On the Hermetic Afterlife: A Cause for Theurgy

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for various kinds of necromantic works.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Honestly, those past two posts along with this present one were originally just going to be all one post, alliteratively entitled “Ramifications and Repercussions” to talk about what the Hermetic model of the afterlife we’ve been discussing has to say so as to inform and explain various works, but it turns out that there’s just more out there than I anticipated.  (Which is also why this now six-post series is so many posts, instead of just one as I originally envisioned; c’est la vie.)  This last topic I want to address was also going to fit into the same idea as before, but considering how different it is from the religious rituals of funerals and ancestor veneration/elevation or from the magical rituals of various forms of necromancy, but—in addition to the last two posts reaching about 4000 words each—this topic really deserves a post of its own, which I think will act as a nice conclusion to the whole series.

So: why should the Hermeticist do theurgy?

“Theurgy” is a complicated term, and can easily be misunderstood.  I recall one time when I sent a mod message to the moderators of /r/Ptolemaicism, asking to share news about my Preces Templi ebook on their subreddit since I felt it was fairly appropriate for “a community of Greco-Egyptian polytheists interested in conversing about philosophy and their beliefs/practices” (according to their sidebar).  I introduced myself as “magician and researcher of the occult, especially in the fields of classical Hermeticism and Greco-Egyptian magical and ritual practices”, which…well, apparently was not received too well, since I got this reply back from the mods:

The use of the occult and Theurgical magic implies bending the gods to your whim for your aims, which is both Goetia and hubris.

Perhaps needless to say, I think their understanding of theurgy (and magic generally) is ridiculously off-base and shows a lack of historical awareness that’s as grievous as it is hilarious.  However, given the difficulty and wide range of understandings of what “theurgy” means to different people, whether from a scholarly perspective or not, I suppose I can’t blame them too much.

On this topic, I’ll follow the explanation of the excellent Martiana (of SARTRIX, both her WordPress archive and her newer Miraheze wiki) on this topic, given her own article on it:

Theurgy (gr. θεουργία theourgía, lat. theurgia), also called the theurgical art (gr. θεουργική τέχνη theourgikḗ tekhnē, lat. theurgica ars or discīplīna), is a term of ambiguous meaning, further obscured by frankly obscurantist scholarship. The two main senses are the following:

  1. A specific tradition of ritual practices, apparently originating with a group called the theurges or Chaldaeans (most famous for the Chaldaic Oracles), and later adopted by the Neoplatonists.
  2. Ritual in general, as theorized by the Neoplatonists, and especially Iamblichus. Later Neoplatonists largely use the term ‘hieratic (priestly) art’ for this, restricting ‘theurgy’ to the first meaning.

Through systematic mistranslation of ‘hieratic’ as ‘theurgy’, and pervasive conflation of both senses in the secondary literature, the subject has become extremely confused in modern times, although it is fairly transparent in the primary sources.

[…] It is, in fact, probably its nonspecificity on an etymological level that made Iamblichus adopt the term in the second, generic meaning, as a counterpart to theology: ‘practice relating to the gods’ as opposed to ‘discourse relating to the gods’.

So what would “theurgy” mean within the context of Hermeticism?  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote both Christian Bull’s Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus:

We should first take notice that there is nothing called the “way of Hermes” in our sources; this is an abstraction created in scholarly literature, and the closest we come is when Iamblichus states that Hermes has led the way on the path of theurgy. The goal of theurgy is ascent and indeed we find in the Hermetica mention of a “way leading upwards,” which the souls must follow in order to reach God, the good, the beautiful or truth. The diversity of terms used makes it unlikely that the “way” here is a technical term; rather, it is a metaphor like “way of life”: if life is a journey, then sticking to one specific path implies determination and the promise of a safe arrival at the desired destination. (§4.1)

And another pair of quotes from Wouter Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination:

Salvation required ceremonial practice, ritual theurgy or “the work of the gods,” as cultivated by Egyptian priests in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. (ch. 4)

In sum, theurgy was an integral practice of healing both body and soul. It worked through the ritual induction of altered states that made it possible for the gods to enter practitioners’ bodies and purify their souls, so that they might be as effective as possible in the task of channeling spiritual energies into the material world. The function of philosophy was to provide theoretical justification for this practice. (ch. 4)

Within a Hermetic context as I consider it, while there are many aspects of practice that feed into it, “theurgy” refers as a whole to the ritual practice of attaining “the way up” while alive.  That last qualification there is important, because while CH I suggests that “the way up” happens after we die and our souls make an ascent for the final time, we should bear in mind that CH I is only one of the three “beating hearts” that illustrate the mystic purpose and guidance of Hermeticism, the other two being CH XIII and Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (NHC VII.6).  If I were to summarize these three texts and why they’re so important to Hermeticism:

  • CH I (together with CH VII as an expansion of CH I.27—28) lays the mythic foundation for Hermeticism, the establishment of the proper human ēthos (remember that discussion?) as being one of reverence, the establishment of Mind/nous as something divine that affords salvation, the cosmology of the planetary spheres with the eighth and ninth spheres beyond fate, and “the way up” describing the ascent of the soul from within the bounds of fate to beyond it
  • CH XIII describes a process of spiritual rebirth, a hylic exorcism and reformation of a person from a mere body of matter and torment to a divine body of holy powers that affords one Mind and divine awareness
  • NHC VII.6 describes a process of spiritual elevation whereby one ascends into the eighth and ninth spheres of the cosmos (those above the planets and, thus, above fate) while still in the body.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, all of these texts revolves around the same core idea, but each of them have things that the others don’t, and together reveal something fascinating: that we are not limited to making such an ascent to “the way up” after death, but can do so while alive.

For most people, living a life of reverence and respect for the Creator and the Creation is sufficient to just have a good live and to make such spiritual progress to attempt “the way up”, whether or not one does so in this life or over a series of lives, each time rising to a higher and higher soul-stratum until one graduates out of the dwelling-place of souls entirely.  However, by now after having fleshed out the Hermetic model of the afterlife so much, I think the risks of this should be apparent: this process is not guaranteed, because anything can happen from one life to the next.  Being human, we are all susceptible to the irrational tormentors of matter and/or the planetary energies that not only allow for us to be incarnate but which also set the stage for us to suffer while incarnate, which can easily mislead and waylay us while we’re alive, which means that, no matter how well we do from life to life, there’s always a chance that we might get “stuck” as we try to live our lives in a way that leads to an elevation to higher soul-strata or ascension beyond them.  On top of that, there’s also still the possibility  that we haven’t ruled out of us attempting “the way up” when we’re not ready, which could yield disastrous consequences if we’re unable to give up something we otherwise need to in order to keep rising.  Worse, every time we go through the process of reincarnation, we basically have to start over, and even if we’re blessed to live a privileged, cushy life, without the proper spiritual instruction (or without an extreme gift of metempsychotic memory), our souls may end up trying so hard or getting so far without it really mattering anyway; we might end up just living a good life one time just to live sloppily and fall back down to a worse life the next.  Without spiritual instruction and repeated lives of dedication and discipline and devotion, a soul being able to mature itself enough to make “the way up” on its own is extremely unlikely and difficult to attain, taking place only over the course of potentially endless lifetimes (if at all, otherwise caught up in an endless cycle of reincarnation).

