Genius in the Picatrix: Analyzing the Vignette and the Names

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post introduced Perfect Nature and its four spiritual powers; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, let’s go back to that vignette of the pit and Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature.  Probably the biggest thing to note here is how Perfect Nature introduces itself, coming to Hermēs Trismegistus in a dream, offering a solution to Hermēs’ problem.  Upon asking who he is, Hermēs is given the response of “I am Perfect Nature”.  This, as Warnock and Greer have noted along with many other people before, is starkly reminiscent of the introduction to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermēs Trismegistus meets Poimandrēs (Copenhaver translation):

Once, when thought came to me of the things that are and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from too much eating or toil of the body, an enormous being completely unbounded in size seemed to appear to me and call my name and say to me: “What do you want to hear and see; what do you want to learn and know from your understanding?”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Poimandrēs,” he said, “mind of sovereignty; I know what you want, and I am with you everywhere.”

I said, “I wish to learn about the things that are, to understand their nature and to know god. How much I want to hear!” I said.

Then he said to me: “Keep in mind all that you wish to learn, and I will teach you.”

Similar indeed!  There’s an interesting reversal here, though: in the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermēs first wishes to explore, then Poimandrēs appears, introduces himself, and teaches Hermēs, but in the Picatrix, Hermēs first wishes to explore, then Perfect Nature appears, teaches Hermēs, and introduces himself.  It’s a small difference, and probably not all that important, since the end result is the same: Poimandrēs/Perfect Nature then commits to teaching Hermēs Trismegistus all that he wishes to know.

When it comes to the vignette in book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix, well…the whole thing is a little weird.  Why should Hermēs put himself “above a certain pit that was very deep and very dark, from which a certain impetuous wind blew”?  He did so to “understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities”, but what about this pit would be helpful for that?  We could interpret this literally, sure, but it might make more sense to interpret it figuratively.  The Chronos Speaks blog has a lovely article about this Picatrix chapter, concluding that:

This in mind, Hermes’ mysterious description of the method of contacting Perfect Nature starts to make a lot more sense. The “deep pit” is sleep itself which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness if we are not successful in achieving lucidity, the “impetuous wind” is the mental noise that prevents both sleep and lucidity (and which seems to get much stronger at the critical point), the “candle” is the light of awareness itself, and the “glass lantern” that protects awareness from being blown out is the recitation of the names of the Perfect Nature itself.

It’s not a bad way to think about this whole thing, and the post above connects the notion of lucid dreaming, sleeping, and other forms of sleep-based magic in Islamic spiritual practices.  Thus, it may well be that the pit itself is not a literal pit, but Hermēs Trismegistus trying to enter a state of lucid dreaming or other trance state in order to explore the cosmos (which is also a notion attested at several points in the Corpus Hermeticum involving the travels of the soul), and that the dream in which Perfect Nature appears to Hermēs is either a separate vision in the same dream or another trance revelation entirely.

I should also note that it’s the Chronos Speaks blog post above that tipped me off as to an origin and meaning for the four names.  As noted above, “Meegius Betzahuech Vacdez Nufeneguediz” is a corruption of Arabic “Tamāġīs Baġdīswād Waġdās Nūfānāġādīs”, but it’s likely that this itself is a corruption of other, older words.  In a footnote, Franz Rosenthal’s translation of Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah, when Ibn Khaldūn talks about “dream words” in the Picatrix, suggests that this set of barbarous words or divine names are definitely non-Arabic, and Rosenthal hypothesizes that this may well be an Aramaic phrase.  The specific section in which Rosenthal mentions this is when Ibn Khaldūn talks about “dream words”, specifically relating to the Picatrix (emphasis in bold mine):

In the Ghayah [i.e. the Picatrix] and other books by practitioners of magic, reference is made to words that should be mentioned on falling asleep so as to cause the dream vision to be about the things one desires. These words are called by (the magicians) “dream words” (al-halumah). In the Ghayah, Maslamah [the reported author of the Picatrix] mentioned a dream word that he called “the dream word of the perfect nature.” It consists of saying, upon falling asleep and after obtaining freedom of the inner senses and finding one’s way clear (for supernatural perception), the following non-Arabic words: tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis. The person should then mention what he wants, and the thing he asks for will be shown to him in his sleep.

A man is said to have done this after he had eaten but little and done dhikr exercises for several nights. A person appeared to him and said, “I am your perfect nature.” A question was put to that person, and he gave the man the information he desired.

