Pole Lords and Northern Stars: The Seven Pairs of Divinities from the Mithras Liturgy

Okay, let’s continue.  In the last post, we introduced a funny thing from PGM XIII, the Eighth and Tenth Hidden Books of Moses that I’ve brought up before on this blog now and again.  This thing is the notion of Rulers of the Pole, a type of planetary rulership of a given day that doesn’t follow the normal weekday rulership we’re accustomed to.  There’s not a lot in PGM XIII that describes their use, but similar language is present throughout the PGM when we talk about things involving the Bear-related spells, i.e. the rituals and incantations associated with the northern constellations of Ursa Maior and Ursa Minor, which generally have lunar or Artemisian-type qualities.

This is all well and good, but it’s not really helping us with the whole Pole Ruler thing except giving us interesting detours, especially with the whole serpent thing; serpents are mentioned already in the doxology and cosmogony in the PGM XIII texts and don’t have a relationship to what we’re investigating here.  However, while I was looking through the PGM for other references to serpents and dragons, of course I’d also stumble upon the Mithras Liturgy, PGM IV.475—829.  There’s one particular section in it that definitely caught my eye, lines 264ff:

There also come forth another seven gods, who have the faces of black bulls, in linen loincloths, and in possession of seven golden diadems.  They are the so-called Pole Lords of Heaven, whom you must greet in the same manner, each of them with his own name:

“Hail, of guardiants of the Pivot, o sacred and brave youths, who turn at one command the revolving axis of the Vault of Heaven, who send out thunder and lightning and jolts of earthquakes and thunderbolts against the nations of impious people, but to me, who am pious and god-fearing, you send health and soundness of body and acuteness of hearing and seeing, and calmness in the present good hours of this day, o my lords and powerfully ruling gods!
Hail to you, the first, ΑΙΕΡΩΝΘΙ!
Hail to you, the second, ΜΕΡΧΕΙΜΕΡΟΣ!
Hail to you, the third, ΑΧΡΙΧΙΟΥΡ!
Hail to you, the fourth, ΜΕΣΑΡΓΙΛΤΩ!
Hail to you, the fifth, ΧΙΧΡΩΑΛΙΘΩ!
Hail to you, the sixth, ΕΡΜΙΧΘΑΘΩΨ!
Hail to you, the seventh, ΕΟΡΑΣΙΧΗ!”

Now when they take their place, here and there, in order, look in the air and you will see lightning bolts going down, and lights flashing, and the Earth shaking, and a god descending, a god immensely great, having a bright appearance, youthful, golden-haired, with a white tunic and a golden crown and trousers, and holding in his right hand a golden shoulder of a young bull: this is the Bear which moves and turns heaven around, moving upward and downward in accordance with the hour.  Then you will see lightning bolts leaping from his eyes and stars from his body.

Seven bull-faced youths.  Seven bulls, septem tritones.  We’re getting somewhere, and getting somewhere good!  Interestingly, Betz has a footnote that says: “in the Mithras mysteries, the seven grades of initiates were each under the tutelage of a planetary deity”, and refers to a chapter in Albrect Dieterich’s Mithrasliturgie (1910).  The relevant portion of that text where Dieterich describes these seven youths is as follows (in a crappy translation from the German into English):

Das wahrscheinlichste ist mir, daß bei Einführung der sieben Jünglinge mit Stierköpfen die Repräsentanten der sieben Sterne des großen oder des kleinen Bären mitgewirkt haben; denn die Ägypter dachten sich jedenfalls den großen Bären als Stier oder als Teil eines Stieres. Darüber habe ich gleich weiter zu handeln; wenn Mithras selbst, wie wir sehen werden, mit seiner Hand die Stierschulter, d. i. das Bärengestirn lenkt, so ist es sicher, daß die sieben stierköpfigen Gestalten, die die Achse des Himmels drehen, die sieben Sterne des kleinen Bären sind. Wie es zusammenhängt, daß für unsere Kenntnis gerade der große Bär als Stier oder Stierschenkel oder Schulterblatt eines Stieres gedacht war, kann ich nicht mehr erkennen… Sicher ist auf jeden Fall, daß die Πολοκράτορες die sieben Sterne des kleinen Bären sind.

