Wildberg The general discourses of Hermes Trismegistus

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The General Discourses of Hermes Trismegistus Christian Wildberg Princeton University Making sense of the diverse forms and formats of extant Hermetic literature is difficult enough, even if one excludes the so-called ‘technical’ Hermetica from consideration.1 What is not difficult is to see that, broadly speaking, the Greek tractates assembled in the so-called Corpus Hermeticum, the Latin Asclepius, and the three Hermetic texts found in the Coptic Nag Hammadi Library2 all belong to the genre of semi-philosophical didactic prose literature. But within that class of written instruction we encounter vastly differing sub-genres: CH I (Poimandres) is a first-person reminiscence of a dream vision that took the form of a dialogue between the divinity (the Mind or Nous) and the narrator, presumably Hermes himself; CH II is the ostensible protocol of a lively dialogue between Hermes and his pupil Asclepius, as are CH VI and XI and the Asclepius; CH III is a Septuagint-style, authorial-voice narrative of the creation of the world; CH IV, V, VIII, X, XII and XIII are rather lopsided dialogues between Hermes and another Hermetist acolyte, Tat;3 CH VII is a homily addressed to a group of laymen (anthropoi); CH XI is a kind of lecture (logos) delivered by the divine Nous to Hermes, who, on this occasion, does not seem to be dreaming; CH XIV is a letter, written to Asclepius; CH XVI purports to be Asclepius’ executive summary of Hermetic doctrine addressed to King Ammon; the very short fragment listed under CH XVII has Tat talking with a king, presumably also Ammon; CH XVIII is a royal panegyric. Finally, NHC VI 7 is a prayer, as


On the ‘technical’ (as opposed to ‘theoretical’) Hermetica, see e.g. Fowden, Egyptian

Hermes, 57–74. 2

These are The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (Nag Hammadi Codex VI 6), The Prayer of

Thanksgiving (NHC VI 7), and Ascelpius 21–29 (NHC VI 8). 3

So is presumably NHC VI 6, although the name Tat never mentioned and the interlocutor

has been given a much more active role.


are some passages in the extant Greek tractates, and the recently discovered Greek and Armenian aphorisms are gnomologiai.4 The diversity of Hermetic sub-genres is rather bewildering and raises the problem of the literary coherence of this sort of literature, or lack thereof. Historically speaking, it may well be that no such coherence, or even any attempt to procure it, ever existed in antiquity; it is quite possible, even probable, that multiple authors in different places over an extended period of time were writing Hermetica.5 But then again, the present dissonance cannot be taken as indicative of the state of affairs in antiquity, since there is no reason to believe that what survives in our manuscripts descended as a whole from an ancient collection similarly arranged. What we have is, in parts at least, the product of Byzantine scribes and scholars.6 Still, one cannot help but notice that the vast majority of Hermetic writings are dialogues. If one abstracts from their actual contents and brackets the question of internal coherence,7 a very charitable reader might detect the faint echo of some sort of narrative progression. For example, at the beginning of the Greek collection the reader witnesses Hermes’ initiation into the ‘knowledge of god’, followed by his taking up the vocation of a prophet (Poimandres). The main body of the collection, then, consists of a set of tractates in which Hermes instructs two of his disciples, interspersed with further revelations directly from the divine mind. Finally, at the collection’s end, the message of Hermetism is taken to a 4

On the Coptic prayer, see Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, 328f. — On the collections of

sayings see Mahé, Hermès en Haute-Égypte, 355–405; Paramelle and Mahé, Extraits hermétiques, 109–39 and Nouveaux parallèles, 115–34. A translation can be found in Salaman et al., 101–22. 5

Ever since Reitzenstein, Poimandres 190–192, the question unity of the Greek Corpus

Hermeticum has been debated vigorously: see Festugière, Révélation II 1–8; Zielinski, Hermes und die Hermetik, 321–372; Bousset, Review of Kroll, 749–751; Bräuninger, Untersuchungen, 40; Creed, Hermetic Writings, 518–527; Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII, 43–44. 6

On the distribution of the various tractates in our codices, see Scott, Hermetica, I 17–20.


Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII 44, agrees with Bousset that “one cannot establish a

systematic interpretation to cover the entire corpus.”


royal court by the master’s disciples: clearly a story line readers familiar with the Septuagint could relate to. Interestingly, it demonstrates, in and of itself, that Hermetism, despite its patent otherworldliness, might well have been self-conscious of the fact that it too, just like any other religion or philosophy, has political implications. Even ‘Hermes’ cannot refrain from speaking to power, yet the precise nature of his political message is now hard to discern. Nor is it possible to exclude the possibility that the point of the court-Hermetica (CH XVI–XVIII) was merely a rhetorical one, viz. to persuade the multitude thirsting for salvation of the intriguing fiction that even kings once paid attention to the teachings of Hermes. To return to the question of literary genre, the colorful picture described so far is further complicated by the fact that within the texts themselves we encounter references to different kinds of communication of doctrine.8 We hear of a ‘perfect discourse’,9 of diexodikoi logoi,10 of exôtikoi logoi;11 of zôidiakoi logoi;12 of a ‘secret discourse’ (CH XIII), a ‘holy discourse’ (CH III), and, most prominently, in references scattered throughout the Corpus Hermeticum, of so-called ‘general discourses’, genikoi logoi.13


For an overview of the bewildering variety of Hermetica see still Kroll, Hermes

Trismegistos, 794–799. 9

λόγος τέλειος: the phrase is usually rendered as ‘perfect discourse’, but Kingsley

‘Introduction’ 18 points out correctly that its semantic scope is much wider than any English translation: “This name could be translated in many ways — as The perfect discourse, The complete discourse, The final discourse, The initiatory discourse; as The teaching that is fulfilled; as The final reckoning; or as The last thing to be said.” 10

Cyril of Alexandria refers to, and quotes from, διεξοδικοὶ λόγοι addressed to Tat; see

Contra Julianum I 46.29 and II 30.18 (see Nock-Festugière, Corpus Hermeticum IV 135 and 140). The precise meaning of διεξοδικός in the Hermetic context is unclear; the expression evokes some sort of detailed expository discourse. 11

In a Latin translation from original Greek, Ascl. 1 (Nock-Festugière II 297.6).


In a Coptic translation from original Greek, NHC VI 6, 63, 2–3.


The Latin term exotica and the Coptic zôidiakoi may well approximate translations of

diexodikoi, in which case they are the same and the main contrast that we are dealing with is


Scholars have argued that this latter term presumably refers to a sub-collection that bore the title General Discourses and was aimed at the novice Hermetist. In this paper, I want to suggest that it is more likely that the genikoi logoi never existed in any written form. Instead, they may have been, within the didactic imaginary of the Hermetica, those occasions of oral instruction from which the tractates of published written instruction ostensibly emerged. Once one begins to scrutinize the phenomenon of Hermetic cross-references, a conclusion along these lines does indeed suggest itself, even though, admittedly, it is impossible to reach certainty in such matters. Let us begin by looking at a longstanding puzzle regarding the title of the ninth tractate which has given considerable pause to scholars who have no idea how to solve it. The manuscript tradition renders the title of CH IX as follows, 96,1–3: Περὶ νοήσεως καὶ αἰθήσεως. ὅτι ἐν μόνῳ τῷ θεῷ τὸ καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, ἀλλαχόθι δὲ οὐδαμοῦ On Thought and Perception. That the Beautiful and Good is only in God and Nowhere Else. This is typically reproduced in our modern editions like this: Περὶ νοήσεως καὶ αἰσθήσεως. [ὅτι ἐν μόνῳ τῷ θεῷ τὸ καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, ἀλλαχόθι δὲ οὐδαμοῦ] The puzzle is twofold: first, the ninth tractate is indeed a treatise on thinking and perceiving, and on different levels of being (god, universe, man), but it has absolutely nothing to do with the beautiful and good residing in god alone, as the second line of the title announces. Second, the entire ὅτι-clause restates almost verbatim the title of the sixth treatise.14 What in the world has happened here? Scott (II, 205) explains: “The contents of the discourse are correctly described by the words Περὶ νοήσεως καὶ

between them and the genikoi logoi; see Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII, 69f. with notes 55 and 56. 14

See 72.1-2: Ὅτι ἐν μόνῳ θεῷ τὸ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, ἀλλαχόθι δὲ οὐδαμοῦ.


