Considering that the word "Gnostic" derives from the Greek Gnostikoi ("those who know") and that the word gnosis is, itself, a verbal noun from gignoskein ("to know"), it is hardly surprising that the various iterations of Gnosticism all give some kind of knowledge pride of place in their soteriology. Equally unsurprising is that this gnosis is not some species of mundane or technical knowledge — not merely techne; but a transcendental, transformative and salvific knowledge — salvific precisely because of its transformative character and transformative precisely because of its transcendental nature. It is the transformation wrought by this knowledge that leads the Gnostic to freedom from earthly reality and to participation in a higher, divine reality. Of course, such knowledge is not come by easily or lightly, but must either be revealed by a Wisdom-figure of some sort or gained through deep study and contemplation of sacred, esoteric teachings:

This knowledge, itself perfect redemption, was mediated to the Gnostic through revelation or illumination either by a divine messenger, a savior figure who in the Christian sects was often understood as Christ, or through an esoteric sacred tradition, and released the Gnostic from the world of matter, its evil, and suffering. The Gnostic now understood his/her true nature and divine origin and the supreme divine being, because an individual's true self, his/her soul or spirit, is a part of the deity. Gnostic gnosis or knowledge is a transforming knowledge, and its immediate effect is salvation. By means of this knowledge, the Gnostic had undergone a spiritual regeneration.[1]

As the above quotation suggests, most Gnostics held that the material world is one of evil and suffering, and that the true or essential nature of the human person is divine, and of a much higher ontological order than that of the material world. Exactly how the divine and material worlds came to be, and how the divine human soul or spirit comes to descend into the material world and becomes trapped there, requiring gnosis to free itself, varies from sect to sect, for "Gnosticism was not a uniform religion, but an attitude about the universe and the individual manifested in a number of groups or sects within Judaism, Christianity, and paganism during the 2nd and 3rd centuries."[2]

While it is true that there was no uniformity in Gnosticism, and there was certainly no "orthodox Gnosticism" or "Gnostic canon," most forms of Gnosticism held relatively similar beliefs about God, the universe, and the human person — with the vast majority of the "devils" being, as they say, in the details. It is, thus, possible to speak of several major or common tenets of Gnosticism in general terms.

Firstly, all Gnostic sects are inherently dualistic. They divide the universe into two distinct worlds — the spiritual world, typically called the Pleroma ("fullness"), and the mundane or mortal world of physical matter or physis ("nature"). The Pleroma is inhabited by spiritual beings known as aeons (a term originally meaning "life," but later taken in the sense of "lifespan" to mean either "an age," or "eternity"), and was created by the supreme deity — often referred to as "the unknown God," who is transcendent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and so forth. This God, however, is so completely remote from human affairs and the nature and concerns of the mortal world as to be not merely unknown, but unknowable. It is only in the light of gnosis that this supreme, unknown God can be seen and known, and to do so is to realize and recognize the divine part of the Gnostic, himself:

According to the Gnostics, there were two worlds, a purely spiritual, divine, invisible higher world of light and a material world of evil, darkness, and inevitable death. The spiritual world was the realm of the supreme God, the 'Father of all', the ultimate cause of all things called by the Gnostics the 'unknown God'. This God is ineffable, indescribable, completely transcendent, free from any relationship to all that is visible or sensible, and incorporates a world of plenitude and divine perfection known as the Pleroma, a realm of heavenly beings or aeons.[3]

Contrasted with the unknown God, the aeons and the Pleroma are the material world, its creator and its quasi-spiritual inhabitants. The mundane world was created by a lesser god, frequently called the demiourgos (craftsman), who is usually conceived of as a fallen aeon. The cause of the fall of this aeon is either ignorance, passion of one kind or another, or both — hence, the Gnostic insistence that a species of esoteric knowledge and self-control are the keys to transcending the flawed creation of the demiourgos. The first, pre-cosmic creations of the demiourgos are the archons ("rulers"), which are spirits typically associated with the seven Ptolemaic planets and the sphere of fixed stars. The rule of the demiourgos and the archons is frequently called by the Gnostics heimarmene ("fate") and is often conceived of as cruel, tyrannical and oppressive in the extreme. This is so because these archons are the creations of a fallen, ignorant and lesser "god," whose creation is merely a flawed shadow copy of the Pleroma:

