Poimandrēs (CH I)


1 Introduction


2 Translation

Hermes Trismegistus’ Poimandrēs.

<a. prologue>

(1) Once, my¹ reflection (énnoia) was upon the things that are² (perì tôn óntōn), and my thought was raised very high, while my bodily senses were restrained – much as when people are weighed down with sleep, because they have had their fill of food or their bodies are weary –, when it seemed to me that someone of great size, uncircumscribable by any measure, was calling my name, and saying to me: “What do you wish to hear and see, and what do you intend to learn and know?”

(2) I say, “But who are you?”

“I”, he says, “am Poimandrēs, the Mind (noûs) of absolute authority; I know what you desire, and I am present with you everywhere.”

(3) I say, “I wish to learn the things that are, and to understand (noêsai) their nature, and to know (gnônai) The God. I wish”, I said, “to hear how.”

In turn, he said to me, “Keep in your mind what you wish to learn, and I will teach you.”

1: The speaker is Hermes Trismegistus, since the text is supposed to be composed by him.
2: “The things that are” (tà ónta) implies the real fundamentals of all beings, as discovered by philosophy.

<b. a cosmogonic vision>

(4) When I had said this, he changed in appearance, and suddenly, all things were opened to me in one swoop – and I see a sight without end, all things turned into light, sweet and delightful – and as I beheld it, I became enamored.

But after a little while, a darkness descended, appearing in one part. Fearsome and gloomy, and wound in coils as it was, it seemed to me like a ‹serpent›.¹

Then, the darkness changed into a kind of moist nature (hygrâ phýsis) that was indescribably disturbed. It gave out smoke, like from a flame, and produced a kind of inarticulate mournful sound. Then, an unpronounceable call came forth from it, so that it seemed (to be) a voice of light.²

(5) So, from the light came up a word (lógos), holy by nature,³ and from the moist nature, a pure fire leapt up high; it was light, sharp, and active. And the air, being nearly as light, followed the breath;⁴ it went up as far as the fire from the earth and water, so that it seemed to be suspended from it.⁵ The earth and water still remained mixed up with each other, so that they could not be distinguished from the water; but they were moved to obedience by the pneumatic word (lógos) when it came down upon them.

1: The word “serpent” is only a plausible guess by the editors; in the manuscripts, a word is missing.
2: Editors have changed this to “voice of fire”, but as later parts of the text show, that is not what is meant. The sound that comes from the darkness is the word (lógos) of the light/God.
3: Or ‘holy reason came upon nature’?
4: The breath or spirit (gr. pneûma = lat. spiritus) is a kind of subtle fiery body. Here, it seems to function as a tool of the word (lógos) for the purpose of separating out the darkness into the four elements of the cosmos.
5: Suspended from the fire, that is; “earth and water” refers to what remains of the primordial darkness. It is possible that Hermes is drawing on the Homeric image of Zeus suspending Hera (air) from a golden chain (fire) while two anchors (earth and water) are tied to her feet, which was interpreted allegorically by the ancient philosophers (see, e.g., Heraclitus the Younger).

<c. exegesis of the vision>

(6) Poimandrēs says to me: “Did you understand this vision, and what it means?”

And I said, “Let me understand!”

“That light”, he said, “am I, Mind (noûs), your god, who was before the moist nature which appeared out of darkness; and the luminous word (lógos) from the Mind is the son of God.”

“What is that?”, I say.

“Understand the following: that within you which sees and hears is the word (lógos) of the Lord, but the Mind is the Father, God. Not that they are separate from each other; for life is their union.”

“Thank you”, I said.

“But also consider the light, and try to understand it.”

<d. another vision>

(7) When he had said this, he looked into my eyes for a long time, so that I trembled at his look. But then he threw his head up – I see the light in my mind (noûs), having its being in innumerable powers;¹ an uncircumscribable cosmos that had come into being;² and fire encompassed by a power most great, subdued and held in position (by it). And as I saw, I understood, because of the speech (lógos) of Poimandrēs.

1: Gr. dynámesin anarithmḗtois ón, literally ‘being through/in uncountable powers’. The essence of the light (i.e., Mind) is one of infinite power, or rather powers (i.e., attributes or faculties; ‘powers’ can also mean ‘gods’).
2: This could refer either to the pattern (lógos) of Mind, which is an order (kósmos), or to the perceptible cosmos which is created in imitation of that pattern.

