Feasts at a Hermetic Shrine

In the last post, I brought up the notion of what sorts of offerings one might make at a shrine used for Hermetic devotions and worship and how one might go about arranging them.  For me in general, this is an important thing to mull over, because I find the simple making of offerings (even just incense, candles, and water) to be a hugely beneficial work unto itself.  And yes, sure, while Hermēs at the end of the Asclepius (AH 41) says that one shouldn’t offer incense to God:

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”

When Trismegistus heard him, he was disturbed and said: “A bad omen, Asclepius, very bad. To burn incense and such stuff when you entreat god smacks of sacrilege. For he wants nothing who is himself all things or in whom all things are. Rather let us worship him by giving thanks, for god finds mortal gratitude to be the best incense.”

Such a direction only really applies to the One God, not to the many gods.  After all, earlier on in the Asclepius (AH 38), Hermēs praises works of sacrifice for the gods, or at least those that inhabit cult images in temples:

And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

While I think that making offerings to the gods is never something done in vain and can be done anytime and all the time, I also find that it helps to have some sort of routine, rhythm, or rubric by which one can organize the timing of offerings, what sorts of offerings should be given, and the like.  This is where the notion of ritual timing comes into play, and so raises the question of when we should engage in such works of offering and sacrifice.  There are lots of terms for such events, but a good general-purpose one we might use is simply “feast”—if not for us, then at least for the gods.

In the last post, I cited a few Hermetic Testimonies (TH) texts that informed my notion of what can/should be given at a Hermetic shrine for Hermetic work, according to a few Islamic-era texts that describe some clearly non-Islamic (but potentially Islamicly-filtered) practices that may well be Hermetic.  Let’s review those texts once more, with the bits about timing highlighted.

TH 37B (Picatrix III.7), but using the Attrell/Porreca translation:

The opinion of the sages about the prayers and petitions suited to the planets is that each of the planets acts on matters corresponding to its own nature (the fortunate to the good and the unfortunate to the evil).  When you wish to ask something from the planets, see to it that the chosen planet be aspected by the lord of the ascendant, that the almuten of the figure be in the east and also high in its epicycle in the fourth altitude in the east.  Then the sages would make their petitions.  The powers and effects of the planets are stronger and of greater influence at night.  Beware lest you seek anything from the any planet that is not from its own proper nature since it would be the downfall of such a request.

The sages who made prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did the abovementioned things.  When the heavens moved by eight degrees, they made the sacrifice of one animal, and while it as setting by eight degrees, they made another sacrifice.  They say that Hermes ordered them to do this in mosques or in their churches.  Those sages have claimed regarding Hermes that he was lord of the three thriving roles, namely a king, a prophet, and a sage.

The context of this part of the Picatrix is from a lengthy chapter that contains descriptions of the seven planets, what their properties and associations are, and what prayers may be recited for them (and how!) for a number of ends.  These prayers specify particular astrological configurations (e.g. for Saturn “you must wait until he enters into good condition” like in Libra, Aquarius, or Capricorn), so these can reasonably fall into the domain of astrological magic, but if you consider Hermeticism or those influenced by it to participate in an astrological religion, then there’s little difference between the two.

In that light, what we see here is also astrological in nature, but rather than it being about a particular election, it’s about repeated and regular rituals rituals after an election.  Once a particular planetary working was performed at a given election, two further sacrifices were given to the planet, each when it had passed eight degrees along the ecliptic.  Thus, for example, if I were to do an operation of the Sun when it was at is exaltation degree of 18° Aries, then I’d make another sacrifice to the Sun at 18 + 8 = 26° Aries, and then again at 26 + 8 = 34 → 4° Taurus.  Depending on the speed of the planet in question, it could take anywhere from a day to a year or more, but the point is to follow up one ritual with two subsequent ones, either as thanks or to revisit the working to ensure its success.  However, I wouldn’t really call these “feasts”, not really; while these would be ritualized offerings, they’re done as follow-ups to particular purpose-driven operations, like follow-up visits to the doctor after a once-in-a-lifetime health procedure rather than a regularly-scheduled yearly checkup.

We’ll look at the next two together, since they’re pretty similar in content.  First, TH 28 (Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim 7.8—10.19):

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

And then Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, “On the Three Hermēses”:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

As opposed to being as-needed purpose-driven operations, what these extracts give us would be much closer to religious observances.  They’re still astrologically-determined, sure, but they’re not as arbitrary or at-will as what Picatrix III.7 was describing.  From these, we get the following notions:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun).  This makes sense and is a pretty common observance to make the whole world over, given how the observable synodic cycle of the Moon is a common basis for months in lunar or lunisolar calendars.  Repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign.  For anyone astrologically-inclined, this would also make sense for similar reasons as the observance of the new Moon, just for a strictly solar calendar rather than a lunar/lunisolar one.  (Consider the Persian Nowruz celebration, marking the new year at the March equinox when the Sun enters Aries.)  More repeated, regularly-timed feasts.
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their domiciles.  Now we’re getting into actual astrological stuff, but in a way that’s as repeated and regular as the strictly lunar and solar observances as before.  (In the case of the Sun, this would overlap with the Sun ingressing into Leo.)
  • Planets ingress into the signs of their exaltations (or, more specifically, arrive at their degrees of exaltation).  Again, similar as above with planets ingressing into their domiciles, but there are two options here.  While we might perform such a feast when a given planet enters the sign of its exaltation (e.g. Venus hits 0° Pisces), exaltations are technically degree-based dignities of the planets, so instead of doing it by sign ingress, we might instead do this when the planet hits that specific degree (e.g. Venus hits 26° Pisces).  This gives us something like two or three observances a year for each planet (possibly more if we consider the separate times a planet hits a degree due to retrograde motion as a separate observance worthy of action).
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another, and possibly other aspects.  Unlike the above, this is not something so regular or repeated, because it depends on particular astrological configurations of the planets that might happen on any timescale, like the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that happen once every 20 years or so.  Now, the language here is somewhat conflicting or obscure: what such events are worthy of such an observance?  Conjunctions are specifically highlighted, but between what planets, or how many planets?  For other aspects, do we care about greater aspects (oppositions and trines) or lesser aspects (squares and sextiles)?  For Mercury and Venus, do we care about whether a conjunction is superior (on the far side of the Sun during direct motion) or inferior (between the Earth and the Sun during retrograde motion)?  Depending on the strictness of one’s observation, one could really open up the field here to quite a lot of feasts all the time or just a handful of them a year.

Also, something I’d also like to propose in addition to the above, based not on Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia but classical-period Greco-Egyptian practice: the decans!  These are 10-day periods, basically the equivalent of Egyptian “weeks”, which were used to track the passage of time, and later became incorporated into Hellenistic and later forms of astrology as “faces”, 10° segments of the ecliptic, giving three decans/faces to a sign (o° to 10°, 1o° to 20°, and 20° to 30°).  Like most of the above, these would be regular and repeated observances, but definitely on a more frequent timescale than any of the others…unless we also factor in lunar phases beyond the New Moon, like the Full Moon or quarter Moons.  It’s interesting how new Moons are specifically highlighted as an observance for making offerings, but not any other kind of lunar timing beyond this; one might presume that smaller or private observances might have been made without as much public pomp as new Moon ones, but that’s entirely conjecture.  Either way, we can certainly consider the above highlights from the Islamic-period Hermetic testimonia give a good number of basic observances to start with that form the foundation of an astrologically-informed religious practice, to which we can add other astrologically-informed observances to if desired for a more active and rigorous schedule.

In addition to all the above—or, technically, as a specification of one of the items from above—I’d also like to highlight a particular observance when Mercury hits the fifteenth degree of Virgo (i.e. 14° Virgo).  This is part of the specific astrological timing given in NHC VI,6, the Coptic Hermetic text Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, as that to be used for the inscribing of sacred steles:

“Child, copy this book for the temple at Diospolis  in hieroglyphic characters, and call it the Eighth Reveals the Ninth.”

“I shall do it, father,  as you command.”

“Child,  copy the contents of the book on turquoise steles.  Child, it is fitting to copy this book on turquoise steles in hieroglyphic characters, for mind itself has become the supervisor of these things. So I command that this discourse be carved into stone and that you put it in my sanctuary.  Eight guards watch over it with…the sun: the males on the right have faces of frogs, and the females on the left have faces of cats.  Put a square milkstone at the base of the turquoise tablets, and copy the name on the azure stone tablet in hieroglyphic characters. Child, you must do this when I am in Virgo, and the sun is in the first half of the day, and fifteen degrees have passed by me.”

I should note that the fifteenth degree of Virgo is the exaltation degree of Mercury, so this would already technically be accounted for in the above lists, but would definitely rank as a super-important observance to make.

Also, to follow up on something from the Picatrix, remember all that talk we had about the communion with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6According to the ritual instructions given there, one is to undertake the operation when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. 0° Aries).  Technically, the Moon is only in the first degree of Aries for about a two-hour window once every 28 days, but the Moon’s ingress to Aries could be reckoned more broadly as another kind of “new month”, just using a sidereal lunar month instead of a synodic one.  Although not given in the above list, we might also generalize this to make an observance for the Moon ingress into every sign just as the Sun does, which would rank as the most frequent type of observance (twelve or thirteen per month, once every two or three days!).

Anyway!  In the last post, though, I also highlighted another excerpt from Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal, from the section “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar; also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I; and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ.

