Lighting the Shrine to Light the Way

Once again, I’ve found myself in the doldrums when it comes to regular practice, and once again, I periodically check in on my temple room and get a profound urge to organize, downsize, and redo so much of it.  Spirits that no longer serve, shrines I no longer tend to, tools I’ve collected but have long since forgotten what purpose they were supposed to get to—eventually, bit by bit, it all compounds upon itself, leading to a massive feeling of obligation and no means to resolve it, and thus also leading to a complete paralysis and inability to even want to do anything about it.  It is, of course, a familiar cycle, and it turns on again and again, as it ever has.

Part of the usual turning of this cycle, as it seems to turn out, is where I reconsider my main shrine, the point at which I do the bulk of all my Hermetic prayers.  I’ve had one ever since I started all this stuff back when I got into Rufus Opus’ Red Work Course way back when in 2011, and have kept it in some form or another ever since, ranging from a simple nightstand at the foot of my Ikea folding bed in my old apartment to a long sidetable in a temple room in my old place to a much wider and taller desk-type setup in the temple room where I live now.  Just as the shape and size of the surface itself has changed, so too has what’s gone on it, from a simple candle and corner for my HGA to a candle with the seven archangels and my HGA and Mary as Queen of Heaven, to a…well, much more elaborate setup I had involving the four progenitors of geomancy with the Sun and Moon, or alternatively angelic representations of the North and South Nodes of the Moon, etc.  That I’ve always had a shrine to do my Hermetic stuff at hasn’t changed, but the shape and format of my shrine has, reflecting different stages of my spiritual development, experimentation, and thinking about what it is I’m actually doing.

In addition to the various things I’ve already tried, I’ve also considered a bunch of other things, too, that I thought about as incorporating as devotional elements that might be nice for a Hermetic practice:

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

All of these are nice, I admit, and they all reflect different ideas, approaches, and meanings that can be used towards Hermeticism.  However, despite all of these things that one might feasibly use, I’ve always felt strongly about one thing that one must use in such a Hermetic shrine, and that’s a sacred light burning on the shrine: the shrine lamp itself.  All else is effectively up to the individual’s choice, but the shrine lamp must be present, I’d claim.  It’s something I’ve always had going for my own shrines, to be sure, in one form or another, whether a plain glass-encased white novena candle in the center and back of my shrine or a Moroccan tealight lantern hanging above my shrine.  More than that, it’s not just that it’s a habit of mine, but rather that it makes sense to have it.

So, why a shrine lamp at all?  In my view, this lantern or candle or whatever burning with a sacred flame represents the pure light and holy presence of God.  I mean, light as a thing is a hugely important notion in the classical texts of Hermeticism, like the elaborate revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs Trismegistos in book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, how all things were originally light and it is from this light that all creation came to be and that light is the origin of mind itself.  I’ve not just explored the sacred notion and use of light in my own home and life before, but also in how it can be used in a religious sense in geomancy with its Islamic origins, but there’s also an interesting notion at play that I really want to focus on today: that of the story of Hermēs Trismegistos and the Perfect Nature from the Picatrix (book III, chapter 6).  I wrote a five-part series of posts about it a ways back (The Spiritual Nature(s) of Perfect Nature, Analyzing the Vignette and the Names, Ritual Prep and Setting the Altar, Associations of the Four Powers, and The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway), and the story there is a really interesting one (using Warnock/Greer’s translation):

When I wished to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, I put myself above a certain pit that was very deep and dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew; nor was I able to see anything in the pit, on account of its obscurity.  If I put a lit candle in it, straightway it was extinguished by the wind.

Then there appeared to me in a dream a beautiful man of imperial authority, who spoke to me as follows: “Put that lit candle in a lantern of glass, and the impetuosity of the wind will not extinguish it. You should lower the lantern into the pit, in the middle of which you should dig; thence you may draw forth an image by which, when you have drawn it forth, the wind from the pit will be extinguished, and then you will be able to hold the light there. Then you should dig in the four corners of the pit, and from there you may draw out the secrets of the world and of Perfect Nature, and its qualities, and the generation of all things.”

I asked him who he was, and he replied: “I am Perfect Nature; if you wish to speak to me, call me by my proper name, and I will answer you.” I asked him them by what name he was called, and he answered me, saying, “By the four names mentioned above I am named and called…”

In my second post on the series, I explored this little vignette, and tried to analyze it in the context of what I knew, seeing it as a mirrored version of Hermēs’ ascent into the heavens in classical pagan literature with here a chthonic descent into treasure realms in later Islamic literature.  However, what I was unaware of when I wrote that post series is that such an interpretation (which I still think has some merit as a symbolic reinterpretation) isn’t quite reasonable when one takes a broader view of the literature and myths available to the writer(s) of the Picatrix.  For instance, if we were to turn to, say, the Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa, or the Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature attributed to Balīnūs of Tuaya (aka Apollonius of Tyana), which the first text we know of that contains the short text of the Emerald Tablet, we see a super similar story, indeed.  Turning to Jason Colavito’s translation:

I was an orphan of the people of Tuaya, totally indigent and destitute of everything. There was in the place where I lived a statue of stone raised on a column of wood; on the column one could read these words: “I am Hermes, to whom knowledge has been given; I have made this wonderful work in public, but afterward I hid the secrets of my art, so that they can only be discovered by a man as learned as I am.” On the breast of the statue one could similarly read these words written in ancient language: “If anyone wishes to know the secret of the creation of beings, and in what way nature has been formed, he should look under my feet.” They came in crowds to see this statue, and everyone looked under its feet without seeing anything.

As for me, I was still a weak child; but when I was stronger, and I attained a more advanced age, having read the words that were on the chest of the statue, I understood the meaning, and I undertook to dig the ground under the foot of the column. I discovered a subterranean vault where a thick darkness reigned, and in which the light of the sun could not penetrate. If one wanted to carry in the light of a torch, it was immediately extinguished by the movement of the winds which blew ceaselessly. I found no way to follow the path I had discovered, because of the darkness that filled the underground; and the force of the winds which blew through it did not allow me to enter by the light of the torch. Unable to overcome these obstacles, I slipped into depression, and sleep took hold of my eyes.

While I slept an anxious and restless sleep, my mind occupied with the subject of my pain, an old man whose face resembled mine appeared before me and said to me: “Arise, Balīnūs, and enter into this underground path; it will lead you to knowledge of the secrets of creation, and you will come to know how nature was formed.” “The darkness,” I replied, “prevents me from discerning anything in this place, and no light can withstand the wind blowing there.” Then this old man said to me: “Balīnūs, place your light under a transparent vessel. It will thus be sheltered from the winds which will be able to put it out, and it will illuminate this dark place.” These words restored joy to my soul; I felt that I would finally enjoy the object of my desire, and I addressed the man with these words: “Who are you,” I said to him, “to whom I am indebted for such a great blessing?” “I am,” he replied, “your creator, the perfect being.”

