An epic book by Wouter J. Hanegraaff offers a new interpretation of ancient Hermetic writings—and a revolutionary path both to studying and experiencing spirituality.
by Massimo Introvigne
I wish a book like this had been available some decades ago, when I started my career as a scholar of religions. It would have helped me, and many others, in more ways that can be listed here. But it is never too late, and younger scholars who will read Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s “Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022) may well one day remember it as one of the books that changed their lives.
Hanegraaff is the world’s leading scholar of esoterica, and a look at the summary may perhaps persuade many lay readers that the book is in itself “esoteric,” in the sense of being complicated and difficult. This is, in one sense, true. The subject matter of the book is the interpretation of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of esoteric writings from the first centuries CE traditionally attributed to a legendary spiritual master known as Hermes Trismegistus.
This interpretation was never easy, and great scholars devoted bulky volumes to the matter without solving its many problems. From another point of view, however, Hanegraaff’s argument is simple and easy to understand. It also challenges much conventional wisdom not only on the Hermetic writings but on the study of religion and esotericism in general.
A key concept for Hanegraaff is “Hermetic spirituality.” We do not know how the communities that produced the Hermetic writings were organized—perhaps they were not organized at all, at least in the modern sociological sense of the term. But we know a “community,” as loose at it might have been, existed. It met in temples and private homes, and pursued a path of enlightenment and liberation.
This focus on a spiritual community and its experiences is in itself new, if not revolutionary, in the study of the Hermetic writings. Those who know something about them are probably under the impression that they are primarily philosophical treatises, with some references to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and perhaps to Judaism and Christianity—not uninteresting texts but not very important either. Those who follow this interpretation would also insist that the most relevant Hermetica are those dealing with cosmology and philosophy. Those referring to theurgy and visions are the product of “magical” deviations, and not too much attention should be paid to them.
This common interpretation, Hanegraaff argues, is wrong. In fact, he turns it on its head. He believes that copyists with Christian prejudices already selected and preserved only the texts fitting their own agenda. Perhaps they mistranslated some of them, deliberately or otherwise. Several scholars in turn read the Hermetica either through Christian lenses, finding traces of the Christian God or the Trinity that were largely imaginary, or through “philhellenism,” i.e., the old idea that the “rational” Greek mind was superior to what came from “barbaric” or “superstitious” cultures such as those prevailing in Egypt.
These prejudices, Hanegraaff notes, led many scholars astray. For example, he examines how the story in the “Poimandres,” a key Hermetic treatise, of the first or “noetic” Human embracing and making love with Nature was reinterpreted by modern scholars, including André-Jean Festugière (1898–1982), who was a deep interpreter of the Hermetica but also a Catholic Dominican priest, as a version of the Biblical story of the Fall and the original sin. Not so, counters Hanegraaff. Although it comes with the price of being exposed to negative influences and corruption by the passions, “embodiment is not to be seen as a regrettable fall into materiality, let alone a sin, but as a divine gift.”
Not all Hermetica are created equal, and even without considering possible corruption by copyists, there are passages there depicting the descent of the “soul”—if we want to use this problematic term—into the material world as decadence, leading to the possession by a host of demonic spirits who need to be exorcized. Yet, one can get rid of them in this world and in this body. While Hanegraaff discusses what the Hermetica have to say about afterlife and reincarnation, he insists on the fact that they present spiritual rebirth as something that may happen in this life.
When the consciousness has been opened by rebirth, the Hermetic pupil may progress to the Ogdoad of universal Life, the Ennead of universal Light, and even experience a glimpse of the divine Source of all manifestation. This is largely a gift from the Gods, but the Gods come when the initiates prepare themselves through an attitude of reverence (eusebeia). With reference to the Platonic cave, Hanegraaff explains that the Hermetic pupil is taught not, or not only, to escape from the cave but to “give birth” and create and experience beauty here.
Hanegraaff’s point is that the center of the Hermetica is not a philosophical theory, but a practice, where through the use of chanting, incenses, visualization, perhaps hallucinogenic substances, and other techniques the pupils experience visions, celestial sounds, a unique cosmic consciousness and union with the Divine Beauty, and even statues that become animated. The Hermetic initiates believed that the spiritual fruits of these practices included liberation from mental delusions, exorcising the bad spirits, and acquiring an ability to see things as they really are.
Here, we are at the center of Hanegraaff’s book. We also understand why “Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination” is important even for those with no special interest in the Corpus Hermeticum. It teaches a general principle that may be taken as a guide for researching religion and spirituality in general. Rarely does a spiritual community exist with the sole aim of preserving or sharing a philosophy or a theology, which some may regard as admirable and others as bizarre. But both admirers and critics seriously risk to miss the point. Spiritual communities exist around practical paths that women and men believe would lead to enlightenment and liberation.
Scholars wanting to understand these communities should try to grasp how the paths function in practice. One can argue that it is easy for scholars to be misled when dealing with communities such as the followers of Hermes Trismegistus, groups that no longer exist and left only scarce traces of their practices. Importantly, however, the mistake of focusing on texts only rather than trying to understand the practices and the practitioners is a frequent one even in books about contemporary spiritual movements.
Not that studying the practices is easy, particularly when dealing with esoteric groups. Mobilizing Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), and expressing a preference for the former over the latter, Hanegraaff discusses an even more crucial question. How exactly are we supposed to understand things ineffable that cannot be fully expressed by spoken words, and much less in writing, let alone when translated into languages different from the original? Hanegraaff mentions the Supreme God Ammon’s warning to Thoth (the God Hermes) in Plato’s “Phaedrus”: putting teachings in writings means “providing pupils with just appearance of wisdom”—with a faulty “pharmakon” (drug), an ambiguous word meaning both medicine and poison.
The written words are “echoes of echoes,” which everybody can read without proper preparation and easily misunderstand. Better is the spoken word, “written” immediately in the soul of the student. But in the case of spiritual movements of the past, this knowledge disappears when a living community ceases to exist. Unless, Hanegraaff says, historians use creatively the faculty of imagination, a notion that has received its deal of bad press but is crucial to the practice of history—and to the Dutch scholar’s work on esotericism in general.
If we grasp this point, we understand why this truly epic book may change lives and careers, and not of academics only. Hanegraaff concludes the book by stating that, “The ‘pharmakon’ to which you have been exposed, dear reader, was designed to change your consciousness, stimulate your imagination, broaden your horizon, even open doors to noetic insight. I have deliberately tried to draw your mind into profoundly ambiguous realms of human experience and practice, for although their very existence has seldom been recognized in academic research, I see them as essential to human psychology and deserving a very serious attention.”
Indeed. We will all read, and some of us will write, other books, but here we are taught something we may otherwise easily forget or miss. Books—to borrow a famous metaphor attributed to the Buddha but in fact appearing only in comparatively late Buddhist texts—are just fingers pointing at the moon. There is nothing wrong about fingers, but these children of Hermes of old teach us that those who want to experience the real thing should sometimes close their books and go finding the moon.