A False Fork in Hermeticism: Different Approaches, Same End

Although I have my reservations about doing so, I don’t think that it’s all that weird to consider Hermeticism a kind of gnosticism in one sense or another.  I mean, literally speaking, one of the major pushes in the study and practice of Hermeticism is for gnōsis, the Greek word for “knowledge” meant technically in a Hermetic sense as a revelatory, non-discursive experience of divine truth—in other words, something that is capital-T True but which you can’t reason your way into thinking it and which you can’t be taught it or pick it up from anything or anyone else except God.  In that light, since Hermeticism encourages us towards achieving such experiences of gnōsis as a vehicle for spiritual development and perfection (not just a one-time deal, but something we strive for both repeatedly and continuously), one could very much call Hermeticists “gnostics”.  Doing so, however, neglects the actual use of the term gnosticism to refer to a wide-ranging series of religious movements that arose in the early Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levantine region, including such traditions and schools as Sethianism, Valentinianism, the Basilideans, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and others (even modern gnostic churches like the Apostolic Johannite Church).

Still, it’s not for nothing that Hermeticism might be considered a kind of “historical gnosticism” with these other groups, given how we find Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VII,6—8, including the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth which radically shifted our modern understanding of Hermeticism) and how there’s so much shared terminology (and even shared doctrines at times) between the Hermetic texts and various gnostic texts.  Moreover, even though the ultimate origins of gnosticism are obscure at best, we know that many such gnostic traditions arose in Jewish or early Christian communities centered in and around northeastern Egypt and Roman Palestine, neighbors with the historical origin of Hermeticism in location, time, and culture.  Even if Hermeticism may not be considered a child of the overall parent of “gnosticism”, we can consider Hermeticism and gnosticism to be like siblings—but even if they grew up in the same “household” at about the same time, they certainly went their separate ways once they moved out from their parent’s place.

Of course, it’s incorrect to think of “gnosticism” as being just one thing.  As I mentioned above, there are a whole bunch of various schools, traditions, and sects that were all “gnostic” to one degree or another, but they’re a really varied bunch that don’t have a lot of common with each other beyond being somehow tied to the idea that gnōsis (true spiritual or mystical knowledge) is tied to to salvation or ascension in some way.  It’s perhaps better to talk of “gnosticisms” or “gnostic spiritualities” rather than “kinds of gnosticism”.  Still, there are a few commonalities, and perhaps the most well-known one is a kind of matter-spirit dualism, a logical (though extreme) extension of Plato’s allegory of the cave such that there is the physical cosmos that we’re born into presided over by a Demiurge (δημιουργός dēmiourgós “craftsman”) along with some number of archons (ἀρχός arkhós “leader”) who control this world, and a truly divine world which “really exists” beyond this one.  This doesn’t sound all that weird on the spectrum of religious beliefs, but it’s that all this that we experience as our worldly lives is a sham and a con, separated as we are from being “really real”, but we’re cruelly trapped in this fake world of matter by wicked and blind demiurge and archons.  (If you’ve ever seen the 1999 film The Matrix, then you’ve got the right idea.)  As a result, “gnostic beliefs” (as varied as they are) are often stereotyped as being extremely pessimistic and dour about the world around us, seeing it only as a prison and cage that it’s on our duty to escape while the evil powers of this world (who are in a divine cosmic war with the forces of actual goodness) callously treat us as little more than amusing playthings.

Which takes me back to Hermeticism and how “gnostic” it may be in substance.  Sure, there are Hermetic texts that seem in line with this sort of pessimistic dualism that basically spits on the world. Consider CH VII, a fire-and-brimstone harangue against people in their drunken stupor of “loathsome pleasure”, how the body is an “odious tunic” that “strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its visciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within”.  Time and again throughout the Hermetic texts, we see similar pessimistic opinions that the cosmos is evil, that we’re trapped here, and so on, but perhaps most notably in CH VI.2—6:

…Since generation itself is subject to passion, things begotten are full of passions, but where there is passion, there is no good to be found, and, where the good is, there is not a single passion—there is no night where it is day and no day where it is night. Hence, the good cannot exist in generation; it exists only in the unbegotten. Participation in all things has been given in matter; so also has participation in the good been given. This is how the cosmos is good, in that it also makes all things; (thus,) it is good with respect to the making that it does. In all other respects, however, it is not good; it is subject to passion and subject to motion and a maker of things subject to passion.

With reference to humanity, one uses the term “good” in comparison to “evil.” Here below, the evil that is not excessive is the good, and the good is the least amount of evil here below. The good cannot be cleansed of vice here below, for the good is spoiled by evil here below and, once spoiled, it no longer remains good. Since it does not remain so, it becomes evil. The good is in god alone, then, or god himself is the good. Therefore…only the name of the good exists among mankind—never the fact. It cannot exist here. Material body, squeezed on all sides by vice, sufferings, pains, longings, angry feelings, delusions and mindless opinions, has no room for the good. …

… All the things that are subject to the sight of the eyes are as phantoms and shadowy illusions, but those not subject to it, especially the (essence) of the beautiful and the good. … As the eye cannot see god, neither can it see the beautiful and the good, for they are integral parts of god alone, properties of god, peculiar to him, inseparable, most beloved; either god loves them or they love god.

… Hence, those who remain in ignorance and do not travel the road of reverence dare to say that mankind is beautiful and good, but a human cannot see nor even dream of what the good might be. Mankind has been overrun by every evil, and he believes that evil is good; therefore, he uses evil the more insatiably and fears being deprived of it, striving with all his might not only to possess it but even to increase it. …

But, well…there are two things that complicate this.  For one (as I’ve written about before), the Hermetic texts use somewhat different notions of “good” and “evil” than we might be accustomed to conventionally, and these terms get used in different ways in different texts (viz. a philosophical way and a moral way).  For two (and this is the more important point I want to make), for as many pessimistic and dualistic texts there are in the Hermetic corpora, there are at least as many optimistic and monist texts that outright praise and revel in the cosmos, in creation, and the like.  Although CH VI and CH VII are super pessimistic, they’re preceded by CH V, is a shockingly upbeat optimistic one that rejoices in how divinity is present right here with us and is directly responsible for all things (and which I once turned into a sort of quasi hymn, the Praise of the Invisible and Visible God).  Likewise, other texts like CH XIV explicitly say that creation cannot be separate in any way from the creator and that there’s nothing shameful or evil about creation.  There’s this weird and strange mix of monism and dualism replete throughout the Hermetic texts as a whole, and it can seem really bewildering to the point of getting whiplash when going from one text to the next.  While there are certainly “gnostic” and dualistic perspectives, Hermeticism as a whole lends itself more to a monist sort of understanding of theology and cosmology, and even dour-dualist texts like CH VI or CH VII have weird monist bits in them, too.

