The Mixing-Bowl of Mind

The usual way I’ve seen to refer to a particular book and section of the Corpus Hermeticum is CH A.B, with “A” being the book number in Roman numerals and B being a section of that book in Arabic numerals (such that CH X.15 is section 15 of the tenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum).  It’s a system I like using to cite particular extracts of Hermetic doctrine from the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Definitions of Hermēs to Asclepius (DH), and other Hermetic texts, but I should also note that a number of the various books of the Corpus Hermeticum sometimes have a title of their own.  CH I, for instance, is often called “Poimandrēs” (which is why Marsilio Ficino entitled his entire translation of the Corpus Hermeticum “The Divine Pymander”, though that’s like calling the entirety of the Old Testament “The Book of Geneisis”), CH X is called “The Key”, CH III is called “The Sacred Sermon”, and so forth.

CH IV, specifically, is called “The Mixing-Bowl”.  It’s also sometimes called just “(A Discourse of) Hermēs to Tat” or “The Monad”,  with the former indicating that this is a dialogue between Hermēs and Tat and the latter bringing up the discussion of the Monad at the end of the book, but it gets the name “Mixing-Bowl” from the dialogue in CH IV.3—6 in a discussion about Mind (Νους) (Copenhaver translation, here and below):

“God shared reason among all people, O Tat, but not mind, though he begrudged it to none. Grudging envy comes not from on high; it forms below in the souls of people who do not possess mind.”

“For what reason, then, did god not share mind with all of them, my father?”

“He wanted it put between souls, my child, as a prize for them to contest.”

“And where did he put it?”

“He filled a great mixing bowl with it and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: ‘Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.’  All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind participated in knowledge and became perfect people because they received mind.

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes.

“But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal if one compares their deeds, for in a mind of their own they have comprehended all—things on earth, things in heaven and even what lies beyond heaven. Having raised themselves so far, they have seen the good and, having seen it, they have come to regard the wasting of time here below as a calamity. They have scorned every corporeal and incorporeal thing, and they hasten toward the one and only.

“This, Tat, is the way to learn about mind, to {resolve perplexities} in divinity and to understand god. For the mixing bowl is divine.”

This is an interesting metaphor Hermēs decided to use, and it’s one that’s given me some pause for thought.  Some scholars interpret this notion of “immersing yourself in the mixing-bowl of Mind” to be evidence of a ritual baptism practiced among the classical Hermeticists, but not everyone buys it.  I like the idea of it, but it’s not a lot of evidence to go on to indicate that baptism was actually a thing for the followers of Hermēs.  One might draw parallels to early forms of Christian baptism or Jewish tvilah upon which Christian baptism was based which, given the influence Judaism had on the early development of Hermeticism, isn’t too far a stretch, but there’s little else to go on besides this reference to immersion.  Neither CH XIII, which is Tat’s rebirth and initiation into the Hymns of Silence, nor “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”, which is another story of Tat’s initiation and elevation into the higher spheres of the cosmos, bring up a notion of baptism or ritual immersion, and those are our strongest texts indicating such ritual works performed by the early Hermeticists from the Hermetic corpora themselves.  It’s an idea I don’t not like, at any rate, though one with not a lot of firm foundation to stand upon.

What strikes me more oddly is the use of the word “mixing-bowl” (κρατήρ).  There were obviously words for “basins” or “fonts” or “pools” or “baths” in Koiné Greek, but this text specifically uses “mixing-bowl”.  It’s not like a mixing bowl one might use for cooking, though; a kratēr was a specific type of large vessel used in Greek sumposia for mixing wine that was to be served.  A Greek sumposion (or symposium, as we’d better know it in its Latin form) was a kind of formal drinking party and a key institution to Hellenic civilization for men, sometimes to revel, sometimes to discuss and debate, sometimes to initiate boys into adulthood.  Sometimes there was entertainment, sometimes philosophy, sometimes orgiastic mystery rites reserved for initiates, but every symposium had two things in common: a kratēr—the mixing-bowl in question—and a symposiarch who oversaw its use.  The symposiarch, the “leader of the symposium”, was basically the master of ceremonies and director of the symposium, ordaining what was to be the order of the event, what sorts of activities were to be engaged in, and (most importantly) decided how strong the wine was to be.  This last aspect was the crucial and fundamental job of the symposiarch.

Wine back in ancient times was most likely different from our times, and was probably much stronger (though not necessarily fortified), so while we nowadays would just drink wine straight from the bottle, drinking undiluted wine back in ancient times was seen as a massive error in behavior, and something that was suited only for barbarians and those who were drunkards to the point of insanity.  Wine was to be diluted to an acceptable strength, and determining the proper dilution for a symposium was the symposiarch’s job.  For a more relaxed, philosophical time, the wine would be diluted to a 1:3 ratio of wine to water; for a more pleasurable and entertaining time, 1:2; for the rare orgiastic rites and revelries, 1:1.  With the wine diluted to the appropriate level, the symposiarch would send his servants or slaves around with pitchers filled from the kratēr to serve the attendees.  Wine was not drunk from the kratēr directly, because this is a pretty massive vessel we’re talking about, like a mega-punchbowl ranging from 14″ to 22″ in height, and wouldn’t have been able to easily be transported when full (if at all).  It’s this notion of the kratēr that Dionysos brings up regarding how much is proper to drink at such events from Eubulos’ Semēlē:

For sensible men I prepare only three kratērs: one for health which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth kratēr is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

This instrument of symposia, the kratēr, is what Hermēs describes as God having filled with Mind for people.  The use of the image of the kratēr should not be overlooked or misconstrued as just a regular bowl or basin, for which other words exist, especially for the purposes of ablution or purification (like the word χερνιβεῖον khernibeîon used for the usual lustral water outside temples, aka khernips).  This isn’t a mere matter of purification going on here; something else is happening in this passage Hermēs is trying to describe.

Let’s back up fist a bit and consider the notion of the symposium again.  CH IV, like all of the Corpus Hermeticum, is a philosophical text, so it assumes a philosophical outlook, context, set, and setting; a symposium of the Corpus Hermeticum would be more like Plato’s Symposium rather than just a simple college party, especially when there’s plenty of negative references to and metaphors of (common especially in gnostic texts and traditions) people being drunk and sick from inebriation (like from CH VII.1, which I discussed not too long ago).  A Hermetic symposium would be one where the symposiarch would likely dilute the wine rather well, and would gather people together for an intellectual time rather than one for the sake of mere entertainment.  But there are always those who go out to any event for the sake of having fun and being social, regardless of what the wishes of the host are; some people host parties for a purpose, but some people attend such parties for the sake of partying regardless of the purpose itself, like that one uncle who shows up to their nephew’s third birthday party with a keg of beer.  Now, bearing that notion in mind, consider what Hermēs says about people of Mind versus people of Reason:

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes…”

At a Hermetic symposium, the people of Reason are like those who show up just to drink and have fun, who ignore the symposiarch’s wishes for a philosophical time to use the wine provided for conversation (“they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired”) and instead just drink the wine to drink wine and get drunk; they “divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies”, and in believing “that mankind came to be for such purposes”, it’s like seeing any such social event as a party to which they go just for the sake of partying.  It’s the people of Mind, rather, who participate in the symposium for the proper ends and using the means provided properly instead of improperly; they “participated in knowledge” because they “received mind”.  Mind is the drink provided, and those who use Mind appropriately and let it absorb into their being instead of letting it simply pass through them in the mouth and out the urethra is what enables them to become “perfect people”.

