Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Monism vs. Monotheism

As I mentioned in the first part of this post series, I was having an awfully difficult time putting all my thoughts together into a blog post about the polytheism inherent to Hermeticism and why it might seem monotheistic when it’s really just monistic.  As it turns out, while this is still a difficult thing to write about at length, I think the bigger issue is that there’s actually a surprising amount of nuance here that requires no little fleshing out and explaining to get through in order to show the points I otherwise make tersely on Reddit, Discord, or Twitter.  Now that I’m starting this third post, I’m wondering if what seems obvious to me might just be because I’m thinking about it to myself, and my short (but obvious, at least to me, I claim!) explanations of it online might have been less helpful than I originally thought.  I guess time will tell!

After explaining the polytheism inherent to the classical Hermetic texts in the first post and explaining how God is not a god but why we call and treat God like a god (sorta) in the second post, I left off by introducing a crucial distinction that often gets overlooked by some that can lead to some rather different approaches to Hermeticism as a whole: monism versus monotheism.  It’s this distinction that lies at the heart of so much of the confusion people end up having over the Hermetic texts and thinking it sounds Abrahamic or Christian in one regard or another, but it’s also one of the reasons why Hermeticism has been adopted and adapted by luminaries like Lodovico Lazzarelli, Marsilio Ficino, and countless others over the centuries into modern occulture via traditions like the Golden Dawn.

Now, for the sake of this post, I’m not going to bother with any sort of classification of individual Hermetic texts in terms of “optimistic monism” (e.g. CH V) vs. “pessimistic dualism” (e.g. CH VI), as might have been common in earlier generations of scholarship regarding how to understand the overall feel or motive of Hermeticism; rather, following more recent academic writers like Garth Fowden, Christian Bull, and Wouter Hanegraaff inter alia, it’s been fairly well-established now that Hermeticism is ultimately a monistic (or, in some ways, a nondualistic) tradition of spirituality.  As Hanegraaff notes in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, “the Hermetic worldview is not dualistic but radically monistic, or rather nondualistic” (p. 168), and further (pp. 209—210):

We are now approaching a crucial point in our analysis. While the history of research has been haunted by the idea of a conflict between dualistic and monistic perspectives in the Hermetic literature, recent scholarship has seen an increasing trend towards non-dualistic readings. An older generation of scholars, from Festugière to Fowden, saw the soul of the Hermetic devotee progressing from a world-affirming “religion of the world” towards a purely spiritual salvation beyond the body and materiality; but contemporary specialists reverse that narrative and see the occasional expression of hostility towards the body as evidence for a merely “pedagogical dualism” limited to an early stage of the Way of Hermes. It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

But what do I mean at all by “monism” (or “nondualism” per Hanegraaff) in the context of Hermeticism?  There are a number of different ways one might understand the term monism, after all, and as Martiana over at her SARTRIX website notes, this can be a rather fraught term or notion when applied to theology or mysticism, to say nothing of the difficulties older kinds of philosophy have had to deal with when engaging with it.  Fundamentally, however, the idea of a “Hermetic monism” is that God (or “the God”, or “the Source”/Pēgē, whatever term you want to use—I’m starting to understand why some use the term “Godhead” instead of just “God”) can be construed in different ways that all revolve around the idea of God’s “one-ness”:

  • that God is the ultimate (and ultimately only) reality/truth
  • that all things have their origin in God
  • that the destined end of all things is henosis, or “union/oneness” in/with/as God, beyond even the distinction of subject and object

When we take a look at a number of Hermetic texts, especially the more mystical ones like CH I or CH XIII, we see an abundance of monist/nondual ideas:

  • CH I.6: “”I am the light you saw, mind, your god…who existed before the watery nature that appeared out of darkness. The lightgiving word who comes from mind is the son of god…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.”
  • CH I.26: “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.”
  • CH IV.10—11: ” The monad, because it is the beginning and root of all things, is in them all as root and beginning. Without a beginning there is nothing, and a beginning comes from nothing except itself if it is the beginning of other things. Because it is a beginning, then, the monad contains every number, is contained by none, and generates every number without being generated by any other number. But everything generated is imperfect and divisible, subject to increase and decrease. None of this happens to what is perfect. And what can be increased takes its increase from the monad, but it is defeated by its own weakness, no longer able to make room for the monad.”
  • CH V.10—11 (but really the entirety of CH V): “This is the god who is greater than any name; this is the god invisible and entirely visible. This god who is evident to the eyes may be seen in the mind. He is bodiless and many-bodied; or, rather, he is all-bodied. There is nothing that he is not, for he also is all that is, and this is why he has all names, because they are of one father, and this is why he has no name, because he is father of them all. Who may praise you, then, acting on your behalf or according to your purpose? And where shall I look to praise you—above, below, within, without? For there is no direction about you nor place nor any other being. All is within you; all comes from you. You give everything and take nothing. For you have it all, and there is nothing that you do not have. When shall I sing a hymn to you? One cannot detect in you time or season. For what shall I sing the hymn – for what you have made or what you have not made, for what you have made visible or what you have kept hidden? And wherefore shall I sing the hymn to you—for being something that is part of me, or has a special property, or is something apart? For you are whatever I am; you are whatever I make; you are whatever I say. You are everything, and there is nothing else; what is not, you are as well. You are all that has come to be; you are what has not come to be; you are the mind who understands, the father who makes his craftwork, the god who acts, and the good who makes all things.”
  • CH XIII.18 (the Secret Hymn): “Truth , hymn the truth. Good, hymn the good. Life and light, praise passes from you and to you. I thank you, father, energy of the powers. I thank you, god, power of my energies; through me your word hymns you; through me, O universe, accept a speech offering, by <my> word.”
  • CH XIV.6: “Thus, if one agrees that there exist two entities, what comes to be and what makes it, they are one in their unification, an antecedent and a consequent. The antecedent is the god who makes; the consequent is what comes to be, whatever it may be.”
  • SH 2A.15—18: “What then is the primal truth, father?” “It is singular and unique, Tat–not made from matter, not embodied, not qualified by color or shape; it is unshifting, unchanging, and ever existing.…As these states change, there is falsity, both with respect to what was before and is at present. Yet understand this, my child: even these false activities depend upon the truth itself from above. This being the case, I say that falsity is a product of truth.”

And on and on.  Even despite the “pedagogical dualism” found in some texts like CH IV or CH VI which is meant more for a process of catharsis/purification as a preparation for palingenesis/rebirth and anabasis/ascent, the end goal is still to attain the very one-ness of God itself, to no longer become but to only simply be, without anything between us and God, even the very notions themselves of “us” and “God”.  In this, we fully realize the fundamental one-ness of all things that exist, the underlying noumenon beyond all eternal and temporal phenomena.  It is in this overarching (one might even say overwhelming) sense that Hermeticism can be said to be “monist” (or, again, as Hanegraaff is fond of rephrasing, beyond even that into truly radical nondualism).

The delightfully awkward and absurd issue, however, is that some people have taken this monism entirely the wrong way, and interpreted the notion of “God as the One Thing” to be “God as the one and only god”.  Despite how I justified in the last post about how the notion of God does not diminish the godhood of the gods, many people inclined to monotheism have misread that notion entirely and instead understood it to mean something more like “if there is God then there cannot be gods”.  Even though the gods are amply treated upon in the classical Hermetic texts, and even though the readers of them are explicitly reminded of and encouraged to their worship, some would instead discount all that and instead focus on God as the only thing worthy of any kind of worship, reverence, or devotion—which is a fundamental error that runs counter to the entire impulse of Hermeticism as a monist form of mysticism, an esotericism of unity within a polytheistic religious framework.  It is this whole misconstruction that basically misreads, mistakes, and misunderstands theological monism for monotheism.

