Labeling Myself as a Follower of the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus

Another day, another rant about the Kybalion.  No rest for the weary nor comfort for the correct, I suppose.  Readers here and my good followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook will know that I have no love for the Kybalion for any number of reasons, the biggest of which is that it claims to be a Hermetic text when it just, flatly, isn’t.  All it has going for it is that it claims itself to be and describes itself to be Hermetic, despite that the “real” text that what we have as the Kybalion claims to be an exegesis of doesn’t exist, that none of the quotes attributed to Hermēs Trismegistus in that text appear in any of the literature of philosophical or technical Hermetica, and that none of the cosmology, framework, or spiritual “infrastructure” that the Kybalion describes lines up with that which the Hermetic canon does.  The more one reads the Hermetic canon of texts and the more one reads the Kybalion, the more obvious and more numerous the differences become.  (Eventually, I have in mind to write a blog post series, “A Hermetic Refutation of the Kybalion”, but that’s something that even I’m dreading to write, honestly; that’ll be no small work, that I already know.)

And yet people are still surprised to hear any of this, if not outright disbelieving, because all they’ve ever heard is that the Kybalion is a Hermetic text.  It says right there that it is, after all; why would we not believe it?  Whole Hermetic orders of magical lodges and communities praise and promulgate the Kybalion, and generations of magicians and spiritual seekers uphold it and keep it fondly next to their hearts.  I’ve been called a sham and a liar and a poser for saying that the Kybalion isn’t Hermetic—because, I reiterate, it’s not—and that I should be ashamed of myself for misleading both myself and others about such a venerable ancient text (written about 110 years ago, as opposed to the 1700 years that the Corpus Hermeticum was written, give or take a century), and how dare I call myself a Hermeticist when I would oppose such a useful, informative, enlightening text.  It’s so accessible!  It’s so concise!  It’s so inspiring!  It’s such a good text!  (So many people harbor such a rabid love for the text, I wonder if there isn’t some deeper egregore at work here that makes so many place it atop such an esteemed pedestal with almost cult-like fanaticism.)

Like, I really don’t know what else to say besides the same thing over and over again: the Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, nor is it even derived from Hermetic texts.  Nowhere in the Hermetic canon of texts do we find a notions of “seven principles”, “three planes”, “the ALL is mental”, or whatever.  It’s all very clearly New Thought, and all derivative at that.  It’s not ancient, and it’s not Hermetic.  Whenever someone claims that it’s either of those things, that’s a good sign that they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Even if it is good for opening a window—not even a door—to let in a fresh breeze of spiritual awakening in, I can’t seriously consider that enough to give it such praise as it’s given.  I mean, we all go through embarrassing phases—I started off my PGM work with Stephen Flowers’ “Hermetic Magic”, which was good to spark my interest but which I haven’t touched in years because it’s such a dreadful text, to say nothing of my fondness for Scott Cunningham’s “Earth Power” and “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water”, which actually are useful if not awkward to admit it as such—it’s okay to let crappy things die in the past, especially as we find newer and better things to study.  Even if the Kybalion is an easy-to-digest introductory text to thinking in spiritual terms, unless you’re going to continue to go down the path of New Thought or the various other paths of mish-mash derivative New Age messes, there’s so much unlearning to do to actually properly understand Hermetic philosophy and spirituality in its own terms.  At that point, whatever good the Kybalion can bring is negated and made worse by the harm it can do; it’s like how sugar-processed white bread buns with faux-grilled misc-meat-product hamburgers are good for a quick burst of calories on the go when you’re hungry, but holding to that diet over time will give you severe health problems later on.  Even if the actual Hermetic texts are more difficult to read and ponder?  Good!  Like sex, better hard and slow than fast and bad.

Heck, even the word “Kybalion”, which looks Greek, isn’t even a meaningful word; it’s either meant to dimly recall notions of kabbalah (which, as a Jewish system of mysticism, also isn’t Hermetic), or perhaps the goddess Cybele (what connections that might have with Hermeticism is beyond me).  The only two Greek words that are extant that bear similarity to “Kybalion” are κυβαλικος (like a rascal, knave, or rogue) and κιβδηλος (fraud, counterfeit)—both of which are fitting, I suppose, for this text.

