Hermeticism

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Hermeticism is the philosophy of Hermes (in Greek), Mercury (in Roman) and Thoth (in Egyptian). Mainstream historians do not know if Hermes was a god, a man, a magician, a group of men, nor do they know even approximately when he or they lived. Theosophy, however, tells us that “Thoth-Hermes was one of the King-Instructors, the "Sons of the Fire," who began in Lemuria in the Third Race to instruct infant humanity in the arts and sciences. The Egyptians always regarded Thoth-Hermes as a symbol of the Third Race. But in whichever of his characters Hermes appears, he is always credited as the first to teach the science of magic to the Egyptians.”[1] The name Hermes is also given to a school of initiates.

“The Sons of Fire were a special group of Adepts who were produced consciously through kriy€ akti by the Sons of Wisdom during the Third Root Race of humanity. The Mahatma Letters refer to them as the inhabitants of Shamballa who triumphed over the wicked magicians of Poseidon, the last island of Atlantis. They were not a race, and are also called ‘Sons of Will and Yoga.’”[2]

Medieval Drawing of Hermes

Traditional historians do suspect that the origins of the Hermetic school of thought goes back to pre-sand era of Egypt. There is much speculation about the Egyptian civilization. Official history books date Egypt to around 3000 BC, as a fully developed society complete with extraordinary knowledge. This is very unlikely. Some evolution of this advanced society would be necessary to reach the stage it reached by 3000 BC but nothing is recorded. Theosophists suggest that pre-sand Egypt was populated by the survivors of Atlantis who crossed the then lush Sahara and settled in the Nile Valley bringing with them the advanced knowledge of the lost continent thousands of years before Egypt enters history in 3000 BC. The pyramids, temples and the Sphinx were built by Atlantean ancestors far before they are believed to have been built.

Hermeticism has endured for eons and has influenced some of the greatest thinkers of the ancient and modern world, even at times when it seemed the world had forgotten Hermeticism it was an unseen but primary motivating factor at the core. Though not specifically Christian, Hermes has been adopted by many Christian writers as sage who foresaw Christianity’s arrival. Hermeticism does profess a lineage from a “prisca theologia,” a doctrine that upholds the existence of a single, true theology existing in all theologies that was given to man by God in the very distant past.

Hermes, or followers of Hermes, are credited with writing forty-two books according to Clement of Alexander, others credit him with twice this number but only about fifteen have come down to us, as least so far. Among his works are Corpus Hermeticum, Pymander, Asclepius and the famous Emerald Tablets. These works can be divided into two subjects – one being philosophical in nature and the other being alchemical. The philosophical works were written as dialogues, the way Plato wrote. The Emerald Tablets, however, were written in a manner that seems to obscure the meaning to all but those trained in alchemy. Of course, all alchemical works seem to be written in a purposely enigmatic manner for that very reason.

Hermes Trimagistis, as Hermes is sometimes known, means “thrice great.” He has been credited with an astonishing number of inventions including no less than civilization itself, in addition to music, chemistry, law, art, astrology, magic, mathematics, philosophy and the list goes on and on.


Creation According To Hermes

Understanding the creation story as recounted in Hermes’ Book I of Corpus Hermeticum, called Poimandres, will help to see where the beliefs of Hermeticism came from.

Nous is what God is called. In the beginning Nous (God) created a second Nous, who becomes a craftsman and creates the world. Nous II creates seven powers in seven spheres around what will become earth; the spheres have control over what will be the earth. They control what we know as destiny. The seven spheres are the Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Here is the beginning of astrology. But there is an eighth and a ninth sphere beyond these seven and it will be man’s goal to transcend the power of the seven and finally arrive at the eighth and then the ninth where he is to be reunited with the creator. Nous II sets the spheres in motion and life begins on earth.

Nous I likes what Nous II has created and he wants to share his pleasure in this creation. So Nous I creates Man. Poimandres says, “Man is the same as self,” that is same as Nous. The idea of being a child of god is obvious here. Seeing all the wonderful, beautiful things that had been created Man wants this power too and Nous I so loved Man that he handed creation over to him. Man (still in heaven) became interested in what was going on down on earth so he pierces the seven spheres and looks down on what Nous II has created. Nature looks up at Man and falls in love with him. Man sees his own reflection in the waters of earth and falls in love Nature and wants to be with her. Immediately Man is transported into the world of form. He and Nature fall into each other’s arms, make love and have been doing so ever since.

