The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes Thrice Great) is the inspiration for the spiritual teachings known as Hermeticism. He is a syncretism (joining) of the Greek deity Hermes, the winged messenger of the Gods, and his Egyptian counterpart, the Ibis-headed moon god Thoth.
- Renaissance of Hermeticism
- Technical and Religio-philosophical Hermetica
- Where to Start?
- Hermeticism and Gnosticism
- The Hermetic Universe: Ogdoad, Ennead, the One
- The Three Worlds: God, Cosmos, Man
- The Three Faculties: Logos, Gnosis, Nous
- Corpus Hermeticum: Introduction
- The Vision of Poimandres (Nous)
- Corpus Hermeticum: Hermes and Tat
- The Discourse on the Ogdoad and Ennead
- Writing as Healing or Poison (Pharmakon)
- The Illusion of Death
- Man as a Divine Being
- Recommended Reading List
Hermes and Thoth were considered to be one and the same. Both of them were psychopomps, guides in the land of the dead. Thoth is also the god who presides over speech and interpretation. He is the inventor of the alphabet and the art of writing. Ever since, humans have been using writing to preserve the vast array of accumulated knowledge. Thoth is called the heart of Re, the tongue of Atum, the throat of the God whose name is hidden. As divine speech personified, he is the creator of every branch of knowledge, human and divine.
When Hermes met Thoth in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria, Hermes Trismegistus was born. Not long after, followers of the thrice-great one came together and devoted themselves to understanding his wisdom and to achieving the same cosmic illumination that Hermes himself had experienced.
Hermes Trismegistus is the author of the famed Emerald Tablet, which is the source of the most well-known Hermetic dictum, ‘as above, so below’, the key to astrology, alchemy, and other occult sciences, the Emerald Tablet has a history as mysterious as its author’s.
If we call Hermes a “myth”, we thereby recognise that he is greater and more significant than any one historical figure, for he represents a perennial pattern of the human condition. Hermes is a person without crystallised personality, an archetype, that perhaps represents all truth-seekers, or the truth-seeker. Certainly, he experiences that which all truth seekers hope to experience.
The Neoplatonic sage Iamblichus writes:
“Hermes, the deity who presides over rational discourses, has long and rightly been considered common to all who practice the sacred arts. He who presides over true science concerning gods is one and the same throughout the universe. It is to him that our ancestors dedicated the discoveries of their wisdom, attributing all their own writings to Hermes.”
Iamblichus, On the Mysteries
Many authors wrote under the name of Hermes, as this was logical for devotees of Hermes. True wisdom and learning merited ascription to the lord of all learning. According to the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho, there were over thirty-six thousand books written under the pseudonym of Hermes Trismegistus, which would easily fill the shelves of a large temple library.
There are existing treatises on the origin and nature of the soul, the principles of creation, astrology, alchemy, magic, healing, and much more. However, most of these are lost, but from scattered references we can assume that many more Hermetic works existed than we have copies of today.
The origin of the epithet ‘thrice great’ is believed to have come from the Ibis shrine in Sakkara, Egypt. Records there of a meeting of the Ibis cult in 172 BC mention the name megistou kai megistou theou megalou Hermou, ‘the greatest and the greatest god, great Hermes.’ The epithet ‘thrice-great’ thus reflects the intensifying repetition of the Egyptian adjective. He is also known as thrice-greatest on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher, and king. Another explanation of the epithet was on account of his praise of the trinity, saying that there is one divine nature in the trinity.
Renaissance of Hermeticism
In the 15th century Italian humanist scholars Marsilio Ficino and Ludovico Lazarrelli played a key role in translating the Corpus. Ficino, who had been working on translating the collected works of the divine Plato for his patron Cosimo de’ Medici, immediately interrupted his work when a manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum became available. These had previously been compiled by the 11th century Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus, who had no interest in pagan practices, the only reason he would have copied the texts would be to “improve” them so as to make them more compatible with Christian beliefs, purging the tracts of suspicious, occult elements. Thus, the writings that reached Marsilio were more than likely not originally collected in the way he received them.
The Corpus was thought to have been lost to the west since late antiquity and the beginning of the Dark Ages. However, while cities fell and empires crumbled, the fragile pages of the Corpus Hermeticum miraculously survived, testament to how the mind, that insubstantial mystery, can withstand the harshest blows of the material world. The Hermetic quest took place within, in the interior world, that was true; but it travelled roads in the outer world as well.
The idea of a divine wisdom revealed only to the most ancient of sages was developed in the Renaissance, into the notion of a prisca theologia or “ancient theology”, the perennial notion which asserted that a single, true theology exists in all religions, and that it was given by God to man in antiquity.
Many thinkers of the Traditionalist or Perennialist School of the 20th and 21st century followed this idea, and spoke of a perennial wisdom, based on the belief that ages ago, mankind received an original and once-and-for-all divine revelation. This was subsequently lost – although traces of it, they believe, can be found in the world’s greatest religions – and until it is recovered, modern civilisation will remain mired in materialism and decadence.
