Tuesday, June 20, 2017

2 Nephi 33:1, the Egyptian Tale of Petese, and the Corpus Hermeticum

"When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost," says Nephi, "the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men:"

And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men (2 Nephi 33:1).

We can start thinking plainly about this scripture by noticing how Nephi favors speaking because of a perceived weakness inherent in writing, in his writing anyway. "I cannot write" is a theme that Moroni, the last living man trained in the scribal tradition of Lehi and Nephi, takes up again, and poignantly, at the end of the Book of Mormon. For Nephi, the immediacy of the spoken word is both personal gift and cultural value, but, here, rhetoric finds enhancement "by the power of the Holy Ghost" and thus becomes the "divine word" as well. 

To speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, is to speak "in a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels" (2 Nephi 31). And might not writing also be done by the same power? Moroni, the final scribe, later explains that gift of writing with power as a higher gift, one possessed alone by the ancient Brother of Jared after the Flood and after the confounding Tower.

And who may qualify to speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, or the tongue of angels? Lehi, we are instructed, "received" this "power" "by faith in the Son of God" (1 Nephi 10:17).

As every reader knows, Nephi says he "makes my record in the language of the Egyptians," though his father had also taught him "in the learning of the Jews." "I cannot write," Nephi says, because writing and speech, for him, already stand far apart, writing in Egyptian is a far different matter than writing in Hebrew letters (as Moroni, at the end, also painfully observes.) Nephi, whose very name looks Egyptian (Nepri?), speaks a dialect of Hebrew (as evidenced throughout his record), reads the Hebrew of the courts (the Hebrew of Isaiah), yet also knows how to read and write in Egyptian language and script. We note that the Egyptian of Nephi's day includes much Hebrew or other West Semitic vocabulary. In other words, when Nephi speaks to his errant brethren, he catches the spirit of a Hebrew prophet at court, yet phrases all in what he calls the "plainness of my speech." When he records the same words, that is, when he translates the same words into Egyptian, his plain preaching now appears to him markedly simple and bland. 

We may ask why it is that Nephi, a literate Hebrew, should give us a record "in the language of the Egyptians," especially when the record, for us, appears only in English? Moroni explains it as a way to save space on precious plates. When I contemplate the English version, I see a more profound reason for all that linguistic transfer; it works to place the record beyond and above the simplistic concerns of human language and commentary, and thus makes necessary the workings of the Holy Ghost in carrying the sacred message to our hearts, and even expansively "unto [the hearts of] every nation, kindred, tongue, and people." Nephi's language, the language he speaks of in 2 Nephi 33:2, is a universal language. The Bible, too, stands above human language, while also being wrestled and wrested to the last syllable of recorded Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. That is why we write Exhaustive commentaries and the like, and have endless translations.

All this recalls, in both parallel and in a nice reversal, the Egyptian expression for the written word: the mdw-nTr or "Words of God," "divine words"; it also recalls what the Late Antique Hermetic books claimed about the nature of the Egyptian language, a claim reflecting "the Greek perception of Egyptian anxiety about the translation of Egyptian texts into Greek." In his Perfect Discourse to King Ammon, Asclepius says: "The very character of the sound. . . of Egyptian words has in itself the power meaning (energeia) of what is said" (Orly Goldwasser, From Icon to Metaphor, 27).

"Leave this text untranslated, so that these secrets remain hidden from the Greeks [cf. from the Gentiles] and their irreverent, feeble, and orotund speech does not undermine the dignity and vigor of our language and the energy of the names. For the discourse of the Greeks, though outwardly impressive, is empty, and their philosophy is nothing but verbose noise. We by contrast, we employ not words but sounds full of energy" (quoted in Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 396). 

This boast about "efficacious (energetikos) speech" (Goldwasser, 27), recalls how Nephi spoke to his brethren "in the energy of my soul" (1 Nephi 16:24).   

The notion of an effective spiritual energy (3x, 3xw) inherent in Egyptian ceremonial speech may everywhere be found in the Ancient Egyptian texts themselves, and elsewhere I note how the Greek phrase describing Egyptian speech can in fact be matched by a well-known Egyptian idiom for such speech: "Akhu-power upon the mouth": "According to the Corpus Hermeticum spells do not consist of mere words, they must be repeated 'in mighty speech of 3x.w' (= 3x.w m tpj-r3, phonais mestais ton ergon)."
(See Val H. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808, 105, Festugiere and Nock, CH XVI: II 230).

Such "mighty speech" may also be called the speech of a Pharaoh: "Be an artist in speech, then you will be victorious. for behond: the sword-arm of a king is his tongue," which recalls Alma's statement about "the preaching of the word" having "had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them" (Wisdom of Merikare, see Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt; Alma 31:5).

