Justifying a Hermetic Vegetarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hermetic Refranations and Repentances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected Hermetic Meditations on Death and Dying

It’s kinda weird, I suppose, how neatly some basic impulses start up like clockwork in alignment with the seasons.  As it’s getting darker now where I live, as summer finally relinquishes its old and lets autumn blow in, Scorpio season has arrived and, with it, Halloween and Samhain and all sorts of things related to death and the dead.  Of course, it’s also been a super rough time the past 24 months for…well, basically everyone across the world, and more people have died lately than is pleasing to count (not that it ever was pleasing, but it’s even less pleasing now that the numbers are so high everywhere).  Some of us are luckier than others, I suppose, but it seems like every day now I hear about how, in some community or other I’m connected to, someone has recently passed away.  That’s just what happens in a turbulent time, I suppose, especially one made all the worse by an ongoing global pandemic, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with psychologically or spiritually.

While I count myself fortunate and blessed enough to handle these things well enough by my own standards, I know that many others out there are struggling in the face of mass death and their own mortality—and it’s in times like this that people often turn to religion and religious texts for comfort, guidance, and support as balm for their tired souls and broken hearts.  I thought I’d pull out a few such excerpts from Hermetic texts that might offer some starting point for meditation, if not consolation, when it comes to the rather weighty (and ever-present) topic of death.

To offer my own summary of the views of classical Hermeticism before we dig into the passages themselves:

  • For the Hermeticist, death is something as natural to this world as life itself, and is part of the same process of coming-to-be as birth, growth, and decay.  Despite the claims of later alchemists, Hermēs Trismegistos in the classical philosophical/theosophical/theoretical texts never preached a form of immortality except for that of the soul, which is basically held to be inviolate and eternal as a direct issue of God.
  • The problems for us arise only when we try to latch onto these dissolvable bodies and identify the soul with them, from which arises addiction to corporeality, longing for the satisfaction of sense desires, and continued suffering through needless cycles of errant reincarnation.  In remembering what death truly is, we also remind ourselves what life truly is, both the immortal life of the soul as well as the proper means of living while the soul is still in the body.
  • While some religions or spiritual systems think of Death as an entity unto itself, there’s really no such notion in Hermeticism.  Death is just another process that things with bodies undergo.  Properly understood, there is nothing terrifying about death, any more than there is about the digestion of food, the expulsion of waste, yawning, or getting acne.  While particular ways of dying might be more unpleasant than others, the same could easily be said of living, as well.
  • Unlike other religious or spiritual systems, Hermeticism doesn’t really talk much about the spirits of the dead.  Sure, there’s plenty that talks about the origins and paths and destinations of the soul, whether in the course of its anabasis or katabasis or metempsychosis, but there’s basically nothing about how to treat the dead themselves.  It’s not that Hermeticism denies that ghosts and ancestors are a thing, it’s just irrelevant to the teachings and goals of Hermeticism, which is understanding the immortal life of the soul and how to consciously, intellectually, intelligibly achieve that immortality to free ourselves from our unthinking, unaware, unconscious addiction to mortality.  For actual ancestral practices or rites of propitiating the dead, if one does not wish to take a quasi-Buddhist approach of “preaching to the dead” to encourage them to move on from their attachments and addictions so that they can ascend instead, I would instead recommend researching historically appropriate approaches to funerary rites and practices of ancestral veneration as would be performed in Hellenistic (Ptolemaic or Roman) Egypt by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians in their own temples and household cults.

CH I.15

…Mankind is twofold—in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it. He is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Ah, the initial text of the Corpus Hermeticum, Book I and the revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs.  There is much in this book to unpack, but this text, situated at the start of the fundamental collection of Hermetic treatises, introduces the idea that what we truly are is our souls, which come from God directly and were made immortal, while our bodies are products of this cosmos we happen to inhabit and which are mortal.  It is, fundamentally, a matter of ignorance and error that leads us to confuse who and what we really are, and in confusing the two, we lead ourselves to our own destruction.  There is suffering, and there is a way out of this suffering—this is what Poimandrēs teaches Hermēs and what Poimandrēs enjoins Hermēs to teach the world—and it all starts with this simple fact, that God created all things and that we as creations of God are immortal God-issued souls dwelling within cosmos-made bodies.  Bearing that in mind, all else falls into place, including the notion that it is only our bodies that are subject to Fate, while our souls are technically free of it (while they cannot be compelled to act or undergo conditions like the body does, because of the soul’s interaction and inhabitance of the body, the soul can be impelled towards the same).  It also introduces the notion that we are only ever in this cosmos temporarily, even to the point where cosmic incarnation can be considered a “prison” of sorts (though never as pessimistically as what some Gnostic sects would say).

