Hermeticism FAQ: Part III, Doctrine

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I and part II here), let’s continue today with Part III, on the various doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of Hermeticism!

Is Hermeticism monotheistic, or is it polytheistic?

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Is Hermeticism pantheistic or panentheistic?

It is perhaps most accurate to describe Hermeticism as panentheistic, where God is both immanent within and throughout the cosmos as well as transcendent of it.  All things in this cosmos come from God, and God is visible throughout all of creation by means of God’s creatures; at the same time, God is also infinitely beyond the cosmos.  God, however, should not be equated with the cosmos, which is a strictly pantheistic (and not panentheistic) perspective.  Although one may understand all things that exist as existing within God, it should be remembered that God can only be known in a way that extends beyond and outside the cosmos; one must rise above and beyond the cosmos to get on God’s own level in order to know God, which is also how we return to our own origin, which also lies beyond the cosmos.

Is there a demiurge in Hermeticism?

Depending on the specific text, yes, Hermeticism does teach that while God is the ultimate creator of all things, God creates worldly, material things by means of a demiurge.  The word “demiurge” (dēmiourgos in Greek) literally means “craftsman” or “artisan”, and in Hermeticism is seen to fashion the material, sensible, and perceptible world in accordance with the reason and will of God.  This perspective of the demiurge should not be confused with the demiurge of gnostic teachings, which tends to consider the demiurge in a much more negative light, ignorant of God and thus considered “blind” or “stupid”.  No such association is made with the Hermetic demiurge, who is considered a representative of the will and reason of God and in our cosmos is represented by (or, depending on the text, literally present as) the Sun itself.

Is there fate or is there free will in Hermeticism?

Hermeticism is essentially deterministic, with notions of free will (as generally thought of on a mundane level) being an illusion, but there is some nuance to this stance in Hermeticism.  There is a sort of chain that makes Hermeticism deterministic: 

  1. The fundamental ruling principle in all things is the will of God, also called Providence.  As the will of God, this is what establishes the high-level notions of what things are to be.
  2. Necessity, as a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the logical consequences and ramifications of Providence.
  3. Fate, as a “servant” of Necessity as Necessity is a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the sequence of things that happen (and which must happen, either according to Necessity or to Providence).
  4. The powers of the stars, both the seven planets as well as the myriad fixed stars, facilitate Fate upon the things that exist in the world below from the directives of Fate above.

This is one of the reasons why the study of astrology is important for Hermeticism, since—as the study of the planets and stars—grants us insight into Fate and, thus, the very will of God.  It should be noted, however, that things only apply in the domains upon which they bear; thus, Fate only applies to the cosmos (and, more specifically, our material world).  Because of this limitation on Fate, it is proper to say that Hermeticism is only deterministic within the realm of the cosmos; beyond it, other rules apply.  That distinction of determinism or lack thereof between the encosmic and hypercosmic realms becomes important once one understands the nature of and the relationship between the soul and the body, and what the goal of the Way of Hermēs is.

What exactly is the soul in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The existence of the soul is taken for granted in Hermeticism, and is one part of the dualistic understanding of what a human consists of: a material, mortal body and an immaterial, immortal soul.  Of these two parts, it is the soul that is held to be the “true” human, the essence of a human being, and is made in the image of God as God’s own child (and can be considered a sibling to the Demiurge and the cosmos itself).  Being created directly by God and, thus, not as a product of the cosmos, the soul is essentially above Fate.

What exactly is the body in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The body is the material, mortal component of a human being, housing and being animated by the immaterial, immortal soul.  Unlike the soul, which has its origins directly in God and is made as an image of God, the body is a creation of the cosmos and is made as an image of the soul.  Because the body is a creation of the cosmos, the body is subject to Fate.  Unlike the soul, which provides its own “energy” and will, the body is driven by two energies: that of drive (thumos, the emotional and passion-based desires of the body-generated ego) and desire (epithumia, the physical needs and appetites of the body).

What is the relationship between the soul and the body?

