On the Hermetic Afterlife: Evidence from the Texts

While I suppose the timing of this post (around the end of Libra and start of Scorpio) is appropriate, I admit that I’ve wanted to write a post about this for some time.  The issue with such a topic, though, is that it requires so much either cleared out ahead of time and laid down as foundations, or otherwise merely assumed, and…well, even then, it can get complicated.  Not too long ago, someone in the Hermetic House of Life Discord server asked a fairly straightforward question in the Hermeticism channel: what happens when we die?  Specifically, the question was, in the context of classical Hermeticism: “when we die, do we become wandering souls until we incarnate again?”  And while such a question seems fairly straightforward, answering it is anything but.

(Also, before we get into it, fun fact: what you’re reading now is the 900th published post on my blog, going all the way back to my first post back in my Blogspot days from February 2010!  I figured a little research-and-writing project like this would be a nice celebration of that milestone, so I hope y’all enjoy.)

So, to start off with, we take for granted in Hermeticism the existence of a soul.  Forming a complete theory or model of what soul is, how it comes to be, how it behaves, and the like is a daunting project (and one that eventually I want to take on), and one that is made all the more difficult by the fact that there’s enough inconsistencies and differences between different Hermetic texts to make getting a single model set up a major challenge.  Still, on the grounds of CH I and many other Hermetic texts, we can take the existence of the soul for granted, and moreover, that the soul is effectively the self, who and what we “really are”.  The body is merely a vessel for the soul, the mind is a divinely-granted faculty of divine awareness that may not be present or activated within every soul, and the spirit is the life-conferring substance that enlivens all things in the cosmos, but the soul is what we truly are, the thing that truly “lives”.  If humanity is an image of God, and if God is understood as Light and Life, then we can consider soul to be the image of the divine Life of God itself.  (I’m really eliding a lot here in this single paragraph, to be fair, but this is a necessary assumption to make as a foundation for the rest of this post.)

Now, much of the classical Hermetic texts all fundamentally describe one thing, or work towards explaining one thing: how to live our lives well so as to solve the problem of suffering in our lives.  Ultimately, the answer is to live mindfully: as noted above, “mind” is the crucial key that allows us to unlock an awareness of divinity, of truth, of God in our lives, and not all people have mind, whether at all or activated/awakened.  However, in having mind (or having mind activated), we are then able to experience states of gnōsis, which are essentially us experiencing God, which helps reveal to us how things “really are”, both within and without the cosmos, and which helps orient us towards living our lives properly.  Even without such experiences of gnōsis, however, it would still be possible for someone to live respectfully, reverently, and devotedly enough in such a way that would allow them to recognize the body for what it is, realize a proper relationship between soul and body, and to better enable themselves to abide with God and to return to God once this current sojourn in the world has come to an end.

The quintessential afterlife vision is given by Poimandrēs to Hermēs in CH I.24—26 (Copenhaver translation):

“You have taught me all things well, o mind, just as I wanted. But tell me again <about> the way up; tell me how it happens.”

To this Poimandrēs said: “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.”

What we have here is a process of dissolution and ascension of the soul:

  1. The soul first gives up the body itself, allowing it to decompose.  (This is “death” itself, in the sense of the soul departing the body.)
    1. As the soul gives up the body, so too does the body give up its senses, its drive/feeling (thumos), and its desire/longing (epithumia).  These are all things of the body and not the soul, so the soul isn’t the one technically giving up these things except as a result of giving up the body as a whole, and these could be seen just be a specification of what gets dissolved and decomposed with the body.
  2. The soul then gives over to “the demon” (more on that later) their temperament.
  3. The soul then gives up each of the planetary energies conferred to it by the seven planets back to their respective spheres, rising up through and past each sphere as it does so.
    1. “Increase and decrease” to the Moon
    2. “Evil machination” to Mercury
    3. “Illusion of longing” to Venus
    4. “Arrogance of rulers” to the Sun
    5. “Unholy presumption and daring recklessness” to Mars
    6. “Evil impulses that come from wealth” to Jupiter
    7. “Deceit that lies in ambush” to Saturn
  4. After giving all these things up and rising past the sphere of Saturn, the soul then enters into the eighth (“ogdoadic”) sphere of the fixed stars, beyond the reach of fate
  5. After some indeterminate time, the soul then rises up from the eighth sphere into even higher spheres with even higher powers, eventually entering into and becoming God

The model here is basically that the soul is “weighed down” or “cloaked” by all sorts of trappings that allow it to be incarnate in the first place; in order to free ourselves from incarnation, we have to free ourselves of each of the components that allow for it, returning each trapping to its proper source.  Once we have stripped ourselves of such things, we are then truly free to just be a soul, and are therefore placed beyond the reach of fate (which is identified with the revolutions and alignments of the seven planets in CH I); it’s that eighth sphere of the fixed stars past the sphere of Saturn that we can say is the first “heaven” in the sense of being a resting-place, as it were, a place that is beyond suffering and beyond the bindings of fate.  Attaining access to that eighth sphere might just be the first part of a much larger, hypercosmic journey, but it’s where our journey as encosmic entities comes to a true conclusion.  Upon attaining the eighth sphere, one can be said to be “done” with incarnate reality.

But that’s assuming that a soul actually attains the eighth sphere, and that’s a really big assumption to make.  In fact, there are several big assumptions here that each need to be questioned:

  1. What happens if a soul is not able to give up a trapping of incarnation (its temperament, a planetary energy)?
  2. What happens if a soul is not able to rise up past a particular sphere?
  3. Is the process of ascension instant, or does it take place over an interval of time?

The description of the ascent from CH I.24—26 is not clear as to whether it happens to all souls regardless of how they lived, or whether it’s just the whole complete process described in ideal circumstances for those particular souls able to make the ascent.  After all, shortly after this part, Hermēs begins his mission of going forth into the world to teaching those who can be taught and saving those who can be saved; not everyone chooses to be taught or saved, however, so it raises the question as to what happens to them.  After all, if such a process of ascent were automatic and assured for all people equally, then the focus of Hermēs and Poimandrēs would be more about how to tackle suffering in this life as opposed to what happens afterward, and that doesn’t appear to be the case.  I don’t think what Poimandrēs describes here is applicable to all souls after their death, but is the eventual, ideal case for a soul that is sufficiently refined and prepared for such a journey upward, capable of actually giving up the trappings of incarnation.

Let’s set aside the account of CH I.24—26 for a moment.  Are there any other texts that talk about an afterlife in any notable detail?  Truth be told, there’s really not a lot out there.  While many of the extant Hermetic texts seem to accept reincarnation/metempsychosis as just what happens, there’s very little that describes the actual process of it or what happens between incarnations.  The closest we get to is AH 28 and a few bits from SH 25 and SH 26, and both of these are problematic in their own ways.  Still, it’s worth checking out what they have to say about the subject.

We’re benefitted by AH 28 by it being preserved in slightly different versions, one in Latin (Copenhaver translation):

When soul withdraws from the body, it passes to the jurisdiction of the chief demon who weighs and judges its merit, and if he finds it faithful and upright, he lets it stay in places suitable to it. But if he sees the soul smeared with the stains of wrongdoing and dirtied with vice, he sends it tumbling down from on high to the depths below and consigns it to the storms and whirlpools of air, fire and water in their ceaseless clashing—its endless punishment to be swept back and forth between heaven and earth in the streams of matter. Then the soul’s bane is its own eternity, for an undying sentence oppresses it with eternal torment.

And again in Coptic from NHC VI.8 (Meyer translation):

There is a great demon that the supreme God has appointed as overseer or judge of human souls. God has placed him in the middle of the air between earth and heaven. When a soul comes from a body, it must meet this demon. At once the demon will turn this person around and examine him with regard to the character he developed during his lifetime. If the demon finds that the person accomplished all his deeds in a godly manner, deeds for which he came into the world, the demon will let him…turn him. … But [if the demon observes and becomes angry] at a person [who] spent his life doing [evil] deeds, he grabs him on his way up and throws him back down so that he is suspended between heaven and earth and punished severely. There will be no hope for such a soul, and it will be in great pain.  That soul does not have a place on earth or in heaven, but it has come to be in the open air of the universe, where there is blazing fire, freezing water, streams of fire, and massive turbulence. The bodies are tormented in various ways. Sometimes they are cast into raging water; at other times they are thrown down into fire in order that the fire may destroy them. I am not saying that this is the death of the soul, for the soul has been delivered from evil. Nonetheless, it is a death sentence.

Admittedly, this is a lot, and in context, it takes place when talking about the denigration of the world and what happens when people die.  Hermēs is fairly blunt about death itself in the immediately-preceding AH 27 (Copenhaver’s Latin translation below, basically the same as in Meyer’s Coptic translation):

We must talk now about the immortal and the mortal, for anticipation and fear of death torture the many who do not know the true account of it. Death results from the disintegration of a body worn out with work, after the time has passed when the body’s members fit into a single mechanism with vital functions. The body dies, in fact, when it can no longer support a person’s vital processes. This is death, then: the body’s disintegration and the extinction of bodily consciousness. Worrying about it is pointless. But there is another problem worth worrying about, though people disregard it out of ignorance or disbelief.

Hermēs is clear here: what matters isn’t so much the physical death of the body, but what happens to the soul after it leaves from the body.  Unlike most other Hermetic texts, the doctrine of AH 28 doesn’t clearly seem to support a notion of reincarnation, but rather one of post-life judgment, and the focus here is really on what happens to particular souls that have been judged as being so terrible as to be subject to eternal punishment.  But note where they go: they’re sent to this intermediate zone between Earth and Heaven (in other words, in a region of the sublunar atmosphere) where the air is turbulent.  Bear that specific bit in mind in a bit.

