Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: A Cast of Divinities

Whew.  Honestly, despite the difficulty of this somewhat-accidental post series, it’s good to get this all out of my system, because these are topics I’ve been wanting to write about for literal months or, in the case of this post, almost a year.  Although I know there’s plenty I’ve been writing about on my blog regarding Hermeticism, there’s just so much more to write about, think about, discuss, and share—and it really does help that I try to keep myself involved in online discussions about it, even if only to get more things to write about here.  This blog post series  about the polytheism inherent and explicit within classical Hermeticism, how the Hermetic texts construe “God” as a monist focus for mysticism, and how some people conflate and confuse monism for monotheism is worth the difficulty I’ve had in writing it, because it helps to clarify a lot of misconceptions that people sometimes develop when they encounter the Hermetic texts for the first time—or for the first hundred times, I dunno.  The Way of Hermēs is long, indeed, and some people take a slower or more circuitous route along it depending on what it is they’re doing in life.

For myself, as I’ve studied Hermeticism more and given it more thought as to what it claims, teaches, and looks like when implemented in (various kinds of) practice, I’ve shifted my perception of Hermeticism from that of a religion to that of a kind of mysticism.  Although I originally considered Hermeticism as a whole practice unto itself that could fulfill one’s religious needs, I’ve since moved away from that position.  As I also said in the first Hermeticism FAQ post about whether Hermeticism is a religion:

Kinda!  Although many modern people are scared or wary of the word “religion”, we should remember that many modern people’s conception of religion is colored by Christianity and Islam, when the case is much different for Hermeticism (and, indeed, many pagan religions).  Hermeticism is focused on God and the gods, and how to rise up to them in order to secure the salvation of the soul; in this, Hermeticism bears much in common with many religions.  However, Hermeticism (or what we have of it) doesn’t give us much in the way of fixed litanies or worship services, even though some can be constructed.  In its original context, Hermeticism was not meant to supplant or replace existing religions or religious cults, but to supplement them; for those who wanted more than just attending the usual temple sacrifices, Hermeticism would give more of a chance for profound spiritual experiences in a sort of extracurricular or after-hours setting.

The bit about Hermeticism not replacing existing religion is a thing I like to contemplate, and one which I’ve referenced earlier in this post series.  Rather than being something wholly separate from existing religious practices or traditions of its time, Hermeticism in its original Greco-Egyptian context was more like a mystical adjunct to one’s existing religious life.  For us modern folk, consider what it’s like to go to school as a child: you’d go to class to learn the basics of mathematics, literature, science, and the like, all of which is necessary for us.  However, for those with other interests, there are all manner of extracurricular or afterhours activities: athletics, culture clubs, student government, volunteer associations, and so on.  Depending on what else you might want to learn or engage in on top of your existing classwork and studies, you’d join in on some of these extracurricular activities which relied on your normal-hours schoolwork, but which you couldn’t just do instead of your expected schoolwork.  I consider Hermeticism to be much the same way: rather than being something separate to replace existing religious work as expected of any devout or respectful person in Hellenistic Egypt, Hermeticism provided a milieu for people who wanted “something more” than just the usual rites and sacrifices that everyday temple religion could offer.  In other words, Hermeticism provided an esoteric dimension to spirituality for those who wanted it in addition to the exoteric stuff they were already engaged with; it was intended to supplement, not to supplant. To that end, for all his focus on teaching about God, Hermēs Trismegistos does not neglect the gods; rather, he teaches that everyone should attend to them, but for those who are able, to also attend to God as being a step beyond the gods.

This is the fundamental mystic impulse of Hermeticism, the thing that sets it apart from Greco-Egyptian religion more broadly; the focus of Hermeticism lies not with the gods but with their (and our) pēgē, their (and our) Source or Font, not on divinities but on Divinity, not on the various creators but the Creator-of-creating-itself.  In addition to not having a clear sense of what a “Hermetic community” looked like back then or what such a community might have done (beyond tantalizing clues regarding rituals of spiritual rebirth or ascent, the ensoulment of statues, the performing of communal prayers and meals, and the like), we don’t have a clear sense of the specific religious beliefs of the classical Hermeticsts were as evidenced by their texts.  Sure, based on the works of Garth Fowden, Christian Bull, and Wouter Hanegraaff among others, we can make a reasonably good guess that the original Hermeticists were Egyptian priests or those trained and taught by them who were raised or educated in a Hellenistic Mediterranean culture that was highly syncretic across various aspects, the same syncretism producing and facilitating such cults as the Serapis cult, the Mithraic mysteries, Hypsistarianism, and the like.  Within this broad and dazzling array of beliefs and traditions, what the classical Hermetic texts specifically teach us about is principally about a mysticism regarding the true nature of the Creator, of Creation, of us (and the gods) as Creatures, how to live within and break out of the cosmos, how to shed the chains that keep us unfairly bound to mortal forms (or, rather, how to break our addiction to insipid incarnation), and the like—things that don’t really fit into the overall purview of “everyday temple religion”, at least in the Greco-Egyptian sense as we might otherwise popularly find it.  Hermeticism builds on such religion and uses it as a foundation, but doesn’t supersede, replace, or ignore it.  To my mind, Hermeticism is to Greco-Egyptian religion what Sufism is for Islam: not as something distinct and separate but as something that builds upon the other.

In that light, what would a sort of Greco-Egyptian religion look like that would be amenable to Hermeticism?  Setting praxis aside for the moment, what gods might there be to worship, what spirits might be recognized as being instrumental in the cosmos as facilitating our presence and passage in it from a Hermetic point of view?  It’s true that the Hermetic texts focus on God, but once you dig in enough—and we certainly have, but especially when you get into the practical/technical stuff of texts like the Greek Magical Papyri—we can get a good notion of who these mystical priests and their students would likely have been making offerings to.  Plus, if we were to rethink and reconsider some of these gods from the perspective of a student of Hermeticism, what sorts of Hermetic emphasis might we put onto these gods and entities?  What follows would be my own attempt at a sort of roster or cast list of deities and spirits that would be important for a Hermeticist.  To be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that what follows is what those in the heyday of classical Hermeticism would have themselves believed or gone to the gods for, or that they necessarily worshipped any or all of these gods, much less restricted themselves to only such a list.  Rather, I offer the following as food for thought, something to chew on if one were to consider a tentative “Hermetic pantheon” of sorts so as to develop or engage with the Hermetic texts as the foundation for a sort of theoretical polytheistic religiosity that feeds into Hermetic mysticism.  This is all also in addition to the obvious worship one would give to God.

To start, consider the big four people we get from studying the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius: Hermēs Trismegistos himself and his three students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn.  Putting aside the fact that these four are presented as mortal humans in the Hermetic texts, albeit descended from divine forebears, we can consider them either as deified hero-saints or as gods in their own right:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is himself Hermēs-Thōth, obviously.
  • Tat is conjectured to be just a variant form of Thōth, and so a more “pure” (but also perhaps a more naïve) Thōth than Hermēs-Thōth is himself, a “Thōth the student” (Tat) rather than “Thōth the teacher” (Hermēs Trismegistos).
  • Asklēpios is the Greek name for Imhotep (“He-who-comes-in-peace”) aka Imouthēs, a chancellor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser and high priest of Ra sometime in the 27th century BCE, eventually deified as a god of medicine and healing, hence his being equated to the Hellenic son of Apollōn.  However, more than just medicine, Imhotep was also honored as a patron of scribes (being joined/equated to Thōth) architects (likewise to Ptah, sometimes mythically claimed to be Imhotep’s father).
  • Ammōn is a Greek spelling for the Egyptian Amun, one of the most widely-revered deities across all of ancient Egypt, both geographically and chronologically.  For the Greeks, he was syncretized with Zeus; in addition to having various cosmological associations (at times with the Sun, Moon, or even the empty and invisible air or wind itself), Amun was a god of rulership and kingship (being the patron deity of Thebes), but also of mercy, mystery, protection of the poor, and personal piety.

