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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 450



He filled a mighty Cup with it [Mind], and sent it down, joining a Herald [to it], to whom He gave command to make this proclamation to the hearts of men: Baptize thyself with this Cup’s baptism,” etc.—C. H., iv. (v.) 4.


Whence came this idea of a Crater or Cup into our Trismegistic literature? Most scholars will answer unhesitatingly: From Plato. The Crater was the Cup in which the Creator mixed the Elements of the World-Soul; for we read in Timæus (41 D), where Plato is treating of the formation of human souls:

“Thus spake He, and once again into the Cup which He had used in blending and mingling the Soul of the Universe, He poured the remains of the Elements He had employed, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but in the second and third degree.”

I am, however, not inclined to attribute the origin of this symbolic expression simply to the imagery of Plato’s poetic mind, but am far more inclined to believe that Plato was using a familiar figure of “Orphic” symbolism. The idea of not only an Ultimate Crater,

p. 451

but of many subsidiary ones in the celestial and invisible realms, is closely connected with the “Orphic” idea of a Vortex.


Orpheus is said to have called the Æther the Mighty Whirlpool. 1 This forms the Egg or Womb of Cosmos; it is a modification of Chaos or Rhea, the Eternally-flowing, the Mother of the Gods, the Great Container. Thus Proclus, in speaking of Chaos, says:

“The last Infinity, by which also Matter (ὕλη) is circumscribed, is the Container, the field and plane of ideas. About her is ‘neither limit, nor foundation, nor seat, but excessive Darkness.’” 2

Plato, as we have seen, in his psychogony, speaks openly of this Cup or Crater (Mixing Space, or Vortex) in two aspects; in it the Deity mixes the All-Soul of universal nature from the purest Cosmic Elements, and from it He also “ladles out” the souls of men, composed of a less pure mixture of these Elements.

Further, Macrobius tells us that Plato elsewhere indirectly refers to another aspect of this Cup.

“Plato speaks of this in the Phædo, and says that the soul is dragged back into body, hurried on by new intoxication, desiring to taste a fresh draught of the overflow of matter, 3 whereby it is weighed down and brought back [to earth]. The sidereal [astral] Crater of Father Liber [Dionysus, Bacchus] is a symbol of this mystery; and this is what the Ancients called the

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[paragraph continues] River of Lethe, the Orphics saying that Father Liber was Hylic Mind.” 1

We have here, therefore, a higher and lower Cup. Proclus, moreover, speaks of several of such Craters, when he writes:

“Plato in the Philebus hands on the tradition of the Vulcanic Crater . . . and Orpheus is acquainted with the Cup of Dionysus, and ranges many such Cups round the Solar Table.” 2

Elsewhere, again, Proclus tells us that the Demiurge is said “to constitute the psychical essences in conjunction with the Crater”; this “Crater is the peculiar cause of souls, and is co-arranged with the Demiurgus and filled from Him, but fills souls”; thus it is called the Fountain of Souls. 3

If with these indications before us we might venture to generalize, we might say that, according to Orpheo-Pythagorean, Platonic, and Hermetic ideas, the “matter” of every “plane” was thought of as proceeding from such a Crater or Cup, from within without, and the elements thereof as being refunded into such a Cup or Centre or Receptacle—that is, from a more subtle, simpler, and inner phase to a more gross, complex, and outer phase, and vice versâ. In other words, the Crater is the “monadic” or “atomic” state of the matter of any given phase or state of existence.


With the above data before us, it will also be instructive to turn to the Vision of Aridæus (Thespesius)

p. 453

as related by Plutarch, 1 a vision that may be compared with profit with the Vision of Er as told by Plato. Thespesius is being conducted through Hades, or the Invisible World in contact with earth-life, by a kinsman who has “passed over,” as Spiritists would say, and curiously enough he there comes across a Chasm and a Crater—for part of the story runs:

“After these explanations he was conducted by his kinsman at great speed across an immense space, as it seemed, nevertheless easily and directly as though supported by wings of light-rays; until having arrived at a Vast Vortex (χάσμα) extending downwards, he was abandoned by the power that supported him.

“He observed also that the same thing happened to the rest of the souls there, for checking their flight, like birds, and sinking down, they fluttered round the Vortex in a circle, not daring to go straight through it.

“Inside it seemed to be decked like Bacchic caves 2 with trees and verdure and every kind of foliage, while out of it came a soft and gentle air, laden with marvellous sweet scents, making a blend like wine for topers, so that the souls feasting on the fragrance were melted with delight in mutual embraces, while the whole place was wrapt in revelry and laughter and the spirit of sport and pleasure. 3

“Thespesius’ kinsman told him that this was the Way by which Dionysus ascended to the Gods and

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afterwards took up Semele; 1 it was called the Place of Lēthē (Oblivion). 2

“Wherefore he would not suffer Thespesius to stay there, though he wished to do so, but forcibly dragged him away, explaining how that the rational part of the soul was melted and moistened 3 by pleasure, while the irrational part, and that which is of a corporeal nature, being then moistened and made fleshly, awakens the memory of the body, and from this memory come a yearning and a desire which drag down the soul into

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generation . . . the soul being weighed down with moisture.

