Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth

Dan Merkur

University of Toronto

In Gnosis (Merkur 1991:56-73), I argued that the gnostic tradition that passed from late antique Gnosticism through Judaism and Islam, before it influenced Western esotericism, engaged throughout its history in practices of both mystical visions and unions. In some eras, the practices were more elaborate than they were in others. In the Paracelsian tradition of spiritual alchemy, initiates sought four specific mystical experiences in a deliberate sequence in order to inculcate a particular doctrinal orientation to mystical practice and metaphysics. Comparably complex mystical initiations have rarely been documented in the general history of religion. The literature occasionally suggests that a single technique of ecstasy, such as reciting a Hindu or Buddhist mantra, or the Muslim la illaha, or the Christian Jesus prayer, is able to induce several experiences en route to the desired experience of union. However, the use of multiple techniques to induce more than one desired experience is comparatively rare. One may point to shamanism (Merkur 1992) and Tibetan tantra (Hopkins 1977:191-2); but the gnostic tradition is the only instance in a Western culture that has been documented to date. No doubt the topic will repay further research. In this article, I will present my findings concerning a second such instance: the initiatory experiences of the Hermetists of late antiquity, which were legendary and perhaps historical forerunners of Western alchemical initiations.

Hermetism was a Hellenistic system of occultism that flourished in Egypt in the first centuries C.E. It persisted as a living tradition in the city of Haran in Syria as late as the tenth century, when its leading exponent, Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), established a pagan Hermetic school in Baghdad (Affifi 1951:844; Merkur 1998:20-21).

Conjunctio oppositorum, from Nikolaus Mueller, Glauben, Wissen, und Kunst, (Mainz: 1822)

In Haran, Hermetism had been syncretized with late Neoplatonism prior to the rise of Islam (Green 1992:168). The earliest alchemists in the Islamicate included Hermetic authors who wrote under Arabicized pseudonyms: Balinas (Apollonius of Tyana) and Artefius (Orpheus) (Weisser 1980; Della Vida 1938). Prominent Muslim philosophersal-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and otherswere influenced by Hellenistic Hermetic writings (Genequand 1987-88; Affifi 1951). Hermetism later made its way west, possiblythe question remains openas a living esoteric tradition. The Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, composed circa 1210, blended the quest of the Holy Grail with Hermetic esotericism (Kahane & Kahane 1965). Scottish versions of the Old Charges of Freemasonry, whose earliest extant manuscripts date from around 1400, assert that geometry was founded before the Flood by Jabel son of Lamech, who inscribed the science on pillars of stone that survived the Flood and were rediscovered by "the great Hermarius," who taught the science to humanity (Stevenson 1988:19-22). Marsilio Ficino translated a collection of Hellenistic Hermetic documents from Greek into Latin in the 1460s (Yates 1964), since which time the Corpus Hermeticum has been a mainstay of Western esotericism (Faivre 1995).

Freemasonry's legend of Hermes gained new meaning when the Hermetic elements of Renaissance esotericism was grafted onto the craft, beginning around 1599 (Stevenson 1988:22,44,49). Hermetism had its origin in age-old practices of Egyptian magic. To the concerns of the oldest Hermetic literature with conjuring spirits and animating statues, writings of the Hellenistic era added Greco-Babylonian astrology and the then newly developed practice of alchemy (Fowden 1993:65-68). The Egyptian god Thoth, whom the Greeks identified with Hermes and termed Trismegistus ("Thrice-Great"), was portrayed in the Hermetic literature as the divine founder of these occult practices. Other Hermetic texts,

which scholars since Festugiere (1954) have distinguished as philosophical literature, credit Hermes Trismegistus with the revelation of a distinctive trend in late antique philosophy. Festugiere argued that "philosophic Hermetism" and "occult Hermetism" had little to do with each other. Fowden (1993) has argued, however, that the two bodies of literature were not mutually exclusive. They should instead be understood as components of a single Hermetic worldview. I would go still farther. In my view, the philosophic texts of Hermetism can be understood as efforts by ancient theurgists to express themselves in philosophic terms. Like the medieval philosophies of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the philosophy of Hermetism originated as a rationalization and systematization of existing religious usages. Despite Hermetism's debts, among other sources, to Aristotelian, Stoic, Platonic, and Jewish thought (Fowden 1993:36-37; Pearson 1990), Hermetic philosophy articulated a perspective that was consistent with Hermetic occultism.

