Hermeticism and the
It has been our experience that many individuals who seek admission into a Hermetic Order have no idea what Hermeticism is. In order for any person to determine whether or not they are suited to following a Hermetic path, they need to have a clear understanding of the basic origins and principles of Hermeticism. Gaining such an understanding is not always a cut-and-dried matter for, in ancient as well as modern times, the Hermetic path has always been a syncretic tradition that borrows from other traditions that are in harmony with it. Nevertheless, it is possible to define certain basic characteristics of the Hermetic path by examining aspects of the tradition that are shared with other traditions. We can determine what they have in common and areas where they part ways.
Hermetism: The Origin of Hermeticism
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn takes its name in part from the Hermetic Tradition or Hermeticism, which is in turn named after a living incarnation of the Greek divinity Hermes, the god of communication. Hermes became identified with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and magic, and thus Hermes-Thoth became known as the patron god of all intellectual activity and all sciences, including astrology, astronomy, architecture, alchemy, mathematics, medicine, writing, biology, agriculture, commerce, divination, and especially practical magic (see figure 1, page 4). Hermes was also said to be the greatest of all philosophers. He understood the secret nature of the universe and the spiritual physics that run it. Above all, Hermes was thought of as the great teacher of humanity—instructing men and women throughout the ages about technologies and spiritual knowledge that would improve their lives.
In the second century c.e., the figure of Hermes, complete with serpent-entwined caduceus wand, became immersed into the personage of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, or Hermes the Thrice-Great, a kind of avatar or living embodiment of the god Hermes-Thoth. Hermes Trismegistus was said to be an ancient Egyptian priest and magician who was credited with writing forty-two books on esoteric wisdom collectively known as the Hermetic literature or Hermetica.
The roots of the Hermetic Tradition can be traced back to late antiquity—the Hellenistic period at the beginning of the Common Era. This was a time when the great cultures of Greece and Egypt (anciently called Khem) came together in the melting pot of civilization that was created when Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world and culminated in the cultural capitol of Alexandria. Spiritual wisdom from a plethora of different religions, philosophies, traditions, and cultures streamed into this most cosmopolitan city, where they blended into a new synthesis of philosophy, spiritual belief, and magical practice that would later become known as Hermetism (the ancient source of modern Hermeticism). Although this new fusion of beliefs was attributed to the Egyptian god of wisdom in human incarnation, and was ostensibly Egyptian, this new tradition embraced not only the timeless, lush reserves of Khemetic religion, magic, and philosophy, but also many facets of classical Greek philosophy and Greek paganism, especially the teachings of Platonism, Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Neopythagorism, and Iamblichan theurgy or high magic. To this mixture was also added the magical teachings and angelic hierarchy of Judaism, the cosmic dualism of Persian Zoroastrianism, and the many forms of Christianity and Gnosticism. These were the basic ingredients of ancient Hermetism.
Influences on Hermetism
Hermetism borrowed and adapted ideas from many spiritual paths and cultures that rubbed shoulders in the sophisticated city of Alexandria. Some of these have been mentioned in the preceding pages, but others are simply too numerous for the purpose of this book. Of the major influences on the development of Hermetism, a brief description is necessary:
Egyptian Religion and Magic
To the ancient Egyptians (3100–1000 b.c.e.), there was little distinction between religion and magic. If there was any difference at all, it was perhaps in the immediacy of magical as opposed to religious practices. In religion, a worshiper petitioned a deity through an intermediary or priest, while a magician invoked the deity directly. But, frequently, priests and magicians were one and the same.
According to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Egyptians were “religious to excess, beyond any other nation in the world.”1 Egyptian religion was a complex, beautiful, and often misunderstood mixture of abstract monotheism and concrete polytheism. According to some Egyptologists, the inhabitants of the land of Khem believed in the concept of a creator deity who was eternal, omnipotent, self-existent, and incomprehensible to its human worshipers.
The [Egyptian] texts are full of explanatory asides and added notes, the accretions of speculating or inquiring scribes. . . . The difficult and perhaps insoluble questions that have bedeviled Christian theology are to be encountered in the literature of Ancient Egypt; the rival claims of the immanent and transcendent concepts of God, for example; the paradox about the uncreated Creator; the origin of evil; the male and female sides of the divine; or whether God exists in time. Such questions were already worrying the minds of men two thousand years before Christ.2
This unknowable divinity was sometimes referred to by the word neter, the suggested meaning of which includes ideas of “god,” “divine,” “strength,” and “renewal.” The polytheism of Egypt manifested itself in the vast number of divine, celestial, terrestrial, local, and lesser deities. These deities were considered as the various aspects, attributes, or extensions of the neter, manifesting in forms that could be visualized and comprehended by the human mind, loved by the human heart, and worshiped by a deeply religious people.
The Egyptians lived before the birth of philosophy as an independent way of thinking. They used their myths to convey their insights into the workings of nature and the ultimately indescribable realities of the soul. . . . Egyptian gods are nearer the stark archetypes of the unconscious mind than the Greek ones and, in a sense, they are more intellectual too, for they are expressing ideas.3
The Egyptians recognized the validity of several diverse explanations of natural phenomena and a cornucopia of deities, myths, and legends, which to modern thinking often seems confusing and contradictory. These were not thought of as opposing theologies but rather as alternative expressions of reality, each emphasizing a particular aspect of a force of nature.4
Three principles can be identified in Egyptian religion: (1) the common belief in a solar monotheism in the form of a Creator or “High God” whose power was especially symbolized by the life-giving rays of the sun; (2) a belief in the regenerative power of nature, which was symbolized in the life-giving waters of the river Nile and expressed in the polytheistic worship of numerous fertile gods and goddesses as well as sacred animals; and (3) the recognition of a deity who is human yet also divine, whose life in both the physical world and the spiritual world beyond death mirrors that of the perfected human life.
