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Status of Women in the Hermetica

October 28, 2012

Joyce Pijnenburg recently posted a fantastic article on feminism in the renaissance. Focusing on Cornelius Agrippa, she deftly shows how he advanced a proto-feminist agenda in a time when women had few rights. One thing Pijnenburg remarks on is Agrippa’s use of Hermetic doctrines to support a positive view of womanhood. This is interesting in many ways.

Pijnenburg observes of Agrippa:

Let me start off by citing a passage in which Agrippa praises women on the authority of Hermes Trismegistus. Arguing for the superiority of women’s eloquence, he writes:

What shall we say now of speech, the divine gift which more than anything else renders us superior to the beasts – a gift Hermes Trismegistus believes to be as precious as immortality and Hesiod the best treasure of man? Is not woman more fluent, eloquent, and effusive in speech than man? Did we not first learn to speak from our mothers or from our nurses? Without doubt nature itself, architect of the world, in its far-seeing wisdom toward the human race, has accorded this privilege to the female sex, making it difficult to find anywhere a mute woman. It is certainly beautiful and praiseworthy to surpass men at precisely the point at which humans are particularly superior to all other living creatures [18].

The reference here is to Corpus Hermeticum XII, 12-14, where Hermes Trismegistus teaches his pupil Tat the following:

[T]o mankind – but not to any other mortal animal – god has granted these two things, mind and reasoned speech, which are worth as much as immortality. … If one uses these gifts as he should, nothing will distinguish him from the immortals; instead, when he has left the body, both these gifts will guide him to the troop of the gods and the blessed. … Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul [19].

Pijnenburg conludes, “The Hermetic texts, then, were clearly on Agrippa’s mind while he was writing the Declamation.” And I am not taking issue with this at all. I think Pijnenburg demonstrates clearly that, yes, Agrippa is using the Hermetica to advance a positive portrait of femininity.

While this is extremely progressive of Agrippa, it does make me wonder which Hermetica he was reading as the Hermetic texts themselves do not support this view. In fact, the Hermetica portray exactly the opposite.

What we see here is Agrippa re-purposing the Hermetica to support a feminist perspective. And while I will be the last person to argue with the validity of transvaluation as a strategy, it also completely misreads the Hermetica and its overall derogatory stance on women.

Several Hermetic passages suggest that the authors of the texts did not hold women in high regard. This is implicit in the strong current of dualism which runs throughout the Corpus Hermeticum. Poimandres, the opening text, is a prime example of the dualistic current that runs throughout the treatises.

Wait a sec. Let’s back this up a second and unpack “dualism.” This concept comes from Platonic thought, and is the driving force between ideas which can be contrasted in two parts: black/white, good/evil, and yes, masculine/feminine. What happens in dualism is that the spiritual/mental world is seen as good, whereas the physical/material world is seen as, if not bad, at least a hindrance. This latter view often gets equated with one’s body being a prison, and Plato’s metaphor of the cave is a perfect example of how the physical world is a dark place where reality can only be hinted at due to the shackles of the material realm.

CH IV has a nice example of dualism in action:

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. But those who participate in the gift that comes from god, O Tat, are immortal rather than mortal…Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess minds, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.

(CH IV.5, all emphases mine)

We’ll go into some specific examples of how these ideas relate to gender in a second. But for now it is enough to say that these ideas get extrapolated to gender norms. Men, with all their brainy philosophizing, become equated with these higher mental and spiritual worlds, whereas women, well, they get the rest.

But back to Poimandres. In Poimandres, not only are women equated with this lower, physical world, they are to blame for mankind’s enslavement within it.

Having all authority over the cosmos of mortals and unreasoning animals, the man broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god. Nature smiled for love when she saw him whose fairness brings no surfeit <and> who holds in himself all the energy of the governors and the form of god, for in the water she saw the shape of the man’s fairest form and upon the earth its shadow. When the man saw in the water the form like himself as it was in nature, he loved it and wished to inhabit it; wish and action came in the same moment, and he inhabited the unreasoning form. Nature took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him, for they were lovers.

(C.H. I.14)

Now, I love this passage. I think it is beautiful. The man sees the woman and the physical world, they fall in love with and embrace. If we stop here, it is the perfect formula for a modern rom-com. I can see it now: He was a creature of god, she was a being of nature…Separated by two worlds, they come together against the odds to create…Oh hell no!

They create a prison.

Because of this [union of the divine man with nature], unlike any other living thing on earth, mankind is two-fold—in the body mortal but immortally in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it.

