Do animals have souls in the hermetica?

When reading the hermetic texts it becomes evident that souls, especially human ones, are very important. Maybe of utmost importance. In this article, we explore the question of in the Hermetica animals have souls, and if so what possible consequences there are for us humans.

Bloodless meal

A line at the end of the book Asclepius (or NHC VI.7) gives us a single reference to a “bloodless meal” or “a meal that has no living thing in it” to be consumed after the ritual.

‘Desirous of these things we turn to a repast that is pure, and undefiled by the flesh of animals.’

Asclepius 41

It’s a reasonable extrapolation to think that this statement refers to a vegetarian meal, but it could very well be that it refers to an even stricter vegan meal. And we do not know if this specific communal meal after the ritual was meant to be extrapolated to all meals. 

But as such a specific meal is explicitly mentioned, we can safely assume that it was important. Can the mention of a bloodless meal have anything to do with how the followers of Hermes thought about animals? Could it be that harming an animal was frowned upon?

From the latest findings, we know that the Egyptian people were mainly vegetarians. Hair absorbs a higher rate of animal proteins than bone or teeth, and the isotope ratios in the hair of mummies correspond to that found in the hair of modern European vegetarians, confirming that the ancient Egyptians were also mainly vegetarians. As is the case with many modern people, their diet was wheat- and barley-based. By eating (only) bloodless meals the followers of Hermes would follow the eating habits of their fellow Egyptians.

Greco-Egyptian context

If we consider the culture and the broader Greco-Egyptian context in which Hermeticism arose we know that institutional priests as well as individual magicians did practice animal sacrifice. Ritualized slaughter was done for any number of rituals and devotions, as well as for the consumption of meat in some circumstances (as well as the abstinence thereof). 

In magical texts like the Mithras Liturgy from PGM IV (considered a hermetic or proto-hermetic ritual text by experts) we read that the magician should abstain from meat. However, they still need to kill animals as part of the ritual apparatus. But did the followers of Hermes need to sacrifice animals for their rituals?

Hermetic literature has often been claimed to represent a spiritualization of Egyptian religion, since Hermes recommends to his son and pupil, Tat, to offer up to the creator-god a logikē thusia, translatable as a “rational,” “spiritual,” or simply “spoken” sacrifice (see CH I, 31; XIII, 18–19, 21; NHC VI 57,19). But did the followers of Hermes not sacrifice anything to the earthly gods or to God?

It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sound in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

Asclepius 38

Rational sacrifices

Plants, stones, and spices are mentioned by Hermes, not animals. In the Hermetic treatises, the material sacrifice is therefore still used to placate the precarious earthly gods and forms part of the general attitude of reverence, eusebeia. Reverence to God, on the other hand, is achieved by means of contemplation, spiritual exercises, and hymns of thanksgiving, called “rational sacrifices,” which may be sung in silence.

These rational sacrifices of speech are why Hermeticism is also called a “religio mentis”, a religion of the mind. Can the lack of animal sacrifice have something to do with how animals are seen in Hermeticism?

Irrational animals

The hermetic texts are highly anthropocentric in nature, and privilege humanity as the highest form of life in this world. It’s clear from the hermetic texts that animals are not in the same ontological or spiritual category as humans.

The hermetic texts say that animals have no rational reason and therefore no access to Nous, but they do say that animals have souls and therefore they are embodied souls, just like us.

In fact, the hermetic texts (especially CH XI) say that everything that moves has a soul. The Cosmos even has a soul (so that it can provide souls to everything within it) and there is even one (archetypical) soul.

In CH X.7 it is stated by Hermes:

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 airborne into man. The human souls which gain immortality are transformed into spirits.

In describing the transformations of souls in the text above Hermes mentions specifically animals.

In CH X.8 it is stated:

Being dragged away it turns back on its journey to the reptiles, and that is the condemnation of the evil soul. The evil of the soul then is ignorance.”

So, reptiles have souls otherwise a human soul could not end up in one as a punishment. In another paragraph, Hermes says that human souls cannot end up in irrational animals, which seems a contradiction, but it does not say animals have no souls, only that they cannot have a human soul.

In CH X.12 it is stated:

The cosmos is the first; but man is the second living being after the cosmos. He is the first among creatures that die, but like other living beings he has a soul.

The one soul, or archetypical soul, is again mentioned in CH XI.4:

Nous in the soul, soul in matter; and all these things exist through eternity. From within the soul fills this whole body, which contains all bodies, itself being filled by Nous and by God.

So, we can maybe go even further and say that because Nous and Soul are a kind of building blocks of the Cosmos, all matter has soul.

It continues:

From without, it contains and enlivens the whole, encompassing this vast and perfect being, the cosmos, and enlivening all creatures from within. Above, in heaven, the identity of the soul remains unchanging, but on earth it gives birth to changing forms.

As animals change form and move, we know that they need to have a soul.

In CH XI.8 it is stated:

And all beings are full of soul, and are moved by it; some around heaven, others around the earth; those on the right do not move to the left, nor do those on the left move to the right; likewise, those above do not move down nor do those below move up. And that all these things have been brought into being, most beloved Hermes, you no longer need to learn from me. For they are bodies, have a soul and are moved.

In CH XI.10 it is stated:

But understand this, that every living body consists of matter and soul, whether that body is of an immortal or a mortal being or of a dumb (irrational) creature.

In CH XI.11 we encounter again the soul of all:

Clearly there is a Creator of these things, and it is very evident that there is only one. For soul is one, life is one, and matter is one.

It also states:

Who else could give living creatures a soul, but the one God?


