October 2020 Hiatus

I guess that if I need a break, then I need one, and boy howdy do I need one, and a more dedicated break than what I gave myself last time.

It’s been a crazy time, as y’all know, for one reason or another, and I need a bit of a break.  I already pulled a bit of a break earlier this year to focus on my Salem presentation, which went great, but this time, I need some time to just do nothing at all except relax and enjoy myself.  Between a busy year of writing, translating, teaching, the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, taking an online Sahidic Coptic course (and several other courses, including Jack Grayle’s excellent PGM Praxis course to buff out my own stuff), and just the usual day-to-day stuff of full-time software engineering to pay the bills and household management to make the most out of it all, I’m gonna be taking a bit of a vacation for the month of October for my birthday.  I won’t be taking on any client work or consultations during this time, and though I’ll still be replying to emails for access to the Red Work Course and Geomancy in the Reign of the Lady of Crowns courses I administer as well as PayPal purchases directly through my website for my ebooks, but any requests for readings, consultations, geomancy chart reviews, coaching sessions, or the like will be on hold until after November gets here, at which point I’ll pick up on those emails and requests again.  My Etsy page also has an announcement to the same effect; although all ebooks and divination tickets through Etsy will be sent automatically to your account/email as normal, I won’t get back to requests until after my vacation.  So, if you request a reading or another service between now and then, then I humbly ask for and will sincerely appreciate your patience until I get back to such work.  Although I’ll still be semi-available by email, those who are a member of my Red Work Course or Geomancy in the Lady of Crowns class mailing lists are encouraged, when and as possible, to ask questions and discussion topics to those forums rather than to me directly in case a more urgent answer is desired from your colleagues.  If there are any big updates or newsworthy things that come up for this blog between now and then, you can be sure I’ll post them, but otherwise, I plan on giving my (excellent) keyboard a bit of a break from writing, editing, teaching, and consulting, and instead will just relax for a well-deserved staycation of my own.

We’ll pick up again soon after I’ve caught up on naps and enjoying myself.  Taking time to rest and recuperate, after all, is as much a sacrament as anything else, and even Hermēs Trismegistos in SH V.4—7 notes that sleep is a blessed thing that keeps us fair, fit, and fine (Litwa’s translation):

Since our bodies are weak, they are in need of much assistance. To be sure, how would the connecting link of our bodies resist even occasional harm if it did not maintain the ingestion of foodstuffs made from the same elements which daily reinforce our bodies? Indeed, an influx of earth, water, fire, and air flows into us which renews our bodies and holds together this tent. Consequently, in the face of commotions, we are incredibly frail and cannot bear them for a single day.

You well know, my child, that if we did not rest our bodies at night, we could not withstand a single day. For this reason, the good Craftsman who foreknows all things, created sleep for the continuance of living creatures, which is the greatest cessation from the fatigue of motion. Moreover, he ordered an equal measure of time for each state—or rather, he allotted more time to repose.

Understand, my child, the magnificent activity of sleep; it is opposed to the activity of the soul, but not inferior to it. Just as the soul is an activity of motion, in the same way, too, bodies cannot live without sleep; for there is a relaxing and loosening of the connected limbs. Sleep operates within, making ingested matter into bodies, distributing the proper elements to each bodily part: water to blood, earth to bones and marrow, air to nerves and veins, and fire to vision. Accordingly, the body intensely enjoys sleep since it activates this pleasure of the body’s reconstitution.

With that, I hope you all have a blessed October in every which way, whether you have a birthday this month or not (but especially if you do, too)!

Twelve, Ten, and Seven: Clarifying and Rethinking the Tormentors from CH XIII

So, this one has been stewing on my mind a bit.  Remember how, a bit ago, I brought up the notion of Hermetic “tormentors”?  It’s this notion from the Corpus Hermeticum (specifically Books I and XIII, or CH I and CH XIII, respectively) about how there are these irrational forces that work upon the body, and so influence and affect (impelling, but not compelling) the soul.  In CH I, Poimandrēs describes them to Hermēs in terms of the planets, where after death a human rises up through the planetary spheres and gives up a particular energy/activity to each planetary sphere from which that energy/activity derives: increase and decrease to the Moon, evil machination to Mercury, illusion of longing to Venus, and so forth.  CH XIII describes things a bit differently; rather than waiting until after death to release ourselves from these energies, the process of initiation and rebirth described there can be done in this life before death, but rather than there being seven such energies, there are twelve that Hermēs lists to Tat, but “under them are many more besides”.  When I brought up my discussion of these tormentors last time, I considered them in a planetary light, against the conventional reading of the text in CH XIII which makes them out to be zodiacal rather than planetary, and have interpreted them as such as well in later posts like the one I did about the Hermetic “sins” based on the 42 Negative Confessions of Egyptian afterlife beliefs.  This major disconnect, intentional as it was, was pointed out to me by Phainolis of Practical Theurgy, and I wanted to take another look at my logic with that.  The constant onslaught of 2020’s drama hasn’t given me a lot of time to do that, but now that I have a moment to breathe and reconsider things, I figure now’s as good a time as any.

So, let’s talk about the relationships between CH I and CH XIII at a high level first.  Both of these are important books in the corpora Hermetica (not just in the Corpus Hermeticum alone, but in all of the classical Hermetic literature available to us) because they center on this notion of spiritual…evolution, advancement, ascent, whatever you want to call it as a means of salvation and release from torment.  Torment is a result of the forces of fate that work upon the body, because the body is what is subjected to fate, because fate is a function of the created cosmos.  Because the body is a product of the cosmos, the body is subject to the forces of the cosmos; the soul, however, is not subject to the forces of fate because it has its origin above and beyond the creation of the cosmos.  Still, because the soul is wrapped up in the body, the body can inflict the soul with torment or misguide and mislead it; even though the soul is technically above the forces of fate, it can still be impacted by them because of its connection to the body.  Fighting this battle between the soul and the body to preserve the well-being and conscious immortality of the soul against the fatal inflictions of fate is emphasized in several places throughout the Hermetic literature, and both CH I and CH XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum discuss different approaches to this.

I also want to note that, for all the importance of the name and role of Poimandrēs in the Corpus Hermeticum, the name itself is only ever used in these two books.  CH XI can be thought of as a discussion between Poimandrēs and Hermēs, but there, it’s technically just “Mind”, not Poimandrēs by name.  It can be assumed that CH XI has a dialog between Poimandrēs and Hermēs, given the now-commonly-accepted idea that Poimandrēs means “Intelligence/Mind/Knowing of Ra” (from Coptic p-eime nte-rē or some variant thereof), but it’s still not explicitly said there (much like how the revelation of Poimandrēs in CH I isn’t given explicitly to Hermēs, but we assume that it is).  This puts CH XIII on a special kinship with both CH I and CH XI, being the only text in the Corpus Hermeticum that explicitly links both Hermēs and Poimandrēs together.  As far as the connection between CH I and CH XIII is concerned, we can safely assume that CH XIII was written as not just heavily influenced by but an outright descendant and development of the themes given in CH I.

