A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

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.

On the Hermetic Hieroglossa

Yes, another post about the Hermetic canon, Corpus Hermeticum, Stobaean Fragments, and whatnot.  But this time, it’s not about introducing a prayer based on the work, but about the work’s own comments about itself.

Something for me to bear in mind is that, as an amateur classicist, I don’t really read Greek (though I am learning!), whether modern or archaic or Koiné or any point in between.  Nor do I read any variety of Egyptian.  In fact, the only real classical language I have any grasp of is Latin, and even that requires some assistance (I wish I had kept it up more through college, my current translations be damned).  Annoyingly, despite working from home full-time in light of the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, it seems like my spare time has gone down somehow, and with the added stress of waves vaguely at everything, it’s hard to focus.  Thus, though I had set out three months ago leaving my office for the last time (until such time as things get safer to go back) with desires to learn Sahidic Coptic, I haven’t been able to do anything about that along those lines, much to my annoyance.  Even if I had time to learn Sahidic Coptic, there’s also the much-needed modern Spanish I still need to work on, to say nothing of Lukumí/Yòrubá and Koiné Greek, or Yiddish, or any other number of languages I should be studying for any number of (rather quite valid) reasons.

But why Coptic?  I mentioned a while back that Coptic got sprung up for me as an interest, and although an obsessive one like how reading dominoes came about for me, it’s gone nowhere, unfortunately.  But I still wanna learn it; after all, Coptic is the only surviving Egyptian language we have left, and unfortunately, it’s also effectively a dead language, kept around liturgically in the Coptic Church much as Latin is in the Catholic Church.  Of course, there are movements to try to revive it and make it a spoken, living language again, but as with Latin, it’s not all that far-reaching.  However, even then, what the Coptic Church uses is Bohairic Coptic, a derivative of a northern (Lower) Egyptian dialect which has taken on far more Greek influence through the Church, while I’m more focused on Sahidic Coptic, which was more common across Egypt, it’d seem, especially in southern (Upper) Egypt, especially in and around Thebes and Hermopolis—and thus would be more closely related to the classical philosophical texts (e.g. Corpus Hermeticum) and magical texts (e.g. PGM/PDM/PCM) I’m such a fan of.

Coptic—in any dialect—is the last stage of the Egyptian language to survive, which otherwise dates back some six thousand years, an incredibly long heritage for a language.  It didn’t remain the same for all those millennia, of course, since Egyptian, as all languages do, evolved and mutated and spread, sometimes developing multiple dialects and offshoots along the way.  Perhaps at least as impressive as its age, of course, is also the fact that it’s been one of the longest-living languages (language families?) to ever be written, with written records of Egyptian dating back some five and a half thousand years.  Although the writing system of hieroglyphs remained largely the same since their institution until their use ceased across two thousand years, the spoken language continued to develop, with Middle Egyptian (c. 2000 bce to 1350 bce) becoming the “classical” form of the language, with Late Egyptian following on that until about 700 bce, Demotic after that until 400 ce, and Coptic rising on the scene as a different set of dialects and writing systems with heavy Greek influence arising around 200 ce.  My point is that Egyptian is old, and its writing system the foundation for the well-known Phoenician writing system, itself the ancestor of most alphabets and abjads—even perhaps the Indic abugidas, too—used across the world today.

So why bring all this up?  I was reading more of the Corpus Hermeticum the other day, this time Book XVI, a letter of Asclepius sent to Ammon.  It starts off somewhat perplexingly, saying that it contradicts earlier teachings and lessons (perhaps as a sign that Ammon is now spiritually developed enough to take on deeper and more profound truths?), but it quickly gets into a bout of what some authors have called “linguistic nativism” (Copenhaver translation):

…furthermore, it will be entirely unclear (he said) when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity.  But this discourse, expressed in our paternal language, keeps clear the meaning of its words. The very quality of the speech and the (sound) of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of (Egyptian) usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Let’s be clear here: Asclepius is outright saying that Greek is no language for true philosophy as befits the Way of Hermēs, and that those who wish to translate Hermetic teachings into Greek do so foolishly as they end up distorting the meaning of the texts.  Thus, Asclepius encourages Ammon to stick to using “our paternal language”, i.e. Egyptian, because it “keeps clear the meaning of its words”, as it avoids such distortion and vacuity that the Greeks seem to be so fond of.  Egyptian has “sounds that are full of action”, and “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”.

