Abdul-Aziz ibn Myatt

Hermetica: A Review Of The Myatt Translations


In the Spring of this year (2017) David Myatt released his versions – translations and commentaries – of several more Corpus Hermeticum texts to complement his existing, published, versions of tracts I, III, IV, VIII, XI {1}. The new additions were tracts VI, XII, and the Cantio Arcana part (sections 17 and 18) of tract XIII. {2}

The latest additions – bringing his translations of Hermetica texts to seven – follow the same methodology as previous versions. That is, his penchant for transliterating certain Greek words, his use of often unusual English words in place of the standard translations and meanings given in Greek-English lexicons such as LSJ {3}, and the terms and expressions he invents or digs up from usually very old books of English literature. All of which combine to make his translations idiosyncratic and remarkably different from all previous translations into English, antique and modern. To his credit, he explains in his commentary – sometimes in pedantic detail – his choices, citing his reasons and often providing some quotation in Greek, Latin, or English.

In regard to his translations of hermetic texts, this results in two things. In translations with a technical vocabulary relating to hermeticism, and in translations which transports the reader to an ancient world. Both of these combine to breathe new life into the texts and thence into hermeticism itself. Thus, far from, as Myatt writes in his introduction to tract VI, giving the impression “of reading somewhat declamatory sermons about god/God and ‘the good’ familiar from over a thousand years of persons preaching about Christianity,” the hermetic texts he has translated give the impression of reading about a pagan mysticism that most readers will probably be unfamiliar with.

Thus while other translators write moralistically about god, righteousness, truth, and ‘the good’, Myatt previews a world of divinities, of respecting the customs of the gods, of honesty, and nobility. A good example of the difference is in Myatt’s rendering of part of the Cantio Arcana. Copenhaver – who follows the proto-Christian interpretation of earlier translators and whose recent translations of the Corpus Hermeticum are regarded as “the definitive versions”, has:

      “Holy knowledge, you enlightened me; through you, hymning the intellectual light, I take joy in the joy of Mind. Join me, all you powers, and sing me the hymn. You also, continence, sing me the hymn. My justice, through me hymn the just. My liberality, through me hymn the Universe. Truth, hymn the truth. Good, hymn the good.” (4}

Myatt has:

Numinous knowledge, from you a numinal understanding:
Through you, a song of apprehended phaos,
Delighted with delightful perceiverance.
Join me, all you Arts, in song.
You, mastery, sing; and you, respectful of custom,
Through me sing of such respect.
Sing, my companions, for All That Exists:
Honesty, through me, sing of being honest,
The noble, sing of nobility.

In Myatt’s version there are the two previously mentioned things. A technical vocabulary – such as numinal, phaos, perceiverance, Arts – requiring interpretation, and nothing reminiscent of Christianity, such as ‘hymn’ and ‘holy’ and being ‘good’. As Myatt writes in his commentary on the Cantio Arcana in respect of his use of the terms song, honesty and Arts:

   Song. ὕμνος. Not a ‘hymn’ in the Christian sense (which the word hymn now so often imputes) but rather celebrating the numinous, and theos, in song, verse (ode), and chant.

   Honesty. ἀλήθεια. Given that those who are urged to sing are personifications, this is not some abstract, disputable, ‘truth’ but as often elsewhere in classical literature, a revealing, a dis-covering, of what is real as opposed to what is apparent or outer appearance. In personal terms, being honest and truthful.

   Arts. As at Poemandres 31 – which is also a traditional doxology (δοξολογία) to theos – the sense of δυνάμεων [here] is not ‘powers’, forces (or something similar and equally at variance with such a laudation) but ‘arts’; that is, particular abilities, qualities, and skills. Here, these abilities and skills – the craft – relate to esoteric song; to be able to be an effective laudator in respect of theos and “every Physis of Kosmos.”

His reference to ‘every Physis of Kosmos’ is to the beginning of the ode:

Let every Physis of Kosmos favourably listen to this song
πᾶσα φύσις κόσμου προσδεχέσθω τοῦ ὕμνου τὴν ἀκοήν

which Copenhaver translates as “let every nature in the cosmos attend to the hearing of this hymn.”

The commentaries which accompany the translations deserve a mention. Each of them not only occupies far more pages than the actual translation but they reveal the author as erudite with pages of quotations from ancient Greek and Latin works – for most of which Myatt provides his own translation – and the occasional quotation from English literature. In the case of English literature usually to explain the meaning of the unusual English words of phrases he uses, quoting the likes of Chaucer, Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chapman, and others.

       In effect what Myatt does in his translations is paint of picture of classical – and of Hellenic – culture and especially of Hellenic mysticism; a culture and a mysticism which is pagan and based on individuals, on tangible things such as honesty, and not on moralistic and religious and impersonal abstractions. That is, he reveals the Greco-Roman ethos – the pagan ethos – underlying the hermetic texts and which is in contrast to that of Christianity with its later, medieval and Puritanical, impersonal moralizing. He incidently leaves us with an interesting question. Which is whether such pagan Hellenic mysticism influenced Christianity in a positive way. In academia the assumption has always been that Christianity and earlier Judaic monotheism influenced hermeticism despite the fact of evidence from papyrus fragments indicating the opposite and despite the fact that the earliest texts of the Old Testament were written in Greek and not in Hebrew. {5}

Myatt himself is of the opinion that parts of ancient Greek mysticism and cosmogony – as described for instance in tract III of the Corpus Hermeticum – have influenced both Judaism and Christianity. {6}

Such controversial matters aside, his translations of tracts from the Corpus Hermeticism are decidedly iconoclastic and – when compared to those of other translators such as Copenhaver – idiosyncratic and as such are not and probably never will be mainstream at least in academia. They may therefore never gain widespread acceptance among established academics. Does that matter? Probably not because his actual and potential audience is much greater. Which audience is of those interested in Western mysticism, in Western paganism, and in Greco-Roman culture in general, and for such interested parties Myatt has done a great service since he places the hermetic texts firmly into those milieux.

One other thing about the translations and commentaries deserves a mention. As well a being available in printed form he has not only made all of them available as free downloads from the internet {7} but also issued them under a liberal Creative Commons license which allows others to freely copy and distribute them.

Rachael Stirling
May 2017

{1} D. Myatt. Corpus Hermeticum I, III, IV, VIII, XI. 2017. ISBN 978-1545020142.
{2} Tracts VI, XII, and the Cantio Arcana, are available at https://davidmyatt.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/tractates-vi-xii-v3.pdf [Accessed May 2017].
{3} H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, H. S. Jones. A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1996.
{4} B. Copenhaver. Hermetica. Cambridge University Press. 1992.
{5} The earliest written texts of the Old Testament – papyrus fragments found in Egypt – are in Hellenistic Greek and date from around 250 BCE and precede by over a century the earliest fragments written in Hebrew (some of the Dead Sea Scrolls) which date from 150 BCE to around 50 BCE.
{6} See Myatt’s introduction to his translation of tract III.
{7} https://davidmyatt.wordpress.com/corpus-hermeticum/