‘Hermes’ on the Order of Souls

Category: Theology > On Daemons and Souls

1 Introduction

In the course of his extensive chapter on the soul, the anthologist John Stobaeus included several long excerpts from the works of Hermes, that is to say, from Greco-Egyptian philosophical texts attributed to the patron god of Egyptian priestly learning, called Thōout in Coptic and Thōth or Hermes (Trismegistus) in Greek. In modern terminology, these are called the Hermetica, and one of these in particular was pointed out to me as a parallel to Martianus on Daemons: Hermes’ Speech of Isis to Horus (Stob. Anth. 1.49.68–69, ed. Wachsmuth & Hense). Like in Martianus’ essay, we find here a rearticulation of Greek and non-Greek ideas into a novel theory – and also, incidentally, put into the mouth of a popular goddess.

The headings have all been inserted by me, except for one, “On Ensoulment (empsykhōsis) and Transmigration of Souls (metempsykhōsis)”. This has been taken as the point where one excerpt (SH 25) begins and another (SH 26) begins, but it is not the kind of title that Stobaeus would insert in such a position; it is therefore likely an intertitle inserted into what is otherwise one continuous excerpt, not two separate ones. (That the intertitle does not stem from ‘Hermes’ I conjecture from the fact that it is an imperfect description of the contents, which situates it somewhat reductionistically in a conceptual framework from Greek philosophy; whether it was added by Stobaeus or before or after him, I have no means to tell.)

[The translation is currently unfinished; once finished, I will revise it by comparing my translation against previous ones. Any suggestions or criticisms are welcome!]

2 Translation

Hermes’ Speech of Isis to Horus.


(SH 25.1) Horus said, “You have marvelously discoursed about each of these things for me, o my very mighty mother Isis, concerning the God’s marvelous psychogony (‘origination of soul’), and I remain in wonder. But now tell me in the same fashion where the souls released from their bodies dwell. I wish to thank you, immortal mother, after I become an initiate of this theōria* through you alone!”

*Theōria refers to the sights shown at mysteries, but also philosophical contemplation. Here, philosophical doctrines are meant.

‹souls not dissolved after death,
but each pass to their proper space›

(2) And Isis said, “Attend, my child! For this is a most indispensable investigation, (3) and my speech (logos) will set it out in this way. What holds together, even if it does not appear visibly, has a definite space (khōros). For, o marvelous and great child of Osiris, your great father, when they pass from the body, they are not indiscriminately and suddenly dissolved into the air and dispersed into the rest of the indistinct air (pneuma), so as never to return into bodies as the same souls. (If that were the case), they could never return to that definite space from which they came before; just as it is impossible to pour water that has been taken up out of vessels back into the same place, because even if the same water is taken and poured back at one, it does not take up the same space, but becomes mixed with the whole mass of water. (4) But this is not how it is, o high-minded Horus!

But as an initiate, as it were, of immortal nature, who happen to have traveled across the plain of truth myself, I shall lay out for you the realities in every detail. And first I will tell you this, that water is a body devoid of irrationality (alogon), condensed out of many compounds into one mass, whereas the soul is a thing with a distinct nature (idiophyes), my child, and also a kingly work of the hands and intellect (nous) of the God, and guided towards intellect by itself. Clearly, that which comes from one* and not from another cannot be mixed with something else; hence its association with the body too must be a harmony created by the force (anankē) of the God. (5) And that they are not all sent back to one and the same place without distinction, nor randomly and by chance, but each to its own proper space, this is evident from the things which the soul suffers when in it still in its body and figure (plasma), made coarse against its proper nature.

*I.e., is a self-contained unit.

(6) Now attend, o much-beloved Horus, the analogy I shall give. Imagine that humans, eagles, doves, swans, falcons, swallows, sparrows, flies, serpents, lions, leopards, wolves, dogs, hares, cattle, sheep and some amphibious animals, like seals, otters and turtles and our* crocodiles were all shut up in one and the same place of confinement; and then, o my child, they were all released from confinement by a single judgment, (7) would not the human species (ho anthrōpos) all go to market-places and houses? And the eagle up to the ether, where it is its nature to live? And the doves into the air closer to us? And the falcons above them? And would not the swallows go wherever humans live? And the sparrows around fruit-bearing trees? And the swans wherever they can sing? And the flies around the Earth, only as far away from it as they can go up (and still smell) the odor of humans? Since the fly, o my child, flies low and is especially attracted to humans. Would not the lions and leopards go to into the mountains? And the wolves into wildernesses? And the dogs following humans? Hares, the woods, and cattle, stalls and plains? And sheep to pastures? And serpents into the recesses of the Earth? Seals and turtles, and those of their kind, into deep pools and springs, so that they are neither deprived of flat land nor have to be without the water in which they belong?

*Isis is speaking as an Egyptian.

Each of them would return to its own space, according to its inborn judgment. (8) In the same way, each soul, whether it lives as a human (anthrōpeuomenē) or dwells on the earth in another manner, knows where it ought to go – unless some Typhonian person,* o my child, should come and say that it is possible for a bull to live in the depths, or a turtle in the air! Indeed, if they experience this while they are immersed in flesh and blood, that they do not do anything against order unless compelled – and embodiment is a compulsion for souls –, how much more when they are free of that immersion and compulsion, and can enjoy their proper freedom?

