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David Myatt, Corpus Hermeticum I, III, IV, VIII, XI. 126 pages.
Second Edition, 2017.
ISBN-13: 978-1545020142

This book is a welcome addition to the works of Myatt available in print bringing together as it does his translation of five of the chapters (tracts, tractates) of the ancient Corpus Hermeticum together with his extensive commentary on each of those chapters.

It is apparent that a lot of thought, study, and erudition has gone into the translation. Instead of choosing the conventional English equivalent of particular Greek terms – such as might be found in lexicons such as LSJ or as taught in those few, select, schools which still teach Greek and Latin, and such as are found in other English translations, from Everard to Mead to Copenhaver, and in the French translation of Nock {1} – Myatt has opted for alternatives (including transliterations) in order, in his words, to avoid reading into the texts such modern – non-Classical – meanings as particular English words now might suggest to the reader. Obvious examples are theos instead of ‘God’, perceiverance instead of ‘Mind’, logos instead of ‘Word’, phaos instead of ‘light’, and physis instead of ‘nature’. Not so obvious examples – from among dozens – include envoy instead of ‘herald’, elden instead of ‘ancient’, geniture instead of ‘genesis’, all of which divergences Myatt explains in his commentary.

Of his choice of the term envoy, for example, he writes:

“While the conventional translation here of κῆρυξ is ‘herald’, I consider it unsatisfactory given what that English term now often denotes: either the type of herald familiar from the New Testament or the herald of medieval literature and stories (qv. Morte Arthure, and The Knights Tale by Chaucer). Given the Greco-Roman context (Hermes, Thoth) and classical antecedents (such as Hermes as the protector of mortal envoys and messengers) then ‘envoy’ is more accurate especially given that this is an envoy from the artisan-creator assigned to impart information to mortals.”

Myatt’s thoughtful choice of English words as well as his transliterations sets his translation apart from all other translations of those four tracts, making them not only more interesting but also more esoteric and mystical as befits texts which are themselves esoteric and mystical. That is, Myatt’s has managed to express in English something of the hermetic, esoteric, and rather pagan nature and pagan mysticism of the original Greek text whereas other translations read either like epistles about the God of the early Christians or like pious sermons.

Three examples will illustrate the difference between Myatt’s translation and two of the most widely read translations.

The first example is from the Poemander (Pymander) tract.

Mead translates:

And I say: Whence then have Nature’s elements their being? To this He answer gives: From Will of God. Nature received the Word and gazing on the Cosmos Beautiful did copy it, making herself into a cosmos, by means of her own elements and by the births of souls. And God-the-Mind, being male and female both, as Light and Life subsisting, brought forth another Mind to give things form, who, God as he was of Fire and Spirit, formed Seven Rulers who enclose the cosmos that the sense perceives. Men call their ruling Fate.

Copenhaver:

The elements of nature – from whence have they arisen, I asked. And he answered from the counsel of god which, having taken in the word and seen the beauty of the cosmos, imitated it, having become a cosmos through its own elements and its progeny of souls. The mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as light and life, by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman, who as god of fire and spirit crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate.

Myatt:

So I asked from what place, then, the parsements of physis? To which he answered, from the deliberations of theos, who, having comprehended the logos and having seen the beauty of the cosmic order, re-presented it, and so became a cosmic order from their own parsements and by the birth of Psyche. Theos, the perceiveration, male-and-female, being Life and phaos, whose logos brought forth another perceiveration, an artisan, who – theos of Fire and pnuema – fashioned seven viziers to surround the perceptible cosmic order in spheres and whose administration is described as fate.

The second example is from the beginning of the fourth tract, which Myatt titles Chaldron Or Monas, which Copenhaver titles The Mixing Bowl or Monad, and Mead The Cup Or Monad.

Mead translates:

With Reason, not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World; so that thou thus shouldst think of Him as everywhere and ever-being, the Author of all things, and One and Only, who by His Will all beings hath created. This Body of Him is a thing no man can touch, or see, or measure, a Body inextensible, like to no other frame. ‘Tis neither Fire nor Water, Air nor Breath; yet all of them come from it.

Copenhaver:

Since the craftsman made the whole cosmos by reasoned speech, not by hand, you should conceive of him as present, as always existing, as having made all things, as the one and only and having crafted by his own will the things that are. For this is his body, neither tangible nor visible nor measurable nor dimensional nor like any other body; it is not fire nor water nor spirit, yet all things come from it.

Myatt:

Because the artisan crafted the complete cosmic order not by hand but through Logos, you should understand that Being as presential, as eternal, as having crafted all being, as One only, who by thelesis formed all that is.

