The Mixing-Bowl of Mind

The usual way I’ve seen to refer to a particular book and section of the Corpus Hermeticum is CH A.B, with “A” being the book number in Roman numerals and B being a section of that book in Arabic numerals (such that CH X.15 is section 15 of the tenth book of the Corpus Hermeticum).  It’s a system I like using to cite particular extracts of Hermetic doctrine from the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Stobaean Fragments (SH), the Definitions of Hermēs to Asclepius (DH), and other Hermetic texts, but I should also note that a number of the various books of the Corpus Hermeticum sometimes have a title of their own.  CH I, for instance, is often called “Poimandrēs” (which is why Marsilio Ficino entitled his entire translation of the Corpus Hermeticum “The Divine Pymander”, though that’s like calling the entirety of the Old Testament “The Book of Geneisis”), CH X is called “The Key”, CH III is called “The Sacred Sermon”, and so forth.

CH IV, specifically, is called “The Mixing-Bowl”.  It’s also sometimes called just “(A Discourse of) Hermēs to Tat” or “The Monad”,  with the former indicating that this is a dialogue between Hermēs and Tat and the latter bringing up the discussion of the Monad at the end of the book, but it gets the name “Mixing-Bowl” from the dialogue in CH IV.3—6 in a discussion about Mind (Νους) (Copenhaver translation, here and below):

“God shared reason among all people, O Tat, but not mind, though he begrudged it to none. Grudging envy comes not from on high; it forms below in the souls of people who do not possess mind.”

“For what reason, then, did god not share mind with all of them, my father?”

“He wanted it put between souls, my child, as a prize for them to contest.”

“And where did he put it?”

“He filled a great mixing bowl with it and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: ‘Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.’  All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind participated in knowledge and became perfect people because they received mind.

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes.

“But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal if one compares their deeds, for in a mind of their own they have comprehended all—things on earth, things in heaven and even what lies beyond heaven. Having raised themselves so far, they have seen the good and, having seen it, they have come to regard the wasting of time here below as a calamity. They have scorned every corporeal and incorporeal thing, and they hasten toward the one and only.

“This, Tat, is the way to learn about mind, to {resolve perplexities} in divinity and to understand god. For the mixing bowl is divine.”

This is an interesting metaphor Hermēs decided to use, and it’s one that’s given me some pause for thought.  Some scholars interpret this notion of “immersing yourself in the mixing-bowl of Mind” to be evidence of a ritual baptism practiced among the classical Hermeticists, but not everyone buys it.  I like the idea of it, but it’s not a lot of evidence to go on to indicate that baptism was actually a thing for the followers of Hermēs.  One might draw parallels to early forms of Christian baptism or Jewish tvilah upon which Christian baptism was based which, given the influence Judaism had on the early development of Hermeticism, isn’t too far a stretch, but there’s little else to go on besides this reference to immersion.  Neither CH XIII, which is Tat’s rebirth and initiation into the Hymns of Silence, nor “Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth”, which is another story of Tat’s initiation and elevation into the higher spheres of the cosmos, bring up a notion of baptism or ritual immersion, and those are our strongest texts indicating such ritual works performed by the early Hermeticists from the Hermetic corpora themselves.  It’s an idea I don’t not like, at any rate, though one with not a lot of firm foundation to stand upon.

What strikes me more oddly is the use of the word “mixing-bowl” (κρατήρ).  There were obviously words for “basins” or “fonts” or “pools” or “baths” in Koiné Greek, but this text specifically uses “mixing-bowl”.  It’s not like a mixing bowl one might use for cooking, though; a kratēr was a specific type of large vessel used in Greek sumposia for mixing wine that was to be served.  A Greek sumposion (or symposium, as we’d better know it in its Latin form) was a kind of formal drinking party and a key institution to Hellenic civilization for men, sometimes to revel, sometimes to discuss and debate, sometimes to initiate boys into adulthood.  Sometimes there was entertainment, sometimes philosophy, sometimes orgiastic mystery rites reserved for initiates, but every symposium had two things in common: a kratēr—the mixing-bowl in question—and a symposiarch who oversaw its use.  The symposiarch, the “leader of the symposium”, was basically the master of ceremonies and director of the symposium, ordaining what was to be the order of the event, what sorts of activities were to be engaged in, and (most importantly) decided how strong the wine was to be.  This last aspect was the crucial and fundamental job of the symposiarch.

