Traversing the Paths on the Tetractys of Life

There hasn’t been much talk here about the paths themselves on the Tetractys since we figured out a way to associate letters to them.  Largely, this is because I’ve had a hard time figuring out where to start.  I mean, I developed the whole mathesis thing out of a need to work with a Greek system of paths between the spheres on the Tree of Life, yet never actually did much pathworking or meditation on the paths themselves on the Kircher Tree (which, though it goes against my usual advice, I think was justified here).  I know that the paths describe a means of change and evolution from one emanation to the next, yet beyond that…it was hard to say.  Since then, I’ve been looking at the Tetractys and trying to figure out where to start.  Unlike the Tree of Life in qabbalah that so conveniently gives us Malkuth as the starting line for our Work, the Tetractys doesn’t have anything so readily apparent.  Then again, the answer was literally staring out at me from the middle of the whole thing, and it’d be a shame for me to ignore my own patron god Hermes at this point.  Starting with that brief moment of inspiration, I started from the middle of the Tetractys and worked my way out, and now I’ve ended up developing a way to traverse the sphairai on the Tetractys of Life in an ordered and coherent way.  Bear with me guys, because this post is going to be a little lengthy to get all my thoughts out.

So, we have our Tetractys of Life.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s ignore the letters on the paths and focus just on the existence of the paths:


First, let’s talk about having a single “path” (really, a network of paths between individual sphairai) that traverses the whole Tetractys sphere by sphere.  I propose the following schema:

  1. Mercury
  2. Air/Jupiter
  3. Fire/Mars
  4. Sulfur/Sun
  5. Mercury
  6. Salt/Moon
  7. Earth/Saturn
  8. Water/Venus
  9. Mercury
  10. Light/Fixed Stars
  11. Monad
  12. Darkness/Earth

Graphically, the paths on the Tetractys selected between these sphairai look like this:


I’ll bet you’re confused.  For one, we have twelve spheres listed, with Mercury being listed three times; shouldn’t we have to go through each sphere only once?  Second, we’re starting with Mercury and not the Monad; shouldn’t we start with the Monad being the All and the Source of all?  Well, sorta.  I’ll admit, my background in qabbalah was inhibiting me from running with this sequence of paths, but then, mathesis is not qabbalah, and the Tetractys is not the Tree.  In Hermetic qabbalah or Jewish kabbalah, we have a clearly defined start and end, a Source and a Destination, and either of them will be Kether or Malkuth depending on whether you’re going up or down the Tree.  However, while the Tree is like an elaborate map, the Tetractys presents us with something different, like a blueprint.  Instead of showing how things come to be in a linear fashion, the Tetractys shows the presence and building blocks of life present in all things; the Tetractys shows how things come to be in a nonlinear fashion.  There is no single end goal with the Tetractys; the Monad descends into the Tetrad, not any one of the four elements alone.  All the parts of the Tetractys must be constantly and repeatedly traversed to become complete both of ourselves and of the cosmos, encompassing all aspects of the act, process, and result of Creation.

As for passing through the sphaira of Mercury, let’s talk about what we’re doing on the paths first.  We start with what looks like the Mitsubishi logo around the Tetractys: three rhombuses each with one acute corner at the Mercury sphaira and the other acute corner at one of the distant corners of the Tetractys.  I’ll call each of these three sets of four sphairai a system, and each system focuses on a particular theme:

  • The Hot System involves the active principles of Air, Fire, and Sulfur.  Processes of power, actively causing change.
  • The Cold System involves the passive principles of Salt, Earth, and Water.  Processes of reception, passively receiving change
  • The Cosmic System involves the encompassing principles of Light, the Monad, and Darkness.  Processes of cosmic stasis and unity.

