Magic burns. We’ve gone over that enough by now, I think; magic is difficult to do, and even more difficult to do properly. There are lots of steps one can take (and should take and take and retake again regularly) to help manage the burn, you’re still going to get burnt. And that’s okay, though it may not seem like it. Besides, even though one can get burned pretty bad by making mistakes that are, in retrospect, pretty easy to avoid, there’s still going to be burning involved. One might contrast these two kinds of burning as burning down and burning up, the difference between them being whether one is burning one’s resources for more burnable resources, or burning one’s resources for more rarefied, adamantine treasures. I keep saying that doing magic and being burnt is worth it, but given the risks associated with it and how one can easily be burned down as one can be burned up, people might not be able to understand why doing magic is worth it.
In the Hermetic view of things, mankind was made in the image of God. Quoth Hermes Trismegistus from the Divine Poemander:
But the Father of all things, the Mind being Life and Light, brought forth Man like unto himself, whom he loved as his proper Birth; for he was all beauteous, having the image of his Father. For indeed God was exceedingly enamoured of his own form or shape, and delivered unto it all his own Workmanships. But he, seeing and understanding the Creation of the Workman in the whole, would needs also himself fall to work, and so was separated from the Father, being in the sphere of Generation or Operation. Having all Power, he considered the Operations or Workmanships of the Seven; but they loved him, and everyone made him partaker of his own order. And he learning diligently, and understanding their Essence, and partaking their Nature, resolved to pierce and break through the Circumference of the Circles, and to understand the power of him that sits upon the Fire.
This is the big guy up in the highest of all heavens, the Nous, the Great Mind, the Infinite and Almighty Divine Source of All Things, the One Thing, the First Father, but “God” is a convenient word to describe the dude. In the beginning, God made mankind in his own image and form, which means that we took on pretty much all the qualities of our Father: we were created by the One who creates, so it’s literally in our blood and spirit to create as well. Creation, then, is a holy and divine act, and when we create our children, our materials, our homes, our lives, our realities, we are ultimately performing a holy act, which can just as easily and conveniently be called “magic”. Magic is, after all, causing a change in reality to conform to our will, and to cause something to happen is to create the event.
Anyway, so we have the ability to do magic from our divine source, and our license to do it is our birthright. Once created, we left the nest from whence we were made to go create our own, and in the process encountered the Seven Spheres, other neighborhoods in our divine heavenly hometown; in exploring them, we found the seven planetary governors who happened to be real good friends with our father. Since they like our father (being, you know, made and employed by him as well), they saw us as their little sibling and really worthy of pretty much everything they had, so they helped us learn how to operate in their own respective spheres and how to work with the things they work with. Once we learned what we could from them, we said our goodbyes and headed onto the next stop, and so on and so on, and in the process kept learning more about ourselves as we learned more about the Source who created all this. After all, if the Divine Almighty created all these spheres, then he’s a part of them too, which means we’re a part of them, which means we can work in and with them.
But then, we came across another neighborhood in the hometown:
And having already all power of mortal things, of the Living, and of the unreasonable creatures of the World, stooped down and peeped through the Harmony, and breaking through the strength of the Circles, so showed and made manifest the downward-born Nature, the fair and beautiful Shape or Form of God. Which, when he saw, having in itself the unsatiable Beauty, and all the operations of the Seven Governors, and the Form or Shape of God, he smiled for love, as if he had seen the shape or likeness in the Water, or the shadow upon the Earth, of the fairest Human form. And seeing in the Water a Shape, a Shape like unto himself, in himself he loved it, and would cohabit with it, and immediately upon the resolution ensued the operation, and brought forth the unreasonable Image or Shape. Nature presently laying hold of what it so much loved, did wholly wrap herself about it, and they were mingled, for they loved one another. And from this cause Man above all things that live upon earth is double: Mortal, because of his body, and Immortal, because of the substantial Man. For being immortal, and having power of all things, he yet suffers mortal things, and such as are subject to Fate or Destiny. And therefore being above all Harmony, he is made and become a servant to Harmony, he is Hermaphrodite, or Male and Female, and watchful, he is governed by and subjected to a Father, that is both Male and Female, and watchful.
