Where were we? We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent. There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other. Last time, we talked about some of the details in the afterlife model we proposed earlier and what happens in some edge cases left unspecified by particular “levels” of readiness of the soul for making “the way up”. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!
So, let’s give a recap first of what we’re looking at and working with. Although there is a notion of some form of afterlife in the Hermetic texts which revolves around a two-pronged approach that involves both a fate-driven reincarnation of a soul across bodies as well as a salvation-ascent of the soul beyond it that frees the soul from fate, we’re not given a clear picture as to many of the specifics of such a belief. What we have, at best, are basically snippets, either small statements made in passing that touch on the topic (like AH 28) or incomplete excerpts of discourses that begin talking about it but not in full (like SH 25). Moreover, the most complete such account we have of an afterlife from SH 25—26 (the later parts of the text overall known as the Korē Kosmou) itself is among the least Hermetic texts out there, given how strange and bizarre it is compared to much of what’s talked about in the rest of the classical Hermetic corpora.
What we’re left with is something we have to piece together, and the model we have can be outlined as follows:
- The realm of the Earth (or the zeroth sphere) is the realm of living, embodied creatures, while the realm of the fixed stars (the eighth sphere, and higher ones) is the realm of divine powers. Getting from here to there is the salvific goal of Hermeticism, but most people don’t end up there, or at least, not directly. For the souls of the dead, there is another realm, which is the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon.
- There are different zones in the atmosphere corresponding to different kinds of soul; the more noble the soul, the higher it goes into clearer, calmer airs. Lower zones contain ignoble, undignified souls, including tortured or otherwise intranquil souls (either due to their own difficulties incurred while alive or are rendered tortured by virtue of the low zone in the atmosphere with its darker, more turbulent air).
- After an ensouled body dies, it rises to a station appropriate to it depending on how it lived in life in response to the activities and influences of fate. Prior to an ensouled body being born, a soul descends according to the activities of fate. Although souls are technically beyond the touch of fate (since they come from a place ontologically beyond it), where they dwell is still encosmic and sublunar, and so their being pulled around and pulled into bodies is also a fate-driven process.
- Souls that are able to rise higher than any level of the dwelling-place of souls are said to be on “the way up”, the ascent through the planetary spheres themselves up to the higher spheres beyond the realm of fate.
In general, what the Hermetic texts give us are teachings useful for fulfilling the goals laid out by Hermēs Trismegistos, which is to live a life of joyful, mindful reverence to God and to free our souls from the embodied bindings of fate that lead us to suffer. Everything that we have in the Hermetic texts is meant to be useful towards that, and that should be the context and framing for whatever we might read in them. Even in their incomplete state given what we see from what’s extant, it’s clear that the Hermetic texts are not (and were never meant to be) some massive endless encyclopedia of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but stuff specifically meant to achieve a particular goal. Whatever we see is meant to fulfill that goal directly (like texts that describe how to live reverently or what “the way up” is like) or indirectly (like texts that describe the nature of the soul and how it can be afflicted by bodily concerns).
Given how little information we find in the Hermetic texts about specific details concerning the afterlife (and given what we do have isn’t all that neatly compliant or conformant with each other), I get the impression that most of this just isn’t all that useful, either directly or indirectly, to the goals of Hermeticism. I mean, it’s really not a far stretch to consider that trying to divvy up the atmosphere into so many soul-strata isn’t unlike asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and trying to puzzle out what happens if a soul ends up aborting the ascent and whether it lingers there or reincarnates doesn’t much matter when such a soul is destined for completing the ascent regardless soon enough anyway. As far as the goals of Hermeticism are concerned, we don’t need to know the details of things like this, and worrying about them overmuch leads more to distraction, to the philosophy-tainting sophistry of AH 14 or the “inane foolosophy” of CH XVI.2. Trying to figure out something that is fundamentally so remote and distant from the lived, living human experience is often less helpful than being told how to live your life here and now, regardless of what we might hypothesize might come.
