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

Now for the third part of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  This is where things get fun, but also super difficult given the challenges the language of CH III poses to translation, so let’s get right into it, shall we?

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before (with our fancy numbered lists for the sake of more easily seeing the structure here in this section):

Each god sent forth through their own power
that which was assigned to them.
Thus came to be [the] beasts—
[the] four-footed, [the] crawling, [the] water-dwelling, and [the] winged—
and every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
[having] the seed of rebirth within themselves.

They then cast the seeds for the generations of humans for [that they might have]:

  1. knowledge of [the] works of [the] Divine, and
  2. testimony of [the] workings of Nature.

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans [for that they might have]:

  1. management of all things under Heaven, and
  2. recognition of that which is Good

So as to:

  1. grow in growth, and
  2. multiply in multitude.

And, through the course of [the] encycling gods,
[they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have]:

  1. observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven,
  2. [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
  3. [observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
  4. [observance] of [the] working of Nature

for [that they might have]:

  1. examination of that which is Good, and
  2. knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power

[for the gods made them so as] to:

  1. come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
  2. discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκατος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη.  τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν † ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν † τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὐπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν έπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων † τερασπορίας † εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε † σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν † εἰς γνῶςιν θείας δυνάμεως † μοίρης ὀχλουμένης † γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.

(Did you guys know that I hate typing up polytonic Greek?  Because I sure do now!  One more section to go after this, I suppose.)

The first section of CH III opened up with a few gnomic aphorisms regarding God, and the second section introduced the creation of the cosmos and how it is arranged.  This section now continues the cosmology by introducing zoogony and anthropogony, the creation of animal life and human life, respectively.  Once the creation of the order of the cosmos has been established, with the subtle elements above and the gross elements below and the heavens arranged into seven spheres, life itself is created, first animal life and then vegetative life.  This was done by “each god [sending] forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”: the astral gods (and maybe also the elemental gods, if you follow Scott’s reasoning) bring forth into existence through their own powers of potentiality (δυνάμεως) life itself.  This section could be read such that animal life was created first and vegetative life second, or whether they were made simultaneously.

In either case, knowing that CH III is similar to the creation account of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis from the Septuagint, there is a difference here: CH III just says that the gods made them all (four-footed beasts that walk, crawling beasts that slither around, beasts that swim in the water, and winged beasts that fly) without distinction as to who made what.  Genesis says that Water produced the creeping, flying, and swimming animals and Earth the walking animals that dwell on land; CH I says that the Air produced flying animals, Water swimming animals, and Earth the four-footed and crawling animals (Fire being reserved for holy and immortal entities that aren’t animal).  Here, it’s only said more simply that the four kinds of animals were just made by the gods.

Then comes the creation of vegetative life: “every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower”.  CH I doesn’t bring up vegetative life at all, but Genesis does.  However, as Dodd points out, Genesis brings up the creation of vegetative life much earlier in its account of creation before the heavenly components of the cosmos; CH III, taking a more Stoic approach, puts the creation of vegetative life much later after the creation of heavenly entities and along with animal life.  Straightforward enough, I suppose.  It’s also noted that all these things—whether of vegetative life specifically or both vegetative and animal life, and I’m inclined to think the latter is meant here—contain “the seed of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς).  Genesis does make the claim that it is the plants alone “bearing seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds”, but given the placement here between the creation of animals and vegetation, it may well be that CH III implied that both animals and vegetation are capable of reproducing by virtue of their being reproduced.

Then there’s the word ἐσπερμολόγουν, which is…challenging, and much ink has been spilled over the meaning and purpose of this word.  I translate it as “cast seeds”, though a better and more literal meaning (so far as we know) is more like “pick up seeds”, based on σπερμολόγος, literally “seed-taking”, generally referring to birds, but which also has a metaphorical meaning of “someone who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge”; this leads to the word σπερμολογία meaning “gossip” or “babbling”.  As I mentioned in the notes to my translation, the form of this word is weird; it could be considered a neuter singular active present participle, in which case it could well modify σπέρμα, which it’s not too far from, yielding a translation like “[having] the seeding(?) seeds of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν), though I take the approach of Dodd in that it refers rather to the gods themselves “[casting] seeds for the generations of humans” (ἐσπερμολόγουν τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων).  Again, the form and meaning of this word is unclear, and it’s caused no small amount of trouble for translators of this section.  Although Dodd and Copenhaver translate this as “the gods sowed”, with Salaman giving a similar “the gods sent forth”, I like “the gods cast seeds”, a pun on λόγος with the spoken word being inherently magical (again, an Egyptian implication, though this is perhaps me reading this into the text where no such implication exists).

