top of page


Ways of Ascent

For scholars who use the term in the broadest sense, Hermetic works are sometimes included in the larger category of Gnosticism, and classical Hermeticism does indeed display a good deal in common with its contemporary ancient Gnostic traditions. Both movements flourished in the same geographic regions over roughly the same time period, likely drawing members from the same social classes, and in turn being influenced by many of the same older sources. Gnosticism and Hermeticism existed side by side in cities such as Alexandria for centuries, with both movements likely being well aware of each other (evidenced by traces of mutual influence in their respected bodies of literature). During this time it is entirely conceivable that individuals may have gone from one group to the other, or indeed been influenced by both (see the works of Zosimus of Panopolis). So lets take a look at some the things that set Gnosticism and Hermeticism apart and some of the things they hold in common.

The Vision of Hermes Trismegistus by Johfra Bosschart2_edited_edited_edited.jpg
Gnosticism and Hermeticism: About

Hermetic texts generally take the form of a dialogue with Hermes Trismegistus, and are written in his name. The figure of Hermes Trismegistus was viewed as a mortal Egyptian sage of remote antiquity, credited with teaching philosophy long before the luminaries of Greece, and sometimes thought of as a contemporary of Moses. The figure also inherits many of the features and attributes of the syncretised Hermes-Thoth of the same time period. Both deities, Greek and Egyptian, were seen as messengers between the divine and mortal worlds, representing knowledge and the intellect, with trismegistus (meaning 'thrice-great') also being an epithet of the god Thoth. The divine revealer figure represented by Hermes Trismegistus is also a near universal motif in Gnostic texts, most often in the form of Christ, one of the Apostles, or more mysterious figures such as Zostrianos; but while the Gnostic revealers came as saviour, Hermes came predominantly as teacher.

Classical Hermeticism and ancient Gnosticism (in the broad sense of the term) could be described as sister traditions. Siblings, that - while not identical - share a great deal of common traits. Both emerged from the same highly syncretic spiritual milieu that flourished across the eastern Mediterranean, and especially in the city of Alexandria, during Late Antiquity. Both were of a highly philosophical nature, blending the high-minded theological reasoning of Platonism with a transcendental visionary mysticism that prioritised personal revelation above all else. Both movements, while possessing a spirit/matter duality, emphasised the belief that the spiritual essence of humanity is out of place in the material cosmos and should seek a spiritual ascent to the divine world. In both cases this ascent is facilitated by a kind of revelatory knowledge regarding the true nature of creation and one's place in it – gnosis. The Greek word gnosis means "knowledge", but the knowledge proclaimed by the Gnostics and Hermetics was not obtained purely by the accepted rules of methodical reasoning, but by divine revelation. Their knowledge was a salvific knowledge. Those who had gnosis knew the way to God, from our visible material world up to the spiritual realm of divine being.

Gnosticism and Hermeticism both stress the importance of personal revelation, and the idea that knowledge of the self is knowledge of God, as the soul is itself divine. While both espoused a descending emanationist cosmology stretching between the highest transcendent God down to the world of matter, the Hermetic system is much simpler and less elaborate. A distinction can also be made between the Gnostic and Hermetic views of God - to the Gnostic, the transcendent God, while still to be contemplated and praised, was ultimately unknowable, whereas the Hermetics asserted that the highest God can indeed be known and is accessible to the human mind. To the Hermetics, the second Nous functions as a divine demiurge, shaping the material cosmos and the 'world of elements in accordance with divine will', as in Neoplatonism this is not considered a negative act or one bourne from ignorance. Part of the divine plan rather than a divine error.

In classical Hermeticism there is no suggestion that the material cosmos itself or its creator should be viewed negatively; however, the two traditions, or movements, do echo each other closely in doctrines of soul/body dualism. There is in Hermeticism, as in Gnosticism, the belief that bodily existence is something to be transcended and that one should not succumb to the 'drunkenness' of the world or to ignorance of the true transcendent God. The core elements of Hermetic doctrine and theology come from the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, known as The Poimandres or Of Hermes Trismegistus: Poimandres. The place of this text in the Hermetic corpus is akin to that of the Apocryphon of John in Classic Gnosticism, being the most foundational and likely oldest work in the surviving body of literature. It takes the form of a revelatory dialogue between an anonymous character assumed to be Hermes Trismegistus, and a personification of the highest god, the One, going by the name Poimandres. Its cosmogony begins with Hermes seeing a bright light followed by darkness. The light is identified as the Nous (the One, the transcendent God analogous to the Monad) and quantified as 'life and light', from the light emerges the 'holy Logos' (the Word), termed the Son of God. Through the instrumentality of the Logos, which descends into the darkness, the highest Nous then creates the elements of Nature – the building blocks of material existence. The Nous then creates a 'second Nous', the Craftsman or Demiurge who shapes the four elements into the material cosmos, creates the seven Governors or Administrators (symbolically associated with the seven major planets by the ancient Hermetics), and sets them in motion. The Logos then ascends from the elements and interacts with the second Nous, producing life within the cosmos. Archetypal spiritual man, Anthropos (analogous to Geradamas in classic Gnosticism), is emanated directly by the Nous, and is said to have 'worn his Father's image'. The Anthropos is then said to have descended from the divine world down into the material cosmos, the world of elements. There he beheld the beauty of Nature and fell in love, thus becoming ensnared in the material world and providing the Hermetic rationale for the need to ascend to the divine world. This entrapment is the reason for the twofold nature of humanity - mortal because of the body, immortal because of the divine spirit within. Thus within Hermeticism, unlike the Gnostic traditions, the world's creation is not attributed to a divine fall or error, however man's presence within the cosmos is due to a divine fall of sorts – man's own. In the broadest terms the outline of the Hermetic myth follows a similar pattern to that of the Gnostics, a kind of self-awakening of the Monad/Nous, followed by emanation, followed by creation, followed by a fall of some kind which in turn leads to humanity's present state of being and informs the aspirations of both movements toward spiritual ascent.

