On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part II)

Let’s continue where we left off last time, where we began our little exegesis (such as it is) with the first section of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), a set of three aphorisms about God and God’s relationship with reality.  This time, we’ll focus on the second section of CH III, which focuses on the creation and function of the cosmos.  Remember that the first section of CH III, according to Nock and Festugière, also included a section about cosmogony, but I decided to move that down to the second section which discusses it more thoroughly.

Our translation of the second section of CH III from before:

Lo: in [the] Abyss there was boundless darkness and water,
and delicate, intelligent Spirit,
existing by divine Power in Chaos.
Then, under [the] sand, out of [the] moist essence,
holy Light arose and [the] elements solidified,
so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature.

While all was indefinite and unformed,
[all] that which was light was separated off to [the] heights
and [all] that which was heavy was grounded upon [the] moist sand,
the whole of them all separated and hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit.

And the heavens were seen in seven circles,
[the] gods being seen in the forms of [the] stars with their constellations,
perfectly filled each with their own gods.
The periphery was wrapped all around by Air
and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ῆν γὰρ σκότος ἄπειρον ἐν ἀβύσσῳ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πνεῦμα λεπτὸν νοερόν, δυνάμει θείᾳ ὄντα ἐν χάει.  άνείθη δὴ φῶς ἅγιον καὶ ἐπάγη † ὑφ’ ἅμμῳ † ἐξ ὑδρᾶς ουσίας στοιχεῖα καὶ θεοὶ πάντεσ † καταδιερῶσι † φύσεςσ ἐνσπόρου.

ἀδιορίστων δὲ ὄντων ἁπάντων καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστων, ἀποδιωρίσθη τὰ ἐλαφρὰ εἰς ὕψος καὶ τὰ βαρέα ἐθεμελιώθη ἐφ’ γρᾷ ἅμμῳ, πυρὶ τῶν λων διορισθέντων καὶ ἀνακρεμασθέντων πνεύματι ὀχεῖσθαι.

και ὤφθη ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐν κύκλοις ἑπτά, καὶ θεοὶ [ταῖς] ἐν ἄστρων ἰδέαις ὀπτανόμενοι, σὺν τοπις αὐτῶν σημείοισ ἅπασι, καὶ διηρθρώθη … σὺν τοῖς ἐν αὐτῇ θεοῖς, καὶ περιειλίγη τὸ περικύκλιον ἀέρι, κυκλίῳ δρομήματι πνεύματι θείῳ ὀχούμενον.

Note that, at this point, Nock and Festugière start using obelisks (†) to denote unclear or peculiar phrases.  The first section of CH III didn’t have any, but now we start getting into the parts where things get harder to interpret.  I’ve kept those in where Nock and Festugière included them, but I already tried to deal with what’s going on with those particular phrases back in the translation of the text.

The cosmogony of CH III takes place in the form of an impersonal narrative:

  1. Originally there was only boundless darkness and water, which had with (or within) it “delicate, intelligent Spirit”, all existing as chaos in the Abyss.
  2. From out of the chaos of water and earth arose a “holy Light”, and as it arose, so too did the elements.
  3. The light elements (Fire and Air) rose up to the heights and the heavy elements (Water and Earth) stayed down below.
  4. Fire, rising to the top, as the active and hot principle, was the major actor of this separation of the elements, with Spirit sustaining this arrangement.
  5. With the elements separated and solidified from chaos, and with the arrangement of the elements in place, the seven heavens arose.
  6. With the seven heavens came about the stars and constellations.
  7. The whole of the cosmos was then encompassed by Air, and moved around in a circular course by Spirit.

It’s clear that this arrangement of the cosmogony (continued in CH III) follows the same arrangement both in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis:

Dodd explains the similarities between the creation account of CH I and CH III, and how they relate to that of Genesis:

The stages are not so clearly marked in the Sacred Discourse as in Genesis and Poimandres, but they obviously follow the same general plan.  Both Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse omit the beginning of vegetable life at a stage before the appearance of the heavenly bodies, clearly as being “unscientific”.  The Sacred Discourse brings all sub-human life into the same stage, while it separates man from the animals, like the other two.  So far, therefore, the three accounts go closely together.  In one point Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse agree against Genesis, in one point Poimandres and Genesis agree against the Sacred Discourse, but neither of these points is of great significance.