At that moment I awoke, filled with joy, and placing a light under a transparent vessel, as I had been ordered to do, I descended underground. I saw an old man sitting on a throne of gold, holding in one hand a tablet of emerald, on which was written: “This is the formation of nature”; before him was a book on which this was written: “This is the secret of the creation of beings, and the science of the causes of all things”” I took this book boldly, and without fear, and I departed from this place. I learned what was written in this book of the Secret of the Creation of Beings; I understood how nature was formed, and I acquired knowledge of the causes of all things. My knowledge made my name famous; I knew the art of talismans, and marvelous things, and I penetrated the combinations of the four elementary principles, their different compositions, their antipathies, and their affinities.

The similarities here are beyond happenstance; to my mind, it’s clear that the Picatrix’s account of Hermēs coming in contact with Perfect Nature so as to enter a dark pit falls into the same lineage of myths and vignettes as this one of Apollonius coming in contact with Perfect Nature so as to enter the tomb of Hermēs himself.  In either case, note the crucial thing that this spirit suggests so as to enter the windy darkness and see what is within: a light encased within glass, the line to shine into the darkness and the glass to protect the light.  In my earlier analysis of the vignette from the Picatrix, I understood this to be a metaphor for protecting one’s own mind:

In a dream, Perfect Nature came and told Hermēs to protect the candle from the wind in a lamp so that the wind will not extinguish it.  Seeing how encased lamps are a truly ancient invention, I’m surprised that this had to be pointed out to Hermēs.  However, this is also symbolic…By using the candle as one’s awareness, Hermēs trying to ascend into the heavens without preparation and protection, shutting himself off from the violent passions of the world and the influences of fate produced by the planets.

I arrived at this interpretation with help from the Chronos Speaks blog on this very same topic:

This in mind, Hermes’ mysterious description of the method of contacting Perfect Nature starts to make a lot more sense. The “deep pit” is sleep itself which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness if we are not successful in achieving lucidity, the “impetuous wind” is the mental noise that prevents both sleep and lucidity (and which seems to get much stronger at the critical point), the “candle” is the light of awareness itself, and the “glass lantern” that protects awareness from being blown out is the recitation of the names of the Perfect Nature itself.

Of course, this is all in addition to what I said before about the light itself being representative of God, and the use of a sacred fire to do this is far from uncommon.  There is, of course, the holy fires of Zoroastrian temples who see the ātar as the visible presence of Ahura Mazda, as well as the ner tamid of Jewish synagogues and the altar lamps of Christian churches, but even other early monotheistic movements in the early Roman Empire period had similar practices, like those of the Hypsistarians.  And, of course, from Islam, there’s the famous Āyat an-Nūr, the Verse of Light from the Qur’ān 24:35:

God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.
The image of his Light is that of a niche.  In it is a lamp.
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star.
Lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil would almost glow on its own even if fire had not touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides to his Light whom he wills.
God gives images to follow for his people.
God is All-Knowing of all things.

This is a beautiful praise of Allah, and is a qur’anic verse that I myself like to contemplate and use in my own prayers, given the harmony it has with so much else I do.  If you can get past the formatting, this webpage from The Ideal Muslimah contains not just practice for learning it by heart, but also includes a bunch of exegetical commentary and interpretations of the verse, which I think are also super neat to expand on.  I mean, while I don’t think lamps are used in the same symbolic way in mosques as they are in synagogues or churches, there is a history of mosque lamps used for illumination in mosques generally, and it’s a tradition that such lamps are also themselves decorated with the Verse of Light.

All this to say that I think that the use of a shrine lamp for a Hermetic shrine/altar/temple/prayer-space/what-have-you is crucial, above and beyond anything else one might have, and—taking a cue from the Islamic Hermetic literature—we can give it a form: a flame in glass.  This can be as simple as a tealight in a glass votive holder or a glass-encased novena candle on its own, but I’d prefer to make it a proper enclosed lantern, like a Moroccan lantern or something, where the enclosure not only allows for the flame to be carried about but also offers it protection from wind, breath, splatters, and other environmental hazards (and, likewise, protects the environment from it).  Sure, a candle in such a lantern would work totally fine (it’s what I myself have been using for quite some time), but I think there’s something more potent in using an actual oil lamp, not least because candles can be expensive and hard to maintain a continuity of flame with, while oil lamps are easier to refill and keep going endlessly.  Oil-wise, olive oil would be great, and while I’m not opposed to the use of animal products for such a thing, I’d personally find value in sticking to plant-based oils, if at all possible.  Barring either candles or oil lamps, of course, an electric lamp would also suffice—it, too, is a burning of energy to provide light, and it’s not like it’s any less useful than other things while also being generally safer to maintain; however, I prefer the care and glow of an actual flame whenever possible, viewing its maintenance as a devotional and meditative gesture in and of itself.

As for the lamp itself, while a traditional kind of terracotta-handled low lamp we think of from the classical Mediterranean world would work (like as I’ve described before), a Hindu-style akhand diya, Buddhist-style butter lamps, or Chinese-style oil lamps of a cup of oil layered on top of water with a floating wick would all be great, since it can be more easily be refilled, and a plain glass hurricane chimney could be placed around it.  Of course, for those who would want a more modern approach, there are a variety of mineral oil/paraffin oil/kerosene oil lamps that were common sights prior to the mass spread of electricity, which would also work great (though require different handling than natural oil lamps that don’t flow as easily or quickly as kerosene), or even better, modern battery-operated/rechargable LED-powered butter lamps that do a decent job at simulating the feel and appearance of an actual lamp flame.   In any case, taking a symbolic cue from the Verse of Light and a practical one from the Picatrix/Book of the Secrets of Creation vignettes, whatever the source of light would be, the glass itself that surrounds it should be clear and clean, preferably uncolored and unpatterned so as to allow the pure light of the flame to shine out.

For me, the shrine lamp would need to be placed in a position of relative importance.  Right now, my shrine lamp (a Moroccan metal tealight lantern) is suspended above the surface of the shrine by about two feet or so, but with my earlier shrines from before, I’ve always had a tall candle or other lightsource burning on a stone trivet in the center and towards the back of the shrine.  I might end up going back to that older format, since I find having the lamp at a more convenient height to gaze upon to be a benefit to my practice, though I do like the notion of having some elevation for it, as well.  So long as it’s at a comfortable height at least above the heart’s position, based on how one would normally pray at such a shrine, that would be fine; keeping it at eye-level when standing may also be appropriate, depending on shrine (and temple) layout, but that might be too high if, for instance, one usually prays while kneeling without getting a crick in the neck.

And then, of course, there’s the actual lighting of the lamp.  For such a thing with such central importance to my devotional space and mystic work, the shrine lamp deserves a bit of extra thought and care when lighting it, as it’s no mere candle or anything.  There are plenty of ways one might go about consecrating a flame for some holy work or other; I’ve offered such prayers in my Preces Castri and Preces Templi ebooks, but one might also reasonably use a modified form of the consecration of the fire for incense from Drawing Spirits Into Crystals, an example of which I’ve already shared as part of my own candle consecration procedure on my website and which has similar parallels in other grimoiric texts like the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano.  Heck, if the Abrahamic and grimoiric stuff doesn’t cut it, there’s always my PGM framing rite approach, too.  If long prayers like that don’t feel right, there’s always the recitation of scripture, too; while the quranic Verse of Light is a great one, there’s a bunch from the Tanakh and the New Testament, too, like Psalms 119:105 (or the entire verse, Ps. 119:105—112, all given to the letter Nun, which is the same letter that starts of the word ner or Light) or Matthew 5:14—16.  Of course, all these things are great to say for lighting the lamp, but not everyone can (or feels comfortable to) leave a burning lamp untended or to let it burn out; in cases where the flame cannot be kept going, the lamp must be extinguished, and there are plenty of prayers one might also say when doing that, too.  Lots of options abound, as ever.