As noted earlier, the final revelation of Poimandrēs to Hermēs in CH I describes the activities/energies of the planets, which the human being relinquishes as it ascends through the heavens back to the eighth sphere, “stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework”, where the human being (now just the pure soul unrestricted and unrestrained by the body or its influences and affectations) “has his own proper power”.  Classically speaking, the eighth sphere is seen to be the sphere of the fixed stars.  Although the process of salvation begins down here on Earth, the results and culmination of salvation only properly begins in the eighth sphere, once the planetary forces have been stripped away from the human being.  I say “begins” here in the eighth sphere, because Poimandrēs references even higher spheres:

Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god.

What might those higher regions be?  Stobaean Fragment 6 (SH 6) is a separate Hermetic text that talks about the sphere of the decans which resides between the outermost body of the cosmos (basically the Primum Mobile) and the sphere of the zodiac, and the sphere of the zodiac is mentioned as “the band of stars featuring animal-like shapes”.  Although some conceptions of the geocentric cosmos separate out the sphere of the fixed stars from the sphere of the zodiac properly (as in Petrus Apianus’ and Gemma Frisius’ famous depiction of the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmos, shown below, which separates out the eighth sphere of the fixed stars as the “firmament” and the ninth sphere of the Zodiac constellations themselves, presumably to account cosmologically and spiritually for precession), the older Hermetic texts don’t really seem to do this.

Because of this, we can assume that the Hermetic stance on this (at least given what’s in SH 6) is that the eighth sphere is the sphere of the fixed stars and constellations of the Zodiac proper, and the ninth sphere are a higher, more ideal division of space known as the decans, and above that is the Primum Mobile as the tenth and final sphere.

The phrase “cosmic framework” mentioned above in that excerpt from CH I is also used earlier in CH I, too, when the primordial man began to enter into creation (emphasis mine):

Having all authority over the cosmos of mortals and unreasoning animals, the man broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god.

And again when God set in motion the process of procreation of humans (emphasis mine):

Hear the rest, the word you yearn to hear. When the cycle was completed, the bond among all things was sundered by the counsel of god. All living things, which had been androgyne, were sundered into two parts—humans along with them—and part of them became male, part likewise female. But god immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multitude, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him [who] is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

After god said this, providence, through fate and through the cosmic framework, caused acts of intercourse and set in train acts of birth; and all things were multiplied according to kind. The one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.

There’s this identity of “the cosmic framework”, understood to be the system of planets, with Fate in CH I, but I want to mention that this is Copenhaver’s translation; Festugière has “l’armature des sphères”, while the original Greek is ἁρμονία, or “harmony”, while the word “cosmic” isn’t present in the Greek.  This notion of the “harmony” can be understood, given the context, to refer to the whole working-together of the cosmos, which is a safe bet given the understanding and translation Festugière and Nock, but perhaps not.  However, CH I does say that the government of the “seven governors…[who] encompass the sensible world in circles” is called fate, so there is an explicit identity of the planets with fate in CH I.  Elsewhere, we see similar notions: SH 29 is a short poem entitled “On Fate” which talks about the activities and gifts of the planets, SH 12 says that “the stars are the instrument of Fate” and that “the stars serve Fate”, CH III (which we brought up at length not too long ago!) describes how the “wonder-working course of the cycling gods” enacts the work of the Divine and working of Nature, and CH XVI talks about how the daimones of the stars effect the powers and orders of those stars upon the body to afflict the soul.  The contexts of what “star” means in these various texts can differ, sometimes referring to the wandering stars (planets) or the fixed stars themselves, but the general agreement is that it’s definitely the planets that effect Fate, either with or without the influences of the fixed stars themselves, about which it’s more debatable from text to text.

Then we turn to CH XIII.  There, Hermēs tells Tat that he has “more than a few” tormentors, and that they are:

…twelve in number, but under them are many more besides…and they use the prison of the body to torture the inward person [i.e. the soul] with the sufferings of sense.

Later, Hermēs says that:

This tent—from which have also passed, my child—was constituted from the zodiacal circle, which was in turn constituted of entities that are twelve in number, one in nature, omniform in appearance.  To mankind’s confusion, there are disjunctions among the twelve, my child, though they are unified when they act.  (Recklessness is not separable from anger; they are indistinguishable.)

The tormentors as described in CH XIII, then, are (at least superficially) zodiacal in nature, as opposed to the planetary notion of them as given in CH I.  The “tent” image is one common in a number of Hermetic texts, referencing the body using an image of a makeshift shelter constructed from nearby, local elements that we pass into briefly and pass out of just as quickly, a brief lodging for the soul; the tent is subject to fate because it is made by the powers of fate.  Unlike other parts of Hermetic cosmological descriptions, fate here is a function not of the planets but of the zodiac.  This sentiment is also echoed in, for example, SH 6, where the decans are said to exert an energy upon the planets themselves and thus upon us, making the government fate more encompassing than just the revolution of the planets but of all things that are strictly underneath the Primum Mobile.  All the same, what’s known is that the various elements of creation from above work and effect the government of fate upon those things below.  Same notion as with the planetary model of fate, just expanded a bit higher up.  In that light, recentering the fixed stars instead of the wandering stars as being agents of fate, it follows that one should have a zodiacal model of tormentors instead of a planetary one.

But the description of the twelve tormentors in CH XIII is…muddled even by Hermēs’ own definition, and some translators would say outright mutilated looking at the text itself.  After all, Hermēs says that although different, some of them are inseparable from one another, and Copenhaver in his notes to this section says that “if four of the twelve vices constitute two disjunctions which act as unities” (like how recklessness and anger are), “the twelve become ten”.  Even if the second conjoined disjunction isn’t mentioned, that reduction from twelve to ten is an important thing to note here.  Although there are twelve named tormentors here in CH XIII, ten is an important number, because there are ten mercies or graces of God that come to purify the human from the tormentors: knowledge of God, joy, continence, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth, goodness, life, and light (or another variant translation for these words as I gave in my earlier post liked above).  Ten, as many know, is a holy number being the Decad from Pythagorean influence, a number of perfection and wholeness, and we can see such an influence present in this Hermetic text.  But what’s odd is that there’s no one-to-one mapping of all the mercies of God to the tormentors: the first seven(!) are given one-to-one for the first seven tormentors listed, and then “the good, together with life and light” which all come together after truth, vanquishes all the rest of the tormentors starting with envy (the eighth tormentor listed) at once.  This weird switch from going one-by-one to all-the-rest is jarring, frankly, as is the lack of complete development when it comes to how the disjoined tormentors still act as one in pairs.

What’s notable is that those last three mercies of God, goodness and life and light, are elsewhere praised throughout the corpora Hermetica time and again as being some of the highest attributes of God generally: God is the Good, and God is the source of life and light, being the Maker and the Mind that illuminates all minds.  There’s a palpable difference between the final three mercies in CH XIII of goodness, life, and light (which are more like attributes of God) and the other seven mercies listed (which are more like God-oriented energies or virtues that counteract the more base-oriented energies or vices).  There’s even a difference in how Hermēs introduces them: he summons to Tat the first seven mercies (or that they come to Tat) to vanquish the first seven tormentors, but upon the vanquishing of the seventh, “the good has been fulfilled”, and that “the good….has followed after truth [the seventh mercy]”.  After all, the way Hermēs describes it here, once the mercy of truth arrives to vanquish deceit, “the good has been fulfilled”, implying that there’s a completion, strongly suggesting that there are only seven mercies and the rest is just Divinity itself which can only be reached through the first seven mercies.

