False Gods, Divine Charlatans and Hermetic Hustlers (Part 1)

Hermetism and Gnosis have always been kissing cousins throughout the centuries. The same can be said with Hermetism’s parallels with the Christian Gospels, particularly the Fourth Gospel, which has many Gnostic themes running throughout. Furthermore, a cursory reading of patristic literature shows that the doctrine of rebirth expounded by Hermes is very similar to the teachings ascribed to Simon Magus, the first-century Gnostic heresiarch, magician, and antichrist-from whose legend, one must add, the later sixteenth century legend of Faustus borrowed some of its distinctive features, as well. Those teachings also neatly add up with Jesus’ sayings from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

Peter also seems to teach a very similar doctrine as described by 1 Peter 1:23, which leads “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” If St. Peter and Simon Magus believed in the same things, is it not curious that they found so much to argue about in the apocryphal Acts of the apostles and in the Clementine writings, where they are represented as antagonists in a series of theological debates and magical contests? Paul in his epistles also taught a doctrine of rebirth as well and also mirrors greatly the life and acts of Apollonius, the great miracle worker and philosopher of the 1st century C.E. We will explore Paul’s relationship (as well as Jesus’s) with Apollonius at another time.

Simon, who was worshiped as a god, has many parallels with other figures like his supposed enemies Peter and Paul in patristic and Catholic writings. This greatly mirrors how other Gods, Messiahs and magicians were said to have one or even multiple alter-egos, like Enoch-Metatron with Hermes-Thoth, Jesus with Didymus Thomas and Asclepius, Mani and the Paraclete, as well as the Platonic philosophers and their ever-present, guiding Daimons. These are all references to the fact that in each person, accordingly, has a higher, divine self, corresponding to the famous axiom: “that which is Above, like that which is Below.”


Hermetic Hocus Pocus

There seems to be many similarities between the Fourth Gospel (The Gospel of John), Hermes, Simon Magus, Paul and Peter as their doctrines on rebirth all seem to compliment each other, in one way or another. The Hermetic doctrine of rebirth is also evident in texts in the Corpus Hermeticum, as translated by Marsilio Ficino from Greek to Latin, which would eventually in many ways give birth the Renaissance. Hermetic texts synthesized ancient Egyptian wisdom along with esoteric Platonic concepts and melded them into one. The great German alchemist and occult thinker Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa tells us in De occulta philosophia III.iii in Opera 1:314, that rebirth is the, “the principle and complement and key of all magical operations.”

As it turns out, Agrippa was torn on how the doctrines of rebirth expounded by Hermes was very similar to how Simon Magus explained his teaching of rebirth, which we will see later on. Agrippa writes in a letter, Oratio in praelectione Hermetis Trismegisti (I515):

“[Hermes] instructs us moreover in the knowledge of oneself, the ascent of the intellect … the divine union [connubium]and sacrament of regeneration. The Pimander of Mercurius teaches us how we can obtain a firm and steady mind, through which, without deceit, we can both know and work marvels.”

Thus it was almost impossible for Agrippa to reject Simon’s demonic doctrines since they sound very close to that of his own Christian-Hermetic faith. Indeed, Agrippa was interested in the initiation rebirth or regeneration mysticism featured in the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius. A lot has been said on the subject of Agrippa’s intense interest in Hermetic philosophy in his works.

A cursory glance at the text Asclepius 21-29, found with the Nag Hammadi gives us some interesting insights into this doctrine of rebirth as a dialogue between Asclepius and Hermes:

“The restoration of the nature of the pious ones who are good will take place in a period of time that never had a beginning. 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.”

“Trismegistus, is purpose, then, (the same as) will?”

“Yes, Asclepius, since will is (included) in counsel. For <he> (God) does not will what he has from deficiency. Since he is complete in every part, he wills what he (already) fully has. And he has every good. And what he wills, he wills. And he has the good that he wills. Therefore, he has everything. And God wills what he wills. And the good world is an image of the Good One.

In the Gospel of John 7:17, it says:

“If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself.”

A more obvious parallel can be seen in the Corpus Hermeticum, Tractate XIII, which speaks of a mystical experience dependent on a new birth, of a new creature when Tat says to Hermes:

“I know not, Thrice-greatest one, from what womb a man can be born again.”

This is strikingly similiar to how Nicodemus, the ruler of the Jews says to Jesus in John 3:4:

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

And as the question is similar, so is the answer. Jesus replies that one must be born of water and the spirit, and Hermes replies to Tat in XIII.2:

“My son, the womb is spiritual wisdom, conceiving in silence,” and “The Will of God is the begetter.”

Both the CH and John utilizes a strong dualistic philosophy, characteristic of the ancient Hellenistic philosophical world. The Fourth Gospel speaks of two worlds, one being light and the other darkness–although much more ethical than it is ontological, like in the case of the Manichaeans.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:4-5). 