(C.H. I.15)

We see here two ideas. The first is a clear reference to dualism, here depicted in the dual nature of man: part essentially spiritual nature, part physically subject to fate and, ultimately, death. Now, we could do some fancy interpretation here about how the material world isn’t really so bad. You know, Eve eats the apple, but it’s the apple of knowledge, and surely knowledge trumps ignorance. Pijnenburg discusses something similar in her article. Even Plotinus, that rationalist that he was, states that “knowledge of good is sharpened by experience of evil in those incapable of any sure knowledge of evil unless they have experienced it” (Plotinus, 69). In this sense, the physical realm is required to hone the perfection of the soul.

But “Poimandres” does not support this view. The language about the physical world is decidedly pejorative: Nature is a low, unreasoning form and man becomes enslaved in nature. In contrast, the way to know God in the Hermetica is to transcend the physical realm through the reasoning function. In fact, God is often personified as mind in the Hermetica. And it is through this identification with the divine mind that one achieves the opposite of enslavement—liberation. And whose fault is it that humans require this liberation? Certainly not the divine man, with his reasoning faculties which mirror the creator. Nope. It is the temptress nature, in all her feminine, unreasoning glory.

So, yeah, Hermes Trismegistus? Not the ancient world’s biggest feminist.

This is not the only instance of sexism in the Hermetica. Even our most “progressive” Hermetic text, the one which appears to take a positive view of sexuality, still suggests that it is the man, not the woman, who holds the power.

“When each of the two natures pours its issue into the other and one hungrily snatches <love> from the other and buries it deeper, finally at that moment from the common coupling females gain the potency of males and males are exhausted with the lethargy of females.” (Asclepius 21)

While this section can be read as an observation on the divine hermaphrodite reflected in the physical union of man and woman, the language shows that men are indeed in a privileged relationship. This can be seen through how masculine and feminine attributes are exchanged in the sex act. The man is depicted as inherently potent. It is only through the man—specifically, by receiving his sperm—that the women gains any power. And what happens to the man afterwards? The man receives the female attribute of lethargy. Hence, men are depicted as powerful and energetic, the women are sluggish and have no inherent power of their own. This is hardly the stuff of Gloria Steinem. And it is hardly a positive view of femininity.

So while I applaud Agrippa for this creative use of the Hermetica, clearly the Hermetica does not itself take such an enlightened view of women. In trying to change the way women were seen in the renaissance, Agrippa undoubtedly made much out of a text which clearly embodied the opposite view of the one he put forward. Rather than being a text which supports progressive views on gender equality, the dualistic current in the Hermetica consistently portrays the female as subordinate to the male. Far from being an enlightened text, it is the epitome of ancient patriarchy.

Sources:

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

14 Comments
  1. October 28, 2012 1:52 pm

    Reblogged this on Alchemy of the Word.

  2. October 28, 2012 8:07 pm

    Interesting post, but I have to disagree. First, in CH I, humans are only enslaved after the division of the first generation of hermaphrodites into male and female. Before this there are no negative connotations attached to the descent into nature. This is why the union of man and woman is described as a great mystery in the Asclepius; it recreates the original unity. And actually, the passage you cite, Ascl. 21, is most likely corrupt. The Coptic translation, which is closer to the lost Greek original, states that male and female give each other their power, with no reference to any female lethargy. Apparently the Latin translator “improved” his text.
    Elsewhere, in the Hermetic treatise Kore kosmou (SH XXIII) Nature is described as a great divinity, and Isis acts as teacher of her son, Horus.

  3. October 28, 2012 8:34 pm

    yes. yes. yes. Fabulous article. Thank you, Sarah. This one’s a keeper :)

  4. October 28, 2012 8:58 pm

    Hi Christian!

    Actually, I disagree with you! You refer to passage CH I.18. where the rendering into male/female is done by the “counsel of god.” This passage, in fact, makes little or no value judgement on the division of the sexes. In fact, the command to procreate is seen as “holy speech” and this passage contains the key to immortality, i.e. “being mindful”.

    Before this there are no negative connotations attached to the descent into nature.

    I disagree with this. Simply because to take this view is to selectively read the text. There is a clear connection between the descent into nature and man’s enslavement as noted in the passage itself (i.e. Man becomes a slave within the cosmic framework). Unless one can show how being enslaved is a positive attribute, I stand by my observation!

    This is why the union of man and woman is described as a great mystery in the Asclepius; it recreates the original unity.

    Yes, I agree that sex reflects the unity of god. This was stated, yes?

    And actually, the passage you cite, Ascl. 21, is most likely corrupt.Apparently the Latin translator “improved” his text.

    This is interesting. I’d like to know more about this.

    in the Hermetic treatise Kore kosmou (SH XXIII) Nature is described as a great divinity, and Isis acts as teacher of her son, Horus.

