Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Expecting (and Finding) Polytheism

This post has been one I’ve been struggling to write for a while now.  Normally, when I get the feeling to write a post, it either comes out in the moment and I set it up to be posted on my blog, or it doesn’t come out and I just let it sit in my drafts folder as a post idea until it’s time to actually write it; I let the thing mature inside, as it were, until it’s good enough to come out on its own.  However, this topic is one that I’ve seen crop up time and time again on the /r/Hermeticism subreddit or on the Hermetic House of Life Discord server for literal months now, and every time it does, I remind myself again that I should get to this post.  It’s not for lack of trying that it hasn’t been written yet, and it’s not like I don’t have statements or opinions about the subject (they’re all actually fairly straightforward), it’s just…been difficult to actually put all that together in a post.  Maybe my approach to it has been wrong, and maybe my more natural writing style prefers to take a different approach.  Either way, this post is one that’s been a long time coming.

Let’s start with a question, then: what’s with all the talk of “God” (singular) in the classical Hermetic texts?  When a lot of people come to the Hermetic texts for the first time (whether as a scholarly student or a spiritual one), the way a lot of Hermetic texts read makes it sound like some sort of weird Christian knockoff (or, as some patristic Christian authors wrote, some sort of weird pagan prophetical anticipation of Christianity).  For some people, this isn’t so much a problem, especially in our largely monotheistic culture in the West or who are used to monotheistic approaches in the modern occult scene, but for many people nowadays who are looking for something more classical, pagan, or otherwise non-Abrahamic and polytheist, the language used in the classical Hermetic texts can be off-putting or outright disorienting.  This is especially confusing when there is talk of gods or temple worship in the Hermetica, but it’s not always clear for some about how to correlate all this with each other.

In part III of my Hermeticism FAQ, I opened up with an answer about whether Hermeticism is monotheistic or polytheistic:

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Now, I admit, when I was writing the FAQ, I was hedging on this point.  It is true that Hermeticism has been contextualized (if not practiced) for a good few centuries within monotheistic cultures, specifically Christian ones in Europe and Islamic ones in north Africa and the near or middle East.  In that time, our extant Hermetic texts from the classical period (and a good many others besides) have been preserved and transmitted through generations of copyists and redactors, also of a similarly monotheistic bent, and have likewise been picked up, read, and made use of by plenty of magicians, mystics, scholars, and detractors who also operate more-or-less from a monotheistic perspective.  The language of the Hermetic corpora, after all, does focus hugely on God, the One, however you want to call it.  As a result, this question gets asked frequently enough to start open that FAQ segment on doctrine to clear the airs.

All that said, make no mistake: Hermeticism, properly speaking, is a polytheistic form of mysticism.  It was produced by polytheists within a polytheistic culture, and does not just admit the existence of multiple gods, but actively encourages their worship.  It’s not just a matter of “you can worship the gods”, but “you should worship the gods”.  It’s just that the emphasis on Hermeticism as a specific kind of mysticism within a broader religious context (specifically a Greco-Egyptian polytheistic one) isn’t on the gods, but on God which, notably, is not a god itself and the notion of which does not diminish the divinity or godhood of the gods.  This last part is, admittedly, a little confusing, and the distinctions between monism and monotheism can get blurred depending on one’s preexisting notion of “God”, especially within an otherwise monotheistic context or coming from an otherwise monotheistic background.

