A Hermetic Musing on Fate, Necessity, and Providence

This post was originally a short tweet thread I shared last September, but I don’t think I ever shared it outside Twitter, and I think I phrased some things in it that even I hadn’t realized were as big as I do now.  I’ve reformatted it and embiggened it slightly for a proper blog post, but the gist is the same.

So, a few definitions first, largely based on SH 12—14:

  1. Providence is the will of God.
  2. Necessity is what comes up with what needs to happen in order for Providence to be fulfilled.
  3. Fate is what arranges things in order for that which Necessity declares to come about.

In software engineering terms, Providence is the requirement that specifies what is to be done, Necessity is the design that specifies how it’s to be done, and Fate is the code that does what the requirement says in the manner the design says. The execution of the code—the carrying-out of Fate—is the actual activity that happens in the cosmos, right down to our own lives.

And what are the agents of Fate, you might ask?  What are the entities that facilitate and serve Fate to bring it about?  It’s the planets and stars themselves, which are not just indicators of Fate but the things that provide all things that exist down here with the energy (in the philosophical sense of activity or being-at-work-ness) to do what they need to do to be born, to grow, to die, and decay—and, in the process, fulfill whatever purpose it was meant to achieve.

That the planets are the agents of Fate is why astrology is the first (and most important) Hermetic art, because the study of the planets and stars allows us to learn about Fate, and thus about Necessity and Providence, and thus God and our relation to it. Our external and bodily lives are commanded by Fate, and Fate is not up to us to change in the Hermetic worldview, no more than we can make Mercury not go retrograde when we find it inconvenient. Fate is going to happen one way or another; we must learn to live with it.  (This is where a good understanding of Stoicism comes into play when studying Hermeticism.)

But, the thing is, your soul—that which you really are—is not your body; rather, our souls come from a place beyond the cosmos, and thus a place beyond Fate.  As such, our souls are not compelled by Fate the way our bodies and external lives are.  Our bodies are creations of the cosmos, and the cosmos is ruled by Fate, and so our bodies are naturally controlled by Fate as well as a production of it (and, by extension, the seven planets).  The soul, which only wears the body like how the body wears a shirt, is only impelled, not compelled, by Fate, in the same way that while the quality of a shirt can make a body comfortable or uncomfortable, the body is not fundamentally bound to the same fate as the shirt.  That saying that we’re spiritual entities having a physical experience, or that we should only be in the world and not of the world?  That notion is critically Hermetic, and we need to take that to heart.  We can’t be in control of everything (or even anything) external on the level of the body, but internally on the level of the soul, we can overcome it all.

It is in rising above the powers of Fate that we conquer it, by learning what it does and how it plays out that we learn the exceptions in the code and the behavior unspecified by the design and the loopholes in the requirements. Only once we rise above Fate can we make it our plaything., but in order to do so, we need to understand how Fate actually plays out on the low level once we see what Fate is trying to accomplish at a high level.  This is why alchemy is the second Hermetic art: alchemy is the study and science of learning how the activities and energies of the cosmos play out specifically at the level of material creation and manifestation, in the world we live in. Astrology looks above to see “why”, alchemy looks below to see “how”. And, well, as the Emerald Tablet (and so many others who love to quote it) says, “as above, so below”.

Learning Fate’s activity/energeia by alchemy and Fate’s power/dynamis by astrology, that’s where the third Hermetic art comes in: theurgy. Theurgy doesn’t change Fate to fight against Necessity or change Providence. Rather, it works by Fate to do what is best—what is Necessary—in accordance with highest Providence.  In working by Fate, we rise up to Fate’s own level and surpass it, able to at last be consciously and intentionally free of Fate.  Theurgy relies on knowing that which is above, that which is below, and the relationship between the two to not just go up or down, but to go beyond both entirely.  (After all, when you’re talking about a sphere, any direction away from the center is technically “up”.)

To borrow a bit of Christianity for a moment: angels are said to have no free will, but consider instead that they have will, just that their will is to fulfill God’s will. In this, the will of an angel is the will of God to be expressed through that angel.  The same goes for us, too. Theurgy is what allows us to make our will God’s will, which also makes God’s will our will. And if God is for you, sharing the one and same will, who can be against you?

When your own will is Providence, what need would you have to fight with Fate, when Fate itself could not fight with you?

I was on a two-part show on the “What Magic is This?” podcast!

Well, that certainly was fun!

I trust you, good reader, will remember that I’ve been on a handful of podcasts as a guest before, and if you’ve forgotten (or if you haven’t been around long enough to hear about that), you can check the About page of this website to see a list of what shows I’ve been on before.  It’s always a pleasure and a treat to be on someone’s show, and although I live in constant fear that I’ll make an oafish ass of myself and make the good host waste their time and bandwidth on me, apparently the shows I’ve been on tend to be well-received for one reason or another.

As it turns out, I was was invited back by Douglas Batchelor over at What Magic is This?, this time not as the sole guest but with the good Rev. Erik Arneson (of Arnemancy) as my friend and colleague, the two of us answering Doug’s questions about Hermeticism, both classical and post-classical, from all sorts of angles.  It was a great talk, and because the discussion was so expansive (it’s hard not to be when talking about 2000 years of development and wiles in all sorts of ways!), it got broken out into two separate episodes.  Take a listen, whether on YouTube, Spotify, Libsyn, or your other preferred podcast listener!

Part I (June 17, 2021), focusing on classical Hermeticism

Part II (June 25, 2021), focusing on post-classical Hermeticism

If you’ve enjoyed these talks (I certainly hope you do, and I certainly enjoyed being a part of them!), do consider supporting both Doug and Erik on their respective platforms, subscribe to their shows, donate to their Patreons, and the like!

On Gender in Hermeticism: Analysis, Ranting, and Questions

Whew.  After giving that whole battery of citations from classical Hermetic literature yesterday, you might be tired, and I wouldn’t blame you.  Still, I should point out that amidst the many different texts that are extant, it was just those 15 that I could only really bring up in the topic of sex and gender within Hermeticism without getting into the more technical or scientific stuff that goes over the nitty-gritty of how biological reproduction actually works (which is getting outside the scope of gender and sex in general).  That’s all that there is, just 15 small excerpts, amounting to but a few pages among many hundreds that talk about everything else.  Suffice it to say that it’s just not a major topic within Hermeticism, but it’s still there even in some small way, and it would behoove us to get a better understanding of what’s there and what it actually says.

One of the biggest issues we have when faced with discussing notions of gender in a spiritual context, especially when it comes to Hermeticism and what the classical Hermetic texts have to say on the topic, is that it’s become common in a lot of New Age and otherwise modern magical and spiritual traditions to overlay binary and largely Western notions of gender with spiritual metaphors, conflating the two to a point where it becomes hard to separate out the symbol from the referent.  All this stuff we see, read, and hear about “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” is extremely dependent on your perspective, and it’s not always there in the currents we talk about.  Trying to use notions of gender to describe spiritual realities is risky, because once you phrase things in terms of gender (which is, for the most part, based on an immaterial parallel to biological sex), you’re limiting yourself in ways that sex and gender themselves are limited that are not always appropriate to what’s being actually discussed.  As a result—especially now that we’re at a point in our cultural worldview where we can more freely and honestly evaluate what gender is, what it means to be or do gender, how gender is conditioned or developed from societal roles, and the like—we end up with a hot mess that we don’t need and never needed to deal with, but here we are all the same.  This is made all the worse when we work from our modern perspectives on gender and need to understand what “gender” even meant to people from a different temporal, cultural, geographical, and philosophical context than what we grew up within, and trying to overlay our ingrained notions with older or different ones is bound to cause so much strife and conflict that it’s honestly best to start from first principles.

So, based on the excerpts we identified last time, what are some of the takeaways we can glean from the excerpts we pointed out as a whole?

