Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.11.13

Ilaria Ramelli, Corpus Hermeticum. Edizione e commento di A.D. Nock e A.-J. Festugière. Edizione dei testi ermetici copti e commento di I. Ramelli. Testo greco, latino e copto a fronte. Bompiani. Il pensiero occidentale.   Milano:  Bompiani, 2005.  Pp. 1627.  ISBN 978-88-452-3370-7.  €35.00.  

Reviewed by Eugene V. Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University, Russia (

The greater part of this volume is a translation of the French Corpus Hermeticum by Nock and Festugière into Italian.1 The content and structure of the French edition are preserved completely, while the Greek and Latin texts seem to be translated into Italian from the original, rather than the French.

The translation of introductory notes and commentaries by Nock and Festugière appears to be quite faithful, as far as I can see on the basis of random pages, chosen mainly from the comments on Treatises I, VII, X and some fragments by Stobaeus. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Italian is limited to academic prose, and therefore I am not in a position to judge the literary quality of the translation, but it appears to be quite comprehensible and readable.

The Greek text to accompany the facing Italian translation has apparently been copied from the TLG or another text database. It has neither proper pagination and subdivision of the text nor any traces of the very rich critical apparatus prepared by Nock for the French edition. The situation with the Latin Asclepius and the fragments is similar; therefore this publication cannot properly be entitled an edition. The book is best described as a translation with commentaries, supplemented by the texts. This is certainly not a bad thing, since the volume contains virtually all the material needed by a student of Hermetism. Still, a reproduction of the text from Nock and Festugière's edition with all the apparatus intact would greatly enhance the publication and expand the pool of potential readers. Why copy plain text instead of reprinting the original edition, especially if the rest is reproduced and translated in its entirety, including the original introduction with all its textual criticism (pp. 22-66)? Technically this would not occasion great difficulty.

One more formal complaint: surely, this plump book of more than 1500 pages should have been divided into two or better still three volumes, or at least printed in a larger encyclopedic format. The volume in its present form is very inconvenient for the user. Some minor mistakes in its layouts are also visible. For instance the Greek is usually printed on the left page and the Italian translation on the right, but on the pages 152-153 we quite unexpectedly find the Greek on the right.

Still, a complete translation of the Corpus Hermeticum is a great thing to have, and Italian students of Hermetism now have a very good tool at their disposal. However, it is not my purpose to review Nock and Festugière's work, and I will concentrate on what is claimed to be a novelty, that is the Coptic Hermetic treatise and the bibliography.

Scholars interested in Hermetism are fortunate enough to have at their disposal new and relatively recent textual discoveries, which certainly enhance our knowledge of this problematic religious (?) movement of Late Antiquity. In the area of theoretical (or philosophical) Hermetism,2 these include three texts found in the Nag Hammadi Library, of which only the The "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth" is included in the book under review, the Armenian "Definitions"3 and the Vienna fragments.4

The Coptic "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth" is preceded by an extensive, almost book-length, introductory dissertation (pp. 1270-1407). This Introduction, entitled the "Philosophical Hermetica Preserved in Coptic" (pp. 1267 ff.) is subdivided into four sections. The first short section (pp. 1269-1273), quite misleadingly entitled "New Philosophical Hermetic Treatises discovered at Nag Hammadi" is just a general outline of the content and scope of the Nag Hammadi Library with endnotes (sometimes up to three pages) full of bibliographic references. The list of treatises "codex by codex" given at p. 1270 contains strange omissions. For instance, Ramelli forgets to list the Tripartite Tractate in Codex I (Codex Jung), actually the biggest text in the codex; the Gospel of Thomas, the second tract in Codex II, inexplicably is placed last, or, probably, just confused with the Book of Thomas the Contender, which is really the last text in the codex, but not a "Vangelo"; and even in Codex VI, where the Hermetic texts are found, there is no mention of a Coptic translation of Plato's Republic (588A-589B), which precedes the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth". I have no idea, what "Codex VIIf." means. Apparently, a misprint.

The second section, -- "Philosophic Hermetism to which the 'Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth' belongs", -- is subdivided into a short discussion of historical, epigraphic and archeological testimonia about Hermetism (pp. 1274-1280) and a longer bibliographical outline of Hermetic studies, starting with Reitzenstein and finishing with Mahé and other contemporary scholars (pp. 1280-1290). The outline is both chronological and topical and is supplemented by a very extensive bibliography placed at the end of the book.

To be sure, this bibliography is a real challenge for reader and reviewer. It is subdivided into a general bibliography of the Corpus Hermeticum (pp. 1551-1572) and a longer bibliography on "philosophic Hermetism in Coptic" (pp. 1573-1619). First of all, it is clear that the bibliography is somewhat excessive: it contains entries in which the Hermetic problematic is barely mentioned. Some of the entries in question (and I know this for sure since I have studied these publications for my book on Gnosticism) just mention the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth" as a part of the Nag Hammadi Library, nothing more.5 Besides, the list is structured in a very curious way. Let me give an example of four entries in sequence:

Thomas at the crossroads. . ., ed. R. Uro, Edinburgh 1998.

AA.VV., La preghiera nel tardo antico. . ., Roma 1999, Studia. . .66

E. Albrile, L'Anomalia gnostica. . ., "Convivium Assisiense" n.a. 1 (1999), pp. 133 sgg.

Arcana mundi, a c. di G. Luck. . . Roma 1999.

. . . and so on for many pages without any subtitles.

I have no idea how and for what purpose this list could be used. Since the initials go first it is very difficult to find the author, while the year of publication left at its "usual" place at the end of entries makes it difficult to follow the main ("chronological") structure of the list. Fortunately, all the bibliographic references are quoted in full in the endnotes; otherwise the reader would have a very hard time identifying references. I might appear a bit cranky with all my complaints, but why spend time in compiling such a detailed bibliography, if the result is so inconvenient for the reader?