At some point, an aeon of the divine Pleroma fell from the realm of light. Depending on the Gnostic system, the principal of the fall was either a male figure, a female hypostasis, or Sophia. The cause of the fall was usually ignorance and passion, and its result was the creation of the material world and human kind. Brought into existence by a fallen deity, the material world, which is a copy of the higher world, is an antithesis to the divine self-contained remote world of light; it is a realm of darkness and evil. In most of the gnostic systems, the creator-god was known as the demiurge and often equated with the God of the Old Testament. The demiurge first created the evil powers, the archons or rulers, and then formed the cosmos. Generally, the archons consist of the seven planetary spheres and the 12 signs of the zodiac. Together, the demiurge and the archons rule over the world and each individual. Their rule, which is called heimarmene, "universal Fate or Destiny," is tyrannical and its purpose is the enslavement of humankind.[4]

Of course, much of this sounds rather familiar to any student of Plato. In the Timaeus, which is Plato's account of cosmogenesis, we also see a God, referred to as the demiourgos, who creates the phenomenal universe after first having created the noumenal universe as the "intelligible model" upon which the physical universe will be based. Likewise, every Platonist will acknowledge the inherent superiority of the noumenal "world of being" to the phenomenal "world of becoming." Philo will also treat of this in his explanation of the two creation accounts in Genesis. While we shall explore all of these things later in our examination of the Corpus Hermeticum, for now it is enough to note that these ideas are not completely new, they seem rather to be a new conceptualization of older teachings, or these same old ideas taken to a new extreme.

In addition to their inherent dualism, all iterations of Gnosticism were focused on the salvation of the individual human person. Most sects considered that there were three parts of which each human being was composed — pneuma ("spirit")/nous ("mind"), psyche ("soul"), and soma ("body"), which, itself, is composed of hyle ("matter"). In most Gnostic systems, the unknown God is the direct creator of the pneuma/nous, while the demiourgos and/or archons are the creator(s) of both psyche and soma. The pneuma descends into hyle (exactly why this occurs varies from sect to sect), acquiring the psyche (usually in the sphere of fixed stars), and descending with it through the seven planetary spheres, where the psyche acquires certain negative traits from each. Finally, the pneuma, along with its corrupted psyche, plunges into hyle and acquires soma:

The principal concern of the Gnostics was the individual and his/her salvation. They believed that the individual consisted of body, soul, and spirit. The body and soul are products of the demiurge and the archons, who formed the body and animated it by means of the soul with a share of their nature, the attributes peculiar to each planet. These include the appetites and passions of the individual. The spirit of the individual is a spark of the divine, supreme God, and is directly from him. It is the only part of an Individual capable of attaining salvation.[5]

Not only does the creation of the best and immortal part of the human person by the supreme God and the creation of the less perfect, mortal parts by lesser "gods" remind one again of the Timaeus, but so also does the assigning of the soul to the sphere of fixed stars; though the Gnostics seek to go even higher in their (re-)ascent than Plato envisaged. Indeed, Plato posits psyche as the highest aspect of man, with nous as the highest part of the psyche; as opposed to the Gnostic conception of psyche being inferior to nous/pneuma. Likewise, this descent through the stars and planetary spheres into matter, gaining attributes of each along the way, reminds one of the Path of The Sword/Lightning/Descent on the Tree of Life of the Qabalah. As before, we shall see examine all of this in greater detail in a moment.

Given all of the above, it is hardly surprising that the goal of the Gnostic is to rid himself of the soma and to purge the psyche of all its acquired negative traits, finally depositing it back in the sphere of fixed stars and ascending from thence into the Pleroma, where it becomes an aeon, and of the same nature as God, thereby achieving the loftiest goal ever envisaged by man — unity with the Godhead. All of this is ultimately achieved at death, but the process is begun during this life by ignoring/transcending the passions — both those acquired by psyche and those inherent to the soma, while living a life of contemplation and study of the revealed esoteric gnosis. All this assists the Gnostic in purging the psyche of the negative traits that it has gained from the planetary spheres on its descent into hyle and of divorcing both pneuma and psyche from soma:

For the Gnostics, complete liberation, a release from the bonds of the body, came at the death of the body. Death frees the spirit to return to its true home, the realm of light. Its return is long and arduous, and consists of the soul's ascent through the planetary spheres from which it had descended. In its ascent, the soul returns to each sphere the attribute that it received on its journey to earth. …

