On Gender in Hermeticism: Excerpts and Commentary

One of the most valuable resources for the study of the classical Hermetic texts we have available to us is that of Walter Scott’s four volume series Hermetica.  Publishing the first volume in 1924 with two volumes of commentary in 1926 and a posthumous publication of the last in 1936, Scott’s work was monumental in getting a better understanding of the various Greek and Latin texts of classical Hermeticism, offering deep linguistic, philosophical, and contextual analysis along with conjectures of corrections, dating, and the like for when, how, and by whom these texts were written.  Of course, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its problems; Scott’s version of the texts is…problematic at points, and Copenhaver notes in his introduction to his own Hermetica that:

Reitzenstein had published another Greek text of C .H. I in his 1926 Studies, prefacing it with the comment that “in my notes I can use the new edition of the Corpus by Walter Scott…but for my text I can take nothing from it.  Whether the long commentary that is promised can even partially justify the completely reckless arrangement of the text remains to be seen.”  At this point, Reitzenstein had seen only the first volume (1924) of Scott’s Hermetica, which contains an introduction, the texts and the translations.  Two thick volumes of commentary followed in 1926, but Scott’s death in the previous year delayed publication of the fourth volume of testimonia and indices until 1936, when it appeared with extensive additions by A.S. Ferguson.  Scholars have generally confirmed Reitzenstein’s harsh verdict on the text, which is a jungle of excisions, interpolations and transpositions so distantly related to the manuscripts that Scott’s translation can only be regarded as a translation of Scott, not of the Hermetic authors.  Apart from the text and translation, however, Scott’s volumes remain indispensable, and some of his textual insights were brilliantly right, others brilliantly wrong.  His commentary is copious and learned, and his collection of testimonies an invaluable resource.

Scott’s four volumes are still in print, but his translation is unreliable because it reflects his idiosyncratic text. For readers of French and, obviously, for those who can handle the Greek and Latin, the Budé edition of Nock with Festugiere’s translation remains indispensable, even though knowledge of the text and its cultural context has progressed in the last several decades. Anyone who intends to spend a long time with the Hermetica should certainly get to know both the Budé and Scott, even though neither is particularly accessible to a wide readership.

Likewise, Salaman notes in his Way of Hermes:

Early in the twentieth century new academic interest in ancient religion brought about the edition and translation of Walter Scott (1924—1936), based on his heavily altered text.

Scott’s works are…well, to call them a “translation” isn’t quite true, because Scott took what manuscripts and copies of the Greek and Latin that he had available to him and tried to patch them up, sometimes even going to so far as to “edit them with a free hand” (as in his work on CH III).  For this reason, it’s not great to rely on Scott for an accurate translation of the Hermetic texts, at least as far as the Greek is concerned, and as a result, his commentary on them can also be suspect at times, because he used his own works as the basis for his commentary on the Hermetic texts.  Still, as Copenhaver notes, a study of Scott really is great for Hermetic studies in general, given enough insight and discernment to figure out when and where Scott is right or wrong.

I recently found copies of all four volumes (though I really only needed the fourth, the first three being available online since the original books are old enough to be in the public domain, but I like having complete sets of everything).  I wanted that fourth volume which has information on other testimonia and texts that aren’t part of the Corpus HermeticumAsclepius, or Stobaean Fragments, and I had intended to get that book so as to do research for an entirely different topic (how rebirth and reincarnation happen in the classical Hermetic worldview).  That was going to be the topic for my next post, and I’ll get around to it eventually, but several threads that came up recently on /r/Hermeticism have led me to think that there’s another topic better for discussion right now: the role of gender and sex in Hermeticism.  Happily, the digital versions of Scott’s first three volumes I already have come in good use for this, as well as the commentary of plenty of other scholars and academics on the topic throwing in plenty of contemporary evidence about what to say and believe about this.

Largely, this topic only comes up due to the farce that is the Kybalion, and specifically one of its “seven Hermetic principles”, the so-called “law of gender” (which is just so much a specialization of another “principle”, that of polarity).  I’ve already considered this “principle” years back when I considered the Kybalion as having any substantial worth, but there’s really no great answer to that topic besides saying that this is just so much a bad cis take on gender originating from Victorian-era spirituality.  At this point, I’m not going to bring that up any further; I don’t see any value in wasting more breath, ink, or keystrokes on the Kybalion than has already been wasted.  Rather, I’d like to focus on what the classical Hermetic texts actually have to say about gender, sex, sexuality, and the like rather than any more New Age tripe.