αἰσθήσεως. The words which follow (ὅτι ἐν μόνῳ τῷ θεῷ τὸ καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, ἀλλαχόθι δὲ οὐδαμοῦ) have been transferred to this place by error from the heading of Corp. VI.” For Reitzenstein (194) the error borders on stupidity: “Daß der zweite Teil eine törichte Wiederholung der Aufschrift des VI. (bezw. VII.) Traktates ist, bedarf keines Beweises.” And Nock and Festugière (I 96, n. 1) too cannot do more than state the obvious: “Ce sous-titre, ici fort déplacé, répond à VI 4–5”, and the same goes for Holzhausen (I 84, n. 227): the second title “steht hier sicherlich an falscher Stelle”. But how precisely should one imagine that the title of one treatise has become ‘transferred’ or ‘déplacé’ in such way that it now appears as the subtitle of another treatise with which it has no obvious connection? Why would anyone do such a ‘töricht’ thing? The solution to the puzzle is the simple observation that the second part of the title of CH IX is no ‘sous-titre’ at all, but rather a secondary cross-reference to CH VI which has been copied, in a rather careless fashion, at the wrong place into the text. This becomes apparent at once when one continues to read the opening lines of CH IX: Χθές, ὦ Ἀσκληπιέ, τὸν τέλειον ἀποδέδωκα λόγον· νῦν δὲ ἀναγκαῖον ἡγοῦμαι ἀκόλουθον ἐκείνῳ καὶ τὸν περὶ αἰςθήςεως λόγον διεξελθεῖν. Yesterday, Asclepius, I delivered the perfect discourse; now, however, I think that as a follow-up to it I must also to go through a discourse on perception. Evidently, an early scholar of Hermetism who owned a copy of CH IX (i.e. the one that was destined to become the progenitor of the entire later tradition) had written an explanation in the margin (perhaps no more than to himself) which perfect discourse it was that Asclepius had the privilege of hearing ‘yesterday’. Our Hermetist scholar thought it must have been CH VI15. When the codex was then later copied by a another person — a professional scribe, for example, who may well have been no Hermetist at all — the marginal note was copied into the apograph immediately before the sentence it was intended to be an explanation of. The original copy was apparently not supplied with disambiguating marks that might have instructed the scribe where precisely to 15

In contradistinction to modern scholars, who believe that the reference must be to the



insert the cross-reference correctly. It is harder, but not impossible, to imagine that such marks existed but were studiously ignored by the scribe. Whatever the case may be, the scribe simply supplied a clean copy of what he saw before himself, following more or less the physical layout of the writing on the page of the original. I have shown elsewhere that this sort of scribal practice is rather common in the Corpus Hermeticum and accounts for the vast majority of textual corruptions that so much impinge on our understanding of this particular type of literature.16 At this point, the dislocation is minimal, and it remains a mystery why the true nature of the supposed ‘subtitle’ has not been decoded earlier, given that so many capable scholars have worked on this text for centuries. Also noteworthy is the fact that scholars have invariably assumed that the words τὸν τέλειον λόγον refer to the Asclepius, the reason being that there is evidence that the Greek original on which the Latin Asclepius is based bore that title.17 And they may well be right. However, it is clear that the ancient scholar who annotated his copy of this Hermetic tractate thought that the reference was to CH VI, which proves that he was familiar with the sixth tractate, and that it presumably formed part of his private collection. Apart from the fact that the obscure subtitle of CH IX constitutes clear evidence that at least CH VI and IX formed part of a collection in antiquity, viz. the ancestor of our modern collection (or at least one ancestor of it), it prompts us to look for other evidence of cross referencing within the corpus. In the light of our understanding of the subtitle of CH VI, we are now in a position to distinguish between two types of 16