Of course, CH XVI along with the rest of the CH is written in Greek; either this letter of Asclepius to Ammon was originally written in Egyptian and translated into Greek (possible, though it’s astoundingly humble for the translator to keep this section!), or it was written originally in Greek and written to intimate that the reader is getting some intimate sort of taste of lost, ancient wisdom.  I mean, imagine the absurdity and paradox of it: a set of texts written in Greek yet which deny the validity and use of Greek.  True, Greek was one of the larger linguae francae of the classical Mediterranean world, and was held to be a language quite well-suited for philosophy—the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal contemplative diary in Greek—but we should remember that the Egyptians as a rule didn’t think highly of other cultures as much as other cultures thought highly of that of the Egyptians.  It’s now largely agreed-upon that Hermet(ic)ism is rooted in Egypt, and although it bears heavy Hellenic influence, its Egyptian core component cannot be denied.

So what was the “original language” of the Hermetic texts and teachers?  I mean…well, we simply don’t know.  The Egyptian flair present in Book XVI may well just be that, an affectation of style and drama to set the stage for a letter-based discourse (which itself is flair because we know with almost absolute certainty that this wasn’t actually a real letter, much as some letter-styled entries in the PGM aren’t real letters).  All our surviving Hermetic texts from this area are, for the most part, only in Greek; there are a handful of Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi find, and the Asclepius survives only in Latin although it almost certainly relies on an older (I don’t want to say “original”) Greek version.  But there are also older quasi- or proto-Hermetic texts that we find, like the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, written in Demotic; such wisdom literature, like the older Instruction of Any, were written in Middle Egyptian.  Without knowing more about the history and origins of Hermetic texts, we simply just don’t know what the “original” Hermetic language might have been, and there are good arguments for either Demotic Egyptian and Koiné Greek.  Frankly, based on the overwhelming abundance of literature in the language that survives, Koiné Greek may well be the original language of the Hermetic canon, but maybe that’s just an accident of history and survival.

But let’s take the notion of Egyptian—whether Demotic or Coptic or whatever—as being the only worthwhile language seriously, at least for now for the sake of argument.  I mean, given the huge emphasis on the power of the spoken word so prevalent throughout Egyptian belief, it makes sense; why use anything else when the very words “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”?  In this light, Egyptian may well be a “true language”, a language that doesn’t just represent things as symbols but whose very words actually are the very things themselves.  This is what logically follows from the Egyptian notion of power in speech; it’s less a matter of “linguistic nativism” and more a matter of cosmological accuracy to describe Egyptian as this, and Greek (and, for that matter, other languages) as being void and wasteful.  That being said, though, many languages say the same things about themselves, like Hebrew being the language that God used to create the world, and the like, so maybe we shouldn’t take this claim all too seriously.

Still, even if we don’t distance ourselves from the notion that the Egyptian language is the only “true language” in the sense of its words being “true words” and its names being “true names”, it would follow that this truth follows from the language being spoken correctly (as far as pronunciation is concerned) and used correctly (ditto but for grammar and semantics).  In that light, well, which stage of Egyptian are we talking about?  After all, each stage had developments as far as grammar, semantic drift, and pronunciation went that would render them mutually unintelligible (making one “right” and one “wrong”), so are we talking Old Egyptian, Middle, Late, Demotic, or Coptic?  And even if we can figure out a general stage, what about dialect?  If Coptic, is it Sahidic, Akhmimic, Subakhmimic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, or Oxyrhynchite?  If Bohairic, because it’s still relatively in use today, are we talking classical Bohairic as used between the 4th and 9th centuries, or will modern Church Bohairic suffice, or neo-Coptic revitalizations based on Bohairic?  Because older forms of Egyptian weren’t really represented outside spoken language, we can’t really figure out much about pre-Coptic dialects, but we do have evidence that there were differences indeed, e.g. a scribe joking about a colleague’s writing being as incoherent to him as “the speech of a Delta man with a man of Elephantine”.  Besides, we don’t actually know for sure how non-Coptic varieties of Egyptian languages were spoken because we have so little information to go on regarding their vowels; the usual transliteration method we have for Egyptian hieroglyphs is more of convention rather than a linguistic guarantee that certain words were pronounced in certain ways, and though we can work backwards from Coptic as well as glosses in other texts from other languages, we simply don’t know for sure beyond a few guesses, and even those are limited.  Heck, even our exact knowledge of how Coptic words were pronounced can be spotty at times, and those are written using a full alphabet with vocalizations and everything!  So, if “true language” is predicated on the proper pronunciation and use of “true words”, then wouldn’t the very real fact of linguistic mutation and evolution throw a wrench into that?  At what point does “Egyptian” stop being “Egyptian”, and how “Egyptian” does one need to get in order for the language to work that way?

