Orestes and the Ἐρινύες



A while ago a friend sent me copies of some criticism some persons had, by means of the medium of the Internet, made of my translation of the Poemandres tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum.

After recently re-reading the Greek text, my translation, my commentary and the criticisms, all of which criticisms were along similar lines, my feeling was that those critics had misunderstood or ignored or summarily rejected my exegetical approach, an approach I believed I had adequately explained not only in the Preface to my Poemandres but also in other essays such as my Exegesis and Translation: Some Personal Reflexions, [1] where I explained that I inclined toward the view that

“certain English words, used to interpret a particular Hebrew or Greek or Arabic word, suggest, represent, or have acquired, a particular meaning to English readers/listeners but which particular meaning may not necessary accurately reflect the meaning of the non-English word as that non-English word was possibly understood at the time it was included in a particular text.”

I could only conclude that I did not sufficiently explain my methodology, which I also used in the seven other tractates I translated. [2] Therefore I decided to reply to one critic in the hope of clarifying that methodology.

David Myatt

[1] Accessible at https://davidmyatt.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/exegesis-and-translation-partsone-two.pdf

[2] The translations of and the commentaries are accessible at https://davidmyatt.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/eight-tractates-v2-print.pdf


° Criticism: “the passage refers to the birth of the anthropos/image of light […] rendering anthropos as mortal before mortality has even been introduced.”

Reply: The problems here are the phrase “image of light” and assuming that anthropos here does not refer to mortality. What is now meant by “light” is not necessarily what was meant by φῶς as used by the author this tractate, as I attempted to explain in various places in my commentary, such as in reference to v.4. As I wrote in my commentary:

“I am inclined to avoid the vague English word ‘light’ which other translations use, and which English word now implies many things which the Greek does not or may not; as for instance in the matter of over a thousand years of New Testament exegesis, especially in reference to the gospel of John. A transliteration requires the reader to pause and consider what phaos may, or may not, mean, suggest, or imply; and hopefully thus conveys something about the original text.”

In regard to this child “of the father of all” he is the “likeness” of his father and the assumption, unwarranted in my view by the Greek text, made by the critic is that ἄνθρωπος here is Ἄνθρωπος, that is, the Gnostic Anthrôpos. All the Greek indicates is ἀπεκύησεν ἄνθρωπον, an unspecified “bringing forth”, qv. my commentary.

In contrast to the critic, I understand the context as:

καὶ διὰ τοῦτο παρὰ πάντα τὰ ἐπὶ γῆς ζῶια διπλοῦς ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος, θνητὸς μὲν διὰ τὸ σῶμα, ἀθάνατος δὲ διὰ τὸν οὐσιώδη ἄνθρωπον· ἀθάνατος γὰρ ὢν καὶ πάντων τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχων, τὰ θνητὰ πάσχει ὑποκείμενος τῆι εἱμαρμένηι. ὑπεράνω οὖν ὢν τῆς ἁρμονίας ἐναρμόνιος γέγονε δοῦλος ἀρρενόθηλυς δὲ ὤν, ἐξ ἀρρενοθήλεος ὢν πατρὸς καὶ ἄϋπνος ἀπὸ ἀΰπνου […] κρατεῖται.

Hence, as I translated: “Which is why, distinct among all other beings on Earth, mortals are jumelle; deathful of body yet deathless the inner mortal.”

In addition, the critic writes about “demiurge’s cosmos” whereas in regard to δημιουργόν as in ἀπεκύησε λόγωι ἕτερον Νοῦν δημιουργόν (v.9) I do not use that term as it now often implies gnostic weltanschauungen but rather translate contextually as in v.9 where I opted for artisan, hence why in my commentary I wrote “I incline toward the view, given what follows – ἐδημιούργησε διοικητάς τινας ἑπτά – that what is meant here is artisan, rather than demiurge,” and why in respect of θεοῦ λόγος I did not opt for ‘word of God’ which in my view imposes a Christian meaning on the text, preferring the transliteration logos of theos and explaining my choice in the commentary where I quote from Cyrilli Epistula Tertia ad Nestorium.

