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On the Corpus Hermeticum: As Above, So Below

Politesse

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So we have this whole forum on Religious Texts, but seldom a discussion of texts other than the Bible. I thought it would be fun to take a little dive into the esoteric!

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The modern history of the Corpus Hermeticum begins in 1471, when Marsilio Ficino working under the auspices of Cosimo de Medici published a Latin translation of the mysterious set of tractates claiming to hail from deep antiquity, originally penned by an author whose name or pseudonym was Hermes Trismegiston: "Hermes, the Thrice Greatest". We know nothing of this author. Many modern Pagans believe that this Hermes was a God in truth; Ficino claimed that he was a philosopher and magician from 1st c. BCE Egypt. It is popular now to accuse Ficino himself or one of the other Medici agents of having written the document, though the work is mentioned in other ancient texts it was seldom quoted, so they may have filled in the blanks. Either way, it is a remarkable book. Primarily a collection of magical spells, writings, and formulae, many works lapse into treatises on the nature of existence. At the heart of it all are two promises. First, that the magician working in earnest and having duly disciplined his mind, there is no limitation on his action because the universe is infinite but it is replicated in the microcosm that is the human soul. Whatever is true of God is also true of us, because our souls are a mirror into the unseen. In Hermes' own aphoristic words: As Above, So Below. There is an ineffable but unbreakable connection between God and Man, and that means that the man whose mind is opened and whose soul is pure has the powers of any god at his disposal. Second, that the practice of magic is more than just a means of accomplishing cheap tricks and needed miracles, though it can do these things, the primary purpose of magic is the utter transformation of Man himself. It makes him into the image of the unseen God. The Hermetic magician, in understanding the universe and the self, is always becoming God.

Given their nature, you may be wondering how these books managed to get published in the first place. There are probably a few factors at play:
1. The Medici family was extremely powerful and had Papal connections; this was not the only time a Medici scholar got away with something surprising.
2. Theologians before the Reformation Era were less wary of Pagan texts than you might think, especially those of ancient origin. Since the texts were claimed to predate Christianity, in the eyes of many, it was on the same shelf as, say, Plato or Aristotle. The ancients occasionally produced enlightened works, and medieval scholars were allowed to consider them as an artifact of their studies, as long as they did not overtly endorse non-Christian ideas in their own writings and commentaries.
3. The language of the tracts is heavily Neoplatonic. While magic is employed and discussed throughout, and polytheism repeatedly implied, the main thrust of the tractates do not mention gods or spirits as anything other than manifestations of the one Platonic Source from which the universe emanated. Even the Orthodox wing of the Roman church admired and came close to endorsing Neoplatonism as a sort of philosophical precursor to Christianity itself, and it was not unusual for a monkish scholar to cite, say, Porphyry, as long as he clarified that it was the work of a very enlightened pre-Christian Gentile, not the church itself.

They may have regretted it later, though! Once in wide publication, the books had an enormous influence on nearly every esoteric or magical movement that troubled the Vatican for all of the centuries that followed. Giordano Bruno, magician and proto-scientist, made one of Hermes' sermons a cornerstone of his own philosophical writings, leading to a revival of magic that ended only with Bruno's execution by the Holy Office. Martyr to modern pagan and modern scientist alike. Many other alchemists cited it routinely, especially under the cover of coded manuals documenting the path to the Magnum Opus: the Grand Work. You often find oblique references to these works in other books, that do not specify the author but causally drop in well-worn codas like the aforementioned "As Above, So Below". The extent to which the texts were available, even after they became banned in most of Europe, is in some cases surprising. The witch trial years give us a rich window into the life of esoteric communities then in existence. There are references to Healers and Cunningmen in many nations who seem to have had a copy of the supposedly forbidden texts in their libraries, and certain spells and remedies from the collection seem to have been put into real use for medieval patients. When alchemy began to transition to the discipline we now know as chemistry, it lost almost all of its mystical over-structure along the way, but you nevertheless find that the Corpus was as popular on the less public bookshelves of the Enlightenment ponderer as it had been to the medieval tinkerer. The various reconstructionist magical traditions known as Paganism or Neopaganism certainly value Hermes Trismegiston, and he may be responsible or partially responsible for the Neoplatonic edge often found in the philosophies of that tradition. Many of the rituals and spells used by the Order of the Golden Dawn at the beginning of the 20th c. were directly lifted from the Corpus, and thereby passed down to modern Wicca, Feri, Druidry, and many of Western European magickal traditions. The modern revival of Gnostic Christianity, itself inherently Neoplatonic in character, also reveres the texts for obvious reasons, and in my partner's very esoteric church I often hear them cited, sometimes even used in the daily readings. In the secular realm, it was known to both Karl Jung and Sir James Frazer, traveling therefore into the writings of early psychology and folkloristics respectively.