    But the Kore Kosmou also discusses the enslavement of souls in the physical body! To wit, before descending into a physical body, the potential souls petition the creator not to damn them as such—

    “Must we quit these vast, effulgent spaces, this sacred sphere, all these splendors of the empyrean and of the happy republic of the Gods, to be precipitated into these vile and miserable abodes?… But Thou, Who drivest us forth, and causest us from so high a seat to descend so low, assign a limit to our sufferings!”

    This is not a positive view of nature—at all! We still have the connotation that the spiritual realm is good, and that physical nature is a lower existence. And I see the Isis/Horus thing as a literary device to advance the narrative of the text. Hermetic texts often have many actors who, in my view, are incidental to the actual teachings advanced in the treatises.

    Cheers!

    Sarah

  5. October 28, 2012 9:02 pm

    Thanks, Peregrin!

  6. October 29, 2012 7:02 am

    Hi Sarah,

    The descent of man happens with the approval of the light-nous, and their union produces a “wonder most wondrous.” The reference to enslavement by fate in §15 is in my view a foreshadowing, since the effect of fate does not set in until after the decree of god, sundering the sexes (§18-19).

    I agree (of course) that earthly existence is said to be something lower than the heavenly one, but can not understand how that makes Hermes a misogynist. I think reading everything in light of dualism, is a poor hermeneutical method. Read Ugo Bianchi on dualism as a dogma-finding device. Tage Petersen wrote an excellent PhD dissertation showing that dualism is a poor heuristic device in reading the Hermetica (though it is in Danish). You can read about the Coptic Asclepius in Mahé’s “Hermès en Haute-Égypte” (vol. 2).

    Christian

  7. October 29, 2012 7:43 am

    Hey Christian,

    Very interesting. And I agree, we should not read everything as dualism, as there is certainly evidence for the whole “multiplicity in the one” in the Hermetica, not to mention a heterogeneity of views within the corpus. And, trust me, I really, really, really, want to see this passage differently. (I will have to think about the ‘foreshadowing’ angle.)

    I think my issue is the way these ideas of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ are personified. (Why is it a divine Man and not a Divine woman breaking through the vault? Why is nature portrayed as a woman?) For me, that is the key to the misogyny in the text. We see later how these ideas of spiritual vs. material are used, for example in Christianity, to exclude women from positions of power and how these ideas of support a structure which privileges men, based on another creation myth, Genesis. (See Tertullian’s views of women, for example.)

    Thank you for these other references. The one by Petersen looks super, super interesting and makes me wish I knew Danish!

    Cheers!

  8. Apophatos permalink
    October 31, 2012 11:19 pm

    Hello Sarah,

    I would like to further Mr Bull’s comment, if I may. While I am sympathetic to the sensitivity that engendered language may reasonably be said to inform a perspective (or even caricature) of a gender, I wonder if there might not be a way of “salvaging” the rhetoric by applying a psychoanalytic critique to a good-faith perspective made from an honest man.

    In this case, a psychoanalytic critique of the engendering of nature/prison/feminine in contrast to logos/authenticity/masculine may lead the reader to learn more about the author than about any real metaphysical structures of the cosmos. It may not be difficult to imagine, for example, a heterosexual male writing these passages, concerned about how the intersection of sexual energy and the infidelity taboo could bring about a strong reaction that would have a not insignificant impact on one’s path towards “goodness” (I’m looking at you, Lancelot). It would be dishonest to lay this problem at the feet of womankind (and there is a significant feminist critique to be made on this point, I admit), but surely a male author could be forgiven for rhetorically oversimplifying an experience of having his eyes, heart, or imagination pulled by women who were not his wife, only to subsequently appreciate the dangers of such a pull, and how such would draw him away from the good.

    In such a context, a hetero male might be excused by seeing women as “unhelpful” in spiritual development insofar as he was unsettled by seeds of infidelity to his own relationship. Depending on whether or not one’s view of psychotherapy lands on the carrot or the stick, I can see equally plausible suggestions to such an author that they “commit to their domestic obligations” or else “join a monastery.” While the courses of action are sound, they simply adjust to the fact that the dilemma is there. If the dilemma is there, then it is worth acknowledging.

    In short, I would also suggest that not all mentions of women or the feminine by men are best interpreted as actually commentary on women or the feminine. They may in fact be articulations of men’s experience of women and the feminine, and so are deserving of a truly emancipated critique.

  9. October 31, 2012 11:56 pm

    Apophatos!!!

    Yes, I agree: the author is revealing their viewpoint. But I don’t think the ‘sexual temptation angle’ is really what’s at play here.

    Although yes, this ‘honest man’ argument is why women can’t lead prayer in some mosques. (Men would be staring at their butts!) It is also the argument responsible for the separation of the sexes in the synagogue.

    Damn, guys, if only you weren’t so tempted by us women we might be able to enjoy things like equality and leadership.

    This argument also assumes that women are A) incapable of similar spiritual dilemmas (because they are irrational!); and B) women are somehow asexual and not given to sexualizing men.

