Justifying a Hermetic Vegetarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(CH I.17) …the birth of the seven was as follows. Earth was the female. Water did the fertilizing. Fire was the maturing force. Nature took spirit from the ether and brought forth bodies in the shape of the man. From life and light the man became soul and mind; from life came soul, from light came mind, and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended and kinds of things began to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hermetic Refranations and Repentances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Good and Evil in Hermeticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That it is incorporeal, Asklēpios.”

“What is the incorporeal, then?”

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

“What, then, is god?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermeticism FAQ: Part II, Texts

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I here), let’s continue today with Part II, on the texts that inform our studies of Hermeticism!

What is “the Hermetica?”

There is no one single classical text called “the Hermetica”, although this term is sometimes used to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period.  Confusingly, however, several modern authors and scholars have used the term “the Hermetica” to title their own books containing Hermetic texts:

  • Brian Copenhaver, “Hermetica”, containing translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Perfect Sermon
  • M. David Litwa “Hermetica II”, containing translations of the Stobaean Fragments, Oxford Fragments, Vienna Fragments, and various other fragments and testimonia of Hermetic doctrine
  • Walter Scott, “Hermetica” (in four volumes), containing his (highly edited and amended) version of the Greek and Latin Hermetic texts along with his thorough analysis of them
  • Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, “The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs”, containing their (heavily remixed, reordered, and re-Egyptianized) version of Hermetic texts

While one may use “the Hermetica” to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period, in order to reduce confusion, it is recommended to use a different term, e.g. “the classical Hermetic texts” generally or the name of a specific such text instead.  When referring to one of the above texts, it is better to clarify by stating the author’s name, e.g. “Copenhaver’s Hermetica”.

What is the “Divine Pymander”?

When Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin from Greek in the 15th century CE, he used the title of the first “book” (what we might call a “chapter” nowadays) as the title for the entire translation.  This was like titling the Old Testament “Book of Genesis”.  A few later translators working off Ficino, like John Everard, also used the same title.  Depending on the context, “Divine Pymander” may refer to either Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (the technically correct meaning), or to later translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole.  As a result, to reduce confusion, it is recommended to refer to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum as just that, and refer to the specific translations by their authors, e.g. “in Ficino” or “in Everard”.

What are the “philosophical Hermetica”?

There are plenty of different Hermetic texts available to us from antiquity, and although the distinction isn’t always so clear or fixed as some scholars would like to believe, one group of texts is known as the “philosophical Hermetica” (or the “theoretical Hermetica”).  These texts focus on the religious, philosophical, cosmological, theosophical, and otherwise doctrinal side of Hermeticism, and generally consist of dialogues or letters between Hermēs Trismegistos and his students.  Although they may mention them at a high level, the “philosophical” texts generally lack any details regarding anything practice-oriented, like the study of astrology, the consecration of talismans, the ensoulment of statues, or the like; in other words, there is little “magic” or “ritual” in the “philosophical Hermetica”, even if such things are assumed.  Examples of “philosophical Hermetica” include (but are not limited to) the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean Fragments, and the Perfect Sermon.

What are the “technical Hermetica”?

As opposed to the “philosophical Hermetica”, the “technical Hermetica” (or the “practical Hermetica”) focus on the practical, technical, or skill-oriented parts of Hermeticism; rather than being more about belief and doctrine, these are about practice and technology.  As such, these have the bulk of the “magic” and “ritual” that the “philosophical Hermetica” lack.  However, due to the overall distaste many historians and scholars have had for studying magical things, the “technical Hermetica” have received much less attention than the “philosophical Hermetica”.  This isn’t to say that they don’t exist or haven’t been translated, but aren’t as codified and haven’t received as much popular attention as the “philosophical Hermetica”, and due to the messy nature of magic and magical texts, there are plenty of overlaps between explicitly Hermetic practices and implicit ones.  Further, “technical Hermetica” continued to be produced well after the last of the “philosophical Hermetica” were written, so “technical Hermetica” can also reasonably include post-classical and modern texts.  Examples of “technical Hermetica” include the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios, and the Picatrix.

Is the Corpus Hermeticum the Bible of Hermeticism?

Given the popularity and fame this collection of texts has received over the past 600 years, it sure seems so, doesn’t it?  Of course, the Corpus Hermeticum is just one of several collections of Hermetic texts, and despite its importance for the study and practice of Hermeticism, should not be considered the most or only important such collection.  It is unclear whether there ever even was such a “primary text” of Hermeticism.  That being said, considering Book I’s role in the Corpus Hermeticum as giving us the founding myth and initial revelation of Hermēs Trismegistos, even if it was never intended to be a “Bible” for Hermeticism, it may be considered as such by those who choose to do so—though it is best taken together with similar texts such as the Perfect Sermon and the Stobaean Fragments for a more comprehensive reading and study.

