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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 413



To the first zone he gives the energy of Growth and Waning; unto the second zone, Device of Evils now de-energized; unto the third, the Guile of the Desires de-energized; unto the fourth, his Domineering Arrogance also de-energized; unto the fifth, unholy Daring and the Rashness of Audacity de-energized; unto the sixth, Striving for Wealth by evil means deprived of its aggrandisement; and to the seventh zone, Ensnaring Falsehood de-energized.”—C. H., i. 25.


Let us first turn to the commentary of Macrobius on the famous “Dream of Scipio,” which Cicero introduces into his Republic (Bk. VI.), just as Plato appends the Vision of Er to his. Macrobius devotes the twelfth chapter of his First Book to a consideration of “The Descent of the Soul from the Height of Cosmos to the Depths of Earth,” and professes to base himself on Pythagorean and Platonic traditions. His dissertation covers more ground than the precise subject of the zones with which we are more immediately concerned; but as the whole scheme is of interest to our present

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studies, we will append a translation of practically the whole chapter.

“[According to Pythagoras] when the Soul descends from the Boundary where the Zodiac and Galaxy [or Milky Way] meet, from a spherical form, which is the only divine one, it is elongated into a conical one 1 by its downward tendency.

“Just as the line is born from the point and proceeds into length out of the indivisible, so the soul from its point, that is ‘monad,’ comes into ‘dyad’—its first production [or lengthening].

“And this is the essence which Plato in the Timæus, speaking about the construction of the World-Soul, describes as indivisible yet at the same time divisible.

“For just as the Soul of the World so also the soul of an individual man will be found in one respect incapable of division—if it is regarded from the standpoint of the simplicity of its divine nature—and in another capable [of division]—since the former is diffused through the members of the world, and the latter through those of a man.

“When then the soul is drawn towards body—in this first production of it—it begins to experience a material agitation, matter flowing into it. 2

“And this is remarked by Plato in the Phædo [when he says] that the soul is drawn to body staggering with recent intoxication,—meaning us to understand by this a new draught of matter’s superfluity, by which it becomes defiled and gravid and so is brought down.

“A symbol of this mystic secret is that Starry Cup (Cratēr) of Father Bacchus placed in the space between

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[paragraph continues] Cancer and Leo 1—meaning that intoxication is there first experienced by souls in their descent by the influx of matter into them. From which cause also forgetfulness, the companion of intoxication, then begins secretly to creep into souls.

“For if souls brought down to body memory of the divine things of which they were conscious in heaven, there would be no difference of opinion among men concerning the divine state. But all, indeed, in their descent drink of forgetfulness—some more, some less.

“And for this cause on earth, though the truth is not clear to all, they nevertheless have all some opinion about it; for opinion arises when memory sinks. Those, however, are greater discoverers of truth who have drunk less of forgetfulness, because they remember more easily what they have known before in that state.

“Hence it is that what the Latins call a ‘lecture’ (lectio) the Greeks call a ‘re-knowing’ (repetita cognitio 2), because when we give utterance to true things, we re-cognize the things which we knew by nature before the influence of matter intoxicated our souls in their descent into body.

“Now it is this Matter (Hylē) which, after being impressed by the [divine] ideas, fashioned every body in the cosmos which we see. Its highest and purest nature, by means of which the divinities are either sustained or consist, 3 is called Nectar, and is believed to be the drink of the gods; while its lower and more

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turbid nature is the drink of souls. The latter is what the Ancients called the River of Lethe [or Forgetfulness].

“The Orphic [initiates], however, suppose that Dionysus himself is to be understood as ‘Hylic Nous’ 1—[that Mind] which after its birth from the Indivisible [Mind] is itself divided into individual [minds].

“And it is for this reason that in their Mystery-tradition Dionysus is represented as being torn limb from limb by the fury of the Titans, and, after the pieces have been buried, as coming together again whole and one; for Nous—which, as we have said, is their term for Mind—by offering itself for division from its undivided state, and by returning to the undivided from the divided, both fulfils the duties of the cosmos and also performs the mysteries of its own nature.

“The soul, therefore, having by means of this first weight [of matter] fallen down from the Zodiac and Galaxy into the series of spheres that lie below them, in continuing its descent through them, is not only enwrapped in the envelope of a luminous body, 2 but also develops the separate motions which it is to exercise.

