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The Hymns of Hermes
By G.R.S. Mead
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1991 Stephan A. Hoeller
All rights reserved.
THE SERVICE OF SONG
Clement of Alexandria tells us that the whole of the religious philosophy—that is, the wisdom, discipline and multifarious arts and sciences—of the Egyptian priesthood was contained in the Books of Hermes, that is of Thoth. These Books, he informs us further, were classified under forty-two heads and divided into a number of groups according to the various septs or divisions of the priests.
In describing a certain sacred ceremonial—a procession of priests in their various orders—Clement tells us that it was headed by a representative of the order of Singers, who were distinguished by appropriate symbols of music, some of which were apparently carried in the hands and others embroidered on the robes.
These Singers had to make themselves masters of, that is, learn by heart, two of the divisions of the Books of Hermes, namely, those which contained collections of Hymns in Honour of the Gods or God, and Encomia or Hymns in Praise of the Kings (iii, 222).
Many specimens of similar hymns in praise of the Gods are preserved to us in Egyptian inscriptions and papyri, and some of them are most noble outpourings of the soul in praise of the majesty and transcendency of the Supreme, in terms that may be not unfavorably compared with similar praise-giving in other great scriptures. But, alas! the hymnbooks of Thoth, to which Clement refers, are lost to us. He may, of course, have been mistaken in so definitely designating them, just as he was indubitably mistaken in thinking that they were collections of hymns composed by a single individual, Hermes.
The grandiose conception of Thoth as the inspirer of all sacred writings and the teacher of all religion and philosophy was Egyptian and not Greek; and it was but a sorry equivalent that the Greeks could find in their own pantheon when, in the change of God-names, they were forced to 'translate' "Thoth" by "Hermes."
Thoth, as the inspirer of all sacred writings and the president of all priestly discipline, was, as Iamblichus tells us, a name which was held by the Egyptians to be "common to all priests"—that is to say, every priest as priest was a Thoth, because he showed forth in his sacred office some characteristic or other of the Great Priest or Master Hierophant among the Gods whose earthy name was Thoth—Tehuti.
Thoth was thus the Oversoul of all priests; and when some of the Greeks came to know better what the inner discipline of the true priestly mysteries connoted, they so felt the inadequacy of plain Hermes as a suitable equivalent for the Egyptian name which designated this great ideal, that they qualified 'Egyptian Hermes' with the honorific epithet 'Thrice-greatest.'
It is of the Hymns of this Thrice-greatest Hermes that I shall treat in the present small volume—hymns that were inspired by the still-living tradition of what was best in the wisdom of ancient Egypt, as 'philosophized' through minds trained in Greek thought, and set forth in the fair speech of golden-tongued Hellas.
But here again, unfortunately, we have no collection of such hymns preserved to us; and all we can do is to gather up the fragments that remain, scattered through the pages of the Trismegistic literature which have escaped the jealousy of an exclusive bibliolatry.
The main Gospel of the Trismegistic Gnosis is contained in a sacred sermon which bears in Greek the title "Poemandres." This may have been originally the Greek transliteration of an Egyptian name (ii, 5O); but from the treatise itself it is manifest that it was understood by the Greek followers of this Gnosis to mean "The Shepherd of Men," or "Man-shepherd." This Shepherd was no man, but Divine Humanity or the Great Man or Mind, the inspirer of all spiritual initiations.
This majestic Reality or Essence of Certitude was conceived of as a limitless Presence, or Person, of Light and Life and Goodness, which enwrapped the contemplative mind of the pious worshipper of God or the Good, of the single-hearted lover of the Beautiful, and of the unwearied striver for the knowledge of the True.
And so, in His instruction to one who was striving to reach the grade of a true self-conscious Hermes, Poemandres declares:
I, Mind, Myself am present with holy men and good, the pure and merciful, men who live piously.
To such My Presence doth become an aid, and straightway they gain Gnosis of all things, and win the Father's love by their pure lives, and give Him thanks, invoking on Him blessings, and chanting hymns, intent on Him with ardent love (ii, 14).
And the same instruction is practically repeated in the sermon called "The Key," where we read:
But on the pious soul the Mind doth mount and guide it to the Gnosis' Light. And such a soul doth never tire in songs of praise to God and pouring blessing on all men, and doing good in word and deed to all, in imitation of its Sire (ii, 155).
The sole conditions for reaching this consummation, so devoutly to be wished, are here laid down:
The good alone can know the Good; even as one of the invocations to Hermes as the Good Mind, preserved in the Greek Magic Papyri, phrases it:
Thee I invoke! Come unto me, O Good, Thou altogether good, come to the good! (i, 86).
The pure alone can know the Pure; and by "Pure" I think Hermes sometimes meant far more than is generally connoted by the term. "Pure" is that which remains in itself, and is neither too much nor too little; it is the equilibrium, the balanced state, the mysterious something that reconciles all opposites, and is their simultaneous source and ending—the Divine Justice.
