On Hermeticism as “Philosophy” (and why that word is misleading)

As a software engineer, I like drawing a distinction between something being complex and something being complicated. While I’m as much a fan of “simplicity is the highest form of elegance” as anyone else, sometimes you just can’t avoid things being difficult or nuanced. While there are some who distinguish complexity and complication as being the difference of a system with lots of moving parts or which have non-deterministic emergent properties vs. a system that is difficult while still remaining deterministic, I take a different approach inspired more by software design: complex systems are often complex due to the nature of the problem they aim to solve or task they aim to fulfill, while complicated systems are just badly-designed systems that could be done in a better, simpler way. While one may not be able to code a complex system in a simple way, one might still endeavor to do so as simply as possible; it’s when one doesn’t do what’s as simple as possible that one introduces complication into the system. In other words, the difference I like drawing between complexity and complication is that the former is not always avoidable due to something’s nature, but that the latter is always avoidable as a matter of conscious approach.

And in that light, I think there are a lot of people who want to make Hermeticism more complicated than it needs to be. To be sure, Hermeticism can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. And, most of the time when I see people complicate Hermeticism, they do so by calling it and thinking of it as a “philosophy”, with all the baggage that term brings about. To be fair, I totally get expecting and wanting Hermeticism to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and to have a fully developed cosmology complete with diagrams and whatnot, and to be able to prescribe doctrine and dogma as finely-detailed as the Catechism of the Catholic Church with an accompanying Hermetic parallel to the Rituale Romanum/Missale Romanum/Pontificale Romanum/Caeremoniale Romanum in as much exalted elaboration. But it doesn’t, and it probably never did—and that’s totally okay!

The big issue I want to draw attention to here is in thinking of Hermeticism (as in the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos as collected in the classical Hermetic texts) as a “philosophy”. To be sure, Hermēs Trismegistos does refer to what he teaches as “philosophy” at a number of points, as in CH XVI.2 (Copenhaver translation, and note the great punning going on between philo-sophia/logon psophos rendered in English as “philosophy”/”foolosophy”):

Therefore, my king, in so far as you have the power (who are all powerful), keep the discourse uninterpreted, lest mysteries of such greatness come to the Greeks, lest the extravagant, flaccid and (as it were) dandified Greek idiom extinguish something stately and concise, the energetic idiom of <Egyptian> usage. For the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they demonstrate, and this is the philosophy (φιλοσοφία) of the Greeks, an inane foolosophy (λόγον ψόφος) of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches but sounds that are full of action.

Or in AH 12—14 (Copenhaver translation):

Hermēs: “[…] Speaking as a prophet, I will tell you that after us will remain none of that simple regard for philosophy found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity. The many make philosophy obscure in the multiplicity of their reasoning.”

Asklēpios: “What is it that the many do to make philosophy incomprehensible? How do they obscure it in the multiplicity of their reasoning?”

Hermēs: “In this way, Asklēpios: by combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study that are not comprehensible—arithmētikē and music and geometry. Pure philosophy that depends only on reverence for god should attend to these other matters only to wonder at the recurrence of the stars, how their measure stays constant in prescribed stations and in the orbit of their turning; it should learn the dimensions, qualities and quantities of the land, the depths of the sea, the power of fire and the nature and effects of all such things in order to commend, worship and wonder at the skill and mind of god. Knowing music is nothing more than being versed in the correct sequence of all things together as allotted by divine reason. By divine song, this sequencing or marshalling of each particular thing into a single whole through reason’s craftwork produces a certain concord—very sweet and very true.

“Accordingly, the people who will come after us, deceived by the ingenuity of sophists, will be estranged from the true, pure and holy philosophy. To adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good), this is a philosophy unprofaned by relentlessly curious thinking.”

Or in SH 2B.2—4 (Litwa translation):

Tat: “If there is no truth in this realm, what should one do, father, to live one’s life well?”

