Jack Kausch’s novel Aretalogy (published by Stare Lore Publishing, see an interview with one of the co-founders here, see posts with the other founder here) brings to life the world of ancient Alexandria and introduces readers to the fascinating figure of Imhotep, the historical architect and sage who was later deified in Egyptian mythology. In this expansive interview, Kausch provides insight into the research and inspirations behind his book, his passion for uncovering the roots of Hermetic philosophy, and his perspective on how ancient wisdom traditions remain relevant today. Tracing connections between Egyptian and Greek thought, the real and the mythological, Aretalogy seeks to bridge divides across culture, time and spirituality. For those interested in esoteric history or who simply enjoy historical fiction, this interview offers a window into Kausch’s scholarly yet imaginative approach to conjuring the ancient world.
PAA: Can you tell us about your background with Hermetics?
Jack Kausch: I first read Brian Copenhaver’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum when I was 18 years old. The texts spoke deeply to my own inner experiences. Here was a body of mysticism from antiquity which seemed to speak to my deepest convictions, and also at the time seemed to come from “Western” culture. As I journeyed and traveled more, meeting more teachers and schools of thought influenced by the tradition, I came to the conclusion that the special contribution of the Hermetica is a religio-philosophical system which spans the divide between monotheism and polytheism. One can prayerfully practice in the tradition while belonging to any religion, or none at all.
PAA: Where did the inspiration to write Aretalogy come from?
Jack Kausch: The relationship between Ancient Egypt and the Hermetica is not straightforward. In the Renaissance, people thought the Hermetica were older than Moses or Plato. Since then, the pendulum swung so far in the other direction scholars said the texts were little more than Greek forgeries of Egyptian wisdom. It is only in the last couple of generations that historical philologists have begun to take a more sober approach in asking to what extent Egyptian priests may have participated in the writing of the texts. But since there are few experts in both Egyptology and Hermetic philosophy, this story has largely been untold.
I wanted to write a story that would convey the spiritual lessons (and some of the scholarly questions) without going into the dry tone of academe. Something accessible and fun that would transport the reader back in time to Alexandria. If you love the texts there are references in Aretalogy which will take you deep into the labyrinths of both Greek and Egyptian wisdom. But you can also read it as a fun historical novel.
PAA: Are there any stories about your writing process for Aretalogy you’d like to share?
Jack Kausch: I spent years doing research for this book. Writing it was a fast process. It was over in a few days. The book is an offering. It is for the gods.
The appendix of Aretalogy (Lineage of a God), was beautifully narrated in this video . The story of a woman who lived 5,000 years ago, she ascended into divinity as the wife of a God – Imhotep. Called Renpetneferet, although we do not know her real name.
PAA: Can you tell us more about the inspiration to create this video and Renpetneferet in Aretalogy?
Jack Kausch: Renpetneferet is telling a story which needs to be heard. I wanted to tell a feminine story from the tradition, and when I discovered her – or when she discovered me – I was enchanted by the lost relatives of Imhotep who inhabited his funerary cult. She seemed to be completely irrelevant to anyone’s discussion of what happened in Saqqara 5,000 years ago, even in antiquity, and I wanted to give voice to her story so that she could, in a sense, live again.
PAA: What was it like presenting at the Theosophical International History Conference in Alexandria, Egypt?
Jack Kausch: What was most interesting about the conference — which included scholars and practitioners — was that many of the philosophers and resources I had read while writing Aretalogy came back and were discussed in the presentations. In that sense it was a happy academic community for a book which, because it is so particular, might not always find a straightforward home in how it would be shelved in most libraries.
And, speaking of libraries, the highlight of the trip was when I donated the book to the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the reconstructed version of the Library of Alexandria. There is no feeling quite as euphoric as that one. The Library of Alexandria in the Musaion appears in Aretalogy, and so donating my book to the New Library felt like standing inside history. After donating it I went to the reading room and found a copy of Thomas Taylor’s translation of Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis, and read it in the Bibliotheca’s vast atrium. There was a sense of history curling in on itself, and of actions never being truly completed.