With the help of these words, I have myself had remarkable dream visions, through which I learned things about myself that I wanted to know. However, (the existence of such dream words) is no proof that the intention to have a dream vision can produce it. The dream words produce a preparedness in the soul for the dream vision. If that preparedness is a strong one, (the soul) will be more likely to obtain that for which it is prepared. A person may arrange for whatever preparedness he likes, but that is no assurance that the thing for which preparations have been made will actually happen. The power to prepare for a thing is not the same as power over the thing (itself). This should be known and considered in similar cases.

[And] God “is wise and knowing.”

In his footnotes to this section, Rosenthal suggests that Ibn Khaldūn’s transcription of “tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis” should be read as Aramaic “tmaggesh b’eddan swadh waghdhash nawmtha ghadhesh”, which Rosenthal proposes to mean “you say your incantations at the time of conversation, and the accident of sleep happens”.  While there are certainly cases of barbarous words, divine names, and magical phrases that certainly have an Aramaic origin (e.g. one of my PGM favorites, ΑΚΡΑΜΜΑΧΑΜΑΡΕΙ), there are others that are only claimed as such without any real evidence to back it up (e.g. ABRACADABRA).  While I don’t have enough knowledge of Aramaic to say one way or other, and granted that Rosenthal is a respected authority on Aramaic and I’m not inclined to dispute him, I think it’s extremely hilarious that an Aramaic phrase that basically amounts to “Imma do the thing” becomes an Arabic magic phrase for doing the thing.

Going back to the vignette, what about the bit about Perfect Nature teaching Hermēs Trismegistus about the particular image, i.e. talisman, that he is to dig out of the pit to still the “impetuous wind” that blows within it?  Since the Picatrix is largely a collection (some might even say compendium) of various images to make for a variety of purposes and under a variety of powers, we’d expect something to come up to calm winds or something.  Yet, searching through the Picatrix, there’s not a lot in there that deals with winds specifically, and not a lot that deals with the weather generally, either.  Yet we find the phrase “impetuous winds”, virtually the same phrase, in a later invocation of the planet Venus from book III, chapter 7 (the famous chapter with all those, erm, long-winded planetary invocations), specifically “a prayer to Venus for love”—yet this is just an invocation, and no image is given for this work.  The only wind-related talisman that we really find in the Picatrix, however, is the famous Mirror of the Seven Winds (book IV, chapter 7).  This mirror lets one “gather men, winds, spirits, demons, the dead and the living, and all will obey you and be at your command”, as it grants “power over winds, men, and demons, and they will come obediently to you”.  It’s certainly an interesting and powerful apparatus of magic, to be sure, but I have my doubts about this, since I don’t see much of an actual tie-in here; as a result, I don’t believe the Picatrix preserves what the actual talisman is that Perfect Nature told Hermēs to recover.

But there’s something else here that bugs me about this whole vignette and the association of this being a metaphor for a deep state of sleep, at least as the Chronos Speaks post describes it as a pit “which drags one down into the oblivion of unconsciousness”.  In fact, the whole notion of a pit here is weird.  In almost every case in extant Hermetic literature, Hermēs Trismegistus is focused on ascent rather than descent.  Consider a number of cases from the Corpus Hermeticum (Copenhaver translation, emphasis in bold mine):

Once, when thought came to me of the things that are and my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained… (book I, chapter 1)

…To this Poimandres said: “First, in releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body’s senses rise up and flow back to their particular sourcesThence the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework…And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.  (book I, chapters 24 through 26)

You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you. (book I, chapter 31)

[God] filled a great mixing bowl with [Nous] 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.” (book IV, chapter 4)

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. (book IV, chapter 5)

For none of the heavenly gods will go down to earth, leaving behind the bounds of heaven, yet the human rises up to heaven and takes its measure and knows what is in its heights and its depths, and he understands all else exactly and—greater than all of this—he comes to be on high without leaving earth behind, so enormous is his range. (book X, chapter 25)

There are other bits scattered throughout the Hermetic canon, but these suffice to say that the spiritual approach and focus of Hermēs Trismegistus is focused on going up, not going down.  What, then, are we to make of this weird pit above which the Hermēs Trismegistus of the Picatrix stands?  I don’t disagree that this vignette takes place in a state of dream or trance, especially given the evidence from Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah.  But the symbolism here doesn’t much fit with the broader trends of Hermetic imagery; this isn’t to say that that the Picatrix is part of the classical Hermetic canon, at least as far as I reckon it, but it’s still perplexing how such a fundamental change in spiritual and symbolic direction would take place.