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

The Ṣābians (or Sabaeans) of Ḥarrān are a fascinating group.  Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot about them, but we know at least a few things, namely that they were a Semitic group in upper Mesopotamia (now in southern Turkey near the Syrian border) practicing a kind of polytheistic, astrologically-inclined religion well into the Islamic period.  In classical times, it was the principal city for the worship of the lunar deity Sin, and given its location at a trade crossroads (the literal meaning of the word harrānu in Akkadian), it had access to lots of religious influences from the old world.  After centuries of obstinate refusal to convert to Christianity, when it stood to be conquered by Islamic caliphs, the inhabitants of Ḥarrān were given a choice: convert to Islam, prove that they were a People of the Book as a protected people, or die.  On account of this, the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān claimed that they had Hermēs Trismegistos as a prophet, making themselves officially Hermeticists of a sort, which would legitimize them in the eyes of Islam since Hermēs Trismegistos was assimilated to the prophet ‘Idrīs, himself the biblical patriarch Enoch.  Of course, as Kevin van Bladel has amply shown in The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science, they weren’t really Hermetic in any way one might recognize beyond being some sort of Neoplatonic or Pseudo-Aristotelian astrally-focused polytheists, who held many pagan sages and philosophers in high esteem well beyond just Hermēs Trismegistos.  (For real, van Bladel’s book is an excellent source on the discussion of the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān in general with ample sources and quotes, do check it out.)

What we find in the Bar Hebraeus quote above is a description of some of the practices attributed to such a people.  None of it is particularly Hermetic or tied to Hermeticism, and given the evidence van Bladel presents there may well not be any such connection at all, but it is noteworthy as a religion at least nominally tied in some marginal (and marginalized) way to Hermēs Trismegistos.  While there’s more here about regular religious practice (which doesn’t neatly mesh with what we know of from the classical Hermetic texts), I do find it fascinating that there are three fasting periods listed:

  • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
  • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
  • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)

I’m using the Hebrew month names here, but we should remember that the Hebrew calendar, which itself is a continuation of the earlier Babylonian calendar which was in use for quite a while and which spawned later calendars all across Mesopotamia and the near/middle East.  It’s not clear what these fasts would be for or why they were celebrated, but it is an interesting thing to note all the same for religious observances, especially if one wanted to take a more generically Old World-inspired religious approach to observances (and which might be tied into the “fast on recognized days of each month” bit from TH 28 above).  After all, we should remember that the lunar/lunisolar Babylonian calendar and its derivatives have little to do with the solar Egyptian calendar and its derivatives (like the Coptic calendar), which arrange for time in a much different way.

On that point, I’m reminded of an earlier discussion I had back when I was considering holy days for a geomantic practice, when trying to figure out a feast day of sorts to commemorate and venerate Hermēs Trismegistos himself.  And that opens up a whole new can of worms for us to mull over, doesn’t it?  All the above are very astral/astrological observances that recognize the changes, ebbs, and flows of things in the cosmos, which is certainly an important thing for a Hermetic practice that seeks to be awe-struck by the beauty of the cycles of the cosmos to incorporate, but what about other holidays and feasts that aren’t astrologically determined or which are for the explicit purpose of astrological observations?  This would include things like feasts and holidays from Hellenic and Egyptian religious traditions that fed into the development of Greco-Egyptian spiritualities like Hermeticism, and a handful I can think of would be:

  • The Greek Hermaia, to be celebrated on the fourth day of the tenth lunar month, the days reckoned from the first sighting of the Moon and the months reckoned from the first new Moon after the June solstice (putting this usually sometime in March)
  • The Roman Mercuralia, celebrated on May 15
  • The Egyptian Thoth festival celebrated on the third day of the Wag festival, so the 19th day of the first month, reckoned from the heliacal rising of Sirius (using the ancient Egyptian reckoning, which varies from latitude to latitude on Earth but is generally between late July and late August) or from the start of the Coptic New Year (using the modern Coptic calendar, starting on September 11)

And those three would just be the most famous ones focusing on Hermēs-Mercurius-Thōth as analogues for our own Hermēs Trismegistos based on other religious traditions with their own calendars, to say nothing of minor or more regional holidays across the Mediterranean.  If we expand that to also include ones for Asklēpios-Imhotep or Ammōn-Amūn as other students of Hermēs Trismegistos (the student-son Tat being equivalent to Thōth himself), we’d get even more candidates for holidays.  As for whether one should incorporate them is a matter for one’s own personal practice, of course, especially if one is already engaged in one of these sorts of paganisms today (e.g. modern Hellenism or Kemeticism).  Given the trouble I had with trying to figure out what would have been a reasonable feast day for Hermēs Trismegistos all those many moons ago, I’ll leave this thread here for others to pick up if they so choose.  If I were pressed to make a choice, I’d just make up arbitrary Gregorian calendar-based dates for honoring Hermēs Trismegistos and the rest of them that use repeating numbers: March 3 for Hermēs  Trismegistos and April 4 for Tat (or vice versa, or together as one or the other), June 6 for Asklēpios-Imhotep, and December 12 for Ammōn-Amūn.

Besides just figuring out feasts for individual gods apart from astrological considerations, there’s also an abundance of choices one might have for particular commemorations, whether cultural, historical, or personal.  Because of how much possibility there is for that, both that I might consider for myself as well as others for themselves, it’s just too much to consider in a single post even for me, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.  What I think we can all agree on, however, are the transitions and changes that the cycles of astrological phenomena might suggest as being a good foundation for everyone to consider.  I’ve idly considered making a sort of prayer practice composed of interlocking cycles that relate to astronomical and cosmic ones:

  • Two, three, four, or six prayers for the four times of the day
    • Sunrise, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset
    • Sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight
    • Dawn, sunrise, noon, sunset, dusk, midnight
  • Seven prayers for the seven days of the week
  • Ten prayers for the ten days of each decan
  • 12 prayers for the Sun or Moon ingress into each sign of the Zodiac
  • 28 prayers for the Moon ingress into each lunar mansion
  • 36 prayers for the Sun ingress into each decan
  • Three, four, six, or eight prayers for the lunar phases
    • Waxing, culminating, waning
    • New, waxing, full, waning
    • New, first sighting after syzygy, waxing, full, waning, last sighting before syzygy
    • New, crescent, waxing, gibbous, full, disseminating, waning, balsamic

Needless to say, trying to get all of that done on a regular basis is…well, outside my and most people’s capabilities for the time being (I’ve tried), probably only being reasonable for those living a highly regulated prayer-centric monastic lifestyle actively dedicated to this sort of thing.  Still, the idea of it is appealing, as it’s a way to fully line oneself up and keep oneself in tune with the natural rhythms of the Sun, Moon, and other planets (directly or indirectly).  And while I don’t think trying to implement a full prayer rule based on all of this is reasonable or feasible (I’ve kinda sorta done something like that with my Hermetic Epitomes in my Preces Templi ebook), I can at least observe such cycles with a brief moment of recognition when possible, even if just once a day.  But this is getting distracted from the main topic we were discussing.  While the observation of cycles and the progress within them is important, it’s the transitions between cycles or acyclical happenings that are what give the notion of Hermetic feasts; thus, recognizing every single day of the Sun being in a given zodiacal sign isn’t as important as recognizing the day when the Sun enters a new sign.  Without going crazy when it comes to obscure combinations of events (like I’ve experimented with my Grammatēmerologion before), probably keeping a handful of things down to a few general-purpose ideas is good enough for most people, and would still keep one plenty busy.

Of course, the next question that naturally arises: sure, we’re observing particular astrological phenomena as feasts, but what are we celebrating as a feast? To whom (or what) do we direct offerings that we’d make at such a feast?  For the astrological phenomena, at least, the answer would be straightforward enough: the planets themselves.  At least, that’d be the first answer; the secondary choice would also be the fixed stars themselves, either as single stars (if a planet were to become conjunct with one, like Jupiter and Regulus) or as constellations or decans (e.g. for the Sun entering Leo, celebrating both the Sun and/or the actual constellation Leo as a divine entity itself).  Given the highlighting of the Moon (celebrating new moons) and the Sun (celebrating new zodiac signs), the two luminaries would be primary among all the stars, but the others (primarily the wandering stars) all get offerings for their own needs at the appropriate time.

But does this make sense, to make offerings to the planets (or stars more generally) as gods?  I claim that it does from several perspectives.  For one, we know that astral polytheism is totally a thing, and while the TH fragments above might be reflecting an Islamically-perspectived mishmash of different pagan traditions lumped together as “Hermeticism” (like with the ︎Ṣābians of Ḥarrān), they do also show that the planets and stars were worshipped as gods with sacrifices being made to them.  But, for two, we also know that the planets are of paramount importance in Hermeticism as being the cosmic forces that allow creation to continue being created and creating.  Sure, from a more gnostic-flavored standpoint, they’re the things that weigh us down with energies of incarnation, but from a more holistically Hermetic view, they are the things that allow the beauty of the goodness of God to flourish through creation, including the fleshy vehicles that we travel in.  (It’s a gift with a cost, sure, but it’s still a gift all the same.)  In making good with the planets and stars, not only do we gratify them and obtain their assistance instead of just their assailing, but we also bring ourselves closer to them through the act of communion—which is what the work of offering facilitates.  (And that doesn’t even touch on the gods down here, inhabiting bodies of their own such as temple statues or sacred natural objects, that we make offerings to as well, which may also be associated with or considered to be the planetary gods, much as the Navagraha are in Hindu temple practice.)

