On the Hermetic Afterlife: A Cause for Theurgy

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

Honestly, those past two posts along with this present one were originally just going to be all one post, alliteratively entitled “Ramifications and Repercussions” to talk about what the Hermetic model of the afterlife we’ve been discussing has to say so as to inform and explain various works, but it turns out that there’s just more out there than I anticipated.  (Which is also why this now six-post series is so many posts, instead of just one as I originally envisioned; c’est la vie.)  This last topic I want to address was also going to fit into the same idea as before, but considering how different it is from the religious rituals of funerals and ancestor veneration/elevation or from the magical rituals of various forms of necromancy, but—in addition to the last two posts reaching about 4000 words each—this topic really deserves a post of its own, which I think will act as a nice conclusion to the whole series.

So: why should the Hermeticist do theurgy?

“Theurgy” is a complicated term, and can easily be misunderstood.  I recall one time when I sent a mod message to the moderators of /r/Ptolemaicism, asking to share news about my Preces Templi ebook on their subreddit since I felt it was fairly appropriate for “a community of Greco-Egyptian polytheists interested in conversing about philosophy and their beliefs/practices” (according to their sidebar).  I introduced myself as “magician and researcher of the occult, especially in the fields of classical Hermeticism and Greco-Egyptian magical and ritual practices”, which…well, apparently was not received too well, since I got this reply back from the mods:

The use of the occult and Theurgical magic implies bending the gods to your whim for your aims, which is both Goetia and hubris.

Perhaps needless to say, I think their understanding of theurgy (and magic generally) is ridiculously off-base and shows a lack of historical awareness that’s as grievous as it is hilarious.  However, given the difficulty and wide range of understandings of what “theurgy” means to different people, whether from a scholarly perspective or not, I suppose I can’t blame them too much.

On this topic, I’ll follow the explanation of the excellent Martiana (of SARTRIX, both her WordPress archive and her newer Miraheze wiki) on this topic, given her own article on it:

Theurgy (gr. θεουργία theourgía, lat. theurgia), also called the theurgical art (gr. θεουργική τέχνη theourgikḗ tekhnē, lat. theurgica ars or discīplīna), is a term of ambiguous meaning, further obscured by frankly obscurantist scholarship. The two main senses are the following:

  1. A specific tradition of ritual practices, apparently originating with a group called the theurges or Chaldaeans (most famous for the Chaldaic Oracles), and later adopted by the Neoplatonists.
  2. Ritual in general, as theorized by the Neoplatonists, and especially Iamblichus. Later Neoplatonists largely use the term ‘hieratic (priestly) art’ for this, restricting ‘theurgy’ to the first meaning.

Through systematic mistranslation of ‘hieratic’ as ‘theurgy’, and pervasive conflation of both senses in the secondary literature, the subject has become extremely confused in modern times, although it is fairly transparent in the primary sources.

[…] It is, in fact, probably its nonspecificity on an etymological level that made Iamblichus adopt the term in the second, generic meaning, as a counterpart to theology: ‘practice relating to the gods’ as opposed to ‘discourse relating to the gods’.

So what would “theurgy” mean within the context of Hermeticism?  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote both Christian Bull’s Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus:

We should first take notice that there is nothing called the “way of Hermes” in our sources; this is an abstraction created in scholarly literature, and the closest we come is when Iamblichus states that Hermes has led the way on the path of theurgy. The goal of theurgy is ascent and indeed we find in the Hermetica mention of a “way leading upwards,” which the souls must follow in order to reach God, the good, the beautiful or truth. The diversity of terms used makes it unlikely that the “way” here is a technical term; rather, it is a metaphor like “way of life”: if life is a journey, then sticking to one specific path implies determination and the promise of a safe arrival at the desired destination. (§4.1)

And another pair of quotes from Wouter Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination:

Salvation required ceremonial practice, ritual theurgy or “the work of the gods,” as cultivated by Egyptian priests in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. (ch. 4)

In sum, theurgy was an integral practice of healing both body and soul. It worked through the ritual induction of altered states that made it possible for the gods to enter practitioners’ bodies and purify their souls, so that they might be as effective as possible in the task of channeling spiritual energies into the material world. The function of philosophy was to provide theoretical justification for this practice. (ch. 4)

Within a Hermetic context as I consider it, while there are many aspects of practice that feed into it, “theurgy” refers as a whole to the ritual practice of attaining “the way up” while alive.  That last qualification there is important, because while CH I suggests that “the way up” happens after we die and our souls make an ascent for the final time, we should bear in mind that CH I is only one of the three “beating hearts” that illustrate the mystic purpose and guidance of Hermeticism, the other two being CH XIII and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (NHC VII.6).  If I were to summarize these three texts and why they’re so important to Hermeticism:

  • CH I (together with CH VII as an expansion of CH I.27—28) lays the mythic foundation for Hermeticism, the establishment of the proper human ēthos (remember that discussion?) as being one of reverence, the establishment of Mind/nous as something divine that affords salvation, the cosmology of the planetary spheres with the eighth and ninth spheres beyond fate, and “the way up” describing the ascent of the soul from within the bounds of fate to beyond it
  • CH XIII describes a process of spiritual rebirth, a hylic exorcism and reformation of a person from a mere body of matter and torment to a divine body of holy powers that affords one Mind and divine awareness
  • NHC VII.6 describes a process of spiritual elevation whereby one ascends into the eighth and ninth spheres of the cosmos (those above the planets and, thus, above fate) while still in the body.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, all of these texts revolves around the same core idea, but each of them have things that the others don’t, and together reveal something fascinating: that we are not limited to making such an ascent to “the way up” after death, but can do so while alive.