See Wildberg, Genesis of a Genesis, forthcoming. The author is currently engaged in a

larger project which promises to produce a new text and English translation of the Greek Corpus based on a sharp distinction between the original Hermetic tractate and a layer of later redaction. This new approach to Hermetic literature not only clears up the vast majority of textual difficulties, but also opens up the possibility of a fresh reassessment of its doctrinal originality and coherence. 17

It is unnecessary to lay out the evidence here; cf. e.g. Copenhaver, Hermetica, 213f.


cross-referencing: a primary cross-reference such as we find in the original Hermetic text, and a secondary cross-reference that originated as a marginal note and was only copied into the body of text at a later stage. There are a number of occasions in the Corpus Hermeticum at which the original author refers to other Hermetic tractates. The Asclepius, for example, refers to many writings (multa … conscripta) addressed to Ammon as well as to Tat,18 and a reference in CH XIII (A secret dialogue of Hermes Trismegistus on the mountain to his son Tat) proves to be particularly instructive. A longer passage in section 15 of that treatise clearly picks up a particular episode in the Poimandres (CH I). It read as follows, 206,16–207.1: – Ἐβουλόμην, ὦ πάτερ, τὴν διὰ τοῦ ὕμνου εὐλογίαν, ἣν ἔφης ἐπὶ τὴν ὀγδοάδα γενομένου μου ἀκοῦσαι τῶν δυνάμεων. – καθὼς Ὀγδοάδα ὁ Ποιμάνδρης ἐθέσπισε, τέκνον, καλῶς σπεύδεις λῦσαι τὸ σκῆνος· κεκαθαρμένος γάρ. ὁ Ποιμάνδρης, ὁ τῆς αὐθεντίας νοῦς, πλέον μοι τῶν ἐγγεγραμμένων οὐ παρέδωκεν, …19 As almost always with the Hermetica, there are a number of textual difficulties to overcome, but they need not concern us here. We could translate: (Tat:) I wanted the hymnic eulogy which you said Ι’d hear from the powers when I arrive at the eighth (cosmic sphere). (Hermes:) Because Poimandres foretold of the Ogdoad, son, you rightly strive to dismantle the tent (of the body), for you have been purified. Poimandres, the Mind of Authenticity, has transmitted to me no more than has been written down, … 18

NF 297.3–6: Nulla invidia Hammona prohibit a nobis; etenim ad eius nomen multa meminimus a

nobis esse conscripta, sicuti etiam ad Tat amantissimum et carissimum filium multa physica exoticaque quam plurima. On the problem of what might be meant by the attribute ‘exotica’, which looks like a mistake, see Holzhausen, I 253 n.56. 19

The text printed here differs somewhat from Nock’s. There is no good reason to follow

Reitzenstein and Nock in reading σου instead of μου. Cf. Nock-Festugière, II 206.


The passage refers to the remarkable episode in the Poimandres right at the end of the dream communication to Hermes, where the “Mind of Authenticity”, reveals exactly what happens to the immortal soul after the demise of the body, if and when it is being saved and draws near to god (CH I 25–26). Apart from the fact that the passage just quoted shows that the author of CH XIII thought of his text as a literary sequel to CH I (and so those two treatises must at some point have formed part of one collection), it also draws our attention to the opposition of literacy and orality that lurks behind the entire body of Hermetic didactic prose. More on that issue in a moment. First we need to survey the most common primary cross-reference in the Corpus Hermeticum, viz. to the General Discourses (γενικοὶ λόγοι). In all, there are eight such occurrences in the Hermetic writings that have come down to us either directly or indirectly: CH X 1; X 7; XIII 1; the Stobaean fragments III 1 and VI 1; Nag Hammadi Codex VI, 6 (On the Eighth and the Ninth, 63,1–4) where “general and guiding discourses” are said to be prerequisite for reading and understanding that tractate; and finally we have three references to something that is said “in the General Discourses and the Cyranides”.20 One common interpretation of the genikoi logoi is that they must have been a subcollection of introductory treatises on Hermetism that circulated widely. Thus, Garth Fowden writes: “The preparatory character of the General Discourses is apparent from their name and put beyond doubt by Tat’s remark in C.H. xiii that they treat of the divine realm ‘ enigmatically and without shedding much light’ (S.H. vi.1). We know that some of them dealt with astronomical and astrological doctrine; and it may be that they should be identified with the ‘physica exoticaque’ addressed by Hermes to Tat and attested in the Asclepius (Ascl. 1). Their 20