“In the sphere of Saturn [it develops] the powers of reasoning and theorizing 3—which [the Greeks] call τὸ λογιστικὸν and τὸ θεωρητικόν; in that of Jupiter, the power of putting into practice—which they call τὸ πρακτικόν; in that of Mars, the power of ardent vehemence—which they call τὸ θυμικόν; in that of the Sun, the nature of sensing and imagining—which they call τὸ αἰσθητικὸν and τὸ φανταστικόν; in that of Venus, the motion of desire—which they call τὸ

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ἐπιθυμητικόν, in the sphere of Mercury, the power of giving expression to and interpretation of feelings—which they call τὸ ἑρμη νευτικόν; on its entrance into the sphere of the Moon it brings into activity τὸ φυτικόν—that is, the nature of making bodies grow and of moving them.

“And this [soul], though the last thing in the divine series, is nevertheless the first thing in us and in all terrestrial beings; just as this body [of ours], though the dregs of things divine, is still the first substance of the animal world.

“And this is the difference between terrene bodies and supernal—I mean those of the heaven and stars and of the other elements 1—that the latter are summoned upwards to the abode of the soul, and are worthy of immunity from death from the very nature of the space in which they are and their imitation of sublimity.

“The soul, however, is drawn down to these terrene bodies, and so it is thought to die when it is imprisoned in the region of things fallen and in the abode of death. Nor should it cause distress that we have so often spoken of death in connection with the soul, which we have declared to be superior to death. For the soul is not annihilated by [what is called] its death, but is [only] buried for a time; nor is the blessing of its perpetuity taken from it by its submersion for a time, since when it shall have made it worthy to be cleansed clean utterly of all contagion of its vice, it shall once more return from body to the light of Everlasting Life restored and whole.” 2

The characteristics of the spheres given by Macrobius are according to their simple energies; there is no

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question of good or bad; it is the “thinking” of the soul that conditions the use of these energies for beneficent or maleficent ends.


Servius, however, in his Commentary on Virgil’s Æneid, vi. 714, hands on another tradition, in which the Spheres were regarded as inimical to the good of the soul, its evil propensities being ascribed to their energies. Some scholars are of opinion that Virgil in his famous Sixth Book is largely dependent on the ideas of popular Egyptian theology; 1 however that may be, Servius writes as follows:

“The philosophers tell us what the soul loses in its descent through the separate spheres. For which cause also the Mathematici imagine that our body and soul are knit together by the powers of the separate divinities, on the supposition that when souls descend, they bring with them the sluggishness of Saturn, the passionateness of Mars, the lustfulness of Venus, the cupidity of Mercury, and the desire for rule of Jupiter. And these things perturb souls, so that they are unable to use their own energy and proper powers.”

It is to be noticed that the characteristics of the Sun and Moon are omitted, and this points to a doctrine in which Sun and Moon were treated as distinct from “the five.” So also in the “Books of the Saviour” appended to the Pistis Sophia document we find (pp. 360, 366 ff.) mention of only five planets. The

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tradition of this doctrine is exceedingly obscure, 1 and does not immediately concern us, as our text works on a “seven” basis.


I have done my best to discover some consistent scheme by which the contradictory data in Macrobius, Servius, and Hermes might be reconciled, but the tabularising of their indications only makes confusion worse confounded.

It is evident, however, that the main thing that Macrobius hands on, and which he attributes to Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, contains in itself no suggestion that these philosophers attributed any evil tendencies to the characteristics of the spheres in themselves. The tradition of Macrobius is as follows:



τὸ θεωρητικὸν
τὸ λογιστικὸν





τὸ πρακτικὸν


vis agendi.



τὸ θυμικὸν


ardor animositatis.



τὸ αἰσθητικὸν
τὸ φανταστικὸν


natura sentiendi.
natura opinandi.



τὸ ἐπιθυμητικὸν


motus desiderii.



τὸ ἑρμηνευτικὸν


vis pronuntiandi
et interpretandi
quæ sentiantur.



τὸ φυτικὸν


natura plantandi
et agendi corpora.

The confusion between the “vis agendi” of Jupiter and that of the Moon may be resolved by supposing that the former was the application of the reasoning

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faculty to the practical things of life, while the latter was the power of moving one’s own physical body, if indeed the “et agendi” is not a gloss of Macrobius.

Servius, on the contrary, is following a tradition in which the spheres were regarded as the sources of evil tendencies; ethical considerations dominate the whole conception. Seeing, however, that it is a fivefold distribution, we are unable to equate it with the doctrine of Hermes, which is sevenfold. Nevertheless, there are some parallels.

The lustfulness (libido) of Servius is to be paralleled with the “guile of the desires” or “lustful error” (ἡ ἐπιθυμητικὴ ἀπάτη) of Hermes. This is ascribed to the third zone by Hermes, and to Venus by Servius, Venus further coming third in Macrobius.

