Definitions, Instructions, and Sentences: On Different Didactic Texts for the Hermeticist

On the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord Server, we’re finally just about back to normal, and that means that all our weekly discussions are back underway.  In addition to having a bunch of channels to talk about various topics related or pertaining to Hermeticism or Western esotericism in one way or another, we also have a handful of weekly discussion channels, where we talk about a particular topic in depth; so far, we have three, one for astrology, one for pagan literature, and the oldest one for Hermetic texts.  Just before the old Hermetic Agora server imploded, we started talking about the Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius (abbreviated DH), which we’re picking back up on this week.  This is a fascinating text, and is one of the major contributions in the field of Hermetic studies of Jean-Pierre Mahé.  Currently, the only English translation is the one he himself put out as part of The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius published by Clement Salaman et al., although he has put out an earlier French translation as part of the second volume of his Hermès en Haute-Égypte series.

DH is a fascinating text, and one which Fr. Rufus Opus introduced me to as part of his Red Work Course all those many years ago; indeed, it was good for me to read them so much to the point I put out a massive daily series of blog posts taking each one in one-by-one back at the end of 2013.  The text is composed of ten sets of more-or-less axiomatic statements (or “definitions”), each set having as few as two statements or as many as seven all for a total of 49 statements.  On the whole, DH focuses on discussing cosmology and theology, all matters of doctrine regarding the Creator, the Creation, and us as Creatures within Creation made by the Creator.  As I summarized in the review post for my “49 Days of Definitions” post linked above, I gave these high-level summaries of each set of statements in the DH:

  1. The three worlds of creation, viz. God, the world, and Man
  2. The elements of the world and light which enables the world to be known
  3. The ubiquity of God, the place of Man in the world, and of the world in God
  4. The different types of living beings and what they’re composed of
  5. Nous and Logos, God and reasonable speech
  6. The development towards perfection of the soul of Man in the body of humans
  7. The immortality of Man afforded by God, and the mortality of humans mandated by the world
  8. Knowledge or ignorance of God/world/Man/self, and the power of Man as God
  9. The place of Man in the cosmos, the nature of the soul in Man, what perfect knowledge is
  10. The natures and realization of good and evil, how the parts of the world work together

Although one of the lesser-known Hermetic texts out there, not least because it’s one of the most recently-recovered ones, it’s also very much worth the while of any Hermeticist to study, though the DH’s terse and dense nature in its statements will necessarily require a bit more patience and contemplation to work through, chew on, and digest.

One of the neat things that Mahé points out is how similar so much in the DH is to other texts in the Corpus Hermeticum (CH), the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Oxford Fragments (OH), and other Hermetic texts.  To an extent, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising; after all, even for all its inconsistencies and internal disagreements, there is at least some harmony between different Hermetic texts that agree on general points of doctrine.  However, perhaps the closest surviving text we have in a similar format to DH is SH 11, which provides a lengthy list of doctrinal statements, also called κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” of Hermēs’ teaching.  In that text, Hermēs instructs his son Tat after finishing the list:

If you remember these chief points, you will easily recall the points I discuss at greater length. For the main points are summaries of the explained teachings.

The purpose of these statements can be used in many different ways, but their explicit purpose as stated is to use them as a kind of mnemonic to recall lengthier lectures as a whole.  Mahé agrees with this, noting in his introduction to DH in The Way of Hermes that this is likely what’s going on with DH as well:

An early date might also be assumed for our collection of aphorisms with regard to the clarity of its style and the firmness of its thought. In our edition of the Coptic and Armenian transla­tions of hermetic writings in 1982 several clues led us to suggest that the most ancient hermetic philosophical writings were col­lected aphorisms such as the ‘Sayings of Agathos Daimon’, of which only short fragments have been preserved (cf. CH 10.25; 12.1.8-9). Beyond DH, one of these collections is still extant in SH 11 . As to the use of such collections of aphorisms we quoted CH 14.1 and SH 11.1, which depict them as summaries (kephalaia) of lectures delivered by Hermes and invite the disciple to reconstruct the whole teaching once he has learnt the sentences by heart (SH 11.3). Indeed we can easily show that many hermetic writings are made out of sentences, such as those of DH or SH 11 which are either linked up one after another with conjunctions, or com­mented upon or worked into a myth or a prayer.

However, Mahé also waxes poetically regarding their spiritualized functions and how they play a role in the overall literary ecosystem of Hermeticism:

The Definitions are perhaps at once the plainest and the deepest of all hermetic writings. We can read it as a mere resume of elementary teaching. Most of the hermetic dialogues take up the same sentences and comment upon them at the logos-level, which is but the second stage of the way to immortality. Rarely do they go one step further and reveal to us the spiritual meaning of the text.

