On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part IV)

And now we come to the last bit of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  As complicated as the last section was, discussing the creation of animal, vegetative, and human life and for what purposes humans were created due to the linguistic problems, this section is as complicated due to yet other linguistic issues as well as more contentious philosophical ones when you consider other translators’ interpretations of this section.  Let’s dig in!

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before:

[This is the] beginning of their living and becoming wise,
according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods.
And [this is the beginning of their] being released,
leaving behind great memorials of [their] works of art upon the Earth,
and every generation of ensouled flesh,
and [every generation] of [the] sowing of fruit,
and [every generation] of every craftwork,
[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages—
[all] that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity
and by [the] renewal of the gods
and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature.

For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature,
for the Nature is established in the Divine.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἄρχεται αὐτῶν βιῶσαὶ τε καὶ σοφισθῆναι πρὸς μοῖραν δρομήματος κυκλίων θεῶν, καὶ ἀναλυθῆναι εἰς δ’ ἔσται μεγάλα ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καταλιπόντες † ἐν ὀνόματι χρόνων ἀμαύρωσιν καὶ πᾶσαν γένεσιν ἐμψύχου σαρκὸς καὶ καρποῦ σπορᾶς καὶ πάσης τεχνουργίας † τὰ ἐλαττούμενα ἀνανεωθήσεται ἀνάγκῃ καὶ ἀνανεώσει θεῶν καὶ φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι.

τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεοθμένη.  ἐν γὰρ τῷ θεῖῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν.

The first section of CH III begins with how God is the beginning of all that is, but now that CH III has discussed how life came to be and for what purpose, it now talks about how the creation of life is the beginning of the actual life (and life’s end) of humanity.  All the purposes for which humanity was created, as described in the third section of CH III, is “the beginning of their living and becoming wise”; Copenhaver, somewhat following Nock and Festugière, has this as “the beginning of the virtuous life and of wise thinking”, though Copenhaver admits that the word “virtuous” is not in the Greek, only βιῶσαὶ (“to pass one’s life”) which Nock and Festugière render as “the human life”.  This, coupled with the word σοφισθῆναι (“to be made wise”), indicates that all that was discussed in the prior section indicates that we now know not just for what purposes humanity is created, but how best to live our lives and to become wise in living properly.  Dodd notes that the use of the word σοφισθῆναι, common especially in the Book of Sirach but also elsewhere in the Septuagint, along with CH III’s focus on wisdom as opposed to the γνῶσις of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), makes CH III read closer to Hellenistic Judaism (pace Ecclesiastes) than otherwise, in that “the chief value of human life lies in the acquisition of wisdom”.

All this is to be done “according to [their] lot from [the] course of [the] cyclic gods”, i.e. according to our destinies as shaped by the astral gods, both in the circumstances of our birth and in the happenings that occur during our lives since our birth.  Our lives are a matter of destiny, allotted to us through the works of the Divine and the workings of Nature as seen in the “sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven” and “the courses of the heavenly gods”.  Thus, not only are our lives in general determined by fate, but so too is our ability to grow and become wise; to even accept that much, in a very worthy sense, is wisdom, even if nothing else is to be learned in life.  Scott admits that, if only the author of CH III were more explicit in how we might observe these things to come to know the future, we’d have a good argument for following astrology, but we’re left here with just the (strong and compelling, in my view) implication that astrology is a thing.

But the creation of humanity and the purposes of humanity’s creation is not just the beginning of our lives, but also the beginning of our “being released”, or in other words, to pass away from this world through death.  In such release, we “[leave] behind great memorials of [our] works of art upon the Earth”; in release, we are essentially dissolved back into the components of our creation.  What survives our death are our works in the world, the monuments and memorials and other crafts that we engage in.  Scott and Dodd both point out that CH III is emphatically silent on anything else surviving of a human after death: no immortality of the soul, no reincarnation or metempsychosis of the soul, no ascent or salvation of the soul is stated, and in that, we have a similarity with Genesis 3:19 as well as in the older Jewish Wisdom tradition before it began to (quoth Dodd) “platonize” along the lines of CH I.  CH III would seem to say that humans are born to live, grow wise, and die, and our works are the only thing we leave behind in the sake of a lasting name until “the obscurity of the ages” (Dodd: “until time shall dim them”, Salaman: “until the darkening of ages”).  In time, our fame and even our monuments (including the tombs of kings, the stories of poets, the laws of statesmen, etc.) will pass away from the world as we do; Scott takes this one step further and reads CH III as disparaging even these things as futile and hopeless.

This is all rather Stoic, to be honest.  The Stoic model of life does not include reincarnation; as the body dissolves, so too does the soul return to its source, the very soul of the cosmos, dissolved back into the stuff from whence it came.  In this, salvation is a moot point; after all, in this light, what’s there to save?  If there is no reincarnation, then there is no worry about improving the circumstances of the next life; if there is no judgment (which CH I discusses but not CH III), then there is no fear about becoming so awful and wicked in life save for the effects one brings about upon themselves; if there is no concern for salvation, then there is no need to strive for it.  CH I describes salvation as an ascent of the soul based on the soul’s ability to learn, discern, and give up the vices it picked up in the course of its incarnation, but CH III is silent on all this.  Rather, and much more in line with Stoic thought, virtue is its own goal, which would aptly describe Wisdom in its relationship to the Good and to God in this context.  Whether we come to know God or not in life doesn’t bear much difference in the end, but a life well-lived is something that we should all strive for all the same.

All this stands in stark contrast to much of Hermetic literature and philosophy, especially CH I and CH XIII, where it’s said in no uncertain terms that we pass through body after body or are trapped between realms between different incarnations until we can perfect our souls to rise up and return to (be made) God—but the starkness is only a result of CH III’s silence on the matter.  I propose that there’s another issue at play here, too: that of the perspective from which the narrative of CH III is written.  Remember how we mentioned that Dodd, Scott, and others note how the cosmogony of CH III is so different from CH I, in that CH I we begin with Light and see the darkness develop and that Light (“a holy Word”) descends upon the darkness, but in CH III we begin with darkness from which Light emerges?  I proposed that this is a matter of whether one starts this observation from outside creation looking into it (as Hermēs does in CH I) or from within creation (as our author seems to do in CH III).  Whether one sees a sphere intersecting with a two-dimensional plane from a three-dimensional perspective outside it or a two-dimensional one within it, the same thing is happening (the sphere intersects the plane) but how it appears can be radically different (a sphere passing through a plane while remaining a sphere, or a circle that appears ex nihilo and grows, stops growing, decreases, and vanishes once more).  CH III takes a very within-creation view, and I suggest that that viewpoint is carried through here: from within manifest creation, it’s hard to describe or talk about anything that happens outside it.  Admitting that God is both that which is Divine and only subsists as well as that which is Nature and exists, the author of CH III focuses their concerns and writing mostly on the workings of Nature, not talking much about the works of the Divine.  Even in the first section with the aphorisms about God, the identities the author of CH III makes with the Divine are either Nature itself or related to Nature: “Working, Necessity, End, Renewal”.  CH III gives us an overview of life from the perspective of Nature, not from the perspective of the Divine; in that, silence about what happens outside manifest, material Nature would make sense.  Sure, CH III says nothing about salvation or anabasis or metempsychosis, but then, from this perspective, it wouldn’t need to.  I suggest that, in the broader context of Hermetic literature we find CH III, the silence of CH III on this topics is not, as Dodd describes, the author of CH III “repudiating the doctrine of man’s immortality”.  Admittedly, this is especially within the context of the broader Hermetic literature; if I were to take a sola scriptura approach, then yeah, I guess I would find more weight in Dodd’s and Scott’s argument, but even then, it’s hard to take that too seriously here.