The most probable thing is that when the seven youngsters with bull heads are introduced, the representatives of the seven stars of Ursa Maior or Ursa Minor are involved; because the Egyptians thought in any case Ursa Maior as a bull or as part of a bull. I have to act on it immediately; if Mithras himself, as we shall see, with his hand the bull’s shoulder, i.e. the Bear Star steers, so it is certain that the seven bull-headed figures, which turn the axis of the sky, are the seven stars of Ursa Minor.  As it is related, that for our knowledge just Ursa Maior was intended as a bull, thigh of a bull, or shoulder blade of a bull, I can no longer recognize… In any case, it is certain that the Polokratores are the seven stars of Ursa minor.

Now we’re getting somewhere, indeed!  Though precious little is known of the ancient Mithras cult, and though the Mithras Liturgy doesn’t really have an official connection with the Mithras cult, it’s folly to deny a connection between the two.  Manfred Clauss describes in The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries (2001) the seven grades and their most likely planetary associations, from what is likely the lowest rank to highest:

  1. Corax (Raven): Mercury
  2. Nymphus (Bridegroom): Venus
  3. Miles (Soldier): Mars
  4. Leo (Lion): Jupiter
  5. Perses (Persian): Moon
  6. Heliodromus (Sun-runner): Sun
  7. Pater (Father): Saturn

These can be seen and guessed at by the floor mosaic of the Mithraeum of Felicissimus in Ostia, where each grade is symbolically described through its attributes on the way to the focal devotional point of the temple: the Raven with the caduceus of Mercury, the Bridegroom with the circlet of Venus, the Soldier with the weapons of Mars, the Lion with the wreath and sistrum of the King and Queen of the Gods, the Persian with the Crescent and crescent sickle of the Moon, the Sun-runner with the torch and sun-crown and chariot-whip, and the Father with the shepherd’s staff, robes, and other implements of the leader of the cult.  It’s certainly compelling.

However, despite this floorplan of a sacred initiate-only space, it’s unclear whether the order given above really is the order to be considered official, especially given its apparent strangeness; there’s no way to draw a heptagram, for instance between these planets in this order that can get us anything we’ve seen before unless we were to swap a few things around.  That feels like bending things way too much for my comfort level, so let’s just set this initiation order aside.  What’s important is that we have a definite connection between the seven planets and the seven stars of Ursa Minor, each of which can be seen to be representative of one of the planets in an elevated state, each of which rules over the axial pole of rotation of the Earth itself from day to day.  Betz refers to the scholar Roger Beck on a particular zodiacal depiction at the Mithraeum at Ponza (first paper here, second paper here) which also give interesting insight on the role of Ursa Minor (and Ursa Maior) and the pole stars generally.  To summarize Beck’s findings and theories, it really does seem like the depiction of the stars of Ursa Minor really are about an “upwards and inwards” motion of theurgy, as “we pass from the planetary world of the zodiac to the realm of the Sun…and finally to the supreme god at the polar centre”, and that “in both it is a journey of refinement to orders of a higher spirituality”.  If we were looking for a reason to work with the Ruler of the Pole, this is a strong confirmation that our hunch earlier about the parallel with the Earlier Heaven/Later Heaven Sequence of the Ba Gua was on the right track.

