Hermetic Evangelism and Kerygma

No, despite the title of this post, I’m not going to go out into the world and spread the good word of Hermēs Trismegistos onto those who don’t want it.  I feel like my blog does enough of that as it is, anyway, letting the work here speak for itself; besides, I hardly feel competent enough to do so, given how much I myself have yet to learn and discover.  But that isn’t to say that there has never been evangelism (or proselytism, if you prefer to call it that) within the context of the Way of Hermēs.  Indeed, it’s absolutely present in the oldest texts we have, and the Corpus Hermeticum itself gives us two great examples of such calls to the Way.

The first example is from CH I.27—28 (Copenhaver translation here and below), the classic street-preacher scene.  This takes place immediately after Poimandrēs concludes his revelation to Hermēs, giving Hermēs the mission to go forth and “become guide to the worthy so that through [him] the human race might be saved by God”.  After this vision and revelation, Hermēs goes forth, “empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision”:

And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge: “People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.”  When they heard, they gathered round with one accord. And I said, “Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.”

The second example, which reads much like an expanded version of the former, is the entirety of CH VII, which I won’t quote in full, but it’s not a particularly long section (CH III is longer than this).  It definitely reads as a sermon of the “save yourself from hell” fire-and-brimstone type, not as a dialog or letter between teacher and student, and Copenhaver and others notes its strong similarity to and influences from Gnostic and Jewish traditions.

Me being me, I couldn’t not take these bits and come up with my own versions for recitations, much as I did with CH V to make my Praise of the Invisible and Visible God hymnCH XVII to make my Royal Praises hymns, or CH I to make my simple Hermetic prayer rule.  There’s so much devotional and pious material in the CH and other Hermetic texts to work from to make a liturgy of sorts, and the sections of CH I.27—28 and CH VII are no exception.  To that end, I took the wording from these sections of the Corpus Hermeticum, reworded and reworked them, and came up with two evangelizing sermons, as it were: the “Call to the Way” and the “Stripping of the Tunic”.

The “Call to the Way” is based on CH I.27—28.  To me, this is a short…well, call, kinda like the adhān of Islam, except less a call to prayer than a call to metanoia—though it’s usually translated as such, it’s not quite “repentance”, but more like “thinking again” or “reconsidering”, like how the historical Buddha Shakyamuni went from town to town calling out “Anyone for the other side?”.  This “Call to the Way” is very much a wake-up call to learn how and in what way we humans might be saved on the Way of Hermēs.  To my mind, this could be recited before street-preaching, to be sure, but also as the first thing to be said in a temple setting generally to get people to wake up and “think again, think anew”, preparing themselves and orienting themselves for the holy work of devotion and reverence to God.

O all you children of mankind, o all you born of the Earth, o all who you have given yourselves over to drink and sleep in your ignorance of God! Make yourselves sober, cease your drunken sickness, end your bewitchment by unreasoning sleep! Why have you given yourselves over to death, since you have the power to partake of immortality? You who have wandered with Error, you who have partnered with Ignorance: think again, think anew! Be released from the darkness, take hold of the Light, take part in divine immortality, leave behind your corrupt destruction! Do not surrender to the way of death by your mockery or distance, but come, rise, and be guided on the way of life!

Then there’s the “Stripping of the Tunic”, based on CH VII.  In the Corpus Hermeticum, this is another sermon used to get people’s attention to come to the Way and abandon the twisted, twisting wiles of the world that drown and suffocate us.  However, I took a slightly different approach with this one.  Sure, it can be used to do the same thing that the “Call to the Way” does, but to me, the “Stripping of the Tunic” is more like a formal introduction into a temple or Hermetic group, a discursive initiation of sorts by beginning the process of cleansing the soul from the torments and tortures of incarnation, one that calls the initiate to a purpose.  This is especially important with the image of the “House of Knowledge”, which can be considered a sort of Hermetic rephrasing on the Egyptian “House of Life” (per ankh), the usual term for a temple that also doubled as a library, because…well, as the Hermetic tests attest, true knowledge is true Life.  Although others have tried to expand on the Egyptian temple imagery and how temples would be constructed so that sunlight would fall on the statues of the gods, Nock notes that “it is unnecessary to press the analogy with the Egyptian sanctuaries”.

Hear me, o child of mankind! Where are you going?
Sick and vomiting up the pure ignorance you swallow as you are,
which even you see and know that you cannot keep down!
Stop your drunken sickness! Stop your drinking! Stand firm! Be sober!
Look upwards with the eyes of the heart, if you can!

Do not drown in the flood of ignorance that floods this world,
which destroys the soul shut up in the body,
which keeps the soul from sailing to a safe harbor,
but ride the tide, ride the ebb, ride the flow,
and bring your ship to this safe harbor,
and be guided by the hand to the door of the House of Knowledge!
Here is the bright light clear of all darkness,
here is where nobody is drunk but all are sober,
here is where all gaze with the heart towards God,
the One who wishes to be heard and uttered and seen,
who is neither heard with the ears nor uttered with the mouth nor seen with the eyes,
but is heard in silence, uttered without words, and seen with the mind and the heart.