I mentioned something in the matter of the identities of the Divine that CH III brought up: “Nature, Working, Necessity, End, Renewal”.  At this point, we’ve discussed pretty much everything except that last one, Renewal itself (ἀνανέωσις).  In the course of humanity’s birth and death, leaving behind not just their works but also “every generation of ensouled flesh, sowing of fruit, and every craftwork”—all of it left behind, all of it made for the sake of a lasting name and for the benefit of future generations until “the obscurity of [the] ages” dims it and forgets it as well—CH III goes on to say that “what is diminished will be renewed”.  This cyclic creation-destruction-recreation is a Stoic notion, too: the universe, having been made, will eventually decay, all differentiation will level out and become undifferentiated once more, and all will return to the original state of primordial chaos and rejoining once more in God.  At this point, a new cycle of the cosmos begins, that of παλιγγενεσία.  We encountered this word in the last section when we described “the seed of rebirth” that animals and vegetation have within themselves, but this is a Stoic notion, too, of the cosmos’ eventual cyclic creation, reproducing the next universe from the same seed as the prior one, playing out the cosmos time and time again as cows give birth to more cows who give birth to more cows, as pines give way to new pines who give way to new pines.  Heck, the very word παλιγγενεσία can be traced back to the Stoics, though it was used in biblical and rhetorical literature as well.  But we also see similar notions of cosmic rebirth and renewal in other Hermetic texts, as in the prophecy of Hermēs in the Asclepius (specifically AH 26, Copenhaver’s translation):

“….Then he will restore the world to its beauty of old so that the world itself will again seem deserving of worship and wonder, and with constant benedictions and proclamations of praise the people of that time will honor the god who makes and restores so great a work. And this will be the geniture of the world: a reformation of all good things and a restitution, most holy and most reverent, of nature itself, reordered in the course of time (but through an act of will,) which is and was everlasting and without beginning. For god’s will has no beginning; it remains the same, everlasting in its present state. God’s nature is deliberation; will is the supreme goodness.”

“Deliberation (is will), Trismegistus?”

“Will comes to be from deliberation, Asclepius, and the very act of willing comes from will. God wills nothing in excess since he is completely full of all things and wills what he has. He wills all that is good, and he has all that he wills. All things are good that he considers and wills. Such is god, and the world is his image—(good) from good.”

Thus, “all that is diminished will be renewed”, but as Scott notes, this is “only by substitution”: one human perishes, but humanity as a race is immortal, and while one human once dead does not return to life, others are born to succeed them.  In this, Scott and Dodd notes that it’s this renewal of kind (“generation”), a form of fungible substitution, is CH III’s own substitute for a formal doctrine on immortality.  This is why humans are bid by the gods to “grow in growth and multiply in multitude” to ensure our own immortality by continuing the cyclical process of renewal through regeneration of kind; this is the “renewal” of CH III.  But even if we were not bid to do so, it is what would happen all the same, because “what is diminished will be renewed by Necessity, by [the] renewal of the gods, and by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature”.  Scott restates this as “this unceasing renewal of life on Earth is caused by the unvarying movements of the heavenly bodies, through the operation of which fresh births are continually taking place[;] the force by which the renewal is effected may be called φύσις; but φύσις is dependent on the movements of the stars, and therefore on the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars were made and set in motion”.  Scott’s notion of the dependency of Nature makes it subordinate to the Divine, but as the initial section of CH III says, Nature itself is Divine, which makes this notion seem somewhat off the mark to me.  Nature, after all, is the movements of the stars and the “circular motion carried along by divine Spirit” as mentioned in the cosmogony and cosmology of CH III, not merely dependent on them, and because God is Nature, God’s will is inherently the activity of Nature as much as it is the actions of the Divine.

As a quick aside, that last phase, “by [the] course of the measured wheel of Nature” renders φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι.  The word ἐναριθμίου is a weird one, normally meaning “counted among” or “taken into account”, literally “in the number” or “ennumbered”, but here, a grander sense of ἀριθμός seems to be implied by the author of CH III.  Scott uses “measured” here, while Nock and Festugière render it as “that which sets the number”.  The “wheel of Nature” can be interpreted to be the spinning circles of Heaven, especially that of the Zodiac, which sets and marks and measures the times and seasons (and, in that sense, is a dim echo of the Egyptian god Thoth being the “lord of years” who reckons the times of the calendar, to say nothing of the classical depictions of Aiōn).  In conjunction with “renewal of the gods”, which we know to refer to the astral gods mentioned back in the second section of CH III, we can say that Necessity is played out through the works of the planets in the workings of their motions through the heavens, which effects the renewal of regeneration of all things.

Going back to the relationship of Nature and the Divine, CH III ends with another aphorism-like statement: “For the Divine is the whole cosmic combination renewed by Nature, for the Nature is established in the Divine” (τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεοθμένη, ἐν γὰρ τῷ θεῖῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν).  This is an echo of the very first line of CH III, δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία (“[the] glory of all things is the God, [who is both the] Divine and divine Nature”).  Of especial note that Copenhaver points out is the use of the word σύγκρασις “synkrasis”, which has astrological connotations of its own referring to a combination of influences from heavenly bodies which can be realized (and even effected) through συμπάθεια, “sympathy”, the notion that parts of the cosmos are interconnected so much that what happens in one thing affects something else, just as how things on Earth are affected by the influences of the happenings of the stars in Heaven.  This is the fundamental notion of how magic works, what is meant by “as above, so below” (though, notably, not the reverse: συμπάθεια is one-sided, in that what happens in Heaven affects that on Earth but not vice versa, as other parts of Hermetic literature affirm).  What CH III is saying here is that the confluence of the astral gods and bodies in all their various combinations is constantly effected, made, and remade again by the workings of Nature is the sum of that which is Divine, because σύγκρασις and συμπάθεια are the works of the Divine.  Because of this, and because the works of the Divine go hand-in-hand with the workings of Nature (as we see hammered again and again in the third section of CH III), “Nature is established in the Divine”: Nature is both found and founded in the Divine, because Nature is itself Divine, and that which is Divine is also Nature, because the Divine comes about through Nature.

This notion of renewal of things is intimately bound up with stars: just as the gods (known to be astral, both planetary and stellar) first made things, they also made things to remake themselves (as well as assisting in making and remaking them directly) time and time again, just as the planets revolve around the heavens and as the very stars precess in their motions.  The interaction between and influences of the planets and stars determine the lot of our lives down here on Earth, but also the whole of creation more generally, and as the planets renew themselves in their own cycles, so too do they renew our own.  This playing out of the works of the Divine and the workings of Nature is itself fate, which here is called Necessity, the communication and result of the will of God.  Necessity (ἀνάγκη) is described at length in some of the Stobaean Fragments (SH, cf. Litwa’s translations):

  • SH XII: Providence has two powers generated from its own nature: Necessity and Fate.  Fate serves Providence and Necessity; the stars serve Fate.
  • SH XIII: Necessity is a firm judgment and an unbending power of Providence.
  • SH XIV.1: Necessity constrains and contains the world, and is that which moves Fate, which is the cause of astral formations.  (Litwa notes that Fate is not identical to the stars or their formations, but their cause).

Fate is not made explicit in CH III except through heavy implied references by means of the astral gods and their motions, and Providence is not mentioned at all, but Necessity has been there in CH III right from the beginning, and the Asclepius in section 39 describes Necessity as that by which things “are forced into activity”, upon which Fate depends.  Thus, knowing that the regeneration of the cosmos is the will (and thus Providence) of God, Necessity forces all things to be renewed, which is accomplished through Fate causing the various syncrases of the stars above in Heaven to influence all that exists below here on Earth, both in its creation, its diminishing, and its renewal.

Our job, then, in light of all the injunctions and purposes stated of humanity in the third section of CH III, is to make the most of it all through Wisdom.  Sure, Necessity will have its way, but given that humans are created for these purposes—and especially in light of the fact that we have to learn about the distinction between that which is Good and that which is irrelevant or indifferent to the Good—we don’t have to.  We can try to fight Fate and Necessity if we want, but in a true-to-Stoicism sense, a better life is one lived in virtue and wisdom.  To offer my own take on the famous prayer of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes:

Lead me, o Zeus, and holy Destiny
to wherever my post in life’s battle be.
Willing I follow; were it not my will,
wicked and wretched would I follow still.
Fate guides the willing but guides the unwilling.

It is in coming to possess “examination of that which is Good and knowledge of the troublesome lots of divine Power” that we start to become wise, and with this wisdom come to know that which is Good and that which is not, and by that which is Good, come to possess all the fine, skillful, crafty arts that make life worth living for the betterment of ourselves, all those around us, and all those who come after us.  Whether the silence of CH III on the immortality or salvation of the soul is a repudiation of such a doctrine or not, what CH III encourages us to consider is the proper way to live life as you’re already living it since you’re already here regardless of what may come later.

And that does it for my interpretation of this last section of CH III, and of CH III as a whole.  With all this done, we’ll tie everything up in the next post, coming right up!