Manetho, Fr. 5c.40f. (ed. Müller); Georgius Syncellus, Ecloga chronographia (ed.

Mosshammer) 36.14f. and 57.16f. — The Cyranides were a collection of pseudo-scientific medical books which circulated widely among alchemists and magicians; D. Kaimakis (ed.) Die Kyraniden.


purpose was to provide general grounding in the Hermetic world-view; and since they were presumably the most numerous and commonly read of the philosophical Hermetica, it seems improbable that they can all have perished.”21 Improbable indeed. For it is not only the case that they have all vanished, but that they have vanished without a trace. For whenever they are mentioned in the text, not one of our ancient sources has anything further or more concrete to say about them. In other words, there are no secondary remarks or explanations that would suggest that at least one ancient reader knew anything more about them than their name. Upon further inspection, one notices that there are in fact two things the group of five cross-references to the genikoi logoi have in common: First, as has already been noted, none of the references to genikoi logoi is narrowed down to any specific treatise or doctrine, neither in the way the Poimander-references in CH XIII point back to CH I (primary reference), nor in the way our Hermetist scholar who worked on CH IX identifies “yesterday’s perfect discourse” with CH VI (secondary reference). Second, almost all references to genikoi logoi are somehow marked by language that strongly hints at the oral character of these logoi. The first time we encounter genikoi logoi in the Greek corpus, at the beginning of CH X, Hermes says to Asclepius that he is going to dedicate the present discourse to Tat because it is in fact a summary of those genikoi logoi that were ‘spoken’ to him, 113. 2–4: Τὸν χθὲς λόγον, ὦ Ἀσκληπιέ, σοι ἀνέθηκα, τὸν δὲ σήμερον δίκαιόν ἐστι τῷ Τὰτ ἀναθεῖναι, ἐπεὶ καὶ τῶν Γενικῶν λόγων τῶν πρὸς αὐτὸν λελαλημένων ἐστὶν ἐπιτομή. We could translate: “Yesterday’s discourse I dedicated to you, Asclepius, and it’s the right thing to do to dedicate today’s discourse to Tat, since it is actually a summary of


See Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 98.


the general discourses22 that were addressed to him orally.” Curiously, what we have here are in fact three references, one to yesterday’s discourse dedicated to Asclepius, then a self-referential mentioning of today’s discourse, i.e. the very conversation between Hermes and Tat we are beginning to read, and a reference to some ‘general discourses’ which were also addressed to Tat on an earlier occasion and which are about to be summarized now. Note that later in the same treatise (CH X 7), Hermes asks Tat, 116.7f.: “Did you not hear in the general (discourses) that …” (Οὐκ ἤκουσας ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς ὅτι …). To add another instance of explicit orality, CH XIII begins with the words, 200.4–5: “My father, in the general discourses you uttered enigmatically and inconspicuously … (Ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς, ὦ πάτερ, αἰνιγματωδῶς καὶ οὐ τηλαυγῶς ἔφρασας …).23 These three examples clearly suggest that the genikoi logoi were thought of by the authors who refer to them in each instance as oral conversations that preceded the present conversation now recorded in writing, and which, importantly, either lend themselves to compression or are in need of elaboration. Compare this again with the reference at the beginning of CH IX to yesterday’s perfect (or polished?) logos: “Yesterday, Asclepius, I delivered the perfect discourse; now, however, I think that as a


