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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Hermēs says that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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