That Being has no body that can be touched or seen or measured or which is separable or which is similar to any other body: not of Fire or Water or of Pneuma even though all such things are from that Being.

The third example is from the end of tract eleven which Myatt titles From Perceiverance To Hermes, Copenhaver Mind To Hermes, and Mead Mind Unto Hermes.

Mead:

But if thou lockest up thy soul within thy body, and dost debase it, saying: I nothing know; I nothing can; I fear the sea; I cannot scale the sky; I know not who I was, who I shall be;—what is there [then] between [thy] God and thee? For thou canst know naught of things beautiful and good so long as thou dost love thy body and art bad. The greatest bad there is, is not to know God’s Good; but to be able to know [Good], and will, and hope, is a Straight Way, the Good’s own [Path], both leading there and easy.

Copenhaver:

But if you shut up your soul in your body and abase it and say ‘I understand nothing,I can do nothing; I fear the sea, I cannot go up to heaven; I do not know what I was; I do not know what I will be,’ then what have you to do with god? While you are evil and a lover of the body, you can understand none of the things that are beautiful and good. To be ignorant of the divine is the ultimate vice, but to be able to know, to will and to hope is the straight and easy way leading to the good.

Myatt:

But if you enclose your psyche in your body and lessen it, saying “I comprehend nothing; have no power; fear the sea; am unable to go up into the heavens; do not know who I was and cannot know what I will be,” then what is there with you and also with the god?

For, indulging the body and rotten, you are unable to apprehend the beautiful, the noble. To be completely rotten is to be unaware of the numinous, while having the ability to discover, to have volition, to have expectations, is the direct, the better – its own – way to nobility.

All the unusual words and terms Myatt uses, such as presential, thelesis, and “parsements of physis”, he explains in his commentary, with his approach making his translation the one most suitable for those interested in ancient esotericism and mysticism in general and those with a special interest in hermeticism; and suitable because it, together with his detailed commentary, allows the reader to decide for themselves matters such as whether ‘theos’ in these texts means ‘god’ in the Christian sense or ‘the god’ – the primary divinity – of an ancient paganism, and whether or not νοῦς in these texts really is ‘Mind’ and thus a definite philosophical principle distinguishable from ‘the body’ or whether it simply means, as Myatt suggests, a perceiveration – an insight or an awareness – by the individual.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Myatt – in his introduction to the fourth tractate, Chaldron Or Monas – makes an interesting if currently unfashionable point about the culture, the society, and the people, originally associated with the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum, and although he does not spell it out, he means those of Greco-Roman descent and of Greco-Roman culture who, as ancient colonials, lived in Egypt as opposed to what colonials might have called the ‘natives’, the indigenous peoples of Egypt with their very different culture and language. Myatt writes that,

In this matter, I incline toward the view […] that what is imparted in this tractate, as with the Poemandres and Ιερός Λόγος, is primarily a mystical, and – for centuries – aural, Greek tradition, albeit one possibly influenced, over time and in some degree, by the metaphysical speculations of later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. That is, that in Ἑρμοῦ πρὸς Τάτ ὁ κρατῆρ ἡ μονάς and Ιερός Λόγος and Ποιμάνδρης, we have an intimation of the metaphysics and the cosmogony taught to initiates of that (or those) ancient and aural and paganus Greek mystical tradition(s) mentioned by writers such as Herodotus. And an intimation that is not – a few borrowed illustrative terms notwithstanding – in any significant and metaphysical manner deriving from or influenced by Biblical stories or by early Christian theology or by indigenous Egyptian culture.

This view contrasts with that of Copenhaver, et al, with Copenhaver for instance writing – confusingly, and perhaps in a ‘politically correct’ and certainly populist way {2} – about the ‘north African’ and Egyptian context and origin of the Corpus as if the authors were north African natives of Egypt rather than European (Greco-Roman) colonials speaking and writing Latin and Greek.

In conclusion, this book despite its idiosyncratic large size (8.5 x 11 inches) is a valuable resource for those interested in ancient esotericism and mysticism in general and for those with a particular interest in hermeticism.

R. S.
2017

{1} (a) Everard, J. The Divine Pymander. London, 1650. (b) Mead, G.R.S. Thrice Great Hermes. Theosophical Publishing Society, 1906. (c) Copenhaver, B. Hermetica. Cambridge University Press, 1992. (d) A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière. Corpus Hermeticum, Volume I. Societe d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres”, Paris, 3rd edition, 1972.

{2} Copenhaver, Introduction, op.cit.


Image credit: Gold funerary tablet (c. 200 BCE) found at Eleutherna, Crete