During the Renaissance, it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses. And all texts attributed to him were believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin, and thus more authoritative than Plato and the Bible. The 1481 pavement in Siena Cathedral depicts a large image of Hermes apparently instructing men from both East and West. On the floor below Hermes are inscribed in Latin the words ‘Hermes Trismegistus, the contemporary of Moses’. It was generally considered that Hermes had either instructed Moses, or been instructed by him, or both. Thus, in the Renaissance Hermes was a kind of founding father of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. He was a central figure in the vision of a perennial philosophy uniting reason and faith.
At the beginning of the 17th century, however, the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon took issue with the notion that pagan seers had predicted Christ’s coming. One of his targets was Hermes, in whose alleged writings he saw unmistakable linguistic proof of a much later date than the common tales of Egyptian origins could support. Casaubon detected Platonic, Jewish, and Christian language and ideas, and concluded that the Hermetic teachings date from the early Christian period, between the first and third centuries AD in Alexandria, a city then ruled by Rome, but culturally a cosmopolitan mix of Greek, Egyptian, Jewish and other traditions.
This discovery, combined with a strong anti-Hermetic movement within the Church, and the rise of modern science – evidence of a profound shift in western consciousness – meant the downfall of the thrice-great one. Hermeticism had lost its general fascination and was driven underground. Several Hermetic societies were formed, such as the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The discovery of three new and integral Hermetic writings found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 renewed interest in Hermeticism again. One of them, called, Discourse on the Ogdoad and Ennead, shows without any doubt that the Hermetic believer was initiated into several grades before transcending the sphere of the seven planets and the heaven of the fixed stars. Then he would behold God and be united with him. The Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel writes:
“It is now completely certain that there existed before and after the beginning of the Christian era in Alexandria a secret society, akin to a Masonic lodge. The members of this group called themselves ‘brethren,’ were initiated through a baptism of the Spirit, greeted each other with a sacred kiss, celebrated a sacred meal and read the Hermetic writings as edifying treatises for their spiritual progress.”
The Way of Hermes, Preface by Gilles Quispel
Whether or not there actually existed organised communities of Hermetic devotees, we do not know. It seems plausible that the Hermetic treatises originated in loosely organised circles of people in the educated milieus of Hellenistic Egypt, who almost certainly included people who had experienced altered states of consciousness, and others who were convinced that these experiences were possible.
Moreover, criticisms of Casaubon lost much of their force. For even if the Corpus Hermeticum was written down rather late, its concepts could easily be very old and Egyptian. And in fact, the basic principles of emanation, of the world as an overflow from God, and of man as a ray of sunlight (“All is one, and one is all”) are typically ancient Egyptian.
Technical and Religio-philosophical Hermetica
Modern scholars have somewhat artificially but helpfully distinguished between the technical Hermetica and the religio-philosophical Hermetica.
The technical Hermetica that deals with topics such as astrology, medicine, botany, alchemy, and magic, may go back as far as the second or third century BC. Some of the key texts include the Liber Hermetis, the Greek Magical Papyri, the Book of Asclepius Called Myriogenesis, as well as the Emerald Tablet, among others.
On the other hand, we have the religio-philosophical Hermetica, a series of religious, mystical, or spiritual teachings, of an initiatory character, written between the first and third centuries AD. The core text is the Corpus Hermeticum, which is a collection of seventeen anonymous writings, some of which have not survived intact. The name of this collection can be somewhat misleading, since it contains only a small selection of extant Hermetic texts, whereas the word corpus is usually reserved for the entire body of extant writings related to some author or subject. These writings are original, separate works, rather than part of one book. The selection criteria for the bundling are not known.
Other texts of the religio-philosophical Hermetica include the slightly longer Latin treatise, the Asclepius; texts and fragments collected in the Anthology of Stobaeus, the three Hermetica found with the Nag Hammadi Codices, the Armenian Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, theOxford and Viennafragments, andother fragments by authors and testimonies.
Salvation in the largest sense – the resolution of man’s fate wherever it finds him – was a common concern of the technical and religio-philosophical Hermetica alike.
The purpose of the Hermetica is not to argue the truth of its propositions; their meaning is the change they effect in the hearts of the readers in awakening them to the truth. For this to take place, it is important to have a translation that reflects the inspirational intent of these writings.
Where to Start?
So, where should one start learning about Hermeticism? It is not uncommon for people to first encounter Hermetic teachings in The Kybalion by the Three Initiates. However, this is not an ancient text. Many of the teachings are representative of New Thought, and a lot of the content is not found in the classical Hermetic texts. This is not to discount its importance in popularising the hermetic teachings and helping people to rediscover the ancient texts. In fact, it can be an excellent gateway to the original sources.
