Hermetic concepts

Hermetism is becoming more and more popular. But how many people will be able to say much about what are the ideas that can be found within the Hermetic texts? I decided to take a few subjects and work them out with quotes from different texts. These texts are not by one author or one group of authors, so they may contradict eachother. This does not matter, because the underlying philosophy is always the same. For this comparison of concepts I used the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Hermetic texts from the Nag Hammadi library, the Stobaeus and Tertulianus fragments and De Castigatione Animae. For more information about Hermetic texts see my article on this subject. Of most the texts I have Dutch translations, and of almost all I also have English translations. For the quotes I mostly used the very literal translation of Walter Scott (1855-1925), sometimes I prefered my Dutch translations by Gilles Quispel and Roelof van den Broek (Q/VdB in the text).

GOD

The first subject that I want to speak about is God, in Greek and Latin usually the word “Deus” is used. God is a very prominent subject and every single text refers to it. In different ways as we will see.

“God” is not a word with one meaning in the Hermetic scriptures. In fact, a whole range of meanings are given to it, even within the same text. One such meaning is God as the absolute. The seventh libellum of the Corpus Hermeticum, verse 2 (CH VII.2) says: “For He cannot be known by hearing, nor made known by speech; nor can He be seen with bodily eyes, but with mind (‘nous’) and heart alone.” and CH V.8 says that God is “too mighty to be named God” (verse 1) and “too big for a name” (verse 8; Scott has a missing piece here). Another very nice quote comes from De Castigatione Animae chapter 1: “He […] is the universal, not the sum of all.” The first Hermetic fragments of Tertulianus are in the vein of “There is one God; he is beyond comprehension and appraisement.” (fragm. II) and also in Stobaeus we can find similar quotes, such as: “To conceive God (‘Deus’) is difficult; to describe him is impossible.” (Stob. I.1) But we have other views on God.

Slightly more common is God as being (the sum of) Good. Sayings such as “God the Good” or “God is the sum of good” can be found in CH II.15; CH VI (this whole libellum, it is entitled: “That the Good is in God alone , and nowhere else”); CH X.1; and Stobaeus fragment II B.3.

A more often used attribute is God as cause or beginning of all or as it says in CH III.1: “God is the the source of all that is”. This already comes close to another subject that I will speak about later (creation), but I just want to point you to CH I.6; CH II.12+13 (“God is He that is neither Mind nor Thruth, but is the cause to which Mind and Thruth, and all things, […] owe their existence”); CH VIII.2, CH XI.3 and chapter 1 of the Castigatione which says: “origin, creator and foundator of the universe”. Stobaeus XXI.1 speaks about the pre-existent (‘pro-on’).

Then we come to God as the Maker (or I could say “builder” or “great Architect. Everard uses “Workman”, Scott “Maker”). “The Great Architect […] [is] ever present and ever existing, has created everything and is eternal and one” (CH IV.1 – my Dutch version of Quispel/Van den Broek. Scott does give the Greek of “CH IV I A”, but leaves it untranslated). Also see CH IX.5; Asclepius verses 2+8 (“the Master, the Maker (conformator) of all things, whom by usage we name God”) and Stobaeus II B.3. Everard uses the word a lot, like in CH X and CH XIII. In Greek the word for “Maker” is quite consequentally “demiurgos”, but Stob.XXIII.4 uses “techutos” of which Scott made “craftsman” and one time “poeita” (“Maker” verse 37) but later just “demiurgos”.

Or isn’t He the Great Architect? As we saw God is the creator, but CH XVI.5 says that the Great Architect is the sun! The same goes for CH XVI.18 which says: “God (Deus) then is the Father of all; the Sun is the Demiurgus; and the Kosmos (see below) is the instrument by means of which the Demiurgus works.” The Stobaeus fragment Of Thruth (II A.14) says: “[the Sun] do I worship, and I adore his reality, acknowledging him, next after the one supreme God, as the Maker.” Another Stobaeus fragment says that the Sun (‘helios’) is an image of the Maker (‘demiurgos’) who is above the heavens. The supreme Maker created the universe and the Sun the animals and plants (Stob. XXI.2).

Kosmos

The next subject that I want to talk about is the “Kosmos” which is “a god” according to CH XII.15. Everard translates the word to “world”, Quispel/Van den Broek and Scott leave the word untranslated.

“God brings forth Eternity; Eternity the Kosmos; the Kosmos time; time birth and changeableness” (CH XI.2, missing in Scott), but: “The Lord and creator of this universe, who we call God, brought forth from himself a second god which is visible and senseable”, this second god is called the “Kosmos” (Ascl.8). This Kosmos is the son of God (CH IX.8 and CH X.14). The fact that the Kosmos came forth from God himself, makes it an image of God, which indeed is confirmed in CH XII.15 and CH VIII.2, however in the last verse the Kosmos is not name specifically. The ‘trinity’ God-Kosmos-man is sometimes mentioned, like in CH X.14, Stob. XI.2 and Castigatione ch.21. More about this in the chapter about creation.