Just being in Alexandria, in an act of service to the book, was a stunning and exhilarating experience.
PAA: Tell us about the main character in Aretalogy. Who was Imhotep?
Jack Kausch: Imhotep was a person who lived around 2600 BCE, according to modern scholars. He was a unique figure in Egyptian history. He was a commoner but he was elevated to nobility in his own lifetime. He was a significant genius who invented the first pyramid at Saqqara, and also working in stone. To the Egyptians Imhotep has a divine status, and was worshipped as a god a few generations after his death. He is something like a sage, who also serves as a cultural instigator. He exists as a fantastic figure in the depths of Egyptian tradition, and this is why he was later equated to Thoth.
PAA: Can you expand on how the roots of Hermeticism can be traced back to Imhotep?
Jack Kausch: Well this is what I am “arguing” in my fiction. Imhotep was credited as being the first author of a sebayt, or a book of wisdom literature, which is often seen as being an antecedent for the dialogic form of the Hermetica, even if the moral content of the sebayt do not reflect the cosmic and mystical content of the Hermetica. When Imhotep was equated with Amenhotep son of Hapu (another divinzed sage) and later with Thoth, a tradition of a figure of “Hermes” who was simultaneously a man and a god was created. The figures who exist in the Hermetica are sometimes described as people and sometimes as gods, and this ambiguity has perplexed scholars for thousands of years. Imhotep, his historical divinity, and his later assimilation to Thoth explains this, besides the fact that he appears as Asclepius as a character in the dialogues. Indeed the earliest Hermetic text we have, “The Sacred Book of Hermes To Asclepius” is an astrological manual which maps Egyptian to Babylonian astrology, and is titled as though it is a sebayt — which are often written from father to son, in this case from Thoth to Imhotep.
PAA: What is there left to learn and understand about ancient Egypt and its philosophical and magical tradition?
Jack Kausch: Egyptologists will quite rightly state that we know very little, and I think that of the grandeur of this ancient nation, we only have a few fragments available to us. What historical scientists have been able to reconstruct from these fragments is admirable, but much has been lost. The importance of theurgy and invocation is well known to many, but I think the fundamentally theosophical nature of Egyptian religion is not understood by many people. It is an anachronism to compare their religion to the theosophy of Jacob Böhme, and I would not be original were I to do so, but I think a theosophical understanding of the nature of hieroglyphic, statutory and pictorial depictions is the best way to understand how theurgic representations were meant to incarnate an ineffable divine.
PAA: What can be done so that these teachings might be made known?
Jack Kausch: Practicing and embodying this wisdom in your own life is the best way to do so. The hermetica are not, and never have been, a religion. They are the spiritual texts of philosophical refugees.The wisdom they embody needs to be shared so that the world can know peace. Many other peoples have their own teachings at this time, and correctly understood the teachings can help the practitioner mediate between religions. The hermetica have also had a pronounced influence on the history of Western culture, particularly the history of science, and this needs to be more widely acknowledged and known about by the general public. No one should be surprised, in the future world that is to come, that Isaac Newton was also an alchemist. If you know this history, it is more surprising that anyone would ever have thought he was not.
PAA: In Aretalogy, there is mention of a Book of Thoth. Could you tell us more about this book in general and then specifically about this book in the context of Aretalogy?
Jack Kausch: Well, there is no such thing as a singular Book of Thoth. In Greek texts multiple “Books of Thoth” are referred to as books in the temple libraries. It also appears as a metaphorical book of spells in the story of Setne Khaemwas, of which a public domain translation appears in Aretalogy. There never was any singular Book of Thoth as some Rosicrucians speculate. But the Book of Thoth is a metaphor for the lost Egyptian wisdom, Egyptian magic, and a question mark hovering over what Egyptian “philosophy” is — which is very different from philosophy as it is conceived by the Greeks. The (non)existence of the Book of Thoth, and the search for it, is also a metaphor for the unreliability of the textual tradition and the transmission of the classics, which we must navigate and piece together through the practice of memory, made dramatic by the fact that some texts are lost and then found again…
PAA: What would you say are the greatest similarities and differences between the ancient Greek and Egyptian theologies and theurgies?