I propose, instead, that we turn the whole thing on its head, and quite literally so.  Take the image of the vignette, of Hermēs standing on top of a deep pit, and turn it upside down: either Hermēs standing at the bottom of a deep pit or, better yet, at the rock-bottom of the Earth looking up into the vault of Heaven.  If we take this latter image of Hermēs not looking down into the Earth but up into Heaven, the whole vignette suddenly becomes exactly we’d otherwise expect to see in a classical Hermetic text.  We can rethink the vignette accordingly:

  • Hermēs Trismegistus wanted to understand and draw forth the secrets of the workings of the world and of its qualities, and so put himself underneath the open sky, unknowably profound and full of darkness, within which impetuous and violent winds blew.  He could not pierce the darkness of the sky, and whenever he tried to gaze into it with the light of flame, the flame was put out by the winds.
  • In a dream, Perfect Nature came and told Hermēs to protect the candle from the wind in a lamp so that the wind will not extinguish it.
    • Seeing how encased lamps are a truly ancient invention, I’m surprised that this had to be pointed out to Hermēs.  However, this is also symbolic, as the Chronos Speaks blog points out.  By using the candle as one’s awareness, Hermēs trying to ascend into the heavens without preparation and protection, shutting himself off from the violent passions of the world and the influences of fate produced by the planets.
  • Upon reaching the highest heights of Heaven, Hermēs is to obtain a secret power which will still the violent winds of the skies, which will allow Hermēs to remove the candle from the lamp and hold it once more.
    • We can’t rightly use the notion of “digging out a talisman” when you’re literally as far from things to dig from as possible, but the notion of obtaining a secret power upon attaining the summit of the firmament isn’t that uncommon a notion.  If we were to think of this as an actual talisman, we could consider it to be something like the Mirror of the Seven Winds, the Sigillum Dei Aemeth, etc.
    • Something that the Chronos Speaks blogpost didn’t bring up was this crucial part: that, in the original vignette, the image that Hermēs digs up from the pit would allow him to put out the winds as well as remove the candle from the lamp to “hold the light there”—or, according to Atallah/Kiesel, “it will also light up the rest of the place”.  There’s this notion of separating and protecting the candle before rejoining with it again, of separating out and protecting one’s awareness before rejoining with it and letting it spread to all things, a sort of solve-et-coagula as well as expansion of consciousness and divine presence process going on here.
  • With the winds having been stilled and the light now free from the lamp fully illuminating all things, Hermēs should then obtain from the four pillars of Heaven (or, alternatively, the four corners of the World) the secrets of the world and the generation of all things, that which holds Heaven and Earth together.

This inverted scene of the vignette of the Picatrix becomes much more conformable to and understandable within the context of the usual body of Hermetic texts, no weird descent required.  So, where did this descent story come from?  Without knowing more about the background of the Picatrix or older versions of the Liber Antimaquis/Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis to reference, it’s hard to say.  One possibility could be that this is a way to relegate Hermēs Trismegistus to a mere pagan philosopher, keeping him focused on descent and the secrets of this world as opposed to the true divine secrets of God in Heaven within an Abrahamic or Islamic context, regardless whether this story was invented for the Picatrix or whether it relies on an older ascent story that was at some point inverted to become a descent story.  It’s not beyond the pale, I suppose, but given how much of pagan practice the Picatrix bluntly and outright preserves, even with the usual warnings of merely presenting this for the sake of knowledge while advising the faithful reader to turn away from them as idolatry, I doubt that such an inversion would have originated with the author of the Picatrix itself.

It’s also interesting to note how the vignette of Hermēs having to dig four more times in the pit—or, rather, look to the four pillars of Heaven/four corners of the World—after he obtains the talisman that stills the winds.  Knowing that there are four powers of Perfect Nature from the last post, it’s likely that this is a metaphor for each of those powers being developed one after another, all under the tutelage and protection of Perfect Nature itself.  This would suggest that before one can develop the four powers necessary to magic—the power of labor, the power of objects, the power of sense, the power of contemplation—we must first obtain the guidance of Perfect Nature.  In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of the Holy Guardian Angel from the Abramelin operation, where you first work to obtain knowledge and conversation with your Holy Guardian Angel, and only then proceed to the binding of the rulers of Hell and other sacred works.  After all, at the very start of this chapter, the Picatrix says that “nothing in this science can be perfected [i.e. completed] unless the virtue and disposition of the planets are inclined towards it by their own nature”, and it’s the role of the Perfect Nature to assist in doing just that.

While I’m sure there’s more that could be said or analyzed about the vignette, I feel like this is good enough for us to continue.  After all, this isn’t the entire vignette; the main part of this whole scene about Hermēs Trismegistus interacting with Perfect Nature is with Perfect Nature detailing a particular ritual to commune with it.  We’ll start talking about that next time.

