Waters Animating and Annihilating

Apotheosis by Drowning in the Greek Magical Papyri

Aaron Cheak, PhD

Still from Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 1972.

Death is the inverse, the undescribed side of life: we must attempt to achieve the greatest awareness of our existence which resides in both unlimited regions and nourished by both […] This true form of life penetrates both regions, the blood of the greatest circulation courses through both: there is neither a here nor a thereafter, but rather the greater unity.
— R . M . R I L K E — [ 1 ]

T H E   T E R M I N O L O G Y   O F  initiatory apotheosis emerges right at the beginning of the Greek Magical Papyri (Papyri Graecae Magicae = PGM), an anthology of ritual manuals chiefly composed in Greek but also in Demotic Egyptian and Old Coptic and most probably produced by a milieu of Theban lector-priests in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. [2] In PGM I. 1-42 the verb apotheóō is used to describe a rite of drowning. Here, deification by drowning follows the model of the eternally rejuvenated Osiris and is further assimilated to the Egyptian solar cosmology where to descend into the primordial waters (West, decline, death) is necessary to rejuvenation (East, incline, life). As among early Pythagoreans and southern Italian mystery cults, continual renewal through death and revivification is mediated by a descent (katabasis) into the underworld (in Egyptian cosmology, the duat). Apotheosis and drowning therefore cohere in the praxis of initiatory death, the conditio sine qua non of rebirth into immortal life. This paper will examine some of the finer details of the drowning motif in the PGM (in particular the materia magica—milk, honey, oil of lilies—along with their connections to divine rebirth) and, upon this basis, trace the symbolic resonance of these motifs in classical and late antique texts. Ultimately, the overarching logic at the heart of these symbolic registers will be emphasised in terms of a Heraclitean “harmony of contraries” seen to exist between the chthonic and the ouranian: like the lightning bolt, drowning deifies because the primordial forces that kill are deeply bound to those that animate and enliven.

Magic, Apotheosis, and the Underworld

Let us begin with the full ritual. The text of PGM I. 1-42 proceeds as follows: [3]

Praxis. To get a daimon as an assistant (paredros) who will reveal everything to you clearly, will be your [companion, and] will eat and sleep with you. Take two of your fingernails and all the hairs from your head; then take a Circaean falcon (hieraka kirkaion) / and deify it (apoth[e]ōson) in the [milk] of a black [cow] mixed with Attic honey. Wrap [the deified falcon] with an undyed piece of cloth and place your fingernails and hairs upon it; taking [a piece of royal papyrus], inscribe the following formula in myrrh ink and place it together with your hairs and nails. Then smother/ it [or: anoint it?] with [uncut] frankincense [and] old wine. / Then write the following: “a ee ēēē iiii ooooo yyyyyy ōōōōōō,” but make two columns (klimata):

e    e
ē    ē    ē
i     i     i     i
o    o    o    o    o
y     y     y     y     y     y
ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō

ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō
y     y     y     y     y     y
o    o    o    o    o
i     i     i     i
ē    ē    ē
e    e

Then take the honeyed milk and drink it before the rising of the sun, and there will be something divine (entheon) in your heart. Take the falcon and set it up as a statue in a shrine (naōs) made of juniper wood. And after you have crowned the shrine itself, make an offering of non-animal foods and have on hand some old wine. Before you recline, speak directly to the bird itself after you have made / sacrifice to it, as you usually do, and say the prescribed spell (logos): 

“a ee ēēē iiii ooooo yyyyyy ōōōōōō, come to me, good husbandman (Agathē Georgē), good daimon (Agathos Daimon): harpon knouphi brintantēn siphri briskylma arouazar [bamesen] kriphi niptoumichmoumaōph. [4] Come to me, O holy Orion, [you who lie] in the north, / who cause [the] currents of [the] Nile to roll down and mingle with the sea, [transforming them with life] as it does man’s seed in sexual intercourse, you who have established the world on an indestructible … [foundation], who are young in the morning and [old in the evening], who journey through the subterranean sphere and [rise], breathing fire, you who have parted the seas in the first / month, who [ejaculate] seeds into the [sacred fig] tree of Heliopolis continually. [This] is your authoritative name: arbath abaōth bakchabrē.”

[But] when you are dismissed, [go without shoes] and walk backwards and set yourself to the enjoyment of the food [and] dinner and the prescribed food offering, [coming] face to face as companion [to the god]. / [This] rite [requires complete purity]. Conceal, conceal the [procedure and] for [seven] days [refrain] from having intercourse with a woman.

Katabasis and Anabasis

What we are presented with here is a rite in which the magician identifies himself with the drowned and deified falcon (an animal sympathetic to the solar-regal principle) in order that he may be immortalised (thus gaining a divine assistant or paredros). This identification is clearly indicated by the use of the magician’s own hair and fingernails (extensions of the body), which are repeatedly prescribed throughout the magical papyri. The hair and fingernails were used to connect an effigy to a specific individual. This is especially pronounced in erotic spells of the papyri, in which the hair/nails of the beloved are required in order to effectively perform the spell (i.e. to effectively link the magic to its intended object). The use of hair and fingernails in this manner allowed a sympathetic connection to be effected in which the person who the effigy represents could be magically manipulated or subjected to symbolic processes. In the case of the erotic spell, the love-object was bound by the lover (control through binding being a traditional modality of Egyptian ritual praxis). [5] In the apotheosis spell, however, the magician is clearly identifying himself with the living effigy to be magically manipulated. Specifically, the magician is symbolically and sympathetically subjecting himself to the same process of death and deification that is undergone by the falcon. The process is mirrored in the use of voces magicae

e    e
ē    ē    ē
i     i     i     i
o    o    o    o    o
y     y     y     y     y     y
ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō

ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō     ō
y     y     y     y     y     y
o    o    o    o    o
i     i     i     i
ē    ē    ē
e    e

Here we may refer to the distinct tradition that associates the seven vowels used in Greek magical rites with not only the seven planetary divinities, but also the seven harmonies of the diatonic scale. [6] This cosmological and harmonic schema suggests not only that the vowels were associated with specific notes or harmonics, but that these tones were used to effect a conscious resonance with the corresponding planetary spheres. In PGM I. 1-42, there is good reason to take the seven vowels as representative of descending and ascending vocalisations. As they are displayed here, the progression from alpha (a) to omega (ō) and back again indicates the upper and lower limits of an octave or harmonic register. The vowels in the left column thus proceed from the highest limit to the lowest limit (alpha to omega). In the right column, the vowels proceed in reverse, from the lowest to the highest (from omega back to alpha). Clearly these descending and ascending vocalisations are intended to evoke the process of katabasis (descensus) and anabasis (ascensus), mirroring—and thus overdetermining—the key ritual act of drowning and deification. As Heraclitus remarks in his famous dictum: “the path up and the path down are one and the same.” [7]

Mummified falcon. Queensland Museum.

Beyond these general pointers, the crux of the rite may be seen to reside in the establishment of “something divine” (entheon) in the magician’s “heart” (kardia). In order to attain this, the magician is requested to “drown” (apotheōson) [8] a “Circaean” falcon in the milk of a black cow mixed with Attic honey. After the liquid is imbibed, the falcon is subsequently wrapped (mummified) and enshrined as a statue (“living image”), which is then given offerings and approached by the magician for oracular communication and the execution of his “spell” (logos). Much can be gained from unravelling these details. What we propose to do in the balance of this essay is to unravel some of the key elements of this specific rite. By doing this, we hope to gain insight into not only the cosmological contexts that underpin Graeco-Egyptian apotheosis, but also their deeper initiatic dynamics. Before we examine the details of this text, however, a few remarks are necessary on the word apotheosis itself and how it came to be used in this double manner (drowning/deification).

The Word Apotheosis

The word apotheosis originally emerges in the context of Alexander the Great and points ultimately to the ideology of divine filiation (Alexander as son of Zeus-Amun). [9] Although the political appropriation of the word apotheosis generally leads us away from the essence of the matter with which we are concerned, a few important keys are nevertheless concealed in this material, and it will be expedient to dip, albeit briefly, into the ocean of scholarship on Graeco-Roman ruler cult. [10] The enormous influence of Alexander the Great clearly set the mould for all who followed him, but it is important to recognise that he himself was merely following the mythological models set by divinities and heroes such Dionysus and Heracles. Here the motif of divine filiation becomes pronounced and must be deemed central. Alexander went to extraordinary lengths to confirm his divine lineage (son of Zeus-Amun). Unlike his late Roman imitators, for whom deificatio was little more than an extension of their political persona, Alexander took his divine filiation seriously. 