In addition to the above, it would be remiss of me to not say anything regarding Poimandrēs, the very teacher of Hermēs Trismegistos himself in CH I.  Unlike the other four above, the name “Poimandrēs” doesn’t have an immediate presence or parallel in existing Greco-Egyptian religious texts—unless one were to read it in another light.  Rather than reading it in the folk-etymological way of as “shepherd of men”, the first way we might read this name is as a Hellenicization of the Coptic p.eime-ṇte-rē meaning “mind/understanding of Ra” (per Peter Kingsley, “Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica”), giving this name both an immediate solar connotation but also strong similarities to many epithets used for the god Thōth (e.g. “heart of Ra”).  The second way (per Howard M. Jackson, “A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres”) is as a Hellenicization of the Egyptian pr-ꜥꜣ mꜣꜥ(,t)-rꜥ , variously rendered as Pramarrēs, Premarrēs, Poremanrēs, Porramanrēs, and the like—all a way to refer to the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III in the 19th and 18th centuries BCE, later divinized as pharaohs were wont to do, his specific cult being relegated to the Fayyum area of Egypt.  If we also consider the divine teacher of CH XI being Nous (and Poimandrēs’ own self-identification with Nous in CH I) and how various other Hermetic works (no longer extant on their own, surviving only as quotes in e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) of Agathos Daimōn being a teacher of Hermēs and Osiris and others, then we get a further identification with this deity—leading also, then, to Agathos Daimōn’s own Egyptian syncretization with Shai, the deification of fate itself.  While this is a lot to take in all at once, I personally consider Poimandrēs in this super-broad notion of being a “high archangel” of sorts, a divine teacher-of-teachers who assumes a grand, salvific role for humanity as a whole as well as for humans as individuals.

Beyond the above, we could also theoretically pull in Isis, Osiris, Hōros, and Kamēphis, too, much as we did Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn—being students of Hermēs Trismegistos, albeit by another route, the Korē Kosmou (aka Stobaean Fragments 23—27), a series of discourses of Isis to her son Hōros imparting to him the knowledge that her father Kamēphis (kꜣ-mwt.f “bull of his mother”).  Much is already known popularly about Isis, Osiris, and Hōros (especially Hōros’ own solar associations), but Kamēphis is a weird one—a primordial, ungenerated or self-generated deity, a leader of the celestial gods or even a demiurge unto himself, also called “forefather of everyone” or “ancestor of all”, sometimes associated with Amun.  However, all of these could sensibly be brought in under a Hermetic purview, especially given their shared Egyptian background.

Also, to take another direction towards classical pagan stuff, CH X.5 mentions Ouranos and Kronos as being the ancestors of Hermēs.  While these are, properly speaking, the grandfather and father of Zeus (and thus great-grandfather and grandfather of Hermēs) in a Hellenic context, these would also likely be equivalent to the Egyptian deities of Shu and Seb, respectively, as deities of sky and earth.  If Hermēs et al. are gods who deserve worship (and I personally contend that they do), then their extended family and the gods Hermēs et al. descend from likewise deserve worship, especially given their grander cosmic nature, at least in one form or another.

To take a different approach regarding particularly important rulers of the cosmos, we can also turn to AH 19 and AH 27, where Hermēs talks about several kinds of Zeuses, at least two with a hypothesized third (per Walter Scott, “Hermetica” vol. III).  In this scheme, there’s a sort of tripartite division of the cosmos: the heavens, the Earth (including the oceans), and the air between them, each with their own “Zeus” (general ruler-deity) presiding over it.  In AH 27, at least in the Coptic translation available in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VI.8), we also see a notion of Zeus Ploutonios having Korē as a consort, with Zeus Ploutonios ruling the earth and sea but not possessing nourishment for mortal living creatures, rather being provided by Korē.  Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will recognize this as fitting the pattern for Haidēs and Persephonē, though this is less about the underworld and more about this world—giving this less a feel for the Eleusinian mysteries and more for that of the cults of Osiris and Isis, or even that of Serapis.  If the ruler of the Earth has a consort, it’d make sense for the other two rulers to also have a consort, each forming a sort of pair, although we lack the relevant section of the Coptic AH and the Latin AH doesn’t speak of such things at all even for Zeus Plutonios.  Still, it’s an interesting idea regarding divine rulerships over cosmic domains, and if we were to try to read an Egyptian origin for this, then not only would Zeus Ploutonios and Korē be given to Osiris and Isis, but the other Zeus could sensibly be given to Hōros, completing the same triad from the Korē Kosmou.

Speaking of deities in the AH, AH 19 does mention a few others, but in this strange and not-entirely-clear sense.  AH 19 explicitly gives us Zeus, Light, Pantomorphos, and Fortune together with Fate as being particular gods that preside over heaven, the Sun, the thirty-six decans, and the seven planetary spheres, respectively.  AH 19 brings up air as another thing that is presided over by some deity, but AH 19 cuts off here; something seems to have fallen out of the text, and it’s here that Scott proposes a “second Zeus” to match the first Zeus from before.  This is a really complicated section to follow, and its notion of ousiarchēs “essence-rulers” isn’t well understood, but there may be something in here that could be useful for considering and digging into.

What AH 19 does touch on, though, is a notion of celestial gods—and boy, is that ever a fruitful thing to consider!  It’s obvious that we would consider the Sun itself to be a deity (Hermēs himself explicitly says that he worships the Sun in SH 2A, along with there being things praising the Sun in CH V and CH XVI), and of all the planets, the Sun is probably the most important to worship.  But there are the other planets, as well: the Moon, Mercury (ever an important planet for us in our work and studies!), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  On top of those, there are also the thirty-six decans (touched on in SH 6 but also in the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios) who absolutely had a strong Egyptian presence as gods in their own right.  While one could certainly worship the twelve Zodiac signs as gods in their own right, or use something e.g. Agrippa’s Orphic Scale of Twelve to associate the Zodiac signs with gods as I make use of for my own Mathēsis stuff, based strictly on a Hermetic textual approach, I’d feel more comfortable giving worship to the decanal gods instead of the Zodiac, but your mileage may vary.

Beyond these groups of stars, though, there’s also the notion of giving worship to the northern stars—whether Polaris alone, Ursa Major, or some combination of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor including Polaris.  While the northern stars are not something that we can clearly note as deities from the Hermetic texts (except for perhaps one fleeting reference in SH 6), we do know that they were considered divine in Egyptian religion and that there was an active bear-cult incorporating Ursa Maior especially, especially based on various entries from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM).  I’ve outlined things along these lines in my “Pole Lords and Northern Stars” post series back in 2018 (parts one, two, and three here), tying them not only to the seven planets but also as something higher and greater than them.  (This is a topic I really wanna return to in the future, especially learning what I have recently about Taoist and various Asian practices venerating or worshipping the northern stars in one form or another, like how I mentioned in my recent post about my prayer to the “Seven Ladies” of Ursa Maior.)

Closely related to the notion of celestial gods, and especially those of the pole lords from PGM XIII, is that of Aiōn, the divinity of time and eternity itself.  Aiōn (or at least the notion of eternity generally) is especially important in CH XI, but also appears in CH XII and XIII as some sort of divine or cosmic medium or power.  Although not appearing as a deity or divinity in and of itself in the CH, Aiōn is a frequent flier in various Hellenistic, Greco-Egyptian, and PGM sources as being a powerful divinity, including especially in texts like PGM XIII.  Hanegraaff has much to say about Aiōn in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, recognizing it as a sort of “universal consciousness” or “God’s incorporeal imagination” (p. 217), something for us to become so as to reach henosis (or something approximating it).  In a sense, at least for the more theistically-inclined, I would consider Aiōn as a hypostasis of God, the closest thing that might be considered God-as-a-god, joining with (or becoming) whom would allow one to rise even higher (p. 271).  It’s certainly an interesting idea, and considering Aiōn in this light could be a rich source of ritual devotion, bridging the gap between “God which is not a god” and “God whom the gods themselves worship” (especially when you consider the explicit identifications of Aiōn in texts like PGM XIII as being identical to the God of Abraham).

After this point, though, we get into some pretty nebulous and abstract concepts, where it gets harder for me to justify thinking of them as things to worship as gods.  From AH 39 or SH 12—14, we get some interesting discussions of notions like Providence, Necessity, Fate, or Order that talks about them as personified or deified concepts.  These are less clearly things that are approachable as gods like the planets, stars, decans, or other entities, and are only described of in broad conceptual terms.  To me, while these are things we might certainly poetically revere, they seem more like “cosmic infrastructure” than deities per se.  However, to use the model from the SH texts (with my equivalent substitutions from AH 30 in parentheses):

  • Providence (AH Heimarmenē “Fate”) is the will of God.
    • The ultimate ruler over all things that exist.
    • The divine order of all things, a kind of “unmanifest logos“.
    • The only power that rules over heavenly things.
    • Providence produces by its own nature both Necessity and Fate.
  • Necessity (AH “Necessity” as well) is both “the maidservant” to and “a firm and unbending power” of Providence. 
    • Necessity “constrains and contains” Providence, but there are things that are not under the rule of Necessity (i.e. the Nous, or intelligible reality).
    • Necessity is the ruler under Providence over earthly/created things, the “manifest logos” to the “unmanifest logos” of Providence.
    • What Providence establishes to exist, Necessity fulfills and sets up the rest of that which logically follows.
  • Fate (AH “Order”) serves both Providence and Necessity.
    • Fate is the tool of Providence.
    • Fate “drives and drives round all things by force”.
    • The tools of Fate are the stars.
    • Fate operates through the stars to affect and effect earthly/created things below in the world.

