Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 2, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
The text seems to be very corrupt, and at one time I thought it incomplete; but it may very well end with the reference to the mighty deeds of the men of old.
The title “Sacred Sermon” would lead us to expect something of a special nature, something that would constitute a basis of doctrine. For we hear of the “Sacred Sermon” of Orpheus, and of the “Sacred Sermon” of Pythagoras, and are told that they formed the most sacred deposits of these two mystic schools respectively, and were regarded with special reverence; they thus seem to have been looked upon in some fashion as containing the groundwork of these systems.
And this is precisely what we find with our treatise; it is to a large extent a summary of the general ideas of the “Shepherd” cosmogony adapted to the needs of a simpler formularization.
When, however, Reitzenstein (p. 193) refers to this treatise cursorily as the preaching of some prophet or other which has been transferred to Hermes by the Redactor of our Corpus, he suggests that we are dealing with a doctrine foreign to the cosmogonical ideas of the “Shepherd.” It is, indeed, true that if we compare the data of the two treatises together, detail by detail, we shall find strong contradictions; but the general “feel” of both is the same, the general atmosphere is identical.
Prefixed to the cosmogenesis is a formal theological proœm, the precise meaning of which escapes me because of its almost mnemonic nature; it is, indeed
quite in sūtra style. There appears, however, to be a distinct trinitarian 1 idea lurking in the first sentence, the trinity consisting of God (ὁ Θεὸς) and Godhead (τὸ θεῖον) and Nature (ἡ φύσις). The Glory or Power of all things is this Divine Trinity. The Source (or Beginning), the End and the Ever-renewing of all things are owing to this Triad. All three seem to be almost interchangeable terms. The Godhead is the Mind of God, Godly Nature is the Wisdom of God. Again, at the end of the sermon (§ 4) we are told that the Godhead (or that which is Divine) is “Natures ever-making-new-again the cosmic mixture.” Godhead in operation is Nature, while at the same time Nature is co-established in Godhead, and both are one in God, the Source of all.
The cosmogenesis begins with the grandiose image: “Darkness that knew no bounds was in Abyss.”
We have already, in commenting on “Darkness” in the “Pœmandres” treatise, referred, in explanation, to a Gnostic tradition in which the Primal Elements appear as Water, Darkness, Abyss, and Chaos, and have given some reason for ascribing the form of this tradition to Egypt—that is, Archaic Egypt, a parallel tradition to the Sumerian, both derived from a still more Archaic source.
If, now, we turn to Epiphanius (remembering that he picked up what he knew or thought he knew about the Gnostics in Egypt), we shall find that he has preserved from another Gnostic system an even more striking parallel with our text.
The Bishop of Salamis is denouncing the Nicolaïtans, 2 who for him were the earliest Christian Gnostics, there
being very numerous and various sects of them, all deriving from a certain Nicolaus, whom Epiphanius would have us believe to have been one of the first seven deacons of the Church.
If, in reality, however, the Nicolaïtans = the Balaamites of early Talmudic Rabbinism, 1 then the original Nicolaïtans were the earliest Christians, for “Balaamites” was the Rabbinical by-name of the followers of Balaam (Bileam) = Jeschu, and Balaam = Nicolaos, in Hebrew and Greek respectively.
Curiously enough, moreover, in the paragraph (§ 4) before the one from which we are going to quote, Epiphanius ascribes the use of the mystic words, “Kaulakau Kaulakau,” to the Nicolaïtans, words which we have, with high probability, shown in the chapter “Myth of Man in the Mysteries” (§ 16 J., end) to have been used by a Jewish Gnostic of the time of Philo, writing in an Egyptian environment, and dealing with the Man-tradition, which is one of the main elements of the “Pœmandres” doctrine. All of which carries us back to the dawn of Christianity.
Speaking, then, of these Nicolaïtans, Epiphanius writes (xxv. 5):
“Others of them, again, plaster together empty names, saying: There was Darkness and Abyss (βυθός) and Water; and Spirit in the midst of them made separation of them.” 2
Here we have precisely the same elements as in our text for the foundation of a cosmogonical representation. What precise relationship these various traditions may have had to one another we cannot say with any certainty; but what we can say is that the writer or
writers of our treatise are dealing with a material common to themselves, to pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism and the earliest forms of the Christian Gnosis.