CH I.24—26

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

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

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

This section coming towards the end of CH I is a lovely depiction of the ascent of the soul after death; Poimandrēs gives this explanation when Hermēs asks him “tell me again about the way up, tell me how it happens”.  In this, we see a three-part ascent: the first part regarding the dissolution of the body, its temperament, and its senses as they return to nature and as the soul frees itself from all these things of the body; the second part regarding the ascent of the soul through the seven planetary spheres and, passing through each one, returning to each the cosmos-generating energy bestowed upon the soul; and the third part regarding the final stages of the ascent, above and beyond the forces of generation and corruption, as the soul reaches a timeless state of eternal perfection eventually entering into God.  CH I contrasts with CH XIII (the spiritual rebirth on the mountnain) and NHC VI.6 (the “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”) in that there doesn’t seem to be any initiatory rites that ensure the salvation of the soul; whether this is just what happens for those who are able to give up the body willingly at the time of its death or it’s what happens to all people, it paints a lovely picture of the afterlife and the course we take after death, up to and including a perfect salvation and blessed existence in God.  Death is merely a door to this, and is only an end of a brief sojourn here on Earth while also being a beginning of something else much greater.

CH III.4

[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

This is the final part of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), and specifically my own translation that I did a while back.  In the course of offering my own commentary of each of the four sections of this book, I wrote up this particular post about this section, which some may find helpful as a review of this bit.  In addition to CH III being a general overview and introduction of the Hermetic worldview and motivating ethos which I find helpful as a meditation generally, this last part has something poignant and powerful in it regarding death. The preceding section talks about all the reasons why humanity was made by the gods, “every soul in flesh”, but then we get this bit: “this is the beginning of their living and becoming wise according to their lot…and this is the beginning of their being released, leaving behind great memorials of their works of art upon the Earth, and every generation…[all that is done] for fame unto the obscurity of ages, all that is diminished will be renewed”.  No matter how much things pass away, no matter how impermanent this world and everything in it (including us as individuals and us as a species) might be, all things continue, and all things will be “renewed”, reborn, and will flourish again.  Yes, things will be forgotten, and that is our lot—but it is also our lot to be renewed, and thus remembered for a time before passing out of memory before again passing back into it, both into living and into living memory.  A doctrine of reincarnation, perhaps, or a doctrine of cyclic repeated existence; either way, we are but here for a time to do good works, then to leave them behind, much as we go to college to learn and then to graduate out of it.

CH VIII.1—4

Now, my son, we must speak about soul and body and say in what way the soul is immortal and whence comes the energy that composes and dissolves the body. Death actually has nothing to do with this. Death is a notion that arises from the term “immortal”: either it is an empty usage, or, through the loss of the first syllable, “im-mortal” is taken to mean “mortal”. Death has to do with destruction, yet none of the things in the cosmos is destroyed. If the cosmos is a second god and an immortal living thing, it is impossible for any part of this immortal living thing to die. All things in the cosmos are parts of the cosmos, but especially mankind, the living thing that reasons.

When matter was without body, my child, it was without order. Especially here below, matter has the disorder confined to the other lesser things that have qualities, the property of increase and decrease that humans call death. But this disorder arises among things that live on earth; the bodies of heavenly beings have a single order that they got from the father in the beginning. And this order is kept undissolved by the recurrence of each of them. The recurrence of earthly bodies, by contrast, is the dissolution of their composition, and this dissolution causes them to recur as undissolved bodies—immortal, in other words. Thus arises a loss of awareness but not a destruction of bodies.

Book VIII of the Corpus Hermeticum is a fairly short monist treatise, blending both Platonic and Stoic conceptions on the nature of reality and the cosmos, its creator, and our place within amongst it all.  The major thrust of CH VIII is that the cosmos as a whole is a single living being composed of multiple parts, just how your body is a single living organism composed of multiple organs and smaller cells.  If the cosmos is a single living being, then the cosmos lives, meaning everything in the cosmos lives; there can never truly be death in a living being lest the whole thing dies, and since the cosmos never dies, no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, either.  What we see and think of as death is no more than dissolution of a thing into its constituent components, which are then taken up again and used as constituent components of other living things.  The only thing that is lost is bodily awareness, but nothing else is ever truly lost in death.  Nothing here is spoken of the soul, of course, which is amply talked of in other Hermetic texts; here, we just familiarize ourselves with what “death” actually looks like, and how it is no more than a continuation of the same processes of life that produce ourselves as living beings within a forever-immortal, ever-living cosmos.

CH XII.15—18

“This entire cosmos—a great god and an image of a greater, united with god and helping preserve the father’s will and order—is a plenitude of life, and throughout the whole recurrence of eternity that comes from the father there is nothing in the cosmos that does not live, neither in the whole of it nor in its parts. For there never was any dead thing in the cosmos, nor is there, nor will there be. The father wished it to be alive as long as it holds together, and so it was necessary for the cosmos to be god. How then, my child, can there be dead things in god, in the image of all, in the plenitude of life? For deadness is corruption, and corruption is destruction. How can any part of the incorruptible be corrupted or anything of god be destroyed?”