  • God is androgyne, here meaning “beyond male or female”, “transcending male and female”, “neither male nor female”, or “both male and female”, depending on your cultural perspective and understanding of this word.
  • The essential human (Anthrōpos) is androgyne in the same way that God is androgyne, since the essential human is made in the image and likeness of God with God as the “father” of the essential human.
  • By extension, all things are inherently androgyne on an immaterial level (i.e. that of the soul).
  • Every instance of “androgyne”, “male”, or “female” comes about in the context of (immaterial) creation or (material) procreation.
  • Differentiated sex only comes about and only makes sense in the context of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Sexed bodies were only made (in the sense of the male being sundered from the female) for the purpose of biological reproduction with material bodies.
  • Male and female, as biological sexes, are both “full of fecundity”, but have different functions of fecundity, and it is their union that creates the act of procreation, as the combination of male and female returns both to an androgyne (and thus primordial human, or God-like, state), triggering new creation.

In other words, if we take this all together, then what we (or at least, what I) arrive at is the conclusion that sex is only ever about bodies, which agrees with the modern distinction between “sex” and “gender”, and doesn’t (unless you reach to make it fit) doesn’t apply to things that don’t have bodies.  However, what sets the modern notion of gender apart from the doctrines of the Hermetic excerpts pointed out before is that there is no such notion of “gender” in the Hermetic texts as we understand it nowadays; moreover, there doesn’t need to be, because the soul which inhabits (sexed) bodies is (along with God) androgyne to begin with; there is no such thing as a “male soul” or a “female soul”, or even a “male energy” or “female energy”.  To an extent, this makes sense, since the notion of gender as a thing separate from sex is a relatively modern idea and model of human identity; after all, for most of history, “gender” was something you considered when figuring out what sort of word suffixes to use in linguistics.

Consider again CH I.17—18:

As I said, then, the birth of the seven was as follows. (Earth) was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.

All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

Taking this as a basis, we know that the first seven human beings were androgyne, along with all other animal life, in a sort of primordial/antediluvian Hermetic “Golden Age”.  It was only after “a cycle ended” that differentiation in sex was started.  It’s not really explained why such a “cycle” would have to “end” for this new cycle to start, except that’s what cycles do; Scott points out in his commentary that the language in this is vaguely Stoic, but this doesn’t cleanly line up with Stoic cosmology, and also hearkens to Hesiod’s mythic “ages”.  In this, I’d mark the first start of biological life in the sense that we’d understand it to be at the start of this second age rather than in the ideal first age, since biological life requires biological reproduction, and we don’t see any sort of thing discussed or mentioned in the first age.  We end up with several possibilities here:

  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were all that there were, and no new humans were made in the first age.
  • Maybe Physis made more androgyne humans than just these after their creation, and they just weren’t discussed.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans parthenogenetically made more of themselves.
  • Maybe the seven androgyne humans were already making more through combinations of themselves in ways that couldn’t be described as “sex”.

Of these possibilities, only the first possibility (that it was just the seven original androgyne humans existing for an age without any further ones) seems the most likely to me.  After that, we have biological life properly starting, which requires the differentiation of bodies along sexual lines to function properly.  Splitting bodies into two just happened to work best, I suppose; after all, there’s much philosophical ink spilled about how there’s always a median third between any two things.

On this point, a friend from the Hermetic Agora Discord put something into my mind that works really well:

Also, the thing about gender is that it is a social construct.  Take this mushroom for example: “One species of fungi, Schizophyllum commune, really shines when it comes to gender diversity. The white, fan-shaped mushroom has more than 23,000 different sexual identities, a result of widespread differentiation in the genetic locations that govern its sexual behavior.”

It’s just that evolution pared it down to two for most animals to make things easier. But even that is wiggly. There is a species of all female lizards.

We know through the investigation of modern science that biological sex gets really, really weird.  Like, there’s no brooking this debate; we know for a fact that there are more biological sexes than just saying “XY= male and XX = female”, and cases where what we’d consider “male” and “female” for one species is turned on its head or rendered a moot point entirely for other species, where sometimes it’s something from birth and other times through temporal and temporary circumstance afterward.  To believe otherwise is literally to believe wrongly; when belief in what is invisible or imperceptible and which cannot be logically proved one way or another is one thing, but to not believe in the dazzling complexity of biological processes and traits that lead to a dizzying array of different sexes in pretty much every species is the equivalent of not believing in gravity or the Pacific ocean.  I mean, as that one popular anti-transphobia rant (which I believe can be attributed to a New York biology teacher) that circulates the Internet from time to time goes:

First of all, in a sexual species, you can have females be XX and males be X (insects), you can have females be ZW and males be ZZ (birds), you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others), or you can be one of thousands of sexes (slime mold, some mushrooms.) Oh, did you mean humans? Oh ok then. You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice — effing — versa. Don’t use science to justify your bigotry. The world is way too weird for that shit.

Likewise, this thread from @RebeccaRHelm on Twitter (minor editing for readability):

Friendly neighborhood biologist here. I see a lot of people are talking about biological sexes and gender right now. Lots of folks make biological sex sex seem really simple. Well, since it’s so simple, let’s find the biological roots, shall we? Let’s talk about sex.

If you know a bit about biology you will probably say that biological sex is caused by chromosomes, XX and you’re female, XY and you’re male. This is “chromosomal sex” but is it “biological sex”? Well, turns out there is only ONE GENE on the Y chromosome that really matters to sex. It’s called the SRY gene. During human embryonic development the SRY protein turns on male-associated genes. Having an SRY gene makes you “genetically male”. But is this “biological sex”?

Sometimes that SRY gene pops off the Y chromosome and over to an X chromosome. Surprise! So now you’ve got an X with an SRY and a Y without an SRY. What does this mean? A Y with no SRY means physically you’re female, chromosomally you’re male (XY) and genetically you’re female (no SRY). An X with an SRY means you’re physically male, chromsomally female (XX) and genetically male (SRY).

But biological sex is simple! There must be another answer.  Sex-related genes ultimately turn on hormones in specifics areas on the body, and reception of those hormones by cells throughout the body. Is this the root of “biological sex”? “Hormonal male” means you produce “normal” levels of male-associated hormones. Except some percentage of females will have higher levels of “male” hormones than some percentage of males. Ditto ditto “female” hormones. And if you’re developing, your body may not produce enough hormones for your genetic sex. Leading you to be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally non-binary, and physically non-binary.

Well, except cells have something to say about this.  Maybe cells are the answer to “biological sex”?? Right?? Cells have receptors that “hear” the signal from sex hormones. But sometimes those receptors don’t work. Like a mobile phone that’s on “do not disturb”. Call and cell, they will not answer.

What does this all mean? It means you may be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally male/female/non-binary, with cells that may or may not hear the male/female/non-binary call, and all this leading to a body that can be male/non-binary/female.  Try out some combinations for yourself. Notice how confusing it gets? Can you point to what the absolute cause of biological sex is?

Is it fair to judge people by it? Of course you could try appealing to the numbers. “Most people are either male or female” you say. Except that as a biologist professor I will tell you the reason I don’t have my students look at their own chromosome in class is because people could learn that their chromosomal sex doesn’t match their physical sex, and learning that in the middle of a 10-point assignment is JUST NOT THE TIME.

Biological sex is complicated. Before you discriminate against someone on the basis of “biological sex” & identity, ask yourself: have you seen YOUR chromosomes? Do you know the genes of the people you love? The hormones of the people you work with? The state of their cells? Since the answer will obviously be no, please be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are, and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Again: biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be.

