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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 128




One has only to read through the remains of the Trismegistic literature preserved to us to assure himself that the whole of it looked back to the Pœmandres instruction as the most primitive form of the tradition in the language of Greece. The extant form of our “Pœmandres” sermon is clearly not the most primitive form; but whatever that form was, it must have contained the cosmological part.

Now, if we regard this cosmogenesis as a purely literary compilation, the task of the higher criticism will be to try to sift out the various elements in it, and if possible to trace them to their sources.

But before making any attempt of this nature, it will be as well to consider the nature of the literary art of our document. It purports itself to be an apocalypse, or rather the record of an apocalyptic vision, and not a purely literary compilation from already existing literary sources. It declares itself to be the work of a seer and prophet and not of a scribe or commentator; it claims to be an inspired document, a scripture, and not the work of a schoolman.

Of this class of writing we have very many examples in other scriptures, and it will be as well to consider

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briefly the nature of such documents. In the original form of apocalypses we do not as a rule find that prior formal literary material is used—that is to say, we do not find that previously existing written sources are incorporated; what we do find is that in almost every case the seer uses the forms and terms of previously existing ideas to express what he sees. These forms and terms are found in already existing written and oral traditions, and the prophetical writer is compelled to use the thought-language of his own mind and of that of his age to express himself. This, however, does not negate the possibility of his having seen a true vision, of his having been inspired.

It is evident that whoever wrote the “Pœmandres” must have been saturated with the religious, mystical, philosophic, and scientific thought of his age, clothed in the forms of the thought-language of his day; and it is also clear that whatever “newness” there may have been in him, was owing to the nature of the “touch” of inspiration he had received. This striking of a new keynote, as it were, in his inner nature, enabled him to regroup and reconstruct the previous ideas he had imbibed from his studies.


Now as far as our cosmogenesis is concerned, it has not yet been found possible to trace the exact verbal forms of its elements to any precise literary sources, but it has been found possible to point to written sources which contain similar ideas; and not only so, but with regard to the main features of it, a distinct prototype has been found in Egypt itself. This discovery is due to Reitzenstein (pp. 59 ff.),and the prototype is to be found in an Egyptian inscription in the British

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[paragraph continues] Museum, which was first read correctly and interpreted by Dr J. H. Breasted. 1 Before using it, however, Reitzenstein got his colleague Professor Spiegelberg to go through it; and again when Maspero, in reviewing 2 Breasted’s work, had further confirmed the view of it which Reitzenstein had in his mind, Spiegelberg again revised certain points in the translation owing to Maspero’s suggestions.

The inscription itself is dated about the eighth century B.C., but it states that it is the reproduction of a then old written text from the temple of Ptah at Memphis.

The chief content has to do with the Osiris-myth, but into this is inserted the distinctive Ptah-doctrine. Ptah is supposed by some to have originally been simply the god of handicraft, seeing that he is equated by the Greek interpreters of god-names with Hephaistos. He was, however, rather the Demiurgus, for in very early times he is found in the closest connection with the Gods of Heaven and Gods of Light, and is conceived as the Dispenser of all life.

In our text Ptah is brought into the closest relations with the Supreme Deity (Atum). This “God the Father” emanates from himself eight deities (the Ogdoad). Each one of these is Ptah with a distinctive epithet. To the fourth 3 of them, “Ptah the Great,” a theological system is attached, which, though not entirely ignoring the former presentation, is but loosely interwoven with it.

Before, however, Reitzenstein proceeds to deal with this, he gives Professor Spiegelberg’s translation of a

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[paragraph continues] Prayer to Ptah, of the time of Ramses III. (c. 1233 B.C.), from the Papyrus Harris (I. 44, 3 ff.), in order to make clearer the circle of ideas into which we shall be introduced. This Prayer is as follows:


“Hail to thee! Thou art great, thou art old, Tatenen, 1 Father of the gods,
God ancient from the beginning;
Who fashioned men,
Who made the gods,
Who began with the creation as the first creator,
Who created for all who came after him,
Who made the heaven; as his heart 2 he created it;
Who hanged it up,
As God Shu raised himself; 3
Who founded the earth of thy own power,
Who circled in the primal water of the Great Green, 4
Who created the invisible world, which brings the dead bodies to rest;