The essential human, being soul and thus being immaterial, cannot directly interact with a material cosmos without a material body, which is why the soul is housed in the body, and the connection between soul and body is facilitated by means of spirit (pneuma, literally “breath” but also with connotation of the subtle powers of air in general).  Although the soul is nominally the master of the body, the body can sometimes overpower the soul if the drive and desire of the body is stronger than the intentions and will of the soul itself; because drive and desire are bodily, and because the body is subject to Fate, the overpowering of the soul by drive and desire thus afflicts the soul with Fate.  Even though the soul comes from a realm beyond the cosmos and is thus not necessarily subject to Fate, it can still be influenced and impacted by Fate due to the body, especially when the body is stronger than the soul that it houses.  It is part of the way of Hermēs to learn how to tame the drive and desire of the body so that they remain in service to the soul and not the other way around, thus minimizing the impact of Fate upon the soul and freeing the soul to act how it needs to.

Is there reincarnation in Hermeticism, or is there a Heaven and Hell, or other afterlife?

Reincarnation of the soul into different bodies is generally held to be the case in Hermeticism, at least up until the point where the soul is able to break free of the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the cosmos and rejoin with its origin in God beyond the cosmos.  This does not mean that incarnation is a punishment, but it is where we are all the same.  The bulk of Hermetic texts agree that the reincarnation of the human soul only occurs in human bodies, even if one’s conduct in their previous life can determine the quality of the next.  There is a strong similarity between these Hermetic notions and the doctrines of saṃsāra and mokṣa in Vedic religions like Hinduism.  There is no notion of a generic neutral afterlife of shadehood, like Haidēs for the Hellenes or Sheol for the Jews.  In most texts, likewise, there is no notion of a hell for sinners as in Christianity, although some texts like the Perfect Sermon do describe a punishment for souls who are unconditionally “stained with evil”, so it appears that this doctrine was being developed in later texts or which was added onto Hermeticism from outside sources, and is not generally common or a universally-held belief.

Why are we here to begin with?

It is difficult to question the reason behind the creation of God, but the explanation for humanity’s creation and incarnation is that God created the cosmos and thought it beautiful, since it was made according to the will of God and, thus, in an image of God.  In order to fully celebrate the creation of the cosmos, God also created humans, also in the image of God (but in a different way than the cosmos was created), so as to engage with, understand, and adore the creation of God that was the cosmos.  However, creating humans as immaterial soul alone was not enough for them to fully engage with the material cosmos, and so bodies were created to house the soul so as to fully immerse the human soul in creation as a human being consisting of both body (so as to interact with the cosmos) and soul (so as to know and comprehend the cosmos as a creation of God).  The problems begin to arise when we misunderstand the proper relationship between the soul and the body, or between humanity, the cosmos, and God; when this relationship is imbalance or misunderstood, we begin to depart from our original tasks and forget what it is we’re supposed to do and become while down here.  This is part of the goal and aim of the Way of Hermēs: to remember our divine origin, to remember what we truly are, and to fully engage in the work of creation as is right and proper for us, but only as is right and proper for us.

What exactly is gnōsis in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The Greek word gnōsis literally means “knowledge” in English, but this is more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept.  In the Way of Hermēs, gnōsis is more the experiential, non-discursive knowledge of something true; it is not something that can just be arrived at through discourse or logical proofs (what might be called logos in Greek), nor something that is simply taught and believed (what might be called epistēmē).  Rather, gnōsis is more akin to a “divine revelation”, and the experience of gnōsis is something Hermeticists aim for achieving—usually multiple times.  The proper way to approach gnōsis (as evidenced in the Hermetic texts where such experiences are described) is one of care, through preparation and purification ahead of time and by means of unpacking and analysis afterwards, so as to properly integrate the experience and meaning of such an experience of gnōsis without misinterpreting it or going crazy because of it.  It is thus beyond mere insight or a hunch, and closer to a literal inspiration in the soul by God itself.

What exactly is nous in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

Nous is the Greek word for “mind”, but this is not to be understood as what we generally or conventionally understood as our day-to-day thinking mind of thoughts and imagination.  As a technical term in Hermeticism, nous refers to a sort of divine awareness, the faculty that allows one to achieve gnōsis.  The specific nature of nous is not always clear in the Hermetic texts, and some Hermetic texts tend to describe it differently from others; as such, it is not clear whether nous is something external to the soul and “added onto/into” worthy souls that lack it and seek it, or whether it is simply a faculty preexistent in the soul but which lies dormant until awakened.  Either way, not all people have access to nous, and realizing that access (and the potential gnōsis it permits) is an early part of the Way of Hermēs.