Notably, God doesn’t make an appearance at all in this section, but there are things that are divine here: “divine Power” in the first paragraph (by which all the things exist in chaos) and “divine Spirit” in the last paragraph (by which creation is turned in a circular motion).  That these things are divine shouldn’t surprise us too much, but “Power” (δύναμις) should be clarified first.  In the classical sense, δύναμις is contrasted with ἐνέργεια, where the former (power) represents potentiality, while the latter (energy) represents activity.  In this philosophical understanding of the difference between potentiality and actuality, the primordial dark chaos exists as the seed of all things that can exist; perhaps “chaos exists” is a bit too strong, but “preexists” might be better in this case.  “Power” is encountered elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum in the sense of the various powers of Heaven, sure, but we haven’t gotten to that stage of creation yet where there’s anything distinctly made, so in this case, “divine Potential” is a better understanding of what we see here in CH III.2.

Then there’s “divine Spirit”, which is earlier described in this section as also being both “intelligent” (νοερός) and “delicate” (λεπτός).  “Intelligent” here isn’t too surprising, though another way to translate this is “intellectual”, related to the word for Mind (νοῦς), and is thus the highest faculty in humanity that allows us to know; Scott takes this further and says that Spirit is thus “living, conscious, and intelligent”.  Again, however, at this point in CH III, we don’t have humanity yet, but Spirit is still present even in the potentiality of everything as something that allows for it to be known; mind precedes body, in this case.  But there’s also “delicate” here which others translate as “fine”, but as we noted in our translation, λεπτός has notions of being peeled, husked, fine, small, thin, fragile, meager, weak, or subtle (and I think “subtle” is another perfect word to use here).  That Spirit should be pre-present in chaos is perhaps unusual, but it also suggests, along with all this existing by “divine Power”, that God who is also the beginning of Mind and things that are of Mind is already aware and able to know himself even at this early stage, though perhaps “able” is all that can be done without there being anything distinct that can be said to exist.  Given this description of “delicate Spirit”, one might say that this is more of a passive entity than active entity, but we see later on in this section that Spirit plays quite an active role indeed in sustaining and maintaining the order of the cosmos once it has been ordered.  I suppose, then, that at this point in creation, everything really is in just a potential state, a seed ready to burst given the right stimulus and impetus to do so, and that Spirit is as much a part of the cosmos as everything else is, though remains distinct from it at all points after creation.  For chaos to exist “by divine Power” indicates that this, too, is something created and sustained by God, otherwise it would not exist.  Of course, Scott points out also that “Spirit” in this case could well be the same as that of the Stoics, a fine gaseous mixture of Fire and Air, the two subtle elements as opposed to the two gross elements of Water and Earth, yet this is also written in such a way as to recall the “spirit of God hovering over the waters” from Genesis 1:1.  It seems that Spirit in this case is indeed an active component of the primordial chaos, but it is not yet activated at this point.

This is also where we encounter a distinction between the creation account of CH I and CH III, at least according to Scott and Dodd.  They claim that the creation account of CH I begins with Light and that darkness and chaos emerge second, making God transcendent of creation, but here, we start with darkness and only encounter Light later, making God immanent within creation and not transcendent.  But note how we already know that God is the start of all the things that are, and that chaos itself exists by things that are Divine (Power).  At this point, we then proceed to the “holy Light” in the first paragraph that arose from the chaos, but the use of the word ἅγιος (“holy”) is…kinda weird, really.  That word doesn’t really start to become common or popular until after the advent of Abrahamic texts written in Greek, like the Septuagint; normally, things would be called ἱερός (“sacred, hallowed”) or θεῖος (“divine”).  Sure, it was certainly in use before such an influence and was used at times to refer to things devoted to the gods in temples and the like, but it seems to have revolved more around the notion of matters or phenomena of religious awe, both good and bad.  Sure, the final prayer from CH I is filled with the use of ἅγιος, but as Copenhaver notes, the use of this word in a pagan prayer (especially in a tripled format) can be traced to the Septuagint and other Abrahamic texts, and the texts in the Corpus Hermeticum otherwise rarely use it.  Notably, CH I.4—5 is also where we find the use of ἅγιος in the sense of λόγος ἅγιος, the “holy Word” that descended upon the dark chaos to spur the formal separation and arrangement of creation (Copenhaver translation):

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it.