The belief in Osiris as a god/man was well established early in Egyptian history. He was a deity unlike all others in that he was an accessible god whom people could strongly empathize with—they could identify with him as one of them, although he was part divine. They believed that Osiris had walked the Earth, and ate and drank as they did. And, like humans, Osiris suffered and died—but was brought back to life with the aid of the other gods. Thus did he become the beloved god of resurrection and eternal life, for he set an example that the rest of humanity could follow. What the gods did for Osiris, the Egyptians reasoned, they might be persuaded to do for ordinary mortals. Many religious and magical ceremonies were designed to insure that after death the deceased would, like Osiris, rise again and inherit life everlasting.
The Egyptians were also among the first to develop the concept of the human soul, and much of their religion was dedicated to the welfare of the deceased in the afterlife. A human being was seen to have several component parts, including the khat (physical body), the ka (astral body), the ba (soul), the khu (spirit), the sekhem (vital life force), the khaibit (shadow), and the ren (name). The ba or soul was considered the seat of life in a human being. The word ba implies noble, sublime, or mighty. After death the soul was free to leave the tomb and ascend to heaven. However, it was thought that the spirit and the astral body could be imprisoned in the tomb, so magical formulae were used to keep this from occurring.
There were two kinds of magicians in Egypt. These included the trained priest-magicians of the temples and the “lay” magicians who were independent of any institution. The majority of them, however, were of the priest class. There were hundreds of temples dedicated to various deities, and their attendant priests had several different functions. Some were in charge of caring for the statue of the god (by providing food, clothing, etc.). Purification was also an essential practice—the priests bathed four times daily, shaved their heads, and only wore certain types of clothing.
The high priest was known as the sem-priest or “first prophet of the god.” Under him was an entire staff of priests known as horologers, whose duty was to accurately determine the hours of the day and night. This was a crucial function, because various rites had to begin at specific times. The priests took note of the positions of the sun and the stars in order to pinpoint when the rituals should commence. There were also astrologer-priests who were the caretakers of a horoscope calendar that explained how human beings should behave on given days.
However, the priest-magicians were not from any of the above groups. They were to be found in a part of the temple known as the House of Life, which contained the temple library. The average layman would go to the House of Life if he had a problem and needed a magical spell or amulet. The priests would dispense magical charms for protection, interpret dreams, provide an incantation to cure illness, etc. The priest-magicians guarded their secret books carefully, and they were looked upon as very powerful and important individuals.
One aspect of Egyptian magic that would remain essential to the Hermetic Tradition was the importance given to divine names and words of power. As shown in the story of Isis gaining mastery over Ra, the Egyptians believed that knowing the secret name of a deity conferred great power to the magician who knew it. (This would later manifest in the Greco-Egyptian “barbarous names” of magic.)
Classical Greek Philosophy
If the inhabitants of Khem can be described as the most religious people of the ancient world, the Hellenes (Greeks) were certainly the most philosophical. From 600 to 200 b.c.e., new ideas were circulating in Greece and in the Greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor. It was here that Hellenic philosophers began a trend of questioning the reality of the traditional gods, while at the same time espousing theories of materialism and rationalism. One idea that began to take root in scholarly circles was that “all things come from One Thing.” Although there were varying theories as to what the essence of this “One Thing” was, many philosophers agreed that everything in the cosmos was created out of the same material, a basic substance that permeated the universe and out of which the elements emerged. The philosopher Anaximander called this substance apeiron or “the boundless.”5
Pythagoras, a mystic and magician as well as a philosopher, claimed that the essence of everything is number and that, at its core, reality is mathematical in nature—“All is number.”6 Because he is credited with pointing out the significance of numbers in music and in the objective world, Pythagoras is often thought of in the nonmagical world as an ancient mathematician. To his followers, however, Pythagoras was a magus and a spiritual leader, and his students included women as well as men.
Unlike other philosophers of his time, Pythagoras believed in the existence of the human soul. He also taught reincarnation and a form of past-life regression. The organization founded by Pythagoras was more of a religious fellowship for the moral improvement of society rather than a true school of philosophy. Members of the group were to observe strict secrecy and loyalty. Pythagoras taught his followers that philosophical principles could be employed for spiritual purification, and that the human soul could ascend the heavens to unite with the divine. He also taught that certain mathematically derived symbols had a mystical importance.
Enamored with the sacred qualities of numbers, Pythagoras used numerically derived figures as holy symbols for his followers—including the pentagram and the tetraktys (see figure 2), a diagram in which the number four is exalted, but which also shows the importance of the first ten numbers through the unfolding of the Monad, Duad, Triad, and finally the Tetrad (numbers one, two, three, and four, respectively). These ten numbers were given specific attributions and were regarded as the progressive evolution of unity, which included the concepts of duality, multiplication, and synthesis. It is difficult to tell whether this philosophy influenced early Qabalistic teachings, or if Pythagoras was himself influenced by an earlier oral Hebrew tradition.
Other philosophers of the same era taught a form of monotheism that suggested God existed everywhere at all times, in matter and in nature. While some held that the reality of nature was static, others adopted the view that it was constantly changing.
Empedocles was the first to espouse the idea of the four elements in nature—fire, water, air, and earth. He also supported the notion that the universe was composed of two worlds, one spiritual and good, the other material and evil. Empedocles believed that human beings had two souls—the psyche or Lower Soul, which is finite, and the daimon or Higher Soul, which is immortal.