Why is the cosmos described as “evil”?

Although the words “good” and “evil” are bandied about in the Hermetic texts, it’s important to remember that these were, for the most part, used in a philosophical sense and not a moral sense (although the moral senses of the words come about from the philosophical senses). Suffice it to say that the Good, as a philosophical concept, is equated with God, and anything that is not God is thus not Good; as a result, anything that is created by God is not Good, but because all things are in Good, all things are likewise in (or participate in) the Good. This can be expanded to notions of being able to be moved by passion, change, corruption, or the like, which are all discussed in the Hermetic texts, but this is the simple notion; thus, evil is just “not Good”.  When extended to morality, things are morally good if they draw one closer to God, and evil if they do not.  A single act done by one person may be morally good for them, depending on their fate and whether or not they do that thing in accordance with fate and with the awareness that nous confers, while that same act may be morally evil for another depending on their fate and awareness (or the lack thereof) that nous confers.  It can be a tricky subject to tackle at times, but in general, the more we align ourselves to act in accordance with our fate in this world and with the will of God directing our souls, the more good we do, since that is what helps us reach closer to the good.

Why did God create evil or allow it to exist?

It’s fair to give God in the Hermetic texts the usual “all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful” description according to the usual arguments of theodicy, but we also need to give God the descriptor “all-rational”, too; in that light, this is the best of all possible worlds, and all things that exist and happen do so according to the will of God (remember the Providence-Necessity-Fate chain described before).  Evil, in this light, doesn’t exist except as an illusion of duality, and the same generative and change-based processes that produce “evil” in the cosmos also purge the cosmos of that same “evil”.  Suffering, likewise, only exists as an artifact of sensation and ignorance, and it too is liable and obligated to pass away from existence just as much (and just as fast) as it passes into existence.  In this, moral evil and suffering exist as part and parcel of the cosmos in which we live just as much as moral good and pleasure, because both are part of the same overall creation, and the existence of one logically necessitates the existence of the other.  By coming to understand the processes of the cosmos, we also understand the nature of things and how they impact us, whether for weal or for woe; similarly, by coming to better understand the cosmos and our place in it, we also learn the means of rising above and beyond the cosmos, and thus away from suffering and closer to the peace of divinity.

In Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, it says something weird about having children and how those who don’t have children are cursed. Um…?

This part has caught a number of people off-guard, seemingly out of place when it comes to Hermetic discussions, as it seems to imply a sort of divine retribution for not rearing children.  After all, not all people are willing or able to bear or raise children, sometimes for very good reasons (e.g. lack of means) and other times for reasons outside their control (e.g. infertility).  That being said, in order to maintain the good ordering of the cosmos, humanity is enjoined to continue reproducing itself, which Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum interprets to place a moral obligation on individuals to continue that work of reproduction and the continuation of the human race.  This text can just as much be said to apply to physical children as well as to spiritual children; thus, those who can manage to “increase by increasing and multiply by multiplying”, whether by having children of one’s own or by supporting the children of others, or by giving the gift of spiritual birth to those who seek the Way of Hermēs (since the spiritual womb that all have is used as a metaphor in several Hermetic texts) are all valid ways to fulfill this sort of obligation.  Further, one can also interpret this injunction to have children even more generally by interpreting all acts of creation to be one’s children, including the development of medicine, the cultivation of plants, the generation of art, the ensoulment of statues and talismans, the production of invention, and so forth; all of these are just as valid ways to engage in the work of creation in addition to bearing and raising children.

What about the Seven Hermetic Principles/Laws?

This is just more stuff from The Kybalion, and has no meaningful bearing on the study of Hermeticism.  Unless you’re actively engaged with The Kybalion as a self-help book, all they’re good for is getting more clicks on YouTube for badly-overdone video shorts on what miserably passes for “content” nowadays.

Something something gender?