For most people, living a life of reverence and respect for the Creator and the Creation is sufficient to just have a good live and to make such spiritual progress to attempt “the way up”, whether or not one does so in this life or over a series of lives, each time rising to a higher and higher soul-stratum until one graduates out of the dwelling-place of souls entirely.  However, by now after having fleshed out the Hermetic model of the afterlife so much, I think the risks of this should be apparent: this process is not guaranteed, because anything can happen from one life to the next.  Being human, we are all susceptible to the irrational tormentors of matter and/or the planetary energies that not only allow for us to be incarnate but which also set the stage for us to suffer while incarnate, which can easily mislead and waylay us while we’re alive, which means that, no matter how well we do from life to life, there’s always a chance that we might get “stuck” as we try to live our lives in a way that leads to an elevation to higher soul-strata or ascension beyond them.  On top of that, there’s also still the possibility  that we haven’t ruled out of us attempting “the way up” when we’re not ready, which could yield disastrous consequences if we’re unable to give up something we otherwise need to in order to keep rising.  Worse, every time we go through the process of reincarnation, we basically have to start over, and even if we’re blessed to live a privileged, cushy life, without the proper spiritual instruction (or without an extreme gift of metempsychotic memory), our souls may end up trying so hard or getting so far without it really mattering anyway; we might end up just living a good life one time just to live sloppily and fall back down to a worse life the next.  Without spiritual instruction and repeated lives of dedication and discipline and devotion, a soul being able to mature itself enough to make “the way up” on its own is extremely unlikely and difficult to attain, taking place only over the course of potentially endless lifetimes (if at all, otherwise caught up in an endless cycle of reincarnation).

This is why we have the instructions and teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, passed on from Poimandrēs and through Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn so that, through Hermēs & co., “the human race might be saved by God”.  It is all for this goal, to “leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality”, that Hermēs began teaching the world the way of salvation and proper, right, righteous life so that we might enjoy true Life; it is these teachings that are the “words of wisdom” that his students “were nourished from the ambrosial water”.  Having access to these teachings and learning about what all this means for us helps us dramatically, even for those who are completely uninterested in ritual or religion and just want to live a simple, quiet life of contemplation and reverence for God; for them, attaining “the way up” is much easier, since they can transform their life from one without reverence (and thus with no chance of Mind) to one with reverence (and thus at least a good chance of Mind, if not the assurance of it).  However, even still, as evidenced by how many times Hermēs’ students got things wrong or even were mislead by their own enlightened perspectives, it’s clear that we can still screw things up for ourselves, which means that, while living a proper life is a good method to achieve “the way up”, it is not a foolproof method of doing so; there is still an error rate that risks so much.

This is where theurgy comes into the question, because it essentially guarantees “the way up” after death by attaining it before death.  In a way, this is the Hermetic approach to Eckhart Tolle’s quote about “the secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ —and find that there is no death”.  After all, consider CH XIII, which contains an account of the spiritual rebirth of Tat: in order to be reborn, you first must die.  In CH XIII’s case, the “death” of Tat consists first of his utter bewilderment that ends up closing off his senses in a state of delirium (CH XIII.6) and the chasing-out of the irrational tormentors of matter (CH XIII.8—9), which only then culminates in a rebirth of the body composed of the divine mercies of God which chased out the tormentors (CH XIII.8—9) and revealed a vision of the divine that fills Tat’s newborn perceptions (CH XIII.11—13).  In NHC VII.6, we read that Hermēs and Tat (we presume) are progressing to the eighth and ninth spheres because they have already “advanced to the seventh, since we are faithful and abide in your law”, meaning that they have already done the work of giving up to the planets the things appropriate to them so that they might ascend past them, which is what enables them to reach higher and to experience—while still possessing mortal, corporeal bodies—the same sights and visions and experience as any other soul that has attained and abides within those hyperplanetary spheres.

By engaging in works like this while alive, not only do we gain more insight as to how to live a good life all the more perfectly to the utmost degree, we also basically do the equivalent of a TSA PreCheck: instead of having to clear every single checkpoint on “the way up”, we can basically bypass them all entirely because we’ve already cleared them ahead of time.  While a soul making “the way up” after death for the first time has to do the work after death to get past each gate, a soul that is already familiar with “the way up” simply zips along it without any traffic or toll stops, having prepaid everything earlier.  It takes out the whole guesswork not only of figuring out which is the proper way to live, but also takes out all the doubt of attaining the salvific end described by Poimandrēs.  It keeps us from having to worry about whatever might come after death, and shows us the risk we take in not taking that path—and even should we choose further reincarnation, it would be far better to do so with the keys to the kingdom already in our pocket and the road to it still fresh in our memory.

