A word that frequents occult, historical, and scholarly texts of all varieties is Hermeticism. The word is derived from the name of the Greek-Egyptian mythic figure Hermes Trismegistus, meaning "thrice-great Hermes," and refers to the spiritual and religious movement that occurred after the Greek conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Alexander's death shortly thereafter (323 BCE) began what is known as the Hellenistic Period, in which old worldviews were threatened by cultural merging. The centuries of transition between Alexander's conquests and the beginning of the Common Era marked the rise of a pagan variant of Gnosticism now termed Hermeticism.
Because readers come from a wide variety of occult and spiritual backgrounds, this article is meant for readers of all types to learn and practice with success. I will explore the magick and history of the Hermetic movement, and we will then integrate practical esoteric exercises that can be put right into practice in daily life.
In short, the Hermetic movement was a culturally blended response to the syncretism of spiritual systems of the time, namely the ancient Greco-Roman and Egyptian religious systems. Philosophies, cosmologies, and magickal practices from these systems and others mixed and mingled, eventually creating a distinct current of thought and practice. Hermeticism is not a "religion" by common definition, but is better described as philosophical and spiritual movement. The "three parts of the philosophy of the whole world," which the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus mentions, are alchemy, astrology, and theurgy, all of which were cornerstones of blended Hermetic teachings.
It's impossible to study the expansion of magick and mysticism in the Western world without some understanding of Hermeticism. That's why magicians, Witches, Pagans, and occultists like ourselves can greatly benefit from knowing a bit of the history. After all, it's part of our own spiritual lineage!
Hermetic material encompasses astrology, astronomy, alchemy, spellcraft, mystical philosophy, natural magick, planetary magick, elemental magick, and the metaphysical correspondences of herbs, incenses, gemstones, days of the week,animals, and body parts. Numerous religious and occult movements grew, and continue to grow, from Hermetic soil, and virtually all magickal paths have been influenced to some degree by Hermeticism. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in 1888. The development of what are called "Western Mystery Traditions" was overwhelmingly Hermetic in nature. Hermeticism influenced the likes of Wicca, Thelema, Freemasonry, and countless other modern spiritual paths and offshoots.
Magickal Influences and Principles of Hermeticism
It can easily be said that Hermeticism is the most unified, encompassing, and influential spiritual movement sprouting from Western antiquity!
Modern traditions of Witchcraft are known to have been influenced by the Golden Dawn and its various Hermetic aspects. Even Gerald Gardner himself, the co-creator of modern Wicca, once hinted at the likelihood that a number of traditional Wiccan rituals were, at least in part, created or influenced by members of the Golden Dawn as well as earlier fraternal lodge traditions, including Freemasonry.
Wicca and other traditions of Witchcraft make use of casting a circle: a sacred space between the worlds. Witches also invoke elemental watchtowers, often using invoking pentagrams to do so. These aspects, as well as a number of sacred tools or "weapons," as they're called in some traditions, were borrowed or adapted from Golden Dawn material, upon which earlier Hermetic schools had profound esoteric influence. This is our legacy.
The Cosmic Egg
There are a number of curious crossovers and similarities between ancient Egyptian culture, Greco-Roman culture, and even traditional Jewish Kabbalah. For starters, the symbolism of the Cosmic Egg is also present in Greek mythology as the Orphic Egg. The Greek legend is that the whole of the universe was birthed from a silver egg. This egg is often depicted with a serpent perfectly coiled around it. Because of Egypt's vast influence on the Western world, it's quite possible that the Greeks adopted this imagery from the Egyptian tale of creation.
If the yolk of the Cosmic Egg is all Positive (manifest) Existence, its albumen, or white, is comparable to the Realms of Negative Existence in the Kabbalistic view. The Kabbalistic description of Ein Soph comes from the Sepher Yetzirah text. The realm of Ein Soph exists above the Tree of Life and is said to be the Great Nothingness from which the Tree of Life (and thus all of existence) was born. Ein Soph is sometimes broken into three distinct Veils of Negative Existence—these are included in studies within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as Ein, Ein Soph, and Ein Soph Aur. In traditional Kabbalism, Ein Soph is nihil; that is, it has no associations beyond it being the inaccessible primordial nothingness from which all came about.
Put it into practice: Find a cozy nook in nature in which you can meditate in. Ideally, this location should allow you to be "tucked away" out of view from others where you can be intimately surrounded by the beauty of Mother Nature. Bring an egg with you; ensure that the egg is cruelty-free, meaning that it should either be procured from a local farmer or free range. Sit in the nook with the egg in your lap and take a series of deep breaths. Visualize the egg expanding until it surrounds your body with a silver-colored shell of protection. As you inhale, visualize yourself taking in the essence of the nourishing yolk. Feel the nourishing and protective essence of nature and the cosmos entering your body, mind, and spirit. When you feel a sense of completion, thank the gods and the universe in your own words, finishing by kissing the egg and leaving it in nature.
