Last night, I made a tweet, as I periodically do, about how much I dislike the Kybalion:
Longtime readers—and those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter—know that I’m no fan of this text. Published in 1912 by The Yogi Publication Society Masonic Temple in Chicago, Illinois, and supposedly written by the “Three Initiates”, its own introduction plays itself up quite admirably:
We take great pleasure in presenting to the attention of students and investigators of the Secret Doctrines this little work based upon the world-old Hermetic Teachings. There has been so little written upon this subject, not withstanding the countless references to the Teachings in the many works upon occultism, that the many earnest searchers after the Arcane Truths will doubtless welcome the appearance of this present volume.
The purpose of this work is not the enunciation of any special philosophy or doctrine, but rather is to give to the students a statement of the Truth that will serve to reconcile the many bits of occult knowledge that they may have acquired, but which are apparently opposed to each other and which often serve to discourage and disgust the beginner in the study. Our intent is not to erect a new Temple of Knowledge, but rather to place in the hands of the student a Master-Key with which he may open the many inner doors in the Temple of Mystery through the main portals he has already entered.
There is no portion of the occult teachings possessed by the world which have been so closely guarded as the fragments of the Hermetic Teachings which have come down to us over the tens of centuries which have elapsed since the lifetime of its great founder, Hermes Trismegistus, the “scribe of the gods,” who dwelt in old Egypt in the days when the present race of men was in its infancy. Contemporary with Abraham, and, if the legends be true, an instructor of that venerable sage, Hermes was, and is, the Great Central Sun of Occultism, whose rays have served to illumine the countless teachings which have been promulgated since his time. All the fundamental and basic teachings embedded in the esoteric teachings of every race may be traced back to Hermes. Even the most ancient teachings of India undoubtedly have their roots in the original Hermetic Teachings…
It goes on to claim that not only is Hermetic philosophy the origin of Western philosophy, occult and otherwise, but so too is it the origin of Vedic and Hindu philosophy, along with every other philosophy of note. And yet, despite Hermeticism supposedly being the origin of all the world’s philosophies, occultisms and occultures, and religions:
…the original truths taught by him have been kept intact in their original purity by a few men in each age, who, refusing great numbers of half-developed students and followers, followed the Hermetic custom and reserved their truth for the few who were ready to comprehend and master it. From lip to ear the truth has been handed down among the few… These men have never sought popular approval, nor numbers of followers. They are indifferent to these things, for they know how few there are in each generation who are ready for the truth, or who would recognize it if it were presented to them… They reserve their pearls of wisdom for the few elect, who recognize their value and who wear them in their crowns, instead of casting them before the materialistic vulgar swine, who would trample them in the mud and mix them with their disgusting mental food…
The text then goes on in short order to describe “The Kybalion”, which it only really describes as “a compilation of certain Basic Hermetic Doctrines, passed on from teacher to student”, with the exact meaning of the word “having been lost for several centuries”. Yet, the book we call the Kybalion is just the interpretation and exegesis of this ancient text that it never actually quotes in full; the Three Initiates just cite a bunch of small quotes that may or may not make up the entirety of its supposed origin text, and that in such a highbrow, supercilious way that only the occultists of the late 19th and early 20th century could achieve.
TL;DR: the Kybalion is a pretentious mess.
Probably my biggest gripe about this blasted thing is that, though the Kybalion claims to be a Hermetic text, it’s just not. I’ll delightfully and happily recommend my readers to take a look at Nicholas E. Chapel’s wonderful essay, The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism, which goes into the history and origins of the Kybalion and that it’s very much a modern product that derives from New Thought, a new age movement that originated in the 19th century spiritual scene of the United States, itself the likely root of Christian Science. From the New Thought crowd, a strong case can be made that the real identity of the “Three Initaites” is William Walker Atkinson, aka Yogi Ramacharaka aka Magus Incognito aka Theron Q. Dumont, who served in a position of honorary leadership of the International New Thought Alliance and who was a prolific writer of many works, many of which have nontrivial overlaps with the material in the Kybalion. Chapel’s essay also goes on at length and in depth about the real and numerous differences between the Kybalion and actual Hermetic philosophy, and it’s definitely an excellent read, but suffice it to say that there’s not a lot of Hermeticism in the Kybalion.
