The Roman province of Egypt was remarkable in the great confluence of cultures and ideas that managed to mix and merge together to formulate whole new perspectives. Yet it was also a place where native Egyptians found themselves demoted to third class citizens who were egregiously exploited, subjugated and crushed into unforgiving poverty and despair. While Rome extracted a massive grain harvest every year to feed itself (and its privileged allies in Alexandria) bread, the Egyptians who toiled on the land were oppressed by ever increasing taxes and punitive laws meant to enslave them. It was not a good time to be an Egyptian without also being a privileged Roman citizen. Few managed to achieve that distinguished privilege and the rest faced a hopeless and dwindling future.
There were occasional revolts against this excessive exploitation and subjugation, but these were cruelly put down, and each one only made the plight the native fellaheen more pitiful. It was during this time that the belief and worship of the old Egyptian gods lost their appeal with the common folk and a new religion began to quickly take their place, and that religion was Christianity. Like many other parts of the old world, Egypt fostered many varieties of Christianity and Greco-Roman syncretism.
“Egypt had an ancient tradition of religious speculation, enabling a variety of controversial religious views to thrive there. Not only did Arianism flourish, but other doctrines, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, either native or imported, found many followers. Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.
Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world.”
Magic flourished in these lands at that time, and many Christians of different stripes practiced magic along with their liturgical rites. Perhaps the most interesting of all of the Egyptian stripes of Christianity were the Sethians, whose massive volume of books and mysterious initiatory teachings have come down to us in the present era as various selections of their peculiar writings and puzzling theological statements. We know something about them from their extent writings but not enough to fully understand their teachings and beliefs. Time has nearly ablated their memory, like the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert that have scoured the painted surfaces of statues and shrines leaving only traces of their past glories.
We know so little about the Egyptians living in the area around Thebes in the Greco-Roman period because the focus of the world at that time was on the city of Alexandria. However, from the period of around the 1st through the 4th century various scrolls and codices were buried in that location which were only discovered in the last two centuries. The largest collection of codices was discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, a veritable library of forbidden books hidden in a sealed pot and buried next to a stone in an ancient monastic graveyard. However, other codices and scrolls were discovered in the same area around Thebes, such as the Bruce codex (containing the Books of Jeu) and the Greek Magical Papyri. All of these notable relics that have been intriguing scholars for decades as well as ordinary members of the reading public, and I might add, occultists and practitioners of magic, have been reconstructed, translated and published. All of these truly remarkable writings from antiquity were likely produced in this single location around Thebes during a period of three hundred years, and that is also quite remarkable.
Whether or not these writings represent the thoughts and beliefs of a single group of people, or the combined ideas and practices of an era participated by many individuals is unknown. We can speculate based on how they were written, in what language and the media (scroll or codex) of their presentation, and we can examine the content of the writings and notice the differences and similarities. Still, this is all speculation, but it is intriguing none-the-less.
We should also briefly examine the writing techniques of ancient Egypt and its history, since this will also assist us in assessing the historical context of these writings.
“As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.
Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE), and after Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from some of the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.
By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 394 CE.”
If we consider the Nag Hammadi library, the Bruce codex and the Greek Magical Papyri as having a common geographic location, we can also order these collections according to their content and writing styles, based on an understanding of the history of writing in that area.
The Greek Magical Papyri was likely written earlier than the other books because it was a large scroll written in Greek and Demotic. Since there are some parts of this book that were written in Demotic we can assume that the ancient Egyptian language was still being spoken and written at that time. So, perhaps the time period when it was written might have been in the 3rd century when the old pagan religions and the new were coexistent. The magical spells show a decided heterodoxy of religious beliefs with an emphasis on Pagan Greek and Egyptian gods, but with other religious elements, such as Judaism, included. There is only a hint of Christian theology to be found in these spells, so it represents the collective work of someone whose sympathies were not particularly Christian.
We know nothing about the owner of this scroll, other than he seemed to be collecting every notable magical spell that could be found or discovered in that time period. Because of the cosmopolitan nature of his collection, it is likely that he was privileged and well traveled, perhaps even having a residence in Alexandria. Magic is the focus of this work, so we can’t really deduce the owner’s religious beliefs other than to state that he was obviously open to all religions and didn’t discriminate between them. This large scroll was probably buried with the mummified body of the owner along with other artifacts at an unknown site somewhere outside of Thebes. If there were any other burial possessions in that tomb, none has ever been either recognized or recovered.
Then, probably a century or so later, the various codices of the Nag Hammadi and the Bruce codex were written and kept by individuals in the same general area. These books were written in Coptic, representing a change in linguistic status. While it is likely that these books were originally written in Greek, they were translated into Coptic which was becoming the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity. Hieroglyphic writing, including hieratic and demotic, had been abandoned as too complex, but Greek was replaced with an alphabetized writing modified to fit the phonetics of the Egyptian language.
