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Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929], at



IN HELLENISTIC and Roman times Egypt was peculiarly productive of a distinctive variety of religious temperament, notably fervid in its emotionalism, markedly ascetic in its tendencies, and supremely desirous of the culminating experience of absorption into deity. During the Alexandrian period Egyptian mystics, acting under the charm of ancient religious tradition, asked for the privilege of initiation into the cult of Isis and sought in her ascetic discipline and in the impressiveness of her liturgies the satisfaction of their aspirations. Much later, when Christian emperors were ruling in the Mediterranean world, Egyptian mystics were more than likely to turn anchorite and to seek in the solitude of the desert the experience of oneness with the divine; or perhaps they would lose themselves as members of a Christian monastic community. During the interim centuries, while pagan emperors ruled from Rome, Alexandria in Egypt was much under the spell of able and sincere religio-philosophical teachers, such as Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus and their predecessors. There flourished in the Egyptian metropolis at this period in eclectic Platonism that earlier was related to Neo-Pythagoreanism and later was developed as Neo-Platonism. During these centuries Egyptian mystics, particularly those who had intellectual interests, were likely to be found frequenting the lecture hall of some popular teacher or seeking the realization of their desires in the fellowship of a religio-philosophical brotherhood.

Of the earlier phases of this important religio-philosophical development there are few literary remains. The considerable Neo-Pythagorean literature has perished and the teachings of Ammonius Saccas, the founder of Neo-Platonism, were oral and esoteric. But there yet remains from these centuries the so-called Hermetic literature, writings in Greek and Latin attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and composed of ethical, religious, and philosophic instruction. Obviously, these writings are the remnants of what must have been a far more extensive body of religious literature. Even in the decimated state in which we know them, they give unmistakable evidence of having been produced at different times and in different communities during the early imperial period. As the scattered and scanty memoranda of a distinctive and more or less widespread religious quest in the Graeco-Roman world, these enigmatic writings are extremely interesting and valuable.


The Corpus Hermeticum proper, which is the important section of this literature, includes a collection of fourteen tractates popularly but mistakenly named "Poimandres" from the dominant first number of the series, together with three others grouped under the name of "Asclepius." These tractates comprehend a variety of literary types: dialogues, discourses, hymns, prayers, epistles, an apology, and a theophany. But with all this diversity of literary there is a certain unity about the Corpus. The writings generally profess to be revelations. On the one hand, they describe what one of the main characters, Hermes or Asclepius or Tat, has seen or learned from his divine father and teacher; on the other hand, a prophet of religion proclaims to men the revelations he has received through his experience with the deity. Viewed as a revelation literature, the Hermetic writings show more of unity than their diversity of literary form would lead one to expect.

As to the dates of this literature, the student is faced with an apparent contradiction; the Hermetic literary tradition was a very ancient one, yet the Corpus that we know is not definitely attested until comparatively late in Christian times. To Hermes, or Thoth, as the "Lord of Divine words," native priests in Egypt ascribed the inspiration and authorship of their sacred books, which Greek writers denominated "Hermetic" in accordance with this native literary tradition. Plato, Strabo, and Iamblicus vouch for this literary fiction, while Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, among early Christian writers, are witnesses to the same tradition. It is not until the time of Lactantius (ca. A.D. 325), however, that we find references and quotations which can be verified by comparison with extant Hermetic works. His appreciative references to "Hermes" prove the existence in the early years of the fourth century of certain surviving numbers of the Corpus, together with other tractates that are now lost. The tone of contemporary references proves that in Lactantius' day the Trismegistic writings had considerable vogue. Thus, while the Hermetic literary fiction was pre-Christian and ancient, it was not until the end of the third Christian century that the tractates of our Corpus emerged into the clear light of literary history. Most of them were much older than this. Just how much older they were is the problem.

In a comparative study of religious phenomena during the earliest Christian centuries, the question of the dating of these documents is one of considerable importance. If, for example, the Hermetic Corpus was a third-century product and recorded only post-Christian developments, one would hardly be justified to give it consideration in connection with the genesis of early Christianity. Unfortunately, critical opinion concerning the dating of these documents is still in a very chaotic state. By far the most definite scheme of chronology is that outlined by Richard Reitzenstein in his Poimandres studies, where he definitely dates not only the collection as a whole but also the Poimandres as the earliest of the series.