Let’s skip ahead to SH 25 and SH 26, which are the formal designations for the later sections of the Korē Kosmou, respectively.  This text is…questionably Hermetic at best, since it presents a dialogue not of Hermēs to his student(s) but from Isis to Hōros (even if the ultimate teaching passed on was originating from Hermēs through Kamēphis the forebear of Isis), and presents a radically different worldview, theology, and cosmology from the rest of the extant classical Hermetica.  In many ways, it presents something closer to a Hellenized Egyptian myth, almost like a folktale written for philosophers as it were, and it has a lot of information in general.  While SH 23 talks about the creation of the world and of the relationship between God and humanity (which is rather different from anything in the CH, AH, or even most of the rest of the SH) and SH 24 talks about royal souls specifically, SH 25 and SH 26 talk about souls in general.  I won’t quote excerpts, but I can point out a few of the key doctrines that can inform our discussion here:

  • SH 25.1: souls after death do not simply wander aimlessly nor combine with each other, but proceed to a particular realm appropriate to it
  • SH 25.9—13:
    • Souls, when not incarnate in bodies, dwell in the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon
    • The sublunar atmosphere is split into four divisions with some number of strata:
      • The first (lowest) division: 4 strata
      • The second division: 8 strata
      • The third division: 16 strata
      • The fourth (highest) division: 32 strata
    • Different strata have different qualities of air based on how high and rarefied they are
    • The higher the stratum, the more rarefied the air, the more noble/royal/dignified the soul
    • There are thus 60 different grades of soul
  • SH 26.2:
    • Souls are sent down to become incarnate according to their purpose, and return to a region in the atmosphere appropriate to it
    • Souls either return to the stratum it came from, ascend past it, or sink below it according to its behavior (“according to the degree of their errors”) while incarnate
    • Souls are judged according to Providence
  • SH 26.3:
    • Souls are handled according to two ministers: the Steward and the Escort
    • The Steward of Souls watches over unembodied souls
    • The Escort of Souls sends souls to be incarnate into bodies appropriate for their purpose according to Providence

What we get when we look at the Korē Kosmou, and SH 25 in particular, is the notion of a dwelling-place (perhaps even “storehouse”) of souls, with a neat diagram-friendly arrangement of where certain souls go to after death.  Walter Scott has such a diagram ready to go on page 595 of volume 3 of his Hermetica series when offering his commentary on SH 25:

The account given in SH 25 and 26 is annoyingly unclear at points about what these specific grades are of soul, even though we have a reasonable understanding about the strata of the atmosphere they were supposed to retire to between incarnations.  Presumably, animal souls would be in the first division (fish, lizards, birds, and beasts from bottom to top) with human souls of various kinds above that, culminating in the most royal of souls destined to be kings and emperors over the world in the highest stratum of the uppermost fourth division.  Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of information about the specifics of these grades, the process of a soul traveling from a body to its proper stratum, the process of being sent down by the Escort of Souls, or the like.

What I find appealing here is that we can tie this division of the atmosphere in SH 25 to the realm of punishment from AH 28.  Bear in mind that such a realm of punishment is marked by storms, turbulence, and the like, and how they’re described to be “in the open air” neither on Earth or in Heaven but somewhere in-between.  In SH 25, we see that the lower grades of air are reserved for baser, ignoble souls, including those destined for animal incarnation (whether because they are already animal souls as they are, or whether they are human souls to be punished via animal incarnation, as is suggested in SH 23.41—42).  The major difference between these texts is that, for the author of the Korē Kosmou, incarnation itself is punishment, while for the Asclepius, there is a separate punishment after incarnation.  As a result, when SH 25.10 says that “in no way is this recycled air [of the lower divisions] a hindrance to souls”, it has a completely different role in mind for such a region of the atmosphere than what AH 28 has in mind.  Notably, AH 28 does not have a doctrine of reincarnation detectable to my eyes: if it permits for it, it doesn’t say so explicitly, but if it does, then such an everlasting punishment by being tossed into some turbulent zone of the atmosphere is the cosmos’ way of taking a particularly naughty soul, indelibly stained with its sins as it is, “out of circulation”, while allowing other souls to incarnate as appropriate to them.  It’s another perspective, I suppose, but the similarities in the models here are important, even if their intents and descriptions differ in the details.

There’s one last thing I want to mention before we begin the process of tying all this together: SH 7 is another separate Hermetic text, and a short excerpt provided by Stobaeus from a treatise of Hermēs related to Justice.  Here, we have a description of Dikē, the goddess of Justice (Litwa translation):

The greatest female daimon who wheels round the center of the universe has been appointed, my child, to observe everything that happens on earth at the hands of human beings. Just as Providence and Necessity are appointed over the divine order, in the same way, Justice has been appointed over human beings–and she performs the same activity as Providence and Necessity do. For she controls the order of existing beings inasmuch as they are divine, do not wish to err, and cannot. Indeed, it is impossible for the divine to go astray—hence its infallibility.

Now Justice is appointed to be punisher of human beings who err upon the earth. Humanity is an <errant> race, inasmuch as it is mortal and composed from base matter. They are especially prone to slip since they do not possess the power of seeing the divine. Justice especially holds sway over these people.

Humans are subject to Fate due to the energies operative in their nativity; and they are subject to Justice due to their mistakes during this life.

I note that the role of Justice here in SH 7 is strikingly similar to the “avenging daimōn” of CH I.23, to the judging demon of AH 28, and to the role of Providence (and arguably also the Steward and/or Escort of Souls) in SH 26.  Further, while not explicitly handled by some sort of external entity, there are bits like CH X.16 that talk about “leaving the soul to judgment and the justice it deserves” after it departs from a body.  We don’t see a lot of this sort of divine intermediation or interference in the Hermetic texts, and to an extent I don’t much care for the notion of it (I’ll share why later on), but it’s common enough that we should at least bear it in mind and consider it.

But for now, let’s cut this here.  Now that we have an understanding of what the relevant Hermetic texts have to offer about notions of the afterlife, we can let that sink in for a bit, and we’ll pick up with actually fitting them together next time.

Setting Up a Hermetic Shrine

I didn’t intend to make a post series about shrines and the like for a Hermetic context, but after the last two posts on offerings and feasts at a Hermetic shrine which themselves followed up on a bit about the importance of a shrine lamp for Hermeticists, I figured I may as well finish what I inadvertently started as a bit of musing on my part.  I mean, I’ve spoken a bit now about what can do and when one can do it at a shrine, but what of the shrine itself?  What concerns should one have for a shrine for Hermetic practice, what should go on it, how should one maintain it?  These are all good questions, to be sure.  Unlike the last two posts, however, where I relied heavily on Hermetic testimonia and accounts about Hermēs Trismegistos to inform Hermetic practices from a backwards-looking Islamic-era perspective, there are limitations to such an approach; we were able to learn about the nature and timing of offerings, but not where.  To that end, in this post, I’ll talk about my take on Hermetic shrines based on my own practice, experience, and opinions, instead of it being anything grounded in any Hermetic text or testimony (since there’s really not a lot to go on).

First, a bit of definitions.  Personally, I like drawing a distinction between the terms “shrine” and “altar”, and while they may overlap, I do not consider them equivalent.  I think I picked up such a notion from Elani Temperance over at the Baring the Aegis blog, whose work and diligence I’ve admired for quite some time now, but the main difference in a nutshell is:

  • An altar is a place where one makes sacrifice or otherwise does work to, for, or with the gods and spirits.
  • shrine is a place where gods and spirits (or their images) are housed.

In a Hellenistic context of worshipping the Greek gods, in classical times there were two locations one had to be mindful of when worshipping a god: an outdoor altar (either a bōmos “raised platform” or bothros “pit”, depending on the specific god in question) and a temple building.  The altar was (almost) always outside, and the temple was oriented to face the altar.  Sacrifices were (almost) always made outdoors at the altar, not inside the temple building itself, even if the temple housed all sorts of sacred images, statuary, gifts, and the like; in a good number of cases, the temple was just a glorified storehouse and administrative building, while the actual religious part of a temenos “sacred district” was always outside at a comparatively dinky stone block.  This really gets to the heart of the distinction between an altar and a shrine, I think, because in a stereotypical Hellenistic context there was a good separation between the two.

Of course, that hardly can be generalized to all possible religious traditions, and there are many cases where the distinction between shrine and altar is reasonably blurred.  I mean, if you make offerings to a shrine of incense or food, then technically you’re making a sacrifice right there, which would have that shrine serve as an altar, too, right?  Or you might have a large temple space where there’s a sacred image or cult statue of a god (literally) enshrined within, and priests would set up temporary tables in front of the image for rites of sacrifice and worship; in this case, one sets up a temporary altar before a permanent shrine, and then the altar itself is disassembled after the ritual.  It may not always be required to have a separate “working space” apart from the place of a god or spirit, and although some approaches may find it useful, it’s hardly a universal thing, especially when you throw in non-institutionalized household worship into the mix, with different space and logistical constraints entirely.

And that’s one of the big concerns with Hermeticism, I think, that we need to bear in mind: Hermeticism is, by and large, not a temple-oriented practice, at least in the sense of a large permanent institution with a permanent priesthood tending to a public congregation of worshippers.  To be sure, based on our best understanding of the Greco-Egyptian origins of Hermeticism, it definitely arose within a temple-based context, led by mystically-minded Egyptian priests teaching and guiding Egyptians and Greeks in a quasi-syncretic context, but it wouldn’t be right to say that this was a focus of their duties.  Rather, they had all their temple duties as they always had for centuries and millennia: maintaining temple grounds, making sacrifices, tending to shrines, writing and copying texts, and the like.  Likewise, non-priestly people coming to the temple had a primary goal, worshiping the gods, for which they went to temple and didn’t generally linger past what was appropriate.  However, there were then (as there are now) people (both priestly and lay) for whom going to temple, participating in a sacrifice or festival, singing a hymn or two, and having that be the sum of their religious life wasn’t enough; for them, they’d want something more, something more profound, something mystical.  That’s where Hermeticism has its origins: a sort of extracurricular “meet me after class” deal for the mystically-minded, between mystically-minded priests and mystically-minded seekers.  They’d get up to this mystical stuff, seeing the Divinity behind the divinities, after their usual temple stuff; they wouldn’t ignore their temple stuff, not at all, but would build upon that as a foundation for reaching higher and deeper into spiritual reality.

To emphasize this point, consider the set and setting of the Perfect Sermon, otherwise known as the Asclepius (AH).  Among the classical Hermetic texts, AH is notable because it presents a dialogue with a narrative setting: we actually get a notion of where the dialogue takes place.  In this case, AH takes place in a temple, with Hermēs and Asklēpios already inside ready for a divine discourse, and then Hermēs sends Askēpios to fetch Tat to be present, and likewise Asklēpios proposes Ammōn also join them, at which point Hermēs says “yup, that’s good, but that’s enough”.  Hermēs gives his sermon in the temple, and “the reverence of the four men and the divine presence of god filled that holy place…and then divine love began to speak”.  After Hermēs concludes the discourse, the four of them then recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, but note the important bit: they leave the temple to go outside to pray, and also offer nothing except prayer, not even incense.  For the purpose of teaching and religious edification, Hermēs chooses the temple as the appropriate setting, but for actual mystical practice and devotion, he leaves it and its accoutrement behind.

