Sunday, March 12, 2006

Egyptian Hermes

In the present day, it has become clear that the the confidence that the Enlightenment would lead man into the light of peace and prosperity has failed to fulfill its promise for the reasons I have pointed out in the previous post: Western civilization arose hampered by a serious deficiency in the very area which ought to play a role in creativity: a proper understanding of the human psyche. This civilization developed formulations of law, national, civil, and canon, which were designed for fictitious and simplified beings which bore no resemblance to normal humans. Such a civilization is insufficiently resistant to evil, which originates beyond the easily accessible areas of human consciousness and takes advantage of the great gap between formal or legal thought and psychological reality. In such a civilization - deficient in psychological cognition - the origins of evil in the minds of psychologically deviant individuals is masked from other people’s insufficiently developed consciousness. This is currently being discussed on the Ponerology site created by, among others, Laura Knight-Jadczyk.

In this bit of writing, I want to begin to trace this process of Ponerogenesis in the Hermetic Tradition. That is, how did it get taken over by deviants, buried with disinformation, and obscured by nonsense.

Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff write in their introduction to Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times:

Most literature about the various aspects of "western esotericism" has traditionally been of an apologetic or polemic nature: a debate, basically, among believers and their opponents. Academic researchers generally tended to avoid an area of cultural expression that was widely regarded as inherently suspect; openly to express interest in these traditions might too easily endanger a scholar's prestige among colleagues.

During the last few decades, the realization has been growing that this attitude has little to commend it from a scholarly point of view, and may on the contrary have blinded us to important aspects of our cultural past. Even more importantly, it has become increasingly clear that the scholarly recovery of "esoteric" traditions may eventually force us to question basic received opinions about the foundations of our present culture.

These considerations apply most directly to those movements that developed in the wake of the Hermetic revival of the Renaissance period. ... This should not surprise us, if we take into account the battle between doctrinal Christian theology and Enlightenment rationality that began around two centuries ago. An impartial - instead of polemic - historical study of Gnosticism was potentially dangerous to the self-understanding of traditional Christianity and its modern representatives. [...]

The situation was entirely different with respect to post-Renaissance "Hermeticist" movements. Not only were these less distant in a strictly chronological sense, they were also much closer in spirit. Having flowered in the same period that saw the emergence of modern science and rationality (and having been, as we now know, crucially involved in that emergence) they evidently touched upon the very roots of modernity itself. If Gnosticism had traditionally been perceived as the enemy of established Christianity - exemplifying what were regarded as essentially pagan temptations - modern Hermeticism held a comparable position in relation to the newly established rationalist worldview. To the intellectual heirs of the Enlightenment, it appeared very much as Gnosticism had appeared to the early church fathers: as a collection of archaic and potentially dangerous superstitions. They were regarded as the epitome of those kinds of error from which human reason had now finally managed to free itself.

However, one openly fights an enemy only as long as one fears that he still might win. ... Like the Christian Church before it, modern rationalism, once safely consolidated, could afford itself the luxury of exchanging active combat for a more comfortable (and perhaps more effective) solution:silence. Believing in the inevitable progress of human rationality, one could simply ignore esotericism, in the confident expectation that its still surviving remnants would eventually wither and die by itself. (1998, SUNY Press)

That isn't what has happened, however. Hermeticism was relegated to the fringe, and the fringe elements, often psychological deviants of society, saw the advantage and undertook to create "esoteric systems" of distortions and lies founded on poorly understood or deliberatly altered ancient texts. So it was that the abandonment of the study by properly trained scholars created a gap in which deviance could grow. The same could be said for the current day UFO phenomenon, not to mention the research into what really happened on September 11, 2001.

In Western Society, when we face the spiritual failure such as confronts us today, when people become disillusioned with the "doctrine of human progress," and they begin to look for alternatives, they are open to the predations of deviants and spellbinders always looking to impose their dreams of power on the environment and society. In this particular field, they do this by promising secret knowledge. Such promises attract mostly deviant personalities who are, in a normal milieu, ignored and/or ridiculed. What these individuals then do is create "ideologies" that attract disenfranchised, ignorant people who seek to "level the playing field". You then end up with the blind leading the blind.