For the dating of this tractate, Dr. Reitzenstein lays special stress on a striking literary parallelism between it and the Shepherd of Hermas. At the beginning of Poimandres the situation and sequence of events are remarkably like those of the fifth vision of Hermas. In both instances a supernatural being appears as a shepherd to the future prophet and pledges to remain with him. On being challenged as to his identity, the "shepherd" transforms himself before the prophet's eyes and shows him a vision. The parallel is an unusual one surely; and Dr. Reitzenstein argues that the transformation of the shepherd narrated by the Christian writer is meaningless unless a knowledge of the pagan Poimandres is presupposed on his part. He further notes the remarkable titular similarity between the two documents, the Poimandres (Shepherd of Men) of Hermes and the Shepherd of Hermas. On the basis of literary analogy, therefore, Dr. Reitzenstein argues for dating the first number of the Hermetic Corpus earlier than the Shepherd and at least as early as the end of the first century A.D.

Granted the parallelisms emphasized, they fall just short of proving the direct literary dependence of the Christian apocalypse on the pagan writing. Contact with oral tradition, which was even more characteristic of Hermetism than of Christianity itself, would be sufficient to explain the peculiar literary phenomena in question. Under the circumstances, literary analogy furnishes an insecure basis for the chronological placement of Poimandres.

This uncertainty as to the precise time when Hermetic literature had its beginning raises the further question as to what date may be assigned to the final assembling of these documents. In answer to this question there is something like an agreement of opinion among scholars that the collection was brought together about the end of the third century A.D. It is hardly necessary to detail the reasons for this conviction, but two main points stand out. The representation of the sun as the demiurgic orderer of all things and as a charioteer wearing a rayed crown suggests a time when the Mithraic cult was at the peak of its influence. Also, the elaborate "Encomium of Kings" presupposes a plurality of kings exercising joint authority under one supreme ruler. This corresponds with the arrangement under Diocletian and his colleagues (imp. 285-305 A.D.). On the basis of these suggestions, Dr. Reitzenstein concludes that about the time of Diocletian's triumph in A.D. 302 an Egyptian priest made a compilation of eighteen sacred documents, our Corpus Hermeticum, intended to prove to the rulers of the Empire that there was nothing in his religion deserving of official suspicion, but that its teachings were calculated to foster loyalty to the Empire and its rulers.

Whether or not the Reitzenstein chronology for the Hermetic Corpus is accepted in detail, the general period that he suggests covering the first three Christian centuries is a very reasonable one for the writing and assembling of this literature. As yet a more probable period for the composition of these documents and their collection into a specific Corpus has not been suggested. For our purpose, which concerns the religious needs and experiences of people in the Graeco-Roman world, this very general dating is sufficient. Were our problem one of documentary relationships between the Christian and Hermetic literatures, it would be necessary to be much more specific in chronology and to date the various documents quite exactly--as scholarship is not prepared to do at present. Since, however, we are concerned with the altogether more vital problem of religious needs and their satisfaction, it suffices to know that in the first century A.D. there were people who thought and felt and desired as they are represented in the Hermetic writings.

Of this we may be assured. Whatever the date of the writings, Hermetic religion itself was older. A religion is always experienced and lived before ever it is recorded. Back of every religious literature, antedating it by a longer or shorter period, is the religious living of men and women who seek for the satisfaction of vital needs and desires. This general principle aside, however, the Trismegistic literature as it stands bears on its face the marks of its composite and pre-Christian origins. Many of the component elements can be isolated and labeled and dated in a general way, and a majority of these are definitely known to have been pre-Christian. The whole synthesis gives the impression of being a development that had its beginnings in Hellenistic Egypt, some time before Christianity had its beginnings in Palestine to the north. Its mythology, its literary structure, its magic, and its naive reverence for things Egyptian point in this direction, and the combination of these with Greek and Oriental elements is such a product as would come from that religious clearing house of the Hellenistic world, the Egypt of the Ptolemies. More precisely, the combination of Stoic physics and Platonic mysticism represented by the Hermetic literature existed in Alexandria at least as early as the philosopher Antiochus, or about 100 B.C. The literature itself must undoubtedly be dated considerably later; but even in its present form it falls securely within the first three centuries A.D.


It would be both interesting and useful in this connection to know exactly the component elements and their proportions as they were represented in the conglomerate product of Hermeticism, and by such an analysis to trace the beginnings of this movement back to ultimate sources. What were the various strands of influence that went into the weaving of this many-colored web? To answer this question accurately, the student must make himself at home in some dozen different thought-worlds. One would need to be thoroughly acquainted with the traditional religions of ancient Egypt, and the syncretistic religions of the Hellenistic world; with the confused astrology of the Orient and the clear philosophies of classical Greece; and above all with the religio-philosophical aggregates that were so highly important in the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman periods, and are all but completely ignored by the purists of today. In an age of high specialization such as ours there are few scholars who have the versatility requisite for unraveling such a tangled skein as that of Hermeticism.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find a characteristic variety of opinion concerning the blend of elements found in this religion. While there is more or less agreement as to what constituent elements were involved, the scholars violently disagree concerning the proportion of the various elements and their assignment to primary or secondary place in the combination. Dr. Reitzenstein, for example, regards the fundamental strain to be Egyptian. Zielinski, on the other hand, furnishes an antidote to this Egyptian prepossession by emphasizing the Hellenic and philosophical components of Hermeticism. M. Cumont brings to the fore as well-nigh coimportant with these ingredients, a stress on the Semitic and Oriental contributions to the complex.