    But, you want a feminist analysis. Here you go:

    I find it funny that, to ‘bail out’ the ‘honest man’ we ascribe the ‘physical world’ to women. When in reality, it seems that it is the male who is experiencing his ‘physical nature’ to the point where it becomes a hindrance! I think psychology has a term for this: it’s called projection!

    Regardless of the author’s feeling towards women, the work evinces an androcentric viewpoint. I don’t think this can really be debated. God is consistently referred to as “father,” or given attributes which are seen a “better” in a Platonic dualistic system. Authorial intention aside, the work still stands as a piece of literature that reinforces these unequal ideas that privileges male experiences. And this, to me, makes the text decidedly not feminist, regardless of any, uh, good intentions.

    Cheers!

  10. Apophatos permalink
    November 9, 2012 11:10 pm

    Hello Sarah,

    I certainly don’t disagree that it is an androcentric perspective and, moreover, one in which the good and the bad are (unfortunately and unjustifiably) engendered. I find myself compelled to note that I find dualisms in general to be useful primarily as heuristic devices that one cannot leave behind quickly enough, and that engendered dualisms which include notions of value run a very real risk of being harmful/hateful to the unfortunate group that finds themselves on the wrong side of the manichean divide.

    Having said that, however, I nevertheless see a conflict between the critique that the text can be both “androcentric” (or any-kind of centric, as perhaps any text will be) and the suggestion that the classification informs in any real way an assessment of the value of the subjects. Is it not the case that any work that is firmly rooted in the distillation of experiences of a particular author will rely upon oversimplification and even objectification of the stepping stones of the narrative? The exercise of distilling the world into archetypes will, perhaps tragically, involve removing individuality, nuance, and subjecthood from the world as the author seeks to articulate a narrative based on the analogies that arise from the author’s own experience with the world. As a result, an androcentric portrayal of women, is not a portrayal of women at all: it is a portrayal of the author.

    Granted, this brings no resolution to the (unfortunately accurate) feminist critique that women’s narratives have been excluded from the canon. That correction, and the metaphysical product that will eventually arise from a properly dialogical (or perhaps multi-logical) context still lies before us. However, insofar as an author’s uncensored, honest, and bona fide experience is articulated, I would suggest it is worthy of consideration. That said, the canon (as feminists rightly point out) is skewed heavily to one side, and the lack of alternative narratives is something between a terrible injustice and uncharted territory.

    Respectfully,

  11. November 9, 2012 11:32 pm

    Having said that, however, I nevertheless see a conflict between the critique that the text can be both “androcentric” (or any-kind of centric, as perhaps any text will be) and the suggestion that the classification informs in any real way an assessment of the value of the subjects.

    I fail to see how it is not a revealing of the subject’s belief- conscious or not. Did we talk about the “Generic Male” yet? Where the assumption of male primacy is taken as a given, but since it is an invisible assumption, it is seen as not being an issue? I would argue that that is what is going on here. Conscious or not, there is a privileging of the masculine, and this reveals a whole lot about the author!

    Is it not the case that any work that is firmly rooted in the distillation of experiences of a particular author will rely upon oversimplification and even objectification of the stepping stones of the narrative?

    I don’t think we are simplifying anything. In fact, I think we are closely analysing the text and looking for nuances that might evince the author’s perspective. These sorts of oppositional themes are strong throughout the Hermetica. For example, there is also an ideological elitism which posits an “us vs. them” worldview. Of course, this is also a manifestation of a dualistic outlook. Therefore, I think they demand an analysis in order to reveal what the Hermetists believed and what sort of worldview they ascribed to.

    The exercise of distilling the world into archetypes will, perhaps tragically, involve removing individuality, nuance, and subjecthood from the world as the author seeks to articulate a narrative based on the analogies that arise from the author’s own experience with the world.

    I don’t think we are talking about archetypes. Again, there are pervasive and persistent worldviews that the hermetic authors (plural) elucidate repeatedly. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY thing they talked about, but that is one dimension of Hermetic thought that’s worthy of analysis.

    An androcentric portrayal of women, is not a portrayal of women at all: it is a portrayal of the author.

    Yes…who does not see women as…being worthy of mention except as a spiritual hindrance. Are you saying this doesn’t say something about the author’s worldview?

    Granted, this brings no resolution to the (unfortunately accurate) feminist critique that women’s narratives have been excluded from the canon.

    Nah, I don’t care about that. It’s antiquity. There wasn’t much equality going on then. But these texts can tell us a lot about WHY there was not so much equality going on.

    Ich auch respectfully.

