Those who’ve gone through a number of my Hermeticism-related posts know that I like to cite a bunch of the classical Hermetic texts, which can be dizzying at points for those who aren’t used to a lot of the abbreviations. For the sake of my friends and colleagues over on the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I put together a Google Sheets-based index of Hermetic texts and references which contains a breakdown of all the texts, their sectioning, and whatever possible citations or sources I can find for them in the classical Hermetic corpora, but for those who just want an easier cheat-sheet of abbreviations I tend to use:
- CH — Corpus Hermeticum
- AH — Latin Asclepius, or the Perfect Sermon
- DH — Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
- OH — Oxford Hermetic Fragments
- VH — Vienna Hermetic Fragments
- SH — Stobaean Hermetic Fragments (i.e. Hermetic fragments from John of Stobi’s Anthology)
- NH —Hermetica within the Nag Hammadi Library
- FH — Miscellaneous Hermetic Fragments (from Litwa’s Hermetica II)
- TH — Miscellaneous Hermetic Testimonia (from Litwa’s Hermetica II)
Besides the above, there are also a few other useful abbreviations to describe a few other texts, whether some of the above texts by other terms or secondary literature about the above:
- KK — Korē Kosmou, or Virgin/Pupil of the World (SH 23—26)
- NHC — Nag Hammadi Codices (of which NH are NHC VI,6—8)
- D89 — Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (or The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead, i.e. NHC VI,6)
- PGM — Greek Magical Papyri
- PDM — Demotic Magical Papyri
- PCM — Coptic Magical Papyri
- HSHI — Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (by Wouter Hanegraaff)
- THT — The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (by Christian Bull)
Going by the primary list of abbreviations above (CH, AH, DH, etc.), as recorded on that index of Hermetic texts I linked to above but excluding the miscellaneous Hermetic fragments and testimonia (FH and TH), there are 73 Hermetic texts that fall under the banner of “classical Hermetic corpora” (not including, of course, a variety of “practical/technical” texts like what we might find in the PGM). Although some of these texts are certainly far more known—or at least more accessible and easily found—than others are (like how CH is compared to OH), I consider the whole collection of these texts to compose the “beating heart” of Hermeticism, and so are crucial to its study. I don’t like thinking of these all as some sort of “bible”, though, even if some might find the use of such a term as a helpful parallel to gauge exactly how important this collection of texts might be.
But that’s just it: it’s a collection of texts, and an often disparate one at that that’s based only on what’s extant to us nowadays. We only have what survives the knife of time and the redactor’s pen, to be sure, but even then, some of these texts were only recovered in the past few decades (like DH was in the 1980s or OH were in the 1990s, to say nothing of the Nag Hammadi stuff in 1945). With an increasing quality of scholarship and more accessibility to otherwise-forgotten libraries, there’s always the possibility for further classical Hermetic texts to be discovered (or, perhaps more appropriately, recovered), and I’m always hopeful that we might indeed find something more along these lines to continue to shake up or further develop our understanding of classical Hermeticism and how it influenced everything that came after it. Still, we only have what we have, and even that can be a mess at times. Even texts like the CH, which appear to us nowadays as being a “single text”, aren’t really anything of the sort, but are rather a collection of disparate texts that were compiled together at one point (the fact of which goes a long way to explain a number of inconsistencies or disparate views between the different books contained therein).
This raises the question: how, exactly, should one go about trying to really approach reading the classical Hermetic texts at all? Is there some ideal order that we might read them in? Should we go by collection, theme, or some other scheme? Do we want to impose a classification on them (like monist, dualist, or a middle-ground between them), or some sort of “distance from a center” like what Hanegraaff does in his HSHI (pp. 138—144) with “more central” texts being the more experiential and spiritual and “more distant” texts being the more theoretical and contextual? Should we just go in order of how they appear in some collections, and if so, which specific collections’ orders (because with the SH specifically, there’s how they appear in Scott and preserved by later scholars like Nock/Festugière or Litwa, and how they appear in Stobaeus’ own Anthology)? There are a lot of considerations one might take to answering a question like this, and there’s no real wrong approach here; after all, the goal for those who study the Hermetic texts is to eventually study all of them and to get acquainted enough with their ideas and themes so that we know what they talk about and how they relate to the rest of the Hermetic corpora. Still, having some sort of curriculum or syllabus might well be helpful for those who want to take a more thoughtful approach.
