On the Hermetic Afterlife: Evidence from the Texts

While I suppose the timing of this post (around the end of Libra and start of Scorpio) is appropriate, I admit that I’ve wanted to write a post about this for some time.  The issue with such a topic, though, is that it requires so much either cleared out ahead of time and laid down as foundations, or otherwise merely assumed, and…well, even then, it can get complicated.  Not too long ago, someone in the Hermetic House of Life Discord server asked a fairly straightforward question in the Hermeticism channel: what happens when we die?  Specifically, the question was, in the context of classical Hermeticism: “when we die, do we become wandering souls until we incarnate again?”  And while such a question seems fairly straightforward, answering it is anything but.

(Also, before we get into it, fun fact: what you’re reading now is the 900th published post on my blog, going all the way back to my first post back in my Blogspot days from February 2010!  I figured a little research-and-writing project like this would be a nice celebration of that milestone, so I hope y’all enjoy.)

So, to start off with, we take for granted in Hermeticism the existence of a soul.  Forming a complete theory or model of what soul is, how it comes to be, how it behaves, and the like is a daunting project (and one that eventually I want to take on), and one that is made all the more difficult by the fact that there’s enough inconsistencies and differences between different Hermetic texts to make getting a single model set up a major challenge.  Still, on the grounds of CH I and many other Hermetic texts, we can take the existence of the soul for granted, and moreover, that the soul is effectively the self, who and what we “really are”.  The body is merely a vessel for the soul, the mind is a divinely-granted faculty of divine awareness that may not be present or activated within every soul, and the spirit is the life-conferring substance that enlivens all things in the cosmos, but the soul is what we truly are, the thing that truly “lives”.  If humanity is an image of God, and if God is understood as Light and Life, then we can consider soul to be the image of the divine Life of God itself.  (I’m really eliding a lot here in this single paragraph, to be fair, but this is a necessary assumption to make as a foundation for the rest of this post.)

Now, much of the classical Hermetic texts all fundamentally describe one thing, or work towards explaining one thing: how to live our lives well so as to solve the problem of suffering in our lives.  Ultimately, the answer is to live mindfully: as noted above, “mind” is the crucial key that allows us to unlock an awareness of divinity, of truth, of God in our lives, and not all people have mind, whether at all or activated/awakened.  However, in having mind (or having mind activated), we are then able to experience states of gnōsis, which are essentially us experiencing God, which helps reveal to us how things “really are”, both within and without the cosmos, and which helps orient us towards living our lives properly.  Even without such experiences of gnōsis, however, it would still be possible for someone to live respectfully, reverently, and devotedly enough in such a way that would allow them to recognize the body for what it is, realize a proper relationship between soul and body, and to better enable themselves to abide with God and to return to God once this current sojourn in the world has come to an end.

The quintessential afterlife vision is given by Poimandrēs to Hermēs in CH I.24—26 (Copenhaver translation):

“You have taught me all things well, o mind, just as I wanted. But tell me again <about> the way up; tell me how it happens.”

To this Poimandrēs said: “First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sources, becoming separate parts and mingling again with the energies. And feeling and longing go on toward irrational nature.

“Thence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth the ruler’s arrogance, now freed of excess; at the fifth unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone the deceit that lies in ambush.

“And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.”

What we have here is a process of dissolution and ascension of the soul:

  1. The soul first gives up the body itself, allowing it to decompose.  (This is “death” itself, in the sense of the soul departing the body.)
    1. As the soul gives up the body, so too does the body give up its senses, its drive/feeling (thumos), and its desire/longing (epithumia).  These are all things of the body and not the soul, so the soul isn’t the one technically giving up these things except as a result of giving up the body as a whole, and these could be seen just be a specification of what gets dissolved and decomposed with the body.
  2. The soul then gives over to “the demon” (more on that later) their temperament.
  3. The soul then gives up each of the planetary energies conferred to it by the seven planets back to their respective spheres, rising up through and past each sphere as it does so.
    1. “Increase and decrease” to the Moon
    2. “Evil machination” to Mercury
    3. “Illusion of longing” to Venus
    4. “Arrogance of rulers” to the Sun
    5. “Unholy presumption and daring recklessness” to Mars
    6. “Evil impulses that come from wealth” to Jupiter
    7. “Deceit that lies in ambush” to Saturn
  4. After giving all these things up and rising past the sphere of Saturn, the soul then enters into the eighth (“ogdoadic”) sphere of the fixed stars, beyond the reach of fate
  5. After some indeterminate time, the soul then rises up from the eighth sphere into even higher spheres with even higher powers, eventually entering into and becoming God