To an extent, even if we had a fully-described model of the afterlife, there would still be doubts lingering about its validity and how apt it is to describe the afterlife experience, but we don’t even have that; instead, we have an outline with a lot of variations, possibilities, and unanswered questions at this point. However, I think that by having a model of a Hermetic afterlife and at least a little more explanation regarding the process of reincarnation and ascent is more helpful than not. In addition to giving us a bit more reassurance about what happens to us after our incarnation this time around and also helping us better situate Hermeticism among the philosophical and spiritual traditions of its time, it also helps better tie Hermeticism into a more holistic, comprehensive spiritual practice. After all, many people who get involved in Hermeticism are rarely just mystics, but are often involved in any number of other magical or priestly practices, too. For many people, the near-silence of the Hermetic texts on even the mere existence of the spirits of the dead or practices involving them can be unsettling, so being able to tease out a model that accommodates their existence and utility would be a great thing to have on our side.
To that end, what are some of the other things that such a model of a Hermetic afterlife might explain, elaborate on, or otherwise impact?
One of the big unanswered questions from the Hermetic afterlife discussion is the timescale of the transitions between incarnation and discarnation, and whether the process of the soul separating from the body and rising up to its next stage is instantaneous or not. If it is, then once the body dies, that’s it; the soul goes away and the body is just an inert, decaying hunk of flesh. However, if it’s not instantaneous, then that would suggest that there’s a window of time where the soul either still inhabits or hangs out around the body before it moves onto its next stage. Even as a disembodied, incorporeal entity, souls are still a kind of entity that can be interacted with, and so certain rites that work with such entities (as with many forms of conjuration or invocation or the like) would still be able to interact with souls of the recently dead.
The most obvious thing that would be impacted here would be the purpose and nature of funereal rites for the sake of the recently dead. So long as such a funeral were to be had within a reasonable timeframe within which the soul still lingers in or within the body, various rituals may be had explicitly for the benefit of the soul as it begins to transition from incarnation to discarnation. In addition to the actual mourning performed to help remind and orient the soul as a wake-up call to indicate that it is indeed dead and not just in some weird coma, rituals may be performed for the alleviation of the soul to help release some of the things that weigh it down, save it from some of its burdens and addictions and attachments, and to cleanse it from whatever pollutions or tormentors still afflict it. Reading scriptures, giving teachings, or reciting instructive prayers near the body (where the soul is hanging out) would act as one last reminder-lesson for the soul to prepare it for whatever might come next. Making offerings or sacrifices for the soul (much as one would an enshrined god in a temple) could serve to nourish it, give it whatever it was seeking or lacking in life, and otherwise empower and encourage and enlighten it to face whatever may come with dignity and grace and serenity. The big thing that matters is making the most of this “window of opportunity” to cover any bases and fill any gaps remaining that could not be covered or filled in while alive.
What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife, where we are assigned a place to dwell in by the avenging/judging daimōn? I don’t seriously think that such a daimōn could necessarily be bribed or hoodwinked, and the Hermetic belief here is that engaging with this daimōn is far more than just paying a perfunctory toll: it’s an honest judgment of our conduct while alive, our responses and reactions to fate and how we evaluated, respected, and revered (or not) the Creator and the Creation. That said, incorporating a token nod to the daimōn, I think, would be useful in a “Hermetic funeral” of sorts: for one, it reminds the soon-to-depart soul of this daimōn and thus of what our obligations and responsibilities are according to the design God instituted for the cosmos. However, I think there may also be a chance that those participating in a funeral may, for those souls who have responsibly earned it, give one last act of forgiveness and acceptance to the person for any wrongs they might have committed, as one last attempt to “level the balance” of sorts by lightening the burden on the soul and giving them a chance to fix themselves and get their act together before they do, eventually, come in contact with the daimōn. And, hey, if there is no avenging/judging daimōn here, then we succeed in lightening the soul of the soon-to-be-departed regardless, and either way, help them ascend higher than they otherwise might.
Of course, this is all assuming that the soul can actually benefit from them (which I think is a safe assumption to make) and assuming that there is a reasonable amount of time for such an interval for rituals like this to take place in (which is less sure of an assumption to make). If there isn’t such an interval, or if the interval isn’t long enough for such a ritual to occur, then the efficacy of the ritual transforms basically into a coping session for the living and fulfillment of societal obligations to pay honor for the deceased. These are, of course, valuable things unto themselves to perform regardless, but it shifts the focus and purpose of funerals from being for the sake of the dead to being for the sake of the living.