The primary religious focus of these books was Christian, but a form of Christianity that is both strange and unusual by today’s standards. Within many of these works are to be found the specific theological speculations of the Gnostic group known as the Sethians. While it is likely that these books were part of a monastic library, probably the Pachomian monastery at Chenobokion (modern al Qasr), it represents that the Christian monks were likely tainted by the beliefs and perhaps even the practices of Sethian Gnosticism. The fact that these books were buried represents a kind of intellectual purge, due to the edict of the archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, who in 367 CE decreed that all Christians reject illegitimate and secret books. He produced a list of 27 books that were to be considered the accepted books of Christianity, and these books are what later became part of the New Testament. However, the monks from this monastery (so far from Alexandria) revered these books and rather than burn them, they decided to bury them instead. So they carefully sealed these codices into a storage pot and buried them in a nearby cemetery with a proper marker, as if they had hoped to someday return and recover them.
It would seem that the location around Thebes was a veritable hotbed of Sethian Gnosticism and also the practice of magic. Because the Sethians taught that one needed to undergo a five-fold initiation ordeal in order to be considered a proper Christian, or “one who knows,” they had quite a body of magical lore to aid them in this task. They also practiced forms of practical magic and likely infected the early Coptic Christian church with the practice of using magical spells that archeologists have recently discovered written or inscribed on various artifacts. The Sethians probably were in the area for at least three centuries before disappearing, and they may have melded their beliefs with those of the local pagan magical practitioners, since they believed that magic was the key to escape the material world ruled by the cruel and ruthless archons.
In many ways the Sethian’s theological ideas would have been very popular in the oppressed area of upper Egypt because it seemed to explain their world in a mythopoetic manner. No longer was life on the Nile one that was good and abundant, so there wasn’t much desire to perpetuate this material circumstance in the afterlife. In fact life was cruel, brutal, poor and apparently lacked the blessings of the gods for the average Egyptian. It was no wonder that a theology of escape, release from bondage and deliverance from one’s evil oppressors was quite intoxicating and attractive. I believe that this is the reason why Egypt embraced Christianity so ardently, and why a tradition of Sethian Gnosticism was popular amongst the literate elite.
Now this brings me to the main point of my article, which is to see these supposedly unrelated events and artifacts as representing a common thread that should be quite profound when we consider it as such. What I am proposing is that the magic in the Greek Magical Papyri and the magic practiced by the Christian Sethians and Coptic Christians was analogous. They are not the same, of course, because they are separated by time, but not by locality. The writer of the Greek Magical Papyri was aware of Sethian practices and beliefs even though he might not have shared them. The Sethians were likely aware of some of the magical spells written in the Greek Magical Papyri as well.
Previously, I have never really paid much attention to the rubric or title for the ritual of the Invocation of the Bornless One because it seemed to be not particularly important. The title of this spell is the “Stele of Jeu, the hieroglyphicist.” The name Jeu seemed to be familiar to me, but I had thought that it might be a reference to a real individual who still had the skill of being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. It was pointed out to me that the name Jeu was actually a Gnostic pseudepigraphic author name that was used to lend legitimacy to a writing or a spell. However, since there is indeed a series of Books of Jeu that were particularly sacred to the Sethians (Bruce Codex), attributing the Bornless One Invocation to Jeu was analogous to attributing it to the Sethians. Also, assigning a writing to a stele was a way of making it a highly important work, because an actual stele was writing and illustrations painted or carved on a stone tablet making it something of a permanent edifice. Three of the more important works in the Nag Hammadi library are the three Stele of Seth, so one could assume that the Stele of Jeu would also be a monumental work.
What does all of this speculation and background information really mean? It means that the ubiquitous Invocation of the Bornless or Headless One was possibly an important rite in the Sethian creed. The headless one then becomes analogous to the theological construct of the Gnostic concept of Autogenes, the self-begotten one. Autogenes was the principle intermediary between the One as the Father-Spirit, and the Father-Mother as Ennoia-Barbelo, and the rest of humanity. Autogenes was part of a trinity that was loosely based on the Neoplatonic Noetic triad of Being, Life and Mind that act as an intermediary between the One and the psychic domain. Summoning this entity to perform an exorcism would make sense, and it would be part of the Sethian initiation process to purge the self of all spiritual influences and pollution associated with the archons.
So, this might be the context for the Bornless Invocation rite, that it functioned as an important tool in the Sethian repertoire to purify the soul and make it ready for transport beyond spheres of the archon ruled material world, where it might unite once again with the One Source of All Spirit. That we use this rite today in a similar manner is quite interesting and also ironic. All of this is pure speculation on my part, of course, and it could easily be refuted as spurious and erroneous. However, my approach does seem to pull together a lot of interesting pieces of the puzzle, and the final resultant context is rather elegant - at least I think so.
Over seventeen hundred years separate our world from that of the Egyptian Sethians and magicians of the early centuries of the common era. But we seem to be connected by the thread of a common interest and a common need for a fusion of magic and religion as well as authentic visionary experiences. That common thread might be the vaunted Perennial Philosophy, or perhaps it is the just the convoluted evolution of society and the never ending spiritual search for authentic spiritual experiences.