While I like taking my time and going through the texts repeatedly as I find convenient whenever I feel like picking up my copies of Copenhaver, Litwa, or Salaman, this same question is one that I’ve personally wrestled with because it has a practical impact on me. One of the things I do on HHoL (and before on the now-defunct “Hermetic Agora” server) is lead a “Weekly Hermetica” study group, where we go through particular texts, read them, and discuss them on a weekly basis. In addition to covering texts like the Picatrix, a number of entries in the PGM, or (as is currently ongoing) the Sentences of Sextus (which I wrote about not too long ago on my blog), I’ve also covered the classical Hermetic texts before, and I plan to do so again (on a schedule that starts this April 2023 and continues through June 2024). While there are certainly arguments for handling this in one way or another, the schedule and approach I’ve settled on for doing this to give people a decent run-through of the classical Hermetic texts on a week-by-week basis runs like this:
- CH III
- CH VII, CH I
- CH IV
- CH XI
- CH XIII
- CH V
- CH XIV
- CH VIII
- CH IX
- CH XII
- CH VI
- CH XVII
- CH II
- CH XVI
- CH XVIII
- CH X
- NHC VI,6 (D89)
- AH 1—3
- AH 4—6
- AH 7—9
- AH 10—13
- AH 14—17
- AH 18—21 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,8)
- AH 22—26 (equivalent of NHC VI,8)
- AH 26—30 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,8)
- AH 31—34
- AH 35—38
- AH 39—41 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,7)
- SH 1, 2A, 2B
- SH 28, 21, 9
- SH 15, 22
- SH 5, 29
- SH 6
- SH 8, 12, 13, 14, 7
- SH 11
- SH 20, 17
- SH 3, 19
- SH 18, 16, 10
- SH 27, 23.1-23 (KK part 1, first third, starting with a single line from another excerpt)
- SH 23.24-49 (KK part 1, second third)
- SH 23.50-70 (KK part 1, last third)
- SH 24 (KK part 2)
- SH 25 (KK part 3)
- SH 26 (KK part 4)
- DH 1
- DH 2
- DH 3
- DH 4
- DH 5
- DH 6
- DH 7
- DH 8
- DH 9
- DH 10
- DH 11
- OH 1—5
- VH 1—4
In general, I break up texts primarily by collection, starting with the most well-known or profuse and going to the lesser-known, shorter, or otherwise more recently-found texts. In the case of AH, DH, OH, and VH, we just straightforwardly go through each text in a linear sequence without skipping around. AH, since it’s all technically just one big text, gets broken up into a series of chunks of sections. NH gets split up, with NH 1 (NHC VI,6 aka D89) on its own and NH 2 (NHC VI,7) and NH 3 (NHC VI,8) being discussed alongside the AH, because these are equivalent texts preserved in different languages and textual lineages (NH in Coptic, AH in Latin). CH and (most of) SH, however, pose much more interesting difficulties, because these are properly collections of texts that appear in different formats at times (some are discourses, some are letters, some are just decontextualized musings, etc.) and there’s no clear theme or development that suggests a particular “original order” or another.
For the CH, I generally stick to one book at a time, and otherwise I generally follow Hanegraaff’s “theoretical distance from the experiential center”. He gives his reasoning for how he considers the various books of CH (as well as NH, DH, and SH texts) to be more or less “weird” in HSHI (pp. 138—144), and I think his analysis here is really insightful, even if he makes clear that it’s all conditional and hypothetical along his own framework of interpretation and understanding.
The way I like to think of my approach to the CH is a journey of sorts:
- We open with CH III, which even though Hanegraaff places outside his circle entirely (“its relevance to Hermetic spirituality is limited to some vague similarities with the account of creation in CH I”), I find to be a wonderful summary of the Hermetic worldview and helps frame someone’s approach in a sensible way. (Admittedly, I admit my own bias here, given my love for CH III as a sort of “Heart Sutra” for Hermeticism and having done my own analysis and translation of it, but I think it’s still easy and short enough to knock out first.)
- Although I prefer to give each CH text its own “study session”, I combine CH VII and CH I together since the fire-and-brimstone harangue of CH VII is a straightforward expansion/continuation of the initial streetside preaching of Hermēs in CH I.27—29. However, CH I is the real star of this pair, and is otherwise the very foundation of all the other classical Hermetic texts. After opening up with a gentle CH III and harsh CH VII, CH I is really where we dig into the actual meat of these texts.
- Although Hanegraaff puts CH IV just outside the “weird center” before the next two texts, I think it should be read first as part of it, because it describes its own calling of the way, an explanation of not only the Goodness of God but also gives us an introduction to the impetus of Hermetic salvation, why we should strive for it, and how it’s effected through nous (divine Mind).
