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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, as he notes in his conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning to sound familiar?  I thought so, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Memes and Maturity

Welp, I guess you can’t please everyone.  Still, of those I can, I’d rather not indulge immaturity in the process.

Over the past week and a half, the Hermetic House of Life Discord server (HHoL) has basically recovered half the membership of the old Hermetic Agora Discord server (HA), adding in a few new faces to the bunch in the process.   I talked about the debacle shortly after it happened here, and in the following days, while I’ve had my hands full with my good colleagues both on the modteam and off, it’s been a great time getting back to this collective, communal work we’ve been doing.  Still, amidst the high points, it has also been…enlightening in a number of other unfortunate ways.  I’ve had some time to mull together my own thoughts, and while I can’t promise a five-star analysis or response, I figure having something out is better than nothing in this case, especially to clarify a few stances of my own in the process for anyone who is still left wondering.

While I’m super thrilled that things have gone as well as they have regarding the HA/HHoL migration (I don’t think they could have gone better except if this didn’t have to happen at all), there’s a small but vocal minority who insists that I and the rest of the modteam are in the wrong for getting so upset over a cartoon frog emoji.  The arguments start innocuously enough:

  • “Memes are a way to express oneself”
  • “Memes are a way to build identity and community”
  • “Memes don’t have to be politicized”

Sure, I agree with all of that, 100%.  But consider: would you make a “yo momma” joke to someone whose mother just died and they’re still grieving over her? Would you make a racist joke to the face of someone of that race? Would you use a 9/11 meme with someone who was still going to therapy because they were there in NYC when the towers fell?

No?

Why not?

Because it’s an asshole move to make, and you know it.

Whether or not you’re aware of the conditions and situations of others, your sense of humor might just have some innately offensive quality about it that only barely skirts by public censure in the best of times, but in the worst, can cause actual emotional harm to others, regardless of your intent.  You might have thought it was funny, but that doesn’t mean others will agree with you.  We don’t always intend to do harm with our actions or words, but we sometimes still do all the same. Regardless of our intent, the result also matters, and it’s on us to own up to that.

HHoL—the community I help build and maintain—is full of people from a wide variety of walks of life from all over the world. And some people in that community have been harmed, directly or indirectly, by those who politicize/weaponize certain memes, and seeing those memes causes distress and discomfort.  Sure, some of those same memes are used innocuously enough in plenty of other places, but that doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t used innocuously everywhere.

I will be first to admit that it is profoundly unfortunate that a 20-year-old badly-drawn cartoon frog that never garnered any real media attention on its own has been politicized and weaponized by the alt-right and extremist political groups, centered in the USA but used similarly across the rest of the world for similar political movements.  I hate that that’s the case, and I hate that some memes, joke, art, and the like gets seen as political when it’s only been politicized.  But it is the case all the same.  To be sure, the use of a Pepe meme is not, I want to emphasize, an automatic indicator of being affiliated with the alt-right or other extremist political groups, and it’s used rather innocuously across vast swathes of the Internet—but it is used in a politicized alt-right way all too often for others to ignore, and thus it’s used that way enough for it to be a problem that I, as a moderator, have to make a judgment on in order to moderate HHoL.  This is not unlike the reason why too many women have to walk to their cars with their keys held between their fingers like claws, because while not all men have tried to accost or harm them in public, too many already have—enough for them to be rightfully suspicious of all men.  It’s the same reason why you wouldn’t reach into a bowl of candy when 1% of it has been laced with a deadly poison, because even though the majority of that candy is safe to eat, enough of that candy makes the whole bowl dangerous enough to avoid.

Besides all that, though, HHoL as a community and as a Discord server is just not the place to fight that kind of politicization.  That’s a fight for taking down the alt-right and other extremist, Nazi, Neonazi, and fascist organizations first, and then rehabilitating the meme and cartoon character after the threat from these organizations have passed and after the harm they have caused is healed.  Until then, the hands of the HHoL modteam and community are already full tending to those who have been harmed by that selfsame politicization, and the first thing you do when helping people heal is separate out the thing that caused them harm in the first place.  For that reason, we do not allow—and have never allowed—political content on the server because of how much of a tendency it has to go to really bad places really quickly, and that includes the use of political or politicized content, whether or not one uses things in such a way.

I mean, HHoL is just a glorified IRC server that just wants to focus on spirituality and mysticism, for crying out loud; indeed, why let bullshit like memes get in the way of that?  That very question is what’s leveled at me and the rest of the modteam for causing such a stink over a cartoon frog meme, but by that selfsame token, I have to level that same question back at those who seem to want to fight to the death over being entitled to use it whenever and wherever they please.  Let’s be blunt: if the use of memes can be said to build community, then by that same token, so too does the non-use of memes. It behooves everyone to learn how to read a room: if the community you’re in avoids the use of particular memes or jokes or statements or asks you to avoid using them, there’s probably a good reason why.  Moreover, to not say a thing or not do a thing—to not use a meme—costs nothing. In that light, when the use of a meme causes harm, regardless of one’s intent, that is a cost. To use such a meme costs more than to not use it.  Consider that oft-tired but ever-meaningful phrase “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”, etc.