<e. further explanations of the cosmogony>

(8) But since I am struck by astonishment, he speaks to me again: “In your mind, you saw the archetypal form,¹ the principle prior to the indefinite first principle.”² These things Poimandrēs said to me.

“Now, the elements of nature”, I say, “from where did they come into existence?”

In turn, he responded to these things: “Out of the will of God. She³ took the pattern (lógos), and beholding its good order (kósmos), imitated it, creating the cosmos using her elements and the origination of souls.

(9) “And Mind, The God, being masculo-feminine, as he is both life and light,⁴ gave birth through his word (lógos) to another, demiurgic mind.⁵ He is the god of the fire and spirit (pneûma), and created certain seven rulers,⁶ who contain the perceptible cosmos in seven spheres; and their rule is called fate.⁷

(10) “Suddenly, out of the descending elements of The God, the word (lógos) of The God leapt up for the pure creation of nature, and unified with the demiurgic mind – for it was of the same essence⁸ –, but the descending elements of nature remained irrational, so as to be nothing but matter.

(11) “The demiurgic mind, together with the word (lógos), which encompasses the spheres, and spins them in a whirl, began to turn his creations, and let them turn from an indefinite beginning to an infinite end; for they begin where they end. And their circulation, by the will of Mind, brought forth from the descending elements animals that were irrational (áloga), because they did not possess rationality (lógos): the air brought forth winged animals, and the water those that swim. By the will of Mind, earth and water were also separated from each other, and ‹earth› brought forth out of itself the four-footed and creeping animals it contains, the wild and domesticated animals.

1: Gr. arkhétypon eîdos, an expression that suggests the Platonic forms, but apparently refers to the light (Mind), the order (kósmos) on which the perceptible cosmos is patterned.
2: In Greek, the proárkhon to the indefinite arkhḗ, i.e., that whose beginning (arkh-) is prior (pro-) the beginning. This paradoxical formulation contains a plain meaning, since the “indefinite first principle” is only the beginning of the corporeal world, i.e., the darkness from which the elements are differentiated, while the light (Mind) is prior to corporeal nature, as shown in the cosmogonic vision.
3: Grammatically, ‘she’ is the will of God, but ch. 9 shows that the feminine here is only another way of referring to God himself.
4: In Greek, ‘life’ is feminine (zōḗ), ‘light’ masculine (phôs).
5: The demiurge is the ‘artificer’ or ‘creator’, not in the sense that he is the originator of all things, but in that he fashions the cosmos after a preexisting pattern, as in the Timaeus of Plato. However, this demiurgic mind appears to be more analogous to the cosmic god of Stoics, who combines elements of the Platonic demiurge and world soul: he is an all-pervading pneumatic creator and ruler of the corporeal cosmos whose primary seat is in the outer, fiery region of the cosmos. As will be explained shortly, this god is the same as, or at least essentially unified with, the Logos (the vision’s “word of the light”, which Poimandrēs calls “son of God”).
6: The seven planets.
7: The word used for ‘fate’ is heimarménē, a Stoic term, but here it is exercised not by the cosmic god, but by the stars, as in astrology (especially Vettius Valens, who also uses Stoic terminology).
8: Gr. homooúsios, meaning more or less that they are ‘the same being’.

<f. origin of the human being>

(12) “And the father of all, Mind, being life and light, gave birth to the human being (ánthrōpos), equal to himself, and came to love it as his own child; for it was entirely beautiful, possessing the likeness of its Father. Indeed, The God loves his own shape, and bestowed all his creations on it.

(13) “And when (the human being) perceived the creation of the demiurge in the universe,¹ it also wanted to create, and was given assent by the Father. Now being in the demiurgic sphere, in order to take possession of all authority, it observed the creations of its brother; whereat they² became enamored of (the human being), and each gave it a share of their own order. And when (the human being) had fully learned their essence and come to participate in their nature, it wanted to break through the circumference of the spheres, and to apprehend the might of the one who is placed over the fire.³

(14) “So the (human being), which had all authority over the cosmos of the mortal and irrational animals, looked down through the harmony,⁴ breaking through the might, and showed the beautiful shape of The God⁵ to descending nature. And when she⁶ beheld this beauty, of which one can never have one’s fill, and which had within it the whole faculty of the rulers and the shape of The God, she was gladdened by desire – as if she were seeing the form of the most beautiful shape of the human being in the water, and its shadow upon the earth. And when (the human being) saw this shape like itself which was within her in the water, it loved it and wished to inhabit it; and together with the intention came the act, and it came to dwell in the irrational shape. And nature, receiving her beloved wholly entwined and mingled with it;⁷ for they were lovers.

