On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part III)

Now for the third part of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  This is where things get fun, but also super difficult given the challenges the language of CH III poses to translation, so let’s get right into it, shall we?

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before (with our fancy numbered lists for the sake of more easily seeing the structure here in this section):

Each god sent forth through their own power
that which was assigned to them.
Thus came to be [the] beasts—
[the] four-footed, [the] crawling, [the] water-dwelling, and [the] winged—
and every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
[having] the seed of rebirth within themselves.

They then cast the seeds for the generations of humans for [that they might have]:

  1. knowledge of [the] works of [the] Divine, and
  2. testimony of [the] workings of Nature.

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans [for that they might have]:

  1. management of all things under Heaven, and
  2. recognition of that which is Good

So as to:

  1. grow in growth, and
  2. multiply in multitude.

And, through the course of [the] encycling gods,
[they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have]:

  1. observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven,
  2. [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
  3. [observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
  4. [observance] of [the] working of Nature

for [that they might have]:

  1. examination of that which is Good, and
  2. knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power

[for the gods made them so as] to:

  1. come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
  2. discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκατος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη.  τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν † ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν † τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὐπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν έπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων † τερασπορίας † εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε † σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν † εἰς γνῶςιν θείας δυνάμεως † μοίρης ὀχλουμένης † γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.

(Did you guys know that I hate typing up polytonic Greek?  Because I sure do now!  One more section to go after this, I suppose.)

The first section of CH III opened up with a few gnomic aphorisms regarding God, and the second section introduced the creation of the cosmos and how it is arranged.  This section now continues the cosmology by introducing zoogony and anthropogony, the creation of animal life and human life, respectively.  Once the creation of the order of the cosmos has been established, with the subtle elements above and the gross elements below and the heavens arranged into seven spheres, life itself is created, first animal life and then vegetative life.  This was done by “each god [sending] forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”: the astral gods (and maybe also the elemental gods, if you follow Scott’s reasoning) bring forth into existence through their own powers of potentiality (δυνάμεως) life itself.  This section could be read such that animal life was created first and vegetative life second, or whether they were made simultaneously.

In either case, knowing that CH III is similar to the creation account of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis from the Septuagint, there is a difference here: CH III just says that the gods made them all (four-footed beasts that walk, crawling beasts that slither around, beasts that swim in the water, and winged beasts that fly) without distinction as to who made what.  Genesis says that Water produced the creeping, flying, and swimming animals and Earth the walking animals that dwell on land; CH I says that the Air produced flying animals, Water swimming animals, and Earth the four-footed and crawling animals (Fire being reserved for holy and immortal entities that aren’t animal).  Here, it’s only said more simply that the four kinds of animals were just made by the gods.

Then comes the creation of vegetative life: “every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower”.  CH I doesn’t bring up vegetative life at all, but Genesis does.  However, as Dodd points out, Genesis brings up the creation of vegetative life much earlier in its account of creation before the heavenly components of the cosmos; CH III, taking a more Stoic approach, puts the creation of vegetative life much later after the creation of heavenly entities and along with animal life.  Straightforward enough, I suppose.  It’s also noted that all these things—whether of vegetative life specifically or both vegetative and animal life, and I’m inclined to think the latter is meant here—contain “the seed of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς).  Genesis does make the claim that it is the plants alone “bearing seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds”, but given the placement here between the creation of animals and vegetation, it may well be that CH III implied that both animals and vegetation are capable of reproducing by virtue of their being reproduced.

Then there’s the word ἐσπερμολόγουν, which is…challenging, and much ink has been spilled over the meaning and purpose of this word.  I translate it as “cast seeds”, though a better and more literal meaning (so far as we know) is more like “pick up seeds”, based on σπερμολόγος, literally “seed-taking”, generally referring to birds, but which also has a metaphorical meaning of “someone who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge”; this leads to the word σπερμολογία meaning “gossip” or “babbling”.  As I mentioned in the notes to my translation, the form of this word is weird; it could be considered a neuter singular active present participle, in which case it could well modify σπέρμα, which it’s not too far from, yielding a translation like “[having] the seeding(?) seeds of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν), though I take the approach of Dodd in that it refers rather to the gods themselves “[casting] seeds for the generations of humans” (ἐσπερμολόγουν τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων).  Again, the form and meaning of this word is unclear, and it’s caused no small amount of trouble for translators of this section.  Although Dodd and Copenhaver translate this as “the gods sowed”, with Salaman giving a similar “the gods sent forth”, I like “the gods cast seeds”, a pun on λόγος with the spoken word being inherently magical (again, an Egyptian implication, though this is perhaps me reading this into the text where no such implication exists).

So, the gods “sent forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”, and created all the beasts and all the vegetation of the world, all of which would be self-reproducing, and then “cast the seeds” for humanity.  But, as we noted in our translation, it looks like there’s three different kinds of creation going on here.  Copenhaver and Salaman simply give two lists of things that the gods created humanity for.  Using Salaman as a base for this:

  1. The generations of humanity
    1. To know the works of God
    2. To be active witnesses of Nature
    3. To multiply (Copenhaver: increase the number of mankind)
    4. To rule over all under Heaven
    5. To know what is Good
    6. To increase by increasing
    7. To multiply by multiplying
  2. The human souls in flesh
    1. To survey Heaven, the paths of the heavenly gods, the works of God, and the workings of Nature
    2. To know the signs of what is Good
    3. To know the power of God (Copenhaver: to know divine power)
    4. To know the turning fate of Good and Evil (Copenhaver: to know the whirling changes of fair and foul)
    5. To discover all the marvelous works of the Good (Copenhaver: every means of working skillfully with things that are Good)

This is what I thought was most beautiful about CH III back when I first started discussing it, specific goals and reasons and purposes that the gods made humanity.  However, on a closer inspection of the grammar, I don’t agree with this twofold division, and instead go with a threefold division, divided up into things the gods made us to do and also for what purpose, as given in my translation above.  I figured this out independently of Dodd, who in his commentary on CH III discerns a similar pattern here, though we seem to disagree on particulars.  Dodd summarizes this section of CH III as giving a high-level view of the reasons for what humanity was made: to know God in Nature, to multiply and rule over the Earth, and to become civilized through the study of astronomy, theology, ethics, and the arts.  Dodd also brings up similarities with Sirach 17:1—8 and Wisdom 7:17—19, and how the peculiar phrasings of this section resemble much in Genesis.

What I end up with in my own translation and analysis of the text is that:

  1. In general, the gods made the generations of humanity to:
    1. Know the works of the Divine
    2. Witness the workings of Nature
  2. So that they might grow in growth and multiply in multitude, the gods made great numbers of humans to:
    1. Manage all things under Heaven
    2. Recognize that which is Good
  3. In order to examine that which is Good and to know the turbulent lots of divine Power, so that they might know the difference between that which is Good and that which is not, and to discover the arts of everything that is Good, the gods (through their own heavenly courses) made every human soul in flesh to:
    1. Observe the sign-seeding acts of Heaven
    2. Observe the course of the heavenly gods
    3. Observe the works of the Divine
    4. Observe the working of Nature

Humans in general are to know the works of the Divine (ἔργων θείων) and witness the workings of Nature (φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν); remember how there’s that initial dichotomy between the Divine and divine Nature way back in the first section of CH III, and how God is both.  Thus, fundamentally, humans are made to know God, being the form of life that has Mind and which can have Wisdom (“for the showing-forth of all things”) so as to know all things.  And this whole section of CH III describes what among all things, specifically, is to be known and how, to be sure, but in general, humans are to come to know God by means of that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

The gods also made “great numbers of humans” (πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων, which Copenhaver and Salaman translate similarly as “to increase the number of mankind” which I personally find to not follow from the grammar here) fundamentally to “grow by growth and multiply in multitude”.  This sort of injunction is phrased in a rather unusual, especially Hebraic sense, and is also found in CH I.18 (Copenhaver translation):

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

The use of αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, especially that latter phrase, echoes the use of πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων at the start of this series of injunctions, encouraging humans not just to be a great number but to ensure the greatness of its number by continuing to be a great number through increasing and multiplying.  This is facilitated by the two injunctions here given, the first being to tend to the Earth (literally “all under Heaven”) by taking mastery, rulership, and stewardship over it (δεσποτείαν).  The word δεσποτεία literally refers to “the power of a master” (think of the word “despot”), which in the sense of Genesis means for humans to have dominion over the world, and also echoed in Wisdom 9:2.  CH I also gives mastery to humans by having authority in CH I.13, but Dodd notes that this is before humanity’s incarnation while humanity is still within “the craftsman’s sphere”, and not coupled with an injunction to increase and multiply until afterwards in CH I.18.

