On Things that Die

I am becoming increasingly familiar with the smell of rot.

The husband and I were on a small road-trip to a friend’s birthday the other day, and we were driving up and down some lovely backwoods roads in the Appalachians to get there.  It was nice to get a breath of somewhat cleaner air than we’re normally treated to, and the sight of mountains covered in verdant green and carbon-tinted shade under blue skies always fills my heart with a quiet joy.  Smells of crab shacks, flowers, cow dung, corn fields, and daytime mountain winds mingled with the cologne we wore and the menthols we smoked along the way.  And, yes, at several points during the drive, my nose would unfailingly twitch as we’d drive past the occasional roadkilled raccoon or hunted deer or whatnot.

“Mmmm. Rot.”  “Yup.” <drags on cigarette>

To clarify: I use the word “rot” to mean the smell of a once-living animal that has died or been killed.  Yes, plants and fungus and other organic matter can decay in their own ways, and perhaps there’s a better word for the smell I’m describing besides something dead-animalian.  Though it’s certainly not what I’d consider pleasant, it’s not so offensive that I can’t stand to be around it.  Sure, I’d rather avoid smelling it, but it won’t stop me from the Work at hand.

I’ve always heard that rot smells sickeningly sweet, but…maybe I have a different notion of sweetness than those who made up that timeworn phrase.  I try to take out the trash regularly enough, keep the fridge cleaned out, and wipe down the showers, but those tend to have the smells of food gone bad, mold in the tupperware, or mildew on the tiles.  These are not the smells of rot as I’d consider it; these are the smells of things going sour or sickening, but not of rot.  Rot has a distinct profile to the smell, and one that’s surprisingly difficult for me to describe.  It’s something totally different than anything else I’ve smelled: something like a mixture of pink cotton candy, overly ripe fruit on the edge of fermentation, old steel, dirt after the rain, and the idea itself of revolting (lit. “turning away”).  Sure, the specific thing that’s rotting will color the smell differently, whether it’s skin or feather or fur or leaves or wood, but that core smell in the middle of it is unmistakable.

The way the smell seems to travel feels different than other smells, too.  While foods or pheromones or perfumes seem to waft like ribbons of invisible smoke in the air, rot crawls and seeps like a slow, glacial flood that is just as hard to get rid of once it’s there.  It lurks behind other smells, making it difficult to mask or suffumigate or sweep under the carpet; there’s always some tiny, faintly pungent hint of it always reminding you that something there has died.  Some people would even say that the smell is capital-w Wrong, like something is trying to force you out of the room, or something is setting off alarm bells to make your hair stand on end in the lizard brain we humans’ve got.

And yet, despite all this, I cannot bring myself to call rot a “smell of death” as I’ve also heard it described.  Yes, it is a smell of things that are dead, but it is not the smell of death.  When an animal dies, that is not the end of the story.  Sure, the soul or spirit or mind of the thing might dissipate or go elsewhere, depending on which cosmology you’re following, but the body continues to exist in the physical world, and the body is nowhere near done.  It becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, parasites, fungus, and even insects.  It becomes a food and a host, and the toxic smell that humans have innately, instinctively evolved to reject is the olfactory evidence that everything continues in the world.  Call it the “circle of life”, if you will; just because a thing dies does not mean that’s the end of the story for the thing.  It continues to exist to nourish, to fertilize, to disintegrate, to return to its base elements for the repurposing and recycling of all things in this world as constituent parts into new and more exciting forms.

Our world is predicated on the Idea of life and living things; the only things that are truly absent of life are those bodies, viewed as distinct and separate from their surroundings, that never had life to begin with (and even then, that idea is suspicious on its own).  Everything else is alive, in one form or another.  And yet, all that lives must one day die, right?  So our world must therefore be as much death as it is life, right?  I mean, we’ve all seen this adorable and saccharine little comic about the interplay between life and death at some point on our Facebook feeds:


I’m not so certain anymore.  Things that are dead are not death itself.  Much as nature abhors a vacuum, I claim that our world does not abide death.  Life exists to beget more life, and if death weren’t a limiting constraint on these things, life would always and only serve to beget more life in one way or another.  Death is…unwelcome, in many ways, though a necessary law in the world.  But, to me, it feels increasingly like death is something Other, something Else, something Different than anything else in the world.  It does not feel part of this world in the same way that conception, flirting, hate, offices, rituals, or fruit feels like a part of this world.  Death is like a vacuum; if this world is composed of Life, then what place does Death have?