As Christian Bull points out in The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus (THT) and Wouter Hanegraaff in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination (HSHI), classifying certain Hermetic texts as pessimistic/dualist (as in CH VI) or optimistic/monist (as in CH V) has been a thing for over a hundred years now. Such a classification has formed much of the basis for the academic study and discussion of Hermeticism in that time, including postulating how particular Hermetic lodges might have come to form around particular core doctrines, some upholding an “optimistic” view of divine monism and others a “pessimistic” view of matter-spirit dualism.  Indeed, it’s because some of these Hermetic texts that had such pessimistic-dualist perspectives that many scholars have considered Hermeticism a kind of (stereotypical) gnosticism, doing much research into the similarities, parallels, and influences between Hermetic texts and non-Hermetic gnostic ones.  Moreover, following the work of A.-J. Festugière, it was more-or-less cemented as a notion that we had “Greek/Hellenistic” texts that were the monist ones, while the dualistic ones were variously “orientalist” or even just “Egyptian”.  It wasn’t until the later work of J.P. Mahé and (especially) Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (ET), building on the recovery of texts like the Nag Hammadi Codices or the the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpsios together with better research on texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, that a new perspective on the whole shebang was made.  Rather than seeing the extant Hermetic corpora as being a mish-mash of texts from different groups from different cultural backgrounds that were at doctrinal odds with each other, scholars like Mahé or Fowden developed a notion of a “way of Hermēs” that understood and went through each of the texts (or similar texts close enough to what survives) as part of a complete system, moving from one perspective to another in a process of spiritual advancement.

From Bull’s THT:

… Mahé came to consider the monistic treatises as the earliest stage of the way of immortality, where the disciple would initially be taught that the material world was good, so as to ease him or her into a more spiritual life. As the disciples progressed they would become stronger and have less and less use for the material world, and at that stage of spiritual maturity they would be instructed to despise the body and the material world, focusing exclusively on the spiritual existence. … Fowden tried to surpass the essentializing dichotomy between what is “authentically Egyptian” and “authentically Greek,” and instead described “modes of cultural interaction” in Greco-Roman Egypt. It was in such a mixed milieu, he proposed, that the followers of the way of Hermes progressed from monistic epistēmē to dualistic gnōsis, in groups resembling the Gnostics: “small, informal circles of the literate but not (usually) learned gathered round a holy teacher and given up to study, asceticism and pious fellowship.” Egyptian priests may have been involved with such groups, though Fowden remained tentative on this point…

If we turn to ET, here’s how Fowden characterizes such a “way” in his monism-to-dualism progression:

…the way of Hermes, as Hermes himself points out at the end of the Asclepius, was not for the mind alone; nor did the attainment of epistēmē or even gnōsis provide any automatic access to salvation. ‘The pious fight consists in knowing the divine and doing ill to no man’: the ethical virtues also had their part to play. The intending initiate must lead a life of piety, obedience and purity—that is, abstinence from the pleasures of this world. The Hermetists do not seem to have been austere ascetics, though the demands they made on themselves undoubtedly increased as they advanced towards spiritual perfection. Generally they held that, just as God formed Man and his environment, so Man in turn is obliged to perpetuate his own race…while the Perfect discourse goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse as not merely a necessity but a pleasure, and an image of God’s own creative act. But the tone changes in the more spiritual treatises, where the body may be described as a prison, and sex rejected as a curse. The virtues are here taken much more for granted, and at this stage it can even be pointed out, as in the key-passage quoted earlier from The Ogdoad reveals the Ennead, that pure morals and a clear conscience are not in themselves a sufficient preparation for gnōsis. The relative neglect of the ethical virtues in the more spiritual treatises derives from their authors’ assumption that their audience will already have made the crucial choice on which all else depends—the choice, that is, between the ‘material’ to and the ‘essential’ Man, the corporeal and the incorporeal, the mortal and the divine realms. For one cannot love both simultaneously.

While Bull affirms some of Fowden’s points in THT, he takes issue with Mahé’s and Fowden’s notion that such a “Hermetic way” was “progression from monism to dualism…[but] that the progress goes in the opposite direction: at the early stage the disciple is asked to alienate himself from his body and from the physical world, in order to free his soul from the bodily passions[; o]nly then will he be able to undergo the initiatory rite of rebirth, after which he is once again reintegrated with the world and goes on to praise the creator god.”  More fully, he explains:

…we have argued that the first stages of the Way of Hermes was characterized by a pedagogical dualism, in which the candidate was taught first to despise the material body as an obstacle to the essential inner human, and then to consider the material cosmos as devoid of truth. A number of Hermetica can with some certainty be related to these stages (CH I, II, IV, VI, X; SH II A–B, VI, XI). When the acolyte had become a stranger to the world, he (or she) could undergo the ritual of rebirth (CH XIII). In the course of this initiatory ritual the dark avengers of matter, representing astral fatality, were conclusively exorcized. In their place, ten divine powers were invoked to descend into the candidate, who now became “the one human, a god and son of God,” namely the androgynous primordial human of the Poimandres. The initiate had thus become ontologically equal to the demiurgic mind residing in the Ogdoad, the brother of the primordial human, who surrounds and suffuses the cosmos. He was now fully integrated with the cosmos: the dualism of the earlier stages has been resolved into a monism, a union with the All, celebrated in the hymn of the rebirth. Now deified, the initiate could proceed to go through a rite of visionary ascent (Disc.8–9), on the principle that “like can only be understood by like” (CH XI, 20). In this rite, the spiritual master, in the role of Hermes, guided the initiate…The reborn was thus brought into the Ogdoad, where he saw indescribable glories and heard silent hymnodies sung by the powers that reside there. This is the culmination of the Way of Hermes, and the visionary was now fully initiated and could join his spiritual brothers in silent hymn-singing, which united them with the powers in the Ogdoad until the day when they would leave the body for good. …

Later, Bull summarizes this as saying:

I would however argue that the reason for this contempt of the body is not so much the result of dualistic anti-cosmism, but rather what we may call pedagogical dualism. The disciple is supposed to gain knowledge of himself, and the Hermetica are in unison agreement that the authentic human being is not identical with the body but with the immaterial noetic essence of the soul. At the earliest stage of teaching the disciple therefore has to be trained to stop identifying himself with the body, and this is why the body is condemned. At a later stage, however, the body will be seen in a more nuanced light, as a necessary tool to fulfill one’s duties as a human in the cosmos.

