The Secret Teaching of Hermes

In a short dialogue, Hermes addresses his son Tati to summarize some ancient, and quite essential ideas. We learn that man is made up of separate envelopes, body, mind, soul, reason, intelligence. As he gradually emerges from these envelopes, man is called upon to « know » better and better. His final vocation is « apotheosis », a word that must be taken literally i.e. to go « above the gods ».


– The energy of God is in His will. And God wants the universe to be. As Father, as Good, He wants the existence of that which is not yet. This existence of beings, there is God, there is the Father, there is the Good, it is no other thing. The world, the sun, the stars participate in the existence of beings. But they are not, however, for the living the cause of their life, or the origin of the Good. Their action is the necessary effect of the will of the Good, without which nothing could exist or become.

[My comment: Hermes does not believe in the immanence of the divine in the world. The divine is absolutely transcendent, and only His Will, whose effect can be observed through the existence of His creation, bears witness to this transcendent remoteness.]


It must be recognized that the vision of the Good is above our strength. The eyes of our intelligence cannot yet contemplate its incorruptible and incomprehensible beauty. You will see it a little, perhaps, when you at least know that you can say nothing about it. For true knowledge is found in the silence and rest of every sensation. Whoever achieves it can no longer think of anything else, nor look at anything, nor hear anything, nor even move his body. There is no more sensation or movement for him.

[My comment: There are two kinds of spirits. Those who have « seen » the Good, but cannot say anything about it, and those who have not « seen » it, but who will perhaps one day see it, under certain conditions. Hermes belongs to the first group. He can only express himself by allusion. He cannot say anything about it, which is already a lot …].


– The splendor that inundates all his thought and his soul tears man from the bonds of the body and transforms him entirely into divine essence. The human soul reaches the apotheosis when he has contemplated this beauty of Good.

Tat :

– What do you mean by « apotheosis », Father?

[My comment: Tat’s question is not a lexicographical one. He is waiting for a full description of the phenomenon. The word « apotheosis » is not a neologism, a word invented by Hermes. The word was used, for example, previously by Strabo to describe the death of Diomedes, which he also describes as « apotheosis », but in a sense that seems to transcend the reality of his « death ». « Some authors add to the subject of Diomedes that here he had begun to dig a canal leading to the sea, but having been called back to his homeland he was surprised by death and left this and many other useful undertakings unfinished. This is a first version about his death; another makes him stay until the end and die in Daunie; a third, purely fabulous, and which I have already had occasion to recall, speaks of his mysterious disappearance in one of the islands that bear his name; finally, one can look at this claim of the Henetians to place in their country, if not death, at least the apotheosis of the hero, as a fourth version…. « (Strabo, Geogr. VI, 3,9)].


– Every unfulfilled soul, my son, is subject to successive changes. The blinded soul, knowing nothing of beings, neither their nature nor the Good, is enveloped in bodily passions. The unfortunate soul, unaware of herself, is enslaved to foreign and abject bodies. She carries the burden of the body. Instead of commanding, she obeys. This is the evil of the soul. On the contrary, the good of the soul is knowledge. He who knows is good, and already divine.

[My comment: The body is a veil whose envelope prevents access to knowledge. In the body, the soul is enslaved. Not only can she not ‘see’, but she cannot ‘know’. She can only know her slavery, her enslavement. Which is already a lot, because it is the beginning of her liberation].


– Beings have sensations because they cannot exist without them; but knowledge is very different from sensation. Sensation is an influence that one undergoes. Knowledge is the end of a search, and the desire to search is a divine gift. For all knowledge is incorporeal.

[My comment: The sensation is imposed from the outside. Knowledge is first and foremost a desire for knowledge. To know is first of all a desire to know. But where does this desire come from, if one has no knowledge of what one can desire? « The desire to seek is a divine gift ». But isn’t it unfair to those who are deprived of the grace of this desire? No, this desire is in everyone, in latent form. The desire to know only asks to be born. It only needs to be set in motion, and it grows stronger with every step].


– All knowledge is a form, which grasps the intelligence, just as the intelligence uses the body. Thus both use a body, either intellectual or material. Everything comes down to this combination of opposites, form and matter, and it cannot be otherwise.

[My comment: Form and matter can be considered, as Hermes does, as a « combination of opposites ». One could also say « alliance of opposites », to mean that their whole is more than the sum of their parts. There is also the idea that intellectual representations can be described as having a « body », which itself is endowed with a spirit and perhaps a soul. This leads us to imagine a whole ascending hierarchy, of souls and spirits, up to a supreme root, of all souls and spirits. Two thousand years after these ideas began to be formulated, the Jewish Kabbalah of the European Middle Ages took up exactly the same ideas ].