Nephi says of his own preaching:1 Nephi 15:25: "I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul" and 16:24: "they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul." Again, both energy and soul invoke the Egyptian word akhu, a word signifying (in the plural!) an efficacious power and also a spiritual being, an akh (or ghost). Nephi, in the Hebrew sense, is speaking in the energy of "my nephesh," quite a powerful phrase, in the energy of my life-force, bekoakh naphshi or bekoakhei naphshi, in or through the power of my life's soul. Koakh and Akhu (k-w-x and '-x) sound a bit alike--these are strong-sounding words bespeaking a powerful drain on the life force. Here is something beyond how we look at speech in present times.

So much for the spoken word.

I also note the immediate power on my heart of Nephi's written word--well, we're also told that the Book of Mormon comes to us as if a spoken word: "a voice out of the dust."

We next move toward the heart. What is the distance between speech and heart? Is it forever? or can the gap be bridged? 

In riddling out what Nephi is saying, we must also look at the prepositions. The unto in "unto the hearts" must be the equivalent of the Afroasiatic preposition l, or le (the Egyptians write r), but as we shall see, perhaps also the equivalent of the Egyptian preposition n. Given that we only have Nephi's written words in English, so what does unto mean? Gothic-Low Germanic un-to or Gothic-North Germanic un-til are variants of the same thing: "even to" or "all the way to." So how does speech, human speech, ever go "all the way to" the human heart? From mouth to heart--the Holy Ghost carrieth the word. Does "all the way to" signify "into" as well? (See Mason's English Grammar.) Again: Mason tells us that und is the Gothic equivalent of German bis; when the two Germanic prepositions, und and to, of like meaning, combine, the first takes on an emphatic, adverbial quality: bis-to, un-to, un-til, and seems to convey the idea: "really, all the way to--lest there be any doubt."

Elder David A. Bednar makes a fine distinction in explaining how the Holy Ghost carries the divine word unto the heart, the into depends on each hearer, as in the distinction between hearing and obeying, though intended for synonyms, an idea also expressed in Scripture as not "being hearers only." That attentiveness to the prepositional difference is therefore consistent with the doctrine of a learner's agency, as also found in the Parable of the Sower and in the many Scriptural statements about "hardening the heart." When you see the words "hardening the heart," the distinction between unto and into doesn't seem all that fine, after all. The words are carried until, all the way up to the heart, or unto the heart, but not all the way into the heart. And notice how Nephi reminds us in the following verse that some do reject the word, lodge-the word where it may.  It's a matter of "until the heart accepts the word"--a temporality which may never find fruition.

In such a reading, unto is not quite into, West Semitic l not quite b, Egyptian r not quite m (though the Egyptian preposition n slips through the barrier), though well on the way; for already there's a spiritual impact, a clear invitation, the transfer, in plain terms, of a idea (or is it a feeling) upon which one may lay hold, in faith. The Book of Mormon does make much of distinguishing prepositions: Amulek discourses on the salvific necessity of realizing that Christ saves us from not in our sins, a clear-cut distinction, though unto and into becomes a more delicate matter, a matter of the heart. 

Leaving prepositions aside, What of the heart? What does "unto or until the hearts of the children of men" signify? Speech is carried by the Holy Ghost all the way to the heart--but What is the heart? Does heart speak primarily in English to feelings? to intellection? or both? (Answer: Primarily it is feelings. For as Frost says "never with the heart") And how about heart in other languages? lev, jb, h3ty, kokoro. . .Well, the heart escapes us.

In English, or in any language you may please, the phrase "unto the hearts" can be unpacked variously: "touching upon the feelings" or "entering into our feelings;" or, on the other hand: "beginning to enlighten our understandings," entering into our understandings. In English, when something is carried unto our heart, that's where we begin to love it, to feel it, but in Hebrew and Egyptian the heart first references what we call the mind, with the heart being the seat of intelligence, though English also knows the thoughtful heart (thoughtful in what sense? in mind or heart?). So is Nephi speaking to us, here, more in English or in Hebrew or in Egyptian? Does his heart signify feeling or thought? Or does heart capture both ideas? 

Nephi does have much to say about the heart. His poetic personification of his heart, found in 2 Nephi 4, shows an active, speaking, even exclaiming heart. This Prayer of the (Personified) Heart and Soul, while slipping away, here and there, beyond the culturally comprehensible, still speaks directly to each of us. The Ancient Egyptian reader would pick up the cultural references more precisely than we can, but we understand Nephi's heart, do we not? Somehow Joseph Smith's translation gives us our heart, and Nephi's, while also holding fast to the cultural truth of the original language. (See Jan Assmann, "The Theory of the Heart," in The Mind of Egypt, 135ff.)