This is why we have the instructions and teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, passed on from Poimandrēs and through Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn so that, through Hermēs & co., “the human race might be saved by God”.  It is all for this goal, to “leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality”, that Hermēs began teaching the world the way of salvation and proper, right, righteous life so that we might enjoy true Life; it is these teachings that are the “words of wisdom” that his students “were nourished from the ambrosial water”.  Having access to these teachings and learning about what all this means for us helps us dramatically, even for those who are completely uninterested in ritual or religion and just want to live a simple, quiet life of contemplation and reverence for God; for them, attaining “the way up” is much easier, since they can transform their life from one without reverence (and thus with no chance of Mind) to one with reverence (and thus at least a good chance of Mind, if not the assurance of it).  However, even still, as evidenced by how many times Hermēs’ students got things wrong or even were mislead by their own enlightened perspectives, it’s clear that we can still screw things up for ourselves, which means that, while living a proper life is a good method to achieve “the way up”, it is not a foolproof method of doing so; there is still an error rate that risks so much.

This is where theurgy comes into the question, because it essentially guarantees “the way up” after death by attaining it before death.  In a way, this is the Hermetic approach to Eckhart Tolle’s quote about “the secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ —and find that there is no death”.  After all, consider CH XIII, which contains an account of the spiritual rebirth of Tat: in order to be reborn, you first must die.  In CH XIII’s case, the “death” of Tat consists first of his utter bewilderment that ends up closing off his senses in a state of delirium (CH XIII.6) and the chasing-out of the irrational tormentors of matter (CH XIII.8—9), which only then culminates in a rebirth of the body composed of the divine mercies of God which chased out the tormentors (CH XIII.8—9) and revealed a vision of the divine that fills Tat’s newborn perceptions (CH XIII.11—13).  In NHC VII.6, we read that Hermēs and Tat (we presume) are progressing to the eighth and ninth spheres because they have already “advanced to the seventh, since we are faithful and abide in your law”, meaning that they have already done the work of giving up to the planets the things appropriate to them so that they might ascend past them, which is what enables them to reach higher and to experience—while still possessing mortal, corporeal bodies—the same sights and visions and experience as any other soul that has attained and abides within those hyperplanetary spheres.

By engaging in works like this while alive, not only do we gain more insight as to how to live a good life all the more perfectly to the utmost degree, we also basically do the equivalent of a TSA PreCheck: instead of having to clear every single checkpoint on “the way up”, we can basically bypass them all entirely because we’ve already cleared them ahead of time.  While a soul making “the way up” after death for the first time has to do the work after death to get past each gate, a soul that is already familiar with “the way up” simply zips along it without any traffic or toll stops, having prepaid everything earlier.  It takes out the whole guesswork not only of figuring out which is the proper way to live, but also takes out all the doubt of attaining the salvific end described by Poimandrēs.  It keeps us from having to worry about whatever might come after death, and shows us the risk we take in not taking that path—and even should we choose further reincarnation, it would be far better to do so with the keys to the kingdom already in our pocket and the road to it still fresh in our memory.

In this, we get to see Hermeticism as not only a kind of mysticism, but also a kind of mystery religion alongside the likes of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries, the Isaic Mysteries, or the like, all of which promised some sort of guaranteed blessed afterlife free from the sorrows or sighs of the gloom and shade that those who were not initiated into were (most likely) bound for.  This is exactly the same sort of promise that Hermetic theurgy promises: rather than risk a potentially-endless cycle of suffering that comes part and parcel with incarnation, we can instead be guaranteed a way to resolve it and achieve an existence higher, nobler, more beautiful, and more divine beyond anything else that exists or might exist.  Hermeticism, after all, isn’t just a mystic movement to rejoice rightly, rightfully, and righteously with Creation as a Creature of the Creator, but also a mystery path of salvation that grants us access to the highest heights of divinity itself.  In that light, having a model of death, dying, the afterlife, reincarnation, and all the rest that we’ve been talking about helps inform us as to why we should care at all about this mystery side of Hermeticism as opposed to just the mystical; it gives us a cause to engage in the theurgy of Hermeticism, these hieratic practices that enable us to be truly holy instead of just living a holy life.

About this time last year (funny how this focus on death and the dead comes around come Scorpio season!), I made a post detailing the overall attitude towards death and dying in the Hermetic texts, even reaching into later medieval-period words.  The overall focus in the Hermetic texts isn’t that we should fear death, which is no more than the dissolution of the body, because we are emphatically not our bodies; we are immortal souls that merely wear bodies for a time before moving on.  As a result, we should not fear death, and instead rejoice in life while taking care to live our lives properly.  What is more scant and scarce in the Hermetic texts, however, yet present in quiet whispers and overlooked traces like from AH 28 or SH 25—26, is what we should be fearful about concerning what is after death and what the risks are that we take in living our lives carelessly.  To be sure, there is no eternal punishment, no forsaking of the soul, no permanent loss of one’s way or self at all in Hermeticism as one might find in other spiritual traditions; as such, there’s no need to fear some sort of permadeath hell or whatever, and that’s not a point that the Hermetic texts try to make.  (At least, outside the context of AH 28; within that context, the bit about being tormented forever in a hell of the winds may itself not be truly forever, as when the whole cosmos is remade and “reset”, it may also be that such souls are also returned to a new cosmos for a new attempt.)  Rather, we have as many chances as we might need to do what we need to do, go where we need to go, know what we need to know, and become what we must be—but we have something of a fire under our feet to do so as effectively and efficiently, as quickly and speedily as possible.

To close, I’ll leave us with Hermēs Trismegistos’ own initial proclamation, his kerygma wherein he announced to the world for the first time:

People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.

Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.

With that, this little exploration of what I can figure out and piece together regarding the model of the afterlife and reincarnation, the questions that it raises and which I cannot yet answer on my own, and how it impacts, informs, instructs, and inspires us towards our other spiritual practices that can and should go hand-in-hand with Hermeticism can now come to a close.  As I was joking about with my friends, as usual what was originally supposed to be just one post ballooned into quite a bit more, but I hope that this has been at least somewhat helpful for those interested in this otherwise gap-filled territory of Hermetic spirituality.  I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be improved upon with this sort of exploration; in addition to the unanswered questions I’ve left out in the open for others to tackle, there’s also plenty that we might be able to draw on from Hellenistic Egyptian or other eastern Mediterranean texts and traditions that might shed further light on what we have yet in the dark recesses of Hermetic textual lacunae.  Perhaps, with time, we might bring some of those as-yet hidden bits of knowledge into the light once more—resurrecting them or reincarnating them, one might even say.

And yes, this series of posts has its index already up in my Hermeticism Posts index page, along with all the other posts I’ve made about classical Hermeticism and the Hermetic texts, so feel free to check these posts (or any of my others) out later on if you want at your convenience.

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Necromancy

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for some rituals of religious import like funerals or ancestor veneration.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Alright, let’s cut to the chase here.  To continue our discussion from the last post, where we left off with describing how this Hermetic model of the afterlife both explains and informs religious rituals involving the dead, we’re now moving onto rituals and works that are less religious and more magical in nature.  Let’s get right to it, and talk about necromancy!  Of course, to be sure, “necromancy” is a really broad field of magic and divination that can take many forms, and many culturally-significant practices from across the world with various origins and thinkings behind them can all be classified as this.  To make this easier, I’ll divide up “necromancy” for the purposes of this post into different sections.

Incubation, Mediumship, and Blessing of the Dead

The first kind of necromancy is what I would consider “intimate” necromancy, where one doesn’t so much communicate with the souls of the dead so much as we commune with them.  Consider the practice of ancient Greek dream incubation: after making an offering to a spirit of the dead at their tomb, the necromancer lays down a rug and sleeps overnight on the tomb itself, thereby obtaining a dream where they communicate with the dead or otherwise receive visions from them.  In modern Islamic mystical practices, one might visit (and sleep!) in the mausoleum of an Islamic or Sufi saint to receive their baraka.  In lots of modern spiritualist/spiritist and other “shamanic” practices, one engages in trance-based mediumship where one channels messages from the dead, even leading to possession where the dead temporarily inhabits the body of the medium to communicate or perform works directly in a body that they “borrow”.  Whether through works of incubation or states of mediumship, in either case, the dead might “descend” in some way to perform some sort of action or give us some sort of information for our benefit and blessing.