– What is this material God?


– The world is beautiful but it is not good, because it is material and passive. It is the first of the ‘passive’, but the second of the beings, and is not self-sufficient. It is born, though it is always, but it is in birth, and it becomes perpetual. Becoming is a change in quality and quantity – like any material movement.

[My comment: Here the influence of Gnosis is revealed. The world is beautiful, but it is not good. The assertions of Genesis are therefore contradicted head-on: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ (Cf. Gen. 1:4, Gen. 1:10, Gen. 1:12, Gen. 1:25). The first chapter of Genesis even concludes as follows: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen. 1:31). But this Gnosis can be interpreted. The world is not « good », admittedly, but it does not necessarily mean that it is « bad » either. If it is not « good » it is because it is always « becoming », it is always being « born ». Besides, one can argue that ‘Only God is good’, as Jesus said. This Gnosticism is therefore not incompatible with an interpretation of Creation as a living process, as an eschatological aim].


– The world is the first of the living. Man is second only to the world, and first among mortals. Not only is man not good, but he is evil, being mortal. Nor is the world not good, since it is mobile; but being immortal, it is not evil. Man, being both mobile and mortal, is evil. »

[My comment: Here, the vision of Gnosis becomes even more precise. The world is not evil, but Man is. The difference between the world and Man is that the world is always born, it is always alive and reborn, whereas Man is mortal. The only possibility, however, of escaping this fundamental evil is resurrection. If it is possible, then Man is also reborn, again, he escapes death, – and evil].


– It is necessary to understand how man’s soul is constituted: intelligence is in reason, reason in the soul, the soul in the mind, the mind in the body. The spirit, penetrating through veins, arteries and blood, moves the animal and carries it, so to speak. The soul infuses the spirit. Reason is at the bottom of the soul. And it is Intelligence that makes reason live.

[My comment: Man is a kind of metaphysical onion, containing deep down within him, in his inner core, a divine principle, – Intelligence, which is another name for Divine Wisdom.]


– God does not ignore man; on the contrary, He knows him and wants to be known by him. The only salvation of man is in the knowledge of God; this is the way of ascent to Olympus; only by this alone does the soul become good, not sometimes good, sometimes bad, but necessarily good.

[My comment: The ascent to Olympus is another metaphor for apotheosis].


“Contemplate, my son, the soul of the child; the separation is not yet complete; the body is small and has not yet received full development. It is beautiful to see the child, not yet sullied by the passions of the body, still almost attached to the soul of the world. But when the body has developed and holds her [the soul] in its mass, separation is accomplished, oblivion occurs in her, she ceases to participate in the beautiful and the good.”

[My comment: the loss of innocence of the soul begins from the first days of her apprenticeship in the body she has inherited. This loss of innocence can also be interpreted as the first steps in the long « ascent » that still awaits her].


« The same thing happens to those who come out of their body. The soul enters into herself, the spirit withdraws into the blood, the soul into the spirit. But the Intelligence, purified and freed from its envelopes, divine by nature, takes a body of fire and travels through space, abandoning the soul to its tribulations. »

[My comment: These words are a striking summary of the highest wisdom attained over tens of thousands of years by shamans, visionaries, prophets, poets, all over the world. They must be taken for what they are: a naked revelation, destined only to those souls predisposed, by their abysmal and primordial desire, to understand what it is all about].


– What do you mean, O Father? Does intelligence separate from the soul and the soul from the spirit, since you said that the soul is the envelope of intelligence and the spirit is the envelope of the soul?

[My comment: Tat listens to his father very well, and he remains faithful to logic itself. His question is a request for clarification. The difference between the spirit and the soul and the difference between the soul and the intelligence may need to be explained more clearly. But how to explain “intelligence” to those who cannot imagine the power of its infinite possibilities? Hermes knows this difficulty well. He will try another way of explanation].


– It is necessary, my son, that the listener follow the thought of the speaker and associate himself with it; the ear must be finer than the voice. This system of envelopes exists in the earthly body. The naked intelligence could not be established in a material body, and that body could not contain such immortality or carry such virtue. The intelligence takes the soul as its envelope; the soul, which is divine itself, is enveloped in spirit, and the spirit is poured into the animal. »

[My comment: The key expression here is « naked intelligence ». What is revealed in these words is that even intelligence, in its highest, most divine form, can still remain « veiled ». Nothing can be said about this here, for the moment. We are only alluding to the fact that the process of ascension, of apotheosis, is certainly not finished, but that it is itself susceptible to other, even more radical forms of spiritual nakedness, unclothing].