Perhaps more importantly, to whom would this matter most?  As many modern folk will attest, although the gods and spirits may well like being addressed in their own language (and may prefer to communicate in it, if possessing their mounts, who may or may not be competent in it), it’s almost universal that they’ll understand any language spoken to them.  This is likely the case in Egypt, too; over five thousand years of linguistic development, although certain registers and forms of the language were kept around for priestly use and ritual, it’s not like every common Egyptian person who wanted to go to the gods with their own prayers and supplications knew the formal registers used by the priests in their temples, and used whatever form of the language they could as best as they could to communicate, and surely the gods heard and understood (and answered) those words just as clearly as they did those of the priests.  I mean, consider the Demotic Magical Papyri, written in—you guessed it—Demotic Egyptian.  Those are rituals and spells that directly called upon the gods, often for one-on-one interactions, that were composed in Demotic, not in the classical Middle Egyptian that might have been more highly revered.  And it seems like those rituals worked just fine, and those who use them still get a kick out of them, too—and since few people today have competency in Demotic, they’ll typically use whatever language the PDM are translated into, like English or German.  In this light, maybe the stringency that Book XVI puts on Egyptian (which, though?) is just flair and linguistic nativism/supremacy with nothing really backing it up.

This really all recalls the issues with the so-called “Adamic” language, the language of Adam and Eve that was used as the first language humans ever used, notably to communicate directly with God.  Recall that, in the Book of Genesis, Adam named all things; in what tongue?  Whatever he named those things would be the first, and thus “true”, name for those things, and it wasn’t until the Tower of Babel that other languages came about and the Adamic language was lost.  Hebrew claims to be the survival of this Adamic language—again, recall how Jewish philosophers and kabbalists claim that God created the world through the Hebrew language and the 22 letters of the Hebrew script—but other people took issue with this, such as John Dee, who “received” (developed) his Enochian language from the angels as a recovery of the original Adamic language (nevermind that its grammar and phonology is almost exactly that of English).  The allure of an “original” or “true” language is a strong one for people in pretty much any system that puts a heavy emphasis on the magical power of language, but from what we factually know about language and how it works, there’s likely no such thing, and magic and prayers still tend to work in pretty much any language.

I mean, for that matter, also consider the introduction of Greek words and names in Egyptian magic, again turning to the Demotic and Coptic magical papyri.  Coptic script gives a powerful benefit to Egyptian language because of the introduction of the seven written vowels (taken from Greek), which no earlier form of Egyptian reliably had in their writing systems (whether hieroglyphic, hieratic, or demotic).  Obviously, vowel strings and intonations are big in PGM-style work, but as far as Hermetic texts go, we see it come to a head in “The Eighth Reveals the Ninth”, which notably uses the vowel strings in an invocation of the Divine—yet the text later instructs Hermēs’ student to inscribe the book in hieroglyphs.  But this very instruction would be effectively impossible to render accurately without the use of vowels, which don’t exist in hieroglyphs.  Again, this very well could be (and most likely is) just a flair for the dramatic in this text, but it does raise something important: if vowel string intonations were important for Egyptian magical practice (and there are contemporary records that they are), how could that be transmitted over text when the text doesn’t have a reliable way of transmitting that?