In this, we get to see Hermeticism as not only a kind of mysticism, but also a kind of mystery religion alongside the likes of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries, the Isaic Mysteries, or the like, all of which promised some sort of guaranteed blessed afterlife free from the sorrows or sighs of the gloom and shade that those who were not initiated into were (most likely) bound for.  This is exactly the same sort of promise that Hermetic theurgy promises: rather than risk a potentially-endless cycle of suffering that comes part and parcel with incarnation, we can instead be guaranteed a way to resolve it and achieve an existence higher, nobler, more beautiful, and more divine beyond anything else that exists or might exist.  Hermeticism, after all, isn’t just a mystic movement to rejoice rightly, rightfully, and righteously with Creation as a Creature of the Creator, but also a mystery path of salvation that grants us access to the highest heights of divinity itself.  In that light, having a model of death, dying, the afterlife, reincarnation, and all the rest that we’ve been talking about helps inform us as to why we should care at all about this mystery side of Hermeticism as opposed to just the mystical; it gives us a cause to engage in the theurgy of Hermeticism, these hieratic practices that enable us to be truly holy instead of just living a holy life.

About this time last year (funny how this focus on death and the dead comes around come Scorpio season!), I made a post detailing the overall attitude towards death and dying in the Hermetic texts, even reaching into later medieval-period words.  The overall focus in the Hermetic texts isn’t that we should fear death, which is no more than the dissolution of the body, because we are emphatically not our bodies; we are immortal souls that merely wear bodies for a time before moving on.  As a result, we should not fear death, and instead rejoice in life while taking care to live our lives properly.  What is more scant and scarce in the Hermetic texts, however, yet present in quiet whispers and overlooked traces like from AH 28 or SH 25—26, is what we should be fearful about concerning what is after death and what the risks are that we take in living our lives carelessly.  To be sure, there is no eternal punishment, no forsaking of the soul, no permanent loss of one’s way or self at all in Hermeticism as one might find in other spiritual traditions; as such, there’s no need to fear some sort of permadeath hell or whatever, and that’s not a point that the Hermetic texts try to make.  (At least, outside the context of AH 28; within that context, the bit about being tormented forever in a hell of the winds may itself not be truly forever, as when the whole cosmos is remade and “reset”, it may also be that such souls are also returned to a new cosmos for a new attempt.)  Rather, we have as many chances as we might need to do what we need to do, go where we need to go, know what we need to know, and become what we must be—but we have something of a fire under our feet to do so as effectively and efficiently, as quickly and speedily as possible.

To close, I’ll leave us with Hermēs Trismegistos’ own initial proclamation, his kerygma wherein he announced to the world for the first time:

People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.

Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.

With that, this little exploration of what I can figure out and piece together regarding the model of the afterlife and reincarnation, the questions that it raises and which I cannot yet answer on my own, and how it impacts, informs, instructs, and inspires us towards our other spiritual practices that can and should go hand-in-hand with Hermeticism can now come to a close.  As I was joking about with my friends, as usual what was originally supposed to be just one post ballooned into quite a bit more, but I hope that this has been at least somewhat helpful for those interested in this otherwise gap-filled territory of Hermetic spirituality.  I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be improved upon with this sort of exploration; in addition to the unanswered questions I’ve left out in the open for others to tackle, there’s also plenty that we might be able to draw on from Hellenistic Egyptian or other eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions that might shed further light on what we have yet in the dark recesses of Hermetic textual lacunae.  Perhaps, with time, we might bring some of those as-yet hidden bits of knowledge into the light once more—resurrecting them or reincarnating them, one might even say.

And yes, this series of posts has its index already up in my Hermeticism Posts index page, along with all the other posts I’ve made about classical Hermeticism and the Hermetic texts, so feel free to check these posts (or any of my others) out later on if you want at your convenience.

A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

Hermetic Evangelism and Kerygma

No, despite the title of this post, I’m not going to go out into the world and spread the good word of Hermēs Trismegistos onto those who don’t want it.  I feel like my blog does enough of that as it is, anyway, letting the work here speak for itself; besides, I hardly feel competent enough to do so, given how much I myself have yet to learn and discover.  But that isn’t to say that there has never been evangelism (or proselytism, if you prefer to call it that) within the context of the Way of Hermēs.  Indeed, it’s absolutely present in the oldest texts we have, and the Corpus Hermeticum itself gives us two great examples of such calls to the Way.

The first example is from CH I.27—28 (Copenhaver translation here and below), the classic street-preacher scene.  This takes place immediately after Poimandrēs concludes his revelation to Hermēs, giving Hermēs the mission to go forth and “become guide to the worthy so that through [him] the human race might be saved by God”.  After this vision and revelation, Hermēs goes forth, “empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision”:

And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge: “People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.”  When they heard, they gathered round with one accord. And I said, “Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.”

The second example, which reads much like an expanded version of the former, is the entirety of CH VII, which I won’t quote in full, but it’s not a particularly long section (CH III is longer than this).  It definitely reads as a sermon of the “save yourself from hell” fire-and-brimstone type, not as a dialog or letter between teacher and student, and Copenhaver and others notes its strong similarity to and influences from Gnostic and Jewish traditions.

Me being me, I couldn’t not take these bits and come up with my own versions for recitations, much as I did with CH V to make my Praise of the Invisible and Visible God hymnCH XVII to make my Royal Praises hymns, or CH I to make my simple Hermetic prayer rule.  There’s so much devotional and pious material in the CH and other Hermetic texts to work from to make a liturgy of sorts, and the sections of CH I.27—28 and CH VII are no exception.  To that end, I took the wording from these sections of the Corpus Hermeticum, reworded and reworked them, and came up with two evangelizing sermons, as it were: the “Call to the Way” and the “Stripping of the Tunic”.