The codices speak at this point of ἑνικῶν λόγων ‘individual or unified discourses’, but

that cannot be right; cf. CH X 7, 116.7. 23

Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII 67 suggests that the genikoi logoi referred to here were

“apparently a collection of prior discourses between Hermes and Tat”. But this suggestion does not sit well with his later reconstruction of the imagined situation at the beginning of CH XIII. According to Grese, the genikoi logoi were revealed on a mountain, and already on the way down, Tat asks for clarification; hence, no time is imagined in which anything could have been written down! To quote Grese: “During the descent of a mountain, after a discussion with Hermes, Tat asked Hermes to tell him about regeneration because regeneration was the only thing he still did not know. The reminder about this past incident coming immediately after a reference to οἱ Γενικοὶ λόγοι, where Tat learned of his need for regeneration, implies that οἱ Γενικοὶ λόγοι were revealed on a mountain, and that after οἱ Γενικοὶ λόγοι, during the descent of the mountain, Tat made the request that concerns us here.” (74)


follow-up to it I must also go through a discourse on perception.”24 Here the resonance of orality (ἀποδέδωκα λόγον = I gave an account) is hardly noticeable, if it is present at all, and in contrast to the genikoi logoi, the ‘perfect’ or ‘polished’ logos is of course in no need of further clarification; on the contrary, it provides the basis for further advancement in Hermetic doctrine. The occurrences of the term genikoi logoi in the indirect transmission of Greek Hermetica do nothing to undermine the impression that they were thought of as both preliminary and oral. On the contrary, the sixth Stobaean fragment begins: “Since you have promised (ὑπέσχου ) me earlier in the General Discourses an explanation of the thirtysix deacons, explain them to me now, as well as their activities.”25 Of course it is possible to ‘promise’ something in writing, but the classical situation of a performative speech act such as a promise is an oral one, face à face. Somewhat less compelling is the beginning of the second fragment: “Every soul is immortal and forever mobile. For we said (ἔφημεν) in the General Discourses about motions that some stem from active forces, the others from bodies”.26 The passage we find in the Coptic Nag Hammadi tractate VI 6 is quite neutral; it does not, at any rate, compel one to embrace the conclusion that the genikoi logoi were actually written documents. Hermes says to his interlocutor:


Χθές, ὦ Ἀσκληπιέ, τὸν τέλειον ἀποδέδωκα λόγον· νῦν δὲ ἀναγκαῖον ἡγοῦμαι ἀκόλουθον

ἐκείνῳ καὶ τὸν περὶ αἰςθήσεως λόγον διεξελθεῖν. 25

SH VI 1 (= Stob. I 21,9): Ἐπεί μοι ἐν τοῖς ἔμπροσθεν Γενικοῖς λόγοις ὑπέσχου δηλῶσαι περὶ

τῶν τριάκοντα ἓξ δεκανῶν, νῦν μοι δήλωσον περὶ αὐτῶν καὶ τῆς τούτων ἐνεργείας. 26

SH III 1 (=Stob. I 49,5): Ψυχὴ πᾶσα ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀεικίνητος. ἔφημεν γὰρ ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς

κινήσεις τὰς μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν, τὰς δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν σωμάτων.


“And as for the one who will not be begotten from the beginning by God, he will come about by the general and guiding discourses. He will not be able to read the tings written in this book.”27 (62.33–63.5) The context makes it clear that the present conversation on the eighth and the ninth is to be written down as a book, in fact on a stele of turquoise (61); then Hermes warns certain people, who are apparently already advanced in Hermetism, not to abuse these teachings to “oppose the acts of fate”. They must submit to the law of god and ask him for wisdom and knowledge (62).28 Then follows the passage quoted above, which suggests that suitable acolytes are to be treated to some kind of introductory material; it is unclear whether this consisted of other books, or oral instruction. Before we draw a conclusion, let us briefly glance at the instances in which Hermetic genikoi logoi are mentioned in Byzantine texts. In the 8th/9th-century chronicler George Syncellus (ed. Mosshammer) we encounter two such references. They read ὡς ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς Ἑρμοῦ καὶ ταῖς Κυραννίσι φέρεται and ὥσπερ καὶ ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ καὶ ἐν ταῖς Κυραννίσι βίβλοις εἴρηται (Ecloga chronographica 36.14f and 57.16f resp.). It would be a mistake to suppose automatically that Syncellus found the information he was interested in at two different locations in his Hermetica, first in something entitled General Discourses and then in the Cyranides. Rather, it seems that what he is referring to, and had before him, was the Cyranides, and there the text must have read in the now familiar way: “As we have also said before in the General Discourses …”. 29 Although we 27

