Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

Poimandres
The Hermetic Tractates

Introduction: This writing comes from a large, heterogenous collection of writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum, so-called because some of them have to do in one way or another with the God Hermes. The meaning of the title of this writing is uncertain. The two most commonly accepted interpretations are: (1) the title is Greek and may mean, “shepherd of man” or “shepherd”; (2) the title derives from the Coptic (p.eime.n.re) and means “the knowledge of the Sun-God (Ra).” The second alternative better fits the document’s contents. The author is unknown and opinions differ as to the date of the writing. But the second century A.D. is a likely date.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty as to Poimandres’ date is the puzzling character of the writing itself. Although the author clearly relies on the Jewish creation account in Genesis, chs. 1–2, the writing as a whole comes from a very different context. Is Poimandres a Greco-Egyptian mystical revelation of the creation of the world, which dips from time to time into the narrative of Genesis? Or is it a product of esoteric Jewish mysticism, well assimilated to mystical traditions of other religions? In either case, Poimandres is an excellent example of the religious syncretism that flourished during the GrecoRoman age, that is, the process in which religious traditions mix and appropriate symbols from other traditions.

Poimandres gives expression to a profound pessimism regarding life, a deep rejection of the tangible world. Human beings are not at home in this world; they are “strangers in a strange land.” They are “in the world” only because they have somehow gotten themselves subjected to a terrible demonic Power which rules the physical universe.

The corollary to this deep disenchantment with the world is the view that authentic human existence may only be restored by enlightenment, enlightenment in the form of secret, saving knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge brings to a few elect humans the realization of their predicament in the world and the message that they really do not belong here, but are destined to return to the heavenly realm from whence they came. In short, humans are presented in Poimandres as heavenly souls entrapped in this evil and unredeemable creation.

So humans are dual creatures; they are divine, immortal souls which have somehow gotten ensnared in filthy physical bodies. Gnosis frees the divine element from the trap of the body, so that the souls may ascend through the heavenly spheres back to their true heavenly abode.

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