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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 3

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 188



(Patrizzi (p. 34b) runs this on to the last without a break.

Text: Stob., Phys., xli. 68, 69, under heading, “Of Hermes: A Sermon of Isis to Horus”; G. pp. 476-481; M. i. 342-352; W. i. 458-472.

Ménard: Livre III., No. iii. of “Fragments,” etc., as above, pp. 209-221.)

1. 1 In wondrous fashion—(Horus said)—hast thou explained to me, most mighty mother Isis, the details of God’s wondrous soul-making, and I remain in wonder; but not as yet hast thou told me whereto the souls when freed from body go. I would then thank thee for being made initiate by word of mouth 2 into this vision of the soul, 3 O only mother, deathless one!

2. And Isis said:

Give ear, my son; most indispensable is this

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research. That which doth hold together, doth also have a place which doth not disappear. For this is what my sermon will set forth.

O wondrous, mighty son of mighty sire Osiris, [the souls] when they go forth from bodies, are not confusedly and in a rush dissolved into the air, and scattered in the rest of boundless Breath, so that they cannot any more as the same [souls] return again to bodies; nor is it possible, again, to turn them back unto that place from which they came at first—no more than water taken from the bottom of a jar can be poured 1 [back again] into the self-same place whence it was taken; nor does the same when taken take a place peculiar to it, but is mixed up with the whole mass of water. 2 Not thus is it [with souls], high-minded Horus!

3. Now as I chance myself to be as though initiate into the nature which transcendeth death, and that my feet have crossed the Plain of Truth, I will explain to thee in detail how it is; and preface this by telling thee that water is a body void of reason condensed from many compound things into a fluid mass, whereas the soul’s a thing of individual nature, son, and of a royal kind, a work of God’s [own] hands and mind, and of itself led by itself to mind.

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What then doth come from “one” and not from “other,” cannot be mingled with a different thing; wherefore it needs must be that the soul’s congress with the body is a concord wrought by God’s necessity.

But that they are not [all] confusedly and [all] at random and by chance sent up again to one and the same place, but each to its own proper region, is clear from what [the soul] doth suffer while still it is in body and in plasm, when it has been made dense against its proper nature.

Now give good heed to the similitude recounted, Horus well-beloved!

4. Suppose in one and the same cage have been shut up both men and eagles, doves and swans, and swallows, hawks and sparrows, flies, and snakes, and lions, leopards, wolves, and dogs, and hares, and kine and sheep, and some amphibious animals, as seals and others, tortoises and our own crocodiles; then, that, my son, at one [and the same] moment they are [all] let out.

They [all] will turn instinctively—man to his gathering spots and roofs; the eagle to the ether, in which its nature is to spend its life; the doves into the neighbouring air; the hawks [to that] above [the doves]; the swallows where men dwell; the sparrows round the fruit-trees; the swans where they may sing; the flies about the earth, [but only] so far from it as they can

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with [-out their losing] smell of man (for that the fly, my son, is fond of man especially and tends to earth); the lions and the leopards towards the hills; the wolves towards desert spots; the dogs after men’s tracks; the kine to stalls and fields; the sheep to pastures; the snakes to earth’s recesses; the seals and tortoises, with [all] their kind, unto the deeps and streams, so that they neither should be robbed of the dry land nor taken from their cognate water—each one returning to its proper place by means of its internal means of judgment.

So every soul, both in a human form and otherwise incarnate on the earth, knows where it has to go,—unless some foolish person 1 come and say, my son, that it is possible a bull should live in water and a tortoise up in air!

5. And if this be the case when they are plunged in flesh and blood—that they do nothing contrary to what’s appointed them, e’en though they are being punished (for being put in body is a punishment for them)—how much the more [is it the case] when they possess their proper liberty [and are set free] from punishment and being plunged [in body]?

Now the most holy ordering of souls is on this wise. Turn thou thy gaze above, most noble-

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natured son, upon their orders. The space from height of heaven to the moon devotes itself unto the gods and stars and to the rest of providence; the space, my son, from moon to us is dwelling place of souls.

This so great air, however, has in it a belt to which it is our use to give the name of wind, a definite expanse in which it is kept moving to refresh the things on earth, and which I will hereafter tell about.