But Mind isn’t just the thing being drunk; no, God set the kratēr of Mind for those who could to immerse themselves within it.  God has provided Mind to fill the kratēr, but a kratēr is used to mix things together, not just to have something there as it is.  While some would interpret this immersion in the kratēr of Mind to be more like a baptism, in which one is purified and from which one is reborn, the more obvious idea here is staring at us in the face: we’re the things to be mixed with Mind.  God is the symposiarch, and we are that which is mixed with Mind.  Earlier, I might have said that Mind would be wine, but…thinking about it, I think that we ourselves are the wine, and Mind is the water that dilutes it.  After all, drinking unmixed wine, or ἄκρατος akratos, was considered to be (and to lead to) insanity.  Is that not a perfect metaphor for what Hermēs is trying to save us from?  In CH VII.1, he calls out to people to save them (my emphasis, Greek from Festugière/Nock given first to show the original wording):

Ποῖ φέρεσθε, ὧ ἄνθρωποι, μεθύοντεσ, τὸν τῆς ἀγνωσίας ἄκρατον λόγον ἐκπιόντες, δ’ν οὐδὲ φέρειν δύνασθε, ἀλλ’ ἤδη αὐτὸν καὶ ἐμεῖτε;

Where are you heading in your drunkenness, you people? Have you swallowed the doctrine of ignorance undiluted, vomiting it up already because you cannot hold it? Stop and sober yourselves up!

And in CH I.27—29, when Hermēs begins his kergyma (“you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness…”) and teaching to the people after being told by Poimandrēs to guide and save the human race (emphasis mine):

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water.

The mixing-bowl is not for the purpose of diluting Mind, but for the purpose of diluting us with Mind.  We are the unmixed wine of insanity and ignorance, that dark liquid that cannot be seen through and which keeps one drunk in ignorance and insanity; as CH I.20 would put it, this is “the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which Death drinks”.  And it is God who wishes for us to be diluted and elevated with the “ambrosial water” of everlasting and eternal life, provided by Mind and knowledge.  In diluting wine, the wine becomes palatable and healthful, and impurities in the wine are washed away so that the goodness of wine shows through.  This is why not everyone’s “heart has the strength”, why not everyone “believes that you will rise up again”; those who are mired in their own ignorance do not wish to be diluted, do not wished to be washed out, just as a party-goer deep in their cups will forego a refreshing glass of water for another glass of booze to keep the buzz going, but those who see and recognize the ignorance and darkness in them and wish to be made into a clearer and better form will admit the necessity of diluting the wine with water.

With us being the wine to be diluted, so long as we enter into the mixing-bowl of God, God will dilute us with the water of Mind as we need to be.  The only thing we really lose in the process is our ignorance and insanity; by us (or, perhaps better, our souls) being mixed with Mind, we cease becoming insane and causing insanity, and instead “participate in knowledge” (γνώσεωςi.e. gnōsis).  Those who undergo this mixing and dilution become “perfect people”, and in so doing, we become the drink of life itself, and so participate in ourselves with ourselves.  This is, perhaps, a difficult thing to explain, and maybe it’s just the metaphor of the mixing-bowl and symposium breaking down here, but I am reminded of the exclamation of Tat in the process of his rebirth from CH XIII.11—13:

Since god has made me tranquil, father, I no longer picture things with the sight of my eyes but with the mental energy that comes through the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in animals and in plants; in the womb, before the womb, after the womb; everywhere…

Father, I see the universe and I see myself in mind.

Tat, in the process of his rebirth, no longer sees himself as merely apart from or within the cosmos; he witness himself as the cosmos and within it.  More than that, he sees himself “in Mind”.  I’m also reminded of how Hermēs tells Asclepius in CH X.12 that:

A human soul is carried in this way: the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.

And later on in CH X.19:

The human soul—not every soul, that is, but only the reverent—is in a sense demonic and divine. Such a soul becomes wholly mind after getting free of the body and fighting the fight of reverence. (Knowing the divine and doing wrong to no person is the fight of reverence.) The irreverent soul, however, stays in its own essence, punishing itself, seeking an earthy body to enter…

The human entity consists of Reason (λόγος), yes, which all people have, but Mind (νους) is mixed with this for those who can.  Those who have Mind in their souls mixed with Reason will, in the process of their spiritual progression along the Way, eventually become entirely Mind, and as such, as Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in CH I.26, “enter into God[; for] this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made God”.  This requires us to dilute ourselves with the water of Mind in the mixing-bowl from CH IV, which, as the long night of the symposium of our earthly incarnation continues, should progress so that only the water of Mind is left, and none of the wine of our bodily selves remain.  The people of Reason, however, devoid of Mind, do not wish for this to happen due to their ignorance, and instead “stay in their own essence”, remaining undiluted and continuing in their life of ignorance, “willful and angry” (as one might be from having drunk unmixed wine, or just drinking too much wine at all, per Dionysos’ disavowal of the fourth kratēr and beyond).

This all makes the following sections of CH IV.6—7 make so much more sense to me.  Most people interpret this as a straightforward world-denying body-hating section, but in light of the notion of dilution…well, read for yourself:

“I too wish to be immersed, my father.”

“Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.”

“What do you mean by this, father?”

“My child, it is impossible to be engaged in both realms, the mortal and the divine. Since there are two kinds of entities, corporeal and incorporeal, corresponding to mortal and divine, one is left to choose one or the other, if choice is desired. One cannot {have both together when one is left to choose}, but lessening the one reveals the activity of the other.

“Choosing the stronger, then [ ], not only has splendid consequences for the one who chooses—in that it makes the human into a god—but it also shows reverence toward god. On the other hand, choosing the lesser has been mankind’s destruction, though it was no offence to god, with this single reservation: just as processions passing by in public cannot achieve anything of themselves, though they can be a hindrance to others, in the same way these people are only parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body.”

Ignorance and death is the unmixed wine, while knowledge (from Mind) and life is the water that dilutes it in the mixing-bowl.  Hone in, specifically, on the statement “lessening the one reveals the activity of the other”: by diluting the wine, the water begins to come to the fore.  As we begin the process of moving from a focus in living from the corporeal to the incorporeal, the wine of our ignorance and death becomes further diluted, until eventually there is no wine left, only the water of Mind.  Doing this admits that the undiluted wine of ignorance we possess cannot remain as such; we cannot love being so undiluted, but instead must seek to destroy that state through dilution (“unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind”).  Those who insist on remaining undiluted in their ignorance, however, ignore the importance of the incorporeal, of Mind and knowledge and God, and continue in their own destruction, and in so doing, cause a “hindrance to others…parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body” as one would in a reckless and drunken revel.