The Japanese language has an interesting idea that makes English students a little distressed: there is no way to say “I’m dying” in Japanese. In Japanese, gerundive forms (sometimes called the “-te form” of a verb) are what’s used to make a progressive action when used with the supplemental verb iru; for instance, taberu means “to eat”, while tabete iru means “to be eating”.  However, in Japanese, shinu “to die” has the progressive form shinde iru, which isn’t “to be dying” but rather “to be dead”.  For speakers of Japanese, the act of dying is something that can only happen in a single moment; it is not something that can be prolonged, continued, or stretched out temporally.  One is going to die at some point in the future, one dies is in this very moment, one died at some point in the past, or one is in the state of being dead.  There is no “one is dying across time” in Japanese; it is a transition from one state to another, and there is no grey area between the two.  Either you are animated or you are inanimate, you breathe or you cease to draw breath, you live or you are dead.

It still seems like Death is something so distinctly different, so Other, that it does not belong to this world.  And yet, that doesn’t seem like a right claim to make; even I think I sound like some willful child raging against having to flush their expired goldfish down the toilet because “it’s not right” or “this shouldn’t happen”.  I do not mean to say in the least that Death is something unnecessary, forced upon us, or wrong; far from it!  Life here on this planet would be a Malthusian hellscape without death to regulate us and keep us in check.  Death is the rightful end of life, and the (generally, hopefully) rightful point at which our spirits shake off their physical forms and go their separate ways.  We all know and have heard from innumerable traditions that Death belongs to this world just as much as Life does.

Yet, what is Death, then?  We know of the dead; they’re “here” as much as any spirit, but then, they’re not “here” in the same sense as you or me, since we’re incarnate and they’re not.  It’s like they’re just beyond the chiffon curtain in the room, on a slightly different frequency a half-kHz up on the radio.  They’re not part of this world of physical forms and bodies, barring any attachments or grounding to bones or artifacts of the dead, so we can leave them out of the picture for the time being.  What is Death, then, if Death can be considered a spirit, one of the very few able to directly interact with the living processes of this world strong enough to quell them?  Is it truly some specter or shade, skeletal and robed in black-white-red with a scythe and an owl on their shoulder, swooping in to catch her prey?  Is it some king of a hell-realm with four eyes and wide nostrils and two dogs, chasing people down and bringing them to his doorstep as prisoners?  Is it a radiant angel, taking people by the hand and elevating them from their bodies for the last time?  Is it an ancient woman, one of three sisters, who cuts the thread of light at its right proportion and length?

None of those, either, seem right.  Sure, they’re ways we can personify and interact with Death as a spirit, but they are themselves not Death.  After all, even gods themselves die, some more permanently than others, and there is some precedent (even if I’ve only come across it in games like Neverwinter Nights) that Death is a non-entity apart from any spirit or god, even those related to or administering the sacrament of death.  Plus, what sort of crazy exception of a spirit would Death then have to be, to be so powerful as to directly interfere with living creatures on a level totally unseen and unheard of when compared to literally every other deity and spirit, save for those religious texts where miracles happen de rigueur?

It does not seem right to claim that Death is a spirit, any more than Life itself is a spirit.  It is a phenomenon that happens in our world naturally, and therefore must be a natural part of this world, too.  It is the exact moment of transition from animacy to inanimacy, and therefore is not an action in the same way “eating” is an action, both because it is a state transition and because it is…probably? difficult to impossible for a living body to intentionally, intentfully die without causing its own death.  Like, a body can continue breathing, pumping blood, digesting, wiggling in the dirt, and so on, but dying is not something the body can just do.  Dying happens as a result of other natural processes: the failure of parts of the body (from the organ scale to the cellular scale) to function together concordantly, trauma inducing failure of the body, disease inducing failure of the body, or so forth.  When Life cannot continue, Death occurs.  When Life fails to proceed “normally”, Death occurs.  And yet, Death is as needed, as necessary, and as natural as Life; it’s not that Death is inimical to Life, or Death is something “wrong”, but that the one picks up where the other leaves off.  And Death then becomes the endpoint for physical incarnation, after which, the story of that spirit that once animated a body, which existed only once for a short while and in a limited location in such a form in all of infinite time and boundless space, continues outside this world of physical forms.  The body begins its own dissolution, the spirit continues its own analysis, but the story ends for the two of them together.