The “Call to the Way” is based on CH I.27—28.  To me, this is a short…well, call, kinda like the adhān of Islam, except less a call to prayer than a call to metanoia—though it’s usually translated as such, it’s not quite “repentance”, but more like “thinking again” or “reconsidering”, like how the historical Buddha Shakyamuni went from town to town calling out “Anyone for the other side?”.  This “Call to the Way” is very much a wake-up call to learn how and in what way we humans might be saved on the Way of Hermēs.  To my mind, this could be recited before street-preaching, to be sure, but also as the first thing to be said in a temple setting generally to get people to wake up and “think again, think anew”, preparing themselves and orienting themselves for the holy work of devotion and reverence to God.

O all you children of mankind, o all you born of the Earth, o all who you have given yourselves over to drink and sleep in your ignorance of God! Make yourselves sober, cease your drunken sickness, end your bewitchment by unreasoning sleep! Why have you given yourselves over to death, since you have the power to partake of immortality? You who have wandered with Error, you who have partnered with Ignorance: think again, think anew! Be released from the darkness, take hold of the Light, take part in divine immortality, leave behind your corrupt destruction! Do not surrender to the way of death by your mockery or distance, but come, rise, and be guided on the way of life!

Then there’s the “Stripping of the Tunic”, based on CH VII.  In the Corpus Hermeticum, this is another sermon used to get people’s attention to come to the Way and abandon the twisted, twisting wiles of the world that drown and suffocate us.  However, I took a slightly different approach with this one.  Sure, it can be used to do the same thing that the “Call to the Way” does, but to me, the “Stripping of the Tunic” is more like a formal introduction into a temple or Hermetic group, a discursive initiation of sorts by beginning the process of cleansing the soul from the torments and tortures of incarnation, one that calls the initiate to a purpose.  This is especially important with the image of the “House of Knowledge”, which can be considered a sort of Hermetic rephrasing on the Egyptian “House of Life” (per ankh), the usual term for a temple that also doubled as a library, because…well, as the Hermetic tests attest, true knowledge is true Life.  Although others have tried to expand on the Egyptian temple imagery and how temples would be constructed so that sunlight would fall on the statues of the gods, Nock notes that “it is unnecessary to press the analogy with the Egyptian sanctuaries”.

Hear me, o child of mankind! Where are you going?
Sick and vomiting up the pure ignorance you swallow as you are,
which even you see and know that you cannot keep down!
Stop your drunken sickness! Stop your drinking! Stand firm! Be sober!
Look upwards with the eyes of the heart, if you can!

Do not drown in the flood of ignorance that floods this world,
which destroys the soul shut up in the body,
which keeps the soul from sailing to a safe harbor,
but ride the tide, ride the ebb, ride the flow,
and bring your ship to this safe harbor,
and be guided by the hand to the door of the House of Knowledge!
Here is the bright light clear of all darkness,
here is where nobody is drunk but all are sober,
here is where all gaze with the heart towards God,
the One who wishes to be heard and uttered and seen,
who is neither heard with the ears nor uttered with the mouth nor seen with the eyes,
but is heard in silence, uttered without words, and seen with the mind and the heart.

So you can enter the House of Knowledge,
you must be freed from the snare of the body,
this hateful tunic you wear that strangles you and drags you down,
which makes you so that you will not hate its viciousness,
so that you will not look up lest you see the beauty of Truth and the Good that abides within,
so that you will not understand its treachery and hate the evil of what it plots against you.
Your senses of sensibility have been made insensible, unapparent, and unrecognized,
so stuffed with gross matter and crammed with loathsome debauchery,
so that you do not hear what and how you must hear,
so that you do not utter what and how you must utter,
so that you do not see what and how you must see.

So you may enter the House of Knowledge,
rip off from yourself your tunic of hate!
Free yourself from your garment of ignorance!
Release yourself from your base of vice!
Unbind yourself from your bond of corruption!
Liberate yourself from cage of darkness,
that God may renew you from your living death,
that God may quicken for you your sentient corpse,
that God may open up for you your portable tomb,
that God may protect for you your house from the thief within it,
the tormenting one who grudgingly hates what you love,
the torturing one who maliciously loves what you hate.

While pretty pieces of prayer, if I do say so myself, why should Hermēs Trismegistos be an evangelist at all?  Because, frankly, Poimandrēs charged him with being one.  At the end of Poimandrēs’ revelation to Hermēs in CH I.26—27, he concludes his speech with the following charge:

“…This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god. Why do you still delay? Having learned all this, should you not become guide to the worthy so that through you the human race might be saved by god?”

As he was saying this to me, Poimandrēs joined with the powers. Then he sent me forth, empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision, after I had given thanks to the father of all and praised him. And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge…

C. H. Dodd in his The Bible and the Greeks (1935) calls this and the following parts of CH I the Kerygma (κήρυγμα), a fantastic Greek word from the New Testament meaning “proclamation”, from the Greek word κηρύσσω “to cry/proclaim as a herald”, used here in the sense of preaching, which fits rather well with the whole image of Hermēs as not just teacher but also as herald (we shouldn’t forget that the Greek term for his wand is κηρύκειον, kērukeion, from the same root, which became in Latin “caduceus”).  But why should Hermēs be charged with this sort of proclamation, heralding, announcing of the “gospel”, as it were, of Poimandrēs?  Well, there is the simple historical fact that the revelation of wisdom of this sort just went hand-in-hand with such evangelism, because it was inherently considered a “way of life” or “way of God”, both in Jewish as well as Egyptian literature.  As Christian Bull in his The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (2018) notes, the notion of such a “way” necessitates a guide, without which one becomes lost; after all, it does follow that one who has walked the way, knows the road, and is familiar with the destination is one we should trust to follow, rather than trying to forge a way on our own blindly and only happening to come across the right way to the right destination, the “way of life” otherwise erring back to the “way of death” (Hermēs’ words from CH I.29).

