A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

All Siblings, Orphans We

As I’ve encouraged others to do so before, I have a little ancestor shrine of my own.  Because of my training and experience as a spiritist (specifically in the Afro-Cuban and heavily Congo-flavored brand of espiritismo rather than the “scientific spiritism” of Alan Kardec proper), I maintain what I call a bóveda, literally a “vault” (as in either the vault of a church or the vault of a tomb—either sense is appropriate), which is a table covered in a white tablecloth, a number of glasses of water (one larger than the rest at the center), a candle, and photos of my ancestors or images and trinkets for my spirit guides and other assisting spirits of the dead in my life.  I keep it clean, I refill the glasses every so often with filtered water, I clean the glasses once a month (or once a season if I get lazy), I buy fresh flowers for it every time I go to the grocery store, and the like.  Every morning when I wrap up my usual daily prayers over at my Hermetic shrine and after I do anything else in my temple room for the morning, I’ll always greet my bóveda and salute all the spirits of the dead in my life, familial or otherwise, and offer a short prayer for our communal and universal ascension, enlightenment, and empowerment.

The opening and closing of this short little daily chat (more like a check-in, I suppose) I have with them is basically a small back-and-forth.  To open up:

Me: “May the peace, mercy, blessing, grace, light and power of God be with you all.”
Them: “And with you.”
Us: “Amen.”

And to close:

Me: “May the peace, mercy, blessing, grace, light and power of God be with us all.”
Them: “Forever and ever.”
Me: “World without end.”
Us: “Amen.”

It’s a simple way for my dead and I to pray together.  After all, while much of my other practice has me offering prayers to a deity or enshrined spirit, with the dead at my bóveda, it’s a little different; it’s less me praying to them, and more us praying together.  To that end, while some of the prayers I recite are just me reciting it for their benefit, other prayers are ones where there’s a sort of cycle and flow between me and them, as if we’re reciting things in unison or alternating lines of a prayer.

In addition to my daily and monthly/seasonal stuff I do with them, I’ll also sit down once a week (usually Sunday or Monday evenings) and have an actual “liturgy” with them, so to speak, where I’ll light several candles, give them incense, and recite a litany of prayers while also having a good in-depth conversation about whatever it is I need to know or whatever it is I need them to know, to do work, to plan ahead, and the like.  It’s here that I’ll expand on the prayers that get recited, some of which are just me reciting them and taking the lead on the prayers, but there are also points at which I’ll let them pray, which can take one of two forms.  Sometimes it’s just sitting at the bóveda and listening to them in silent contemplation, but other times it’ll be a specific spirit who stands up and leads a prayer which I’ll tune in more closely and verbalize physically, following their lead.  Not only do I find this a good way to practice “mediumship-lite” or “mini-channeling” skills, but it also helps me bring myself closer into attunement and intimacy with these spirits while also facilitating the prayers they themselves wish to have said in the exact ways they say them.

It was one such prayer that one of my dead recited a few days ago, and the language and sentiments expressed were…well, it’s not something I would come up with or which I’d contemplate, but it moved me to a few tears.  While I can’t get the language right after the fact (think of how difficult it is to capture the beauty of an extemporaneous, ejaculatory prayer made on the spot fright from the heart after you’ve said it), I would like to capture some of what was said to share with others.

O God, look upon us, your children,
as all human creatures are your children, and so are we—
but, behold! siblings of each other as we are,
we are but orphans, lost in this world,
huddled around a single candle in a darkened church
shivering from cold, holding onto each other for warmth.
And yet, in this dark and cold church, even should none else gaze upon us,
we huddle around this single flame and draw the warmth of life from it,
we hold onto each other and draw the hope for life from one another.

Yea, though we are but orphans, we are yet your children,
and this whole world is still your church,
and even should we march out of this place—and we shall, and we will, according to your design—
still we would yet find you, and be found by you.
Even should none else look upon us, we implore you—and you do, and you will, according to your mercy—
to look with favor upon us, to offer us succor of the heart and the soul,
that we might always have nourishment for ourselves, sharing it with each other.
O God, look upon us, your children, all siblings we,
and though orphaned in the world, that we may return to you as our home.

Prayers like this don’t go on for particularly long; between my other obligations and stamina for long durations of channeling, my spirits have the good sense and grace to make their prayers punctually and sharply and then yield the time back to me so we can move on with what we need to do.  Even if something like this were to go on longer, I’m not sure how much I’d be able to meaningfully keep up with, much less recount after the fact.  And yet, parts of this prayer, the imagery involved in it—I mean, while I can’t really prove it, I claim that this is evidence that this isn’t stuff coming from me, but from them.  And they, in their many years of both life and death, have plenty of experience to draw on, not only from older liturgical and prayer traditions but also from their own lives and scenes that they beheld or, indeed, lived through.

And here, in this prayer that one of my spirits recited (one of my spirit guides, I should note, not one of my ancestors), we see this beautiful but heart-breaking notion: this world is hard, and all we have at the end of the day is each other and God.  Sure, to borrow a line from George R. R. Martin, “the night is long and full of terrors”, but so is the day.  The same plant that might offer fruit might also offer thorns; the same animal that might give milk and fur might also give hooves and horns.  This world is, for better or worse, a world apart from us, and despite whatever we might do to make it more hospitable to us, it is under no obligation to do so.  On top of that, there are always other people in the world who wouldn’t treat us as kindly as we might treat them, who wouldn’t help us as we might try to help them.  The world is hard, and it’s easy to become lost, to feel lost, to feel forsaken, as if the suffering we go through is all that we have to look forward to.