Hermēs: “Show devotion, my child! The one who shows devotion has reached the heights of philosophy. Without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion. The one who has learned the nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose, will offer thanks for all things to the Creator as to a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator; and the one who gives thanks will show devotion.

“The one who shows devotion will know the place of truth and its nature. The more one learns, the more devout one will become. Never, my child, has an embodied soul that disburdened itself for the perception of him who is good and true been able to slip back to their opposites. The reason is that the soul who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good.

“Let this, my son, be the goal of devotion. Arriving at this goal, you will live well and die blessed, since your soul is not ignorant of where it should wing its upward flight. This alone, my child, is the way toward truth which our ancestors trod and having trod it, attained the Good. This way is venerable and smooth, though it is difficult for a soul to travel on it while still in the body.”

That’s basically all the references to “philosophy” I can find in the Hermetic texts proper. Of course, there are a bunch of Hermetic fragments and testimonia (Tertullian in Against the Valentinians and On the Soul, Lactantius in Divine Institutes, Zosimus in On the Letter Ōmega, etc.) that call Hermēs Trismegistos and his followers philosophers and the like, but as far as what Hermēs Trismegistos himself considers to be “philosophy”, the above is all we have extant on the notion. And what sort of thing do we see as “philosophy” in this context? Although the AH quote above might seem almost anti-intellectual in its description, the “philosophy” of Hermēs Trismegistos that he teaches is more of a way of life and of lived devotion, sincerity, and thanksgiving to God. In this sense, what Hermēs teaches and preaches is a kind of mystic spirituality more than anything else, and while it can take into account rational approaches to understanding the cosmos through mathematics and the like, that’s not the point of it all.

I forget where specifically I read it, but I dimly remember the ever-amazing Patrick Dunn (yes, the author of a number of great books on magic, divination, religion, and theurgy) talking about what philosophy (in the traditional, classically Western sense) generally is. In his words, philosophy needs to be an approach of knowing things that is coherent and systematic; there has to be a system behind a philosophy, where you start with premises, use a particular toolkit of reason, extrapolate conclusions from premises using that toolkit, look for inconsistencies, and the like. For instance, with the philosophy of Epicureanism, you can start from two basic premises (“atoms exist” and “people seek pleasure as a good”), and derive everything else from there, from the nature of the gods to the quality of virtue. Philosophies in this “strict” sense are systematic approaches to the investigation of knowledge through formal observation, rational deduction, and logical consistency.

Such philosophies require a sort of rigor and order, which Hermeticism according to the Hermetica, frankly, lacks. True, many such classical Western philosophies weren’t just about mathematics or logic or rhetoric, and often included elaborate discussions and dissertations on ethics, morality, virtue, divinity, and (most especially and most commonly) how to live a good, happy life. The thing is that they still had systematic approaches to arriving at conclusions from given axioms that avoided or otherwise resolved contradictions and errors in argument or judgment, and it’s this criterion that Hermeticism just doesn’t fulfill. When you take a look at what’s in the various Hermetic texts (truly, take your pick!), you come across countless variations, differences, and outright contradictions at times, even sometimes within the very same text. By and large, we don’t see a rigorous form of argumentation from hypotheses to conclusions; we rather see divine revelation and ecstatic outburst, spiritual exhortations and mystical directives. As I read it, that’s the actually juicy parts of the Hermetic texts; while there is an abundance of descriptions of the nature of things, the processes of reproduction or meterology, arguments to elaborate or describe the divine through metaphors of physics, and the like, all of these are secondary to the fundamentally spiritual and mystical impetus that drives Hermēs Trismegistos to teach what he teaches. And that’s just not what most people consider “philosophy” to be, by and large; for Hermēs, such philosophy renders what he teaches “incomprehensible”, while to most philosophers, what Hermēs teaches would just be irrational.

