Okay, so, picking up from last time where we opened up the problem of what to do about this whole God-versus-the-gods thing in the classical Hermetic texts and covering the fact that those texts readily admit the existence of many gods and encourages our worship of them to the point of it being an assumed expectation, we finally get to talk about where God fits into all of this. Unfortunately for us, what makes this discussion complicated is the fact that the Hermetic texts use the same term, theos “god”, to refer to two very distinct concepts; besides that, there’s the fact that the intervening 1500 years of somewhat tense religious activity across every continent impacting billions of people and virtually every field of theology, philosophy, and spirituality has made the word “God” (singular, capitalized, as a proper noun) something of a loaded term for many.
Before we continue along these lines, let’s make a few terms clear first:
- Monotheism: the belief that there is one and only one god.
- Polytheism: the belief that there is more than one god.
- Monism: the philosophy that all things are fundamentally one or single in origin, substance, or nature.
- Dualism: the philosophy that all things are composed of fundamentally two origins, substances, or natures.
- Non-dualism: the philosophy that all appearances of dualism are illusions, and that all things are ultimately inseparable and identical even if not the same.
And a few notes about the above terms:
- Since the above terms fall into two categories (beliefs and philosophies), we can mix and match between the two categories; thus, we can have monist monotheism or dualist monotheism, monist polytheism or dualist polytheism, etc., but we can’t have “monist dualism” or “monotheist polytheism”, as those are contradictions in terms.
- The terms of “monotheism” or “polytheism” above only signify a belief in how many gods there are. They do not signify anything about practice or doctrine regarding the god(s) people holding such beliefs might engage with.
- In addition to “monotheism” and “polytheism”, there are a lot of other terms that are often bandied about: atheism, nontheism, henotheism, pantheism, panentheism, megatheism, and so on, but we don’t need to get into them or use them for the sake of this post except as referenced below.
- Non-dualism can refer to a philosophical stance regarding anything more or less than two fundamental things, and can thus technically refer to trialism, quadrialism, and so forth; however, generally used, non-dualism is similar to monism but which posits that “monism as opposed to dualism” is itself a kind of dualism. It’s a subtle distinction that may or may not be meaningful, depending on the context, but can generally be understood in at least some (if not most) cases to be equivalent to monism—which is generally the case for Hermeticism.
Now, the issue that started this whole discussion was people coming upon the classical Hermetic texts, reading all this stuff about God, and coming away with the notion that Hermeticism must somehow be monotheistic. By its literal definition, that is a false assessment, because Hermeticism espouses an explicitly polytheist worldview and spirituality: there are multiple gods. Even if we were to bring in notions of “henotheism” (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others) or “monolatry” (the worship of one god while believing in many)—and I should note that many such notions and terms are entirely modern conceptualizations of religious approach to divinity that generally come from people with monotheist backgrounds—the classical Hermetic texts don’t just not deny the existence of multiple gods, but they affirm their existence, discuss their natures, and encourage us to their worship. Again, none of this should be surprising: the Hermetic texts were written in a Hellenistic Egyptian cultural context, i.e. a polytheistic and pagan one, so we should expect to see things along those lines in texts produced in such a context.
So what of God? For as much as the classical Hermetic texts talk about the gods and encourage our worship of them, the same texts spend far, far more time talking about God, revering God, worshipping God, devoting ourselves to God, elevating ourselves to God, and the like. Likewise, for all the fervor Hermēs Trismegistos shows towards God in the texts attributed to him, for those used to Christian or Islamic religious writings, it’s not hard to see parallels or similarities between Hermeticism’s descriptions of God and how we ought to relate to it and how Christianity or Islam might do the same. (We also have the added complication in that the vast majority of what we have extant under the heading of “classical Hermetic texts” is what survives the knife of time and the redactor’s pen—and that includes all the Christian compilers, editors, and copyists who saw fit to preserve Hermetic stuff precisely for their Christian similarities and compatibilities, despite and in spite of their pagan foundations, along with whatever marginalia or outright changes they introduced along the way from antiquity to modernity.)
