View Full Version : The Ars Hermetica

David Guyatt
03-26-2009, 12:33 PM
The below essay is concise and incisive and amongst other things identifies our very own Hermes. Having said that what's in a name? Knowing the name of someone or something advances our knowledge, but actually knowing that thing or person is an altogether different and far more intimate matter.

The process of individuation as defined by Jung moves from the outer edge of our being to the core. Each grows from out of the other and the process is rather like an archeologist carefully identifying, cataloguing and storing artefacts - and then sweeping away the debris of one age as they move on and dig deeper down to reach other forgotten ages laying beneath. This is the process of discovery.

http://pandc.ca/?cat=car_jung&page=major_archetypes_and_individuation (http://pandc.ca/?cat=car_jung&page=major_archetypes_and_individuatio)

Major Archetypes and the Process of Individuation
(a quick pencil sketch)

by Eric Pettifor

Following the lead of the master I'll take a somewhat circuitous route to the concept of individuation. First we'll need some background concepts. The critical ones as I see them are the unconscious and archetypes.

The Unconscious

There are two types of unconscious, the personal unconscious and the collective. The personal unconscious is pretty much self defining and doesn't need to be perceived as mysterious or supernatural (though it is occult in the truest sense of the word - 'hidden'). The personal unconscious contains all the stuff that simply isn't conscious. It contains stuff that can be made conscious by simple act of will, stuff that requires some digging, as well as stuff that may never be recalled to consciousness ever again. It is made up of the things you've experienced every day of your life. I'm not sure if it is strictly true that nothing is ever really and truly lost, totally forgotten, but it seems that the psyche is very reluctant to let much go in the event that it might come in handy someday. The psyche is a pack rat, the unconscious full of its stuff.

The personal unconscious is also a dumping ground for things we aren't comfortable with and which we'd really rather not have in consciousness very often. Repressed memories are a hot issue at the moment, but even without total all out suppression of memory, we are adept at not thinking about things we'd rather not think about.

Another interesting aspect of the personal unconscious is that recall can be influenced by context. For example, being slow to recognise a person on the street who you know very well from school or work or wherever. There is no sharp dividing line between conscious and unconscious mind.

The collective unconscious likewise is pretty much self defining. While you participate in it, it isn't your exclusive property, we all share in it. It belongs to the species. When Jung had his official doctor hat on and was defining things ex cathedra , the collective unconscious was something passed on genetically. It was like an edition of a book of which we each had our own copy. However, in more off the record materials such as letters, Jung seemed to possess a more spiritual understanding of something which we are all tapped into somehow, an understanding which would not have sold in medical circles then and doesn't sell in any academically oriented circles now, though Jung has become very popular with the general reading public who seem to enjoy very much those ideas of Jung's which are farthest out on a limb.

In any event, it was a theory which took courage to advance, but Jung felt it necessary to do so, since he was noticing a strong degree of correspondence between dreams of patients, both private and institutionalised, and mythological motifs. In alchemy he found not only parallels in terms of content, but process as well. What he was seeing he felt to be a psychic fact, and the only acceptable explanation for the persistence of these patterns down through millenniums was biological inheritance.


Archetypes are essentially quasi autonomous functions which give rise to specific motifs, as common in all mythology as in any individual's life. They are often discussed in terms of personifications which appear in dreams, but they can also be seen in themes of stories, mythological or lived. They are very potent as patterns of action. Another reason I prefer to consider them functionally is that they perform discrete functions as will be seen below. They are more than just different flavours of the same thing.

Another advantage of starting with a rather broader definition to avoid a common confusion of archetype with personified image. While the Self may give rise to an image of Jesus Christ for example, it is also the archetype behind the most abstract of mandalas. I also wished to start this way because it's especially difficult in the case of the Anima/Animus who seem to be especially prone to personification, given the emphasis on gender.


The Big Five

The Big Five are the Persona, the Ego, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, and the Self. Each has a specific role or quality which is why I prefer to think of them as functions.

The Persona

The Persona is that which we present to the outside world. It isn't really our selves, though there is a danger we can identify too much with it and believe it to be so. It is a mask. It's not a bad thing to have, in fact it's necessary for getting along with others. Jung seems to talk about it in the singular, but I suspect that a well adjusted person has several masks and is adept at juggling them and knowing which one is appropriate when and just how opaque it needs to be. In any event, singular or plural, it's a fact of life. Ask a doctor what he does and he won't say, "I do medicine", he's unlikely even to say, "I practice medicine". What you'll likely hear is "I'm a doctor". Occupation isn't the only shelf where masks are pulled from. Religion, sexual orientation, politics, the social sciences....

The Ego

The ego is the centre of consciousness. It is identity. It is 'I'. But it is not the totality of the psyche. Being the king of consciousness amounts to dominion over a small but important land surrounded by a wide world of terra incognita. The more aware the King is of lands beyond his domain the more secure he will be on his throne, but he must not be tempted to open the borders to it all. In Jungian theory the unconscious is far too vast to ever be made fully conscious, poking about in it is not without danger, yet ignoring it is also a mistake since it leads to a brittle fixedness which at best impedes growth, at worst can break when under the pressure of the 'threat' of change.

The Shadow

I was a couple of sentences in on Anima/Animus, before I noticed that I had forgotten the Shadow. That is the nature of this archetype, it is the receptacle for all of that which we have for one reason or another disowned. There seems to be a movement on to 'redeem' the Shadow, as evidenced by such books as Your Golden Shadow, but in truth there's a great deal that's very, very unpleasant here, since we have good reason for wanting to disown our darker natures. The avenue for an attempted redemption of the Shadow lies in the belief that everything disowned winds up here. A person who grew up in a family where level headedness prevailed and such things as art making were not given much value may discover some artistic aptitude hiding out in their shadow. There are treasures here, but they are buried in stinking muck.

The Anima/Animus

The Anima is the female soul image of a man, the Animus the male soul image of a woman. That is the most simple definition, and one which many struggle with, since Jung seems quite absolute in defining a person's soul image as gender opposite.

"Soul image" sounds very pretty, but the Anima/Animus is not without a negative pole as well. Jung's anima whispered to him that what he was doing was "art". He rejected this and pushed ahead as a 'scientist' which was much better in a society which regards science as 'serious' and art as less so.

If one is on good terms with one's Anima/Animus he/she can prove a valuable messenger between the unconscious and the conscious, a connecting link - a veritable Hermes.

The Self

The Self is simply the centre and the totality of the entire psyche. It is the archetype which contains all the other archetypes and around which they orbit. It's something of a paradox, and extremely difficult for the conscious ego to accept.

Archetypes and the Individuation Process

According to Jung, one must get in touch with the Shadow and Anima/Animus before one can truly get in touch with the Self. The order is sequential, and as tempting as it may be to try and skip the Shadow or deal only superficially with it, it is here that we begin.

Jung referred to this initial step as "the First Act of Courage". And the first thing that is necessary in coming to terms with one's own shadow is simply to acknowledge that it exists. It sounds obvious, but there are those for whom the thought of actually having a darker side to their nature is extremely uncomfortable. Yet this is one of the primary reasons for undertaking the 'Shadow work' in the first place, since that which we have yet disavow in ourselves will be projected outwards.