To put it flatly, we know more about biology and the processes of biological reproduction today than we ever have before.  Not that we know everything and not that the methodology of science and interpretation of scientific results aren’t also subject to cultural biases, of course, but we know quite a bit more than what people did 2000 years ago when the authors of the Hermetic texts were living and writing what they wrote subject to their own models and interpretations of things.  It is true that many (but not all) species of visible animal life, humanity included, do (for the most part) procreate based on there being two sexes—but we also know that this is not the case for all animal life, and the ancients didn’t have the means to accurately quantify or qualify that, and without any observable instance of it clearly being understood, it didn’t form part of their models or mythic languages.  When the Hermetic texts do claim a model or theory of binary sex, they only limit it to biological reproduction, and that based on observation (especially that of human reproduction from a common but not universal case).  At the risk of making a bold claim when it comes to the gods: if Hermēs is the god of knowledge and science, then it’d behoove us to adapt the teachings and doctrines of earlier ages that came before to what we have now based on better knowledge of the matter given the good it stands to do for us with the minimal impact it makes on the meat and bones of the tradition, and I think this is something that could use some good updating for that very reason.  This is all the more important for us given how prevalent mystical notions of “male” and “female” are in so much of modern spirituality (even modern Hermetic ones!), but given how complicated the matter of sex is—and given how the meaning of sex only matters for the purpose of biological reproduction with any other instance of “sex” appearing in the Hermetic texts is used metaphorically based on the common case of most human coitus—we need to understand that notions of sex as they appear in the Hermetica are both outdated as well as intensely limited.

I admit that I’m (by all accounts and understanding of the term) cisgender, and I don’t have the same experience of transgender, agender, genderqueer, or other nonbinary people; for that reason, I won’t speak for them or their experiences, and this limits me to an understanding of these texts from my own point of view.  From my point of view, biological sex just doesn’t matter except for the purposes of having sex and engaging in biological reproduction (rendering my own identity of being cisgender moot), and even then, there’s a lot more happening out there than just “male” or “female”.  To construct whole models of magic, spirituality, religion, and cosmology based on the outdated binary notion of “male” and “female” alone is (at best) limiting at best and (at worst) based on utterly wrong notions of how things actually work.  Besides, as I’m emphasizing here and elsewhere, because biological sex is only about biological processes and (with the one textual exception of the theory of the soul being impacted by elemental factors from SH 24.7) not at all about the soul, there’s nothing “male” and “female” about the soul, about theurgy, about magic unless you take metaphors too far and force them to be.  And, worse, because the metaphor itself is so limited, even the use of the metaphor of biological sex being used to explain spiritual and non-biological processes is (without deliberate and careful elaboration and clarification) misleading to the point of harm and damage (which can, frankly, explain so much about modern occulture).

The issue for us as modern people with more knowledge about how things work in dealing with texts that provide models and theories of how things work is reconciling these benefits of having modern knowledge and understanding with where the ancients were coming from.  I pointed out that excerpt from Lactantius for a reason (FH 13, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

We have evidence that the ancients involved in these models and metaphors conceived of all creation as an act between male and female, without both of which being present creation could not occur; this is evidence that they literally could not conceive of creation otherwise outside the paradigm of biological procreation, which is a doozy of topic for a whole series of discussions on its own.  We have myths abounding from any number of cultures and religious traditions of cosmogonies being produced from one or more syzygies of male and female‚ some of which fed into the scientific theories of the day to explain procreation and creation generally, and some of those fed into the texts we now have as being the classical Hermetic corpora (like the male-female pairs of gods from the Hermopolitan Ogodad).  But we also have creation myths which don’t rely on such things (like the Heliopolitan myth of Atum masturbating to produce some gods, as well as sneezing and spitting to produce yet others).  These could be interpreted as being extrapolations of male and female dynamics within an androgyne entity (such as the hand of Atum being supposedly the feminine principle within himself), but that model of gendered interpretation doesn’t always work (what’s the female principle of him sneezing and spitting to produce Shu and Tefnut?), when a simpler model that does away with gender entirely can.  In truth, while we do need to understand where the ancients were coming from in order to understand what they were talking about with the proper context, we also have a buffet of perspectives contemporary even to them that we can draw on and synthesize together, and when combined with our modern knowledge about things that simply wasn’t available to them back then, we can go much further in developing more nuanced, helpful, and balanced approaches to spirituality and religion—or at least worldly interactions—than what they had available to them as well.  Some things don’t need to change, to be sure, but other things should when it makes sense to.

But, again, none of what we’ve been talking about as far as biological sex applies to the soul, to heavenly realities or entities, or to cosmology because the Hermetic texts admit and state that they don’t apply.  The notion of people being only male or female, and that at an essential level, is very much a relatively modern Western one; various cultures across the world, even in the premodern West, have had different notions of what androgyny (in the sense of being neither male nor female, both male and female, or something else entirely) could manifest as, and it’s an embarrassing and shameful thing that we’re stuck in a general culture that only views two sexes as being “valid”.  It could even be argued that notions of being a particular gender rely on, assume, play into this stance regarding fixed and well-defined biological sexes, and while many people use the notion of gender to free themselves from a stifling cisgender identity imposed on them, it may still be a stumbling block for others no matter how they look at it (hence agender and other nonbinary genders being made more known and accepted, even if only by the people they apply to themselves).  After all, gender really is a social construct, and while many people tend to accept that phrase on face value, its full import is that it literally has no basis in physical reality except what society constructs one to be.  From a Hermetic standpoint, this is obvious, since the soul is just gonna be the soul, and notions of gender would only apply to a (ramshackle, socially-conditioned) noetic/mental construction of the self more than anything more.

And this raises what we need to understand and reinterpret now, in light of modern discoveries of biological sex and reproduction, what the Hermetic texts mean when they say that God or the soul is “androgyne”.   I’ve been saying it all along: while it can be understood to mean “having characteristics of being both male and female”, it can also be used to mean “neither male nor female”—which is honestly the better way to discuss God and the soul, because both God and the soul arose before physical procreation arose and are therefore above it entirely.  Male and female only arose for the purposes of biological procreation, and rather than thinking that there existed something essentially male and essentially female as separate essences or energies within the soul (and, thus, God), I claim that it would be better to understand this in a more roundabout way: that God split the original seven androgyne (perhaps better “metagender”? “undifferentiated”? “non-sexed”?) humans and all animal life into smaller more-specialized pieces so that, taking the implication that there was no generation or procreation in the first age according to CH I and thus everything being in unchanging ungenerating stasis, sex first arose with this sundering to benefit humanity and animal life according to its environmental and elemental nature (about which SH 23—26 says much!), which (as my friend from Discord mentioned earlier) happened to be heavily bimodal for some species.  But we also know that it’s not strictly binary, and that the human body (which is a generation of fate, and thus a product of the Logos of creation) doesn’t have to fall on that binary or even that bimodal distribution; as such the revelation of CH I from Poimandrēs to Hermēs uses metaphorical language to explain to Hermēs something comprehensible but which doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of how things come to be (just as it doesn’t with all the other aspects of cosmic material creation, e.g. on a molecular or atomic or quantum level).  In this, I’d rather interpret the Hermetic notion of “androgyny” to be beyond, prior to, and without gender (the very word “gender” connoting generation, i.e. biological reproduction through sex).  This still fits with the texts themselves with minimal to no conflict in terms of doctrine or metaphor, while still admitting the bimodal distribution of apparent biological sex which, being common to most people in one form or another, allows for the use of metaphors structured around it.  So long as we don’t take those metaphors too far, we’re golden, and beyond the point at which they no longer become useful or for those for whom it was never useful, other metaphors can (and should) be made to describe creation and spiritual rebirth (as in how CH IV describes it compared to how CH XIII describes it).