Admittedly, this proclamation is not meant for all people; there is no notion of universal salvation as such in classical Hermetism.  Not all people will hearken to the message of Hermēs, nor will all people have the strength of heart necessary to be reborn in Mind (CH IV.4).  Yet, Poimandrēs charges Hermēs to become a guide to the worthy so that, through Hermēs, “the human race might be saved by God”.  Bull notes that this can be interpreted in several ways: that the human race only properly consists of a worthy few who can become true humans while the rest are no more than savage animals in human flesh, that all humankind will at some stage become worthy, or that the worthy few who can follow the way will somehow save the many (and Bull notes that “this latter option is preferable if we view the passage as taking place in the time when the brutish Bronze Age humans were being civilized”).  Bull also notes that “that the human race is saved by God, through Hermēs, should consequently not be understood as a message of universal salvation in a Christian sense, but indicates that Hermēs and his fellow culture heroes are considered to be saviors because they made civilized life possible” (consider also CH III, where humanity was charged with not just learning about the cosmos but also “to discover the arts of everything that is Good”).  Regardless how one perceives the notion of salvation and who’s eligible, Hermēs is still bound by obligation to guide and save those whom he can.  After all, once learning about truth, as Poimandrēs revealed to Hermēs, one cannot but be compelled to act in accordance with such truth, lest one deny such truth and fall into error because of it.  After all, having been freed from the suffering of the soul and the suffering of the body (insofar as it is possible), how could one not want others who can achieve that to do so?  In some ways, the parallels between Hermēs Trismegistus and Buddha Shakyamuni, at least as far as salvific impetus, are strong here.

In the end, there’s this notion of “having been taught, now teach”; Hermēs has learned, and now he seeks for others to learn what he himself has learned.  Part of that learning—and then applying such learning—is pointing out the problems people have and recognizing it as a problem, without which one cannot begin to fix it.  Not everyone is going to recognize those problems, whether because they honestly cannot recognize them or because they’re unwilling to do so; those people are not those whom Hermēs can help by being guide.  He doesn’t necessarily seek to convince people of the rightness of his teachings from the get-go, except by trying to convince people that they have biger problems than they might realize; he focuses more on saying “I have a way for you to fix your problems, follow me if you want to fix them”.  Following Hermēs, then, not only leads one to the “House of Knowledge” where “shines the light cleansed of darkness”, but also leads one to lead others to the same.  At some point, once one has gotten far enough along the Way of Hermēs to become familiar with both it and the destination, to become a guide is as much part of the Way as anything else; after all, “having been taught, now teach”.  The Way goes ever on and on, to be sure, and not everyone is going to be a guide in the same ways to the same people, but there are always waystations to give us rest and give us a chance to hand followers off to others who know the next stage of the way better than we do, or to give us a chance to find a guide for the next stage of the way ourselves.

I suppose “evangelism” isn’t a great term to use for this; I was unfamiliar with “kerygma” up until now, but it’s a term I like much better.  I feel like there’s a deeper difference between the usual evangelism common with Christian preachers and the like and what Hermēs is doing here; to be sure, the salvific spirit is the same, but Hermēs isn’t trying to establish doctrine and convince people of the truth from the get-go.  Rather, Hermēs is announcing something new, a new way: a way to salvation, a way of life, a way to God.  The destination is known up-front, as is one’s starting point, but how one progresses from point A to point B might change depending on the person.  This may well be the case for lots of religious paths, let’s be honest, but it’s especially present in the Way of Hermēs.  No two people will necessarily follow the same steps, but under one guide who knows not just the detours but also the contingency plans in case one should stumble or get lost.  This is Hermēs saying “follow me, for I know the way”, not “follow me, for I am the way”; the difference there is massive.  This is Hermēs the Human guiding one to God; while Hermēs is, at the same time, a god, the focus of what Hermēs himself learned and taught is on the God.  Learning of himself—that classic maxim of γνῶθι σεαυτόν come to life—is just part of the overall impetus for him to learn “about the things that are, to understand their nature, and to know God” (CH I.3).  Rather than seeking veneration and worship for himself, Hermēs seeks for others to venerate and worship that which should truly be worshiped.  After all, the guide is not the destination.

The Difficulty of Principalizing the Way of Hermēs

In my downtime between chores, ritual work, office work (done at home as it is), I’ve been mulling over a lot lately and quietly when it comes to talking about the Way of Hermēs, which is my preferred way to call what many are more familiar with as Hermeticism, or Hermetism, to be more exact.  And I feel…honestly, I feel pretty daunted about this particular topic, not just because of the extreme breadth and depth of it all, but because of how difficult it can be to correlate everything together in a neat, clean, organized way.

