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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 3

by G.R.S. Mead



The Sermon from which this Extract is taken plainly belonged to the same class of literature as the K. K. Excerpts. The writer is an initiate of a higher degree, imparting instruction to his pupil by word of mouth.

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He himself, however, professes to have “seen,” for he has been plunged in the Cup of Immortality, and his feet have crossed the Plain of Truth (3).

1. The subject is the excarnate state of souls (1-3). The instruction is given by an analogy and a similitude (4). Each soul seeks naturally its proper habitat in the unseen world.

5. The ordering of the spaces of the excarnate souls is then described. These spaces are all in the “great air,” the sublunary region, extending from the earth surface to the moon.

6. Of this great interval there are 4 main divisions and 60 spaces, the divisions consisting respectively of 4, 8, 16 and 32 sub-spaces. Above the second division from below there is no motion of the “air”; the “wind,” or “moving air” belt, belongs properly to this second division, but has also authority over the first or lowest division, which extends from the earth-surface to the tops of the highest mountains.

7. Besides these 4 divisions and 60 spaces, there is a further ordering into 12 “intervallic” divisions. 1

8. All is arranged by measure and harmony, and after death every soul goes to the space of its desert, ascending and descending according to an unerring law of Providence.

9. To carry out this economy there are two ministers of Providence, the warder and the conductor of souls. The one watches over souls who are out of body, and the other brings them back to suitable bodies. These bodies are made by nature in exact correspondence with their former deeds and characters; in this nature is aided by the energies of experience and memory (9-11).

12. The nature of the soul is conditioned by its habitat in the air-spaces or zones; and this is especially

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the case with those of the regal type. The names of some of these royal souls and their offices are given.

13. In brief all is ordered from above; the source of all is above in the soul-spaces, and as all souls come thence, so will all return thither.

14. How this is effected is explained as being conditioned by a certain link between soul and body, a sort of quintessence, or exhalation, or vapour, of the blend of sub-elements which compose the body (14-20). 1 It is a sort of etheric link between soul and body; it circulates in the body, but also shares with the soul, which is not thought of as being in the body, but as a sphere enveloping the body; or at any rate the body is in the soul, and not the soul in the body. Health is said to depend upon the maintenance of the due proportion of the “vapours” 2 of this “etheric double” (18).

Not only so, but the increase of vitality or intensity in these elements in the “vapour,” is the means of remembering symbolic dreams and passing into a state of ecstasy; finally it is the fiery element of this “vapour” which dissolves this “spirituous body” (19).

It is by means of this link that changes are effected from soul to body, and from body to soul (20); and here, unfortunately, Stobæus ends his excerpt.


The “Sermon of Isis to Horus” extract is, in both style and context, so similar to the K. K. excerpts that we might almost take it to be part and parcel of the very same treatise; but if this had been the case, Stobæus, following his custom, would have presumably headed it with a simple “from the same.” He may,

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however, have made a mistake, for that the good Joannes sometimes nods, may be seen from the short Excerpt xxi., which he says is also taken from “The [Sermon] of Isis to Horus” 1; but this cannot be the case, since Isis is here addressing a certain king as her pupil, and not Horus.

Moreover, at the very beginning of our excerpt Horus distinctly states that Isis has already explained to him “the details of God’s wondrous soul-making,” and thanks her “for being made initiate by word of mouth into the vision of the soul,”—all of which is a precise reference to the contents of the K. K. excerpts. I am, therefore, inclined to think that not only is it a further tractate of instruction following immediately on K. K., but that even if it were supposed to be part and parcel of the same sermon, and that “The [Sermon] of Isis to Horus” was simply a sub-title or alternative title of the “Virgin of the World,” the hypothesis could not be easily set aside. 2

In any case it is quite certain that S. I. H. belongs to precisely the same type as K. K.; and that it pertains to the same special class of Trismegistic literature, and to a somewhat similar type as the treatise from which Cyril quotes Fragg. xix., xx., xxi., in which Osiris figures as the disciple of the Good Daimon, Trismegistus.


Here also, as in K. K., Isis comes forward as “initiated into the nature that transcendeth death,” her “feet

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have crossed the Plain of Truth” (3) that is as we have shown in the Comments on K. K., 10, the writer claims to have reached the degree of illumination which bestows on men the consciousness of the gods. “Isis,” then, is not “common to all priests,” as Jamblichus says of “Hermes,” without the honorific qualification “Thrice-greatest,” but rather of a certain grade of initiation; the teacher of that lower grade, or Horus-grade, being Hermes’ representative. Isis was commonly regarded as the Lady of all wisdom and teacher of all magic. Already in the earliest Hellenistic period she had attributes similar to those of Thoth-Hermes, and thus comes forward as the Orderer of the world 1; and not only so, but, like Thoth, she is called Lady of the heart and of the tongue; that is to say, her attributes were those of the Logos. 2

That there was a secret theosophic and apocalyptic literature ascribed to Isis and Horus may be seen from Lucian, who, in one of his humorous sketches, puts into the mouth of Pythagoras the following sentence:

“I also journeyed to Egypt that I might make the acquaintance of the prophets of wisdom, and I descended into the shrines of the temples and learned the Books of Isis and Horus.” 3

Here again, then, as Manetho tells us, these Books, as the Books of Hermes, were kept secret in the holy of holies of the Temples; and these shrines were evidently

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underground for Pythagoras is said to have “descended” to them.

