The Early Christian Prayer Circle:
Sidebar, Coptic Liturgical Text

[This sidebar accompanies “The Early Christian Prayer Circle,” by Hugh W. Nibley. Ed.]

In the Cairo Museum, written on a huge shard of red pottery, is an ancient Coptic liturgical text which provides a remarkable link between ancient Egyptian and early Christian beliefs. It is a Christian “Book of Breathings” with the name of Osiris (representing the initiate) replaced by that of Adam, as if the “Egyptian Endowment” were organically linked to the Christian. Equally instructive is the predominance of the prayer circle in the text and the cosmic significance given it. As its modern editor, L. Saint-Paul Girard, notes, it has eight main divisions.1

A. Calling upon God

Line 1. (The Tau-Rho sign).2 Hail El! Fathouriel,3 who giveth

2. strength (comfort?), who gives replies [antiphonei] to the angels! 4

3. Hail Adonai (My Lord), Hail Eloi (My God), Hail

4. Abrasax! Hail Iothael!5 Hail

5. Mistrael (for Mizrael) who has looked upon the face of the Father 6

6. in the power of Iao! 7 KHOK.8

B. Solemn adjurations; Adam as the type of initiate

I adjure you (i.e., put you under covenant).9

7. by the first seal placed upon the bo-

8. dy of Adam. I adjure you (a different word: “give the hand to,” “make to swear”) 10 by the second

9. [seal] which is upon the members of Adam. I covenant with you

10. by the third seal which marked the vitals (bowels) 11

11. and also the breast (heart, mind) 12 of Adam, when he was brought low (cast down) to become dust (earth)

C. The healing of the man Adam

12. until Jesus Christ stands bail for him (lit. takes him by the hand) in the embrace

13. of his Father.13 The Father hath raised him up (or met him).14

D. The breathing (resurrection) motif

He hath breathed in

14. his face and filled him with the breath of life. Send to me

15. thy breath of life, (even) to this true and faithful one (or, to this vessel).15 Amen, amen, amen!

E. A type of the crucifixion

16. Sousa, sousa, sousa! 16 I covenant with you by the three cries (of distress) which

17. The Son uttered on the cross, namely: Eloi, Eloi, A-

18. hlebaks atōnē17 That is to say, God, my God, why (djou) hast thou forsaken me?

F. The hymn

19. Holy, Holy, Holy! Hail David the father (ancestor)

20. of Christ! He who sings praises (psalms) in the Church of the First-born (pl.) of heaven, Hail

21. David, theopa [tor?] (ancestor of the Lord), of the joyful ten-stringed lyre 18 who sings

22. within (the veil of) the altar 19

23. the joyful one (either David or the altar). Hail Hormosiel, who sings within the veil

G. Prayer circle

24. of the Father! 20 They repeat after him, those who are at the entrances (gates,

25. doors) and those who are upon the towers (i.e., the watchmen at the gates). And when they hear what he says, namely the tribes (or gates?) who

26. are within the Twelve Worlds, they joyfully

27. repeat it after him: 21 Holy, Holy, One (or Jesus) Holy Father.22 Amen,

28. Amen, Amen. Hail Arebrais in heaven and earth!

29. Then you (pl.) bless (praise God, pray), KOK (meaning that at this point certain actions are performed). Hail O Sun! hail ye twelve little children

30. who overshadow (protect?) the body of the Sun! 23 Hail ye twelve phials

31. filled with water. They have filled their hands, they have scattered abroad

32. the rays of the Sun, lest they burn up the fruits

33. of the field.24 Fill thy hands, pronounce blessing upon this

34. cup. KOK [another ordinance]

H. Entering the Presence

Hail ye four winds of heaven!

35. Hail ye four corners of the earth! (the inhabited earth, oikoumenē) 25

36. Hail ye hosts (stratia) of heaven (i.e., the stars)! Hail

37. thou earth (land) of the inheritance

38. Hail O garden (or power, authority) of the Holy Ones (saints)

39. [of] the Father! 26 One holy Father

40. Holy [Son] Holy Ghost

41. Amen.

Commentary to “Coptic Liturgical Text”

1. L. Saint Paul Girard, “Un fragment de liturgie magique copte sur ostrakon,” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Egypte 27 (1927): 62–68. [Cf. the translation in Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 228–30.]

