December 9, 2020
Episode 109: Christian Bull on the Way of Hermes in Antiquity
[This interview was kindly given very early in the morning at the ESSWE conference in Amsterdam in July of 2019. The background noise you hear is the staff of the Universiteit van Amsterdam setting up the breakfast coffee]
We discuss the Hermetic path in antiquity with Christian Hervik Bull, author of a recent, important take on this old question (Bull 2018). Bull’s reading takes into account the entire Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobæan Hermetica, and the crucial Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead from Nag-Hammadi.
J.-P. Mahé argues (1978, 1982) that the optimist-monistic/pessimist-dualistic divide perceived in the texts could have been bridged by an initiatory path starting with the world-affirming, easygoing Hermetica, leading to the more ascetic, dualistic escape-oriented texts later on: a methodology of seducing the aspirant followed by a rigorous ascesis once the aspirant has been ‘hooked’. Bull reverses the order: the aspirant was put through some kind of initiatory rigours, separating himself from the world (see Tat in C.H. XIII); once he has done this, he is able to undergo the rite of rebirth.
The Poimandres is read as a foundational myth laying out the self-knowledge which will enable the aspirant to progress along the path of Hermes; this is followed in the curriculum by treatises teaching one to despise the body (e.g. C.H. IV); after this knowledge of the self is mastered, the aspirant moves on to knowledge of the kosmos, learning about physics, cosmology, and so on, as well as of the essentially illusory nature of life ‘down here’, which is of course contrasted with the Good and the True, to be found in the higher reaches of reality (e.g. C.H. II, X [‘Key’]; S.H. VI); finally, once these preparatory lessons are mastered, and possibly years of ascetic practices undergone, the candidate presents himself for the rebirth, as depicted in C.H. XIII.
Bull interprets the rebirth, reading C.H. XIII in parallel with the Poimandres and other texts, as a process of self-identification with the Demiurge. But this is not the end of the Hermetic path! There remains the hymn which Tat reminds Hermes he had promised he would hear when he arrived at the Ogdoad. For the final stage, of ascent, you need the Nag-Hammadi texts, and in particular The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead. Once the Hermetist has ascended, he must re-descend to the body, to carry out the ‘caretaker’ role assigned to humans in texts like the Asclepius.
Having laid out the cursus of the Hermetist as he reconstructs it, Bull then answers a number of questions about the milieu in which the Hermetica were written – a milieu of Egyptian priests reinventing themselves in tough times and reaching out to a Græcophone audience – which have convinced quite a few scholars since the publication of his book.
Christian Hervik Bull is Associate Professor at the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, and a researcher and writer working on the history of ideas in late antiquity. He has published a number of articles exploring the Hermetica, esoteric Coptic texts, early Christianity, and related matters, and his 2018 book The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom argues for a practice-based, culturally-contextualised understanding of the Hermetica as expressions of a new Egyptian religious milieu arising from the encounter of the Egyptian temple priesthood with the realities of later Roman Egypt. His scholarship attempts to address ritual practice and other dangerous and tricky subjects, and he has translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Norwegian , which is a fairly rare accomplishment.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Hans D. Betz. The “Mithras Liturgy”: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2003.
- D. W. Bousset. Review of R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres. Gottingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, 167:692–712, 1905.
- Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018.
- Colin Campbell. The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularisation. A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, 5:119–136, 1972.
- F. Cumont. L’Égypte des astrologues. Bruxelles, Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1937.
- J. Dillon. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220. Duckworth, London, 1977.
- A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944-1954. 4 vols.
- Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
- Anna van den Kerchove. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
- J.-P. Mahé. Hermès en Haute-Égypte: les textes hermétiques de Nag Hammadi et leurs parallèles grecs et latins. Number 3 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1978.
- Idem. 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.
- Pingree problematises Cumont’s claims in the text cited above: The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horâs, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 26 (1963): 223– 54 at 227 n. 31.
- Richard Reitzenstein. Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und fruhchristlichen Literatur. Teubner, Leipzig, 1904.
- Thaddeus Zielinski. Hermes und die Hermetik. Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 8-9: 322–72; 25–60, 1905-1906.
- Christian H. Bull. Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism. Aries, 15(1):109–35, 2015.
- Idem. Visionary Experience and Ritual Realism in the Ascent of the Discourse of the Eighth and the Ninth (NHC VI,6). Gnosis, 2:169–93, 2017a.
- Idem. Monkey Business: Magical Vowels and Cosmic Levels in the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (NHC VI, 6). Studi e materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 83(1):75–94, 2017b.
- Idem. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018a.
- Idem. Hermes between Pagans and Christians in Fourth Century Egypt: The Nag Hammadi Hermetica in Context. In Hugo Lundhaug and Lance Jenott, editors, The Nag Hammadi Codices and Late Antique Egypt, pages 207–60. Mohn Siebeck, Tübingen, 2018b.