Something still bothers me about all this, though.  When Tat asks Hermēs why God did not share Mind with all people from the get-go, Hermēs responds that God “wanted it put between souls…as a prize for them to contest” (ἠθέλησεν, ὧ τέκνον, τοῦτον ἐν μέσῳ ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὥσπερ ἄθλον ἱδρῦσθαι with a rough translation of “he willed, my son, this in the midst of these souls just as a prize of contest to be found”).  This notion of “contest” for one to strive towards is a weird one, but it’s not wholly unfamiliar; there is a notion of intentful striving throughout the corpora Hermetica that leads to divinity: CH I.21 has Poimandrēs telling Hermēs that “if you learn you are from light and life and that you happen to come from them, you shall advance to life once again”, after recounting God’s counsel to all of creation in CH I.18 that “let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists”.  I interpret this notion of a “prize for a contest” to mean that we are not necessarily striving against one another, though it may feel that way, but it’s more of our souls striving against our bodies, the divine and immortal part of ourselves striving against the corporeal and mortal part of ourselves.    I suppose one could make a game of it with others, of course, which would be appropriate at a symposium, and depending on how long the symposium of God goes on, more and more wine will need to be drawn upon and mixed one way or another so that everyone, in the end, gets mixed with the water of Mind.  I’m not entirely settled on the meaning of the wording of this, and I think this part is definitely worthy of more contemplation and consideration.

Likewise, Hermēs mentions that God appointed “a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts” regarding immersing ourselves in the mixing-bowl.  Who or what might this herald be?  Given Hermēs’ commission from Poimandrēs to teach and guide humanity so that they might be saved, he may well be referencing himself, but there is also the possibility of this being one of the personified forces of the cosmos, of which there are no small number: Providence, Necessity, and Fate have been personified at times in the Stobaean Fragments, and SH XXVI.3 (from the last part of the Korē Kosmou excerpts) mentions that Providence has “two ministers”: a Steward of Souls and an Escort of Souls.  We also shouldn’t forget Poimandrēs himself, of course, too, an emanation from Mind who (depending on your perspective and analysis of the name) could be Ra, Thoth, or the XIIth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III (I swear at least one scholar thinks this).  Whether this herald is a cosmic entity or not, whether it’s an oblique reference by Hermēs to himself or not, the identity of the herald isn’t the focus of this book from the Corpus Hermeticum, and it’s certainly less important than the fact that a message was given to humanity: “immerse yourselves in the mixing-bowl if your heart has the strength”.  Fittingly, this message does bear much in similarity with what Hermēs calls out to people in CH I.27—29 and in CH VII, but that alone doesn’t make this particular topic particularly clear, either.

At any rate, Hermēs goes on to say in CH IV.9 that “knowledge is not a beginning of the good, but it furnishes us the beginning of the good that will be known”.  If knowledge is produced from Mind, and our immersion in the mixing-bowl and our first dilution with the water of Mind is just the start of it all on our way to become wholly Mind (as in CH X.19), then this is just the beginning of a long party, indeed.  But even if the Way is long, we won’t be thirsty along the way, so long as we keep listening to and following the Leader who keeps us nourished with what is right for us.

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.

Twelve, Ten, and Seven: Clarifying and Rethinking the Tormentors from CH XIII

So, this one has been stewing on my mind a bit.  Remember how, a bit ago, I brought up the notion of Hermetic “tormentors”?  It’s this notion from the Corpus Hermeticum (specifically Books I and XIII, or CH I and CH XIII, respectively) about how there are these irrational forces that work upon the body, and so influence and affect (impelling, but not compelling) the soul.  In CH I, Poimandrēs describes them to Hermēs in terms of the planets, where after death a human rises up through the planetary spheres and gives up a particular energy/activity to each planetary sphere from which that energy/activity derives: increase and decrease to the Moon, evil machination to Mercury, illusion of longing to Venus, and so forth.  CH XIII describes things a bit differently; rather than waiting until after death to release ourselves from these energies, the process of initiation and rebirth described there can be done in this life before death, but rather than there being seven such energies, there are twelve that Hermēs lists to Tat, but “under them are many more besides”.  When I brought up my discussion of these tormentors last time, I considered them in a planetary light, against the conventional reading of the text in CH XIII which makes them out to be zodiacal rather than planetary, and have interpreted them as such as well in later posts like the one I did about the Hermetic “sins” based on the 42 Negative Confessions of Egyptian afterlife beliefs.  This major disconnect, intentional as it was, was pointed out to me by Phainolis of Practical Theurgy, and I wanted to take another look at my logic with that.  The constant onslaught of 2020’s drama hasn’t given me a lot of time to do that, but now that I have a moment to breathe and reconsider things, I figure now’s as good a time as any.

So, let’s talk about the relationships between CH I and CH XIII at a high level first.  Both of these are important books in the corpora Hermetica (not just in the Corpus Hermeticum alone, but in all of the classical Hermetic literature available to us) because they center on this notion of spiritual…evolution, advancement, ascent, whatever you want to call it as a means of salvation and release from torment.  Torment is a result of the forces of fate that work upon the body, because the body is what is subjected to fate, because fate is a function of the created cosmos.  Because the body is a product of the cosmos, the body is subject to the forces of the cosmos; the soul, however, is not subject to the forces of fate because it has its origin above and beyond the creation of the cosmos.  Still, because the soul is wrapped up in the body, the body can inflict the soul with torment or misguide and mislead it; even though the soul is technically above the forces of fate, it can still be impacted by them because of its connection to the body.  Fighting this battle between the soul and the body to preserve the well-being and conscious immortality of the soul against the fatal inflictions of fate is emphasized in several places throughout the Hermetic literature, and both CH I and CH XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum discuss different approaches to this.

I also want to note that, for all the importance of the name and role of Poimandrēs in the Corpus Hermeticum, the name itself is only ever used in these two books.  CH XI can be thought of as a discussion between Poimandrēs and Hermēs, but there, it’s technically just “Mind”, not Poimandrēs by name.  It can be assumed that CH XI has a dialog between Poimandrēs and Hermēs, given the now-commonly-accepted idea that Poimandrēs means “Intelligence/Mind/Knowing of Ra” (from Coptic p-eime nte-rē or some variant thereof), but it’s still not explicitly said there (much like how the revelation of Poimandrēs in CH I isn’t given explicitly to Hermēs, but we assume that it is).  This puts CH XIII on a special kinship with both CH I and CH XI, being the only text in the Corpus Hermeticum that explicitly links both Hermēs and Poimandrēs together.  As far as the connection between CH I and CH XIII is concerned, we can safely assume that CH XIII was written as not just heavily influenced by but an outright descendant and development of the themes given in CH I.