We ended up in the Sphere of the Earth, Malkuth, the Kingdom, the densest and most intriguing stop we’ve made so far in our celestial travels. We finally saw a form of ourselves in our reflections here, and we thought it looked so cool that we ended up making a body for ourselves in this place which combines the essence of all the other places and spheres we’ve been to so far, and then some. We ended up making our own body and started willfully inhabiting it, and since our body was made in our form and our form was made in the image of God, our body was also made in the image of God (though a little further removed). Since everybody loves God, just as God loves everything, just so Nature herself (the power and force of the sphere of the Earth) fell in love with our bodies. Nature then overwhelmed us in rapture, and we found ourselves in a beautiful love affair with Nature. The thing is that, just like someone playing hooky from work to fool around all day at home, we ended up getting distracted and forgot about our duties, origins, and purpose in the cosmos. We became so enamored by Earth that we became earthly instead of heavenly.
This itself isn’t a bad thing, but it does make things weird for us. We ended up sticking around in our earthly bodies a little too long and forgot where we came from, what we’re capable of, and what we’re supposed to do. We kept focusing and specializing with earthly, mundane things for so long that we forgot we knew anything else. We lost sight of our childhood hopes and dreams and settled down in a place we shouldn’t settle down in at a time too early to settle down. We became more animal than human. And that’s not good for us. However, we’ve been used to being here for so long that we’ve gotten comfortable being mundane and strictly material, when we’re really supposed to be more than that and, even if we choose to partake in mundane stuff, we’re not supposed to be utterly reliant on it. And that’s where the pain of burning up comes in: in order to be heavenly, we have to get used to being heavenly again. Since what lives up in the heavens are stars, we have to get used to being stars ourselves again. Since stars are illustrious, powerful, and magnificent because of their burning, so too do we have to burn in order to shine like and outshine the stars themselves.
And that’s why getting burnt by the stars is a good thing, when done properly. It’s like breaking an addiction: yes, we’re going to have to go through withdrawal, and yes, we may need an intervention or two along the way to make sure we’re on the right track and don’t relapse. It’s going to suck, but the payoff is worth it, because it brings us back to our senses, it reminds us of who we are, and it helps us see what we can really do and accomplish. It empowers us to do more spiritually with less materially, and in the process able to do more both spiritually and materially. As creatures of the Creator, and as creators ourselves, it’s our job to create things that are better for us and the cosmos; this includes the creation of a more perfect, more splendid, and more kick-ass awesome physical reality, but it requires a knowledge of our heavenly, spiritual selves to do that. In order to shine, we need to strip off the layers of dust and cruft that’ve accumulated long since before we were born; even though the initial polishing might be abrasive, the burnishing and blindingly bright effect will truly be a sight to behold.
Also, there’s a bunch more talk going on around the blogosphere this week about what the Great Work is and why we’re supposed to do it, which you might want to check out from Inominandum, Frater Rufus Opus (who keeps saying things), and Frater MC. What I put above is my view, which is still in formation and is pretty by-the-book Hermeticism, but it ties in well with what I’m going through and what I’ve experienced, seen, heard, and read.
My bringing this up is probably annoying as all get out by this point, but the perspective you describe here is only the monotheist presentation of Hermetics. Current scholarly consensus, AFAICT, is that what we have of the Corpus Hermetica is a redaction of the material that Byzantine Christians found somewhat acceptable, probably from a vastly richer source. Whether the material readily allowed a monotheistic reading was sure to form a central criterion.
A Peter Kingsley paper touches on this along with a fascinating discussion of Poimandres that has huge implications for approaching the Hermetic material, available on JSTOR:
Kingsley, Peter. “Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1993): 1-24.
To an extent, it’s definitely monotheist, inasmuch that the Source is seen as a single entity. Then again, I’d counter that the Source isn’t one thing as it is One Thing, the difference between a monotheist view of the cosmos versus a panentheist view. It’s like calling Greek cosmogony monotheist, since all the gods and all that exists came from Chaos which, though it can be described as a single entity, it’s not really fitting to think about it in those terms.
Of course, I admit that I’m presenting this stuff through the lens of Renaissance and early modern Hermetic thought, which has well-known monotheist inclinations, given its social and religious context. Then again, it works.
I don’t think the Greek analogy holds, as they didn’t have a single cosmogony just as many of the gods have no single genealogy. It’s neither simply a matter of competing cosmologies or genealogies, as we have authors using them without contradiction.
Whether panentheism can be meaningfully distinguished from monotheism is not a question I’m interested in. As soon as we begin attributing volition and personality to “The One”, it is certainly a monotheism though.
It may work, but what benefits does it provide to a polytheist approach? I think the odds are greater, since the relationship is so close, that just as monotheist readings of Neoplatonism are greatly diminished and require epicycles of mental gymnastics, the same applies for monotheist readings of Hermeticism.