Although he lumps them all together immediately afterward referencing “the arrival of the decad”, there’s still a distinction drawn in the very natures of goodness, life, and light from the rest.  This difference, at least as far as life and light are concerned, is emphasized later on in CH XIII:

The decad engenders soul, my child. Life and light are unified when the number of the henad, of spirit, is begotten. Logically, then, the henad contains the decad, and the decad the henad.

Without goodness, life, and light, there are only seven mercies, and each of these mercies is known to act against one of the tormentors.  The rest of the tormentors get lumped together in a confused way, either through the cosmological description directly from Hermēs by his own admission or through the mangling of the text itself passed down through the ages, and the rest of the mercies have already been lumped together throughout the rest of the corpora Hermetica and even here, too.  What we clearly have is seven concrete mercy-tormentor pairs, and a mess of the rest on both sides of the equation.

In my earlier post about the Hermetic tormentors, I sorta devolved this zodiacal model in CH XIII down to a strictly planetary model more like what’s in CH I, which Phainolis called out as unusual, as I noted, and which does go against the conventional wisdom and academic understanding of what’s being discussed in CH XIII.  Let me be clear: it’s obvious that CH XIII is certainly attempting to come up with a twelve-fold zodiacal model of tormentors, and certainly describes the tormentors (and, thus, fate) in terms of the zodiac.  However, it doesn’t do so clearly or successfully, trying to come up with justifications that take twelve down to ten to match an idealized set of ten mercies, but which isn’t followed through well, either.  This ends up with only seven of the mercies being matched against seven of the tormentors explicitly, and the other three taking care of the other five, supposedly in the sense of one mercy of the last three for one of those lingering five tormentors, and one of the other two mercies in that set to go against a pair of tormentors.  There are plenty of ways one could conceive of a specific mercy-tormentor(s) pairing, but none of them seem particularly satisfying, as it’s not clear what relationship goodness, life, or light would have specifically with any one or pair of these last five tormentors, unlike the clean and clear relationship that the first seven mercies have with the first seven tormentors (e.g. knowledge and ignorance, joy and sorrow, justice and injustice).  Moreover, although it’s not a clean or clear one-to-one match, the order of the first seven tormentors given in CH XIII strongly resembles the tormentors given as the activity of the planets in CH I and in the same order, while also not showing any resemblance between the twelve tormentors here given and how they would relate to the twelve signs of the Zodiac.  The bit about how (some?) pairs of the tormentors here, though disjointed, act as one in order to bring the number twelve down to ten shows that the link between these tormentors and the zodiac signs is weak at best based only on a nominal link based on the number twelve, and that the numerology of twelve and ten seems to be held as more important than any actual zodiacal origination or connection.

I noted earlier that CH XIII seems to be a direct descendant and further development of the cosmological and soteriological movement first initiated in CH I, but it recenters the government of fate and its tormentors on the eighth sphere of the fixed stars rather than on the seven spheres of the planets, and tries to adjust its notion of tormentors accordingly from seven to twelve while also throwing in a Pythagorean or Gnostic notion of the holy Decad in for good measure by combining the numbers seven and three.  However, it just…doesn’t succeed in this.  To me, what this all looks like is that CH XIII is trying to come up with a zodiacal model of tormentors and fate based on an earlier (and much more stable and reliable) planetary model, but it falls short of actually doing so, and ends up only keeping the earlier planetary model clear, while handwaving away the rest.  The model of tormentor-vs.-mercy here along zodiacal lines is simply incomplete, and in the form given in CH XIII does not provide us with a meaningful system of understanding either the tormentors or mercies beyond the planetary sevenfold model already given in CH I.

Can there be a zodiacal model of twelve tormentors to supplant the planetary model of seven?  Sure!  But there are a few things that I’d like to see for such a thing: a clear link between a given tormentor and a specific sign of the Zodiac, a single mercy that vanquishes a single tormentor (so no combos of mercies against a single or multiple tormentors), and a clear link between a given mercy and its corresponding tormentor (e.g. justice vs. injustice).  Alternatively, we could do away with the notion of mercies vanquishing the tormentors and just have each sign provide a tormenting energy to humans that one needs to give up (as in the CH I model).  There’s no clear way to do either of these things while involving the number ten for the sake of having a holy Decad present in this process.  This is further evidence, to me, that the model of twelve kinda-sorta zodiacal tormentors in CH XIII was a half-baked idea that, although showing some promise and lifts the ultimate powers of fate up from the planetary level to the stellar level and reveals a Gnostic or Pythagorean presence in this text, wasn’t developed far enough in CH XIII to actually fulfill this framework.

Given the strong echo of a sevenfold planetary model of tormentors (and their vanquishing mercies) in CH XIII despite its attempt to build a zodiacal twelvefold model, and given the already noted presence of such a sevenfold planetary model (or at least its foundation without vanquishing mercies) in CH I, I would rather interpret the first seven tormentors and their corresponding mercies in CH XIII in a planetary model, and leave the rest out.  After all, Hermēs tells Tat in CH XIII that he already has “more than a few” tormentors, and that, although there are twelve he lists, “under them there are many more besides”.  The door is already open here to say that some tormentors are more minor than others, perhaps as specifications of the others, so using the same logic already present in CH XIII, it wouldn’t be hard at all to revert to a sevenfold model from a twelvefold one.  And, again, given the strong similarity the first seven tormentors from CH XIII bears to the list of planetary activities from CH I, it makes better sense to me to interpret them in a more planetary light, given how solid and present that model is in other Hermetic texts that involve elevation and initiation.

As an aside along these lines, besides CH I and CH XIII, the closest Hermetic text that discusses similar things is the famous Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (D89) from the Nag Hammadi texts.  That text, too, involves a sort of initiation, as in CH XIII, as well as spiritual elevation and ascent, as in CH I.  There, Hermēs and Tat (presumably, given the context of D89) “have already advanced to the seventh, since [they] are pious and walk in [God’s] law[; a]nd [God’s] will [they] fulfill always”, and Tat has already been promised by Hermēs “that you would bring my mind into the eighth and afterwards you would bring me into the ninth”.  The whole cosmology of D89 is basically exactly that of CH I, while the process of initiation in life is lacking in CH I, while it is in CH XIII; conversely, both D89 and CH I lack a notion of mercies that vanquish the tormentors, which CH XIII has, though CH I has a notion of tormentors one gives up naturally that D89 lacks, and D89 has a general notion of mercy being bestowed by God that allows for elevation to happen.  CH XIII, it should be noted, lacks any notion of spiritual ascent through the spheres; it focuses entirely on the sphere of the fixed stars (and that only nominally), and instead focuses on a process of purification through the mercy of God to obtain a divine vision, while CH I and D89 focuses on a process of spiritual elevation through the spheres to obtain a divine vision.  However, there is a tantalizing bit in D89: after Hermēs and Tat proclaim that they “have already advanced to the seventh”, they also say that they “have walked in [the way of God], and [they] have renounced”…something.  There’s a short lacuna here, but whatever it is they renounced they renounced “so that [the vision of God] may come”.  J.P. Mahé reconstructs “evil” here, though others have “childhood” (cf. earlier in D89, “compare yourself to the early years of life; as children (do), you have posed senseless, unintelligent questions”).  It’s unclear, though it’s probably not a list of tormentors or vices, just a short one-word bit.  Still, the notion, however implicit and terse, is still here in D89, too.

