Who is Agathos Daimon – the teacher of Hermes?
Agathos Daimon is a very interesting figure in the hermetic texts. Is he a snake-god? Is he the father or teacher of Hermes? Let’s take a deep dive into this mysterious, but crucial figure in the Hermetica.
The Egyptian Agathos Daimon
In Egypt, Agathos Daimon was syncretized with Shay/Pshai- the divinity of one’s fate. But Agathos Daimon was also associated with Kamephis or Kmêph.
Agathos Daimon was seen in Egypt as a wise teacher. It is he who teaches Osiris. In the stories, Agathos Daimon is always the teacher and never the student. The only time such a thing could be implied is in the Egyptian Hermetic text the Korē Kosmou.
In Stobaeus Fragment 23 (the first part of the Korē Kosmou) Kamephis, who we can equate with Agathos Daimon, “chanced to hear [these teachings] from [the primordial] Hermes the recorder of all deeds”. But this mention does not need to indicate that he was a student, since he “chanced to hear” the teachings of Hermes.
Kamephis (Egyptian Km-atef) is variously spelled in Greek sources. According to Plutarch, “Kneph” was honored in Egyptian Thebes (Luxor) as an “unborn and immortal” god. The Hellenistic Oracle of the Potter identifies “Knephis” with Agathos Daimon (a serpent deity of Alexandria). Philo of Byblos claimed that the Phoenicians identify the Egyptian “Kneph” with Agathos Daimon.
Agathos Daimon the Snake-god
Snakes were a common symbol of Agathos Daimon, both in Egypt as well as in Greece. Like we mentioned above, there is Kamephis the father of Isis in the Korē Kosmou, or Kmeph/Kematef, who although not described in that text as such, is historically a serpent-god (and a primordial one of Theban cosmology). He also appears in the Greek Magical Papyri, and is even perhaps the originator of the Ouroboros symbolism.
Read more about the Ouroboros here
Agathos Daimon the Father of Hermes
Agathos Daimon means “The Good Daemon.” Cyril of Alexandria cites a Discourse to Asclepius in which Osiris addresses the “greatest Good Demon” (megiste Agathos Daimon), also calling him trismegiste (“thrice-greatest”) Agathos Daimon. In a letter that Syncellus ascribes to Manetho he writes: “He (Manetho) addressed himself to the same king Philadelphus, Ptolemy II, in his Book of Sothis, writing as follows”:
“Letter of Manetho of Sebennytos to Ptolemy Philadelphus.Book of Sothis
To the great and revered king Ptolemy Philadelphus, Manetho the high priest and scribe of the holy shrines in Egypt, by race a man of Sebennytos yet dwelling at Heliopolis, greetings to my master Ptolemy! We consider it necessary, greatest king, to investigate all those matters about which you willed. You have searched out the future happenings in the cosmos. As you ordered me, I will divulge to you the holy books written by my forefather Hermes Thrice Great which I learned (by heart) from the stelae located in the Seriadic land. They were inscribed in a sacred language and hieroglyphic characters by Thoth, the first Hermes, and translated after the Flood from the sacred language into the Greek tongue [with hieroglyphic characters]. They were recorded in books by the son of Agathos Daimon, namely the second Hermes, father of Tat, in the inner shrines of Egypt’s sanctuaries.”
The Hermetic scholar Festugiere makes this pseudonymous report the basis of a genealogy wherein an elder Hermes (who is maybe the god Thoth) fathers Agathos Daimon, who is the father of the younger Hermes, called Trismegistus, who in turn is the father of Tat.
The father of Hermes was Agathos Daimon, but often the name “father” was also used for a spiritual guide; just like “son” or “daughter” was used for spiritual students. Maybe in the case of Hermes Trismegistus, Agathos Daimon was both his father and his spiritual guide.
Agathos Daimon the Teacher of Hermes Trismegistus
Like Cyril of Alexandria, the ancient writer Isidorus also uses “great, great, and most great” to describe the greatness of Agathos Daimon. The title trismegistos only later is famously applied to “thrice-greatest” Hermes.
The great Hermes Trismegistus seems to speak of the thrice-great Agathos Daimon as his own spiritual master in Corpus Hermeticum XII. The description may be more significant than has been previously realized:
“he alone … as a first-born God [hōs prōtogonos theos] truly beheld the All and spoke divine words [to panta katidōn theious logous ephthegxato].”CH XII.8
Agathos Daimon often spoke about the noetic unity of the all, but to Hermes’ deep regret he never put his words down in writing. Thus the anonymous author of this treatise presents him as a human being whom he used to know, whose words carried very great authority, but who presumably is no longer alive.