Rot is the smell of the world reclaiming its due and collecting its own spare resources for other purposes.  Sure, it smells toxic and wrong to us, not only because we’ve evolved to avoid it for health and survival reasons, but because it reminds us that, as living bodies, that is something that we’re not yet ready for, and something that we won’t necessarily be around to witness once it happens to ourselves.  Rot is something that happens when you’re already shinde iru; it is not the smell of shinu, although it may be a reminder of it.

Yet, look what happens when rot is not allowed to happen.  Consider the Red Forest in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the leaves from the trees there do not rot, due to the toxic radiation they’ve all been exposed to.  Things there persist long after they have any right to, just as bodies preserved with formaldehyde or encased in glacial ice for millennia.  These are things that cannot return to the world; they may as well be ejected by rockets from the Earth as space junk, lost and unusable to the world forever, except they linger on posing a space-wasting and ecological threat of disaster to everything around it, like a cancer in the body unwilling to be flushed out by its neighboring cells.  They cannot undergo the total process of life.  See, also, why zombies and the undead generally cannot be permitted in the world, as they take something already in the process of life-after-death (rot) and hijack it.  Either the zombie in question continues to rot, leaving its new consciousness to die a new death, or the zombie is preserved against rot and cannot continue the process of life proper; unnatural, to be sure.

The smell of rot tells me (besides the fact that I need to air out my basement more) that death is always around me.  Rot is a necessary and natural part of all these physical bodies: things that are made (created) to die that are also things that are made (forced) to die.  Rot is the “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti that Death leaves behind; it is the trash collector routine of the CPU of the world we inhabit.  Yet rot does not show me what Death is.

A Break in the Threads

So, I had a few thoughts to myself lately on what I’ve been doing, where I stand, and the like, especially with regards to the whole lot of nothing I can account for these past…what, seven? ten? months.  I figure that I can use this, too, as a learning experience and gain from it, and if I can learn from it, I can write about it.  Besides, it’s not like I’ve been wearing you, dear reader, out with an endless stream of posts these past few moons.  I apologize that this is something of a navel-gazing whinefest, but it’s something that, perhaps, some of my readers could use.  While the burnt hand teaches best for some (e.g. myself), I’d rather those who can learn from the examples of others do so from me.

I don’t know where to really begin or even how to really discuss it, but I suppose I could always start with a list and give a rough chronological order of things.  Mind you, I plan on being vague about a few events, but it should give you an outline of the magnitude of things.

  1. Back in October 2014, despite a few of the good things that happen, there were other things happening beneath the surface.  Things for me and mine got really rough and there was a massive falling-out.  There was isolation, there was drama, and there were tears.  I personally got really knocked off-balance, and even to this day am still trying to get my bearings back.
  2. In early November, some of the problems of the preceding month had been cleared up; perhaps fittingly, everything in October happened during a Mercury retrograde, and as soon as Mercury went direct again, things started picking up and being picked up and put back together.  Some of the breaks were mended, but only some; mutual animosity, as well as righteous indignation and asshattery, had permanently assured me that some breaks were permanent.  Good for that.
  3. In late November, I performed what was intended to be an empowerment ritual using a well-known, lengthy psalm which had some massive and unanticipated side-effects.  This opened my life up to amazing and awesome new people, but at the same time, dredged up a sealed Pandora’s box of emotional what-the-fuckery I thought I had sealed and buried for good a long time ago.  Still, if even King Solomon couldn’t permanently seal the demons of the Lemegeton Goetia in a brass vessel under the sea, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any differently.  Some of those personal demons are still hanging around and lingering at the corners of my eyes, and the only way I can face them now is head-on; how is still yet to be determined.
  4. In December, my partner and I took two steps towards being together in the eyes of God, gods, and men: not only did we exchange our rings in our engagement, but I started playing Final Fantasy XIV, a massively multiplayer online RPG which is frickin’ awesome.
  5. In February 2015, I undertook my first major initiation in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, which significantly changed my outlook on more than a few topics personal and magical, not to mention completely thrashed my energetic and spiritual state of being for at least one solid weekend and, to a lesser extent, several weeks afterward.
  6. In early July, between visits from a good magical colleague of mine, an upcoming party, and a rather busy week at work, out of whimsy, I remembered one of the holiest acts I as a human and magos can do: the Hymns of Silence.  Even briefly, standing outside on my patio smoking a cigarette in the work week on a humid summer night, that little shadow of an echo of a resonance caught me off-guard and…broke something in me, something that really needed to be broken, something that needed to be snapped.  It wasn’t violent, it wasn’t sharp, it wasn’t painful; it was like taking out an extraneous support beam that didn’t need to be there.  I’m not even sure “broke” is the right word.  Starting about this point, I abruptly put a hold on playing FFXIV, feeling burnt out due to repetition in the game as well as personal drama with the group I play with.
  7. In the transition between late July and early August, I accepted a new job position within my current office, one which has great potential for my career, personal development, and (most awesome and utilitarian) income.  This is causing some changes in my routine and how I approach people, as having to start a new job (even in a familiar environment) is going to cause me to be hyperaware of certain elements in myself and around me.  Plus, now that I won’t be able to work from home for several months at minimum, I’ll need to develop a better routine to keep me in shape and in line.