So, what in the Hermetic corpora can support the “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” bit so common to occult theories that pervade our spiritualities and religions?  Of the 15 extant citations from classical Hermetic literature I drew up last time, only one (DH 10.1—2) actually supports that, with another (AH 21) being debatable because of variants in translation that don’t equal the views of each other.  That’s really not a whole lot of ground to stand on, and it only properly describes and relates to the act of procreative sex—and, even more specifically, the moment of sex where semen is released from one to the other.  That’s it; that’s the whole context and basis for it, and it’s an extremely limited one.  If we take instead the notion of the Coptic AH 21 into account rather than the Latin AH 21, it’s not that the male “gives up” something for the female to have, but that they both exchange with each other, and in the process, come out with something greater than the combination of its parts.  This renders the model of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” meaningless, or posits that it’s really the ejaculation of sperm as its own thing (and not the one from whom it ejaculates) as the “third thing in the middle” rather than there just being two, making this a trinary system instead of a binary one.

That still only makes sense if you limit your notion of “sex” to be that of strictly penetrative, procreative sex between men and women; while I can’t speak to trasngender or nonbinary views and experiences, as a gay man, I can speak to my experience of sex, which isn’t about procreation at all; there’s a lot more going for sex for me than procreation (which isn’t something I want or plan to engage in anyway for a variety of reasons), and there’re no fixed roles during sex between gay men.  I mean, just as there were plenty of views (and social/cultural moralizing) about androgyny and nonbinary genders (as we’d perceive them) classically, there was just as much about sex both procreative and recreative.  Taking that into account as well as my experience, I also have to adapt that rather than just accept that sex is only for procreation, because procreation isn’t a thing I’m doing or aiming for.  Just because my sex isn’t procreative, of course, doesn’t make any less divine than procreative sex between heterosexuals, I can tell you that; it doesn’t operate on the same way, even if (or when) there is an exchange of a sort via semen.  To me, making a notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” based on heterosexual sex (and penetrative sex, at that—there’s more than just that, trust me) between cisgender people alone to be a model for magic and spirituality is incredibly limiting, misses the mark for me, and has little Hermetic ground to stand on when the actual context of that ground is so much more limited than what many New Age people want to make it out to be.  The only thing that would lend this model validity on the level people ascribe to it is if, knowing that the soul is androgyne and has all the powers of creation (both within the All of creation and pertaining to the actual work of creation), it could not be used to its fullest in general except when it is paired with another soul inhabiting the body of the opposite sex in the actual act of procreative sex, and we just don’t see that claim being made.  It only matters for the purposes of procreation, nothing else seemingly impacted by it.  The value people give to this notion of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” far outweighs its actual weight in Hermetic texts, doctrines, and practices, because that very notion is literally limited to just the act and work of procreation.

Likewise, if you take this one step higher based on the revelation of CH I, the accounts of Anthrōpos and Physis embracing each other doesn’t really support this view unless you (again) really stretch to read it into it.  Physis is described as being the one who “took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him” and “made love with” him—Physis is the active one in that relationship, not Anthrōpos, who is described as more passive in that relationship, except and unless you consider Anthrōpos’s enraptured (notice the passive verb there!) approach towards Physis to be a moment of activity to begin with.  The only thing that makes Anthrōpos the “father” in that relationship is that he contributes “soul and mind” by means of the life-breath to Physis in the way a (conventional) male would contribute semen to a (conventional) female during procreative sex; everything else is Physis’ doing.  And this cuts to the heart of the major issue with seeing “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” because it implies that the act of contributing semen is somehow “active” because of…well, let’s be honest: it’s because of longstanding misogyny, people not understanding the mystery of how the internal (and even external) organs of women work compared to the obviousness of what happens with a man, and patriarchal power structures that favor men over women that have been around for literal millennia and which themselves are refuted by the Hermetic texts (outside of the Korē Kosmou).  All this, because—again—the soul (which is the focus of Hermetic theurgic practice) does not have gender and only bodies do for the purposes of procreation; everything else is humane bullshit.  Taking all this into account, it’s better to say that the spiritual role of procreation by means of sexed biological reproduction is to induce change into the cosmic system among human life so that it does not remain static, and for that, there needs to be differentiation to induce further differentiation.  After all, consider what Hermēs teaches Asklēpios in CH XIV.7:

You need not be on guard against the diversity of things that come to be, fearing to attach something low and inglorious to god. God’s glory is one, that he makes all things, and this making is like the body of god. There is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself; such conditions are immediate consequences of generation, like corrosion on bronze or dirt on the body. The bronzesmith did not make the corrosion; the parents did not make the dirt; nor did god make evil. But the persistence of generation makes evil bloom like a sore, which is why god has made change, to repurify generation.

Unchanging stasis will accumulate corruption and continue to be corrupted; change, which absolves generation of persistence, purifies creation and generation.  Perhaps this is why God sundered humanity into different sexes after the first age, so that the corruption of stasis from the first age will not take root in ours.  Just as the planets keep moving in their cycles so as to remain in their orbits around the Sun, for if they stood still but a moment they’d start their inevitable fall right to the Sun, so too do we need to keep moving in our orbits with our own cycles of change so that we (and humanity as a whole) does not fall into permanent decline and decrepitude.  Likewise, knowing what we know about the risks of inbreeding, introducing variation and difference into a system can keep it healthy by ensuring that certain traits are constantly shuffled up so that no problematic trait becomes too dominant.  It just so happens that the biology of it all has it easiest to do this with most people having one of two sexes, but depending on how individual bodies arise, their changes and differences from what is otherwise considered common are likely part of a greater plan and design of Logos to make even greater purifications from decline in whatever ways are best for the individual at hand.  That said—at the risk of repeating myself one too many times—this is only ever about the body, and not at all about the soul, and all souls have the same origin (God) and same nature (androgyne/genderless), and it is the soul that is the essential human in us all, not the body that we inhabit.  That’s one of the biggest lessons that Hermeticism teaches: you are not your body, and to confuse yourself with your body is to “drink of death”.  To extend that, to treat non-bodied things as being bodied and as having the qualities of bodies is a categorical mistake.

Are there problems or issues with what I’m claiming?  Certainly.  Here are a few I can come up with that should be resolved at some point, whether by me or by others who are thinking about this as well:

  • For one, while I’m aware that what I wrote above about how gender isn’t a thing according to the Hermetic texts, I’m not saying that gender is invalid nor how one discovers, identifies with, or is a particular gender; I’m only saying that it’s not a thing associated with the soul, and more associated with society and how that impacts our personal view of ourselves from a mental/noetic point of view.  This claim that “gender doesn’t actually exist” may not be something safe or helpful for some people to hear at their individual points in their own paths of life.  If you need the notion of gender to help you, then use it; if you don’t, then don’t.  (Big Buddhist parable of the raft vibes here.)
  • From a more magical or occult perspective, are there times when physical/biological sex matters?  Perhaps!  The material form of material goods, supplies, and tools in magic does matter at points; there are often times when a specific kind of tree, a specific animal, a specific rock is needed for a ritual, and there may well be arguments to be made that, based on the biological and occult differences between male and female in terms of bodies, there may be different specific needs for one or the other in particular rituals or contexts that operate from a materia magica-centric perspective.  After all, if biological sex matters for biological reproduction, and we use biological processes and symbols in magic and that there are occult virtues in everything that don’t necessarily pertain to the soul, then it stands to reason that there may be a case when the presence or absence of certain biological traits related to sex may be beneficial or required for particular occult operations.  Can such things be substituted for or argued around to where they don’t matter?  Probably, and probably just as likely as sex mattering from an occult physical perspective outside of coitus; it depends on the specific nature of the ritual, the spirits it works with, and the cultural and religious context in which the ritual applies.  This is an extremely delicate topic with a lot of different answers all vying for attention at once, so consider each case carefully and listen to what the spirits involved ask and require as well.  To wit: if a spirit (or group of people) insists on a particular sex that you or someone else cannot fulfill, then maybe don’t listen to or work with that spirit (or group of people); that’s also an entirely practical and reasonable approach, because spirits aren’t infallible just because they’re immaterial, and people aren’t infallible no matter who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Does what I claim above apply to non-Hermetic traditions of belief, spirituality, and religion?  I dunno, ask what those other traditions say.  I’m only writing from a Hermetic perspective using Hermetic evidence to clarify Hermetic doctrines; I’m not going to talk about what other traditions do or don’t believe, as that’s not my focus in these posts nor my place to do so.  Other traditions and traditions may need to struggle with this as well, or it may be a moot point entirely where they never had problems along these lines to begin with.  Likewise, the symbol set of any particular tradition or practice would need to account for this (cf. my musings on Puella and Puer among the geomantic figures), and reconsider what it means to be or exemplify characteristics we consider to be gendered or sexed.
  • I realize, after the fact, that many of these same issues I mention here pertaining to sex and gender can also be applied to other aspects of traditional belief, like there being seven traditional planets and the like, that also need updating.  This is just me picking my battles, I suppose, but let’s be honest: the precise number, arrangement, and correspondence of the heavens is a lot less of a pressing concern than when someone asks out of fear and concern whether they can be a Hermeticist at all because they’re trans since they heard something about all things having to be neatly and cleanly male or female, when gay men are still excluded from spiritual communities because of mistaken BS-based notions that their sexual dynamics are either (more politely said) incompatible with existing male-female energetics or (more commonly thought) just wicked and debased, when women are constantly at a disadvantage (both in occult communities and outside of it) because of longstanding cis-het patriarchal issues in most cultures that view their bodies to be lesser than those of men, and so on.  All these problems result from incorrect (lamentable, horrible, despicable, damaging) views on gender and sex that have no place in Hermeticism or amongst humanity at all.
  • Given the Hermetic notion of fate that comes about by means of the Logos being the organizing principle of the cosmos (something almost certainly inherited from Stoicism), it stands to reason that we all have the bodies we have for a reason, regardless of how we feel about it.  This can be a problematic thing for some trans people who feel that they were born “in the wrong body”, as much as it is people born with congenital diseases or conditions.  I don’t have an answer to that besides appealing to God, suggesting only that each person needs to figure out what their fate is and how to live in accordance with it as best as they can; sometimes the body can be worked on and improved upon just as a mechanic might work on their own car as a hobby or out of necessity, sometimes the body they have is meant to do something that another body could not handle, sometimes they have mental quandries that need to be worked out instead of their bodies being worked on.  There’s no one answer to this, no more than I can tell someone what their true will or perfect nature might be.
  • Can the use of biological sex be a useful metaphor for some people?  Undoubtedly; honestly, this is why notions of “male = active/emitting, female = passive/receiving” have stuck around for so long, because most people do get that and how it can apply as a metaphor to describe spiritual or occult processes, and more people than not are cisgender and heterosexual.  The problem is in declaring that it’s a “law” or “principle” merely because the biological symbol this metaphor makes use of is more common than other things that happen and claiming that all things need to fit in that model, which then necessarily forces things that aren’t part of that male/female or heterosexual paradigm into uncomfortable positions merely to make it fit.  A better approach would be to use a different model that’s more inclusive or which resolves such things without having to use sex-based metaphors to begin with, and I don’t readily have a model at hand that can do that without just saying “active/passive” or “emitting/receiving” without using gendered language—which, if nothing else, is a start.  This notion that nothing is ever truly one or the other may well agree with the “law of gender” that the Kybalion and other texts state, but my issue is with using a gender-based metaphor and using gendered language to describe it in the first place, which causes so many problems that there’s really not much of a baby to throw out with the bathwater at all.

I’m sure there are other problems and questions that can arise from this discussion, but at the end of the day, for those who are still wondering: no, there is nothing in Hermeticism or the classical Hermetic texts that deny, conflict with, or raise issues with being queer, whether along lines of sexuality or gender.  Anyone who tells you that you can’t be gay/transgender/nonbinary and be spiritual is lying to you out of (either intentional or socially-conditioned) bigotry.  Yes, it’s true that we all need to “figure ourselves out and get right with God”, but that applies just as much to the people shrieking it and the people that are unfortunately shrieked at—that’s the whole point of Hermeticism, after all, the whole point of “know thyself”, and it doesn’t need to be shrieked at all in anyone’s face.  Still, that doesn’t mean you need to pigeonhole yourself into some narrow gendered bullshit that society or (bad) occulture mandates you to be in, nor that you need to relegate yourself to bad cis takes from the Victorian era about “how things just are” when they just factually aren’t.  It just means you need to figure out who and what you are, then use that knowledge to reclaim your own divine, pure, essential nature—which goes well beyond the capabilities of any metaphor or nonsense so-called “principle” to describe.

On Gender in Hermeticism: Excerpts and Commentary

One of the most valuable resources for the study of the classical Hermetic texts we have available to us is that of Walter Scott’s four volume series Hermetica.  Publishing the first volume in 1924 with two volumes of commentary in 1926 and a posthumous publication of the last in 1936, Scott’s work was monumental in getting a better understanding of the various Greek and Latin texts of classical Hermeticism, offering deep linguistic, philosophical, and contextual analysis along with conjectures of corrections, dating, and the like for when, how, and by whom these texts were written.  Of course, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its problems; Scott’s version of the texts is…problematic at points, and Copenhaver notes in his introduction to his own Hermetica that:

Reitzenstein had published another Greek text of C .H. I in his 1926 Studies, prefacing it with the comment that “in my notes I can use the new edition of the Corpus by Walter Scott…but for my text I can take nothing from it.  Whether the long commentary that is promised can even partially justify the completely reckless arrangement of the text remains to be seen.”  At this point, Reitzenstein had seen only the first volume (1924) of Scott’s Hermetica, which contains an introduction, the texts and the translations.  Two thick volumes of commentary followed in 1926, but Scott’s death in the previous year delayed publication of the fourth volume of testimonia and indices until 1936, when it appeared with extensive additions by A.S. Ferguson.  Scholars have generally confirmed Reitzenstein’s harsh verdict on the text, which is a jungle of excisions, interpolations and transpositions so distantly related to the manuscripts that Scott’s translation can only be regarded as a translation of Scott, not of the Hermetic authors.  Apart from the text and translation, however, Scott’s volumes remain indispensable, and some of his textual insights were brilliantly right, others brilliantly wrong.  His commentary is copious and learned, and his collection of testimonies an invaluable resource.

Scott’s four volumes are still in print, but his translation is unreliable because it reflects his idiosyncratic text. For readers of French and, obviously, for those who can handle the Greek and Latin, the Budé edition of Nock with Festugiere’s translation remains indispensable, even though knowledge of the text and its cultural context has progressed in the last several decades. Anyone who intends to spend a long time with the Hermetica should certainly get to know both the Budé and Scott, even though neither is particularly accessible to a wide readership.

Likewise, Salaman notes in his Way of Hermes:

Early in the twentieth century new academic interest in ancient religion brought about the edition and translation of Walter Scott (1924—1936), based on his heavily altered text.

Scott’s works are…well, to call them a “translation” isn’t quite true, because Scott took what manuscripts and copies of the Greek and Latin that he had available to him and tried to patch them up, sometimes even going to so far as to “edit them with a free hand” (as in his work on CH III).  For this reason, it’s not great to rely on Scott for an accurate translation of the Hermetic texts, at least as far as the Greek is concerned, and as a result, his commentary on them can also be suspect at times, because he used his own works as the basis for his commentary on the Hermetic texts.  Still, as Copenhaver notes, a study of Scott really is great for Hermetic studies in general, given enough insight and discernment to figure out when and where Scott is right or wrong.