Now, to be fair, for someone already operating within a monotheistic context or who is already just a monotheist, like a Christian or Muslim inclined towards mysticism, reading Hermeticism as monotheistic can indeed make a good bit of sense—even if only for the sake of preserving pagan texts for future generations by giving them a pass or qualified approval.  Making the leap from monism to monotheism isn’t that hard, and that’s how Hermeticism has been adopted by and adapted to Christian, Islamic, or otherwise monotheistic milieux over the centuries.  Even in classical times, patristic Christian authors would sometimes read Hermēs Trismegistos as a sort of “pagan prophet” who would anticipate later Christian developments of theology, and likewise in Islamic moral texts, when Hermēs wasn’t outright identified with the Quranic Idris or Biblical Enoch, he was still seen as a holy man who maintained a doctrine of one God and should be judged as noble for it.  In such a light, despite that we should not see God as a god within a Hermetic (or more broadly Greco-Egyptian) context, the believers of Abrahamic religions likewise did not think of their God as “just” a god, either (although that’s…well, whatever).

In that light, if one were to adapt the polytheistic monism of classical Hermeticism to a monotheist approach, the changes one would need to make would be fairly straightforward:

  • The “God” of the Hermetic texts is still God, and is identified with the God of Christianity, Islam, etc.
  • The other gods referenced in the Hermetic texts are understood as merely non-entity forces but metaphorically described as “gods”, or which are relegated to a lesser status as some sort of angel or power subservient to God (a la the usual Christian angelic hierarchies)
  • The (semi-)divine personages of the characters in the Hermetic texts are relegated from the status of a demigod or hero to that of an inspired, devout, prophetical, or otherwise sagacious human

In other words, the changes one would need to adapt Hermeticism to some monotheist tradition like Christianity or Islam would be much the same as adapting any non-/pre-Christian/Islamic pagan philosophical, spiritual, or occult tradition by making the usual substitutions, identifications, and status modifications—and, of course, suppressing or disparaging anything too pagan, like the ensoulment of entities in statues for the purpose of polytheistic (and thus idolatrous) worship of gods.  Of course, at times, we see some really insightful attempts at a true synthesis of these things, like in Lodovico Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetis from the 15th century, where he just about seamlessly blends Christianity with Hermeticism (and indeed claims at the start that “I am a Christian, but I am not ashamed to be a Hermeticist as well”), identifying Poimandrēs with Christ (and effectively himself with Hermēs), reinterpreting the creation of temple gods from the AH as the human power to create human souls/minds, draws parallels between Old Testament and New Testament proverbs and prophecies with those in the CH and other Hermetic texts, and so forth.  However, it should be strongly emphasized that all of these adaptations and parallels build upon a fundamental misconstruction of monism as monotheism: whereas monism focuses on the ontological origin of everything as being the One, monotheism makes the theological belief towards an exclusionary perspective (that there is not just “the God as the source of divinity” but that “the God is the only God, who alone is divinity and thus who alone is the only thing that is divine”).

I should note, at this point, that although some scholars (like C. H. Dodd in his 1935 The Bible and the Greeks) tend to overstate the influence of the Greek Septuagint or early Christian literature on the development and writing of the Hermetic texts, it is very much a fact that they were all produced at roughly the same time, in roughly the same area, under roughly the same cultures.  As a result, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to see commonalities or parallels between the cosmogony accounts of CH I or CH III with the Book of Genesis, or particular religious teachings in line with things that Jesus was said to have taught or Philo of Alexandria was to have written on.  Although I would be conservative in my estimates about the extent and direction of specific influences at play, preferring instead to think that all these various religious and spiritual traditions were equally influenced by a background eastern Mediterranean Hellenistic religious culture and spiritual sentiments, others throughout the centuries have suggested (often with as much evidence as there isn’t, if not just making baseless assumptions) that there was actual influence and pressure from one side to another.  As a result, some like to see the Hermetic texts being nothing more than a pious Christian forgery (like Isaac Casaubon) or otherwise a welcoming gateway to lure pagans into Christianity; others, especially of a more theosophical or otherwise New Age streak (indebted, of course, to Marsilio Ficino’s doctrine of prisca theologia) rather see that it was really Hermēs Trismegistos who came first as some primordial teacher who laid the foundations (and thus actual teachings and wordings) of the holy texts of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and other traditions ad nauseam.

Because of the parallels and similarities even in text and wording, on top of how easily theological monism might be construed as monotheism, in addition to the complicated historical processes that preserved (albeit with some corruption and redaction) the Hermetic texts into our modern age, it turns out to be really easy to conflate the theology and spirituality of the classical Hermetic texts with monotheistic religions.  For some who are amenable to that, that’s actually a neat thing, and fundamentally not a whole lot changes in terms of the teleological aims and purposes of the whole shebang.  Even though I myself am a polytheist (hard not to be as an orisha priest on top of everything else I get up to), when it comes to Hermeticism, I’d rather people get involved in this monist mysticism one way or another in whatever way is most sensible and amenable to them, and whether they take a monist monotheist approach or a monist polytheist approach, so long as we both agree on the philosophical Goodness of God and that our ultimate aim is henosis with God, then I won’t complain too much in the end.  However, adapting Hermeticism to monotheism is just that: an adaptation.  Conflating monism with monotheism, although some people might mistakenly consider this an “evolution” or some sort of “progress”, rather makes one to miss out on the original context and polytheistic piety inherent and explicit in the texts as they are.

Now, on this point, there is one last thing I want to mention.  Even though the classical Hermetic texts come from a polytheistic culture, I’ve noted above that the people who preserved these texts have not always been, and even in the best of times it can be easy to conflate or construe monism with monotheism.  We see evidence of that, too, at times in the classical Hermetic texts, like in the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, specifically definition 8.3.  I’ve talked about this definition once upon a time, and one of my colleagues on Twitter has also done a thread-based discussion of each of the Definitions including DH 8.3, but in its own words:

Those who worship idols (worship plain) pictures. For if they worshipped with knowledge, they would not have gone astray, but since they do not know how they should worship, they have gone astray, (far) from piety.  Man has the faculty of killing, God of giving life.

At a surface level, one might read something like DH 8.3 and conclude that this is an anti-idolatry statement, and thus Hermēs is against the worship of the gods plural (because, as is so often the case in monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, paganism and polytheism are synonymous with idolatry).  However, if we bear in mind the proper ways to worship and revere God that are elsewhere described in the Hermetic texts (pure speech offerings, thanks through gnōsis, abstaining from material offerings, etc.), we come to a more nuanced conclusion that God is not to be worshipped as an idol or through corporeal means like with representations or material sacrifices; after all, per SH 1, “it is impossible to signify with a body what has no body…it is grievous for the eternal to have fellowship with the ephemeral”.  When we take a broader look, DH 6.1 references the gods (“just as the gods are God’s possession…”), as does DH 8.6 (“man has as much power as the gods”), DH 9.1 (“man and the gods and all things exist by God…the gods exist because of God”), and DH 9.7 (“the gods have heaven…the air is common to gods and humans”).  Given all this, DH is a polytheistic text because it admits the existence of gods in the plural and even describes them to a small extent, but it doesn’t talk about the proper way to worship them—and, for that matter, neither do most of the other Hermetic texts that talk about the gods, because (again!) the spiritual focus in the Hermetic texts is not on the gods but on God.