To try to summarize the Hermetic conception of God is a challenge, and arguably an impossible one given the focus of Hermeticism being on theosophical gnōsis rather than theological epistēmē, but I suppose it’s warranted here, at least to a degree. The “God” in Hermeticism, simply put, is not a god. The gods certainly exist, but God is not a god; rather, the whole inciting impulse of the mysticism of Hermeticism is that God is beyond the gods. In Platonic(ish) terms, this is The Good itself, but in more specific(ish) terms, “God” is that which is beyond all other things, the source and fount of existence of anything and everything both finite and infinite, that which never came to be but which eternally just Is. In this, being the source and thus “creator” of things, “God” is also called “maker” (poiētēs) in CH XIV.4. In fact, that section is a really neat way to think about what we call “God” in general:
What is dearer than a true father? Who is this father, and how shall we recognize him? Is it right to dedicate to him alone the name “god” or “maker” or “father” or even the three of them? “God,” because of his power? “Maker,” because of his action? “Father,” because of the good? He is power, certainly, since he is different from things that come to be, and he is activity in the coming to be of all things.
We also have CH II.12—17 which not only talks about how to refer to God, but also is clear about God being the origin of things without necessarily being those things itself:
Asklēpios: “What, then, is god?”
Hermēs: “God is what does not subsist as any of these since he is the cause of their being, for all of them and for each and every one of them that exists. And he has left nothing else remaining that is not-being, for all things are those that come to be from things that are, not from those that are not. Things that are not do not have a nature that enables them to come to be; their nature is such that they cannot come to be anything. Things that are, on the other hand, do not have a nature that prevents them from ever existing. […]
“God is not mind, but he is the cause of mind’s being; he is not spirit, but the cause of spirit’s being; and he is not light, but the cause of light’s being. Hence, one must show god reverence with those two names assigned to him alone and to no other. Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree. That good is he alone, and none other. All others are incapable of containing the nature of the good because they are body and soul and have no place that can contain the good. For the magnitude of the good is as great as the substance of all beings, corporeal and incorporeal, sensible and intelligible. This is the good; this is god. You should not say that anything else is good or you will speak profanely, nor should you ever call god anything but ‘the good’ since this too would be profane.
“All use the word ‘good’ in speaking, of course, but not all understand what it can mean. For this reason, god is not understood by all. In their ignorance, they apply the name ‘good’ to the gods and to certain humans even though these beings are never able to be good or to become so. The good is what is inalienable and inseparable from god, since it is god himself. All other immortal gods are given the name ‘good’ as an honor, but god is the good by nature, not because of honor. God has one nature—the good. In god and the good together there is but one kind, from which come all other kinds. The good is what gives everything and receives nothing; god gives everything and receives nothing; therefore, god is (the) good, and the good is god.
“God’s other name is ‘father’ because he is capable of making all things. Making is characteristic of a father. […]”
Bearing in mind the implied Hermetic distinction between philosophical Good and moral goodness, we basically get a straightforward description in CH II here about “the God” being literally just “the Good” and vice versa, with nothing else coming into play with that, as well as a clear description (or, at least, as clear as it can be made) about how God is not like anything else, because God never “came to be”, God just always “is” (a distinction also seen in CH VIII.2, and which is also applied throughout the AH), and thus can be seen as an origin of things that come to be but is not itself any of those things. Coming-to-be is a quality of things that have a sort of temporality or locality to them, but God is neither temporal nor local in the Hermetic texts; God is not even eternal, but is beyond eternity (and even eternality) itself (cf. CH XI.2), and is likewise beyond all space or place. The same cannot be said of anything else, not even the gods, not even if they are eternal or ubiquitous, because even they still operate within those boundaries of eternality/temporality or locality that God is beyond.