The second injunction given in this section is to recognize that which is Good.  Simple enough, I suppose (in the sense that doing so is at all simple), but I should note that it’s here that we start encountering the Good (ἀγαθῶν) frequently, and I tend to take this in a more Platonic sense than others seem to do, as it’s not otherwise explained in CH III.  Other translators use it in a more common, common-sense meaning of just things that are lowercase-g good, useful, or beneficial, but “the Good” is a concept otherwise discussed quite a bit in the rest of Hermetic literature as something that pertains to God, and which does not properly exist down here in the world of matter.  Again, this has the benefit of tying into this notion of humanity coming to know God.  Notions of the Good in the Corpus Hermeticum are inherently and intensely intertwined with God (not even the gods in general, but specifically just God as in CH II.16 and CH VI.2) and divinization (cf. CH I.26, “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).  And, again, recall the connection that CH XI.2—3 gives between the Good and Wisdom that Mind describes to Hermēs (Copenhaver’s translation):

“God makes eternity; eternity makes the cosmos; the cosmos makes time; time makes becoming. The essence (so to speak) of god is [the good, the beautiful, happiness,] wisdom; the essence of eternity is identity; of the cosmos, order; of time, change; of becoming, life and death. But the energy of god is mind and soul; the energy of eternity is permanence and immortality; of the cosmos, recurrence and counterrecurrence; of time, increase and decrease; of becoming, quality (and quantity). Eternity, therefore, is in god, the cosmos in eternity, time in the cosmos, and becoming in time. And while eternity has stood still in god’s presence, the cosmos moves in eternity, time passes in the cosmos, but becoming comes to be in time.”

“The source of all things is god; eternity is their essence; the cosmos is their matter. Eternity is the power of god, and the cosmos is eternity’s work, but the cosmos has never come into being; it comes to be forever from eternity. Therefore, nothing in the cosmos will ever be corrupted (for eternity is incorruptible), nor will it pass away since eternity encloses the cosmos.”

“But the wisdom of god—what is it?”

The good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity. Eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter.”

That which is Good is inherently bound with Wisdom, and Wisdom is what enables us to know all things because it shows forth all things that exist, both that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

Then we have the final set of injunctions, which is the most complicated to discuss.  At this point, CH III has already discussed how the gods “cast the seeds” for the generations of humanity, and then how they made “great numbers” of humanity.  These are all fairly physical, but now we step into a more spiritual context: “through the course of [the] encycling gods, they created every soul in flesh”.  Now we’re talking about a spiritual dimension of humanity that we haven’t yet encountered.  While CH III does not explain the nature of the soul, it does say that it exists, and in distinction to the other forms of life that don’t have a soul; all things might have Spirit, since Spirit is instrumental to the order and functioning of the cosmos, but not necessarily Mind or Soul.  Dodd brings this up in a peculiar way:

Now Poimandres agrees that the mortal part of man came form the διοικηταὶ, the astral gods, and Philo found in Genesis a hint that it was the work of the divine δὺναμεις, and not of God Himself.  But both Genesis and Poimandres teach that man in his higher aspect is the image of God.  This sublime doctrine is the climax of the biblical cosmology, and the determining motive of the Poimandres.  The Sacred Discourse knows nothing of it.  Nevertheless, the author follows the LXX as closely, from his point of view, as the author of the Poimandres does from his, and clearly independently.

We know from other doctrines related to the soul in Hermetic literature that all other things have soul, it’s true, but not all have the same types of soul; some Hermetic texts suggest that reincarnation between different forms of life is a possibility, others argue that it’s impossible for a human soul to be incarnated in anything but a human body.  That humans have souls is not questioned by CH III, but whether this is made in the image of God is left unspecified.

These human souls are thus put into flesh (σάρξ here, though σῶμα “body” is used in CH I) to do four things, all based on observation: to observe (κατοπτείαν) the “sign-seeding” (τερασπορίας, “sowing of portents”, another complicated word that gives translators trouble) things (acts, as I interpret it) of Heaven, the course of the heavenly gods, the works of the Divine, and the working of Nature.  Again we have this distinction between “works of the Divine” and “working(s) of Nature”), but there’s something interesting about this list of injunctions: it’s a set of four, while everything else is a set of two things.  This might just be me, but I sense a parallel going on in this set of four: the “sign-seeding” acts of Heaven are the works of the Divine, and the courses of the heavenly gods are the workings of Nature.  In other words, the second two injunctions are just a clarification on the first two.  In this light, we might rephrase this section as:

…through the course of [the] encycling gods, [they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have] observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven and [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods, [which are the observance] of [the] works of the Divine and [observance] of [the] working of Nature…

After all, we already know that the generations of humanity were seeded to have knowledge of the works of the Divine and bear witness to the workings of Nature, so this seems like a way to reemphasize that in more concrete terms through the observance of what goes on above the Earth.  Dodd, in a slightly different take based on similarities here with Psalms 7:4, associates “man’s contemplation of God’s works in the heavens with his rule over His works below”.

So humanity is made by the gods as ensouled flesh, or rather incarnate souls, to observe what happens in Heaven.  We are enjoined to do this so that we might examine that which is Good (again, using my Platonic sense of the word) and to know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” (θείας δυνάμεως μοίρης ὀχλουμένης).  This latter phrase is a tricky one, and again the unclear Greek doesn’t help us, but there’s a notion of crowds, mobs, turbulence, turmoil, and trouble bound up with the fates and lots that come from “divine Power”.  We encountered “divine Power” in the previous section on cosmology, referring to the infinite potential associated with the primordial chaos before the ordering of creation; while this could just be a general phrase to be used (Dodd compares it to Psalms 62:3 and 76:15), I get a notion of things that are still as yet potential which have not yet come to pass being “turbulent” or “troublesome”, perhaps because of their unknown and unformed nature held in the unknown and unformed future.  Are these, too, Good?  It’s unclear, but perhaps that’s because they’re supposed to be.  In this vein of logic, were Scott to carry it further, he might argue that this is an implied argument against the use of astrology and divination to know the future, but perhaps it’s in that very act of discerning that we come to know more about them.

But we’re not done yet here: we’re made incarnate souls and ensouled flesh to observe what happens in Heaven so that we come to examine the Good and know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” specifically for an even grander purpose.  First, we must come to know that which is ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, which is a phrase I translate as “that which is Good and that which is insignificant”.  It would make more sense to translate this as “Good and Evil”, but CH III doesn’t treat theodicy or evil or things that are bad, and φαύλων doesn’t really have those connotations as such.  Rather, the word φαύλων usually indicates things that are more cheap, easy, slight, trivial, paltry, petty, mean, or common; in other words, the things that are insignificant, indifferent, or otherwise unrelated to that which is Good.  CH III doesn’t treat these things as evil, per se (although other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum would certainly say that anything that is not Good is therefore evil, and only God is Good, thus all things that are not God are evil even if they participate in the Good or have a share of it), but rather as things that just don’t matter to our quest in searching for the Good.  It is certainly possible, of course, that the author of CH III did suggest something along the lines of evil; Dodd points out that the language here borrows from that of Genesis 2:17 and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which caused the Fall of Man.  But that notion is rejected by Hermetic literature: in CH I, such knowledge is the remedy for our fall, and in CH III, it seems that we are destined for it from the get-go.