In the end, all of this is really just to say that I think that a shrine lamp is really the quintessential part of a Hermetic shrine, the sine qua non that not only represents the presence of God in our lives and which gives us a focus to which to pray as an aid for ourselves, but also which represents us in our own work.  Just as in CH I where it is written that mind comes from light and in CH VII where a holy place is described where “the light cleansed of darkness” shines, or even in CH X where Hermēs describes to Tat the holy light of the Good that shines forth without blinding or harming us, the presence of a sacred flame should be immediately understood to a Hermeticist in the context of a shrine.  Encasing it in glass, rendering a lamp or candle into a lantern, protects the flame, and so too should it be a reminder to protect ourselves in the quest for this selfsame light, while also serving to magnify and beautify the flame itself for all who can gaze upon it.

I suppose I have more cleaning to do of my temple room to get to that point, and a lot of reconsidering to do of what I really need to get there, but at least I won’t do so in darkness.

Insights from Grese’s “Corpus Hermeticum XIII and Early Christian Literature”

Normally, the bulk of my research into classical Hermeticism consists of diving into the footnotes helpfully provided by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, Jean-Pierre Mahé, Hans Dieter Betz, and the like in their various translations of their books and topics.  This generally leads me back to various other books, academics, and the like, generally in the form of papers that have been published at some point in the past three decades (a lot has changed—for the better!—in modern scholarship on Hermeticism), and to various extents, I get quite a fair bit out of it, especially from scholars like Wouter Hanegraaf or Christian Bull.  On occasion, though, I get to something rather niche but rather well-built that falls outside of this, sometimes involving purchases on AbeBooks or even more obscure third-party sellers due to stuff I honestly can’t track down elsewhere.  Not that far back, I had the pleasure of doing just that for a particular monograph by William C. Grece, Corpus Hermeticum XIII and Early Christian Literature (Brill, 1979).

Grese’s monograph (a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation) not a particularly weighty tome, but it is one I found particularly enjoyable.  Rather than trying at some expansive view of Hermeticism as a whole, Grese’s book focuses on the text of Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum (or CH XIII, itself entitled “A secret dialogue of Hermēs Trismegistos on the mountain to his son Tat: on being born again, and on the promise to be silent”). CH XIII is one of the “big three texts”, as I consider it, when it comes to the notion of spiritual ascent and salvation, along with CH I and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (from the Nag Hammadi Codices, specifically NHC VI.6, which I also abbreviate as D89).  To be sure, much of the “philosophical/theoretical” Hermetic literature that exists from the classical period talks about matters of theology, theosophy, divinity, and the like, and many others do at least lip service or give a nod to the notion of divine ascent and unification with the Divine, but it’s really these three texts that really get into the nitty-gritty of what that looks or sounds like as an actual ritual or cultic practice—although not all in exactly the same way.  In addition, it’s these three texts (but CH I and CH XIII more than D89) that get into notions of vices and virtues, which has been an exceptionally fruitful for hashing out notions of Hermetic morality or even prayers:

  1. (July 2019) The Twelve Irrational Tormentors and the Ten (or Seven) Rational Powers
  2. (March 2020) On Hermetic Tormentors and Egyptian Sins
  3. (August 2020) Twelve, Ten, and Seven: Clarifying and Rethinking the Tormentors from CH XIII
  4. (November 2021) The Hermetic Refranations and Repentances

And, when it comes to prayers, CH XIII is the source for us of the ὑμνῳδία κρύπτη, the “secret hymnody”, one of the few extant prayers given to us in the classical Hermetic texts (right up there with the Triple Trisagion from CH I or the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the end of the Perfect Sermon, NHC VI.7, or PGM III).  It’s a fascinating text—although problematic at times in understanding how it posits a relationship between us where we are and Divinity as it is and how we get from one point to the other—and Grese’s book is an in-depth, profoundly detailed approach to understanding every line and word in the text.

To be fair, as evident from the title, that isn’t Grese’s only aim.  As he says in his introduction:

The parallels between C.H. XIII and the NT [New Testament] to which Lagrange points really only show that C.H. XIII and ECL [Early Christian Literature] both made use of similar religious language and that both were part of the same world of Hellenistic religions.  Thus the study of the language and message of C.H. XIII should help us understand the religious context of ECL and also ECL itself.

This study then is an attempt to use C.H. XIII to increase our understanding of ECL…

But, as he notes in his conclusion:

When Richard Reitzenstein published Poimandres in 1904, one of his explicit intentions was to awaken NT scholars to the religions of the Hellenistic world and to the importance that they hold for understanding the NT.  Reitzenstein chose the Hermetica for this purpose because he considered them to be one of the best surviving examples of Hellenistic religion.  The parallels between the Hermetic and ECL thus became a way to study the influence of the Hellenistic world on primitive Christianity.

It has not been my intention to prove again Reitzenstein’s thesis.  Instead, by collecting the many parallels between ECL and C.H. XIII in order to make them more accessible to students of ECL I have continued the work Reitzenstein began.  There have been some, as we noted, who argued against Reitzenstein that this or that parallel was the result of the NT influencing C.H. XIII, but nowhere in our analysis did we find any evidence that would support such a claim.

Even if Grese intended to use CH XIII to help understand the world of early Christian literature, he has certainly done the work in also understanding CH XIII itself on its own terms, especially in light of other classical Hermetic texts both from the CH and elsewhere.  Besides, let’s be honest, even if we don’t take the claims of C.H. Dodd from his The Bible and the Greeks as seriously as he himself does, even if we don’t necessarily take tight parallels between Hermetic and Roman Empire-period Jewish or Christian stuff as being evidence of influence, Grese makes the great point that Hermeticism and various other religious movements at the time participated in this overall Hellenistic (not the same thing as Hellenic) framework of religion, faith, spirituality, and ritual practice.

The bulk of the Grese’s book is given to a thorough, line-by-line (even word-by-word) breakdown and analysis of the content of CH XIII, and pointing out parallels with various bits of Christian scripture and gospel as might be appropriate.  It’s far too much to point out, but I’d like to share some of the more interesting insights, claims, and conclusions I personally got from this book, especially as it might line up or disagree with my own understanding of CH XIII.  I present them in no particular order, but they should be useful for coming up with some new insights for those who want to more deeply dive into the ideas, theories, and models of CH XIII.