Hermetism is often and wrongly confused with Gnosticism, which similarly originated in Egypt in roughly the same era. For present purposes, a few salient points of contrast will suffice. Like the God of Stoicism, the Hermetic God was omnipresent and omniscient through the material cosmos. In Gnosticism, by contrast, God was transcendent, and the physical universe was an evil place created by an evil Demiurge (van den Broek 1998). Hermetic ethics celebrated the divine within the world; Gnostic ethics were abstemious, ascetic efforts to escape from the world (Mahé 1998).

There were also differences in their valuations of visions. Jonas (1969) drew attention to the fact that the motif of heavenly ascension was originally intended, for example in Jewish apocalyptic literature, as an objective reality, but was subsequently transformed into an allegory of the mystical path. The mystical appropriation

of the ascension motif was complete by the second century era of the Alexandrine Christian fathers, St. Clement and Origen (Danielou 1973). The allegorical tradition was also present in the Gnostic literature of Nag Hammadi, although in a slightly different manner. Referring to experiences of visions in general, The Exegesis on the Soul 34 stated: "Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself....This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father" (Robinson 1988:196). For the Gnostics, as for the Alexandrine fathers, ascension was one among several literary tropes that could signify mystical experiences of highly varied manifest contents.

In the Hermetic literature, as I shall show, different varieties of mystical experience were each associated with a specific celestial region on the trajectory of ascension. For Hermetists, "ascension" was not a mere metaphor that could be used interchangeably with "resurrection" or "ransom from captivity." A single region of the sky might be termed the seven planetary heavens or the twelve zodiacal mansions, depending on whether it was subdivided horizontally or vertically; but however the region of astral determinism was called, it differed both spatially and ontologically from the eighth heaven beyond the planets; and the ninth heaven differed yet again. Typologically, the Hermetic view may be seen as a conflation of apocalyptists' heavens with the hypostases of Neoplatonism. Whereas apocalyptists' heavens were all made out of the same sort of ethereal stuff, Hermetic heavens formed three distinctive states of being.

Eliade (1982:298-301) recognized the initiatory character of the so-called philosophical texts of Hermetism, and Fowden (1993:104-115) clarified the basic contours of the mystical experiences that the texts describe as "rebirth." The following account builds on the fine presentation by Fowden but places greater emphasis on the ontological implications of rebirth.


A Hermetic initiate began by neglecting the sensible world in order to achieve an intellectual detachment. Corpus Hermeticum XIII instructed:

Leave the senses of the body idle, and the birth of divinity will begin. Cleanse yourself of the irrational torments of matter....

They use the prison of the body to torture the inward person with the sufferings of sense. Yet they withdraw (if not all at once) from one to whom god has shown mercy, and this is the basis of rebirth, the means and method. (C.H. XIII.7; trans. Copenhaver 1992:50-51)

In Corpus Hermeticum I, Poimandres delivered an equivalent teaching. The sense of self, which is ordinarily based in proprioception of the body, was to be distinguished intellectually from sensation of the body. The resultant idea of self as a purely intelligible quiddity was to be made the basis for an ascetic abandonment of earthly attachments.

In releasing the material body you give the body itself over to alteration, and the form that you used to have vanishes. To the demon you give over your temperament, now inactive. The body's senses rise up and flow back to their particular sources, becoming separate parts and mingling again with the energies. And feeling and longing go on toward irrational nature (C.H. I.24; Copenhaver 1992:5-6).

The passage continues with a description of the person's ascension through the seven planetary zones, where he or she discards "the effects of the cosmic framework": increase and decrease, machination, the illusion of longing, the ruler's arrogance, unholy