But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

In the next section, Poimandrēs explains to Hermēs what the vision meant:

“I am the light you saw, Mind, your God,” he said, “who existed before the watery nature that appeared out of darkness.  The lightgiving Word who comes from Mind is the Son of God.” … “This is what you must know: that in you which sees and hears is the Word of the Lord, but your Mind is God the Father; they are not divided from one another, for their union is life.”

There’s this Hermetic notion that the first Light is also the first Word, that this primordial Light as it interacts with the primordial dark chaos in this sense is “holy”, and that it is the fundamental impetus of arrangement and ordering upon the cosmos.  However, Dodd points out that Light is not identified explicitly in CH III with divinity as it is in CH I; in this, “the Sacred Discourse is to that extent closer to Genesis“, as opposed to the preexisting light in CH I which is explicitly linked.  After all, in CH III, light simply “emerged” (άνείθη) from the chaos, which does make Light seem like a…well, emergent property of creation rather than something that comes from outside it.  Sola scriptura, CH III really doesn’t say anything about the transcendence of Light here or that it comes from any other source besides creation itself.  Weirder still is that Light doesn’t play any further role in CH III—no salvific or noetic associations are given to it, and it doesn’t get mentioned again; it just arises from the chaos and, as it does so, sparks the creation of the cosmos.  Surely, it too arise “by divine Power”, but consider that where there is Light, there cannot be Darkness.  Light arising from the Darkness would mean that something in the darkness would have had to spark together, mix, and combine in order to form something new, but the whole point of this primordial chaos is that nothing is formed yet, and everything is already mixed together in an unformed way.  In this light (heh), Light could not have existed as part of the primordial chaos, but had to have been “injected”, as it were, by God into the chaos in a way that the rest of what existed was not.  Alternatively, the Light could be self-engendered, but in a context where there’s already stuff, that seems to be rather unusual, indeed.

To continue along this image a bit, we have this notion that the “holy Light emerged” from the chaos, yes, but specifically “under the sand, out of moist essence”.  Nock and Festugière ignore “under the sand” here seeing it as a reference to something later on in CH III, but in this image, we have this notion of water (rather, “moist essence”, as Dodd points out as a correction to earlier “water”) and sand mixed together as being the base of this dark chaos, in a way reminiscent of what we saw in CH I.4, “something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire”.  As noted before, this notion of Light arising from this mixture of sand and moisture is similar to the Ancient Egyptian (specifically Heliopolitan) creation myth of the Benben stone, the first mound of dry land that emerged from the primordial waters of Nun, with Atum sitting atop it having created himself, and from himself the rest of the gods and creation.  This is specifically linked to CH III by the use of the word “sand” (ἄμμος) here, otherwise “earth” would have suited just fine—unless, perhaps, the place where the author of CH III was so sandy as to make the two words interchangeable in his dialect (totally reasonable, too!).  In either case, there’s this Egyptian presence here in the text, which thus hints that the Light is truly self-engendered or self-begotten, not as a result of the primordial chaos but as its own…well, holy phenomenon (ἅγιος as opposed to ἱερός or θεῖος).  As it comes into being, it then shines its light into the darkness, allowing things to take form.  We might understand this metaphorically in that sight and vision necessitates an order to be seen and viewed.