  • The are are three views in the CH about how humanity can come to know God.  One view is that humanity can come to know God “by studying the perfection of the stars in the sky” i.e. astrology (e.g. CH III).; a second is that one cannot come to know God through studying the sensible/perceptible cosmos but only through the intellectual/noetic cosmos via the divine Mind (Nous).  Both of these views presuppose an innate ability for humanity to know God; however, the view of CH XIII denies this presupposition and says, quite explicitly, that “no one can be saved before being born again” (CH XIII.1), that without regeneration/rebirth into a new divine body there is no possibility of coming to know God at all.  Otherwise, without such regeneration/rebirth, one is held in a form that is forever cut off from such knowledge.
  • The corporeal, material body we have is born from the twelve signs of the Zodiac, each sign contributing a particular body part (e.g. Aries the head or Virgo the belly) as well as a particular vice, a particular irrational tormentor of matter.  The divine, noetic body, on the other hand, which is the body into which one is reborn “when God wishes” (CH XIII.2), is composed of ten holy powers.  The process of rebirth in CH XIII is that of constructing a new immaterial body composed from “parts” in which one can live immortally as Nous, much as how we are living now in a material body composed from “parts” in which we live mortally.
  • Because of this, unlike CH I, there is no notion in CH XIII of a primordial “fall of man”, where humanity was once able to know God directly but fell into matter and corporeal bodies which cut it off from such a direct knowing of God.  Rather, CH XIII has the notion that souls are part of the cosmos and naturally come to occupy corporeal bodies, and so there was never a “fall” to begin with; rather than us falling to the bottom of the barrel, we were naturally made at the bottom already, and so while we must still climb up, it’s not that we’re climbing back up because there’s no prior time at which we were already up there.  This means that there is no notion in CH XIII of us having “original sin” or otherwise deserving to suffer—it’s just the way we’re made down here through ultimately natural processes.
  • In short: humanity is not inherently divine, but becomes divine through rebirth.  Revelation is not a remembering of some innate knowledge, but coming into something never-before-experienced.  We are not at fault through hubris or some other crime for our fallen state because we never fell; rather, we are made the way we are by the Zodiac, and it is on us to seek the help of God in undoing the creation of the Zodiac into something new beyond it.  The problem that CH XIII aims to solve is not that we are bound to some fatalistic, deterministic cosmos from which we need to be set free, but rather that we are born into bodies that prevent us from knowing and being with God directly, which just so happens to keep us bound in a fatalistic, deterministic cosmos.  In order to escape the power of the Zodiac into which and by which we are born, we must be born again without the Zodiac.
  • Although the twelve irrational tormentors are chased away by the ten holy powers, it’s not that there’s some notion of a power chasing off a particular tormentor; otherwise, there’d be little numeric or numerological sense in something in greater numbers being routed by something in lesser numbers.  Rather, the twelve irrational tormentors are considered as one whole group, which is chased out by another group composed of ten powers; CH XIII phrases this as one group against another group, rather than twelve forces against ten forces.  Said another way: that there are twelve signs of the Zodiac is just an illusion that obscures the whole Zodiac’s own essential unity, and so the twelve tormentors are really just one—just as the ten holy powers are.
  • There’s something of a notion of “the Hermetic elect” in CH XIII that we don’t see in other texts: the whole process of rebirth (which is essential for coming to know God and achieve salvation) entirely dependent on God, such that not only do we need the help of God in initiating or accomplishing it but that it is itself done by God, and moreover, God chooses who is to be reborn and when.  This sort of approach is not unheard of in some mystery religions of the classical world, and is certainly extant in some gnostic groups regarding who is or isn’t able to be saved.  Whether this is technically true or indicative of only some limited number of people ever being able to be saved is not able to be known at this time.
  • Like other texts in the CH, Nous is the means by which we can come to know and “see” Divinity.  However, unlike other texts which claim/presuppose that all humans are born with Nous (even if inactive and requiring activation) or which can be given Nous, CH XIII claims that one becomes Nous (not unlike the view of the latter part of CH X), and (unlike CH X) this can be done while still alive in this life before dying.  In this, God (as Nous itself) is only able to be known through the act of noeîn, which is only possible to those who are themselves Nous.
  • Although many people (myself included) like coming up with elaborate hierarchies or diagrams illustrating the various connections or relationships various hypostases or concepts might have (think of all those elaborate charts common in Neoplatonic texts or commentaries to illustrate what does what, where, and how), CH XIII is super vague when it comes to distinguishing or defining terms like “nous”, “logos”, “soul”, “spirit”, and the like.  For the most part, these terms are interchangeable in CH XIII, preventing the declaration of a clear hierarchy of concepts in CH XIII.  This is totally fine; after all, the purpose of CH XIII is less to establish a fixed cosmological or theological doctrine and more a ritual reenactment and clarification of the process and qualities of salvation.  This is especially prominent with the term “Logos”, which in other Hermetic texts “is the divine revealer who brings to man the truth about God” and “also functions as the creator of the world and as the mediator between God and man” (per Grese), but in CH XIII is equivalent to “Nous” while also being the means by which one offers “spoken sacrifices” to God, the “divine agent involved in prayer”.
  • Grese points out the same difficulties as I have before regarding the ten powers, not as being some simple set of ten but rather as seven plus three, where the final three (Goodness with Life and Light) are not virtues like the first seven (knowledge, joy, self-control, etc.).  The use of ten seems more numerological than cosmical here, with the first seven powers being an echo of some sort of cosmic/divine ascent through the spheres as in CH I.
  • Salvation, in CH XIII, consists of undoing the material body of the Zodiac and creating a divine immortal body.  This is done, not as in CH I by an ascent of the soul through the spheres, but a descent of divinity (via the ten divine powers) into a human.  Prior to rebirth, humanity is dominated by the twelve irrational tormentors; after rebirth, the ten holy powers.  Once reborn, the one who is reborn is no longer bound to the body and, thus, to the body’s sense-perceptions alone or to the turbulence and confusion of the physical world in general.
  • Tat’s question in CH XIII.14 that Hermēs rebukes indicates that being reborn is not a surefire guarantee of salvation.  Unlike some gnostic beliefs that suggest that those with an element of the divine cannot lose it, Hermēs’ reply suggests that even one having been (re)born into a divine, immortal, immaterial body of Nous can still do wrong and become profaned.  This is, however, also unlike the Christian demand to continue living a holy life after having been baptized, because for the Christian, even once reborn, one is still inhabiting the material body which can still sin; for the author of CH XIII, this is not the case, because once reborn, what happens in or with the physical body is ultimately rendered irrelevant once one is reborn into something that so utterly transcends it.
  • Hermēs reply in CH XIII.15 (“that you hasten to strike the tent is good”) to Tat’s request to be taught the hymn of the powers is super weird.  Here, given what we know of the divine ascent from CH I.26, this means that such a prayer can only truly be given by the Nous or otherwise out of or beyond the material body, even if the material body participates in it.  Moreover, this hymn is not something that Poimandrēs taught Hermēs; rather, it is something that Hermēs naturally learns to do on his own, but having been authorized to do so by Poimandrēs due to Hermēs’ own rebirth.  In other words, the hymn itself is not a revelation, but something that naturally arises as a result of revelation.
  • The hymn of CH XIII is almost certainly pulled from some other source, and is also compiled from two or more different sources, such that CH XIII.17 seems to be a more public thing sung by a Hermetic community, while CH XIII.18 being an elaboration of the themes from earlier in CH XIII, and Tat’s own praise in CH XIII.21 being something abbreviated (if not partially lost) from some other kind of hymning/praising/thanksgiving.  This is evident not only in changes of style but also changes in how the speaker considers a fundamental monism or dualism of the divine world with/against the material one.  There may well be corruption in the hymn of CH XIII.18, too, not just elsewhere, given how it seems to contain some of the holy powers from earlier in CH XIII but not all of them, suggesting that the hymn was not, as a whole, independently composed apart from the rest of CH XIII.
  • Based on how Hermēs calls on the holy powers (the “parts” that compose his divine, immortal, noetic body into which he was reborn) within him to sing with and through him indicates that they have not “taken him over”; Hermēs still retains his own individuality and will, and is not merely a puppet for the powers.  Rather, these powers come together to hymn God, and it is truly them that is singing the hymn through Hermēs; after all, it is that the holy powers have come into him, and in him do they sing.  This is why Hermēs calls on them to sing, in addition to drawing them down so that they become/remain active.
  • Although the hymn of CH XIII is, on the whole, one of thanksgiving, certain bits of the hymn don’t make sense; why should the hymn request for salvation and illumination if they’ve already been achieved through rebirth, that rebirth being that which authorizes/permits one to sing such a hymn in the first place?  Grese hypothesizes that CH XIII is indicative of a cultic practice where those who have already been initiated through rebirth remember and emphasize the meaning and method of such rebirth, as a part of which they sing such a hymn, so as to remain in such an enlightened, saved state (not unlike the final two requests of the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the end of the Perfect Sermon).
  • The final statement of Hermēs (“you know yourself and our father intellectually”, νοερῶς ἔγνως σεαυὸν καἰ τὸν πατέρα τὸν ἡμέτερον) is something of a “holy word”, a sort of Hermetic formula equivalent to the Delphic maxim “know thyself”.  This is something that probably can be used to ritually conclude either an initiation or a general Hermetic celebration of gnōsis generally.  However, while in CH I (in agreement with various gnostic traditions) “know thyself” is a matter of someone recognizing the divine already present within themselves and coming to realize their own inherent divinity, CH XIII reinterprets this to mean that knowing oneself is only possible once there is something at all to meaningfully know, which is God and which is facilitated only by and with God.