At this point, it’s tempting to make that one final leap: linking the seven stars of Ursa Minor to the seven planets, giving the Pole Lords of PGM XIII the names of the seven bull-headed youths from PGM IV.  We’re so close, but we’re missing a definite connection of which youth (and name) is supposed to go with which planet.  Do we use Clauss’ hypothetical ranking of grades, from Mercury to Saturn?  Or do we use the heavenly order of the planets from the lowest heaven of the Moon to the highest heaven of Saturn?  Personally, I’m inclined to use the heavenly order, such that the name of the Moon when she is the Pole Lord is the name of the first bull-headed youth AIERŌNTHI, the name of Mercury as Pole Lord is MERKHEIMEROS, and so forth, but…something about this seems hollow, and I don’t get a confirmation gut-feeling like I normally (recklessly, haphazardly) do.  I’m not willing to bet on it, though I love the simplicity and convenience; something seems missing, even if it’s just confirmation.

If we know that the Pole Lords are the seven stars of Ursa Minor—and we do—is there another way we can consider an “order” to them?  There are two options I can think of: one going by distance out from the end of Ursa Minor and going inwards with the most polar of the stars at the end, or going by brightness by starting from the dimmest and going to the brightest of them.  If we go by distance along the constellation, we get:

  1. β Ursae Minoris, Kochab
  2. γ Ursae Minoris, Pherkad
  3. η Ursae Minoris, Alasco
  4. ζ Ursae Minoris, Ahfa al Farkadain
  5. ε Ursae Minoris
  6. δ Ursae Minoris, Yildun
  7. α Ursae Minoris, Polaris

If, instead, we were to go by the brightness of the stars:

  1. η Ursae Minoris, Alasco
  2. ζ Ursae Minoris, Ahfa al Farkadain
  3. ε Ursae Minoris
  4. δ Ursae Minoris, Yildun
  5. γ Ursae Minoris, Pherkad
  6. β Ursae Minoris, Kochab
  7. α Ursae Minoris, Polaris

Personally, I’m most inclined to think that Polaris itself is given to the quality of Saturn; note how Saturn is the ultimate grade in the Mithraic Mysteries given above, and Saturn is also the only planet that rules both the pole and the day on the same given weekday, as well as it being the highest and most distant of the planetary heavens.  Giving Polaris the final position of honor, I would be comfortable giving it the name of the seventh bull-faced youth, EORASIKHĒ.  That just leaves the remaining six.   It doesn’t seem like we can use traditional stare-lore here; there’s not much in the way about the planetary natures of this set of fixed stars, and many such fixed stars share in multiple planetary similarities.  It’s good to know that Ptolemy gives bright stars to Saturn with a hint of Venus mixed in (especially for Polaris), but that’s about it.

I’m reminded that Kochab and Pherkad are considered even by ancient Egyptians as “guardians of the pole star”, which makes sense as they’re the next two brightest stars in the constellation of Ursa Minor, but they also stand furthest away on the “dipper” part of the Little Dipper while Polaris stands at the tip of the handle.  I’m tempted to give these to the Sun and the Moon, respectively, as representative of their corresponding brightness in the planets; this would also mean that the corresponding planetary Greek vowels for the three brightest stars would be the same three vowels in that almighty name of divinity, ΙΑΩ.  That would mean Kochab gets the Sun, and Pherkad gets the Moon.  These two planets given to these two stars with Polaris given to Saturn collectively set up a pattern where we use the distance-along-the-constellation-lines method along with the weekday ordering of the planets, which gets us the following order and correspondence of names, such that Kochab gets the Sun, Pherkad the Moon, Alasco Mars, and so forth.

Heck, why stop there?  Just before the Mithras Liturgy introduces the seven bull-faced youths, it also introduces seven serpent-faced (!) virgin ladies:

After saying this, you will see the doors thrown open, and seven virgins coming from deep within, dressed in linen garments, and with the face of asps.  They are called the Fates of Heaven, and wield golden wands.  When you see them, greet them in this manner:

“Hail, o seven Fates of Heaven, o noble and good virgins, o sacred ones and companions of ΜΙΝΙΜΙΡΡΟΦΟΡ, o most holy Guardians of the four pillars!
Hail to you, the first, ΧΡΕΨΕΝΘΑΗΣ!
Hail to you, the second, ΜΕΝΕΣΧΕΗΣ!
Hail to you, the third, ΜΕΗΡΑΝ!
Hail to you, the fourth, ΑΡΑΜΑΧΗΣ!
Hail to you, the fifth, ΕΧΟΜΜΙΗ!
Hail to you, the sixth, ΤΙΧΝΟΝΔΑΗΣ!
Hail to you, the seventh, ΕΡΟΥ ΡΟΜΒΡΙΗΣ!”