The merciful alone can know the Merciful, the source of the infinite variety of the Divine Love.
To such the Divine Presence becomes an aid; it is in the field of this 'Good Land' alone, in the self-cultivated soil of the spiritual nature—the good and the pure and merciful nature—of man, that the Divine Presence can sow the self-conscious seeds of the heavenly Gnosis, so that from this Virgin Womb of the Virtue may come to birth the true Man, the child of Freedom, or Right Will, or Good Will.
To others, to those who are still in ignorance of spiritual things, the Divine Presence is also an aid, but unknowingly; for being manifested for them in its reversed mode, by means of the constraints of Fate, the many consider it a hindrance, as indeed it is—a hindrance to their falling into greater ignorance and limitation. The soil must be cleared of tares and ploughed, before it can be sown.
But when man of his own freewill reverses his mode of life, and revolves with the motion of the heavenly spheres instead of spinning against them, the conscious contact with the Divine Presence which is thus effected, stirs the whole nature to respond; sunlight pours into the true heart of the man from all sides, and his heart answers; it wakes from the dead and begins to speak true words. The Great God gives speech to the heart in the Invisible, even as He does to the dead Osirified; and that unspoken speech is a continual praise-giving of right deeds. There is also a spoken speech, becoming articulate in human words in hymns of praise and thanks to God—the liturgy of a piety that answers to the Divine and is thus responsible.
Indeed this is the basis of all liturgy and cult, even in their crudest forms and reflections—in the dreams of men's sleeping hearts. But the Trismegistic writings are dealing with the self-conscious realization of true Gnostic Passion, where feeling has to be consciously transmuted into knowledge.
The singing of hymns on earth is the reflection of a heavenly mystery. Before the man can really sing in proper tune he must have harmonized his lower nature and transformed it into cosmos or fit order. Hitherto he has been singing out of tune, chaotically—howling, shrieking, crying, cursing, rather than singing articulately, and so offering 'reasonable oblations' to God.
The articulation of the 'members' of his true 'body' or 'heart' has not yet been completed or perfected; they are still, to use the language of the ancient Egyptian myth, scattered abroad, as it were, by his Typhonic passions; the limbs of his body of life are scattered in his body of death. The Isis of his spiritual nature is still weeping and mourning, gathering them together, awaiting the day of the New Dawn, when the last member, the organ of Gnosis, shall complete the taxis, or order, or band of his members, and the New Man shall arise from the dead.
It is only when these 'limbs' of his are harmonized and properly articulated that he has an instrument for cosmic music. It matters not whether the old myth tells us of the fourteen 'limbs' of the dead Osiris, or the later instruction speaks of the seven spheres of the creative Harmony that fashion forth the 'limbs' of every man, and views them as each energizing in two modes, according as the individual will of man goes with them or against them—it all refers to the same mystery. Man in limitation is two-fold, even as are his physical limbs; man in freedom as cosmicly configured is two in one in all things.
And therefore when this 'change of gnostic tendency' is wrought, there is a marvellous transmutation of the whole nature. He abandons his Typhonic passions, the energizings of the nature that has battled with God, in order that what the anonymous writer of that mystic masterpiece The Dream of Ravan, so finely calls the 'Divine Catastrophe' may be precipitated, and the Titan in him may be the more rapidly destroyed, or rather transmuted into the God.
For though these passions now seem to us to be of the 'Devil,' and though we look upon them as born of powers that fight against God, they are not really evil; they are the experiences in our nature of the natural energies of the Divine Harmony—that mysterious Engine of Fate, which is the seven-fold means of manifestation, according to our Trismegistic tradition. For the Divine Harmony is the creative instrument of the Divine Energy, that perpetually produces forms in substance for consciousness, and so gradually perfects a form that shall be capable of imaging forth the Perfect Man.
The natural energies that have been hitherto working through him unconsciously, in order that through form self-consciousness may come to birth, are, however, regarded by the neophyte, in the first stages of his gnostic birth, as inimical; they have woven for him garments that have brought experience, but which now seem rags that he would ain strip off, in order that he may put on new robes of power and majesty, and so exchange the sackcloth of the slave for the raiment of the King. Though the new garments are from the same yarn and woven by the energies of the same loom, the weaver is now laboring to change the texture and design; he is now joyfully learning gnosticly to follow the plan of the Great Weaver, and so cheerfully unravels the rags of his past imperfections to reweave them into 'fine linen' fit for King Osiris.
This gnostic change is in our treatise described by the Great Mind teaching the little mind, as following on the stripping off of the vices of the soul, which are said to arise from the downward mode of the energies of the seven spheres of the Harmony of Fate. The subsequent beatification is set forth in the following graphic declaration:
And then, with all the energizing of the Harmony stript from him, he cometh to that nature which belongs unto the Eighth, and there with those that are hymneth the Father.