So, what about this is meaningful from a spiritual standpoint?  I’m not just bitching for the sake of bitching—warranted though that might be on my own blog—or merely complaining about detractors who complain that I’m somehow “too PC” or “too American”.  I think there’s a meaningful spiritual point to be made about all this that I want to call out in those who want to call me out.

Consider: HHoL is an online community centered on Hermeticism and its related fields of spirituality, mysticism, religion, and the occult. We aspire to develop ourselves, reaching higher and deeper into divinity, and help each other to do the same.  We study texts ancient and modern, we exchange ideas for practice and implementation, we review methods and results all for the sake of bettering ourselves and, with each other and on our own, the world as a whole.  In that light, I have to ask: on what planet is slavish devotion to a meme, knowing that its use is hurtful to some because of its connotations due to long-standing developments outside this community, considered to be something helpful for these goals or aims of study and practice?

The very first community rule of HHoL is “be mature”.  (You can read all of our community rules and why we have them in this Google Doc we maintain for our server’s members.)  After all, HHoL is intended for a mature audience talking about topics that I consider demand a certain level of maturity: spirituality, mysticism, religion, the occult, union with the Divine, self-exploration, and so on.  If one is unable or unwilling to develop or dedicate the maturity these topics require, then I would think that HHoL is not a community for them.  It’s not about mere age or experience, but about giving enough gravity to these topics of discussion and a willingness to be, or at least become, mature enough to engage with these topics (and the other people who are already engaging with these topics) with the respect these topics (and these people) deserve.  Sure, we have fun and laughs in the process, but on the whole, these topics we talk about are indescribably profound and require much of us in the way of our development and progress.  Those who choose to be immature in HHoL are warned to learn how to properly behave; those who continue to behave immaturely are removed from the community because of the distractions they cause for everyone else.  After all, you don’t play chess with a pigeon.

But what about fighting for one’s “right” (for whatever that might mean) to use a cartoon frog meme wherever one pleases is mature?  What about that is indicative of prioritizing things of real spiritual or divine value over meaningless or inconsequential things like cartoons or memes?  What about that is indicative of supporting the essential dignity and real needs of other living, breathing human beings out of compassion and love for humanity, especially those who are telling you in no uncertain terms why certain behaviors hurt?

It’s not indicative of that at all, because it’s not mature at all.

It is not mature at all to disregard the warnings of the moderators of a community or to ignore the needs of members of that community, especially a community to which one joins freely but is neither obliged nor entitled to join, all for the sake of one’s own self-centered sense of humor.  It is, rather, a matter of recklessness, pride, arrogance, and vanity.  It is a matter of immaturity, and I will not tolerate it.  After all, I and the other moderators of HHoL are there to moderate discussions on the community, to uphold our community standards—to keep the peace.  I also note that certain politicized trends, memes, and the like have a strong tendency to upset peace to the point where it’s better to just not have them around. And then I see people who attach themselves to those same things, and we just ask people to choose: that, or this?

In the end, I can’t make that choice for them, but increasingly, it seems like I wouldn’t have to anyway: HHoL has had a small but loud number of people willingly choose to leave or loudly abstain from joining in the first place (though often in a huff or with some choice words for me and the rest of the modteam), and I have the sneaking suspicion that word is spreading about our enthusiasm for keeping out disruptions to our community (you know, the job of a moderator).  Sure, some of them are well-meaning, but I can’t overlook that their concerns are (at best) misplaced and misguided or (at worst) maliciously misdirecting.  While, as a moderator, I do take such events as people leaving and telling me why as an opportunity in reinspect and potentially refine my own aims and methods here, I also consider that this server has over 500 members but just shy of a dozen detractors.  In a sense, I suppose that my aims to ensure a base set community standards through reinforcing and upholding our rules (which have not changed since well before this whole debacle even started, despite what others might think) is doing little more than what they were intended to do: separating out wheat from chaff, or in this case, those mature enough to engage with a mature group of people intent on studying and practicing Hermeticism from those who aren’t.  We’re not running a daycare, nor are teachers in a middle school; we don’t have time to babysit people through childish, disrespectful, hurtful behavior.  W’ll do our due diligence to issue a warning when we see intolerable behavior, but if someone warned doesn’t catch the hint, then it’s not on us or the rest of this excellent community to personally remediate them.  It just falls to us to ensure the good order and safety of the rest of the community to remove what threats, disruptions, and distractions might arise.

To all those who choose to forego such a community in favor of a childish passion for memes or a misguided crusade for one’s “right” to self-expression at all costs: I hope you grow up a bit, and I look forward to seeing you again if—and hopefully when—you do.

Justifying a Hermetic Vegetarianism

At the very end of the Logos Teleios, aka the “Perfect Sermon” and more commonly known as the Asclepius (or AH for short), we find the beautiful Prayer of Thanksgiving, which we have preserved in Latin, Greek, and Coptic.  It’s a beautiful expression of devotion, love, and praise for Divinity from a Hermetic standpoint, and is good to recite (in one form or another) by many people engaged on the Way of Hermēs.  However, it’s not the prayer that’s grabbed my attention this time; rather, it’s the narrative description that follows just afterward.  This led me to a bit of thinking and a rather long blog post; please bear with me as we take a bit of a garden path stroll through the Hermetic texts to talk about something that plays into implementable practice and, moreover, explaining it from a Hermetic standpoint.