The significant point emphasized by all this discussion is that the religion of Hermes was a syncretism, and as such was characteristic of the period when Christianity came into being. The early imperial era, like the Hellenistic period that preceded it, was one of syncretism in religion as in most other departments of life. The Greek cults had become orientalized and the eastern cults had been Hellenized. In philosophy eclecticism was the order of the day, and even those who were nominal adherents of a particular school freely made use of ideas borrowed from other systems. Hermeticism itself was a syncretism quite typical of this general period, and doubly so because it represented an amalgamation of various philosophies with different religions. There was a substratum of religious experience, essentially mystical in character, that sought in these writings to give itself intellectual justification. A blend of ideas, Greek, Oriental, and Egyptian, philosophical, mythical, and magical, was elaborated and erected on this basis of mystical experience, to give the effect of a system of theology. To others it may be left to differentiate and classify and evaluate the various theoretic elements that compose the superstructure; our interest is in the basic item of personal religious experience.

What the student would like to know quite exactly about this religious experience is how to classify it as to type, and how significant an item it was in the religious life of the early imperial period. Was it primarily individual experience that is mirrored in these writings--or do they record the experiences of groups of individuals? To what extent was there a definite social movement back of the Corpus? How widespread and influential was that movement? Could it be classified as a cult? What, for example, was the relation of Hermetic religion to the mystery religions so popular during this period? These are some of the interrogations that arise as one studies the literature.

Again it is Dr. Reitzenstein who has assumed the most unequivocal position on this complex of problems. He maintains that this literature presupposes a definite religious movement with clergy and cult practice and various communities, that had its beginnings in Hellenistic Egypt and lasted through the third Christian century. The first tractate of the series, according to his view, was the product of a peculiar "Pimandres" community, founded probably about the time of Jesus' birth. In the early part of the next century, its influence spread to Rome. During the third century it lost its identity among the Hermetic communities generally, and finally in the fourth century the whole movement disappeared from view.

Other scholars are inclined to take issue with Dr. Reitzenstein in his historical reconstruction. W. Kroll declares, "Least of all can I believe in communities of Poimandres, Nus, Anthropos, etc. at the time of the birth of Christ; and our writings are not to be considered liturgies of such communities; on the contrary their character is purely literary." Indeed, it must be granted that external evidence is lacking to prove the existence of a Hermetic religion with clergy or cultus. Must we then grant the further possibility thtt Hermeticism had a purely literary existence and was at best but a sporadic and individualistic expression of religious aspiration?

Internal evidence makes it clear that this was not the case. The character of the Hermetic documents themselves proves that Hermeticism was a real religion that had its social as well as its individual aspect. Public preachments as well as private instruction went into the making of the Corpus Hermeticum, and even the most intimate of the dialogues were framed to include cult remains in the form of hymns and prayers. So the "Secret Discourse on the Mountain" includes the "Hymn of Rebirth" and the Poimandres revelation ends with a triple ter-sanctus to the Father God. The prophet of Poimandres, when he had made a successful beginning of his evangelization, taught his followers how to give thanks to God at the time of the sun's setting. Hermetism, too, had its baptism and the Trismegistic prophet, like John the Baptist, summoned men to "Repent and be baptized!" These cult remains are so indigenous to this literature and are handled with such naive sincerity that the student cannot regard them as literary fictions. It is a living religion that one is dealing with here. On the basis of these practices and the general representation of the Corpus, the student is justified in thinking of Hermetism as a definite religious movement proceeding from Hellenistic Egypt with communities gathered about prophetic leaders. How extensive its influence became in the Graeco-Roman period, who can tell"

There is one addendum that should be made concerning cult practices in the religion of Hermes. While they were treated with reverence, they were allegorized and "spiritualized" and the emphasis was very little on rite and very much on personal religious experience. Trismegistic religion had its baptism, to be sure; but the important thing was not the physical rite, but the hyperphysical immersion in spirit that it entailed. In the Asclepius there is a dramatic illustration of this attitude, toward ritual. Tat and Asclepius have just been receiving instruction from the Thrice-Greatest One himself.