Today there is a great deal of interest in alternatives to the Imperial Roman interpretation of Greek thought but it is becoming all too clear that esotericism is being put into the service of covert religious and ideological warfare.

Most so-called "Western Esoteric Traditions" are either directly or indirectly influenced by the Occultists of the Renaissance and post Renaissance periods. The great "rebirth" and movement "forward into the future of a splendid humanistic era" of the Renaissance was, oddly enough, based on looking backward in Time. The idea of cyclical time, moving through progressive ages of Gold, bronze, and iron was at the root of this tendency to "look back" to the pure Golden Age for the greatest Truth. Any progress that man could make would only happen if he could find the earliest, the most ancient, the least corrupt ideals and ideas and put them into action so as to bring society to a new birth: the Renaissance of the Golden Age.

The scholars and humanists of that day sought diligently to recover the literature and monuments of classical antiquity while the religious reformers simultaneously endeavored to return to the fundamentals of holy writ, study of the scriptures and the works of the early church fathers to recover what was lost, what had degenerated. In many cases, the two efforts crossed paths and purposes.

Both of these movements of "return" knew very well the date of Cicero and his golden age of classical culture; the religious reformers knew that they were trying to return to original Christianity, even if they were not clear on the dates of the Gospels, or even if they were the earliest documents; and there were always clever deviants lurking in the shadows ready and willing to pass on the knowledge for a price.

What appears to have happened in this searching for the most ancient texts, the most ancient knowledge, was that certain texts were turned up that seemed to posit that the True ancient religion, the True ancient knowledge, the True secret of the Golden Age was Magic! And the race was on to return to the "Golden Age of Magic." It is here that a great error was made. The Renaissance Magus was inspired by works that he thought were extremely ancient when, in fact, they were really written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. He thought he was returning to a Golden Wisdom of Ancient Egypt - the knowledge of the Great Hermes Trismegistus - a Wisdom that he believed had infused the Hebrew prophets, taught the philosophers of Greece, and even gave birth to Christianity itself. But it was all an illusion. His "Thrice Great Hermes" was little more than a very late invention and only in more recent times has it been possible to trace the steps of this imposture.

The Dominican scholar Festugière surveyed the technical Hermetica in his first volume of La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste. As one studies this material, it becomes obvioust that though Hermes wasn't always the "authority," his authority "added up" in the end to a more dominant position. There are certain magical texts that are specifically attributed to Hermes, and his position as an authority in that sphere gave him de facto authority in other fields as well. Magic seemed to be ubiquitous, being found in such things as the "occult properties of different substances and organisms" which pretty much covered everything material. As a result of this, Alchemists claimed Hermes as the founder and propagator of their art also and so Hermes' name is found at the top of the lists of alchemical authorities written by late antique and Byzantine writers. Interestingly, it is in the field of astrology that the most frequent references to Hermes as the ultimate authority are found. The gods Asclepius, Isis, the priest Petosiris and King Nechepso were all considered to have been pupils of Hermes. As a subset of this field are found astrological medicine and astrological botany which endeavored to use astrology in the diagnosis and cure of disease.

An overview of the technical Hermetica demonstrates a general "kinship" of thought and similarity of style covering a heterogeneity of both subject matter and internal structure of the individual texts. In other words, it is clear that there are different authors/ editors/ redactors, but in a certain way, there is still a "school of thought" that links them together. These texts have been repeatedly copied and "remodeled" over the centuries, especially since they were popular in Byzantium, so dating of the originals is extremely difficult even with textual analysis.

The magical texts - as opposed to the philosophical texts - represent a mature phase with no "stages of development" obviously evident and are mostly of later date, though one of the earliest surviving magical texts, firmly dated to the period of Augustus, is also the oldest Hermetic text preserved in papyrus. This suggests that magic must have been one of the first fields attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.

