The Prayer Whispered In The Temple

I have to admit: it’s not the being home and away from friends, family, and colleagues in person for three and a half months that’s getting to me, nor is it the fear of being Kissed by the Lady of Crowns.  It’s not being shut in with the same people whom I love every day, even when the little things add up that frustrate and annoy me, more than ever before given that I’m home all the time and can’t escape it.  It’s not the hypothetical worries of financial solvency in a time when the economy is constantly degrading and when there are threats looming on the horizon of the next bank statement.  It’s not seeing the cracked and corroded political system of my country implode with constant protests the whole nation over for over three weeks, with more and more people being murdered in grotesque ways every day.  It’s not seeing people I’ve heard about or know die, sometimes naturally, sometimes unnaturally, and usually before their time.  It’s not seeing global climate change catch scientists by surprise with trends that are happening a century earlier than expected.  It’s not seeing the constant war, famine, plague, and death sweep the world (when has it ever not?) in ever-encroaching circles.

It’s not any one thing, but it’s…kinda all of this at once.  (Except the working-at-home-indefinitely bit, I sincerely dig that.)  I know I enjoy at least some measure of safety, however temporary, secluded and swaddled in comfort as I am in my home, free to spend my time mostly as I please, but…

I’m a staunch believer in the claim of Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun”.  We, as a species, are pretty much the same as we were 60,000 years and more ago: we still have the same fundamental needs of sleeping, eating, fucking, and wondering, and everything else is just accessorizing and window-dressing.  We still love and hate, we still learn and ignore, we still live and die, as we and every single one of our ancestors always have going back to the beginning of humanity.  It’s this cyclical continuity that, although it might have been dreary to the author of that book, gives me hope and comfort in that, no matter how bad things get or seem, everything can be survived and surpassed, one way or another, just as it always has been before.  But…it’s hard even for me to not realize that, even if the melody is the same, the key of the music can and does change, and although the lyrics may rhyme, it’s never the same thing being said.  And in that, things may never have been good, depending on whom you ask, but on any large scale by pretty much any measure, things are definitely not great right now, and despite what I want to see, it also seems like things are getting less great by the day.

Despite the breadth of my writings, my focus in my various spiritual practices is decidedly on the small-scale.  Sure, I do readings and consultations for clients, and I study and practice rituals in case I need them should the need arise, but I don’t need a lot, seeing how much I already have; in a way, I’m kinda living one of the messages of the Double Sice bone in reading dominoes, where your material life is in a state of fulfillment so now you need to turn your sights higher.  Instead of trying to advance myself worldly, I do what I can to maintain things in a state of peace and satisfaction for myself, my husband, my housemates, my family, and my godfamily—those near to me and dear to me, and those for whom I can do the most at the time being.  It’s not that I’m being greedy with my power, but necessarily rationing it; even with what little I’m doing to maintain my standards of living, I still have high standards of living, and keeping up with it all can sometimes be soul-wearying and heart-tiring.  (How much worse, then, for people who have it worse?  Why can’t I help them more beyond offering mere words or some meager support here and there, especially in the face of Just So Much where any gain feels like a loss?)  And that’s not even bringing up the work and Work that will surely need doing once the current situations pass—or, if they don’t, and some of them won’t, the work and Work that will still need doing even then.  Gotta save some spoons for what comes later.

There’s an undercurrent here of everything I’m doing being all the running I can do just to stay in the same place.  Even with a legion of spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods at my back supporting me and uplifting me, there’s just so much to tackle on even such a small scale as my own personal life, even without broader problems that so many of my friends and online colleagues I see suffer routinely or constantly.  Even with keeping to a quiet, daily routine of the same-old same-old, logging into work every day to earn a paycheck to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, it’s hard to not hear the klaxons growing louder every minute and every mundane, routine thing I do seem increasingly, surreally, laughably absurd in comparison, and operating under this kind of farce is tiring.  It gets harder and harder to chop wood and carry water when the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the insidious question arises in my mind: “what happens when there’s no more wood to chop or water to carry?”, not out of a sense of completion, but out of a sense of running out through faults both mine and not my own.  I’m not saying this to complain (maybe a little?), but…even if nothing else, it’s hard to look forward to the future in general with more than a modicum of hope, and even that feels forced more and more often.  None of this is me just being self-pitying and grieving uselessly, but it’s hard to not feel the pressure of everything bearing down with no end in sight, and it gets to everyone at different rates and in different ways.  And, so, I turn to those same spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods in prayer and contemplation as a way to resolve this pressure.

In my various searches through the rich body of Islamic prayers and supplications, I found one that struck a particular chord with me: the Munajāt, or the Whispered Prayer, of Imām `Alı̄ ibn ‘Abī Ṭālib (as) in the Great Mosque of Kūfa.  This supplication attributed to the first Shia imam invoked during the lunar month of Sha`bān is simple, if a bit long (though nowhere near as long as many other such supplications).  The structure of the prayer can be broken down into two movements: the first movement calls upon the blessing of Allāh on the day of the Judgment at the end of time, when all else fails and there is nothing good left in the world, while the second movement calls upon the mercy of Allāh according to his various attributes and epithets, and how the imām relates to Allāh by them (e.g. “you are the Creator and I am the creature…you are the Powerful and I am the weak”).  It’s a touching monologue of a prayer that emphasizes the connection between the divine and the mundane, the immortal and a mortal, the One and a one.  In some ways, it kinda encapsulates a particular kind of mood I often find myself in nowadays.  Not to say that I feel the world is ending, but…when things keep looking like they keep getting worse, when the world looks like it’s all downhill from here, it’s hard to keep the mind from thinking about what it’s like at the bottom of that hill.  Even in the pleasant summer nights that make me pine for a walk on the beach under the stars, wind-rustled dunegrass on my left and moon-soaked seafoam on my right, there’s a poignant and quiet terror laced throughout the humidity that fogs the heart more than it does my glasses.  It’s not the impermanence and dissolution and passing-away of things in a world that constantly changes that I fear, I suppose, but rather the lived process of waiting for it and undergoing it at the slow, painful pace of the day-by-day.

All this reminded me of that infamous part of the famous Hermetic text of the Asclepius, specifically sections 24—26.  In this part of the dialog between Hermēs Trismegistus and his disciples Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, Hermēs begins by praising Egypt as the image of Heaven, and how Egypt is the temple of the whole world, where the gods themselves reside on Earth and where all good order is maintained, and why it is necessary to revere not just God but also humanity made in the likeness of god and the ensouled statues of gods that we ourselves make from divine nature.  “And yet,” Hermēs continues after such praise, “since it befits the wise to know all things in advance,” Hermēs foretells the future of this temple of the world, a harrowing prophecy and prediction of the ultimate fate of Egypt and the world as a whole, a cataclysm and eventual apocalypse that, although ultimately ending in a renewal of all that is beautiful and good, necessitates the utter destruction of everything that is, both by its own hands and by divine impetus.  In some ways, it’s not unlike the Stoic notion of ekpyrosis, the periodic conflagration and destruction of the cosmos that is renewed through palingenesis, or the recreation of all things to start a new cycle—except, when seen from a personal perspective on the ground instead of an academic theoretical one, it’s…well, terrifying, and makes Asclepius weep on the spot in that point in the dialog.  (In some ways, one might argue that more than a fair chunk of the prophecy has been fulfilled, and that we’re well on our way to the rest, at least on some timescale or another.  Such people who argue thus have a point that I can’t really argue against, except maybe vacuously.)

In this, I saw a bit of an opportunity for inspiration to strike, given my recent introduction to the Munajāt.  I did a bit of prayer writing and rewriting, and adapted the Munajāt through a Hermetic lens, substituting the Islamic cataclysm with the Hermetic one from the Asclepius. Instead of using Islamic epithets and names of Allah, I scoured the Hermetic texts for the various epithets and attributes of God with a Hermetic understanding and approach.  Not living in Egypt myself, I spatially generalized the prophecy a bit to take place more generally, but the effect of the wording is the same for me as it might have been for Hermēs and his students.  Nothing new under the Sun, after all.  It’s not my intention to rip off or appropriate the Imām’s prayer, but to make use of it in a way that better befits my own practice, communicating the same sentiment with the same devotion and reverence to, ultimately, the same One.

