Tractate 13, Corpus Hermeticum

Some Notes On Translating Tractate XIII

An extract from the Introduction to my forthcoming translation of and commentary on tractate XIII
of the Corpus Hermeticum.

As with many of the tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Greek text of tractate XIII provides an interesting insight into ancient Hellenic paganism and mysticism. It also – as with most of those tractates – presents the translator with certain problems, sometimes related to textual corruption, sometimes grammatical (should ῥοίζῳ, for example, in v. 9  of XIII be related to νικηθεῖσαι or to ἐξέπτησαν) and many of which problems concern the variety of meanings which can be assigned to certain words, as for instance in the important matter of νοῦς which is invariably translated as either “intellect” or as “mind”, neither of which is satisfactory especially given what both of those English words now often denote almost two thousand years after those Greek tractates were written.

My own choice in this tractate in respect of νοῦς – as in my translations of other Hermetic tractates – is perceiveration/perceiverance, which, even though such English words hint at what I believe νοῦς meant and implied esoterically and philosophically in Hellenistic times, are not entirely satisfactory. The only reasonable alternative seems to be a transliteration, as I do in this tractate – and have done in other tractates – in respect of λόγος, θεός and several other Greek words.

However, given that the goal of the translator is to provide for the general reader an intelligible interpretation of the text, to utilize transliterations for every problematic word would fail to accomplish that goal. Which is why the translator has to use their judgement and why every translation is ‘an interpretation of meaning’.

Such problematic words occur not only in the title of tractate XIII but also from the very first line of the text. In respect of the title – Ερμού του τρισμεγίστου προς τον υιόν Τάτ εν όρει λόγος απόκρυφος περί παλιγγενεσίας και σιγής επαγγελία – there is the question of translating (i) Τάτ, (ii) λόγος απόκρυφος, (iii) παλιγγενεσία, and (iv) ἐπαγγελία. In respect of the first line there is the question, at the very beginning, of Ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς, and what ὦ πάτερ – and the related ὦ τέκνον – might imply.

All of which questions – and the many subsequent ones together with the Cantio Arcana (The Esoteric Song) of sections 17 and 18 – make tractate XIII most interesting in regard to ancient Hellenic paganism and mysticism.


Title

A conventional translation of the title (by GRS Mead) is: “Concerning Rebirth and the Promise of Silence Of Thrice-greatest Hermes unto Tat his Son.”

My translation, however, is:

“On A Mountain: Hermes Trismegistus To His Son Thoth, An Esoteric Discourse Concerning Palingenesis And The Requirement of Silence.”

Which translation requires some explanation:

Thoth. As in other tractates I translate Τάτ by Thoth, avoiding the conventional Tat which, in English, has a colloquial meaning inappropriate here.

Esoteric Discourse. λόγος απόκρυφος. While ‘esoteric’ is an apt translation in regard to απόκρυφος, ‘discourse’ is not entirely satisfactory in respect of λόγος since it could be here interpreted to mean ‘disclosure’ or ‘explanation’. However, given what follows in section 1 – πυθομένου τὸν τῆς παλιγγενεσίας λόγον μαθεῖν…παραδιδόναι μοι – ‘discourse’ does seem appropriate.

Palingenesis. Rather than ascribe a particular meaning to παλιγγενεσία – such as ‘rebirth’ or ‘regeneration’ – I have chosen the English word palingenesis (from the Latin palingenesia) with that word explained by what follows in this particular discourse, qv. sections 12 and 13.

Requirement. The sense of ἐπαγγελία here, given what is discussed in this tractate, is ‘requirement’ rather than the strident ‘command’ or what is implied by the rather vague word ‘promise’.


The First Line

The first part of the first line of XIII is: Ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς͵ ὦ πάτερ͵ αἰνιγματωδῶς καὶ οὐ τηλαυγῶς ἔφρασας περὶ θειότητος διαλεγόμενος.

Conventionally: “In the General Sermons, father, thou didst speak in riddles most unclear, conversing on Divinity.”

My translation is:

When, father, you in the Exoterica conversed about divinity your language was enigmatic and obscure.

