The Hermetic writings, through wonder and astonishment at the beauty of the cosmos and the efficiency of nature, want to show the reader the importance of praising and worshiping the God who made all of this. Hermetic literature is ultimately concerned with only one thing: the glorification of and union with God, the source of the All.
In this article, we go deeper into the question of what Hermetic spirituality is on the basis of the known Hermetic rituals.
The core of all the scriptures is that the God of the All is to be worshiped and glorified, and that man, through his immortal divine element, can know and experience him and even become one with him. This unity with God is achieved in CH XI through an initially purely rational approach, which ends in an understanding of the cosmos and thus of God himself. The same happens in CH XIII, but the soul’s way after death is very different, going through an inner purification and the entry of ten Powers.
In the Poimandres (CH I) union with God proceeds through an ascent through the planetary spheres. In the Initiation Into the Eighth and Ninth Heavenly Spheres, it goes through a path of initiation of seven degrees which correspond to the planetary spheres, and a contemplation of the divine world. Thus, we can see that Hermetic spirituality is described quite differently in the different Hermetic texts.
Prayers and Praises
Anyone who reads the Hermetic texts quickly comes across prayers and praises. In Corpus Hermeticum Book XIII.17, song 4 of the Esoteric hymnal is even mentioned. This is probably a remark from a later reader who recognized the text from a collection and wrote it in the margin, for example, when someone quotes a psalm or hymn and we add ‘hymn 362’ in the margin.
So it seems that a bundle of Hermetic hymns may have existed. We also know that certain Hermetic hymns have circulated loosely and independently of the context in which they now stand. Such was the case with the closing hymn of both the Asclepius (AH) and the Poimandres (CH I). The latter is recorded in a Christian prayer book even in the third century; the author apparently did not know that this was a non-Christian, Hermetic text.
The Hermetic texts also mention mystical experiences and initiations into the spiritual world. An important text on this point is the Initiation into the Eighth and Ninth heavenly spheres, which was found in the Coptic manuscript find of Nag Hammadi (NHC VI. 6).
Not Liturgy but Magic
At the end of the book called Asclepius, or the Perfect Sermon, as Hermes, Asclepius, and Tat leave the shrine after their conversation they turn their gaze to the south to offer a prayer as the sun is setting. Then Asclepius whispers to Tat:
‘O Tat, do you think that we should suggest to your father that he order frankincense and perfumes to be used when we say our prayer to God?’
Hermes’ student Asclepius refers here to an ancient religious custom. When a prayer was said, a libation was offered or some grains of incense were burned on an altar to enforce the prayer. Asclepius apparently thinks they should do the same now. Hermes hears what he says and reacts violently:
‘Give us a far better omen than that, Asclepius. It is like sacrilege to burn frankincense and other things when you pray to God; for He lacks nothing, who is Himself all things or in whom are all things. Rather let us adore Him in giving thanks, since this is the finest incense for God: that thanks be given Him by mortals.
Here Hermes indeed says that it is not necessary to practice such rituals in prayer. This passage strongly suggests that the Hermeticists had no liturgical customs and rites, but it seems that the Hermeticists did practice magical rituals.
In Asclepius 37, the creation of gods by man is spoken of, namely, in the statues that are in the temples:
‘Because our skeptical ancestors erred greatly in their opinion of the gods and gave no attention to worship and divine religion, they invented an art by which they could create gods. To this discovery they added a complementary power drawn from the nature of the cosmos, making the two work together. Since they could not make souls they summoned the souls of demons or angels and implanted them into images with sacred and divine rites. By means of these they were able to create idols having both good and evil powers.
So, in the hermetic texts, we do not find liturgical rituals, but we do find magic. This is also evident in the Initiation into the Eighth and Ninth heavenly spheres.
The beautiful Prayer of Thanksgiving that Hermes and his disciples say and that concludes the Asclepius has been handed down as a separate text in Codex VI by Nag Hammadi. In addition, the text is preserved in Greek as part of a larger prayer in a magical papyrus (the Papyrus Mimaut, now in the Louvre).
After this prayer of thanksgiving, Hermes and his followers eat a vegetarian meal, “a pure meal, without meat” (Asclepius 41), or “sacred bloodless food” (NHC VI, 65, 6-7). This suggests that the Hermeticists met and shared a vegetarian meal.