I am grateful to Alexander Kocar and Geoffrey Smith for double-checking and modifying

the translation offered by Brashler, Dirkse, Parrott in Robinson (ed.), Nag Hammadi Library, 326. There is no reason to identify these general discourses with the “books” mentioned earlier in text, see 54.13–32. 28

Interestingly, the original Hermetic genesis which is now CH III is written in the spirit of

submission to divine law, whereas the redactor of that tractate advocates precisely the use of astrology for the purpose of averting fate, which is condemned here; cf. Wildberg, Genesis of a Genesis, forthcoming. 29

The same goes for a fragment attributed to Manetho, Fr. 5c,55f.: ὥσπερ καὶ ἐν τοῖς

Γενικοῖς τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ καὶ ἐν Κυραννίσι βίβλοις εἴρηται …


still possess quite a bit of the Cyranides, it is unfortunately impossible to verify Syncellus’ references.30 In the light of the evidence, the conclusion suggests itself that the so-called genikoi logoi were not at all, as the opinio communis has it, some sort of mysteriously lost collection of introductory Hermetic treatises but rather, within the fictional world of extant Hermetica, unrecorded oral conversations and preparatory instructions that ostensibly preceded the more polished dialogues and disquisitions committed to writing. In other words, the General Discourses are in fact general discourses; genikoi logoi is nothing but the Hermetic term for a layer of oral instruction, whether real or fictional, that underlies Hermetic writing.31 Is it possible to corroborate this point further? The opposition of oral instruction and written testimony, and the transition from one medium to the other, it is not an uncommon topos in Hermetic literature. The topos already came to the fore in the passage from CH XIII 15, cited above,32 where Hermes says that Poimandres had not told him more than he (Hermes) has committed to writing. Equally instructive, perhaps, is the end of the Poimandres, where Hermes is exhorted in his dream to become a missionary of salvation, CH I 26: “Why do you tarry? Should you not, having learned all this, become a guide to the worthy so that through you the human race (τὸ γένος τῆς ἀνθρωπότητος) might be saved by god?” Hermes responds to that call and begins to preach. However, what he does not do is go out into the world and proclaim to the great unwashed masses the precise content of his dream; he limits himself to a general message to mankind (τοῖς ἀνθρώποις) about the beauty of reverence and knowledge (CH I 27). But once he has done that, he tells us that he wrote down a detailed account of what Poimandres revealed to him: ἐγὼ δὲ τὴν εὐεργεσίαν


On the Cyranides see Kaimakis, Kyraniden. The five books of extant Cyranides deal with

animals, plants, and stones, and there magical and medicinal powers, not with anything astronomical, as the reference in Syncellus suggests. 31

The literary status of the other attested ‘collections’ (


See above p. #.