  12. naomi.ozaniec permalink
    May 5, 2013 9:31 am

    Thoughts from the Hinterland
    by Naomi Ozaniec
    To discover dualism in any spiritual treatise (ancient or modern) is no surprise. Describing the world and our experience of it, in terms of polarised opposites is little more than simple observation. However when these distinctions acquire loaded cultural significance, as invariably happens, especially in areas of sexual power and the politics involved therein, a superstructure of values and judgement gradually accrues.
    Western dualism as a perspective, whether practical, metaphysical, philosophical is based in the common sense observation of daily life in common with the familiar yin/ yang symbolism at the heart of much eastern esotericism. Here, however the terms, ‘masculine’ and, ‘feminine’ seem to have avoided the gender particularisation which has indeed become a strong feature of western history and theology. The reasons for this are doubtless complex but may well be found in the differences between a Christian and non-Christian mindset.
    Dualism as an explanation of the polarised interplay between observed differences carries no intrinsic value judgements. Moreover dualism is always, and can only be, the starting place for the journey of the initiate. From the common perception of duality, unity consciousness will in time prevail, so that all seeming oppositions become reconciled in a third, dare one say, ‘higher,’ perspective, a transcendent and unifying principle. For instance, day and night are reconciled by placing the two phases of darkness and light within one cycle of time. This process of shifting perspectives from the distinctions of observed daily life to the realisation of a deeper unifying concept is at the heart of all esoteric practice. This major breakthrough in conscious perception is represented on the Tree of Life by the Sephirah Tiphareth and an equivalence is plainly stated in the CH in the task of creating mind and opening the eye of the heart. (CH4)
    Dualism is indeed present in the CH but its remedy and antidote, which is the path towards personal gnosis, is the central, underlying and implicit curriculum of the text. The concept or philosophy of dualism does not originate with Plato, nor does it belong to Plato, even if it can be identified in Platonic thought. Plato’s unique contribution, the Theory of Forms and the concept of The Good when coupled with the Hermetic Motto, As Above so Below, clearly states a distinction between the material and the spiritual world. Moreover Plato’s concept of henosis, makes it clear that the journey of the soul is one of descent into incarnation and then through a self-created gnosis, the non-material aspect within human form turns once more to the path of ascent. This template certainly sets up a dynamic between the way of the body and the way of the soul. The attempt to define and describe this interplay will always be fraught, liable to misunderstanding and infinitely accessible to interpretation. We have now ventured into the realm of The Mysteries where the gesture of silence, the finger over the lips, conveys not a secret but a gnosis that cannot be taught or given but may only be self-revealed.
    Plato’s allegory of the cave is cited as one example of the negative view towards the body and the material world. However, it is only possible it to interpret this as an, ‘example of how the physical world is a dark place where reality can only be hinted at due to the shackles of the material realm,’ through a wilful misrepresentation of the text since the intention of the dialogue is unequivocally stated. Set in the form of a dialogue between the figures of Socrates and Glaucon, Plato juxtaposes two concepts, that of an enlightened nature and an unenlightened nature (is this dualism too as it places two ideas side by side for comparison?) Socrates sets the scene, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. This is the stated purpose of the dialogue.
    Firstly the conversation uses allegory; this is a didactic device to prime the reader for a teaching that cannot be conveyed except through the power of symbolic language, much like the parables of Jesus. The allegory unfolds to describe the limited perspective created by a life lived in an underground place where the inhabitants, (later described as prisoners) are restrained by the hands and feet so that they see only the play of shadows cast on a wall.
    Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
    These words are not meant to be read or understood literally. There is nothing even vaguely real about this description, it is an allegory. Its imagery, of chains, limitation and delusion is related to the original statement, to show, in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened. The allegory of the cave is not about the juxtaposition of soul and body, the spiritual and the material but about two different states of mind which might be generally described as ignorance, a state of mind prior to gnosis and illumination, a state of mind expanded and universalised by gnosis. The shackles, chains and the other limitations of the allegory are those of the mind. Since the CH presents a curriculum with mind as its central focus, this should be no surprise! Before considering the Hermetic view of mind, I would like to conclude this section by noting that placing Plato’s Cave and the extract from the CH close together, implicitly suggests that the chosen extract is even describing the shackled inhabitants of the allegorical cave. These are however two quite distinct and unrelated texts.