Column of Antoninus Pius, 161 CE.

In Roman times, apotheosis (deificatio, concecratio) became the standard fate of a dead emperor. Following in the footsteps of Alexander and the Hellenistic ruler cult, the emperors Caesar and Augustus clearly established the model that would be subsequently followed. In particular, the emperor’s genius-bearing image would be promoted as a cult object. On 1 January 42 BCE, the Senate decreed Caesar a divus (god) and the comet that appeared when he died was seen as confirmation of this; symbolically, it was seen as his divine genius or soul ascending to heaven. Caesar’s son, Octavius, was thus regarded as a divi filius (son of a god), later receiving the title Augustus; when he died in 14 CE, the Senate voted and declared him a divus, as they had done with his father. With no comet to mark the occasion, an eagle (aquila) was released from Augustus’ funeral pyre to represent his soul soaring to the Empyrean and henceforth the eagle became a distinct symbol of apotheosis. [11] More and more, the determination of divine status was increasingly secularised by the all-too-human procedures of the Roman Senate. Eventually, the death of the emperor became so synonymous with apotheosis that Vespasian, on his death-bed, famously joked: “O dear, I fear I am becoming a god” (Væ, puto deus fio). [12]

At the roots of this lie the ancient belief that a human could not become a god whilst alive. Mortality and immortality were mutually exclusive, as per Heraclitus’ chiasmus: “a man is a mortal god; god is an immortal man.” [13] In a similar vein, Empedocles could proclaim: “I come before you an immortal god, no longer mortal.” [14] Here, however, the initiatic undertones of such a statement imply that mortality is overcome by the philosophical death: [15] as in Orphic and Buddhist praxis, initiation is undertaken as a preparation for death, of learning to “die before you die.”
The cult of the deified ruler traditionally took effect after his death. To become a god, you had to die. Alexander was one of the first to seriously challenge this ontological barrier in a political context, seeking to instantiate the rites of his divine cult during his life, a point that proved enormously controversial. From an initiatory perspective, these basic beliefs persisted, but we gain a deeper insight into their fundamental metaphysics. Death represented the barrier between mortality and immortality because the mortal, by nature and definition, was subject to birth and death; only the immortal could transcend such contingencies. To become immortal one had to go beyond death and to do this one had to confront it—something which only the hērōs, the very prototype of the deus filius whom Alexander sought to imitate—instinctively engaged through the path of virile action. In the esoteric world, the core praxis was no less direct: it sought to give up mortal life in order to attain the immortal by learning to “die before you die.” Initiatory death—and by extension ritual rebirth as an immortal—thus formed the conditio sine qua non of apotheosis.

In order to understand the deeper meaning of apotheosis (rather than the political vicissitudes to which the term succumbed) one must look not to the late antique conventions of imperial apotheosis (which is largely propagandistic), but to the contemporary initiatic traditions, which used the term in a very different and much more revealing manner. In the magical and theurgical milieux of Hellenistic antiquity, a rich heritage of esoteric meanings had accrued around the term apotheosis. One of the most revealing of these is the use of the term to signify not just initiatic death, but initiatic death by drowning (and thus an Egyptian mythological context). It is to this that we now turn.

Apotheosis by Drowning

In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus records the Egyptian practice of deifying the drowned through mummification:

When anyone, be he Egyptian or stranger, is known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, such an one must by all means be embalmed and tended as fairly as may be and buried in a sacred coffin by the townsmen of the place where he is cast up; nor may any of his kinsfolk or his friends touch him, but his body is deemed something more than human, and is handled and buried by the priests of the Nile themselves. [16]

From Diodorus of Sicily we learn that the crocodiles themselves were regarded as equally sacred. [17] F. L. Griffiths saw this as necessarily following from the Egyptian reality by which those who were drowned in the Nile were often, ultimately, drowned by crocodiles. [18] However one happened to drown, they were invariably eaten by crocodiles, which were consequently regarded and feared as a Typhonian force. 

Seth is not only the murderer but also the reviver of Osiris. Upon closer inspection, the mythology of Seth-Typhon reveals a complex divinity presiding over all dangerous thresholds and ontological transitions. As such he is pivotal not only to the death (drowning, dismemberment) but also to the rebirth (resurrection) of Osiris;

In Egypt, drowning (mḥj, hrp, ῾ga) appears originally to have signified absolute extinction, a form of corporeal destruction which rendered afterlife impossible. [19] This follows from the fact that an intact body was a prerequisite to continued existence in the afterlife. [20] Along with death by fire, death by water was regarded among the most feared of Typhonian forces. [21] Only later, from the New Kingdom through to the late period, were the drowned increasingly regarded as sacred. This is due chiefly to the increasing significance of the role of Osiris, for whom drowning becomes instrumental to his revivification and deification. As Hopfner observes: “only after death by drowning could he [Osiris] become a god.” [22] It is thus the myth of Osiris—and more significantly his death and resurrection at the hands of his enemy, Seth-Typhon—that underpins the motif of apotheosis by drowning that we meet in the magical papyri.

According to the Interpretatio Graeca, Typhon corresponds to the Egyptian god Seth (Egyptian swtḫ, stš, Greek Sēth-Typhōn) who, as murderer and drowner of Osiris, must be regarded as instrumental to the process of apotheosis by drowning. As Herman te Velde notes, Seth is not only the murderer but also the reviver of Osiris. [23] Upon closer inspection, the mythology of Seth-Typhon reveals a complex divinity presiding over all dangerous thresholds and ontological transitions. As such he is pivotal not only to the death (drowning, dismemberment) but also to the rebirth (resurrection) of Osiris; and as Ann Macy Roth has shown, this is implicit in the deeply Sethian symbolism of the mouthopening ceremony (wp.t r῾)—a rite of rebirth—in which ritual synthemata such as the adze, the bull’s thigh and ritual blades made from meteoric iron, regulate the Sethian threshold between existence and non-existence so crucial to the triumph of the solar procession (prohodos, processio) over the inimical forces of chaos (the serpent Apep/Apōphis). [24]

This brings us to one of the main points of the present essay: the deeper significance of drowning, as well as the overarching symbolism of all the drowning rites in the PGM, is best understood in the context of the Egyptian solar cosmogony, particularly as expressed in the underworld books. As Erik Hornung points out, “in the late period the Egyptians formally recognised the process of “divinisation by drowning”; monuments were even erected for people who had drowned in the Nile. The Egyptians could thus rest assured that an elaborate, official burial was not the crucial prerequisite for a blessed afterlife.” [25] It must be emphasised, however, that with the magical papyri we are dealing with a rite that is intended not for the common purposes of securing a blessed afterlife per se, but with the initiatic purpose of encountering death as a means to apotheosis. As shall be seen, the deeper Egyptian context of this rite only becomes explicit when one examines the nature of the sun’s nocturnal journey. Before we turn to this, however, a few remarks are necessary on the general structure of Egyptian cosmogony.

The Roots of Egyptian Cosmology: Nun and his Hypostases

The theologies of Egypt—of Hermopolis, Memphis, Heliopolis—are to be seen less as competing ideologies and more as specialised foci within the purview of one integral cosmological perception. From this integral perspective, it may be said that the three chief centres of cosmological doctrine represent the phases of (i) pre-creation, (ii) emergence of the creative forces themselves and (iii) creation proper. Accordingly, the theologies elaborate: (i) the divinities personifying the potential of pre-creation, (ii) the divinities personifying creative power and (iii) the neteru proper, who constitute the natural cosmos. [26]

The Hermopolitan theology is essentially an elaboration of the Ogdoad: the eight-fold personification of the primordial waters: the inert potential which precedes and underpins creation and out of which creation rises. The word Ogdoad comes from the Greek ogdoas, but is a direct translation of the Egyptian expression ḫmnyw, ḫmnjw, ‘group of eight.’ [27] The primordial waters were conceived as a limitless ocean known as nw(j), ‘the watery one,’ personified as the male god Nu (later, Nun). The characteristic qualities of the ‘watery one’ were further developed as four pairs of divinities—four gods and four goddesses: 

(i) wateriness (nwj), inertness (njnj)
(ii) infinity (ḥḥw)
(iii) darkness (kkw)
(iv) hiddenness (tnm)                            

Nun and Naunet
Huh and Hauhet 
Kuk and Kauket 
Amun and Amaunet 

As the personification of the primeval waters, Nun was seen as that element which gives rise to and therefore sustains, generates and animates all things; it came to be signified not only in all life-giving water (the Nile and other source-waters), but in all vital life-fluids (such as sap and blood). [28] Thus, because of his status as the ground of all being, Nun was comprehended as the father of the gods (that is, of the first beings). [29] 

Origin, the ground of being, is not only existentiating, it is also “de-existentiating.” That which arises out of origin must also sink back into it. This accounts for the simultaneously creative yet destructive potency (dynamos) that origin holds. The primordial waters of life are also the waters of dissolution, the alpha and omega. As such, they delimit the threshold between non-being and being: that which is subject to birth and death, and that which is immortal. For this reason they form the vital crux of apotheosis.