The “desire of rule” (desiderium regni) of Servius is clearly the “domineering arrogance” (ἡ ἀρχοντικὴ προφανία) of Hermes. In Hermes this belongs to the middle zone (fourth); in Servius it is ascribed to Jupiter, presumably as the ruler of the age—the ruler of the previous age being Saturn, who has been deprived of his energy and so rendered “torpid.”

The “passion” or “wrathfulness” (iracundia) of Servius is also to be paralleled to some extent with the “unholy daring” of Hermes. It is ascribed to the fifth zone by Hermes and to Jupiter by Servius, Mars also coming fifth in Macrobius.

Finally, the “love of gain” (lucri cupiditas) of Servius may be paralleled by the “striving for wealth by evil means” (αἱ ἀφορμαὶ αἱ κακαὶ τοῦ πλούτου) of Hermes. Hermes attributes this to the sixth zone, and Servius to Mercury.

The remaining quality mentioned by Servius, “torpor,” which he ascribes to Saturn, equates with nothing in Hermes, unless we can persuade ourselves that the

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“ensnaring falsehood” or “falsehood that lies in wait” (τὸ ἐνεδρεῦον ψεῦδος) of Hermes has some connection with it.

The scheme of Hermes is septenary, and connected with the ideas of the ascent of the soul through seven zones, which we must locate as seven superimposed atmospheres extending from the surface of the earth to the moon’s orbit. There is no question here of the Celestial Spheres proper of the Philosophers, the characteristics of the energies of which are neither good nor evil in themselves; nor is there apparently any question of the “animal soul” proper, for the “passions and desires” are said to withdraw into the “nature which is void of reason.” Though nothing more is said about this nature in this connection, in the general belief of the time its dominion was thought of as located below the earth-surface—as a Tartarus of seven zones, corresponding to those above, in which the “animal soul” or “vehicle of desire” was thought of as being gradually disintegrated, its energies finally going back to their source in the Depths of the Darkness, while the process of such disintegration or metamorphosis produced a parallel consciousness of chastisements and horrors. The seven zones of our text, however, are apparently the region of purification of the lower energies of the human soul; the mental energies led into error by the animal passions.


Now if we turn to Salmon’s article on the “Hebdomad,” 1 and to his discussion of the tradition of the “Ophites”—a mysterious medley of chaotic elements, which have not yet been analysed in any satisfactory

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fashion, but which have their roots in pre-Christian traditions of a very varied nature within the general characteristic of a syncretic Gnosticism—we find that after treating of the Celestial Hebdomad, he continues as follows:

“Besides the higher hebdomad of the seven angels, the Ophite system told of a lower hebdomad. After the serpent in punishment for having taught our first parents to transgress the commands of Ialdabaoth was cast down into this lower world, he begat himself six sons, 1 who with himself form a hebdomad, the counterpart of that of which his father Ialdabaoth is chief. These are the seven demons, the scene of whose activity is this lower earth, not the heavens; and who delight in injuring the human race on whose account their father had been cast down. Origen (Adv. Cels., vi. 30) gives their names and forms from an Ophite Diagram; Michael in form as a lion, Suriel as an ox, Raphael as a dragon, Gabriel as an eagle, Thautabaoth as a bear, Erataoth as a dog, Onoel as an ass.”

Here, I think, we are on the track of one aspect of a general mystery-tradition that Hermes has “philosophized.” I say one aspect, for the “Ophite” tradition is not a single form of tradition, but a medley of traditions containing a number of forms; it is a complex or syncretism of Chaldæan, Persian, and Egyptian elements, patched together, or “centonized,” if we may use the term, with Jewish industry.

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The wealth of symbolism and profusion of mysterious personifications with which these systems of subjective imagery were smothered, could exercise only a partial fascination on the clear-thinking, philosophical mind which had been trained in the method of Plato. If such a mind was combined with the mystic temperament, as was indubitably the case with the writer of our “Pœmandres” treatise, his main effort would be to simplify and categorize in the terms of philosophy at the expense of apocalyptic detail; nevertheless, when a man lived in the midst of such ideas, and was presumably in intimate relations with mystics and seers of all sorts, he could not but be strongly affected by the main presuppositions of all such apocalyptic, and the general notions of the schematology of the Unseen World, which all students of such matters at that period seem to have accepted in common.