And that’s just not true, because no matter how hard things might be, there are people looking out for us—each other—and even if we might feel lost in this world, we still have Divinity to orient ourselves by and to head towards.  Even if a single candleflame can only give off but so much heat, it helps us all the same, does it not?  It reminds us that, even in the darkness, there can still be light, and even in the cold, there can still be warmth.  And it’s not like this is something limited to “this dark and cold church”; after all, such a church is still part of the wider world, and such a church is also a symbol for the whole world.  Whether we leave the cold, dark church of our inward despair to rejoin with the warm, bright world of the comfort and ease that others can provide us, or whether we leave the cold, dark world of humanity to rejoin in the warm, bright heaven of God, either way, we must always remind ourselves to keep on, to not give up our light and our life, to hold onto each other as we hold onto hope itself.  After all, no matter how alone we might feel in the world, so long as we have each other and God, then we’ve got all we need to get by.  “No man is an island”, after all, and it’s not like Divinity is closed off to anyone, either.

I had originally planned to put out this post on Monday or Tuesday, but life got in the way and I ended up putting this off a few days longer than I wanted.  Because I said that I wanted to share the prayer that my spirit guide shared with me, they said that it’d be okay, so long as I did so; I hadn’t yet (before now), and they kept reminding me.  If I had gotten this out sooner, I might have recalled more of the language used or the meaning that it held in that moment, but I hope that this suffices for at least a few of us who might benefit from such a thing.  I don’t share this as some sort of formal prayer to recite or implement as part of a prayer routine, but rather, as a prayer and contemplation for all to remind us that—as the days get shorter and nights get longer, as the temperatures drop and the clouds come for those of us in the northern hemisphere—there’s never truly darkness if we hold onto even the barest glimmer of Light.

A Little Discourse On Apianus’ Cosmological Diagram

Okay, so, this thing:

A lot of people who’ve been around in Western occulture or astrology have probably encountered this image before in one context or another (it’s even appeared before on my own blog in a discussion about Ashen Chassan’s implementation of the Trithemian conjuration ritual and again when I discussed the Hermetic tormentors in CH XIII), and so many of us are familiar with this image to one degree or another.  True, it’s a really neat depiction of a Renaissance version of the geocentric Ptolemaic model of the solar system and cosmos, but there’s other stuff going on in it that I really want to explore and explain.

To start with, where does this image come from, and what specifically does it depict?  This illustration of the celestial spheres was originally made by the German humanist, mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer Petrus Apianus (anglicized as Peter Apian) in his 1524 work Cosmographia.  Apianus depicts this “scheme of the divisions of the spheres” for his second chapter, “on the motion of the spheres and the division of the heavens”.  At the center of the image we have the Earth, depicted as a circle of seas and land (corresponding to the elements of Water and Earth), surrounded by a sphere of clouds (Air) and that by flames (Fire). Outside the Earth, in successively larger concentric circles, we have the seven celestial spheres for the seven planets following the usual Chaldaean ascending order: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.  Skipping to the outermost edge of the whole thing (the eleventh “sphere”, as it were, though it’s really more like the infinitude beyond the spheres as a whole), we have “the Empyrean Heaven, Dwelling-place of God and of all the Chosen”. This is divine infinity beyond all the spheres, unlimited and unbounded and unmoving, under/within which all creation exists.  All straightforward stuff for most people, I suppose.

But it’s the stuff between the heaven of Saturn and the empyrean heaven that trip up a lot of people: the eighth, ninth, and tenth spheres.  To head off such speculation at the pass: no, it’s nothing qabbalistic or sephirothic in any meaningful sense (Apianus doesn’t appear to have been interested in such stuff).  Each of these circles in Apianus’ diagram all have the twelve signs of the Zodiac in them, but they’re respectively described as “the eighth heaven of the firmament”, “the ninth crystalline heaven”, and “the tenth heaven, the first cause”.  While all being zodiacal, they’re all somehow…different?  On top of that, they’re not all aligned with each other, only the eighth heaven has little stars in it, and the ninth heaven has this weird quartered-circle symbol at the ends of the sectors for Virgo and Pisces.  So what’s going on here, exactly?

Welcome, dear reader, to the funtime of medieval astronomy and cosmology!

Let’s start with the tenth sphere, the Primum Mobile (“First Mover”).  Ironically, despite being the most distant finite sphere of all (finite at least in comparison to the truly infinite empyrean heaven surrounding it), this is probably the easiest for us to approach.  The Primum Mobile is the outermost sphere and rotates endlessly, setting all things underneath/within it into motion as well, much like if you spin a pitcher of water, the water inside the pitcher itself won’t spin immediately but is set into motion by the spinning of its container.  In the old geocentric model of the cosmos, the Primum Mobile rotates constantly, performing one complete rotation every 24 hours, moving clockwise from the East to the South to the West to the North all the way back to the East.  According to Apianus, there exists precisely one and only one star in this tenth heaven.  Which star?  He doesn’t say and it’s not wholly clear to me, though if I were to leap to an assumption, I’d say that it’d be the northern pole star α Ursae Minoris (aka Polaris), given how this star was historically and culturally reckoned to be the axis (literally the “pole”) of rotation of all the heavens.