In each case, we both start and end at Mercury, both astrologically and alchemically, being the center and present in nearly all things except the purest and most extreme of all elements: Earth, Fire, and the Source itself.  Everything else is connected with Mercury, so it makes sense that it’s the only one that can reasonably allow us to translate between the three systems. Yes, we can go from Water to Air (traversing the Cold and Hot Systems directly), Sulfur to Light (Hot and Cosmic), or Salt to Darkness (Cold and Whole), but a better balance can be preserved and future progress can be assured by always returning to Mercury.  If we spend some time in the Hot System, we should pass from Sulfur through Mercury to Salt, because Mercury is what naturally balances the two forces.  At the end of the Cold System, we pass from Water/Venus to Light/Stars; though it’s not immediately apparent how Mercury balances these two, consider the myth of Aphrodite being born from Ocean (Water) from the remains of Ouranos (Sky); the ability to create physically comes from supercelestial impetus and the latter is accomplished by the former, but also consider the endless horizon is the meeting point of the two realms.  At the end of the Cosmic System, we proceed from Darkness to Air; again, an awkward comparison to make, but recall that in the Poemander myth of creation, air is what separated the heavens from the mixed mass that would eventually become the Earth, and the ability to begin the process of rising and falling through the spheres is accomplished by means of air as an intermediary.  Mercury is a symbol of strong change, but not in a way that changes something into its direct opposite; rather, Mercury changes something into its complement, something that completes and links the two systems together.

The use of systems here isn’t just to provide a way to go through all the sphairai of the Tetractys in one go.  Rather, within each system are four sphairai and four paths, forming a kind of mini-tetractys within each system in a mini-cycle.  While one can traverse each system once to complete the whole Tetractys, I see it being worthwhile to cycle through each system several times to really grok and complete the work that needs to be done in each.  If we consider the three phases of alchemy (nigredo, albedo, rubdeo), then each system can be viewed as one of these stages, and it may take time for the Work from each phase to settle in.  Going through each stage of the work thoroughly requires several iterations; for instance, cycling through the Hot system four times would yield a pass each to focus on the ideas of Hot, Hot-Air, Hot-Fire, and Hot-Sulfur.  By cycling not only through the Tetractys as a whole but within each system on the Tetractys, we can begin to fully understand each force in its entirety and on its own terms.

All this leads to the cycle of paths that this “Mitsubishi” arrangement forms.  We start with Mercury then descend into the Hot System by progressing to Air, drying ourselves into Fire, and rarefying ourselves into Sulfur.  From there, we return to Mercury, cooling down and becoming pure Salt, degrading into Earth, then quickening into Water.  After that, we return to Mercury, ascend into the Light, achieve union or the image of the Source, then descend back down to Darkness.  From there, we repeat the process over again, returning to Mercury and heating up again into Air, cycling through the Tetractys infinitely and repeatedly, each time becoming more powerful with each sphaira and each time achieving more and more of the henosis that is the Great Work.  So, a full set of iterations to proceed throughout the whole Tetractys in this manner would involve a total of four stages that I tentatively call Initiations, progressing through the different systems or within the same system to obtain a deeper understanding of each force.  Keeping the same order within each system, the whole schema looks like this:

  1. Hermetic Initiation
    1. Hot System (Mercury → Air → Fire → Sulfur)
    2. Cold System (Mercury → Salt → Earth → Water)
    3. Cosmic System (Mercury → Light → the Monad → Darkness)
  2. Hot Initiation
    1. Hot System with a focus on Mercury (e.g. a deeper acquaintance of the Hot forces)
    2. Hot System with a focus on Air (e.g. seeing Air and how it relates and acts throughout the Hot forces)
    3. Hot System with a focus on Fire (e.g. same as above but with Fire)
    4. Hot System with a focus on Sulfur (e.g. etc.)
  3. Cold Initiation
    1. Cold System with a focus on Mercury
    2. Cold System with a focus on Salt
    3. Cold System with a focus on Earth
    4. Cold System with a focus on Water
  4. Cosmic Initiation
    1. Cosmic System with a focus on Mercury
    2. Cosmic System with a focus on Light
    3. Cosmic System with a focus on the Monad
    4. Cosmic System with a focus on Darkness

And, after this, we’d repeat the whole thing over again as many times as desired or as necessary until we achieve the Great Work.  Besides, by completely cycling through the whole Tetractys (at least in the Hermetic Initiation) starting and ending with Mercury, we hit Mercury four times, and four is a number mythologically sacred to Hermes.  And, if we consider all the Initiation passes together, we pass through the entire Tetractys a total of five times.

So, in this manner, we have a set of twelve paths traversing three systems within the Tetractys.  Each system is composed of four sphairai, all starting with and ending with Mercury; Mercury is then a liminal point between the three “worlds”, both starting and ending each set of paths within an system.  We constantly proceed from and return to Mercury as a central hub or nexus.  However, with our twelve Mitsubishi paths, we leave another set of twelve paths unused.  What are these paths?


