De Anima: mystery religions, gnosticism and hermeticism
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Related to the question of how an immaterial soul attaches to a physical body, there was the question of how the soul traveled from the body in Dionysiac ecstasy and how a god entered the pythia when Apollo spoke through her to give an oracle at Delphi. Discussion of these questions once more went back to Plato (Phaedrus 254 a; Ion 533 d). In the latter case, a god was thought to enter the human form in a garment of light that philosophers referred to as a chiton. During an oracle a god overtook a physical body, "inspired" it by entering the pneuma in order to use the body as a tool through which to speak. The pythia herself was not conscious of the god's presence as she was now separated from her body by the god possessing her pneuma. This notion of a god enveloped in a garment of light is found in the Hermetic Poimandres. Poimandres, "a Being of vast and boundless magnitude," instructs Hermes; Poimandres identifying himself as the Light, "even Mind, the first god." But while Hermes speaks directly to Poimandres, he is neither transported to the higher realms as in ecstasy, nor does Poimandres "inspire" Hermes by taking possession of his pneuma. The instruction takes place directly between Poimandres and Hermes in the mind of Hermes. Poimandres is the "Mind, the first god," that is, the Nous. By the second century there had developed the idea that the soul acted as a vehicle for the human mind, and this mind was of two parts. The discriminating rational mind was the logos while the higher, intuitive mind was called the nous. In the Corpus Hermeticum X.13 it states that the mind ('o nous) is vehicled in the soul (psyche), the soul in the pneuma "traversing the arteries together with the blood." The relationship between the human nous and the divine mind called Nous, as we have already seen with Cicero, is one of a part to a whole. In Hermeticism the divine mind can speak directly to a part of itself held within a human form.
In the case of ecstasy, the soul traverses to astral planes away from the physical body. The pneuma, being that part of the body holding the soul, is also left behind, and the soul travels instead in an ochema that is distinctly not the pneuma. In the Great Magical Papyrus the so-called Mithras Liturgy mentions that one has "to be born again (metagenetho)" into a heavenly body (soma teleion) in order to make such a journey. We also hear of being "born again" in the Corpus Hermeticum Libellus XIII. Here Tat inquires of Hermes Trismegistus, "You said that no one can be saved until he has been born again'what manner of man is he that is brought into being by Rebirth (paligenesis)'" Hermes answers that in his rebirth there was formed an immaterial, immortal body (athanaton soma), and that he "passed forth out of myself and entered into an immortal body." Afterward he was no longer the man he once was. Instead he had become "a god, and son of god," no longer material himself but partaking in "the substance of things intelligible (noetes)." Similarly in the mystery religions, through initiation the pneuma is replaced by another kind of body for the soul. This rebirth (renatio) is made following the second death; acted out in the initiation rites of the mysteries. First there is the death of the soul as it became encumbered in the pneuma of the body, then the second death that releases the soul from the pneuma into a new vehiculum. The renatio is also a reconstitutio of the human form, with the soul freed and the nous revealed. The human nous is thereby "resurrected" (anastasis) into direct contact with the gods. From the Dionysiac mysteries, Euripedes speaks of the "the miraculous birth" and of "the wondrous babe of god, the Mystery (Bacchae 519). The Gnostics looked to Paul for the same idea where he claimed that he had already been resurrected in his lifetime, and that he had traveled to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2).
Philosophers had been primarily concerned with how an immaterial soul related to a material body. The religious movements had concern in how a human soul related to the gods. In the mystery religions the concern was over how a person in this life could be in immediate contact with the gods. The answer for them was that through initiation one recognized their own divinity. Cicero, referring to the Eleussian mysteries, says, "know then that you are a god (De Republica VI.17; De Natura Deorum II.61). Plutarch says that humans are divine "and inferior in no whit to the celestials save in immortality." To connect with the gods Seneca advised, "Withdraw into yourself (Recede in te ipsum)." In the mystery religions the pneuma became a spiritual body of the soul. Initiation purified the pneuma allowing it then to function as an intermediary between the human nous and the divine Nous. Hermeticists and Gnostics saw the divine in man as having been separated from God, then ensnared in a material form. Gnostics took this idea a step further. In Gnostic cosmology the physical universe was created by an evil demiurgic deity, matter was itself evil, and the souls of men had been stolen by the Archons from the World Soul identified as Sophia, or the Wisdom of God, before being imprisoned in a fleshy body. In some Gnostic texts this theft and capture of souls is made in the allegory of the rape of Sophia by the Archons. Paul tells of how the Sophia (Wisdom) of God had been hidden before the ages, that the Archons of the ages of the physical universe were unaware of the Gnostic god or his actions, and therefore "the Lord of Glory was impaled," and that only to certain people had these things been revealed "through the pneumatos (1 Cor. 2:7-9)."