The Twelve Irrational Tormentors and the Ten (or Seven) Rational Powers

Lately I’ve been reviewing some of my first real spiritual texts as part of my practice that I first began to familiarize myself with years ago: the Corpus Hermeticum.  These books, being a homegrown Egyptian manifestation of what could be considered Hellenic theurgic philosophy (either as Stoicizing Neoplatonism or Neoplatonizing Stoicism), are some of my favorite texts, amounting to my own “bible” as it were.  Granted, it’s been some time since I’ve last seriously sat down with them, and since I’ve been discussing parts of it with a colleague of mine, I figured it was high time to get back into chewing on them so I’m not just talking out of my ass when it comes to classical Hermetic philosophy and theurgy.  It’s a deeply rewarding practice, after all, and study is something that we can never truly finish; it always helps to review, reread, and rethink things from time to time.

There are essentially four versions of the Corpus Hermeticum that I consult:

  1. Clement Salaman, The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius.  Inner Traditions, 2004.  This is the most readable and accessible version of the Corpus Hermeticum, in my opinion, and also includes the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus, which was the focus of that massive blog project I did back in late 2013 that inspected all 49 definitions.  (I should probably review some of those one of these days.)
  2. Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction.  Cambridge University Press, 1995.  This is the version of the Corpus Hermeticum I started with, and though it’s not as accessible as Salaman’s translation, it’s still a very good translation all the same, and gives a slightly more critical and academic approach.
  3. G. R. S. Mead, The Corpus Hermeticum.  Thrice Greatest Hermes, vol. 2.  London, 1906.  Available in the public domain on  This is the most popular one that most people know and have used for over a hundred years, and though it has some Theosophical biases, it’s still a surprisingly good translation, even if the prose is overwrought.
  4. Walter Scott, Hermetica: The ancient Greek and Latin Writings which contain religious or philosophic teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, vol. 1.  Clarendon Press, 1924.  Though the translation isn’t considered good, Scott includes critical editions of the actual Greek text of the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Latin of the Asclepius, so this is pretty useful for that reason alone.

If you want to read something better than the Kybalion, which would basically be anything and everything, I’d recommend the Corpus Hermeticum.  (NB: Kybalion delendum est.)

Anyway, I was flipping through the Corpus, refreshing some of the things I knew and being reminded of the things I’ve forgotten.  It was in book XIII, where Tat asks Hermēs Trismegistus for help in attaining divinity and, eventually reaches it, that I found something fascinating that I must have skipped over before.  Whether it’s due to my engineering training or my love of Buddhist text, it’s when things appear in lists that I snap to attention, and Hermēs describes a list of twelve “Hermetic sins of the body” that keep us ensnared in darkness and ignorance, as well as ten “Hermetic virtues of the soul” that free us from darkness and ignorance.  Fascinated by these lists, I dug in, and I started matching them up to a few other parts of the Corpus Hermeticum I know, the results of mulling over which I wanted to share.  I’ll let you, dear reader, pick your own preferred version of the Corpus Hermeticum and read (at minimum) books I and XIII on your own, which I recommend you do so before continuing with this post.

Ready?  Good.  So, as Hermēs states in book XIII, we have these twelve “irrational tormentors of the body” (ἄλογα τιμωρία τῆς ὕλης, áloga timōría tês húlēs).  The specific word being used here is technically τιμωρία, timōría, literally “retribution” or “vengeance” or even “punishment”, but usually translated here as “tormentor” or “torturer”.  Collectively, they all arise fundamentally from irrationality, the true lack of reason (which is emphasized in the Corpus Hermeticum as being divine, as it is truly Λόγος, Lógos, “the Word”).  Hermēs lists these tormentors as below; I give both the Greek term used in Scott along with the various translations that Salaman, Copenhaver, et al. have provided for these terms.

