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Imagination and the Way of Hermes

As can be seen from its title, in his book ‘Hermetic Spirituality and Historical Imagination‘ Wouter Hanegraaff explains why for the understanding of hermetic spirituality it is important to understand the hermetic concept of imagination. In an interview with the Rejected Religion podcast, he explained his ideas of the hermetic concept of imagination in a brilliant way.

Imagination (Gr. phantasia) is the active generation or engendering or bringing forth of images. The imagination is not mental delusions or creative inventions divorced from reality, but rather an appearance or presentation. No mental or intellectual activity of any kind is possible without the faculty of the imagination. It is therefore the opposite of what most of us think about the words “fantasy” or “imagination”.

This teaching also I shall fully expound to you, O Tat so that you are not shut off from God who is too great for a name. Understand that what appears unmanifest to many will become most evident to you, for it would not exist if it were not manifest to you. Everything that is manifest has been brought into being; for it has been brought to light. However, the unmanifest exists always; it does not need to appear, for it exists always and it makes everything else manifest, though it itself is unmanifest since it always is. That which makes manifest is not itself made manifest, for it has not been brought forth. But it brings all images to the mind in imagination. Things that are begotten belong only to imagination. For imagination is nothing but begetting.

Corpus Hermeticum – Book V.1

A lot of people, not only academic scholars but also people in everyday life, dismiss the importance of the imagination. Basically we humans are living our lives in a world of hallucinations in which we imagine things that aren’t really there. For the Hermetica the only thing that really exists is Light (Nous) and nothing else, so everything we see is in a way a figment of our imagination.

In Corpus Hermeticum XI and XIII, we find the concept that the whole world, the world as we experience it, consists basically of the thoughts and the ideas of the images in God’s own minds. The human mind gets constricted when we get born in a material body so we do not see the whole reality anymore, we only see those limited “things” that are right in front of us in space and time. 

When the hermetic student gets reborn as is described in Corpus Hermeticum XIII, then the daimonic entities are expelled or exercised and they no longer have a hold over their mind. The student immediately starts to perceive from one moment to the other reality as it really exists in God’s own mind. They start to participate in God’s own consciousness, which means that the student gains a cosmic consciousness in which they are everywhere at the same time, in the future, in the past, and in the present. 

The reborn student can travel in a moment to India, to other parts of the world, he is in the womb, before the womb, after the womb. There is no limit to where it can be. They gain a state of cosmic consciousness in which they are no longer limited by time and space as usually happens when we get born. They gain consciousness of the total reality that exists in the mind (Nous) of God himself and see the world as it exists in – or has been imagined by – God.

Divine imagination

This is where we run into problems with translation. Because when we think God imagines the world then maybe we think God creates illusions, but “imagining” means actually doing something. God imagines the world into reality, he creates the (phenomenal) world of appearances by imagining it. 

Even in modern English, it is difficult to explain because it doesn’t mean God has a kind of illusion in his mind. Divine imagination is an active process of imagining or creating or bringing forth images.

Some of the things being said need special attention. Understand what I am saying. All is within God; but not as if lying in a place. For a place is not only a body, but an immovable body, and what lies in a place has no motion. Within God, everything lies in bodiless imagination. Think of Him who contains it all. There is nothing to limit the incorporeal, there is nothing quicker or more powerful. It is absolutely without limit, the quickest and most powerful of all.

Corpus Hermeticum – Book XI.18

We are living in God’s imagination but we get deluded into seeing only our own images rather than all the images that are really there. Beyond all those images and God’s imagination is an even deeper level where there is only light. The deepest level is Light (Nous), one phenomenal level higher is all the images in God’s mind, and in an even more constricted level, we see only some of those images, namely those that are right in front of us. 

We get fixated on them and we start running after them. So imagination or phantasia in its correct usage is crucial to understanding what is happening in the Hermetica.  