So that’s about where I stand.  Not exactly the most epic of journeys, but every road has its flat and boring stretches, I suppose.

What I want to focus on here is the effect that playing FFXIV was having on me, especially now that I’ve been divorced of it for a few weeks now.  I admit, I enjoy the company and interaction of the people I play with, and the world of Eorzea that Square-Enix built up for us to play in is beautifully crafted and exceedingly well-done, and I miss hanging out with my free company and our antics.  That said, what’s been interesting, and something that I’ve noticed more and more as of late, is that I can pretty solidly say that I was relying on FFXIV for more things than just entertainment for…pretty much eight months of my life.  To be fair, I think I needed it; shit was getting too heavy even for me to healthily deal with, and I needed an escape.

So escape I did, and took a break from the rest of the shit that was going on around me.  In those eight months, I’ve done fuck-all.  Sure, I’ve kept up with commissions for crafts and divination readings, taught my students as I’ve agreed to do, and led or undergone a few rituals here and there, but I can’t say with any level of honesty that I’ve been active in my magical life.  I haven’t bothered with pretty much any of the tasks I set for myself to accomplish at the start of 2015, I haven’t kept up with my prayers or offerings, and when I have gone into my temple room, it’s usually to get something for myself instead of actually doing Work.  I’ve ended up putting on a few more pounds than I had, and the Quimbanda tronco I built on my own based on ley-person guidance has been shut and more-or-less ignored only right after I built it.  I’ve barely even kept up with blogs on my RSS feed and haven’t really been active with other magicians besides the occasional theory or theology discussion with friends, and as you may have noticed, I’ve barely had anything to say on my own blog.

I’ve completely wasted my time pursuing simple antics of fun and relaxation, which even sometimes produced problems on its own accord, in a made-up world not of my own creation, obeying its own sets of rules that I have willingly submitted myself to. Dear reader, take note: if you have even a barest glimmer of Hermetic or Gnostic cosmology and anthropogony, or if you’ve read some of my metaphors for human existence in the Hermetic worldview before, you can see the conundrum.  This world is beautiful, but also incredibly seductive; our true origin is not here, but Elsewhere, in the All.  And yet, not only have I forgotten that much on an intellectual level, I’ve even gone so far as to forget myself in this world and get lost in a tinier, even more beautiful and seductive world, forgetting even my incarnate origin and work in this world.  But hey, at least I can see that now, and I can treat the world of Eorzea in the archonic grip of Square-Enix as the fun side-show it really is.