With this, we have seven snake-headed women and seven bull-headed men.  The men represent the stars of Ursa Minor, and the women represent the stars of Ursa Maior.  We can use the same system, starting at the end of the cup of the Dipper and headed towards the tip of the handle, to associate planets and names to the stars of Ursa Maior.

However, there’s one thing that bugs me about this method being used for this: the name of the fourth lady of Fate, ΑΡΑΡΜΑΧΗΣ or ARARMAKHĒS, which Betz clarifies as being a likely corruption of Harmachis, or Horemakhet, “Horus on the horizon”.  Horus, as we all know, is one of the solar gods of the Egyptian pantheon, and Harmachis specifically represented the dawn and early morning sun.  If we give ARARMAKHĒS to the fourth planet in the weekday system, we’d give it to Mercury, but if we give it to the fourth planet in the heavenly arrangement, we’d give it to the Sun.  So, which do we follow?  Do we keep the same system we built up from before that leads us to the weekday order of the planets, or do we go with a possible etymological connection that can’t be verified to fall in line with the heavenly order?  Given the parallel nature of the snake-headed women of Ursa Maior and the bull-headed men of Ursa Minor and how they mirror each other (“now when they take their place, here [for the women] and there [for the men], in order”), they probably ought to use the same ordering system.  To be honest, the use of the name ARARMAKHĒS is a clue that tilts the system now in favor of the heavenly arrangement of planets, i.e. the “Seven-Zoned”.  This means that we’d give the following stars of Ursa Maior the planets and names of the seven snake-headed women as:

Number Star Planet Mithraic Name
1 α Ursae Maioris
Dubhe
Moon ΧΡΕΨΕΝΘΑΗΣ
KHREPSENTHAĒS
2 β Ursae Maioris
Mirak
Mercury ΜΕΝΕΣΧΕΗΣ
MENESKHEĒS
3 γ Ursae Maioris
Phecda
Venus ΜΕΗΡΑΝ
MEĒRAN
4 δ Ursae Maioris
Megrez
Sun ΑΡΑΡΜΑΧΗΣ
ARAMAKHĒS
5 ε Ursae Maioris
Alioth
Mars ΕΧΟΜΜΙΗ
EKHOMMIĒ
6 ζ Ursae Maioris
Mizar
Jupiter ΤΙΧΝΟΝΔΑΗΣ
TIKHNONDAĒS
7 η Ursae Maioris
Alkaid
Saturn ΕΡΟΥ ΡΟΜΒΡΙΗΣ
ERŪ ROMBRIĒS

Further, because we’d want to use the same system for both the stars of Ursa Maior and of Ursa Maior, that means we’d scrap our weekday order of the planets as discussed above and use the heavenly arrangement of the stars, starting with Kochab as the Moon and Pherkad as Mercury to end with Polaris as Saturn.  This has the nice, pleasing benefit of being that oh-so-special Seven-Zoned arrangement PGM XIII loves so much, but also has a nice geometric arrangement: the closer you get to the pole along the constellated “path” of Ursa Minor from star to star, the higher the heaven you access according to its corresponding planet.