The philosopher Anaxgoras held that a divine mind or nous was the substance and power behind the physical universe. This mind created the universe through a whirling motion at the center of the cosmos.
Some of the later Greek intellectuals turned away from the extreme materialism and rationalism that dominated the teachings of earlier philosophers. They developed their own form of rational mysticism, possibly to reverse the moral deterioration that resulted when people stopped believing in the traditional gods. The main doctrine of Socrates was that the individual should be guided by an inner voice. But of all the classical Greek philosophers, it was Socrates’ student, Plato, who had the most significant effect on the Hermetic Tradition.
Plato taught that a world of ideas or archetypes existed before the physical world was created. In other words, all ideas of everything in the universe exist in an unseen supernatural world—and all created things in the physical world are merely flawed and inferior copies of the divine originals. Thus Plato’s philosophy developed a sharp dualism between the tainted physical world and the perfect world of ideas. He believed that these two worlds were linked by an indescribable chaotic substance he called the materia, which evolved through natural processes into the four elements. But in order for the two worlds to interact and form the manifest world, the demiourgos or “creator god” patterned and created the universe. This idea was later incorporated into Gnostic teachings.
Another of Plato’s theories was that soul of the individual lives on after death, and that it is judged—either to receive eternal rapture or eternal punishment in a place called Tartarus, where its transgressions would be forgiven over time. (Plato’s beliefs on this matter were later adopted by the early Christians.) According to Plato, the soul was divided into three parts: the immortal portion, called the logos, located in the head and considered identical with the intellect; the thumos or will, located in the heart; and the epithymia or desire, which was found in the abdomen.
Plato believed in a World Soul and the idea that the individual human soul is capable of recovering knowledge from the divine world of ideas from which it came into being—if only the soul can be made to remember the knowledge that it has forgotten upon physical incarnation. He also believed that the stars and planets were simply higher beings.
Several of Plato’s beliefs were borrowed or adapted by other groups, including the Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and the early Christians. The similarity of some of his teachings to Qabalah doctrine is unmistakable. And Plato’s hypotheses form the cornerstone not only of the Hermetic Tradition, but of Western philosophy as a whole.
The Greek Mystery Religions
The mystery religions developed and prospered during the time of Alexander the Great, when much of the known world, including Egypt and Persia, was becoming Hellenized. Mystery religions became popular as people grew tired of the moral decay that resulted from the cold materialism and abstract rationalism of the philosophers. People wanted and needed to believe in the gods again—not just the passive, state-sanctioned veneration of the traditional gods, but an active religious participation that would deeply touch the emotional lives of worshipers. The mystery religions satisfied this need. Coinciding with the popular worship of the deities, there were secret initiatory ceremonies that were attended by a privileged few. The Greek word mysteria, or “mysteries,” implied private or secret rites that were not intended for the general public.
The deities invoked and worshiped by these religions varied. The Samothracian mysteries, possibly the oldest of these cults, centered around the Kabiri or “great gods.” The Orphic mysteries were said to have been founded by the Greek hero Orpheus. These rites focused on the god Dionysus-Phanes, the creator of Heaven and Earth and the bringer of Light. The mysteries of Isis and Osiris were played out in Egypt, along with the cult of Serapis in Alexandria. There were also the mysteries of Cybele and Attis, deities that were imported from Asia Minor, whose myths resembled those of the Babylonian divinities Ishtar and Tammuz. However, the most famous of the mysteries, the Eleusinian mysteries, was centered at Athens, which focused on the deities of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Later, the cult of Mithras, the Persian sun god, sprang up at outposts of the Roman Empire.
The exact experience undergone by initiates of these mystery religions cannot be determined for certain. This is because initiates held them in such high regard that, for the most part, they refused to reveal the secrets to outsiders. Apparently no one has ever betrayed their oath of secrecy to these rites. Consequently, there is little record of them. Even those initiates who later converted to Christianity steadfastly refused to break their oath of secrecy—such was the power of the mystery religions. But what little is known of the mysteries is that nearly all of them dealt with the ideas of death and resurrection (the death of one Kabir at the hands of the other three Kabiri, only to be brought back to life again; the dismemberment of Osiris at the hands of the evil Set, and Osiris’ resurrection at the hands of Isis; the many deaths and reincarnations of Dionysus; and Persephone’s descent into the underworld of Hades).
The reenactment of these myths served to instill within the initiate a sense of spiritual rebirth into a greater life—the triumph over death through the attainment of eternal life. They sought to take human beings out of their mundane conditions into a divine rebirth—a direct awareness of humanity’s spiritual essence. These secret rites emerged from the belief that higher divine wisdom and true spiritual experience could only be obtained by those individuals who were cleansed by certain disciplines. They attempted to reveal the secrets of the universe by generating spiritual ecstasy, or by a thoughtfully outlined series of initiations crafted to produce accelerated spiritual awareness.
Purification played an important role in these rites, along with processions, reenactments of certain myths, animal sacrifices, offerings, fasting, and a real or symbolic descent into the underworld, as well as a return from that underworld. The initiate would take an active role in these dramas, in all likelihood experiencing a symbolic death and rebirth.
The basic theme of the mysteries (that on some level the initiate experiences a resurrection from death) would later play a major role in several Hermetic circles, extending its influence to the alchemists and the Rosicrucians. It is also evident in the initiation rituals of the Golden Dawn.
The Greeks held that there were three types of knowledge: mathesis or knowledge that could be learned, gnosis or knowledge that could be gained through meditation or intuitive perception, and pathesis or knowledge that was felt. The mystery religions tried to instill enlightenment through all three, but especially through pathesis, by supplying the initiate the opportunity for direct personal experience of the higher teachings. They promised a transcendent type of experience or spiritual ecstasy that was lacking in the more popular forms of state-sponsored worship.