In keeping with the structure and theme of the Munajāt, there are two movements in this Hermetic rendition of the Whispered Prayer, the first seeking protection and the second seeking mercy. Although it might be odd to see such an emphasis on protection and mercy in a Hermetic prayer to the divine, both of these things are extant in Hermetic texts, too: in the Prayer of Thanksgiving given at the end of the Asclepius, also extant in PGM III as well as the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a plea for “one protection: to preserve me in my present life”, and in Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, when Hermēs describes to Tat the method and means of rebirth, he says that it is unobtainable except for those “to whom God has shown mercy”, and that “whoever though mercy has attained this godly birth and has forsaken bodily sensation recognizes himself as constituted of the intelligibles and rejoices”.  In this, the goal of Poimandrēs as given in the First Book—the end of the Way of Hermēs—is fulfilled.

And, to be frank, both divine protection and divine mercy sound like good things to pray for, both in general and especially now, especially in this admittedly dour mood of mine.  We should pray and work for everything else good, too, to be sure—good health, long life, prosperity, happiness, peace, and all the rest of the things we seek in life—but maybe it’s also appropriate to think about what what we ask for instead when none of that can be found or given.  In this, too, I suppose there is hope; it might be small and distant, but there is still hope, because there is always, and must always be, hope.  Even when all I can eke out is just a whisper of a prayer from my heart, knowing that even the deepest refuge of the strongest sanctuary must one day still fall, that hope that I whisper for is enough and will have to be enough.  So sit satis; let it be enough.

In reciting this prayer, after every supplication, silently recite “Oh God, my God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to us all”.  In keeping with the Munajāt, it is preferable to recite this prayer in a low, hushed, or whispered voice.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all devotion will have been in vain.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all worship will have borne no fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the gods will have abandoned the Earth and returned to Heaven.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all reverence will have fallen into neglect.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the divine teachings will have been mocked as delusion and illusion.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all religion will have been outlawed and all sacred traditions lost.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the reverent will have been executed for the crime of reverence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all temples will have become tombs.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the dead will have outnumbered the living.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when darkness and death will have been preferred to light and life.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the cosmos will have ceased to be revered and honored.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the world will have been filled with barbarity.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the people will have turned to cruelty against each other.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the rivers will have filled and burst with blood.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the lands will have crumbled under stress.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the seas will have ceased to be navigable.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the winds will have stalled lifelessly.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all earth will have become sterile, bearing only withered fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the heavens will have gone dark.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the bodies of heaven will have ceased their courses.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the voices of divinity will have gone silent.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will have ceased to be worshiped and glorified.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will dissolve all the world in flood, fire, and pestilence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will restore the world to worthiness of reverence and wonder.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will return all that is good and sacred to the world.

O God, you are the Father and I am the child;
who else can be merciful to the child except the Father?

O God, you are the Creator and I am the created;
who else can be merciful to the created except the Creator?

O God, you are the Unbegotten and I am the begotten;
who else can be merciful to the begotten except the Unbegotten?

O God, you are the Pervasive and I am the blind;
who else can be merciful to the blind except the Pervasive?

O God, you are the Invisible and I am the mistrustful;
who else can be merciful to the mistrustful except the Invisible?

O God, you are the Good and I am the one the one immersed in evil;
who else can be merciful to the evil except the Good?

O God, you are the Pure and I am the one immersed in defilement;
who else can be merciful to the defiled except the Pure?

O God, you are the Complete and I am the one immersed in deficiency;
who else can be merciful to the deficient except the Complete?

O God, you are the Perfect and I am the one immersed in excess;
who else can be merciful to the excessive except the Perfect?

O God, you are the Still and I am the one immersed in motion;
who else can be merciful to the moved except the Still?

O God, you are the Unchanging and I am the one immersed in change;
who else can be merciful to the changed except the Unchanging?

O God, you are the Imperishable and I am the one immersed in decay;
who else can be merciful to the decaying except the Imperishable?

O God, you are the Beautiful and I am the one immersed in crudity;
who else can be merciful to the crude except the Beautiful?

O God, you are the Ineffable and I am the one immersed in babble;
who else can be merciful to the babbler except the Ineffable?

O God, you are the Cause of Liberation and I am the one immersed in torment;
who else can be merciful to the tormented except the Cause of Liberation?

O God, you are the Cause of Temperance and I am the one immersed in recklessness;
who else can be merciful to the reckless except the Cause of Temperance?

O God, you are the Cause of Virtue and I am the one immersed in vice;
who else can be merciful to the vicious except the Cause of Virtue?

O God, you are the Cause of Truth and I am the one immersed in deceit;
who else can be merciful to the deceived except the Cause of Truth?

O God, you are the Cause of Mind and I am the one immersed in ignorance;
who else can be merciful to the ignorant except the Cause of Mind?

O God, you are the Cause of Life and I am the one immersed in death;
who else can be merciful to the dying except the Cause of Life?

O God, you are the Cause of Light and I am the one immersed in darkness;
who else can be merciful to the darkened except the Cause of Light?

O God, you are the Propitious and I am the one given favor;
who else can be merciful to the one given favor except the Propitious?

O God, you are the Gracious and I am the one given grace;
who else can be merciful to the one given grace except the Gracious?

O God, you are the Merciful and I am the one given mercy;
who else can be merciful to the one given mercy except the Merciful?

O God, you are the Glory of the All and I am the one who is in the All;
only you can be merciful to all in the All, for you are the Glory of the All!

O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me,
and be pleased with me by your mercy, your grace, and your favor,
you who are the source of all mercy, all grace, and all favor!
O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me and to us all!

The Difficulty of Centralizing the Way of Hermēs

I guess I should write a follow-up to that last post about the difficulty of coming up with a set of coherent principles for Hermet(ic)ism.  The main point I was trying to make was that coming up with a short set of overall principles for the Way of Hermēs is really difficult, despite the popularity of such a notion as spread by the Kybalion to make bite-sized pieces of philosophy and spirituality easy to digest.  There are lots of reasons for this, which I brought up in the last post, but the big one is that the notion of a principle is (as defined by Dictionary.com) “a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived”.  This sounds all well and good, and it’s reasonable that we should want and strive to come up with some Hermetic principles to arrange for the study of Hermet(ic)ism and the Hermetic canon, but the problem I kept running into was that everything seemed to be contradicted at one point or another by the very texts those principles are supposed to derive from and summarize.  This isn’t so much a problem of the principalizers as it is the things to be principled; it’s a known fact that the Hermetic texts are not consistent among themselves, even by their own admission, by the very nature of what it is they teach and how they go about teaching it.

First, why should we want principles?  As we mentioned earlier, we have a notion of κεφαλαὶα, “chapter headings” as it were, brief gnomic statements about doctrine which often serve as mnemonics and fundamental…well, principles that other Hermetic texts work on expounding.  There are two excellent sets of such statements at our disposal—the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius on the one hand and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment on the other—but there are about fifty such statements in each, and are often paradoxical, supremely terse and soaked with deeper meaning, and not exactly as memorable or catchy as the well-known (but faulty) “Seven Hermetic Principles” from the Kybalion.  To an extent, that really should be okay; as I’ve said before, the study of the Hermetic texts and of the Way of Hermēs generally is going to be a difficult process, just as the Hermetic texts themselves say, not because of how they’re written (through choice and style of translations can make it more difficult), but because of the very subject matter itself.  Even for those for whom the doors to the Way of Hermēs were built, the way is hard and long to walk.  To try to simplify everything into bite-sized things can be useful at times, but we should remember that a sugary snack is no replacement for a hearty meal.  Substituting a handful of Hermetic principles for the deeper lessons and lectures and logoi we should be studying and contemplating might be nice at times, but that’s not the same as actually doing the Work needed.  There’s a world of difference between a simple, high-level, abbreviated awareness of a concept, and fully understanding, comprehending, and grokking it, and the use of simple pithy principles does not help us accomplish that.  It might get us started, if at all, but simply remembering a pithy phrase is not the same thing as having actual wisdom to back it up.