2. The earliest signs of the cross were formed by a Greek chi (χ) with the vertical shaft of a Greek rho (ρ) or iota (ι) through the middle, or by a rho with a horizontal bar below the loop. They were interchangeable and are found in varying combinations, being closely associated also with the “Crux Ansata,” the famous Egyptian ankh or life symbol: ☥. For many examples, see Henri Leclercq, “Chrisme,” in DACL 3:1481–534. The classic Latin cross does not appear in the West until the fourth century and like the others seems to have come from Egypt, Leclercq, “Chrisme,” 1485–89, and Leclercq is puzzled “that the Christians adopted a sign which ran a serious risk of being misunderstood,” ibid., 1483. Not to worry: these symbols had conveyed for centuries the very ideas which the Christians wished them to represent in a new context, just as they borrowed current alphabets and other symbols of general acceptance to convey their own peculiar ideas. The symbol prefacing this note is both the monogram of Christ and the earliest symbol of the crucifixion; as such, it also designates the victory of light over darkness as represented in the performance of the mysteries.

3. Fathouriel for Bathuriel, from Hebrew Bait-ṣuri-el, “the house of my strength is God,” or “My God My Rock.” Girard, “Fragment de liturgie,” 66 n. 1, citing Moise Schwab, Vocabulaire de l’angelologie (Paris: Klincksieck, 1897), s.v.; cf. Souri-el, “My Rock Is God.” Henri Leclercq, “Abrasax,” in DACL 1:145. Since the names El, Adonai, Eloi, and Abrasax invoked together at the opening of the rites are all designations of the supreme God, Bathuriel, as second on the list, must be another epithet for El. Ṣur is properly a stone and a foundation; coming at the beginning of the rites it strongly suggests the Stone of Truth in the Egyptian initiation rites and the eben shetiyah of Hebrew tradition. Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 190–202.

4. Girard alters eb-ti phonē nenankelōs (“who gives a voice to the angels”) to ef [an]tiphonei nenangelos, “whose voice replies to the angels,” because he cannot imagine the meaning of the former. Girard, “Fragment de liturgie,” 66 n. 2. The first suggests the creation hymn, the second the exchange of expressions at the conclusion of the rites (lines 24–27 below).

5. The names of Adonai, Eloi, and Abraxas are the most common found on those carved gnostic gems called “Abraxas” or “Abrasax.” Henri Leclercq, “Anges,” in DACL 1:2087–88. Such gems representing “the world of Alexandria and the Egyptian-Greek magical papyri” consist of “stones which figure in superstition as well.” Reiss, “Abrasax,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1893–), 1:110; Augustine writes, “Basilides gives to the Almighty God the portentous name of ABRAXAS, and says it contains the number of the course of the year in the Sun’s circuit, while the Gentiles designate the same number by the name of Meithra.” Commentarius in Amos (Commentary on Amos) 1.3, in PL 25:1080–89. In our text, Abrasax is an epithet of God as the ruler of all and the director and guide of Mysteries: The most common type of Abrasax gem (of Egyptian origin, though their meanings have never been explained; Reiss, “Abrasax,” 109–10) depicts the god as Anubis with the staff of office that shows him to be the psychopomp, conductor of souls or paralemptor (guide) through the mysteries; as such, he is identified with the classic Mercury and the Christian Michael. Leclercq, “Abrasax,” 134–37. He is often shown as the mummified Osiris, with or without a crown; cf. Leclercq, “Anges,” 2127, fig. 653.

6. Mizrael is the angelic embodiment of divine authority, which enables him to see behind the veil. Girard, “Fragment de liturgie,” 66 n. 5, cit. Schwab, Vocabulaire de l’angelologie.

7. Iao is the common equivalent for Jehovah and God. Leclercq, “Abrasax,” 147, 141.

8. KHOK occurs in lines 29 and 32 as KOK. It introduces a new phase or change of scene and indicates that at this point certain actions take place. Our text, in the manner of a prompting sheet, contains only words recited, without describing acts or rites performed but only the point at which they take place. The Coptic word KOK is the common word for “disrobe” and related concepts, and may indicate changes in costume.

9. Ti-ōrk erō-tn, the erō– indicating “the person adjured,” here in the plural, while the n– is the thing sworn by; see W. F. Crum, Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939), 529. To adjure is to place another under solemn obligation by entering a covenant with him.

10. Titarko means literally “give the hand to” in token of covenant. Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Koptisches Handwörterbuch (Heidelberg: Winter, 1921); “make to swear, adjure, entreat.” Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 430.

11. Tōōbe e– as here means to set a mark or stamp upon, to impress upon, to leave a mark on. For vitals the original has t-tčot, meaning size, age, form, which Girard emends to tčlot, meaning “Kidney, also other internal organs” (possibly from the root tčlodj, bend, be interlaced). It is the Hebrew kliyot, “the reins, kidneys, inward parts.” Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 813.

