On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Contextualization

I have to admit that the last post I put up, my own translation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), is something I’m personally proud of.  It’s a small thing, but it’s also my first major translation of any actual body of text from Greek into English, and though I’m sure I’ve made some errors (or otherwise interesting choices) in my translation, it’s also a major start for me to really start chewing on a formal Hermetic text above and beyond just reading it.  There’s something different about the actual act of getting into the core language and giving it for a spin yourself.  Of course, the translation being done is just the first part.  In order to really understand what’s written, we also need to see more about it beyond just the words written on the page, and this is where contextualizing comes into play.

CH III is…not an easy text; it’s hard to understand, the Greek is imperfect, there are obvious lacunae and corruption with the text, and it’d seem that every translator who’s talked about it has brought up complications with the text.  Copenhaver directs us to look at Nock/Festugière as well as Scott “for the obscurity of this very corrupt and overwritten treatise”, and Scott calls it “so corrupt as to be wholly meaningless”.  Dodd is somewhat easier on it and says that the “text is somewhat obscure, and certainly corrupt at some points”, although “with a few comparatively slight emendations, can be read and understood for the most part” even if “there remain points at which…we do not know what the author wrote or what he meant”.  Little can be known about the context for CH III in general, but there are a few things that we can figure out.  Between Scott, Dodd, and Nock/Festugière themselves, plenty has already been said, so I’ll just summarize their points along these lines:

  • Given that the final lines of CH III reflect the opening lines in the same language, CH III is almost certainly a complete work unto itself, not an extract of a longer text.
  • The author of CH III was likely familiar with the Septuagint, or at least the Book of Genesis, given the similarity of language and phrasing in the text.  Likewise, the author was familiar with the “Mosaic [Jewish] account of creation“.  However, anything specifically resembling Christian or Gnostic elements are lacking.
  • CH III expresses more Stoic sensibilities and philosophy than Platonic ones above and beyond other Hermetic texts, even those that also have a heavy Stoic presence in them.
  • In addition to the Mosaic and Stoic elements, there is a subtle suggestion that the author of CH III was also familiar with the Egyptian account of creation.
  • The author of CH III did not have a firm grasp of proper, fluent Greek, but what they did have was definitely influenced by idioms and specific turns of phrasing otherwise found in the Septuagint and other Hellenized Jewish literature.
  • As a result, we can say that the author was either an Egyptian pagan or a highly syncretic, unorthodox Jew from Egypt who took no small inspiration from both Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish doctrine.  Dodd says that this author “took pains to [take the account of creation form the Hebrew Scriptures and] re-interpret it in terms of Greek philosophy for a pagan public”, but that may be a bit too strong of a stance to take.
  • CH III is one of the few texts that isn’t presented in dialog or letter format.  Scott calls it “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe”; Nock and Festugière call it “a hymn in prose”.
  • Despite the obvious corruption of the text, the confusing language here can be seen in parallels among other Hermetic texts and fragments, especially the Stobaean Fragments, which suggest that some of the language here goes back to the earliest treatises in the Hermetic tradition.
  • It is likewise one of the few Hermetic texts where Hermēs (or any of his students that might give a mythic link to him) isn’t even mentioned by name.  Except, of course, in the title, but that may well be a later addition to the text rather than an original part of it.
  • No fixed date can be ascribed to when CH III was written, but we know that it had to have been written between the third century bce and the third century ce.  Scott, based on the similarity of CH III with the Sanchuniathon, posits that CH III was written sometime in the first century ce, though Dodd says that “it might well go back to the time before Posidonius, since its Stoicism is uninfluenced by Platonism”, so before the mid-first century bce.  However, there’s as yet no way to state a more specific timeframe than this, so perhaps between 100 bce and 100 ce.

One of the biggest observations to make here, given all the above, is that CH III is perhaps closest to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), i.e. “The Divine Poimandrēs” itself.  Like CH III, CH I also has no direct reference to Hermēs (although later Hermetic texts in the Corpus Hermeticum do refer to Poimandrēs by name), and there are also Jewish and Stoic elements in CH I, though perhaps to a lesser extent than in CH III.  There are also particular choices of word and turns of phrase that are common to both in ways we might not otherwise expect.  It may be that CH III, being the shorter and more complete, was written first and CH I was written with that in mind, or they may both have been written under the same general cultural/philosophical/religious milieu with references to the same (specifically Jewish) text.  However, just as notable as the similarities are the differences: unlike CH I, CH III does not discuss redemption or immortality, but simply discusses a bare-bones creation story and discusses a simple approach to life on Earth, almost in a way that (in the words of Nock) resembles the “extreme darkness” of the “atmosphere of Judaism of the type of [Book of] Ecclesiastes before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important”.  As a result, we can probably safely make the guess that CH III is indeed older than most of the rest of Hermetic literature.  Heck, it may even be properly proto-Hermetic rather than properly Hermetic, given that it does lack certain themes, motifs, and traits we see elsewhere in Hermetic literature, and that it was included with other Hermetic texts based on its affinities (or perhaps originating influence) by later Hermetic students.

