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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 369




When, in a recent book, 1 I was treating of the Early Church document The Shepherd of Hermas, in connection with the ancient and mysterious Book of Elxai, which, according to Epiphanius, circulated among the Essenes, Nazorenes, Ebionites, and Sampsæans, I wrote as follows:

“It is also of very great interest to notice the many intimate points of contact between the contents of the Apocalyptic Hermas and the teaching of the Early ‘Shepherd of Men’ tractate of the mystic school who looked to Hermes the Thrice-Greatest as their inspirer, that is to say, the earliest deposit of the Trismegistic literature. But that is another story which has not yet been told.”

At the same time, all unknown to me, Reitzenstein must have written, or have been writing, his learned pages on “Hermas and Poimandres,” coming to practically the same conclusion as I had in cruder form expressed several years earlier, when commenting on Hilgers’ theory 2 that the “Shepherd of Men” was

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written in opposition to the “Shepherd of Hermas,” and suggesting that if there were any dependence of one on the other, it was in exactly the reverse sense to that of Hilger’s assumption. 1


Like all the other extant extra-canonical documents of the Early Church, and especially the Antilegomena, as Eusebius calls them, that is to say books disputed in his day but earlier admitted by wide circles into the canon, The Shepherd of Hermas has been submitted to the most searching analysis by modern criticism. Though its unity is still strenuously defended by some scholars, the majority are convinced of its composite nature; and I follow Hilgenfeld, 2 who detects in the present form of this document three elements, or, so to say, three deposits: (i.) The Apocalyptic—Viss. i.-iv.; (ii.) The Pastoral—Vis. v.-Sim. vii.; (iii.) The Secondary, or appendix of the latest redactor—Simm. viii.-x. “Hermas i.” and “Hermas ii.” cite nothing from any of the canonical books of the New Testament, and this should be, for most scholars, a striking indication of their early date.


“Hermas ii.,” the “Pastoral Hermas,” begins as follows: 3

1. “Now when I had prayed in my house, and sat me

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down upon my couch, there entered a man of glorious appearance, in the guise of a Shepherd, clad in a white skin, 1 with a wallet on his shoulders, and a staff in his hand. And he embraced me, and I embraced him. 2

2. “And straightway he sat down by my side. He saith to me: I am sent by the most Sovereign Angel, that I may dwell with thee for the rest of the days of thy life.

3. “I thought that he had come to tempt me; 3 and I say unto him: Who art thou? For I do know (say I) into whose charge I have been given. He saith to me: Dost thou not know? Nay—answer I. I am (saith he) the Shepherd 4 into whose charge thou hast been given.

4. “E’en as he spoke, his aspect changed, and I knew him, that it was he to whom I had been given in charge.”


If we now compare the Greek text of this interesting passage with that of the introductory paragraphs of the “Pœmandres,” it will be found impossible to refer their striking similarities merely to a common type of expression; the verbal agreements are too precise, and

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stand out convincingly at the first glance, without needing the assistance of the large type in which Reitzenstein (pp. 11, 12) has had them printed in his reproduction of the texts.

Most remarkable of all, however, is the similarity of ideas; for “Hermas” as for “Hermes” the Shepherd is not only a shepherd but a “shepherd of men,” even as in a different connection but in the same circle of ideas Peter and others were to become “fishers of men.” 1

Now, not only on general grounds is it difficult for any one who has carefully studied the two documents, to believe that the writer of the philosophic-mystical treatise not only had the Christian apocalyptic writing before him but took it as his point of departure; but, even if we are still strongly dominated by what has hitherto been the traditional view in all such questions, and cling to the theory that when there is similarity the Christian scripture must necessarily have been first in the field, it is very difficult to believe that a copier of “Hermas” should have left no traces of an acquaintance with the very distinctive feature of the robe and staff and wallet of the shepherd, and of the conversation which follows in what, on this theory, would be the presupposed original.