All this is to say that a Hermetic practice does not need to be considered something priestly, hieratic, or temple-oriented, and so the usual obligations, logistics, or the like of temple concerns do not need to be our concerns insofar as we’re talking about Hermeticism.  But, if that’s the case, and if temples are places specifically for enshrining and petitioning and propitiating the gods, then what is a Hermetic shrine for at all?  I mean, while one could certainly enshrine any number of gods (Hermēs and his crew, maybe the seven planets, maybe even Poimandrēs and/or Agathos Daimōn, and the like), none of those would (strictly speaking) be necessary for an esoteric Hermetic practice so long as they were already factored into a preexisting exoteric or temple-oriented practice.  That last part is important to emphasize, I think, because that might change the concerns one would have for such a Hermetic shrine.  For instance, if one already has an existing practice to Hermēs and/or Thōth with their own shrines, then one can just go to them for works specifically pertaining to them, either within or outside of a Hermetic context, but if one does not have such an existing practice, then maybe having a little image of Hermēs/Thōth/Hermēs-Thōth/Hermēs Trismegistos as part of one’s Hermetic shrine would be a benefit to them.

Of course, this is already getting into hypotheticals and details of a Hermetic shrine without talking about the general or high-level stuff first, so let’s back up a bit.  The biggest question to be tackled is this: for what purpose would having a Hermetic shrine fulfill?  To me, the biggest thing would be giving a Hermetic practitioner a place to do their Hermetic work, their prayer, their devotional and meditative and theurgic activities.  In this light, the focus of the Hermetic shrine would be the focus of Hermeticism, which is God—and, as I mentioned before, that would render the shrine lamp as the most important element on a Hermetic shrine, being representative not only of God itself but also of our goal of divine union with God and the quest of the soul towards God.  The shrine lamp holding a sacred flame is the sine qua non of a Hermetic shrine, and…well, after all the years of me doing things along this line, is probably the only absolutely necessary thing that I would say one might need to make a Hermetic shrine.  Beyond a handful of offering dishes for observing feasts, which is more of a utilitarian concern and convenience more than anything else and which would be put away when not in use anyway, I genuinely don’t think that anything else is absolutely necessary to be present for a Hermetic shrine beyond a shrine lamp.

In that regard, can this sort of thing even really be considered a “shrine”, at least using the terms I’ve defined at the start of this post?  I suppose not, no.  I mean, what could one do to “enshrine” God?  What image could house God itself?  As book V of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH V) beautifully points out, there is nothing that could limit God either in terms of speech or image or time, so there’s neither point nor possibility in trying to “house” God when God itself is what surrounds and fills all things.  Rather, the Hermetic shrine is a place for us to do the work we need to do towards God (and, if necessary, the gods as well).  In that light, this would really be more of an altar than a shrine—except, of course, unless we do have gods enshrined there, but let’s put that aside for now (again).  The point is that I keep calling this a “Hermetic shrine”, but I’m using the term “shrine” in a very broad way that goes against my own usual definitions in a way that muddles the distinction between “shrine” (a place where spirits are housed), “altar” (a working surface for ritual or sacrifice), and “temple” (a sacred space that contains shrines and/or altars for spiritual activities).  I suppose my calling this a “Hermetic shrine” comes from my own unspoken notion of calling any place I pray at regularly a “shrine”, while I reserve “altar” for a place I do work at on an as-needed basis.  It’s just another set of definitions, I suppose.

And even then, is a dedicated space for this sort of work really necessary?  I mean, at the end of the AH, Hermēs and crew leave the temple in order to pray, and likewise the prayer instructions in CH XIII.16 (after Hermēs guides Tat into spiritual rebirth and before he sings the “secret hymn”) say that one should pray “in the open air”.  The only other context we get for something mystically happening is in CH I, when Hermēs receives his vision from Poimnadrēs, and that was entirely location-independent when Hermēs’ “thinking soared high and [his] bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body” (i.e. a deep trance state).  In an ideal setting, worship and veneration of God would not be done at any particular temple (which would be dedicated to any number of other gods anyway on an ontologically lower level than God) but rather in the open air directly under and in the midst of the heavens; spiritual work and elevation would be done, similarly, apart and away from the body itself.  Of course, that’s all in an ideal situation; a Hermetic shrine, a place we could go to in the safety and convenience of our own homes, gives us a means to engage in the work (preparatory or no) to reach such an ideal state at some point.  To that end, while I don’t think a Hermetic shrine is technically necessary, I do think that it’s helpful to have for those as a means to concentrate and focus their prayer, meditation, and work all the same.

Anyway, let’s keep up with the high-level stuff.  If the shrine lamp and a handful of offering dishes is all that’s strictly needed for the Hermetic shrine, then what should the shrine itself look like?  I don’t personally like having such things directly on the floor, and recommend some sort of elevated surface to keep everything on, but beyond that, I don’t think the specifics matter all too much.  So long as it’s something comfortable for you to stay at for an extended period of time (to account for time in meditation, prayer, devotional work, conjuration, communion, offering, etc.), then that’s the most important thing.  For instance, I like kneeling with a seiza bench for my Hermetic stuff, which makes low tables (side tables, coffee tables, etc.) ideal for me, being not too tall for me to strain my neck by looking up or having to reach to the end of it.  Others might feel more comfortable with something at desk height where they can sit in a simple chair; others might prefer something at their waist, or even higher than that, depending on the significance they might attach towards physical elevation towards these things.  Some people state that, as a sign of respect, holy things should be no lower than one’s waist and preferably at head height or above, and I respect that, but as a matter of convenience and logistics in terms of one’s own personal mystical stuff, I don’t think that that’s as strict a concern here for the considerations of the Hermetic shrine.  So long as it’s at a reasonable height for one’s practice and is large enough to hold what one needs to put on it, then I don’t think the specifics matter.  The Hermetic shrine, in a sense, can be thought of as tool for you to use, so it should be appropriate for your use.

Should the shrine be covered with a cloth?  Again, it’s up to you; I think it’s good practice to do so, so long as you can find something appropriate. You could change out tablecloths for the Sun being in different signs of the Zodiac, or for different planet/sphere-specific rituals, or for different seasons of the year, certainly.  You could just refresh the cloth with a new one once a year to mark the passage of the Sun from one solar year to the next, or to mark some anniversary like one’s first contact with one’s HGA/Agathodaimōn.  Or you could just use just one cloth that looks nice until it wears out, or none at all.  This is more “shrine decoration” than anything to my mind, and I’ve gone back and forth on the specifics of it.  My thoughts are that such a thing is nice to have, but it’s nothing necessary.  (Besides, if one has a particularly beautiful table with an elegant wood grain or marbled surface or the like, I see no reason to let that not be a decoration unto itself.)  As for colors, white is always pleasant for divine works in general, and gold or gold-accented fabric is resonant enough with Hermetic symbolism to be more than acceptable; if one has an Egyptian or especially PGM flair, one might avoid red for general purposes due to its Set-related connotations, but otherwise, I don’t think it matters too much.

Bearing in mind the notion about facing certain directions from AH 41 and CH XIII.16, what about the placement and direction of our Hermetic shrine?  This gets a bit tricky, because those instructions specify two directions: east for morning/sunrise, and south (not west!) for evening/sunset.  We might consider a free-standing shrine that we can position ourselves around, or we might put a shrine in a southeast corner of a room that we might sit at the west (facing east) in the morning and at the north (facing south) in the evening, or just facing southeast in general (if it’s something like a corner/triangular desk).  That said, with the exception of putting something in a southeast corner and calling it a day, I find all those options kinda…awkward, really.  I dislike things like this not being against a wall and, frankly, I like using east in general for matters of the divine and holiness; as a rule, if nothing else speaks more strongly for another direction (like actual space constraints in someone’s home), placing this towards the eastern wall of a room is probably a reasonable choice for most people.  Likewise, it should be in a respectful place, ideally a room with a door that can be closed where one can have some measure of solitude and peace, which won’t have mundane or sexual activity happening within it.  This would be ideal, of course, as with any concerns for establishing a temple space, but as I’ve said before, it’s far from essential.  Do what you can as best as you can.  If the room has access to a window that faces outside, all the better.

Getting back to the shrine itself, what about things to go on it besides just the lamp?  In my post about the shrine lamp, I also mentioned that I’ve experimented with other things placed on my shrine(s) in the past, in various orders or combinations or arrangements:

  • A natural tall-ish stone, or a brick/stone pyramid, situated and rising from a bowl of water to represent the Benben mound of Egyptian cosmogonic myth
  • An image (statue, scroll, painting, etc.) of Hermēs Trismegistos, either with or without accompanying (and perhaps smaller) images of his students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn
  • An image of the Agathodaimōn or HGA
  • An image of the Divine Cosmos or of Divine Nature (much as one might find in Jeffrey Kupperman’s excellent Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus’ Philosophy, Theology, and Theurgy)
  • A small abstract model of Adocentyn (or, as one might consider it, Hermopolis Theia) from the Picatrix
  • A pair of images to represent the Sun and Moon, or seven such images of the seven planets
  • Images or symbols of one’s general faith and religion, especially if one syncretizes Hermeticism with another religion or practices it as a mystical approach to another religion (e.g. a crucifix for Christian Hermeticists)
  • Calligraphy of sacred words, verses, or statements of faith

These are all possibilities one might consider for their own Hermetic shrine, based on what they might contemplate, or venerate as symbols of the Creator or of Creation.  Additionally, one might also have particular images or statues, such as that of Hermēs Trismegistos or of the Sun and Moon or of one’s Agathodaimōn or whatnot, which one might venerate or actively ensoul, and thus enshrine at their Hermetic shrine (which would then render such a thing a shrine in the technical sense I established at the start of this post).  The thing about all these things, though, is that they aren’t essential to making a Hermetic shrine (that’d be the role of the shrine lamp), and are otherwise all so varied and ultimately based on personal needs and desires for such a shrine that it’s hard to generalize anything about it all.  Again, the Hermetic shrine is effectively a tool for our use, and so should be appropriate for our needs; if something doesn’t serve a purpose to us on the shrine, then it shouldn’t be there, and whatever is on there should always be oriented towards the ultimate goal of Hermetic practice.