To be sure, to define what “philosophy” is or what the word means is a difficult thing, so much so that there’s a whole Wikipedia article just about the debate over doing so. However, when people generally encounter the word “philosophy”, there are certain connotations, suggestions, and ideas that come with the word—the word’s own “baggage”, as it were—that color the conversations in which we use it. It is only when we take the broadest possible view of what “philosophy” might connote, a literal “love of wisdom” and the vaguest notion of a “way of life” for such a love of wisdom, that we might call Hermeticism a philosophy, in the same way one might call Buddhism or Christianity a philosophy. And while that may well work for some people some of the time (Hermēs Trismegistos uses this very same sense in those Hermetic excerpts I mentioned above), when people call Hermeticism a “philosophy”, what they effectively try to do is put it into the same semantic field as we might find Stoicism or Platonism, and Hermeticism just doesn’t act the same way or produce the same things as what those do. And yet, to call Hermeticism a philosophy has always been super common, although the very meaning of what the word “philosophy” suggests has shifted over the past 2000 years to make things more difficult for everyone involved.

In his recent book (which is a supremely excellent tour de force for the study and practice of Hermeticism that I encourage anyone and everyone to check out) Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity, Wouter J. Hanegraff spends a good amount of space in his introduction in figuring out what to call Hermeticism at all, and why he settles on it being a “spirituality”. Although “scholars have long been used to speaking of Hermetic philosophy“, Hanegraaff makes an excellent argument about why we should avoid thinking of Hermeticism in terms of “philosophy” at all”. Forgive the long quote, but it’s a fantastic argument that I really want people to grasp here:

The Hermetica are full of statements to the effect that true knowledge of ultimate realities “that cannot be thought” is is not just possible, but essential to human salvation and true felicity; and we will see that the pursuit of such “knowledge” is at the very heart of the ancient experiential practices that modern scholars refer to as “the Way of Hermes.” […] the true concern of the Hermetic writings is not with philosophy as commonly understood today.* What their authors meant by “knowledge” is something entirely different from the intellectual understanding achieved through mental activity—thinking–that our modern philosophical traditions have taught us to ­ understand by that word.

* Or, for that matter, as understood in antiquity. Socrates’ “love of wisdom,” as described by Plato, was likewise focused on an ultimate level of reality–the eternal forms or ideas–that could only be beheld directly in a trans-rational state of mania, divine madness…Philosophers are those who have recognized their own ignorance and desire to become wise: therefore Plato’s ideal philosopher, Socrates, is precisely not the man of wisdom…By contrast, the ideal Hermetic sage resembles Socrates’ teacher Diotima: a priestly visionary who no longer needs to aspire to knowledge because she knows the truth through direct experience.

A second reason not to speak of Hermetic “philosophy” has less to do with the exact content of that term than with its polemical function in common academic and even in everyday discourse. Specialists have always been aware that the texts they labeled as “philosophical” might as well be described as “religious,” “theological,” “mystical,” or “theosophical.” If they still preferred to speak of Hermetic philosophy, this was because it helped them draw a normative boundary. For them, the eminently serious and respectable pursuit of intellectual reflection about the nature of reality could have nothing in common with the so obviously disreputable and unserious business of magical or occult practice as reflected in many texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus or associated with his name. The former type of activity deserved respect in their eyes, while the latter did not, and many scholars found it hard to imagine that one and the same text or author could be involved in both. Philosophers did not practice magic, for magicians were not thinking straight.

On a rather obvious level, this juxtaposition of respectable Hermetic philosophy against disreputable Hermetic practice seemed perfectly self-evident to academic armchair intellectuals trained to value thinking as a noble pursuit and dismiss “occult” practices as embarrassing nonsense. More specifically, it reflected the strong ideological allegiance of professional classicists to ancient Greece as the idealized home of rational thought, an attitude referred to as philhellenism or hellenophilia and intimately linked to the liberal neo-humanist perspectives of nineteenth-century German Kulturprotestantismus. This stance was accompanied by profound feelings of suspicion, hostility, and contempt for anything reminiscent of its traditional competitor, that is to say of Egypt, the symbolic center of pagan idolatry, the primitive heart of irrational darkness. That the Hermetica were Greek texts written in Egypt was an irritant to the scholarly imagination and made them an ideal arena of ideological contestation. […] In other words, anything philosophical in the Hermetica must be Greek by definition, for even the very language of the Egyptians prevents them from understanding rational thought. Zielinski’s “higher Hermetism” stood for Greek philosophy, while its “lower” counterpart stood for Egyptian magic; the former was worthy of attention, the latter was not.