Having said all that, I think I finally made my point I set out to make: despite how some people can easily misconstrue the Hermetic texts as being monotheistic or kinda-sorta Christian, they are fundamentally polytheistic, and specifically Greco-Egyptian at that.  However, the spiritual focus on Hermeticism is not on the gods (the existence of which it happily and readily proclaims, and the worship of which it explicitly and readily encourages), but on God.  The issue there, of course, is that “God” is actually a really complicated concept that revolves around a fundamental monism (or nondualism), which isn’t helped with 1500 years of baggage tacked onto that specific term and how it’s been applied to other religions—which means that, without the proper contextualization and framing, when someone otherwise without a clue reads the Hermetic texts and starts reading about “God”, they can be forgiven for thinking that the “God” of Hermetic texts is the “God” of the New Testament.  At the end of the day, though, the God in Hermeticism is not god, and while the Hermetic texts focus overwhelmingly on discussion of God, they are still fundamentally polytheistic writings that assume the reader not only accepts the existence of the many gods but is already engaged in their worship.

But what gods would those be, exactly?  Let’s talk about that more in the next (and last!) post.

Ordering an Approach to the Classical Hermetic Texts

Those who’ve gone through a number of my Hermeticism-related posts know that I like to cite a bunch of the classical Hermetic texts, which can be dizzying at points for those who aren’t used to a lot of the abbreviations.  For the sake of my friends and colleagues over on the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I put together a Google Sheets-based index of Hermetic texts and references which contains a breakdown of all the texts, their sectioning, and whatever possible citations or sources I can find for them in the classical Hermetic corpora, but for those who just want an easier cheat-sheet of abbreviations I tend to use:

  • CH — Corpus Hermeticum
  • AH — Latin Asclepius, or the Perfect Sermon
  • DH — Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
  • OH — Oxford Hermetic Fragments
  • VH — Vienna Hermetic Fragments
  • SH — Stobaean Hermetic Fragments (i.e. Hermetic fragments from John of Stobi’s Anthology)
  • NH —Hermetica within the Nag Hammadi Library
  • FH — Miscellaneous Hermetic Fragments (from Litwa’s Hermetica II)
  • TH — Miscellaneous Hermetic Testimonia (from Litwa’s Hermetica II)

Besides the above, there are also a few other useful abbreviations to describe a few other texts, whether some of the above texts by other terms or secondary literature about the above:

  • KK — Korē Kosmou, or Virgin/Pupil of the World (SH 23—26)
  • NHC — Nag Hammadi Codices (of which NH are NHC VI,6—8)
  • D89 — Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (or The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead, i.e. NHC VI,6)
  • PGM — Greek Magical Papyri
  • PDM — Demotic Magical Papyri
  • PCM — Coptic Magical Papyri
  • HSHI — Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (by Wouter Hanegraaff)
  • THT — The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (by Christian Bull)

Going by the primary list of abbreviations above (CH, AH, DH, etc.), as recorded on that index of Hermetic texts I linked to above but excluding the miscellaneous Hermetic fragments and testimonia (FH and TH), there are 73 Hermetic texts that fall under the banner of “classical Hermetic corpora” (not including, of course, a variety of “practical/technical” texts like what we might find in the PGM).  Although some of these texts are certainly far more known—or at least more accessible and easily found—than others are (like how CH is compared to OH), I consider the whole collection of these texts to compose the “beating heart” of Hermeticism, and so are crucial to its study.  I don’t like thinking of these all as some sort of “bible”, though, even if some might find the use of such a term as a helpful parallel to gauge exactly how important this collection of texts might be.

But that’s just it: it’s a collection of texts, and an often disparate one at that that’s based only on what’s extant to us nowadays.  We only have what survives the knife of time and the redactor’s pen, to be sure, but even then, some of these texts were only recovered in the past few decades (like DH was in the 1980s or OH were in the 1990s, to say nothing of the Nag Hammadi stuff in 1945).  With an increasing quality of scholarship and more accessibility to otherwise-forgotten libraries, there’s always the possibility for further classical Hermetic texts to be discovered (or, perhaps more appropriately, recovered), and I’m always hopeful that we might indeed find something more along these lines to continue to shake up or further develop our understanding of classical Hermeticism and how it influenced everything that came after it.  Still, we only have what we have, and even that can be a mess at times.  Even texts like the CH, which appear to us nowadays as being a “single text”, aren’t really anything of the sort, but are rather a collection of disparate texts that were compiled together at one point (the fact of which goes a long way to explain a number of inconsistencies or disparate views between the different books contained therein).

This raises the question: how, exactly, should one go about trying to really approach reading the classical Hermetic texts at all?  Is there some ideal order that we might read them in?  Should we go by collection, theme, or some other scheme?  Do we want to impose a classification on them (like monist, dualist, or a middle-ground between them), or some sort of “distance from a center” like what Hanegraaff does in his HSHI (pp. 138—144) with “more central” texts being the more experiential and spiritual and “more distant” texts being the more theoretical and contextual?  Should we just go in order of how they appear in some collections, and if so, which specific collections’ orders (because with the SH specifically, there’s how they appear in Scott and preserved by later scholars like Nock/Festugière or Litwa, and how they appear in Stobaeus’ own Anthology)?  There are a lot of considerations one might take to answering a question like this, and there’s no real wrong approach here; after all, the goal for those who study the Hermetic texts is to eventually study all of them and to get acquainted enough with their ideas and themes so that we know what they talk about and how they relate to the rest of the Hermetic corpora.  Still, having some sort of curriculum or syllabus might well be helpful for those who want to take a more thoughtful approach.

While I like taking my time and going through the texts repeatedly as I find convenient whenever I feel like picking up my copies of Copenhaver, Litwa, or Salaman, this same question is one that I’ve personally wrestled with because it has a practical impact on me.  One of the things I do on HHoL (and before on the now-defunct “Hermetic Agora” server) is lead a “Weekly Hermetica” study group, where we go through particular texts, read them, and discuss them on a weekly basis.  In addition to covering texts like the Picatrix, a number of entries in the PGM, or (as is currently ongoing) the Sentences of Sextus (which I wrote about not too long ago on my blog), I’ve also covered the classical Hermetic texts before, and I plan to do so again (on a schedule that starts this April 2023 and continues through June 2024).  While there are certainly arguments for handling this in one way or another, the schedule and approach I’ve settled on for doing this to give people a decent run-through of the classical Hermetic texts on a week-by-week basis runs like this:

  1. CH III
  2. CH VII, CH I
  3. CH IV
  4. CH XI
  5. CH XIII
  6. CH V
  7. CH XIV
  8. CH VIII
  9. CH IX
  10. CH XII
  11. CH VI
  12. CH XVII
  13. CH II
  14. CH XVI
  15. CH XVIII
  16. CH X
  17. NHC VI,6 (D89)
  18. AH 1—3
  19. AH 4—6
  20. AH 7—9
  21. AH 10—13
  22. AH 14—17
  23. AH 18—21 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,8)
  24. AH 22—26 (equivalent of NHC VI,8)
  25. AH 26—30 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,8)
  26. AH 31—34
  27. AH 35—38
  28. AH 39—41 (including the equivalent of NHC VI,7)
  29. SH 1, 2A, 2B
  30. SH 28, 21, 9
  31. SH 15, 22
  32. SH 5, 29
  33. SH 6
  34. SH 8, 12, 13, 14, 7
  35. SH 11
  36. SH 20, 17
  37. SH 3, 19
  38. SH 18, 16, 10
  39. SH 27, 23.1-23 (KK part 1, first third, starting with a single line from another excerpt)
  40. SH 23.24-49 (KK part 1, second third)
  41. SH 23.50-70 (KK part 1, last third)
  42. SH 24 (KK part 2)
  43. SH 25 (KK part 3)
  44. SH 26 (KK part 4)
  45. DH 1
  46. DH 2
  47. DH 3
  48. DH 4
  49. DH 5
  50. DH 6
  51. DH 7
  52. DH 8
  53. DH 9
  54. DH 10
  55. DH 11
  56. OH 1—5
  57. VH 1—4

In general, I break up texts primarily by collection, starting with the most well-known or profuse and going to the lesser-known, shorter, or otherwise more recently-found texts.  In the case of AH, DH, OH, and VH, we just straightforwardly go through each text in a linear sequence without skipping around.  AH, since it’s all technically just one big text, gets broken up into a series of chunks of sections.  NH gets split up, with NH 1 (NHC VI,6 aka D89) on its own and NH 2 (NHC VI,7) and NH 3 (NHC VI,8) being discussed alongside the AH, because these are equivalent texts preserved in different languages and textual lineages (NH in Coptic, AH in Latin).  CH and (most of) SH, however, pose much more interesting difficulties, because these are properly collections of texts that appear in different formats at times (some are discourses, some are letters, some are just decontextualized musings, etc.) and there’s no clear theme or development that suggests a particular “original order” or another.