What’s peculiar is that I still haven’t gotten my bearings straight yet after several weeks.  Rather, instead of just replacing my work in FFXIV with my Work in the cosmos, which is what I’d like to claim and what would intellectually make sense to do, I’ve just kinda been…adrift.  I’ve been experiencing what might be seen as symptoms of addiction withdrawal (as MMORPGs tend to cause in certain people), or what might be seen as depression: lack of energy to do things, general thoughtlessness, increased sleep (which would normally be a blessed thing), unwillingness to focus on the tasks before me, yada yada.  It’s almost embarrassing, but now I’m starting to see my situation with clearer eyes than I’ve had in months: I lost the threads of my Work and haven’t picked them up again.  I’ve picked up other threads to fill the gap in time, but now that I’ve dropped those, I haven’t yet picked up the new threads of my Work.  Call it a lull, or a change in direction where the mere act itself of looking in another direction is taking a long time.  The fact is that I have not yet given myself anything to substantially and substantively Do to fill this void of time and energy, and it’s taking its toll on me and driving me into another, different unhealthy place.

I lost the threads I once wove, and I’ve been struggling to find a new one to pick up and start weaving again.  But, in a tapestry, there are countless threads with which to work, even if it’s just tying a few of them them up for good.

Recently, I picked up one thread I had lost a ways back.  Some of you may remember that I developed an interest in astragalomancy, or Greek knucklebone divination, late last year after I finally got a book on the subject.  Yes, it still is an interest of mine, but memorizing all 56 oracular verses proved more difficult than I had anticipated, and given the knockings-around I’ve had, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I wasn’t going to memorize them anytime soon.  Still, I didn’t want to lug the book around with me just for reference, so I got myself a tiny little black journal, about the size of my palm, that I wanted to copy all the verses into so I could have an enchiridion, a handbook of sorts, I could consult at will.  I planned on copying verses into it during the downtimes I had in the office, but either found myself too busy or just too lazy to do so.  Recently, I decided (while working at home, no less!) to finally copy down those last…gosh, more than half of the verses that I hadn’t touched in months.  And, even though it’s such a minor task of copying down words from one medium into another, it…it was good.  Even the most basic and elementary of activities, picking up a book and just copying notes out of it, made me feel a little satisfied with things.

Even the smallest thread can act as a sturdy rope, if it’s all you’ve got.  And you need something to hold onto and climb up in order to get out of a pit, however deep.

I have many shelves of books on astrology, divination, magic, religion, and cult.  I have a temple room filled with idols and offering cups and magical tools of great power.  I live on a land filled to bursting with life and spirits.  I have friends, colleagues, and teachers both in the physical and online who surround me, showing me countless possibilities of work and the rich rewards thereof.  Shit, I have my own destiny and path to walk, and sitting on a bench beside the road playing chess is not getting me anywhere, especially when I haven’t set up a tent to keep me out of the rain or a fire to cook food.  Me neglecting my Work is not only disrespectful to the spirits, angels, gods, and saints that I’ve called on before, it’s disrespectful to my friends and students and others who look to me and check up on me, and it’s disrespectful to myself and my own well-being.  I know I have shit to do, and I know I have projects waiting for me, and I know I have places to go and things to do.

It’s time I’ve picked up a few of those dangling threads again.  Who knows?  Maybe, in the mess I left for myself, I’ll find a few of those that I dropped.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 5

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the thirty-third definition, part VIII, number 5 of 7:

Nature is the mirror of truth; the latter is at once the body of the incorporeal (things) and the light of the invisible.  The generous nature of this (world) teaches all (the beings).  If it seems to you that nothing is a vain work, you will find the work and the craftsman, if it seems to you (like) a mockery, you will be mocked at.

We’ve been having a hard time defining the word “nature” in a Hermetic sense since it popped up a few definitions ago.  There, we read that “nature is everyone of the beings of this world” or that “every being in this world has a nature”, and also that “the body increases and reaches perfection due to nature”.  But what is nature?  Nature is the whole of increase and decrease, the four elements, sense and vision, and all the bodies here.  Nature is the restrictions, capacities, and abilities that we have.  Nature is, in effect, everything that sensibly exists and each of their qualities along with it.  Nature is, in a way, fate and destiny.

But beyond all that, in this definition we get an actual explanation, or about as much as one as we’re likely to get: nature is “the mirror of truth”.  Nature reflects true things.  It is not itself true things, but it shows them to those who look and observe.  Consider your reflection in a mirror: the mirror is not you, but it shows how you are.  It shows your form, your age, your condition; it shows you.  Likewise, nature shows all these things, but it is not these things on its own.  Nature is a reflection, a microcosm of something greater, and what’s greater than the cosmos we find ourselves in?  God is bigger than the world, after all; is God truth?  (Well, duh.)  What is truth?  Truth is “the body of the incorporeal and the light of the invisible”.  These statements must be meant metaphorically, because they on their own don’t make sense.