Anyway, where does that leave us?  CH I and CH XIII both bring up a notion of fate-fueled tormentors that hinder the spiritual development and progress of the human soul due to the infliction of torment on the body, and CH XIII was definitely written with CH I in mind.  However, unlike the planetary sevenfold model of tormentors one has and then gives up in CH I, CH XIII tries to develop a zodiacal twelvefold model of tormentors that are vanquished by particular mercies bestowed upon us by the grace of God.  However, this twelvefold model in CH XIII isn’t fully developed even on its own terms and tries to involve a more Pythagorean/Gnostic decad-based model of salvation than one that is strictly zodiacal in nature, confusing different systems leading to a confused result.  Moreover, there’s strong evidence when comparing the two systems side-by-side that the twelvefold model in CH XIII was based on the earlier sevenfold model from CH I, which it hasn’t really departed from.  Although a superficial reading of CH XIII would lead one to think that this twelvefold model of tormentors and mercies is zodiacal, and though it attempts to flesh out such a system, it fails to do so, with the only concrete part of it being the earlier sevenfold model based on the planets.  It makes more sense to me, until such time as a better twelvefold model can be developed using CH XIII as a basis, to simply stick with the sevenfold model and to interpret the first seven tormentors and mercies as being more planetary than zodiacal in nature.  There’s enough in the corpora Hermetica as a whole to justify such a zodiacal, fixed star-based model of infliction and affectation of fate, and CH XIII likely shows that it was being developed and migrated to from an earlier planetary model but may not have been fully understood or fully developed at the time of its writing.  There can certainly be such a zodiacal  model of tormentors and mercies, but I don’t think the model given in CH XIII is complete or solid enough to use as it is, when the sevenfold planetary model is both older, better understood, and present even here in CH XIII even if not explicitly so.

On the Hermetic Hieroglossa

Yes, another post about the Hermetic canon, Corpus Hermeticum, Stobaean Fragments, and whatnot.  But this time, it’s not about introducing a prayer based on the work, but about the work’s own comments about itself.

Something for me to bear in mind is that, as an amateur classicist, I don’t really read Greek (though I am learning!), whether modern or archaic or Koiné or any point in between.  Nor do I read any variety of Egyptian.  In fact, the only real classical language I have any grasp of is Latin, and even that requires some assistance (I wish I had kept it up more through college, my current translations be damned).  Annoyingly, despite working from home full-time in light of the Reign of the Lady of Crowns, it seems like my spare time has gone down somehow, and with the added stress of waves vaguely at everything, it’s hard to focus.  Thus, though I had set out three months ago leaving my office for the last time (until such time as things get safer to go back) with desires to learn Sahidic Coptic, I haven’t been able to do anything about that along those lines, much to my annoyance.  Even if I had time to learn Sahidic Coptic, there’s also the much-needed modern Spanish I still need to work on, to say nothing of Lukumí/Yòrubá and Koiné Greek, or Yiddish, or any other number of languages I should be studying for any number of (rather quite valid) reasons.

But why Coptic?  I mentioned a while back that Coptic got sprung up for me as an interest, and although an obsessive one like how reading dominoes came about for me, it’s gone nowhere, unfortunately.  But I still wanna learn it; after all, Coptic is the only surviving Egyptian language we have left, and unfortunately, it’s also effectively a dead language, kept around liturgically in the Coptic Church much as Latin is in the Catholic Church.  Of course, there are movements to try to revive it and make it a spoken, living language again, but as with Latin, it’s not all that far-reaching.  However, even then, what the Coptic Church uses is Bohairic Coptic, a derivative of a northern (Lower) Egyptian dialect which has taken on far more Greek influence through the Church, while I’m more focused on Sahidic Coptic, which was more common across Egypt, it’d seem, especially in southern (Upper) Egypt, especially in and around Thebes and Hermopolis—and thus would be more closely related to the classical philosophical texts (e.g. Corpus Hermeticum) and magical texts (e.g. PGM/PDM/PCM) I’m such a fan of.

Coptic—in any dialect—is the last stage of the Egyptian language to survive, which otherwise dates back some six thousand years, an incredibly long heritage for a language.  It didn’t remain the same for all those millennia, of course, since Egyptian, as all languages do, evolved and mutated and spread, sometimes developing multiple dialects and offshoots along the way.  Perhaps at least as impressive as its age, of course, is also the fact that it’s been one of the longest-living languages (language families?) to ever be written, with written records of Egyptian dating back some five and a half thousand years.  Although the writing system of hieroglyphs remained largely the same since their institution until their use ceased across two thousand years, the spoken language continued to develop, with Middle Egyptian (c. 2000 bce to 1350 bce) becoming the “classical” form of the language, with Late Egyptian following on that until about 700 bce, Demotic after that until 400 ce, and Coptic rising on the scene as a different set of dialects and writing systems with heavy Greek influence arising around 200 ce.  My point is that Egyptian is old, and its writing system the foundation for the well-known Phoenician writing system, itself the ancestor of most alphabets and abjads—even perhaps the Indic abugidas, too—used across the world today.

So why bring all this up?  I was reading more of the Corpus Hermeticum the other day, this time Book XVI, a letter of Asclepius sent to Ammon.  It starts off somewhat perplexingly, saying that it contradicts earlier teachings and lessons (perhaps as a sign that Ammon is now spiritually developed enough to take on deeper and more profound truths?), but it quickly gets into a bout of what some authors have called “linguistic nativism” (Copenhaver translation):

…furthermore, it will be entirely unclear (he said) when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity.  But this discourse, expressed in our paternal language, keeps clear the meaning of its words. The very quality of the speech and the (sound) of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.

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

Let’s be clear here: Asclepius is outright saying that Greek is no language for true philosophy as befits the Way of Hermēs, and that those who wish to translate Hermetic teachings into Greek do so foolishly as they end up distorting the meaning of the texts.  Thus, Asclepius encourages Ammon to stick to using “our paternal language”, i.e. Egyptian, because it “keeps clear the meaning of its words”, as it avoids such distortion and vacuity that the Greeks seem to be so fond of.  Egyptian has “sounds that are full of action”, and “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”.

Of course, CH XVI along with the rest of the CH is written in Greek; either this letter of Asclepius to Ammon was originally written in Egyptian and translated into Greek (possible, though it’s astoundingly humble for the translator to keep this section!), or it was written originally in Greek and written to intimate that the reader is getting some intimate sort of taste of lost, ancient wisdom.  I mean, imagine the absurdity and paradox of it: a set of texts written in Greek yet which deny the validity and use of Greek.  True, Greek was one of the larger linguae francae of the classical Mediterranean world, and was held to be a language quite well-suited for philosophy—the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal contemplative diary in Greek—but we should remember that the Egyptians as a rule didn’t think highly of other cultures as much as other cultures thought highly of that of the Egyptians.  It’s now largely agreed-upon that Hermet(ic)ism is rooted in Egypt, and although it bears heavy Hellenic influence, its Egyptian core component cannot be denied.