So, the gods “sent forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”, and created all the beasts and all the vegetation of the world, all of which would be self-reproducing, and then “cast the seeds” for humanity.  But, as we noted in our translation, it looks like there’s three different kinds of creation going on here.  Copenhaver and Salaman simply give two lists of things that the gods created humanity for.  Using Salaman as a base for this:

  1. The generations of humanity
    1. To know the works of God
    2. To be active witnesses of Nature
    3. To multiply (Copenhaver: increase the number of mankind)
    4. To rule over all under Heaven
    5. To know what is Good
    6. To increase by increasing
    7. To multiply by multiplying
  2. The human souls in flesh
    1. To survey Heaven, the paths of the heavenly gods, the works of God, and the workings of Nature
    2. To know the signs of what is Good
    3. To know the power of God (Copenhaver: to know divine power)
    4. To know the turning fate of Good and Evil (Copenhaver: to know the whirling changes of fair and foul)
    5. To discover all the marvelous works of the Good (Copenhaver: every means of working skillfully with things that are Good)

This is what I thought was most beautiful about CH III back when I first started discussing it, specific goals and reasons and purposes that the gods made humanity.  However, on a closer inspection of the grammar, I don’t agree with this twofold division, and instead go with a threefold division, divided up into things the gods made us to do and also for what purpose, as given in my translation above.  I figured this out independently of Dodd, who in his commentary on CH III discerns a similar pattern here, though we seem to disagree on particulars.  Dodd summarizes this section of CH III as giving a high-level view of the reasons for what humanity was made: to know God in Nature, to multiply and rule over the Earth, and to become civilized through the study of astronomy, theology, ethics, and the arts.  Dodd also brings up similarities with Sirach 17:1—8 and Wisdom 7:17—19, and how the peculiar phrasings of this section resemble much in Genesis.

What I end up with in my own translation and analysis of the text is that:

  1. In general, the gods made the generations of humanity to:
    1. Know the works of the Divine
    2. Witness the workings of Nature
  2. So that they might grow in growth and multiply in multitude, the gods made great numbers of humans to:
    1. Manage all things under Heaven
    2. Recognize that which is Good
  3. In order to examine that which is Good and to know the turbulent lots of divine Power, so that they might know the difference between that which is Good and that which is not, and to discover the arts of everything that is Good, the gods (through their own heavenly courses) made every human soul in flesh to:
    1. Observe the sign-seeding acts of Heaven
    2. Observe the course of the heavenly gods
    3. Observe the works of the Divine
    4. Observe the working of Nature

Humans in general are to know the works of the Divine (ἔργων θείων) and witness the workings of Nature (φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν); remember how there’s that initial dichotomy between the Divine and divine Nature way back in the first section of CH III, and how God is both.  Thus, fundamentally, humans are made to know God, being the form of life that has Mind and which can have Wisdom (“for the showing-forth of all things”) so as to know all things.  And this whole section of CH III describes what among all things, specifically, is to be known and how, to be sure, but in general, humans are to come to know God by means of that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

The gods also made “great numbers of humans” (πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων, which Copenhaver and Salaman translate similarly as “to increase the number of mankind” which I personally find to not follow from the grammar here) fundamentally to “grow by growth and multiply in multitude”.  This sort of injunction is phrased in a rather unusual, especially Hebraic sense, and is also found in CH I.18 (Copenhaver translation):

…When the cycle was completed, the bond among all things was sundered by the counsel of god. All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

The use of αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, especially that latter phrase, echoes the use of πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων at the start of this series of injunctions, encouraging humans not just to be a great number but to ensure the greatness of its number by continuing to be a great number through increasing and multiplying.  This is facilitated by the two injunctions here given, the first being to tend to the Earth (literally “all under Heaven”) by taking mastery, rulership, and stewardship over it (δεσποτείαν).  The word δεσποτεία literally refers to “the power of a master” (think of the word “despot”), which in the sense of Genesis means for humans to have dominion over the world, and also echoed in Wisdom 9:2.  CH I also gives mastery to humans by having authority in CH I.13, but Dodd notes that this is before humanity’s incarnation while humanity is still within “the craftsman’s sphere”, and not coupled with an injunction to increase and multiply until afterwards in CH I.18.