The Asclepius is an interesting Hermetic text; unlike most of the Hermetic texts, which are preserved as simple dialogues or as a letter from teacher to student, the Asclepius has an actual narrative structure involved at the very start and very end, giving it a set and setting of its own.  It opens up in AH 1 with Hermēs sitting with Asklēpios in a temple, with Tat and then Ammōn joining them soon enough, at which point:

…the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of God filled that holy place; duly silent, the minds and thoughts of each of them waited respectfully for a word from Hermēs, and then divine love began to speak.

At the end of the discourse (AH 40—41), after Hermēs has told his students “everything that a human being could say”, they get up to worship God—and interestingly, outside of the temple.  After they pray the Prayer of Thanksgiving, there is this interesting conclusion to the prayer.  In the Latin version of the Asclepius, it reads:

With such hopes we turn to a pure meal that includes no living thing.

A similar statement is given in the Coptic version, preserved as text #8 in codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Codices.  Unlike in the Latin, this is a narrative statement rather than a concluding remark:

When they prayed and said these things, they embraced and went to eat their sacred bloodless food.

The presence of this line (along with the ritual directions for praying facing certain directions and refraining from offering incense to God) has been read to suggest the presence of an actual Hermetic community of one sort or another, whether decentralized or not, as well as indicating that this is more than a mere literary tradition of “read mysteries” but one with actual ritual acts, and that done communally.  Setting aside that scholarly discussion as it happens in academia, for those of us who care less about the historical implications and want to focus more on the practical implementation of the texts, this description/injunction is useful.  We can interpret it in one of two ways:

  1. In a strict approach, this can be read to say that ritual discourses or other ritual acts should be followed with a communal meal, which is to be vegetarian in nature.
  2. In a lax approach, this can be read to encourage followers of the Way of Hermēs to be vegetarian in general, both for ritual purposes and otherwise.

In either case, whether or not such a vegetarian meal is limited to ritual contexts, there does appear to be some indication that vegetarianism is desirable to some extent.  It’s far from uncommon in a classical context, to be sure; abstinence from meat (in Greek sometimes called ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων apokhē empsukhōn “abstinence from ensouled beings”) was a documented thing of the Pythagoreans and Orphics, and Platonists and Peripatetics alike encouraged it, as well.  According to the Stoic author Chaeremon of Alexandria, Egyptian priests in his time also abstained from meat, which (along with wine) appeared to cause a “weakness in the senses and dizziness in the head…but especially because of the strong sexual desires that are the results of these kinds of food and drink”, to say nothing about how the slaughter of animals (with its necessary violence) could cause the souls of the animals to linger around their bodies and thus the meat that issues from it (more on what Chaeremon says later).  That Hermēs Trismegistos would encourage vegetarianism is unsurprising, at least for a ritual context if not a broader lifestyle.  However—besides just a general push for it because that’s just what mystics, priests, philosophers, and holy people did back in the day—it’s not clear why that should be the case from a Hermetic standpoint.  Answering this question can take many different avenues, but I have a theory of my own, and that begins with the Coptic translation of a vegetarian meal not just being one that “includes no living thing” but which is specifically “bloodless”.

Is it wise to base something on just one translation like this when variants exist?  The Coptic version of the Asclepius is a fascinating text; it’s only a fragment of the broader Asclepius, matching to what we’d recognize as AH 21—29 in the Latin text, and it’s not an exact match, either; it roughly covers the same ground, but it has some fairly stark differences in what it presents and how it presents it.   The differences between the Coptic and Latin versions of the Asclepius suggest that there were likely several different “lineages” of the Asclepius all stemming from some Greek original, and there are certain clues between the Coptic version preserved in the Nag Hammadi Codices with what few scraps of the older Greek versions that still exit that show that the Coptic translation adheres more closely to the original than the comparatively free-wheeling Latin translation.  It’s on this ground that I think hinging something on the Coptic could be worth our while.

So, “bloodless”.  Blood is something that is generally fairly important for us as living being, but the Asclepius is generally silent on matters regarding blood.  However, if we expand our scope from that text to classical Hermetic texts generally, we see some super nifty descriptions of blood in the Corpus Hermeticum (CH), namely from the CH X.13—17 where Hermēs talks about soul and its relation to the body generally:

A human soul is carried in this way:  the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.  Some hold, therefore, that the soul is blood, mistaking its nature and not seeing that the spirit must first be withdrawn into the soul and then, when the blood thickens and the veins and arteries are emptied, this destroys the living thing; and this is the death of the body.

When the soul rises up to itself, the spirit is drawn into the blood, the soul into the spirit, but the mind, since it is divine by nature, becomes purified of its garments and takes on a fiery body, ranging about everywhere, leaving the soul to judgment and the justice it deserves.