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part III)

Now for the third part of our interpretation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III).  This is where things get fun, but also super difficult given the challenges the language of CH III poses to translation, so let’s get right into it, shall we?

Our translation of the third section of CH III from before (with our fancy numbered lists for the sake of more easily seeing the structure here in this section):

Each god sent forth through their own power
that which was assigned to them.
Thus came to be [the] beasts—
[the] four-footed, [the] crawling, [the] water-dwelling, and [the] winged—
and every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
[having] the seed of rebirth within themselves.

They then cast the seeds for the generations of humans for [that they might have]:

  1. knowledge of [the] works of [the] Divine, and
  2. testimony of [the] workings of Nature.

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans [for that they might have]:

  1. management of all things under Heaven, and
  2. recognition of that which is Good

So as to:

  1. grow in growth, and
  2. multiply in multitude.

And, through the course of [the] encycling gods,
[they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have]:

  1. observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven,
  2. [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
  3. [observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
  4. [observance] of [the] working of Nature

for [that they might have]:

  1. examination of that which is Good, and
  2. knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power

[for the gods made them so as] to:

  1. come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
  2. discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκατος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη.  τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν † ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν † τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὐπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν έπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων † τερασπορίας † εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε † σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν † εἰς γνῶςιν θείας δυνάμεως † μοίρης ὀχλουμένης † γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.

(Did you guys know that I hate typing up polytonic Greek?  Because I sure do now!  One more section to go after this, I suppose.)

The first section of CH III opened up with a few gnomic aphorisms regarding God, and the second section introduced the creation of the cosmos and how it is arranged.  This section now continues the cosmology by introducing zoogony and anthropogony, the creation of animal life and human life, respectively.  Once the creation of the order of the cosmos has been established, with the subtle elements above and the gross elements below and the heavens arranged into seven spheres, life itself is created, first animal life and then vegetative life.  This was done by “each god [sending] forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”: the astral gods (and maybe also the elemental gods, if you follow Scott’s reasoning) bring forth into existence through their own powers of potentiality (δυνάμεως) life itself.  This section could be read such that animal life was created first and vegetative life second, or whether they were made simultaneously.

In either case, knowing that CH III is similar to the creation account of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis from the Septuagint, there is a difference here: CH III just says that the gods made them all (four-footed beasts that walk, crawling beasts that slither around, beasts that swim in the water, and winged beasts that fly) without distinction as to who made what.  Genesis says that Water produced the creeping, flying, and swimming animals and Earth the walking animals that dwell on land; CH I says that the Air produced flying animals, Water swimming animals, and Earth the four-footed and crawling animals (Fire being reserved for holy and immortal entities that aren’t animal).  Here, it’s only said more simply that the four kinds of animals were just made by the gods.

Then comes the creation of vegetative life: “every germinating seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower”.  CH I doesn’t bring up vegetative life at all, but Genesis does.  However, as Dodd points out, Genesis brings up the creation of vegetative life much earlier in its account of creation before the heavenly components of the cosmos; CH III, taking a more Stoic approach, puts the creation of vegetative life much later after the creation of heavenly entities and along with animal life.  Straightforward enough, I suppose.  It’s also noted that all these things—whether of vegetative life specifically or both vegetative and animal life, and I’m inclined to think the latter is meant here—contain “the seed of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς).  Genesis does make the claim that it is the plants alone “bearing seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds”, but given the placement here between the creation of animals and vegetation, it may well be that CH III implied that both animals and vegetation are capable of reproducing by virtue of their being reproduced.

Then there’s the word ἐσπερμολόγουν, which is…challenging, and much ink has been spilled over the meaning and purpose of this word.  I translate it as “cast seeds”, though a better and more literal meaning (so far as we know) is more like “pick up seeds”, based on σπερμολόγος, literally “seed-taking”, generally referring to birds, but which also has a metaphorical meaning of “someone who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge”; this leads to the word σπερμολογία meaning “gossip” or “babbling”.  As I mentioned in the notes to my translation, the form of this word is weird; it could be considered a neuter singular active present participle, in which case it could well modify σπέρμα, which it’s not too far from, yielding a translation like “[having] the seeding(?) seeds of rebirth within themselves” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν), though I take the approach of Dodd in that it refers rather to the gods themselves “[casting] seeds for the generations of humans” (ἐσπερμολόγουν τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων).  Again, the form and meaning of this word is unclear, and it’s caused no small amount of trouble for translators of this section.  Although Dodd and Copenhaver translate this as “the gods sowed”, with Salaman giving a similar “the gods sent forth”, I like “the gods cast seeds”, a pun on λόγος with the spoken word being inherently magical (again, an Egyptian implication, though this is perhaps me reading this into the text where no such implication exists).

So, the gods “sent forth through their own power that which was assigned to them”, and created all the beasts and all the vegetation of the world, all of which would be self-reproducing, and then “cast the seeds” for humanity.  But, as we noted in our translation, it looks like there’s three different kinds of creation going on here.  Copenhaver and Salaman simply give two lists of things that the gods created humanity for.  Using Salaman as a base for this:

  1. The generations of humanity
    1. To know the works of God
    2. To be active witnesses of Nature
    3. To multiply (Copenhaver: increase the number of mankind)
    4. To rule over all under Heaven
    5. To know what is Good
    6. To increase by increasing
    7. To multiply by multiplying
  2. The human souls in flesh
    1. To survey Heaven, the paths of the heavenly gods, the works of God, and the workings of Nature
    2. To know the signs of what is Good
    3. To know the power of God (Copenhaver: to know divine power)
    4. To know the turning fate of Good and Evil (Copenhaver: to know the whirling changes of fair and foul)
    5. To discover all the marvelous works of the Good (Copenhaver: every means of working skillfully with things that are Good)

This is what I thought was most beautiful about CH III back when I first started discussing it, specific goals and reasons and purposes that the gods made humanity.  However, on a closer inspection of the grammar, I don’t agree with this twofold division, and instead go with a threefold division, divided up into things the gods made us to do and also for what purpose, as given in my translation above.  I figured this out independently of Dodd, who in his commentary on CH III discerns a similar pattern here, though we seem to disagree on particulars.  Dodd summarizes this section of CH III as giving a high-level view of the reasons for what humanity was made: to know God in Nature, to multiply and rule over the Earth, and to become civilized through the study of astronomy, theology, ethics, and the arts.  Dodd also brings up similarities with Sirach 17:1—8 and Wisdom 7:17—19, and how the peculiar phrasings of this section resemble much in Genesis.

What I end up with in my own translation and analysis of the text is that:

  1. In general, the gods made the generations of humanity to:
    1. Know the works of the Divine
    2. Witness the workings of Nature
  2. So that they might grow in growth and multiply in multitude, the gods made great numbers of humans to:
    1. Manage all things under Heaven
    2. Recognize that which is Good
  3. In order to examine that which is Good and to know the turbulent lots of divine Power, so that they might know the difference between that which is Good and that which is not, and to discover the arts of everything that is Good, the gods (through their own heavenly courses) made every human soul in flesh to:
    1. Observe the sign-seeding acts of Heaven
    2. Observe the course of the heavenly gods
    3. Observe the works of the Divine
    4. Observe the working of Nature

Humans in general are to know the works of the Divine (ἔργων θείων) and witness the workings of Nature (φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν); remember how there’s that initial dichotomy between the Divine and divine Nature way back in the first section of CH III, and how God is both.  Thus, fundamentally, humans are made to know God, being the form of life that has Mind and which can have Wisdom (“for the showing-forth of all things”) so as to know all things.  And this whole section of CH III describes what among all things, specifically, is to be known and how, to be sure, but in general, humans are to come to know God by means of that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

The gods also made “great numbers of humans” (πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων, which Copenhaver and Salaman translate similarly as “to increase the number of mankind” which I personally find to not follow from the grammar here) fundamentally to “grow by growth and multiply in multitude”.  This sort of injunction is phrased in a rather unusual, especially Hebraic sense, and is also found in CH I.18 (Copenhaver translation):

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

The use of αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, especially that latter phrase, echoes the use of πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων at the start of this series of injunctions, encouraging humans not just to be a great number but to ensure the greatness of its number by continuing to be a great number through increasing and multiplying.  This is facilitated by the two injunctions here given, the first being to tend to the Earth (literally “all under Heaven”) by taking mastery, rulership, and stewardship over it (δεσποτείαν).  The word δεσποτεία literally refers to “the power of a master” (think of the word “despot”), which in the sense of Genesis means for humans to have dominion over the world, and also echoed in Wisdom 9:2.  CH I also gives mastery to humans by having authority in CH I.13, but Dodd notes that this is before humanity’s incarnation while humanity is still within “the craftsman’s sphere”, and not coupled with an injunction to increase and multiply until afterwards in CH I.18.