There is no reason to suppose that this shared meal did not happen in real life, for this was a common practice in ancient times. Each group that gathered around a master, whether a philosophical or religious leader, held joint meetings and meals. It would have been very strange if the Hermeticists had not done this.
Two Kinds of God Experience
In Hermeticism we come across two paths or stages of knowing God:
- Through the contemplation of the cosmos that makes us know the invisible God
- Through initiation into the Celestial Mysteries.
The idea that we can come to know God through the cosmos was common in Greek philosophy, and this might give the impression that the Hermetists here were simply following a Greek philosophical conception.
They emphasized, however, that mere reason alone was insufficient for this and that the mind needs divine enlightenment. Corpus Hermeticum V, which is entirely devoted to the proposition that the invisible God becomes visible in creation, places a heavy emphasis on this:
My son, Tat, pray first to the Lord and Father; he is single, but not the One, apart from whom is the One. Pray that through grace you will be able to perceive God as so great that even just one ray of Him may shine in your Nous. For pure perception perceives the unmanifest,as it is itself also unmanifest. If you are strong enough, He will appear to the eye of Nous, 0 Tat. For the Lord appears in His bounty throughout the whole universe.CH V, 2
Hermetic literature is ultimately concerned with only one thing: the glorification of and union with God, the source of the All. According to the Hermetic sources, this unification can be realized in two ways:
- The first is an overwhelming cosmic experience consisting of a coincidence with total reality as the totality of the divine, even as God himself.
- The second goes through a path of degrees of initiation that culminates in an absorption with God in the supra-cosmic world.
A Cosmic Experience
According to CH XI.18, God is a spiritual (non-)being who encompasses the All and is himself limited by nothing:
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.CH XI.18
Next, we have a well-known philosophical comparison; that of the mind of man with the mind of God. The text continues CH XI.19.
Consider this yourself. Command your soul to go anywhere, and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and again it is there at once, not as if it had gone from place to place but was already there.
This is something that people in ancient times pondered with amazement: you think of something and then you are there. You think of the extremes of the earth, India to the east and the ocean to the west, and your mind is there, in a flash. Our soul reaches all parts of the cosmos:
Order it to fly up to heaven and it will need no wings, nor will anything impede it, neither the fire of the sun, nor the ether, nor the whirlwind, nor the other heavenly bodies, but cutting through them all it will soar up to the last body.
And if you wish to break through all this and to contemplate what is beyond (if there is anything beyond the cosmos), it is in your power. See what power you have and what speed! You can do all these things and yet God cannot?
Until now this reasoning still fits entirely within Greek philosophy: the contemplation of the cosmos and of the miracle of man leads to a knowledge of God. But then the Hermeticist suddenly makes a leap into an entirely different dimension, the natural-philosophical consideration becomes the stepping stone to a deeply religious experience, CH XI.20:
Reflect on God in this way as having all within Himself as ideas: the cosmos, Himself, the whole. If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand Him. Like is understood by like. Grow to immeasurable size. Be free from every body, transcend all time. Become eternity and thus you will understand God. Suppose nothing to be impossible for yourself. Consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything: all arts, sciences and the nature of every living creature.
Become higher than all heights and lower than all depths. Sense as one within yourself the entire creation: fire, water, the dry and the moist. Conceive yourself to be in all places at the same time:in earth, in the sea, in heaven; that you are not yet born, that you are within the womb, that you are young, old, dead; that you are beyond death. Conceive all things at once: times, places, actions, qualities and quantities; then you can understand God.CH XI.20
Rational thinking is transcended here and passes into a mystical experience. The Hermeticist describes a simultaneous presence in all things, a profound connection with all that exists. It is the experience of omnipresence in the cosmos, just as God is omnipresent.
God is in everything and the All is in God; He is the All. The cosmic experience of oneness with the All is thus an experience of oneness with God, a sinking into or merging with God.
The same mystical experience is described in CH XIII, the famous Hermetic treatise on rebirth. Hermes explains to his son Tat that rebirth is a mystical experience, through which one becomes a different person. He tells what happened to himself, CH XIII, 3:
What shall I say, my son? I have only this to tell: I see within me a formless vision born by the mercy of God. I have come out of my former self into an immortal body. I am not now what I was before. For I have been born in Nous. Such a thing is not taught, nor can it be seen by the physical body. So I have no interest in my former physical form, for I am without color and cannot be touched or measured; I am a stranger to these. Now you see me with your eyes, as something which you understand through body and sight, but I am not now beheld with these eyes, O son.CH XIII
At the request of Tat, who longs to undergo this rebirth as well, Hermes Trismegistus then explains what is necessary for this: Tat must concentrate on himself, empty himself, cease all perception, and cleanse himself of all the torments that material reality inflicts on him.