There is, however, the notion of a particular entity, referenced in SH 7 of Justice as “the greatest female daimōn”, which I find to be identical to be “the chief demon who weighs and judges” souls in AH 28 (and may well be the same as the “avenging daimōn” of CH I.23).  I spoke about this entity before in my post series about the Hermetic notions of the afterlife (links to the whole six-part series can be found on my Hermeticism Posts page), but in short, this is a particular entity set to judge our actions and assign us a place in the cosmos after our death according to our behavior in life.  In a sense, just as Providence and Necessity are appointed over divine order, Justice is appointed over human order in tandem with Fate, perhaps to account for the “free will” (such as it is) of the soul in addition to the fated events that befall the body itself; in this, Justice serves to oversee human living (not merely human life) and to punish wrongdoing.  It’s a bit of a messy topic unto itself, and unlike other deities whose aid can be supplicated for, Justice seems to be something…different, and while I would still encourage reverence and respect for such an entity, it can certainly be debated as to its specific function or the benefits of worshipping it as described in the Hermetic texts, except perhaps for lenience, mercy, and awareness of our actions and acceptance of the repercussions thereof.

Beyond this, I suppose there’s also the notion of Cosmos to consider as a god, as well.  Cosmos is described as a god—specifically the “second god” made in the image of the “first god” (i.e. God) in CH VIII.1—2,5, in CH X.12, in AH 8 and 10 and 39, and in SH 11.2.6.  In a sense, all the gods that are highlighted above are part of the Cosmos as a whole, and in a sense, the Cosmos itself should be held in reverence and respect, which is why we’re supposed to engage with it with all our arts and sciences to constantly co-create and perfect it.  However, this itself can also be considered a call to worship the Cosmos itself as a deity in its own right.  What complicates this, to my mind, is whether we should equate Cosmos (i.e. the whole of creation, the corporeal universe as well as the incorporeal universe as one whole) with “Nature” (phusis in Greek).  In some cases, Nature is sometimes used synonymously with Cosmos in the Hermetic texts, or to a specific aspect of it with regards to generation (and, equally, corruption).  Depending on your approach, you might consider this something distinct to pray to and worship as well, whether Cosmos and Nature as one thing, Nature as a specific aspect of the Cosmos, or as a sort of higher/incorporeal vs. lower/corporeal distinction.

Before even the Cosmos, however, there is the matter of the Demiurge itself.  The Demiurge, as described in CH I.9—11 or in SH 3, is a creator deity (or “mind”) that takes care of the creation/crafting of material reality and entities.  While all creation is ultimately (and monistically) attributable to God, some texts talk about a distinct “assistant” (as it were) to God who handles creation at lower, more ephemeral, or mortal levels.  Given the description in CH I, the Demiurge is ontologically equivalent with the very Logos of God (“the mind who is god…by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman” and “the word of god leapt straight up [from the elemental creation of the world] to the pure craftwork of nature and united with the craftsman-mind for the word was of the same substance”), and has a special role to play in the creation of things.  Although this would seem like a sort of distant bit of cosmic infrastructure too high for us to interact with, CH XVI and SH 2A talk about the Sun as being equivalent to, identified with, or otherwise just as the Demiurge (which would also render the Sun as the manifest presence of Logos in the cosmos).  Not only does this cement the Sun’s importance in the mind of the Hermeticist for the sake of worship as a god, but it also illustrates that the Demiurge, likewise, should be revered and worshipped, whether independently or as the Sun.

And then, of course, there’s God—but we’ve already spilled enough ink on that.  Besides, God is not a god, and so has no place among the gods.

This post is already getting lengthy, but I think I’ve made a decent-enough start for thinking about the various gods one might engage in worship of within a Greco-Egyptian context in a way amenable to a Hermetic mysticism.  To be sure, there are lots of ways one might go about worshipping any or all of the above, and the list above is not at all meant to be prescriptively limiting; there are plenty of other gods, whether purely Egyptian or purely Greek or syncretically Greco-Egyptian, that one might also consider apt within a Hermetic context or which is conducive to facilitating Hermetic mysticism.  Heck, I don’t see why the fundamentally monist mysticism of Hermeticism couldn’t be applied as a framework to non-Greco-Egyptian polytheist contexts, so long as the overall cosmologies are compatible enough between them to harmonize.  In this, I think Hermeticism could be useful not only for those of a Greco-Egyptian, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Egyptian, Kemetic, or  otherwise classical Mediterranean bent, but for a good number of pagans and polytheists today who want to supplement (not supplant!) their religion with “something more”, an esotericism to build upon and flesh out the exoteric.

And why?  Because Hermeticism expects us to already be religious before we can be mystic, because mysticism is a tower built upon the bedrock of religion—and for the teachers of the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, that involves a healthy respect and worship for the gods so as to eventually reach the Godhead.

Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: What God Is and Isn’t

Okay, so, picking up from last time where we opened up the problem of what to do about this whole God-versus-the-gods thing in the classical Hermetic texts and covering the fact that those texts readily admit the existence of many gods and encourages our worship of them to the point of it being an assumed expectation, we finally get to talk about where God fits into all of this.  Unfortunately for us, what makes this discussion complicated is the fact that the Hermetic texts use the same term, theos “god”, to refer to two very distinct concepts; besides that, there’s the fact that the intervening 1500 years of somewhat tense religious activity across every continent impacting billions of people and virtually every field of theology, philosophy, and spirituality has made the word “God” (singular, capitalized, as a proper noun) something of a loaded term for many.

Before we continue along these lines, let’s make a few terms clear first:

  • Monotheism: the belief that there is one and only one god.
  • Polytheism: the belief that there is more than one god.
  • Monism: the philosophy that all things are fundamentally one or single in origin, substance, or nature.
  • Dualism: the philosophy that all things are composed of fundamentally two origins, substances, or natures.
  • Non-dualism: the philosophy that all appearances of dualism are illusions, and that all things are ultimately inseparable and identical even if not the same.

And a few notes about the above terms:

  • Since the above terms fall into two categories (beliefs and philosophies), we can mix and match between the two categories; thus, we can have monist monotheism or dualist monotheism, monist polytheism or dualist polytheism, etc., but we can’t have “monist dualism” or “monotheist polytheism”, as those are contradictions in terms.
  • The terms of “monotheism” or “polytheism” above only signify a belief in how many gods there are.  They do not signify anything about practice or doctrine regarding the god(s) people holding such beliefs might engage with.
  • In addition to “monotheism” and “polytheism”, there are a lot of other terms that are often bandied about: atheism, nontheism, henotheism, pantheism, panentheism, megatheism, and so on, but we don’t need to get into them or use them for the sake of this post except as referenced below.
  • Non-dualism can refer to a philosophical stance regarding anything more or less than two fundamental things, and can thus technically refer to trialism, quadrialism, and so forth; however, generally used, non-dualism is similar to monism but which posits that “monism as opposed to dualism” is itself a kind of dualism.  It’s a subtle distinction that may or may not be meaningful, depending on the context, but can generally be understood in at least some (if not most) cases to be equivalent to monism—which is generally the case for Hermeticism.

Now, the issue that started this whole discussion was people coming upon the classical Hermetic texts, reading all this stuff about God, and coming away with the notion that Hermeticism must somehow be monotheistic.  By its literal definition, that is a false assessment, because Hermeticism espouses an explicitly polytheist worldview and spirituality: there are multiple gods.  Even if we were to bring in notions of “henotheism” (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others) or “monolatry” (the worship of one god while believing in many)—and I should note that many such notions and terms are entirely modern conceptualizations of religious approach to divinity that generally come from people with monotheist backgrounds—the classical Hermetic texts don’t just not deny the existence of multiple gods, but they affirm their existence, discuss their natures, and encourage us to their worship.  Again, none of this should be surprising: the Hermetic texts were written in a Hellenistic Egyptian cultural context, i.e. a polytheistic and pagan one, so we should expect to see things along those lines in texts produced in such a context.