Okay, so, these are a lot of words and a lot of really lengthy excerpts that have probably rendered most of my readers’ eyes dry, drowsy, and distressed.  The reason why I wanted to bring all this up is because, time and again in the Hermeticism channel in the Hermetic House of Life (HHoL) Discord server, I and a few other people keep referencing the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach” to Hermetic practice.  This really is all about the practice of Hermeticism at this point: given that so many of us are already familiar with the doctrines and opinions in the various classical Hermetic texts (and all the critiques thereof), there are likewise so many of us actually doing the labor involved to put these words to work, actually living our lives according to the lessons in the texts.  This is difficult even at the best of times, given that we do technically only have an incomplete picture of what Hermeticism is from the classical period, but it’s because of good modern scholarship that we have a lot of the gaps filled in for us from otherwise good sources coupled with excellent extrapolation.

Because of the constantly-shifting landscape of academia on top of how the texts themselves can admit multiple interpretations, this leads to different ways one might actually walk the “Way of Hermēs”. One such difference plays out between what we’ve been calling the “Fowden approach” or the “Bull approach”.  Based on the texts referenced above, we can summarize what these mean accordingly:

  • The Fowden approach (also evinced by scholars like Mahé) can be thought of as “optimistic monism → pessimistic dualism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs by celebrating the immanence of God within creation and understanding how all things are divinely one.  Over time, as one becomes spiritually mature and ready for it, they then begin to separate themselves from the world through increasingly austere practices and perspectives which culminate in the final ascent of the soul to God to totally leave this world behind.
  • The Bull approach (also evinced by authors like Z. Pleše or G. Shaw) can be thought of as “pessimistic dualism → optimistic monism”.  One begins study and practice of the Way of Hermēs through detestation and dejection of the body, beginning with austere practices so as to purify the soul’s indwelling connection with the body.  It’s only once the student has properly purified themselves of any addiction or attachment to reality that they can more fully engage with it as a unified whole, leading them to see creation for what it really is and to see the Creator within it with eyes unclouded.

Both the Fowden approach and Bull approach look pretty reasonable for orienting oneself in Hermeticism, offering some notion of structure within which one can develop their practices and focus their studies.  Thinking about how to apply the various Hermetic texts together as a combined “way” (as in a curriculum of study) has led to us in HHoL thinking and talking about Hermeticism in terms of these “approaches”, and which “direction” we should pursue or why we should do so.  Personally, if I had to choose between the Fowden approach and the Bull approach as being the proper way to the Way, I’d go with the Bull approach, as I find it not only better argued, but also more meaningful in how it really does let the beautiful monistic outlook of Hermeticism shine through.

Of course, to posit that the Way of Hermēs takes either approach is itself a kind of dualistic thinking, and that itself is a problem for Hermeticism.  As Hanegraaff playfully chides in HSHI:

It seems to me that one must go even one step further and recognize that the very distinction between dualism and monism is itself a reflection of dualistic thinking. From the perspective of divinity to which practitioners aspired, such oppositions would be meaningless—little more than evidence of our limited consciousness.

While Hanegraaff makes this point of nondualism so as to introduce a “third kind” of reality that cuts across the Platonically-inspired dualism of divine Being and cosmic Becoming, I think it also helps to to consider these two approaches as just being different stages of a holistic Way of Hermēs rather than being two incompatible things.   To that end, instead of merely going “monism → dualism” or “dualism → monism”, I’d take a broader combined approach and recontextualization of these things as “noninitiated monism → initiatory dualism → initiated monism”.  Hear me out about how this plays out:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is shown teaching primarily Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn as his disciples (or at least the ones explicitly named as such).  However, in CH I, Hermēs is charged with nothing less than the salvation of the human race by becoming “guide to the worthy”.  To that end, he immediately proceeds preaching on the street to whomever might listen, and for those who “desired to be taught”, Hermēs taught them all—yet, in texts like SH 11 or CH XIII, there are also exhortations to secrecy, and in CH XVI, there’s a notion of development from earlier doctrines to later doctrines.  There’s also AH 9 that lays out that different people have different capacities for spirituality, none of which are necessarily better than another but which simply accord each one’s lot in life. Based on all this, my opinion is that all people can be taught and can follow the Way to one degree or another, but some people will (or are meant to) take on a more intensive practice than others.
  • At first, the Way of Hermēs opens up with a benign, simple monism for the noninitiated-but-still-curious.  The student begins to learn about the Creator and Creation, our place within it, and how to lead a good life.  For some people, this is all they need to worry about, a sort of “everyday spirituality for the everyman”.  For them, their union with the Divine is something that can be attained on “the way up” after one’s death; for them, all of life while lived is simply preparation for that final ascent while participating in their role in the cosmos.
  • For others, living a good life and letting that “final ascent” happen after death isn’t enough; rather, they seek to strive for making such an ascent while still alive, or to ensure that such an ascent is guaranteed beyond the shadow of a doubt.  When the noninitiated student is ready to take that “next step”, they then begin a process of  studying and practicing austerity to break them of any misleading identifications of themselves with the body and other wrong views that may have come along uninspected but unwanted in their earlier noninitiated monism.  This helps resolve any “addictions” or “attachments” to incarnation they might have which would prevent them from properly engaging in mindful embodiment.
  • Upon the fullness of their initiatory ordeals and the actual performance and completion of initiation (in whatever form it might have taken, as exemplified by texts like CH XIII or NHC VII,6), the initiate has reached a state of spiritual maturity (or, rather, in the terms of CH XIII, spiritual rebirth) that enables them to be mindfully embodied. This is the realization of a sort of radical nondualism that not just believes in the transcendent and immanent unity of Creator with Creation, but knows it and lives it.  Having completely understood themselves, they have fully joined themselves to God while being alive in the body, achieving their own ascent before the final ascent, not only guaranteeing the completion of such an ascent after they leave this life but dwelling in union even while alive.