[…] From the 1970s, the pro-Greek/anti-Egyptian ideology was gradually weakened and finally abandoned, due partly to the discovery of new Hermetic manuscripts in Coptic and other ancient languages and partly to a slow decline of philhellenic bias in the study of ancient religions more generally. […] these developments did not lead scholars to abandon the basic distinction between two types of Hermetica. Only the terminology was adapted somewhat: in the wake of Jean-Pierre Mahé’s seminal publications of the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars now refer to the astrological, magical, and alchemical materials ascribed to Hermes as “practical” or “technical” Hermetica. Their counterpart is usually still referred to as “theoretical” or “philosophical” even by scholars who are quick to point out that those adjectives are inadequate.

[…] The terminologies we choose will not just color and influence our interpretations, but often determine which other texts, practices, ideas, or traditions will be seen as most relevant for understanding what the Hermetica are all about. If we call them “philosophical” we will try to analyze their philosophy and compare them with other philosophical traditions, and if we call them “theoretical” we will be looking for theories and systematic speculation. In both cases, this will lead us to relativize, minimize, marginalize, or even wholly overlook dimensions that may be important or even central to the texts themselves but are hard to understand in terms of philosophical theories. By and large, as will be seen, this is exactly what happened in the study of the Hermetica. By speaking of “Hermetic spirituality,” I hope to highlight precisely those dimensions that philosophers (and, for that matter, theologians) have always found most difficult to handle but which are central to the study of religion: experiences and practices.

[…] If Hermetic spirituality was a type of privatized, experience-oriented religion, this has consequences for conventional ways of categorizing the materials. By and large, most of the texts that used to be called “philosophical” remain relevant, but their theoretical discussions about the exact nature of God, humanity, and the cosmos must be considered from the perspective of their function in a wider spiritual framework: they do not stand on themselves, as contributions to philosophical debate, but are meant to provide background information that spiritual practitioners need while navigating their journey of healing and salvation. As for the corpus that used to be called “technical,” we will see that it contains some texts that are of great importance to Hermetic spirituality, while many other texts concerned with practical astrology, magic, alchemy, or philosophy have little or no relevance to it.

I need to emphasize that my approach does not imply a mere reshuffling of the texts according to a somewhat different principle of division, replacing the traditional framework of “philosophical versus technical Hermetica” by one of “spiritual versus non-spiritual Hermetica.” […]

Honestly, Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality is a fantastic book for so many reasons, but this particular bit is really important for the framing of so much his study, and something I think a lot of people should bear in mind. To be sure, although the Hermetic texts call themselves “philosophy” and although then-contemporaries and other sources closer in time than us to the Hermetica call it likewise, there has been sufficient semantic drift (and scholarly baggage) involved that we cannot honestly call it a “philosophy” except how Hermēs Trismegistos himself loosely defines it (or may even be seen to redefine it). And that, likewise, only really applies to the teachings of the texts themselves, which (as Hanegraaff points out) are meant not to serve as some sort of scientific end in and of themselves, but rather for the ecstatic and spiritual advancement of a human soul towards its divine ends.

