A Reminder to All Those who (Claim to) Follow the Way of Hermēs

Whether you call it Hermeticism or Hermetism, regardless of how much Hellenic or Solomonic or qabbalistic influence it may bear, irrespective of whether you’re focused on classical or medieval or Renaissance or modern approaches to it all, the Way of Hermēs Trismegistos is fundamentally Egyptian at its core—and Egypt is still a place in Africa. None of us should ever, ever forget that.

Those Hermet(ic)ists who aren’t stepping up to aid those who belong to an oppressed minority and aren’t stepping up to bring life and light to their fellow humanity through healing and wisdom need to reconsider what they’re really doing with their lives and to do better to actually implement the teachings in their own Work—especially if they’re white, straight, cis, or otherwise privileged to belong to one non-oppressed majority or another. And those Hermet(ic)ists who aid or abet racism, fascism, or other such oppressive thoughts and practices need to take a good, long look at themselves, pray, go back to the original texts and philosophies, relearn the inherent dignity and holiness of all humanity, and reconsider literally everything it is they are—and to fuck all the way off and out of the way of humanity until they get a grip on the Way of Hermēs, no matter which route they’re taking.

Even if ancient Egyptians didn’t see themselves like other African ethnicities, even if Hermet(ic)ism wasn’t pan-Mediterranean syncretic from the start, even if Hermetic practices hadn’t changed over millennia, racism and fascism and oppression have no place in the Way—and it is not enough to simply not participate in those things, but it is on us to stand up against them and to actively work against them.

Black Lives Matter.

Work accordingly.

For the love of God and the gods, for the sake of all humanity all made in the image and likeness of the Divine, for the betterment and salvation and good order of the whole Creation of the Creator for all its creatures, let all followers of the Way of Hermēs—whether Hermeticist or Hermetist—hear and help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Greek from Nock and Festugière:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cosmogony here seems to have several stages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the original Greek, according to Nock/Festugière:

δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

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

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

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

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

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

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Contextualization

I have to admit that the last post I put up, my own translation of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), is something I’m personally proud of.  It’s a small thing, but it’s also my first major translation of any actual body of text from Greek into English, and though I’m sure I’ve made some errors (or otherwise interesting choices) in my translation, it’s also a major start for me to really start chewing on a formal Hermetic text above and beyond just reading it.  There’s something different about the actual act of getting into the core language and giving it for a spin yourself.  Of course, the translation being done is just the first part.  In order to really understand what’s written, we also need to see more about it beyond just the words written on the page, and this is where contextualizing comes into play.

CH III is…not an easy text; it’s hard to understand, the Greek is imperfect, there are obvious lacunae and corruption with the text, and it’d seem that every translator who’s talked about it has brought up complications with the text.  Copenhaver directs us to look at Nock/Festugière as well as Scott “for the obscurity of this very corrupt and overwritten treatise”, and Scott calls it “so corrupt as to be wholly meaningless”.  Dodd is somewhat easier on it and says that the “text is somewhat obscure, and certainly corrupt at some points”, although “with a few comparatively slight emendations, can be read and understood for the most part” even if “there remain points at which…we do not know what the author wrote or what he meant”.  Little can be known about the context for CH III in general, but there are a few things that we can figure out.  Between Scott, Dodd, and Nock/Festugière themselves, plenty has already been said, so I’ll just summarize their points along these lines:

  • Given that the final lines of CH III reflect the opening lines in the same language, CH III is almost certainly a complete work unto itself, not an extract of a longer text.
  • The author of CH III was likely familiar with the Septuagint, or at least the Book of Genesis, given the similarity of language and phrasing in the text.  Likewise, the author was familiar with the “Mosaic [Jewish] account of creation“.  However, anything specifically resembling Christian or Gnostic elements are lacking.
  • CH III expresses more Stoic sensibilities and philosophy than Platonic ones above and beyond other Hermetic texts, even those that also have a heavy Stoic presence in them.
  • In addition to the Mosaic and Stoic elements, there is a subtle suggestion that the author of CH III was also familiar with the Egyptian account of creation.
  • The author of CH III did not have a firm grasp of proper, fluent Greek, but what they did have was definitely influenced by idioms and specific turns of phrasing otherwise found in the Septuagint and other Hellenized Jewish literature.
  • As a result, we can say that the author was either an Egyptian pagan or a highly syncretic, unorthodox Jew from Egypt who took no small inspiration from both Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish doctrine.  Dodd says that this author “took pains to [take the account of creation form the Hebrew Scriptures and] re-interpret it in terms of Greek philosophy for a pagan public”, but that may be a bit too strong of a stance to take.
  • CH III is one of the few texts that isn’t presented in dialog or letter format.  Scott calls it “the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe”; Nock and Festugière call it “a hymn in prose”.
  • Despite the obvious corruption of the text, the confusing language here can be seen in parallels among other Hermetic texts and fragments, especially the Stobaean Fragments, which suggest that some of the language here goes back to the earliest treatises in the Hermetic tradition.
  • It is likewise one of the few Hermetic texts where Hermēs (or any of his students that might give a mythic link to him) isn’t even mentioned by name.  Except, of course, in the title, but that may well be a later addition to the text rather than an original part of it.
  • No fixed date can be ascribed to when CH III was written, but we know that it had to have been written between the third century bce and the third century ce.  Scott, based on the similarity of CH III with the Sanchuniathon, posits that CH III was written sometime in the first century ce, though Dodd says that “it might well go back to the time before Posidonius, since its Stoicism is uninfluenced by Platonism”, so before the mid-first century bce.  However, there’s as yet no way to state a more specific timeframe than this, so perhaps between 100 bce and 100 ce.

One of the biggest observations to make here, given all the above, is that CH III is perhaps closest to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), i.e. “The Divine Poimandrēs” itself.  Like CH III, CH I also has no direct reference to Hermēs (although later Hermetic texts in the Corpus Hermeticum do refer to Poimandrēs by name), and there are also Jewish and Stoic elements in CH I, though perhaps to a lesser extent than in CH III.  There are also particular choices of word and turns of phrase that are common to both in ways we might not otherwise expect.  It may be that CH III, being the shorter and more complete, was written first and CH I was written with that in mind, or they may both have been written under the same general cultural/philosophical/religious milieu with references to the same (specifically Jewish) text.  However, just as notable as the similarities are the differences: unlike CH I, CH III does not discuss redemption or immortality, but simply discusses a bare-bones creation story and discusses a simple approach to life on Earth, almost in a way that (in the words of Nock) resembles the “extreme darkness” of the “atmosphere of Judaism of the type of [Book of] Ecclesiastes before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important”.  As a result, we can probably safely make the guess that CH III is indeed older than most of the rest of Hermetic literature.  Heck, it may even be properly proto-Hermetic rather than properly Hermetic, given that it does lack certain themes, motifs, and traits we see elsewhere in Hermetic literature, and that it was included with other Hermetic texts based on its affinities (or perhaps originating influence) by later Hermetic students.

And that’s about all that can be said about that, or at least from what I can find regarding the provenance and origin of CH III.  After that, I suppose we should begin taking a look at the rest of the classical Hermetic canon to see parallels or influences on or from CH III, and there are indeed at least a few for us to consider.

Notably, taking a look at the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (DH) can be helpful here.  Of all the sets of aphorisms in DH, the entire second set which discusses cosmogony and cosmology is perhaps most like the first two parts of CH III.  Specifically, DH II.2—4 and II.5 reads (Mahé translation):

Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed up out of soul and Nous. Air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven with earth. What is air? They call ‘air’ the interval between heaven and earth, by which they are not separated from each other, since heavens and earth are united (with each other) by the air.

Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water.  What is the power of the world? To keep up for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.

Water is a fecund essence, the support of earth, as a nutritive essence.

Fire is a sterile essence, the duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal: an infertile substance, in as much (it belongs to) the destructive fire which makes (things) disappear; and the perpetuation of the immortal (beings), since what cannot be consumed by fire is immortal and indestructible, but the mortal can be destroyed by fire.

J.-P. Mahé notes specifically that the reference to “the support of earth” in DH II.4 resembles the first two parts of CH III in the cosmogony, as well as CH I.5, the part of the Divine Poimandrēs that talks about how the Word descended upon the chaos and separated the elements, leaving water and earth behind.  There’s this repeated notion (which is far from limited to Hermetic texts) that the creation of the world started in a chaotic mass that, due to the interference and influence of a holy light, separated out with Fire at the top, Water and Earth at the bottom mixed together, and Air separating (but also joining) the two.

We should also note that the very first lines of CH III, as well as the last, can also be seen reflected or echoed in the Asclepius (AH), specifically AH 3.  Copenhaver translates it as:

The elements by which the whole of matter has been formed, then, are four: fire, water, earth, air.  One matter, one soul, and one God.

But, perhaps more stylistically and clearly, Salaman translates that last statement as:

…The cosmos is one, the soul is one, God is one.