Which translation, as with title, requires some explanation:

Father. The Greek ὦ πάτερ – literally ‘my father’ – is a polite form of address, akin to the English ‘sir’. Similarly, ὦ τέκνον – ‘my son’ – is a polite reply. Given the esoteric nature of the text, a possible interpretation here of ὦ πάτερ would be ‘Master’, and of ὦ τέκνον ‘my pupil’.

in the Exoterica. Ἐν τοῖς γενικοῖς. Since the term γενικῶν λόγων occurs in tractate X it is reasonable to assume that γενικός here refers to the same thing although the meaning of the term is moot given that no details are provided in this tractate nor in tractate X, nor in Stobaeus  – Excerpts, III, 1 and VI, 1 – where the term also occurs. While most translators have assumed that it refers to ‘generic’ things or ‘generalities’ and thus (by adding λόγοι) have opted for an expression such as ‘General Sermons’, and given that a transliteration – such as genikois or genikoi – is awkward, I have in respect of the γενικοὶ opted for exoterica (from the Latin via the Greek τὰ ἐξωτερικά) with the meaning of “exoteric treatises designed for or suitable to the generality of disciples or students,” with the plausible suggestion thus being that there are exoteric Hermetic treatises and esoteric Hermetic treatises, with Reitzenstein describing these other treatises as διεξοδικοί λόγοι (R.A. Reitzenstein. Poimandres. Teubner, Leipzig. 1904. p.118) a distinction he also mentioned in his later work Die Hellenistischen Mysterien Religionen. One such esoteric treatise is tractate XIII.

The Esoteric Song

This much translated part of XIII has, in my opinion, been somewhat misunderstood given, for example, that θεὸς has invariably been translated by ‘God’ – implying as that word now so often does the God of Christianity – and φῶς (as in translations of the New Testament) translated by ‘light’, with ἀλήθεια as some kind of abstract ‘truth’, and with ὕμνος as ‘hymn’ suggestive as that English word now so often is of the hymns of Christian worship.

Conventionally, the first few verses are translated along the following lines:

“Let every nature of the World receive the utterance of my hymn!
Open thou Earth! Let every bolt of the Abyss be drawn for me. Stir not, ye Trees!
I am about to hymn creation’s Lord, both All and One.
Ye Heavens open, and ye Winds stay still; and let God’s deathless Sphere receive my word.”

My translation [1] is as follows:

Let every Physis of Kosmos favourably listen to this song.
Gaia: be open, so that every defence against the Abyss is opened for me;
Trees: do not incurvate;
For I now will sing for the Master Artisan,
For All That Exists, and for The One.
Open: you Celestial Ones; and you, The Winds, be calm.
Let the deathless clan of theos accept this, my logos.

Which, for me at least, evokes – as tractate XIII does in its entirety – something redolent of paganism rather than of Christianity.

David Myatt
2017

[1] https://davidmyatt.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/cantio-arcana-complete/


Image credit: The beginning of tractate XIII from the book Mercvrii Trismegisti Pœmandres, published in Paris in 1554


Tyndale-Gospel_of_John

Extract from the ἐπίλογος of my forthcoming translation of the Gospel Of John.

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ΕΠΙΛΟΓΟΣ
A Question Of Interpretation

Vernacular translations are, by the nature of translation, interpretations, with the history of vernacular translations of the Bible – and especially of the Gospels – revealing how such interpretations could be used to support schisms; for example, in the case of Wycliffe’s English, the Lollards, and in the case of Luther’s German, the Protestant reformation. In addition, some translations enriched the vernacular language itself, as for example, the translations of Tyndale and the King James Bible did in respect of English.

My own interpretation of the Gospel of John is not intended to be schismatic but rather to be unfamiliar, with such unfamiliarity hopefully betaking some readers to the unfamiliar milieu of an ancient Judaea governed as it was by Rome and abode as it was of those Judaeans who believed in a Messias/Messiah, with it being written in the first chapter of the Gospel of John that in, reference to Jesus, Andrew – the brother of Simon Peter – announced: εὑρήκαμεν τὸν Μεσσίαν (we have found the Messias).

My interpretation is intended to be unfamiliar for several reasons. Firstly, because the Gospels were written in Hellenistic (Koine, κοινὴ) Greek, with the author of the Gospel of John by including colloquial Greek sayings and offering explanations for some particular terms [1] indicating that his intended or actual audience – those reading or hearing his Gospel in late first century and early second century CE – were most probably native speakers of Hellenistic Greek or at least quite familiar with that language.

Intended to be unfamiliar secondly because the standard English versions of the Gospel of John – and English versions of the other Gospels – have become so familiar to so many people in the West over so many centuries that certain words and terms have acquired particular meanings, with those meanings and certain passages – via iconography, exegesis, and preaching – assuming archetypal status. Hence, and to provide just some examples, our assumptions about God (theos), about ‘angels’ (τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ), about Heaven (οὐρανός), about sin (ἁμαρτία) and about ‘the Holy Spirit’ (τὸ πνεῦμα).

An interpretation intended to be unfamiliar, thirdly, because the Gospels were written at a time when Christianity was, in the lands of the Roman Empire, one small religious sect among many others and had yet to develope a standardized doctrinal theology or a centralized ecclesiastical authority, with the Gospel of John not providing any theological explanation of what is meant by theos, by τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ, by οὐρανός, by ἁμαρτία, by τὸ πνεῦμα, and by many other terms. Thus, there is a natural tendency for us to project medieval, Renaissance, and modern meanings onto such terms with the inevitable consequence of us assuming that we understand the message of the Evangelist and thus comprehend at least something of Christianity itself.