So, yes, the gods.  The classical Hermetic texts make abundant notes that gods (plural) exist: throughout CH III, CH II.14—16, CH V.3, CH X.7 and CH X.22—25, CH XII.1 and CH XII.12 and CH XII.21, CH XIII.17, CH XIV.8, CH XVI.10—18, throughout the Asclepius (§4—7, 18—19, 22—23, 25, 27, 32, 37, 39), SH 11, SH 14, SH 21, and on and on.  And that’s just looking for the word “gods” (theoi in Greek), setting aside any oblique or opaque references to them, like “governors”, “powers”, or even “statues” (in reference to the divine idols or cult images as worshipped in temples).  The Hermetic texts don’t make much of a big deal about there being multiple gods because they fundamentally assume their existence, declaring them in passing almost as if the authors of the Hermetic texts took their existence for granted.  And why shouldn’t they?  These texts were written in Hellenistic Egypt during the early Roman Empire, by a polytheistic people in a polytheistic culture.  Given Walter Scott’s tentative dating of most of the Hermetic texts being written between the first and fourth centuries CE (most of them between the second and third), this was all largely before the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire began, and written in an ancient bastion of civilization filled to the brim with temples that formed the institutional backbone supporting Egypt for literal millennia.  Although there was plenty of cultural and religious change starting with Alexander the Great’s colonization of Egypt, taking the Ptolemaic period into the Roman period, the underlying culture and civilization of Egypt was much as it ever was.  And all of this forms the backdrop for what is now the current scholarly consensus, established by the work of academic researchers Garth Fowden or Christian Bull or Wouter Hanegraaff, that the Hermetic texts (and classical Hermeticism more broadly) were produced in a quasi-priestly milieu, the texts either being written by Egyptian priests for a Greek-speaking audience or by their students in a more-or-less Hellenistic context, situating Egyptian religiosity amidst Greek philosophical inclinations.

And yet, when we read the Hermetic texts, all the above seems to be such a miniscule part of it all—because it is!  The vast majority, rather, is given to discussion about God (ho theos) in the singular, sometimes referred to as the Maker, the Father, the Good, the One, or so on; prayers of thanksgiving and praise pepper the Hermetic texts, as well as injunctions to show reverence and devotion to God.  Put beside each other, the polytheistic admissions above contrasted with this is enough to give someone whiplash, so what gives?  It’s not like the Hermetic texts are pulling a fast one on their readers, trying to get them to softly convert to some sort of monotheism, far from it.  There’s something a little more subtle happening here that requires a bit of extra historical and spiritual context, as well as a reminder of what “monotheism” actually is and how “monotheism” could be expressed in the cultural and temporal environment of the Hermetica.  And no, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that the Hermetic texts referring to ho theos is in reference to any specific god like Zeus or Amun, either, and how that might lead to any notion of henotheism, megatheism, or whatever.  There’s something else going on here, because (as I read it) God itself is something Else than what we might expect.

One of the issues that a lot of modern people wrestle with (and, let’s be honest, it’s a fair enough question) is what a “god” actually is.  We could talk all day about spirits generally, different kinds of spirits, how we might relate to entities on different levels of reality, and so on until the cows come home—but I wouldn’t try to define the term “god”, because the Hermetic texts don’t, either.  There is certainly talk of God and the gods, but there is never any strict discussion of what constitutes a god or what sets apart the gods from other kinds of spirits.  The notion of a god is something that is something assumed and otherwise implicit in the Hermetic texts, and to my understanding, it refers broadly to any powerful spiritual entity of a more refined or elevated nature than oneself that can or should receive worship and reverence and sacrifice, whether or not it is embodied.  In this light, the term “god” can be inclusive of the Cosmos itself, the planets and stars, heroes or deified teachers, divinized kings, the presiding entity of rivers or mountains, ensouled statues containing the presence of any of the above, and so on.  This is all still a rough definition, of course, but trying to get into the specifics of what is or isn’t a god isn’t the point of this post; at the end of the day, if you worship it, it’s a god.

And on that point, we can point to where the Hermetic texts instruct us or encourage us as to the worship of the gods, as in CH XVII, a dialogue between Tat and an unnamed king (though presumably Ammōn):

“…if you think about it, O king, incorporeals also exist among the corporeals.”

“What kind?” asked the king.

“Bodies that appear to be in mirrors seem incorporeal to you, do they not?”

“Yes, Tat, they do; your understanding is godlike,” said the king.

“But there are also other incorporeals: doesn’t it seem to you, for example, that there are forms that appear in body even though they are incorporeal, in the bodies not only of ensouled beings but of the soulless also?”

“You put it well, Tat.”

“Thus, there are reflections of the incorporeals in corporeals and of corporeals in incorporeals—from the sensible to the intelligible cosmos, that is, and from the intelligible to the sensible. Therefore, my king, adore the statues, because they, too, possess forms from the intelligible cosmos.”