In the end, there’s lots of opportunities for establishing particularly important days for Hermetic practice, at least as far as offerings and special devotions are concerned.  One can certainly expand them to any arbitrarily complex and rigorous degree right down to every planetary hour if desired (or even planetary minutes!), but whether that’s required or even recommended would be matter for one’s own schedule, availability, and willingness.  Still, based on what we might know from historical accounts, there are definitely a few important highlights to hit that would be reasonable for any Hermeticist to pick up on, and I think that’s good enough for anyone to start with.

Offerings at a Hermetic Shrine

It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many of my readers that much of my recent research and reading focuses on the classical Hermetic stuff.  As a general rule of thumb, I like using the best-available dating of the Emerald Tablet from the Kitāb Sirr al-Ḫalīqa (“Book of the Secrets of Creation”) as a cut-off, so sometime around the 6th or 7th century CE; that which is written before this is what I consider “classical Hermeticism”, and after this “post-classical Hermeticism” (ranging from medieval to Renaissance to modern, depending on the time period and geographic origin of a given text).  I like dividing these texts up in this way because, at least in western Europe prior to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 15th century, this cut-off date roughly corresponds to a shift in the overall focus of Hermetic texts.  While there was always a heavy practical/technical component involved in Hermeticism at all points in time, there was a much stronger and more pronounced mystical and theosophical (or, more traditionally, philosophical/theoretical) bent to many such texts, as evidenced by the Corpus Hermeticum, the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, the Latin Asclepius or Perfect Sermon, and the like.  After this point, however—roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire’s closing of pagan temples in the 4th and 5th centuries—much of the mystical stuff seemed to have faded into the background, and the more practical and magical stuff was not only left but was also drastically expanded, with the more mystical components no longer being provided by Greco-Egyptian religiosity but by Christianity and Islam.

However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any further mystical or religious elements in post-classical Hermeticism.  On the contrary, there’s plenty of it to be found, albeit in a diminished and somewhat preserved state.  In a number of grimoires, magical manuals, and historical records written, we see reference to particular practices that don’t cleanly fit as merely magical or occult, but rather descriptions of things that would be classified more as worship.  I find this to be super fascinating because, outside of a small handful of things from classical Hermetic texts, we don’t have a big notion of what actual worship would have been like for a Hermeticist as a Hermeticist, rather than as someone participating in general Greco-Egyptian or Hellenistic temple cult more generally.  For instance, turning to a few of the classical texts, we see a few ideas:

  • CH I.29—30: nighttime (pre-sleep?) prayers
  • CH XIII.15: face east for morning/sunrise prayers and south for evening/sunset prayers
  • AH 41: face west for evening/sunset prayers and east for morning/sunrise prayers, no use of incense when praying to God, prayers are followed by a ritual embrace and ritual vegetarian/bloodless meal

And…well, without reading in between the lines of the rest of the classical Hermetic texts too much (e.g. does CH IV suggest a ritual baptism?), that’s about all we get.

As can be seen just now, I like using abbreviations to refer to particular Hermetic texts, like CH for Corpus Hermeticum, AH for the Latin Asclepius, DH for the Armenian Definitions, and so forth.  I have compiled a whole index of Hermetic texts and references for the benefit of the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, where I list all the abbreviations for the major texts based on our current state of Hermetic scholarship.  The numbering of the CH and AH is pretty well-known across many modern texts, while the SH (Hermetic fragments and excerpts from the Anthology of John of Stobi, aka Stobaeus) numbering is based on that originally given in Walter Scott’s four-volume Hermetica series in the first part of the 20th century.  However, there’s also the FH and TH texts—though “texts” might be a bit of a stretch.  These stand for “Hermetic Fragments” and “Hermetic Testimonies”, the former being smaller quotes or excerpts preserved in other authors, the latter being accounts of or about Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermeticism.  M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II contains an abundant wealth of FH and TH texts, and introduces them accordingly:

When approaching the Hermetic fragments, one must distinguish between a direct citation, a paraphrase, the employment of Hermetic ideas, and the mere naming of Hermes Thrice Great. In this section (FH), I strive to print only direct citations or paraphrases of Hermes Thrice Great. Moreover, I favor passages that do not appear elsewhere in Hermetic literature. Thus citations of CH and Ascl. by later authors are not included. Those interested in authors who employ Hermetic ideas or who refer in passing to Hermes should proceed to the Testimonies concerning Hermes Thrice Great (TH).

As for the TH specifically:

The Hermetic testimonies printed here range from the late third century BCE until the fifteenth century CE. The authors quoted are Jewish, Phoenician, Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim. They all present different portraits of Hermes that cannot easily be reconciled. For example, the Jewish writer Artapanus identified Hermes with Moses the great culture hero. The Christian Athenagoras indicated that Hermes was a deified king like Alexander the Great. Iamblichus the Neoplatonic philosopher presented Hermes as a god. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, depicted him as an idolater and demonically inspired prophet. The Alexandrian philosopher Hermias presented Hermes as triply incarnated. The Muslim writer Abū Ma‘shar said that there were three different Hermeses. The first of these built the pyramids in Egypt; the second was a Babylonian scholar; and the third was an expert on poisons. According to the magical handbook the Picatrix, Hermes was the builder of a mystical, multi-colored city featuring a wondrous temple to the Sun and an array of animated statues.

Whatever their diversity of content, these testimonies show that Hermes the philosopher and culture hero was never far removed from Hermes the magus and master of esoteric lore. Hermes was the inventor of writing according to Philo of Byblos. Yet according to the same author, he used his magic spells to help Kronos defeat his enemies. Arnobius put Hermes in the company of Pythagoras and Plato. Yet the Peratic author linked Hermes with Ostanes and Zoroaster (called Zoroastris), the chief Persian magi. For the philosopher Iamblichus, Hermes was the great guide to theurgists. In turn, most Arabic writers viewed Hermes as an expert on astrology and alchemy. Such testimonies indicate that the constructed boundary between “philosophical” and “technical” Hermetic writings remains questionable.

Although the following testimonies are wide-ranging, they are hardly exhaustive. We do not trace the reception history of the Asclepius by Latin writers after Augustine, since this work has already been done. Moreover, some works attributed to Hermes – such as the Arabic Rebuke of the Soul – are too long to be included here and are available elsewhere. There are dozens more Arabic and medieval Latin sources that make mention of Hermes, often in passing. A great number of these are alchemical, astrological, and magical texts that somehow feature Hermes or are attributed to him. Even today, this material remains largely uncharted by scholars. A full and exhaustive record of Hermetic testimonies can only await new critical editions and studies of these materials.

In a sense, while we might consider texts like CH, AH, DH, and the like to be primary sources and the FH texts to be quasi-primary or secondary sources, the TH texts that Litwa gives are tertiary at best, if not outright stories about some variant or other of Hermēs rather than necessarily being Hermetic.  As a case in point, Litwa opens up a few sources from the third to first centures BCE, like a quote from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, written well before our usual dating of even the earliest CH texts.  Likewise, there’s also stuff from medieval Arabic and Latin texts which show abundant Islamicization or Christianization of Hermēs Trismegistos, or other adaptations of this pagan prophet to a non-pagan cultural milieu.  And yet, despite this, we still get some interesting accounts about what Hermēs and his followers (were thought to have) taught and practiced.

For instance, consider Litwa’s TH 37b, better known as book III, chapter 7 from the Picatrix:

The sages who made these prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did all of the foregoing things. While the planet moved through eight degrees of heaven, they would sacrifice one animal, and similarly when it declined by another eight degrees they would offer another sacrifice. They say that Hermēs commanded them to do this in mosques or in their own churches. These sages say of the aforementioned Hermēs that he was the lord of the three flowers of things, that is, king, prophet, and sage. They require that no animal of two colors, nor black, nor having a broken bone nor a horn broken in any way, nor an injured eye, nor having any flaw in its body, be sacrificed in their mosques. When they behead an animal, they take out its liver at once. They examine it, and if they find any defect or spot in it, they say that the lord of that place has some notable impediment. They then cut up the liver and give it to one of the bystanders to eat.

Perhaps more fascinatingly, we can turn instead to TH 28, which Litwa draws from sections 7.8—10.19 of the Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (“Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms”, otherwise known as Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers) by Abū al-Wafā’ Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik:

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

We also see something similar to TH 28 in the following excerpt from the Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal (“Brief History of Nations”) by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, specifically the section “On the Three Hermēses”.  Although this isn’t in Litwa’s Hermetica II (and thus lacks a TH number), Walter Scott provides a Latin translation of this bit in his fourth volume of his Hermetica series:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

Based on all of these testimonies regarding Hermēs and Hermetic “religion”, such as it might have been considered by Islamic or Christian authors that well postdated the classical heyday of Hermeticism, we can still see clearly non-Islamic and non-Christian stuff going on.  We get, for example, a set of feasts and celebrations to be done according to particular astrological phenomena:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun)
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign
  • Planets ingress into their domiciles
  • Planets arrive at their degrees of exaltations
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another (and possibly other aspects)

For these feasts (in addition to the ones we know were observed classically even if not listed here, like the Sun ingressing into individual decans as opposed to general signs or the full Moon in addition to the new Moon), we also get notions of things given in offering sacrifice: incense/perfume, wine, flowers (especially roses), grains (especially barley and wheat), fruit (especially grapes), and sacrificial animals (with the conditions that they should be unblemished and healthy, of a single colors, and not black).  We also see notions about ritual purity and prohibited foodstuffs and drinks, some of which might seem Islamic on the surface of them but which can reasonably be tied to historical prohibitions from Greco-Roman times for Egyptian priests.

