Jesus Christ before me, Iao Sabaoth Adonai behind me: A Prayer for Good Luck and Protection

Ágnes Mihálykó

What would you ask from God in a morning prayer? Success for your business? No fights with your husband/wife/children/boss? Or, quite simply having God in front of you, behind you, by your left and by your right, to guide you and protect you throughout the day? A Christian by the name of Besodoros, writing in the fourth or fifth century, asked for all of this. 
The papyrus that preserves his prayer, Pap.Graec.Mag. P21 (now kept in the papyrus collection of the Czech National Library in Prague), has been considered by scholars a magical text, a so-called charitesion,a good-luck charm. This type of charm goes back to pre-Christian traditions and was popular among Christian Coptic magical papyri as well. This text indeed stands in this tradition, as it asks God to send the petitioner

your [holy] archangels, who stand opposite your holy altar, and are appointed for your holy services, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Saruel, Raguel, Nuriel, Anael. And let them accompany me today, during all the hours of day and night, and grant me victories, favour, good luck with N., success with all people, small and great, whom I may encounter today, during all the hours of day and night. 

Translation from Meyer and Smith 1999

However, there are elements in the text that imply that the text might not be a simple good-luck charm, recited whenever an excess of good luck was needed – just as Harry Potter takes the lucky potion when he needs to obtain an important memory. Here the luck and victory are asked for the entire day, for all of its hours, day and night. This may suggest that the text is conceived as a text to be recited on a regular, perhaps daily basis, to secure good luck for every day. Moreover, the prayer asks for more than just good luck. Its second half focuses on protection:

“For I have before me Jesus Christ, who attends me and accompanies me; behind me Iao Sabaoth Ado[nai]; on my right and [left] the god of Ab[raham, Isaac, and Jacob]; over [my] face [and] my heart Ga[briel, Michael],Raphael, Saruel, [Raguel], Nuriel, Anael: [Protect] me from every [demon, male or female, and from] every stratagem and from every name, for I am sheltered under the wings of the cherubim.” 

Translation from Meyer and Smith 1999
PGM P21, Prague, National Library, P. Wessely Prag. Gr. 1 (source: Hopfner, Archiv Orientální 7 (1935) pl. XLV.

The statement that Jesus, God and the archangels surround the petitioner finds a parallel in a fragmented test from the same period, P.Mich. inv. 6427 (image below), which after a long sequence of praise asks God to stand before, behind, to the right and the left of the petitioner, as well as to give him his daily bread, and grant him salvation and the fulfilment all his requests. The papyrus contains on the other side the Canticle of the Three Children from the biblical Book of Daniel (Dan. 3:52ff), a morning chant that, according to the church father Rufinus of Aquileia towards the end of the fourth century, Christians sung in all churches of the world. Thus its presence on the papyrus implies that this prayer might also have been destined for the morning prayer of a Christian individual. The pattern of invoking the archangels and God to surround the petitioner in prayer is furthermore attested in some variants of the Jewish bedtime ‘Shema’, the prayer to be recited before going to bed; similar requests for angelic protection also appears in Aramaic incantation bowls and was extended in Coptic magical rituals to include all seven archangels. Furthermore, Irish protective prayers from the early middle ages, such as the so-called Lorica of St Patrick, also ask God to be present by the four sides of the petitioner. The geographical distance of the attestations suggests that this formula, derived from Jewish piety, may have been employed widely in Christian prayers for protection.
Though its requests are unusual, in its structure the text relies on the conventional structure of Christian prayer that starts with the praise of God, includes requests, and finishes with glorification in the form of a doxology. The opening praise is conventional; it cites the Eucharistic prayers that Christians in Egypt heard every week. The final doxology, however, is once again unorthodox. It invokes Jesus Christ, “king of all the aeons, almighty, inexpressible creator, nurturer, Lord almighty, noble child, kindly son, my unutterable and inexpressible name, truly true form, unseen [for] ever and ever.” These expressions can be compared to those found in books of the Valentinians, a Christian group that, by the fourth century, was universally denounced by the official church as heretic, though their ideas continued to circulate.
If Besodoros’ bishop would have heard what he was praying in the morning, he would probably have reproached him and recommended the Psalms or the Canticles instead. But, as long as this prayer brought him success with the people and God by his side to protect him, Besodoros likely did not care.

Technical details
Provenance: Fayum?
Date: 4th or 5th century?
Language: Greek (with one line in Coptic)
Collection: Prague, National Library, Wessely Collection
Designation: Pap.Graec.Mag. P21
Bibliography: Theodor Hopfner (1935), “Ein neuer Griechischer Zauberpapyrus (Pap. Wessely Pragens Graec. No. 1). Mit Tafeln,” Archiv Orientální7: 355–366 [first complete edition of the text]; Karl Preisendanz (1974), Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die Griechischen Zauberpapyri(Stuttgart: Teubner), vol. 2, pp. 229–230 [no. 21 Christliches]; Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 55–56 [no. 36]; Theodore de Bruyn (2013), “A Late Witness to Valentinian Devotion in Egypt?” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum18.1: 120–133; Dan Levene, Dalia Marx, and Siam Bhayro (2014), “‘Gabriel is on their Right’: Angelic Protection in Jewish Magic and Babylonian Lore,” Studia Mesopotamica 1: 185–198.

P.Mich.inv. 6247 (c) University of Michigan Papyrus Collection

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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