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!

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Summary

One of my favorite texts from the classical canon of philosophical Hermetic literature is that of the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), titled the Ἑρμοῦ Λόγος Ἱερός, or “The Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus”. It’s a short text, certainly obscure and corrupt at parts whether by degeneration of the medium or by the degeneration of the language of the original author, and nobody seems particularly sure of its actual origins, but the meaning of is is fairly clear and straightforward: this is a guide of how to live life properly in a Hermetic sense, perhaps even proto-Hermetic when allowing for its Jewish and Stoic influences heavier here than in other parts of Hermetic literature. Not content with existing translations of it, I decided to translate it myself from the original Greek (my first major translation work for the language!) and dig in deep into what it’s actually saying. That’s been the major goal of these past few weeks of posts, and I hope I’ve done just that, or at least started the process of a deeper exegesis and meditation on the text for myself and others. I know that one go-through is not enough for something like this—let’s be honest, none of the Hermetic texts are—but at least, with a better understanding of the specific language used in CH III, I can get a better foothold and grasp of the text more than I could otherwise. In this, I dedicate this whole little project of mine to Hermēs himself, a humble honoring of Hermetic hermeneutics that he might open the door to his mysteries for all those who knock.

In addition to an unofficial prologue post I made some time ago, which in some ways anticipated this series of posts, we covered the following:

  1. Translation of the text from Greek along with my own notes and commentary
  2. Contextualization and similarities with other Hermetic texts
  3. Interpretation on the first section of CH III
  4. Interpretation on the second section of CH III
  5. Interpretation on the third section of CH III
  6. Interpretation on the fourth section of CH III

So, what did we learn about this text?

  • CH III is a short text that seems to be among the earliest written of Hermetic literature, and may well be proto-Hermetic in a sense. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but sometime between 100 bce and 100 ce appears to be a safe bet.
  • CH III shows heavy influence from both Jewish wisdom literature, especially the earlier such texts like the Book of Sirach, as well as from Stoic philosophy. Although Hermetic philosophy is, especially in its later and post-classical forms, considered to be largely (Neo-)Platonic, it has deep Stoic roots as well, which show abundantly in this text.
  • Based on the text, the author of CH III was either an Egyptian pagan influenced heavily by Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish belief, or was a heterodox Hellenized Jew from Egypt. In either case, Greek does not appear to be the author’s first language, which has complicated the translation at times.
  • CH III bears much in common with Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I, “The Divine Poimandrēs”) in terms of cosmogony, cosmology, and doctrine, as well as its own linguistics; neither book bears an explicit reference to Hermēs, either, for that matter. Both of these texts appear to be heavily influenced by the Greek Septuagint, and both bear significant resemblance to the Book of Genesis, though both also have differences with the Biblical account of creation as well as with themselves. Although it is unlikely that either CH I or CH III were based on the other, both seem to be based on the same texts and use the same unusual phrasing that mark them as unique among the rest of Hermetic literature.
  • Even if CH III is not fully “Hermetic” in its doctrines or views, whether due to implied or explicit statements on such, later Hermetic compilers reasonably included this text since it either conforms to and resonates well with the rest of Hermetic literature or can easily be interpreted to read as a properly Hermetic text.

The biggest commentators (at least, to my own knowledge, there may well be others!) on CH III are W. Scott (volume 1, volume 2) and C. H. Dodd, who both translated the text in the first part of the 20th century and offered their own thoughts on it. Although both wrote before A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière who published the current de facto authoritative version of the Greek Hermetica along with their own translation, to which are indebted especially Brian Copenhaver and Clement Salaman et al., their insights are invaluable for understanding this and much of the rest of Hermetic literature. My own translation differs from theirs, partly due to my grammatical analysis and surely due to my experience, but I feel like I’ve been able to build on the translations and insights of those who have gone before me to produce a new take on CH III as well.

The original Greek of the text, based on that of Nock and Festugière, reads as such:

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.

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.

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.

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.

And my own translation as such:

[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, End, and Renewal.

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.

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

And [they likewise made] great numbers of humans
[for that they might have] management of all things under Heaven,
and recognition of that which is Good
so as to grow in growth and multiply in multitude.

And, 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,
[observance] of [the] course of the heavenly gods,
[observance] of [the] works of the Divine, and
[observance] of [the] working of Nature
for [that they might have] examination of that which is Good and knowledge of [the] turbulent lots of divine Power
[for the gods made them so as] to
come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.

[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.

So, in that light, how might we summarize the content and meaning of CH III? Excluding the more commonplace parts of the cosmogony and cosmology that we otherwise find in CH I and other philosophical texts:

  • God is certainly present in creation, both in the immaterial Divine and in material Nature.
  • The Divine is renewed and formed from Nature, and Nature is both found and founded in the Divine.
  • The cosmos is created and constantly recreated through both the works of the divine and the working of Nature.
  • God is the beginning of all things that exist and subsist.
  • God is Wisdom itself, so that all things can be known.
  • Spirit is the sustaining and ordering force that underlies creation, maintaining its structure as well as its constant motion.
  • Spirit is what enables things to live, as well as that which enables things to know God.
  • The heavens contain the gods, which are astral in nature, both the wandering planets and the fixed stars in their own heavens.
  • God created the gods, and the gods created and continue to create life on Earth by the will of God.
  • All that which is born, lives, and dies on Earth is subject to the influence of Fate, but Fate also makes it so that whatever dies or passes away is regenerated through renewal and rebirth of a new generation of its kind.
  • Humans are made to take rulership and stewardship over all the things under Heaven and to recognize that which is Good so that they might reproduce and ensure the survival and well-being of future generations that come after them.
  • Humans are made as souls in flesh to know the works/action of the Divine and the working/activity of Nature.
  • In knowing the Divine and Nature, humanity comes to obtain Wisdom, which is how they know God.
  • In obtaining Wisdom, humanity comes to learn that which is Good and that which is not, which allows them to explore and excel at all the arts and crafts of the Good, which make life better and worth living for us, for those around us, and for those who come after us.
  • Coming to know that which is Good comes from observing the heavens, what occurs within them, and how those events occur, which informs our understanding of life and events on Earth.
  • All things that are born will die and all that is built will dissolve in time, and which will be renewed by the workings of Nature through the works of the astral gods and as determined by Necessity.

