Category: Neoplatonism > Works of Hermes (“Hermetica”)
This piece, the Sacred Account of Hermes, is a fascinating account of the origin of the cosmos, with elements drawn from the Hebrew Bible, Egyptian tradition and Greek cosmology. Special attention is given to the gods, the creation of humanity, and the relationship between humans and the divine.
Unfortunately for us, the Sacred Account is written in somewhat awkward Greek, which makes the interpretation of the text difficult. On the other hand, the grammatical indeterminacies afford a certain freedom of interpretation, which allows, or obliges, each translator to draw out their own sense from it. My hope is that my English version retains some of that openness, and does not close the window of interpretation. I supply some notes on my understanding of the text’s meaning in section 3, after the translation.
For further reading, see the post about CH III on The Digital Ambler (off-site link) and all the further links from there.
Hermes’ Sacred Account.
(1) The glory of all things is the god, the divine, and divine nature. The first principle (arkhḗ) of (all) beings is the god, intellect, nature and matter, and he is the wisdom to show forth all things. The divine is the beginning (arkhḗ), nature, activity, necessity, end and renewal.
For there was an indefinite darkness in an abyss, and water, and a fine intellective spirit (pneûma leptòn noerón); by divine power, they were in chaos. Then, a holy light was sent forth, and under the sand, the elements solidified out of moist essence, and all gods strain (them) from fertile nature.
(2) All beings were indefinite and unformed, but then the light things were set towards the height, and the heavy things were grounded upon the moist sand, and all things were bounded by fire and suspended to be carried by spirit (pneûma). And heaven appeared in seven cycles, and the gods (came to be) visible in the shapes of stars, with all their constellations, and [word(s) missing] was completed together with the gods within it, and the periphery was wound around by(?) air, borne along in a circular course by divine spirit.
(3) Each god, through their individual power, sent forth what was assigned to them, and (so) there appeared four-footed, reptilian, aquatic and winged animals, and every fertile seed and crop, and the bloom of every flower; they gathered the seed of rebirth within themselves.
And the origins of humans, for the sake of understanding of the divine works; for the active witnessing of nature; the multiplication of humans; lordship over all things under heaven; discernment of good; to increase in growth and multiply in fullness. And [unintelligible word] every soul in flesh, through the course of the cyclical gods, for the sake of observing heaven, the course of the celestial gods, and the activities of the divine works and of nature; and for (observing?) the signs of good things; for the knowledge of divine power; to know the whirling destinies of good and evil events; and to discover all workmanship of good things.
(4) From the destination of the course of the cyclical gods comes the beginning of their life and wisdom, and also their dissolution into what will be, after they leave behind great memorials of their crafts upon the Earth. [Unintelligible phrase] Of(?) every birth of ensouled flesh, of the seed of crops, and of every kind of craft, what is diminished will be renewed by necessity, and through the renewal of the gods and the regular course of nature. For the divine is the entire cosmic combination, renewed by nature, since nature too has been established in the divine.
The editors place many cruces (†) in the Greek text, indicating an incomprehensible and probably corrupt text. To me many of these passages do not seem terribly corrupt, but simply written in somewhat muddled Greek (which of course does, secondarily, make textual corruption likelier to occur). Instead of being hyper-criticial and throwing out over half a dozen little passages, the editor or translator must make some allowances for what may have been the attempt of someone not native in the language to write about very complex matters in concise language. With this charitable attitude and some attentiveness to the ideas in play, one can wrest good sense from almost every phrase, or so at least it seems to me.
I do not follow Christian Wildberg’s theory – outlined in his paper “Corpus Hermeticum, Tractate III: The Genesis of a Genesis” (off-site link) – that the text as we have it is made up of the mixture of an original text with intrusive marginal notes. My reasons to reject it are several. Firstly, even after the supposed marginal notes are extracted, neither the main text nor the supposed marginalia become grammatically satisfactory. Secondly, none of the isolated pieces read as plausible marginal notes to me (admittedly a subjective judgment). Thirdly, the content of the extracted pieces fits into the logical sequence of the main text well enough, even if the conventional text cannot account for every word or syntactical quirk (as neither can Wildberg). In other words, the process by which he has eliminated them from the main text appears essentially arbitrary to me.
“The glory of all things is the god, the divine, and divine nature”: it would appear that these are all synonyms. It is not clear to me whether the Sacred Account is here referring to a single originary figure, the god, as do most Hermetica, or whether the singular is collective and refers to the gods as a class. The second seems more likely to me insofar as we never hear of an origin of the gods.