Wine back in ancient times was most likely different from our times, and was probably much stronger (though not necessarily fortified), so while we nowadays would just drink wine straight from the bottle, drinking undiluted wine back in ancient times was seen as a massive error in behavior, and something that was suited only for barbarians and those who were drunkards to the point of insanity.  Wine was to be diluted to an acceptable strength, and determining the proper dilution for a symposium was the symposiarch’s job.  For a more relaxed, philosophical time, the wine would be diluted to a 1:3 ratio of wine to water; for a more pleasurable and entertaining time, 1:2; for the rare orgiastic rites and revelries, 1:1.  With the wine diluted to the appropriate level, the symposiarch would send his servants or slaves around with pitchers filled from the kratēr to serve the attendees.  Wine was not drunk from the kratēr directly, because this is a pretty massive vessel we’re talking about, like a mega-punchbowl ranging from 14″ to 22″ in height, and wouldn’t have been able to easily be transported when full (if at all).  It’s this notion of the kratēr that Dionysos brings up regarding how much is proper to drink at such events from Eubulos’ Semēlē:

For sensible men I prepare only three kratērs: one for health which they drink first, the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth kratēr is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.

This instrument of symposia, the kratēr, is what Hermēs describes as God having filled with Mind for people.  The use of the image of the kratēr should not be overlooked or misconstrued as just a regular bowl or basin, for which other words exist, especially for the purposes of ablution or purification (like the word χερνιβεῖον khernibeîon used for the usual lustral water outside temples, aka khernips).  This isn’t a mere matter of purification going on here; something else is happening in this passage Hermēs is trying to describe.

Let’s back up fist a bit and consider the notion of the symposium again.  CH IV, like all of the Corpus Hermeticum, is a philosophical text, so it assumes a philosophical outlook, context, set, and setting; a symposium of the Corpus Hermeticum would be more like Plato’s Symposium rather than just a simple college party, especially when there’s plenty of negative references to and metaphors of (common especially in gnostic texts and traditions) people being drunk and sick from inebriation (like from CH VII.1, which I discussed not too long ago).  A Hermetic symposium would be one where the symposiarch would likely dilute the wine rather well, and would gather people together for an intellectual time rather than one for the sake of mere entertainment.  But there are always those who go out to any event for the sake of having fun and being social, regardless of what the wishes of the host are; some people host parties for a purpose, but some people attend such parties for the sake of partying regardless of the purpose itself, like that one uncle who shows up to their nephew’s third birthday party with a keg of beer.  Now, bearing that notion in mind, consider what Hermēs says about people of Mind versus people of Reason:

“But those who missed the point of the proclamation are people of reason because they did not receive (the gift of) mind as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be.  These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes…”

At a Hermetic symposium, the people of Reason are like those who show up just to drink and have fun, who ignore the symposiarch’s wishes for a philosophical time to use the wine provided for conversation (“they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired”) and instead just drink the wine to drink wine and get drunk; they “divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies”, and in believing “that mankind came to be for such purposes”, it’s like seeing any such social event as a party to which they go just for the sake of partying.  It’s the people of Mind, rather, who participate in the symposium for the proper ends and using the means provided properly instead of improperly; they “participated in knowledge” because they “received mind”.  Mind is the drink provided, and those who use Mind appropriately and let it absorb into their being instead of letting it simply pass through them in the mouth and out the urethra is what enables them to become “perfect people”.

But Mind isn’t just the thing being drunk; no, God set the kratēr of Mind for those who could to immerse themselves within it.  God has provided Mind to fill the kratēr, but a kratēr is used to mix things together, not just to have something there as it is.  While some would interpret this immersion in the kratēr of Mind to be more like a baptism, in which one is purified and from which one is reborn, the more obvious idea here is staring at us in the face: we’re the things to be mixed with Mind.  God is the symposiarch, and we are that which is mixed with Mind.  Earlier, I might have said that Mind would be wine, but…thinking about it, I think that we ourselves are the wine, and Mind is the water that dilutes it.  After all, drinking unmixed wine, or ἄκρατος akratos, was considered to be (and to lead to) insanity.  Is that not a perfect metaphor for what Hermēs is trying to save us from?  In CH VII.1, he calls out to people to save them (my emphasis, Greek from Festugière/Nock given first to show the original wording):

Ποῖ φέρεσθε, ὧ ἄνθρωποι, μεθύοντεσ, τὸν τῆς ἀγνωσίας ἄκρατον λόγον ἐκπιόντες, δ’ν οὐδὲ φέρειν δύνασθε, ἀλλ’ ἤδη αὐτὸν καὶ ἐμεῖτε;

Where are you heading in your drunkenness, you people? Have you swallowed the doctrine of ignorance undiluted, vomiting it up already because you cannot hold it? Stop and sober yourselves up!