To be fair, to call Hermeticism “philosophy” is something super commonly seen, and while it’s not really a mistake per se, it is something we should probably reconsider as a matter of appropriately-descriptive terminology. But then you have books like the Kybalion that lament how “true philosophy” becomes marred by theology or superstition—which, let’s be honest, fills actual Hermetic texts abundantly—while never itself amounting to much more of the use of such a term than it has a right to (and arguably has even less than just referring to things as a “way of life”). And, again, this gets back to the difficulty of trying to offer a solid definition of “philosophy”: what we call the sciences of biology, geology, physics, and the like were once called natural philosophy, and then you have Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s summary composition of religion and magic as being an exploration of occult philosophy, but even then, these are all systematic approaches to learning about things and establishing their reality, which Hermeticism simply doesn’t do. However, when we refer to Hermeticism as a “philosophy”, the burden of that term insinuates that Hermeticism should (must!) do these things, provide detailed answers to how many layers of reality there are, explain experience from both physical and metaphysical perspectives, establish ontologies in addition to epistomologies, and the like. And it just doesn’t really do that.

So, if Hermeticism doesn’t do those things, what does it do? If calling Hermeticism a “philosophy” and suggesting that it behave like one a la Platonism is a matter of complication, then what’s the simpler approach that respects what Hermeticism actually is and does? In that light, the answer is straightforward, really: while Hanegraaff calls it a “spirituality” (in the sense of it being a tradition considered as being primarily religious rather than rational/scientific, with a focus on direct experience rather than doctrine or belief, and concerned more with the cultivation of private individual practice rather than membership of a social organization), I call it more of a “mysticism” (which effectively, albeit informally, approximates Hanegraaff’s terminological choice). Hermēs Trismegistos is focused less on establishing the reality of things that are and more on showing us how to experience them, focused less on establishing a contradiction-free approach to knowledge and more on laying a useful framework for the ascent of the soul. Hermeticism is not about knowledge in the sense of rational discourse (logos) or things learned or taught (epistēmē), but more about the direct experience of truth (gnōsis). As Hanegraaff points out, Hermēs Trismegistos is not aiming to be the philosopher and ponderer Socrates, but rather the priest and prophet Diotima.

Hermeticism is far from the easiest way of life to follow, sure. Despite Hermēs teaching that we only need but a “simple regard…found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity”, this is still challenging due to the nuanced and careful subtleties involved of doing just that. However, by trying to insist that we should do this through making it “incomprehenseible…obscuring it in the multiplicity of reasoning” and “combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study”, we end up turning something complex into something complicated—and Hermēs strongly tells us in no uncertain terms that we should not do that. We shouldn’t hope to find all the answers to everything in the Hermetic texts, because they don’t have such answers, and they never had such answers; Hermēs isn’t one who preaches “believe or perish”, but rather teaches “believe and come find out for yourself”. What Hermēs teaches in the Hermetic texts might well be a lot, but it’s all within a limited in scope and aim: that of salvation and ascent. All else that he teaches and talks about is meant to serve that specific goal and no other, and warns us against getting overly involved in such “relentlessly curious thinking” which would otherwise serve as nothing more than a distraction.

Translation, Transliteration, and Greek Letter Magic

One of the more common sets of search terms I get on my blog, for some reason, involves how to write Japanese words, characters, or kanji in English, or whether there’s a Japanese to English alphabet conversion.  I mean, there are ways to write Japanese using the Roman script (which is what the English alphabet actually is), but it’s not translation, and people are stupid and don’t understand the basics of writing things in different languages well.  Let me clarify some linguistic terms:

  • Translation is the conversion of words with meaning from one spoken language to another.  For instance, to say the word “love” in Latin, you’d say “amor”, ερως in Greek, (“erōs”), and 愛 in Mandrain Chinese (pronounced “ài” with the voice falling slightly from a high level to a lower level).  The meaning is preserved although how it’s pronounced is not.
  • Transcription is the conventional means by which one writes a spoken language in a graphical, non-spoken medium.  For instance, for English, we use a variant of the Roman script as conventional, while Japanese uses a mixture of hiragana and katakana (syllabic scripts) combined with kanji (Chinese characters).  I could write English using Devanagari, the writing system most commonly used in India to write, say, Hindi, and it’d be a way of transcribing spoken English, although only people who use Devanagari could read it.
  • Transliteration is the conversion of written symbols from one writing system to another.  As opposed to translation, transliteration preserves the sound of a word while the meaning is not.  For instance, my name “polyphanes” in Roman script is written πολυφανης in Greek alphabet, ポリファニース in Japanese katakana, and полыфанис in Russian script.  The sound is preserved across each, although it has no meaning in any language but Greek (meaning “many appearances”).

