(translated by G.R.S. Mead)
Notes on the text: This is the most famous of the Hermetic documents, a revelation account describing a vision of the creation of the universe and the nature and fate of humanity. Authors from the Renaissance onward have been struck by the way in which its creation myth seems partly inspired by Genesis, partly reacting against it. The Fall has here become the descent of the Primal Man through the spheres of the planets to the world of Nature, a descent caused not by disobedience but by love, and done with the blessing of God.
The seven rulers of fate discussed in sections 9, 14 and 25 are the archons of the seven planets, which also appear in Plato's Timaeus and in a number of the ancient writings usually lumped together as “Gnostic”. Their role here is an oddly ambivalent one, powers of Harmony who are nonetheless the sources of humanity's tendencies to evil.
Notes on the text: This dialogue sets forth the difference between the physical and metaphysical worlds in the context of Greek natural philosophy. Some of the language is fairly technical: the “errant spheres” of sections 6 and 7 are the celestial spheres carrying the planets, while the “inerrant sphere” is that of the fixed stars. It is useful to keep in mind, also, that “air” and “spirit” are interchangeable concepts in Greek thought, and that the concept of the Good has a range of implications which don't come across in the English word: one is that the good of any being, in Greek thought, was also that being's necessary goal.
Notes on the text: This brief (and possibly somewhat garbled) text recounts the creation and nature of the world in terms much like those of the Poemandres. The major theme is the renewal of all things in a cyclic universe, with the seven planetary rulers again playing a major role.
Notes on the text: This short text gives an unusually lucid overview of the foundations of Hermetic thought. The stress on rejection of the body and its pleasures, and on the division of humanity into those with Mind and those without, are reminiscent of some of the so-called “Gnostic” writings of the same period. The idea that the division is a matter of choice, on the other hand, is a pleasant variation on the almost Calvinist flavor of writings such as the Apocalypse of Adam.
Mead speculates that the imagery of the Cup in this text may have a distant connection, by way of unorthodox ideas about Communion, with the legends of the Holy Grail.
Notes on the text: This sermon on the nature of the Good, like To Asclepius (CH II), relies on the technical language of classical Greek philosophy - a point which some of Mead's translations tend to obscure. “The Good,” in Greek thought, is also the self-caused and self-sufficient, and thus has little in common with later conceptions of “goodness,” just as the Latin word virtus and the modern Christian concept of “virtue” are very nearly opposites despite their etymological connection. The word “passion” here also needs to be understood in its older sense, as the opposite of “action” (cf. “active” and “passive”).
The negative attitude toward humanity and the cosmos which appears in this text contrasts sharply with the more positive assessment found, for example, in the Poemandres (CH I) or in the Asclepius - a reminder that these documents are relics of a diverse and not necessarily consistent school of thought
Notes on the text: The idea of cyclic change central to CH III, “The Sacred Sermon”, also takes center stage here. A current of ancient speculation grounded in astrology held that as the planets returned after vast cycles of time to the same positions, so all events on earth would repeat themselves precisely into eternity in the future - and had done so from eternity in the past. The technical term for this recurrence, apocatastasis, is the word Mead translates as “restoration” in the beginning of section 4.
Mead footnotes this tractate as “obscure” and “faulty” in places, and his translation of the beginning of section 3 is conjectural.
Notes on the text: This somewhat diffuse essay covers a series of topics, starting with (and to some extent from) the concept that the set of perceptions we call “thoughts” and the set we call “sensory perceptions” are not significantly different from each other. The implications of this idea play a significant role in later Hermetic thought, particularly in the areas of magic and the Art of Memory; in this tractate, though, the issues involved are barely touched, and the argument wanders into moral dualisms and the equally important, but distinct, idea that the Cosmos is itself a divine creative power.
Section 10, in which understanding is held up as the source and precondition of belief, should probably be seen as part of the same ancient debate on the roles of faith and reason that gave rise to Tertullian's famous credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd”).
