On Good and Evil in Hermeticism

I know it’s been quiet here as of late, but then, life is quiet.  Besides, my long-time readers will know that this is far from the first time I’ve gone quiet; it seems to just come and go in cycles, where occasionally I’m bursting with words, and other times I’m just off doing other things besides writing.  In general, I’ve been using my words either on the Hermetic Agora Discord server with all the great conversations and discussions we have or for my friends on FFXIV, but this is a case where a series of discussions over several months reminded me that “hey, maybe I should put some of this on my blog, too”.  While I’m not entirely thrilled at how this post has turned out, I think it’s still in a good enough shape to share, since it’ll help with a good bit of discussion when it comes to further discussions regarding Hermeticism.

When it comes to reading the Hermetic texts…well, it’s easy for people to get stuck on quite a bit.  Not everyone is used to reading old texts, philosophical texts, religious texts, or old philosophical and/or religious texts; there’s a different kind of mindset you have to adopt, different methodologies of interpreting the texts you have to take on, and the like in order to make good sense of the texts beyond a naïve surface-level reading.  To me, it’s important to not just read the texts, but to contextualize them—to get into the author’s head, as it were, understanding the impetus of why they wrote in the setting and time period they wrote—so we can actually understand the message of these texts in addition to their mere content.  Even at the best of times, this is a tall order to make of anyone, no matter how experienced they might be with old philosophical and/or religious texts.  For the Hermetic texts especially, which straddle the border between the religiously didactic and the mystically persuasive, there necessarily has to be a period of chewing-on to break the skin of the presentation, and an even longer period of digestion to get to the real meat of their meaning.  (This is, coincidentally, one of the reasons why we’re continuing to engage in our weekly discussions on different Hermetic texts in the Discord server I mentioned earlier.  We just got to SH 11 this week!)

Of all the questions people tend to have when it comes to the classical Hermetic texts, there are definitely a few trends and commonalities between many of them.  One repeated topic that comes up is how these texts discuss good and evil, and why they say that things like the cosmos or humanity is evil, what the nature of evil is, what that means for us as humans in our day-to-day lives or in our spiritual progression, and the like.  It’s a fascinating topic, albeit a challenging one at times, and it’s something I’ve clarified repeatedly for a number of people at that point.  Because it’s a topic that does come up repeatedly, I think having my own thoughts fleshed out in a post would be helpful, not just for me but for others to reference as well.

Turning to the Corpus Hermeticum, we get our first substantial mention of good and evil right in CH I.22—23, when Poimandrēs tells Hermēs about the role of Nous in how it affects different kinds of people:

I myself, the mind, am present to the blessed and good and pure and merciful—to the reverent—and my presence becomes a help; they quickly recognize everything, and they propitiate the father lovingly and give thanks, praising and singing hymns affectionately and in the order appropriate to him. Before giving up the body to its proper death, they loathe the senses for they see their effects. Or rather I, the mind, will not permit the effects of the body to strike and work their results on them. As gatekeeper, I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects, cutting off the anxieties that come from them. But from these I remain distant—the thoughtless and evil and wicked and envious and greedy and violent and irreverent—giving way to the avenging demon who wounds the evil person, assailing him sensibly with the piercing fire and thus arming him the better for lawless deeds so that greater vengeance may befall him. Such a person does not cease longing after insatiable appetites, struggling in the darkness without satisfaction. This tortures him and makes the fire grow upon him all the more.

Okay, so good people are those who are reverent (and also pure and merciful), and evil people are those who are thoughtless, wicked, envious, greedy, violent, and irreverent—pretty straightforward moralizing stuff, especially from a revelatory text from the Hellenistic/Roman Empire period.  People being people, some people are going to be good, and others evil, and we should strive to be good and to not be evil; after all, one of my favorite lines from the entire Corpus Hermeticum is the last line of CH XII.23: “There is but one religion of God, and that is not to be evil.”

But then we get texts like the following which throw a wrench into the works:

  • CH II.14: “Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree.”
  • CH VI.3: “Therefore, Asklēpios, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact.”
  • CH VI.4: “As for me, I give thanks to god for what he has put in my mind, even to know of the good that it is impossible for it to exist in the cosmos. For the cosmos is a plenitude of vice…”
  • SH 11.2.18: “There is no good upon earth, there is no evil in heaven.”
  • SH 11.2.19: “God is good and humanity evil.”
  • SH 11.2.48: “What is God? Unchanging good. What is humanity? Changing evil.”