With such knowledge of that which is Good and that which is not, it’s then incumbent on us humans—as ensouled flesh and as incarnate soul—to then “discover the arts of everything that is Good”.  Salaman translates this as “discover all the marvelous works of good men”, Copenhaver as “discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good”, Scott as “invent all manner of cunning arts”, and Dodd “discover the craft of all arts”; lots of variation here, I suppose, but in keeping with the theme of the Good here, I think we need to focus on the relationship between arts (δαιδαλουργίαν, which I translated generically as “arts” but literally meaning “skillful workings”) and the Good.  That there’s a relationship is implied given the grammatical structure of this last part of this section of  CH III, and I interpret that relationship to be that once we come to learn about the Good and how that which is Good differs from that which is not (φαύλων), we can then discard the things that are not Good so as to focus on the Good.  In so doing, we come to expand on the Good, make use of it, implement it, and propagate it; to me, these are the arts of the Good, which bring us closer to God through Wisdom.  As for what these arts are, CH III does not specify, but we can make a good guess: astrology, alchemy, theurgy, medicine, writing, theology, ethics, philosophy, religion, and the like.  All these are things that help us investigate the divinity of the Divine and the nature of Nature; all these are the studies and practices of Wisdom; all of these things reveal to us the goodness and beauty and joy of creation; all of these things bring us closer to God.

Thus the third section of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the fourth and last section, which talks about where humans go from here now that we’re here.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part II)

Let’s continue where we left off last time, where we began our little exegesis (such as it is) with the first section of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), a set of three aphorisms about God and God’s relationship with reality.  This time, we’ll focus on the second section of CH III, which focuses on the creation and function of the cosmos.  Remember that the first section of CH III, according to Nock and Festugière, also included a section about cosmogony, but I decided to move that down to the second section which discusses it more thoroughly.

Our translation of the second section of CH III from before:

Lo: in [the] Abyss there was boundless darkness and water,
and delicate, intelligent Spirit,
existing by divine Power in Chaos.
Then, under [the] sand, out of [the] moist essence,
holy Light arose and [the] elements solidified,
so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature.

While all was indefinite and unformed,
[all] that which was light was separated off to [the] heights
and [all] that which was heavy was grounded upon [the] moist sand,
the whole of them all separated and hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit.

And the heavens were seen in seven circles,
[the] gods being seen in the forms of [the] stars with their constellations,
perfectly filled each with their own gods.
The periphery was wrapped all around by Air
and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ῆν γὰρ σκότος ἄπειρον ἐν ἀβύσσῳ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πνεῦμα λεπτὸν νοερόν, δυνάμει θείᾳ ὄντα ἐν χάει.  άνείθη δὴ φῶς ἅγιον καὶ ἐπάγη † ὑφ’ ἅμμῳ † ἐξ ὑδρᾶς ουσίας στοιχεῖα καὶ θεοὶ πάντεσ † καταδιερῶσι † φύσεςσ ἐνσπόρου.

ἀδιορίστων δὲ ὄντων ἁπάντων καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστων, ἀποδιωρίσθη τὰ ἐλαφρὰ εἰς ὕψος καὶ τὰ βαρέα ἐθεμελιώθη ἐφ’ γρᾷ ἅμμῳ, πυρὶ τῶν λων διορισθέντων καὶ ἀνακρεμασθέντων πνεύματι ὀχεῖσθαι.

και ὤφθη ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐν κύκλοις ἑπτά, καὶ θεοὶ [ταῖς] ἐν ἄστρων ἰδέαις ὀπτανόμενοι, σὺν τοπις αὐτῶν σημείοισ ἅπασι, καὶ διηρθρώθη … σὺν τοῖς ἐν αὐτῇ θεοῖς, καὶ περιειλίγη τὸ περικύκλιον ἀέρι, κυκλίῳ δρομήματι πνεύματι θείῳ ὀχούμενον.

Note that, at this point, Nock and Festugière start using obelisks (†) to denote unclear or peculiar phrases.  The first section of CH III didn’t have any, but now we start getting into the parts where things get harder to interpret.  I’ve kept those in where Nock and Festugière included them, but I already tried to deal with what’s going on with those particular phrases back in the translation of the text.

The cosmogony of CH III takes place in the form of an impersonal narrative:

  1. Originally there was only boundless darkness and water, which had with (or within) it “delicate, intelligent Spirit”, all existing as chaos in the Abyss.
  2. From out of the chaos of water and earth arose a “holy Light”, and as it arose, so too did the elements.
  3. The light elements (Fire and Air) rose up to the heights and the heavy elements (Water and Earth) stayed down below.
  4. Fire, rising to the top, as the active and hot principle, was the major actor of this separation of the elements, with Spirit sustaining this arrangement.
  5. With the elements separated and solidified from chaos, and with the arrangement of the elements in place, the seven heavens arose.
  6. With the seven heavens came about the stars and constellations.
  7. The whole of the cosmos was then encompassed by Air, and moved around in a circular course by Spirit.

It’s clear that this arrangement of the cosmogony (continued in CH III) follows the same arrangement both in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis:

Dodd explains the similarities between the creation account of CH I and CH III, and how they relate to that of Genesis:

The stages are not so clearly marked in the Sacred Discourse as in Genesis and Poimandres, but they obviously follow the same general plan.  Both Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse omit the beginning of vegetable life at a stage before the appearance of the heavenly bodies, clearly as being “unscientific”.  The Sacred Discourse brings all sub-human life into the same stage, while it separates man from the animals, like the other two.  So far, therefore, the three accounts go closely together.  In one point Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse agree against Genesis, in one point Poimandres and Genesis agree against the Sacred Discourse, but neither of these points is of great significance.

Notably, God doesn’t make an appearance at all in this section, but there are things that are divine here: “divine Power” in the first paragraph (by which all the things exist in chaos) and “divine Spirit” in the last paragraph (by which creation is turned in a circular motion).  That these things are divine shouldn’t surprise us too much, but “Power” (δύναμις) should be clarified first.  In the classical sense, δύναμις is contrasted with ἐνέργεια, where the former (power) represents potentiality, while the latter (energy) represents activity.  In this philosophical understanding of the difference between potentiality and actuality, the primordial dark chaos exists as the seed of all things that can exist; perhaps “chaos exists” is a bit too strong, but “preexists” might be better in this case.  “Power” is encountered elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum in the sense of the various powers of Heaven, sure, but we haven’t gotten to that stage of creation yet where there’s anything distinctly made, so in this case, “divine Potential” is a better understanding of what we see here in CH III.2.

Then there’s “divine Spirit”, which is earlier described in this section as also being both “intelligent” (νοερός) and “delicate” (λεπτός).  “Intelligent” here isn’t too surprising, though another way to translate this is “intellectual”, related to the word for Mind (νοῦς), and is thus the highest faculty in humanity that allows us to know; Scott takes this further and says that Spirit is thus “living, conscious, and intelligent”.  Again, however, at this point in CH III, we don’t have humanity yet, but Spirit is still present even in the potentiality of everything as something that allows for it to be known; mind precedes body, in this case.  But there’s also “delicate” here which others translate as “fine”, but as we noted in our translation, λεπτός has notions of being peeled, husked, fine, small, thin, fragile, meager, weak, or subtle (and I think “subtle” is another perfect word to use here).  That Spirit should be pre-present in chaos is perhaps unusual, but it also suggests, along with all this existing by “divine Power”, that God who is also the beginning of Mind and things that are of Mind is already aware and able to know himself even at this early stage, though perhaps “able” is all that can be done without there being anything distinct that can be said to exist.  Given this description of “delicate Spirit”, one might say that this is more of a passive entity than active entity, but we see later on in this section that Spirit plays quite an active role indeed in sustaining and maintaining the order of the cosmos once it has been ordered.  I suppose, then, that at this point in creation, everything really is in just a potential state, a seed ready to burst given the right stimulus and impetus to do so, and that Spirit is as much a part of the cosmos as everything else is, though remains distinct from it at all points after creation.  For chaos to exist “by divine Power” indicates that this, too, is something created and sustained by God, otherwise it would not exist.  Of course, Scott points out also that “Spirit” in this case could well be the same as that of the Stoics, a fine gaseous mixture of Fire and Air, the two subtle elements as opposed to the two gross elements of Water and Earth, yet this is also written in such a way as to recall the “spirit of God hovering over the waters” from Genesis 1:1.  It seems that Spirit in this case is indeed an active component of the primordial chaos, but it is not yet activated at this point.

