A fragment from Asclepius III, one of the 17-20 distinct documents said to comprise the Hermetica which are defined, by the editor and translator Walter Scott, as those Greek and Latin writings which contain religious or philosophical teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus.
This fragment was published in the book “Hermetica”, edited and translated by Walter Scott in 1924; reprinted by Shambhala Publications, 1993. Scott was a classical scholar who studied the Hermetica through much of his lifetime. Scott’s translations provide material which is not included in the “Corpus Hermeticum”. The Corpus Hermeticum comprises a collection which was translated into Latin during the 14th century as a single body of work. Scott translated this material along with what he considered to be the best of other documents, ignoring material which he considered to be rubbish – namely, the alchemical material, which comprises a large body of additional material. Ah, the hubris of classics professors!
Scott extensively discusses the historical origins of the documents and provides a fascinating account of the likely historical survival route of the documents he translated. Scott traces the survival of the Hermetica to pagan circles in Syria and Mesopotamia who never had to endure the Imperial Christian Fascist suppressions of the Romans, and who escaped Muslim persecution for a few hundred years by the artful device of becoming or inventing themselves as Sabians, a religious group named in the book of the Koran (hence deserving of respect by Muslims as “people of the book”). Eventually their documents ended up in Constantinople from whence it surfaced in Venice at the beginning of the Renaissance, no doubt driven out by the sack of Constantinople at the hands of christian Nordic brigands in the 13th century and by successive conquests and plundering of Turkey thereafter.
Scott presents his composite of how the classical teachers and scholars of antiquity (circa the first two centuries of Imperial Rome) would have described Hermes:
“Hermes was a man like you and me – a man who lived in Egypt a very long time ago, in the time of King Ammon. But he was a man who attained to gnosis (that is to say, knowledge of God, but a kind of knowledge that involves union with God; and he was the first and greatest teacher of gnosis. He died, as other men die, and after death he became a god – just as you and I also, if we attain to gnosis, will become gods after our deaths. But in the dialogues which I and others like me write, and in which we make Hermes speak as teacher, we represent him as talking to his pupils at the time when he was living on earth; and at that time he was a man.”
– p. 6
From Scott’s review, it would seem that the Hermetic tradition is expressed well by Flussas (Francois Foix de Candalle) in the 15th century. Among the Hermetics, Hermes has always been said to have the revealed knowledge of God prior to Jesus, prior to Moses and all of the Hebrew prophets, hence to have been even closer in some sense to the divine revelation of God, and definitely much more knowledgeable than the Hebrews. “The classical scholars inferred that Pythagoras and Plato got their wisdom from the priests of Egypt, and the priest of Egypt got it from their sacred books, which were the books of Thoth….which were secretly held, not available to outsiders.” -p. 4
With this high esteem for this body of thought, it should not surprise us, accordingly, to find hermetic philosophical influences in the christian literature which was consolidated by the Latin scholars of Imperial Rome and established by them as the “new testament” corpus for presenting the new imperial religious dogmas. Indeed, the harmony of certain aspects of the hermetic doctrine with christianity induced the early Renaissance christians to translate the hermetic material which apparently migrated into Venice during the 14th century.
Scott has difficulty attributing the source to the Egyptians, thus he considers that the documents which he has translated to date from about 300 AD. He calls them Greek, but does recognize the uniquely Egyptian doctrines which form the structural basis of the lessons:
“God is self-generated; that God is hidden; that God is nameless; and yet innumerably-named; that God is bisexual; that God is life and the source or author of all life, etc…” -p. 4
Scott chooses to see this as a small Egyptian content, but in this way, Scott falls to the same error of euro-centric provincialism which was endemic to his contemporaries and is still practiced to an amazing extent by late 20th century academics. This small Egyptian content (which had been around for at least 2500 years before the Greeks began to write their literature) provides a major portion of the structural basis of the Hermetic doctrine, the essence of the principles from which all of the teachings, as the necessary logical implications, must follow. Every discussion of specific examples by Hermes in the various documents makes reference to Egyptian things, or to things PRIOR to Egypt. Every document of the Hermetica is drenched with references to life along the Nile. It would be better to recognize the STYLE of the Hermetica as essentially Greek, the teachings as essentially Egyptian.
Scott reports honestly that the classical scholars and the early Renaissance scholars attributed the Platonism of the Hermetica to the Hermetica, in other worlds, that Plato got his philosophy from the Hermetica. But Scott attempts to argue the opposite, seeing the Hermetica as a pagan religious doctrine based on the philosophical outlook of the Greeks as expressed by Plato.