Of course, as noted earlier, CH I.5 brings up the cosmogony of the Divine Poimandrēs in a way highly reminiscent of CH III.2, though with one major important difference.  In CH I, in the beginning there was only Light, it was within the Light that a primordial dark chaos arose, and the divine word that separated out the elements from the primordial mass descends from the light onto the darkness.  In CH III, on the other hand, we start with a primordial dark chaos in the abyss with no reference to preexisting light, and a light arises from the mixture of Water and Earth (“up from under the wet sand”).  This notion of light arising out of wet sand bears strong similarity to the Benben myth of ancient Egypt, the first mound of earth that arose from the primordial and abyssal waters of Nun, resembling the peaks of silt and sand that emerged from the Nile’s recess after its flood.  That’s the one major difference between the two, along with Nock’s and Festugière’s notion that CH III posits a totally immanent deity instead of a transcendent one, and as I discussed earlier on:

Note that this vision of revelation [in CH I] is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

Beyond that, the rest of CH III’s cosmogony and cosmology, though sparse and high-level, is still solidly within the usual Hermetic notion: four elements with Fire at the top and Earth plus Water at the bottom with Air standing in between joining the two, seven heavens for the seven wandering stars, constellations above them for the fixed stars, and the like.

More along the lines of the third part of CH III that discusses the creation of life and of humanity, and especially the works and purposes of humanity, DH IX.7 reads:

Humans work the land, (and) stars adorn heaven.  The gods have heaven; humans, heaven, earth, and sea; but the air is common to gods and humans.

This statement, too, touches on what Hermēs discusses in AH 8, which has the major points of:

  • The intelligible God, the “master and shaper of all things”, made a second god, sensible in the sense of being able to be seen and sensed.  (In other words, Theos made Cosmos, or alternatively, Nous made Logos.) The sensible God is beautiful to the intelligible God, and is full of “the goodness of everything”.
  • To further admire the sensible God, God made humanity (the third god), “imitator of his reason and attentiveness” and in the divine likeness of himself.  However, humanity could not exist as divine image alone, so God made humanity a material wrapping, a body of flesh, and thus made humans as both eternal soul and mortal body.  This was done in such a way so that humans could begin “wondering at heavenly beings and worship them, tending to earthly beings and governing them”.
  • Humans take charge over the four elements and by them commence to engage in works of agriculture, pasturage, building, harbors, navigation, social intercourse, and especially reciprocal exchange which is “the strongest bond among humans or between humanity and the parts of the world that are water and earth”.  Further, it is the learning, discovery, and use of arts and sciences that “preserves this earthly part of the world”, and that God willed that the world would be incomplete without them.

AH 10 continues along similar lines:

  • God is the governor of all things, but especially with Humanity, who is the governor of composite things (i.e. material, manifest things).
  • Humanity is responsible for the whole of creation, which is the “proper concern of his attentiveness”, and strives to adorn the cosmos as the cosmos adorns them so as to know the cosmos so that the cosmos knows them.
  • In so doing, humanity becomes mindful of their role in the cosmos and what is useful for them, how they should act, and the propriety of giving thanks and praise to God in honoring his image (as cosmos, the second god) as well as themselves (as humanity, the third god made in the likeness of the first).

Although we can find bits in other Hermetic texts to echo the first three parts of CH III, it’s that last section of CH III that’s hard to find something concrete about.  Parts of it kinda resemble AH 8 above, especially the various works of mankind, but CH III doesn’t really talk about redemption, salvation, reincarnation, preservation of the the soul through the dissolution of the body that we call “death”, or the like.  Scott continues to say that this last part of CH III, in its absence of discussing anything about these topics, thus suggests the contrary, that “nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his ‘name’ (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while”, disparaging earthly monuments for their impermanence.  I find this too strong a stance to take, personally; just because a text doesn’t bring up something doesn’t mean it rules it out, either.  Per Copenhaver, Fowden interprets this last paragraph as a strong monist worldview to mean that it “envisages man’s whole development and fulfillment in terms of this earthly life”.  CH I.12—13 likewise brings up the notion of humanity being made in God’s image, bestowed with all of God’s works, and engaged in both the works of God and their own works, as well as the works of all the other powers of the cosmos—though, admittedly, this was before his incarnation in Nature, and CH I is more strongly dualist than CH III in this regard.

The final part of CH III does mention the role of fate established by the stars, though Scott notes that “the writer does not ad that men, by observing the stars, can discover beforehand what is destined for them[;] if this were added, the view expressed would amount to a belief in astrology”.  Again, a lack of one opinion does not imply the existence of its opposite, and given CH III’s exhortation for us to contemplate Heaven and the courses of the heavenly gods who are themselves inextricably intertwined with fate and destiny, it makes sense that this reference is easier read as an implicit acknowledgement of the power of astrology, a classic Hermetic stance indeed.  Although the powers of the planets and stars is more commonly termed “fate” in other Hermetic texts, it is also said that Fate is a handmaiden or servant to Necessity, and Necessity is the handmaiden to Providence, which is nothing less than the express will of God.  In that light, whatever Providence establishes to be done, Necessity arranges for it to be done with all its side effects, and Fate implements it through the passage and influence of the stars.  Thus, in this view of the relationship of Necessity to Fate and to God, when CH III mentions that “all that is diminished will be renewed by Necessity”—especially when it also says that such renewal will be done “by the…gods and by the course of the measured wheel of Nature”—it implies that the renewal of all things is expressly the will of God.  Scott has a point here in that “that which decays and passes away is ‘renewed’, but only by substitution[;] the individual perishes, but the race is immortal[;] the dead do not live again, but others are born to proceed them”.  That is certainly one valid way to read this section, but only based on assumptions and the absence of contrary implications, and again is a stance I find too strong to take in reading CH III.

There’s probably more that we can point out as commonalities or stuff to pick out as differences between CH III and the rest of the Hermetic canon, especially when it comes to the broader literature of Roman Republic-period Stoicism or Hellenized Judaism, but this is enough to give us an idea of what we’re looking at when we consider this short, obscure text.  At the end of the day, we just don’t know a lot about the text besides what we can draw from the text itself—and that’s where we’ll be headed next, with actually chewing on the content of the text itself.

On the Third Book of the Corpus Hermeticum: Translation

It was back in middle school that I was first able to take foreign language classes.  I spent a semester learning French, but that never really hooked me; I switched to Japanese for the next semester, but unfortunately the teacher had to leave back to Japan, so in a scramble to keep us busy, my school brought in a Latin teacher to finish off the year in that subject instead.  I enjoyed both Japanese and Latin immensely, but I wouldn’t have the chance to take Japanese classes again until high school some years later.  Instead, I decided to stick with Latin, despite my mother’s confusion and mockery (“You’ll never use Latin, it’s a worthless thing to study!”).  I kept taking Latin through high school, including the AP level courses (taken as an independent study since I couldn’t otherwise fit the class into my schedule).  I didn’t take Latin in college, though I wish I had, had my schedule allowed for it; I switched back to Japanese for a few years until I had to give that up, too, due to my need to focus on my degree for computer science and software engineering.  But I never lost my love for Latin, or for ancient languages or linguistics generally.

Despite my mother’s claim that Latin would never be helpful for me, I’ve proved her wrong over the years, as it’s helped me immensely with my occult and spiritual research, given the abundance of stuff that’s still in Latin and hasn’t been formally translated yet, and given the fact that translators sometimes make interesting choices in their translation that don’t always bear out from the original text.  It’s also given me ample background in linguistic analysis, which helps in learning and understanding the syntax, grammar, and structure of other languages, even if those languages have a radically different structure than Latin does.  For instance, I’ve made plenty of references to Greek and a few references to Coptic on my blog before, and even though I’ve never studied those languages nor claim any formal competency in them, given a good dictionary and a good set of grammar tables and guides, I can get by enough to construct a few statements, even though I couldn’t write a full Greek phrase yet to save my life.  But, lately, I’ve been picking up ancient Greek more and more, which helps me just as much and for the same reasons as Latin.

Not that long ago, I mentioned how beautiful and meaningful I find Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH III), entitled Ἐρμοῦ Ἰερός Λόγος, or “[the] Sacred Discourse of Hermēs” (though I prefer to translate Λόγος here as “Sermon”).  It’s a short text but a complete one, and one I’d recommend to those interested in traditional Hermetic texts to read first, as it kinda-sorta serves the same role in my mind as the Heart Sutra does for Mahayana Buddhism: a short synopsis that contains the biggest points of practice and purpose of the tradition.  This, like the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum, is written in Greek, specifically a kind of Koiné Greek that was spoken and written as a lingua franca across the Mediterranean during the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire.  This is the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, of the Middle and New Platonists, and of the Greek Magical Papyri themselves.  While my formal exposure to learning and translating classical Greek is limited, it’s probably time to change that, because I want to dig in more to the Hermetic canon generally and CH III specifically and really get at the meat and bones of it for meditation and contemplation, and doing that requires actually looking at the original Greek and…well, in order to get a better grasp of the texts, translate them (or at least CH III) myself.

Admittedly, I could probably have started learning how to translate Greek with an easier text.  Many scholars who’ve already translated CH III have noted that the text is corrupt in many ways, suffering from both lacunae and poorly-written Greek, indicating that perhaps the original author of CH III was not so competent in the language as we’d like.  Scott himself declares that CH III is “so corrupt as to be almost wholly meaningless” in its original state, and presents his own take on the text only after having “altered it with a free hand”.  Dodd commends Scott on his restoration of the text “extensively on an ingenious theory of the mutilation of the archetype”, but does not believe that “such drastic treatment is really necessary” and that, at times, Scott’s “reconstruction…departs too far from the [original] to carry conviction”.  Although a Hermetic text, it bears strong influence from the style and wording of the Septuagint with other Judaicizing elements, but it also shows a strong Stoic and Egyptian presence.  Even with all these influences, and perhaps because of them, the overall message of CH III falls neatly in line with other Hermetic texts, although presented from a different perspective.