These twelve paths never touch central Mercury or the extreme Earth, Fire, or Monad sphairai at all, but instead connect the six “middling” sphairai of Darkness, Salt, Water, Air, Sulfur, and Light.  Two cycles are presented here, shown by the hexagram paths (inner cycle) and hexagon paths (outer cycle).  Instead of having systems, we have one group of six sphairai that are each connected to everything but their complement (e.g. Salt and Sulfur, Water and Light) and four leftovers that are unconnected which would link everything else together.  Rather than getting us to henosis and the Monad, or alternatively to a fundamental understanding of how our cosmos works through Earth and Fire, these cycles keep us trapped, never able to each any extreme and never having the ability to reasonably transform ourselves into anything we need to progress.

Between the Mitsubishi paths and hexagram/hexagon paths, I think we have a distinction of how things progress within the cosmos as shown by the Tetractys.  The hexagon and hexagram paths indicate a cycle of reincarnation, always stuck hovering around and just under the things that truly break them out but never quite within reach; the one thing that can do that is Mercury, which they constantly rely on but never call upon. We’ll call these set of paths the Agnosis Schema, as opposed to the Mitsubishi paths which I’ll call the Gnosis Schema.  The Gnosis Schema connects all the sphairai together and in a way that encourages, well, enlightenment in almost a Buddhist sense of extinguishing the process of forced rebirth and reincarnation, freeing ourselves from the trap of maya or ignorance that keeps us in the cycle of being reborn without our control.  In other words, the Gnosis Schema allows us to be reborn by choice and free ourselves from this Hermetic samsara, which is a world of difference from the Agnosis Schema; we can deliberately choose to go to places that we’d never end up in involuntarily or by accident.  We continue around the Gnosis Schema as long as we need or desire to until that last iteration where we go to the sphaira of the Monad and stay there, never returning to Darkness to continue the cycle.  (And, of course, metempsychosis or reincarnation was indeed a belief of Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism, so I’m in the right here to bring that beast of a topic into this.)

So, going back to the Gnosis Schema of paths, we can use the order of them to figure out a numerical assignment from 1 to 10 of the sphairai on the Tetractys of Life.  Again, if we start with Mercury as the start, we assign it the number 1 and proceed along the Gnosis Schema paths in order, skipping over where Mercury is repeated:

  1. Mercury
  2. Air/Jupiter
  3. Fire/Mars
  4. Sulfur/Sun
  5. Salt/Moon
  6. Earth/Saturn
  7. Water/Venus
  8. Light/Fixed Stars
  9. Monad
  10. Darkness/Earth

This system of numbers is grossly different from that of the qabbalistic scheme of things, and rightly so.  We’re not describing a path of linear descent from the Source to the World, but a means of cyclical progressive process that continually builds one up further and further until they reach the Highest without having to go down lower anymore.  Described numerically, the Tetractys looks like the following:

numerical_tetractys_gnosisBear in mind that, although each of the sphairai are associated with some celestial heaven (from the Prime Mover to the World we live in), these numbers do not describe their level.  The celestial numbers of the heavens stay as they are, such that Saturn is still the third heaven (from the Top), and so forth.  If we were to compare the cosmological number of each of the sphairai (based on their planets) with the Gnosis Schema numbering (based on their alchemical force), we end up with the following table (which is an exercise in polyvalent thinking):

Sphaira Gnosis Schema Cosmological
Alchemical Planetary
Mercury 1 8
Air Jupiter 2 4
Fire Mars 3 5
Sulfur Sun 4 6
Salt Moon 5 9
Earth Saturn 6 3
Water Venus 7
Light Fixed Stars 8 2
The Monad 9 1
Darkness The World 10

Note that two of the sphairai, the Monad and Mercury, are essentially the same when it comes to what their force is: the planetary force of Mercury and the alchemical force of Mercury are so close that they’re conceptually synonymous.  Likewise, the Monad is…well, the Monad.  There’s literally only one Monad in any system of thought here.  However, look at the numbers: we see two of the sphairai, those of Venus/Water and Darkness/World, have the same number in both systems.  While these are the exceptions to the rule, they’re exceptions worth noticing.  That Darkness/World is 10, the final stage in the emanatory process, is unsurprising; it is completion, it is the ending, it is the goal of creation to create the World.  Although it is present in the Dyad in contrast to Light/Fixed Stars and thus “comes first” before anything lower, the entirety of the World can only exist when all the other forces are present to give it life, animacy, and agency.  As for Water/Venus, it’s interesting that it’s kept the number seven between the two, that of essence and quality of life.  It’s low down on the Tetractys as part of the Tetrad, but all the same it’s vital to giving things animacy, as opposed to Darkness/World which is what is given animacy.

