On Gender in Hermeticism: Excerpts and Commentary

One of the most valuable resources for the study of the classical Hermetic texts we have available to us is that of Walter Scott’s four volume series Hermetica.  Publishing the first volume in 1924 with two volumes of commentary in 1926 and a posthumous publication of the last in 1936, Scott’s work was monumental in getting a better understanding of the various Greek and Latin texts of classical Hermeticism, offering deep linguistic, philosophical, and contextual analysis along with conjectures of corrections, dating, and the like for when, how, and by whom these texts were written.  Of course, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its problems; Scott’s version of the texts is…problematic at points, and Copenhaver notes in his introduction to his own Hermetica that:

Reitzenstein had published another Greek text of C .H. I in his 1926 Studies, prefacing it with the comment that “in my notes I can use the new edition of the Corpus by Walter Scott…but for my text I can take nothing from it.  Whether the long commentary that is promised can even partially justify the completely reckless arrangement of the text remains to be seen.”  At this point, Reitzenstein had seen only the first volume (1924) of Scott’s Hermetica, which contains an introduction, the texts and the translations.  Two thick volumes of commentary followed in 1926, but Scott’s death in the previous year delayed publication of the fourth volume of testimonia and indices until 1936, when it appeared with extensive additions by A.S. Ferguson.  Scholars have generally confirmed Reitzenstein’s harsh verdict on the text, which is a jungle of excisions, interpolations and transpositions so distantly related to the manuscripts that Scott’s translation can only be regarded as a translation of Scott, not of the Hermetic authors.  Apart from the text and translation, however, Scott’s volumes remain indispensable, and some of his textual insights were brilliantly right, others brilliantly wrong.  His commentary is copious and learned, and his collection of testimonies an invaluable resource.

Scott’s four volumes are still in print, but his translation is unreliable because it reflects his idiosyncratic text. For readers of French and, obviously, for those who can handle the Greek and Latin, the Budé edition of Nock with Festugiere’s translation remains indispensable, even though knowledge of the text and its cultural context has progressed in the last several decades. Anyone who intends to spend a long time with the Hermetica should certainly get to know both the Budé and Scott, even though neither is particularly accessible to a wide readership.

Likewise, Salaman notes in his Way of Hermes:

Early in the twentieth century new academic interest in ancient religion brought about the edition and translation of Walter Scott (1924—1936), based on his heavily altered text.

Scott’s works are…well, to call them a “translation” isn’t quite true, because Scott took what manuscripts and copies of the Greek and Latin that he had available to him and tried to patch them up, sometimes even going to so far as to “edit them with a free hand” (as in his work on CH III).  For this reason, it’s not great to rely on Scott for an accurate translation of the Hermetic texts, at least as far as the Greek is concerned, and as a result, his commentary on them can also be suspect at times, because he used his own works as the basis for his commentary on the Hermetic texts.  Still, as Copenhaver notes, a study of Scott really is great for Hermetic studies in general, given enough insight and discernment to figure out when and where Scott is right or wrong.

I recently found copies of all four volumes (though I really only needed the fourth, the first three being available online since the original books are old enough to be in the public domain, but I like having complete sets of everything).  I wanted that fourth volume which has information on other testimonia and texts that aren’t part of the Corpus HermeticumAsclepius, or Stobaean Fragments, and I had intended to get that book so as to do research for an entirely different topic (how rebirth and reincarnation happen in the classical Hermetic worldview).  That was going to be the topic for my next post, and I’ll get around to it eventually, but several threads that came up recently on /r/Hermeticism have led me to think that there’s another topic better for discussion right now: the role of gender and sex in Hermeticism.  Happily, the digital versions of Scott’s first three volumes I already have come in good use for this, as well as the commentary of plenty of other scholars and academics on the topic throwing in plenty of contemporary evidence about what to say and believe about this.

Largely, this topic only comes up due to the farce that is the Kybalion, and specifically one of its “seven Hermetic principles”, the so-called “law of gender” (which is just so much a specialization of another “principle”, that of polarity).  I’ve already considered this “principle” years back when I considered the Kybalion as having any substantial worth, but there’s really no great answer to that topic besides saying that this is just so much a bad cis take on gender originating from Victorian-era spirituality.  At this point, I’m not going to bring that up any further; I don’t see any value in wasting more breath, ink, or keystrokes on the Kybalion than has already been wasted.  Rather, I’d like to focus on what the classical Hermetic texts actually have to say about gender, sex, sexuality, and the like rather than any more New Age tripe.

TL;DR: it’s not a whole lot, and it’s a lot less meaningful than what some people would have you believe.

Let’s focus first on what instances of “male”, “female”, “gender”, or “sex” we can find in the classical Hermetic corpora.  For these excerpts, I’ll be using the translations of Copenhaver for the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and the Asclepius (AH), Litwa for the Fragments (SH, VH, OH, and FH), and Salaman/Mahé for the Definitions (DH).  The bulk of these references come about in CH I, which gives us among the most complete account of the creation of the cosmos and human life in Hermetic literature, as well as being the text that provides the foundation for the very notion of a literary Hermetic tradition.  This is going to be a long post, but I wanted to get the raw data here with some minimal commentary for us to synthesize later; what follows is basically all there is when it comes to gender and sex in the classical Hermetic texts.  You may already pick up on certain patterns and themes with these, but we can flesh and figure them out tomorrow when I post my thoughts that synthesize and build on these.

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.

The first instance we have of any referent to gender is that God is androgyne, literally meaning “having both male and female characteristics”.  God is neither male nor female yet can be considered to be both.  However, given how gender in the modern sense wasn’t really considered apart from sex which is a physical characteristic, and given how God is not physical, to consider God as having masculine and feminine traits in terms of genitalia or appearances would be misleading.  In this sense, a classical sense of androgyny would be better to say that an androgynous being transcends gender and is beyond being male or female; even if the very word “androgyne” suggests a binary (literally the word comes from the Greek roots “man” + “woman”), this was how various ancient cultures connoted something that was neither, both, or something else entirely than just being male or female.  Note how this reference to the androgyny of God is in the context of God creating another entity.

CH I.12:

Mind, the father of all, who is life and light, gave birth to a man like himself whom he loved as his own child. The man was most fair: he had the father’s image; and god, who was really in love with his own form, bestowed on him all his craftworks.

Although this section doesn’t have an explicit reference to gender, it’s important to note all the same.  Man (being used in the sense of “the essential human”, not with connotations of “man” as opposed to “woman” here) is made in the image of God, since God made the essential human to be “like himself” whom God loved “as his own child”.  Because God is androgynous, that means that the essential human is, too, being either composed of both male and female characteristics (which, I should note, since the human body or biological life has not yet been created, wouldn’t make sense here) or transcending gender entirely.  Ignore the use of gendered pronouns here, as they reflect the gendered pronouns and grammar of the Greek language (being an Indo-European one); likewise, to distinguish “father” as indicating the same thing as what we would a biological father doesn’t make sense, either, because you cannot be a father without also a mother, so the use of the word “father” here should be interpreted metaphorically instead of literally as being an all-nurturing parent.

CH I.15:

[The essential human] is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. (Yet love and sleep are his) masters.

This is what the previous reference backs up: the essential human is androgyne because the One who created us in their image (i.e. God) is androgyne, and we take on those same characteristics.

CH I.16:

Poimandrēs said: “This is the mystery that has been kept hidden until this very day. 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…”

Poimandrēs is telling Hermēs here in the context of this revelation about the creation of human life, the essential human incarnated into flesh after the essential human fell down to meet Nature and embraced it.  In this, Nature created bodies that mimicked the essential human as best as Nature could, resulting in material androgyne bodies for immaterial androgyne entities.  With this, we have the first notion of sacred sexuality, with the essential human (Anthrōpos) being the “father” and Nature (Physis) being the “mother”; although neither are explicitly described in such terms here, the act of Anthropos “embracing” and “making love” with Physis is obviously a sexual metaphor, along with Physis “giving birth” to the original seven androgyne humans.  Note how all of this takes place within the context of creation, just as the first reference to God’s androgyny is when God makes the Demiurge.

CH I.17:

As I said, then, 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.

This section, following almost immediately after the previous one, describes the composition of the first seven androgynous humans from material (elemental) and immaterial (noetic and psychic) natures.  This wouldn’t be particularly interesting, except that it describes Earth (conjectured from several manuscripts at this point) as being “the female”.  This, in light of the roles of the other three elements, can be confusing, so perhaps it’s better to re-understand this section as saying:

  • Earth, which “was the female”, would be seen as being the matrix and material foundation that provides the “womb” for things to grow in.  After all, we plant seeds in the Earth for them to grow, which takes nutrients from the Earth without it remaining more Earth.
  • Water, which “did the fertilizing”, would be seen either as the inseminating force or as the means by which Earth can be made capable of supporting and growing life.  After all, fertilization doesn’t plant seeds, but it prepares the Earth to have enough nutrients for seeds to actually take root and shoot.
  • Fire, which “was the maturing force”, would be seen as the energy that causes things to grow, the activity of growth itself.  Without Fire, the seed wouldn’t activate, but would instead remain in stasis.
  • Air/Spirit, which was taken by Nature from the aithēr (i.e. the pure bright air above the Earth), which gives actual physical, biological life to the bodies, being the medium by which breath (the symbol and mechanism of life) manifests and operates.

In this light, to say that the Earth was “female” doesn’t mean everything else is male; after all, all of this takes place as functions of Physis, who is overall described as being the “woman” to the “man” of Anthropos.  Physis provides the matrix, matter, and manifestation for human bodies; the only thing that Physis would need, to use the metaphor of sexual procreation, is insemination from Anthrōpos, which is provided in terms of “soul and mind” (psukhē and nous), themselves descending from “life and light” (zōē and phōs); remember that “life and light” is the identification of God from CH I.9 above, linking the biological human as being descended from God, being God’s “grandchild”.  Again, all of this is in terms of generation and creation and, increasingly, procreation.  However, since breath is so closely tied to life, it’s important to recognize the subtlety of the role of air/spirit here: it was taken “from the aithēr”, which is the realm of the gods and, thus, of souls.  The life-breath is intimately tied to the notion of semen (a metaphorical reading of “Nature took spirit from the aithēr” meaning “Nature became inseminated by Anthrōpos descending on her from the aithēr”).

CH I.18:

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.”