Yet in no manner by its motion on itself does it become an obstacle to souls; for though it keeps on moving, souls can dart up or dart down, 1 just as the case may be, free from all let and hindrance. For they pass through without immixture or adhesion as water flows through oil.

6. Now of this interval, Horus, my son, there are four main divisions and sixty special spaces.

Of these [divisions] the first one upwards from the earth is of four spaces, so that the earth in certain of its mountain heights and peaks extends and comes so far, but beyond these it cannot in its nature go in height.

The second after this is of eight spaces, in which the motions of the winds take place.

Give heed, O son, for thou art hearing

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mysteries that must not be disclosed—of earth and heaven and all the holy air which lies between, in which there is the motion of the wind and flight of birds. For above this the air doth have no motion and sustains no life.

This [moving] air moreover hath of its own nature this authority—that it can circulate in its own spaces and also in the four of earth with all the lives which it contains, while earth cannot ascend into its [realm].

The third consists of sixteen spaces filled with subtle air and pure.

The fourth consists of two and thirty [spaces], in which there is the subtlest and the finest air; it is by means of this that [air] shuts from itself the heavens above which are by nature fiery.

7. This ordering is up and down in a straight line and has no overlapping; so that there are four main divisions, twelve intervallic ones and sixty spaces.

And in these sixty spaces dwell the souls, each one according to its nature, for though they are of one and the same substance, they’re not of the same dignity. For by so much as any space is higher from the earth than any other, by so much do the souls in them, my son, surpass in eminence the one the other. 1

What souls, however, go to each of them, I

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will accordingly begin again to tell thee, Horus, [son] of great renown, taking their order from above down to the earth.


8. The [air] between the earth and heavens, Horus, is spaced out by measure and by harmony.

These spaces have been named by some of our forefathers zones, by others firmaments, by others layers.

And in them dwell both souls which have been set free from their bodies, and also those which have as yet been never shut in body.

And each of them, my son, hath just the place it doth deserve; so that the godly and the kingly ones dwell in the highest space of all, those least in honour and the rest of the decadent ones [dwell] in the lowest space of all, while middling souls dwell in the middle space.

Accordingly, those souls which are sent down to rule, are sent down, Horus, from the upper zones; and when they are set free [again] they go back to the same or even still more lofty ones, unless it be they still have acted contrary

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to their own nature’s dignity and the pronouncement of the Law of God.

Such souls as these the Providence above, according to the measure of their sins, doth banish down to lower spaces; just as with those which are inferior in dignity and power, it leads them up from lower [realms] to vaster and more lofty ones.

9. For up above [them all] there are two ministers of universal Providence, of whom one is the warder of the souls, the other their conductor. The warder [watches o’er the souls when out of body], while the conductor is dispatcher and distributor of souls into their bodies. The former keeps them, while the latter sends them forth according to the Will of God.

For this cause (logos) then, my son, nature on earth according to the change of deeds above doth model out the vessels and shape out the tents in which the souls are cast. 1 Two energies, experience and memory, assist her.

And this is memory’s task, [to see] that nature guards the type of every thing sent down out of its source and keeps its mixture as it is above; while of experience [the work is this, to see] conformably to every one of the descending souls it may have its embodiment, and that the

p. 196

plasms may be made effective 1—that for the swift ones of the souls the bodies also may be swift, for slow ones slow, for active active ones, for sluggish sluggish ones, for powerful powerful, and for crafty crafty ones, and in a word for every one of them as it is fit.

10. For not without intention hath she clad winged things with plumage; and tricked out with senses more than ordinary and more exact those which have reason; and some of the four-footed things made strong with horns, some strong with teeth, some strong with claws and hoofs; while creeping things she hath made supple with bodies clad in easy-moving scales, which easily can glide away.

And that the watery nature of their body may not remain entirely weak, she doth provide the sharpened fangs of some of them with power; so that by reason of the fear of death [they cause] they’re stronger than the rest.

The swimming things being timorous, she gives to dwell within an element where light can exercise nor one nor other of its powers, for fire in water gives nor light nor heat. But each of them, swimming in water clad in scales or spines, flees from what frightens it where’er it will, using the water as a means of hiding it from sight.

p. 197

11. For souls are shut in each class of these bodies according to their similarity [to them]. Those which have power of judgment go down into men; and those that lack it into quadrupeds, whose [only] law is force; the crafty ones [go] into reptiles, for none of them attack a man in front, but lie in wait and strike him down; and into swimming things the timid ones or those which are not worthy to enjoy the other elements. In every class, however, there are found some which no longer use their proper nature.