For the CH, I generally stick to one book at a time, and otherwise I generally follow Hanegraaff’s “theoretical distance from the experiential center”.  He gives his reasoning for how he considers the various books of CH (as well as NH, DH, and SH texts) to be more or less “weird” in HSHI (pp. 138—144), and I think his analysis here is really insightful, even if he makes clear that it’s all conditional and hypothetical along his own framework of interpretation and understanding.

The way I like to think of my approach to the CH is a journey of sorts:

  1. We open with CH III, which even though Hanegraaff places outside his circle entirely (“its relevance to Hermetic spirituality is limited to some vague similarities with the account of creation in CH I”), I find to be a wonderful summary of the Hermetic worldview and helps frame someone’s approach in a sensible way.  (Admittedly, I admit my own bias here, given my love for CH III as a sort of “Heart Sutra” for Hermeticism and having done my own analysis and translation of it, but I think it’s still easy and short enough to knock out first.)
  2. Although I prefer to give each CH text its own “study session”, I combine CH VII and CH I together since the fire-and-brimstone harangue of CH VII is a straightforward expansion/continuation of the initial streetside preaching of Hermēs in CH I.27—29.  However, CH I is the real star of this pair, and is otherwise the very foundation of all the other classical Hermetic texts.  After opening up with a gentle CH III and harsh CH VII, CH I is really where we dig into the actual meat of these texts.
  3. Although Hanegraaff puts CH IV just outside the “weird center” before the next two texts, I think it should be read first as part of it, because it describes its own calling of the way, an explanation of not only the Goodness of God but also gives us an introduction to the impetus of Hermetic salvation, why we should strive for it, and how it’s effected through nous (divine Mind).
  4. CH XI and CH XIII come next as part of Hanegraaff’s “weird center”, CH XI discussing “the perception of the cosmos through noetic vision following [spiritual] rebirth”, and CH XIII itself being a description of such spiritual rebirth by which such noetic vision is activated.
  5. CH V, CH XIV, and CH VIII are all monistic theological treatises on the unity of the cosmos and how it is all generally created by God (regardless of other notions of a demiurge being involved at other stages of specific creation), and thus how we should consider our relation to the cosmos and to God in such a light.
  6. CH IX and CH XII go together for me in discussing the roles of nous and logos coupled with perception and psychology.
  7. CH VI, in stark contrast to texts like CH V, is one of the ones considered more “gnostic” due to how dualist it seems—but this is just a matter of “seeming” rather than actually being dualist, since there is a fundamental unity at play that still gets obscured through incarnate existence.  Coupled with the short fragment that is CH XVII, we get a notion of how incorporeal things and corporeal things properly relate to each other.
  8. CH II is a very theoretical text that uses some physics metaphors to describe a few matters of theology.  It brings back into focus the underlying unity of the creation of God with God, but (with further contextualization provided by CH VI) emphasizes how utterly foreign and different God is to anything we might consider, emphasizing the role of gnōsis to truly achieve a full understanding of how things are.
  9. CH XVI finalizes the above journey, so to speak, with a encosmic view of how things come to be in a spiritually-active worldview, noting how, even though this is a monist theology we engage with, there’s much in the way between us and God that can be effected through the forces of fate, which we can surmount through divine salvation facilitated through particular channels.
  10. CH XVIII is a hard text to place, since it’s arguably the only “really” non-Hermetic text in the collection; like CH I and CH III, neither Hermēs nor his students are named, and there’s not a whole lot that connects it theologically or philosophically to the Hermetica beyond a praise of God and kings with some solar imagery (which is why Salaman declines to include it in his translation in the CH).  However, as a bit of mystic and religious writing, I think it should be included all the same, and the solar imagery involved here is a nice add-on to the solar discussion in CH XVI.
  11. CH X is, in Hanegraaff’s words, “our most comprehensive overview of Hermetic theory”.  Much how AH is a text that covers lots of topics, CH X is its own sort of encyclopedia that covers much and is one of the longest and most intricate (but also most troubling to understand and correlate at points) texts in the CH.  Understanding it as a summary, reading CH X at the end of a tour of the CH gives us a fitting end to this collection of texts in my mind.

For the SH texts, I reserve for the end SH 23—27, which collectively compose KK, proceeding with these texts specifically more-or-less in order (though starting with SH 27, which is just a single line and makes a nice terse intro to the rest of the KK).  Although a lot of people like reading the KK, and even though I find a good amount useful in it generally for the understanding of Greco-Egyptian spirituality, I am otherwise in agreement with Hanegraaff that it really shouldn’t be understood as a Hermetic text:

Contrary to common usage, I do not include these treatises under the spiritual Hermetica because they are sharply different from the rest of our treatises in terms of their alleged authors, contents, worldview, and literary style. Hermes does not appear either as a teacher or as a pupil; instead, we read conversations between Isis and Horus in which “all-knowing Hermes” is presented as their remote divine ancestor. The mythological narrative describes God as an anthropomorphic and authoritarian Craftsman who punishes the souls he has created for transgressing his commands. The great beauty of the higher world does not inspire love and admiration but fear; and when the souls are disobedient, they are punished for their sins by imprisonment in the “dishonorable and lowly tents” or “shells” of material bodies. Throughout, the emphasis is on God’s despotic power and his creatures’ fear of him. Because I see all of this as incompatible with what we find in the rest of our corpus, I assume that these Isis-Horus treatises represent a separate tradition.

While we might consider the KK to be a kind of “Isiaca” as opposed to “Hermetica”, and while I think there’s plenty of worth in it to read (indeed, a good chunk of my recent “On the Hermetic Afterlife” post series used the stuff in the KK to give a foundation for a model of Hermetic reincarnation), I don’t think these texts are in line enough with the rest of the Hermetic texts we have available to us to comfortably inform us.  That’s why I keep them at the end of my planned tour through the SH: even if they’re important on their own or even to better understand the general context of Hermeticism (which is why I include them in my reading list above), I don’t think they’re all that important for understanding and implementing Hermeticism itself.