"Having come forth from the sanctuary, they began their prayers to God, looking towards the south; for when a man wishes to pray to God at sunset, he ought to face southward, as at sunrise he ought to face eastward. But when they had begun to pray, Asclepius whispered, 'Tell me, Tat, shall we propose to your father that should add to our prayer, as men are wont to do, an offering of incense and perfumes?' Trismegistus heard; and much disturbed, he said, 'Hush, hush, Asclepius; it is the height of impiety to think of such a thing with regard to him who alone is good. Such gifts as these are unfit for him; for he is filled with all things that exist, and lacks nothing. Let us rather adore him with thanksgiving; for words of praise are the only offering that he accepts.'"

Such was the typically inconsistent attitude of Hermetic religion toward liturgical performance. Prayers must be made in a certain way; but it were profanation to offer incense! Thus, while the external ceremonial features of Hermeticism should not be neglected, the chief concern of Trismegistic religionists was the cultivation of inward experience.


Did Hermeticism with its unusual emphasis on personal religion foster an experience of individual regeneration such was prominent in the mystery cults in connection with their initiation ceremonies? Of this there can be no doubt. One of the most important tractates of the Corpus, the "Secret Discourse on the Mountain," is specifically and exclusively devoted to palingenesia, and the entire process of Hermetic rebirth is there described and enacted before the reader's imagination. The characters of the dialogue are Hermes and his son Tat. The latter begins the colloquy reminding his father that in his general discourses he has affirmed that no one could ever be saved without regeneration. Tat had longed to learn the secret of rebirth and his father had promised to share it with him when he had become a stranger to the world. This, Tat protests, he has already done and so he does not hesitate to ask his father to fulfil the promise and communicate to him the complete tradition of rebirth. Like the Nicodemus of the Johannine dialogue, Tat puzzles in literalistic fashion as to how a man can be born again--of what seed and from what womb he comes to rebirth. Hermes replies that spiritual wisdom conceiving in silence is the womb, true good the seed, and God himself the author of the act. Thus the reborn individual becomes a son of God endowed with divine powers. Tat does not understand this and asks further explanation concerning the manner of rebirth. To this demand Hermes rejoins:

"What can I say, my son? . . . . I can tell you nothing but this; I see that by God's mercy there has come to be in me a form which is not fashioned out of matter, and I have passed out of myself, and entered into an immortal body. I am not now the man I was; I have been born again in spirit, and the bodily shape which was mine before has been put away from me. I am no longer an object colored and tangible, a thing of special dimensions; I am now alien to all this, and to all that you perceive when you gaze with bodily eyesight. To such eyes as yours, my son, I am not now visible."

As Tat listens to his father's discourse, he is seized with ecstasy and seems to lose his reason. He finds himself confused and speechless and incapable of thought even. At last he asks, with genuine anxiety, if it is impossible for him to realize this spiritual good. Without hesitation Hermes reassures him on this point. "Heaven forbid, my son. Draw it into you and it will come; will it, and it comes to be. Stop the working of your bodily senses, and then will deity be born in you. But if you would be born again, you must cleanse yourself from the irrational torments of matter."

The reference to material torments prompts Tat to question as to what they are. In reply Hermes enumerates twelve evil propensities which are bound up with man's physical nature. They are ignorance, grief, intemperance, sensuality, injustice, avarice, folly, envy, deceit, anger, rashness, and malice. In the picturesque language of Hermes, these evil propensities and many more of the same tribe creep through the prison house of man's body and, like torturers, torment the prisoner who is there confined. Hermes concludes:

"But when God has had mercy on a man, they depart from him together, one and all; and then is reason built up in him. Such is the manner of the rebirth. "And now, my son, speak not but keep solemn silence; so will the mercy come down on us from God."

In the pause that follows, the silence is broken only by the voice of Hermes calling upon the ten "Powers of God," virtues all, to come and possess Tat, driving out the evil inclinations of the flesh: knowledge of God to replace ignorance, joy instead of sorrow, self-control in place of intemperance, continence where sensuality was, righteousness in lieu of injustice, generosity to drive avarice away, truth instead of error, and the more abstract qualities of goodness, life, and light to take the place of all the other brutish torments. The invocation of Hermes is an efficacious rite whereby his disciple is enabled to realize the desired change in immediate experience.

"No longer has there come upon us any of the torments of darkness; they have flown away with rushing wings. Thus, my son, has the spiritual being been made up in us; and by its coming to be we have been made gods. Whoever, then, has by God's mercy attained to this divine birth, abandons bodily sense; he knows himself to be composed of powers of God and knowing this is glad."