It is no surprise that at least one sentence of this collection also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas. Both texts comprise sacred say­ings and secret teachings meant to strike imagination and to strongly impress their reader. Moreover we could venture to assert that, in regard to the other hermetic writings, the Definitions are almost in the same position as the Gospel of Thomas with regard to the four Gospels. In both cases, we have the aphorisms by themselves on the one hand, and sayings worked into a reasoned account or narrative on the other. The problem is whether the story is missing because it does not yet exist (or it is unknown to the compiler) or quite on the contrary, because it has been purpose­ fully ruled out.

We can also assert the comparison for essential reasons…the hermetic author of our text seems to have deliberately eliminated all kind of commentary in order to free his readers from the heaviness of abstract reasoning, to raise them above space and time and to hand over to them the very essence of meditation. You do not easily forget such a text. Hermetic sentences get mysteriously carved in your memory. They are still at work on your mind even when you do not think of them. For ‘it dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws up iron’ (CH 4.11).

In a footnote, Mahé introduces the idea regarding the possible origins of DH:

In 1982, the Demotic Book of Thoth—a prehermetic dialogue discovered in 1993 by K.Th. Zauzich and Richard Jasnow—was still unknown. It is noteworthy that this work contains a short collection of Thoth’s precepts entitled The Little Book of Advice. Although none of those precepts are directly echoed by any Greek her­metic aphorism, it may confirm our assumption (which has been sharply
criticised by G. Fowden 1986, pp. 71-2) that Greek hermetic literature is closely connected with Greek hermetic gnomologies which in turn bear the influence of Egyptian Wisdoms or instructions.

The overall gist of Mahé’s argument here (which he treats on at length in Hermès en Haute-Égypte) is that DH—and, given the outsized role he gives DH as being an origination point for many later Hermetic texts later put to paper, all of the Hermetic texts as a hole—have their origin in the long genre of Egyptian sebayt (sbꜣyt) literature, often translated as “instructions” or “teachings”.  We have a good number of such texts; indeed, the Ancient Egyptian Literature series (volume I on the Old Kingdom period, volume II on the Middle and New Kingdoms period, and volume III on the Late Period) by Miriam Lichtheim gives translations for no fewer than these (from oldest to latest):

  • Instruction of Prince Hardjedef
  • Instruction to Kagemni
  • Instruction of Ptahhotep
  • Instruction of Amenemhet I for Sesostris I
  • Instruction to Any
  • Instruction of Amenemope
  • Instruction of Anksheshonq
  • Instruction of the Demotic Insinger Papyrus

In addition to these, as referred to by Mahé, the Demotic Book of Thoth (an easy layman’s translation is available in Jasnow’s and Zauzich’s Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth) also has a small section that also qualifies as sebayt.  In addition to all the above, we also know for a fact that there were many other instances of sebayt, which either have not survived or which have not received enough public attention to be given modern translations, but we know that it was a long-lived genre of literature and was often hugely popular, with many texts being continuously copied an disseminated throughout Egyptian society.  What links all these texts together as belonging to a single “genre” is two, maybe three things:

  1. The text is, for the most part, a set of largely disconnected aphorisms
  2. The text is intended to inculcate the necessary actions, behaviors, and mindsets necessary to lead a good life
  3. Sometimes, the text provides an initial narrative that frames the text as being addressed from a father to a son for the son’s well-being in life

When it comes to studying good ways to live life, sebayt texts are often like gold, often touching on various aspects of living life: marriage, household affairs, national affairs, business, conducting oneself in public, eating, sleeping, sex, managing servants, and so on.  On occasion, the texts frame these exhortations and instructions in a religious light, saying that such-and-such behavior is something the gods approve of or that other behavior is what causes the gods to shun you, but that’s less common than just instructing someone to behave in such a way because it leads to good results in this life, maintaining good face, ensuring the prosperity and well-being of one’s household and family name, and the like.  Of course, given the long-lasting nature of this genre, as time goes on, there are some shifts in later sebayt texts that tend to merge certain aspects together, like how morality and piety become identified in e.g. the first century CE Demotic Papyrus Insinger.