The mystical representation and thought-atmosphere of the writer or redactor of our present “Pœmandres” are far removed from any direct traces of contact with the folk-consciousness, in which the appurtenances mentioned by “Hermas” were the typical literary description

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of a shepherd since the time of Theocritus; 1 not only so, but this was the symbolic representation of the “Shepherd of Men” in the general Hellenistic religious consciousness. Indeed, we find unquestionable proofs that Hermes was pre-eminently regarded as the “Good Shepherd,” and a figure of him with staff and wallet and single robe was a great favourite in the popular cult. 2

In one passage 3 in which mention is made of this wallet and staff, further details are given showing that these simple symbols were well understood. The right hand is raised, and the left holds staff and wallet. Moreover, the staff has a serpent entwined round it, and Hermes is clad in a single robe. Like Isis, he stands upon the world-sphere, which has also a serpent twined round it. Hermes here represents the Mind or Logos, the father-mother (staff and wallet) force of nature; with the “left” he brings into generation, with the “right” he leads souls out of genesis, either to death, or regeneration. In this prayer, Hermes (as the sun) is called “the Shepherd who hath his fold in the West.” 4

It is to be further remarked that Hermes is in the dress of the “Poor,” 5 and of the “Naked.” 6

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But to return to Hermas. Why “Hermas” of all names in the world in this connection? We have a large literature in which “Hermes” plays the part of seer, and prophet, and revealer, and writer of sacred scriptures; in it, moreover, he figures as the beloved disciple of the Heavenly Mind, the Shepherd of Men. But what have we in Christian tradition to explain the name “Hermas”? Nothing, absolutely nothing, but contradictory hypotheses which try to discover a historic Hermas so as to authenticate the provenance of what is manifestly, like nearly every similar document of the time, pseudepigraphic. In my opinion, indeed, the very name Hermas betrays more clearly than anything else the “Hermes” source of the Christian writer’s setting of part of his most interesting apocalyptic. “Hermas” is because of “Hermes,” rather than “Hermes” in answer to “Hermas,” as Hilgers would have it.


This, however, does not mean to say that “Hermas” took the setting of the introduction of his Pastoral apocalypses from precisely the same text of the “Pœmandres” which now lies before us, for our present text is manifestly the redaction of an earlier form; so that if we could recover the other form we should in all probability find some additional verbal agreement of “Hermas” with “Hermes.”

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That the ideas of the “Pœmandres” treatise were the mystical and philosophical side of much that appears in the popular cult of the time, may be seen by an inspection of the prayers from the Magic Papyri which we have translated. 1 In them the Mind, as the Shepherd of Men, and the Revealer of the Light, is clearly set forth. Reitzenstein’s view (p. 32), accordingly, is that the Christian writer must have taken his description of the Shepherd from what originally was a fuller text of the “Pœmandres” than the one preserved to us, and that this will account for several features which would otherwise be peculiar to “Hermas.” This text was in closer verbal agreement with the general language of the popular Hermes religion as preserved to us in the Hermes-Prayers. 2


But the direct points of contact between “Hermas” and the Trismegistic literature are not confined to the “Pœmandres” document. As the original writer of “Hermas” was dependent on “Hermes” for the setting of the introduction to his Pastoral apocalypses, so also it is highly probable that the redactor was influenced by a lost treatise referred to in the introduction of “The Sacred Sermon on the Mountain,” C. H., xiii. (xiv.).

In this treatise reference is made to one of the now lost “General Sermons,” 3 the scene of which also took

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place on a mountain. For in connection with it mention is made by Tat of his passing over a mountain, or ascending a mountain, at the beginning of his noviciate, when he became a “suppliant”; 1 while it is further stated by Tat that at that stage the doctrine was not clearly explained, but rather hidden in riddles; for that as yet he was not sufficiently purified, and made “a stranger to the world-illusion.”

Now, it is remarkable that “Hermas,” in the appendix to the book (Sim. ix.), tells us that after these revelations the Shepherd came to him again, and told him that much had not been explained because of his “weakness in the flesh”; but now that he has been strengthened by the Spirit, the Shepherd will explain all “with greater clearness.” He then takes him away into Arcadia (a very unexpected locality for a Christian writer in Rome to choose), to a “breast-like mountain,” where he has the further teaching revealed to him.

But, strangely enough, it was precisely in Arcadia that the chief Hellenic cult of Hermes existed, as stated by Lactantius, basing himself on the common belief at Rome; 2 and from Arcadia it was that Hermes, according to a tendency-legend that even at Rome went back at least to the second century B.C., set forth to teach the Egyptians.