I recently found copies of all four volumes (though I really only needed the fourth, the first three being available online since the original books are old enough to be in the public domain, but I like having complete sets of everything).  I wanted that fourth volume which has information on other testimonia and texts that aren’t part of the Corpus HermeticumAsclepius, or Stobaean Fragments, and I had intended to get that book so as to do research for an entirely different topic (how rebirth and reincarnation happen in the classical Hermetic worldview).  That was going to be the topic for my next post, and I’ll get around to it eventually, but several threads that came up recently on /r/Hermeticism have led me to think that there’s another topic better for discussion right now: the role of gender and sex in Hermeticism.  Happily, the digital versions of Scott’s first three volumes I already have come in good use for this, as well as the commentary of plenty of other scholars and academics on the topic throwing in plenty of contemporary evidence about what to say and believe about this.

Largely, this topic only comes up due to the farce that is the Kybalion, and specifically one of its “seven Hermetic principles”, the so-called “law of gender” (which is just so much a specialization of another “principle”, that of polarity).  I’ve already considered this “principle” years back when I considered the Kybalion as having any substantial worth, but there’s really no great answer to that topic besides saying that this is just so much a bad cis take on gender originating from Victorian-era spirituality.  At this point, I’m not going to bring that up any further; I don’t see any value in wasting more breath, ink, or keystrokes on the Kybalion than has already been wasted.  Rather, I’d like to focus on what the classical Hermetic texts actually have to say about gender, sex, sexuality, and the like rather than any more New Age tripe.

TL;DR: it’s not a whole lot, and it’s a lot less meaningful than what some people would have you believe.

Let’s focus first on what instances of “male”, “female”, “gender”, or “sex” we can find in the classical Hermetic corpora.  For these excerpts, I’ll be using the translations of Copenhaver for the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and the Asclepius (AH), Litwa for the Fragments (SH, VH, OH, and FH), and Salaman/Mahé for the Definitions (DH).  The bulk of these references come about in CH I, which gives us among the most complete account of the creation of the cosmos and human life in Hermetic literature, as well as being the text that provides the foundation for the very notion of a literary Hermetic tradition.  This is going to be a long post, but I wanted to get the raw data here with some minimal commentary for us to synthesize later; what follows is basically all there is when it comes to gender and sex in the classical Hermetic texts.  You may already pick up on certain patterns and themes with these, but we can flesh and figure them out tomorrow when I post my thoughts that synthesize and build on these.

CH I.9:

The mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as life and light, by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman, who, as god of fire and spirit, crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate.

The first instance we have of any referent to gender is that God is androgyne, literally meaning “having both male and female characteristics”.  God is neither male nor female yet can be considered to be both.  However, given how gender in the modern sense wasn’t really considered apart from sex which is a physical characteristic, and given how God is not physical, to consider God as having masculine and feminine traits in terms of genitalia or appearances would be misleading.  In this sense, a classical sense of androgyny would be better to say that an androgynous being transcends gender and is beyond being male or female; even if the very word “androgyne” suggests a binary (literally the word comes from the Greek roots “man” + “woman”), this was how various ancient cultures connoted something that was neither, both, or something else entirely than just being male or female.  Note how this reference to the androgyny of God is in the context of God creating another entity.

CH I.12:

Mind, the father of all, who is life and light, gave birth to a man like himself whom he loved as his own child. The man was most fair: he had the father’s image; and god, who was really in love with his own form, bestowed on him all his craftworks.

Although this section doesn’t have an explicit reference to gender, it’s important to note all the same.  Man (being used in the sense of “the essential human”, not with connotations of “man” as opposed to “woman” here) is made in the image of God, since God made the essential human to be “like himself” whom God loved “as his own child”.  Because God is androgynous, that means that the essential human is, too, being either composed of both male and female characteristics (which, I should note, since the human body or biological life has not yet been created, wouldn’t make sense here) or transcending gender entirely.  Ignore the use of gendered pronouns here, as they reflect the gendered pronouns and grammar of the Greek language (being an Indo-European one); likewise, to distinguish “father” as indicating the same thing as what we would a biological father doesn’t make sense, either, because you cannot be a father without also a mother, so the use of the word “father” here should be interpreted metaphorically instead of literally as being an all-nurturing parent.

CH I.15:

[The essential human] is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. (Yet love and sleep are his) masters.

This is what the previous reference backs up: the essential human is androgyne because the One who created us in their image (i.e. God) is androgyne, and we take on those same characteristics.

CH I.16:

Poimandrēs said: “This is the mystery that has been kept hidden until this very day. When nature made love with the man, she bore a wonder most wondrous. In him he had the nature of the cosmic framework of the seven, who are made of fire and spirit, as I told you, and without delay nature at once gave birth to seven men, androgyne and exalted, whose natures were like those of the seven governors…”

Poimandrēs is telling Hermēs here in the context of this revelation about the creation of human life, the essential human incarnated into flesh after the essential human fell down to meet Nature and embraced it.  In this, Nature created bodies that mimicked the essential human as best as Nature could, resulting in material androgyne bodies for immaterial androgyne entities.  With this, we have the first notion of sacred sexuality, with the essential human (Anthrōpos) being the “father” and Nature (Physis) being the “mother”; although neither are explicitly described in such terms here, the act of Anthropos “embracing” and “making love” with Physis is obviously a sexual metaphor, along with Physis “giving birth” to the original seven androgyne humans.  Note how all of this takes place within the context of creation, just as the first reference to God’s androgyny is when God makes the Demiurge.

CH I.17:

As I said, then, the birth of the seven was as follows. (Earth) was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.

This section, following almost immediately after the previous one, describes the composition of the first seven androgynous humans from material (elemental) and immaterial (noetic and psychic) natures.  This wouldn’t be particularly interesting, except that it describes Earth (conjectured from several manuscripts at this point) as being “the female”.  This, in light of the roles of the other three elements, can be confusing, so perhaps it’s better to re-understand this section as saying:

  • Earth, which “was the female”, would be seen as being the matrix and material foundation that provides the “womb” for things to grow in.  After all, we plant seeds in the Earth for them to grow, which takes nutrients from the Earth without it remaining more Earth.
  • Water, which “did the fertilizing”, would be seen either as the inseminating force or as the means by which Earth can be made capable of supporting and growing life.  After all, fertilization doesn’t plant seeds, but it prepares the Earth to have enough nutrients for seeds to actually take root and shoot.
  • Fire, which “was the maturing force”, would be seen as the energy that causes things to grow, the activity of growth itself.  Without Fire, the seed wouldn’t activate, but would instead remain in stasis.
  • Air/Spirit, which was taken by Nature from the aithēr (i.e. the pure bright air above the Earth), which gives actual physical, biological life to the bodies, being the medium by which breath (the symbol and mechanism of life) manifests and operates.

In this light, to say that the Earth was “female” doesn’t mean everything else is male; after all, all of this takes place as functions of Physis, who is overall described as being the “woman” to the “man” of Anthropos.  Physis provides the matrix, matter, and manifestation for human bodies; the only thing that Physis would need, to use the metaphor of sexual procreation, is insemination from Anthrōpos, which is provided in terms of “soul and mind” (psukhē and nous), themselves descending from “life and light” (zōē and phōs); remember that “life and light” is the identification of God from CH I.9 above, linking the biological human as being descended from God, being God’s “grandchild”.  Again, all of this is in terms of generation and creation and, increasingly, procreation.  However, since breath is so closely tied to life, it’s important to recognize the subtlety of the role of air/spirit here: it was taken “from the aithēr”, which is the realm of the gods and, thus, of souls.  The life-breath is intimately tied to the notion of semen (a metaphorical reading of “Nature took spirit from the aithēr” meaning “Nature became inseminated by Anthrōpos descending on her from the aithēr”).