And that’s just the rub: despite the many connections Mahé draws between DH and sebayt, I don’t think I can buy Mahé’s theory that DH descends from or is an evolution of Egyptian sebayt literature.  For the most part, sebayt are focused on living life well in this world, and aren’t focused on matters of mysticism or salvation like the DH is (to say nothing of the rest of the body of classical Hermetic literature), much less on doctrinal statements about cosmology or theology (which is all the DH really are anyway).  To derive a sense of religiosity or spirituality from the sebayt would require a good bit of squinting and stretching—not to say that it can’t be done, but that honestly doesn’t appear like the intended purpose of these texts.  Despite Mahé’s claims, the only thing that really links DH (or similar aphorism-based texts like SH 11) to the sebayt genre is its structure, being lists of aphorisms or maxims or statements (that first quality of sebayt literature I mentioned above).  But it’s not like a list of maxims is a particularly uncommon thing; after all, what of the Delphic Maxims or the Golden Verses of Pythagoras?  Those are much closer to sebayt in both style and content, but there’s no claim that those have an Egyptian origin.

In this, it turns out that I’m in complete agreement with Garth Fowden’s analysis of Mahé’s claims (as Mahé pointed out in that footnote above).  In The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, Fowden devotes a lengthy section of chapter 2 to the idea that the Hermetic texts (at least the philosophical stuff like DH, CH, etc.) are connected to sebayt and offers a refutation of Mahé’s claims much along these same lines.  To summarize some of Fowden’s points:

  • Sebayt texts were not unknown in a priestly context for classical Egypt, but these were more popular than spiritual texts and generally focus on different topics and areas than priestly Thoth literature
  • These texts were, on the whole, about practical living, sometimes making use of otherwise unethical approaches as an expedient means
  • These texts center humanity in a human world rather than God/the gods in a divine world or humans in relation to the divine
  • These texts are “though pious…this-worldly, ethical, social” while those of the Hermetic texts are “gnostic, contemplative, individualist”
  • Mahé goes to the opposite extreme of Festugière: while Festugière claimed that Hermeticism was a popular Hellenic philosophical phenomenon dolled up in Egyptian makeup, Mahé claims that Hermeticism is thoroughly Egyptian and only later Hellenized as an affectation; Fowden notes how many other Greek and Jewish influences there are in even the provably early Hermetic texts that Mahé effecitvely passes over in silence
  • Although the technical Hermetica has many more links to traditional (even ancient) Egyptian priestly and magical practices, the “writings of the philosophical Hermetists….had far fewer direct links with the Egyptian past”, given that they yet “combined openness to the international civilization of Hellenism with a deep, sometimes even aggressive awareness of their roots in Egypt”

To be sure, not all of the sebayt texts are so disconnected from the spirit of classical Hermeticism.  Of the texts mentioned above, I think the Instruction of Papyrus Insinger hits closest to a Hermetic ethos: although its handwriting style has been dated to the first century CE with at least part of its composition may well lie in the latter half of the Ptolemaic period, I personally think that it’s a great sebayt text to bear in mind for students of Hermeticism.  Not only is it largely well-perserved and intelligible, nor that it provides a good approach to living morally and piously, but also because it emphasizes a reliance on fate and the notion that the gods always have the final say in things, their divine order being one which we must turn to and live in accordance with.  That sort of idea is one that we don’t often see in many such texts.  Further, each section of the text ends with the same line, which suffices as a memorable statement of belief:

The fate and the fortune that come, it is the god who sends them.

Some of the hallmarks that make a Hermetic text Hermetic is that it needs to have some ascription, whether explicit or otherwise, to Hermēs Trismegistos, one of his teachers (e.g. Agathos Daimōn, Poimandrēs), or one of his students (e.g. Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn), and that it overall needs to evince some sort of focus on the mystic impulses and imperatives grounded in the Hellenistic Greco-Egyptian worldview evinced by other Hermetic texts like the CH, AH, SH, OH, DH, and the like.  Obviously, sebayt texts won’t focus on Hermēs Trismegistos as such (Thōth is another matter entirely, but it’s arguable whether we can mythically equate Hermēs Trismegistos with Thōth in this specific instance), but the purpose and focus of sebayt doesn’t match up with those of the Hermetic texts, either.  For that reason, we can’t really say that the Hermetic texts can be considered Kemetic in the sense of being purely Egyptian or being an outgrowth of purely Egyptian stuff, at least by focusing on sebayt texts alone for the purposes of studying the philosophical/theoretical Hermetic texts.