Let’s skip over the ninth heaven for a moment and take a look at the eighth heaven called the “firmament” in Apianus’ diagram.  This heaven is what contains the background stars of the nighttime sky that don’t wander around from night to night, month to month, or year to year.  This is why we call such stars “fixed stars”, as opposed to the “wandering stars” (ἀστέρες πλανῆται asteres planētai) of the planets (whose motion is defined according to their own heavens).  It’s because the eighth heaven of the firmament contains the fixed stars that Apianus’ diagram has all these stellated figures in this circle.  As for the motion of the eighth sphere, Apianus describes it as being subject to the motion of the tenth sphere such that they move all at once as the tenth sphere does, which is why the night sky as a whole rotates around the Earth once per 24-hour period.  Easy enough, I guess.

Between the eighth and tenth spheres is the ninth, described as “crystalline or aqueous” by Apianus (though just labelled as “crystalline” in the diagram).  First, what we can pick out is those two quartered circles.  Although they occur at the ends of the sectors for Virgo and Pisces, they’re really intended to be between these signs and the ones that follow to mark the equinoxes: the September equinox (occurring at the end of Virgo and the start of Libra) and the March equinox (occurring at the start of Aries and end of Pisces) respectively.  As for the motion of this heaven, Apianus says that the ninth heaven “vibrates” (trepidat), which causes the fixed stars in the eighth heaven to move forward and backward.  This would make no sense to modern folk today, but what Apianus is describing was a feature of older forms of astronomy: trepidation, a sort of oscillation in the precession of the equinoxes.  While an obsolete theory nowadays, trepidation has its origins as far back as the 4th century CE and was popular generally from the 9th to 16th centuries (putting Apianus roughly at the end of that period).

First, let’s back up a bit and talk about precession of the equinoxes (and yes, the ancients knew about axial precession all the way back in the 2nd century BCE).  Imagine a top, like the child’s toy: you pick it up, you give it a twist, and it spins around on its point upon a flat surface until it loses enough momentum to keep itself balanced.  At first, when the momentum is fast, the top stands upright, but as it continues, it eventually develops a kind of “wobble”, such that the axis of rotation is no longer precisely upright but ends up rotating on its own in a circle.  As the axis itself wobbles and rotates around, it causes the whole top to rotate in a different way on top of its already ongoing rotation around the axis, including the relative position of where such rotation around its axis “starts”.  This is what is meant by “axial precession”, and when it’s applied to the Earth as a whole, we call it “precession of the equinoxes” because it’s what causes the whole of the background sky to appear to “rotate backwards” relative to its daily regular motion—which includes the equinox points where the ecliptic (the Sun’s path around the sky) crosses the celestial equator.  The axis of the Earth precedes in a complete loop roughly once every 26000 years (currently 25772 years given our current observed rate of precession).

The theory of trepidation, on the other hand, suggested that the rate of the precession of the equinoxes was not a constant rate, but varied and could go either forward or backward.  In the original theory from the classical era, reversing its direction every 640 years or so.  Thus, given a rate of precession of 1° every 80 years, after 8° (thus 640 years), the precession would reverse into procession, such that the equinoxes would move forward eight degrees for the next 640 years, then reverse again, and so forth.  In later and more popular models from the medieval period (especially in Islamic astronomy), trepidation was more of a smaller, less-rigid variation that added to the motion of precession, where the oscillation provided by trepidation occurred over 7000 years, causing the precession of the equinoxes to take place over 49000 years rather than 26000.  It’s this later model that Apianus was describing and subscribed to when he says that the ninth heaven “trepidates”.

Interestingly, the ninth heaven (at least in Apianus’ model) was starless.  While the eighth sphere was full of fixed stars (all conceived of as being roughly the same distance away from the Earth in this geocentric model) and the tenth having just its one sole star (Polaris?), the ninth is a void having nothing in it—except, perhaps, the “waters which were above the firmament” (Genesis 1:7).  Apianus using this biblical model to describe the distant heavens would explain his description of the ninth heaven as being “aqueous”, and would moreover suggest that the wobbling of trepidation could be accounted for by the ripples and waves occurring in such celestial waters.

So there we have it!  We’ve finally knocked out what those intermediate heavens are in Apianus’ famous cosmological diagram, situated between the planetary heavens and the ultimate divine one.  While some of this might be a new thing for some, when placed in its own historical context, all of this is the natural development and expected evolution of a Renaissance take on the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmic model, depicted in a beautifully concise diagram.

But there’s still one issue left: why do the zodiacal sectors not line up in those eighth, ninth, and tenth heavens?  If you look at the eighth and ninth spheres, they line up exactly at Aries and Libra (the equinox points), but they seem to diverge slightly (starting at the east-north-east part of the diagram) before converging again (at the opposite, west-south-west part).  I have honestly no explanation for this beyond it being an artistic whoopsie; after all, sometimes considerations of space and communicability (in the form of the stellated figures and the circle labels) make accuracy and precision a secondary concern.  I feel like there should be a better reason than that, but I haven’t honestly found one beyond it just being something handmade in a constrained space.