Not too long ago, Nick Farrell made a blog post called The Real Hermetic Principles, which is his attempt to come up with a set of guiding principles or axioms about the cosmos and the spiritual practices that evolve from them to replace what people popularly (and wrongly) consider to  be the “Seven Hermetic Principles” as found in the Kybalion (and nowhere else in the Hermetic canon, I might add).  I applaud Nick’s effort, though I take issue with a few of these principles of his, especially his principle #5, that “the macrocosm and microcosm influence each other (as above so below); the planetary spheres are a Microcosm of the Divine Sphere and Nature is a microcosm for the planetary macrocosm”.  The notion of “as above, so below” comes from the Emerald Tablet, which (most likely) postdates the rest of the classical Hermetic corpus (Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, etc.) by a few centuries, and although the idea seems reasonable, there are plenty of counterpoints made in the Hermetic canon that refute this notion of both influencing the other, where the higher influences the lower but the lower does not influence the higher in the same way.  They can resemble each other, sure, but resemblance is not the same thing as influence.  I’m not saying that one can’t use the notion of “as above, so below” as a Hermetic concept in some way, but doing so requires care in order to keep continuity and coherence with the rest of actual extant Hermetic belief.

But therein lies a problem: although I treat the “Hermetic canon” as one set of literature equivalent to a Bible of sorts, it’s important to realize what these texts are and are not, what they do and do not do.  And one thing the Hermetic canon isn’t is consistent.  I mean, consider the opening paragraph of Book XVI of the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation), in a letter from Asclepius to Ammon:

I have sent you a long discourse, my king, as a sort of reminder or summary of all the others; it is not meant to agree with vulgar opinion but contains much to refute it. That it contradicts even some of my own discourses will be apparent to you. My teacher, Hermes—often speaking to me in private, sometimes in the presence of Tat—used to say that those reading my books would find their organization very simple and clear when, on the contrary, it is unclear and keeps the meaning of its words concealed…

It’s easy to just read the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and so forth and so on, but without actual meditation, unpacking, and contemplation of the texts, they’ll simply seem like some sort of classical pop occulture.  After all, our notion of “intellectual understanding” is not a classical one; to the ancients, the notion of “intellect” was something much more profound and all-encompassing than a mere surface-level, quasi-Apollonian awareness of something.  And when one looks at a single Hermetic text in isolation, like a single book of the Corpus Hermeticum or a single Stobaean Fragment, all is well and good, but when one starts to look at the broader picture, we run into difficulties with inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes that make trying to hold all of the Hermetic canon in our minds at the same time impossible.

There are a few major things to bear in mind when we read the Hermetic texts:

  1. What we have as our Hermetic canon is only that which survived the cruel knife of history.  We know for a fact that there was much more Hermetic literature written and produced in classical times than what we have nowadays, and we know that what we have is only what survives, and even then not always in a complete form.  While hopefully further classical Hermetic literature will come to light, either in part or in whole, we have to be aware that we’ll likely never have access to all the texts that we find references to otherwise.
  2. There wasn’t one single Hermetic school or lineage.  Although there’s much in common between all the Hermetic texts, there’s evidence in the very texts themselves of different Hermetic groups that contributed bits and pieces to the Hermetic canon, and evidence as well of polemics and debates and disagreements between those groups.  Just as in other things, there was no monolithic, centralized authority on what was or was not Hermetic back in the day.
  3. Even if we were to take the Hermetic canon as a more-or-less continuous single “thing”, we still run into the fact that we see some major difficulties even on a pretty fundamental level, such as the goodness or badness of the cosmos.  Modern scholars of Hermetic works, such as Garth Fowden or Christian Bull, posit that these inconsistencies point to the notion of the Way of Hermēs as a progressive thing, either going from a monist to dualist viewpoint (Fowden’s theory) or a dualist to monist one (Bull’s theory).

What we end up with is a notion that the Hermetic texts are not a single thing, even though there’s plenty in common in underlying thought between these texts, because the whole of the Hermetic tradition (even limiting ourselves to a classical Hermetist stance) isn’t a single, static thing.  There’s a reason why I call this the “Way of Hermēs”, because it really is a way, a process towards divinity.  This isn’t a single philosophy or a single religion, but something more like a meta-philosophy or meta-religion, something that goes on at a different level either behind the scenes or beyond the outward practice of discourse and cult.  What we have as the Hermetic texts, most of which is representative of back-and-forth dialog between master and student, are more indicative of an ongoing upraising (both in the conventional sense as well as the metaphorical sense), and because of that, we have to understand that not everyone is going to be ready for the same notions or ideas at the same time.  A single “Hermetic catechism” that lays it all out bare would seem to go against this notion, because not everyone would be able to understand it all, and need to go through a process of expounding and understanding (a very old school form of “solve et coagula”) in order to get there.