So what of God?  For as much as the classical Hermetic texts talk about the gods and encourage our worship of them, the same texts spend far, far more time talking about God, revering God, worshipping God, devoting ourselves to God, elevating ourselves to God, and the like.  Likewise, for all the fervor Hermēs Trismegistos shows towards God in the texts attributed to him, for those used to Christian or Islamic religious writings, it’s not hard to see parallels or similarities between Hermeticism’s descriptions of God and how we ought to relate to it and how Christianity or Islam might do the same.  (We also have the added complication in that the vast majority of what we have extant under the heading of “classical Hermetic texts” is what survives the knife of time and the redactor’s pen—and that includes all the Christian compilers, editors, and copyists who saw fit to preserve Hermetic stuff precisely for their Christian similarities and compatibilities, despite and in spite of their pagan foundations, along with whatever marginalia or outright changes they introduced along the way from antiquity to modernity.)

To try to summarize the Hermetic conception of God is a challenge, and arguably an impossible one given the focus of Hermeticism being on theosophical gnōsis rather than theological epistēmē, but I suppose it’s warranted here, at least to a degree.  The “God” in Hermeticism, simply put, is not a god.  The gods certainly exist, but God is not a god; rather, the whole inciting impulse of the mysticism of Hermeticism is that God is beyond the gods.  In Platonic(ish) terms, this is The Good itself, but in more specific(ish) terms, “God” is that which is beyond all other things, the source and fount of existence of anything and everything both finite and infinite, that which never came to be but which eternally just Is.  In this, being the source and thus “creator” of things, “God” is also called “maker” (poiētēs) in CH XIV.4.  In fact, that section is a really neat way to think about what we call “God” in general:

What is dearer than a true father? Who is this father, and how shall we recognize him? Is it right to dedicate to him alone the name “god” or “maker” or “father” or even the three of them? “God,” because of his power? “Maker,” because of his action? “Father,” because of the good? He is power, certainly, since he is different from things that come to be, and he is activity in the coming to be of all things.

We also have CH II.12—17 which not only talks about how to refer to God, but also is clear about God being the origin of things without necessarily being those things itself:

Asklēpios: “What, then, is god?”

Hermēs: “God is what does not subsist as any of these since he is the cause of their being, for all of them and for each and every one of them that exists. And he has left nothing else remaining that is not-being, for all things are those that come to be from things that are, not from those that are not. Things that are not do not have a nature that enables them to come to be; their nature is such that they cannot come to be anything. Things that are, on the other hand, do not have a nature that prevents them from ever existing. […]

“God is not mind, but he is the cause of mind’s being; he is not spirit, but the cause of spirit’s being; and he is not light, but the cause of light’s being. Hence, one must show god reverence with those two names assigned to him alone and to no other. Except god alone, none of the other beings called gods nor any human nor any demon can be good, in any degree. That good is he alone, and none other. All others are incapable of containing the nature of the good because they are body and soul and have no place that can contain the good. For the magnitude of the good is as great as the substance of all beings, corporeal and incorporeal, sensible and intelligible. This is the good; this is god. You should not say that anything else is good or you will speak profanely, nor should you ever call god anything but ‘the good’ since this too would be profane.

“All use the word ‘good’ in speaking, of course, but not all understand what it can mean. For this reason, god is not understood by all. In their ignorance, they apply the name ‘good’ to the gods and to certain humans even though these beings are never able to be good or to become so. The good is what is inalienable and inseparable from god, since it is god himself. All other immortal gods are given the name ‘good’ as an honor, but god is the good by nature, not because of honor. God has one nature—the good. In god and the good together there is but one kind, from which come all other kinds. The good is what gives everything and receives nothing; god gives everything and receives nothing; therefore, god is (the) good, and the good is god.

“God’s other name is ‘father’ because he is capable of making all things. Making is characteristic of a father. […]”

Bearing in mind the implied Hermetic distinction between philosophical Good and moral goodness, we basically get a straightforward description in CH II here about “the God” being literally just “the Good” and vice versa, with nothing else coming into play with that, as well as a clear description (or, at least, as clear as it can be made) about how God is not like anything else, because God never “came to be”, God just always “is” (a distinction also seen in CH VIII.2, and which is also applied throughout the AH), and thus can be seen as an origin of things that come to be but is not itself any of those things.  Coming-to-be is a quality of things that have a sort of temporality or locality to them, but God is neither temporal nor local in the Hermetic texts; God is not even eternal, but is beyond eternity (and even eternality) itself (cf. CH XI.2), and is likewise beyond all space or place.  The same cannot be said of anything else, not even the gods, not even if they are eternal or ubiquitous, because even they still operate within those boundaries of eternality/temporality or locality that God is beyond.

Side note: this is why I like to introduce a technical distinction here in a Hermetic context between the verbs “to exist” and “to be”, where “to exist” applies to things that come-to-be but “to be” is just for that which does not come-to-be but is.  Thus, I can say that I exist, or that my desk exists, or that Hermēs exists, but not that I am in some fundamental way, or that my desk is; only God is, in this higher technical sense.  All this has the fun but nuanced result that I can, with a straight and honest face to everyone else’s surprise, say that “of course God doesn’t exist within Hermeticism”, because it is more accurate to say that God pre-exists rather than exists, since God is the very source of existence itself.  It’s a little in-joke with myself, I suppose.

Back to the topic at hand.  Wouter Hanegraaff in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, as the book goes on, likes to refer to God as Pēgē, the Greek word for “font” or “spring” and which is used in a philosophical sense as a “source”.  Hanegraaff doesn’t outright abandon the term “God”, but he uses Pēgē repeatedly in a way that clearly refers to it, getting this term from a handful of references and fragments throughout classical texts, including Christian ones by Didymus the Blind and Cyril of Alexandria but also the Neoplatonic writings of Iamblichus.  In a way, at least to a good deal of modern folk, this is perhaps a better way to refer to the thing that the word “God” connotes in the Hermetic texts: not a god, but the source of godhood itself; not creation or even creating, but the source of creation and creating itself.  Thinking of God in the Hermetic texts with this term isn’t unlike some modern spiritual folk going after “Divinity” as an abstract concept rather than a particular divinity or concrete conception thereof.  It’s almost nontheistic as a means of surpassing any hang-ups or preconceptions one might have about any particular kind of theism or the entities such theisms might describe.  What this means is that, if we’re to understand the word “God” in a Hermetic concept, then it’s going to necessarily be something pretty different from what “God” means to most people today given a millennia or two of Abrahamic theologizing about it.

But that leads us to a problem: it’s not like the authors of the Hermetic texts, writing 2000 to 1500 years ago and building upon several centuries of Hellenistic philosophy and several millennia of Egyptian religiosity already extant to them, didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about God in other terms, so why did they use the term “God” at all?  If other terms like “the Good” or “the Source” were available, why did they consistently stick to using “God” so much throughout these texts?  If God is not a god, then why should we express reverence, piety, devotion, and worship to God as if God were a god?  If Hermeticism is so polytheistic, then what precisely are we doing here?

It’s at this point I’d like to make a bit of a statistics metaphor with the notion of topcoding and bottomcoding (which has nothing to do with flagging or identifying oneself on dating/hookup apps, I swear).  The Wikipedia article has a ready-to-go example right in the introduction:

In econometrics and statistics, a top-coded data observation is one for which data points whose values are above an upper bound are censored.

Survey data are often topcoded before release to the public to preserve the anonymity of respondents. For example, if a survey answer reported a respondent with self-identified wealth of $79 billion, it would not be anonymous because people would know there is a good chance the respondent was Bill Gates. Top-coding may be also applied to prevent possibly-erroneous outliers from being published.

Let’s say you run a survey on a small town about people’s most beloved-but-unpopular food choices, and you split up the responding demographic into various age groups: 4 and under, 5 to 14, 15 to 24, 25 to 45, 46 to 64, 65 to 75, 76 to 82, and so on.  Let’s say that, in this small town, there is only one person older than 90.  Let’s also say that in your survey, only one person responded that they liked beets as their beloved-but-unpopular food, and that respondent was 95 years old.  Congratulations!  You just identified the only person in the town who likes beets—and have just compromised their identity to the public at large, if you were to publish the data this way.  In order to preserve privacy, demographers and statisticians engage in a kind of censoring by “topcoding/bottomcoding” the extreme ends of a distribution (like age) through coalescing them into a larger unbounded chunk: thus, rather than splitting up the age demographic by decade from 50 to 100, you might go 50—60, 60—70, and 71+.  Even if you could feasibly split up that 71+ group into smaller chunks, you don’t so as to preserve anonymity and privacy.