The rest of the SH, however, isn’t so bound by the above as the KK is, which is why I like giving it its due.  The order in which I plan to cover them, however, might seem super shuffled and jumbled.  Hanegraaff considers them as a whole to discuss a wide variety of topics, and so are closer in spirit to DH or CH X.  My order for them, however, is more-or-less themed according to how I understand them:

  1. SH 1, 2A, 2B: truth and devotion (a good opening intro to the SH, not unlike how CH III/VII/I together were for the CH)
  2. SH 28, 21, 9: God, the chain of being, and how things come to be
  3. SH 15, 22: procreation, birth, and premodern understandings of family resemblance as a matter of incarnation of the soul in a world of elements
  4. SH 5, 29: the different levels of creation, the sustaining and maintaining of the body, and a short poem on the powers of the planets
  5. SH 6: decans, astrological and meteorological phenomena, and how this all relates to the vision of God
  6. SH 8, 12, 13, 14, 7: providence, necessity, fate, and justice as guiding principles of the world, its functioning, and our right-relationship to it and to God
  7. SH 11: a collection of summary-statements (κεφαλαία kephalaía) that collectively frame a Hermetic understanding of fate
  8. SH 20, 17: virtues and powers of the soul and how it relates to body
  9. SH 3, 19: different kinds of souls, how souls might be considered, and how it gives form to life and living
  10. SH 18, 16, 10: relationship between soul and body, and how time flows and is perceived

Now, of course, this is all just my plan to go through the texts for the sake of my “curriculum” for HHoL’s Weekly Hermetica study group, based on my own understanding of the texts and informed by modern scholarship about them.  I want to be clear here that I’m not suggesting that this is the only way or the best way to approach these texts, but is more of a matter of “thematic convenience” based on how I consider them that would lead (hopefully) to fruitful discussion and consideration among the people participating in these weekly chats.

To further illustrate that there might well be other sensible orders to consider some of these texts in, lemme share a small side-project I was asked to consider once upon a time.  Although I don’t like thinking of the Hermetic texts as a “bible” of sorts (I’m not a fan of bibliolatry or seeing these as somehow divinely-guided or divinely-inspired texts, even if they are revelatory at points and talk about holy matters), it’s far from uncommon for some people to treat some of these texts with a similar reverence for particular religious activities, like swearing oaths upon or having as a presence of its own on a Hermetic altar.  At one point, someone asked me to consider a set of Hermetic readings from the CH, like one might do for matins or vespers services in a Christian context, as an adjunct for one’s prayers or to offer a schedule for lectio divina.  To that end, I came up with a four-week set of 56 readings, two readings per day across 28 days, that takes one through the CH in its own thematic way focused more on daily devotions to divinity rather than on experiential “weirdness” as used in my weekly discussions schedule above:

Week Day Time Text Theme Subtheme
1 1 Matins VII Call to the Way
1 1 Vespers III The Creation and Purpose
1 2 Matins XVIII.1—3 Praise for the Almighty The Nature of Music and the Musician
1 2 Vespers XVIII.4—6 Praise for the Almighty The Faults and Help of the Musician
1 3 Matins XVIII.9—10 Praise for the Almighty Approaching the Supreme King
1 3 Vespers XVIII.11—14 Praise for the Almighty The Rays of the Supreme King
1 4 Matins IX.3—4 The Good The Conceptions and Gifts of God
1 4 Vespers VI.1—2 The Good On the Qualities of the Good
1 5 Matins VI.3—4 The Good Good in the World
1 5 Vespers VI.5—6 The Good The Good and the Beautiful
1 6 Matins IX.1—2 Understanding On Sensation
1 6 Vespers IX.5—6 Understanding Sensation and Understanding
1 7 Matins IX.7—8 Understanding God the Father, Cosmos the Father
1 7 Vespers IX.9—10 Understanding God and the Cosmos
2 8 Matins IV.1—2 Mind How God Made the Cosmos
2 8 Vespers IV.3—5 Mind God Establish Mind for All to Take
2 9 Matins IV.6—7 Mind How to Learn about Mind
2 9 Vespers IV.8—9 Mind Knowledge through Mind to the Good
2 10 Matins II.12—13 Motion, Mind, Good Mind and God
2 10 Vespers II.14—15 Motion, Mind, Good God is Not Mind, but Good
2 11 Matins II.16 Motion, Mind, Good Good is Misunderstood
2 11 Vespers IV.11 Motion, Mind, Good Goodness and God
2 12 Matins XI.2—3 The Process of the Whole God, Eternity, Cosmos, Time, Becoming
2 12 Vespers XI.4 The Process of the Whole God, Mind, Soul, Matter
2 13 Matins XI.5—6 The Process of the Whole Nothing is Like the Unlike
2 13 Vespers XI.7—8 The Process of the Whole All Things are Full of Soul and Motion
2 14 Matins XIV.2—3 Health of Mind Things Begotten Come to Be by the Agency of Another
2 14 Vespers XIV.4—5 Health of Mind God, Maker, Father
3 15 Matins XIV.7—8 Health of Mind The Wholeness of the Whole
3 15 Vespers XIV.9—10 Health of Mind God the Sower of the Things that are Good
3 16 Matins X.7—8 The Soul Deification Prevented by Vice
3 16 Vespers X.9—10 The Soul Deification Aided by Virtue
3 17 Matins VIII.1 On Death Death is but a Word
3 17 Vespers VIII.2 On Death The Reality of God
3 18 Matins VIII.3—4 On Death The Immortal Nature of Matter
3 18 Vespers VIII.5 On Death Understand What God Is
3 19 Matins XII.16 On Death Dissolution is Not Death
3 19 Vespers XII.17—18 On Death The Earth is Full of Life
3 20 Matins XIII.1—2 On Rebirth The Spiritual Birth of Mankind
3 20 Vespers XIII.3—6 On Rebirth The Way to be Born Again
3 21 Matins XIII.7—10 On Rebirth The Tormentors and the Powers
3 21 Vespers XIII.11—14 On Rebirth The Way of the Way of Rebirth
4 22 Matins V.1 Praise for the Maker Invisible Yet Entirely Visible
4 22 Vespers V.2—5 Praise for the Maker Seeing the Glory of the Creator in Creation
4 23 Matins V.6—8 Praise for the Maker The Glory of the Maker of Mankind
4 23 Vespers V.10—11 Praise for the Maker How Can I Sing Praise?
4 24 Matins I.1—5 The First Revelation The Opening of the Eyes
4 24 Vespers I.6—9 The First Revelation Understanding the First Vision
4 25 Matins I.10—11 The First Revelation The Creation of the World
4 25 Vespers I.12—13 The First Revelation The Creation of Humanity
4 26 Matins I.14—16 The First Revelation The Descent of Humanity
4 26 Vespers I.17—19 The First Revelation The Mystery of Humanity
4 27 Matins I.20—23 The First Revelation The Trial of Humanity
4 27 Vespers I.24—26 The First Revelation The Ascent of Humanity
4 28 Matins I.27—29 The First Revelation The Commission of Hermēs
4 28 Vespers I.30—32 The First Revelation The Final Praise

I’m sure one could continue the above with readings from the AH, SH, DH, and the like, and I might expand on that at some point to cover such a thing to make a whole “liturgical year” of readings from the classical Hermetic corpora as a whole as opposed to just the CH, but let’s face it, the CH is by far the most well-known classical Hermetic collection of texts.  Even if I personally find some of the SH texts equally as fascinating and informative (if not more so) for arranging a sort of Hermetic spirituality at points, the CH itself is full of theoretical and technical treasures that have captured people’s imaginations for many centuries, earning it a right to special consideration for many Hermeticists today.

I myself haven’t stepped through such a twice-a-day reading schedule as the above, but thinking of or treating a text like the CH in a way that deserves such attention isn’t a bad exercise on its own by far.  It also goes to show that there are, indeed, different ways to consider the Hermetic corpora in general for how we want to approach them, and that there’s no one right way to do so.  I’m certainly looking forward to this next round of weekly discussions on the classical Hermetic texts in HHoL (and you should totally join us in the server if you want in on them, or to read up on them after the fact!), but I note that this is just my preferred way to step through the texts for the sake of education and building up familiarity with the texts.  Other orderings, such as those along different thematic schemas or for more devotional needs than pedagogical, are also totally legit.  Besides, all of the foregoing is based on what we just have extant to us nowadays; I look forward to the opportunity of diving into as-yet undiscovered texts and seeing where they fit in amongst all the others, should I be lucky to live long enough to do so!