“The first principle of (all) beings is the god, intellect, nature and matter, and he is the wisdom to show forth all things”: it seems that intellect, nature and matter are identified with the god, rather than co-principles.
“The divine is the beginning, nature, activity, necessity, end and renewal”: the meaning of this will become clearer over the course of the text.
“For there was an indefinite darkness in an abyss, and water, and a fine intellective spirit”: a close reminiscence of Genesis 1:2, but the abyss is not mentioned there, and the “spirit of God” of the Bible has been reanalyzed as something like Stoic pneuma. Yet this pneuma is not the god or nature, but apparently an inanimate element.
“by divine power, they were in chaos”: i.e., in confusion or unstructured mixture.
“Then, a holy light was sent forth”: an idea taken from Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” Light (phôs) also appears elsewhere as a primordial entity in Greco-Egyptian texts.
“under the sand, the elements solidified out of moist essence”: sand and water (often called ‘moist essence’ in philosophy) appear as the first principles in two Egyptian theologies summarized by Damascius (there called hýdōr and psámmon: Damascius, On Principles, p. 323). But the Egyptian has here become entirely fused with the Greek, so that it is the classical elements which come from sand and water.
“all gods strain (them) from fertile nature”: the verb katadierôsi has been regarded as incomprehensible, but it fits with the process of differentiation that the gods ‘strained’ the elements out of the sandy water.
“All beings were indefinite and unformed, but then the light things were set towards the height, and the heavy things were grounded upon the moist sand”: a similar process of cosmic differentiation, albeit transformed through Christian and Platonic interpretation, is attributed to the early Christian teacher Basilides of Alexandria in Pseudo-Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.21–22. (See Daniele Tripaldi, “Before Plotinus: Graeco-Egyptian Traditions and Platonism in Some Fragments Attributed to Basilides”, in: Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 86.1 , pp. 33–48.)
“all things were bounded by fire and suspended to be carried by spirit”: referring, I think, to the outermost sphere of fire or aether, and the air or pneuma in which the Earth (and perhaps also the celestial bodies) are suspended.
“heaven appeared in seven cycles”: referring to the spheres of the classical planets, which the text goes on to call ‘cyclical gods’.
“the gods (came to be) visible in the shapes of stars, with all their constellations”: as they have already been mentioned prior to this, the gods themselves evidently preexist the stars, but become visible in or through them.
“[word(s) missing] was completed together with the gods within it”: the pronoun I translate ‘it’ is grammatically feminine, so the reference may be to the Earth and the terrestrial gods.
“the periphery was wound around by(?) air, borne along in a circular course by divine spirit”: the periphery around the Earth, perhaps. Is air being equated with spirit? It seems so.
“Each god, through their individual power, sent forth what was assigned to them”: that each god has unique powers and domains is a common idea in polytheistic literatures, including the Hermetica.
“they gathered the seed of rebirth within themselves”: here rebirth, palingenesis, must refer to procreation rather than transmigration. The point is that the animals, after their first creation, could reproduce themselves.
“And the origins of humans”: there is no verb, but this must mean something like ‘and the gods brought forth the origins (lit. ‘births’) of humans’. Then, the author lists the purposes of humanity’s creation.
“observing heaven, the course of the celestial gods, and the activities of the divine works and of nature”: i.e., ‘observing heaven, observing the course etc., observing the activities etc.’
“And […] every soul in flesh, through the course of the cyclical gods”: the word I am not translating is terasporias. I do not see how, with this reading, the word can be integrated into the sentence, and so translate as if it represented a verb. But different explanations are certainly possible.
“From the destination of the course of the cyclical gods comes the beginning of their life and wisdom”: an emphatic affirmation of astrology.
“their dissolution into what will be, after they leave behind great memorials of their crafts upon the Earth”: grammatically murky, and perhaps to be connected with the next words that follow (and which I call unintelligible). But the general sense is clear: the planets determine human deaths.
“what is diminished will be renewed by necessity, and through the renewal of the gods and the regular course of nature. For the divine is the entire cosmic combination, renewed by nature, since nature too has been established in the divine”: now we understand how, in the opening, the divine could be called the beginning/first principle, nature, necessity, the end (or ‘death’), and renewal.
4 Greek text (ed. Nock–Festugière)
Ἑρμοῦ ἱερὸς λόγος.