Recall what we said about ancestor veneration from before, where we posited that the works we do and offerings we make to venerate and elevate the souls of the dead creates an “updraft” that transmits the power of our offerings and prayers to the dwelling-place of the dead where they are.  I posit now that works of necromancy, conversely, creates a “downdraft” that actively calls down the presence of a particular soul down to our world, at least temporarily, in order to commune with it.  To an extent, we were already subtly relying on something like that last time when we posited that our souls might be able to “reach up” to make offerings to the souls in their own dwelling-place such that they might be able to “stoop down”, as well, but now we’re making it explicit and relying more on them coming down further than that, all the way down to our level.  Because we can do this with out-and-out gods (as described in AH 24 and AH 37—38), at least to call them down into idols for the purpose of having their permanent presence on Earth with us, I don’t see why we couldn’t do this with souls, either.

As with ancestor veneration rituals having a natural “boost” when they take place at the tombs of the dead, it would make sense that the resting place of the physical remains of a soul’s incarnation would be a natural place where we might do necromantic works of various sorts, whether we create an “updraft” for us to reach them or a “downdraft” for them to reach us.  However, for more intimate works where the focus is on us rather than them, it makes sense for a “downdraft” to be made instead, and while using the physical remains a soul left behind provides a natural “link” or “focus” to a soul (even if it’s more for us than for them), it’s not a required link, which is why we can do necromantic rites mostly anywhere we please, although it helps at a place that is pure enough for the dead to visit and to commune with us.  Likewise, it also helps for us to be in a pure state for us to better achieve this, only because we’re the ones bringing them down but because we’re the ones that are interfacing with them in such a refined, subtle way that we need to be prepared for such refined, subtle works.  After all, for a soul to travel out of its own dwelling-place would likely cause some further turbulence and disruption to their own stability and presence, just as if you were to be shunted suddenly from lying peacefully in your bed into a busy shopping mall.  Doing what we can to put the soul at ease once it’s down here and doing what we can to ensure that we can maintain a good connection with them would be essential for such work.

I think the most fascinating thing here would be the work of mediumship.  It’s one thing to merely perceive a spiritual entity (like a soul) and communicate what they have to say to others through speech, but it’s another thing entirely to have that spiritual entity take direct control of your body.  Because, I mean…what’s really going on at that point?  If our body is being ruled (at least nominally) by our soul, what happens to our soul when we enter a state of possession?  While I’m not sure of the properly classical views on this that philosophers might have had of e.g. the oracle of Delphi who would be possessed by the god Apollōn which would better inform a discussion like this (and if you know of any, please share down in the comments!), I can think of several options here:

  1. The soul of the medium vacates the body in agreement with the soul of the deceased, allowing the soul of the deceased to temporarily “rent” the body.  Since we know that the soul can temporarily leave the body (as in CH XI.19—21 or even in CH X.24 or CH XIII.4), it could be that a medium (in a controlled setting or following a protocol that both they and a spirit agree to follow) allows their body to become vacant and for another entity to temporarily inhabit it.
  2. The soul of the medium “diminishes” or “retreats” within their own body, allowing the mere presence of the soul of the deceased to control the body instead.  They don’t leave their body, but they “make room” within it alongside their own soul and willingly turn over the reins of the body to the visiting soul, like a deacon in a church mass stepping aside to let the priest do their work or give the homily at the altar or pulpit.
  3. The soul of the deceased “overcomes” the soul of the medium in their body.  This is effectively like the option above, but instead of the medium retracting to make room for a spirit, a spirit simply dominates the body regardless of the natural presence of the medium.  (This is more common in unwanted or forced possessions, I suppose, and may well be seen as more risky, but may make more sense for divine possession where the presence of a god is significantly overwhelming for pretty much anyone.)  Either such a soul of the deceased is naturally empowered to overcome such a medium’s own soul, or they become empowered through offerings and ritual in order to achieve such a feat.

What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn?  We’re not necessarily “freeing” the soul of the dead or anything or trying to change its soul-stratum (necessarily) in such a way that might conflict with whatever judgment such an avenging/judging daimōn might give, but rather, we’re more like giving the soul a chaperoned field-trip of sorts, after which it will return to its abode.  While there may be some practical difference between calling down a god (as one might for a theagogy or theophany) versus a soul of a dead person who is watched over by a god, where one might have to entreat the daimōn (or SH 26.3’s Steward of Souls) for the soul to descend to perform such works down here for a time (and I can think of similar rituals from the PGM where one performs a similar observance and makes offerings to that end), I don’t think there’s ultimately any major obstacle here to worry about.  After all, once a soul has been judged and allotted its proper soul-stratum, the only thing else on the docket for it is to hang out until fate dictates it to be incarnate again.  Rituals such as this may well play into fate, even if at a some minor level, but it’s unclear to me in the end.

However, I do want to note: as with ancestor veneration and elevation practices from the last post, some spiritual traditions engage in works of mediumship and blessing of/from the dead specifically as a means for the soul to improve themselves and thereby receive further elevation and enlightenment.  In other words, although calling a spirit down for the sake of medium possession or blessing is not inherently equivalent to elevation, in light (or in the custodial overview) of an avenging/judging daimōn or Steward of Souls, it may be reckoned for such work to be like “community service” in a way, and be a way to resolve whatever baggage/weight or punishment they’ve accrued before so that, when they return to the dwelling-place of souls, they end up going back to a lighter, higher stratum than they were at before by means of the work they’ve done down here.  In a non-judgmental model, this is just them relieving themselves of their own “weight”; in a judgment model, this is like their sentence being commuted for good behavior.  In being invited down here to perform good works, we essentially give these souls a second chance at “living” a “life” of reverence and devotion that they may not have been able to fulfill while living their own life.

Calling Down and Working the Dead

The second kind of necromancy, as opposed to the “intimate” kind described above, is what I might instead consider “confrontational”, in the sense that one must confront them to work with them as an external agent, either for issuing them or subjecting them to some task or otherwise communicating with them for some overall purpose or goal.  Examples of this sort of necromancy would include all sorts of katadesmoi/defixiones/curse tablet-based works, evoking the dead (as in a Solomonic or goetic ritual), or binding/harnessing the dead to perform particular works or to be used in (or as the targets of) exorcism.  Rather than being “intimate” with the dead where we share a close relationship with them to facilitate their activity among us, here the only type of relationship we engage in with them is “at arm’s length” to force them to do work for us.  (To be fair, a good amount of necromancy is neither just intimate nor just confrontational, but may include elements of both.  I’m just using this distinction as shorthand for illustrative purposes of this post.)

As before, we would call down a soul of the deceased through a “downdraft”, perhaps making an offering to the daimōn/steward as before if one has such a model to allow for such a soul to descend.  However, unlike before, we’re not communing with them, but instead engaging in any other number of ritual practices or approaches for engaging with them.  One of the big things I want to point out here is how so much of this kind of “necromancy” is simply spirit-model approaches to magic that use the dead (often uneasy/intranquil/tormented dead) to “power” our magic or to facilitate our goals, like dropping off a curse tablet in the grave of some violently-killed maiden and relying on their unsettledness and unfulfilled desires to accomplish the will of the magician here.  And that leads to a really insightful point about why we rely on such souls of the dead for such works, and that’s because they’re so readily accessible and willing to work in such ways.