It must be remembered that a writing system is not a language; a writing system is a means by which one transcribes a spoken language with a set of symbols that represent sounds or meaning, and a spoken language is a means by which one person orally communicates to another person.  However, the two are not the same; consider the status of Hebrew, German, and Yiddish.  “Hebrew” refers both to the spoken language used in Israel as well as the script used in, say, the Torah; “German” refers to both the spoken language used in Germany as well as a variant of the Roman script used to represent the same.  Yiddish, however, blends the two by using the writing system of Hebrew but the spoken language of German.  A German speaker can understand spoken Yiddish but could not read written Yiddish (because it’s written using the Hebrew script); a Hebrew speaker can not understand spoken Yiddish but can read written Yiddish aloud without understanding its meaning (because the Hebrew script is here transliterating German words that have no meaning in spoken Hebrew).  I gave an example about all this specifically with Japanese back in my January 2014 Search Term Shoot Back:

“japanese alphabet with english letters” — This is one thing I really don’t get; so many people have come to my blog looking for Japanese writing translated into English, when I’ve mentioned Japanese four times on my blog to date, and none were about transliterating Japanese into English.  First, Japanese does not use an alphabet; an alphabet is a system of writing that uses letters to indicate either consonants or vowels.  Japanese uses several writing systems, among them kanji (Chinese characters that are combinations of semantic, phonetic, and pictoral images drawn in a codified way) and the syllabaries hiragana and katakana.  A syllabary is a writing system that use letters to indicate syllables, often consonant-vowel combinations.  Thus, while English uses the two letters “k” and “i” to write the syllable “ki” (as in “key”), Japanese might use キ (in katakana), き (in hiragana), and any number of kanjifor the syllable depending on the context and meaning of the character; some might be 幾 (meaning “some” or “how many”), 氣 (meaning “energy” or “atmosphere”), 木 (meaning “tree”), 箕 (referring to the “winnowing basket” constellation in Chinese astrology), or any other number of kanji, all of which we would transliterate as “ki”.  So it’s not as easy as it sounds; not everything is an alphabet!

So why am I talking about writing systems and languages?  Because this is a fundamental distinction between writing systems and spoken languages, and it impacts mathesis and grammatomancy, and Greek letter mysticism and magic more generally, in an important way for many of us non-Hellenes.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the use of stoicheia is a valuable tool in mathesis and grammatomancy.  It’s like isopsephy, or Greek gematria, in a lot of ways, but instead of evaluating a word in Greek using number, we evaluate it using the forces of planets, zodiac signs, and elements.  For instance, if we wanted to use the Greek name ΜΑΡΙΑ, “Maria”, we’d say that it’s a mixture of the forces of Libra (Μ), Capricorn (Ρ), the Sun (Ι), and the Moon (Α), perhaps indicating a balance of masculine and feminine or receptive and active powers balanced through darkness turning into light.  It’s a useful tool, especially when interpreting barbarous words of power that are best or originally written in Greek, but we have a major stumbling block when we come to the use of non-Greek words and names that aren’t historically written in Greek.  After all, I only know of systems of stoicheia and isopsephy for Hebrew and Greek, and I generally distrust anything for the Roman script since it’s highly language-specific, yet most languages I work with tend to be written in Roman.  Thus, for me to get a meaning out of something normally written in Roman script or one of its descendants (English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, etc.), I need to find a way to transliterate a non-Greek word into Greek script.