Early Christianity was considered by many at the time to be just another Greek mystery cult, with similar goals, mythology, terminology, and philosophical adaptations. One of the reasons that Christianity became very successful was that it was open to everyone, including slaves and women, whereas some of the other mystery cults, such as Mithraism, were restricted to men or individuals of high status. It was not until much later that one of the more dominant branches of Christianity was able to become a major political force that crushed those it considered rivals.
One of the more important schools of Hellenistic philosophy, in terms of its significance to the Hermetic tradition, was Stoicism. Some of the better-known Stoics included Zeno and Eratosthenes. Stoics believed that the objective of all knowledge was to provide humanity with a mode of conduct distinguished by tranquility of mind and assurance of moral worth. They also believed in an extreme form of materialism and stressed scientific research. They dismissed any form of reality other than the physical. Reason alone was the model for human existence and perception was the only basis for knowledge. To the Stoic mind, the manifest universe exemplified virtue; therefore, the virtues of moral worth, right conduct, duty, and justice were emphasized. Virtue was thought to bring happiness, and thus the Stoics pursued virtue, not for spiritual reasons but rather for mundane ones.
Although they felt that the universe was created by a universal nous or World Soul, they considered this force to be completely material and mundane. In addition they felt that all religious myths were allegories meant to convey philosophical truths. The stoics believed that the logos (under the mythological name of Zeus) transformed himself into the elements of the material world, but this was a natural process, not a spiritual one.
Stoic philosophy was often fatalistic and skeptical. Followers of Stoicism believed in predestination and reincarnation. However, they thought that in every incarnation the individual would live his or her life over again, exactly as in all previous lifetimes.
One of their greatest contributions to magic was their belief in cosmic sympathies, or the idea that all things within the cosmos are linked together in a logical and orderly fashion.7 In addition, the reverence paid by the Stoics to logic and the rational mind helped to instill within the Hermetic Tradition a healthy sense of skepticism that sought to test the validity of magical experiments and not merely accept all results at face value.
Gnosticism was a combination of Christian belief with the Greek mystery religions. However, like Mithraism, its striking similarities with Christianity caused it to be labeled as a heresy by those in power, and rival Christianlike heresies were stamped out far more viciously than most Pagan religions were. The Gnostic movement flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean area around the time of the birth of Christ and for many centuries after.
As stated earlier, gnosis meant knowledge, specifically knowledge gained through intuitive perception. The knowledge sought by the Gnostics was the knowledge of God through direct revelation. This knowledge was “secret” in that it could only come about as the product of specific realizations. And this knowledge was also beyond faith and beyond reason—the essence of the universe only revealed itself directly (thus secretly) to those who actively strove to transcend their mundane existences. Individual interpretation of spiritual truths was encouraged and, in fact, was considered a form of enlightenment. The ability to “channel” new revelations of Christ was considered a sign of religious adepthood. Revelation was a continuous process, not a rigidly established dogma.
Gnosticism had several factions; it was not one single belief system or united movement. There were as many different Gnostic sects as there were Christian sects. Early Christianity was likewise comprised of several different groups with various beliefs. But the diverse Gnostic sects can generally be grouped under two branches: the earlier, more “Jewish” type is called Sethian Gnosticism (named after Seth, the son of Adam), while the more “Christianized” form is known as Valentinian Gnosticism, so-called because of its main exponent, Valentinus.
The basic doctrine of the Gnostics was that the human spirit represented the divine essence ensnared in matter—that the human spirit (pneuma) was a spark of God trapped within an evil material world that God had nothing to do with. The world was actually created by the Demiourgos or Demiurge (an idea borrowed from Plato), a lesser creator god who was sometimes evil, sometimes just plain ignorant. Thus Gnostics believed in a fundamental dualism between man (the trapped god) and the physical world (which was his prison). The human condition was defined as being part angel and part beast.
The worldview of the Gnostics was one of numerous levels of existence between the divine, Light-filled realm of God and the dark world of humanity wrapped in dense matter. The opaque physical world was ruled by various Archons or rebellious intermediary entities who were represented by zodiacal and planetary powers. Gnosis, then, was the knowledge of how the soul could escape from the evil world of matter, advance through the spheres of the unruly Archons, and return to its original abode of Light.
The Gnostics were devoted to the transcendent God, rather than the evil creator god. The transcendent God was believed to intercede in the imperfect world by offering his followers a means by which gnosis could be attained, through providing a redeemer or savior. In some Gnostic sects this redeemer was Sophia, the “wisdom” of God; in other sects it was her brother (or mate), Christ; and in some it was merely known as the Logos or “word.” The goal of the savior was to implement the separation of this mixture of physical matter and divine Light. The savior also served as an example for the individual soul to follow in its quest to return to the world of Light.
An important Gnostic text called the Pistis Sophia, or “Faith Wisdom,” tells the story of Sophia, who was once a heavenly being but, through a combination of ambition and deception, had fallen into a chasm midway between the world of dense matter and the divine Light (echoing the human condition). By repentance and faith, and assisted by Jesus the Savior, she gradually ascends through the ten Aeons to reclaim her former station in the Light. This was yet another symbolic death and rebirth such as the type espoused by the Greek mystery religions. One major difference is that in Gnosticism the main mystery is that of the transcendence of the Christos as the savior.
All in all, the Gnostic view that humanity is imprisoned in matter is not so very different from the view of most contemporary religions, which teach that the material world is an illusion while the spiritual world is the realm of truth.