In the creation myth we are introduced to astrology and the influence of the planets upon man and from which man is expected to rise above. We have dualism – a god of the heavens and one who created earth. We see the idea of Man as the son or part of god. We have man being given the power of creation. “You create your own reality.” The idea that man has a dual nature – one in heaven (non-material, the soul or spirit) and one physical in the world of matter (the body). And “the Fall”, leaving heaven to be with Nature.


Beliefs

Fundamental to understanding Hermeticism is a knowledge, a “gnosis,” which cannot be taught. Gnosis reveals in an experiential way the total unity of everything in the universe. Absolutely everything in the world is interconnected, there is no separation. Hermeticism is not a religion of faith or belief, it is about knowing that requires no trust in something unseen or unproven. Frances Yates says, Hermeticism is a religion “without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone.”[3] The ways to open to gnosis can be taught to an aspirant but the experience itself is a direct, intuitive, very personal grasp of divine reality and the unity of everything. Achieving this gnosis or cosmic consciousness is necessary to the hermetic man because this is how he becomes fully human; without this he is little more than an animal.

This sudden revelation experience has been compared to what RM Bucke called “cosmic consciousness,” which is the very sudden, unprovoked sense of total oneness with everything. It is a very rare occurrence. Bucke, in his 1901 book Cosmic Consciousness, explores the instances of this gnosis experienced by Jesus, the Buddha, Proust, Ouspensky, Dante, Whitman and Blake to name a few. As rare and as moving as these moments are Bucke believes our consciousness is moving toward a state where instances of cosmic consciousness will be commonplace. Interestingly, Abraham Maslow investigating what he calls “peak experiences” found that when his students discussed with each other their personal peak experiences they tended to become more frequent. Perhaps knowledge of and discussion of gnosis will make it a less rare event.

One aspect of Hermeticism that greatly disturbs fundamentalist Christians is the belief that Man is the equal of God. “If you do not make yourself the equal of God you cannot understand him. Like is understood by Like.”[4] Advice from Nous to Hermes in Book XI of Corpus Hermeticum. “Command your soul to go anywhere, and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and it will need no wings…Grow to immeasurable size. Suppose nothing to be impossible to you. Conceive yourself to be in all places at the same time; in earth, in the sea, in heaven; that you are not born yet, that you are within the womb, that you are young, old, dead. Conceive all things at once; times, places, actions, qualities and quantities; then you can understand God.”[5] Arrogance? Hermes says that Man is a “divine being….and the true man is above the gods, or at least fully their equal in power.”[6] Some schools of thought believe “God only knows what you know,” suggesting that man’s journey on earth is a learning experience for the creator, as well as the individual. Those who believe their god is omniscient take offense with this premise of Hermeticism.

The Magician in Tarot

Hermeticists believed in the doctrine of “as above, so below,” or the Law of Correspondences, a statement which begins the Smaragdine Tablet of Hermes, opens with the words: "What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below." Whatever happens on one level of reality, be it physical, emotional or mental, happens on all level. This doctrine is repeated through most occult disciplines. In the Tarot the first card of the major arcana is the Magician shown here at the right. The Magician in this picture is pointing up with one arm and down with the other signifying “as above, so below.” On the table before him are the representations of the four basic elements – earth (pentacles), wind (swords), fire (wands) and water (cups) – all controlled by the “as above, so below.”

According to Hermeticism there are three parts of wisdom in the entire universe they are Alchemy, Astrology and Theurgy. Alchemy is the operation of the sun or the striving for perfection. Astrology, the operation of the stars, and the influences upon the human being and his work to rise above the influence of the heavens. Theurgy is the operation of the gods or magic. In Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Apology he writes that there are two different types of magic, Black Magic or Goëtia (Greek), which relies upon an alliance with evil spirits (i.e., demons) and there is White (or divine) magic called Theurgy, which relies on an alliance with divine spirits (i.e., angels, archangels, gods).

Reincarnation is a feature of Hermeticism. "O son, how many bodies we have to pass through, how many bands of demons, through how many series of repetitions and cycles of the stars, before we hasten to the One alone?”[7] Reincarnation has been a problem for the Catholic Church ever since it was banned from the official books at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Prior to this reincarnation was an accepted part of the Catholic doctrine.