(15) “And on this account, unlike all the animals upon the earth, the human being is twofold: mortal because of its body, immortal because of the essential human being; for while it is immortal and has authority over all things, it undergoes mortal affects insofar as it is subject to fate. So, while being above the harmony, within the harmony, it has become a slave; and while being masculo-feminine, as coming from a masculo-feminine father, and wakeful as coming from a wakeful father, it is ruled [by …?].”⁸

1: Gr. pantí, e conjecture by Patrizio; the manuscripts read patrí, i.e., “in the Father”, which seems incongruous.
2: The seven rulers (planets).
3: Although I am not quite sure how, from context it is clear that to “apprehend the might of the one who is placed over the fire” (i.e., of the demiurge) here means to peer down into the realm of earth and water below the seven rulers (planets), perhaps because it is the last realm of the demiurge which the human being has not yet taken possession of.
4: “The harmony” is the arrangement of the seven planets.
5: As we have been told, the human being was given the shape (morphḗ, not eîdos) of The God.
6: Nature (in the sublunar realm).
7: Or, in more human terms, “she had sex with him”, since the Greek for ‘human being’, ánthrōpos, is masculine. But the human being is, strictly speaking, masculo-feminine.
8: There may (or may not) be some missing words, to the effect that the human being is subject to gendered love and sleep (i.e., entanglement with nature and ignorance of The God).

<g. continuation and interruption of the narrative>

(16) “And (what happened) after these things, o my Mind? For I desire your account (lógos).”

And Poimandrēs spoke: “This is the mystery which has been hidden until this day. For when nature had mingled with the human being, she brought forth a most marvellous marvel; for since (the human being) possessed the nature of the harmony of the seven – who I told you are made of fire and breath –, nature did not hesitate but at once gave birth to seven human beings, masculo-feminine and exalted, after the nature of the seven rulers.”

“And after these, o Poimandrēs? For now I have conceived a great interest and yearn to hear; do not leave!”

And Poimandrēs spoke: “Only be silent! For I have not yet unfolded the first account¹ (lógos) to you.”

“Look, I am silent”, I said.

(17) “And so, as I said, the birth of these seven took place in this manner. For the ‹earth› was feminine and the water desirous; and she² took ripeness form the fire, and breath from the ether, and nature brought forth bodies after the form of the human being. And the human being changed from life and light into soul and mind – soul from life, and mind from light.³ And all things in the perceptible cosmos remained thus until the period of their end and new beginnings.

1: Since the text describes its teaching as ‘first’ or ‘foremost’, it is no wonder that it has been placed at the beginning of the collection of lógoi that we call the Corpus Hermeticum.
2: Nature or earth? Perhaps there is no difference here, in which case the word “earth” does not need to be inserted just above.
3: Soul, like life, is feminine in Greek; mind, like light, is masculine. Soul and life are also often used synonymously.

<h. the rest of the account>

(18) “Hear the rest of the account (lógos) you yearn to hear. When this period had ended, the bond of them all was loosened by the will of God; for all animals, which were then masculo-feminine, were loosened, together with the human being, and they became partly masculine, partly feminine. And The God suddenly spoke with holy speech (lógos): ‘Increase in increasing, and multiply in multitude, all you creations and fashionings, and let the human being, which has a mind, realize that it is immortal, and that desire is the cause of death, and all beings.’¹

(19) “When he had spoken this, providence, through fate and harmony, effected sexual unions, and instituted births, and all things were multiplied, species by species. And the one who attains realization of themself is delivered unto abundantant good; whereas the one who out of errant desire loves the body, they remain wandering in the darkness, undergoing the affects of death by the senses.

1: While grammatically awkward, this probably must mean “and let the human being understand all beings”.

<i. questions about salvation>

(20) “What great transgression do the ignorant commit”, I said, “to be robbed of their immortality?”

“You seem, o this one, not to have paid heed to what you have heard. Did I not tell you to think?”

“I do think, and I remember, and I also give thanks to you.”

“If you did think”, he spoke to me, “then (you tell me) why those who are in death merit death.”

“Because gloomy darkness is the origin of their own bodies; from (the darkness) came the moist nature, from (the moist nature) solidified the body in the perceptible cosmos, and from (the body,) death is irrigated.

