Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: A Cast of Divinities

Whew.  Honestly, despite the difficulty of this somewhat-accidental post series, it’s good to get this all out of my system, because these are topics I’ve been wanting to write about for literal months or, in the case of this post, almost a year.  Although I know there’s plenty I’ve been writing about on my blog regarding Hermeticism, there’s just so much more to write about, think about, discuss, and share—and it really does help that I try to keep myself involved in online discussions about it, even if only to get more things to write about here.  This blog post series  about the polytheism inherent and explicit within classical Hermeticism, how the Hermetic texts construe “God” as a monist focus for mysticism, and how some people conflate and confuse monism for monotheism is worth the difficulty I’ve had in writing it, because it helps to clarify a lot of misconceptions that people sometimes develop when they encounter the Hermetic texts for the first time—or for the first hundred times, I dunno.  The Way of Hermēs is long, indeed, and some people take a slower or more circuitous route along it depending on what it is they’re doing in life.

For myself, as I’ve studied Hermeticism more and given it more thought as to what it claims, teaches, and looks like when implemented in (various kinds of) practice, I’ve shifted my perception of Hermeticism from that of a religion to that of a kind of mysticism.  Although I originally considered Hermeticism as a whole practice unto itself that could fulfill one’s religious needs, I’ve since moved away from that position.  As I also said in the first Hermeticism FAQ post about whether Hermeticism is a religion:

Kinda!  Although many modern people are scared or wary of the word “religion”, we should remember that many modern people’s conception of religion is colored by Christianity and Islam, when the case is much different for Hermeticism (and, indeed, many pagan religions).  Hermeticism is focused on God and the gods, and how to rise up to them in order to secure the salvation of the soul; in this, Hermeticism bears much in common with many religions.  However, Hermeticism (or what we have of it) doesn’t give us much in the way of fixed litanies or worship services, even though some can be constructed.  In its original context, Hermeticism was not meant to supplant or replace existing religions or religious cults, but to supplement them; for those who wanted more than just attending the usual temple sacrifices, Hermeticism would give more of a chance for profound spiritual experiences in a sort of extracurricular or after-hours setting.

The bit about Hermeticism not replacing existing religion is a thing I like to contemplate, and one which I’ve referenced earlier in this post series.  Rather than being something wholly separate from existing religious practices or traditions of its time, Hermeticism in its original Greco-Egyptian context was more like a mystical adjunct to one’s existing religious life.  For us modern folk, consider what it’s like to go to school as a child: you’d go to class to learn the basics of mathematics, literature, science, and the like, all of which is necessary for us.  However, for those with other interests, there are all manner of extracurricular or afterhours activities: athletics, culture clubs, student government, volunteer associations, and so on.  Depending on what else you might want to learn or engage in on top of your existing classwork and studies, you’d join in on some of these extracurricular activities which relied on your normal-hours schoolwork, but which you couldn’t just do instead of your expected schoolwork.  I consider Hermeticism to be much the same way: rather than being something separate to replace existing religious work as expected of any devout or respectful person in Hellenistic Egypt, Hermeticism provided a milieu for people who wanted “something more” than just the usual rites and sacrifices that everyday temple religion could offer.  In other words, Hermeticism provided an esoteric dimension to spirituality for those who wanted it in addition to the exoteric stuff they were already engaged with; it was intended to supplement, not to supplant. To that end, for all his focus on teaching about God, Hermēs Trismegistos does not neglect the gods; rather, he teaches that everyone should attend to them, but for those who are able, to also attend to God as being a step beyond the gods.

This is the fundamental mystic impulse of Hermeticism, the thing that sets it apart from Greco-Egyptian religion more broadly; the focus of Hermeticism lies not with the gods but with their (and our) pēgē, their (and our) Source or Font, not on divinities but on Divinity, not on the various creators but the Creator-of-creating-itself.  In addition to not having a clear sense of what a “Hermetic community” looked like back then or what such a community might have done (beyond tantalizing clues regarding rituals of spiritual rebirth or ascent, the ensoulment of statues, the performing of communal prayers and meals, and the like), we don’t have a clear sense of the specific religious beliefs of the classical Hermeticsts were as evidenced by their texts.  Sure, based on the works of Garth Fowden, Christian Bull, and Wouter Hanegraaff among others, we can make a reasonably good guess that the original Hermeticists were Egyptian priests or those trained and taught by them who were raised or educated in a Hellenistic Mediterranean culture that was highly syncretic across various aspects, the same syncretism producing and facilitating such cults as the Serapis cult, the Mithraic mysteries, Hypsistarianism, and the like.  Within this broad and dazzling array of beliefs and traditions, what the classical Hermetic texts specifically teach us about is principally about a mysticism regarding the true nature of the Creator, of Creation, of us (and the gods) as Creatures, how to live within and break out of the cosmos, how to shed the chains that keep us unfairly bound to mortal forms (or, rather, how to break our addiction to insipid incarnation), and the like—things that don’t really fit into the overall purview of “everyday temple religion”, at least in the Greco-Egyptian sense as we might otherwise popularly find it.  Hermeticism builds on such religion and uses it as a foundation, but doesn’t supersede, replace, or ignore it.  To my mind, Hermeticism is to Greco-Egyptian religion what Sufism is for Islam: not as something distinct and separate but as something that builds upon the other.