True to the word, Tat's first reaction to all this is ecstatic: "Father, God has made me a new being, and I perceive things now not with bodily eyesight, but by the working of the spirit." Thus freed from the limitations of sense, Tat feels himself completely at one with the universe. "I am in heaven," he exclaims, "in earth, in water and in air. I am in beasts and plants . . . . . I am present everywhere!" Then, as his ardor cools somewhat, Tat pauses to ask about his transformed being. "Tell me, Father, will this body which is composed of divine Powers ever suffer dissolution."

To this interrogation Hermes quickly answers:

"Hush! Speak not of a thing that cannot be; it would be impious to say that. Has the eye of your spirit been blinded? The physical body which is an object of sense differs widely from that other body which is of the nature of true being. The one is dissoluble, the other is indissoluble. The one is mortal, the other is immortal. Do you not know you have become a god, and son of the One, even as I have?"

As yet Tat's eagerness is not fully satisfied and he asks to be taught the "Hymn of Rebirth" which is known only to those who have experienced regeneration. With specific directions as to how the hymn is to be uttered at the time of sunset Hermes imparts to him the secret ode. Even with this esoteric information the eager neophyte is not completely satisfied. He must sing his own song of praise, and like Epictetus he will not be restrained from doing so. This, then, is Tat's own song of regeneration:

"O thou first author of the work by which the rebirth has been wrought in me. To thee, O God, do I, Tat, bring offerings of speech. O God, thou art the father; O Lord, thou art the spirit. From me accept such praises as thou willest. For by thy will it is that all is accomplished for me."

At this point the dialogue closes with an expression of gratification on the part of Hermes that his instruction has come to deathless fruition in the regeneration of Tat. He further charges his disciples to keep the tradition of the rebirth a secret, that it may not be defiled by calumniators.


From this ordered account of the regeneration of Tat, together with casual references in other tractates of the Corpus, it is possible to reconstruct the various steps in the process of rebirth as the disciple of the Thrice-Greatest Hermes realized them in sequence. They may be enumerated thus:


This was the prophet's part in the process. It consisted of a preliminary proclamation of the Hermetic gospel and it might be either public or private. Trismegistic religion had its prophetic tradition of public preaching as well as its esoteric tradition of private instruction. It may fairly be questioned as to whether the two are consonant or represent entirely different streams of development. Nevertheless, in the Hermetic Corpus as we know it both phases are found, and some memorable examples of prophetic preaching are quoted directly.

The visionist of Poimandres after he had been shown man's destiny by the Shepherd began to preach to others the beauty of piety and gnosis. The content of his message was as follows:

"O people, men born of earth, who have given yourselves up to drunkenness and sleep in your ignorance of God; awake to soberness, cease to be sodden with strong drink and lulled in sleep devoid of reason . . . . . O men, why have you given yourselves up to death, when you have been granted power to partake of immortality? Repent, you who have journeyed with error, and joined company with ignorance; rid yourselves of darkness, and lay hold on light; partake of immortality, forsaking corruption."

Entirely similar in content, though even more vigorous and picturesque in language, is the sermon which comprises a whole tractate, the seventh in our Corpus. Here, in order to enforce his sermon the preacher makes free use of figures suggested by life in wineshops and seaports and also the contrasted pictures of the tombs of the dead and the dwellings of the living. It was in response to such a general proclamation of the Hermetic gospel as this one wherein the assertion had been made that no one could be saved without rebirth, that Tat sought to learn from his Father the secret of the process.


The second step in the process, private instruction under the tutelage of a "Father," was far more characteristic of Trismegistic religion than the work of evangelization just noted. This step is represented by the greater number of Hermetic documents that remain today, most of them being dialogues between Hermes and Tat or Asclepius. In all of these there are two characters only; and even in the Asclepius, where, according to the account, Tat and Ammon were admitted to the conversation, they did not assume speaking roles, but merely listened to the dialogue. At this stage of the process the seeker became the disciple and was allowed to ask questions, but further than this he did not participate. If one judges from the recorded dialogues, the "Father's" answers were sometimes confusing rather than specifically informing, and on the whole were intended to stimulate the disciple's emotions rather than satisfy his intellect. Thus the dialogue took the place, in a general way, of the initiatory rites of the mysteries, which were designed, as Aristotle said, not to instruct but to put one in a proper frame of mind. And yet, throughout the dialogues of the Hermetic Corpus a show is made of rationalization--or one should rather say, an attempt at intellectualization especially along philosophical lines more or less familiar to the Graeco-Roman world.


The disciple, however, was not expected to be wholly passive and receptive in the process. There were important matters of mental and moral preparation and purification for which he alone was held responsible. On the one hand he was expected to train himself to regard the things of sense as illusory. Hermes informed Tat that he could not communicate to him the secret of rebirth until he had become an alien to the phenomenal world. So Tat made it a primary item in his personal preparation to teach his thought to be a stranger to the illusion of the world.