As noted earlier, the final revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs in CH I describes the activities/energies of the planets, which the human being relinquishes as it ascends through the heavens back to the eighth sphere, “stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework”, where the human being (now just the pure soul unrestricted and unrestrained by the body or its influences and affectations) “has his own proper power”.  Classically speaking, the eighth sphere is seen to be the sphere of the fixed stars.  Although the process of salvation begins down here on Earth, the results and culmination of salvation only properly begins in the eighth sphere, once the planetary forces have been stripped away from the human being.  I say “begins” here in the eighth sphere, because Poimandrēs references even higher spheres:

Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god.

What might those higher regions be?  Stobaean Fragment 6 (SH 6) is a separate Hermetic text that talks about the sphere of the decans which resides between the outermost body of the cosmos (basically the Primum Mobile) and the sphere of the zodiac, and the sphere of the zodiac is mentioned as “the band of stars featuring animal-like shapes”.  Although some conceptions of the geocentric cosmos separate out the sphere of the fixed stars from the sphere of the zodiac properly (as in Petrus Apianus’ and Gemma Frisius’ famous depiction of the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmos, shown below, which separates out the eighth sphere of the fixed stars as the “firmament” and the ninth sphere of the Zodiac constellations themselves, presumably to account cosmologically and spiritually for precession), the older Hermetic texts don’t really seem to do this.

Because of this, we can assume that the Hermetic stance on this (at least given what’s in SH 6) is that the eighth sphere is the sphere of the fixed stars and constellations of the Zodiac proper, and the ninth sphere are a higher, more ideal division of space known as the decans, and above that is the Primum Mobile as the tenth and final sphere.

The phrase “cosmic framework” mentioned above in that excerpt from CH I is also used earlier in CH I, too, when the primordial man began to enter into creation (emphasis mine):

Having all authority over the cosmos of mortals and unreasoning animals, the man broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god.

And again when God set in motion the process of procreation of humans (emphasis mine):

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

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

There’s this identity of “the cosmic framework”, understood to be the system of planets, with Fate in CH I, but I want to mention that this is Copenhaver’s translation; Festugière has “l’armature des sphères”, while the original Greek is ἁρμονία, or “harmony”, while the word “cosmic” isn’t present in the Greek.  This notion of the “harmony” can be understood, given the context, to refer to the whole working-together of the cosmos, which is a safe bet given the understanding and translation Festugière and Nock, but perhaps not.  However, CH I does say that the government of the “seven governors…[who] encompass the sensible world in circles” is called fate, so there is an explicit identity of the planets with fate in CH I.  Elsewhere, we see similar notions: SH 29 is a short poem entitled “On Fate” which talks about the activities and gifts of the planets, SH 12 says that “the stars are the instrument of Fate” and that “the stars serve Fate”, CH III (which we brought up at length not too long ago!) describes how the “wonder-working course of the cycling gods” enacts the work of the Divine and working of Nature, and CH XVI talks about how the daimones of the stars effect the powers and orders of those stars upon the body to afflict the soul.  The contexts of what “star” means in these various texts can differ, sometimes referring to the wandering stars (planets) or the fixed stars themselves, but the general agreement is that it’s definitely the planets that effect Fate, either with or without the influences of the fixed stars themselves, about which it’s more debatable from text to text.

Then we turn to CH XIII.  There, Hermēs tells Tat that he has “more than a few” tormentors, and that they are:

…twelve in number, but under them are many more besides…and they use the prison of the body to torture the inward person [i.e. the soul] with the sufferings of sense.

Later, Hermēs says that:

This tent—from which have also passed, my child—was constituted from the zodiacal circle, which was in turn constituted of entities that are twelve in number, one in nature, omniform in appearance.  To mankind’s confusion, there are disjunctions among the twelve, my child, though they are unified when they act.  (Recklessness is not separable from anger; they are indistinguishable.)

The tormentors as described in CH XIII, then, are (at least superficially) zodiacal in nature, as opposed to the planetary notion of them as given in CH I.  The “tent” image is one common in a number of Hermetic texts, referencing the body using an image of a makeshift shelter constructed from nearby, local elements that we pass into briefly and pass out of just as quickly, a brief lodging for the soul; the tent is subject to fate because it is made by the powers of fate.  Unlike other parts of Hermetic cosmological descriptions, fate here is a function not of the planets but of the zodiac.  This sentiment is also echoed in, for example, SH 6, where the decans are said to exert an energy upon the planets themselves and thus upon us, making the government fate more encompassing than just the revolution of the planets but of all things that are strictly underneath the Primum Mobile.  All the same, what’s known is that the various elements of creation from above work and effect the government of fate upon those things below.  Same notion as with the planetary model of fate, just expanded a bit higher up.  In that light, recentering the fixed stars instead of the wandering stars as being agents of fate, it follows that one should have a zodiacal model of tormentors instead of a planetary one.

But the description of the twelve tormentors in CH XIII is…muddled even by Hermēs’ own definition, and some translators would say outright mutilated looking at the text itself.  After all, Hermēs says that although different, some of them are inseparable from one another, and Copenhaver in his notes to this section says that “if four of the twelve vices constitute two disjunctions which act as unities” (like how recklessness and anger are), “the twelve become ten”.  Even if the second conjoined disjunction isn’t mentioned, that reduction from twelve to ten is an important thing to note here.  Although there are twelve named tormentors here in CH XIII, ten is an important number, because there are ten mercies or graces of God that come to purify the human from the tormentors: knowledge of God, joy, continence, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth, goodness, life, and light (or another variant translation for these words as I gave in my earlier post liked above).  Ten, as many know, is a holy number being the Decad from Pythagorean influence, a number of perfection and wholeness, and we can see such an influence present in this Hermetic text.  But what’s odd is that there’s no one-to-one mapping of all the mercies of God to the tormentors: the first seven(!) are given one-to-one for the first seven tormentors listed, and then “the good, together with life and light” which all come together after truth, vanquishes all the rest of the tormentors starting with envy (the eighth tormentor listed) at once.  This weird switch from going one-by-one to all-the-rest is jarring, frankly, as is the lack of complete development when it comes to how the disjoined tormentors still act as one in pairs.

What’s notable is that those last three mercies of God, goodness and life and light, are elsewhere praised throughout the corpora Hermetica time and again as being some of the highest attributes of God generally: God is the Good, and God is the source of life and light, being the Maker and the Mind that illuminates all minds.  There’s a palpable difference between the final three mercies in CH XIII of goodness, life, and light (which are more like attributes of God) and the other seven mercies listed (which are more like God-oriented energies or virtues that counteract the more base-oriented energies or vices).  There’s even a difference in how Hermēs introduces them: he summons to Tat the first seven mercies (or that they come to Tat) to vanquish the first seven tormentors, but upon the vanquishing of the seventh, “the good has been fulfilled”, and that “the good….has followed after truth [the seventh mercy]”.  After all, the way Hermēs describes it here, once the mercy of truth arrives to vanquish deceit, “the good has been fulfilled”, implying that there’s a completion, strongly suggesting that there are only seven mercies and the rest is just Divinity itself which can only be reached through the first seven mercies.