But let’s say that we still want principles to write about, and let’s assume we have a good reason for their writing.  We still run into the problem of principles being contradicted by the very texts they’re supposed to be principles for; we still have the problem of a lack of consistency across the Hermetic canon for all but the broadest and highest-level of notions.  At that point, though, such statements would end up being neither particularly informative nor particularly helpful nor particularly distinct to Hermet(ic)ism.  This forces us to take a look at these contradictions and inconsistencies in the Hermetic texts, which forces us to realize that…well, Hermet(ic)ism isn’t just a single thing, not a single doctrine held by a single group, not a single practice implemented by a single temple, not a single lineage with a single source.  There are hints in the Hermetic texts of a variety of different views and standpoints, where the way the text is phrased suggests setting the specific author apart from the other views (sometimes as polemic, sometimes as correction, sometimes as an actual viewpoint held by other Hermetic groups, sometimes as views held by other traditions as incorrect views, sometimes a viewpoint made an example of without being seriously considered as being Hermetic):

  • A purely monist view of creation versus a dualist one.
  • A view of the cosmos that begins from a dualist standpoint to a monist one, versus one that begins from a monist standpoint to a dualist one.
  • Groups who proclaim direct descent from Hermēs through Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, and groups who proclaim indirect descent from Hermēs through Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
  • Monotheistic versus polytheistic stances on God or the demiurge.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of the demiurge as relating to corruption and vice in the world.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of asceticism and abstaining from sex and reproduction.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of making material offerings to divinity, and in specific contexts.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of using magic to rectify or change things in the cosmos.
  • A view that in reincarnation the human soul can reincarnate into animals versus one that prohibits such a view.
  • A view that God is capable of sensation and understanding in the world versus one that prohibits such a view.

We see a variety of these differences in different Hermetic texts, and not just the philosophical Hermetica, but the technical Hermetica, too, depending on the specific genre of text, the specific time period it was written in, the presence of the influence of specific other traditions, and the like.  We see this not just in classical Hermetic texts, but in pretty much other texts right up through into the modern day.  While some of these viewpoints were argued against as a point to make about what’s Hermetic and what’s not Hermetic, some of these were also argued against as a point to make about what’s good Hermet(ic)ism and what’s bad Hermet(ic)ism, and it’s not always clear which is which.  What we end up with is, frankly, a mess, but there is one clear answer that arises from it like shining Harpocratēs on the lotus from the mud: there is no one single Way of Hermēs, but a whole bunch of such ways.  What we end up with is that there is not one single Hermet(ic)ism; what we end up with is a set of texts that are a collection of a survival of loosely-affiliated Hermet(ic)isms that did not always agree on the finer points of doctrine and practice.

I suppose the drive to have the “one true Way” is as strong with me as it is with others, and has been since the dawn of Hermēs Trismegistus in this light.  I recall some snarky comment on (probably?) Reddit—I don’t remember who made it, just the basic gist of the comment—that people are going to argue over whatever they think is Hermeticism that day.  And I admit that I do that, too; heck, my recent rant about relabling myself as a Hermetist and leaving the Hermeticist label behind is myself telling on myself that I have my view on what constitutes the “real” Way of Hermēs.  But, then, so did the authors of the Hermetic canon themselves, though they all use the mask of Hermēs or one of his disciples to teach.  While this was the custom at the time, to be sure, to ascribe all good, approved, traditionally-sourced knowledge to the god who was the font of all suck knowledge, we also have to admit that it gives us a false sense of unity that quickly falls apart based on what we have available to us, both in how little we have as well as in how much we have.

In almost any real-world scenario, when we want to get from Point A to Point B, we often have many ways to choose from to accomplish such a trip.  Though some might consider the shortest, most direct path to be the “correct” one like on an IQ test, let’s be honest: the way you get there doesn’t so much matter so long as getting there is.  Whether you walk the most direct path on foot or drive a cart for a more scenic path or take the bus along a preplanned route, whether you go straight to your destination or hit up other destinations along the way, whether you like taking only left turns or avoid taking any left turn at all, so long as you get from Point A to Point B to accomplish what you originally set out to do, that’s what matters more in the end, so long as you end up making your destination.  While I can point out the distinctions and departures any particular Hermetic (or, in some cases, “Hermetic”, quotes intentional) path might depart from that described by (whatever chunks of the Hermetic canon are consistent amongst themselves), the fact that they take such a path from A to B for the same underlying reasons is good enough to claim the Hermetic title for themselves.  Sure, they might not be classically Hermetist in their approach and would rather take a more modern Hermeticist approach, but that’s still just one approach out of many under the broader umbrella of the Ways of Hermēs.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this with some sort of BS climax saying “yanno, maybe the Kybalion is alright in the end”, because it’s not; that’s still a New Thought text, not a Hermetic text except in cases of sheer coincidence where Atkinson took a break from lauding himself for sharing such “secret”, “ancient” knowledge out of the goodness of his heart to actually make a point about New Thought dolled up in faux-Hermetic drag.  (Quite the opposite, really, as we’ll get to eventually.) What I’m saying is that when it comes to the matter of coming up with principles for the Hermetic texts…maybe we’ve got it backwards, and that’s where we’re coming into problems.  That’s the distinction between the kephalaía statements and principles, because the kephalaía statements were the seeds of texts that had to be nourished to flourish into a beautiful garden, while here we are trying to make a jar of reduced jam from the fruit of such texts when not all such texts make compatible fruit.  Principles are supposed to be things from which we derive other truths, not to be merely summaries of existing ones.  Principles establish the guideposts and landmarks and directions to take on a given Way, but a difference in principles will set you up from a different Way than someone else who has different principles, even if both are derived from the same collection of texts.  This can’t really be avoided; without going through some super complex and arcane (and more than likely roughshod and ramshackle) effort to harmonize conflicting teachings on their surface (because all such teachings will be true at some point or another for some people and not others, all pointing the way towards a deeper truth of an ultimately ineffable Truth), you’re going to have to “pick sides” as it were.  This means that, although I call all these texts collectively “the Hermetic canon”, you’ve got to make a move here to say what’s really canonical or not.  A better term for all this is simply Hermetica, or Hermetic corpus (not to be confused with the Corpus Hermeticum), perhaps, with “Hermetic canon” being the specific texts one holds as consistent with each other and true or with elisions and explanations to deal with the things that aren’t consistent with the rest, but in the end, the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow.

Let me say that again: the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow—and, thus, the Way you’re planning to teach and guide others on, as well.  When you establish a set of principles, you end up making a new Way, whether you intend to or not, and that should only be done after great thought and deliberation in the process.  Otherwise, the Way you establish by means of those principles can be more dangerous, deceptive, repetitive, or misleading than you intend it to be.  In making canon, we use cannons; be careful where you aim, and be careful of collateral damage in the process.  I’m not saying that you can’t make a set of principles as guiding statements for (your preferred brand of) Hermet(ic)ism, but that you need to be supremely cautious that, in doing so, you don’t lose sight of where you’re coming from, where you’re heading to, how you’re getting there, and why you’re heading there at all, and that it all still looks, smells, and feels enough like other Ways of Hermēs to still be a Way of Hermēs itself.  After all, Hermēs is the god of all roads and all paths, and is the teacher of all students; he can teach you in any way, but only the way that is best for you.  If you’re going to take that role of Hermēs upon yourself for others, then you better know what you’re doing, because a faulty guide gets everyone lost.

