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The Corpus Hermetica

The Corpus Hermeticum is a collection of texts from the second and third centuries of our era that survived from a more extensive literature. Reflecting the generalized spiritual orientation of late Hellenistic gnosis rather than a tradition in any organized sense, these sometimes contradictory texts share only their claim to a common source of revelation, Hermes Trismegistus. In most of the texts his revelations are presented as a dialogue with one of three pupils: Tat, Asclepius, or Ammon. According to Augustine[115], Asclepius was the grandson of the great Greek god of the same name, and Tat was likewise the grandson of his divine namesake (the Roman deity Mercurius, the same as the Greek god Hermes).

The Hermetic texts are often cited as examples of the extent of late Hellenistic syncretism, for they exhibit traits of magic, astrology, alchemy, Platonism and Stoicism, and the Mysteries, as well as Judaism and gnostic thought. Such influences are not arbitrary borrowings but express the systemic assumptions of the late Hellenistic age generally: the Ptolemaic delineation of a hierarchical cosmos under the rule of heimarmene, the sympathetic parallel between macrocosm and microcosm, the attendant understanding of the consubstantial nature of all existent entities, the devoted or fallen feminine nature of reality, and the masculine redemptive possibility of cosmic and temporal reversal and thus of the effects of fall by means of a spiritual participation in the golden antiquity of origin.

Hermeticism may be illustrated from the Poimandres, the first and most well known of the tractates. The Poimandres opens with the visionary account of an unnamed seeker:

One day, when I began to reflect on existence, and my thoughts had soared, and my bodily senses were held down like people heavy with sleep through surfeit of food or physical exhaustion, it seemed to me that a giant creature of immeasurable dimensions approached, called me by name, and said: "What do you wish to hear and to see and to learn and to know with understanding?" And I said: "Who are you then?" "I," he said, "am Poimandres, the Nous (Intellect) of the Absolute Sovereignty. I know what you wish, and I am with you everywhere." And I said: "I desire to learn the things that exist, to understand their nature and to know God. How much I do desire to hear!" Again he said to me: "Hold fast in your mind what you wish to learn and I will teach you."

The passage is characterized by a dualistic distinction between the corporeality of the "bodily senses" and Nous, the inner-thought or intellect of the seer, which soars aloft to receive spiritual revelation. The redemptive knowledge of "the things that exist," of their nature, and of (what was the same thing) the knowledge of God, is revealed in this noncorporeal vision by Poimandres.

Let us look at the dramatis personae before going further. The Hermetica are presented as revelations of divine truth, not as the product of human reason; and in the philosophical texts as in the technical texts those who do the revealing are the typical deities of Graeco-Egyptian syncretism.[116] Alongside Hermes Trismegistus himself and Isis, who had long been associated in the Egyptian as well as the Greek tradition,[117] we find Asclepius, identified with the Egyptian Imhotep/Imouthes;[118] Ammon, the Egyptian god Amun, euhmeristically regarded by some as one of the country's early kings;[119] Horus, the son of Isis;[120] and Agathos Daimon. Rather more unusually, the Kore kosmou alludes to Kamephis as an intermediary between Hermes and Isis, while S.H. XXVI.9 identifies the god of philosophy as Arnebeschenis, a Greek transcription for 'Horus of Letopolis. Both of these divinities are attested elsewhere in Greek literature of or on Egypt, but they were considerably less well known than the other figures mentioned, and their presence can be taken to indicate more than a superficial familiarity with the native milieu. There are also figures unique to the Hermetica: Poimandres, Tat and the priest Bitys. The origin and meaning of the name Poimandres is unclear, though it may be Egyptian.[121] As for Tat, he began humbly enough as a Greek misspelling of Thoth, but ended up taking on an identity of his own as Thoth-Hermes's son, both bodily and spiritual. The Hermetists apparently saw nothing inconsistent in this-an indication that philosophical Hermetism is not just a haphazard accumulation of separate elements, but a self-validating structure with its own conventions.

Most modern experts on the Hermetica distinguish the "popular" occultist writings attributed to Hermes from the "learned" or "philosophical" treatises. Garth Fowden, in his The Egyptian Hermes, argues persuasively that all the Hermetica, whether practical or theoretical, magical or philosophical, can be understood as responses to the same milieu, the very complex Graeco-Egyptian culture of Ptolemaic, Roman and early Christian times.[122] With regard to origins and interrelations, the claim that both types of Hermetica come from a common environment rings true, yet two other facts also bear consideration: first, that the seventeen Greek treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum came to be treated as a distinct body of writing, though perhaps for no better reason than the accidents of textual transmission or the prejudices of Byzantine compilers; and second, that these seventeen Greek logoi are not much concerned with astrology, very little with magic and not at all with alchemy. They deal with theological, or, in some loose sense, philosophical issues: they reveal to man knowledge of the origins, nature and moral properties of divine, human and material being so that humanity can use this knowledge to save themselves. The same pious philosophy or philosophical piety-a blend of theology, cosmogony, anthropogony, ethics, soteriology and eschatology-also characterizes the Latin Asclepius, the forty Hermetic texts and fragments collected in the Anthology of Stobaeus, the three Hermetica found with the Nag Hammadi Codices, the Armenian Definitions and the Vienna fragments. Although traces of occult belief, astrology especially, is evident in many of these works, even dominant in some, their central philosophical and theological concerns do, in fact, distinguish the from what Festugiere called "popular Hermetism."[123]

Around 200 CE the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria knew of "forty-two books of Hermes" considered indispensable for the rituals of Egyptian priests; the list, four of whose items he calls "the astrological books of Hermes," somewhat resembles a description of sacred writings inscribed in the second century BCE on the wall of an Egyptian temple in Edfu.[124] Clement's report accords with our fragmentary knowledge of the Graeco-Egyptian astrology that began to develop as early as the third century BCE. Although it was a Greek work of the third or second century BCE, composed perhaps in Alexandria and dealing with configurations of stars regarded as divinities, the title and other features of the Salmeschiniaka hint of Babylonian origins, though nothing proves such a connection. In the middle of the second century BCE, the unknown author of an astrology manual fathered his work on a pharaoh who ruled five centuries earlier, Nechepso, and on the high priest Petosiris, who reputedly took his revelation from Hermes and may correspond to an historical figure of the fourth century. The fragments of the handbook bearing the names of Nechepso and Petosiris survive mainly in the Anthology of Vettius Valens, a Roman astrologer who wrote in Greek in the second century CE. The most important of the astrological Hermetica known to us is the Liber Hermetis, a Latin text whose Greek original contained elements traceable to the third century BCE. This Book of Hermes describes the decans, a peculiarly Egyptian way of dividing the zodiacal circle into thirty-six compartments, each with its own complex of astrological attributes. Some Hermetic texts were tight in their focus, applying astrological theory to special circumstances: a Brontologion analyzed the significance of thunder as it was heard in various months, and a treatise Peri seismon related earthquakes to astrological signs. Of broader use were the Iatromathematika or tracts on astrological medicine, such as the Book of Asclepius Called Myriogenesis that discussed medical consequences of the theory of correspondence between human microcosm and universal macrocosm. Astrological botany and mineralogy were also favored topics. The Holy Book of Hermes to Asclepis based its botanical prescriptions on the relations between plants and decans, while the Fifteen Stars, Stones, Plants and Images singled out particular stars as determinants of pharmaceutical power.[125]

Another kind of occult wisdom attractive to Hermetic authors was alchemy, which made its first literary mark on Egypt after 200 BCE in the writings of Bolos Democritus of Mendes: the vestiges of his work show that Bolos described processes involving gold, silver, gems, dyes and other substances that became the main ingredients of the alchemical work. After Bolos but before the Christian era, a number of alchemical treatises began to appear under the names of Hermes, Agathodaimon, Isis and others. The latest date from the second or third century CE, and today we know them only as fragments - no more than thirty or so - from later alchemical treatises that mention either Hermes or another Hermetic figure. One of the larger remains of this literature, the Anepigraphos, cites the authority of Hermes and Agathodaimon for an allegory on the making of silver, called "the moon," by cooking and melting various substances. In another, entitled Isis the Prophetess to her Son Horus, the angel Amnael reveals the alchemical mystery: that just as wheat engenders wheat or person begets person so gold breeds gold. These alchemical Hermetica were known to Zosimus, a native of Panopolis who lived in Alexandria around 300 CE. Zosimus is of great interest because he mingled Hermetic theosophy with the alchemist's pragmatic aims and left at least two works that shed light on the larger Hermetic project, especially on the kinship between the technical and philosophical texts.[126]

The collection of the first book of the collection called Kuranides says that "the god Hermes Trismegistus received this book from the angels as god's greatest gift and passed it on to all individuals fit to receive secrets." The book also claims to be a compilation from two others by Kuranos, which may be a version of the Persian name Cyrus, and by Harpocration, an otherwise unknown author of late imperial times; the same work refers to an Archaikos Biblos, probably an early bestiary. This first of the six surviving Kuranides has twenty-four chapters, one each for the letter of the Greek alphabet that begins the names of the plant, bird fish and stone treated in the chapter. The second Kuranis has forty-seven alphabetized chapters on quadrupeds and their medical properties; the four others handle birds, fish plants and stones in the same way. Manuscripts of all but the last two books carry ascriptions to Hermes Trismegistus, but philology has traced them to the same Bolos Democritus who was a fountainhead of alchemical wisdom. If Bolos was their progenitor, the Kuranides represent the largest survival in Greek of a literature initiated by him that treated a wide range of natural phenomena and emphasized their medical and magical uses.[127]

If Fowden is right to claim that "the technical and philosophical books...are related aspects of...a practical spiritual 'way,'" then in the philosophical treatises one expects to find the theory behind the praxis of the technical Hermetica. When one looks, however, in the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Stobaeus excerpts or the Nag Hammadi Hermetica for a theory of magic, something like what Proclus wrote On the Hieratic Art according to the Greeks, this seems not to be the case, although there are passages that assume such a theoretical framework for remarks on astrology, demonology or related topics. Instead of a theory of magic, the theoretical Hermetica present a theory of salvation through knowledge or gnosis, yet this theory was the product of a culture that made no clear, rigid distinction between religion as the province of such lofty concerns as the fate of the soul and magic as a merely instrumental device of humbler intent.[128] In the Papyri many spells have as their goal enpneumatosis or "inspiration," literally, filling with pneuma or spirit. Was it a religious or a practical aim to seek such inspiration from Hermes? What we know of the role of pneuma in Gnostic and early Christian religion and of its place in Stoic physics and Galenic medicine should convince us that the question implies a false, unhistorical dichotomy.[129] Salvation in the largest sense - the resolution of man's fate wherever it finds him - was a common concern of theoretical and technical Hermetica alike, though the latter texts generally advertised a quotidian deliverance from banal misfortunes of disease, poverty and social strife, while the former offered a grander view of salvation through knowledge of God, the other and the self.

This distinction, as Fowden and others have shown, gives us only rough, provisional categories better suited to some texts than to others. Although the excerpts in the Anthology of Stobaeus have commonly been treated as "philosophical," a term that fits most of them as well as it suits the Corpus Hermeticum proper, some of the Stobaean material clearly qualifies as technical. Excerpt VI deals with astrology, in particular with the decans and their "sons," the star demons. Festugiere highlighted the conclusion of this treatise, which promises that "one who has not ignored these things can understand god precisely and, if one dare say so, even see god with his own eyes and, having seen god, become blessed." In other words, the Hermetic authors found technical information on the decan stars a suitable prelude to gnosis.[130] The longest and most interesting of the Stobaean excerpts, the Kore Kosmou, or "Daughter of the Cosmos," forthrightly declares that "no prophet about to raise his hands to the gods has ever ignored any of the things that are, so that philosophy and magic may nourish the soul and medicine heal the body"; this suggests that all knowledge - magical, medical and any other - bears on the quest for gnostic salvation. Magic comes closest to philosophy, perhaps, in the famous "god-making" passages of the Asclepius (23-4, 37-8) which shows that material objects can be manipulated to draw a god down into a statue and thus ensoul it.[131]

The writings of Zosimus, like the contrary advice of the Kore kosmou, show that categories roughly to modern usage of such terms as "magic," "philosophy" and "religion" were available to the very people who so frequently mixed them. Mixed aims and methods are evident in the sixth tractate of the sixth Nag Hammadi Codex, the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth." This work is a leading example of what Fowdencalls an "initiatory" hermetic text concerned with the final phases of a "philosophical paideia," the last steps that the initiate takes to recognize his true nature and then, in knowing God, to attain godhood. NHC VI.6 shares these sublime intentions with some parts of the Corpus Hermeticum, especially C.H. I and XIII, but most of the other seventeen Greek treatises are "preparatory" in Fowden's taxonomy. The describe various lower stages in the progress toward wisdom that the initiate must acquire before enjoying the rebirth offered in C.H. XIII or NHC VI.6.[132]

If the preliminary states of spiritual growth differed from one another, the changes among them may explain a striking feature of the Corpus, the apparently great divergences in doctrine between its component treatises and even within an individual logos. Scholars have taken pains to analyze and schematize parts of the Corpus as monist or dualist, optimist or pessimist, but Fowden proposes to see such variations as sequential rather than contradictory. Thus, a positive view of the cosmos as good and worth understanding would suit an earlier stage of the initiate's labors and, hence, a treatise focusing on a time when the body's needs were still great, while a negative treatment of the world as evil and unworthy of thought might befit a farther station in the spirit's journey and a different treatise on topics closer to the culmination of gnosis, which entailed liberation from the body. In any event, the texts themselves show that the Hermetic authors felt no obligation to respect the boundaries drawn around their writings by modern critics. NHC VI.6, for example, seeks nothing less than "the great divine vision," but it also contains two ritual passages that would not be out of place in the Magical Papyri (one of which includes the same prayer that concludes the Asclepius). In the second such passage, the initiate says,

I give thanks by singing a hymn to you. For I have received life from you, when you made me wise. I praise you. I call your name that is hidden within me: a ö ee ö ëë öö ii öööö oooo ööö uuuuu öööööööööööö. You are the one who exists with the spirit. I sing a hymn to you reverently.

Hermes, the mystagogue, then directs his "son to write this book for the temple at Diospolis in hieroglyphic characters, entitling it 'The Eighth Reveals the Ninth.'"[133] This exchange between Trismegistus and his disciple confirms what Iamblichus said about Egyptian theology, that

they certainly do not just speculate about these things. They recommend rising up through priestly theurgy toward the higher and more universal levels above fate, to the god and craftsman, and without material attachment or any other help at all except observing the proper time. Hermes also gave instruction in this way, which Bitus the prophet translated for King Ammon after finding it carved in hieroglyphic letters in shrines of Sais in Egypt.

Although Iamblichus seems to exclude any "material attachment" from Hermetic theurgy, the same cannot be said of the Asclepius, which in its "art of making gods" permitted "a comformable power arising from the nature of matter" and even mentioned "a mixture of plants, stones and spices, in describing the nature of the gods called down to animate their statues. PGM IV.475-829, formerly known as the "Mithras Liturgy," begins by calling for "the juices of herbs and spices," and it addresses the elementary powers of spirit, fire, water and earth with mystical noises like those that appear on almost every page of the Magical papyri: "EY EIA EE, water of water, the first of the water in me, OOO AAA EEE, earthy material, the first of the earthy material in me, YE YOE, my complete body." The same invocation seeks deliverance beyond the bodily elements "to immortal birth my underlying nature, so that...I may gaze upon the immortal." Just as Iamblichus said, this famous document exhorts the initiate to rise up through theurgy to a divine rebirth; its devices are concrete and technical, but it sets those procedures in a matrix of theory explored more thoroughly in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius.[134]

Hermetic Collections

When A.D. Nock edited the Corpus, he used twenty-eight manuscripts dating from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, but fifteen of them contain only the first fourteen treatises, or in some cases, even fewer. Two manuscripts that include all seventeen logoi also preserve a comment on C.H. I.18 written by Michael Psellus, an important Byzantine scholar of the eleventh century. Finding the words of the biblical Genesis in this heathen cosmogony, Psellus remarked of its author that "this wizard seems to have had more than a passing acquaintance with holy writ. Making an eager go of it, he tries his hand at the creation of the world, not scrupling to record the cherished Mosaic expressions themselves." It is noteworthy that a Byzantine Christian learned in Neoplatonism wished to defame the Bible-reading Hermes as a goes or "wizard," especially since the seventeen Greek treatises say so little about occult topics. Passages on astrology and magic in the theoretical Hermetica are even scarcer in C.H. I-XIV than in XVI-XVIII and the Asclepius. Could it be, then, that what we call theCorpus Hermeticum took shape just as a consequence of the abhorrence of magic expressed by Psellus? If so, it is worth noting the likelihood that he shared this pious loathing with other Byzantine scholars who transmitted the Corpus from his time to the fourteenth century, when the earliest extant manuscripts were written.[135]

Byzantine editors and copyists, then, may have immortalized their prejudices by selecting and redacting our Corpus from a larger body of Hermetica that certainly gave much attention to the occultism that is so inconspicuous in the theoretical treatises, especially the first fourteen. For Christian readers f the Latin West and Greek East alike, a Corpus purged of magic would better befit the authorship of the pagan sage described in the Suda around the year 1000: "Hermes Trismegistus....was an Egyptian wise man who flourished before Pharaoh's time. He was called Trismegistus on account of his praise of the trinity,[136] saying that there is one divine nature in the trinity." The Hermetica are full of random pieties, which is why Christians from patristic times onward so much admired them.

Before the eleventh century - when Psellus seems to have known the Corpus in roughly its present form, around the same time when the first collections of technical Hermetica were assembled by Byzantine scholars - there is no sign of the Corpus as such, although individual treatises were evidently in use as early as the third century CE. John of Stobi, or Stobaeus, seems not to have known the Corpus as a whole, but he compiled an Anthology around the year 500 that contains forty excerpts of varying lengths from hermetic writings, including parts of C.H. II, IV, IX, and the Asclepius. Excerpts that do not give partial texts (texts that represent a separate and sounder tradition than other manuscripts of the Corpus, which just on that account would seem to have been assembled after Stobaeus) or the Corpus or the Asclepius fall into four groups: Hermes, Hermes to Tat, Hermes to Ammon, and Isis to Horus.[137] Earlier than Stobaeus is an interesting remark from Cyril of Alexandria, who knew C.H. XI and XIV as well as other treatises now lost; he died around the middle of the fifth century. Much like Psellus, Cyril disapproved of Hermes as a magus and idolater, but he was fascinated by biblical and other resonances in his works, writing that

this Hermes of Egypt, although he was a theurgist (telestes), ever sitting in the temple precincts near the idols, had the good sense to acquire the writings of Moses, even if he did not use them at all blamelessly or correctly, having but a part of them....The one in Athens who collected the fifteen books called "Hermetic" (Hermaika) made himself a record of this in his own writings.[138]

Although Cyril apparently knew a Hermetic collection, his other references to Hermetic writings do not show that these "fifteen books" were a form of our Corpus. However, the earliest possible data, which comes from the texts themselves (sometimes referring to one another and to Hermetica outside the Corpus), indicate that Hermetic collections of some kind circulated as early as the second or third centuries. A scribe who copied the Nag Hammadi Hermetica, part of a mid-fourth "library," apologized for not adding more Hermetic materials to his codex because "the discourses of that one, which have come to me, are numerous," implying that he had access to more Hermetica than he had transcribed, conceivably to a collection. Authors of NHC VI, C.H. V,X,XII and XIV, S.H. III and VI and the Asclepius recognized groups of treatises by name, although the meanings of their labels to their original users remain unclear.[139]

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Last modified: Mon Mar 04, 2002 / Jeremiah Genest