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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 190



The title in the MSS. is simply “Mind to Hermes.” When, therefore, Cyril, in quoting the first three paragraphs of § 22 of our treatise, says that Hermes wrote these words “to his own mind,” 1 he is evidently either a very careless reader, 2 or had not seen at first hand the treatise from which he quotes.

From its contents, moreover, it is very evident that our treatise, as far as its form is concerned, looks back to the “Pœmandres” as the type of instruction to Hermes (or to a Hermes).

This highly authoritative form of enunciating doctrine was evidently chosen because it was desired to impart a more intimate instruction than that of the “General Sermons” and the like,—to wit, the inculcation of the Æon-doctrine, in connection with the marvellous doctrine of At-one-ment with all things which constitutes the Path of the Good. The doctrine is no longer “Become (or make thyself like) Cosmos,” but “Become Æon” (§ 20).

Now it is remarkable that the instruction given in our treatise by the Mind to Hermes is, almost point for point, the “esoteric” teaching of which the Sermon of Hermes to Tat, entitled the “Cup or Monad”—C. H., iv. (v.)—is the “exoteric” form.

That the instruction in these Trismegistic schools of initiation was divided into grades is manifest on all sides; and, therefore, nothing is more natural than to find these two sermons standing in such intimate relations to one another as to doctrine, the one containing

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the more intimate and advanced explanation of the more general instruction of the other.

And that this inner instruction on the “Cup” doctrine must have been thought to be of very great value, is evident when we reflect that “The Cup” sermon was one of the most famous of all the treatises of Hermes, for, as we have seen, its title was worth being plagiarized, and the Baptism of the Cup, of which it treated, constituted the goal of the endeavour of the disciples of the School, as Zosimus tells us.

Mystically, then, the main interest of our treatise centres in the doctrine of the At-one-ment (as the inner consummation of the Baptism in the Cup or Monad), to which the Æon-idea is but a formal introduction; historically, however, the introduction of the Æon-idea presents itself as a critical problem, for the term is not found in the ‘‘Pœmandres,” and, therefore, presumably was not used in the earliest documents of the School.


When, then, did this Æon-idea impose itself upon the older form of tradition of the Trismegistic schools? This is a most important question; for if we can in any way answer it, we shall be in a position to assign a terminus ad quem for the earlier forms of Hermetic doctrine.

The answer to the question seems to me to be involved in the supposition that the Æon-doctrine must have influenced “Hermeticism” at more or less the same date as that at which it influenced “Gnosticism.”

Now “Gnosticism,” in its Christianized forms, is practically never found without the Æon-lore.

The earliest forms of Christian Gnosis referred to

p. 192

by the later Patristic hæresiologists are bound up with Æonology. Not only so, but the very earliest reference to Gnosticism by any Christian writer presupposes the Æon-doctrine, and uses it in illustration of the spiritual state of the writer. 1

The widespread influence of the Æon-doctrine can thus be traced back to at least the origins of Christianity.

Now as the Gnosis existed before any Christian form of it was developed, the question of the date when the Æon-doctrine was introduced into it must be referred to pre-Christian times.

And, indeed, the very simple character of the Æon-lore in our treatise, 2 as compared with the mind-bewildering complexity and transcendency of first and second century Christian Gnosticism, is all in favour of an early date for its introduction into “Hermeticism,” which is only another name for “Gnosticism” of a preponderatingly Hellenic form.

If this line of reasoning holds good, we have in it a very strong presumption that the older forms of the Trismegistic treatises were pre-Christian.

And that this is so may be seen by the absolute identity of the teaching of our treatise (§ 2) with that of Philo, when he writes:

“But God is the Artificer of Time as well. For He is Father of its Father; and Time’s Father is the Cosmos, which manifests its motion in the genesis of Time. . . .

“This [Cosmos] then, the Younger Son, the Sensible, being set a-moving, has caused Time’s nature to appear

p. 193

and disappear; so that there nothing is which future is with God, who has the very Bounds of Time subject to Him. For ’tis not Time, but Time’s Archetype and Paradigm, Eternity (or Æon), which is His Life. 1 But in Eternity naught is past, and naught is future, but all is present only.” 2

This passage of Philo is of the utmost importance for estimating the date of our treatises; for not only does it prove that the oldest forms of the Trismegistic literature were pre-Christian, but it further persuades us that our treatise, which belongs to a later type of this literature, may be dated as contemporary with Philo.