One of the clues to projection of shadow content is the degree of negative emotion aroused in us by something in the outside world - often other people. It can be something they do, or even just the way they look. Projection is accompanied by emotion. Jung distinguished between 'feeling' (a function which evaluates) and 'emotion' (a physiological affect). If there is no projection of something which is at the root personal, it is possible to evaluate something (or someone) external as being 'bad', without being greatly upset, experiencing, at most, a sense of regret or pity. If the emotion is stronger than that, then we may want to ask ourselves what of ourselves we see in what is making us feel that way. That said, it is important to note that not all projection is negative, that at some level it may all be projection given our subjective perspectives, and that there is a place in the world for righteous anger which motivates social action for change.

One of the advantages of withdrawing one's shadow projections and owning our own 'stuff' is that the external world may brighten up a little for ourselves and those around us, since we won't be projecting so much of a negative nature outwards and saying, 'That's just how the world is, life's a bitch and then you die.'

There is also truth in the 'Golden Shadow' observation that there are things of value which we have disowned, both aptitudes and qualities, in the Shadow. The person who blushes, and qualifies, and resists, and is generally tremendously uncomfortable when asked to sing may have a part of them which wants nothing more than to belt out a round or two of something raucous, commanding the admiration of those around. Thus the popularity of having a few in a Karoke bar. Also, without going into great detail, life energy (libido) is locked up in the Shadow, energy we could all probably use more of.

The downside to the shadow work is that it involves confronting parts of ourselves which are located in the Shadow precisely because they are frightening or shameful. Jungian analysts advise that this work be done only under the supervision of a Jungian analyst, ignoring the fact that this eliminates a large class of people who cannot afford the services of such a professional. Another book (ref?) suggests that at very least one should do the work with the help of a very close friend whom one trusts in order to have a reference in the external world, an anchor and safe haven and source of reinforcement when dark realizations seem to be all out global truths of complete personal unworthiness. It isn't a journey to be undertaken lightly.

At some vaguely defined point evolving naturally out of the process (?!) it becomes possible to begin the work of getting in touch with the Anima/Animus. There is less written on this stage than that of the Shadow, which is as one would expect, given that fewer have made it this far.


(my bolding)

David Guyatt
03-26-2009, 01:56 PM

On the Trail of the Winged God

Hermes and Hermeticism Throughout the Ages

by Stephan A. Hoeller


There are few names to which more diverse persons and disciplines lay claim than the term "Hermetic." Alchemists ancient and contemporary apply the adjective "Hermetic" to their art, while magicians attach the name to their ceremonies of evocation and invocation. Followers of Meister Eckhart, Raymond Lull, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, and most recently Valentin Tomberg are joined by academic scholars of esoterica, all of whom attach the word "Hermetic" to their activities.

Who, then, was Hermes, and what may be said of the philosophy or religion that is connected with him? The early twentieth-century scholar Walter Scott, in his classic edition of the Hermetic texts, writes of a legend preserved by the Renaissance writer Vergicius:

They say that this Hermes left his own country and traveled all over the world…; and that he tried to teach men to revere and worship one God alone, …the demiurgus and genetor [begetter] of all things; …and that he lived a very wise and pious life, occupied in intellectual contemplation…, and giving no heed to the gross things of the material world…; and that having returned to his own country, he wrote at the time many books of mystical theology and philosophy.1

Until relatively recently, no one had a clear picture of either the authorship or the context of the mysterious writings ascribed to Hermes. Descriptions such as the one above are really no more than a summary of the ideal laid down in the "Hermetic" writings. The early Christian Fathers, in time, mostly held that Hermes was a great sage who lived before Moses and that he was a pious and wise man who received revelations from God that were later fully explained by Christianity. None mentioned that he was a Greek god.

The Greek Hermes

The British scholar R.F. Willetts wrote that "in many ways, Hermes is the most sympathetic, the most baffling, the most confusing, the most complex, and therefore the most Greek of all the Olympian gods."2 If Hermes is the god of the mind, then these qualities appear in an even more meaningful light. For is the mind not the most baffling, confusing, and at the same time the most beguiling, of all the attributes of life?

The name Hermes appears to have originated in the word for "stone heap." Probably since prehistoric times there existed in Crete and in other Greek regions a custom or erecting a herma or hermaion consisting of an upright stone surrounded at its base by a heap of smaller stones. Such monuments were used to serve as boundaries or as landmarks for wayfarers.

A mythological connection existed between these simple monuments and the deity named Hermes. When Hermes killed the many-eyed monster Argus, he was brought to trial by the gods. They voted for Hermes' innocence, each casting a vote by throwing a small stone at his feet so that a heap of stones grew up around him.

Hermes became best known as the swift messenger of the gods. Euripides, in his prologue to the play Ion, has Hermes introduce himself as follows:

Atlas, who wears on back of bronze the ancient
Abode of the gods in heaven, had a daughter
Whose name was Maia, born of a goddess:
She lay with Zeus, and bore me, Hermes,
Servant of the immortals.

Hermes is thus of a double origin. His grandfather is Atlas, the demigod who holds up heaven, but Maia, his mother, already has a goddess as her mother, while Hermes' father, Zeus, is of course the highest of the gods. It is tempting to interpret this as saying that from worldly toil (Atlas), with a heavy infusion of divine inspiration, comes forth consciousness, as symbolized by Hermes.

Versatility and mutability are Hermes' most prominent characteristics. His specialties are eloquence and invention (he invented the lyre). He is the god of travel and the protector of sacrifices; he is also god of commerce and good luck. The common quality in all of these is again consciousness, the agile movement of mind that goes to and fro, joining humans and gods, assisting the exchange of ideas and commercial goods. Consciousness has a shadow side, however: Hermes is also noted for cunning and for fraud, perjury, and theft.

The association of Hermes with theft become evident in the pseudo-Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which tells in great detail how the young god, barely risen from his cradle, carries off some of Apollo's prize oxen. The enraged Apollo denounces Hermes to Zeus but is mollified by the gift of the lyre, which the young Hermes has just invented by placing strings across the shell of a tortoise. That the larcenous trickster god is the one who bestows the instrument of poetry upon Apollo may be a point of some significance. Art is bestowed not by prosaic rectitude, but by the freedom of intuition, a function not bound by earthly rules.

While Hermes is regarded as one of the earliest and most primitive gods of the Greeks, he enjoys so much subsequent prominence that he must be recognized as an archetype devoted to mediating between, and unifying, the opposites. This foreshadows his later role as master magician and alchemist, as he was regarded both in Egypt and in Renaissance Europe.

Mediterranean Hermes

One admirable quality of the ancient Greeks was the universality of their theological vision. Unlike their Semitic counterparts, the Greeks claimed no uniqueness for their deities but freely acknowledged that the Olympians often had exact analogues in the gods of other nations.