On the other hand an ascetic as well as a mental discipline was prescribed and the seeker was expected to purify himself from fleshly appetites and sensual passions. "Hate your body," was the Hermetic demand; and when Tat expressed to his "Father" the desire to be baptized, Hermes replied "If you do not first hate your body, my son, you cannot love yourself. But if you love yourself you will have spirit." This was the chief burden of the Hermetic prophet's message--to persuade men to cease from intoxication of sensation that ends in sensuality. This was, once more, the point of Hermes' urgency when he told his son Tat to cIeanse himself from the irrational torments of matter."

In all this, great stress was placed on the exercise of the individual's own will-power. When Tat was fearful lest he should not be able to attain the desired good, Hermes said to him, "Will it, and it comes to be. Stop the working of your bodily senses, and then will deity be born in you." An absolute choice was presented to the disciple, between the temporal and the eternal, and the choosing was left to him. Hermes said:

"It is not possible, my son, to attach yourself both to things mortal and to things divine. There are two sorts of things, the corporeal and the incorporeal; that which is mortal is of one sort, and that which is divine is the other sort; and he who wills to make his choice is left free to choose the one or the other."

From reading certain sections in Trismegistic treatises, one might get the impression that this religion regarded the human will as all powerful and that all a man had to do was to will to be reborn and he would become so. But the Hermeticist did not conceive the process thus simply. Rebirth in this religion, like that in the New Testament, was a birth from above dependent finally on God's will, not man's. He who was reborn was first begotten of God.


It was a distinctive feature of Hermetic rebirth that it was usually realized in religious meditation either in solitude or at most in the company of one's "Father." The prophet of Poimandres thus described his own state when there came to him the vision that made him a prophet: "Once on a time, when I had begun to think about the things that are, and my thoughts had soared high aloft, while my bodily senses had been put under restraint by sleep,--yet not such sleep as that of men weighed down by fulness of food or by bodily weariness." While he was in this condition, the theophany occurred, followed by the vision of creation. Reviewing the experience, he wrote of it afterward, "My bodily sleep had come to be sober wakefulness of soul; and the, closing of my eyes true vision; and my silence pregnant with good; and my barrenness of speech, a brood of holy thoughts." In his case, apparently, meditation ended in downright sleep and the vision was a dream!

Silence on the part of the subject was considered essential for the realization of rebirth. "Then only will you see the vision, when you cannot speak of it," said Hermes to Tat, "for the knowledge of it is deep silence, and suppression of all the senses." There is something almost magical about the way silence figured in the Hermetic process of regeneration. It will be recalled that this was the final caution of Hermes to his son before the latter realized the experience of rebirth. "Speak not, but keep solemn silence; so will the mercy come down on us from God." Silence was a sine qua non in the Hermetic process.


What was the outcome in experience of all this hushed stage setting? In a word it was ecstasy, partly self-induced, partly the reaction from the "Father's" discourse. There was real agony of spirit in Tat's incoherent speech, uttered under the stress of emotion aroused by Hermes' words:

"Father, you have driven me to raving madness . . . . . You have reduced me to speechless amazement . . . . . I must indeed have gone mad, father; I have lost the wits I had. I thought your teaching had made me wise, but when you put this thought before me, my senses are stopped up."

But in the recorded experience these disquieting emotions, due to a perfectly natural mental confusion, ended finally in an ecstasy of very different order, an exalted sense of harmony with the universe, so that Tat could exclaim that he felt himself in heaven, on earth, in water, and everywhere! This was a carefully cultivated emotionalism, to be sure; yet it was emotionalism of a refined sort. There was nothing crudely physical about it, nor did it tend to harmful excess. It was a highly attenuated mental emotionalism induced by meditation and quiet conversation.

It was typical of Hermeticism that this ecstasy, like Paul's Damascus experience, was spoken of in terms of vision and described as a glowing light. Thus Hermes, when pressed by Tat's eager questioning, characterized his own experience. He had seen a simple vision, mercifully sent to him by God himself. It was a thing that could not be taught and could not be seen with the natural eye--yet it had accomplished his spiritual birth. It was a vision, he declared in another passage, which flooded a man's mental horizon up to the limit of his ability to apprehend it, but not beyond. It did not, like the sun, blind the eyes with firelike blaze, but it did hold the mind enthralled, so that he who perceived it was conscious of nothing else. Such was the limitless vision that surprised the Poimandres prophet--a vision of light, "sweet and joyous." When he expressed a desire to know the meaning of it all, he was told by the Shepherd of Men, "That light am I, even Spirit, the first God . . . . . Now fix your thought upon the light and learn to know it." One may conclude, therefore, that a photism, conceived as a theophany, was a usual feature of Hermetic ecstasy.