“The things that live in the cosmos, father, though they are parts of it, do they not die?”

“Hold your tongue, child; the terminology of becoming leads you astray. They do not die, my child; as composite bodies they are only dissolved. Dissolution is not death but the dissolution of an alloy. They are dissolved not to be destroyed but to become new. And what is the energy of life? Is it not motion? In the cosmos, then, what is motionless? Nothing, my child.”

“Does the earth not seem motionless to you, father?”

“No, child; it is the only thing that is full of motion and also stationary. Would it not be quite absurd if the nurse of all were motionless, she who begets everything and gives birth to it? For without motion the begetter cannot beget anything. It is most absurd of you to ask if the fourth part is idle; that a body is motionless can signify nothing but being idle.

“Therefore, my child, you should know that everywhere in the cosmos everything is moved, either by decrease or by increase. What is moved also lives, but not everything that lives need stay the same. Taken as a whole, my child, the entire cosmos is free from change, but its parts are all subject to change. Nothing, however, is corruptible or destroyed—terms that disturb human beings. Life is not birth but awareness, and change is forgetting, not death. Since this is so, all are immortal—matter, life, spirit, soul, mind—of which every living thing is constituted.”

This excerpt from Book XII of the Corpus Hermeticum refreshes the same topic as above from CH VIII, that no part of the cosmos ever truly dies, but are only dissolved and reused in other life just as we ourselves are made from constituent parts of other things that were once living.  Dissolution is therefore part and parcel of renewal, a continuous cyclical motion of life.  Sure, different living things experience life at different stages; some are being formed, some are being dissolved, some are increasing, some are decreasing, some are growing strong, some are growing weak—but this is all life, all the same, and there is no true thing as “death”, as such, except as a matter of perception.

DH 8.7

You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal have the power of dying.  You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible.  Therefore want and understand and believe and love; then you have become it!

The seventh statement from the eighth set from the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios reminds us, quite simply, that we humans are mortal—at least, physically so, just as much as the gods are immortal.  This is something that cannot and does not change, but then, our bodies are merely and only our bodies, not who and what we truly are; rather, are souls, being immortals, have every right to stand on the same level as the gods, so long as we recognize who and what we truly are, and so long as we work towards it.  In this, we should seek to learn to accept and live by what we cannot change, and instead focus on what we can, doing what we can, to do what is truly best for ourselves and the world we live in.  (I wrote about the Definitions long ago, in what seems like another lifetime, but here’s my post about this specific one for those who are interested in reading some of my early thoughts on this.)

DH 10.6

Providence and Necessity are, in the mortal, birth and death; in God, unbegotten essence.  The immortal beings agree with one another, and the mortal envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance.  The immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done.  Death, if understood, is immortality; if not understood, it is death.  They assume that the mortal beings of this world have fallen under the dominion of the immortal, but in reality the immortal are servants of the mortals of this world.

This is statement six from the tenth set of the Definitions, this time pointing out that death causes problems for us mortal humans, if only because we see our lives as precious, non-renewable resources, fighting over our time and our lives like geopolitically-minded countries fight over oil or water; we know we will all one day die, whether we like to admit it publicly or not, but those who don’t have a proper understanding of death end up taking the wrong lessons from it, causing not just a lack of proper living but a surplus of unnecessary death in the process.  We are immaterial, noncorporeal entities abiding in material, corporeal forms for but a time; if we only focus on what is material, we neglect the immaterial, which is way more than half of what truly matters for us.  (Again, my old post with my early thoughts on this statement can be found here.)

SH 11.2.38, 39

What is immortal does not share what is mortal, but the mortal shares the immortal.

A mortal body does not come into an immortal one, but an immortal body can arrive in a mortal one.

The eleventh Stobaean Fragment (SH) contains, sandwiched between a very brief introduction and a conclusion that reminds Tat (and the reader) towards secrecy of not teaching the unlearned advanced things of the learned, a list of 48 maxims, which can be somewhat likened to “Hermetic principles” even if their original purpose is as mnemonic reminders of broader discussions.  Amongst these maxims, these two stuck out to me in this topic, since it touches on the dichotomy between immortal souls and mortal bodies.  There is so much amongst all the Hermetic stuff that goes on and on about the immortality of the soul, all at length and in depth and by many different avenues.  There is also, likewise, plenty that touches on the mortality of the body, how the soul interacts with the body (which is especially a focus in the Stobaean Fragments), and how we are truly our souls and not our bodies.  These two maxims, sufficing indeed as kephalaía-type summaries, remind us that it is our bodies that are secondary to who and what we are while our souls are primary, and that it is our bodies that merely house and clothe the soul for its relatively brief stay in this world.  It is the nature of mortal bodies to be born and, from the moment of their birth, grow old and decay, but no such nature is given to the soul, which is immortal and does not suffer such change, and instead comes into bodies, leaves, and then enters into other bodies as it is necessary for it to.