Although he lumps them all together immediately afterward referencing “the arrival of the decad”, there’s still a distinction drawn in the very natures of goodness, life, and light from the rest.  This difference, at least as far as life and light are concerned, is emphasized later on in CH XIII:

The decad engenders soul, my child. Life and light are unified when the number of the henad, of spirit, is begotten. Logically, then, the henad contains the decad, and the decad the henad.

Without goodness, life, and light, there are only seven mercies, and each of these mercies is known to act against one of the tormentors.  The rest of the tormentors get lumped together in a confused way, either through the cosmological description directly from Hermēs by his own admission or through the mangling of the text itself passed down through the ages, and the rest of the mercies have already been lumped together throughout the rest of the corpora Hermetica and even here, too.  What we clearly have is seven concrete mercy-tormentor pairs, and a mess of the rest on both sides of the equation.

In my earlier post about the Hermetic tormentors, I sorta devolved this zodiacal model in CH XIII down to a strictly planetary model more like what’s in CH I, which Phainolis called out as unusual, as I noted, and which does go against the conventional wisdom and academic understanding of what’s being discussed in CH XIII.  Let me be clear: it’s obvious that CH XIII is certainly attempting to come up with a twelve-fold zodiacal model of tormentors, and certainly describes the tormentors (and, thus, fate) in terms of the zodiac.  However, it doesn’t do so clearly or successfully, trying to come up with justifications that take twelve down to ten to match an idealized set of ten mercies, but which isn’t followed through well, either.  This ends up with only seven of the mercies being matched against seven of the tormentors explicitly, and the other three taking care of the other five, supposedly in the sense of one mercy of the last three for one of those lingering five tormentors, and one of the other two mercies in that set to go against a pair of tormentors.  There are plenty of ways one could conceive of a specific mercy-tormentor(s) pairing, but none of them seem particularly satisfying, as it’s not clear what relationship goodness, life, or light would have specifically with any one or pair of these last five tormentors, unlike the clean and clear relationship that the first seven mercies have with the first seven tormentors (e.g. knowledge and ignorance, joy and sorrow, justice and injustice).  Moreover, although it’s not a clean or clear one-to-one match, the order of the first seven tormentors given in CH XIII strongly resembles the tormentors given as the activity of the planets in CH I and in the same order, while also not showing any resemblance between the twelve tormentors here given and how they would relate to the twelve signs of the Zodiac.  The bit about how (some?) pairs of the tormentors here, though disjointed, act as one in order to bring the number twelve down to ten shows that the link between these tormentors and the zodiac signs is weak at best based only on a nominal link based on the number twelve, and that the numerology of twelve and ten seems to be held as more important than any actual zodiacal origination or connection.

I noted earlier that CH XIII seems to be a direct descendant and further development of the cosmological and soteriological movement first initiated in CH I, but it recenters the government of fate and its tormentors on the eighth sphere of the fixed stars rather than on the seven spheres of the planets, and tries to adjust its notion of tormentors accordingly from seven to twelve while also throwing in a Pythagorean or Gnostic notion of the holy Decad in for good measure by combining the numbers seven and three.  However, it just…doesn’t succeed in this.  To me, what this all looks like is that CH XIII is trying to come up with a zodiacal model of tormentors and fate based on an earlier (and much more stable and reliable) planetary model, but it falls short of actually doing so, and ends up only keeping the earlier planetary model clear, while handwaving away the rest.  The model of tormentor-vs.-mercy here along zodiacal lines is simply incomplete, and in the form given in CH XIII does not provide us with a meaningful system of understanding either the tormentors or mercies beyond the planetary sevenfold model already given in CH I.

Can there be a zodiacal model of twelve tormentors to supplant the planetary model of seven?  Sure!  But there are a few things that I’d like to see for such a thing: a clear link between a given tormentor and a specific sign of the Zodiac, a single mercy that vanquishes a single tormentor (so no combos of mercies against a single or multiple tormentors), and a clear link between a given mercy and its corresponding tormentor (e.g. justice vs. injustice).  Alternatively, we could do away with the notion of mercies vanquishing the tormentors and just have each sign provide a tormenting energy to humans that one needs to give up (as in the CH I model).  There’s no clear way to do either of these things while involving the number ten for the sake of having a holy Decad present in this process.  This is further evidence, to me, that the model of twelve kinda-sorta zodiacal tormentors in CH XIII was a half-baked idea that, although showing some promise and lifts the ultimate powers of fate up from the planetary level to the stellar level and reveals a Gnostic or Pythagorean presence in this text, wasn’t developed far enough in CH XIII to actually fulfill this framework.

Given the strong echo of a sevenfold planetary model of tormentors (and their vanquishing mercies) in CH XIII despite its attempt to build a zodiacal twelvefold model, and given the already noted presence of such a sevenfold planetary model (or at least its foundation without vanquishing mercies) in CH I, I would rather interpret the first seven tormentors and their corresponding mercies in CH XIII in a planetary model, and leave the rest out.  After all, Hermēs tells Tat in CH XIII that he already has “more than a few” tormentors, and that, although there are twelve he lists, “under them there are many more besides”.  The door is already open here to say that some tormentors are more minor than others, perhaps as specifications of the others, so using the same logic already present in CH XIII, it wouldn’t be hard at all to revert to a sevenfold model from a twelvefold one.  And, again, given the strong similarity the first seven tormentors from CH XIII bears to the list of planetary activities from CH I, it makes better sense to me to interpret them in a more planetary light, given how solid and present that model is in other Hermetic texts that involve elevation and initiation.

As an aside along these lines, besides CH I and CH XIII, the closest Hermetic text that discusses similar things is the famous Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (D89) from the Nag Hammadi texts.  That text, too, involves a sort of initiation, as in CH XIII, as well as spiritual elevation and ascent, as in CH I.  There, Hermēs and Tat (presumably, given the context of D89) “have already advanced to the seventh, since [they] are pious and walk in [God’s] law[; a]nd [God’s] will [they] fulfill always”, and Tat has already been promised by Hermēs “that you would bring my mind into the eighth and afterwards you would bring me into the ninth”.  The whole cosmology of D89 is basically exactly that of CH I, while the process of initiation in life is lacking in CH I, while it is in CH XIII; conversely, both D89 and CH I lack a notion of mercies that vanquish the tormentors, which CH XIII has, though CH I has a notion of tormentors one gives up naturally that D89 lacks, and D89 has a general notion of mercy being bestowed by God that allows for elevation to happen.  CH XIII, it should be noted, lacks any notion of spiritual ascent through the spheres; it focuses entirely on the sphere of the fixed stars (and that only nominally), and instead focuses on a process of purification through the mercy of God to obtain a divine vision, while CH I and D89 focuses on a process of spiritual elevation through the spheres to obtain a divine vision.  However, there is a tantalizing bit in D89: after Hermēs and Tat proclaim that they “have already advanced to the seventh”, they also say that they “have walked in [the way of God], and [they] have renounced”…something.  There’s a short lacuna here, but whatever it is they renounced they renounced “so that [the vision of God] may come”.  J.P. Mahé reconstructs “evil” here, though others have “childhood” (cf. earlier in D89, “compare yourself to the early years of life; as children (do), you have posed senseless, unintelligent questions”).  It’s unclear, though it’s probably not a list of tormentors or vices, just a short one-word bit.  Still, the notion, however implicit and terse, is still here in D89, too.