– When the intelligence leaves the earthly body, it immediately takes its tunic of fire, which it could not keep when it inhabited this earthly body; for the earth cannot withstand fire, of which a single spark would be enough to burn it. This is why water surrounds the earth and forms a rampart that protects it from the flame of fire. But intelligence, the most subtle of divine thoughts, has the most subtle of elements, fire, as its body. It takes it as an instrument of its creative action.

[My comment: One of the garments of intelligence, described here under the metaphor of the « tunic of fire », is a way of describing one of its essential attributes: creative ability. But there are certainly many others. Other metaphors, other « garments » would be needed to try to account for them].


– The universal intelligence uses all the elements, that of man only the earthly elements. Deprived of fire, it cannot build divine works, subject as it is to the conditions of humanity. Human souls, not all of them, but pious souls, are « demonic » and « divine ».

[My comment: The idea that the soul is « demonic » is an idea that Plato communicated to us through the speech of Diotima in the Symposium. There can be found also another fundamental idea, to which I have been attached all my life – the idea of metaxu].


– Once separated from the body, and after having sustained the struggle of piety, which consists in knowing God and harming no one, such a soul becomes all intelligence. But the unholy soul remains in its own essence and punishes herself by seeking to enter into an earthly body, a human body, for another body cannot receive a human soul, it cannot fall into the body of an animal without reason; a divine law preserves the human soul from such a fall.

[My comment: Here we find the idea of metempsychosis. Since ages, these ideas circulated from the Far East to Greece].


– The punishment of the soul is quite different. When the intelligence has become a « daimon », and by God’s command has taken on a body of fire, she [the intelligence] enters the ungodly soul and is scourged with the whip of its sins. The unholy soul then rushes into murder, insults, blasphemy, violence of all kinds and all human wickedness. But by entering the pious soul, the intelligence leads her to the light of knowledge. Such a soul is never satiated with hymns and blessings for all men.

[My comment: A distinction must therefore be made between light, knowledge and the « light of knowledge ». The latter form of consciousness is the possible source of a meta-apotheosis, – for the moment, this word is a neologism, which I propose, because here it is very necessary].


– This is the universal order, the consequence of unity. Intelligence penetrates all the elements. For nothing is more divine and more powerful than intelligence. She unites Gods with men and men with Gods. It is the intelligence that is the good « daimon« ; the blessed soul is full of her, the unhappy soul is empty of her.

[My comment: intelligence is the « metaxu » par excellence. The Hebrews gave it the name neshamah. But what a name is, it is its essence that we must try to understand].


– The soul without intelligence could neither speak nor act. Often intelligence leaves the soul, and in this state the soul sees nothing, hears nothing, and looks like an animal without reason. Such is the power of intelligence. But it does not support the vicious soul and leaves it attached to the body, which drags it down. Such a soul, my son, has no intelligence, and in this condition a man can no longer be called a man. For man is a divine animal which must be compared, not to other terrestrial animals, but to those in heaven, who are called Gods.

[My comment: Aristotle said that « man is an animal who has reason (logos) ». We can see that Hermes rises several notches above Aristotle in his intuition of what man is, in essence. Aristotle is the first of the moderns. Plato is the last of the Ancients. But in these difficult matters, the Ancients have infinitely more to teach us, with their million years of experience, than the Moderns, really out of their depths in these matters].


– Or rather, let’s not be afraid to tell the truth, the real man is above them, or at least equal to them. For none of the heavenly Gods leaves his sphere to come to earth, while man ascends into heaven and measures it. He knows what is above and what is below; he knows everything accurately, and what is better is that he does not need to leave the earth in order to ascend. Such is the greatness of his condition. Thus, dare we say that man is a mortal God and that a heavenly God is an immortal man. All things will be governed by the world and by man, and above all is the One.

My comment : There is a strikingly equivalent intuition in the Veda. In the Veda, Puruṣa, devanāgarī : पुरुष, means « man, person, hero, vital principle, spirit » but also and foremost : « the Soul of the Universe »…

There is yet another, essential aspect.

The sacrifice of Puruṣa, the death and dismemberment of Osiris, the crucifixion of Christ do share a deep, structural analogy.

iCorpus hermeticum, X.

Three sorts of God.