The second injunction given in this section is to recognize that which is Good.  Simple enough, I suppose (in the sense that doing so is at all simple), but I should note that it’s here that we start encountering the Good (ἀγαθῶν) frequently, and I tend to take this in a more Platonic sense than others seem to do, as it’s not otherwise explained in CH III.  Other translators use it in a more common, common-sense meaning of just things that are lowercase-g good, useful, or beneficial, but “the Good” is a concept otherwise discussed quite a bit in the rest of Hermetic literature as something that pertains to God, and which does not properly exist down here in the world of matter.  Again, this has the benefit of tying into this notion of humanity coming to know God.  Notions of the Good in the Corpus Hermeticum are inherently and intensely intertwined with God (not even the gods in general, but specifically just God as in CH II.16 and CH VI.2) and divinization (cf. CH I.26, “this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god”).  And, again, recall the connection that CH XI.2—3 gives between the Good and Wisdom that Mind describes to Hermēs (Copenhaver’s translation):

“God makes eternity; eternity makes the cosmos; the cosmos makes time; time makes becoming. The essence (so to speak) of god is [the good, the beautiful, happiness,] wisdom; the essence of eternity is identity; of the cosmos, order; of time, change; of becoming, life and death. But the energy of god is mind and soul; the energy of eternity is permanence and immortality; of the cosmos, recurrence and counterrecurrence; of time, increase and decrease; of becoming, quality (and quantity). Eternity, therefore, is in god, the cosmos in eternity, time in the cosmos, and becoming in time. And while eternity has stood still in god’s presence, the cosmos moves in eternity, time passes in the cosmos, but becoming comes to be in time.”

“The source of all things is god; eternity is their essence; the cosmos is their matter. Eternity is the power of god, and the cosmos is eternity’s work, but the cosmos has never come into being; it comes to be forever from eternity. Therefore, nothing in the cosmos will ever be corrupted (for eternity is incorruptible), nor will it pass away since eternity encloses the cosmos.”

“But the wisdom of god—what is it?”

The good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity. Eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter.”

That which is Good is inherently bound with Wisdom, and Wisdom is what enables us to know all things because it shows forth all things that exist, both that which is of the Divine and that which is of Nature.

Then we have the final set of injunctions, which is the most complicated to discuss.  At this point, CH III has already discussed how the gods “cast the seeds” for the generations of humanity, and then how they made “great numbers” of humanity.  These are all fairly physical, but now we step into a more spiritual context: “through the course of [the] encycling gods, they created every soul in flesh”.  Now we’re talking about a spiritual dimension of humanity that we haven’t yet encountered.  While CH III does not explain the nature of the soul, it does say that it exists, and in distinction to the other forms of life that don’t have a soul; all things might have Spirit, since Spirit is instrumental to the order and functioning of the cosmos, but not necessarily Mind or Soul.  Dodd brings this up in a peculiar way:

Now Poimandres agrees that the mortal part of man came form the διοικηταὶ, the astral gods, and Philo found in Genesis a hint that it was the work of the divine δὺναμεις, and not of God Himself.  But both Genesis and Poimandres teach that man in his higher aspect is the image of God.  This sublime doctrine is the climax of the biblical cosmology, and the determining motive of the Poimandres.  The Sacred Discourse knows nothing of it.  Nevertheless, the author follows the LXX as closely, from his point of view, as the author of the Poimandres does from his, and clearly independently.

We know from other doctrines related to the soul in Hermetic literature that all other things have soul, it’s true, but not all have the same types of soul; some Hermetic texts suggest that reincarnation between different forms of life is a possibility, others argue that it’s impossible for a human soul to be incarnated in anything but a human body.  That humans have souls is not questioned by CH III, but whether this is made in the image of God is left unspecified.

These human souls are thus put into flesh (σάρξ here, though σῶμα “body” is used in CH I) to do four things, all based on observation: to observe (κατοπτείαν) the “sign-seeding” (τερασπορίας, “sowing of portents”, another complicated word that gives translators trouble) things (acts, as I interpret it) of Heaven, the course of the heavenly gods, the works of the Divine, and the working of Nature.  Again we have this distinction between “works of the Divine” and “working(s) of Nature”), but there’s something interesting about this list of injunctions: it’s a set of four, while everything else is a set of two things.  This might just be me, but I sense a parallel going on in this set of four: the “sign-seeding” acts of Heaven are the works of the Divine, and the courses of the heavenly gods are the workings of Nature.  In other words, the second two injunctions are just a clarification on the first two.  In this light, we might rephrase this section as:

…through the course of [the] encycling gods, [they created] every soul in flesh for [that they might have] observance of [the] sign-seeding [acts] of Heaven and [observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods, [which are the observance] of [the] works of the Divine and [observance] of [the] working of Nature…

After all, we already know that the generations of humanity were seeded to have knowledge of the works of the Divine and bear witness to the workings of Nature, so this seems like a way to reemphasize that in more concrete terms through the observance of what goes on above the Earth.  Dodd, in a slightly different take based on similarities here with Psalms 7:4, associates “man’s contemplation of God’s works in the heavens with his rule over His works below”.

So humanity is made by the gods as ensouled flesh, or rather incarnate souls, to observe what happens in Heaven.  We are enjoined to do this so that we might examine that which is Good (again, using my Platonic sense of the word) and to know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” (θείας δυνάμεως μοίρης ὀχλουμένης).  This latter phrase is a tricky one, and again the unclear Greek doesn’t help us, but there’s a notion of crowds, mobs, turbulence, turmoil, and trouble bound up with the fates and lots that come from “divine Power”.  We encountered “divine Power” in the previous section on cosmology, referring to the infinite potential associated with the primordial chaos before the ordering of creation; while this could just be a general phrase to be used (Dodd compares it to Psalms 62:3 and 76:15), I get a notion of things that are still as yet potential which have not yet come to pass being “turbulent” or “troublesome”, perhaps because of their unknown and unformed nature held in the unknown and unformed future.  Are these, too, Good?  It’s unclear, but perhaps that’s because they’re supposed to be.  In this vein of logic, were Scott to carry it further, he might argue that this is an implied argument against the use of astrology and divination to know the future, but perhaps it’s in that very act of discerning that we come to know more about them.

But we’re not done yet here: we’re made incarnate souls and ensouled flesh to observe what happens in Heaven so that we come to examine the Good and know the “turbulent lots of divine Power” specifically for an even grander purpose.  First, we must come to know that which is ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, which is a phrase I translate as “that which is Good and that which is insignificant”.  It would make more sense to translate this as “Good and Evil”, but CH III doesn’t treat theodicy or evil or things that are bad, and φαύλων doesn’t really have those connotations as such.  Rather, the word φαύλων usually indicates things that are more cheap, easy, slight, trivial, paltry, petty, mean, or common; in other words, the things that are insignificant, indifferent, or otherwise unrelated to that which is Good.  CH III doesn’t treat these things as evil, per se (although other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum would certainly say that anything that is not Good is therefore evil, and only God is Good, thus all things that are not God are evil even if they participate in the Good or have a share of it), but rather as things that just don’t matter to our quest in searching for the Good.  It is certainly possible, of course, that the author of CH III did suggest something along the lines of evil; Dodd points out that the language here borrows from that of Genesis 2:17 and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which caused the Fall of Man.  But that notion is rejected by Hermetic literature: in CH I, such knowledge is the remedy for our fall, and in CH III, it seems that we are destined for it from the get-go.