12. P-hēt, heart mind, thought reason; cf. the Greek, stēthos, the breast as the receptacle of principles of thought, and Hebrew lēb, the heart “as the seat of the various feelings, affections and emotions . . . and of the moral sentiments.” Benjamin Davies, ed., A Compendious and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Boston: Bradley, 1875), 315.

13. The verb for covenant is here sh(e)p tōre, vb. intr., “grasp the hand, be surety for, undertake”; Crum, Coptic Dictionary, 425; with the object mmof (as here) it means “be surety for.” Hn n-tčidj m-pefiōt Girard renders “entre les mains de son Pere,” i.e., “in his embrace.”

14. Tahof erat.f can mean either “set up,” “establish,” “cause to stand,” or “meet with,” “reach another.”

15. The Coptic word pites Girard reads as Greek pithos, vessel, though he finds the idea “bizarre.” Early Christian and Jewish writers, however, speak of the living body (which is the subject of this passage) as a vessel (angeion). Barnabas calls the living body “the blessed vessel” (to kalon skeuos), Barnabas, Epistola Catholica (Catholic Epistle) 21, in PG 2:727–82. On the other hand, pithos is an alternative spelling for peithos, a Greek equivalent for pithanos, “obedient,” “receptive,” a fit epithet for an initiate.

16. Girard makes no attempt to translate sousa, but since this is a cry for help, one thinks of the Greek imperative sōze (mid. sōzou, aorist sōson) or aorist mid. sōsai, meaning “to rescue.” Some maintain that the name of Abrasax is derived from Habros and Sao, “gentle Savior” or “le magnifique sauveur.” Leclercq, “Abrasax,” 129.

17. Is the unfamiliar Aramaic the subject of mystic speculation or just confusion? Girard restores it to elema sabaktani. The trouble seems to be the scribe’s insistence on reading the last three syllables as the familiar Adonai (atōnē).

18. Girard alters thea to theo and borrows the pat- from the next word to get theopator, “l’ancêtre du Christ,” an epithet of David in Byzantine liturgy. Pa.ti.tčittharašē is divided into [pa] ti-kithara [nn] raše tamēt nkap, the harp of joy of ten strings. The ten-stringed harp is a cosmic concept, ten being the perfect number of the Pythagoreans.

19. After writing “veil of the altar” the scribe erased the “veil.” The expression m.pethesasterion is for the Greek formula entos tou thysiastēeriou, meaning “inside the sanctuary.” Walter Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), s.v. thysiastērion, 366; though thysiastērion properly means altar.

20. Harmosiel is the exalted angel who sounds the trumpet and shares with Mizrael the privilege of beholding the Lord behind the veil. The Priscillianists were accused of worshipping him.

21. Harmosiel instructs them? Girard: “Ceux qui sont sur les portes et les tours font écho î sa voix” is quite specific.

22. Is per hakios for the Greek formula Heis Pater Hagios, though Is is the common writing for Jesus, and such an identity is monophysite, making Jesus identical with the Father. As it is, Girard must insert another hagios to make a proper trishagion.

23. Girard: “Salut, o douze petits enfants qui protegez le corps du soleil.” Though this can also be read “minor servants,” the reference to the little children in our prayer circle situation recommends the former. Also the preposition mmof would justify “screen from him the body of the Sun.” Walter Till, Koptische Grammatik (Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie, 1970), #258. See the following note.

24. The twelve water jugs and reference to the watering of vegetation recall the peculiar arrangements of the prayer circles in 1 and 2 Jeu. According to Pistis Sophia, p. 84, the earth must be shielded from the rays of the sun by veils or curtains lest all life be consumed. Today, the filtering of the sun’s rays by layers of atmosphere of various particles is held to be essential to sorting out life-giving rays from deadly ones and thus making vegetation and other life possible upon the earth.

25. The imagery of the closing passage belongs to the coronation rites. The four corners of the earth motif is basic; see Hugh W. Nibley, “Facsimile 1: By the Figures,” in An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2009), 296–313. Paulinus of Nola associated the coronation and universal rule with the types of crosses discussed above, note 1; Poema (Poem) 19.638–41, in PL 61:546; a teaching confirmed by Ambrose and Jerome.

26. P-tčom means either garden or authority; both are appropriate, the garden as the sanctified inheritance of the Saints, the authority being that with which the exalted “Holy Ones of the Father” are invested. The original text, however, has p-šōm, which also makes sense, since it means “summertime,” i.e., the “Summertime of the Just” when the Saints receive their celestial inheritance, e.g., the Shepherd of Hermas.