Moreover, “Hermas” is throughout strongly tinged with “Gnostic” elements. As I wrote in my last book, 3 it is practically one of the very numerous

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permutations and combinations of the Sophia-mythus—one of the many settings-forth of the mystic lore and love of the Christ and the Sophia, or Wisdom, of the Son of God and His spouse or sister, the Holy Spirit, of the King and Queen, of the Lord and the Virgin Church. In its most instructive series of visions are depicted the mystic scenes of the allegorical drama of man’s inner nature—the mystery-play of all time.

But when we say “Gnostic” we mean much that is also Hellenistic mysticism, and therefore much that is also “Hermetic,” for in the Trismegistic literature there is set forth a Gnosis of a far simpler type than in any of the Christian systems technically called “Gnostic.”


A striking example of the similarity of ideas of this nature is found in comparing the list of twelve vices and ten (seven and three) virtues, given in C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 7-10, 1 with “Hermas,” Sim. ix. 15, 1-3, where twelve “virgins,” each bearing the name of a virtue, are set over against twelve “women clothed in black,” each bearing the name of a vice; and with “Hermas,” Vis. iii. 8, 7, where seven women, each in turn the mother of the other, are called by the names of seven virtues.

We need not, of course, necessarily suppose any direct contact in this case, though it is curious that the list of virtues occurs precisely in the sermon “On the Mountain”; but both writers clearly move in, or are influenced by, the same circle of ideas, and that, too, ideas of a very special nature.

The above points are sufficient for our purpose, and throw a most interesting light on one element in the

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composition of the very ancient Christian document whose exclusion from the canon, after enjoying for so many years practically canonical authority, is to be regretted.


Now, “Apocalyptic Hermas” is distinctly “anti-Pauline,” and perhaps this more than anything else accounts for the final exclusion of the book from the canon; it is therefore in vain to seek in it quotations from any of the Pauline Letters. But what is still more remarkable, neither it nor the “Pastoral Hermas” quote from any of the Canonical Gospels. This argues a very early date.

If, then, we are inclined to accept the statement of the writer of the Muratorian Fragment (c. 170 A.D.) that “Hermas” was written at Rome during the bishopric of Pius (140-c. 155 A.D.), this must refer to the completed work of the last redactor who is held responsible for “Hermas iii.,” and who was acquainted with several books of the canon. The “Pastoral Hermas” may thus be fairly pushed back to the beginning of the first century.

We have also to remember—a point which Reitzenstein does not seem to have taken into consideration—not only that the Greek original of our form of “Hermas” is lost, but that the Old Latin version has also disappeared, and that we possess only a Greek retranslation from the Latin. 1 Under these circumstances, it is still more surprising that such strong traces of direct literary dependence on the original form of the “Pœmandres” introduction should still remain in our “Hermas.”

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It would, however, in my opinion be a grave mistake to push the theory of literary dependence too far, and to seek to account for the main content of “Hermas” on any theory of direct borrowing from allied sources, or even solely of direct external conditioning by the mystical and theological ideas of the time. There is no a priori reason against the high probability that the original writer was recording some genuine inner experiences, however much, as was the fashion of the time, and of other times and climes, they may have been expanded, interpolated, and polished by literary art.

It is true that all such inner experiences would be strongly conditioned by the prior conceptions, thought-tone, and theological beliefs of the writer, and by the current and traditional types of such experiences known in his day. Indeed, it is very difficult anywhere to meet with the record of visions or apocalyptic utterances which are not so conditioned. The Buddhist seer, sees in the mode of traditional Buddhist conceptions of the unseen; the Hellenic mantis and sibyl find themselves in an invisible world of the familiar nature known to them from the mythologists, and poets, and mystery-traditions; the Egyptian prophet moves amid the familiar topography and schematology of the Amenti of his nation; even an Ezekiel sees in the symbols of the Babylonian cultus; while the Christian mystic invariably finds himself in the conventional heaven of the saints and the hell of the sinners.