For instance, consider Fowden’s and Bull’s theories on dualistic versus monistic Hermetic beliefs.  It’s a fact that some of the Hermetic texts seem to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of the world of creation we live in, seeing it as worthy of veneration and adoration, while others consider it in a more gnostic light of it being evil and something to be shunned and departed from.  Fowden posits that the Way of Hermēs begins with a monistic stance that proceeds to a dualist one, while Bull has it the other way around.  From Christian Bull’s paper Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism (Aries (15), 2015, pp.109—135):

Another central question in the scholarship on Hermetism regards the internal doctrinal consistency between the various treatises ascribed to Hermes and his disciples; to wit, a reader of the Hermetica in toto faces conflicting injunctions as to how one should view the world and one’s place in it. Early scholars such as Thaddeus Zielinski and Wilhelm Bousset maintained that there were two main groups of texts, containing mutually exclusive teachings: the “Gnostic”, dualistic, and pessimistic texts, and, on the other hand, the “philosophical”, monistic, and optimistic texts (while a third set of texts mixed the two tendencies). This distinction was further elaborated by perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential scholar of Hermetism, André-Jean Festugière. However, the theory has been challenged in the last three decades by Garth Fowden and Jean-Pierre Mahé, who both consider the different texts to belong to various stages on a cohesive “Way of Hermes”, an initiatory way of spiritual formation. In the view of both of these authors, this way would lead the candidate from initially seeing the cosmos as good, an image of god, and then progressively develop a more negative view on matter, the body, and the world, ostensibly no longer important for the upward journey of the soul. This theory of a way of Hermes has so far not been seriously challenged, although Tage Petersen questioned the usability of the term dualism for the texts commonly so-called, and instead postulated an overriding monistic tendency even in these texts. For my own part, I have suggested that the way in fact moves from a pedagogical dualism, in which the disciple is taught to alienate himself from the body and the world, so as to be able to achieve visionary experiences on the higher stages of the way, at which point the value of the body and the world is reaffirmed.

In this way, I think the notion of a progressive Way is useful to understand what Hermet(ic)ism “is”, and not just for this monist/dualist bit, but for much else as well.  It’s like the Buddhist parable of the raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta combined with the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra, in that we need to use and phrase things the right way for the right person for them to develop the right way, but only when it’s right for them; any earlier, and we might not lead them or develop them in the right way (or even do harm), but any later and the value of it will be diminished or pointless having already served its purpose.  This is much like what Asclepius tells Ammon in his letter from Book XVI: “earlier I taught this, but what I’m about to tell you now is going to contradict that”, because at this point, Ammon is ready to be revealed a deeper truth that couldn’t be contained in the earlier teachings.  In other words, while general truths can be taught in general teachings, more nuanced and subtle truths cannot.  It’s like learning physics: introductory physics uses simple models that account for things in an ideal sense, but more advanced and applied physics often require different models that would go against the simpler ones to account for more meaningful or profound contexts.

All this to say that trying to think of Hermet(ic)ism, the Way of Hermēs, in terms of a handful of “principles” is surprisingly really hard to do.

Now, I’m not saying it can’t be done, and there’s already a historical parallel for this, even in the Hermetic texts themselves: that of the κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” (sometimes translated as “principles”).  We see this most clearly in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (as given in English by J.P. Mahé in Clement Salaman’s Way of Hermēs and which I expounded on on my blog years ago) as well as in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, but all of these are rather long lists of gnomic, sometimes paradoxical statements.  The purpose of these kephalaía are to act as the “chapter headings”, as it were, of other discourses, the fundamental points that would need to be borne in mind in the context of other talks or topics, and each of which would be expounded in other discourses and lessons.  In many cases, many of these kephalaía are found in extant discourses (especially the Definitions), and suggests that they’re of an older date than the later Hermetic texts, with those texts written to expound on (or at least reference) those given kephalaía.  So it’s not like it has always been impossible to come up with a set of principles or axioms to bear in mind when it comes to Hermetic studies, but with about 50 such statements made each in the Definitions and in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, they’re not going to be as catchy or as memorable necessarily as the Kybalion’s made-up stuff.

Going back to that Christian Bull paper I linked to earlier, Bull brings up another perspective: six “central elements of esotericism” present in the Hermetic canon.  These are based on the work of the earlier scholar Antoine Faivre, who studied the various currents of Western esotericism after the 1400s CE to provide a set of themes that various Western esoteric traditions fulfill.  In a Hermetic context, only the first four are truly necessary, with the latter two being supplied as additional elements which

  1. Correspondence: everything is mystically connected, with the divine Above represented through symbols as well as emanations into the worldly Below.
  2. Living Nature: nature is animated by a central force that can be tapped into through sympathies found in the occult/hidden virtues of things and works in the world.
  3. Imagination and Mediation: the student imagines with their mind (Nous) the forces that connect the cosmos, and such imagined symbols can be used to mediate between the student, nature, and divinity, and thereby to become divine.
  4. Transmutation (Rebirth): the inner being of the student is transmuted (reborn) through rites of initiation and/or esoteric knowledge, estranging themselves from the world and the life they have known to be reborn as something new to properly “live in the world without being a part of it”, a sort of “solve et coagula” of the soul and whole of the human being.
  5. Concordance: there is a common core to all religions derived from the perennial philosophy or prisca theologica, present in all humanity due to their divine element (Logos), but which can only be fully realized through following the Way of Hermēs (by means of the Nous).  We see this in the syncretic background blending Greek and Egyptian elements with other input from other traditions, giving Hermet(ic)ism that whole “meta” quality of both religion and philosophy.
  6. Transmission: esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple in a chain going back to an authoritative source, providing a sense of continuity that allows for future generations to have the same mysteries as older generations.

