Episode 106: Silent Encounters: The Esoteric in the Ancient Hermetica
The Hermetica abound in elements of esoteric discourse: rhetorics of initiation and initiated silence, secret teachings, hidden texts, and ineffable encounters with the highest principles of reality through special faculties of consciousness. In this episode we look at these elements of the esoteric thematically.
We then turn to two texts, the deeply-fascinating Corpus Hermeticum XIII, The Secret Discourse of Hermes to Tat on the Mountain, on the Rebirth and the Duty of Silence, and NHC VI.6, The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead. In these works we see depicted the actual process of initiation into the lofty reaches of Hermetic transformation, witnessing (in literary form) the transformation of the disciple into a living, immortal god here on earth in the case of C.H. XIII, and his elevation through visionary ascent to the eighth and ninth spheres, where god is to be found unmediated by any astral mechanics or physical senses, in the case of The Eighth and the Ninth. It gets very, very esoteric.
Primary Sources for this Episode:
We use The Budé text of Nock and Festugère for the Corpus, and J.M. Robinson, editor. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Brill, Leiden, 1977 for The Ennead Reveals the Ogdoad. All refs below that are just a Roman numeral followed by a number are to the Corpus Hermeticum. NHC stands for Nag Hammadi Corpus, the standard reference-name for texts found in that esteemed library; NHC is followed by codex-number (Roman), tractate number, subsection and line numbers where appropriate.
- Hermes inscribes the stelae in the Korê Kosmou: S.H. 23.5; cf. the end of the same tractate. Making the sacred turquoise tablet in The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead: NHC VI.6 61.25 ad fin.
- Other Hermetica self-described as secret texts: III, entitled hieros logos; V 1; XIV 1.
- The appeal to keep the wisdom taught in the text secret: Asclep. 1, 32; XIII passim. The ‘hidden hymn’ XIII 16.
- αἴνιγμα: XIII 1, 2.
The silence-theme in the Hermetica:
- Literal silence of the disciple: I 16; Asclep. 1, 32; XIII 8, 16, 22.
- Silent hymn: XIII 16.
- Silence as worship: Asclep. 1; X 5.
- The womb of the ἄνθρωπος is σοφία νοερὰ ἐν σιγῇ: XIII 2. For more on ‘Silence’ as a higher reality of some kind, see Clem. Al. Exc. e Theod. 29-30; Irenæus Advers. hær. I.1.1-2; 5.1-3; 8.1; Hippolytus Adv. hær. VI.29.3.
Initiation, esoteric exclusion:
- Not everyone can attain to Hermetic spiritual heights/noêsis/encounter with god: I 29; II 16; IV 3, 4-5; VII 1; IX 10; XII 4; XIII 13.
- The good utterly without comparandum and not perceptible: IV 6-11, esp. 9. Cf. II 12-17; XI 5; XII 1. Stobæus fr. II i 26.
- God has all names/no name: Asclep. 20; V 1.
Special epistemological faculties:
- Nous is present as a strongly-transcendent faculty in very many Hermetica. Passages of special interest are:
Nous and pistis: IX 10 (cf. NHC III.5.142, 12-III.5.124, 16).
- The eye of nous: V 2. Eyes of nous: X 4-5.
- Eyes of the heart: VII 1.
- Transcendent vision: I 1; XIII 3, 13, etc. Ogdoad Reveals Ennead: NHC VI.6 57, 28-58, 22.
The Ogdoad Reveals the Ennead:
- Previous preparations for the ascent through ritually-pure life and mastery of certain bodies of textual knowledge: 56, 27-57, 1; 54, 6-18.
- Central prayer, asking for the ascent: 57, 3-9.
- The vision: 57, 28-58, 22.
- The ascent: 58, 22-60, 1.
- On the Lesemysterium: coined by Reitzenstein specifically vis à vis Corpus Hermeticum XIII, in Hellenischen Mysterienreligionen. Nach ihren Grundgedanken und Wirkungen (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner, 1956) 51–52, 64.
- Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
On the question of esotericism in the teaching practices of the ancient Hermetists, see:
- Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018.
- David Porreca. How Hidden was God? Revelation and Pedagogy in Ancient and Medieval Hermetic Writings. In April D. DeConick and Grant Adamson, editors, Histories of the Hidden God: Concealment and Revelation in Western Gnostic, Esoteric, and Mystical Traditions, pages 137–48. Routledge, Abingdon/New York, NY, 2014.
- Anna van den Kerchove. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
On Corpus Hermeticum XIII, of special interest:
- Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018 [A detailed treatment of “receptive silence” in CH XIII in ‘The Ritual of Rebirth’ pp. 264-71].
- Jørgen Podemann Sørensen. The Secret Hymn in Hermetic Texts. In Christian H. Bull, Liv Lied, and John D. Turner, editors, Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices, volume 76 of Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, pages 465–86. Brill, Leiden, 2011.
- Karl-Wolfgang Tröger. Mysterienglaube und Gnosis in Corpus Hermeticum XIII. Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1971.
On The Ennead Reveals the Ogdoad, of special interest:
- Christian H. Bull. 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.
- Jean-Pierre Mahé. Mental Faculties and Cosmic Levels in The Eighth and the Ninth (NH VI,6) and Related Hermetic Writings, in The Nag Hammadi Texts in the History of Religions: Proceedings of the International Conference in Copenhagen, September 19-24, 1995, 2002.
- Renata-Gabriela Tatomir. Sacred Characters and Ritual Drama.The Synchretic Spiritual Background of The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, i.e. the Nag Hammadi Codex VI.6 (1 st century AD). Classical Papers, xi:167–80, 2012.