The model here is basically that the soul is “weighed down” or “cloaked” by all sorts of trappings that allow it to be incarnate in the first place; in order to free ourselves from incarnation, we have to free ourselves of each of the components that allow for it, returning each trapping to its proper source.  Once we have stripped ourselves of such things, we are then truly free to just be a soul, and are therefore placed beyond the reach of fate (which is identified with the revolutions and alignments of the seven planets in CH I); it’s that eighth sphere of the fixed stars past the sphere of Saturn that we can say is the first “heaven” in the sense of being a resting-place, as it were, a place that is beyond suffering and beyond the bindings of fate.  Attaining access to that eighth sphere might just be the first part of a much larger, hypercosmic journey, but it’s where our journey as encosmic entities comes to a true conclusion.  Upon attaining the eighth sphere, one can be said to be “done” with incarnate reality.

But that’s assuming that a soul actually attains the eighth sphere, and that’s a really big assumption to make.  In fact, there are several big assumptions here that each need to be questioned:

  1. What happens if a soul is not able to give up a trapping of incarnation (its temperament, a planetary energy)?
  2. What happens if a soul is not able to rise up past a particular sphere?
  3. Is the process of ascension instant, or does it take place over an interval of time?

The description of the ascent from CH I.24—26 is not clear as to whether it happens to all souls regardless of how they lived, or whether it’s just the whole complete process described in ideal circumstances for those particular souls able to make the ascent.  After all, shortly after this part, Hermēs begins his mission of going forth into the world to teaching those who can be taught and saving those who can be saved; not everyone chooses to be taught or saved, however, so it raises the question as to what happens to them.  After all, if such a process of ascent were automatic and assured for all people equally, then the focus of Hermēs and Poimandrēs would be more about how to tackle suffering in this life as opposed to what happens afterward, and that doesn’t appear to be the case.  I don’t think what Poimandrēs describes here is applicable to all souls after their death, but is the eventual, ideal case for a soul that is sufficiently refined and prepared for such a journey upward, capable of actually giving up the trappings of incarnation.

Let’s set aside the account of CH I.24—26 for a moment.  Are there any other texts that talk about an afterlife in any notable detail?  Truth be told, there’s really not a lot out there.  While many of the extant Hermetic texts seem to accept reincarnation/metempsychosis as just what happens, there’s very little that describes the actual process of it or what happens between incarnations.  The closest we get to is AH 28 and a few bits from SH 25 and SH 26, and both of these are problematic in their own ways.  Still, it’s worth checking out what they have to say about the subject.

We’re benefitted by AH 28 by it being preserved in slightly different versions, one in Latin (Copenhaver translation):

When soul withdraws from the body, it passes to the jurisdiction of the chief demon who weighs and judges its merit, and if he finds it faithful and upright, he lets it stay in places suitable to it. But if he sees the soul smeared with the stains of wrongdoing and dirtied with vice, he sends it tumbling down from on high to the depths below and consigns it to the storms and whirlpools of air, fire and water in their ceaseless clashing—its endless punishment to be swept back and forth between heaven and earth in the streams of matter. Then the soul’s bane is its own eternity, for an undying sentence oppresses it with eternal torment.