I would rather take the lead of Flinders Petrie, a well noted archeologist and founding father of egyptology, who dated the Hermetica to the era 500-200 BC, considering them to be essentially Greek translations of Egyptian philosophical compositions. To summarize the entire story, it is likely that the Hermetica is a tiny surviving portion of the flood of knowledge created by the Hellenics as they vigorously copied all things Egyptian into the Greek language. They were able to do so, apparently freely, after the collapse of the Pharaonic state and the conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians and the Persians. The Greeks at this time no doubt provided safe-havens for Egyptians, especially for Egyptian materials on the lam from Mesopotamian “conquistadores”, who showed about as much respect for Egypt’s past as the Spanish demonstrated for the Aztecs and Mayans. During the pan-Hellenic era after Alexander’s conquest, Egypt’s Greek rulers restored the Egyptian past in many vital ways, including elaborate restoration and maintenance of the temple system. Under their care, the center of Greek Hermetic activity was no doubt in Alexandria, from whence it spread in many directions throughout the Mediterranean world. But apparently the only material which survived the dark ages of the Imperial Christian Fascism of Rome was outside the empire, in Mesopotamia, or in Syria, where the Romans feared to upset the populace with an Imperial Christian Fascist Inquisition.
From there it may have migrated to Constantinople. It was eventually brought to Venice, quite possibly along with the Jewish refugees who imported the ceramic, metal, and glass arts from Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon which became the material basis of the early Renaissance in Northern Italy. The rest is Western publishing history, or in the silent traditions and activities of the secret societies.
Asclepius III – A Fragment
Scott translated ASCLEPIUS from Latin documents by Apuleius. The Greek original has been lost. Acclepius III, in which is found the Hermetic prophecy, is an exposition on the nature of cosmology and hence, on the nature of God, time, the cycles of life, the nature of the world, destiny, etc. A prophecy of Egypt emerges, given mainly as an example through which to express certain philosophical percepts. What follows now is a small fragment from Asclepius III which contains the prophecy:
Do you not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven, or, to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to earth below?
Nay, it should rather be said that the whole Kosmos dwells in this our land as in its sanctuary. And yet, since it is fitting that wise men should have knowledge of all events before they come to pass, you must not be left in ignorance of this: there will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians honoured the deity with heartfelt piety and assiduous service; and all our holy worship will be found bootless and ineffectual. For the gods will return from earth to heaven; Egypt will be forsaken, and the land which was once the home of religion will be left desolate, bereft of the presence of its deities.
This land and region will be filled with foreigners; not only will men neglect the service of the gods, but … ; and Egypt will be occupied by Scythians or Indians or by some such race from the barbarian countries thereabout. In that day will our most holy land, this land of shrines and temples, be filled with funerals and corpses. To thee, most holy Nile, I cry, to thee I foretell that which shall be; swollen with torrents of blood, thou wilt rise to the level of thy banks, and thy sacred waves will be not only stained, but utterly fouled with gore.
Do you weep at this, Asclepius? There is worse to come; Egypt herself will have yet more to suffer; she will fall into a far more piteous plight, and will be infected with yet more, grievous plagues; and this land, which once was holy, a land which loved the gods, and wherein alone, in reward for her devotion, the gods deigned to sojourn upon earth, a land which was the teacher of mankind in holiness and piety, this land will go beyond all in cruel deeds. The dead will far outnumber the living; and the survivors will be known for Egyptians by their tongue alone, but in their actions they will seem to be men of another race.
0 Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only the stones will tell of thy piety. And in that day men will be weary of life, and they will cease to think the universe worthy of reverent wonder and of worship. And so religion, the greatest of all blessings, for there is nothing, nor has been, nor ever shall be, that can be deemed a greater boon, will be threatened with destruction; men will think it a burden, and will come to scorn it. They will no longer love this world around us, this incomparable work of God, this glorious structure which he has built, this sum of good made up of things of many diverse forms, this instrument whereby the will of God operates in that which be has made, ungrudgingly favouring man’s welfare, this combination and accumulation of all the manifold things that can call forth the veneration, praise, and love of the beholder.
Darkness will be preferred to light, and death will be thought more profitable than life; no one will raise his eyes to heaven ; the pious will be deemed insane, and the impious wise; the madman will be thought a brave man, and the wicked will be esteemed as good. As to the soul, and the belief that it is immortal by nature, or may hope to attain to immortality, as I have taught you, all this they will mock at, and will even persuade themselves that it is false., No word of reverence or piety, no utterance worthy of heaven and of the gods of heaven, will be heard or believed.