Personally, I feel it appropriate to comment on what the Gnosis/Agnosis Schemas mean for the individual letters of the paths themselves.  For instance, note that all the Air paths (letters Υ, Φ, Ψ, Σ, Δ, Μ) are all part of the Agnosis Schema, as well as the other fixed signs (letters Φ, Κ, Ν) as well as the other elemental paths (letters Χ, Ξ, Θ).  The twelve letters that belong to the Gnosis path are Ο, Ζ, Π, Ε, Η, Λ, Τ, Ω, Α, Β, Ρ, and Ι, which are the six non-fixed non-Air signs and the six non-Jupiter planets.  However, all I’ve done so far is figure out which abstract paths to take regardless of their letters; I fully expect my Tetractys of Life to have its letter-path assignments change over time as I fine tune and explore the system deeper.  The system, as of now, is coherent and structured, which I like, but who knows whether it’s actually valid and practical to use.  That’s what further writing and scrying is for, and now that I have an actual path to pathwork, I think that process should begin soon.

49 Days of Definitions: Part IX, Definition 5

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 fortieth definition, part IX, number 5 of 7:

Who(ever) behaves well towards his body, behaves badly towards himself.  Just as the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert.  Once a soul has entered the body, it (soul) will acquire Nous.  That which does not require (it), goes out such as it had entered.  For every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous; then Nous joins it from the body, so that eventually the soul becomes endowed with Nous.  That (soul) which has gone out of the human body has (got) an ill memory: for soul, (even) covered with the body, is forced to remember its (soul’s) unforgetfulness.  One change is unforgetful and (another) change brings about forgetfulness.

We know that humans are constituted out of many things, and what makes us essentially human is really just that: the essence of being human.  This is an idea, a form that we realize through our bodies, souls, spirits, and minds.  Our bodies are born, live, increase, decrease, and die in the material world and the material world alone; our souls are sent into our bodies so they can be perfected through the life of the body; spirit is the medium between the soul and the body; the mind is what is able to use reason and the ability to know God.  This idea has been developed over the course of the Definitions, and this ninth set of definitions helps us understand how we can perfect the body by saying something a little more descriptive than “know yourself” or “know God”.

Although the soul lives within the body, what happens to the body is not always good for soul; the last definition talked about the illnesses and passions of the soul, which can prevent the soul from properly acting and developing or can sway it into acting in a manner that is unhelpful to its development.  We also know that actions, opinions, and speech that is unreasonable, i.e. it does not serve the goals of Nous/the Good, basically limits itself to the material world we live in (V.1, V.2), and to limit ourselves to this world causes ignorance and is thus evil (VII.5, VIII.6).  Thus, if we place the body over the soul, we do our souls damage, which then does ourselves damage (VI.3).  Thus, “whoever behaves well towards the body, behaves badly toward himself”.  If we treat our bodies as first and foremost, lavishing it in luxury and simply “treating it well”, then we neglect our souls, which should deserve that same or better treatment.  This isn’t to say that we should totally neglect the body, of course; if the body isn’t well maintained, then the soul doesn’t have a chance to perfect within it.  Rather, we should strive to perfect the soul and maintaining our bodies as necessary along the way.  It’s similar to how happiness and sadness happen to us when we interact with the world; we don’t strive to be happy for the sake of being happy, but we should strive for something good which makes us happy as a result.  Likewise, we shouldn’t treat the body well for the sake of treating it well, but we should strive for Nous which makes our body well as a result.