In an essay published in 1973, Jacques Lacarrière violently attacked Christianity, that of the first centuries, and that of our time. « Christians, with their compensatory and castrating mythology, have totally evaded the daily problems of their time and perpetuated to this day the acceptance of all social injustices and submission to established powers.»i

This harsh judgment does not accurately reflect the history of Christianity, but the intention is elsewhere. Lacarrière’s real aim is to give strong praise to Gnosticism, in contrast. « The Gnostics, on the other hand, have consistently advocated insubordination towards all powers, Christian or pagan, » he explains.

By taking up the cause of the Gnostics, he poses himself as a « reincarnated Gnostic, two thousand years later », and emphatically adopts their fundamental thesis: « All institutions, all laws, all religions, all churches, all powers are only jokes, traps and the perpetuation of a millennial deception. In short: we are exploited on a cosmic scale, the proletarians of the executioner-demiurgist, slaves exiled in a world viscerally subjected to violence.»ii

For the Gnostics, the world is a « prison », a « cloaca », a « quagmire », a « desert ». In the same vein, the human body is a « tomb », a « vampire ».

The world we live in was not created by the true God. It is the work of the Demiurge, a god who ‘simulates’ the true God. The Gnostics reject both this ‘evil’ world and the ‘false God’ who created it — a God that they call ‘Jehovah’.

Where and when did the Gnosis appear?

According to Lacarrière, it was in Alexandria in the 2nd century. This town was then « a crucible, an hearth, amortar, a blast furnace, where all the skies, all the gods, all the dreams are mixed, distilled, infused and transfused (…) All the races, all the continents (Africa, Asia, Europe), all the centuries (those of ancient Egypt which keeps its sanctuaries there, those of Athens and Rome, those of Judea, Palestine and Babylonia) are discovered there. »iii

In theory, such a place of encounter and memory would have been ideal for generating an inclusive and globalizing civilization. But the Gnostics had no use for these utopias. They deny the very reality of this world, which is from the beginning entirely dedicated to evil.

All signs are reversed. The Serpent, Cain, Set, symbols of evil and misfortune in the Jewish Bible, are for the Gnostics « the first revolts in the history of the world », and they make them « the founders of their sects and the authors of their secret books ».

The Gnostic sects, listed by Epiphanus, are very diverse. There are Nicolaitans, Phibionites, Stratiotics, Euchites, Leviticus, Borborites, Coddians, Zachaeans, Barbelites, etc. These terms had an immediate meaning for Greek-speaking populations. The Stratiotics meant « the Soldiers », the Phibionites are the « Humbles », the Eucharists are the « Prayers », the Zachaeans are the « Initiates ».

Lacarrière is fascinated by the Gnostics, but he also admits having great difficulty in discovering their « secrets », in finding « their veiled paths », in understanding « their hermetic revelations ».

There is in particular the question of ecstatic ceremonies, with their frenetic music, using the Phrygian mode (flutes and tambourines), their orgiastic dances, the consumption of drinks causing phenomena of transes and collective possession, and « horrible bacchanals where men and women mixed », as reported by Theodoret de Cyr.

The Gnostics, according to Lacarrière, had understood that the world was « a world of injustice, violence, massacres, slavery, misery, famine, horrors ». This world had to be rejected, contrary to what Christianity advocates. « It takes all the impudent hypocrisy of Christian morality to make the dispossessed, exploited, hungry masses believe that their trials were enriching and opened the doors of another world to them. »

Lacarrière concludes by claiming the need for a « new Gnosticism ». The Gnostic of today must be a « man turned towards the present and the future, with the intuitive certainty that he possesses above all in himself the keys to this future, a certainty that he must oppose all reassuring mythologies. »

These martial and hammered sentences are half a century old, but they certainly appear outdated. Today, the thousand-year-old debate between Christianity and Gnosticism seems to have lost its meaning. Current events seem to be more interested in the relationship between religion and fundamentalism, and in the issue of terrorism.

In the Bardo Museum of Tunis, where the memory of ancient Carthage still lives, in ancient Palmyra, on the shores of the Bosporus and the Gulf of Sirte, and in so many other places, blood has abundantly been shed.

Fanatics willing to give their lives to destroy a world order they consider vitiated to the very roots now occupy the headlines.

Can democratic states defend themselves against determined men or women who despise life, the lives of others like themselves?

The radicality of the Gnostics of the past, the war they had waged against the pagans, Jews and Christians at the beginning of our era, has found a successor. The jihadists embody it today vis-à-vis the Western world, the world of democracies and their allies.