The second injunction given in this section is to recognize that which is Good.  Simple enough, I suppose (in the sense that doing so is at all simple), but I should note that it’s here that we start encountering the Good (ἀγαθῶν) frequently, and I tend to take this in a more Platonic sense than others seem to do, as it’s not otherwise explained in CH III.  Other translators use it in a more common, common-sense meaning of just things that are lowercase-g good, useful, or beneficial, but “the Good” is a concept otherwise discussed quite a bit in the rest of Hermetic literature as something that pertains to God, and which does not properly exist down here in the world of matter.  Again, this has the benefit of tying into this notion of humanity coming to know God.  Notions of the Good in the Corpus Hermeticum are inherently and intensely intertwined with God (not even the gods in general, but specifically just God as in CH II.16 and CH VI.2) and divinization (cf. CH I.26, “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).  And, again, recall the connection that CH XI.2—3 gives between the Good and Wisdom that Mind describes to Hermēs (Copenhaver’s translation):

“God makes eternity; eternity makes the cosmos; the cosmos makes time; time makes becoming. The essence (so to speak) of god is [the good, the beautiful, happiness,] wisdom; the essence of eternity is identity; of the cosmos, order; of time, change; of becoming, life and death. But the energy of god is mind and soul; the energy of eternity is permanence and immortality; of the cosmos, recurrence and counterrecurrence; of time, increase and decrease; of becoming, quality (and quantity). Eternity, therefore, is in god, the cosmos in eternity, time in the cosmos, and becoming in time. And while eternity has stood still in god’s presence, the cosmos moves in eternity, time passes in the cosmos, but becoming comes to be in time.”

“The source of all things is god; eternity is their essence; the cosmos is their matter. Eternity is the power of god, and the cosmos is eternity’s work, but the cosmos has never come into being; it comes to be forever from eternity. Therefore, nothing in the cosmos will ever be corrupted (for eternity is incorruptible), nor will it pass away since eternity encloses the cosmos.”

“But the wisdom of god—what is it?”

The good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity. Eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter.”

That which is Good is inherently bound with Wisdom, and Wisdom is what enables us to know all things because it shows forth all things that exist, both that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

Then we have the final set of injunctions, which is the most complicated to discuss.  At this point, CH III has already discussed how the gods “cast the seeds” for the generations of humanity, and then how they made “great numbers” of humanity.  These are all fairly physical, but now we step into a more spiritual context: “through the course of [the] encycling gods, they created every soul in flesh”.  Now we’re talking about a spiritual dimension of humanity that we haven’t yet encountered.  While CH III does not explain the nature of the soul, it does say that it exists, and in distinction to the other forms of life that don’t have a soul; all things might have Spirit, since Spirit is instrumental to the order and functioning of the cosmos, but not necessarily Mind or Soul.  Dodd brings this up in a peculiar way:

Now Poimandres agrees that the mortal part of man came form the διοικηταὶ, the astral gods, and Philo found in Genesis a hint that it was the work of the divine δὺναμεις, and not of God Himself.  But both Genesis and Poimandres teach that man in his higher aspect is the image of God.  This sublime doctrine is the climax of the biblical cosmology, and the determining motive of the Poimandres.  The Sacred Discourse knows nothing of it.  Nevertheless, the author follows the LXX as closely, from his point of view, as the author of the Poimandres does from his, and clearly independently.

We know from other doctrines related to the soul in Hermetic literature that all other things have soul, it’s true, but not all have the same types of soul; some Hermetic texts suggest that reincarnation between different forms of life is a possibility, others argue that it’s impossible for a human soul to be incarnated in anything but a human body.  That humans have souls is not questioned by CH III, but whether this is made in the image of God is left unspecified.

These human souls are thus put into flesh (σάρξ here, though σῶμα “body” is used in CH I) to do four things, all based on observation: to observe (κατοπτείαν) the “sign-seeding” (τερασπορίας, “sowing of portents”, another complicated word that gives translators trouble) things (acts, as I interpret it) of Heaven, the course of the heavenly gods, the works of the Divine, and the working of Nature.  Again we have this distinction between “works of the Divine” and “working(s) of Nature”), but there’s something interesting about this list of injunctions: it’s a set of four, while everything else is a set of two things.  This might just be me, but I sense a parallel going on in this set of four: the “sign-seeding” acts of Heaven are the works of the Divine, and the courses of the heavenly gods are the workings of Nature.  In other words, the second two injunctions are just a clarification on the first two.  In this light, we might rephrase this section as:

…through the course of [the] encycling gods, [they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have] observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven and [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods, [which are the observance] of [the] works of the Divine and [observance] of [the] working of Nature…

After all, we already know that the generations of humanity were seeded to have knowledge of the works of the Divine and bear witness to the workings of Nature, so this seems like a way to reemphasize that in more concrete terms through the observance of what goes on above the Earth.  Dodd, in a slightly different take based on similarities here with Psalms 7:4, associates “man’s contemplation of God’s works in the heavens with his rule over His works below”.