These torments are described as twelve evil spirits. They are unconsciousness, sorrow, uncontrollability, covetousness, unrighteousness, greed, lying, envy, craftiness, wrath, hot temper, and malice.
The new birth is initiated by the expulsion of the twelve evil spirits. This requires an attitude of silence and openness, CH XIII.8:
For the rest, be still, O son, and keep silence; thus God’s mercy for us shall not cease. Rejoice now, O son, being thoroughly cleansed by the powers of God, you are thus united with the Logos.CH XIII.8
Those spiritual Powers are ten positive forces: knowledge of God, joy, self-control, willpower, righteousness, generosity, truthfulness, happiness, light, and life. The arrival of these positive forces signifies the rebirth, CH XIII.10:
You know now, O son, the manner of rebirth. And with the arrival of these ten, spiritual birth is complete and it drives out the twelve, and by this birth we have become divine. Whoever, then, by God’s mercy attains a divine birth is freed from the bodily senses and is made whole by these powers. He knows himself and rejoices.CH XIII.10
He who attained a “divine birth” knows himself. This is characteristic of both Gnostic mysticism and Hermeticism. Self-knowledge is God-knowledge: he who knows himself knows God; he who knows God, thus, knows himself. Those are two sides of the same coin.
Immediately after that, Tat speaks and describes how he feels born again and what kind of religious experience he has, CH XIII.11:
O. Father, I have been made steadfast through God; I now see not with the eyes, but by the operation of spiritual energy in the powers. I am in heaven, in earth, in water, in air; I am in living creatures and in plants; I am in the womb, before the womb, after the womb. I am present everywhere.CH XIII.11
Here, as in CH XI, the Hermetic mystic has an experience of omnipresence in all facets of reality, just as God is omnipresent in all that exists. And thus it is also the experience of a coincidence with and absorption in God, the source of the All.
Initiation Into the Eighth and Ninth Heavenly Spheres
In addition to the experience of becoming one with total reality, the Hermetic texts also speak of a process of initiation, which is described as an ascent through the heavenly spheres.
The cosmic experience of rebirth, according to CH XIII, happens on an individual basis under the guidance of a teacher. Initiation into the eighth and ninth spheres of heaven presupposes the existence of a community into which one is received. In this ritual, the teacher also has a much more active role as an initiator.
In the Coptic Initiation Into the Eighth and Ninth Heavenly Spheres, there is a path of initiation of seven degrees. The Hermetic disciple must go through it before he arrives at the direct encounter with the divine in the eighth and ninth heavens.
Probably the first seven degrees of initiation are linked to the celestial spheres of the seven planets. According to the ancient worldview, the eighth heaven is the sphere of the fixed stars; above is the divine world.
The first book of the Corpus Hermeticum (CH I), the Poimandres, also knows this ascent through the spheres of the seven planets to the eighth and ninth heaven, but then as an event that takes place after death. The Poimandres makes use of the representation of the astral body, which the soul would have put on during its descent to Earth.
We encounter this conception, both, in later Platonism and in Gnosticism. So it is not an idea that lends itself exclusively to Gnostic thought, as is often thought. The Poimandres does, though, adhere to the Gnostic view that they are bad qualities adopted by the soul on its descent from the seven planetary spheres.
This descent in the Poimandres is assumed, but not mentioned. It is, however, told in detail how the soul returns its bad qualities to the planets during its journey upwards through the planetary spheres. The Poimandres then continues, CH I.26:
‘Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming. Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice. Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God. This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.CH I.26
So the representation is that the soul in the eighth sphere of heaven is united with – and becomes equal to – the spiritual beings already there. In that eighth sphere, they hear the sweet song with which the Powers in the ninth sphere sing God’s praise. To it, the souls finally ascend and thus they come “into God” and “become God.” So they do not become a god, but they become one with God.
Although the Poimandres describes this as a post-mortem experience, something that takes place after death, it seems strongly that the later Hermeticists interpreted it as an ecstatic experience that can also be experienced during life.
Thus in CH XIII.15 Tat asks his father to reveal to him the hymn that he had heard the Powers sing in the eighth heaven. Hermes agrees but says he cannot go beyond what Poimandres had revealed to him.