'If you learn that you consist of life and light and that you come from there, you will go back to life' – Corpus Hermeticum, Poimandres

Poimandres proceeds to inform Hermes about the dissolution of the material body and the ascension of the divine soul. All passions and vices are returned to the Governors as the soul passes through their seven heavens and proceeds to the Ogdoad, the eighth heaven. There praises are given to the Father, and the praises of the powers of the ninth heaven above them, likewise directed up to the Father, can be heard. All have the ability to ascend further toward the Nous and 'change themselves into powers, and having become powers come to be in God'. This is described as the 'good end for those that have obtained knowledge (gnosis), to become God', once again showing close parallels with certain contemporary Gnostic traditions, most notably the Sethian 'ascent' texts. Hermes is then commanded to 'become a guide to the worthy', a role he fills in the remainder of the Hermetic corpus.

Gnostic and Hermetic writings both show a strong philosophical influence from the Hellenistic philosophical schools in their teachings about the nature of God and the divine cosmos, although perhaps in unequal proportions, with a shared Platonist influence but with Stoicism exerting a much stronger influence upon Hermeticism than on Gnosticism. Though both movements made use of multiple concepts developed in the schools of Hellenic philosophy and science, their central concern of their writings is not philosophical but religious. The so-called 'philosophical' Hermetica teach a way by which the soul can ascend to the divine realm from which it originally descended. There it mingles with the divine powers and comes to "see," that is, to know God, closely paralleling the Sethian Gnostic 'ascension' texts in both methodology and ultimate goal. The inner experience of the Hermetic's spiritual ascent is described in On Being Born Again and on the Promise to be Silent (CH 13), and in the Eighth and the Ninth Sphere. The ascent of the soul is chronicled as passing through various ontological layers of being, spiritual in nature yet outside of the immediate divine realm of the Nous; these layers have planetary associations, and though not entirely negative (as with the Gnostic Archons), they do possess negative associations (known as 'Tormentors') representing the negative aspects of material existence in the body, each of which must be transcended in order to move on. The full extent of this deification can be fully attained only after death if the soul transcends the cycle of reincarnation and ascends to God, but it can also be approached as an inner experience during this earthly life. As with most Gnostic texts, the surviving Hermetica cannot be fully explained without reference to Greek philosophical traditions, but their central concerns remained distinctly religious and firm in the view that in the end, it is not philosophical reasoning but divine revelation that leads to the ultimate truth.

They both claim to have received their knowledge of the spiritual world and the fate of the soul from divine revelations. One of the basic texts of early Gnosticism, the Apocryphon of John, takes the form of a narrative from Christ himself; the Hermetic Poimandres claims to be a revelation from the divine Nous to the unnamed pupil identified with Hermes Trismegistus, while in CH13 and in the Eighth and the Ninth it is Hermes who in turn reveals the divine mysteries to others (compare this to the Sethian Gnostic narratives of Allogenes, Zostrianos, and Marsanes). With respect to the soul's final state of bliss, there is little difference in goal or apparent method between Gnosticism and Hermetism. The salvation of the soul consists of its deliverance from the bonds of the mortal body and a return to its original divine state. The indispensable prerequisite for this return is a spiritual understanding (gnosis) of the nature of man, of the cosmos, and of the divine world. In both Hermetism and Gnosticism, the most basic idea is the fundamental shared identity between the human soul and the divine. In both movements the final goal always remained the return of the soul to its original home and state of being, its reunion with God. However, these essential similarities cannot conceal the differences that separate Gnostics and Hermetists.

Both Hermetics and Gnostics made extensive use of negative theology to describe the godhead; however, the Hermetics posited that god is knowable, at least in some small way, via the nous present inside mankind. Differing from this, the Gnostic literature indicates that the highest deity, the Monad, is totally unknowable to man and beyond comprehension. Secondly, the two traditions differ on the nature of the material world and cosmos. In Gnosticism the world is viewed in negative terms, a thing created out divine ignorance by a lower deity, while the Hermetics did not take this hard line approach, instead viewing the cosmos as divinely ordained - “God ordered the cosmos, and that order is beautiful.” While it is true that the views expressed in the Hermetic texts are sometimes at variance with each other, as is the case with Gnostic literature, some treatises do contain doctrines that come close to the more negative view of materiality held by most Gnostics, where the difference between the perfect good of the divine world and the suffering we encounter during earthly life is highlighted. A striking example of this negative view is found in the sixth treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, entitled That the Good is in God Alone and Nowhere Else. However, it must also be said that to the ancient Hermetics the human body was not regarded as a bondage for the spirit ordained by demiurgic figures, but 'a beautiful and divine image' representing the Nous' creative power within the world.

Some cast Hermeticism as the more 'positive' sibling of supposedly negative-leaning Gnosticism, but if one explores the texts of both movements it does not take long to see that the truth is much more nuanced than that, with generalisations such as these being not only inaccurate but unhelpful in the study or practice of both. While there are differences between the classical Hermetic and Gnostic schools of thought, there are - broadly speaking - certainly more similarities than not. As such, modern followers of either path would do well to look into the complimentary wisdom and insight offered by the other, just as their ancient forebears seem to have done in back in the glory days of the Pearl of the Mediterranean.

For further learning resources on classical Hermeticism for the modern Hermeticist please see our friends over at

Gnosticism and Hermeticism: About
bottom of page