It would also be remiss of me, at this point, to not bring up the good Reverend Erik’s post over at Arnemancy about What to Read Instead of the Kybalion (surprise, it’s actual Hermetic philosophy texts, specifically the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius!) and The Nature of God in the Kybalion and the Hermetica (surprise, there’re major differences in how divinity and God is described between the two texts). Also definitely give those a read, too.
All this was going through my head last night, because I saw yet another post somewhere on one of the magic-related subreddits about, once again, the Kybalion. I’ve gotten tired about voicing my opinion on there, unless it comes up in another thread I’m already involved with, but I rolled my eyes, made a snarky tweet, and got on with my evening. Then someone out of the blue—I’ve never heard of them, they weren’t following me, we have one mutual follower in common who’s someone I only barely know (but what I do know I like)—struck up a short quasi-conversation with me (verbatim below):
Them: Its entry lvl concepts but its still effective if you have discernment, just like every other esoteric projection. Better to have newly awakened read the kybalion then jump straight into solomons lesser key or any of oto ffs
Me: I find the Kybalion’s “principles” to be a waste of time at best and dangerously misleading at worst, and they often require unlearning and serious deconditioning when getting into the real meat and bones. I contend they should get into the Corpus Hermeticism at the start. But even then, taken right, there’s nothing wrong with starting off with the Lemegeton or Thelema if they want to, so long as they take them seriously.
Them: Curpus is not exactly easy digestion. Had to read it twice to fit pieces together. Its all doctrine, so whatever works for the individual to find the path to virtue is correct. But you should already know youre projecting your self into the argument…
Me: “Bitter for the mouth is sweet for the stomach.” Better they read good stuff that’s hard from the start than junk food swill for the mind; after all, nobody promised that obtaining wisdom would be easy. Besides, at least the Corpus is actually Hermetic, unlike the Kybalion.
Them: And how many initiates take any infrastructure as serious as they need to?
Me: If the initiation was done right, and if they needed initiation (otherwise, they shouldn’t have it), then all of them. It’s on the initiator as much as the initiate to ensure that instilling mysteries is done properly, but is also appropriate for the person to have them.
Them: You sure do have a lot of rules to enlightenment. Makes me think you havent found it yet. Ive heard everything I need to from you.
At which point, they blocked me. To be honest, this is the first time in the nine years I’ve been on Twitter that I can recall something like this happening, so I’m pretty proud of myself to have irritated someone to the point of getting blocked because I disagreed with them.
Listen, I have my gripes about the Kybalion, to be sure, and I’ll name three specifically:
- It’s not Hermetic, and thus gets people confused about actual, legitimate Hermetic philosophy and practices.
- Many of its lessons tend to become hindrances later on that are, at best, worthless and can just be dropped and, at worst, are dangerous and need to be unlearned.
- It’s such a basic text that it doesn’t really do much besides say “there are things out there”, focused more on feel-good kinda-truths that maybe encourages people to get off their ass and do something with their lives.
But, really, it’s that first gripe that’s the biggest: the Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, period, full stop. It’s influenced by Hermeticism, I’ll grant it that, but as Reverend Erik said in a comment to one of his posts above, “[d]efinitely Hermeticism influenced the Kybalion, but that doesn’t mean the Kybalion agrees entirely with Hermeticism”. And, if you look at what’s actually written in texts like the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Emerald Tablet, the Virgin of the World, the Isis to Horus, and the like, there’s really not a lot that the Kybalion agrees with at all. The Kybalion isn’t so much a rewrite of Hermetic philosophy and ideas into modern language, but an injection of New Thought ideas into Hermeticism. Not that I’m opposed to innovations if they’re useful, and I’ll be the first to happily and readily admit that Hermeticism as we know it from classical writings is absolutely syncretic and synthesized by many authors with related ideas and viewpoints. The problem is that this injection is also a rebranding of New Thought as Hermeticism, and thus confuses the two together, when the two are so distinct that it leads to confusion among many who read it.
