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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 277



Patrizzi has run (xvi.) and (xvii.) together, under the title “Definitions of Asclepius—Book I.,” though he clearly saw that (xvii.) did not belong to (xvi.) by his remark, “videntur sequentia ex alio libro sumpta.” He also heads (xvii.) 1-10 “Definitions of Asclepius—Book II.,” and 11-16 “D. of A.—Book III.,” though the contents have evidently nothing to do with such a title.

In the MSS. a later hand has added to the general title a catalogue of contents as follows:

“Of God; Matter; Evil; Fate; the Sun; Intelligible Essence; Divine Essence; Man; the Economy of the Plērōma; the Seven Stars; the Man after the Likeness” 1—for which largely irrelevant list Patrizzi substitutes the title: “Of the Sun and Daimons.”

Reitzenstein (p. 192) is of opinion that this contents-list, and also the similar headings in (xviii.), are due to some Byzantine scribe, who also foolishly interpolated (xvii.).

But even to (xvi.) the title “Definitions of Asclepius” seems very inappropriate; while, on the other hand, we find Lactantius (D. I., ii. 5), in referring to the “incursions of daimones,” claiming that it was a doctrine also of Hermes, and adding:

“Asclepius, his hearer, has also explained the same idea at greater length in that ‘Perfect Sermon’ which he wrote to the King.”

This is quite definite, and the authority of Lactantius should perhaps be preferred to that of the MSS., but as the title would clash with “The Perfect Sermon” of Hermes to Asclepius, and as Lactantius may just

p. 278

possibly mean “in that initiatory sermon,”—the term perfectus being used in a general and not in an appellative sense,—I have kept the traditional title and placed that of Lactantius second.


1. Like “The Key”—C. H., x. (xi.)—of Hermes, our treatise is an Epitome 1; Asclepius has previously written a number of Sermons to the King.

The reference to the “Conversations” between Hermes and Asclepius and Tat, sometimes when both the latter were present and sometimes with Asclepius alone, presupposes the existence of this class of Dialogue, and indicates that the Correspondence of Asclepius with the King is a later deposit of our literature. 2

This literary activity of Asclepius is claimed in the introduction to be authorized by Hermes, and, moreover, purports to have been originally written in Demotic Egyptian. In other words, the writer would have us believe that the Greek is a translation from Egyptian. This it clearly is not; and we can only conclude that the “prophecy” as to direct translation is a literary fiction of our author.

2. On the other hand, it is highly probable that our author was in contact with a living tradition, to the effect that the Hermes-teaching was originally Egyptian, and that this was “interpreted” into Greek—that is, into Greek modes of thought, rather than “translated” in the ordinary sense into Greek.

In any case, the contempt shown by our author for the Greek language and “philosophizing,” and his

p. 279

admiration for Hieroglyphic Egyptian as a “language of the Gods”—a magical tongue, that by its māntric power compelled the understanding of the hearer, by putting him in sympathy with the ideas pictured by the ideograms, or sounded forth by the “names of power” 1—show that he was not only not a Greek, but also no lover of Greek Philosophy.

This is exceedingly puzzling, seeing not only that the majority of the writers of our tractates are plainly deep students and lovers of Plato, but also that the author of our tractate himself also writes very much in the same style as they do.

All of this seems to indicate that in his introduction he was using for his own purposes some tradition about the ancient Thoth-literature that was current in his time. A form of this tradition was also made use of by Philo of Byblus in the first century, when he makes the Phœnician priest Sanchuniathon discover the origin of the Phœnician cosmogony and mystery-teaching in the Books of Taautos, “whom the Egyptian called Thoyth, the Alexandrians Thoth, and the Greeks changed into Hermes.”

Sanchuniathon, he says, “having come across the secret writings that had been discovered and brought from the shrines of the Temples of Ammon,—compositions which were not known to all,—practised by himself the science (τῆν μάθησιν) of all things.” 2

Philo also professes to quote from one of the earliest priests of Phœnicia, a certain Thabiōn, who is said apparently to have got his information from a writing of the Seven Kabiri, and of Asclepius, the pupil of Taautos. This Thabiōn asserted that Taautos was made King of Egypt by Kronos—that is, Ammon. 3

p. 280

Here we are evidently in contact with certain traditions with regard to Thoth-Hermes, his ancestors and pupils, and secret writings. Presumably many such traditions were floating about, and were used according to the fancy and taste of Hellenistic writers for their own purposes.

But there was also another tradition concerning a certain King Ammon, used in one form by Jamblichus, when he writes:

“It was Hermes who first taught this Path [sc. the Way up to God]. And Bitys, 1 the Prophet, translated [his teachings concerning it] for King Ammon, discovering them in the inner temple in an inscription in the sacred characters at Saïs in Egypt.” 2

What our author and Jamblichus have in common is that there were certain secret teachings of Hermes in the Sacred Language of Ancient Egypt hidden away in the inner shrines of the temples, and that these were translated into the current Egyptian language of the time for a certain King Ammon.

It must, then, have been some tradition of this kind that our author or writer had in mind; he would have it believed that he was writing in the style or according to the model of a certain literature.