TL;DR: it’s not a whole lot, and it’s a lot less meaningful than what some people would have you believe.

Let’s focus first on what instances of “male”, “female”, “gender”, or “sex” we can find in the classical Hermetic corpora.  For these excerpts, I’ll be using the translations of Copenhaver for the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and the Asclepius (AH), Litwa for the Fragments (SH, VH, OH, and FH), and Salaman/Mahé for the Definitions (DH).  The bulk of these references come about in CH I, which gives us among the most complete account of the creation of the cosmos and human life in Hermetic literature, as well as being the text that provides the foundation for the very notion of a literary Hermetic tradition.  This is going to be a long post, but I wanted to get the raw data here with some minimal commentary for us to synthesize later; what follows is basically all there is when it comes to gender and sex in the classical Hermetic texts.  You may already pick up on certain patterns and themes with these, but we can flesh and figure them out tomorrow when I post my thoughts that synthesize and build on these.

CH I.9:

The mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as life and light, by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman, who, as god of fire and spirit, crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate.

The first instance we have of any referent to gender is that God is androgyne, literally meaning “having both male and female characteristics”.  God is neither male nor female yet can be considered to be both.  However, given how gender in the modern sense wasn’t really considered apart from sex which is a physical characteristic, and given how God is not physical, to consider God as having masculine and feminine traits in terms of genitalia or appearances would be misleading.  In this sense, a classical sense of androgyny would be better to say that an androgynous being transcends gender and is beyond being male or female; even if the very word “androgyne” suggests a binary (literally the word comes from the Greek roots “man” + “woman”), this was how various ancient cultures connoted something that was neither, both, or something else entirely than just being male or female.  Note how this reference to the androgyny of God is in the context of God creating another entity.

CH I.12:

Mind, the father of all, who is life and light, gave birth to a man like himself whom he loved as his own child. The man was most fair: he had the father’s image; and god, who was really in love with his own form, bestowed on him all his craftworks.

Although this section doesn’t have an explicit reference to gender, it’s important to note all the same.  Man (being used in the sense of “the essential human”, not with connotations of “man” as opposed to “woman” here) is made in the image of God, since God made the essential human to be “like himself” whom God loved “as his own child”.  Because God is androgynous, that means that the essential human is, too, being either composed of both male and female characteristics (which, I should note, since the human body or biological life has not yet been created, wouldn’t make sense here) or transcending gender entirely.  Ignore the use of gendered pronouns here, as they reflect the gendered pronouns and grammar of the Greek language (being an Indo-European one); likewise, to distinguish “father” as indicating the same thing as what we would a biological father doesn’t make sense, either, because you cannot be a father without also a mother, so the use of the word “father” here should be interpreted metaphorically instead of literally as being an all-nurturing parent.

CH I.15:

[The essential human] is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. (Yet love and sleep are his) masters.

This is what the previous reference backs up: the essential human is androgyne because the One who created us in their image (i.e. God) is androgyne, and we take on those same characteristics.

CH I.16:

Poimandrēs said: “This is the mystery that has been kept hidden until this very day. When nature made love with the man, she bore a wonder most wondrous. In him he had the nature of the cosmic framework of the seven, who are made of fire and spirit, as I told you, and without delay nature at once gave birth to seven men, androgyne and exalted, whose natures were like those of the seven governors…”

Poimandrēs is telling Hermēs here in the context of this revelation about the creation of human life, the essential human incarnated into flesh after the essential human fell down to meet Nature and embraced it.  In this, Nature created bodies that mimicked the essential human as best as Nature could, resulting in material androgyne bodies for immaterial androgyne entities.  With this, we have the first notion of sacred sexuality, with the essential human (Anthrōpos) being the “father” and Nature (Physis) being the “mother”; although neither are explicitly described in such terms here, the act of Anthropos “embracing” and “making love” with Physis is obviously a sexual metaphor, along with Physis “giving birth” to the original seven androgyne humans.  Note how all of this takes place within the context of creation, just as the first reference to God’s androgyny is when God makes the Demiurge.

CH I.17:

As I said, then, the birth of the seven was as follows. (Earth) was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.

