On the Hermetic Afterlife: A Cause for Theurgy

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

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

So: why should the Hermeticist do theurgy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Hermetic Afterlife: Ramifications for Necromancy

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

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

Incubation, Mediumship, and Blessing of the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Down and Working the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

A Simple Hermetic Prayer Rule

I’m not sure what a Hermetic parallel to Christian primitivism would be, especially given how little we know about actual Hermetic practices on-the-ground in the early part of the first millennium, but maybe something like this could be considered.

Like how I recently introduced a new prayer, the Praise of the Invisible and Invisible God based off Book V from the Corpus Hermeticum, I’ve been combing through other parts of the classical Hermetic corpus to come up with other prayers to recite.  What survives is largely philosophical, but there are occasional praises of God, exhortations of praise or prayer, and other exclamations of faith that dot the Hermetic literature.  We already pointed out a lengthy one from Book V not too long ago, but there are others, as well, and a few outright prayers, too, like the famous prayer from the end of Book I from the Corpus Hermeticum to the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Asclepius, or the Perfect Sermon which also makes an appearance in the Nag Hammadi texts.  I’ve been experimenting with the explicit prayers that appear in the Hermetic canon, but I’ve even been coming up with others only based on it, even making my own kind of “Hermetic Mass” based on Book XIII (which talks a lot about the tormentors and blessings of the various spheres of the cosmos).

So far, as far as raw material to come up with new prayers goes, Book I is probably among the most fruitful.  It’s this very book of the Corpus Hermeticum that is named after Poimandrēs itself (though many translate this to “Shepherd of Men”, following Ralph Marcus, I favor a Coptic interpretation of this as “Reason of Sovereignty”), a testament of Hermēs Trismegistos himself when he obtained the divine vision of the creation of the cosmos and passage of souls, and how to achieve henosis both in this life and in the afterlife.  It’s at the end of this that Poimandrēs exhorts Hermēs to go forth and save the human race from the torments of their mortality (Copenhaver translation, and also note my italicized text in that last paragraph):

As he was saying this to me, Poimandres joined with the powers. Then he sent me forth, empowered and instructed on the nature of the universe and on the supreme vision, after I had given thanks to the father of all and praised him. And I began proclaiming to mankind the beauty of reverence and knowledge: “People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep.”

When they heard, they gathered round with one accord. And I said, “Why have you surrendered yourselves to death, earthborn men, since you have the right to share in immortality? You who have journeyed with error, who have partnered with ignorance, think again: escape the shadowy light; leave corruption behind and take a share in immortality.”

Some of them, who had surrendered themselves to the way of death, resumed their mocking and withdrew, while those who desired to be taught cast themselves at my feet. Having made them rise, I became guide to my race, teaching them the words—how to be saved and in what manner—and I sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water. When evening came and the sun’s light began to disappear entirely, I commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed.

Within myself I recorded the kindness of Poimandres, and I was deeply happy because I was filled with what I wished, for the sleep of my body became sobriety of soul, the closing of my eyes became true vision, my silence became pregnant with good, and the birthing of the word became a progeny of goods. This happened to me because I was receptive of mind—of Poimandres, that is, the word of sovereignty. I have arrived, inspired with the divine breath of truth. Therefore, I give praise to god the father from my soul and with all my might:

After this, Hermēs recites his famous prayer itself, which has been a staple of mine and many other Hermeticists’ practices, a beautiful bit of devotional speech and supplication.

It’s the latter two paragraphs there that I took another look at, and considered that those would be excellent to base a prayer on.  Consider: Hermēs reaches out to those who seek after Truth, and “sowed the words of wisdom among them, and they were nourished from the ambrosial water” (i.e. water of immortality), after which those same people give thanks to God.  And after that, Hermēs himself gives thanks for “what [he] wished” (or prayed) for: his bodily sleep became sobriety of the soul, his eyes’ closing became true vision, etc.  And then, because of all that, he gives his famous “Holy is God…” prayer, a kind of “Threefold Trisagion”.

So I sat with this a bit, extracted the important bits, compared the translations of Scott, Copenhaver, and Salaman along with the original Greek given in Scott, and, after a good bit of writing and rewriting, I came up with the following prayer:

Sow in me the words of wisdom, and nourish me with the water of immortality.
By this, for this, and for everything, I give unto you my thanks.

May the sleep of my body become the sobriety of my soul.
May the closing of my eyes become true vision of Truth.
May my silence become pregnant with the Supreme Good.
May my birthing of the Word become the generation of true wealth.

Let me be receptive to the Nous, the Sovereign Knowledge,
that I may be inspired by the divine breath of Truth,
that I may praise God with all my soul and all my strength.

This actually works fairly well, in my limited experience trying it out, as a prayer in its own right, especially before using before the Threefold Trisagion.  The thing is that it’s very much directed towards being used before one retires to bed at night, what with the references to sleep and closing one’s eyes, as well as the original context of the content being used before people “turn[ing] to [their] own bed[s]”.  If this is a prayer that would best be used in the evening before sleep, what about one in the morning when one rises from sleep?  Easy; note the italicized parts below:

Sow in me the words of wisdom, and nourish me with the water of immortality.
By this, for this, and for everything, I give unto you my thanks.

May the rousing of my body become the awakening of my soul.
May the opening of my eyes become true vision of Truth.
May my speech become fruitful with the Supreme Good.
May my birthing of the Word become the generation of true wealth.