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Who let Rā come to make them glad,
As Prince of Eternity,
Lord of Eternity,
Lord of Life;
Who fills the lungs with air,
Who gives breath to every nostril,
Who vivifies all beings with his gifts.
Length of life, fortune, and fate are subject unto him
They live by that which goeth forth out of his mouth. 1
Who made contentment for all the gods,
In his form of ancient primal water; 2
Lord of Eternity, to whom Eternity is subject,
Breath of Life for all beings.”

There are other hymns of an exactly similar nature in which other gods are praised, especially Thoth and Horus. And now to turn to our inscription, and to that part of the text assigned to the fourth of the Forms of Manifestation, or Aspects or Persons, of Ptah.


l. 52. Ptah the Great is the heart and tongue of the god-circle. 3

§ 1, l. 53. (Two gods) 4 are they, the one as heart, the other as tongue, emanations of Atum. Exceeding great is Ptah; if he . . . then are their ka’s in this heart and tongue [of his].

l. 54. When Horus arose in him (Atum) as Ptah, and when Thoth arose in him as Ptah, the power of heart

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and tongue came into being through him. (It is Atum) who brings forth his being out of every body and out of every mouth of all the gods. All men, all quadrupeds, all creeping things live through his thinking and uttering whatsoever he will.

§ 2, l. 55. His god-circle is before him; he is teeth [and] lips, vessels [and] hands. Atum (is in his) god-circle; Atum is in his vessels, in his hands; the god-circle is also teeth and lips in that mouth which hath uttered the name of everything, and out of which Shu and Tefnut have proceeded. 1

l. 56. Then the god-circle organised the seeing of the eye, the hearing of the ear, the smelling of the nose, wherewith they made the desire of the heart to arise. And this [heart] it is which accomplishes every desire, but it is the tongue which repeats 2 what the heart desires.

§ 3. He (Ptah) gives existence 3 unto all gods, to Atum and his god-circle, for every god-word 4 comes into existence through the desire of the heart and the command of the tongue.

l. 57. He makes the ka . . . ; he makes all nourishment and all offerings 5 with this word; he makes what

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is loved and what is hated. He gives life to the pious, death to the impious. He makes every fabric, and every fabrication.

l. 58. The doing of the arms, the going of the feet, the movement of all limbs, is accomplished by the utterance of the word, because of the desire of the heart, [the word] which comes from the tongue and effects the whole of all things. So arises the teaching: Atum has made the gods to become Ptah Tatenen 1 so soon as the gods come into existence. All things proceed from him: sacrifice and food as well as oblation and all fair things.

§ 4, l. 59. He is Thoth the Wise, whose power is greater than that of the other gods. He (Thoth) at-oned himself with Ptah, after he had brought forth all things and all god-words; 2 after that he had fashioned the gods, had made the cities, settled the nomes, established the gods in their shrines,

l. 60. When he had ordained their sacrifices, founded their shrines, and had made statues of [? for] their bodies for their contentment.

§ 5. If the gods enter into their body, so is he (Ptah) in every wood, in every jewel, in every metal. 3 All things thrive after him if they [the gods] are there. To him all gods and their ka’s make oblation, uniting and binding themselves together [for him who is] Lord of the Two Lands. 4

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With these words the special theological system attached to the fourth person of Ptah is concluded, and the text returns to the Osiris-myth.


From this most interesting inscription copied from an ancient written document, we learn in the first place that in Egypt already, a good thousand years before the date of our “Pœmandres,” we have what the critical mind would call a distinct specimen of syncretism; namely, an attempt to combine three God-myths, or traditions, into a single system. These, if we persist in taking a purely traditional view, are: (i.) The Hermopolitan myth of Thoth as the Logos-Demiurge, who also in it frequently appears as an aspect of the Supreme; (ii.) The doctrine of the Ptah-priests of Memphis, according to which Ptah as the Primal Deity creates himself and all gods and men, and fashions the world; and (iii.) The Heliopolitan theology, in which Atum as the first of an ennead of gods unites his eight fellow-gods in himself and is the Primal God and Primal Basis of all things.

