September 03, 2004

The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus

Posted at September 3, 2004 12:21 AM in Spirituality .

This is drawn from a late period document that survives, as I recall, only in Armenian translation via Christian monks. It is obviously drawn from the same overall tradition as the Corpus Hermetica and other hermetic materials from late antiquity. Someone on a list I'm on took the time to type it up. I've gone through and reformatted it a bit and corrected some typographical errors.

The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius


1. God: an intelligible world; world: a sensible God; man: a destructible world; God; an immovable world; heaven: a moveable world; man: a reasonable world. Then there are three worlds. Now the immovable world is God, and the reasonable world is man: for both of these units are one: God and man after the species.

2.Consequesntly there are three worlds on the whole: two units make up the sensible and one is the intelligible; one is after the species, and the third is after its fullness. All of the multiple belongs to the three worlds; two of them visible: the sensible and man, that destructible world; and the intelligible is this God: he is not visible, but evident within the visible.

3. Just as soul keeps up the figure (while being) in the body, which cannot possibly be constituted without a soul, likewise all of that visible cannot possibly be constituted without the invisible.

4. Now man is a small world because of soul and breath, and a perfect world whose magnitude does not exceed the sensible god, the world. The world is intelligible and God is Nous; he is the truly uncreated, the intelligible; by essence, the uncreated and the ineffable, the intelligible good. In a word, God is the intelligible, invisible and ineffable good.

5. God is eternal and uncreated; man is mortal (although) he is ever-living.


1. Nous is the invisible good; soul (is) a necessary movement adjusted to every (kind of ) body. A body is (made out) of the four qualities, (as) a well-tempered composition of warm, cold, dry earth, of wet (i.e.) of water. Breath is the body of soul or the column of soul.

2. Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed out of soul and Nous. Air is the separation of heaven from the earth or the conjunction of heaven and earth, by which they are united (with each other) by the air.

3. Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water. What is the power of the world? To keep for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.

4. Water is a fecund essence, the support of the earth, as a nutritive essence.

5. Fire is a sterile essence, the duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal: an infertile substance, inasmuch (it belongs to) the destructive fire which makes (things) disappear and the perpetuation of the immortal (beings), since what cannot be consumed by fire is immortal and indestructible, but the mortal can be destroyed by fire.

6. Light is a good, a clear vision, (which makes) appear all of the visible (things). The essence of fire is burning. However, fire is one (thing) and light is another one. For what fire has reached shall be destroyed, but light appears just as it is by itself. Every move of soul is perceived by Nous; since it is some (kind of) energy, breath performs (it).


1. Nothing is uninhabited by God, for where heaven is, God (is) too, and where the world is, heaven (is) too. I think that God is in heaven, and heaven in the world.

2. Many (places) are uninhabited by humans; for where the world is, the earthy (is) too, but man is not on every earth. The sea is large, as well as the earth, but heaven by itself (is as much as) both the sea and earth. [And he wanted to say that, by its magnitude, heaven is (as much as) both the earth and the sea, so large as the two of them may be, since by taking everything into (itself), it encompasses it and it contains it enclosed within (itself).]

3. Heaven is larger than everything, and the sun than the earth and sea, for it extends beyond both of them. However the earth is larger than the sea, because the sea (comes) from it. And in heaven are all (the beings), for it contains the superior ones and it (also) contains the inferior, enclosing them from every side.

4. God is the good (which is) previous to all the intelligible (beings); God is the father of the intelligible; heaven is the maker of the body. The magnitude of the light of the sun is earth and sea; the magnitude of heaven (is) the world; the magnitude of the world is God.


1. The living (beings) in heaven are constituted of fire and air, and those (which are) on earth of the four elements. man (is) a reasonable living (being), for he has Nous; but all of the other living (beings) which are endowed with voice have breath and soul, since all that decreases and increases is a living (being).

2. And among the living (beings), some are immortal and animated some have Nous, soul and spirit, some (have) only spirit, some (have) soul and spirit, and others only life. For life can acquire consistency without spirit, Nous, soul and immortality, but all of the others without life cannot possibly exist.


1. (Reasonable) speech is the servant of Nous. For what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets. Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal (things). And yet Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous.

2. To Nous nothing in incomprehensible, to speech nothing ineffable: when you keep silent, you understand; when you talk, you (just) talk. Since Nous conceives speech in silence, only (that) speech (which comes) from silence and Nous (is) salvation. (But that) speech (which comes) from speech (is) only perdition; for by (his) body man is mortal, but by speech (he is) immortal.