Thus the critic seems to be imposing later meanings/interpolations upon the Greek text by using the gnostic phrase “image of light”, (qv. Codex VII of the Nag Hammadi library) and assuming the child of theos is the gnostic Anthrôpos.

° Criticism: “In the admonition against the ignorant and violent, Myatt adds honor as one of the things nous gives, which does not appear in the original text.”

Reply: The critic either misunderstood or did not read (i) my long commentary in respect of v.22 and my reference to ἀγαθός, where I referenced the Corpus Aristotelicum, or (ii) my Preface in which ἀγαθός is mentioned, or (iii) my essay Concerning ἀγαθός and νοῦς in the Corpus Hermeticum, accessible at https://davidmyatt.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/myatt-honor-in-the-hermetica-v2a.pdf

° Criticism: “Translating hagios as numinous is also an absurd mistake. Numen is tied to something being holy, but it’s not the same thing.”

Reply: The mention of numen and holy reveal not only what I have called “retrospective reinterpretation” but also that the critic either misunderstood or did not read my commentary in respect of v.5 where I wrote in respect of ἅγιος,


Numinous is better – more accurate – than ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’, since these latter English words have been much overused in connexion with Christianity and are redolent with meanings supplied from over a thousand years of exegesis; meanings which may or may not be relevant here.

Correctly understood, numinous is the unity beyond our perception of its two apparent aspects; aspects expressed by the Greek usage of ἅγιος which could be understood in a good (light) way as ‘sacred’, revered, of astonishing beauty; and in a bad (dark) way as redolent of the gods/wyrd/the fates/morai in the sense of the retributive or (more often) their balancing power/powers and thus giving rise to mortal ‘awe’ since such a restoration of the natural balance often involved or required the death (and sometimes the ‘sacrifice’) of mortals. It is the numinous – in its apparent duality, and as a manifestation of a restoration of the natural, divine, balance – which is evident in much of Greek tragedy, from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (and the Orestia in general) to the Antigone and the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles.

The two apparent aspects of the numinous are wonderfully expressed by Rilke:

Wer, wenn ich schrie, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

“Who, were I to sigh aloud, of those angelic beings might hear me?
And even if one of them deigned to take me to his heart I would dissolve
Into his very existence.
For beauty is nothing if not the genesis of that numen
Which we can only just survive
And which we so admire because it can so calmly disdain to betake us.
Every angel is numinous.”

wenn ich schrie. ‘Were I to sigh aloud’ is far more poetically expressive, and more in tune with the metaphysical tone of the poem and the stress on schrie, than the simple, bland, ‘if I cried out’. A sighing aloud – not a shout or a scream – of the sometimes involuntary kind sometimes experienced by those engaged in contemplative prayer or in deep, personal, metaphysical musings.

der Engel Ordnungen. The poetic emphasis is on Engel, and the usual translation here of ‘orders’ – or something equally abstract and harsh (such as hierarchies) – does not in my view express the poetic beauty (and the almost supernatural sense of strangeness) of the original; hence my suggestion ‘angelic beings’ – of such a species of beings, so different from we mortals, who by virtue of their numinosity have the ability to both awe us and overpower us.

[My translation of Rilke]


In addition, as I wrote in respect of v.22,

“As with ὁσίοις, εὐσεβέω is a difficult word to translate, given that most of the English alternatives – such as reverent, pious – have acquired, over centuries, particular religious meanings, often associated with Christianity or types of asceticism. The correct sense is ‘aware of the numinous’, and thus imbued with that sense of duty, that sense of humility – or rather, an awareness of their human limitations – which makes them appreciate and respect the numinous in whatever form, way, or manner they appreciate, feel, intuit, apprehend, or understand, the numinous, be it in terms of the gods, the god, Μοῖραι τρίμορφοι μνήμονές τ᾽ Ἐρινύες, God, or whatever. It is this awareness which inclines a person toward ‘respectful deeds’, qv. [my comment on] ὁσίοις.”

A pdf version of this text is available here:

Image credit:
Orestes and the Ἐρινύες. Red figure vase, c. 380 BCE

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