Side note: this is why I like to introduce a technical distinction here in a Hermetic context between the verbs “to exist” and “to be”, where “to exist” applies to things that come-to-be but “to be” is just for that which does not come-to-be but is. Thus, I can say that I exist, or that my desk exists, or that Hermēs exists, but not that I am in some fundamental way, or that my desk is; only God is, in this higher technical sense. All this has the fun but nuanced result that I can, with a straight and honest face to everyone else’s surprise, say that “of course God doesn’t exist within Hermeticism”, because it is more accurate to say that God pre-exists rather than exists, since God is the very source of existence itself. It’s a little in-joke with myself, I suppose.
Back to the topic at hand. Wouter Hanegraaff in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, as the book goes on, likes to refer to God as Pēgē, the Greek word for “font” or “spring” and which is used in a philosophical sense as a “source”. Hanegraaff doesn’t outright abandon the term “God”, but he uses Pēgē repeatedly in a way that clearly refers to it, getting this term from a handful of references and fragments throughout classical texts, including Christian ones by Didymus the Blind and Cyril of Alexandria but also the Neoplatonic writings of Iamblichus. In a way, at least to a good deal of modern folk, this is perhaps a better way to refer to the thing that the word “God” connotes in the Hermetic texts: not a god, but the source of godhood itself; not creation or even creating, but the source of creation and creating itself. Thinking of God in the Hermetic texts with this term isn’t unlike some modern spiritual folk going after “Divinity” as an abstract concept rather than a particular divinity or concrete conception thereof. It’s almost nontheistic as a means of surpassing any hang-ups or preconceptions one might have about any particular kind of theism or the entities such theisms might describe. What this means is that, if we’re to understand the word “God” in a Hermetic concept, then it’s going to necessarily be something pretty different from what “God” means to most people today given a millennia or two of Abrahamic theologizing about it.
But that leads us to a problem: it’s not like the authors of the Hermetic texts, writing 2000 to 1500 years ago and building upon several centuries of Hellenistic philosophy and several millennia of Egyptian religiosity already extant to them, didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about God in other terms, so why did they use the term “God” at all? If other terms like “the Good” or “the Source” were available, why did they consistently stick to using “God” so much throughout these texts? If God is not a god, then why should we express reverence, piety, devotion, and worship to God as if God were a god? If Hermeticism is so polytheistic, then what precisely are we doing here?
It’s at this point I’d like to make a bit of a statistics metaphor with the notion of topcoding and bottomcoding (which has nothing to do with flagging or identifying oneself on dating/hookup apps, I swear). The Wikipedia article has a ready-to-go example right in the introduction:
In econometrics and statistics, a top-coded data observation is one for which data points whose values are above an upper bound are censored.
Survey data are often topcoded before release to the public to preserve the anonymity of respondents. For example, if a survey answer reported a respondent with self-identified wealth of $79 billion, it would not be anonymous because people would know there is a good chance the respondent was Bill Gates. Top-coding may be also applied to prevent possibly-erroneous outliers from being published.
Let’s say you run a survey on a small town about people’s most beloved-but-unpopular food choices, and you split up the responding demographic into various age groups: 4 and under, 5 to 14, 15 to 24, 25 to 45, 46 to 64, 65 to 75, 76 to 82, and so on. Let’s say that, in this small town, there is only one person older than 90. Let’s also say that in your survey, only one person responded that they liked beets as their beloved-but-unpopular food, and that respondent was 95 years old. Congratulations! You just identified the only person in the town who likes beets—and have just compromised their identity to the public at large, if you were to publish the data this way. In order to preserve privacy, demographers and statisticians engage in a kind of censoring by “topcoding/bottomcoding” the extreme ends of a distribution (like age) through coalescing them into a larger unbounded chunk: thus, rather than splitting up the age demographic by decade from 50 to 100, you might go 50—60, 60—70, and 71+. Even if you could feasibly split up that 71+ group into smaller chunks, you don’t so as to preserve anonymity and privacy.