CH XVII is a short fragment of a larger text that does not seem to be extant in its entirety anymore, although it does appear to be under the overall heading of Hermetic theology, i.e. discussions about God and the gods.  In this fragment, we see a bit of a logical argument that basically claims that statues of the gods are images of the gods, like the incorporeal reflection of a thing in a corporeal mirror, and so we should worship the statues of the gods—but why?  Because the gods themselves are to be worshipped.  The specific word used here is proskunei, which Copenhaver renders as “adore” but which is used more generally as “make obeisance to the gods”, “fall down and worship”, “prostrating oneself in reverence”, “do reverence towards”, and so forth; although one might try to split hairs and suggest a Christian-esque latria/dulia distinction, that’s not really seen much here using this word, especially when we have related words like proskunēia “act of worship” or proskunētēs “worshipper”.  What Tat (called a “prophet” in CH XVII, which itself is not just a general term but a title of a particular kind of ritual official in Egyptian priesthoods) is doing here is explicitly encouraging worship of the gods, not just generally but specifically towards cult images of the gods like the statues enshrined in temples.

Then there’s the Asclepius, which is abundant in its talk of the gods, and which was considered scandalous by patristic Christian writers (especially Augustine of Hippo in his City of God) for its explicit talk of how statues are ensouled and consecrated.  There are plenty of references towards worshipping the gods, like in AH 5 (“one who has joined himself to the gods in divine reverence, using the mind that joins him to the gods, almost attains divinity”) or AH 22 (“since he is conjoined to them in kinship, mankind honors the gods with reverent and holy mind; the gods also show concern for all things human and watch over them in faithful affection”), and the famous “Prophecy of Hermēs” from AH 24—29 talks at length about the horrible fate that will befall Egypt (and eventually the whole world) when humanity stops worshipping the gods.  However, when it comes to in-depth discussions of the gods, there are four main sections we can point out:

  • AH 19: a discussion of sensible gods (aisthētoi theoi) vs. intelligible gods (noētoi theoi), with the latter being heads-of-essences (ousiarchai) that produce all things throughout the cosmos
  • AH 23—24: just as God makes heavenly gods, humanity makes “temple gods who are content to be near humans”, i.e. the sacred statues that serve as cult images of the gods to which worship and sacrifice is directed so as to glorify, revere, and commune with the gods themselves
  • AH 27: a description of the functions of Jupiter and Jupiter Plutonius (Zeus, Zeus Ploutonios, and Korē in the Coptic AH from NHC VI,8) in creating and sustaining life in the world (which to me reads like interpretatio romana/graeca of Amun, Osiris, and Isis)
  • AH 37—39: how humanity came to learn of the hieratic art of ensouling statues with the presences of gods, the differences between heavenly gods (i.e. gods in their own domain which rule over universals) and earthly gods (i.e. the presences of the gods worshipped in temples via their cult images which rule over particulars)

The tone of the Asclepius here is nothing short of devoutly prescriptive: more than just raising the fact that the gods are worshipped, this text outright tells us that the gods are supposed to be worshipped, along with how and why we should do so.  In similar terms, though less prescriptive than descriptive, do we find Isis teaching Hōros in the Kore Kosmou (SH 23.65—68) about her role as a culture hero with Osiris to tame the savagery of the first humans on Earth by introducing, among other things, consecrated precincts and sacrifices for the ancestral gods, teachings regarding the gods, and a “perfect remedy in all of their prophets [so that] no future prophet who raised his hands to the gods would ever be ignorant” of divine truths and blessings to preserve good life on Earth.  Beyond even this, we also get Hermēs saying in SH 2A.14 that he “venerates and worships” (sebomai kaì proskunō—and note the use of that last word here!) the Sun (or, specifically, its truth/reality/existence).  While I could keep coming up with references like this, I’ve made my point: the classical Hermetic texts not only readily admit and recognize the existence of multiple gods (and, in some cases, elaborately detail and document them), but also explicitly encourage our worship of them.  The funny thing is with all this, though, is that the tone that these same Hermetic texts take, even in the above sections, seems to be an almost dismissive “of course you should do this, you fool, you absolute moron”.  Giving worship to the gods, after all, was something necessary for us to live happy and fruitful lives “down here”; as Hermēs says in AH 38:

And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind.

