A Hermetic Musing on Fate, Necessity, and Providence

This post was originally a short tweet thread I shared last September, but I don’t think I ever shared it outside Twitter, and I think I phrased some things in it that even I hadn’t realized were as big as I do now.  I’ve reformatted it and embiggened it slightly for a proper blog post, but the gist is the same.

So, a few definitions first, largely based on SH 12—14:

  1. Providence is the will of God.
  2. Necessity is what comes up with what needs to happen in order for Providence to be fulfilled.
  3. Fate is what arranges things in order for that which Necessity declares to come about.

In software engineering terms, Providence is the requirement that specifies what is to be done, Necessity is the design that specifies how it’s to be done, and Fate is the code that does what the requirement says in the manner the design says. The execution of the code—the carrying-out of Fate—is the actual activity that happens in the cosmos, right down to our own lives.

And what are the agents of Fate, you might ask?  What are the entities that facilitate and serve Fate to bring it about?  It’s the planets and stars themselves, which are not just indicators of Fate but the things that provide all things that exist down here with the energy (in the philosophical sense of activity or being-at-work-ness) to do what they need to do to be born, to grow, to die, and decay—and, in the process, fulfill whatever purpose it was meant to achieve.

That the planets are the agents of Fate is why astrology is the first (and most important) Hermetic art, because the study of the planets and stars allows us to learn about Fate, and thus about Necessity and Providence, and thus God and our relation to it. Our external and bodily lives are commanded by Fate, and Fate is not up to us to change in the Hermetic worldview, no more than we can make Mercury not go retrograde when we find it inconvenient. Fate is going to happen one way or another; we must learn to live with it.  (This is where a good understanding of Stoicism comes into play when studying Hermeticism.)

But, the thing is, your soul—that which you really are—is not your body; rather, our souls come from a place beyond the cosmos, and thus a place beyond Fate.  As such, our souls are not compelled by Fate the way our bodies and external lives are.  Our bodies are creations of the cosmos, and the cosmos is ruled by Fate, and so our bodies are naturally controlled by Fate as well as a production of it (and, by extension, the seven planets).  The soul, which only wears the body like how the body wears a shirt, is only impelled, not compelled, by Fate, in the same way that while the quality of a shirt can make a body comfortable or uncomfortable, the body is not fundamentally bound to the same fate as the shirt.  That saying that we’re spiritual entities having a physical experience, or that we should only be in the world and not of the world?  That notion is critically Hermetic, and we need to take that to heart.  We can’t be in control of everything (or even anything) external on the level of the body, but internally on the level of the soul, we can overcome it all.

It is in rising above the powers of Fate that we conquer it, by learning what it does and how it plays out that we learn the exceptions in the code and the behavior unspecified by the design and the loopholes in the requirements. Only once we rise above Fate can we make it our plaything., but in order to do so, we need to understand how Fate actually plays out on the low level once we see what Fate is trying to accomplish at a high level.  This is why alchemy is the second Hermetic art: alchemy is the study and science of learning how the activities and energies of the cosmos play out specifically at the level of material creation and manifestation, in the world we live in. Astrology looks above to see “why”, alchemy looks below to see “how”. And, well, as the Emerald Tablet (and so many others who love to quote it) says, “as above, so below”.

Learning Fate’s activity/energeia by alchemy and Fate’s power/dynamis by astrology, that’s where the third Hermetic art comes in: theurgy. Theurgy doesn’t change Fate to fight against Necessity or change Providence. Rather, it works by Fate to do what is best—what is Necessary—in accordance with highest Providence.  In working by Fate, we rise up to Fate’s own level and surpass it, able to at last be consciously and intentionally free of Fate.  Theurgy relies on knowing that which is above, that which is below, and the relationship between the two to not just go up or down, but to go beyond both entirely.  (After all, when you’re talking about a sphere, any direction away from the center is technically “up”.)

To borrow a bit of Christianity for a moment: angels are said to have no free will, but consider instead that they have will, just that their will is to fulfill God’s will. In this, the will of an angel is the will of God to be expressed through that angel.  The same goes for us, too. Theurgy is what allows us to make our will God’s will, which also makes God’s will our will. And if God is for you, sharing the one and same will, who can be against you?

When your own will is Providence, what need would you have to fight with Fate, when Fate itself could not fight with you?

Hermeticism FAQ: Part II, Texts

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I here), let’s continue today with Part II, on the texts that inform our studies of Hermeticism!

What is “the Hermetica?”