The Sun’s Nocturnal Journey 

The goddess Nut (night) swallowing the Sun. Book of Night, Tomb of Rameses VI. 

As Christine Strauss has pointed out, drowning as the means to deification is ultimately bound to the cyclical rebirth of the sun-god, who descends nightly into the watery depths of Nun to be reborn again with the morning sunrise. [30] The nocturnal journey of the sun finds its most distinctive representation in the New Kingdom underworld books: the Amduat (literally, “what is in the underworld”) and the Book of Gates. [31] Depicted in royal tombs and on sarcophagi, these so-called Unterweltsbücher begin with the sun’s setting in the western horizon and conclude with its rising on the eastern horizon. During the interim, the solar barque moves through the depths of the earth, traversing the twelve hours of the night, which form the structure of the text.

The underworld (duat) is essentially a place of regeneration. It is also a place of ultimate destruction. Despite or perhaps because of such dangers, however, the nightly descent of the sun into the depths of the netherworld allows the solar divinity to be revitalised. This takes place in the primordial waters of Nun. It occurs precisely at sixth hour: the nadir of the journey, corresponding to midnight.

The fact that this is a soul journey as well as a cosmogonic processio is emphasised by the fact that, throughout the duat, the sun-god takes his nocturnal, ram-headed form. Here the ram represents the ba (psychē) of Ra; this is an onomatopoeic rebus: in addition to ‘psychē,  soul,’ the word ba means ‘ram.’ [32] The essential concern of the sixth hour of the duat is the unification of the divine ba-soul with its body (ḫ.t). Whereas the ba of Ra is represented as a ram-headed divinity, the body of Ra is represented as Osiris—the corpse of the sun-god—who lies waiting in the waters of Nun to be reanimated by his ba. Interestingly, Osiris, the corpse of Ra, takes the form of a scarab, the beetle that raises the disc of the rising sun and whose hieroglyph is ḫpr: ‘to evolve, come into existence, be’ (prefiguring even in death the form of the rejuvenated, rising sun; as will be noted later, the scarab also figures in other apotheosis/drowning rites in the PGM). The resurrection of the sun thus proceeds from the moment of unification of what in alchemical terms would be called the “volatile” and the “fixed” (Ra and Osiris; soul and body). [33] After the soul of the sun-god has reunited with its corpse, it proceeds to provide the denizens of the underworld with cloth (clothing), as if to suggest the vital, bodily textures that begin to envelope the solar embryo as it moves from its conception (midnight) to its birth (dawn). As Stricker observes, “ontogeny,” for the Egyptians, “recapitulates cosmogony”; [34] the development of the being is a mirror of the process of cosmogenesis; both, moreover, are theophanies—a point made explicit in the hermetic maxim: “god has two forms: cosmos and man.” [35] 

The regeneration of the drowned is one of the many parallel motifs which accompany the central motif of solar regeneration. Here, the waters in which the drowned die are assimilated to the waters by which the drowned are regenerated. In the tenth hour of the Amduat (the ninth hour in the Book of Gates), the waters of Nun are represented by a large, blue rectangle in which the naked bodies of the improperly buried dead float. By being assimilated to the primordial waters of Nun, however, the annihilating waters that cause death also enable the drowned access to the regenerating capacities of the underworld. Through their assimilation to the rejuvenating underworldly waters, the dead are offered the chance to escape ultimate destruction (represented by the chaos serpent Apophis, the inimical force which Seth conquers, evincing his positive, cosmogonic function through the facilitation of ḫpr/genesis). By partaking of the regenerating nature of the primordial waters, the drowned escape destruction and, like Osiris, become sacred (whereupon the Osirian epithet, ḥsy, ‘sacred drowned, blessed dead,’ is applied to them). [36] 

The drowned are regenerated by the same power that regenerates the sun-god and are thereby immortalised. This is most emblematically represented in the twelfth and final hour of the Amduat, where the sun is depicted, along with the gods and the sacred dead (ḥsy), being drawn backwards through the body of a giant serpent (symbolising eternity). Entering the serpents tail aged, the gods and the dead emerge from its mouth rejuvenated. [37] However, whereas the sun and his divine entourage emerge from the underworld reborn, Osiris—and by extension the sacred drowned—must remain in the underworld. It is preeminently the power of the sun, in particular the rising sun (represented in Egyptian iconography by the falcon-formed Horus) that emerges victoriously from the underworld as a fully-fledged renatus. [38]

The character of Horus as sol invictus (hēlios anikētos) goes a long way to explaining why the magician of PGM I. 1–42, although undergoing the general Osirian drama of death and revivification, ultimately identifies himself with the drowned and deified falcon (thus signifying the ability of the invincible sun to overcome death and emerge as an immortal god). The finer details of the falcon symbolique point directly to the divine presence of spiritual light, victory, and glory (phōs, nikē, doxa), which the falcon and eagle, as victorial birds par excellence, eminently symbolise. In order to understand this, it is first necessary to examine Horus in his role as divine son (deus filius) and here we must place our emphasis less on his divine paternity and more on the divine maternal principle. Only by examining the significance of what it means to be nourished by the deifying power of a goddess will we come to comprehend the deeper meaning of milk as an instrument of apotheosis.

Milk, Goddess, Galaxy

The Philosophers thus speak clearly when they teach that the mercury, following the effectuated dissolution, carries the child, the Son of the Sun, the Little King (Kinglet), like a true mother, since in effect the gold is reborn in its womb.
— F U L C A N E L L I — [ 39 ]

Phenomenologically, milk and honey are both natural foodstuffs produced for the specific purpose of nourishing the young of the given species; [40] they are also the only foods produced for this purpose that are cultivated and consumed by humans. Generally speaking, milk and honey reinforce the motif of nourishment necessary to the newly born (rebirth) and allude to the topography of paradise (lands flowing with milk and honey). Not insignificantly, milk and honey were traditionally given to initiates of the Coptic and Ethiopian church after baptism and the symbolism is closely connected. More specifically, however, milk and honey have some very distinct mythological connotations that deeply illuminate the significance of the rite from the magical papyri. This section will examine the nature of milk as intimately connected with the role of the goddess in initiatory rebirth, as well as the nature of honey as the divine solar principle borne by the goddess’ milk. Through this we will come to a deeper understanding of the power to which the initiate must wed himself (whence the significance of the paredros, the magical partner which becomes attached to the magician). [41]

Milk from a Black Cow

In an Egyptian context, “milk from a black cow” indicates fertility, birth and nourishment, for the black colour, as is well-known, evoked the fertile Nilotic soil that gave Egypt its very name: km.t, “black earth, the black land” (as contrasted with dšrt, the desert, the arid red land). A black cow is a fertile cow and thus a potential mother. [42] In regards to the symbolism of black, Mathieu has drawn attention to a passage from the Pyramid Texts that confirms the more specific connection to maternity, milk and suckling: “N. has drunk the milk from the two black cows, the two wet-nurses of the ba-souls of Heliopolis”. [43] From the black cow comes the white milk and the ancient association of blackness with fertility thus gives rise to the complementary association of whiteness with nourishment (milk): “here,” comments Mathieu, “the meeting of the fertile black and the nourishing white, for us paradoxical, finds its full coherence.” [44]

More specifically still, we would suggest that the symbolism of white emerging from black may be more deeply understood in terms of contemporary hellenistic alchemical processes. [45] Here, black and white represent the first two phases of the alchemical transmutation—melanōsis (blackening) and leukōsis (whitening)—in which the dark, fertile prima materia (virgin earth) secretly contains and gives rise to an “occult” white or silver (virgin milk). Just as the black contains the white, so too does the white culminate in the emergence of the “tincture” (the chromatic principle proper): first xanthōsis (yellowing, in which “occult gold” emerges from the white matrix) and finally iōsis (reddening or purpling) in which the immortalising alchemical tincture is made present in its most virulent form. [46] 

The black cow and its virginal milk thus represent the first chromatic shift in the hermetic opus—melanōsis to leukōsis: the perfect black to the pristine white. The honey, the solar falcon, on the other hand, represents the presence of the masculine tincture that enters or develops within the purified feminine body, inducing the transition from white to gold/red: the citrinitas and rubedo that imbues the goddess’ milky body with the sun’s radiant lustre.