And in CH I.27—29, when Hermēs begins his kergyma (“you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness…”) and teaching to the people after being told by Poimandrēs to guide and save the human race (emphasis 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.

The mixing-bowl is not for the purpose of diluting Mind, but for the purpose of diluting us with Mind.  We are the unmixed wine of insanity and ignorance, that dark liquid that cannot be seen through and which keeps one drunk in ignorance and insanity; as CH I.20 would put it, this is “the hateful darkness, from which comes the watery nature, from which the body was constituted in the sensible cosmos, from which Death drinks”.  And it is God who wishes for us to be diluted and elevated with the “ambrosial water” of everlasting and eternal life, provided by Mind and knowledge.  In diluting wine, the wine becomes palatable and healthful, and impurities in the wine are washed away so that the goodness of wine shows through.  This is why not everyone’s “heart has the strength”, why not everyone “believes that you will rise up again”; those who are mired in their own ignorance do not wish to be diluted, do not wished to be washed out, just as a party-goer deep in their cups will forego a refreshing glass of water for another glass of booze to keep the buzz going, but those who see and recognize the ignorance and darkness in them and wish to be made into a clearer and better form will admit the necessity of diluting the wine with water.

With us being the wine to be diluted, so long as we enter into the mixing-bowl of God, God will dilute us with the water of Mind as we need to be.  The only thing we really lose in the process is our ignorance and insanity; by us (or, perhaps better, our souls) being mixed with Mind, we cease becoming insane and causing insanity, and instead “participate in knowledge” (γνώσεωςi.e. gnōsis).  Those who undergo this mixing and dilution become “perfect people”, and in so doing, we become the drink of life itself, and so participate in ourselves with ourselves.  This is, perhaps, a difficult thing to explain, and maybe it’s just the metaphor of the mixing-bowl and symposium breaking down here, but I am reminded of the exclamation of Tat in the process of his rebirth from CH XIII.11—13:

Since god has made me tranquil, father, I no longer picture things with the sight of my eyes but with the mental energy that comes through the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in animals and in plants; in the womb, before the womb, after the womb; everywhere…

Father, I see the universe and I see myself in mind.

Tat, in the process of his rebirth, no longer sees himself as merely apart from or within the cosmos; he witness himself as the cosmos and within it.  More than that, he sees himself “in Mind”.  I’m also reminded of how Hermēs tells Asclepius in CH X.12 that:

A human soul is carried in this way: the mind is in the reason; the reason is in the soul; the soul is in the spirit; the spirit, passing through veins and arteries and blood, moves the living thing and, in a manner of speaking, bears it up.

And later on in CH X.19:

The human soul—not every soul, that is, but only the reverent—is in a sense demonic and divine. Such a soul becomes wholly mind after getting free of the body and fighting the fight of reverence. (Knowing the divine and doing wrong to no person is the fight of reverence.) The irreverent soul, however, stays in its own essence, punishing itself, seeking an earthy body to enter…

The human entity consists of Reason (λόγος), yes, which all people have, but Mind (νους) is mixed with this for those who can.  Those who have Mind in their souls mixed with Reason will, in the process of their spiritual progression along the Way, eventually become entirely Mind, and as such, as Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in CH I.26, “enter into God[; for] this is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made God”.  This requires us to dilute ourselves with the water of Mind in the mixing-bowl from CH IV, which, as the long night of the symposium of our earthly incarnation continues, should progress so that only the water of Mind is left, and none of the wine of our bodily selves remain.  The people of Reason, however, devoid of Mind, do not wish for this to happen due to their ignorance, and instead “stay in their own essence”, remaining undiluted and continuing in their life of ignorance, “willful and angry” (as one might be from having drunk unmixed wine, or just drinking too much wine at all, per Dionysos’ disavowal of the fourth kratēr and beyond).

This all makes the following sections of CH IV.6—7 make so much more sense to me.  Most people interpret this as a straightforward world-denying body-hating section, but in light of the notion of dilution…well, read for yourself:

“I too wish to be immersed, my father.”

“Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.”

“What do you mean by this, father?”

“My child, it is impossible to be engaged in both realms, the mortal and the divine. Since there are two kinds of entities, corporeal and incorporeal, corresponding to mortal and divine, one is left to choose one or the other, if choice is desired. One cannot {have both together when one is left to choose}, but lessening the one reveals the activity of the other.