In a way, even if the analogy doesn’t exactly fit, I like to think of the Hermeticist’s use of the term “God” to describe God as a sort of lexical topcoding.  The classical Hermetic texts already admit the reality and existence of the gods, even as them being the ultimate and supreme things that exist, beyond which there is nothing that could be said to exist.  The gods are, for the Hermeticist as they would be to anyone in a Greco-Egyptian religious context 2000 to 1500 years ago, the roots of existence and the creators of creation.  In that light, what could you call something that surpasses even them?  If the gods themselves give rise to everything, what could you call whatever gave rise to the gods themselves?  The term is already staring at us right in the face: you call it a god, or even (to assert its solitary uniqueness and its commonality to all the gods) “the god”—ho theos, conventionally translated in English without the definite article and with capitalization as a proper noun as “God”.  Moreover, this notion of the thing called “God” does not diminish the godhood or godliness of the gods, no more than the existence of a spring obviates or belittles the existence of the river that comes from it.

Likewise, if worship and reverence is to be given to the gods because that is what is right for our relationship with them, then wouldn’t that same also be given to God itself, too?  Well…sorta.  This is where it gets a little complicated, but we can get an inkling of the difference from the end of the Asclepius.  There, we see Hermēs & co. leave the sanctuary and the temple where Hermēs had been giving his divine discourse, and then went outside to pray to God.  (This specific scene change of leaving a temple, the domain of the gods, is itself highly suggestive.)  It was when they began to pray that Asklēpios had an idea that was poorly received by Hermēs:

…they were already saying their prayer when in a hushed voice Asclepius asked: “Tat, do you think we should suggest that your father tell them to add frankincense and spices as we pray to god?”

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

The giving of thanks, and that alone, to God as the only suitable sacrifice to God is suggestive here.  Besides the fact that the Prayer of Thanksgiving focuses on gnōsis itself being both a cause and act of thanks and that such thanks can be rendered through “mind, word, and knowledge”, we also see Hermēs giving “pure speech offerings” in his prayer from CH I.31—32, with praise and hymning being the means of sacrifice and worship given in CH XIII and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth.  God is certainly to be worshipped and sacrificed to, but the type of sacrifice is not something material, like food or libation or incense, because God itself is not partial to these things or, indeed, anything at all.  The type of sacrifice suitable to God is, in a sense, God itself: to know God and to love God, just as God knows itself through creation, just as God loves itself through its images, just as God is.

Just as we call God “God” because it is beyond the gods and it makes sense to call anything at that level or higher “god”, it also makes sense that notions of reverence, devotion, and the like also apply, at least to an extent.  After all, if it is right and proper for us to develop relationships with the gods along these lines, and if we’re trying to get to a thing that surpasses the gods, then the same vehicle that takes us to the gods should suffice, at least in part, to get us beyond them.  However, just like how a shift in terrain might mandate a change in tire type or fuel type for a particular vehicle, we can’t use exactly the same methods or types of worship and reverence for God as we would the gods, but it’s still overall the same idea.  Thus, although Hermēs encourages us to worship and revere and show devotion to the God as well as to the gods, because the God is itself not a god, we cannot do the same things for the God as we would for the gods.

I admit, it’s a little complicated at this point, because although we’re not engaging in monotheism, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are unless we keep the overall polytheistic framing of all of this in mind.  What we’re properly doing is engaging in a mysticism of monistic reverence, rather than a mysticism of monotheistic reverence.  That distinction is crucial, and is why conflating the two can lead one to mistake Hermeticism for some sort of weird “pagan monotheism” as well as letting it be adapted for properly monotheistic religious contexts.  We’ll get more into that next time.

Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: Expecting (and Finding) Polytheism

This post has been one I’ve been struggling to write for a while now.  Normally, when I get the feeling to write a post, it either comes out in the moment and I set it up to be posted on my blog, or it doesn’t come out and I just let it sit in my drafts folder as a post idea until it’s time to actually write it; I let the thing mature inside, as it were, until it’s good enough to come out on its own.  However, this topic is one that I’ve seen crop up time and time again on the /r/Hermeticism subreddit or on the Hermetic House of Life Discord server for literal months now, and every time it does, I remind myself again that I should get to this post.  It’s not for lack of trying that it hasn’t been written yet, and it’s not like I don’t have statements or opinions about the subject (they’re all actually fairly straightforward), it’s just…been difficult to actually put all that together in a post.  Maybe my approach to it has been wrong, and maybe my more natural writing style prefers to take a different approach.  Either way, this post is one that’s been a long time coming.

Let’s start with a question, then: what’s with all the talk of “God” (singular) in the classical Hermetic texts?  When a lot of people come to the Hermetic texts for the first time (whether as a scholarly student or a spiritual one), the way a lot of Hermetic texts read makes it sound like some sort of weird Christian knockoff (or, as some patristic Christian authors wrote, some sort of weird pagan prophetical anticipation of Christianity).  For some people, this isn’t so much a problem, especially in our largely monotheistic culture in the West or who are used to monotheistic approaches in the modern occult scene, but for many people nowadays who are looking for something more classical, pagan, or otherwise non-Abrahamic and polytheist, the language used in the classical Hermetic texts can be off-putting or outright disorienting.  This is especially confusing when there is talk of gods or temple worship in the Hermetica, but it’s not always clear for some about how to correlate all this with each other.

In part III of my Hermeticism FAQ, I opened up with an answer about whether Hermeticism is monotheistic or polytheistic:

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Now, I admit, when I was writing the FAQ, I was hedging on this point.  It is true that Hermeticism has been contextualized (if not practiced) for a good few centuries within monotheistic cultures, specifically Christian ones in Europe and Islamic ones in north Africa and the near or middle East.  In that time, our extant Hermetic texts from the classical period (and a good many others besides) have been preserved and transmitted through generations of copyists and redactors, also of a similarly monotheistic bent, and have likewise been picked up, read, and made use of by plenty of magicians, mystics, scholars, and detractors who also operate more-or-less from a monotheistic perspective.  The language of the Hermetic corpora, after all, does focus hugely on God, the One, however you want to call it.  As a result, this question gets asked frequently enough to start open that FAQ segment on doctrine to clear the airs.

All that said, make no mistake: Hermeticism, properly speaking, is a polytheistic form of mysticism.  It was produced by polytheists within a polytheistic culture, and does not just admit the existence of multiple gods, but actively encourages their worship.  It’s not just a matter of “you can worship the gods”, but “you should worship the gods”.  It’s just that the emphasis on Hermeticism as a specific kind of mysticism within a broader religious context (specifically a Greco-Egyptian polytheistic one) isn’t on the gods, but on God which, notably, is not a god itself and the notion of which does not diminish the divinity or godhood of the gods.  This last part is, admittedly, a little confusing, and the distinctions between monism and monotheism can get blurred depending on one’s preexisting notion of “God”, especially within an otherwise monotheistic context or coming from an otherwise monotheistic background.

So, yes, the gods.  The classical Hermetic texts make abundant notes that gods (plural) exist: throughout CH III, CH II.14—16, CH V.3, CH X.7 and CH X.22—25, CH XII.1 and CH XII.12 and CH XII.21, CH XIII.17, CH XIV.8, CH XVI.10—18, throughout the Asclepius (§4—7, 18—19, 22—23, 25, 27, 32, 37, 39), SH 11, SH 14, SH 21, and on and on.  And that’s just looking for the word “gods” (theoi in Greek), setting aside any oblique or opaque references to them, like “governors”, “powers”, or even “statues” (in reference to the divine idols or cult images as worshipped in temples).  The Hermetic texts don’t make much of a big deal about there being multiple gods because they fundamentally assume their existence, declaring them in passing almost as if the authors of the Hermetic texts took their existence for granted.  And why shouldn’t they?  These texts were written in Hellenistic Egypt during the early Roman Empire, by a polytheistic people in a polytheistic culture.  Given Walter Scott’s tentative dating of most of the Hermetic texts being written between the first and fourth centuries CE (most of them between the second and third), this was all largely before the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire began, and written in an ancient bastion of civilization filled to the brim with temples that formed the institutional backbone supporting Egypt for literal millennia.  Although there was plenty of cultural and religious change starting with Alexander the Great’s colonization of Egypt, taking the Ptolemaic period into the Roman period, the underlying culture and civilization of Egypt was much as it ever was.  And all of this forms the backdrop for what is now the current scholarly consensus, established by the work of academic researchers Garth Fowden or Christian Bull or Wouter Hanegraaff, that the Hermetic texts (and classical Hermeticism more broadly) were produced in a quasi-priestly milieu, the texts either being written by Egyptian priests for a Greek-speaking audience or by their students in a more-or-less Hellenistic context, situating Egyptian religiosity amidst Greek philosophical inclinations.