# Greek Salaman Copenhaver Mead Scott
1 ἄγνοια Ignorance Ignorance Not-knowing Ignorance
2 λύτη Sorrow Grief Grief Grief
3 ἀκρασία Intemperance Incontinence Incontinence Incontinence
4 ἐπιθυμία Lust Lust Concupiscence Desire
5 ἀδικία Injustice Injustice Unrighteousness Injustice
6 πλεονεξία Greed Greed Avarice Covetousness
7 ἀπάτη Deceit Deceit Error Deceitfulness
(or being deceived,
i.e. error)
8 φθόνος Envy Envy Envy Envy
9 δόλος Treachery Treachery Guile Fraud
10 ὀργή Anger Anger Anger Anger
11 προπέτεια Recklessness Recklessness Rashness Rashness
12 κακία Malice Malice Malice Vice
(or malice)

Of course, though these are the main tormentors of the body that we have to deal with, Hermēs notes that “besides these there are many others”, but these seem to be the major ones that either rule lesser tormentors or which themselves are the causes or predecessors of others.  Together, they “compel the inner man who dwells in the prison of his body to suffer through his senses”.  Hemēs is explicit, too in giving each of these a zodiacal association, even if he doesn’t say which belongs to which sign: “this tent of the body through which we have passed…is composed from the zodiac and this consists of signs, twelve in number; the body is of one nature and appears in every form; it exists to lead man astray”.  I think a simple association could be drawn up such that the first tormentor listed, “ignorance”, be given to the first sign Aries, the second “sorrow” to Taurus, the third “intemperance” to Gemini, and so forth.  It’s not exactly clear to see how each of these might be matched up with their corresponding sign, like why Aquarius should be linked to Recklessness in this way, but we’ll just accept it for granted for now.

But all hope is not lost for us!  Though these tormentors of the body plague us and trap us, “these tormentors depart one by one from the man who receives God’s mercy”, which manifests itself as ten “powers of God” (δυνάμεις θεοῦ, dunámeis theoû) that cleanse the body and soul of the twelve (and more) irrational tormentors:

# Greek Salaman Copenhaver Mead Scott
1 γνῶσις θεοῦ Knowledge of God Knowledge of God Gnosis of God Knowledge of God
2 χαρα Experience of Joy Knowledge of Joy Joy Joy
3 ἐγκράτεια Self-control Continence Continence Continence
4 καρτερία Steadfastness Perseverance Steadfastness Endurance
5 δικαιοσύνη Justice Justice Righteousness Justice
6 κοινωνία Generosity Liberality Sharing-with-all Unselfishness
7 ἀλήθεια Truth Truth Truth Truth
8 ἀγαθός Supreme Good the Good the Good Good
9 ζωή Life Life Life Life
10 φώς Light Light Light Light

Moreover, each of the powers (or at least most of them) correspond to a specific tormentor that it specifically chases out or conquers.  Using the Salaman translations of the tormentors and powers:

Tormentor Power
Ignorance Knowledge of God
Sorrow Experience of Joy
Intemperance Self-control
Lust Steadfastness
Injustice Justice
Greed Generosity
Deceit Truth
Envy Good, Life, Light

Note that the last three powers, the Good with Life and Light, seem to act as a triune force, because once Truth arrives, “the Supreme Good arises”, and Life and Light come together with it, and together they chase out the “torments of darkness” (τιμωρία τοῦ σκότος, timōría toû skótos).  Hermēs says that Life and Light are specifically united together, and “this unity is born from spirit”; this echoes what Poimandrēs told Hermēs back in book I of the Corpus Hermeticum: “the truth is: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten”.

With all ten powers present, “spiritual birth is complete…and by this birth we have become divine”.  These are all given by the mercy of God, which quells the torments of the bodily senses, and one who has these powers “knows himself and rejoices”; these ten powers “beget the soul”.  There’s some Pythagorean influence here in how these are described: Life and Light together form a unit, a henad (the number One), and the henad is the source of the decad (the number Ten), and “the Henad contains the Decad” while at the same time “the Decad [contains] the Henad”.  If we consider “spirit” here to be fundamentally the spirit of God, then we can consider this to be equivalent or identified with the power of the Good itself, from which come Life and Light, and from those two all the other powers derive.  This dimly kinda recalls how I plotted out the ten spheres onto the Tetractys as part of my Mathēsis stuff, with “the Supreme Good” being simply the Monad at the top, Light being the right-hand sphaira of the Dyad (the sphere of the fixed stars, the active power) and Life being the left-hand sphaira (the sphere of the Earth, the passive power):

At the same time, note that we have two systems going on here: a system of twelve (the tormentors) and a system of ten (the powers).  We start off by specifically linking one tormentor to one power, but after the first seven pairs, the last five seem to get jumbled together.  Hermēs says that “among the signs…there are pairs united in activity”, and notes that recklessness is inseparable with and indistinguishable from anger.  Copenhaver notes that, in this light, four of the twelve tormentors can be considered as two pairs broken up; if this is so and they are reduced into units, such as anger and recklessness into a combined tormentor, then we go from twelve tormentors to ten, but we don’t know what the other pair is (perhaps envy and treachery?).  If that were the case, and if we consider the sequence of introducing Good and Life and Light to be reversed given a descent of the Dyad from the Henad, then we might come up with the following scheme:

Tormentor Power
Ignorance Knowledge of God
Sorrow Experience of Joy
Intemperance Self-control
Lust Steadfastness
Injustice Justice
Greed Generosity
Deceit Truth
Envy and Treachery Light
Anger and Recklessness Life
Malice Good

That being said, I don’t know if I trust that specific scheme; Copenhaver notes that such an understanding of some of the tormentors isn’t agreed upon.  After all, though it’s definitely not contemporaneous with this, we can bring in a bit of Qabbalah here to justify keeping the systems of twelve tormentors and ten powers separate rather than forcing them onto the same scheme of ten.  Recall that the lower seven sefirot of the Tree of Life are considered underneath the Veil of the Abyss that separate the upper three sephiroth (Keter, Ḥokmah, Binah) from the lower seven (Ḥesed, Geburah, Tiferet, Neṣaḥ, Hod, Yesod, Malkut).  The upper three sefirot, then, are considered a trinity unto themselves that, from the perspective of everything below it, act as a unity.  Not to equate the sefirot of the Tree of Life here with what Hermēs is talking about, but it does offer an interesting possible parallel to how we might consider how these powers function and upon what.

By that same token, however, this means that the last five tormentors of the body (envy, treachery, anger, recklessness, and malice) seem to function differently than the first seven, in that the first seven have a distinct power of God that chases them out while the latter five are only chased out by the highest attainments of powers of God themselves, and that indistinctly.  In a way, this brings to mind part of book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, when Hermēs is communing with Poimandrēs, who tells Hermēs about “how the way back [to Nous, i.e. the Divinity of the Mind] is found”.  In this part of book I, there’s this notion of heavenly ascent through the seven planetary spheres, where one gives up a particular force (vice? tormentor?) associated with each of the planets.  Using Salaman’s translation of this section as a base, and giving the alternative translations of Copenhaver, Mead, and Scott for each of those forces:

First, in the dissolution of the material body, one gives the body itself up to change.  The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power your habitual character, now inactive.  The bodily senses return to their own sources.  Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of emotions and desire go to mechanical nature.

Thus a man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos:

  1. To the first plain [of the Moon], he surrenders the activity of growth and diminution;
    1. Copenhaver: “increase and decrease”
    2. Mead: “growth and waning”
    3. Scott: “the force which works increase and the force that works decrease”
  2. To the second [of Mercury], the means of evil, trickery now being inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “evil machination”
    2. Mead: “device of evils”
    3. Scott: “machinations of evil cunning”
  3. To the third [of Venus], covetous deceit, now inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “illusion of longing”
    2. Mead: “guile of desires”
    3. Scott: “lust whereby men are deceived”
  4. To the fourth [of the Sun], the eminence pertaining to a ruler, being now without avarice;
    1. Copenhaver: “arrogance of rulers”
    2. Mead: “domineering arrogance”
    3. Scott: “domineering arrogance”
  5. To the fifth [of Mars], impious daring and reckless audacity;
    1. Copenhaver: “unholy presumption and daring recklessness”
    2. Mead: “unholy daring and rashness of audacity”
    3. Scott: “unholy daring and rash audacity”
  6. To the sixth [of Jupiter], evil impulses for wealth, all of these being now inactive;
    1. Copenhaver: “evil impulses that come from wealth”
    2. Mead: “striving for wealth by evil means”
    3. Scott: “evil strivings after wealth”
  7. And to the seventh plain [of Saturn], the falsehood which waits in ambush.
    1. Copenhaver: “deceit that lies in ambush”
    2. Mead: “ensnaring falsehood”
    3. Scott: “falsehood which lies in wait to work harm”

Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming.  Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice.  Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God.  This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.

This final part of what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs in book I touches on what Hermēs and Tat discuss in book XIII once Tat receives the ten powers and attains divinity:

T:  Then, o Father, I wish to hear the hymn of praise which you said was there to be heard from the powers, on my birth into the eighth sphere.

H: I will recite it, o son; just as Poimandrēs revealed the eighth sphere to me.  You do well to make haste to free yourself from the tent of the body, for you have been purified.  Poimandrēs, the Nous of the Supreme, gave me no more than what has been written, being aware that I should be able to know all things by myself and to hear what I wanted to hear, and to see all, and he charged me to create works of beauty.  Wherefore the powers in me sing also in all things.

