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.

The Royal Praises from Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum

Like with the wonderful Praise of the Invisible and Visible God that I wrote up (or, rather, rewrote from the original material from prose into something more structured) back in January or the simple Hermetic prayer rule and “prelude prayers” I discussed back in February, there’s plenty else in the Corpus Hermeticum that can be thought of as ripe material for coming up with prayers, devotions, and hymns for the Divine.  Much of it, of course, is prose rather than poetry, as the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t really written as hymnal stuff, but there are frequent exhortations to “show devotion”, instances of thanksgiving, and other praises given to the Divine that are to ignore.  It’s what makes the Hermetic canon so hard to consider in a strictly philosophical or scientific light apart and away from mysticism or faith; as Willhelm Boussett has said, “the Hermetica belong to the history of piety, not philosophy”.

One of the more odd inclusions in the Hermetic canon is Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, which has the title “On the soul hindered by the body’s affections”, but which A.D. Nock suggests was a later assignment by a redactor, and which only really applies to the first few paragraphs of the book.  The bulk of Book XVIII, instead, focuses on giving praise to God, both in his own right as well as a prelude to give praise of kings (more the general class of kings rather than any king in particular).  Brian Copenhaver includes Book XVIII in his translation, but Clement Salaman pointedly does not, noting that:

Scott and Nock-Festugière agree in regarding [Book XVIII] as not belonging to the Corpus.  It is manifestly inferior to the other books, both in content and in style (Festiguère refers to it as: ‘Cette insipide morceau de rhétorique’ [Copenhaver translates this as “an insipid piece of rhetoric in rhythmic prose”]).  No real single theme develops, but merely disconnected remarks relating to the praise of kings and of God.

I’ll grant it that, to be sure: it lacks either the atmosphere of the temple or clarity of the classroom that so many of the other parts of the Hermetic canon have, and rather suggests something more of a philosopher at a courtly symposium.  Still, it’s not hard to see why this would be bundled with the rest of the Corpus Hermeticum, given how it treats the soul as affected by the body’s weaknesses by way of an extended metaphor involving musicians and their instruments, as well as its sincere (and rather beautiful) praise to God.  What’s weird is the “royal panegyric” that Book XVIII also gives a praise and hymn to kings and their virtues generally.  It’s not like the Hermetica doesn’t involve kings at all; after all, Book XVI (“Definitions of Asclepius to King Ammon”) is written as a letter to a king, Book XVII preserves an interaction between Tat and an unnamed king, and the 24th Stobaean Fragment (the middle part of the Korē Kosmou) discusses the various natures of souls and how some souls are specifically kingly and royal ones.  In the broader context of the Hermetic canon, and given the important role of the king (rather, pharaoh) as incarnated divinity on Earth in ancient Egypt, it doesn’t make too much nonsense to have something treating the topic of kings or praising their virtues, if indeed they are a force of divinity here explicitly and locally manifest in the cosmos as opposed to implicitly and ambiently manifest.

To that end, I decided to rework the praise bits of Book XVIII into a pair of prayers that I call “The Royal Praises”.  The first part is the one I think more people will find more useful: “The Royal Praise of the Almighty”:

Come, come all, let us hasten and praise the Almighty!
In all things do we begin with God and the power above, and so too do we end.
In the end of all things do we return to the beginning, from God unto God!
The Sun partakes of all in its rising, the nourisher of all that grows,
its rays stretched out like great hands to gather in the crops,
its rays partaking in the ambrosial radiance of the harvest;
like crops in the warmth of the Sun do we take in the wisdom of God,
like crops under the light of the Sun do we grow under the light of God,
and like crops from the Earth, in beginning with God we return to God,
our praise becoming the bounty of God that waters every shoot we plant.

O God, Whole of the All, wholly pure and undefiled, Father of all our souls,
may praise rise up from a myriad mouths in a myriad voices to you,
even though none can say anything worthy of you or before you,
for no mortal speech can equal your might, power, or presence.
As the child cannot properly praise their father,
still the child exclaims their love with all their strength,
and, honoring their father as they can, receives his love and mercy.
So too may we praise you with all the strength of our souls!
For you, our Creator, are greater than all of creation;
let all our praise always confess your boundless power and endless extent!

