The Reed-Pen of Hermēs

Lately, I’ve been going through one of those times where I’ve been reviewing the old stuff I’ve written, drawn, doodled, and talked about.  It’s part and parcel of that “quiet cycle” I periodically go through, so it’s nothing new, and God and gods know that I’ve got plenty of loose ends or dead ends lying around that could use repurposing or reinspection.  In the course of making my rounds through my files and old posts here and elsewhere, I came across this little thing I made in Illustrator one day when I was playing around with symbols:

I made it last summer when trying to come up with an icon, glyph, or general symbol for my own brand and interpretation of classical Hermeticism, grounded as it is in the classical Hermetic corpora and the various magical and mystic practices of late Ptolemaic and early Roman Imperial Hellenistic Egypt.  I shared it on Twitter at the time, and it sparked some neat discussions (and some rather spooky reactions) from people, and I sorta left it at that.  Since I haven’t really been doing much new stuff as of late, this little glyph was made and shelved for another time.  As I’m reviewing some of my older stuff, though, I figured I may as well dust this off and share it on my website for others to consider, and to more publicly flesh out some of the elements and symbolism of this thing.

The construction of this glyph (we’ll talk about a name for it later) is simple: using a downwards-pointing equilateral triangle as a “stencil” of sorts, draw out horizontal lines across it at its base, at one-third of the way down, and at two-thirds of the way down, with a vertical line bisecting them all from the base to the point.  Draw a circle tangent to and centered on the base with a radius equal to one third of the base, and draw a point at the circle’s center.  Add a few serifs to the horizontal and vertical lines if desired for decorative purposes, and with that, the glyph is constructed.

I’m sure many of my readers can pick out a few graphical similarities or borrowings from other symbols, but what I had in mind when I was constructing this glyph was the following:

  • Ankh
    • The quintessential Egyptian hieroglyph to represent life, especially eternal or immortal life
    • Also associated with mirrors and floral bouquets, given that they were spelled with the same consonants in Egyptian
    • Preserved in Coptic Christianity as the crux ansata, reminiscent of the tau-rho (staurogram) abbreviation for the word σταυρός “cross”
    • Also reminiscent of the modern planetary glyph for Venus, also a planet of life and fertility and one I associate with the element of Water
  • Djed pillar
    • The sacred tree of life, crafting, and creation
    • Together with the ankh, the scepter of Ptah
    • The spine of Osiris, a pillar-like symbol representing stability
      • Used as an amulet for the dead to ensure their reanimation, resurrection, and immortality
    • Form derived here via the Phoenician samekh, origin for and similar to the archaic form of the Greek letter ksi (Ξ)
      • I associate this letter (using its stoicheia) with the element of Water
      • If this is broken down further into its constituent sounds, this yields kappa + sigma + iōta, which I stoicheically associate respectively with Leo, Aquarius, and the Sun, the two zodiac signs here being the domicile and detriment of the Sun
  • Circle of the Monad
    • Also the Egyptian hieroglyph and the modern planetary glyph for the Sun
    • Also reminiscent of an ever-watchful, ever-waking Eye of God
  • Seven points at the ends of the horizontal and vertical lines:
    • The seven planets (Moon and Sun, Saturn and Jupiter, Venus and Mars, Mercury) and their according energies/blessings/tormentors
    • The seven lesser mercies of God from CH XIII (knowledge, joy, self-control, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth)
  • Three horizontal bars:
    • The three worlds/gods (God, Cosmos, Humanity)
    • The three titles of God (the Good, the Maker, the Father)
    • The thrice-greatness of Hermēs (priest, king, philosopher)
    • The three Hermetic arts (astrology, alchemy, theurgy)
    • The three students of Hermēs (Tat, Asklēpios, Ammōn)
    • The three generations of teachers (Poimandrēs, Hermēs, Hermēs’ students)
    • The three origins of Poimandrēs (Thōth as the mind of Rē, Pharaoh Amenemhet III, Agathos Daimōn/Šai)
    • The three levels of celestial objects (decans, zodiac signs, planets)
    • The three kinds of stars (fixed, luminary wandering, non-luminary wandering)
    • The three arranging principles of existence (Providence, Necessity, Fate)
    • The three greater mercies of God from CH XIII (Life, Light, the Good)