In an earthy body occurs the combining of these garments, my son, for the mind cannot seat itself alone and naked in an earthy body. The earthy body cannot support so great an immortality, nor can so great a dignity endure defiling contact with a body subject to passion. Mind, therefore, has taken the soul as a shroud, and the soul, which is itself something divine, uses the spirit as a sort of armoring-servant. The spirit governs the living being.

The initial bit about “the mind is in the reason, the reason is in the soul, etc.” from CH X.13 also bears a striking resemblance to statements from CH V and CH XII:

(CH V.11) The matter composed of the finest particles is air, but air is soul, soul is mind, and mind is god.

(CH XII.13—14) The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father.  Thus, the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.

It’s taken for granted in the earlier Hermetic treatises that we have souls, and theories and models of the soul are explained in later texts and fragments, but it’s not always clear how the different texts agree with each other, if at all, given the various perspectives and opinions that individual texts espouse.  One of the topics of this intertextual conversation between different Hermetic authors is a discussion regarding how the soul is carried in the body; it’s said time and time again that the soul is somehow carried in the body, whether explicitly or metaphorically, but it’s not always clear how the soul is related to the body.  For the purposes of this present post (this is a super complicated topic, and I’m still working through the details in my own research!), we’ll take for granted that the soul is somehow carried in the body, but using CH X.13—17 as a basis for discussion, we can see that the soul does not directly inhabit the body.  Rather, the soul is better thought of being present within spirit, which itself is present within blood, which is what is present within the body.  This is the solution proposed by CH X to reconcile the difficulty in explaining how an immaterial, incorporeal entity (the soul) can communicate with or control or inhabit a material, corporeal one (the body): by using spirit, as the most incorporeally-corporeal substance which can also be the least corporeally-incorporeal substance, as an intermediary between the two.

On the role of spirit, well…outside the CH X excerpts above, there is comparatively little in the Corpus Hermeticum, or indeed in most of the non-Asclepius Hermetic texts, that talks about spirit (πνεῦμα pneuma) from a technical or scientific perspective; generally it’s at a higher-level, more nebulous sense.  The closest we get is from CH III.1—2, which describes a very high-level cosmology.  I know I have my own translation that I like referring to, but I’ll rely on Copenhaver here as I have in the rest of this post:

In the deep there was boundless darkness and water and fine intelligent spirit, all existing by divine power in chaos. Then a holy light was sent forth, and elements solidified out of liquid essence. And all the gods divide the parts of germinal nature.

While all was unlimited and unformed, light elements were set apart to the heights and the heavy were grounded in the moist sand, the whole of them delimited by fire and raised aloft, to be carried by spirit. The heavens appeared in seven circles, the gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and all their constellations, and the arrangement of this lighter substance corresponded to the gods contained in it. The periphery rotated in the air, carried in a circular course by divine spirit.

Spirit appears to be something that pervades the cosmos, and indeed has its origins described as being something totally cosmic, according to CH I:

(CH I.9) The mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as life and light, by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman, who, as god of fire and spirit, crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate.

(CH I.16) When nature made love with the man, she bore a wonder most wondrous. In him he had the nature of the cosmic framework of the seven, who are made of fire and spirit, as I told you, and without delay nature at once gave birth to seven men, androgyne and exalted, whose natures were like those of the seven governors.

(CH I.17) …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.

Spirit is a quality of the Demiurge, and thus of the Logos of God, which proceeds from the Life of God much as the fire of the Demiurge/Logos proceeds from the Light of God; the spirit and fire of the Logos/Demiurge is also what the planets are composed of.  Because fire and spirit are demiurgical/logical correspondences of the divine light and life, respectively, we can also say the same of the mind and soul of humanity.  This correspondence, established all the way back in CH I, associates spirit with soul as ontologically forms of “life” that proceed from the Life of God.  Moreover, spirit is something that pervades and fills the cosmos—perhaps issuing from the planets, or otherwise directed by them, or perhaps which are directed by spirit?—and through spirit, life is possible.

However, when it comes to the Asclepius, there’s quite a bit more specific stuff we can look to regarding the role and activity of spirit, which is generally paired with or contrasted against the role and activity of matter:

(AH 6) The spirit that fills all mixes with everything and enlivens everything.

(AH 14) There was god and hulē (which we take as the Greek for “matter”), and attending matter was spirit, or rather spirit was in matter, but it was not in matter as it was in God nor as the things from which the world came were in God…But hulē (or the nature of matter) and spirit, though from the beginning they seem not to have come to be, nonetheless possess in themselves the power and nature of coming to be and procreating. For the beginning of fertility is in the quality of nature, which possesses in itself the power and the material for conceiving and giving birth. Nature, therefore, can breed alone without conceiving by another.

(AH 16—17) Spirit supplies and invigorates all things in the world; like an instrument or a mechanism it is subject to the will of the supreme god. For now let this be our understanding of these issues. Understood by mind alone, the god called “supreme” is ruler and governor of that sensible god who encloses within him all place, all the substance of things, all the matter of things that produce and procreate, all that there is whatsoever and however much there is.  But spirit stirs and governs all the forms in the world, each according to the nature allotted it by god. Hūle or matter, however, receives them all, spirit stirs and concentrates them all, and god governs them, apportioning to all things in the world as much as each one needs. He fills them all with spirit, breathing it into each thing according to the quality of its nature.