Let me be receptive to the Nous, the Sovereign Knowledge,
that I may be inspired by the divine breath of Truth,
that I may praise God with all my soul and all my strength.

This also works well as a morning prayer unto itself, but again especially so when followed by the Threefold Trisagion.  But there’s something else we can add, as well: the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Asclepius.  Note how in that penultimate paragraph above from Book I that, after Hermēs gives his teaching to people, he “commanded them to give thanks to god, and when each completed the thanksgiving, he turned to his own bed”.  This means that, after the first two lines of the two derived prayers above, we could recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving, then continuing with the rest of the prayer, then finished by the Triple Trisagion.

On top of all this, we can take inspiration from the last part of the Asclepius that gives instructions on prayer (Copenhaver translation):

As they left the sanctuary, they began praying to god and turning to the south (for when someone wants to entreat god at sunset, he should direct his gaze to that quarter, and likewise at sunrise toward the direction they call east), and they were already saying their prayer…

My big issue with this is turning to the south, since the Sun doesn’t set in the south, yet the Asclepius says to face the south while also saying one “should direct his gaze to that quarter” where the Sun is setting.  My guess would be that the use of “south” here was a mistranslation or mistransmission in the text, and it should say “west”, maybe “southwest” to reflect a more realistic setting of the Sun for places in the northern hemisphere, especially between the autumn and spring equinoxes—yet in Book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells this same thing to Tat before he imparts the Secret Hymn, the Initiatory Hymn of Silence (note the italicized part):

Be still, my child; now hear a well-tuned hymn of praise, the hymn of rebirth. To divulge it was no easy choice for me except that I do it for you, at the end of everything. Hence, it cannot be taught; it is a secret kept in silence. Therefore, my child, stand in the open air, face the south wind when the setting sun descends, and bow down in adoration; when the sun returns, bow likewise toward the east. Be still, child: …

So, yeah, we really should be facing the south for sunset/evening prayers.  In this light, keeping in mind the Egyptian context here of Hermetic texts, it makes sense: the Way of Truth of Hermēs Trismegistos is also a Way of Life, and the direction of the West was the direction of the lands of the dead, and so inappropriate for prayers of immortality to the immortal God.  (Why, then, the direction of North wasn’t used, the direction of immortality itself, is not something I’ve puzzled out yet, but I’m tired, so it can wait.)

In either case, let’s take inspiration from this for our prayer routine above.  In the morning (ideally at sunrise), we’d say the morning prayer (with Prayer of Thanksgiving in the middle and Threefold Trisagion at the end) facing the east, and in the evening again (ideally at sunset) with the evening prayer (again with the Prayer of Thanksgiving and Threefold Trisagion) facing the south (though, if one is in the southern hemisphere, one should probably face the north instead).  Following the practice given in Book XIII as noted above as well as in the Asclepius, prayers are best made “in open air” (cf. “as they left the sanctuary” in the Asclepius), starting from a standing position, and bowing during adoration (e.g. the Secret Hymn, the Threefold Trisagion, etc.); prayers with words should be said aloud, audibly if not in a low voice, while prayers without words would be said in silence.  If standing is not possible, kneeling would be fine, prostrating instead of bowing at the appropriate times; which is my own personal preference, especially if indoors, and even more so if meditation, contemplation, readings, or other prayers are to be said either before or after this.

So there’s that: a simple prayer rule for devotional Hermetic practice, derived entirely from the classical Hermetic canon.  Short, elegant, straightforward, earnest; what more could one want, even if only to start with as a seed for extended or more elaborate prayer practices of Hermetic theurgy and henosis?  It’s something otherwise detached from any other religion or spiritual practice, and, perhaps most importantly, uses the actual words of Hermēs Trismegistos for our own prayers, and to repeat those same words (or to use them in a similar way) for following the Way of Hermēs is a powerful practice, indeed.

Speaking of “following the Way”, there’s something else I was considering.  We used that excerpt from Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum to create those evening and morning prayers above, but we focused on the latter two paragraphs of the excerpt for that.  The first two paragraphs, on the other hand, take a distinctly different tone: that of a call to wake up, a call to the Way of Truth that Hermēs Trismegistos began to teach at the instruction of Poimandrēs.  Like Buddha going around from town to town with the call of “Anyone for the other side?” or the Islamic adhān calling Muslims to prayer, similar language could be used as a preliminary…perhaps not “prayer”, but reminder of what it is to follow the Way and why we should do so.  Though I doubt there are many communities that would need such a grand call, it could be useful before both individual or group practice before any major Hermetic theurgic undertaking, even (or especially) those that rely on heavier PGM-style magic and ritual.  To that end, I figured I’d end this post by sharing my rewrite of Hermēs’ original call, based again on comparing the older translations of Scott, Copenhaver, and Salaman amongst each other:

O all you children of mankind, o all you born of the Earth, o all who you have given yourselves over to drink and sleep in your ignorance of God! Make yourselves sober, cease your drunken sickness, end your bewitchment by unreasoning sleep! Why have you given yourselves over to death, since you have the power to partake of immortality? You who have wandered with Error, you who have partnered with Ignorance: think again, and repent! Be released from the darkness, take hold of the Light, take part in divine immortality, leave behind your corrupt destruction! Do not surrender to the way of death by your mockery or distance, but come, rise, and be guided on the way of life!