In contrast, what are we to make of such translated passages as the following:

I beheld the Spiritus as a dove descend from Empyrean and remain there with him. (1.32)

It was He who sent me to baptize in water, saying to me: ‘Upon whosoever you behold the Spiritus descend and remain there with, is the same one who baptizes in Halig Spiritus.’ (1.33)

Having spoken to you of earthly things and you lack trust, how can you trust if I speak of things caelestien? (3.12)

And this is the condemnation: That the Phaos arrived in the world but mortals loved the darkness more than the Phaos, for their deeds were harmful. (3.19)

Are we betaken to an unfamiliar milieu where, having read or listened to the evangel attributed to John from familiar translations, we believe we may know something about such things as Heaven (οὐρανός, Empyrean) and the Spirit (τὸ πνεῦμα, the Spiritus) but now may have some doubts about their meaning and doubts about how they may relate to the Light (φῶς, Phaos) and thus to a man named Jesus? Are such doubts relevant or perhaps even necessary given that the emphasis in the Gospel seems to be on individuals trusting in the person of Jesus after they had accepted that the narrated signs (σημεῖᾰ) – such as the Passion, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his Ascension – indicate that he may well be the only begotten Son of Theos so that, by trusting in him, we have the opportunity of life everlasting?

Such were some of the questions I pondered when a Christian monk, and my fallible interpretation of the Gospel of John, founded on some forty years of reflection and study, is my fallible attempt to find some answers.

David Myatt
2017

[1] Qv. my comments on 1.42 and 1.51.


Image credit: folio from the William Tyndale English translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1526 ce

Corpus Hermeticum XII

Corpus Hermeticum VI, XII
(pdf)

The pdf document above contains my translation of and commentary on tractates VI and XII of the Corpus Hermeticum.

David Myatt
17.v.17

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Related:

Corpus Hermeticum I, III, IV, VIII, XI
(pdf)


Image credit:
The beginning of Tractate XII from the book Mercvrii Trismegisti Pœmandres, published in Paris in 1554


Cicero On Summum Bonum

In De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum Marcus Tullius Cicero, in criticizing Epicurus and others, presents his view of Summum Bonum, a term normally translated as ‘the supreme good’. According to Cicero, honestum (honourable conduct) is the foundation of Summum Bonum which itself can be discerned by careful consideration (ratio) in conjunction with that knowing (scientia) of what is divine and what is mortal that has been described as wisdom (sapientia).

aequam igitur pronuntiabit sententiam ratio adhibita primum divinarum humanarumque rerum scientia, quae potest appellari rite sapientia, deinde adiunctis virtutibus, quas ratio rerum omnium dominas, tu voluptatum satellites et ministras esse voluisti. (II, 37)

He then writes that honestum does not depend on any personal benefit (omni utilitate) that may result or be expected but instead can be discerned by means of consensus among the whole community in combination with the example afforded by the honourable actions and motives of the finest of individuals.

Honestum igitur id intellegimus, quod tale est, ut detracta omni utilitate sine ullis praemiis fructibusve per se ipsum possit iure laudari. quod quale sit, non tam definitione, qua sum usus, intellegi potest, quamquam aliquantum potest, quam communi omnium iudicio et optimi cuiusque studiis atque factis, qui permulta ob eam unam causam faciunt, quia decet, quia rectum, quia honestum est, etsi nullum consecuturum emolumentum vident. (II, 45f)

In effect, Summum Bonum – what the Greeks termed τὸ ἀγαθὸν – depends on certain personal qualities such as a careful consideration of a matter; on a personal knowing of what is divine and what is mortal; on the example of personal noble deeds and motives, and on a communal consensus.

There is therefore nothing morally abstract or dogmatic about Cicero’s understanding of Summum Bonum which so well expresses, as does Seneca [1], the Greco-Roman view, with a perhaps more apt translation of the term Summum Bonum thus being “the highest nobility”.

David Myatt
2017

An extract from the Introduction to my forthcoming translation of and commentary on the sixth tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, entitled as that tractate is ῞Οτι ἐν μόνῳ θεῷ τὸ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν ἀλλαχόθι δὲ οὐδαμοῦ: That In The Theos Alone Is Nobility And Not Anywhere Else.

