In the vast tapestry of ancient wisdom and esoteric knowledge, few texts have captured the imagination and curiosity of seekers quite like the Corpus Hermeticum. Nestled within this collection of sacred writings attributed to the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistus, Book I: Poimandres stands as a beacon of profound insights and mystical revelations.
This text, rich with allegory and cosmological revelations, serves as a foundational pillar upon which Hermetic spirituality is built. Delving into its verses requires more than mere scholarly analysis; it beckons us to engage in a process of contemplation and inner reflection — a journey through the corridors of the mind and soul — to unlock its hidden meanings and timeless wisdom.
In this article, we will embark on an expedition into the heart of Book I: Poimandres. We will navigate the intricate web of Hermetic thought, navigating through its metaphysical landscapes and metaphoric narratives.
By embracing the art of contemplation, we will endeavor to extract insights that resonate across the boundaries of time and culture, offering a glimpse into the intricate relationship between humanity, the cosmos, and the divine.
By unlocking the secrets that lie hidden within its verses, we can harness the transformative potential of contemplation to illuminate the path toward greater understanding, inner growth, and an enriched connection with the profound mysteries of existence.
A vision received
1 Once, when mind had become intent on things which are, and my understanding was raised to a great height, while my bodily senses were withdrawn, as in sleep when men are weighed down by too much food or by the fatigue of the body, it seemed that someone immensely great, of infinite dimensions happened to call my name and said to me ‘What do you wish to hear and behold, and having beheld what do you wish to learn and know?’
2 Who are you?’ said I.
‘I’, said he, ‘am Poimandres, the Nous of the Supreme. I know what you wish and I am with you everywhere.’
3 I wish to learn,’ said I, ‘the things that are and understand their nature and to know God. O how I wish to bear these things!
He answered, Keep in your Nous all that you wish to learn and I will teach you.’’
The main thing that is very intriguing immediately at the start of Book I is that divine knowledge doesn’t actually seem to get conveyed, but more like remembered. The visionary, maybe Hermes or maybe some Herald before Hermes, says that his understanding was raised to a great height, while his bodily senses were withdrawn. This physical situation seems necessary for the revelation which follows.
The visionary then sees all becoming a gentle and joyous light, the light of Nous/consciousness and he says it is everywhere. Everything is fundamentally that light. The vision of this divine Light fills him with longing.
Interesting is that the visionary starts out from a place of ignorance, as it does not seem that he was granted the vision because he had reached a certain elevated spiritual state. Maybe his “sleep” was more like a deep trance and this is some indication that the visionary was a spiritual adept worthy to be contacted by Poimandres.
Then Poimandres then shows him a dark downward-moving darkness that is outside and is separate from the visionary.
4 Quickly, there had come to be in one part a downward-moving darkness, fearful and loathsome, which I experienced as a twisting motion. Thus it appeared to me. I saw the nature of the darkness change into a watery substance, which was indescribably shaken about, and gave out smoke as from fire, culminating in an unutterable and mournful echo. There was sent forth from the watery substance a loud, inarticulate cry; its sound, as I thought, was of the light.
It seems that only through this divine light, that we can escape or seek to escape from the darkness.
5 Out of the light came forth the Holy Word which entered into the watery substance and rose up; the fire was insubstantial, piercing and active. The air, being light, followed the breath, and mounted up till it reached the fire, away from earth and water, so that it seemed that it s suspended from the fire. And the earth and water remained in their own place mingled together, so that they could not he distinguished, and they were kept in motion by the breathing Word, which was laid upon them within hearing.
It seems that creation takes place in two stages:
- First the unmanifest
- Then the manifest.
We can recall the Ogdoad, the eight gods and goddesses who were inscribed on one of the walls of the Philae temple. They are the Egyptian rendering of the creation of the unmanifest. They are created by the Word of Tehuti or Thoth. This was the creation of the unmanifest and from that Thoth, who is the Word/Logos, spoke and the manifest creation arose from that. From this unmanifest creation, the manifest creation arises.
The creation of the seven powers
9 Nous, God, being male and female, beginning as life and light, begot, by the Word, another Nous, the creator of the world. He, being the god of fire and air, formed seven powers who encompass in their circles the sensory world, and the government by these powers is called destiny.
10 Forthwith, the Word of God leaped forth from the downward moving elements to the pure work of the creator and was united with the creator Nous (for he was of the same substance) and the downward moving elements of the creation were left behind, without the Word, to be matter alone.
11 And Nous, the creator, together with the Word, encompassing the circles and spinning them round with a rushing motion, caused those things he had made to revolve and he allowed them to revolve from no fixed beginning to an end without limit. For it begins where it ends. And the rotation of these things, as Nous willed, brought forth from the downward moving elements living beings without speech (for they did not contain the Word) and the air produced winged creatures and the water swimming creatures. The earth and the water were separated from each other, as Nous willed, and the earth brought forth from herself what she possesses, four-footed, animals, reptiles, beasts, wild and tame.
Creation seems to be quite mechanical, as it’s controlled by seven circles and destiny, under whose authority they turn.