3. Who does not understand speech has no Nous, who talks without Nous says nothing: since he understands nothing, he has no Nous and he talks, for his talk is a crowd and a crowd has neither Nous nor (reasonable) speech. Speech endowed with Nous is a gift of God; speech without Nous is a finding of man. Nobody sees heaven and what (is) therein, but only man. Only man has Nous and speech.


1. Just as the gods are God's possessions, (so is) man too; and man's possession is the world: if there were nobody to see (it), what would be seen would not even exist. Only man understands the intelligible (things) and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him. Man has at once the two natures, the mortal and the immortal (one). Man has the three essences, (namely) the intelligible, the animated and the material (one).

2. Just as you went out of the womb, likewise you will go out of this body; just as you will no longer enter the womb, likewise you will no longer enter this material body. Just as, while being in the womb, you did not know the (things which are) in the world, likewise when you are outside the body, you will not know the beings (that are) outside the body. Just as when you have gone out of the womb, you do not remember the (things which are) in the womb, likewise, when you have gone out of the body, you will be still more excellent.

3. The present (things) follow close upon the past, and the future (close) upon the present. Just as the body, once it has gained perfection in the womb, goes out, likewise the soul, once it has gained perfection, goes out of the body. For just as a body, if it goes out of the womb (while it is still) imperfect can neither be fed nor grow up, likewise if soul goes out of the body without having gained perfection it is imperfect and lacks a body; but the perfection of soul is the knowledge of the beings. Just as you will behave towards your soul when (it is) in this body, likewise it will behave towards you when it has gone out of the body. --Contain thyself, O Trismegistus


1. But now, what is man? What (else) is neither body nor soul? --Aye, dear Asclepius, who (ever) is not soul, is neither Nous nor body. For (one) thing is what becomes the body of man, and (another) thing what comes in addition to man. Then, what should be called truly a man, O Asclepius, and what is man? The immortal species of every man.

2. And (the species) of every living being (is only in one part of the world,) but the sole species of man (is) at once in heaven, on earth, in the water and in the air. Just as the body is marvelously molded in the womb, likewise the soul in the body.

3. From the murk into light the body goes out of the womb, but soul enters the body from the light into darkness. The sight of the body is the eye; but that of soul is Nous. Just as a body which has (got) no eyes sees nothing, likewise a soul which has (got) no Nous is blind. Whatever the (babe) in the womb will crave for, so will the pregnant woman desire the same; likewise whatever (Nous) in soul will crave for, so will man desire the same.

4. Soul enters the body by necessity, Nous (enters) soul by judgment. While being outside the body, soul (has) neither quality nor quantity; (once it is) in the body it receives, as an accident, quality and quantity as well as good and evil: for matter brings about such (things).

5. God is within himself, the world is in God, and man in the world. His (i.e. man's) deficiency is ignorance, his plenitude is the knowledge of God. (...Evil consists in ignorance and good in knowledge.)


1. All (beings) cannot possibly exceed their own capacity. Nature is everyone of the beings of this (world); there is a law which is in heaven above destiny, and there is a destiny which has come into being according to a just necessity; there is a law which has come into being according to the necessity of humans, there is a god who has come into being according to human opinion.

2. Divine bodies do not have access paths for sensations, for they have sensations within themselves, and (what is more) they are themselves their own sensations. What God does, man does not do it; and whatever God does, he does it for man; but what man does, he does it for soul.

3. Those who worship idols (worship plain) pictures. For if they worshipped with knowledge, they would not have gone astray, but since they do not know how they worship, they have gone astray, (far) from piety. Man has the faculty of killing, God of giving life.

4. The body increases and reaches perfection, due to nature; and soul fills up with Nous. Every man has a body and a soul, but not every soul has Nous. Consequently there are two (types of) Nous: the one (is) divine and the other (belongs to) soul. Nevertheless there are certain men who do not have even that of soul. Who(ever) understands the body, also understands soul; who(ever) understands soul, also (understands) Nous, because the admirable is (a) natural (object) of contemplation: each of the two is seem by means of the other.

5. Nature is the mirror of truth; the latter is at once the body of the incorporeal (things) and the light of the invisible. The generous mature of this (world) teaches all (the beings). If it seems to you that nothing is a vain work, you will find the work and the crafts man, if it seems to you (like) a mockery, you will be mocked at.

