The Royal Praises from Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum

Like with the wonderful Praise of the Invisible and Visible God that I wrote up (or, rather, rewrote from the original material from prose into something more structured) back in January or the simple Hermetic prayer rule and “prelude prayers” I discussed back in February, there’s plenty else in the Corpus Hermeticum that can be thought of as ripe material for coming up with prayers, devotions, and hymns for the Divine.  Much of it, of course, is prose rather than poetry, as the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t really written as hymnal stuff, but there are frequent exhortations to “show devotion”, instances of thanksgiving, and other praises given to the Divine that are to ignore.  It’s what makes the Hermetic canon so hard to consider in a strictly philosophical or scientific light apart and away from mysticism or faith; as Willhelm Boussett has said, “the Hermetica belong to the history of piety, not philosophy”.

One of the more odd inclusions in the Hermetic canon is Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, which has the title “On the soul hindered by the body’s affections”, but which A.D. Nock suggests was a later assignment by a redactor, and which only really applies to the first few paragraphs of the book.  The bulk of Book XVIII, instead, focuses on giving praise to God, both in his own right as well as a prelude to give praise of kings (more the general class of kings rather than any king in particular).  Brian Copenhaver includes Book XVIII in his translation, but Clement Salaman pointedly does not, noting that:

Scott and Nock-Festugière agree in regarding [Book XVIII] as not belonging to the Corpus.  It is manifestly inferior to the other books, both in content and in style (Festiguère refers to it as: ‘Cette insipide morceau de rhétorique’ [Copenhaver translates this as “an insipid piece of rhetoric in rhythmic prose”]).  No real single theme develops, but merely disconnected remarks relating to the praise of kings and of God.

I’ll grant it that, to be sure: it lacks either the atmosphere of the temple or clarity of the classroom that so many of the other parts of the Hermetic canon have, and rather suggests something more of a philosopher at a courtly symposium.  Still, it’s not hard to see why this would be bundled with the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum, given how it treats the soul as affected by the body’s weaknesses by way of an extended metaphor involving musicians and their instruments, as well as its sincere (and rather beautiful) praise to God.  What’s weird is the “royal panegyric” that Book XVIII also gives a praise and hymn to kings and their virtues generally.  It’s not like the Hermetica doesn’t involve kings at all; after all, Book XVI (“Definitions of Asclepius to King Ammon”) is written as a letter to a king, Book XVII preserves an interaction between Tat and an unnamed king, and the 24th Stobaean Fragment (the middle part of the Korē Kosmou) discusses the various natures of souls and how some souls are specifically kingly and royal ones.  In the broader context of the Hermetic canon, and given the important role of the king (rather, pharaoh) as incarnated divinity on Earth in ancient Egypt, it doesn’t make too much nonsense to have something treating the topic of kings or praising their virtues, if indeed they are a force of divinity here explicitly and locally manifest in the cosmos as opposed to implicitly and ambiently manifest.

To that end, I decided to rework the praise bits of Book XVIII into a pair of prayers that I call “The Royal Praises”.  The first part is the one I think more people will find more useful: “The Royal Praise of the Almighty”:

Come, come all, let us hasten and praise the Almighty!
In all things do we begin with God and the power above, and so too do we end.
In the end of all things do we return to the beginning, from God unto God!
The Sun partakes of all in its rising, the nourisher of all that grows,
its rays stretched out like great hands to gather in the crops,
its rays partaking in the ambrosial radiance of the harvest;
like crops in the warmth of the Sun do we take in the wisdom of God,
like crops under the light of the Sun do we grow under the light of God,
and like crops from the Earth, in beginning with God we return to God,
our praise becoming the bounty of God that waters every shoot we plant.

O God, Whole of the All, wholly pure and undefiled, Father of all our souls,
may praise rise up from a myriad mouths in a myriad voices to you,
even though none can say anything worthy of you or before you,
for no mortal speech can equal your might, power, or presence.
As the child cannot properly praise their father,
still the child exclaims their love with all their strength,
and, honoring their father as they can, receives his love and mercy.
So too may we praise you with all the strength of our souls!
For you, our Creator, are greater than all of creation;
let all our praise always confess your boundless power and endless extent!