This section, following almost immediately after the previous one, describes the composition of the first seven androgynous humans from material (elemental) and immaterial (noetic and psychic) natures.  This wouldn’t be particularly interesting, except that it describes Earth (conjectured from several manuscripts at this point) as being “the female”.  This, in light of the roles of the other three elements, can be confusing, so perhaps it’s better to re-understand this section as saying:

  • Earth, which “was the female”, would be seen as being the matrix and material foundation that provides the “womb” for things to grow in.  After all, we plant seeds in the Earth for them to grow, which takes nutrients from the Earth without it remaining more Earth.
  • Water, which “did the fertilizing”, would be seen either as the inseminating force or as the means by which Earth can be made capable of supporting and growing life.  After all, fertilization doesn’t plant seeds, but it prepares the Earth to have enough nutrients for seeds to actually take root and shoot.
  • Fire, which “was the maturing force”, would be seen as the energy that causes things to grow, the activity of growth itself.  Without Fire, the seed wouldn’t activate, but would instead remain in stasis.
  • Air/Spirit, which was taken by Nature from the aithēr (i.e. the pure bright air above the Earth), which gives actual physical, biological life to the bodies, being the medium by which breath (the symbol and mechanism of life) manifests and operates.

In this light, to say that the Earth was “female” doesn’t mean everything else is male; after all, all of this takes place as functions of Physis, who is overall described as being the “woman” to the “man” of Anthropos.  Physis provides the matrix, matter, and manifestation for human bodies; the only thing that Physis would need, to use the metaphor of sexual procreation, is insemination from Anthrōpos, which is provided in terms of “soul and mind” (psukhē and nous), themselves descending from “life and light” (zōē and phōs); remember that “life and light” is the identification of God from CH I.9 above, linking the biological human as being descended from God, being God’s “grandchild”.  Again, all of this is in terms of generation and creation and, increasingly, procreation.  However, since breath is so closely tied to life, it’s important to recognize the subtlety of the role of air/spirit here: it was taken “from the aithēr”, which is the realm of the gods and, thus, of souls.  The life-breath is intimately tied to the notion of semen (a metaphorical reading of “Nature took spirit from the aithēr” meaning “Nature became inseminated by Anthrōpos descending on her from the aithēr”).

CH I.18:

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.”

Although we’ve seen metaphorical references to things being male and female before, like Anthrōpos with Physis, this is the first time we see actual biological sex arise—and that only after the end of an androgyne age described in the preceding CH I.17.  Now, in this new age of CH I.18, God splits human life—and, for that matter, all animal life, which had not been explicitly described before but is now included here—into being male and female.  This rings a lot like Aristophanēs’ bit in Plato’s Symposium which describes a myth of three sexes of two-bodied people (the solar male-male, the earthy female-female, the lunar male-female) which were later split by Zeus into being two separate people, people nowadays always looking for their other half to recover their primordial nature, with the solar sex manifesting as gay men, the earthy sex manifesting as lesbian women, and the lunar sex manifesting as heterosexual male-female couples.  The difference here between Poimandrēs and Aristophanēs is that Poimandrēs is describing this sundering of androgyne humans for the sheer and only purpose of procreation (“increase and increasing and multiply in multitude”), while Aristophanēs describes the sundering as a punishment which we’re trying to undo to recover our true selves.  Focusing on Poimandrēs again, seeing how distinct sex only arose with this sundering to be immediately qualified by an injunction to procreate, it would seem that the only purpose of being sexually differentiated is for this purpose: to continue the process of life through sexual reproduction.

CH II.17:

God’s other name is “father” because he is capable of making all things. Making is characteristic of a father. Prudent people therefore regard the making of children as a duty in life to be taken most seriously and greatly revered, and should any human being pass away childless, they see it as the worst misfortune and irreverence. After death such a person suffers retribution from demons. This is his punishment: the soul of the childless one is sentenced to a body that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s—a thing accursed under the sun. Most assuredly then, Asclepius, you should never congratulate a childless person. On the contrary, show pity for his calamity, knowing what punishment awaits him.

Moving to Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, we see this odd cautionary warning towards the end.  This is a problematic one for many people nowadays, and I’ve discussed it before both on the Hermetic Agora Discord as well as in threads on /r/Hermeticism before, but putting aside how one might interpret this from a moral or ethical standpoint, let’s focus on the mention of gender here.  What Hermēs is cautioning Asklēpios about is that those who, while living, do not have children before they die are condemned to being reborn in another life where their body “that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s”, which is described as being “a thing accursed under the sun”.  This is a pretty dire warning, especially given the solar characteristics of Hermeticism generally and how much devotion and worship is given to the Sun as a deity in its own right, but it’s also weird because “neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s” could be said to be the definition of “androgyne”, which is what God, the essential human, and the primordial humans were described as being in CH I.  Given how we, as human beings, are made in God’s image with all the capabilities of the Demiurge, our job and nature is to be a creator—a “father” in these terms, capable of making things.  The warning here is basically “use it or lose it”, saying that we need to exercise our capacity for creation (and, thus, procreation) lest we lose it, and this is not something we want to lose, because to not create (or, in sexual terms, procreate) is a failing of our very nature and a failing of the injunction of God to humanity from CH I.18.  This sort of warning, of course, doesn’t take into account plenty of issues arising with having children (matters of infertility or sterility, having the means or resources to raise children, etc.), and it’s my hunch that this warning is more of maintaining a cultural more rather than anything truly divine (though, of course, life should have a vested interest in seeing more life happen).