Based on the Asclepius, we have a notion that spirit is what facilitates “the will of God”, for lack of a better term, and which is the means of activity/energy in things as it pervades all things coterminally with matter.  Spirit, being the substance that “enlivens everything” and “stirs and governs all the forms in the world”, is what allows for matter to take on form and energy.   If we combine our understanding of spirit from the Asclepius with the role of it from CH I and CH X, we have this notion that bodies can take on/be affected by energy because all matter is pervaded by spirit, and even some bodies can be alive with spirit alone (i.e. plants, cf. AH 4 and AH 6).  However, there are other bodies that have spirit which itself contains/is inhabited by/is pervaded(?) by soul, and those bodies are what we would call ensouled living beings.

So where am I going with this?  There’s one more bit I need to bring up before I get to my point about how all this ties to vegetarianism: how the soul “works” in the human being.  There’s much in the Stobaean Excerpts (SH) on the soul, but a good introduction to this would be these:

(SH 3.5—8) These are the kinds of souls: divine, human, and non-rational. The divine soul is the energy that propels its divine body, for it moves by itself in its body and also moves its body. When the soul of mortal animals separates from its non-rational parts, it goes off into the divine body which is ever-moving and moved in itself. In this way, the soul circles round the universe. The human soul has a portion of the divine. Yet non-rational elements, namely drive and desire, are attached to it. Drive and desire are also immortal inasmuch as they are energies, the energies of mortal bodies. These energies are far from the divine part when the soul inhabits the divine body. But when this divine part enters a mortal body, drive and desire travel round with it; with them present, a human soul is always the result. The soul of non-rational animals is composed of drive and desire. Accordingly, these animals are called “non-rational”, since their souls lack reason.

(SH 2b.6—8) The reason is, first of all, that the soul must battle with itself, make a violent separation, and be taken advantage of by one part. The battle is of one against two. The one flees, while the others drag it down. Strife and manifold conflicts occur among them—the one part desires to flee, while the others eagerly hold it down. The victory of each part is not the same. The one rushes toward the Good, the others reside with evils. The one yearns to be free, but the others are content with slavery. If the two parts are conquered, they stick to their own affairs, deprived of their ruler. But if the one part is conquered, it is driven by the two and conveyed as a punishment to life in this realm. This discourse, my child, is the guide of the path to the upper world. Before you reach the goal, you must, my child, first abandon your body, conquer this life of struggle, and after conquering, ascend!

(SH 17.1—3) Thus the soul, Ammōn, is a reality perfect in itself. In the beginning, soul chose a life according to Fate and drew to itself a rationality adapted to matter. (The soul) had in its control both drive and desire. Indeed, drive exists as matter. If drive generates a disposition fitted to the soul’s intellect, it becomes courage and does not fade away under fear. Desire, for its part, affords the same possibility. If it is produced as a disposition conforming to the rationality of the soul, it becomes self-control and is not stirred by pleasure. Reasoning fills up the insufficiency of desire. The virtue of justice is born under three conditions: when both drive and desire agree, when they produce a balanced state, and when they are controlled by the soul’s rationality. Their balanced state removes the excessiveness of drive and compensates for the insufficiency of desire.

There’s this Platonic notion in the Stobaean Excerpts of the soul not being the only thing that animates a body; sometimes it’s called the soul put against drive and desire (thumos and epithumia, basically ego-driven needs and id-driven needs to borrow Jungian terms), sometimes it’s called the higher/divine soul put against the lower/animal soul, but the idea here is the same: the soul is the truly divine/higher part of what animates a human body that drives the human onto divine/higher things, while the animal/base/lower soul is what spurs the body on towards animal/base/lower needs and actions.  This notion of drive and desire (expressly and explicitly hammered out by Litwa in his Hermetica II) is super common in the Stobaean Excerpts, but we have to really try to see such a model in texts like the Corpus Hermeticum; this may be a later Platonic import into Hermeticism, or it may be just the Platonic bias of John of Stobi when he compiled his Anthology, but we can get a whiff of similar notions.  Combining this perspective from the Corpus Hermeticum and the Stobaean Excerpts, there’s this notion that part of the process of spiritual elevation/ascent and the salvation of the soul is that we need to live our lives in a way that tames the drive and desire that arises from the body and separates the (higher/divine/proper) soul from this drive and desire.