CH I.18:

All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him (who) is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

Although we’ve seen metaphorical references to things being male and female before, like Anthrōpos with Physis, this is the first time we see actual biological sex arise—and that only after the end of an androgyne age described in the preceding CH I.17.  Now, in this new age of CH I.18, God splits human life—and, for that matter, all animal life, which had not been explicitly described before but is now included here—into being male and female.  This rings a lot like Aristophanēs’ bit in Plato’s Symposium which describes a myth of three sexes of two-bodied people (the solar male-male, the earthy female-female, the lunar male-female) which were later split by Zeus into being two separate people, people nowadays always looking for their other half to recover their primordial nature, with the solar sex manifesting as gay men, the earthy sex manifesting as lesbian women, and the lunar sex manifesting as heterosexual male-female couples.  The difference here between Poimandrēs and Aristophanēs is that Poimandrēs is describing this sundering of androgyne humans for the sheer and only purpose of procreation (“increase and increasing and multiply in multitude”), while Aristophanēs describes the sundering as a punishment which we’re trying to undo to recover our true selves.  Focusing on Poimandrēs again, seeing how distinct sex only arose with this sundering to be immediately qualified by an injunction to procreate, it would seem that the only purpose of being sexually differentiated is for this purpose: to continue the process of life through sexual reproduction.

CH II.17:

God’s other name is “father” because he is capable of making all things. Making is characteristic of a father. Prudent people therefore regard the making of children as a duty in life to be taken most seriously and greatly revered, and should any human being pass away childless, they see it as the worst misfortune and irreverence. After death such a person suffers retribution from demons. This is his punishment: the soul of the childless one is sentenced to a body that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s—a thing accursed under the sun. Most assuredly then, Asclepius, you should never congratulate a childless person. On the contrary, show pity for his calamity, knowing what punishment awaits him.

Moving to Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, we see this odd cautionary warning towards the end.  This is a problematic one for many people nowadays, and I’ve discussed it before both on the Hermetic Agora Discord as well as in threads on /r/Hermeticism before, but putting aside how one might interpret this from a moral or ethical standpoint, let’s focus on the mention of gender here.  What Hermēs is cautioning Asklēpios about is that those who, while living, do not have children before they die are condemned to being reborn in another life where their body “that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s”, which is described as being “a thing accursed under the sun”.  This is a pretty dire warning, especially given the solar characteristics of Hermeticism generally and how much devotion and worship is given to the Sun as a deity in its own right, but it’s also weird because “neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s” could be said to be the definition of “androgyne”, which is what God, the essential human, and the primordial humans were described as being in CH I.  Given how we, as human beings, are made in God’s image with all the capabilities of the Demiurge, our job and nature is to be a creator—a “father” in these terms, capable of making things.  The warning here is basically “use it or lose it”, saying that we need to exercise our capacity for creation (and, thus, procreation) lest we lose it, and this is not something we want to lose, because to not create (or, in sexual terms, procreate) is a failing of our very nature and a failing of the injunction of God to humanity from CH I.18.  This sort of warning, of course, doesn’t take into account plenty of issues arising with having children (matters of infertility or sterility, having the means or resources to raise children, etc.), and it’s my hunch that this warning is more of maintaining a cultural more rather than anything truly divine (though, of course, life should have a vested interest in seeing more life happen).

CH XIII.1—2:

“I do not know what sort of womb mankind was born from, o Trismegistos, nor from what kind of seed.”

“My child, (the womb) is the wisdom of understanding in silence, and the seed is the true good.”

“Who sows the seed, father? I am entirely at a loss.”

“The will of god, my child.”

“And whence comes the begotten, father? He does not share in my essence [ ].”

“The begotten will be of a different kind, a god and a child of god, the all in all, composed entirely of the powers.”

This is part of a dialog between Tat and Hermēs, shortly before Hermēs’ purification of Tat from the twelve tormentors and Tat’s reception of the ten mercies of God which facilitate Tat’s rebirth.  I included this bit because of the reference to sacred sexuality and sexual metaphorical language in terms of spiritual rebirth; there are a handful of other references to “wombs” in the CH, but nothing meaningful for our discussion here.  This is all metaphor for spiritual rebirth, what Hermēs later describes as being “born in mind” (CH XIII.3).

AH 21:

“Do you say that god is of both sexes, Trismegistos?”

“Not only god, Asklēpios, but all things ensouled and soulless, for it is impossible for any of the things that are to be infertile. Take away fertility from all the things that now exist, and it will be impossible for them to be forever. I say {that sensation and growth are also in the nature of things, that the world} contains growth within it and preserves all that have come to be. For each sex is full of fecundity, and the linking of the two or, more accurately, their union is incomprehensible. If you call it Cupid or Venus or both, you will be correct.

“Grasp this in your mind as truer and plainer than anything else: that god, this master of the whole of nature, devised and granted to all things this mystery of procreation unto eternity, in which arose the greatest affection, pleasure, gaiety, desire and love divine. One should explain how great is the force and compulsion of this mystery, were it not that each individual already knows from contemplation and inward consciousness. For if you take note of that final moment to which we come after constant rubbing when each of the two natures pours its issue into the other and one hungrily snatches (love) from the other and buries it deeper, finally at that moment from the common coupling females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females. Therefore, the act of this mystery, so sweet and vital, is done in secret so that the divinity that arises in both natures from the sexual coupling should not be forced to feel the shame that would come from the laughter of the ignorant if it happened in public or, much worse, if it were open to the sight of irreverent people.”

The Asclepius has this section that builds on previous ones about how things come to be, and this specific section gives us one of the most informative views from classical Hermetic literature of what it means to be biologically male or female.  Hermēs reaffirms here that God is androgyne, specifically that God is of both sexes (which makes it harder to think of androgyny as transcending gender or being without gender)—but also that all things are androgyne in the same way God is androgyne, because fertility is androgyne and nothing that exists can be infertile.  That which is male and that which is female are both equally “full of fecundity”, and it’s the combination of their separate fecundities that results in procreation.  There’s a bit of moralizing here in how Hermēs describes sex being “done in secret”, but it’s the bit about how “females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females” that gives us the first real distinction of what male and female means.  The problem here is that this is from the Latin version of the Asclepius, while the Coptic version from the Nag Hammadi Hermetica has a slightly different phrasing (using the translation of Dirkse and Parrott from volume III of The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices), picking up just after the start of the Latin AH 21 (emphasis in bold text mine):

And if you wish to see the reality of this mystery, then you should see the wonderful representation of the intercourse that takes place between the male and the female.  For when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth.  In that moment the female receives the strength of the male; the male for his part receives the strength of the female, while the semen does this.

It’s well known that the Coptic Asclepius excerpts preserved in the Nag Hammadi Hermetica largely follow the Latin, but they show enough differences that what survives as the Latin Asclepius has either gone through changes that had not yet occurred at the time of the Nag Hammadi text being written, or that it derives from a different textual lineage that produced similar though different texts along different lines of copyists or translations.  The Coptic text doesn’t have this notion of “females gaining the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females”, just that there’s an exchange (and not indebtedness as the Latin version would suggest!) of energy accomplished by the emission of semen.  One could link the two by saying that the “strength of the male” is “potency” and the “strength of the female” is lethargy/torpor, but I think that’s an uncharitable stretch.  Besides, if that which is male and that which is female are both “full of fertility”, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think that one has to be depleted in order for the other to be fulfilled, but that the two should instead be mixed or exchanged between them, which would then turn the male into female and the female into male (which might be what the Latin Asclepius is getting at), though this would have to be interpreted even more metaphorically, since obviously the male’s phallus doesn’t just fall off or invert after sex nor does the female’s womb distend into a phallus.  However, not much is said about the nature of what it means to be “male” or “female” here to flesh that metaphor out.