And, of course, this is just limiting ourselves to just what Hermēs (was claimed to have) taught.  If we expand our scope slightly, we can then also account for some of the accounts involving the Sabians of Harran, who took the Hermetic texts as their gospel in an attempt to become a People of the Book (given an identification of Hermēs Trismegistos with the quranic prophet Idris and thus the patriarch Enoch).  If we turn back to Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal for a moment, we also see another section, “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar (i.e. Hebrew Adar); also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I (i.e. Hebrew Kīslev); and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ (i.e. Hebrew Šẹvat).

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

Based on these practices of the Sabians, we can also gather the following information:

  • Prayer and worship practices
    • Pray facing the north
    • Prostration-based prayer practice not unlike the Islamic rak’ah, each prostration having three prayers
    • Pray three times a day
      • A half hour or less before sunrise with eight prostrations
      • Just after noon (as the Sun begins to descend) with five prostrations
      • Just before sunset (to be completed as the Sun sets) with five prostrations
    • Animal sacrifices are burned whole without being eaten
  • Fasts
    • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
    • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
    • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)
  • Prohibited foods
    • All abstain from (cultivated) beans and garlic
    • Some abstain from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils

It’s in light of all of this that I think that, even if we have a dearth of classical evidence of Hermetic rites and processes of worship, I think we have plenty of post-classical stuff that we can extrapolate from and work with all the same.  It might take a bit of sifting and reconfiguration, but as an attempt at (re)constructing a Hermetic practice based on available evidence, we have a surprising abundance of stuff to work with that makes sense for Hermetic stuff in general.

All of that is my introduction to talking specifically about shrine offerings.  Yes, while the notion of Hermetic feasts or holidays is certainly important, we also learn plenty about what they offered for such practices, and it’s that specific idea that I’ve been considering lately.  While I’m still settling on a firm notion of what a proper Hermetic shrine should consist of, at least for me (beyond, at least, the presence of a shrine lamp), I still want to take into account the notion of what sorts of offerings the above TH excerpts suggest, in tandem with my own experience of offerings and exposure to other approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, because offerings constitute a huge part of my own practice.  Sure, in a Hermetic view, the big focus of it all is on God rather than the gods, and to God one should offer nothing except pure offerings of speech in silence—but that’s just for God, not the gods, who do reasonably get quite a lot more and whose importance should never be underestimated in supporting a Hermeticist’s work and way.  And, while one could simply wing it and freestyle sets of offerings based on the above quite easily, I like having particular processes and protocols in place to give myself a formal foundation of practice.

To that end, while any given shrine should have a few basic necessities and other accouterment that facilitate worship and veneration (such as implements of prayer like bells or beads, books for reciting prayers or reading scripture, etc.), I would think that one should first get a set of dishes to make offerings with.  Based on the excerpts above, we know that the big things offered were incense, wine, grains, fruit, and flowers, so we can use this as a basis for figuring out what sorts of dishes we’d need.  My thoughts on this would be:

  • Twelve dishes should be used for formal offerings:
    • One tray (bowl, tripod, brazier, censer, thurible, boat, etc.) for incense offerings
    • Three candle holders or oil lamps for light offerings
    • Two vases for flower offerings
    • Two cups for liquid offerings
    • Two bowls for grain offerings
    • Two plates for fruit offerings
  • The dishes used may be reasonably small (e.g. shot glasses, rice/ice cream bowls, and bread/butter plates), especially for household or private practice where large offerings are not practical
  • The dishes used should be made in a matching style or aesthetic
  • The dishes used should be non-porous, water-safe, and corrosion-resistant
  • The dishes used should be free of cracks, dents, chips, scratches, or other blemishes
  • The dishes used may be repurposed from other mundane uses after thorough cleaning, if otherwise in good condition, but once used for shrine offerings should not otherwise be used for mundane purposes again
  • Extra candle holders/oil lamps, cups, bowls, and plates may be obtained as replacements or for additional offerings beyond formal offerings
  • Extra saucers or small plates may be used for candle holders to collect any wax that drips off them
  • When not in use, the offering dishes should be safely kept in storage near the shrine

Knowing the types of offerings to be made and the dishes used for them, we can then consider a set of guidelines for what specific offerings to make, how to choose certain offerings, the order of preference when considering particular types of offerings, and what offerings might go well with what other offerings.  Again, based on the above excerpts and my own experience in offerings with my own preferences I’ve developed:

  • All dishes used to make offerings should be removed from shrine storage, rinsed with clean water, and completely dried before use
  • Offerings may be made all at once before the formal start of a ritual, or may be offered one-by-one as a part of the ritual, but each individual type of offering (e.g. “wine” or “wine and water” as appropriate, but “flowers” generically instead of “one vase of flowers and another vase of flowers”) should be specifically enumerated and identified regardless
  • Incense and light must always be offered, but after these, at least one other offering must be made
    • The type of non-incense/non-light offering(s) can be one or more of liquids, grains, fruits, or flowers, according to availability and preference
    • Keep to a symbolic but reasonable number of offering dishes (e.g. three, seven, ten, or twelve dishes, as appropriate to the offering and occasion)
      • Three dishes are offered as a bare but common minimum
      • Twelve dishes are offered as a rare maximum
    • For more common or quotidian offerings, offering fewer dishes is acceptable and encouraged
  • When offering incense:
    • May be offered in self-igniting form (e.g. sticks) or loose form (e.g. resin grains or powders on top of charcoals), as desired
    • Amount of incense may be done in an appropriate number (e.g. three sticks or three scoops of powder)
    • Incense is ideally composed from odiferous substances appropriate to the offering
    • Incense used for offering should be pleasant, or at the very least not harsh
    • Any incense offered, regardless of the number of kinds or amount used, is all considered as one single offering (as it should all be offered on the one single dish)
  • When offering light:
    • At least one light in all cases, but:
      • Only one light should be offered if only three dishes are being offered
      • Two lights may be offered, if desired, if an offering is for an observance that occurs once a month or less and if one is offering more than three dishes
      • Three lights should be reserved only for the largest and grandest/rarest of offerings
    • If more than one light is offered, all such lights should be identical
    • Any light offered should burn for at least thirty minutes but no longer than twelve hours
    • If candles are used:
      • They may always be white or undyed
      • They may also be in a color appropriate to the offering
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • If oil lamps are used:
      • They may be of any non-animal source appropriate to the offering (olive oil always being acceptable)
      • They may also be of an animal source if rendered from the fat of appropriate animals previously sacrificed
      • They should not be blended of multiple sources (e.g. no mixes of olive oil and sesame oil)
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • Wicks used to burn for candles or oil lamps should be of a natural, undyed fabric (e.g. cotton or linen)
  • When offering flowers:
    • If more than one vase is used for offering, all vases should have the same kinds of flowers
    • Roses are most preferred before any other flower
    • The flowers should be in a color and number appropriate to the offering
    • It is best to use only fresh flowers, ideally cut immediately prior to offering
    • If desired (especially for rare or special events), a fresh spray of evergreens may also be included behind the flowers, with fragrant and non-spiny evergreens (e.g. laurel, cinnamon, star anise) being most preferred
  • When offering liquids:
    • If making two liquid offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of liquids
    • Wine (i.e. any non-distilled fermented beverage not of an animal source) and/or clean cool water are preferred before other liquids (e.g. distilled liquor, tea, coffee, soda)
      • For highly frequent offerings (especially daily), water is preferred before wine
      • For less frequent offerings, wine is preferred before water
    • Liquids which can turn moldy or sour (like fresh milk or non-fermented juice) should be offered sparingly, if at all
    • Old or soured wine is discouraged from being offered
    • Any liquid offered must be safe to drink (at least in moderation) for human consumption
  • When offering grains:
    • If making two grain offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of grains
    • Barley is most preferred
    • Wheat is preferred second after barley and before other grains (e.g. oats, rice, millet)
    • Grains may be cooked or uncooked before offering
    • If cooked grains are offered, they should be freshly cooked, unsalted and unseasoned
    • If uncooked grains are offered, it is best to use the first portion of a harvest or otherwise use grains that are not aged or stored for a long period of time
    • If cooked or uncooked grain cannot be obtained, bread or another cooked non-bean staple food may be offered instead
  • When offering fruits:
    • If making two fruit offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two kinds of fruits
    • Grapes are most preferred before any other fruit
    • Any fruit offered should be sweet rather than sour or bitter
    • It is best to use only fresh fruit, ideally obtained immediately prior to offering
    • Fruit should be free of blemishes or injury
    • Fruit should be gently washed before offering
    • Fruit should not be cut up or sliced before offering
    • If fresh fruit cannot be obtained, dried fruit or other prepared non-meat non-staple food (most preferably desserts) may be offered instead

Make a special note of the avoidance of beans and meat in the above offerings (under grain and fruit offerings, respectively).  While one might reasonably avoid beans (fresh or dried) in general (especially given a longstanding Pythagorean avoidance of them), I also recognize that they are a staple food all the same for many people the whole world over; likewise, different kinds of meat may well be offered in sacrifice especially if an animal sacrifice is being performed and not offered as part of a holocaust.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these things cannot be offered in a context of this sort of shrine offering, but rather, I suggest that they shouldn’t be offered as part of this particular formalized offering approach.  Instead, dishes of beans or meat may be offered as additional offerings beyond the formal set of things to be offered, not as substitutes for them.