presumption and daring recklessness, evil impulses that come from wealth, and the deceit that lies in ambush (C.H. I.24; Copenhaver 1992:6). The ascension was literal, but mental rather than bodily. The ascent beyond the seven planetary zones of the sensible world was a motion of the mind, while it was yet in the living body, in such a way that it became free of the body's subjection to astral determinism. The ascension or, as we should today say, transcendence, was accomplished through a philosophical ascesis. It consisted of a discarding of the influences of astral determinism on the body, its senses and passions, through the achievement, via ascesis, of an experiential sense of the mind's detachment from the body. For Hermetists, such an ascension constituted an ontological change in the status of the mind.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII expressed a functionally equivalent doctrine through different motifs. The negative powers were twelve and implicitly zodiacal; but mind had a decad of powers with which to expel them. "The arrival of the decad sets in order a birth of mind that expels the twelve; we have been divinized by this birth" (C.H. XIII.10; Copenhaver 1992:51). For Hermetists, the Neopythagorean decad was a classic proof of the existence of mind. The first ten numbers were a class of ideas that inhered in the structures of the cosmos and, as such, were paradigmatic of the distinctions between idea and matter, and mind and body. The inculcation of the paradigm, through meditation on the decad, served to detach the mind from the senses and so transcend the astral determinism to which a Hermetist's sensible body was subject.

Hermetic initiates were to confirm the validity of locating their senses of self in their minds, and not in their bodies, by experiencing visions to the same effect. Corpus Hermeticum XIII, which is subtitled "On being born again, and on the promise to be silent," had Hermes explain this detail to his son Tat in the course of

An image of Hermes, from a Greek vase.

discussing his rebirth:

Seeing [. . .] within me an unfabricated vision that came from the mercy of god, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind....Color, touch or size I no longer have; I am a stranger to them" (C.H. XIII.3; Copenhaver 1992:49-50).

By whatever means Hermetists induced their visions, they experienced visions whose apparent autonomy, or lack of auto-suggestion, was treated as evidence that the "unfabricated vision...came from the mercy of god." Self was consequently to be identified with the mind beholding the vision, rather than with the body that was oblivious to it.

Once a Hermetic initiand had become persuaded that self was exclusively intelligible, further meditations worked with the newly acquired sense of self. Corpus Hermeticum XI recommended meditations on the cosmic extent of one's own mind as a means to apprehend God. The fact that the human mind can think about any topic in the cosmos was used to prove that the cosmos is intelligible. The conclusion that the human mind contains the cosmos presupposed an idealist ontology, in this case, an equation of the cosmos and the idea of the cosmos:

Consider this for yourself: command your soul to travel to India, and it will be there faster than your command. Command it to cross over to the ocean, and again it will quickly be there, not as having passed from place to place but simply as being there. Command it even to fly up to heaven, and it will not lack wings. Nothing will hinder it, not the fire of the sun, nor the aether, nor the swirl nor the bodies of the other stars . . . You must think of god in this way, as having everything - the cosmos, himself <the> universe - like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god (C.H. XI.19-20; Copenhaver 1992:41).


This Hermetic meditation may be seen as a variant of a Middle Platonic argument about the performative nature of language that is found, for example, in Philo of Alexandria. Philo (1929:187) wrote:

At this moment my ruling part is in literal fact in my body, but virtually in Italy or Sicily, when it is pondering on these countries, and in heaven, when it is considering heaven. Accordingly it often happens that people who are actually in unconsecrated spots are really in most sacred ones, when they are forming images of all that pertains to virtue. (Legum Allegoria I, 62)

Unlike Stoicism, which introduced the term spermatikos logos precisely in order to denote ideas that had performative power (Merkur 1991:101-3), Hermetism chose to ignore Philo's distinction between the literal and virtual. In C.H. XI, self was to be imagined as an unembodied mind that was able instantaneously to be anywhere inside (or outside) the cosmos. The mental exercise was to be treated as an analogy that suggested the nature of God.

Further understanding of the initiatory shift from visionary experience to the apprehension of divine Mind is provided in a text that was not contained in the Corpus Hermeticum, but was instead rediscovered in 1947 in the ancient collection of Gnostic texts that were found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Resemblances to the Middle Platonism of Albinus have suggested a date possibly in the second century CE (Parrott 1988:322). Entitled The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, this long lost text enriches our understanding of the rebirth discussed in C.H. XI.

The Discourse describes Hermes Trismegistus utilizing the technique successfully before he guides his son in the same practice in greater detail. The first part of Hermes' mystical experience

was a vision that he interpreted allegorically (Pagels 1979:136-37):

Lord, grant us the truth in the image. Allow us through the spirit to see the form of the image that has no deficiency, and receive the reflection of the pleroma from us through our praise (Disc. 8-9 57; Robinson 1988:324).

