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 ninth definition, part II, number 4 of 6:
Water is a fecund essence, the support of earth, as a nutritive essence.
Delightfully short! While definition II.2 described air and II.3 described earth, II.4 describes water, and unlike the others, it’s pretty straightforward. Water is “fecund”, so it helps nurture and produce; water is the essence of fertility. Without water, nothing can grow; although earth is the nurse of the living, it’s water that helps them thrive, it’s water that helps nourish and provide nutrition. Dry earth alone can do nothing, but with water, earth can be made into clay or loam, and be made to grow. Water is that which provides and builds upon the earth.
The middle part of this definition, though, says that water is “the support of earth”. We’ve encountered this type of phrase before in II.3, where “earth is the support of the world”. In II.3, we understood that to mean that the cosmos is made material and sensible because of the quality of earth, that all things with any mass or matter in them owe it to their component of the earthy element. Thus, just as the soul “keeps up the figure while being within the body” (I.3) and so is the support of the body, earth is the support of the world. In II.4, however, we find that earth itself is supported by water. Does that mean that earth owes its earthiness to water? In a sense, yes, though it’s a little hard to discern.
In the cosmogony of the Poemander (chapter I, part 5), we find a basic layout of the four elements in the cosmos:
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.
Here, while fire flies to the top (upper heavens) and air follows it (the conjunction between the heavens and the earth), earth and water are mingled together as a single mass or body, just as the cosmos itself is composed of many parts but is still one whole body. In this sense, we start to find yet another microcosm: just as Man as a “small world” (I.4) reflects the cosmos and God because of “soul and breath” in addition to his body, the Earth (not just the element, but the planet) is a microcosm in itself of the macrocosm. However, the combination of earth and water in the beginning was at first chaotic: as in Genesis 1:2, “and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” However, as in the Poemander, “by reason of the Logos”, they were moved and made into form, just as God in Genesis spoke and gave form to the heaven and the earth.
Thus, while earth is the support of the world, water is the support of earth, and since water and earth both come from the cosmos, water is also the support of the world. For anything in the cosmos to grow or nourish, water must be present, just as earth must be present for anything to be sensible or material in the cosmos. Water is the essence of growth and production, just as earth is the essence of matter and sensibility. However, earth can also be the foundation for any measure of increase or decrease, the growth and destruction of anything in the cosmos. Starting with earth, if one adds water, the matter inceases; if one removes water, the matter decreases. This is similar to dehydration of foods; anything plump and juicy when dried will shrivel and desiccate. Continue this long enough by removing enough water, and only earth will remain. Add water again, however, and you’ll make the earth fertile again to grow new things from it.
Earth and water are necessary for anything in the cosmos to live; it’s not enough to merely exist as an inanimate object (and, indeed, no such thing truly exists since all bodies in the cosmos have a soul). Earth enables a body to be material and sensible, as well as allowing for other elements to act upon it and move it. Water enables a body to grow, produce, nurture, and increase. Both of these elements work together as part of the low cosmos (or the Earth) in conjunction with air and fire.