With such knowledge of that which is Good and that which is not, it’s then incumbent on us humans—as ensouled flesh and as incarnate soul—to then “discover the arts of everything that is Good”.  Salaman translates this as “discover all the marvelous works of good men”, Copenhaver as “discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good”, Scott as “invent all manner of cunning arts”, and Dodd “discover the craft of all arts”; lots of variation here, I suppose, but in keeping with the theme of the Good here, I think we need to focus on the relationship between arts (δαιδαλουργίαν, which I translated generically as “arts” but literally meaning “skillful workings”) and the Good.  That there’s a relationship is implied given the grammatical structure of this last part of this section of  CH III, and I interpret that relationship to be that once we come to learn about the Good and how that which is Good differs from that which is not (φαύλων), we can then discard the things that are not Good so as to focus on the Good.  In so doing, we come to expand on the Good, make use of it, implement it, and propagate it; to me, these are the arts of the Good, which bring us closer to God through Wisdom.  As for what these arts are, CH III does not specify, but we can make a good guess: astrology, alchemy, theurgy, medicine, writing, theology, ethics, philosophy, religion, and the like.  All these are things that help us investigate the divinity of the Divine and the nature of Nature; all these are the studies and practices of Wisdom; all of these things reveal to us the goodness and beauty and joy of creation; all of these things bring us closer to God.

Thus the third section of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the fourth and last section, which talks about where humans go from here now that we’re here.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part II)

Let’s continue where we left off last time, where we began our little exegesis (such as it is) with the first section of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), a set of three aphorisms about God and God’s relationship with reality.  This time, we’ll focus on the second section of CH III, which focuses on the creation and function of the cosmos.  Remember that the first section of CH III, according to Nock and Festugière, also included a section about cosmogony, but I decided to move that down to the second section which discusses it more thoroughly.

Our translation of the second section of CH III from before:

Lo: in [the] Abyss there was boundless darkness and water,
and delicate, intelligent Spirit,
existing by divine Power in Chaos.
Then, under [the] sand, out of [the] moist essence,
holy Light arose and [the] elements solidified,
so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature.

While all was indefinite and unformed,
[all] that which was light was separated off to [the] heights
and [all] that which was heavy was grounded upon [the] moist sand,
the whole of them all separated and hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit.

And the heavens were seen in seven circles,
[the] gods being seen in the forms of [the] stars with their constellations,
perfectly filled each with their own gods.
The periphery was wrapped all around by Air
and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit.

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

ῆν γὰρ σκότος ἄπειρον ἐν ἀβύσσῳ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πνεῦμα λεπτὸν νοερόν, δυνάμει θείᾳ ὄντα ἐν χάει.  άνείθη δὴ φῶς ἅγιον καὶ ἐπάγη † ὑφ’ ἅμμῳ † ἐξ ὑδρᾶς ουσίας στοιχεῖα καὶ θεοὶ πάντεσ † καταδιερῶσι † φύσεςσ ἐνσπόρου.

ἀδιορίστων δὲ ὄντων ἁπάντων καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστων, ἀποδιωρίσθη τὰ ἐλαφρὰ εἰς ὕψος καὶ τὰ βαρέα ἐθεμελιώθη ἐφ’ γρᾷ ἅμμῳ, πυρὶ τῶν λων διορισθέντων καὶ ἀνακρεμασθέντων πνεύματι ὀχεῖσθαι.

και ὤφθη ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐν κύκλοις ἑπτά, καὶ θεοὶ [ταῖς] ἐν ἄστρων ἰδέαις ὀπτανόμενοι, σὺν τοπις αὐτῶν σημείοισ ἅπασι, καὶ διηρθρώθη … σὺν τοῖς ἐν αὐτῇ θεοῖς, καὶ περιειλίγη τὸ περικύκλιον ἀέρι, κυκλίῳ δρομήματι πνεύματι θείῳ ὀχούμενον.

Note that, at this point, Nock and Festugière start using obelisks (†) to denote unclear or peculiar phrases.  The first section of CH III didn’t have any, but now we start getting into the parts where things get harder to interpret.  I’ve kept those in where Nock and Festugière included them, but I already tried to deal with what’s going on with those particular phrases back in the translation of the text.

The cosmogony of CH III takes place in the form of an impersonal narrative:

  1. Originally there was only boundless darkness and water, which had with (or within) it “delicate, intelligent Spirit”, all existing as chaos in the Abyss.
  2. From out of the chaos of water and earth arose a “holy Light”, and as it arose, so too did the elements.
  3. The light elements (Fire and Air) rose up to the heights and the heavy elements (Water and Earth) stayed down below.
  4. Fire, rising to the top, as the active and hot principle, was the major actor of this separation of the elements, with Spirit sustaining this arrangement.
  5. With the elements separated and solidified from chaos, and with the arrangement of the elements in place, the seven heavens arose.
  6. With the seven heavens came about the stars and constellations.
  7. The whole of the cosmos was then encompassed by Air, and moved around in a circular course by Spirit.

It’s clear that this arrangement of the cosmogony (continued in CH III) follows the same arrangement both in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I) as well as the Book of Genesis:

Dodd explains the similarities between the creation account of CH I and CH III, and how they relate to that of Genesis:

The stages are not so clearly marked in the Sacred Discourse as in Genesis and Poimandres, but they obviously follow the same general plan.  Both Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse omit the beginning of vegetable life at a stage before the appearance of the heavenly bodies, clearly as being “unscientific”.  The Sacred Discourse brings all sub-human life into the same stage, while it separates man from the animals, like the other two.  So far, therefore, the three accounts go closely together.  In one point Poimandres and the Sacred Discourse agree against Genesis, in one point Poimandres and Genesis agree against the Sacred Discourse, but neither of these points is of great significance.

Notably, God doesn’t make an appearance at all in this section, but there are things that are divine here: “divine Power” in the first paragraph (by which all the things exist in chaos) and “divine Spirit” in the last paragraph (by which creation is turned in a circular motion).  That these things are divine shouldn’t surprise us too much, but “Power” (δύναμις) should be clarified first.  In the classical sense, δύναμις is contrasted with ἐνέργεια, where the former (power) represents potentiality, while the latter (energy) represents activity.  In this philosophical understanding of the difference between potentiality and actuality, the primordial dark chaos exists as the seed of all things that can exist; perhaps “chaos exists” is a bit too strong, but “preexists” might be better in this case.  “Power” is encountered elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum in the sense of the various powers of Heaven, sure, but we haven’t gotten to that stage of creation yet where there’s anything distinctly made, so in this case, “divine Potential” is a better understanding of what we see here in CH III.2.

Then there’s “divine Spirit”, which is earlier described in this section as also being both “intelligent” (νοερός) and “delicate” (λεπτός).  “Intelligent” here isn’t too surprising, though another way to translate this is “intellectual”, related to the word for Mind (νοῦς), and is thus the highest faculty in humanity that allows us to know; Scott takes this further and says that Spirit is thus “living, conscious, and intelligent”.  Again, however, at this point in CH III, we don’t have humanity yet, but Spirit is still present even in the potentiality of everything as something that allows for it to be known; mind precedes body, in this case.  But there’s also “delicate” here which others translate as “fine”, but as we noted in our translation, λεπτός has notions of being peeled, husked, fine, small, thin, fragile, meager, weak, or subtle (and I think “subtle” is another perfect word to use here).  That Spirit should be pre-present in chaos is perhaps unusual, but it also suggests, along with all this existing by “divine Power”, that God who is also the beginning of Mind and things that are of Mind is already aware and able to know himself even at this early stage, though perhaps “able” is all that can be done without there being anything distinct that can be said to exist.  Given this description of “delicate Spirit”, one might say that this is more of a passive entity than active entity, but we see later on in this section that Spirit plays quite an active role indeed in sustaining and maintaining the order of the cosmos once it has been ordered.  I suppose, then, that at this point in creation, everything really is in just a potential state, a seed ready to burst given the right stimulus and impetus to do so, and that Spirit is as much a part of the cosmos as everything else is, though remains distinct from it at all points after creation.  For chaos to exist “by divine Power” indicates that this, too, is something created and sustained by God, otherwise it would not exist.  Of course, Scott points out also that “Spirit” in this case could well be the same as that of the Stoics, a fine gaseous mixture of Fire and Air, the two subtle elements as opposed to the two gross elements of Water and Earth, yet this is also written in such a way as to recall the “spirit of God hovering over the waters” from Genesis 1:1.  It seems that Spirit in this case is indeed an active component of the primordial chaos, but it is not yet activated at this point.