When the soul had passed successfully through the planetary spheres, the spirit was detached from the soul and entered the realm of light to reside with the true God.[6]

Now that we have outlined Gnosticism and its most fundamental tenets in broad strokes, it is time to examine some of the core texts in detail. As can be readily divined from the aforementioned overview, the works of Plato, Philo (himself a middle-Platonist) and the teachings of the Holy Qabalah will prove invaluable in elucidating the often arcane and highly symbolic writings of the Gnostics. As was previously mentioned, there were Christian, Jewish and pagan Gnostic sects. While the Christian Gnostics are perhaps the best known and most often encountered — particularly Basilides, Marcion and Valentinus, we shall confine our efforts to the less well known and less often examined pagan Gnostic writings — specifically, those of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The Corpus Hermeticum is a collection of Greek texts likely written during the 2nd and 3rd centuries in Egypt. While the various texts almost certainly had multiple authors and do not all agree with one another in every detail, there is still a considerable level of cohesion. All of the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum ascribe their authorship to Hermes Trismegistos (Thrice-Greatest Hermes), who is viewed in the texts as a man to whom the divine revelation of gnosis has been given, and who has then been tasked to teach it to those willing to listen. Again, a definite Platonic influence can be seen. For Plato, enlightenment brings mission (cf. the Allegory of the Cave from Book VII of the Republic). It is likely that the authors of the Corpus Hermeticum never intended the figure of Hermes Trismegistos to be taken as an historical human being, but, rather, as an archetype and role-model. In any event, the figure is a fusion of the Greek deity Hermes and the Egyptian God Djehuti (better known by his Hellenic name, Thoth).

The first, and most foundational, text in the Corpus Hermeticum is the Poimandres ("the Shepherd"). This is the text that describes the visions and conversations with a preternatural intelligence which brought both enlightenment and mission to Hermes Trismegistos. It is, therefore, of crucial importance that we investigate it fully.

The Poimandres begins when the anonymous author (presumably Hermes Trismegistos) has a vision of "… a Being more than vast, in size beyond all bounds,"[7] who identifies itself as Poimandres: "Man-Shepherd, Mind of all-masterhood;"[8] with whom the author converses and by whom he is taught the mysteries of creation and human nature. This Poimandres identifies itself with God, describes its nature, and explains its relationship with the Son of God, the Logos:

That Light, He said, am I, thy God, Mind, prior to Moist Nature which appeared from Darkness; the Light-Word (Logos) [that appeared] from Mind is Son of God. … Know that what sees in thee and hears is the Lord's Word (Logos); but Mind is Father-God. Not separate are they the one from the other; just in their union [rather] is it Life consists. … But when he raised his head, I see in Mind the Light, [but] now in Powers no man could number, and Cosmos grown beyond all bounds, and that the Fire was compassed round about by a most mighty Power, and [now] subdued had come to a stand.[9]

Much information has been packed in these very dense statements. Firstly, we have seen that the Poimandres is God, and that God is both Light and Mind (Nous), and is prior to any iteration of the created universe. Also, we have seen that Logos appears from Nous, and thus is generated by it without being created (it is emanated, as are the Plotinian hypostases) and is the Son of God, yet is not separate from God (thus, in Nicaean terminology, the Logos is homoousios to Patri). Likewise, the sensory faculty of the human being is somehow of the nature of Logos. Thus, we might surmise that, within the human being, Nous corresponds to the power of intellectual apprehension, while Logos corresponds to that of sensory perception. This will begin to make more sense when we consider that, for Plato, the World of Being is apprehensible by the intellect, while the World of Becoming is apprehended by the senses: "As I see it, then, we must begin by making the following distinction: What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is? The former is grasped by understanding, which involves a reasoned account. It is unchanging. The latter is grasped by opinion, which involves unreasoning sense perception. It comes to be and passes away, but never really is."[10] Finally, Nous contains within itself a vast cosmos of Powers — the Hermetic equivalent of the aeons. From a Platonic perspective, one would be tempted to identify these powers with the eidae ("Forms") of Plato, which are the eternal, uncreated and unchanging, dynamic (dynamis) principles through participation in which all material, changing, corruptible things have their share of being. That is, in the terms used by the Timaeus, above, the eidae are "that which always is and has no becoming," while the material things which participate therein are "that which becomes but never is." Stating that these "Powers" are beyond number and exist within the realm of Nous fairly begs one to conceive of them as ideas pre-existing in the divine Mind (especially since Plato uses the terms eidae and idea "ideas" interchangeably). Indeed, such an interpretation of the Poimandres is hardly without precedent, since Philo of Alexandria had identified the eidae with ideas pre-existing in the mind of God in the first half of the 1st century:

As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner, neither can the world which existed in ideas have had any local position except the divine reason which made them; for what other place could there be for his powers which should be able to receive and contain, I do not say all, but even any single one of them whatever, in its simple form?[11]

Philo also has a few things to say about the consubstantiality of Nous and Logos:

I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: "Behold, a man whose name is the East!" A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn, and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.[12]

Likewise, "… since to see God is the most clear proof of primogeniture, he is in consequence pardoned as the eldest offspring of the uncreate incomprehensible God, conceived by that virtue which is hated among men, and to whom the law enjoins that "the honors due to seniority shall be paid, as being the eldest."[13]

Thus, any equivalent to the terms "eldest son", "firstborn", "Son of God", etc. applies properly not in temporal terms, but in the sense of being one "who in no respect differs from the divine image" — that is, one who is homoousios to Patri, and in "imitating the ways of his father" via a creation of its own. Lastly, such a one must be able to see God. Clearly, we have already seen from the Poimandres that Logos both beholds God and is consubstantial with him. As we shall now see, Logos also creates, "imitating the ways of his father":

[Thereon] out of the Light … a Holy Word (Logos) descended on the Nature. And upwards to the height from the Moist Nature leaped forth pure Fire; light was it, swift and active too. The Air, too, being light, followed after Fire; from out the Earth-and-Water rising up to Fire so that it seemed to hang therefrom. But Earth-and-Water stayed so mingled each with other, that Earth from Water no one could discern. Yet were they moved to hear by reason of the Spirit-Word (Logos) pervading them.[14]


[Nature] received the Word (Logos), and gazing on the Cosmos Beautiful did copy it, making herself into a cosmos, by means of her own elements and by the births of souls. And God-the-Mind, being male and female both, as Light and Life subsisting, brought forth another Mind to give things form, who, God as he was of Fire and Spirit, formed Seven Rulers who enclose the cosmos that the sense perceives. Men call their ruling Fate. Straightaway from out the downward elements God's Reason (Logos) leaped up to Nature's pure formation, and was at-oned with the Formative Mind; for it was co-essential with it. And Nature's downward elements were thus left reason-less, so as to be pure matter. Then the Formative Mind ([at-oned] with Reason), he who surrounds the spheres and spins them with his whirl, set turning his formations, and let them turn from a beginning boundless unto an endless end. For that the circulation of these [spheres] begins where it doth end, as Mind doth will.[15]

The cosmos, made of Physis informed/permeated by Logos, being a copy of the "Cosmos Beautiful" is clearly the phenomenal world. This is particularly evident when the four classical elements (long conceived of as the "building blocks" or "raw material" of which the universe is made) and the seven Ptolemaic planets are so clearly mentioned. Thus, the "Cosmos Beautiful" must be the Powers of the "cosmos grown beyond all bounds" which is Nous. It should be noted that "God-the-Mind" (Nous) now emanates a third mind, a "God of Fire and Spirit" — the demiourgos, who gives form to the created world. As soon as this occurs, Logos leaps up from its job of keeping the lower elements in motion and joins with the demiourgos, being homoousios with it. No longer having the Logos to keep them in motion and order, the lower elements (air, water and earth), are now reason-less. Only fire did not require the Logos to give it form, order or reason, for fire is of the nature of the demiourgos, as is pneuma.