Remember what we said about there being different soul-strata, different regions in the atmosphere accorded to different souls based on how they lived, and more troubled or suffering souls are to be found in lower strata.  Depending on the text (AH 28 vs. SH 25), the lower strata themselves may be seen as more turbulent and thus more painful for the souls dwelling there or not, or may simply be an indication for their next incarnation into lower echelons of society or lower forms of life (i.e. animals).  These lower strata are low, I should note, even down to the very ground itself we walk upon up to a little above hills and mountains.  What this suggests is that, for particularly weighty souls (those who are so ignoble and undignified that they cannot or are not allowed to rise high, souls that are either so tormented from unfulfilled desires or addictions or who caused such torment because of their addictions and attachments), there’s really no need to make a “downdraft” to call them down when they’re already down here with us, and because of their tormented/tormenting nature, are already much closer to wild animals or unruly daimones than we might think—and given how many people die in such a state, it’s really no wonder why so much of goētia that focuses on daimones/demons was so readily accepting of or already bound up with the dead themselves.

As a result, so much of this kind of necromancy works because we don’t really need to do a whole lot of “calling down” of such souls, because they’re already here around us (which may well also offer a spiritual explanation why so many people perpetuate certain crimes and addictions, including perpetuating generational traumas and the like).  Given their inclination, such souls are highly likely to respond to things like “you who died as an unloved maiden, help me find love by enflaming the heart of my desire to me” because it’s what they were either left unfulfilled by in life, or  o things like “you who died as a rampaging warrior on the battlefield, restrain and murder my enemies” because it’s what they loved to do (or were addicted to doing) in life, and in either case because it gives them a chance to do it in death, perhaps as a way of experiencing the satisfaction of it vicariously.  Depending on how we engage in such works as necromancers, we might do this merely because such souls make a ready set of premade slaves to do such work, or we engage in it as a way to relieve particularly troubled dead of their burdens and help them ascend and become elevated so as to ease them in the afterlife (being a kind of “community service” as with the earlier kind of necromancy above).

Also, something else neat to note: by the same mechanism that allows for such “base necromancy” that uses troubled/intranquil souls as a means of effecting magic, whereby such souls are just naturally already lower in the atmosphere closer to our own day-to-day life, note that hauntings are often said to occur in places where great pain, suffering, or trauma has been experienced.  Given that the souls who experience such pain will often (not always!) be burdened with “weight” that prevents them from rising to a higher soul-stratum, it would follow that if they’re already down here, they end up “stuck” in places that caused them such pain and suffering while alive, like a person with PTSD reliving their traumatic experiences.  It’s not a pleasant thing to think of, admittedly, and it’s one of the reasons why we should engage in funerals and ancestor elevation to allow such suffering souls to be eased of their burdens so that they’re not stuck in such a place, but the lowness of such souls in this Hermetic afterlife model would give a ready explanation for why hauntings happen right alongside why intranquil spirits or troubled souls make for such ready spirit-servants.

Binding and Enshrining the Dead (But Also Birth Into Living Bodies)

Instead of merely calling down the dead from their dwelling-places, either to commune or to communicate with them, to perform works with their assistance or just by them, there’s another necromantic option here: taking them from their dwelling-place entirely and keeping them here with us on Earth.  In this, we give the dead a particular “body” or form to inhabit, keeping them from their dwelling-place and keeping them from reincarnating for a particular purpose.  I mean, we can do this with gods by enshrining them into statues and idols; why can’t we do this with souls of the dead, too?

To be fair, I think such a comparison with enlivening idols with gods isn’t necessarily fair.  Gods are slightly different, being “big” enough to play by different rules.  Either they’re “big” enough to be more encompassing than a single soul and so can appear to be in multiple places at once by “concentrating” their otherwise ubiquitous presence in particular localized areas, or they’re “big” enough to let a shard of themselves be embodied in an idol to perform works on Earth, or they’re “big” enough to have a retinue of daimones who act on their behalf in their name with their “mask”, or they’re “big” enough to not actually be localized in their idol all the time but appear there when called upon (with the idol more acting as an as-needed point-of-contact rather than a continuously-inhabited body).  There may be other possible mechanisms behind the enlivening of statues with the presence of gods, but these are a few of the big ones that come to my mind—and it’s not clear to me which of these, if any, apply to souls of the dead.

Personally, I don’t see any issue here of scale: if we can call a soul down for a time, I don’t see any hard-or-fast limit to how long a time as they might be called down.  At the same time, we should consider why a soul leaves a body to begin with: because a body is no longer capable of supporting the soul (e.g. through the circulation of the blood which facilitates the activation and exchange of spirit/breath).  In order for a soul to be down here for an extended period of time, it needs more than just some well-wishing and offerings; it needs an actual body to inhabit appropriate to its nature.  If we can do that with gods—and we can—I don’t see why we couldn’t do that for souls.  After all, consider AH 38:

“And the quality of these gods who are considered earthly—what sort of thing is it, Trismegistus?”

“It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.”

The only thing I can think of that would prevent this is that there’s some fundamental mismatch between the nature of a god that permits it to be embodied within a statue made resonant with it through such a mixture of material things and that of a soul.  However, throughout the Hermetic texts, we see notions that (at least the divine portion within) humans are considered to be gods or can become gods or can associate with gods (as in CH IV.7, CH VIII.5, CH X.22—25, CH XIII.14, etc.), so I’m not inclined to think that what we can do for the gods we can’t do for souls.  The trick would be to find the right composition and form for such a body for such a soul to inhabit, and to keep it in such a way that allows the soul to continue inhabiting it; after all, a human body can only support a soul for as long as it eats, drinks, breathes, and lives.  If a soul-idol were to be malformed, broken, or otherwise fall into neglect, I wouldn’t expect it to be able to serve as a vessel for a soul for particularly long.

What arises as an issue for me in this matter, however, is how this plays with reincarnation.  Souls are seen in this Hermetic model of the afterlife to be “localized” in one sense or another, and so cannot be in two places at the same time; either a soul is incarnate or it is discarnate, and if it is incarnate, it can only be incarnate in one body at a time.  If a soul is bound to a form that is not a human body, then, it cannot reincarnate until it is free of such a form.  Reincarnation, however, is dictated by fate, because fate is what dictates bodies to be born, suffer whatever they suffer in life, and die—but would that not, then, also include bodies that happen to be made through acts of magic?  I mean, consider this little excerpt from Diogenes Laertius about Stoicism’s own stance on fate in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (book VII, chapter 23):

We are told that [Zeno of Citium] was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno.

To that end, I don’t think calling down a soul is something that somehow abrogates or breaks the rule of fate; rather, at least to a large degree, it plays into fate.  After all, consider: what is it that souls normally incarnate into?  Living animal bodies (human or otherwise), formed through animal reproduction, the production of which is itself a work of fate.  We know that reproduction was considered not just something important but a vital, sacred duty in many of the Hermetic texts (CH I.18, CH II.17, CH III.3, etc.), not only because it perpetuates the work of Creation, but because it allows souls to come into incarnate existence to further enjoy and rejoice in Creation.  In a way, creating any kind of body for a soul to inhabit, whether animal or not, and then calling them down (whether through the mysteries of sexual reproduction or not, including other kinds of magical rites) would be just another form of this, albeit a weaker kind with extra restrictions imposed.  In this case, it’s not so much “calling down a soul of the dead to be bound” but more just a specific case of a more general notion of reincarnation—and in that light, is as permissible (if not directed) by fate as actual living reincarnation would be.

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Religious Works

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about some of the details in the afterlife model we proposed earlier and what happens in some edge cases left unspecified by particular “levels” of readiness of the soul for making “the way up”.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, let’s give a recap first of what we’re looking at and working with.  Although there is a notion of some form of afterlife in the Hermetic texts which revolves around a two-pronged approach that involves both a fate-driven reincarnation of a soul across bodies as well as a salvation-ascent of the soul beyond it that frees the soul from fate, we’re not given a clear picture as to many of the specifics of such a belief.  What we have, at best, are basically snippets, either small statements made in passing that touch on the topic (like AH 28) or incomplete excerpts of discourses that begin talking about it but not in full (like SH 25).  Moreover, the most complete such account we have of an afterlife from SH 25—26 (the later parts of the text overall known as the Korē Kosmou) itself is among the least Hermetic texts out there, given how strange and bizarre it is compared to much of what’s talked about in the rest of the classical Hermetic corpora.