Many occultists believe the tarot to have made its way to Europe from India by way of Egypt. The scholarly consensus is that the tarot was created in Italy in the early fifteenth century by Marziano da Tortona, secretary to Filippo Maria Visconti (the Duke of Milan). However, a possible early Egyptian prototype for the cards, or at least some of their concepts, has been suggested. If the tarot indeed has its origins in ancient Egypt, would it be appropriate to suggest that various conceptions of the Kabbalistic Tree also have origins in early Egyptian and Hermetic traditions?
The standard tarot cards align perfectly with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The twenty-two major arcana each have an association with a path on the tree (of which there are twenty-two), and the ten number cards align with the ten Sephiroth, or Fruits of the Tree (these are considered emanations of God). There are four suits to the tarot, giving each Sephirah four cards, which correspond to the Kabbalistic notion of the Four Worlds that make up the Tree of Life. Here are the names of these levels of existence and some alignments according to the Golden Dawn:
Atziluth: The Archetypal World; Yod, wands, Sephirah 1 (Kether)
Briah: The Creative World; Heh, cups, Sephiroth 2 and 3
Yetzirah: The World of Formation; Vau, swords, Sephiroth 4 to 9
Assiah: The Material World; Heh, pentacles, Sephirah 10 (Malkuth)
Put it into practice: Take your favorite pack of tarot or oracle cards and separate the deck by numbers. For example, place all the tens together, all the nines together, and so on. Place the major arcana in a separate numerically ordered stack. With a pen and notepad in hand, light a candle and incense, and get comfy. Meditate on each stack of cards beginning with the aces. Regardless of your own Kabbalistic or tarot knowledge, take notes on what each stack means to you. What are the symbolic and energetic similarities you see or feel between the cards of each stack? Which symbolism stands out to you the most? How do these cards make you feel spiritually? Feel free to do the same with each subsequent major arcana card if you feel called to do so. Use the notes you've taken to help deepen your own tarot discoveries throughout your personal esoteric path.
Both Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus are depicted as holding the caduceus wand. The caduceus is a symbol that was utilized in classical Greco-Roman civilization. It is depicted as a wand with a Ketheric light and wings at its top, and two snakes are perfectly coiled around the rod. The snake imagery can be compared to the Vedic concept of the kundalini, a force of the human energy system symbolized as serpents ascending around the spine from the base chakra to the (again Ketheric) crown chakra; the esoteric teachings of kundalini are most prevalent in Shakta (Goddess-centric) Tantric schools of Hinduism.
Some early versions of the Kabbalistic Tree depict the tree within an oval, further demonstrating the Cosmic Egg concept. The snake coiled around the Orphic Egg in the Greek view is analogous to the Path of the Serpent. Many Kabbalistic magicians align to the energetic current of the caduceus through the Path of the Serpent, which entails, in a process of theurgic magic, the opening of each Sephirah on the Tree of Life, beginning with Malkuth and ending with Kether.
It's also interesting to note that the serpent has been viewed as a phallic symbol for eons across Pagan traditions, and in modern terms, represents the spiral coiling of DNA. Is this simply cosmic synchronicity, or did the ancients possess a bit more wisdom than they're usually accredited?
In the Torah/Bible's Book of Numbers, God (Yahweh) instructs Moses to craft a bronze serpent (the Nehustan) affixed to a pole to cure snake-bitten Israelites of their venomous wounds. In Jewish and Kabbalistic terms, the serpent is also aligned to the story of the snake of temptation in the Garden of Eden. I would venture to guess that elements of these scriptural tales were borrowed from Egyptian symbolism, or perhaps even vice versa. Idea and symbolism were so widely shared during the rise of Hermeticism that both possibilities are valid options.
Put it into practice: Something termed the "frequency illusion" (or the "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon") affirms that when we expect or aim to see something, we will see it. For example, if we are constantly thinking about the deer as a spirit animal, we are likely to see deer everywhere, whether in media, writing, or everyday life. Try this with the caduceus: for the next week, look for this symbol when you're walking, driving, watching television, and so on. Every time you see the symbol, bring to mind its symbolism as an ancient metaphysical symbol of healing and enlightenment. Tap into its global astral imprint by taking a deep breath while you look at the symbol, envisioning its timeless healing light entering your body and strengthening your holistic wellness.
The Seven Principles of Hermeticism
I find that the seven principles of Hermeticism, as recognized in modern Hermetic thought, are of particular importance to the spiritual practitioner because of their emphasis on the mind-body-spirit connection.
Published in 1912 by Paul Foster Case, Michael Witty, and William Walker Atkinson (Yogi Ramacharaka) under the collective pseudonym the Three Initiates, an occult text called The Kybalion has gained the reputation as a significant book on modern Hermetic commentary. The text, which is short but profound, sheds a concise light on seven select principles of ancient Hermetic thought. Readers familiar with modern Witchcraft and other magickal systems are likely to recognize esoteric crossovers within their own philosophical framework. The principles discussed, which I feel are particularly relevant for magickal souls and anyone following an emotionally driven spiritual system, are as follows.