So what was the “original language” of the Hermetic texts and teachers?  I mean…well, we simply don’t know.  The Egyptian flair present in Book XVI may well just be that, an affectation of style and drama to set the stage for a letter-based discourse (which itself is flair because we know with almost absolute certainty that this wasn’t actually a real letter, much as some letter-styled entries in the PGM aren’t real letters).  All our surviving Hermetic texts from this area are, for the most part, only in Greek; there are a handful of Coptic texts from the Nag Hammadi find, and the Asclepius survives only in Latin although it almost certainly relies on an older (I don’t want to say “original”) Greek version.  But there are also older quasi- or proto-Hermetic texts that we find, like the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, written in Demotic; such wisdom literature, like the older Instruction of Any, were written in Middle Egyptian.  Without knowing more about the history and origins of Hermetic texts, we simply just don’t know what the “original” Hermetic language might have been, and there are good arguments for either Demotic Egyptian and Koiné Greek.  Frankly, based on the overwhelming abundance of literature in the language that survives, Koiné Greek may well be the original language of the Hermetic canon, but maybe that’s just an accident of history and survival.

But let’s take the notion of Egyptian—whether Demotic or Coptic or whatever—as being the only worthwhile language seriously, at least for now for the sake of argument.  I mean, given the huge emphasis on the power of the spoken word so prevalent throughout Egyptian belief, it makes sense; why use anything else when the very words “have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of”?  In this light, Egyptian may well be a “true language”, a language that doesn’t just represent things as symbols but whose very words actually are the very things themselves.  This is what logically follows from the Egyptian notion of power in speech; it’s less a matter of “linguistic nativism” and more a matter of cosmological accuracy to describe Egyptian as this, and Greek (and, for that matter, other languages) as being void and wasteful.  That being said, though, many languages say the same things about themselves, like Hebrew being the language that God used to create the world, and the like, so maybe we shouldn’t take this claim all too seriously.

Still, even if we don’t distance ourselves from the notion that the Egyptian language is the only “true language” in the sense of its words being “true words” and its names being “true names”, it would follow that this truth follows from the language being spoken correctly (as far as pronunciation is concerned) and used correctly (ditto but for grammar and semantics).  In that light, well, which stage of Egyptian are we talking about?  After all, each stage had developments as far as grammar, semantic drift, and pronunciation went that would render them mutually unintelligible (making one “right” and one “wrong”), so are we talking Old Egyptian, Middle, Late, Demotic, or Coptic?  And even if we can figure out a general stage, what about dialect?  If Coptic, is it Sahidic, Akhmimic, Subakhmimic, Bohairic, Fayyumic, or Oxyrhynchite?  If Bohairic, because it’s still relatively in use today, are we talking classical Bohairic as used between the 4th and 9th centuries, or will modern Church Bohairic suffice, or neo-Coptic revitalizations based on Bohairic?  Because older forms of Egyptian weren’t really represented outside spoken language, we can’t really figure out much about pre-Coptic dialects, but we do have evidence that there were differences indeed, e.g. a scribe joking about a colleague’s writing being as incoherent to him as “the speech of a Delta man with a man of Elephantine”.  Besides, we don’t actually know for sure how non-Coptic varieties of Egyptian languages were spoken because we have so little information to go on regarding their vowels; the usual transliteration method we have for Egyptian hieroglyphs is more of convention rather than a linguistic guarantee that certain words were pronounced in certain ways, and though we can work backwards from Coptic as well as glosses in other texts from other languages, we simply don’t know for sure beyond a few guesses, and even those are limited.  Heck, even our exact knowledge of how Coptic words were pronounced can be spotty at times, and those are written using a full alphabet with vocalizations and everything!  So, if “true language” is predicated on the proper pronunciation and use of “true words”, then wouldn’t the very real fact of linguistic mutation and evolution throw a wrench into that?  At what point does “Egyptian” stop being “Egyptian”, and how “Egyptian” does one need to get in order for the language to work that way?

Perhaps more importantly, to whom would this matter most?  As many modern folk will attest, although the gods and spirits may well like being addressed in their own language (and may prefer to communicate in it, if possessing their mounts, who may or may not be competent in it), it’s almost universal that they’ll understand any language spoken to them.  This is likely the case in Egypt, too; over five thousand years of linguistic development, although certain registers and forms of the language were kept around for priestly use and ritual, it’s not like every common Egyptian person who wanted to go to the gods with their own prayers and supplications knew the formal registers used by the priests in their temples, and used whatever form of the language they could as best as they could to communicate, and surely the gods heard and understood (and answered) those words just as clearly as they did those of the priests.  I mean, consider the Demotic Magical Papyri, written in—you guessed it—Demotic Egyptian.  Those are rituals and spells that directly called upon the gods, often for one-on-one interactions, that were composed in Demotic, not in the classical Middle Egyptian that might have been more highly revered.  And it seems like those rituals worked just fine, and those who use them still get a kick out of them, too—and since few people today have competency in Demotic, they’ll typically use whatever language the PDM are translated into, like English or German.  In this light, maybe the stringency that Book XVI puts on Egyptian (which, though?) is just flair and linguistic nativism/supremacy with nothing really backing it up.

This really all recalls the issues with the so-called “Adamic” language, the language of Adam and Eve that was used as the first language humans ever used, notably to communicate directly with God.  Recall that, in the Book of Genesis, Adam named all things; in what tongue?  Whatever he named those things would be the first, and thus “true”, name for those things, and it wasn’t until the Tower of Babel that other languages came about and the Adamic language was lost.  Hebrew claims to be the survival of this Adamic language—again, recall how Jewish philosophers and kabbalists claim that God created the world through the Hebrew language and the 22 letters of the Hebrew script—but other people took issue with this, such as John Dee, who “received” (developed) his Enochian language from the angels as a recovery of the original Adamic language (nevermind that its grammar and phonology is almost exactly that of English).  The allure of an “original” or “true” language is a strong one for people in pretty much any system that puts a heavy emphasis on the magical power of language, but from what we factually know about language and how it works, there’s likely no such thing, and magic and prayers still tend to work in pretty much any language.

I mean, for that matter, also consider the introduction of Greek words and names in Egyptian magic, again turning to the Demotic and Coptic magical papyri.  Coptic script gives a powerful benefit to Egyptian language because of the introduction of the seven written vowels (taken from Greek), which no earlier form of Egyptian reliably had in their writing systems (whether hieroglyphic, hieratic, or demotic).  Obviously, vowel strings and intonations are big in PGM-style work, but as far as Hermetic texts go, we see it come to a head in “The Eighth Reveals the Ninth”, which notably uses the vowel strings in an invocation of the Divine—yet the text later instructs Hermēs’ student to inscribe the book in hieroglyphs.  But this very instruction would be effectively impossible to render accurately without the use of vowels, which don’t exist in hieroglyphs.  Again, this very well could be (and most likely is) just a flair for the dramatic in this text, but it does raise something important: if vowel string intonations were important for Egyptian magical practice (and there are contemporary records that they are), how could that be transmitted over text when the text doesn’t have a reliable way of transmitting that?