It is not, therefore, necessary to follow Reitzenstein (pp. 8-11) in detail, when he seeks to show the strong influence of heathen mystical literature on the early

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[paragraph continues] Christian document we are discussing, and to point to striking parallels between the setting of the first four visions of “Hermas,” and the visions of Zosimus, as preserved in the fragments of his “Acts,” 1 or the “Visit to Hades” of Setme and Si-Osiri, and their passing through the Seven Halls, 2 as partially preserved in the Demotic “Tales of Khamuas.” 3

It is true that Zosimus, who nourished towards the end of the third century, was a member of the Pœmandres community, and, therefore, what he has to say is of great interest to us, for doubtless his visions were strongly conditioned by the Trismegistic tradition and especially by the Isis-type of its literature, and the cognate Egyptian “Books of Hermes”; but the points on which Reitzenstein lays stress seem somewhat too general to allow of our drawing any direct conclusion with regard to “Hermas” and “Hermes.”

There is a certain similarity; but our information is too scanty to permit of any precise drawing of general conclusions. There is, however, a valuable piece of information which prevents us from attributing all the similarities which may be noticed purely to the general thought-atmosphere of the times. In one particular at least, we can be more definite.


Zosimus is not the only follower of Thrice-greatest Hermes whose visions are still on record. Crates also

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has left an account of his mystic experiences, though unfortunately transmitted to us only in Arabic translation from the original Greek. 1

Crates leaves his body and enters the unseen world. “While I was praying,” he writes, “I felt myself suddenly carried into the airs [of heaven], following the same path as the sun and moon.” Here he meets with Thrice-greatest Hermes in the guise of “an old man, the most beautiful of men, seated on a chair; he was clad in white raiment, and held a book in his hand resting on the arm of the chair.”

Compare this with “Hermas” (Vis. ii. 2, 2): “I see opposite me a chair, and on it a covering of wool white as hail; 2 then came there an old woman, in shining white raiment, having a book in her hand, and sat down alone.”

After this revelation, and when the “old woman” had ceased reading from the book, four young men came and carried off the chair, and departed with it to the East (ibid., 4, 1).

Here again it is of interest to compare this with the introduction to a magical “light-ritual,” where the seer has a vision of four men with crowns on their heads who bring in the “throne of the god.” 3

Crates is taught from the book and bidden to write what he is told. “Make thy book according to the instructions which I have given; and know that I am with thee and will never leave thee till thou hast accomplished all.”

So also “Hermas”; compare also the last sentence

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with the phrase in the Introduction to the “Pastoral Hermas”: “I am sent . . . that I may dwell with thee for the rest of the days of thy life.”

In another vision, Crates is instructed in a dialogue which strongly reflects the style and substance of our Trismegistic sermons. And in yet another he moves in the psychic reflection of the setting of the now for the most part lost Isis-type of the literature, which has a more strongly Egyptian colouring. He is transported to yet another heaven and firmament, and there sees the temple of Ptah (Hephæstus), and the statue of Venus (Isis), which holds converse with him.

He was then evidently saturated with the Trismegistic tradition, and had access to treatises which are now, unfortunately, lost to us, for it is just this type of the literature which shows signs of the more direct influence of Egyptian ideas, and the mention of the temple of Ptah is a striking confirmation that Reitzenstein is on the right track in his analysis of the oldest deposit of the “Pœmandres,” which he connects with the Ptah-tradition.


That the end and aim of the later Egyptian religion, and of all Hellenistic religious circles in general, was a Gnosis, or definite mystical experience in the form of visions and apocalypses, is manifest on all sides; and that this also was the chief interest of very numerous circles in the Early Church is a fundamental fact in the study of Christian origins which should not be impatiently brushed on one side, or minimised almost to extinction as of no real importance, but which should be restored to the first rank in seeking

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an explanation of the many obscure problems of these early days which no purely objective considerations will solve.

That the General Christian of these days, as of all subsequent centuries, had naturally much to learn in these matters from the trained Mystic, whether of his own faith or of another, is saying nothing to his discredit, for he naturally belonged to the “many” who were striving to become the “few.” General Christianity, however, spread so rapidly that the definite cultivation of the spiritual faculties practised by the early contemplatives of the faith soon gave place to a fanatical enthusiasm for a misunderstood monkdom, which swamped the monasteries with a flood of the “many,” who were often without any true vocation for the holy life, and not unfrequently quite ignorant of the elements of contemplation.

