This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.
Today, let’s discuss the eighth definition, part II, number 3 of 6:
Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water. What is the power of the world? To keep up for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.
While the previous definition described the role of air in the cosmos, this one describes the role of earth, which is good since the earth was the only part of the previous definition that was left undefined. Again, this whole part of definitions describe the cosmos, and now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of the parts of the cosmos and what its constituent parts are: the elements. Air is that which conjoins the highest parts of the cosmos with the lowest, which is earth.
Earth is “the support of the world”, and here this provides an interesting comparison with the relationship between bodies and souls generally. In definition 1.3, the soul is said to support or “keep up” the body, and that all bodies require souls. Similarly, the breath (or spirit, which may or may not be the same thing as air) is said to be the support or the “column” of the soul. The thing that supports another is what enables it to work: the soul animates the body, and the spirit facilitates the motion of the soul. Earth is a part of the cosmos, which is the sensible world, and earth is said to be the support of the world. Earth is the element responsible, then, for making the cosmos what it is as distinct from the world of God: earth enables the cosmos to be sensible and movable. Earth is the foundation of the sensible world, the foundation of the cosmos itself. Indeed, just as the cosmos is made from the four elements, if earth is the foundation of the cosmos, then earth is also the foundation for everything made from the elements; earth is “the basis of the elements”.
Thus, because all things that are composed of the four elements require earth, earth is “the nurse of the living beings”. Anything that arises in the cosmos does so because of earth; anything that has a body does so because of earth; anything that is able to move and be moved in the cosmos does so because of earth. Everything that exists in the cosmos with a body comes from earth in at least some sense; as in Ecclesiastes 3:20, “all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” And, indeed, according to the definition, earth is also the “receptacle of the dead”; all things that die or are destroyed return to earth. However, bear in mind that nothing ever truly dies or is destroyed, but only changes form from one thing into another. As such, when this definition says that earth is the “receptacle of the dead”, it refers to the ultimate nature of all material entities and bodies: when all water is evaporated out, all head dissipated, all breath expired, all that is left is earth. (This leads into something like the Black Work and White Work of the alchemists, but that’s for another day.)
Earth is said to come “last after fire and water, since it became what it is after fire and water”. Here we have the beginnings of a cosmogony: in the beginning was God, who spoke the Word and somehow created the cosmos and eventually Man. Within the cosmos, the elements were formed at different stages, not all at once: fire and water and air came first in some manner, and earth was last. Earth was made unique, partitioned out, or “separated” out from the cosmos last. Something similar is said in the Poemandres of the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter I, part 5):
[Thereon] out of the Light . . . a Holy Word (Logos) descended on that Nature. And upwards to the height from the Moist Nature leaped forth pure Fire; light was it, swift and active too.
The Air, too, being light, followed after the Fire; from out the Earth-and-Water rising up to Fire so that it seemed to hang therefrom.
But Earth-and-Water stayed so mingled each with other, that Earth from Water no one could discern. Yet were they moved to hear by reason of the Spirit-Word (Logos) pervading them.
Earth is often seen as the heaviest of the four elements. Fire rises up, air moves around, water flows around; earth sinks and compresses into itself. Earth is often exemplified as the rocks, boulders, crystals, metals, soil, humus, loam, and dust that is lowest on the ground, that which falls from the sky or from trees down through the air and water. If one mixes up a batch of mud, over time the water will rise to the top and the earth will sink to the bottom; the earth is what comes out last when all else is formed, and when all else leaves again to return to its natural elements. Fire can burn earth to produce brittle earth, but it’s still earth; air can break earth to form dusty earth, but it’s still earth; water can moisten earth to produce sloppy earth, but it’s still earth. Earth is the last element, and the one that is always produced from any interaction with the other elements. Plato discusses the nature of the element of earth in similar terms in the Timaeus:
To earth, then, let us assign the cubical form; for earth is the most immoveable of the four and the most plastic of all bodies, and that which has the most stable bases must of necessity be of such a nature…
From all that we have just been saying about the elements or kinds, the most probable conclusion is as follows : earth, when meeting with fire and dissolved by its sharpness, whether the dissolution take place in the fire itself or perhaps in some mass of air or water, is borne hither and thither, until its parts, meeting together and mutually harmonising, again become earth ; for they can never take any other form…
In essence, where the world is (and by “world” here I mean the sensible world of the cosmos), earth must necessarily be, because earth is the “support of the world”, its core and defining element that forms the foundation for all other elements, including itself, to interact amongst each other. The cosmos is made because of earth; without earth, nothing tangible or visible could exist. This is what makes the cosmos separate from the rest of the All as God; basically, the cosmos is earthy, and because of this, the question “what is the power of the world?” is essentially “what is the power of earth?”
To that question, the definition gives “to keep up for ever the immortal beings, such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal”. The first part, “to keep up for ever the immortal beings”, indicates that all things that live forever (note the use of “immortal” here as opposed to the “ever-living” of Man) live by means of earth, which supports (“keeps up”) these creatures. Anything that exists forever in the cosmos does so because of the imperishable, indissoluble earth that it consists of. The Earth (not the element, but the planet) is something that can very well be considered immortal, as can the other planets, as can mountains or similar. These things are called “immortal” since their bodies always were and always will be (modern notions of physics being laid aside for now). Mortal things, however, are those whose bodies pass into existence from and within the cosmos, and whose bodies will pass out of existence from and back into the cosmos. These things suffer the increase and decrease appropriate to physical bodies, with the element of earth that composes them taking the hits, so to speak. Earth, being the densest and most plastic of the elements, is what is physically acted upon by the other elements; the other elements act together upon the body, changing it and reacting with it, eventually causing deterioration, decrease, death, and destruction. Again, though, the element of earth that composes these bodies only ever decomposes back into the raw elements that they consist of; mass and elements will always be conserved within the cosmos, since nothing comes from nothing.