So you can enter the House of Knowledge,
you must be freed from the snare of the body,
this hateful tunic you wear that strangles you and drags you down,
which makes you so that you will not hate its viciousness,
so that you will not look up lest you see the beauty of Truth and the Good that abides within,
so that you will not understand its treachery and hate the evil of what it plots against you.
Your senses of sensibility have been made insensible, unapparent, and unrecognized,
so stuffed with gross matter and crammed with loathsome debauchery,
so that you do not hear what and how you must hear,
so that you do not utter what and how you must utter,
so that you do not see what and how you must see.

So you may enter the House of Knowledge,
rip off from yourself your tunic of hate!
Free yourself from your garment of ignorance!
Release yourself from your base of vice!
Unbind yourself from your bond of corruption!
Liberate yourself from cage of darkness,
that God may renew you from your living death,
that God may quicken for you your sentient corpse,
that God may open up for you your portable tomb,
that God may protect for you your house from the thief within it,
the tormenting one who grudgingly hates what you love,
the torturing one who maliciously loves what you hate.

While pretty pieces of prayer, if I do say so myself, why should Hermēs Trismegistos be an evangelist at all?  Because, frankly, Poimandrēs charged him with being one.  At the end of Poimandrēs’ revelation to Hermēs in CH I.26—27, he concludes his speech with the following charge:

“…This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god. Why do you still delay? Having learned all this, should you not become guide to the worthy so that through you the human race might be saved by god?”

As he was saying this to me, Poimandrēs joined with the powers. Then he sent me forth, empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision, after I had given thanks to the father of all and praised him. And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge…

C. H. Dodd in his The Bible and the Greeks (1935) calls this and the following parts of CH I the Kerygma (κήρυγμα), a fantastic Greek word from the New Testament meaning “proclamation”, from the Greek word κηρύσσω “to cry/proclaim as a herald”, used here in the sense of preaching, which fits rather well with the whole image of Hermēs as not just teacher but also as herald (we shouldn’t forget that the Greek term for his wand is κηρύκειον, kērukeion, from the same root, which became in Latin “caduceus”).  But why should Hermēs be charged with this sort of proclamation, heralding, announcing of the “gospel”, as it were, of Poimandrēs?  Well, there is the simple historical fact that the revelation of wisdom of this sort just went hand-in-hand with such evangelism, because it was inherently considered a “way of life” or “way of God”, both in Jewish as well as Egyptian literature.  As Christian Bull in his The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (2018) notes, the notion of such a “way” necessitates a guide, without which one becomes lost; after all, it does follow that one who has walked the way, knows the road, and is familiar with the destination is one we should trust to follow, rather than trying to forge a way on our own blindly and only happening to come across the right way to the right destination, the “way of life” otherwise erring back to the “way of death” (Hermēs’ words from CH I.29).

Admittedly, this proclamation is not meant for all people; there is no notion of universal salvation as such in classical Hermetism.  Not all people will hearken to the message of Hermēs, nor will all people have the strength of heart necessary to be reborn in Mind (CH IV.4).  Yet, Poimandrēs charges Hermēs to become a guide to the worthy so that, through Hermēs, “the human race might be saved by God”.  Bull notes that this can be interpreted in several ways: that the human race only properly consists of a worthy few who can become true humans while the rest are no more than savage animals in human flesh, that all humankind will at some stage become worthy, or that the worthy few who can follow the way will somehow save the many (and Bull notes that “this latter option is preferable if we view the passage as taking place in the time when the brutish Bronze Age humans were being civilized”).  Bull also notes that “that the human race is saved by God, through Hermēs, should consequently not be understood as a message of universal salvation in a Christian sense, but indicates that Hermēs and his fellow culture heroes are considered to be saviors because they made civilized life possible” (consider also CH III, where humanity was charged with not just learning about the cosmos but also “to discover the arts of everything that is Good”).  Regardless how one perceives the notion of salvation and who’s eligible, Hermēs is still bound by obligation to guide and save those whom he can.  After all, once learning about truth, as Poimandrēs revealed to Hermēs, one cannot but be compelled to act in accordance with such truth, lest one deny such truth and fall into error because of it.  After all, having been freed from the suffering of the soul and the suffering of the body (insofar as it is possible), how could one not want others who can achieve that to do so?  In some ways, the parallels between Hermēs Trismegistus and Buddha Shakyamuni, at least as far as salvific impetus, are strong here.