In that light, what would a sort of Greco-Egyptian religion look like that would be amenable to Hermeticism?  Setting praxis aside for the moment, what gods might there be to worship, what spirits might be recognized as being instrumental in the cosmos as facilitating our presence and passage in it from a Hermetic point of view?  It’s true that the Hermetic texts focus on God, but once you dig in enough—and we certainly have, but especially when you get into the practical/technical stuff of texts like the Greek Magical Papyri—we can get a good notion of who these mystical priests and their students would likely have been making offerings to.  Plus, if we were to rethink and reconsider some of these gods from the perspective of a student of Hermeticism, what sorts of Hermetic emphasis might we put onto these gods and entities?  What follows would be my own attempt at a sort of roster or cast list of deities and spirits that would be important for a Hermeticist.  To be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that what follows is what those in the heyday of classical Hermeticism would have themselves believed or gone to the gods for, or that they necessarily worshipped any or all of these gods, much less restricted themselves to only such a list.  Rather, I offer the following as food for thought, something to chew on if one were to consider a tentative “Hermetic pantheon” of sorts so as to develop or engage with the Hermetic texts as the foundation for a sort of theoretical polytheistic religiosity that feeds into Hermetic mysticism.  This is all also in addition to the obvious worship one would give to God.

To start, consider the big four people we get from studying the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius: Hermēs Trismegistos himself and his three students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn.  Putting aside the fact that these four are presented as mortal humans in the Hermetic texts, albeit descended from divine forebears, we can consider them either as deified hero-saints or as gods in their own right:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is himself Hermēs-Thōth, obviously.
  • Tat is conjectured to be just a variant form of Thōth, and so a more “pure” (but also perhaps a more naïve) Thōth than Hermēs-Thōth is himself, a “Thōth the student” (Tat) rather than “Thōth the teacher” (Hermēs Trismegistos).
  • Asklēpios is the Greek name for Imhotep (“He-who-comes-in-peace”) aka Imouthēs, a chancellor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser and high priest of Ra sometime in the 27th century BCE, eventually deified as a god of medicine and healing, hence his being equated to the Hellenic son of Apollōn.  However, more than just medicine, Imhotep was also honored as a patron of scribes (being joined/equated to Thōth) architects (likewise to Ptah, sometimes mythically claimed to be Imhotep’s father).
  • Ammōn is a Greek spelling for the Egyptian Amun, one of the most widely-revered deities across all of ancient Egypt, both geographically and chronologically.  For the Greeks, he was syncretized with Zeus; in addition to having various cosmological associations (at times with the Sun, Moon, or even the empty and invisible air or wind itself), Amun was a god of rulership and kingship (being the patron deity of Thebes), but also of mercy, mystery, protection of the poor, and personal piety.

In addition to the above, it would be remiss of me to not say anything regarding Poimandrēs, the very teacher of Hermēs Trismegistos himself in CH I.  Unlike the other four above, the name “Poimandrēs” doesn’t have an immediate presence or parallel in existing Greco-Egyptian religious texts—unless one were to read it in another light.  Rather than reading it in the folk-etymological way of as “shepherd of men”, the first way we might read this name is as a Hellenicization of the Coptic p.eime-ṇte-rē meaning “mind/understanding of Ra” (per Peter Kingsley, “Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica”), giving this name both an immediate solar connotation but also strong similarities to many epithets used for the god Thōth (e.g. “heart of Ra”).  The second way (per Howard M. Jackson, “A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres”) is as a Hellenicization of the Egyptian pr-ꜥꜣ mꜣꜥ(,t)-rꜥ , variously rendered as Pramarrēs, Premarrēs, Poremanrēs, Porramanrēs, and the like—all a way to refer to the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III in the 19th and 18th centuries BCE, later divinized as pharaohs were wont to do, his specific cult being relegated to the Fayyum area of Egypt.  If we also consider the divine teacher of CH XI being Nous (and Poimandrēs’ own self-identification with Nous in CH I) and how various other Hermetic works (no longer extant on their own, surviving only as quotes in e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) of Agathos Daimōn being a teacher of Hermēs and Osiris and others, then we get a further identification with this deity—leading also, then, to Agathos Daimōn’s own Egyptian syncretization with Shai, the deification of fate itself.  While this is a lot to take in all at once, I personally consider Poimandrēs in this super-broad notion of being a “high archangel” of sorts, a divine teacher-of-teachers who assumes a grand, salvific role for humanity as a whole as well as for humans as individuals.