Although we’ve seen metaphorical references to things being male and female before, like Anthrōpos with Physis, this is the first time we see actual biological sex arise—and that only after the end of an androgyne age described in the preceding CH I.17.  Now, in this new age of CH I.18, God splits human life—and, for that matter, all animal life, which had not been explicitly described before but is now included here—into being male and female.  This rings a lot like Aristophanēs’ bit in Plato’s Symposium which describes a myth of three sexes of two-bodied people (the solar male-male, the earthy female-female, the lunar male-female) which were later split by Zeus into being two separate people, people nowadays always looking for their other half to recover their primordial nature, with the solar sex manifesting as gay men, the earthy sex manifesting as lesbian women, and the lunar sex manifesting as heterosexual male-female couples.  The difference here between Poimandrēs and Aristophanēs is that Poimandrēs is describing this sundering of androgyne humans for the sheer and only purpose of procreation (“increase and increasing and multiply in multitude”), while Aristophanēs describes the sundering as a punishment which we’re trying to undo to recover our true selves.  Focusing on Poimandrēs again, seeing how distinct sex only arose with this sundering to be immediately qualified by an injunction to procreate, it would seem that the only purpose of being sexually differentiated is for this purpose: to continue the process of life through sexual reproduction.

CH II.17:

God’s other name is “father” because he is capable of making all things. Making is characteristic of a father. Prudent people therefore regard the making of children as a duty in life to be taken most seriously and greatly revered, and should any human being pass away childless, they see it as the worst misfortune and irreverence. After death such a person suffers retribution from demons. This is his punishment: the soul of the childless one is sentenced to a body that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s—a thing accursed under the sun. Most assuredly then, Asclepius, you should never congratulate a childless person. On the contrary, show pity for his calamity, knowing what punishment awaits him.

Moving to Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, we see this odd cautionary warning towards the end.  This is a problematic one for many people nowadays, and I’ve discussed it before both on the Hermetic Agora Discord as well as in threads on /r/Hermeticism before, but putting aside how one might interpret this from a moral or ethical standpoint, let’s focus on the mention of gender here.  What Hermēs is cautioning Asklēpios about is that those who, while living, do not have children before they die are condemned to being reborn in another life where their body “that has neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s”, which is described as being “a thing accursed under the sun”.  This is a pretty dire warning, especially given the solar characteristics of Hermeticism generally and how much devotion and worship is given to the Sun as a deity in its own right, but it’s also weird because “neither a man’s nature nor a woman’s” could be said to be the definition of “androgyne”, which is what God, the essential human, and the primordial humans were described as being in CH I.  Given how we, as human beings, are made in God’s image with all the capabilities of the Demiurge, our job and nature is to be a creator—a “father” in these terms, capable of making things.  The warning here is basically “use it or lose it”, saying that we need to exercise our capacity for creation (and, thus, procreation) lest we lose it, and this is not something we want to lose, because to not create (or, in sexual terms, procreate) is a failing of our very nature and a failing of the injunction of God to humanity from CH I.18.  This sort of warning, of course, doesn’t take into account plenty of issues arising with having children (matters of infertility or sterility, having the means or resources to raise children, etc.), and it’s my hunch that this warning is more of maintaining a cultural more rather than anything truly divine (though, of course, life should have a vested interest in seeing more life happen).

CH XIII.1—2:

“I do not know what sort of womb mankind was born from, o Trismegistos, nor from what kind of seed.”

“My child, (the womb) is the wisdom of understanding in silence, and the seed is the true good.”

“Who sows the seed, father? I am entirely at a loss.”

“The will of god, my child.”

“And whence comes the begotten, father? He does not share in my essence [ ].”

“The begotten will be of a different kind, a god and a child of god, the all in all, composed entirely of the powers.”

This is part of a dialog between Tat and Hermēs, shortly before Hermēs’ purification of Tat from the twelve tormentors and Tat’s reception of the ten mercies of God which facilitate Tat’s rebirth.  I included this bit because of the reference to sacred sexuality and sexual metaphorical language in terms of spiritual rebirth; there are a handful of other references to “wombs” in the CH, but nothing meaningful for our discussion here.  This is all metaphor for spiritual rebirth, what Hermēs later describes as being “born in mind” (CH XIII.3).

AH 21:

“Do you say that god is of both sexes, Trismegistos?”

“Not only god, Asklēpios, but all things ensouled and soulless, for it is impossible for any of the things that are to be infertile. Take away fertility from all the things that now exist, and it will be impossible for them to be forever. I say {that sensation and growth are also in the nature of things, that the world} contains growth within it and preserves all that have come to be. For each sex is full of fecundity, and the linking of the two or, more accurately, their union is incomprehensible. If you call it Cupid or Venus or both, you will be correct.

“Grasp this in your mind as truer and plainer than anything else: that god, this master of the whole of nature, devised and granted to all things this mystery of procreation unto eternity, in which arose the greatest affection, pleasure, gaiety, desire and love divine. One should explain how great is the force and compulsion of this mystery, were it not that each individual already knows from contemplation and inward consciousness. For if you take note of that final moment to which we come after constant rubbing when each of the two natures pours its issue into the other and one hungrily snatches (love) from the other and buries it deeper, finally at that moment from the common coupling females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females. Therefore, the act of this mystery, so sweet and vital, is done in secret so that the divinity that arises in both natures from the sexual coupling should not be forced to feel the shame that would come from the laughter of the ignorant if it happened in public or, much worse, if it were open to the sight of irreverent people.”

The Asclepius has this section that builds on previous ones about how things come to be, and this specific section gives us one of the most informative views from classical Hermetic literature of what it means to be biologically male or female.  Hermēs reaffirms here that God is androgyne, specifically that God is of both sexes (which makes it harder to think of androgyny as transcending gender or being without gender)—but also that all things are androgyne in the same way God is androgyne, because fertility is androgyne and nothing that exists can be infertile.  That which is male and that which is female are both equally “full of fecundity”, and it’s the combination of their separate fecundities that results in procreation.  There’s a bit of moralizing here in how Hermēs describes sex being “done in secret”, but it’s the bit about how “females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females” that gives us the first real distinction of what male and female means.  The problem here is that this is from the Latin version of the Asclepius, while the Coptic version from the Nag Hammadi Hermetica has a slightly different phrasing (using the translation of Dirkse and Parrott from volume III of The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices), picking up just after the start of the Latin AH 21 (emphasis in bold text mine):

And if you wish to see the reality of this mystery, then you should see the wonderful representation of the intercourse that takes place between the male and the female.  For when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth.  In that moment the female receives the strength of the male; the male for his part receives the strength of the female, while the semen does this.

It’s well known that the Coptic Asclepius excerpts preserved in the Nag Hammadi Hermetica largely follow the Latin, but they show enough differences that what survives as the Latin Asclepius has either gone through changes that had not yet occurred at the time of the Nag Hammadi text being written, or that it derives from a different textual lineage that produced similar though different texts along different lines of copyists or translations.  The Coptic text doesn’t have this notion of “females gaining the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females”, just that there’s an exchange (and not indebtedness as the Latin version would suggest!) of energy accomplished by the emission of semen.  One could link the two by saying that the “strength of the male” is “potency” and the “strength of the female” is lethargy/torpor, but I think that’s an uncharitable stretch.  Besides, if that which is male and that which is female are both “full of fertility”, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think that one has to be depleted in order for the other to be fulfilled, but that the two should instead be mixed or exchanged between them, which would then turn the male into female and the female into male (which might be what the Latin Asclepius is getting at), though this would have to be interpreted even more metaphorically, since obviously the male’s phallus doesn’t just fall off or invert after sex nor does the female’s womb distend into a phallus.  However, not much is said about the nature of what it means to be “male” or “female” here to flesh that metaphor out.

Scott in his commentary on the Asclepius (vol. III) says this on this section:

In God, the two procreative functions are eternally united.  In mortal races, they are divided, each individual being either male or female; but in the act of procreation, the separation ceases, and male and female become one, as God is one…

Elsewhere, Philo, like the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius], speaks of human procreation as an imitation of the creative energy of God…

Plutarch speaks of love and marriage in a tone not unlike that of [this extract of the Asclepius]; but he dwells on the κοινωνἰα βἰου as well as the act of procreation, whereas the Hermetist here confines his attention chiefly to the latter, and hints at the former only in a passing phrase summa caritas &c. …

Plutarch here agrees with the writer of [this extract of the Asclepius] in regarding the operation of productive force throughout the universe as analogous to human procreation; but he works out the analogy differently.  Instead of speaking of God as bisexual, he makes God the male principle, and ὕλη the female principle; and it is the aspiration of matter towards union with the creative energy of God that he compares with human love.

… Procreation is the means by which a race of mortal beings attains to ‘a secondary entity’, i.e. an everlasting existence in time.

DH 10.1—2:

What is good? What bears no comparison. Good is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous. What is a female? A receptive fluidity. What is a male? A seminal fluidity.

Nature in man is omniform, and (it is) an energy endowed with all qualities (whose) force (is) invisible and effects (are) conspicuous. An energy is a movement. Matter is a wet essence; a body is a agglomoration of matter

Switching now over to the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, we have this definition, appearing towards the end of the set, which gives us a distinction between female and male: that which is female is “a receptive fluidity”, and male “a seminal fluidity”.  Mahé notes that “fluidity” in this case might also be read as “corruption” (or, perhaps, “decay”), recalling SH 2a.16:

What is false decays, my child; and Providence from the one who is true has seized, holds, and will hold everything on earth in decay.  Apart from decay, birth could not exist. Decay follows every birth, so that it is born again. This is because what is born is born from what is decayed. What is born must decay, so that the birth of entities does not grind to a halt. Decay is the first Craftsman for the birth of beings.

Now what is born from decay is false, since it is born now one thing, now another. Such things cannot be born as the same entities. But what is not itself, how can it be true?

Also recall that the word “fluidity” recalls the primordial, indeterminate chaotic mass from CH I.4:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a (snake). Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it.

As well as Poimandrēs questioning of Hermēs from CH I.20:

“If you have understood, tell me: why do they deserve death who are in death?”

“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.”

None of these things bear on what it means to be male or female, or at least, not directly, but this link of “fluidity” does have a strong image-based connection with corruption, death, and mortality; given that “matter is a wet essence” from DH 10.2, we can link this notion that matter is “evil” (in the philosophical sense, cf. CH VI), and because the body is an “agglomeration of matter”, it too is evil.  Likewise, that which is evil is “conspicuous” in the sense of “visible”, because the Good is “invisible”; that which can be discerned, then, is not good.  Male and female, then, being apparent and visible differences of bodies, are both on the same level as each other when it comes to divinity and goodness (i.e. neither of them are divine or good), but both are aspects or means of material generation and procreation.  The difference between them is that that which is female is “receptive” and male “seminal”; at last, we have a notion that approximates the modern/New Age notion of masculinity = activity/emitting and femininity = passivity/receiving.  However, again, note that this all takes place in the context of physical and material generation—nothing about soul or cosmic workings beyond biological reproduction.  And, because Nature (in this case, following other scholars like Scott et al., meaning reproductive nature) is omniform, both male and female participate in this, just in different ways that work together.