Let me clarify something, I suppose.  When I refer to “the Hermetic canon”, I refer primarily to the source texts of Hermeticism attributed to Hermēs Trismegistus written in the classical period (between 100 and 700 CE) that all Hermetic philosophy, theology, cosmology, and practices descend from.  These texts are largely broken down into two categories, the philosophical Hermetica and the technical Hermetica.  The technical Hermetica consist of a truly wide variety of texts, ranging from astrology and (proto-)alchemy to medicine and scribecraft and everything in-between; the Greek, Demotic, and Coptic Magical Papyri are good examples of this, though not all of those would necessarily qualify as “technical Hermetica”.  On the other hand, the philosophical Hermetica consists of, well, more philosophical, spiritual, and devotional texts, the most famous of which is the Corpus Hermeticum, the first book of which is sometimes taken to be the title of the whole thing: “The Divine Pymander” (or whatever variant spelling of Poimandrēs one wants to take).  When people ask about resources for the philosophical Hermetica in modern English, I typically share the same list of resources:

There are, to be sure, other translations of these texts, especially of the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius, but I find Copenhaver’s and Salaman’s to be the best currently out there.  Salaman’s translation is a little easier and smoother to read, though he makes more editorial and translator’s decisions for the sake of an easy read; Copenhaver is more critical and exact, which is better for study and comparison.  Salaman’s “Way of Hermes” is excellent for the translation of the Definitions alone, and Litwa’s text (though unfortunately rather pricey) is a fantastic resource on so much of the “miscellaneous philosophical Hermetica” that covers at least as much ground as the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius do themselves—to say nothing about the Korē Kosmou, which itself is part of the Stobaean Fragments.  I’m sure there will be future translations coming out, too, especially one rumored by Christian Bull whose works on Hermetic philosophy are priceless to us in the modern day—to say nothing about the extreme hope we have for other Hermetic texts to be discovered that we’ve otherwise lost over the passage of time—but for now, these are what I stick with.  These collectively form my starting point for Hermetic philosophy and, more generally, the “way of Hermēs”, which is perhaps a better way to understand the material given in the philosophical Hermetica.  But I claim that these are the starting point, or should be the starting point, for anyone and anything that claims to be Hermetic—else, if what you’re doing or writing about has no connection to nor root from Hermēs Trismegistus, what sense does it make to call it Hermetic?

It’s true that I am limiting myself in my own personal selection of “the Hermetic canon”, with my own cutoff point being the Emerald Tablet (which, I should note, only first appears in Arabic between the 500s and 700s CE); it’s not like people just forgot about Hermēs Trismegistus after the fall of the Roman Empire.  Far from it!  Although the tradition of the philosophical Hermetica may have fallen by the wayside, the tradition of technical Hermetica lived on strong, especially in the fields of astrology and alchemy (though theurgy and other spiritual works, at that point, were either taken over by other religious systems or just outright quashed as a form of heresy and paganism).  However, that’s not where my focus lies: between my personal focus on the philosophical and contemplative side of things, as well as the fact that after the Emerald Tablet so much of Hermetic literature gets mixed up with other religious and spiritual traditions, it gets harder and harder to make out a firm outline of Hermetic content like we could in earlier texts.  While they’re still valuable as part of the Hermetic tradition, we do start to see branching-off into various kinds of “Hermeticisms”, leading to such wide-ranging differences in the term such as the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” or Franz Bardon’s famous “Introduction to Hermetics”.  Easier and clearer for me, at least, to consider the original texts that they all come from before this branching-off as the root that we can all at least agree on are Hermetic.  And if something outright builds up a radically different framework and cosmology and philosophy that either doesn’t talk about what those texts does, contradicts it constantly, or talks about things that the original texts didn’t care to discuss or outright said was a distraction, can that really be called Hermetic?  No—which is why I claim that the Kybalion isn’t a Hermetic text.