The classic text is the Hermetica translated by Brian P. Copenhaver, which contains the Corpus and the Asclepius, as well as a detailed introduction and extensive notes. If one wants to dig deeper, the Hermetica II by M. David Litwa completes Copenhaver’s work, it includes twenty-nine fragments from the Greek anthologist Stobaeus, the longest and most interesting of which is the Korē Kosmou or “The Daughter of the Cosmos”, which suggests that all knowledge – medical, magical and any other – is important in the quest for salvation. Other texts are the Oxford and Vienna Hermetica, several fragments from various authors and testimonies about Hermes from thirty-eight authors.
Another excellent translation is The Way of Hermes by Clement Salaman and others, which contains the Corpus and the Definitions. The other important text is the Asclepius: The Perfect Discourses of Hermes Trismegistus, also translated by Salaman. This is a great start for beginners.
The Greek Magical Papyri by Hans Dieter Betz is a collection of magical spells and formulas, hymns, and rituals from Greco-Roman Egypt. Some of these spells have as their goal inspiration, literally filling with pneuma or spirit. This occult knowledge is gained by calling upon the gods and spirits through ritual and magical incantation, leading to theosis, the cathartic purification of mind and body through the divine union with the gods.
More scholarly work includes Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes and Kevin van Bladel’s The Arabic Hermes, which lay more stress on the contribution of Egyptian and Islamic thought to the Hermetic tradition, both of which had historically been denied, in favour of a one-sided view of Hellenistic influence.
Most Hermetic scholars have tried to make the Hermetica as Greek and philosophical as possible, thus losing the sight of many of the core spiritual teachings. Since the late 1970s, this perspective has given way to a new and more complex one, calling much more attention to the Egyptian and religious dimensions of the hermetic writings. Whereas before the salvational insights received during “ecstatic” states were dismissed as “literary fictions”, they were now taken more seriously as possibly reflecting ritual practices that took place in hermetic communities. However, Hermeticism is a religion different from any other, it is without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone.
A more recent publication on hermetic teachings is Wouter Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. In the book, hechallenges the historically dominant narrative of interpreting the Hermetic writings as philosophical treatises. For Hanegraaff, this misses the essence of what this movement was all about, namely, the spiritual path for healing the soul and the transformation of consciousness. That is why the emphasis should be placed on spiritual practice.
The Way of Hermes involved altered states of consciousness in which practitioners claimed to perceive the true nature of reality behind the hallucinatory veil of appearances. Practitioners went through a training regime that involved luminous visions, spiritual rebirth, cosmic consciousness, and union with the divine beauty of universal goodness and truth to attain the salvational knowledge known as gnosis. It is this altered state of consciousness that leads to altered states of knowledge.
At the heart of the Hermetic teaching is the realisation that the individual is fundamentally no different from the Supreme. This realisation is gnosis, a single, immediate event, characterised as a second birth. This teaching outlines the spiritual path that prepares the way for this gnosis, which is not achieved by any effort of the ordinary mind, but is rather the result of divine wisdom.
Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge, but it is a knowledge different from episteme (another Greek word for knowledge) which is propositional, that is, knowing what a thing is. Gnosis is not attained through argument, logic or empirical observation. It is not rational, but religious and mystical knowledge that is revealed, which is the way to individual salvation.
We live in ignorance, unaware of the true nature of reality and of our place in it. For many people, perhaps most, this isn’t a problem. They accept day-to-day life and do not ask why we are here and what we are supposed to do now that we are. The seekers of gnosis, however, are unsatisfied with this. Many of these agnostics, argue that we cannot know what we want to know, defining knowledge in the sense of episteme. This is the great mistake. The English language lacks this distinction, which many other languages still preserve.
For instance, in Spanish, French, and German, they use the words “saber”, “savoir”, and “wissen”, to refer to propositional knowledge (episteme), but they also have the words, “conocer”, “connaître”, and “kennen”, that is, knowledge by direct acquaintance, which is comparable to gnosis. One knows because one has seen and experienced it, rather than by being able to describe it.
Gnosis is neither an expression of faith nor an assertion of belief. In his last years, Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung was asked whether he believed in God. ‘Believe?’ Jung replied. ‘Hard to say. I know. I don’t need to believe.’ Jung had had an experience that convinced him of the reality of God. He didn’t believe in God. He knew God. Jung didn’t mean the traditional bearded God on a throne. God is not a being, but being itself. As many ancient sages have pointed out, “God is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
In essence, there is one God. While all religions express their own unique and rich teachings, stories, and myths – they all point to the original source of all creation, which is being itself.
Hermeticism and Gnosticism
In Hermeticism, the human soul originally lives in a perfect non-dual consciousness. It resides outside the cosmos, in a realm beyond space and time. As soon as it descends into the planetary spheres and enters the body, the soul gets corrupted by the demonic tormentors of darkness, representing sins or vices. The problem is not the body, but the passions.