And that’s about all that can be said about that, or at least from what I can find regarding the provenance and origin of CH III.  After that, I suppose we should begin taking a look at the rest of the classical Hermetic canon to see parallels or influences on or from CH III, and there are indeed at least a few for us to consider.

Notably, taking a look at the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (DH) can be helpful here.  Of all the sets of aphorisms in DH, the entire second set which discusses cosmogony and cosmology is perhaps most like the first two parts of CH III.  Specifically, DH II.2—4 and II.5 reads (Mahé translation):

Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed up out of soul and Nous. Air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven with earth. What is air? They call ‘air’ the interval between heaven and earth, by which they are not separated from each other, since heavens and earth are united (with each other) by the air.

Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water.  What is the power of the world? To keep up for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.

Water is a fecund essence, the support of earth, as a nutritive essence.

Fire is a sterile essence, the duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal: an infertile substance, in as much (it belongs to) the destructive fire which makes (things) disappear; and the perpetuation of the immortal (beings), since what cannot be consumed by fire is immortal and indestructible, but the mortal can be destroyed by fire.

J.-P. Mahé notes specifically that the reference to “the support of earth” in DH II.4 resembles the first two parts of CH III in the cosmogony, as well as CH I.5, the part of the Divine Poimandrēs that talks about how the Word descended upon the chaos and separated the elements, leaving water and earth behind.  There’s this repeated notion (which is far from limited to Hermetic texts) that the creation of the world started in a chaotic mass that, due to the interference and influence of a holy light, separated out with Fire at the top, Water and Earth at the bottom mixed together, and Air separating (but also joining) the two.

We should also note that the very first lines of CH III, as well as the last, can also be seen reflected or echoed in the Asclepius (AH), specifically AH 3.  Copenhaver translates it as:

The elements by which the whole of matter has been formed, then, are four: fire, water, earth, air.  One matter, one soul, and one God.

But, perhaps more stylistically and clearly, Salaman translates that last statement as:

…The cosmos is one, the soul is one, God is one.

Of course, as noted earlier, CH I.5 brings up the cosmogony of the Divine Poimandrēs in a way highly reminiscent of CH III.2, though with one major important difference.  In CH I, in the beginning there was only Light, it was within the Light that a primordial dark chaos arose, and the divine word that separated out the elements from the primordial mass descends from the light onto the darkness.  In CH III, on the other hand, we start with a primordial dark chaos in the abyss with no reference to preexisting light, and a light arises from the mixture of Water and Earth (“up from under the wet sand”).  This notion of light arising out of wet sand bears strong similarity to the Benben myth of ancient Egypt, the first mound of earth that arose from the primordial and abyssal waters of Nun, resembling the peaks of silt and sand that emerged from the Nile’s recess after its flood.  That’s the one major difference between the two, along with Nock’s and Festugière’s notion that CH III posits a totally immanent deity instead of a transcendent one, and as I discussed earlier on:

Note that this vision of revelation [in CH I] is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

Beyond that, the rest of CH III’s cosmogony and cosmology, though sparse and high-level, is still solidly within the usual Hermetic notion: four elements with Fire at the top and Earth plus Water at the bottom with Air standing in between joining the two, seven heavens for the seven wandering stars, constellations above them for the fixed stars, and the like.

More along the lines of the third part of CH III that discusses the creation of life and of humanity, and especially the works and purposes of humanity, DH IX.7 reads:

Humans work the land, (and) stars adorn heaven.  The gods have heaven; humans, heaven, earth, and sea; but the air is common to gods and humans.