While avoiding any attempt at definition, I also like the way Nephi's words resonate with an Egyptian phrase ph n h3t, a phrase which students of Egyptian and Demotic (the late form of the language) are also trying to grasp, but which seems to mean "reach the heart" as "reach till understanding." Words that "reach the heart" or are carried unto or into the heart, are words plain to the understanding, and thus words understood. Yet there are always those who do not or will not understand the words, the seed fallen on hard ground, the obdurate heart, the blind mind, those who will not understand my words, the tongue of angels. 

But now to a story.

Nephi's words about speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost resonate with a story from Ancient Egypt in which Re speaks to a woman in the voice of her deceased husband--and his words reach her heart. Is there not a parallel here, with God speaking to us through the power of the Holy Ghost, in some ineffable way that yet reaches the heart? 

So let's see how Professor Kim Ryholt understands this moment from the Ancient Egyptian storybook: The Story of Petese, Son of Petetum: and Seventy Other Good and Bad Stories. 

It's a strange story anyhow, with seventy other stories packed into the principle story of Petese. The priest Petese learns from the god Osiris, through a spirit messenger, that he has but 40 days left to live. His name is already inscribed on Osiris' netherworldly register.

After confronting the pain and shock, Petese plans three vehicles for achieving immortality--a bit of crafty overkill typical of the Egyptians. First, he arranges for a lavish, even sumptuous, burial--an immortal tomb--which is what one may expect of a wealthy Egyptian priest. In Ancient Egypt, mummification and burial makes up not only the eternal monument of the worthy dead, it is the ceremonial gateway to eternal life. Second, Petese, through the agency of magical creatures he himself fashions, gathers 70 tales, 35 good, 35 bad. As Kim Ryholt observes, the collection, or composition, of these spellbinding tales of the good and bad deeds of women will win Petese deathless acclaim. The Egyptian word for such a magical creature is Hk.t, a hikat--and note how story and magic flow together in a single stream. Third, Petese also sets to work preparing a magic potion (pHr.t) which, when prepared by his widow--for he will enter his coffin and "die"--will assure his escape from death altogether, even his resurrection. 

Petese thus covers all bases--indeed achieves all three forays into immortality. For me, these three finally combine into one--his efforts comprehend the entire Egyptian encyclopedia of glorious immortality, even as the offerings of frankincense, myrrh, and kuphi evoke the three offerings to Re at morning, noon, and dusk, and thus also comprehend the immortal solar cycle to which Petese now, too, belongs (see Ryholt, here). Note that 70 is for the Egyptians a solar number, a number of completeness.

So on to the moment in which his wife, The Beautiful One of Sakhmet, like Isis or Helen, administers the pharmakon, burning three measures of incense to the sun god.

Column 5, lines 24-30 (page 57)
After this, Sakhminofret [went] to his store-rooms on the morning of the following day. On this day, her heart was exceedingly sad because of Petese, her husband, who she did not see, and [she] truly [hoped (?) in (?)] her heart that Petese [had (?)] made the remedy for the illness. . . She acted according to everything which he had commanded [to her]. She put myrrh, frankincense, and kyphi, [on the brazier], and she said: My brother, Petese. Do you watch for yourself. O, son of Petetum. [I pray that] Re will rescue you in the remedies which you are making. Re spoke [with] her. He answered [her with the] voice of Petese. It reached her heart. Petese said [. . .

What a surprising outcome, the voice of Re:

Re spoke [with] her. He answered [her with the] voice of Petese. It reached her heart (pH [=s] Xn H3t[=s]. hieroglyphs pg. 19

It reached her heart, or it reached to within her heart (ph khn h3t). ph what it signifies how it is written

Re responds to the plea for deliverance from death and his voice descends: an act of nHm--of rescue

Professor Ryholt comments on the story (p. 42):

"If it is correctly understood in lines 29-30 that Re answers Sakhminofret with the voice (3spy) of Petese, then the phrase 'it reached her heart (ph=s Xn H3t=s) must mean that she understood it. Erichsen, DG, 137, lists di pH=s n H3t in the meaning 'sich etwas ueberlegen, o.a.? consider something."  

In other words, the idiom it (the voice) reached her heart means she understood it: she understood the voice of her husband speaking to her through the medium of the divine voice, that is, "the tongue of angels." The voice "speaketh unto their understanding," that is, "unto the heart."

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