Status of Women in the Hermetica
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 .
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 .
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.
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.
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.
- Copenhaver, Brian P. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Plotinus. The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads. Trans. Elmer O’Brien. Hackett Publishing Company, 1964.
- Pijnenburg, Joyce. “Does Woman Exist? Agrippa von Nettesheim and Slavoj Žižek on Women and (Their) Presence.” http://www.ritmanlibrary.com/2012/10/does-woman-exist-agrippa-von-nettesheim-and-slavoj-zizek-on-women-and-their-presence/
Image via Wikimedia Commons.