Which brings me back to someone I mentioned towards the start of this post: Chaeremon of Alexandria, a Stoic philosopher and author of various works regarding Egyptian society, science, religion, and culture who lived in the first century CE (so roughly contemporaneous with the earlier stage of classical Hermeticism).  It is from Chaeremon that we get some really insightful stuff, albeit preserved only in fragments quoted by later authors, regarding the lifestyles and practices of Egyptian priests in post-Ptolemaic/Roman Imperial Hellenistic Egypt.  Given the recent academic leaps in understanding more about the history and context of classical Hermeticism and the development of the Hermetic texts, especially with the discovery of texts like the Demotic Book of Thoth, we have a better appreciation of how much Egyptianity is present in Hermeticism, and how much of that was derived from the philosophy, religiosity, teachings, and practices of Egyptian priests.  A few I’d like to bring up regarding the consumption of animals:

(Jerome, Adversus Iovinianum II.13) They always abstained from meat and wine because of the weakness of the senses and the dizziness in the head which they experienced after a little (of this) food, but especially because of the strong sexual desires that are the results of these kinds of food and drink. They seldom ate bread, in order not to overload their stomachs; and if sometimes they did eat it, they also used pounded hyssop in the food so that by its heat they could consume the more heavy food. They used oil only with vegetables, but this too in small quantities in order to mitigate the nausea and the acid taste. “What should I say”, he said , “about birds, for they (sc. the priests) abstain from egg, too, as if it is meat, and from milk. They said that the former (sc. an egg) was liquid meat, the latter (sc. milk) blood with a changed colour”.

(Porphyry, Epistula ad Anebonem II.8) They also command that their priests must abstain from animal food so as to avoid being stained by the vapours from the carcasses, although they themselves are strongly allured by vapours from sacrifices; and (they command) that the initiate must not touch a dead body, although it is for the most part by means of dead animals that the gods are evoked.

(Porphyry, De abstinentia II.47) Theologians have rightly paid attention to abstinence, and the Egyptian informs us of these things, giving a most natural reason for them which he verified by experience. For since a bad and irrational soul which tried to depart the body after having been detached from it by violence yet stays near to it (because the souls of men who die by violence also keep themselves near to the body—a fact which should prevent one from committing suicide)—since, then, violent slaughter of animals compels souls to delight in the bodies which they leave, the soul is by no means prevented from being in the place to which it is attracted by its kindred. Hence many souls are seen to lament and the souls of the unburied adhere to the bodies, souls which are abused by sorcerers for their own service, pressing them by retaining the body or part of it. Since, therefore, they (sc. the theologians) examined these things and the nature of a bad soul and its relationship to and pleasure in the bodies from which it was torn away, they rightly avoided feeding upon meat.

(Porphyry, De abstinentia IV.7) As to the products of Egypt itself, they abstained from all kinds of fish, and from such quadrupeds as had uncloven hoofs or had toes or had no horns, and also from such birds as were carnivorous. Many of them, however, even entirely abstained from all animals. And in periods of fasting and purification all of them did so; then they did not even eat an egg. But also as to other kinds of food they practised a not unexceptionable rejection; e.g. they rejected the consumption of (female) cows, and of such male animals as were twins, or blemished, or piebald, or of unusual shape, or tamed (considering them as having been already consecrated by their labours), or those resembling animals that are honoured—whatever imitation one may think—or one-eyed, or those that verged on a likeness to the human form…These are some of the religious observances that were common to all, but there were others which varied according to the class of priests and were proper to each individual god. But the periods of purification and fasting observed by all (priests) were clean. This was the period when they were to perform something pertaining to the sacred rites. Then they spent a number of days in preparation, some forty-two, others more, others less, but never less than seven days. And during this time they abstained from all animal food…

(Porphyry, De abstinentia IV.9) They even worship a man in the village Anabis, where they sacrifice and burn the victims for him on the altars; and he may eat, shortly afterwards, the things appropriate to him that have been prepared for him as a man. So, as one should abstain from eating man’s flesh, one should abstain also from the meat of other beings.

Similar bits go on at similar length, and it doesn’t just stop with consuming animals; I’ve even seen some restrictions on priests (not just in Chaeremon) regarding not wearing wool or leather, but I think the most fascinating bit from this is that bit from Porphyry’s De abstinentia II.47 regarding the violence inherent in slaughter and how an avoidance in consuming meat could be theologically grounded in how a soul is attached to the body it was separated from, especially animal souls.  This bit is especially fascinating, because in texts like CH I, SH 23, and other Hermetic or Platonic texts, animals are explicitly called irrational beasts—just as “bad and irrational souls” in this Porphyry excerpt calls them.  We also see that a complete ban on all animal-based food was employed by some priests, if not all priests, and if not at all times, at least for periods of ritual-relevant purification.

I think at this point I have enough evidence at hand to bring up my theory regarding the exhortation to a vegetarian meal at the end of the Prayer of Thanksgiving in the Asclepius.  Let’s sum up everything and trace out an argument that leads to something insightful:

  • Although some corporeal bodies have life (e.g. plants), some corporeal bodies are alive and also animate due to the presence of soul in them.
  • The presence of incorporeal soul in corporeal body is facilitated through spirit and blood; blood is in the body, spirit is in the blood, and soul is in the spirit.  Through this gradation of progressively higher, subtler, more incorporeal, less corporeal substances, we can “embed” or “carry along” incorporeal things within corporeal things in something that looks like a localized manner.
  • Animal souls can be said to be composed of drive and desire (thumos and epithumia), while human souls are a combination of a higher/divine “proper” soul (created by God) along with drive and desire (provided from the animal body we inhabit).
  • The Hermetic idea of salvation is centered around a notion of an “ascent of the soul” away from material, corporeal concerns, and the  Hermetic way of life is likewise centered around taming and controlling the drive and desire of the body so that the soul is not so bound and attached to corporeal, material things.
  • Eating is something that satisfies the body’s epithumia, and we know that matter is what supplies and sustains bodies—but we also know that gluttony is “the supplier of all evils” (cf. CH VI.3, which Copenhaver notes as an allusion to the Egyptian notion that the belly is treated as a “container of sins”).
  • Irrational souls, when parted from the body that contained them, hang around the bodies that they inhabited, and can affect or be affected by things that happen in this world for as long as they linger.
  • Eating meat was seen by the Egyptian priests as causing issues such as dizziness in the head and the arising of strong sexual desires.