There is no one single classical text called “the Hermetica”, although this term is sometimes used to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period.  Confusingly, however, several modern authors and scholars have used the term “the Hermetica” to title their own books containing Hermetic texts:

  • Brian Copenhaver, “Hermetica”, containing translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Perfect Sermon
  • M. David Litwa “Hermetica II”, containing translations of the Stobaean Fragments, Oxford Fragments, Vienna Fragments, and various other fragments and testimonia of Hermetic doctrine
  • Walter Scott, “Hermetica” (in four volumes), containing his (highly edited and amended) version of the Greek and Latin Hermetic texts along with his thorough analysis of them
  • Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, “The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs”, containing their (heavily remixed, reordered, and re-Egyptianized) version of Hermetic texts

While one may use “the Hermetica” to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period, in order to reduce confusion, it is recommended to use a different term, e.g. “the classical Hermetic texts” generally or the name of a specific such text instead.  When referring to one of the above texts, it is better to clarify by stating the author’s name, e.g. “Copenhaver’s Hermetica”.

What is the “Divine Pymander”?

When Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin from Greek in the 15th century CE, he used the title of the first “book” (what we might call a “chapter” nowadays) as the title for the entire translation.  This was like titling the Old Testament “Book of Genesis”.  A few later translators working off Ficino, like John Everard, also used the same title.  Depending on the context, “Divine Pymander” may refer to either Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (the technically correct meaning), or to later translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole.  As a result, to reduce confusion, it is recommended to refer to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum as just that, and refer to the specific translations by their authors, e.g. “in Ficino” or “in Everard”.

What are the “philosophical Hermetica”?

There are plenty of different Hermetic texts available to us from antiquity, and although the distinction isn’t always so clear or fixed as some scholars would like to believe, one group of texts is known as the “philosophical Hermetica” (or the “theoretical Hermetica”).  These texts focus on the religious, philosophical, cosmological, theosophical, and otherwise doctrinal side of Hermeticism, and generally consist of dialogues or letters between Hermēs Trismegistos and his students.  Although they may mention them at a high level, the “philosophical” texts generally lack any details regarding anything practice-oriented, like the study of astrology, the consecration of talismans, the ensoulment of statues, or the like; in other words, there is little “magic” or “ritual” in the “philosophical Hermetica”, even if such things are assumed.  Examples of “philosophical Hermetica” include (but are not limited to) the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean Fragments, and the Perfect Sermon.

What are the “technical Hermetica”?

As opposed to the “philosophical Hermetica”, the “technical Hermetica” (or the “practical Hermetica”) focus on the practical, technical, or skill-oriented parts of Hermeticism; rather than being more about belief and doctrine, these are about practice and technology.  As such, these have the bulk of the “magic” and “ritual” that the “philosophical Hermetica” lack.  However, due to the overall distaste many historians and scholars have had for studying magical things, the “technical Hermetica” have received much less attention than the “philosophical Hermetica”.  This isn’t to say that they don’t exist or haven’t been translated, but aren’t as codified and haven’t received as much popular attention as the “philosophical Hermetica”, and due to the messy nature of magic and magical texts, there are plenty of overlaps between explicitly Hermetic practices and implicit ones.  Further, “technical Hermetica” continued to be produced well after the last of the “philosophical Hermetica” were written, so “technical Hermetica” can also reasonably include post-classical and modern texts.  Examples of “technical Hermetica” include the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios, and the Picatrix.

Is the Corpus Hermeticum the Bible of Hermeticism?

Given the popularity and fame this collection of texts has received over the past 600 years, it sure seems so, doesn’t it?  Of course, the Corpus Hermeticum is just one of several collections of Hermetic texts, and despite its importance for the study and practice of Hermeticism, should not be considered the most or only important such collection.  It is unclear whether there ever even was such a “primary text” of Hermeticism.  That being said, considering Book I’s role in the Corpus Hermeticum as giving us the founding myth and initial revelation of Hermēs Trismegistos, even if it was never intended to be a “Bible” for Hermeticism, it may be considered as such by those who choose to do so—though it is best taken together with similar texts such as the Perfect Sermon and the Stobaean Fragments for a more comprehensive reading and study.

What about The Kybalion?