*Someone who upsets the order of rationality, as Typhon did the order of the world.

‹the divisions of the air›

(9) Now, their most sacred order is as follows. Now upwards, my most noble child, and behold the orders of the souls! The space from the summit of heaven to the Moon is devoted to gods and stars and the rest of providence; but that from the Moon, o my child, down to us is the dwelling-place of souls.

(10) Now, this great expanse of air (aēr) has a path within it which it is our custom to call ‘wind’ (anemos), a certain stretch in which the air is in motion to cool the terrestrial beings, and which I will talk about later. However, while it moving in itself, it in no way becomes an obstacle to souls; for despite its movements, souls can move up or move down, whichever the case may be, unhindered. For they flow through it without mixing or adhesion, like water through oil.

(11) But this interval, o my child Horus, has four general parts and sixty specific spaces, and the first of these parts from the Earth up consists of four spaces, as far as the Earth, in certain peaks and summits, can extend and reach; but it does not have a nature to reach the height above these.

The second part after this consists of eight spaces – attend, my child, for you are hearing ineffable mysteries of Earth and Heaven and the whole sacred air (pneuma) between them! – where there is the motion of the wind, and the flight of birds; for above it the air (aēr) is not in motion, and no animal can fly there. This (moving) air by its nature has this authority, that it ranges in these eight spaces that belong to it as well in the four that belong to the Earth, with all the living beings it contains, whereas the Earth has no power to reach up into the spaces of the air.

(12) The third part consists of sixteen spaces, and it is filled with fine and pure air.

The fourth part consists of thirty-two spaces, in which there is the finest and most unmixed, translucent air, which separates the heavens above it from itself, which are of a fiery nature.

(13) This order runs from above down in a straight line, without blending their nature, so that there are four general parts, twelve intervallic ones,* and sixty spaces.

*Perhaps what is meant that each part divides in four, with each ‘interval’ containing one space in the first space, two in the second, four in the third, and eight in the fourth.

In these spaces, which are sixty in number, dwell the souls, each according to the nature it has, since they are all of the same constitution, but they are not of the same rank. For by as much as each of the spaces is above the others from the Earth, by this much do the souls in them; one soul or space is behind the other in eminence, o my child.

But which souls are released into each of these places, I will set out for you in turn, o very glorious Horus, following the order from above down to those next to the Earth.

On Ensoulment (empsykhōsis) and
Transmigration of Souls (metempsykhōsis)

(SH 26.1) The (region) between Earth and Heaven is divided, my child Horus, on the basis of (good) measure and harmony. But these spaces are called zones (zōnai) by some of our ancestors, firmaments (stereōmata) by others, and layers (ptykhai) by others again. And in them dwell the souls which have been freed from their bodies and those which have not yet been embodied. Each of these, o my child, has its (proper) space; so that the divine and kingly souls dwell in the highest of all, and those which are the least in rank and those who are lowly dwell in the lowest of all, and the intermediate souls in the middle.

[Work on 26.2–7 in Progress]

(8) It happens, o my child, that in each species (eidos) and genus of the aforementioned animals, there can be found certain kingly souls.* Other souls also descend with various qualities, some fiery, others cold; some overbearing, others gentle; some [lost word], others craftsmen; some skilful, others unskilled; some inactive, others active; and different ones at different times. This occurs because of the position of the places from which the souls leap down to be embodied. But those who leap down from the kingly zone (diazōma) have a kindred kingly fortune; (9) and there are many kingships: for some are over souls, others over bodies, others over a skill (tekhnē), others over a science (epistēmē), others again over such and such.”

*These are the Egyptian gods, who were worshipped in their embodiments as animals.

“How do you mean?”, said Horus

“For example, o my child Horus, your father Osiris is (king) of the souls already departed; and (the king) of bodies is the ruler of each nation; that of deliberation is the father and preceptor of all, Hermes Trismegistus; of medicine, Asclepius the son of Hephaestus;¹ of strength and power, Osiris again, and you, o my child, with him; of philosophy, Harnebeschēnis;² of poetry, once again Asclepius Imouthēs. For on the whole, o my child, you will find, if you investigate it thoroughly, that there are many who rule over many things, and many who are kings over many. (10) And the one who rules over all, my child, is from the highest space, and each of those who rule over some part has the rank of the place from which they are, and [those from the kingly] zone have a more kingly rank.

1: In Egyptian terms, Imhotep (Imouthēs) the son of Ptah (Phtha).
2: Horus (Ḥar) lord (nēb) of Letopolis (Demotic Sḫm).

(11) [Those from the fiery zone] become fire-workers and nurses;* those from the watery earn their living on waters; those from the scientific and craftspersonlike zones occupy themselves with science and craft. Those from the inactive pass their life without work or aim. Of all things on the Earth, o my child, whether done by speech or my action, there are sources (pēgai) from above, which pour our substances into us by measure and weight, and there is nothing which has not descended from above, (12) and it moves up again only to descend.”

*The discussion now has clearly shifted to humans (although the kingly souls no doubt are also embodied as humans).

“What do you mean by this, o my mother? Explain this in detail.”

And Isis answered in turn: “…

[Work on 26.12–29 in Progress]

3 Greek text