This is also where we encounter a distinction between the creation account of CH I and CH III, at least according to Scott and Dodd.  They claim that the creation account of CH I begins with Light and that darkness and chaos emerge second, making God transcendent of creation, but here, we start with darkness and only encounter Light later, making God immanent within creation and not transcendent.  But note how we already know that God is the start of all the things that are, and that chaos itself exists by things that are Divine (Power).  At this point, we then proceed to the “holy Light” in the first paragraph that arose from the chaos, but the use of the word ἅγιος (“holy”) is…kinda weird, really.  That word doesn’t really start to become common or popular until after the advent of Abrahamic texts written in Greek, like the Septuagint; normally, things would be called ἱερός (“sacred, hallowed”) or θεῖος (“divine”).  Sure, it was certainly in use before such an influence and was used at times to refer to things devoted to the gods in temples and the like, but it seems to have revolved more around the notion of matters or phenomena of religious awe, both good and bad.  Sure, the final prayer from CH I is filled with the use of ἅγιος, but as Copenhaver notes, the use of this word in a pagan prayer (especially in a tripled format) can be traced to the Septuagint and other Abrahamic texts, and the texts in the Corpus Hermeticum otherwise rarely use it.  Notably, CH I.4—5 is also where we find the use of ἅγιος in the sense of λόγος ἅγιος, the “holy Word” that descended upon the dark chaos to spur the formal separation and arrangement of creation (Copenhaver translation):

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

But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

In the next section, Poimandrēs explains to Hermēs what the vision meant:

“I am the light you saw, Mind, your God,” he said, “who existed before the watery nature that appeared out of darkness.  The lightgiving Word who comes from Mind is the Son of God.” … “This is what you must know: that in you which sees and hears is the Word of the Lord, but your Mind is God the Father; they are not divided from one another, for their union is life.”

There’s this Hermetic notion that the first Light is also the first Word, that this primordial Light as it interacts with the primordial dark chaos in this sense is “holy”, and that it is the fundamental impetus of arrangement and ordering upon the cosmos.  However, Dodd points out that Light is not identified explicitly in CH III with divinity as it is in CH I; in this, “the Sacred Discourse is to that extent closer to Genesis“, as opposed to the preexisting light in CH I which is explicitly linked.  After all, in CH III, light simply “emerged” (άνείθη) from the chaos, which does make Light seem like a…well, emergent property of creation rather than something that comes from outside it.  Sola scriptura, CH III really doesn’t say anything about the transcendence of Light here or that it comes from any other source besides creation itself.  Weirder still is that Light doesn’t play any further role in CH III—no salvific or noetic associations are given to it, and it doesn’t get mentioned again; it just arises from the chaos and, as it does so, sparks the creation of the cosmos.  Surely, it too arise “by divine Power”, but consider that where there is Light, there cannot be Darkness.  Light arising from the Darkness would mean that something in the darkness would have had to spark together, mix, and combine in order to form something new, but the whole point of this primordial chaos is that nothing is formed yet, and everything is already mixed together in an unformed way.  In this light (heh), Light could not have existed as part of the primordial chaos, but had to have been “injected”, as it were, by God into the chaos in a way that the rest of what existed was not.  Alternatively, the Light could be self-engendered, but in a context where there’s already stuff, that seems to be rather unusual, indeed.

To continue along this image a bit, we have this notion that the “holy Light emerged” from the chaos, yes, but specifically “under the sand, out of moist essence”.  Nock and Festugière ignore “under the sand” here seeing it as a reference to something later on in CH III, but in this image, we have this notion of water (rather, “moist essence”, as Dodd points out as a correction to earlier “water”) and sand mixed together as being the base of this dark chaos, in a way reminiscent of what we saw in CH I.4, “something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire”.  As noted before, this notion of Light arising from this mixture of sand and moisture is similar to the Ancient Egyptian (specifically Heliopolitan) creation myth of the Benben stone, the first mound of dry land that emerged from the primordial waters of Nun, with Atum sitting atop it having created himself, and from himself the rest of the gods and creation.  This is specifically linked to CH III by the use of the word “sand” (ἄμμος) here, otherwise “earth” would have suited just fine—unless, perhaps, the place where the author of CH III was so sandy as to make the two words interchangeable in his dialect (totally reasonable, too!).  In either case, there’s this Egyptian presence here in the text, which thus hints that the Light is truly self-engendered or self-begotten, not as a result of the primordial chaos but as its own…well, holy phenomenon (ἅγιος as opposed to ἱερός or θεῖος).  As it comes into being, it then shines its light into the darkness, allowing things to take form.  We might understand this metaphorically in that sight and vision necessitates an order to be seen and viewed.

Personally, while I don’t see an issue with Light here being a presence of divinity being self-generated, it does leave open the question of God’s relationship with creation.  Dodd and Scott see the phrasing here as an indication of a fundamentally different creation myth than that of CH I, given that in CH I the dark chaos existed only after light permitted it, from which it sent a holy Word of Light onto it.  But if the darkness existed within the light in CH I, why wouldn’t the presence of the abounding ambient light alone shift it?  An action had to be taken, and we perceive this creation account from outside creation in the light-filled realm of God in CH I.  In CH III, however, we start from within creation, not taking the perspective of God.  It could reasonably be thought that the “holy Light” arising from the wet sand in CH III is the same action as the “holy Word” descending onto the dark chaos from the transcendence of light, just from a different perspective: think of how a three-dimensional sphere intersects with a two-dimensional plane from the perspective of a two-dimensional entity on that plane, first appearing as a circle ex nihilo that then increases as the sphere intersects more deeply with the plane.  It’s the interpretation I favor instead of a self-generated presence of holiness within creation, but sola scriptura, that remains to be seen whether that’s the view of the original author.

Once the Light arose, then the elements solidified and took their form from the chaos; thus, from the chaotic mix of everything unformed comes Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.  The light elements of Fire and Air went upwards and the heavy elements of Water and Earth remained below (“grounded upon the moist sand”, cf. CH I.5 “Earth and Water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that Earth could not be distinguished from Water”).  Perhaps the four elements aren’t what’s strictly intended here in the sense of “that which was light was separated off to the heights and that which was heavy was grounded upon the moist sand”, although each makes their appearance in turn in CH III, but it does make sense to interpret it this way.  All the same, all this came about, not just chaotically or randomly, but for a purpose: “so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature”.  It’s at this point that we’re not dealing with God, but specifically gods plural.  That there should be other gods is not utterly surprising; despite the focus on a singular God in much of Hermetic literature, the existence of other gods (sometimes “powers”, sometimes “angels” especially under Jewish influence, etc.) is not questioned, even if it’s not the focus of Hermetic literature.  Dodd notes along these lines:

The frank polytheism is out of harmony with the spirit of Gen. i; but we may recall that Jewish thinkers found in it a place for secondary creators, and further that the “gods” of philosophical paganism were not very different from the angelic orders of some forms of Jewish thought.  Now, in the Secrets of Enoch the creation of the angelic orders is interpolated in to the story of creation derived from Genesis…if Scott is right in his restoration of the text of the Sacred Discourse at this point…the parallel with the Secrets of Enoch is close.  Orthodox Judaism was careful to avoid the use of the term “gods” for these beings, but after all the Old Testament spoke of them as אלוהים or בני-אלוהים, and although the LXX often replaced these terms by ἄγγελοι, we do not know that all Greek-speaking Jews were so scrupulous.  To a Jew of the periphery, or to a philosophic pagan approaching Judaism from the outside, the distinction between θεοί and ἄγγελοι might well seem no more than a difference of terminology upon which it would be pedantic to insist.