I suppose this is one reason (out of many) for my own difficulty in trying to come up with “Hermetic principles”: I’m still learning, studying, and contemplating the classical Hermetic texts too much, and want to try to get at the deeper truth from all angles of each, to take a side just yet on any of them.  It’s why I don’t feel ready enough to make a judgment on the worthiness of any particular Hermetic text, at least within the bounds of that which was written up to and including the Emerald Tablet, after which my own interest in practice and belief wanes—again, a conscious choice I make on my part, and perhaps the only solid one I make regarding the broader notion of “Hermetic literature”, and which centers my view of Hermet(ic)ism on the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica, at least for the purpose of illustrating the overall Way as opposed to specific vehicles or directions to take on any given way, whether of Hermēs or otherwise.  It’s why I don’t feel at the proper point to proclaim what my recommend guideposts, landmarks, and directions on the Way of Hermēs should be, because I’m still figuring that out for myself and haven’t reached my destination yet to look back and see what can be said about the way I took to get there.  It’s why I like just pointing to Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum as my own sort of Hermetic “Heart Sutra” that I think should be the first Hermetic text one reads, because I feel that it’s a good summary of the Way of Hermēs as anything else without being too long, too obscure, or too challenging while also giving a good, high-level view of the Way that doesn’t have polemics against other quasi- or non-Hermetic ideas and which doesn’t have polemics against it elsewhere in the Hermetic canon.  In this, I suppose that Book III, “the Sacred Discourse of Hermēs”, is my preferred bedrock of the Hermetic life—and thus provides a ready, premade set of principles of its own.  (In addition to the kephalaía of the Definitions and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, of course.)

Not to overplay the song of the target of my disdain too much, but this matter of principles is fundamentally the substantial reason why I consider the Kybalion to not be Hermetic, in addition to its non-Hermetic origin.  Not only do the “Seven Hermetic Principles” not appear in any legitimate Hermetic text (classical or otherwise), but they all point to aspects of doctrine, none of which are written in a way that makes sense in the original contexts of Hermetic literature, and none of which are particularly Hermetic even when they aren’t outright contradicted by Hermetic texts, all without actually setting a goal or purpose.  In that, the Kybalion can be considered no more than that one miscellany drawer we all have at our desk or in our kitchen full of trash and knickknacks; some might be able to turn it into a toolbox of miscellaneous (and poorly-made, vague, undefined, indefinite) tools, but without any clear purpose for what those tools can be used for besides feel-good solipsistic “The Secret”-esque navel-gazing.  This is direct contrast to the ultimate goals of the Way of Hermēs, said in no uncertain terms from the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and Stobaean Fragments (SH):

  • To show devotion (SH IIb.2)
  • To join reverence with knowledge (CH VI.5)
  • To not be evil (CH XII.23)
  • To enter into God so as to become God (CH I.26)

I refrain from calling these “principles” because, while these are all things that aren’t contradicted by other parts of the Hermetic canon, I’m not sure that these are sufficient to serve as axioms or declarations of truth from which other concepts can derive.  I’m not saying that this is all that there is along these lines, either, but these are sufficient to illustrate what the whole point of Hermet(ic)ism is about.  Thus, they point to a destination, an incontrovertibly Hermetic one in the truest sense as being part of the entire Hermetic literature—if not perhaps more than a little vague—but a destination, all the same, which is nowhere found in the Kybalion.  Can one use the Kybalion in a Hermetic fashion?  Sure, but that’s because of you, not because of the book, and so that’s you making the book a Hermetic aid, not the book being Hermetic in and of itself.  This is also why I center the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica to illustrate the Way of Hermēs, because the technical Hermetica can be used in non-Hermetic contexts and can be used in ways contrary to these statements; in this light, the Kybalion can be considered a sort of abstract technical text with quasi-philosophical elements, but that still doesn’t make it Hermetic.

Again, without calling these four statements “principles”, it is (in addition to a notion of being revealed by Hermēs Trismegistus for the sake of the well-being of humanity and their spiritual rejoining with God) a way to gauge how Hermetic something really is based on its claims, philosophies, theology, and practices.  And, barring other polemics, I think maybe these four statements can help us remember the goal that all of us who follow one of the myriad Ways of Hermēs work towards, and which can unite us all in singular purpose.  The specific roads might differ, but so long as we get to the same place in the end, there’s nothing truly wrong about it.

The Difficulty of Principalizing the Way of Hermēs

In my downtime between chores, ritual work, office work (done at home as it is), I’ve been mulling over a lot lately and quietly when it comes to talking about the Way of Hermēs, which is my preferred way to call what many are more familiar with as Hermeticism, or Hermetism, to be more exact.  And I feel…honestly, I feel pretty daunted about this particular topic, not just because of the extreme breadth and depth of it all, but because of how difficult it can be to correlate everything together in a neat, clean, organized way.

Not too long ago, Nick Farrell made a blog post called The Real Hermetic Principles, which is his attempt to come up with a set of guiding principles or axioms about the cosmos and the spiritual practices that evolve from them to replace what people popularly (and wrongly) consider to  be the “Seven Hermetic Principles” as found in the Kybalion (and nowhere else in the Hermetic canon, I might add).  I applaud Nick’s effort, though I take issue with a few of these principles of his, especially his principle #5, that “the macrocosm and microcosm influence each other (as above so below); the planetary spheres are a Microcosm of the Divine Sphere and Nature is a microcosm for the planetary macrocosm”.  The notion of “as above, so below” comes from the Emerald Tablet, which (most likely) postdates the rest of the classical Hermetic corpus (Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, etc.) by a few centuries, and although the idea seems reasonable, there are plenty of counterpoints made in the Hermetic canon that refute this notion of both influencing the other, where the higher influences the lower but the lower does not influence the higher in the same way.  They can resemble each other, sure, but resemblance is not the same thing as influence.  I’m not saying that one can’t use the notion of “as above, so below” as a Hermetic concept in some way, but doing so requires care in order to keep continuity and coherence with the rest of actual extant Hermetic belief.

But therein lies a problem: although I treat the “Hermetic canon” as one set of literature equivalent to a Bible of sorts, it’s important to realize what these texts are and are not, what they do and do not do.  And one thing the Hermetic canon isn’t is consistent.  I mean, consider the opening paragraph of Book XVI of the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation), in a letter from Asclepius to Ammon:

I have sent you a long discourse, my king, as a sort of reminder or summary of all the others; it is not meant to agree with vulgar opinion but contains much to refute it. That it contradicts even some of my own discourses will be apparent to you. My teacher, Hermes—often speaking to me in private, sometimes in the presence of Tat—used to say that those reading my books would find their organization very simple and clear when, on the contrary, it is unclear and keeps the meaning of its words concealed…

It’s easy to just read the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and so forth and so on, but without actual meditation, unpacking, and contemplation of the texts, they’ll simply seem like some sort of classical pop occulture.  After all, our notion of “intellectual understanding” is not a classical one; to the ancients, the notion of “intellect” was something much more profound and all-encompassing than a mere surface-level, quasi-Apollonian awareness of something.  And when one looks at a single Hermetic text in isolation, like a single book of the Corpus Hermeticum or a single Stobaean Fragment, all is well and good, but when one starts to look at the broader picture, we run into difficulties with inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes that make trying to hold all of the Hermetic canon in our minds at the same time impossible.