The general composition of Gnosticism was syncretic. It borrowed bits and pieces from other traditions, including Zoroastrian dualism of Light versus Dark, the Eastern belief in reincarnation, Babylonian astrology, and the reverence for secret (barbarous) names and words of power as used in the pagan mysteries. But what truly set Gnosticism apart was its conviction in the belief that spiritual truth was highly personal. This is one of the main tenets of Gnosticism that is still held in great regard by today’s Hermeticists.
Of all of the early influences on the Hermetic tradition discussed so far, none had a greater impact than Neoplatonism. The later Hellenistic followers of Plato revered the early classical philosopher as a writer who had been divinely inspired. The teachings of Plotinus (204–270 c.e.) dominated Greek philosophy until the sixth century c.e. He criticized the Gnostic movement for what he considered a debasement of Plato’s teachings. Although many ideas promulgated by the Neoplatonists bore a certain resemblance to Gnostic ideas, one major exception was that an evil Demiurge who created and ruled a prison of matter was nowhere to be found in the teachings of Plotinus and his followers.
Plotinus managed to blend the rational, logical approach to the nature of the universe, as embraced by the classical philosophers, with mystical experience. He interpreted the theories of Plato in the light of Hellenistic mysticism, attempting to account for spiritual experience rather than to merely satisfy intellectual curiosity. Plotinus believed that God was entirely outside of human comprehension.
The teachings of Plotinus embraced the theory that the one God (protos theos—the “first god”) creates various emanations (hypostases) endlessly from himself without diminishment, and the divine intellect (nous) is the main creation of God. All of these emanations were considered degrees of Light-energy, which were independent of time and space. Intellect, as Plotinus knew it, was not a cold, philosophical abstraction but rather a vital and jubilant state of perfection that has two goals: The first is to return to the godhead, and the other is to seek unity and goodness for its own sake. For the latter goal, intellect divides itself into several individual lives or focal points of creative energy, which correspond to the archetypal forms and concepts of Plato. Plotinus also made a distinction between the spiritual experience obtained through contemplation of God and the experience of ultimate union (or oneness) with the divine intellect.
According to Plotinus, there is a lower divine level known as the soul (psyche) that attempts to manifest the ideas born in the intellect. Through this process the natural world came into being. The natural world itself is composed of a concentrated entity known as the World Soul (pantos psyche), to which human beings are related through intellect, but not created by nature itself (humanity is within nature but not from nature). The psychological composition of humanity corresponds to this greater universe: The physical body corresponds to the physical world of matter, the soul or ordinary consciousness relates to the World Soul, and the higher perceptive faculties conform with the divine intellect. However, Plotinus believed that in most humans the higher intellectual powers are asleep, and it is the duty of the individual to arouse them. One of the goals of the Neoplatonist was the unification of all three segments of the individual, a process that forecast the objective of modern psychology by several centuries.
The method of awakening the intellect, Plotinus surmised, was through constant interaction in the natural world through reincarnation—something that took several lifetimes to achieve. The individual does not remember the previous incarnations because the eternal portion of consciousness is the Higher Self, which is on the level of divine intellect. The lower self or personality is merely a reflection of the Higher. But the soul or psyche of the individual is incorruptible. Thus, at death, the terrestrial experiences of the lower self are absorbed by the Higher Self before it again reflects itself forth into incarnation.
Plotinus did not promote either spiritual or magical practices because he believed that the individual attained illumination by philosophical musing. However, he established the concept of the existence of altered states of consciousness. He also thought that the ultimate aim of human existence should be a return to the godhead.
Another Neoplatonist who believed very much in the high magical practices of theurgy was Iamblichus, who had a great interest in the Egyptian mysteries (see figure 3). The works of Iamblichus were very important to the later development of ceremonial magic in the Hermetic tradition.
One form of practice explored by Iamblichus was the invoking of a deity or spirit into a statue. Another method was to invoke the deity into a person, resulting in complete identification with the deity in order to awaken the Higher Self. The goal of such Neoplatonic magical techniques was spiritual growth or the attainment of answers to spiritual questions concerning the nature of the universe.
In later times, Neoplatonist and Neopythagorean magicians utilized the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, which dated from the second century c.e., in their magical practices. (Although the Oracles have only survived to the present day in fragmentary form, they are quoted extensively in the rituals of the Golden Dawn.)
The earliest Hermetists were not as visible, nor as organized as were other philosophical and spiritual schools of the time. In all likelihood, ancient Hermetists probably met and studied quietly in small groups under the guidance of a teacher, much as modern Hermeticists do today. They almost certainly would have spent much of their time in or near sanctuaries, and would have also participated in the Pagan celebrations. Many of them were probably Egyptian by birth, although educated in the ways and philosophies of Greece.
The teachings they studied would have in all probability been similar to that contained in the books attributed to Hermes Trismegistus or Hermes the Thrice-Great. The vocabulary used by the Hermetists to describe the heavenly realms was virtually identical to that used by the Neoplatonists. However, there exists in the Hermetic writings a religious zeal and passion, concluding with a sense of complete union with God, that is rarely found in the writings of the Greek philosophers. This intensity of spiritual fervor may have been the result of the Egyptians, who were “religious beyond excess,” adopting the ideas of Greek philosophy to create Hermetism.