CH XIII.1—2:

“I do not know what sort of womb mankind was born from, o Trismegistos, nor from what kind of seed.”

“My child, (the womb) is the wisdom of understanding in silence, and the seed is the true good.”

“Who sows the seed, father? I am entirely at a loss.”

“The will of god, my child.”

“And whence comes the begotten, father? He does not share in my essence [ ].”

“The begotten will be of a different kind, a god and a child of god, the all in all, composed entirely of the powers.”

This is part of a dialog between Tat and Hermēs, shortly before Hermēs’ purification of Tat from the twelve tormentors and Tat’s reception of the ten mercies of God which facilitate Tat’s rebirth.  I included this bit because of the reference to sacred sexuality and sexual metaphorical language in terms of spiritual rebirth; there are a handful of other references to “wombs” in the CH, but nothing meaningful for our discussion here.  This is all metaphor for spiritual rebirth, what Hermēs later describes as being “born in mind” (CH XIII.3).

AH 21:

“Do you say that god is of both sexes, Trismegistos?”

“Not only god, Asklēpios, but all things ensouled and soulless, for it is impossible for any of the things that are to be infertile. Take away fertility from all the things that now exist, and it will be impossible for them to be forever. I say {that sensation and growth are also in the nature of things, that the world} contains growth within it and preserves all that have come to be. For each sex is full of fecundity, and the linking of the two or, more accurately, their union is incomprehensible. If you call it Cupid or Venus or both, you will be correct.

“Grasp this in your mind as truer and plainer than anything else: that god, this master of the whole of nature, devised and granted to all things this mystery of procreation unto eternity, in which arose the greatest affection, pleasure, gaiety, desire and love divine. One should explain how great is the force and compulsion of this mystery, were it not that each individual already knows from contemplation and inward consciousness. For if you take note of that final moment to which we come after constant rubbing when each of the two natures pours its issue into the other and one hungrily snatches (love) from the other and buries it deeper, finally at that moment from the common coupling females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females. Therefore, the act of this mystery, so sweet and vital, is done in secret so that the divinity that arises in both natures from the sexual coupling should not be forced to feel the shame that would come from the laughter of the ignorant if it happened in public or, much worse, if it were open to the sight of irreverent people.”

The Asclepius has this section that builds on previous ones about how things come to be, and this specific section gives us one of the most informative views from classical Hermetic literature of what it means to be biologically male or female.  Hermēs reaffirms here that God is androgyne, specifically that God is of both sexes (which makes it harder to think of androgyny as transcending gender or being without gender)—but also that all things are androgyne in the same way God is androgyne, because fertility is androgyne and nothing that exists can be infertile.  That which is male and that which is female are both equally “full of fecundity”, and it’s the combination of their separate fecundities that results in procreation.  There’s a bit of moralizing here in how Hermēs describes sex being “done in secret”, but it’s the bit about how “females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females” that gives us the first real distinction of what male and female means.  The problem here is that this is from the Latin version of the Asclepius, while the Coptic version from the Nag Hammadi Hermetica has a slightly different phrasing (using the translation of Dirkse and Parrott from volume III of The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices), picking up just after the start of the Latin AH 21 (emphasis in bold text mine):

And if you wish to see the reality of this mystery, then you should see the wonderful representation of the intercourse that takes place between the male and the female.  For when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth.  In that moment the female receives the strength of the male; the male for his part receives the strength of the female, while the semen does this.