This was particularly true of Egypt, whose gods the Greeks revered as the prototypes of their own. It was a truth frequently recognized by the cultured elite of Greek society that some of the Egyptian gods, such as Isis, were of such great stature that they united within themselves a host of Greek deities.

The Romans, who were fully aware of the fact that their gods were but rebaptized Greek deities, followed the example of their mentors. As the Roman Empire extended itself to occupy the various Mediterranean lands, including Egypt, the ascendancy of the archetypes of some of the more prominent Egyptian gods became evident. Here we are faced with the controversial phenomenon of syncretism, which plays a vital role in the new manifestation of Hermes in the last centuries before Christ and in the early centuries of the Christian era.

During this period, the Mediterranean world was undergoing a remarkable religious development. The old state religions had lost their hold on many people. In their stead a large number of often-interrelated religions, philosophies, and rites had arisen, facilitated by the political unity imposed by the Roman Empire.

This new ecumenism of the spirit was one that we might justly admire. Though often derided as mere syncretism by later writers, it possessed many features to which various ecumenicists aspire even today. It is by no means impossible that the Mediterranean region of the late Hellenistic period was in fact on its way toward a certain kind of religious unity. The world religion that might conceivably have emerged would have been much more sophisticated than the accusation of syncretism would have us believe. Far from being a patchwork of incompatible elements, this emerging Mediterranean spirituality bore the hallmarks of a profound mysticism, possessing a psychological wisdom still admired in our own day by such figures as C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade.

An important feature of this era was the rise of a new worship of Hermes. Proceeding from the three principal Egyptian archetypes of divinity, we find three great forms of initiatory religion spreading along the shores of the Mediterranean: the cults of the Mother Goddess Isis, the Victim God Osiris, and the Wisdom God Hermes, all of which appeared under various guises.

Of these three we shall concern ourselves here with Hermes. It was during this period that the swift god of consciousness took his legendary winged sandals and crossed the sea to Egypt in order to become the Greco-Egyptian Thrice-Greatest Hermes.

Hermes of Egypt


The Egyptian god Thoth, or Tehuti, in the form of an ibis. With him is his associate, the ape, proferring the Eye of Horus. From E.A. Wallis Budge's Gods of the Egyptians.

The Greek Hermes found his analogue in Egypt as the ancient Wisdom God Thoth (sometimes spelled Thouth or Tahuti). This god was worshiped in his principal cult location, Chmun, known also as the "City of the Eight," called Greek Hermopolis. There is evidence that this location was a center for the worship of this deity at least as early as 3000 B.C.

Thoth played a part in many of the myths of Pharaonic Egypt: he played a role in the creation myth, he was recorder of the gods, and he was the principal pleader for the soul at the judgment of the dead. It was he who invented writing. He wrote all the ancient texts, including the most esoteric ones, including The Book of Breathings, which taught humans how to become gods. He was connected with the moon and thus was considered ruler of the night. Thoth was also the teacher and helper of the ancient Egyptian trinity of Isis, Osiris, and Horus; it was under his instructions that Isis worked her sacred love magic whereby she brought the slain Osiris back to life.

Most importantly, perhaps, for our purposes, Thoth acted as an emissary between the contending armies of Horus and Seth and eventually came to negotiate the peace treaty between these two gods. His role as a mediator between the opposites is thus made evident, perhaps prefiguring the role of the alchemical Mercury as the "medium of the conjunction."

Thoth's animal form is that of the ibis, with its long, slightly curved beak: statues of Thoth often portray a majestic human wearing the mask of head of this bird; others simply display the ibis itself.

It was to this powerful god that the Egyptian Hermeticists of the second and third centuries A.D. joined the image and especially the name of the Greek Hermes. From this time onward the name "Hermes" came to denote neither Thoth nor Hermes proper, but a new archetypal figure, Hermes Trismegistus, who combined the features of both.

By the time his Egyptian followers came to establish their highly secretive communities, this Hermes underwent yet another modification, this time from the Jewish tradition. The presence of large numbers of Jews in Egypt in this period, many of whom were oriented toward Hellenistic thought, accounts for this additional element. In many of the Hermetic writings, Hermes appears less as an Egyptian or Greek god and more as a mysterious prophet of the kind one finds in Jewish prophetic literature, notably the Apocalypse of Baruch, 4 Esdras, and 2 Enoch. Still, when all is said and done, the Jewish element in the Hermetic writings is not very pronounced. The Hermes that concerns us is primarily Egyptian, to a lesser degree Greek, and to a very slight extent Jewish in character.

Hermetic Communities


A Renaissance portraite of Hermes Trismegistus, from the floor of the cathedral at Siena, 1488; attributed to Giovanni di Maestro Stefano. The legend beneath the central figure reads "Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, the contemporary of Moses."

Who, then, actually wrote the "books of Hermes," which, since their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, have played such a significant role in our culture? The writings are all anonymous: their mythic author is considered to be Hermes himself. The reasoning behind this pseudonymous approach is simple. Hermes is Wisdom, and thus anything written through the inspiration of true wisdom is in actuality written by Hermes. The human scribe does not matter; certainly his name is of no significance.

Customs of this sort have not been uncommon in mystical literature. The Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar, currently believed to have been written in the medieval period, claims to be the work of Shimon bar Yohai, a rabbi of the second century A.D. Two of the best-known Christian mystical classics, The Cloud of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica, were written anonymously.

The members of the Hermetic communities were people who, brought up in the immemorial Egyptian religious tradition, offered their own version of the religion of gnosis, which others propounded in a manner more appropriate to the psyches of other national backgrounds, notably Hebrew, Syrian, or Mesopotamian. Sir W.M.F. Petrie3 presents us with a study of such Pagan monks and hermits who gathered together in the deserts of Egypt and other lands. He tells us of the monks' attention to cleanliness, their silence during meals, their seclusion and meditative piety. It would seem that the Hermeticists were recluses of this kind. Unlike the Gnostics, who were mostly living secular lives in cities, the Hermeticists followed a lifestyle similar to the kind Josephus attributes to the Essenes.

When it came to beliefs, it is likely that the Hermeticists and Gnostics were close spiritual relatives. The two schools had a great deal in common, their principal difference being that the Hermeticists looked to the archetypal figure of Hermes as the embodiment of salvific teaching and initiation, while the Gnostics revered the more recent savior figure known as Jesus in a similar manner. Both groups were singularly devoted to gnosis, which they understood to be the experience of liberating interior knowledge; both looked upon embodiment as a limitation that led to unconsciousness, from which only gnosis can liberate the human spirit. Most of the Hermetic teachings closely correspond to fundamental ideas of the Gnostics. There were also some, mostly minor, divergences between the two, to which we shall refer later.

Judging by their writings and by the repute they enjoyed among their contemporaries, the members of the Hermetic communities were inspired persons who firmly believed that they were in touch with the Source of all truth, the very embodiment of divine Wisdom himself.

Indeed there are many passages in the Hermetic writings in which we can still perceive the vibrant inspiration, the exaltation of spirit, in the words whereby they attempt to describe the wonders disclosed to their mystic vision. Like the Gnostics, of whom Jung said that they worked with original, compelling images of the deep unconscious, the Hermeticists experienced powerful and extraordinary insights to which they tried to give expression in their writings. Intense feeling generated by personal spiritual experience pervades most of the Hermetic documents.

