Corpus Hermeticum The Lament of Hermes the Egyptian
The Lament, part of the Asclepius, is a prophecy, describing the end of the Egyptian civilisation. It is an insight into a lost world, one which we are at pains to comprehend.
by Philip Coppens
Long before John allegedly wrote the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, an unknown Egyptian wrote down the Lament, which some have titled “The Apocalypse”, for it prophesized the demise of the Egyptian religion. The Asclepius is sometimes not treated as part of the Corpus Hermeticum, as its Greek text was lost and it is only partially preserved in Latin. Some have described it as “one of the most moving passages of prose I have read from Classical Antiquity”. It predicted that “there will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians honoured the divinity with a pious mind and with assiduous service. All their holy worship will become inefficacious.” It predicted the end of the world – the Egyptian world. “Do you not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven or, to be more precise, that everything governed and moved in heaven came down to Egypt and was transferred there? If truth were told, our land is the temple of the whole world.” It is one of the most quoted relatively ancient Egyptian texts, though it is actually part of the Corpus Hermeticum and thus by some to be considered not Egyptian at all. It is the “extended and unabridged edition” of the dictum “as above, so below”. Some have labelled this the summary of the entire system of traditional and modern magic, while others believe it holds the key to all mysteries. It suggests that the macrocosmos was reflected in the microcosmos, a concept which formed the basis of astrology. For Robert Bauval, Wim Zitman and many others, it meant that Egypt’s monuments (read: pyramids) were earthly representations of the heavens, specifically creating a correspondence between the layout of the stars in the sky and the pyramids on Earth. For philosophers, it means that God was not some distant entity, but that God was the same as man, and man was God, each of us containing a divine spark. Most importantly, it also formed the backbone of magic, as it worked with correspondences. An act that was done here on Earth, had a correspondence in Heaven; asking a statue of a god on Earth was delivered to that god above.
Everything was interrelated and interdependent. The purpose of all rituals in ceremonial magic was – and is – to unite the microcosm with the macrocosm, to join God, or the gods, when invoked (prayer or concentrated thought) with human consciousness. When such a supreme union was achieved, the subject and object became one. The magician felt that he was consciously in touch with all elements of the universe, therefore, he could control them. Authors like Jeremy Naydler have made it clear that the Egyptians expected nothing more, nothing less and nothing but, from their Pharaoh: to be a bridge between this world and the divine realm, to balance both and channel the lower things upwards and the higher things downwards. It led to a highly proscribed and ritualised lifestyle, with little room for deviation from that which was required to happen. It was a careful balance that had to be maintained at all cost, for the welfare of the nation. Egypt was a land of magic: it was meant to be an image of heaven and the Egyptians had always tried to do their utmost to make it so. But things were not about to last; the Lament spoke of a dark future – a vision of the apocalypse, when Egypt as the ancient Egyptians knew it would no longer be: “And yet, since it befits the wise to know all things in advance, of this you must not remain ignorant: a time will come when it will appear that the Egyptians paid respect to divinity with faithful mind and painstaking reverence – to no purpose. All their holy worship will be disappointed and perish without effect, for divinity will return from Earth to Heaven, and Egypt will be abandoned. The land that was the seat of reverence will be widowed by the powers and left destitute of their presence. When foreigners occupy the land and territory, not only will reverence fall into neglect but, even harder, a prohibition under penalty prescribed by law (so-called) will be enacted against reverence, fidelity and divine worship. Then this most holy land, seat of shrines and temples, will be filled completely with tombs and corpses.”
And so it happened. Today, Egypt is indeed nothing but tombs and corpses, with Egyptology a science that is purely interested in the tombs and corpses, with only the most minimal of attention paid to the Egyptian religion, if at all. Indeed, today, most argue that the ancient Egyptian civilisation was impressive, but that their religion was ignorant of modern philosophical frameworks; several academics label the ancient Egyptian mindset as little better than primitive or one step beyond “savages”.