It’s well known that the Coptic Asclepius excerpts preserved in the Nag Hammadi Hermetica largely follow the Latin, but they show enough differences that what survives as the Latin Asclepius has either gone through changes that had not yet occurred at the time of the Nag Hammadi text being written, or that it derives from a different textual lineage that produced similar though different texts along different lines of copyists or translations.  The Coptic text doesn’t have this notion of “females gaining the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females”, just that there’s an exchange (and not indebtedness as the Latin version would suggest!) of energy accomplished by the emission of semen.  One could link the two by saying that the “strength of the male” is “potency” and the “strength of the female” is lethargy/torpor, but I think that’s an uncharitable stretch.  Besides, if that which is male and that which is female are both “full of fertility”, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think that one has to be depleted in order for the other to be fulfilled, but that the two should instead be mixed or exchanged between them, which would then turn the male into female and the female into male (which might be what the Latin Asclepius is getting at), though this would have to be interpreted even more metaphorically, since obviously the male’s phallus doesn’t just fall off or invert after sex nor does the female’s womb distend into a phallus.  However, not much is said about the nature of what it means to be “male” or “female” here to flesh that metaphor out.

Scott in his commentary on the Asclepius (vol. III) says this on this section:

In God, the two procreative functions are eternally united.  In mortal races, they are divided, each individual being either male or female; but in the act of procreation, the separation ceases, and male and female become one, as God is one…

Elsewhere, Philo, like the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius], speaks of human procreation as an imitation of the creative energy of God…

Plutarch speaks of love and marriage in a tone not unlike that of [this extract of the Asclepius]; but he dwells on the κοινωνἰα βἰου as well as the act of procreation, whereas the Hermetist here confines his attention chiefly to the latter, and hints at the former only in a passing phrase summa caritas &c. …

Plutarch here agrees with the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius] in regarding the operation of productive force throughout the universe as analogous to human procreation; but he works out the analogy differently.  Instead of speaking of God as bisexual, he makes God the male principle, and ὕλη the female principle; and it is the aspiration of matter towards union with the creative energy of God that he compares with human love.

… Procreation is the means by which a race of mortal beings attains to ‘a secondary entity’, i.e. an everlasting existence in time.

DH 10.1—2:

What is good? What bears no comparison. Good is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous. What is a female? A receptive fluidity. What is a male? A seminal fluidity.

Nature in man is omniform, and (it is) an energy endowed with all qualities (whose) force (is) invisible and effects (are) conspicuous. An energy is a movement. Matter is a wet essence; a body is a agglomoration of matter

Switching now over to the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, we have this definition, appearing towards the end of the set, which gives us a distinction between female and male: that which is female is “a receptive fluidity”, and male “a seminal fluidity”.  Mahé notes that “fluidity” in this case might also be read as “corruption” (or, perhaps, “decay”), recalling SH 2a.16:

What is false decays, my child; and Providence from the one who is true has seized, holds, and will hold everything on earth in decay.  Apart from decay, birth could not exist. Decay follows every birth, so that it is born again. This is because what is born is born from what is decayed. What is born must decay, so that the birth of entities does not grind to a halt. Decay is the first Craftsman for the birth of beings.

Now what is born from decay is false, since it is born now one thing, now another. Such things cannot be born as the same entities. But what is not itself, how can it be true?

Also recall that the word “fluidity” recalls the primordial, indeterminate chaotic mass from CH I.4:

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.

As well as Poimandrēs questioning of Hermēs from CH I.20:

“If you have understood, tell me: why do they deserve death who are in death?”

“Because what first gives rise to each person’s body is the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which death drinks.”

None of these things bear on what it means to be male or female, or at least, not directly, but this link of “fluidity” does have a strong image-based connection with corruption, death, and mortality; given that “matter is a wet essence” from DH 10.2, we can link this notion that matter is “evil” (in the philosophical sense, cf. CH VI), and because the body is an “agglomeration of matter”, it too is evil.  Likewise, that which is evil is “conspicuous” in the sense of “visible”, because the Good is “invisible”; that which can be discerned, then, is not good.  Male and female, then, being apparent and visible differences of bodies, are both on the same level as each other when it comes to divinity and goodness (i.e. neither of them are divine or good), but both are aspects or means of material generation and procreation.  The difference between them is that that which is female is “receptive” and male “seminal”; at last, we have a notion that approximates the modern/New Age notion of masculinity = activity/emitting and femininity = passivity/receiving.  However, again, note that this all takes place in the context of physical and material generation—nothing about soul or cosmic workings beyond biological reproduction.  And, because Nature (in this case, following other scholars like Scott et al., meaning reproductive nature) is omniform, both male and female participate in this, just in different ways that work together.

SH 24.7—9 (John of Stobi, Anthology 1.19):

“You relate all things to me well, Mother,” said Horus. “You have not yet told me how noble souls are born.”