This sort of stark pessimism when it comes to how the cosmos is evil (or full of evil), or how humanity is evil, etc. is what can trip up a lot of people, and make them wonder whether they’re really reading a Hermetic text or some sort of patristic or gnostic Christian one that emphasizes original sin or how we’re all horrible entities that need to be punished before we can approach divinity.  That’s not the case in Hermeticism, not by a long shot, but one could certainly be forgiven for thinking that.

Alternatively, there are statements like from CH VI.2, where it says this:

…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…

If all things come from God, then we can assume for the moment that God is good, but if all things come from God and are evil, how can they have come from the good, or at least “participate in the good”, while still being evil?

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “the good”.  This notion of something being “the good” as a singular noun can be traced back to Platonism, where in texts like the Republic, the Good (or, perhaps more properly, the form/idea of the Good) is “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower”, the “cause of knowledge and truth”.  It is the Good that provides for things to be just and true, to be useful and valuable, and the goal of aspiration for all things that exist; in some accounts (or critiques), the Good is equivalent to the One.  Of course, Platonism is not synonymous with Hermeticism, no matter how big the influence of the former was on the latter, though we can certainly take a similar understanding of the Platonic Good as a starting point to illustrate our Hermetic understanding of what goodness (or the good) is.  In Hermeticism’s own terms and texts, CH VI opens up with an excellent definition of what goodness is from a Hermetic standpoint.  According to CH VI.1, the Good is what has these qualities:

  • is in God alone
  • is God
  • is the substance of all motion and generation (for nothing is abandoned by it)
  • has an energy about it that stays at rest
  • has no lack and no excess
  • is perfectly complete
  • is a source of supply
  • is present in the beginning of all things
  • is wholly and always good
  • longs for nothing, since it lacks for nothing
  • grieves for nothing, since nothing can be lost to it
  • antagonizes nothing, since nothing is stronger than it and nothing can injure it
  • desires nothing, since nothing is more beautiful than it to cause desire
  • is angered by nothing, since nothing is unheeding of it
  • is jealous of nothing, since nothing is wiser than it

In a similar vein, we can also turn to the Stobaean Fragments.  In SH 2A.8—15, Hermēs answers Tat’s question regarding what is true, or what is truth, where it is literally equated to “the undiluted Good itself”, to the point where we can swap out “truth” and “good” interchangeably.  Using SH 2A, then, we can also add the following attributes to the Good:

  • is the most perfect excellence
  • is truth
  • is what is not muddied by matter
  • is what is not shrouded by body
  • is naked, manifest, unshifting, sacred, unchangeable
  • is not corruptible, vulnerable, dissolvable, shifting, or ever-changing from one thing to another
  • is what remains in its own nature
  • is what maintains its consistency from itself alone
  • is what remains in itself
  • is what is not able to be born or to change
  • is singular and unique
  • is not made from matter, not embodied, not qualified by color or shape
  • it is unshifting, unchanging, and ever-existing

In short, what we arrive at is the following definition of the Good: the Good is literally God, the most perfect reality which is complete unto itself, which remains as it is eternally without changing, which is immaterial and unborn, which is not affected by anything, which lacks nothing, which has an excess of nothing, and which is the source of all things without it being anything itself just as it is the source of all motion without itself moving or being moved.

A note about motion here: it might be weird to talk philosophically about motion, but this was a big deal back in Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophy, especially to the Platonists and the Stoics, where motion itself was equated with life and also with passion (literally “that which undergoes or suffers something”).  A thing, being able to be moved, can therefore undergo particular influences that cause it to move in a particular direction in a particular manner, which then causes it to undergo passions like distress, fear, lust, or delight.  This is why CH II opens up with this seemingly out-of-place discussion about place and motion, because these had fundamental implications in the philosophical milieux of the day regarding the nature of God and creation as a whole.  Thus, when it comes to the Good, because it does not experience passion, it therefore experiences no motion, because there is nothing to move it, since (as CH II.1 states) everything moved is moved by something and in something.  Thus, (from CH II.8) all motion is moved by immobility and in immobility.  CH II later goes on to say, in sections 12 through 16:

“Your reasoning is irrefutable, Trismegistos. So what have we said of the place in which the universe is moved?”

“That it is incorporeal, Asklēpios.”

“What is the incorporeal, then?”

“Mind as a whole wholly enclosing itself, free of all body, unerring, unaffected, untouched, at rest in itself, capable of containing all things
and preserving all that exists, and its rays (as it were) are the good, the truth, the archetype of spirit, the archetype of soul.”