TH 28 (emphasis mine)

He was, upon him be peace, a man of dark complexion, of full stature, bald, of handsome face, thick-bearded, of pleasant lineaments, and perfect arm-span, broad-shouldered, big-boned but of little flesh, with flashing, dark-lined eyes, unhurried in his speech, often silent, his limbs at rest; when he walked, he mostly kept his gaze toward the earth; he thought much; he was serious and stern. He moved his index finger when he talked. His period on the earth was eighty-two years.

There was on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore every day: “Patience combined with faith in God bequeaths victory.” And on the bezel of the seal-ring that he wore at religious feasts was “perfect joy at religious feasts is good works.” And on the bezel of his seal-ring that he wore when he prayed for a dead person, “The time of death is the harvest of hope; death is a watchman never heedless.” And on the belt that he always wore, “Consideration of the next life bequeaths security to body and soul from harmful accidents.” On the belt that he wore to religious feasts, “Keeping religious duties and law is the fulfillment of religion, and the fulfillment of religion is the fulfillment of valor.” On the belt that he wore at the time of prayer for the dead, “Whoever considers his soul is victorious, and his intercession with the Lord is his good works.”

I don’t often bring up texts like this—normally I stick to the classical Hermetic texts themselves—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the post-classical Hermetic fragments, excerpts, and quotes (collectively “Hermetic Fragments”, or FH), and testimonia and descriptions (TH) regarding Hermēs Trismegistos or Hermeticism.  An especially rich source of such stuff is from the Arabic doxological, gnomological, and biographical tradition, and this one in particular comes from the Muẖtār al-ḥikam (“Selection of Wise Sayings”) by Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik, who wrote this around 1049 CE, and which was eventually translated into European languages, such as the Latin Liber philosophorum moralium antiquorum and the Middle English The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers.  This bit focuses more on the biographical side of Hermēs Trismegistos, the first part talking about his life (and, importantly, his death—even the greatest of sages is still mortal!) and his manner of teaching and living, the later parts focusing more on things he taught or which were ascribed to him, but the bits about the sayings engraved on his rings and belt buckles still count as “wise sayings” all the same (and, as Kevin van Bladel says in his The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, “The paragraph dealing with the inscriptions on Hermes’ rings and belt buckles is clearly part of a pre-Islamic genre: records of maxims inscribed on rings of famous individuals are attested in Arabic texts of Iranian origin…This portion is surely an excerpt from a larger collection of wise maxims adapted for the present purpose of describing Hermes”).  Although there aren’t a whole lot of other maxims attributed to Hermēs here along the lines of death and dying, there is this one at least:

Death is like a dart already thrown, and your lifespan is as much as its course toward you.

Classically speaking, there is much of Hermeticism that was inspired by the Greek and Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, at least in terms of its physics, but also its ethics, as well; as time went on, the ethical portion of Stoicism started to take primary place, hence what we know of from Stoic thinkers and philosophers as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  This sort of memento mori is abundant in Stoic writings, and we should also bear in mind that death is not something we can avoid; we must make the best use of what time we have, and that wisely, and welcome death when it does come.

Although not one of the testimonia listed in Litwa or Nock/Festugière, van Bladel in his The Arabic Hermes does also offer this maxim from another Arabic work, the Muntaẖab:

[Hermēs] said: there are two kinds of death: voluntary death and natural death.  Whoever makes is [appetitive] soul die the voluntary death will have a natural death that is for him life.

This sort of maxim is also attributed to Socrates in other works, and definitely has Greek origins.  This one specifically is also useful to remember and to tie into the lessons we can learn from e.g. CH I.19: “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”.  By tempering, restraining, and giving up the body and its appetites to their own death, recognizing them for what they are and not indulging them any further than is strictly necessary for the soul to do what it has to do in its time down here, then when the death of the body comes, it is no real death at all.  To me, this is very much along the same lines as Eckhart Tolle’s saying “the secret to life is to die before you die”, but also including the death of the body so that the soul doesn’t die with it.

TH 33

When he was nearing the final end of his life, a company of disciples rose and stood around him.

“Thus far, my children,” he said, “I, expelled from my fatherland, have lived as a sojourner and an exile. Now, safe and secure, I seek my fatherland again. When, after a little while, I am fully released from my bodily chains and depart, see to it that you do not bewail me as if I were dead. I return to that best and blessed city in which all its citizens know not death or corruption, a city governed by the One, the Unique, the supreme God. As long as all people desire to obey the supremely just rule of God, they are united by the fullness of God’s inestimable and inviolable goodness, and filled with God’s wondrous sweetness.

“I confess to you, my children, that that life is the true life. In it, all effects of changeability are banished, while its citizens cling inseparably to the eternal Good and enjoy true blessedness. For the life which many consider to be the only one is rather called ‘death’, nor is there one single mortal life, but many–as many, I would say, as there are hindrances to the virtues of the highest God, as many as there are clouds of ignorance, as many as there are failures to fulfill sacred vows, and all the other errors in which our mortal condition is entangled.