Consider my first given name, Samuel.  Samuel is a Hebrew name, originally written שְׁמוּאֵל (ShMVAL) and pronounced something more like “shmūwehl” originally.  However, in Latin, it’s written SAMVEL, and pronounced “sahmwel” as in modern Spanish.  In Greek, however, the name is written Σαμουηλ, or Samouēl and pronounced “samūīl”.  Since my name is natively a Hebrew one, I find a good argument to use Hebrew gematria and stoicheia for analyzing it, but since I also have a correspondingly clear way to write it in Greek, I can just as easily use Greek stoicheia and isopsephy for it.  However, the problem is that the meaning of the name is not preserved; in Hebrew, depending on your interpretation, the name means “God has heard” or “Name of God”, while in Greek it’s just a string of letters that’s pronounced “samūīl”.  If we were to translate the name, we’d end up with either Θεοκουσος (“Theokousos”) or Θεονοματιος (“Theonomatios”); these are straightforward translations of the name, and while we preserve the literal meaning of the name, we end up with radically different spellings, pronunciations, isopsephies, and stoicheias because the pronunciation, and thus the spelling, have changed.  So we can either go with the conventional spelling of Σαμουηλ, or we can go with the translation (properly “calque”) of Θεοκουσος, though I’m inclined towards the former, since a name is what you’re called, and the literal meaning of a word is often occluded by the importance of pronunciation (cf. all the barbarous words we use, which we don’t know the meaning of but we pronounce and intone them all the same for great effect).

Worse yet, the problem with my name is simple compared to many others, because Samuel is an old name in a well-known and well-translated/well-transliterated text in Greek from Hebrew.  Other languages, such as Chinese or Russian or parts of Africa, have no standardized way to transcribe names or words from their languages into Greek; the closest you can get is what best approximates the sound of it, unless you want to go the way of calquing things, which…honestly, if someone called me Theokūsos, I’d never respond to it as I would Samuel, so calquing is basically right out.  For many names in English, it can be easy, since Greek and English tend to share many sounds; for some languages like Chinese, this can be exceptionally difficult, since Chinese has many sounds that Greek does not, and the Greek alphabet isn’t equipped to handle the sounds or structure of Chinese spoken language.  (Worse, there’s no official means to transcribe Chinese using Greek, as there is with Hanyu Pinyin for Roman script, though there are some unofficial means to go from Hanyu Pinyin into Greek.)

Meditation on names is important; I claim that you don’t know yourself or where you’re going if you don’t know your own name, either given at birth or chosen at will.  And since I’m a big fan of using Greek to meditate on as a sacred or mystical writing system, then I like meditating on Greek letters if at all possible so as to understand what’s in a name.  It’s just that getting names into Greek, if they’re not already in Greek, can be difficult, especially for people like my Brazilian, Chinese, or Malaysian readers, especially if the language-to-be-transliterated-from doesn’t share the same sounds as Greek does, or as what the Greek alphabet is meant for.  However, there are some exceptions, and generally speaking what I do is this:

  • If the word is just a word and not normally used as a name or isn’t used as a name for a given entity, like discussing what a rose is, I’ll use the Greek word for it.  Thus, to talk about roses, I’d use the Greek word “rhodē” (ροδη).
  • If the name is natively a Greek name, like “Stephan” from Greek Στεφανος meaning “crown”, then I’ll use the Greek form of the name.
  • If the name is not natively Greek but has a corresponding form in old works like the Bible, like “Samuel” above, then I’ll use the Greek spelling of the name regardless of how the name is spelled or pronounced in the originating language.
  • If the name is not natively Greek, I’ll transliterate the name according to modern Greek rules of spelling and other conventions.  Thus, someone given the Chinese name Yuping (宇平),  I’d transliterate it as Γιουπιν, “Gioupin” pronounced “Yūpin”; the final “-ng” is typically written as “-ν”, since “ng” is a weird phoneme in Greek.
  • If the name is a common word, like a flower, I’ll typically use the phonetic spelling and not the Greek word.  Thus, if someone is named Rose in English, I’ll use the phonetic transliteration of Rhoūz (Ρoουζ) and not the corresponding Greek name Rhodē (Ροδη).