We stand in awe of the temples and the statues of Horus in front of the Temple of Edfu, but we see nothing but a statue. In ancient Egyptian times, these statues were seen as being alive, animated – holding the spirit of the deity – being the deity – represented on Earth. But now the statues are indeed silent and “divinity has returned from Earth to Heaven”. The bond between Heaven and Earth, so central to the ancient Egyptian mind, has been broken and nothing but a dead landscape remains. Whereas the Lament is at pains to explain that, as unlikely it may seem for the ancient Egyptian that this will happen, for modern man, it is as unlikely to imagine that a stone statue was once believed to be a living entity, an earthly residence for a god, somehow “alive”.
Indeed, “0 Egypt, Egypt, of your reverent deeds only stories will survive, and they will be incredible to your children! Only words cut in stone will survive to tell your faithful works, and the Scythian or Indian or some such neighbour barbarian will dwell in Egypt.” Indeed. As sad as this was, this was not the end of it. “Why weep, O Asclepius? Egypt will be carried away to worse things than this; she will be polluted with yet graver crimes. She, hitherto most holy, who so much loved the gods, only country of the Earth where the gods made their home in return for her devotion, she who taught men holiness and piety, will give example of the most atrocious cruelty, in that hour, weary of life, men will no longer regard the world as worthy object of their admiration and reverence.” Egypt was seen as the land where the gods dwelled. It was the only land in the world where the gods dwelled. And they dwelled in Egypt, for it was there that they were worshipped by the people; it was a symbiotic link.
We do not understand the ancient world, and that is indeed what the Lament prophesized: “This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the past, the present and the future, will be in danger of perishing; men will esteem it a burden; and then they will despise and no longer cherish this whole of the universe, incomparable work of God, glorious construction, good creation made up of an infinite diversity of forms, instrument of the will of God who, without envy, pours forth his favour on all his work, in which is assembled in one whole, in a harmonious diversity, all that can be seen that is worthy of reverence, praise and love. For darkness will be preferred to light; it will be thought better to die than to live; none will raise his eyes towards heaven; the pious man will be thought mad, the impious, wise; the frenzied will be thought brave, the worst criminal a good man.” This is very much a description of our times (and previous centuries), in which the foundation of the ancient world was abandoned. Ancient man saw its role on Earth as a contemplation of the divine creation, to admire God’s work and be part of it, and trying to sustain it. That harmony – balance – has now been abandoned, and it is of course one of the reasons why the gods left. The Lament gives a description of the philosophy involved in this ancient mindset: “The soul and all the beliefs attached to it, according to which the soul is immortal by nature or foresees that it can obtain immortality as I have taught you – this will be laughed at and thought nonsense.” The immortality of the soul was another teaching (treatise) of the Corpus, which had preceded the Asclepius. As it predicted the future, like John’s Apocalypse, it was positioned last in the Corpus Hermeticum.
The abandonment of the ancient Egyptian religion is our present era, but the prophecy itself applies to events that have occurred in our parts: the advent of Christianity. This radically altered the philosophical landscape, pushing aside the Egyptian framework, claiming that eternal damnation is what is in stall for us, unless we embrace Christianity. Such simplistic thinking was seen by the ancient Egyptians as “the darkness”, as its philosophy was not only considered to be basic, but plain wrong. And it happened with Emperor Constantius, one of Constantine the Great’s sons and successors, who issued a decree in 353 AD which ordered temples to be closed and pagan sacrifices to be banned; those who disobeyed the law were to be put to death, thus fulfilling the prophecy: “And believe me, it will be considered a capital crime under the law to give oneself to the religion of the mind. A new justice will be created and new laws. Nothing holy, nothing pious, nothing worthy of heaven and of the gods who dwell there, will be any more spoken of nor will find credence in the soul.” By the time some freedom came back under Muslim rule, the nightmare – the apocalypse – had happened: “The gods will separate themselves from men, deplorable divorce.” The dictum “as above, so below” no longer applied and Egypt became the wasteland. The Lament does not stop there and it moves into “post apocalyptic times”: “Only the evil angels will remain, who will mingle with men, and constrain them by violence – miserable creatures – to all the excesses of criminal audacity, engaging them in wars, brigandage, frauds, and in everything which is contrary to the nature of the soul.” But there is worse to come, and it is perhaps here that we see a prediction for our times: “Then the earth will lose its