In either case, however, the body of the deceased shouldn’t be neglected; while it is little more than an inert hunk of matter at this point, it once housed the soul and presence of someone we once knew and loved, and should be treated with dignity as one might treat the broken fragment of a temple idol one cherished and made offerings to, even if decommissioned long ago. Besides merely showing reverence to the cosmos that allowed for the presence of someone we loved and respected, magical works may also be performed on the body to purify it and cleanse it, too, as it begins its own process of decomposition. While matter is matter regardless, I claim that performing works of purification on such a body as it begins its decomposition before putrescence or the like can settle in is a positive thing, since the energies that inhabit the body will soon disperse to rejoin and be reused in other bodies throughout the cosmos. In purifying and refining the soon-to-be raw materials, we can subtly influence the overall beneficence and purity of the whole cosmos as a whole.
Veneration and Elevation of the Dead
As opposed to funereal rites that take place immediately following death while the soul is still in or around the body, rites that tend to the well-being of one’s ancestors specifically and the dead generally can take place at basically any point. In general, the efficacy of such rites and rituals doesn’t depend on whether the transition from incarnation to discarnation is instantaneous or not; all that matters is that the person for whom the rites or rituals are performed is dead. That said, if the transition is not instantaneous, then the rites that should be done prior to such a transition could be considered funereal and those afterwards would be considered those of veneration and elevation, yet, while there’s plenty of overlap between the two regardless, there’s still some differences in the goals and methods that might be used here.
While funereal practices would ease or help direct the transition of a soul from being incarnate to discarnate (even to the point of giving reminders or directions as to where to go and how to make the approach to other realms and giving the soul one last chance to have any sort of fulfillment in this life before they go, like a “last meal” of sorts), the veneration and elevation of the dead focuses on a soul where it already is in the afterlife, ensuring that they are comfortable, content, and at ease wherever they might be. The major difference here is that a funeral works with the soul already present, but what if the soul is no longer present? How do the works we engage in “reach” them, and what sorts of effects would they have? After all, with the soul already distant in its own dwelling-place, it’s not like making an offering to an enshrined god at a temple where they already are.
One way I can envision such a thing to work is essentially by creating an “updraft”. Consider that, in the Hermetic afterlife model we’ve been looking at, the souls of the dead abide in the dwelling-place of souls, somewhere in the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon. Through the use of physical offerings that burn and emit smoke, flame, or scent upwards, we literally carry our offerings up to the souls where they abide, much as we do for classically-considered ouranic/celestial deities. However, even if we omit these physical aspects of making offerings, even devout prayer and well-wishing would still be likely to reach them; consider how some Hermetic texts like CH XI.19 suggest how the soul (at least one of a spiritually advanced person) has such power in it to go basically anywhere it wants, which suggests that the reach of any given soul can be fairly broad. Through sincere works of venerating the dead, we essentially proffer up what we can to the souls in their dwelling-place, and they might be able to “stoop down”, at least to an extent, to receive them.
I did make the comparison above, however, that offerings to the dead like this aren’t like those we make to an enshrined god in a temple. Such a setup basically has an idol be ritually enlivened and ensouled with the presence of that god right there, whether in part or in total or via some emissary of the god, and because of that active presence of the god, offerings made right there are easy enough to reach them. What about making offerings at the tombs or graves of the dead? While their souls aren’t actively inhabiting their physical remains anymore, those physical remains did once host that soul, and so there is some sort of natural connection that a particularly strong or daring soul might take advantage of to descend back to and, if not actually inhabit it, at least be present near enough for such offerings to count. Graveside memorial services, tombside feasts, leaving offerings at the false doors of ancient Egyptian tombs, and the like are classic examples of stuff like this approach where we might make offerings to the dead for them to receive.
But why would we make offerings like this to begin with? We should remember that any soul that is not fully ascended has some (even if very little) amount of baggage or weight that keeps them down, and the more baggage, the lower they sink and (presumably, more in some accounts than others) the more they suffer. By making offerings and venerating them, we help ease their burden and make their stay in the afterlife more peaceful, which helps prepare them for whatever next incarnation they might have instead of just dragging along their baggage from one life to the next. However, besides merely venerating the dead, there’s also the notion of elevating them, too, as is common in some religious and spiritual traditions. For this particular Hermetic model of the afterlife, I think the idea here is fairly straightforward: we raise the dead from one soul-stratum to a higher one, which not only significantly improves their well-being in the afterlife, but also positions them for a better reincarnation the next time around and speeds them along the way to “the way up”. The question then becomes: how might we achieve this? In the same way that venerating the dead helps ease the weighty burdens of the souls that keeps them from rising any higher than they are, I claim that it’s possible to ease them enough to outright lighten them, and in the process enlighten these very same souls.