Chapter xi. in the Prolegomena, “Concerning the Æon-Doctrine,” should be taken in close connection with this treatise, for it is not only introductory to it, but frequently refers directly to it.

For the rest, it is not necessary to attempt any detailed comments, since the instruction of the writer is clear enough for any careful reader to follow with ease after making himself acquainted with the general ideas in the preceding treatises. One or two notes on special points, however, may be attempted.


Thus in § 16, the sentence: “The Cosmos is all-formed (παντόμορφος),—not having forms external to itself, but changing them itself within itself,”—reminds us of P. S. A., xix. 3: “The ‘Thirty-six’ who have the name of Horoscopes are in the self-same space as the fixed stars; of these the essence-chief, or prince,

p. 194

is he whom they call Pantomorph, or Omniform (παντόμορφος, vel omniformis),who fashioneth the various forms for various species”; and also of P. S. A., xxxv.: “But they are changed as many times as there are moments in the hour of that revolving circle in which abides that God whom we have called All-form.”

Compare also C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 12, where, speaking of the “Circle of the types of life,” Hermes says it is “composed of elements, twelve in number, but of one nature, an omniform idea.”

With this compare Hermes-Prayer iv., addressed to Thoth as the Logos:

“Thee I invoke alone, thou who alone in all the Cosmos dost impose order on gods and men, who dost transform thyself in holy forms, making to be from things that are not, and from the things that are, making the not to be.”

But the main interest of our treatise is not that the Intelligible Cosmos or Logos can create and destroy and transmute all forms at will, but that man as the microcosm has potential in him this great magic power.


The daring instruction given to Hermes in §§ 19 and 20 is distinctly a discipline of the Egyptian Wisdom; for though it is here set forth plainly and without circumlocution, as a straightforward intimate instruction, stripped of all mysterious hints or hesitating subterfuges, 1 it is clearly in the same circle of ideas of which popular Egyptian theurgy had some inkling. But whereas the philosopher-mystic was bidden to do this for himself of his own volition and achievement, the theurgist had to beg some god to do it for him.

p. 195

Thus in the same Prayer, to which we have already referred, we read (§§ 2, 3):

“O holy Thoth, the true sight of whose face none of the gods endures! Make me to be in every creature’s name [or ‘true form’],—wolf, dog, or lion, fire, tree, or vulture, wall, or water, or what thou will’st, for thou art able so to do.”

So also in P. S. A., vii., we have the same idea, for certainly the phrasing of the sentences suggests something beyond the ordinary powers of the mind or imagination.

“He mingles with the elements by reason of the swiftness of his mind. He plunges into the sea’s depths by means of its profundity. He puts his values on all things.

“Heaven does not seem too high for him; for it is measured by the wisdom of his mind as though it were quite near.

“No darkness of the air obstructs the penetration of his mind. No density of earth impedes his work. No depth of water blunts his sight.

“Though still the same, yet is he all, and everywhere is he the same.”

It is indeed a marvellous “yoga” system that is sketched for us in our treatise. There is no question here of abstraction or negation, but a courageous identification or At-one-ment of oneself with all that lives and breathes. This is the Path of the Gnosis, the Way to Know God.

In other words, man is to copy his prototype, the Mind, and just as the Mind or Man, in the “Pœmandres” treatise, “had a mind to break right through the Boundary of the spheres” (§ 13), so is our philosopher bidden to “soar up to the Last Body of them all” (§ 19), that Last Body being the One Element of Cosmos itself.

p. 196

“And shouldst thou will to break through this as well, and contemplate what is beyond—if there be aught beyond the Cosmos; it is permitted thee.”

That the hard and fast distinctions which modern commentators would draw between words, in considering these mystical treatises, would have been laughed at by the writers of them, is amply manifested when the writer with enthusiastic fervour bursts forth:

“Then in this way know God, as having in Himself as thoughts the whole Cosmos itself.