Number Star Planet Mithraic Name
1 β Ursae Minoris
Kochab
Moon ΑΙΕΡΩΝΘΙ
AIERŌNTHI
2 γ Ursae Minoris
Pherkad
Mercury ΜΕΡΧΕΙΜΕΡΟΣ
MERKHEIMEROS
3 η Ursae Minoris
Alasco
Venus ΑΧΡΙΧΙΟΥΡ
AKHRIKHIŪR
4 ζ Ursae Minoris
Ahfa al Farkadain
Sun ΜΕΣΑΡΓΙΛΤΩ
MESARGILTŌ
5 ε Ursae Minoris Mars ΧΙΧΡΩΑΛΙΘΩ
KHIKHRŌALITHŌ
6 δ Ursae Minoris
Yildun
Jupiter ΕΡΜΙΧΘΑΘΩΨ
ERMIKHTHATHŌPS
7 α Ursae Minoris
Polaris
Saturn ΕΟΡΑΣΙΧΗ
EORASIKHĒ

I guess the association of the seven bull-faced youths in order to the seven planets according to the heavenly arrangement would work out well enough in the end, but it was good to actually use the map of the stars of Ursa Minor themselves to make a stronger argument for why that should be so.  I still like the idea of Kochab and Pherkad going to the Sun and the Moon, but on the whole, this system works nicer and cleaner, especially with the connections to the seven snake-faced virgins.  Plus, with the second brightest star being given to the Moon in this scheme, this gives a pleasant balance and return to how important the Moon is when talking about the northern, artic, Bear stars: the Moon represents the initial approach towards sensible divinity, and Saturn the final escape to intelligible Divinity.

This is making huge progress, but we’re not done yet.  Stay tuned, and we’ll talk more about how we might understand the nature, form, and function of these entities, especially when we pair it back to certain things back in PGM XIII.

49 Days of Definitions: Part X, Definition 6

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the forty-eighth definition, part X, number 6 of 7:

Providence and Necessity (are), in the mortal, birth and death, and 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 mortal of this (world).

The relationships between different material bodies in the world is complicated, ranging from different types of living beings, some immortal and some not, some with Nous and some not, to the motions provided by the immortal heavenly beings that influence the lower mortal ones, and so forth.  Between figuring out what’s really us when we move and what’s an influence we’re being moved by can be difficult, and this is starting to raise some cosmological questions that this text is probably unsuited to answer adequately.  This definition, however, affords some more reason and rules to how everything down here works.

First, we’re introduced to Providence and Necessity.  We’ve already met necessity once before, in VIII.1: “there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans”.  Necessity is, then, an ordering principle of the cosmos, which structures things just so according to what we need so that everything can work together.  No matter what else happens in the world, it must fulfill necessity, else it cannot happen at all.  For all intents and purposes, we can consider necessity, providence, fate, and destiny to all be the same thing here; the two terms are not seen apart from each other, even in a similar passage in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 14):

Necessity and Providence and Nature are instruments of Cosmos and of Matter’s ordering; while of intelligible things each is Essence, and Sameness is their Essence.

In the world, each thing that exists must fulfill a particular fate.  For the mortal, these things are “birth and death”; these things are mandated for every mortal being that lives.  For every birth, there is a death; for every death, there is a birth.  Nothing mortal can live without being born, and all mortal things, by virtue of their being mortal, must die.  On the other hand, for Man who is both mortal and immortal in his own godly way, the corresponding fate of God is being “unbegotten”.  God is unbegotten, as we’ve mentioned before in the last definition, and God can neither die nor be born, nor can God grow or increase or decrease.  Simply put, God is, was, always will be, and can only ever be.

So, mortal beings are born, live for a short while, and die, and immortal beings live forever.  Cool.  But there’s more to it than that, especially when you put two of the same kind of beings with each other.  With immortal beings, they “agree with one another”; they do not fight, they do not bicker, they do not argue, but they agree and exist in more-or-less harmony with each other.  They have their roles and their parts to play, they always have, and they always will.  Consider the planets of the sky; though they may enter into harmful or violent aspects with each other, they do not fight or try to take from another what they have.  Mortal beings, on the other hand, “envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance”.  So us mortal beings, including animals and plants, fight and bicker and harm each other because we always want things that others have.  We envy others for what they have, and we’re jealous over what we already possess.  This is because we’re afraid of losing it when we die, so we want to hold onto it as much as we can before our bodies expire.