Taken as a whole, we are dealing with a feminine (black-lunar) matrix and a masculine (golden-solar) embryo that comes to fruition within this matrix. Theologically, we are dealing with Isis as the “black virgin” who nourishes the golden divus filius (Horus) on her divine “virgin’s milk.” Such a motif could delay us indefinitely if we were to trace its resonances throughout alchemy and Christianity. But the Egyptian funerary texts are explicit enough: we are presented with the image of a cow suckling her young—the cow numen as divine wet-nurse, the goddess that feeds initiates and divinities alike on her immortalising milk. For this reason, when the dead king of the Pyramid Texts becomes a renatus, he is identified with a calf, suckled by a (black) cow to signify his nourishment by the fertile divine mother. 

Isis and Hathor

In pharaonic iconography, both Isis and Hathor are represented as cows. They are not only mothers, but transmitters of divine sovereignty, effectuating thereby the link between divinity and royalty. In the Pyramid Texts, the pharaoh drinks the divine milk from the breasts of his mother Isis, an image replicated by a wealth of statuettes of Isis seated on a throne suckling the young Horus. [47] In the Hathor chapel in Queen Hatshepsut’s XVIII dynasty temple at Deir el-Bahari, the pharaoh is depicted suckling on the udders of Hathor in her cow form. [48] In both cases, the suckling of the king by his divine wet-nurse is merely a recapitulation of the suckling of Horus by Hathor. Here in the papyrus marshes, in the form of a wild cow, Hathor suckles and nourishes the young god on his rightful divine power. That Horus is gaining more than mere milk is corroborated by a complementary image in which the king receives from Hathor the mn῾.t necklace—a symbol of divine chrism or charisma (“grace”). [49] In such images we are to recognise that the pharaoh is not merely imbibing common milk, but rather the very power of divine sovereignty itself, the force that makes him the living symbol of Ra-Horus on earth. This power is nothing less than the royal ka and is identical with the Avestan concept of the xvarnah (“light, glory, victory”), which took the form of a falcon. [50]

Hat-Hor hieroglyph, Deir el-Bahari

Hathor has a specific relation to Horus (the falcon) and by extension the pharaoh (the king as incarnation of Horus) that consolidates the deeper symbolism at play in the magical papyri. While many goddesses, including Isis, took cow forms, Hathor was the perhaps most preeminent in this role. According to the Interpretatio Graeca, Hathor was regarded as the Egyptian Aphrodite. She was depicted as a cow, or as a goddess with the ears and horns of a cow; significantly, between her horns she bore the solar disc (aten). Although Hathor wasn’t the only Egyptian goddess depicted as a cow, she was the only one who uniformly took these characteristics in her anthropomorphic form. Moreover, because her horns bore the disk of the sun, she was a quintessentially solar goddess. It is here that her close connection to Horus becomes explicable. This relationship is confirmed all the more by the fact that the name Hathor itself (ḥt-ḥr, ‘Hat-Hor’) literally means the “house or mansion of Horus”; in hieroglyphic, her name is depicted by a falcon within a rectangular enclosure (ḥt, the hieroglyph for ‘house, mansion’).

The same deep connection between Hathor, the cow and the sun also persists in Hellenistic astrology, and here it may be noted that the zodiacal sign of Taurus (the bovine) is ruled by Venus (Aphrodite), the planetary divinity associated with the “warm,” solar lineage as opposed to the “cool,” lunar lineage. Astrologically (and theologically), the difference between Venus and the Moon corresponds to that between Venus-Aphrodite (Hathor) and Artemis-Diana (Isis); metallurgically (and alchemically) it is the difference between copper, which bears a golden or solar tincture, and silver, which is pure. [51] Just as these two metals are the best conductors of electricity (next to gold), so too are their respective feminine divinities to be regarded as either sensuous, resplendent bearers (Hathor) or pure, virginal reflectors (Isis) of the sun’s divine light.

The idea that Hathor bears something of the sun’s tincture or energy goes a long way to explaining the presence of honey—a preeminently royal and solar symbol—in the divinising milk of the magical papyri. If milk is feminine and lunar and honey golden and solar, then Hathor, who bears the epithet “the golden one,” is thus the divine feminine bearer of this royal tincture (the alchemical xanthōsis or iōsis). 

That Isis and Hathor are both nourishers and in effect mothers of Horus brings us to an important point that requires clarification. Horus, Isis, Hathor (as well as Osiris) are presented in shifting roles that blatantly contradict the ordinary standards of familial logic. In looking at the relationships, we find:

(i) Isis as mother of Horus; Isis as wife of Horus
(ii) Hathor as mother of Horus; Hathor as wife of Horus
(iii) Horus as brother of Osiris; Horus as son of Osiris.

Horus thus has two roles: child-god and sky-god. Hart gives a good summary of the usual, historical explanation for this:

The king of Egypt is called “son of Hathor.” This of course leads to a complication since the king as Horus is the son of Isis. It seems most probable that Hathor is the original mother of the hawk-god in the cycle of myth where Horus and Seth are brothers. She gave way to Isis when the legend was absorbed into the myth of Osiris, necessitating Horus to become the son of that goddess in order to gain the throne of Egypt. There is a further realignment in the relationship when Hathor becomes regarded as the wife of the sky-god Horus of Edfu. [52]

At the root of these shifting roles, however, lies a deeper theologoical paradox whose metaphysical implications thoroughly eclipse the historical explanation. It is summarised in the phenomenon by which the son is also the father of his mother. This morphology occurs in numerous thelogical traditions, but in Egyptian texts we find it in the expression ka-mut-tef, the “bull of his mother,” which is applied to the pharaoh as incarnation of Horus. 

Essentially we are dealing with the phenomenon of a tri-unity in which the ka (which means both “bull” and “spirit”) indicates the active masculine force in the triad; mut, the mother, represents the feminine receptive force; while the child or son represents the product. However, the paradox that binds the three aspects of this lineage into a triangular unity lies in the fact that the son, by recapitulating (indeed reincarnating) his father, becomes thereby the bull (spirit and inseminator) of his mother. In short, he is the father of himself. Rather than being a simple “product,” he exists both in a primary state, “before” the separation or differentiation into gendered polarity (male-female) and in an ultimate state, “after” the two poles have been differentiated and then recombined (the alchemical conjunctio or cohabation). The motif has a number of important resonances in Platonic and alchemical metaphysics that cannot be detailed here, suffice to say that the tri-unity equates to the eidos, hypodochē and mimēma (form/receptacle/copy, or father/mother/offspring) of Plato’s Timaeus, while in alchemy it equates to the tria prima of sulphur, mercury and salt (cinnabar, or mercuric sulphide, being the salt of mercury and sulphur). [53]

Among other things, this phenomenon explains why Horus is both son and brother of Osiris (and by extension, brother and nephew of Seth). In terms of the goddess, it explains how the unity of divus filius to the diva matrix is not only a maternal bond but a conjugal bond. These two relationships thus explain the presence of Isis (virgin mother) and Hathor (Venusian lover) in the initiatic process, in which Horus is, at varying stages, both son and lover of the goddess. 

Oil of Lilies

Our suggestion that the milk of the drowning rite refers to the divine nourishment that enables the initiate to partake of divinity is closely corroborated by specific details from other drowning rites from the magical papyri. PGM VII.628-42, in particular, instructs the initiate to drown (deify) a field-lizard not in milk but in “oil of lilies.” This detail of the substance in which the entity is drowned confirms the overarching presence of the goddess as diva matrix. [54]

The Geoponica, a seventh century Byzantine agricultural manual, informs us that lilies first came into being when the goddess Hera spilt her breast milk upon the earth. Lilies are thus the earthly signatures of the goddess’ milk. Although expressed in different symbolic language, we are presented with nothing less than the exact same mythologeme that we meet in Egyptian sources: nourishment of the initiate on the immortalising milk of a goddess. The magical papyri, by alluding to both Egyptian and Greek reflexes of the same theological reality, thus demonstrate a remarkably subtle cultural dexterity in its choice of materia magica (a hermeneutic sensitivity that cannot be dismissed as mere syncretism).