This follows with the Secret Hymn, or what I call the Initiatory Hymn of Silence.  Though some aspects of what Poimandrēs told Hermēs differs from what Hermēs is telling Tat, the fundamental process is the same: we either give up or chase off the irrational forces of matter and flesh that ensnare us and shroud us in ignorant darkness, and what remains after that (or what we replace with them) are the divine powers that enable us to return to a truly divine state.  This is what Hermēs tells Tat earlier on in book IV:

T: I also wish to be immersed in Nous, o father.

H: If you don’t hate your body, son, you cannot love your Self.  If you love your Self, you will have Nous, and having Nous you will partake of knowledge.

T: Why do you say that, father?

H: For, son, it is impossible to be governed by both, by the mortal and by the divine.  There are two kinds of beings, the embodied and the unembodied, in whom there is the mortal and the divine spirit.  Man is left to choose one or the other, if he so wishes.  For one cannot choose both at once; when one is diminished, it reveals the power of the other.

There’s this notion in the Corpus Hermeticum of a spiritual (re)birth that happens when we reject the irrational powers of the body and seek (or, as a result of rejecting the tormentors, are given) the rational powers of God, a process of spiritual ascension through forsaking the material, which we can perform while still embodied so long as we retract our awareness away from the senses and perceptions of the body.  In other words, by letting go of the body (even while still possessing it, or rather, being possessed by it), we grasp onto the Good.  This shouldn’t be interpreted as some sort of banally gnostic, simplistically dualistic world-hating, but as a simple understanding that focusing on the body keeps us in the body and away from God.  (There’s a lovely essay, Agrippa’s Dilemma: Hermetic ‘Rebirth’ and the Ambivalences of De Vanitate and De occulta philosophia by Michael Keefer, that I recommend for reading on this point, especially regarding Cornelius Agrippa’s own Christian interpretation of this Hermetic approach to salvation.)

And what of the torments?  How do they actually torment us?  Consider what Poimandrēs tells Hermēs when they discuss those who do not have Nous:

As for those without Nous—the evil, the worthless, the envious, the greedy, murderers, the ungodly—I am very far from them, having given way to the avenging spirit, who assaults each of them through the senses, throwing fiery darts at them.  He also moves them to greater acts of lawlessness so that such a man suffers greater retribution, yet he does not cease from having limitless appetite for his lust nor from fighting in the dark without respite.  The avenging spirit then puts him to torture and increase the fire upon him to its utmost.

It’s not that the Hermetic deity is a jealous or vengeful god that those without Nous should be deprived from people, since the lack of Nous isn’t really much more than being immersed in the darkness of matter and not living a life that focuses on the light of spirit.  As material beings that are born, we must also die, and so long as we focus on being material, we must and deserve to die, but once we strive for immaterial immortality, we begin to attain Nous.  By identifying with the material, we suffer material conditions, but by identifying with the spiritual, we enjoy spiritual ones; in a cosmic sense, “you are what you eat”.  In this sense, it’s not that Poimandrēs actively wants us to suffer, but that suffering is part and parcel of being material; for as long as we strive to be material, we suffer, and the more we try to be material, the more we suffer.  The “avenging spirit”, in this case, isn’t really a distinct devil or demon, but the torments of the body itself; the phrase used here is τιμωρῷ δαίμονι (timōrôy daímoni), with “avenging” (τιμωρός, timōrós) being fundamentally the same word as “torturer” (τιμωρία) from above.

What’s interesting now, at this point, is how we now have two models of irrational forces: a set of seven that are associated with the planets according to Poimandes, and a set of twelve that are associated with the zodiac signs from Hermēs, and there isn’t a clean match between them for us to link one set to the other.  There are some similarities, sure; the seventh zodiacal torment of Deceit (or, perhaps better, Error) is much like the seventh planetary force of falsehood; the sixth zodiacal torment of Greed is basically the sixth planetary force of evil striving for wealth, and so forth.  But there are also differences; it’s hard to see how the second zodiacal torment of Sorrow is at all like the second planetary force of evil machination.  Except that the word translated as “sorrow” for the second zodiacal torment is λύπη lúpē, which technically refers to pain of body or mind and is also related to the Greek verb λυπέω lupéō, with meanings including “grieve”, “vex”, “distress”, “feel pain”.  In this, if we consider this to be a mental anguish, we might bring to mind the temperament of melancholy, which can lead to states of mind including depression, fear, anxiety, mistrust, suspicion, and deeper cogitations; all these can definitely be linked to “evil machinations”, which was classically considered a symptom of being too melancholic.  Likewise, it’s not easy to immediately link the first zodiacal torment of Ignorance with the first planetary force of increase and decrease, but as Tat complains to Hermēs in book XIII:

T: I am dumbstruck and bereft of my wits, O father, for I see that your size and features remain the same.