I do not and cannot recommend the Kybalion as an introductory text, except unless you’re getting into New Thought and Christian Science—in which case, have at! There’s definitely virtue in New Thought and the like, but don’t call it Hermeticism, because it’s not. Yet, I’m evidently in the minority with that viewpoint that the Kybalion should not be recommended for students of Hermeticism as an introductory text, as I commonly see it lauded and praised and recommended time and time again as being so good. I mean…well, the good Dr Al Cummins said it better than I could on a Facebook post about the Kybalion I made recently: “I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anyone online stanning the Kybalion who actually had anything remotely interesting or useful to say about it”.
Then here comes along someone whom I don’t know and who doesn’t know me saying that the Kybalion is better than the Lemegeton and the Ordo Templi Orientis. The Lemegeton I can sorta understand; goetia isn’t exactly something to go rushing into for the most part, but let’s be honest, how many generations of magicians have started with that very text and have used it and abused it for wondrous and terrible things? It’s several hundred years older than the Kybalion, for one, and though it’s more Solomonic practical literature than Hermetic, it’s still so tied up into Hermetic practice that its influences cannot be denied. But, come on, dude went out of his way to smear the O.T.O.? For real? Despite that the O.T.O. itself is also older than the Kybalion, is still around and lively to this day, and has greatly influenced modern Western occulture, especially with Crowley’s and Thelema’s influence on the O.T.O., with a supportive community and rigorous lodge-based system, you’re gonna say that the Kybalion’s better than that? As a rule, books are never preferred to teachers when teachers are available, and O.T.O. is full of them.
Is the Kybalion effective? I don’t judge it so, to be honest, and neither have many of my colleagues. We might remember it fondly, but we more often talk about it derisively, and, well, there’s what Dr Cummins said about it, too, which I can’t disagree with. Is it good to help open the mind? Sure! Is it good for getting into new age practices generally? Absolutely, since New Thought’s one such practice! But to say it’s good for getting into Hermeticism isn’t saying much more than saying it can help you move your foot towards the door, when you would probably do that anyway and a lot better, quicker, and easier if you started with actual Hermetic texts. Which is why I always recommend the Corpus Hermeticum as a kind of Hermetic Bible of sorts, along with the other texts as one is ready for them.
“But oh no, the Corpus is so hard to read!” dude said, “it took me two times to understand it!” First, it only took you two times to get it to make sense? I’m reading it for the two hundredth time and I’m still learning more from it. I had to go over it multiple times to get it to sit right in my head, and several more after that to actually begin to grok it. If you’re complaining that it took you two tries to read it, then that says a lot about how much you’re able to stomach actual philosophy, occult studies, and the like; you might have a sharp mind, but little faculty to keep with it. I find complaining about that to be embarrassing, to be honest, because of course something that old and dense on such a cosmically-encompassing huge topic is going to be hard to understand. Yet, with the works of Brian Copenhaver or Clement Salaman, it’s easy to study so long as you let yourself chew on it and digest it. Nobody promised that the occult was easy, and nobody promised that you would be able to understand Cosmic Truths About God And Everything on your first go; to think that you could or should right out of the gate is folly.
Then the dude goes on about how initiates don’t take their stuff seriously. First off, as an initiate in several mystery religions myself? Have you ever met a convert to a religion or someone newly initiated into something? Nine times out of ten, they can’t shut up about it, and are hungry to know whatever they can, do whatever they can, ask whatever they can, and implement whatever they can. Their enthusiasm may run low over time, sure, but unless it’s a matter of life and death (or because it’s a matter of social life and death), you don’t go for initiation into a spiritual path for shits and giggles, you go because you Want it. Those who Want it will take it as seriously as anything in their lives, because for them, it becomes their life.
