A Crash Course in Hermetic Philosophy
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Posted: April 18th. 2010
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What is Hermeticism per se? There are several answers - and about 80% of ALL of them are absolutely correct. Hermeticism can refer to an occult philosophy traceable to Hellenistic Egypt and into the early Christian era centered on the Mythic figure of one Hermes Trismegistus. It can refer to the royal art of alchemy. It can refer to students and masters/mistresses of either or both, who traditionally studied in small groups around a central teacher. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it came to refer to such orders as the Golden Dawn or Aurum Solis, which made use of all of the above to create a truly phenomenal and comprehensive synthesis of occult philosophy and practice.
The term Hermetic can even be used as an adjective to describe types of ceremonies - the Order of Nine Angles (a fascist Satanic group in the UK) uses it to refer to solitary workings vs. group ceremonials, while William Gray used it to refer to very formal ceremonies. Gray used the term "Orphic" to refer to less formal ceremonials.
Which of these is correct? Well, we could say all of them, to some degree. However, let's focus on the first (and maybe purest) i.e. the teachings stemming from Hellenistic Egypt.
While there is some variation, even within the same texts (some being optimistic, others being pessimistic) , a general synopsis of Hermetic philosophy was this:
1) Ultimately, there is One Divine Force. However, this One Force or Being cannot be defined other than in the negative (i.e. what it is not) . The only three words that may be used to positively describe it are "the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful." Jews and Christians identified this One with their God, Pagans (such as Hypatia and Plato) approached it as a divine mystery, and Gnostics saw in it the Pleroma (fullness) of the Aeons and the Hidden God above fallen matter.
2) The One creates by reflection (meditation) and emanation. Its first creation was Divine Thought - identified variously as Necessity (the Fate above the Three Fates) , Providence, Wisdom (Sophia) , or the Holy Spirit. The Thought was generally seen as female, but not always.
3) The One brings out a Primal Man (or becomes somehow a Primal Man) who is identified with the Sun. (The Sun in this context is used as a symbol for the center of all creation not the star itself) . Primal Man is also called the Lightbringer, the Firstborn, the Logos (the Word) . Primal Man also brings into being the Seven Governors (the planets and the planetary gods) .
4) There is Nature (the World Soul) - who herself is Truth. (The word for Truth and Nature is the same in Greek, Alithea) . Primal Man spies her across the great divide. He yearns for her and moves closer to her. In doing so, he "falls" - and the Seven Governors impart their powers to him. The more optimistic schools taught that they empowered him with their virtues. The pessimists held that they bound him in chains. Some held that both were right.
5) Primal Man, as Light and Spirit, married the World Soul, filling Nature with his essence. It is this essence that makes every creature live, and is the web of correspondence and synchronicity upon which magic depends.
6) Either Primal Man is manifold, reflecting as many diverse creatures at once... or has somehow become divided as many diverse sparks of Light. It is the goal of the wise to raise this scattered Light (taking Nature with them) into the Divine Realm, where the Logos may be reconstituted. In the context of the Mystery Cults, as well as the practice of theurgy (high magic) , this was phrased "the gift of the Gods to become as the Gods."
Hermeticism has appealed to two types of people: people afraid of magic and people who embrace magic. The former saw in Hermes Trismegistus a primeval sage sent by the Creator to enlighten us as to our origins and our ends. The latter saw a philosophy that made sense of why and how magic worked, that illustrated a dynamic web of correspondences that they could use, as well as highlighting the ultimate aim of all true magic (the uplifting and purifying of the lower ego into a medium of the Higher Self) . Of the two, those who embraced magic were probably the more historically correct to the roots of Hermeticism proper.
Believe it or not, but BOTH types found a home in primitive Christianity. Up until the late 1600s, the foundation of Christian thought was a hybrid of Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. (As Hermeticism itself was indebted to Neo-Platonism, this may be redundant) .