In the section III (p. 1291ff.) we are finally getting to the text in question, the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth", found in Codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Library. The title is supplied by the editors on the basis of the text, as it is often the case for the works in the Library, and indicates that the treatise (in dialogic form, as usual for Hermetic literature) has something to do with the spheres where the divine realms begin and the lower powers of the sun, moon and the planets end. It is also concerned with progressive stages of spiritual development and salvation of the soul: only by passing through the seven spheres can it ultimately attain the perfect bliss. It is probable that the author of the treatise presupposes the existence of the Tenth sphere, where God dwells, but this is not clear. The discourse is preceded in the codex by a Coptic translation of Plato's Republic 588A-589B (NHC [henceforward = Nag Hammadi Codex] VI 5) and followed by (1) a Hermetic "Prayer of Thanksgiving" (VI 7), in which the gratitude of one who has received deifying knowledge is expressed, (2) a curious scribal note (VI 7a), where the scribe says that he decided to copy just this discourse, although he has at his disposal many other Hermetic (?) texts, and (3) a Coptic translation of sections 21-29 of the Hermetic "Asclepius" (VI 8), which continues until the end of the extant part of the codex. Together with the "Thunder: Perfect Mind" (NHC VI 2), a treatise, really unique for the Library, in which a certain female celestial figure reveals herself in truly Hermetic manner in the form of "I am. . .", we have a considerable body of writings which has a capacity to initiate a sort of revolution in the studies of Hermetism. And this is exactly what had happened in recent decades. Although, as scholars note,6 the texts in the codex have no obvious connection to each other, it is clear that the codex as a whole is mainly concerned with the Soul, its origin and destiny. This explains the inclusion of the Platonic parable from the Republic 588C-E in which the soul is likened to a trichotomous creature, a many-headed beast, a lion and a man7 and of a specific part of the "Asclepius".

Ramelli concentrates on the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth", the most important and entirely new tract of this collection and discusses at length, first the structure of the text and its content against the background of other Hermetic literature (pp. 1293-1320), then "chronological and thematic problems" (pp. 1320-1323), and, finally, possible Judaeo-Christian (pp. 1323-1335) and Gnostic (pp. 1335-1344) parallels. This detailed and learned exposition shows the specific elements of the treatise and reveals its unique features and complicated imagery.

The first part of section IV is dedicated to a description of the Codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Library (pp. 1345-1357): its physical state, language, proposed dating and contents. The scribal note deserves no mention: from NHC 65,7 she goes directly to NHC 65,15. The overall impression is that this section would be better placed at the beginning of the introduction. The introduction ends with a general discussion of value of this new discovery for the history of Hermetism (pp. 1357-1364).

The Coptic text of the treatise NHC VI 6, 52,1-63,32 and its Italian translation follow (pp. 1410-1435). The book ends with a very detailed philological and philosophical commentary on the texts (pp. 1439-1548) and bibliographies (cf. above). Ramelli makes various textual observations which, in conjunction with those already made by other scholars, most notably Mahé,8 create a very impressive panorama of religious life in Late Antiquity. The reader is convinced that Egyptian and Gnostic elements in such pieces of writings as the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth" appear to be genuine elements rather than mere ornaments as Festugière most famously suggested, although some extrapolations made by Ramelli and authors she refers to appear to be somewhat arbitrary.9

These critical observations, which in part are due to disappointment because of initial high expectations, do not affect my overall favourable impression: I. Ramelli has done a very difficult job and done it in a very professional and devoted manner. I enjoyed poring over her exceptionally learned commentaries. I am sure that the book will serve its readers well, especially if properly augmented and corrected.

[For a response to this review by Ilaria Ramelli, please see BMCR 2007.12.13.]


1.   Corpus Hermeticum, texte établi par A.D. Nock et traduit par A.-J. Festugière, Paris, 1960, Budé series.
2.   To be distinguished from popular occultist writings, technical or magical Hermetism, although this division is now questioned by many scholars, notably Fowden. Indeed, if the philosophical Hermetic writings were designed to supply a theoretical basis for the technical Hermetica, they would develop a theory of magic rather then a theory of salvation through a certain type of revealed knowledge, gnosis.
3.   Published with a Russian translation in 1956.
4.   First identified in 1951. For details cf. numerous publications by J.-P. Mahé, notably, his Hermès en haute-Égypte in two vols. (Québec 1978-82).
5.   On the other hand, it is certainly not complete (if a bibliography could be complete in principle). For instance Clarke's 2001 edition of the De mysteriis is recorded, while the most recent and advanced one by Clarke, Dillon and Hershbell (2004) is not.
6.   Cf. D. Parrot's note to "The Authoritative Teaching" (VI 3), the treatise which is also concerned with the destiny of the Soul (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 2nd ed., p. 305).
7.   The text probably circulated independently as a part of a Hermetic (?) collection.
8.   For Mahé cf. note 4; cf. also A. Camplani, Scritti ermetici in copto (Brescia 2000) and J. Brashler, P. Dirkse, D.M. Parrot, Nag Hammadi Codices V, 2-5 and VI with Papyrus Berolinensis (Leiden, 1979), 341-371.
9.   For instance, it escapes me how the most lacunose phrase "[. . .] which is in [. . . / [. . .] 'Oh, my son [. . . / [. . .] (NHC VI 55, 1-3) is connected to Hippolytus' Refutatio V 8, 12 (on Naassenes) (p. 1462; cf. pp. 1361-62). The phrase "from you the universe received soul" reminds Ramelli of the "Didaskalikos" (169, 26-28), which she still believes to be a work by Albinus (not Alcinoos), but there is no reason why this should be important in the context.

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