Some other interesting quotations from the anthology:

"As above, so below. As within, so without."

“If then you do not shape of yourself the equal of God, you cannot apprehend God; for like calls to like."

"We know that the Greeks have empty speeches, O king, that are energetic only in what they can demonstrate, and this is the philosophy of the Greeks: an inane 'fool's wisdom' (this is a Greek pun on 'philosophy') of speeches. We, by contrast, use not speeches that are but sounds, but rather sounds that are full of (literally, "made of") action.

“Hush, my child, for you are led into error by the appearance of the phenomenon. Living beings do not die, but, being composite bodies, they are dissolved; this is not death but the dissolution of a mixture. If they are dissolved, it is not to be destroyed but to be renewed... Contemplate then the beautiful arrangement of the world and see that it is alive, and that all matter is full of life.”

“The present issues from the past, and the future from the present. Everything is made one by this continuity. Time is like a circle, where all the points are so linked that one cannot say where it begins or ends, for all points precede and follow one another for ever.”

"The world, too, is a god, image of a greater God. United to Him and performing the order and will of the Father, it is the totality of life. There is nothing in it, through all the duration of the cyclic return willed by the all-Fathering, which is not alive. The all-Fathering has willed that the world should be living so long as it keeps its cohesion; hence the world is necessarily God."​

For further information, everything you could possibly want to read is in here, including the text itself:
http://gnosis.org/library/hermet.htm



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What are your thoughts? Had you ever heard of this work before? How valuable is it, if at all, as a philosophical work or commentary? Have you ever practiced European-style magic within modern circles, and if so, do you find the idea of divine Gnosis to be an adequate explanation for why magic exists and its fundamental purpose?

I look forward to your thoughts!
 

Horatio Parker

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I've heard of it, in relation to Jung's work on alchemy. Which was a way to practice Gnosticism without offending the Inquisition. It was apparently abstract enough that not practitioners understood it as a spiritual endeavor.

Was it one of the texts that was sent to the West as the Moslems closed in on Constantinople? I know many Ancient Greek texts came to Europe at that time?
 

Politesse

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I've heard of it, in relation to Jung's work on alchemy. Which was a way to practice Gnosticism without offending the Inquisition. It was apparently abstract enough that not practitioners understood it as a spiritual endeavor.

Was it one of the texts that was sent to the West as the Moslems closed in on Constantinople? I know many Ancient Greek texts came to Europe at that time?

The story, according to the Medicis at least, was that it had been safeguarded against the centuries by Porphyrian sympathizers in Byzantium, but when and under what circumstances the texts came into Medici hands is a story that is extremely vague. "Purposefully vague?", say the conspiracists.

I do not believe the classical Muslim world ever became aware of this library, though I would be interested to learn if they did! They had their own run-ins with esoteric magic sects, but that is a topic that I know little about. Gnostic thought in general was never as quite as popular in Arabia as it had been in Europe.
 

Tharmas

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I’m familiar with G.R.S. Mead and The Corpus Hermeticum. See my comments above, sort of an "all you need to know about alchemy in 25 words" in post #19. We’ve got some synchronicity going on!

The world, too, is a god, image of a greater God. United to Him and performing the order and will of the Father, it is the totality of life. There is nothing in it, through all the duration of the cyclic return willed by the all-Fathering, which is not alive. The all-Fathering has willed that the world should be living so long as it keeps its cohesion; hence the world is necessarily God.

Am I wrong in seeing a strong current of pantheism in (Gnostic) alchemy and Western mysticism?
 

Politesse

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I’m familiar with G.R.S. Mead and The Corpus Hermeticum. See my comments above, sort of an "all you need to know about alchemy in 25 words" in post #19. We’ve got some synchronicity going on!

The world, too, is a god, image of a greater God. United to Him and performing the order and will of the Father, it is the totality of life. There is nothing in it, through all the duration of the cyclic return willed by the all-Fathering, which is not alive. The all-Fathering has willed that the world should be living so long as it keeps its cohesion; hence the world is necessarily God.

Am I wrong in seeing a strong current of pantheism in (Gnostic) alchemy and Western mysticism?