“What, then, is god?”

“God is what does not subsist as any of these since he is the cause of their being, for all of them and for each and every one of them that exists. And he has left nothing else remaining that is not-being, for all things are those that come to be from things that are, not from those that are not. Things that are not do not have a nature that enables them to come to be; their nature is such that they cannot come to be anything. Things that are, on the other hand, do not have a nature that prevents them from ever existing.

“God is not mind, but he is the cause of mind’s being; he is not spirit, but the cause of spirit’s being; and he is not light, but the cause of light’s being. Hence, one must show god reverence with those two names assigned to him alone and to no other. Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree. That good is he alone, and none other. All others are incapable of containing the nature of the good because they are body and soul and have no place that can contain the good. For the magnitude of the good is as great as the substance of all beings, corporeal and incorporeal, sensible and intelligible. This is the good; this is god.

“You should not say that anything else is good or you will speak profanely, nor should you ever call god anything but ‘the good’ since this too would be profane. All use the word ‘good’ in speaking, of course, but not all understand what it can mean. For this reason, god is not understood by all. In their ignorance, they apply the name ‘good’ to the gods and to certain humans even though these beings are never able to be good or to become so. The good is what is inalienable and inseparable from god, since it is god himself. All other immortal gods are given the name ‘good’ as an honor, but god is the good by nature, not because of honor. God has one nature—the good. In god and the good together there is but one kind, from which come all other kinds. The good is what gives everything and receives nothing; god gives everything and receives nothing; therefore, god is (the) good, and the good is god.”

From this latter bit, we can also extract the following qualities of the Good, which certainly has some overlaps with CH VI and SH 2A:

  • is inalienable and inseparable from God
  • is by nature itself God
  • is the only nature of God
  • is the source of all other “kinds” (γένος in Greek)
  • is what gives everything
  • is what receives nothing

Now, admittedly, CH II does depart from some of the other Hermetic texts in a few details here and there (namely on the division between Nous itself and God, since many of the attributes given to Nous in CH II.12 are given elsewhere to God), but this discussion further elaborates on the nature of the Good, with the important bit that the Good is God and God is the Good.  But we also get a very strongly-stated corollary of this statement: that only God is the Good and is thus the only thing that is Good, and nothing else is Good (or the Good) because nothing else is God.  We might call other things “good”, but it is either done as an honorary thing for other gods that are not God, or it is done in ignorance of things in general.

It is this notion—that only God is Good and the Good, and nothing else is Good or the Good since nothing else is God—which takes us back to CH VI.2.  After Hermēs describes to Asklēpios what the Good is, he raises the question: “since none of these qualities [like longing or lacking, grief or losing, anger or weakness, ugliness or desire, etc.] belongs to the substance [of God], what remains but the Good alone?”  He then proceeds to give this answer:

Just as none of these other qualities exists in such a substance, by the same token the good will be found in none of the other substances. All the other qualities exist in all things, in the small, in the large, in things taken one by one and in the living thing itself that is larger than all of them and the most powerful. 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.

Because the Good is only Good, it has nothing else that would make it not-Good.  Everything else we might consider that is not-Good, then, cannot be part of the Good.  Likewise, due to the nature of the Good, it cannot be found in anything else (“there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night”); after all, consider that the Good always remains Good and has neither anything too little nor too much, but all other things that exist do to one extent or another.  Consider yourself: at times you are hungry, meaning you have eaten too little food which causes you pain, but at other times you overindulge, meaning you have eaten too much food which also causes you pain, and you are in a constant state of flux between overindulging—satiation—hunger, never remaining in any one state for long.  Everything that is generated (i.e. born or begotten) suffers from this in similar ways (remember what we said about motion and passion), and so everything that is generated/born/begotten cannot be Good, which means the Good is and can only be unbegotten, and the only thing unbegotten is God.

You can expand this sort of logic with almost any quality to pretty much everything that exists, right up to the very cosmos itself…sorta.  The cosmos is in a sort of halfway point, because the cosmos is described as Good in one way, namely that it “makes all things”, and thus “it is good with respect to the making that it does”.  This is because God is also the maker of all things, including the cosmos, while the cosmos is the maker of all things within itself; nothing else within the cosmos is like the cosmos itself, since everything within the cosmos that makes something can only make certain things, and all of such limited making requires sources from outside that limited maker, while the cosmos constantly generates from itself.  This is much like the Good in how it is a source of supply, gives everything, and takes nothing; however, we must not forget that the cosmos itself is subject to motion (things within the cosmos move, and the cosmos itself can be debated that it moves, even if it is motion in place like rotation around an axis), and thus also subject to passion.  In this regard, the cosmos is fundamentally not Good, just like everything else within the cosmos.  The cosmos is, after all, in a constant state of flux, and it changes from moment to moment, so while it still remains the cosmos, it never maintains a constant state, which rules out it being Good.  In this case, while CH VI.2 describes the cosmos as Good in one regard, it is perhaps more of a metaphor in that it is the closest thing that comes to being Good.  We see a similar thing happen in SH 2A.14, when Tat asks Hermēs what in the cosmos one might call true (noting that there is nothing truly true in the cosmos), and Hermēs replies:

Only the sun, which is beyond all other things unchanging, remaining in itself, we would call truth. Accordingly, he alone is entrusted with crafting everything in the world, with ruling and making everything. I indeed venerate him and worship his truth. I recognize him as Craftsman subordinate to the One and Primal.

Note how similar this description is of the Sun being true and the cosmos being Good, right down to the aspect of creation, but we should note that the Sun is “beyond all other things unchanging, remaining in itself” and so on—not to necessarily say that the Sun is unchanging, etc.  After all, immediately preceding this, Hermēs clarifies to Tat that even “eternal bodies” (like planets and stars) aren’t true, and while they can possess “true matter”, they are still false because they change over time.

What this gives us is a notion that everything that is not God is in a constant state of flux: they grow, they starve, they are healthy, they grow sick, they are born, they die.  Everything that exists is constantly waxes and wanes, and everything that exists can be added to or taken away from.  Even the cosmos itself and the most perfect body within the cosmos changes from moment to moment due, if nothing else, to the movement they experience, which causes change upon and within them.  The Good, however, does none of these things: the Good is static, and thus does not change, does not increase, does not decrease, cannot be added to, cannot be taken away from.  The only thing that satisfies these qualities of the Good is God, which means only God is the Good, and thus only God is Good (as a nature or quality).

So what does that leave us when it comes to “evil”?  CH VI.3 continues its discussion of the Good (ἀγαθὸν) now by comparing it against evil (κακόν):

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, Asklēpios, 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. And this is the worst of all, Asclepius: here below, they believe in each of the things I have just mentioned as the greatest good when actually it is insuperable evil. Gluttony is the supplier of all evils…Error is the absence of the good here below.

For us down here, we often bandy about the terms “good” and “evil”, but speaking from a Hermetic and philosophical standpoint, to do so is kind of an error.  After all, things that are truly good (i.e. “Good”) cannot really exist in creation, yet we call things good all the same, so what do we mean by that? Hermēs points out that, for many people down here, “good” is just a state of being the least possible evil, and “evil” is a state of things being more good than not-good.  But as we noted, there is nothing that is truly Good down here, so anything that we might perceive or judge as “good” isn’t really so.  Rather, “evil” seems to be this contagious thing:

…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.

We arrive at this notion that “evil”, when contrasted with the Good, is a state of not being Good.  That’s basically all there is to it: evil is just not Good.  Unlike the Good which we can consider as a “thing” or a concept-unto-itself, evil isn’t really described as such in the Hermetic texts, but is more just an absence of the qualities of the Good.  But this gets really tricky when we run into texts like CH I.22—23 (“I will refuse entry to the evil and shameful effects…giving way to the avenging demon who wounds the evil person”), CH IV.8 (“the evils for which we are responsible”), CH IX.4 “[the godfearing person] refers [all plots laid against him] to knowledge, and he alone makes evil into good”), and especially texts like CH X.12 (“the human is not only not good, but because he is mortal he is evil as well”) and SH 11.5 (“these teachings…incite evil people towards evil…the human animal is starkly inclined towards evil”).  These statements are further complicated by other texts like CH XIV.7 (“there is nothing evil or shameful about the maker himself…nor did god make evil”).

It should be noted that the same words are basically used here throughout the Hermetic texts for “good” and “evil”, which can then lead one into some weird readings of these texts that might at once be contradictory as well as concerning for those who would rather stay away from a gnostic, pessimistic approach of understanding the cosmos and humanity.  It is at this point that I’ve developed a sort of model for interpreting the various ways Hermetic texts use the terms “good” and “evil” in different contexts: a philosophical way and a moral way.  To summarize this approach:

  • Philosophical goodness and evil pertain to matters strictly involving the nature of God or of not-God.
    • Philosophical goodness is God.
    • Philosophical evil is that which is not God.
  • Moral goodness and evil pertain to behaviors, actions, and other things that we engage in as humans
    • Moral goodness is that which leads to philosophical goodness, i.e. towards God.
    • Moral evil is that which leads away from philosophical goodness, i.e. away from God.