The Hermetic Curriculum

Until comparatively recently there was very little information available concerning the method of spiritual progress that the Hermeticists may have followed. The Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in 1945, contains at least one scripture whose content is unmistakably Hermetic. This is Tractate 6 of Codex VI, whose title is usually translated as The Discourse on the Eight and the Ninth. On the basis of this discourse, one of its early translators suggested a scheme of progress that was followed by some of the schools of Hermeticists.4

A Hermetic catechumen would begin with a process of conversion, induced by such activities as reading some of the less technical Hermetic literature or listening to a public discourse. A period of probation, including instruction received in a public setting, was required before progressing to the next stage.

This phase would be characterized by a period of philosophical and catechetical studies based on certain Hermetic works. (The Asclepius and the Kore Kosmou may be examples of such study material.) This instruction was imparted to small groups.

The next step entailed a progress through the Seven Spheres or Hebdomad, conducted in a tutorial format, one student at a time. This seems to have been a process of an experiential nature, aided by inspiring topical discourses. In this progression, the candidate is envisioned as beginning his journey from earth and ascending through the planets to a region of freedom from immediate cosmic influences. (The planets were regarded mostly as influences of restriction, which the ascending spirit must overcome.) One may note a close resemblance of this gradual ascent to similar ascensions outlined in various Gnostic sources, as well as to the later Kabbalistic patchwork on the Tree of Life.

The final step was what may be called the Mystery Liturgy of Hermes Trismegistus, of which The Discourse of the Eighth and the Ninth is often regarded as a good example. Here the Hermeticist is spiritually reborn in a transcendental region beyond the seven planets. His status is now that of a pneumatic, or man of the spirit. (Note once again the similarity with Gnosticism.) This level entails an experience of a very profound, initiatory change of consciousness wherein the initiate becomes one with the deeper self resident in his soul, which is a portion of the essence of God. This experience takes place in a totally private setting. The only persons present are the initiate and the initiator (called "son" and "father" in this text). The liturgy takes the form of a dialogue between these two.

The Hermeticists had their own sacraments as well. These appear to have consisted primarily of a form of baptism with water and an anointing resembling "a baptism and a chrism" as mentioned in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip. The Corpus Hermeticum mentions an anointing with "ambrosial water" and a self-administered baptism in a sacred vessel, the krater, sent down by Hermes from the heavenly realms.

The Hermetic Writings

The original number of Hermetic writings must have been considerable. A good many of these were lost during the systematic destruction of non-Christian literature that took place between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. Ancient writers often indicate the existence of such works: in the first century A.D., Plutarch refers to Hermes the Thrice-Greatest; the third-century Church Father Clement of Alexandria says that the books of Hermes treat of Egyptian religion;5 and Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry all seem to be acquainted with Hermetic literature. Scott shows how the ancient Middle Eastern city of Harran harbored both Hermeticists and Hermetic books into the Muslim period.6

A thousand years later, in 1460, the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici, acquired several previously lost Hermetic texts that had been found in the Byzantine Empire. These works were thought to be the work of a historical figure named Hermes Trismegistus who was considered to be a contemporary of Moses. Translated by the learned and enthusiastic Marsilio Ficino and others, the Hermetic books soon gained the attention of an intelligentsia that was starved for a more creative approach to spirituality than had been hitherto available.

The most extensive collection of Hermetic writings is the Corpus Hermeticum, a set of about seventeen short Greek texts. Another collection as made by a scholar named John Stobaeus in the firth century A.D. Two other, longer texts stand alone. The first is the Asclepius, preserved in a Latin translation dating probably from the third century A.D. The second takes the form of a dialogue between Isis and Horus and has the unusual title of Kore Kosmou, which means "daughter of the world."

The reaction of the Christian establishment to these writings was ambivalent. It is true that they were never condemned and were even revered by many prominent ecclesiastics. An authoritative volume of the Hermetic books was printed in Ferrara in 1593, for example. It was edited by one Cardinal Patrizzi, who recommended that these works should replace Aristotle as the basis for Christian philosophy and should be diligently studied in schools and monasteries. The mind boggles at the turn Western culture might have taken had Hermetic teachings replaced Aristotelian theology of Thomas Aquinas as the normative doctrine of the Catholic Church!

Such, however, was not to be. One of the chief propagandists of Hermeticism, the brilliant friar Giordano Bruno, was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1600, and although others continued with their enthusiasm for the fascinating teachings of the books of Hermes, the suspicions and doubts of the narrow-minded continued to dampen any general ardor.

By the seventeenth century, the Hermetic books had enjoyed intermittent popularity in Europe for some 150 years. The coming of the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing religious strife, however, stimulated a tendency toward rationalistic orthodoxy in all quarter. Another factor was the work of the scholar Isaac Casaubon, who used internal evidence in the texts to prove that they had been written, not by a contemporary of Moses, but early in the Christian era.7

By the eighteenth century, the Hermetic teachings were totally eclipsed, and the new scholarship, which prided itself on its opposition to everything it called "superstition," took a dim view of this ancient fountainhead of mystical and occult lore. There wasn't even a critical, academically respectable edition of the Corpus Hermeticum until Walter Scott's Hermetica appeared in 1924.

If one needs an example of how egregiously academic scholarship can err and then persist in its errors, one need only contemplate the "official" scholarly views of the Hermetic books over the 150-year period up to the middle of the twentieth century. The general view was that these writings were Neoplatonic or anti-Christian forgeries, of no value to the study of religion. By the middle of the nineteenth century, such scholars as Gustave Parthey8 and Louis Menard9 began to raise objections to the forgery theory, but it took another 50 years for their views to gain a hearing.

The Occult Connection and the Hermetic Renaissance


Hermes Trismegistus and the creative fire that unite the polarities. D. Stolcius vn Stolcenbeerg, Viridarium chymicum, Frankfurt, 1624

Although the Hermetic system has undeniably influenced much of the best of Christian thought, the most abiding impact of Hermeticism on Western culture came about by way of the heterodox mystical, or occult, tradition. Renaissance occultism, with its alchemy, astrology, ceremonial magic, and occult medicine, became saturated with the teachings of the Hermetic books. This content has remained a permanent part of the occult transmissions of the West, and, along with Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, represents the foundation of all the major Western occult currents. Hermetic elements are demonstrably present in the school of Jacob Boehme and in the Rosicrucian and Masonic movements, for example.

It was not long before this tradition, wedded to secret orders of initiates and their arcane truths, gave way to a more public transmission of their teachings. This occurred initially by way of the work of H.P. Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society in the late nineteenth century.

G.R.S. Mead, a young, educated English Theosophist who became a close associate of Mme. Blavatsky in the last years of her life, was the main agent of the revival of Gnostic and Hermetic wisdom among the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century occultists. Mead first became known for his translation of the great Gnostic work Pistis Sophia, which appeared in 1890-91. In 1906 he published the three volumes of Thrice Greatest Hermes, in which he collected all the then-available Hermetic documents while adding insightful commentaries of his own.10 This volume was followed by other, smaller works of a similar order. Mead's impact on the renewal of interest in Hermeticism and Gnosticism in our century should not be underestimated.

