On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Necromancy

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for some rituals of religious import like funerals or ancestor veneration.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Alright, let’s cut to the chase here.  To continue our discussion from the last post, where we left off with describing how this Hermetic model of the afterlife both explains and informs religious rituals involving the dead, we’re now moving onto rituals and works that are less religious and more magical in nature.  Let’s get right to it, and talk about necromancy!  Of course, to be sure, “necromancy” is a really broad field of magic and divination that can take many forms, and many culturally-significant practices from across the world with various origins and thinkings behind them can all be classified as this.  To make this easier, I’ll divide up “necromancy” for the purposes of this post into different sections.

Incubation, Mediumship, and Blessing of the Dead

The first kind of necromancy is what I would consider “intimate” necromancy, where one doesn’t so much communicate with the souls of the dead so much as we commune with them.  Consider the practice of ancient Greek dream incubation: after making an offering to a spirit of the dead at their tomb, the necromancer lays down a rug and sleeps overnight on the tomb itself, thereby obtaining a dream where they communicate with the dead or otherwise receive visions from them.  In modern Islamic mystical practices, one might visit (and sleep!) in the mausoleum of an Islamic or Sufi saint to receive their baraka.  In lots of modern spiritualist/spiritist and other “shamanic” practices, one engages in trance-based mediumship where one channels messages from the dead, even leading to possession where the dead temporarily inhabits the body of the medium to communicate or perform works directly in a body that they “borrow”.  Whether through works of incubation or states of mediumship, in either case, the dead might “descend” in some way to perform some sort of action or give us some sort of information for our benefit and blessing.

Recall what we said about ancestor veneration from before, where we posited that the works we do and offerings we make to venerate and elevate the souls of the dead creates an “updraft” that transmits the power of our offerings and prayers to the dwelling-place of the dead where they are.  I posit now that works of necromancy, conversely, creates a “downdraft” that actively calls down the presence of a particular soul down to our world, at least temporarily, in order to commune with it.  To an extent, we were already subtly relying on something like that last time when we posited that our souls might be able to “reach up” to make offerings to the souls in their own dwelling-place such that they might be able to “stoop down”, as well, but now we’re making it explicit and relying more on them coming down further than that, all the way down to our level.  Because we can do this with out-and-out gods (as described in AH 24 and AH 37—38), at least to call them down into idols for the purpose of having their permanent presence on Earth with us, I don’t see why we couldn’t do this with souls, either.

As with ancestor veneration rituals having a natural “boost” when they take place at the tombs of the dead, it would make sense that the resting place of the physical remains of a soul’s incarnation would be a natural place where we might do necromantic works of various sorts, whether we create an “updraft” for us to reach them or a “downdraft” for them to reach us.  However, for more intimate works where the focus is on us rather than them, it makes sense for a “downdraft” to be made instead, and while using the physical remains a soul left behind provides a natural “link” or “focus” to a soul (even if it’s more for us than for them), it’s not a required link, which is why we can do necromantic rites mostly anywhere we please, although it helps at a place that is pure enough for the dead to visit and to commune with us.  Likewise, it also helps for us to be in a pure state for us to better achieve this, only because we’re the ones bringing them down but because we’re the ones that are interfacing with them in such a refined, subtle way that we need to be prepared for such refined, subtle works.  After all, for a soul to travel out of its own dwelling-place would likely cause some further turbulence and disruption to their own stability and presence, just as if you were to be shunted suddenly from lying peacefully in your bed into a busy shopping mall.  Doing what we can to put the soul at ease once it’s down here and doing what we can to ensure that we can maintain a good connection with them would be essential for such work.

I think the most fascinating thing here would be the work of mediumship.  It’s one thing to merely perceive a spiritual entity (like a soul) and communicate what they have to say to others through speech, but it’s another thing entirely to have that spiritual entity take direct control of your body.  Because, I mean…what’s really going on at that point?  If our body is being ruled (at least nominally) by our soul, what happens to our soul when we enter a state of possession?  While I’m not sure of the properly classical views on this that philosophers might have had of e.g. the oracle of Delphi who would be possessed by the god Apollōn which would better inform a discussion like this (and if you know of any, please share down in the comments!), I can think of several options here:

  1. The soul of the medium vacates the body in agreement with the soul of the deceased, allowing the soul of the deceased to temporarily “rent” the body.  Since we know that the soul can temporarily leave the body (as in CH XI.19—21 or even in CH X.24 or CH XIII.4), it could be that a medium (in a controlled setting or following a protocol that both they and a spirit agree to follow) allows their body to become vacant and for another entity to temporarily inhabit it.
  2. The soul of the medium “diminishes” or “retreats” within their own body, allowing the mere presence of the soul of the deceased to control the body instead.  They don’t leave their body, but they “make room” within it alongside their own soul and willingly turn over the reins of the body to the visiting soul, like a deacon in a church mass stepping aside to let the priest do their work or give the homily at the altar or pulpit.
  3. The soul of the deceased “overcomes” the soul of the medium in their body.  This is effectively like the option above, but instead of the medium retracting to make room for a spirit, a spirit simply dominates the body regardless of the natural presence of the medium.  (This is more common in unwanted or forced possessions, I suppose, and may well be seen as more risky, but may make more sense for divine possession where the presence of a god is significantly overwhelming for pretty much anyone.)  Either such a soul of the deceased is naturally empowered to overcome such a medium’s own soul, or they become empowered through offerings and ritual in order to achieve such a feat.

What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn?  We’re not necessarily “freeing” the soul of the dead or anything or trying to change its soul-stratum (necessarily) in such a way that might conflict with whatever judgment such an avenging/judging daimōn might give, but rather, we’re more like giving the soul a chaperoned field-trip of sorts, after which it will return to its abode.  While there may be some practical difference between calling down a god (as one might for a theagogy or theophany) versus a soul of a dead person who is watched over by a god, where one might have to entreat the daimōn (or SH 26.3’s Steward of Souls) for the soul to descend to perform such works down here for a time (and I can think of similar rituals from the PGM where one performs a similar observance and makes offerings to that end), I don’t think there’s ultimately any major obstacle here to worry about.  After all, once a soul has been judged and allotted its proper soul-stratum, the only thing else on the docket for it is to hang out until fate dictates it to be incarnate again.  Rituals such as this may well play into fate, even if at a some minor level, but it’s unclear to me in the end.

However, I do want to note: as with ancestor veneration and elevation practices from the last post, some spiritual traditions engage in works of mediumship and blessing of/from the dead specifically as a means for the soul to improve themselves and thereby receive further elevation and enlightenment.  In other words, although calling a spirit down for the sake of medium possession or blessing is not inherently equivalent to elevation, in light (or in the custodial overview) of an avenging/judging daimōn or Steward of Souls, it may be reckoned for such work to be like “community service” in a way, and be a way to resolve whatever baggage/weight or punishment they’ve accrued before so that, when they return to the dwelling-place of souls, they end up going back to a lighter, higher stratum than they were at before by means of the work they’ve done down here.  In a non-judgmental model, this is just them relieving themselves of their own “weight”; in a judgment model, this is like their sentence being commuted for good behavior.  In being invited down here to perform good works, we essentially give these souls a second chance at “living” a “life” of reverence and devotion that they may not have been able to fulfill while living their own life.

Calling Down and Working the Dead

The second kind of necromancy, as opposed to the “intimate” kind described above, is what I might instead consider “confrontational”, in the sense that one must confront them to work with them as an external agent, either for issuing them or subjecting them to some task or otherwise communicating with them for some overall purpose or goal.  Examples of this sort of necromancy would include all sorts of katadesmoi/defixiones/curse tablet-based works, evoking the dead (as in a Solomonic or goetic ritual), or binding/harnessing the dead to perform particular works or to be used in (or as the targets of) exorcism.  Rather than being “intimate” with the dead where we share a close relationship with them to facilitate their activity among us, here the only type of relationship we engage in with them is “at arm’s length” to force them to do work for us.  (To be fair, a good amount of necromancy is neither just intimate nor just confrontational, but may include elements of both.  I’m just using this distinction as shorthand for illustrative purposes of this post.)