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[1] “summum bonum est quod honestum est; et quod magis admireris: unum bonum est, quod honestum est, cetera falsa et adulterina bona sunt”.  Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, LXXI, 4


Image credit:
The beginning of Tractate VI from the book Mercvrii Trismegisti Pœmandres, published in Paris in 1554


 

 

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Corpus Hermeticum – Tractate VIII
A Translation And Commentary

 

Corpus Hermeticum VIII
(pdf)

 

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From the Introduction:

The eighth tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, concise as it is, provides an interesting summary of some of the tenets of the Hermetic weltanschauung. As, for example, in the mention of a first being (the primary theos) and of a second being (a theos) who is an eikon (εἰκὼν) of the first, and which first being – theos – is the artisan of all beings; and as, for example, in the mention of mortals having a natural empathy (συμπάθεια) with this eikon, this second being, who is identified as κόσμος, with κόσμος understood here, as in tractate XI, either as a personification, as a divinity, the theos – a deathless living being, ζῷον ἀθάνατον – who is the living cosmic order, or, as in the Poemandres tractate as simply referring in an impersonal manner to ‘the cosmic order’ itself.

While most other translators have opted here, as in other tractates, to translate κόσμος as cosmos (which English term suggests that the physical universe is meant) I incline toward the view that here – as in tractate XI – a divinity is meant, especially given how κόσμος is described: as “a second theos and a deathless living being,” and as an eikon of the primary theos.

There are certain parallels with tractate XI and in which tractate it is stated that “Kosmos is the eikon of theos, Kosmos that of Aion, the Sun that of Aion, and mortals that of the Sun. It is said that changement is death since the body disintegrates with life departing to the unperceptible,” (section 15) and, in section 14, that “Life is the enosis of perceiverance and psyche, while death is not the loss of what was joined but the end of enosis.”

What therefore emerges from this, the eighth, tractate are two things: how we mortals are part of, and connected to, Kosmos and thence – since Kosmos is an eikon – to the first, the primary, theos, and how diverse the Hermetic weltanschauung is in respect of some details while nevertheless retaining an underlying ethos.

The references in the commentary to other tractates are to my translations of and commentary on tractates I (Poemandres), III (An Esoteric Mythos), IV (Chaldron Or Monas) and XI (From Perceiverance To Hermes), available in one volume [1]. As with those tractates I have, through transliterations and choice of English words, endeavoured to present something of the metaphysical nature of the tractate, although this particular tractate, concise as it is, is in places rather esoterically obscure, an obscurity that a study of the aforementioned tractates may somewhat alleviate, although it is interesting to speculate whether or not, in the decades following the composition of this tractate, such esoteric matters were explained by means of an aural tradition, individual mystic to aspiring individual mystic.

[1] Corpus Hermeticum I, III, IV, XI. 2017. ISBN 9781544269474


Image credit:
The beginning of Tractate VIII
from the book Mercvrii Trismegisti Pœmandres, published in Paris in 1554.

hermetica7

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The link below is to a pdf version of my now completed translation of and commentary on tractate XI of the Corpus Hermeticum, which tractate is entitled Νοῦς πρὸς Ἑρμῆν: From Perceiverance To Hermes.

 Νοῦς πρὸς Ἑρμῆν: From Perceiverance To Hermes
(pdf)

Image credit:
The beginning of Tractate XI
from the book Mercvrii Trismegisti Pœmandres, published in Paris in 1554.

WWI British cemetery at Abbeville

There is such a failure of understanding, at least by me [1]. Such a failure because there seems no end to such human-made suffering – such killing, human upon human, such human-made emotionally-induced violence, such destruction – that we men in our majority cause and have caused, world-wide, year following year, decade following decade, century upon century, millennia after millennia.

For millennia, any and every cause – any ideology, any faith, any belief, any personal emotion,  personal loyalty, a chain-of-command – has hallowed our violence, our hatred, our killing. Every century we seem to invent some new excuse – or regurgitate some old excuse – for our unempathic behaviour.

Yet compassion, hope of peace, personal and familial love – those now so familiar muliebral virtues – endure and continue to enchant at least some of us. So much so that many men continue to believe in God, in Allah, or in some inscrutable mechanism such as karma. Are we men then the phenotype of Janus?

Perhaps we are. But can our human culture of pathei-mathos perhaps change, redeem, us? Yet again I do not know, and can only once again hope even given that:

I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

So I am returned to whence and where I was, the only fallible personal certainty now being personal and familial love.

David Myatt
2016


An extract from an e-mail to a friend, inspired by Gymnopédie No. 1 (Erik Satie) played by Lavinia Meijer,
with a footnote added, and some emendations made, post scriptum

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[1] εἶτα τὸν τὰ χαλεπὰ γνῶναι δυνάμενον καὶ μὴ ῥᾴδια ἀνθρώπῳ γιγνώσκειν τοῦτον σοφόν. “Yet the wise person is the one able to understand such complex matters as seem incomprehensible to other human beings.”

Thus it follows – quod erat demonstrandum – that I am still far, so very far, from being wise.


Image credit: British cemetery at Abbeville, World War One