Transcribing a name or word from one spoken language (or written language!) into Greek can be difficult, since it requires a good understanding of what the letters actually sound like so as to prepare an accurate transliteration and transcription of the name or word.  However, once that’s out of the way, it’s then straightforward to understand the mystic meaning behind such a name using Greek letter mysticism via isopsephy and stoicheia.

Now, let’s say we’re comparing the names of two different people, say Stephen and Sarah.  Stephen is a native Greek name from Στεφανος, while Sarah is natively Hebrew spelled שָׂרָה (ShRH), yet we know it’d be spelled Σαρα since she’s a figure in the Old Testament.  Conversely, from Hebrew translations of the New Testament, we know that Stephen would be spelled סטיבן (STIBN) in Hebrew.  How do we go about comparing these two names?  Do we convert both names to one language, or do we mix-and-match based on the native language of each name?  When simply doing a run-of-the-mill analysis, I’d stick to the former when possible; I’d run a stoicheic and isopsephic analysis of Στεφανος in Greek, and a similar analysis of שָׂרָה in Hebrew and compare what results.  Thus, I’d reduce the name to what it mystically means on a stoicheic and numerologic level, and use that as my means of comparison:

  • The Greek name Στεφανος has the stoicheia Aquarius (Σ), Pisces (Τ), Mercury (Ε), Air (Φ), Moon (Α), Scorpio (Ν), and Mars (Ο).  It has the isopsephic value of 1326.
  • The Hebrew name שָׂרָה has the stoicheia Fire (Shin), Sun (Resh), and Aries (Heh).  It has a gematria value of 505.
  • Sarah has almost entirely fiery symbols, while Stephen is mostly air and water.
  • Although the number of Stephan is close to thrice that of Sarah, by reducing the value down by adding up the individual digits, we get 1 + 3 + 2 + 6 = 12 → 1 + 2 = 3 for Stephen and 5 + 0 + 5 = 10  → 1 + 0 = 1 for Sarah.  Alternatively, we ignore the powers of ten: for Stephen, we get Σ + Τ + Ε + Φ + Α + Ν + Ο + Σ = 200 + 300 + 5 + 500 + 1 + 50 + 70 + 200  → 2 + 3 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 5 + 7 + 2 = 30  → 3 + 0 = 3, and for Sarah, we get  5 + 200 + 300  → 5 + 2 + 3 = 1.

So, when we’re comparing two names against each other for the sake of a pure stoicheic and isopsephic analysis, I’d prefer to use the systems in place for the scripts in which a name is derived.  However, as I mentioned before, I only really trust the systems for Hebrew and Greek, and when possible, I prefer Greek; thus, if I were comparing Stephan and, say, Julius, I’d convert Julius to Greek as Ιουλιος and go from there.  And, even if I were analyzing a Hebrew name, I’d convert it to Greek anyway if I were using something like Christopher Cattan’s Wheel of Pythagoras or the onomatic astrology of Vettius Valens I mentioned last time; if there’s a Greek-specific system in place that I don’t have in place for another language, then I’ll convert any and all names into Greek for that system if I have to.

Thing is, however, that Greek (and Indo-European languages generally) tends to complicate things because of how it’s written and spoken.  There’s the whole problem of word endings: case and declension for nouns, and the voice, tense, mood, and the like with conjugation for verbs.  English, mercifully, has tended to drop those things out or simplify them dramatically from its Germanic ancestry, but Greek uses them heavily.  As a rule, when analyzing a word on its own, I tend to use the nominative case for nouns, and for verbs…well, I’m not great with Greek grammar too well just yet, and I haven’t decided how to approach that.  Still, because the ending of the words change based on how they’re used in a sentence, their letters change, and so too do their isopsephic values.  For uniformity, I just stick with the “plain jane” or “unmarked” endings.