Perhaps as a result of the corruption and confusion in CH III, different translators have rendered this book in different ways, sometimes drastically so.  To offer a comparison, here’s a list of some translators of the text (whether of CH III specifically or the Corpus Hermeticum generally), where I provide links to online references or to sources of the published translations themselves:

With that, let’s take a look at my translation of CH III, made possible through the generous help of the Perseus-Tufts online dictionary and whatever charts of declension and conjugation I could find on Wiktionary.  This text is broken down into four sections, for which I’ve provided my own translation based on the Greek given by Nock and Festugière.  Each section also includes my own notes explaining or justifying some of the choices I’ve made in the course of the translation; I did my best to stick to the text itself in the way it was given without emending the text as far as is possible, though such a literal approach could not always be done—and I’m in good company, it’d seem, based on previous translators’ notes.  Be gentle with me and forgiving with criticism of my shoddy work, dear reader; I’m still an unlearned amateur at Greek, after all.

1. Statements on God

[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.

  • “[The] glory”: δόξα.  The author of CH III uses the article a lot less than I’d expect, so I make it explicit when he doesn’t by adding in “[the]” elsewhere in this translation when English would expect it to be used.  This use of the article may have some semantic meaning of importance, but I’m not sure.
  • “of all things”: πάντων, which might also be rendered as “of the All”, but we encounter πάντων in CH III several other times in a less grand sense; more on this shortly with ἁπάντων.
  • “[who is both]”: reading an implied copula together with the καὶ…καὶ formula that indicates “both…and”.  Interpreting καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία as an explanation of what ὁ θεός is makes sense, as δόξα is in the singular; this word can also be interpreted as a plural, but specifically a plural feminine noun, and neither θεός nor θεῖον would agree with that.  So it is (the) God who is the glory of the All, and (the) God is both the Divine and the Nature, which is itself Divine.  This latter point, that Nature is also Divine as God is Divine, is one that’s hammered in both at the end of this section as well as at the end of CH III.
  • “[The] beginning”: ἀρχή, which some translate as “principle” or “origin” instead.  For thematic reasons to link this first section with the last one, I prefer “beginning” here.
  • “that which exists”: τῶν ὄντων, which could also be more interpreted as “all that is”.
  • “[who is thus of] Mind, Nature, and Matter”: ditto regarding the καὶ…καὶ formula.  This is given in the text as καὶ νοῦ καὶ φύσεως καὶ ὕλης, which would suggest that God is Mind and Nature and Matter, but Dodd agrees with Scott here in that this phrase should be in the genitive, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, such that this would read “God is the beginning of that which exists, both of Mind and of Nature and of Matter”, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree with them.  The original phrase is grammatically correct, but Scott’s and Dodd’s translation using a genitive emendation makes more sense to me Hermetically.
  • “being Wisdom”: there’s no copula or identifier connecting ὁ θεός with σοφία here, so one could assume “[who is]” is implied by parallelism.  However, the final word of this statement ἁπάντων “of all” (more on that in a bit), is followed by ὤν, and while ἁπάντων ὤν could be translated “of all things”, but ὤν can also be a participle referring to God, which would render this phrase as “[God who is] being…Wisdom”, which makes grammatical sense even if it’s an awkward construction.  Whether we say “God is the being who is Wisdom for making known of all things” or “God is who is Wisdom for making known of all things”, the translation seems equivalent either way.
  • “making known”: δεῖξιν, generally “mode of proof” or “exhibition”, in the accusative in a way indicating teaching, revealing, or displaying something for a purpose.  I originally used “showing forth” here, which is more literal but less stylistically fitting for the rest of the text.
  • “of the All”: ἁπάντων here as opposed to πάντων above.  Given the rarity of ἁπάντων in CH III and how it intensifies πάντων, I’m rendering it here in a more dignified sense.
  • “[which is]”: ditto from above with “[who is both]” and “[who is thus of]”.
  • “End”: τέλος, though I like “Purpose” here as well.
  • It may be better to interpret the initial line of each of these statements as “of all things [which exist]” and “of [all] which exists” and “[of all which exists]”, maintaining parallelism between these three statements in this first section, interpreting partial presences of τῶν πάντων ὄντων to maintain thematic and stylistic continuity, though this is reading more into the original text than strictly necessary.  However, the last statement here lacks both πάντων as well as τῶν ὄντων, which may be meaningful on its own.

2. Account of Cosmogony

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

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

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

  • The first paragraph here is usually marked as the final paragraph of the first section, but it makes more thematic sense to group it in with this second section which otherwise discusses the creation of the cosmos.
  • “Lo”: ἦν, used like “behold”.
  • “delicate”: translating λεπτόν with other similar meanings like “peeled”, “fine”, “thin”, “weak”, “subtle”, or “small” to communicate a sense of fineness but fragility as well.
  • “under [the] sand”: translating ὕφ’ ἄμμῳ which Nock and Festugière obelize out. Some interpret this as marginalia or an external reference to “moist sand” below, especially as it seems absurd for Light to arise from the depths, unless you take into account the Benben myth of Egyptian cosmogony, which then makes total sense here as the birth of Atum from the primordial mound that arose from the boundless waters of chaos.
  • “so that all [the] gods might parcel out seed-bearing Nature”: καὶ θέοι πάντες καταδιερῶσι φύσεως ἐνσπόρου.  Emending καταδιερῶσι to καταδιαιρῶσι, this word seems to be usually translated in the middle voice in the sense of “distribute among themselves”, but the inflection here necessitates that it is in the active voice and subjunctive mood, requiring a different interpretation along the lines of division, separation, or distinguishing.  Nock and Festugière obelize φύσεως ἐνσπόρου, suggesting a potential break in the text and maybe something specific that was parceled out between καταδιερῶσι and φύσεως, but φύσεως ἐνσπόρου as a genitive phrase (“of seed-bearing Nature”) is likely a genitive of separation which would work well with καταδιαιρῶσι.  As a whole, this phrase suggests that in order for the gods to take their proper places and to make life, the elements needed to be made first, and that the gods separating out these elements fulfills part of their very purpose.
  • “hung up by Fire”: “hung up” here is ἀνακρεμασθέντων, “up-hanged”, and the initial ἀνα- seems to just be an intensifier, as κρεμασθέντων already indicates a notion of hanging (or, in the passive, being hanged) up.  Although a different word is used, a similar notion is present in the Hymn to the Great Mind from PGM V.459ff, where we see “you who suspended heaven” as πασσαλεύσαντα τόν οὐρανόν, with a specific notion there of “pinning” it up, like nails or pushpins hanging something up on a wall.  (ἀνα-)κρεμασθέντων, on the other hand, especially in the passive, was sometimes used to refer to hanging things up as a votive offering.
  • “carried along”: ὀχεῖσθαι from ὀχέω, literally “hold fast”, but in the middle voice here, more like “to be carried or borne”.  Copenhaver notes that Nock and Festugière use “véhiculé”, echoing both ὀχεῖσθαι here and ὀχούμενον below in this section as well as the word ὀχεία (“covering”, “holder”) or ὄχημα (“chariot”) used to describe the vehicle of the soul in its ascent as described used in other Hermetic and Neoplatonic texts.
  • “perfectly filled”: interpreting διηρθρώθη along the lines of “complete in detail”, as opposed to Copenhaver’s “corresponding to the gods contained in it”.

3.  Account of Zoogony and Anthropogony

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

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

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

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

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

So as to:

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

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

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

for [that they might have]:

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

[for the gods made them so as] to:

  1. come to know [the] things of [the] Good and [the] things of [the] insignificant, and
  2. discover [the] arts of everything that is Good.
  • I broke out this section into a series of numbered lists to more clearly refer to particular points later on.  This whole section was basically given as (more or less) one long sentence, but through the miracles of modern punctuation, I’ve broken it out into more easily digestible sections and statements, especially given the exhortations or injunctions regarding the purposes and works of humanity.
  • “Thus”: just καὶ here, but I figured that this specific wording would help clarify it as a link between the previous and coming statements.
  • “the seed of rebirth”: Although this seems to relate most directly and specifically to the generation of vegetative life, I think this is better reflective of both the vegetative and animal life here. I also want it to link to human life below, though it seems difficult to do so, but this is an incredibly corrupt and difficult passage to translate that everyone seems to admit and recognize.
  • “they then cast the seeds for”: ἐσπερμολόγουν, a difficult word that on its own means something like “pick up/out seeds”, which doesn’t make sense here. Sometimes interpreted instead as “emit seeds”, but the inflection here doesn’t make a lot of sense to me any which way.  The ending itself here would make it seem like a kind of present participle, but only in the neuter singular, either nominative or accusative, and which could have it modify σπέρμα several words away for the overall effect of “having the seeding seeds of rebirth within themselves”, but that seems really kludgy.  We could interpret the following τάς as part of this word, making it ἐσπερμολόγουντας, which would make it an active participle in the feminine singular genitive or plural accusative, which doesn’t make it fit any easier within the sentence unless we match it with the feminine singular genitive παλιγγενεσίας “rebirth”, which is separated by only a few words (and maybe a lacuna or two), but τάς here already functions as the article for γενέσεις that follows, and trying to make the two into one word seems to be another kludgy thing that isn’t great.  Nobody seems happy with this word (or with several of the words and phrases that follow in this section). The common approach seems to be that of Dodd, who uses it to refer to the gods in beseeding the generations of humans (ἐσπερμολόγουν τε τάς γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων), perhaps with the original author also making a pun on λόγος, but this is also unlikely as λόγος otherwise appears nowhere in CH III (except the title, but the title may well be a later addition to refer to the text by name). There is the possibility of a connection with σπερμολογία, “babbling” or “gossip”, and σπερμολόγος as “one who picks up and retails scraps of knowledge, as an idle babbler”, which could be seen as both a pun on both λόγος and σπέρμα, as well as a dim echo of the Korē Kosmou where the bodies of humans are made from the leftover dried- but overly-reconstituted soulstuff of God. Although the translation here (with a pun on “cast” as both sowing seeds as well as speaking incantations in the Egyptian mythic sense a la Isis or Thoth) makes it seem that τάς γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων is a dative, it’s still an accusative phrase (“the generations of mankind”), but it’s unclear what else it could be the direct object of besides whatever ἐσπερμολόγουν is supposed to indicate.
  • “for [that they might have]”: reading an implied verb of possession here and below, given the use of εἰς with accusative nouns to suggest that humans are to exist for such a purpose or exist so as to possess such things.
  • “knowledge”: Many translators interpret γνῶσιν here as a verb (“that they might come to know”), but later instances of γνῶσιν in this section seems to function better as a noun (“seeking to know, “investigation”, “knowledge”) in the accusative case.  Reading γνῶσιν here as a noun can also function well, given that μαρτυρίαν (“testimony”, “evidence”) also reads better as a noun given in the accusative than as a subjunctive verb.
  • “testimony of the workings of Nature”: φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν, which others translate as “be a working witness of Nature”.  Reading μαρτυρίαν as a noun and not a verb, however, would necessitate something like “have testimony…of Nature”.  ἐνεργοῦσαν seems to agree with μαρτυρίαν as either a plural genitive noun phrase or a singular accusative noun phrase, but “working testimony” doesn’t seem to work so well here.  Rather, I’d read this instead as a chain: that humans are to have testimony/evidence (μαρτυρίαν) of the workings (ἐνεργοῦσαν) of Nature (φύσεως), which then gives a neat parallel to having knowledge (γνῶσιν) of the works (ἔργων) of the Divine (θείων) from the previous statement.  This parallel is repeated further below in this section, though there with a singular noun ἐνεργείας instead of a plural participle ἐνεργοῦσαν.  In this sense, perhaps μαρτυρίαν is meant in the sense that humanity is to behold the workings of Nature by being witness to it, experiencing it, and undergoing it rather than merely observing it from a distance.
  • “great numbers of humans”: πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων, which Copenhaver translates as an injunction “to increase the number of mankind”, but the grammar here doesn’t match up with that. It makes more sense to interpret it in the same sense as τἀς…γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων above as well as πασᾶν…ψυχήν below.
  • “management”: δεσποτείαν which indicates “the power of a master”, but here I interpret as more a sense of tending or managing, almost in the agricultural sense of husbandry, which ties better into the use of seed-based imagery elsewhere in CH III.
  • “encycling”: ἐγκυκλίων would normally indicate “round” or “circular in shape”, but it can also be interpreted as “revolving/moving in a circle”, with the implied notion of recurrence or repeated things happening.
  • “observance”: κατοπτείαν, in the sense of “spy out”, “explore”, or “observe deeply”, but this is most likely a noun, not a verb, like δεσποτείαν above and γνῶσιν below. It’s possible that this could be a weird verb ending indicating that they are to survey Heaven, etc., but possible verb endings don’t match up with other possible-verbs here.
  • “sign-seeding [acts]”: τερασπορίας, a difficult word apparently otherwise attested, perhaps more literally translated “sowing/seeding of wonders/marvels/portents” (lots of references to seeds in CH III; perhaps the original author was raised as a farmer). In this inflection, it seems to be either in the singular genitive or the plural accusative, but it’s hard to see what this word might relate to. I find it easiest to interpret this as a somewhat out-of-place direct object of κατοπτείαν along with other things in this sentence, and interpreting οὐρανοῦ as the owner of it, the sense being that the actions and events in Heaven are what make portents, which matches up nicely with the astrological notion in the next line.
  • “for [that they might have]”: this set of following injunctions might seem to be part of the same preceding set as before, but to my mind, seeing a pattern of things given in pairs here in this section of CH III, this total list of six injunctions should probably be broken up into two blocks (one of four injunctions and one of two) or three blocks (each of two injunctions), and I went with the former choice.  The first block (or first two blocks) would be regarding the observance of the sign-seeding acts of Heaven and of the course of the heavenly gods, either along with or for the purpose of knowing the works of the Divine and the working of Heaven.  Breaking the last two injunctions out seems appropriate given the εἰς τε before the next two injunctions, suggesting that what goes before is to be established for what comes after, and given that what comes after uses a different structure and verbs/nouns.
  • “examination of that which is Good”: σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν, which doesn’t match the structure of the surrounding text, and which some consider faulty or unintelligible, as σημεῖα is a neuter plural word just meaning “signs”. Going with Dodd’s and Scott’s fix of σημείωσιν, usually “indication” or “notice”, but also “inference from” or “examination of” signs.
  • “[the] turbulent lots of divine Power”: μοίρης ὀχλουμένης, a difficult phrase to interpret that has been variously rendered, a genitive noun phrase with an active present participle in the middle voice for the verb “to move, disturb, roll along” or “to trouble, importune, irk” (with the root word ὄχλος meaning “crowd”, “throng”, “mob”, “trouble”).  Although θείας δυνάμεως comes first and there seems to be something like a break between that and μοίρης ὀχλουμένης, and with both phrases in the genitive, it makes sense to me to think of this θείας δυνάμεως as possessing μοίρης ὀχλουμένης, and interpreting μοίρης ὀχλουμένης as a genitive of charge. This, again, is likely another astrological thing for humans to be aware of, or perhaps an understanding of the acts of Fate and Necessity in general in the cosmos without them necessarily being astrological, something along the line of Copenhaver’s “the whirling changes of fair and foul” (which mixes this injunction with the next, which I prefer to keep separate).
  • “[For the gods made them so as] to”: The last two verbs in this sentence, γνῶναι “to come to know” and εὑρεῖν “to find/discover”, are in the aorist infinitive, unlike κατοπτείαν and γνῶσιν above, which are either verbs in the third person plural aorist subjunctive or nouns in the accusative indicating something for them to have or undergo. To me, this suggests that these last two items in this list are overall goals which are to be arrived at through the previous five. I’ve inserted this phrase to make that point clear.
  • “insignificant”: φαύλων, which can have meanings of “careless”, “cheap”, “slight”, “easy”, “ineffective”. Given the lack of distinction between grander notions of Good and Evil in CH III, although a possibility given its Judaicizing elements, translating the whole phrase here of ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων as such seems out of place, so perhaps “that which is properly useful to know and that which is either improperly useful or properly useless to know” is a better way to interpret this phrase.
  • “arts”: δαιδαλουργίαν, more accurately rendered as “the skillful working” or “the cunning work”.
  • “arts of everything that is Good”: We could retranslate this and the previous statement, using an alternative translation of φαύλων, as “come to know the things of the effective and ineffective, and to discover the arts of all that is effective”. In other words, we’re to learn about the distinction between things that have value and things that do not, and having learned it, explore the uses and works of things that have value.
  • The last two pairs of injunctions have a different focus than the rest: rather than simply observing or witnessing the works of the Divine and of Nature, these last two involve mixtures or choices one is to make.  After all, consider ὀχλουμένης indicating “troublesome” but with an origin in “crowd” or “mob”, and how ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων has a notion of separating out the good from the bad (or, perhaps, the effective from the ineffective).  There’s a sort of mirrored structure here: we have a notion of knowing what is Good and then discerning the mixed states of good and bad as Nature gives it to us, and then we sift through the mixed things that are good and bad, and having sifted we focus on using that which is Good.  After coming to know all the works of the Divine and all the workings of Nature and how they function internally, and being able to distinguish the things that are worthwhile and of value, one then applies that knowledge to actually sort out what’s worthy of attention and valuable in application from what isn’t.  This is what we might otherwise call wisdom, the “showing forth” or “making known” of all things, as mentioned in the first section, and the coming to know these things is the beginning of wisdom, which is mentioned in the fourth section.

4. Account on the Life and End of Humanity

[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.