This is where the notion of initiation and teacher-to-student transmission comes in.  It may well be that Egyptian writing systems were used not just to transmit information but also to obscure it, especially the specific pronunciations of sacred words and names.  Sure, the bare-bone skeletal structure of such words and names might be there, but unless someone teaches you and gives you the missing key for such pronunciation, the text will do you no good because you lack the instruction required to understand and apply it, even if you can still read it.  In this, we have an act of initiation, and this ties in well with the notion that much of PGM-style magic may not work for some people who lack the requisite “hook-up” into the Powers that Be (or Were, in some cases).  Many magicians from that time period of Egypt, after all, were also ordained priests who had the proper initiations and rituals performed on and to and for them to allow them access to particular powers and rituals that, frankly, we today lack.  Unless you can hack your way into such a power, or hotwire such a connection to gain access, some people argue that PGM-style magic may not work for you.  In this, we modern mages who can get PGM magic to work end up getting it to work either by stumbling across the key to it as a blind man fumbles in a dark room, or through other side channels that can still be exploited one way or another.  (I don’t fully agree with this notion, but I don’t deny the logic of it.)  In this, as a good friend on Twitter phrased it, the first revelation of truth is the supremacy of the Correct Word™, and eventually you reach the point where All Words are One Word™.

But this is still besides the point of what Book XVI claims, that Egyptian is the only true language worth discussing matters of truth in.  And…well, is discussing truth in any language possible at all?  I mean, the Second Stobaean Fragment (SH II) basically says no, we can’t (Litwa’s translation):

…For a human being is an imperfect animal composed of imperfect members, a tent made up of foreign and multiple bodies. Yet what is possible and correct, this I speak: the truth is in eternal bodies alone.

…Now if our frame did not possess truth from the beginning, how can it see or speak the truth? It can understand only if God so wills.

Every reality that is upon earth is not true, Tat. Rather, it is a copy of truth—and not even every truth is a copy, but only a few of them…

…Truth is hardly upon earth, Tat, nor can it arise there. Few among human beings can grasp anything concerning truth—only those to whom God grants the power of vision.

CH VI.3 likewise states that there is no true good in the world, nothing good like how God is good (Copenhaver’s translation):

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asclepius, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.

Consider what this means: if no good can exist in the world, then one cannot likewise speak it into being, no matter how “true” their language is.  This could be an argument against the Egyptian notion of such power being in speech alone, at least as far as the Good and truth is concerned.

But perhaps most striking, and most powerfully against the claims of the supremacy of the Egyptian language in Book XVI, is that of Book XII.13—14 (Copenhaver’s translation):

“Even among humans, my father, does speech not differ for each nation?”

“It is different, my child, but humanity is one; therefore, speech is also one, and when translated it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece. My child, you seem to me to be ignorant of the excellence and importance of speech. The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father. Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul. Thus , the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.”

“When translated, it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece”; this statement, directly from Hermēs spoken to Tat as opposed to the statement of Asclepius written to Ammon, is probably more authoritative on this stance than anything.  Rather than relying on notions of “energies of things” being directly within the words themselves as Asclepius claims, Hermēs here says that the reason and meaning in speech—the Logos within logos, as it were—is what counts and what matters more than the method of its delivery.  Just as a Greek human, Persian human, and Egyptian human are all still human (“humanity is one”) despite all their cultural and physical differences, so too are the things that they say all still the same thing (“speech is also one”) despite all their phonological and grammatical differences.  What matters is the “reasoned speech”, the λόγος, that we all come in contact with, because it’s this that proceeds directly from God as the image and mind of God, and which inhabits Nous itself.