“Choosing the stronger, then [ ], not only has splendid consequences for the one who chooses—in that it makes the human into a god—but it also shows reverence toward god. On the other hand, choosing the lesser has been mankind’s destruction, though it was no offence to god, with this single reservation: just as processions passing by in public cannot achieve anything of themselves, though they can be a hindrance to others, in the same way these people are only parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body.”

Ignorance and death is the unmixed wine, while knowledge (from Mind) and life is the water that dilutes it in the mixing-bowl.  Hone in, specifically, on the statement “lessening the one reveals the activity of the other”: by diluting the wine, the water begins to come to the fore.  As we begin the process of moving from a focus in living from the corporeal to the incorporeal, the wine of our ignorance and death becomes further diluted, until eventually there is no wine left, only the water of Mind.  Doing this admits that the undiluted wine of ignorance we possess cannot remain as such; we cannot love being so undiluted, but instead must seek to destroy that state through dilution (“unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind”).  Those who insist on remaining undiluted in their ignorance, however, ignore the importance of the incorporeal, of Mind and knowledge and God, and continue in their own destruction, and in so doing, cause a “hindrance to others…parading through the cosmos, led astray by pleasures of the body” as one would in a reckless and drunken revel.

Something still bothers me about all this, though.  When Tat asks Hermēs why God did not share Mind with all people from the get-go, Hermēs responds that God “wanted it put between souls…as a prize for them to contest” (ἠθέλησεν, ὧ τέκνον, τοῦτον ἐν μέσῳ ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὥσπερ ἄθλον ἱδρῦσθαι with a rough translation of “he willed, my son, this in the midst of these souls just as a prize of contest to be found”).  This notion of “contest” for one to strive towards is a weird one, but it’s not wholly unfamiliar; there is a notion of intentful striving throughout the corpora Hermetica that leads to divinity: CH I.21 has Poimandrēs telling Hermēs that “if you learn you are from light and life and that you happen to come from them, you shall advance to life once again”, after recounting God’s counsel to all of creation in CH I.18 that “let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists”.  I interpret this notion of a “prize for a contest” to mean that we are not necessarily striving against one another, though it may feel that way, but it’s more of our souls striving against our bodies, the divine and immortal part of ourselves striving against the corporeal and mortal part of ourselves.    I suppose one could make a game of it with others, of course, which would be appropriate at a symposium, and depending on how long the symposium of God goes on, more and more wine will need to be drawn upon and mixed one way or another so that everyone, in the end, gets mixed with the water of Mind.  I’m not entirely settled on the meaning of the wording of this, and I think this part is definitely worthy of more contemplation and consideration.

Likewise, Hermēs mentions that God appointed “a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts” regarding immersing ourselves in the mixing-bowl.  Who or what might this herald be?  Given Hermēs’ commission from Poimandrēs to teach and guide humanity so that they might be saved, he may well be referencing himself, but there is also the possibility of this being one of the personified forces of the cosmos, of which there are no small number: Providence, Necessity, and Fate have been personified at times in the Stobaean Fragments, and SH XXVI.3 (from the last part of the Korē Kosmou excerpts) mentions that Providence has “two ministers”: a Steward of Souls and an Escort of Souls.  We also shouldn’t forget Poimandrēs himself, of course, too, an emanation from Mind who (depending on your perspective and analysis of the name) could be Ra, Thoth, or the XIIth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III (I swear at least one scholar thinks this).  Whether this herald is a cosmic entity or not, whether it’s an oblique reference by Hermēs to himself or not, the identity of the herald isn’t the focus of this book from the Corpus Hermeticum, and it’s certainly less important than the fact that a message was given to humanity: “immerse yourselves in the mixing-bowl if your heart has the strength”.  Fittingly, this message does bear much in similarity with what Hermēs calls out to people in CH I.27—29 and in CH VII, but that alone doesn’t make this particular topic particularly clear, either.

At any rate, Hermēs goes on to say in CH IV.9 that “knowledge is not a beginning of the good, but it furnishes us the beginning of the good that will be known”.  If knowledge is produced from Mind, and our immersion in the mixing-bowl and our first dilution with the water of Mind is just the start of it all on our way to become wholly Mind (as in CH X.19), then this is just the beginning of a long party, indeed.  But even if the Way is long, we won’t be thirsty along the way, so long as we keep listening to and following the Leader who keeps us nourished with what is right for us.