We thus find that our Trismegistic literature, though dealing throughout with the Gnosis, treats it in a far more simple way than any other known system of the time. Nevertheless, even the complex imagery of the Ophite schools is occasionally summed up in a few graphic general symbols, and these, too, representing probably the oldest elements in them.


From the confused description by Origen 1 of the famous but exceedingly puzzling Ophite Diagram that both Celsus and Origen had before them, though in different forms, we can make out with certainty only

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that this chart of the Unseen Spaces was divided into three main divisions—Upper, Middle, and Lower. The Middle Space contained a geometrical diagram of a group of ten circles surrounded by one great circle. This Great Circle was called Leviāthān, and the grouping of circles within it was apparently divided into a three and a seven. The Lower Space had in it a grouping of seven circles, the circles of the seven ruling daimones (xxx.)—elsewhere called Archontics—and the whole group was apparently called Bĕhēmōth (xxv.).

Celsus, quoted by Origen (xxvii.), tells us that the doctrine was that on the death of the body two groups of angels range themselves on either side of the soul, 1 the one set being called “Angels of Light” and the other “Archontics”—evidently intended for “Angels of Darkness.” Thus the evil soul was thought to be led away by the Daimones to Behemoth, and the pure soul to Leviathan.

We cannot enter into the endless discussions concerning these two Great Beasts, mentioned together in Job xl. 15-24, and separately in Isaiah and Psalms; the most recent research comes to the conclusion that “it would seem that Leviāthān was regarded as lord of the ocean and Bĕhēmōth of dry land.” 2

But in our diagram Leviathan is Lord of the Heaven-Ocean or Great Green or Cosmic Air, and Behemoth Lord of the Cosmic Earth.

Indeed, in the Book of Enoch, 3 the apocalyptic writer associates these two monsters with precisely the same eschatological considerations which Origen tells us were the purpose of the Diagram, only “Enoch” speaks of

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the Last Day, while the Ophite writer has in view the ascent of the soul of an initiate after death.

At the final separation of Righteous and Unrighteous, “Enoch” tells us, these Great Creatures, which before were united, will be parted. That is to say, at death there is a metamorphosis of the soul.

From what is said in “Enoch,” moreover, I deduce that the Upper Space of the Ophite Diagram was intended to represent the Celestial Paradise, that is the state of the Pure Mind or of the Righteous.

Leviathan and Behemoth are figured in IV. Esdras vi. 49-52, as Devourers of the Unrighteous; while general Jewish apocalyptic in both Apocrypha and Talmud believed that these monsters would in their turn become the food of the Righteous in Messianic times. 1

From all these indications we deduce that Behemoth was the Great Beast and Leviathan the Great Fish. The animal soul, intensified by contact with the human mind, then goes back to its source the Great Beast, and is devoured by it, and reabsorbed by it, its energies returning to the sum total of energies of the Great Animal Group-Soul, the whole energy and experience of which shall eventually become the “food” of the perfected man; that is to say, presumably, he will in his turn devour and so transmute these energies; the perfected man will thrive by transmuting the Body of the Great Beast into the Body of the Great Man.

The Great Fish, however, would seem to symbolize the higher energies of the soul, which also require transmutation. In being born into the stature of the Great Man, the Son of Man must needs pass “three days” in the Belly of the Whale. This Great Fish is of the nature of knowledge; for does not Oannes come

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out of the Ocean in fish-form to teach, 1 in the Assyrian Mystery-tradition, and does not the Ophite tradition in another of its phases 2 derive the inspiration of the great prophets of Israel, in their several degrees, from this same Group of Angels which the Diagram calls Leviathan?

It is also of interest to notice that Leviathan and Behemoth were believed to have once formed one monster, which was subsequently divided into male and female, Behemoth being male and Leviathan female. This reminds one of the primæval Water-Earth of Hermes, which was subsequently divided into Water and Earth, just as the animals were first of all male-female, and subsequently were separated. Moreover, in the Vision of Er the arcs of the journeyings of the ascending and descending souls end in two orifices above in the sky and two below in the earth, as though they were the ends of a once great hollow ring or circle that had been divided, or as it were two serpents arched above and below, with mouths and tails as orifices; and, curiously enough, in the Pistis Sophia the souls of the unrighteous enter by the mouth of the Lower Dragon and depart by the tail.