(21) “You have thought rightly, o this one. And how does ‘the one who understands themself come to him’, as the word (lógos) of The God has it?”

I say, “Because the father of everything consists of light and life, and the human being was born from him.”

“You speak well in what you say; The God and Father is light and life. From him was born the human being. So, if you learn that (the human being) is of life and light, and that therefore you are (made up) of these, you will move to the life again.” These things spoke Poimandrēs.

“But further tell me how I shall come to life,” I said, “o my Mind. For The God says, ‘let the human being, which has a mind, recognize itself.’

(22) “And do not all human beings possess mind?”

“You speak well, o this one, in what you say. I, The Mind itself, am present to the holy, good, pure and merciful – to the pious –, and my presence is a help; they gain knowledge at once, they propitiate The Father by their love, and they give thanks through blessings and hymns, intent upon him with love, and before they give its body over to its own death, they disdain its senses, because they know their effects. Or rather, I, The Mind, will not permit the effects that befall the body to come about. For as a doorkeper, I will close the entryways of evil and shameful effects, cutting off the ruminations.

(23) “But from the unthinking, evil, wicked, envious, greedy, murderous and impious, I am far removed; I have given them over to the avenging daemon, who sharpens his fire to attack them by the senses, and indeed arms them for acts of lawlessness, so that they may be subject to yet more punishment, and have unceasing inclination to boundless desires, battling the dark without fulfilment; and he racks them, and increases the fire upon them ever further.”

<k. what happens after death>

(24) “Well have you taught me all that I wished, o Mind, but further tell me how the ascent takes place.”

In response to this, Poimandrēs spoke, “First, in the dissolution of the material body, you surrender the body itself unto change, and the form which you have becomes invisible, and you surrender your way of life inert to the daemon.¹ And the senses of the body return to their own sources, as they become separated and are restored to the faculties.² And passion and desire withdraw into irrational nature.

(25) “And thus, (the human being) rushes upwards through the harmony, to the first zone,³ it gives its faculty (enérgeia) of increase and decrease; to the second, its machination of evils, ineffective⁴ deceit; to the third, its desiderative, ineffective guiles; to the fourth, its imperious, avaricious repute; to the fifth, its unholy courage and the rashness of its arrogance; to the sixth, its ineffective evil inclinations to wealth; and to the seventh, entrapping falsehood.

(26) “And then, stripped of the faculties of the harmony, it passes to the ogdoadic (‘eighth’) nature,⁵ in possession of its own power, and together with all beings,⁶ it hymns The Father. Those who are there rejoice in its presence, and having been made like those who are around it, it can even hear certain powers above the ogdoadic nature, which hymn The God with a kind of sweet voice. And then they in a body go upwards to The Father, and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming powers, they come to be in God. That is the good end for those who have grasped knowledge: to be made God.

“Now, what do you delay? Should you not, now that you have received all things, become a guide for the worthy, so that through you, humanity be saved by God?”

1: Probably based on the Heraclitean saying that a person’s way of life is their daemon (i.e., good or bad fortune). This daemon is hardly the same as the avenging daemon from before, but instead perhaps should be translated as Fortune.
2: These are apparently not the faculties (enérgeiai) of the planets. But this text does not explain where the senses derive from.
3: The zones are those of the (1) Moon, (2) Mercury, (3) Venus, (4) Sun, (5) Mars, (6) Jupiter and (7) Saturn. The vices listed are connected to the astrological character of the respective planets.
4: ‘Ineffective’ or ‘bereft of faculty’. The point may be not that these desires and vices are ineffective, but theat they are left behind inert, without ability to further affect the ascending human being.
5: […]

<l. hermes teaches humanity>

(27) When Poimandrēs had spoken these things to me, he joined the powers,¹ and I thanked and blessed the father of everything (tà hóla). I was left empowered, having been taught the nature of the universe and the greatest sight, and I began to proclaim to humanity the beauty of piety and knowledge (gnôsis): “O people, earth-born men, who in drunkenness and sleep have surrended yourselves to ignorance of The God, sober up, abandon your intoxication, you who have been bewitched by an irrational (álogos) sleep!”

(28) And those who heard me attended me with one accord. And I say: “Why, o earth-born men, have you surrended yourselves to death, when you have the authority to claim immortality? Change your minds, you who have been fellow travellers of error and companions of ignorance! Free yourselves from the shadowy light! Lay claim to your immortality, shed your destruction!”

