Exploring the Transformation of Souls and Their Permanence in Hermetic Texts

In the vast expanse of philosophical discourse within Hermetic texts, the question of the nature of souls and their journey through various incarnations is still a mystery. Does our soul have a mind, an identity, or a memory? What guides our soul towards salvation and the divine? Let’s part the veils to reveal the mysteries of the soul.

An important focus, maybe even the primary one, in the hermetic texts, is the human relation to the concepts of nous (mind) and gnosis (knowledge). The human being’s underlying essence can be seen as a distinct relationship in God’s gnosis (knowledge). 

The journey from and back to God

Corpus Hermeticum Book I.24  describes an ascent through the planetary spheres back to God. It starts as follows: 

Visionary:  ‘You have taught me these things well, as I wished, O Nous. Now tell me how the way back is found?
To this Poimandres replied: ‘First, in the dissolution of the material body, one gives the body itself up to change. The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power, your habitual character, now inactive. The bodily senses return to their own sources. Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of emotions and desire go to mechanical nature.

If this is the ascent back to God then it is very probable that there was first a similar process whereby the individual becomes manifest in the material world as a passage from God to concrete bodily existence: This journey consists of man gradually actualizing his determinate nature by acquiring a succession of qualities or “garments” from the hierarchy of planets and presences situated between God and the human state.

In the Hermetica the concept of “Man” is a bipartite combination of soul and body. In Corpus Hermeticum XI.9 Nous teaches Hermes:

But consider, since there is only one matter and one soul, if there were two creators, which of them would take charge of creation?

The soul, though it seems to be a separate entity, stems from a single source; the soul of all. The soul undergoes numerous transformations, transitioning from one form to another across different realms and millions of years.

In CH X.6 it is stated: 

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 air-borne into man. The human souls which gain immortality are transformed into spirits and thence to the choruses of the gods.

Souls transform because the bodies they are put in are changed into different species.

The itinerary described above does not follow a solely downward course from Nous to the point of human embodiment. Before a soul gets incarnated as a human an ascent of the soul through nature can precede it. 

The journey from Man to God is first a descent through the “higher worlds” with the acquisition of the spiritual and intelligible characteristics that define the individual’s nature and after that an ascent from animal to Man. These two distinct phases of embodiment pertain to the development of the soul’s formal and material sides respectively.

In Book IX.1 Hermes teaches Tat: 

Now, my son, we must speak about the soul and the body: in what way the soul is immortal, and what is the activity which forms the body and dissolves it.”

And in Book XI.4 Nous teaches Hermes:

“God is the soul of eternity; eternity of the cosmos; and heaven of earth. God is in Nous, 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. 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.

The journey of the soul through many transformations is possible because the soul is immortal and independent of a body. The soul keeps a connection with the one soul and through the one soul with Nous throughout all its incarnations and transformations. The goal of all these changes is that the soul becomes Man, Man becomes spirit and the spirit becomes (or merges into) God.

This means that the very first animal in which the soul is made manifest will be directed by divine Providence, Necessity, and Fate. By the decrees of Fate, the individual soul will be subject to certain experiences when it enters the animal kingdom such that the animal in which the soul is manifested has a change to incarnate to a “higher” form after the body’s dissolution.

While embodied as an animal all kinds of harm may befall the soul preventing it from reaching a level that it can transform to a higher life form, e.g. being consumed by another animal, or it may be prevented from passing from the animal in question to the human state by some other hindrance. How does the soul “remember” its development throughout all its changes, transformations, and incarnations? 

The Individuality of the Soul

We touch here upon the concepts of memory and individuality in the hermetic texts as they relate to souls. The specifics of metempsychosis remain elusive in the hermetic texts. An important question to answer is if the soul pre-exists the body with its own identity.

In Corpus Hermeticum I Nous teaches that the individual soul can ascend until it becomes a universal spirit or power, and it does so, not by changing into something else, but simply by casting off the accidental constraints on account of which it had been referred to as ‘individual’, such that it returns to its original universality.

Some passages in the hermetic texts emphasize the individuality and permanence of the soul and suggest that souls maintain their distinct identities even after departing from their physical vessels. Despite the soul’s journey through various incarnations, it remains an individual entity with its own essence and energies.

The soul is an individual thing, not something that merges with other souls like bodies merge back into nature, but does a soul have a memory? In Corpus Hermeticum XIII.2 Hermēs teaches Tat about the rebirth of the soul:

Such a lineage cannot be taught my child, but god reminds you of it when he wishes.

This raises an interesting question about what the memory of an individual human is. The soul undergoes many experiences and impressions from incarnation to incarnation. Most experiences and impressions pass away with the dissolution of the body as they deal with bodily impressions and experiences that do not affect the soul. But some experiences and impressions might affect the soul as these facilitate the soul’s journey back to God or to continue in other incarnations. 

The transience of body and soul

Soul and body are both transient. The body is transient in its material composition, the soul is unchanging, permanent, and stable in and of itself but transient in its individuality. 

Your current identity of “Me” belongs to a combination of soul and body. You were not “Me” when you were an aquatic creature, a reptile, or a fowl in the air. You will not be “Me” when you become a power or spirit or merge into God (if ever). Your soul has gone through changes in creatures without reason who probably have no individual identity. 

