We find various hymns and prayers in the Hermetic dialogues. The best-known hymn is probably the Holy Trisagion (‘Holy art thou‘) that concludes the famous Poimandres.
Reading the Holy Trisagion raises the question that constantly arises in research into Hermeticism, namely, was this hymn, and other hymns and prayers that we encounter in the Hermetic texts, purely literary or also institutional? Were they part of private devotions or did they connect to an objectively observable community ritual?
One of the keys to the question probably lies in the concept of the ‘sacrifice of words’ (logik thysia). This concept is important because we encounter it not only in the closing hymn of the Poimandres, but also in the Esoteric Songbook, and the disciple’s thanksgiving in the tractate of the Rebirth.
The ‘sacrifice of words’ simultaneously implies a metaphor, a spiritual exercise, and an action for the purpose of mystical worship.
The words one offers are not arbitrary. They rise to God ‘with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our strength’. A sacrifice of words requires an unfoldment of heart and soul, a focused effort of all spiritual faculties, rushing toward divine transcendence. During this effort, the spirit blends itself so much with the words of the prayer that its rapture itself is the essence of the sacrifice:
We thank You, with all our soul and with all our heart stretched out to You.NHC VI, 63, 34-35
However, any attempt to praise divine transcendence is met with an inability to express it in words:
“It is difficult to imagine God, but even if someone is able to do so, he cannot describe him.”Stobaeus Fragment 1,1
Therefore, the word sacrifices itself to invoke “thou who art unutterable, vast, beyond description, who art spoken of by silence.” (CH I, 31).
The sacrifice of words thus culminates in silent prayer. This spiritual worship is not held as an institutional rite observable from the outside. Rather, it is an individual effort, an intimate act, an inner practice. This intention is clearly expressed in the threefold Trishagion of CH 1, 31.
Experts today assume that real Hermetic meetings were held about two thousand years ago because the content of the sentences is not only explanatory but mainly performative; that is to say, what the speaker says is immediately carried out during the action: “We should pray (…), I call on You (…), we have achieved (, take it from us (. ..)”.
It is the expression of a state in which one perceives the inability to express God’s inexpressible greatness, but in which one agrees to sacrifice oneself in order to be absorbed in silence.
This silence is not a mere absence of sound, but a silent prayer; it is not a void, not a loss of consciousness, but a concentration of thoughts, based on a form of very intense sensation of being, of an immersion in the invisible. The faculty of perception is the mind (nous). After all:
“Reasoned discourse does (not) get to the truth, but mind is powerful, and, when it has been guided by reason up to a point, it has the means to get (as far as) the truth.”CH IX.10
Not only in its accidental existence but also in its own source:
“I am the spirit (nous) and I see another Spirit who moves the soul. I see him who moves me in a holy ecstasy (…). I see a source of life bubbling with life.”NHC VI, 58, 4-14
When the subject, thanks to the nous, becomes pure consciousness without any qualification, the supreme being, which was recently separated from him by an infinite distance, is henceforth what is nearest. His observation fuels the silent prayer. To prepare for this vision he must meditate on the divine essence.
The Divine Triad
Hermes Trismegistus requests at the end of the ritual of the Eighth and Ninth Celestial Spheres his disciple to protect the secret of his book by invoking the Unbegotten, the Self-begotten, and the Begotten.
“This is the oath: I make him who will read this holy book swear by heaven and earth, and fire and water, and seven rulers of substance, and the creating spirit in them, and the unbegotten God, and the self-begotten one, and him who has been begotten, that he will guard the things that Hermes has said.“63, 21-23
This triad represents three aspects of the divine essence, three ontologically related but rationally distinct entities, and from the standpoint of human faculties, three levels of knowledge of God.
The triad simultaneously translates the unbridgeable gap between the infinite and our finitude and the essential kinship between our spirit (nous) and the divine (Nous).
The gap arises from the fact that of our three mental faculties – gnosis, logos (putting the rational into words), and nous (mind) – only the last two, which are the most exalted, have access to the lower layers of the divine essence: the Begotten and the Self-begotten or Autogenous. The Unbegotten remains completely unknowable.
But on the other hand, rational articulation – or the understanding of each of us – really has the power to name all that is “begotten in God”, or all the beings through whom the invisible has made itself most visible of all.
