On the Hermetic Afterlife: Answering Assessments About Aborted Ascents

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about a high-level overview of the afterlife model in Hermeticism, some of the problems that need to be resolved in such a model, and my own thoughts on the role and need for an avenging/judging daimōn.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

The biggest issue among all those questions is when and how the process of salvation (per CH I) actually occurs versus the process of merely going and staying in the dwelling-place of souls, and I can’t figure out how those two things play well together.  CH I, it should be noted, doesn’t really even offer a notion of reincarnation, which we instead read from other Hermetic texts.  (I should note that some texts, like CH III, don’t seem to mention any kind of afterlife at all in any way, but we should remember that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”; just because a text doesn’t mention a doctrine doesn’t mean it wasn’t held or believed in regardless, or that it can’t accommodate a particular doctrine.)   I don’t think that a salvation-model and a reincarnation-model of the afterlife are necessarily in conflict with each other; after all, consider the Jewish notion of gilgul neshamot or how saṃsāra and mokṣa interplay with each other in Hinduism.  The question is how these two processes interplay with each other, and I can envision several possibilities:

  1. If the soul is truly ready to make the ascent, then it skips the whole process of going to a dwelling-place at all, and instead bypasses them directly to make the ascent through the spheres.
    1. In a judgmental model, this occurs if the soul is deemed sufficiently pure and noble enough such that there is no stratum high enough for it to be assigned without progressing directly to the sphere of the Moon (which is beyond the uppermost stratum).
    2. In a non-judgmental model, this occurs if the soul is sufficiently free from addiction and attachment to incarnation, and rises up past the highest stratum right into the sphere of the Moon on its own accord without being caught up in any of the strata.
  2. The soul can manage the ascent before going to its proper dwelling-place in the atmosphere through some “alternative route”.
    1. In a judgmental model, this occurs if the soul can manage to escape the arraignment and judgment of the daimōn first, fleeing it as a warden of a jail, as it were.
    2. In a non-judgmental model, this occurs if the souls somehow slips out “sideways” and “out” of the currents that would be their normal rising up through the atmosphere, catching onto a “celestial updraft” as it were, ignoring the metempsychotic processes in effect for most souls in the process.
  3. The soul makes the ascent after going to its appropriate dwelling-place.
    1. Whether we use a judgmental model or a non-judgmental model, the soul would proceed to its usual dwelling-place according to its nature and works in life, and while there and before it is bound by fate to descend again into a body, it works against the incarnating “push” of fate and instead pulls itself upward to make the ascent.

There may be other ways to match these two processes (and, prior to writing this post, I had nebulous ideas of such that seem to refuse to be put to paper now), but in thinking about it, I think that first option makes the most sense.  Using the judgmental model, it renders the avenging daimōn of CH I and the judging daimōn of AH 28 and SH 7 to be fundamentally same entity (one has to be able to fully give up their temperament/character in CH I, which would be the mark of a soul that is truly noble enough to recognize itself and the cosmos as it is without addiction or attachment), which is a pleasant-enough concordance on its own.  More than that, though, I think it’s important to recognize that both of these systems rely on a system of ascent, just at different levels: the dwelling-place model given in SH 25—26 and hinted at in AH 28 is a matter of ascent from the Earth up until (but not including) the Moon, and the divine ascent in CH I is a matter of ascent from the Moon onwards but which starts at the Earth.  Depending on how much of one’s character one has refined or is able to give up to the body according to what the body provided it, the soul would rise (or be judgmentally assigned) to a higher or lower station after death; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the noblest of souls would graduate out of such a system entirely.  While the latter two options have their merits, as do others I’m sure, I think that first option is the cleanest and the most harmonious.

However, an unsettling question lingers in my mind: what happens if a soul isn’t truly ready to make that final ascent through the spheres, but attempts it anyway?  This is one of the major issues with the second and third options given above, and can technically be an issue with the first as well.  In that ascent, the soul gives up to each of the planets an energy that that planet conferred to the soul, but what happens if the soul is unable to give up such an energy?  Like, if a soul is able to give up the addiction to generation and corruption, the desire for evil machination, and lustful longing to the respective spheres of the Moon, Mercury, and Venus, but if such a soul is intensely prideful and arrogant, it may not be able to give up such an energy to the sphere of the Sun—what then?  Can the soul continue to rise and give up the other energies to the other planets?  If so, then it’d still be bound to one of the planets, and would still thus be subject to fate, and thus to incarnation.  If not, then what happens to it?  Does it just hang out in that sphere until it can eventually give it up?  If so, what sort of state is the soul in, what sort of experience does it have compared to being in one of the strata in the atmosphere?  Does such a soul become “lost” and end up becoming an astrological daimōn on its own that, instead of fleeing fate, becomes an enforcer of it (like how CH XVI.10—16 describe the “demons on duty at the exact moment of birth arrayed under each of the stars”)?  Or does it lose its momentum of rising and end up tumbling back down (or sent back shamefully with its tail between its legs) to the atmosphere to continue improving on itself so that it can make the attempt again at a later time—but only after another round of incarnation?