“If, then, thou dost not make thyself like unto God, 1 thou canst not know Him. 2 For like is knowable to like [alone]. Make, then, thyself to grow to the same stature as the Greatness which transcends all measure; leap forth from every body; transcend all time; become Eternity; and thus shalt thou know God.”

Every body or space must be transcended, even the Body of Cosmos itself; for the man must grow into the “stature of the Greatness that transcends all measure,” that is, the intelligible superspatial Plērōma, the Æon as the Logos and Paradigm of Cosmos. And every time and all Time must also be transcended; for the man must become Eternity—that is, the Æon as the Paradigm of Time.


In no scripture that I know is this Path more admirably set forth—the Good’s own Path. All things, all spaces, and all times have to be realized as being within oneself simultaneously; if this is realized or known, not only imagined, then a man becomes a true Knower of God, a Gnostic.

p. 197

Nor has ever a truer sentence been written than the wonderful words concerning this Path to the Supreme:

“If thou but sett’st thy foot thereon, ’twill meet thee everywhere, ’twill everywhere be seen, both where and when thou dost expect it not—waking, sleeping, sailing, journeying, by night, by day, speaking, and saying naught. For there is naught that is not image of the Good.”


In conclusion, I would only point out that if for the hopeless reading in the first sentence of § 19 we were to take Patrizzi’s emendation, which has been adopted by Parthey, we should have the interesting sentence:

“And, thus, think from thyself, and bid thy soul go unto India.”

If this should be the original reading, it is remarkable that India should have been selected of all places. We know, however, from a study of what is known of the life of Apollonius of Tyana, that this “Gnostic” philosopher made an enormous propaganda of Indian ideas among the philosophic and mystic communities and schools of the first century. Apollonius must have known something, perhaps a great deal, concerning the siddhis acquired by yoga-practices. At any rate, we find his biographer Philostratus making him write the following letter to his Eastern hosts on his return from India:

“I came to you by land and ye have given me the sea; nay, rather, by sharing with me your wisdom ye have given me power to travel through heaven. These things will I bring back to the mind of the Greeks, and I will hold converse with you as though ye were

p. 198

present, if it be that I have not drunk of the Cup of Tantalus in vain.” 1

That an intensely great interest was taken in Indian ideas at Alexandria is shown by the fact that we find Plotinus himself in 242 starting off with the expedition of Gordian to the East in the hope of coming in contact with the Indian Wisdom.

But all these considerations, though interesting in themselves, do not immediately concern us, unless we are subjectively persuaded that the emendation of Patrizzi is firmly established. Should, however, this reading in any way be confirmed by objective evidence, we should have to reconsider the question of date by the light of it, though, I fear, with little chance of any definite result. For though the propaganda of Indian ideas by Apollonius could not have begun prior to the middle of the first century, we have in this fact no very sure criterion, for “India” must have been in the air, and strongly in the air, even prior to Apollonius’ visit to India, or why should he have been induced to make so long and dangerous a journey? Indeed, “India” had been in the air ever since the expedition of Alexander—that is, from the beginning of the Alexandrian period—the second quarter of the fourth century B.C. onwards.


190:1 C. Jul., ii. 52; ed. Migne, col. 580 B.

190:2 Cf. R. 128, i.; 196, 3.

192:1 Namely, Paul in his Letters, which are the earliest of all Christian documents. See my article, “Some Notes on the Gnostics,” in The Nineteenth Century and After (Nov. 1902), pp. 822-835; and D. J. L., pp. 353 ff.

192:2 Perhaps the clearest exposition is to be found in P. S. A., xxx. and xxxi.

193:1 Cf. C. H., i. 6; the Union of the Logos and Mind—or First-Born Son and Father—is Life; they are united in Æon.

193:2 Quod Deus Im., § 6; M. i. 277; P. 298 (Ri. ii. 72, 73).

194:1 Or, as the writer of the Pistis Sophia would say, ἐν παρρησίᾳ, “face to face without a parable.”

196:1 Sc. as Cosmos.

196:2 Sc. as Father of this Only Son.

198:1 Philos., Vit. Ap., iii. 51. Cf. my Apollonius of Tyana, the Philosopher Reformer of the First Century A.D. (London, 1901), p. 88.

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