SH 24.7—9 (John of Stobi, Anthology 1.19):

“You relate all things to me well, Mother,” said Horus. “You have not yet told me how noble souls are born.”

“As on earth, Horus my child, there are different ways of life, so it is in the case of souls. Souls also have realms from which they spring, and the soul from the more glorious realm is nobler than those not of the same condition. Just as among people, the free person is thought nobler than the slave, for what is superior and royal in souls necessarily enslaves the inferior. In this way, male and female souls are born.

“The souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings. The difference between the fiercer souls and the gentle ones is the air, my child Horus, in which all things are born. Air is the very body of the soul and its covering.

“The body is a molded composition of the elements earth, water, air, and fire. Now since the female composite has more of the wet and cold, it lacks the dry and warm. For this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes moist and dainty. The reverse is found in the case of the males. In them, there is more dryness and heat, with a deficit of the cold and moist. For this reason, the souls in these kinds of bodies are rougher and more active.”

This excerpt is from the second part of the text Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the Anthology of John of Stobi (aka Stobaeus).  The Korē Kosmou as a whole is a fascinating text that shows an alternate “lineage” of Hermetic teachings apart from the usual Poimandrēs-Hermēs-Tat/Asklēpios/Ammōn descent, and instead uses a God-Hermēs-Kamephis/Knēph-Isis-Horus descent.  It treats us to an account of the creation of the cosmos, humanity, and culture, as well as giving us a developed theory of soul and incarnation, much of it nowhere else seen in extant Hermetic texts.  In this part, Isis explains to Horus how some souls are nobler than others (the preceding parts describe sixty different grades of regions where souls reside, where noble and royal souls descend from the higher levels.  Given the notion that a ruler (“king”) on earth is a virtual god in human flesh (which is definitely an Egyptian idea), it’s fitting for Horus (a prince himself) to ask about this.  Isis responds with the above; in the above, the important part I want to highlight is where Isis teaches that “the souls, my child Horus, are of like nature to each other, inasmuch as they are from a single locale where the Craftsman shaped them. They are neither male nor female. Sexual differentiation occurs in bodies and does not apply to bodiless beings.”  Again, we see that the soul is androgyne (in this case not meaning “both male and female” but “neither male nor female”, though depending on your understanding of the language, either or both could be understood), and only the body is differentiated according to sex.  In other words, as Litwa succinctly notes in his commentary on this excerpt, the author of SH 24 “admits that the distinction between male and female only makes sense when souls are embodied”.

But Isis continues to describe the origin of female and male bodies and how they come to be differentiated according to an elemental theory: although all bodies consist of the four elements, female bodies consist more of earth and water than fire and air, and the opposite is true for male bodies.  This then has an impact on the soul itself that inhabits a body (“for this reason, the soul shut up in this sort of molded body becomes…”).  This echoes how, in earlier sections of SH 24, a soul takes on the character of its retinue; cf. SH 24.6:

Whenever the angels and daimones escorting the soul downwards are warlike, Horus my child, then the soul has the ability to take over their disposition. This soul is oblivious of its own deeds, or rather it remembers them up until it is joined by a different escort. Conversely, when the angels and daimones are peaceful, then the soul runs through the course of its own life doing the works of peace.When they practice the art of justice, then the soul also exercises justice. When they are musical, then the soul also sings. When they love the truth, then the soul also practices philosophy. Thus it is by necessity that these souls take over the disposition of those who escort them. They fall into humanity oblivious of their own nature–all the more when greatly separated from it. Yet they recall the character of those who shut them up (in the body).

It’s interesting that SH 24 gives such a malleable notion of “soul”, in that it takes on the characteristics of its companions or environment.  Even though all (or at least, royal/noble) souls have the same origin and nature, they take on differences and can behave or act in different ways, and we don’t see this idea expressed elsewhere in Hermetic literature; the soul is generally just the soul, perfect as it is.  The rest of SH 23, SH 25, and SH 26 (the first, third, and fourth parts of the Korē Kosmou) are helpful to read together, because these texts as a whole afford a complete theory of soul, birth, and rebirth, but nothing in the rest of them talk about sex, sexuality, or gender.  Litwa further notes in this section of SH 24 that “the author seems to assume that nobler souls are born male”; I’m not quite getting that from my reading of this text, but I’ll trust Litwa that that’s an observation that can be made from this text all the same.

FH 13 (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.8.4—5):

Unless perhaps we conceive of God as Orpheus thought, as both male and female since he could not otherwise generate unless he had the power of both sexes.  Orpheus assumes that God either coupled with himself or could procreate without coupling. But Hermes also was of the same opinion when he called God androgynous <. . .>; “his own father” and “his own mother.”

This is an extract from the Christian patristic writer Lactantius, who was generally more supportive of Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermetic texts than other patristic or later Christian writers.  I thought this excerpt was interesting, because it brings up exactly what the metaphor of male and female and androgyny is getting to the heart at: creation.  God, according to Orpheus and Hermēs in the words of Lactantius, must be “both male and female” because otherwise there could be no act of creation; Lactantius’ notion of “creation” is inherently a sexual one, and does not admit of non-sexual or asexual (pro)creation.

The Three Versions of the Hermetic Thanksgiving Prayer

Another year, another Thanksgiving has gone by.  I meant to get this written last week or so, but as we’ve all been discovering this year, linear time is a lie.

Around Thanksigiving each year, I like to draw attention to the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving.  It’s one of the more famous prayers from the Hermetic texts, made especially well-known in its appearance in the final section of the Asclepius.  However, those who have a sharp eye will also pick up on its presence in two other locations: one in PGM III in a ritual to establish a relationship with Hēlios, and the other in the Nag Hammadi Codices.  What’s fascinating is that we have three versions of the same prayer, each preserved in a different language (Latin in the Asclepius, Greek in the PGM, and Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Codices).  Getting access to the Latin and Greek version is easy enough—Preisendanz is the most easily-accessible critical edition of PGM III, and the Asclepius is everywhere in the Western world since the time of Ficino—but getting access to the Coptic text was a bit more of a challenge, because for the longest time all I could find was versions of the Nag Hammadi texts in English translation.  However, not that long ago, I got my hands on a copy of volume 11 of the Nag Hammadi Studies, a part of the Coptic Gnostic Library from Leiden, which gives the only complete collection of  the Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi Codices in full, both in Coptic and in English translation.  Once I found this, I wanted to finally do something I’ve been aiming to do for a while: a side-by-side comparison of these three texts to see exactly how far they’re alike and how far they’re not.  Happily, it seems that the scholars who worked on this specific section of the Nag Hammadi texts (Peter Dirkse and James Brashler) had the same idea, and gave a side-by-side comparison of the three versions of the Prayer of Thanksgiving in their publication of it.  Between their notes and my own observations, I’m thrilled to finally be able to show off a bit of fun stuff on my blog for this.

First, a bit of context.  The Prayer of Thanksgiving is in all three sources as a pretty-much perfectly-preserved (or as perfectly as one can expect over 2000 years under the knife of time and the redactor’s pen) Hermetic prayer, and is more than just a simple hymn of gratitude to God.  In each text it appears in, it seems to fulfill a ritual role in a broader context, though its wholly self-contained structure suggests that it .

  • In the context of the Asclepius, Hermēs recites this prayer with Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn outside the temple (facing east at sunrise or south at sunset) after the long and holy sermon he gave to them inside.  Similar to the Coptic text, the final line of this final section of the Asclepius ends with the note “with such hopes we turn to a pure meal that includes without any flesh of animals”, phrased as a spoken end to the prayer.
  • For the Coptic Nag Hammadi text, this prayer appears immediately after the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth; the placement suggests that it was recited by Hermēs and Tat(?) immediately after their ritual work described in that text, especially given the incipit introducing the Prayer of Thanksgiving (“this is the prayer that they spoke”) and the closing lines of it (“when they said these things in prayer, they embraced each other and they went to eath their holy food which has no blood in it”).  Immediately after the prayer comes the “Scribal Note”, a small addendum by whoever transcribed the prayer indicating that it was sent to someone who was likely already familiar with many such Hermetic texts or prayers; after that comes a Coptic translation of several sections from a now-lost version of the Greek Asclepius (though notably of a slightly different lineage of texts than what the Latin Asclepius preserves).
  • For the Greek text from PGM III.591—611, the Prayer of Thanksgiving occurs in the middle of a longer oration as part of an operation to “establish a relationship with Hēlios”.  After calling on the names, forms, plants, stones, birds, and animals associated with the twelve hours of the Sun in its daytime course through the heavens (much like the Consecration of the Twelve Faces of Hēlios from PGM IV.1596—1715, yet with more attributions yet in much poorer shape) and after a short hymn in verse (Preisendanz’s Hymn 2, which he says is addressed to the “All-Creator” and which I find to be an exceedingly appropriate companion to CH III) along with general requests, this thanksgiving prayer is used. 

The introduction to the Prayer given by Dirske and Brashler is highly informative, as is Jean-Pierre Mahé’s introduction in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts edited by Marvin Meyer, as well as Copenhaver’s notes in his Hermetica.  A few highlights from their analyses of the text in question:

  • From Dirske and Brashler:
    • This prayer is “especially significant for the clear evidence it presents of the existence of [classical] Hermetic cultic practices”, and “the prayer itself is certainly liturgical, as its balanced language attests”.
  • From Mahé:
    • This prayer is “particularly appropriate to conclude a dialogue describing the final stage of [a] Hermetic initiation”.
    • Although the prayer describes “the three gifts of mind, word, and knowledge…to be granted simultaneously”, other Hermetic texts (like the preceding Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth) suggest that these “fulfill successive functions on the ‘way of immortality’).
    • “Knowledge divinizes human beings not by itself alone, but jointly with word and mind, which both remain indispensable to cover ‘the way of immortality’ up to its end” (cf. CH I.26: “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).
    • There is a description of sacred sexuality in the text, especially in the final parts, and Mahé interprets “light of mind” as a male principle and “life of life” as a female one, coming together to describe God not just as someone with both male and female sexual organs but also as one who never stops impregnating their own womb.
  • From Copenhaver:
    • Some scholars argue that the presence of the Prayer of Thanksgiving with a rubric (directions to face before the prayer, instructions for a ritual meal afterwards) in the Asclepius without other magical rituals present, as well as at the final part of a magical ritual in the PGM, suggests that “the survival of a thanksgiving for gnōsis in ‘a magician’s handbook testifies to a certain amount of sharing between Hermeticism and the magicians who produced the Greek Magical Papyri”.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual texts themselves in their original languages with Romanized transliteration.  First up, the Sahidic Coptic text from NHC VI.7, page 63 line 34 through page 65 line 2.  For the Coptic transliteration below, note that the schwa letter (“ə”) transcribes the supralineal stroke above a letter, indicating a weak/movable vowel or one that turns the marked consonant into a vocalized one.    