Do not suppose that these earthly gods act aimlessly, Asclepius. Heavenly gods inhabit heaven’s heights, each one heading up the order assigned to him and watching over it. But here below our gods render aid to humans as if through loving kinship, looking after some things individually, foretelling some things through lots and divination, and planning ahead to give help by other means, each in his own way.

Through reverence, worship, sacrifice, hymning, and all the like, humanity is able to join with the gods in a way that is harmonious for the overall cosmos.  It allows us to be provided and cared for by the gods, it allows the gods to better abide with us and work with us in the world, and it allows both humanity and the gods to collaboratively maintain the right order of the whole cosmos that we are enjoined to perfecting.  To worship the gods is to maintain a right relationship with them as much as it is the whole of creation.  Likewise, earlier on in AH 9:

But I notice, Asclepius, that mind’s quick desire hastens you to learn how mankind can cherish heaven (or the things in it) and tend to its honor. Listen, then, Asclepius. Cherishing the god of heaven and all that heaven contains means but one thing: constant assiduous service. Except for mankind alone, no living thing, neither divine nor <mortal>, has done this service. Heaven and heavenly beings take delight in wonderment, worship, praise and service from humans. Rightly the supreme divinity sent the chorus of Muses down to meet mankind lest the earthly world lack sweet melody and seem thereby less civilized; instead, with songs set to music, humans praised and glorified him who alone is all and is father of all, and thus, owing to their praise of heaven, earth has not been devoid of the charms of harmony.

This bit of AH 9 comes immediately after Hermēs talking about all the other sciences and activities humans get up to in the world, including “agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, reciprocal exchange”.  All of these things are what “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that the world would be “incomplete” (and thus imperfected) without us engaging in these things.  Just as humanity is to tend to the world below through these mundane arts and sciences, so too are we to tend to the world above through more spiritual and religious ones.  Despite the importance (if not outright fervent glorification) Hermēs gives to all of this, he only really covers this in a surprisingly summary way before immediately moving onto other topics.

The overall feel of how the Hermetic texts talk about the gods and our worship of them is like it’s all a reminder rather than something revelatory—because, in the original context of Hermeticism, the reader would already be worshipping the gods (plural), and the actual revelation would be learning about God (singular).  That’s why the Hermetic texts spend so much time on God: as opposed to the gods more generally which everyone was already engaged with, the mystic (and monist) focus on Hermeticism is with this other thing that people aren’t so familiar with.  Being a good polytheist with an awareness of and reverence for the gods, in other words, is essentially a prerequisite for engaging with this new thing that all these texts attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos are trying to teach.

Let’s consider again the original context of the Hermetic texts.  As I mentioned before, Hermeticism arose in a polytheistic culture, specifically that of Hellenistic Egypt during the Roman Empire, but more specifically, based on the most recent academic analyses of the milieu in which these texts arose, it was in small, close-knit “communities” (such as they were) headed by a teacher with some number of students.  Unlike the centralized network of Egyptian temples (an ancient set of institutions in their own right), these groups were far more decentralized, even to the point of informality, likely within the home of the teacher or within an empty corner or room of local temples.  The teacher would likely have been either a career Egyptian priest interested in mysticism and skilled in particular hieratic arts, or otherwise one taught by them, blending Hellenistic philosophy with Egyptian religiosity in a way befitting the life and times of a post-Ptolemaic-now-Roman context.  In its original Greco-Egyptian environment, devotions and sacrifices to the gods would have been understood and performed as a given and would have provided the necessary religious and spiritual foundation for what would essentially be an “extracurricular activity”: the gods were already well-known, but having already approached them and having already understood their role in the lives of people in the world, those who would want “something more” would then seek out a teacher who could go beyond the exoteric into the esoteric.

Let’s get more into that stuff next time.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: What God Is and Isn’t « The Digital Ambler

  2. Pingback: Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Monism vs. Monotheism « The Digital Ambler

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