So is that it, then?  Beyond it being some sort of raised surface off the ground with a lamp on top and a bit of space, is that all that I’d consider required, and everything else (size, height, location, direction, covering, etc.) is up to one’s own personal discretion?  Basically, yeah.  The whole purpose of a Hermetic shrine, to my mind, is to be a centerpoint of spiritual activity for one’s Hermetic mystical practice, but what does that entail?  Prayer, meditation, offerings to the gods in a Hermetic framework, works of purity and ascent, contemplation, and the like—all of this has a place within Hermeticism, to say nothing of astrological or alchemical works, even trafficking with any number of spirits ouranic or chthonic for the purposes of one’s own Work in this world.  To that end, one doesn’t need a whole lot beyond a bit of space that one can call their own, that one can turn to as a command-center of sorts, that one can trust will be there for them for works both routine or irregular.  As one’s own practice evolves, so too may the specific concerns on the shrine; at one time there may be a cross, at another an image of a solar deity, at another an image of the cosmos as some sort of astrological mandala, but always will the shrine itself be a thing to hold a bit of space apart from the rest of one’s life specifically for one’s own Hermetic endeavors.

To summarize this winding, rambling post:

  • The Hermetic shrine’s primary purpose is to act as a sacred space to engage in Hermetic mystic practices.
  • Required aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be a raised surface, elevated off the floor.
    • The shrine must contain at least one thing at all times in a central and clearly-visible place: a shrine lamp.
    • There should be some sort of storage (underneath or to the side) to keep offering dishes clean and safe when not in use.
    • There should be sufficient space on the surface to hold offering dishes when in use.
  • Suggested or encouraged aspects of the shrine:
    • The shrine should be at a reasonable height for one to kneel or sit at for extended durations without discomfort.
    • The shrine should be kept in a quiet room with a door that closes to be used as a temple space in general, away from mundane or sexual activity.
    • The shrine should be kept facing the east, or positioned in a way that one could face it either east or south.
    • The shrine may be covered with a clean tablecloth.
    • The shrine may hold ensouled statues or devotional images for propitiation or contemplation.

What about actually setting up or maintaining the shrine?  I mean, lots of traditions have particular conditions and processes on sanctifying or purifying implements or space for sacred purposes, but…I mean, one can certainly do that, too, with the Hermetic shrine and every object that goes on it, and I wouldn’t argue against doing so, especially if one feels strongly or is already engaged in a temple/exoteric practice that makes use of such preparatory actions.  The most important thing for actually setting up or maintaining the shrine, though, as I see it?  Just keep it clean and set aside for Hermetic stuff.  If it gets dusty, wipe it down with a clean cloth; if something spills, clean it up quickly.  Don’t use the offering dishes for kitchen stuff again, and don’t use obviously filthy things with or near the shrine.  Maybe sprinkle a bit of holy water over the furniture before using it as a shrine, maybe do a monthly or seasonal cleansing of the shrine and all its tools as you use it.  Cleaning or maintaining the shrine doesn’t need to be a whole affair or anything beyond routine tidiness unless you really want it to be.  To be sure, the more thorough and dedicated you turn everything towards, the better off things will be overall, but the more expert stuff can be left for a time when you have more expertise.  If you’re just getting started, the most important thing is to just start, and everything else will proceed from there.  You can always improve on the shrine over time, just as you improve upon yourself over time.

Based on my own experiences and practices, there are a few things I could suggest that one might keep at such a Hermetic shrine.  These are just extra tools or supplies to have on hand for a variety of works and practices, all of which might also be kept in storage with the offering dishes if needed.  Again, nothing here is required, but the things in the lists below are those which I have personally found to be useful in fulfilling the vast majority of my regular (and a good number of irregular) spiritual operations that I get up to, or which make the things I do at my Hermetic shrine just more convenient in general:

  • Recommended tools, utilities, or fixtures of a shrine:
    • A bowl or vessel for preparing lustral water to make ablutions from (e.g. a khernibeion for khernips)
    • An aspergillum for sprinkling things with liquid
    • A bowl for making liquid offerings from
    • A cup or goblet for partaking in libations or for mystic works
    • A snuffer and trimmer for wicks of candles or oil lamps
    • A knife for cutting cloth, string, or other things
    • A set of tweezers and/or tongs for holding things at a distance or which require fine dexterity
    • A lighter or set of matches for lighting lamps or incense
    • A shawl (preferably of natural plant-based fibers and of a white or natural light color) for covering one’s shoulders and/or head while praying or engaging in particular works
    • A prayer rug (whether a small fabric carpet or a grass mat) to kneel or sit on while at the shrine
    • A shallow but wide non-porous, fireproof tray for performing particular works with
    • Small wooden or stone stands for elevating sacred images or to act as mini-altars for particular works
    • A quiet timer for meditation
    • A bell (whether one with a handle or a singing bowl/gong struck with a mallet)
    • A set of prayer beads for reciting chants
    • A book of prayers and ritual to recite and perform
    • A book of sacred texts or scriptures to read and contemplate
    • Clean white washcloths
    • Glass jars with airtight lights for storage of liquids, powders, or the like
    • A wastebin with liners/bags for any detritus or rubbish for immediate disposal
  • Recommend supplies for works and operations at a shrine:
    • Clean water
    • Olive oil
    • Wine
    • High-proof neutral alcohol
    • Coal for censers and loose incense
    • White chalk, whether for drawing out patterns or crumbling into powder
    • Pens, ink, and clean paper
    • Twine or string made from hemp, cotton, or linen
    • Natron
    • Pure salt (whether sea salt or rock salt, or one might have different kinds available for different purposes)
    • Pure soil or sand

Still, all these are just things I might recommend as extras that might be good to have on hand, all of which may depend more importantly on your own practice, and any of which might be called for or not depending on the direction you take things in for yourself.  The big thing to remember is that, so long as the shrine lamp burns, there’s a Light to guide you, and beyond that, the shrine gives you a place to pray, read, meditate, and work.  There doesn’t need to be a whole lot else to this, and in this regard, simplicity really can be (and is) best.  At times, I do find it helpful to have separate shrines or work-spaces for different traditions or styles of work; in that regard, while the Hermetic shrine might be good for a good number of operations, it may not be good for all possible works one might get up to.  Still, not all such work-spaces need to be permanent fixtures in one’s temple space, or sometimes one just needs to do enough for a spirit or god to take care of the rest.  Just as the Hermetic shrine gives us a focus for our Hermetic work, so too should we be focused on Hermetic stuff while we’re at it; that’s the big thing to remember, and everything else will take care of itself from there.

Feasts at a Hermetic Shrine

In the last post, I brought up the notion of what sorts of offerings one might make at a shrine used for Hermetic devotions and worship and how one might go about arranging them.  For me in general, this is an important thing to mull over, because I find the simple making of offerings (even just incense, candles, and water) to be a hugely beneficial work unto itself.  And yes, sure, while Hermēs at the end of the Asclepius (AH 41) says that one shouldn’t offer incense to God:

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”

When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”

Such a direction only really applies to the One God, not to the many gods.  After all, earlier on in the Asclepius (AH 38), Hermēs praises works of sacrifice for the gods, or at least those that inhabit cult images in temples:

And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

While I think that making offerings to the gods is never something done in vain and can be done anytime and all the time, I also find that it helps to have some sort of routine, rhythm, or rubric by which one can organize the timing of offerings, what sorts of offerings should be given, and the like.  This is where the notion of ritual timing comes into play, and so raises the question of when we should engage in such works of offering and sacrifice.  There are lots of terms for such events, but a good general-purpose one we might use is simply “feast”—if not for us, then at least for the gods.

In the last post, I cited a few Hermetic Testimonies (TH) texts that informed my notion of what can/should be given at a Hermetic shrine for Hermetic work, according to a few Islamic-era texts that describe some clearly non-Islamic (but potentially Islamicly-filtered) practices that may well be Hermetic.  Let’s review those texts once more, with the bits about timing highlighted.

TH 37B (Picatrix III.7), but using the Attrell/Porreca translation:

The opinion of the sages about the prayers and petitions suited to the planets is that each of the planets acts on matters corresponding to its own nature (the fortunate to the good and the unfortunate to the evil).  When you wish to ask something from the planets, see to it that the chosen planet be aspected by the lord of the ascendant, that the almuten of the figure be in the east and also high in its epicycle in the fourth altitude in the east.  Then the sages would make their petitions.  The powers and effects of the planets are stronger and of greater influence at night.  Beware lest you seek anything from the any planet that is not from its own proper nature since it would be the downfall of such a request.

The sages who made prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did the abovementioned things.  When the heavens moved by eight degrees, they made the sacrifice of one animal, and while it as setting by eight degrees, they made another sacrifice.  They say that Hermes ordered them to do this in mosques or in their churches.  Those sages have claimed regarding Hermes that he was lord of the three thriving roles, namely a king, a prophet, and a sage.

The context of this part of the Picatrix is from a lengthy chapter that contains descriptions of the seven planets, what their properties and associations are, and what prayers may be recited for them (and how!) for a number of ends.  These prayers specify particular astrological configurations (e.g. for Saturn “you must wait until he enters into good condition” like in Libra, Aquarius, or Capricorn), so these can reasonably fall into the domain of astrological magic, but if you consider Hermeticism or those influenced by it to participate in an astrological religion, then there’s little difference between the two.

In that light, what we see here is also astrological in nature, but rather than it being about a particular election, it’s about repeated and regular rituals rituals after an election.  Once a particular planetary working was performed at a given election, two further sacrifices were given to the planet, each when it had passed eight degrees along the ecliptic.  Thus, for example, if I were to do an operation of the Sun when it was at is exaltation degree of 18° Aries, then I’d make another sacrifice to the Sun at 18 + 8 = 26° Aries, and then again at 26 + 8 = 34 → 4° Taurus.  Depending on the speed of the planet in question, it could take anywhere from a day to a year or more, but the point is to follow up one ritual with two subsequent ones, either as thanks or to revisit the working to ensure its success.  However, I wouldn’t really call these “feasts”, not really; while these would be ritualized offerings, they’re done as follow-ups to particular purpose-driven operations, like follow-up visits to the doctor after a once-in-a-lifetime health procedure rather than a regularly-scheduled yearly checkup.