# Coptic Transliteration
1 ⲦⲚ̄ϢⲠ̄ ϨⲘⲞⲦ Ⲛ̄ⲦⲞⲞⲦⲔ̄ tənšəp hmot ənto’tək
2 ⲮⲨⲬⲎ ⲚⲒⲘ ⲀⲨⲰ ⲪⲎⲦ ⲠⲞⲢϢ̄ ϢⲀⲢⲞⲔ psukhē nim awō phēt porəš šarok
3 Ⲱ ⲠⲒⲢⲀⲚ ⲈⲨⲢ̄ⲈⲚⲰⲬⲖⲈⲒ ⲚⲀϤ ⲀⲚ ō piran ewərenōkhli naf an
4 ⲈϤⲦⲀⲈⲒⲀⲈⲒⲦ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲞⲚⲞⲘⲀⲤⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ eftaiait hən tonomasia əmpnute
5 ⲀⲨⲰ ⲈⲨⲤⲘⲞⲨ ⲈⲢⲞϤ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲞⲚⲞⲘⲀⲤⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲒⲰⲦ awō ewsmu erof hən tonomasia əmpiōt
6 ϪⲈ je
7 ϢⲀ ⲞⲨⲞⲚ ⲚⲒⲘ ⲀⲨⲰ ϢⲀ ⲠⲦⲎⲢϤ̄ ša won nim awō ša ptērəf
9 ⲦⲈⲨⲚⲞⲒⲀ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲒⲰⲦ ⲘⲚ̄ ⲠⲘⲈ ⲘⲚ̄ ⲠⲞⲨⲰϢ teunoia əmpeiōt mən pme mən pwoš
10 ⲀⲨⲰ ⲈϢϪⲈ ⲞⲨⲚ̄ ⲞⲨⲤⲂⲰ ⲈⲤϨⲀⲖⲈϬ ⲈⲤⲞ Ⲛ̄ϨⲀⲠⲖⲞⲨⲤ awō ešje wən usbō eshalec eso ənhaplus
11 ⲈⲤⲢ̄ⲔⲀⲢⲒⲌⲈ ⲚⲀⲚ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲤ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲖⲞⲄⲞⲤ Ⲛ̄ ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ esərkarize nan əmpnus əmplogos ən tgnōsis
12 ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲤ ⲘⲈⲚ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲀⲢ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲔ pnus men jeka’s enaərnui əmmok
13 ⲠⲖⲞⲄⲞⲤ ⲆⲈ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲀϨⲈⲢⲘⲎⲚⲈⲨⲈ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲔ plogos de jeka’s enahermē newe əmmok
14 ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ ⲆⲈ ϪⲈⲔⲀⲀⲤ ⲈⲚⲚⲀⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ tgnōsis de jeka’s ennaswōnək
15 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
16 Ⲛ̄ⲦⲀⲢⲚ̄ϪⲒ ⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ əntarənji woin hən tekgnōsis
17 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
18 ϪⲈ ⲀⲔⲦⲤⲈⲂⲞⲚ ⲈⲢⲞⲔ je aktsebon erok
19 ⲦⲚ̄ⲢⲀϢⲈ tənraše
20 ϪⲈ ⲈⲚϨⲚ̄ ⲤⲰⲘⲀ je enhən sōma
21 ⲀⲔⲀⲀⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ aka’n ənnute hən tekgnōsis
22 ⲠϢⲠ ϨⲘⲀⲦ Ⲛ̄ⲠⲢⲰⲘⲈ ⲈⲦⲠⲎϨ ϢⲀⲢⲞⲔ ⲞⲨⲀ ⲠⲈ pš[ə]p hmat ənprōme et-pēh šarok wa pe
23 ϪⲈⲔⲀⲤ ⲀⲦⲢⲚ̄ ⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ jekas atrən swōnək
24 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ answōnək
25 Ⲱ ⲠⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲎⲦⲞⲚ ō pwoin ənoēton
26 Ⲱ ⲠⲰⲚϨ̄ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲰⲚϨ̄ ō pōnəh əmpōnəh
27 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲔ̄ answōnək
28 Ⲱ ⲦⲘⲎⲦⲢⲀ Ⲛ̄ϪⲞ ⲚⲒⲘ ō tmētra ənjo nim
29 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲈ answōne
30 Ⲱ ⲦⲘⲎⲦⲢⲀ ⲈⲦϪⲠⲞ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲪⲨⲤⲒⲤ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲒⲰⲦ ō tmētra et-j[ə]po hən t[ə]phusis əmpiōt
31 ⲀⲚⲤⲞⲨⲰⲚⲈ answōne
32 Ⲱ ⲠⲘⲞⲨⲚ ⲈⲂⲞⲖ ϢⲀ ⲈⲚⲈϨ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲒⲰⲦ ⲈⲦϪⲠⲞ ō pmun ebol ša eneh əmpeiōt et-j[ə]po
33 ⲦⲈⲒ̈ϨⲈ ⲀⲚ ⲞⲨⲰϢⲦ̄ Ⲙ̄ⲠⲈⲔⲀⲄⲀⲐⲞⲚ ⲞⲨ teïhe an wōšət əmpekagathon u
34 ⲞⲨⲰϢⲈ ⲞⲨⲰⲦ ⲠⲈⲦⲚ̄Ⲣ̄ⲀⲒⲦⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞϤ wōše wōt petənəraiti əmmof
35 ⲈⲚⲞⲨⲰϢ ⲈⲦⲢⲈⲨⲢ̄ ⲦⲎⲢⲈⲒ Ⲙ̄ⲘⲞⲚ ϨⲚ̄ ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ enwōš etrewər tēri əmmon hən tgnōsis
36 ⲞⲨⲀⲢⲈϨ ⲆⲈ ⲞⲨⲰⲦ ⲠⲈⲦⲈⲚ ⲞⲨⲞϢϤ̄ wareh de wōt peten wōšəf
37 ⲈⲦⲘ̄ⲦⲢⲈⲚⲤⲖⲀⲀⲦⲈ ϨⲘ̄ ⲠⲈⲈⲒⲂⲒⲞⲤ Ⲛ̄ϮⲘⲒⲚⲈ etəmtrensla’te həm peibios əntimine

Yes, I know line 8 is empty.  There’ll be some oddities in how this and the following Greek and Latin text are arranged or how the lines are numbered; bear with me, and it’ll make sense further on.

Next, the Koiné Greek text from the Papyrus Mimaut (Louvre P. 2391) column XVIII lines 591—611, aka PGM III.591—611 (broader entry PGM III.494—611, possibly continued through line 731).   Unfortunately, the final two lines (after the end of the prayer proper) are in too poor a shape to read.  For the Greek text here, Dirske and Brashler used Preisendanz’s version of the PGM emended with suggestions from Mahé and “an independent collation from published photos” of the papyrus.  (I know I’m using my idiosyncratic style of transliteration here, so just bear with me.)

# Greek Transliteration
1 Χάριν σοι οἴδαμεν Khárin soi oídamen
2 Ψυχὴ πᾶσα καὶ καρδίαν πρὸς σὲ ἀνατεταμένην psukhḕ pâsa kaì kardían pròs sè anatetaménēn
3 ἄφραστον ὄνομα τετιμημένον áphraston ónoma tetimēménon
4 τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ προσηγορίᾳ têy toû theû prosēgoríay kaì elogoúmenon
5 καὶ ελογούμενον τῇ τοῦ πατρὸς ὀνομασίᾳ têy toû patròs onomasíay
6 Ὁς Hos
7 πρὸς πάντας καὶ πρὸς πάντας pròs pántas kaì pròs pántas
8 πατρικὴν εὔνοιαν καὶ στρογὴν καὶ φιλίαν patrikḕn eúnoian kaì storgḕn kaì philían
9 καὶ ἐπιγλυκυτά την ἐνεργίαν kaì epiglukutá tēn energían
10 ἐνεδίξω enedíksō,
11 χαρισάμενος ἠμῖν νοῦν, λόγον, γνῶσιν kharisámenos ēmîn noûn, lógon, gnôsin:
12 νοῦν μὲν ἵνα σε νοήσωμεν noûn mèn hína se noḗsōmen,
13 λόγον δὲ ἵνα σε ἐπικαλέσωμεν lógon dè hína se epikalésōmen,
14 γνῶσιν δὲ ἵνα σε ἐπιγνώσωμεν gnôsin dè hína se epignṓsōmen.
17 Χαίρομεν Khaíromen,
18 ὅτι σεαυτὸν ἡμῖν ἔδιξας hōti seautòn hēmîn édiksas.
19 Χαίρομεν Khaíromen,
20 ὅτι ἐν πλὰσμασιν ἡμᾶς ὄντας hóti en plàsmasin hēmâs óntas
21 ἀπεθέωσας τῇ σεαυτοῦ γνώσει apethéōsas têy seautoû gnṓsei.
22 Χάρις ἀνθρώπου πρὸς σὲ μία Kháris anthrṓpou pròs sè mía:
23 τὸ γνωρίσαι σε tò gnōrísai se.
24 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
25 ὦ φῶς νοητόν ô phôs noētón,
26 ὦ τῆς ἀνθρςπίνης ζωῆς ζωή ô tês anthrōpínēs zōês zoḗ.
27 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
28 ὦ μήτρα πάσης φύσεως ō̂ mḗtra pásēs phúseōs.
29 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
30 ὦ μήτρα κυηφόρε ἐμ πατρὸς φυτίᾳ ō̂ mḗtra kuēphóre em patròs phutíay.
31 Ἐγνωρίσαμεν σε Egnōísamen se,
32 ὦ πατρὸς κυηφοροῦντος αἰώνιος διαμονή ō̂ patròs kuēphoroûntos aiṓnios diamonḗ.
33 Οὕτο τὸν σοῦ ἀγαθὸν προσκυνήσαντες Hoúto tòn soû agathòn proskunḗsantes,
34 μηδεμίαν ᾐτήσαμεν χάριν πλὴν mēdemían hēytḗsamen khárin plḕn:
35 Θελησον ἡμᾶς διατηρηθῆναι ἐν τῇ σῇ γνῶσει thelēson hēmâs diatērēthênai en têy sêy gnôsei;
36 Μία δὲ τήρησις mía dè tḗrēsis:
37 τὸ μὴ σφαλῆναι τοῦ τοιούτου βίου τούτου tò mḕ sphalênai toû toioútou bíou toútou.