And, as I noted, there are those who apply for initiation but aren’t ready for it, or don’t have the capacity for it, and so it’s on their initiators to assess, gauge, and test the applicants to make sure they’re able to initiate or progress to higher initiations. (It works the same in the O.T.O. as it does in Freemasonry as it does in traditional Wicca as it does in Ocha.) Heck, recall those quotes from the introduction of the Kybalion above, too! Even the Kybalion states that the old Hermetic masters “reserved their truth for the few who were ready to comprehend and master it” and that they “reserve their pearls of wisdom for the few elect, who recognize their value and who wear them in their crowns, instead of casting them before the materialistic vulgar swine, who would trample them in the mud and mix them with their disgusting mental food”. That this dude would complain about initiation clearly forgot about that part of the Kybalion, and about the role initiation properly serves in spiritual practices generally.
Due to the influence of La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, aka Santería, in my life, I’m increasingly a stickler for oathbound, authorized, and transmission-based forms of initiation, and find it a useful system, not only to gain power or wisdom or what-have-you but also to throttle it and cultivate it in a useful, beneficial, and appropriate manner, controlled by the initiators and community as a whole who have as much a say in the life and works of any given initiate as the initiate does themselves. This isn’t always the case with many spiritual practices—I have plenty that are more auturgic than initiated, and not everyone needs to go the initiation route—but I know and admit that this isn’t a popular stance to take in modern occulture. As it proved to this dude, who then says that my occultism has too many rules for enlightenment and, thus, I must not be enlightened. To which:
- I wasn’t talking about enlightenment. I was talking about Hermetic texts and what’s better to read than not.
- I never claimed to be enlightened. I’ll be first to claim that I’m not, and that I’m just a rank beginner with a little expertise here and there.
- Who on Earth are you to judge someone, on Twitter of all places, whom you don’t know and who doesn’t know you, regarding their spiritual state?
In all honesty, despite that I’m writing such a post about this, I find the whole affair more hilarious than aggravating. He saved me the trouble of having to block him, at least; at least he had the kindness to shut the door behind him when he left.
I bring all this up because, for one, I enjoy taking any opportunity to rail against the Kybalion, and this gives me an excellent time and means to do it on my own terms, and also to flesh out some of my statements last night with more nuance and explanation. But also, let this be an example of how not to engage with someone, especially me, especially on the Internet. I know at least a few people who would take serious umbrage at this to the point of actual retribution instead of just a snarky blog post. Just…come on, guys. Don’t be a haughty asshole to other people. If you want to discuss, then discuss! Don’t just walk in, say some shit, smear someone and a few religions while you’re at it, then strut off thinking you won when all you won is some mockery.
Let’s grow up and discuss things like adults, shall we? It’s the Hermetic thing to do.
I think you miss the point with the Kybalion. It’s a modern text. Right. Maybe it’s not that accurate nor deep like oldest sources. Probably. But what’s the point? I don’t get it. You seem so sure to hold the truth, that you seem to play the very same game: declare what is true and what is wrong. I would recommend you to modesty and kindness. Everything that you write is about self awakening. Don’t think too much, let it go, and be happy. There is nothing more wasteful than useless egos little fights. Experts are always right, that is why they are always wrong. When you try to divide between good and bad, you always end up by seeing only the half of the truth. Instead should you transcend the situation and get a higher point of vue, or maybe rest in silence. Too many words… Anyway, you do a good job with your blog. This act of violence against a book doesn’t honor your work. I would have expected more wisdom from you. Just my 5 cents.
One of the reasons why I’m so vitriolic against this book from a Hermetic point of view is because it does harm to people getting into Hermeticism. Those who avoid the Kybalion until later come to it and find little of value in it, those who progress past it don’t consider it valuable except for sentimentality’s sake, and those who are still in the beginning get confused and mislead because of it. This isn’t about an ego fight; this is because trying to bundle the Kybalion in with Hermetic texts muddles the waters and makes it too impure for the soul and mind to drink from it. I recommend that the Kybalion be purged from Hermetic discussions because it doesn’t bring anything to the table, and instead contaminates what’s already on the table. And I know, for a fact, I’m far from the only one to say these things.
