By J. Pedro Feliciano
The idea of God as delineated in the Hermetica partly follows Middle Platonic notions of the One and the Demiurge. In Hermetism, God may be described in a triad composed of the following hypostases: the Unbegotten One, being the Monad, the highest aspect of God; the self-begotten One, being the Nous or demiurge, equated with the cosmos in the Asclepius; the Begotten one, the lowest of the triad, which may be said to be the aspect of God contained in man, or man himself in his perfected form.
The relation between the first and second is given in Corpus Hermeticum (henceforth: CH) VIII: “God is in reality the first of all entities, eternal, unbegotten, craftsman of the whole of existence. But by his agency a second God came to be in his image, and by him this second God is sustained, nurtured and immortalized, as from an eternal father, everliving because he is immortal.”
a) In Hermetic prayers, the hypostasis of God who is usually addressed is the highest, e.g. in On the Ogdoad and the Ennead (Nag Hammadi codex VI): “For from Thee, the unbegotten one, the begotten one came into being. The birth of the self-begotten one is through Thee, the birth of all begotten things that exist”; see also the Hymn of Rebirth in C.H. XIII: “I am about to sing a hymn to the Lord of creation, to the universe and to the One”. Although the Monad is popularly seen as a distant hypostasis, inaccessible to Man without a mediating force, in Hermetism we can still access this aspect of God. This is true in practical Neoplatonism as well, where henosis or mystical union with the One is ultimately possible. The notion is also reasonable in light of numerical considerations; if we accept that man is a microcosm of God, then it becomes possible to reflectively access the One. Moreover, according to Proclus in his Elements of Theology, all things partake of the One, or of the essence of oneness, and this is demonstrably true on a numerical level. Perhaps in light of this, Iamblichus posited even higher divine aspects above the One, the ineffable first principles which are entirely inexpressible and inaccessible to man. These are also present in late Sethian Gnosticism as the Unknown Silent One in the Marsanes, with the Great Invisible Spirit being the One who is below it, and in Jewish Qabalah, with the Veils of Negative Existence and Kether as the Monad (in the Partzufim scheme, the One would be Arik Anpin, the Vast Countenance). The Monad can thus be said to be the point of convergence of the ineffable principles into something tangible that can be intelligibly conceived of. In the Hermetic cosmological scheme, the One rests in the Decad, the 10th level of the spiritual universe, above the Ennead, Ogdoad, and the 7 planes of the planets. According to the final part of the Asclepius, God in His highest aspect must not be entreated with incense or other material offerings, but purely through faith and prayer, speech offerings from a pure heart, the loftiest form of sacrifice we can offer.
b) The Self Begotten one is the hypostasis by which the One interacts with His creation, it is the active aspect of God more readily accessible to Man, Nous the divine Mind, the Demiurge, and can also correspond to the universe. He rests in the Ennead. In C.H. I, the mysterious Poimandrês may be said to be an aspect – or emissary – of this hypostasis, or even its manifestation as Mind. In the Greek Magical Papyri (henceforth: PGM), and in Chaldean Platonism, he is called Aiôn (“Aeon” or “Eternity”) and he is also described as “self begotten”; the association with Nous is seen in PGM V 459, where Aion is equated with the divine mind. In the Chaldaean Oracles, He is called the ‘Father-begotten Light’, and may be related to the higher demiurgic Second Mind which issues from the One. Interestingly, in On the Ogdoad and the Ennead, Hermes Trismegistos undergoes a transformation where he himself becomes Nous, and his disciple praises him as the “Aion of the Aions”. Aion in late antiquity was often associated with the Sun, but He was rather the Hypercosmic Sun, the divine force which gives the Sun its light. Several rituals involving Aion have survived in the PGM, among them the impressive operation in PGM XIII whereby the practitioner establishes contact with Aion and receives His secret name, which he can later use for a variety of purposes; another example is the famous Mithras Liturgy, which involves a transcendental rising through the planes with the goal of immortalizing one’s soul and communing with God as Aion. Unlike the highest aspect of God, Aion is often called upon in ritual through offerings, incense, etc. The Greco-Egyptian God Agathodaimon is sometimes associated with Aion as well. In Jewish Qabalah, we may possibly associate the Self Begotten one with the Father and Mother.