Human souls that are not governed by Nous suffer the same as the souls of irrational creatures, for Nous merely powers these souls and gives them up to desires.

There is therefore plenty of textual evidence that animals have souls. But besides animals having souls, can we find proof in the hermetic texts, or extrapolate from them, that not only animal consumption, but maybe also their sacrifice and slaughter do not fit the hermetic worldview?

Hermetic worldview

What do the hermetic texts say about how we humans should maybe behave toward the creation and the cosmos? And can we extrapolate a hermetic view concerning animal welfare?

In CH I.14 we read:

When she (Nature) had seen the beauty which never satiates of him who had in himself all the energy of the powers and the form of God she smiled with love, because she had seen the image of the most beautIful form of Man in the water and his shadow upon the earth. He, seeing in himself a similar for to his own in the water, fell in love with her and wished to dwell there. No sooner wished than done, and he inhabited a form without speech. Nature, having taken her beloved, enfolded him completely and they united, for they loved each other.

Nature, having taken her beloved Man, enfolded him completely and they united in love. The relationship between Man and Nature should be based upon mutual love, it was not meant for Man to subjugate Nature.

in CH I.31 we hear in the holy trisagion: “Holy art thou of whom all Nature became an image.” Nature is an image of the divine.

In CH XII.4 it is stated that human souls are carried to desires by the force of appetite, which leads to loss of reason. Just as it is with the unreasonable nature of beasts, such souls do not cease being unreasonably angered and unreasonably desirous, nor can they have enough of these evils. For modern people eating industrially produced meat can be seen as a desire carried by the irrational force of appetite because of a loss of reason as we know how the meat on our plate is really produced if we think rationally about it.

In Asclepius 6 about the stature of Man, we read:

All other beings, to whom he knows he is necessary through divine dispensation, he binds to himself in a knot of love. He raises his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth. Thus he is in the fortunate middle position: he loves those things that are below him and is beloved by the beings above.

In Asclepius 8 about the role of humanity, it is stated:

Thus He made human beings of His own essence.He perceived that they would not be able to love and care for all things unless He protected them with a material covering. So God sheltered them with a corporeal dwelling place and ordained the same for all human beings, and in just proportion He mixed and blended two natures into one. Thus God formed human beings of both spirit and body, that is, of both eternal and mortal nature, so that being thus formed they could do justice to their twofold origin: they could wonder at and adore the celestial, while they could also care for and manage the things on earth.

To wonder, adore and take care of the things on earth means we have no justification for cultivating and cruelly killing animals on an industrial scale.

In Asclepius 9 about the care for the Cosmos, we read:

Then listen, O Asclepius. To love the God of heaven and all that pertains to Him is nothing but continual reverence for every thing.

In Asclepius 10 we read:

Because Man looks to the whole, which is the proper object of his love and care, it follows that he is a jewel to the cosmos, as is the cosmos to him.

Also in Asclepius 8, we read:

“‘But in speaking of mortal things, I do not only mean earth and water, two of the four elements which nature has made subject to human beings, but also those things which humans are responsible for doing in, or with, these elements: the cultivation of the earth itself, pasturage, building, ports, navigation, communication, trade.

When Hermes describes what in nature has been subject to human beings, namely the cultivation of the earth, he does not mention the slaughter and consumption of animals.

Finally, in CH XIII some of the 12 irrational tormentors can be seen in how we produce meat, especially the tormentors of lust, injustice, greed, and malice. Lust for profit and also the appetite for meat, injustice in how to treat the animals, greed in that we place money above the welfare of animals, and malice in how we treat and slaughter them.

Divine caretaker

When we read the hermetic texts about our role as loving divine caretakers of our sibling the Cosmos it seems very clear that it is not meant that we act as a cruel “superior” ruler towards “lower” irrational animals. We need to take loving care of everything in Nature.

Humane slaughter with regard to animal consumption is unfortunately a myth. Animals feel pain. They feel trauma. They cry, call out in fear, they try to escape ranches, farms, and slaughterhouses. They clearly demonstrate pain and they don’t want to die.

Although it is not explicitly stated in the texts, we can extrapolate from them that Hermeticism does probably not encourage the exploitation and cruel murder of animals as a result of our superiority. But then, who would practice a spiritual tradition that does encourage that?


This article started with two questions. Hopefully, it provides an answer to both of them that is helpful to some people that are interested in Hermeticism, especially as a practice.

Hopefully, this article shows that animals have souls in Hermeticism and that a vegetarian lifestyle is therefore a logical choice for modern Hermeticists. These two conclusions are not just based upon one line in the hermetic texts about eating a meal “undefiled by the flesh of animals”, but are based upon a close read of the hermetic texts and how they deal with the divine role and responsibility of humans.

We are humans, created to be divine caretakers. To take loving care for everything “below” us, while being thankful and reverent for everything “above” us.

Yes, animals kill and eat other animals. But they are not tasked or created to be caretakers of the Cosmos nor have they been given divine reason to act differently than their bodily nature as we humans have. We are not irrational animals and we can not use them as an excuse to act like them.

We are humans, we can use our reason to know better. We maybe should see all souls as divine expressions, not as products whose bodies can be destroyed and consumed, especially the bodies of souls with sense and intelligence, like those of animals.

In providing answers to the two questions in the introduction we might sound judgemental, but we tried to be as objective as possible based on the authentic texts. It is of course up to you, the reader, if you accept the advice or reject the arguments presented in this article. As long as nobody is free of irrational tormentors we can and should not judge others for the same.

Read more: What is the Importance of Vegetarian Food for Spiritual Development?

Image header: This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia

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