The Hermetists were therefore convinced that what would actually happen to the soul after death, the ascent to the divine world, could already be experienced in the present through initiation into the Hermetic mysteries.
The Initiation into the eighth and ninth heavenly spheres has shed a surprising new light on this Hermetic initiation. What is constantly suggested in other Hermetic tracts is here explicitly stated: the spiritual formation of the pupil is a staged process, progressing through degrees of initiation.
The first seven degrees lead the student to a pious and righteous life. This is expressed in a joint prayer of Hermes and the initiate, in which they say, among other things, NHC VI, 56, 22-57, 3:
Lord, grant us wisdom from your power that reaches us, so that we may describe to ourselves the vision of the eighth and the ninth. We have already advanced to the seventh since we are pious and walk in your law. And your will we fulfill always. For we have walked in your way, and we have renounced [evil?], so that your vision may come. Lord, grant us the truth in the image. Allow us through the spirit to see the form of the image that has no deficiency, and receive the reflection of the pleroma from us through our praise.NHC VI, 56, 22-57, 3
What the first stages of initiation entailed is not stated. Elsewhere in this writing, it appears that the pupil had to study hermetic books. Processing that, has certainly been part of the cascading ascent.
What certainly also belonged to it was an impeccable life, because a life according to God’s will and law is a condition for reaching the seventh stage. That was undoubtedly a life of asceticism and austerity.
After the prayer, Hermes says:
Let us embrace each other affectionately, my son. Rejoice over this! For already from them the power, which is light, is coming to us.NHC VI, 57, 26-30
The call to lovingly embrace each other after prayer points to a hermetic ritual. Even after the Prayer of Thanksgiving in NHC VI.7, Hermes and his disciples embrace each other. In the corresponding text at the end of the Asclepius, this usage is omitted. In the Eighth and Ninth Heavenly Spheres, this ritual embrace happens just before the actual initiation.
After the prayer, there follows a dialogue between Hermes and the disciple about the spiritual experience that the latter receives. Unfortunately, the text has some gaps on this point, so it is not entirely certain who is saying what. It seems that it is the disciple who followed it exclaims in NHC VI, 57, 31-58, 17:
For I see! I see indescribable depths. How shall I tell you, my son? […] from the […] the places. How shall I describe the universe? I am Nous, and I see another Nous, the one that moves the soul! I see the one that moves me from pure forgetfulness. You give me power! I see myself! I want to speak! Fear restrains me. I have found the beginning of the power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning. I see a fountain bubbling with life. I have said, my son, that I am Nous. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Nous, understand.NHC VI, 57, 31-58, 17
This mystical outburst is the reflection of an authentic religious experience. The experience is too great for words. The mystic wants to speak but is restrained by reverent fear. The sacred attracts and frightens! In the end, only silence remains.
The latter gives Hermes reason to notice that the souls and the angels who are in the eighth sphere also silently sing their hymns to God. He urges the initiate to sing in silence as well.
It should be clear that the Hermetica is not just about religiously colored Greek philosophical reflections, as is often suggested, but about real mysticism and authentic mystical ecstasy. In the hymn of NHC VI, 60, 17-61, 2 we see this well:
I will offer up the praise in my heart, as I pray to the end of the universe and the beginning of the beginning, to the object of man’s quest, the immortal discovery, the begetter of light and truth, the sower of reason, the love of immortal life. No hidden word will be able to speak about you, Lord. Therefore, my mind wants to sing a hymn to you daily. I am the instrument of your spirit; Nous is your plectrum. And your counsel plucks me. I see myself! I have received power from you. For your love has reached us.NHC VI, 60, 17-61, 2
Teaching and Mystical Experiences
Various mystical experiences are recorded in the Hermetic texts, possibly for discussion and elucidation in meetings of Hermeticists and to serve as a subject of meditation.
By capturing the Hermetic rituals in text form, the Hermetic authors act as mystagogues and the reader as the initiator. By reading the description of a spiritual experience, we identify with the one who has this experience and become part of it ourselves.
By reading the ritual and the experience, by meditating on it, we are lifted up as it were. The word (logos), in the form of the written word, realizes this inner transformation so long as God wills it and if the reader has sufficiently turned away from the world.
So, in Hermetic spirituality, the Logos is simultaneously the teacher and the studied.