The context of this detail is equally revealing. Hera, the ever-jealous wife of Zeus, spilt her divine milk precisely when she realised that the son of Zeus (to a mortal woman) was suckling on her breast. This divus filius was none other than Heracles—the very model that Alexander emulated in his historical quest for apotheosis (Heracles and Dionysus, both sons of Zeus to mortal women, formed the heroic and divine role models for Alexander, who tradition also considered as a son of Zeus). Although Heracles’ status as a semi-divine entity (hērō) followed from the fact that his father was a god, he was still half mortal; Zeus schemed to make him a complete god by tricking Hera into suckling him on her deifying milk, thereby fulfilling his divine ontogeny. According to other sources, Hera soon realised the ruse and pulled the child off her breast, spilling her divinising milk upon the earth in the process (according to the Geoponica, Heracles simply turned away from the breast when sated). In any event, before the milk fell upon the earth, it flowed through the sky. And so, what we have here is not only the genesis of lilies from divine breast milk, but also the origin of the milky way:

When Jupiter had Hercules by Alcmena, who was mortal, he wished to make him partaker of immortality; and he laid him to Juno’s breast, when she was asleep, while he was in the state of infancy; and the infant being satisfied with milk, turned away from the breast, but the milk still flowed copiously when the infant was removed; and what was diffused in the sky made what is called the milky-way; and what flowed on the earth and tinged its surface, produced the lily, which is like milk in respect of colour. [55]

Thus, the substances in which the falcon, lizard or scarab are drowned (and deified) all point to the motif of divine suckling and rebirth. On one hand, “milk from a black cow” indicates the milk of the goddesses Isis and Hathor, the bovinomorphic wet-nurses of the sun-god Horus, while on the other hand, oil of lilies points to the myth of Heracles being suckled on the immortalising milk of Hera. But this same milk is also the source of the milky way and as such, this last example provides the final key that we need in order to open up the deeper cosmological layers of the drowning motif in the magical papyri. It takes us not only into the depths of Orphic-Bacchic mythology, but also invites us to return to some overlooked aspects of the Egyptian cosmograph with which we began.

Fallen into Milk

As Burkert has rightly suggested, Pythagorean, Orphic and Bacchic mysteries might best be understood as distinctly overlapping religious domains. While minimalist scholars have tended to play down any suggested connection between Pythagoreanism, Orphism and Bacchic cultus, the discovery of new evidence—notably the gold plate uncovered at Valentia in southern Italy in 1969—provides a positive and incontrovertible link between Orphic and Dionysian ritual and an initiation to immortality through death and revivification. [56] The process—mirroring on an individual level the cosmic journey undergone by the Egyptian solar divinity—is clear: it is inaugurated by a katabasis or descensus into the underworld. The full implications of this have been drawn out most adeptly by Peter Kingsley, who situates the gold lamallae—and the related Bacchic and Pythagorean mysteries—precisely in the context of initiatory rebirth symbolism. [57]

Among the bewildering complex of overlapping evidence for underworldly initiation, one textual fragment strikes a note of resonance that enables us to tie together a number of important threads. In an Orphic lamella discovered in a tumulus at Thurii (southern Italy), the Bacchic initiate is identified as a kid (eriphos, a young goat), signifying the renatus regenerated from initiatory death and nourished by the milk that flows from the breasts of the goddess (in this case, Persephone). Inscribed upon a thin sheet of gold, the inscription runs:

theos egenou ex anthrōpo.
eriphos es gala epetes 

You have become a god instead of a mortal. 
A kid you fell into milk. [58] 

Here, falling es gala, ‘into milk’ [59] suggests a deeper cosmological coherence. The Greek word for milk—gala—gives us our word for galaxy because it was originally applied to the ‘milky way’ (gala, ‘milk’; galaktos, ‘galaxy’; the via lactea). [60] To fall “into milk” takes on the additional meaning of “diving into the stars” and thus of joining one’s primordial, divine lineage. In effect, the milk of the goddess and the stars of the milky way are identical realities and the initiate’s descent into the underworld is simultaneously an ascent into the nocturnal heavens.  

This motif of falling into milk to become a god, along with milk as an Urelement that provides the newborn divinity with its essential nourishment, brings us directly into contact with the deification motif of the magical papyri: drowning—literally, apotheosis—in the milk of a black cow. Through these connections—deification in milk, rebirth, being suckled by a goddess—we begin to discern the significance that ingesting a divine substance—an entheon—holds for the process of apotheosis; at the same time, we realise that it is explicity bound to the process of initiatic death. All of this points to a very particular paradox lying at the heart of initiation: just as one must die to be reborn, so too is it apparent that the means by which one is killed is also a deifying source of nourishment. [61] This explains why, in the Pythagorean, Orphic and Bacchic katabasis, it is Persephone, the queen of the underworld, who plays the role of divine wet-nurse and initiatrix. 


One further point needs to be made to properly understand the meaning of falling into the goddess’ galactic milk. The galaxy specifically represents the domain of fixed stars that lie beyond the seven wandering stars (the planetēs or planets, which in traditional cosmology were seen to govern fate in the sublunary realm). The integration of the initiate into the primordial, celestial lineage is thus tantamount to overcoming the phenomenon of astral fatality—heimarmenē—transcending thereby the seven ontological levels of the hermetic cosmos. This is the deeper meaning of the voces magicae. The magician demonstrates his mastery over astral fatality by singing the seven descending and ascending vowels, sinking into fatality from above and rising above it from below. In effect, the initiate willingly drowns to be deified because, at the root of the septenary, but also beyond it, lies its transcending culmination—its alpha and omega. Beyond the seven lies the eight—the octave or ogdoad—the eight hypostases of the god Nun that form the roots of Egyptian cosmogony and into which both the dead and the divine sink in order to be regenerated. 

This distinction between astral fatality (the seven planets) and astral immortality (the fixed stars) is symbolically replicated in the choice of waters offered to the Orphic initiate. Repeated references in the gold lamellae to the Lake of Memory allude to the topography of the Greek underworld. The soul arrives “parched with thirst and dying” and a choice between two rivers confronts the deceased. On the left is the river Lethe (the waters of forgetfulness), which wipes one’s memory clean and casts one back into the cycle of incarnations to live out another embodied life in the “heavy, difficult circle” (kyklo barypentheos argaleoio; cf. samsara). [62] On the right is another river, which enables memory, for its waters are those of anamnesis. The memory afforded by this water, however, is of a specific kind: it is not the memory of common, accumulated, human knowledge, but of the soul’s knowledge: a knowledge of one’s true, eternal and divine nature, which is not earthly but sidereal.

In several of the gold lamellae, the Orphic initiate is admonished to “drink from the water of the river on the right,” [63] and it is evident that this remembrance―this gnosis of one’s divine origin—is tantamount to apotheosis. [64] As such, gnosis equates to victory over the forces of forgetfulness induced by the process of incarnation. For the descent into matter corresponds to amnesia (amnēsis) of one’s divine nature, just as ascent corresponds to its remembrance. Plato, writing after the Orphics but before the Gnostics, affirms the same essential motif as a philosophical doctrine: knowledge is memory. Moreover, with Plato the fact is found encoded in the Greek word for ‘truth’—alētheia—literally, ‘freedom from forgetfulness,’ where the alpha privatum signifies ‘absence of’ or ‘freedom from’ the condition of lētheia, i.e. Lethe, (the river of) ‘forgetfulness.’ [65]

The astral or sidereal dimension is emphasised throughout the Orphic Totenpässe. Indeed, identification with one’s sidereal lineage forms the key to the process of immortalisation; the Orphic texts specifically and repeatedly admonish the initiate to proclaim their astral geniture in order to be able to drink of the immortalising waters of anamnēsis (Mnemosyne, the well of memory). To the guards who protect the well, the initiate is specifically admonished to proclaim:

I am a child of Earth and starry Sky,
but my race is heavenly. You yourselves know this.
I am parched with thirst and am dying; but quickly grant me
cold water flowing from the Lake of Memory. [66]

A lengthier lamella runs as follows:

This is the work of Memory, when you are about to die
down to the well-built house of Hades. There is a spring at the right side,
and standing by it a white cypress.
Descending to it, the souls of the dead refresh themselves.
Do not even go near this spring!
Ahead you will find the Lake of Memory,
cold water pouring forth; there are guards before it.
They will ask you, with astute wisdom,
what you are seeking in the darkness of murky Hades.
Say, “I am a son of Earth and starry Sky,
I am parched with thirst and dying; but quickly grant me
cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink.”
And they will announce you to the Chthonian King,
and they will grant you to drink from the Lake of Memory.
And you, too, having drunk, will go along the sacred road on which other
glorious initiates and bacchoi travel. [67]

Such remarks draw out the duality of human nature, described here as part mortal (Gē pais eimi, “I am a son of earth”) and part divine (Ouranou asteroentos, “of starry heaven”). [68] Clearly, to realise—to have gnosis—that one’s true race (genē) is “of heaven alone” is to re-orient oneself toward one’s sidereal and Ouranian genus rather than one’s human and earthly genesis. Falling “into milk” thus bears not only a linguistic but a symbolic coherence with the concept of celestial immortality.