    The 4th discourse between Hermes and the disciple Tat focuses on the subject of mind and thereby provides a series of insights into the Hermetic view. The selected extracts deserve their full context. The discussion arises when Tat asks, ‘Why did not God impart mind to all?’ This opening question merely begs further questions, if God did not impart mind to all, who then has mind? Also if God did not impart mind to all, how then is mind to be gained or obtained? The ensuing conversation answers this question, it is not a description of the inhabitants of Plato’s cave. When Hermes states that, ’mind is as a prize that human souls may win’ this orientates the reader towards the process of personal transformation. Transformation is a vital key to all esoteric practice. Antoine Faivre cites this as the fourth criteria for defining esotericism, it can be defined as a deep and lasting change of being as a result of illuminated knowledge.
    Hermes uses a unique image to explain where mind is to found. The CH says that God filled a great container with mind and sent it down to earth and he appointed a Herald and bade him make a proclamation to the hearts of men. The Herald says, ‘Dip yourself in this basin, if you can, recognising for what purpose you have been made, and believing that you shall ascend to Him who sent the cup down.’ We are yet again in the domain of The Mysteries where symbol and metaphor point the way towards a non-literal truth. Accordingly, those who, ‘dipped themselves in the bath of mind, these men get a share of gnosis, they receive mind and so become complete men.’ However,’ there are other men who possess speech but have not received mind also.’
    It is this group that are described in the extract:
    • 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 other words this group are deaf to the proclamation and are as mortal men. Lacking a sense of purpose, they find themselves caught in the grip of anger and greed, admiring what is worthless, they are caught up in bodily pleasures and believe that life is designed for such things. And it is in this context that we hear the words:
    Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess minds, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.
    In its full context these words extoll the would-be-initiate to move beyond the lure of bodily pleasures and desires, in other words to rise above materialism beginning with the apparent mortality of the body. This injunction is not unique, in other esoteric traditions the seeker is asked to close the gates of the senses in order to begin the work of transforming the mind. Moreover the esoteric path is never one of literalism but of symbol, allegory and meaningful story. Jesus says that, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Does this literally mean that all wealthy men (but not wealthy women) are excluded from the kingdom of God. Jesus also said that no man may serve God and mammon. In the same way Hermes says it is not possible to attach yourself to both things mortal and things divine. So the quote from the CH used to support hatred of the body is not an injunction to hate the body even though the words, ’body’ and, ’hate’ appear in the same sentence. The implicit meaning of the phrase is a call to turn away from the limited identity of the body and join the company of those, ‘dipping in the waters of mind.’ Even the sentence has its own context and the words, ‘ hate’ and ‘body’ are juxtaposed with love, yourself, possess mind, share and way to learn. Unless you first hate your body, my child, you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess minds, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn.
    The italics are all mine. And if the phrase it still abhorrent, merely look around and ask whether a culture obsessed by the body in shape, appearance and weight along, with all the accoutrements of the body-beautiful, is ready to view the universe with wondering awe or merely fixated on its own navel!
    But now back to Poimandres. This opening book of the CH deals with the processes of creation, in this capacity it can be seen, in purpose at least, to approximate to the first book of a more familiar sacred text. Its message however is utterly different, here Mind is the first God, from which the creative word and light ensue. This is the Nous a state of existence which precedes the appearance of the physical world. Uniquely the CH states that the primal mind which is both life and light, ‘gave birth to another mind, the maker of things’ and this mind created The Seven Administrators whose task is destiny. In other words these seven mediate between the archetype and the form, bringing to appearance the physical matter of Nature.
    This primal schema is quite unlike the familiar biblical account. However it is in perfect accord with both Qabalistic and Platonic philosophy. Qabalah eloquently displays the processes of creation through its own unique visual symbology, the Tree of Life. Here physical form appears as the concluding and final in a series of emanations, (Sephirah – Sephiroth) each proceeding from the previous one. The first point of manifestation, emerges from the unmanifest, much like the Big Bang. But this is indeed to digress.
    The Tree of Life presents a successively hierarchical description of the processes of creation utterly in keeping with the words of Hermes, ie. that the first Mind creates a second Mind and this Mind creates the Seven Administrators. Incidentally, excluding the three emanations of the Supernal Triangle, which though implicit in the processes of creation are not of physical creation, leaves seven creative powers. However being placed lower down on the Tree, these seven are all implicit in the world that we might recognize. Visually on The Tree of Life, Malkuth, The Kingdom is ‘underneath’, ‘lower’ or ‘down’ from the prime archetypal template expressed as the Supernal Trinity. Now to counteract the tendency to impute value to intrinsically neutral terms such as higher and lower, Qabalah reminds its readership that All the Sephiroth are Equally Holy. This caution is intended to sidestep a spurious interpretation and prevent the reader from falling into the trap of dualism! The inherent unity of The Tree of Life is never in question.