Finally, the Latin text from the Asclepius, section 41.  The Latin here is taken from Nock’s and Festugière’s Hermès Trismégiste vol. II, pages 353—355, compiled from a number of Latin manuscripts written in the 12th or 13th centuries.  Because the text is in Latin, no transcription is needed here.

  1. Gratias tibi / summe exsuperantissime / tua enim gratia tantum sumus cognitionis tuae lumen consecuti,
  2. Nomen sanctum et honorandum,
  3. nomen unum quo solus deus est benedicendus
  4. religione paterna,
  5. quoniam
  6. omnibus
  7. paternam pietatem et religionem et amorem
  8. et quaecumque est dulcior efficacia
  9. praebere dignaris
  10. condonans nos sensu, ratione, intelligentia:
  11. sensu ut te cognouerimus,
  12. ratione ut te suspicionibus indagemus,
  13. cognitione ut te cognoscentes gaudeamus.
  14. Ac numine saluati tuo
  15. gaudemus,
  16. quod te nobis ostenderis totum;
  17. gaudemus
  18. quod nos in corporibus sitos aeternitati
  19. fueris consecrare dignatus.
  20. Haec est enim humana sola gratulatio:
  21. cognitio maiestatis tuae.
  22. Cognouimus te
  23. et lumen maximum solo intellectu sensibile.
  24. Intellegimus te,
  25. o uitae uera uita.
  26. O naturarum omnium fecunda praegnatio;
  27. cognouimus te.
  28. totius naturae tuo conceptu plenissimae aeterna perseueratio.
  29. In omni enum ista oriatione adorantes bonum bonitatus tuae
  30. hoc tantum deprecamur,
  31. ut nos uelis seruare persuerantes in amore conitionis tuae
  32. et numquam ab hoc uitae genere seperari.

Having the original texts in their original languages is nice, but now it’s time to actually get to the translation.  Although these are all fundamentally the same text, a side-by-side comparison will show the differences in both their orders and their specific wordings.  To better establish a concordance between the different bits and parts of the Coptic, Greek, and Latin texts, I essentially used the Coptic text as a base to give each part of the prayer a number, which is why the numbering in the above sections looks so weird, but it’ll help make the concordance easier to handle.  Take a look:

# Coptic   # Greek   # Latin
1 We give thanks to you.   1 We give thanks to you,   1 We thank you,
            1a o most high and most excellent,
            1b for by your grace have we received the great light of your knowledge.
2 Every soul and heart is lifted up to you,   2 every soul and heart stretched out to you,      
3 o undisturbed name   3 o inexpressible name   3 Your name is holy and to be honored,
4 honored with the name of “God”,   4 honored with the designation of “God”   4 the only name by which God alone is to be blessed
5 and praised with the name of “Father”,   5 and blessed with the name of “Father”,   5 with ancestral reverence,
6 for   6 for   6 because
7 to everyone and everything   7 to everyone and to all things   7 to all things
8 [comes]            
9 the fatherly kindness and affection and love   9 paternal kindness, devotion, love   9 paternal kindness, devotion, love
10 and any teaching there may be that is sweet and plain,   10 and yet sweeter action   10 and whatever virtue may be more sweet,
      8 you have displayed,   8 you think it good to display
11 giving us mind, word, and knowledge:   11 having granted to us mind, word, and knowledge:   11 granting to us mind, reason, and knowledge:
12 mind so that we may understand you,   12 mind in order that we may understand you,   12 mind in order that we may understand you,
13 word so that we may expound you,   13 word in order that we may call upon you,   13 reason in order that by means of hints we may investigate you,
14 knowledge so that we may know you.   14 knowledge in order that we may know you.   14 knowledge in order that, knowing you, we may rejoice.
15 We rejoice,   15        
16 having been illumined by your knowledge.   16     16 Redeemed by your power,
17 We rejoice   17 We rejoice   17 we rejoice,
18 because you have shown us yourself.   18 because you have shown yourself to us.   18 that you have shown yourself to us completely.
19 We rejoice   19 We rejoice   19 We rejoice,
20 because while we were in the body   20 because while we were yet in molded shapes      
21 you have made us divine through your knowledge.   21 you deified us by the knowledge of yourself.   21 that you have thought it good to deify us for eternity
            20 while we are yet situated in bodies.
22 The thanksgiving of the man who attains to you is one thing:   22 The thanksgiving of a man to you is one:   22 For this is the only human gratitude:
23 that we may know you.   23 to know you.   23 the knowledge of your majesty.
24 We have known you,   24 We have known you,   24 We know you
25 o intellectual light.   25 o intellectual light,   25 and the greatest light perceptible to the intellect alone.
            27 We understand you,
26 O life of life,   26 o life of human life.   26 o true life of life.
27 we have known you.   27 We have known you,      
28 O womb of every creature,   28 o womb of all nature.   28 O pregnancy fertile with all natures,
29 we have known you.   29 We have known you,   29 we know you,
30 O womb pregnant with the nature of the Father,   30 o womb pregnant in the nature of the Father.      
31 we have known you.   31 We have known you,      
32 O eternal permanence of the begetting Father,   32 o eternal continuation of the impregnating Father.   32 eternal continuation of all nature most full of your impregnating activity
33 thus have we worshiped your goodness.   33 Thus having worshiped your goodness,   33 For worshiping the good of your goodness in this whole prayer
34 There is one petition that we ask:   34 we ask only one favor:   34 we pray for just one thing:
35 we would be preserved in knowledge.   35 that you might will that we will be preserved in your knowledge;   35 that you will to keep us preserving in the love of your knowledge
36 And there is one protection that we desire:   36 and one protection:      
37 that we not stumble in this kind of life.   37 that we not fall away from a life such as this.   37 and never to be separated from a life such as this.

Notes on the side-by-side comparison:

  1. For the most part, it’s clear that the Coptic and Greek versions are nearly identical in structure, although the Greek version seems to have dropped lines 15 and 16 (“we rejoice, having been illumined by your knowledge”), and the Coptic lacks any explicit verb corresponding to “you have displayed” on line 8 present in both the Greek and Latin (though this appears after the list of the gifts of God).
  2. The Latin version, on the other hand, is much more variant, with several lines appearing out of order compared to the Coptic or Greek text (e.g. lines 21 and 20), extra adoration to God (lines 1a and 1b), or outright missing lines usually due to structural simplification or modification (e.g. line 15).
  3. Line 2, “every soul and heart is lifted up/stretched out to you”, echoes CH I.31: “accept pure speech offerings from a soul and heart that reach up to you” (ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σὲ ἀνατεταμένης).  The Greek text from PGM III is corrupt at this point, so the Greek from the CH is used to emend it.
  4. Line 3 in Coptic has “undisturbed” (ⲈⲨⲢ̄ⲈⲚⲰⲬⲖⲈⲒ ⲚⲀϤ ⲀⲚ “him not being disturbed” from Greek ένοχλεῖν “to disturb, trouble”), but the Greek uses ἄφραστον “inexpressible”.  This is one of several bits of evidence that the Coptic prayer was a translation from a Greek prayer, but from a different textual lineage from what was used in PGM III.  The use of “undisturbed” here is difficult for me to parse, but based on the use of the Greek “inexpressible”, perhaps it’s in a sense of “one who cannot be disturbed by calling”.
  5. Line 5 in the Coptic and Greek pretty much agree exactly (“praised/blessed with the name of ‘[the] Father'”), but the corresponding line in Latin is weird.  I assume some corruption crept into the Latin text over time, so it kinda got the overall gist of what was being said (religione paterna) even if not the precise meaning.
  6. Line 10 uses the adjective “sweet”, but the different texts use it in different ways, and evidence here suggests that the Greek text has the better structure and meaning.
  7. In line 10, although the Coptic uses “teaching” (ⲤⲂⲞ) to translate Greek ἔνδειξιν, the Greek text from PGM III uses ἐνδείξω.  It may be that the original prayer in Greek uses ἐνδείξω and a Coptic translator misread the final -ω for -ιν, changing the verb into a noun.
  8. In line 10, the Coptic uses “plain” (ϨⲀⲠⲖⲞⲨⲤ from Greek ἁπλοῦς), which is likely a translation from the Greek ἐναργήν (“visible”, “palpable”, “manifest”), which was sometimes confused for ἐνεργήν (“active”, “effective”).  Alternatively, it may have been confused for ἐνεργίαν/ἐνεργεῖαν (“energy”, “activity”), which would relate better to both the Greek ἐνεργίαν and the Latin efficacia.
  9. Line 13 is a fun one: “word, that we may ____ you”.  Each version gives a different word here: the Latin gives “investigate by means of hints”, the Greek gives “call upon” (ἐπικαλέσωμεν), and the Coptic has “expound” (ⲈⲚⲀϨⲈⲢⲘⲎⲚⲈⲨⲈ, from Greek ἑρμηνεύειν meaning “interpret”).  It’s the use of the Coptic-Greek word here that is a fun link to Hermēs, given the long history between the Greek name of the god and the word “to interpret”, which can also be used for “to give voice/utterance to” or “to put into words”.  I like that, but there’s no clean way to translate that with the richness of the pun here, so the best English translation might be the one from the Greek, in my opinion.
  10. The Latin text, given that it’s a translation from an earlier Greek one, is fairly dutiful in how it represents the original Greek despite how the English translation might look.  The two Latin verbs cognouerimus and cognoscentes correspond to Greek νοήσωμεν and ἐπιγνώσωμεν, meaning “to understand/think” and “to discern/come to know”, respectively.
  11. The word “light” or “illumination” (ⲞⲨⲞⲈⲒⲚ) on line 16 the Coptic suggests that the corresponding Latin should read “light” instead of “power” (lumine instead of numine).
  12. Lines 19-21 are interesting; all the texts agree on what’s being said (“we rejoice, for while we were yet in the body, you made us divine through your knowledge”).  However, this does admittedly fly against several Hermetic texts that state that divinity and divinization/deification cannot be done while in the body (e.g. CH I.26, CH IV.7, CH X.6).  However, CH XIII talks about how spiritual rebirth does occur in the body once one receives the divine mercies of God to chase away the tormentors once physical perception has been transcended.
  13. Although line 21 has Greek ἀπεθέωσας (perhaps better spelled ἀποθεώσας) and Coptic ⲀⲔⲀⲀⲚ Ⲛ̄ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ (“make gods”, I think?), the Latin has consecrare, which isn’t the same thing as deification, just “make holy”.  Copenhaver in his notes to his translation of the Asclepius points out a possible modesty or shyness on the part of the Latin translator (or later redactors) about using the term “deification”, especially in light of an increasingly Christian audience.
  14. There’s a nuance to the phrase “we know you” in lines 23 through 31.  In Greek, this verb is in the aorist tense, which has no direct correspondence to an English one; it indicates an undivided events (like the individual steps in a continuous process) or to express events that happen in general without asserting a time.  Knowing God is a divinely simple action, complete and indivisible unto itself, and the use here is almost like a completed action; it’s like a cross between “we know you indefinitely and without restriction” and “we have undergone the process to make you known to us”.
  15. Although line 32 has the translation of “permanence” from Coptic and “continuation” from Greek (διαμονή) and Latin (peveratio), even the Greek word is used in both senses/translations, so I don’t know if there’s much of a difference here implied by the use of “permanence” vs. “continuation”.  Likewise, the Latin word used here can also be used for “persistance” or “perseverance” or “duration”, as can the Coptic word.
  16. Line 35 in the Coptic reads “knowledge” (ⲦⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ), but should probably be emended to read ⲦⲈⲔⲄⲚⲰⲤⲒⲤ (“your knowledge”) which would make it agree with both the Greek and Latin and to agree with its own line 21 above.