As before, we would call down a soul of the deceased through a “downdraft”, perhaps making an offering to the daimōn/steward as before if one has such a model to allow for such a soul to descend.  However, unlike before, we’re not communing with them, but instead engaging in any other number of ritual practices or approaches for engaging with them.  One of the big things I want to point out here is how so much of this kind of “necromancy” is simply spirit-model approaches to magic that use the dead (often uneasy/intranquil/tormented dead) to “power” our magic or to facilitate our goals, like dropping off a curse tablet in the grave of some violently-killed maiden and relying on their unsettledness and unfulfilled desires to accomplish the will of the magician here.  And that leads to a really insightful point about why we rely on such souls of the dead for such works, and that’s because they’re so readily accessible and willing to work in such ways.

Remember what we said about there being different soul-strata, different regions in the atmosphere accorded to different souls based on how they lived, and more troubled or suffering souls are to be found in lower strata.  Depending on the text (AH 28 vs. SH 25), the lower strata themselves may be seen as more turbulent and thus more painful for the souls dwelling there or not, or may simply be an indication for their next incarnation into lower echelons of society or lower forms of life (i.e. animals).  These lower strata are low, I should note, even down to the very ground itself we walk upon up to a little above hills and mountains.  What this suggests is that, for particularly weighty souls (those who are so ignoble and undignified that they cannot or are not allowed to rise high, souls that are either so tormented from unfulfilled desires or addictions or who caused such torment because of their addictions and attachments), there’s really no need to make a “downdraft” to call them down when they’re already down here with us, and because of their tormented/tormenting nature, are already much closer to wild animals or unruly daimones than we might think—and given how many people die in such a state, it’s really no wonder why so much of goētia that focuses on daimones/demons was so readily accepting of or already bound up with the dead themselves.

As a result, so much of this kind of necromancy works because we don’t really need to do a whole lot of “calling down” of such souls, because they’re already here around us (which may well also offer a spiritual explanation why so many people perpetuate certain crimes and addictions, including perpetuating generational traumas and the like).  Given their inclination, such souls are highly likely to respond to things like “you who died as an unloved maiden, help me find love by enflaming the heart of my desire to me” because it’s what they were either left unfulfilled by in life, or  o things like “you who died as a rampaging warrior on the battlefield, restrain and murder my enemies” because it’s what they loved to do (or were addicted to doing) in life, and in either case because it gives them a chance to do it in death, perhaps as a way of experiencing the satisfaction of it vicariously.  Depending on how we engage in such works as necromancers, we might do this merely because such souls make a ready set of premade slaves to do such work, or we engage in it as a way to relieve particularly troubled dead of their burdens and help them ascend and become elevated so as to ease them in the afterlife (being a kind of “community service” as with the earlier kind of necromancy above).

Also, something else neat to note: by the same mechanism that allows for such “base necromancy” that uses troubled/intranquil souls as a means of effecting magic, whereby such souls are just naturally already lower in the atmosphere closer to our own day-to-day life, note that hauntings are often said to occur in places where great pain, suffering, or trauma has been experienced.  Given that the souls who experience such pain will often (not always!) be burdened with “weight” that prevents them from rising to a higher soul-stratum, it would follow that if they’re already down here, they end up “stuck” in places that caused them such pain and suffering while alive, like a person with PTSD reliving their traumatic experiences.  It’s not a pleasant thing to think of, admittedly, and it’s one of the reasons why we should engage in funerals and ancestor elevation to allow such suffering souls to be eased of their burdens so that they’re not stuck in such a place, but the lowness of such souls in this Hermetic afterlife model would give a ready explanation for why hauntings happen right alongside why intranquil spirits or troubled souls make for such ready spirit-servants.

Binding and Enshrining the Dead (But Also Birth Into Living Bodies)

Instead of merely calling down the dead from their dwelling-places, either to commune or to communicate with them, to perform works with their assistance or just by them, there’s another necromantic option here: taking them from their dwelling-place entirely and keeping them here with us on Earth.  In this, we give the dead a particular “body” or form to inhabit, keeping them from their dwelling-place and keeping them from reincarnating for a particular purpose.  I mean, we can do this with gods by enshrining them into statues and idols; why can’t we do this with souls of the dead, too?

