On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Summary

One of my favorite texts from the classical canon of philosophical Hermetic literature is that of the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), titled the Ἑρμοῦ Λόγος Ἱερός, or “The Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”. It’s a short text, certainly obscure and corrupt at parts whether by degeneration of the medium or by the degeneration of the language of the original author, and nobody seems particularly sure of its actual origins, but the meaning of is is fairly clear and straightforward: this is a guide of how to live life properly in a Hermetic sense, perhaps even proto-Hermetic when allowing for its Jewish and Stoic influences heavier here than in other parts of Hermetic literature. Not content with existing translations of it, I decided to translate it myself from the original Greek (my first major translation work for the language!) and dig in deep into what it’s actually saying. That’s been the major goal of these past few weeks of posts, and I hope I’ve done just that, or at least started the process of a deeper exegesis and meditation on the text for myself and others. I know that one go-through is not enough for something like this—let’s be honest, none of the Hermetic texts are—but at least, with a better understanding of the specific language used in CH III, I can get a better foothold and grasp of the text more than I could otherwise. In this, I dedicate this whole little project of mine to Hermēs himself, a humble honoring of Hermetic hermeneutics that he might open the door to his mysteries for all those who knock.

In addition to an unofficial prologue post I made some time ago, which in some ways anticipated this series of posts, we covered the following:

  1. Translation of the text from Greek along with my own notes and commentary
  2. Contextualization and similarities with other Hermetic texts
  3. Interpretation on the first section of CH III
  4. Interpretation on the second section of CH III
  5. Interpretation on the third section of CH III
  6. Interpretation on the fourth section of CH III

So, what did we learn about this text?

  • CH III is a short text that seems to be among the earliest written of Hermetic literature, and may well be proto-Hermetic in a sense. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but sometime between 100 bce and 100 ce appears to be a safe bet.
  • CH III shows heavy influence from both Jewish wisdom literature, especially the earlier such texts like the Book of Sirach, as well as from Stoic philosophy. Although Hermetic philosophy is, especially in its later and post-classical forms, considered to be largely (Neo-)Platonic, it has deep Stoic roots as well, which show abundantly in this text.
  • Based on the text, the author of CH III was either an Egyptian pagan influenced heavily by Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish belief, or was a heterodox Hellenized Jew from Egypt. In either case, Greek does not appear to be the author’s first language, which has complicated the translation at times.
  • CH III bears much in common with Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I, “The Divine Poimandrēs”) in terms of cosmogony, cosmology, and doctrine, as well as its own linguistics; neither book bears an explicit reference to Hermēs, either, for that matter. Both of these texts appear to be heavily influenced by the Greek Septuagint, and both bear significant resemblance to the Book of Genesis, though both also have differences with the Biblical account of creation as well as with themselves. Although it is unlikely that either CH I or CH III were based on the other, both seem to be based on the same texts and use the same unusual phrasing that mark them as unique among the rest of Hermetic literature.
  • Even if CH III is not fully “Hermetic” in its doctrines or views, whether due to implied or explicit statements on such, later Hermetic compilers reasonably included this text since it either conforms to and resonates well with the rest of Hermetic literature or can easily be interpreted to read as a properly Hermetic text.

The biggest commentators (at least, to my own knowledge, there may well be others!) on CH III are W. Scott (volume 1, volume 2) and C. H. Dodd, who both translated the text in the first part of the 20th century and offered their own thoughts on it. Although both wrote before A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière who published the current de facto authoritative version of the Greek Hermetica along with their own translation, to which are indebted especially Brian Copenhaver and Clement Salaman et al., their insights are invaluable for understanding this and much of the rest of Hermetic literature. My own translation differs from theirs, partly due to my grammatical analysis and surely due to my experience, but I feel like I’ve been able to build on the translations and insights of those who have gone before me to produce a new take on CH III as well.

The original Greek of the text, based on that of Nock and Festugière, reads as such:

δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία.

ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν.

ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις.

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.

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.