  • “[This is the] beginning of their”: ἄρχηται αὐτῶν, which for some is held as doubtful. Dodd has ἀρκεῖ τε αὐτοῖς “it is enough for them”, or alternatively ἀρχή τε αὐτοῖς “for them [this is the] beginning”.
  • “according to [their] lot”: interpreting πρός with μοῖραν as an accusative to indicate an organizing idea on the part of fate.
  • “cyclic gods”: κυκλίων θεῶν, although “circular gods” would be more accurate though perhaps less sensical, but κυκλίων doesn’t agree with anything else here. So, basically emending κυκλίων “circular” to κυκλικῶν “cyclic” instead, although an argument could be made for interpreting the gods as planetary spheres, both in the sense of the shape of the heavens themselves as well as the bodies that traverse them.  Same issue as with ἐγκυκλίων above in the previous section.
  • “leaving behind”: καταλιπόντες as an aorist active participle, combined with εἰς δ᾽ ἔσται in a future sense of purpose e.g. “for them to in the future be leaving behind”.
  • “[every generation]”: inserting this to maintain parallelism with accusative πᾶσαν γένεσιν “every generation” and genitive ἐμψύχου σαρκός “of ensouled flesh” and to clarify what the genitive noun phrases καρποῦ σπορᾶς “sowing of fruit” and πάσης τεχνουργίας “every craftsmanship” refer to as belonging.  I take all this to imply that there are three kinds of generation here that arise and pass away: human/animal life, vegetative life, and technological/artful man-made creation.
  • “[all] for fame”: ἐν ὀνόματι, literally “in name”, though with a common (especially biblical) use of ὄνομα for “fame” or “renown”.
  • “unto the obscurity of the ages”: interpreting ἀμαύρωσιν as an accusative of purpose (ἀμαύρωσις) rather than as a verb (ἀμαυρόω).  As a noun, ἀμαύρωσις is also a nice reference to astrology, being one name for House VIII, a so-called “unseen house” denoting (among other things) death and legacy. Interpreting χρόνων as owning ἀμαύρωσιν makes more sense to me.
  • “[all] for fame unto the obscurity of [the] ages”: interpreting this as belonging specifically to the memorials of the works of humanity but more generally to both such memorials as well as the generations of humanity/fruit/art generally.  Many authors interpret χρόνων as belonging to ἐν ὀνόματι, literally as “in the name of times” or metaphorically “in the fame of ages”, but I give it to ἀμαύρωσιν instead here; Dodd notes that a slight emendation here, adding εἰς so that it reads εἰς χρόνων ἀμαύρωσιν makes it fit a stylistic construction “of which this writer [of CH III] is excessively fond”, though taken in a slightly different sense, and translated as “they will have left great memorials as [a means of perpetuating] their name, pending their obliteration brought about by a lapse of time”.  I moved this whole phrase down after the “every generation” phrase sequence for thematic and stylistic reasons, though it properly follows the “great memorials” phrase.
  • “[all] that is diminished”: interpreting this as belonging specifically to the memorials of the works of humanity but more generally to both such memorials as well as the generations of humanity/fruit/art generally.
  • “renewal of the gods”: ἀνανεώσει θεῶν, which I read as indicating the renewal enacted by the gods upon the world, and not the renewal that the gods undergo themselves.
  • “is established”: καθέστηκεν as a verb with perfect tense, active voice, and indicative mood can still be used in the intransitive state with the sense of “set oneself down”, “settle”, “exist”, “be established”.  There’s some confusion over how to best present this: Dodd has “Nature consists in the Divine”, Scott “Nature has her being in God”, Copenhaver “Nature is established in the Divine”, Salaman “Nature is seated in God”.  I like Dodd’s translation, but this seems a bit further from the text than the rest.

Now, all that done, although I gave my (as far as was possible) exact and literal translation of CH III above, I’d also like to present a slightly more interpreted and stylized translation, as well.  Knowing what I know now about the text and its literal meanings, here’s how I might gently rephrase and tweak it in (somewhat devout) modern prose English, sacrificing accuracy and precision for an easier, more contemplative read.

The Sacred Sermon of Hermēs Trismegistus

1.1
The glory of all that is is God,
who is both the Divine and divine Nature.

1.2
God is the beginning of all that is:
that of Mind, that of Nature, that of Matter.
God is Wisdom for making the All to be known.

1.3
The Divine is the beginning of all that is:
Nature, Working, Necessity, Purpose, Renewal.

2.1
For in the beginning, in the Abyss,
there was boundless darkness and boundless water,
as well as intelligent yet delicate Spirit,
all existing in primordial chaos by divine Power.
But then, out from under the water and sand,
a holy Light arose, and the elements arose with it,
so that all the gods might measure out seed-bearing Nature.

2.2
And while all was yet indefinite and unformed,
the subtle was separated off to the heights
and the base was grounded upon the wet sand.
The whole of the All was separated and suspended by Fire,
carried along by Spirit.

2.3
Then could be seen the heavens in seven circles,
and the gods, too, in their starry forms with their constellations,
each one perfectly realized, all filled with their own gods.
The boundary of the All was encompassed by Air,
carried along in its circular course by divine Spirit.

3.1
Then each god sent forth that which was assigned to them through their own power.
Thus came to be all the animals—walking, crawling, swimming, and flying—
and every sprouting seed, herb, and fresh shoot of every flower,
all having the seed of rebirth within themselves.

3.2
Then the gods cast the seeds for the generations of humanity so that they might
know the works of the Divine and witness the workings of Nature.
In this, the gods made the multitudes of humanity
so that they govern all things under Heaven and recognize that which is Good,
all to grow in growth and multiply in multitude.

3.3
And through all their heavenly courses,
the encycling gods created every human incarnate—every soul in flesh—
so that they might consider in contemplation
the sign-seeding acts of Heaven, the courses of the heavenly gods,
the works of the Divine, and the workings of Nature;
in doing this, the gods made humans—every soul in flesh—so that they might
mark the Good and learn the twisted, twisting happenings of divine Power.
For the gods made humans—every soul in flesh—so as to
know that which is Good and that which is not,
and discover the skillful arts of everything that is Good.

4.1
This is the beginning of the living and becoming wise of humanity,
according to the destiny of each,
each derived from the heavenly courses of the encycling gods.
This is the beginning, too, of their being released,
each leaving behind great memorials of their works upon the Earth.

4.2
Every generation of ensouled flesh,
every generation of sowing fruit,
every generation of every craftwork,
all that is done for the fame of humanity until time itself forgets them—
all that is diminished shall be renewed
by Necessity, by the renewal the gods themselves give,
and by the course of the measured measuring wheel of Nature.

4.3
For the Divine is the whole amalgam of the Cosmos renewed by Nature,
and Nature is found and founded in the Divine.

As you might well note, I made the stylistic choice of taking the same fourfold breakdown of the sections above, and broke each down into three subsections each, for a total of twelve “verses” or statements.  In this, it—if I may make such a claim—looks like it was written as something like the Emerald Tablet, and with that breakdown of twelve verses into four groups of three, the prospects of its use in a zodiacal or yearly devotional cycle could be rather nice.  It’s an innovative idea, at any rate, but certainly not meant to suggest about anything from the text itself or about its author.

With that, I’ll get started on actually taking a deeper look at the text for the sake of exegesis, using my literal translation primarily and backed up by what better translators than me have said.  Stay tuned for that!

The Difficulty of Centralizing the Way of Hermēs

I guess I should write a follow-up to that last post about the difficulty of coming up with a set of coherent principles for Hermet(ic)ism.  The main point I was trying to make was that coming up with a short set of overall principles for the Way of Hermēs is really difficult, despite the popularity of such a notion as spread by the Kybalion to make bite-sized pieces of philosophy and spirituality easy to digest.  There are lots of reasons for this, which I brought up in the last post, but the big one is that the notion of a principle is (as defined by Dictionary.com) “a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived”.  This sounds all well and good, and it’s reasonable that we should want and strive to come up with some Hermetic principles to arrange for the study of Hermet(ic)ism and the Hermetic canon, but the problem I kept running into was that everything seemed to be contradicted at one point or another by the very texts those principles are supposed to derive from and summarize.  This isn’t so much a problem of the principalizers as it is the things to be principled; it’s a known fact that the Hermetic texts are not consistent among themselves, even by their own admission, by the very nature of what it is they teach and how they go about teaching it.

First, why should we want principles?  As we mentioned earlier, we have a notion of κεφαλαὶα, “chapter headings” as it were, brief gnomic statements about doctrine which often serve as mnemonics and fundamental…well, principles that other Hermetic texts work on expounding.  There are two excellent sets of such statements at our disposal—the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius on the one hand and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment on the other—but there are about fifty such statements in each, and are often paradoxical, supremely terse and soaked with deeper meaning, and not exactly as memorable or catchy as the well-known (but faulty) “Seven Hermetic Principles” from the Kybalion.  To an extent, that really should be okay; as I’ve said before, the study of the Hermetic texts and of the Way of Hermēs generally is going to be a difficult process, just as the Hermetic texts themselves say, not because of how they’re written (through choice and style of translations can make it more difficult), but because of the very subject matter itself.  Even for those for whom the doors to the Way of Hermēs were built, the way is hard and long to walk.  To try to simplify everything into bite-sized things can be useful at times, but we should remember that a sugary snack is no replacement for a hearty meal.  Substituting a handful of Hermetic principles for the deeper lessons and lectures and logoi we should be studying and contemplating might be nice at times, but that’s not the same as actually doing the Work needed.  There’s a world of difference between a simple, high-level, abbreviated awareness of a concept, and fully understanding, comprehending, and grokking it, and the use of simple pithy principles does not help us accomplish that.  It might get us started, if at all, but simply remembering a pithy phrase is not the same thing as having actual wisdom to back it up.

