and finally learned that he had been snatched up to heaven where he saw the glory of God. At another time, he saw the post-mortem punishment of many monks, while several regular people entered heaven.87 In another saying, under the name of one Olympius, we hear of this monk’s encounter with a pagan Egyptian priest, who asks if the monks receive visions from God because of their way of life. When Olympius denies this, the priest informs him that he himself receives revelations of the mysteries of his God during sacrifices, and that if the monks do not receive visions despite their vigils, prayer, and asceticism, they must have impure thoughts in their hearts. When Olympius reports this to his elders, they surprisingly agree with the pagan priest, which implies that vigils, prayer, and asceticism might produce visions if performed with a pure heart.88
The idea that visions may be granted by God to those with pure hearts is also found in the traditions concerning John of Lycopolis, the famous seer of the Thebaid, who not only had visions of God but could also predict the future.89 He reportedly said that the passions prevent the monk from seeing God; therefore, “the will, then, of those who seek God must be free from all other concerns…. He sees mysteries, for God shows him them; he foresees what belongs to the future; he contemplates revelations like the saints did.”90 Visions, then, are available not only to people endowed with a special charisma but to all those who are able to seek God with a heart pure of worldly concerns.
John further tells of a monk who had practiced asceticism in the desert for many years: “Spending his days in prayer and hymnody and much contemplation, he saw clear visions of a divine nature, sometimes while fully awake, and sometimes while asleep.”91 One of those influenced by John’s notion of pure prayer was Evagrius Ponticus, the famous monk of Nitria later denounced as an Origenist, who states of the ascetic: “By means of an intellectual vision they participate in a nourishing light from the highest realities, like the incorporeal beings who are surrounded by the radiance of the light of the divine glory.”92 This seems to be experienced as an ascent, for he later states that the visionary “reaches out towards the vision of things on high.”93
These examples suffice to show that Egyptian monks were concerned with experiencing divine visions, yet the question remains whether the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth was read by Egyptian monks, and if so, how. The monks could have read it simply as an account of one such vision, or in the sense that the reading itself would bring about the vision, or they may have actively experimented with reciting the prayer, vowels, and sacred names. It is impossible for us to know, but an indication that the people who assembled the codex actually tried to obtain the same vision as Hermes and his son is that the Prayer of Thanksgiving, which in Nag Hammadi Codex vi follows directly upon the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, is prefaced with the words, “This is the prayer that they spoke.”94
Michael A. Williams and Lance Jenott have pointed out that the inclusion of the Prayer of Thanksgiving directly after the Discourse might mean that the compiler of Codex vi, who seems to have inserted the Prayer of his own volition, understood it to represent the blessing sung in silence, which is not spelled out in the Discourse.95 If that is the case, we may suppose that the compiler was interested in knowing exactly what to sing in silence in order to obtain the second vision of the eighth sphere which reveals the ninth sphere through its silent hymnody.
The effort to identify the silent hymnody is unlikely to be mere curiosity, and one could easily imagine that certain monks might have experimented with the procedures outlined by Hermes to gain a vision. After all, later authorities such as Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine would admit that Hermes had profound insights into the nature of God the Father, and this attitude might have legitimized his procedure for obtaining visions.96 One of the monks who had read Hermes sympathetically was Didymus the Blind, who quotes him regarding the wise man who has transcended heaven: “The one then who has transcended the human existence is also the one who is able to say: ‘I do not see the apparent but the invisible,’ since the apparent is temporal while the invisible is [etern]al.”97
Monks were also likely behind the production of Coptic magical papyri, which contain spells similar to the Greek and Demotic ones, but now placed in a Christian, syncretistic mythological landscape.98 One such spell, dated anywhere between the fifth and eighth centuries, is an invocation for protection and a divine vision:99
You must give me the sun as a garment, the moon with which I cover myself as a cloak. You must give me the boat of the sun, that it may diminish for me all evil. You must give me the 7 stars, you must give me the stuff of the stars, and I shall be worthy of beholding your face, god.100
Another Coptic spell, from around 600, calls for the chanting of the seven vowels to induce the vision of the heavenly being Davithea Eleleth, combining the names of two of the “luminaries” known from Sethian texts in the Nag Hammadi treatises.101 We cannot be certain if these papyri were written or used by monks, but they demonstrate that ritual attempts to obtain divine visions were still in practice in Christian Egypt.