To conclude our discussion of the goddess as galactic matrix of apotheosis and to tie it into the evidence adduced for the sun’s journey through underworld, it should be noted that the essential identity of the Pythagorean, Orphic and Bacchic Totenpässe on one hand, and the Egyptian Unterweltsbücher on the other, becomes all the more clear when we recognise that the solar journey passed through the body of the goddess Nut (night). Whether it progressed through the celestial world or the underworld, the sun’s procession was always conceived as proceeding through water (the divine entourage was depicted traversing the depths and heights of cosmos on barques). 


In the rite from the magical papyri with which we began, the galactic “river” of the milky way, the celestial mirror of the Nile, is specifically evoked through the power of Orion, “who causes the currents of the Nile to roll down and mingle with the sea.” For just as the Nile was the source of all fertility on earth, so too was the galaxy of milky stars a deeper, cosmic reflection of the same nourishing life-force. In this way, the Egyptians and Orphics alike affirmed an essential, fluid continuity between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Here, the fertile character of Nile and the immortal character of the heavens themselves proceeded precisely from their still deeper connection to the primordial regenerating source of all being: the cosmogonic waters of Nun.

Given the foregoing, the essence of the PGM rite may be seen to reside precisely in the role of the feminine numen as a matrix for apotheosis. As Evola emphasises, “a very widespread symbolism has seen in woman a vivifying and transfiguring power, through which it is possible to overcome the human condition.” [69] The divine via lactea, moreover, also represents the galaxy—the river of fixed stars—the white which is born from the midst of the perfect black. Just as the primordial darkness, the ocean of Nun, bears the river of eternal stars, so too are the waters of final dissolution also those of primordial deification. Initium is telos. Just as Dante’s ascent to heaven required a descent into the inferno and only proceeded upwards once he had reached the cosmic nadir—the centre of the earth, the core of hell—so too, at the root of Orphic, Egyptian and alchemical cosmology lies the perception that the underworldly journey is the gate to a celestial journey. [70] Both seek to dive into the river of rejuvenating milk by descending into the de-existentiating darkness of the underworld. And yet it is clear that the underworld is only the realm of death for mortals (with the further implication that mortality is a moral state); for those of celestial origin, it is a path home: a gate to the eternal. [71] 


1.    Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe aus Muzot (Leipzig: Insel, 1935), 372.

2.    William M. Brashear, “The Greek Magical Papyri: An Introduction and Survey; Annotated Bibliography (1928-1994),” in ANRW (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995); Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), 168-76; David Frankfurter, “Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category ‘Magician’,” in Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, ed. Schäfer and Kippenberg (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), 116.    

3.    We have adapted and modified O’Neil’s translation (Betz, 1986) and cross-referenced it with the Greek text and German translation provided in Preisendanz (1973). See Karl Lebrecht Preisendanz and Albert Henrichs, eds., Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, 2. verb. Aufl., 2 vols., Sammlung wissenschaftlicher Commentare (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973), vol. I, 2-5; H. D. Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 3-4.

4.    Correcting O’Neil’s “nipoumichmoumaōph” (Betz, 3). These are the precise names that figure in the ancient Egyptian sun hymns as preserved elswhere throughout the magical corpus (harpon knouphi, for instance, being perhaps the most recognisable element, is based on the Egyptian phoneme hr = Hor). We can note further that the specific connection to Horus, already explicit in the use of the falcon and the name Har/Hor, also coheres more implicitly in the divine names. The phrase mesen kriphi (some versions of the hymn have besen kriphi; in any event, the m and b assimilate phonetically) refers to one of the major cult site of Horus—Mesen—the ancient name for Edfu, where the remains of the temple of Horus still preserve a colossal statue of Horus in hawk form.

5.    One famous spell from the papyri (PGM IV.296-466) prescribes the creation of two effigies from wax or clay: one in the form of Ares brandishing a sword; the other in the form of a woman, bound and kneeling. The “magical material” (e.g. hair or nails) of the beloved is attached to the female figure, who represents the object of desire subjected to the control of the magician/gods. On this theme, see especially Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 54 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993).

6.    See Joscelyn Godwin, The Mystery of the Seven Vowels in Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Phanes, 1991), 27 ff.

7.    Fragment 60. H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch. 6. verb. Aufl. (Berlin Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1951); G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Shofield, The Presocratic Philosophers. Second edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

8.    Preisendanz, “vergotte.”

9.    The word apothéōsis derives from the Greek verb apotheóō or apotheióō,  which emerges in the second century BCE in the literature surrounding Alexander the Great. The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon translates the word after the Latin: deificatio, ‘deification’ (deus + ficare, ‘to make god’ = consecratio, ‘consecrate, make sacred’). The common Greek preposition apó means ‘(away) from.’  When used in constructions with a similar morphology to the word apotheosis (words formed from the apo- prefix, a verbal or nominal root, and the –is or –ōsis suffix) a dual signification emerges. Here apo- takes on either a prepositional function or an intensifying function. A few examples serve to illustrate: (i) apokalypsis, ‘revelation’ = apo (preposition: ‘away from’) + kalyps- (root verb: kalypsein, ‘to conceal, hide’ + -is (feminine declension (3e), denoting ‘action’) = apo-kalyps-is, ‘away from concealment’ (i.e. ‘revelation’). Here the function of apo- takes its common meaning, but in this particular construction it serves to signify the opposite activity of the process-noun to which it is attached. Kalypsis, ‘concealment’ thus becomes ‘revelation’ (apokalypsis). Similar transformations are observed in words such as apostasis; (ii) apolysis, ‘liberation’ = apo- (intensifier: ‘complete, full, extreme’) + lys- (root verb: lysein, ‘to loose, free, liberate’) + -is (feminine declension (3e), denoting ‘action’) = apo-lys-is ‘complete liberation.’ Here apo- takes on an intensifying function. Apo-, instead of turning the noun lysis into its opposite, as in the previous example, turns it into its extreme expression: ‘complete release, complete liberation.’ Clearly, apotheōsis belongs to this second category. We can thus define apotheōsis as the intensification—the complete or extreme expression—of theōsis (deification), There is one further connotation, however, which must not be overlooked. The model here is: (iii) aposiōpesis, ‘to become silent’ = apo- (preposition: ‘(to break) away from’ + siōpaein (root verb: siōpaein, ‘to become silent’) = apo-siōpes-is, ‘to (break off speech and) become completely silent.’ The word aposiōpesis is derived from the verb siōpaein, ‘to become silent.’ Aposiōpesis thus means ‘to become completely silent,’ but it holds the distinct connotation of ‘breaking off speech.’ Here apo- indicates an intensification, to be sure, but its prepositional function also pertains. The difference here is that the preposition does not oppose the root noun (silence), as in the first example; rather, it opposes its hidden polar compliment—speech. This sense of ‘breaking away from’ or ‘breaking off’ that pertains here to apo- becomes all the more prevalent when bearing in mind the cognates of the preposition in Indo-European languages (Sanskrit apa-, Latin ab-, Germanic af-, etc.), all of which evince the same dynamic as we have seen in the Greek, helping us to see the dual signification at play here all the more clearly. Now, if we apply this analysis to apotheosis, we arrive at the following meaning: ‘breaking away from mortality to become completely deified.’ This sense holds with it the same mutually exclusive quality we saw in aposiōpesis, but in relation to mortality, the hidden pole of theōsis. Thus, whereas theōsis indicates a process of becoming god (textual contexts invariably describe it as a participation of the soul in the divine), apo-theōsis suggests the full breaking away from the mortal condition by becoming completely and utterly divinised. Here the words of Empedocles come distinctly to mind: “I come before you an immortal god, no longer mortal.” (Diels-Kranz, fragment 112.) Thus, apotheosis may be most accurately, or at least literally, defined as an act by which one ‘breaks away (from mortality) to become completely divine.’

