The Hermetic Refranations and Repentances

I admit: I haven’t been keeping up with my daily practice.  In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve really done much of anything spiritual as of late, besides the bare minimum of shrine upkeep and keeping things clean around my house, and the most I’ve done is just study and discuss and listen and write, all of which are important but none of which take the place of actual practice and Work, all of which are necessary but none of which is sufficient unto themselves for doing what I need to be doing.  I can give all sorts of reasons for this, some of which are more reasonable than others, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve fallen out of the habit of regular spiritual practice and work.  It’s happened before, and I know that even if I get back on the ball that I’ll fall off again at some point, but that doesn’t change the fact that I really should spend more time in my temple again and at least get back into the habit of daily prayers and meditation.  I know that this is a cycle of mine, where at times I’ll be really good for spiritual work, and at other times I won’t be.  There are good and bad things that happen in either phase of the cycle, of course, and it tends to last for however long it lasts.

Lately, however, I can feel something stirring again—a pining to get back to spiritual practice (if not the actual inspiration and determination to do it, at least yet), a resurgence of ideas to explore, a wellspring of things to try out and write up.  Lately, I’ve been reconsidering how I want to do my shrines, my prayer practice, what the prayers I say are, whether I want to add in new prayers or take out old ones—all this to the effect that maybe my practice as it was, before I had fallen off the ball, was perhaps getting stale and oppressive, and maybe I just needed to break from it all in more ways than one.  After all, in breaking from things, I can also more easily break them apart, see what’s missing, what can be used to fill in the gaps, and whatnot.

To that end, I’ve been drafting and considering adding two new prayers to my prayer rule, in addition to the ones I know I’ll already be using (a little more elaborate but based on the prayer rule I outlined in this post, making use of the Triple Trisagion and the Prayer of Thanksgiving).  These two prayers are what I call “The Refranations” and “The Repentances”, respectively, and…well, you can probably guess what they’re about right from the name: the first is a prayer that dedicates myself to refraining from particular acts, and the second is a prayer that admits my faults and flaws and seeks to repent from them by confessing them and seeking forgiveness.  I wasn’t in the habit of doing either of these two things before; sure, I have my Prayer of Refuge which includes a good confessional bit and seeks forgiveness, and I’ve rewritten a sort of Solomonic confessional prayer (specifically based on book I, chapters 4 through 5 from the Key of Solomon) for my Preces Castri prayer book.  That said, I never really put much stock in the notion of sin, per se, as a Hermeticist: sure, we all make mistakes, but we’re all part of God and all doing the best we can (even if we’re mislead at times).  I suppose I see these things less in a Catholic or Western Christian notion of “crimes” and more as an Orthodox or Eastern Christian notion of “sickness”, and I shouldn’t necessarily feel bad about being sick, so long as I care enough to get better from it.

Lately, though, I’ve been reconsidering that comparatively nonchalant “it’ll resolve itself” type of approach.  One of my longstanding spiritual influences is that of Buddhism generally, and I’ve lately been looking into daily Buddhist household practices from various Buddhist cultures, sects, and traditions for inspiration (to say nothing of shrine arrangements based on Japanese butsudan).  One thing I’ve seen recommended for daily (or otherwise regular) recital and contemplation is that of the Pañcaśīla, or Five Precepts: five fundamental commitments one makes in Buddhism that forms a fundamental system of morality in Buddhism, a Buddhist parallel to the Jewish Ten Commandments.  All lay and monastic followers strive to uphold these precepts (with some lay followers also taking on some more precepts on holy days, and monastic followers having many more precepts to uphold at all times), and so these provide a useful thing to think on every day for many Buddhists the whole world over.  While I don’t quite see anything in the Hermetic texts suggesting negative commandments of behavior, e.g. “thou shalt not do X”, I did consider the energies of the planets from CH I and the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII and how those can be reframed as conducive to “sins” of a sort, following the 42 Negative Confessions from Egyptian funerary ritual.

Bearing that in mind, I came up with a short “prayer” of sorts which I call “the Refranations”, which are my Hermetic sevenfold parallel to the daily recital of the Five Precepts in Buddhism:

That I might flee death, darkness, and evil,
that I might strive for life, light, and goodness,
that I might continue on the way of wisdom,
that I might avoid the errors of drive and desire,
that I might subdue my temperament and senses,
that I might be saved from punishment and disgrace,
that I might not be heedless and not be evil:

I will refrain from corruption.
I will refrain from machination.
I will refrain from lust.
I will refrain from arrogance.
I will refrain from audacity.
I will refrain from greed.
I will refrain from falsehood.

For the first part of the Refranations, I specifically drew on language from CH I.18—19, CH I.24, CH I.28—29, CH XII.23, and CH XIII.21.  That first part is basically an appeal and reminder to the self for what the whole purpose is of the prayer, while the latter part is the actual statement of things I will refrain from—”will” being an important part of the formula here, not just as an indication of the future tense in English, but also as a statement of planning and intention, so not just that I will refrain, but that I will to refrain.  The phrasing of the second part originally incorporated both the planetary energies from CH I and the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII, e.g. “I will refrain from coveting and intemperance”, but I decided to keep things simpler, especially in light of the consideration that (as I claim) the tormentors of CH XIII were based on the energies of CH I.  I also considered having a seven-times-seven set of repentances, one set of seven for each day of the week, with each set focused on one of the bundles of planetary “sins” I introduced in my earlier post about the tormentors and the Negative Confessions; while I think such a practice could be useful for more intensive periods of spiritual devotion and focus, as I mention in that post being a Mussar-like practice, I figured that for regular recital something much simpler would be better, especially for all-around usage.

Of these two verses, it’s the second verse that is the meat of the Refranations, as they are literally statements of what I will refrain from; the first verse is more like an introduction or preliminary meditation, and while I like it, I’m not entirely sure I’ll keep that in the future as I actually set about using this prayer.  I suppose it could be useful in a chain or sequence of prayers, especially to mark a transition, but for the purposes of contemplation and moral orientation, I don’t think it’s as important.  Alternatively, I could reorder and assign each of the initial seven contemplations as being a specific thing to strive for by means of each of the Refranations themselves, based on a very loose association between them and the planet of the energy to be refrained from.  Admittedly, I do like this approach better, but it remains to be seen which is more effective in practice when I’m actually reciting my prayers themselves.

That I might flee death, darkness, and evil,
I will refrain from corruption.

That I might continue on the way of wisdom,
I will refrain from machination.

That I might avoid the errors of drive and desire,
I will refrain from lust.

That I might strive for life, light, and goodness,
I will refrain from arrogance.

That I might subdue my temperament and senses,
I will refrain from audacity.

That I might be saved from punishment and disgrace,
I will refrain from greed.

That I might not be heedless and not be evil,
I will refrain from falsehood.

At any rate, the sevenfold nature here of the statements of refraining reflects the dominance of the seven planets and their energies/tormentors that incite me towards mundanity and all that continues this cycle of generation and corruption I find myself in.  Although these are energies that are attached to the soul (at least according to Poimandrēs’ account to Hermēs in CH I.25), and thus to an extent something I can probably not fully purify myself without perfecting a divine ascent in some form or another, I can still do my best to abstain from engaging with those energies, which also doubles as training for when I do eventually give up (or have to give up) those energies as part of that divine ascent.  And yes, for those who picked up on it: the use of the term refranation here is also a nod to horary astrology, where two planets are moving towards an aspect with each other, but one abruptly stops and turns retrograde, separating away again before the aspect can perfect (which is delightfully illustrated here on Twitter by @authormischief).  Fitting enough, since these things I refrain from are planetary in and of themselves, but in this context, “refranation” also reminds me that I need to catch myself before I commit them or engage in them, no matter how close I am to them, so long as and however I can.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I necessarily will be able to catch myself before I engage in these things.  I do not claim to be a paragon of morality, and I know my behavior is far from perfect at any given moment; my actions, speech, and thoughts are not always in line with what I know they should be.  In other words—for one reason or another, whether I intend to or not—I can and do fuck up.  It’s not great of me, and I need to hold myself to account for that.  More than that, though, I should also be aware that my fuck-ups don’t necessarily just affect only me; rather, they affect everyone around me in one way or another.  Heck, even if such failings of mine were only to affect me directly, the fact that I am not able to hold myself to the good standards I set for myself means that I am not fully living up to what others deserve of me, which is basically depriving them of what they should get from me by those selfsame standards that I set for myself.  Whether directly or indirectly, my faults and failings can and do affect the world I live in, merely because I live in it, and for that, I need to hold myself to account.  It’s easy to think that I’ll be able to do so upon realizing that I’ve fucked up, but let’s be honest, sometimes we all need to have our noses shoved in the shit we put out in the world, whether we do so ourselves or by others who need to call us out for our shit.  This is why confession is a thing, notably for many Christians but also for many Buddhists as well, especially in monastic communities, because in holding ourselves and each other to account, we not only remind ourselves of the things we’ve done wrong, but learn how we can redress them, fix them, and hold ourselves back from engaging with them in the future.  If we consider these things crimes, then we learn what it is we did and what the punishment and payment for it is; if we consider these things sickness, then we learn what it is that got us sick and what the treatment and prevention for it is.

To that end, I wrote another prayer, “the Repentances”.  A bit longer than the Refranations, sure, but then, there’s more that needs to be said, since this prayer is not just a matter of confessing that which I’ve done wrong, but seeking forgiveness for it, as well.  The trigger for me writing this prayer was learning about the Awgatha/Okāsa, the so-called “common Buddhist prayer”, a formulaic prayer used in Burmese Buddhism that includes a minor act of confession as well as paying homage to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, as well as one’s parents and teachers, but I took the notion more broadly and expanded it in a way that, I feel, addresses what needs to be addressed:

Without giving thought to what I have said or done,
I have acted as one without mind.
Without mind have I acted with irreverence,
and in irreverence have I journeyed in error,
and in error have I partnered with ignorance.

In my irreverence, error, and ignorance
I have transgressed the laws of Heaven and Earth
by means of my senses, deeds, speech, and thoughts,
by doing that which I should I not have done,
by not doing that which I should have done.

For all that I have done openly or secretly,
for all that I have committed against divinity and nature,
that I might be held to account to level the balance,
I confess myself to all who hear me,
and I seek forgiveness from all who hear me.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the gods who judge me
and seek their forgiveness and mercy for my irreverence
that, in reverence, I might be freed from the pyre of suffering
and receive the fire of light that illumines the mind.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the sages who teach me
and seek their forgiveness and wisdom for my error
that, in attainment, I might be saved from the flood of corruption
and receive the water of life that nourishes the soul.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the travelers who walk with me
and seek their forgiveness and assistance for my ignorance
that, in knowledge, I might be cleansed from the stench of vice
and receive the incense of virtue that refines the body.

I confess my irreverence, error, and ignorance;
may I be forgiven, o gods and sages and travelers!
In this light, life and virtue do I worship the One;
so too do I pray that I might always have a good mind
and uphold reverence, attainment, and knowledge.

For this prayer, I relied heavily on language from CH I.20, CH I.22—23, CH I.28, CH VII.1—2, CH IX.4, CH X.8, and CH X.22, but the overall structure and content of the prayer is a bit more extrapolated.  Sure, I took some inspiration from my Prayer of Refuge and that Solomonic confession prayer I mentioned above, but I also took the notion of confessing to and seeking forgiveness from the gods, the sages (i.e. Hermēs Trismegistos and others), and my colleagues/peers/fellow students on the Way from several different places.  For one, it’s a tip to continue one of the notions from my Sending of Peace and by recognizing the various powers and forces in my life, whether divine or human, but from there, it gets a little hazy.  It makes sense to me to seek forgiveness from those around me “the travelers who walk with me”, as I also recognize them in my Prayer of the Itinerant, because they are the ones who stand to most immediately be affected by that which I do, for good or ill.  More metaphorically, even if not present (whether dead or just being divine/mythic entities), I also seek forgiveness from the sages, teachers, and guides who have, one way or another, led me to where I am today; after all, what I do wrong I cannot blame them for, and what wrong I do besmirches their teachings and disrespects them who taught me better.

But the gods?  Sure, them too; I originally had “divine spirits” here, but I figured that “gods” was a shorter way to communicate that notion.  This is a notion that is not absent from Hermeticism: CH I.23 talks about the “avenging daimōn” who assails “the thoughtless and evil and wicked and envious and greedy and violent and irreverent”; section 28 of the Asclepius talks about “the chief demon who weighs and judges [the soul’s] merit” and determines its destination after death; and SH 7 talks about Justice, “the greatest female daimōn”, who is “appointed to be a punisher of human beings who err upon the earth”.  While I personally consider these to be more mythic depictions of how and why things happen (with there being no greater punisher to ourselves than our own folly when you get right down to it, all else being a matter of cause and effect whether in this world or the next), I do accept that it is a belief in some Hermetic texts that there is some divine entity that judges humanity and treats them accordingly.  Even then, though, I also need to remember that that which I do wrong doesn’t just affect those in the world around me, but the very world around me itself, and thus the gods who create and maintain and administer this world.  To wit, I piss in a river, I don’t just annoy those who are swimming in it, but I also annoy the spirits who live in that river, too.

Moreover, if we were to dig into the Egyptian roots of Hermeticism a bit more, we shouldn’t forget how a human is judged in the Weighing of the Heart, watched over and administered by the gods themselves.  While I don’t think that all of creation is necessarily a zero-sum game (all bets are off once you throw Infinity into the mix, which is why so much magic works so well despite all odds), I do need to recognize that everything I do starts a chain of cause and effect, action and reaction.  While apologizing to a broken plate doesn’t repair the plate, it does get me to a point where maybe I can replace the plate or make a new one, and in that, gives me a hope that I can redress the balance of things that I unbalance with my actions, and in so doing unburden myself of the guilt and shame I accrue from my misdeeds.  I may not be able to sway the judgment of the gods for what I’ve done, whether intentionally or otherwise, but in recognizing what it is I’ve done, I can equip myself with the knowledge, awareness, and mindfulness to address my faults and redress the balance in the future to make up for it as best as I’m able to, or at least to do what I can to cause no further harm.  This, in addition to remembering what it is I’m doing and how to do things better, is the purpose of my Repentances: to do what I can to fix what I’ve done.  And it’s not just about the things I’ve necessarily done by actions, but also by speech and thought, as well, which are as volatile and powerful as anything else I work with.

In addition to this threefold model of confessing and seeking forgiveness from the gods, the sages, and the fellow travelers on the Way, I’ve also incorporated a threefold model of the means by which I confess and am forgiven, centered around the imagery of fire, water, and incense.  In addition to being the fundamental things I offer in my spiritual practice for pretty much anything to anyone, I wanted to tie them a bit to the notion that God is “life and light” from CH I—at least for fire (for Light) and water (for Life), though I suppose Life would be better paralleled by spirit, since the demiurge in CH I.9 is introduced as being spoken into being of “fire and spirit” from God’s “light and life”.  However, seeing how those who hearkened to Hermēs’ teaching in CH I.29 were “nourished from the ambrosial water”, I figured to give water to this instead, and instead referred incense to…well, frankly, the last section of the Asclepius, where Hermēs tells his disciplines not to burn incense for offering to God.  Rather, this incense (in addition to being something I can offer) isn’t so much for God as it for me, not as an offering to myself but to prepare myself for offering my prayers and, indeed, myself to God.  Fire, water, incense—these things are offerings I make, sure, but they are also symbols of things that I offer as well as strive for, and they are also agents of purification and sanctification so that I can continue my own Work.

Of these two prayers, especially for independent or solitary practice, I’d consider the Refranations to be more important than the Repentances, but they’re both important and useful in their own ways, especially in the course of constant self-reflection and mindfulness (which the opening and final verses of the Repentances explicitly calls out).  While I don’t consider (any more, as much) Hermeticism to be a religion properly so much as a path of mysticism and spiritual development, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still this impetus to learn, grow, and do better that is common to both mysticism and religion, where my very behavior and character is itself a means by which I offer worship to God and the gods.  While a mere expression of wanting to change and do better is not necessarily the same as actually doing better, it is an important part of that process (viz. “the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one”).  In an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to set aside a specific prayer to call to mind my own follies and faults—heck, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t be committing such things to begin with—but in lieu of constant self-reflection, setting aside some time in a dedicated practice to doing just that is still a good thing.

To me, these two prayers of the Refranations and the Repentances work well together—though I presented them in reverse of how I’d actually use them.  I’d recite the Repentances first, and that as one of the first things (if not the very first thing) I should recite for my own prayer rule; heck, I could even link up the mentions of fire, water, and incense by setting up my shrine’s offerings with those very things, lighting a candle and pouring fresh water and setting incense to burn, but that’s totally secondary to the real purpose of this prayer, which is to remember the things I’ve done (or not done) wrong, that I might instead come to my Work with a clean heart just as I come with clean hands, a scrubbing of my conscience as I’ve brushed my teeth and face.  While I could immediately then recite the Refranations (which would totally work as its own practice), I would probably recite this much later in my prayer rule, as one of the last things I’d recite before some sort of summary closing.  That way, as I close my prayers, I can walk away from my shrine fully reminded of how to live my life and do my Work, prepared to hold myself to a high standard with the goals and methods firmly fixed in my mind.

At least, that’s the idea anyway, the goal I have in mind.  I actually need to put these prayers to the proof first to see how much they actually help in that, as well as to give them enough tries to see if the language and rhythm flows as nicely when spoken aloud as they sound in my head.  For now, these prayers are just drafts, but I do hope to start using them soon—which, hey, gives me another reason to get back to the practice I should be keeping up with, anyway.  In the meantime, perhaps my change in thinking about these things (a literal μετάνοια, the Greek word often translated in to English as “repentance”) can be a source of inspiration for others, as well.

Selected Hermetic Meditations on Death and Dying

It’s kinda weird, I suppose, how neatly some basic impulses start up like clockwork in alignment with the seasons.  As it’s getting darker now where I live, as summer finally relinquishes its old and lets autumn blow in, Scorpio season has arrived and, with it, Halloween and Samhain and all sorts of things related to death and the dead.  Of course, it’s also been a super rough time the past 24 months for…well, basically everyone across the world, and more people have died lately than is pleasing to count (not that it ever was pleasing, but it’s even less pleasing now that the numbers are so high everywhere).  Some of us are luckier than others, I suppose, but it seems like every day now I hear about how, in some community or other I’m connected to, someone has recently passed away.  That’s just what happens in a turbulent time, I suppose, especially one made all the worse by an ongoing global pandemic, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with psychologically or spiritually.

While I count myself fortunate and blessed enough to handle these things well enough by my own standards, I know that many others out there are struggling in the face of mass death and their own mortality—and it’s in times like this that people often turn to religion and religious texts for comfort, guidance, and support as balm for their tired souls and broken hearts.  I thought I’d pull out a few such excerpts from Hermetic texts that might offer some starting point for meditation, if not consolation, when it comes to the rather weighty (and ever-present) topic of death.

To offer my own summary of the views of classical Hermeticism before we dig into the passages themselves:

  • For the Hermeticist, death is something as natural to this world as life itself, and is part of the same process of coming-to-be as birth, growth, and decay.  Despite the claims of later alchemists, Hermēs Trismegistos in the classical philosophical/theosophical/theoretical texts never preached a form of immortality except for that of the soul, which is basically held to be inviolate and eternal as a direct issue of God.
  • The problems for us arise only when we try to latch onto these dissolvable bodies and identify the soul with them, from which arises addiction to corporeality, longing for the satisfaction of sense desires, and continued suffering through needless cycles of errant reincarnation.  In remembering what death truly is, we also remind ourselves what life truly is, both the immortal life of the soul as well as the proper means of living while the soul is still in the body.
  • While some religions or spiritual systems think of Death as an entity unto itself, there’s really no such notion in Hermeticism.  Death is just another process that things with bodies undergo.  Properly understood, there is nothing terrifying about death, any more than there is about the digestion of food, the expulsion of waste, yawning, or getting acne.  While particular ways of dying might be more unpleasant than others, the same could easily be said of living, as well.
  • Unlike other religious or spiritual systems, Hermeticism doesn’t really talk much about the spirits of the dead.  Sure, there’s plenty that talks about the origins and paths and destinations of the soul, whether in the course of its anabasis or katabasis or metempsychosis, but there’s basically nothing about how to treat the dead themselves.  It’s not that Hermeticism denies that ghosts and ancestors are a thing, it’s just irrelevant to the teachings and goals of Hermeticism, which is understanding the immortal life of the soul and how to consciously, intellectually, intelligibly achieve that immortality to free ourselves from our unthinking, unaware, unconscious addiction to mortality.  For actual ancestral practices or rites of propitiating the dead, if one does not wish to take a quasi-Buddhist approach of “preaching to the dead” to encourage them to move on from their attachments and addictions so that they can ascend instead, I would instead recommend researching historically appropriate approaches to funerary rites and practices of ancestral veneration as would be performed in Hellenistic (Ptolemaic or Roman) Egypt by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians in their own temples and household cults.

CH I.15

…Mankind is twofold—in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it. He is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Ah, the initial text of the Corpus Hermeticum, Book I and the revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs.  There is much in this book to unpack, but this text, situated at the start of the fundamental collection of Hermetic treatises, introduces the idea that what we truly are is our souls, which come from God directly and were made immortal, while our bodies are products of this cosmos we happen to inhabit and which are mortal.  It is, fundamentally, a matter of ignorance and error that leads us to confuse who and what we really are, and in confusing the two, we lead ourselves to our own destruction.  There is suffering, and there is a way out of this suffering—this is what Poimandrēs teaches Hermēs and what Poimandrēs enjoins Hermēs to teach the world—and it all starts with this simple fact, that God created all things and that we as creations of God are immortal God-issued souls dwelling within cosmos-made bodies.  Bearing that in mind, all else falls into place, including the notion that it is only our bodies that are subject to Fate, while our souls are technically free of it (while they cannot be compelled to act or undergo conditions like the body does, because of the soul’s interaction and inhabitance of the body, the soul can be impelled towards the same).  It also introduces the notion that we are only ever in this cosmos temporarily, even to the point where cosmic incarnation can be considered a “prison” of sorts (though never as pessimistically as what some Gnostic sects would say).

CH I.24—26

First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sources, becoming separate parts and mingling again with the energies. And feeling and longing go on toward irrational nature.

Thence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth the ruler’s arrogance, now freed of excess; at the fifth unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone the deceit that lies in ambush.

And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his 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.

This section coming towards the end of CH I is a lovely depiction of the ascent of the soul after death; Poimandrēs gives this explanation when Hermēs asks him “tell me again about the way up, tell me how it happens”.  In this, we see a three-part ascent: the first part regarding the dissolution of the body, its temperament, and its senses as they return to nature and as the soul frees itself from all these things of the body; the second part regarding the ascent of the soul through the seven planetary spheres and, passing through each one, returning to each the cosmos-generating energy bestowed upon the soul; and the third part regarding the final stages of the ascent, above and beyond the forces of generation and corruption, as the soul reaches a timeless state of eternal perfection eventually entering into God.  CH I contrasts with CH XIII (the spiritual rebirth on the mountnain) and NHC VI.6 (the “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”) in that there doesn’t seem to be any initiatory rites that ensure the salvation of the soul; whether this is just what happens for those who are able to give up the body willingly at the time of its death or it’s what happens to all people, it paints a lovely picture of the afterlife and the course we take after death, up to and including a perfect salvation and blessed existence in God.  Death is merely a door to this, and is only an end of a brief sojourn here on Earth while also being a beginning of something else much greater.


[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

This is the final part of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), and specifically my own translation that I did a while back.  In the course of offering my own commentary of each of the four sections of this book, I wrote up this particular post about this section, which some may find helpful as a review of this bit.  In addition to CH III being a general overview and introduction of the Hermetic worldview and motivating ethos which I find helpful as a meditation generally, this last part has something poignant and powerful in it regarding death. The preceding section talks about all the reasons why humanity was made by the gods, “every soul in flesh”, but then we get this bit: “this is the beginning of their living and becoming wise according to their lot…and this is the beginning of their being released, leaving behind great memorials of their works of art upon the Earth, and every generation…[all that is done] for fame unto the obscurity of ages, all that is diminished will be renewed”.  No matter how much things pass away, no matter how impermanent this world and everything in it (including us as individuals and us as a species) might be, all things continue, and all things will be “renewed”, reborn, and will flourish again.  Yes, things will be forgotten, and that is our lot—but it is also our lot to be renewed, and thus remembered for a time before passing out of memory before again passing back into it, both into living and into living memory.  A doctrine of reincarnation, perhaps, or a doctrine of cyclic repeated existence; either way, we are but here for a time to do good works, then to leave them behind, much as we go to college to learn and then to graduate out of it.


Now, my son, we must speak about soul and body and say in what way the soul is immortal and whence comes the energy that composes and dissolves the body. Death actually has nothing to do with this. Death is a notion that arises from the term “immortal”: either it is an empty usage, or, through the loss of the first syllable, “im-mortal” is taken to mean “mortal”. Death has to do with destruction, yet none of the things in the cosmos is destroyed. If the cosmos is a second god and an immortal living thing, it is impossible for any part of this immortal living thing to die. All things in the cosmos are parts of the cosmos, but especially mankind, the living thing that reasons.

When matter was without body, my child, it was without order. Especially here below, matter has the disorder confined to the other lesser things that have qualities, the property of increase and decrease that humans call death. But this disorder arises among things that live on earth; the bodies of heavenly beings have a single order that they got from the father in the beginning. And this order is kept undissolved by the recurrence of each of them. The recurrence of earthly bodies, by contrast, is the dissolution of their composition, and this dissolution causes them to recur as undissolved bodies—immortal, in other words. Thus arises a loss of awareness but not a destruction of bodies.

Book VIII of the Corpus Hermeticum is a fairly short monist treatise, blending both Platonic and Stoic conceptions on the nature of reality and the cosmos, its creator, and our place within amongst it all.  The major thrust of CH VIII is that the cosmos as a whole is a single living being composed of multiple parts, just how your body is a single living organism composed of multiple organs and smaller cells.  If the cosmos is a single living being, then the cosmos lives, meaning everything in the cosmos lives; there can never truly be death in a living being lest the whole thing dies, and since the cosmos never dies, no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, either.  What we see and think of as death is no more than dissolution of a thing into its constituent components, which are then taken up again and used as constituent components of other living things.  The only thing that is lost is bodily awareness, but nothing else is ever truly lost in death.  Nothing here is spoken of the soul, of course, which is amply talked of in other Hermetic texts; here, we just familiarize ourselves with what “death” actually looks like, and how it is no more than a continuation of the same processes of life that produce ourselves as living beings within a forever-immortal, ever-living cosmos.

CH XII.15—18

“This entire cosmos—a great god and an image of a greater, united with god and helping preserve the father’s will and order—is a plenitude of life, and throughout the whole recurrence of eternity that comes from the father there is nothing in the cosmos that does not live, neither in the whole of it nor in its parts. For there never was any dead thing in the cosmos, nor is there, nor will there be. The father wished it to be alive as long as it holds together, and so it was necessary for the cosmos to be god. How then, my child, can there be dead things in god, in the image of all, in the plenitude of life? For deadness is corruption, and corruption is destruction. How can any part of the incorruptible be corrupted or anything of god be destroyed?”

“The things that live in the cosmos, father, though they are parts of it, do they not die?”

“Hold your tongue, child; the terminology of becoming leads you astray. They do not die, my child; as composite bodies they are only dissolved. Dissolution is not death but the dissolution of an alloy. They are dissolved not to be destroyed but to become new. And what is the energy of life? Is it not motion? In the cosmos, then, what is motionless? Nothing, my child.”

“Does the earth not seem motionless to you, father?”

“No, child; it is the only thing that is full of motion and also stationary. Would it not be quite absurd if the nurse of all were motionless, she who begets everything and gives birth to it? For without motion the begetter cannot beget anything. It is most absurd of you to ask if the fourth part is idle; that a body is motionless can signify nothing but being idle.

“Therefore, my child, you should know that everywhere in the cosmos everything is moved, either by decrease or by increase. What is moved also lives, but not everything that lives need stay the same. Taken as a whole, my child, the entire cosmos is free from change, but its parts are all subject to change. Nothing, however, is corruptible or destroyed—terms that disturb human beings. Life is not birth but awareness, and change is forgetting, not death. Since this is so, all are immortal—matter, life, spirit, soul, mind—of which every living thing is constituted.”

This excerpt from Book XII of the Corpus Hermeticum refreshes the same topic as above from CH VIII, that no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, but are only dissolved and reused in other life just as we ourselves are made from constituent parts of other things that were once living.  Dissolution is therefore part and parcel of renewal, a continuous cyclical motion of life.  Sure, different living things experience life at different stages; some are being formed, some are being dissolved, some are increasing, some are decreasing, some are growing strong, some are growing weak—but this is all life, all the same, and there is no true thing as “death”, as such, except as a matter of perception.

DH 8.7

You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal have the power of dying.  You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible.  Therefore want and understand and believe and love; then you have become it!

The seventh statement from the eighth set from the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios reminds us, quite simply, that we humans are mortal—at least, physically so, just as much as the gods are immortal.  This is something that cannot and does not change, but then, our bodies are merely and only our bodies, not who and what we truly are; rather, are souls, being immortals, have every right to stand on the same level as the gods, so long as we recognize who and what we truly are, and so long as we work towards it.  In this, we should seek to learn to accept and live by what we cannot change, and instead focus on what we can, doing what we can, to do what is truly best for ourselves and the world we live in.  (I wrote about the Definitions long ago, in what seems like another lifetime, but here’s my post about this specific one for those who are interested in reading some of my early thoughts on this.)

DH 10.6

Providence and Necessity are, in the mortal, birth and death; in God, unbegotten essence.  The immortal beings agree with one another, and the mortal envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance.  The immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done.  Death, if understood, is immortality; if not understood, it is death.  They assume that the mortal beings of this world have fallen under the dominion of the immortal, but in reality the immortal are servants of the mortals of this world.

This is statement six from the tenth set of the Definitions, this time pointing out that death causes problems for us mortal humans, if only because we see our lives as precious, non-renewable resources, fighting over our time and our lives like geopolitically-minded countries fight over oil or water; we know we will all one day die, whether we like to admit it publicly or not, but those who don’t have a proper understanding of death end up taking the wrong lessons from it, causing not just a lack of proper living but a surplus of unnecessary death in the process.  We are immaterial, noncorporeal entities abiding in material, corporeal forms for but a time; if we only focus on what is material, we neglect the immaterial, which is way more than half of what truly matters for us.  (Again, my old post with my early thoughts on this statement can be found here.)

SH 11.2.38, 39

What is immortal does not share what is mortal, but the mortal shares the immortal.

A mortal body does not come into an immortal one, but an immortal body can arrive in a mortal one.

The eleventh Stobaean Fragment (SH) contains, sandwiched between a very brief introduction and a conclusion that reminds Tat (and the reader) towards secrecy of not teaching the unlearned advanced things of the learned, a list of 48 maxims, which can be somewhat likened to “Hermetic principles” even if their original purpose is as mnemonic reminders of broader discussions.  Amongst these maxims, these two stuck out to me in this topic, since it touches on the dichotomy between immortal souls and mortal bodies.  There is so much amongst all the Hermetic stuff that goes on and on about the immortality of the soul, all at length and in depth and by many different avenues.  There is also, likewise, plenty that touches on the mortality of the body, how the soul interacts with the body (which is especially a focus in the Stobaean Fragments), and how we are truly our souls and not our bodies.  These two maxims, sufficing indeed as kephalaía-type summaries, remind us that it is our bodies that are secondary to who and what we are while our souls are primary, and that it is our bodies that merely house and clothe the soul for its relatively brief stay in this world.  It is the nature of mortal bodies to be born and, from the moment of their birth, grow old and decay, but no such nature is given to the soul, which is immortal and does not suffer such change, and instead comes into bodies, leaves, and then enters into other bodies as it is necessary for it to.

TH 28 (emphasis mine)

He was, upon him be peace, a man of dark complexion, of full stature, bald, of handsome face, thick-bearded, of pleasant lineaments, and perfect arm-span, broad-shouldered, big-boned but of little flesh, with flashing, dark-lined eyes, unhurried in his speech, often silent, his limbs at rest; when he walked, he mostly kept his gaze toward the earth; he thought much; he was serious and stern. He moved his index finger when he talked. His period on the earth was eighty-two years.

There was on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore every day: “Patience combined with faith in God bequeaths victory.” And on the bezel of the seal-ring that he wore at religious feasts was “perfect joy at religious feasts is good works.” And on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore when he prayed for a dead person, “The time of death is the harvest of hope; death is a watchman never heedless.” And on the belt that he always wore, “Consideration of the next life bequeaths security to body and soul from harmful accidents.” On the belt that he wore to religious feasts, “Keeping religious duties and law is the fulfillment of religion, and the fulfillment of religion is the fulfillment of valor.” On the belt that he wore at the time of prayer for the dead, “Whoever considers his soul is victorious, and his intercession with the Lord is his good works.”

I don’t often bring up texts like this—normally I stick to the classical Hermetic texts themselves—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the post-classical Hermetic fragments, excerpts, and quotes (collectively “Hermetic Fragments”, or FH), and testimonia and descriptions (TH) regarding Hermēs Trismegistos or Hermeticism.  An especially rich source of such stuff is from the Arabic doxological, gnomological, and biographical tradition, and this one in particular comes from the Muẖtār al-ḥikam (“Selection of Wise Sayings”) by Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik, who wrote this around 1049 CE, and which was eventually translated into European languages, such as the Latin Liber philosophorum moralium antiquorum and the Middle English The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers.  This bit focuses more on the biographical side of Hermēs Trismegistos, the first part talking about his life (and, importantly, his death—even the greatest of sages is still mortal!) and his manner of teaching and living, the later parts focusing more on things he taught or which were ascribed to him, but the bits about the sayings engraved on his rings and belt buckles still count as “wise sayings” all the same (and, as Kevin van Bladel says in his The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, “The paragraph dealing with the inscriptions on Hermes’ rings and belt buckles is clearly part of a pre-Islamic genre: records of maxims inscribed on rings of famous individuals are attested in Arabic texts of Iranian origin…This portion is surely an excerpt from a larger collection of wise maxims adapted for the present purpose of describing Hermes”).  Although there aren’t a whole lot of other maxims attributed to Hermēs here along the lines of death and dying, there is this one at least:

Death is like a dart already thrown, and your lifespan is as much as its course toward you.

Classically speaking, there is much of Hermeticism that was inspired by the Greek and Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, at least in terms of its physics, but also its ethics, as well; as time went on, the ethical portion of Stoicism started to take primary place, hence what we know of from Stoic thinkers and philosophers as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  This sort of memento mori is abundant in Stoic writings, and we should also bear in mind that death is not something we can avoid; we must make the best use of what time we have, and that wisely, and welcome death when it does come.

Although not one of the testimonia listed in Litwa or Nock/Festugière, van Bladel in his The Arabic Hermes does also offer this maxim from another Arabic work, the Muntaẖab:

[Hermēs] said: there are two kinds of death: voluntary death and natural death.  Whoever makes is [appetitive] soul die the voluntary death will have a natural death that is for him life.

This sort of maxim is also attributed to Socrates in other works, and definitely has Greek origins.  This one specifically is also useful to remember and to tie into the lessons we can learn from e.g. CH I.19: “the one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death”.  By tempering, restraining, and giving up the body and its appetites to their own death, recognizing them for what they are and not indulging them any further than is strictly necessary for the soul to do what it has to do in its time down here, then when the death of the body comes, it is no real death at all.  To me, this is very much along the same lines as Eckhart Tolle’s saying “the secret to life is to die before you die”, but also including the death of the body so that the soul doesn’t die with it.

TH 33

When he was nearing the final end of his life, a company of disciples rose and stood around him.

“Thus far, my children,” he said, “I, expelled from my fatherland, have lived as a sojourner and an exile. Now, safe and secure, I seek my fatherland again. When, after a little while, I am fully released from my bodily chains and depart, see to it that you do not bewail me as if I were dead. I return to that best and blessed city in which all its citizens know not death or corruption, a city governed by the One, the Unique, the supreme God. As long as all people desire to obey the supremely just rule of God, they are united by the fullness of God’s inestimable and inviolable goodness, and filled with God’s wondrous sweetness.

“I confess to you, my children, that that life is the true life. In it, all effects of changeability are banished, while its citizens cling inseparably to the eternal Good and enjoy true blessedness. For the life which many consider to be the only one is rather called ‘death’, nor is there one single mortal life, but many–as many, I would say, as there are hindrances to the virtues of the highest God, as many as there are clouds of ignorance, as many as there are failures to fulfill sacred vows, and all the other errors in which our mortal condition is entangled.

“So dry your tears, my children! For this dissolution, in which occurs the unloading of the burden of corruptibility, brings with it no calamitous end for me, but to me offers a glorious return! There is no reason to mourn me when you devote me to the glory of true life. Thus far I have gasped as one about to receive the prize of true immortality, which the divine steadfastness of my soul, providence, sobriety, justice, and the unimpaired worship of God has earned for me.

“You yourselves will follow your father and find him in the fatherland–and surely you will not fail to know me in my transformed state. This is because each person, when the darkness of unknowing is dispersed, will recognize all his fellow citizens by that single immense light of goodness which is God–more truly than I am able to tell. I tell you, you will follow me if you most wholly venerate the virtues of which justice is chief. By this virtue, I earnestly exhort you: despise the multitude of diversions and distractions of this world and its life that is to be called death, and worship instead with supplication the One who constructed the entire mechanism of the world’s body and  who shut up souls in these earthly prisons.”

When his disciples continued to stand around him pouring out tears instead of joy, Hermēs said: “Silence—for I know not what wondrously sweet music echoes in my ears, whose immensely pleasing melody I confess that I have never more fully attended to. It is much different than the reverberations in musical instruments by which we enjoy the symphony that procures and preserves good habits. I cannot, for lack of experience, describe that which the swiftness of the wondrous firmament produces by the mixing of high and low notes, with the seven celestial spheres veering in a contrary direction.”

Up to this point the words trailed from Hermēs’ moving lips and a glow of superlative brightness beamed from his face. Then Hermēs spoke no more, and his soul flew away from his corpse.

What Litwa has labeled as TH 33 in his Hermetica II is an extract from Book of Alcidus on the Immortality of the Soul, a Christian work from the late 12th century CE.  This is largely a beautiful monologue Hermēs gives to his disciples on his deathbead, which I think ties in nicely with the bit from TH 28 above, just from a different perspective.  I admit that the above is not exactly the translation of Litwa; it’s largely based on Litwa’s translation (and thus the original text), to be sure, though I have made some edits to remove some too-stringently monotheist language to make it a little more generalizeable.  While many of the earlier excerpts, especially from the , focused on how there is no true thing as “death” as such and how life is constantly being lived in all ways at all times in the cosmos, there are other texts, too, that stress the immortality of the soul, which is arguably far more of a thing discussed amply throughout various Hermetic texts—and I think this excerpt from the Book of Alcidus does an amazing job at pointing out the fundamental message here.  Our very lives “down here” are nothing but a sojourn and exile from our true home “up there”, and in the physical death of the body that releases our immortal souls (which is our true essence, who and what we “really” are) from its fleshy vessel, we finally embark on our return home.

De Castigatione Animae

(IV, 3) The raft on which you are borne upon this great sea [of earthly life] is made of water frozen to ice, and it is only by chance that it serves to bear you.  Soon the sun will rise and shine on it and melt the ice, and it will turn into water again, and you will be left sitting on water. But you certainly will not be able to remain in that position; you must therefore look for something to bear you up, and there is nothing that will serve that purpose except ability to swim and to direct your course aright until you shall have reached [firm ground].

(IV, 5—6) A man is not showing contempt for the house he lives in if, while omitting to fit it out and adorn it, he nevertheless goes on living in it without reluctance; he shows utter contempt for it only when he is eager to quit it, and is ready and willing to go out of it and live elsewhere.  And even so, a man does not show contempt for the physical world if, while putting away from him thepleasures and desires which belong to it, he nevertheless stays on in it without reluctance; he shows true contempt for it only when he eagerly longs to depart from it, and to be at rest from it, and from its hostility, contrariety, discord, and darkness.  You ought to fix firmly in your mind a longing and eagerness for physical death, and guard against being troubled at the prospect of it; for by fear of death is wrought destruction, and by desire for it, salvation.  Surely you know this, that by physical death you will migrate to another abode where you will dwell, not [as now] in poverty, but at ease; not in want, but fully satisfied; not in fear, but without fear; not toiling, but at rest; not in pain, but in pleasure; not in sickness, but in health; not in darkness, but in light.  Do not therefore grieve overmuch at being stripped of the garments of evil and of delusive appearance, and clothed in garments of that which is good and everlasting; grieve not at getting sure knowledge of those things, and, in virtue of your own simplicity and unity, seeing them face to face.

(IV, 12) To die with firmness is glorious; to die in fear and cowardice is shameful.  Dying is but for a moment, and is quickly ended; but base endurance of captivity is a lasting condition.  Be not unwilling then to undergo death, and thereby to quit the physical world; but suffer not yourself to be reduced to captivity, for that death is everlasting life, and this captivity is everlasting death.

(VIII, 4) First of all, assure yourself that physical death is nothing else than a departure of the soul from the body.

This text is originally an Arabic one, and was translated into Latin as Hermetis Trismegisti de castigatione animae libellus, or “The Little Book of Hermēs Trismegistos on the Castigation of the Soul” (henceforth CA for short); Walter Scott includes a translation of the entire thing into English from the Latin in volume 4 of his Hermetica, but I haven’t found another translation of it anywhere else.  It’s a somewhat long text, and is less than a single treatise and more of an anthology of maxims and brief meditations on a handful of themes, a collection of about 90 more-or-less passages broken out into 14 chapters.  The original text, although attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, was more of a product of an Arabic Platonist, and if not an Islamic one than one heavily influenced by Islam.  Much of the text is fairly repetitive, harping on the same themes over and over, and the above bits tie into those same fundamental themes: focus on the soul, shun the body.  However, given the focus of the above sections in how we should live with respect to death, CA shows that death is truly nothing to worry about; heck, even dying itself is nothing too great, especially compared to the pain and tribulation of living badly.  In living well, we have nothing to fear; in living poorly, we have everything to fear.  Chapter IV, sections 5—6 is a rather strongly-worded section, I feel, and I want to specify that I don’t actively encourage people to indulge in thanatic urges or suicidal ideation; rather, we should read this section in the context of remembering that the body is not all we are, not by a longshot, and in giving up the body to its proper death, we relieve our souls of a burden rather than having anything ripped away from us.

The Reed-Pen of Hermēs

Lately, I’ve been going through one of those times where I’ve been reviewing the old stuff I’ve written, drawn, doodled, and talked about.  It’s part and parcel of that “quiet cycle” I periodically go through, so it’s nothing new, and God and gods know that I’ve got plenty of loose ends or dead ends lying around that could use repurposing or reinspection.  In the course of making my rounds through my files and old posts here and elsewhere, I came across this little thing I made in Illustrator one day when I was playing around with symbols:

I made it last summer when trying to come up with an icon, glyph, or general symbol for my own brand and interpretation of classical Hermeticism, grounded as it is in the classical Hermetic corpora and the various magical and mystic practices of late Ptolemaic and early Roman Imperial Hellenistic Egypt.  I shared it on Twitter at the time, and it sparked some neat discussions (and some rather spooky reactions) from people, and I sorta left it at that.  Since I haven’t really been doing much new stuff as of late, this little glyph was made and shelved for another time.  As I’m reviewing some of my older stuff, though, I figured I may as well dust this off and share it on my website for others to consider, and to more publicly flesh out some of the elements and symbolism of this thing.

The construction of this glyph (we’ll talk about a name for it later) is simple: using a downwards-pointing equilateral triangle as a “stencil” of sorts, draw out horizontal lines across it at its base, at one-third of the way down, and at two-thirds of the way down, with a vertical line bisecting them all from the base to the point.  Draw a circle tangent to and centered on the base with a radius equal to one third of the base, and draw a point at the circle’s center.  Add a few serifs to the horizontal and vertical lines if desired for decorative purposes, and with that, the glyph is constructed.

I’m sure many of my readers can pick out a few graphical similarities or borrowings from other symbols, but what I had in mind when I was constructing this glyph was the following:

  • Ankh
    • The quintessential Egyptian hieroglyph to represent life, especially eternal or immortal life
    • Also associated with mirrors and floral bouquets, given that they were spelled with the same consonants in Egyptian
    • Preserved in Coptic Christianity as the crux ansata, reminiscent of the tau-rho (staurogram) abbreviation for the word σταυρός “cross”
    • Also reminiscent of the modern planetary glyph for Venus, also a planet of life and fertility and one I associate with the element of Water
  • Djed pillar
    • The sacred tree of life, crafting, and creation
    • Together with the ankh, the scepter of Ptah
    • The spine of Osiris, a pillar-like symbol representing stability
      • Used as an amulet for the dead to ensure their reanimation, resurrection, and immortality
    • Form derived here via the Phoenician samekh, origin for and similar to the archaic form of the Greek letter ksi (Ξ)
      • I associate this letter (using its stoicheia) with the element of Water
      • If this is broken down further into its constituent sounds, this yields kappa + sigma + iōta, which I stoicheically associate respectively with Leo, Aquarius, and the Sun, the two zodiac signs here being the domicile and detriment of the Sun
  • Circle of the Monad
    • Also the Egyptian hieroglyph and the modern planetary glyph for the Sun
    • Also reminiscent of an ever-watchful, ever-waking Eye of God
  • Seven points at the ends of the horizontal and vertical lines:
    • The seven planets (Moon and Sun, Saturn and Jupiter, Venus and Mars, Mercury) and their according energies/blessings/tormentors
    • The seven lesser mercies of God from CH XIII (knowledge, joy, self-control, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth)
  • Three horizontal bars:
    • The three worlds/gods (God, Cosmos, Humanity)
    • The three titles of God (the Good, the Maker, the Father)
    • The thrice-greatness of Hermēs (priest, king, philosopher)
    • The three Hermetic arts (astrology, alchemy, theurgy)
    • The three students of Hermēs (Tat, Asklēpios, Ammōn)
    • The three generations of teachers (Poimandrēs, Hermēs, Hermēs’ students)
    • The three origins of Poimandrēs (Thōth as the mind of Rē, Pharaoh Amenemhet III, Agathos Daimōn/Šai)
    • The three levels of celestial objects (decans, zodiac signs, planets)
    • The three kinds of stars (fixed, luminary wandering, non-luminary wandering)
    • The three arranging principles of existence (Providence, Necessity, Fate)
    • The three greater mercies of God from CH XIII (Life, Light, the Good)

The use of a downwards-pointing triangle to construct the lengths of the horizontal bars was intentional.  For one, the use of a triangle gives this a slight hint of the presence of the ten-pointed Tetractys (albeit pointing downwards), but when I was constructing the glyph, I tried this originally with three equal-length bars.  Frankly, that looked boring and overly stable to the point of stagnant; using bars whose lengths decrease from top to bottom in the shape of a triangle gives the glyph a greater feeling of dynamism.  Additionally, the ratios of the lengths of the horizontal bars lead the eye downward to its bottommost point, but due to the presence of the dotted circle at the top, there’s a particular tension; as others have noted in the original Twitter thread where I shared the glyph, the dotted circle at the top holds the gaze stronger though the eye wants to look downward.  This tension, as some have noted, gives a sort of “as above so below” feel, but also gives people a somewhat disconcerting, wyrd, or even unsettling feel; one person even said that the glyph seems to “want things”, which I found fascinating.

I also tried a variant of the glyph with the central dot removed from the top circle, too, just to see how some of the people engaged in this conversation would also react to that.  While some found it less “confrontational”, they registered the open, empty circle as more of a portal than an eye, and also with more venerial than solar symbolism, which seemed to clash with the overall vibe of the glyph.  I decided to just keep the dot in the eye. Besides, the dot in the circle really does makes the top read more clearly as the Sun, which is nice for the Hermetic  vibes I’m going for regarding Nous/One/Monad vibes.Someone else, in another part of the conversation, noted how the three horizontal bars with the vertical line connecting them was reminiscent of the Bahá’í Ringstone symbol, where the three bars represent (from top to bottom) the world of God, the Manifestations of God and the world of revelation, and the world of humanity, with the vertical line connecting them being the holy spirit of God descending from its own world to that of humanity through the Manifestations.  This wasn’t my intent, but it is something neat to note in the similarity of structure and symbolism.

Anyway, getting back to the glyph I created, I really am fond of this symbol.  It’s no replacement for my own personal glyph (which I use as an icon for pretty much every account on every platform I’m on, and is even seen as the logo of my website), but I do like using (or at least thinking about) this glyph as a representation of my own brand of classical Hermeticism (or, to be more strict with the term, Hermetism).  Even though the glyph is largely a kind of cross, the term “Hermetic Cross” is unfortunately already a somewhat confusing term.  For most people, I would think this term is used to refer to the Rose Cross of the Golden Dawn.

However, at other times, the phrase is also used to refer to the so-called “Cross of Hermes”, which…well, my first thought about this symbol is that this it was originally a printer’s mark used during the English Renaissance in alchemical or occult texts—and it turns out that there are many such variants of this that were indeed used as printer’s marks for various printers!  Despite the claims that this is a combination of symbols to represent a fourfold nature of creation with the maxim “as above so below”, when I went to consult my alchemical symbol dictionary, I also was able to break it down into one of the alchemical symbols for borax (the 4 with the cross on the right-hand bar) atop the alchemical symbol for alembic/distillation flask/still (the upright and inverted V symbols overlapping), which was also one of the symbols also used for glass (and I note specifically that borax was and is used in the making of glass).  Though the printer’s mark theory is far more believable, it can’t be denied that Hermeticism and alchemy were especially close in Europe for centuries, so it’s little surprise that people might have mistaken printers’ marks for alchemical symbols or otherwise conflated the two.  Besides, as the link above to Fameorshame Press’s website says, the use of the glyph for 4 in the four-and-orb style of printer marks was often thought of as being associated with Hermēs being the god of scribes, tradesmen, merchants, and travelers, so there is some connection there, however faint.

Either way, I didn’t want to use the term “Hermetic cross” to refer to this glyph I made to represent my own brand of classical Hermeticism, and I wanted to stay away from anything involving calling it a “tree” or “pillar” (both of which are reasonable terms given the djed-symbolism of it, but which have also been taken over by Golden Dawn and modern Western European qabbalistic stuff as well in this case.  Calling it a “Hermetic staff” or a “staff of Hermēs” would be somewhat conflicting with the notion of the kērukeion/caduceus, the winged-and-serpented herald’s staff of Hermēs in Hellenic imagery, though it is true that the overall shape of this glyph can also be considered a highly stylized, simplified image of the same thing.  But, perhaps taking a clue from Alan Moore’s Promethea comic series, considering how the protagonist used her very pen and art of poetry to transform it into a caduceus and herself into the eponymous heroine, perhaps I could call this symbol the “Pen of Hermēs” or “Reed-Pen of Hermēs”, which recalls more of the reed-pen of Thōth than the herald-staff of the son of Zeus Maia, and perhaps rings more closely to the Hermēs Trismegistos of the classical Hermetic tradition.  Alternatively, still keeping to this idea and also reinforcing the grander symbolism behind this, perhaps a grander name for this symbol could be the “Reed-Scepter of Hermēs” (much how the ankh, djed, was, or other types of scepters were used by the Egyptian gods in their iconography).  If I were to use another language for this, we might use the Greek term for reeds (and thus reed-pens) κάλαμος kalámos, or perhaps even the Coptic word ⲕⲁϣ kaš.

All of these terms, regardless of the language, would work well to my mind as a term for this symbol, but consider what the name implies for the symbol itself.  If we were to think of this symbol as a pen, then we have the ink flowing down from the top dotted circle (God) down through the words of the various teachers (Poimandres to Hermēs to his students) and down through the various levels of creation (from the sphere of the Father through the sphere of the Cosmos through the sphere of Humanity) down to a single point—which, if we consider the seven ends of the straight lines as the seven planets, that bottommost point is given to the planet Mercury as the balance and fulcrum of all the rest.  The ink would be Wisdom itself, flowing through the channel that links Mercury to the great spiritual Sun, held and guided by the hands of the various teachers from one generation to the next.  Not a bad way to consider the overall structure of the symbol, I suppose.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to use this glyph as a mere decorative thing.  Just as the Crucifix is a symbol to refer to Christianity while also being a potent mystical and meditative symbol that contains within it many mysteries for the Christian to dwell on, I keep thinking of that tension that holds the gaze up at the dotted circle at the top even though the gaze wants to be drawn downwards.  Holding the gaze at that dotted circle long enough, I get the same sense of the horizontal lines being an encouragement to lift up one’s gaze, in the same way that one holds a weight for a long duration, gravity and fatigue trying to get us to put the weight down but our own determination and will continuing to lift the weight up; the horizontal bars become less of a ladder that leads one down, and more arms that are held up in supplication towards the One above.  In thinking about this, I can’t help but think of the fiery sermon of book VII of the Corpus Hermeticum (emphasis in bold mine):

The vice of ignorance floods the whole earth and utterly destroys the soul shut up in the body, preventing it from anchoring in the havens of deliverance. Surely you will not sink in this great flood? Those of you who can will take the ebb and gain the haven of deliverance and anchor there. Then, seek a guide to take you by the hand and lead you to the portals of knowledge. There shines the light cleansed of darkness. There no one is drunk. All are sober and gaze with the heart toward one who wishes to be seen, who is neither heard nor spoken of, who is seen not with the eyes but with mind and heart.

In that struggle of keeping the gaze fixed above while it wants to be drawn downwards, is that not a good metaphor itself for our struggle as a whole?  To free ourselves from being fully trapped down here in this world of matter, caught up in the cycles of rebirth and reincarnation due to our errors of desire, fighting to free ourselves?  To resist the easy down-draw of drive and desire, of thumos and epithumia, and struggling to set our soul on its proper course upwards?  To constantly look upwards and inwards, not with the mere eyes of the body that can only see things perceptible but with the eyes of the mind and heart to see that which is intelligible?  The upwards-downwards tension in this glyph is emblematic of the very difficulty we walk on the Way of Hermēs, I think.  Perhaps, in learning how to resolve that tension fruitfully (and upwardly) through this glyph, we can learn how to resolve that parallel tension in our own lives—to tie this to the imagery of the Pen, we learn how to properly hold it with the proper balance and posture and flow, so that we can learn how to properly Write.  Write what, you might ask?  The wisdom of Hermēs, which is the wisdom of God, the “wisdom for the making known of the All” (as CH III.1 would have it), writing this in our own hearts and minds until we become filled with that same ink of wisdom to spread to others, connecting us back to the very Source of that same ink.

Next time I start digging around and playing around with Illustrator or Inkscape, I’ll probably pretty up the glyph a bit and see about turning into a higher-quality picture, and perhaps giving it a few meditative or contemplative tries here and there to see where it might take me.  As a few people noted in that Twitter conversation, it’s quite possible that this symbol wasn’t merely my own creation, but something needing to be made through me; it wouldn’t be the first time, to be sure, and perhaps there are even deeper mysteries lying in this thing than what I could pick out in that list of symbolisms above.  Perhaps others might give it a whirl, too, and let me know where they might end up.

On Good and Evil in Hermeticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; thus, it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That it is incorporeal, Asklēpios.”

“What is the incorporeal, then?”

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

“What, then, is god?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as none of these other qualities exists in such a substance, by the same token the good will be found in none of the other substances. All the other qualities exist in all things, in the small, in the large, in things taken one by one and in the living thing itself that is larger than all of them and the most powerful. Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; thus, it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asklēpios, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. And this is the worst of all, Asclepius: here below, they believe in each of the things I have just mentioned as the greatest good when actually it is insuperable evil. Gluttony is the supplier of all evils…Error is the absence of the good here below.

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

…the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But can we say the same thing of moral evil, then?  After all, if all things come from God, then things that are evil must also come from God, too, right?  In a trivial sense, sure, but I would argue that it’s not in the same overall sense here.  Consider now CH XIV.7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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