(1) Δόξα πάντων ὁ θεὸς καὶ θεῖον καὶ φύσις θεία. ἀρχὴ τῶν ὄντων ὁ θεός, καὶ νοῦς καὶ φύσις καὶ ὕλη, σοφία εἰς δεῖξιν ἁπάντων ὤν· ἀρχὴ τὸ θεῖον καὶ φύσις καὶ ἐνέργεια καὶ ἀνάγκη καὶ τέλος καὶ ἀνανέωσις.
ἧν γὰρ σκότος ἄπειρον ἐν ἀβύσσῳ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πνεῦμα λεπτὸν νοερόν, δυνάμει θείᾳ ὄντα ἐν χάει. ἀνείθη δὴ φῶς ἅγιον καὶ ἐπάγη ὑφ‘ ἅμμῳ ἐξ ὑγρᾶς οὐσίας στοιχεῖα καὶ θεοὶ πάντες καταδιερῶσι φύσεως ἐνσπόρου.
(2) ἀδιορίστων δὲ ὄντων ἁπάντων καὶ ἀκατασκευάστων, ἀποδιω- ρίσθη τὰ ἐλαφρὰ εἰς ὕψος καὶ τὰ βαρέα ἐθεμελιώθη ἐφ‘ ὑγρᾷ ἄμμῳ, πυρὶ τῶν ὅλων διορισθέντων καὶ ἀνακρεμασθέντων πνεύματι ὀχεῖσθαι· καὶ ὤφθη ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐν κύκλοις ἑπτά, καὶ θεοὶ [ταῖς] ἐν ἄστρων ἰδέαις ὀπτανόμενοι, σὺν τοῖς αὐτῶν σημείοις ἅπασι, καὶ διηρθρώθη σὺν τοῖς ἐν αὐτῇ θεοῖς, καὶ περιειλίγη τὸ περικύκλιον ἀέρι, κυκλίῳ δρομήματι πνεύματι θείῳ ὀχούμενον.
(3) ἀνῆκε δὲ ἕκαστος θεὸς διὰ τῆς ἰδίας δυνάμεως τὸ προσταχθὲν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἐγένετο θηρία τετράποδα καὶ ἑρπετὰ καὶ ἔνυδρα καὶ πτηνὰ καὶ πᾶσα σπορὰ ἔνσπορος καὶ χόρτος καὶ ἄνθους παντὸς χλόη· τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἐσπερμολόγουν τάς τε γενέσεις τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰς ἔργων θείων γνῶσιν καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργοῦσαν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πλῆθος ἀνθρώπων καὶ πάντων τῶν ὑπὸ οὐρανὸν δεσποτείαν καὶ ἀγαθῶν ἐπίγνωσιν, εἰς τὸ αὐξάνεσθαι ἐν αὐξήσει καὶ πληθύνεσθαι ἐν πλήθει, καὶ πᾶσαν ἐν σαρκὶ ψυχὴν διὰ δρομήματος θεῶν ἐγκυκλίων †τερασπορίας†, εἰς κατοπτείαν οὐρανοῦ καὶ δρομήματος οὐρανίων θεῶν καὶ ἔργων θείων καὶ φύσεως ἐνεργείας εἴς τε σημεῖα ἀγαθῶν, εἰς γνῶσιν θείας δυνάμεως μοίρης ὀχλουμένης γνῶναι ἀγαθῶν καὶ φαύλων, καὶ πᾶσαν ἀγαθῶν δαιδαλουργίαν εὑρεῖν.
(4) ἄρχεται αὐτῶν βιῶσαί τε καὶ σοφισθῆναι πρὸς μοῖραν δρομήματος κυκλίων θεῶν, καὶ ἀναλυθῆναι εἰς ὃ ἔσται μεγάλα ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς καταλιπόντες †ἐν ὀνόματι χρόνων ἀμαύρωσιν καὶ† πᾶσαν γένεσιν (read πάσης γενέσεως?) ἐμψύχου σαρκὸς καὶ καρποῦ σπορᾶς καὶ πάσης τεχνουργίας τὰ ἐλαττούμενα ἀνανεωθήσεται ἀνάγκῃ καὶ ἀνανεώσει θεῶν καὶ φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρομήματι. τὸ γὰρ θεῖον ἡ πᾶσα κοσμικὴ σύγκρασις φύσει ἀνανεουμένη· ἐν γὰρ τῷ θείῳ καὶ ἡ φύσις καθέστηκεν.