Hermeticism and Gnosticism are often considered to be closely associated since the both seek gnosis but while they share many characteristics, their fundamental attitudes toward life is completely opposite. Gnosticism sees the world as a dark, evil place filled with demons to be overcome and a constant struggle to attain higher and higher levels of spiritual reality. Their goal is to escape from it, seeking salvation through gnosis. The hermetic man’s view of the world is not dark, he views it as evidence of beauty and divine harmony. Instead of escaping the world he wants more knowledge of the world in order to expand himself, to realize his full potential in the world. He works to free himself from the influence of the planetary spheres (astrological domination). He would read his horoscope in the morning paper not to see what his day has in store but to know how to master his fate. He sees beauty in the world and continues to be in love with Nature.

Between the time they were written, believed to be anywhere from 100 BC to 300 and 1463 AD, Hermetic writings and thought seem to have gone underground in Europe. What happened to bring them back out into the open was in 1463 a monk in the employ of Cosimo de Medici’s rediscovered the Hermetic works in Macedonia. Cosimo was so anxious to read about Hermeticism before he died (apparently being close at that point) that he had his scribe stop work on translating Plato and work on the writing of Hermes instead. It seems Hermes influence had not lost its audience but instead the followers had become more cautious. Though Hermeticism had a shaping effect on the Catholic Church it was not overt or direct.


The Hermetic Revolution

Marsilio Ficino, Cosimo De Medici’s scribe who hurriedly translated the newly unearthed Hermetic documents in 1463, was profoundly affected by the information he acquired from the writings, in fact, the Hermetic texts had a profound influence on all of Western culture. It is commonly believed that the rediscovery of Plato’s teachings fueled the Renaissance but Hermes impact is believed to be far greater than Plato’s.

Ficino eventually became a Roman Catholic priest and a high ranking official at the Cathedral of Florence. He hoped to synthesize Hermetics into the Catholic religion but the Inquisition was still operational so he had to be extremely careful. Ficino, and most early Hermetic scholars, downplayed Hermes by placing his life after one of the heroes of the Catholic Church, Moses, all the time knowing that Hermes lived at least as far back as pre-pharaoh days of Egypt. Nevertheless, they referred to him as a contemporary of Moses, sometimes Moses himself.

It was the magical religion of the Egyptians, the talismanic skills that supposedly could draw the powers of the stars into material objects here on earth that fascinated Ficino. Magic of any kind was forbidden by the Church so he was treading a dangerous path. Ficino managed to avoid the Inquisition but his student, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, did not fare as well.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born into an extremely wealthy and influential family. He met Ficino in 1484. Pico was already well versed in the Hermetica, The Chaldean Oracles and the Kabbala. It was his very bold and ambitious plan to synthesize the pagan, Christian and Hebrew belief systems and he was not cautious, as Ficino had been. Frances Yates says that Pico married Hermeticism and Cabalism inventing a type of magic called Christian Hermetic-Cabala which was to have far reaching effects. He was arrested by the Inquisition but he pulled some strings and was released. Pico died under mysterious circumstances when he was only thirty-one.

In the following century the next great, perhaps the greatest champion of Hermeticism was born – Giordano Bruno. He was brilliant, reckless and argumentative. He studied to be a Dominican monk. Ironically papal Inquisitors were Dominicans. But he was not to remain a Dominican. At the age of twenty-eight he denounced the order and publically and very emotionally defrocked himself. Bruno was a resolute Hermeticist who cherished the dream of complete restoration of Hermeticism. He wanted nothing less than to replace the Church with Hermeticism.

Bruno travelled extensively and wrote. His most important book was titled “Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante” or “The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast.” The title had a dual meaning. In his dedication he writes that he means by “triumphant beast” the “vices which dominate, and oppose the divine part of the soul.”[8] The occult meaning the “triumphant beast” is the pope and his entire religion. Bruno was not subtle. His writings brought him the attention of the Catholic Church and he spent several years avoiding the Holy Inquisition. But in March of 1592, on the run from the Church, Bruno stayed too long in Italy and was arrested for heresy. The next eight years were spent in the torturous custody of the Inquisitors. In February 1600, he was burned at the stake.