“So dry your tears, my children! For this dissolution, in which occurs the unloading of the burden of corruptibility, brings with it no calamitous end for me, but to me offers a glorious return! There is no reason to mourn me when you devote me to the glory of true life. Thus far I have gasped as one about to receive the prize of true immortality, which the divine steadfastness of my soul, providence, sobriety, justice, and the unimpaired worship of God has earned for me.

“You yourselves will follow your father and find him in the fatherland–and surely you will not fail to know me in my transformed state. This is because each person, when the darkness of unknowing is dispersed, will recognize all his fellow citizens by that single immense light of goodness which is God–more truly than I am able to tell. I tell you, you will follow me if you most wholly venerate the virtues of which justice is chief. By this virtue, I earnestly exhort you: despise the multitude of diversions and distractions of this world and its life that is to be called death, and worship instead with supplication the One who constructed the entire mechanism of the world’s body and  who shut up souls in these earthly prisons.”

When his disciples continued to stand around him pouring out tears instead of joy, Hermēs said: “Silence—for I know not what wondrously sweet music echoes in my ears, whose immensely pleasing melody I confess that I have never more fully attended to. It is much different than the reverberations in musical instruments by which we enjoy the symphony that procures and preserves good habits. I cannot, for lack of experience, describe that which the swiftness of the wondrous firmament produces by the mixing of high and low notes, with the seven celestial spheres veering in a contrary direction.”

Up to this point the words trailed from Hermēs’ moving lips and a glow of superlative brightness beamed from his face. Then Hermēs spoke no more, and his soul flew away from his corpse.

What Litwa has labeled as TH 33 in his Hermetica II is an extract from Book of Alcidus on the Immortality of the Soul, a Christian work from the late 12th century CE.  This is largely a beautiful monologue Hermēs gives to his disciples on his deathbead, which I think ties in nicely with the bit from TH 28 above, just from a different perspective.  I admit that the above is not exactly the translation of Litwa; it’s largely based on Litwa’s translation (and thus the original text), to be sure, though I have made some edits to remove some too-stringently monotheist language to make it a little more generalizeable.  While many of the earlier excerpts, especially from the , focused on how there is no true thing as “death” as such and how life is constantly being lived in all ways at all times in the cosmos, there are other texts, too, that stress the immortality of the soul, which is arguably far more of a thing discussed amply throughout various Hermetic texts—and I think this excerpt from the Book of Alcidus does an amazing job at pointing out the fundamental message here.  Our very lives “down here” are nothing but a sojourn and exile from our true home “up there”, and in the physical death of the body that releases our immortal souls (which is our true essence, who and what we “really” are) from its fleshy vessel, we finally embark on our return home.

De Castigatione Animae

(IV, 3) The raft on which you are borne upon this great sea [of earthly life] is made of water frozen to ice, and it is only by chance that it serves to bear you.  Soon the sun will rise and shine on it and melt the ice, and it will turn into water again, and you will be left sitting on water. But you certainly will not be able to remain in that position; you must therefore look for something to bear you up, and there is nothing that will serve that purpose except ability to swim and to direct your course aright until you shall have reached [firm ground].

(IV, 5—6) A man is not showing contempt for the house he lives in if, while omitting to fit it out and adorn it, he nevertheless goes on living in it without reluctance; he shows utter contempt for it only when he is eager to quit it, and is ready and willing to go out of it and live elsewhere.  And even so, a man does not show contempt for the physical world if, while putting away from him thepleasures and desires which belong to it, he nevertheless stays on in it without reluctance; he shows true contempt for it only when he eagerly longs to depart from it, and to be at rest from it, and from its hostility, contrariety, discord, and darkness.  You ought to fix firmly in your mind a longing and eagerness for physical death, and guard against being troubled at the prospect of it; for by fear of death is wrought destruction, and by desire for it, salvation.  Surely you know this, that by physical death you will migrate to another abode where you will dwell, not [as now] in poverty, but at ease; not in want, but fully satisfied; not in fear, but without fear; not toiling, but at rest; not in pain, but in pleasure; not in sickness, but in health; not in darkness, but in light.  Do not therefore grieve overmuch at being stripped of the garments of evil and of delusive appearance, and clothed in garments of that which is good and everlasting; grieve not at getting sure knowledge of those things, and, in virtue of your own simplicity and unity, seeing them face to face.

(IV, 12) To die with firmness is glorious; to die in fear and cowardice is shameful.  Dying is but for a moment, and is quickly ended; but base endurance of captivity is a lasting condition.  Be not unwilling then to undergo death, and thereby to quit the physical world; but suffer not yourself to be reduced to captivity, for that death is everlasting life, and this captivity is everlasting death.