In the end, there’s this notion of “having been taught, now teach”; Hermēs has learned, and now he seeks for others to learn what he himself has learned.  Part of that learning—and then applying such learning—is pointing out the problems people have and recognizing it as a problem, without which one cannot begin to fix it.  Not everyone is going to recognize those problems, whether because they honestly cannot recognize them or because they’re unwilling to do so; those people are not those whom Hermēs can help by being guide.  He doesn’t necessarily seek to convince people of the rightness of his teachings from the get-go, except by trying to convince people that they have biger problems than they might realize; he focuses more on saying “I have a way for you to fix your problems, follow me if you want to fix them”.  Following Hermēs, then, not only leads one to the “House of Knowledge” where “shines the light cleansed of darkness”, but also leads one to lead others to the same.  At some point, once one has gotten far enough along the Way of Hermēs to become familiar with both it and the destination, to become a guide is as much part of the Way as anything else; after all, “having been taught, now teach”.  The Way goes ever on and on, to be sure, and not everyone is going to be a guide in the same ways to the same people, but there are always waystations to give us rest and give us a chance to hand followers off to others who know the next stage of the way better than we do, or to give us a chance to find a guide for the next stage of the way ourselves.

I suppose “evangelism” isn’t a great term to use for this; I was unfamiliar with “kerygma” up until now, but it’s a term I like much better.  I feel like there’s a deeper difference between the usual evangelism common with Christian preachers and the like and what Hermēs is doing here; to be sure, the salvific spirit is the same, but Hermēs isn’t trying to establish doctrine and convince people of the truth from the get-go.  Rather, Hermēs is announcing something new, a new way: a way to salvation, a way of life, a way to God.  The destination is known up-front, as is one’s starting point, but how one progresses from point A to point B might change depending on the person.  This may well be the case for lots of religious paths, let’s be honest, but it’s especially present in the Way of Hermēs.  No two people will necessarily follow the same steps, but under one guide who knows not just the detours but also the contingency plans in case one should stumble or get lost.  This is Hermēs saying “follow me, for I know the way”, not “follow me, for I am the way”; the difference there is massive.  This is Hermēs the Human guiding one to God; while Hermēs is, at the same time, a god, the focus of what Hermēs himself learned and taught is on the God.  Learning of himself—that classic maxim of γνῶθι σεαυτόν come to life—is just part of the overall impetus for him to learn “about the things that are, to understand their nature, and to know God” (CH I.3).  Rather than seeking veneration and worship for himself, Hermēs seeks for others to venerate and worship that which should truly be worshiped.  After all, the guide is not the destination.

6 responses

  1. Neat post!

    Quick Question: What would you recommend someone check out if they wanted to get into practical Hermeticism? And is there anything on polytheistic takes on Hermeticism? Thanks so much for your time!

    • Thank you!

      I’m not sure what you mean by “practical Hermeticism”. Sure, I know that the Corpus Hermeticum and similar texts are sometimes called “philosophical Hermetica” as opposed to the “practical Hermetica” consisting of astrological, alchemical, botanical, and magical texts, but frankly, I find them all practical and useful for the same ends; they all go hand-in-hand, and you can’t really have one without the other. So, what specifically are you looking for?

      As for “polytheistic takes on Hermeticism”, I don’t recall much in the sense of anything academic discussing the topic. But I did get into this discussion with several of my friends not too long ago on Twitter, how Hermeticism can be both monotheistic as well as polytheistic, depending on your perspective. It cannot be denied that there is the One, the Good which is what Hermēs teaches devotion, reverence, and worship to; that much is clear, and this smacks of monotheism. And there’s also CH XVII and the Asclepius that teach and instruct the same for the gods in the temples, ensouled in statues; that much is also clear. You can take either approach, frankly: either a monotheistic approach that recognizes one God with other powers one can interact with yet does not call gods, or a polytheistic hierarchical approach with one God above the other gods whom the gods themselves worship. (This notion of “gods worshiping gods” is not one strange to Hermeticism, as we see this phrase and notion used in the contemporary PGM texts, too). In the end, while one could argue for a henotheist or even megatheist notion of what Hermeticism is, it’s arguably better to just do away with the -isms and -ists entirely and just devote focus in Hermeticism to eusebeia, or “reverence” and “piety” more generally. Whether you approach God directly or whether you approach God indirectly through the other gods, keeping in mind the proper role and place of each entity within creation, the end result is the same.

      • Thanks for replying.

        What I meant by practical was basically the actual practice of engaging with Hermeticism so I guess those magical texts would be of interest to me. I’ve started reading the Corpus Hermeticum but I wasn’t sure if there was other stuff out there that would talk about practice as opposed to philosophy (though obviously both are important as you said)

        • Unfortunately, unless you know Koiné Greek or Sahidic Coptic and have access to a good number of manuscripts and other academic resources, many of us are at a loss with many of the “practical Hermetica”, which have been documented but rarely published as much of academia still pooh-poohs on magical and alchemical texts. There are some translations of some texts, but among the best starting points would be the Greek Magical Papyri (see Betz) along with the Coptic Magical Papyri (see “Ancient Christian Magic” by Meyer) for a good magical starting point, along with the Nag Hammadi texts for the Hermetica within (most notably the “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”). Picking up Chris Brennan’s “Hellenistic Astrology” would also be a great starting point for learning the astrology of the times, too.

  2. Pingback: The Mixing-Bowl of Mind « The Digital Ambler

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