ἄρχεται αὐτῶν βιῶσαὶ τε καὶ σοφισθῆναι πρὸς μοῖραν δρομήματος κυκλίων θεῶν, καὶ ἀναλυθῆναι εἰς δ’ ἔσται μεγάλα ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καταλιπόντες † ἐν ὀνόματι χρόνων ἀμαύρωσιν καὶ πᾶσαν γένεσιν ἐμψύχου σαρκὸς καὶ καρποῦ σπορᾶς καὶ πάσης τεχνουργίας † τὰ ἐλαττούμενα ἀνανεωθήσεται ἀνάγκῃ καὶ ἀνανεώσει θεῶν καὶ φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι.

τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεοθμένη. ἐν γὰρ τῷ θεῖῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν.

And my own translation as such:

[The] glory of all things is the God,
[who is both] [the] Divine and divine Nature.

[The] beginning of that which exists is the God,
[who is thus of] Mind, Nature, and Matter,
being Wisdom for [the] making known of the All.

[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine,
[which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, End, and Renewal.

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.

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

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans
[for that they might have] management of all things under Heaven,
and recognition of that which is Good
so as to grow in growth and multiply in multitude.

And, 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,
[observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
[observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
[observance] of [the] working of Nature
for [that they might have] examination of that which is Good and knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power
[for the gods made them so as] to
come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

So, in that light, how might we summarize the content and meaning of CH III? Excluding the more commonplace parts of the cosmogony and cosmology that we otherwise find in CH I and other philosophical texts:

  • God is certainly present in creation, both in the immaterial Divine and in material Nature.
  • The Divine is renewed and formed from Nature, and Nature is both found and founded in the Divine.
  • The cosmos is created and constantly recreated through both the works of the divine and the working of Nature.
  • God is the beginning of all things that exist and subsist.
  • God is Wisdom itself, so that all things can be known.
  • Spirit is the sustaining and ordering force that underlies creation, maintaining its structure as well as its constant motion.
  • Spirit is what enables things to live, as well as that which enables things to know God.
  • The heavens contain the gods, which are astral in nature, both the wandering planets and the fixed stars in their own heavens.
  • God created the gods, and the gods created and continue to create life on Earth by the will of God.
  • All that which is born, lives, and dies on Earth is subject to the influence of Fate, but Fate also makes it so that whatever dies or passes away is regenerated through renewal and rebirth of a new generation of its kind.
  • Humans are made to take rulership and stewardship over all the things under Heaven and to recognize that which is Good so that they might reproduce and ensure the survival and well-being of future generations that come after them.
  • Humans are made as souls in flesh to know the works/action of the Divine and the working/activity of Nature.
  • In knowing the Divine and Nature, humanity comes to obtain Wisdom, which is how they know God.
  • In obtaining Wisdom, humanity comes to learn that which is Good and that which is not, which allows them to explore and excel at all the arts and crafts of the Good, which make life better and worth living for us, for those around us, and for those who come after us.
  • Coming to know that which is Good comes from observing the heavens, what occurs within them, and how those events occur, which informs our understanding of life and events on Earth.
  • All things that are born will die and all that is built will dissolve in time, and which will be renewed by the workings of Nature through the works of the astral gods and as determined by Necessity.

That said, CH III is not without its controversy, it’d seem, at least as far as the differences I draw in interpreting CH III compared to Scott or Dodd. One can interpret CH III in a fatalist, purely Stoic and old-school Jewish sense where there is neither reincarnation nor ascent nor salvation of the soul and that God is only immanent within creation without being transcendent of it, but that comes about as a sola scriptura viewpoint that takes CH III’s silence on the subject as a repudiation of it. CH III might also be interpreted as a representation of life as it already exists for us, a narrative that begins within creation as opposed to outside it as CH I does, and does not mention though could be thought of as referring to or implying other doctrines. In this, CH III is indeed a “hymn in prose” per Nock and Festugière, and “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe” per Scott. Whether it is meant to be a compilation of doctrine regarding the soul or an abbreviated prose-hymn that only gives the highest and most important points to bear in mind, whether it is a deep reflection for the advanced students of the Way of Hermēs or something to open up the minds of those who hear his call for the first time, the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus” is a compact and deceptively simple piece of Hermetic literature that bears much to meditate and contemplate, especially insofar as it instructs us as to the proper way of human life.