The ancestral gods here correspond to the διοικηταί of the Poimandres, and both tractates refer to the seven circles of heaven.…

The word διοικηταί (sing. διοικητής) means “administrator” or “governor”, and can also be translated as “controller”, especially of the fates and influences the planets themselves exert.  So the planets are gods, no problem there for us, but there seem to be other gods, as well: “the gods being seen in the forms of the stars with their constellations, perfectly filled each with their own forms”.  The wandering stars are gods, but the gods also include the stellar deities, too, of the fixed stars themselves.  We might reasonably understand this to be the signs of the Zodiac, but given the Egyptian presence here, the decans themselves might also be considered. Scott goes on to note that “gods” here also includes the elements themselves, especially as πνεύματι is called θείῳ at the end of this section, and recall that Scott interprets “Spirit” as being the Stoic subtle mixture of Fire and Air; “it itself is a god, as are the other three elements; and it is God’s instrument, by means of which the life he gives is conveyed into all terrestrial creatures”.

In either case, we have (at least) these astral gods as well.  It’s unclear from the text whether they preexisted creation and simply took on forms within creation after creation arose, or whether they arose with the rest of creation as it arose; they exist at least as part of Nature.  And it for the gods to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”, meaning that the gods that exist as part of or participating in Nature control what happens within it.  God does not seem to make a direct presence within Nature nor does he appear to actively create within Nature, a notion that isn’t out of place in several Hermetic texts; as in the Jewish account Dodd recalls, God is the first creator who relies on secondary creators.  The purpose of these gods (to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”) seems intertwined with Nature itself, and Nature had to come to be in order for their purposes to be fulfilled.  It’s also not clear from CH III, whether in this section or the rest, whether these gods are to receive devotion or cult, but merely by the use of the term “gods” here suggests that they should be reckoned and treated as such, favoring a polytheistic worldview with a central, immanent (yet also distant, even transcendental) God as pantokrator that underlies all creation.

The rest of this section is fairly par for the course of classical cosmology, including the Stoic notion of the heavens being set into revolution.  There is, however, the somewhat confusing notion brought up at the end of the section: “the periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”.  Copenhaver translates this as “the periphery rotated [in] the air”, though Salaman has “encompassed by air”.  This could be interpreted, in light of the earlier parts of this section, as the periphery being the utmost fiery heavens (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit”), that Air is what fills up the whole of the cosmos up to its boundaries, though it could also be thought of as the cosmos itself being literally wrapped around on the outside by air in some sort of otherwise-void.  This latter view seems unpopular (outside of creation, after all, how could the elements exist?), but the wording here isn’t that clear.

Given the similarity of the ends of these latter two paragraphs in this section (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit” and “periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”), it seems that it’s all talking about the same overall structure of the cosmos, all kept in order by Spirit., which seems distinct from both Fire and Air (against Scott taking a strictly Stoic approach to this term).  It’s interesting to note how the activity of Spirit is so important here; it really is that which connects and drives everything, like the pulse in our veins, as the very breath of the cosmos itself.  After all, without the spirit in your own blood, your body dies, collapses, and dissolves into its constituent parts, but as long as you maintain your spirit, your body keeps its form and its motion.  That Spirit should preexist in chaos before the elements and creation of forms in the cosmos is interesting to note, suggesting that it’s something fundamental but distinct from matter itself but still part of Nature.

The cosmogony here seems to have several stages:

  1. Preexisting primordial dark chaos
  2. Unformed and confused elements
  3. Ordered heavens

The shift between 1 and 2 is started when the “holy Light arose”, which triggered the solidification of the elements, and the shift between 2 and 3 is started when the elements themselves separated into the subtle/light and the gross/heavy.  Fire, being the most subtle of the elements, “hung up” the heavens (recall the notion of God the Great Mind from PGM V.459ff, who “established the sea and suspended the heavens”, though there a word is used meaning “to pin up” rather than “to hang up”).  Air, as in CH I, follows the ascent of Fire but only to an extent, not leaping up as high as Fire but which fills in the gap between Fire above and Earth and Water below.  Unlike in CH I or in Genesis, CH III does not mention a separation of Earth and Water; “moist sand” is left together undifferentiated, though if an Egyptian creation account is implied here, then we might also take the separation of Earth from Water to be a given with the arising of Light a la Benben.  Between the utmost fiery periphery of the cosmos and the lower base of base elements, Air fills the cosmos, and is separated into seven zones for the planets, with the stars in constellations appearing above them in the fiery heaven; note that CH III does not preclude higher realms, such as one for the stars themselves apart from the periphery, but they might not be termed “heavens” at that point.  Spirit, existing from the beginning, is what maintains this order and causes it to both remain aloft and rotated.

Thus the cosmogony and non-biological cosmology of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the zoogony and anthropogony of CH III in the next section, and with it, the various things for us humans to take care of.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part I)

Continuing with our talk about Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”, we already talked about my original translation of the text plus a bit of contextualization.  With those done, I suppose it’s time to move onto actually digesting and interpreting the text itself, launching into an exegesis of this.

As for where to begin, I suppose the beginning itself is as appropriate as any.  The opening section (we’ll use my own arrangement of the text, which puts the final paragraph of the first section as the first paragraph of the second) of CH III begins with three aphorisms about God and the divine:

[The] glory of all things is the God,
[who is both] [the] Divine and divine Nature.

[The] beginning of that which exists is the God,
[who is thus of] Mind, Nature, and Matter,
being Wisdom for [the] making known of the All.

[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine,
[which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, Purpose, and Renewal.

In the original Greek, according to Nock/Festugière:

δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία.

ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν.

ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις.

The first aphorism is “Δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία”.  This has been translated several ways:

  • Literal: Glory of all things is God and the Divine and the divine Nature.
  • Everard: The glory of all things, God and that which is Divine, and the Divine Nature…
  • Chambers: Glory of all things, the God and Divinity and Nature Divine.
  • Mead: The Glory of all things is God, Godhead and Godly Nature.
  • Nock/Festugière as well as Dodd: Glory of all things is God and the Divine, and Nature is divine.
  • Copenhaver: God is the glory of all things, as are also the divine and the divine nature.
  • Salaman: God is the glory of all things, the divine being and the divine nature.

My own translation falls more in line with Copenhaver and Salaman, interpreting the καὶ…καὶ construction as a “both…and” with implied copula.  In this view, we have the notion that God is both that which is divine (θεῖον) as well as nature (φύσις) which itself is divine (θεία).  The first line of CH III sets up this dichotomy between that which is Nature and that which is not, but that everything that is is still God.  This immediately recalls the notion from Stoic physics of corporeal things that exist and incorporeal things that only subsist; in this case, we might view Nature as that which exists and everything else that is real but which is immaterial—the “Divine”—to subsist, and God is both of these things.  In the Stoic view, things that are real but which do not exist are things like concepts, time, place, justice, wisdom, and the like.  We’ll turn to this again in a bit, but for now, we already have an understanding that there are material things and immaterial things, and all of it is found within (or as) God.