In the Hermetic writings, it speaks of the fullness or “pleroma” of good and the “pleroma” of evil in XI. 4.

“And I, for my part, give thanks to God, that He hath cast it in my mind about the Gnosis of the Good, that it can never be It should be in the world. For that the world is “fullness” of the bad, but God of Good, and Good of God. … There is no Good that can be got from objects in the world. For all the things that fall beneath the eye are image-things and pictures as it were; while those that do not meet [the eye are the realities], especially the [essence] of the Beautiful and Good.”

The common philosophical background indicates that these two texts were dependent on each other, as well as inheriting their ideas from the popular ancient mystery schools of the Hellenistic era. Even the Logos doctrine is shared between the two writings, where Poimandres is called the “Man-Shepard” while Jesus in John 10:1-5, speaks of the “Shepard of the sheep”. Jesus’ last prayer is not for the world but for his own who are not of the world (John 17 9). In the same fashion the Hermetic writers believed that the hard path of true religion was for the few. In the Asclepius III. 22a, we read:

“There are not many religious men in the world, so few that they could be counted.”

These are just some of the few examples of their multiple similarities. The rebirth doctrine can also been, interestingly enough in Simon Magus, one of the great villains of history and legends of the early church. Simon was a contemporary of Jesus, who also claimed to be divine and also had magical powers and worked miracles- even regarded in Samaria as a messianic savior, being the “Taheb”. In the Clementine Recognitions II.7we are told of Simon that:

“By nation he is a Samaritan . . ; by profession a magician, yet exceedingly well trained in the Greek literature; desirous of glory, and boasting above all the human race, so that he wishes himself to be believed to be an exalted power, which is above God the Creator, and to be thought to be the Christ, and to be called the Standing One. And he uses this name as implying that he can never be dissolved, asserting that his flesh is so compacted by the power of his divinity, that it can endure to eternity.”

In Agrippa’s De occulta philosophica 44, he writes in an ambivalent yet repentant way about embracing Hermes’ magic and connects it with Simon’s!

“There is no work in the whole succession of the world so admirable, so excellent, so marvellous, that the human soul, embracing its image of divinity (which the magicians call the soul standing and not falling) cannot accomplish by its own virtue without any external assistance. The form, therefore, of all magical virtue is from man’s soul standing, and not falling.

Clearly, Agrippa is employing Simonian or Samaritan language here when he says that the soul is “standing, not falling”. The references of the “the magicians” are allusions to Hermes and Simon Magus. The Corpus Hermeticum insists on separating the essential self from the fleshy body as this is the precondition of illumination and the gaining and possession of the divine mind and the powers of God that induces the rebirth into the knowledge of God. Similarly, in the Recognitions II:58, Simon is made to say:

“It is truly very difficult for man to know [the supreme God], as long as he is in the flesh; for blacker than all darkness, and heavier than all clay, is this body with which the soul is surrounded.”

However, it is nonetheless possible for the mind to receive the knowledge and revelation. Simon also happens to deny bodily resurrection of the flesh (as posited by Daniel 12:2 and Isaiah 26:19), in the Clementine Homilies (2:XXII) along with some other heretical ideas, which seem to be representative of most Gnostic beliefs.

And he neither says that the God who created the world is the Supreme, nor does he believe that the dead will be raised. He rejects Jerusalem, and substitutes Mount Gerizzim for it. Instead of our Christ, he proclaims himself.

Instead, only the pneumatic self will rise free from the earthly bonds of the flesh. Hermes, the reborn one, also has an incorruptible body and his disciple, Tat is called “steadfast” in the CH. Simon is called the “Standing One” and is even said to have both an adamantine and smoke bodies in the Clementine literature, strangely enough. Could these be simply code words for Simon having a docetic body?

In Matthew 16:17-18 tells us that Jesus renamed Simon Barjona to Peter, “and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” “Barjona” is actually Aramaic for “Son of John” with bar meaning “son of” and jona being another variation of John. In the Clementine literature, it is well known that Simon Magus was an ardent disciple of John the Baptist as was Jesus in Matthew. In ancient times, “son” often carried the same meaning of the term “disciple” of a religious cult! Could the fact that the Church that Simon Barjona was given to establish on a “Cephas” or “rock” by Jesus be a strangely veiled allusion to that Simon Magus was the actual persona that was renamed Peter? The title “Cephas” or Peter relates to the sturdy, steadfast state of grace of that being the Standing One of Eternity. Could this Simon be the one who was given the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven”? It could also account for the similarity in Peter’s doctrine, when he says:

“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

Paul in Romans 12:2, Galatians 4:19,29 and Ephesians 22-24, Colossians 3:9-10, also all lend themselves as being construed as speaking of spiritual rebirth:

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

“My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…”

“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”

“22 that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”

9 “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds,10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”

Agrippa does not make these connections at all in his writings but one can easily see Peter’s connection with Simon as indicated by Matthew. While this is admittedly speculative, it goes without saying that the Clementine literature makes such great lengths to separate the two figures by putting Simon Magus against Peter in a three day marathon of debate on scripture and religious doctrine representing the Hellenistic Christology of Paul and Marcion versus the Jewish Christianity of the early Apostolic Church. Interesting dilemma indeed!