What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn? While I don’t think that this matters either way for us merely venerating the dead (much as a jail warden might not care about what guests do with or bring in for prisoners so long as the prisoners stay where they are), the possibility of elevating the dead is not quite in line with this; after all, if a judge sentences you to a particular punishment for a given crime, it’s the judge’s call to commute that sentence, not that of an amicus curiae or some well-wisher visiting a prisoner. Despite my hypothesizing above, it’s not clear whether there can be an actual means to elevate the dead in a Hermetic model, if the status and stratum of a given soul is something fixed until after its next incarnation, especially if there’s a daimōn involved (or one that specifically watches over the souls where they are, like the Steward of Souls from SH 26.3) that enforces a particular arrangement of souls in the afterlife; in such a model, it’s not that a soul wouldn’t want to rise up to a higher level, and indeed would probably try to do so, but that they can’t since they’re otherwise bound to a particular stratum by the judgment of a given daimōn—and I don’t think pleading with such a daimōn would do much to affect their judgment. However, just how a judge might see a given criminal as showing sincere remorse and contrition and commute a sentence already partially served upon review, it may be that helping to improve the dignity of a soul through offerings (and with them a power of moral conversion and education) may well allow such a soul to rise to a higher stratum even after arriving in a lower one even with such a daimōn’s license. It’s an interesting idea to toy with, at least, and gives at least a little bit of hope for improving the state of the souls of the dead regardless of the daimōn or not.
What of souls that have already reincarnated? This is where any sort of ancestral veneration practice that takes place alongside a belief in reincarnation gets weird, because the things we do for the dead are meant to improve their status in the realm of the dead, but if they’re no longer there, then what happens? To my thinking, the worst that can happen is that we just end up ringing a dead number: nobody’s there to pick up, so whatever we say is just done in vain, with nothing bad happening to anyone but nothing good happening, either. However, I can think of two other alternatives:
- It’d be like setting a table of food for a particular guest, but no such guest shows up. Instead, it becomes a free-for-all, with whoever being able to participate deriving benefit from it instead so that nothing goes to waste. If we make such offerings of veneration and elevation to a particular soul of the dead but that soul simply isn’t there to receive it, the offerings get dispersed amongst the other souls (whether in the same stratum or not) so that they receive it instead. In this way, at least someone will still be able to benefit.
- Because any given soul is immortal and thus always reachable in one sense or another, it’d be like sending mail to someone’s old address and it gets redirected to their updated one. In this case, the offerings we make to a given soul still reaches them, but it influences them in their new life where they already are. Even if we who make these offerings make them with the assumption that their dead, we end up effectively improving their new life, just as if we were to pray for the well-being of our already-living friends or family. This effectively improves their status, and thus indirectly improves the likelihood of them attaining a higher and better state in their next afterlife than they had in their old one.
In either case, I think it’s still good to make offerings of veneration and elevation for the dead regardless. Besides it being just good form and filial piety to do so, it’s also true that, just how we can’t be truly certain of what the afterlife is like in detail, we can’t be too sure of the specific fate or current state of any given soul in the afterlife. Rather than assuming that any given soul is already incarnated after some period of time (it’s not clear how long that might take, depending on the whims and directives of fate itself), I think it’d be safer to just assume that any given soul is still discarnate for the sake of ancestor veneration indefinitely, and let those offerings be received however they will. Again, at worst, nothing happens and it just becomes ritual for ritual’s sake to uphold a culture of filial piety and love for those who have passed on, but otherwise, it can create truly blessed change for those who might need it most.
There’s lots of kinds of ritual out there that are less religious and more magical, with the word “necromancy” covering quite a few of them. However, there’s also other kinds of non-necromantic ritual, as well, that stands to be explained or informed by the Hermetic model of the afterlife as well. We’ll get to that in the next post!
(PS: Happy Halloween, Samhain, and All Saints’/Souls’ Day!)