Does that make sebayt, or other Egyptian religious and spiritual stuff, worthless for studying Hermeticism?  By no means; indeed, we do know that there is an ultimately Egyptian origin to Hermeticism and Hermetic texts, and learning the kind of influences Egyptian religiosity and spirituality had in the development of Hermeticism is super important for understanding the Hermetic texts better.  However, by that same token, we also need to understand the extent and limits of such influence, because we also know that there are so many other influences at play in the development of Hermeticism ranging from Stoicism and Platonism to (Hellenized) Judaism and early gnostic tendencies.  But we shouldn’t conflate sebayt or other Egyptian stuff as Hermetic stuff, no more than we should conflate Greek stuff as Hermetic stuff, because while sebayt are purely-Egyptian, Hermetic texts are Greco-Egyptian, and that makes a world of different.  Studying these other texts may well be (and often are) useful to fill in our gaps in our knowledge, provide useful frameworks for a lived and living practice, and otherwise fleshing out an incomplete picture of Hermeticism, but in order to know what Hermeticism is, we also need to know what it is not, and how these things play with and off of each other.

Even if the doctrinal statements of (potentially early) Hermetic literature aren’t descended from sebayt texts, I think I can point to another text that bears more in common with sebayt: the Sentences of Sextus (SoS).  I first came across this text while flipping through my copy of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) texts, and it’s an interesting thing; the Coptic version preserved in NHL isn’t complete, but it survives in many other copies in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Armenian, and Georgian, and has been variously ascribed to the pre-Christian Stoic-Pythagorean Roman philosopher Quintus Sextus or to decidedly Christian figures like Pope Sixtus II.  Regardless of its origins (and we’ll touch more on that in a bit), SoS was well-known and well-read in antiquity by many early Christians according to the testament of Origen of Alexandria, who gives us our first extant reference to SoS in the mid-third century CE.  SoS is composed of 451 aphorisms  (with some versions adding an extra 159) originally written in Greek, all of which provide general exhortations and encouragements towards living a moral, pious life.  Although it’s been claimed by some to be a product of pre-Christian pagan morality—and, indeed, it does show lots of similarities with the Golden Verses of Pythagoras or the Sentences of Clitarchus, and can be considered a textual sibling to Porphyry’s Ad Marcellam—a closer study of the text (as in the 1959 study by Henry Chadwick or in the excellent 2012 translation and commentary by Walter T. Wilson) given its overlap and borrowing of language and topics from the Bible suggests that is rather the product of a Christian compiler who has (in the words of Chadwick) “edited, carefully revised, and modified a previous pagan collection (or perhaps collections)” of similar maxims.

Beginning to sound familiar?  I thought so, too.

Now, to be clear, I am not claiming SoS to be a Hermetic text.  As with the equally-extreme and equally-wrong stances of whether Hermeticism is purely-Greek or purely-Egyptian, there have also been people who take extreme views on whether SoS is purely-Christian or purely-pagan, when it is indeed indebted to both.  We know that SoS was compiled at some point no earlier than the late second century CE, and given that Origen was the first person to refer to it, it has a strong likelihood of being composed in Egypt.  In addition to this origin making SoS roughly contemporaneous and colocated with the development of the classical Hermetic texts, it also suggests that not only is SoS Christian, but specifically Egyptian Christian—and, given the content and format of SoS, being a (long) list of aphorisms encouraging one to live life well, suggests this to be a much more viable candidate for being a descendant (even if an indirect one) of sebayt literature.

To be sure, it’s not an altogether clean match.  In his article “Wisdom, Paraensis, and the Roots of Monasticism” in the 2012 anthology Early Christian Paraenesis in Context, Samuel Rubenson notes (emphasis in bold mine):

Moral exhortation, paraenesis, was, moreover, not something specifically Christian or Biblical. In Egypt there was a long tradition of collections of wisdom in the form of moral exhortations, often directed to “my son.” To some scholars it is this Egyptian wisdom tradition that is the basic foundation of the Apophthegmata. Thus the exhortations of the monastic fathers are actually a Christianized form of the exhortations of the old wise men of Egypt. However, as clearly demonstrated by Miriam Lichtheim, Egyptian wisdom had already begun to change drastically long before the rise of monasticism. Traditional morality with its focus on human relations especially within the family had been fused with religious piety focusing on the holy man, the ideal model of calm, restraint, patience and trust in God. The exhortations in the late Demotic texts do not look for “the good life,” but for “the way of God” or even “salvation.” And in the few texts that can be used as a bridge between late Egyptian wisdom literature and the early Egyptian monastic exhortations, the influence of Greek philosophy is prevailing. Based on Pythagorean ascetic traditions fused with Platonic and Stoic popular philosophy, texts like the Sentences of Sextus represent something different from Egyptian wisdom, an anthropological dualism most strikingly demonstrated in the fact that when translated into Coptic the word psyche had to be borrowed from the Greek, since Old Egyptian simply has no word for soul. When monasticism began in Egypt in the late third century, traditional Egyptian wisdom was already something that belonged to the past. The sapiential texts that we know in Coptic are all Hellenic, and most probably all translated from Greek. Original Coptic compositions begin with the first monks, and the models are all Greek.