There are issues with this use of principalization leading to reification of esotericism, of which Hermet(ic)ism is just one example and emanation, which Bull goes on to discuss at length.  Still, using Faivre’s model of esotericism isn’t a bad start to think of the Way of Hermēs so long as one can also understand their proper place and context.  Bull is more a fan of Hugh B. Urban’s notion of three principles that can be seen to better understand the phenomena of esotericism, instead:

  1. The creation of a private social space
  2. The claim to possess deeper insights into canonical texts than outsiders
  3. Rites of initiation designed to create a new human being, which is a prerequisite to gain access to the social space and deeper insights

For the sake of understanding what Hermet(ic)ism is, Bull prefers Urban’s model of three principles over Faivre’s model of six principles because of the difference in what they focus on: Faivre focuses on matters of doctrine, while Urban focuses on matters of strategy.  And it’s this distinction that makes all the difference between viewing Hermet(ic)ism as a destination versus as a path:

Widely dissimilar doctrines can be used as part of similar social strategies, which therefore have a more universal, cross-culturally comparative potential. By considering esotericism as a strategy for a group and its members to gain social prestige we can come closer to the lived reality of the humans behind the texts, instead of becoming lost in their (often convoluted) metaphysical speculations. This is especially so in the case of the Hermetica, where the actual authors have totally disappeared behind the pseudonym of Hermes Trismegistus and his associates; since we have little external evidence of the lived reality of Hermetism, we must try to deduce it from the social strategies we perceive to be at work in the texts.

The issue with this approach, however, is that unless you’re in an actual lodge or circle or some other thing, that first point is basically moot for us; many of us (especially me) discuss Hermet(ic)ism openly without such a secret, esoteric, restricted group to teach things in, and are largely independent of one another as individuals.  To be sure, this is far from being the case across the board, and there are definitely Hermetist/Hermeticist teachers who take people and initiate them and teach them as needed and as appropriate, but perhaps not so widely on the same level as it might have been back in classical times (or even a hundred or so years ago).  As a result, matters and rites of initiation, except for the few Golden Dawn and Thelemic lodges that survive, don’t mean much unless you’re just focused on your own personal growth and development, and that doesn’t necessarily come about through a single big ritual (and even then, a Way is still composed not only of opening the door but taking many small steps afterward, as well).

Trying to sift and sort out the issues in doctrine, as Bull pointed out, is a major problem for anyone who wants to try to “principalize” Hermet(ic)ism, because there’s rarely a unity of doctrine that one can neatly summarize without also needing to immediately get into the weeds to clarify when those principles hold and when not.  Some super high-level stuff can be said, sure, like Garth Fowden’s summary of the doctrines of the cosmos in The Egyptian Hermes:

God is one, and the creator of all things, which continue to depend on God as elements in a hierarchy of beings. Second in this hierarchy after God himself comes the intelligible world, and then the sensible world. The creative and beneficent powers of God flow through the intelligible and sensible realms to the sun, which is the demiurge around which revolve the eight spheres of the fixed stars, the planets and the earth. From these spheres depend the daemons, and from the daemons Man, who is a microcosm of creation. Thus everything is part of God, and God is in everything, his creative activity continuing unceasingly. All things are one and the pleroma of being is indestructible.

This sounds all extremely reasonable, at least until when you consider some of the Stobaean Fragments which say in no uncertain terms that “once [God] created, ceased creating, and does not create at present” (SH V.1), that there’s the ninth sphere of the decans underneath a tenth (and outermost) sphere of the Primum Mobile which exerts influence and power on all the planets including the Sun (SH VI.3—9), and so forth.  Again, we run into issues of doctrine, which could result either from working from the ideas of different Hermetic groups that may not have seen eye-to-eye on these matters, or from trying to figure out when it’s proper to actually bring up or teach about the decans and how important they really are.  Again, a general idea can be stated as an all-around principle, so long as there are plenty of asterisks to mark it with for exceptions and edge cases.

Maybe I’m just letting perfect be the enemy of the good here, and maybe I’ve lost sight of the importance of beginner’s models that are a lie but useful ones to get started with.  After all, nobody starts off in a physics 101 course trying to account for every possible variable and fluctuation, but they start with simple models with only a few terms to get an idea of the simplest base case first, and it’s only once those are fully understood is further complexity introduced.  But I also feel like that undermines the whole notion of what a principle is, a statement of truth that can guide and lead us in our ways, in the Way.  Maybe, then, it’s improper to make principles about doctrine based on the Hermetic texts, and perhaps then it’d be better to make principles about practice instead. And even then, perhaps that, too, is too changeable and changing in order to say anything concrete about.  But, I mean…if the ancients could make kephalaía-type statements about individual bits or bobs of Hermetic ideas and practice, why does it seem so hard to make one big kephálaios for it all?  There is the whole of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum that I like, but even then…hm.  Even the Emerald Tablet, which is getting to be a bit late in the game to be representative of Hermetism (after all, “as above, so below” appears nowhere in the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, Definitions, or other classical Hermetic texts, although similar more nuanced notions do crop up), seems too obscure and metaphorical to offer much in the way of concrete, clear principles.

More to think about, to be sure, and this is something I want to keep mulling over.  I mean, it really is the work and mark of a true master to simplify something, and I’m far from a master in this; between needing more study, meditation, and contemplation and needing more just outright experience, it’s clear even to myself that I’m not sure what a set of reasonable principles should look like, if anything at all.  If nothing else, this is where we can see the whole Hermēs-as-god influence comes in, both as guide and as trickster, ever-shifting and ever-flowing, always leading to truth in the essence without necessarily being true in the instant.