- CH XI and CH XIII come next as part of Hanegraaff’s “weird center”, CH XI discussing “the perception of the cosmos through noetic vision following [spiritual] rebirth”, and CH XIII itself being a description of such spiritual rebirth by which such noetic vision is activated.
- CH V, CH XIV, and CH VIII are all monistic theological treatises on the unity of the cosmos and how it is all generally created by God (regardless of other notions of a demiurge being involved at other stages of specific creation), and thus how we should consider our relation to the cosmos and to God in such a light.
- CH IX and CH XII go together for me in discussing the roles of nous and logos coupled with perception and psychology.
- CH VI, in stark contrast to texts like CH V, is one of the ones considered more “gnostic” due to how dualist it seems—but this is just a matter of “seeming” rather than actually being dualist, since there is a fundamental unity at play that still gets obscured through incarnate existence. Coupled with the short fragment that is CH XVII, we get a notion of how incorporeal things and corporeal things properly relate to each other.
- CH II is a very theoretical text that uses some physics metaphors to describe a few matters of theology. It brings back into focus the underlying unity of the creation of God with God, but (with further contextualization provided by CH VI) emphasizes how utterly foreign and different God is to anything we might consider, emphasizing the role of gnōsis to truly achieve a full understanding of how things are.
- CH XVI finalizes the above journey, so to speak, with a encosmic view of how things come to be in a spiritually-active worldview, noting how, even though this is a monist theology we engage with, there’s much in the way between us and God that can be effected through the forces of fate, which we can surmount through divine salvation facilitated through particular channels.
- CH XVIII is a hard text to place, since it’s arguably the only “really” non-Hermetic text in the collection; like CH I and CH III, neither Hermēs nor his students are named, and there’s not a whole lot that connects it theologically or philosophically to the Hermetica beyond a praise of God and kings with some solar imagery (which is why Salaman declines to include it in his translation in the CH). However, as a bit of mystic and religious writing, I think it should be included all the same, and the solar imagery involved here is a nice add-on to the solar discussion in CH XVI.
- CH X is, in Hanegraaff’s words, “our most comprehensive overview of Hermetic theory”. Much how AH is a text that covers lots of topics, CH X is its own sort of encyclopedia that covers much and is one of the longest and most intricate (but also most troubling to understand and correlate at points) texts in the CH. Understanding it as a summary, reading CH X at the end of a tour of the CH gives us a fitting end to this collection of texts in my mind.
For the SH texts, I reserve for the end SH 23—27, which collectively compose KK, proceeding with these texts specifically more-or-less in order (though starting with SH 27, which is just a single line and makes a nice terse intro to the rest of the KK). Although a lot of people like reading the KK, and even though I find a good amount useful in it generally for the understanding of Greco-Egyptian spirituality, I am otherwise in agreement with Hanegraaff that it really shouldn’t be understood as a Hermetic text:
Contrary to common usage, I do not include these treatises under the spiritual Hermetica because they are sharply different from the rest of our treatises in terms of their alleged authors, contents, worldview, and literary style. Hermes does not appear either as a teacher or as a pupil; instead, we read conversations between Isis and Horus in which “all-knowing Hermes” is presented as their remote divine ancestor. The mythological narrative describes God as an anthropomorphic and authoritarian Craftsman who punishes the souls he has created for transgressing his commands. The great beauty of the higher world does not inspire love and admiration but fear; and when the souls are disobedient, they are punished for their sins by imprisonment in the “dishonorable and lowly tents” or “shells” of material bodies. Throughout, the emphasis is on God’s despotic power and his creatures’ fear of him. Because I see all of this as incompatible with what we find in the rest of our corpus, I assume that these Isis-Horus treatises represent a separate tradition.
While we might consider the KK to be a kind of “Isiaca” as opposed to “Hermetica”, and while I think there’s plenty of worth in it to read (indeed, a good chunk of my recent “On the Hermetic Afterlife” post series used the stuff in the KK to give a foundation for a model of Hermetic reincarnation), I don’t think these texts are in line enough with the rest of the Hermetic texts we have available to us to comfortably inform us. That’s why I keep them at the end of my planned tour through the SH: even if they’re important on their own or even to better understand the general context of Hermeticism (which is why I include them in my reading list above), I don’t think they’re all that important for understanding and implementing Hermeticism itself.
