Barbarian wisdom: The Thunder, Perfect Mind (before the fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Barbarian wisdom: The Thunder, Perfect Mind (before the fourth century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9517.

Author: Unknown author, The Thunder, Perfect Mind from the Nag Hammadi codices (link to Coptic text and full English annotated translation).

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): This poetic text takes the form of a deity or similar figure speaking in the first person about themselves. This is a common generic convention in antiquity, called aretalogy (literally “discourse about the virtues” of a figure). Aretologies about the Egyptian goddess Isis are among the most common examples from the ancient world.

The figure in this text, however, is unnamed. What’s more, while aretalogies typically celebrated the virtues, powers, special lineage, and importance of their subjects, this poem’s figure identifies themselves with ordinary qualities alongside virtues, claims different genders at different times, and claims seemingly opposite high and low status positions. The figure even periodically challenges listeners to not treat the figure badly. The effect is an unpredictable, paradoxical deity that is highly attuned to the hierarchies and precarities of social life, as threatened as they are threatening.

We see these dynamics in the lines below, in which the speaker claims to be a “barbarian among the barbarians,” hated by the Greeks, even while they embody the wisdom of both Greeks and their denigrated outsiders (perhaps alluding to the “wise barbarian” trope). The poem makes clear here and throughout that ideas such as wisdom/ignorance, law/lawlessness are very relative designations.

Locating this poem’s earliest context is difficult, since the references in it are abstract or general. It could belong to a wide variety of social contexts. The only copy of the poem was found in codices which were buried in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century CE. These codices contained texts that drew from Jewish, Christian, and Platonic traditions. So we can say that readers drawing from all of these traditions (common in late ancient Egypt) would have been this poem’s audience at least at once significant point in its life.

Source of the translation: Calaway, Kotrosits, Lasser, Lillie, and Taussig, The Thunder: Perfect Mind: A New Translation and Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), copyright the authors.

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Why then did you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian (barbaros) among barbarians?

I am the wisdom (sophia) of the Greeks and the knowledge (gnosis) of the barbarians.

I am the deliberation of both the Greeks and the barbarians.

I am he whose image is multiple in Egypt, and she who is without an image among the barbarians.

I am who was hated in every place, and she who was loved in every place.

I am she whom they call life, and you all called death.

I am she whom they call law, and you all called lawlessness.

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