And yet, when we read the Hermetic texts, all the above seems to be such a miniscule part of it all—because it is!  The vast majority, rather, is given to discussion about God (ho theos) in the singular, sometimes referred to as the Maker, the Father, the Good, the One, or so on; prayers of thanksgiving and praise pepper the Hermetic texts, as well as injunctions to show reverence and devotion to God.  Put beside each other, the polytheistic admissions above contrasted with this is enough to give someone whiplash, so what gives?  It’s not like the Hermetic texts are pulling a fast one on their readers, trying to get them to softly convert to some sort of monotheism, far from it.  There’s something a little more subtle happening here that requires a bit of extra historical and spiritual context, as well as a reminder of what “monotheism” actually is and how “monotheism” could be expressed in the cultural and temporal environment of the Hermetica.  And no, for what it’s worth, I don’t think that the Hermetic texts referring to ho theos is in reference to any specific god like Zeus or Amun, either, and how that might lead to any notion of henotheism, megatheism, or whatever.  There’s something else going on here, because (as I read it) God itself is something Else than what we might expect.

One of the issues that a lot of modern people wrestle with (and, let’s be honest, it’s a fair enough question) is what a “god” actually is.  We could talk all day about spirits generally, different kinds of spirits, how we might relate to entities on different levels of reality, and so on until the cows come home—but I wouldn’t try to define the term “god”, because the Hermetic texts don’t, either.  There is certainly talk of God and the gods, but there is never any strict discussion of what constitutes a god or what sets apart the gods from other kinds of spirits.  The notion of a god is something that is something assumed and otherwise implicit in the Hermetic texts, and to my understanding, it refers broadly to any powerful spiritual entity of a more refined or elevated nature than oneself that can or should receive worship and reverence and sacrifice, whether or not it is embodied.  In this light, the term “god” can be inclusive of the Cosmos itself, the planets and stars, heroes or deified teachers, divinized kings, the presiding entity of rivers or mountains, ensouled statues containing the presence of any of the above, and so on.  This is all still a rough definition, of course, but trying to get into the specifics of what is or isn’t a god isn’t the point of this post; at the end of the day, if you worship it, it’s a god.

And on that point, we can point to where the Hermetic texts instruct us or encourage us as to the worship of the gods, as in CH XVII, a dialogue between Tat and an unnamed king (though presumably Ammōn):

“…if you think about it, O king, incorporeals also exist among the corporeals.”

“What kind?” asked the king.

“Bodies that appear to be in mirrors seem incorporeal to you, do they not?”

“Yes, Tat, they do; your understanding is godlike,” said the king.

“But there are also other incorporeals: doesn’t it seem to you, for example, that there are forms that appear in body even though they are incorporeal, in the bodies not only of ensouled beings but of the soulless also?”

“You put it well, Tat.”

“Thus, there are reflections of the incorporeals in corporeals and of corporeals in incorporeals—from the sensible to the intelligible cosmos, that is, and from the intelligible to the sensible. Therefore, my king, adore the statues, because they, too, possess forms from the intelligible cosmos.”

CH XVII is a short fragment of a larger text that does not seem to be extant in its entirety anymore, although it does appear to be under the overall heading of Hermetic theology, i.e. discussions about God and the gods.  In this fragment, we see a bit of a logical argument that basically claims that statues of the gods are images of the gods, like the incorporeal reflection of a thing in a corporeal mirror, and so we should worship the statues of the gods—but why?  Because the gods themselves are to be worshipped.  The specific word used here is proskunei, which Copenhaver renders as “adore” but which is used more generally as “make obeisance to the gods”, “fall down and worship”, “prostrating oneself in reverence”, “do reverence towards”, and so forth; although one might try to split hairs and suggest a Christian-esque latria/dulia distinction, that’s not really seen much here using this word, especially when we have related words like proskunēia “act of worship” or proskunētēs “worshipper”.  What Tat (called a “prophet” in CH XVII, which itself is not just a general term but a title of a particular kind of ritual official in Egyptian priesthoods) is doing here is explicitly encouraging worship of the gods, not just generally but specifically towards cult images of the gods like the statues enshrined in temples.

Then there’s the Asclepius, which is abundant in its talk of the gods, and which was considered scandalous by patristic Christian writers (especially Augustine of Hippo in his City of God) for its explicit talk of how statues are ensouled and consecrated.  There are plenty of references towards worshipping the gods, like in AH 5 (“one who has joined himself to the gods in divine reverence, using the mind that joins him to the gods, almost attains divinity”) or AH 22 (“since he is conjoined to them in kinship, mankind honors the gods with reverent and holy mind; the gods also show concern for all things human and watch over them in faithful affection”), and the famous “Prophecy of Hermēs” from AH 24—29 talks at length about the horrible fate that will befall Egypt (and eventually the whole world) when humanity stops worshipping the gods.  However, when it comes to in-depth discussions of the gods, there are four main sections we can point out:

  • AH 19: a discussion of sensible gods (aisthētoi theoi) vs. intelligible gods (noētoi theoi), with the latter being heads-of-essences (ousiarchai) that produce all things throughout the cosmos
  • AH 23—24: just as God makes heavenly gods, humanity makes “temple gods who are content to be near humans”, i.e. the sacred statues that serve as cult images of the gods to which worship and sacrifice is directed so as to glorify, revere, and commune with the gods themselves
  • AH 27: a description of the functions of Jupiter and Jupiter Plutonius (Zeus, Zeus Ploutonios, and Korē in the Coptic AH from NHC VI,8) in creating and sustaining life in the world (which to me reads like interpretatio romana/graeca of Amun, Osiris, and Isis)
  • AH 37—39: how humanity came to learn of the hieratic art of ensouling statues with the presences of gods, the differences between heavenly gods (i.e. gods in their own domain which rule over universals) and earthly gods (i.e. the presences of the gods worshipped in temples via their cult images which rule over particulars)

The tone of the Asclepius here is nothing short of devoutly prescriptive: more than just raising the fact that the gods are worshipped, this text outright tells us that the gods are supposed to be worshipped, along with how and why we should do so.  In similar terms, though less prescriptive than descriptive, do we find Isis teaching Hōros in the Kore Kosmou (SH 23.65—68) about her role as a culture hero with Osiris to tame the savagery of the first humans on Earth by introducing, among other things, consecrated precincts and sacrifices for the ancestral gods, teachings regarding the gods, and a “perfect remedy in all of their prophets [so that] no future prophet who raised his hands to the gods would ever be ignorant” of divine truths and blessings to preserve good life on Earth.  Beyond even this, we also get Hermēs saying in SH 2A.14 that he “venerates and worships” (sebomai kaì proskunō—and note the use of that last word here!) the Sun (or, specifically, its truth/reality/existence).  While I could keep coming up with references like this, I’ve made my point: the classical Hermetic texts not only readily admit and recognize the existence of multiple gods (and, in some cases, elaborately detail and document them), but also explicitly encourage our worship of them.  The funny thing is with all this, though, is that the tone that these same Hermetic texts take, even in the above sections, seems to be an almost dismissive “of course you should do this, you fool, you absolute moron”.  Giving worship to the gods, after all, was something necessary for us to live happy and fruitful lives “down here”; as Hermēs says in AH 38:

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

Do not suppose that these earthly gods act aimlessly, Asclepius. Heavenly gods inhabit heaven’s heights, each one heading up the order assigned to him and watching over it. But here below our gods render aid to humans as if through loving kinship, looking after some things individually, foretelling some things through lots and divination, and planning ahead to give help by other means, each in his own way.

Through reverence, worship, sacrifice, hymning, and all the like, humanity is able to join with the gods in a way that is harmonious for the overall cosmos.  It allows us to be provided and cared for by the gods, it allows the gods to better abide with us and work with us in the world, and it allows both humanity and the gods to collaboratively maintain the right order of the whole cosmos that we are enjoined to perfecting.  To worship the gods is to maintain a right relationship with them as much as it is the whole of creation.  Likewise, earlier on in AH 9:

But I notice, Asclepius, that mind’s quick desire hastens you to learn how mankind can cherish heaven (or the things in it) and tend to its honor. Listen, then, Asclepius. Cherishing the god of heaven and all that heaven contains means but one thing: constant assiduous service. Except for mankind alone, no living thing, neither divine nor <mortal>, has done this service. Heaven and heavenly beings take delight in wonderment, worship, praise and service from humans. Rightly the supreme divinity sent the chorus of Muses down to meet mankind lest the earthly world lack sweet melody and seem thereby less civilized; instead, with songs set to music, humans praised and glorified him who alone is all and is father of all, and thus, owing to their praise of heaven, earth has not been devoid of the charms of harmony.

