November 25, 2020
Episode 108: Anna van den Kerchove on the Hermetic Way in Antiquity
Anna van den Kerchove has made a major impact on the study of ancient Hermetism with her 2012 book La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques and numerous other publications. Her position is one of a scholar of religions attempting, with care, to reconstruct what we can of the movement behind the theoretical Hermetica.
We ask about her take on what constitutes a Hermetic text, the relationship (possibly) between technical and theoretical/philosophic Hermetica in antiquity, and the question of ‘dualist/pessimist’ vs ‘monist/optimist’ Hermetica (which distinction van den Kerchove rejects as the product of anachronistic ways of thinking). We then get a courageous take on the core doctrines of the Hermetica, namely that
- There is one true god (though there may be many subsidiary entities also called ‘gods’), and
- Human beings have a partly-divine nature, and the duty to strive to return to their divine source.
Van den Kerchove paints a picture of relatively small groupings of Hermetists, quite possibly also belonging to a broad range of other religious and/or philosophical traditions, gathering from time to time in ‘lodges’ to engage in discussions, but also to bring themselves back to the divine source. The primary ritual practice is the dialogue between master and student, as depicted in so many Hermetica, which she interprets as a performative ritual institution, perhaps enacted as an act of reading-aloud, with the passages in Hermetica where Hermes addresses his disciples by name marking especially important points for the transmission of the Hermetic logos.
Anna van den Kerchove is Titulaire de la chaire d’histoire du christianisme ancien et patristique de l’Institut Protestant de Théologie in Paris. Her superb work spans pretty much all of our favourite fields in late-antique religion and the places where it meets philosophy, including lots of important work on aspects of ritual and performativity in ancient religion (and ‘magic’), studies on the Chaldæan Oracles, the Hermetica, the esoteric fringes of Orthodox Christianity, and so on, and more. She is involved in a number of really cool scholarly projects, including the amazing online database of voces magicæ/nomina barbara CENOB, and the Platonismes de l’Antiquité Tardive website, both of which provide unique and essential tools for scholars.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Mahé suggests that the C.H. was put together by Michael Psellos: Hermès en Haute-Égypte: le fragment du discours parfait at les définitions Hermétiques arméniennes (NH VI, 8.8a). Number 7 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1982, p. 19. Compare H. Hornik. The Philosophical Hermetica: Their History and Meaning. Atti della Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, 109:343–91, 1975, pp. 351-2 and K.H. Dannenfeldt. Hermetica philosophica. In O. Kristeller, editor, Catalogus translationum et commentariorum: Medieval and Renaissance Latin Translations and Commentaries, pages 137–51. Washington D.C., 1960, p. 137, who support the Psellos attribution but do not give any evidence. Festugière leaves the question open, thinking that Psellos may well have known our Corpus, but that there is no evidence that he copied it, had it copied, or otherwise transmitted it (La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944-1954, vol. II, p. 2).
- Pierre Hadot, What we call contradictions are not necessarily contradictions for the ancients: Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 2nd edition, 1981, p. 52 and 56.
- Anna van den Kerchove. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
- Idem. Poimandrès, figure d’autorité dans la tradition hermétique. Revue de l’histoire des religions, 231(1):27–46, Jan.-Mar. 2014.
- Idem. La mystique dans les écrits hermétiques. In H. Seng, L. Soares Santoprete, and C. Ombretta Tommasi, editors, Formen und Nebenformen des Platonismus in der Spätantike. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, 2016.
- Idem. Papyrological Hermetica. Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 83(1):97–115, 2017.
- Idem. The Notion of Truth in Some Hermetic Texts and Chaldaean Oracles. Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies, 3:34–53, 2018a.
- Idem. Le corps comme agent dans les prières hermétiques. In Chiara Cremonesi, Ferdinando Fava, and Paolo Scarp, editors, Il corpo in scena. Tecniche, rappresentazioni, performance, Libreria universitaria, Limena, pages 479–95.
- Idem. “Comment convient-il, mon père, que je prie ?” Les prières des hermétistes. In Philippe Hoffmann and Andrei Timotin, editors, Théories et pratiques de la prière à la fin de l’antiquité, volume 185 of Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, sciences religieuses, Brepols, Turnhout, 2020, pages 91–108.
Astrology, Hermes, Hermetism, Interview, Monotheism, Nous, Origen, Philosophy
November 28, 2020
Thanks for another very interesting episode.
Anna refers to a masonic lodge as a possible model for a hermetic group. But I think a sufi lodge is more fitting. As a sufi lodge, contrary to freemasonry, is grouped around one master and his/her disciples.
Do you know the book ‘Esotericism in a manuscript culture: Aḥmad al-Būnī and his readers through the Mamlūk period’ by Noah Daedalus Gardiner? Because it describes how the early sufis came together in a kind of esoteric reading groups or communities. Just like Anne speculates the hermetists did.