Beyond the above, we could also theoretically pull in Isis, Osiris, Hōros, and Kamēphis, too, much as we did Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn—being students of Hermēs Trismegistos, albeit by another route, the Korē Kosmou (aka Stobaean Fragments 23—27), a series of discourses of Isis to her son Hōros imparting to him the knowledge that her father Kamēphis (kꜣ-mwt.f “bull of his mother”).  Much is already known popularly about Isis, Osiris, and Hōros (especially Hōros’ own solar associations), but Kamēphis is a weird one—a primordial, ungenerated or self-generated deity, a leader of the celestial gods or even a demiurge unto himself, also called “forefather of everyone” or “ancestor of all”, sometimes associated with Amun.  However, all of these could sensibly be brought in under a Hermetic purview, especially given their shared Egyptian background.

Also, to take another direction towards classical pagan stuff, CH X.5 mentions Ouranos and Kronos as being the ancestors of Hermēs.  While these are, properly speaking, the grandfather and father of Zeus (and thus great-grandfather and grandfather of Hermēs) in a Hellenic context, these would also likely be equivalent to the Egyptian deities of Shu and Seb, respectively, as deities of sky and earth.  If Hermēs et al. are gods who deserve worship (and I personally contend that they do), then their extended family and the gods Hermēs et al. descend from likewise deserve worship, especially given their grander cosmic nature, at least in one form or another.

To take a different approach regarding particularly important rulers of the cosmos, we can also turn to AH 19 and AH 27, where Hermēs talks about several kinds of Zeuses, at least two with a hypothesized third (per Walter Scott, “Hermetica” vol. III).  In this scheme, there’s a sort of tripartite division of the cosmos: the heavens, the Earth (including the oceans), and the air between them, each with their own “Zeus” (general ruler-deity) presiding over it.  In AH 27, at least in the Coptic translation available in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VI.8), we also see a notion of Zeus Ploutonios having Korē as a consort, with Zeus Ploutonios ruling the earth and sea but not possessing nourishment for mortal living creatures, rather being provided by Korē.  Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will recognize this as fitting the pattern for Haidēs and Persephonē, though this is less about the underworld and more about this world—giving this less a feel for the Eleusinian mysteries and more for that of the cults of Osiris and Isis, or even that of Serapis.  If the ruler of the Earth has a consort, it’d make sense for the other two rulers to also have a consort, each forming a sort of pair, although we lack the relevant section of the Coptic AH and the Latin AH doesn’t speak of such things at all even for Zeus Plutonios.  Still, it’s an interesting idea regarding divine rulerships over cosmic domains, and if we were to try to read an Egyptian origin for this, then not only would Zeus Ploutonios and Korē be given to Osiris and Isis, but the other Zeus could sensibly be given to Hōros, completing the same triad from the Korē Kosmou.

Speaking of deities in the AH, AH 19 does mention a few others, but in this strange and not-entirely-clear sense.  AH 19 explicitly gives us Zeus, Light, Pantomorphos, and Fortune together with Fate as being particular gods that preside over heaven, the Sun, the thirty-six decans, and the seven planetary spheres, respectively.  AH 19 brings up air as another thing that is presided over by some deity, but AH 19 cuts off here; something seems to have fallen out of the text, and it’s here that Scott proposes a “second Zeus” to match the first Zeus from before.  This is a really complicated section to follow, and its notion of ousiarchēs “essence-rulers” isn’t well understood, but there may be something in here that could be useful for considering and digging into.

What AH 19 does touch on, though, is a notion of celestial gods—and boy, is that ever a fruitful thing to consider!  It’s obvious that we would consider the Sun itself to be a deity (Hermēs himself explicitly says that he worships the Sun in SH 2A, along with there being things praising the Sun in CH V and CH XVI), and of all the planets, the Sun is probably the most important to worship.  But there are the other planets, as well: the Moon, Mercury (ever an important planet for us in our work and studies!), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  On top of those, there are also the thirty-six decans (touched on in SH 6 but also in the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios) who absolutely had a strong Egyptian presence as gods in their own right.  While one could certainly worship the twelve Zodiac signs as gods in their own right, or use something e.g. Agrippa’s Orphic Scale of Twelve to associate the Zodiac signs with gods as I make use of for my own Mathēsis stuff, based strictly on a Hermetic textual approach, I’d feel more comfortable giving worship to the decanal gods instead of the Zodiac, but your mileage may vary.