(VIII, 4) First of all, assure yourself that physical death is nothing else than a departure of the soul from the body.

This text is originally an Arabic one, and was translated into Latin as Hermetis Trismegisti de castigatione animae libellus, or “The Little Book of Hermēs Trismegistos on the Castigation of the Soul” (henceforth CA for short); Walter Scott includes a translation of the entire thing into English from the Latin in volume 4 of his Hermetica, but I haven’t found another translation of it anywhere else.  It’s a somewhat long text, and is less than a single treatise and more of an anthology of maxims and brief meditations on a handful of themes, a collection of about 90 more-or-less passages broken out into 14 chapters.  The original text, although attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, was more of a product of an Arabic Platonist, and if not an Islamic one than one heavily influenced by Islam.  Much of the text is fairly repetitive, harping on the same themes over and over, and the above bits tie into those same fundamental themes: focus on the soul, shun the body.  However, given the focus of the above sections in how we should live with respect to death, CA shows that death is truly nothing to worry about; heck, even dying itself is nothing too great, especially compared to the pain and tribulation of living badly.  In living well, we have nothing to fear; in living poorly, we have everything to fear.  Chapter IV, sections 5—6 is a rather strongly-worded section, I feel, and I want to specify that I don’t actively encourage people to indulge in thanatic urges or suicidal ideation; rather, we should read this section in the context of remembering that the body is not all we are, not by a longshot, and in giving up the body to its proper death, we relieve our souls of a burden rather than having anything ripped away from us.

The Reed-Pen of Hermēs

Lately, I’ve been going through one of those times where I’ve been reviewing the old stuff I’ve written, drawn, doodled, and talked about.  It’s part and parcel of that “quiet cycle” I periodically go through, so it’s nothing new, and God and gods know that I’ve got plenty of loose ends or dead ends lying around that could use repurposing or reinspection.  In the course of making my rounds through my files and old posts here and elsewhere, I came across this little thing I made in Illustrator one day when I was playing around with symbols:

I made it last summer when trying to come up with an icon, glyph, or general symbol for my own brand and interpretation of classical Hermeticism, grounded as it is in the classical Hermetic corpora and the various magical and mystic practices of late Ptolemaic and early Roman Imperial Hellenistic Egypt.  I shared it on Twitter at the time, and it sparked some neat discussions (and some rather spooky reactions) from people, and I sorta left it at that.  Since I haven’t really been doing much new stuff as of late, this little glyph was made and shelved for another time.  As I’m reviewing some of my older stuff, though, I figured I may as well dust this off and share it on my website for others to consider, and to more publicly flesh out some of the elements and symbolism of this thing.

The construction of this glyph (we’ll talk about a name for it later) is simple: using a downwards-pointing equilateral triangle as a “stencil” of sorts, draw out horizontal lines across it at its base, at one-third of the way down, and at two-thirds of the way down, with a vertical line bisecting them all from the base to the point.  Draw a circle tangent to and centered on the base with a radius equal to one third of the base, and draw a point at the circle’s center.  Add a few serifs to the horizontal and vertical lines if desired for decorative purposes, and with that, the glyph is constructed.

I’m sure many of my readers can pick out a few graphical similarities or borrowings from other symbols, but what I had in mind when I was constructing this glyph was the following:

  • Ankh
    • The quintessential Egyptian hieroglyph to represent life, especially eternal or immortal life
    • Also associated with mirrors and floral bouquets, given that they were spelled with the same consonants in Egyptian
    • Preserved in Coptic Christianity as the crux ansata, reminiscent of the tau-rho (staurogram) abbreviation for the word σταυρός “cross”
    • Also reminiscent of the modern planetary glyph for Venus, also a planet of life and fertility and one I associate with the element of Water
  • Djed pillar
    • The sacred tree of life, crafting, and creation
    • Together with the ankh, the scepter of Ptah
    • The spine of Osiris, a pillar-like symbol representing stability
      • Used as an amulet for the dead to ensure their reanimation, resurrection, and immortality
    • Form derived here via the Phoenician samekh, origin for and similar to the archaic form of the Greek letter ksi (Ξ)
      • I associate this letter (using its stoicheia) with the element of Water
      • If this is broken down further into its constituent sounds, this yields kappa + sigma + iōta, which I stoicheically associate respectively with Leo, Aquarius, and the Sun, the two zodiac signs here being the domicile and detriment of the Sun
  • Circle of the Monad
    • Also the Egyptian hieroglyph and the modern planetary glyph for the Sun
    • Also reminiscent of an ever-watchful, ever-waking Eye of God
  • Seven points at the ends of the horizontal and vertical lines:
    • The seven planets (Moon and Sun, Saturn and Jupiter, Venus and Mars, Mercury) and their according energies/blessings/tormentors
    • The seven lesser mercies of God from CH XIII (knowledge, joy, self-control, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth)
  • Three horizontal bars:
    • The three worlds/gods (God, Cosmos, Humanity)
    • The three titles of God (the Good, the Maker, the Father)
    • The thrice-greatness of Hermēs (priest, king, philosopher)
    • The three Hermetic arts (astrology, alchemy, theurgy)
    • The three students of Hermēs (Tat, Asklēpios, Ammōn)
    • The three generations of teachers (Poimandrēs, Hermēs, Hermēs’ students)
    • The three origins of Poimandrēs (Thōth as the mind of Rē, Pharaoh Amenemhet III, Agathos Daimōn/Šai)
    • The three levels of celestial objects (decans, zodiac signs, planets)
    • The three kinds of stars (fixed, luminary wandering, non-luminary wandering)
    • The three arranging principles of existence (Providence, Necessity, Fate)
    • The three greater mercies of God from CH XIII (Life, Light, the Good)