Despite how much this book loves to call itself Hermetic, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text.  Rather, it is an invention of William Walker Atkinson, a prolific author and an early pioneer of New Thought, an early New Age movement, and who wrote under the pen name “The Three Initiates” (along with his other pen names like “Theron Q. Dumont” and “Yogi Ramacharaka”).  Although The Kybalion claims to be based on an ancient Hermetic book (also called “The Kybalion”), no such text has ever been discovered, the doctrines within it do not match with those of either the philosophical or technical Hermetica, the terminology used within it is foreign to classical texts of any kind but rather match cleanly with New Age terminology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, and generally lacks any notion of theology or theosophy present in the actual Hermetic texts.  Although many modern occultists love the Kybalion and despite many people becoming interested in Hermeticism because of The Kybalion, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, and is only “Hermetic” in the sense that it has been adopted by many modern Hermeticists rather than by any virtue of its own.  The best discussion regarding The Kybalion and its (non-)Hermetic nature is the essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” by Nicholas E. Chapel.  This isn’t to say that The Kybalion is entirely without worth—for some people, New Thought can be profoundly useful—but the fact remains that it is not Hermetic, and so there’s no need to discuss it in a Hermetic context or as a source of Hermetic doctrine or practice (not that there’s much practical stuff in it to begin with).

What about The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean, and is it the same text as the Emerald Tablet?

The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean is another entirely modern and New Age creation, much like The Kybalion, and so is also not Hermetic, and also goes pretty far afield into extremely New Age topics and discussions that are nowhere found in actual Hermetic texts to the point of it being sci-fi.  The name is based on the Emerald Tablet (or Tabula Smaragdina), a short extract of a medieval 7th century CE Arabic book on natural philosophy and alchemy called the Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqā) attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.  The Emerald Tablet is a fascinating, though exceedingly dense and cryptic text, and has received much attention over the centuries since its first translation into Latin in the 12th century CE, though it is entirely unclear if this was a creation of Islamic Hermeticism or medieval Islamic alchemists, or whether it is a translation of something earlier from the classical period.

What’s the deal with the Emerald Tablet, anyway?

The Emerald Tablet is a well-known Hermetic text, though exceedingly short, and is less of a discourse and more of a cryptic poem.  Due to its crypticness, it’s received much attention since it entered the European mindset, and much ink has been spilled about how it might have any number of mystical or mythical origins, including a supposed ancient Chinese antecedent.  It is something of a puzzle, but it relies on early Islamic alchemical symbolism (which was the basis of much of Western and European alchemy) in order to communicate a notion of how to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone by means of transmutation of the four elements.  It is this text that the famous adages “‘tis true without lying” and “as above, so below” come from.

Are the Hermetic texts corrupted or incomplete?

It is true that, over the past 2000 years, we have lost some Hermetic texts, and those Hermetic texts that have survived have not always done so in a pristine state; sometimes there are lacunae in the texts, sometimes marginalia or external notes have become incorporated with the texts, or sometimes the language is so garbled as to be rendered difficult to comprehend.  While these are definite problems, our understanding of the texts (with the help of modern scholarship and comparison with related texts in similar or contemporary religious and philosophical traditions) is better than ever, and many of these problems have been resolved in a way that preserves (or recovers) the original meaning of the Hermetic texts themselves.  So, while some parts of the Hermetic texts are corrupted or incomplete, they are uncorrupted and complete as a whole, and are still quite understandable today with the same meaning and impact as they had 2000 years ago.

What about the Hermetic texts that we’ve lost?

We only have what has survived the knife of time and the redactor’s pen.  We know for a fact that there were more Hermetic texts written than what we have today, and we even know that some of the texts we do have are missing parts (like how Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum is missing its entire introduction, and the title applied to Book II is actuall the title of a separate text that originally came before what we have today as Book II).  We can only hope that there are still manuscripts out there, whether hidden away in desert sands or preserved still in mouldering monastery libraries or museum collections, that contain as-yet undiscovered Hermetic texts.  Until then, we make do with what we can, and try to fill in the gaps as reasonably as we’re able.

What are the core texts of Hermeticism?