We’ll look at the next two together, since they’re pretty similar in content.  First, TH 28 (Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim 7.8—10.19):

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

And then Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, “On the Three Hermēses”:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

As opposed to being as-needed purpose-driven operations, what these extracts give us would be much closer to religious observances.  They’re still astrologically-determined, sure, but they’re not as arbitrary or at-will as what Picatrix III.7 was describing.  From these, we get the following notions:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun).  This makes sense and is a pretty common observance to make the whole world over, given how the observable synodic cycle of the Moon is a common basis for months in lunar or lunisolar calendars.  Repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign.  For anyone astrologically-inclined, this would also make sense for similar reasons as the observance of the new Moon, just for a strictly solar calendar rather than a lunar/lunisolar one.  (Consider the Persian Nowruz celebration, marking the new year at the March equinox when the Sun enters Aries.)  More repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their domiciles.  Now we’re getting into actual astrological stuff, but in a way that’s as repeated and regular as the strictly lunar and solar observances as before.  (In the case of the Sun, this would overlap with the Sun ingressing into Leo.)
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their exaltations (or, more specifically, arrive at their degrees of exaltation).  Again, similar as above with planets ingressing into their domiciles, but there are two options here.  While we might perform such a feast when a given planet enters the sign of its exaltation (e.g. Venus hits 0° Pisces), exaltations are technically degree-based dignities of the planets, so instead of doing it by sign ingress, we might instead do this when the planet hits that specific degree (e.g. Venus hits 26° Pisces).  This gives us something like two or three observances a year for each planet (possibly more if we consider the separate times a planet hits a degree due to retrograde motion as a separate observance worthy of action).
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another, and possibly other aspects.  Unlike the above, this is not something so regular or repeated, because it depends on particular astrological configurations of the planets that might happen on any timescale, like the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that happen once every 20 years or so.  Now, the language here is somewhat conflicting or obscure: what such events are worthy of such an observance?  Conjunctions are specifically highlighted, but between what planets, or how many planets?  For other aspects, do we care about greater aspects (oppositions and trines) or lesser aspects (squares and sextiles)?  For Mercury and Venus, do we care about whether a conjunction is superior (on the far side of the Sun during direct motion) or inferior (between the Earth and the Sun during retrograde motion)?  Depending on the strictness of one’s observation, one could really open up the field here to quite a lot of feasts all the time or just a handful of them a year.

Also, something I’d also like to propose in addition to the above, based not on Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia but classical-period Greco-Egyptian practice: the decans!  These are 10-day periods, basically the equivalent of Egyptian “weeks”, which were used to track the passage of time, and later became incorporated into Hellenistic and later forms of astrology as “faces”, 10° segments of the ecliptic, giving three decans/faces to a sign (o° to 10°, 1o° to 20°, and 20° to 30°).  Like most of the above, these would be regular and repeated observances, but definitely on a more frequent timescale than any of the others…unless we also factor in lunar phases beyond the New Moon, like the Full Moon or quarter Moons.  It’s interesting how new Moons are specifically highlighted as an observance for making offerings, but not any other kind of lunar timing beyond this; one might presume that smaller or private observances might have been made without as much public pomp as new Moon ones, but that’s entirely conjecture.  Either way, we can certainly consider the above highlights from the Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia give a good number of basic observances to start with that form the foundation of an astrologically-informed religious practice, to which we can add other astrologically-informed observances to if desired for a more active and rigorous schedule.

In addition to all the above—or, technically, as a specification of one of the items from above—I’d also like to highlight a particular observance when Mercury hits the fifteenth degree of Virgo (i.e. 14° Virgo).  This is part of the specific astrological timing given in NHC VI,6, the Coptic Hermetic text Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, as that to be used for the inscribing of sacred steles:

“Child, copy this book for the temple at Diospolis  in hieroglyphic characters, and call it the Eighth Reveals the Ninth.”

“I shall do it, father,  as you command.”

“Child,  copy the contents of the book on turquoise steles.  Child, it is fitting to copy this book on turquoise steles in hieroglyphic characters, for mind itself has become the supervisor of these things. So I command that this discourse be carved into stone and that you put it in my sanctuary.  Eight guards watch over it with…the sun: the males on the right have faces of frogs, and the females on the left have faces of cats.  Put a square milkstone at the base of the turquoise tablets, and copy the name on the azure stone tablet in hieroglyphic characters. Child, you must do this when I am in Virgo, and the sun is in the first half of the day, and fifteen degrees have passed by me.”

I should note that the fifteenth degree of Virgo is the exaltation degree of Mercury, so this would already technically be accounted for in the above lists, but would definitely rank as a super-important observance to make.

Also, to follow up on something from the Picatrix, remember all that talk we had about the communion with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6According to the ritual instructions given there, one is to undertake the operation when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. 0° Aries).  Technically, the Moon is only in the first degree of Aries for about a two-hour window once every 28 days, but the Moon’s ingress to Aries could be reckoned more broadly as another kind of “new month”, just using a sidereal lunar month instead of a synodic one.  Although not given in the above list, we might also generalize this to make an observance for the Moon ingress into every sign just as the Sun does, which would rank as the most frequent type of observance (twelve or thirteen per month, once every two or three days!).

Anyway!  In the last post, though, I also highlighted another excerpt from Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, from the section “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar; also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I; and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ.

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

The Ṣābians (or Sabaeans) of Ḥarrān are a fascinating group.  Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot about them, but we know at least a few things, namely that they were a Semitic group in upper Mesopotamia (now in southern Turkey near the Syrian border) practicing a kind of polytheistic, astrologically-inclined religion well into the Islamic period.  In classical times, it was the principal city for the worship of the lunar deity Sin, and given its location at a trade crossroads (the literal meaning of the word harrānu in Akkadian), it had access to lots of religious influences from the old world.  After centuries of obstinate refusal to convert to Christianity, when it stood to be conquered by Islamic caliphs, the inhabitants of Ḥarrān were given a choice: convert to Islam, prove that they were a People of the Book as a protected people, or die.  On account of this, the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān claimed that they had Hermēs Trismegistos as a prophet, making themselves officially Hermeticists of a sort, which would legitimize them in the eyes of Islam since Hermēs Trismegistos was assimilated to the prophet ‘Idrīs, himself the biblical patriarch Enoch.  Of course, as Kevin van Bladel has amply shown in The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, they weren’t really Hermetic in any way one might recognize beyond being some sort of Neoplatonic or Pseudo-Aristotelian astrally-focused polytheists, who held many pagan sages and philosophers in high esteem well beyond just Hermēs Trismegistos.  (For real, van Bladel’s book is an excellent source on the discussion of the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān in general with ample sources and quotes, do check it out.)

What we find in the Bar Hebraeus quote above is a description of some of the practices attributed to such a people.  None of it is particularly Hermetic or tied to Hermeticism, and given the evidence van Bladel presents there may well not be any such connection at all, but it is noteworthy as a religion at least nominally tied in some marginal (and marginalized) way to Hermēs Trismegistos.  While there’s more here about regular religious practice (which doesn’t neatly mesh with what we know of from the classical Hermetic texts), I do find it fascinating that there are three fasting periods listed:

  • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
  • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
  • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)

I’m using the Hebrew month names here, but we should remember that the Hebrew calendar, which itself is a continuation of the earlier Babylonian calendar which was in use for quite a while and which spawned later calendars all across Mesopotamia and the near/middle East.  It’s not clear what these fasts would be for or why they were celebrated, but it is an interesting thing to note all the same for religious observances, especially if one wanted to take a more generically Old World-inspired religious approach to observances (and which might be tied into the “fast on recognized days of each month” bit from TH 28 above).  After all, we should remember that the lunar/lunisolar Babylonian calendar and its derivatives have little to do with the solar Egyptian calendar and its derivatives (like the Coptic calendar), which arrange for time in a much different way.

On that point, I’m reminded of an earlier discussion I had back when I was considering holy days for a geomantic practice, when trying to figure out a feast day of sorts to commemorate and venerate Hermēs Trismegistos himself.  And that opens up a whole new can of worms for us to mull over, doesn’t it?  All the above are very astral/astrological observances that recognize the changes, ebbs, and flows of things in the cosmos, which is certainly an important thing for a Hermetic practice that seeks to be awe-struck by the beauty of the cycles of the cosmos to incorporate, but what about other holidays and feasts that aren’t astrologically determined or which are for the explicit purpose of astrological observations?  This would include things like feasts and holidays from Hellenic and Egyptian religious traditions that fed into the development of Greco-Egyptian spiritualities like Hermeticism, and a handful I can think of would be:

  • The Greek Hermaia, to be celebrated on the fourth day of the tenth lunar month, the days reckoned from the first sighting of the Moon and the months reckoned from the first new Moon after the June solstice (putting this usually sometime in March)
  • The Roman Mercuralia, celebrated on May 15
  • The Egyptian Thoth festival celebrated on the third day of the Wag festival, so the 19th day of the first month, reckoned from the heliacal rising of Sirius (using the ancient Egyptian reckoning, which varies from latitude to latitude on Earth but is generally between late July and late August) or from the start of the Coptic New Year (using the modern Coptic calendar, starting on September 11)

And those three would just be the most famous ones focusing on Hermēs-Mercurius-Thōth as analogues for our own Hermēs Trismegistos based on other religious traditions with their own calendars, to say nothing of minor or more regional holidays across the Mediterranean.  If we expand that to also include ones for Asklēpios-Imhotep or Ammōn-Amūn as other students of Hermēs Trismegistos (the student-son Tat being equivalent to Thōth himself), we’d get even more candidates for holidays.  As for whether one should incorporate them is a matter for one’s own personal practice, of course, especially if one is already engaged in one of these sorts of paganisms today (e.g. modern Hellenism or Kemeticism).  Given the trouble I had with trying to figure out what would have been a reasonable feast day for Hermēs Trismegistos all those many moons ago, I’ll leave this thread here for others to pick up if they so choose.  If I were pressed to make a choice, I’d just make up arbitrary Gregorian calendar-based dates for honoring Hermēs Trismegistos and the rest of them that use repeating numbers: March 3 for Hermēs  Trismegistos and April 4 for Tat (or vice versa, or together as one or the other), June 6 for Asklēpios-Imhotep, and December 12 for Ammōn-Amūn.

