The civilisation of Ancient Egypt that gave us the Pyramids and Sphinx, also gave us the Hermetic wisdom teachings.
They are attributed to Hermes, who may have been a legendary sage or otherwise a personification of Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing and wisdom. Key teachings from an original oral tradition were set down in the Greek language in Alexandria a couple of hundred years into the Christian era.
The fuller name of this figure is “Hermes Trismegistus”, “Thrice-greatest Hermes”.
Why three times great? Again, speculation : Is Hermes great on three planes of initiatic consciousness, or is he great across the three great branches of the Hermetic enterprise - alchemy, astrology and theurgy (divine magic)? There are multiple pieces of writing that make up the embodiment of the wisdom, the Corpus Hermeticum. A well- known one is the Emerald Tablet with its famous dictum, “As above, so below”.
This wisdom tradition flowing from the top of Africa is important for a number of reasons.
For one, Hermeticism has had a waxing-waning-waxing relationship with the religion founded by Jesus Christ; and, today, there is a renewed exploration of the cross-pollination of the two traditions. Another reason is that it is often cited as a major current in what is known as the Western esoteric tradition. In certain periods of history it has been suppressed and rejected, at other times accepted and integrated by more mainstream systems of thought.
Hermeticism was much in favour at the Renaissance and, indeed, was as potent as humanism in actually bringing the Renaissance about.
The Medicis were a big sponsor and a lot of the great artists were steeped in it. Philosophers of the time wondered whether Hermeticism was the fabled Prisca theologia, that is, a highly ancient, true theology, given by God to mankind, that finds expressions in all religions on the earth.
But is it a theology? It engages well with theology, but it is essentially a philosophy.
Valentin Tomberg published a book in 1980, anonymously and posthumously, which has been the subject of an ICR study course : “Meditations on the Tarot : A Journey into Christian Hermeticism”. Therein the author identified four limbs of Hermeticism : mysticism, gnosis, sacred magic and philosophy. Tomberg’s view portrays these teachings as philosophy, rather than religion. His is a signal contribution in the field of Hermetic research, which got a second wind in nineteenth century Europe.
The Kybalion is a book from the early 1900s, which culls seven central principles of the Hermetic philosophy. In working through the list, one may ask oneself how compatible the Hermetic principles are with one’s own faith tradition.
The seven Hermetic principles are : 1. Mentalism 2. Correspondences 3. Vibration 4. Polarity 5. Rhythm 6. Causality 7. Gender.
Mentalism means that the whole cosmos is mental, a veritable universal mind. Correspondence is captured in the dictum, ‘As above, so below’, pointing to a mirroring between different levels of being. Vibration indicates that all is energy, flowing in waves. Physics confirms this, as well as the fact that vibration is bound up with polarity, a displacement of poles relative to each other; and that associated wave periodicity is the source of rhythm. What seems to be a chance or accidental occurrence is really an effect resulting from a cause, whether we can trace it or not. The gender or hermaphrodite principle asserts that everything has its masculine and feminine aspects. Their interplay is creative and generative.
The Hermetic principles, I believe, are compatible with the teachings and tradition of Jesus who, from the perspective of ICR, is the central coordinating point of authentic interfaith investigations.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; and in the beginning was the Word - through Whom the creation came to be. This Word was known as Wisdom in the Tanakh, and as the Logos in Greek philosophy. Human creativity, which brings so much into being, is but a minute fraction of the creativity of God, whose ideation brings created things into manifestation and sustains them in existence. Such may be regarded as the activity of universal mind. Creation aspires to its heavenly prototype.The wise recognise that it already does resemble its heavenly prototype. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As above, so below.
Einstein showed that matter and energy were interchangeable; the one substance at different rates of vibration. The Hermetic point is but a step further in that vein: matter, energy and thought are interchangeable.
“As you sow, so shall you reap”. This is both a statement of thought’s efficacy in yielding a harvest of experience, and a statement of cause and effect. It both exemplifies the rhythm principle in alternating thought and action, and also points to a vertical causation beyond mere mechanical causation of physical entity impacting physical entity. Another example of rhythm from the writer of Ecclesiastes is that there is “nothing new under the sun”. There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping; a time for laughter and a time for sorrow; a time for peace and a time for war. Each state mutates into its opposite number, in cycles that roll on. To borrow the lyrics of Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads: “it’s just a little bit of history repeating”.
From the Bible does emerge a picture of humans with creative agency, who shape their microcosmic lives in imitation of the macrocosmic Creator.
“Male and female created He them” - in a divinely ordained polarity and complementarity. The creative force that fashions planets and ecosystems is one with the force in ourselves that births innovations and raises the next generation. A good tree cannot but bear good fruit, says Jesus, and bad fruit must from an ill tree come. This “fruit” - our manifest deeds and life outcomes - is sown when an intention issuing from the conscious, ‘masculine’ psyche, seeds the soil of the unconscious, “feminine” psyche in a creative interplay. Out of the soil of unmanifest potentiality grows the Tree of Life, which finally puts out its fruit into our life.
“By their fruits ye shall know them”.
Like two pylons secured in Genesis and Revelation, the Tree holds the Biblical arch in place. Additionally, in the apocryphal, Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says to make of the two one. He also says to enter the Kingdom by marrying the above and the below; the within and the without; the male and the female. Is this not the epitome of Hermeticism?