For example, when we awaken to our nature prior to creation, there are problems that arise to regarding it as a univocal expression of one substance beyond it preceding any substance.
Granted that the Greeks didn’t have a single cosmology, but I don’t see why the analogy wouldn’t hold. And if they were using them without contradiction, then the story of a primordial Source was still held as valid, and what I said above would still be legit. I think it’s about going to a point where distinctions between monotheism, pan(en)theism, polytheism, and the other theisms don’t matter anymore, where there isn’t a difference between this and that or that over there; it all just Is.
All things had to come from somewhere, until you either get to an infinite regression of deities (in which case the cycle itself is the Source), a single generating deity (male, female, or otherwise, but still a single Source, e.g. Vishnu in Vaishnavism or YHVH in Abrahamic faiths, or Chaos or Oceanus in Greek myths, any number of ancient Egyptian cosmogonies), or a union of deities (the conjunction of which becomes the Source, like Izanami and Izanagi in Shinto). I see all this reflected at once and being, to my mind, the same thing, so it wouldn’t matter whether one is polytheistic or monotheistic or whatever. It might be my own lack of reading showing, but I haven’t come across much in the way of non-monotheistic Neoplatonic or Hermetic writings. Besides the paper you mentioned, would you have any sources (preferably freely available ones, like on Sacred Texts or Hermetic Library, because I’m cheap) you might suggest? Moreover, why wouldn’t the above work for a polytheist? (You might want to consider writing a full blog entry about this instead of a comment, since this might get a little lengthy.)
I don’t want to sound unwilling to reason about this because this is a fascinating topic of philosophy and deserves more inspection and introspection, but defining the nature of divinity in the role of creation reminds me of the Buddha’s parable of the arrow. Does it really matter before we cross that bridge to “our nature prior to creation”? So long as you have a model to get to that point, does it matter whether the model is actual Truth afterward (parable of the raft and river)? To clarify my position, I don’t really consider myself a polytheist or a monotheist; the closest label to me would be panentheist, where everything that exists is divine and can be a deity in its own right, all falling in a superclass of divinity that extends beyond what exists. I don’t think we can attribute volition and personality to the One; though I personalized the actions in the post for the sake of metaphor and storytelling, I think it’s pretty much beyond the capacity of the finite to describe infinite divinity.
One distinction is that the different models do not go to the same place or otherwise have the same end. Another issue is that polytheists have often thought that engaging in Hermetics would require them to qualify devotional relationships with their gods, if only because there exists some more holistic, if completely unpersonal divine beyond them. This even though Hermeticism sprang up within a polytheistic milieu and all of the theurgists we know who defined gave form to it were hard polytheists.
A major problem reading the Neoplatonists is that we’re reading them after 2000 years of monotheism and most of the translators were themselves Christians. There are questionable translations everywhere and the verbose polytheistic piety of Platonic writers is often undermined.
As for non-monotheistic Neoplatonists, what about Iamblichus? On the Mysteries is nearly wholly occupied with the gods. Regardless how one chooses to interpret “the One” he’s very clear that the only way humans can gain experience of it is in union with one of the gods. Very odd that, if we’re supposed to understand it as a unique entity that we can relate to directly.
Proclus Platonic Theology is freely available. There’s an entire book in it regarding the nature of the One.
Of course I’m going to highly recommend EP Butler’s work, in this case his essay “The Gods and Being in Proclus“.
Most of The Picatrix is attributed to the lore of the Sabeans who were polytheistic, and most of Hermetic astrological lore is based in it.
While I don’t agree with you assertion that everything has to come from somewhere, or that cosmogonic mythologies are necessarily concerned with the creation of matter, we’ll just have to agree to disagree regarding whether a reduction to one mode is meaningful. Still an understanding of everything sharing a most common denominator sounds awfully banal to me and unlike what Iamblichus describes as coming from a proper relationship with the gods.
Sorry for missing that closing tag.
I want to be clear that I have no problem with any approach that you would like to use or with monotheist approaches in general. Just blanket statements that “in the Hermetic view of things, mankind was made in the image of God” or that there’s a by-the-book Hermeticism.
Even the medieval Hermeticists were very heterogeneous in their approaches and models.
No, I totally understood, and I take no offense. I understand I subscribe and am referencing one (though fairly common in recent centuries) branch of a highly eclectic, syncretic philosophy that has various and sundry origins. This definitely gives me some food for thought, though, and definitely fodder for more discussion later.
Thank you for providing the great conversation. The only way we can investigate the different orientations is by hashing these things out and hopefully discovering the differences that make a difference. Cheers!