This statement, too, touches on what Hermēs discusses in AH 8, which has the major points of:

  • The intelligible God, the “master and shaper of all things”, made a second god, sensible in the sense of being able to be seen and sensed.  (In other words, Theos made Cosmos, or alternatively, Nous made Logos.) The sensible God is beautiful to the intelligible God, and is full of “the goodness of everything”.
  • To further admire the sensible God, God made humanity (the third god), “imitator of his reason and attentiveness” and in the divine likeness of himself.  However, humanity could not exist as divine image alone, so God made humanity a material wrapping, a body of flesh, and thus made humans as both eternal soul and mortal body.  This was done in such a way so that humans could begin “wondering at heavenly beings and worship them, tending to earthly beings and governing them”.
  • Humans take charge over the four elements and by them commence to engage in works of agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, and especially reciprocal exchange which is “the strongest bond among humans or between humanity and the parts of the world that are water and earth”.  Further, it is the learning, discovery, and use of arts and sciences that “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that God willed that the world would be incomplete without them.

AH 10 continues along similar lines:

  • God is the governor of all things, but especially with Humanity, who is the governor of composite things (i.e. material, manifest things).
  • Humanity is responsible for the whole of creation, which is the “proper concern of his attentiveness”, and strives to adorn the cosmos as the cosmos adorns them so as to know the cosmos so that the cosmos knows them.
  • In so doing, humanity becomes mindful of their role in the cosmos and what is useful for them, how they should act, and the propriety of giving thanks and praise to God in honoring his image (as cosmos, the second god) as well as themselves (as humanity, the third god made in the likeness of the first).

Although we can find bits in other Hermetic texts to echo the first three parts of CH III, it’s that last section of CH III that’s hard to find something concrete about.  Parts of it kinda resemble AH 8 above, especially the various works of mankind, but CH III doesn’t really talk about redemption, salvation, reincarnation, preservation of the the soul through the dissolution of the body that we call “death”, or the like.  Scott continues to say that this last part of CH III, in its absence of discussing anything about these topics, thus suggests the contrary, that “nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his ‘name’ (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while”, disparaging earthly monuments for their impermanence.  I find this too strong a stance to take, personally; just because a text doesn’t bring up something doesn’t mean it rules it out, either.  Per Copenhaver, Fowden interprets this last paragraph as a strong monist worldview to mean that it “envisages man’s whole development and fulfillment in terms of this earthly life”.  CH I.12—13 likewise brings up the notion of humanity being made in God’s image, bestowed with all of God’s works, and engaged in both the works of God and their own works, as well as the works of all the other powers of the cosmos—though, admittedly, this was before his incarnation in Nature, and CH I is more strongly dualist than CH III in this regard.

The final part of CH III does mention the role of fate established by the stars, though Scott notes that “the writer does not ad that men, by observing the stars, can discover beforehand what is destined for them[;] if this were added, the view expressed would amount to a belief in astrology”.  Again, a lack of one opinion does not imply the existence of its opposite, and given CH III’s exhortation for us to contemplate Heaven and the courses of the heavenly gods who are themselves inextricably intertwined with fate and destiny, it makes sense that this reference is easier read as an implicit acknowledgement of the power of astrology, a classic Hermetic stance indeed.  Although the powers of the planets and stars is more commonly termed “fate” in other Hermetic texts, it is also said that Fate is a handmaiden or servant to Necessity, and Necessity is the handmaiden to Providence, which is nothing less than the express will of God.  In that light, whatever Providence establishes to be done, Necessity arranges for it to be done with all its side effects, and Fate implements it through the passage and influence of the stars.  Thus, in this view of the relationship of Necessity to Fate and to God, when CH III mentions that “all that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity”—especially when it also says that such renewal will be done “by the…gods and by the course of the measured wheel of Nature”—it implies that the renewal of all things is expressly the will of God.  Scott has a point here in that “that which decays and passes away is ‘renewed’, but only by substitution[;] the individual perishes, but the race is immortal[;] the dead do not live again, but others are born to proceed them”.  That is certainly one valid way to read this section, but only based on assumptions and the absence of contrary implications, and again is a stance I find too strong to take in reading CH III.

There’s probably more that we can point out as commonalities or stuff to pick out as differences between CH III and the rest of the Hermetic canon, especially when it comes to the broader literature of Roman Republic-period Stoicism or Hellenized Judaism, but this is enough to give us an idea of what we’re looking at when we consider this short, obscure text.  At the end of the day, we just don’t know a lot about the text besides what we can draw from the text itself—and that’s where we’ll be headed next, with actually chewing on the content of the text itself.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part I) « The Digital Ambler

  2. Pingback: On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Summary « The Digital Ambler

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