This is also where we encounter a distinction between the creation account of CH I and CH III, at least according to Scott and Dodd.  They claim that the creation account of CH I begins with Light and that darkness and chaos emerge second, making God transcendent of creation, but here, we start with darkness and only encounter Light later, making God immanent within creation and not transcendent.  But note how we already know that God is the start of all the things that are, and that chaos itself exists by things that are Divine (Power).  At this point, we then proceed to the “holy Light” in the first paragraph that arose from the chaos, but the use of the word ἅγιος (“holy”) is…kinda weird, really.  That word doesn’t really start to become common or popular until after the advent of Abrahamic texts written in Greek, like the Septuagint; normally, things would be called ἱερός (“sacred, hallowed”) or θεῖος (“divine”).  Sure, it was certainly in use before such an influence and was used at times to refer to things devoted to the gods in temples and the like, but it seems to have revolved more around the notion of matters or phenomena of religious awe, both good and bad.  Sure, the final prayer from CH I is filled with the use of ἅγιος, but as Copenhaver notes, the use of this word in a pagan prayer (especially in a tripled format) can be traced to the Septuagint and other Abrahamic texts, and the texts in the Corpus Hermeticum otherwise rarely use it.  Notably, CH I.4—5 is also where we find the use of ἅγιος in the sense of λόγος ἅγιος, the “holy Word” that descended upon the dark chaos to spur the formal separation and arrangement of creation (Copenhaver translation):

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it.

But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

In the next section, Poimandrēs explains to Hermēs what the vision meant:

“I am the light you saw, Mind, your God,” he said, “who existed before the watery nature that appeared out of darkness.  The lightgiving Word who comes from Mind is the Son of God.” … “This is what you must know: that in you which sees and hears is the Word of the Lord, but your Mind is God the Father; they are not divided from one another, for their union is life.”

There’s this Hermetic notion that the first Light is also the first Word, that this primordial Light as it interacts with the primordial dark chaos in this sense is “holy”, and that it is the fundamental impetus of arrangement and ordering upon the cosmos.  However, Dodd points out that Light is not identified explicitly in CH III with divinity as it is in CH I; in this, “the Sacred Discourse is to that extent closer to Genesis“, as opposed to the preexisting light in CH I which is explicitly linked.  After all, in CH III, light simply “emerged” (άνείθη) from the chaos, which does make Light seem like a…well, emergent property of creation rather than something that comes from outside it.  Sola scriptura, CH III really doesn’t say anything about the transcendence of Light here or that it comes from any other source besides creation itself.  Weirder still is that Light doesn’t play any further role in CH III—no salvific or noetic associations are given to it, and it doesn’t get mentioned again; it just arises from the chaos and, as it does so, sparks the creation of the cosmos.  Surely, it too arise “by divine Power”, but consider that where there is Light, there cannot be Darkness.  Light arising from the Darkness would mean that something in the darkness would have had to spark together, mix, and combine in order to form something new, but the whole point of this primordial chaos is that nothing is formed yet, and everything is already mixed together in an unformed way.  In this light (heh), Light could not have existed as part of the primordial chaos, but had to have been “injected”, as it were, by God into the chaos in a way that the rest of what existed was not.  Alternatively, the Light could be self-engendered, but in a context where there’s already stuff, that seems to be rather unusual, indeed.

To continue along this image a bit, we have this notion that the “holy Light emerged” from the chaos, yes, but specifically “under the sand, out of moist essence”.  Nock and Festugière ignore “under the sand” here seeing it as a reference to something later on in CH III, but in this image, we have this notion of water (rather, “moist essence”, as Dodd points out as a correction to earlier “water”) and sand mixed together as being the base of this dark chaos, in a way reminiscent of what we saw in CH I.4, “something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire”.  As noted before, this notion of Light arising from this mixture of sand and moisture is similar to the Ancient Egyptian (specifically Heliopolitan) creation myth of the Benben stone, the first mound of dry land that emerged from the primordial waters of Nun, with Atum sitting atop it having created himself, and from himself the rest of the gods and creation.  This is specifically linked to CH III by the use of the word “sand” (ἄμμος) here, otherwise “earth” would have suited just fine—unless, perhaps, the place where the author of CH III was so sandy as to make the two words interchangeable in his dialect (totally reasonable, too!).  In either case, there’s this Egyptian presence here in the text, which thus hints that the Light is truly self-engendered or self-begotten, not as a result of the primordial chaos but as its own…well, holy phenomenon (ἅγιος as opposed to ἱερός or θεῖος).  As it comes into being, it then shines its light into the darkness, allowing things to take form.  We might understand this metaphorically in that sight and vision necessitates an order to be seen and viewed.

Personally, while I don’t see an issue with Light here being a presence of divinity being self-generated, it does leave open the question of God’s relationship with creation.  Dodd and Scott see the phrasing here as an indication of a fundamentally different creation myth than that of CH I, given that in CH I the dark chaos existed only after light permitted it, from which it sent a holy Word of Light onto it.  But if the darkness existed within the light in CH I, why wouldn’t the presence of the abounding ambient light alone shift it?  An action had to be taken, and we perceive this creation account from outside creation in the light-filled realm of God in CH I.  In CH III, however, we start from within creation, not taking the perspective of God.  It could reasonably be thought that the “holy Light” arising from the wet sand in CH III is the same action as the “holy Word” descending onto the dark chaos from the transcendence of light, just from a different perspective: think of how a three-dimensional sphere intersects with a two-dimensional plane from the perspective of a two-dimensional entity on that plane, first appearing as a circle ex nihilo that then increases as the sphere intersects more deeply with the plane.  It’s the interpretation I favor instead of a self-generated presence of holiness within creation, but sola scriptura, that remains to be seen whether that’s the view of the original author.

Once the Light arose, then the elements solidified and took their form from the chaos; thus, from the chaotic mix of everything unformed comes Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.  The light elements of Fire and Air went upwards and the heavy elements of Water and Earth remained below (“grounded upon the moist sand”, cf. CH I.5 “Earth and Water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that Earth could not be distinguished from Water”).  Perhaps the four elements aren’t what’s strictly intended here in the sense of “that which was light was separated off to the heights and that which was heavy was grounded upon the moist sand”, although each makes their appearance in turn in CH III, but it does make sense to interpret it this way.  All the same, all this came about, not just chaotically or randomly, but for a purpose: “so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature”.  It’s at this point that we’re not dealing with God, but specifically gods plural.  That there should be other gods is not utterly surprising; despite the focus on a singular God in much of Hermetic literature, the existence of other gods (sometimes “powers”, sometimes “angels” especially under Jewish influence, etc.) is not questioned, even if it’s not the focus of Hermetic literature.  Dodd notes along these lines:

The frank polytheism is out of harmony with the spirit of Gen. i; but we may recall that Jewish thinkers found in it a place for secondary creators, and further that the “gods” of philosophical paganism were not very different from the angelic orders of some forms of Jewish thought.  Now, in the Secrets of Enoch the creation of the angelic orders is interpolated in to the story of creation derived from Genesis…if Scott is right in his restoration of the text of the Sacred Discourse at this point…the parallel with the Secrets of Enoch is close.  Orthodox Judaism was careful to avoid the use of the term “gods” for these beings, but after all the Old Testament spoke of them as אלוהים or בני-אלוהים, and although the LXX often replaced these terms by ἄγγελοι, we do not know that all Greek-speaking Jews were so scrupulous.  To a Jew of the periphery, or to a philosophic pagan approaching Judaism from the outside, the distinction between θεοί and ἄγγελοι might well seem no more than a difference of terminology upon which it would be pedantic to insist.

The ancestral gods here correspond to the διοικηταί of the Poimandres, and both tractates refer to the seven circles of heaven.…

The word διοικηταί (sing. διοικητής) means “administrator” or “governor”, and can also be translated as “controller”, especially of the fates and influences the planets themselves exert.  So the planets are gods, no problem there for us, but there seem to be other gods, as well: “the gods being seen in the forms of the stars with their constellations, perfectly filled each with their own forms”.  The wandering stars are gods, but the gods also include the stellar deities, too, of the fixed stars themselves.  We might reasonably understand this to be the signs of the Zodiac, but given the Egyptian presence here, the decans themselves might also be considered. Scott goes on to note that “gods” here also includes the elements themselves, especially as πνεύματι is called θείῳ at the end of this section, and recall that Scott interprets “Spirit” as being the Stoic subtle mixture of Fire and Air; “it itself is a god, as are the other three elements; and it is God’s instrument, by means of which the life he gives is conveyed into all terrestrial creatures”.