To be fair, I think such a comparison with enlivening idols with gods isn’t necessarily fair.  Gods are slightly different, being “big” enough to play by different rules.  Either they’re “big” enough to be more encompassing than a single soul and so can appear to be in multiple places at once by “concentrating” their otherwise ubiquitous presence in particular localized areas, or they’re “big” enough to let a shard of themselves be embodied in an idol to perform works on Earth, or they’re “big” enough to have a retinue of daimones who act on their behalf in their name with their “mask”, or they’re “big” enough to not actually be localized in their idol all the time but appear there when called upon (with the idol more acting as an as-needed point-of-contact rather than a continuously-inhabited body).  There may be other possible mechanisms behind the enlivening of statues with the presence of gods, but these are a few of the big ones that come to my mind—and it’s not clear to me which of these, if any, apply to souls of the dead.

Personally, I don’t see any issue here of scale: if we can call a soul down for a time, I don’t see any hard-or-fast limit to how long a time as they might be called down.  At the same time, we should consider why a soul leaves a body to begin with: because a body is no longer capable of supporting the soul (e.g. through the circulation of the blood which facilitates the activation and exchange of spirit/breath).  In order for a soul to be down here for an extended period of time, it needs more than just some well-wishing and offerings; it needs an actual body to inhabit appropriate to its nature.  If we can do that with gods—and we can—I don’t see why we couldn’t do that for souls.  After all, consider AH 38:

“And the quality of these gods who are considered earthly—what sort of thing is it, Trismegistus?”

“It comes from 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.”

The only thing I can think of that would prevent this is that there’s some fundamental mismatch between the nature of a god that permits it to be embodied within a statue made resonant with it through such a mixture of material things and that of a soul.  However, throughout the Hermetic texts, we see notions that (at least the divine portion within) humans are considered to be gods or can become gods or can associate with gods (as in CH IV.7, CH VIII.5, CH X.22—25, CH XIII.14, etc.), so I’m not inclined to think that what we can do for the gods we can’t do for souls.  The trick would be to find the right composition and form for such a body for such a soul to inhabit, and to keep it in such a way that allows the soul to continue inhabiting it; after all, a human body can only support a soul for as long as it eats, drinks, breathes, and lives.  If a soul-idol were to be malformed, broken, or otherwise fall into neglect, I wouldn’t expect it to be able to serve as a vessel for a soul for particularly long.

What arises as an issue for me in this matter, however, is how this plays with reincarnation.  Souls are seen in this Hermetic model of the afterlife to be “localized” in one sense or another, and so cannot be in two places at the same time; either a soul is incarnate or it is discarnate, and if it is incarnate, it can only be incarnate in one body at a time.  If a soul is bound to a form that is not a human body, then, it cannot reincarnate until it is free of such a form.  Reincarnation, however, is dictated by fate, because fate is what dictates bodies to be born, suffer whatever they suffer in life, and die—but would that not, then, also include bodies that happen to be made through acts of magic?  I mean, consider this little excerpt from Diogenes Laertius about Stoicism’s own stance on fate in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (book VII, chapter 23):

We are told that [Zeno of Citium] was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno.

To that end, I don’t think calling down a soul is something that somehow abrogates or breaks the rule of fate; rather, at least to a large degree, it plays into fate.  After all, consider: what is it that souls normally incarnate into?  Living animal bodies (human or otherwise), formed through animal reproduction, the production of which is itself a work of fate.  We know that reproduction was considered not just something important but a vital, sacred duty in many of the Hermetic texts (CH I.18, CH II.17, CH III.3, etc.), not only because it perpetuates the work of Creation, but because it allows souls to come into incarnate existence to further enjoy and rejoice in Creation.  In a way, creating any kind of body for a soul to inhabit, whether animal or not, and then calling them down (whether through the mysteries of sexual reproduction or not, including other kinds of magical rites) would be just another form of this, albeit a weaker kind with extra restrictions imposed.  In this case, it’s not so much “calling down a soul of the dead to be bound” but more just a specific case of a more general notion of reincarnation—and in that light, is as permissible (if not directed) by fate as actual living reincarnation would be.