But this is stupid, isn’t it?  I mean, look at the planets: “the immortal does what he has always done”.  They don’t care what other things are doing; they’ve got their own job to do, and they’re in no rush nor lax state to get it done.  They just keep doing it forever; that’s their job.  A mortal being, on the other hand, “does what he has never done”.  Although any immortal part within us may have done it at some point before, these bodies are constantly changing (cf. panta rhei), not to mention that every body has not existed forever before.  There is always something new that we’re doing that we have not yet done, and may never get the chance to do it again.  We are only born once, we only take our first breath once, we only eat a particular plate of food once (different food is on it the next time!), and so forth.  Nothing is ever the same for us mortals, and with death approaching as is due for all mortals, we want to try to get everything we can done, and to obtain everything we can.  Being material creatures, we often find solace in material ends, which leads us to “envy one another with jealousy”.

Still, it’s stupid.  I mean, what is death?  It’s just the ending of the body’s use for the soul.  Man may have a body, but Man is so much more than that.  The essential Man is more than the sum of its parts; the essential Man is immortal and cannot die, no matter what kind of death the body may undergo.  The body simply doesn’t affect the soul in that way; while the body’s premature death may leave the soul stunted in development, it doesn’t kill the soul or the essential Man.  “Death, if understood, is immortality”, which is obtained through knowledge, and knowledge is perfection of the soul.  If we properly understand death, just as we can understand anything else, we will not fear it (IX.3), which then removes death from jealousy and envy and fighting over things.  That said, if we do not understand death, “it is death”.  By being ignorant of the nature of life and death, mortality and immortality of Man, we who are Man condemn ourselves to death and forsaking our chances at immortality and knowledge.

And, trust me, there are plenty of people who fit that bill.  How many people do you know are focused only on the material world?  How many who fight over money or possessions or Black Friday deals or what-have-you?  How many who conceive of nuclear wars to get rid of some pesky people from the face of the planet so we can get more oil?  There’s a lot of these people, and they find death to be fascinating without understanding it.  These type of people “assume that the mortal beings of this world have fallen under the dominion of the immortal”.  In other words, these people are violent or are ignorant because they think that’s just the way things are.  They don’t stop to think how they can change it, they don’t think they’re capable of changing it, and they don’t care about what the world might be if they changed it.  They think that the underlying reality of everything that happens is out of their control, so they may as well play along and “do their part” in being ignorant, however wise and reasonable it may seem to them.

But, as you who’re reading these Definitions know, that’s not the case.  Those who understand the nature of beings, who know reality and God and truth, understand that Man has as much power as the gods in determining our own actions (VIII.7).  We don’t have to be led around by the nose according to the whims and influences and passions of other beings.  We have the power to choose good or evil, knowledge or ignorance.  Those who realize these things have knowledge, and they understand that “in reality the immortal are the servants of the mortal of this world”.  The immortal don’t serve to rule or own the world; that’s for Man.  Man rules and owns the world, and we’re to understand and properly live our lives with the immortal beings so as to know them, by which we know ourselves, by which we know God, by which we obtain Nous, by which we perfect the soul, by which we obtain true immortality.

So what do we have to gain from the immortal gods?  Let’s restrict ourselves to the topic of the astrological planets and stars, then, when we talk about these heavenly beings.  Just as the four elements constitute four essences or qualities of created bodies down here, the stars and planets constitute essences or qualities of motion and action that are performed by bodies down here.  Mars, for instance, cuts off and burns up and produces a heat strong enough to lead people to fight.  Venus, on the other hand, embraces and nourishes and produces a cold mild enough to nurture and join people together.  All the planets, stars, gods, and heavenly beings produce other effects, and they take place down here in the world.  If we understand these influences, we understand what we do when we’re exposed to them, how we internalize and realize them, how we effect them, what they make use of in different situations, and how we can make the best use of them.  We use the immortal beings as a means to knowledge, which is why they exist in the first place.  The immortal beings, just as everything else, are a means by which we can know ourselves.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 1

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the twenty-ninth definition, part VIII, number 1 of 7:

All (beings) cannot possibly exceed their own capacity.  Nature is everyone of the beings of this (world); there is a law which is in heaven above destiny, and there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans, there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion.