There are lots of paths one might take in this garden, after all.  Just be sure to stop by all the flowers at some point or another as you stroll through it!

Definitions, Instructions, and Sentences: On Different Didactic Texts for the Hermeticist

On the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord Server, we’re finally just about back to normal, and that means that all our weekly discussions are back underway.  In addition to having a bunch of channels to talk about various topics related or pertaining to Hermeticism or Western esotericism in one way or another, we also have a handful of weekly discussion channels, where we talk about a particular topic in depth; so far, we have three, one for astrology, one for pagan literature, and the oldest one for Hermetic texts.  Just before the old Hermetic Agora server imploded, we started talking about the Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius (abbreviated DH), which we’re picking back up on this week.  This is a fascinating text, and is one of the major contributions in the field of Hermetic studies of Jean-Pierre Mahé.  Currently, the only English translation is the one he himself put out as part of The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius published by Clement Salaman et al., although he has put out an earlier French translation as part of the second volume of his Hermès en Haute-Égypte series.

DH is a fascinating text, and one which Fr. Rufus Opus introduced me to as part of his Red Work Course all those many years ago; indeed, it was good for me to read them so much to the point I put out a massive daily series of blog posts taking each one in one-by-one back at the end of 2013.  The text is composed of ten sets of more-or-less axiomatic statements (or “definitions”), each set having as few as two statements or as many as seven all for a total of 49 statements.  On the whole, DH focuses on discussing cosmology and theology, all matters of doctrine regarding the Creator, the Creation, and us as Creatures within Creation made by the Creator.  As I summarized in the review post for my “49 Days of Definitions” post linked above, I gave these high-level summaries of each set of statements in the DH:

  1. The three worlds of creation, viz. God, the world, and Man
  2. The elements of the world and light which enables the world to be known
  3. The ubiquity of God, the place of Man in the world, and of the world in God
  4. The different types of living beings and what they’re composed of
  5. Nous and Logos, God and reasonable speech
  6. The development towards perfection of the soul of Man in the body of humans
  7. The immortality of Man afforded by God, and the mortality of humans mandated by the world
  8. Knowledge or ignorance of God/world/Man/self, and the power of Man as God
  9. The place of Man in the cosmos, the nature of the soul in Man, what perfect knowledge is
  10. The natures and realization of good and evil, how the parts of the world work together

Although one of the lesser-known Hermetic texts out there, not least because it’s one of the most recently-recovered ones, it’s also very much worth the while of any Hermeticist to study, though the DH’s terse and dense nature in its statements will necessarily require a bit more patience and contemplation to work through, chew on, and digest.

One of the neat things that Mahé points out is how similar so much in the DH is to other texts in the Corpus Hermeticum (CH), the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Oxford Fragments (OH), and other Hermetic texts.  To an extent, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising; after all, even for all its inconsistencies and internal disagreements, there is at least some harmony between different Hermetic texts that agree on general points of doctrine.  However, perhaps the closest surviving text we have in a similar format to DH is SH 11, which provides a lengthy list of doctrinal statements, also called κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” of Hermēs’ teaching.  In that text, Hermēs instructs his son Tat after finishing the list:

If you remember these chief points, you will easily recall the points I discuss at greater length. For the main points are summaries of the explained teachings.

The purpose of these statements can be used in many different ways, but their explicit purpose as stated is to use them as a kind of mnemonic to recall lengthier lectures as a whole.  Mahé agrees with this, noting in his introduction to DH in The Way of Hermes that this is likely what’s going on with DH as well:

An early date might also be assumed for our collection of aphorisms with regard to the clarity of its style and the firmness of its thought. In our edition of the Coptic and Armenian transla­tions of hermetic writings in 1982 several clues led us to suggest that the most ancient hermetic philosophical writings were col­lected aphorisms such as the ‘Sayings of Agathos Daimon’, of which only short fragments have been preserved (cf. CH 10.25; 12.1.8-9). Beyond DH, one of these collections is still extant in SH 11 . As to the use of such collections of aphorisms we quoted CH 14.1 and SH 11.1, which depict them as summaries (kephalaia) of lectures delivered by Hermes and invite the disciple to reconstruct the whole teaching once he has learnt the sentences by heart (SH 11.3). Indeed we can easily show that many hermetic writings are made out of sentences, such as those of DH or SH 11 which are either linked up one after another with conjunctions, or com­mented upon or worked into a myth or a prayer.

However, Mahé also waxes poetically regarding their spiritualized functions and how they play a role in the overall literary ecosystem of Hermeticism:

The Definitions are perhaps at once the plainest and the deepest of all hermetic writings. We can read it as a mere resume of elementary teaching. Most of the hermetic dialogues take up the same sentences and comment upon them at the logos-level, which is but the second stage of the way to immortality. Rarely do they go one step further and reveal to us the spiritual meaning of the text.

It is no surprise that at least one sentence of this collection also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas. Both texts comprise sacred say­ings and secret teachings meant to strike imagination and to strongly impress their reader. Moreover we could venture to assert that, in regard to the other hermetic writings, the Definitions are almost in the same position as the Gospel of Thomas with regard to the four Gospels. In both cases, we have the aphorisms by themselves on the one hand, and sayings worked into a reasoned account or narrative on the other. The problem is whether the story is missing because it does not yet exist (or it is unknown to the compiler) or quite on the contrary, because it has been purpose­ fully ruled out.

We can also assert the comparison for essential reasons…the hermetic author of our text seems to have deliberately eliminated all kind of commentary in order to free his readers from the heaviness of abstract reasoning, to raise them above space and time and to hand over to them the very essence of meditation. You do not easily forget such a text. Hermetic sentences get mysteriously carved in your memory. They are still at work on your mind even when you do not think of them. For ‘it dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws up iron’ (CH 4.11).

In a footnote, Mahé introduces the idea regarding the possible origins of DH:

In 1982, the Demotic Book of Thoth—a prehermetic dialogue discovered in 1993 by K.Th. Zauzich and Richard Jasnow—was still unknown. It is noteworthy that this work contains a short collection of Thoth’s precepts entitled The Little Book of Advice. Although none of those precepts are directly echoed by any Greek her­metic aphorism, it may confirm our assumption (which has been sharply
criticised by G. Fowden 1986, pp. 71-2) that Greek hermetic literature is closely connected with Greek hermetic gnomologies which in turn bear the influence of Egyptian Wisdoms or instructions.

The overall gist of Mahé’s argument here (which he treats on at length in Hermès en Haute-Égypte) is that DH—and, given the outsized role he gives DH as being an origination point for many later Hermetic texts later put to paper, all of the Hermetic texts as a hole—have their origin in the long genre of Egyptian sebayt (sbꜣyt) literature, often translated as “instructions” or “teachings”.  We have a good number of such texts; indeed, the Ancient Egyptian Literature series (volume I on the Old Kingdom period, volume II on the Middle and New Kingdoms period, and volume III on the Late Period) by Miriam Lichtheim gives translations for no fewer than these (from oldest to latest):

  • Instruction of Prince Hardjedef
  • Instruction to Kagemni
  • Instruction of Ptahhotep
  • Instruction of Amenemhet I for Sesostris I
  • Instruction to Any
  • Instruction of Amenemope
  • Instruction of Anksheshonq
  • Instruction of the Demotic Insinger Papyrus