Jack Kausch: Both were polytheistic cultures which believed in syncretism and the fundamental equivalence of deities, although Egyptians were certainly offended by the appropriation inherent in Greek syncretism, as evidenced by the fact that the priests of Memphis refused to adopt the liturgies of Serapis, sticking to the old Osiris. Both also had a great respect for the use of mathematical representations to depict theurgic truths. The historical irony of the Hermetica (which the writers of the texts are playing with) is that the Greeks claim to have learned their philosophy from the Egyptians. The Hermetica present a Hellenized version of what Egypt looked like to a Platonist imaginary, but they are written after and in response to Plato. Thus the Greeks would claim their philosophy emerged from an Egyptian influence; after colonization the Egyptians produced philosophical texts which would purport the confirm this, under a Greek influence.
PAA: How exactly do these traditions flow together in practice?
Jack Kausch: The PGM is a good example of how the traditions all became one. Practitioners could invoke Jewish, Greek and Egyptian divinities and names simultaneously. In Aretalogy, the passage where Psa “cuts through the Ennead” is a metaphor for how theurgic practices of the Egyptians would be incorporated in the Ptolemaic system for the purpose of planetary magic. This system of astrology would dominate the West for another 2,000 years, and it began in Egypt with the fusion of Egyptian Decans and the Babylonian Zodiac. Even our astrological symbols come from Demotic marginalia. So they have been practiced together for thousands of years now.
PAA: How useful is ancient Egyptian knowledge, or ancient Greek knowledge, for the modern man?
Jack Kausch: Egyptian knowledge is ultimately about the creation of icons and representations which are charged with power and which help humanity mediate between the human world, the natural world and the divine world. Such symbolic maps will help different nations understand each other, and can help teach the peoples of today how to respect each other and the earth without being destructive. Correctly understood Egyptian wisdom is a teaching tool which is commonly understood enough to help all of humanity be more civilized.
PAA: What do you think we have lost and what have we gained compared to the times of Alexandria?
Jack Kausch: I do not know if the course of history is as simple as loss and gain. Certainly at this moment great powers have emerged which promulgate ideologies which have caused us to forget the past. Of course we still live in the shadows of the past, and some of our struggles were even begun 5,000 years ago. The fact that our science has caused us to gain material power is positive. However if we do not maintain the spiritual wisdom of the past the results of that power will be ruinous and the only thing we will bring to the earth is destruction. Since Alexandria, we have lost the sense that the world is alive, populated by divinities and gods, and deserves to be respected, not exploited.
PAA: Alexandria was a great school. Do you think our educational system is a match for it?
Jack Kausch: On the one hand we live in an era which has witnessed a massive explosion in science and literature. Unfortunately our education system is piecemeal and is not designed to give students a holistic picture of the world’s knowledge. The ancient curriculum of the Quadrivium and the Trivium produced whole persons who had a well balanced education, who could be said to know a little of everything. A modern liberal arts system could achieve the same if we reorganized the academy such that disciplinary boundaries were less prominent.
PAA: What do you think your book Aretalogy offers the world?
Jack Kausch: My book offers a felt, embodied understanding of wisdom. It also offers a window to the past. If you read it, it will convey to you an experience of the roots of the Hermetic tradition.
PAA: What would your plans be for it in the future? What about your own plans as an author?
Jack Kausch: Aretalogy is a book ultimately for the circles of people already concerned with the Hermetica. But I have found that many people appreciate its story even without knowing this history. I am content with the book’s existence, and trust that the right people will find it. I am now trying to understand the foundations of Rosicrucianism. This may come out as fiction, or it may come out as some other scientific or artistic work. But in the long term, I hope someday to write a poem about America, one which can tell the story of what the United States is, what its purpose is for the world, what are its crimes and its flaws, and what is it (if I may commit the sin of Exceptionalism) which makes the American State unique.
PAA: Thank you for sharing. We look forward to seeing more of your work.