At this point in the Definitions, we’re a little more than halfway done, and we have only three sets of definitions left.  However, nearly all of these are lengthy, and the sets themselves have more definitions within them than the previous sets.  We’re just now getting to the real meat of philosophy; everything before was basically setting up the groundwork for the philosophical and theological structures we’ll be building in these sets.

First, “all beings cannot possibly exceed their own capacity”.  We’re not given a definition or context for this phrase, but from the other definitions, we know enough to explain this.  First, all beings that are not God are finite (based on I.4); they are not infinite, unending, immovable, or the like, since these are only things that belong to God.  Something that is finite has an end; it is defined, or set in by boundaries.  The maximum extent of these boundaries can be called something’s capacity.  Further, we know that when a being is created from body and soul, these obtain “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” (VII.4); these things can be measured, sensed, described, and defined in many ways.  However, because they can be defined and measured, there will always be things that they are not; these things are outside the being’s capacity.  So, because I’m six feet tall, I am not taller than my own height, so I cannot be seven feet tall; my shirt is red, and so it cannot be any color but red; and so forth.  Anything that can be sensed can only be sensed in a particular time, location, and condition; it cannot be sensed elsewhere or elsewhen, since those lie outside the thing’s capacity.

A common word used to replace “capacity” when used like this is “fate”, and Hermes Trismegistus talks a little about fate in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 7):

Her. But all men are subject to Fate, and genesis and change, for these are the beginning and the end of Fate.  And though all men do suffer fated things, those led by reason (those whom we said the Mind doth guide) do not endure like suffering with the rest; but, since they’ve freed themselves from viciousness, not being bad, they do not suffer bad.

Thus, everything that exists has a certain way of existing up to a certain point, whether it be in quantity or quality or good or evil; these things cannot act outside or beyond that point, because then it would “exceed their own capacity”.  It makes sense, after all; I cannot be immortal, because I only have an approximate lifespan.  I can lengthen or shorten that lifespan depending on my life choices, but it’s certain that I will eventually run through my lifespan and eventually die, because it is in my nature to die, being a mortal human being.

What is nature, though?  “Nature is everyone of the beings of this world”, so it basically sounds like the microcosm of the sensible world in relation to the macrocosm of the intelligible world.  Nature is the whole of increase and decrease, the four elements, sense and vision, and all the bodies here.  Nature is the restrictions, capacities, and abilities that we have.  Nature is, in effect, everything that sensibly exists and each of their qualities along with it.  Alternatively, however, a footnote provided by Jean-Pierre Mahé in the text suggests that this same statement might be translated another way, which I prefer: “every being in this (world) has a nature”.  Thus, our natures are our own capacities and tendencies; it is in the nature for the wolf to hunt and form packs, for the tiger to hunt and remain solitary, for the deer to graze and run, and for all animals to be born, live, and die.  In effect, our natures are our design, the Idea of ourselves and the things we are.  It might be said that nature is, in a way, our fate or destiny.

Of course, though, destiny isn’t the only force we have to deal with, nor is it the greatest force.  “There is a law which is in heaven above destiny” suggests that there are things that even destiny itself must bow down to.  After all, the destiny of something exists so long as that thing itself exists or can exist.  And, even if all ideas were formed in the beginning of time, they were still formed by something else, and thus preceded by something else: God (III.4).  Things work according to the divine plan of the Nous, which in turn creates destiny, which then acts on heaven, which then acts on the world (cf. the bit about astral demons affecting human actions in VII.5) and, thus, on Man and all other entities.  In effect, destiny is brought into existence because without it there could be no design or form for things that exist.  Destiny is “a just necessity”, providing for and supporting forms, species, and ideas just as souls are “a necessary movement” to provide for and support bodies of all kinds.  Destiny is a law in its own way; certainly not the highest one, but not the lowest one, either.