Anyway, where does that leave us?  CH I and CH XIII both bring up a notion of fate-fueled tormentors that hinder the spiritual development and progress of the human soul due to the infliction of torment on the body, and CH XIII was definitely written with CH I in mind.  However, unlike the planetary sevenfold model of tormentors one has and then gives up in CH I, CH XIII tries to develop a zodiacal twelvefold model of tormentors that are vanquished by particular mercies bestowed upon us by the grace of God.  However, this twelvefold model in CH XIII isn’t fully developed even on its own terms and tries to involve a more Pythagorean/Gnostic decad-based model of salvation than one that is strictly zodiacal in nature, confusing different systems leading to a confused result.  Moreover, there’s strong evidence when comparing the two systems side-by-side that the twelvefold model in CH XIII was based on the earlier sevenfold model from CH I, which it hasn’t really departed from.  Although a superficial reading of CH XIII would lead one to think that this twelvefold model of tormentors and mercies is zodiacal, and though it attempts to flesh out such a system, it fails to do so, with the only concrete part of it being the earlier sevenfold model based on the planets.  It makes more sense to me, until such time as a better twelvefold model can be developed using CH XIII as a basis, to simply stick with the sevenfold model and to interpret the first seven tormentors and mercies as being more planetary than zodiacal in nature.  There’s enough in the corpora Hermetica as a whole to justify such a zodiacal, fixed star-based model of infliction and affectation of fate, and CH XIII likely shows that it was being developed and migrated to from an earlier planetary model but may not have been fully understood or fully developed at the time of its writing.  There can certainly be such a zodiacal  model of tormentors and mercies, but I don’t think the model given in CH XIII is complete or solid enough to use as it is, when the sevenfold planetary model is both older, better understood, and present even here in CH XIII even if not explicitly so.

On the Hermetic Hieroglossa

Yes, another post about the Hermetic canon, Corpus Hermeticum, Stobaean Fragments, and whatnot.  But this time, it’s not about introducing a prayer based on the work, but about the work’s own comments about itself.

Something for me to bear in mind is that, as an amateur classicist, I don’t really read Greek (though I am learning!), whether modern or archaic or Koiné or any point in between.  Nor do I read any variety of Egyptian.  In fact, the only real classical language I have any grasp of is Latin, and even that requires some assistance (I wish I had kept it up more through college, my current translations be damned).  Annoyingly, despite working from home full-time in light of the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, it seems like my spare time has gone down somehow, and with the added stress of waves vaguely at everything, it’s hard to focus.  Thus, though I had set out three months ago leaving my office for the last time (until such time as things get safer to go back) with desires to learn Sahidic Coptic, I haven’t been able to do anything about that along those lines, much to my annoyance.  Even if I had time to learn Sahidic Coptic, there’s also the much-needed modern Spanish I still need to work on, to say nothing of Lukumí/Yòrubá and Koiné Greek, or Yiddish, or any other number of languages I should be studying for any number of (rather quite valid) reasons.

But why Coptic?  I mentioned a while back that Coptic got sprung up for me as an interest, and although an obsessive one like how reading dominoes came about for me, it’s gone nowhere, unfortunately.  But I still wanna learn it; after all, Coptic is the only surviving Egyptian language we have left, and unfortunately, it’s also effectively a dead language, kept around liturgically in the Coptic Church much as Latin is in the Catholic Church.  Of course, there are movements to try to revive it and make it a spoken, living language again, but as with Latin, it’s not all that far-reaching.  However, even then, what the Coptic Church uses is Bohairic Coptic, a derivative of a northern (Lower) Egyptian dialect which has taken on far more Greek influence through the Church, while I’m more focused on Sahidic Coptic, which was more common across Egypt, it’d seem, especially in southern (Upper) Egypt, especially in and around Thebes and Hermopolis—and thus would be more closely related to the classical philosophical texts (e.g. Corpus Hermeticum) and magical texts (e.g. PGM/PDM/PCM) I’m such a fan of.

Coptic—in any dialect—is the last stage of the Egyptian language to survive, which otherwise dates back some six thousand years, an incredibly long heritage for a language.  It didn’t remain the same for all those millennia, of course, since Egyptian, as all languages do, evolved and mutated and spread, sometimes developing multiple dialects and offshoots along the way.  Perhaps at least as impressive as its age, of course, is also the fact that it’s been one of the longest-living languages (language families?) to ever be written, with written records of Egyptian dating back some five and a half thousand years.  Although the writing system of hieroglyphs remained largely the same since their institution until their use ceased across two thousand years, the spoken language continued to develop, with Middle Egyptian (c. 2000 bce to 1350 bce) becoming the “classical” form of the language, with Late Egyptian following on that until about 700 bce, Demotic after that until 400 ce, and Coptic rising on the scene as a different set of dialects and writing systems with heavy Greek influence arising around 200 ce.  My point is that Egyptian is old, and its writing system the foundation for the well-known Phoenician writing system, itself the ancestor of most alphabets and abjads—even perhaps the Indic abugidas, too—used across the world today.

So why bring all this up?  I was reading more of the Corpus Hermeticum the other day, this time Book XVI, a letter of Asclepius sent to Ammon.  It starts off somewhat perplexingly, saying that it contradicts earlier teachings and lessons (perhaps as a sign that Ammon is now spiritually developed enough to take on deeper and more profound truths?), but it quickly gets into a bout of what some authors have called “linguistic nativism” (Copenhaver translation):

…furthermore, it will be entirely unclear (he said) when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity.  But this discourse, expressed in our paternal language, keeps clear the meaning of its words. The very quality of the speech and the (sound) of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of (Egyptian) usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Let’s be clear here: Asclepius is outright saying that Greek is no language for true philosophy as befits the Way of Hermēs, and that those who wish to translate Hermetic teachings into Greek do so foolishly as they end up distorting the meaning of the texts.  Thus, Asclepius encourages Ammon to stick to using “our paternal language”, i.e. Egyptian, because it “keeps clear the meaning of its words”, as it avoids such distortion and vacuity that the Greeks seem to be so fond of.  Egyptian has “sounds that are full of action”, and “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”.