The rest of the SH, however, isn’t so bound by the above as the KK is, which is why I like giving it its due. The order in which I plan to cover them, however, might seem super shuffled and jumbled. Hanegraaff considers them as a whole to discuss a wide variety of topics, and so are closer in spirit to DH or CH X. My order for them, however, is more-or-less themed according to how I understand them:
- SH 1, 2A, 2B: truth and devotion (a good opening intro to the SH, not unlike how CH III/VII/I together were for the CH)
- SH 28, 21, 9: God, the chain of being, and how things come to be
- SH 15, 22: procreation, birth, and premodern understandings of family resemblance as a matter of incarnation of the soul in a world of elements
- SH 5, 29: the different levels of creation, the sustaining and maintaining of the body, and a short poem on the powers of the planets
- SH 6: decans, astrological and meteorological phenomena, and how this all relates to the vision of God
- SH 8, 12, 13, 14, 7: providence, necessity, fate, and justice as guiding principles of the world, its functioning, and our right-relationship to it and to God
- SH 11: a collection of summary-statements (κεφαλαία kephalaía) that collectively frame a Hermetic understanding of fate
- SH 20, 17: virtues and powers of the soul and how it relates to body
- SH 3, 19: different kinds of souls, how souls might be considered, and how it gives form to life and living
- SH 18, 16, 10: relationship between soul and body, and how time flows and is perceived
Now, of course, this is all just my plan to go through the texts for the sake of my “curriculum” for HHoL’s Weekly Hermetica study group, based on my own understanding of the texts and informed by modern scholarship about them. I want to be clear here that I’m not suggesting that this is the only way or the best way to approach these texts, but is more of a matter of “thematic convenience” based on how I consider them that would lead (hopefully) to fruitful discussion and consideration among the people participating in these weekly chats.
To further illustrate that there might well be other sensible orders to consider some of these texts in, lemme share a small side-project I was asked to consider once upon a time. Although I don’t like thinking of the Hermetic texts as a “bible” of sorts (I’m not a fan of bibliolatry or seeing these as somehow divinely-guided or divinely-inspired texts, even if they are revelatory at points and talk about holy matters), it’s far from uncommon for some people to treat some of these texts with a similar reverence for particular religious activities, like swearing oaths upon or having as a presence of its own on a Hermetic altar. At one point, someone asked me to consider a set of Hermetic readings from the CH, like one might do for matins or vespers services in a Christian context, as an adjunct for one’s prayers or to offer a schedule for lectio divina. To that end, I came up with a four-week set of 56 readings, two readings per day across 28 days, that takes one through the CH in its own thematic way focused more on daily devotions to divinity rather than on experiential “weirdness” as used in my weekly discussions schedule above:
|1||1||Matins||VII||Call to the Way|
|1||1||Vespers||III||The Creation and Purpose|
|1||2||Matins||XVIII.1—3||Praise for the Almighty||The Nature of Music and the Musician|
|1||2||Vespers||XVIII.4—6||Praise for the Almighty||The Faults and Help of the Musician|
|1||3||Matins||XVIII.9—10||Praise for the Almighty||Approaching the Supreme King|
|1||3||Vespers||XVIII.11—14||Praise for the Almighty||The Rays of the Supreme King|
|1||4||Matins||IX.3—4||The Good||The Conceptions and Gifts of God|
|1||4||Vespers||VI.1—2||The Good||On the Qualities of the Good|
|1||5||Matins||VI.3—4||The Good||Good in the World|
|1||5||Vespers||VI.5—6||The Good||The Good and the Beautiful|
|1||6||Vespers||IX.5—6||Understanding||Sensation and Understanding|
|1||7||Matins||IX.7—8||Understanding||God the Father, Cosmos the Father|
|1||7||Vespers||IX.9—10||Understanding||God and the Cosmos|
|2||8||Matins||IV.1—2||Mind||How God Made the Cosmos|
|2||8||Vespers||IV.3—5||Mind||God Establish Mind for All to Take|
|2||9||Matins||IV.6—7||Mind||How to Learn about Mind|
|2||9||Vespers||IV.8—9||Mind||Knowledge through Mind to the Good|
|2||10||Matins||II.12—13||Motion, Mind, Good||Mind and God|
|2||10||Vespers||II.14—15||Motion, Mind, Good||God is Not Mind, but Good|
|2||11||Matins||II.16||Motion, Mind, Good||Good is Misunderstood|