Similarly, note the deal with water and wine above.  I have always made these two liquids a staple of my own offering practice for many years now, but I’ve gone back and forth on when and how much to offer of either.  I recognize that, based on the TH excerpts above, even if wine was not consumed, it was certainly offered, with water being nowhere mentioned; however, I also consider water to be a universal offering, and not everyone is able to obtain wine or to use it in highly frequent offerings (like those on a daily or even weekly basis).  Because of that, I generally prefer giving water primarily for frequent or low-key offerings, but wine becomes primary for high-key or less-frequent ones.  Your mileage, as ever, may vary, and if you can afford to offer wine regularly, then please feel free to!  Note that I use the term “wine” here generically to refer to any non-distilled fermented beverage, so that would include drinks like beer, sake, toddy, and the like, but not anything distilled like araq, whiskey, vodka, baijiu, or soju.  For similar reasons as above with meat, I would also encourage not offering animal-derived liquids like milk, arkhi, kumis, or eggnog as part of the formal set of offerings, but may be offered beyond them.  As for mead (non-distilled) or honey liqueur (distilled), however, I’ll leave that to one’s determination about whether it qualifies as an extraordinary or ordinary offering, since it is technically derived from animals (bees) but can be argued otherwise.

But that’s not all!  In addition to figuring out what offerings to make, we should also consider how to arrange them in the shrine.  This is, admittedly, a really flexible thing in general, but in addition to how I like setting up my own shrines, I also like to take a hint and a bit of inspiration from the arrangements of Japanese Buddhist shrines, especially in household butsudan arrangements as exemplified here or here (both Shingon) or here (Jōdo Shinshū).  This isn’t to merely ape or appropriate them, but to give an idea of a formal way of arranging fairly universal offerings that are specifically highlighted in those TH texts above in a way that makes sense, at least for myself

  • The lights and incense tray should generally be placed in the center closest to the icon in the shrine, with other offerings placed in front of them slightly further away from the icon in the shrine or on the sides of these
  • When placing lights:
    • If one light is offered, it should be placed either directly in front of the incense tray, behind it on a slightly elevated surface, or to the right of it
    • If two lights are offered, they should be placed on either side of the incense tray
    • If three lights are offered, they should be placed in a row in front of the incense tray with one directly in front of it or behind it on a slightly elevated surface, and the other two on either side of the incense tray
  • When placing flowers:
    • If one vase is offered, it should be placed to the left, either to the left of the incense tray (if only one light is offered and placed on the right of the tray) or to the left of the offering area in general
    • If two vases are offered, they should be placed on the outermost left and right of the offering area
  • When placing liquids:
    • If one cup is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost left (opposite a single grain offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single grain offering is not present)
    • If two cups are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the innermost left and right
  • When placing grains:
    • If one bowl is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost right (opposite a single liquid offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single liquid offering is not present)
    • If two bowls are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the inner left and right (but on the outside of liquid offerings, if also present)
  • When placing fruit:
    • If one plate is offered, it may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the left or right (but in balance with any other single offering, if also present)
    • If two places are offered, they may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the outer left and right (outside of the liquid/grain offerings but inside of the flowers, if any of those are also present)

Likewise, after having made offerings, we should also consider how to remove them once the ritual is done and after some time has elapsed:

  • For incense offerings:
    • Any incense should burn out on their own before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
    • Incense ash may be tamped down in the tray to hold future offerings of incense, repurposed, or disposed
  • Lights may be allowed to safely burn out on their own or be extinguished after a reasonable time, but they must go out or be put out before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
  • For flower offerings:
    • Flowers are to be removed upon wilting, though the water in the vases may be changed out once a day to preserve them as long as desired before they wilt
    • Flowers may be consumed, repurposed, composted, or returned to nature
  • For liquid offerings:
    • Non-water liquids are to be removed within twenty-four hours and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
    • Water is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
  • For grain offerings:
    • Cooked grains are to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Uncooked grains are to be removed within a week and either used for immediate cooking (i.e. not to be mixed with other grains back into storage) and consumption or repurposing, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-grain staple food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
  • For fruit offerings:
    • Fruit is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-fruit prepared food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composed, or scattered outside for animals
  • All dishes used to make offerings should be thoroughly cleaned after each use, then put away safely into shrine storage
  • Any method of disposal should be done respectfully
  • Anything consumed may be done so by eating or drinking by the offerant/priest, their household/temple, or given freely as charity to others in need
  • Anything repurposed may be done so by being used in baths, washes, medicine, incenses, oils, or other purposes as deemed appropriate by the offerant/priest

I’m something of a split mind when it comes to whether and how to make use of things offered after they’ve been offered.  In one respect, things that are offered belong to the entity being offered to, and so aren’t for our use anymore; on the other hand, the act of us making an offering is often one of communion as well as sacrifice, in which we can share in the presence of a divine entity by means of the things we offer.  As a rule, any offering that begins to mold, decompose, or “turn bad” in any way should be disposed of immediately (its essence and any possible use of the offering has basically been fully consumed by the entity being offered to, especially when such decomposition happens at an otherwise remarkable rare), but given a reasonable timeframe to allow things to be consumed, whatever is left may be shared so that nothing ever goes to waste in any sense.  To that end, I’d leave it to an individual whether they give anything they offer fully away to the entity, or to give it and then partake in part of it themselves in any reasonable and respectful manner.

So, what about some example layouts?

Example offering layouts (list not intended to be exhaustive but only illustrative of different compositions):

  • Three dishes: The simplest possible layout, consisting of the incense tray, one light, and some other offering that is neither incense or light.  This could be a cup of wine/water/some other liquid, a bowl of barley/wheat/some other grain, a plate of grapes/oranges/some other fruit, or a vase of roses/carnations/some other flowers.  The incense tray would be front and center, the candle would go to the right of the tray, and the other offering would go to the left of the tray.  Easy.
  • Five dishes: This is where we can easily change things up into a lot of different variations really quickly.
    • For instance, one could make a five-dish non-edible offering consisting of incense, two lights, and two vases of flowers, arranged entirely symmetrically all in a row with the incense in the middle, the lights on either side of the tray, and the flowers on the far sides beyond the lights.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine (placed in front of the incense), a bowl of barley (placed on the right of the wine), and a vase of flowers (placed on the left of the wine).
  • Seven dishes: Even more possibilities arise!
    • We could try a symmetric layout of mixed offerings consisting of incense, two lights (placed on either side of the incense), one cup of wine and one bowl of barley (placed in front of the incense, liquid on the left and grain on the right), and two vases of flowers on the far left and right of the offering.  Instead of grains or liquids, one might also offer a plate of grapes instead, placed accordingly.
    • For a symmetric layout of two liquids and no grains, one would take the above layout and offer both wine and water, wine on the left and water on the right.
    • For a symmetric layout of two grains and no liquids, one would take the above layout again and offer both barley and wheat berries, barley on the left and water on the right.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense in the middle, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine and a cup of water (placed directly in front of the incense, wine on the left and water on the right), a bowl of barley (placed in the center in front of the two cups), a plate of grapes (placed to the right of the grains), and a vase of flowers (placed to the left of the grains).
  • Ten dishes: Now we’re getting fancy, and we start getting into having a full spread showing off a full set of all kinds offerings.  For this, the incense would be placed in the center as always, with a single light placed behind and above the incense.  In front of the incense would be placed a cup of wine and a cup of water together (wine on the left and water on the right); to the left of the cups would go a bowl of barley and to the right a bowl of wheat.  To the left of the barley would go a plate of grapes; to the right of the wheat would go a plate of some other fruit, like oranges.  Outside of all of these, on the far left and right, would go the vases of flowers.
  • Twelve dishes: Basically the same as ten dishes, except with the addition of two additional lights.  These would go on either side of the incense tray, with the third remaining behind and above the incense tray or all three arranged in a row in front of it and behind the two cups of liquid.  This would be the maximum formal offering, reserved only for the grandest or rarest of circumstances (like a solar new year or a rare astrological event).

Of course, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t offer more than just the above, like extra plates of food or drink, especially for making offerings for rarer events like the once-every-20-years Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  Rather, I intend all of the above as a sort of template upon which one can arrange for making offerings of various scales and styles, covering all the necessary bases that make a sine qua non of Hermetic offerings (at least according to the Hermetic testimonies available to us).  As for determining how many dishes to set out for an offering and how to gauge the specialness of any given event, well, that’s more a matter of practicality and availability; in general, I’m a fan of the Spartan and laconic notion of not being too extravagant too often so that one might always have something to offer, and let’s be honest, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of need or reason to offer more than light, incense, and water.  Still, when there is a need or reason to do so, at least I have a few guidelines to set things up for myself to keep myself in line without having to worry too much about the details on the fly.

The Mixing-Bowl of Mind

The usual way I’ve seen to refer to a particular book and section of the Corpus Hermeticum is CH A.B, with “A” being the book number in Roman numerals and B being a section of that book in Arabic numerals (such that CH X.15 is section 15 of the tenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum).  It’s a system I like using to cite particular extracts of Hermetic doctrine from the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Definitions of Hermēs to Asclepius (DH), and other Hermetic texts, but I should also note that a number of the various books of the Corpus Hermeticum sometimes have a title of their own.  CH I, for instance, is often called “Poimandrēs” (which is why Marsilio Ficino entitled his entire translation of the Corpus Hermeticum “The Divine Pymander”, though that’s like calling the entirety of the Old Testament “The Book of Geneisis”), CH X is called “The Key”, CH III is called “The Sacred Sermon”, and so forth.