A half-century later, we find another seminal figure who effectively bridged the gap between the occult and the academic. The British scholar Dame Frances A. Yates may be considered the true inaugurator of the modern Hermetic renaissance. Beginning with a work on Giordano Bruno and continuing with a number of others, Yates not only proved the immense influence of Hermeticism on the medieval Renaissance but showed the connections between Hermetic currents and later developments, including the Rosicrucian Enlightenment - itself the title of one of her books.

While some decades ago it might have appeared that the line of transmission extending from Greco-Egyptian wisdom might come to an end, today the picture appears more hopeful. The discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi Library generated a great interest in matters Gnostic that does not seem to have abated with the passage of time. Because of the close affinity of the Hermetic writings to the Gnostic ones, the present interest in Gnosticism extends to Hermeticism as well. Most collections of Gnostic scriptures published today include some Hermetic material.

Gnosticism and Hermeticism flourished in the same period; they are equally concerned with personal knowledge of God and the soul, and equally emphatic that the soul can only escape from its bondage to material existence if it attains to true ecstatic understanding (gnosis). It was once fashionable to characterize Hermeticism as "optimistic" in contract to Gnostic "pessimism," but such differences are currently being stressed less than they had been. The Nag Hammadi scriptures have brought to light a side of Gnosticism that joins it more closely to Hermeticism than many would have thought possible.

There are apparent contradictions, not only between Hermetic and Gnostic writings, but within the Hermetic materials themselves. Such contradictions loom large when one contemplates these systems from the outside, but they can be much more easily reconciled by one who steps inside the systems and views them from within. One possible key to such paradoxes is the likelihood that the words in these scriptures were the results of transcendental states of consciousness experienced by their writers. Such words were never meant to define supernatural matters, but only to intimate their impact upon experience.

From a contemporary view, the figure of Hermes, both in its Greek and its Egyptian manifestations, stands as an archetype of transformation through reconciliation of the opposites. (Certainly Jung and other archetypally oriented psychologists viewed Hermes in this light.) If we are inclined to this view, we should rejoice over the renewed interest in Hermes and his timeless gnosis. If we conjure up the famed image of the swift god, replete with winged helmet, sandals, and caduceus, we might still be able to ask him to reconcile the divisions and contradictions of this lower realm in the embrace of enlightened consciousness. And since, like all gods, he is immortal, he might be able to fulfill our request as he did for his devotees of old!

The article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 40, Summer 1996),
and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

Walter Scott, ed., Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings Which Contain Religious and Philosophical Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (Boston: Shambhala, 1985 [1924]), vol. 1, p. 33. The demiurgus mentioned here is clearly of the Platonic rather than the Gnostic kind.
R.F. Willetts, "Hermes," entry in Richard Cavendish, ed., Man, Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural (New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1970), p. 1289.
Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie, Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity (London: Rider & Co., 1900) pp. 50-65.
L.S. Keizer, ed. And trans., The Eighth Reveals the Ninth: A New Hermetic Initiation Discourse (Seaside, Calif.: Academy of Arts & Humanities, 1974), pp. 54-63.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:14.
Scott, vol. 1, p. 97.
Ibid., vol. 1, p. 42.
Gustav Parthey, Hermetis Trismegisti Poemander (Berlin, 1854).
Louis Menard, Étude sur l'origine des livres hermetiques et translations d'Hermès Trismegistus (Paris, 1866).
G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1992 [1906]).

David Guyatt
03-26-2009, 01:58 PM

Hermeticism and the Golden Fleece

Joseph Caezza

Every century and upon every continent a handful of exceptional men are born who possess the innate ability to read the signatures of nature directly, to see immediately into the mystery of continuous creation and to know pristine reality revealed by the power of imaginal identification. Such vision differs radically from twentieth century pedestrian academic mentality. These sages have bequeathed us a legacy of artifacts fine as the thread of Ariadne in the form of the good texts of Hermetic Alchemy. These tomes speak from the vein of the forge and the crucible, a mother load in the vast mine of collective imagination about mankind's origin and ultimate destiny. They articulate with artful genius the same message of the hero's journey embodied in the great world myths. A generation ahead of mythic Cadmus, a generation behind Homer's Ulysses, Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece constitutes a fabulous example of the archetypal process of Nature referred to in the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Tristmegistus as "the operation of the Sun".
The greatest alchemical adepts, Artephius, Nicholas Flamel, Salomon Trismosen, Michael Maier, Philalethes, Dom Pernety and Fulcanelli among many others have spoken at once with pornographic explicitness and again with exasperating obliqueness about the bench-top laboratory manipulations revealed in the circumstances of Jason's voyage. Joscelyn Godwin in his brilliant forward to Antoine Faivre's contemporary survey, The Golden Fleece and Alchemy remarks that C. G. Jung anchors Jason's argo along with the Hermetic great work solely to the psychic level of personality integration while ignoring how, why, what and with what, adepts actually do in their laboratories. Faivre too, pays gross negligence to this central aspect of the royal art which concerns itself with a combination of prayer, study and working hands-on directly with matter. "ORA, LEGE, LEGE, LEGE, RELEGE, LABORA ET INVENIES", declares the motto of the Mutus Liber of 1677, "Pray, Read, Read, Read, Read Again and You Shall Find".

Western alchemy represents a highly specialized version of the age old quest for mystical communion with the essential archetypal process of Nature. Adepts seek to recapitulate this process with symbolically affective laboratory gestures, chemical manipulations and of course, with the indispensable cooperation of providence. But what do they actually do in their laboratories?

Betty Dobbs in her monumental study, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy or The Hunting of the Green Lyon, addresses this central issue of laboratory procedures in their 17th century European context better than any modern professional scholar. She explains that adepts worked their methodologies with simple manipulations and a few key materials. She provides an excellent translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Clavis, a recipe that entails the chief substances symbolized in the Jason myth.

According to the myth, Chrysomellos, the winged ram sent by beneficent Olympian deities rescues a child from the homicidal plot of his stepmother, carrying him safely to the eastern shores of the Black sea. Here the miraculous ram becomes a sacrifice, its fleece hung upon an oak tree in a grove sacred to Ares and guarded by a dragon. The scenario refers metaphorically to the descent of the Divine from above the highest sepheroth, Kether, down the Kabbalistic tree of life to the lowest sepheroth, Malkuth, Earth in the presence of the element Antimony, who's vital spirit, philosophic mercury, remains still in tact. Matter has become the prison of spirit. Insightful wisdom and artful alchemical manipulation may release it.

Renaissance alchemists represented antimony by the symbolic rams horns that also identify the zodiac constellation Ares. Antimony, a metalloid or semi-metal was perceived as below lead in an infant or childhood state in the natural process of metallic evolution fully mature in the element gold. It was also symbolized as a cross above a circle which additionally identified Earth, the divinely perfect circle of gold buried under the cross of nature upon which man is crucified.