But what to make of the beginning of this line, “δόξα πάντων”?  The word δόξα is one that many of us would recognize nowadays as “glory” or “splendor”, but this is an influence from Jewish and Christian texts that use this word to translate Semitic concepts.  Originally, δόξα referred to some notion, opinion, judgment, conjecture, or expectation someone might have (thus words like “orthodox” or “heterodox” or “doxology”), or perhaps even an appearance or reputation something might have, coming from the root δοκέω meaning to seem, to be thought, to be reputed, or to appear.  At first, I wasn’t clear about how δόξα got this association with glory—specifically the glory of God—until the good Dr. Edward Butler stepped in to clarify that it’s about “the shining-forth of something…as a valid expression of the truth of that thing, hence ‘splendor'”.  Scott notes that δόξα being used in this concept in Jewish contexts is obvious, but he “can find no meaning in the statement that God is the δόξα of things”, so he emends it.  Dodd notes that “a reader familiar with Hebraic ways of speech would not find any great difficulty about it”, especially because “that which gives significance, beauty, or sublimity to the universe is its divine origin, and so God is its glory”, in addition to the Jewish notion that “‘the glory’ came to be an expression for the revealed presence of the transcendent God as immanent in this world” (thus the shining-forth splendor).  However, given that Scott and Dodd find CH III a text heavy in monism and immanenism without a notion of transcendence, Dodd concludes that “the glory resident in the universe is God, sans phrase” (emphasis his), recalling the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, “the fullness of the whole Earth is His glory”.  In this, God reveals himself through that which is Divine and that which is Nature, because God is that which is Divine and that which is Nature.

I suppose, given the alternate and more philosophical reading of δόξα could lead us to something like “the opinion of all people is that God is both that which is the Divine and that which is divine Nature”.  Given the rest of the Judaicizing elements in CH III, I think interpreting δόξα here as “glory” (perhaps “splendor” is a better word?) is more appropriate than this, but even in this case, we have this notion that God is seen to be the sum of all that is Divine and all that is Nature.  We should also remember that in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius, DH IX.1 states that “every man has a notion of God: for if he is a man, he also knows God”, and that “God is everything and there is nothing outside God, even that which does not exist”; DH IX.6 says that “Wherever man is, also is God; God does not appear to anybody but man”.  Even in the immaterial and unseen things that are Divine but especially in the material and sensible things, God is apparent to all through and in all things—a notion that is discussed heavily and beautifully in Hermēs’ praise of God in CH V.

The second aphorism reads “ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”.  Now that we know that God is the glory of all things that reveals all things, we proceed to how God is the beginning of all things.  Using the same καὶ…καὶ construction as before, we can translate the first part of this aphorism as “[the] beginning” (ἀρχὴ, also perhaps “principle”) “of that which exists is God, [who is thus the that which exists of] Mind, Nature, and Matter”; I favor an emendation that puts Mind, Nature, and Matter in the genitive, but even if we weren’t, we could still translate this as “[who is] Mind, Nature, and Matter”.  Following the usual Hellenistic philosophical or Mosaic accounts of creation, it makes sense that we would see God as the beginning (or founding principle) of all the things that exist, but note how we have three types of things that exist: Mind, Nature, and Matter.  Interestingly, we have a notion that Matter (ὕλη) is distinct from Nature (φύσις), which throws our earlier assumption that Nature is put into distinction with the Divine as an echo of the Stoic notion of material things that exist versus the immaterial things that subsist.  We don’t yet know enough about the role Matter plays in Nature at this point, but perhaps one way we could think about this is that Matter are the things that exist within the cosmos, and Nature is the functioning of the cosmos itself; in other words, created/creature versus creation.  Scott also notes how CH III saying that God is the beginning of Matter is a distinctly non-Platonic concept, since Platonism holds that Matter has no beginning and is independent of God; to say otherwise is to then say that God made things ex nihilo.

Both of these, further, are distinguished from Mind/Nous (νοῦς).  Scott suggests that Nature in this case is the force that acts on Matter, that “the external world consists of [Matter] and [Nature] in combination”, and that Mind “is here the human mind, in contrast to the external world”.  We know that Mind is a famous concept in Hermetic literature, where God is either identical with Mind or the source of Mind depending on which specific text of the Corpus Hermeticum you read, but Mind is a concept that doesn’t get a lot of explanation or presence in CH III.  What we do have here, though, is that Mind is not Nature nor is it Matter; Mind is thus immaterial and does not exist in Nature, falling outside it.  Thus, Mind is then something that is Divine.

The second part of the second aphorism, “…σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”, is a little tricky to decipher, but basically it says that God is also “Wisdom for the showing-forth of everything” (or “of all the things that are”).  Although the Jews never identified God with Wisdom, the two have certainly been affiliated with each other; Dodd lists Proverbs 8:22, Wisdom 9:9, Sirach 1, and Sirach 24:3—6 as examples that illustrate points similar to this.  Thus, “if for the Jew, Wisdom = ἀρχὴ and for the Stoic, God = ἀρχὴ, then in a Judaeo-Stoic scheme God is Wisdom”.  Fair enough, I suppose, but then what is Wisdom?  CH XI says that “the wisdom of God” is “the good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity”, and that “eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter” (note that connection with matter at the end!), and also that “the essence (so to speak) of God is wisdom”.  Perhaps an interesting thing to note is that “wisdom” as a concept is not all that common in the Corpus Hermeticum, but one place we see it come into play is the famous end to CH I, when Hermēs begins preaching to the world for their salvation (Copenhaver translation, emphasis in bold mine):

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

Wisdom is connected to the notion of revealing and revelation, thus σοφία is δεῖξις, the “mode of proof” or “display” or “showing forth”.  In thinking about this, I thought I could spot some sort of etymological connection between δεῖξις and δόξα (that whole “d_ks_” bit)—after all, if Wisdom is that which shows forth, and if Glory is that which is apparent, why not use a related word?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there is an actual etymological connection between the two; δόξα comes from δοκέω (to expect, think, suppose, imagine) and δεῖξις from δείκνυμι (to show, point out, display, make known, explain, teach) have two similar but different Proto-Indo-European roots (*deḱ- “to take, perceive” versus *deyḱ- “to point out”).  Still, perhaps a subtle pun or sly rhyme is being made here based on the similarity of the words.  Perhaps such a potential wordplay between Wisdom and Glory here could mean something like this: God is that which is made known, Wisdom is that which makes known, and God is Wisdom, so that which is made known is that which makes known, and that which makes known is that which is known.  In this light, perhaps we can link Wisdom to Mind, Nature, and Matter: we might say that Mind is that which knows, Nature is the process or arena by which Wisdom makes all things known, and Matter is the substance or object that Wisdom makes known—but because God makes known what is known and is made known by what makes known, we could just as easily swap Nature and Matter here.  In this, using Mind, we come to know more about Matter through Nature, and likewise about Nature through Matter, all by means of Mind.  God is the principle of this all; as Dodd puts it, God is the causa cognoscendi as well as the causa essendi of all things, being a God of revelation as well as of creation.

Then there’s the last aphorism of this first section:  “ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις”.  Once again using that same καὶ…καὶ construction as before and using the same wording as the second aphorism, this is something we translated as “[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine, [which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, End, and Renewal”.  I originally had “Purpose” here to render τέλος, as in a teleological sense to indicate the final ends for something being made, but it really is generally rendered more commonly as “end, fulfillment, completion, consummation”.  Dodd interprets along with ἀρχὴ to be a statement that God is the beginning and end of creation (cf. Revelation 22:13).  Scott suggests that τέλος being put beside ἀνανέωσις should indicate that τέλος might be better read as τελευτή (“completion, accomplishment, end, extremity”), which gives us a combined notion of “extinction and renewal” that is brought about by Necessity (here ἀνάγκη, but which Scott says is properly a synonym for εἱμαρμένη, “Fate” or “Destiny”, more literally as “that which one has received as one’s portion”) through Working…though working of what?

