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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 3

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 221



i. Protrepticus, ii. 29; Dindorf (G.), i. 29, (Oxford, 1869)—(24 P., 8 S.).


(After referring to the three Zeuses, five Athenas, and numberless Apollos of complex popular tradition, Clement continues:)

But what were I to mention the many Asclepiuses, or the Hermeses that are reckoned up, or the Hephæstuses of mythology?

Clement lived in the very centre of Hellenistic theology, and his grouping together of the names of Asclepius, Hermes and Hephæstus, the demiurgic Ptah, whose tradition was incorporated into the Pœmandres doctrine, is therefore not fortuitous, but shows that these three names were closely associated in his mind, and that, therefore, he was acquainted with the Trismegistic literature. This deduction is confirmed by the following passage.

p. 222

ii. Stromateis, I. xxi. 134; Dindorf, ii. 108 (399 P., 144 S.).


Of those, too, who once lived as men among the Egyptians, but who have been made gods by human opinion, [are] Hermes of Thebes and Asclepius of Memphis.

(To this we may appropriately append what Clement has to tell us about the “Books of Hermes,” when, writing in the last quarter of the second century, he describes one of the sacred processions of the Egyptians as follows:)

iii. Ibid., VI. iv. 35; Dind., iii. 156, 157.


First comes the “Singer” bearing some one of the symbols of music. This [priest], they tell us, has to make himself master of two of the “Books of Hermes,” one of which contains (1) Hymns [in honour] of the Gods, 1 and the other (2) Reflections 2 on the Kingly Life.

After the “Singer” comes the “Time-watcher” bearing the symbols of the star-science, a dial after a hand and phœnix. He must have the division of the “Books of Hermes” which treats of the stars ever at the tip of his tongue—there being four of such books. The first of these deals with (3) the Ordering of the

p. 223

apparently Fixed Stars, 1 the next [two] (4 and 5) with the conjunctions and variations of Light of the Sun and Moon, and the last (6) with the Risings [of the Stars].

Next comes the “Scribe of the Mysteries,” with wings on his head, having in either hand a book and a ruler 2 in which is the ink and reed pen with which they write. He has to know what they call the sacred characters, and the books about (7) Cosmography, and (8) Geography, (9) the Constitution of the Sun and Moon, and (10) of the Five Planets, (11) the Survey of Egypt, and (12) the Chart of the Nile, (13) the List of the Appurtenances of the Temples and (14) of the Lands consecrated to them, (15) the Measures, and (16) Things used in the Sacred Rites.

After the above-mentioned comes the “Overseer 3 of the Ceremonies,” bearing the cubit of justice and the libation cup [as his symbols]. He must know all the books relating to the training [of the conductors of the public cult], and those that they call the victim-sealing 4

p. 224

books. There are ten of these books which deal with the worship which they pay to the gods, and in which the Egyptian cult is contained; namely [those which treat] of (17) Sacrifice, (18) First-fruits, (19) Hymns, (20) Prayers, (21) Processions, (22) Feasts, and (23-26) the like.

After all of these comes the “Prophet” clasping to his breast the water-vase so that all can see it; and after him follow those who carry the bread that is to be distributed. 1 The “Prophet” as chief of the temple, learns by heart the ten books which are called “hieratic”; these contain the volumes (27-36) treating of the Laws, and the Gods, and the whole Discipline of the Priests. For you must know that the “Prophet” among the Egyptians is also the supervisor of the distribution of the [temple] revenues.

Now the books which are absolutely indispensable 2

p. 225

for Hermes 1 are forty-two in number. Six-and-thirty of them, which contain the whole wisdom-discipline 2 of the Egyptians, are learned by heart by the [grades of priests] already mentioned. The remaining six are learned by the “Shrine-bearers” 3; these are medical treatises dealing with (37) the Constitution of the Body, with (38) Diseases, (39) Instruments, (40) Drugs, (41) Eyes, 4 and finally (42) with the Maladies of Women.


This exceedingly interesting passage of Clement gives us the general catalogue of the Egyptian priestly library and the background of the Greek translations and adaptations in our Trismegistic writings.

The whole of these writings fall into this frame, and the oldest deposit or “Pœmandres” type fits in excellently with the content of the hieratic books (the titles of which Clement has unfortunately omitted), or with those that were kept secret. These hieratic books were evidently the more important and were in charge of the “Prophet,” that is to say, of those high priests of the temples who were directors of the prophetic discipline, the very subject of our “Pœmandres” treatises. 5


221:1 Fl., 175-200 A.D.

222:1 I have numbered the books and used capitals for greater clearness.

222:2 ἐκλογισμόν; I do not know what this term means in this connection. The usual translation of “Regulations” seems to me unsatisfactory. Some word such as “Praise” (? read εὐλογισμόν) seems to be required, as may be seen from the title of C. H., (xviii.), “The Encomium of Kings.”

223:1 τῶν ἀπλανῶν φαινομένων ἄστρων.

223:2 κανόνα.; this must mean a hollow wooden case shaped like a ruler.

223:3 στολιστής, called also ἱερόστολος. This priestly office is usually translated as the “keeper of the vestments,” the “one who is over the wardrobe.” But such a meaning is entirely foreign to the contents of the books which are assigned to him. He was evidently the organiser of the ceremonies, especially the processions.

223:4 μοσχοσφραγιστικά—that is to say, literally, books relating to the art of one who picks out and “seals calves” for sacrifice. The literal meaning originally referred to the selection of the sacred Apis bull-calf, into which the power of the god was supposed to have re-incarnated, in the relic of some primitive magic rite which the conservatism of the Egyptians still retained in the public cult. Its meaning, however, was later on far more general, as we see by the nature of the books assigned to this division. Boulage, in his Mystères d’Isis (Paris, 1820, p. 21), says that “the seal of the priests which marked the victims was a man kneeling with his hands bound behind his back, and a sword pointed at his throat, for it was in this attitude that the neophyte received the first initiation, signifying that he agreed to perish by the sword if he revealed any of the secrets revealed to him.” This he evidently deduced from Plutarch’s De Is. et Os., xxxi. 3.

224:1 οἱ τὴν ἔκπεμψιν τῶν ἄρτων βαστάζοντες. The “Prophet” belonged to the grade of high priests who had practical knowledge of the inner way. As the flood of the Nile came down and irrigated the fields and brought forth the grain for bread, and so gave food to Egypt, so did the living stream of the Gnosis from the infinite heights of space pour into the Hierophant, and he in his turn became Father Nile for the priests, his disciples, who in their turn distributed the bread of knowledge to the people. A pleasing symbolism, of which the bread and water of the earlier ascetic schools of Christendom, who rejected wine, was perhaps a reminiscence. Nor has even the General Church in its older forms forgotten to sprinkle the people from the water-vase and distribute among them the bread.

224:2 This seems to suggest that there were others, the knowledge of which was optional, or rather reserved for the few. There may perhaps have been forty-nine in all.

225:1 That is, the priesthood.

225:2 Lit. philosophy.

225:3 παστοφόροι, those who carried the pastos as a symbol; this apparently symbolized the shrine or casket of the soul; in other words, the human body. These Pastophors were the priests who were the physicians of the body, the higher grades being presumably physicians of the soul.

225:4 This seems to be an error of the copyist.

225:5 As to the hieroglyphic inscription at Edfu, which was thought by Jomasd to contain references to the titles of these forty-two books, see Parthey, Über Isis und Osiris, p. 255.

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