But then there’s the dramatic mismatch between the zodiacal sectors of the eighth and ninth heavens with that of the tenth heaven, which can’t possibly be just a slip.  The tenth heaven has Aries starting at the due east point of the diagram, while the eighth and ninth heavens have it starting to the northeast.  What gives?

Well, using my handy-dandy free-to-use planetary observer software Stellarium for the year 1524, we can see exactly what’s going on:

The bright slightly-slanted orange line is the ecliptic, with the faint orange grid of lines being the ecliptical coordinate grid based off it to look at points in the night sky.  The bright more-slanted blue line is the celestial equator (which divides the sky into a “north” part and “south” part).  The ecliptic intersects with the equator at two points, which is where we call the equinox points.  In this case, the image above is centered on the March equinox point, where the ecliptic goes from being below the celestial equator (on the right) to above it (on the left).  The small squiggly faint blue lines in the background indicate constellations, and as you can see, the March equinox point is hanging out somewhere in Pisces, with Aries to the left and Aquarius to the right.

It should be remembered at this point that Western astrology (and historical astronomy, for that matter) has been founded on the notion of a “tropical zodiac”, which is to say a zodiacal system comprising twelve equal 30° segments of the night sky (according to the ecliptic) where the starting point of it (0° Aries) aligns with the March equinox point (where the ecliptic crosses to rise above the celestial equator).  Thus, we consider the segment from 0° to 30° of the ecliptic to be the sign Aries, from 30° to 60° Taurus, from 60° to 90° Gemini, and so on through from 330° to 360° (o°) to be Pisces.  The issue here—as many of my astrologer friends on Twitter are tired of hearing—is that this notion of “sign” doesn’t match up cleanly with the actual physical constellations of the night sky.  Although the constellations were more-or-less aligned with the signs once upon a time, due to precession of the equinoxes, the constellations began drifting “forward” from the signs while the signs drifted “backwards” from the constellations.  Again, precession here was something known to older astrologers from a very early date, so this came as no surprise to any of them—and it’s precisely this mismatch that Apianus is documenting between the eighth/ninth heavens and the tenth heaven.

Thus, in Apianus’ diagram, the tenth heaven’s zodiacal sectors represent the tropical zodiac (aligned to the seasons and the ecliptical crossing of the celestial equator), while the eighth and ninth heavens represent the actual constellations and stars of the sky (which would be a sidereal zodiac, literally “according to the stars” as opposed to according to ecliptical intersections).  This is why the equinox markers (those quartered circles) are placed in Pisces and Virgo in Apianus’ diagram (because technically we have those equinoxes occur while the Sun is in one sign according to the tenth heaven but in another constellation according to the eighth/ninth), and why the Aries sector of the eighth/ninth heavens in Apianus’ diagram start in the northeast rather than th eeast, just as it does celestially if you consider the March equinox point to be due (celestial) east.

Also, one more note: yes, it’s true that while the tropical zodiac doesn’t align with the constellations, neither does the sidereal zodiac.  In both of these zodiacal systems, we’re working with signs, not constellations, and a sign is defined as being a 30° segment of the ecliptic.  The tropical and sidereal zodiacs are identical in every regard except for one: at what point along the ecliptic it should start as being o° Aries.  The tropical zodiac defines this to always be the intersection between the ecliptic and the celestial equator, but the sidereal zodiac…well, it’s a little more complicated.  The sidereal zodiac aims to be closer to the constellations by using what’s called an ayanāṃśa to account for the precession of the equinoxes, and there are a number of different ones in use with some more popular than others (resulting in what’s technically a number of sidereal zodiacs rather than just one).  The issue with even this sidereal approach, however, is that the actual constellations themselves that lend their names and symbolism to the signs don’t neatly align with this equal-segments-of-30° approach.  Some signs are much shorter than 30° (as short as Scorpio’s 6°), some signs much larger (as large as Virgo’s 44°), and there’s even that dumb stupid notion of there being a “thirteenth sign” (Ophiuchus) because its constellation is considered close enough to the ecliptic to make it count (it doesn’t).

Courtesy of this article from Kosmic Mind, here’s a depiction and comparison of the tropical zodiac (inner circle), rough sidereal zodiac (middle circle), and the constellations (outer circle):

Apianus’ diagram makes use of a sidereal zodiac for the eighth and ninth heavens but a tropical zodiac for the tenth heaven, but does not bother with trying to use the constellations themselves (because they weren’t ever really used except perhaps in classical Babylonian or otherwise ancient Mesopotamian times).