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Initial Impressions, Questions, and the Role of a Daimōn

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we brought up what those texts are and what the relevant excerpts are as evidence for such beliefs.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, with all that laid out, where does that leave us?  Besides the obvious answer of “with a mess”, we get a notion that reincarnation with some sort of promotion/demotion in terms of the soul’s “dignity” is what we seem to have, which is almost certainly not something unique to Hermeticism but rather a belief in reincarnation-friendly spiritual beliefs in a Hellenistic Egyptian (or otherwise eastern Mediterranean) context in the early Roman Imperial period—and that’s a whole research topic that I haven’t yet had the time, energy, or means to dive into.  While I’d like to do so at some point, or at least begin an investigation into whatever academic/scholarly literature as might exist on such a topic, if we limit ourselves to just what we can find in the Hermetic texts, then we end up with something like the following as a very broad synthesis:

  1. Between incarnations, there is a dwelling-place of souls in the realm of the atmosphere between the Earth and the sphere of the Moon.  There are different strata in such a realm, where more dignified souls abide in calmer and clearer airs higher up closer to the Moon and more ignoble souls abide in the darker, more turbulent airs lower down closer to the Earth.  The higher a stratum, the more peaceful and pleasant it is (or thought to be) to dwell within; the lower, the more painful and suffering it is (or thought to be).
  2. Because the dwelling-place of souls is in the cosmos and is (strictly speaking) lower than the Moon, it is subject to Fate as much as anything else on Earth (given how the planets are the “government called fate” in CH I.9 and how the planets are said to serve/effect fate in SH 12).  Thus, the souls that dwell here are subject to fate, although being incorporeal are not subject to fate in the way corporeal bodies are.  Rather, souls are subject to fate in becoming incarnate, where a soul is sent down from its dwelling-place into a body on Earth.
  3. When a soul is sent into a body from the dwelling-place of souls, it is given a body to inhabit according to two factors: the rank of its stratum that it was in, and the role that fate requires it to play.  Higher strata correspond to higher forms and manners of life, with lower strata corresponding to lower forms; the lowest strata of souls end up becoming incarnate into non-human animal bodies (whether or not those souls are necessarily of animals to begin with), and the highest strata into kings, rulers, and the like.  We might say that a soul’s stratum indicates what kind of body it will inhabit next according to its nature/dignity, while fate determines which specific body within that kind it will inhabit according to its role.
  4. When an ensouled body dies on Earth (which is as much a matter of fate as anything else), its soul generally travels back to the dwelling-place of souls, specifically to a stratum appropriate for it.  Depending on how it lived, it may return to the same stratum it had before incarnation (if it behaved in accordance with its own nature without regard for God or the Good), a higher one (if it excelled and behaved nobly in accordance with God more than its nature), or a lower one (if it behaved in abhorrent, awful ways worse than what its nature would normally indicate).
  5. However, some souls are able to reach beyond the dwelling-place and ascend even higher into the planetary spheres and thence higher into the stellar spheres beyond the reach of fate, and thence higher into the pure spheres of the divine.  Souls that do so are no longer bound to fate, and thus are not bound to incarnate again.
  6. The thing that directs a soul to a higher or lower place after death is reckoned as an avenging, tormenting, or judging daimōn, some sort of god that judges the dignity, nobility, and mindfulness of a given soul and how they behave in response to and in accordance with fate while incarnate.  The post-incarnate destiny of a soul depends directly upon the decision of this daimōn.

This is at best a vague outline, and it doesn’t answer a whole lot of questions we might have that would arise from the more centrally salvific Hermetic texts like CH I, CH XIII, or Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth.  Some of the biggest ones that arise to my mind are:

  1. At what point does a soul get to go the route of ascent through the spheres as opposed to being sent to a stratum in the dwelling-place of souls with all the rest of the souls?  Does this happen before a soul ever needs to head to its own stratum, or while the soul is already in its own stratum?
  2. In the ascent process of CH I, what happens if a soul is not able to give up a particular thing to a particular “gate”, i.e. the energy of the Moon to the sphere of the Moon?  Does it “tumble back down” into the dwelling-place of souls and re-enter the cycle of incarnation?  Does it get “stuck” in a particular sphere/at a particular gate until it is finally able to give up what needs giving up?
  3. Likewise, in the ascent process of CH I, what happens if a soul is not even able to give up its own temperament to the avenging daimōn?  Is this a prerequisite for giving up any of the planetary energies?  Does it not even get to a point of judgment, but immediately returns to a new body?
  4. How long do these transitions take between “states” of the soul?  What is the exact process by which a soul leaves the body and enters into its dwelling place?  What is the duration of time it takes for a soul to ascend through the spheres?
  5. Given the huge emphasis on obtaining nous and experiencing gnōsis throughout the Hermetic texts, how does that impact this process of reincarnation and facilitate our post-incarnate ascent?  We know what it’s like to achieve spiritual rebirth (from CH XIII) and how to access higher realms while incarnate (in Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth), but what about the “final ascent” (from CH I) itself?

