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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.