  • What are bodies?  Bodies are corporeal masses, things with form and length and breadth and depth, things with “quality and quantity” (VII.4).  These things do not belong to incorporeal things, since quality and quantity are sensible just as bodies are.  The solely intelligible, however, are without bodies, and as such cannot be sensed.  However, they can be known.  They have some sort of substance, but it is not material substance.  The concepts, the words, the knowledge itself has a form, and that form is the “body” of the incorporeal.  What they are is truth; a truth is something intelligible that exists.
  • What is light?  Light is “a clear vision which makes appear all of the visible things” (II.6).  However, the invisible cannot be seen, so light does it no good.  However, light can be used to see visible things in the darkness, clearing away ignorance of the physical world around ourselves.  Likewise, truth can be used in the same way to know the invisible things in ignorance.  Truth is the means by which we come to know the things that are invisible without seeing them.

Nature, then, is the reflection of things that are.  Nature is the material, corporeal result of the intelligible and incorporeal; just as software code is the reflection of its design, or a constructed building the reflection of its blueprints, nature is the reflection of truth.  If what is intelligible is truth, then God is also truth.

Just as “whatever God does, he does it for man” is a truth (VIII.2), so too does the world reflect that: “the generous nature of this world teaches all the beings”.  If perfection of the soul is knowledge of the beings (VI.3), and it is our soul’s directive to come to know God by knowing all the beings (VII.3, VIII.4), then the world exists to help us do that.  The soul works within the body to learn; the world offers itself to learn from.  Again, “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1), so it would almost (maybe not quite?) be tautological to say that it’s for our benefit.  Further, Man’s job is to experience the entire world in all its parts for the benefit of the soul and body (VII.2), so we must fully experience and learn from the world in all that it has to teach us and offer us.  Every part of the world is necessary to experience and know for ourselves to be perfected in body, soul, and Nous.  Add to it, if we make use of the Hermetic maxim “as above, so below”, then we might also say that because everything God does is for Man, then everything the World does is also for Man, since the World is a microcosm reflecting the macrocosmic God.  This makes sense because “nature is the mirror of truth”, so whatever is done above is done below; that which is below represents, reflects, and indicates that which is above; if the nature of God is to act for Man, then the nature of the world is to do the same, as is the nature of Man (which gives the actions of Man a dual meaning here, both for himself as well as for soul/soul-Nous/God).

Since nothing God does is not for Man, then nothing the World is or does is not for Man.  Thus, nothing is made, done, or created in vain; this is similar to the statement in VI.1, where “if there were nobody to see [the world], what would be seen would not even exist”.  All things exist for a purpose and that is to act by God within God for Man and God.  Further, by properly seeking to learn what the world generously teaches us, we come to fully experience the world, perfecting our bodies and our souls in the process, coming to the perfection of the soul, which is the knowledge of beings as well as of God.  Thus, “if it seems to you that nothing is a vain work, you will find the work and the craftsman”, where the work is the body, soul, world, and beings and where the craftsman is God.  Neglecting this, however, yields the opposite result: “to you like a mockery, you will be mocked at”.  This is another thinly-veiled warning, much as from VI.3: “just as you will behave towards the soul when it is in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body”.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VI, Definition 2

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy.  These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff.  It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text.  The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon.  While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the twenty-second definition, part VI, number 2 of 3:

Just as you went out of the womb, likewise you will go out of this body; just as you will no longer enter the womb, likewise you will no longer enter this material body.  Just as, while being in the womb, you did not know the (things which are) in the world, likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings (that are) outside the body.  Just as when you have gone out of the womb, you do not remember the (things which are) in the womb, likewise, when you have gone out of the body, you will be still more excellent.

The last definition described the power and place of Man in the world: “…the gods are God’s possession…and man’s possession is the world”.  Because of the combination of body, breath, soul, Logos, and Nous, being made after the image of God, Man is this weird, complex entity that spans both the sensible and the intelligible worlds like nobody and nothing else except for God.  Because of that same weird mixture, though, we have this weird quandry like no other entity has, being both partially mortal and partially immortal.  This isn’t something that hasn’t been talked about much besides the fact that we have this problem until now.