equilibrium, the sea will no longer be navigable, the heaven will no longer be full of stars, the stars will stop their courses in the heaven. Every divine voice will be silenced, and will be silent. The fruits of the Earth will molder, the soil will be no longer fertile, the air itself will grow thick with a lugubrious torpor. Such will be the old age of the world, irreligion, disorder, confusion of all goods.” The prophecy clearly states that as the contact with the gods is lost, Mankind is left to fend for his own, and makes a total mess of it, destroying the Earth, polluting the air. Worst of all, for the ancient Egyptians, it seems is the light pollution, as the “heaven will no longer be full of stars”, those bright sparks in the night’s sky that for them was the most visual blackboard against which the divine myths were projected. And then? “When all these things have come to pass, O Asclepius, then the Lord and Father, the god first in power and the demiurge of the One God, having considered these customs and voluntary crimes, endeavouring by
his will, which is the divine will, to bar the way to vices and universal corruption and to correct errors, he will annihilate all malice, either by effacing it in a deluge or by consuming it by fire, or destroying it by pestilential maladies diffused in many places.” That, it seems, is our “end of times”, a world ended by water or fire, in which the vice of the world is washed or burned away – the “true” apocalypse, the one spoken of by John in the Bible: the end of the world – this world – and the birth of a new world: “Then he will bring back the world to its first beauty, so that this world may again be worthy of reverence and admiration, and that God also, creator end restorer of so great a work, may be glorified by the men who shall live then in continual hymns of praise and benedictions. That is what the rebirth of the world will be: a renewal of all good things, a holy and most solemn restoration of Nature herself, imposed by force in the course of time… by the will of God.” A new hope. There is much in the Lament that is difficult to understand and our modern mind is ill-equipped to comprehend. That is, in fact, exactly what Hermes is saying in this dialogue – though it is largely a monologue – to Asclepius. But there are some hints. The ancient Egyptians stated that their ancient statues were alive and even were able to walk – a preposterous notion to us, as we all “know” that tons of rock on a pedestal are impossible to move of its own accord, if only because these deities who were believed to inhabit them, actually do not exist, right? Still, “walking Egyptian statues” are rare, but not unheard of, it seems. Approximately a year ago, a Scandinavian museum made headline news when it reported that staff found that over a period of time, sometimes as little as a night or a day, some Egyptian statues in a glass cabinet on display in the museum had moved. Each time they repositioned them, but soon after, they had moved again and soon, staff ruled out any human interference; the statues somehow moved of their own accord, very much like ancient Egyptian statues apparently did.
What about speaking statues? Lynn Picknett once spoke about a visit to the British Museum, in which she saw a woman offering some fine desert sand in front of one of the Sekhmet statues in its collection. She enquired why the visitor did this and she replied that on a previous visit to the museum, the visitor had wondered whether these statues were happy, so far away from home, upon which the statue apparently answered that yes, it was, but what it missed most was the Egyptian sand. After a visit to Egypt, the visitor brought back some sand and deposited it in front of the statue, so that it would no longer be unhappy. The ravings of a mad visitor to the British Museum? Perhaps, or perhaps someone who somehow was able to communicate with the “energy” of these statues, like the ancient Egyptians claimed to do. Indeed, the notion that the ancient Egyptian mind was wired differently and that this explains their widely different interpretation of reality has been explored by some, and perhaps most prominently by Julian Jaynes in The Bicameral Brain. Jaynes came to the conclusion that most of the people in these archaic cultures were not subjectively conscious as we understand it today. He declared that “there is in general no consciousness in the iliad.” Analysing Homer’s epic, Jaynes came to the conclusion that “the characters of the Trojan siege did not have conscious minds, no introspection, as we know it in the modern human”. Jaynes was unwilling to attach any factual reality to the existence of these deities, instead claiming that a different organisation of our brain resulted in parts of our brain being interpreted as if they were voices coming from somewhere else – and hence labelled gods. He stated that the theocracies of the ancient world were the only means for a bicameral civilization to survive. Circumventing chaos, these rigid hierarchies allowed for “lesser men hallucinating the voices of authorities over them, and those authorities hallucinating yet higher ones, and so” to kings and gods. According to Jaynes, “the idols of a bicameral world are the carefully tended centers of social control, with auditory hallucinations instead of pheromones.”