This is a super unclear point for me, and many of the possible answers here to these questions are troubling.  I think the resolution here is safest with the first option, but I note that it’s not wholly clear what “giving over your temperament/character” (the Greek word here is ēthos, which Martiana over at SARTRIX has in her translation of CH I as “way of life”) to the avenging daimōn actually entails.  Is it just mannerisms and habits one accrued in life, the familiarity the soul has with its most recent specific incarnation itself, and so separate and unrelated to the planetary energies which may yet remain active within us?  Or is it something more profound, the “seal” that binds together all those planetary energies that collectively allow us to be incarnate to begin with, where giving up one’s ēthos automatically renders those planetary energies inactive?  Or is it something else entirely, something on the same level as the body and sense perception itself but which is no higher than that?  And, if one might be unable to reach a planetary “gate” but be unable to give up the proper “toll” to pass it, is one’s ēthos likewise something that one might not be able to give up to the daimōn?  And if one is unable to give up even that, what happens to the soul then?  Does it even rise at all to any stratum of the atmosphere, or does it just stick around and haunt the world clinging onto its irretrievable “way of life”?

In a way, even though one’s ēthos is among the very first things one gives up in CH I.24—26, I wonder if it’s among the most important, a sine qua non of the whole process of ascension to begin with.  If we return to our non-judgmental model where there is no avenging/judging daimōn involved in this process, then while one might be able to give up any of the other energies ahead of time to render them inert while in life, one’s ēthos itself is the actual pattern and habit of living itself, one’s very desire to keep doing things the way they were—potentially even stretching to a desire for incarnation at all.  This isn’t to say we should all give in to our thanatic urges and kill ourselves, far from it!  Rather, this speaks more to a pathological need to continue being incarnated time and time again, a fundamental attachment or perceived self-established push to keep going through this is an issue, like someone who can’t seem to (or refuses to want to) graduate university yet insists on taking more classes and accruing more degrees for its own sake rather than for anything outside of university.  And yet, I’m still torn, because I’m not sure of the precise relationship here between ēthos and the rest of the things we have to give up in the course of our transition between incarnation on Earth and discarnate existence as a soul.

In an attempt to stop spinning my wheels so much on this, let’s back up.  Regardless of any of the above questions and possible answers, I think it’s clear that, if we accept the dwelling-place of souls at all and a model of reincarnation, that Poimandrēs’ account of “the way up” to Hermēs is very much an ideal best-case scenario, like if the Buddha were to discuss the process of attaining enlightenment then passing into parinirvāṇa: obviously something that happens for those who are enlightened at death, but not something that happens for everyone at death because not everyone is enlightened at death.  For those who are ready, they give up everything at death and in the ascent that follows death, and then rise up to a divine state beyond fate (which is the overall salvific goal of Hermeticism).  For those who are not ready at all, it seems like reincarnation is to be expected (and so one should live life respectfully and reverently, which is the other goal of Hermeticism).  The question now is what happens for someone who is partially ready, who can give up some things that pin us down but not all things.

The easy answer would be “all or nothing”, and in this one aspect, I think that a judgmental model that involves the avenging/judging daimōn provides a benefit here: this would be an entity which can give us a fair assessment of whether or not we’re able to make “the way up” in full, and if we’re not capable of doing it at all, it stops us from doing so and simply gives us another chance to try again according to the best possible circumstance it can allow.  I would be less sanguine about figuring out how such a process might work in a non-judgmental model, however; one way I might explain it in this approach is, if we’re ready to give just the first or lowest thing up, it starts a chain reaction where we end up giving up everything else (like throwing over one ballast weight from a hot-air balloon that’s tied to a whole series of ballast weights), but it requires us to give up that lowest thing as the “heaviest weight” first and foremost, without which we can’t rise to that first non-ēthos gate at all.  I mean, after all, with nous, why wouldn’t someone be given some sort of “momentum”, as it were, to not only face the divine truth but to accept it and live in accordance with it?