In either case, we have (at least) these astral gods as well.  It’s unclear from the text whether they preexisted creation and simply took on forms within creation after creation arose, or whether they arose with the rest of creation as it arose; they exist at least as part of Nature.  And it for the gods to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”, meaning that the gods that exist as part of or participating in Nature control what happens within it.  God does not seem to make a direct presence within Nature nor does he appear to actively create within Nature, a notion that isn’t out of place in several Hermetic texts; as in the Jewish account Dodd recalls, God is the first creator who relies on secondary creators.  The purpose of these gods (to “parcel out seed-bearing Nature”) seems intertwined with Nature itself, and Nature had to come to be in order for their purposes to be fulfilled.  It’s also not clear from CH III, whether in this section or the rest, whether these gods are to receive devotion or cult, but merely by the use of the term “gods” here suggests that they should be reckoned and treated as such, favoring a polytheistic worldview with a central, immanent (yet also distant, even transcendental) God as pantokrator that underlies all creation.

The rest of this section is fairly par for the course of classical cosmology, including the Stoic notion of the heavens being set into revolution.  There is, however, the somewhat confusing notion brought up at the end of the section: “the periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”.  Copenhaver translates this as “the periphery rotated [in] the air”, though Salaman has “encompassed by air”.  This could be interpreted, in light of the earlier parts of this section, as the periphery being the utmost fiery heavens (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit”), that Air is what fills up the whole of the cosmos up to its boundaries, though it could also be thought of as the cosmos itself being literally wrapped around on the outside by air in some sort of otherwise-void.  This latter view seems unpopular (outside of creation, after all, how could the elements exist?), but the wording here isn’t that clear.

Given the similarity of the ends of these latter two paragraphs in this section (“hung up by Fire to be carried along by Spirit” and “periphery was wrapped all around by Air and carried along in a circular course by divine Spirit”), it seems that it’s all talking about the same overall structure of the cosmos, all kept in order by Spirit., which seems distinct from both Fire and Air (against Scott taking a strictly Stoic approach to this term).  It’s interesting to note how the activity of Spirit is so important here; it really is that which connects and drives everything, like the pulse in our veins, as the very breath of the cosmos itself.  After all, without the spirit in your own blood, your body dies, collapses, and dissolves into its constituent parts, but as long as you maintain your spirit, your body keeps its form and its motion.  That Spirit should preexist in chaos before the elements and creation of forms in the cosmos is interesting to note, suggesting that it’s something fundamental but distinct from matter itself but still part of Nature.

The cosmogony here seems to have several stages:

  1. Preexisting primordial dark chaos
  2. Unformed and confused elements
  3. Ordered heavens

The shift between 1 and 2 is started when the “holy Light arose”, which triggered the solidification of the elements, and the shift between 2 and 3 is started when the elements themselves separated into the subtle/light and the gross/heavy.  Fire, being the most subtle of the elements, “hung up” the heavens (recall the notion of God the Great Mind from PGM V.459ff, who “established the sea and suspended the heavens”, though there a word is used meaning “to pin up” rather than “to hang up”).  Air, as in CH I, follows the ascent of Fire but only to an extent, not leaping up as high as Fire but which fills in the gap between Fire above and Earth and Water below.  Unlike in CH I or in Genesis, CH III does not mention a separation of Earth and Water; “moist sand” is left together undifferentiated, though if an Egyptian creation account is implied here, then we might also take the separation of Earth from Water to be a given with the arising of Light a la Benben.  Between the utmost fiery periphery of the cosmos and the lower base of base elements, Air fills the cosmos, and is separated into seven zones for the planets, with the stars in constellations appearing above them in the fiery heaven; note that CH III does not preclude higher realms, such as one for the stars themselves apart from the periphery, but they might not be termed “heavens” at that point.  Spirit, existing from the beginning, is what maintains this order and causes it to both remain aloft and rotated.

Thus the cosmogony and non-biological cosmology of CH III.  We’ll pick up next time with the zoogony and anthropogony of CH III in the next section, and with it, the various things for us humans to take care of.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Interpretation (Part I)

Continuing with our talk about Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”, we already talked about my original translation of the text plus a bit of contextualization.  With those done, I suppose it’s time to move onto actually digesting and interpreting the text itself, launching into an exegesis of this.

As for where to begin, I suppose the beginning itself is as appropriate as any.  The opening section (we’ll use my own arrangement of the text, which puts the final paragraph of the first section as the first paragraph of the second) of CH III begins with three aphorisms about God and the divine:

[The] glory of all things is the God,
[who is both] [the] Divine and divine Nature.

[The] beginning of that which exists is the God,
[who is thus of] Mind, Nature, and Matter,
being Wisdom for [the] making known of the All.

[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine,
[which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, Purpose, and Renewal.

In the original Greek, according to Nock/Festugière:

δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία.

ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν.

ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις.

The first aphorism is “Δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία”.  This has been translated several ways:

  • Literal: Glory of all things is God and the Divine and the divine Nature.
  • Everard: The glory of all things, God and that which is Divine, and the Divine Nature…
  • Chambers: Glory of all things, the God and Divinity and Nature Divine.
  • Mead: The Glory of all things is God, Godhead and Godly Nature.
  • Nock/Festugière as well as Dodd: Glory of all things is God and the Divine, and Nature is divine.
  • Copenhaver: God is the glory of all things, as are also the divine and the divine nature.
  • Salaman: God is the glory of all things, the divine being and the divine nature.

My own translation falls more in line with Copenhaver and Salaman, interpreting the καὶ…καὶ construction as a “both…and” with implied copula.  In this view, we have the notion that God is both that which is divine (θεῖον) as well as nature (φύσις) which itself is divine (θεία).  The first line of CH III sets up this dichotomy between that which is Nature and that which is not, but that everything that is is still God.  This immediately recalls the notion from Stoic physics of corporeal things that exist and incorporeal things that only subsist; in this case, we might view Nature as that which exists and everything else that is real but which is immaterial—the “Divine”—to subsist, and God is both of these things.  In the Stoic view, things that are real but which do not exist are things like concepts, time, place, justice, wisdom, and the like.  We’ll turn to this again in a bit, but for now, we already have an understanding that there are material things and immaterial things, and all of it is found within (or as) God.

But what to make of the beginning of this line, “δόξα πάντων”?  The word δόξα is one that many of us would recognize nowadays as “glory” or “splendor”, but this is an influence from Jewish and Christian texts that use this word to translate Semitic concepts.  Originally, δόξα referred to some notion, opinion, judgment, conjecture, or expectation someone might have (thus words like “orthodox” or “heterodox” or “doxology”), or perhaps even an appearance or reputation something might have, coming from the root δοκέω meaning to seem, to be thought, to be reputed, or to appear.  At first, I wasn’t clear about how δόξα got this association with glory—specifically the glory of God—until the good Dr. Edward Butler stepped in to clarify that it’s about “the shining-forth of something…as a valid expression of the truth of that thing, hence ‘splendor'”.  Scott notes that δόξα being used in this concept in Jewish contexts is obvious, but he “can find no meaning in the statement that God is the δόξα of things”, so he emends it.  Dodd notes that “a reader familiar with Hebraic ways of speech would not find any great difficulty about it”, especially because “that which gives significance, beauty, or sublimity to the universe is its divine origin, and so God is its glory”, in addition to the Jewish notion that “‘the glory’ came to be an expression for the revealed presence of the transcendent God as immanent in this world” (thus the shining-forth splendor).  However, given that Scott and Dodd find CH III a text heavy in monism and immanenism without a notion of transcendence, Dodd concludes that “the glory resident in the universe is God, sans phrase” (emphasis his), recalling the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, “the fullness of the whole Earth is His glory”.  In this, God reveals himself through that which is Divine and that which is Nature, because God is that which is Divine and that which is Nature.

I suppose, given the alternate and more philosophical reading of δόξα could lead us to something like “the opinion of all people is that God is both that which is the Divine and that which is divine Nature”.  Given the rest of the Judaicizing elements in CH III, I think interpreting δόξα here as “glory” (perhaps “splendor” is a better word?) is more appropriate than this, but even in this case, we have this notion that God is seen to be the sum of all that is Divine and all that is Nature.  We should also remember that in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius, DH IX.1 states that “every man has a notion of God: for if he is a man, he also knows God”, and that “God is everything and there is nothing outside God, even that which does not exist”; DH IX.6 says that “Wherever man is, also is God; God does not appear to anybody but man”.  Even in the immaterial and unseen things that are Divine but especially in the material and sensible things, God is apparent to all through and in all things—a notion that is discussed heavily and beautifully in Hermēs’ praise of God in CH V.