“As on earth, Horus my child, there are different ways of life, so it is in the case of souls. Souls also have realms from which they spring, and the soul from the more glorious realm is nobler than those not of the same condition. Just as among people, the free person is thought nobler than the slave, for what is superior and royal in souls necessarily enslaves the inferior. In this way, male and female souls are born.

“The souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings. The difference between the fiercer souls and the gentle ones is the air, my child Horus, in which all things are born. Air is the very body of the soul and its covering.

“The body is a molded composition of the elements earth, water, air, and fire. Now since the female composite has more of the wet and cold, it lacks the dry and warm. For this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes moist and dainty. The reverse is found in the case of the males. In them, there is more dryness and heat, with a deficit of the cold and moist. For this reason, the souls in these kinds of bodies are rougher and more active.”

This excerpt is from the second part of the text Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the Anthology of John of Stobi (aka Stobaeus).  The Korē Kosmou as a whole is a fascinating text that shows an alternate “lineage” of Hermetic teachings apart from the usual Poimandrēs-Hermēs-Tat/Asklēpios/Ammōn descent, and instead uses a God-Hermēs-Kamephis/Knēph-Isis-Horus descent.  It treats us to an account of the creation of the cosmos, humanity, and culture, as well as giving us a developed theory of soul and incarnation, much of it nowhere else seen in extant Hermetic texts.  In this part, Isis explains to Horus how some souls are nobler than others (the preceding parts describe sixty different grades of regions where souls reside, where noble and royal souls descend from the higher levels.  Given the notion that a ruler (“king”) on earth is a virtual god in human flesh (which is definitely an Egyptian idea), it’s fitting for Horus (a prince himself) to ask about this.  Isis responds with the above; in the above, the important part I want to highlight is where Isis teaches that “the souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings.”  Again, we see that the soul is androgyne (in this case not meaning “both male and female” but “neither male nor female”, though depending on your understanding of the language, either or both could be understood), and only the body is differentiated according to sex.  In other words, as Litwa succinctly notes in his commentary on this excerpt, the author of SH 24 “admits that the distinction between male and female only makes sense when souls are embodied”.

But Isis continues to describe the origin of female and male bodies and how they come to be differentiated according to an elemental theory: although all bodies consist of the four elements, female bodies consist more of earth and water than fire and air, and the opposite is true for male bodies.  This then has an impact on the soul itself that inhabits a body (“for this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes…”).  This echoes how, in earlier sections of SH 24, a soul takes on the character of its retinue; cf. SH 24.6:

Whenever the angels and daimones escorting the soul downwards are warlike, Horus my child, then the soul has the ability to take over their disposition. This soul is oblivious of its own deeds, or rather it remembers them up until it is joined by a different escort. Conversely, when the angels and daimones are peaceful, then the soul runs through the course of its own life doing the works of peace.When they practice the art of justice, then the soul also exercises justice. When they are musical, then the soul also sings. When they love the truth, then the soul also practices philosophy. Thus it is by necessity that these souls take over the disposition of those who escort them. They fall into humanity oblivious of their own nature–all the more when greatly separated from it. Yet they recall the character of those who shut them up (in the body).

It’s interesting that SH 24 gives such a malleable notion of “soul”, in that it takes on the characteristics of its companions or environment.  Even though all (or at least, royal/noble) souls have the same origin and nature, they take on differences and can behave or act in different ways, and we don’t see this idea expressed elsewhere in Hermetic literature; the soul is generally just the soul, perfect as it is.  The rest of SH 23, SH 25, and SH 26 (the first, third, and fourth parts of the Korē Kosmou) are helpful to read together, because these texts as a whole afford a complete theory of soul, birth, and rebirth, but nothing in the rest of them talk about sex, sexuality, or gender.  Litwa further notes in this section of SH 24 that “the author seems to assume that nobler souls are born male”; I’m not quite getting that from my reading of this text, but I’ll trust Litwa that that’s an observation that can be made from this text all the same.

FH 13 (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

This is an extract from the Christian patristic writer Lactantius, who was generally more supportive of Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermetic texts than other patristic or later Christian writers.  I thought this excerpt was interesting, because it brings up exactly what the metaphor of male and female and androgyny is getting to the heart at: creation.  God, according to Orpheus and Hermēs in the words of Lactantius, must be “both male and female” because otherwise there could be no act of creation; Lactantius’ notion of “creation” is inherently a sexual one, and does not admit of non-sexual or asexual (pro)creation.

One response

  1. Pingback: On Gender in Hermeticism: Analysis, Ranting, and Questions « The Digital Ambler

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