This definition is basically one big comparison between Man as the body dies and a baby being born from a womb.  There are basic statements made here:

  1. A baby leaving the womb vs. Man leaving the body
  2. A baby having left the womb unable to reenter vs. Man having left the body unable to reenter
  3. A baby in the womb ignorant of the world outside vs. Man outside the body ignorant of the physical things outside the body
  4. A baby having left the womb ignorant of the inside of the womb vs. Man having left the body being “still more excellent”

First, why is the comparison between Man and the body and a baby and the womb being used?  Because it shows how things are able to develop over time.  A baby in the womb is both made in the womb and nurtured by it, but it is not a permanent thing.  Once the baby is fully-formed (assuming no accidents along the way), the baby leaves the womb through birth.  Until then, however, the baby will remain in the womb and continue to develop.  The baby’s senses are not only being developed while this happens, but are limited to the womb itself; the baby will not know of anything outside the womb, such as who the mother is or where the womb might be placed on the earth.  The baby’s world is limited to the womb, but only for so long.  After that point, the baby is born from the womb and lives independently of it, never returning for it but continuing to grow and develop apart from the womb; however, the person now born will always be marked by how it developed in the womb, forming a link to it through its own existence.

With that said, let’s talk about each of these comparisons.  The first comparison says that “just as you went out of the womb, likewise you will go out of this body”.  Simple enough; a baby born cannot be un-born, nor can it be re-born from the same womb with the same body.  Once born, that’s it; the baby is separated, the umbilical cord cut, the placenta removed, and the baby now lives as an independent human being.  This is contrasted with the process to “go out of this body”, i.e. physical death of the body while the immortal part of us lives on.  Thus, once we die, we “go  out” from the body; it’s the immortal part that is not part of the mortal body that leaves, i.e. the Nous.  There is a part of Man that survives physical death, but it’s tied to the body just as a baby is tied to the womb: temporarily until it can survive on its own.  This implies that the Nous, the immortal essence within Man, develops in some way within the body until it is developed enough to leave it to exist on its own apart from the body.

The second comparison says that “just as you will no longer enter the womb, likewise you will no longer enter this material body”.  Simple enough; once a baby exits the womb, it cannot be stuffed back in nor will it grow back into the same womb.  The baby will grow, mature, and live on its own independent of it, having left the womb where it developed only but so long enough to continue the process on its own.  Likewise, when Man dies, the immortal part of Man cannot reinhabit the body that it left.  When the body dies, it dies; it’s no longer good for anything, and the immortal part of Man cannot reenter or be stuffed back inside it.  The Nous, the immortal essence within Man, can be said to develop in the body for just as long as it needs to, then leaves the body to live on its own, independent of the body.  It’s like the parable of the raft from before: just as we don’t need to carry a raft with us after we’ve crossed the river, we similarly don’t need the womb to continue developing after we’ve left it, and we similarly don’t need the body to develop ourselves after the bodiless part of us leaves it.

Let’s skip ahead to the fourth and final comparison in this definition before tackling the third.  The last part of this definition suffers from a bit of a mistranslation: “just as when you have gone out of the womb, you do not remember the things which are in the womb, likewise, when you have gone out of the body, you will be still more excellent”.  This last part was written in Greek, but the Armenian text has it written as “you will remember nothing of what belongs to it”, which I like a little more but with the connotation of what the Greek says.  Consider your experience with your life: do you remember what it was like before you were born?  Do you remember the warmth of the womb, the texture of the umbilical cord?  I highly doubt it; most people don’t remember what happened last week, much less what happened in the nine months while they were forming, especially since a good chunk of that was before we even had the ability to sense or become aware of things.  Upon leaving it, we simply started new, and don’t recall the experience of being inside; we had known nothing before it, and only know the things after birth since it was the first contrasting experience we could have.  The case is similar with the immortal aspect of Man with the body: upon dying, the immortal part of Man leaves the body and essentially forgets the experience of the body.  After all, if everything we’ve ever known is regulated and determined by the body, imagine what it’s like to be bodiless.  It’s about as hard for an as-yet unborn child to imagine worldly existence.  This allows us to be “still more excellent”, which seems to imply that being bodiless and purely immortal is preferable and better than being mortal and worldly.  It’s an interesting thought that we’ll develop later on, but at the risk of developing an anti-matter dualistic viewpoint, it’s not wholly unreasonable to say here that immortality and bodiless living is overall preferable to mortality and bodily living.