This would imply that for the ancient Egyptians, these gods would have “felt” real, even though they were not. Jaynes’ theory remains highly controversial and though he was a professor of psychology at Princeton, the “bicameral mind” is not the accepted scientific point of view on the issue. Which means that for most – and us – that the ancient Egyptians believed that the ancient Egyptian gods were real, and not a figment of their imagination. And the best evidence for this, is magic. The gods were called upon and asked to manifest themselves. This was done via a ritual, which involved the invocation of the First Time, which was seen as an existence outside of this reality, comparable to the world of archetypes as defined by Carl Jung. The magician tapped into this pool and re-enacted archetypical scenarios. These scenarios – templates – are known to us, as they are, for example, the story of the battle of Horus against Seth. In the ritual, an image of the god that was called upon was made. Then, the “opening of the mouth” was performed, by reciting certain words of power, which meant that the image became filled with the presence of the god. The statue was his residence.
Not only gods resided in statues. Statues of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs were believed to hold his ka. The ka was a spiritual double and was born with every man and lived on after he died as long as it had a place to live. Of course, the body was mummified to try and preserve this, but it could also apparently be transferred onto something else, like an “artificial body”: a statue. The “opening of the mouth” ceremony performed on the deceased Pharaoh was precisely linked with tying the ka to its Earthly residence… and it is also the inspiration for the so-called mummy’s curse, which would become popular in the late 19th century.
The story of visualising the gods by continued thought is similar to the biblical story of Jacob praying to his angel, who finally, after much concentrated thought, manifests himself. Jacob too challenges and fights with his angel, before he gets from that angel what he wants. The “guardian angel” in ancient Egypt was often referred to as the ka: it was the conscience or guide of each individual and in Asclepius’ dialogue with Hermes, we should perhaps see this as an inner dialogue, of Asclepius talking to his “guardian angel” and guide – an archetype, Hermes. “Archetypical magic” is still used today: in war, the home nation is identified as the land of “good” and the enemy is identified as the “evil empire”, linked with Satan, a Christian adaptation of Seth. The ancient Egyptian templates, archetypes, still exist today and remain widely used, though seldom pointed out.
Once the link between magician and entity (the deity) was established, the link had to be maintained. Often, this was pure bullying: the magicians threatened the gods if they did not do what they were asked to do… that they would no longer be worshipped. It shows a mutual relationship, which is vastly different from what many Egyptologists or people like Jaynes believe. They often suggest that the ancient Egyptians were fearful of their gods, whereas that is definitely not the case: it was a symbiosis of Egypt with higher powers, in which both were better off: the archetypes were “energised” by the worship and in return, their energy was asked to be applied (channelled) to the benefit of the nation.
The ancient Egyptians stated that the human magical act resulted in “heka”, the cosmic energy, which was meant to flow. The Lament suggests that this energy solidified, when the gods were no longer worshipped – it blocked up and Heaven and Earth separated.
Jung was an adapt of ancient mythology and magic and he wrote about manifestations of the archetypes into our reality (e.g. he interpreted UFOs as such). He felt that their invasion in this realm was a sign that they were about to bring about a new world, whether we want to or not. Indeed, the Lament does not suggest that we should desire to unblock the “cosmic channels” and try to get the heka flowing again. The future predicted by the Lament is far darker: there seems to be no hope for our world, and God himself will set back to the clock and restart, underlining the cyclical concept of time that was equally typically ancient and which we too, in our linear approach to time, have lost. And thus, Asclepius wept.