Knowing the Hermetic fondness for gnomic aphorisms of wisdom (a.k.a. κεφὰλαια, as noted before), we might consider the whole of CH III to be a series of such kephalaic statements that summarize Hermetic doctrine as a whole, eliding out what could be explained or meditated on later to concentrate on the outline of the whole of Hermetic philosophy and doctrine.  In this, I see a parallel to how succinct yet meaningful CH III could be compared to the Heart Sutra of Buddhism, which is meaningful enough on its own but which itself is a condensation to mere groups and lists of concepts that bear much to be explained and meditated on (as attested by how many links I had to throw into the translation of it on that old post of mine).  It may well be that CH III originated as a Judaeo-Stoic text which was then later adopted by the early Hermetic philosophers in a different light, but so much of it could be explained through textual parallels and references in the rest of the Hermetic canon that it still fits neatly and nicely; after all, given CH III’s (likely) early date of composition, it likely influenced later Hermetic thought, potentially in profound ways, the texts of which would then necessarily have roots in CH III.  This book of the Corpus Hermeticum, as I noted in my quasi-prologue to this series, is much akin to a “first sermon” of sorts, something that introduces a simple (proto-)Hermetic worldview for those seeking guidance to hearken to, for students to begin meditating on, and for teachers to begin expounding more deeply.  Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and CH III is short indeed.

There’s also one other thing I wanted to touch on, too, that didn’t fit anywhere else. The language and symbolism of CH III is heavily indebted to the Septuagint, that much is sure, but there are two symbols that crop up time and again in the way CH III is written: that of the seed and that of the wheel. There’s much to be said about the seed that contains within itself a seed, the seed of rebirth itself, and how the gods “cast the seeds that seed themselves” for humanity, and how the heavens effect changes on Earth through their “portent-sowing” or “sign-seeding” actions; this, bearing in mind that humanity is to take mastery and stewardship over the creation that we find ourselves in, suggests a tender cultivation of the world outside and the world within, always cultivating from seed that which is Good and planting the seed for that which is Good to come for those after us. There’s also the notion of the wheel, from the cyclic motions of the astral gods to the “measured measuring wheel of Nature”, and even the structure of CH III ends where it began in emphasizing that the Divine and Nature are equal and are both God. In this, we can get a notion for the celestial Plough, another image for the constellation of Ursa Maior, always rotating in a wheel around the ever-fixed North Star. Remembering that Polaris is the symbol of immortality for the ancient Egyptians, and how this very star acts as a gate to immortality and divinity in various parts of the Greek Magical Papyri, we can think of CH III as a simple reminder to tend to our lives and our world, for in so doing, even when all that we are and all that we do passes away from the world, the work we have accomplished takes place as part of the working of Nature itself, and is thus part of the works of the Divine. In this, in one sense or another, we achieve true wisdom and, thus, immortality and divinity.

Now, of course, I should reiterate that I’m barely an amateur at translating Greek, and by my own admission, my actual philosophical background is relative crap compared to many of the other professional academics, translators, and scholars of texts like this out there.  There are certainly other, and likely better, ways to approach this text, as there are for all the Hermetic texts we have available to us in our time; case in point, I recently was introduced to the works of Christian Wildberg, who wrote a paper regarding CH III and provided his own translation which is based on a theory that considers chunks of CH III to originally be marginalia written in by a later redactor familiar with Genesis that were eventually reincorporated into the text proper.  As a result, his translation (in the last few pages of that paper) gives a translation in two columns, the original text on one side with hypothesized marginalia on the other.  There’s always more to consider along these lines, and what I did in this little series is just one small dish among many other and bigger buffets of philosophy and philology.

I hope this little journey into the Hermetica was fun and informative, dear reader, and I hope you’re as inspired as I am to engage with both this text and other members of the Hermetic canon on a deeper level, whether for the first time or anew!

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