I was on The Astrology Podcast with Chris Brennan!

After almost a year of talking about it and sorting things out behind the scenes, it finally happened: I was featured as a guest on the inestimable, amazing Chris Brennan’s show, The Astrology Podcast!  Yes, the same Chris Brennan who wrote, like, the textbook on Hellenistic astrology, fittingly titled Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.  You can find the link to The Astrology Podcast’s page on the episode here, or you can check out the YouTube video of it below.

In a way not unlike J.M. Woolfolk’s book title (though arguably with far more legitimacy), Chris’ show really is the podcast on astrology; while there are definitely countless good podcasts out there, The Astrology Podcast stands above them all going back to 2012 with over 300 episodes with such amazing guests as Ben Dykes, Robert Hand, Chris Warnock, Lee Lehman, Demetra George, and so many other luminaries of astrological research and practice—on top of all of Chris’ own informative solo talks, forecasts, and lectures.  And, summertime last year, shortly after I put out my Hermeticism FAQ (part I, part II, part III, and part IV here), Chris invited me to be a guest on his show to talk about classical Hermeticism.  It’s a topic that (so he says) he had been wanting to have a show about for about ten years now, but hadn’t found the right time, context, or person to talk with him about it.  Heck, even in his own textbook on Hellenistic astrology, he somewhat evaded an in-depth exploration of Hermeticism; although many astrological texts of the classical period attribute plenty to Hermēs Trismegistus, to even begin to talk about how Hermeticism developed with (perhaps even because) of astrology in the Hellenistic period is worth a whole book unto itself.

To that end, Chris had me on his show recently to talk about Hermeticism with him, not only how it played out across the millennia that ensued after the Hellenistic period, but also how it developed in its own context, what its textual and practical ties are to astrology, why astrology is important to Hermeticists and why Hermeticism is (or should be) important to astrologers, and so much more.  It was a great three-hour chat, and despite that length, I still feel like we only began to scratch the surface (which makes sense, given the profundity of the topic).  Still, it was a great thing to talk about, and I definitely had a blast!*  Not only did I get to talk about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, but Chris also opened up my eyes and showed new things to me during the course of the chat that really reinforces and reemphasizes how important astrology is to Hermeticism and vice versa; more than ever, I certainly must say that astrology really is the Hermetic art, above and beyond any other spiritual practice.

In addition to the show itself, Chris put out a call on Twitter asking for questions that might want to be reviewed.  Although we didn’t have time to get to any of them, I did make an effort to answer what I could in the various replies to this tweet on Twitter.  If you’re interested in a little bit of quasi-bonus content, take a look at that thread there!

Of course, if you have any interest in astrology (if nothing else, that episode above should certainly convince you that you should!), then definitely subscribe to The Astrology Podcast:

Plus, you could always become a patron of Chris on Patreon to support the podcast, which gets you early access to new episodes, a monthly Auspicious Elections episode, Casual Astrology, and more bonuses, too!

Also, as part of doing this podcast, I also made a new page up under About at the top: Hermeticism Posts.  Much like with my Geomancy Posts index page, the “Hermeticism Posts” page offers an index of all the various posts I’ve made over my blogging career touching on Hermeticism—specifically the philosophical, theoretical, theosophical, devotional, mystic side of things.  To be fair, there’s plenty (perhaps even plenty more) that could be said about the practical, technical, magical side of things in Hermeticism, too, but that’s such a wide and varied category that crosses so many boundaries and topics and categories and tags that I can’t make an index of such posts at this time.  Rather, the “Hermeticism Posts” index provides a quick look-up for all the stuff related to classical Hermeticism as evidenced by and extant in the classical Hermetic corpora, including my own Hermeticism FAQ, my writeup of CH III, my writeups of the Armenian Definitions, and much more.  Take a look when you have the chance!

* also oh my god I hope I didn’t embarrass his show, this was probably one of the most professional things I’ve had to do in years, I’m so sorry &c and thank you for having me on your show chris

Definitions, Instructions, and Sentences: On Different Didactic Texts for the Hermeticist

On the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord Server, we’re finally just about back to normal, and that means that all our weekly discussions are back underway.  In addition to having a bunch of channels to talk about various topics related or pertaining to Hermeticism or Western esotericism in one way or another, we also have a handful of weekly discussion channels, where we talk about a particular topic in depth; so far, we have three, one for astrology, one for pagan literature, and the oldest one for Hermetic texts.  Just before the old Hermetic Agora server imploded, we started talking about the Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius (abbreviated DH), which we’re picking back up on this week.  This is a fascinating text, and is one of the major contributions in the field of Hermetic studies of Jean-Pierre Mahé.  Currently, the only English translation is the one he himself put out as part of The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius published by Clement Salaman et al., although he has put out an earlier French translation as part of the second volume of his Hermès en Haute-Égypte series.