“Next Thespesius, after travelling another great distance, seemed to be looking at a huge Cup, 1 with streams flowing into it; one whiter than the foam of the sea or snow, another like the purple which the rainbow sends forth, while from a distance the others were tinged with other colours, each having its own shade.

“But when he came closer, the Cup itself (into which they flowed)—the surroundings disappearing, and the colours growing fainter—lost its varied colouring and only retained a white brilliance.”

Compare also the Hellenist writer in the Naassene Document (§ 17 S.): “The Greek theologi generally call Him [the Logos] the “Heavenly Horn of Mēn,” because he has mixed and mingled all things with all.”

On this the Jewish Gnostic writer comments: “This is the Drinking Vessel,—the Cup in which ‘the King drinketh and divineth.’”

It is, says the Hellenist commentator again, “the Cup (of Anacreon) speaking forth speechlessly the Ineffable Mystery.”

The Jewish commentator was a contemporary of Philo’s, and the Hellenist was prior to him; thus we see that the Cup symbol was used in precisely the same significance as in our text in at least the first century B.C., and that the idea was referred to the Greek theologers—in other words, the Orphics—and not to Plato.

p. 456


With the above data before us, I think we may be persuaded without difficulty that the idea of the Cup, or Mixing-Bowl, did not owe its origin to any invention of Plato’s, but that the greatest of philosophers, when he makes use of the symbol, does but employ a familiar image well known to his audience—as, indeed, is very apparent in the summary fashion in which he introduces the figure. In other words, the symbol or image was a commonplace of the Orphic tradition, and doubtless, therefore, familiar to every Pythagorean.

Now, in our treatise it is noticeable that this Cup-symbol is equated with the Monad 1 or Oneness—a technical Pythagorean term.


451:1 πελώριον χάσμα (Simplicius, Ausc., iv. 123); magna vorago (Syrianus, Metaph., ii. 33a). Cf. Prolegg. ch. xi., “The Orphic Tradition of the Genesis of the World-Egg.”

451:2 Comment. in Tim., ii. 117. See my Orpheus, p. 154.

451:3 Gnosticè, “the superfluity of naughtiness.”

452:1 Comment, in Som. Scip., XI. ii. 66.

452:2 Comment. in Tim., v. 316 (Taylor’s trans.).

452:3 Taylor (T.), Theology of Plato, V. xxxi.

453:1 De Sera Numinis Vindicta, xxii. (ed. Bernardakis, iii. 454-466).

453:2 Were the Bacchic Mysteries then celebrated in caves?

453:3 This is clearly in correspondence with the “Astral Crater of Father Liber” of Macrobius.

454:1 His “mother,” from the under-world; referring to the mysteries of generation and the indestructibility of life. Semele in giving birth to Dionysus the Son of Zeus (the Creative Power), is said to have been killed by the Power of her Lord, but she was subsequently restored to life among the Gods by the Power of her Son. In reincarnating, it is said that part of the soul in giving birth to itself in this state “dies.” The “child” then born may, in his turn, in the case of one perfect, become the saviour of his “mother,” now become his spouse, and raise her, who is also himself, to a higher state.

454:2 Compare Pistis Sophia (336, 337), which tells us how certain kārmic agencies “give unto the old soul [prior to reincarnation] a Draught of Oblivion composed of the Seed of Iniquity, filled with all manner of desire and all forgetfulness. And the moment that that soul drinketh of that Draught, it forgetteth all the spaces [or regions] through which it hath travelled, and all the chastisements through which it hath passed; and that deadly Draught of Oblivion becometh a body external to the soul, like unto the soul in every way, and its perfect resemblance, and hence they call it the ‘counterfeit spirit.’”

But in the case of the purified soul it is different; for a higher power “bringeth a Cup full of intuition and wisdom, and also prudence, and giveth it to the soul, and casteth the soul into a body which will not be able to fall asleep or forget, because of the Cup of Prudence which hath been given unto it, but will be ever pure in heart and seeking after the Mysteries of Light, until it hath found them, by order of the Virgin of Light, in order that [that soul] may inherit the Light for ever.” (Ibid., 392, “Books of the Saviour.”)

454:3 Compare the “Moist Essence” of C. H., i. 4, and iii. (iv.) 1.

455:1 κρατήρ—bowl or basin.

456:1 It is of interest to notice that one of the apocryphal Books of Moses was called The Monad, and another The Key; this argues an early date and wide renown for our two treatises so entitled. See R. 182, n. 3.

Next: XVI. The Disciples of Thrice-Greatest Hermes