Returning to the Self-Begotten’s role as the active, manifest aspect of God, one can appreciate how He was also equated with the known universe. The visible cosmos, despite its apparent chaos, is itself a part of God, being a microcosm of the divine. This was the case in Neoplatonism as well; in his “On the Sacred Art” Proclus states: “Thus all things are full of Gods. The earth is full of celestial Gods and the heavens are full of supercelestial Gods.” In the Hidden Stele (PGM IV, 1115-66), an adoration to God and the universe which may have been used by a Hermetic group, God, presumably as Aion, is praised through the various qualities, processes, and elements of the earth and universe, and is said to be the regent of them: “I glorify Thee, God of Gods, the one who brought order to the universe, AREŌ PIEUA; the one who gathered together the abyss at the invisible foundation of its position, PERŌ MUSĒL Ō PENTŌNAX; the one who separated heaven and earth and covered the heaven with eternal, golden wings, RŌDĒRU OUŌA; the one who fixed the earth on eternal foundations, ALĒIOŌA; the one who hung up the æther high above the earth, AIE ŌĒ IOUA; the one who scattered the air with self-moving breezes, ŌIE OUŌ; the one who put the water roundabout, ŌRĒPĒLUA; the one who raises up hurricanes, ORISTHAUA; the one who thunders, THEPHIKHUŌNĒL; the one who hurls lightnings, OURĒNES; the one who rains, OSIŌRNI PHEUGALGA; the one who shakes, PERATŌNĒL…” &c.
c) The Begotten one can be said to correspond to man himself as a divine being, a premise which is confirmed by the following passage in the Asclepius: “The master of eternity is the first God, the world is second, mankind is third.” The Korê Kosmou (part of the Hermetic Discourses of Isis to Horus), describes a Hermetic myth of the fall of man, where human souls, before their embodiment in matter, were created directly by God, dwelt among the highest Gods, and were assigned the task of creating life on earth. Thus, they were Gods themselves, with creative power which they used from on high to vivify the earth. But eventually, they became enamoured by their creation, disobeying the commands given to them by God, and because of this transgression they were cast into material bodies (human bodies, said to have been created by Thoth) in the midst of their own creation. Thus, men and women are fallen Gods, full of potential but trapped in matter, unaware of their divine origin. The remarkable theory described in the Asclepius, whereby the deities known to us from various pantheons were created by Man, once again confirms the divine nature of mankind: “Just as the master and father – or God, to use his most august name – is maker of the heavenly Gods, so it is mankind who fashions the temple Gods who are content to be near to humans. Not only is mankind glorified; he glorifies as well. He not only advances toward God; he also makes the Gods strong.” The description of the creation of man in CH 1 also points to humankind being a part of God, begotten of Mind in the image of his divine origin. As a point of reference with the Qabalah, we can possibly attribute the Begotten one to the Lesser Countenance or Ze’ir Anpin, the son begotten of the Father and Mother. Though traditionally representing the revealed aspect of God, Ze’ir Anpin can also be said to represent God in Man. Although humans dwell on earth, those who progress spiritually return after their death to their source, in the Ogdoad, and become what they were in the beginning: “And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the Ogdoad; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father (…)They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into God. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made God.” (CH I)
As a conclusion to this article, I intend to set forth an idea for a fourth Hermetic hypostasis, which is by no means certain, but makes sense in light of similar systems. The fourth divine aspect could be described as Nature herself. In the Korê Kosmou, Nature is personified as a female figure, representing the power of generation: “When they had thus spoken, God smiled, and bade Nature be; and there came forth from his voice a Being in woman’s form, right lovely, at the sight of whom the gods were smitten with amazement; and God the Forefather bestowed on her the name of Nature. And he conferred on Nature the government of all things in the world below, and bade her be productive of all manner of seeds. And Nature communed with herself, and saw that she must not disobey her Father’s bidding”.
In CH I, man’s fall is attributed to his love for Nature, who again is personified: “Nature smiled for love when she saw him whose fairness brings no surfeit and who holds in himself all the energy of the governors and the form of God, for in the water she saw the shape of the man’s fairest form and upon the earth its shadow. When the man saw in the water the form like himself as it was in nature, he loved it and wished to inhabit it; wish and action came in the same moment, and he inhabited the unreasoning form. Nature took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him, for they were lovers”. I believe the personification of Nature in the Hermetica to be more than just a metaphor, as such a concept exists in parallel systems. In the Chaldean Oracles, the Goddess Hekate plays the role of Nature, or the World Soul, and so a Hermetic equivalent is certainly reasonable. Furthermore, if we again refer to the qabalistic countenances, Nature personified fits in well with the lowest hypostasis, the Daughter, Bride, or Queen.
Hans D. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation
Brian Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation
Hans Lewy, Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy
Ruth Majercik, The Chaldean Oracles
James Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English
Walter Scott, Hermetica volume 1