DH is a fascinating text, and one which Fr. Rufus Opus introduced me to as part of his Red Work Course all those many years ago; indeed, it was good for me to read them so much to the point I put out a massive daily series of blog posts taking each one in one-by-one back at the end of 2013.  The text is composed of ten sets of more-or-less axiomatic statements (or “definitions”), each set having as few as two statements or as many as seven all for a total of 49 statements.  On the whole, DH focuses on discussing cosmology and theology, all matters of doctrine regarding the Creator, the Creation, and us as Creatures within Creation made by the Creator.  As I summarized in the review post for my “49 Days of Definitions” post linked above, I gave these high-level summaries of each set of statements in the DH:

  1. The three worlds of creation, viz. God, the world, and Man
  2. The elements of the world and light which enables the world to be known
  3. The ubiquity of God, the place of Man in the world, and of the world in God
  4. The different types of living beings and what they’re composed of
  5. Nous and Logos, God and reasonable speech
  6. The development towards perfection of the soul of Man in the body of humans
  7. The immortality of Man afforded by God, and the mortality of humans mandated by the world
  8. Knowledge or ignorance of God/world/Man/self, and the power of Man as God
  9. The place of Man in the cosmos, the nature of the soul in Man, what perfect knowledge is
  10. The natures and realization of good and evil, how the parts of the world work together

Although one of the lesser-known Hermetic texts out there, not least because it’s one of the most recently-recovered ones, it’s also very much worth the while of any Hermeticist to study, though the DH’s terse and dense nature in its statements will necessarily require a bit more patience and contemplation to work through, chew on, and digest.

One of the neat things that Mahé points out is how similar so much in the DH is to other texts in the Corpus Hermeticum (CH), the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Oxford Fragments (OH), and other Hermetic texts.  To an extent, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising; after all, even for all its inconsistencies and internal disagreements, there is at least some harmony between different Hermetic texts that agree on general points of doctrine.  However, perhaps the closest surviving text we have in a similar format to DH is SH 11, which provides a lengthy list of doctrinal statements, also called κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” of Hermēs’ teaching.  In that text, Hermēs instructs his son Tat after finishing the list:

If you remember these chief points, you will easily recall the points I discuss at greater length. For the main points are summaries of the explained teachings.

The purpose of these statements can be used in many different ways, but their explicit purpose as stated is to use them as a kind of mnemonic to recall lengthier lectures as a whole.  Mahé agrees with this, noting in his introduction to DH in The Way of Hermes that this is likely what’s going on with DH as well:

An early date might also be assumed for our collection of aphorisms with regard to the clarity of its style and the firmness of its thought. In our edition of the Coptic and Armenian transla­tions of hermetic writings in 1982 several clues led us to suggest that the most ancient hermetic philosophical writings were col­lected aphorisms such as the ‘Sayings of Agathos Daimon’, of which only short fragments have been preserved (cf. CH 10.25; 12.1.8-9). Beyond DH, one of these collections is still extant in SH 11 . As to the use of such collections of aphorisms we quoted CH 14.1 and SH 11.1, which depict them as summaries (kephalaia) of lectures delivered by Hermes and invite the disciple to reconstruct the whole teaching once he has learnt the sentences by heart (SH 11.3). Indeed we can easily show that many hermetic writings are made out of sentences, such as those of DH or SH 11 which are either linked up one after another with conjunctions, or com­mented upon or worked into a myth or a prayer.

However, Mahé also waxes poetically regarding their spiritualized functions and how they play a role in the overall literary ecosystem of Hermeticism:

The Definitions are perhaps at once the plainest and the deepest of all hermetic writings. We can read it as a mere resume of elementary teaching. Most of the hermetic dialogues take up the same sentences and comment upon them at the logos-level, which is but the second stage of the way to immortality. Rarely do they go one step further and reveal to us the spiritual meaning of the text.

It is no surprise that at least one sentence of this collection also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas. Both texts comprise sacred say­ings and secret teachings meant to strike imagination and to strongly impress their reader. Moreover we could venture to assert that, in regard to the other hermetic writings, the Definitions are almost in the same position as the Gospel of Thomas with regard to the four Gospels. In both cases, we have the aphorisms by themselves on the one hand, and sayings worked into a reasoned account or narrative on the other. The problem is whether the story is missing because it does not yet exist (or it is unknown to the compiler) or quite on the contrary, because it has been purpose­ fully ruled out.

We can also assert the comparison for essential reasons…the hermetic author of our text seems to have deliberately eliminated all kind of commentary in order to free his readers from the heaviness of abstract reasoning, to raise them above space and time and to hand over to them the very essence of meditation. You do not easily forget such a text. Hermetic sentences get mysteriously carved in your memory. They are still at work on your mind even when you do not think of them. For ‘it dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws up iron’ (CH 4.11).

In a footnote, Mahé introduces the idea regarding the possible origins of DH:

In 1982, the Demotic Book of Thoth—a prehermetic dialogue discovered in 1993 by K.Th. Zauzich and Richard Jasnow—was still unknown. It is noteworthy that this work contains a short collection of Thoth’s precepts entitled The Little Book of Advice. Although none of those precepts are directly echoed by any Greek her­metic aphorism, it may confirm our assumption (which has been sharply
criticised by G. Fowden 1986, pp. 71-2) that Greek hermetic literature is closely connected with Greek hermetic gnomologies which in turn bear the influence of Egyptian Wisdoms or instructions.

The overall gist of Mahé’s argument here (which he treats on at length in Hermès en Haute-Égypte) is that DH—and, given the outsized role he gives DH as being an origination point for many later Hermetic texts later put to paper, all of the Hermetic texts as a hole—have their origin in the long genre of Egyptian sebayt (sbꜣyt) literature, often translated as “instructions” or “teachings”.  We have a good number of such texts; indeed, the Ancient Egyptian Literature series (volume I on the Old Kingdom period, volume II on the Middle and New Kingdoms period, and volume III on the Late Period) by Miriam Lichtheim gives translations for no fewer than these (from oldest to latest):

  • Instruction of Prince Hardjedef
  • Instruction to Kagemni
  • Instruction of Ptahhotep
  • Instruction of Amenemhet I for Sesostris I
  • Instruction to Any
  • Instruction of Amenemope
  • Instruction of Anksheshonq
  • Instruction of the Demotic Insinger Papyrus

In addition to these, as referred to by Mahé, the Demotic Book of Thoth (an easy layman’s translation is available in Jasnow’s and Zauzich’s Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth) also has a small section that also qualifies as sebayt.  In addition to all the above, we also know for a fact that there were many other instances of sebayt, which either have not survived or which have not received enough public attention to be given modern translations, but we know that it was a long-lived genre of literature and was often hugely popular, with many texts being continuously copied an disseminated throughout Egyptian society.  What links all these texts together as belonging to a single “genre” is two, maybe three things:

  1. The text is, for the most part, a set of largely disconnected aphorisms
  2. The text is intended to inculcate the necessary actions, behaviors, and mindsets necessary to lead a good life
  3. Sometimes, the text provides an initial narrative that frames the text as being addressed from a father to a son for the son’s well-being in life

When it comes to studying good ways to live life, sebayt texts are often like gold, often touching on various aspects of living life: marriage, household affairs, national affairs, business, conducting oneself in public, eating, sleeping, sex, managing servants, and so on.  On occasion, the texts frame these exhortations and instructions in a religious light, saying that such-and-such behavior is something the gods approve of or that other behavior is what causes the gods to shun you, but that’s less common than just instructing someone to behave in such a way because it leads to good results in this life, maintaining good face, ensuring the prosperity and well-being of one’s household and family name, and the like.  Of course, given the long-lasting nature of this genre, as time goes on, there are some shifts in later sebayt texts that tend to merge certain aspects together, like how morality and piety become identified in e.g. the first century CE Demotic Papyrus Insinger.