Now, Leviathan being female and Behemoth male, and both forming together as it were the circumference of the Great Wheel of Necessity, the Wheel of Genesis, the attribution of the gestation, so to speak, of the

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virtues of the soul to the one and the digesting of its vices to the other, is not so surprising. Further, they could be regarded as the right-hand or left-hand arcs or hemispheres of the Wheel, or Sphere, or Egg, according to celestial topography; whereas in Egyptian terrestrial parallelism the right hand was to the north and the left hand the south, upper and lower Egypt. Curiously enough, in Isa. xxx. 6, Behemoth is called the monster “of the south land.” 1

Whether or no the writer of the “Pœmandres” was directly influenced by the precise forms of tradition to which we have referred, is impossible to determine; but that he was influenced by the general ideas as symbolized is indubitable, and that he understood the esoteric meaning of the “hippopotamus” and “crocodile” symbols in Egyptian mysticism is highly probable.


Origen (xxxi.), moreover, tells us that, according to the Ophites, the consciousness of the soul after passing through the domain of the animal-formed Rulers, broke through what was called the “Fence of Iniquity,” and so turned towards the higher spheres, through which it also had to pass. In the seventh and highest of them, over which ruled the Virtue which was called Hōræus, 2 it addresses the Ruler thereof with an apology or defence of its own innocence, beginning with the words: “O thou who hast transcended the ‘Fence of Fire’ without fear!”

This Fence of Fire was symbolised in the form of the Diagram which Origen (xxxiii.) had before him, as a

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circle of fire with a flaming sword lying across its diameter. This must then have been intended to represent the Sphere of Fire, or Angel or Guardian of the Gate, which had to be passed before the Celestial Paradise could be entered, for the flashing, circling blade is said to have guarded the “Tree of Gnosis and of Life.”

The same idea of a typical Boundary or Fence meets us in the “Pœmandres.” It is Man who breaks through the seven spheres and also their enclosing Sphere, the Might or Power that circumscribed the Fire. The root idea is the same. The point of view of Hermes, however, like that of the Ophite Gnostics, is not the passage round the Circle of Necessity of the souls of the unregenerate, as in the Vision of Er, but of the Straight Ascent of the soul of the initiate, his breaking through the spheres. It is the ascent of a soul who has reached the Hermes-stage, or Thrice-greatest grade, the final stage of winning its freedom, the Ascent after the last compulsory birth—the Ascent “as now it is for me” (§ 25).


414:1 Not into a mathematical cone, but into an egg-shaped or elliptical form resembling that of a pine-cone.

414:2 This shows that the soul was thought of as being without or outside body of every kind, and body was taken into it.

415:1 Cf. Pistis Sophia, pp. 371 and 367.

415:2 That is, presumably, ἀνάγνωσμα—a philosophical discourse, or sacred sermon.

415:3 As distinguished from “exist.” Latin, however, is but a poor medium for the expression of philosophical distinctions.

416:1 νοῦς ὑλικός.

416:2 The augoeides.

416:3 Or of contemplative reason, synthesis as opposed to analysis.

417:1 That is, the elements other than those of earth.

417:2 Ed. Eyssenhardt (F.), pp. 531 ff. (Leipzig, 1893).

418:1 Cf., for instance, Maass (E.), Die Tagesgötter in Rom und den Provinzen, p. 33. See R. 53, n. 1.

419:1 For references, see R. 53, n. 2.

421:1 Smith and Wace’s D. of Christ. Biog., ii. 849-851.

422:1 In Irenæus (C. Hær., I. xxx. 5; ed. Stieren, i. 266) this sevenfold serpent is the son of Ialdabaoth (the Creative Mind), and is said to be “mind,” also “crooked mind,” coiled up like a serpent.

423:1 C. Cels., VI. xxv. ff.

424:1 Plainly a conflation of Persian and Chaldæan ideas.

424:2 Cheyne’s article, “Behemoth and Leviathan,” in the Encyclopædia Biblica.

424:3 Charles’ Trans., lx. 7 ff. (Ethiop. V., p. 155).

425:1 See Charles, op. cit., p. 155, n. 7.

426:1 Oannes also comes to teach from the Waters of the Euphrates; the Jewish overwriter of the Naassene Document (see “Myth of Man in the Mysteries”) equates Euphrates with Great Jordan, and this with the Stream of Ocean; and, curiously enough, Origen (xxviii.) ascribes the Ophite teaching to a certain Euphrates, of whom no one else has ever heard. It is, however, a common error of the Church Fathers to mistake a principle of the Gnosis for the founder of a heresy.

426:2 See Salmon, loc. sup. cit.

427:1 According to Cheyne’s rendering in the above-quoted article.

427:2 That is, presumably, the Hōrus-like; thus showing traces of an Egyptian element.

Next: XIII. Plato: Concerning Metempsychosis