In addition to these, as referred to by Mahé, the Demotic Book of Thoth (an easy layman’s translation is available in Jasnow’s and Zauzich’s Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth) also has a small section that also qualifies as sebayt.  In addition to all the above, we also know for a fact that there were many other instances of sebayt, which either have not survived or which have not received enough public attention to be given modern translations, but we know that it was a long-lived genre of literature and was often hugely popular, with many texts being continuously copied an disseminated throughout Egyptian society.  What links all these texts together as belonging to a single “genre” is two, maybe three things:

  1. The text is, for the most part, a set of largely disconnected aphorisms
  2. The text is intended to inculcate the necessary actions, behaviors, and mindsets necessary to lead a good life
  3. Sometimes, the text provides an initial narrative that frames the text as being addressed from a father to a son for the son’s well-being in life

When it comes to studying good ways to live life, sebayt texts are often like gold, often touching on various aspects of living life: marriage, household affairs, national affairs, business, conducting oneself in public, eating, sleeping, sex, managing servants, and so on.  On occasion, the texts frame these exhortations and instructions in a religious light, saying that such-and-such behavior is something the gods approve of or that other behavior is what causes the gods to shun you, but that’s less common than just instructing someone to behave in such a way because it leads to good results in this life, maintaining good face, ensuring the prosperity and well-being of one’s household and family name, and the like.  Of course, given the long-lasting nature of this genre, as time goes on, there are some shifts in later sebayt texts that tend to merge certain aspects together, like how morality and piety become identified in e.g. the first century CE Demotic Papyrus Insinger.

And that’s just the rub: despite the many connections Mahé draws between DH and sebayt, I don’t think I can buy Mahé’s theory that DH descends from or is an evolution of Egyptian sebayt literature.  For the most part, sebayt are focused on living life well in this world, and aren’t focused on matters of mysticism or salvation like the DH is (to say nothing of the rest of the body of classical Hermetic literature), much less on doctrinal statements about cosmology or theology (which is all the DH really are anyway).  To derive a sense of religiosity or spirituality from the sebayt would require a good bit of squinting and stretching—not to say that it can’t be done, but that honestly doesn’t appear like the intended purpose of these texts.  Despite Mahé’s claims, the only thing that really links DH (or similar aphorism-based texts like SH 11) to the sebayt genre is its structure, being lists of aphorisms or maxims or statements (that first quality of sebayt literature I mentioned above).  But it’s not like a list of maxims is a particularly uncommon thing; after all, what of the Delphic Maxims or the Golden Verses of Pythagoras?  Those are much closer to sebayt in both style and content, but there’s no claim that those have an Egyptian origin.

In this, it turns out that I’m in complete agreement with Garth Fowden’s analysis of Mahé’s claims (as Mahé pointed out in that footnote above).  In The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, Fowden devotes a lengthy section of chapter 2 to the idea that the Hermetic texts (at least the philosophical stuff like DH, CH, etc.) are connected to sebayt and offers a refutation of Mahé’s claims much along these same lines.  To summarize some of Fowden’s points:

  • Sebayt texts were not unknown in a priestly context for classical Egypt, but these were more popular than spiritual texts and generally focus on different topics and areas than priestly Thoth literature
  • These texts were, on the whole, about practical living, sometimes making use of otherwise unethical approaches as an expedient means
  • These texts center humanity in a human world rather than God/the gods in a divine world or humans in relation to the divine
  • These texts are “though pious…this-worldly, ethical, social” while those of the Hermetic texts are “gnostic, contemplative, individualist”
  • Mahé goes to the opposite extreme of Festugière: while Festugière claimed that Hermeticism was a popular Hellenic philosophical phenomenon dolled up in Egyptian makeup, Mahé claims that Hermeticism is thoroughly Egyptian and only later Hellenized as an affectation; Fowden notes how many other Greek and Jewish influences there are in even the provably early Hermetic texts that Mahé effecitvely passes over in silence
  • Although the technical Hermetica has many more links to traditional (even ancient) Egyptian priestly and magical practices, the “writings of the philosophical Hermetists….had far fewer direct links with the Egyptian past”, given that they yet “combined openness to the international civilization of Hellenism with a deep, sometimes even aggressive awareness of their roots in Egypt”

To be sure, not all of the sebayt texts are so disconnected from the spirit of classical Hermeticism.  Of the texts mentioned above, I think the Instruction of Papyrus Insinger hits closest to a Hermetic ethos: although its handwriting style has been dated to the first century CE with at least part of its composition may well lie in the latter half of the Ptolemaic period, I personally think that it’s a great sebayt text to bear in mind for students of Hermeticism.  Not only is it largely well-perserved and intelligible, nor that it provides a good approach to living morally and piously, but also because it emphasizes a reliance on fate and the notion that the gods always have the final say in things, their divine order being one which we must turn to and live in accordance with.  That sort of idea is one that we don’t often see in many such texts.  Further, each section of the text ends with the same line, which suffices as a memorable statement of belief:

The fate and the fortune that come, it is the god who sends them.

Some of the hallmarks that make a Hermetic text Hermetic is that it needs to have some ascription, whether explicit or otherwise, to Hermēs Trismegistos, one of his teachers (e.g. Agathos Daimōn, Poimandrēs), or one of his students (e.g. Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn), and that it overall needs to evince some sort of focus on the mystic impulses and imperatives grounded in the Hellenistic Greco-Egyptian worldview evinced by other Hermetic texts like the CH, AH, SH, OH, DH, and the like.  Obviously, sebayt texts won’t focus on Hermēs Trismegistos as such (Thōth is another matter entirely, but it’s arguable whether we can mythically equate Hermēs Trismegistos with Thōth in this specific instance), but the purpose and focus of sebayt doesn’t match up with those of the Hermetic texts, either.  For that reason, we can’t really say that the Hermetic texts can be considered Kemetic in the sense of being purely Egyptian or being an outgrowth of purely Egyptian stuff, at least by focusing on sebayt texts alone for the purposes of studying the philosophical/theoretical Hermetic texts.

Does that make sebayt, or other Egyptian religious and spiritual stuff, worthless for studying Hermeticism?  By no means; indeed, we do know that there is an ultimately Egyptian origin to Hermeticism and Hermetic texts, and learning the kind of influences Egyptian religiosity and spirituality had in the development of Hermeticism is super important for understanding the Hermetic texts better.  However, by that same token, we also need to understand the extent and limits of such influence, because we also know that there are so many other influences at play in the development of Hermeticism ranging from Stoicism and Platonism to (Hellenized) Judaism and early gnostic tendencies.  But we shouldn’t conflate sebayt or other Egyptian stuff as Hermetic stuff, no more than we should conflate Greek stuff as Hermetic stuff, because while sebayt are purely-Egyptian, Hermetic texts are Greco-Egyptian, and that makes a world of different.  Studying these other texts may well be (and often are) useful to fill in our gaps in our knowledge, provide useful frameworks for a lived and living practice, and otherwise fleshing out an incomplete picture of Hermeticism, but in order to know what Hermeticism is, we also need to know what it is not, and how these things play with and off of each other.

Even if the doctrinal statements of (potentially early) Hermetic literature aren’t descended from sebayt texts, I think I can point to another text that bears more in common with sebayt: the Sentences of Sextus (SoS).  I first came across this text while flipping through my copy of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) texts, and it’s an interesting thing; the Coptic version preserved in NHL isn’t complete, but it survives in many other copies in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Armenian, and Georgian, and has been variously ascribed to the pre-Christian Stoic-Pythagorean Roman philosopher Quintus Sextus or to decidedly Christian figures like Pope Sixtus II.  Regardless of its origins (and we’ll touch more on that in a bit), SoS was well-known and well-read in antiquity by many early Christians according to the testament of Origen of Alexandria, who gives us our first extant reference to SoS in the mid-third century CE.  SoS is composed of 451 aphorisms  (with some versions adding an extra 159) originally written in Greek, all of which provide general exhortations and encouragements towards living a moral, pious life.  Although it’s been claimed by some to be a product of pre-Christian pagan morality—and, indeed, it does show lots of similarities with the Golden Verses of Pythagoras or the Sentences of Clitarchus, and can be considered a textual sibling to Porphyry’s Ad Marcellam—a closer study of the text (as in the 1959 study by Henry Chadwick or in the excellent 2012 translation and commentary by Walter T. Wilson) given its overlap and borrowing of language and topics from the Bible suggests that is rather the product of a Christian compiler who has (in the words of Chadwick) “edited, carefully revised, and modified a previous pagan collection (or perhaps collections)” of similar maxims.