To praise you, o God, is in our nature, in our hearts, and in our very souls,
for as your descendants, like attracting like, we are like unto you,
and as your children, seeing ourselves in you, we can only love and praise you.
Yet even should you grant it to us before we even ask,
we still ask for your forgiveness, your forbearance, your mercy, and your grace.
As the father does not turn away the child for their lack of strength,
but delights in their coming to grow and to know him,
so too do you delight in us coming to know you and all your creation,
for the knowledge of the All confers life unto all,
and our understanding becomes our praise to you for all that you give us.

O God, o Good of the Beginning, o Ever-Shining, o Immortal,
alone containing the limit of divine eminence, encircling the All that is all that is!
Always flowing from your own energy from beyond to within the cosmos,
from yourself above in Heaven to mankind below on Earth,
you send the message of promise that leads to the praise that saves us,
to the work that lifts us, to the way that guides us beyond to you!
For beyond there is no discord among beings, neither dissonance nor difference;
all think one Thought, all have one Knowledge, all share one Mind.
One sense works within them all, one charm unites them all:
love, divine love, love of the Good that makes all act together in harmony as One!

When it comes to the bit in the first paragraph about the Sun and its rays like hands, Copenhaver notes that:

The image of the sun reaching down with hand-like rays became an artistic motif in the Egypt of Akhenaton; the sun’s rays were a manifestation of heka, a magical power that energizes the universe, but [Festugière] sees this allusion to solar magic as an empty metaphor in this “purely literary” text.

Although the reign of Akhenaten was removed from the writing of the Corpus Hermeticum by about a thousand years, give or take a few centuries, it is a compelling image of the power of the Sun, and given the importance of the Sun in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book XI, “the sun is an image of the cosmos…the human is an image of the sun”; Book XVI, “in this way, the craftsman (I mean the sun) binds heaven to earth, sending essence below and raising matter above”), it’s not surprising how this image might be carried through the centuries into Hermetic symbolism and praise.

The second part is a shorter hymn (the panegyric proper of Book XVIII), the “Royal Praise of Kings”:

As the Creator has all power and presence in the cosmos of his creation,
so too does the king possess all power and presence in the order of his kingdom.
We praise God, and so doing, we praise the one who takes his scepter from him,
o divine among us mortals, o arbiter of our peace,
o king of kings, o image of God on Earth, you who are our king!
In singing our reverent love of God, we know to praise what is divine;
thus do we hymn and glorify the king, even as we hymn and glorify God! For in raising
our voice first to the Supreme King of All, the Good, the God,
we must then lift our song to those whom God has established in his might!
O foremost of the security of the people, o prince of peace of the world!
Authority, victory, honors, and trophies were established by God for you!
As God is the source of your dominion, so too are you the source of our hope!

The virtue of a king, the name of a king, is to be the judge of peace,
and with such peace comes prosperity for which we cannot but give tribute!
Setting his kingly grace kindly upon even the highest of worldly powers,
achieving over all discourse and discord the mastery that brings all peace,
panicking all barbarian armies and outdoing all their tyranny,
the very name alone of the king is the very symbol of peace!
For the king’s threat drives the enemy off with fear,
and the king’s statue succors the tempest-tost with haven;
for the icon of the king brings the warrior quick victory,
and the presence of the king gives the besieged an aegis.
Let us always praise and proclaim, treat and tribute the king,
that the king, free in peace from threat and harm, may ensure the same for all!

In our day and age, when we’re so far removed from any real notion of divine kingship or the divine right of kings (unless you’re an old-school British royalist or Japanese imperialist), it’s weird to give such praise for such a human being who happens to be a ruler over other people.  We typically conceive of rulers as coming into power through worldly means for rather less than cosmic reasons (cf. John Bradshaw’s “in the name of the People of England of which you were elected king” at the trial of King Charles I, conceiving of kingship as something random, arbitrary, and unearned).  But the Korē Kosmou (the 23rd through 25th of the Stobaean Fragments) discusses mortal kings as being in a league different from other kinds of humans.  From Litwa’s translation:

…On earth dwell humans and the other animals, ruled by the current king. Gods, my child, give birth to kings worthy of being their offspring on earth.  Rulers are emanations of the king, and the one nearest the king is more kingly than the others. Hence the Sun, inasmuch as he is nearer to God, is greater than the Moon and more powerful. The Moon takes second place to the Sun in rank and power.

The king is last in the rank of the other gods, but premier among human beings. As long as he dwells on earth he is divorced from true divinity. Yet he possesses a quality superior to other human beings—an element like unto God. This is because the soul sent down into him is from that realm higher than the one from which other people are sent. Souls are sent down from that realm to rule for two reasons, my child.