Anyway, I thought this was all pretty neat to consider and learn about.  While we today all understand, given the advances of astronomy and physics we’ve had over the past five centuries since Apianus’ time, that a heliocentric model of our solar system is a more accurate descriptor of what’s going on, the geocentric model is still what we intuitively “see” and “feel” from our perspective down here on Earth.  It’s for that reason, coupled with the various and varied religious and cultural traditions that we inherit, that the geocentric model likewise helps us for innumerable spiritual endeavors and systems, too.  I mean, as a comparison, consider the following diagram, produced by Walter Scott in volume 3 of his Hermetica, page 374 in his discussion of the sixth Stobaean Fragment (SH 6):

SH 6 talks about the decans and their relationship to the signs and how their energies affect us down here, and in the course of such a discussion, we end up with a cosmological model again consisting of ten spheres: with the Earth in the center, there’s the seven planetary heavens around that, the eighth heaven of the Zodiac, the ninth heaven of the decans, and then the outermost heaven that wraps around everything.  In this fragment, Hermēs describes the heaven of the decans to be “in between the circle of the universe and that of the zodiac, dividing both circles”, and that the decans “buoy up, as it were, the circle of the universe and define the shape of the zodiac”.  Hermēs describes here also the motion of these heavens with each other, with the tenth heaven whirling constantly, the ninth heaven slowing it down and throttling it, and the planets being whirled around and accelerated by the motion of the decans; in this, the decans move both the planets as well as the outermost sphere of the cosmos itself.  It’s certainly not the same model as what Apianus was describing over a thousand years later, but there are certainly commonalities as both share in a common geocentric Ptolemaic ancestor, and both aim to describe the cosmos according to what we can see and observe down here on Earth.

Notably, we should also remember that what Apianus was getting at wasn’t so much to describe a spiritual reality of the cosmos, but rather a scientific one according to the science of his time.  His Cosmographia is an incredible and well-designed work, and besides the fascinating woodcarved illustrations also included little movable dials and tools that allowed readers to interact with the illustrations to learn about cosmology, geography, cartography, and other sciences.  As a result, it’s been argued that such a work as his not only facilitated better understanding of such topics popularly, but also spurred on the field of amateur astronomy precisely by equipping people with the basic tools they needed, preparing for and facilitating the later scientific revolutions that were to come.  However, even if his aim was more purely “scientific” in the modern sense of the word, we can’t neglect that such sciences are just one part of our lives, with the physical aspects to be integrated with the spiritual, which would also go a ways in explaining why Apianus’ cosmological diagram depicting the various heavens is so popular in occult discussions even today.  (And which also lends itself to some rather beautiful modern pieces of art as well.)

And yes, as the astrologer and geomancer Eric Purdue (yes, the same one who recently translated Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy afresh and correctly into modern English!) took the opportunity to reiterate on Twitter: the signs lie outside the stars, and we shouldn’t conflate signs with constellations.

The above post was originally a thread on Twitter, which you can read here but which I’ve reformatted and expanded into a proper blog post.  Although I made it earlier this summer and then promptly forgot about it, a conversation on one of the Discord servers I’m on reminded me that I wrote about it, so I figured that I may as well make it a bit more visible and readable.

On Hermeticism as “Philosophy” (and why that word is misleading)

As a software engineer, I like drawing a distinction between something being complex and something being complicated. While I’m as much a fan of “simplicity is the highest form of elegance” as anyone else, sometimes you just can’t avoid things being difficult or nuanced. While there are some who distinguish complexity and complication as being the difference of a system with lots of moving parts or which have non-deterministic emergent properties vs. a system that is difficult while still remaining deterministic, I take a different approach inspired more by software design: complex systems are often complex due to the nature of the problem they aim to solve or task they aim to fulfill, while complicated systems are just badly-designed systems that could be done in a better, simpler way. While one may not be able to code a complex system in a simple way, one might still endeavor to do so as simply as possible; it’s when one doesn’t do what’s as simple as possible that one introduces complication into the system. In other words, the difference I like drawing between complexity and complication is that the former is not always avoidable due to something’s nature, but that the latter is always avoidable as a matter of conscious approach.

And in that light, I think there are a lot of people who want to make Hermeticism more complicated than it needs to be. To be sure, Hermeticism can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. And, most of the time when I see people complicate Hermeticism, they do so by calling it and thinking of it as a “philosophy”, with all the baggage that term brings about. To be fair, I totally get expecting and wanting Hermeticism to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and to have a fully developed cosmology complete with diagrams and whatnot, and to be able to prescribe doctrine and dogma as finely-detailed as the Catechism of the Catholic Church with an accompanying Hermetic parallel to the Rituale Romanum/Missale Romanum/Pontificale Romanum/Caeremoniale Romanum in as much exalted elaboration. But it doesn’t, and it probably never did—and that’s totally okay!

The big issue I want to draw attention to here is in thinking of Hermeticism (as in the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos as collected in the classical Hermetic texts) as a “philosophy”. To be sure, Hermēs Trismegistos does refer to what he teaches as “philosophy” at a number of points, as in CH XVI.2 (Copenhaver translation, and note the great punning going on between philo-sophia/logon psophos rendered in English as “philosophy”/”foolosophy”):

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of <Egyptian> usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy (φιλοσοφία) of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy (λόγον ψόφος) of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Or in AH 12—14 (Copenhaver translation):

Hermēs: “[…] Speaking as a prophet, I will tell you that after us will remain none of that simple regard for philosophy found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity. The many make philosophy obscure in the multiplicity of their reasoning.”

Asklēpios: “What is it that the many do to make philosophy incomprehensible? How do they obscure it in the multiplicity of their reasoning?”

