Asclepius 21-29 – translated by James Brashler, Peter A. Dirkse, and Douglas M. Parrott

On Tuesday night I read Asclepius 21-29, an extract from a Hermetic text that carries with it a wonderful context that I know nothing about. From the top of my head, Hermes Trismagestus was this legendary learned pharaoh who was a combination of Thoth and Hermes. They had a mystery religion about him back in the day; I think they were vaguely monotheistic – perhaps an Akhenaten revival?

Asclepius 21-29 begins with Hermes Trismagestus giving a sex-ed lecture to Asclepius, Greek god of healing. (I’m not sure if Asclepius is a god here, or if the text was written by the sort of authors who decide that other people’s gods are just really impressive people.) And I’m not sure if it’s really intercourse they’re talking about, or if they’re using intercourse as a metaphor for something too esoteric for me to understand. I mean, maybe it’s one of those parables. But with phrases like ‘when the semen reaches the climax, it leaps forth’ thrown into the mix it’s hard to escape the conclusion that something NSFW for work is going down in Nag Hammadi. Some people get all the luck.

Hermes Trismagestus argues that religious observance is like sex; in that it’s really meaningful for the participants, but looks ABSOLUTELY ridiculous to disinterested onlookers. (That’s what makes reading this sort of thing worthwhile, this sort of insight.) I remember reading the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov describing a deaf dude watching some dancers and thinking them mad – that’s religion for that guy, although the fact that he thinks deaf people don’t what dancing is makes his judgement questionable. Anyway, after delivering that insight Hermes Trismagestus drops another truth bombshell: “learning is something derived from knowledge.”

In the next para Hermes Trismagestus makes knowledge sound like toothpaste and evil tooth rot.

Hermes Trismagestus develops the lore of his ‘verse by stating that Big G god created man after he made little g gods. (It’s always unclear if these people mean general homo sapiens, or specifically XY men.) This is interesting; I think it could be henotheism, when many gods exist but only one is worshiped. Like baracking for Collingwood while acknowledging the existence of the wider AFL. Hermes Trismagestus says that the gods came out of ‘pure matter’ and don’t need no learning – so I think that means they appear fully grown, so would they have navels or genitalia? God placed man in knowledge and mortality, which is a mixed blessing at best. Then Hermes Trismagestus says God made man twofold, soully and otherthingsy.

And Hermes Trismagestus says that God wants man to be BETTER than the gods. And you get better than gods by learning stuff, say getting straight first class honours for an entire year at a prestigious Australian university.

Man can create gods! Herby asks Asclepius if he is astonished, and, well, my ston is certainly ished! Has Hermes Trismagestus read Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods? (I have, 2004.) Asclepius agrees, the suckup.

According to big H, the race of gods are head only! I was right! No genitalia or navels! It’s times like this I wish the Nag Hammadi library had pictures. Hermes Trismagestus steers into some difficult-to-translate territory by talking about gods being made of the part furthest from matter, and man from the part that is nearest. I’m thinking he means inner and outer, maybe it’s a soul thing? Oh hell, here’s a cheap quote for all you teenagers to throw at your RE teacher: “Just as God has willed that the inner man be created according to his image, in the very same way, man on earth creates gods according to his likeness.” The second half, use the second half.

We’re not talking about idols. I have a funny athiesty story about idols. There’s an idolmaker who has a son. The son tries to feed the idols salami, they won’t bite. When daddy goes out the son gets a hammer and smashes them to pieces. At the father’s return a confrontation ensures in which the kid points out that they’re just, wood and stone, dude. That kid’s name: Abraham, as in, The Abraham, rams-in-bushes and sleeping with your wife’s handmaid Abraham! I don’t know what happened with that story, if some ancient atheist rhetoric was appropriated by monotheistics or what, but it’s a laugh, isn’t it?

We’re talking about something, but them idols ain’t it. The paranormal patronizer describes little g gods as having soul, breadth and the ability to heal and prophesise.

The esoteric text becomes an interesting text when Hermes Trismagestus asserts that ‘Egypt is the mirror of heaven’. I’m assuming this is some platonic, above-below, on earth as it is in heaven scheme. In this powerful paragraph the teacher describes Egypt being invaded and abandoned by the gods!