We do see ἐνέργεια (which we’d read as “energy”, but it’s more of a “being-at-workness” or “activity” rather than our modern sense of some sort of power or force that does something) frequently in this text, always in conjunction with φύσις (though usually with φύσις in the genitive, thus φύσεως ἐνεργουσαι and in distinction to θεῖον as in θείων ἔργων), but here we see Nature and Working separately.  I and Copenhaver and Salaman interpret this more literally as two separate things, but that means that Nature is something that is Divine like the rest of the things, and that seems to be a contradiction.  Scott reinterprets this to say “workings of God”, while Dodd puts both Nature and Working in the genitive case against the other concepts that remain in the nominative (“the Divine is the beginning both of nature and of energy, and is both necessity and end and renewal”).  Sticking to a literal interpretation, I get a notion that the Divine is not just Necessity (= Fate/Destiny) and Ending and Renewal, it is also Nature as well as Nature’s activity.  But this linking of Nature and the Divine then posits Nature as something Divine, when we’ve earlier noted a distinction between the Divine and Nature—but we should remember from the first aphorism that Nature, too, is divine, even when it’s something distinct from the rest of things that are divine.  The cumulative effect of this last aphorism, as Dodd suggests, is that the “divine is not only the origin of nature and its activity; it is also the necessity or fate by which they are directed; and as things take their origin from the divine, so they end in the divine and are brought into being again by it…in harmony with Stoic teaching”.  This largely agrees with Scott’s understanding that “‘necessity’ or ‘destiny’ is brought to bear on things below by the movements of the heavenly bodies…[and that extinction and renewal] are wrought by φύσις, the action of which is determined by the movements of the heavenly bodies; and these movements are themselves determined by God’s will[;] φύσις is thus θεία”.

And, considering what we already said earlier about Wisdom, if Workings of Nature are the means by which Ending and Renewal come to pass according to Fate, and if Nature is something that is to be made known and which makes known, then that means that all these other things—Necessity/Destiny, Ending, and Renewal—are also things that are to be known and which make themselves and other things known as well.  We get to know the activity of all things, how they come to be, how things come to end, and how they come to be again; we get to know what is destined and what is necessitated, and we get to know the will of God.  In this, in all of this, we come to know God, who as Wisdom makes himself known through his creation of all the things that are, because he is the glory of his creation of all the things that are.  All this takes place through which is external to us (Nature, Matter, and the workings of Nature) as well as that which is internal to us (Mind).  All of this proceeds from God as the principle (ἀρχὴ) of all things, and because he is also Wisdom for the showing-forth (δεῖξις) of all things, he is the glory (δόξα) of all things.  In this, God is the Being of Knowing, the Ultimate Being who Knows, and the Being to be Known.

All this from three short, obscure aphorisms; glory be, indeed.  We’ll pick up next time with the second section on cosmogony and cosmology.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Contextualization

I have to admit that the last post I put up, my own translation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), is something I’m personally proud of.  It’s a small thing, but it’s also my first major translation of any actual body of text from Greek into English, and though I’m sure I’ve made some errors (or otherwise interesting choices) in my translation, it’s also a major start for me to really start chewing on a formal Hermetic text above and beyond just reading it.  There’s something different about the actual act of getting into the core language and giving it for a spin yourself.  Of course, the translation being done is just the first part.  In order to really understand what’s written, we also need to see more about it beyond just the words written on the page, and this is where contextualizing comes into play.

CH III is…not an easy text; it’s hard to understand, the Greek is imperfect, there are obvious lacunae and corruption with the text, and it’d seem that every translator who’s talked about it has brought up complications with the text.  Copenhaver directs us to look at Nock/Festugière as well as Scott “for the obscurity of this very corrupt and overwritten treatise”, and Scott calls it “so corrupt as to be wholly meaningless”.  Dodd is somewhat easier on it and says that the “text is somewhat obscure, and certainly corrupt at some points”, although “with a few comparatively slight emendations, can be read and understood for the most part” even if “there remain points at which…we do not know what the author wrote or what he meant”.  Little can be known about the context for CH III in general, but there are a few things that we can figure out.  Between Scott, Dodd, and Nock/Festugière themselves, plenty has already been said, so I’ll just summarize their points along these lines:

  • Given that the final lines of CH III reflect the opening lines in the same language, CH III is almost certainly a complete work unto itself, not an extract of a longer text.
  • The author of CH III was likely familiar with the Septuagint, or at least the Book of Genesis, given the similarity of language and phrasing in the text.  Likewise, the author was familiar with the “Mosaic [Jewish] account of creation“.  However, anything specifically resembling Christian or Gnostic elements are lacking.
  • CH III expresses more Stoic sensibilities and philosophy than Platonic ones above and beyond other Hermetic texts, even those that also have a heavy Stoic presence in them.
  • In addition to the Mosaic and Stoic elements, there is a subtle suggestion that the author of CH III was also familiar with the Egyptian account of creation.
  • The author of CH III did not have a firm grasp of proper, fluent Greek, but what they did have was definitely influenced by idioms and specific turns of phrasing otherwise found in the Septuagint and other Hellenized Jewish literature.
  • As a result, we can say that the author was either an Egyptian pagan or a highly syncretic, unorthodox Jew from Egypt who took no small inspiration from both Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish doctrine.  Dodd says that this author “took pains to [take the account of creation form the Hebrew Scriptures and] re-interpret it in terms of Greek philosophy for a pagan public”, but that may be a bit too strong of a stance to take.
  • CH III is one of the few texts that isn’t presented in dialog or letter format.  Scott calls it “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe”; Nock and Festugière call it “a hymn in prose”.
  • Despite the obvious corruption of the text, the confusing language here can be seen in parallels among other Hermetic texts and fragments, especially the Stobaean Fragments, which suggest that some of the language here goes back to the earliest treatises in the Hermetic tradition.
  • It is likewise one of the few Hermetic texts where Hermēs (or any of his students that might give a mythic link to him) isn’t even mentioned by name.  Except, of course, in the title, but that may well be a later addition to the text rather than an original part of it.
  • No fixed date can be ascribed to when CH III was written, but we know that it had to have been written between the third century bce and the third century ce.  Scott, based on the similarity of CH III with the Sanchuniathon, posits that CH III was written sometime in the first century ce, though Dodd says that “it might well go back to the time before Posidonius, since its Stoicism is uninfluenced by Platonism”, so before the mid-first century bce.  However, there’s as yet no way to state a more specific timeframe than this, so perhaps between 100 bce and 100 ce.

One of the biggest observations to make here, given all the above, is that CH III is perhaps closest to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), i.e. “The Divine Poimandrēs” itself.  Like CH III, CH I also has no direct reference to Hermēs (although later Hermetic texts in the Corpus Hermeticum do refer to Poimandrēs by name), and there are also Jewish and Stoic elements in CH I, though perhaps to a lesser extent than in CH III.  There are also particular choices of word and turns of phrase that are common to both in ways we might not otherwise expect.  It may be that CH III, being the shorter and more complete, was written first and CH I was written with that in mind, or they may both have been written under the same general cultural/philosophical/religious milieu with references to the same (specifically Jewish) text.  However, just as notable as the similarities are the differences: unlike CH I, CH III does not discuss redemption or immortality, but simply discusses a bare-bones creation story and discusses a simple approach to life on Earth, almost in a way that (in the words of Nock) resembles the “extreme darkness” of the “atmosphere of Judaism of the type of [Book of] Ecclesiastes before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important”.  As a result, we can probably safely make the guess that CH III is indeed older than most of the rest of Hermetic literature.  Heck, it may even be properly proto-Hermetic rather than properly Hermetic, given that it does lack certain themes, motifs, and traits we see elsewhere in Hermetic literature, and that it was included with other Hermetic texts based on its affinities (or perhaps originating influence) by later Hermetic students.

And that’s about all that can be said about that, or at least from what I can find regarding the provenance and origin of CH III.  After that, I suppose we should begin taking a look at the rest of the classical Hermetic canon to see parallels or influences on or from CH III, and there are indeed at least a few for us to consider.