But let’s say that we still want principles to write about, and let’s assume we have a good reason for their writing.  We still run into the problem of principles being contradicted by the very texts they’re supposed to be principles for; we still have the problem of a lack of consistency across the Hermetic canon for all but the broadest and highest-level of notions.  At that point, though, such statements would end up being neither particularly informative nor particularly helpful nor particularly distinct to Hermet(ic)ism.  This forces us to take a look at these contradictions and inconsistencies in the Hermetic texts, which forces us to realize that…well, Hermet(ic)ism isn’t just a single thing, not a single doctrine held by a single group, not a single practice implemented by a single temple, not a single lineage with a single source.  There are hints in the Hermetic texts of a variety of different views and standpoints, where the way the text is phrased suggests setting the specific author apart from the other views (sometimes as polemic, sometimes as correction, sometimes as an actual viewpoint held by other Hermetic groups, sometimes as views held by other traditions as incorrect views, sometimes a viewpoint made an example of without being seriously considered as being Hermetic):

  • A purely monist view of creation versus a dualist one.
  • A view of the cosmos that begins from a dualist standpoint to a monist one, versus one that begins from a monist standpoint to a dualist one.
  • Groups who proclaim direct descent from Hermēs through Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, and groups who proclaim indirect descent from Hermēs through Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
  • Monotheistic versus polytheistic stances on God or the demiurge.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of the demiurge as relating to corruption and vice in the world.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of asceticism and abstaining from sex and reproduction.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of making material offerings to divinity, and in specific contexts.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of using magic to rectify or change things in the cosmos.
  • A view that in reincarnation the human soul can reincarnate into animals versus one that prohibits such a view.
  • A view that God is capable of sensation and understanding in the world versus one that prohibits such a view.

We see a variety of these differences in different Hermetic texts, and not just the philosophical Hermetica, but the technical Hermetica, too, depending on the specific genre of text, the specific time period it was written in, the presence of the influence of specific other traditions, and the like.  We see this not just in classical Hermetic texts, but in pretty much other texts right up through into the modern day.  While some of these viewpoints were argued against as a point to make about what’s Hermetic and what’s not Hermetic, some of these were also argued against as a point to make about what’s good Hermet(ic)ism and what’s bad Hermet(ic)ism, and it’s not always clear which is which.  What we end up with is, frankly, a mess, but there is one clear answer that arises from it like shining Harpocratēs on the lotus from the mud: there is no one single Way of Hermēs, but a whole bunch of such ways.  What we end up with is that there is not one single Hermet(ic)ism; what we end up with is a set of texts that are a collection of a survival of loosely-affiliated Hermet(ic)isms that did not always agree on the finer points of doctrine and practice.

I suppose the drive to have the “one true Way” is as strong with me as it is with others, and has been since the dawn of Hermēs Trismegistus in this light.  I recall some snarky comment on (probably?) Reddit—I don’t remember who made it, just the basic gist of the comment—that people are going to argue over whatever they think is Hermeticism that day.  And I admit that I do that, too; heck, my recent rant about relabling myself as a Hermetist and leaving the Hermeticist label behind is myself telling on myself that I have my view on what constitutes the “real” Way of Hermēs.  But, then, so did the authors of the Hermetic canon themselves, though they all use the mask of Hermēs or one of his disciples to teach.  While this was the custom at the time, to be sure, to ascribe all good, approved, traditionally-sourced knowledge to the god who was the font of all suck knowledge, we also have to admit that it gives us a false sense of unity that quickly falls apart based on what we have available to us, both in how little we have as well as in how much we have.

In almost any real-world scenario, when we want to get from Point A to Point B, we often have many ways to choose from to accomplish such a trip.  Though some might consider the shortest, most direct path to be the “correct” one like on an IQ test, let’s be honest: the way you get there doesn’t so much matter so long as getting there is.  Whether you walk the most direct path on foot or drive a cart for a more scenic path or take the bus along a preplanned route, whether you go straight to your destination or hit up other destinations along the way, whether you like taking only left turns or avoid taking any left turn at all, so long as you get from Point A to Point B to accomplish what you originally set out to do, that’s what matters more in the end, so long as you end up making your destination.  While I can point out the distinctions and departures any particular Hermetic (or, in some cases, “Hermetic”, quotes intentional) path might depart from that described by (whatever chunks of the Hermetic canon are consistent amongst themselves), the fact that they take such a path from A to B for the same underlying reasons is good enough to claim the Hermetic title for themselves.  Sure, they might not be classically Hermetist in their approach and would rather take a more modern Hermeticist approach, but that’s still just one approach out of many under the broader umbrella of the Ways of Hermēs.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this with some sort of BS climax saying “yanno, maybe the Kybalion is alright in the end”, because it’s not; that’s still a New Thought text, not a Hermetic text except in cases of sheer coincidence where Atkinson took a break from lauding himself for sharing such “secret”, “ancient” knowledge out of the goodness of his heart to actually make a point about New Thought dolled up in faux-Hermetic drag.  (Quite the opposite, really, as we’ll get to eventually.) What I’m saying is that when it comes to the matter of coming up with principles for the Hermetic texts…maybe we’ve got it backwards, and that’s where we’re coming into problems.  That’s the distinction between the kephalaía statements and principles, because the kephalaía statements were the seeds of texts that had to be nourished to flourish into a beautiful garden, while here we are trying to make a jar of reduced jam from the fruit of such texts when not all such texts make compatible fruit.  Principles are supposed to be things from which we derive other truths, not to be merely summaries of existing ones.  Principles establish the guideposts and landmarks and directions to take on a given Way, but a difference in principles will set you up from a different Way than someone else who has different principles, even if both are derived from the same collection of texts.  This can’t really be avoided; without going through some super complex and arcane (and more than likely roughshod and ramshackle) effort to harmonize conflicting teachings on their surface (because all such teachings will be true at some point or another for some people and not others, all pointing the way towards a deeper truth of an ultimately ineffable Truth), you’re going to have to “pick sides” as it were.  This means that, although I call all these texts collectively “the Hermetic canon”, you’ve got to make a move here to say what’s really canonical or not.  A better term for all this is simply Hermetica, or Hermetic corpus (not to be confused with the Corpus Hermeticum), perhaps, with “Hermetic canon” being the specific texts one holds as consistent with each other and true or with elisions and explanations to deal with the things that aren’t consistent with the rest, but in the end, the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow.

Let me say that again: the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow—and, thus, the Way you’re planning to teach and guide others on, as well.  When you establish a set of principles, you end up making a new Way, whether you intend to or not, and that should only be done after great thought and deliberation in the process.  Otherwise, the Way you establish by means of those principles can be more dangerous, deceptive, repetitive, or misleading than you intend it to be.  In making canon, we use cannons; be careful where you aim, and be careful of collateral damage in the process.  I’m not saying that you can’t make a set of principles as guiding statements for (your preferred brand of) Hermet(ic)ism, but that you need to be supremely cautious that, in doing so, you don’t lose sight of where you’re coming from, where you’re heading to, how you’re getting there, and why you’re heading there at all, and that it all still looks, smells, and feels enough like other Ways of Hermēs to still be a Way of Hermēs itself.  After all, Hermēs is the god of all roads and all paths, and is the teacher of all students; he can teach you in any way, but only the way that is best for you.  If you’re going to take that role of Hermēs upon yourself for others, then you better know what you’re doing, because a faulty guide gets everyone lost.

I suppose this is one reason (out of many) for my own difficulty in trying to come up with “Hermetic principles”: I’m still learning, studying, and contemplating the classical Hermetic texts too much, and want to try to get at the deeper truth from all angles of each, to take a side just yet on any of them.  It’s why I don’t feel ready enough to make a judgment on the worthiness of any particular Hermetic text, at least within the bounds of that which was written up to and including the Emerald Tablet, after which my own interest in practice and belief wanes—again, a conscious choice I make on my part, and perhaps the only solid one I make regarding the broader notion of “Hermetic literature”, and which centers my view of Hermet(ic)ism on the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica, at least for the purpose of illustrating the overall Way as opposed to specific vehicles or directions to take on any given way, whether of Hermēs or otherwise.  It’s why I don’t feel at the proper point to proclaim what my recommend guideposts, landmarks, and directions on the Way of Hermēs should be, because I’m still figuring that out for myself and haven’t reached my destination yet to look back and see what can be said about the way I took to get there.  It’s why I like just pointing to Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum as my own sort of Hermetic “Heart Sutra” that I think should be the first Hermetic text one reads, because I feel that it’s a good summary of the Way of Hermēs as anything else without being too long, too obscure, or too challenging while also giving a good, high-level view of the Way that doesn’t have polemics against other quasi- or non-Hermetic ideas and which doesn’t have polemics against it elsewhere in the Hermetic canon.  In this, I suppose that Book III, “the Sacred Discourse of Hermēs”, is my preferred bedrock of the Hermetic life—and thus provides a ready, premade set of principles of its own.  (In addition to the kephalaía of the Definitions and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, of course.)