My theory is, extracting this from its original (Greco-)Egyptian context and providing a solely-Hermetic opinion according to its own logic, that by consuming the flesh of animals—that which had blood in it—was seen by the Hermeticists (or at least the author of the end of the Asclepius) as also consuming the irrational soul that inhabited that flesh.  Because such irrational souls of animals consist of drive and desire, bringing such drive and desire of the animal we consume makes us more animalian/irrational in turn, increasing our own drive and desire.  Even after the “spirit withdraws into the blood” and “soul withdraws into the spirit”, even if there is no soul left in the body, we might say that there are traces or aftereffects of the soul and spirit in the blood, or at least that such an irrational soul of drive and desire hangs out around the flesh of the animal.  If one of the goals of Hermetic practice is to free the (higher) soul from (the lower soul composed of) drive and desire, that latter being considered to be all the soul that an animal has, then to partake of animal flesh could be seen to add to one’s own drive and desire, weighing one down more; after all, our own souls—or at least the irrational, lower part of it consisting of drive and desire—can be just as easily affected as any other such irrational soul.  To that end, a vegetarian diet is recommended, whether ritually if one were to be strict about it or generally if one wanted a more “pure” lifestyle, so as to avoid the risks that lead one to error and distraction inherent in consuming meat.

Now, I admit that some of that does seem to be a bit of a stretch, and it also raises the question of “how much blood is there in meat?” or “what’s even the point of koshering meat?”.  However, it could be thought (based on what we know of Hermetic ideas regarding soul, spirit, and blood) that because spirit pervades all things, and because soul would also probably need to pervade the body it inhabits, then blood would also need to pervade a body thoroughly—which it does, even if some forms of preparation (osmosis via soaking and salting, roasting, etc.) can remove most of the blood.  Moreover, if this line of thinking is at all similar to what might have gone through a classical Hermeticist’s head, then vegetarianism would be encouraged, not as a matter of animal welfare or respect for metempsychosis, but more like a Chinese Buddhist abstaining from the Five Pungent Spices, not because they were somehow sinful to consume in and of themselves but because they “excited the senses” (e.g. make you sexually excitable, or otherwise heedless in favor of seeking pleasure), and thus more prone to committing errors in one’s lifestyle and practice.  Not only would vegetarianism then be appropriate for ritual preparation or meals (we should avoid engaging in things that drag the soul down if we’re aiming to elevate the soul), but this line of thinking would naturally lead to a vegetarian lifestyle in general, even outside of ritual.  Consuming blood itself, of course, would be right out, whether in liquid or congealed form or in forms like blood sausage, but anything containing blood in any amount—especially that of a slaughtered lifeform—would be considered something that could drag the human soul down or otherwise increase the potency of one’s drive and desire to a point that could cause problems in their life.

Of course, if this is the logic, then there also probably arises the possibility of not just exsanguinating slaughtered animals in a way similar to koshering meat to remove the vast majority of blood, but also of just outright exorcising the meat we eat so that it becomes sanctified in a way that doesn’t drag us down by pumping up our drive and desire—but this kind of side-stepping doesn’t seem to be extant in the historical record available to us, and either wasn’t considered possible or wasn’t considered plausible.  Despite my quoting excerpts of Chaeremon above, I’m not fully acquainted with the nuances of Egyptian priestly prohibitions on consuming meat, but there may be something in there that’s just not avoidable, something inherently “exciting” about consuming meat which was seen as tainting or distracting from spiritual and religious endeavors.

To my mind, this is the most likely reason for encouraging vegetarianism in Hermeticism, whether for ritual purposes itself or for a more general lifestyle.  This doesn’t, however, touch on other common reasons for vegetarianism that we might hear about from other traditions in the classical world; I suggest that these, while they are reasons, are not Hermetic reasons.  To wit, what I’d consider to be the most common classical argument for vegetarianism and against consuming meat, dealing with metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls, isn’t what was thought of as a reason for Hermetic vegetarianism.  While Hermeticism certainly has a notion of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls in a number of texts, there is also a notion that human souls can only be born in human bodies (cf. CH X.19, though contrast this against CH X.8 which seems to state the opposite).  Unlike those who considered souls to be reborn in any sort of lifeform, it seems like that reincarnation and metempsychosis of human souls in Hermeticism is generally limited to human bodies—and if not, it seems like what animals go through as a matter of them being animals is a matter of deserved punishment for such a soul that had the ill fate to be born in such a body.  That a soul you might know in life could be reborn in an animal body does not seem to be a reason, according to the logic of the Hermetic texts, to outright encourage vegetarianism (though one could take that as a personal stance, should one so choose).