And that’s just the rub: despite the many connections Mahé draws between DH and sebayt, I don’t think I can buy Mahé’s theory that DH descends from or is an evolution of Egyptian sebayt literature.  For the most part, sebayt are focused on living life well in this world, and aren’t focused on matters of mysticism or salvation like the DH is (to say nothing of the rest of the body of classical Hermetic literature), much less on doctrinal statements about cosmology or theology (which is all the DH really are anyway).  To derive a sense of religiosity or spirituality from the sebayt would require a good bit of squinting and stretching—not to say that it can’t be done, but that honestly doesn’t appear like the intended purpose of these texts.  Despite Mahé’s claims, the only thing that really links DH (or similar aphorism-based texts like SH 11) to the sebayt genre is its structure, being lists of aphorisms or maxims or statements (that first quality of sebayt literature I mentioned above).  But it’s not like a list of maxims is a particularly uncommon thing; after all, what of the Delphic Maxims or the Golden Verses of Pythagoras?  Those are much closer to sebayt in both style and content, but there’s no claim that those have an Egyptian origin.

In this, it turns out that I’m in complete agreement with Garth Fowden’s analysis of Mahé’s claims (as Mahé pointed out in that footnote above).  In The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, Fowden devotes a lengthy section of chapter 2 to the idea that the Hermetic texts (at least the philosophical stuff like DH, CH, etc.) are connected to sebayt and offers a refutation of Mahé’s claims much along these same lines.  To summarize some of Fowden’s points:

  • Sebayt texts were not unknown in a priestly context for classical Egypt, but these were more popular than spiritual texts and generally focus on different topics and areas than priestly Thoth literature
  • These texts were, on the whole, about practical living, sometimes making use of otherwise unethical approaches as an expedient means
  • These texts center humanity in a human world rather than God/the gods in a divine world or humans in relation to the divine
  • These texts are “though pious…this-worldly, ethical, social” while those of the Hermetic texts are “gnostic, contemplative, individualist”
  • Mahé goes to the opposite extreme of Festugière: while Festugière claimed that Hermeticism was a popular Hellenic philosophical phenomenon dolled up in Egyptian makeup, Mahé claims that Hermeticism is thoroughly Egyptian and only later Hellenized as an affectation; Fowden notes how many other Greek and Jewish influences there are in even the provably early Hermetic texts that Mahé effecitvely passes over in silence
  • Although the technical Hermetica has many more links to traditional (even ancient) Egyptian priestly and magical practices, the “writings of the philosophical Hermetists….had far fewer direct links with the Egyptian past”, given that they yet “combined openness to the international civilization of Hellenism with a deep, sometimes even aggressive awareness of their roots in Egypt”

To be sure, not all of the sebayt texts are so disconnected from the spirit of classical Hermeticism.  Of the texts mentioned above, I think the Instruction of Papyrus Insinger hits closest to a Hermetic ethos: although its handwriting style has been dated to the first century CE with at least part of its composition may well lie in the latter half of the Ptolemaic period, I personally think that it’s a great sebayt text to bear in mind for students of Hermeticism.  Not only is it largely well-perserved and intelligible, nor that it provides a good approach to living morally and piously, but also because it emphasizes a reliance on fate and the notion that the gods always have the final say in things, their divine order being one which we must turn to and live in accordance with.  That sort of idea is one that we don’t often see in many such texts.  Further, each section of the text ends with the same line, which suffices as a memorable statement of belief:

The fate and the fortune that come, it is the god who sends them.

Some of the hallmarks that make a Hermetic text Hermetic is that it needs to have some ascription, whether explicit or otherwise, to Hermēs Trismegistos, one of his teachers (e.g. Agathos Daimōn, Poimandrēs), or one of his students (e.g. Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn), and that it overall needs to evince some sort of focus on the mystic impulses and imperatives grounded in the Hellenistic Greco-Egyptian worldview evinced by other Hermetic texts like the CH, AH, SH, OH, DH, and the like.  Obviously, sebayt texts won’t focus on Hermēs Trismegistos as such (Thōth is another matter entirely, but it’s arguable whether we can mythically equate Hermēs Trismegistos with Thōth in this specific instance), but the purpose and focus of sebayt doesn’t match up with those of the Hermetic texts, either.  For that reason, we can’t really say that the Hermetic texts can be considered Kemetic in the sense of being purely Egyptian or being an outgrowth of purely Egyptian stuff, at least by focusing on sebayt texts alone for the purposes of studying the philosophical/theoretical Hermetic texts.

Does that make sebayt, or other Egyptian religious and spiritual stuff, worthless for studying Hermeticism?  By no means; indeed, we do know that there is an ultimately Egyptian origin to Hermeticism and Hermetic texts, and learning the kind of influences Egyptian religiosity and spirituality had in the development of Hermeticism is super important for understanding the Hermetic texts better.  However, by that same token, we also need to understand the extent and limits of such influence, because we also know that there are so many other influences at play in the development of Hermeticism ranging from Stoicism and Platonism to (Hellenized) Judaism and early gnostic tendencies.  But we shouldn’t conflate sebayt or other Egyptian stuff as Hermetic stuff, no more than we should conflate Greek stuff as Hermetic stuff, because while sebayt are purely-Egyptian, Hermetic texts are Greco-Egyptian, and that makes a world of different.  Studying these other texts may well be (and often are) useful to fill in our gaps in our knowledge, provide useful frameworks for a lived and living practice, and otherwise fleshing out an incomplete picture of Hermeticism, but in order to know what Hermeticism is, we also need to know what it is not, and how these things play with and off of each other.

Even if the doctrinal statements of (potentially early) Hermetic literature aren’t descended from sebayt texts, I think I can point to another text that bears more in common with sebayt: the Sentences of Sextus (SoS).  I first came across this text while flipping through my copy of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) texts, and it’s an interesting thing; the Coptic version preserved in NHL isn’t complete, but it survives in many other copies in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Armenian, and Georgian, and has been variously ascribed to the pre-Christian Stoic-Pythagorean Roman philosopher Quintus Sextus or to decidedly Christian figures like Pope Sixtus II.  Regardless of its origins (and we’ll touch more on that in a bit), SoS was well-known and well-read in antiquity by many early Christians according to the testament of Origen of Alexandria, who gives us our first extant reference to SoS in the mid-third century CE.  SoS is composed of 451 aphorisms  (with some versions adding an extra 159) originally written in Greek, all of which provide general exhortations and encouragements towards living a moral, pious life.  Although it’s been claimed by some to be a product of pre-Christian pagan morality—and, indeed, it does show lots of similarities with the Golden Verses of Pythagoras or the Sentences of Clitarchus, and can be considered a textual sibling to Porphyry’s Ad Marcellam—a closer study of the text (as in the 1959 study by Henry Chadwick or in the excellent 2012 translation and commentary by Walter T. Wilson) given its overlap and borrowing of language and topics from the Bible suggests that is rather the product of a Christian compiler who has (in the words of Chadwick) “edited, carefully revised, and modified a previous pagan collection (or perhaps collections)” of similar maxims.