Having interpreted the image in a spiritual manner, Hermes concluded that a divine Mind had fashioned the image within his soul and he presently achieved an experience of communion with the Mind that he postulated:

I [am Mind and] I see another Mind, the one that [moves] the soul! I see the one that moves me from pure forgetfulness. You give me power! I see myself! I want to speak! Fear restrains me. I have found the beginning of the power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning. I see a fountain bubbling with life. I have said, my son, that I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand." (Disc. 8-9 58; Robinson 1988:324-25).

The use of the second person in Hermes's statement, "You give me power!", indicates a sense of encounter with a divine Presence that Hermes experienced as a personal being. The next statement, "I see myself!", expresses the Hermetic teaching that divine Mind is one's true self. Hermes did not, in this passage, experience an identity or union with Mind. At this stage in his rebirth, he experienced a sense of the presence of Mind that he interpreted doctrinally as himself.

The vision of Mind was simultaneously a means that was utilized by "the one that [moves] the soul" in order to communicate with Hermes:

"The power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning" transcended the vision, but caused its occurrence. Corpus Hermeticum II explained that "God is not mind, but he is the cause of mind's being; he is not spirit, but the cause of spirit's being" (C.H. II.14; Copenhaver 1992:11).

Hermes' son soon had ecstatic experiences of his own, and his comments make clear that visionary experiences were located as experiences of the Ogdoad or Eighth, while intellectual intuitions were located in the Ninth. In the Hermetic system, a person who was having a vision had transcended his bodily senses and had, as such, ascended beyond the physical realm of the seven planetary heavens. The Hermetists' mind or self found itself in a condition of existence that was entirely literal, even though it was mental rather than bodily. Visionary experience was not a state of consciousness but a state of being, a discrete rank or stage in the great chain of being. The Eighth cosmic region was, in Corbin's (1972) sense of the term, an "imaginal" realm, with its own epistemic and ontic integrity. We might best approximate the Hermetic nuance in modern idiom by speaking not of an Eighth celestial region, but of an Eighth "dimension."

To go on to reach the Ninth cosmic region, the imaginal realm of forms had itself to be transcended. Both meditations and mystical experiences had to be limited to intellectual abstractions:

"Trismegistus, let not my soul be deprived of the great divine vision. For everything is possible for you as master of the universe."

"Return to <praising>, my son, and sing while you are silent. Ask what you want in silence."

When he had finished praising he shouted, "Father Trismegistus! What shall I say? We have received this light. And I myself see this same vision in you. And I see the eighth and the souls that are

in it and the angels singing a hymn to the ninth and its powers. And I see him who has the power of them all, creating those <that are> in the spirit" (Disc. 8-9 59-60; Robinson 1988:325).

The assertion that "he enters into the understanding of the eighth that reveals the ninth" (Disc. 8-9 63; Robinson 1988:326) epitomizes this part of the mystical technique. Visualization practices were used to induce visions of images that had forms. The visualizations were known to be fabricated, but the visions that they triggered were thought to be unfabricated. These reflections on the visions were made during the visionary state while in the company of the envisioned souls and angels. Due presumably to the visions' coherence or intelligibility, initiates postulated the reality of a Mind that was responsible for ideas that took visionary form as images. This Mind was not manifest to the initiate, but the images that manifested its ideas were. The text does not mention whether Mind, in this context, was human or divine.

Once the ninth had been postulated on the basis of the evidence of the eighth, the initiate was ready to move on to the ninth itself. The postulation of Mind was to be used to induce a purely intelligible experience of the divine Creator of "those <that are> in the spirit." Having perceived the intellectual necessity, during visionary experience, of postulating a Mind beyond one's own, a Hermetist was to accomplish a final ontological movement by proceeding from vision to union. The initiand was to verify the divinity of the human mind, and its equivalence to divine Mind, by seeking an intellectual mystical experience. Corpus Hermeticum XIII described the experience as follows:

"Father, I see the universe and I see myself in mind."

"This, my child, is rebirth: no longer picturing things in three bodily dimensions. (C.H. XIII.13; Copenhaver 1992:52)

The text is equivocal whether the universe was beheld through sense perception as the content of an extravertive mystical experience, or as a content of mental images during a vision, or as an intellectual experience of ideas. Whichever may have been intended, both the universe and self were located in the mind of God; and the intellectual experience of the primacy of mind constituted an ontological shift, a transcending of vision and a becoming of mind, that constituted the Hermetist's rebirth.