The formulation “first-born God” suggests that Hermes thought of Agathos Daimon as the very first human being to ever be reborn divine and “become the aiōn,” thereby gaining the ability to see all things as they appear in God’s own incorporeal imagination (that is, to “truly behold the All”).
This would make Agathos Daimon the predecessor of both Hermes and Tat, an ideal model of spiritual accomplishment. Agathos Daimon would be an excellent candidate for the original founder and first herald of the Hermetic community. In ancient sources we also encounter the intriguing reference to “the adepts of Agathos Daimōn” (οἱ Ἀγαθοδαιμονῖται).
Further support for the conjecture that Agathos Daimon and not Hermes Trismegistus was the first teacher of Mankind comes from a passage in al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik’s 11th century collection of wise sayings:
“Hermes of the Hermeses was born in Egypt, in the city of Memphis there. In Greek he is “Irmīs,” and then it was pronounced “Hirmīs.” The meaning of “Irmīs” is “Mercury.” He was also named, upon him be peace, “Trismīn”, among the Greeks; among the Arabs, “Idrīs”; among the Hebrews, “Enoch.” He is the son of Jared, son of Mahala’il, son of Cainan,Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik, Selection of Wise Sayings (Muḫtār al-hikam)
son of Enosh, son of Seth, son of Adam, upon them be peace. He was before the great deluge that inundated the world, that is, the first deluge. After it, there was another deluge that inundated the people of Egypt only. In the beginning of his career, he was a student of Agathos Daimon the Egyptian. Agathos Daimon was one of the prophets of the Greeks and the Egyptians; he is for them the second Ūrānī, and Idrīs is the third Ūrānī, upon him be peace… Hermes left Egypt and went around the whole earth. He returned to Egypt and God raised him to Himself there. God the Exalted said, “And We raised him to a high place.” That was after (he had lived) eighty-two years.”
Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik described Hermēs Trismegistus as being the student/successor of (a mortal) Agathos Daimon, himself being the student/successor of Seth, son of Adam.
Agathos Daimon appears in several other Hermetic fragments that are preserved with minimal variants in two Christian treatises: a discussion of the Trinity attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the Alexandrian exegete Didymus the Blind, and Cyril of Alexandria’s polemic against the emperor Julian.
We are told here that in three otherwise unknown discourses to Asclepius, Hermes relates how somebody (possibly “one of the ministers of the sanctuary in Egypt”) once posed Agathos Daimon a question, in response to which he spoke about the universal Spirit (Pneumatos) on which the universe depends. While this Spirit carries all things, keeps them alive, and provides them with nourishment, it is still not the ultimate reality.
“Why then, greatest Agathos Daimon, is the Word invoked with this name (‘true son’) by the lord of all?” he (Agathos Daimon) replied: “I mentioned this in the preceding discourses and you have not understood. The nature of his intelligible Word is a generative and creative nature. This is, as it were, his power to engender or his nature or his character – call it whatever you want to call it. Just keep this alone in mind, that he is perfect in a perfect being and issued from a perfect being he produces, creates and brings to life perfect blessings. Since, then, he is of such a nature, he is rightly called by this title.”The Word as True Son
The universal Spirit depends upon “the holy fountain [tēs hagias pēgēs] eternally existing as a helper to spirits and a source of life for all [zōēs apasin aei huparchon], while yet being one.” The Christian author then directly quotes again:
“[I]t is not possible to deliver such mysteries to the uninitiated. Just listen with your nous: there existed one single noetic light prior to the noetic light, and it is forever the nous of the luminous nous, and it was nothing else than its unity. Although existing eternally in it, it eternally contains everything by its own nous and light and pneuma. … Outside of this one there is no God, no angel, no daimon, nor anything else [ouk ousia tis allē]. For he is Lord of all, and Father, and God, and source [pēgē], and life, and power, and light, and nous, and Pneuma, and everything is in him and under him.”
Given the way the fragment is presented, the hermetic scholar Wouter Hanegraaff assumes in his monumental work “Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination” that these words were attributed not to Hermes Trismegistus but to his teacher Agathos Daimon.
Read our review of the book here
A Nous Above Nous
According to Wouter Hanegraaff the special importance of the quoted passage above lies in the fact that it focuses not on the divine Nous that dominates almost all of the literature in which Hermes plays the central role, but on a level that is even beyond it.
The Nous itself comes from an ultimate “fountain” or “source” that is described, no fewer than three times, in deliberately paradoxical terms: it is the unique “noetic light prior to the noetic light,” “the nous of the luminous Nous,” and it “contains everything by its own nous and light and pneuma.” In short, there is a Nous beyond the Nous; something “hypernoetic”. Agathos Daimon says that in an ultimate sense, absolutely nothing truly exists except this single (hyper)noetic source alone – “no God, no angel, no daimon, nor anything else.”“Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination” by Wouter Hanegraaff
Agathos Daimon as the First Teacher/Herald
Many scholars have decided that the teacher/herald in CH I Poimandres is Hermes Trismegistus, although no name is mentioned in that text. They base their conclusion upon two other hermetic texts, namely CH XIII and XII, because in both these texts Hermes mentions Poimandres or a “shepherd.”