Not to overplay the song of the target of my disdain too much, but this matter of principles is fundamentally the substantial reason why I consider the Kybalion to not be Hermetic, in addition to its non-Hermetic origin.  Not only do the “Seven Hermetic Principles” not appear in any legitimate Hermetic text (classical or otherwise), but they all point to aspects of doctrine, none of which are written in a way that makes sense in the original contexts of Hermetic literature, and none of which are particularly Hermetic even when they aren’t outright contradicted by Hermetic texts, all without actually setting a goal or purpose.  In that, the Kybalion can be considered no more than that one miscellany drawer we all have at our desk or in our kitchen full of trash and knickknacks; some might be able to turn it into a toolbox of miscellaneous (and poorly-made, vague, undefined, indefinite) tools, but without any clear purpose for what those tools can be used for besides feel-good solipsistic “The Secret”-esque navel-gazing.  This is direct contrast to the ultimate goals of the Way of Hermēs, said in no uncertain terms from the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and Stobaean Fragments (SH):

  • To show devotion (SH IIb.2)
  • To join reverence with knowledge (CH VI.5)
  • To not be evil (CH XII.23)
  • To enter into God so as to become God (CH I.26)

I refrain from calling these “principles” because, while these are all things that aren’t contradicted by other parts of the Hermetic canon, I’m not sure that these are sufficient to serve as axioms or declarations of truth from which other concepts can derive.  I’m not saying that this is all that there is along these lines, either, but these are sufficient to illustrate what the whole point of Hermet(ic)ism is about.  Thus, they point to a destination, an incontrovertibly Hermetic one in the truest sense as being part of the entire Hermetic literature—if not perhaps more than a little vague—but a destination, all the same, which is nowhere found in the Kybalion.  Can one use the Kybalion in a Hermetic fashion?  Sure, but that’s because of you, not because of the book, and so that’s you making the book a Hermetic aid, not the book being Hermetic in and of itself.  This is also why I center the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica to illustrate the Way of Hermēs, because the technical Hermetica can be used in non-Hermetic contexts and can be used in ways contrary to these statements; in this light, the Kybalion can be considered a sort of abstract technical text with quasi-philosophical elements, but that still doesn’t make it Hermetic.

Again, without calling these four statements “principles”, it is (in addition to a notion of being revealed by Hermēs Trismegistus for the sake of the well-being of humanity and their spiritual rejoining with God) a way to gauge how Hermetic something really is based on its claims, philosophies, theology, and practices.  And, barring other polemics, I think maybe these four statements can help us remember the goal that all of us who follow one of the myriad Ways of Hermēs work towards, and which can unite us all in singular purpose.  The specific roads might differ, but so long as we get to the same place in the end, there’s nothing truly wrong about it.

The Difficulty of Principalizing the Way of Hermēs

In my downtime between chores, ritual work, office work (done at home as it is), I’ve been mulling over a lot lately and quietly when it comes to talking about the Way of Hermēs, which is my preferred way to call what many are more familiar with as Hermeticism, or Hermetism, to be more exact.  And I feel…honestly, I feel pretty daunted about this particular topic, not just because of the extreme breadth and depth of it all, but because of how difficult it can be to correlate everything together in a neat, clean, organized way.

Not too long ago, Nick Farrell made a blog post called The Real Hermetic Principles, which is his attempt to come up with a set of guiding principles or axioms about the cosmos and the spiritual practices that evolve from them to replace what people popularly (and wrongly) consider to  be the “Seven Hermetic Principles” as found in the Kybalion (and nowhere else in the Hermetic canon, I might add).  I applaud Nick’s effort, though I take issue with a few of these principles of his, especially his principle #5, that “the macrocosm and microcosm influence each other (as above so below); the planetary spheres are a Microcosm of the Divine Sphere and Nature is a microcosm for the planetary macrocosm”.  The notion of “as above, so below” comes from the Emerald Tablet, which (most likely) postdates the rest of the classical Hermetic corpus (Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, etc.) by a few centuries, and although the idea seems reasonable, there are plenty of counterpoints made in the Hermetic canon that refute this notion of both influencing the other, where the higher influences the lower but the lower does not influence the higher in the same way.  They can resemble each other, sure, but resemblance is not the same thing as influence.  I’m not saying that one can’t use the notion of “as above, so below” as a Hermetic concept in some way, but doing so requires care in order to keep continuity and coherence with the rest of actual extant Hermetic belief.

But therein lies a problem: although I treat the “Hermetic canon” as one set of literature equivalent to a Bible of sorts, it’s important to realize what these texts are and are not, what they do and do not do.  And one thing the Hermetic canon isn’t is consistent.  I mean, consider the opening paragraph of Book XVI of the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation), in a letter from Asclepius to Ammon:

I have sent you a long discourse, my king, as a sort of reminder or summary of all the others; it is not meant to agree with vulgar opinion but contains much to refute it. That it contradicts even some of my own discourses will be apparent to you. My teacher, Hermes—often speaking to me in private, sometimes in the presence of Tat—used to say that those reading my books would find their organization very simple and clear when, on the contrary, it is unclear and keeps the meaning of its words concealed…

It’s easy to just read the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, and so forth and so on, but without actual meditation, unpacking, and contemplation of the texts, they’ll simply seem like some sort of classical pop occulture.  After all, our notion of “intellectual understanding” is not a classical one; to the ancients, the notion of “intellect” was something much more profound and all-encompassing than a mere surface-level, quasi-Apollonian awareness of something.  And when one looks at a single Hermetic text in isolation, like a single book of the Corpus Hermeticum or a single Stobaean Fragment, all is well and good, but when one starts to look at the broader picture, we run into difficulties with inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes that make trying to hold all of the Hermetic canon in our minds at the same time impossible.

There are a few major things to bear in mind when we read the Hermetic texts:

  1. What we have as our Hermetic canon is only that which survived the cruel knife of history.  We know for a fact that there was much more Hermetic literature written and produced in classical times than what we have nowadays, and we know that what we have is only what survives, and even then not always in a complete form.  While hopefully further classical Hermetic literature will come to light, either in part or in whole, we have to be aware that we’ll likely never have access to all the texts that we find references to otherwise.
  2. There wasn’t one single Hermetic school or lineage.  Although there’s much in common between all the Hermetic texts, there’s evidence in the very texts themselves of different Hermetic groups that contributed bits and pieces to the Hermetic canon, and evidence as well of polemics and debates and disagreements between those groups.  Just as in other things, there was no monolithic, centralized authority on what was or was not Hermetic back in the day.
  3. Even if we were to take the Hermetic canon as a more-or-less continuous single “thing”, we still run into the fact that we see some major difficulties even on a pretty fundamental level, such as the goodness or badness of the cosmos.  Modern scholars of Hermetic works, such as Garth Fowden or Christian Bull, posit that these inconsistencies point to the notion of the Way of Hermēs as a progressive thing, either going from a monist to dualist viewpoint (Fowden’s theory) or a dualist to monist one (Bull’s theory).

What we end up with is a notion that the Hermetic texts are not a single thing, even though there’s plenty in common in underlying thought between these texts, because the whole of the Hermetic tradition (even limiting ourselves to a classical Hermetist stance) isn’t a single, static thing.  There’s a reason why I call this the “Way of Hermēs”, because it really is a way, a process towards divinity.  This isn’t a single philosophy or a single religion, but something more like a meta-philosophy or meta-religion, something that goes on at a different level either behind the scenes or beyond the outward practice of discourse and cult.  What we have as the Hermetic texts, most of which is representative of back-and-forth dialog between master and student, are more indicative of an ongoing upraising (both in the conventional sense as well as the metaphorical sense), and because of that, we have to understand that not everyone is going to be ready for the same notions or ideas at the same time.  A single “Hermetic catechism” that lays it all out bare would seem to go against this notion, because not everyone would be able to understand it all, and need to go through a process of expounding and understanding (a very old school form of “solve et coagula”) in order to get there.

For instance, consider Fowden’s and Bull’s theories on dualistic versus monistic Hermetic beliefs.  It’s a fact that some of the Hermetic texts seem to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of the world of creation we live in, seeing it as worthy of veneration and adoration, while others consider it in a more gnostic light of it being evil and something to be shunned and departed from.  Fowden posits that the Way of Hermēs begins with a monistic stance that proceeds to a dualist one, while Bull has it the other way around.  From Christian Bull’s paper Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism (Aries (15), 2015, pp.109—135):

Another central question in the scholarship on Hermetism regards the internal doctrinal consistency between the various treatises ascribed to Hermes and his disciples; to wit, a reader of the Hermetica in toto faces conflicting injunctions as to how one should view the world and one’s place in it. Early scholars such as Thaddeus Zielinski and Wilhelm Bousset maintained that there were two main groups of texts, containing mutually exclusive teachings: the “Gnostic”, dualistic, and pessimistic texts, and, on the other hand, the “philosophical”, monistic, and optimistic texts (while a third set of texts mixed the two tendencies). This distinction was further elaborated by perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential scholar of Hermetism, André-Jean Festugière. However, the theory has been challenged in the last three decades by Garth Fowden and Jean-Pierre Mahé, who both consider the different texts to belong to various stages on a cohesive “Way of Hermes”, an initiatory way of spiritual formation. In the view of both of these authors, this way would lead the candidate from initially seeing the cosmos as good, an image of god, and then progressively develop a more negative view on matter, the body, and the world, ostensibly no longer important for the upward journey of the soul. This theory of a way of Hermes has so far not been seriously challenged, although Tage Petersen questioned the usability of the term dualism for the texts commonly so-called, and instead postulated an overriding monistic tendency even in these texts. For my own part, I have suggested that the way in fact moves from a pedagogical dualism, in which the disciple is taught to alienate himself from the body and the world, so as to be able to achieve visionary experiences on the higher stages of the way, at which point the value of the body and the world is reaffirmed.