Beyond these groups of stars, though, there’s also the notion of giving worship to the northern stars—whether Polaris alone, Ursa Major, or some combination of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor including Polaris.  While the northern stars are not something that we can clearly note as deities from the Hermetic texts (except for perhaps one fleeting reference in SH 6), we do know that they were considered divine in Egyptian religion and that there was an active bear-cult incorporating Ursa Maior especially, especially based on various entries from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM).  I’ve outlined things along these lines in my “Pole Lords and Northern Stars” post series back in 2018 (parts one, two, and three here), tying them not only to the seven planets but also as something higher and greater than them.  (This is a topic I really wanna return to in the future, especially learning what I have recently about Taoist and various Asian practices venerating or worshipping the northern stars in one form or another, like how I mentioned in my recent post about my prayer to the “Seven Ladies” of Ursa Maior.)

Closely related to the notion of celestial gods, and especially those of the pole lords from PGM XIII, is that of Aiōn, the divinity of time and eternity itself.  Aiōn (or at least the notion of eternity generally) is especially important in CH XI, but also appears in CH XII and XIII as some sort of divine or cosmic medium or power.  Although not appearing as a deity or divinity in and of itself in the CH, Aiōn is a frequent flier in various Hellenistic, Greco-Egyptian, and PGM sources as being a powerful divinity, including especially in texts like PGM XIII.  Hanegraaff has much to say about Aiōn in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, recognizing it as a sort of “universal consciousness” or “God’s incorporeal imagination” (p. 217), something for us to become so as to reach henosis (or something approximating it).  In a sense, at least for the more theistically-inclined, I would consider Aiōn as a hypostasis of God, the closest thing that might be considered God-as-a-god, joining with (or becoming) whom would allow one to rise even higher (p. 271).  It’s certainly an interesting idea, and considering Aiōn in this light could be a rich source of ritual devotion, bridging the gap between “God which is not a god” and “God whom the gods themselves worship” (especially when you consider the explicit identifications of Aiōn in texts like PGM XIII as being identical to the God of Abraham).

After this point, though, we get into some pretty nebulous and abstract concepts, where it gets harder for me to justify thinking of them as things to worship as gods.  From AH 39 or SH 12—14, we get some interesting discussions of notions like Providence, Necessity, Fate, or Order that talks about them as personified or deified concepts.  These are less clearly things that are approachable as gods like the planets, stars, decans, or other entities, and are only described of in broad conceptual terms.  To me, while these are things we might certainly poetically revere, they seem more like “cosmic infrastructure” than deities per se.  However, to use the model from the SH texts (with my equivalent substitutions from AH 30 in parentheses):

  • Providence (AH Heimarmenē “Fate”) is the will of God.
    • The ultimate ruler over all things that exist.
    • The divine order of all things, a kind of “unmanifest logos“.
    • The only power that rules over heavenly things.
    • Providence produces by its own nature both Necessity and Fate.
  • Necessity (AH “Necessity” as well) is both “the maidservant” to and “a firm and unbending power” of Providence. 
    • Necessity “constrains and contains” Providence, but there are things that are not under the rule of Necessity (i.e. the Nous, or intelligible reality).
    • Necessity is the ruler under Providence over earthly/created things, the “manifest logos” to the “unmanifest logos” of Providence.
    • What Providence establishes to exist, Necessity fulfills and sets up the rest of that which logically follows.
  • Fate (AH “Order”) serves both Providence and Necessity.
    • Fate is the tool of Providence.
    • Fate “drives and drives round all things by force”.
    • The tools of Fate are the stars.
    • Fate operates through the stars to affect and effect earthly/created things below in the world.

There is, however, the notion of a particular entity, referenced in SH 7 of Justice as “the greatest female daimōn”, which I find to be identical to be “the chief demon who weighs and judges” souls in AH 28 (and may well be the same as the “avenging daimōn” of CH I.23).  I spoke about this entity before in my post series about the Hermetic notions of the afterlife (links to the whole six-part series can be found on my Hermeticism Posts page), but in short, this is a particular entity set to judge our actions and assign us a place in the cosmos after our death according to our behavior in life.  In a sense, just as Providence and Necessity are appointed over divine order, Justice is appointed over human order in tandem with Fate, perhaps to account for the “free will” (such as it is) of the soul in addition to the fated events that befall the body itself; in this, Justice serves to oversee human living (not merely human life) and to punish wrongdoing.  It’s a bit of a messy topic unto itself, and unlike other deities whose aid can be supplicated for, Justice seems to be something…different, and while I would still encourage reverence and respect for such an entity, it can certainly be debated as to its specific function or the benefits of worshipping it as described in the Hermetic texts, except perhaps for lenience, mercy, and awareness of our actions and acceptance of the repercussions thereof.