What we’re left with is something we have to piece together, and the model we have can be outlined as follows:

  1. The realm of the Earth (or the zeroth sphere) is the realm of living, embodied creatures, while the realm of the fixed stars (the eighth sphere, and higher ones) is the realm of divine powers.  Getting from here to there is the salvific goal of Hermeticism, but most people don’t end up there, or at least, not directly.  For the souls of the dead, there is another realm, which is the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon.
  2. There are different zones in the atmosphere corresponding to different kinds of soul; the more noble the soul, the higher it goes into clearer, calmer airs.  Lower zones contain ignoble, undignified souls, including tortured or otherwise intranquil souls (either due to their own difficulties incurred while alive or are rendered tortured by virtue of the low zone in the atmosphere with its darker, more turbulent air).
  3. After an ensouled body dies, it rises to a station appropriate to it depending on how it lived in life in response to the activities and influences of fate.  Prior to an ensouled body being born, a soul descends according to the activities of fate.  Although souls are technically beyond the touch of fate (since they come from a place ontologically beyond it), where they dwell is still encosmic and sublunar, and so their being pulled around and pulled into bodies is also a fate-driven process.
  4. Souls that are able to rise higher than any level of the dwelling-place of souls are said to be on “the way up”, the ascent through the planetary spheres themselves up to the higher spheres beyond the realm of fate.

In general, what the Hermetic texts give us are teachings useful for fulfilling the goals laid out by Hermēs Trismegistos, which is to live a life of joyful, mindful reverence to God and to free our souls from the embodied bindings of fate that lead us to suffer.  Everything that we have in the Hermetic texts is meant to be useful towards that, and that should be the context and framing for whatever we might read in them.  Even in their incomplete state given what we see from what’s extant, it’s clear that the Hermetic texts are not (and were never meant to be) some massive endless encyclopedia of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but stuff specifically meant to achieve a particular goal.  Whatever we see is meant to fulfill that goal directly (like texts that describe how to live reverently or what “the way up” is like) or indirectly (like texts that describe the nature of the soul and how it can be afflicted by bodily concerns).

Given how little information we find in the Hermetic texts about specific details concerning the afterlife (and given what we do have isn’t all that neatly compliant or conformant with each other), I get the impression that most of this just isn’t all that useful, either directly or indirectly, to the goals of Hermeticism.  I mean, it’s really not a far stretch to consider that trying to divvy up the atmosphere into so many soul-strata isn’t unlike asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and trying to puzzle out what happens if a soul ends up aborting the ascent and whether it lingers there or reincarnates doesn’t much matter when such a soul is destined for completing the ascent regardless soon enough anyway.  As far as the goals of Hermeticism are concerned, we don’t need to know the details of things like this, and worrying about them overmuch leads more to distraction, to the philosophy-tainting sophistry of AH 14 or the “inane foolosophy” of CH XVI.2.  Trying to figure out something that is fundamentally so remote and distant from the lived, living human experience is often less helpful than being told how to live your life here and now, regardless of what we might hypothesize might come.

To an extent, even if we had a fully-described model of the afterlife, there would still be doubts lingering about its validity and how apt it is to describe the afterlife experience, but we don’t even have that; instead, we have an outline with a lot of variations, possibilities, and unanswered questions at this point.  However, I think that by having a model of a Hermetic afterlife and at least a little more explanation regarding the process of reincarnation and ascent is more helpful than not.  In addition to giving us a bit more reassurance about what happens to us after our incarnation this time around and also helping us better situate Hermeticism among the philosophical and spiritual traditions of its time, it also helps better tie Hermeticism into a more holistic, comprehensive spiritual practice.  After all, many people who get involved in Hermeticism are rarely just mystics, but are often involved in any number of other magical or priestly practices, too.  For many people, the near-silence of the Hermetic texts on even the mere existence of the spirits of the dead or practices involving them can be unsettling, so being able to tease out a model that accommodates their existence and utility would be a great thing to have on our side.

To that end, what are some of the other things that such a model of a Hermetic afterlife might explain, elaborate on, or otherwise impact?

Funereal Practices

One of the big unanswered questions from the Hermetic afterlife discussion is the timescale of the transitions between incarnation and discarnation, and whether the process of the soul separating from the body and rising up to its next stage is instantaneous or not.  If it is, then once the body dies, that’s it; the soul goes away and the body is just an inert, decaying hunk of flesh.  However, if it’s not instantaneous, then that would suggest that there’s a window of time where the soul either still inhabits or hangs out around the body before it moves onto its next stage.  Even as a disembodied, incorporeal entity, souls are still a kind of entity that can be interacted with, and so certain rites that work with such entities (as with many forms of conjuration or invocation or the like) would still be able to interact with souls of the recently dead.

The most obvious thing that would be impacted here would be the purpose and nature of funereal rites for the sake of the recently dead.  So long as such a funeral were to be had within a reasonable timeframe within which the soul still lingers in or within the body, various rituals may be had explicitly for the benefit of the soul as it begins to transition from incarnation to discarnation.  In addition to the actual mourning performed to help remind and orient the soul as a wake-up call to indicate that it is indeed dead and not just in some weird coma, rituals may be performed for the alleviation of the soul to help release some of the things that weigh it down, save it from some of its burdens and addictions and attachments, and to cleanse it from whatever pollutions or tormentors still afflict it.  Reading scriptures, giving teachings, or reciting instructive prayers near the body (where the soul is hanging out) would act as one last reminder-lesson for the soul to prepare it for whatever might come next.  Making offerings or sacrifices for the soul (much as one would an enshrined god in a temple) could serve to nourish it, give it whatever it was seeking or lacking in life, and otherwise empower and encourage and enlighten it to face whatever may come with dignity and grace and serenity.  The big thing that matters is making the most of this “window of opportunity” to cover any bases and fill any gaps remaining that could not be covered or filled in while alive.

What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife, where we are assigned a place to dwell in by the avenging/judging daimōn?  I don’t seriously think that such a daimōn could necessarily be bribed or hoodwinked, and the Hermetic belief here is that engaging with this daimōn is far more than just paying a perfunctory toll: it’s an honest judgment of our conduct while alive, our responses and reactions to fate and how we evaluated, respected, and revered (or not) the Creator and the Creation.  That said, incorporating a token nod to the daimōn, I think, would be useful in a “Hermetic funeral” of sorts: for one, it reminds the soon-to-depart soul of this daimōn and thus of what our obligations and responsibilities are according to the design God instituted for the cosmos.  However, I think there may also be a chance that those participating in a funeral may, for those souls who have responsibly earned it, give one last act of forgiveness and acceptance to the person for any wrongs they might have committed, as one last attempt to “level the balance” of sorts by lightening the burden on the soul and giving them a chance to fix themselves and get their act together before they do, eventually, come in contact with the daimōn.  And, hey, if there is no avenging/judging daimōn here, then we succeed in lightening the soul of the soon-to-be-departed regardless, and either way, help them ascend higher than they otherwise might.

Of course, this is all assuming that the soul can actually benefit from them (which I think is a safe assumption to make) and assuming that there is a reasonable amount of time for such an interval for rituals like this to take place in (which is less sure of an assumption to make).  If there isn’t such an interval, or if the interval isn’t long enough for such a ritual to occur, then the efficacy of the ritual transforms basically into a coping session for the living and fulfillment of societal obligations to pay honor for the deceased.  These are, of course, valuable things unto themselves to perform regardless, but it shifts the focus and purpose of funerals from being for the sake of the dead to being for the sake of the living.