In all this the scribe or prophet has employed very early conceptions: on the one hand, that the plurality of gods are but “members” of a One and Only God; and on the other, that a sharply-defined and in some respect special God is similar to another more-general God in some particular attribute of his. Thus Atum is really the Primal God; but the God-circle, his “Body” (or Pleroma), consists of Eight different Forms of Ptah. Atum has emanated them; he is therefore “he who himself creates himself”; but equally so has Ptah created Atum and himself. The most important Member of this universal Ptah-Being or Cosmic God is Ptah the Great,

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who is Heart and Tongue—the former as Horus, the latter as Thoth. Thoth proceeds into manifestation as Tongue or Word to accomplish the cosmic purpose; but the Word is only the thought which has proceeded, or in a certain fashion emanated, out of the Person. Thoth and Horus are inseparably united with Ptah.

Reitzenstein thinks that the occasion for introducing the whole of this system into an exposition which otherwise deals with the Osiris-myth, was afforded by the parts played by Horus and Thoth in that myth. But it is evidently in itself a special system in which Thoth was the One God, the Word by whom all things were made.

All of this must be quite manifest to any careful reader, and therefore there is no reason for its further elaboration. But though we have recovered one specimen of this kind of syncretism only, it is not to be supposed that it was unusual; indeed, it was a necessity in Egypt, where, beyond all other lands, the idea of a number of divinities united in one, each showing forth in separation some attribute dominantly, but in union possessing simultaneously the attributes of all the others, was the only key possible to a state of affairs where a plurality of gods existed side by side with the doctrines of the One and the All.


Nevertheless, our inscription is not only of general use, but of special use for an elucidation of the main elements in the “Pœmandres” cosmogony. Any attempt to translate the ideas of the Atum-Ptah-Thoth combination into Greek could have resulted in no other nomenclature than θέος (God)—δημιουργὸς or δημιουργὸς νοῦς (Demiurge or Demiurgic Mind)—νοῦς

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and λόγος (Mind and Word), as is the case in our treatise.

This argument is all the stronger if we reflect that if Thoth, after the ordering of the cosmos, at-oned himself again with Ptah, then he must have completed this ordering which was emanated from Ptah. It is thus that the writer has brought to clear expression the conception that the Word is the Proceeding Thought of Ptah, and that both are inseparably united with one another.

So, too, we find in the “Pœmandres” that the Logos, after the completion of the cosmic ordering, returns to the Demiurgic Mind and is at-oned with him.

This similarity of fundamental conception cannot be due to chance, and we must therefore conclude that a doctrine essentially corresponding with the theology of our inscription is the main source of the “Pœmandres” cosmogony. This fairly establishes the main content of our cosmogony on an Egyptian ground.

If to this we add the general Egyptian belief that a man’s soul, after being “purified” in the after-death state, goes back to God, to live for the eternity as a god with the gods, 1 then we have established the chief part of the “Pœmandres” treatise as the Hellenised doctrine of the Egyptian priests—the mystery-tradition.

With all of this agrees the thought that the God as Mind dwells in the pious, as we learn from the Hermes Prayers. So also it is Ptah in our inscription who gives life to the pious and death to the impious. In very early accounts we find Ptah, the Mind, is the

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imparter of the gnosis for the gods—that is, as a Greek would say, he was the inventor of philosophy, as indeed Diogenes Laërtius tells us (Proœm. 1): “The Egyptians declare that Hephaistos was the source of philosophy, the presidents of which are priests and prophets.” Ptah, the Mind, reveals himself to his own and gives them good counsel; “Ptah hath spoken to thee,” Suidas tells us (s.v.), was a Greek-Egyptian saying, which is best elucidated by the Stele of Intef, which tells us that the people say of the heart of Intef: “It is an oracle of the god which is in every body.” 1

All of this and much more of a like nature make it indubitably clear that the fundamental conceptions of the “Pœmandres” are Egyptian, and that the theory of Neoplatonic forgery must be for ever abandoned; so that even the dreams of Dévéria are nearer the truth than the confident assertions of many a great name in scholarship.