Peter doesn’t just mean “rock”. “Peter” can effectively be seen as a borrowing of the title “Pater” from the Mithraic mysteries as a “chief” or “father” from all seven degrees of initiation as described by St. Jerome from Letters 107 ch. 2, (To Laeta):

“… did not your own kinsman Gracchus whose name betokens his patrician origin, when a few years back he held the prefecture of the City, overthrow, break in pieces, and shake to pieces the grotto of Mithras and all the dreadful images therein? Those I mean by which the worshippers were initiated as Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Perseus, Sun, Crab, and Father?”

In essence, Peter may have been confused as a “father god” of Mithras much like how Simon Magus was confused with the Roman-Sabine deity Semo Sancus by Justin Martyr, which has intimate connections with Mithras as well.

Agrippa’s conflation with the pious Hermes, the holy Scriptures, and that mighty heretic Simon Magus all pointed him in the same direction. How then could he tell whether he was moving towards transfiguration and a godlike knowledge and power, or whether he was destined, with Iannes and Mambres (Egyptian magicians, like Hermes), and with Simon Magus, to the torments of eternal fire? He indicates these doubts in the very last paragraph of the very last book in De occulta philosophia (Book III, Part 5) and quite naturally condemns other heretical magicians like the Gnostics, Valentinians and Ophites as facing the same fate of damnation as Simon Magus. However, if Agrippa had read Acts of the Apostles, he would see that Hermes was very much a part of the Apostles’ lore, as is the case with none other than Paul.


Paul, Thrice Great

According to the Church Fathers like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Hippolytus, Simon was worshiped, associated in the image of both Zeus and Semo Sancus, who were both gods of contracts and legalities. Paul was also “worshiped” or confused as a god and a Greek one at that. In Acts 14:8-10, Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet. When he heals the man he creates a sensation, and a crowd forms claiming that the gods have come in human form. Paul is called Hermes (or Mercurias in the Latin).

At Lystra there was a crippled man, lame from birth, who had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking, who looked intently at him, saw that he had the faith to be healed, 10 and called out in a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet.” He jumped up and began to walk about. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they cried out in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in human form.”12 They called Barnabas “Zeus”and Paul “Hermes,” because he was the chief speaker.13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, for he together with the people intended to offer sacrifice.

The healing of the crippled man’s feet, indicates a connection with the Greek Hermes’ winged feet. Hermes was the messenger of the Olympian gods, Paul is given this name because he was the chief spokesperson. Barnabas is called Zeus (or Jupiter), Zeus was the “father” of the gods. Why does the crowd make the connection between Paul and Hermes? There is a legend which may shed some light on this incident.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.626ff, there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality. When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could. As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.”

The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed. The couple asked only to be priests in the temple of Zeus and that they die at the same time, so that neither had to see the tomb of the other. This story also seems to foreshadow the Sodom and Gomorrah tale in Genesis 19 as well.

So what is the point of this story? According to Acts, this was the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience. The miracle generates a crowd which thinks Paul is Hermes. There are priests there as well as people about to honor Paul and Barnabas as pagan gods and must contextualize the gospel for a pagan world. But, those pagans weren’t going to let go of Paul and Barnabas without a proper sacrifice in their names!

Paul’s confusion with Hermes also mirrors later when Acts 18:24-25 mentions a Jew named Apollos, which is an obvious reference to Apollo, the sun god and son of Zeus!

[24] And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. [25] This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.

So, here we have Paul being mistaken for a god, Simon mistaken for Semo Sancus, while the docetic Jesus of Paul is mistaken for a flesh and blood man. This is merely proof they are all the same individual. In Greek myth, mortals are mistaken for Gods because of their beautiful appearances. The Jesus of apocalyptic lore and messianic expectations can hardly be a man mistaken to be a God. As found in the Acts of John 228, John says to draw a likeness of what is dead is childish and imperfect. The Orthodox and Simon agreed that worshiping images was ignorant but yet the Orthodox allowed it to occur whereas Simon excommunicated followers for the offense of worshiping his consort Helena and himself as Minerva and Jupiter. John is more Arian than Gnostic or Orthodox as he is an iconoclast foreshadow those who denies the use of images altogether as entirely foolish.

Maybe Jesus’s warning in Matthew 6:17 of putting oil on your head and washing your face when fasting was not just to avoid being a hypocrite like the Pharisees but in actuality, to appear to be illumined as John in the Acts of John, so the commoners of Rome would see you as a god!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where things get really heavy, as the concept of the “divine twin” alive and well in ancient apocryphal and esoteric literature as well as the New Testament!

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