With the change in perspective of what function the pneuma served, it now becoming an immaterial, spiritual body of the soul, Hermetists and Gnostics needed a new intermediary attaching the soul to the body. The Midplatonist Albinus wrote of Plato's ochema only in terms of the fleshy body acting as a vehicle for an incarnate soul, the stars as ochemata of disincarnate souls (Handbook c 23). Plato's ochema and Aristotle's pneuma remained distinctly different. In later philosophy Plotinus held Aristotle's pneuma forming around the soul as it travels down through the ourasia. His pupil Porphyry, according to Augustine citing the De regressu animae, held the view that the pneuma forms around the soul and became darker and heavier as it accumulates moisture while the soul descends through the air. The concept of these early Neoplatonists still distinguished the pneuma as the means of the soul attaching to the physical body, functioning in some sense as the soul's vehicle, but still not identified with Plato's ochema. In the Hermetic Poimandres the pneuma is regarded as layers of materiality, stripped off into the planetary spheres as the soul ascends once more to its heavenly abode. It is not therefore something acquired in the process of the soul's attachment to the body, but rather functions as the ochema carrying the soul from the body. With the Gnostics this was taken a step further. The Pistis Sophia describes an antimimon pneuma that is acquired by accretion around the pneuma as it carries the soul through the astral planes, so that increasingly a body of passions forms in layers around the soul, weighing it down into a material existence. Clement of Alexandria mentions Basilidian Gnostics who believed in a prosertemenon pneuma or a prosphyes psyche acting in the same sense. These other bodies, being semi-material, or quasi-material, are then distinct from the pneuma. The subtle distinction made by the Gnostics was easily misunderstood. A crude idea identified the soul with the pneuma. Cruder still was the mistaken notion that Gnostic reference to the resurrection referred to the physical body rather than to the nous in a spiritual body. And further still, where the Gnostic notion held redemption to be the reuniting of the soul into the World Soul, so that the human nous could continue on to reunite with the divine Nous, later Christians saw the physical body rising into spiritual realms.
Already with Paul the argument is made in I Corinthians against those "senseless, unreasonable ones" who speak of a resurrection of the earthly body. "Flesh and blood are not able to inherit the Kingdom of God." He puts forward the idea that divine seeds (spermaton) are sown into a body of soul (soma psychikon), but that they are then replaced into a different body, the soma pneumatikon that carries the seeds heavenward. "Speirati soma psychikon, egeiretai soma pneumatikon." Paul had completely reversed the relationship of the soul and pneuma held in Greek philosophy, and to no avail. Each of the Christian communities to which Paul wrote his Epistles became Marcion Gnostics, Marcion holding his authority directly from Paul. At Alexandria Paul's pupil Theudas taught Valentinius, who then traveled to Rome in 136 CE, where he established the predominant form of early Christianity. Valentinian Gnosticism spread throughout the Roman Empire in 155-175 CE. From 175-230 a new literal form of Christianity arose with Irenaenus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus. Each attacked Gnosticism in its varied forms, eventually the literal interpreters replacing Gnosticism as Christian orthodoxy. Still today, nearly two thousand years later, fundamentalist forms of Christianity insist upon a resurrection of the physical body in a kind of rapture originating in Dionysiac ecstasy. How this continued into our own day is easily seen in the way Paul was reinterpreted each time he was translated. In the Vulgata, the translation of the Greek texts into Latin, Paul's soma psychikon became the literal translation: corpus spiritale. Augustine translates Paul's soma pneumatikon as vehiculum to associate it with Plato's ochema. Augustine also speaks of a perishable irrational soul as the anima spiritualis linked to the corpus animale. Translated from Latin into English with the King James version, corpus animale becomes the "natural body." Later translations into modern English, the "Revised Standard Version" and the "Contemporary English Version" (1995), replaced "natural body" with "physical body." Ironically, as Paul had stood ancient philosophy on its head, reversing its teachings, Paul's modern interpreters have transcribed his words into direct contradiction to the point he was he arguing.