The seven circles are probably related to the seven heavenly bodies that move and that were known at the time the hermetic texts were written down. They are the Sun and the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
Do the seven circles refer to these planets as physical bodies or more to the powers associated with them, the mental or subtle powers associated with the planets?
The creation of Man (Anthropos)
12 Nous, the Father of all, who is life and light brought forth Man, the same as himself, whom he loved as his own child, for Man was very beautiful, bearing the image of his Father, for it was really with his own form that God was in love, and he handed over to him all his creation.
Very interesting is that Poimandres says that Man is brought forth, He doesn’t say that the Anthropos is created. And Man is the same as God. An interesting choice of words.
14 And having all power over the world of mortals and living creatures without speech, he looked down through the harmony of the cosmos and, having broken through the sovereignty (of the Divine Power), he showed to downward moving nature the beautiful form of God. When she 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. 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.
15 And for this reason, of all living beings on earth, Man alone is double: mortal because of the body, immortal because of the real Man. For although being immortal and having authority over all, he suffers mortal things which are subject to destiny. Then, although being harmonious, above the harmony of the cosmos, he has become a slave; being beyond gender from a Father beyond gender and never sleeping he is yet ruled by sleep.
The creation of Man is the crowning glory of the creation. Interesting is that in 9 above Poimandres says that the Logos begets (another) Nous? When he speaks about Man being created in the image of God, is Man then created in the image of Nous or Logos?
Poimandres says that during the formation of the lower elements in creation, the Word/Logos leaves them and rises up again and joins the Nous because it is of its own substance. Man contains the Logos and although Man isn’t subject to destiny he is subjected to it as we read in the statement that ‘although being harmonious, above the harmony of the cosmos, he has become a slave; being beyond gender from a Father beyond gender and never sleeping he is yet ruled by sleep’. A very interesting paradox.
The concept that Man is ‘double’ can maybe be found in the Egyptian beliefs of the man’s double who was invisible during his lifetime but becomes visible upon death. The “double” might be related to the Egyptian concept of the ‘Ka‘. Which is who we really are.
The ‘Ka‘ is always there, it never disappears. It can always be turned to, like in times of crisis. But other times it’s forgotten, as though it is asleep, and the individual suffers all sorts of things and does all sorts of things almost as if they were in a dream.
As Man comes to realize his unity with God, one of the effects of this is that he sees everything as a reflection of his own self. The concept that everything appears as a reflection of one’s own self was not described in Western literature before 100 AD when the hermetic texts appeared in Greek, but this concept is very clear in this text.
A comparison can maybe be made with Book V in which Hermes says the same thing, only rather more strongly.
How can you be praised, to others or to yourself….And where shall I look to praise you? For what you have created or for what you have not created? For what you have revealed or for what you have hidden? And why shall I praise you? Because you are of my own nature? Because you have what is your own? Because you are other? For you are whatsoever I am; you are whatever I do; you are whatever I speak. You are all things and there is nothing else….Corpus Hermeticum, Libellus V, v10, 11.
Here Hermes suddenly comes to realize that there isn’t anybody else, or anything else, to praise. He can only praise God within himself, within Man (Anthropos).
Regarding Man (Anthropos), maybe the life that flows through each one of us is all the same, but it’s only our little personalities and embodiments that are different. These are relatively superficial. There is only One Man (Anthropos) and if that is experienced then that is a profound life-changing realization.
The hermetic concept of Nous can be very confusing. The difficulty is that the term is not always used in the way in the texts. The term Nous can be used to describe the very finest knowledge, the very highest knowledge, or it can be used to describe the simple operation of our mind, the rational or thinking mind.
Nous has a whole range of meanings, and Hermes is very particular in how he uses it. He mostly uses the word to describe the very highest knowledge of all and that which can perceive it and these are the same, so we need to receive Nous to perceive (with) Nous.
In the texts above we read that the gentle and joyous light of Nous was/is everywhere, and creation couldn’t, and can’t, happen without it. So Nous is everywhere. its power is matched with the power of the Logos. Nous and Logos together create creation.
As we conclude for now our contemplative voyage through Book I: Poimandres within the Corpus Hermeticum, we find ourselves standing at the crossroads of knowledge and experience. The journey offered us glimpses of a timeless truth that transcends the limitations of language and time.
The teachings of Poimandres invite us to recognize the interconnectedness of all existence, the divine harmony that weaves the fabric of reality. Through the lens of contemplation, we have glimpsed the echoes of ancient wisdom that resonate within us, reminding us that the pursuit of knowledge is not merely an intellectual endeavor, but a spiritual odyssey that leads to self-discovery and transformation.
In our quest to fathom the depths of ancient texts like the Corpus Hermeticum, we rekindle a timeless dialogue between past and present, between hermetic seeker and hermetic sage. It is through contemplation that we bridge the gaps between generations, cultures, and dimensions of existence, forging a living connection with the luminaries of antiquity.
So, dear seeker of truth, as you venture forth from these contemplative shores, remember that the journey does not end here. The Corpus Hermeticum, with its enigmatic verses and profound insights, stands as an eternal spring from which the waters of wisdom flow.
Embrace the art of contemplation, nurture the eternal flame of hermetic insights, and continue to unveil the hidden mysteries that lie at the heart of existence.