Some souls, destined to be deified, run through their own lifetime nobly and blamelessly so that, by ruling, they train to hold authority among the gods. The other group of souls are already divine and veer only slightly from the divinely inspired ordinance. They are sent into kings so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment. On account of their dignity and nature, they suffer nothing like the others in their embodiment. Rather, what they had when free (of the body) they possess while bound to it.

Now the character differences that develop among kings are distinguished not by a distinction in their soul. All royal souls are divine. The differences arise by virtue of the soul’s angelic and daimonic retinue during its installation. For such great souls descending to such great tasks do not descend apart from an advance parade and military escort. For Justice on high knows how to apportion dignity to each soul, even though they are pushed from the placid realm.

In the Hermetic view, there are particular people who are incarnated with a specific role to play in the world, and that role is to be divine as they are already among the foremost of souls in nature and rank; it is this that makes one a king when incarnate, assuming that kings live otherwise good lives “so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment”.  And, knowing that the Egyptians conceived of kings as not just being divine beings on Earth, and knowing that they strove to immortalize and deify them after death, we can conceive of this as being the end-game for the metempsychosis of humans: to refine ourselves through the knowledge of God to become more and more divine, and thus become as divine as a human can possibly be before being outright deified by other humans.

Admittedly, this notion is hard to swallow for many of us nowadays who would much rather an egalitarian view of souls (which, admittedly, much of the rest of the Hermetica would seem to encourage) and who don’t agree with the divinity of rulership (I mean…look at the current state of the world, and tell me that there’s anything new under the Sun).  Still, I suppose there’s plenty that could be said about a more generalized notion of “kingship”, either as something relatively detached from governance and dominion of people as a geopolitical power, or perhaps (and better) closer to what my mentor, Fr. Rufus Opus, discusses in his Seven Spheres:

I feel the same about the term King. To me, a King is anyone who rules, regardless of their gender. The need for different words to differentiate between genders is silly, in my opinion.

But the LOGOS pointed out something really important. The things we seek, they are part of what automatically comes with a kingdom. They are secondary manifestations, the results. Look at Kings. They have everything they need, and then some. LOGOS was saying, look, don’t go after that stuff; that’s what other people do with their lives, people who have not been chosen to know who they are, who have not had their divine nature and true paternity revealed to them. Instead of going after all that stuff, or the means to get that stuff, focus instead on the Kingdom. Learn that you are a King already. Learn what that means, learn the art of being the Royal You. Train yourself, improve yourself, be Kingly, and you’ll find that you have a Kingdom of a God all around you, and that you are its ruler.

But what are Kings?

Kings are people who were personally (or through the source of their noble lineage) positioned by fate and fortune and gifted with the quality required to lead their world naturally. They were linked to the gods either by favor or by blood, and they received a Kingdom as a result of their nature and the quality of their deeds. They were noble.

What he says in his introduction to Seven Spheres smacks of what Isis tells Horus in the 25th Stobaean Fragment.  If we broaden the notion of “kingdom” to be one’s whole life and sphere of influence, then each and every one of us is a king—regardless of our external gender, station, or condition.  It’s being able to carry ourselves as such, to rule our lives as such, that makes us so: it’s a matter of waking up to the reality of the matter and behaving accordingly.  Those who can are kings, and those who can’t aren’t.  After all, if God is with you, who can be against you?  If you’re living your True Will in tune with your Perfect Nature, then how could you not be among the royalty of souls?  And if royal souls are divine, then divine souls must also be royal ones.  And are Hermēs, Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon not thus kings?  After all, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the final part of the Asclepius, does Hermēs not say “we rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body”, or as I personally phrase it based on the similar prayer from PGM III.494—611, “we rejoice, for you have made us [who are incarnate] divine by your knowledge”?  If the knowledge of God makes one divine (literally deification, even while alive), then it must also make one a king, at least in some sense.

I’m sure there’s more that can be discussed along these lines of what it means for deification and kingship in a Hermetic context, especially understanding the historical and cultural implications of the such and how that might compare or translate to the modern world, but that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’ll leave this with these two brief rephrasings and restructurings of Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum to use for further devotional works to the Divine.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Brief Hiatus, but Have Some Prayers in the Meanwhile « The Digital Ambler

  2. Pingback: Hermetic Evangelism and Kerygma « The Digital Ambler

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