CH IV, specifically, is called “The Mixing-Bowl”.  It’s also sometimes called just “(A Discourse of) Hermēs to Tat” or “The Monad”,  with the former indicating that this is a dialogue between Hermēs and Tat and the latter bringing up the discussion of the Monad at the end of the book, but it gets the name “Mixing-Bowl” from the dialogue in CH IV.3—6 in a discussion about Mind (Νους) (Copenhaver translation, here and below):

“God shared reason among all people, O Tat, but not mind, though he begrudged it to none. Grudging envy comes not from on high; it forms below in the souls of people who do not possess mind.”

“For what reason, then, did god not share mind with all of them, my father?”

“He wanted it put between souls, my child, as a prize for them to contest.”

“And where did he put it?”

“He filled a great mixing bowl with it and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: ‘Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.’  All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind participated in knowledge and became perfect people because they received mind.

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes.

“But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal if one compares their deeds, for in a mind of their own they have comprehended all—things on earth, things in heaven and even what lies beyond heaven. Having raised themselves so far, they have seen the good and, having seen it, they have come to regard the wasting of time here below as a calamity. They have scorned every corporeal and incorporeal thing, and they hasten toward the one and only.

“This, Tat, is the way to learn about mind, to {resolve perplexities} in divinity and to understand god. For the mixing bowl is divine.”

This is an interesting metaphor Hermēs decided to use, and it’s one that’s given me some pause for thought.  Some scholars interpret this notion of “immersing yourself in the mixing-bowl of Mind” to be evidence of a ritual baptism practiced among the classical Hermeticists, but not everyone buys it.  I like the idea of it, but it’s not a lot of evidence to go on to indicate that baptism was actually a thing for the followers of Hermēs.  One might draw parallels to early forms of Christian baptism or Jewish tvilah upon which Christian baptism was based which, given the influence Judaism had on the early development of Hermeticism, isn’t too far a stretch, but there’s little else to go on besides this reference to immersion.  Neither CH XIII, which is Tat’s rebirth and initiation into the Hymns of Silence, nor “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”, which is another story of Tat’s initiation and elevation into the higher spheres of the cosmos, bring up a notion of baptism or ritual immersion, and those are our strongest texts indicating such ritual works performed by the early Hermeticists from the Hermetic corpora themselves.  It’s an idea I don’t not like, at any rate, though one with not a lot of firm foundation to stand upon.

What strikes me more oddly is the use of the word “mixing-bowl” (κρατήρ).  There were obviously words for “basins” or “fonts” or “pools” or “baths” in Koiné Greek, but this text specifically uses “mixing-bowl”.  It’s not like a mixing bowl one might use for cooking, though; a kratēr was a specific type of large vessel used in Greek sumposia for mixing wine that was to be served.  A Greek sumposion (or symposium, as we’d better know it in its Latin form) was a kind of formal drinking party and a key institution to Hellenic civilization for men, sometimes to revel, sometimes to discuss and debate, sometimes to initiate boys into adulthood.  Sometimes there was entertainment, sometimes philosophy, sometimes orgiastic mystery rites reserved for initiates, but every symposium had two things in common: a kratēr—the mixing-bowl in question—and a symposiarch who oversaw its use.  The symposiarch, the “leader of the symposium”, was basically the master of ceremonies and director of the symposium, ordaining what was to be the order of the event, what sorts of activities were to be engaged in, and (most importantly) decided how strong the wine was to be.  This last aspect was the crucial and fundamental job of the symposiarch.

Wine back in ancient times was most likely different from our times, and was probably much stronger (though not necessarily fortified), so while we nowadays would just drink wine straight from the bottle, drinking undiluted wine back in ancient times was seen as a massive error in behavior, and something that was suited only for barbarians and those who were drunkards to the point of insanity.  Wine was to be diluted to an acceptable strength, and determining the proper dilution for a symposium was the symposiarch’s job.  For a more relaxed, philosophical time, the wine would be diluted to a 1:3 ratio of wine to water; for a more pleasurable and entertaining time, 1:2; for the rare orgiastic rites and revelries, 1:1.  With the wine diluted to the appropriate level, the symposiarch would send his servants or slaves around with pitchers filled from the kratēr to serve the attendees.  Wine was not drunk from the kratēr directly, because this is a pretty massive vessel we’re talking about, like a mega-punchbowl ranging from 14″ to 22″ in height, and wouldn’t have been able to easily be transported when full (if at all).  It’s this notion of the kratēr that Dionysos brings up regarding how much is proper to drink at such events from Eubulos’ Semēlē:

For sensible men I prepare only three kratērs: one for health which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth kratēr is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

This instrument of symposia, the kratēr, is what Hermēs describes as God having filled with Mind for people.  The use of the image of the kratēr should not be overlooked or misconstrued as just a regular bowl or basin, for which other words exist, especially for the purposes of ablution or purification (like the word χερνιβεῖον khernibeîon used for the usual lustral water outside temples, aka khernips).  This isn’t a mere matter of purification going on here; something else is happening in this passage Hermēs is trying to describe.

Let’s back up fist a bit and consider the notion of the symposium again.  CH IV, like all of the Corpus Hermeticum, is a philosophical text, so it assumes a philosophical outlook, context, set, and setting; a symposium of the Corpus Hermeticum would be more like Plato’s Symposium rather than just a simple college party, especially when there’s plenty of negative references to and metaphors of (common especially in gnostic texts and traditions) people being drunk and sick from inebriation (like from CH VII.1, which I discussed not too long ago).  A Hermetic symposium would be one where the symposiarch would likely dilute the wine rather well, and would gather people together for an intellectual time rather than one for the sake of mere entertainment.  But there are always those who go out to any event for the sake of having fun and being social, regardless of what the wishes of the host are; some people host parties for a purpose, but some people attend such parties for the sake of partying regardless of the purpose itself, like that one uncle who shows up to their nephew’s third birthday party with a keg of beer.  Now, bearing that notion in mind, consider what Hermēs says about people of Mind versus people of Reason:

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes…”

At a Hermetic symposium, the people of Reason are like those who show up just to drink and have fun, who ignore the symposiarch’s wishes for a philosophical time to use the wine provided for conversation (“they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired”) and instead just drink the wine to drink wine and get drunk; they “divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies”, and in believing “that mankind came to be for such purposes”, it’s like seeing any such social event as a party to which they go just for the sake of partying.  It’s the people of Mind, rather, who participate in the symposium for the proper ends and using the means provided properly instead of improperly; they “participated in knowledge” because they “received mind”.  Mind is the drink provided, and those who use Mind appropriately and let it absorb into their being instead of letting it simply pass through them in the mouth and out the urethra is what enables them to become “perfect people”.

But Mind isn’t just the thing being drunk; no, God set the kratēr of Mind for those who could to immerse themselves within it.  God has provided Mind to fill the kratēr, but a kratēr is used to mix things together, not just to have something there as it is.  While some would interpret this immersion in the kratēr of Mind to be more like a baptism, in which one is purified and from which one is reborn, the more obvious idea here is staring at us in the face: we’re the things to be mixed with Mind.  God is the symposiarch, and we are that which is mixed with Mind.  Earlier, I might have said that Mind would be wine, but…thinking about it, I think that we ourselves are the wine, and Mind is the water that dilutes it.  After all, drinking unmixed wine, or ἄκρατος akratos, was considered to be (and to lead to) insanity.  Is that not a perfect metaphor for what Hermēs is trying to save us from?  In CH VII.1, he calls out to people to save them (my emphasis, Greek from Festugière/Nock given first to show the original wording):

Ποῖ φέρεσθε, ὧ ἄνθρωποι, μεθύοντεσ, τὸν τῆς ἀγνωσίας ἄκρατον λόγον ἐκπιόντες, δ’ν οὐδὲ φέρειν δύνασθε, ἀλλ’ ἤδη αὐτὸν καὶ ἐμεῖτε;

Where are you heading in your drunkenness, you people? Have you swallowed the doctrine of ignorance undiluted, vomiting it up already because you cannot hold it? Stop and sober yourselves up!

And in CH I.27—29, when Hermēs begins his kergyma (“you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness…”) and teaching to the people after being told by Poimandrēs to guide and save the human race (emphasis mine):

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water.

The mixing-bowl is not for the purpose of diluting Mind, but for the purpose of diluting us with Mind.  We are the unmixed wine of insanity and ignorance, that dark liquid that cannot be seen through and which keeps one drunk in ignorance and insanity; as CH I.20 would put it, this is “the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which Death drinks”.  And it is God who wishes for us to be diluted and elevated with the “ambrosial water” of everlasting and eternal life, provided by Mind and knowledge.  In diluting wine, the wine becomes palatable and healthful, and impurities in the wine are washed away so that the goodness of wine shows through.  This is why not everyone’s “heart has the strength”, why not everyone “believes that you will rise up again”; those who are mired in their own ignorance do not wish to be diluted, do not wished to be washed out, just as a party-goer deep in their cups will forego a refreshing glass of water for another glass of booze to keep the buzz going, but those who see and recognize the ignorance and darkness in them and wish to be made into a clearer and better form will admit the necessity of diluting the wine with water.