And so the gods will depart from mankind, a grievous thing!, and only evil angels will remain, who will mingle with men, and drive the poor wretches by main force into all manner of reckless crime, into wars, and robberies, and frauds, and all things hostile to the nature of the soul. Then will the earth no longer stand unshaken, and the sea will bear no ships; heaven will not support the stars in their orbits, nor will the stars pursue their constant course in heaven; all voices of the gods will of necessity be silenced and dumb; the fruits of the earth will rot; the soil will turn barren, and the very air will sicken in sullen stagnation. After this manner will old age come upon the world. Religion will be no more; all things will be disordered and awry; all good will disappear.
But when all this has befallen, Asclepius, then the Master and Father, God, the first before all, the maker of that god who first came into being, will look on that which has come to pass, and will stay the disorder by the counterworking of his will, which is the good. He will call back to the right path those who have gone astray; he will cleanse the world from evil, now washing it away with waterfloods, now burning it out with fiercest fire, or again expelling it by war and pestilence. And thus he will bring back his world to its former aspect, so that the Kosmos will once more be deemed worthy of worship and wondering reverence, and God, the maker and restorer of the mighty fabric, will be adored by the men of that day with unceasing hymns of praise and blessing. Such is the new birth of the Kosmos; it is a making again of all things good, a holy and awe-striking restoration of all nature; and it is wrought in the process of time by the eternal will of God. For Gods will has no beginning; it is ever the same, and as it now is, even so it has ever been, without beginning. For it is the very being of God to purpose good.
Note: The remainder is a philosophical treatise which is highly interesting. It sets forth in high literary form the ancient cosmology of the universe as an endless return of of cycles. Destiny, prophecy, and desire are all clearly related in this cosmic wheel of necessity.
Is will then, Trismegistus, summed up in purpose?
Will, Asclepius, issues from purpose; and from will issues each several acts of will. Not without effect does God will a thing, for he is fully supplied with all things; and all things that he wills are good. He has all things which he wills, and wills the things which he has; and all that he purposes and wills is good.
Such is God. The Kosmos is Gods image; and since God is good, the Kosmos also is good.
Do you say, Trismegistus, that the Kosmos is good?
Yes, Asclepius; and I will show you that it is so. God dispenses and distributes goods, namely, sense, soul, and life, to all kinds of beings in the Kosmos; and in like manner, the Kosmos gives and supplies all things which seem good to mortals, namely, the succession of births in time, the formation, growth, and ripening of the fruits of the earth, and the like. For you must deem the Kosmos a second god, Asclepius, a god who governs all living things, both those which have souls and those which are soulless. For if the Kosmos has been and is and will be a living and ever-living being, nothing in the Kosmos is mortal. It is the everlasting life of each of its several parts that makes the Kosmos what it is; and seeing that the Kosmos is ever one, and is a living and ever-living being, mortality can have no place in it. It must therefore be filled with life, and with eternal life, if it needs must live for ever.
It is God then that everlastingly governs all the sources of life in the Kosmos; he is the eternal dispenser of life itself. But when life has once been dispensed to all the (intracosmic) sources of life, the supply of it is maintained in accordance with eternal law; and the manner of its maintenance I will proceed to explain. The Kosmos moves within the very life of eternity and is contained in that very eternity whence all life issues, and for this reason it is impossible that it should at any time come to a stand, or be destroyed, since it is walled in and bound together, so to speak, by eternal life.
And the Kosmos is itself the dispenser of life to all things in it here below, and the place in which are contained all things which are subject to control beneath the sun. The movement is of the Kosmos itself consists of a twofold working; life is infused into the Kosmos from without by eternity; and the Kosmos infuses life into all things that are within it, distributing all things according to fixed and determined relations of number and time, by the operation of the sun and the movements of the stars. The process of time is wholly determined by Gods law ; but the lapse of terrestrial time is marked by the changing states of the atmosphere, and the variations of heat and cold; while that of celestial time is marked by the return of the heavenly bodies to their former positions as they move in their periodic revolutions.
The Kosmos is that in which time is contained; and it is by the progress and movement of time that life is maintained in the Kosmos. The process of time is regulated by a fixed order and time in its ordered course renews all things in the Kosmos by alternation. All things being subject to this process, there is nothing that stands fast, nothing fixed, nothing free from change, among the things which come into being, neither among those in heaven nor among those on earth.
God alone stands unmoved, and with good reason; for he is self-contained, and self-derived, and wholly self-centered, and in him is no deficiency or imperfection. He stands fast in virtue of his own immobility, nor can he be moved by any force impinging on him from without, seeing that in him are all things, and that it is he alone that is in all things; unless indeed one should presume to say that. he moves (not in time, but) in eternity.