In either case, however, the body of the deceased shouldn’t be neglected; while it is little more than an inert hunk of matter at this point, it once housed the soul and presence of someone we once knew and loved, and should be treated with dignity as one might treat the broken fragment of a temple idol one cherished and made offerings to, even if decommissioned long ago.  Besides merely showing reverence to the cosmos that allowed for the presence of someone we loved and respected, magical works may also be performed on the body to purify it and cleanse it, too, as it begins its own process of decomposition.  While matter is matter regardless, I claim that performing works of  purification on such a body as it begins its decomposition before putrescence or the like can settle in is a positive thing, since the energies that inhabit the body will soon disperse to rejoin and be reused in other bodies throughout the cosmos.  In purifying and refining the soon-to-be raw materials, we can subtly influence the overall beneficence and purity of the whole cosmos as a whole.

Veneration and Elevation of the Dead

As opposed to funereal rites that take place immediately following death while the soul is still in or around the body, rites that tend to the well-being of one’s ancestors specifically and the dead generally can take place at basically any point.  In general, the efficacy of such rites and rituals doesn’t depend on whether the transition from incarnation to discarnation is instantaneous or not; all that matters is that the person for whom the rites or rituals are performed is dead.  That said, if the transition is not instantaneous, then the rites that should be done prior to such a transition could be considered funereal and those afterwards would be considered those of veneration and elevation, yet, while there’s plenty of overlap between the two regardless, there’s still some differences in the goals and methods that might be used here.

While funereal practices would ease or help direct the transition of a soul from being incarnate to discarnate (even to the point of giving reminders or directions as to where to go and how to make the approach to other realms and giving the soul one last chance to have any sort of fulfillment in this life before they go, like a “last meal” of sorts), the veneration and elevation of the dead focuses on a soul where it already is in the afterlife, ensuring that they are comfortable, content, and at ease wherever they might be.  The major difference here is that a funeral works with the soul already present, but what if the soul is no longer present?  How do the works we engage in “reach” them, and what sorts of effects would they have?  After all, with the soul already distant in its own dwelling-place, it’s not like making an offering to an enshrined god at a temple where they already are.

One way I can envision such a thing to work is essentially by creating an “updraft”.  Consider that, in the Hermetic afterlife model we’ve been looking at, the souls of the dead abide in the dwelling-place of souls, somewhere in the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon.  Through the use of physical offerings that burn and emit smoke, flame, or scent upwards, we literally carry our offerings up to the souls where they abide, much as we do for classically-considered ouranic/celestial deities.  However, even if we omit these physical aspects of making offerings, even devout prayer and well-wishing would still be likely to reach them; consider how some Hermetic texts like CH XI.19 suggest how the soul (at least one of a spiritually advanced person) has such power in it to go basically anywhere it wants, which suggests that the reach of any given soul can be fairly broad.  Through sincere works of venerating the dead, we essentially proffer up what we can to the souls in their dwelling-place, and they might be able to “stoop down”, at least to an extent, to receive them.

I did make the comparison above, however, that offerings to the dead like this aren’t like those we make to an enshrined god in a temple.  Such a setup basically has an idol be ritually enlivened and ensouled with the presence of that god right there, whether in part or in total or via some emissary of the god, and because of that active presence of the god, offerings made right there are easy enough to reach them.  What about making offerings at the tombs or graves of the dead?  While their souls aren’t actively inhabiting their physical remains anymore, those physical remains did once host that soul, and so there is some sort of natural connection that a particularly strong or daring soul might take advantage of to descend back to and, if not actually inhabit it, at least be present near enough for such offerings to count.  Graveside memorial services, tombside feasts, leaving offerings at the false doors of ancient Egyptian tombs, and the like are classic examples of stuff like this approach where we might make offerings to the dead for them to receive.

But why would we make offerings like this to begin with?  We should remember that any soul that is not fully ascended has some (even if very little) amount of baggage or weight that keeps them down, and the more baggage, the lower they sink and (presumably, more in some accounts than others) the more they suffer.  By making offerings and venerating them, we help ease their burden and make their stay in the afterlife more peaceful, which helps prepare them for whatever next incarnation they might have instead of just dragging along their baggage from one life to the next.  However, besides merely venerating the dead, there’s also the notion of elevating them, too, as is common in some religious and spiritual traditions.  For this particular Hermetic model of the afterlife, I think the idea here is fairly straightforward: we raise the dead from one soul-stratum to a higher one, which not only significantly improves their well-being in the afterlife, but also positions them for a better reincarnation the next time around and speeds them along the way to “the way up”.  The question then becomes: how might we achieve this?  In the same way that venerating the dead helps ease the weighty burdens of the souls that keeps them from rising any higher than they are, I claim that it’s possible to ease them enough to outright lighten them, and in the process enlighten these very same souls.

What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn?  While I don’t think that this matters either way for us merely venerating the dead (much as a jail warden might not care about what guests do with or bring in for prisoners so long as the prisoners stay where they are), the possibility of elevating the dead is not quite in line with this; after all, if a judge sentences you to a particular punishment for a given crime, it’s the judge’s call to commute that sentence, not that of an amicus curiae or some well-wisher visiting a prisoner.  Despite my hypothesizing above, it’s not clear whether there can be an actual means to elevate the dead in a Hermetic model, if the status and stratum of a given soul is something fixed until after its next incarnation, especially if there’s a daimōn involved (or one that specifically watches over the souls where they are, like the Steward of Souls from SH 26.3) that enforces a particular arrangement of souls in the afterlife; in such a model, it’s not that a soul wouldn’t want to rise up to a higher level, and indeed would probably try to do so, but that they can’t since they’re otherwise bound to a particular stratum by the judgment of a given daimōn—and I don’t think pleading with such a daimōn would do much to affect their judgment.  However, just how a judge might see a given criminal as showing sincere remorse and contrition and commute a sentence already partially served upon review, it may be that helping to improve the dignity of a soul through offerings (and with them a power of moral conversion and education) may well allow such a soul to rise to a higher stratum even after arriving in a lower one even with such a daimōn’s license.  It’s an interesting idea to toy with, at least, and gives at least a little bit of hope for improving the state of the souls of the dead regardless of the daimōn or not.

What of souls that have already reincarnated?  This is where any sort of ancestral veneration practice that takes place alongside a belief in reincarnation gets weird, because the things we do for the dead are meant to improve their status in the realm of the dead, but if they’re no longer there, then what happens?  To my thinking, the worst that can happen is that we just end up ringing a dead number: nobody’s there to pick up, so whatever we say is just done in vain, with nothing bad happening to anyone but nothing good happening, either.  However, I can think of two other alternatives:

  1. It’d be like setting a table of food for a particular guest, but no such guest shows up.  Instead, it becomes a free-for-all, with whoever being able to participate deriving benefit from it instead so that nothing goes to waste.  If we make such offerings of veneration and elevation to a particular soul of the dead but that soul simply isn’t there to receive it, the offerings get dispersed amongst the other souls (whether in the same stratum or not) so that they receive it instead.  In this way, at least someone will still be able to benefit.
  2. Because any given soul is immortal and thus always reachable in one sense or another, it’d be like sending mail to someone’s old address and it gets redirected to their updated one.  In this case, the offerings we make to a given soul still reaches them, but it influences them in their new life where they already are.  Even if we who make these offerings make them with the assumption that their dead, we end up effectively improving their new life, just as if we were to pray for the well-being of our already-living friends or family.  This effectively improves their status, and thus indirectly improves the likelihood of them attaining a higher and better state in their next afterlife than they had in their old one.