Of course, CH XVI along with the rest of the CH is written in Greek; either this letter of Asclepius to Ammon was originally written in Egyptian and translated into Greek (possible, though it’s astoundingly humble for the translator to keep this section!), or it was written originally in Greek and written to intimate that the reader is getting some intimate sort of taste of lost, ancient wisdom.  I mean, imagine the absurdity and paradox of it: a set of texts written in Greek yet which deny the validity and use of Greek.  True, Greek was one of the larger linguae francae of the classical Mediterranean world, and was held to be a language quite well-suited for philosophy—the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal contemplative diary in Greek—but we should remember that the Egyptians as a rule didn’t think highly of other cultures as much as other cultures thought highly of that of the Egyptians.  It’s now largely agreed-upon that Hermet(ic)ism is rooted in Egypt, and although it bears heavy Hellenic influence, its Egyptian core component cannot be denied.

So what was the “original language” of the Hermetic texts and teachers?  I mean…well, we simply don’t know.  The Egyptian flair present in Book XVI may well just be that, an affectation of style and drama to set the stage for a letter-based discourse (which itself is flair because we know with almost absolute certainty that this wasn’t actually a real letter, much as some letter-styled entries in the PGM aren’t real letters).  All our surviving Hermetic texts from this area are, for the most part, only in Greek; there are a handful of Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi find, and the Asclepius survives only in Latin although it almost certainly relies on an older (I don’t want to say “original”) Greek version.  But there are also older quasi- or proto-Hermetic texts that we find, like the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, written in Demotic; such wisdom literature, like the older Instruction of Any, were written in Middle Egyptian.  Without knowing more about the history and origins of Hermetic texts, we simply just don’t know what the “original” Hermetic language might have been, and there are good arguments for either Demotic Egyptian and Koiné Greek.  Frankly, based on the overwhelming abundance of literature in the language that survives, Koiné Greek may well be the original language of the Hermetic canon, but maybe that’s just an accident of history and survival.

But let’s take the notion of Egyptian—whether Demotic or Coptic or whatever—as being the only worthwhile language seriously, at least for now for the sake of argument.  I mean, given the huge emphasis on the power of the spoken word so prevalent throughout Egyptian belief, it makes sense; why use anything else when the very words “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”?  In this light, Egyptian may well be a “true language”, a language that doesn’t just represent things as symbols but whose very words actually are the very things themselves.  This is what logically follows from the Egyptian notion of power in speech; it’s less a matter of “linguistic nativism” and more a matter of cosmological accuracy to describe Egyptian as this, and Greek (and, for that matter, other languages) as being void and wasteful.  That being said, though, many languages say the same things about themselves, like Hebrew being the language that God used to create the world, and the like, so maybe we shouldn’t take this claim all too seriously.

Still, even if we don’t distance ourselves from the notion that the Egyptian language is the only “true language” in the sense of its words being “true words” and its names being “true names”, it would follow that this truth follows from the language being spoken correctly (as far as pronunciation is concerned) and used correctly (ditto but for grammar and semantics).  In that light, well, which stage of Egyptian are we talking about?  After all, each stage had developments as far as grammar, semantic drift, and pronunciation went that would render them mutually unintelligible (making one “right” and one “wrong”), so are we talking Old Egyptian, Middle, Late, Demotic, or Coptic?  And even if we can figure out a general stage, what about dialect?  If Coptic, is it Sahidic, Akhmimic, Subakhmimic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, or Oxyrhynchite?  If Bohairic, because it’s still relatively in use today, are we talking classical Bohairic as used between the 4th and 9th centuries, or will modern Church Bohairic suffice, or neo-Coptic revitalizations based on Bohairic?  Because older forms of Egyptian weren’t really represented outside spoken language, we can’t really figure out much about pre-Coptic dialects, but we do have evidence that there were differences indeed, e.g. a scribe joking about a colleague’s writing being as incoherent to him as “the speech of a Delta man with a man of Elephantine”.  Besides, we don’t actually know for sure how non-Coptic varieties of Egyptian languages were spoken because we have so little information to go on regarding their vowels; the usual transliteration method we have for Egyptian hieroglyphs is more of convention rather than a linguistic guarantee that certain words were pronounced in certain ways, and though we can work backwards from Coptic as well as glosses in other texts from other languages, we simply don’t know for sure beyond a few guesses, and even those are limited.  Heck, even our exact knowledge of how Coptic words were pronounced can be spotty at times, and those are written using a full alphabet with vocalizations and everything!  So, if “true language” is predicated on the proper pronunciation and use of “true words”, then wouldn’t the very real fact of linguistic mutation and evolution throw a wrench into that?  At what point does “Egyptian” stop being “Egyptian”, and how “Egyptian” does one need to get in order for the language to work that way?

Perhaps more importantly, to whom would this matter most?  As many modern folk will attest, although the gods and spirits may well like being addressed in their own language (and may prefer to communicate in it, if possessing their mounts, who may or may not be competent in it), it’s almost universal that they’ll understand any language spoken to them.  This is likely the case in Egypt, too; over five thousand years of linguistic development, although certain registers and forms of the language were kept around for priestly use and ritual, it’s not like every common Egyptian person who wanted to go to the gods with their own prayers and supplications knew the formal registers used by the priests in their temples, and used whatever form of the language they could as best as they could to communicate, and surely the gods heard and understood (and answered) those words just as clearly as they did those of the priests.  I mean, consider the Demotic Magical Papyri, written in—you guessed it—Demotic Egyptian.  Those are rituals and spells that directly called upon the gods, often for one-on-one interactions, that were composed in Demotic, not in the classical Middle Egyptian that might have been more highly revered.  And it seems like those rituals worked just fine, and those who use them still get a kick out of them, too—and since few people today have competency in Demotic, they’ll typically use whatever language the PDM are translated into, like English or German.  In this light, maybe the stringency that Book XVI puts on Egyptian (which, though?) is just flair and linguistic nativism/supremacy with nothing really backing it up.

This really all recalls the issues with the so-called “Adamic” language, the language of Adam and Eve that was used as the first language humans ever used, notably to communicate directly with God.  Recall that, in the Book of Genesis, Adam named all things; in what tongue?  Whatever he named those things would be the first, and thus “true”, name for those things, and it wasn’t until the Tower of Babel that other languages came about and the Adamic language was lost.  Hebrew claims to be the survival of this Adamic language—again, recall how Jewish philosophers and kabbalists claim that God created the world through the Hebrew language and the 22 letters of the Hebrew script—but other people took issue with this, such as John Dee, who “received” (developed) his Enochian language from the angels as a recovery of the original Adamic language (nevermind that its grammar and phonology is almost exactly that of English).  The allure of an “original” or “true” language is a strong one for people in pretty much any system that puts a heavy emphasis on the magical power of language, but from what we factually know about language and how it works, there’s likely no such thing, and magic and prayers still tend to work in pretty much any language.

