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.