All of us, at this very moment, are living in a state of hallucination. Our true nature lies in the disembodied state, and the only purpose of life is to be reunited with it. For the Hermeticist, it is possible to attain spiritual enlightenment or gnosis while being alive.
This is an important distinction from Gnosticism, in which the spark of the human soul has fallen into matter, and is trapped by it. There is a dualistic worldview of a material world and a spiritual world. The goal of gnosis is to escape from the prison of the world and ascend into the spiritual world, which is only possible after death, when one is liberated from the prison of the body created by the malevolent Demiurge as an obstacle to salvation. Therefore, the Hermeticists are not Gnostics, though both of them speak of gnosis.
The Gnostics would agree with the notion of Plato’s cave, where prisoners are chained and forced to watch the shadows of the things in themselves, mistaking them for reality. The goal is to escape from the cave into the light. In other words, to escape from matter, from the body, into the world of the ideal Platonic forms. This is not the way of Hermes. In Hermeticism, one must not escape to the spiritual world, but rather embody and bring the good, the true, and the beautiful, into the world.
Our task is to take care of the world, and make sure to treat it the way it deserves to be treated, that is what the divine source wants. Therefore, the Hermeticists are world-affirming, not world-deniers. The cosmos is not an inferior product of a Demiurge, but is usually described as beautiful and perfect. While Gnosticism is dualistic, Hermeticism is primarily non-dualistic, there is only one reality, which is the spiritual light that is the source of everything.
When reading the Corpus, one might find apparently great divergences: monist or dualist, optimist or pessimist, however, such variations are sequential rather than contradictory. They are successive levels of understanding, part of the initiate’s spiritual journey, an anagogical ascent towards gnosis, akin to climbing Jacob’s ladder to heaven. Through theurgy (work of the Gods), we can ask for help from the gods, by organising rituals and ceremonies in such a way that we create the right conditions for the gods to appear, using the right words, and right offerings. Instead of us trying to reach the gods, it is they who come down to heal our soul.
The goal for the Hermeticist is to get out of the webs of ignorance by cultivating what the ancient Greeks call eusebeia, the cultivation of reverence and sacred awe for the gods. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Piety is one of the most important aspects of Hermeticism, the admiration of the gods, and of god’s creations: the true, the good, and the beautiful. This alone can lead to salvation, whether one has attained gnosis or not. The gods can forgive everything, except irreverence. That is, responding to this enormous gift of life with negligence and lack of respect. The Hermetica belong to the history of piety, not philosophy, and the greatest evil is impiety.
In his work, The Idea of the Holy, German theologian Rudolf Otto studied the concept of the numinous, which can be understood as the experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinas (mysterious terror and awe), in the presence of that which is “entirely other” and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language.
The Hermetic Universe: Ogdoad, Ennead, the One
The Hermetic universe begins with the classical geocentric model. The cosmos is portrayed as planets circling around the earth, these are: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Then we have the sphere of the fixed stars. However, this is only the realm of space and time. Beyond this, we have three additional spheres: the Ogdoad, the Ennead, and the One or the source. We tend to think of these hierarchically, but this is a mistake, since they exist in a realm beyond space.
The Ogdoad or Eighth sphere is where the souls reside, before descending into the realm of space and time into the body. Every soul being born in a body is immediately corrupted by both pain and pleasure. Those who have lived a life of reverence will return to the realm of souls.
The ultimate essence of the soul is divine light, which is the Ennead or Ninth sphere. This is the home of Nous, which is often translated as intellect or mind, however; this does not capture its true meaning in the Hermetic teachings, it is thus better left untranslated. Nous is nothing like a faculty of abstract reasoning, it is much akin to intuition, imagination, or divine revelation. It equates to sight, inasmuch as it encompasses everything at once, even God’s infinite essence. It is both spiritual light and enlightenment, and can be realised through mystic initiation.
Nous is the vehicle that allows us to have gnosis, our spiritual capacity to directly access or experience the universal light. The light of Nous is identical with our own inner light, but we might become blinded by its presence. The Hermeticist seeks to become aware that his or her inner light is identical with the universal light of Nous, in order to ascend to the tenth and final sphere, which is called the One, or the Good, the source of everything. This is God, who has created the universe by imagining it. We all exist in God’s imagination. All is one and one is all. The physical world is reflected in the mental, and the mental in the physical. All that has been made is visible, but God himself is invisible.
The Three Worlds: God, Cosmos, Man
The Hermetic God is unbegotten, transcendent, androgynous and the source of everything. He contains everything in himself. The cosmos emanates from Him and becomes alive through Him. The Hermeticist can thus come to know God by acquiring knowledge of the cosmos.
The second God (the cosmos) is in the image of the first God. The Father is eternal because of Himself, but the cosmos is eternal and immortal because it is begotten by the Father. Man has been begotten in the image of the cosmos, but, as the Father willed, not living like other earthly creatures.
Not only does man have affinity with the second God, but also a conception of the first. He perceives the second God as a body, the first he conceives as without a body and as Nous, that is, as the Summum Bonum or Supreme Good, the highest reality in the cosmos, the true identity of every person, and of everything in creation.
The cosmos is not good in as much as it can be moved, but not corrupt as it is immortal; while man is corrupt as he both can be moved and is mortal.
“Only the One remains still and does not move. So, there are these three: firstly, God, Father and the Supreme Good; secondly, the cosmos; and thirdly, man. God contains the cosmos and the cosmos man. The cosmos is the son of God, man the son of the cosmos, and as it were grandson of God.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book X
Man has a relationship with the cosmos, and God. Although he is not perfect, he can become so through his spiritual powers. His spirit, therefore, is his true being, which, unlike the body, is immortal and inclined to good.
God, the cosmos, and man are hierarchically and inextricably linked. They are in contact with each other and form a unit. Therefore, stars and planets influence earthly existence. Man is represented in the hierarchy as an image of God, while everything that exists is represented as imbued with pneuma (divine breath or life force).
The correspondence of the three worlds provides the basis for mental contemplation. The Hermeticist focuses on the first image, the material world, which is permeated with divine presence. Eventually he passes on to the second image, man. With the help of Nous, man gains the privilege of raising his eyes to heaven and overcoming his mortal condition. He is the only creature who knows the supreme God, and thus can even in this life become a god.
The Three Faculties: Logos, Gnosis, Nous
The Hermetica intends to aid the initiate in his spiritual growth, containing stages of initiation into the Hermetic Mysteries, in order to unite with God. This can be achieved by developing three faculties: Logos, gnosis, and Nous.
The pupil develops Logos, or reasonable speech, by listening closely to the master and his divine wisdom, and by having a dialogue with him.
“The listener, O son, should be of one mind and soul with the speaker and his hearing should be quicker than the voice of the speaker.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book X
The second faculty as we have explored is gnosis, which allows us to develop Nous. Unlike Logos, it requires silence and meditation. Since Nous conceives speech in silence, only that speech which comes from silence is salvation.
Knowledge is a spiritual awakening that consists in realising that the supreme God wants to be known and can indeed be known by those who are worthy of Him. And this cannot be done without piety or reverence.
Corpus Hermeticum: Introduction
The Hermetic teachings generally take the form of dialogues between teacher and disciple. It is believed that these writings originated for the most part from loose collections of sayings or sentences learned by heart, used as spiritual exercises aimed at developing the mental faculties of the subject. These gradually acquired a structured commentary. Hermetic sentences get mysteriously carved in your memory; one does not easily forget them. They are still at work on your mind even when you do not think of them, most of these are summarised in the Definitions.
In Book 1 of the Corpus, a figure who introduces himself as ‘Poimandres, the Nous of the Supreme’, teaches Hermes, who is not presented as a god, but as a human being with divine knowledge.
In Book 12, appears Agathos Daimon or ‘Good Spirit’, a divinity who is also portrayed as a teacher of Hermes. In most of the other books Hermes is a teacher to Asclepius, a healer identified with the Egyptian Imhotep, or to his son Tat, whose name likely derives from the Egyptian god Thoth. Books 16 and 17 are the only examples of a disciple and a son of Hermes, Asclepius and Tat, acting themselves as teachers.
Thus, the Corpus presents three generations of the teacher-disciple relationship. This knowledge transfer is given by divine beings (Poimandres or Nous and Agathos Daimon) to Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes gives the knowledge to Asclepius and Tat. And finally, Asclepius and Tat impart the knowledge to others.
The Vision of Poimandres (Nous)
The work starts with Hermes busy reflecting about the world, how it has come into existence and who has created it; and while he is in this state of meditation, a figure appears to him who proceeds to reveal the answers to his questions. This figure is Poimandres or Nous, who states, “I know what you want, and I am with you everywhere.” Hermes tells him: “I wish to learn about the things that are, to understand their nature and to know God.” Hermes enters into an ecstatic altered state of consciousness, which leads to a vision.
The Hermetica consistently state that apart from normal bodily sight there is a “higher” faculty of vision, referred to as the eyes of the heart or of the mind (Nous). The true nature of the regenerated man is perceived only by this higher faculty.
In response to the first part of the question – about the nature of the things that are – Poimandres himself changes his appearance, and the visionary sees an unlimited expanse of clear and joyful light, for which he spontaneously experiences feelings of love. He then sees how a frightening snake-like darkness appears, watery and smoking like a fire, producing a wailing roar and emitting an inarticulate cry. This call is answered by the logos hagios (Holy Word) or the son of God, that comes from the light and descends on this dark nature.
Thus, the soul of man is carried in this way: Nous in the Word, the Word in the soul, the soul in the body.
The animals were created, but they did not contain the Word. God the Father of all, brought forth the Anthropos, Man, whom he loved as his own child, and whom bears the image of his Father. It was really his own form that God loved, and he handed over to him all his creation. For this reason, of all living beings on earth, man alone is double: mortal because of the body, immortal because of the soul. The fact that we are both material and spiritual beings means that we have the unique ability to bring the spiritual reality into the body.
This short explanation leads up to a second visionary episode (or vision-within-the-vision). While in the first vision Hermes was a passive spectator of how the world came into being, in the second vision which answers the question of how to know God, Hermes must now fix his Nous on the light and get to know it. He looks into the eyes of Poimandres for such a long time that he trembles at his appearance. Then he has a sudden realisation, while staring at the universal light, he is also paradoxically looking into himself. There is no distinction between the universal light and his own light, between subject and object, this is the experience of total unity. When Poimandres finally lets go of his gaze, the light that is the visionary himself turns out to have become a boundless cosmos, the archetypal reality “before an infinite beginning.”
The man endowed with Nous is immortal, it is the pursuit of pleasure, desire, and materialism that is the cause of death, that is, spiritual death. For it is preferable to die outwardly, then to die inwardly.
“He who had recognised himself came to the Supreme Good, while he who had prized the body, born from the illusion of desire, remained wandering in the dark, suffering through the senses the things of death… The truth is: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten. If, therefore, you realise yourself as being from life and light and that you have been made out of them, you will return to life.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book I
Nous comes to the aid of the devout, the noble, pure, merciful, and the pious. By a life full of love, they win the favour of God and lovingly they give thanks, praising and singing hymns to him in due order.
Those who are evil, envious, greedy, murderers, and ungodly, are very far away from Nous, they are possessed by the avenging spirit, who assaults each of them through the senses, throwing fiery darts at them. The avenging spirit then puts him to torture and increases the fire upon him to its utmost.
We all have these tormentors of darkness within us. Poimandres describes how the soul must travel through all the seven planetary spheres to purify itself from them. After this catharsis, the soul finally leaves the cosmos and joins the Eighth sphere beyond space and time. The souls present there rejoice together in his presence, and having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist above the Eighth sphere, the realm of light, singing beautiful praises to God. The souls ascend to the Father and surrender themselves to the powers, entering into God.
“This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God. Well then, why do you delay? Should you not, having received all, become the guide to those who are worthy, so that the human race may be saved by God through you?”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book I
Hermes is filled with light and is enlightened with Nous. When the vision ends, he gives a prayer of thanksgiving with his whole soul. He becomes a prophet to spread the received teachings, to awaken us from our state of spiritual sleep and drunkenness, and take our share in the immortality that is our birthright. Many have given themselves over to death, while having the power to partake of immortality. Some mocked him and ignored his teachings, others threw themselves at his feet, for they wanted to be saved.
“The great disease of the soul is denial of God, next is belief in appearances, and accompanying these are all evils and nothing good. But then Nous, acting in opposition to the disease, secures good for the soul, just as the physician secures health for the body.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book XII
Ultimate truth cannot be found through philosophical reasoning, but through divine revelation. This is why the Corpus begins with a vision.
Corpus Hermeticum: Hermes and Tat
The remainder of the books in the Corpus mostly consist of Hermes conversing with Tat and Asclepius.
In Book 13, perhaps the most important part of the Corpus, Tat has a tense dialogue with Hermes, for he wishes to know the secret for spiritual rebirth. Hermes, however, speaks in riddles. This knowledge cannot be taught, the awakening must come from oneself. Gnosis is only knowable through direct experience. In Zen, this is known as the “Great Doubt”, the spiritual and psychological pressure that comes with the struggle of life leads to an awakening. At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. Until it happens to oneself, one will not understand what it is all about. While the master can point at a direction, it is the pupil that has to meditate by himself, and will have to work on his own soul, and Hermes tells his son:
“This ignorance, O son, is the first of these tormentors. The second is sorrow; the third is intemperance; the fourth lust; the fifth injustice; the sixth greed; the seventh deceit; the eighth envy; the ninth treachery; the tenth anger; the eleventh recklessness; the twelfth malice. These are twelve in number, but besides these there are many others, my son. They compel the inner man who dwells in the prison of his body to suffer through his senses. These tormentors depart one by one from the man who receives God’s mercy. This constitutes the manner and teaching of rebirth.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book 13
The twelve dark powers correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac. The combination of emotions that pertains to us, depends on the placement of the constellations at the specific moment of birth, this can be described very precisely by looking where the stars and the heavenly bodies are at that moment, which functions like a cosmic clock. When the time is right and the stars are aligned, the soul descends into the body. At this very moment, our body and soul are invaded and possessed by these dark entities, and for most of us, they remain with us for the rest of our lives. They make up our passions, the destructive emotions that dominate us in all kinds of ways, constituting the whole constellation of our personality. We suffer not because of our body, but because of the passions in our body.
In order to attain gnosis, the dark powers must be expelled. There is a constant battle between light and dark within us. Hermes invokes ten powers of light into the body of Tat, which expel or exorcise the twelve powers of darkness in his body.
“After joy, the power I summon is self-control; most welcome power, let us most gladly receive her too, my son; on her arrival see how she drives off intemperance. Now I call the fourth, steadfastness, the power opposed to lust. This next step, O son, is the seat of justice. See how without trial she has chased out injustice. With injustice gone we become just. I summon the sixth power, generosity, opposed to greed. With greed gone, I next summon truth, deceit flees, and truth is present. See how upon the arrival of truth the Supreme Good arises; envy has fled far from us. The Supreme Good, together with life and light, has followed upon truth, and the torments of darkness no longer fall upon us, but conquered, they all fly off with a rush of wings.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book XIII
These first seven powers (which correspond to the seven planetary spheres) overcome the powers of darkness one by one, and the next three powers: life (the Ogdoad, or realm of souls), light (the Ennead, or Nous) and the Supreme Good (the source), which in total make up ten divine powers, drive out the remaining five, so that all the twelve tormentors of darkness fly off.
After some time, Tat experiences an altered state of consciousness, a state of mania, or divine madness, which corresponds to a higher state of knowledge. Tat then speaks:
“O father, I have been made steadfast through God; I now see not with the eyes, but by the operation of spiritual energy in the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in living creatures and in plants; I am in the womb, before the womb, after the womb. I am present everywhere… O father, I see the All and I see myself in Nous.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book XIII
Tat is no longer troubled by these dark forces, but blessed by noetic powers of light. Our task is to overpower the dark entities with light, so that they fly off with a rush of wings by their own accord.
We see that Tat has experienced a spiritual rebirth, gaining cosmic consciousness. He conceives himself to be in all places at the same time, in earth, in the sea, in heaven; before birth, within the womb, young, old, dead; beyond death. By conceiving all things at once: times, places, actions, qualities, and quantities, one can understand God. This method is called “becoming the Aion”.
It was the Stoics that developed the concept of the sympathy of all things, which denotes the living, indivisible coherence of the cosmos. This was adopted by Hermeticism and Middle Platonism.
Tat recites a secret hymn in praise of God, the hymn of spiritual rebirth. However, while Tat has cosmic consciousness, he has not yet seen the spheres beyond the cosmos as Hermes has.
The Discourse on the Ogdoad and Ennead
This leads us to the famous writing found in Nag Hammadi,The Discourse on the Ogdoad and Ennead. Whereas Book 13 of the Corpus describes the rebirth of the pupil, in this discourse the pupil has already been reborn, showing us the initiate’s progress towards the Hermetic mysteries.
Here we find a striking altered state of consciousness induced by a strange magical incantation of vowels. When the priests of Egypt sang their hymns to praise their gods they uttered the seven Greek vowels in the prescribed order, the sound of these seven vowels was so beautiful that people preferred this music to the flute or lyre. The seven vowels correspond to the seven notes of the octave, which are related to the seven planets. The esoteric songbook of the Hermetic community in Alexandria plays a central role at the moments of awakening described in the Hermetica.
Hermes reminds Tat, of the progress he has made thanks to the books, which although belong to a lower stage in the progress towards gnosis, are nevertheless necessary. But they do not suffice, because discursive language simply “does not get as far as the truth.”
Hermes and Tat, along with several brethren, all of which have been reborn, enter a deep meditative state. Hermes begins by calling attention to God’s supreme divine attributes, including the fact that he is named only in silence. The prayer contains a string of mysterious words and vowels that represent God’s “secret name”. A single voice sings the tone, which is answered by the choir, until all vowels are sung. The chanting gets more and more intense, and with every vowel the consciousness of the pupil rises up through the planetary spheres until he is at the top in the highest level, and goes beyond the cosmos, experiencing the Eighth, and the Ninth, and finally, the One, where he sees a fountain bubbling with life.
The pupil experiences a moment of fear, and Hermes tells him to bring his focus back to the hymn. The final stage of the ascent must be mastered by the pupil alone, verbal instruction is useless. Hermes’s words, who have guided the pupil, are no longer of any use. The pupil expresses himself by means of silent hymns that are heard and understood only by an interior faculty of perception. In fact, the most fundamental statement of the pupil is that what he is seeing cannot be put into words.
The initiation has been completed. The pupil has now found peace, and wants to thank God for having granted him the supreme vision he had been asking for. A distinction is implied between the silent hymn of contemplation that was sung during the ecstatic state of the Eighth and Ninth, and verbal hymns that may be addressed to God afterwards, as signs of gratitude.
Hermes instructs his son to write everything down in hieroglyphs and place them in his sanctuary at the right astrological moment, and protect the book with an apotropaic formula, designed to avert evil. So that future generations will be able to read it. Presumably, then, it is the very text that we have been analysing.
Writing as Healing or Poison (Pharmakon)
Thoth’s invention of writing allowed us not to forget what we have experienced, enabling us to transmit knowledge over time and share it with future generations. However, this is a drug, or as the Greeks call it, pharmakon, writing is healing as it provides knowledge, but also poisonous insofar as one will forget about direct experience, which is inexpressible. People will be reading books believing that they have access to knowledge, but this is an illusion. Therefore, writing is in many ways poisonous. However, Thoth had a secret, which is that writing itself can have a magical effect on consciousness. Even though language cannot express the ineffable, it can resonate and have an effect on the human mind which helps people find their own path towards gnosis.
In fact, in Book 16 of the Corpus, Asclepius speaks to King Ammon about the dangers of language obscuring the true intent of these writings, which are spiritual, not philosophical.
“He [Hermes] said that they would become even more obscure later when the Greeks decide to translate our language into theirs, which will lead to even greater distortion and obscurity. When expressed in its original language, the text preserves the pure spirit of the words. For the very quality of the sound and the pronunciation of the Egyptian language carries in itself the power of what is being spoken… The Greeks, O King, use empty words which produce mere displays. That is the philosophy of the Greeks: a noise of words. We do not use such language but sounds full of power.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book XVI
God has endowed man beyond all mortal creatures with these two gifts: Nous and speech, both as much valued as immortality. If he uses these gifts rightly, he will be no different from the immortals, and on departing from the body he will be guided by both to the realm of the gods and the blessed ones.
The Illusion of Death
In the Corpus we find that the idea of death does not exist, it is an illusion. In reality, there is only creation and transformation, nothing perishes. Just like energy cannot be created nor destroyed, but only transformed from one form to another.
Man is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm, as above, so below. When the body is dissolved, it is absorbed back into nature, and the soul is absorbed in the cosmos, returning into the unmanifest so that new creatures may come to be. The cosmos is never destroyed, the cycles are a continual rotation and the mystery is the renewal. The true nature of reality is not mortality, but immortality.
Hermes tells his son:
“Have you not heard in the general teaching that all the souls which wander around the whole cosmos, as if separate, are from a single soul, the soul of all? Indeed, there are many transformations of these souls, some more fortunate, others less. Those which are reptiles are changed into aquatic creatures, aquatic creatures into those of the earth, those of the earth into fowls of the air, the air-borne into man. The human souls which gain immortality are transformed into spirits and thence to the choruses of the gods.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book X
When one dies with an affliction of the soul, one cannot partake of the Supreme Good. This is the only real death, a spiritual death of cyclical rebirth. The soul turns back on its journey to the reptiles, and that is the condemnation of the evil soul. Reptiles are considered lowly chthonic creatures. In the Bible, the snake is condemned by God for tricking Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, and it must crawl on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life.
We think we are alive; the reality is that we are dead, and when we die, we become alive. That is, if we become united with God, by leading a life of reverence.
Man as a Divine Being
For the Hermeticist, man is a divine being, and is not to be counted amongst the other and not even among those in heaven called gods. For man exists at once in earth, in the sea, and in heaven.
“Indeed, if we have to speak the truth boldly, the true man is above the gods, or at least fully their equal in power. Not one of the heavenly gods will leave the boundaries of heaven and come down to earth, but man ascends to heaven and measures it and he knows the high from the low, and he understands all the other things there exactly; and even more amazing, he ascends while not leaving the earth. So great is his range. Thus, one may say that man on earth is a mortal god, and that the heavenly god is an immortal man. Therefore, everything is controlled by these two: man, and the cosmos. But all is from the One.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book X
The evil of the soul then is ignorance of God; for the soul, knowing nothing of the Supreme Good, is blind and shakes with bodily pains, tormented by darkness. If we do not make ourselves equal to God, we cannot understand Him. Like is understood by like. Allow yourself to grow larger until you are equal to him who is immeasurable, out leap all that is corporeal, transcend all time and become the Aion, then you will understand God.
“God does not ignore man, he knows him fully, as God also wishes to be known. This is the only salvation for man: knowledge of God. This is the ascent to the highest abode of the gods.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book X
We can choose between mortality or immortality. It is the inferior choice that destroys man, those who have a mixture of rage and lust do not value things worthy of their attention, but turn to the pleasures and appetites of the body, believing that man was born for that reason, or mistake these greatest evils as the greatest goods.
“There are two kinds of beings, the embodied and unembodied, in whom there is the mortal and the divine spirit. Man is left to choose one or the other, if he so wishes. For one cannot choose both at once; when one is diminished, it reveals the power of the other.”
Hermes Trismegistus, Corpus Hermeticum Book IV
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Hermeticism: The Ancient Wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus
The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes Thrice Great) is the inspiration for the spiritual teachings known as Hermeticism.