I’m honestly glad I had the chance—and enough of what few meager language chops I can bring to bear—to actually take a look at all three texts side-by-side.  It’s this kind of analysis that helps me (and, more than likely, a good few of us) get a better understanding at the text itself as well as the other texts in which it appears as a component.  Plus, it helps us come up with a sort of “synthesized” version of the prayers; lacking any original, we can still make an attempt at coming up with a “uniform” version that bridges the gaps between its different appearances between the Asclepius, PGM, and NHC.  I’ve done so before on my old page write-up for the Prayer of Thanksgiving, which I’m going to update as a matter-of-course now that I’ve done this analysis, but I think I should make a slight update to (if not a new stab at) what I had before as a synthesized version of the prayer.

We give thanks to you!
Every soul and heart reaches up to you,
o ineffable Name
honored as “God” and praised as “Father”,
for to everyone and everything you have shown
fatherly kindness, affection, love, and sweetest activity,
granting to us mind, word, and knowledge:
mind, that we may understand you;
word, that we may call upon you;
knowledge, that we may know you.
We rejoice, for we have been illuminated by your knowledge.
We rejoice, for you have revealed yourself to us.
We rejoice, for you have made us incarnate divine by your knowledge.

The thanksgiving of mankind to you is this alone:
that we may know you.
O Light of Mind, we know you.
O Life of Life, we know you.
O Womb of every creature, we know you.
O Womb pregnant with the nature of the Father, we know you.
O eternal permanence of the begetting Father, we know you.

Thus do we worship your goodness.
Thus do we ask for one favor: that we be preserved in your knowledge.
Thus do we ask for one protection: that we not fall away from this sort of life.

The Royal Praises from Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum

Like with the wonderful Praise of the Invisible and Visible God that I wrote up (or, rather, rewrote from the original material from prose into something more structured) back in January or the simple Hermetic prayer rule and “prelude prayers” I discussed back in February, there’s plenty else in the Corpus Hermeticum that can be thought of as ripe material for coming up with prayers, devotions, and hymns for the Divine.  Much of it, of course, is prose rather than poetry, as the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t really written as hymnal stuff, but there are frequent exhortations to “show devotion”, instances of thanksgiving, and other praises given to the Divine that are to ignore.  It’s what makes the Hermetic canon so hard to consider in a strictly philosophical or scientific light apart and away from mysticism or faith; as Willhelm Boussett has said, “the Hermetica belong to the history of piety, not philosophy”.

One of the more odd inclusions in the Hermetic canon is Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, which has the title “On the soul hindered by the body’s affections”, but which A.D. Nock suggests was a later assignment by a redactor, and which only really applies to the first few paragraphs of the book.  The bulk of Book XVIII, instead, focuses on giving praise to God, both in his own right as well as a prelude to give praise of kings (more the general class of kings rather than any king in particular).  Brian Copenhaver includes Book XVIII in his translation, but Clement Salaman pointedly does not, noting that:

Scott and Nock-Festugière agree in regarding [Book XVIII] as not belonging to the Corpus.  It is manifestly inferior to the other books, both in content and in style (Festiguère refers to it as: ‘Cette insipide morceau de rhétorique’ [Copenhaver translates this as “an insipid piece of rhetoric in rhythmic prose”]).  No real single theme develops, but merely disconnected remarks relating to the praise of kings and of God.

I’ll grant it that, to be sure: it lacks either the atmosphere of the temple or clarity of the classroom that so many of the other parts of the Hermetic canon have, and rather suggests something more of a philosopher at a courtly symposium.  Still, it’s not hard to see why this would be bundled with the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum, given how it treats the soul as affected by the body’s weaknesses by way of an extended metaphor involving musicians and their instruments, as well as its sincere (and rather beautiful) praise to God.  What’s weird is the “royal panegyric” that Book XVIII also gives a praise and hymn to kings and their virtues generally.  It’s not like the Hermetica doesn’t involve kings at all; after all, Book XVI (“Definitions of Asclepius to King Ammon”) is written as a letter to a king, Book XVII preserves an interaction between Tat and an unnamed king, and the 24th Stobaean Fragment (the middle part of the Korē Kosmou) discusses the various natures of souls and how some souls are specifically kingly and royal ones.  In the broader context of the Hermetic canon, and given the important role of the king (rather, pharaoh) as incarnated divinity on Earth in ancient Egypt, it doesn’t make too much nonsense to have something treating the topic of kings or praising their virtues, if indeed they are a force of divinity here explicitly and locally manifest in the cosmos as opposed to implicitly and ambiently manifest.

To that end, I decided to rework the praise bits of Book XVIII into a pair of prayers that I call “The Royal Praises”.  The first part is the one I think more people will find more useful: “The Royal Praise of the Almighty”:

Come, come all, let us hasten and praise the Almighty!
In all things do we begin with God and the power above, and so too do we end.
In the end of all things do we return to the beginning, from God unto God!
The Sun partakes of all in its rising, the nourisher of all that grows,
its rays stretched out like great hands to gather in the crops,
its rays partaking in the ambrosial radiance of the harvest;
like crops in the warmth of the Sun do we take in the wisdom of God,
like crops under the light of the Sun do we grow under the light of God,
and like crops from the Earth, in beginning with God we return to God,
our praise becoming the bounty of God that waters every shoot we plant.

O God, Whole of the All, wholly pure and undefiled, Father of all our souls,
may praise rise up from a myriad mouths in a myriad voices to you,
even though none can say anything worthy of you or before you,
for no mortal speech can equal your might, power, or presence.
As the child cannot properly praise their father,
still the child exclaims their love with all their strength,
and, honoring their father as they can, receives his love and mercy.
So too may we praise you with all the strength of our souls!
For you, our Creator, are greater than all of creation;
let all our praise always confess your boundless power and endless extent!

To praise you, o God, is in our nature, in our hearts, and in our very souls,
for as your descendants, like attracting like, we are like unto you,
and as your children, seeing ourselves in you, we can only love and praise you.
Yet even should you grant it to us before we even ask,
we still ask for your forgiveness, your forbearance, your mercy, and your grace.
As the father does not turn away the child for their lack of strength,
but delights in their coming to grow and to know him,
so too do you delight in us coming to know you and all your creation,
for the knowledge of the All confers life unto all,
and our understanding becomes our praise to you for all that you give us.

O God, o Good of the Beginning, o Ever-Shining, o Immortal,
alone containing the limit of divine eminence, encircling the All that is all that is!
Always flowing from your own energy from beyond to within the cosmos,
from yourself above in Heaven to mankind below on Earth,
you send the message of promise that leads to the praise that saves us,
to the work that lifts us, to the way that guides us beyond to you!
For beyond there is no discord among beings, neither dissonance nor difference;
all think one Thought, all have one Knowledge, all share one Mind.
One sense works within them all, one charm unites them all:
love, divine love, love of the Good that makes all act together in harmony as One!

When it comes to the bit in the first paragraph about the Sun and its rays like hands, Copenhaver notes that:

The image of the sun reaching down with hand-like rays became an artistic motif in the Egypt of Akhenaton; the sun’s rays were a manifestation of heka, a magical power that energizes the universe, but [Festugière] sees this allusion to solar magic as an empty metaphor in this “purely literary” text.

Although the reign of Akhenaten was removed from the writing of the Corpus Hermeticum by about a thousand years, give or take a few centuries, it is a compelling image of the power of the Sun, and given the importance of the Sun in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book XI, “the sun is an image of the cosmos…the human is an image of the sun”; Book XVI, “in this way, the craftsman (I mean the sun) binds heaven to earth, sending essence below and raising matter above”), it’s not surprising how this image might be carried through the centuries into Hermetic symbolism and praise.

The second part is a shorter hymn (the panegyric proper of Book XVIII), the “Royal Praise of Kings”:

As the Creator has all power and presence in the cosmos of his creation,
so too does the king possess all power and presence in the order of his kingdom.
We praise God, and so doing, we praise the one who takes his scepter from him,
o divine among us mortals, o arbiter of our peace,
o king of kings, o image of God on Earth, you who are our king!
In singing our reverent love of God, we know to praise what is divine;
thus do we hymn and glorify the king, even as we hymn and glorify God! For in raising
our voice first to the Supreme King of All, the Good, the God,
we must then lift our song to those whom God has established in his might!
O foremost of the security of the people, o prince of peace of the world!
Authority, victory, honors, and trophies were established by God for you!
As God is the source of your dominion, so too are you the source of our hope!

The virtue of a king, the name of a king, is to be the judge of peace,
and with such peace comes prosperity for which we cannot but give tribute!
Setting his kingly grace kindly upon even the highest of worldly powers,
achieving over all discourse and discord the mastery that brings all peace,
panicking all barbarian armies and outdoing all their tyranny,
the very name alone of the king is the very symbol of peace!
For the king’s threat drives the enemy off with fear,
and the king’s statue succors the tempest-tost with haven;
for the icon of the king brings the warrior quick victory,
and the presence of the king gives the besieged an aegis.
Let us always praise and proclaim, treat and tribute the king,
that the king, free in peace from threat and harm, may ensure the same for all!

