Altered states of knowledge: The attainment of gnōsis in the hermetica

Research into the so-called “philosophical” Hermetica has long been dominated by the foundational scholarship of André-Jean Festugière, who strongly emphasized their Greek and philosophical elements. Since the late 1970s, this perspective has given way to a new and more complex one, due to the work of another French scholar, Jean-Pierre Mahé, who could profit from the discovery of new textual sources, and called much more attention to the Egyptian and religious dimensions of the hermetic writings. This article addresses the question of how, on these foundations, we should evaluate and understand the frequent hermetic references to profound but wholly ineffable revelatory and salvational insights received during “ecstatic” states. Festugière dismissed them as “literary fictions”, whereas Mahé took them much more seriously as possibly reflecting ritual practices that took place in hermetic communities. Based upon close reading of three central texts (CH I, CH XIII, NH VI6), and challenging existing translations and interpretations, this article argues that the authors of the hermetic corpus assumed a sequential hierarchy of “levels of knowledge”, in which the highest and most profound knowledge (gnōsis) is attained only during ecstatic or “altered” states of consciousness that transcend rationality. While the hermetic teachings have often been described as unsystematic, inconsistent, incoherent or confused, in fact they are grounded in a precise and carefully formulated doctrine of how the hermetic initiate may move from the domain of mere rational discourse to the attainment of several “trans-rational” stages of direct experiential knowledge, and thereby from the limited and temporal domain of material reality to the unlimited and eternal one of Mind.
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DOI 10.1163/187254708X335728
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