Now it’s gone full apocalypse, and yes, I know that apocalypse is Greek for revelation, so in that sense Asclepius is a two for one deal. Is your spine overheating? Read this phrase: “No longer will it be full of temples, but it will be full of tombs.” That’s what you think of Egypt isn’t it, unless you live there, you think pyramids! Or museums, Hermes Trismagestus has something foresightful to say about that as well. “And your religious objects will be […] the marvelous things, and […], and if your words are stones and are wonderful.” Egyptomania predicted by an Egyptian god! Seriously folks if I were curating an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts that quote would be painted on museum wall.

The next paragraph is just a nightmare. Rivers of blood, anyone?

More stirring apocalyptic words are used in the next paragraph, including evidence that Hermes Trismagestus has been to Canberra. Really, I would plagiarise Asclepius if I were running a doomsday cult.

Yet more apocalypticalness. Hermes Trismagestus describes a widespread abadonment of religion with disastrous results. Wicked angels are also there, leading men into badness. Now that’s interesting, I always figured that angels were a sop to polytheistic sensibilities within a monotheistic ‘verse.  Just think about it, if Gabriel and Lucifer were chilling around Mount Olympus they’d be considered gods. (Don’t get me started on trinities, or saints.) The only solution I can come up with is that the word ‘god’ means different things in different contexts, and that translation makes things complicated.

I’m going to cop out and just copy paste the next para, it’s that short. “The earth will not be stable, and men will not sail the sea, nor will they know the stars in heaven. Every sacred voice of the word of God will be silenced, and the air will be diseased. Such is the senility of the world: atheism, dishonor, and the disregard of noble words.” This is beginning to get like a Coptic version of the Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. I love the phrase “senility of the world” and I’d re-purpose it, except for the fact the senile people have enough problems without their condition being used as a grandiose metaphor for civilization collapse.

I like how Hermes Trismagestus qualifies Big G god, as the only first god. Probably first cause, prime roller, Mr Spark. A few disasters are described with which God cleanses the world of evil. A flood, of course, a big fire, war, plague. Now I’ve got two things to say on this count. The list of disasters brings to mind the four great disasters described to Monkey by his Taoist teacher in Journey To The West, which also included flood and fire. Now a universal flood’s a relatively common myth and a global fire an obvious counterpart, so no mystery here. But I’d have thought war would count as evil, if anything would. So is Big G God fighting fire with fire? And after that, we are told, is the creation of the world again.

A line from the next para, “For the will of God has no beginning, even as his nature, which is his will (has no beginning). For the nature of God is will. And his will is the good.“, sounds like something from mainstream Christianity, particularly the start of John’s gospel.

Changing the subject to something more light-hearted, Hermes Trismagestus announces that God is the deity with everything. I think he’s started talking in syllogisms, concluding that a good world looks like God. (What.)

This is how I know Asclepius is not a Gnostic text, Hermes Trismagestus explicitly describes the world as good. Fruit, fruit is nice. And the place God is in lacks stars and a heaven – am I wrong to find that sinister? Would it cheap to say Cthulhu?

I’m up to the para where I get really confused. The teacher says that the creator, who I’m not certain if he’s the same character as Big G God, has control of a place between heaven and Earth, that his name is Zeus, and that he means life. (Remember the Hermes Trismagestus mentioned back towards the start of this thing.) Zeus is qualified, he is Plutonious Zeus. Name of my future dog.

A big city at the corner of Egypt, towards the sunset, is imagined, and it is imagined that all men will go into it. Again, I don’t know if they mean human or actual men. The city is in Libya…

The next paragraph makes no sense because two lines are missing, but Hermes tells the reader not to be scared of death.

This is the scary bit, if you’re easily scared turn the computer off. A demon lives in the sky. A soul leaving the body will meet the demon, the demon will judge the soul and if the soul behaved well in life something so fantastic will happen that it will be covered by a lacuna. Bad souls will be suspended above the Earth in terrible pain. Then it goes to a place with “great fire, and crystal water, and furrows of fire, and a great upheaval” – the last of which I suspect refers to indigestion.

Hermes Trismagestus reminds Asclepius that this will be his afterlife if he doesn’t behave.

I think I misunderstood this text. I think the good  ones get the lacuna, the neutral ones float in pain, and the bad ones go to lacuna Hell. I think.

Hermes Trismagestus describes the wardens of his hell, demons who roll souls in dirt, demons called the stranglers.

Happy Easter!

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