Besides just figuring out feasts for individual gods apart from astrological considerations, there’s also an abundance of choices one might have for particular commemorations, whether cultural, historical, or personal.  Because of how much possibility there is for that, both that I might consider for myself as well as others for themselves, it’s just too much to consider in a single post even for me, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.  What I think we can all agree on, however, are the transitions and changes that the cycles of astrological phenomena might suggest as being a good foundation for everyone to consider.  I’ve idly considered making a sort of prayer practice composed of interlocking cycles that relate to astronomical and cosmic ones:

  • Two, three, four, or six prayers for the four times of the day
    • Sunrise, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight
    • Dawn, sunrise, noon, sunset, dusk, midnight
  • Seven prayers for the seven days of the week
  • Ten prayers for the ten days of each decan
  • 12 prayers for the Sun or Moon ingress into each sign of the Zodiac
  • 28 prayers for the Moon ingress into each lunar mansion
  • 36 prayers for the Sun ingress into each decan
  • Three, four, six, or eight prayers for the lunar phases
    • Waxing, culminating, waning
    • New, waxing, full, waning
    • New, first sighting after syzygy, waxing, full, waning, last sighting before syzygy
    • New, crescent, waxing, gibbous, full, disseminating, waning, balsamic

Needless to say, trying to get all of that done on a regular basis is…well, outside my and most people’s capabilities for the time being (I’ve tried), probably only being reasonable for those living a highly regulated prayer-centric monastic lifestyle actively dedicated to this sort of thing.  Still, the idea of it is appealing, as it’s a way to fully line oneself up and keep oneself in tune with the natural rhythms of the Sun, Moon, and other planets (directly or indirectly).  And while I don’t think trying to implement a full prayer rule based on all of this is reasonable or feasible (I’ve kinda sorta done something like that with my Hermetic Epitomes in my Preces Templi ebook), I can at least observe such cycles with a brief moment of recognition when possible, even if just once a day.  But this is getting distracted from the main topic we were discussing.  While the observation of cycles and the progress within them is important, it’s the transitions between cycles or acyclical happenings that are what give the notion of Hermetic feasts; thus, recognizing every single day of the Sun being in a given zodiacal sign isn’t as important as recognizing the day when the Sun enters a new sign.  Without going crazy when it comes to obscure combinations of events (like I’ve experimented with my Grammatēmerologion before), probably keeping a handful of things down to a few general-purpose ideas is good enough for most people, and would still keep one plenty busy.

Of course, the next question that naturally arises: sure, we’re observing particular astrological phenomena as feasts, but what are we celebrating as a feast? To whom (or what) do we direct offerings that we’d make at such a feast?  For the astrological phenomena, at least, the answer would be straightforward enough: the planets themselves.  At least, that’d be the first answer; the secondary choice would also be the fixed stars themselves, either as single stars (if a planet were to become conjunct with one, like Jupiter and Regulus) or as constellations or decans (e.g. for the Sun entering Leo, celebrating both the Sun and/or the actual constellation Leo as a divine entity itself).  Given the highlighting of the Moon (celebrating new moons) and the Sun (celebrating new zodiac signs), the two luminaries would be primary among all the stars, but the others (primarily the wandering stars) all get offerings for their own needs at the appropriate time.

But does this make sense, to make offerings to the planets (or stars more generally) as gods?  I claim that it does from several perspectives.  For one, we know that astral polytheism is totally a thing, and while the TH fragments above might be reflecting an Islamically-perspectived mishmash of different pagan traditions lumped together as “Hermeticism” (like with the ︎Ṣābians of Ḥarrān), they do also show that the planets and stars were worshipped as gods with sacrifices being made to them.  But, for two, we also know that the planets are of paramount importance in Hermeticism as being the cosmic forces that allow creation to continue being created and creating.  Sure, from a more gnostic-flavored standpoint, they’re the things that weigh us down with energies of incarnation, but from a more holistically Hermetic view, they are the things that allow the beauty of the goodness of God to flourish through creation, including the fleshy vehicles that we travel in.  (It’s a gift with a cost, sure, but it’s still a gift all the same.)  In making good with the planets and stars, not only do we gratify them and obtain their assistance instead of just their assailing, but we also bring ourselves closer to them through the act of communion—which is what the work of offering facilitates.  (And that doesn’t even touch on the gods down here, inhabiting bodies of their own such as temple statues or sacred natural objects, that we make offerings to as well, which may also be associated with or considered to be the planetary gods, much as the Navagraha are in Hindu temple practice.)

In the end, there’s lots of opportunities for establishing particularly important days for Hermetic practice, at least as far as offerings and special devotions are concerned.  One can certainly expand them to any arbitrarily complex and rigorous degree right down to every planetary hour if desired (or even planetary minutes!), but whether that’s required or even recommended would be matter for one’s own schedule, availability, and willingness.  Still, based on what we might know from historical accounts, there are definitely a few important highlights to hit that would be reasonable for any Hermeticist to pick up on, and I think that’s good enough for anyone to start with.

Offerings at a Hermetic Shrine

It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many of my readers that much of my recent research and reading focuses on the classical Hermetic stuff.  As a general rule of thumb, I like using the best-available dating of the Emerald Tablet from the Kitāb Sirr al-Ḫalīqa (“Book of the Secrets of Creation”) as a cut-off, so sometime around the 6th or 7th century CE; that which is written before this is what I consider “classical Hermeticism”, and after this “post-classical Hermeticism” (ranging from medieval to Renaissance to modern, depending on the time period and geographic origin of a given text).  I like dividing these texts up in this way because, at least in western Europe prior to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 15th century, this cut-off date roughly corresponds to a shift in the overall focus of Hermetic texts.  While there was always a heavy practical/technical component involved in Hermeticism at all points in time, there was a much stronger and more pronounced mystical and theosophical (or, more traditionally, philosophical/theoretical) bent to many such texts, as evidenced by the Corpus Hermeticum, the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, the Latin Asclepius or Perfect Sermon, and the like.  After this point, however—roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire’s closing of pagan temples in the 4th and 5th centuries—much of the mystical stuff seemed to have faded into the background, and the more practical and magical stuff was not only left but was also drastically expanded, with the more mystical components no longer being provided by Greco-Egyptian religiosity but by Christianity and Islam.

However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any further mystical or religious elements in post-classical Hermeticism.  On the contrary, there’s plenty of it to be found, albeit in a diminished and somewhat preserved state.  In a number of grimoires, magical manuals, and historical records written, we see reference to particular practices that don’t cleanly fit as merely magical or occult, but rather descriptions of things that would be classified more as worship.  I find this to be super fascinating because, outside of a small handful of things from classical Hermetic texts, we don’t have a big notion of what actual worship would have been like for a Hermeticist as a Hermeticist, rather than as someone participating in general Greco-Egyptian or Hellenistic temple cult more generally.  For instance, turning to a few of the classical texts, we see a few ideas:

  • CH I.29—30: nighttime (pre-sleep?) prayers
  • CH XIII.15: face east for morning/sunrise prayers and south for evening/sunset prayers
  • AH 41: face west for evening/sunset prayers and east for morning/sunrise prayers, no use of incense when praying to God, prayers are followed by a ritual embrace and ritual vegetarian/bloodless meal

And…well, without reading in between the lines of the rest of the classical Hermetic texts too much (e.g. does CH IV suggest a ritual baptism?), that’s about all we get.

As can be seen just now, I like using abbreviations to refer to particular Hermetic texts, like CH for Corpus Hermeticum, AH for the Latin Asclepius, DH for the Armenian Definitions, and so forth.  I have compiled a whole index of Hermetic texts and references for the benefit of the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, where I list all the abbreviations for the major texts based on our current state of Hermetic scholarship.  The numbering of the CH and AH is pretty well-known across many modern texts, while the SH (Hermetic fragments and excerpts from the Anthology of John of Stobi, aka Stobaeus) numbering is based on that originally given in Walter Scott’s four-volume Hermetica series in the first part of the 20th century.  However, there’s also the FH and TH texts—though “texts” might be a bit of a stretch.  These stand for “Hermetic Fragments” and “Hermetic Testimonies”, the former being smaller quotes or excerpts preserved in other authors, the latter being accounts of or about Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermeticism.  M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II contains an abundant wealth of FH and TH texts, and introduces them accordingly:

When approaching the Hermetic fragments, one must distinguish between a direct citation, a paraphrase, the employment of Hermetic ideas, and the mere naming of Hermes Thrice Great. In this section (FH), I strive to print only direct citations or paraphrases of Hermes Thrice Great. Moreover, I favor passages that do not appear elsewhere in Hermetic literature. Thus citations of CH and Ascl. by later authors are not included. Those interested in authors who employ Hermetic ideas or who refer in passing to Hermes should proceed to the Testimonies concerning Hermes Thrice Great (TH).

As for the TH specifically:

The Hermetic testimonies printed here range from the late third century BCE until the fifteenth century CE. The authors quoted are Jewish, Phoenician, Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim. They all present different portraits of Hermes that cannot easily be reconciled. For example, the Jewish writer Artapanus identified Hermes with Moses the great culture hero. The Christian Athenagoras indicated that Hermes was a deified king like Alexander the Great. Iamblichus the Neoplatonic philosopher presented Hermes as a god. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, depicted him as an idolater and demonically inspired prophet. The Alexandrian philosopher Hermias presented Hermes as triply incarnated. The Muslim writer Abū Ma‘shar said that there were three different Hermeses. The first of these built the pyramids in Egypt; the second was a Babylonian scholar; and the third was an expert on poisons. According to the magical handbook the Picatrix, Hermes was the builder of a mystical, multi-colored city featuring a wondrous temple to the Sun and an array of animated statues.

Whatever their diversity of content, these testimonies show that Hermes the philosopher and culture hero was never far removed from Hermes the magus and master of esoteric lore. Hermes was the inventor of writing according to Philo of Byblos. Yet according to the same author, he used his magic spells to help Kronos defeat his enemies. Arnobius put Hermes in the company of Pythagoras and Plato. Yet the Peratic author linked Hermes with Ostanes and Zoroaster (called Zoroastris), the chief Persian magi. For the philosopher Iamblichus, Hermes was the great guide to theurgists. In turn, most Arabic writers viewed Hermes as an expert on astrology and alchemy. Such testimonies indicate that the constructed boundary between “philosophical” and “technical” Hermetic writings remains questionable.

Although the following testimonies are wide-ranging, they are hardly exhaustive. We do not trace the reception history of the Asclepius by Latin writers after Augustine, since this work has already been done. Moreover, some works attributed to Hermes – such as the Arabic Rebuke of the Soul – are too long to be included here and are available elsewhere. There are dozens more Arabic and medieval Latin sources that make mention of Hermes, often in passing. A great number of these are alchemical, astrological, and magical texts that somehow feature Hermes or are attributed to him. Even today, this material remains largely uncharted by scholars. A full and exhaustive record of Hermetic testimonies can only await new critical editions and studies of these materials.