In our day and age, when we’re so far removed from any real notion of divine kingship or the divine right of kings (unless you’re an old-school British royalist or Japanese imperialist), it’s weird to give such praise for such a human being who happens to be a ruler over other people.  We typically conceive of rulers as coming into power through worldly means for rather less than cosmic reasons (cf. John Bradshaw’s “in the name of the People of England of which you were elected king” at the trial of King Charles I, conceiving of kingship as something random, arbitrary, and unearned).  But the Korē Kosmou (the 23rd through 25th of the Stobaean Fragments) discusses mortal kings as being in a league different from other kinds of humans.  From Litwa’s translation:

…On earth dwell humans and the other animals, ruled by the current king. Gods, my child, give birth to kings worthy of being their offspring on earth.  Rulers are emanations of the king, and the one nearest the king is more kingly than the others. Hence the Sun, inasmuch as he is nearer to God, is greater than the Moon and more powerful. The Moon takes second place to the Sun in rank and power.

The king is last in the rank of the other gods, but premier among human beings. As long as he dwells on earth he is divorced from true divinity. Yet he possesses a quality superior to other human beings—an element like unto God. This is because the soul sent down into him is from that realm higher than the one from which other people are sent. Souls are sent down from that realm to rule for two reasons, my child.

Some souls, destined to be deified, run through their own lifetime nobly and blamelessly so that, by ruling, they train to hold authority among the gods. The other group of souls are already divine and veer only slightly from the divinely inspired ordinance. They are sent into kings so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment. On account of their dignity and nature, they suffer nothing like the others in their embodiment. Rather, what they had when free (of the body) they possess while bound to it.

Now the character differences that develop among kings are distinguished not by a distinction in their soul. All royal souls are divine. The differences arise by virtue of the soul’s angelic and daimonic retinue during its installation. For such great souls descending to such great tasks do not descend apart from an advance parade and military escort. For Justice on high knows how to apportion dignity to each soul, even though they are pushed from the placid realm.

In the Hermetic view, there are particular people who are incarnated with a specific role to play in the world, and that role is to be divine as they are already among the foremost of souls in nature and rank; it is this that makes one a king when incarnate, assuming that kings live otherwise good lives “so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment”.  And, knowing that the Egyptians conceived of kings as not just being divine beings on Earth, and knowing that they strove to immortalize and deify them after death, we can conceive of this as being the end-game for the metempsychosis of humans: to refine ourselves through the knowledge of God to become more and more divine, and thus become as divine as a human can possibly be before being outright deified by other humans.

Admittedly, this notion is hard to swallow for many of us nowadays who would much rather an egalitarian view of souls (which, admittedly, much of the rest of the Hermetica would seem to encourage) and who don’t agree with the divinity of rulership (I mean…look at the current state of the world, and tell me that there’s anything new under the Sun).  Still, I suppose there’s plenty that could be said about a more generalized notion of “kingship”, either as something relatively detached from governance and dominion of people as a geopolitical power, or perhaps (and better) closer to what my mentor, Fr. Rufus Opus, discusses in his Seven Spheres:

I feel the same about the term King. To me, a King is anyone who rules, regardless of their gender. The need for different words to differentiate between genders is silly, in my opinion.

But the LOGOS pointed out something really important. The things we seek, they are part of what automatically comes with a kingdom. They are secondary manifestations, the results. Look at Kings. They have everything they need, and then some. LOGOS was saying, look, don’t go after that stuff; that’s what other people do with their lives, people who have not been chosen to know who they are, who have not had their divine nature and true paternity revealed to them. Instead of going after all that stuff, or the means to get that stuff, focus instead on the Kingdom. Learn that you are a King already. Learn what that means, learn the art of being the Royal You. Train yourself, improve yourself, be Kingly, and you’ll find that you have a Kingdom of a God all around you, and that you are its ruler.

But what are Kings?

Kings are people who were personally (or through the source of their noble lineage) positioned by fate and fortune and gifted with the quality required to lead their world naturally. They were linked to the gods either by favor or by blood, and they received a Kingdom as a result of their nature and the quality of their deeds. They were noble.

What he says in his introduction to Seven Spheres smacks of what Isis tells Horus in the 25th Stobaean Fragment.  If we broaden the notion of “kingdom” to be one’s whole life and sphere of influence, then each and every one of us is a king—regardless of our external gender, station, or condition.  It’s being able to carry ourselves as such, to rule our lives as such, that makes us so: it’s a matter of waking up to the reality of the matter and behaving accordingly.  Those who can are kings, and those who can’t aren’t.  After all, if God is with you, who can be against you?  If you’re living your True Will in tune with your Perfect Nature, then how could you not be among the royalty of souls?  And if royal souls are divine, then divine souls must also be royal ones.  And are Hermēs, Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon not thus kings?  After all, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the final part of the Asclepius, does Hermēs not say “we rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body”, or as I personally phrase it based on the similar prayer from PGM III.494—611, “we rejoice, for you have made us [who are incarnate] divine by your knowledge”?  If the knowledge of God makes one divine (literally deification, even while alive), then it must also make one a king, at least in some sense.

I’m sure there’s more that can be discussed along these lines of what it means for deification and kingship in a Hermetic context, especially understanding the historical and cultural implications of the such and how that might compare or translate to the modern world, but that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’ll leave this with these two brief rephrasings and restructurings of Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum to use for further devotional works to the Divine.

Third Book like a First Sermon: Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum

Perhaps fitting for all those Carcers I got in the yearly readings I did at the start of 2020, these past few weeks have been marked by self-isolation and quarantine both voluntary and involuntary for many of us. Frankly, this has been an excellent time for me; not only do I naturally take to a hermitic life, but I don’t have to waste time commuting, getting dressed, or the like, and can instead spend more time in my daily prayers and meditations, more time doing rituals, more time writing, more time reading, and more time sleeping. (Well, maybe not sleeping, but one can always hope.) In addition to being a hermitic time, it is also—surprising positively nobody—a rather Hermetic time for me, as well. I’m going back more and more lately, it seems to what I’ve been calling the “Hermetic canon”: the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Stobaean Fragments, and various other bits of classical Hermetic bits and pieces that have been compiled throughout the centuries and translated thanks to the like of Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, Walter Scott (vols. one, two, and three), and the like back and back through time. For me, I’ve been diving in deeper and deeper, contemplating and mulling over these texts, as they rightly and well deserve. They are, after all, the foundation of Hermetic thought, belief, and practice. So, it’s not uncommon that I’ll crack open my copy of Copenhaver or Litwa as I curl up in bed, read a few passages, and think them over as my head stops thinking and starts dreaming. It’s not exactly light reading, of course, but it’s a hard meal to take for the mind, full of roughage and slow-digesting nutrients—and thus among the most nutritious for the soul.

Although a number of the books of the Corpus Hermeticum are well-known and well-loved and have their own nicknames—Book I as the Divine Poemander, Book IV as the Mixing-Bowl, Book X as the Key, and so on—it’s Book III that recently caught my attention. It’s succinctly titled The Sacred Discourse of Hermēs Trismegistos (Ἑρμοῦ τοῦ Τρισμεγίστου λόγοσ ἱερός according to Scott, Ἑρμοῦ ἱερός λόγος according to Nock/Festugière), and like its short name, is a short section of the Corpus Hermeticum, indeed, coming in at only 23 (oddly long) lines of text, broken down into five short paragraphs. The trouble is, however, that the original manuscript is badly preserved, with rather lengthy lacunae on the seventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines, and with the first eight lines having a chunk cut off of them at the end. We also don’t have a good idea of when the text was written; some suggest as early as the third century bce, others as late as the third century ce. But what we do have, I think, is probably one of the best introductions to what Hermeticism (or Hermetism), the “Way of Hermēs”, is really all about.

Grab a drink and buckle in, dear reader. We’re going on a bit of a trip this time.

In his notes on his translation, Scott says that Book III:

…is so corrupt as to be almost wholly meaningless; and I have altered it with a free hand. It is not likely that the conjecturally emended text which is here printed is precisely what the author wrote; but I think it probable that, in the main at least, it correctly represents his meaning.

There is no necessity to take this little piece to be an extract from a longer treatise; it appears to be a complete whole in itself, and it is rounded off by a recurrence, in the concluding words, to the same thought with which it began. It is the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe.

The author of Corp. III had read the first chapter of Genesis. It is impossible to doubt this, when we compare the corresponding passages in detail [between Genesis 1:1—3, 7, 11, 13, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28 and Book III]. It is evident then that the writer of Corp. III knew the Mosaic account of the creation. But he also knew the Stoic cosmology; and in this document, he has tried to harmonize the one with the other, and so “reconcile Genesis with science”.

We have fragments of another cosmogony, which appears to have been likewise derived in part from Genesis and in part from Stoic science, but was said by its author to be based on the writings of Thoth, whom the Greeks called Hermēs Trismegistus,—namely, the cosmogony of Sanchuniathon, as reported by Philo Byblius; and it seems worth while to compare this with Corp. III…

Nock and Festugière in their notes instead comment that (my translation, with the generous help of Google Translate from the French original):

According to the remarks of L. Ménard, this whole treatise is full of inconsistencies and obscurity. This is probably due, at least in part, to the corruption of the text. In this case, the comparison with some of the variants from the Stobaean Fragments testifies to the small chance we have to correct errors that go back to the very sources of the [Hermetic] tradition. But a large part of the obscurity is also undoubtedly attributable to the author; he likes the long, sonorous words and the style of the Septuagint, which recalls the extreme obscurity of the Greek versions of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Further, we do not here have a cosmogony in the genre of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum or of the Korē Kosmou; this is a ἱερός λόγος and, in fact, is a prose hymn.

The background of this book is worthy of attention. We do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part. God is in the universe, and is not transcendent from nor separate of the universe: there are these and other marks of Stoic influence and traces of Platonism (cf. Scott and Ferguson IV, p. XLVII for a Neopythagorean parallel in §4). Everything else comes from the Septuagint. However, the ideas of redemption and immortality [which we find earlier in Book I and elsewhere in the Hermetic canon] are absent. One moves, in fact, in the atmosphere of Judaism of the kind of Ecclesiastes, before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important and before, in certain circles, one had highlighted, like the Greeks, the opposition of the soul and the body, which was a constant idea in Philo (who was hardly the first, eschatologically speaking). Perhaps this treatise is of older date than many others in the Corpus, and it was accepted as it is, because of the affinities which it presents with the circle where the rest of the treatises were composed.