Let’s go back a bit now.  The third comparison is a little difficult, and I question whether there’s an error in the text.  The text says “just as, while being in the womb, you did not know the things which are in the world, likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the body”.  Consider the baby in the womb: it isn’t aware of what’s going on outside the womb, since its ability to sense what’s going on around it is limited to the womb itself.  Its ability to sense lies in its body (cf. VI.1), and since its body is tied to the womb, it cannot sense things that are outside its body and the womb.  Thus, the baby cannot know what’s going on in the world outside the womb: who’s standing nearby, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, and so forth.  When it comes to Man and the body, it seems like the comparison should read “likewise when you are in the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the world” (my suggestion being bolded).  After all, it makes sense, right?  We’d be limited to the body and that which the body is connected to, i.e. the world.  But we know that this isn’t the case; we know that Man even within the body can look into the world and outside the world due to Nous; “nobody sees heaven and what is therein, but only man” (V.3), and “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1).  Man is indeed fully capable of knowing the things inside and outside the body and the world.

However, all these comparisons describe the immortal nature of Man leaving the mortal nature, so let’s try that third comparison again: “…likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings that are outside the body”.  The immortal part of Man, once it leaves the body, will not know the things outside the body.  It’s important to notice that, since the same word and phrasing is used for “body” in both parts of this statement, and since this statement only refers to the physical body itself as opposed to the etheric or spiritual immortal part of Man, we need to reinterpret this statement with that notion.  If a baby in the womb does not know the world outside it, then a baby having left the womb becomes aware of the world outside.  Thus, if the immortal part of Man in the body knows does not know what’s going on outside the body, the immortal part of Man having left the body…still doesn’t know what’s going on outside the body?  Again, it would make sense for this to read that the immortal Man would be aware of what goes on outside the physical world, unless our initial comparison with the baby leaving the womb was off.  If a baby in the womb does not know the world outside, then it knows the world inside; thus, when it leaves the womb, the baby…still wouldn’t know what goes on outside the world?  Isn’t that what the whole point of being Man is about?

I’m really tempted to correct this part of the definition, since something here seems off and contradictory to the other definitions we’ve been through; something in this comparison keeps breaking.  Without changing the definition, we might draw a connection here between the third comparison and the fourth one here.  Remember that the fourth comparison basically says that when the immortal nature of Man leaves the body, it forgets all the experiences it had with the body, though it still relied on the body to develop it.  Thus, once we leave the body, we lose all memory of it and knowledge of it, just as we know wombs exist but don’t remember ours or our experiences within it.  To connect it back to the third definition, once we leave the body, we lose our memories of it, and therefore our connection to it; what happens to the body is no longer anything we care about or have control over.  We “will not know the beings that are outside the body” once we’ve left it, since it’s nothing we can sense anymore, since being bodiless we have no more sense to sense the sensibility.  This does actually fit with the comparison made to being in the womb: a baby’s sense is limited only to itself, and it is entirely in the womb, so it is unable to know anything outside the womb.  The immortal part of Man understands itself (which is quite a bit), but is unable to know anything outside of the intelligible.  It may know that bodies exist, but is unable to remember, sense, or use the body; thus, once the immortal part of us leaves the body, we are unaware of what’s outside the body.  Physical embodiment is meaningless to something bodiless.

So, what does all this say about Man?  The two parts of us, the mortal body and the immortal part of us which is as yet unspecified (possibly Nous?), are not so tightly coupled that they live and die at once.  Instead, the body can die but the immortal part of us will live on independently of it.  As the body lives, the immortal part dwells within it; once the body dies, the immortal part leaves it forever, and the body becomes inert material that returns to the four elements.  Further, once the immortal part leaves the body, it essentially becomes its own independent thing of the body, forgetting and severing all connections with the body into an utterly new kind of existence.  While Man may be a combination of the mortal and the immortal, it seems more like a detachable pieces of paper than something so deeply intertwined and coupled together.