It’s never stated explicitly in the Hermetic texts that the words “good” and “evil” are used in different ways, although it seems abundantly clear to me that “goodness” in one paragraph of one text isn’t always used in the same sense as the same word used in another text, or even in another paragraph of the same text.  To be sure, the semantic field of “goodness” is huge, so it’s still totally fair to use the same word for different things that still fall within that semantic field, although it comes with a cost to intelligibility.  To that end, I’ve been classifying certain uses of “good” and “evil” as either being used in a philosophical sense (e.g. “God is the Good and the Good is God”) or in a moral sense (e.g. “it is good to pray to God”), and I don’t think the two should be confused with each other (even if they are related).  I find that taking on this approach of classifying certain uses of “good” and “evil” as either philosophical or moral greatly helps with reading and interpreting the Hermetic texts, personally, and it’s what I use when people ask about the role or nature of evil in the discussion of Hermetic texts.  (It also helps reduce the weird capitalization I’ve been using, since I can just restate “the Good” with a capitalized ‘G’ as simply “philosophical good”.)

So, consider how things change or are in a constant state of flux, deprivation, excess, etc.; this is a philosophical evil.  It’s not that we should consider such things inherently wicked or sinful, far from it; I mean, consider that the Greek word for “change” is μεταβολή, from which we get the modern word “metabolism”.  As a biological function, metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical processes and reactions in living organisms that proceeds from eating, digestion, and waste expulsion that convert food to energy.  In a sense, the central mechanism that allows life as we know it to exist is etymologically bound up with this thing Hermēs calls “evil”—but this is only in a philosophical sense, as I see it, because change precludes stasis, and only stasis is (philosophically) good, but living things cannot be in a state of perfect stasis, so they cannot be (philosophically) good.  On the other hand, as Hermēs states at the end of CH VI.3, “gluttony is the supplier of all evils”; this is a moral discussion, now, since even if we have to eat in order to sustain our metabolism, greed in wanting to eat more than what is proper, the distractions we cultivate by striving after things that taste good as a pleasurable experience, the lethargy we experience after eating too much—these are all moral things that can happen but which are not necessarily bound to happen in the cosmos.  But, because these things distract us and lead us away from living a life oriented towards divinity and philosophy—away from the philosophical good—we can call this, specifically, a moral evil.

In a sense, moral goodness and evil proceed from philosophical goodness and evil.  Consider this statement from AH 27:

For just as god dispenses and distributes his bounty—consciousness, soul and life—to all forms and kinds in the world, so the world grants and supplies all that mortals deem good, the succession of seasons, fruits emerging, growing and ripening, and other such things.

We must remember that all things come from God, who is the Good, and so all things that exist and come from God can be said to “participate” in the philosophical good (the Greek word here used is μετουσία “participation, partnership, communion”, as in something universal by a particular), so even if all things are not philosophically good, they still share in the philosophical good inasmuch as they share in the same creation by God.  Because God distributes all things, so too do all things that we consider morally good also come from God, and thus moral good comes from philosophical good.

But can we say the same thing of moral evil, then?  After all, if all things come from God, then things that are evil must also come from God, too, right?  In a trivial sense, sure, but I would argue that it’s not in the same overall sense here.  Consider now 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.

In addition to this section being a great statement about how we should carefully consider our judgments of things in a Stoic sense (a la Shakespeare’s “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”), I also consider this an explanation of things we deem to be moral evil proceeding from philosophical evil.  Remember that philosophical evil is simply not-being-God, and thus being susceptible to motion, to passion, and the like; all of this is essentially the continuous, ever-present process of change in all things that exist.  Change is the direct result of generation, and which causes both corruption as well as the fix for corruption.  Philosophical evil is, in a way, both poison as well as remedy, depending on how it arises and how it takes effect.  Moral evil, on the other hand, is what arises from philosophical evil and what can be seen to continue philosophical evil: because we get hungry, we are susceptible to gluttony, to avarice, to envy, and to all other sorts of vices that we might otherwise simply call “evil”.  But do these things then not proceed from God?  Yes, they do, in the same way that all other things proceed ultimately from God, but I’d argue that these things proceed from God in a more indirect way than things that are morally good.  After all, things that are morally good proceed from that which is philosophically good, and thus from God directly, but things that are morally evil proceed from that which is philosophically evil, which is generation, which itself comes from God.  There’s an extra step thrown in there that keeps things from being completely parallel between the moral things we’ve been talking about and God.