Copenhaver notes the various issues and debates over Book III in his footnotes to his translation. It is certainly a conflicted part of the Corpus Hermeticum, and it doesn’t help that the lacunae are formidable here, but which Scott and Nock/Festugière have attempted to repair admirably, giving us reasonably complete translations (with caveats) later on courtesy of Copenhaver and Salaman, as well as earlier translators like G.R.S. Mead from 1906 or John Everard from 1650. Of them all, Scott really seems to do his own thing, with everyone else remaining in more-or-less agreement about what the text says (to varying levels of accuracy, of course). Although Nock and Festugière give their own summary and outline of Book III, I want to give my own, based on their translation and version of the text, as opposed to what Scott gives. This isn’t a full version of the text, for which I’d suggest reading Copenhaver or Salaman, but it hits on all the same essential things, broken down into five fairly short paragraphs:

  1. God, the gods, and godly Nature is the glory of all things.
    1. God is Mind, Nature, and Matter.
    2. God is the beginning of the All.
    3. God is Wisdom that shows all things.
    4. The gods, who have their beginning in God, perform and consist of the creation of the cosmos.
  2. The creation of the world.
    1. In the beginning was boundless darkness, water, and spirit, all existing in chaos.
    2. Light descended upon the chaos, and the elements solidified out of the chaos.
    3. The gods separated out the part of nature that could generate and regenerate, and divided it among themselves.
    4. In the moment of separation of the elements but before the formation of matter, the subtle elements (Fire and Air) rose up and the dense elements (Water and Earth) remained behind mixed together.
    5. The world was created, bounded by Fire and set aloft in the air of the cosmos, borne by spirit.
    6. The heavens formed in seven layers around the world.
    7. The gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and their constellations, the constellations conforming themselves to the gods.
    8. The heavens around the world began to rotate by spirit.
  3. The creation of life.
    1. The gods created life according to the powers and responsibilities given unto them, making animals and plants.
    2. The gods created humanity in all its generations to know the works of God and to increase and multiply.
    3. The gods created the souls of humanity for the bodies of humanity to contemplate creation and to discover all things.
  4. The way of life.
    1. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of virtue and wisdom.
    2. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of release from the works of the world.
    3. The things of the world will fade, and will be remade anew through the processes of Nature set in motion by the gods.
  5. All the powers of nature in the cosmos are divine, for nature is divine.

The cosmogony of Book III reads a little weird to Scott and Nock/Festugière: as Nock and Festugière noted, “we do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part”. But I would counter that by saying it’s virtually the same thing as what’s given in Book I, when Poimandrēs reveals the origin of creation to Hermēs, just from the perspective of creation rather than the creator. Per Copenhaver:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it. But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

Note that this vision of revelation is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

But it’s the third paragraph of Book III that really struck me as important as I’ve been reading it. After describing the creation of animals and plants, the gods (which Scott takes to refer to the four elements themselves, acting as demiurges under God, though the text pretty clearly seems to refer to the gods of the stars and also maybe the planets) create the race of humanity. But it’s not just creation for creation’s own sake; rather, the gods create humanity for a particular set of…ideals, goals, aims, or purposes, I guess, for humanity to aspire to. Going with Copenhaver’s translation, based on Nock and Festugière, “the gods sowed the generations of humans to…”:

  1. To know the works of God
  2. To be a working witness to Nature
  3. To increase the number of mankind
  4. To master all things under Heaven
  5. To know that which is Good
  6. To increase by increasing
  7. To multiply by multiplying

But the text continues after this and gives another list, saying that “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate to…”:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods
  3. To contemplate the works of God
  4. To contemplate the working of Nature
  5. To examine the things that are good
  6. To know the power of God
  7. To know the whirling changes of fair and foul
  8. To discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good

As opposed to Nock and Festugière, who follow the text as it is lacunae and all, Scott heavily amends and “repairs” the text and proposes a different wording and suggestions for the lacunae here, causing notable drift between his translation and what other translators propose. He only gives (only can give?) the following list of goals, which reads like a combination of what Nock and Festugière have above. Scott suggests that, given the similarity of these two lists based on their phrasing, “the two passages cannot have been intended to stand together in the same paragraph; one of them must have been written as an alternative or substitute for the other”. Thus, the Scott translation says that God (not the gods) created to:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To have dominion over all things under Heaven
  3. To know the power of God
  4. To witness the workings of Nature
  5. To mark what things are good
  6. To discern the diverse natures of things good and bad (elsewhere: to learn to distinguish good things from bad things)
  7. To invent all manner of cunning arts

I see Scott’s logic, I have to admit, but it also does seem a bit hacky; he does admit, after all, to altering the text freely to suit his own understanding, while Nock and Festugière preserve more of the original wording, which does seem repetitive. Perhaps, however, what Nock and Festugière have could be interpreted in a different way, a double-creation of humanity, the first material (creation of the body) and the second spiritual (creation of the soul), giving the spiritual essence of the soul one set of tasks to fulfill and the material vessel of the body another set to fulfill. That ties in closely with the wording and order of creation, following up the creation of animals and plants with humanity (“sowed the generations of humans”) and following that up with the creation of souls to inhabit human bodies (“they created every soul incarnate”). This also ties in with the wording of these different tasks: the first set are more manifest and material (mastering things under Heaven, increase the number of humanity, etc.) and the second more subtle and immaterial (to contemplate, examine, know, or discover various things).

A potential problem with this interpretation, however, is that Scott heavily argues that Book III basically denies a Platonic or spiritual understanding of immortality (of the soul, the spiritual part of humanity) which we find elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum as being of primary importance. According to Scott’s notes:

Corp. III shows hardly a trace of Platonism; and its writer definitely rejects the Platonic doctrine of the survival of the individual soul. It contains nothing distinctively Egyptian; and there is not the slightest sign of Christian influence. The document may be shortly described as Judaeo-Stoic. …

Each individual man, at the termination of his life on earth, “disappears” and “undergoes dissolution”. Not only is there no mention of a survival of the individual soul after the dissolution of the body, but the contrary is clearly implied. Nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his “name” (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while. …

… Men, beasts, and plants alike (must perish). The end of the sentence is lost; but its meaning can be inferred with certainty from the context. Perhaps the author’s thought might be better expressed by writing…”all flesh is grass”. …

… If we retain these words, we must take them in connexion with ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων, and the suggested thought would be this: “not only do men perish, but their works perish also; and though the names of great men may be preserved into long ages by the memorials they have left behind them, yet even the greatest will be forgotten in the end”. But the phrase is awkwardly interposed, and hardly suits the context; it cannot be said of the works of human art that they are “renewed by the operation of the stars”, in the sense in which this is said of human and animal births and vegetable growths. …

That which decays and passes away is “renewed”, but only by substitution. The individual perishes, but the race is immortal. The dead do not live again, but others are born to succeed them. And this unceasing renewal of life on earth is caused by the unvarying movements of the heavenly bodies, through the operation of which fresh births are continually taking place. The force by which the renewal is effected may be called φύσις; but φύσις is dependent on the movements of the stars, and therefore the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars themselves were made and set in motion.

Personally—based primarily on my reading of Copenhaver, and thus Nock and Festugière, which seems closer to the original text rather than the overly dour translation (and heavy-handed “repairing”) of Scott—I don’t buy this interpretation. It is true that Book III doesn’t touch on the immortality of the soul explicitly or any sort of higher goal than what was stated above as the goals of the human (whether as a whole, per Scott, or as human body and human soul, per Nock/Festugière). But consider the fourth paragraph, which Scott’s notes above describe as relating to the passing away of humanity and their works a la Ozymandias. From Copenhaver:

For [humans], [the whole of these goals for the body and soul] is the beginning of [the virtuous] life and of wise thinking as far as the course of the cycling gods destines it, and it is also the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry. In the fame of seasons they will become dim [i.e. their memory will wane and be forgotten], and, from every birth of ensouled flesh, from the sowing of crops and from every work of industry, what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle.

To me, the lack of anything substantial of what Book III says about the soul after death or the greater cosmic path of the soul as we might find in Book I or Book XIII isn’t a statement about the non-immortality of the soul at all. Rather, Book III is giving us insight into the overall purpose of what we have to do and focus on in life, any greater cosmic eschatology being irrelevant to this topic. Although this is a “sacred discourse”, I would rather argue that this is not one held to be kept secret or reserved for initiates; rather, this is a sermon to be given to people as a whole, whether or not they’re focused on a philosophical or religious life. This is a sermon that Hermēs Trismegistus might give to passers-by or to the public community who might or might not (or just might not yet) have some sort of interest in divine philosophy no matter how small, a sermon that describes in brief a summary of the creation of the world and showing a real-world, walking-the-talk way of life for those who would follow in his way. For the common people or the world at large who might have different views about where their souls might go or who might not think anything of it, it wouldn’t matter what Hermēs would say about what Poimandrēs told him about what happens to the soul after death and how to ascend through the heavenly spheres to be made God (as in Book I), so Hermēs here says nothing about it. Rather, Book III is trying to inspire people to engage in the divine work right here, right now, in this very world, in this very body that God and the gods have given us, not to put it off for some theoretical eschatology that might beggar belief. After all, it is living this divine way of life that “is the beginning of life and of wise thinking”.

By that same token, though, it is also “the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry”. How to interpret this? Scott would read this derisively as that it is our lot to die and pass away, with all that we leave behind passing away too in time, but recall that other parts of the Hermetica warn us against attachment to the world and love for the body, because it is this that traps us here in the world in an endless cycle of torturous rebirth ignorant of the Good. After all, we should not forget God’s announcement at the creation of humanity according to Book I:

… But God immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multiplying, 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.

Is this spread of humanity in the world not like what we see described in Book III, where “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate”, and that “what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle”? The wording is a bit different, but the meaning here reads identically. In fulfilling the tasks set for us in body and in soul, we begin to live a virtuous life—or, really, in the Greek original, just “way of living”, perhaps in the sense of true life, which itself is a divine blessing and virtue that corrects and heals the torments of existence along with Light and the Good. At the same time as we begin life and wisdom, we begin to free ourselves from the death of the body. The phase here of “what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry” is one I interpret euphemistically to refer to our corpses, the thing that stays behind when we die as our souls move on—or should move on, at least, assuming we can free ourselves from our attachments to it, the world, and the works of the world. In many ways, Book III reads a lot like what the historical Buddha might have preached when going from town to town, describing what entering the stream would be like for those who begin on the path to enlightenment. Consider the Buddha’s second sermon, the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta:

Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.

When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: “Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.”

Although my understanding of how the Corpus Hermeticum eventually became compiled as a series of books into a single “text” is weak, if I were to compile the books myself, I’d put Book III at the very front of the line for thematic reasons before all the rest of the books of the Hermetic canon. To me, after mulling it over and chewing on it a good while, Book III reads like the introduction to the teachings and way of life that Hermēs Trismegistus teaches. All the other revelations, philosophy, mysteries, and initiations that Hermēs teaches to Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon are all well and good, but for someone who is otherwise wandering in the dark without guidance at all, Book III shines for them a beacon that can guide them to a safe harbor, planting the seed (as the gods themselves did and do in the world) of life and wisdom.