In a way, even if the analogy doesn’t exactly fit, I like to think of the Hermeticist’s use of the term “God” to describe God as a sort of lexical topcoding. The classical Hermetic texts already admit the reality and existence of the gods, even as them being the ultimate and supreme things that exist, beyond which there is nothing that could be said to exist. The gods are, for the Hermeticist as they would be to anyone in a Greco-Egyptian religious context 2000 to 1500 years ago, the roots of existence and the creators of creation. In that light, what could you call something that surpasses even them? If the gods themselves give rise to everything, what could you call whatever gave rise to the gods themselves? The term is already staring at us right in the face: you call it a god, or even (to assert its solitary uniqueness and its commonality to all the gods) “the god”—ho theos, conventionally translated in English without the definite article and with capitalization as a proper noun as “God”. Moreover, this notion of the thing called “God” does not diminish the godhood or godliness of the gods, no more than the existence of a spring obviates or belittles the existence of the river that comes from it.
Likewise, if worship and reverence is to be given to the gods because that is what is right for our relationship with them, then wouldn’t that same also be given to God itself, too? Well…sorta. This is where it gets a little complicated, but we can get an inkling of the difference from the end of the Asclepius. There, we see Hermēs & co. leave the sanctuary and the temple where Hermēs had been giving his divine discourse, and then went outside to pray to God. (This specific scene change of leaving a temple, the domain of the gods, is itself highly suggestive.) It was when they began to pray that Asklēpios had an idea that was poorly received by Hermēs:
…they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”
When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”
The giving of thanks, and that alone, to God as the only suitable sacrifice to God is suggestive here. Besides the fact that the Prayer of Thanksgiving focuses on gnōsis itself being both a cause and act of thanks and that such thanks can be rendered through “mind, word, and knowledge”, we also see Hermēs giving “pure speech offerings” in his prayer from CH I.31—32, with praise and hymning being the means of sacrifice and worship given in CH XIII and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth. God is certainly to be worshipped and sacrificed to, but the type of sacrifice is not something material, like food or libation or incense, because God itself is not partial to these things or, indeed, anything at all. The type of sacrifice suitable to God is, in a sense, God itself: to know God and to love God, just as God knows itself through creation, just as God loves itself through its images, just as God is.
Just as we call God “God” because it is beyond the gods and it makes sense to call anything at that level or higher “god”, it also makes sense that notions of reverence, devotion, and the like also apply, at least to an extent. After all, if it is right and proper for us to develop relationships with the gods along these lines, and if we’re trying to get to a thing that surpasses the gods, then the same vehicle that takes us to the gods should suffice, at least in part, to get us beyond them. However, just like how a shift in terrain might mandate a change in tire type or fuel type for a particular vehicle, we can’t use exactly the same methods or types of worship and reverence for God as we would the gods, but it’s still overall the same idea. Thus, although Hermēs encourages us to worship and revere and show devotion to the God as well as to the gods, because the God is itself not a god, we cannot do the same things for the God as we would for the gods.
I admit, it’s a little complicated at this point, because although we’re not engaging in monotheism, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are unless we keep the overall polytheistic framing of all of this in mind. What we’re properly doing is engaging in a mysticism of monistic reverence, rather than a mysticism of monotheistic reverence. That distinction is crucial, and is why conflating the two can lead one to mistake Hermeticism for some sort of weird “pagan monotheism” as well as letting it be adapted for properly monotheistic religious contexts. We’ll get more into that next time.
Wonderful exploration of the topic and very concise breakdowns of some of the field-specific lexis and jargon without missing a lot of necessary nuance in the process
Well said. You’ve perfectly captured something that’s really hard to put into words.
A few weeks ago I started to study more deeply about hermeticism and I simply cannot put into words how enlightening this whole article was. I should also say that referring to God as Pēgḗ is a very interesting way to distinguish between “God” and the Gods.
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