In other words, if I were to reterm the Fowden approach and Bull approach as “stages”, the “Fowden stage” is that of a noninitiate becoming an initiate, while the “Bull stage” is that of an initiate becoming a master.  They’re not so much different approaches on the Way as they are the difference between a moderate “outer court” and intense “inner court”, and yet both courts still have monism as their focus (as is proper for a comprehensive view of Hermetic doctrines).  And that’s hardly even a separation, really; both are set on achieving gnōsis and on union with God through gnōsis (which is all the result of having nous “mind”, which can be achieved either through reverence alone or through initiatory experiences).  The difference lies in whether one achieves such a thing while in this life or after this life, and how far one wants to take one’s own spiritual and mystic practice.  In that, perhaps even the notion of these being “outer court” and “inner court” approaches is misleading; it might be better thought of as “entering the temple from the outside world” and “leaving the temple into the outside world” (not unlike how the students of Hermēs enter into the temple at the start of the AH, but then leave it at the end).

The only time dualism ever appears in this whole thing is as a transition, and it doesn’t really so much a doctrine of actual-dualism as it is a practice (or even an aesthetic) of seeming-dualism.  Such a practice is only for the sake of refining and perfecting an overall monism, because such a practice is meant to be contextualized by monism and understood within the boundaries of a monistic understanding of the cosmos.  The “dualism” here is as much a fleeting illusion as dualism is generally, but illusory as it is, it’s one that matters; yet, by that very same token, it might be misleading to call this “pedagogical dualism” (per Bull) a “stage” as such, because it’s more of a transition between stages.  One does not merely stay with this detestation of the body forever, but must eventually move past it once the lessons of doing so are fully integrated; otherwise, one becomes mislead (from a Hermetic point of view), a sort of “falling into a pessimistic abyss” where one forgets the lessons from the earlier noninitiated simple monism while being unable to reach the lessons of the latter initiated radical monism.  (Mind the gnostic gap!)

In that light, we’re never truly engaging with dualism as an end, but rather as a means to an end, starting with monism and ending with monism; heck, we probably shouldn’t even think of this as “dualism” so much as it is “responsible non-solipsistic monism”.  To say “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” doesn’t really represent distinct ways of “doing Hermeticism” so much as it demonstrates the whole lifespan of a mystic aspirant to the union of God within a Hermetic framework in general, whether done all at once in life or done partly in life and partly after life.  The complexity here of how to understand the Hermetic corpora as a whole belies a simpler foundation that Hermeticism is still all just a way to develop and live a monist mysticism.  Whether one dwells as a noninitiate in the simple monism of pistis/epistēmē or as an initiate in the radical monism of gnōsis, it’s still fundamentally the same teaching, because we all eventually end up at the same destination;  even the “transition” between the two that involves an austere rejection of the body may not even need to be all that austere depending on one’s own inclination to embodiment and divinity.

Such a “Hermetic dualism” is just the first part of the alchemical phrase solve et coagula.  It’s the part where we split ourselves apart, take ourselves apart, and inspect ourselves, all to learn what makes us tick and where our faults lie.  It’s the difficult stage where we really come to “know thyself”, and as a result of doing that, we come to put ourselves back together better than before, improved and more capable of becoming and being more of what we truly are.  It reminds me of a lot of those alchemical diagrams describing the process of generation and differentiation, all ultimately coming from The One and all ultimately leading back to The One, just like in the Golden Chain of Homer:

Despite some of the historical and textual similarities between Hermeticism and some gnostic traditions, I would argue that it’s inappropriate to apply the label “gnosticism” to Hermeticism, if only to avoid some of the stereotypes that “gnosticism” has accrued.  As Hanegraaff demonstrates in HSHI, “very far from the gloomy dualism and pessimistic otherworldliness imagined by modern scholars obsessed by narratives of fall and decline, Hermetic spirituality was grounded in a strongly world-affirming perspective that fully embraced the positive values of life, fertility, and the pursuit of happiness”, and the whole spiritual discipline of Hermeticism was meant to reverently realize that at one level or another for each person who engaged with it.  It might be more rigorous for some, sure, but it’s easy to mistake the rigor of austerity and harshness for “pessimistic dualism”; after all, to an outsider who isn’t clued into the nuances of a difficult situation, what might look like abuse  and violence may instead be in actuality tough love and a forceful but necessary intervention.  And even then, such austerity and detestation of one’s body is not meant for everyone, and for those who do go for it, it requires careful preparation, contextualization, and orientation, all of which is centered in an optimistic, life-loving monism that was never denied from the get-go.

Although I like the benefits that saying “Fowden approach” or “Bull approach” provides in discussion, I admit that it’s as much sleight-of-hand as it is shorthand.  The only approach that matters on the Way is the one that leads to its ultimate End, and while different people might take slightly different paths or be at different stages along their paths, it’s all still one Way.

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.

Mathetic Ritual of the Sun’s Ingresses

I was settling down this past Monday thinking of how to better explore the paths of the Tetractys.  Pathworking is fine and all, and I will never swear against it; it’s a powerful method in its own right, and when tweaked for the purposes of mathesis, will provide valuable experience in developing oneself theurgically.  The thing is that…well, I hate pathworking.  It’s a personal opinion of mine that physical, enacted ritual is superior for initiations and transformation compared to pathworking, which is more meditative and exploratory but also too mental and ungrounded to achieve the same ends.  Any physical addition to pathworking, such as using gestures or chanting, can definitely help empower the pathworking, but in the end it’s still primarily pathworking.  I tried coming up with different kinds of chants or seed syllable-type intonations to focus oneself on a manifesting or manifested version of a path to little result (I’ll keep those notes as a draft post for future reference just in case), but something kept nagging at me to think of something better.