Gold, more than a metaphor, blatantly and beautifully bears the solar signature. Its perfect state defies oxidation or attack by any single acid giving way only to aqua regia, a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acid. Luster and permanence testify to its Divinity within the confines of the metallic realm.

Ares, known to the Romans as Mars, also indicates the element Iron, rich in philosophical sulfur, the source principle of the luminous animating functional fire of Nature. It comprises the compliment of philosophic mercury. Iron finds use in purifying stibnite, the chief ore of antimony in the classic reduction process: Sb2S3 + 2 Fe = 2Sb + Fe2S3 .

Newton spent years of study and labor working out the details of this reaction and its product at the root of animated philosophic mercury. Small iron nails are heated red hot in a crucible. Powdered antimony ore is added along with saltpeter and tartar to serve as fluxing agents. After several fulminating episodes sponsored by repeated additions of saltpeter the molten material is poured into a conical mold. Pure antimony sinks to the bottom topped off by a layer of scoria which easily separates after cooling. Signs of correct crystal purity include a star pattern on the surface of the antimony, hence the name star martial regulus.

In a major episode exactly reminiscent of Cadmus, Jason must sow serpents teeth into a field. From these seeds spring an army of ghost warriors who fight each other to death. The seed of gold, the serpent teeth are extracted from the layer of scoria above the purified antimony, the mercurial serpent, using sal ammoniac, ammonium chloride in the procedure of sublimation. This seed after purification is then sewn into meticulously prepared philosophical mercury. This metallic mixture then sealed hermetically in a flask undergoes a long gradually heated fermentation. Color changes clearly mark the major stages of this incubation along with the emergence and dissolution from the molten mass of many strange forms described metaphorically in the Jason myth as a battle of ghost warriors. Newton and other adept authors describe these forms as fast growing metallic trees. An anonymous contemporary operator recently perceived these forms as rapidly sprouting heads of cauliflower that soon dissolved back into the putrefying chaos contained in his hermetic flask.

The ultimate product of this labor mythically known as the golden fleece refers to the philosopher's stone. This red powder projected into molten base metal effects an apparently miraculous transmutation into gold. Recent discoveries by Stan Tenen and others, (Gnosis No. 3 and 28) of the geometric revelation hidden in the Torah's Hebrew letter code that model mathematically the fractal process of a seeds germination into fruit containing self propagating seed within itself, illuminates this alchemical gesture of projection. During this gesture rearrangement of base metal subatomic particles catalyzed by the propagated potency of Divine Presence unfolding flower-like from the philosopher's stone, creates a well known wonder of alchemy.

This wonder of alchemy testifies with unquestionable proof to the level of personality integration achieved by the operator. Unlike the vague proofs of successful psychotherapy the adept has a tangible token artifact. Alchemy of the forge and crucible variety thus embodies the profound idea of sacred science. Our late twentieth century civilization moves ever closer to the rediscovery of this tradition. Yet the only way to exhaustively understand the symbolic implications of the Jason myth in its alchemical context is to become an alchemist and to execute the great work.

But does salvation require a laboratory? The archetypes projected into external substance may be manipulated at a strictly internal level. The symbols of western alchemy occur in familiar forms in Tantric Yoga. The European "Royal Art" of alchemy pursues the same goal as the Royal Raja Yoga of India. In the most remote past European and Hindu cultures sprang from a single root whose core experience of Gnosis presented itself in myths and related esoteric disciplines of spiritual reintegration.

J. Nigro Sansonese, a contemporary yogin as well as professor of math and physics delivers a brilliantly argued thesis in his recent The Body of Myth. Expanding the tradition of C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell he explicates the anatomic, physiologic and neurologic basis of the great world myths. Such myths trek out the physical geography of man's body as the spiritual current moves up the spinal ladder of ascending attention to culminate in the ecstatic rapture of gnosis.

According to Sansonese myths reveal in esoteric language the stages of bodily transformation leading to contemplative trance. He includes an entire chapter on Jason and the Argonauts. Jason's ship, the argo refers to the cranium. The fifty argonauts represent the five senses withdrawn from fragmented external experience yet focused on the inward journey into trance. Two of these argonauts, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux are esoteric descriptions of alternate nostril breathing.

The rowing contest between Jason and Hercules constitutes a further example of alternate nostril breathing just previous to the experience of trance symbolized as the heros collapse from exhaustion into unconsciousness. The author speaks from his own experience of meditative absorption when he describes minutely perceptible changes in the sutures and sinuses of the skull during breathing which correlate to elements of the stages in the argonauts' journey.

Finally Sansonese dissects the name "Jason" to reveal its two syllable nature as an onomatopoeic rendering for the physical gesture of respiration. Convincing evidence appears in the ancestral lineage of Jason. His great-grandfather was Aeolus, god of the wind. Also relevant are yogic breathing exercises that assign onomatopoeic syllables to inspiration and expiration such as HAM-SA, SO-HAM or SI-VA. These arguments might seem eccentric and vague. Perhaps only another yogin could appreciate their depth and profoundness.

Contemporary scholars have barely touched the phenomenological relationship between yoga and alchemy. Certainly they pursue identical goals. Mircea Eliade in his now classic encyclopedic survey, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, includes a brief chapter on yoga and alchemy. He notes that there are certain moments when the "osmosis" between these two disciplines is perfect.

The Hermetic scholar, Manly Palmer Hall speculates on the etymology of the symbolic rose of the Rosicrucians derived from Ras, wisdom or Ros, dew which recall Rasayana,the Ayurvedic science of longevity involving alchemically produced herbal and metallic medicines but more specifically "rasum", the nectar of immortality produced in the brain. Normally this secretion is destroyed by normal body function but yogic manipulations such as the headstand and kerchari mudra preserve and cultivate this substance.

During kerchari mudra, the tongue, artificially lengthened over years of ardent discipline inserts back and up into the nasal passage to block the normal flow of rasum. Such a practice is thought to function like the golden fleece to preserve health and even restore lost youth.

The greatest Hindu sages write about the spiritual accomplishment of Gnosis using the metaphor of the philosopher's stone. Jnaneshwar (1275-1296) certainly one of the foremost saints of the past millennium wrote an exquisite commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism's central scripture. He composed this work at the age of fourteen, without formal education by direct knowledge resulting from Divine grace. He describes with unparalleled depth the symptoms of bodily transformation effected by the yogic process of spiritual awakening. His commentary contains no less than 17 references to the philosopher's stone that explicitly transmutes base metal into gold. Often these references describe the way divine grace transforms its recipient.

The seventh century South Indian sage, Thirumoolar in his classic, Thirumandiram, an esoteric masterpiece of 3000 verses, explains man's path to immortal divinity. In verse 2709 he declares that the name of God, Siva, is an alchemical vehicle that turns the body into immortal gold. His poetry resonates with the deathless nature of spiritual attainment.