While the demiurgic nature of fire and pneuma may be somewhat confusing (this is likely a reference to those "elements" being of the nature of light and the empyrean, while the others are of the atmosphere and below), the rest of this description of the creation of the phenomenal world is quite familiar indeed from the Timaeus. In that account, Plato has the demiourgos create the phenomenal world based on the aforementioned "intelligible model," using the pre-existing four elements as raw materials, each according to its nature, imposing order on the originally chaotic elements:

Now as to this whole universe or world order [kosmos] — let's just call it by whatever name is most acceptable in a given context — there is a question we need to consider first. … has it always existed? Was there no origin from which it came to be? Or did it come to be and take its start from some origin? It has come to be. For it is both visible and tangible and it has a body — all things of that kind are perceptible. And, as we have shown, perceptible things are grasped by opinion, which involves sense perception. As such, they are things that come to be, things that are begotten. Further we maintain that, necessarily, that which comes to be must come to be by the agency of some cause. … And so we must go back and raise the question about the universe: Which of the two models did the maker use when he fashioned it? Was it the one that does not change and stays the same, or the one that has come to be? Well, if this world of ours is beautiful and its craftsman good, then clearly he looked at the eternal model. But if what it's blasphemous to even say is the case, then he looked at one that has come to be. Now surely it's clear to all that it was the eternal model he looked at, for, of all things that have come to be, our universe is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent. This, then, is how it has come to be: it is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom. Since these things are so, it follows by unquestionable necessity that this world is an image of something.[16]


When the maker made our world, what living thing did he make it resemble? Let us not stoop to think that it was any of those that have the natural character of a part, for nothing that is a likeness of anything incomplete could ever turn out beautiful. Rather, let us lay it down that the universe resembles more closely than anything else that Living Thing of which all other living things are parts, both individually and by kinds. For that Living Thing comprehends within itself all intelligible living things, just as our world is made up of us and all the other visible creatures. Since the god wanted nothing more than to make the world like the best of the intelligible things, complete in every way, he made it a single visible living thing, which contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.[17]

Thus, for Plato, the demiourgos creates the visible world of physis based upon the intelligible world of the eidae — with each thing within the phenomenal world being based on its analogue in the noumenal world, and resembling the noumenal eidos as closely as possible. This is identical to the action of the hypostasis of Logos/demiourgos in the Poimandres with the single, aforementioned exception that Plato does not put the eidae in the mind of a supreme god who emanates the demiourgos. Thus, the cosmology of the Poimandres is that of Timaeus taken one step further on the ontological chain of being.

As in the Poimandres, Plato's demiourgos imposes order on the pre-existing elements:

Now that which comes to be must have bodily form, and be both visible and tangible, but nothing could ever become visible apart from fire, nor tangible without something solid, nor solid without earth. That is why, as he began to put the body of the universe together, the god came to make it out of fire and earth. But it isn't possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them. … if the body of the universe were to have come to be as a two-dimensional plane, a single middle term would have sufficed to bind together its conjoining terms with itself. As it was, however, the universe was to be a solid, and solids are never joined together by just one middle term but always by two. Hence the god set water and air between fire and earth, and made them as proportionate to one another as was possible, so that what fire is to air, air is to water, and what air is to water, water is to earth. He then bound them together and thus he constructed the visible and tangible universe. This is the reason why these four particular constituents were used to beget the body of the world, making it a symphony of proportion. They bestowed friendship upon it, so that, having come together into a unity with itself, it could not be undone by anyone but the one who had bound it together.[18]

Likewise, Plato also has his demiourgos fashion the sphere of fixed stars and the various planetary spheres and put them into an ordered, cyclical motion, which, for Plato, is time:

Now, when the father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight he thought of making it more like its model still. So, as the model was itself an everlasting Living Thing, he set himself to bringing this universe to competition in such a way that it, too, would have that character to the extent that was possible. Now it was the Living Thing's nature to be eternal, but it isn't possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so he began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call 'time.' … Time, then, came to be together with the universe so that just as they were begotten together, they might also be undone together, should there ever be an undoing of them. And it came to be after the model of that which is sempiternal, so that it might be as much like its model as possible. … Such was the reason, then, such the god's design for the coming to be of time, that he brought into being the Sun, the Moon, and five other stars, for the begetting of time. These are called "wanderers," and they came to be in order to set limits to and stand guard over the numbers of time. When the god had finished making a body for each of them, he placed them into the orbits traced by the period of the different — seven bodies in seven orbits.[19]

As can be seen from the above, the cosmology of the Poimandres is very similar to that of the Timaeus, with the aforementioned addition of God-the-Mind (Nous) and the intelligible realm of the eidae existing in the mind of God. Likewise, it is clear that we have in the Poimandres and idea of the demiourgos that is quite different from that of most Gnostic sects. Rather than being an ignorant, evil fallen aeon, he is an emanation of the "unknown God" — Nous, and is an hypostasis with Logos. Thus, his creation is not evil, though it is certainly a lesser thing that the Pleroma of Nous. Likewise, the archons are not, themselves, inherently evil, as can be seen in the Poimandres' discussion of the origin and fall of man:

But All-Father Mind, being Life and Light, did bring forth Man co-equal to Himself, with whom He fell in love, as being his own child; for he was beautiful beyond compare, the Image of his Sire. In very truth, God fell in love with his own Form; and on him did bestow all of His own formations. And when he gazed upon what the Enformer had created in the Father, [Man] too wished to enform; and [so] assent was given him by the Father. Changing his state to the formative sphere, in that he was to have his whole authority, he gazed upon his Brother's creatures. They fell in love with him, and gave him each a share of his own ordering. And after that he had well-learned their essence and had become a sharer in their nature, he had a mind to break right through the Boundary of their spheres, and to subdue the might of that which pressed upon the Fire. So he who hath the whole authority o'er [all] the mortals in the cosmos and o'er its lives irrational, bent his face downwards through the Harmony, breaking right through its strength, and showed to downward Nature God's fair Form. And when she saw that Form of beauty which can never satiate, and him who [now] possessed within himself each single energy of [all seven] Rulers as well as God's [own] Form, she smiled with love; for t'was as though she'd seen the image of Man's fairest form upon her Water, his shadow on her Earth. He in his turn beholding the form like to himself, existing in her, in her Water, loved it and willed to live in it; and with the will came act, and [so] he vivified the form devoid of reason. And Nature took the object of her love and wound herself completely round him, and they were intermingled, for they were lovers. And this is why beyond all creatures on the earth man is twofold; mortal because of body, but because of the essential Man immortal. Though deathless and possessed of sway o'er all, yet doth he suffer as a mortal doth, subject to Fate.[20]

Here we see several more departures from the more common Christian and Jewish Gnostic sects about which we have spoken in general terms, above. Not only is the demiourgos neither evil nor fallen, but neither are the archons nor the world of physis. In fact, there does not seem to be any true evil at all in the Poimandresheimarmene is neither cruel nor oppressive considered in itself, the only problem with it is that man has become subject to it when he ought not to be.

Likewise, the attributes gained from the archons are not inherently evil or problematic either, the problem is, again, that a higher being has adopted (and become trapped by) the natures proper to beings much lower than he on the golden chain of being. The archons do not bestow these properties out of malice, but out of love. Even physis does not seek to trap Man, but embraces him out of love. The only cause of his fall is the passion he has for creation and for seeing his own form reflected in matter. There is nothing wrong with being a mortal, subject to fate and having the characteristics of the lowest order of spiritual beings, unless, of course, said "mortal" is actually a God who has lowered himself to these things and, forgetting his own divinity, has become subject to the things over which he is suited by nature to rule.

That is, according to the Poimandres, precisely what Man is — God. For Man, exactly like the Logos and the demiourgos, is the offspring of All-Father God-the-Mind, co-equal with Him (Man, like them, is homoousios to Patri) and He "in no respect differs from the divine image." Thus, there is in the Poimandres an aeon who fell from the Pleroma through passion, and remains in his fallen state through ignorance — and that aeon is Man. This, then, is the secret and value of gnosis for the Hermetic: the knowledge is not the truth that will set him free — rather, the truth is that he is God, and is by nature free: all that he must do to actualize that freedom is to "remember, thou art not mortal!"

Of course, man being made "in the image and after the likeness of God" should remind us of a certain other passage: "Then God said 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."[21] Unsurprisingly, Philo has something to say about what it means that man is created in the image and after the likeness of God:

So then, after all the other things, as has been said before, Moses says that man was made in the image and likeness of God. And he says well; for nothing that is born on the earth is more resembling God than man. And let no one think that he is able to judge of this likeness from the characters of the body: for neither is God a being with the form of a man, nor is the human body like the form of God; but the resemblance is spoken of with reference to the most important part of the soul, namely, the mind: for the mind which exists in each individual has been created after the likeness of that one mind which is in the universe as its primitive model, being in some sort the God of that body which carries it about and bears its image within it. In the same rank that the great Governor occupies in the universal world, that same as it seems does the mind of man occupy in man; for it is invisible, though it sees everything itself; and it has an essence which is indiscernible, though it can discern the essences of all other things, and making for itself by art and science all sorts of roads leading in divers directions, and all plain; it traverses land and sea, investigating everything which is contained in either element. And again, being raised up on wings, and so surveying and contemplating the air, and all the commotions to which it is subject, it is born upwards to the higher firmament, and to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And also being itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music, and being led on by love, which is the guide of wisdom, it proceeds onwards till, having surmounted all essence intelligible by the external senses, it comes to aspire to such as is perceptible only by the intellect: and perceiving in that, the original models and ideas of those things intelligible by the external senses which it saw here full of surpassing beauty, it becomes seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled with another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, till it appears to be reaching the great King himself.[22]