For me, CH XII seals the deal that the linguistic supremacy of CH XVI is just empty flair for the sake of window-dressing, but I should also note something more profound here.  Just as Mind is not the same thing as mind—a holy Nous compared to common nous—we can also say that Speech is not the same thing as speech—that holy Logos is not the same thing as common logoi.  Compare the holy prayer of Hermēs given at the end of CH I: “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.”  The Greek here is δέξαι λογικὰς θυσίας ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σέ ἀνατεταμένης, ἀνεκλάλητε, ἄρρητε, σιωπῇ φωνούμενε, literally “accept [these] word-sacrifices from a soul and heart stretched out to you, o Unutterable One, o Unspoken One, called by silence”.  In other words, though a “sacrifice of speech” is what Hermēs gives, God can only properly be called out to by silence itself, not through any words; it’s the silent Logos that comes from the heart and soul, not spoken logoi that comes from the mouth, that matters in matters of religious and spiritual activity.  The spoken words, on the other hand, are more for us than anything else.

In that sense, I mean, consider the more mythical aspects of Hermēs, the messenger god of communication and thus of language in general, and Thoth, the god of order and writing.  The Way of Hermēs, though it’s right to show honor and veneration for Hermēs-Thoth (especially if you follow a pagan or polytheistic path), is not centrally focused on him; as Hermēs Trismegistus bids and teaches Tat, Asclepius, and Ammon, the focus of his Way is to a higher divinity, a higher truth that goes well above and beyond other gods and realities.  These tools of language are just that, tools, and are not a means to an end, no more than Hermēs Trismegistus is the recipient of worship of the Divine that he teaches.  This is the gnōsis that even Hermēs Trismegistus cannot teach, that which cannot be stated but which can only be revealed by the Divine itself; everything else is a means to that end, including language.  In that light, there is no “Hermetic hieroglossa” except whatever we might find most efficacious for ourselves; there is power in one’s own native language, after all.  Rather, and perhaps more accurately, the true language of Hermēs is no language at all, because the matter of what matters cannot be spoken about with human language.  In that, silence is the only true tongue, and holy silence at that.

Now, of course, that’s as far as the holy philosophy side of things are concerned.  There is also the use of specific languages and words in ritual, which is an entirely different discussion, and which can have a variety of ends and answers—and far be it from me to say that we should abandon the barbarous words or divine names we use in our rituals and spells, or that we should switch up customary or conventional languages used in ritual at will just because we can.  All the above is about the discursive philosophical language in which we should teach and explore the Way of Hermēs apart and away from ritual practices.

The Prayer Whispered In The Temple

I have to admit: it’s not the being home and away from friends, family, and colleagues in person for three and a half months that’s getting to me, nor is it the fear of being Kissed by the Lady of Crowns.  It’s not being shut in with the same people whom I love every day, even when the little things add up that frustrate and annoy me, more than ever before given that I’m home all the time and can’t escape it.  It’s not the hypothetical worries of financial solvency in a time when the economy is constantly degrading and when there are threats looming on the horizon of the next bank statement.  It’s not seeing the cracked and corroded political system of my country implode with constant protests the whole nation over for over three weeks, with more and more people being murdered in grotesque ways every day.  It’s not seeing people I’ve heard about or know die, sometimes naturally, sometimes unnaturally, and usually before their time.  It’s not seeing global climate change catch scientists by surprise with trends that are happening a century earlier than expected.  It’s not seeing the constant war, famine, plague, and death sweep the world (when has it ever not?) in ever-encroaching circles.

It’s not any one thing, but it’s…kinda all of this at once.  (Except the working-at-home-indefinitely bit, I sincerely dig that.)  I know I enjoy at least some measure of safety, however temporary, secluded and swaddled in comfort as I am in my home, free to spend my time mostly as I please, but…

I’m a staunch believer in the claim of Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun”.  We, as a species, are pretty much the same as we were 60,000 years and more ago: we still have the same fundamental needs of sleeping, eating, fucking, and wondering, and everything else is just accessorizing and window-dressing.  We still love and hate, we still learn and ignore, we still live and die, as we and every single one of our ancestors always have going back to the beginning of humanity.  It’s this cyclical continuity that, although it might have been dreary to the author of that book, gives me hope and comfort in that, no matter how bad things get or seem, everything can be survived and surpassed, one way or another, just as it always has been before.  But…it’s hard even for me to not realize that, even if the melody is the same, the key of the music can and does change, and although the lyrics may rhyme, it’s never the same thing being said.  And in that, things may never have been good, depending on whom you ask, but on any large scale by pretty much any measure, things are definitely not great right now, and despite what I want to see, it also seems like things are getting less great by the day.