We need not speak of the wild fanaticism of warrior monkdom let loose with pick and hatchet and fire-brand to destroy the treasures of religious art throughout the beautiful Hellenic world, but even among the quiet and peaceable brethren there was much ignorance. How unknowing some of these good folk were, we may learn from a naïve story, the very simplicity of which convinces the reader of its genuineness.

Perhaps some one may here interject: But this has nothing to do with “Hermas”! Perhaps not; but it has a great deal to do with a proper understanding of the history of the development of General Christianity and its relationship to the deeper religious consciousness of the first centuries. When, then, I read the Greek text of this simple story, as reproduced by Reitzenstein, 1 I thought that some who could not read

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[paragraph continues] Greek, but who take a very deep interest in such matters, might like to hear it, and so I have set it down in English.


The story runs as follows:

“Abbot Olympius 1 said that one day a priest of the [Heathen] Greeks came down to Scetis; 2 he came to my cell and passed the night there.

“Seeing the manner of life of the monks, he saith to me: ‘Living in this way, do ye not enjoy visions from your God?’ ‘Nay!’ I answer.

“Then saith the priest to me: ‘So long as we duly serve our God with holy deeds, he hideth nought from us, but revealeth unto us his mysteries. And ye, in spite of all your great labours—watchings, keeping silence, disciplines—sayest thou, ye see nought? Assuredly, then, if ye see nought, ye have let evil reasonings come into your hearts which shut you from your God; and ’tis for this cause his mysteries are not revealed to you.’

“And I went and told the elder [brethren] the words of the priest; and they were astonished and agreed that so it was. For impure reasonings do shut off God from man.”

I do not exactly understand what is the precise meaning of λογισμούς, which usually means

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“reasonings,” and seems on the face of it to suggest that the monks’ intellectual grasp of the matter was at fault. It may, however, mean simply that their “thoughts” were impure. But this is not any more satisfactory, for the monks must have known already that impure thoughts were to be driven out.

What is clear is that the “priest of the Greeks” had personal experience of these pious exercises, and came from a circle where such things were normally practised; he, moreover, knew what was the reason for the monks’ non-success in contemplation. He knew that it all depended on thought, and that, too, on “good thought,” so that the “Good” might descend on the “good,” as the Hermes-Prayer (i. 9, 13) says. But he knew more than this; he knew that there was also need of “right thought,” of Gnosis as well as of faith, of the proper use of the intelligence and the driving out of erroneous ideas with regard to the nature of God.


But for a final word on “Hermas.” This early document was written at Rome; so all are agreed. It would, then, seem necessary to allow of sufficient time for a wide circulation of the older form of the “Pœmandres,” before it could reach Rome from Egypt. This time could not have been short, for it must be reckoned not by geographical considerations, which are hardly of any consequence in this connection, but by the fact that the “Pœmandres” was the gospel of a school that laid the greatest possible stress on secrecy. How, then, could a Christian writer have got possession of a copy? Had the pledge of secrecy already by this time been removed? This is not credible, for later Trismegistic documents still lay the greatest stress upon it.

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Were, then, the early Christian mystical writers in intimate relationship with such circles as the Pœmandres-community? Some Gnostics undoubtedly were; was the writer of “Hermas”? Was there once friendship where subsequently was bitter strife?

Such and many other most interesting questions arise, but there is little hope that any satisfactory answer will be given them until the work on the mystical religious environment of the time has been pushed forward to such a point, that men may gradually become accustomed to the view that much of the secret of the Origins lies concealed in that very environment.

In any case, the way is cleared for pushing back the earlier “Pœmandres” document well into the first century, and for ranking it, therefore, as at least contemporary with the earliest of the New Testament writings.


369:1 Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?—An Enquiry into the Talmud Jesus Stories, the Toldoth Jeschu, and Some Curious Statements of Epiphanius (London, 1903), pp. 365 ff.

369:2 See Hilgers (J.), De Hermetis Trismegisti Poimandro Commentatio (Bonn, 1855).

370:1 See The Theosophical Review, xxiv. 302, 303 (June 1899).

370:2 Hilgenfeld (A.), Hermæ Pastor (2nd ed.: Leipzig, 1881).