The use of a downwards-pointing triangle to construct the lengths of the horizontal bars was intentional.  For one, the use of a triangle gives this a slight hint of the presence of the ten-pointed Tetractys (albeit pointing downwards), but when I was constructing the glyph, I tried this originally with three equal-length bars.  Frankly, that looked boring and overly stable to the point of stagnant; using bars whose lengths decrease from top to bottom in the shape of a triangle gives the glyph a greater feeling of dynamism.  Additionally, the ratios of the lengths of the horizontal bars lead the eye downward to its bottommost point, but due to the presence of the dotted circle at the top, there’s a particular tension; as others have noted in the original Twitter thread where I shared the glyph, the dotted circle at the top holds the gaze stronger though the eye wants to look downward.  This tension, as some have noted, gives a sort of “as above so below” feel, but also gives people a somewhat disconcerting, wyrd, or even unsettling feel; one person even said that the glyph seems to “want things”, which I found fascinating.

I also tried a variant of the glyph with the central dot removed from the top circle, too, just to see how some of the people engaged in this conversation would also react to that.  While some found it less “confrontational”, they registered the open, empty circle as more of a portal than an eye, and also with more venerial than solar symbolism, which seemed to clash with the overall vibe of the glyph.  I decided to just keep the dot in the eye. Besides, the dot in the circle really does makes the top read more clearly as the Sun, which is nice for the Hermetic  vibes I’m going for regarding Nous/One/Monad vibes.Someone else, in another part of the conversation, noted how the three horizontal bars with the vertical line connecting them was reminiscent of the Bahá’í Ringstone symbol, where the three bars represent (from top to bottom) the world of God, the Manifestations of God and the world of revelation, and the world of humanity, with the vertical line connecting them being the holy spirit of God descending from its own world to that of humanity through the Manifestations.  This wasn’t my intent, but it is something neat to note in the similarity of structure and symbolism.

Anyway, getting back to the glyph I created, I really am fond of this symbol.  It’s no replacement for my own personal glyph (which I use as an icon for pretty much every account on every platform I’m on, and is even seen as the logo of my website), but I do like using (or at least thinking about) this glyph as a representation of my own brand of classical Hermeticism (or, to be more strict with the term, Hermetism).  Even though the glyph is largely a kind of cross, the term “Hermetic Cross” is unfortunately already a somewhat confusing term.  For most people, I would think this term is used to refer to the Rose Cross of the Golden Dawn.

However, at other times, the phrase is also used to refer to the so-called “Cross of Hermes”, which…well, my first thought about this symbol is that this it was originally a printer’s mark used during the English Renaissance in alchemical or occult texts—and it turns out that there are many such variants of this that were indeed used as printer’s marks for various printers!  Despite the claims that this is a combination of symbols to represent a fourfold nature of creation with the maxim “as above so below”, when I went to consult my alchemical symbol dictionary, I also was able to break it down into one of the alchemical symbols for borax (the 4 with the cross on the right-hand bar) atop the alchemical symbol for alembic/distillation flask/still (the upright and inverted V symbols overlapping), which was also one of the symbols also used for glass (and I note specifically that borax was and is used in the making of glass).  Though the printer’s mark theory is far more believable, it can’t be denied that Hermeticism and alchemy were especially close in Europe for centuries, so it’s little surprise that people might have mistaken printers’ marks for alchemical symbols or otherwise conflated the two.  Besides, as the link above to Fameorshame Press’s website says, the use of the glyph for 4 in the four-and-orb style of printer marks was often thought of as being associated with Hermēs being the god of scribes, tradesmen, merchants, and travelers, so there is some connection there, however faint.

Either way, I didn’t want to use the term “Hermetic cross” to refer to this glyph I made to represent my own brand of classical Hermeticism, and I wanted to stay away from anything involving calling it a “tree” or “pillar” (both of which are reasonable terms given the djed-symbolism of it, but which have also been taken over by Golden Dawn and modern Western European qabbalistic stuff as well in this case.  Calling it a “Hermetic staff” or a “staff of Hermēs” would be somewhat conflicting with the notion of the kērukeion/caduceus, the winged-and-serpented herald’s staff of Hermēs in Hellenic imagery, though it is true that the overall shape of this glyph can also be considered a highly stylized, simplified image of the same thing.  But, perhaps taking a clue from Alan Moore’s Promethea comic series, considering how the protagonist used her very pen and art of poetry to transform it into a caduceus and herself into the eponymous heroine, perhaps I could call this symbol the “Pen of Hermēs” or “Reed-Pen of Hermēs”, which recalls more of the reed-pen of Thōth than the herald-staff of the son of Zeus Maia, and perhaps rings more closely to the Hermēs Trismegistos of the classical Hermetic tradition.  Alternatively, still keeping to this idea and also reinforcing the grander symbolism behind this, perhaps a grander name for this symbol could be the “Reed-Scepter of Hermēs” (much how the ankh, djed, was, or other types of scepters were used by the Egyptian gods in their iconography).  If I were to use another language for this, we might use the Greek term for reeds (and thus reed-pens) κάλαμος kalámos, or perhaps even the Coptic word ⲕⲁϣ kaš.