Actual vision 

The contrast between the Greek word phantasia with the modern view of fantasy as purely imaginary could not be greater. Modern translators therefore cannot render the Greek term phantasia with the literal translation fantasy because this would mean the opposite of what ancient philosophers like Aristotle meant with that term. 

New modern terms are needed to capture the meaning of phantasia such as “actual vision” or “true appearance”. These new terms mean exactly the opposite of what literal translations such as “imagination” and “fantasy” would convey to modern readers.

The Greek word phantasia means “causing to appear” or “coming into appearance”. For example, in the room you are reading this webpage the monitor or smartphone appears in your vision. This object is an appearance and the whole room around you is a phenomenon. 

The mind never thinks without an image. But this sentence is not correct in a hermetic sense. It is not about thinking, but as it is noetic it is “noeticizing” because it uses not our mind but divine Nous in order to perceive something in a spiritual way. 

These “images” are phantasms that are created by the imagination. The mind never “noeticizes” without a phantasm. All our mental activity and basically everything that we do cannot do without fantasy or the imagination. Imagination is the key to all our mental activity. You cannot perceive the room you are sitting in or be active in the world without the imagination.

Without this reflective mirror of the imagination in which we perceive all things that reach our Consciousness yet always perceive them differently from how they really are, we would simply be unable to understand anything at all.

This, therefore, is the all, as you remember; it is the essence of the all and it is the all. The soul and the cosmos being embraced by Nature are set in movement by her with such diversity of quality, evident in all images, that countless forms are known to exist by the contrast of their qualities. Yet these forms are also united so that all things appear as one whole and from the one.

Asclepius 2

Fundamental paradox

The imagination is crucial to our existence as it shows us reality by concealing reality at the same time. It conceals reality by showing us reality. This is the fundamental paradox of the imagination, it’s a revelation by means of concealment and it is concealment by means of revelation. So something appears but it never appears in the way it really is, but if it didn’t appear we would not have any understanding at all.

Yesterday, 0 Asclepius, I spoke about the teaching as a whole; now I consider it necessary to follow that and speak in detail about the subject of sense perception. The sensory perception and understanding may seem to differ: one is connected with matter and the other with being. To me they both seem to be one and without difference; I mean in man. For in other living beings sense is one with nature, but there is understanding in man. Nous differs as much from understanding as God does from divinity. Divinity comes from God, as understanding, being akin to Logos, comes from Nous. In fact, understanding and Logos are instruments of each other, for neither is Logos spoken without understanding nor does understanding appear without Logos.

Corpus Hermeticum Book IX.1

The core process of understanding can be defined in remarkably simple terms, namely as an act of communication. Something meaningful gets transferred across a liminal space by a tricky mediator who cannot fully be trusted. A message is sent and a message is received. 

You can never fully trust the imagination, but without the imagination you get nothing. The reality that we find ourselves in, that surrounds us, is making sense to us and is signifying. We are on the receiving end and we receive those signs and they delude us and they trick us. We cannot trust them, but it is not just delusion, there is still a message being sent. We can never receive it in its purity but we can receive the reflection by means of the imagination.

Now sense and understanding both flow together in man, as they are entwined with each other. It is neither possible to understand without sense nor to sense without understanding. Is it possible to understand without sense, even when people imagine visible objects in dreams? For it seems to me that both these activities have taken place in the dream vision since they are both aroused in sense which partly belongs to the body and partly to the soul; and whenever both parts of sense are in unison, understanding arises, being born from Nous.

Corpus Hermeticum – Book IX.2


In the Hermetica imagination is done through the faculty of Nous. Although this term is often translated as “mind” it is nothing like a faculty of abstract reasoning. It is much akin to intuition or imagination. It equates to sight, inasmuch as it encompasses everything at once, even God’s infinite essence. It is both spiritual light and enlightenment. Read more about Nous in this article

Book: Hermetic Spirituality and Historical Imagination' by Wouter Hanegraaff
Podcast: Rejected Religion Pod E26 Prof. Dr. Wouter J. Hanegraaff: Hermetic Embodiment, Interpretation, & Imagination

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