With us being the wine to be diluted, so long as we enter into the mixing-bowl of God, God will dilute us with the water of Mind as we need to be.  The only thing we really lose in the process is our ignorance and insanity; by us (or, perhaps better, our souls) being mixed with Mind, we cease becoming insane and causing insanity, and instead “participate in knowledge” (γνώσεωςi.e. gnōsis).  Those who undergo this mixing and dilution become “perfect people”, and in so doing, we become the drink of life itself, and so participate in ourselves with ourselves.  This is, perhaps, a difficult thing to explain, and maybe it’s just the metaphor of the mixing-bowl and symposium breaking down here, but I am reminded of the exclamation of Tat in the process of his rebirth from CH XIII.11—13:

Since god has made me tranquil, father, I no longer picture things with the sight of my eyes but with the mental energy that comes through the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in animals and in plants; in the womb, before the womb, after the womb; everywhere…

Father, I see the universe and I see myself in mind.

Tat, in the process of his rebirth, no longer sees himself as merely apart from or within the cosmos; he witness himself as the cosmos and within it.  More than that, he sees himself “in Mind”.  I’m also reminded of how Hermēs tells Asclepius in CH X.12 that:

A human soul is carried in this way: the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.

And later on in CH X.19:

The human soul—not every soul, that is, but only the reverent—is in a sense demonic and divine. Such a soul becomes wholly mind after getting free of the body and fighting the fight of reverence. (Knowing the divine and doing wrong to no person is the fight of reverence.) The irreverent soul, however, stays in its own essence, punishing itself, seeking an earthy body to enter…

The human entity consists of Reason (λόγος), yes, which all people have, but Mind (νους) is mixed with this for those who can.  Those who have Mind in their souls mixed with Reason will, in the process of their spiritual progression along the Way, eventually become entirely Mind, and as such, as Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in CH I.26, “enter into God[; for] this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made God”.  This requires us to dilute ourselves with the water of Mind in the mixing-bowl from CH IV, which, as the long night of the symposium of our earthly incarnation continues, should progress so that only the water of Mind is left, and none of the wine of our bodily selves remain.  The people of Reason, however, devoid of Mind, do not wish for this to happen due to their ignorance, and instead “stay in their own essence”, remaining undiluted and continuing in their life of ignorance, “willful and angry” (as one might be from having drunk unmixed wine, or just drinking too much wine at all, per Dionysos’ disavowal of the fourth kratēr and beyond).

This all makes the following sections of CH IV.6—7 make so much more sense to me.  Most people interpret this as a straightforward world-denying body-hating section, but in light of the notion of dilution…well, read for yourself:

“I too wish to be immersed, my father.”

“Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.”

“What do you mean by this, father?”

“My child, it is impossible to be engaged in both realms, the mortal and the divine. Since there are two kinds of entities, corporeal and incorporeal, corresponding to mortal and divine, one is left to choose one or the other, if choice is desired. One cannot {have both together when one is left to choose}, but lessening the one reveals the activity of the other.

“Choosing the stronger, then [ ], not only has splendid consequences for the one who chooses—in that it makes the human into a god—but it also shows reverence toward god. On the other hand, choosing the lesser has been mankind’s destruction, though it was no offence to god, with this single reservation: just as processions passing by in public cannot achieve anything of themselves, though they can be a hindrance to others, in the same way these people are only parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body.”

Ignorance and death is the unmixed wine, while knowledge (from Mind) and life is the water that dilutes it in the mixing-bowl.  Hone in, specifically, on the statement “lessening the one reveals the activity of the other”: by diluting the wine, the water begins to come to the fore.  As we begin the process of moving from a focus in living from the corporeal to the incorporeal, the wine of our ignorance and death becomes further diluted, until eventually there is no wine left, only the water of Mind.  Doing this admits that the undiluted wine of ignorance we possess cannot remain as such; we cannot love being so undiluted, but instead must seek to destroy that state through dilution (“unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind”).  Those who insist on remaining undiluted in their ignorance, however, ignore the importance of the incorporeal, of Mind and knowledge and God, and continue in their own destruction, and in so doing, cause a “hindrance to others…parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body” as one would in a reckless and drunken revel.

Something still bothers me about all this, though.  When Tat asks Hermēs why God did not share Mind with all people from the get-go, Hermēs responds that God “wanted it put between souls…as a prize for them to contest” (ἠθέλησεν, ὧ τέκνον, τοῦτον ἐν μέσῳ ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὥσπερ ἄθλον ἱδρῦσθαι with a rough translation of “he willed, my son, this in the midst of these souls just as a prize of contest to be found”).  This notion of “contest” for one to strive towards is a weird one, but it’s not wholly unfamiliar; there is a notion of intentful striving throughout the corpora Hermetica that leads to divinity: CH I.21 has Poimandrēs telling Hermēs that “if you learn you are from light and life and that you happen to come from them, you shall advance to life once again”, after recounting God’s counsel to all of creation in CH I.18 that “let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists”.  I interpret this notion of a “prize for a contest” to mean that we are not necessarily striving against one another, though it may feel that way, but it’s more of our souls striving against our bodies, the divine and immortal part of ourselves striving against the corporeal and mortal part of ourselves.    I suppose one could make a game of it with others, of course, which would be appropriate at a symposium, and depending on how long the symposium of God goes on, more and more wine will need to be drawn upon and mixed one way or another so that everyone, in the end, gets mixed with the water of Mind.  I’m not entirely settled on the meaning of the wording of this, and I think this part is definitely worthy of more contemplation and consideration.

Likewise, Hermēs mentions that God appointed “a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts” regarding immersing ourselves in the mixing-bowl.  Who or what might this herald be?  Given Hermēs’ commission from Poimandrēs to teach and guide humanity so that they might be saved, he may well be referencing himself, but there is also the possibility of this being one of the personified forces of the cosmos, of which there are no small number: Providence, Necessity, and Fate have been personified at times in the Stobaean Fragments, and SH XXVI.3 (from the last part of the Korē Kosmou excerpts) mentions that Providence has “two ministers”: a Steward of Souls and an Escort of Souls.  We also shouldn’t forget Poimandrēs himself, of course, too, an emanation from Mind who (depending on your perspective and analysis of the name) could be Ra, Thoth, or the XIIth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III (I swear at least one scholar thinks this).  Whether this herald is a cosmic entity or not, whether it’s an oblique reference by Hermēs to himself or not, the identity of the herald isn’t the focus of this book from the Corpus Hermeticum, and it’s certainly less important than the fact that a message was given to humanity: “immerse yourselves in the mixing-bowl if your heart has the strength”.  Fittingly, this message does bear much in similarity with what Hermēs calls out to people in CH I.27—29 and in CH VII, but that alone doesn’t make this particular topic particularly clear, either.

At any rate, Hermēs goes on to say in CH IV.9 that “knowledge is not a beginning of the good, but it furnishes us the beginning of the good that will be known”.  If knowledge is produced from Mind, and our immersion in the mixing-bowl and our first dilution with the water of Mind is just the start of it all on our way to become wholly Mind (as in CH X.19), then this is just the beginning of a long party, indeed.  But even if the Way is long, we won’t be thirsty along the way, so long as we keep listening to and following the Leader who keeps us nourished with what is right for us.

Hermetic Evangelism and Kerygma

No, despite the title of this post, I’m not going to go out into the world and spread the good word of Hermēs Trismegistos onto those who don’t want it.  I feel like my blog does enough of that as it is, anyway, letting the work here speak for itself; besides, I hardly feel competent enough to do so, given how much I myself have yet to learn and discover.  But that isn’t to say that there has never been evangelism (or proselytism, if you prefer to call it that) within the context of the Way of Hermēs.  Indeed, it’s absolutely present in the oldest texts we have, and the Corpus Hermeticum itself gives us two great examples of such calls to the Way.

The first example is from CH I.27—28 (Copenhaver translation here and below), the classic street-preacher scene.  This takes place immediately after Poimandrēs concludes his revelation to Hermēs, giving Hermēs the mission to go forth and “become guide to the worthy so that through [him] the human race might be saved by God”.  After this vision and revelation, Hermēs goes forth, “empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision”:

And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge: “People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.”  When they heard, they gathered round with one accord. And I said, “Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.”

The second example, which reads much like an expanded version of the former, is the entirety of CH VII, which I won’t quote in full, but it’s not a particularly long section (CH III is longer than this).  It definitely reads as a sermon of the “save yourself from hell” fire-and-brimstone type, not as a dialog or letter between teacher and student, and Copenhaver and others notes its strong similarity to and influences from Gnostic and Jewish traditions.

Me being me, I couldn’t not take these bits and come up with my own versions for recitations, much as I did with CH V to make my Praise of the Invisible and Visible God hymnCH XVII to make my Royal Praises hymns, or CH I to make my simple Hermetic prayer rule.  There’s so much devotional and pious material in the CH and other Hermetic texts to work from to make a liturgy of sorts, and the sections of CH I.27—28 and CH VII are no exception.  To that end, I took the wording from these sections of the Corpus Hermeticum, reworded and reworked them, and came up with two evangelizing sermons, as it were: the “Call to the Way” and the “Stripping of the Tunic”.

The “Call to the Way” is based on CH I.27—28.  To me, this is a short…well, call, kinda like the adhān of Islam, except less a call to prayer than a call to metanoia—though it’s usually translated as such, it’s not quite “repentance”, but more like “thinking again” or “reconsidering”, like how the historical Buddha Shakyamuni went from town to town calling out “Anyone for the other side?”.  This “Call to the Way” is very much a wake-up call to learn how and in what way we humans might be saved on the Way of Hermēs.  To my mind, this could be recited before street-preaching, to be sure, but also as the first thing to be said in a temple setting generally to get people to wake up and “think again, think anew”, preparing themselves and orienting themselves for the holy work of devotion and reverence to God.