    The intrinsically hierarchical dynamic between the spiritual world of archetypal potentiality and the appearance of physical form, is also in keeping with Plato’s Theory of Forms which give rise to Physical counterparts in the manifest world. So we find a Concordance, the fifth of Faivre’s criteria between Plato, Qabalah and the Corpus Hermeticum.
    Returning now to The Poimandres and the Hermetic view of creation, mind gives birth to a series of increasingly more dense emanations, so that the archetypal eventually takes on appearance in the downward-tending elements of nature. The CH clearly states that the downward-tending elements of nature were left devoid of reason, and it is here in these few word that the inherent mysogeny of the Hermetica is laid bare! A full reading of the Hermetica and indeed of Platonic philosophy shows quite clearly that reason is a central, indeed a vital part of creation but it is given to human nature alone. ‘Divine man’ has, ‘reasoning faculties which mirror the creator.’ It is through the innate gift of reason that human nature is equipped for henosis the ascent of the soul. Nature is not imbued with reason, should it be? Reason is uniquely given to humanity, it is the tool through which mind is created.
    So now we must examine the offensive word, ‘downward.’ In the Qabalah, Binah is called The Superior Mother, Malkuth, (the Kingdom) is called The Inferior Mother. Is this a matter for offence for the politically correct or a cause to impute an intrinsic mysogeny here. No, this is the language of the mystical. Binah is the superior mother because, ‘she’ is the archetype of form, ‘she’ is the mother to the mother of appearance. Malkuth, the kingdom is the Inferior Mother because, ‘she,’ is the manifest world and in receipt of the blessings of the Superior Mother. This physical domain emergence as a final emanation of non-corporeal forces, the kingdom, this planet earth cannot give rise to anything outside itself. But Binah, The Superior Mother is the template for all worlds and gives rise to the appearance of all form, that is, all worlds, the countless stars and planets unknown to us. So the words, ‘superior’ and, ‘inferior’ do not carry the usual everyday meaning
    In the same way, the word, ’downward’ carries no perjorative intent. From a Hermetic, Qabalistic and Platonic perspective the appearance of Nature is derived through a hierarchical sequence, and if the word hierarchy now causes offence we might even substitute the neutral term, morphic field. The world of Nature known to us is not visible or present at the Big Bang, though its appearance might be said to be implicit within it. This earth appears later in time, eons after the cosmic explosion, yet it is both connected and dependent on it. It is the result not the cause of the principles of manifestation, which we might understand as the laws of physics.
    The Tree of Life displays creation as a series of emanations each increasingly downwards from the other. No pejorative intent is implied or intended and none should be taken by the mystically attuned mind. However to the dualistic mind, ‘The language about the physical world is decidedly pejorative: Nature is a low, unreasoning form and man becomes enslaved in nature.’ Yet the CH clearly states nature’s purpose as the, ‘force by which God works; in subjection to necessity and her work is extinction and renewal.’ Moreover Nature is a continuation of God’s purpose and a reflection of, ‘that beauteous world.’ This is hardly a, ‘prison house’ and finally, ‘Nature, mingled in marriage with Man, brought forth a marvel most marvellous, ‘the continuing work of creation.
    In the unfolding of creation,’ Mind the father of all is life and light gave birth to Man, a being like himself.’ There is no reason to suggest that statement is one of gender but of generality. In the next step, Mankind took station in the makers sphere and observed the things made by his brother… and willed to make things for his own part… and his father gave permission….. and the Administrators took delight in him and each of them gave him a share of his own nature.
    Having been gifted by the co-creative powers of the Seven Administrators, he looked down through the structure of the heavens, having broken through the sphere, he saw, the downward-tending tending Nature, ‘the beautiful form of God.’ This paragraph presents the unwary reader with a puzzle for the, ‘he’ of the text has not yet taken up incarnation but is still, in some way, a part of the structure of the heavens. This ‘he’, ‘is a being like God, an offspring, bearing the likeness of his father’ but nevertheless not yet present in the manifest world. It seems then that, ‘he’ still dwells as an immortal. The use of the word, ’he’ should not mislead for elsewhere the CH says that, ‘up to that time all living creatures having till then been bisexual were parted asunder, and man with the rest so that there came to be males on the one part and likewise females on the other.’ In other words before the descent into material form mind-soul has an incorporeal form without gender. It is only when ‘he’, a being like God, sees God in another guise as Nature that ‘he’ takes up an abode in matter, a state devoid of reason, which is gifted to man, ie humanity alone. This is the transition of the immortal to the mortal and may indeed be represented as The Fall. Unlike the biblical tale however, this transition into matter is willingly undertaken. This is not the attraction of a man for a woman, but the attraction between the immortal soul and the world of nature. It is a mistake to render these words as a slightly different version of the Garden of Eden: ‘Now, I love this passage. I think it is beautiful. The man sees the woman and the physical world, they fall in love with and embrace. If we stop here, it is the perfect formula for a modern rom-com. I can see it now: He was a creature of god, she was a b being of nature…Separated by two worlds, they come together against the odds to create…Oh hell no! They create a prison.’