It is exceedingly important to know how the followers of Trismegistic tradition interpreted this overflow of emotion. What central significance did it have for them? Nothing was more central than this. It meant a special spiritual endowment that added a new element to man's very being. In Hermetic terminology this new element was nous, the spirit of Trismegistic religion. The natural man had no share in spirit, which was a special divine gift that God had willed to set up among men as a prize. The spirit, as Hermes said plainly to Tat, was the very essence of God himself, inseparable from his being and inherent in it as light is in the sun. The figure was an inevitable one, for in certain Hermetic circles, at least, the sun itself was viewed as the reservoir of this spiritual essence, the container of its substance, whence it flowed to men in a mysterious manner. And so, in the ecstasy of a vision experience, when the human soul seemed bathed and flooded with light, it was but this ethereal light-substance flowing into man's being from its heavenly source and transforming him into divine essence. It was said of this light-substance as of the spiritual air-substance in the Fourth Gospel, "No one knows whence it comes or whither it goes."

This spiritual endowment Hermetic thought connected also with the rite of baptism. In a unique dialogue, the fourth, Hermes narrated to Tat how God had taken a huge bowl, filled it with spirit and sent it down to men, entrusting it to a messenger, who was commanded to preach thus to mankind: "Hearken, each human heart; dip yourself in this basin if you can, recognizing for what purpose you have been made, and believing that you shall ascend to him who sent the basin down." Some, according to the narration, did not heed the message and chose rather to remain in their ignorance. Others gave heed, baptized themselves in spirit, and so became initiates to Hermeticism. In this realistic fashion the disciple of Hermes, like the early Christian, came to a realization of his spiritual birth, through the, rite of baptism.

The endowment with spirit brought with it, also, a special mental equipment called "gnosis" which, according to the Hermetic scheme, was prerequisite to salvation. "And this alone, even the knowledge (gnosis) of God, is man's salvation," declared Hermes, "this is the ascent to Olympus; and by this alone can a soul become good." The very first event mentioned in Tat's regeneration was the driving out of ignorance by the gnosis of God. Such knowledge was not the result of sense-perception and reason. It stood in contrast to them. Rather it was a special mental enlightenment, the gift of God, which freed men from the illusions of sense and gave them insight into reality and the purpose of existence. In this way the Hermeticist interpreted the mental emotionalism of his religious experience: as endowment with spirit and equipment with gnosis.


There were two important consequences that were believed to proceed from this spiritual rebirth. One related to the present and the other chiefly to the future. One was a matter of morals and the other was a metaphysical affair.

In the first place Hermetic rebirth meant the moral purification of the individual. He was reborn ethically as well as essentially. In the account of Tat's regeneration, this was represented as the conquest of a horde of vices by an all but equal number of virtues. Elsewhere the same process was figured more positively as seeds of good, sown by God, coming to great and fair fruitage in "virtue, self-control, and piety." In the moral life of the regenerate, the spirit was given a notable role to play, as the physician of the soul. Hermes said to Tat:

"As a good physician inflicts pain on the body, burning or cutting it, when disease has taken possession of it, even so the spirit inflicts pain on the soul, ridding it of pleasure from which spring all the soul's diseases, and godlessness is a great disease of the soul; for the beliefs of the godless bring in their train all kinds of evils and nothing that is good. Clearly then, spirit, inasmuch as it counteracts this disease, confers good on the soul, just as the physician confers health on the body."

According to the Hermetic view, those who had no share in this divine endowment centered all their thoughts on the pleasures of the body and its appetites, in the belief that for its sake men came into being. They became wicked and depraved, envious and covetous, murderous and impious. To them an avenging demon was always present, ever adding torment to insatiable desire. But to the holy and good, the pure and merciful who lived piously, the spirit was ever present to help them win the Father's love by their upright lives. The disciple of Hermes said of his nous as the disciple of Paul would have said of his pneuma, "a man can escape from wickedness if he has the spirit in him."

On its metaphysical side Hermetic rebirth involved nothing less than deification. "This is the good; this is the consummation for those who have got gnosis--they enter into God," was the last word of the Shepherd of Men to his prophet before giving him his commission. Hermeticism emphatically maintained that it was perfectly possible for man, even while residing in the human body, to become deified. With this exalted thought of possibilities within human reach, the Hermetic thinker was almost inclined to respect man more highly than the gods. While none of the gods left their heavenly spheres to come down to earth, man, without leaving earth, could ascend to heaven and make himself divine--such was the power of his ecstasy. "We must not shrink from saying," Hermes concluded, "that a man on earth is a mortal god, and that a god in heaven is an immortal man."