10.    Our discussion relies on the following sources: E. Badian, “The Deification of Alexander the Great.” In Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson, edited by Harry J. Dell (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1981), 27-71; A. B. Bosworth, “Alexander and Ammon.” In Greece and the Mediterranean in Ancient History and Prehistory, edited by K. H. Kinzl (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977), 51-75; “Alexander, Euripides and Dionysus: The Motivation for Apotheosis.” In Transitions to Empire: Essays in Greco-Roman History 360-146 B.C., in Honor of E. Badian, edited by R. W. Wallace and E. M. Harris (Oklahoma: Norman, 1996), 140-66 ; Lowell Edmunds, “The Religiosity of Alexander the Great,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 12.3 (1971): 363-91; E. A. Fredricksmeyer, “On the Background of the Ruler Cult.” In Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson, edited by Harry J. Dell (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1981), 145-56; Hiller von Gaertringen, “Apotheosis.” In Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (Second Series), edited by August Friedrich Von Pauly and Georg Wissowa (Stuttgart: Druckenmuller, 1914), vol. 1, cols 184-8 ; Patricia Langer, “Alexander the Great at Siwah,” Ancient World 4 (1981): 109-127; C. F. Lehmann-Haupt, “Alexanders Zug in die Oase Siwah,” Klio 24 (1931): 169-190; Arthur Darby Nock, “Notes on Ruler-Cult, I-IV,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 48.1 (1928): 21-43.

11.    Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 22.

12.    Cassius Dio, Roman History 66.17.

13.    Diels-Kranz, fragment 62.

14.    Diels-Kranz, fragment 112.

15.    Cf. especially Peter Kingsley, In The Dark Places of Wisdom (Inverness, California: Golden Sufi Centre, 1999), passim.

16.    Histories, II.90 (Loeb, 375).

17.    Diodorus of Sicily I. 89, 1-3.

18.    F. L. Griffith, “Herodotus II. 90: Apotheosis by Drowning,” ZÄS 46 (1909): 134.

19.    Early references to drowning include Pyramid Texts §692 (utt. 396) and §1925 (utt. 666A) with notable mention of adzes and imperishable stars following (i.e. the symbolic instruments/powers of the mouthopening ritual).

20.    Cf. e.g. the Books of Breathing (book 1); Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), 23-5, 168-9 = Altägyptische Jenseitsbücher (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1977); P. J. Horrack, Le Livre des Respirations d’après les manuscrits du Musée du Louvre (Paris: C. Klincksieck, 1877); Jean-Claude Goyon, Rituels funéraires de l’ancienne Égypte (Paris: Editions du CERF, 1972).

21.    C. Strauss, “Ertrinken/Ertränken,” in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, ed. Helck and Eberhard (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1972), col. 17; Leahy, “Death by Fire in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 27, 2 (1984).

22.    Theodor Hopfner, Griechisch-Ägyptischer Offenbarungszauber: Mit einer eingehenden Darstellung des griechisch-synkretistischen Daemonenglaubens und der Voraussetzungen und Mittel des Zaubers überhaupt und der magischen Divination im besonderen (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1974), II § 130: “erst nach dem Ertrinkungstode konnte er zu einem Gott werden.”

23.    Herman Te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of his Role in Egyptian Mythology (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 84-91.

24.    Ann Macy Roth, “The Pss-Kf and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ Ceremony: A Ritual of Birth and Rebirth,” JEA 78 (1992): 113-47; “Fingers, Stars and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’: The Nature and Function of the Ntrwj-Blades,” JEA 79 (1993): 57-79.

25.    Hornung, Idea into Image (New York: Timken, 1992), 105 = Geist der Pharaonenzeit (Zurich: Artemis, 1990).

26.    The Hermopolitan theology, embodied in Nun, represents the primordial forces of pre-creation in which the divinity and cosmos lie latent. The Memphite theology, headed by Ptah, represents the emergence of the creative potencies, the demiurgic or hypercosmic forces which shape the cosmos, but which are not a part of it. The Heliopolitan theology is represented by Atum (“the finisher”), head of the Ennead, i.e. the nine encosmic gods who embody the created cosmos itself.

27.    Hermopolis (Egyptian ḫmnu, ‘eight-town’) is named in honour of the eight divinities of pre-creation; via its Coptic form (Shmoun) it survives down to its modern Arabic name: al-Ashmunein.

28.    On water as the primordial element or archē, cf. Thales, generally considered the first of the Greek philosophers, who returned from Egypt to teach that the living and causal/animating substance comprising the unity of all things was water (or moisture, which included blood, plant-sap and the like). Diels-Kranz 11 A 12 (= Aristotle, Metaph. A 983 B 18):  “Thales, who led the way in this kind of philosophy, says that the principle is water, and for this reason declared that the earth rests on water.” Trans. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. I: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 55, with further discussion at 54-72.

29.    Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982).

30.    Strauss, “Ertrinken/Ertränken,” col. 18. Cf. also Derchain, “Kosmogonie,” in Lexikon der Ägyptologie (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1972), cols. 749-750.

31.    See Hornung, Texte zum Amduat (Genève: Editions de belles-lettres, 1987-1994). Other notable underworld books from this period include the Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth, while in the Armana period, the Book of Nut, and the Book of the Night recapitulate the same essential themes. For a useful survey, see Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, 26-135.

32.    Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, eds, Wörterbuch der ägyptischer Sprache (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1971), I, 410-14: the word ba (“Seele”) is determined with the jabiru bird (“der Vogel, den die Hieroglyphe darstellt”) or the ram (“in der Schrift, öfter mit [...] „Bock“ verwechselt”); on onomatopoeia, cf. the word for cat: mjw (mj.t), “meow” (Wörterbuch, II, 42).

33.    On ka and ba as volatile and fixed, see R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Le Temple de l’homme : Apet du sud à Louqsor (Paris: Dervy, 1993), I, 65: “Any body, vegetable or animal, is reduced by putrefaction into two separable states, one volatile and the other constituting a fixed residue. This fixed part, when desiccated, contains an alkaline salt. Similarly, but more violently, combustion divides all vegetal or organic bodies into volatile parts, leaving behind an ash containing a fixed, alkaline salt. “Man thou art ash and unto ash thou shalt return”. Thus every thing is essentially composed of a volatile part and a fixed part, a generating principle that pharaonic theology, for example, summarises in its teachings on the ba and ka.” 

34.    See Franz Renggli,“Der Sonnenaufgang als Geburt eines Babys: Der pränatale Schlüssel zur ägyptischen Mythologie. Eine Hommage an den holländischen Religionshistoriker Bruno Hugo Stricker,” International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine 12.2 (2000): 365-382.

35.    Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius 1.10 (Scott, 304-5): “Aeternitatis dominus deus primus est, secundus est mundus, homo est tertius […] cuis sunt imagines duae mundus et homo.”

36.    As Griffith has shown, the Egyptian term ḥsy, the ‘sacred drowned, blessed dead’ gives rise to the Osirian epithet Hēsies. This is one of the many ways in which Egyptian theology permeates the Greek magical corpus, for the name Hēsies occurs in numerous spells of the magical papyri precisely in reference to a sacred, blessed or divine entity. Cf. glossary to Betz for further refs (334: Esies).

37.    Hornung, Idea into Image, 105-6.

38.    Spiegelberg, “Zu dem Ausdruck hsj Hesiēs für die durch Ertrinken im Nil bewirkte Apotheose,” ZÄS 53 (1917): 124, suggests the dead were also identified with the sun: “Gewiß hängt diese bildliche Darstellung damit zusammen, daß der Tote nicht nur mit Osiris, sondern auch mit dem Sonnengott Rê identifiziert wurde, in dessem Barke er über den Himmel fuhr.” (These representations are known to go together; the dead would not only be identified with Osiris, but also with the Sun-god Ra, in whose bark they travel over the heavens.)

39.    Fulcanelli, Le Mystère des Cathédrales (Paris: Société Nouvelle des Éditions Pauvert, 1964), 190: “Les Philosophes parlent donc clairement lorsqu’ils enseignent que le mercure, dès la dissolution effectuée, porte l’enfant, le Fils du Soleil, le Petit Roi (Roitelet), comme une mère véritable, puisque en effet l’or renaît dans son sein.”

40.    Cf. William J. Darby, Paul Ghalioungui and Louis Grivetti, Food: The Gift of Osiris (London: Academic Press, 1977), I, 430-40; honey is a royal privilege in Egypt, a “highly expensive commodity” based upon an “industry of luxury.”

41.    The paredros or “assistant” (Preisendanz’s Beisitzer is truer to the Greek and suggests a comparison with the concept of systasis) is in fact the raison d’être of this particular logos.