But you know what?  It is true that there are a variety of Hermeticisms around nowadays, and that Hermēs (whether as Maiados or as Trismegistos) is a pretty promiscuous character.  It’s not at all beyond the pale to consider Hermeticism to have “sects”, much as Christianity or Islam, and while all these Hermetic sects may trace or claim some origin with Hermēs Trismegistus as the prophet-sage-teacher-god-hero-initiator that resulted from Hellenicizing the Egyptian Thoth and Egyptianizing the Greek Hermēs, let’s be honest: so many of these sects and groups that claim the label of “Hermetic” can often be so far away that they’re anything but.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, it’s like how many Mormons call themselves Christian online without every having read the actual Bible and only swearing by the Book of Mormon: sure, I guess it’s derived from Christianity and does claim Jesus Christ as the (or a) central figure, but it’s so far removed from the rest of Christianity that it may as well just be its own thing.  I mean, it’s not uncommon that I have to explain that, no, I have no connection to the Golden Dawn and that my magic is not derived from or influenced by them, yet the Golden Dawn is the first thing that pops into their mind when they hear the word “Hermetic”.  It’s good marketing, I suppose—which is the most likely reason why the Kybalion tried to claim that title for itself so as to sell more copies and spread the word of New Thought further—but considering the depth and breadth of Hermeticism outside the Golden Dawn, to simply think of Hermeticism as Renaissance-derived Rosicrucian blends of Solomonic magic and (very distantly-derived) Jewish mysticism with Egyptian window-dressing in a Freemasonry lodge structure is…pretty far off the mark, if you ask me.

So, okay.  If people want to claim that I’m not Hermetic because I don’t like and discourage people from reading the Kybalion?  Alright, sure.  Though I’d rather they stop using the term Hermetic when they’re not discussing anything of the sort, sure, I’ll drop the label first.  From now on, I won’t call myself a Hermeticist except in the extremely broadest sense of meaning “something to do with Hermēs Trismegistus” (whether legitimately or spuriously, because words do have meaning after all), and for anything more specific, I’m going to adopt the label of “Hermetist” for myself, and “Hermetism” for what it is I study.

Hermetist, Hermetism?  These are terms I find in academic literature discussing the classical Hermetic texts over and over, and although some do use “Hermetic” and “Hermeticism”, there’s a subtle distinction being made here.  The bulk of modern academia is, as ever, focused on distancing itself from the occult, spiritual, magical, and anything considered “woo”, for better or for worse (though there are increasingly more and more researchers and writers and professors who don’t care about that, especially once they get tenure).  Because the word “Hermetic” is fraught with magical tension, they often use the term “Hermeticism” to refer to post-classical alchemical and magical texts and orders, and “Hermetism” to refer to the actual texts, traditions, and groups that we know had weight as being written and taught by Hermēs Trismegistus.  In that sense, the Corpus Hermeticum is (or ought to be) a text of both the Hermetist and Hermeticist, while the unrelated texts of the e.g. Ordo Aurum Solis would be more for the Hermeticist.  All of this would be considered Hermetic (as that is the proper adjective to use for things pertaining to Hermēs Trismegistus, as opposed to “Hermaic”, which is more for the god Hermēs himself apart and away from the other trappings), but as far as the path, framework, and the rest is concerned, there’s quite a gulf that separates Hermetism from Hermeticism more broadly, indeed.

I know there are some people who get upset at someone deciding to label themselves, because waaah limits or waaah you’re cutting yourself off from the truth or waaah why can’t we all get along or something.  But you know what?  Labels are words, and anyone who has any knowledge of Egyptian models of magic is that words are power, whether written or spoken, because words have meaning.  If people want to insist that something that claims to be Hermetic isn’t Hermetic even after there being abundant and well-agreed-upon evidence, like the Kybalion, or want to use the word “Hermetic” to describe something that has evolved and shifted so far away from its Hermetic roots that there’s no clear connection or silhouette between the two anymore?  Okay, fine.  Then what those people are doing isn’t what I’m doing, and there are clearly more of them than me out there, and a distinction in terminology is called for with good reason and impetus.  I’m aware that the Hermeticism/Hermetism distinction is not well-understood yet, hence this post being written: perhaps those who see such a distinction and agree with it can take the word on as well, and get on with our practice and lives without being dragged down by people who don’t care much for such trifling things such as coherence, cohesion, or correctness in the choice of words we use to describe things or in the worldviews and spiritual frameworks we apply ourselves in.  No shame nor shade to those who prefer a more Hermeticist than Hermetist path, as I know a good deal of people who do good work in modern Hermeticist traditions, but they aren’t doing what I’m doing, and perhaps that needs to be made more clear.

