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The Mead Translation and Commentary

The sixth excerpt from the Hermetica preserved by the fifth-century Macedonian Johannes of Stobi is identified only as Hermou ek tôn pros Tat; in his Latin translation, Cardinal Patrizzi suggested Of the Stars, and later Mead offered the less ambiguous Of the Decans and the Stars.

The following is the English translation of 1906 by G.R.S. Mead, the Theosophist, prolific esoteric scholar, and founder of the Quest Society.

--Adam Forrest

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[Stobæi Hermeticum, Libellus VI]
Of [the Decans and] the Stars

(Patrizzi (p. 38b) does not give the first third of the text (§§ 1-5) and his title, Of the Stars, is evidently incomplete; it is followed by To the Same [i.e. Tat].

Text: Stob., Phys., xxi, 9, under the heading: of Hermes from the [Sermon] to Tat, pp. 184-90; M. 129-33; W. i, 189-94.

Ménard, Livre IV, No. vi of Fragments from The Books of Hermes to His Son Tat, pp. 242-7, under the sub-heading, Of the Decans and the Stars.)

1. Tat. Since in thy former General Sermons (Logoi), [father,] thou didst promise me an explanation of the Six-and-thirty Decans, explain, I prithee, now concerning them and their activity.

Her. There's not the slightest wish in me not to do so, O Tat, and this should prove the most authoritative sermon (logos) and the chiefest of them all. So ponder on it well.

We have already spoken unto thee about the Circle of the Animals, or the Life-giving one, of the Five Planets, and of Sun and Moon, and of the Circle of each one of these.

2. Tat. Thou hast done so, Thrice-greatest one.

Her. Thus would I have thee understand as well about the Six-and-thirty Decans--calling the former things to mind, in order that the sermon on the latter may also be well understood by thee.

Tat. I have recalled them, father, [to my mind].

Her. We said, [my] son, there is a Body which encompasses all things. Conceive it, then, as being in itself a kind of figure of a sphere-like shape; so is the universe conformed.

Tat. I've thought of such a figure in my mind, just as thou dost describe, O father [mine].

3. Her. Beneath the Circle of this [all-embracing] frame are ranged the Six-and-thirty Decans, between this Circle of the Universe and that one of the Animals, determining the boundaries of both these Circles, and, as it were, holding that of the Animals aloft up in the air, and [so] defining it. They share the motion of the Planetary Spheres, and [yet] have equal powers with the [main] motion of the Whole, crosswise the Seven. They're checked by nothing but the All-encircling Body, for this must be the final thing in the [whole grades of] motion--itself by its own self. But they speed on the Seven other Circles, because they move with a less rapid motion than the [Circle] of the All.

Let us, then, think of them as though of Watchers stationed round [and watching] over both the Seven themselves and o'er the Circle of the All--or rather over all things in the World--holding together all, and keeping the good order of all things.

4. Tat. Thus do I have it, father, in my mind, from what thou say'st.

Her. Moreover, Tat, thou should'st have in thy mind that they are also free from the necessities laid on the other Stars. They are not checked and settled in their course, nor are they [further] hindered and made to tread in their own steps again; nor are they kept away from the Sun's light--[all of] which things the other Stars endure. But free, above them all, as though they were inerrant Guards and Overseers of the whole, they night and day surround the universe.

5. Tat. Do these, then, also, further exercise an influence upon us?

Her. The greatest, O [my] son. For if they act in them, how should they fail to act on us as well--both on each one of us and generally?

Thus, O [my] son, of all those things that happen generally, the bringing into action is from these; as for example--and ponder what I say--downfalls of kingdoms, states' rebellions, plagues [and] famines, tidal waves [and] quakings of the earth; no one of these, O son, takes place without their action.

Nay, further still, bear this in mind. If they rule over them, and we are in our turn beneath the Seven, dost thou not think that some of their activity extends to us as well--[who are] assuredly their sons, or [come into existence] by their means?

6. Tat. What, [then,] may be the type of body that they have, O father [mine]?

Her. The many call them daimones; but they are not some special class of daimones, for they have not some other kind of bodies made of some special kind of matter, nor are they moved by means of soul, as we [are moved], but they are [simple] operations of these Six-and-thirty Gods.