Hermēs: “In this way, Asklēpios: by combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study that are not comprehensible—arithmētikē and music and geometry. Pure philosophy that depends only on reverence for god should attend to these other matters only to wonder at the recurrence of the stars, how their measure stays constant in prescribed stations and in the orbit of their turning; it should learn the dimensions, qualities and quantities of the land, the depths of the sea, the power of fire and the nature and effects of all such things in order to commend, worship and wonder at the skill and mind of god. Knowing music is nothing more than being versed in the correct sequence of all things together as allotted by divine reason. By divine song, this sequencing or marshalling of each particular thing into a single whole through reason’s craftwork produces a certain concord—very sweet and very true.

“Accordingly, the people who will come after us, deceived by the ingenuity of sophists, will be estranged from the true, pure and holy philosophy. To adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good), this is a philosophy unprofaned by relentlessly curious thinking.”

Or in SH 2B.2—4 (Litwa translation):

Tat: “If there is no truth in this realm, what should one do, father, to live one’s life well?”

Hermēs: “Show devotion, my child! The one who shows devotion has reached the heights of philosophy. Without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion. The one who has learned the nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose, will offer thanks for all things to the Creator as to a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator; and the one who gives thanks will show devotion.

“The one who shows devotion will know the place of truth and its nature. The more one learns, the more devout one will become. Never, my child, has an embodied soul that disburdened itself for the perception of him who is good and true been able to slip back to their opposites. The reason is that the soul who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good.

“Let this, my son, be the goal of devotion. Arriving at this goal, you will live well and die blessed, since your soul is not ignorant of where it should wing its upward flight. This alone, my child, is the way toward truth which our ancestors trod and having trod it, attained the Good. This way is venerable and smooth, though it is difficult for a soul to travel on it while still in the body.”

That’s basically all the references to “philosophy” I can find in the Hermetic texts proper. Of course, there are a bunch of Hermetic fragments and testimonia (Tertullian in Against the Valentinians and On the Soul, Lactantius in Divine Institutes, Zosimus in On the Letter Ōmega, etc.) that call Hermēs Trismegistos and his followers philosophers and the like, but as far as what Hermēs Trismegistos himself considers to be “philosophy”, the above is all we have extant on the notion. And what sort of thing do we see as “philosophy” in this context? Although the AH quote above might seem almost anti-intellectual in its description, the “philosophy” of Hermēs Trismegistos that he teaches is more of a way of life and of lived devotion, sincerity, and thanksgiving to God. In this sense, what Hermēs teaches and preaches is a kind of mystic spirituality more than anything else, and while it can take into account rational approaches to understanding the cosmos through mathematics and the like, that’s not the point of it all.

I forget where specifically I read it, but I dimly remember the ever-amazing Patrick Dunn (yes, the author of a number of great books on magic, divination, religion, and theurgy) talking about what philosophy (in the traditional, classically Western sense) generally is. In his words, philosophy needs to be an approach of knowing things that is coherent and systematic; there has to be a system behind a philosophy, where you start with premises, use a particular toolkit of reason, extrapolate conclusions from premises using that toolkit, look for inconsistencies, and the like. For instance, with the philosophy of Epicureanism, you can start from two basic premises (“atoms exist” and “people seek pleasure as a good”), and derive everything else from there, from the nature of the gods to the quality of virtue. Philosophies in this “strict” sense are systematic approaches to the investigation of knowledge through formal observation, rational deduction, and logical consistency.

Such philosophies require a sort of rigor and order, which Hermeticism according to the Hermetica, frankly, lacks. True, many such classical Western philosophies weren’t just about mathematics or logic or rhetoric, and often included elaborate discussions and dissertations on ethics, morality, virtue, divinity, and (most especially and most commonly) how to live a good, happy life. The thing is that they still had systematic approaches to arriving at conclusions from given axioms that avoided or otherwise resolved contradictions and errors in argument or judgment, and it’s this criterion that Hermeticism just doesn’t fulfill. When you take a look at what’s in the various Hermetic texts (truly, take your pick!), you come across countless variations, differences, and outright contradictions at times, even sometimes within the very same text. By and large, we don’t see a rigorous form of argumentation from hypotheses to conclusions; we rather see divine revelation and ecstatic outburst, spiritual exhortations and mystical directives. As I read it, that’s the actually juicy parts of the Hermetic texts; while there is an abundance of descriptions of the nature of things, the processes of reproduction or meterology, arguments to elaborate or describe the divine through metaphors of physics, and the like, all of these are secondary to the fundamentally spiritual and mystical impetus that drives Hermēs Trismegistos to teach what he teaches. And that’s just not what most people consider “philosophy” to be, by and large; for Hermēs, such philosophy renders what he teaches “incomprehensible”, while to most philosophers, what Hermēs teaches would just be irrational.