Personally, while I don’t see an issue with Light here being a presence of divinity being self-generated, it does leave open the question of God’s relationship with creation.  Dodd and Scott see the phrasing here as an indication of a fundamentally different creation myth than that of CH I, given that in CH I the dark chaos existed only after light permitted it, from which it sent a holy Word of Light onto it.  But if the darkness existed within the light in CH I, why wouldn’t the presence of the abounding ambient light alone shift it?  An action had to be taken, and we perceive this creation account from outside creation in the light-filled realm of God in CH I.  In CH III, however, we start from within creation, not taking the perspective of God.  It could reasonably be thought that the “holy Light” arising from the wet sand in CH III is the same action as the “holy Word” descending onto the dark chaos from the transcendence of light, just from a different perspective: think of how a three-dimensional sphere intersects with a two-dimensional plane from the perspective of a two-dimensional entity on that plane, first appearing as a circle ex nihilo that then increases as the sphere intersects more deeply with the plane.  It’s the interpretation I favor instead of a self-generated presence of holiness within creation, but sola scriptura, that remains to be seen whether that’s the view of the original author.

Once the Light arose, then the elements solidified and took their form from the chaos; thus, from the chaotic mix of everything unformed comes Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.  The light elements of Fire and Air went upwards and the heavy elements of Water and Earth remained below (“grounded upon the moist sand”, cf. CH I.5 “Earth and Water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that Earth could not be distinguished from Water”).  Perhaps the four elements aren’t what’s strictly intended here in the sense of “that which was light was separated off to the heights and that which was heavy was grounded upon the moist sand”, although each makes their appearance in turn in CH III, but it does make sense to interpret it this way.  All the same, all this came about, not just chaotically or randomly, but for a purpose: “so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature”.  It’s at this point that we’re not dealing with God, but specifically gods plural.  That there should be other gods is not utterly surprising; despite the focus on a singular God in much of Hermetic literature, the existence of other gods (sometimes “powers”, sometimes “angels” especially under Jewish influence, etc.) is not questioned, even if it’s not the focus of Hermetic literature.  Dodd notes along these lines:

The frank polytheism is out of harmony with the spirit of Gen. i; but we may recall that Jewish thinkers found in it a place for secondary creators, and further that the “gods” of philosophical paganism were not very different from the angelic orders of some forms of Jewish thought.  Now, in the Secrets of Enoch the creation of the angelic orders is interpolated in to the story of creation derived from Genesis…if Scott is right in his restoration of the text of the Sacred Discourse at this point…the parallel with the Secrets of Enoch is close.  Orthodox Judaism was careful to avoid the use of the term “gods” for these beings, but after all the Old Testament spoke of them as אלוהים or בני-אלוהים, and although the LXX often replaced these terms by ἄγγελοι, we do not know that all Greek-speaking Jews were so scrupulous.  To a Jew of the periphery, or to a philosophic pagan approaching Judaism from the outside, the distinction between θεοί and ἄγγελοι might well seem no more than a difference of terminology upon which it would be pedantic to insist.

The ancestral gods here correspond to the διοικηταί of the Poimandres, and both tractates refer to the seven circles of heaven.…

The word διοικηταί (sing. διοικητής) means “administrator” or “governor”, and can also be translated as “controller”, especially of the fates and influences the planets themselves exert.  So the planets are gods, no problem there for us, but there seem to be other gods, as well: “the gods being seen in the forms of the stars with their constellations, perfectly filled each with their own forms”.  The wandering stars are gods, but the gods also include the stellar deities, too, of the fixed stars themselves.  We might reasonably understand this to be the signs of the Zodiac, but given the Egyptian presence here, the decans themselves might also be considered. Scott goes on to note that “gods” here also includes the elements themselves, especially as πνεύματι is called θείῳ at the end of this section, and recall that Scott interprets “Spirit” as being the Stoic subtle mixture of Fire and Air; “it itself is a god, as are the other three elements; and it is God’s instrument, by means of which the life he gives is conveyed into all terrestrial creatures”.