Notes: This longer tractate presents itself explicitly as a summary or abridgement of the General Sermons (CH II-IX), and discusses the Hermetic view of knowledge and its role in the lives and afterlives of human beings. The attentive reader will notice certain contradictions between the afterlife-teachings of this and previous tractates.
One of the central concepts of The Key, and of Hermetic thought generally, is the distinction between ordinary discursive knowledge which can be expressed in words (in Greek, episteme, which Mead translates somewhat clumsily as “science”) and transcendent, unitive knowledge which cannot be communicated (in Greek, gnosis, which Mead simply and sensibly leaves untranslated). The same distinction can be found in many systems of mystical thought. Unlike most of these, though, the Hermetic teachings place value on both.
Readers without much experience in the jargon of Classical philosophy will want to remember that “hylic” means “material”, “passible” means “subject to outside forces or to suffering”, and “intelligible” means “belonging to the realm of the Mind”, and “motion” includes all kinds of change. The special implications of “good” in Greek thought - of self-sufficiency and desirability - should also be kept in mind.
The delightful irony of the Zen moment early in section 9, when Hermes - in the middle of this very substantial lecture - defines the good and pious man as “he who doth not say much or lend his ear to much” and thus rules out both himself and his audience, seems to have been lost on subsequent commentators.
Notes on the text: This complex text is written as a revelation from the divine Mind - the “Man-Shepherd” of CH I - to Hermes, concerning the nature of God and the universe. Difficult enough in its own right, it has been made more so by some of Mead's prose. I have tried to insert clarifications where these are most needed.
Some notes on terminology may also be useful. The term Aeon here, as in many of the so-called “Gnostic” writings, refers to the timeless and spaceless realm of ideal being. The word cosmos means both “order” and “beauty” - the same root appears in the word “cosmetic”. Additionally, the words genesis and becoming in the translation are the same word in the Greek original.
Finally, the word “inactive” in square brackets near the beginning of section 13 is Mead's, intended to fill a lacuna in the text. The more usual conjecture, as he comments, is “apart from God”
Notes on the text: The “common mind” discussed in this dialogue is the same Mind which appears as a divine power in other parts of the Hermetic literature. It is identical, as well, with the “Good Daimon” whose words are quoted at several points here and elsewhere.
The Greek word logos - which means both “word” and “reason”, among other things - is central to much of the argument, and it's unfortunate that English has no way to express the same complex of meanings. The praise of reason in parts 13-14 is also, and equally, a praise of human language, and this sort of double meaning plays a part elsewhere in this and other parts of the Hermetic literature.
Notes on the text: This dialogue is in many ways the culmination of the whole Corpus, summing up the theory of the Hermetic system at the same time as it provides an intriguing glimpse at the practice. The focus of the dialogue is the experience of Rebirth, which involves the replacement of twelve Tormentors within the self by ten divine Powers, leading to the awakening of knowledge of the self and God.
The “Secret Hymnody” (sections 17-20) is presented as a litany for worship, to be performed twice each day, at sunrise and sunset. It's interesting to note that while the sunrise worship is performed facing east, the sunset worship is done to the south; Egyptian tradition from Pharaonic times onward saw the west as the direction of death.
The usual difficulties with the multiple meanings of the Greek word logos appear in the translation, compounded by Mead's awkward style. Additionally, one of Mead's few evasions can be found in section 12, where he relates the twelve Tormentors to the “twelve types-of-life”. This should more simply, and more accurately, have been translated as “the twelve signs of the Zodiac”. The Theosophical distaste for astrology may well have been involved here.
Asclepius. If thou dost think [of it], O King, even of bodies there are things bodiless.
The King. What [are they]?â(asked the King.)
Asc. The bodies that appear in mirrorsâdo they not seem then to have no body?
The King. It is so, O Asclepius 2; thou thinkest like a God 3!â(the King replied.)
Asc. There are things bodiless as well as these; for instance, forms 1âdo not they seem to thee to have no body, but to appear in bodies not only of the things which are ensouled, but also of those which are not ensouled?
The King. Thou sayest well, Asclepius.