Another great South Indian saint, Ramalinga Swamigal (1823-1874) dissolved his perfected body into blinding white light just as another earlier sage, Manickavasagar had done in the seventh century. As a child Ramalingar delivered brilliant scriptural discourses and commentaries without any formal education. He too claimed direct knowledge bestowed by divine grace. In his classic testimony, The Divine Song of Grace, Ramalinga describes the transmutation of his dense physical body into a body of light:

"Oh God! The Eternal Love, just to bestow upon me the golden body, You,
Universal Love, have merged with my heart, allowing yourself to be infused in me.
Oh Supreme Love, You with the Light of Grace have alchemised my body".

Canto 6, Chapter 1, Verse 480

This verse resounds with the import of the gesture of alchemical projection where a minute quantity of the philosopher's stone transmutes molten base metal into gold. Ramalinga's body cast no shadow and attempts to photograph him revealed only his clothing. The esoteric level of such accomplishment defies any attempt at vain academic analysis.

So too, a deeper understanding of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts defies the limit of ivory tower scholarship. The golden fleece beckons to every man as a road map of the soul's origin and ultimate destiny. Exhaustive study of the map will always be an optional first step. Genuine accomplishment emerges only when we take up the quest and join Jason on his hero's journey.


Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy or The Hunting of the Green Lyon. Cambridge, 1975
Faivre, Antoine, The Golden Fleece and Alchemy, SUNY, Albany, N.Y. 1993
Jnanadeva, Sri, (Jnanashwar), Bhavartha Dipika, also known as the Jnanashwari, Samata, Madras, 1954
Natarajan, B., editor-translator, Thirumoolar's Thirumandiram, ITES, Madras,1979
Pernety, Antoine-Joseph, An Alchemical Treatise on the Great Art, Weiser, York Beach, ME. 1995
Sansonese, J. Nigro, The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance and the Sacred Geography of the Body, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT. 1994
Srinavasan, C., An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ramalinga, Ilakkia Nilayam, Tiruchi, 1968.

David Guyatt
03-26-2009, 01:59 PM

An Introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum

by John Michael Greer

The fifteen tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, along with the Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, are the foundation documents of the Hermetic tradition. Written by unknown authors in Egypt sometime before the end of the third century C.E., they were part of a once substantial literature attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenistic fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.
This literature came out of the same religious and philosophical ferment that produced Neoplatonism, Christianity, and the diverse collection of teachings usually lumped together under the label "Gnosticism": a ferment which had its roots in the impact of Platonic thought on the older traditions of the Hellenized East. There are obvious connections and common themes linking each of these traditions, although each had its own answer to the major questions of the time.

The treatises we now call the Corpus Hermeticum were collected into a single volume in Byzantine times, and a copy of this volume survived to come into the hands of Lorenzo de Medici's agents in the fifteenth century. Marsilio Ficino, the head of the Florentine Academy, was pulled off the task of translating the dialogues of Plato in order to put the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin first. His translation saw print in 1463, and was reprinted at least twenty-two times over the next century and a half.

The treatises divide up into several groups. The first (CH I), the "Poemandres", is the account of a revelation given to Hermes Trismegistus by the being Poemandres or "Man-Shepherd", an expression of the universal Mind. The next eight (CH II-IX), the "General Sermons", are short dialogues or lectures discussing various basic points of Hermetic philosophy. There follows the "Key" (CH X), a summary of the General Sermons, and after this a set of four tractates - "Mind unto Hermes", "About the Common Mind", "The Secret Sermon on the Mountain", and the "Letter of Hermes to Asclepius" (CH XI-XIV) - touching on the more mystical aspects of Hermeticism. The collection is rounded off by the "Definitions of Asclepius unto King Ammon" (CH XV), which may be composed of three fragments of longer works.

The Perfect Sermon

The Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, which is also included here, reached the Renaissance by a different route. It was translated into Latin in ancient times, reputedly by the same Lucius Apuleius of Madaura whose comic-serious masterpiece The Golden Ass provides some of the best surviving evidence on the worship of Isis in the Roman world. Augustine of Hippo quotes from the old Latin translation at length in his City of God, and copies remained in circulation in medieval Europe all the way up to the Renaissance. The original Greek version was lost, although quotations survive in several ancient sources.

The Perfect Sermon is substantially longer than any other surviving work of ancient Hermetic philosophy. It covers topics which also occur in the Corpus Hermeticum, but touches on several other issues as well - among them magical processes for the manufacture of gods and a long and gloomy prophecy of the decline of Hermetic wisdom and the end of the world.

The Significance of the Hermetic Writings

The Corpus Hermeticum landed like a well-aimed bomb amid the philosophical systems of late medieval Europe. Quotations from the Hermetic literature in the Church Fathers (who were never shy of leaning on pagan sources to prove a point) accepted a traditional chronology which dated "Hermes Trismegistus," as a historical figure, to the time of Moses. As a result, the Hermetic tractates' borrowings from Jewish scripture and Platonic philosophy were seen, in the Renaissance, as evidence that the Corpus Hermeticum had anticipated and influenced both. The Hermetic philosophy was seen as a primordial wisdom tradition, identified with the "Wisdom of the Egyptians" mentioned in Exodus and lauded in Platonic dialogues such as the Timaeus. It thus served as a useful club in the hands of intellectual rebels who sought to break the stranglehold of Aristotelian scholasticism on the universities at this time.

It also provided one of the most important weapons to another major rebellion of the age - the attempt to reestablish magic as a socially acceptable spiritual path in the Christian West. Another body of literature attributed to Hermes Trismegistus was made up of astrological, alchemical and magical texts. If, as the scholars of the Renaissance believed, Hermes was a historical person who had written all these things, and if Church Fathers had quoted his philosophical works with approval, and if those same works could be shown to be wholly in keeping with some definitions of Christianity, then the whole structure of magical Hermeticism could be given a second-hand legitimacy in a Christian context.

This didn't work, of course; the radical redefinition of Western Christianity that took place in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation hardened doctrinal barriers to the point that people were being burned in the sixteenth century for practices that were considered evidences of devoutness in the fourteenth. The attempt, though, made the language and concepts of the Hermetic tractates central to much of post-medieval magic in the West.

The Translation

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and Perfect Sermon given here is that of G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933), originally published as Vol. 2 of his Thrice Greatest Hermes (London, 1906). Mead was a close associate of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder and moving spirit of the Theosophical Society, and most of his considerable scholarly output was brought out under Theosophical auspices. The result, predictably, was that most of that output has effectively been blacklisted in academic circles ever since.

This is unfortunate, for Mead's translations of the Hermetic literature were until quite recently the best available in English. (They are still the best in the public domain; thus their use here.) The Everard translation of 1650, which is still in print, reflects the state of scholarship at the time it was made - which is only a criticism because a few things have been learned since then! The Walter Scott translation - despite the cover blurb on the recent Shambhala reprint, this is not the Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame - while more recent than Mead's, is a product of the "New Criticism" of the first half of this century, and garbles the text severely; scholars of Hermeticism of the caliber of Dame Frances Yates have labeled the Scott translation worthless. By contrast, a comparison of Mead's version to the excellent modern translation by Brian Copenhaver, or to the translations of CH I (Poemandres) and VII (The Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God) given in Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures, shows Mead as a capable translator, with a usually solid grasp of the meaning of these sometimes obscure texts.