Nay, further, still, have in thy mind, O Tat, their operations--that they cast in the earth the seed of those whom [men] call Tanes, some playing the part of saviours, others being most destructive.

7. Further the Stars in heaven as well do in their several [courses] bear them underworkers; and they have ministers and warriors too. And they in [everlasting] congress with them speed on their course in æther floating, full-filling [all] its space, so that there is no space above empty of stars.

They are the cosmic engine of the universe, having their own peculiar action, which is subordinate, however, to the action of the Thirty-six--from whom throughout [all] lands arise the deaths of [all] the other lives with souls, and hosts of [lesser] lives that spoil the fruit.

8. And under them is what is called the Bear--just in the middle of the Circle of the Animals, composed of seven stars, and with another corresponding [Bear] above its head.

Its energy is as it were an axle's, setting nowhere and nowhere rising, but stopping [ever] in the self-same space, and turning round the same, giving its proper motion to the Life-producing Circle, and handing over this whole universe from night to day, from day to night.

And after this there is another choir of stars, to which we have not thought it proper to give names; but they who will come after us, in imitation, will give them names themselves.

9. Again, below the Moon, are other stars, corruptible, deprived of energy, which hold together for a little while, in that they've been exhaled out of the earth itself into the air above the earth--which ever are being broken up, in that they have a nature like unto [that of] useless lives on earth, which come into existence for no other purpose than to die--such as the tribe of flies, and fleas, and worms, and other things like them. For these are useful, Tat, neither to us nor to the world; but, on the contrary, they trouble and annoy, being nature's by-products, which owe their birth to her extravagance.

Just in the same way, too, the stars exhaled from earth do not attain the upper space. They cannot do so, since they are sent forth from below; and, owing to the greatness of their weight, dragged down by their own matter, they quickly are dispersed, and, breaking up, fail back again on earth, affecting nothing but the mere disturbance of the air about the earth.

10. There is another class, O Tat, that of the so-called long-haired [stars], appearing at their proper times, and after a short time, becoming once again invisible they neither rise nor set nor are they broken up. These are the brilliant messengers and heralds of the general destinies of things that are to be. They occupy the space below the Circle of the Sun.

When, then, some chance is going to happen to the world, [comets] appear, and, shining for some days, again return behind the Circle of the Sun, and stay invisible--some showing in the east, some in the north, some in the west, and others in the south. We call them Prophets.

11. Such is the nature of the stars. The stars, however, differ from the star-groups. The stars are they which sail in heaven; the star-groups, on the contrary, are fixed in heaven's frame, and they are borne along together with the heaven--Twelve out of which we call the Zôdia.

He who knows these can form some notion clearly of [what] God is; and, if one should dare say so, becoming [thus] a seer for himself, [so] contemplate Him, and, contemplating Him, be blessed.

12. Tat. Blessed, in truth, is he, O father [mine], who contemplateth Him.

Her. But 'tis impossible, O son, that one in body should have this good chance.

Moreover, he should train his soul beforehand, here and now, that when it reacheth there, [the space] where it is possible for it to contemplate, it may not miss its way. But men who love their bodies--such men will never contemplate the Vision of the Beautiful and Good.

For what, O son, is that [fair] Beauty which hath no form nor any colour, nor any mass?

Tat. Can there be aught that's beautiful apart from these?

Her. God only, O [my] son; or rather that which is still greater--the [proper] name of God.