History is on the lookout, and no one knows how things will turn out. The fact that the extreme right is now growing so much in countries that were vomiting it just yesterday is perhaps a sign of future disasters in preparation.

And what about God in all this? Is He even aware of all the misery, proliferating down this world?

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in her Œuvre au noir: « Suffering and consequently joy and consequently good and what we call evil, justice and what is for us injustice and finally, in one form or another, the understanding that serves to distinguish these opposites, exist only in the world of blood and perhaps sap… Everything else, I mean the mineral kingdom and that of the spirits if it exists, is perhaps insensitive and quiet, beyond our joys and sorrows or below them. Our tribulations are possibly only a tiny exception in the universal factory and this could explain the indifference of this immutable substance that we devoutly call God. »

Blood flows, seemingly in God’s indifference.

But which God? The God of the Book? The One God? The God of Jihad? The « universal », « Catholic » God, or the God of the « Chosen Few », whether they are Calvinists, Gnostics or fundamentalists?

The heart beats, the sap and blood flows. God stays silent. Why?

It may be that this indifference comes from what God does not exist.

It may also be that God being immutable, his indifference follows from it, as Yourcenar suggests.

There is a third possibility. God’s mutity may only be apparent. It is possible that He speaks with a very low voice, that he whispers, like an uncertain zephyr. To perceive and hear, one must be a poet or a seer, an initiate or a mystagogue, a shaman or an ishrâqiyun.

So we are left today with tree options to choose from:

A non-existent God, an indifferent (or absent) God, or a very discreet God, speaking with an extremely weak voice?

What’s your bet?

iJacques Lacarrière, Les gnostiques. 1973



The Vedic Skandalon

« Mirror neurons » are activated in our brain when we observe particular movements or behaviours in others. They then allow us to actually reproduce them, after having virtually mimicked them in neural networks.

This is the neurobiological basis of a much larger anthropological phenomenon, imitation, – at work within societies, cultures, civilizations, religions. René Girard, who worked on mimetic mechanisms, identified the figure of the scapegoat as essential to the foundation of the first human institutions. The programmed sacrifice of the victim creates the conditions for religious and social identification.

In some of the oldest religions, such as the Vedas, the notions of victim and sacrifice take on such a central value that they reverse their relationship with believers. It is no longer the believer who makes the sacrifice, but the sacrifice that creates the believer, and even the world. It is the sacrifice that creates men, gods and demons. The sacrifice ultimately reveals itself to be the Creator God himself, Prajâpati.

This is one of the highest mysteries of the Veda. Bhagavad Gita devotes its chapter IX to the « Yoga of the Sovereign Mystery of Science ». The text proposes to reveal « sovereign science, the sovereign mystery, the supreme purification graspable by immediate intuition ». Verses 16-18 deliver it, in this form:

« I am the Sacrifice, I am worship, I am the offering to the dead; I am the herb of salvation, I am the sacred anthem; I am the anointing; I am fire; I am the victim.

I am the father of this world, his mother, his husband, his grandfather. I am the doctrine, the purification, the mystical word Om; the Rig, the Sâma, the Yajour.

I am the way, the support, the Lord, the witness, the dwelling, the refuge, the friend. I am birth and destruction; halt; treasure; immortal seed. »

Let us note in passing the rhetorical form consisting of the enumeration, one after the other, of countless divine names. The long series of these names points to the existence of a mystery, which none of these names claim to capture, but which their accumulation attempts to evoke, or at least to symbolize.

In these Vedic verses, God identifies himself successively with the Sacrifice, the fire, the hymn and the victim. In the Veda, God is everything in everything.

This is a far cry from simplistic dichotomies, built on exclusion or inclusion, such as: « The myth is against the victim, while the Bible is for it. »

The word « Veda » means « knowledge ». The association of the idea of knowledge with the religious universe evokes the role of « Gnosis » in the Mediterranean area. But the « knowledge » revealed in the Veda differs fundamentally from the « Gnosis » that Basilides, Valentine or Marcion tried to adapt to the Hellenized world of the first centuries of Christianity. To summarize: the Veda unites, the Gnosis separates.

Gnosis opposes on principle the good god to the bad god. In this, it brings to the world of the gods the unlimited violence that lies in the hearts of men.

The Gnostic idea, although ancient, is still alive. It is even possible to argue that the modern era is fundamentally Gnostic.

In fact, modern times are not very capable of understanding what the Veda sings in these hymns, namely that the victim of sacrifice is God, and that God is the victim.

A ‘crucial’ question, though. A stumbling block for intelligence and character. A Skandalon, the Greeks said, in the Christian context.