Notably, taking a look at the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (DH) can be helpful here.  Of all the sets of aphorisms in DH, the entire second set which discusses cosmogony and cosmology is perhaps most like the first two parts of CH III.  Specifically, DH II.2—4 and II.5 reads (Mahé translation):

Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed up out of soul and Nous. Air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven with earth. What is air? They call ‘air’ the interval between heaven and earth, by which they are not separated from each other, since heavens and earth are united (with each other) by the air.

Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water.  What is the power of the world? To keep up for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.

Water is a fecund essence, the support of earth, as a nutritive essence.

Fire is a sterile essence, the duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal: an infertile substance, in as much (it belongs to) the destructive fire which makes (things) disappear; and the perpetuation of the immortal (beings), since what cannot be consumed by fire is immortal and indestructible, but the mortal can be destroyed by fire.

J.-P. Mahé notes specifically that the reference to “the support of earth” in DH II.4 resembles the first two parts of CH III in the cosmogony, as well as CH I.5, the part of the Divine Poimandrēs that talks about how the Word descended upon the chaos and separated the elements, leaving water and earth behind.  There’s this repeated notion (which is far from limited to Hermetic texts) that the creation of the world started in a chaotic mass that, due to the interference and influence of a holy light, separated out with Fire at the top, Water and Earth at the bottom mixed together, and Air separating (but also joining) the two.

We should also note that the very first lines of CH III, as well as the last, can also be seen reflected or echoed in the Asclepius (AH), specifically AH 3.  Copenhaver translates it as:

The elements by which the whole of matter has been formed, then, are four: fire, water, earth, air.  One matter, one soul, and one God.

But, perhaps more stylistically and clearly, Salaman translates that last statement as:

…The cosmos is one, the soul is one, God is one.

Of course, as noted earlier, CH I.5 brings up the cosmogony of the Divine Poimandrēs in a way highly reminiscent of CH III.2, though with one major important difference.  In CH I, in the beginning there was only Light, it was within the Light that a primordial dark chaos arose, and the divine word that separated out the elements from the primordial mass descends from the light onto the darkness.  In CH III, on the other hand, we start with a primordial dark chaos in the abyss with no reference to preexisting light, and a light arises from the mixture of Water and Earth (“up from under the wet sand”).  This notion of light arising out of wet sand bears strong similarity to the Benben myth of ancient Egypt, the first mound of earth that arose from the primordial and abyssal waters of Nun, resembling the peaks of silt and sand that emerged from the Nile’s recess after its flood.  That’s the one major difference between the two, along with Nock’s and Festugière’s notion that CH III posits a totally immanent deity instead of a transcendent one, and as I discussed earlier on:

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

Beyond that, the rest of CH III’s cosmogony and cosmology, though sparse and high-level, is still solidly within the usual Hermetic notion: four elements with Fire at the top and Earth plus Water at the bottom with Air standing in between joining the two, seven heavens for the seven wandering stars, constellations above them for the fixed stars, and the like.

More along the lines of the third part of CH III that discusses the creation of life and of humanity, and especially the works and purposes of humanity, DH IX.7 reads:

Humans work the land, (and) stars adorn heaven.  The gods have heaven; humans, heaven, earth, and sea; but the air is common to gods and humans.

This statement, too, touches on what Hermēs discusses in AH 8, which has the major points of:

  • The intelligible God, the “master and shaper of all things”, made a second god, sensible in the sense of being able to be seen and sensed.  (In other words, Theos made Cosmos, or alternatively, Nous made Logos.) The sensible God is beautiful to the intelligible God, and is full of “the goodness of everything”.
  • To further admire the sensible God, God made humanity (the third god), “imitator of his reason and attentiveness” and in the divine likeness of himself.  However, humanity could not exist as divine image alone, so God made humanity a material wrapping, a body of flesh, and thus made humans as both eternal soul and mortal body.  This was done in such a way so that humans could begin “wondering at heavenly beings and worship them, tending to earthly beings and governing them”.
  • Humans take charge over the four elements and by them commence to engage in works of agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, and especially reciprocal exchange which is “the strongest bond among humans or between humanity and the parts of the world that are water and earth”.  Further, it is the learning, discovery, and use of arts and sciences that “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that God willed that the world would be incomplete without them.

AH 10 continues along similar lines:

  • God is the governor of all things, but especially with Humanity, who is the governor of composite things (i.e. material, manifest things).
  • Humanity is responsible for the whole of creation, which is the “proper concern of his attentiveness”, and strives to adorn the cosmos as the cosmos adorns them so as to know the cosmos so that the cosmos knows them.
  • In so doing, humanity becomes mindful of their role in the cosmos and what is useful for them, how they should act, and the propriety of giving thanks and praise to God in honoring his image (as cosmos, the second god) as well as themselves (as humanity, the third god made in the likeness of the first).

Although we can find bits in other Hermetic texts to echo the first three parts of CH III, it’s that last section of CH III that’s hard to find something concrete about.  Parts of it kinda resemble AH 8 above, especially the various works of mankind, but CH III doesn’t really talk about redemption, salvation, reincarnation, preservation of the the soul through the dissolution of the body that we call “death”, or the like.  Scott continues to say that this last part of CH III, in its absence of discussing anything about these topics, thus suggests the contrary, that “nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his ‘name’ (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while”, disparaging earthly monuments for their impermanence.  I find this too strong a stance to take, personally; just because a text doesn’t bring up something doesn’t mean it rules it out, either.  Per Copenhaver, Fowden interprets this last paragraph as a strong monist worldview to mean that it “envisages man’s whole development and fulfillment in terms of this earthly life”.  CH I.12—13 likewise brings up the notion of humanity being made in God’s image, bestowed with all of God’s works, and engaged in both the works of God and their own works, as well as the works of all the other powers of the cosmos—though, admittedly, this was before his incarnation in Nature, and CH I is more strongly dualist than CH III in this regard.

The final part of CH III does mention the role of fate established by the stars, though Scott notes that “the writer does not ad that men, by observing the stars, can discover beforehand what is destined for them[;] if this were added, the view expressed would amount to a belief in astrology”.  Again, a lack of one opinion does not imply the existence of its opposite, and given CH III’s exhortation for us to contemplate Heaven and the courses of the heavenly gods who are themselves inextricably intertwined with fate and destiny, it makes sense that this reference is easier read as an implicit acknowledgement of the power of astrology, a classic Hermetic stance indeed.  Although the powers of the planets and stars is more commonly termed “fate” in other Hermetic texts, it is also said that Fate is a handmaiden or servant to Necessity, and Necessity is the handmaiden to Providence, which is nothing less than the express will of God.  In that light, whatever Providence establishes to be done, Necessity arranges for it to be done with all its side effects, and Fate implements it through the passage and influence of the stars.  Thus, in this view of the relationship of Necessity to Fate and to God, when CH III mentions that “all that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity”—especially when it also says that such renewal will be done “by the…gods and by the course of the measured wheel of Nature”—it implies that the renewal of all things is expressly the will of God.  Scott has a point here in that “that which decays and passes away is ‘renewed’, but only by substitution[;] the individual perishes, but the race is immortal[;] the dead do not live again, but others are born to proceed them”.  That is certainly one valid way to read this section, but only based on assumptions and the absence of contrary implications, and again is a stance I find too strong to take in reading CH III.

There’s probably more that we can point out as commonalities or stuff to pick out as differences between CH III and the rest of the Hermetic canon, especially when it comes to the broader literature of Roman Republic-period Stoicism or Hellenized Judaism, but this is enough to give us an idea of what we’re looking at when we consider this short, obscure text.  At the end of the day, we just don’t know a lot about the text besides what we can draw from the text itself—and that’s where we’ll be headed next, with actually chewing on the content of the text itself.