Looking through my old drafts I had saved, I noticed that I started an idea a while back but never really fleshed it out any.  The idea was to have a stellar type of ritual, not focused on the planets or elements themselves but on the passage of the Sun as it travels from one sign of the Zodiac to the next.  After all, the whole point of the Gnosis Schema is to develop the self theurgically by using a set of twelve paths to traverse the ten sphairai of the Tetractys, and these twelve paths are given to the signs of the Zodiac.  If we consider ourselves as Suns, then the passage of the Sun through the Zodiac represents our own passage through Gnosis.  By celebrating the ingress of the Sun into each sign of the Zodiac, we celebrate and open ourselves up to a whole new stage of our development, formally opening up new gates and roads for us to travel.  This is an idea I wanted to develop, but I had little idea back then of how to actually go about building or thinking about such a ritual.  I think it’s time now to do just that.  Thus, at the beginning of Cancer 2017 and close to the start of a new mathetic year, let us now discuss αι Τελεται των Ηλιεισοδων (hai Teletai tōn Hēlieisodōn), the Rituals of the Solar Ingresses.

tetractys_paths_gnosis_signs

So, first, just because we like things in Greek, let’s list what the names of the Zodiac signs are in Greek for reference’s sake:

  1. Aries: Κριος (Krios)
  2. Taurus: Ταυρος (Tauros)
  3. Gemini: Διδυμοι (Didymoi)
  4. Cancer: Καρκινος (Karkinos)
  5. Leo: Λεων (Leōn)
  6. Virgo: Παρθενος (Parthenos)
  7. Libra: Ζυγος (Zygos)
  8. Scorpio: Σκορπιος (Skorpios)
  9. Sagittarius: Τοχοτης (Tokhotēs)
  10. Capricorn: Αιγοκερως (Aigokerōs)
  11. Aquarius: Υδροχοος (Hydrokhoos)
  12. Pisces: Ιχθυες (Ikhthyes)

When might we celebrate this kind of event?  As I reckon it, there are three options for us, each with their own pros and cons:

  • The first day after the Sun has astrologically entered the sign proper.  This is probably the most straightforward and obvious option, but we’d be careful to note that we’d mark this as the first sunrise coinciding with or falling immediately after the Sun’s entry to the sign.  Thus, if the Sun enters Taurus sometime on a Monday night after sunset, even though Monday is the first day of Taurus according to the modern Western sense, we’d only celebrate this starting at Tuesday morning, at the start of the first full day of Taurus.  The drawback is that such an ingress could occur at any time of the lunar month, which much of the rest of mathesis relies upon for its ritual timing.  After all, the solar year and lunar year are not easily synced and need constant corrections to keep roughly together.
  • The first Noumenia (start of the lunar month) while the Sun is in the sign.  This makes sense from a grammatomantic calendar standpoint, as we could then dedicate the whole rest of the month to works relating to the specific sign that the Sun has entered into.  However, this has a bit of a problem; the Noumenia could occur several weeks into the solar month of the zodiac sign, so we’d lose the “freshness” of the previous option.  Additionally, with lunar months being shorter than a solar month, there is the possibility of having two Noumenias within a single solar month.  In such a case, we’d only use the first one for our ingress ritual, but we’d know then that, if there’s another Noumenia just before the Sun changes sign, then the next one after the Sun enters the next sign would be late indeed.
  • The day of the letter of the sign while the Sun is in the sign.  For instance, if we’re celebrating the entry of the Sun into the sign of Taurus, we’d wait until the day of Γ, the letter associated with Taurus.  Just as with the Noumenia, there is the possibility that there might be two such days with the same letter while the Sun is in the same sign due to the fact that the lunar month is shorter than a solar twelfth of a year.  Further, just as with the Noumenia, this might position the day of the ritual rather late into the Sun’s travel into the sign.  However, this has the benefit of associating the natural power of the lunar day of the month with the sign of the Sun itself, and with the “offset” this would introduce since each sign has a different letter, and thus a different day of the month, we could sidestep some of the issues introduced by using a fixed date of the lunar month viz. the Noumenia.

To compare these options, here are the dates of the first sunrise of the solar ingresses into the signs of the Zodiac starting with Aries 2017, and the corresponding dates of celebration according to each of the three methods above, along with a comparison of how much of the lunar month has elapsed since it last began or how much of the Zodiac sign has already been traveled through by the Sun:

Ingress Day of
Ingress
First
Noumenia
First Lettered
Day
Sign Date
Aries
Κριος
March 21, 2017  3/21
Day of Υ
3/28
24%
3/29
26%
Taurus
Ταυρος
April 19  4/19
Day of Τ
4/26
23%
4/28
29%
Gemini
Διδυμοι
May 20  5/20
Day of Φ
5/26
19%
5/29
28%
Cancer
Καρκινος
June 21  6/21
Day of Ψ
6/24
10%
6/30
29%
Leo
Λεων
July 22  7/22
Day of ϡ
7/24
6%
8/4
42%
Virgo
Παρθενος
August 22  8/22
Day of Α
8/22
0%
9/3
39%
Libra
Ζυγος
September 22  9/22
Day of Β
10/20
90%
10/4
39%
Scorpio
Σκορπιος
October 23  10/23
Day of Δ
11/19
90%
11/3
37%
Sagittarius
Τοχοτης
November 22  11/22
Day of Δ
12/18
90%
12/6
48%
Capricorn
Αιγοκερως
December 21  12/21
Day of Δ
 1/17
90%
1/7
57%
Aquarius
Υδροχοος
January 20, 2018  1/20
Day of Δ
2/16
93%
2/7
62%
Pisces
Ιχθυες
February 18  2/18
Day of Γ
 3/17
90%
3/10
69%

This is just a small sample, but indicative of how close or far these lunar methods of reckoning a ritual date for the Sun’s ingress can vary compared to the exact solar date.  Given these three methods, I’m most inclined to go with the first option, with the third a close contender.  It would be nice to have this set of rituals synced to our already-established lunar calendar, but there’s too much variance with the lunar calendar to make it stick right.  Plus, according to even the most basic of principles of astrological magic, the most powerful time for a zodiacal-solar ritual is (barring a proper solar election) at the first degree of the sign, considered its strongest, with its last few degrees considered its weakest.  On these days of ingress, the ritual should be performed at sunrise, or as early in the day as possible; barring that, as close to the day of ingress as possible.  I’d suppose that, so long as the ritual is performed sometime in the first ten or so days of the Sun’s ingress into the sign, the ritual can be considered valid, though it is best to do it ASAP.

So, we have a set of twelve “holidays”, as it were, or high ritual days for those on the Gnosis schema.  It would be excellent, then, to celebrate all twelve, but if we were constrained for time or resources, could we rank them or group them together in terms of importance?  Absolutely, and this is based all on how we think about the groups of paths on the Gnosis Schema:

  • Of all these twelve days, it’s the day of the Ingress into Aries that is the most important.  This day celebrates the Sun’s rebirth, and our own renewal into a new cycle of the Gnosis Schema from an old one.  If only one ingress could be celebrated, it is this one.
  • With a little more resources and time, the days of the Ingress into Aries, into Leo, and into Sagittarius are as important as each other and should be celebrated if all twelve cannot.  Each of these ingresses marks the departure of the Sun from one set of four signs of the Zodiac into the next four after completing a whole elemental cycle; for us on the Gnosis schema, these ingresses mark our transition from one cycle to the next (Hot to Cold, Cold to Cosmic, Cosmic to Hot).
  • With enough resources and time, each ingress day could be celebrated on its own as they arrive, each ingress marking the transition of the Sun from one sign to the next, and our own transition from one path to the next on the Gnosis Schema.