To praise you, o God, is in our nature, in our hearts, and in our very souls,
for as your descendants, like attracting like, we are like unto you,
and as your children, seeing ourselves in you, we can only love and praise you.
Yet even should you grant it to us before we even ask,
we still ask for your forgiveness, your forbearance, your mercy, and your grace.
As the father does not turn away the child for their lack of strength,
but delights in their coming to grow and to know him,
so too do you delight in us coming to know you and all your creation,
for the knowledge of the All confers life unto all,
and our understanding becomes our praise to you for all that you give us.

O God, o Good of the Beginning, o Ever-Shining, o Immortal,
alone containing the limit of divine eminence, encircling the All that is all that is!
Always flowing from your own energy from beyond to within the cosmos,
from yourself above in Heaven to mankind below on Earth,
you send the message of promise that leads to the praise that saves us,
to the work that lifts us, to the way that guides us beyond to you!
For beyond there is no discord among beings, neither dissonance nor difference;
all think one Thought, all have one Knowledge, all share one Mind.
One sense works within them all, one charm unites them all:
love, divine love, love of the Good that makes all act together in harmony as One!

When it comes to the bit in the first paragraph about the Sun and its rays like hands, Copenhaver notes that:

The image of the sun reaching down with hand-like rays became an artistic motif in the Egypt of Akhenaton; the sun’s rays were a manifestation of heka, a magical power that energizes the universe, but [Festugière] sees this allusion to solar magic as an empty metaphor in this “purely literary” text.

Although the reign of Akhenaten was removed from the writing of the Corpus Hermeticum by about a thousand years, give or take a few centuries, it is a compelling image of the power of the Sun, and given the importance of the Sun in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book XI, “the sun is an image of the cosmos…the human is an image of the sun”; Book XVI, “in this way, the craftsman (I mean the sun) binds heaven to earth, sending essence below and raising matter above”), it’s not surprising how this image might be carried through the centuries into Hermetic symbolism and praise.

The second part is a shorter hymn (the panegyric proper of Book XVIII), the “Royal Praise of Kings”:

As the Creator has all power and presence in the cosmos of his creation,
so too does the king possess all power and presence in the order of his kingdom.
We praise God, and so doing, we praise the one who takes his scepter from him,
o divine among us mortals, o arbiter of our peace,
o king of kings, o image of God on Earth, you who are our king!
In singing our reverent love of God, we know to praise what is divine;
thus do we hymn and glorify the king, even as we hymn and glorify God! For in raising
our voice first to the Supreme King of All, the Good, the God,
we must then lift our song to those whom God has established in his might!
O foremost of the security of the people, o prince of peace of the world!
Authority, victory, honors, and trophies were established by God for you!
As God is the source of your dominion, so too are you the source of our hope!

The virtue of a king, the name of a king, is to be the judge of peace,
and with such peace comes prosperity for which we cannot but give tribute!
Setting his kingly grace kindly upon even the highest of worldly powers,
achieving over all discourse and discord the mastery that brings all peace,
panicking all barbarian armies and outdoing all their tyranny,
the very name alone of the king is the very symbol of peace!
For the king’s threat drives the enemy off with fear,
and the king’s statue succors the tempest-tost with haven;
for the icon of the king brings the warrior quick victory,
and the presence of the king gives the besieged an aegis.
Let us always praise and proclaim, treat and tribute the king,
that the king, free in peace from threat and harm, may ensure the same for all!

In our day and age, when we’re so far removed from any real notion of divine kingship or the divine right of kings (unless you’re an old-school British royalist or Japanese imperialist), it’s weird to give such praise for such a human being who happens to be a ruler over other people.  We typically conceive of rulers as coming into power through worldly means for rather less than cosmic reasons (cf. John Bradshaw’s “in the name of the People of England of which you were elected king” at the trial of King Charles I, conceiving of kingship as something random, arbitrary, and unearned).  But the Korē Kosmou (the 23rd through 25th of the Stobaean Fragments) discusses mortal kings as being in a league different from other kinds of humans.  From Litwa’s translation:

…On earth dwell humans and the other animals, ruled by the current king. Gods, my child, give birth to kings worthy of being their offspring on earth.  Rulers are emanations of the king, and the one nearest the king is more kingly than the others. Hence the Sun, inasmuch as he is nearer to God, is greater than the Moon and more powerful. The Moon takes second place to the Sun in rank and power.

The king is last in the rank of the other gods, but premier among human beings. As long as he dwells on earth he is divorced from true divinity. Yet he possesses a quality superior to other human beings—an element like unto God. This is because the soul sent down into him is from that realm higher than the one from which other people are sent. Souls are sent down from that realm to rule for two reasons, my child.