Indeed, there is far more of Hellenistic philosophy and mystery in the older variants of Christianity than there are survivals of Hebrew religion! It was only AFTER the Hellenistic age and Ptolemaic dynasty that the Cabalistic school blossomed (though there were precedents such as the Essene and Merkahbah sects) . Though that in itself is a heady topic that could easily go on and on and on.
Those Hermetic Jews and Christians who were uneasy about magic felt that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses. The Christians taught that he was a "noble Pagan" (like Plato and Pythagoras) who had been illumined by God by the angels to pave the way for the coming of Jesus. They taught the philosophy as a sort of "Egyptian Gospel" to solve problems and conundrums in the developing Christian theology. However, they insisted that the magical elements were corrupt additions to the originally pure texts by those "nasty barbarians in Rome" (sic) who wanted to justify themselves by soiling the name of a decent (if Pagan) sage.
Those who embraced magic walked a tight line.
Some, such as Marsillo Ficino, were devout Christians who nonetheless advocated natural magic. This he defined as the manipulation of natural forces placed by God at man's disposal for common good if only humanity knew how. Marsillo identified the ancient Gods with angels, as well as being "symbols and forces" in service to God. Thus, he advocated a pious Christian life in tandem to reciting hymns to the Sun, to Venus, and to other Deities, with offerings of incense and the wearing of sacred colors. His "Book of Life" is a wonderful compendium of such "natural remedies" against melancholy, depression, poverty, and misery. (Though translations in English - good translations at least - are VERY pricey) .
Others taught that the magical arts should not be in the hands of the people who would misuse them. Rather, priests and bishops should use them to see that the people are happy, healthy, and grow in the path of wisdom.
And lastly there were a growing number (from 1600s to 1800s) who formally renounced membership in organized Christianity while still considering themselves to be Christians. They seized upon Augustine's line that "there has never been a time where there was not a Christian religion" to mean that Christianity was meant to be the tool (in their age) of the great spiritual awakening at the core of a universal Hermetic philosophy. To that end, one Giordano Bruno proudly stood before the Pope when accused of heresy. One of the things he told the pope can be summed in this paraphrase: "The organized Christian Church is misled and misleading. The true religion of humanity is the Egyptian religion of Isis and Hermes Trismegistus. Only when your Church cleans its own house and embraces that light will it be saved from itself."
For this, and for teaching such horrible sentiments as a heliocentric universe and the necessity of free thought, Bruno was burnt alive on February 17, 1600. Times were changing, and cold Aristotelian logic - which saw Nature as base and separate from Deity - forever changed the way in which our society and the Christian Church relates to the unseen.
Let us also remember that - through the Crotona Fellowship, the Theosophical Society, and the Society of the Inner Light, the Golden Dawn, and the New Forest Coven - the light of Hermes shines through the Revived Craft (as it does through the old persuasion) . We build upon our past - may we honor its memory and secure its legacy wisely.
Some resources: (no particular order, though * are recommended heartily to those fairly new to occult philosophy, theology, and Hermeticism in particular)
The Corpus Hermeticum (especially "the Divine Pymander" and "the Virgin of the World")
The Collected Works of Rumi
The Picatrix or the Goal of the Wise (English translations are a tad pricey and hard to come by, though the one by Ouroboros press is BEAUTIFUL and true to the original)
*In the Dark Places of Wisdom by Peter Kingsley
The Book of Life by Marsillo Ficino
Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa
The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie
*The Kybalion by Three Initiates
The New Hermetics by Jason Newcomb
Hermetic Magic by Stephen Edred Flowers
*Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates
* The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P Hall
Orations to the Mother of the Gods and the Sovereign Sun (King Helios) by Emperor Julian
*God against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsche
The New Encyclopedia of the Occult by Jonathan Michael Greer
Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft by Raven Grimassi
The article drew from many resources, some oral, but most derived from the steady stream of academic interest in the Hermetic stream. A careful reading of the books recommended will prove beneficial to interested parties.
Copyright: (c) Jonathan Sousa, 2009
Location: Fall River, Massachusetts
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