The second aphorism reads “ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”.  Now that we know that God is the glory of all things that reveals all things, we proceed to how God is the beginning of all things.  Using the same καὶ…καὶ construction as before, we can translate the first part of this aphorism as “[the] beginning” (ἀρχὴ, also perhaps “principle”) “of that which exists is God, [who is thus the that which exists of] Mind, Nature, and Matter”; I favor an emendation that puts Mind, Nature, and Matter in the genitive, but even if we weren’t, we could still translate this as “[who is] Mind, Nature, and Matter”.  Following the usual Hellenistic philosophical or Mosaic accounts of creation, it makes sense that we would see God as the beginning (or founding principle) of all the things that exist, but note how we have three types of things that exist: Mind, Nature, and Matter.  Interestingly, we have a notion that Matter (ὕλη) is distinct from Nature (φύσις), which throws our earlier assumption that Nature is put into distinction with the Divine as an echo of the Stoic notion of material things that exist versus the immaterial things that subsist.  We don’t yet know enough about the role Matter plays in Nature at this point, but perhaps one way we could think about this is that Matter are the things that exist within the cosmos, and Nature is the functioning of the cosmos itself; in other words, created/creature versus creation.  Scott also notes how CH III saying that God is the beginning of Matter is a distinctly non-Platonic concept, since Platonism holds that Matter has no beginning and is independent of God; to say otherwise is to then say that God made things ex nihilo.

Both of these, further, are distinguished from Mind/Nous (νοῦς).  Scott suggests that Nature in this case is the force that acts on Matter, that “the external world consists of [Matter] and [Nature] in combination”, and that Mind “is here the human mind, in contrast to the external world”.  We know that Mind is a famous concept in Hermetic literature, where God is either identical with Mind or the source of Mind depending on which specific text of the Corpus Hermeticum you read, but Mind is a concept that doesn’t get a lot of explanation or presence in CH III.  What we do have here, though, is that Mind is not Nature nor is it Matter; Mind is thus immaterial and does not exist in Nature, falling outside it.  Thus, Mind is then something that is Divine.

The second part of the second aphorism, “…σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν”, is a little tricky to decipher, but basically it says that God is also “Wisdom for the showing-forth of everything” (or “of all the things that are”).  Although the Jews never identified God with Wisdom, the two have certainly been affiliated with each other; Dodd lists Proverbs 8:22, Wisdom 9:9, Sirach 1, and Sirach 24:3—6 as examples that illustrate points similar to this.  Thus, “if for the Jew, Wisdom = ἀρχὴ and for the Stoic, God = ἀρχὴ, then in a Judaeo-Stoic scheme God is Wisdom”.  Fair enough, I suppose, but then what is Wisdom?  CH XI says that “the wisdom of God” is “the good and the beautiful and happiness and all excellence and eternity”, and that “eternity establishes an order, putting immortality and permanence into matter” (note that connection with matter at the end!), and also that “the essence (so to speak) of God is wisdom”.  Perhaps an interesting thing to note is that “wisdom” as a concept is not all that common in the Corpus Hermeticum, but one place we see it come into play is the famous end to CH I, when Hermēs begins preaching to the world for their salvation (Copenhaver translation, emphasis in bold 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. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

Wisdom is connected to the notion of revealing and revelation, thus σοφία is δεῖξις, the “mode of proof” or “display” or “showing forth”.  In thinking about this, I thought I could spot some sort of etymological connection between δεῖξις and δόξα (that whole “d_ks_” bit)—after all, if Wisdom is that which shows forth, and if Glory is that which is apparent, why not use a related word?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there is an actual etymological connection between the two; δόξα comes from δοκέω (to expect, think, suppose, imagine) and δεῖξις from δείκνυμι (to show, point out, display, make known, explain, teach) have two similar but different Proto-Indo-European roots (*deḱ- “to take, perceive” versus *deyḱ- “to point out”).  Still, perhaps a subtle pun or sly rhyme is being made here based on the similarity of the words.  Perhaps such a potential wordplay between Wisdom and Glory here could mean something like this: God is that which is made known, Wisdom is that which makes known, and God is Wisdom, so that which is made known is that which makes known, and that which makes known is that which is known.  In this light, perhaps we can link Wisdom to Mind, Nature, and Matter: we might say that Mind is that which knows, Nature is the process or arena by which Wisdom makes all things known, and Matter is the substance or object that Wisdom makes known—but because God makes known what is known and is made known by what makes known, we could just as easily swap Nature and Matter here.  In this, using Mind, we come to know more about Matter through Nature, and likewise about Nature through Matter, all by means of Mind.  God is the principle of this all; as Dodd puts it, God is the causa cognoscendi as well as the causa essendi of all things, being a God of revelation as well as of creation.

Then there’s the last aphorism of this first section:  “ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις”.  Once again using that same καὶ…καὶ construction as before and using the same wording as the second aphorism, this is something we translated as “[The] beginning is [that which is] the Divine, [which is] Nature, Working, Necessity, End, and Renewal”.  I originally had “Purpose” here to render τέλος, as in a teleological sense to indicate the final ends for something being made, but it really is generally rendered more commonly as “end, fulfillment, completion, consummation”.  Dodd interprets along with ἀρχὴ to be a statement that God is the beginning and end of creation (cf. Revelation 22:13).  Scott suggests that τέλος being put beside ἀνανέωσις should indicate that τέλος might be better read as τελευτή (“completion, accomplishment, end, extremity”), which gives us a combined notion of “extinction and renewal” that is brought about by Necessity (here ἀνάγκη, but which Scott says is properly a synonym for εἱμαρμένη, “Fate” or “Destiny”, more literally as “that which one has received as one’s portion”) through Working…though working of what?

We do see ἐνέργεια (which we’d read as “energy”, but it’s more of a “being-at-workness” or “activity” rather than our modern sense of some sort of power or force that does something) frequently in this text, always in conjunction with φύσις (though usually with φύσις in the genitive, thus φύσεως ἐνεργουσαι and in distinction to θεῖον as in θείων ἔργων), but here we see Nature and Working separately.  I and Copenhaver and Salaman interpret this more literally as two separate things, but that means that Nature is something that is Divine like the rest of the things, and that seems to be a contradiction.  Scott reinterprets this to say “workings of God”, while Dodd puts both Nature and Working in the genitive case against the other concepts that remain in the nominative (“the Divine is the beginning both of nature and of energy, and is both necessity and end and renewal”).  Sticking to a literal interpretation, I get a notion that the Divine is not just Necessity (= Fate/Destiny) and Ending and Renewal, it is also Nature as well as Nature’s activity.  But this linking of Nature and the Divine then posits Nature as something Divine, when we’ve earlier noted a distinction between the Divine and Nature—but we should remember from the first aphorism that Nature, too, is divine, even when it’s something distinct from the rest of things that are divine.  The cumulative effect of this last aphorism, as Dodd suggests, is that the “divine is not only the origin of nature and its activity; it is also the necessity or fate by which they are directed; and as things take their origin from the divine, so they end in the divine and are brought into being again by it…in harmony with Stoic teaching”.  This largely agrees with Scott’s understanding that “‘necessity’ or ‘destiny’ is brought to bear on things below by the movements of the heavenly bodies…[and that extinction and renewal] are wrought by φύσις, the action of which is determined by the movements of the heavenly bodies; and these movements are themselves determined by God’s will[;] φύσις is thus θεία”.

And, considering what we already said earlier about Wisdom, if Workings of Nature are the means by which Ending and Renewal come to pass according to Fate, and if Nature is something that is to be made known and which makes known, then that means that all these other things—Necessity/Destiny, Ending, and Renewal—are also things that are to be known and which make themselves and other things known as well.  We get to know the activity of all things, how they come to be, how things come to end, and how they come to be again; we get to know what is destined and what is necessitated, and we get to know the will of God.  In this, in all of this, we come to know God, who as Wisdom makes himself known through his creation of all the things that are, because he is the glory of his creation of all the things that are.  All this takes place through which is external to us (Nature, Matter, and the workings of Nature) as well as that which is internal to us (Mind).  All of this proceeds from God as the principle (ἀρχὴ) of all things, and because he is also Wisdom for the showing-forth (δεῖξις) of all things, he is the glory (δόξα) of all things.  In this, God is the Being of Knowing, the Ultimate Being who Knows, and the Being to be Known.

All this from three short, obscure aphorisms; glory be, indeed.  We’ll pick up next time with the second section on cosmogony and cosmology.