To be sure, to define what “philosophy” is or what the word means is a difficult thing, so much so that there’s a whole Wikipedia article just about the debate over doing so. However, when people generally encounter the word “philosophy”, there are certain connotations, suggestions, and ideas that come with the word—the word’s own “baggage”, as it were—that color the conversations in which we use it. It is only when we take the broadest possible view of what “philosophy” might connote, a literal “love of wisdom” and the vaguest notion of a “way of life” for such a love of wisdom, that we might call Hermeticism a philosophy, in the same way one might call Buddhism or Christianity a philosophy. And while that may well work for some people some of the time (Hermēs Trismegistos uses this very same sense in those Hermetic excerpts I mentioned above), when people call Hermeticism a “philosophy”, what they effectively try to do is put it into the same semantic field as we might find Stoicism or Platonism, and Hermeticism just doesn’t act the same way or produce the same things as what those do. And yet, to call Hermeticism a philosophy has always been super common, although the very meaning of what the word “philosophy” suggests has shifted over the past 2000 years to make things more difficult for everyone involved.

In his recent book (which is a supremely excellent tour de force for the study and practice of Hermeticism that I encourage anyone and everyone to check out) Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Wouter J. Hanegraff spends a good amount of space in his introduction in figuring out what to call Hermeticism at all, and why he settles on it being a “spirituality”. Although “scholars have long been used to speaking of Hermetic philosophy“, Hanegraaff makes an excellent argument about why we should avoid thinking of Hermeticism in terms of “philosophy” at all”. Forgive the long quote, but it’s a fantastic argument that I really want people to grasp here:

The Hermetica are full of statements to the effect that true knowledge of ultimate realities “that cannot be thought” is is not just possible, but essential to human salvation and true felicity; and we will see that the pursuit of such “knowledge” is at the very heart of the ancient experiential practices that modern scholars refer to as “the Way of Hermes.” […] the true concern of the Hermetic writings is not with philosophy as commonly understood today.* What their authors meant by “knowledge” is something entirely different from the intellectual understanding achieved through mental activity—thinking–that our modern philosophical traditions have taught us to ­ understand by that word.

* Or, for that matter, as understood in antiquity. Socrates’ “love of wisdom,” as described by Plato, was likewise focused on an ultimate level of reality–the eternal forms or ideas–that could only be beheld directly in a trans-rational state of mania, divine madness…Philosophers are those who have recognized their own ignorance and desire to become wise: therefore Plato’s ideal philosopher, Socrates, is precisely not the man of wisdom…By contrast, the ideal Hermetic sage resembles Socrates’ teacher Diotima: a priestly visionary who no longer needs to aspire to knowledge because she knows the truth through direct experience.

A second reason not to speak of Hermetic “philosophy” has less to do with the exact content of that term than with its polemical function in common academic and even in everyday discourse. Specialists have always been aware that the texts they labeled as “philosophical” might as well be described as “religious,” “theological,” “mystical,” or “theosophical.” If they still preferred to speak of Hermetic philosophy, this was because it helped them draw a normative boundary. For them, the eminently serious and respectable pursuit of intellectual reflection about the nature of reality could have nothing in common with the so obviously disreputable and unserious business of magical or occult practice as reflected in many texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus or associated with his name. The former type of activity deserved respect in their eyes, while the latter did not, and many scholars found it hard to imagine that one and the same text or author could be involved in both. Philosophers did not practice magic, for magicians were not thinking straight.

On a rather obvious level, this juxtaposition of respectable Hermetic philosophy against disreputable Hermetic practice seemed perfectly self-evident to academic armchair intellectuals trained to value thinking as a noble pursuit and dismiss “occult” practices as embarrassing nonsense. More specifically, it reflected the strong ideological allegiance of professional classicists to ancient Greece as the idealized home of rational thought, an attitude referred to as philhellenism or hellenophilia and intimately linked to the liberal neo-humanist perspectives of nineteenth-century German Kulturprotestantismus. This stance was accompanied by profound feelings of suspicion, hostility, and contempt for anything reminiscent of its traditional competitor, that is to say of Egypt, the symbolic center of pagan idolatry, the primitive heart of irrational darkness. That the Hermetica were Greek texts written in Egypt was an irritant to the scholarly imagination and made them an ideal arena of ideological contestation. […] In other words, anything philosophical in the Hermetica must be Greek by definition, for even the very language of the Egyptians prevents them from understanding rational thought. Zielinski’s “higher Hermetism” stood for Greek philosophy, while its “lower” counterpart stood for Egyptian magic; the former was worthy of attention, the latter was not.

[…] From the 1970s, the pro-Greek/anti-Egyptian ideology was gradually weakened and finally abandoned, due partly to the discovery of new Hermetic manuscripts in Coptic and other ancient languages and partly to a slow decline of philhellenic bias in the study of ancient religions more generally. […] these developments did not lead scholars to abandon the basic distinction between two types of Hermetica. Only the terminology was adapted somewhat: in the wake of Jean-Pierre Mahé’s seminal publications of the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars now refer to the astrological, magical, and alchemical materials ascribed to Hermes as “practical” or “technical” Hermetica. Their counterpart is usually still referred to as “theoretical” or “philosophical” even by scholars who are quick to point out that those adjectives are inadequate.