of G.R.S. Mead

Note 1.
en tois emprothen genikois logois. Cf. C. H., x (xi), 1 and 7; xiii (xiv), 1; and Ex. xviii, 1.
Note 2. These are the "Horoscopes" of P. S. A., xix, 3. Cf. also Origen, C. Cels., viii, 58; R 225, n. 1.
Note 3. Or energy.
Note 4. The zodiac; peri tou zôdiakou kyklou hê zôophorou--of which the second member is probably a gloss; but see § 8 below.
Note 5. Or sphere.
Note 6. Or body.
Note 7. That is, the Decans.
Note 8. Or Universe.
Note 9. This refers to the astronomical system underlying the Pythagoreo-Platonic tradition, as, for instance, set forth allegorically and symbolically by Plato in the famous passage in The Timaeus (36 s, C). "The entire compound he (the Demiurge) divided lengthways into two parts, which he joined to one another at the centre like the letter x, and bent them into a circular form, connecting them with themselves and each other at the point opposite to their original meeting point; and, comprehending them in a uniform revolution upon the same axis, he made the one the outer and the other the inner circle. Now the motion of the outer circle he called the motion of the same, and the motion of the inner circle the motion of the other or diverse" (Jowett's Translation, iii, 454, 455). The x symbolises the "crosswise", which in terms of motion may be translated as "inverse to".
Note 10. Sc. the Decans.
Note 11. The Decans.
Note 12. Referring, presumably, to the fixed stars and the planets.
Note 13. Reading apo for hypo--referring to eclipses.
Note 14. Or energy.
Note 15. Or energise.
Note 16. That is, the Seven Spheres.
Note 17. The rest of the fragment is also found in Patrizzi (p. 38b), under the title "Of the Stars".
Note 18. Or energy.
Note 19. Sc. the Decans.
Note 20. C. H., xvi, 10.
Note 21. typos. The question concerning the spiritual and other spaces and their inhabitants, "Of what type are they?"--occurs with great frequency in the Bruce and Askew Gnostic Codices.
Note 22. Or energies.
Note 23. hoti kai eis tên gên spermati zousin as kalousi tanas, tas men sôtêrious, tas de olephriôtatas. Neither Patrizzi nor Gaisford, nor Meineke, nor Wachsmuth, nor Ménard, has a word to say on this most interesting passage. I would suggest in the first place that the text is faulty, and that we should read "ous kalousi Tanas, tous men sôtêrious, tous de olephriôtatous"; and in the second that Tanas is a shortened form of Titanas or Titans. Tanas (? from Tan) is connected with tanaos, "stretched out", from [the root] tan, just as Titan is connected with titainô--Titanes thus signifying the Stretchers or Strivers. It may, however, also be connected with titas (titês)--from tinô, and so mean Avengers. Cf. J. Laurent. Lydus, De Mensibus, iv, 31 (W. 90, 24), as given in note to P. S.A., xxviii, 1.
Note 24. The planetary spheres, presumably.
Note 25. Sc. the Decans.
Note 26. hypoleitourgous--a hapax legomenon. The term leitourgoi, however, is of frequent occurrence in the Askew and Bruce Codices. See, for instance Pistis Sophia (Schwartze's Trans.), p. 10: "Atque dekanoi archontôn eorumque leitourgoi. 10. The Decans.
Note 27. stratiôtas--soldiers; one of the most famous of the degrees of the Mithriac mysteries was that of the Soldier. See Cumont (F.), Textes et Monuments Figurés relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra (Bruxelles; 1899), 1315, and especially 1317, n. 1.
Note 28. The Star-spheres.
Note 29. The Decans.
Note 30. Æther's.
Note 31. synkosmountes to pan.
Note 32. Or animals.
Note 33. The Decans.
Note 34. The Great Bear. Compare "Behold the Bear up there that circles round the Pole".
Note 35. The zodiac.
Note 36. The Little Bear.
Note 37. Lit. energy.
Note 38. Cf. § 1 above.
Note 39. Sc. the Bear.
Note 40. Cf. P. S. A., xii, 3; xiv., 1.
Note 41. That is, apparently, invent them out of their own heads haphazard.
Note 42. Referring, presumably, to the phenomena of "shooting stars".
Note 43. parakolouthêmata--sequellae.
Note 44. See the same idea in Plutarch, De Is. et Os., iv, 5, concerning lice.
Note 45. The comets--tôn kaloumenôn kometôn.
Note 46. apotelesmatôn.
Note 47. Lit. below.
Note 48. manteis, seers or diviners.
Note 49. asteres de astrôn diaphoran exousin. The asteres are the planets, aerolites and comets; the astra are the sidera, signs of the fixed stars or constellations.
Note 50. Or float (aiôroumenoi), lit. are raised aloft.
Note 51. Or body.
Note 52. The zodiac; lit. the animal signs, or signs of lives.
Note 53. Cf. Ex. i, 6.
Note 54. Or body.

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