O all you children of mankind, o all you born of the Earth, o all who you have given yourselves over to drink and sleep in your ignorance of God! Make yourselves sober, cease your drunken sickness, end your bewitchment by unreasoning sleep! Why have you given yourselves over to death, since you have the power to partake of immortality? You who have wandered with Error, you who have partnered with Ignorance: think again, think anew! Be released from the darkness, take hold of the Light, take part in divine immortality, leave behind your corrupt destruction! Do not surrender to the way of death by your mockery or distance, but come, rise, and be guided on the way of life!

Then there’s the “Stripping of the Tunic”, based on CH VII.  In the Corpus Hermeticum, this is another sermon used to get people’s attention to come to the Way and abandon the twisted, twisting wiles of the world that drown and suffocate us.  However, I took a slightly different approach with this one.  Sure, it can be used to do the same thing that the “Call to the Way” does, but to me, the “Stripping of the Tunic” is more like a formal introduction into a temple or Hermetic group, a discursive initiation of sorts by beginning the process of cleansing the soul from the torments and tortures of incarnation, one that calls the initiate to a purpose.  This is especially important with the image of the “House of Knowledge”, which can be considered a sort of Hermetic rephrasing on the Egyptian “House of Life” (per ankh), the usual term for a temple that also doubled as a library, because…well, as the Hermetic tests attest, true knowledge is true Life.  Although others have tried to expand on the Egyptian temple imagery and how temples would be constructed so that sunlight would fall on the statues of the gods, Nock notes that “it is unnecessary to press the analogy with the Egyptian sanctuaries”.

Hear me, o child of mankind! Where are you going?
Sick and vomiting up the pure ignorance you swallow as you are,
which even you see and know that you cannot keep down!
Stop your drunken sickness! Stop your drinking! Stand firm! Be sober!
Look upwards with the eyes of the heart, if you can!

Do not drown in the flood of ignorance that floods this world,
which destroys the soul shut up in the body,
which keeps the soul from sailing to a safe harbor,
but ride the tide, ride the ebb, ride the flow,
and bring your ship to this safe harbor,
and be guided by the hand to the door of the House of Knowledge!
Here is the bright light clear of all darkness,
here is where nobody is drunk but all are sober,
here is where all gaze with the heart towards God,
the One who wishes to be heard and uttered and seen,
who is neither heard with the ears nor uttered with the mouth nor seen with the eyes,
but is heard in silence, uttered without words, and seen with the mind and the heart.

So you can enter the House of Knowledge,
you must be freed from the snare of the body,
this hateful tunic you wear that strangles you and drags you down,
which makes you so that you will not hate its viciousness,
so that you will not look up lest you see the beauty of Truth and the Good that abides within,
so that you will not understand its treachery and hate the evil of what it plots against you.
Your senses of sensibility have been made insensible, unapparent, and unrecognized,
so stuffed with gross matter and crammed with loathsome debauchery,
so that you do not hear what and how you must hear,
so that you do not utter what and how you must utter,
so that you do not see what and how you must see.

So you may enter the House of Knowledge,
rip off from yourself your tunic of hate!
Free yourself from your garment of ignorance!
Release yourself from your base of vice!
Unbind yourself from your bond of corruption!
Liberate yourself from cage of darkness,
that God may renew you from your living death,
that God may quicken for you your sentient corpse,
that God may open up for you your portable tomb,
that God may protect for you your house from the thief within it,
the tormenting one who grudgingly hates what you love,
the torturing one who maliciously loves what you hate.

While pretty pieces of prayer, if I do say so myself, why should Hermēs Trismegistos be an evangelist at all?  Because, frankly, Poimandrēs charged him with being one.  At the end of Poimandrēs’ revelation to Hermēs in CH I.26—27, he concludes his speech with the following charge:

“…This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god. Why do you still delay? Having learned all this, should you not become guide to the worthy so that through you the human race might be saved by god?”

As he was saying this to me, Poimandrēs joined with the powers. Then he sent me forth, empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision, after I had given thanks to the father of all and praised him. And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge…

C. H. Dodd in his The Bible and the Greeks (1935) calls this and the following parts of CH I the Kerygma (κήρυγμα), a fantastic Greek word from the New Testament meaning “proclamation”, from the Greek word κηρύσσω “to cry/proclaim as a herald”, used here in the sense of preaching, which fits rather well with the whole image of Hermēs as not just teacher but also as herald (we shouldn’t forget that the Greek term for his wand is κηρύκειον, kērukeion, from the same root, which became in Latin “caduceus”).  But why should Hermēs be charged with this sort of proclamation, heralding, announcing of the “gospel”, as it were, of Poimandrēs?  Well, there is the simple historical fact that the revelation of wisdom of this sort just went hand-in-hand with such evangelism, because it was inherently considered a “way of life” or “way of God”, both in Jewish as well as Egyptian literature.  As Christian Bull in his The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (2018) notes, the notion of such a “way” necessitates a guide, without which one becomes lost; after all, it does follow that one who has walked the way, knows the road, and is familiar with the destination is one we should trust to follow, rather than trying to forge a way on our own blindly and only happening to come across the right way to the right destination, the “way of life” otherwise erring back to the “way of death” (Hermēs’ words from CH I.29).

Admittedly, this proclamation is not meant for all people; there is no notion of universal salvation as such in classical Hermetism.  Not all people will hearken to the message of Hermēs, nor will all people have the strength of heart necessary to be reborn in Mind (CH IV.4).  Yet, Poimandrēs charges Hermēs to become a guide to the worthy so that, through Hermēs, “the human race might be saved by God”.  Bull notes that this can be interpreted in several ways: that the human race only properly consists of a worthy few who can become true humans while the rest are no more than savage animals in human flesh, that all humankind will at some stage become worthy, or that the worthy few who can follow the way will somehow save the many (and Bull notes that “this latter option is preferable if we view the passage as taking place in the time when the brutish Bronze Age humans were being civilized”).  Bull also notes that “that the human race is saved by God, through Hermēs, should consequently not be understood as a message of universal salvation in a Christian sense, but indicates that Hermēs and his fellow culture heroes are considered to be saviors because they made civilized life possible” (consider also CH III, where humanity was charged with not just learning about the cosmos but also “to discover the arts of everything that is Good”).  Regardless how one perceives the notion of salvation and who’s eligible, Hermēs is still bound by obligation to guide and save those whom he can.  After all, once learning about truth, as Poimandrēs revealed to Hermēs, one cannot but be compelled to act in accordance with such truth, lest one deny such truth and fall into error because of it.  After all, having been freed from the suffering of the soul and the suffering of the body (insofar as it is possible), how could one not want others who can achieve that to do so?  In some ways, the parallels between Hermēs Trismegistus and Buddha Shakyamuni, at least as far as salvific impetus, are strong here.

In the end, there’s this notion of “having been taught, now teach”; Hermēs has learned, and now he seeks for others to learn what he himself has learned.  Part of that learning—and then applying such learning—is pointing out the problems people have and recognizing it as a problem, without which one cannot begin to fix it.  Not everyone is going to recognize those problems, whether because they honestly cannot recognize them or because they’re unwilling to do so; those people are not those whom Hermēs can help by being guide.  He doesn’t necessarily seek to convince people of the rightness of his teachings from the get-go, except by trying to convince people that they have biger problems than they might realize; he focuses more on saying “I have a way for you to fix your problems, follow me if you want to fix them”.  Following Hermēs, then, not only leads one to the “House of Knowledge” where “shines the light cleansed of darkness”, but also leads one to lead others to the same.  At some point, once one has gotten far enough along the Way of Hermēs to become familiar with both it and the destination, to become a guide is as much part of the Way as anything else; after all, “having been taught, now teach”.  The Way goes ever on and on, to be sure, and not everyone is going to be a guide in the same ways to the same people, but there are always waystations to give us rest and give us a chance to hand followers off to others who know the next stage of the way better than we do, or to give us a chance to find a guide for the next stage of the way ourselves.

I suppose “evangelism” isn’t a great term to use for this; I was unfamiliar with “kerygma” up until now, but it’s a term I like much better.  I feel like there’s a deeper difference between the usual evangelism common with Christian preachers and the like and what Hermēs is doing here; to be sure, the salvific spirit is the same, but Hermēs isn’t trying to establish doctrine and convince people of the truth from the get-go.  Rather, Hermēs is announcing something new, a new way: a way to salvation, a way of life, a way to God.  The destination is known up-front, as is one’s starting point, but how one progresses from point A to point B might change depending on the person.  This may well be the case for lots of religious paths, let’s be honest, but it’s especially present in the Way of Hermēs.  No two people will necessarily follow the same steps, but under one guide who knows not just the detours but also the contingency plans in case one should stumble or get lost.  This is Hermēs saying “follow me, for I know the way”, not “follow me, for I am the way”; the difference there is massive.  This is Hermēs the Human guiding one to God; while Hermēs is, at the same time, a god, the focus of what Hermēs himself learned and taught is on the God.  Learning of himself—that classic maxim of γνῶθι σεαυτόν come to life—is just part of the overall impetus for him to learn “about the things that are, to understand their nature, and to know God” (CH I.3).  Rather than seeking veneration and worship for himself, Hermēs seeks for others to venerate and worship that which should truly be worshiped.  After all, the guide is not the destination.