    There is no woman in the CH text, there is only Nature. The word, ‘nature’ means birth; the immortal becomes mortal by entering the cycle of birth and death. The dynamic between immortal and mortal lovers has become a theme for the imagination. Most recently, the immortal Arwen and the mortal Aragorn have replayed this theme of love among unequals; one of them must yield in order to dwell together. In the Hermetica the immortal become mortal:
    And Nature seeing the beauty of the form of God smiled with insatiate love of man, showing the refection of that most beautiful form in the water, and its shadow on the earth. And he seeing this form, a form like to his own, in earth and water, Loved it and willed to dwell there. And the deed followed close on the design; and he took up his abode in matter devoid of reason’ and Nature when she had got him with whom she was in love wrapped him in her clasp and they were mingled in one for they were in love with one another.
    As a result,
    Man is unlike all other living creatures upon the earth he is mortal by reason of his body; he is immortal by reason of the man of eternal substance. He is immortal, and has all things in his power, yet he suffers the lot of the mortal, being a subject of Destiny. He is exalted above the structure; yet he is born a slave of destiny, he is bisexual, as his father is bisexual. In other words to be mortal is to be subject to the laws of nature – is there anyone able to deny this?
    It is insufficient to note that, ‘the way to know God in the Hermetica is to transcend the physical realm through the reasoning function. In fact, God is often personified as mind in the Hermetica. And it is through this identification with the divine mind that one achieves the opposite of enslavement—liberation. And whose fault is it that humans require this liberation?’ It is now essential to ask, ‘What is mind in this context, what is liberation and is it really somebody’s ‘fault’? All esoteric traditions speak of a special state of mental awareness which might loosely be translated as, ‘liberation.’ It is the eastern enlightenment and the western illumination, the Hermetic gnosis, and the Buddhist And it is by the way, it is nobody’s, ‘fault’! This is the Great work of Qabalah, the Lam Rim of Buddhism, and the path of the initiate. It is the transubstantiation of the mortal mind for the incorporeal mind while still incarnate. The Hermetica even plainly sets out how this may be achieved. Firstly, choose between the corporeal and the incorporeal, the immortal and the mortal. Since only one of these paths leads to the creation of mind, choose the path of wisdom. Mind is not given but it is a prize to be won and this journey towards mind begins with a certain attitude. This credo is even proclaimed by the Herald to Hermes.
    Those who fail to heed it are described as having speech but not mind. Empty words and the many varieties of speech devoid of significance or communication all are the white noise of babble. Gossip, prattling, idle talk and meaningless chatter characterise the untrained mind. In Buddhism this beginners stage is known as, ‘monkey-mind’ since just like the moving monkey, the mind rapidly flits from thought to thought. Conscious mind is not given to all, it must be created through effort and the development of self- awareness; this is the message of all esoteric traditions.
    According to the Hermetica, the creation of mind brings many gifts:
    but as many as have partaken of the gift which god has sent, these my son, in comparison with the others, are as, immortal gods to mortal men. They embrace in their own nature the things on earth and the things in heaven and even what is above heaven, if there is aught above heaven; and raising themselves to the good, they see the good. Such my son is the work that mind does, it throws open the way to a knowledge of the things divine and enables a us to apprehend god. (CH 4)
    Hermes concludes his discourse on mind by saying, ‘Let us lay hold on this beginning, and make our way hither with all speed; for it is hard for us to forsake the familiar things around us and turn back to the old home whence we came.’ He is of course referring to the pattern of ascent and descent. The prime separation between the mortal and immortal realms does set up a dynamic that is most often described in terms of, ‘higher’ and ‘lower.’ However if such terminology offends or is deemed sexist, then the argument lays with the entire western tradition where these words are commonly used and commonly understood.
    Incidentally to, ‘see the Isis/Horus thing as a literary device to advance the narrative of the text’ is a fundamental error of perspective. There is nothing coincidental or accidental in Hermetic texts. These, ‘actors’ are not incidental to the teachings, but pivotal and as vital as the presence of Hermes himself.
    Finally the closing words of Hermes explain how the path of liberation/illumination/enlightenment, is self-motivating in some miraculous way. ‘Find the upward path or rather the sight itself will guide you on your way for it has a peculiar power to itself, it takes possession of those who have attained to the sight of it and draws them upwards even as men say the lodestone draws the iron.’
    So where is the, ‘the temptress nature, in all her feminine, unreasoning glory.’ Nowhere except in the mind of the beholder. To conclude that the Hermetica, ‘Far from being an enlightened text, it is the epitome of ancient patriarchy,’ is to have applied the academic tools of the trade, the epitome of a dualistic mind-set to permit the perfect dissection without ever catching sight of or having any grasp of the capacity, prowess and unique beauty of the creature itself.

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  1. Hermetic feminism revisited « Heterodoxology
  2. Status of Women in the Hermetica | Alchemy of the Word

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