How [meanest thou] again, my mother? Horus said.

And Isis answered:

A man, for instance, son, o’ersteps his power of judgment; a quadruped avoids the use of force; and reptiles lose their craftiness; and birds their fear of men. So much [then] for the ordering of [souls] above and their descent, and for the making of their bodies.

12. In every class and kind of the above, my son, there may be found some regal souls; others also descend with various natures, some fiery, and some cold, some overbearing, and some mild, some skilled, some unskilled, some idle, some industrious, some one thing, some another. And this results from the arrangement of the regions whence the souls leap down to their embodiment.

p. 198

For from the regal zone they leap down [into birth], the soul of the like nature ruling them 1; for there are many sovereignties. Some are of souls, and some of bodies, and some of arts, and some of sciences, and some are of ourselves.

How [meanest thou] again, my mother, “of ourselves”?

For instance, son, it is thy sire Osiris who is [the ruler] of the souls of them born after us up to this time 2; whereas the prince of every race [is ruler] of their bodies; [the king] of counsel is the father and the guide of all, Thrice-greatest Hermes; of medicine Asclepius, Hephæstus’ son; of power and might again Osiris, and after him thyself, my son; and of philosophy Arnebeschēnis; of poetry again Asclepius-Imuth.

13. For generally, my son, thou’lt find, if thou inquirest, that there are many ruling many things and many holding sway o’er many. And he who rules them all, my son, is from the highest space; while he who rules some part of them, doth have the rank of that particular realm from which he is.

Those who come from the regal zone, [have] a more ruling [part to play; those from the zone

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of fire 1] become fire-workers and fire-tenders; those from the watery one live out their life in waters; those from the [zone] of science and of art are occupied with arts and sciences; those from the [zone] of inactivity inactively and heedlessly live out their lives.

For that the sources of all things wrought on the earth by word or deed, are up above, and they dispense for us their essences by weight and measure; and there is naught which hath not come down from above, and will return again to re-descend.

14. What dost thou mean again by this, my mother? Tell me!

And Isis once again did make reply: Most holy Nature hath set in living creatures the clear sign of this return. For that this breath which we breathe from above out of the air, we send out up again, to take it in [once more].

And we have in us organs, son, to do this work, and when they close their mouths whereby the breath’s received, then we no longer are as now we are, but we depart.

Moreover, son of high renown, there are some other things which we have added to us outside the weighed-out mixture [of the body].

15. What, then (said Horus), is this mixture, mother?

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It is a union and a blend of the four elements; and from this blend and union a certain vapour 1 rises, which is enveloped by the soul, but circulates within the body, sharing with each, with body and with soul, its nature. And thus the differences of changes are effected both in soul and body.

For if there be in the corporeal make-up more of fire, thereon the soul, which is by nature hot, taking unto itself another thing that’s hot, and [so] being made more fiery, makes the life more energetic and more passionate, and the body quick and active.

If [there be] more of air, thereon the life becomes both light and springy and unsteady both in the soul and body.

And if there’s more of water, then the creature also doth become of supple soul and easy disposition, and ready of embrace, and able easily to meet and join with others, through water’s power of union and communion with the rest of things; for that it finds a place in all, and when it is abundant, doth dissolve what it surrounds, while if [there’s] little [of it], it sinks into and doth become what it is mingled with. As for their bodies, by dampness and by sponginess they are not made compact, but by a slight attack of sickness are dissolved, and fall away by

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little and by little from the bond which holds them severally together.

And if the earthy [element] is in excess, the creature’s soul is dull, for it has not its body-texture loosely knit, or space for it to leap through, the organs of sensation being dense; but by itself it stays within, bound down by weight and density. As for its body, it is firm, but heavy and inert, and only moved of choice by [exercise of] strength.

But if there is a balanced state of all [the elements], then is the animal made hot for doing, light for moving, well-mixed for contact, and excellent for holding things together. 1

16. Accordingly those which have more in them of fire and air, these are made into birds, and have their state above hard by those elements from which they came.