But it should rather be said that eternity also is motionless; into eternity all movements of time go back; and from eternity all movements of time take their beginning. God then stands unmoved; and eternity likewise is ever changeless, containing in itself a Kosmos which is without beginning, even that Kosmos which we rightly call imperceptible to senses. This (sensible) Kosmos has been made in the image of that other Kosmos, and reproduces eternity in a copy. Now time, though it is ever in movement, possesses a faculty of stability peculiar to itself, in that its return into itself is determined by necessity. And accordingly, though eternity is stable, fixed, and motionless, yet since time is mobile, and its movement ever goes back into eternity, it results from this that eternity also, though motionless in itself, appears to be in motion, on account of its relation to time; for eternity enters into time, and it is in time that all movement takes place.
Hence it follows that on the one hand eternity, stable though it be, is also mobile, and on the other hand, time, mobile though it be, is rendered stable by the immutability of the law by which its movement is determined. And in this way it is possible to hold that God also moves within himself, though God, like eternity, is motionless; for the movement of God, being made stable by his greatness, is no movement, inasmuch as his greatness is necessarily motionless. The being, then, of which I speak, whether it is to be called God, or eternity, or both, and whether God is in eternity, or eternity in God, or each in the other,-this being, I say, is imperceptible by sense; it is infinite, incomprehensible, immeasurable it exceeds our powers, and is beyond our scrutiny. The place of it, the whither and the whence, the manner and quality of its being, are unknown to us. It moves in absolute stability, and its stability moves within it.
Eternity then is not limited by the conditions of time; and time, which admits of numerical limitations, is eternal in virtue of its cyclic recurrence. Thus time as well as eternity is infinite, and is thought to be eternal. But eternity is rightly held to rank above time, in virtue of its fixity; for it is firmly fixed, so as to be able, by its rigid immobility, to sustain those things which are in motion. God and eternity then are the first principles of all things which exist. The Kosmos does not hold the first and highest place, because it is mobile; for its mobility takes precedence of the immutability with which it, obeys the law of its everlasting movement, which is a secondary sort of eternity. It is this sort of eternity that enters into all the parts of which the Kosmos is composed. For the Kosmos, changeless in virtue of the unalterable law by which its motion is determined, revolves with an everlasting movement. That movement has had no beginning, and will have no end; it manifests itself and disappears by turns in the several parts of the Kosmos, and that in such fashion that again and again in the chequered course of time it manifests itself anew in those same parts in which it disappeared before. Such is the nature of circular movement; all points in the circle are so linked together, that you can find no place at which the movement can begin; for it is evident that all points in the line of movement both precede and follow one another for ever. And it is in this manner that time revolves.
The divine mind is wholly of like nature with eternity. It is motionless in itself, but though stable, is yet self-moving; it is holy, and incorruptible, and everlasting, and has all attributes yet higher, if higher there be, that can be assigned to the eternal life of the supreme God, that life which stands fast in absolute reality. It is wholly filled with all things imperceptible to sense, and with all-embracing knowledge; it is, so to speak, consubstantial with God.
The cosmic mind the recipient I of all sensible forms I and of all kinds of knowledge of sensible things.The (merely) human mind is . . ., and is dependent on the retentiveness of mans memory, that is, on his remembrance of all his past experiences. The divine mind I descends in the scale of being as far as man, but no farther; for the supreme God willed not that the divine mind should be interftised with all things, lest it should be put to shame by mingling with the lower animals.
The knowledge which corresponds to the character and extent of the human mind is based wholly on man’s memory of the past; it is the retentiveness of his memory that has given him dominion over the earth. The knowledge which corresponds to the nature and character of the cosmic mind is such as can be procured from all the sensible things in the KOSMOS. But the knowledge which corresponds to the character of the supreme Gods mind, this knowledge, and this alone, is truth; and of this truth not the faintest outline or shadow is discernible in the Kosmos. For where things are discerned at intervals of time, there is falsehood; and where things have an origin in time there errors arise.
Thought, however, differs from mind I in this respect, that our thought attains by mental effort I to the kind of knowledge which corresponds to the character of the cosmic mind; and having come to know cosmic things, it furthermore attains to a knowledge of eternity and the supracosmic gods. And thus it comes to pass that we men see, as through dark mist, the things of heaven, so far as this is compatible with the conditions of the human mind. Our powers, when we aspire to the sight of things so high, are limited by narrow bounds; but great is mans happiness when he has seen that vision. You see, Asclepius, how lowly is our station, and how lofty are the things of which we treat; but to thee, O God supreme, I give my thanks, that thou hast shed on me the light whereby I see…