Thunder, Perfect Mind is a small poem that was copied in one of the books found at Nag Hammadi. Many scholars have noticed a similarity with the aretalogies to the goddess Isis.
Thunder, Perfect Mind survives in only one copy in a codex (Latin for book) which was found at Nag Hammadi. This book (Codex VI) to the middle or second half of the fourth century. The text is difficult to date and lacks any clear external references.
Codex VI is a relatively unique book containing a lot of texts known from other sources (including three Hermetic texts and Plato’s Republic) however, Thunder, Perfect Mind does not have many clear connections with other texts, even those found at Nag Hammadi.
There is also scholarly dispute over whether the poem was a Coptic translation from Greek or a Coptic composition.
The first person statements of “I am” (ΑΝΟΚ ΤЄ in Coptic, anok te) resemble the “I am” found in the Greek Isis aretalogies (ἐγώ εἰμι in Greek, egoo aimie). Although some aretalogies are composed in the second person such as the hymns of Isidorus from the Narmouthis temple dedicated to Isis-Thermouthis (in Medinet Madi, Egypt).
Who is the Thunder, Perfect Mind?
Thunder, Prefect Mind is a speech delivered by a female speaker, possibly the eponymous “Thunder, Perfect Mind”.
The poem contains two major types of statements: a series of first person proclamations and a series of exhortations in second person. Yet both kinds of statement are paradoxical predicate sentences.
Motherhood is central to the speaker of Thunder. Whilst the paradoxical statements make her hard to place in some ways, she is portrayed in gendered terms:
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the
virgin. I am <the mother>
and the daughter. I am the members
of my mother. I am the barren one
and many are her sons. I
am she whose wedding is great, and
I have not taken a husband. I am the midwife
and she who does not bear. I
am the solace of my labor pains. I
am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who
begot me. I am the mother of
my father and the sister of my
husband, and he is my offspring.
The speaker of Thunder takes on female roles, yet undermines them. She is not just a mother, but barren; not just a wife, but a virgin. McGuire argues that in taking on these varied roles the speaker transcends the limiting role of woman in ancient society
At the same time, the presentation of gender is more fluid. A recent translation even has the following line “I am he whose image is multiple in Egypt and she who is without an image amongst the Barbarians”.
Gender and adrogyny was an important part of Gnosticism and Hermeticism. For example, “mind” (νους, nous – an important concept in Gnosticism) is androgynous in the Hermetic texts Poimandres and Iamblichus. In other Gnostic texts, the godhead was a trinity of male and female, whilst in other texts, the father is androgynous.
Some scholars have tentatively suggested that this interest in androgyny is based on ancient Egyptian theology.
Isis and Thunder, Perfect Mind
Isis was particularly linked with motherhood. Figurines portray her nursing her son and she is praised as a mother in the aretalogies.
At first, the paradoxical roles claimed by the speaker of Thunder, Perfect Mind appear to be impossible. Yet it does resemble some of the complexity of Egyptian myth.
Whilst it is impossible to map the family relationships in Thunder directly and unambiguously onto the Isis myth, the complicated pattern of relationships does resemble the complicated family tree of Isis, Osiris (Serapis), Anubis and Horus (Harpocrates).
Isis’ femininity is deeply disruptive. Although she is identified as a mother, wife, sister in connection to male gods, she is also portrayed as figure of adoration in her own right, who can take on “male” roles such as kingship and rule giver.
Even her motherhood resembles the complexity of the speaker of Thunder.
In the version told by Plutarch, Isis performs various family roles. She conceives Harpocrates from the gathered remains of her dead brother-husband, whom she resurrects.
That is, she acts as sister, mother and wife to Osiris.
According to Plutarch, she formed her husband’s phallus from Nile clay to conceive Horus, thereby acting, on a sexual level, as both male and female.
A text from the Late Period, emphasises this aspect of Isis in terms of her conception of Horus and her acts in protecting him. In the stele of Amon-Mose, the goddess says, “I have comported myself like a man, although I am a women”.
Whilst motherhood is an important theme in both the Isis myth and Thunder, it is a maternity which resists a simple reading. This is possibly because in both texts maternity was a key to salvation.
Who wrote the poem, who copied it into a book and why? Such questions remain difficult but two Gnostic groups have been identified behind the book.
The American scholar Bentley Layton argued Thunder, Perfect Mind was a Sethian Gnostic text. He said that the preamble to the text presupposes a Sethian myth. He lists parallels to this myth and links the text to a Gospel of Eve quoted by Epiphanius, which Epiphanius claims was used by the “Borborite” gnostic sect. This Gospel shows some similarities with Thunder both in its paradoxes and references to sound and thunder.
However Thunder is a much more elusive text than that quoted by Epiphanius and resists a reading which links it clearly and unambiguously with particular mythic figures. Whilst a very sympathetic and learned reading of the text, Layton’s argument rests to some degree on circular reasoning.
The French scholar Poirer identified the group behind the book as Simonian Gnostics. These Gnostics formed from the group which supposedly coalesced around the figure of Simon Magus (a shadowy figure at best).
Poirier identifies key phrases used in Thunder as Simonian, such as Great Power (Τ-ΝΟϬ Ν-ϬΟΜ). According to Christian authors, the Simonian female divine presence (Sophia) was personified by an actual woman, Helen. Justin Martyr first identified this woman as a former prostitute. Poirier argues the Greek loanword T-ΠΟΡΝH (te -porne), in Thunder, might evoke this woman. Irenaeus also writes how Simon Magnus taught that Helen was first thought and also ‘mother of all’, a possible reference to Eve and a term used elsewhere in the Nag Hammadi codices. The American scholar Haar argues that this dual nature of Helen-Sophia-Eve, can be seen in the paradoxical two nature statements in Thunder.
However, except for Christian texts, which are problematic, there is no other evidence for Simonian beliefs. Identifying a provenance based on particular words is, at best, circumstantial evidence.
I would argue that Thunder may have links to Hermeticism. Hermeticism relates to the magical beliefs attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Codex VI contains eight texts, of which three are Hermetic. It remains an intriguing question why such texts were found in the same codex, but in no other Nag Hammadi codices.
Rather than arguing that the text was an Hermetica text however, I believe it was of interest to people interested in (what became) Hermetica. The poem closely resembles other texts which have survived such as the fact that it is a spoken monologue. Other Hermetic texts were dialogues.
Even if the world portrayed in Thunder, Perfect Mind is cruel and painful, it is not inherently evil. This is more similar to other Hermetic texts, than Gnostic texts.
The ultimate aims of Hermeticism (in common with Gnosticism) was to know or see God; although in Hermetic texts ‘God’ is so transcendent ‘He’ can only be described in terms of negative theology. Could the paradoxes of Thunder reflect a form of negative theology of transcendent knowledge (Sophia) or that knowledge so beyond human cognisance can only be described, and understood, in non-rational terms?
This identification is just a speculation and needs more investigation. It may however explain why there are tangible if allusive links to the Isis myth.
Thunder, Perfect Mind remains a fascinating book to read to unpick the lived religion of late antiquity. It may provide evidence for a more multicultural and religiously fluid community than previously suspected. More research is needed.