42.     “The cow is the perfect mother,” writes Robert Svoboda, remarking on the meaning of the sacred cow from the perspective of Aghori Tantra; “and the cow is passionately devoted to her calf, just as a real mother must be to her child. Sometimes the mere sight of the calf makes milk flow from the cow’s udders; not drip—flow. I have seen this more than once when I owned a dairy. And if the calf dies the cow refuses to give milk—not like our water buffaloes who can be tricked with the head of a calf on a stick. […] And not just buffaloes, even your Western cows will give milk whether or not the calf is still alive. When I always say that this is the fundamental difference between East and West I am not just talking through my hat. What is so great about giving milk? All animals do it. The greatness in our Indian cows is that they give milk only out of an outpouring of love. That is the value of cow’s milk. Won’t at least a little of that love come through into the milk? It must. That emotion separates cows from other animals. So how are we wrong to worship cows? We are not worshipping the hide, hooves, and tail; we worship the essence.” Robert E. Svoboda, Aghora: At the Left Hand of God (Brotherhood of Life, 1986; New Delhi: Rupa, 1994), 74-5.

43.    PT §531c: snq-n N. pn m jrṯ.t Jd.tj km.t(j) mn῾.tj bȝ.w Jwnw.

44.    B. Mathieu, “Les couleurs dans les Textes des Pyramides: approche des systèmes chromatiques,” ENIM 2 (2009): 26: “C’est probablement cette association du noir et de la fertilité qui justifie dans les TP : « car tu es le Bélier noir, fils de la Brebis noire » (n ṯwt js Sj km sȝ Sj.t km.t); et surtout « N. a tété le lait des Deux Vaches noires, les deux nourrices des Baou d’Héliopolis » (snq-n N. pn m jrṯ.t Jd.tj km.t(j) mnʿ.tj bȝ.w Jwnw), où la rencontre du noir de la fertilité et du blanc nourricier, pour nous paradoxale, trouve toute sa cohérence.”

45.    This is not as much of a stretch as it might first appear: on one hand, the Graeco-Egyptian alchemical corpus is intimately linked to the magical papyri: the “protochemical” “recipes” of the Leiden Papyrus, for instance, come from the Demotic Magical Papyri (PDM), which forms a unified corpus with the PGM. On the other hand, alchemy itself has its roots deep in the (black) earth of Egyptian temple cult. A reappraisal of evidence for the Egyptian origins of alchemy is given in our forthcoming study, “The Perfect Black: Egypt and Alchemy” in Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde, edited by Aaron Cheak (Melbourne: Numen, 2013).

46.    See Arthur John Hopkins, “A Study of the Kerotakis Process as Given by Zosimos and Later Alchemical Writers,” Isis 29 (1938): 328.

47.    George Hart, The Routlege Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (London: Routledge, 2005), 80-1.

48.    Hart, Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 63.

49.    Cf. Erman-Grapow, Wörterbuch II, 78: mn῾.t, “die Milchkühe.”

50.    B. H. Stricker,  "Varegna the Falcon," Indo-Iranian Journal 7.4 (1964), 310-17.

51.    These are the traditional associations between the planetary divinities and their planetary metals; the theological basis of such connections is evident in the fact that our word for copper actually comes from an ancient name for Venus-Aphrodite: Kypri, which in turn gave the name to her ancient cult site, Kyrpis (Cypris), an ancient source of copper.

52.    Hart, Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 80-1.

53.    This theme is discussed at length in our doctoral dissertation: Light Broken through the Prism of Life: René Schwaller de Lubicz and the Hermetic Problem of Salt (University of Queensland, 2011). We may note that the distinction here may be compared to the relationship between the simultaneously paternal and maternal aspects of the alchemical process in which one substance or entity is both agent (sulphur), patient (mercury), but also instrument (salt) of one single act. In the tomb of Ramses IX, the pharaoh as ka-mut-tef is depicted as the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and just as the hypotenuse both separates and reconnects the two lines of the right-angle—effecting thereby the juncture of abstract and concrete (the vertical and the horizontal)—so too is the alchemical sulphur-mercury dyad reconciled—as initium and telos—in the integrating salt (cinnabar). To understand this is to understand that linear causality, being time-bound (and therefore only able to comprehend reality within temporal sequence), does not grasp how the hypercosmic creative principle is at once archē to the material substratum, which in turn is the material matrix (womb) of the physical prime substance (a material recapitulation of the hypercosmic “father,” born through the material “mother” as the incarnate “son”). Here, as in Trinitarian theology, the logos or “seed” (spermatikos logos) is in fact eternal and pre-exists its manifestation; it incarnates in matter through the material mother in order to give visible form to the invisible father. It is at once seed, womb and fruit. It may also be noted that the presence of the bull (ka) as both spirit and masculine/inseminating principle points to the deeper reason behind the thigh of the bull in the Egyptian mouthopening ritual and thus the associated role of Seth-Typhon in the Osirian dramaturgy.  

54.    There are other spells in the papyri which prescibe drowning; different creatures are drowned and in different substances. PDM xiv. 636-69, for instance, prescribes the drowning not of a falcon but of a scarab in the milk of black cow. Other spells prescribe the drowning of a cat in water to make it a Esiēs (PGM III. 1-64) or a falcon in wine to cause evil sleep (PDM xiv. 743-49). The nature of the materials has very specific connotations. As such, not all should be expected to reflect the exact chain of mythological references that we are detailing in the present essay. 

55.    Geōponica 11.19 (trans. Thomas Owen, 1805-06, 81-2). Cf. also Manilius, Astronomica, book 1; the divine suckling of Heracles by Hera is mentioned in more traditional sources, but without reference to either the milky-way or to lilies (so Diodorus Siculus 4.9 and Pausanias 9.25.2).

56.    W. Burkert, Orphism and Bacchic Mysteries: New Evidence and Old Problems of Interpretation; Protocol of the Twenty-Eighth Colloquy, 13 March 1977 (Berkeley, CA: The Centre, 1977), 7 with diagrams.

57.    See Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 256-72.

58.    Thurii 1.4 (Timpone Grande, 4th cent. BCE), in Fritz Graf and Sara Iles Johnston (eds.) Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (New York: Routledge, 2007), 8-9; Burkert, 44.  

59.    See also Thurii 3.10 (Timpone Piccolo, 4th cent. BCE): eriphos es gal epeton, “a kid I fell into milk”; Graf and Johnston, 12-3; = O. Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta (Berlin: Weidmann, 1922), 32c; Alberto Bernabé and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), L9/488.

60.    Cf. Stuart E. Mann, An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary (Hamburg: H. Buske, 1984), 389: galakt-, ‘milk.’

61.    Cf. the Latin motto found on a 1585 portrait of what is believed to be Christopher Marlowe: quod me nutrit, me destruit (“what nourishes me destroys me”). For parallels to this motif in the writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare, see discussion in Wraight and Stern, In Search of Christopher Marlowe: A Pictorial Biography (London: MacDonald, 1965); N.B. also in this regard the motif of the pelican nourishing its young with its own blood, which becomes significant in the imagery of European alchemy.

62.    Thurii 3.5.

63.    Here “right” is to be understood in accordance with the Pythagoran correspondences of the monad versus the dyad.

64.    We are justified in using the word gnōsis insofar as we meet an identical soteriological paradigm in the “Gnostic” texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Herein, gnosis is precisely equated with a liberating knowledge of one’s divine origin, which is located in the plerōma, the “fullness” that precedes all created existence.

65.    It is not irrelevant to add that the leth- lexeme is cognate with English ‘lethargy,’ such that the word a-lētheia continues to possess the secondary connotations of waking and vigour versus lethargy and torpor. If sleep and forgetfulness are the companions of death, then waking and remembering are the companions of (eternal) life.

66.    Petelia (modern Strongoli, 4th cent. bce), 6-9; Graf and Johnston, 6-7.

67.    Graf and Johnston, 5.

68.    E.g. Petelia, 6: Gēs pais eimi kai Ouranou asteroentos. Graf and Johnston, 6-7. Cf. the anthropogony from Dionysus Zagreus: eaten by Titans and smote by lightning (Zeus), humans rise from the ashes part titanic, part divine.

69.    Julius Evola, The Mystery of the Grail: Initiation and Magic in the Quest for the Spirit, trans. Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1994), 21.

70.    Dante, Inferno, XXXIV. 91-139.

71.    It may be noted that the ancient imagery of death as a sidereal journey continues to this day in modern Europe. Several years ago we chanced upon a roadside grave in Füssen, Bavaria. Not only did it restate the very essence of the Orphic underworld texts, it also alluded to the descent of the sun in the West (Abendland, literally “evening-land”): Es kam der Abend und ich tauchte in die Sterne. (“Evening came and I dove into the stars”).