We really don’t need any more bad or historical cis takes in spirituality at this point.  Besides the fact that the oft-vaunted “principle of gender” is nothing more than more tripe from The Kybalion, there’s also nothing—zero, zip, zilch, nada—in Hermeticism that teaches about any divine or essential notion of masculinity or femininity.  Rather, God is explicitly androgyne (which, in classical terms, is also equivalent to saying “genderless”), and as the essential human (i.e. the soul) is made in the image of God, so too is the essential human also androgyne (or genderless).  Even the original humans were considered to be bimorphic, consisting of both genders (in much the same way as Aristophanēs’ story regarding the origin of love in Plato’s Symposium) before they were split into distinct genders.  Gender only comes about in terms of physical bodies for the explicit and sole purpose of biological reproduction, and otherwise has no bearing on any Hermetic teaching or practice.  While some might find the notion of spiritual or divine gender comfortable or useful for their models of cosmology and theology, there is no such notion in Hermeticism, nor is one needed in order to make sense of the cosmos, of divinity, or of ourselves from a Hermetic standpoint.  If there is any indication at all regarding gender in Hermeticism, even when it comes down to the physical level, it is that they are to be held equal in power and ability, just with distinct roles to play in a small handful of acts related to procreation.

What about the role of women in Hermeticism?

It is true that the vast majority of Hermetic texts involve male characters, or characters which are grammatically described as male in the original Greek, Latin, or Coptic language: Hermēs Trismegistos, Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn, Osiris, Poimandrēs, and the like.  The only woman who appears is Isis in the Korē Kosmou texts, where she appears as the mentor and instructor of Hōros taking on the same role that Hermēs did for his students.  The dearth of women in the Hermetic dialogs can be attributed largely to the culturally male-dominant milieu in which the Hermetic texts (and, for that matter, the vast majority of religious and philosophical texts of the time) were written, but this should not be construed to say that the absence of women is indicative of anything significant.  As mentioned earlier, neither sex nor gender have any role to play on any level except that of biological procreation; in all other respects, both in this world and in any other, women are just as important, valid, necessary, and powerful as men, because there is no fundamental distinction between them that matters on any level beyond the merely physical, and that for one concern only.  

What about the disagreements in doctrine amongst the Hermetic texts themselves?

It is true that not all the Hermetic texts agree on all details or on all points; after all, they were written by different teachers across several hundred years with varying influences, even if they all agreed on the same high-level things and participated in the same fundamental cultural, social, religious, and philosophical environment.  Sometimes this is a case where different teachers started with the same set of premises, but used different logical arguments or different perspectives to end up at different conclusions; other times, different fundamental premises were used that led to different conclusions, even if the overall logic was the same.  In some cases, different things were taught to students at different times, such as a simpler and more general model for beginner students but more complicated models with unexpected outcomes for more advanced students who are already comfortable with the general models; in other cases, one teacher’s takeaway from a mystic vision leads them to have information and conclusions that fundamentally change their perception of a particular teaching.  It is a fool’s errand to try to get all the different and differing points of doctrine in the Hermetic texts to agree with each other completely, even if they can be said to agree generally; these differences should be understood for what they are.  Such inconsistencies do not mean that Hermeticism is a fundamentally flawed form of mysticism, but that there is a wide variety of ways to perceive, reckon, and approach the cosmos and divinity even within the same overall milieu.

Did Hermetic doctrines or beliefs change over time?

To be sure, Hermeticism is not something necessarily fixed in time, as it continued to evolve through the millennia across several continents, adapting and adopting other beliefs and practices for its own ends just as much as it was adapted and adopted by other beliefs and practices for theirs. That being said, to trace the specific growth and evolution of Hermeticism through all these circumstances can be difficult.  As a result, such doctrines and beliefs definitely underwent change, but not all such changes were done in a way that furthered the logic of Hermeticism, and some such changes ended up causing even more difference or disagreement in doctrine than what was there previously, especially if it meant Hermeticism could be made more tolerable to otherwise intolerant religious communities or authorities.  Unless one is specifically focusing on a particular post-classical era or context in which Hermetic doctrines were present in some form or another, it is recommended to always draw things back to their origins and compare against the original fundamental Hermetic texts to get a better idea of what changed, how it changed, why it changed, and whether it is in accord with the original logic and goals of the Way of Hermēs.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic beliefs into Hermeticism?