Despite the breadth of my writings, my focus in my various spiritual practices is decidedly on the small-scale.  Sure, I do readings and consultations for clients, and I study and practice rituals in case I need them should the need arise, but I don’t need a lot, seeing how much I already have; in a way, I’m kinda living one of the messages of the Double Sice bone in reading dominoes, where your material life is in a state of fulfillment so now you need to turn your sights higher.  Instead of trying to advance myself worldly, I do what I can to maintain things in a state of peace and satisfaction for myself, my husband, my housemates, my family, and my godfamily—those near to me and dear to me, and those for whom I can do the most at the time being.  It’s not that I’m being greedy with my power, but necessarily rationing it; even with what little I’m doing to maintain my standards of living, I still have high standards of living, and keeping up with it all can sometimes be soul-wearying and heart-tiring.  (How much worse, then, for people who have it worse?  Why can’t I help them more beyond offering mere words or some meager support here and there, especially in the face of Just So Much where any gain feels like a loss?)  And that’s not even bringing up the work and Work that will surely need doing once the current situations pass—or, if they don’t, and some of them won’t, the work and Work that will still need doing even then.  Gotta save some spoons for what comes later.

There’s an undercurrent here of everything I’m doing being all the running I can do just to stay in the same place.  Even with a legion of spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods at my back supporting me and uplifting me, there’s just so much to tackle on even such a small scale as my own personal life, even without broader problems that so many of my friends and online colleagues I see suffer routinely or constantly.  Even with keeping to a quiet, daily routine of the same-old same-old, logging into work every day to earn a paycheck to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, it’s hard to not hear the klaxons growing louder every minute and every mundane, routine thing I do seem increasingly, surreally, laughably absurd in comparison, and operating under this kind of farce is tiring.  It gets harder and harder to chop wood and carry water when the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the insidious question arises in my mind: “what happens when there’s no more wood to chop or water to carry?”, not out of a sense of completion, but out of a sense of running out through faults both mine and not my own.  I’m not saying this to complain (maybe a little?), but…even if nothing else, it’s hard to look forward to the future in general with more than a modicum of hope, and even that feels forced more and more often.  None of this is me just being self-pitying and grieving uselessly, but it’s hard to not feel the pressure of everything bearing down with no end in sight, and it gets to everyone at different rates and in different ways.  And, so, I turn to those same spirits, ancestors, angels, and gods in prayer and contemplation as a way to resolve this pressure.

In my various searches through the rich body of Islamic prayers and supplications, I found one that struck a particular chord with me: the Munajāt, or the Whispered Prayer, of Imām `Alı̄ ibn ‘Abī Ṭālib (as) in the Great Mosque of Kūfa.  This supplication attributed to the first Shia imam invoked during the lunar month of Sha`bān is simple, if a bit long (though nowhere near as long as many other such supplications).  The structure of the prayer can be broken down into two movements: the first movement calls upon the blessing of Allāh on the day of the Judgment at the end of time, when all else fails and there is nothing good left in the world, while the second movement calls upon the mercy of Allāh according to his various attributes and epithets, and how the imām relates to Allāh by them (e.g. “you are the Creator and I am the creature…you are the Powerful and I am the weak”).  It’s a touching monologue of a prayer that emphasizes the connection between the divine and the mundane, the immortal and a mortal, the One and a one.  In some ways, it kinda encapsulates a particular kind of mood I often find myself in nowadays.  Not to say that I feel the world is ending, but…when things keep looking like they keep getting worse, when the world looks like it’s all downhill from here, it’s hard to keep the mind from thinking about what it’s like at the bottom of that hill.  Even in the pleasant summer nights that make me pine for a walk on the beach under the stars, wind-rustled dunegrass on my left and moon-soaked seafoam on my right, there’s a poignant and quiet terror laced throughout the humidity that fogs the heart more than it does my glasses.  It’s not the impermanence and dissolution and passing-away of things in a world that constantly changes that I fear, I suppose, but rather the lived process of waiting for it and undergoing it at the slow, painful pace of the day-by-day.