Thus, to offer a kind of neopagany parallel, the Ingress into Aries would be as important to mathesis as Samhain is to neopagans, the ingress into fire signs as a group as important as the cross-quarter days including Samhain, and the ingress into all twelve signs as a group as important as monthly sabbaths of the cross-quarter days, solstices, and equinoxes.  (I can’t believe I just used that sort of reference, since I’m about as far from neopagan as you can get, but I suppose it works for getting the point across.)

Like with my self-initiation ritual into mathesis I discussed a while back, I’ll refrain from posting the specifics of what the ritual of solar ingress would specifically contain.  I’ve got my reasons for doing so: this is all still highly experimental, this is still a mystery path, and…well, I’m far from done designing a complete ritual for such an event.  However, I’ve got my ideas, and I’ll definitely detail those at a high level for the sake of discussion and thinking out things aloud.  Unlike the solar rituals of the Egyptian priests who guided the Sun through the underworld, and unlike the harvest festivals of the old pagans and heathens, and unlike the celebration of neopagans who reflect on the story of the God and Goddess throughout the year, these rituals of solar ingress use the outer world as a symbol for internal development, and will be used to link one’s self to the cosmic forces at play as the Sun travels through the skies.  In other words, by bringing ourselves into stronger alignment with the natural flow and rhythm of the cosmos, we take on the same development and live in a spiritually natural, balanced way that follows the course the gods themselves take.  We do this by, yes, celebrating the entry of the Sun into a new zodiac sign every month to mark the passage of time, but this is just the external aspect of it; we emulate and, eventually, become the Sun itself as it opens each new gate and takes its first steps along each new path.  By sharing in the work of the gods, new possibilities are opened unto us, granting us new power and responsibilities each step of the way.

As the Sun ages through one sign of the Zodiac, the power of the Sun is generally seen to decrease slightly; the final degrees of a sign are the weakest and darkest, and generally bode no good things.  As the Sun enters a new sign, the Sun’s light is strengthened and renewed each and every time; further, this whole process is repeated on a grander scale of the whole year as the Sun shines brightest in summer, diminishes in autumn, becomes darkest and feeblest in winter, and becomes renewed in the spring.  Just as Apollo is pulled ahead by the horses of his chariot, so too are we pulled forward by the powers of time and growth; just as Apollo is led by Hermes to his destinations hither and fro, so too are we pulled ahead by Hermes as guide and protector.  It is these two gods that mathesis works intensely with, and we can already see roles for them appearing in these rituals of solar ingress: Apollo to cleanse and renew us for entering a new gate, and Hermes to guide and lead us as we take our first steps on a new path.  Thus, each ritual of solar ingress must be preceded by a purification, either by khernimma or katharmos, so that we can enter a new stage of our lives clean and proper.  We must then call on Hermes to open the gate itself and set us on the right path so that we do not get waylaid, lost, or trapped by the darkness that surrounds us.

What I don’t yet know about including, and this is where pathworking will come in help, is the notion of a guardian or gatekeeper for each of these gates.  After all, all gates have some sort of protection for themselves, and the notion of a being or god dwelling within each path against which one must pass a test is not precisely new; yes, the idea is common in Golden Dawn practices, but the idea of a Sphinx posing riddles is old.  We do know that each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac is given to one of the twelve gods of Olympus, saith Cornelius Agrippa in his Orphic Scale of Twelve, but I’m not sure if these would be the same thing.  Additionally, I’m uncertain of what specific offerings should be made as part of the ritual besides the usual ones.  This is all for future development, planning, and pathworking to see what I can see and find out what can be found out and pieced together.  After all, while I may experiment with different ritual layouts, I’d like to start doing these in earnest starting at the spring equinox next year for Aries.  This gives me more than half a year’s time to try things out, which sounds like a lot of time, but…we’ll see.

These rituals of solar ingress are intended to open the gates and let flow the power along the channels indicated by the paths on the Tetractys.  What they allow us to do is to help guide us along the Gnosis Schema around the Tetractys, but they do not open up each of the sphairai to us.  These rituals can open the gate to a new path, and can bring us to the gate at the end of the path to a new sphaira, but without us unlocking that final gate, we are not able to continue along the Gnosis Schema.  Merely celebrating the rituals of solar ingress is not enough to deliver us to gnosis; these rituals are monthly rites of passage, but like any rite of passage, they only give us license to do more things without specifying how or in what timeframe.  Anyone in a culture who undergoes the rite of passage into adulthood does not have their entire lives mapped out for them from that moment on; it only gives them the ability and recognition of adulthood, with all its privileges and responsibilities.  Over the course of the year, as we celebrate the rituals of solar ingress, we open the ways for us to travel to each sphaira in turn, but we must still walk the path and, moreover, undergo the process of unlocking and experiencing each sphaira on the Tetractys, each of these ten stages of life and development.  This would be a separate ritual, which I’ve not quite yet had plans for, but it makes sense.

In addition to the usual pathworking and astral crap that goes along with all of this, of course.

 

Mathetic Pathworking of the Tetractys

Alright, time to actually talk practice again.  The past few posts were heavy on number theory, but the end of the last post touched on how it impacts our traversal of the Tetractys and how we can start thinking of numbers in terms of how we can actually use them for our spiritual progression.

So, disclaimer, guys: although this post is going to be on pathworking, astral/clairvoyant exploration, and similar topics, I make no claims to being an expert on this.  Although pathworking is not something foreign to me, it’s something that I underutilize in my work, if not outright ignore, even though I recognize the usefulness of it.  I’m geared more towards physical ritual, but astral exploration is something I’d like to get more into.  To that end, Tetractyean pathworking, yay!