In CH X.10 Tat asks: “who therefore is this material God?” in the translation of Everard. In my Dutch translation the question is: “then who is the God of the outer world?” and Scott has “What then, are we to think of the material God, the Kosmos?” The Kosmos sometimes seems to be the outer world, sometimes its God: the second god.

Surprisingly enough we have other candidates for being the second god. CH XII.8 has a Good Mind/Spirit or Agathodaimon as second god. Asclepius 32 (missing in Scott) speaks about the Mind of Aion (eternity) which can both be explained by being God himself or the second god.
According to Ascl.3, also heaven is a god who stands at the same level as the world-soul (about which later) and above these two is God himself.

Something that actually is more aligned with the subject of creation but which I want to shortly note here anyway, is the fact that CH I.8 (quoted below) speaks about a high and a low Kosmos. I will come back to this soon.

Logos

“God does not build with His hands, but with his Logos (Word)” (CH IV.1; Scott does give the Greek, but leaves this line untranslated). Here we come a bit closer to the next subject. This Logos is “the image and Mind of God” (CH XII.14 with Quispel/Van den Broek), which same line is Scotts CH XII.13A “Speech (Logos) then, is an image of mind (nous) and mind is an image of God”. So where did this Logos come from? “Poimandres” (CH I) says that the Word comes from the creative light (God) (CH I.4+5) and moves earth and water (CH I.5). Is the Logos the Eternity that we ran into in CH XI.2? Probably not, but a fact is that in certain Gnostic worldviews (and for example in Genesis) the Logos plays a prominent part in …

CREATION

This subject is also interesting. Some texts speak about it in detail -and these details differ-, other texts do not come further than the earlier quoted: “God makes the Aeon (eternity), the Aeon makes the Kosmos, the Kosmos makes Time, Times makes Coming-to-be (‘genesis’).” (CH XI.2).

Paging through the Corpus Hermeticum we find a detailed account of creation in the third libellum.This account reminds a bit of Genesis:
“There was darkness in the deep (‘abyssos’), and water without form; and there was a subtle breath (‘pneuma’), intelligent, which permeated the things in the Chaos with divine power.” (CH III.1). Then a divine light raises up and the elements came forth from the moist substance (verse 1). The gods used the best of these elements to create the world (v. 3). Also we can read how light elements raise up to the heavens, heavy elements sink into the earth and how the sun, the moon and the stars are formed (v.2). Also quite interesting is the fact that the gods create animals and men without the need of the Logos (v.3 – note by Quispel en Van den Broek).

Other details can be found in CH VIII in which we can read that God is the absolute first of everything who creates a second god after His own image (verse 2). “The Father (‘pater’) took all that part of matter (‘hylè’) which was subject to his will, and made it into a body, a made it bulk, and fashioned it into a sphere. […] the Father implanted within this sphere the qualities of all kinds of living creatures, and shut them up in it” (verse 3).

Another variant of this we can find in Asclepius 2 where “the One [who is] all things, seeing that all things are in the Creator” forms the world. “Soul (‘anima’) and corporal substance (‘mundus’) together are embraced by nature and by natures working kept in movement.” (verse 2) Verse three continues to speak about creation. Then in verse 14 we learn more about the raw material that I mentioned before. In Greek it is called “hylè” and the Latin text of the Asclepius gives it in Greek! The word may some of you may be familiar with. “Hylè” is the primeval matter, the “mulaprakriti” of the East, or rather “hyloteta” (CH VIII.3) is the first matter, and “hyle” (sometimes) ‘normal matter’. Verse 14 of Asclepius (which reminds a bit of the Stanzas of Dzyan from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine) says that in the beginning there was God and matter. “The elements of which the universe is composed were not then in existence, because they had not yet come into being; but they were already in that form which they were to be generated.” “The spirit-of-life moves and leads everything and everything moves within hylè”, says verse 17, according to Quispel and Van den Broek. Scott has that matter is the receiver of forms, laid upon it by spirit according to the will of God.

“The unmovable spiritual world sets the world of matter […] in motion” (CH X.11 in Q/VdB, also see Ascl.30). This is usually done by the Mind, of which is said: “the workings of God are mind (‘nous’) and soul (‘psyche’)” (CH XI.2). Of the ‘world-soul’ (in Q/VdB) I will speak more about below.

Then in the Nag Hammadi text about the 8th and 9th celestial spheres (NHC VI.6) we also have a nice piece about creation. Gods nature gives form and substance, created all and holds everything in himself. Therefor the All has gotten soul.