Your identity, your name, label, societal role, and the like that you have while in any given embodied incarnation is a matter of that particular transformation. This identity is necessary to determine your place relative to other things in sensible reality and belongs to the unique combination of soul and body. Your identity of “me” is mostly attached to your body as your soul is the essence behind “you” and all the other bodies you have gone through.

Your soul has a permanent essence that is allocated various temporary bodies but it has no permanent identity. But there is something that “tracks” your soul through its various changes to determine what is the next step in its development. Maybe that permanent presence is nous.

The permanence of Nous

Nous is a complicated concept in hermetic texts. Wikipedia says:

Nous, or Greek νοῦς, sometimes equated to intellect or intelligence, is a concept from classical philosophy for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real. Alternative English terms used in philosophy include “understanding” and “mind”; or sometimes “thought” or “reason” (in the sense of that which reasons, not the activity of reasoning). It is also often described as something equivalent to perception except that it works within the mind (“the mind’s eye”). It has been suggested that the basic meaning is something like “awareness”.”

The normal nous belongs to the body as its “understanding”, “intelligence” and “awareness” is done in the physical brain. This nous belongs to your current soul-body combination.

In Corpus Hermeticum Book X.23. There is a mention of a “good mind” (noun…ton agathon) vs. “servile mind” (upēretikou “menial, subordinate, servile, hired”). The “good mind” belongs to the “proper soul” (the actual soul, the essence of ourselves), and the “servile mind” belongs to the “animal soul” which are the combined energies of our drives and desires (thumos and epithumia).

The normal nous and the divine Nous are both the same, they only have different roles or functions related to us and our souls. In Corpus Hermeticum Book IV.4—5) Hermes teaches:

…are people of reason because they did not receive <the gift of> mind (nous) as well and do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be. These people have sensations much like those of unreasoning animals, and, since their temperament is willful and angry, they feel no awe of things that deserve to be admired; they divert their attention to the pleasures and appetites of their bodies; and they believe that mankind came to be for such purposes.

In most humans, our identity is based upon the combination of logos + thumos + epithumia. Some people have reduced their bodily drives and desires sufficiently that the combination becomes logos + thumos + epithumia + nous. Thumos and epithumia are energies of the body, which always going to be with us no matter what while we’re all incarnate, so the rational mindful soul (the soul with logos and nous) has to wrestle with them, temper them, and guide us.

Nous guides the soul back to God

In the Hermetica there is also another concept of nous, namely the “understanding”, “intelligence” or “awareness” of God. This Nous (often spelled with a capital N to distinguish it from the normal nous) is the Mind of God that teaches the visionary in Corpus Hermeticum Book I and Hermes in Book XI. 

It is this Nous that can actively guide us in our current incarnation that Hermes urges us in Book IV of the Corpus Hermeticum that we need to strive for so we can receive it as a prize. The establishment of this active connection, whereby our embodied nous or “awareness” becomes aligned with divine Nous or “awareness”, is fundamental to the Way of Hermes.

Nous is not our real self, as that is the combination of soul and body, but it is the “umbilical cord” that links us with the Divine throughout all our changes, transformations, and incarnations maintaining permanence between everything our soul experiences in its journey towards God.

Divine Nous is a supra-individual “mind” present according to the conditions of the human individual state to ensure that the appearance of divine epiphanies is always determined by their locus of manifestation. We can use the familiar metaphor of a mirror in which the divine Nous is neither located nor incarnated but simply “reflected”, such that its appearance is conditioned by the mirror’s characteristics.

This Nous stays with us throughout the whole journey, from the descent to the planetary spheres, through the phases of Nature, and ending in the ascent back through the planetary spheres to God. 

The normal nous, or servile mind, is lost after each transformation and the dissolution of the body and its brain. The divine Nous stays with us throughout all transformations so it can guide the soul towards a more suitable destiny, either towards God or away from it. That both of them are spelled the same in the hermetic texts can be very confusing.

Our soul is the faculty that ultimately both governs and animates the individual, but it also has a noetic connection with divine Nous so it remains directly connected to the divine principle. Nous is the only permanence “we” have, as Nous stays with us throughout all transformations, changes, and incarnations. This connection with Nous is intrinsic to the soul and it is not necessary to be gifted as a prize like Corpus Hermeticum Book IV describes.

Conclusion

The real essence of every being is a unique expression of the relationship of its eternal archetypal reality within the Nous of God. This essence is a non-existential object of knowledge (gnosis). Our soul has therefore “two sides”, one of which is turned towards the non-manifest (God), and because of divine Nous does not differ from it. The other is turned towards and shares in the character of the manifest existence (sensible reality). 

Man in the Hermetic is bipartite as he consists of soul and body, but maybe we can say that the soul is also bipartite as it consists of soul and Nous. Nous is not something the soul intrinsically possesses but is reflected in it, based upon the specific phase in the soul’s journey back to God.

NB. This article is partly based on a conversation between Sigismundo and Polyphanes on the Hermetic House of Life Discord server. We thank Polyphanes for his input and inspiring feedback. All views and conclusions in this article are our own. You can read more about Polyphanes’ views on hermetic wisdom on his blog The Digital Ambler.

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