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 tenth definition, part II, number 5 of 6:
Fire is a sterile essence, the duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal: an infertile substance, in as much (it belongs to) the destructive fire which makes (things) disappear; and the perpetuation of the immortal (beings), since what cannot be consumed by fire is immortal and indestructible, but the mortal can be destroyed by fire.
While definition II.2 described air, II.3 earth, and II.4 water, definition II.5 describes fire, the last but certainly not the least element to be discussed. Air is the conjoining element that binds other things together; earth is the foundation of matter for other elements to act upon it; water nurtures and nourishes and allows for growth. Air and earth can be seen as opposites in a way: while earth allows for distinct bodies to be formed, air helps bind them together again. Thus, water and fire can also be seen as a pair of opposites; if water helps to nourish, fire then must help to destroy.
Fire is the “sterile essence”; fire prohibits things from growing or producing things, unlike water which helps things to grow or produce. Sterility is something that we might attribute to bare earth, as well, earth unmixed with water. However, as seen from earlier definitions, water and earth are both the support of the cosmos, and are inextricably linked together; they are going to be combined together in all cosmic things (at least down here on the Earth). Fire, however, is something different; fire is hot, it is heat, it is burning, it is active. And these things are not conducive to life for mortals.
Fire is also the “duration of the immortal bodies and the destruction of the mortal”. This is a pair of opposites that contrasts that which is immortal (like gods or planets) and that which is mortal (like human bodies or animals). In the first part of this statement, fire is the “duration of the immortal”, or that fire is that which maintains, empowers, and sustains immortal bodies. In a way, immortal bodies are primarily fire, and fire is what enables them to “live”. I use quotes around “live” here because fire is inherently antithetical to life, or at least life as we know it: mortal life. Immortal beings live in a way that is distinct from mortal beings, and based on what we know about fire, I think one of the qualities of immortal beings is that they cannot give birth. After all, if fire is the “duration of the immortal”, and if fire is also a “sterile essence”, then beings who are primarily fire cannot give birth due to their sterility.
That said, anyone who’s lit a fire before can attest to how quickly it can spread from tinder to tinder, twig to twig, log to log. Fire expands and catches other things on fire, so it doesn’t just burn out immediately; in a way, fire “lives” on its own, but in a way distinct from other bodies that are composed of water and earth (e.g. human bodies). Because of how fire catches, immortal beings can definitely reproduce or spread their influence by means of their fire, but this is simply an effect of fire on the earth of a body. And, because fire is sterile and hot, fire also desiccates and burns up; fire destroys any body that is not immortal. Thus, fire is “the destruction of the mortal”; fire corrupts, decreases, and burns up anything that is not also fire. The ability to be destroyed and undergo decrease back into basic components is a characteristic of mortal beings, and now we know that these actions are caused (at least in part) by fire.
Fire, as well as being sterile (inhibiting life), is also an “infertile substance”, meaning that it cannot be the growth of anything, nor can it help to produce anything. Then again, the text continues this to qualify that fire is infertile insofar as “it belongs to the destructive fire which makes things disappear”. This suggests that there are multiple types of fire: a destructive fire is that which decreases, desiccates, and the like on bodies that are capable of undergoing that function (mortal bodies). When we get to immortal bodies, however, not only is fire their primary life-giving substance, but fire is “the perpetuation of the immortal beings”. Just as fire spreads and catches onto other things, so too do immortal beings “catch onto” and spread their influence across other bodies.
Immortal beings don’t simply catch on fire; they themselves already are fire, and they are not harmed by it or by the fire of other immortals. After all, immortal beings cannot undergo destruction or desiccation, and so are an ever-living fire on their own; their fires may combine to form a bigger fire, or their fire may ignite elsewhere to “perpetuate” themselves. In any case, because they cannot be consumed by fire, they are “immortal and indestructible”. However, mortal beings “can be destroyed by fire”. So now we know that fire is something that acts fundamentally different for mortal beings and immortal beings: immortal beings are perpetuated by the use and spread of fire, while mortal beings are destroyed and consumed by fire.