Beginning to sound familiar?  I thought so, too.

Now, to be clear, I am not claiming SoS to be a Hermetic text.  As with the equally-extreme and equally-wrong stances of whether Hermeticism is purely-Greek or purely-Egyptian, there have also been people who take extreme views on whether SoS is purely-Christian or purely-pagan, when it is indeed indebted to both.  We know that SoS was compiled at some point no earlier than the late second century CE, and given that Origen was the first person to refer to it, it has a strong likelihood of being composed in Egypt.  In addition to this origin making SoS roughly contemporaneous and colocated with the development of the classical Hermetic texts, it also suggests that not only is SoS Christian, but specifically Egyptian Christian—and, given the content and format of SoS, being a (long) list of aphorisms encouraging one to live life well, suggests this to be a much more viable candidate for being a descendant (even if an indirect one) of sebayt literature.

To be sure, it’s not an altogether clean match.  In his article “Wisdom, Paraensis, and the Roots of Monasticism” in the 2012 anthology Early Christian Paraenesis in Context, Samuel Rubenson notes (emphasis in bold mine):

Moral exhortation, paraenesis, was, moreover, not something specifically Christian or Biblical. In Egypt there was a long tradition of collections of wisdom in the form of moral exhortations, often directed to “my son.” To some scholars it is this Egyptian wisdom tradition that is the basic foundation of the Apophthegmata. Thus the exhortations of the monastic fathers are actually a Christianized form of the exhortations of the old wise men of Egypt. However, as clearly demonstrated by Miriam Lichtheim, Egyptian wisdom had already begun to change drastically long before the rise of monasticism. Traditional morality with its focus on human relations especially within the family had been fused with religious piety focusing on the holy man, the ideal model of calm, restraint, patience and trust in God. The exhortations in the late Demotic texts do not look for “the good life,” but for “the way of God” or even “salvation.” And in the few texts that can be used as a bridge between late Egyptian wisdom literature and the early Egyptian monastic exhortations, the influence of Greek philosophy is prevailing. Based on Pythagorean ascetic traditions fused with Platonic and Stoic popular philosophy, texts like the Sentences of Sextus represent something different from Egyptian wisdom, an anthropological dualism most strikingly demonstrated in the fact that when translated into Coptic the word psyche had to be borrowed from the Greek, since Old Egyptian simply has no word for soul. When monasticism began in Egypt in the late third century, traditional Egyptian wisdom was already something that belonged to the past. The sapiential texts that we know in Coptic are all Hellenic, and most probably all translated from Greek. Original Coptic compositions begin with the first monks, and the models are all Greek.

In a sense, SoS is in the perfect sweet-spot for syncretism, itself being a result of syncretizing the old wisdom of religiosity with new impulse for mysticism, and itself encouraging further syncretizing though being a foundation for later Christian (or para-Christian) wisdom texts or for writers like Evagrius of Pontus.  Given how it was already remarked as being popular Christian literature of the time, SoS appearing in something like Nag Hammadi shouldn’t be too surprising—but given how Hermetic texts also appear in Nag Hammadi suggests that there would have probably been some mutual influence between the equally-cosmopolitan, roughly contemporaneous, and roughly colocated mystical traditions of both Hermeticism and Christianity in the second and third centuries CE.

In that light, given its focus and origination and its likely antecedents, I personally find SoS to be an excellent adjunct for Hermetic studies, especially in how it can function as providing a useful guide for right-living in light of a need for piety, spiritual rigor, and the ascent of the soul.  To be sure, SoS is not a Hermetic text, but I think it has plenty of value for Hermeticists to read as if it were a Hermetic text.  And while SoS can be argued to descend from sebayt texts, I would still elevate SoS to a higher priority to read than sebayt texts for the purposes of better understanding and practicing Hermeticism; not only does SoS express a much closer affinity to the goals and aims of Hermeticism than sebayt texts do, but the syncretic and cross-cultural Greco-Egyptian origins of both the classical Hermetic texts and SoS, both being composed at about the same time, give them much more in common that allow each to be much more readily understood and approached from both ends than either would from the long history of purely-Egyptian sebayt.  (Of course, that’s with the exception of the Instructions of Papyrus Insinger, but that’s just one of many sebayt texts, and is already so late and already composed during a Hellenistic colonization of Egypt that there was already likely some Greco-Egyptian syncretism beginning to happen.  As a result, Papyrus Insinger can be argued to be the exception that proves the rule.)

To be sure, SoS is as lacking in cosmology and theology as any sebayt text, and in that regard, cannot and should not be seen as a forerunner of any sort of Hermetic doctrine; in that, DH and SH 11 and similar compilations of Hermetic statements are still in a separate category from SoS.  However, there are so many moral and ethical exhortations in SoS that agree, if not entirely than almost so, with moral and ethical outlooks in Hermetic texts that it’s a wonder that such a text as SoS was kept so distinct from Hermetic compilations; although Wilson rarely cites it and is more fond of citing Christian scripture, he does point out at least some stated similarities between SoS and CH, e.g. SoS 141 (“If you love things you should not, you will not love things you should”) with CH IV.6 (“It is not possible, my son, to attach yourself both to things mortal and to things divine”) or SoS 320 with CH XIII.12, or SoS 370 with CH XII.23.  As Chadwick notes of SoS, “there are no maxims offensively redolent of their ethnic origin”, but neither are there any references to Christ or the apostles or specific Christian dogmata beyond general encouragements using contextless biblical quotes or near-quotes, which allows SoS to be read in any hypsistarian or monotheistic manner, or even a monist one as befitting much of the language of the Hermetic texts.

I think it’s important to remember how messy the history is of Hermeticism and its development, and how it’s not any one clean thing or another with neat and well-spaced dividers—but, for that matter, neither are many other mystical and spiritual movements, since nothing ever arises in a vacuum.  It behooves us all to remember that, although it has Egyptian origins, we cannot accurately call Hermeticism “Egyptian” in the same way that the pharaonic cult of Amun is Egyptian; it is, more accurately, Greco-Egyptian, and we cannot ignore the Helleniality of Hermeticism any more than we can its Egyptianity.  To that end, I would wager that other classical Greco-Egyptian or otherwise cosmopolitan eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions are probably going to be at least as informative, if not more so, than those from just a purely Egyptian or a purely Greek origin, much less those from much older time periods than the early Roman Imperial era.  The sebayt texts and Egyptian priestly traditions are awesome to study and dig into for Hermetic studies—I would never say otherwise—but I think that some scholars and students may overemphasize them to the exclusion of other, much more reasonable and readily-available sources that lend themselves at least as well to the context of Hermeticism, like SoS.

Besides, at the end of the day, whether one is reading a set of definitions or instructions or sentences, or however else one translates the word γνῶμαι, so long as it can be used by a Hermeticist and agrees with the goals and aims of Hermeticism, then that’s what matters most, even if that thing isn’t Hermetic on its own terms.  And I, personally, find much more to use in agreement with Hermeticism in texts like the SoS than in texts like the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq.