The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, an account of the influence of Hermeticism, and especially of its mythical founder, on western thought. Here I speculate on what the early followers of Hermes Trismegistus may have got up to in the desert outside of Alexandria in the century or so following the time of Christ.
The Hermetic Work
Although many modern scholars of the Hermetica believe that there were Hermetic communities, the nature of those communities and the practices they may have followed remain a matter for debate. While the singing of hymns seems to be have been part of their practice, the notion and character of Hermetic ‘sacraments,’ such as baptism, is unclear, with some scholars suggesting that an actual physical immersion took place, and others suggesting that the idea had been ‘spiritualized’ into a more metaphorical act. The same is true for notions of, say, sacrifice. My own feeling is that, as Hermeticism is, in Frances Yates words, a religion “without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone,” the idea of a set ritual, with sacraments, a priest and so on, seems unnecessary. Yet, while the available material doesn’t allow for a clear cut assertion, we can permit ourselves some speculation, or at least the pleasure of considering others’ speculations.
In his important Introduction to G.R.S. Mead’s Hymns of Hermes, the Gnostic thinker Stephan A. Hoeller suggests what being involved in one of the Hermetic communities may have entailed. Hoeller suggests that a follower of Hermes Trismegistus began by reading some of the Hermetic books, or possibly by hearing them read or discussed in one of the public squares in places like Alexandria. As Alexandria was a city of sects and gospels, the Hermetic philosophy had competition, and as a degree of thought, logic and argument was involved in understanding it, we can assume that it attracted only a small number of people, the majority finding devotional or sacrificial beliefs more to their liking. After reading and hearing about the Hermetic path, following a probationary period, the few who felt drawn to it would continue their studies and be led to the next stage. This would have involved joining with others in a small group, within which rituals and guided meditations would have been practised, the idea being to acclimatize the aspirant to the spiritual atmosphere conducive to gnosis. This stage would act as a preparation for the ascent through the planetary spheres, and during it, the aspirant would have to master some basic principles, something perhaps along the lines of recognizing the independence of the soul from the body, as discussed in the previous chapter.
Journey Beyond the Planets
Next came what Hoeller calls the “progress through the Hebdomad,” or the journey through the seven planets. As Hoeller writes, “as the initiate’s interior powers increase, the stranglehold of the cosmos and the planets decreases.” We must remember that for the Hermeticist, man, as a being of two natures, is subject to planetary, stellar and cosmic forces, and the idea is to become free of them. Increasingly, as one mastered the Hermetic vision, one became less dominated by necessity and fate and more able to act independently, to be motivated by self-consciousness and conscious decision, and not pushed and pulled by either cosmic or corporeal forces. This stage would probably involve both some kind of guided ecstatic inner ‘ascent’ through imaginal planetary realms — perhaps something along the lines of the Cabalistic ‘path work’ — and an ethical discipline in which the limitations associated with the planets are jettisoned. One would imagine that this would be an ongoing process, with the passage through each planetary sphere — bringing one’s consciousness closer to Mind — being accompanied by a comparable conquest of personal limitation, an overcoming of impatience, let’s say, or of indolence, or other personal faults. As mentioned, for the Alexandrian and Renaissance Hermeticist, astrology was a means of understanding stellar or astral (Latin astra = stars) forces in order to avoid them. Unlike today, they read their horoscopes, not in order to predict their future, but in order to master it.
This notion of both movement through the planets and escape from their influence (our word “influence” itself has its roots in the idea that a force or fluid flowed into us from the stars) would remain central themes in modern esotericism. In Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, for example, as a soul descends to earth, it acquires characteristics from planetary angels, which it gives up in its passage from life to rebirth, and his scheme of an “evolution of consciousness” entails a movement from earlier planetary levels — for example, Old Sun, Old Moon — to later ones — Jupiter, Venus, and beyond.
Perhaps more clear is the use of this theme in the work of the enigmatic esoteric teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. According to Gurdjieff, the universe is structured along the lines of what he calls the “Ray of Creation,” reaching from the Absolute to the moon. At each “octave” of this ray, certain cosmic “laws” dominate. The aim of Gurdjieff’s “work” is to free oneself from as many of these laws as possible. The moon, the lowest level in the Ray of Creation, is subject to 96 laws. The earth, the next lowest, is subject to 48 laws, and that is where man finds himself. Through “working on himself,” man can raise himself to the next level, that of the planets, which is subject to only 24 laws. By working on himself further still, he can reach the next level, that of the sun, which is subject to only 12 laws, and so on, until we reach “the Absolute,” which seems quite similar to the Hermetic “the One, the All.” The whole system of Gurdjieff’s Ray of Creation is a more or less modernized version of the emanationist cosmology associated with Hermeticism and, earlier, with ancient Egyptian religion, in which creation is the result, not of a arbitrary act of a creator God (creatio ex nihilo), but of an “overflow” or emanation from the divine. This isn’t to say that Gurdjieff stole the idea, although he wouldn’t have been bothered by the accusation, but that it is so central to esoteric thought that it has remained in it, practically unchanged, aside from surface variations, for centuries.
The Eighth Sphere
Having passed through the planetary spheres, the Hermeticist was now able to join the Brotherhood of the Ogdoad, the earlier voyagers who have reached the Eighth sphere, where they have freed themselves of their cosmic limitations. They have, in other words, achieved gnosis and experienced cosmic consciousness. Here they rejoice in their freedom and sing praises to the One. In practice, it seems that a kind of baptism may have been part of the ritual, recognizing a new initiate in the mysteries, and in the Hermetic text Asclepius, a communal meal is also mentioned. The ecstasy of the voyage was, as mentioned, often given voice through hymns of praise, in which the new, transcendent consciousness was celebrated. In his Hymns of Hermes G.R.S. Mead gives several examples of these ecstatic songs. In ‘The Secret Hymnody’ that ends the Poimandres, Hermes sings:
Let every nature of the world receive the utterance of my hymn!
Open, thou Earth! Let every bolt of the Abyss be drawn for me!
Stir not, ye Trees! I am about to hymn creation’s Lord, both All and One. Ye heavens open, and ye Winds stay still, and let God’s Deathless Sphere receive my word! For I will sing the praise of Him who founded all; who fixed the Earth and hung up Heaven…
Again, in The Eighth Reveals the Ninth, one of the Hermetic texts found among the Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi, we find a long string of vowels and what seem ‘magical’ words, such as ‘Zoxathazo a ōō’ ee Zozazoth,’ which, while similar to some Gnostic ‘power words’ are also reminiscent of the “barbarous words of evocation” associated with ceremonial magic. The sense is that on achieving gnosis, the rational mind, responsible for ordered speech, is short-circuited, so that no logical account of the experience is possible, a problem encountered by more modern pursuers of cosmic consciousness. What these ‘words’ may have meant to the Hermeticists is unclear, as is whether they were used to trigger an altered state, as chanting is in shamanistic practice, or were a sign that one had been achieved. As Hoeller rightly remarks, “this heavenly mystery is not profitably approached in rational terms,” and “the utterance ensuing from such extraordinary states of consciousness also must be of an other than ordinary kind.”
Language and Silence
Although the Corpus Hermeticum was written in Greek, another important part of the Hermetic ritual was the use of the Egyptian language. Just as the hieroglyphics were, the Egyptian language was considered magical and sacred. Its sounds had a power of their own, aside from the meaning of the words, which could not be translated into another language, and certainly not into Greek, which was the language of “distortion and unclarity” (Book XVI). The power of speech sets man apart from the animals, but the power of the Egyptian language is that of God. As Asclepius tells King Ammon in Book XVI, “the very quality of the speech and the sound of the Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of,” and “the energetic idiom of Egyptian” employs not “speeches (i.e. the Greek dialectic) but sounds that are full of action.” This aspect of the ancient Egyptian language was later emphasized by the Neoplatonic philosopher-magician Iamblichus in his work On The Mysteries, in which he argued that the “performance of mysterious acts which surpass all understanding” and the “power of unutterable symbols, intelligible to the gods alone” effect “the theurgic union.” For Iamblichus, the correct words said in the correct way should transcend logic, and have a real, palpable effect, capable of drawing the gods down to concrete manifestation.
Yet along with hymns, words of power, and other evocative sounds, the Hermetic books also often emphasize that silence is the best way to praise the godhead. In this they are oddly reminiscent of the philosopher Wittgenstein’s famous remark “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Yet this Hermetic silence is not the mere absence of sound; it is filled with the intelligible songs of the mind, the wordless recognition of the reality of Nous. As Hermes says at the end of the Poimandres “You whom we address in silence, the unspeakable, the unsayable, accept pure speech offerings from a heart and soul that reach up to you.” In The Eighth Reveals the Ninth the point is made more clearly. On achieving gnosis, an initiate declares, “I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand.”And when the aspirant asks instruction in how to sing the silent hymn, this curious question and answer sequence occurs:
What is the way to sing a hymn through it (silence)?
Have you become such that cannot be spoken to?
I am silent, my father. I want to sing a hymn to you while I am silent.
Then sing it, for I am Mind.
And when, at the end of the Asclepius, Tat asks Asclepius if, in giving thanks to God, they should also burn incense, Hermes replies that doing so would be an act of sacrilege, as silent thanksgiving is, in God’s eyes, already the best incense.
Another way of expressing that the initiate had achieved gnosis was that he had “become Aion.” Our word “aeon” means an immense period of time, but for the Hermeticist “Aion” meant that he had achieved an existence outside of space and time. This state, in which one imagined “the dawn of existence in the womb” or that of “the soul before entering the body” and “after leaving it,” was not mere fantasy but a way of “seeing the invisible, of anticipating the Great Beyond, a real training for immortality.” As Maurice Nicoll, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, writes, the Hermetic practice of “living at all points of the life” — i.e. being vividly aware of the reality of one’s past and future — leads to our transformation into “eternal substance,” and makes “the invisible side of thing real.” This power to concretely grasp, in Colin Wilson’s phrase, “the reality of other times and places,” was proof that the Hermeticist had escaped the constraints of the cosmos, which kept him trapped in the present moment. For “becoming Aion” is nothing other than actualizing the power of the imagination, which is essentially the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.
Yet while the Hermetic initiate and his modern counterpart may “become Aion” and escape the limitations of time, the Corpus Hermeticum, sadly, could not. Some time after their writing and before their rediscovery in the Renaissance, the Hermetic books fell into obscurity and were lost. And before Cosimo de Medici’s literary scout found them again, a different Hermes Trismegistus made his appearance on the scene.