But what, says Reitzenstein (p. 69), is not Egyptian, is the doctrine of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of God, who descends and becomes a slave of the Fate-Sphere; the Man who, though originally endowed with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his own freedom and regain his original state.

This doctrine seems to have been in its origin part and parcel of the Chaldæan mystery-tradition; but it was widely spread in Hellenistic circles, and had analogies in all the great mystery-traditions, as we shall now proceed to see, and chiefly by the analysis of what has hitherto been regarded as one of the most chaotic and puzzling documents of Gnosticism.


130:1 Zeitschr. f. äg. Sprache (1901), pp. 39 ff.

130:2 “Sur la Tout-puissance de la Parole,” Recueil des Travaux rel. à la Phil. . . . égypt., xxiv. 168 ff.

130:3 The God of Fire and Mind.

131:1 An epithet of Ptah. But compare the Hymn to Rā given by Budge (op. cit., i. 339): “Praise to thee O Rā, exalted Sekhem, Ta-thenen, Begetter of his Gods.” Sekhem is vital “power”; Tathenen is, therefore, presumably Creative Life, or the Demiurgic or Creative Power. On page 230 Budge tells us that Tathenen is elsewhere symbolised as a fire-spitting serpent armed with a knife.

131:2 The Heaven is the Great Heart of the Great Cosmos; in man the little cosmos, the heart, was the seat of the true understanding and will.

131:3 Shu generally represents the dry air between the earth and sky. Cf. the Hymn to Amen-Rā: “Thou art the One God, who did’st form thyself into two gods; thou art the creator of the egg, and thou did’st produce thy Twin-gods” (Budge, op. cit., ii. 89). Shu’s twin or syzygy is Tefnut, who in terrene physics represents the moist air; but Shu is elsewhere equated with the Light.

131:4 The Ocean of Heaven.

132:1 The life or breath of the Creator.

132:2 Sc. the water of the Great Green.

132:3 Paut, sphere, or group, or company, or hierarchy, or pleroma,—here an Ogdoad.

132:4 Namely, Thoth and Horus.

133:1 That is, the heart (Horus) rules action by fingers (and toes), by means of the ducts or vessels (arteries, veins, and nerves) leading to them, and all that these mean on the hidden side of things; while the tongue in the mouth (Thoth), by means of teeth and lips, is the organ of speech, or intelligent or meaning utterance.

133:2 This appears to be a mistranslation; it seems by what follows to mean “commands” or “gives expression to.”

133:3 Not being; that is, brings them into manifestation. He is the Demiurge.

133:4 R. glosses this as hieroglyph; but it should perhaps mean “word of the language of the gods”—the language shown by action in the world.

133:5 That is to say, apparently, the fruit of actions on which gods and men feed. Cf. Hermes-Prayer, II. 2, where Hermes is said to “collect the nourishment of gods and men.”

134:1 That is, as we have seen above, Ptah as the Demiurgic Power.

134:2 Hieroglyphics; showing that the oldest hieroglyphics were symbols of the words of action—that is to say, modes of expression of being in action.

134:3 Lit., copper.

134:4 That is, the worlds of gods, or immortals, and of men, or mortals. But Reitzenstein says: “Thus the God of Memphis [i.e. Ptah] is the divinity or ‘the God’ of all Egypt”—meaning thereby the physical upper and lower lands; but I prefer a wider sense.

137:1 This does not mean, I hold, that there was no “reincarnation,” that is, that the “being” of the man did not emanate other “souls,” but that the “soul” of a particular life did not return—that all of it deserving of immortality became a god with the gods, or “those-that-are,” and do not only ex-ist.

138:1 Cf. Breasted, Zeit. f. äg. Spr. (1901), p. 47.

Next: VII. The Myth of Man in the Mysteries