In CH IV Hermes mentions a Herald sent to mankind to teach us about Nous and the Way of Immortality:
“He filled a great bowl with Nous and sent it down, and he appointed a herald to make this announcement to the hearts of men…”CH IV
This seems to indicate that Hermes is not the herald as he mentions the mysterious figure in third-person singular, and nowhere else in the Hermetic texts does Hermes describe himself in the third-person singular.
So, who can the mysterious herald in CH I and IV who gains the illuminating vision and spreads the wisdom of Nous be?
In the article we propose that this herald in CH IV but also the visionary in CH I is Agathos Daimon. Why? Because as read above Agathos Daimon was by many seen as the teacher of Hermes:
“Let me tell you what I have always heard Agathos Daimon say. If he had set this forth in writing, he would have greatly helped the race of men, for he alone, my son, as the firstborn god, looking down upon all things, truly spoke divine words.”CH XII.8
The mysterious visionary in CH I also proclaims wisdom and does not write anything down. And not Hermes, but Agathos Daimon “truly spoke divine words.” Just like the visionary and first teacher for Mankind in CH I does.
The Animals of Thoth
Possible further evidence that the Herald in CH I is Agathos Daimon and not Hermes, might be shown on a statue from 1st century AD that can be seen in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam (see image right). The statue is of Thoth as a baboon with a snake on his head. On the foot of the statue is an ibis.
This statue could be a representation of the genealogy of divine wisdom. From Agathos Daimon (who as we read above was associated with a snake-god) to Thoth (who was described as a baboon) to finally the human teacher Hermes Trismegistus (who was described as a human with the head of an Ibis).
In CH I Poimandres shares the following secret with the person that would become His herald. Poimandres says:
“This is the mystery which has been kept secret until this day. For Nature, united with Man, has brought forth a wonder of wonders. Man, as I told you, was of the Father and of spirit and had the nature of the harmony of the seven spheres. So Nature did not wait, but immediately brought forth seven men corresponding to the natures ‘of the seven powers beyond gender and sublime.”
Then in CHXII.1 Hermes says the following to Tat:
“Nous, O Tat, comes from God’s essence, if indeed He has essence. What sort of thing this essence is, He alone knows fully. In fact, Nous is not separate from God’s true essence, but is, as it were, spread out from it just like the light of the sun. In men this Nous is God; thus some men are gods, and then humanity is akin to divinity; in fact, Agathos Daimon called gods immortal men, and men mortal gods. But in irrational creatures there is just nature.”CHXII.1
This is the mystery that the herald learns from Nous in CH I, namely that gods are immortal men, and men are mortal gods.
We therefore propose that Agathos Daimon, the “first-born god”, is the mysterious visionary in CH1. And this anonymous person became the first teacher/herald. Agathos Daimon, through the vision of Poimandres, became the first human reborn as a god. And as the firstborn god he became the herald that would teach mankind the ways of immortality.
What About Corpus Hermeticum XIII?
Arguing against the narrator of CH I being Agathos Daimon is CH XIII.15, where Hermes remarks that it was Poimandres who “transmitted to him” the mysteries (and “no more than has been written down”). This is the only other use of the name “Poimandres” in the Corpus Hermeticum besides CH I itself. Michael Psellos, writing in the 11th century CE, also says that Hermes was taught by Poimandres.
Compared to all the evidence presented in this article, these two mentions are not very compelling arguments. That Hermes was taught by Poimandres/Nous is not unique. Being taught by Poimandres/Nous is normal for anybody when they become an enlightened Hermetic master. It happens during the Rebirth and during the ascension to the Eighth and Ninth spheres.
Being taught by Nous does not necessarily make one a divine herald of Nous. Hermes is not the herald, but of course he has made contact with Nous, as mentioned in CH XIII, as all Hermetic mystics are probably taught by Nous.
That fact that Agathos Daimon was the father or spiritual teacher of Hermes Trismegistus was well known in antiquity. Hermes himself describes Agathos Daimon as his teacher and he mentions someone else as being the herald for Mankind.
Both in Egyptian religion as well as in the Hermetic texts people can become gods and (some) gods are people. Agathos Daimon could have been a human before he became a god.
Receiving the vision in CH I made Agathos Daimon a god and he became the first teacher or herald for Mankind. Hermes might be taught by Poimandres/Nous, but he is not the mysterious ancient herald from CH IV nor the visionary in CH I.
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