Before touching on any of these questions, I want to address my biggest gripe first, one that I had mentioned earlier: that of a daimōn of judgment.  I admit that this is definitely my own interpretation of Hermeticism (not just the texts, but the whole system itself as we might glean from it) that’s speaking here, but I find the notion of some lower deity whose specific task is to judge us as humans to be…disagreeable (my more honest wording would be “odiously offensive”).  Like, I get it: lots of religions and spiritual traditions across the whole world posit some sort of entity that tackles this responsibility, and not least in Hellenistic or Mediterranean beliefs like Anubis in the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian stuff or the guards before the spring of Memory in the Orphic ritual tablets or the like.  It’s not surprising in the least that we’d find a similar entity present in the beliefs described in the Hermetic texts, then, even if it’s only just a nod to the external, exoteric religiosity that formed the spiritual bedrock of such a system of mysticism as Hermeticism.  However, in general, I find the presence of such an entity in this belief to be fundamentally unnecessary, and instead acts as little more than a patronizing intrusion of moral enforcement.  Based on my overall understanding of Hermeticism, I don’t think there needs to be any external entity that has the job (or even the power) of determining our afterlife destiny; rather, we’re more than capable of doing that ourselves, for our own weal or our own woe.

Consider CH VII.  This is a short, fire-and-brimstone harangue of a street preacher, which is fundamentally an expansion of the initial call that Hermēs makes on the corner to passers-by in CH I.27—28, and calls out the “tunic” of incarnate ignorance and ignorant incarnation as being the source of our suffering (Copenhaver translation):

Such is the odious tunic you have put on. It strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its viciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within, not understand the plot that it has plotted against you when it made insensible the organs of sense, made them inapparent and unrecognized for what they are, blocked up with a great load of matter and jammed full of loathsome pleasure, so that you do not hear what you must hear nor observe what you must observe.

CH VII doesn’t talk much about doctrine, theology, cosmology, or much at all: it just simply calls out the root of our problems (an addiction to corporeal “loathsome pleasure”) as it is.  We can contrast this with what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs about who lives good lives versus those who live bad ones in CH I.22—23 (Copenhaver translation):

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.

Note here that Copenhaver has “thoughtless”, but as Wouter Hanegraaff points out in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, the literal phrase here is “those without mind” (tois de anoētois).  Poimandrēs establishes himself as Mind, and is with those who express a desire for the Good and act in accordance with such reverence; to those without reverence, Poimandrēs is absent.  Hanegraff notes that “all standard translations obscure the centrality of nous, again by tacitly reducing it to standard cognitive facilities such as sense”.  It is nous itself that saves a person, but what is this “avenging daimōn” that Poimandrēs references?  There’s no mention of it earlier in CH I, and the only other instance we seem to have of it in CH I is that this is the entity to whom one gives up their temperament (in the section immediately following this one).  I mentioned before that the Greek word for “avenging” here is timōros, which is fundamentally the same word as “torturer” (timōria) used in CH XIII.7 to describe the twelve irrational tormentors of the body, which are more like passions that arise from incarnation rather than being some affliction from an external entity.

Given the ultimate goodness of God and all, I’m not inclined to believe that God would make a cosmos with entities in it expressly for the purpose of torment and punishment.  As such, and noting the terminological similarity with the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII.7, my personal interpretation of the “avenging daimōn” in CH I.23 isn’t so much that this is some sort of personal Satan or anything but that it’s a personification/deification of the passions that drive us further into irrational suffering, the same thing as the “odious tunic” that strangles, drags, and drowns us.  It’s like getting stuck in a Chinese finger-trap: the more you pull, the tighter it squeezes, but the only way to be released from it is to just let it be and leave it alone instead of struggling to make a bad situation worse.  To that end, I’m not inclined to think that the “avenging daimōn” here is an actual entity to be feared, but is just a metaphor to describe us as our own bugbears, where we in our nous-lessness become our own worst punisher.