So, yeah.  As a follower on the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus, taking the classical philosophical Hermetica as the backbone of my cosmology and the classical technical Hermetica as the (ever-widening, ever-deepening) foundation of my magical practices?  I’m a Hermetist in the practice and ideology of Hermetism, and those are the terms I’m going to use from here on out.  This isn’t to say that I’m disavowing anything that came after the classical period or that more modern Hermeticist stuff is worthless or pointless—the Trithemian rite of conjuration is still excellent, to be sure, and I have a number of other practices that have origins in a number of other time periods—but as far as I consider myself and the core of my practices, I’m a Hermetist.

May as well save some of my own breath, even with that one syllable removed, given how much others waste theirs.

EDIT: Another friend of mine on Twitter reports that there was no term “Hermetic” or “Hermeticist” or even “Hermetist” used as such back in classical times as a distinct label for people who also followed the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus, but “Trismegistici” or “Τρισμεγιστικοι”, as opposed to Ερμαιοι or Ερμετικοι.  This would make the modern term for them “Trismegistist” and the adjective form “Trismegistic”, although “Trismegist” sounds a bit nicer, I have to admit.  It’s so pomous and immodest, but yanno what?  I do kinda like it, even if it a bit more obscure and opaque than “Hermetist” would be.  So there’s another option for terminology: Trismegistism, Trismegistic, Trismegist(-ist).  Or, as she later suggested, “Altrismegest” in a not-so-subtle nod to the Almagest, which I have to admit makes me melt a little inside.

9 responses

  1. Could you please explain to me why you feel Stephen Flowers’ “Hermetic Magic” is ‘such a dreadful text’? I have it on my shelf but I have yet to read it.

    • Stephen Flowers, although he uses good sources, mixes and matches them in a thoroughly modern way (which, to be fair, he does say that it is a “post-modern book”), while also laying on thick his own abstract interpretation of what was going on back then to the point of making it an alternate universe. A good example of this is to consider the following quote from Kieren Barry, author of “The Greek Qabalah” (which is an excellent text indeed), with an emphasis on the last note there:

      “On the evidence we have seen, it is plainly incorrect to state that there are only a few correspondences to the letters of the Greek alphabet along the lines of those found much later in the Hebrew Qabalah.* It is also anachronistic, as well as completely pointless, to attempt to project Hebrew Qabalistic symbolism onto the Greek alphabet, or to imagine anything so historically impossible as an ‘Alexandrian Tree of Life,’ as has been done.*…

      * (48) See for example, S. Flowers, Hermetic Magic (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1995), a forgettable mixture of historical fact and personal fantasy.(chapter 6, “The Greek Qabalah”, Kieren Barry, 1999)”

      Having begun more and more of my own research into the PGM and contemporaneous spiritual, religious, and occult movements and cultures at the time, I’m inclined to agree with Barry. Flowers is known time and time again in a number of books (including under his other published name, Edred Thorsson) to simply mix fact and fiction without saying what’s what, blending new age concepts with historically extant ones and trying to mask what’s not real by what is. This is all on top of his racism and extremely problematic stances and associations he routinely makes in the more xenophobic/homophobic far right wings of the Heathen community—which isn’t a condemnation of Heathenry, by far, but just of Flowers/Thorsson.

      For a better easy-to-digest introduction to PGM magic, I’d recommend instead Tony Mierzwicki’s “Graeco-Egyptian Magick”.

      • I already had those books on my list, but I’ll prioritize Tony Mierzwicki’s “Graeco-Egyptian Magick”. Thank you so much for your insight. I have another Flowers book on Hermeticism, but I’ll go about reading it and the other book, along with any others I may have forgotten that I have, with a large pound of salt.

  2. Pingback: Notes on Corpus Hermeticum I: Poimandres | Hermetic Wanderings

  3. Out of curiousity what’s wrong with Stephen Flowers’ book? I haven’t read it but it always seemed interesting to me (if only because there aren’t many modern books on the PGM)

  4. As a fellow hermetist (or Trismegist) I agree with you. Both in what is considered what is hermetic and what is not, and in the various terms that are being used.

    People without knowledge can be blamed. But I also blame Hermes. He decided to be everything – a man, a myth, a god, the Divine Nous, living in the material world, in the Imagination, in the Divine world – that he has influenced so much.

    For example, one could say that any informative work using words is hermetic (or thothic) as all knowledge, wisdom, writing flows through him.

    But that is semantics. As a fellow-Trismegist I also ‘limit’ myself to the authentic sources. So, no the Kybalion is not hermetic. :)

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  6. Pingback: The Difficulty of Centralizing the Way of Hermēs « The Digital Ambler

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