This is the Horus who is not only, after Osiris, the lord of power and might, that is, king, but lord of philosophy, as Arnebeschēnis (12). For Arnebeschēnis, that is Har-nebeschenis, is, as Spiegelberg has shown, 1 an Egyptian proper name, meaning “Horus lord of Letopolis,” at one time an important city in the Delta. In the Alchemical literature also we meet with Horus as a writer of books, as for instance in the superscription “Horus the Gold-miner to Cronus who is Ammon.” 2

Here we see that Horus stands to Isis as Asclepius to Hermes; Asclepius wrote books to Ammon, and so Horus wrote books to Ammon; but whereas the Trismegistic tradition proper looked back to Cronus (Ammon) as one of its earliest teachers, the later writings converted Ammon into a king who was taught by Asclepius or by Horus.


The writer of S. I. H. tells us that the soul in its royal state, that is while lord of itself, is a divine creature, but in incarnation it is united with the watery plasm or subtle body, of K. K., 18, where Hermes says that in making it he “used more water than was required”; and to which the soul in its complaint (§ 21) refers as a “watery sphere.” This union makes it dense “against its proper nature” (3), and it is further densified by a certain “vaporous” nature which unites it with the physical frame (15, 17, 20); concerning all of which it is of interest to refer to Philoponus, who tells us that:

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“They [the ancients] further add, that there is something of a plantal and plastic life 1 also, exercised by the soul, in those spirituous and airy bodies after death; they being nourished too, though not after the same manner, as these gross earthly bodies of ours are here, but by vapours; and that not by parts or organs, but throughout the whole of them (as sponges), 2 they imbibing everywhere those vapours. For which cause, they who are wise will in this life also take care of using a thinner and dryer diet, that so that spirituous body (which we have also at this present time within our grosser body) may not be clogged and incrassated, but attenuated. Over and above which these ancients made use of catharms, or purgations, to the same end and purpose also: for as this earthly body is washed with water, so is that spirituous body cleansed by cathartic vapours; some of these vapours being nutritive, others purgative. Moreover, these ancients further declared concerning this spirituous body, that it was not organized, but did the whole of it, in every part throughout, exercise all functions of sense, the soul hearing and seeing, and perceivng all sensibles, by it everywhere.” 3


But to return to our treatise; the dwelling-place of excarnate souls is the Air, the sublunary region of four main layers, which are successively subtler and finer as they are more removed from the earth; the uppermost limit of the Air is coterminous with the fiery or ætheric realms (6), the habitat of the gods.

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In the different zones, or firmaments, or layers of this Air, dwell not only excarnate souls, during the period between their incarnations, but also those which have never yet been shut in body—that is, presumably, the daimones (8).

With regard to the manner in which souls are kept in their appropriate spaces after the death of the body, and the way in which they are brought back to appropriate bodies, and the two ministers of Providence (9), it is of value to note that in this we have a simple outline of what is explained at great length and in much detail in the Coptic Gnostic work called Pistis Sophia. It would, however, occupy too much space here to deal with the representations of the Egyptian Gnostic work on this subject in a satisfactory manner, and as the text is now accessible in English, it can easily be consulted by the reader. 1


205:1 See Comments on K. K., 10.

206:1 This bears a curious resemblance to the prāṇamaya kosha, or “vital sheath,” of the Vedāntins.

206:2 Vedāntic prāṇa’s, of which there are five.

207:1 Of which Schow gives the alternative heading: “From the Intercession (or Supplication) of Isis,” which Gaisford (in a note) thinks is from the Vienna Codex. This, however, is not the case, for the Vindobonensis preserves the usual reading except that the last word is missing. See R. 134, n. 3.

207:2 R. (p. 135, n. 3), however, thinks this impossible.

208:1 See Reitzenstein, Zwei religionsgesch. Fragen, 104 ff.

208:2 Plutarch, De Is. et Os., lxviii.: “They say that of the trees in Egypt the persea is especially dedicated to her, and that its fruit resembles a heart, and its leaf a tongue. For nothing that men have is more divine than the word (logos), and especially the [word] concerning the gods.” The fruit of the persea grew from the stem.

208:3 Gallus, 18.

209:1 Demotische Studien, i., “Ägyptische u. griechische Eigennamen,” p. 28 (cf. also p. 41); R. 135.

209:2 Berthelot, p. 103.

210:1 τῆς φυτικῆς ζωῆς,—that is, vegetative.

210:2 Endosmosis and exosmosis.

210:3 Philoponus, Proœm. in Aristot. de Anima, as given in Cudworth’s Intellectual System (ed. 1820), iii. 506 ff.; see my Orpheus, pp. 278, 279.

211:1 For Melchizedek, the “Receiver of light and Guide of souls,” see P. S., passim, and especially 35-37, 292, 327; for Zorokothora-Melchizedek and Ieou, see “The Books of the Saviour,” ibid., 365 ff.; and for Gabriel and Michael, ibid., 138.

Next: I. Justin Martyr