370:3 Ἀποκάλυψις έ, the fifth revelation or vision of our composite document, which for all we know may have stood first in some earlier “source.”

371:1 Presumably a sheep’s skin of white wool.

371:2 Compare the Story of the Spirit Double who came down unto Jesus when a boy, as told by Mary the Mother, in the Pistis Sophia, 121: “He embraced thee and kissed thee, and thou also didst kiss him; ye became one.” Compare this with the common mystic belief of the time in the possibility of union with such a spiritual presence; and also the possession by a daimon (λῆψις δαίμονος), which is treated of at length by Reitzenstein, and particularly referred to this pasage in Hermas (R. 230).

371:3 Compare Pistis Sophia, 120: “I was in doubt and thought it was a phantom tempting me.”

371:4 On this Gebhardt and Harnack, in their edition (Leipzig, 1877), can only comment: “In visionibus angelicus pastor nusquam memoratur.”

372:1 Compare the interesting inscription from Sakkāra quoted from Erman (note, below).

373:1 R. 11, n. 3.

373:2 Compare Wessely, Denkschr. d. K. K. Akad. (1888), 103, 2359 ff.

373:3 Ibid., 104, 2373.

373:4 Erman (Ägypten, 515) refers to an inscription from Sakkāra, in which a mystical shepherd says to his flock: “Your Shepherd is in the West with the fishes,”—an interesting conjunction of ideas for students of archaic Christian symbolism. The idea is also Babylonian, the Star-flocks of the Gods being fed beyond the Ocean in the West.

373:5 Compare the dress of the Essenes, and the account of the sending forth of the disciples, Matt. x. 9 = Mark vi. 8 = Luke ix. 3. The direct contradiction of the account in Mark to the statements in Matthew and Luke, makes it exceedingly probable that not only the one robe, and staff, but also the wallet, were the typical signs of those who went forth to “raise the dead.”

373:6 He is clad in the περίζωμα, the working dress (or apron), in which men were said to work “naked” (nudus, γυμνός)—that is, clad in one robe. See also note on the sentence: “And naked I sought the Naked,” in treating of the Gymnosophists (or Naked Philosophers), in my Apollonius of Tyana (London, 1901), p. 100.

375:1 See “The Popular Theurgic Hermes Cult in the Greek Magic Papyri.”

375:2 Compare Hermas, Vis. v. 2: “I am sent . . . that I may dwell with thee for the rest of the days of thy life,” with Prayer i. 10: “for all the length of my life’s days”; and v. 3: “I know into whose charge I have been given,” with Prayer ii. 7: “I know thee, Hermes.”

375:3 ἐν τοῖς γενεκοῖς.

376:1 A term used by Philo as a synonym of Therapeut.

376:2 Div. Institt., i. 6—as cited among Evidences from the Fathers, where see my note on Phenëus.

376:3 Op. sup. cit., p. 365.

377:1 The very treatise to which we have previously referred in connection with the “mountain.”

378:1 See Gebhardt and Harnack, op. cit., Prolegg. xi. n. 2.

380:1 The texts are given by Berthelot (M. P. S.), Les Alchimistes grecs.

380:2 See The Book of the Dead, cxliv., cxlvii.

380:3 Griffith (F. Ll.), Stories of the High Priests of Memphis (Oxford, 1900), pp. 45 ff.

381:1 Berthelot (M. P. S.), La Chimie au Moyen Âge, iii. 44 ff., 268, n. 1; R. 361.

381:2 According to the Ethiopic translation. See The Apostolic Fathers, p. 325, n. 4, in the “Ante-Nicene Christian Library,” vol. i. (Edinburgh, 1867).

381:3 Kenyon (F. G.), Greek Pap. Cat., p. 65; R. 280, n. 3.

383:1 R. 34—from Apophthegmata Patrum, in Cotelerius’ Ecclesiæ Græcæ Monumenta, i. 582.

384:1 I do not know who this Olympius was, unless, perchance, he may have been the monk referred to by Nilus (ii. 77), the famous ascetic of Sinai, who flourished in the first quarter of the fifth century.

384:2 Again, I can find no information about this place; it was, however, presumably in the Nitriote nome south of the Delta—for the priest “ came down.’’

Next: XI. Concerning the Æon-Doctrine