It depends on the belief; if we use the classical Hermetic texts (the origin of the notion of “Hermeticism”) as a foundation to gauge the “Hermeticness” of something, then we can identify things that are compatible with Hermeticism and things that are incompatible with Hermeticism.  There’s a general rubric I like to recommend for things like this, whether or not such beliefs are modern:

  1. If a particular doctrine agrees with the doctrines of the Hermetic texts, both in means as well as in ends (i.e. they both end up at the same place and using the same road), then the thing can just be considered Hermetic as it is.
  2. If a particular doctrine does not agree with the Hermetic texts but does not disagree either (i.e. the Hermetic texts don’t talk about it at all and the logic of Hermeticism does not preclude it), then it can be used or adopted by Hermeticism within reasonable bounds, until extending such a doctrine begins to conflict with those of the Hermetic texts.
  3. If a particular doctrine disagrees with the Hermetic texts and relies on fundamentally conflicting assumptions, then it is not Hermetic, but may (with enough effort and changes) be altered or adapted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.

When discussing such doctrines that are added to or which extend the explicit doctrines of Hermeticism according to the Hermetic texts, it should be made clear what they are, why they are included, and whether and how much they agree with the explicit underlying doctrines or why they are permissible.  In other words, it is better to justify one’s approach in including such doctrines rather than simply adding them haphazardly in because one can.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 7

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 thirty-fifth definition, part VIII, number 7 of 7:

You do not have the power of becoming immortal; neither does, indeed, the immortal (have the power) of dying.  You can even become a god if you want, for it is possible.  Therefore want and understand and believe and love; then you have become (it)!

So the rest of this section of definitions has been building up a theme involving the power of Man: we are powerful, and have the power within ourselves as bestowed by God to stay in the world as mere animals or to transcend it as part of God.  It’s really all up to us; our actions, our thoughts, our opinions, our worship, our experiences all help us develop ourselves to perfection or inhibit our development.  In that sense, “man has as much power as the gods” (VIII.6); we have the power of choosing for ourselves (each and every one of us) mortal, material perdition or immortal, transcendent salvation.  Again, the whole goal of perfection and development according to the Definitions as a whole is knowledge of God, and by knowing God we come to know everything that exists and ourselves, and vice versa.

That said, keep in mind that despite all this power we’re entitled to have, we’re not omnipotent.  We’re still human, and therefore consist of body and soul; we’re dual-natured, which means we still have some sort of nature, and since we’re sensible, we are not purely intelligible as God is.  Our nature as humans is to die; we are mortal, after all, and the nature of things with material bodies is to die eventually.  Remember that “all beings cannot exceed their own capacity” and that “every being in this world has a nature” (VIII.1); we have our own nature that we cannot change.  Thus, even though we have the choice of choosing immortality for our souls, we “do not have the power of becoming immortal”.  To do so is simply not in our nature, and we cannot change our nature.  This natural law is something above destiny or choice, and while our nature is capable of possessing Nous, our nature is not capable of becoming a heavenly being, since human beings are not heavenly beings (owing to the different bodies, forms, and natures we possess).  Likewise, “neither does, indeed, the immortal have the power of dying”; it’s not in their nature to.  So it’s not just that we’re declined the power of changing natures, but everything is; whatever something is according to its nature, that is going to be how it will be for that being.

Despite that we cannot change our natures, we still have great power: “you can even become a god if you want”.  This may pose something of a problem, since we’re told at once that we cannot change our natures, and yet we can become divine.  Our nature as Man is to be human; this is understood.  We’re subject to natural law, the human condition, “quality and quantity as well as good and evil” (VII.4).  That said, it is also the nature of Man to be godly, if only we come to know God in the process, which we’re all capable of doing.  This is because we are made like God “after the species” (I.1), so whatever God is, we inherently are in a way apart from other living creatures.  But because of our twofold nature, this is complicated by the presence of the soul inhabiting the body.  We alone dwell in the sensible world and understand (or are capable of understanding) the intelligible world, and we alone dwell throughout and in all parts of the sensible world.  This is similar to how God exists throughout and in all parts of the intelligible world, which extends beyond the sensible world in all possible ways (IV.3, IV.4).  Thus, by becoming gods in our own right within God, we’re simply following our nature and expanding upon it into the fullness of knowledge that is the fullness of the world within God.