Hermes and Alchemy and Medicine

The Caduceus


The caduceus is the symbol for Hermes. It is also the symbol used for modern medicine. It is unknown how the caduceus came to be the symbol of Hermes. One of the many stories says that Hermes came upon two snakes locked in mortal combat, he separated them with his staff and acting as mediator brought peace between them by suggesting an alchemical reconciliation. As snakes shed their skin and appear to be reborn, this connects them to both magic and medicine.

The words Hermeticism and Alchemy are almost used interchangeably and the Catholic violently opposed any form of alchemy. Alchemy in its public representation was the study of changing base metal into gold. The occult meaning had to do with the purification and empowerment of man via Hermetics. Alchemy was not about the study of changing base metal in gold, it was about the process of changing oneself which was only possible if one understood the divine nature of mankind. The aspiration was to rise above the Nature that man is born into. Man transmutes his life to realize his true divine potential.

Alchemists, trying both to obscure but also express the true meaning of their texts, used chemical symbols and Roman and Greek mythology. They combined many concepts into a language that would express what they experienced but words were inadequate to describe an actual spiritual experience. Alchemists used images they created and also myths and allegories. The student needed to learn how think and feel what those images conveyed. An intellectual approach would never yield the true secrets of the alchemy of self-transformation.

The idea that man should control his destiny rather than be a victim to the influence of the stars led to the concept of influencing or controlling nature. This was of great interest to the developing discipline of science. Sir Isaac Newton took great interest in Hermetics, thoroughly studying the Corpus Hermeticum, in secret, of course, due to the Church’s powerful disapproval of alchemy.

The secrecy surrounding alchemy led to many misunderstandings concerning what alchemy was all about but this has proven to have contributed greatly to mankind. People interested in converting base metal to gold ended up creating chemistry. The efforts of Paracelsus, also misunderstanding the true nature of alchemy, led to the beginning of pharmacology.

Conclusion

Theosophy says that Hermes was a King-Instructor of the Third Race. The Third Race existed in Lemuria. Many instructors of the early human races, including the Third Race were not of this world but brought from other planets to guide the humanity in its development. According to William Scott-Elliott and Charles Leadbeater in The Story of Atlantis and Lost Lemuria, Venus, then a highly evolved race themselves, assisted in the education of earthlings. In this light it is not difficult to imagine Hermes being responsible for music, chemistry, law, art, astrology, magic, mathematics, philosophy, etc, etc, etc.

The actual years when Lemuria existed is not known but working backward in time if the last island of Atlantis submerged in 11,580 BC and Atlantean civilization lasted four to five million years and the teachings of Hermes came to us from pre-Atlantean Lemuria, it is mind-boggling to consider how long the Hermeticism has been part of the human race.


Further Reading

Hancock, Graham, and Robert Bauval. Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith. London: Michael Joseph, 2004. Print.

Hermes and G R. S. Mead. Thrice-greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Being a Translation of the Extant Sermons and Fragments of the Trismegistic Literature, with Prolegomena, Commentaries, and Notes. London: J.M. Watkins, 1964. Print.

Lachman, Gary. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World. , 2011. Print.

Salaman, Clement, and Hermes. The Way of Hermes: Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000. Print.

Wilson, Colin. From Atlantis to the Sphinx. New York: Fromm International Pub, 1997. Print

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964. Print.


Internet Sources

http://www.wisdomworld.org/setting/alchemy.html

http://www.theosophicalsociety.org.uk/

http://oneworldawaken.blogspot.com/p/occultism.html


Additional resources

Video

Notes

  1. Author Unknown, “Great Theosophists – Alchemy and the Alchemists” Wisdom World.org THEOSOPHY, Vol. 25, No. 11, September, 1937, (Pages 490-496; Size: 19K), (Number 14 of a 29-part series)
  2. http://www.theosophy.ph/encyclo/index.php?title=Sons_of_the_Fire_Mist# 2
  3. Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. Print. P. 13
  4. Lachman, Gary. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World. , 2011. Print. P35
  5. Lachman, Gary. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World. , 2011. Print. P35
  6. Lachman, Gary. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World. , 2011. Print. P35
  7. http://oneworldawaken.blogspot.com/p/occultism.html
  8. Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. Print. P. 290