In a sense, while we might consider texts like CH, AH, DH, and the like to be primary sources and the FH texts to be quasi-primary or secondary sources, the TH texts that Litwa gives are tertiary at best, if not outright stories about some variant or other of Hermēs rather than necessarily being Hermetic.  As a case in point, Litwa opens up a few sources from the third to first centures BCE, like a quote from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, written well before our usual dating of even the earliest CH texts.  Likewise, there’s also stuff from medieval Arabic and Latin texts which show abundant Islamicization or Christianization of Hermēs Trismegistos, or other adaptations of this pagan prophet to a non-pagan cultural milieu.  And yet, despite this, we still get some interesting accounts about what Hermēs and his followers (were thought to have) taught and practiced.

For instance, consider Litwa’s TH 37b, better known as book III, chapter 7 from the Picatrix:

The sages who made these prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did all of the foregoing things. While the planet moved through eight degrees of heaven, they would sacrifice one animal, and similarly when it declined by another eight degrees they would offer another sacrifice. They say that Hermēs commanded them to do this in mosques or in their own churches. These sages say of the aforementioned Hermēs that he was the lord of the three flowers of things, that is, king, prophet, and sage. They require that no animal of two colors, nor black, nor having a broken bone nor a horn broken in any way, nor an injured eye, nor having any flaw in its body, be sacrificed in their mosques. When they behead an animal, they take out its liver at once. They examine it, and if they find any defect or spot in it, they say that the lord of that place has some notable impediment. They then cut up the liver and give it to one of the bystanders to eat.

Perhaps more fascinatingly, we can turn instead to TH 28, which Litwa draws from sections 7.8—10.19 of the Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (“Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms”, otherwise known as Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers) by Abū al-Wafā’ Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik:

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

We also see something similar to TH 28 in the following excerpt from the Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal (“Brief History of Nations”) by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, specifically the section “On the Three Hermēses”.  Although this isn’t in Litwa’s Hermetica II (and thus lacks a TH number), Walter Scott provides a Latin translation of this bit in his fourth volume of his Hermetica series:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

Based on all of these testimonies regarding Hermēs and Hermetic “religion”, such as it might have been considered by Islamic or Christian authors that well postdated the classical heyday of Hermeticism, we can still see clearly non-Islamic and non-Christian stuff going on.  We get, for example, a set of feasts and celebrations to be done according to particular astrological phenomena:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun)
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign
  • Planets ingress into their domiciles
  • Planets arrive at their degrees of exaltations
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another (and possibly other aspects)

For these feasts (in addition to the ones we know were observed classically even if not listed here, like the Sun ingressing into individual decans as opposed to general signs or the full Moon in addition to the new Moon), we also get notions of things given in offering sacrifice: incense/perfume, wine, flowers (especially roses), grains (especially barley and wheat), fruit (especially grapes), and sacrificial animals (with the conditions that they should be unblemished and healthy, of a single colors, and not black).  We also see notions about ritual purity and prohibited foodstuffs and drinks, some of which might seem Islamic on the surface of them but which can reasonably be tied to historical prohibitions from Greco-Roman times for Egyptian priests.

And, of course, this is just limiting ourselves to just what Hermēs (was claimed to have) taught.  If we expand our scope slightly, we can then also account for some of the accounts involving the Sabians of Harran, who took the Hermetic texts as their gospel in an attempt to become a People of the Book (given an identification of Hermēs Trismegistos with the quranic prophet Idris and thus the patriarch Enoch).  If we turn back to Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal for a moment, we also see another section, “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar (i.e. Hebrew Adar); also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I (i.e. Hebrew Kīslev); and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ (i.e. Hebrew Šẹvat).

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

Based on these practices of the Sabians, we can also gather the following information:

  • Prayer and worship practices
    • Pray facing the north
    • Prostration-based prayer practice not unlike the Islamic rak’ah, each prostration having three prayers
    • Pray three times a day
      • A half hour or less before sunrise with eight prostrations
      • Just after noon (as the Sun begins to descend) with five prostrations
      • Just before sunset (to be completed as the Sun sets) with five prostrations
    • Animal sacrifices are burned whole without being eaten
  • Fasts
    • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
    • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
    • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)
  • Prohibited foods
    • All abstain from (cultivated) beans and garlic
    • Some abstain from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils

It’s in light of all of this that I think that, even if we have a dearth of classical evidence of Hermetic rites and processes of worship, I think we have plenty of post-classical stuff that we can extrapolate from and work with all the same.  It might take a bit of sifting and reconfiguration, but as an attempt at (re)constructing a Hermetic practice based on available evidence, we have a surprising abundance of stuff to work with that makes sense for Hermetic stuff in general.

All of that is my introduction to talking specifically about shrine offerings.  Yes, while the notion of Hermetic feasts or holidays is certainly important, we also learn plenty about what they offered for such practices, and it’s that specific idea that I’ve been considering lately.  While I’m still settling on a firm notion of what a proper Hermetic shrine should consist of, at least for me (beyond, at least, the presence of a shrine lamp), I still want to take into account the notion of what sorts of offerings the above TH excerpts suggest, in tandem with my own experience of offerings and exposure to other approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, because offerings constitute a huge part of my own practice.  Sure, in a Hermetic view, the big focus of it all is on God rather than the gods, and to God one should offer nothing except pure offerings of speech in silence—but that’s just for God, not the gods, who do reasonably get quite a lot more and whose importance should never be underestimated in supporting a Hermeticist’s work and way.  And, while one could simply wing it and freestyle sets of offerings based on the above quite easily, I like having particular processes and protocols in place to give myself a formal foundation of practice.

To that end, while any given shrine should have a few basic necessities and other accouterment that facilitate worship and veneration (such as implements of prayer like bells or beads, books for reciting prayers or reading scripture, etc.), I would think that one should first get a set of dishes to make offerings with.  Based on the excerpts above, we know that the big things offered were incense, wine, grains, fruit, and flowers, so we can use this as a basis for figuring out what sorts of dishes we’d need.  My thoughts on this would be:

  • Twelve dishes should be used for formal offerings:
    • One tray (bowl, tripod, brazier, censer, thurible, boat, etc.) for incense offerings
    • Three candle holders or oil lamps for light offerings
    • Two vases for flower offerings
    • Two cups for liquid offerings
    • Two bowls for grain offerings
    • Two plates for fruit offerings
  • The dishes used may be reasonably small (e.g. shot glasses, rice/ice cream bowls, and bread/butter plates), especially for household or private practice where large offerings are not practical
  • The dishes used should be made in a matching style or aesthetic
  • The dishes used should be non-porous, water-safe, and corrosion-resistant
  • The dishes used should be free of cracks, dents, chips, scratches, or other blemishes
  • The dishes used may be repurposed from other mundane uses after thorough cleaning, if otherwise in good condition, but once used for shrine offerings should not otherwise be used for mundane purposes again
  • Extra candle holders/oil lamps, cups, bowls, and plates may be obtained as replacements or for additional offerings beyond formal offerings
  • Extra saucers or small plates may be used for candle holders to collect any wax that drips off them
  • When not in use, the offering dishes should be safely kept in storage near the shrine

Knowing the types of offerings to be made and the dishes used for them, we can then consider a set of guidelines for what specific offerings to make, how to choose certain offerings, the order of preference when considering particular types of offerings, and what offerings might go well with what other offerings.  Again, based on the above excerpts and my own experience in offerings with my own preferences I’ve developed:

  • All dishes used to make offerings should be removed from shrine storage, rinsed with clean water, and completely dried before use
  • Offerings may be made all at once before the formal start of a ritual, or may be offered one-by-one as a part of the ritual, but each individual type of offering (e.g. “wine” or “wine and water” as appropriate, but “flowers” generically instead of “one vase of flowers and another vase of flowers”) should be specifically enumerated and identified regardless
  • Incense and light must always be offered, but after these, at least one other offering must be made
    • The type of non-incense/non-light offering(s) can be one or more of liquids, grains, fruits, or flowers, according to availability and preference
    • Keep to a symbolic but reasonable number of offering dishes (e.g. three, seven, ten, or twelve dishes, as appropriate to the offering and occasion)
      • Three dishes are offered as a bare but common minimum
      • Twelve dishes are offered as a rare maximum
    • For more common or quotidian offerings, offering fewer dishes is acceptable and encouraged
  • When offering incense:
    • May be offered in self-igniting form (e.g. sticks) or loose form (e.g. resin grains or powders on top of charcoals), as desired
    • Amount of incense may be done in an appropriate number (e.g. three sticks or three scoops of powder)
    • Incense is ideally composed from odiferous substances appropriate to the offering
    • Incense used for offering should be pleasant, or at the very least not harsh
    • Any incense offered, regardless of the number of kinds or amount used, is all considered as one single offering (as it should all be offered on the one single dish)
  • When offering light:
    • At least one light in all cases, but:
      • Only one light should be offered if only three dishes are being offered
      • Two lights may be offered, if desired, if an offering is for an observance that occurs once a month or less and if one is offering more than three dishes
      • Three lights should be reserved only for the largest and grandest/rarest of offerings
    • If more than one light is offered, all such lights should be identical
    • Any light offered should burn for at least thirty minutes but no longer than twelve hours
    • If candles are used:
      • They may always be white or undyed
      • They may also be in a color appropriate to the offering
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • If oil lamps are used:
      • They may be of any non-animal source appropriate to the offering (olive oil always being acceptable)
      • They may also be of an animal source if rendered from the fat of appropriate animals previously sacrificed
      • They should not be blended of multiple sources (e.g. no mixes of olive oil and sesame oil)
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • Wicks used to burn for candles or oil lamps should be of a natural, undyed fabric (e.g. cotton or linen)
  • When offering flowers:
    • If more than one vase is used for offering, all vases should have the same kinds of flowers
    • Roses are most preferred before any other flower
    • The flowers should be in a color and number appropriate to the offering
    • It is best to use only fresh flowers, ideally cut immediately prior to offering
    • If desired (especially for rare or special events), a fresh spray of evergreens may also be included behind the flowers, with fragrant and non-spiny evergreens (e.g. laurel, cinnamon, star anise) being most preferred
  • When offering liquids:
    • If making two liquid offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of liquids
    • Wine (i.e. any non-distilled fermented beverage not of an animal source) and/or clean cool water are preferred before other liquids (e.g. distilled liquor, tea, coffee, soda)
      • For highly frequent offerings (especially daily), water is preferred before wine
      • For less frequent offerings, wine is preferred before water
    • Liquids which can turn moldy or sour (like fresh milk or non-fermented juice) should be offered sparingly, if at all
    • Old or soured wine is discouraged from being offered
    • Any liquid offered must be safe to drink (at least in moderation) for human consumption
  • When offering grains:
    • If making two grain offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of grains
    • Barley is most preferred
    • Wheat is preferred second after barley and before other grains (e.g. oats, rice, millet)
    • Grains may be cooked or uncooked before offering
    • If cooked grains are offered, they should be freshly cooked, unsalted and unseasoned
    • If uncooked grains are offered, it is best to use the first portion of a harvest or otherwise use grains that are not aged or stored for a long period of time
    • If cooked or uncooked grain cannot be obtained, bread or another cooked non-bean staple food may be offered instead
  • When offering fruits:
    • If making two fruit offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two kinds of fruits
    • Grapes are most preferred before any other fruit
    • Any fruit offered should be sweet rather than sour or bitter
    • It is best to use only fresh fruit, ideally obtained immediately prior to offering
    • Fruit should be free of blemishes or injury
    • Fruit should be gently washed before offering
    • Fruit should not be cut up or sliced before offering
    • If fresh fruit cannot be obtained, dried fruit or other prepared non-meat non-staple food (most preferably desserts) may be offered instead

Make a special note of the avoidance of beans and meat in the above offerings (under grain and fruit offerings, respectively).  While one might reasonably avoid beans (fresh or dried) in general (especially given a longstanding Pythagorean avoidance of them), I also recognize that they are a staple food all the same for many people the whole world over; likewise, different kinds of meat may well be offered in sacrifice especially if an animal sacrifice is being performed and not offered as part of a holocaust.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these things cannot be offered in a context of this sort of shrine offering, but rather, I suggest that they shouldn’t be offered as part of this particular formalized offering approach.  Instead, dishes of beans or meat may be offered as additional offerings beyond the formal set of things to be offered, not as substitutes for them.

Similarly, note the deal with water and wine above.  I have always made these two liquids a staple of my own offering practice for many years now, but I’ve gone back and forth on when and how much to offer of either.  I recognize that, based on the TH excerpts above, even if wine was not consumed, it was certainly offered, with water being nowhere mentioned; however, I also consider water to be a universal offering, and not everyone is able to obtain wine or to use it in highly frequent offerings (like those on a daily or even weekly basis).  Because of that, I generally prefer giving water primarily for frequent or low-key offerings, but wine becomes primary for high-key or less-frequent ones.  Your mileage, as ever, may vary, and if you can afford to offer wine regularly, then please feel free to!  Note that I use the term “wine” here generically to refer to any non-distilled fermented beverage, so that would include drinks like beer, sake, toddy, and the like, but not anything distilled like araq, whiskey, vodka, baijiu, or soju.  For similar reasons as above with meat, I would also encourage not offering animal-derived liquids like milk, arkhi, kumis, or eggnog as part of the formal set of offerings, but may be offered beyond them.  As for mead (non-distilled) or honey liqueur (distilled), however, I’ll leave that to one’s determination about whether it qualifies as an extraordinary or ordinary offering, since it is technically derived from animals (bees) but can be argued otherwise.

But that’s not all!  In addition to figuring out what offerings to make, we should also consider how to arrange them in the shrine.  This is, admittedly, a really flexible thing in general, but in addition to how I like setting up my own shrines, I also like to take a hint and a bit of inspiration from the arrangements of Japanese Buddhist shrines, especially in household butsudan arrangements as exemplified here or here (both Shingon) or here (Jōdo Shinshū).  This isn’t to merely ape or appropriate them, but to give an idea of a formal way of arranging fairly universal offerings that are specifically highlighted in those TH texts above in a way that makes sense, at least for myself

  • The lights and incense tray should generally be placed in the center closest to the icon in the shrine, with other offerings placed in front of them slightly further away from the icon in the shrine or on the sides of these
  • When placing lights:
    • If one light is offered, it should be placed either directly in front of the incense tray, behind it on a slightly elevated surface, or to the right of it
    • If two lights are offered, they should be placed on either side of the incense tray
    • If three lights are offered, they should be placed in a row in front of the incense tray with one directly in front of it or behind it on a slightly elevated surface, and the other two on either side of the incense tray
  • When placing flowers:
    • If one vase is offered, it should be placed to the left, either to the left of the incense tray (if only one light is offered and placed on the right of the tray) or to the left of the offering area in general
    • If two vases are offered, they should be placed on the outermost left and right of the offering area
  • When placing liquids:
    • If one cup is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost left (opposite a single grain offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single grain offering is not present)
    • If two cups are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the innermost left and right
  • When placing grains:
    • If one bowl is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost right (opposite a single liquid offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single liquid offering is not present)
    • If two bowls are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the inner left and right (but on the outside of liquid offerings, if also present)
  • When placing fruit:
    • If one plate is offered, it may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the left or right (but in balance with any other single offering, if also present)
    • If two places are offered, they may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the outer left and right (outside of the liquid/grain offerings but inside of the flowers, if any of those are also present)

Likewise, after having made offerings, we should also consider how to remove them once the ritual is done and after some time has elapsed:

  • For incense offerings:
    • Any incense should burn out on their own before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
    • Incense ash may be tamped down in the tray to hold future offerings of incense, repurposed, or disposed
  • Lights may be allowed to safely burn out on their own or be extinguished after a reasonable time, but they must go out or be put out before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
  • For flower offerings:
    • Flowers are to be removed upon wilting, though the water in the vases may be changed out once a day to preserve them as long as desired before they wilt
    • Flowers may be consumed, repurposed, composted, or returned to nature
  • For liquid offerings:
    • Non-water liquids are to be removed within twenty-four hours and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
    • Water is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
  • For grain offerings:
    • Cooked grains are to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Uncooked grains are to be removed within a week and either used for immediate cooking (i.e. not to be mixed with other grains back into storage) and consumption or repurposing, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-grain staple food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
  • For fruit offerings:
    • Fruit is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-fruit prepared food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composed, or scattered outside for animals
  • All dishes used to make offerings should be thoroughly cleaned after each use, then put away safely into shrine storage
  • Any method of disposal should be done respectfully
  • Anything consumed may be done so by eating or drinking by the offerant/priest, their household/temple, or given freely as charity to others in need
  • Anything repurposed may be done so by being used in baths, washes, medicine, incenses, oils, or other purposes as deemed appropriate by the offerant/priest

I’m something of a split mind when it comes to whether and how to make use of things offered after they’ve been offered.  In one respect, things that are offered belong to the entity being offered to, and so aren’t for our use anymore; on the other hand, the act of us making an offering is often one of communion as well as sacrifice, in which we can share in the presence of a divine entity by means of the things we offer.  As a rule, any offering that begins to mold, decompose, or “turn bad” in any way should be disposed of immediately (its essence and any possible use of the offering has basically been fully consumed by the entity being offered to, especially when such decomposition happens at an otherwise remarkable rare), but given a reasonable timeframe to allow things to be consumed, whatever is left may be shared so that nothing ever goes to waste in any sense.  To that end, I’d leave it to an individual whether they give anything they offer fully away to the entity, or to give it and then partake in part of it themselves in any reasonable and respectful manner.

So, what about some example layouts?

Example offering layouts (list not intended to be exhaustive but only illustrative of different compositions):

  • Three dishes: The simplest possible layout, consisting of the incense tray, one light, and some other offering that is neither incense or light.  This could be a cup of wine/water/some other liquid, a bowl of barley/wheat/some other grain, a plate of grapes/oranges/some other fruit, or a vase of roses/carnations/some other flowers.  The incense tray would be front and center, the candle would go to the right of the tray, and the other offering would go to the left of the tray.  Easy.
  • Five dishes: This is where we can easily change things up into a lot of different variations really quickly.
    • For instance, one could make a five-dish non-edible offering consisting of incense, two lights, and two vases of flowers, arranged entirely symmetrically all in a row with the incense in the middle, the lights on either side of the tray, and the flowers on the far sides beyond the lights.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine (placed in front of the incense), a bowl of barley (placed on the right of the wine), and a vase of flowers (placed on the left of the wine).
  • Seven dishes: Even more possibilities arise!
    • We could try a symmetric layout of mixed offerings consisting of incense, two lights (placed on either side of the incense), one cup of wine and one bowl of barley (placed in front of the incense, liquid on the left and grain on the right), and two vases of flowers on the far left and right of the offering.  Instead of grains or liquids, one might also offer a plate of grapes instead, placed accordingly.
    • For a symmetric layout of two liquids and no grains, one would take the above layout and offer both wine and water, wine on the left and water on the right.
    • For a symmetric layout of two grains and no liquids, one would take the above layout again and offer both barley and wheat berries, barley on the left and water on the right.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense in the middle, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine and a cup of water (placed directly in front of the incense, wine on the left and water on the right), a bowl of barley (placed in the center in front of the two cups), a plate of grapes (placed to the right of the grains), and a vase of flowers (placed to the left of the grains).
  • Ten dishes: Now we’re getting fancy, and we start getting into having a full spread showing off a full set of all kinds offerings.  For this, the incense would be placed in the center as always, with a single light placed behind and above the incense.  In front of the incense would be placed a cup of wine and a cup of water together (wine on the left and water on the right); to the left of the cups would go a bowl of barley and to the right a bowl of wheat.  To the left of the barley would go a plate of grapes; to the right of the wheat would go a plate of some other fruit, like oranges.  Outside of all of these, on the far left and right, would go the vases of flowers.
  • Twelve dishes: Basically the same as ten dishes, except with the addition of two additional lights.  These would go on either side of the incense tray, with the third remaining behind and above the incense tray or all three arranged in a row in front of it and behind the two cups of liquid.  This would be the maximum formal offering, reserved only for the grandest or rarest of circumstances (like a solar new year or a rare astrological event).

Of course, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t offer more than just the above, like extra plates of food or drink, especially for making offerings for rarer events like the once-every-20-years Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  Rather, I intend all of the above as a sort of template upon which one can arrange for making offerings of various scales and styles, covering all the necessary bases that make a sine qua non of Hermetic offerings (at least according to the Hermetic testimonies available to us).  As for determining how many dishes to set out for an offering and how to gauge the specialness of any given event, well, that’s more a matter of practicality and availability; in general, I’m a fan of the Spartan and laconic notion of not being too extravagant too often so that one might always have something to offer, and let’s be honest, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of need or reason to offer more than light, incense, and water.  Still, when there is a need or reason to do so, at least I have a few guidelines to set things up for myself to keep myself in line without having to worry too much about the details on the fly.