All this reminded me of that infamous part of the famous Hermetic text of the Asclepius, specifically sections 24—26.  In this part of the dialog between Hermēs Trismegistus and his disciples Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, Hermēs begins by praising Egypt as the image of Heaven, and how Egypt is the temple of the whole world, where the gods themselves reside on Earth and where all good order is maintained, and why it is necessary to revere not just God but also humanity made in the likeness of god and the ensouled statues of gods that we ourselves make from divine nature.  “And yet,” Hermēs continues after such praise, “since it befits the wise to know all things in advance,” Hermēs foretells the future of this temple of the world, a harrowing prophecy and prediction of the ultimate fate of Egypt and the world as a whole, a cataclysm and eventual apocalypse that, although ultimately ending in a renewal of all that is beautiful and good, necessitates the utter destruction of everything that is, both by its own hands and by divine impetus.  In some ways, it’s not unlike the Stoic notion of ekpyrosis, the periodic conflagration and destruction of the cosmos that is renewed through palingenesis, or the recreation of all things to start a new cycle—except, when seen from a personal perspective on the ground instead of an academic theoretical one, it’s…well, terrifying, and makes Asclepius weep on the spot in that point in the dialog.  (In some ways, one might argue that more than a fair chunk of the prophecy has been fulfilled, and that we’re well on our way to the rest, at least on some timescale or another.  Such people who argue thus have a point that I can’t really argue against, except maybe vacuously.)

In this, I saw a bit of an opportunity for inspiration to strike, given my recent introduction to the Munajāt.  I did a bit of prayer writing and rewriting, and adapted the Munajāt through a Hermetic lens, substituting the Islamic cataclysm with the Hermetic one from the Asclepius. Instead of using Islamic epithets and names of Allah, I scoured the Hermetic texts for the various epithets and attributes of God with a Hermetic understanding and approach.  Not living in Egypt myself, I spatially generalized the prophecy a bit to take place more generally, but the effect of the wording is the same for me as it might have been for Hermēs and his students.  Nothing new under the Sun, after all.  It’s not my intention to rip off or appropriate the Imām’s prayer, but to make use of it in a way that better befits my own practice, communicating the same sentiment with the same devotion and reverence to, ultimately, the same One.

In keeping with the structure and theme of the Munajāt, there are two movements in this Hermetic rendition of the Whispered Prayer, the first seeking protection and the second seeking mercy. Although it might be odd to see such an emphasis on protection and mercy in a Hermetic prayer to the divine, both of these things are extant in Hermetic texts, too: in the Prayer of Thanksgiving given at the end of the Asclepius, also extant in PGM III as well as the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a plea for “one protection: to preserve me in my present life”, and in Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, when Hermēs describes to Tat the method and means of rebirth, he says that it is unobtainable except for those “to whom God has shown mercy”, and that “whoever though mercy has attained this godly birth and has forsaken bodily sensation recognizes himself as constituted of the intelligibles and rejoices”.  In this, the goal of Poimandrēs as given in the First Book—the end of the Way of Hermēs—is fulfilled.

And, to be frank, both divine protection and divine mercy sound like good things to pray for, both in general and especially now, especially in this admittedly dour mood of mine.  We should pray and work for everything else good, too, to be sure—good health, long life, prosperity, happiness, peace, and all the rest of the things we seek in life—but maybe it’s also appropriate to think about what what we ask for instead when none of that can be found or given.  In this, too, I suppose there is hope; it might be small and distant, but there is still hope, because there is always, and must always be, hope.  Even when all I can eke out is just a whisper of a prayer from my heart, knowing that even the deepest refuge of the strongest sanctuary must one day still fall, that hope that I whisper for is enough and will have to be enough.  So sit satis; let it be enough.