The “beating heart” and root of much of Hermeticism are found in the classical Hermetic canon, which can be thought of as consisting of the following texts from the “philosophical Hermetica”:

  • The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of 17 short texts
    • This is the most famous and most well-known collection of Hermetic texts today
  • The Perfect Sermon, also called the Asclepius
    • This is also the most famous Hermetic text along with the Corpus Hermeticum, especially before the recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in western Europe in the 15th century CE
    • The most popular version of this text is preserved only in Latin.
    • Sections 21 through 29 of the Latin Asclepius is also preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.8)
    • The final thanksgiving prayer is also present in Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.7) as well in Greek as part of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM III.590—611)
  • The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, a collection of 49 “definitions” or summary-teachings preserved in Armenian and translated into French and English in the late 20th century CE
  • The Stobaean Fragments, a series of 29 Hermetic extracts of varying lengths by John of Stobi in his 5th century CE Anthology
    • One of the most famous series of Hermetic texts in the Stobaean Fragments is the Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the 23rd through 26th Stobaean Fragments
  • The Oxford Fragments, a series of five Hermetic extracts 
  • The Vienna Fragments, two badly-preserved Hermetic texts
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a short text describing a ritual of spiritual elevation and divine ascent preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.6)

As regards the “technical Hermetica”, however, there is much more variability in terms of what texts one should consider as “core” to Hermeticism, especially given the varied nature of them and how well they may or may not integrate or harmonize with the “philosophical Hermetica”.  Important among these, however, can be considered (though by no means are limited to):

  • The Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greek magical rituals, spells, and invocations as practiced in a Greco-Egyptian context
  • The Demotic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Demotic Egyptian and containing a stronger Egyptian pagan presence
  • The Coptic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Coptic Egyptian and containing a stronger Christian presence
  • The Centiloquium of Hermes Trismegistus, a series of 100 propositions regarding astrology
  • The Picatrix, or the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a medieval collection of rituals, prayers, and recipes from Islamic esoteric traditions preserving aspects of earlier Sabian, Harranian, and Hermetic practices and beliefs

In what order should I read the texts?

One after the other, usually from the front towards the back.  More seriously, though, because each text is considered a single treatise on its own, and because none of the collections build upon each other, it doesn’t generally matter what order you read them in (at least as far as the “philosophical Hermetica” are concerned).

What are the differences between different translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, etc., and which should I get?

As a rule, always go with more modern translations instead of older ones.  It is true that the translations of Ficino, Everard, and Mead were greatly important in the history of Western esotericism, but we have more texts at our disposal today with better contextual understanding than what was available to earlier translators.  As a result, modern translations (especially those based on the critical Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum produced by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière) are going to use more source material with better ability to understand and transmit the text than what was done in earlier times.  To that end, the best English translations available today of classical Hermetic texts are those produced by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, and J.-P. Mahé (as well as including more notes and references that further help elucidate the translated text, usually missing from earlier translations).  Older translations may be used, but should be cross-referenced with modern translations when possible to make sure that the meaning of the text is properly understood.

What happened to Book XV of the Corpus Hermeticum?

The earliest translations of the Corpus Hermeticum did not always follow the same convention as what modern translations use, and depending on the underlying texts that Ficino or other translators used, different Hermetic texts might be present not part of the usual collection of the Corpus Hermeticum.  As a result, Book XV of these early translations contained a Hermetic text that properly belonged to a separate collection and was not part of other Corpus Hermeticum manuscripts.  In order to maintain the convention of numbering certain books from the Corpus Hermeticum the same for the purposes of ease of reference, no modern text in the Corpus Hermeticum is counted as “Book XV”.  It’s not that “Book XV” is a “missing Hermetic text”, just that we conventionally don’t mark any text as “Book XV” (like how some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but immediately go from floor 12 to floor 14).

What else should I read to learn more about Hermeticism?

Plenty!  Many works of Hellenistic time period, including those regarding Stoicism, Platonism (whether early or middle or new), Aristotelianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Egyptian religion and philosophy, and the like are helpful for getting a better contextual background for approaching and understanding the Hermetic texts.  Similarly, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and related texts like the Books of Jeu are also helpful to see similar influences at play that played out differently from the path that Hermeticism took.  In addition to these source texts, modern scholarship is also helpful to understand more subtle shifts and developments in these texts and the traditions that produced them that are not immediately apparent from the source texts themselves.  Some scholars and authors to read on these fronts include, in no particular order nor is this an exhaustive list by any means:

  • Brian Copenhaver
  • Clement Salaman
  • Jean-Pierre Mahé
  • Charles Harold Dodd
  • Walter Scott
  • Arthur Darby Nock
  • André-Jean Festugière
  • Wouter Hanegraaff
  • Gilles Quispel
  • Roelof van den Broek
  • Garth Fowden
  • Kevin van Bladel
  • Christian Bull
  • Christian Wildberg
  • Peter Kingsley
  • Antoine Faivre
  • Hans Dieter Betz
  • Eleni Pachoumi
  • Algis Uzdavinys
  • Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  • Zlatko Pleše
  • Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
  • Jonathan Peste

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.