Using either model, however, seems ill-founded with such an overall approach; while this “all or nothing” approach would be a sensible belief, I don’t have any evidence to back this up beyond handwaving it away as being sensible merely for the sake of being convenient; among other assumptions, it necessitates the idea that a soul can dwell in the sublunar atmosphere or in the eighth sphere (or higher), but cannot linger at any point in-between.  And yet, despite the lack of evidence for such a perspective, we have an equal lack of evidence of anything other perspective, either; after all, as Wouter Hanegraff says in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, “the Hermetica tell us remarkably little about the soul’s afterlife”; despite even his magisterial work on classical Hermeticism across 400-some pages, Hanegraff has maybe three or four that actually touch on the afterlife.  Based on the above as well as my own possible conjectures from earlier, what we are left with as options (as far as I might envision, there may be others) might be summarized as follows:

  1. After its discarnation, the soul only makes “the way up” in total past the dwelling-place of souls if it is fully capable of doing so, and returns to an appropriate dwelling-place of souls according to its dignity otherwise.
  2. After its discarnation, the soul makes “the way up” past the dwelling-place of souls only as far as it is able to, but upon hitting any obstacle, tumbles back down into the cycles of reincarnation.  This itself has several possibilities:
    1. In tumbling down, it gets sent into the uppermost soul-stratum by default as a sort of “initial cushion” that breaks the fall of the soul.
    2. In tumbling down, it gets sent into whatever soul-stratum would be accorded to it if it had not attempted “the way up” to begin with.  (If a soul being ready at all to surpass any of the obstacles involved is a mark of nobility, then chances are it’d get shunted to the uppermost soul-stratum anyway, rendering this the same as the option above.)
    3. In tumbling down, it gets sent into a body immediately without abiding in any soul-stratum, bypassing the usual processes of the directives of fate in incarnation.
  3. After its discarnation, the soul makes “the way up” past the dwelling-place of souls only as far as it is able to, but upon hitting any obstacle, lingers at its higher place.  This itself has several possibilities
    1. In lingering, it stays at the higher sphere until it can manage to continue the rest of “the way up”.
    2. In lingering, it becomes (or works as) an astral daimōn to effect the fateful influences of the sphere in which it lingers.  (Odd as this possibility might seem, it comes about as a confluence between the doctrine of “mind becomes daimonic” in CH X.18—21, and the notion of astral/stellar daimones from CH XVI.10—16.)  This itself has several possibilities:
      1. This shift is a temporary change of employment, and continues only as long as the soul needs to manage to continue the rest of “the way up” (in effect becoming a subcase of the above point).
      2. This shift is a permanent change to its nature, such that the soul no longer can become free of fate at all or rise any higher, but instead becomes part of fate.  (This seems incredibly unlikely to me.)

Of these options, I’m most inclined towards option 1 (the easy “all or nothing” approach), with 2a (ascent-obstacle makes you reincarnate) in second place and 3a (ascent-obstacle just slows you down without reincarnation) being a close third.  I find 3a to be more appealing (you basically get as far as you can and stay there until you can go farther), but I note that being subject to any of the planets is still being subject to fate as a whole, and I can’t personally reconcile being subject to fate (which is what makes souls incarnate to begin with as the only means fate seems to directly impact souls, at least in the dwelling-place of souls in the sublunar atmosphere) with a notion of some sort of pause from its influences, even so high up as that.  Still, I can’t discount the possibility that not being subject to all the planets (especially the Moon, which is very much the planet of generation and thus pregnancy and birth and embodiment) does put a sort of stay on the actual push or descent towards incarnation, even if being subject to some of them still keeps us from total freedom and may still cause the soul to undergo some sort of pressure or temptation towards incarnation.  2a, on the other hand, keeps the notion of incarnation as a pressure on the soul due to fate in general intact while also preserving some notion of “progress” by having a soul come down to the highest possible dwelling-place (which is the first sublunar stratum it’d come in contact with).

As for my thoughts on the other options: 2b seems to be more strict and assumes an “escape/sideways route” towards “the way up”, which I’m not too fond of, while 2c seems awkward and rule-breaking.  3b, on the other hand, seems really bizarre as an edge case and, while I can envision some models of the cosmos and the soul to allow the soul to be “employed” in such a way by forces of fate it cannot surmount and so becomes dominated by until it “works off its debt”.  It’s not impossible, but of the two, while I can think of some gnostic or exceedingly-dire accounts (like the “eternal punishment” of AH 28) suggesting that 3b(ii) as a “permanent waywardness of the soul” could be a possibility, I find the notion to be as unlikely as it is unfair within a Hermetic perspective, leaving 3b(i) more likely (sorta).  None of these options appeals to me as much as 1, 2a, or 3a.

Of course, this is all just opinion and conjecture at this point.  While we’ve been able to improve on the overall sketch of an outline from the last post, we’re still left with several possible, competing models, choosing between can be left up to interpretive license.  As I’m flipping through a variety of academic articles and scholarly compilations of various aspects of afterlife belief common in the Hellenistic world, I’m trying to find things that might offer informative parallels or other insights into what we see in Hermeticism, but I admit that I’m not coming up with all that much; others might have more success than I am, and I happily invite anyone with ideas or suggestions for further research or consideration to say so in the comments.  Still, at this point, we have something to work with that pieces together the different hints that we get in the Hermetic texts towards a cohesive system.  Even if some of the technical details and edge cases are vague, it’s still enough to work with—and we can talk about the implications of what that means in the next post.

One response

  1. Pingback: On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Religious Works « The Digital Ambler

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