The book is about that the preservation and transmission of al-Būnī’s works occurred through what can be characterized as ‘esotericist’ reading communities: small, somewhat effervescent groups of Sufis, primarily or entirely in Egypt, who studied and transmitted his works early-on. These groups who considered themselves members of a spiritual elite entrusted with a body of powerful knowledge that had the potential to be
dangerously misunderstood and misused by less spiritually advanced actors, such that they practiced discretion in the circulation of his works, limiting it to those they considered fellow initiates. Sound familiair?
Some interesting paragraphs:
“The ‘esotericism’ that I attribute to al-Būnī, and the term ‘esotericist reading communities’ that I employ with regard to al-Būnī’s readers during the germinal period of the corpus, is indicative of the importance of bāṭin-oriented hermeneutics to his and his followers’ understanding of the nature of the holy text and of the cosmos as a thing made of signs of God. Just as importantly, the terms denotes their having practiced a high level of exclusivity and discretion in the promulgation and circulation of alBūnī’s texts, both for their own protection and to guard from ‘the vulgar’ what they perceived to be a
powerful body of knowledge.”
“In this brief digression Ibn al-ʿArabī argues as to why the elect community of Sufis learned in the science of letters should refrain from writing about methods of instrumentalizing the khawāṣṣ (‘occult properties’) of the letters for the achievement of material and spiritual goals. In other words, he counsels strongly against
writing books about those operative aspects of the science that some (though by no means all) medieval actors would condemn as siḥr (sorcery)—and that many modern scholars might categorize as ‘magic’—and precisely the sort of books for which his contemporary Aḥmad al-Būnī became best known in the centuries after their deaths.”
So, the sufis, out of protection, also divided the texts between philosophical and practical texts as the latter could be considered by the authorities to be blasphemous and therefore dangerous to discuss. Ibn Arabi warns for negative reactions to which the hypothetical author will be exposed due to the ignorance of the reading public: first, that
exposition of these topics leads, “most of the time”, to suspicion regarding the author’s religiosity by those who misunderstand the principles of the science; second, that it leads to denials of his truthfulness by those ignorant of the intricacies of lettrist practice.
So, I recommend this book as not only examples of real esoteric reading communities but also as a possible real link between the hermetic groups and the early sufi groups, as the esoteric reading community concept originates in Egypt.
November 28, 2020
I don’t know Noah’s book, but I second your recommendation and will even raise it: doesn’t the transmission of logos which van den Kerchove discusses remind you of the tawajjuh between sufi shaykh/pir and murîd? It does me, anyway.
November 28, 2020
Yes! The same importance Anna attaches to Hermes as a psychopomp, or a hermetic master that channels the Logos of Hermes to enlighten a disciple, is what in sufism is called the tawajjuh or transmission of barakah through the sufi murshid to a murid as a sufi master ‘channels’ the Logos (or Nur/Nous) of Muhammed.
In the early sufi reading communities a master wrote a book (or books) for his students. That book was read during sessions where the master could expound on its topics. When the master had passed away the group nominated a new master and the group continued reading and discussing the book(s). When a sufi group did not have an enlightened master (as was the case in the early days) a book by a great master was used as a substitute master.
And some sufi masters who wrote books said that they kept the real secrets outside their books as that esoteric knowledge was dangerous and could only be transferred in person.
November 28, 2020
A new favorite episode. I love the scholarship and courage to provide a coherent, if purely hypothetical, narrative for understanding Hermetic practices. It’s great work and a really fun interview.
After about minute 13, Anna starts to discuss that fascinating flip — in a single text — between “the world is evil” and “the world is good”. She cited an idea that the ancients might not have seen that as a contradiction. (It’s hard to buy that!) Nevertheless, the tension reminds me abductively of the Monotheistic Flip: between “there is one unique real God” and there is an unspeakable “One” god of Plato, Plotinus, etc. The former belief is accompanied by the image of god as a personality and the later with an esoteric/ineffable/perennial Oneness. Yet all instances of monotheism seem to include both, even though that is a contradiction!
(Much as I try, however, i can’t find this perennial Oneness concept in c1300BC Egyptian Aten literature. )
Speaking of Egypt: You end with a discussion of performative readings as an aspect of Hermetic practice and introduce the plausibility of Hermetic readings given in ruins of ancient Egyptian temples. Which is a great mental image, by the way.
My understanding is that performative readings were part of Egyptian religious practice. For instance, the Shabaka stone (800BC) has a performative section. More generally, perhaps Egyptian father-son Instruction Literature was performative.
Any suggestions for a good book to review the diversity of ancient Egyptian religious practices?
Thanks again for the great episode!