In this way, I think the notion of a progressive Way is useful to understand what Hermet(ic)ism “is”, and not just for this monist/dualist bit, but for much else as well.  It’s like the Buddhist parable of the raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta combined with the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra, in that we need to use and phrase things the right way for the right person for them to develop the right way, but only when it’s right for them; any earlier, and we might not lead them or develop them in the right way (or even do harm), but any later and the value of it will be diminished or pointless having already served its purpose.  This is much like what Asclepius tells Ammon in his letter from Book XVI: “earlier I taught this, but what I’m about to tell you now is going to contradict that”, because at this point, Ammon is ready to be revealed a deeper truth that couldn’t be contained in the earlier teachings.  In other words, while general truths can be taught in general teachings, more nuanced and subtle truths cannot.  It’s like learning physics: introductory physics uses simple models that account for things in an ideal sense, but more advanced and applied physics often require different models that would go against the simpler ones to account for more meaningful or profound contexts.

All this to say that trying to think of Hermet(ic)ism, the Way of Hermēs, in terms of a handful of “principles” is surprisingly really hard to do.

Now, I’m not saying it can’t be done, and there’s already a historical parallel for this, even in the Hermetic texts themselves: that of the κεφαλαία kephalaía, the “chief points” (sometimes translated as “principles”).  We see this most clearly in the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius (as given in English by J.P. Mahé in Clement Salaman’s Way of Hermēs and which I expounded on on my blog years ago) as well as in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, but all of these are rather long lists of gnomic, sometimes paradoxical statements.  The purpose of these kephalaía are to act as the “chapter headings”, as it were, of other discourses, the fundamental points that would need to be borne in mind in the context of other talks or topics, and each of which would be expounded in other discourses and lessons.  In many cases, many of these kephalaía are found in extant discourses (especially the Definitions), and suggests that they’re of an older date than the later Hermetic texts, with those texts written to expound on (or at least reference) those given kephalaía.  So it’s not like it has always been impossible to come up with a set of principles or axioms to bear in mind when it comes to Hermetic studies, but with about 50 such statements made each in the Definitions and in the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, they’re not going to be as catchy or as memorable necessarily as the Kybalion’s made-up stuff.

Going back to that Christian Bull paper I linked to earlier, Bull brings up another perspective: six “central elements of esotericism” present in the Hermetic canon.  These are based on the work of the earlier scholar Antoine Faivre, who studied the various currents of Western esotericism after the 1400s CE to provide a set of themes that various Western esoteric traditions fulfill.  In a Hermetic context, only the first four are truly necessary, with the latter two being supplied as additional elements which

  1. Correspondence: everything is mystically connected, with the divine Above represented through symbols as well as emanations into the worldly Below.
  2. Living Nature: nature is animated by a central force that can be tapped into through sympathies found in the occult/hidden virtues of things and works in the world.
  3. Imagination and Mediation: the student imagines with their mind (Nous) the forces that connect the cosmos, and such imagined symbols can be used to mediate between the student, nature, and divinity, and thereby to become divine.
  4. Transmutation (Rebirth): the inner being of the student is transmuted (reborn) through rites of initiation and/or esoteric knowledge, estranging themselves from the world and the life they have known to be reborn as something new to properly “live in the world without being a part of it”, a sort of “solve et coagula” of the soul and whole of the human being.
  5. Concordance: there is a common core to all religions derived from the perennial philosophy or prisca theologica, present in all humanity due to their divine element (Logos), but which can only be fully realized through following the Way of Hermēs (by means of the Nous).  We see this in the syncretic background blending Greek and Egyptian elements with other input from other traditions, giving Hermet(ic)ism that whole “meta” quality of both religion and philosophy.
  6. Transmission: esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple in a chain going back to an authoritative source, providing a sense of continuity that allows for future generations to have the same mysteries as older generations.

There are issues with this use of principalization leading to reification of esotericism, of which Hermet(ic)ism is just one example and emanation, which Bull goes on to discuss at length.  Still, using Faivre’s model of esotericism isn’t a bad start to think of the Way of Hermēs so long as one can also understand their proper place and context.  Bull is more a fan of Hugh B. Urban’s notion of three principles that can be seen to better understand the phenomena of esotericism, instead:

  1. The creation of a private social space
  2. The claim to possess deeper insights into canonical texts than outsiders
  3. Rites of initiation designed to create a new human being, which is a prerequisite to gain access to the social space and deeper insights

For the sake of understanding what Hermet(ic)ism is, Bull prefers Urban’s model of three principles over Faivre’s model of six principles because of the difference in what they focus on: Faivre focuses on matters of doctrine, while Urban focuses on matters of strategy.  And it’s this distinction that makes all the difference between viewing Hermet(ic)ism as a destination versus as a path:

Widely dissimilar doctrines can be used as part of similar social strategies, which therefore have a more universal, cross-culturally comparative potential. By considering esotericism as a strategy for a group and its members to gain social prestige we can come closer to the lived reality of the humans behind the texts, instead of becoming lost in their (often convoluted) metaphysical speculations. This is especially so in the case of the Hermetica, where the actual authors have totally disappeared behind the pseudonym of Hermes Trismegistus and his associates; since we have little external evidence of the lived reality of Hermetism, we must try to deduce it from the social strategies we perceive to be at work in the texts.

The issue with this approach, however, is that unless you’re in an actual lodge or circle or some other thing, that first point is basically moot for us; many of us (especially me) discuss Hermet(ic)ism openly without such a secret, esoteric, restricted group to teach things in, and are largely independent of one another as individuals.  To be sure, this is far from being the case across the board, and there are definitely Hermetist/Hermeticist teachers who take people and initiate them and teach them as needed and as appropriate, but perhaps not so widely on the same level as it might have been back in classical times (or even a hundred or so years ago).  As a result, matters and rites of initiation, except for the few Golden Dawn and Thelemic lodges that survive, don’t mean much unless you’re just focused on your own personal growth and development, and that doesn’t necessarily come about through a single big ritual (and even then, a Way is still composed not only of opening the door but taking many small steps afterward, as well).

Trying to sift and sort out the issues in doctrine, as Bull pointed out, is a major problem for anyone who wants to try to “principalize” Hermet(ic)ism, because there’s rarely a unity of doctrine that one can neatly summarize without also needing to immediately get into the weeds to clarify when those principles hold and when not.  Some super high-level stuff can be said, sure, like Garth Fowden’s summary of the doctrines of the cosmos in The Egyptian Hermes:

God is one, and the creator of all things, which continue to depend on God as elements in a hierarchy of beings. Second in this hierarchy after God himself comes the intelligible world, and then the sensible world. The creative and beneficent powers of God flow through the intelligible and sensible realms to the sun, which is the demiurge around which revolve the eight spheres of the fixed stars, the planets and the earth. From these spheres depend the daemons, and from the daemons Man, who is a microcosm of creation. Thus everything is part of God, and God is in everything, his creative activity continuing unceasingly. All things are one and the pleroma of being is indestructible.

This sounds all extremely reasonable, at least until when you consider some of the Stobaean Fragments which say in no uncertain terms that “once [God] created, ceased creating, and does not create at present” (SH V.1), that there’s the ninth sphere of the decans underneath a tenth (and outermost) sphere of the Primum Mobile which exerts influence and power on all the planets including the Sun (SH VI.3—9), and so forth.  Again, we run into issues of doctrine, which could result either from working from the ideas of different Hermetic groups that may not have seen eye-to-eye on these matters, or from trying to figure out when it’s proper to actually bring up or teach about the decans and how important they really are.  Again, a general idea can be stated as an all-around principle, so long as there are plenty of asterisks to mark it with for exceptions and edge cases.

Maybe I’m just letting perfect be the enemy of the good here, and maybe I’ve lost sight of the importance of beginner’s models that are a lie but useful ones to get started with.  After all, nobody starts off in a physics 101 course trying to account for every possible variable and fluctuation, but they start with simple models with only a few terms to get an idea of the simplest base case first, and it’s only once those are fully understood is further complexity introduced.  But I also feel like that undermines the whole notion of what a principle is, a statement of truth that can guide and lead us in our ways, in the Way.  Maybe, then, it’s improper to make principles about doctrine based on the Hermetic texts, and perhaps then it’d be better to make principles about practice instead. And even then, perhaps that, too, is too changeable and changing in order to say anything concrete about.  But, I mean…if the ancients could make kephalaía-type statements about individual bits or bobs of Hermetic ideas and practice, why does it seem so hard to make one big kephálaios for it all?  There is the whole of Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum that I like, but even then…hm.  Even the Emerald Tablet, which is getting to be a bit late in the game to be representative of Hermetism (after all, “as above, so below” appears nowhere in the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, Stobaean Fragments, Definitions, or other classical Hermetic texts, although similar more nuanced notions do crop up), seems too obscure and metaphorical to offer much in the way of concrete, clear principles.

More to think about, to be sure, and this is something I want to keep mulling over.  I mean, it really is the work and mark of a true master to simplify something, and I’m far from a master in this; between needing more study, meditation, and contemplation and needing more just outright experience, it’s clear even to myself that I’m not sure what a set of reasonable principles should look like, if anything at all.  If nothing else, this is where we can see the whole Hermēs-as-god influence comes in, both as guide and as trickster, ever-shifting and ever-flowing, always leading to truth in the essence without necessarily being true in the instant.