If we extend and broaden the logic above for reinterpreting the “avenging daimōn” as being the result of our own ignorance crashing down upon our heads, we can use this as a means to similarly reinterpret the “judging daimōn” of SH 7, AH 28, and (maybe, depending on your understanding of the Steward of Souls) SH 26.3.  While it would be more traditional and common to rely on the notion of an external entity to judge our souls, I claim that we can rely on a simpler model of the cosmos and our post-incarnate destinies that relies on the soul alone, something more in common with a Buddhist notion of karma, where effect follows cause.  In other words, consider CH VII’s metaphor of the “odious tunic” again: it “drags [us] down with it”, but to save ourselves, we have to rip it off.  If we combine this image with the notion of buoyancy and lightness—which fits with the description of the dwelling-place of souls being a series of strata in the atmosphere ranging from subtle at the top to dense at the bottom—then we can consider our indulgences in these tormentors to be as “weighty baggage” that literally weighs our souls down with the taint of corporeality.  Rather than some “judging daimōn” being presented with an account of our (mis)deeds and being directed to a particular soul-stratum in accordance with that, we can instead just say that the soul naturally rises to an appropriate stratum based on its “weight” from leaving the body.  Those souls that have more “weight” from their attachments and addictions to “loathsome pleasure” end up not being able to rise as high, and the more they indulge in them, the lower they end up rising, which makes them all the more liable to fall down even further.  On the other hand, souls that have less “weight” rise much higher, coming to rest at a much loftier soul-stratum, and when they are sent back down into a body, they don’t sink as far, either.

I think that this is a more natural explanation for how certain souls go higher or lower between incarnations without having to rely on some moralizing deity of judgment that exacts a toll from us, personally.  Like, I get it: having the presence of such a judging daimōn makes sense, because some notion of post-incarnation judgment as part of an afterlife transition process is a really common aspect of a lot of the spiritual traditions and religious beliefs that fed into Hermeticism or which influenced its development.  As far as I can tell, Hermeticism was never meant to supplant or replace such beliefs, but build upon them and accommodate them into a form of mysticism that yet went beyond them; as such, the existence of such entities in the Hermetic approach to mysticism and theurgy is probably just a given.  And yet, I feel like their presence is made redundant and seems like a moralistic holdover, with the fundamental process being easily explainable given the natures of the soul and body on their own—but, despite how I feel about it, and knowing that the philosophical language and concepts existed to have described such a system, the fact remains that the Hermetic texts don’t have such a system that relies on the “weight” of the soul itself, and instead rely on some sort of daimōn we encounter after life that keeps us in line in accordance with our actions as opposed to the effects of our actions themselves coming to fruition.  It’s not that I don’t think the various gods can’t inflict some sort of punishment or exact some sort of payment from the soul in general—we do that all the time in our dealings with them generally, after all.  Rather, it’s that I don’t think there’s some specific god whose sole purpose is to hold us to account when our actions—our addictions and our attachments—already do that.

Oh well.  This is, admittedly, my own personal gripe with the doctrines as put forth by the Hermetic texts, and I have to accept that they say what they say.  While my own personal interpretation renders the existence of such an avenging/judging daimōn as no more than a moralistic metaphor, I can’t speak for the interpretations of the authors of these texts or their contemporary audiences, who may well have understood these entities as being real unto themselves as described.  However, regardless of whether we take the existence of an avenging/judging daimōn as a given or as a metaphor, given how the underlying mechanism is effectively the same between the two options, what we’ve learned about the soul and how its actions in incarnate life affect itself after incarnation sheds a little bit of light on some of those questions I raised earlier.  With that fifth question (what is the role of nous and gnōsis in determining what happens to us after incarnation?), I think the answer is most readily clear: having nous and being able to experience gnōsis is either the reward of living virtuously or the result of it, but in either case, it is what sets someone on the path to nobility, dignity, and salvation.  If one lives in such a reverent and devoted way as to have nous, then they either attain salvation and release from fate and suffering, or they end up well-disposed as a soul (either in the dwelling-place itself or in one’s next incarnation) to continue living in such a reverent, devoted way and to make further progress towards such a goal.

At this point, in addition to airing my own grievances and griping about the presence and role of an avenging/judging daimōn, we’ve laid the groundwork for actually piecing together a coherent picture.  We’ll handle further exploration and explanation of some of those questions so-far unanswered next time.

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Evidence from the Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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