Philo's exegesis of Genesis 1:26-7 shows some clear correspondences with the Poimandres. For one, it is nous that is made in the image and likeness of God, not the material body. The human nous, like Nous itself, is incorporeal and comprehends all intelligible realities. Nous can ascend to the throne of God for Philo, and can return to its perfect, incorporeal state in the Pleroma in the Poimandres. Likewise, all three of the "lower elements" — air, water and earth are mentioned as being under the dominion of man in all three texts. Both the Poimandres and Philo also mention the spheres of the seven planets and the sphere of fixed stars on the journey — the Poimandres does so in describing the descent of man into hyle, and Philo does so in describing the ascent of the mind of man to the throne of the great King. Obviously, the Poimandres posits that such a re-ascent is possible; else gnosis would prove of no use at all. We will address the re-ascent of man to the Pleroma in the Poimandres in a moment, but there is one more point to clear up, first.

Philo suggests that the motions of the planets and the sphere of fixed stars exist in the mind of man already, for the mind is "itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music." While this is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that Plato describes the "motions of the same and of the different" twice in the Timaeus — once with respect to the motions of the planets and the sphere of fixed stars, and once in describing the way reason works in the human intellect — this also serves to illustrate a larger point with respect to the Corpus Hermeticum: that of the relation of the microcosm to the macrocosm.

One of the many texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistos is the Tabula Smaragdina ("Emerald Tablet"), a tract far shorter than the Poimandres. A section near its beginning is one of the most commonly (mis-)quoted pieces in all of esoteric literature: "Tis true without lying, certain most true. That which is below is like that which is above that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing."[23] That is, man is the microcosm (that which is below) of the macrocosm (that which is above) which, itself, is either a) the entire universe (as it is often understood), or b) the intelligible model of which the universe is the copy (the realm of the eidae for Plato, the Mind of God for Philo, and the Pleroma of Nous in the Poimandres). Certainly both the Poimandres and Philo seem to suggest the latter possibility. For Man is begotten (not created) by Nous in the Poimandres, and is homoousios with Nous, being identical to Him in all respects, having His Form and formations, and co-equal with him. The realization of this via gnosis sounds very much like the following formula: That which is below (Man) is like that which is above (All-Father Mind) that which is above (All-Father Mind) is like that which is below (Man) to do the miracles of one only thing (There is no true distinction, Anthropos, Nous, Logos, demiourgos, Pleroma are all "one only thing," the true realization of this fact is the transcendent, transforming gnosis that saves Man from matter and Nature). It should be pointed out here that Sir Isaac's translation is excellent, despite sounding awkward. He translates "ad perpetranda miracula rei unis" as "to do the miracles of one only thing." To the modern ear, this would sound better as "only one thing." "One only thing" is better however, for it is one thing — the only thing. For Anthropos/Nous/Logos/Pleroma is the only thing that is "that which always is, and has no becoming."

Now that we have some idea of what the nature of the esoteric illumination of gnosis is in the Corpus Hermeticum and what its implications are, let us turn to the final thing of concern: how to actually achieve that gnosis and re-ascend into the Pleroma. Obviously, no mere essay can possibly cause the light of gnosis to dawn in either its author or its readers, but we can, hopefully, point out a possible path, as Hermes Trismegistos himself might have attempted to do. The Poimandres explains how it is that man can ascend the golden chain of being to return to his original nature:

And thus it is that man doth speed his way thereafter upwards through the Harmony. To the first zone he gives the Energy of Growth and Waning; unto the second [zone] Device of Evils [now] de-energized; unto the third, the Guile of the Desires de- energized; unto the fourth, his Domineering Arrogance, [also] de-energized; unto the fifth, unholy Daring and Rashness of Audacity, de-energized, unto the sixth, Striving for Wealth by evil means, deprived of its aggrandizement; and to the seventh zone, Ensnaring Falsehood, de-energized. And then, with all the energizings of the Harmony stript from him, clothed in his proper Power, he cometh to that Nature which belongs unto the Eighth, and there with those-that-are hymneth to the Father. They who are there welcome his coming there with joy; and he, made like to them that sojourn there, doth further hear the Powers who are above the Nature that belongs unto the Eighth, singing their songs of praise to God in language of their own. And then they, in a band, go to the Father home; of their own selves they make surrender of themselves to Powers, and [thus] becoming Powers they are in God. This is the good end for those who have gained Gnosis — to be made one with God.[24]

At first, these "instructions" might sound quite arcane and incomprehensible, but they are somewhat more straight-forward than they sound. Clearly, the first seven "zones" mentioned must be the seven Ptolemaic planets, since this is the only group of seven things mentioned throughout the Poimandres, and the eight must, by the same logic, be the sphere of fixed stars. To test this hypothesis, let us examine the negative traits returned "de-energized" to each of the seven "zones." "Growth and Waning" seems quite appropriate to the sphere of Luna, which waxes and wanes monthly. Device of Evils seems an ill fit to Mercury, at first, until one remembers that he is the god of liars, cheaters, gamblers, etc. Thus, "Device of Evils" seems to be a reasonable term for dishonesty of all sorts. "Guile of Desires" seems quite appropriate for Venus: goddess of love, lust, etc. Domineering Arrogance is appropriate for Sol, since Sol sheds his light over all, is associated with gold in all its attributes, as has Helios and Apollo for associated deities. "Unholy Daring and Rashness of Audacity" could hardly refer to anything other than Mars. "Striving for Wealth" is an excellent fit for Jove, who traditionally rules money, legal issues and government. "Ensnaring Falsehood" is an excellent description of Saturn if we only think of death and subjection to heimarmene and mortality as the ultimate falsehood that could ensnare an immortal god. Thus, we must clearly ascend each planetary sphere in order of orbital speed apparent from Earth, ridding ourselves of the excessive and inappropriate aspects of ourselves that relate to each. If only there were some system that would enable us to do just that, all would be well with us.

Of course, there is exactly such as system ready-made for us. As previously alluded to in the general introduction of this paper, the Tree of Life of the Holy Qabalah is so arranged — and it is a system intended to be "worked," enabling the practitioner to do exactly as the Poimandres would have us do to return to the Pleroma. While describing the workings of this system is a task far beyond the scope of a paper such as this, the correspondences are clear enough. Therefore, let us leave off with one parting thought from Genesis: "Then the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever …'"[25]


[1] Antonia Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 119.

[2] Ibid., 120

[3] Ibid., 122

[4] Ibid., 122-23

[5] Ibid., 123

[6] Ibid., 124

[7] "Hermes Trismegistos," The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus 1, trans. G.R.S. Mead, (Edmonds, WA: The Alexandrian Press, 1989), 3.

[8] Ibid., 2, 3-4

[9] Ibid., 6-7, 5-6

[10] Plato, Timaeus 28 a, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 1234.

[11] De Opificio Mundi V (20), trans. C. D. Yonge, in The Works of Philo (Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 4.

[12] Philo, De Confusione Linguarum XIV (62-63), trans. C. D. Yonge, in The Works of Philo, 137-8.

[13] Philo, De Posteriate Caini XVIII (63), trans. C. D. Yonge, in The Works of Philo, 138.

[14] "Hermes Trismegistos," The Divine Pymander 5, 5.

[15] Ibid., 8-11, 7-8

[16] Plato, Timaeus 28b-29b, 1234-5.

[17] Ibid., 30c-31a, 1236.

[18] Ibid., 31b-32c, 1237-8.

[19] Ibid., 37d-38d, 1241-2.

[20] "Hermes Trismegistos," The Divine Pymander 12-16, 8-10.

[21] Genesis 1:26-7, in The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version/Catholic Edition (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1965), 1.

[22] De Opificio Mundi XXIII (69-71), 10-11.

[23] "Hermes Trismegistos," Tabula Smaragdina, trans. Sir Isaac Newton.

[24] "Hermes Trismegistos," The Divine Pymander 25-26, 15-17.

[25] Genesis 3:22, 3.

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