Consider the implications of that lack of parallelism, and how it introduces a different one: the moral things we get into, good or bad, lead us to their philosophical origin, and so things that are morally good lead us to God while things that are morally evil lead us to not-God.  What does “not-God” mean in this context?  If we bear in mind CH VI.3’s definition that “error is the absence of the [philosophical] good”, then consider the first instance of “error” we find all the way back in CH I.18—19, when Poimandrēs talks about the initial creation of humanity (emphasis in bold mine):

“When the cycle was completed, the bond among all things was sundered by the counsel of god. 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.’

“After god said this, providence, through fate and through the cosmic framework, caused acts of intercourse and set in train acts of birth; and all things were multiplied according to kind. The one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.

Things that are morally good lead us to the philosophical good, which is to say that things that are morally good (like the attainment of knowledge through mindfulness, etc.) lead us to God and immortality, while things that are morally evil lead us to philosophical evil, like ignorant love of the body and lack of recognition leads us to death.  In a sense, this describes a sort of “Hermetic saṃsāra”, where those who are suffering in ignorance (and any other number of moral evils) do so through repeated reincarnation in the cosmos and, thus, continued separation from God.  It’s not just that it’s ignorance of God, but it’s also ignorance of the true relationship between the cosmos and God.  The main ethical and moral gist of CH I is to remind us that we humans have an immaterial, immortal soul which is who and what we truly are, and since those come from God, we should strive to return to God, while the bodies our souls inhabit are not who we truly are, since they are creations of the cosmos.  We end up heading towards the source of what we focus on: if we focus on the health and well-being of the soul, we go to the origin of the soul, which is God, but if we focus on the health and well-being of the body (notably to the exclusion of the soul), then we go to the origin of the body, which is the cosmos—not God.

This explains why Poimandrēs talks about the various planetary energies the soul gives up as it rises through the spheres after death on its way to rejoin God in CH I.24—25, and why Hermēs discusses the various torments of matter that must be cleansed in order for one to be spiritually reborn in CH XIII.7—8 (about which I’ve already said plenty here and here, and how that might play out in terms of ethics and behavior here regarding specific moral evils to avoid).  These planetary energies and material torments—these are the things that keep creation going.  They are philosophical evils, but not necessarily moral evils per se; they are merely the energies that keep generated things generating other things.  After all, consider sexual procreation: it’s necessary for animals to produce other animals, and for the most part, this takes place through sex.  But animals don’t have sex for the intent of procreation, going into mating with the notion that they’re doing this to further the species; no, they have sex because it feels good, and evolution has set up the system so that these animals will find attraction and arousal in things that will get them to fuck and make babies.  The same goes for us, too, in much the same way: after all, we experience hunger because we’re running low on our caloric reserves, which then drives us towards finding food at any cost necessary (without heavy mental gymnastics and training to control those impulses and drives, much as it is with us and sex).

To me, all these things that are morally evil are things that keep us in the cosmos.  Sex, hunger, and the like are not moral evils in and of themselves, although they may well be called philosophical evils, because these are functions of the cosmos itself; however, that which is morally evil is that which gets us to engage in these things beyond what is right and proper for us, which entices us to remain in the cosmos and away from God longer and longer.  Engaging in things that are morally good helps us to reach the philosophical good, which entails escaping the cycle of rebirth and torment we under in this material world—this “going on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death”.  When Poimandrēs tested Hermēs in CH I.20, quizzing Hermēs as to why “they deserve death who are in death”, Hermēs replies “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”.  Moral evils are that which keeps that font of darkness flowing, keeping us borne aloft in a torrential river of generation and repeated death; moral goods are those which stop up that font and help us out of the river into immortality and peace.

At this point, I think I’ve waxed on long enough about playing out the distinction between good and evil, both in a philosophical sense and a moral sense, but I hope that others can make good use of this model of interpretation.  To be sure, this is a model I’ve come up with that can help explain away the different contexts in which “good” and “evil” appear in the Hermetic texts; this is something I’m saying, not something that Hermēs is saying, and it helps in the effort of synthesizing various teachings from different Hermetic texts in all their differences and contradictions.  As a hermeneutic, this distinction that we can draw between philosophical and moral uses of good and evil can help us better understand, beyond a naïve surface level, the different ways that Hermēs and his students use them, and flesh out particular ideas better.

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.