In either case, we have (at least) these astral gods as well.  It’s unclear from the text whether they preexisted creation and simply took on forms within creation after creation arose, or whether they arose with the rest of creation as it arose; they exist at least as part of Nature.  And it for the gods to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”, meaning that the gods that exist as part of or participating in Nature control what happens within it.  God does not seem to make a direct presence within Nature nor does he appear to actively create within Nature, a notion that isn’t out of place in several Hermetic texts; as in the Jewish account Dodd recalls, God is the first creator who relies on secondary creators.  The purpose of these gods (to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”) seems intertwined with Nature itself, and Nature had to come to be in order for their purposes to be fulfilled.  It’s also not clear from CH III, whether in this section or the rest, whether these gods are to receive devotion or cult, but merely by the use of the term “gods” here suggests that they should be reckoned and treated as such, favoring a polytheistic worldview with a central, immanent (yet also distant, even transcendental) God as pantokrator that underlies all creation.

The rest of this section is fairly par for the course of classical cosmology, including the Stoic notion of the heavens being set into revolution.  There is, however, the somewhat confusing notion brought up at the end of the section: “the periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”.  Copenhaver translates this as “the periphery rotated [in] the air”, though Salaman has “encompassed by air”.  This could be interpreted, in light of the earlier parts of this section, as the periphery being the utmost fiery heavens (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit”), that Air is what fills up the whole of the cosmos up to its boundaries, though it could also be thought of as the cosmos itself being literally wrapped around on the outside by air in some sort of otherwise-void.  This latter view seems unpopular (outside of creation, after all, how could the elements exist?), but the wording here isn’t that clear.

Given the similarity of the ends of these latter two paragraphs in this section (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit” and “periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”), it seems that it’s all talking about the same overall structure of the cosmos, all kept in order by Spirit., which seems distinct from both Fire and Air (against Scott taking a strictly Stoic approach to this term).  It’s interesting to note how the activity of Spirit is so important here; it really is that which connects and drives everything, like the pulse in our veins, as the very breath of the cosmos itself.  After all, without the spirit in your own blood, your body dies, collapses, and dissolves into its constituent parts, but as long as you maintain your spirit, your body keeps its form and its motion.  That Spirit should preexist in chaos before the elements and creation of forms in the cosmos is interesting to note, suggesting that it’s something fundamental but distinct from matter itself but still part of Nature.

The cosmogony here seems to have several stages:

  1. Preexisting primordial dark chaos
  2. Unformed and confused elements
  3. Ordered heavens

The shift between 1 and 2 is started when the “holy Light arose”, which triggered the solidification of the elements, and the shift between 2 and 3 is started when the elements themselves separated into the subtle/light and the gross/heavy.  Fire, being the most subtle of the elements, “hung up” the heavens (recall the notion of God the Great Mind from PGM V.459ff, who “established the sea and suspended the heavens”, though there a word is used meaning “to pin up” rather than “to hang up”).  Air, as in CH I, follows the ascent of Fire but only to an extent, not leaping up as high as Fire but which fills in the gap between Fire above and Earth and Water below.  Unlike in CH I or in Genesis, CH III does not mention a separation of Earth and Water; “moist sand” is left together undifferentiated, though if an Egyptian creation account is implied here, then we might also take the separation of Earth from Water to be a given with the arising of Light a la Benben.  Between the utmost fiery periphery of the cosmos and the lower base of base elements, Air fills the cosmos, and is separated into seven zones for the planets, with the stars in constellations appearing above them in the fiery heaven; note that CH III does not preclude higher realms, such as one for the stars themselves apart from the periphery, but they might not be termed “heavens” at that point.  Spirit, existing from the beginning, is what maintains this order and causes it to both remain aloft and rotated.

Thus the cosmogony and non-biological cosmology of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the zoogony and anthropogony of CH III in the next section, and with it, the various things for us humans to take care of.

2 responses

  1. “a polytheistic worldview with a central, immanent (yet also distant, even transcendental) God as pantokrator that underlies all creation”

    I would suggest the possibility of a more radically polytheistic reading, in which there is no such separate, singular God, but instead the passages that are read this way, because they speak of “the God”, are understood to speak of the class of Gods.

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

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