This bit of AH 9 comes immediately after Hermēs talking about all the other sciences and activities humans get up to in the world, including “agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, reciprocal exchange”.  All of these things are what “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that the world would be “incomplete” (and thus imperfected) without us engaging in these things.  Just as humanity is to tend to the world below through these mundane arts and sciences, so too are we to tend to the world above through more spiritual and religious ones.  Despite the importance (if not outright fervent glorification) Hermēs gives to all of this, he only really covers this in a surprisingly summary way before immediately moving onto other topics.

The overall feel of how the Hermetic texts talk about the gods and our worship of them is like it’s all a reminder rather than something revelatory—because, in the original context of Hermeticism, the reader would already be worshipping the gods (plural), and the actual revelation would be learning about God (singular).  That’s why the Hermetic texts spend so much time on God: as opposed to the gods more generally which everyone was already engaged with, the mystic (and monist) focus on Hermeticism is with this other thing that people aren’t so familiar with.  Being a good polytheist with an awareness of and reverence for the gods, in other words, is essentially a prerequisite for engaging with this new thing that all these texts attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos are trying to teach.

Let’s consider again the original context of the Hermetic texts.  As I mentioned before, Hermeticism arose in a polytheistic culture, specifically that of Hellenistic Egypt during the Roman Empire, but more specifically, based on the most recent academic analyses of the milieu in which these texts arose, it was in small, close-knit “communities” (such as they were) headed by a teacher with some number of students.  Unlike the centralized network of Egyptian temples (an ancient set of institutions in their own right), these groups were far more decentralized, even to the point of informality, likely within the home of the teacher or within an empty corner or room of local temples.  The teacher would likely have been either a career Egyptian priest interested in mysticism and skilled in particular hieratic arts, or otherwise one taught by them, blending Hellenistic philosophy with Egyptian religiosity in a way befitting the life and times of a post-Ptolemaic-now-Roman context.  In its original Greco-Egyptian environment, devotions and sacrifices to the gods would have been understood and performed as a given and would have provided the necessary religious and spiritual foundation for what would essentially be an “extracurricular activity”: the gods were already well-known, but having already approached them and having already understood their role in the lives of people in the world, those who would want “something more” would then seek out a teacher who could go beyond the exoteric into the esoteric.

Let’s get more into that stuff next time.

Geographical Points of Interest for Hermeticism (and not the one you probably thought of first)

Ah, beautiful and majestic Alexandria in Egypt.  Perhaps foremost of all the cities that Alexander the Great named after himself during his conquests in the fourth century CE, this famous coastal port town was always a sort of East-meets-West of the ancient world, a Greek city on Egyptian soil, and to this day remains the largest city on the whole of the Mediterranean coastline in any county.  After the Pyramids or the Sphinx, Alexandria’s ancient Lighthouse or its Library might spring to mind when we think of ancient or classical Egypt, especially of the Ptolemaic or Roman periods.  And why not?  Between the Great Library and the Mouseion of Alexandria, we get such luminaries as Euclid, Hipparchus, Eratosthenes, Hypatia, and no few other scholars, mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers.  Countless books from across the world were housed in the Library’s archives, and even after its burning during the Julius Caesar’s civil war, it still functioned admirably for centuries.  Even then (and potentially aiding such scholarship and library needs), the mere fact of Alexandria’s location at the westernmost edge of the Nile delta gave it a uniquely powerful position in terms of trade, making it a true melting pot of language, culture, science, education, religion, and so much else.

But for any meaningful relationship to Hermeticism, as a cite of its origination?  We should look elsewhere; Alexandria, as it turns out, ain’t it.

Now, to be fair, a lot of people like talking about Hermeticism in an Alexandrian context, and given how important Alexandria was in general to the classical world and to various surviving philosophical and spiritual traditions coming from it, why not?  Alexandria was one of the busiest places in all of classical Egypt, and the presence of its Library and schools were huge claims to its fame.  As a result, we see the following in Gilles Quispel’s preface to Salaman’s Way of Hermes:

The texts of the Corpus are preserved in Greek, and appear to have been produced between the first and third centuries AD in Alexandria, Egypt.  […]

It is now completely certain that there existed before and after the beginning of the Christian era in Alexandria a secret society, akin to a Masonic lodge. The members of this group called themselves ‘brethren,’ were initiated through a baptism of the Spirit, greeted each other with a sacred kiss, celebrated a sacred meal and read the Hermetic writings as edifying treatises for their spiritual progress.

Or in the text’s afterword:

It is now generally agreed that the language of these texts points to production between the first and third centuries AD in Alexandria, a city then ruled by Rome, but culturally a cosmopolitan mix of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish and other traditions. As Gilles Quispel points out in the Preface, these texts were central to the spiritual practice of Hermetic circles in late antique Alexandria.

Or, for a more extreme example, repeated mentions of Alexandria in stuff like from Freke and Gandy’s introduction to their The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs:

The early origins of the Hermetica are shrouded in mystery, but the evidence suggests it is a direct descendant of the ancient philosophy of the Egyptians. However, the handful of surviving works attributed to Hermes are not written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but in Greek, Latin and Coptic. They were collated in the city of Alexandria in Egypt during the second and third centuries CE. Here the Hermetic philosophy helped inspire some of the greatest intellectual achievements of the ancient world. Alexandria was a great centre of learning, surpassing even Athens. […]

In 1614 a scholar called Isaac Casaubon published a textual analysis of the Hermetica, which showed, quite correctly, that the grammar,
vocabulary, form and content of the Greek versions of these works dated them to no earlier than the second and third centuries CE. They were not written by an ancient Egyptian sage, he claimed, but by scholars in the city of Alexandria. Their philosophy was nothing more than an exotic blend of Greek, Christian and Jewish philosophy, mixed up with astrology and magic. […]

This suggests that the Hermetica may indeed contain the wisdom of the pharaohs, which scholars in second-century Alexandria reworked for a contemporary readership. […]

The Hermetica was undoubtedly written by Alexandrian scholars for a Greek-speaking readership. […]

In this new version, therefore, we have selected key extracts and combined them to bring out the essential wisdom and inherent poetry that they contain. In this endeavour we feel we are following in the footsteps of the scholars of Alexandria who collated these books from the ancient material that was then available, making them accessible to a contemporary readership. …

While Freke and Gandy make much of an Alexandrian origin (excluding the many other cities that existed in Egypt with their own centers of learning or spirituality), they’re far from alone in it.  A.-J. Festugière (in Hermétisme et mystique païenne) calls Alexandria the “fatherland of Hermetism”, and Garth Fowden (in The Egyptian Hermes) likewise speaks of “that same Alexandrian philosophical milieu in which the Hermetists were home” and that “nearly all our best evidence for cultic syncretism, of whatever sort, comes from the more heavily Hellenized parts of Egypt, such as Alexandria and the Fayyum”.

However, Alexandria (which was even called “Alexandria-upon-Egypt” by the Romans) wasn’t even one of the larger properly-Egyptian cultural or religious centers, especially when we remember that basically all of Egypt all up and down the Nile was heavily urbanized.  Alexandria was always first and foremost a Greek colony populated by Greeks for Greeks, after all; although it was founded on an ancient Egyptian fishing village (Rhakotis) and although it relied on a rich and diverse population of Greeks and Jews and Egyptians, Alexandria itself was not Egyptian in any sense except geographical.  This led to some rather unflattering views of Egypt due to its insistence to exist anyway to some non-Egyptian minds, such as Dio Chrysostom who (according to Fowden) “regarded the whole of Egypt as a mere ‘appendage’ (προσθήκη) of the Greek metropolis, Alexandria”.  To use a modern metaphor of my own country, it’d be like thinking that New York City is the only US city noteworthy on the East Coast, and may well be the crown jewel of the Northeastern Megalopolis, but Washington, DC is also there as is Boston and Philadelphia and Baltimore with distinct cultures, dialects, universities, religious populations, and so on, along with the whole rest of the US besides, on top of all the Native American territories that existed here long before any such cities existed due to colonialism.