τοῦ Ποιμάνδρου ἀνεγραψάμην εἰς ἐμαυτόν … (CH I 30).33 The ‘oral’ dream experience is followed up by preliminary oral instruction and then by a full exposition in writing. To adduce two further examples: In CH XVI 1, Asclepius writes to Ammon as follows: “My teacher, Hermes — often speaking to me in private, sometimes in the presence of Tat — used to say that those reading my books would find their organization very simple and clear when, on the contrary, it is unclear and keeps the meaning of its words concealed.”34 (231.11–232.2; trans. Copenhaver) Although it is not explicitly stated but certainly implied, the idea is that Hermetic tractates mislead those who have not benefited from any preparatory oral instruction. For what Hermes does not say is that some tractates are misleading in this way whereas others, which should be read first, are not. The same passage continues with a praise of the power of the spoken word, especially in the Egyptian language. A final passage in which the opposition of oral instruction and written publication plays a role is CH XII 8. Hermes says to Tat: “I have heard (ἐγὼ ἤκουσα) the Good Daemon say constantly — and if he had published it in writing (ἐγγράφως ἐκδεδώκει), he would have done humankind (τὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων γένος) a great service — …, at any rate, I heard him say that all things are one …” (177.1–6). Here again we encounter the by now familiar sequencing of the spoken and the written word. To conclude: In light of the facts that 1) Hermetic texts, not unlike Platonic dialogues, draw deliberate attention to the oral background from which they emerged, that 2) not a scrap of direct evidence of the genikoi logoi remains, that 3) not even ancient scholars 33

Cf. the Stobaean fragment 2B.1, where philanthropy and piety are said to be the two

motivating sentiments that compel the author to write Hermetic tractates: Ἐγώ, ὦ τέκνον, καὶ τῆς φιλανθρωπίας ἕνεκα καὶ τῆς πρὸς τὸν θεὸν εὐσεβείας πρῶτον τόδε συγγράφω· 34

Cf. CH XVI 1, 231.11–232.2: Ἑρμῆς μὲν γὰρ ὁ διδάσκαλός μου, πολλάκις μοι διαλεγόμενος

καὶ ἰδίᾳ καὶ τοῦ Τὰτ ἐνίοτε παρόντος, ἔλεγεν ὅτι δόξει τοῖς ἐντυγχάνουσί μου τοῖς βιβλίοις ἁπλουστάτη εἶναι ἡ σύνταξις καὶ σαφής, ἐκ δὲ τῶν ἐναντίων ἀσαφὴς οὖσα καὶ κεκρυμμένον τὸν νοῦν τῶν λόγων ἔχουσα, …


seem to have had any notion what these genikoi logoi were all about, and that 4) in the majority of cases in which they are referred to, we encounter the language of orality, it is probably best to regard the genikoi logoi as introductory oral lectures or perhaps even public speeches. It would be a mistake to think that by the time of late antiquity, the oral dissemination of information had been superseded by an entirely literary intellectual culture.35 If the genikoi logoi had a Sitz im Leben, their function may have been oral instructions directed, perhaps, at a general audience of laymen or beginners coming into contact with Hermetism for the first time. But since we know nothing about the social reality of ancient Hermetism36 and have little reason to believe in the historicity of Hermes, Tat and Asclepius, it seems safest, for the time being, to think of the genikoi logoi as Hermetic fictions designed to conjure up the semblance of a social reality behind our tractates.37 The might well be no more than a part of the inventory of the Hermetic imaginary.38 But regardless of whether the genikoi logoi were real or imagined, their purpose was preparatory for the studied and polished protocols of teacher-student interaction that we still witness in the Corpus Hermeticum; it is therefore not necessary to worry about what they may have contained.39 35

See e.g. Cameron, Wandering Poets.


Cf. the inconclusive discussion in Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII, 40–43: “In summary,

we can say that there is wide agreement that the Hermetic literature does contain cultic material. The debate has been over the question of whether the presence of this material is merely a literary convention or whether it testifies to the existence of a Hermetic cult, particularly Hermetic sacraments.” (43) 37

One would hesitate to proclaim with Quispel, Reincarnation, 170: “We have reasons to

suppose that this Hermetic literature originated in a mystery community, a sort of Lodge in Alexandria (my italics), with Hermes Trismegistus as a cult figure and a bearer of revelation.” In addition, his suggestion (Reincarnation, 170) that the genikoi logoi are the actual Hermetic tractates that we possess today (“General issues (genikoi logoi): most of the treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum”) does not carry much conviction. 38

There seems to be no doubt that, in contrast, the so-called diexodikoi logoi were written

documents, including perhaps even the very ones we have. 39

I am pleased to thank Alexander Kocar and Geoffrey Smith for their constructive

criticism of a draft version of this paper.



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