This is where the notion of initiation and teacher-to-student transmission comes in.  It may well be that Egyptian writing systems were used not just to transmit information but also to obscure it, especially the specific pronunciations of sacred words and names.  Sure, the bare-bone skeletal structure of such words and names might be there, but unless someone teaches you and gives you the missing key for such pronunciation, the text will do you no good because you lack the instruction required to understand and apply it, even if you can still read it.  In this, we have an act of initiation, and this ties in well with the notion that much of PGM-style magic may not work for some people who lack the requisite “hook-up” into the Powers that Be (or Were, in some cases).  Many magicians from that time period of Egypt, after all, were also ordained priests who had the proper initiations and rituals performed on and to and for them to allow them access to particular powers and rituals that, frankly, we today lack.  Unless you can hack your way into such a power, or hotwire such a connection to gain access, some people argue that PGM-style magic may not work for you.  In this, we modern mages who can get PGM magic to work end up getting it to work either by stumbling across the key to it as a blind man fumbles in a dark room, or through other side channels that can still be exploited one way or another.  (I don’t fully agree with this notion, but I don’t deny the logic of it.)  In this, as a good friend on Twitter phrased it, the first revelation of truth is the supremacy of the Correct Word™, and eventually you reach the point where All Words are One Word™.

But this is still besides the point of what Book XVI claims, that Egyptian is the only true language worth discussing matters of truth in.  And…well, is discussing truth in any language possible at all?  I mean, the Second Stobaean Fragment (SH II) basically says no, we can’t (Litwa’s translation):

…For a human being is an imperfect animal composed of imperfect members, a tent made up of foreign and multiple bodies. Yet what is possible and correct, this I speak: the truth is in eternal bodies alone.

…Now if our frame did not possess truth from the beginning, how can it see or speak the truth? It can understand only if God so wills.

Every reality that is upon earth is not true, Tat. Rather, it is a copy of truth—and not even every truth is a copy, but only a few of them…

…Truth is hardly upon earth, Tat, nor can it arise there. Few among human beings can grasp anything concerning truth—only those to whom God grants the power of vision.

CH VI.3 likewise states that there is no true good in the world, nothing good like how God is good (Copenhaver’s translation):

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore, Asclepius, only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good.

Consider what this means: if no good can exist in the world, then one cannot likewise speak it into being, no matter how “true” their language is.  This could be an argument against the Egyptian notion of such power being in speech alone, at least as far as the Good and truth is concerned.

But perhaps most striking, and most powerfully against the claims of the supremacy of the Egyptian language in Book XVI, is that of Book XII.13—14 (Copenhaver’s translation):

“Even among humans, my father, does speech not differ for each nation?”

“It is different, my child, but humanity is one; therefore, speech is also one, and when translated it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece. My child, you seem to me to be ignorant of the excellence and importance of speech. The blessed god, the good demon, has said that soul is in body, that mind is in soul, that reasoned speech is in mind and that god is their father. Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul. Thus , the finest of matter is air, the finest air is soul, the finest soul is mind and the finest mind is god. And god surrounds everything and permeates everything, while mind surrounds soul, soul surrounds air and air surrounds matter.”

“When translated, it is found to be the same in Egypt and Persia as in Greece”; this statement, directly from Hermēs spoken to Tat as opposed to the statement of Asclepius written to Ammon, is probably more authoritative on this stance than anything.  Rather than relying on notions of “energies of things” being directly within the words themselves as Asclepius claims, Hermēs here says that the reason and meaning in speech—the Logos within logos, as it were—is what counts and what matters more than the method of its delivery.  Just as a Greek human, Persian human, and Egyptian human are all still human (“humanity is one”) despite all their cultural and physical differences, so too are the things that they say all still the same thing (“speech is also one”) despite all their phonological and grammatical differences.  What matters is the “reasoned speech”, the λόγος, that we all come in contact with, because it’s this that proceeds directly from God as the image and mind of God, and which inhabits Nous itself.

For me, CH XII seals the deal that the linguistic supremacy of CH XVI is just empty flair for the sake of window-dressing, but I should also note something more profound here.  Just as Mind is not the same thing as mind—a holy Nous compared to common nous—we can also say that Speech is not the same thing as speech—that holy Logos is not the same thing as common logoi.  Compare the holy prayer of Hermēs given at the end of CH I: “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.”  The Greek here is δέξαι λογικὰς θυσίας ἀπὸ ψυχῆς καὶ καρδίας πρὸς σέ ἀνατεταμένης, ἀνεκλάλητε, ἄρρητε, σιωπῇ φωνούμενε, literally “accept [these] word-sacrifices from a soul and heart stretched out to you, o Unutterable One, o Unspoken One, called by silence”.  In other words, though a “sacrifice of speech” is what Hermēs gives, God can only properly be called out to by silence itself, not through any words; it’s the silent Logos that comes from the heart and soul, not spoken logoi that comes from the mouth, that matters in matters of religious and spiritual activity.  The spoken words, on the other hand, are more for us than anything else.

In that sense, I mean, consider the more mythical aspects of Hermēs, the messenger god of communication and thus of language in general, and Thoth, the god of order and writing.  The Way of Hermēs, though it’s right to show honor and veneration for Hermēs-Thoth (especially if you follow a pagan or polytheistic path), is not centrally focused on him; as Hermēs Trismegistus bids and teaches Tat, Asclepius, and Ammon, the focus of his Way is to a higher divinity, a higher truth that goes well above and beyond other gods and realities.  These tools of language are just that, tools, and are not a means to an end, no more than Hermēs Trismegistus is the recipient of worship of the Divine that he teaches.  This is the gnōsis that even Hermēs Trismegistus cannot teach, that which cannot be stated but which can only be revealed by the Divine itself; everything else is a means to that end, including language.  In that light, there is no “Hermetic hieroglossa” except whatever we might find most efficacious for ourselves; there is power in one’s own native language, after all.  Rather, and perhaps more accurately, the true language of Hermēs is no language at all, because the matter of what matters cannot be spoken about with human language.  In that, silence is the only true tongue, and holy silence at that.

Now, of course, that’s as far as the holy philosophy side of things are concerned.  There is also the use of specific languages and words in ritual, which is an entirely different discussion, and which can have a variety of ends and answers—and far be it from me to say that we should abandon the barbarous words or divine names we use in our rituals and spells, or that we should switch up customary or conventional languages used in ritual at will just because we can.  All the above is about the discursive philosophical language in which we should teach and explore the Way of Hermēs apart and away from ritual practices.