There is admittedly one problem with Mead's translation: the aesthetics of the English text. Mead hoped, as he mentioned at the beginning of Thrice Greatest Hermes, to "render...these beautiful theosophic treatises into an English that might, perhaps, be thought in some small way worthy of the Greek originals." Unfortunately for this ambition, he was writing at a time when the last remnants of the florid and pompous Victorian style were fighting it out with the more straightforward colloquial prose that became the style of the new century. Caught in this tangle like so many writers of the time, Mead wanted to write in the grand style but apparently didn't know how. The result is a sometimes bizarre mishmash in which turn-of-the-century slang stands cheek by jowl with overblown phrases in King James Bible diction, and in which mishandled archaicisms, inverted word order, and poetic contractions render the text less than graceful - and occasionally less than readable. Seen from a late twentieth century sensibility, the result verges on unintentional self-parody in places: for example, where Mead uses the Scots contraction "ta'en" (for "taken"), apparently for sheer poetic color, calling up an image of Hermes Trismegistus in kilt and sporran.

The "poetic" word order is probably the most serious barrier to readability; it's a good rule, whenever the translation seems to descend into gibberish, to try shuffling the words of the sentence in question. It may also be worth noting that Mead consistently uses "for that" in place of "because" and "aught" in place of "any", and leaves out the word "the" more or less at random.

Finally, comments in (parentheses) and in [square brackets] are in Mead's original; those in <angle brackets> are my own additions.

David Guyatt
03-26-2009, 02:05 PM

In Praise of Folly
Giordano Bruno and the Magical Reformation
A remarkable thinker, burned at the stake, whose vision of the cosmos may yet be proved correct
"I cleave the heavens, and soar to the infinite.
What others see from afar, I leave far behind me."
— Giordano Bruno

On February 17, in the year of grace 1600, near the very spot where Julius Caesar was murdered, the Roman Inquisition put to the flames with all due ceremony the mystical philosopher and visionary, Giordano Bruno, as an obstinate heretic. Denied the customary mercy of strangulation, he was burnt alive, an iron gag with spikes piercing his tongue and palette silencing him at last. Yet when the sentence had been pronounced at the end of his six-year trial for heresy, he had said to his judges: "Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it."

Born in Nola, near Naples, during the turbulence of the Reformation, Bruno led a remarkable career, beginning as a Dominican before leaving the order suspect of heterodoxy. He proceeded to wander across Europe, teaching Hermeticism and his own unique system of memory-training, and associating with many of the leading intellectual and political figures of the day. He met the luminaries of Calvin's Geneva, and of the court of Queen Elizabeth of England, such as Sir Francis Walsingham and fellow-mystic Dr. John Dee, the French court of King Henri III, and the universities of Germany. Yet, he was embroiled in bitter controversies throughout his whole life as his theories and irascible personality made enemies of his royal patrons and academic hosts. He managed to annoy almost everyone; perhaps not that difficult for such an original thinker in such theologically superheated times.

The Wisdom of Egypt

Bruno may have acted at times as a spy on Catholics or as a secret Protestant courier, along with Dee beginning the long association of occultists with intelligence services. Yet like Dee, he actually belonged more to a line of thinkers who sought Reformation through high magic. Bruno tried to surmount the widening rift between Catholics and Protestants by turning back to the mystical philosophies of antiquity. He was a leading figure in the re-interpretation of the ancient Gnostic texts of Hermes Trismegistus, which had been recovered during the Renaissance.

The Corpus Hermeticum, first translated by Marsilio Ficino in 1460, was thought to contain Egyptian wisdom far older than Moses, although they were actually a product of late Alexandrian gnosticism. But the powerful image of Man these arcane texts contained was revolutionary. They depicted Humanity as a microcosm which mirrored the Universe, fallen perhaps but in essence equally divine. It was a noble concept that freed the thinkers of the Renaissance from the chains of medieval scholasticism that stressed the depravity and powerlessness of human beings. This intoxicating vision of liberty led to the figure of the Renaissance magician, to Dr. Faustus as well as Shakespeare's Prospero. It replaced the image of the priest as the mediator with cosmic reality. Ultimately it pointed to the idea of the scientist of today, mad or otherwise, who remakes nature in his own image through his knowledge of its secrets. For better or worse, modern society owes an incalculable debt to this vision.

The Magical Reformation met with some limited success. Popes Leo X and Paul III supported astrology, while Urban VIII used astral magic to try to blunt the dire effects of a solar eclipse. But in the end the cause failed. However much magicians like Bruno or Cornelius Agrippa might disdain the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which alienated Catholics, their reliance on ritual made Protestants equally uneasy. Ultimately, their quest for cosmic power raised the touchy question that if effects like the miracles of Christ could be achieved by magic, did that not imply that Christ himself was a magician? This was something neither Christian faction would tolerate.

It was with Giordano Bruno, who boldly took up Hermeticism as the basis of his new "Egyptian Counter-Reformation" that all these issues came to a head. Against the pedantry and bigotry, the intolerant dogmas and persecution on all sides, he set up the unifying love of the world-conquering magician. Bruno felt that his mystical experiences empowered him to cross any and all religious barriers in pursuit of his mission, and in the end, that is what caused his doom.

A Hostile Homecoming

For no good reason, perhaps merely out of homesickness and weariness of his wanderings, "the Nolan" (as he sometimes called himself) was persuaded at last to return to Italy. Before his arrest Bruno may have actually been preparing to try to convert the Pope to Hermeticism through magic. But there, in 1591, he was betrayed to the Venetian Inquisition and two years later returned to Rome, where he was imprisoned and interrogated for six years more before his final condemnation.

His cosmological theories, hard for his contemporaries to understand, are almost incomprehensible today. They embraced ancient Hermetic wisdom as well as the most recent discoveries of science. Long before Galileo, Bruno outspokenly supported the Copernican theory of the Earth's motion around the Sun. He is chiefly remembered today for his belief, so prophetically far ahead of his time, of the infinite number of living and populated worlds. And it was probably the example of his horrible fate that wisely persuaded Galileo more than anything else to recant the pernicious error of heliocentrism.

Though Pope John Paul II formally removed the taint of heresy from Galileo, there has been no indication that Bruno would ever be rehabilitated, even during the Pope's so-called "apology" for the sins of the Church. Interestingly, the precise reasons for Bruno's burning remain secret to this day.

However, during the last century a statue of Bruno was placed by Italian patriots at the site of his martyrdom in Rome for freedom of thought, where it still stands.

"You will see, in mixed confusion, snatches of cutpurses, wiles of cheats, enterprises of rogues; also delicious repulsiveness, bitter sweets, foolish decisions, mistaken faith and crippled hopes, niggard charities, judges noble and serious for other men's affairs with little truth in their own; virile women, effeminate men and voices of craft and not of mercy so that he who believes most is most fooled, and everywhere the love of gold."
— Giordano Bruno, in The Torch-Bearer, speaking of the conditions in the Church