I think a pantheist would be able to read and agree with much of the Western hermetic literature, certainly. It's been a hodgepodge of writers, of various theological opinions, that produced it all. But there is definitely that strain. Certainly, there is no fundamental chasm between divine and material.
 
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Swammerdami

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"As Above, So Below." Galileo, and later Newton, turned this idea on its head by asserting that the physical laws on Earth applied also to the Heavens. (I thought there was some memorable Latin phrase by Galileo or Newton to express this idea, but Googling helps me not.)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

... But I'm posting mainly because "Trismegiston" reminded me of one of my favorite poets. (Is the harlequin bisexual?)
Guillaume Apollinaire said:
Frôlée par les ombres des morts
Sur l’herbe où le jour s’exténue
L’arlequine s’est mise nue
Et dans l’étang mire son corps

Un charlatan crépusculaire
Vante les tours que l’on va faire
Le ciel sans teinte est constellé
D’astres pâles comme du lait

Sur les tréteaux l’arlequin blême
Salue d’abord les spectateurs
Des sorciers venus de Bohême
Quelques fées et les enchanteurs

Ayant décroché une étoile
Il la manie à bras tendu
Tandis que des pieds un pendu
Sonne en mesure les cymbales

L’aveugle berce un bel enfant
La biche passe avec ses faons
Le nain regarde d’un air triste
Grandir l’arlequin trismégiste
 

Politesse

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"Un charlatan crépusculaire
Vante les tours que l’on va faire"


What a lovely turn of phrase... I'll have to find more from this M. Apollinaire.
 

rousseau

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I thought I knew religion reasonably well, but this is completely new to me, which I think speaks to the breadth of your knowledge, and how limited mine really is. I have a bit of an interest in religious texts in general, and it would be interesting to get a kind of.. comparative thread going that was inclusive of any and all of them.

I've thought about diving into some of the old Indian stuff, but at the end of the day I realize that there aren't really answers to be found in these texts, that I can't find in a distilled Wikipedia summary, or secondary source. In an ideal world with unlimited time I'd read the entire Bible and a few other texts, but given reality they haven't bubbled to the top of my priority list yet. And so stuff like this seems to be the domain of people with a very specialized interest in the subject.
 

T.G.G. Moogly

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I thought I knew religion reasonably well, but this is completely new to me, which I think speaks to the breadth of your knowledge, and how limited mine really is. I have a bit of an interest in religious texts in general, and it would be interesting to get a kind of.. comparative thread going that was inclusive of any and all of them.

I've thought about diving into some of the old Indian stuff, but at the end of the day I realize that there aren't really answers to be found in these texts, that I can't find in a distilled Wikipedia summary, or secondary source. In an ideal world with unlimited time I'd read the entire Bible and a few other texts, but given reality they haven't bubbled to the top of my priority list yet. And so stuff like this seems to be the domain of people with a very specialized interest in the subject.

You took the thought right out of my head.

It's going to sound arrogant of me but I view such a work as just more of what one finds in the bible or some similar work, lots of flowery prose, lots of good thoughts, but nothing new or revolutionary in terms of actual knowledge and understanding. There was a time in my young life when such a work was very attractive and I couldn't put it down, as if I was making discoveries the rest of the world did not know. Today that passion is directed toward scientific pursuits and discoveries. I'd much rather hike the back country of a National Park or reread some Sagan. In a world with unlimited time I'd read it.
 

Politesse

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I thought I knew religion reasonably well, but this is completely new to me, which I think speaks to the breadth of your knowledge, and how limited mine really is. I have a bit of an interest in religious texts in general, and it would be interesting to get a kind of.. comparative thread going that was inclusive of any and all of them.

I've thought about diving into some of the old Indian stuff, but at the end of the day I realize that there aren't really answers to be found in these texts, that I can't find in a distilled Wikipedia summary, or secondary source. In an ideal world with unlimited time I'd read the entire Bible and a few other texts, but given reality they haven't bubbled to the top of my priority list yet. And so stuff like this seems to be the domain of people with a very specialized interest in the subject.

You took the thought right out of my head.

It's going to sound arrogant of me but I view such a work as just more of what one finds in the bible or some similar work, lots of flowery prose, lots of good thoughts, but nothing new or revolutionary in terms of actual knowledge and understanding. There was a time in my young life when such a work was very attractive and I couldn't put it down, as if I was making discoveries the rest of the world did not know. Today that passion is directed toward scientific pursuits and discoveries. I'd much rather hike the back country of a National Park or reread some Sagan. In a world with unlimited time I'd read it.

One can do all three.
 
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