And again in Coptic from NHC VI.8 (Meyer translation):

There is a great demon that the supreme God has appointed as overseer or judge of human souls. God has placed him in the middle of the air between earth and heaven. When a soul comes from a body, it must meet this demon. At once the demon will turn this person around and examine him with regard to the character he developed during his lifetime. If the demon finds that the person accomplished all his deeds in a godly manner, deeds for which he came into the world, the demon will let him…turn him. … But [if the demon observes and becomes angry] at a person [who] spent his life doing [evil] deeds, he grabs him on his way up and throws him back down so that he is suspended between heaven and earth and punished severely. There will be no hope for such a soul, and it will be in great pain.  That soul does not have a place on earth or in heaven, but it has come to be in the open air of the universe, where there is blazing fire, freezing water, streams of fire, and massive turbulence. The bodies are tormented in various ways. Sometimes they are cast into raging water; at other times they are thrown down into fire in order that the fire may destroy them. I am not saying that this is the death of the soul, for the soul has been delivered from evil. Nonetheless, it is a death sentence.

Admittedly, this is a lot, and in context, it takes place when talking about the denigration of the world and what happens when people die.  Hermēs is fairly blunt about death itself in the immediately-preceding AH 27 (Copenhaver’s Latin translation below, basically the same as in Meyer’s Coptic translation):

We must talk now about the immortal and the mortal, for anticipation and fear of death torture the many who do not know the true account of it. Death results from the disintegration of a body worn out with work, after the time has passed when the body’s members fit into a single mechanism with vital functions. The body dies, in fact, when it can no longer support a person’s vital processes. This is death, then: the body’s disintegration and the extinction of bodily consciousness. Worrying about it is pointless. But there is another problem worth worrying about, though people disregard it out of ignorance or disbelief.

Hermēs is clear here: what matters isn’t so much the physical death of the body, but what happens to the soul after it leaves from the body.  Unlike most other Hermetic texts, the doctrine of AH 28 doesn’t clearly seem to support a notion of reincarnation, but rather one of post-life judgment, and the focus here is really on what happens to particular souls that have been judged as being so terrible as to be subject to eternal punishment.  But note where they go: they’re sent to this intermediate zone between Earth and Heaven (in other words, in a region of the sublunar atmosphere) where the air is turbulent.  Bear that specific bit in mind in a bit.

Let’s skip ahead to SH 25 and SH 26, which are the formal designations for the later sections of the Korē Kosmou, respectively.  This text is…questionably Hermetic at best, since it presents a dialogue not of Hermēs to his student(s) but from Isis to Hōros (even if the ultimate teaching passed on was originating from Hermēs through Kamēphis the forebear of Isis), and presents a radically different worldview, theology, and cosmology from the rest of the extant classical Hermetica.  In many ways, it presents something closer to a Hellenized Egyptian myth, almost like a folktale written for philosophers as it were, and it has a lot of information in general.  While SH 23 talks about the creation of the world and of the relationship between God and humanity (which is rather different from anything in the CH, AH, or even most of the rest of the SH) and SH 24 talks about royal souls specifically, SH 25 and SH 26 talk about souls in general.  I won’t quote excerpts, but I can point out a few of the key doctrines that can inform our discussion here:

  • SH 25.1: souls after death do not simply wander aimlessly nor combine with each other, but proceed to a particular realm appropriate to it
  • SH 25.9—13:
    • Souls, when not incarnate in bodies, dwell in the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon
    • The sublunar atmosphere is split into four divisions with some number of strata:
      • The first (lowest) division: 4 strata
      • The second division: 8 strata
      • The third division: 16 strata
      • The fourth (highest) division: 32 strata
    • Different strata have different qualities of air based on how high and rarefied they are
    • The higher the stratum, the more rarefied the air, the more noble/royal/dignified the soul
    • There are thus 60 different grades of soul
  • SH 26.2:
    • Souls are sent down to become incarnate according to their purpose, and return to a region in the atmosphere appropriate to it
    • Souls either return to the stratum it came from, ascend past it, or sink below it according to its behavior (“according to the degree of their errors”) while incarnate
    • Souls are judged according to Providence
  • SH 26.3:
    • Souls are handled according to two ministers: the Steward and the Escort
    • The Steward of Souls watches over unembodied souls
    • The Escort of Souls sends souls to be incarnate into bodies appropriate for their purpose according to Providence