The principles and values espoused by Hermetists can be found in the texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who showers praise on the mystery cults and the sanctity of the “holy land” of Egypt. The Way of Hermes strongly promoted ideas of piety, purity, and morality. The followers of Hermes the Thrice-Great never criticized the common religion and morality of those they encountered, but the more they acquired gnosis, the more they tried to instill a sense of profound conscious awareness and spiritual depth into the beliefs of those around them.8
It is important to remember that Hermetism was not a system carved in stone, but was a way of spiritual evolution with many levels of attainment. There was no single system of Hermetic theology or doctrine and there are wide differences between the teachings contained in the various books of Trismegistus. However, the Hermetic teachings display a certain general similarity that would logically occur as a result of systematic instruction and a shared environment. For the Hermetist, the attainment of Gnosis was not an end in itself, but a mere beginning:
Thou see’st, son, how many are the bodies through which we have to pass, how many are the choirs of daimones, how vast the system of the star-courses [through which our Path doth lie], to hasten to the One and Only God. For to the Good there is no other shore; It hath no bounds; It is without an end; and for Itself It is without beginning, too, though unto us it seemeth to have one—the Gnosis. Therefore to It Gnosis is no beginning; rather is it [that Gnosis doth afford] to us the first beginning of its being known. Let us lay hold, therefore, of the beginning and quickly speed through all [we have to pass]. ’Tis very hard, to leave the things we have grown used to, which meet our gaze on every side, and turn ourselves back to the Old [Path].9
In the increasingly multicultural and cross-pollinated Hellenistic world, it became ever more difficult to distinguish Gnostics, Neoplatonists, and Hermetists from one another. However, it is important to the understanding of Hermetism (and the later form of Hermeticism) to point out the differences as well as the similarities.
A Summary of Important Influences
The influence of ancient Egypt on the Hermetic path cannot be overestimated. Not only did the Khemetic religion set the standard for magical formulae, ritual techniques, invocations using names of power, devotion to the gods, and the model of a trained priesthood of magicians, the Egyptians also formulated some of the earliest concepts about the component parts of the human soul.
The classical Greek philosophers opened up completely new ways of looking at the universe and humanity’s place within it. They presented rational and abstract explanations of natural phenomena that relied less on the mythologies of the traditional gods and more on the idea that everything in the universe is created from a single source or essence. Insights concerning the four elements, the mystical significance of numbers, the evolution of the human soul, and a divine world of ideas or archetypes that exists beyond the physical world were explored in depth. The influence of the great philosophers would extend not only to the principles of Hermetism, but also to the values, ideology, and thought of Western civilization as a whole.
The Greek mystery religions provided what the classical philosophers had discarded—a deeply personal relationship between human worshipers and their beloved deities. Not satisfied with the stale, exoteric, public religion of the time, worshipers were drawn to meaningful rituals and secret rites that instilled a sense of spiritual rebirth. These religions also provided their followers with a sense of belonging to a like-minded community or fellowship.
The Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism provided an emphasis on virtue and moral conduct as well as a rational and scientific approach to the larger questions about the origin and nature of the universe. They extolled a belief in cosmic sympathies and the idea that myths about the gods were allegories of philosophical truths. All of these ideas would become important to the Hermetic path, particularly in the Hermetic art of alchemy. Yet in their total denial of everything spiritual, the Stoics carried these ideas to the extreme in favor of a strict and often fatalistic materiality. In this, they parted ways with the Hermetists.
The vocabulary and basic concepts used by the Neoplatonists to describe their philosophy is, in many ways, virtually identical to that used by the Hermetists. The Hermetic concept of the transcendent God was similar to that espoused by the Neoplatonic philosophers. However, Hermetism was more of a religious doctrine rather than a philosophical one. Except for Iam-blichus and his followers, Neoplatonism did not particularly promote spiritual or magical practices. Consequently, the Hermetic God is less abstract and more personal than the protos theos of the Neoplatonists.
It is sometimes easy to confuse Gnosticism with Hermetism. Both groups employed Platonic terminology and both believed in the existence of a transcendent God as well as lesser celestial and terrestrial deities. Both Gnostics and Hermetists placed great emphasis on spiritual knowledge gained through divine revelation (gnosis) and the final exaltation of the soul through union with its source (God). However, for the Hermetist, gnosis was a means to salvation, not the end result in and of itself, but only the beginning. Both systems taught that the deliverance of the soul from the bonds of the material world resulted in its salvation. However, it appears that the Hermetists stressed the importance of receiving methodical training in the “art of Hermes” that was followed by the mystical experience of initiation into the Hermetic mysteries. By contrast, the Gnostics were not as concerned with intellectual training as a path to gnosis, but rather in receiving the gift of gnosis as the direct result of salvation and enlightenment.10 Also, the Hermetists believed that God, although unknowable in essence, could be comprehended by the human mind through contemplation and philosophical reasoning. The Gnostics placed much less faith in the nous or mind of humanity.11
Finally, unlike the Gnostics, who believed that the cosmos was an evil creation of an evil creator god, the Hermetists believed that the universe was God’s wondrous (and basically good) creation. They had no concept of an evil Demiurge. The human body was not seen so much as a material prison of the soul, but rather as an image of God’s creative majesty.
Gnostics and Hermetists had similar spiritual goals, but they worked to achieve them in vastly different ways.
The Hermetic way implied instruction in the nature of the cosmos and of man. In that process of instruction use was made of all kinds of human knowledge, theories of space and movement, the science of astronomy and astrology, medicine, and also sometimes, magical practices. But the purpose of all this was to make the world transparent toward God. The Hermetic way finally led to initiation in the divine mystery, to knowledge of God, to God himself as the source of being.12
The Hermetic Literature
The Hermetic texts or Hermetica were said to have been written by the legendary priest and magician Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, the namesake of the Greco-Egyptian deity Hermes-Thoth. Although the Hermetic books were not markedly different from other contemporary texts on magical philosophy, these works became extremely important because of the high position given to them by Renaissance thinkers and magicians. They were also judged to be acceptable to the Christian church for nearly 1,500 years—highly unusual for books written by an Egyptian initiate who was named after a Pagan god. And because of this remarkable acceptance, the books have played an important role in Western culture.