1. The Principle of Mentalism
All things in existence and physical reality spring forth from the mental plane. The mind of humankind is a reflection of the Infinite Mind and is the source of all perceptive and psychic power. The only substantial thing in reality is the mind, from which everything in reality derives.
Put it into practice: This principle is similar to the Law of Attraction, which has grown in the forefront of popular New Age culture. As an ancient principle, it's been long understood that we humans co-create our own realities. Reflect back on your week while you think about how your experience seemed to match your mental state throughout. As time moves onward, try actively shifting your state of mind to see how much your own experience changes as a result. This existential exercise takes a lot of patience and a lot of practice, but it can truly help us understand the power of thought.
2. The Principle of Correspondence
"As above, so below; as below, so above:" existence is upheld through corresponding forces, being the origin of spiritual paradox. The principles of one thing correspond to the principles of another thing; reality functions as a mirror.
Put it into practice: Hop onto YouTube and watch some videos about the cosmos. Have a good time studying the universe, allowing it to instill that humble sense of wonder we so often feel as children. Later, research videos about atoms and quantum mechanics. Consider how the Great Above corresponds to the Great Below; the uncanny realizations might surprise you!
3. The Principle of Vibration
Nothing in reality is physically unchanging; everything is a vibration or pattern of energy. Because nothing is static or fixed, the only constant is change. Everything is a manifestation of the All or the Great Mind, and vibration is the reason that anything can exist as its "own" distinct thing (a book, a river, a thought, etc.) instead of remaining one.
Put it into practice: Find an old chipped cup, plate, or vase that you no longer use. Using a permanent marker or paint, take the item and draw some of the magickal symbols mentioned in this article. When ready, go somewhere that you can drop the object, allowing it to shatter. Once it's shattered, perform an act of divination by looking at the pieces to see if they form any symbols that are psychologically significant to you personally. Additionally, reflect on the reality of change as the only constant in reality.
4. The Principle of Polarity
Reality is duality. Like the Taoist principle of yin and yang, this asserts that everything has its equal opposite yet is part of the same unity. Because all of existence is polarized, both thesis and antithesis (one thing and its complete opposite) are simultaneously true and untrue—a global paradox that obliterates notions of absolutes in any area of life.
Put it into practice: Inquire with a local school or college about public debates you may be able to attend. Otherwise, look up some debates online to which you personally may feel a neutral emotional response. Whether the debate is academic, political, social, or spiritual, try to empathize with each party's contrasting view-points. Is it possible that each party can be both right and wrong simultaneously?
5. The Principle of Rhythm
Action and reaction, the life cycle of birth and eventual death, the ascent and descent of a sea's tide...These occurrences account for this principle, which affirms that nothing ever exists as one of its polarities but is ever fluctuating. Knowing this, a person can consciously choose to not fall to one extreme or another in any area of life.
Put it into practice: Test the elements. As conscious souls incarnated in a human frame, we are at the mercy of the elements around us. We must always strike a balance in order to maintain footing in life. Think about what it would feel like to run your finger quickly through a candle flame in order to find your threshold for a small amount of pain. Think about the ways we humans harness fire and electricity to better our lives, and how we must maintain a balance before it becomes a force that can overtake us. Get creative by experimenting with your thresholds surrounding the elements air, water, and earth—just be cautious!
6. The Principle of Cause and Effect
Nothing is happenstance; everything is a result of something else. One can either choose to act as a social chess piece for others' whims, desires, norms, and conditionings, or one can choose to both individualize and take power over their own bodies, thoughts, actions, emotions, and experiences.
Put it into practice: Situate yourself comfortably in a sacred space or somewhere that feels calming to you—perhaps the bathtub! Think about different times in your life where you may have "deposited" energy and could still be linked by an astral cord that cuts through time and space. These cords can be draining. Using whichever magickal tools toward which you feel drawn, sever any unhealthy energetic cords from your body. Envision them returning to their own space-time with a big blast of light, and fill your body with this cosmic light as you work on each connection. Remember to go easy on yourself and that healing is a lifelong path.
7. The Principle of Gender
Everything in reality is an amalgam of the feminine and the masculine. Both forces exist within each other, and neither force exists independently or as an absolute. Everything and everyone is a combination of masculine and feminine energies rather than being one or the other, and its manifestation on the physical plane is one's biological sex, which can be male, female, or in between.
Put it into practice: Do some research into atypical gender expressions, including identities such as transgender, gender fluid, gender-queer, non-binary, third gendered, and non-gendered. Explore how different cultures throughout time have observed non-cis-gendered folks, in both ancient and modern times. Research and reflect upon the difference between sex (biological) and gender (social/spiritual). You may even feel inclined to turn it up a notch by doing some cross-dressing (also called drag or transvestitism) in order to see how it affects you psychologically and spiritually—after all, a little gender-bending never hurt anyone!
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Originally printed in Llewellyn's 2020 Magical Almanac.