In Stobaeus we find a very long fragment called “Kore Kosmou” (Stob. XXIII) which means ‘eye-apple (or pupil) of the world’, but also ‘maiden of the world’. It is a long account of creation which Isis gives to her son Horus. Isis tells that the sole ruler commands lesser gods who split the homogenous mass in two (verse 8), then God makes the stars (verse 9). When the lesser gods told God that the world below was very empty and boring so God formed a beautiful woman out of his voice, this woman he named Nature (verse 10). After this a detailed account of the filling of the earth and the sky follows.

The first libellum of the Corpus Hermeticum is a long one and speaks at length about creation.
The primal form precedes an infinite beginning (verse 8). God as creator brings forth another spirit as the god of fire and the breath of life, while seven governers create the perceptible kosmos with its spheres (v.9). Then the Logos that we spoke about before, connects himself with the modelling spirit (nous) which causes the spheres to spin and thus creates animals (v.10). The Father/Mind -though- creates the (heavenly) Man (or Antropos) who resembles Himself (v.12). Man sees his image in the waters of the world, falls in love with matter (v.14) and caused mankind to be twofold: mortal after the body, immortal after the true Man (v.15). Also we can read how the human race gets separated in two sexes.

THE MIND IN MAN

However the Stobaeus fragments speak quite a bit about the soul (‘pneuma’), the larger texts deal more with the mind in man. Its relation with the divine Mind for example. Translating the words I come to the problem that in Greek and Dutch one word can be used with or without a capital, but in English I say it would have be the Mind of God, which is the spirit in man. Scott chose to use “mind” for every time the Greek text says “nous”. The usual Hermetic division of a human being is the well-known body-soul-mind/spirit, but this is not a natural combination. “Do not all men have mind?” is a question that is asked in both CH I.22 (‘nous’) (Hermes to Mind) and Ascl.7 (‘sensus’) (Asclepius to Hermes). The answers are fairly clear (“pay attention”), but I want to quote CH IV.3 in which Hermes says to Tat: “Now speech (‘logos’) […] God departed on all men; but mind (‘nous’) he did not impart to all.” This is much different from what we read in CH XVI.15 were Asclepius writes to Ammon: “For at the time when each one of us is born and made alive, the daemons who at that time are on duty as ministers of birth take charge of us.” This may sound much different from the mind we have from God. Another example then: “And the third being is man [who] differs from all other living creatures upon in that he possesses mind, for so the Father has willed”.

At other times mind is a price for people who lead a good and devout life. “I, even Mind, come to those man who are holy and good and pure and mercifull.”, as the Mind says to Hermes in CH I.22. There is a whole libellum in the Corpus Hermeticum dedicated to the subject. In a discourse of Hermes to Tat called “Crater” (“the basin”) (CH IV) Hermes says that man have both sense and mind and is therefor higher than the Kosmos, but not all men have spirit. Spirit is “a prize that human souls may win” (CH IV.3). People worthy can immerse in a crater or mixing-barrel of spirit that God has sent and thereby receive Gnosis in the translation of Gilles Quispel and Roelof van den Broek.

A wonderfull piece in Asclepius says that besides pneuma which is in everthing, man was also granted a soul in order to be able to watch intuitively; this is the quintessence, the fifth element (verse 6, based on translation by Q/VdB).

Another libellum in the Corpus Hermeticum that speaks about the subject at length is X “the key”. Here we get some more information about the mind of man. You can read what ‘clothing’ (“wrap” in Scott) it gets when incarnating (CH X.17), that it gets a fiery body (‘pneuma’ or “vital spirit”) after the physical body died and that this fiery body is the minds actual vehicle (verse 18) and even that souls can become spirits and spirits angels (‘daimons’) (verse 21). But also here not every human has a spirit, because you have to pray for such a protective spirit, a good spirit (‘daimon’) (verse 22). Also the spirit can leave the soul (verse 24) when people no longer deserve it (verse 24).

Some interesting remarks we can find in CH XII, where we can read again that Mind comes from Gods being, that in men Mind (‘nous’) is a god and that where is a soul, there is Mind, but in animals there are souls without Mind/spirit. Man have Mind and Logos/language, but animals do not, but in these beings the soul works as instinct.

Asclepius 11 also says that not only the lower part of man has four parts (elements), but also the higher part of man, since it consists of soul, spirit, memory and intuition, however you may think that the last two are part of either of the first two.

Asclepius also says that with the spirit can amalgamate with the soul when a human gives himself up to God (Ascl.18, not in Scott). Something similar we can find in the Castigatione Animae where chapter 1 says that above the soul is the spirit and the spirit is above the soul and encloses it.

And when in Ascl.6 Asclepius asks Hermes if not all men have spirit/Mind Hermes says that not all men have received the true Gnosis. Some have carried away by illusions and thus bringing evil in a man and here we come to the next subject that I want to write about.