Most of the surviving astrological and medical Hermetica are of Roman date, in circulation in the First century AD or, possibly, a bit earlier. Coming along a little after that was the first evidence for the existence of the Cyranides (occult properties of substances and organisms). The alchemical hermetica are somewhat later and it was only in Roman times that alchemy assumed its classical form.

Philosophical Hermetica were already being compiled into collections in antiquity, but the first collection of technical Hermetica (the various texts seem to have circulated as individual treatises) is encountered in Byzantium, Marcianus 299, dated only to the tenth or eleventh centuries, followed by the thirteenth century Parisinus 2325.

Respecting compilations, there is a reference by Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) to "the man who put together at Athens the fifteen so-called Hermaic books." So we know that there was a collection that early. There are also quotes from the Hermetica found in non-Hermetic literature which suggests that anthologies of these texts were available. Stobaeus' collection provides a good example of such an anthology (early fifth century) which included forty Hermetic texts. This collection included the Korë kosmou which is almost a collection in itself.

There is concrete evidence of the existence of very early philosophical collections in circulation though some of the texts are now lost. The most spectacular evidence of this is the Nag Hammadi library. Three of the eight texts contained in codex VI are indisputable Hermetic tractates. A number of the other texts from this collection give evidence of doctrinal parallels though they do not claim to be Hermetic and none of the Hermetic characters show up in them.

The three indisputable Hermetic texts at the end of NHC VI seem to be simply part of a wider Gnostic compilation which leads to the question: were these three texts a specifically Hermetic collection, or did the compiler of the codex bring them together on his own initiative, for his own reasons?

The first of the three texts, (apparently translated from Greek into Coptic), is an initiatory dialogue between Hermes and Tat. References in the text suggest that the untitled piece was called The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, or The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth Spheres. This text was previously unknown and this creates the difficulty that there is no other tradition to compare it with.

In ancient times it was thought that the first Seven Spheres were the realms of the sun, moon and planets which represented the lower powers that controlled humanity and were NOT benevolent except insofar as it served their own interests. The Eighth and Ninth Spheres represented the levels beyond the control of the lower forces. The tractate may also assume a tenth sphere where God dwells, though this is not explicit.

The tractate is a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus, the "father," who instructs an initiate, the "son." Thus, the Hermetic character is emphasized by the use of the name of Hermes, though the strong, Gnostic dualistic theme is also present. Scholars note certain affinities to Middle Platonism which suggest a composition date of about the Second Century AD.

The two other texts are both translations from the Hermetic Perfect discourse, known previously from the Latin Asclepius. Number 7 is the prayer of thanksgiving from this latter text, and number 8 corresponds to section 21-29 of Asclepius: Hermes' famous prophecy.

These three texts together do not suggest that they were a connected series and the only clue to their origin is a scribal note inserted between text 7 and 8 that says:

I have copied this single discourse (logos) of his, because many indeed have reached me, but I did not write them down, thinking that they had reached you [plural]; and what is more I hesitate to copy these for you, because possibly they did [already] reach you, and the matter was troublesome for you; for the discourses which have reached me from that source are numerous.

The scribe, referring to a "single discourse," is obviously talking specifically about the Prayer of Thanksgiving from Asclepius and not the previous text, the Ogdoad reveal the Ennead. He apparently intended it to follow the Ogdoad as a sort of thanks for the deifying knowledge. What is interesting about this prayer is that it provides evidence for liturgical prayer, a ritual embrace or kiss, and a cultic meal in a typically Gnostic community. The prayer ends with: "When they had said these things in prayer, they embraced each other and they went to eat their holy food, which has no blood in it."

Moving on to the Corpus Hermeticum itself, again, the problem is the fact that no one has yet proved it's existence as a collection prior to Michael Psellus's references to it in the eleventh century. The alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis mentions CH I and CH IV together at the end of the third century, but that doesn't prove that the entire collection was assembled. Stobaeus included in his Anthologium extracts from CH II, IV and X, but he also knew many other unattested texts so one cannot make any conclusions about his sources, whether they were collections or just a pile of individual tractates.