This is complicated, I know, since it seems contradictory.  Aren’t gods immortal?  Yes: gods, as heavenly beings such as those made of fire, do not die, the quality of being immortal.  However, Man dies, or more properly, the body of Man dies while the soul lives on in its own way.  We know that the soul is not so tightly coupled with the body that the soul perishes with the body (VI.2); rather, the soul leaves the body upon the body dying, and the soul leaves.  However, while the body requires the soul to move, the soul requires the body to develop.  If the body dies before the soul completes its development, it is “imperfect and lacks a body” (VI.3), but we don’t yet know what happens to remedy that.  If the soul requires the body to develop and it is made to leave the body before it can finish developing, then perhaps the soul returns to another body in a sort of reincarnation or transmigration; it hasn’t yet been said in the Definitions, but it’s also immaterial here.  The point is that the soul is immortal, as is the essence of Man, though the realization of Man as human beings is imperfect as all realizations of ideas are.  We are not just our bodies, and in a sense our bodies are not truly who or what we are, no more than any given pine tree is the idea of pine trees or the DNA of pine trees.

As humans with perfected souls, we are enjoined with God in perfect knowledge of God, which is in our nature, capability, and reason to do; this is what makes us gods in our own nature.  This is not just some grand, divine theological statement, but a practical one: “you can even become a god if you want, for it is possible”.  It is possible for us to perfect our souls; it doesn’t state when, how, or under what circumstances.  It’s possible for us no matter who, what, or where we are.  It’s possible for us, this very moment in each of our lives even, to perfect our soul.  Every moment that we have not perfected our souls or done what is necessary for perfection is one in which we’ve essentially chosen not to, since if we were to just listen to the urges of our souls, we would naturally come to perfection and therefore godhood (VII.3).  In a way, it’s almost Buddhist in its similarity to realization of one’s Buddha-nature; we just need to see through the inane material BS going on in our lives, wipe away the dirt and grime, and let the truth of our existence shine.

Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds.  Many people are entrenched in unreasonable words or living or choices, or are made to be so by others, and it’s hard for many of us to understand or even listen to our souls and its urgings to do the right thing for ourselves.  If it were easy, then we wouldn’t need Hermeticism or Christianity or Thelema or Buddhism or any other path; we’d just naturally do what comes to us.  But it’s in our nature to choose what we do, beyond what animals or heavenly beings do; this set of choices that faces us each and every moment can lead us to knowledge of God or away from knowledge of God.  But the fact remains that it’s possible to do the right thing for ourselves no matter who we are, so even in our present lives, we can attain perfection and, thus, godhood and godliness.

So what do we do?  Hermes gives four commands to us to guide us to perfection: “therefore want and understand and believe and love”.  By following these injunctions, we will “have become [gods]”.  So what do these four commands really tell us to do?

