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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead


IV. 1. Now, as far as the “many” are concerned, even this commonest and smallest [secret] is hid from them,—namely, why the priests cut off their hair, and wear linen robes; for some do not at all care to know about these things, while others say that they abstain from [the use of] the sheep’s wool, as they do from its flesh, because they hold it sacred, and that they shave their heads through being in mourning, and wear linen things on account of the colour which the flax in flower sends forth, resembling the ætherial radiance 1 that surrounds the cosmos.

2. But the true cause, [the] one of all, is, as Plato says, [because]: “It is not lawful for pure to touch not pure.” 2

Now, superfluity 3 of nourishment and excretion is nothing chaste or pure; and it is from superfluities that wool and fur and hair and nails spring up and grow.

3. It would, thus, be laughable for them to cut off their own hair in the purifications, shaving themselves, and making smooth their whole body evenly, and [then] put on and wear the [hair] of animals. 4

4. For indeed we should think that Hesiod, when he says:

Nor from five-branched at fire-blooming of Gods
Cut dry from green with flashing blade 5

p. 266

teaches that [men] ought to keep holy day only when pure of such [superfluities], and not at the sacred operations themselves have need of purification and the removal of superfluities.

5. Again, the flax grows out of the deathless earth, and yields a fruit that man may eat, and offers him a smooth pure raiment that does not weigh upon the watcher, 1 but is well joined for every hour, 2 and is the least cone-bearing, 3 as they say,—concerning which things there is another reason (logos).


265:1 χρόαν—also meaning surface, skin, and tone in melody.

265:2 Phæd., 67 B.

265:3 περίσσωμα—also probably here a play on that which is “round the body” (περὶ σῶμα)—namely, the hair.

265:4 θρεμμάτων—lit., “things nourished” (from τρέφω), presumably a play on the “nourishment” (τροφή) above.

265:5 Op. et Dies, 741 f. This scrap of ancient gnomic wisdom Hesiod has preserved, I believe, from the “Orphic” fragments still in circulation in his day in Bœotia among the people from an Older Greece. I have endeavoured to translate it according to the most primitive meaning of the words. In later days it was thought that “five-branched” was the hand, and that the couplet referred to a prohibition against paring the nails at a feast of the Gods! In this sense also Plutarch partly uses it. But if I am right in my version, we have in the lines a link with that very early tradition in Greece which in later times was revived by the Later Platonic School, in a renewed contact with the ancient Chaldæan mystery-tradition of the Fire. “Five-branched” would thus mean man, or rather purified man, and the saying referred to the “pruning of this tree.” In it also we have an example of a “Pythagorean symbol” three hundred years before Pythagoras. Finally, I would remind the reader of the Saying which the Master is said to have uttered as He passed to the Passion of the Crucifixion (Luke xxiii. 31): “For if they do these things in the moist stock [A.V. green tree], what shall be done in the dry?”—presumably the quotation of an old gnomic saying or mystery logos. The “moist nature” is the feminine side of the “fiery” or “dry.”

266:1 Reading σκοποῦντι for σκέποντι—that is, the soul.

266:2 εὐάρμοστον δὲ πρὸς πᾶσαν ὥραν—“well adapted for every season” is the common translation; the “hour,” however, is a technical astrological term.

266:3 Vulg., “lice-producing”—but φθείρ also means a special kind of pine producing small cones; and the great cone was a symbol of the Logos, and the small cone of physical generation. It is also connected with φθείρω, meaning to corrupt, and so to breed corruption.

Next: Of the Refraining from Flesh and Salt and Superfluities