They who are there welcome his coming there with joy; and he, made like to them that sojourn there, doth further hear the Powers who are above the nature that belongs unto the Eighth, singing their songs of praise to God in language of their own.
And then they, in a band, go to the Father home; of their own selves they make surrender of themselves to Powers, and thus becoming Powers they are in God. This the good end for those who have gained Gnosis—to be made one with God (ii, 16).
This is the change of gnostic tendency that is wrought in the nature of one who passes from the stage of ordinary man, which Hermes characterizes as a "procession of Fate," to that true manhood which leads finally to Godship.
The ancient Egyptians divided man into at least nine forms of manifestation, or modes of existence, or spheres of being, or by whatever phrase we choose to name these categories of his natures.
The words "clothed in his proper Power" refer, I believe, to one of these natures of man. Now the sekhem is generally translated "power," but we have no description of it whereby we may satisfactorily check the translation; and so I would suggest that the khaibit, though generally translated "shadow" (i, 89), is perhaps the mystery to which our text refers, for "in the teaching of Egypt, around the radiant being [perhaps the ren or name], which in its regenerate life could assimilate itself to the glory of the Godhead, was formed the khaibit, or luminous atmosphere, consisting of a series of ethereal envelopes, at once shading and diffusing its flaming lustre, as the earth's atmosphere shades and diffuses the solar rays" (i, 76).
This was typified by the linen swathings of the mummy, for "Thoth, the Divine Wisdom, wraps the spirit of the Justified a million times in a garment of fine linen," even as Jesus in a certain sacred act girt himself with a 'linen cloth' which Tertullian characterizes as the "proper garment of Osiris" (i, 71). And Plutarch tells us that linen was worn by the priests "on account of the colour which the flax in flower sends forth, resembling the ethereal radiance that surrounds the cosmos" (i, 265).
The same mystery is shown forth in the marvellous passage which describes the transfiguration of Jesus in the Gnostic gospel known as the Pistis Sophia, which is of almost pure Egyptian tradition. It is the mystic description of a wonderful metamorphosis or transformation that is wrought in the inner nature of the Master, who has ascended to clothe himself with the Robe of Glory, and who returns to the consciousness of his lower powers, or disciples, clad in his Robe of Power.
"They saw Jesus descending shining exceedingly; there was no measure to the light which surrounded him, for he shone more brightly than when he had ascended into the heavens, so that it is impossible for any in this world to describe the light in which he was. He shot forth rays shining exceedingly; his rays were without measure, nor were his rays of light equal together, but they were of every figure and type, some being more admirable than the others in infinite manner. And they were all pure light in every part at the same time.
"It was of three degrees, one surpassing the other in infinite manner. The second, which was in the midst, excelled the first which was below it, and the third, the most admirable of all, surpassed the two below it. The first glory was placed below all, like to the light which came upon Jesus before he ascended into the heavens, and was very regular as to its own light" (pp. 7, 8).
This triple glory, I believe, was the "body of light" of the nature of the eighth, ninth and tenth spheres of glory in the scale of the perfect ten. In our text the "clothed in his proper Power" must, I think, be referred to the powers of the seven spheres unified into one; the eighth, which was the vehicle of the pure mind, according to Platonic tradition, based originally, in all probablity, on Egyptian tradition. This 'vehicle' was 'atomic' and not 'molecular,' to use the terms of present-day science, simple and not compound, same and not other—"very regular as to its own light."
And so when this gnostic change is wrought in the man's inner nature there is an accompanying change effected in the substance of his very 'body,' and he begins to sing in harmony with the spheres; "with those that are he hymneth the Father."
He now knows the language of nature, and therewith sings praise continually in full consciousness of the joy of life. He sings the song of joy, and so singing hears the joyous songs of the Sons of God who form the first of the choirs invisible. They sing back to him and give him welcome; and what they sing the lover of such things may read in the same Pistas Sophia (p. 17), in the Hymn of the Powers "Come unto Us"—when they welcome the returning exile on the Great Day of that name.
But this is not all; for higher still and higher, beyond and yet beyond, are other choirs of Powers of even greater transcendency who sing. As yet, however, the newly born cannot understand or bear their song, for they sing in a language of their own, there being many tongues of angels and archangels, of daimones and gods in their many grades.
But already the man has begun to realize the freedom of the cosmos; he has begun to feel himself a true cosmopolitan or world-citizen, and to thrill in harmony with the Powers. He experiences an ineffable union that removes all fear, and longs for the consummation of the final Sacred Marriage when he will perform the great sacrifice, and of himself make joyful surrender of all that he has been in separation, to become, by union with Those alone who truly are, all that has ever been and is and will be—and so one with God, the All and One.
Excerpted from The Hymns of Hermes by G.R.S. Mead. Copyright © 1991 Stephan A. Hoeller. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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