Corpus Hermeticum I concluded: "This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god" (C.H. I.26; Copenhaver 1992:6). An intellectual mystical union accomplished the Hermetist's divinization because the Hermetic God was the Mind that contains the cosmos as its thoughts. Like the Gods of Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy, the Hermetic God was a Mind that was immanent throughout the cosmos. Corpus Hermeticum V expressed the doctrine in its title, "That god is invisible and entirely visible." In it, Hermes stated:

The one who alone is unbegotten is also unimagined and invisible, but in presenting images of all things he is seen through all of them and in all of them....the lord, who is ungrudging, is seen through the entire cosmos....there is nothing in all the cosmos that he is not. He is himself the things that are and those that are not. Those that are he has made visible; those that are not he holds within him (C.H. V.2; Copenhaver 1992:18).

Having attained unity with the God whose thought was the universe, a Hermetist was presumably empowered to work magic by commanding his thoughts. As a rationalization of already existing Hermetic practices of conjuring, Hermetic rebirth may, as Nock (1933:12) suggested, have been "a curious sacrament of auto-suggestion." Let me conclude, however, by addressing a different set of concerns.


So far as I know, the Hermetic system was the earliest in the West to propose a mystical initiation, consisting of multiple experiences, that is simultaneously a journey through places and a series of changes in the ontology of the self. Its ascension to the sky compares with Jewish and Christian apocalypticism; but its division of ontological states compares with Neoplatonic distinctions among sensibles, intermediates or divisible intelligibles, and indivisible intelligibles. This sequence, which can already be discerned in Iamblichus, was eventually formalized by Proclus as three mystical stages of purgation, illumination, and union. However, the Hermetists slotted imaginals into the middle position that Neoplatonism limited to empirically demonstrable arithmeticals and geometricals. This substitution brought Hermetism to a position on visions that differed from the reductive skepticism of Neoplatonism, which treated visions as ideas that were misrepresented by the senses in the form of images.

The Hermetic position also differed from the pure projections that Gnostics held visions to be. For Hermetists, the imaginal was not a projection whose ever various and impredictable content becomes increasingly pure as one's mind purifies in its progress toward God. The imaginal was instead topographical, an actual and predictable itinerary in a visionary topos that had ontological integrity and coherence.

Although The Discourse was not transmitted to the West in the Corpus Hermeticum, the Hermetic concept of ontologically distinctive locations along an itinerary has been integral to Western esotericism for centuries. Because the Hermetic tradition survived without apparent interruption from late antiquity to be taught at least as late as eleventh century Baghdad, it is not surprising that a series of initiatory experiences were portrayed as an itinerary across nine mountains in Suhrawardi's Treatise of the Birds (1982).

To Suhrawardi, Sufism also owed the introduction of the 'alam al-mithal, the "world of imagination" (Rahman 1964). The notion of an initiatory itinerary in the world of imagination was formalized, or at least made less esoteric, in the Sufism of Najm ad-Din al-Kubra (Merkur 1991:223, 234-35); and its passage from Islam to western Europe may be assumed.

Interestingly, Widengren (1950:77-85) demonstrated that the ancient motif of ascension to an audience before a heavenly god was replaced, in the Arabic Hermetic literature, by the motif of entering a subterranean chamber where Hermes sits enthroned, holding a book in his hand. Widengren suggested that the descent of Balinas (the Arabic Apollonius of Tyana) to acquire the Emerald Table of Hermes, along with variant narratives, blended the motif of an initiatory ascension with the motif, found in Egyptian and Hellenistic tales, of the discovery of a book in a subterranean chamber. The motif of the cave of initiation, which found its widest audience through the tale of Aladdin in the 1001 Nights, may also have been influenced by Porphyry's On the Cave of the Nymphs (Taylor 1969), in which a passage in Homer was allegorized as an image of the cosmos. Whatever its sources, the motif of an alchemical initiation by means of a subterranean itinerary is earliest attested in the writings of medieval Arabic Hermetists. By this route, the motif of ascension in late antique Hermetism was likely historically antecedent not only to such celebrated European alchemical motifs as the Cave of the Philosophers, but also to the climactic encounters in Novalis' Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1796) and Ferdinand Ossendowski's Beasts, Men and Gods (1922).



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