Episode 103: Corpus Hermeticum I, the Poimandres

Corpus Hermeticum Tractate I is one of the few Hermetica with something like a genuine ‘title’: Poimandres, a mysterious word which has been the subject of much speculation – could it be Egyptian, could it be Greek, could it perhaps be a mixture of both? Be that as it may, the Poimandres is the most mind-blowing text in the Corpus Hermeticum. The literary form is apocalyptic: a divine guide, ‘Poimandres, Nous of Power’, guides an unnamed visionary seeker (whom we assume for intertextual reasons to be Hermes Trismegistos himself) on a visionary journey attained in a quasi-dream state, exploring the reality of true being, Hermes’ own noetic divinity, and the story of cosmogenesis.

The Poimandres is one of those texts which just gets better the more you read it. In this episode we discuss the text and many of the questions surrounding its interpretation – who or what is a Poimandres, and how does Hermes fit into this story? What are we to make of the extraordinary framing of the text as a waking vision? What is a nous in the text, and what is the relationship between Poimandres, the Nous of Power, and the noetic experiences of the human being? What is the Hermetist supposed to do with all the information granted in the visions of Poimandres to Hermes?

Come for the creation of reality, the cosmos, and the primordial human being, stay for the ecstatic reunion with the divine nous beyond the ogdoad. ‘There and back again’; this text has it all.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

  • Hermes discusses Poimandres: C.H. XIII 15, 19. Hermetic recommendations of asceticism aside from the Poimandres: C.H. VI.3; X.8; XI.21; XII.11; XIII.3, 7; Ascl. 6.
  • Zosimus on ‘Poimenandra’: M. Berthelot and C.-E. Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs, Paris 1887-88, ii, p. 245.6-7 = Zosimo di Panopoli, Visioni e risvegli, ed. A. Tonelli, Milan 1988, pp. 120.28-122.2.

Secondary:

  • J. J. Collins. Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre. Semeia, 14:1–20, 1979.
  • Kingsley 1993: see below.

Recommended Reading:

On the meaning of the name ‘Poimandres’:

  • H. M. Jackson. A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 128:95–106, 1999 [an intriguing hypothesis based in an Egyptian deity popular in the Fayyum].
  • Anna van der Kerchove. Poimandrès, figure d’autorité dans la tradition hermétique. Revue de l’histoire des religions, 231(1):27–46, Jan.-Mar. 2014 [a good survey of previous theories].
  • Peter Kingsley. Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica. The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 56:1–24, 1993 [gives a revised version of the ‘Coptic origins’ thesis propounded by Scott].
  • Thomas Schneider. The Name and Identity of Poimandres in the First Treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum. In G. Gafus and S.J. Wimmer, editors, „Vom Leben umfangen“. Ägypten, das Alte Testament und das Gespräch der Religionen. Gedenkschrift für Manfred Görg, pages 363–368. Ugarit-Verlag, 2014.

On Rituals of Apparition in the PGM: please see the bibliography to episode 77.

Themes

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