There are a few major things to bear in mind when we read the Hermetic texts:

  1. What we have as our Hermetic canon is only that which survived the cruel knife of history.  We know for a fact that there was much more Hermetic literature written and produced in classical times than what we have nowadays, and we know that what we have is only what survives, and even then not always in a complete form.  While hopefully further classical Hermetic literature will come to light, either in part or in whole, we have to be aware that we’ll likely never have access to all the texts that we find references to otherwise.
  2. There wasn’t one single Hermetic school or lineage.  Although there’s much in common between all the Hermetic texts, there’s evidence in the very texts themselves of different Hermetic groups that contributed bits and pieces to the Hermetic canon, and evidence as well of polemics and debates and disagreements between those groups.  Just as in other things, there was no monolithic, centralized authority on what was or was not Hermetic back in the day.
  3. Even if we were to take the Hermetic canon as a more-or-less continuous single “thing”, we still run into the fact that we see some major difficulties even on a pretty fundamental level, such as the goodness or badness of the cosmos.  Modern scholars of Hermetic works, such as Garth Fowden or Christian Bull, posit that these inconsistencies point to the notion of the Way of Hermēs as a progressive thing, either going from a monist to dualist viewpoint (Fowden’s theory) or a dualist to monist one (Bull’s theory).

What we end up with is a notion that the Hermetic texts are not a single thing, even though there’s plenty in common in underlying thought between these texts, because the whole of the Hermetic tradition (even limiting ourselves to a classical Hermetist stance) isn’t a single, static thing.  There’s a reason why I call this the “Way of Hermēs”, because it really is a way, a process towards divinity.  This isn’t a single philosophy or a single religion, but something more like a meta-philosophy or meta-religion, something that goes on at a different level either behind the scenes or beyond the outward practice of discourse and cult.  What we have as the Hermetic texts, most of which is representative of back-and-forth dialog between master and student, are more indicative of an ongoing upraising (both in the conventional sense as well as the metaphorical sense), and because of that, we have to understand that not everyone is going to be ready for the same notions or ideas at the same time.  A single “Hermetic catechism” that lays it all out bare would seem to go against this notion, because not everyone would be able to understand it all, and need to go through a process of expounding and understanding (a very old school form of “solve et coagula”) in order to get there.

For instance, consider Fowden’s and Bull’s theories on dualistic versus monistic Hermetic beliefs.  It’s a fact that some of the Hermetic texts seem to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of the world of creation we live in, seeing it as worthy of veneration and adoration, while others consider it in a more gnostic light of it being evil and something to be shunned and departed from.  Fowden posits that the Way of Hermēs begins with a monistic stance that proceeds to a dualist one, while Bull has it the other way around.  From Christian Bull’s paper Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism (Aries (15), 2015, pp.109—135):

Another central question in the scholarship on Hermetism regards the internal doctrinal consistency between the various treatises ascribed to Hermes and his disciples; to wit, a reader of the Hermetica in toto faces conflicting injunctions as to how one should view the world and one’s place in it. Early scholars such as Thaddeus Zielinski and Wilhelm Bousset maintained that there were two main groups of texts, containing mutually exclusive teachings: the “Gnostic”, dualistic, and pessimistic texts, and, on the other hand, the “philosophical”, monistic, and optimistic texts (while a third set of texts mixed the two tendencies). This distinction was further elaborated by perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential scholar of Hermetism, André-Jean Festugière. However, the theory has been challenged in the last three decades by Garth Fowden and Jean-Pierre Mahé, who both consider the different texts to belong to various stages on a cohesive “Way of Hermes”, an initiatory way of spiritual formation. In the view of both of these authors, this way would lead the candidate from initially seeing the cosmos as good, an image of god, and then progressively develop a more negative view on matter, the body, and the world, ostensibly no longer important for the upward journey of the soul. This theory of a way of Hermes has so far not been seriously challenged, although Tage Petersen questioned the usability of the term dualism for the texts commonly so-called, and instead postulated an overriding monistic tendency even in these texts. For my own part, I have suggested that the way in fact moves from a pedagogical dualism, in which the disciple is taught to alienate himself from the body and the world, so as to be able to achieve visionary experiences on the higher stages of the way, at which point the value of the body and the world is reaffirmed.

In this way, I think the notion of a progressive Way is useful to understand what Hermet(ic)ism “is”, and not just for this monist/dualist bit, but for much else as well.  It’s like the Buddhist parable of the raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta combined with the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra, in that we need to use and phrase things the right way for the right person for them to develop the right way, but only when it’s right for them; any earlier, and we might not lead them or develop them in the right way (or even do harm), but any later and the value of it will be diminished or pointless having already served its purpose.  This is much like what Asclepius tells Ammon in his letter from Book XVI: “earlier I taught this, but what I’m about to tell you now is going to contradict that”, because at this point, Ammon is ready to be revealed a deeper truth that couldn’t be contained in the earlier teachings.  In other words, while general truths can be taught in general teachings, more nuanced and subtle truths cannot.  It’s like learning physics: introductory physics uses simple models that account for things in an ideal sense, but more advanced and applied physics often require different models that would go against the simpler ones to account for more meaningful or profound contexts.

All this to say that trying to think of Hermet(ic)ism, the Way of Hermēs, in terms of a handful of “principles” is surprisingly really hard to do.

Now, I’m not saying it can’t be done, and there’s already a historical parallel for this, even in the Hermetic texts themselves: that of the κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” (sometimes translated as “principles”).  We see this most clearly in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (as given in English by J.P. Mahé in Clement Salaman’s Way of Hermēs and which I expounded on on my blog years ago) as well as in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, but all of these are rather long lists of gnomic, sometimes paradoxical statements.  The purpose of these kephalaía are to act as the “chapter headings”, as it were, of other discourses, the fundamental points that would need to be borne in mind in the context of other talks or topics, and each of which would be expounded in other discourses and lessons.  In many cases, many of these kephalaía are found in extant discourses (especially the Definitions), and suggests that they’re of an older date than the later Hermetic texts, with those texts written to expound on (or at least reference) those given kephalaía.  So it’s not like it has always been impossible to come up with a set of principles or axioms to bear in mind when it comes to Hermetic studies, but with about 50 such statements made each in the Definitions and in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, they’re not going to be as catchy or as memorable necessarily as the Kybalion’s made-up stuff.

Going back to that Christian Bull paper I linked to earlier, Bull brings up another perspective: six “central elements of esotericism” present in the Hermetic canon.  These are based on the work of the earlier scholar Antoine Faivre, who studied the various currents of Western esotericism after the 1400s CE to provide a set of themes that various Western esoteric traditions fulfill.  In a Hermetic context, only the first four are truly necessary, with the latter two being supplied as additional elements which

  1. Correspondence: everything is mystically connected, with the divine Above represented through symbols as well as emanations into the worldly Below.
  2. Living Nature: nature is animated by a central force that can be tapped into through sympathies found in the occult/hidden virtues of things and works in the world.
  3. Imagination and Mediation: the student imagines with their mind (Nous) the forces that connect the cosmos, and such imagined symbols can be used to mediate between the student, nature, and divinity, and thereby to become divine.
  4. Transmutation (Rebirth): the inner being of the student is transmuted (reborn) through rites of initiation and/or esoteric knowledge, estranging themselves from the world and the life they have known to be reborn as something new to properly “live in the world without being a part of it”, a sort of “solve et coagula” of the soul and whole of the human being.
  5. Concordance: there is a common core to all religions derived from the perennial philosophy or prisca theologica, present in all humanity due to their divine element (Logos), but which can only be fully realized through following the Way of Hermēs (by means of the Nous).  We see this in the syncretic background blending Greek and Egyptian elements with other input from other traditions, giving Hermet(ic)ism that whole “meta” quality of both religion and philosophy.
  6. Transmission: esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple in a chain going back to an authoritative source, providing a sense of continuity that allows for future generations to have the same mysteries as older generations.