That said, CH III is not without its controversy, it’d seem, at least as far as the differences I draw in interpreting CH III compared to Scott or Dodd. One can interpret CH III in a fatalist, purely Stoic and old-school Jewish sense where there is neither reincarnation nor ascent nor salvation of the soul and that God is only immanent within creation without being transcendent of it, but that comes about as a sola scriptura viewpoint that takes CH III’s silence on the subject as a repudiation of it. CH III might also be interpreted as a representation of life as it already exists for us, a narrative that begins within creation as opposed to outside it as CH I does, and does not mention though could be thought of as referring to or implying other doctrines. In this, CH III is indeed a “hymn in prose” per Nock and Festugière, and “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe” per Scott. Whether it is meant to be a compilation of doctrine regarding the soul or an abbreviated prose-hymn that only gives the highest and most important points to bear in mind, whether it is a deep reflection for the advanced students of the Way of Hermēs or something to open up the minds of those who hear his call for the first time, the “Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus” is a compact and deceptively simple piece of Hermetic literature that bears much to meditate and contemplate, especially insofar as it instructs us as to the proper way of human life.

Knowing the Hermetic fondness for gnomic aphorisms of wisdom (a.k.a. κεφὰλαια, as noted before), we might consider the whole of CH III to be a series of such kephalaic statements that summarize Hermetic doctrine as a whole, eliding out what could be explained or meditated on later to concentrate on the outline of the whole of Hermetic philosophy and doctrine.  In this, I see a parallel to how succinct yet meaningful CH III could be compared to the Heart Sutra of Buddhism, which is meaningful enough on its own but which itself is a condensation to mere groups and lists of concepts that bear much to be explained and meditated on (as attested by how many links I had to throw into the translation of it on that old post of mine).  It may well be that CH III originated as a Judaeo-Stoic text which was then later adopted by the early Hermetic philosophers in a different light, but so much of it could be explained through textual parallels and references in the rest of the Hermetic canon that it still fits neatly and nicely; after all, given CH III’s (likely) early date of composition, it likely influenced later Hermetic thought, potentially in profound ways, the texts of which would then necessarily have roots in CH III.  This book of the Corpus Hermeticum, as I noted in my quasi-prologue to this series, is much akin to a “first sermon” of sorts, something that introduces a simple (proto-)Hermetic worldview for those seeking guidance to hearken to, for students to begin meditating on, and for teachers to begin expounding more deeply.  Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and CH III is short indeed.

There’s also one other thing I wanted to touch on, too, that didn’t fit anywhere else. The language and symbolism of CH III is heavily indebted to the Septuagint, that much is sure, but there are two symbols that crop up time and again in the way CH III is written: that of the seed and that of the wheel. There’s much to be said about the seed that contains within itself a seed, the seed of rebirth itself, and how the gods “cast the seeds that seed themselves” for humanity, and how the heavens effect changes on Earth through their “portent-sowing” or “sign-seeding” actions; this, bearing in mind that humanity is to take mastery and stewardship over the creation that we find ourselves in, suggests a tender cultivation of the world outside and the world within, always cultivating from seed that which is Good and planting the seed for that which is Good to come for those after us. There’s also the notion of the wheel, from the cyclic motions of the astral gods to the “measured measuring wheel of Nature”, and even the structure of CH III ends where it began in emphasizing that the Divine and Nature are equal and are both God. In this, we can get a notion for the celestial Plough, another image for the constellation of Ursa Maior, always rotating in a wheel around the ever-fixed North Star. Remembering that Polaris is the symbol of immortality for the ancient Egyptians, and how this very star acts as a gate to immortality and divinity in various parts of the Greek Magical Papyri, we can think of CH III as a simple reminder to tend to our lives and our world, for in so doing, even when all that we are and all that we do passes away from the world, the work we have accomplished takes place as part of the working of Nature itself, and is thus part of the works of the Divine. In this, in one sense or another, we achieve true wisdom and, thus, immortality and divinity.

Now, of course, I should reiterate that I’m barely an amateur at translating Greek, and by my own admission, my actual philosophical background is relative crap compared to many of the other professional academics, translators, and scholars of texts like this out there.  There are certainly other, and likely better, ways to approach this text, as there are for all the Hermetic texts we have available to us in our time; case in point, I recently was introduced to the works of Christian Wildberg, who wrote a paper regarding CH III and provided his own translation which is based on a theory that considers chunks of CH III to originally be marginalia written in by a later redactor familiar with Genesis that were eventually reincorporated into the text proper.  As a result, his translation (in the last few pages of that paper) gives a translation in two columns, the original text on one side with hypothesized marginalia on the other.  There’s always more to consider along these lines, and what I did in this little series is just one small dish among many other and bigger buffets of philosophy and philology.

I hope this little journey into the Hermetica was fun and informative, dear reader, and I hope you’re as inspired as I am to engage with both this text and other members of the Hermetic canon on a deeper level, whether for the first time or anew!

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!