Who this King Ammon was can only be guessed at; but to my mind it is probable that the “translations” of Bitys were made in connection with the translation activity of Manetho for King Ptolemy, and this translation was into Greek. Our author, however, would refer it to some Egyptian King, and so seek to invoke the authority of a high antiquity for the treatise he was putting into circulation.

p. 281


5. What seems to differentiate our treatise from the rest of the tractates, is the prominence its author gives to the doctrine of the Sun as Demiurgic Orderer of all things. This so to speak pantheistic form of Sun-worship is peculiarly Egyptian. 1

Now if we remember the disdainful way in which Greek “philosophizing” is spoken of in the introduction, we may be tempted to take the sentence, “And if there be any essence which the mind alone can grasp” (§ 6), as a somewhat patronizing reference to the Intelligible World of Greek Philosophy, as also the analogy in § 12; but when we turn to §§ 17 and 18 the exposition fully adopts the doctrine of the Intelligible and Sensible Worlds. This is so irreconcilable a contradiction that one is almost compelled to believe that the introduction is by another hand altogether, and that our sermon proper begins with § 3.

But even so, the sermon is addressed to some King or other—“The Perfect Sermon to the King” of Lactantius—without any further qualification. Who, however, this King may have been historically must remain a matter of pure conjecture.

7. When, then, Reitzenstein, pointing to § 7, says that the symbolism of the Sun as a charioteer wearing a crown of rays corresponds with that of the pictures of the Aurelian Sun-god, and adds further it is the Roman Empire-god of the third century, we are quite prepared to acknowledge a similarity of symbolism. But if it is intended to suggest that, therefore, we are to date our document by this similarity, it must be admitted that the indications are far too vague; for the symbolism of the Sun as the ray-crowned charioteer

p. 282

is fundamental with the cult of Mithras, and is found in Greece long before the Aurelian period.


It is interesting, however, here to notice that the Sun is “wreathed with cosmos,” and to compare this with the passage concerning the Macro-prosopus in the Untitled Apocalypse of the Coptic Gnostic Codex Brucianus, and especially with the sentence:

“The Hair of His Head is the number of the Hidden Worlds, and the Outline of His Face is the Type of the Æons.” 1

In this Untitled Apocalypse there is a strong Egyptian under-colouring; that, however, the idea of a crown of powers was pre-eminently Egyptian may be seen from many a passage in the Pistis Sophia.

8. It is also of interest to notice that the delineation of the Sun in § 8 reminds us of the Orphic Phanes, especially the reference to the two hemispheres above and below,—the two parts of the Egg in Orphic symbolism.

9. The hint that the sun-life runs in some sort of spiral or serpentine fashion in animals, and that this also is the case with the Great Bodies or Celestial Animals, is of interest.


10. Our author then proceeds to set forth his doctrine of the daimones or ministers of the Gods, who are assigned to the lower hemisphere of operation, from the Earth to the Sun, the Gods presumably occupying the higher hemisphere of activity. These daimones are what a Hindu or Buddhist would call kārmic agents, for they are all connected with what is called the Fate-

p. 283

[paragraph continues] Sphere, the Instrument or the Wheel of Genesis, or Saṁsāra.

15. These daimones rule over the lower energies of the soul; the higher energy or rational part of the soul is set above them, and is designed to be the “receptacle of God,”—or rather of His Ray,—the Mind proper.

16. With § 16 compare the remarkable passage in one of the Letters of Valentinus:

“One [alone] is Good, whose free utterance is His manifestation through His Son; it is by Him alone that the heart can become pure, when every evil essence has been expelled from it.

“Now its purity is prevented by the many essences which take up their abode in it, for each of them accomplishes its own deeds, outraging it in divers fashions with unseemly lusts.

“As far as I can see, the heart seems to receive somewhat the same treatment as an inn [or caravanserai], which has holes and gaps made in its walls, and is frequently filled with dung, men living filthily in it and taking no care of the place as being someone else’s property. Thus is it with the heart so long as it has no care taken of it, ever unclean and the abode of many daimons.

“But when the Alone Good Father hath regard unto it, it is sanctified and shineth with light; and he who possesseth such a heart is so blessed that ‘he shall see God.’” 1

The language of Valentinus is remarkably like that of our treatises; Valentinus himself was an Egyptian.

p. 284

17. Entirely Egyptian also is the Scheme of Dependency given in § 17, as we have already pointed out on several occasions, quoting from a Hymn of Valentinus.

The sentence: “Wherefore God is the Sire of all; the Sun’s [their] Demiurge”—distinctly contradicts Reitzenstein’s (p. 198, 1) statement that the Sun in our treatise is worshipped as the All-god. The Sun is He “by whom all things are made,”—the Creative Logos of God. 1

19. The treatise is evidently incomplete; if, however, we turn to the contents-title given at the beginning of these comments we can gain but little information as to what is missing, for the contents there given do not in any but the vaguest fashion correspond to the substance of our treatise, nor do the subjects treated of come in the same order as in the contents-heading. The Divine Essence, Man, the Economy of the Plērōma and the Man after the Likeness, which are clearly not treated of in our text, may then have been treated in the missing portion of our tractate; but this is all we can say.


277:1 R. 348 n.

278:1 Cf. also Ex. i. 16, and Comment.

278:2 This deduction, however, has to be modified by the view we hold as to the authorship of the introduction. See Comment., § 5.

279:1 Cf. R. 269.

279:2 Ap. Euseb., Præp. Ev., I. ix. 29.

279:3 Ibid., I. x. 38, 39.

280:1 Cf. Zosimus (§ 8).

280:2 De Myst., viii. 5.

281:1 Cf. R. 198, 1; and also Comment on § 17 below.

282:1 F. F. F., 549.

283:1 Quoted by Clemens Alexandrinus, Strom., II. xx. 114; P. 489 (ed. Dindorf, ii. 219). See for further critical text, Hilgenfeld (A.), Ketzergesch. d. Urchrist., p. 296; F. F. F., 300, 301.

284:1 Cf. P. S. A., xxix. 5.

Next: (XVII.) Of Asclepius to the King