There were actually two classes of Hermetic literature, obviously not written by the same person, but by several people. The first, more popular and practical type, which dates from the third to first century b.c.e., deals with practices such as astrology, alchemy, the secret properties of plants and gemstones (which later developed into the system of occult correspondences), magic, medicine, and the making of talismans. The second, so-called “learned” type, which dates from the second and third centuries c.e., is comprised of several books about religious philosophy. Most important among these books are the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius. These books, as well as The Emerald Tablet and the Divine Pymander, describe the creation of the universe, cosmic principles, the soul and nature of humanity and other spiritual beings, man’s desire to know God, and the way to achieve spiritual rebirth. However, both types of Hermetism, “popular” and “learned” (or magical and philosophical), shared the same philosophical root, and these classifications between them are a purely modern distinction invented for the sometimes delicate sensibilities of modern scholars. Such a distinction would have been meaningless in ancient times, just as it is for modern magicians.
Other texts were also attributed to the Hermetica, including some found in the Gnostic Library discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, and many of the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, which date from the second to fifth centuries c.e.
The astrological, magical, and alchemical portions of the Hermetic works formed the basis of what would later become known as Western ceremonial magic. Lists of occult correspondences, invocations of deities, and rituals for summoning spirits were all to be found in the Hermetica. The more philosophical (“learned”) books even furnish a rationale for conducting experiments in ritual magic. However, the greatest practical magic that was contained within the texts had to do with the perfecting of humanity—the recognition of the divine spark within the human soul, and the means by which this spark could be returned to the godhead.
Originating in Egypt under the guise of a body of knowledge from a single well-respected source (Hermes Trismegistus), these two strands of Hermetic literature, like their two parent cultures of Egypt and Greece, came together.
Christianity and Hermetism
By the fourth century c.e., one sect of Christianity had completed its grip on power. The reason why the church did not attempt to eradicate the Hermetic literature, as it had done with other Pagan books, was because many of the spiritual ideas embraced by the books were very similar to Christian principles. Byzantium scholars preserved some books of the Hermetica during medieval times. Thinking that the Hermetic books were much older than they actually were, Christian officials thought that they were the work of an enlightened ancient Pagan who envisioned the forthcoming Christian “truths.” Had they known that the books were penned by a not-so-ancient Hellenistic Pagan thinker who was influenced by Gnostic and Neoplatonic ideas, they would have no doubt branded the texts as heresy and committed them to the fire.
As it was, many Pagans, voluntarily or not, were becoming Christians. When Hermetists converted to Christianity, it was not a simple one-way transfer of allegiance from a Pagan theology to a Christian one. They surely retained much of their deep-seated ways of thinking, feeling, and experiencing deity. Although the Hermetists must have made up only a small minority of the larger Christian community, they no doubt had an influence on their colleagues. And they would have certainly been inclined to focus on those aspects of Christian thinking that were closest in agreement with Hermetic principles. Hermetic teachers were passionate about spiritual matters, and they would have likely been just as fervent within their new religion. Such individuals probably would have been leading lights within the Christian monasteries of fourth-century Egypt and principle figures in discussions of theology in Alexandria.
According to Walter Scott in his introduction to the Hermetica:
It is not to be supposed that the Christian Church took over this or that theological dogma ready made from Hermetists or from any other Pagans. And yet the Christian Church took over a great deal; for it took over the men themselves. . . . Some of them may have held out and stuck to Paganism . . . (B)ut most of them must have turned Christians. And what did that mean? In some respects the change would not be a large one. The Hermetist, when he became a Christian, would not have so very much to unlearn. If one were to try to sum up the Hermetic teaching in one sentence, I can think of none that would serve the purpose better than the sentence “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To that extent at least the Hermetist had nothing new to learn from the Christian catechist. He had been accustomed to aspire towards union with God . . . 13
Hermes Trismegistus in the Renaissance
Once Christianity became the dominant political force, rival philosophies, including Hermetism, were eventually squelched. Here and there different Gnostic sects would again surface briefly, and the Hermetic literature remained to a certain degree accepted by the established religious hierarchy. Early church fathers even sanctioned the inspirational books of Hermes. Thus when the social climate of the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the works of Hermes were already in good standing and readily available for religious and humanist scholars alike who craved a return to the wisdom of the ancient world. Along with the renewal of interest in antiquity, the celebrated name of Hermes Trismegistus was given new reverence.
In the mind of the Renaissance philosopher-magician, Hermes Trismegistus had been a real person who, along with Zoroaster and Moses, was thought of as one of the great teachers—the prisci theologi who had foreshadowed the teachings of Christ.
In 1460, a monk brought a manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum to Cosimo de Medici, one of the most powerful and influential nobles in northern Italy—not to mention an avid philosopher. Three years later, de Medici commissioned Marsilio Ficino, himself a philosopher, scholar, and magician, to translate the book. The works of Hermes Trismegistus were considered so important that Ficino had to put aside translation of the entire works of Plato until after the Corpus Hermeticum had been translated.
As a result of this fortuitous mistake in dating the texts, combined with a fresh and positive interpretation of natural magic by Ficino, the subject of magic, once banished into the subterranean darkness by the church, ascended to the new light of day as a learned topic for scholarly, philosophical discussion.