Beyond this, I suppose there’s also the notion of Cosmos to consider as a god, as well.  Cosmos is described as a god—specifically the “second god” made in the image of the “first god” (i.e. God) in CH VIII.1—2,5, in CH X.12, in AH 8 and 10 and 39, and in SH 11.2.6.  In a sense, all the gods that are highlighted above are part of the Cosmos as a whole, and in a sense, the Cosmos itself should be held in reverence and respect, which is why we’re supposed to engage with it with all our arts and sciences to constantly co-create and perfect it.  However, this itself can also be considered a call to worship the Cosmos itself as a deity in its own right.  What complicates this, to my mind, is whether we should equate Cosmos (i.e. the whole of creation, the corporeal universe as well as the incorporeal universe as one whole) with “Nature” (phusis in Greek).  In some cases, Nature is sometimes used synonymously with Cosmos in the Hermetic texts, or to a specific aspect of it with regards to generation (and, equally, corruption).  Depending on your approach, you might consider this something distinct to pray to and worship as well, whether Cosmos and Nature as one thing, Nature as a specific aspect of the Cosmos, or as a sort of higher/incorporeal vs. lower/corporeal distinction.

Before even the Cosmos, however, there is the matter of the Demiurge itself.  The Demiurge, as described in CH I.9—11 or in SH 3, is a creator deity (or “mind”) that takes care of the creation/crafting of material reality and entities.  While all creation is ultimately (and monistically) attributable to God, some texts talk about a distinct “assistant” (as it were) to God who handles creation at lower, more ephemeral, or mortal levels.  Given the description in CH I, the Demiurge is ontologically equivalent with the very Logos of God (“the mind who is god…by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman” and “the word of god leapt straight up [from the elemental creation of the world] to the pure craftwork of nature and united with the craftsman-mind for the word was of the same substance”), and has a special role to play in the creation of things.  Although this would seem like a sort of distant bit of cosmic infrastructure too high for us to interact with, CH XVI and SH 2A talk about the Sun as being equivalent to, identified with, or otherwise just as the Demiurge (which would also render the Sun as the manifest presence of Logos in the cosmos).  Not only does this cement the Sun’s importance in the mind of the Hermeticist for the sake of worship as a god, but it also illustrates that the Demiurge, likewise, should be revered and worshipped, whether independently or as the Sun.

And then, of course, there’s God—but we’ve already spilled enough ink on that.  Besides, God is not a god, and so has no place among the gods.

This post is already getting lengthy, but I think I’ve made a decent-enough start for thinking about the various gods one might engage in worship of within a Greco-Egyptian context in a way amenable to a Hermetic mysticism.  To be sure, there are lots of ways one might go about worshipping any or all of the above, and the list above is not at all meant to be prescriptively limiting; there are plenty of other gods, whether purely Egyptian or purely Greek or syncretically Greco-Egyptian, that one might also consider apt within a Hermetic context or which is conducive to facilitating Hermetic mysticism.  Heck, I don’t see why the fundamentally monist mysticism of Hermeticism couldn’t be applied as a framework to non-Greco-Egyptian polytheist contexts, so long as the overall cosmologies are compatible enough between them to harmonize.  In this, I think Hermeticism could be useful not only for those of a Greco-Egyptian, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Egyptian, Kemetic, or  otherwise classical Mediterranean bent, but for a good number of pagans and polytheists today who want to supplement (not supplant!) their religion with “something more”, an esotericism to build upon and flesh out the exoteric.

And why?  Because Hermeticism expects us to already be religious before we can be mystic, because mysticism is a tower built upon the bedrock of religion—and for the teachers of the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, that involves a healthy respect and worship for the gods so as to eventually reach the Godhead.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Hermetic Heathenry: Part II – Heathenry ⁊ Hermeticism – Cıbear-ḟoraoıs Sneaċta

  2. Pingback: Hermetic Heathenry: Part III – Mysticism ⁊ Esoterica – Cıbear-ḟoraoıs Sneaċta

  3. Pingback: Hermetic Heathenry: Part IV – Alchemy ⁊ Astrology – Cıbear-ḟoraoıs Sneaċta

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