So far as the future was concerned, divinization meant immortality also. When the transformation of man's essence was complete by the process of regeneration, then he had a body that death could not touch or harm. "The natural body can be dissolved, the spiritual body cannot be" was as much a conviction of Hermes as of Paul, and the disciple of the former confidently expected that when he should depart from his earthly body, he would "be brought into the troop of the gods and the souls that have attained bliss."

Altogether the rebirth experience of Trismegistic religion was a well-ordered process with clearly defined steps. There were certain preliminary items for which the leaders of the Hermetic movement were responsible--the, Prophet's call to repentance and the Father's personal words of instruction. There were other items of psychological self-preparation for which the seeker and he alone was responsible--a profound distrust of sense-perception, a rigorous control of physical appetites, and a willingness to wait in quiet, silent meditation for the inflow of divine grace. The rebirth experience itself was in inward ecstasy characterized by all but complete disregard of external sensations, with heed given only to the weighty words of the Father. There was mental confusion followed by a sense of exaltation, chaos ending in clarification, and not infrequently a vision experience described as a wonderful light. The interpretation of it all was that man, in this supreme moment of ecstasy, was endowed with spirit, a deific light-substance, and equipped with gnosis, a divinely given mental illumination absolutely essential to salvation. As a result of this rebirth, the individual felt himself possessed of such divine power that he could live an upright moral life, and could face the future assured of immortality--a deified mortal while yet on earth.


One further question should be raised, whether the palingenesia of Hermeticism has significance per se only, or whether it may not have special importance in relation to general religious trends among Gentiles in the first-century world. When the Hermetic movement is viewed in relation to contemporary tendencies, it is found to have been exactly in line with certain other important movements of the period. The general Weltanschauung of the Graeco-Roman world was a religio-philosophical one, and there was a distinct tendency both on the part of religions and philosophies to approach each other.

On the one hand, the religions of the time, those that survived with any vigor the successive Macedonian and Roman conquests, were seeking intellectual justification for their cult practices and were endeavoring to rationalize their emotionalism. To recall a single and notable instance already cited, Plutarch, in his treatise on Isis and Osiris, tried to harmonize his religious and his philosophical heritages and to interpret the Egyptian cult in a manner that would appeal to a Greek-thinking world. A little earlier Philo, in his Alexandrian environment, made a voluminous effort to reinterpret the intractable religion of his fathers in a way to satisfy the contemporary demand for intellectual criticism and for mystical experience--both at the same time. Long before the period represented by the Hermetic Corpus, the crude physical emotionalism of the Dionysian brotherhoods had been restrained and reformed into the asceticism of the Orphic movement with its very elaborate theology. In Hellenistic times Oriental mysticism began to coalesce into pre-Christian Gnosticism with its elaborate speculations built on a fundamentum of mystical religious experience. Indeed, from one point of view Hermeticism itself took its place as a particular type of Gnosticism, originating in Egypt. Like the popular cults of the period it encouraged the emotional type of religious experience; but it refined its emotionalism and made it mental rather than physical. Like the popular cults also it had its rites; but they were reduced to a minimum and "spiritualized" as much as possible. As a religion Hermeticism went far in the direction of a philosophy.

On the other hand the contemporary philosophical movements were making distinct approaches toward religion and were giving scope, as never before, to the exercise of emotion in the quest for truth. The religious revival of the time of Augustus had its effect in the field of philosophy, and those systems which yielded least to the popular demand for supernatural guaranties and emotional satisfactions were swept aside as unsatisfying. Epicureanism, the religion of the scientific-minded, yielded little and gained few adherents of note after Lucretius. Stoicism made greater compromise. Seneca and Epictetus clothed their moral and philosophical teachings in religious terms and gave them religious sanctions. Taught by the Syrian Posidonius, the Stoa had already become eclectic and had made place for astrology and mysticism and other characteristic features of oriental religion. In the first century A.D., probably at Alexandria, Pythagoreanism reappeared as a religious philosophy and made its way to Rome, where it enjoyed a temporary alliance with converted Stoicism. A little later Platonism, rejuvenated but transformed almost beyond recognition, was to appear under the name of Neo-Platonism and dominate the Roman world as the great mystical philosophy of the third century.

In such a thought-world as this, the religion of Hermes held its place somewhere between cult and philosophy, at the point where these two strong tides flowing in opposite directions met and became one. Its thought content was an eclectic conglomerate, but completely infused with the religious spirit, and its feeling content was of an intellectualized variety. Thus the rebirth of Hermeticism, important per se, is even more significant as an example of the type of mystical experience encouraged by the religio-philosophical movements of the Roman world.

Next: Chapter IX: The Mysticism of Philo