Besides this, the other major thumos-/epithumia-unrelated argument I can think of is that humans should be nonviolent.  This is more unclear than the previous reason, but was also a super common reason to encourage vegetarianism, as a means of recalling a sort of Golden Age lifestyle where there was no need for violence or slaughter.  There is nothing stated outright or explicitly in any of the Hermetic texts I can think of that say one should be nonviolent in general, but it could be read that reasonable nonviolence could be encouraged as a matter of abstaining from “unholy presumption and daring recklessness” (CH I.25) or injustice (CH XIII.7—8).  I think that this stance could be justified as a reason for encouraging vegetarianism, whether ritually or generally, perhaps as a means by which one might abstain from violence.  Moreover, although this suggests that all acts of violence are necessarily irrational, and although it could be seen to play into the drive-and-desire reason from before, this really only really address the slaughter of animals, not the consumption of them.  To me, this is a grey area; while one can take this as reason, I don’t think it’s the reason for encouraging vegetarianism in a Hermetic context.

At this point, here I am well over twice the wordcount I normally post (though a good chunk of that was quotations), at the end of this post that only touches on a super complicated topic to talk about; to even just discuss the question “why vegetarianism?” from this perspective raises a whole slew of other questions that might need to be answered first, to say nothing of bringing up so many other topics all at once that hinges on the nature of the soul, and the very notion of the soul in the Hermetic texts also necessarily brings up the teleology and eschatology of the soul, the “end goal” and “destination” of the soul, along with so much else in the doctrine of the Hermetic texts.  What I brought up above only barely scratches the surface of such a discussion—maybe I’ll have a series of posts detailing a Hermetic “theory of soul” at some point in the future, but that’s not now.  In the meantime, this is just my own thinking of half-baked thoughts to come up with a preliminary theory that arises from a super complicated topic.  Still, I think it’s a useful theory to go by because of how much of an impact it could have for our lived practice in the here and now, and such a theory could open up other interesting avenues of exploring spiritual practice in various approaches using all the means available at our disposal.

And, of course, a bit of nuance to round out this post: while I wouldn’t outright suggest that everyone should commit to a vegetarian lifestyle in general, I think that doing so at least for short stints as part of purification practices or while engaging in ritual is a highly recommended thing, and those who do commit generally to a vegetarian lifestyle would probably find themselves better suited to spiritual practices and development along the lines of classical Hermeticism.  I fully recognize and support that some people require animal-based proteins in their diet for their health and well-being, and I also know that many cultures emphasize the consumption of meat in one form or another as part of a healthy and socially-acceptable diet even while some in that culture simultaneously encourage vegetarianism as an ideal (e.g. Tibetan Buddhists in the vegetation-scarce Tibetan Plateau).  I do not write this post to shame people into abandoning meat (or animal-based products generally); far from it, I write this post to offer a theory about why this one specific classical Hermetic text encourages a vegetarian meal, and do not suggest by it that Hermeticists must be vegetarian in general or that non-vegetarians cannot be Hermeticists.  After all, Hermeticism is less of a temple cult or institutionalized religion, and many such religions require the consumption of meat for religious purposes as a means of communion or medicine, to say nothing of the various practices calling for the offering of meat or the ritual slaughter or sacrifice of animals for religious or magical ends.  Still, within a Hermetic scope, vegetarianism is (to my mind) encouraged by the Hermetic texts as one of the (many) means of continuing the process of spiritual elevation that we seek, and one that is required for ritual contexts even if not more generally as a lifestyle diet, though I would not say one cannot be a Hermeticist if one is not vegetarian in their day-to-day diet.

PS: One more thing, though—and this is more of a side-topic than anything—relating to ensoulment of bodies.  If, following the logic of CH X, souls can only be present in body with spirit-carried-along-by-blood acting as an intermediator, what of the “ensouled statues” of AH 24 and AH 37—38?  These are physical, material, and corporeal bodies that the Hermeticist calls down gods to inhabit, but what allows such a soul to inhabit such a body?  AH 38 says that “the quality of these gods” is composed of:

…a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

I would propose that, in the compounding of these substances to effect the ensoulment of a statue, the “plants, stones and spices” act as a statue’s “blood”, because (since they “have in them a natural power of divinity”) these things are able to carry soul-laden spirit in a way that blood is also able to do for us.  Moreover, it is also through the interaction of humans with these statues by means of sacrifice and worship and hymning that we keep such a thing “alive”, as if these things provided the pulse for the circulation of such “blood”.  What this indicates to me is that, while spirit pervades all things in the cosmos, some things are able to facilitate or contain more of spirit, or are able to contain a more rarefied kind of spirit.  In this case, having an abundance of spirit or a fineness of spirit is what allows incorporeal soul to interact with or inhabit it, and through it with corporeal bodies.  This is an extrapolation on my part, combining the doctrine of how soul is embodied from CH X with the description of ensouled statues from the AH, and could also stand to be refined heavily given other stuff throughout the Hermetic texts, but it is an interesting idea to play with.