6. You have the power of getting free since you have been given everything. Nobody envies you. Everything came into being for you, so that by means of either on (being) or of the whole, you may understand the craftsman. For you have the power of not understanding with your (own) will; you have the power of lacking faith and being misled, so that you understand the contrary of the (real) beings. Man has as much power as the gods. Only man (is) a free living (being), only he has the power of good and evil.

7. You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal (have the power) of dying. You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible. Therefore want and understand and believe and love: then you have become (it).


1. Every man has a notion of god: for if he is a man, he also knows God. Every man, by the very (fact) that he has got a notion of God, is a man, for it is not given to every man to have (such a) notion. Man and the gods and all things (exist) by God and because of man. God is everything and there is nothing outside God, even that which does not exist: since as to God, there is no such thing, even one single that he is not himself. Man (comes) from another man, the gods (exist) because of God. Man (exists) because of God; everything because of man. God rules over man; man over the whole.

2. The exterior (things) are understood by the external (organs): the eye sees the exterior (things), and Nous the interior. The exterior (things) would not exist, if there were not the interior (ones). Where(ever) Nous (is), there is light; for Nous is light and light (is) Nous. Who(ever) has Nous is enlightened, and who(ever) has not Nous is deprived of light.

3. Who(ever) knows God, does not fear God; who(ever) does not know God fears God. Who(ever) knows none of the beings fears everyone; who(ever) knows all of them fears none.

4. Soul's illness: sadness and joy; soul's passions: desire and opinion. Bodies are similar to souls when they are seen: none is ugly (if it is) good, none is evil (if it is) honest. Everything is visible to one who has Nous; who(ever) thinks of himself in Nous knows himself and who(ever) knows himself knows everything. Everything is within man.

5. Who(ever) behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself. Just as the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert. Once a soul has entered the body, it (soul) will acquire Nous. That which does not acquire (it), goes out such as it entered. For every soul becomes endowed with Nou. That (soul) which has gone out of the human body has (got) an ill memory: for soul, (even) covered with the body, is forced to remember its (soul's) unforgetfulness. One change is unforgetful and another change brings about forgetfulness.

6. Wher(ever) man is, also (is) God. God does not appear to anybody but man. Because of man God changes and turns into the form of man. God is man-loving and man is God-loving. There is an affinity between God and man. God listens only to man, and man to God. God is worthy of worship, man is worthy of admiration. God does not appear without man; man is desirable to god and God to man, because desire comes from nowhere, but from man and God.

7. Human work the land, (and) stars adorn heaven. the gods have heaven; humans, heaven, earth and sea; but the air is common to gods and humans.


1. What is good? What bears no comparison. God is invisible, (but) evil is conspicuous. What is a female? A receptive fluidity. What is a male? A seminal fluidity.

2. Nature in man is omniform, and (it is) an energy endowed with all qualities (whose) force (is) invisible and effects (are) conspicuous. An energy is a movement. matter is a wet essence; a body is an agglomeration of matter.

3. Nous (is) in soul, and nature (is) in the body. Nous (is) the maker of soul, and soul, (the maker) of the body. Nous (is) not in all soul, but nature (is) in all body.

4. The immortal nature (is) the movement of the mortal nature, (as to) mortality, earth is its grave; (and) heaven (is) the place of the immortal. the immortal came into being because of the mortal, but the mortal comes into being by means of the immortal. Evil is the deficiency of good, good (is) fullness of itself.

5. Soul is bound to be born in this world, but Nous is superior to the world. Just as Nous is unbegotten, so is matter too, (although) it can be divided. Nous is unbegotten, and matter (is) divisible; soul is threefold, and matter has three parts; generation (is) in soul and matter, (but) Nous is in God for the generation of the immortal (beings).

6. Providence and Necessity (are), in the mortal, birth and death, and in god, unbegotten (essence). the immortal (beings) agree with one another and the mortal envy one another with jealousy, because evil envy arises due to knowing death in advance. the immortal does what he always does, but the mortal does what he has never done. Death, if understood, is immortality; if not understood (it is) death. they assume that the mortal (beings) of this (world) have fallen under (the dominion) of the immortal, but (in reality) the immortal are servants of the mortal of this (world).

7. therefore soul is an immortal essence, eternal, intellective, having, as an intellectual (thought), its reason endowed with Nous. By understanding nature, it attracts to itself the intellect of (the planetary) harmony; then, once it is freed from this natural body it remains alone with itself (and) is grieved, belonging only to itself in the intelligible world. It rules on its reason.


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