The sentence (in § 2), “All things being undefined and yet unwrought (ἀκατασκευάστων)” is also to be noticed, and, together with the opening sentence of the cosmogony, compared with the LXX. version of Gen. i. 2:
“And the earth was invisible and as yet unwrought (ἀκατασκεύαστος), and Darkness was upon the Abyss, and the Spirit of God was borne upon the Water.”
Are we, then, to suppose that our Trismegistic writer based himself directly upon this famous “oracle” of Jewish Scripture?
The Jewish Gnostics would doubtless do so in their commentaries; but the phenomena of the Christianized Jewish Gnostic systems persuade us rather that these Gnostic Jews did not derive their ideas directly from the text of their national Scripture, but from what we may call parallel traditions of an esoteric nature. We shall see later on, when treating of Zosimus, that there were translations of the Chaldæan sacred books in the Alexandrian Library, and we cannot but believe that the general ideas of Chaldæan cosmogony were familiar to all the learned of the time. For Chaldæa and Egypt were regarded as the two most wisdom-loving nations of antiquity, the two most sacred lands. What wonder, then, that Chaldæan and Egyptian ideas should be blended together, and turned out into a “scientific” whole, by the spirit of Greek “philosophizing,” in our treatises?
I would therefore conclude that both here, and in
the repetition of the formula, “increase in increasing and multiply in multitude” (§ 3), from the “Pœmandres” treatise (§ 18), the similarities are not due to direct plagiarism, but to the fact that such logoi were “in the air.” I would also suggest that the somewhat peculiar term ἀκατασκεύαστος was not original with the Greek Targum of Genesis, first made at Alexandria some 250 years B.C., but that it was rather taken from the theological and philosophical language of the day and used by the Hebrew translators; that, in brief, in the LXX. translation already we have to take into account the strong influence of the technology of Hellenistic theology.
With regard to the whole of our treatise, I would suggest that we have the heads of topics which were to be subsequently explained and commented upon, rather than a didactic treatise setting forth a clear teaching. Like the proem, the cosmogenesis itself is straitly condensed, so condensed that the indications are too vague for us to form any clear mental picture of the process that is suggested. We have nothing but a series of headings that may have meant something very definite to the writer—may, in fact, have summed up for him a whole body of doctrine—but which for us, in our ignorance of detail, can have but little precise meaning.
To add to our difficulties, the text, as we have already said, appears to be very faulty. It is very probable that owing to its original brevity, copyists and readers would be tempted to gloss it in the interests of what would appear to them greater clearness; these glosses creeping into the text later on would, since the gloss-makers did not know the original scheme, blurr rather than elucidate the mother-text—and hence our tears.
The most striking doctrine in the exposition is that of Renewal or Making-new-again (ἀνανέωσις). All animal and vegetable forms contain in themselves “the seed of again-becoming” (τὸ σπέρμα τῆς παλιγγενεσίας). I do not think that this is intended simply to mean that the individual is continued in the species; for we read that “every birth of flesh ensouled . . . shall of necessity renew itself (ἀνανεωθήσεται).” The doctrine that is preached is, therefore, that of palingenesis or “re-incarnation”; the renewal on the kārmic wheel of birth-and-death (φύσεως κύκλου ἐναριθμίου δρόμημα).
The last point to which we need call the readers attention is the sentence: “And there shall be memorials mighty of their handiworks upon the earth, leaving dim trace behind when cycles are renewed.”
The thought of the writer is evidently turned back towards the past, to a time when a mighty race, devoted to growth in wisdom, lived on earth and left great monuments of their wisdom in the work of their hands, dim traces of which were to be seen “in the renewal of the times.” This seems to me to be a clear reference to the general belief of the time (commonly, though erroneously, called Stoic) that there were alternate periods of destruction, by fire and water, and of renewal. In Egypt the common belief, as we have pointed out elsewhere, was that the last destruction had been by water and flood. Before this Flood our author believed there had been a mighty race of Egyptians, the race of the First Hermes, and that some dim traces of the mighty works of this bygone wisdom-loving civilization were still to be seen.
I am, myself, strongly inclined to believe in this tradition; and I have sometimes speculated as to the possibility of there being buried beneath one or more of the pyramids the remains of some prehistoric buildings (perhaps also of pyramid-shape) that have survived the “Flood.”
79:1 Not, of course, in a technical Christian sense.
79:2 Adv. Hær., xxv. 1-5.
80:1 See D. J. L., p. 188, where this identification is worked out with some probability.
80:2 Ed. Dindorf (Leipzig, 1859), ii. 35, 36.