What about The Kybalion?

Despite how much this book loves to call itself Hermetic, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text.  Rather, it is an invention of William Walker Atkinson, a prolific author and an early pioneer of New Thought, an early New Age movement, and who wrote under the pen name “The Three Initiates” (along with his other pen names like “Theron Q. Dumont” and “Yogi Ramacharaka”).  Although The Kybalion claims to be based on an ancient Hermetic book (also called “The Kybalion”), no such text has ever been discovered, the doctrines within it do not match with those of either the philosophical or technical Hermetica, the terminology used within it is foreign to classical texts of any kind but rather match cleanly with New Age terminology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, and generally lacks any notion of theology or theosophy present in the actual Hermetic texts.  Although many modern occultists love the Kybalion and despite many people becoming interested in Hermeticism because of The Kybalion, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, and is only “Hermetic” in the sense that it has been adopted by many modern Hermeticists rather than by any virtue of its own.  The best discussion regarding The Kybalion and its (non-)Hermetic nature is the essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” by Nicholas E. Chapel.  This isn’t to say that The Kybalion is entirely without worth—for some people, New Thought can be profoundly useful—but the fact remains that it is not Hermetic, and so there’s no need to discuss it in a Hermetic context or as a source of Hermetic doctrine or practice (not that there’s much practical stuff in it to begin with).

What about The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean, and is it the same text as the Emerald Tablet?

The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean is another entirely modern and New Age creation, much like The Kybalion, and so is also not Hermetic, and also goes pretty far afield into extremely New Age topics and discussions that are nowhere found in actual Hermetic texts to the point of it being sci-fi.  The name is based on the Emerald Tablet (or Tabula Smaragdina), a short extract of a medieval 7th century CE Arabic book on natural philosophy and alchemy called the Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqā) attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.  The Emerald Tablet is a fascinating, though exceedingly dense and cryptic text, and has received much attention over the centuries since its first translation into Latin in the 12th century CE, though it is entirely unclear if this was a creation of Islamic Hermeticism or medieval Islamic alchemists, or whether it is a translation of something earlier from the classical period.

What’s the deal with the Emerald Tablet, anyway?

The Emerald Tablet is a well-known Hermetic text, though exceedingly short, and is less of a discourse and more of a cryptic poem.  Due to its crypticness, it’s received much attention since it entered the European mindset, and much ink has been spilled about how it might have any number of mystical or mythical origins, including a supposed ancient Chinese antecedent.  It is something of a puzzle, but it relies on early Islamic alchemical symbolism (which was the basis of much of Western and European alchemy) in order to communicate a notion of how to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone by means of transmutation of the four elements.  It is this text that the famous adages “‘tis true without lying” and “as above, so below” come from.

Are the Hermetic texts corrupted or incomplete?

It is true that, over the past 2000 years, we have lost some Hermetic texts, and those Hermetic texts that have survived have not always done so in a pristine state; sometimes there are lacunae in the texts, sometimes marginalia or external notes have become incorporated with the texts, or sometimes the language is so garbled as to be rendered difficult to comprehend.  While these are definite problems, our understanding of the texts (with the help of modern scholarship and comparison with related texts in similar or contemporary religious and philosophical traditions) is better than ever, and many of these problems have been resolved in a way that preserves (or recovers) the original meaning of the Hermetic texts themselves.  So, while some parts of the Hermetic texts are corrupted or incomplete, they are uncorrupted and complete as a whole, and are still quite understandable today with the same meaning and impact as they had 2000 years ago.

What about the Hermetic texts that we’ve lost?

We only have what has survived the knife of time and the redactor’s pen.  We know for a fact that there were more Hermetic texts written than what we have today, and we even know that some of the texts we do have are missing parts (like how Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum is missing its entire introduction, and the title applied to Book II is actuall the title of a separate text that originally came before what we have today as Book II).  We can only hope that there are still manuscripts out there, whether hidden away in desert sands or preserved still in mouldering monastery libraries or museum collections, that contain as-yet undiscovered Hermetic texts.  Until then, we make do with what we can, and try to fill in the gaps as reasonably as we’re able.

What are the core texts of Hermeticism?