So humanity is made by the gods as ensouled flesh, or rather incarnate souls, to observe what happens in Heaven.  We are enjoined to do this so that we might examine that which is Good (again, using my Platonic sense of the word) and to know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” (θείας δυνάμεως μοίρης ὀχλουμένης).  This latter phrase is a tricky one, and again the unclear Greek doesn’t help us, but there’s a notion of crowds, mobs, turbulence, turmoil, and trouble bound up with the fates and lots that come from “divine Power”.  We encountered “divine Power” in the previous section on cosmology, referring to the infinite potential associated with the primordial chaos before the ordering of creation; while this could just be a general phrase to be used (Dodd compares it to Psalms 62:3 and 76:15), I get a notion of things that are still as yet potential which have not yet come to pass being “turbulent” or “troublesome”, perhaps because of their unknown and unformed nature held in the unknown and unformed future.  Are these, too, Good?  It’s unclear, but perhaps that’s because they’re supposed to be.  In this vein of logic, were Scott to carry it further, he might argue that this is an implied argument against the use of astrology and divination to know the future, but perhaps it’s in that very act of discerning that we come to know more about them.

But we’re not done yet here: we’re made incarnate souls and ensouled flesh to observe what happens in Heaven so that we come to examine the Good and know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” specifically for an even grander purpose.  First, we must come to know that which is ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, which is a phrase I translate as “that which is Good and that which is insignificant”.  It would make more sense to translate this as “Good and Evil”, but CH III doesn’t treat theodicy or evil or things that are bad, and φαύλων doesn’t really have those connotations as such.  Rather, the word φαύλων usually indicates things that are more cheap, easy, slight, trivial, paltry, petty, mean, or common; in other words, the things that are insignificant, indifferent, or otherwise unrelated to that which is Good.  CH III doesn’t treat these things as evil, per se (although other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum would certainly say that anything that is not Good is therefore evil, and only God is Good, thus all things that are not God are evil even if they participate in the Good or have a share of it), but rather as things that just don’t matter to our quest in searching for the Good.  It is certainly possible, of course, that the author of CH III did suggest something along the lines of evil; Dodd points out that the language here borrows from that of Genesis 2:17 and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which caused the Fall of Man.  But that notion is rejected by Hermetic literature: in CH I, such knowledge is the remedy for our fall, and in CH III, it seems that we are destined for it from the get-go.

With such knowledge of that which is Good and that which is not, it’s then incumbent on us humans—as ensouled flesh and as incarnate soul—to then “discover the arts of everything that is Good”.  Salaman translates this as “discover all the marvelous works of good men”, Copenhaver as “discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good”, Scott as “invent all manner of cunning arts”, and Dodd “discover the craft of all arts”; lots of variation here, I suppose, but in keeping with the theme of the Good here, I think we need to focus on the relationship between arts (δαιδαλουργίαν, which I translated generically as “arts” but literally meaning “skillful workings”) and the Good.  That there’s a relationship is implied given the grammatical structure of this last part of this section of  CH III, and I interpret that relationship to be that once we come to learn about the Good and how that which is Good differs from that which is not (φαύλων), we can then discard the things that are not Good so as to focus on the Good.  In so doing, we come to expand on the Good, make use of it, implement it, and propagate it; to me, these are the arts of the Good, which bring us closer to God through Wisdom.  As for what these arts are, CH III does not specify, but we can make a good guess: astrology, alchemy, theurgy, medicine, writing, theology, ethics, philosophy, religion, and the like.  All these are things that help us investigate the divinity of the Divine and the nature of Nature; all these are the studies and practices of Wisdom; all of these things reveal to us the goodness and beauty and joy of creation; all of these things bring us closer to God.

Thus the third section of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the fourth and last section, which talks about where humans go from here now that we’re here.

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

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