The only thing certain is that the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum did not all come from the same place. Notable, also, is the fact that the Corpus Hermeticum does NOT include the undoubtedly popular Perfect Discourse that the above scribe mentions being so abundantly available. So, where are all the texts and who decided what got preserved and what didn't? Garth Fowden writes:

If we look at a writer who knew the philosophical Hermetica well, like the Christian Lactantius (d. c. 320), it becomes clear not only that he was acquainted with many more Hermetic writing than we are, but also that he tended to quote only from those that fitted with the particular doctrinal points that he wanted to make.

From Lactantius we learn a great deal about, for example, Hermetic doctrine on the nature of God, since it corresponded closely with his own understanding of Christianity; but about Hermetic mystical teaching, which could not easily be accommodated to a Christian context, he leaves us largely in the dark.

That a writer as sympathetic to Hermetism as Lactantius could convey, albeit for understandable reasons, such an unbalanced picture of its doctrine, arouses a suspicion that the composition of the Corpus too, though it may go back to a late antique core, reflects the taste of the Christian Byzantine readership to which we owe our manuscripts.

Byzantine disapproval of certain aspects of Hermetism is vividly conveyed by the abusive epithets that spatter the margins of one of our manuscripts. Perhaps this is the explanation for the absence of CH XVI thru XVIII from many of our manuscripts, SVI and SVII being too pagan, and SVIII, the last treatise in the collection and anyway not Hermetic, being naturally likely to fall out with them.

Quotations made from Hermetic books by late antique writers provide a useful control on the Corpus, this time on the fidelity of the text itself. ... More significantly, material offensive to Christian and Greek taste might also be allowed to drop out in the course of the long process of transmission from scribe to scribe. NHC VI 6, for instance, includes references to magic, astrology and pagan cult, and a variety of Egyptian decor, of a sort conspicuously absent from the otherwise closely analogous CH XIII. (The Egyptian Hermes, 1986, Princeton University Press)

And we should note also that, in the same way, extraneous - even corrupting - material can be introduced into the tradition and undoubtedly was.

In addition to the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean fragments and the Vienna and Nag Hammadi papyri, there are three other sources of information about the doctrines of philosophical Hermetism. These include the Perfect discourse, the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, preserved in an Armenian translation, and a variety of comments and testimonies from pagan and Christian writers of late antiquity. The Perfect discourse has survived intact in Latin, (the Asclepius), apparently done during the fourth century and attributed to Apuleius. There are a few Greek fragments of the same text, and the Coptic version of the two fragments from Nag Hammadi. Comparison of the fragments show that the complete Latin version is very definitely paraphrased. Fowden writes:

Though the Perfect discourse itself was clearly a long and composite text whose incoherences were rather unsuccessfully camouflaged by a feeble editor. Yet the Asclepius has its moments, notably Hermes's great prophecy of the demise of Egypt. And doctrinally it is almost encyclopaedic. So it was widely read in late antiquity; and the loss of the original is surprising, to say the least. No doubt we have here another symptom of Byzantine censorship, since the work contains several openly - even to the Christina mind, shockingly - pagan passages.

The Armenian Definitions is dated to 1273, but most copies date to the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Regarding the dating of the earliest textual strata of the philosophical hermetica, it is difficult. All that can really be said is that there were specimens circulating by the end of the second century. This is the same time that allusions to philosophical Hermetica turn up. The Nag Hammadi texts only tell us that the three Hermetic texts must antedate their inclusion into the codex in the mid-fourth century. So, basically, the end of the road leads to the time of composition being from the late first century to the late third century.

That pretty much does away with the "ancient Egyptian Wisdom" of the Hermetic revival. But certainly there was some Egyptian influence, wasn't there? I will examine that question next.


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