  • Want.  Many of our choices are fueled by what we like and what we don’t like, or what we fear and what we desire.  From our lizard brain to our emotional brain to our logical brain, all our choices are backed up by some sort of logic based on what we want to happen for ourselves.  If we are to perfect ourselves, we must want to perfect ourselves in every way, so that our entire body works in unison with what our soul wants.  Our soul wants perfection; we must consciously recognize that want, and similarly want it as well.  We have to consciously want perfection in order for us to obtain it.
  • Understand.  It’s all well and good to want perfection, but if we don’t know why we want something or how to accomplish it, then we’re going to be stranded at square one.  In order to properly want something, we need good logic behind it that appeals to our lizard, emotional, and rational brains.  These logical reasons must be reasonable; thus, we must employ Logos, reasonable speech, in ourselves and in our lives.  This helps us to understand ourselves and how we work, and likewise how we function across the entire world that we’ve inherited and possess.  By understanding ourselves, we understand the world, and vice versa; by understanding ourselves, we understand God, and vice versa; by coming to understand God, we perfect ourselves.  Thus, we must be completely aware of ourselves and our entire existence, both in and of the world, so as to be immanent within it and transcendent of it.
  • Believe.  There’s a lot of things in the cosmos that we cannot yet understand; this is natural, since it takes time for us to understand any one thing.  For instance, if you don’t understand the principle of heat, you won’t understand how cooking with heat changes food.  Likewise, until we understand the sensible world, we won’t understand the intelligible world, which is where truth really lies.  However, even if we don’t fully understand it, we can still believe in it.  Belief is where we hold something to be true without having reason for it yet; we must use reason to test that belief, and if it holds up to actually be true, then that belief becomes understandable knowledge.  Understanding little things helps us to believe larger things, even if we don’t yet fully understand the larger things.  This is especially true of that which is purely intelligible e.g. God, so we must believe in God and the intelligible for us to understand it.  Thus, we must believe things properly just as we must reason about things properly.  We must believe “that nothing is a vain work”, for then we “will find the work and the craftsman”, but if we believe that everything exists as some sort of nihilist joke, then we “will be mocked at” (VIII.5), which is a euphemistic threat for nothing good.
  • Love.  This isn’t something that’s come up before, but it’s a natural progression of belief, just as belief was from understanding and understanding from wanting.  We must love perfection as something to be worshipped, or seen as worthy of our entire selves and work.  We must hold perfection, and the object and goal of perfection of God, close to us as something that we not just adore but aspire to join with.  We have to give ourselves wholly in body, in soul, in spirit, and in mind to God so as to become perfect.  We need to devote ourselves in a passionate, almost lustful way that makes use of our entire selves, leaving nothing leftover, to the highest goal we possibly can.  We must love perfection.  We must love God.

Note how, by that last injunction of love, this forms a type of cycle, an iterative process towards perfection.  After all, if we devote ourselves to perfection and we yet lack it, we must follow it and chase it and strive to obtain it.  This is, essentially, wanting perfection.  So if we want to love perfection, we must believe in it; if we are to believe in it, we must understand it; if we are to understand it, we must want it; if we are to want it, we must love it.  Even with just a curious desire to do something, this will open the door and start one off on the path to perfection, but it may be a long road.  It’s an iterative process that builds upon itself; we want a little, then eventually we want more, then we want even more, and so on.  Eventually, our wanting, our understanding, our believing, our loving will become so great that it will completely overwhelm any evil, ignorant, unreasonable choice we might possibly make, and we will end up in perfection of ourselves.

Want, understand, believe, and love.  This is the Work.

Fictional Magic

I’ve sometimes remarked on this blog that I feel like I live in a video game or role playing game of some sort, what with my magic rings and enchanted swords and whatnot.  Largely, this is due to my having been exposed to a lot more gaming than I have magic, and it’s no secret that lots of games like Dungeons and Dragons or other RPGs borrow liberally from occulture and magic literature, though it may not be by the book or realistic in any sense I’m aware of (though if anyone has a fireball spell they’d be willing to share, hit me up).  That said, magic is also guilty of borrowing from literature and gaming as well.  For instance, take the infamous Necronomicon from the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft; although this was just a fictional book from a fictional story, many authors have taken it upon themselves to write their own kind of Necronomicon that fits in with the Cthulhu mythos and related entities.  This kind of magic, fictional though it may be, works all the same, to the point where it even begins to freak me out.

Consider it this way: the more people that believe in a certain idea, the more “real” that idea becomes.  Many people across history have heard of and believe in Christ as the Son of God; as such, the idea of Christ is immensely powerful.  A smaller version of this includes any story, myth, fable, or creature whose tale is told time and time again.  If some number of people have read a particular book, have thought about its characters, spoken their names aloud, dreamed or daydreamed about the things those characters did, then all that happens in that book becomes real to an extent.  The more exposure an idea gains, the more powerful that idea becomes; hell, the more belief an idea gains, the more powerful it becomes.  If even one person believes in an idea, that suffices to accomplish work.  Thus, it follows that stories that are popular can be used, and since magic often makes use of “real” entities such as spirits, angels, gods, and goddesses with their own myths, the characters, magic, and the like from within those stories can be used in magic.  After all, I’ve often heard that the Bible is the greatest story ever told [citation needed], and what’s to distinguish the storiness of the Bible from any other book, or for that matter a game, movie, or anime?