Asc. Thus, [then,] there are reflexions of things bodiless on bodies, and of bodies too upon things bodilessâthat is to say, [reflexions] of the Sensible on the Intelligible World, and of the [World] Intelligible on the Sensible.
Wherefore, pay worship to the images, O King, since they too have their forms as from the World Intelligible.
(Thereon His Majesty arose and said:)
The King. It is the hour, 2 O Prophet, to see about the comfort of our guests. To-morrow, [then,] will we resume our sacred converse.
(ABOUT THE SOUL'S BEING HINDERED BY THE PASSION OF THE BODY)
1. God, O Asclepius, hath brought thee unto us that thou mayest hear a Godly sermon, a sermon such as well may seem of all the previous ones weâve [either] uttered, or with which weâve been inspired by the Divine, more Godly than the piety of [ordinary] faith.
If thou with eye of intellect 1 shalt see this Word 2 thou shalt in thy whole mind be filled quite full of all things good.
If that, indeed, the âmanyâ be the âgood,â and not the âone,â in which are âall.â Indeed the difference between the two is found in their agreement,ââAllâ is of âOneâ 3 or âOneâ is âAll.â So closely bound is each to other, that neither can be parted from its mate.
But this with diligent attention shalt thou learn from out the sermon that shall follow [this].
But do thou, O Asclepius, go forth a moment and call in the one who is to hear.
(And when he had come in, Asclepius proposed that Ammon too should be allowed to come. Thereon Thrice-greatest said:)
[Tris.] There is no cause why Ammon should be kept away from us. For we remember how we have ourselves set down in writing many things to his address, 5 as though unto a son most dear and most beloved, of physics many things, of ethics [too] as many as could be.
It is, however, with thy name I will inscribe this treatise.
But call, I prithee, no one else but Ammon, lest a most pious sermon on a so great theme be spoilt by the admission of the multitude.
For âtis the mark of an unpious mind to publish to the knowledge of the crowd a tractate brimming oâer with the full Greatness of Divinity.
(When Ammon too had come within the holy place, and when the sacred group of four was now complete with piety and with Godâs goodly presenceâto them, sunk in fit silence reverently, their souls and minds pendent on Hermesâ lips, thus Love 1 Divine began to speak.)
1. [Tris.] The soul of every man, O [my] Asclepius, is deathless; yet not all in like fashion, but some in one way or [one] time, some in another.
Asc. Is not, then, O Thrice-greatest one, each soul of one [and the same] quality?
Tris. How quickly hast thou fallen, O Asclepius, from reasonâs true sobriety!
Did not I say that “All” is “One,” and “One” is “All,” 2 in as much as all things have p. 310 been in the Creator before they were created. Nor is He called unfitly “All,” in that His members are the “All.”
Therefore, in all this argument, see that thou keep in mind Him who is âOneâ-âAll,â or who Himself is maker of the âAll.â
2. All things descend from Heaven to Earth, to Water and to Air. âTis Fire alone, in that it is borne upwards, giveth life; that which [is carried] downwards [is] subservient to Fire.
Further, whatever doth descend from the above, begetteth; what floweth upwards, nourisheth.
âTis Earth alone, in that it resteth on itself, that is Receiver of all things, and [also] the Restorer of all genera that it receives.
This Whole, therefore, as thou rememberest, in that it is of all,âin other words, all things, embraced by nature under âSoulâ and âWorld,â3 are in [perpetual] flux, so varied by the multiform equality of all their forms, that countless kinds of well-distinguished qualities may be discerned, yet with this bond of union, that all should seem as One, and from âOneâ âAll.â
1. That, then, from which the whole Cosmos is formed, consisteth of Four ElementsâFire, Water, Earth, and Air; Cosmos [itself is] one, [its] Soul [is] one, and God is one.
Now lend to me the whole of thee, âall that thou canâst in mind, all that thou skillâst in penetration.
For that the Reason 2 of Divinity may not be known except by an intention of the senses like to it.
âTis 4 likest to the torrentâs flood, down-dashing headlong from above with all-devouring tide; so that it comes about, that by the swiftness of its speed it is too quick for our attention, not only for the hearers, but also for the very teachers.