All of these terms, regardless of the language, would work well to my mind as a term for this symbol, but consider what the name implies for the symbol itself.  If we were to think of this symbol as a pen, then we have the ink flowing down from the top dotted circle (God) down through the words of the various teachers (Poimandres to Hermēs to his students) and down through the various levels of creation (from the sphere of the Father through the sphere of the Cosmos through the sphere of Humanity) down to a single point—which, if we consider the seven ends of the straight lines as the seven planets, that bottommost point is given to the planet Mercury as the balance and fulcrum of all the rest.  The ink would be Wisdom itself, flowing through the channel that links Mercury to the great spiritual Sun, held and guided by the hands of the various teachers from one generation to the next.  Not a bad way to consider the overall structure of the symbol, I suppose.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to use this glyph as a mere decorative thing.  Just as the Crucifix is a symbol to refer to Christianity while also being a potent mystical and meditative symbol that contains within it many mysteries for the Christian to dwell on, I keep thinking of that tension that holds the gaze up at the dotted circle at the top even though the gaze wants to be drawn downwards.  Holding the gaze at that dotted circle long enough, I get the same sense of the horizontal lines being an encouragement to lift up one’s gaze, in the same way that one holds a weight for a long duration, gravity and fatigue trying to get us to put the weight down but our own determination and will continuing to lift the weight up; the horizontal bars become less of a ladder that leads one down, and more arms that are held up in supplication towards the One above.  In thinking about this, I can’t help but think of the fiery sermon of book VII of the Corpus Hermeticum (emphasis in bold mine):

The vice of ignorance floods the whole earth and utterly destroys the soul shut up in the body, preventing it from anchoring in the havens of deliverance. Surely you will not sink in this great flood? Those of you who can will take the ebb and gain the haven of deliverance and anchor there. Then, seek a guide to take you by the hand and lead you to the portals of knowledge. There shines the light cleansed of darkness. There no one is drunk. All are sober and gaze with the heart toward one who wishes to be seen, who is neither heard nor spoken of, who is seen not with the eyes but with mind and heart.

In that struggle of keeping the gaze fixed above while it wants to be drawn downwards, is that not a good metaphor itself for our struggle as a whole?  To free ourselves from being fully trapped down here in this world of matter, caught up in the cycles of rebirth and reincarnation due to our errors of desire, fighting to free ourselves?  To resist the easy down-draw of drive and desire, of thumos and epithumia, and struggling to set our soul on its proper course upwards?  To constantly look upwards and inwards, not with the mere eyes of the body that can only see things perceptible but with the eyes of the mind and heart to see that which is intelligible?  The upwards-downwards tension in this glyph is emblematic of the very difficulty we walk on the Way of Hermēs, I think.  Perhaps, in learning how to resolve that tension fruitfully (and upwardly) through this glyph, we can learn how to resolve that parallel tension in our own lives—to tie this to the imagery of the Pen, we learn how to properly hold it with the proper balance and posture and flow, so that we can learn how to properly Write.  Write what, you might ask?  The wisdom of Hermēs, which is the wisdom of God, the “wisdom for the making known of the All” (as CH III.1 would have it), writing this in our own hearts and minds until we become filled with that same ink of wisdom to spread to others, connecting us back to the very Source of that same ink.

Next time I start digging around and playing around with Illustrator or Inkscape, I’ll probably pretty up the glyph a bit and see about turning into a higher-quality picture, and perhaps giving it a few meditative or contemplative tries here and there to see where it might take me.  As a few people noted in that Twitter conversation, it’s quite possible that this symbol wasn’t merely my own creation, but something needing to be made through me; it wouldn’t be the first time, to be sure, and perhaps there are even deeper mysteries lying in this thing than what I could pick out in that list of symbolisms above.  Perhaps others might give it a whirl, too, and let me know where they might end up.

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