Is the book utterly without value? No! As I said, if you’re into New Thought or other early-to-modern new age movements and practices, the Kybalion (along with Atkinson’s other works) is pretty good. But this text is rarely discussed in terms of New Thought and almost always discussed in terms of Hermeticism, and as such, it does both New Thought and Hermeticism a disservice.
Please don’t try to moralize at me. I have some pretty legitimate and valid complaints to make about this book and the undeserved status it holds in modern occulture.
Even as someone who’s cursorily scanned Hermetic texts and gotten most of his information via secondary sources, with my attempt at the Kybalion I had to go, “Wow, this is… certainly something, but not Hermeticism.” It was marketing for a New Thought book, linking The Kybalion to Hermeticism, but hey, just because it’s marketing doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have negative effects.
I agree that it’s worth reading to people if they are into New Thought, which is what led me to The Kybalion. Mitch Horowitz and John Michael Greer contextualized it enough to make me not want to throw it all out, and to give The Kybalion a try. But that’s it – it should stop being mentioned in the same breath as Hermeticism unless it’s to correct the past marketing.
Bingo, that’s exactly it!
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Im pretty new to this blog, however I believe you are correct in saying from a Hermetic Point of View, The Kybalion holds little value to people who are interested in getting into Hermeticism. However from a general point of view, are the principles mentioned in the Kybalion correct and is the book suitable for laymen who are looking for a good read.
Additionally, if the Kybalion is not a good read for aspiring Hermetists, then what is a good introduction for Hermeticism.
Honestly, I can’t even say that much about the Kybalion. I don’t really find its principles all that useful for, really, anyone; they’re about as useful and true as saying “the sky is above you, sometimes blue, and sometimes not”. It’s a useful (or at least interesting) text for those interested in New Thought or the development of new age/new religious movements, but there’s just not a lot there.
I point out several other resources, links, and authors in the post above.
You don’t find the principles useful because you did not understand them well and how you might be able to use them, every sentence is relevant in that book.
It provides you with keys to be able to achieve mastery over you mental states wether positive or negative (and consequently over your environment as mind is above the material elements).
I eat philosophy and theurgy for breakfast; the more likely conclusion to draw is that the Kybalion is trash that is far more popular than it has any right to be. It’s written more with a flair for profound style than anything resembling profundity in content or meaning, and so much of the text is just fluffing and puffing itself up rather than describing (let alone doing) anything useful.
That said, if you find the Kybalion useful for you, good for you! God bless and Godspeed to you. You can have it, and leave me be with the things I care about and find useful—though I’d encourage you to put down the swill and give the Corpus Hermeticum a good read, instead.
Well according to the Kybalion it’s ok to reject it and to oppose its content. Right? Because truth is found in the opposition of things, ideas, etc. So it’s all good. I think it’s a very good introductory text that shouldn’t be read in the context of Hermeticism or New Thought but just, as is. I know it pretends to be hermeticism, but in the end that’s just a “tag”, it’s just a word, the important should be what’s being said. It’s not perfect because to me the principle of gender should be included in the principle of polarity, but I do think many people will need to hear this in its own category because of the psychology involved. I think it’s wonderful because it makes people move out their ass and do something about their life!!
As for the person who blocked you, hmm, that’s not a very evolved thing to do. They really haven’t understood the book. Blocking is a waste of energy. It’s coming back right at you.
I’m so glad I found this blog post, bc it actually describes what I felt was nagging me about the Kybalion and the “Seven Cosmic Principles” I found in another Rosicrucian text.
Those principles were pretty much useless to me without the context of the Hermetica Axiomata and understanding other concepts discussed in the classic Hermetic texts you described.
Basically without knowing those “Principles” and just using the source material, a practitioner’s experience in working with that tradition should be fine… They’re cute summations but not necessary for progress. I’d actually say they’re less straightforward compared to Corpus Hermetica.