In reciting this prayer, after every supplication, silently recite “Oh God, my God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to us all”.  In keeping with the Munajāt, it is preferable to recite this prayer in a low, hushed, or whispered voice.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all devotion will have been in vain.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all worship will have borne no fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the gods will have abandoned the Earth and returned to Heaven.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all reverence will have fallen into neglect.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the divine teachings will have been mocked as delusion and illusion.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all religion will have been outlawed and all sacred traditions lost.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the reverent will have been executed for the crime of reverence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all temples will have become tombs.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the dead will have outnumbered the living.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when darkness and death will have been preferred to light and life.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the cosmos will have ceased to be revered and honored.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when the world will have been filled with barbarity.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the people will have turned to cruelty against each other.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the rivers will have filled and burst with blood.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the lands will have crumbled under stress.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the seas will have ceased to be navigable.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the winds will have stalled lifelessly.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all earth will have become sterile, bearing only withered fruit.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the heavens will have gone dark.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the bodies of heaven will have ceased their courses.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when all the voices of divinity will have gone silent.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will have ceased to be worshiped and glorified.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will dissolve all the world in flood, fire, and pestilence.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will restore the world to worthiness of reverence and wonder.

O God, I ask you for your protection,
on the day when you will return all that is good and sacred to the world.

O God, you are the Father and I am the child;
who else can be merciful to the child except the Father?

O God, you are the Creator and I am the created;
who else can be merciful to the created except the Creator?

O God, you are the Unbegotten and I am the begotten;
who else can be merciful to the begotten except the Unbegotten?

O God, you are the Pervasive and I am the blind;
who else can be merciful to the blind except the Pervasive?

O God, you are the Invisible and I am the mistrustful;
who else can be merciful to the mistrustful except the Invisible?

O God, you are the Good and I am the one the one immersed in evil;
who else can be merciful to the evil except the Good?

O God, you are the Pure and I am the one immersed in defilement;
who else can be merciful to the defiled except the Pure?

O God, you are the Complete and I am the one immersed in deficiency;
who else can be merciful to the deficient except the Complete?

O God, you are the Perfect and I am the one immersed in excess;
who else can be merciful to the excessive except the Perfect?

O God, you are the Still and I am the one immersed in motion;
who else can be merciful to the moved except the Still?

O God, you are the Unchanging and I am the one immersed in change;
who else can be merciful to the changed except the Unchanging?

O God, you are the Imperishable and I am the one immersed in decay;
who else can be merciful to the decaying except the Imperishable?

O God, you are the Beautiful and I am the one immersed in crudity;
who else can be merciful to the crude except the Beautiful?

O God, you are the Ineffable and I am the one immersed in babble;
who else can be merciful to the babbler except the Ineffable?

O God, you are the Cause of Liberation and I am the one immersed in torment;
who else can be merciful to the tormented except the Cause of Liberation?

O God, you are the Cause of Temperance and I am the one immersed in recklessness;
who else can be merciful to the reckless except the Cause of Temperance?

O God, you are the Cause of Virtue and I am the one immersed in vice;
who else can be merciful to the vicious except the Cause of Virtue?

O God, you are the Cause of Truth and I am the one immersed in deceit;
who else can be merciful to the deceived except the Cause of Truth?

O God, you are the Cause of Mind and I am the one immersed in ignorance;
who else can be merciful to the ignorant except the Cause of Mind?

O God, you are the Cause of Life and I am the one immersed in death;
who else can be merciful to the dying except the Cause of Life?

O God, you are the Cause of Light and I am the one immersed in darkness;
who else can be merciful to the darkened except the Cause of Light?

O God, you are the Propitious and I am the one given favor;
who else can be merciful to the one given favor except the Propitious?

O God, you are the Gracious and I am the one given grace;
who else can be merciful to the one given grace except the Gracious?

O God, you are the Merciful and I am the one given mercy;
who else can be merciful to the one given mercy except the Merciful?

O God, you are the Glory of the All and I am the one who is in the All;
only you can be merciful to all in the All, for you are the Glory of the All!

O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me,
and be pleased with me by your mercy, your grace, and your favor,
you who are the source of all mercy, all grace, and all favor!
O God, be merciful, be gracious, be propitious to me and to us all!