After all, “the body, without a soul, is a corpse, likewise soul, without Nous, is inert”.  The two rely on each other in order to live, and so they need to support each other.  If we neglect the soul, the body dies; if we neglect the body, the soul remains imperfect.  Neither of these are good, though it’s worse for the soul to remain imperfect than the body dying.  Again, though death is generally a bad thing, that only affects our bodies, which is not the entirety of us.  We are more than dying bodies; we are both mortal and immortal (I.5), and we have the power of choosing immortality and making ourselves the gods we ought to be (VIII.7).  All told, while we should neglect neither the body nor the soul in our lives, we should focus on the development of the soul as our primary task and the development of the body as a secondary (but still as necessary) task, or as a co-equal task in the process of perfecting the soul.

Going back a bit, “soul, without Nous, is inert”, meaning it has no motion, no impetus, no drive.  After all, just as God has no means to sense since there is nothing outside God to sense (VIII.2), the soul without body has no means to move since there is nothing to move.  Thus, it is motionless, incapable of doing anything.  “Once a soul has entered [a human] body, [the soul] will acquire Nous”; once the soul gains a body, it gains the ability to move and a source from which motion is derived.  This is the soul-Nous that comes with soul, not the divine Nous that we have to strive for with Logos (VIII.4).  So, before a soul ever gets to a body, it has no Nous, though it still exists within Nous; then, once it joins with a body, it is given Nous.  But if a soul already has Nous before entering the body, then it has already acquired it and does not get an “extra portion” of Nous: “[the soul] which does not require [Nous], goes out such as it had entered”.  This means that the soul has already been joined to a body before, and has already been given Nous, yet the soul is going to another body; thus, the soul has left one body and goes to another.  This statement implies reincarnation or transmigration of souls, which fits with hints from before about souls perfecting themselves through bodies.

To begin with, however, “every soul, before entering the body, is deprived of Nous”.  Then, “Nous joins it from the body”; note that soul-Nous is not simply given to the soul from Nous, but from the body.  The body is crucial to the soul’s development, and is the basis for soul-Nous to even be present.  Just as the world is in God and Man is in the world (VII.5), so too is God in the world, since “everything is within man” (IX.4).  God is in itself, too, but the soul is only intelligible and not sensible, though still lacking God in itself.  The soul must be mixed with the body in the essence of Man in order to be given soul-Nous; only then can it “eventually [become] endowed with Nous”.  There doesn’t appear to be any difference between different disembodied or unembodied souls, though once a soul has been mixed with the essence of Man, it gains the capacity for Nous in a way that other souls do not; the soul undergoes a fundamental difference.  To use alchemical terms, this makes the material world and the body the crucible within which the actions and reactions of spiritual “materials” interact with each other to refine themselves, using the body as the base stratum of material.  Through refinement and perfection, incorporating true knowledge of the world, ourselves, and God, the prima materia of the alchemists is transformed into the purest gold and leaves the Caput Mortum behind, the end result and Great Work of the alchemists, the Magnum Opus of the magician.

Still, this process isn’t easy, and can be easily set back. “That soul which has gone out of the human body has got an ill memory”; we know from before that the soul “will not know the beings outside the body” (VI.2), but now we see that there’s more at stake here.  “Soul, even covered with the body, is forced to remember its unforgetfulness”.  This is a little unclear, but keep in mind that memory is the retaining of knowledge and the ability to access it later on in time.  Knowledge is God; by remaining in knowledge, we remain in God.  By forgetting knowledge, we leave God.  Thus, by remembering our unforgetfulness, we remember our tendency to always be in knowledge/God, and so remember who and what we truly are as Man.  While we may not yet be unforgetful, we still have unforgetfulness.  This is what our immortality (at least in part) consists of.

Of course, that’s not all we are.  As Man, we have two natures, the immortal and mortal, and also the unforgetful and the forgetful.  Our eternal knowledge and union with God is our immortality and also our unforgetfulness; thus, our mortality and forgetfulness is our live and death as a living bodily creature.  Neither of these things is either the body’s or the soul’s pristine form, however: “one change is unforgetful and another change brings about forgetfulness”.  The bestowing of Nous upon the soul gives it unforgetfulness; the death of the body around the soul brings about forgetfulness.  We must choose immortality and Nous to never forget who we are; to choose mortality and the body, “to treat the body well [over the soul”, brings about forgetfulness, a lack of knowledge, and the “perdition” of V.2.