Some souls, destined to be deified, run through their own lifetime nobly and blamelessly so that, by ruling, they train to hold authority among the gods. The other group of souls are already divine and veer only slightly from the divinely inspired ordinance. They are sent into kings so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment. On account of their dignity and nature, they suffer nothing like the others in their embodiment. Rather, what they had when free (of the body) they possess while bound to it.

Now the character differences that develop among kings are distinguished not by a distinction in their soul. All royal souls are divine. The differences arise by virtue of the soul’s angelic and daimonic retinue during its installation. For such great souls descending to such great tasks do not descend apart from an advance parade and military escort. For Justice on high knows how to apportion dignity to each soul, even though they are pushed from the placid realm.

In the Hermetic view, there are particular people who are incarnated with a specific role to play in the world, and that role is to be divine as they are already among the foremost of souls in nature and rank; it is this that makes one a king when incarnate, assuming that kings live otherwise good lives “so as not to endure embodiment as a punishment”.  And, knowing that the Egyptians conceived of kings as not just being divine beings on Earth, and knowing that they strove to immortalize and deify them after death, we can conceive of this as being the end-game for the metempsychosis of humans: to refine ourselves through the knowledge of God to become more and more divine, and thus become as divine as a human can possibly be before being outright deified by other humans.

Admittedly, this notion is hard to swallow for many of us nowadays who would much rather an egalitarian view of souls (which, admittedly, much of the rest of the Hermetica would seem to encourage) and who don’t agree with the divinity of rulership (I mean…look at the current state of the world, and tell me that there’s anything new under the Sun).  Still, I suppose there’s plenty that could be said about a more generalized notion of “kingship”, either as something relatively detached from governance and dominion of people as a geopolitical power, or perhaps (and better) closer to what my mentor, Fr. Rufus Opus, discusses in his Seven Spheres:

I feel the same about the term King. To me, a King is anyone who rules, regardless of their gender. The need for different words to differentiate between genders is silly, in my opinion.

But the LOGOS pointed out something really important. The things we seek, they are part of what automatically comes with a kingdom. They are secondary manifestations, the results. Look at Kings. They have everything they need, and then some. LOGOS was saying, look, don’t go after that stuff; that’s what other people do with their lives, people who have not been chosen to know who they are, who have not had their divine nature and true paternity revealed to them. Instead of going after all that stuff, or the means to get that stuff, focus instead on the Kingdom. Learn that you are a King already. Learn what that means, learn the art of being the Royal You. Train yourself, improve yourself, be Kingly, and you’ll find that you have a Kingdom of a God all around you, and that you are its ruler.

But what are Kings?

Kings are people who were personally (or through the source of their noble lineage) positioned by fate and fortune and gifted with the quality required to lead their world naturally. They were linked to the gods either by favor or by blood, and they received a Kingdom as a result of their nature and the quality of their deeds. They were noble.

What he says in his introduction to Seven Spheres smacks of what Isis tells Horus in the 25th Stobaean Fragment.  If we broaden the notion of “kingdom” to be one’s whole life and sphere of influence, then each and every one of us is a king—regardless of our external gender, station, or condition.  It’s being able to carry ourselves as such, to rule our lives as such, that makes us so: it’s a matter of waking up to the reality of the matter and behaving accordingly.  Those who can are kings, and those who can’t aren’t.  After all, if God is with you, who can be against you?  If you’re living your True Will in tune with your Perfect Nature, then how could you not be among the royalty of souls?  And if royal souls are divine, then divine souls must also be royal ones.  And are Hermēs, Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon not thus kings?  After all, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the final part of the Asclepius, does Hermēs not say “we rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body”, or as I personally phrase it based on the similar prayer from PGM III.494—611, “we rejoice, for you have made us [who are incarnate] divine by your knowledge”?  If the knowledge of God makes one divine (literally deification, even while alive), then it must also make one a king, at least in some sense.

I’m sure there’s more that can be discussed along these lines of what it means for deification and kingship in a Hermetic context, especially understanding the historical and cultural implications of the such and how that might compare or translate to the modern world, but that’s a topic for another day.  For now, I’ll leave this with these two brief rephrasings and restructurings of Book XVIII of the Corpus Hermeticum to use for further devotional works to the Divine.