I mean, for that matter, also consider the introduction of Greek words and names in Egyptian magic, again turning to the Demotic and Coptic magical papyri.  Coptic script gives a powerful benefit to Egyptian language because of the introduction of the seven written vowels (taken from Greek), which no earlier form of Egyptian reliably had in their writing systems (whether hieroglyphic, hieratic, or demotic).  Obviously, vowel strings and intonations are big in PGM-style work, but as far as Hermetic texts go, we see it come to a head in “The Eighth Reveals the Ninth”, which notably uses the vowel strings in an invocation of the Divine—yet the text later instructs Hermēs’ student to inscribe the book in hieroglyphs.  But this very instruction would be effectively impossible to render accurately without the use of vowels, which don’t exist in hieroglyphs.  Again, this very well could be (and most likely is) just a flair for the dramatic in this text, but it does raise something important: if vowel string intonations were important for Egyptian magical practice (and there are contemporary records that they are), how could that be transmitted over text when the text doesn’t have a reliable way of transmitting that?

This is where the notion of initiation and teacher-to-student transmission comes in.  It may well be that Egyptian writing systems were used not just to transmit information but also to obscure it, especially the specific pronunciations of sacred words and names.  Sure, the bare-bone skeletal structure of such words and names might be there, but unless someone teaches you and gives you the missing key for such pronunciation, the text will do you no good because you lack the instruction required to understand and apply it, even if you can still read it.  In this, we have an act of initiation, and this ties in well with the notion that much of PGM-style magic may not work for some people who lack the requisite “hook-up” into the Powers that Be (or Were, in some cases).  Many magicians from that time period of Egypt, after all, were also ordained priests who had the proper initiations and rituals performed on and to and for them to allow them access to particular powers and rituals that, frankly, we today lack.  Unless you can hack your way into such a power, or hotwire such a connection to gain access, some people argue that PGM-style magic may not work for you.  In this, we modern mages who can get PGM magic to work end up getting it to work either by stumbling across the key to it as a blind man fumbles in a dark room, or through other side channels that can still be exploited one way or another.  (I don’t fully agree with this notion, but I don’t deny the logic of it.)  In this, as a good friend on Twitter phrased it, the first revelation of truth is the supremacy of the Correct Word™, and eventually you reach the point where All Words are One Word™.

But this is still besides the point of what Book XVI claims, that Egyptian is the only true language worth discussing matters of truth in.  And…well, is discussing truth in any language possible at all?  I mean, the Second Stobaean Fragment (SH II) basically says no, we can’t (Litwa’s translation):

…For a human being is an imperfect animal composed of imperfect members, a tent made up of foreign and multiple bodies. Yet what is possible and correct, this I speak: the truth is in eternal bodies alone.

…Now if our frame did not possess truth from the beginning, how can it see or speak the truth? It can understand only if God so wills.

Every reality that is upon earth is not true, Tat. Rather, it is a copy of truth—and not even every truth is a copy, but only a few of them…

…Truth is hardly upon earth, Tat, nor can it arise there. Few among human beings can grasp anything concerning truth—only those to whom God grants the power of vision.

CH VI.3 likewise states that there is no true good in the world, nothing good like how God is good (Copenhaver’s translation):

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, Asclepius, 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.

Consider what this means: if no good can exist in the world, then one cannot likewise speak it into being, no matter how “true” their language is.  This could be an argument against the Egyptian notion of such power being in speech alone, at least as far as the Good and truth is concerned.

But perhaps most striking, and most powerfully against the claims of the supremacy of the Egyptian language in Book XVI, is that of Book XII.13—14 (Copenhaver’s translation):

“Even among humans, my father, does speech not differ for each nation?”

“It is different, my child, but humanity is one; therefore, speech is also one, and when translated it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece. My child, you seem to me to be ignorant of the excellence and importance of speech. The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father. Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul. Thus , the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.”

“When translated, it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece”; this statement, directly from Hermēs spoken to Tat as opposed to the statement of Asclepius written to Ammon, is probably more authoritative on this stance than anything.  Rather than relying on notions of “energies of things” being directly within the words themselves as Asclepius claims, Hermēs here says that the reason and meaning in speech—the Logos within logos, as it were—is what counts and what matters more than the method of its delivery.  Just as a Greek human, Persian human, and Egyptian human are all still human (“humanity is one”) despite all their cultural and physical differences, so too are the things that they say all still the same thing (“speech is also one”) despite all their phonological and grammatical differences.  What matters is the “reasoned speech”, the λόγος, that we all come in contact with, because it’s this that proceeds directly from God as the image and mind of God, and which inhabits Nous itself.

For me, CH XII seals the deal that the linguistic supremacy of CH XVI is just empty flair for the sake of window-dressing, but I should also note something more profound here.  Just as Mind is not the same thing as mind—a holy Nous compared to common nous—we can also say that Speech is not the same thing as speech—that holy Logos is not the same thing as common logoi.  Compare the holy prayer of Hermēs given at the end of CH I: “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.”  The Greek here is δέξαι λογικὰς θυσίας ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σέ ἀνατεταμένης, ἀνεκλάλητε, ἄρρητε, σιωπῇ φωνούμενε, literally “accept [these] word-sacrifices from a soul and heart stretched out to you, o Unutterable One, o Unspoken One, called by silence”.  In other words, though a “sacrifice of speech” is what Hermēs gives, God can only properly be called out to by silence itself, not through any words; it’s the silent Logos that comes from the heart and soul, not spoken logoi that comes from the mouth, that matters in matters of religious and spiritual activity.  The spoken words, on the other hand, are more for us than anything else.

In that sense, I mean, consider the more mythical aspects of Hermēs, the messenger god of communication and thus of language in general, and Thoth, the god of order and writing.  The Way of Hermēs, though it’s right to show honor and veneration for Hermēs-Thoth (especially if you follow a pagan or polytheistic path), is not centrally focused on him; as Hermēs Trismegistus bids and teaches Tat, Asclepius, and Ammon, the focus of his Way is to a higher divinity, a higher truth that goes well above and beyond other gods and realities.  These tools of language are just that, tools, and are not a means to an end, no more than Hermēs Trismegistus is the recipient of worship of the Divine that he teaches.  This is the gnōsis that even Hermēs Trismegistus cannot teach, that which cannot be stated but which can only be revealed by the Divine itself; everything else is a means to that end, including language.  In that light, there is no “Hermetic hieroglossa” except whatever we might find most efficacious for ourselves; there is power in one’s own native language, after all.  Rather, and perhaps more accurately, the true language of Hermēs is no language at all, because the matter of what matters cannot be spoken about with human language.  In that, silence is the only true tongue, and holy silence at that.

Now, of course, that’s as far as the holy philosophy side of things are concerned.  There is also the use of specific languages and words in ritual, which is an entirely different discussion, and which can have a variety of ends and answers—and far be it from me to say that we should abandon the barbarous words or divine names we use in our rituals and spells, or that we should switch up customary or conventional languages used in ritual at will just because we can.  All the above is about the discursive philosophical language in which we should teach and explore the Way of Hermēs apart and away from ritual practices.