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Your post and your thoughyon the Kybalion are very interesting. Though I personally believe the Kybalion is a brief summary of the essence of many world religions notably the Vedas of Hinduism. At a simple level (the way I understood it) there’s this Being (The One/God/Paramatman etc) in a realm far beyond human comprehension. This Being goes to sleep and dreams of this Universe as we know it with its multiple layers. Something very similar is mentioned in the Vedas, only that the Being is referenced as Narayana. I personally found the Kybalion quite interesting though I am no expert on these topics.
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It’s nothing more than “The Secret for Dummies”.
LOL – what I meant to say is The Secret is nothing more than “The Kybalion for Dummies”… which isn’t saying much.
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Divine indifference and even mindedness is important to consider. From experience I notice that when I determine absolute judgement about a thing, it becomes a self-imposed narrow-mindedness that distorts how that thing is not only perceived, but experienced.
As for being told that your “occultism has too many rules for enlightenment”……. I’d advise against maintaining a certain level of personal rigidity in regards to learning anything new in general. Especially as it applies to hermetics. However it should go without saying that the path to enlightenment is personal and applies to the individual, so anything that anyone says to you is then, by default, irrelevant. Anyway, my sitting in judgement on others and their judgements is counterintuitive, so I’ll leave it be. I don’t know that the Kybalion was the greatest read but it did give me a few things to reflect upon, and there are certainly better books out there, as you mentioned.
Divine indifference and even mindedness is important to consider. From experience I notice that when I determine absolute judgement about a thing, it becomes a self-imposed narrow-mindedness that distorts how that thing is not only perceived, but experienced.
As for being told that your “occultism has too many rules for enlightenment”……. I’d advise against maintaining a certain level of personal rigidity in regards to learning anything new in general. Especially as it applies to hermetica. However it should go without saying that the path to enlightenment is personal and applies to the individual, so anything that anyone says to you is then, by default, irrelevant. Anyway, my sitting in judgement on others and their judgements is counterintuitive, so I’ll leave it be. I don’t know that the Kybalion was the greatest read but it did give me a few things to reflect upon, and there are certainly better books out there, as you mentioned. The fact that it may be labeled New Thought seems a stretch too, and I can’t contend why it matters. Additionally, the Corpus does not give everything, which is the actual point. Most spiritual beliefs, practices and organized religions find overlap somewhere.
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It is interesting how passionately you and your contender stood on opposite sides of this same issue; as if on the same frequency and the same swing of the pendulum. There are many different ways back home, so my thought is, let the people do what they do, and love them as much as I can. For me, it is a waste of energy to cast judgment or allow the views or beliefs of another person or people to eat at me; expending my energy like that is burdensome. When feeling my feet are walking the right way; well, I keep walking, and if others catch up to me on on my path, and are curious enough about the how’s and why’s, I share, but if not, I smile and send a prayer out as they walk the path upon which they are led. I don’t feel the need to be looked at as greater or lesser; more or less wise, than another brother or sister. I also enjoy learning from the variances that others share with me. I believe that different texts and philosophies speak to each observer in very different ways; and what might feel divine for some will inevitably the opposite for others; depending on how we are built and what we have experienced, and therefore, it is not my place to tell someone what belief system they have ascribe to, or to insinuate that there is something lacking from that person for believing in something differently than I do. Thank you for the recommendations for reading; I plan to delve into them, as I stumbled here on accident as I was doing some research into the Kybalion; which I adore, as well as the Hermetica, and was interested in further exploring some connected philosophies. I will be interested to contemplate, as I read your recommendations; the similarities and differences, and am excited to ponder the (hopefully) deep and compelling texts. I pray that you are well, happy, and abundant; this day and always.
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Keeping it short… I think (agree) the matter of the Kybalion’s alleged “Law of Gender” should have ended with; Gender is a specific example of the “law of polarity” -and a poor choice for an example at that.
Furthermore, this alleged gender law/principle can then be scrapped, which raises serious questions about the Kybalion (not a fan).
However, thank you for the detailed treatment – here and elsewhere -Details matter.
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