H: In this you are deceived.  The mortal form changes day by day, with the turning of time it grows and decays, its reality is a deception.

T: What then is true, Trismegistus?

H: The untroubled, unlimited, colorless, formless, unmoving, naked, shining, self-knowing; the unchanging Good without a body.

So, maybe the seven planetary forces described by Poimandrēs really are the first seven of the zodiacal torments of Hermēs, just phrased in another way for another audience.  This lends some credence to the notion from above that the last five of the zodiacal torments really are of a different set or nature; after all, if Hermēs admits to Tat that there are far more torments than just the twelve he named, maybe Hermēs was just naming more than strictly necessary to show that the way is long and hard, beset by so many torments.  Yet, once we chase out the first seven, the others follow suit, because “upon the arrival of Truth, the Supreme Good arises…the Supreme Good, together with Life and Light, has followed upon Truth, and the torments of darkness no longer fall upon us, but conquered; they all fly off with a rush of wings”.  In this, the final five zodiacal torments could simply be called “darkness”, all chased off by Light (which is unified with Life and the Good).  And, fundamentally, regardless whether we take a planetary approach (being ruled by the wandering stars) or a zodiacal approach (being ruled by the fixed stars), the world of matter is governed by celestial forces that we need to break free of or give back what they force upon us.

Also, note that there are interesting differences in how Hermēs describes the attainment of the various powers of God: Hermēs says that knowledge of God and experience of Joy “come to us”, while he summons self-control, steadfastness, justice, generosity, and truth, and once truth “arrives”, the triune powers of Good-Life-Light “arise”.  Given that truth “arrives” after Hermēs summons it, and that the knowledge of God and experience of joy similarly arrive, it stands to reason that Hermēs also calls on those first two powers as well.  In effect, we have the first seven powers of God which we call or summon, and the last three which arise on their own without being summoned, instead following the summoning of truth.  In this, it seems like we only truly need to work to call forth (or reach towards) the first seven powers of God; once we have those seven, you attain the last three as a natural result.  This is effectively like breaking past the Veil of the Abyss in a Qabbalistic sense; sure, there’s always more work to be done (after all, “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”), but once you’ve made that jump, there’s truly nothing left stopping you.  Once you break into the eighth sphere from the seventh, it’s just a matter of time (“in due order”, according to Poimandrēs) of further elevation and ascension.

And, true enough, this isn’t the last we see of these powers that chase off the torments.  At the end of Book XIII, Hermēs passes onto Tat the Secret Hymn, what I call the Initiatory Hymn of Silence.  After Tat has been reborn through the ten divine powers that Hermēs describes and becomes one in Nous, Tat requests Hermēs to sing the “hymn of praise” that is sung by the holy entities of the eighth sphere to God.  Hermēs does so, though he “had not thought to impart [it] so easily”.  Hermēs instructs that it should be said outdoors “under the clear sky” facing the south at sunset, and east at sunrise.  After Hermēs begins the hymn proper, the hymn follows more-or-less the same format of the powers that Hermēs earlier referred to that themselves sing to God:

O powers within me, sing to the One and All!
All you powers, sing praise together at my bidding.
Divine Knowledge, illumined by you, I sing through you of the spiritual light and I rejoice in the joy of Nous.
Sing praise with me, all you powers!
Temperance, sing with me!
Justice, through me praise what is just!
Generosity, through me praise the All!
Truth, sing of the truth!
Good, praise the Good!
Life and Light, from you comes the praise and to you it returns.
I give thanks to you, Father, the strength of all my powers.
I give thanks to you, God, power of all my strength.
Your Word through me sings to you.
Receive all back through me by the Word, a spoken sacrifice.

Though it might have passed as high-brow yet pop spiritual philosophy back in the day, the Corpus Hermeticum really is a fundamental work for Western spiritual practices, and is fundamentally useful and instructive in matters of theurgy.  What we see above is a sort of plan or map for attaining divinity through theurgic practices, by means of purifying the senses and purging the soul of material influences so as to become a freer, truly immortal power of God ourselves.  By taking the accounts of Hermēs into consideration, we can figure out how we stand in terms of our bodies and souls, what we need to focus on to continue along our spiritual paths, and how we can maintain ourselves in a matter of right and proper living through right and divine reason.

EDIT (2019-07-30): So it turns out the excellent Reverend Erik put up his own post touching on this same topic, tying it into other practices and parallels in other traditions, back in September last year.  Go check it out for more information on this wonderful topic!