In either case, I think it’s still good to make offerings of veneration and elevation for the dead regardless.  Besides it being just good form and filial piety to do so, it’s also true that, just how we can’t be truly certain of what the afterlife is like in detail, we can’t be too sure of the specific fate or current state of any given soul in the afterlife.  Rather than assuming that any given soul is already incarnated after some period of time (it’s not clear how long that might take, depending on the whims and directives of fate itself), I think it’d be safer to just assume that any given soul is still discarnate for the sake of ancestor veneration indefinitely, and let those offerings be received however they will.  Again, at worst, nothing happens and it just becomes ritual for ritual’s sake to uphold a culture of filial piety and love for those who have passed on, but otherwise, it can create truly blessed change for those who might need it most.

Magical Rituals

There’s lots of kinds of ritual out there that are less religious and more magical, with the word “necromancy” covering quite a few of them.  However, there’s also other kinds of non-necromantic ritual, as well, that stands to be explained or informed by the Hermetic model of the afterlife as well.  We’ll get to that in the next post!

(PS: Happy Halloween, Samhain, and All Saints’/Souls’ Day!)

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Answering Assessments About Aborted Ascents

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent.  There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other.  Last time, we talked about a high-level overview of the afterlife model in Hermeticism, some of the problems that need to be resolved in such a model, and my own thoughts on the role and need for an avenging/judging daimōn.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

The biggest issue among all those questions is when and how the process of salvation (per CH I) actually occurs versus the process of merely going and staying in the dwelling-place of souls, and I can’t figure out how those two things play well together.  CH I, it should be noted, doesn’t really even offer a notion of reincarnation, which we instead read from other Hermetic texts.  (I should note that some texts, like CH III, don’t seem to mention any kind of afterlife at all in any way, but we should remember that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”; just because a text doesn’t mention a doctrine doesn’t mean it wasn’t held or believed in regardless, or that it can’t accommodate a particular doctrine.)   I don’t think that a salvation-model and a reincarnation-model of the afterlife are necessarily in conflict with each other; after all, consider the Jewish notion of gilgul neshamot or how saṃsāra and mokṣa interplay with each other in Hinduism.  The question is how these two processes interplay with each other, and I can envision several possibilities:

  1. If the soul is truly ready to make the ascent, then it skips the whole process of going to a dwelling-place at all, and instead bypasses them directly to make the ascent through the spheres.
    1. In a judgmental model, this occurs if the soul is deemed sufficiently pure and noble enough such that there is no stratum high enough for it to be assigned without progressing directly to the sphere of the Moon (which is beyond the uppermost stratum).
    2. In a non-judgmental model, this occurs if the soul is sufficiently free from addiction and attachment to incarnation, and rises up past the highest stratum right into the sphere of the Moon on its own accord without being caught up in any of the strata.
  2. The soul can manage the ascent before going to its proper dwelling-place in the atmosphere through some “alternative route”.
    1. In a judgmental model, this occurs if the soul can manage to escape the arraignment and judgment of the daimōn first, fleeing it as a warden of a jail, as it were.
    2. In a non-judgmental model, this occurs if the souls somehow slips out “sideways” and “out” of the currents that would be their normal rising up through the atmosphere, catching onto a “celestial updraft” as it were, ignoring the metempsychotic processes in effect for most souls in the process.
  3. The soul makes the ascent after going to its appropriate dwelling-place.
    1. Whether we use a judgmental model or a non-judgmental model, the soul would proceed to its usual dwelling-place according to its nature and works in life, and while there and before it is bound by fate to descend again into a body, it works against the incarnating “push” of fate and instead pulls itself upward to make the ascent.

There may be other ways to match these two processes (and, prior to writing this post, I had nebulous ideas of such that seem to refuse to be put to paper now), but in thinking about it, I think that first option makes the most sense.  Using the judgmental model, it renders the avenging daimōn of CH I and the judging daimōn of AH 28 and SH 7 to be fundamentally same entity (one has to be able to fully give up their temperament/character in CH I, which would be the mark of a soul that is truly noble enough to recognize itself and the cosmos as it is without addiction or attachment), which is a pleasant-enough concordance on its own.  More than that, though, I think it’s important to recognize that both of these systems rely on a system of ascent, just at different levels: the dwelling-place model given in SH 25—26 and hinted at in AH 28 is a matter of ascent from the Earth up until (but not including) the Moon, and the divine ascent in CH I is a matter of ascent from the Moon onwards but which starts at the Earth.  Depending on how much of one’s character one has refined or is able to give up to the body according to what the body provided it, the soul would rise (or be judgmentally assigned) to a higher or lower station after death; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the noblest of souls would graduate out of such a system entirely.  While the latter two options have their merits, as do others I’m sure, I think that first option is the cleanest and the most harmonious.

However, an unsettling question lingers in my mind: what happens if a soul isn’t truly ready to make that final ascent through the spheres, but attempts it anyway?  This is one of the major issues with the second and third options given above, and can technically be an issue with the first as well.  In that ascent, the soul gives up to each of the planets an energy that that planet conferred to the soul, but what happens if the soul is unable to give up such an energy?  Like, if a soul is able to give up the addiction to generation and corruption, the desire for evil machination, and lustful longing to the respective spheres of the Moon, Mercury, and Venus, but if such a soul is intensely prideful and arrogant, it may not be able to give up such an energy to the sphere of the Sun—what then?  Can the soul continue to rise and give up the other energies to the other planets?  If so, then it’d still be bound to one of the planets, and would still thus be subject to fate, and thus to incarnation.  If not, then what happens to it?  Does it just hang out in that sphere until it can eventually give it up?  If so, what sort of state is the soul in, what sort of experience does it have compared to being in one of the strata in the atmosphere?  Does such a soul become “lost” and end up becoming an astrological daimōn on its own that, instead of fleeing fate, becomes an enforcer of it (like how CH XVI.10—16 describe the “demons on duty at the exact moment of birth arrayed under each of the stars”)?  Or does it lose its momentum of rising and end up tumbling back down (or sent back shamefully with its tail between its legs) to the atmosphere to continue improving on itself so that it can make the attempt again at a later time—but only after another round of incarnation?

This is a super unclear point for me, and many of the possible answers here to these questions are troubling.  I think the resolution here is safest with the first option, but I note that it’s not wholly clear what “giving over your temperament/character” (the Greek word here is ēthos, which Martiana over at SARTRIX has in her translation of CH I as “way of life”) to the avenging daimōn actually entails.  Is it just mannerisms and habits one accrued in life, the familiarity the soul has with its most recent specific incarnation itself, and so separate and unrelated to the planetary energies which may yet remain active within us?  Or is it something more profound, the “seal” that binds together all those planetary energies that collectively allow us to be incarnate to begin with, where giving up one’s ēthos automatically renders those planetary energies inactive?  Or is it something else entirely, something on the same level as the body and sense perception itself but which is no higher than that?  And, if one might be unable to reach a planetary “gate” but be unable to give up the proper “toll” to pass it, is one’s ēthos likewise something that one might not be able to give up to the daimōn?  And if one is unable to give up even that, what happens to the soul then?  Does it even rise at all to any stratum of the atmosphere, or does it just stick around and haunt the world clinging onto its irretrievable “way of life”?