Of those other laws, one has “come into being according to the necessity of humans”.  This could be interpreted in several ways on its own, but the context for this is provided by the next statement: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”.  Thus, as humans work and live and exist down in the world, there are certain needs that we have that we also fulfill.  Of those, there are human laws, such as prohibitions on stealing or usury or land management or equal pay.  These are laws that humans need that other beings or realms don’t need; it doesn’t make sense to talk about food and drug regulation in a realm where there is no matter to constitute food or drugs, and it likewise doesn’t make sense to discuss same-sex marriage laws for species that have no capability for abstract social connections, much less marriage benefits and contracts.  These are not laws of the Most High, but they’re needed by us all the same to help us live our lives down here.

Likewise, to help us live our lives, we also have invented gods for ourselves: “there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion”.  This smacks of Voltaire’s famous quote, “si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer”, or “if God did not exist, we would have to invent him”.  What this definition is saying is that, much as we have set up laws and regulations for ourselves in our endeavor to be human, we have also set up religions and gods for ourselves for the same endeavor.  Whether it be the gods of Olympus or Meru or the various Buddhafields or Yggdrasil, or whether it be the physical world itself, we have these opinions and conceptions of divinity that we rely on to help us understand and make sense of the world.  I wrote about some of these different views about materialists and spiritualists a ways back, and some people (notably the atheists in the crowd) essentially make the material, physical world their God, their All, their Whole.  They may not worship, pay reverence, or make offerings to the world, but it fills the same role that YHVH would have for an Abrahamist, or moksha or paranirvana to a Dharmist.

Everything in creation, whether it be in the intelligible or the sensible worlds, is needed; nothing is out of place, and everything has a purpose.  However, there are purposes, whole destinies, that individual things are not meant to fulfill; whether it’s a certain quality or quantity or characteristic, or a use or experience, there are things that other things cannot be.  This is okay; these are needed just as much as anything else.  Further, everything even down to the nitty-gritty of human transactions have needs and laws; much as the law of destiny governs all beings and were set up by God to manage the affairs of the world, the laws of humanity govern all human interactions and were set up by Man to manage the affairs of the human world.  Of these, we have developed notions of divinity and whole gods and religions to help us manage our understanding of God and the world.

But note that, even though the text distinguishes the gods of human invention from the God of Hermes Trismegistus, there is no word on which is right or wrong.  It may be that these different opinions and notions of divinity may reflect true Divinity, depending on how they arise.  It’s much like reasonable speech, Logos, as Hermes explains to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter XII, part 13):

Tat. Why, father mine!—do not the other lives make use of speech (logos)?

Her. Nay, son; but use of voice; speech is far different from voice. For speech is general among all men, while voice doth differ in each class of living thing.

Tat. But with men also, father mine, according to each race, speech differs.

Her. Yea, son, but man is one; so also speech is one and is interpreted, and it is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece.

Logos is not restricted to any one language, or to any language at all; Logos is reason derived from silent understanding and knowledge of God.  Reasonable speech is speech with Logos imbued in it by Nous; it doesn’t matter what language it’s spoken in, since the reason itself is universal to all languages.  It’s like communicating a mathematical problem; you can solve it through geometry, infinitesimal calculus, or even a memory-bounded Turing machine, but the mathematical problem itself and the answer will be the same.  Reason is abstract, much as ideas are; speech is manifest, and helps to manifest ideas to others.  Thus, reasonable speech “is found the same in Egypt, and in Persia, and in Greece”, because it all reflects the same reason.  Similarly, it may be that the gods of Egypt and of Persia and of Greece, while appearing different, all reflect the same God, just as their languages can reflect the same Logos.  More on that later.