[…] The terminologies we choose will not just color and influence our interpretations, but often determine which other texts, practices, ideas, or traditions will be seen as most relevant for understanding what the Hermetica are all about. If we call them “philosophical” we will try to analyze their philosophy and compare them with other philosophical traditions, and if we call them “theoretical” we will be looking for theories and systematic speculation. In both cases, this will lead us to relativize, minimize, marginalize, or even wholly overlook dimensions that may be important or even central to the texts themselves but are hard to understand in terms of philosophical theories. By and large, as will be seen, this is exactly what happened in the study of the Hermetica. By speaking of “Hermetic spirituality,” I hope to highlight precisely those dimensions that philosophers (and, for that matter, theologians) have always found most difficult to handle but which are central to the study of religion: experiences and practices.

[…] If Hermetic spirituality was a type of privatized, experience-oriented religion, this has consequences for conventional ways of categorizing the materials. By and large, most of the texts that used to be called “philosophical” remain relevant, but their theoretical discussions about the exact nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos must be considered from the perspective of their function in a wider spiritual framework: they do not stand on themselves, as contributions to philosophical debate, but are meant to provide background information that spiritual practitioners need while navigating their journey of healing and salvation. As for the corpus that used to be called “technical,” we will see that it contains some texts that are of great importance to Hermetic spirituality, while many other texts concerned with practical astrology, magic, alchemy, or philosophy have little or no relevance to it.

I need to emphasize that my approach does not imply a mere reshuffling of the texts according to a somewhat different principle of division, replacing the traditional framework of “philosophical versus technical Hermetica” by one of “spiritual versus non-spiritual Hermetica.” […]

Honestly, Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality is a fantastic book for so many reasons, but this particular bit is really important for the framing of so much his study, and something I think a lot of people should bear in mind. To be sure, although the Hermetic texts call themselves “philosophy” and although then-contemporaries and other sources closer in time than us to the Hermetica call it likewise, there has been sufficient semantic drift (and scholarly baggage) involved that we cannot honestly call it a “philosophy” except how Hermēs Trismegistos himself loosely defines it (or may even be seen to redefine it). And that, likewise, only really applies to the teachings of the texts themselves, which (as Hanegraaff points out) are meant not to serve as some sort of scientific end in and of themselves, but rather for the ecstatic and spiritual advancement of a human soul towards its divine ends.

To be fair, to call Hermeticism “philosophy” is something super commonly seen, and while it’s not really a mistake per se, it is something we should probably reconsider as a matter of appropriately-descriptive terminology. But then you have books like the Kybalion that lament how “true philosophy” becomes marred by theology or superstition—which, let’s be honest, fills actual Hermetic texts abundantly—while never itself amounting to much more of the use of such a term than it has a right to (and arguably has even less than just referring to things as a “way of life”). And, again, this gets back to the difficulty of trying to offer a solid definition of “philosophy”: what we call the sciences of biology, geology, physics, and the like were once called natural philosophy, and then you have Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s summary composition of religion and magic as being an exploration of occult philosophy, but even then, these are all systematic approaches to learning about things and establishing their reality, which Hermeticism simply doesn’t do. However, when we refer to Hermeticism as a “philosophy”, the burden of that term insinuates that Hermeticism should (must!) do these things, provide detailed answers to how many layers of reality there are, explain experience from both physical and metaphysical perspectives, establish ontologies in addition to epistomologies, and the like. And it just doesn’t really do that.

So, if Hermeticism doesn’t do those things, what does it do? If calling Hermeticism a “philosophy” and suggesting that it behave like one a la Platonism is a matter of complication, then what’s the simpler approach that respects what Hermeticism actually is and does? In that light, the answer is straightforward, really: while Hanegraaff calls it a “spirituality” (in the sense of it being a tradition considered as being primarily religious rather than rational/scientific, with a focus on direct experience rather than doctrine or belief, and concerned more with the cultivation of private individual practice rather than membership of a social organization), I call it more of a “mysticism” (which effectively, albeit informally, approximates Hanegraaff’s terminological choice). Hermēs Trismegistos is focused less on establishing the reality of things that are and more on showing us how to experience them, focused less on establishing a contradiction-free approach to knowledge and more on laying a useful framework for the ascent of the soul. Hermeticism is not about knowledge in the sense of rational discourse (logos) or things learned or taught (epistēmē), but more about the direct experience of truth (gnōsis). As Hanegraaff points out, Hermēs Trismegistos is not aiming to be the philosopher and ponderer Socrates, but rather the priest and prophet Diotima.

Hermeticism is far from the easiest way of life to follow, sure. Despite Hermēs teaching that we only need but a “simple regard…found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity”, this is still challenging due to the nuanced and careful subtleties involved of doing just that. However, by trying to insist that we should do this through making it “incomprehenseible…obscuring it in the multiplicity of reasoning” and “combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study”, we end up turning something complex into something complicated—and Hermēs strongly tells us in no uncertain terms that we should not do that. We shouldn’t hope to find all the answers to everything in the Hermetic texts, because they don’t have such answers, and they never had such answers; Hermēs isn’t one who preaches “believe or perish”, but rather teaches “believe and come find out for yourself”. What Hermēs teaches in the Hermetic texts might well be a lot, but it’s all within a limited in scope and aim: that of salvation and ascent. All else that he teaches and talks about is meant to serve that specific goal and no other, and warns us against getting overly involved in such “relentlessly curious thinking” which would otherwise serve as nothing more than a distraction.