|2||11||Vespers||IV.11||Motion, Mind, Good||Goodness and God|
|2||12||Matins||XI.2—3||The Process of the Whole||God, Eternity, Cosmos, Time, Becoming|
|2||12||Vespers||XI.4||The Process of the Whole||God, Mind, Soul, Matter|
|2||13||Matins||XI.5—6||The Process of the Whole||Nothing is Like the Unlike|
|2||13||Vespers||XI.7—8||The Process of the Whole||All Things are Full of Soul and Motion|
|2||14||Matins||XIV.2—3||Health of Mind||Things Begotten Come to Be by the Agency of Another|
|2||14||Vespers||XIV.4—5||Health of Mind||God, Maker, Father|
|3||15||Matins||XIV.7—8||Health of Mind||The Wholeness of the Whole|
|3||15||Vespers||XIV.9—10||Health of Mind||God the Sower of the Things that are Good|
|3||16||Matins||X.7—8||The Soul||Deification Prevented by Vice|
|3||16||Vespers||X.9—10||The Soul||Deification Aided by Virtue|
|3||17||Matins||VIII.1||On Death||Death is but a Word|
|3||17||Vespers||VIII.2||On Death||The Reality of God|
|3||18||Matins||VIII.3—4||On Death||The Immortal Nature of Matter|
|3||18||Vespers||VIII.5||On Death||Understand What God Is|
|3||19||Matins||XII.16||On Death||Dissolution is Not Death|
|3||19||Vespers||XII.17—18||On Death||The Earth is Full of Life|
|3||20||Matins||XIII.1—2||On Rebirth||The Spiritual Birth of Mankind|
|3||20||Vespers||XIII.3—6||On Rebirth||The Way to be Born Again|
|3||21||Matins||XIII.7—10||On Rebirth||The Tormentors and the Powers|
|3||21||Vespers||XIII.11—14||On Rebirth||The Way of the Way of Rebirth|
|4||22||Matins||V.1||Praise for the Maker||Invisible Yet Entirely Visible|
|4||22||Vespers||V.2—5||Praise for the Maker||Seeing the Glory of the Creator in Creation|
|4||23||Matins||V.6—8||Praise for the Maker||The Glory of the Maker of Mankind|
|4||23||Vespers||V.10—11||Praise for the Maker||How Can I Sing Praise?|
|4||24||Matins||I.1—5||The First Revelation||The Opening of the Eyes|
|4||24||Vespers||I.6—9||The First Revelation||Understanding the First Vision|
|4||25||Matins||I.10—11||The First Revelation||The Creation of the World|
|4||25||Vespers||I.12—13||The First Revelation||The Creation of Humanity|
|4||26||Matins||I.14—16||The First Revelation||The Descent of Humanity|
|4||26||Vespers||I.17—19||The First Revelation||The Mystery of Humanity|
|4||27||Matins||I.20—23||The First Revelation||The Trial of Humanity|
|4||27||Vespers||I.24—26||The First Revelation||The Ascent of Humanity|
|4||28||Matins||I.27—29||The First Revelation||The Commission of Hermēs|
|4||28||Vespers||I.30—32||The First Revelation||The Final Praise|
I’m sure one could continue the above with readings from the AH, SH, DH, and the like, and I might expand on that at some point to cover such a thing to make a whole “liturgical year” of readings from the classical Hermetic corpora as a whole as opposed to just the CH, but let’s face it, the CH is by far the most well-known classical Hermetic collection of texts. Even if I personally find some of the SH texts equally as fascinating and informative (if not more so) for arranging a sort of Hermetic spirituality at points, the CH itself is full of theoretical and technical treasures that have captured people’s imaginations for many centuries, earning it a right to special consideration for many Hermeticists today.
I myself haven’t stepped through such a twice-a-day reading schedule as the above, but thinking of or treating a text like the CH in a way that deserves such attention isn’t a bad exercise on its own by far. It also goes to show that there are, indeed, different ways to consider the Hermetic corpora in general for how we want to approach them, and that there’s no one right way to do so. I’m certainly looking forward to this next round of weekly discussions on the classical Hermetic texts in HHoL (and you should totally join us in the server if you want in on them, or to read up on them after the fact!), but I note that this is just my preferred way to step through the texts for the sake of education and building up familiarity with the texts. Other orderings, such as those along different thematic schemas or for more devotional needs than pedagogical, are also totally legit. Besides, all of the foregoing is based on what we just have extant to us nowadays; I look forward to the opportunity of diving into as-yet undiscovered texts and seeing where they fit in amongst all the others, should I be lucky to live long enough to do so!
There are lots of paths one might take in this garden, after all. Just be sure to stop by all the flowers at some point or another as you stroll through it!
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