There are issues with this use of principalization leading to reification of esotericism, of which Hermet(ic)ism is just one example and emanation, which Bull goes on to discuss at length.  Still, using Faivre’s model of esotericism isn’t a bad start to think of the Way of Hermēs so long as one can also understand their proper place and context.  Bull is more a fan of Hugh B. Urban’s notion of three principles that can be seen to better understand the phenomena of esotericism, instead:

  1. The creation of a private social space
  2. The claim to possess deeper insights into canonical texts than outsiders
  3. Rites of initiation designed to create a new human being, which is a prerequisite to gain access to the social space and deeper insights

For the sake of understanding what Hermet(ic)ism is, Bull prefers Urban’s model of three principles over Faivre’s model of six principles because of the difference in what they focus on: Faivre focuses on matters of doctrine, while Urban focuses on matters of strategy.  And it’s this distinction that makes all the difference between viewing Hermet(ic)ism as a destination versus as a path:

Widely dissimilar doctrines can be used as part of similar social strategies, which therefore have a more universal, cross-culturally comparative potential. By considering esotericism as a strategy for a group and its members to gain social prestige we can come closer to the lived reality of the humans behind the texts, instead of becoming lost in their (often convoluted) metaphysical speculations. This is especially so in the case of the Hermetica, where the actual authors have totally disappeared behind the pseudonym of Hermes Trismegistus and his associates; since we have little external evidence of the lived reality of Hermetism, we must try to deduce it from the social strategies we perceive to be at work in the texts.

The issue with this approach, however, is that unless you’re in an actual lodge or circle or some other thing, that first point is basically moot for us; many of us (especially me) discuss Hermet(ic)ism openly without such a secret, esoteric, restricted group to teach things in, and are largely independent of one another as individuals.  To be sure, this is far from being the case across the board, and there are definitely Hermetist/Hermeticist teachers who take people and initiate them and teach them as needed and as appropriate, but perhaps not so widely on the same level as it might have been back in classical times (or even a hundred or so years ago).  As a result, matters and rites of initiation, except for the few Golden Dawn and Thelemic lodges that survive, don’t mean much unless you’re just focused on your own personal growth and development, and that doesn’t necessarily come about through a single big ritual (and even then, a Way is still composed not only of opening the door but taking many small steps afterward, as well).

Trying to sift and sort out the issues in doctrine, as Bull pointed out, is a major problem for anyone who wants to try to “principalize” Hermet(ic)ism, because there’s rarely a unity of doctrine that one can neatly summarize without also needing to immediately get into the weeds to clarify when those principles hold and when not.  Some super high-level stuff can be said, sure, like Garth Fowden’s summary of the doctrines of the cosmos in The Egyptian Hermes:

God is one, and the creator of all things, which continue to depend on God as elements in a hierarchy of beings. Second in this hierarchy after God himself comes the intelligible world, and then the sensible world. The creative and beneficent powers of God flow through the intelligible and sensible realms to the sun, which is the demiurge around which revolve the eight spheres of the fixed stars, the planets and the earth. From these spheres depend the daemons, and from the daemons Man, who is a microcosm of creation. Thus everything is part of God, and God is in everything, his creative activity continuing unceasingly. All things are one and the pleroma of being is indestructible.

This sounds all extremely reasonable, at least until when you consider some of the Stobaean Fragments which say in no uncertain terms that “once [God] created, ceased creating, and does not create at present” (SH V.1), that there’s the ninth sphere of the decans underneath a tenth (and outermost) sphere of the Primum Mobile which exerts influence and power on all the planets including the Sun (SH VI.3—9), and so forth.  Again, we run into issues of doctrine, which could result either from working from the ideas of different Hermetic groups that may not have seen eye-to-eye on these matters, or from trying to figure out when it’s proper to actually bring up or teach about the decans and how important they really are.  Again, a general idea can be stated as an all-around principle, so long as there are plenty of asterisks to mark it with for exceptions and edge cases.

Maybe I’m just letting perfect be the enemy of the good here, and maybe I’ve lost sight of the importance of beginner’s models that are a lie but useful ones to get started with.  After all, nobody starts off in a physics 101 course trying to account for every possible variable and fluctuation, but they start with simple models with only a few terms to get an idea of the simplest base case first, and it’s only once those are fully understood is further complexity introduced.  But I also feel like that undermines the whole notion of what a principle is, a statement of truth that can guide and lead us in our ways, in the Way.  Maybe, then, it’s improper to make principles about doctrine based on the Hermetic texts, and perhaps then it’d be better to make principles about practice instead. And even then, perhaps that, too, is too changeable and changing in order to say anything concrete about.  But, I mean…if the ancients could make kephalaía-type statements about individual bits or bobs of Hermetic ideas and practice, why does it seem so hard to make one big kephálaios for it all?  There is the whole of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum that I like, but even then…hm.  Even the Emerald Tablet, which is getting to be a bit late in the game to be representative of Hermetism (after all, “as above, so below” appears nowhere in the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, Definitions, or other classical Hermetic texts, although similar more nuanced notions do crop up), seems too obscure and metaphorical to offer much in the way of concrete, clear principles.

More to think about, to be sure, and this is something I want to keep mulling over.  I mean, it really is the work and mark of a true master to simplify something, and I’m far from a master in this; between needing more study, meditation, and contemplation and needing more just outright experience, it’s clear even to myself that I’m not sure what a set of reasonable principles should look like, if anything at all.  If nothing else, this is where we can see the whole Hermēs-as-god influence comes in, both as guide and as trickster, ever-shifting and ever-flowing, always leading to truth in the essence without necessarily being true in the instant.

Thoughts on Incarnation

“What does incarnation mean to you?  What does it mean for you to be incarnate?”

A straightforward question, I suppose, posed to me by one of my spirits, yet one that is anything but straightforward for me to answer.  I’ve been mulling over the question for over a week now, and coming up with any semblance of a coherent answer is challenging.  I mean, by definition, incarnation is literally to be born in a physical body, right?  Etymologically, it’s a Latin derivation, from in- plus caro “flesh”.  We’re spirits having a material experience, to use the new age saying, but there’s so much more to it than that, isn’t there?

I’ve been mulling over the Hermetic canon a lot lately, and I suppose I could pull bits and pieces out from that about the role of the body and the relationship between the body and the soul, and why humans are born in bodies at all to begin with.  There’s plenty in the Corpus Hermeticum and Stobaean Fragments and other parts of the Hermetic canon that talk about the fall of mankind in one sense or another, the proving-ground that is incarnate reality to obtain Mind and practice devotion and piety, how Fate affects the body but not the soul unless the soul permits it to affect it, and the like, but…something about that approach seems false to me to answer this question.  It’s all informative, sure, but something about this question posed to me necessitates a more personal exploration that integrates that information into a real, substantial answer rather than just regurgitating what I can pick up or gleam uncritically from the old texts.  It may not be enough to come up with a good answer, but maybe if I can come up with just an answer, it’ll be enough to start with.

I suppose that, in many ways, coincidence is more of a false myth than most of magic is: if things happen, they happen because something else happened, and there’s typically a reason for it happening.  Sure, there are some things that just arise from the craziness of the world as a logical consequence of it, and at a shallow level we might call that “coincidence”, but as a magician/priest/spiritualist who believes that the whole of the cosmos is full of spirits, there’s always stuff happening at every level, and even if we humans—puny, fragile, expendable mortals that we are—can’t see all that deeply into the waters of the cosmos, that doesn’t mean there’s no root cause to something.  So, it’s reasonable to me to think, then, that if something happens, there’s both a reason why and a cause by which it happened.  It then follows that, because incarnation is something that happens, then it happens for a reason; because my incarnating into this body happened (and continuously happens, I suppose), it happened (and happens) for a reason.  After all, consider the Mahābhārata or so many of the Hellenic myths of the gods taking on mortal form—incarnating, in one sense or another, especially in the Hindu myths of Viṣṇu where he’s literally born, lives, and dies as a god in mortal form, as well as the myth of Jesus being God incarnate.  They all do so for a purpose, according to a plan executed through incarnation for some greater goal or aim.  Granted, I’m no god, and I’m not nearly as aware as anything so grandiose to be attained by means of my own incarnation, but perhaps the logic can be extended: we’re born for a purpose, not as some chance and meaningless happenstance of the mechanics of the cosmos.

That we’re phrasing it as “incarnation” at all supposes that there are two elements here: an immaterial soul and a material body.  Incarnation, then, is the inhabiting of the body by the soul—or some other aggregate of consciousness and awareness, depending on the system of belief and cosmology you’re looking at (like Buddhism, which professes anātman as there being no unchanging, permanent self/soul/essence in phenomena, which is why there’s generally only a notion of rebirth in Buddhism as opposed to reincarnation).  As a Hermetist, I take the existence of the soul as a given, which means that for my soul to have been incarnated in this body, there should be a reason.  So that means that there’s a purpose for my being incarnate in this world.  Relevant bits and pieces from the Hermetic canon along these lines state things related to this that do inform something about this:

  • (SH 2B) In order to live one’s life well, one should show devotion to God, which is the highest height of philosophy, and without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion.  The goal of devotion, then, is to “know the place of truth and its nature”: to learn the “nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose”, for one who learns these things will show thanks to the Creator as “a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator”, for one “who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good”.  In doing so, one will “live well and die blessed”, since this informs the soul “of where it should wing its upward flight”; this is how one can attain the Good.
  • (SH 6) It is impossible for someone incarnate to obtain the vision of God; it can only be done in a discarnate state, but in order to do so, one must “exercise one’s soul down here first to arrive up there where it can behold and not stray from the path”.
  • (SH 18) Soul is composed four things: mind (Nous), reason (Logos), intellect, and discursive thought.  Discursive thought itself is composed to opinion and sensation, but are changeable, and “experience excess, deficiency, and non-identity”; these alone vary and mislead, but when governed by discursive thought, they result in valid judgments about the world.
  • (SH 19 and 20) Soul is inherently bodiless, and is the cause of existence of other things, i.e. the body, and so is prior to the body.  Souls have reason and mind, which bodies do not have on their own, and endow a body with reason and mind by virtue of the soul within it, which provides it life.  Souls receive such bodies as agree with the soul, although the body itself is tempered according to its nativity.
  • (CH 3) As we noted before, the heavenly and divine powers “created every soul incarnate” to do eight things: to contemplate Heaven, to contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods, to contemplate the works of God, to contemplate the working of Nature, to examine the things that are good, to know the power of God, to know the whirling changes of fair and foul, and to discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good.  This is in addition to the seven things that the gods bid us to do with our bodies: to know the works of God, to be a working witness to Nature, to increase the number of mankind, to master all things under Heaven, to know that which is Good, to increase by increasing, and to multiply by multiplying.
  • (CH 4) God did not give mind (Nous) to all people (despite the wording of other parts of the Hermetic canon, but as we know, they’re neither held to be nor needed to be internally consistent as one’s progress on the “way of Hermes” advances), but “put [Nous] between souls…as a prize for them to contest”, daring/commanding humans to “immerse yourself in the mixing bowl [of Nous] if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be”.  Those who did, good; those who didn’t are considered to be “people of reason” (as opposed to people of reason and mind), and “do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be”.  What that purpose of coming to be is not here specified, except in broader terms related to knowing God and creation in general, and seeking that knowledge is the Way.  Consider that famous saying attributed to Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  To allow the soul to flourish means to divert attention away from the body; “unless you first hate your body…you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn”.
  • (CH 10) The vice of the soul is ignorance, which makes the soul to be “shaken by the passions” of the body, making it a slave to the body, being ruled by the body instead of ruling it (which is proper); the virtue of the soul is knowledge.  By pursuing and integrating knowledge, the quality of a human’s soul becomes more and more refined until it enters into the “troop of the gods”, which is the “soul’s most perfect glory”, enabling it to look on the beauty of the Good.  This deification, however, which is “the changes that belong to any separated [i.e. discarnate refined] soul”, is not possible “while in a human body”.  This is tied up in the “only deliverance” for humanity, “the knowledge of god”, which is equivalent to the “ascent to Olympus”.  The soul tends to forget, which leads to its vice of ignorance, once the body drags the soul down to a material level, though before the body could do so, the soul was considered pristine and beautiful, closer to the very soul of the cosmos without being “sullied by the passions of the body”.  The whole vehicle of this deliverance of the soul is mind (Nous), because “without mind, soul…can neither say nor accomplish anything”, yet mind “often flies out of soul” because the mind “cannot endure” in a “sluggish soul”, unlike the soul which can not only endure but is outright entrapped by a body.
  • (CH 11) “To be ignorant of the divine is the ultimate vice”, for one who has “shut your soul up in the body and abase it” has nothing to do with God.  “To be able to know, to will, and to hope is the straight and easy way leading to the good”.
  • (Asclepius 12) “…this is the payment for those who live faithfully under God, who live attentively with the world.  For the unfaithful it goes differently: return to heaven is denied them, and a vile migration unworthy of a holy soul puts them in other [lesser] bodies…it seems that souls run a great risk in this earthly life regarding hope of eternity to come.”

And on and on.  The general idea from the Hermetic canon regarding the function of incarnation (if not its purpose) is to train the soul to become more fit to more fully understand, comprehend, and know God, and thus come to know ourselves more in the process, because knowledge is the virtue of the soul.  But, if the soul is weighed down by the body, and if the soul is more pristine and more and closer to divinity when outside the body, and if the soul only becomes forgetful when bogged down by the body which leads it into ignorance which triggers a negative feedback loop upon the nature of the soul, then why should souls be incarnated at all?  Why should we have been incarnated to begin with?

I should mention that most of the final Stobaean Fragments (SH 23—26), more commonly known as the Korē Kosmou or “Virgin of the World”, does touch on a “Hermetic” fall-of-mankind story, and I can see why it’s Hermetic, as anyone else can, given that Isis is considered to be a pupil of Hermēs Trismegistus and passes on his wisdom as interlocutor to her son Horus.  But…so much of the Korē Kosmou is of a radically different tone, style, and framework that it’s hard to reconcile it cleanly with the rest of the Hermetic canon.  Not to say that I discount it, but taking it in with the same level of gravity is…a little awkward at best for me, especially given how far it departs or how much it conflicts with other Hermetic accounts of cosmogony and how much it personalizes God in a way that the rest of the Hermetic corpus doesn’t.

But there is certainly a fall-of-mankind story even in the usual Hermetic texts, not least of which is in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum.  The general notion, starting from there and following the rest of the ideas throughout the Hermetic canon (Korē Kosmou excepted, I suppose) goes like this:

  1. God makes the cosmos, within which is the material realm of the world.
  2. God makes the ideal humanity (soul) within the cosmos.
  3. The ideal humanity beholds the world, and the world beholds the ideal humanity.
  4. The gods and/or the world makes the material humanity (body).
  5. The ideal humanity enters the world via the vessels of material humanity, becoming embodied as incarnate souls in the process.
  6. Once embodied, some souls remember their divine origin and focus on divine existence, and some souls forget it and focus instead on embodied existence.
  7. At the time of death (the dissolution of the body and the retreat of the soul from it), the souls who remember their divine origin leave the world behind and return to their divine origin, but the souls who do forget their divine origin suffer death and incarnation over and over, as if embodiment were an addiction to them.
  8. What causes forgetfulness is the divine mind of the soul which ascends being fought against down by the drive and desire of the soul which descends, which necessarily arise as a result of the embodiment of the soul.  The ascending portion of the soul, if it conquers the descending portion, free themselves; otherwise, the soul is reincarnated.

Whether this is my first incarnation or my thousand-and-first incarnation, it would seem that I fell down (or came down) to Earth and, while that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, and while (despite nothing in the world being good or true, as Hermēs says, which is a pessimistic-dualist view that doesn’t hold throughout all the Hermetic texts) this world is full of pleasures to enjoy and works to do, staying down here in a way that traps me here is what I should be trying to avoid or escape through philosophy (which “depends only on reverence for god” and is “to adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good)”, according to Asclepius 14).  And it’s my incarnation that better allows me to experience the world and more fully know the creation of the Creator, which would not otherwise be possible had my soul not decided to come on down to the world.

So, what I consider to be myself is really two parts: my soul, and my body, which exist together in incarnation, with the soul being technically independent (though weighed down by the body, at least temporarily) of the body and, yet, as many Hermetic texts say, the body being completely reliant on the soul.  There’s a tension, then, between the soul and the body, and if if the essential “me” is—properly speaking—my soul, then I need to consider the relationship between my soul and my body.  Bearing in mind the notion of reincarnation as a failed attempt at the soul remaining independent and in control of the body, if this is my first incarnation, then what are the risks that this specific body poses to my soul in this life?  And if this is not my first incarnation, then what were the addictions I had in past lives that caused me to reincarnate, and how do those affect this life, along with the risks presented in this current life?

My natal horoscope has quite a bit of Earth in it: ascendant and Part of Fortune in Taurus, Moon and Venus in Virgo, midheaven in Capricorn.  Although my Sun is in Libra, my chart is dominated by Earth, and I do resonate fairly well with materialization and embodiment.  It’s also, as I see it, one of the causes (if not a reason, necessarily) why trance work, dream work, and astral projection-type states of consciousness have always been so difficult for me; while Fr. RO in his Red Work Course recommends doing the White Work (largely consisting of a daily practice of the Headless Rite to come in contact with the Supernatural Assistant) in the astral temple, I did it in my physical temple, because I found that I was naturally more able to focus and draw down those powers into my body rather than have to focus and split my attention on maintaining a presence in the astral (which was really more like mental/imaginal projection more than astral projection proper, to me).  Although lately I’ve been making real gains in dream work, most of my actual work is done while conscious in the body and in the material realm.  This is, perhaps, counter to some of the visionary experiences demonstrated in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book I, “when…my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from eating or too much toil of the body”), and although I’ve been able to make do and get far, I admit that I know I’ve been missing out on a large portion of possibility and avenues for advancement along my path by neglecting the visionary, astral, dream, and trance aspects of spiritual practice.  To an extent, I have to compensate for a lack of ability in one area by doing more in another area—not all people are going to be good at all things, of course—but since so much of the spiritual focus in the Hermetic Way is getting used to getting by without the distractions of the body, it still points out a gap in my practice and skillset.  Figuring out what works for me and what can work for me, and what work I need to do to get it to work, is something I would definitely think would be on the docket for me in this incarnation as a whole.  After all, with my North Node in Pisces, this shows a definite departure from a purely embodied manner of living into a more dissolved, loose, spiritual manner.  And therein lies the challenge, of course, perhaps more for me than for others who might not have such a horoscope.

This isn’t to be a fatalist about my life and incarnation, of course—except in the sense of Fate expounded by Hermetic texts, that Fate rules the body and cannot be escaped, because the body is formed by the very powers of Fate.  Even then, though, Fate does not absolve us of our obligations or responsibilities, since the soul always has the power to choose, because the soul comes from a place above and beyond Fate, and thus is not subject to it.  Yet, because the embodied soul is wrapped up in a material vessel which is subject to Fate, and because the body struggles with the soul for dominance, the soul can be impacted by Fate; thus, the soul can be impelled, but not compelled, to behave in a certain way by Fate.  It just means that my soul is in this body, for better or worse, and I need to learn how to adapt my choices to make the best use of this body while I have it, instead of letting my body make use of my soul according to how and what it wants.  A challenge, to be sure, but not an insurmountable one—and even if it is, could I really not face it or even attempt to?  There are always lessons in failures, after all; maybe one day I’ll be wise on that front, one way or another.

I feel like I’m going in circles with this topic—but isn’t that appropriate, too?  Life here is cyclic: birth, death, rebirth, redeath, rerebirth, reredeath: ad nauseam, perhaps, but not ad inifinitum.  The planets whirl about the heavens in their cycles, as do all the fixed stars together as one, but the planets and stars are immortal and, thus,  it’s right and proper for them to go about doing so.  Not so for us; bodies and life down here, perhaps, may well be endless as far as life can be sustained (before the Restart described in the Asclepius, at least), but our souls don’t properly belong here.  Rather, as Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum says, once our souls are “stripped of the [fate-related planetary and stellar] effects of the cosmic framework, the [ideal] human enters the region of the ogdoad [i.e. the sphere of the fixed stars]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father”.  It’s our goal and destiny to break the cycle of incarnation through gnosis and spiritual development and rise up to our proper places above the realm of Fate, at which point:

…Those present there rejoice together in [the ascended human’s] presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice.  They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god.  This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.

So where do we break the cycle?  Can the cycle be broken, for as long as there is human life?  That would mean that there would be humans born without souls—but is that even possible?  Although some parts of the Hermetica suggest that humans can’t devolve or change, other parts do say just that, in a very Hindu-like sort of grading where lower forms of souls develop through life into higher forms and are reincarnated into higher forms, as animals into humans, or vice versa if the life was ill-lived.  This might also then mean that the whole race of humanity is a proving ground for all the souls not given immortal forms in the cosmos, in a very Buddhist-like sense, at that.  But the only way to break the cycle, then, is to know the cycle fully.  This does echo the various goals for humanity that Book III decrees, both for the body and the soul of the human: through contemplation of the various creatures of Creation, one arrives at knowledge of ourselves, and having arrived at knowledge of ourselves, one uses that knowledge to know God, and in knowing God, we ultimately become God.  Life and the orbits of the fixed and wandering stars may be cyclical, but for us, it’s an expanding cycle—a spiral.  We start where we are, right here and right now, and we end at the limit of God, and just as God is an infinite circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere…well, quite a few concepts break down once you throw infinity into the mix, doesn’t it?  There is a terminus, that we can see, but perhaps it’s the spiral beyond that terminus in the infinite infinity of God that we truly can’t.

Every point in a cycle can be considered a beginning and an end, and I guess I find myself pretty much back where I started from.  But so long as the experience of that cycle is maintained, the path to be walked in the future is not quite like the path to be walked in the past, and then the cycle becomes a spiral, hitting the same angles from where you started but at a different distance from where you started.  I don’t have a good answer to the question of what incarnation means, but perhaps, in thinking about it, I may have the beginnings of an answer to the question of how to find out that meaning.  Every life lived, and every life that we live, gives us that chance, after all.  Incarnation, then, becomes a way to learn what cannot otherwise be learned, but more than that, a way to earn what cannot otherwise be earned.  If God put the mixing-bowl of Nous down as a prize set between souls that strive for it, then while we might think of this as a trial, it might also be a requirement instead; perhaps it could just as easily be said that God put the mixing-bowl of Nous down amidst incarnate humans because discarnate humans cannot receive Nous; there must be some quality about incarnation that allows us to receive, use, train, and develop Nous that cannot otherwise be simply given from the get-go outside of incarnation as a matter of divine Necessity.  After all, God does not make things in vain, so if God made the world we know composed of elements and bodies what with the Logos descending upon it all, then this material creation has a purpose and a function.  It may well be that this world was made explicitly to complete the process of completing humanity through-and-through.

But the only way to learn that is to, well…to learn, to contemplate, and to know.  Thus our lives—thus my life.  As Socrates is supposed to have said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, because otherwise what would be the point of it all if you never bothered to learn about your life?  It would make the whole experience a waste from the proper soul’s point of view, bodily pleasures be damned.  By all means, enjoy the body, but be cognizant of what it’s going through, appreciate what’s happening at every step of the way, and why.  Contemplate pleasure, just as one might contemplate pain, because it’s knowing “the whirling changes of fair and foul” that our souls are commissioned to do.

Maybe the question is a trick; maybe looking for the meaning of incarnation is like looking for happiness, where you don’t find happiness when you look for it but you find it when you look for something you want.  If that’s the case, then the meaning of incarnation arises when I find everything else I should be looking for.  And there’s quite a lot to look for—and to look forward to.