The “beating heart” and root of much of Hermeticism are found in the classical Hermetic canon, which can be thought of as consisting of the following texts from the “philosophical Hermetica”:

  • The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of 17 short texts
    • This is the most famous and most well-known collection of Hermetic texts today
  • The Perfect Sermon, also called the Asclepius
    • This is also the most famous Hermetic text along with the Corpus Hermeticum, especially before the recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in western Europe in the 15th century CE
    • The most popular version of this text is preserved only in Latin.
    • Sections 21 through 29 of the Latin Asclepius is also preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.8)
    • The final thanksgiving prayer is also present in Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.7) as well in Greek as part of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM III.590—611)
  • The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, a collection of 49 “definitions” or summary-teachings preserved in Armenian and translated into French and English in the late 20th century CE
  • The Stobaean Fragments, a series of 29 Hermetic extracts of varying lengths by John of Stobi in his 5th century CE Anthology
    • One of the most famous series of Hermetic texts in the Stobaean Fragments is the Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the 23rd through 26th Stobaean Fragments
  • The Oxford Fragments, a series of five Hermetic extracts 
  • The Vienna Fragments, two badly-preserved Hermetic texts
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a short text describing a ritual of spiritual elevation and divine ascent preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.6)

As regards the “technical Hermetica”, however, there is much more variability in terms of what texts one should consider as “core” to Hermeticism, especially given the varied nature of them and how well they may or may not integrate or harmonize with the “philosophical Hermetica”.  Important among these, however, can be considered (though by no means are limited to):

  • The Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greek magical rituals, spells, and invocations as practiced in a Greco-Egyptian context
  • The Demotic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Demotic Egyptian and containing a stronger Egyptian pagan presence
  • The Coptic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Coptic Egyptian and containing a stronger Christian presence
  • The Centiloquium of Hermes Trismegistus, a series of 100 propositions regarding astrology
  • The Picatrix, or the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a medieval collection of rituals, prayers, and recipes from Islamic esoteric traditions preserving aspects of earlier Sabian, Harranian, and Hermetic practices and beliefs

In what order should I read the texts?

One after the other, usually from the front towards the back.  More seriously, though, because each text is considered a single treatise on its own, and because none of the collections build upon each other, it doesn’t generally matter what order you read them in (at least as far as the “philosophical Hermetica” are concerned).

What are the differences between different translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, etc., and which should I get?

As a rule, always go with more modern translations instead of older ones.  It is true that the translations of Ficino, Everard, and Mead were greatly important in the history of Western esotericism, but we have more texts at our disposal today with better contextual understanding than what was available to earlier translators.  As a result, modern translations (especially those based on the critical Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum produced by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière) are going to use more source material with better ability to understand and transmit the text than what was done in earlier times.  To that end, the best English translations available today of classical Hermetic texts are those produced by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, and J.-P. Mahé (as well as including more notes and references that further help elucidate the translated text, usually missing from earlier translations).  Older translations may be used, but should be cross-referenced with modern translations when possible to make sure that the meaning of the text is properly understood.

What happened to Book XV of the Corpus Hermeticum?

The earliest translations of the Corpus Hermeticum did not always follow the same convention as what modern translations use, and depending on the underlying texts that Ficino or other translators used, different Hermetic texts might be present not part of the usual collection of the Corpus Hermeticum.  As a result, Book XV of these early translations contained a Hermetic text that properly belonged to a separate collection and was not part of other Corpus Hermeticum manuscripts.  In order to maintain the convention of numbering certain books from the Corpus Hermeticum the same for the purposes of ease of reference, no modern text in the Corpus Hermeticum is counted as “Book XV”.  It’s not that “Book XV” is a “missing Hermetic text”, just that we conventionally don’t mark any text as “Book XV” (like how some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but immediately go from floor 12 to floor 14).

What else should I read to learn more about Hermeticism?

Plenty!  Many works of Hellenistic time period, including those regarding Stoicism, Platonism (whether early or middle or new), Aristotelianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Egyptian religion and philosophy, and the like are helpful for getting a better contextual background for approaching and understanding the Hermetic texts.  Similarly, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and related texts like the Books of Jeu are also helpful to see similar influences at play that played out differently from the path that Hermeticism took.  In addition to these source texts, modern scholarship is also helpful to understand more subtle shifts and developments in these texts and the traditions that produced them that are not immediately apparent from the source texts themselves.  Some scholars and authors to read on these fronts include, in no particular order nor is this an exhaustive list by any means:

  • Brian Copenhaver
  • Clement Salaman
  • Jean-Pierre Mahé
  • Charles Harold Dodd
  • Walter Scott
  • Arthur Darby Nock
  • André-Jean Festugière
  • Wouter Hanegraaff
  • Gilles Quispel
  • Roelof van den Broek
  • Garth Fowden
  • Kevin van Bladel
  • Christian Bull
  • Christian Wildberg
  • Peter Kingsley
  • Antoine Faivre
  • Hans Dieter Betz
  • Eleni Pachoumi
  • Algis Uzdavinys
  • Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  • Zlatko Pleše
  • Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
  • Jonathan Peste