EVIL

As you may know some of the Gnostic milieus (Gnosticism is one of the sources of Hermeticism), evil is everything ‘here below’. Hermetics are mostly a little less pessimistic. Still you can still read in the Castigatione that the soul has cloths of evil that have to be laid off (chapter 4, also see CH VII.2) and CH IX.4 says that the world here below is evils domain. Stob. XXIII.41 even states that life on earth should be regarded as punishment. Less strong is one Stobaeus fragment II A (Of Thruth) that says: “everything on earth is illusion” (verse 3). Another chapter of the Castigatione is a bit clearer on the latter: “The world is not only bad, not only good.” (chapter 2). Still man is evil because he is mortal and changeable (CH X.12). In the same verse it is said that the world/Kosmos is not evil, because it may be changeable, but it is eternal. So what then is ‘Hermetic evil’? Well, there are different forms of it.

The biggest evil of a human being is Godlessness. This we can read in most of the Hermetic texts, but this is of course not the evil that we talk about. The bad things in the world are not made by a cruel God, because: “neither did the Copper-smith make the Rust, nor the Maker the Filth, nor God the Evilness. But the vicissitude of Generation doth make them” (CH XIV.7 in translation of Everard). God did not make evil, it evolved as time passed. And this “evil is visible, while goodness is invisible” (CH IV.9). Evil is a part of the Kosmos because it is needed to bring understanding and Gnosis to men (Ascl.16).

How does all this work? CH XVI 13-15 says that under command of the seven planets there are spirits, good and bad. These spirits (or ‘daemons’) cause what happens on earth and even work in human bodies. “Do I have evil spirits, father, in myself who torture me?” Tat asks Hermes in CH XIII.7. “Not a few, my son, they are as terrible as they are many” Hermes answers. Not very promising! And for people who give into the evil spirits that haunt him, awaits more punishment in the afterlife. Asclepius 28 speaks about some kind of purgatory where astral bodies are tormented after death. There are special demons for this task who see to it that you lay off your evil deeds after death.

And to close off I want to tell you how to avoid all this and what is the way to …

SALVATION

De Castigatione Animae is a relatively long text that gives you a whole spiritual path on an Hermetic basis. The whole text is about salvation. The 3rd chapter has a very nice story about the soul which is like a boat on the sea. The boat keeps being pushed back and forth by the waters of life and can only be brought to rest by pulling it ashore to the source and root of its being.

This ‘turning to good/God’ is the advice that you will hear most. “But first you must tear up the garment which you wear, –this cloak of darkness, this web of ignorance, this prop of evil, this bond of corruption, -this living death, this conscious corpse, this tomb you carry about with you, -this robber in the house, this enemy who hates the things you seek after, and grudges you the things which you desire.” (CH VII.2) “And men can end the cycle of transmigrations of the soul and be immortal when they transform themselves into good spirits.” (CH X.7), Scotts translation is much different, but says the same: “And human souls, when they have attained to a beginning of immortal life, change into daemons, and thereafter pass on into the choral dance of the gods”.

“We are glad that You made us divine in our bodies by your gnosis” (Prayer Of Thankgiving Nag Hammadi Codex VI.7). Lets act to that!

-17/2/04-

One comment

  1. This is an answer to Paul who posted a question under the article “What are the Hermetic texts?“, but which I find more fitting here. The question is where Freke and Gandy found their information about Zodiac in the Hermetic texts. As sources for their chapter XII they name “Asclepius”, “Stobaeus” and “Corpus Hermeticum” 3 and 16. Their chapter is about how God created humans and how the gods were worried about their investigative minds and therefor God created the Zodiac to bestow Fate upon man. I find no reference to this idea in the CH books referred to. The other references are very vague, since Asclepius and quite a work and all the Stobaeus fragments together too. Paging through Asclepius references to the Zodiac and Fate are made in 19, 35 and 39 which vaguely deal with “Fatum” in combination to the Zodiac, but ‘executed’ by “Omniformis” (or “Pantoformis” in most translations). I think the writers have had a better look at the Stobaeus fragments which speak a lot about the Zodiac and fate. Let me quote fragment XII as an example:

    But all things come to pass…, and there is no place destitute of Providence. Now Providence is the sovereign design of the God who rules over the heavens; and that sovereign design has under it two subordinate powers, namely, Necessity and Destiny. (Necessity is…;) and Destiny is subservient to Providence… Adn the stars are subservient to Destiny. [ ] For the stars are the instrument of Destiny; it is in accordance with Destiny that they bring all things to pass for the world of nature and for men.

    Translation of Walter Scott
    I haven’t found (yet) where Freke and Gandy found their “Atum” contrary to Hermes or Tat and how they came to their fancy story, but in basis I don’t think their chapter is entirely misplaced.

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