The idea behind pathworking is actually fairly simple, and I’ve employed it before when doing meditations on the geomantic figures waaaay back in the day, but also more recently when meditating on the letters of the Greek alphabet.  The technique I use for “astral contemplation” is straightforward:

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position.  Clear the mind and regulate the breath.
  2. Visualize the symbol to be contemplated as clearly as you can.  Focus on the symbol becoming as real as possible in the mind.
  3. Vizualize a door, gate, veil, or curtain on which the symbol is written, engraved, embroidered, or whatever.  Let the symbol to be contemplated mark the gate as the entry to the “world” of that symbol.  You might picture the same door each time, or let the door form on its own around the symbol.
  4. Once both the symbol and the gate are fully realized in the mind, open the gate (or have it open) and step through it.
  5. Explore the world of the symbol.  Take note of all you perceive, and interact with the world as desired.
  6. When ready to leave, exit the world by taking the same path backwards, passing by each thing that was encountered on the way in until you reach the gate.
  7. Exit through the gate back into your own headspace, and close the gate.
  8. Visualize the gate dissolving into the symbol itself so that only the symbol remains.
  9. Visualize the symbol disseminating into one’s own sphere to as to retain the power and lessons learned from the contemplation.

You can use this with any set of symbols, from the seals of spirits to the geomantic figures to the planetary sigils from Agrippa to Greek letter or Tarot cards.  It’s a very malleable process that doesn’t rely much on ritual, if at all, though it can certainly be augmented by it through the use of mind-enhancing incenses, consecrated candles or oils, preliminary chants, and the like.

However, what this process best benefits from is preliminary study of the symbol.  What is the symbol’s name?  What spirits is it associated with?  What planets, elements, animals, plants, stones, forces, stars, and numbers is it associated with?  What mythic figures from different religions does it connect to?  In other words, it’s a vital, crucial part of the process to understand the correspondences of the symbol first.  You don’t need to see how they all interact with each other; I can hardly tell you how or why the twelve tribes of Israel are associated with the Zodiac signs the way they are, but they’re there for a reason.  It’s the astral exploration and contemplation that help with understanding the subtle interactions of everything, and give one a deeper knowledge of the symbol by means of experience.

So, let’s review our map, the Tetractys with the paths of letters.  As before, there are two main sets of paths, the Gnosis Schema with its Mitsubishi-like turns, and the Agnosis Schema with its hexagram-hexagon set.

The difference between the Gnosis and Agnosis Schemata involve the kind of force associated with each schema, as well as what sphairai they reach.  The Gnosis Schema is based on the twelve signs of the Zodiac, one step for every sign, as the student travels around the Tetractys.  The Agnosis Schema, on the other hand, contains the non-zodiacal forces: the seven planets and the four elements plus the quintessence of Spirit.  This is where one can get trapped in the cycles of this world, buffeted around by the archons and cruel fate; the Gnosis Schema, on the other hand, indicates the natural, fluid, smooth passage through all aspects of the cosmos up to and including purest Divinity, where we take the reins of our chariot and proceed on our true path to accomplish our One Thing.

tetractys_paths_gnosis_signs

Let’s focus first on the twelve paths of the Gnosis Schema.  Each path has an associated letter, and each letter with a sign of the Zodiac.  If we use Agrippa’s Orphic Scale of Twelve, we already have a wealth of symbolic knowledge on each path, to say nothing of what Liber 777 or other books of correspondence can get us.  However, the number 12 isn’t strictly given to the Zodiac, even in Hellenic reckoning.   There’s also the notion of the Twelve Labors of Heracles (of which the Thelemites have a fascinating view), and some medieval alchemists considered the Great Work to be composed of twelve stages, such as the Gates of George Ripley or the Keys of Basil Valentine.  All these can be considered as a single group, quest, set of paths, tasks, or transformations required to traverse the entirety of the Tetractys by means of the Gnosis Schema.

What of the Agnosis Schema, then?  The Agnosis Schema isn’t just one set of forces; in fact, according to how things are set up on the Tetractys, we can divvy these twelve forces up into three groups of four.  The first set, known as the Ideal forces, are the four elements themselves: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.  The second set, the Empyrean set, are the two luminaries, the planet Mercury, and the quasi-element quasi-planet quasi-force Quintessence, aka Spirit.  The third set, the Ouranic forces, are the other four non-luminary planets of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  The four elements and the seven planets all have their usual correspondences (cf. Agrippa’s Scale of Four and Scale of Seven plus, like, literally everything else written in the Western and Near Eastern occult corpus for 5000 years, give or take a millennium), but it’s that last force of Spirit that kinda confuses things a bit.  Spirit wasn’t really considered a separate force way back when; sure, as there are five Platonic solids mentioned in Plato’s Timaeus, there was a notion of a fifth…something out there, but it wasn’t considered to be an element like how Fire or Water was.  Nor was it a visible object in the night sky like the planets or stars, however Plato claims that this force decorated the entire cosmos.  I claim that Spirit is best seen as a median between the elements and planets, or a substrate underlying any other force out there, a type of non-materialized metaforce required for the materialization of anything else.  It’s like how, in order for an object to exist, there must exist a space for it to be present.  That kind of thing.  You can figure out the rest.

However, in addition to the zodiacal, planetary, and elemental forces, each path on the Tetractys is given one of the 24 Greek letters (indeed, this was really the whole impetus for having the paths to begin with).  Each Greek letter can be viewed in different ways.  The first three of these are fairly mundane: the name, the glyph, and the sound of the specific letter, all of which are given on a post way back when I first started considering the Greek letters as a vehicle for theurgy.

Okay, so.  At this point, I’d normally provide a table listing all the correspondences I’ve just mentioned to recap them all, but…the format of my blog would have this table run off the column of this text into the wild unknown, and gods only know what havoc it’d wreak on any number of RSS feeds, so I’m going to refrain from doing so this once.  I mean, if you wanted a table of correspondences that big, just get a copy of Skinner’s Complete Magician’s Tables.  Maybe, one day, I’ll publish my own focusing more on the Greek letters than Hebrew, but that’s not now.  Instead, go ahead and take a gander at all the links I’ve posted above and feed your hungry mind on the connections of the paths to the letters and to the forces and to everything else.