Beginning to sound familiar?  I thought so, too.

Now, to be clear, I am not claiming SoS to be a Hermetic text.  As with the equally-extreme and equally-wrong stances of whether Hermeticism is purely-Greek or purely-Egyptian, there have also been people who take extreme views on whether SoS is purely-Christian or purely-pagan, when it is indeed indebted to both.  We know that SoS was compiled at some point no earlier than the late second century CE, and given that Origen was the first person to refer to it, it has a strong likelihood of being composed in Egypt.  In addition to this origin making SoS roughly contemporaneous and colocated with the development of the classical Hermetic texts, it also suggests that not only is SoS Christian, but specifically Egyptian Christian—and, given the content and format of SoS, being a (long) list of aphorisms encouraging one to live life well, suggests this to be a much more viable candidate for being a descendant (even if an indirect one) of sebayt literature.

To be sure, it’s not an altogether clean match.  In his article “Wisdom, Paraensis, and the Roots of Monasticism” in the 2012 anthology Early Christian Paraenesis in Context, Samuel Rubenson notes (emphasis in bold mine):

Moral exhortation, paraenesis, was, moreover, not something specifically Christian or Biblical. In Egypt there was a long tradition of collections of wisdom in the form of moral exhortations, often directed to “my son.” To some scholars it is this Egyptian wisdom tradition that is the basic foundation of the Apophthegmata. Thus the exhortations of the monastic fathers are actually a Christianized form of the exhortations of the old wise men of Egypt. However, as clearly demonstrated by Miriam Lichtheim, Egyptian wisdom had already begun to change drastically long before the rise of monasticism. Traditional morality with its focus on human relations especially within the family had been fused with religious piety focusing on the holy man, the ideal model of calm, restraint, patience and trust in God. The exhortations in the late Demotic texts do not look for “the good life,” but for “the way of God” or even “salvation.” And in the few texts that can be used as a bridge between late Egyptian wisdom literature and the early Egyptian monastic exhortations, the influence of Greek philosophy is prevailing. Based on Pythagorean ascetic traditions fused with Platonic and Stoic popular philosophy, texts like the Sentences of Sextus represent something different from Egyptian wisdom, an anthropological dualism most strikingly demonstrated in the fact that when translated into Coptic the word psyche had to be borrowed from the Greek, since Old Egyptian simply has no word for soul. When monasticism began in Egypt in the late third century, traditional Egyptian wisdom was already something that belonged to the past. The sapiential texts that we know in Coptic are all Hellenic, and most probably all translated from Greek. Original Coptic compositions begin with the first monks, and the models are all Greek.

In a sense, SoS is in the perfect sweet-spot for syncretism, itself being a result of syncretizing the old wisdom of religiosity with new impulse for mysticism, and itself encouraging further syncretizing though being a foundation for later Christian (or para-Christian) wisdom texts or for writers like Evagrius of Pontus.  Given how it was already remarked as being popular Christian literature of the time, SoS appearing in something like Nag Hammadi shouldn’t be too surprising—but given how Hermetic texts also appear in Nag Hammadi suggests that there would have probably been some mutual influence between the equally-cosmopolitan, roughly contemporaneous, and roughly colocated mystical traditions of both Hermeticism and Christianity in the second and third centuries CE.

In that light, given its focus and origination and its likely antecedents, I personally find SoS to be an excellent adjunct for Hermetic studies, especially in how it can function as providing a useful guide for right-living in light of a need for piety, spiritual rigor, and the ascent of the soul.  To be sure, SoS is not a Hermetic text, but I think it has plenty of value for Hermeticists to read as if it were a Hermetic text.  And while SoS can be argued to descend from sebayt texts, I would still elevate SoS to a higher priority to read than sebayt texts for the purposes of better understanding and practicing Hermeticism; not only does SoS express a much closer affinity to the goals and aims of Hermeticism than sebayt texts do, but the syncretic and cross-cultural Greco-Egyptian origins of both the classical Hermetic texts and SoS, both being composed at about the same time, give them much more in common that allow each to be much more readily understood and approached from both ends than either would from the long history of purely-Egyptian sebayt.  (Of course, that’s with the exception of the Instructions of Papyrus Insinger, but that’s just one of many sebayt texts, and is already so late and already composed during a Hellenistic colonization of Egypt that there was already likely some Greco-Egyptian syncretism beginning to happen.  As a result, Papyrus Insinger can be argued to be the exception that proves the rule.)

To be sure, SoS is as lacking in cosmology and theology as any sebayt text, and in that regard, cannot and should not be seen as a forerunner of any sort of Hermetic doctrine; in that, DH and SH 11 and similar compilations of Hermetic statements are still in a separate category from SoS.  However, there are so many moral and ethical exhortations in SoS that agree, if not entirely than almost so, with moral and ethical outlooks in Hermetic texts that it’s a wonder that such a text as SoS was kept so distinct from Hermetic compilations; although Wilson rarely cites it and is more fond of citing Christian scripture, he does point out at least some stated similarities between SoS and CH, e.g. SoS 141 (“If you love things you should not, you will not love things you should”) with CH IV.6 (“It is not possible, my son, to attach yourself both to things mortal and to things divine”) or SoS 320 with CH XIII.12, or SoS 370 with CH XII.23.  As Chadwick notes of SoS, “there are no maxims offensively redolent of their ethnic origin”, but neither are there any references to Christ or the apostles or specific Christian dogmata beyond general encouragements using contextless biblical quotes or near-quotes, which allows SoS to be read in any hypsistarian or monotheistic manner, or even a monist one as befitting much of the language of the Hermetic texts.

I think it’s important to remember how messy the history is of Hermeticism and its development, and how it’s not any one clean thing or another with neat and well-spaced dividers—but, for that matter, neither are many other mystical and spiritual movements, since nothing ever arises in a vacuum.  It behooves us all to remember that, although it has Egyptian origins, we cannot accurately call Hermeticism “Egyptian” in the same way that the pharaonic cult of Amun is Egyptian; it is, more accurately, Greco-Egyptian, and we cannot ignore the Helleniality of Hermeticism any more than we can its Egyptianity.  To that end, I would wager that other classical Greco-Egyptian or otherwise cosmopolitan eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions are probably going to be at least as informative, if not more so, than those from just a purely Egyptian or a purely Greek origin, much less those from much older time periods than the early Roman Imperial era.  The sebayt texts and Egyptian priestly traditions are awesome to study and dig into for Hermetic studies—I would never say otherwise—but I think that some scholars and students may overemphasize them to the exclusion of other, much more reasonable and readily-available sources that lend themselves at least as well to the context of Hermeticism, like SoS.

Besides, at the end of the day, whether one is reading a set of definitions or instructions or sentences, or however else one translates the word γνῶμαι, so long as it can be used by a Hermeticist and agrees with the goals and aims of Hermeticism, then that’s what matters most, even if that thing isn’t Hermetic on its own terms.  And I, personally, find much more to use in agreement with Hermeticism in texts like the SoS than in texts like the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq.

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.


[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.


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.