In a way, even though one’s ēthos is among the very first things one gives up in CH I.24—26, I wonder if it’s among the most important, a sine qua non of the whole process of ascension to begin with.  If we return to our non-judgmental model where there is no avenging/judging daimōn involved in this process, then while one might be able to give up any of the other energies ahead of time to render them inert while in life, one’s ēthos itself is the actual pattern and habit of living itself, one’s very desire to keep doing things the way they were—potentially even stretching to a desire for incarnation at all.  This isn’t to say we should all give in to our thanatic urges and kill ourselves, far from it!  Rather, this speaks more to a pathological need to continue being incarnated time and time again, a fundamental attachment or perceived self-established push to keep going through this is an issue, like someone who can’t seem to (or refuses to want to) graduate university yet insists on taking more classes and accruing more degrees for its own sake rather than for anything outside of university.  And yet, I’m still torn, because I’m not sure of the precise relationship here between ēthos and the rest of the things we have to give up in the course of our transition between incarnation on Earth and discarnate existence as a soul.

In an attempt to stop spinning my wheels so much on this, let’s back up.  Regardless of any of the above questions and possible answers, I think it’s clear that, if we accept the dwelling-place of souls at all and a model of reincarnation, that Poimandrēs’ account of “the way up” to Hermēs is very much an ideal best-case scenario, like if the Buddha were to discuss the process of attaining enlightenment then passing into parinirvāṇa: obviously something that happens for those who are enlightened at death, but not something that happens for everyone at death because not everyone is enlightened at death.  For those who are ready, they give up everything at death and in the ascent that follows death, and then rise up to a divine state beyond fate (which is the overall salvific goal of Hermeticism).  For those who are not ready at all, it seems like reincarnation is to be expected (and so one should live life respectfully and reverently, which is the other goal of Hermeticism).  The question now is what happens for someone who is partially ready, who can give up some things that pin us down but not all things.

The easy answer would be “all or nothing”, and in this one aspect, I think that a judgmental model that involves the avenging/judging daimōn provides a benefit here: this would be an entity which can give us a fair assessment of whether or not we’re able to make “the way up” in full, and if we’re not capable of doing it at all, it stops us from doing so and simply gives us another chance to try again according to the best possible circumstance it can allow.  I would be less sanguine about figuring out how such a process might work in a non-judgmental model, however; one way I might explain it in this approach is, if we’re ready to give just the first or lowest thing up, it starts a chain reaction where we end up giving up everything else (like throwing over one ballast weight from a hot-air balloon that’s tied to a whole series of ballast weights), but it requires us to give up that lowest thing as the “heaviest weight” first and foremost, without which we can’t rise to that first non-ēthos gate at all.  I mean, after all, with nous, why wouldn’t someone be given some sort of “momentum”, as it were, to not only face the divine truth but to accept it and live in accordance with it?

Using either model, however, seems ill-founded with such an overall approach; while this “all or nothing” approach would be a sensible belief, I don’t have any evidence to back this up beyond handwaving it away as being sensible merely for the sake of being convenient; among other assumptions, it necessitates the idea that a soul can dwell in the sublunar atmosphere or in the eighth sphere (or higher), but cannot linger at any point in-between.  And yet, despite the lack of evidence for such a perspective, we have an equal lack of evidence of anything other perspective, either; after all, as Wouter Hanegraff says in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, “the Hermetica tell us remarkably little about the soul’s afterlife”; despite even his magisterial work on classical Hermeticism across 400-some pages, Hanegraff has maybe three or four that actually touch on the afterlife.  Based on the above as well as my own possible conjectures from earlier, what we are left with as options (as far as I might envision, there may be others) might be summarized as follows:

  1. After its discarnation, the soul only makes “the way up” in total past the dwelling-place of souls if it is fully capable of doing so, and returns to an appropriate dwelling-place of souls according to its dignity otherwise.
  2. After its discarnation, the soul makes “the way up” past the dwelling-place of souls only as far as it is able to, but upon hitting any obstacle, tumbles back down into the cycles of reincarnation.  This itself has several possibilities:
    1. In tumbling down, it gets sent into the uppermost soul-stratum by default as a sort of “initial cushion” that breaks the fall of the soul.
    2. In tumbling down, it gets sent into whatever soul-stratum would be accorded to it if it had not attempted “the way up” to begin with.  (If a soul being ready at all to surpass any of the obstacles involved is a mark of nobility, then chances are it’d get shunted to the uppermost soul-stratum anyway, rendering this the same as the option above.)
    3. In tumbling down, it gets sent into a body immediately without abiding in any soul-stratum, bypassing the usual processes of the directives of fate in incarnation.
  3. After its discarnation, the soul makes “the way up” past the dwelling-place of souls only as far as it is able to, but upon hitting any obstacle, lingers at its higher place.  This itself has several possibilities
    1. In lingering, it stays at the higher sphere until it can manage to continue the rest of “the way up”.
    2. In lingering, it becomes (or works as) an astral daimōn to effect the fateful influences of the sphere in which it lingers.  (Odd as this possibility might seem, it comes about as a confluence between the doctrine of “mind becomes daimonic” in CH X.18—21, and the notion of astral/stellar daimones from CH XVI.10—16.)  This itself has several possibilities:
      1. This shift is a temporary change of employment, and continues only as long as the soul needs to manage to continue the rest of “the way up” (in effect becoming a subcase of the above point).
      2. This shift is a permanent change to its nature, such that the soul no longer can become free of fate at all or rise any higher, but instead becomes part of fate.  (This seems incredibly unlikely to me.)

Of these options, I’m most inclined towards option 1 (the easy “all or nothing” approach), with 2a (ascent-obstacle makes you reincarnate) in second place and 3a (ascent-obstacle just slows you down without reincarnation) being a close third.  I find 3a to be more appealing (you basically get as far as you can and stay there until you can go farther), but I note that being subject to any of the planets is still being subject to fate as a whole, and I can’t personally reconcile being subject to fate (which is what makes souls incarnate to begin with as the only means fate seems to directly impact souls, at least in the dwelling-place of souls in the sublunar atmosphere) with a notion of some sort of pause from its influences, even so high up as that.  Still, I can’t discount the possibility that not being subject to all the planets (especially the Moon, which is very much the planet of generation and thus pregnancy and birth and embodiment) does put a sort of stay on the actual push or descent towards incarnation, even if being subject to some of them still keeps us from total freedom and may still cause the soul to undergo some sort of pressure or temptation towards incarnation.  2a, on the other hand, keeps the notion of incarnation as a pressure on the soul due to fate in general intact while also preserving some notion of “progress” by having a soul come down to the highest possible dwelling-place (which is the first sublunar stratum it’d come in contact with).

As for my thoughts on the other options: 2b seems to be more strict and assumes an “escape/sideways route” towards “the way up”, which I’m not too fond of, while 2c seems awkward and rule-breaking.  3b, on the other hand, seems really bizarre as an edge case and, while I can envision some models of the cosmos and the soul to allow the soul to be “employed” in such a way by forces of fate it cannot surmount and so becomes dominated by until it “works off its debt”.  It’s not impossible, but of the two, while I can think of some gnostic or exceedingly-dire accounts (like the “eternal punishment” of AH 28) suggesting that 3b(ii) as a “permanent waywardness of the soul” could be a possibility, I find the notion to be as unlikely as it is unfair within a Hermetic perspective, leaving 3b(i) more likely (sorta).  None of these options appeals to me as much as 1, 2a, or 3a.

Of course, this is all just opinion and conjecture at this point.  While we’ve been able to improve on the overall sketch of an outline from the last post, we’re still left with several possible, competing models, choosing between can be left up to interpretive license.  As I’m flipping through a variety of academic articles and scholarly compilations of various aspects of afterlife belief common in the Hellenistic world, I’m trying to find things that might offer informative parallels or other insights into what we see in Hermeticism, but I admit that I’m not coming up with all that much; others might have more success than I am, and I happily invite anyone with ideas or suggestions for further research or consideration to say so in the comments.  Still, at this point, we have something to work with that pieces together the different hints that we get in the Hermetic texts towards a cohesive system.  Even if some of the technical details and edge cases are vague, it’s still enough to work with—and we can talk about the implications of what that means in the next post.