Why study all this?  Because the more information that is accessible to us in our minds, the more tools we’re providing our spirits for when we begin astral exploration and contemplation of these symbols.  It’s a commonly-heard refrain in some circles that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (cf. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis); if you don’t have an appropriate symbol set to work with, you can’t communicate, hold onto, or receive information that could use those symbols.  The more symbols we become familiar with, the more our minds and spirits have to work with, which expands the possibilities of vision and clairvoyance.  After all, it’s as my favorite comic seer Dominic Deegan says:

When a seer looks into a crystal ball and spouts some cryptic message, it’s not because second sight is inherently mysterious.  It’s because the seer doesn’t know what he’s looking at and he’s probably disguising his ignorance with cliché mysticism.  To master second sight you must have knowledge, which is found in books, which is why we have so much required reading for this class. (January 5, 2007)

Second sight is hard.  It requires a solid knowledge of history, politics, religion, arcane theory and even geography to really be of any use.  Otherwise it’s just looking at pictures. (January 11, 2007)

Study hard, kids. That’s important, no matter what you do in the occult.

Okay, so, say you’ve got a good grasp of the symbols, correspondences, associations, and affiliations of the letters with everything else.  What now?  We tap into that with pathworking, which is ritualized contemplation within a specific theurgical context.  Taking into account what’s commonly done in Golden Dawn and related orders, we would first mentally place ourselves within a particular sphaira as its own separate “temple”, envisioning a path leading to it (the one we used to enter) and other paths leading away from it (the possibilities of egress from the temple along the other paths).  Taking Alex Sumner’s brief discourse on qabbalistic pathworking, there are several steps to this process (rephrased from Sumner’s approach):

  1. Preparation of the physical temple and the pathworker.
  2. Visualization of the origin of the pathworking.
  3. Invocation of the forces of the path to be worked.
  4. The departure onto the path from the origin.
  5. The vision of the path.
  6. The arrival from the path unto the destination.
  7. The return to the world and normal consciousness.

Now, we can’t simply replace all the qabbalistic elements with mathetic ones; in many cases, I simply haven’t developed all the same things, and in others, I have no need to.  However, the underlying idea is the same, and many of the same methods can be adapted to this.  The important part that needs to be figured out first, however, is…where exactly do we start?

The whole point of undergoing initiation into the Gnosis Schema is to bring us from wherever we might be on the Agnosis Schema to the central sphaira on the Gnosis Schema.  Before that point, we don’t know where we are or how we got there; we need to be brought to a point of balance so as to be able to grow from that point, rather than trying to catch our bearings while we’re lost adrift on stormy seas.  After initiation, we find ourselves at the central sphaira, which has six paths leading to it all, all equally spread apart.  Thus, we begin at the sphaira of Mercury, and thence proceed onward to the path of Beta, which leads us down to the sphaira of Jupiter/Air.  We repeat the process time and again, periodically returning to Mercury, and continue along our paths.

So, if we begin at Mercury, how do we envision a “temple” or world for this sphaira?  That…well, I don’t really know what it would look like.  I do not know whether I can slip in my own visions of the planetary sphere of Mercury, and I doubt I could very easily, though it might make sense.  I do not know if the image I already have in mind can work, since I haven’t actually gone and explored what this sphaira looks like yet (to my own great shame).  But, if I were pressed to come up with a simple (if not simplistic) view based on what we already know and what we’ve already developed, I suppose we could always go with this little imagining I came up with:

Around you is a forum, a marketplace, filled with stalls and tents and shops all around you.  For some, these stalls are each manned and staffed with heaps of all sorts of foods, spices, riches, and goods; for others, the marketplace is deserted and dilapidated, with it looking more like a shantytown full of ghosts.  In either case, you stand at the center of three roads crossing each other in six directions.  The sky has the usual weather, the air balmy and breezy, and the road is full of dust sweeping in from each of the roads to the center where you now stand.  At the very center of the marketplace, in the exact middle of this six-way crossroads, stands a tall brazier atop a round altar.  This brazier has a fire lit of pure white gold flame, gently warming but weak.  Each road is lined with stalls and shops, though they start becoming fewer and farther between the further you look down each road.  Looking down one of the roads in the direction of the morning sun, you see at the far end of it, where the shops and buildings and tents give way to grass and rocks and dirt roads, a tall stone arch glittering in the light of the sky.

As you walk down this path, the bustle and business of the marketplace (or, alternatively, the whispers of wind and loose tentcloth) die down to silence, almost in anticipation of you reaching the arch.  As you get closer to the arch and further from the tents, you see that the arch leads onto a bridge crossing a deep chasm, heading off around you to both the left and the right.  The whole marketplace is on a large island, cut off from the surrounding lands yet connected by means of these six arches and their bridges wide enough to carry travelers, merchants, pilgrims, warlords, princes, paupers, and others of all kinds and nations.  Yet, these bridges are all but empty.  Beyond, however, you can see a whole new world through the arch, hearing all sorts of new voices and sounds, yet somehow it was not apparent to you until you looked through the arch itself.

The arch is elaborate, delicately engraved with repetitive motifs echoing long-lost languages that yet look familiar to you, mixed in with baroque depictions of cities, wars, crops, livestock, wildlands, gods above and below, and so many other scenes that could never be descried except at close distance, and at a close enough distance, you see all these patterns forming an infinitely-detailed fractal building upon and within itself endlessly.  At the very top of the arch, you see that the whole arch has been engraved with the ancient Greek letter Β; under it, suspended by gilded iron chains, is a brightly-gleaming lantern.  It has not been lit, though you can tell from the slow way it sways that it is full of oil and ready to be ignited at a moment’s notice.  Just above where the flame would be is a rope, tied to both columns supporting the arch, and from that rope a gate that, although fine and delicately-wrought, prevents you from passing through the arch proper.

Light the lamp and let its light beckon to those who would seek to enter, guided and amplified by the white gold flame in the crossroads.  Burn the rope, and bring down the gate.  Open the path to this new road and to this new world.  Leave the town as you are, and return when you are not.

…a bit of fancy prose, sure, but why not?  I don’t have much else to go on at the moment.  Besides, when I do get around to actually exploring the central sphaira, I’ll be able to get a better vision of the place and use that as the preliminary setup for a “mathetic temple”.  The use of the “gate blocking the arch” bit was to show that one cannot simply proceed immediately without doing work to earn the right of passage upon the path; in the Golden Dawn style of pathworking, each path had its own guard that needed to be appeased or tested first before one could go along the path.  Similar things should apply here, I figure, though the methods of testing would likely be different.  Plus, I might actually become inspired enough to give the damn thing its own proper name and title, as opposed to just calling it the “central sphaira” or “sphaira of Mercury”.