What we get when we look at the Korē Kosmou, and SH 25 in particular, is the notion of a dwelling-place (perhaps even “storehouse”) of souls, with a neat diagram-friendly arrangement of where certain souls go to after death.  Walter Scott has such a diagram ready to go on page 595 of volume 3 of his Hermetica series when offering his commentary on SH 25:

The account given in SH 25 and 26 is annoyingly unclear at points about what these specific grades are of soul, even though we have a reasonable understanding about the strata of the atmosphere they were supposed to retire to between incarnations.  Presumably, animal souls would be in the first division (fish, lizards, birds, and beasts from bottom to top) with human souls of various kinds above that, culminating in the most royal of souls destined to be kings and emperors over the world in the highest stratum of the uppermost fourth division.  Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of information about the specifics of these grades, the process of a soul traveling from a body to its proper stratum, the process of being sent down by the Escort of Souls, or the like.

What I find appealing here is that we can tie this division of the atmosphere in SH 25 to the realm of punishment from AH 28.  Bear in mind that such a realm of punishment is marked by storms, turbulence, and the like, and how they’re described to be “in the open air” neither on Earth or in Heaven but somewhere in-between.  In SH 25, we see that the lower grades of air are reserved for baser, ignoble souls, including those destined for animal incarnation (whether because they are already animal souls as they are, or whether they are human souls to be punished via animal incarnation, as is suggested in SH 23.41—42).  The major difference between these texts is that, for the author of the Korē Kosmou, incarnation itself is punishment, while for the Asclepius, there is a separate punishment after incarnation.  As a result, when SH 25.10 says that “in no way is this recycled air [of the lower divisions] a hindrance to souls”, it has a completely different role in mind for such a region of the atmosphere than what AH 28 has in mind.  Notably, AH 28 does not have a doctrine of reincarnation detectable to my eyes: if it permits for it, it doesn’t say so explicitly, but if it does, then such an everlasting punishment by being tossed into some turbulent zone of the atmosphere is the cosmos’ way of taking a particularly naughty soul, indelibly stained with its sins as it is, “out of circulation”, while allowing other souls to incarnate as appropriate to them.  It’s another perspective, I suppose, but the similarities in the models here are important, even if their intents and descriptions differ in the details.

There’s one last thing I want to mention before we begin the process of tying all this together: SH 7 is another separate Hermetic text, and a short excerpt provided by Stobaeus from a treatise of Hermēs related to Justice.  Here, we have a description of Dikē, the goddess of Justice (Litwa translation):

The greatest female daimon who wheels round the center of the universe has been appointed, my child, to observe everything that happens on earth at the hands of human beings. Just as Providence and Necessity are appointed over the divine order, in the same way, Justice has been appointed over human beings–and she performs the same activity as Providence and Necessity do. For she controls the order of existing beings inasmuch as they are divine, do not wish to err, and cannot. Indeed, it is impossible for the divine to go astray—hence its infallibility.

Now Justice is appointed to be punisher of human beings who err upon the earth. Humanity is an <errant> race, inasmuch as it is mortal and composed from base matter. They are especially prone to slip since they do not possess the power of seeing the divine. Justice especially holds sway over these people.

Humans are subject to Fate due to the energies operative in their nativity; and they are subject to Justice due to their mistakes during this life.

I note that the role of Justice here in SH 7 is strikingly similar to the “avenging daimōn” of CH I.23, to the judging demon of AH 28, and to the role of Providence (and arguably also the Steward and/or Escort of Souls) in SH 26.  Further, while not explicitly handled by some sort of external entity, there are bits like CH X.16 that talk about “leaving the soul to judgment and the justice it deserves” after it departs from a body.  We don’t see a lot of this sort of divine intermediation or interference in the Hermetic texts, and to an extent I don’t much care for the notion of it (I’ll share why later on), but it’s common enough that we should at least bear it in mind and consider it.

But for now, let’s cut this here.  Now that we have an understanding of what the relevant Hermetic texts have to offer about notions of the afterlife, we can let that sink in for a bit, and we’ll pick up with actually fitting them together next time.

One response

  1. Pingback: On the Hermetic Afterlife: Initial Impressions, Questions, and the Role of a Daimōn « The Digital Ambler

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