“The very entity that makes visibility does not make itself visible; what (begets) is not itself begotten; what presents images of everything (is not) present to the imagination. For there is imagination only of things begotten. Coming to be is nothing but imagination.”CH V.1
So one can rightly view him in that regard. In fact, because the human spirit (nous) is according to its essence one with the divine Self-begotten, or the universal Spirit in which God eternally contemplates Himself, we too can intuitively grasp everything that is ‘autogenous’ in God.
On the other hand, God, as Unbegotten, transcends us and completely eludes us. We can only acknowledge our ignorance, which goes beyond what negative theology can express, in a kind of dizzying ecstasy of the infinite.
The divine triad — Unbegotten, Self-Begotten, and Begotten — structures not only the prayers of the Ogdoad and the Ennead but also, in a less visible way, the hermetic Holy Trisagion of the Poimandres.
In the closing prayer of the Poimandres, the structure as a triad is immediately recognizable, since the text consists of a threefold trisagion.
If one assumes that the divinity invoked by the mysterious teacher of Hermes is the God whom he will later reveal to his disciples, one must be able to determine whether each of these three three-part invocations as a whole relates to one of the hypostases of the triad. Let us explore this hypothesis below.
Holy is God, the father of all
Holy is God, whose will is accomplished by his own powers;
Holy is God, who wants to be known and who is known by his own.
‘The father of the all’ can be none other than the Unbegotten, or ‘the beginning (…) which itself has no beginning‘ and ‘the limit of the all’.
The One “whose will is accomplished by his own powers” is, of course, the Self-begotten (Nous) who dwells in the Ennead with his powers.
The One who is known by his own is the Logos, the divine word, sown thus Begotten, and individual lights (pot) producing, in other words, ‘light people’ (photes), or people who are ‘his own‘.
Holy are You, who through Logos have composed the existing;
Holy are You, of whom all nature has become an image;
Holy are You, whom nature did not shape.
It is the Logos which is the first to be celebrated. One can deduce that the formula addresses the triad; not in descending order (Unbegotten, Self-begotten, Begotten) like the previous one, but in reverse order.
So it must be the Self-begotten whose image nature has recreated. In reality, man is the image of the spirit (Nous) and this image was reflected in nature in the past, while its shadow was projected on the earth.
But the earthly man who emerged from this process is only a partial and imperfect replica of the Anthropos, the primordial man, created in the Ennead. If this is the image of the Self-begotten, he is also ‘the beautiful form of God’.
That God here refers specifically to the Unbegotten, that is to say to the first origin and not to either of the following two, is confirmed by the fact that ‘the form of the divine likeness‘ coincides with the essential human (ousiodes), derived from the essence itself (ousia) of the one who (ho-on) is, ‘the being that has no name’.
Holy are You, who are stronger than every power,
Holy are You, who are greater than all majesty,
Holy are You, who surpasses all praises.
One is tempted to compare this praise of another three-part formula in the Ogdoad and the Ennead:
“Strength of power, which surpasses greatness, which surpasses praise.”NHC VI, 56, 15-17
Although the terms of this invocation are not very explicit, one can surmise that the mighty one is the Unbegotten One, who dominates the greatness of the Nous and the glory of the Logos.
In any case, the third Trisagion, like the two previous ones, seems to address each of the three hypostases in turn, but this time in descending order.
The Unbegotten One, who rules over the ‘kingdom of power‘, simultaneously reveals himself as ‘stronger than any power’. The autogenous Nous is ‘exalted above the world’. As God, he stands above all beings and watches over all. So one can call him greater than any highness. Finally, praise is related to the Logos, the word that depends on the sphere of the Begotten.
The three triads are therefore as follows:
1. From highest to lowest hypostases
2. From lowest to highest hypostases
3. From highest to lowest hypostases
It is interesting to speculate why the order is descending (‘Holy is God‘) – ascending (‘Holy are You‘) – descending (‘Holy are You‘).
The Holy Trisagion evokes the triad as it has as its aim to raise the praise of the Begotten to the Autogenous, that is to say, from the prayer of the lips to the silent prayer, for which the model is formed by the hymn, which the angels and the souls of the Ogdoad turn to the Ennead and its powers.
That is the image (phantasm) one must try to grasp so that the silence transforms into a spiritual hymn.