Scott in his commentary on the Asclepius (vol. III) says this on this section:

In God, the two procreative functions are eternally united.  In mortal races, they are divided, each individual being either male or female; but in the act of procreation, the separation ceases, and male and female become one, as God is one…

Elsewhere, Philo, like the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius], speaks of human procreation as an imitation of the creative energy of God…

Plutarch speaks of love and marriage in a tone not unlike that of [this extract of the Asclepius]; but he dwells on the κοινωνἰα βἰου as well as the act of procreation, whereas the Hermetist here confines his attention chiefly to the latter, and hints at the former only in a passing phrase summa caritas &c. …

Plutarch here agrees with the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius] in regarding the operation of productive force throughout the universe as analogous to human procreation; but he works out the analogy differently.  Instead of speaking of God as bisexual, he makes God the male principle, and ὕλη the female principle; and it is the aspiration of matter towards union with the creative energy of God that he compares with human love.

… Procreation is the means by which a race of mortal beings attains to ‘a secondary entity’, i.e. an everlasting existence in time.

DH 10.1—2:

What is good? What bears no comparison. Good is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous. What is a female? A receptive fluidity. What is a male? A seminal fluidity.

Nature in man is omniform, and (it is) an energy endowed with all qualities (whose) force (is) invisible and effects (are) conspicuous. An energy is a movement. Matter is a wet essence; a body is a agglomoration of matter

Switching now over to the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, we have this definition, appearing towards the end of the set, which gives us a distinction between female and male: that which is female is “a receptive fluidity”, and male “a seminal fluidity”.  Mahé notes that “fluidity” in this case might also be read as “corruption” (or, perhaps, “decay”), recalling SH 2a.16:

What is false decays, my child; and Providence from the one who is true has seized, holds, and will hold everything on earth in decay.  Apart from decay, birth could not exist. Decay follows every birth, so that it is born again. This is because what is born is born from what is decayed. What is born must decay, so that the birth of entities does not grind to a halt. Decay is the first Craftsman for the birth of beings.

Now what is born from decay is false, since it is born now one thing, now another. Such things cannot be born as the same entities. But what is not itself, how can it be true?

Also recall that the word “fluidity” recalls the primordial, indeterminate chaotic mass from CH I.4:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a (snake). Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it.

As well as Poimandrēs questioning of Hermēs from CH I.20:

“If you have understood, tell me: why do they deserve death who are in death?”

“Because what first gives rise to each person’s body is the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which death drinks.”

None of these things bear on what it means to be male or female, or at least, not directly, but this link of “fluidity” does have a strong image-based connection with corruption, death, and mortality; given that “matter is a wet essence” from DH 10.2, we can link this notion that matter is “evil” (in the philosophical sense, cf. CH VI), and because the body is an “agglomeration of matter”, it too is evil.  Likewise, that which is evil is “conspicuous” in the sense of “visible”, because the Good is “invisible”; that which can be discerned, then, is not good.  Male and female, then, being apparent and visible differences of bodies, are both on the same level as each other when it comes to divinity and goodness (i.e. neither of them are divine or good), but both are aspects or means of material generation and procreation.  The difference between them is that that which is female is “receptive” and male “seminal”; at last, we have a notion that approximates the modern/New Age notion of masculinity = activity/emitting and femininity = passivity/receiving.  However, again, note that this all takes place in the context of physical and material generation—nothing about soul or cosmic workings beyond biological reproduction.  And, because Nature (in this case, following other scholars like Scott et al., meaning reproductive nature) is omniform, both male and female participate in this, just in different ways that work together.

SH 24.7—9 (John of Stobi, Anthology 1.19):

“You relate all things to me well, Mother,” said Horus. “You have not yet told me how noble souls are born.”

“As on earth, Horus my child, there are different ways of life, so it is in the case of souls. Souls also have realms from which they spring, and the soul from the more glorious realm is nobler than those not of the same condition. Just as among people, the free person is thought nobler than the slave, for what is superior and royal in souls necessarily enslaves the inferior. In this way, male and female souls are born.

“The souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings. The difference between the fiercer souls and the gentle ones is the air, my child Horus, in which all things are born. Air is the very body of the soul and its covering.

“The body is a molded composition of the elements earth, water, air, and fire. Now since the female composite has more of the wet and cold, it lacks the dry and warm. For this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes moist and dainty. The reverse is found in the case of the males. In them, there is more dryness and heat, with a deficit of the cold and moist. For this reason, the souls in these kinds of bodies are rougher and more active.”

This excerpt is from the second part of the text Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the Anthology of John of Stobi (aka Stobaeus).  The Korē Kosmou as a whole is a fascinating text that shows an alternate “lineage” of Hermetic teachings apart from the usual Poimandrēs-Hermēs-Tat/Asklēpios/Ammōn descent, and instead uses a God-Hermēs-Kamephis/Knēph-Isis-Horus descent.  It treats us to an account of the creation of the cosmos, humanity, and culture, as well as giving us a developed theory of soul and incarnation, much of it nowhere else seen in extant Hermetic texts.  In this part, Isis explains to Horus how some souls are nobler than others (the preceding parts describe sixty different grades of regions where souls reside, where noble and royal souls descend from the higher levels.  Given the notion that a ruler (“king”) on earth is a virtual god in human flesh (which is definitely an Egyptian idea), it’s fitting for Horus (a prince himself) to ask about this.  Isis responds with the above; in the above, the important part I want to highlight is where Isis teaches that “the souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings.”  Again, we see that the soul is androgyne (in this case not meaning “both male and female” but “neither male nor female”, though depending on your understanding of the language, either or both could be understood), and only the body is differentiated according to sex.  In other words, as Litwa succinctly notes in his commentary on this excerpt, the author of SH 24 “admits that the distinction between male and female only makes sense when souls are embodied”.

But Isis continues to describe the origin of female and male bodies and how they come to be differentiated according to an elemental theory: although all bodies consist of the four elements, female bodies consist more of earth and water than fire and air, and the opposite is true for male bodies.  This then has an impact on the soul itself that inhabits a body (“for this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes…”).  This echoes how, in earlier sections of SH 24, a soul takes on the character of its retinue; cf. SH 24.6:

Whenever the angels and daimones escorting the soul downwards are warlike, Horus my child, then the soul has the ability to take over their disposition. This soul is oblivious of its own deeds, or rather it remembers them up until it is joined by a different escort. Conversely, when the angels and daimones are peaceful, then the soul runs through the course of its own life doing the works of peace.When they practice the art of justice, then the soul also exercises justice. When they are musical, then the soul also sings. When they love the truth, then the soul also practices philosophy. Thus it is by necessity that these souls take over the disposition of those who escort them. They fall into humanity oblivious of their own nature–all the more when greatly separated from it. Yet they recall the character of those who shut them up (in the body).

It’s interesting that SH 24 gives such a malleable notion of “soul”, in that it takes on the characteristics of its companions or environment.  Even though all (or at least, royal/noble) souls have the same origin and nature, they take on differences and can behave or act in different ways, and we don’t see this idea expressed elsewhere in Hermetic literature; the soul is generally just the soul, perfect as it is.  The rest of SH 23, SH 25, and SH 26 (the first, third, and fourth parts of the Korē Kosmou) are helpful to read together, because these texts as a whole afford a complete theory of soul, birth, and rebirth, but nothing in the rest of them talk about sex, sexuality, or gender.  Litwa further notes in this section of SH 24 that “the author seems to assume that nobler souls are born male”; I’m not quite getting that from my reading of this text, but I’ll trust Litwa that that’s an observation that can be made from this text all the same.

FH 13 (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

This is an extract from the Christian patristic writer Lactantius, who was generally more supportive of Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermetic texts than other patristic or later Christian writers.  I thought this excerpt was interesting, because it brings up exactly what the metaphor of male and female and androgyny is getting to the heart at: creation.  God, according to Orpheus and Hermēs in the words of Lactantius, must be “both male and female” because otherwise there could be no act of creation; Lactantius’ notion of “creation” is inherently a sexual one, and does not admit of non-sexual or asexual (pro)creation.