The use of a downwards-pointing triangle to construct the lengths of the horizontal bars was intentional.  For one, the use of a triangle gives this a slight hint of the presence of the ten-pointed Tetractys (albeit pointing downwards), but when I was constructing the glyph, I tried this originally with three equal-length bars.  Frankly, that looked boring and overly stable to the point of stagnant; using bars whose lengths decrease from top to bottom in the shape of a triangle gives the glyph a greater feeling of dynamism.  Additionally, the ratios of the lengths of the horizontal bars lead the eye downward to its bottommost point, but due to the presence of the dotted circle at the top, there’s a particular tension; as others have noted in the original Twitter thread where I shared the glyph, the dotted circle at the top holds the gaze stronger though the eye wants to look downward.  This tension, as some have noted, gives a sort of “as above so below” feel, but also gives people a somewhat disconcerting, wyrd, or even unsettling feel; one person even said that the glyph seems to “want things”, which I found fascinating.

I also tried a variant of the glyph with the central dot removed from the top circle, too, just to see how some of the people engaged in this conversation would also react to that.  While some found it less “confrontational”, they registered the open, empty circle as more of a portal than an eye, and also with more venerial than solar symbolism, which seemed to clash with the overall vibe of the glyph.  I decided to just keep the dot in the eye. Besides, the dot in the circle really does makes the top read more clearly as the Sun, which is nice for the Hermetic  vibes I’m going for regarding Nous/One/Monad vibes.Someone else, in another part of the conversation, noted how the three horizontal bars with the vertical line connecting them was reminiscent of the Bahá’í Ringstone symbol, where the three bars represent (from top to bottom) the world of God, the Manifestations of God and the world of revelation, and the world of humanity, with the vertical line connecting them being the holy spirit of God descending from its own world to that of humanity through the Manifestations.  This wasn’t my intent, but it is something neat to note in the similarity of structure and symbolism.

Anyway, getting back to the glyph I created, I really am fond of this symbol.  It’s no replacement for my own personal glyph (which I use as an icon for pretty much every account on every platform I’m on, and is even seen as the logo of my website), but I do like using (or at least thinking about) this glyph as a representation of my own brand of classical Hermeticism (or, to be more strict with the term, Hermetism).  Even though the glyph is largely a kind of cross, the term “Hermetic Cross” is unfortunately already a somewhat confusing term.  For most people, I would think this term is used to refer to the Rose Cross of the Golden Dawn.

However, at other times, the phrase is also used to refer to the so-called “Cross of Hermes”, which…well, my first thought about this symbol is that this it was originally a printer’s mark used during the English Renaissance in alchemical or occult texts—and it turns out that there are many such variants of this that were indeed used as printer’s marks for various printers!  Despite the claims that this is a combination of symbols to represent a fourfold nature of creation with the maxim “as above so below”, when I went to consult my alchemical symbol dictionary, I also was able to break it down into one of the alchemical symbols for borax (the 4 with the cross on the right-hand bar) atop the alchemical symbol for alembic/distillation flask/still (the upright and inverted V symbols overlapping), which was also one of the symbols also used for glass (and I note specifically that borax was and is used in the making of glass).  Though the printer’s mark theory is far more believable, it can’t be denied that Hermeticism and alchemy were especially close in Europe for centuries, so it’s little surprise that people might have mistaken printers’ marks for alchemical symbols or otherwise conflated the two.  Besides, as the link above to Fameorshame Press’s website says, the use of the glyph for 4 in the four-and-orb style of printer marks was often thought of as being associated with Hermēs being the god of scribes, tradesmen, merchants, and travelers, so there is some connection there, however faint.