In a sense, SoS is in the perfect sweet-spot for syncretism, itself being a result of syncretizing the old wisdom of religiosity with new impulse for mysticism, and itself encouraging further syncretizing though being a foundation for later Christian (or para-Christian) wisdom texts or for writers like Evagrius of Pontus.  Given how it was already remarked as being popular Christian literature of the time, SoS appearing in something like Nag Hammadi shouldn’t be too surprising—but given how Hermetic texts also appear in Nag Hammadi suggests that there would have probably been some mutual influence between the equally-cosmopolitan, roughly contemporaneous, and roughly colocated mystical traditions of both Hermeticism and Christianity in the second and third centuries CE.

In that light, given its focus and origination and its likely antecedents, I personally find SoS to be an excellent adjunct for Hermetic studies, especially in how it can function as providing a useful guide for right-living in light of a need for piety, spiritual rigor, and the ascent of the soul.  To be sure, SoS is not a Hermetic text, but I think it has plenty of value for Hermeticists to read as if it were a Hermetic text.  And while SoS can be argued to descend from sebayt texts, I would still elevate SoS to a higher priority to read than sebayt texts for the purposes of better understanding and practicing Hermeticism; not only does SoS express a much closer affinity to the goals and aims of Hermeticism than sebayt texts do, but the syncretic and cross-cultural Greco-Egyptian origins of both the classical Hermetic texts and SoS, both being composed at about the same time, give them much more in common that allow each to be much more readily understood and approached from both ends than either would from the long history of purely-Egyptian sebayt.  (Of course, that’s with the exception of the Instructions of Papyrus Insinger, but that’s just one of many sebayt texts, and is already so late and already composed during a Hellenistic colonization of Egypt that there was already likely some Greco-Egyptian syncretism beginning to happen.  As a result, Papyrus Insinger can be argued to be the exception that proves the rule.)

To be sure, SoS is as lacking in cosmology and theology as any sebayt text, and in that regard, cannot and should not be seen as a forerunner of any sort of Hermetic doctrine; in that, DH and SH 11 and similar compilations of Hermetic statements are still in a separate category from SoS.  However, there are so many moral and ethical exhortations in SoS that agree, if not entirely than almost so, with moral and ethical outlooks in Hermetic texts that it’s a wonder that such a text as SoS was kept so distinct from Hermetic compilations; although Wilson rarely cites it and is more fond of citing Christian scripture, he does point out at least some stated similarities between SoS and CH, e.g. SoS 141 (“If you love things you should not, you will not love things you should”) with CH IV.6 (“It is not possible, my son, to attach yourself both to things mortal and to things divine”) or SoS 320 with CH XIII.12, or SoS 370 with CH XII.23.  As Chadwick notes of SoS, “there are no maxims offensively redolent of their ethnic origin”, but neither are there any references to Christ or the apostles or specific Christian dogmata beyond general encouragements using contextless biblical quotes or near-quotes, which allows SoS to be read in any hypsistarian or monotheistic manner, or even a monist one as befitting much of the language of the Hermetic texts.

I think it’s important to remember how messy the history is of Hermeticism and its development, and how it’s not any one clean thing or another with neat and well-spaced dividers—but, for that matter, neither are many other mystical and spiritual movements, since nothing ever arises in a vacuum.  It behooves us all to remember that, although it has Egyptian origins, we cannot accurately call Hermeticism “Egyptian” in the same way that the pharaonic cult of Amun is Egyptian; it is, more accurately, Greco-Egyptian, and we cannot ignore the Helleniality of Hermeticism any more than we can its Egyptianity.  To that end, I would wager that other classical Greco-Egyptian or otherwise cosmopolitan eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions are probably going to be at least as informative, if not more so, than those from just a purely Egyptian or a purely Greek origin, much less those from much older time periods than the early Roman Imperial era.  The sebayt texts and Egyptian priestly traditions are awesome to study and dig into for Hermetic studies—I would never say otherwise—but I think that some scholars and students may overemphasize them to the exclusion of other, much more reasonable and readily-available sources that lend themselves at least as well to the context of Hermeticism, like SoS.

Besides, at the end of the day, whether one is reading a set of definitions or instructions or sentences, or however else one translates the word γνῶμαι, so long as it can be used by a Hermeticist and agrees with the goals and aims of Hermeticism, then that’s what matters most, even if that thing isn’t Hermetic on its own terms.  And I, personally, find much more to use in agreement with Hermeticism in texts like the SoS than in texts like the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq.

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