In his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), Wouter Hanegraaff opens up his chapter 2 (“Heart of Darkness”) with a little vignette describing what Roman Imperial Egypt was like, and criticizes the view specifically that Hermeticism (or much of anything meaningfully Egyptian) arose from Alexandria, eventually making his way to Thebes to call that city instead the “ancient heartland of Egyptian religion”, and starting his historical inquiry into Hermeticism there.  Later on, in sharply criticizing the notion of “Alexandrian Hermetic lodges” (specifically that of Quispel as noted earlier), he cites a paper by Christian Bull,  Ancient Hermeticism and Esotericism, in which he highlights the primacy of Thebes (p. 116):

[…] This latter notion is in fact deeply problematic, since it is uncertain that Alexandria played any crucial role in ancient Hermetism. The fact is that we do not know the precise origins of Hermetism, other than that it was Egyptian, to judge from references both internal and external to the texts. Alexandria was of course a melting-pot of Greek and Egyptian culture, but by the time the Hermetica appeared (at least in the first half of the second century CE), the entirety of Egypt was to some degree Hellenized. In fact, the few geographical references in the Hermetica are to Hermopolis and Thebes, both in Upper Egypt. Moreover, papyrus Mimaut (PGM III) which contains the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving, was likely found in Thebes, together with several other magical papyri with clear relations to the Hermetica—the so-called “Thebes-cache”. We can therefore be fairly confident that Hermetica were read in this area, and quite possibly composed there. After all, Strabo informs us that the priests of Thebes were wont to attribute their astronomical and philosophical teachings to Hermes. Hermopolis was the second largest city in Egypt, after Alexandria, and we have papyri showing that the city council there made oaths to Hermes Trismegistus, possibly alluding to the Poimandres at one point. Also, a high priest of Thoth in Hermopolis, corresponding in the early fourth century CE with someone who is ‘all wise in the wisdom of the Greeks’, refers to his god as Hermes Trismegistus. Thus, other than the fact that Alexandrians like Didymus the Blind, Cyril of Alexandria, Asclepiades and Heraiscus had read Hermetica, there is nothing that militates for Alexandria as the point of origin for Hermetism, whereas several factors point toward Upper Egypt.

Likewise, as Bull says in his The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, p. 454:

Hermetic groups could potentially have been found in larger centers of priestly learning, especially Hermopolis Magna of course, which was moreover one of the largest cities in Egypt after Alexandria in the Roman period. Thebes is invoked in the Hermetica and was likely a center for Hermetic ritual activity, as evidenced by the Thebes-cache. Alexandria could potentially accommodate several Hermetic groups, although there is no reason to identify the city as the birthplace of a “Hermetic lodge” as several scholars have done. There is neither internal nor external evidence for such an Alexandrian “lodge,” a designation that is alien to the ancient world and carries Masonic connotations. It is of course entirely possible, even likely, that associations of the type we have described existed there, but there is no reason to assume that Alexandria was the birth-place of Hermetism.

To my mind, situating Thebes as the focal point of Hermeticism’s historical development makes much more sense, at least given all the evidence and extant texts we have (including from the rich caches of the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri), than just assuming Alexandria.  In a way, asserting that Hermeticism arose from Alexandria is tantamount to perpetuating colonialist attitudes, because Alexandria was (properly considered) a Greek colony on Egyptian soil, and so was culturally and geopolitically Greek more than anything else.  Thebes, on the other hand, in the words of Hanegraaff’s HSHI:

Finally, after turning another great bend in the river and heading south again, our traveler would reach Thebes, the extremely ancient Egyptian city Waset, referred to as Diospolis Magna by the Greeks and Romans but known as Luxor today. More than 3,000 years old at that time, the residence of the Pharaohs during the period of the New Kingdom (sixteenth-eleventh centuries bce) when Egypt was at the peak of its power, this city of the god Amun could be considered the heart of ancient Egypt. It is not surprising that in the centuries after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander, Thebes had emerged as a center of resistance against Greek and Roman rule. Having arrived in Thebes, our traveler could still sail farther south along the Nile, but in a real sense he could not get more distant from Alexandria, the cosmopolitical center of Greek Hellenism. This was the ancient heartland of Egyptian religion, and it is here that we begin our search for the Hermetic tradition.

This isn’t to say that Alexandria wasn’t ever important for Hermeticism; after all, it was a major intellectual center, albeit a Greek one, and there were many people who studied or worked or traveled across Egypt who yet still lived in Alexandria from time to time.  When we see reference to Hermetic groups from people like Clement of Alexandria or Cyril of Alexandria, we should take their word that there may well have been Hermeticists dwelling in their neighborhood, but not necessarily that they got started there; likewise, although Clement or Cyril may have read Hermetic texts in Alexandria, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were composed there (given how many texts from across the world were stored in or copies given to Alexandria’s libraries and schools).  That said, while I’m at it, I should also make a note about two other cities important for the history of Hemeticism besides Thebes or Alexandria:

  • Faiyum, a place in Middle Egypt known for the worship of Hermouthis, Sobek, Isis, and others.  It’s here we find the famous Hymns of Isidoros, a series of Greek praises inscribed on the gates of a temple complex in the first century BCE.  Among these hymns we see one dedicated to “Porromanrēs”, i.e. the Twelfth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III, who was famous not just for building such a temple but also for his various military campaigns, mining and trade expeditions, and various landscaping and engineering projects for the Faiyummic basin; as such, he was deified after his death and had a long-standing cult given to his veneration.  Although there are other linguistic possibilities, Howard Jackson in his paper A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres suggsests that “Porromanrēs” was the ultimate origin for the Poimandrēs of CH I and CH XIII—a possibility that Hanegraaff in HSHI reiterates and enforces as a likely origination point for Hermetic spirituality (though reserving Thebes for its eventual development and strengthening).
  • Akhmim, also known as Panopolis.  This is the place from which the famous 3rd/4th century CE alchemist-gnostic Zosimos hailed, who gives us some rather interesting and detailed accounts not only of alchemical and magical practices of his day but also of particular teachings and texts of Hermēs Trismegistos that are otherwise no longer extant.  What’s particularly interesting about Akhmim, beyond just a single but noteworthy alchemist coming from this place, is that “one of the most influential teachers in the formative period of Sufism and one of the first to discuss the concept of ma`rifa, usually translated as gnōsis” also came from here some centuries later: the 9th century CE Ḏū-l-Nūn al-Miṣrī.  He was also considered an alchemist in his day, educated in ancient Egyptian language and pagan ritual, and even thought by some to be a heretical magician for some of the work he was thought to make possible.  Between Zosimos and Ḏū-l-Nūn, there appears to have been some longstanding alchemy-centric Hermetic group(s) in Akhmim that survived from the classical period into at least the early Islamic period, potentially making for an influence in some Sufi lineages that survive today (at least that of Suhrawardiyya, founded by the 12th century CE Iranian mystic Šihāb al-Dīn Yahya ibn Ḥabaš al-Suhrawardī and who counts Ḏū-l-Nūn as one of his forebears).

Despite how highly-regarded Alexandria was at the far edge of (northern) Lower Egypt, Thebes and Faiyum and Akhmim are all much further south, including (of course) the ancient Hermopolis Magna, modern el-Ashmunein, itself an Egyptian center for the worship of Thōth.  It shouldn’t be so strange to point out that there’s more than one city or cultural center in Egypt, and that many of them were somehow important in one way or another throughout the many millennia of Egypt’s existence that grew up from Egypt’s own native soil, native people, and native spiritualities.  Yes, the metropolitan and cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria was  naturally a melting-pot for much of the classical Mediterranean world—and I know that I myself have described Hermeticism in such a context before, following a popular consensus that doesn’t add up when all the evidence is factored in—but Hermeticism, as syncretic as it is as a Greco-Egyptian form of mysticism, just doesn’t seem to arise from that specific melting-pot.  The most that we might be able to reasonably say regarding Alexandria in relation to Hermeticism is that plenty about Hermeticism was written there and disseminated by particularly noteworthy writers to the rest of the classical world, but that still doesn’t mean that the actual texts of Hermeticism were themselves written there.  To that end, when we talk about the historical origins of Hermeticism, we really should stop referring only to Alexandria as if it were the only place in Egypt that mattered.

The “mere appendage to Alexandria”, it turns out, has much of its own to contribute that deserves much more credit and respect than many scholars have afforded it, even in our modern day.  Even if we don’t know with precise specificity where Hermeticism might have first arisen or where some if its founders taught and studied, we have at least some decent notion of where it certainly grew up or grew big—and Alexandria ain’t it.