The Difficulty of Centralizing the Way of Hermēs

I guess I should write a follow-up to that last post about the difficulty of coming up with a set of coherent principles for Hermet(ic)ism.  The main point I was trying to make was that coming up with a short set of overall principles for the Way of Hermēs is really difficult, despite the popularity of such a notion as spread by the Kybalion to make bite-sized pieces of philosophy and spirituality easy to digest.  There are lots of reasons for this, which I brought up in the last post, but the big one is that the notion of a principle is (as defined by Dictionary.com) “a fundamental doctrine or tenet; a fundamental, primary, or general law or truth from which others are derived”.  This sounds all well and good, and it’s reasonable that we should want and strive to come up with some Hermetic principles to arrange for the study of Hermet(ic)ism and the Hermetic canon, but the problem I kept running into was that everything seemed to be contradicted at one point or another by the very texts those principles are supposed to derive from and summarize.  This isn’t so much a problem of the principalizers as it is the things to be principled; it’s a known fact that the Hermetic texts are not consistent among themselves, even by their own admission, by the very nature of what it is they teach and how they go about teaching it.

First, why should we want principles?  As we mentioned earlier, we have a notion of κεφαλαὶα, “chapter headings” as it were, brief gnomic statements about doctrine which often serve as mnemonics and fundamental…well, principles that other Hermetic texts work on expounding.  There are two excellent sets of such statements at our disposal—the Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistus to Asclepius on the one hand and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment on the other—but there are about fifty such statements in each, and are often paradoxical, supremely terse and soaked with deeper meaning, and not exactly as memorable or catchy as the well-known (but faulty) “Seven Hermetic Principles” from the Kybalion.  To an extent, that really should be okay; as I’ve said before, the study of the Hermetic texts and of the Way of Hermēs generally is going to be a difficult process, just as the Hermetic texts themselves say, not because of how they’re written (through choice and style of translations can make it more difficult), but because of the very subject matter itself.  Even for those for whom the doors to the Way of Hermēs were built, the way is hard and long to walk.  To try to simplify everything into bite-sized things can be useful at times, but we should remember that a sugary snack is no replacement for a hearty meal.  Substituting a handful of Hermetic principles for the deeper lessons and lectures and logoi we should be studying and contemplating might be nice at times, but that’s not the same as actually doing the Work needed.  There’s a world of difference between a simple, high-level, abbreviated awareness of a concept, and fully understanding, comprehending, and grokking it, and the use of simple pithy principles does not help us accomplish that.  It might get us started, if at all, but simply remembering a pithy phrase is not the same thing as having actual wisdom to back it up.

But let’s say that we still want principles to write about, and let’s assume we have a good reason for their writing.  We still run into the problem of principles being contradicted by the very texts they’re supposed to be principles for; we still have the problem of a lack of consistency across the Hermetic canon for all but the broadest and highest-level of notions.  At that point, though, such statements would end up being neither particularly informative nor particularly helpful nor particularly distinct to Hermet(ic)ism.  This forces us to take a look at these contradictions and inconsistencies in the Hermetic texts, which forces us to realize that…well, Hermet(ic)ism isn’t just a single thing, not a single doctrine held by a single group, not a single practice implemented by a single temple, not a single lineage with a single source.  There are hints in the Hermetic texts of a variety of different views and standpoints, where the way the text is phrased suggests setting the specific author apart from the other views (sometimes as polemic, sometimes as correction, sometimes as an actual viewpoint held by other Hermetic groups, sometimes as views held by other traditions as incorrect views, sometimes a viewpoint made an example of without being seriously considered as being Hermetic):

  • A purely monist view of creation versus a dualist one.
  • A view of the cosmos that begins from a dualist standpoint to a monist one, versus one that begins from a monist standpoint to a dualist one.
  • Groups who proclaim direct descent from Hermēs through Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon, and groups who proclaim indirect descent from Hermēs through Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
  • Monotheistic versus polytheistic stances on God or the demiurge.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of the demiurge as relating to corruption and vice in the world.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of asceticism and abstaining from sex and reproduction.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of making material offerings to divinity, and in specific contexts.
  • A favorable view or unfavorable view of using magic to rectify or change things in the cosmos.
  • A view that in reincarnation the human soul can reincarnate into animals versus one that prohibits such a view.
  • A view that God is capable of sensation and understanding in the world versus one that prohibits such a view.

We see a variety of these differences in different Hermetic texts, and not just the philosophical Hermetica, but the technical Hermetica, too, depending on the specific genre of text, the specific time period it was written in, the presence of the influence of specific other traditions, and the like.  We see this not just in classical Hermetic texts, but in pretty much other texts right up through into the modern day.  While some of these viewpoints were argued against as a point to make about what’s Hermetic and what’s not Hermetic, some of these were also argued against as a point to make about what’s good Hermet(ic)ism and what’s bad Hermet(ic)ism, and it’s not always clear which is which.  What we end up with is, frankly, a mess, but there is one clear answer that arises from it like shining Harpocratēs on the lotus from the mud: there is no one single Way of Hermēs, but a whole bunch of such ways.  What we end up with is that there is not one single Hermet(ic)ism; what we end up with is a set of texts that are a collection of a survival of loosely-affiliated Hermet(ic)isms that did not always agree on the finer points of doctrine and practice.

I suppose the drive to have the “one true Way” is as strong with me as it is with others, and has been since the dawn of Hermēs Trismegistus in this light.  I recall some snarky comment on (probably?) Reddit—I don’t remember who made it, just the basic gist of the comment—that people are going to argue over whatever they think is Hermeticism that day.  And I admit that I do that, too; heck, my recent rant about relabling myself as a Hermetist and leaving the Hermeticist label behind is myself telling on myself that I have my view on what constitutes the “real” Way of Hermēs.  But, then, so did the authors of the Hermetic canon themselves, though they all use the mask of Hermēs or one of his disciples to teach.  While this was the custom at the time, to be sure, to ascribe all good, approved, traditionally-sourced knowledge to the god who was the font of all suck knowledge, we also have to admit that it gives us a false sense of unity that quickly falls apart based on what we have available to us, both in how little we have as well as in how much we have.