Either way, I didn’t want to use the term “Hermetic cross” to refer to this glyph I made to represent my own brand of classical Hermeticism, and I wanted to stay away from anything involving calling it a “tree” or “pillar” (both of which are reasonable terms given the djed-symbolism of it, but which have also been taken over by Golden Dawn and modern Western European qabbalistic stuff as well in this case.  Calling it a “Hermetic staff” or a “staff of Hermēs” would be somewhat conflicting with the notion of the kērukeion/caduceus, the winged-and-serpented herald’s staff of Hermēs in Hellenic imagery, though it is true that the overall shape of this glyph can also be considered a highly stylized, simplified image of the same thing.  But, perhaps taking a clue from Alan Moore’s Promethea comic series, considering how the protagonist used her very pen and art of poetry to transform it into a caduceus and herself into the eponymous heroine, perhaps I could call this symbol the “Pen of Hermēs” or “Reed-Pen of Hermēs”, which recalls more of the reed-pen of Thōth than the herald-staff of the son of Zeus Maia, and perhaps rings more closely to the Hermēs Trismegistos of the classical Hermetic tradition.  Alternatively, still keeping to this idea and also reinforcing the grander symbolism behind this, perhaps a grander name for this symbol could be the “Reed-Scepter of Hermēs” (much how the ankh, djed, was, or other types of scepters were used by the Egyptian gods in their iconography).  If I were to use another language for this, we might use the Greek term for reeds (and thus reed-pens) κάλαμος kalámos, or perhaps even the Coptic word ⲕⲁϣ kaš.

All of these terms, regardless of the language, would work well to my mind as a term for this symbol, but consider what the name implies for the symbol itself.  If we were to think of this symbol as a pen, then we have the ink flowing down from the top dotted circle (God) down through the words of the various teachers (Poimandres to Hermēs to his students) and down through the various levels of creation (from the sphere of the Father through the sphere of the Cosmos through the sphere of Humanity) down to a single point—which, if we consider the seven ends of the straight lines as the seven planets, that bottommost point is given to the planet Mercury as the balance and fulcrum of all the rest.  The ink would be Wisdom itself, flowing through the channel that links Mercury to the great spiritual Sun, held and guided by the hands of the various teachers from one generation to the next.  Not a bad way to consider the overall structure of the symbol, I suppose.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to use this glyph as a mere decorative thing.  Just as the Crucifix is a symbol to refer to Christianity while also being a potent mystical and meditative symbol that contains within it many mysteries for the Christian to dwell on, I keep thinking of that tension that holds the gaze up at the dotted circle at the top even though the gaze wants to be drawn downwards.  Holding the gaze at that dotted circle long enough, I get the same sense of the horizontal lines being an encouragement to lift up one’s gaze, in the same way that one holds a weight for a long duration, gravity and fatigue trying to get us to put the weight down but our own determination and will continuing to lift the weight up; the horizontal bars become less of a ladder that leads one down, and more arms that are held up in supplication towards the One above.  In thinking about this, I can’t help but think of the fiery sermon of book VII of the Corpus Hermeticum (emphasis in bold mine):

The vice of ignorance floods the whole earth and utterly destroys the soul shut up in the body, preventing it from anchoring in the havens of deliverance. Surely you will not sink in this great flood? Those of you who can will take the ebb and gain the haven of deliverance and anchor there. Then, seek a guide to take you by the hand and lead you to the portals of knowledge. There shines the light cleansed of darkness. There no one is drunk. All are sober and gaze with the heart toward one who wishes to be seen, who is neither heard nor spoken of, who is seen not with the eyes but with mind and heart.

In that struggle of keeping the gaze fixed above while it wants to be drawn downwards, is that not a good metaphor itself for our struggle as a whole?  To free ourselves from being fully trapped down here in this world of matter, caught up in the cycles of rebirth and reincarnation due to our errors of desire, fighting to free ourselves?  To resist the easy down-draw of drive and desire, of thumos and epithumia, and struggling to set our soul on its proper course upwards?  To constantly look upwards and inwards, not with the mere eyes of the body that can only see things perceptible but with the eyes of the mind and heart to see that which is intelligible?  The upwards-downwards tension in this glyph is emblematic of the very difficulty we walk on the Way of Hermēs, I think.  Perhaps, in learning how to resolve that tension fruitfully (and upwardly) through this glyph, we can learn how to resolve that parallel tension in our own lives—to tie this to the imagery of the Pen, we learn how to properly hold it with the proper balance and posture and flow, so that we can learn how to properly Write.  Write what, you might ask?  The wisdom of Hermēs, which is the wisdom of God, the “wisdom for the making known of the All” (as CH III.1 would have it), writing this in our own hearts and minds until we become filled with that same ink of wisdom to spread to others, connecting us back to the very Source of that same ink.

Next time I start digging around and playing around with Illustrator or Inkscape, I’ll probably pretty up the glyph a bit and see about turning into a higher-quality picture, and perhaps giving it a few meditative or contemplative tries here and there to see where it might take me.  As a few people noted in that Twitter conversation, it’s quite possible that this symbol wasn’t merely my own creation, but something needing to be made through me; it wouldn’t be the first time, to be sure, and perhaps there are even deeper mysteries lying in this thing than what I could pick out in that list of symbolisms above.  Perhaps others might give it a whirl, too, and let me know where they might end up.