(29) And some of them departed, making light of this, surrendering themselves to the road of death; but the rest demanded to be taught, throwing themselves before my feet. But I made them rise, and became the guide back to their origin, teaching them the accounts (lógoi) of how and in what manner they could be saved. And I sowed into them the words (lógoi) of wisdom, and they were nourished with ambrosial water.² And when evening came, and the light of the Sun had almost entirely faded, I enjoined them to give thanks to The God. And when they had completed their thanksgiving, each turned into their own dwelling.³

1: ‘Powers’ must here mean the invisible beings, the gods; in other words, Poimandrēs disappears from sight.
2: Ambrosia (‘without death’) is the drink (or food) of the gods. Here it is a metaphor for the immortalizing doctrine or teaching (lógos), which is presumably identical with the speech of account (lógos) given by Poimandrēs.
3: This paragraph can and probably should be read as meta-textual. As the hearers of Hermes in the narrative, so the readers of his work end their “day” (i.e., their reading) with a prayer (= the next section). In other words, the text encourages us to see ourselves as equivalent to those who heard Hermes in person.

<m. epilogue and prayer>

(30) But I inscribed the benefaction of Poimandrēs within myself,¹ and being fulfilled with what I had desired, I rejoiced. For the sleep of my body² became sobriety of my soul, the shutting of my eyes became true sight, my silence bore my good, and the utterance of the word (lógos) was the begetting of good things. This befell me as I received it from my mind, that is, from Poimandrēs, the word (lógos) of absolute authority;³ when I was inspired by the god, I came (upon) the truth. Therefore, I give blessings to the Father, God, from my entire soul and strength.

(31) Holy is the god and father of everything,
Holy is The God, whose will is fulfilled by his own powers,
Holy is The God, who wishes to be known and is known by his own,
Holy are you, by whose word (lógos) all beings are held together,
Holy are you, whose likeness all of nature (phýsis) sprang up (éphy) as,
Holy are you, whom nature did not shape,
Holy are you, who are stronger than all authority,
Holy are you, who are greater than all excellence,
Holy are you, who are mightier than all praises!

Receive pure verbal⁴ offerings from a soul and heart stretched forth toward you, o unnameable and unspeakable one, who can only be called by silence!

(32) As I pray not to fall short of the knowledge (gnôsis) that is natural to us, accept me and confirm me, and by that grace, let me enlighten those in ignorance of their origin, my siblings and your children.⁵ Therefore I keep faith and bear witness; I hold life and light. Blessed are you, father! Your human being wishes to share in your holiness, as you granted all authority to the same.⁶

1: […]
2: As chapter 1 stated, Hermes had his vision in a sleepless state.
3: Previously, he was called the mind of absolute authority (authentía). Clearly, for this context, the distinction between the two is immaterial.
4: Or ‘rational’, gr. logikaí.
5: In Greek, generic masculines (‘my brothers and your sons’).
6: That is, to the human being.

3 The final prayer in Greek

hágios ho theòs kaì patḕr tôn hólōn,
hágios ho theós, hoû hē boulḕ teleîtai apò tôn idíōn dynámeōn,
hágios ho theós, hòs gnōsthênai boúletai kaì ginṓsketai toîs idíois,
hágios eî, ho lógōi systēsámenos tà ónta,
hágios eî, hoû pâsa phýsis eikṑn éphy,
hágios eî, hòn hē phýsis ouk emórphōsen,
hágios eî, ho pásēs dynámeōs iskhyróteros,
hágios eî, ho pásēs hyperokhês meízōn,
hágios eî, ho kreíttōn tôn epaínōn.

Déxai logikàs thysías hagnàs apò psykhês kaì kardías pròs sè anatetaménēs, aneklálēte, árrhēte, siōpêi phōnoúmene.

Aitouménōi tò mḕ sphalênai tês gnṓseōs tês kat’ ousían hēmôn epíneusón moi kaì endynámōsón me, kaì tês kháritos taútēs phōtísō toùs en agnoíāi toû génous, moû adelphoús, hyioùs dè soû. Dihò pisteúō kaì martyrô; eis zōḕn kaì phôs khōrô. Eulogētòs eî, páter. Ho sòs ánthrōpos synhagiázein soi boúletai, kathṑs parédōkas autôi tḕn pâsan exousían.

4 Greek text

I am still working on the Greek text to be presented here. It will be one more conservative than recent editions (i.e., hewing closer to the text transmitted in the manuscripts), in line with my general opinion that many supposed copying errors are really linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Hermetic authors.