While those which have more fire, less air, and earth and water equal, these are made into men, and for the creature the excess of heat is turned into sagacity; for that the mind in us is a hot thing which knows not how to burn, but has intelligence to penetrate all things.

And those which have in them more water and more earth, but moderate air and little fire,

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these are turned into quadrupeds, and those which have more heat are stronger than the rest. Those which have equal earth and water, are made into reptiles. These through their lack of fire lack courage and straightforwardness; while through their having water in them they are cold; and through their having earth they heavy are and torpid; yet through their having air, they can move easily if they should choose to do so.

Those which have in them more of wet, and less of dry, these are made into fish. These through their lack of heat and air are timorous and try to hide themselves, and through excess of wet and earthy elements, they find their home, through their affinity, in fluid earth and water.

17. It is according to the share [they have] in every element and to the compass of that share, that bodies reach full growth [in man]; according to the smallness of their share the other animals have been proportioned—according to the energy which is in every element. 1

Moreover, O my well-beloved, I say, that when, out of this state [of things], the blend based on the first commixture [of the elements in any case], and the resultant vapour 2 from it,

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so far preserve their own peculiarity, that neither the hot part takes on another heat, nor [does] the aery [take] another air, nor [does] the watery part another wetness, nor [yet] the earthy [take] another density, then doth the animal remain in health.

18. But if they do not, son, remain in the proportions which they had from the beginning, but are too much increased—(I do not mean in energy according to their compass or in the change of sex and body brought about by growth, but in the blend, as we have said before, of the component elements, so that the hot, for instance, is increased too much or too much lessened, and so for all the rest)—then will the animal be sick.

19. And if this [increase] doth take place in both the elements of heat and air, the soul’s tent-fellows, then doth the creature fall into symbolic dreams and ecstasies; for that a concentration of the elements whereby the bodies are dissolved has taken place. For ’tis the earthy element itself which is the condensation of the body; the watery element in it as well is a fluidity to make it dense. Whereas the aery element is that in us which has the power of motion, and fire is that which makes an end of all of them.

20. Just then as is the vapour 1 which ariseth

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from the first conjunction and co-blending of the elements, as though it were a kindling or an exhalation,—whatever it may be, it mingles with the soul and draws it to itself, so that it shares its nature good or bad. And if the soul remains in its original relationship and common life with it, it keeps its rank.

But when there’s added from without some larger share than what was first laid down for it,—either to the whole mixture, or to its parts, or to one part of it,—then the resulting change effected in the vapour doth bring about a change or in the disposition of the soul or of the body.

The fire and air, as tending upward, hasten upward to the soul, which dwells in the same regions as themselves; the watery and the earthy elements, as tending down, sink down upon the body, which doth possess the self-same seat.

*     *     *     *     *


188:1 I have numbered the paragraphs for convenience of reference.

188:2 μύστης. The mystēs, speaking generally, was initiated by word of mouth, the epoptēs by sight or vision.

188:3 θεωρία.

189:1 Reading ἐπιχεῖν for ἐπέχειν.

189:2 The construction of the whole of the above paragraph is exceedingly involved.

191:1 τις τῶν τυφωνίων—an interesting phrase as showing that Typhon was regarded as the enemy of Osiris (the Logos or Reason).

192:1 Cf. the beginning of the Apocalypse of Thespesius (Aridæus) in Plutarch, De Sera Num. Vind., xxii.

193:1 For a consideration of this ordering, see p. 168 ff. above.

194:1 This appears to be a heading inserted by Stobæus (Phys., xli. 64) or some scribe; there seems to be no break in the text.

195:1 The text is exceedingly imperfect, and in its present state quite untranslatable.

196:1 The text is again very imperfect.

198:1 The text is here very corrupt, and the reading of the last words of the two following sentences very doubtful.

198:2 That is presumably since the time when Osiris and Isis lived on earth among men.

199:1 The text is exceedingly defective.

200:1 Cf. 17 and 20 below.

201:1 The text is faulty, the language artificial, the analogy strained, and the sense accordingly obscure. Meineke reads: γενναῖον δὲ εἰς θήξιν.

202:1 The text is utterly corrupt and has not yet been even plausibly emended.

202:2 Cf. 15 and 20.

203:1 Cf. 15 and 17.

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