The final and perhaps most important element of the Hermetic Tradition was added by Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), a humanist and student of Ficino’s Platonic Academy in Florence. Mirandola was the first prominent Christian scholar to embrace the Jewish Qabalah, placing it at the forefront of the Hermetic Tradition, and thus changing that tradition forever. The work of Mirandola and those who came after him transformed ancient Hermetism into modern Hermeticism, through the same syncretic process that produced its archaic ancestor. Since the late fifteenth century the Hermetic Tradition—modern-day Hermeticism—has included the teachings of ancient Hermetism, alchemy, astrology, Christianity, Neoclassicism, the natural magic of the Renaissance scholars, occult philosophy, and Qabalah. At the core of this tradition is the attempt to unite different Western traditions in an effort to uncover the single matrix connecting them all. The worldview adopted by the Renaissance Hermeticists was essentially a magical one, and it came to be in-creasingly considered as an esoteric tradition (hidden, or what is intended for a small inner group) as opposed to the exoteric (outer) faith of the masses.
Later Additions to Hermeticism
For two centuries, Hermes Trismegistus’ high reputation as one of the prisci theologi remained unchallenged. However, in 1614, a scholar by the name of Isaac Casaubon confirmed that the author of the Hermetica lived during the post-Christian era, not during the distant times of ancient Egypt. But Casaubon’s view was largely ignored, for several mystical thinkers of the seventeenth century, such as Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher, continued to venerate the Thrice-Great Hermes. The seventeenth century was virtually a Hermetic golden age.
This golden age brought a new element into the fold of the Hermetic Tradition—Rosicrucianism, an esoteric path that emphasized alchemy, Qabalah, Christian mysticism, Christian theosophy (the multileveled interpretation of Scripture), and spiritual transformation through Christ consciousness. In the eighteenth century, elements of Freemasonry, particularly Masonic ritual structure, were firmly imbedded into the Hermetic path.
The occult revival of the nineteenth century, spearheaded by men such as Eliphas Levi, brought an increased interest in the Hermetic Tradition. When the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888, the name of Hermes was again invoked to describe a system of Western occultism that combined the many threads of the Hermetic Tradition into a unified body of teaching, practical and philosophical, designed to improve the spiritual health of humanity. Consequently, Hermeticism began to enjoy a second renaissance, centuries after the first. The Western Esoteric Tradition, the magic and mysticism of the Western world, was reaching its maturity.
Hermetic Principles of the Golden Dawn
Having been born out of a blended variety of spiritual beliefs, philosophies, cultures, and practices, Hermeticism defies most attempts to place it within strict confines of doctrine and dogma. It cannot be described as one particular spiritual system or school of thought. As a living tradition of philosophical principles and magical practice, the Western Esoteric Tradition is not unlike an ancient river of wisdom whose waters continue to nourish large tracts of land while at the same time branching off into several lesser tributaries. This great river of spiritual thought has continually fed several smaller streams, of which the Golden Dawn is one form.
The essence of the Hermeticism embraced by the Golden Dawn is governed by the following principles:
• It is primarily concerned with the spiritual traditions of Western civilization. This includes the ancient Egyptian, Greco-Egyptian, and Roman mystery religions, Neopaganism, Neoplatonism, Iamblichan theurgy, alchemy, Qabalah, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and mystical Christianity.
• It holds a belief in both the Macrocosm and the Microcosm—a belief in a Creator and Creation—and it seeks to comprehend both.
• It is ultimately monotheistic although it conceives of the Divine Unity or ultimate Divinity as emanating itself through a multitude of forms, aspects, characteristics, and manifestations. In other words, the transcendent God who is the ineffable Source of All presents itself to humanity in the forms of various gods and goddesses for our better understanding and development. Thus, although the system may appear to be outwardly polytheistic, all deities are thought to be the various faces and rich expressions of the ultimate Divine Unity. Although the cosmos appears to be diverse, at its most fundamental level, All is One.
• It maintains that the Ultimate Divinity is both immanent (within everything) and transcendent (beyond everything), and that the universe is divine. It teaches tolerance for all spiritual paths.
• It holds that humanity is in a “fallen state,” i.e., that we have become separated from the divine (through involution) and that we seek “the Way of Return” back to unity with the divine (through evolution). The Way of Return requires aspiration and discipline. It cannot be attained without hard work and dedication. And although many ancient and sacred texts can hold valuable, profound, and precious keys that provide guidance toward the Way of Return, no text is thought to be infallible or free of error. Although spiritual teachers can provide guidance, each individual aspirant must ultimately tread the way back to the divine alone.
• It teaches that as part of the discipline needed to return to the divine, human beings must learn to understand the invisible realms that lie hidden behind the manifest universe. To that end, it embraces the practices of esoteric spirituality, mysticism, and the magical arts. Armed with the knowledge gained from esoteric practices, the highest aspiration of the Hermeticist is toward union with the divine, often called the goal of the Great Work.
It can be said that the figure of Hermes has been noticeably present during the three great revolutions in Western religious history—around the time of the birth of Christ, during the Renaissance and Reformation period, and at the close of the last century (right up to the present). However, Hermes Trismegistus is no longer looked on as an ancient harbinger of any one particular faith. The Hermetic Tradition of today, above all else, extols the Gnostic idea that direct personal revelation and experience are essential to spiritual growth.
Thrice-Great Hermes’ principal contribution was to teach human beings about our own spiritual nature and our place within the divine universe. Our true mission is to realize that we are each slivers of the divine spirit within physical bodies. We are the vehicles through which the deity experiences the created world of matter. We are to become more than human, to permit the divine spirit within us to see and experience the physical world in the best manner possible, by being true to our inner divine nature—without guilt, without perversion or obsession, and without harm to others. And, above all, we must actively try to return to the godhead. This is the goal of the Great Work: it is the “search for the Quintessence, the Stone of the Philosophers. True Wisdom. Perfect Happiness, the Summum Bonum.”14