In almost any real-world scenario, when we want to get from Point A to Point B, we often have many ways to choose from to accomplish such a trip.  Though some might consider the shortest, most direct path to be the “correct” one like on an IQ test, let’s be honest: the way you get there doesn’t so much matter so long as getting there is.  Whether you walk the most direct path on foot or drive a cart for a more scenic path or take the bus along a preplanned route, whether you go straight to your destination or hit up other destinations along the way, whether you like taking only left turns or avoid taking any left turn at all, so long as you get from Point A to Point B to accomplish what you originally set out to do, that’s what matters more in the end, so long as you end up making your destination.  While I can point out the distinctions and departures any particular Hermetic (or, in some cases, “Hermetic”, quotes intentional) path might depart from that described by (whatever chunks of the Hermetic canon are consistent amongst themselves), the fact that they take such a path from A to B for the same underlying reasons is good enough to claim the Hermetic title for themselves.  Sure, they might not be classically Hermetist in their approach and would rather take a more modern Hermeticist approach, but that’s still just one approach out of many under the broader umbrella of the Ways of Hermēs.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this with some sort of BS climax saying “yanno, maybe the Kybalion is alright in the end”, because it’s not; that’s still a New Thought text, not a Hermetic text except in cases of sheer coincidence where Atkinson took a break from lauding himself for sharing such “secret”, “ancient” knowledge out of the goodness of his heart to actually make a point about New Thought dolled up in faux-Hermetic drag.  (Quite the opposite, really, as we’ll get to eventually.) What I’m saying is that when it comes to the matter of coming up with principles for the Hermetic texts…maybe we’ve got it backwards, and that’s where we’re coming into problems.  That’s the distinction between the kephalaía statements and principles, because the kephalaía statements were the seeds of texts that had to be nourished to flourish into a beautiful garden, while here we are trying to make a jar of reduced jam from the fruit of such texts when not all such texts make compatible fruit.  Principles are supposed to be things from which we derive other truths, not to be merely summaries of existing ones.  Principles establish the guideposts and landmarks and directions to take on a given Way, but a difference in principles will set you up from a different Way than someone else who has different principles, even if both are derived from the same collection of texts.  This can’t really be avoided; without going through some super complex and arcane (and more than likely roughshod and ramshackle) effort to harmonize conflicting teachings on their surface (because all such teachings will be true at some point or another for some people and not others, all pointing the way towards a deeper truth of an ultimately ineffable Truth), you’re going to have to “pick sides” as it were.  This means that, although I call all these texts collectively “the Hermetic canon”, you’ve got to make a move here to say what’s really canonical or not.  A better term for all this is simply Hermetica, or Hermetic corpus (not to be confused with the Corpus Hermeticum), perhaps, with “Hermetic canon” being the specific texts one holds as consistent with each other and true or with elisions and explanations to deal with the things that aren’t consistent with the rest, but in the end, the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow.

Let me say that again: the principles you use need to be made with the full understanding that those are going to be the parameters for the Way you’re planning to follow—and, thus, the Way you’re planning to teach and guide others on, as well.  When you establish a set of principles, you end up making a new Way, whether you intend to or not, and that should only be done after great thought and deliberation in the process.  Otherwise, the Way you establish by means of those principles can be more dangerous, deceptive, repetitive, or misleading than you intend it to be.  In making canon, we use cannons; be careful where you aim, and be careful of collateral damage in the process.  I’m not saying that you can’t make a set of principles as guiding statements for (your preferred brand of) Hermet(ic)ism, but that you need to be supremely cautious that, in doing so, you don’t lose sight of where you’re coming from, where you’re heading to, how you’re getting there, and why you’re heading there at all, and that it all still looks, smells, and feels enough like other Ways of Hermēs to still be a Way of Hermēs itself.  After all, Hermēs is the god of all roads and all paths, and is the teacher of all students; he can teach you in any way, but only the way that is best for you.  If you’re going to take that role of Hermēs upon yourself for others, then you better know what you’re doing, because a faulty guide gets everyone lost.

I suppose this is one reason (out of many) for my own difficulty in trying to come up with “Hermetic principles”: I’m still learning, studying, and contemplating the classical Hermetic texts too much, and want to try to get at the deeper truth from all angles of each, to take a side just yet on any of them.  It’s why I don’t feel ready enough to make a judgment on the worthiness of any particular Hermetic text, at least within the bounds of that which was written up to and including the Emerald Tablet, after which my own interest in practice and belief wanes—again, a conscious choice I make on my part, and perhaps the only solid one I make regarding the broader notion of “Hermetic literature”, and which centers my view of Hermet(ic)ism on the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica, at least for the purpose of illustrating the overall Way as opposed to specific vehicles or directions to take on any given way, whether of Hermēs or otherwise.  It’s why I don’t feel at the proper point to proclaim what my recommend guideposts, landmarks, and directions on the Way of Hermēs should be, because I’m still figuring that out for myself and haven’t reached my destination yet to look back and see what can be said about the way I took to get there.  It’s why I like just pointing to Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum as my own sort of Hermetic “Heart Sutra” that I think should be the first Hermetic text one reads, because I feel that it’s a good summary of the Way of Hermēs as anything else without being too long, too obscure, or too challenging while also giving a good, high-level view of the Way that doesn’t have polemics against other quasi- or non-Hermetic ideas and which doesn’t have polemics against it elsewhere in the Hermetic canon.  In this, I suppose that Book III, “the Sacred Discourse of Hermēs”, is my preferred bedrock of the Hermetic life—and thus provides a ready, premade set of principles of its own.  (In addition to the kephalaía of the Definitions and the Eleventh Stobaean Fragment, of course.)

Not to overplay the song of the target of my disdain too much, but this matter of principles is fundamentally the substantial reason why I consider the Kybalion to not be Hermetic, in addition to its non-Hermetic origin.  Not only do the “Seven Hermetic Principles” not appear in any legitimate Hermetic text (classical or otherwise), but they all point to aspects of doctrine, none of which are written in a way that makes sense in the original contexts of Hermetic literature, and none of which are particularly Hermetic even when they aren’t outright contradicted by Hermetic texts, all without actually setting a goal or purpose.  In that, the Kybalion can be considered no more than that one miscellany drawer we all have at our desk or in our kitchen full of trash and knickknacks; some might be able to turn it into a toolbox of miscellaneous (and poorly-made, vague, undefined, indefinite) tools, but without any clear purpose for what those tools can be used for besides feel-good solipsistic “The Secret”-esque navel-gazing.  This is direct contrast to the ultimate goals of the Way of Hermēs, said in no uncertain terms from the Corpus Hermeticum (CH) and Stobaean Fragments (SH):

  • To show devotion (SH IIb.2)
  • To join reverence with knowledge (CH VI.5)
  • To not be evil (CH XII.23)
  • To enter into God so as to become God (CH I.26)

I refrain from calling these “principles” because, while these are all things that aren’t contradicted by other parts of the Hermetic canon, I’m not sure that these are sufficient to serve as axioms or declarations of truth from which other concepts can derive.  I’m not saying that this is all that there is along these lines, either, but these are sufficient to illustrate what the whole point of Hermet(ic)ism is about.  Thus, they point to a destination, an incontrovertibly Hermetic one in the truest sense as being part of the entire Hermetic literature—if not perhaps more than a little vague—but a destination, all the same, which is nowhere found in the Kybalion.  Can one use the Kybalion in a Hermetic fashion?  Sure, but that’s because of you, not because of the book, and so that’s you making the book a Hermetic aid, not the book being Hermetic in and of itself.  This is also why I center the philosophical Hermetica over the technical Hermetica to illustrate the Way of Hermēs, because the technical Hermetica can be used in non-Hermetic contexts and can be used in ways contrary to these statements; in this light, the Kybalion can be considered a sort of abstract technical text with quasi-philosophical elements, but that still doesn’t make it Hermetic.

Again, without calling these four statements “principles”, it is (in addition to a notion of being revealed by Hermēs Trismegistus for the sake of the well-being of humanity and their spiritual rejoining with God) a way to gauge how Hermetic something really is based on its claims, philosophies, theology, and practices.  And, barring other polemics, I think maybe these four statements can help us remember the goal that all of us who follow one of the myriad Ways of Hermēs work towards, and which can unite us all in singular purpose.  The specific roads might differ, but so long as we get to the same place in the end, there’s nothing truly wrong about it.