One of my friends is familiar with the SNES game Chrono Trigger to no small degree, to the point of being able to recite all of the game’s lines, whether in the Japanese or English versions.  However, being a magic user himself, he’s also adept at working with the entities and magic system from the game.  He’s mentioned astrally travelling some of the halls of Zeal and the other castles from the game, as well as spiritually hanging out from the realms depicted, learning and gaining much from those places.  In addition, he’s also good with working with the spirits, entities, and magic from the anime series Slayers, to the point where I’ve been able to witness some of the neat effects from his working with fire and water.  Being a chef, he makes use of this magic to no small degree in the kitchen, and his food readily attests to that.  (He still owes me a guest post here eventually on the unique elemental system of Chrono Trigger, which I would greatly appreciate before the next apocalypse deadline.)

My boyfriend, on the other hand, is increasingly working with the magic and spirits of the PS2 game Final Fantasy X.  In that game, there are a group of specially-gifted people known as summoners who are able to work with an ambient magico-spiritual force that appear as floating balls of light, called “pyreflies”.  These pyreflies can coalesce into entities, such as physical apparitions of the dead known as “unsent” or as fiendish monsters.  However, certain holy shrines contain ensouled statues called fayth, and if the fayth deem a summoner worthy of working with them, the summoner can call upon the fayth to summon an aeon.  These aeons are used to protect the people in the world of Spira from a titanic, evil mega-aeon known as Sin.  Leaving much of the plot aside, my boyfriend is beginning to astrally travel to the world of Spira, talk with one of the protagonists of the game (High Summoner Yuna herself), and work with the fayth themselves.  It’s interesting work, especially since the mythology of Spira and Final Fantasy X is rich as far as video games go, but still incomplete enough to leave theory and philosophy wanting.  Seeing how much of the in-game Yevonese religion is based on Shintoism, Buddhism, and Catholic Christianity, it’s not terribly hard to see how much of this can work or put into practice.

As for myself?  Beyond being peripherally involved with my friends’ ventures above, I’ve been dabbling in some fictional magic myself.  Specifically, I’m getting started with the magic from the Wraeththu series of books, also called dehara (literally meaning or homonomous with the word for “gods”).  To briefly review the background, Wraeththu is a race of “mutant humans” who are both androgynous and hermaphroditic, able to reproduce among themselves as well as “incept” young human males (transform via ritual blood infusion).  In addition to being uniformly beautiful, lean, and fit, Wraeththu also possess strong innate magical, psychokinetic, and telepathic powers.  The dehara system of magic utilizes an ambient life force called agmara, out of which the deities and thoughtforms as well as magical actions are created.  There are to be a total of three books total on dehara magic (right now, only Grimoire Dehara: Kaimana is released), each associated with one of the three castes of Wraeththu society.  The dehara magic system is a kind of blend between chaos magic principles, Wraeththu mythology, and neopagan rituals (complete with a Wraeththu variation on the Wheel of the Year).  Refreshingly, it requires very little in the way of physical tools and supplies, with much of the magic done through meditation and projection into an astral temple called a nayati.

Admittedly, working with these kinds of magics can be awkward with my other magical projects, but it does offer interesting modes of working that still augment each other nicely.  It’s a lot like learning different languages: two languages can still arguably say the same thing, but how they say it can be radically different.  The theory behind each system of magic can offer new ideas for exploration when compared against other theories, or help provide explanations and approaches to solving a problem when other theories may fail.  As a result, it’s hard for me to seriously claim that any one system of magic is innately “better” than any other, though I may be biased towards more devotional and Hermetic ceremonial stuff all the same.  Fictional or not, may as well explore magic like any other adventurer.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about using magic known explicitly to be fictional, or have you tried it?  Are there any games, movies, anime, or books you find interesting enough with enough magical content to make use of?  For more talk on this topic, Jason Miller just wrote a post about it yesterday.