Further indications that the possessors of the Nag Hammadi Codices were interested in experiencing visions for themselves is the presence in the codices of the Sethian Platonizing treatises, Allogenes (nhc xi,3) and Zostrianos (nhc viii,1), which have been described as ritual manuals of visionary ascent.102 The proposition that Egyptian monks read and copied such texts, which were clearly outside the boundaries of the gradually emerging orthodoxy of the fourth century, may then be explained by the monastic preoccupation with obtaining visions.103
The visionary experience described in the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth is embedded in the Hermetic ritual tradition as the climax of the Way of Hermes. Although the Platonic school offered the possibility of seeing God with the eyes of the mind through contemplative practice, the Way of Hermes presents this possibility as something achievable through ritual means, more akin to the visionary spells in the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri and indeed in later Neoplatonic theurgy. We have seen that the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, similarly to the divinatory spells in the Greek and Demotic magical papyri, reflects Richard Gordon’s concept of ritual realism: the divine presence invoked in the texts was supposed to be experienced as truly present. Although it is impossible for scholars to gain unmediated access to such experiences, it is certainly true that historically, some people actively pursued, and claimed to experience, visionary ascents. Such claims lend the alleged visionaries authority and prestige: the initiates of the Way of Hermes would after the ascent take their place among the spiritual brethren, who claimed to be in constant contact with the supernal realm through their silent hymnodies.
Some of the later Christian readers of the treatises of Hermes also actively pursued visionary experiences, and this could account for the presence of the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth in the Nag Hammadi Codices. Christian monks wished to emulate monastic heroes and founders, such as Antony and Pachomius, and obtain visions for themselves, even if such visions were sometimes regarded with distrust by the increasingly institutionalized church.
This paper derives in part from work undertaken under the aegis of newcont (New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt) at the University of Oslo, Faculty of Theology. The project is funded by the European Research Council (erc) under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) / erc Grant Agreement no. 283741.
1 Cf. Bremmer 2012.
2 Flannery, Shantz, and Werline 2008, 1–8.
3 Yamane 2000.
4 Yamane 2000, 76.
8 See Turner 2013, 415–17.
10 Cf. Festugière, 1944–1954; 1967.
11 Mahé 1978–1982; 1991; Fowden 1986.
12 For the rite in On the Rebirth, see Corp. herm. 13. For argument, Mahé 1978–1982, 1:41–7; 1986, 145–47.
13 Bull 2014, 179–374. I refer to the candidate as male, since this role is played by Tat in Corp. herm. 13, it is however also possible that women were admitted, as some Hermetic treatises feature Isis as the teacher (Stob. herm. 23–27).
14 Corp. herm. 13.15. It is unclear if “just as Poimandres predicted the Eighth” is spoken by Hermes or Tat. All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. The edition used for all quotes from Corp. herm. and Stob. herm. is Nock and Festugière 1945–1954.
18 Stob. herm. 2A.6. Cf. Stob. herm. 7.3, where Hermes says that those who do not have power to see God are under the dominion of justice and fate, implying that those who have it are not.
19 Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 63.11. I follow the edition of Mahé 1978–1982, 1:64–87; cf. also Dirkse, Brashler, and Parrott 1979, 346–73.
20 Hanegraaff 2008.
23 If in fact the translator is the same: Mahé has argued that the translator of Asclepius nhc vi,8 is someone else than that of Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 and Pr. Thanks. nhc vi,7, but even so the parallel Greek of the latter text in Papyrus Mimaut (pgm iii) and the Latin in Asclepius 41 shows the competence and fidelity of the translator.
32 Polito, Langdon, and Brown 2010.
35 Ritner 1993, 218–19.
38 Spell 136a, T.2. Variant title: “Another spell for initiating the blessed one on the day of the 6th-day feast” (Allen 1974, 111–12).
39 Segal 2011, 382; cf. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4QShirShabba).
40 Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 55.10–22. Cf. 57.18–23, which characterizes the prayer with all the heart, soul and power as a “rational sacrifice,” or a “sacrifice of words.”
41 Morris 2006, 20; Winkelmann 1997.
43 Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 56.27–28. The number of vowels written increases by segments of one per vowel, so that alpha is written once, epsilon twice, and so on until the omegas.
46 Bull 2017, 82–87.
49 Flood 2006, 172–78.
52 Gordon 1997, 81–6.
53 Dieleman 2011, 108–15.
54 Johnston 2001, 102.
56 pgm iv.744–5 (Betz 2003, 47, 57).
57 Bull 2014, 425.
59 Bull 2017, 87–91.
61 Gordon 2013, 164n3: “‘Realism’ in this sense means the claim that correct religious knowledge-practices can fulfill pragmatic human wishes by providing direct access to the divine world, which will necessarily respond. This sense roughly corresponds to the Egyptian concept/deity Heka/heka(u).”
62 pgm vii.540–78 at 575–77 (Henrichs and Preisendanz 1973–1974; Betz 1985).
64 pdm xiv.1–92 at 32–33 and 53 (Griffith and Thompson 1921).
