September 26, 2010 by Korshi
Today’s cosmology comes from the Greek Magical Papyri, specifically PGM XIII lines 1-646, from two versions of a spell titled ‘The Eighth Book of Moses.’ But don’t let the title fool you; while this has a few Jewish elements it’s actually a late Egyptian work, written in Greek and with heavy Greek influences. The version we have was probably found in a tomb near Thebes, and dates from the fourth century AD, but its contents are certainly older. The spells give instructions for summoning a god for the purposes of divination, and part of the spoken formula includes an account of creation; this is what I’ve tried to capture in the infographic above. The two versions are slightly different, and not entirely clear; I’ll give an account of the synthesised creation myth I read from it, and then discuss what the original version might have been.
The creator god isn’t explicitly named in this account; the scholar Morton Smith thinks it’s the Egyptian sun god Harpocrates (‘Horus the Child’), but other parts of the spell seem to be addressed to Aion (a vaguely defined but powerful god in late antique religion), so either are options; I’ve just opted to call him ‘God’, we should probably imagine him as being a traditional Egyptian creator god like Atum-Re. He laughs seven times, creating a god each time. The first laugh creates Phos-Auge (‘Light-Radiance’) who illuminates everything as the god over the cosmos and fire. The second laugh creates Water; the Earth heaves and splits the water into three parts. Although only one of these is named – the Abyss (the Waters below the Earth) – the other two are probably the Waters of the Earth and the Waters of the Heavens (the source of rain). A god appears to govern the Abyss, and his name is given as either Eschakleô or Promsakha-Aleeio.
The third laugh creates Nous-Phrenes (‘Mind-Wits’), who is named Hermes or Semesilam (‘Eternal Sun’, an old Semitic deity). This god holds a heart, which was the seat of cognition according to Egyptian thought. We should probably think of him as Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and the moon, who was often called ‘the Heart of Re’.
The fourth laugh creates Genna (‘Creative Power’) who controls Spora (‘Procreation’.) Then the god laughs a fifth time, but is gloomy; the goddess Moira (‘fate’) appears, holding a set of scales to symbolise her power over justice. Hermes fights her for control of justice, but God intervenes and says that both will control justice, but everything in the world will be subject to Moira, who is the first to receive the sceptre of the world.
Gladdened, God laughed a sixth time, and this time Kairos (‘time’) comes forward holding a sceptre to indicate his kingship. Kairos gives his sceptre to Phos-Auge, who wraps Kairos in his glory.
Weeping now, the God laughs for the last time, and Psyche (‘soul’) came into being; there may be a reference here to the older Egyptian creation myth in which mankind was created from the sun god’s tears. Psyche sets the world in motion, and seeing this the God hisses – hissing, and making popping sounds, were two techniques used by magicians to avert evil. This hiss causes the Earth to heave and give birth to the Pythian Serpent, which has foreknowledge of everything. The Serpent frightens the God, who makes popping sounds, and Phobos (‘fear’) comes into existence, armed and terrifying. Frightened once again, God speaks the name “Iao”, and the great god Iao comes forth from the echo.
This is one of the most interesting parts, since this god, better known by the modern transliterations Yahweh or Jehovah, is the Jewish god. He pops up quite often in the Greek Magical Papyri, and Morton Smith, the scholar mentioned earlier, sees this not as a direct Jewish influence, but as evidence of an Egyptian Yahweh-cult, which grew out of the polytheistic Jewish religion attested in the Egyptian settlement of Elephantine from as early as the fifth century. The Jewish elements in the Papyri are very different from the Rabbinic and Biblical Judaism we know of elsewhere, and the transliteration Iao wasn’t used by the Judaean Jews; the Greek translation of the Bible they used, the Septuagint, used the term Kurios ho Theos (‘The Lord God’) in its place. I don’t think there’s been enough research done to definitively confirm this hypothesis, but it seems quite reasonable to me.
Back to the story: Phobos and Iao fight over which should have precedence, but God says that both may have command, and they fix the world in place.
As I’ve said both versions are very slightly different, and Morton Smith has attempted to piece together the original version. In this reconstruction, each laugh creates a pair of deities, one male, one female. This system of ‘yoked-pairs’ (syzygies) is very common in late antique cosmologies, and may have originated in Egypt where the Heliopolitan creation myth begins with the god Atum creating Shu (the male light-filled air) and Tefnut (the female moisture), who then produce Geb (the male earth) and Nut (the female sky).
So the original pairs identified by Smith are:
- Phos (male, light) – Auge (female, radiance)
- Earth (female) – Water (male)
- Nous (male, mind) – Phrenes (female, wits)
- Genna (female, creative power) – spora (male, procreation)
- Moira (female, fate) – Hermes (male)
- Kairos/Helios (male, time/the sun) – Basilissa/Selene (the queen/moon)
- Psyche (female, soul)- Pythian Serpent (male)
Hans Dieter Betz (editor), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells, Volume One: Texts, University of Chicago, 1992
Morton Smith, ‘P Leid J 395 (PGM XIII) and Its Creation Legend’ in Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, Volume II, Shaye J D Cohen (editor), E J Brill, Leiden, 1996 (1986), pp.227-234
Morton Smith, ‘Jewish elements in the Magical Papyri’ in Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, Volume II, Shaye J D Cohen (editor), E J Brill, Leiden, 1996 (1984), pp.242-256