67 Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6, 58.17–25. Lines 23–24 literally translates to “you have become (someone) one cannot speak to,” and is often taken as a chiding remark for Tat’s stupid question. It seems rather to me that the phrase means that Tat has now come to a place where words will not suffice, emphasizing the ineffability of the eighth and the ninth.
68 Addresses a prayer to Hermes: Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 58.28–59.9; That soul not be bereft: Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 59.15–17.
75 Lundhaug and Jenott 2015.
77 Hedrick 1980, 84–86.
79 Goehring 1986.
80 G1 112. For an English translation of the lives, see Veilleux 1980.
82 For visions of Theodore, see, e.g., SBo 82, 83, 103; G1 93, 102. For visions shared with Pachomius, see G1 76. For routinization of leadership, see Goehring 1986, 240–45.
86 AP/G Silvanus 1, 3. For an English translation, see Ward 1975, 222–223.
88 Ward 1975, 160.
89 Frankfurter 2003, 369–70.
91 Hist. mon. 1.45 (Russell 1980, 59; Festugière 1971, 27).
95 Williams and Jenott 2006, 1044. For the blessing sung in silence, see Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 59.19–22.
96 Moreschini 2011; Bull forthcoming a.
97 Didymus, Comm. Eccl. 167.19–23 (Kramer 1970, my trans.; cf. Bull forthcoming a).
98 Frankfurter 2003, 378–79.
99 Römer and Thissen 1990, 175.
101 London Oriental Manuscript 6794. Cf. Meyer and Smith 1994, 279–80.
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)| false Williams Michael A. Jenott Lance Painchaud Louis Poirier Paul-Hubert “Inside the Covers of Codex VI”Coptica – Gnostica – Manichaica: Mélanges offerts à Wolf-Peter Funk 2006 Québec Les presses de l’Université Laval 1023 1052 Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi. Section “études” 7.
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See Turner 2013, 415–17.
Cf. Festugière, 1944–1954; 1967.
Bull 2014, 179–374. I refer to the candidate as male, since this role is played by Tat in Corp. herm. 13, it is however also possible that women were admitted, as some Hermetic treatises feature Isis as the teacher (Stob. herm. 23–27).
Van den Kerchove 2012, 358–71; 2017; DeConick 2016, 79–90.
Bull 2014, 319–74, 415–36; Gordon 2013.
Polito, Langdon, and Brown 2010.
Ritner 1993, 218–19.
Cf. Podemann Sørensen 2012, 478–81 with ref. to: Coffin Text 1.116, 4.254, 345; Pyramid Text 852–856; P. Berlin 3055 (Karnak Liturgy for Amon); Book of the Dead 15, 16. Cf. also Bull 2017, 91.
Segal 2011, 382; cf. Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4QShirShabba).
Morris 2006, 20; Winkelmann 1997.
Stob. herm. 6.2–4; cf. Bull 2014, 337–50; 2017, 76–81.
Janowitz 1989; Kaplan 1997, 97; Scholem 1954, 49–54.
Bull 2017, 82–87.
Cf. Mahé 2006, who interprets the embrace to be similar to the Valentinian kiss.
Flood 2006, 172–78.
On boy mediums, cf. Hopfner 1921, 236; Johnston 2001. For an English translation of the spells, cf. Betz 1985.
Gordon 1997, 81–6.
Dieleman 2011, 108–15.
Johnston 2001, 102.
Bull 2014, 425.
Bull 2017, 87–91.
Taves 2009, 152, 164; Greene 2012, 85, 167, 198, 244.
Gordon 2013, 164n3: “‘Realism’ in this sense means the claim that correct religious knowledge-practices can fulfill pragmatic human wishes by providing direct access to the divine world, which will necessarily respond. This sense roughly corresponds to the Egyptian concept/deity Heka/heka(u).”
Corp. herm. 13. Cf. Kasser et al. 2008, 29–30; Wurst 2012.
Lundhaug and Jenott 2015.
Hedrick 1980, 84–86.
Ward 1975, 160.
Frankfurter 2003, 369–70.
Williams and Jenott 2006, 1044. For the blessing sung in silence, see Disc. 8–9 nhc vi,6 59.19–22.
Frankfurter 2003, 378–79.
Römer and Thissen 1990, 175.
London Oriental Manuscript 6794. Cf. Meyer and Smith 1994, 279–80.
Turner 2013, 418. Cf. also the 10th- or 11th- century Coptic invocation to receive a revelation (Tibet 2014).
Lundhaug and Jenott 2015, 6, 70, 234, 253, 264; Hedrick 1980, 91–92; contra Emmel 2008, who averred that the books were likely translated into Coptic by urban intellectuals wishing to make a new, Egyptian, esoteric literature.