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Hermeticism or the Western Hermetic Tradition is a set of philosophical and religious beliefs based primarily upon the pseudepigraphical writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. These beliefs have heavily influenced the Western esoteric tradition and were considered greatly important during both the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The term Hermetic is from medieval Latin hermeticus, which is derived from the name of the Greek god, Hermes. In English, it has been attested since the 17th century as the adjective Hermetic (as in "Hermetic writers" e.g. Franz Bardon). The synonymous Hermetical also occurs in the 17th century. Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici of 1643 wrote "Now besides these particular and divided Spirits, there may be (for ought I know) a universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato, and is yet of the Hermeticall Philosophers." (R.M. Part 1:32).
In Greece, the use of words beginning with herm dates from at least 600 BCE. Hermetic refers to a pillar or post that was used in pre-classical Greece, "of square shape, surmounted by a head with a beard. The square, limbless Hermes was a step in advance of the unwrought stone." The stone pillar was used to communicate with the deities. The god, Hermes, is a generic term used by the pre-classical Greeks for any deity, and was only later associated with the god of knowledge in Athens in the 2nd Century CE. The word, hermetic, was used by Dr. Everard in the English translation of The Pimander of Hermes(1650). Mary Anne Atwood mentioned the use of the word Hermetic by Dufresnoy in 1386.
In Late Antiquity, Hermetism emerged in parallel with Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and early Christianity, "characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith".
The books now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were part of a renaissance of syncretistic and intellectualized pagan thought that took place around the 2nd century. Other examples of this cultural movement would include Neoplatonist philosophy, the Chaldaean Oracles, late Orphic and Pythagorean literature, as well as much of Gnosticism.
The extant Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of God, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Many lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power.
The predominant literary form is the dialogue: Hermes Trismegistus instructs a perplexed disciple on some point of hidden wisdom.
After some centuries out of favor, Hermeticism was reintroduced to the West in 1460, when the monk Leonardo da Pistoia brought the Corpus Hermeticum to Pistoia to be translated by Ficino. In fact Leonardo da Pistoia (monk) was the pseudonym of Leonardo Alberti de Candia, a noble of the Alberti (family) of the counts of Prato in Pistoia. He was one of the many agents sent out by Florence's ruler, Cosimo de'Medici, to scour European monasteries for lost ancient writings.
Leonardo searched for the ancient Hermetic manuscripts throughout the regions surrounding Constantinople, Pera and Galata, a part of the dogal republic that had been granted by the Byzantine Empire to Genoa in 1273. He conducted his investigations under the protection of the Byzantine podestà during the period of the joint Byzantine and Italian podestà, prior to the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Ottoman Turks.
In 1614 Isaac Casaubon, a Swiss philologist, analyzed the Hermetic texts for linguistic style. He concluded that the Hermetic writings attributed to Trismegistus were not the work of an ancient Egyptian priest, but in fact dated to around the second and third centuries of the Common Era. Even in the light of Casaubon's linguistic discovery and typical of many of the self-styled adherents of Hermetic philosophy scattered throughout 16th and 17th Europe, Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici (1643) confidently stated- "The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a portrait of the invisible". R.M.Part 1: 12. In the nineteenth century Walter Scott placed their date shortly after 200 CE, while Sir W. Flinders Petrie placed them between 200 and 500 B.C. Plutarch's mention of Hermes Trismegistus dates back to the first century CE, and Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry are all familiar with Hermetic writings.
In 1945, Hermetic writings were among those found near Nag Hammadi, in the form of one of the conversations between Hermes and Asclepius from the Corpus Hermeticum, and a text about the Hermetic mystery schools, On the Ogdoad and Ennead, written in the Coptic language, the last form in which the Egyptian language was written.
Tobias Churton, Professor of Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter, states that "the Hermetic tradition was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the (omnipresent) mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere". In fact, Lutheran Bishop James Heiser recently evaluated the writings of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as an attempted "Hermetic Reformation."
Though many more works have been attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, Hermeticists commonly accept forty-two books to his credit. Most of these books, however, are reported to have been destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandria was razed.
There are three major works which are widely known texts for Hermetic beliefs:
There are additional works that, while not as historically significant as the three mentioned above, have an important place in neo-Hermeticism and its study.
Many Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity. They believed in a prisca theologia, the doctrine that a single, true, theology exists, which threads through all religions, and which was given by god to man in antiquity. In order to demonstrate the verity of the 'prisca theologia' Christians appropriated the Hermetic teachings for their own purposes. By this account Hermes Trismegistus was either, according to the fathers of the Christian church, a contemporary of Moses or the third in a line of men named Hermes i.e. Enoch, Noah and the Egyptian priest king who is known to us as Hermes Trismegistus or thrice great on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher and king.
This last account of how Hermes Trismegistus received the name "Trismegistus," meaning "Thrice Great," is derived from statements both in the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe. The three parts of the wisdom are alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. The pymander, from where Marsilio Ficino formed his opinion, states that "they called him Trismegistus because he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the greatest king".
Another explanation, in the Suda (10th century), is that "He was called Trismegistus on account of his praise of the trinity, saying there is one divine nature in the trinity".
Alchemy—The Operation of the Sun: is not simply the changing of physical lead into physical gold. It is an investigation into the spiritual constitution, or life of matter and material existence through an application of the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection. The various stages of chemical distillation and fermentation, among them, are aspects of these mysteries, that, when applied quicken Nature's processes in order to bring a natural body to perfection. This perfection is the accomplishment of the Magnum opus (Latin for Great Work).
Astrology—The Operation of the Moon: Hermes claims that Zoroaster discovered this part of the wisdom of the whole universe, astrology, and taught it to man. In Hermetic thought, it is likely that the movements of the planets have meaning beyond the laws of physics and actually hold metaphorical value as symbols in the mind of The All, or God. Astrology has influences upon the Earth, but does not dictate our actions, and wisdom is gained when we know what these influences are and how to deal with them.
Theurgy—The Operation of the Stars: There are two different types of magic, according to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Apology, completely opposite of each other. The first is γοητεια, Goëtia, black magic reliant upon an alliance with evil spirits (i.e. demons). The second is Theurgy, divine magic reliant upon an alliance with divine spirits (i.e. angels, archangels, gods).
Theurgy translates to "The Science or art of Divine Works" and is the practical aspect of the Hermetic art of alchemy. Furthermore, alchemy is seen as the "key" to theurgy, the ultimate goal of which is to become united with higher counterparts, leading to the attainment of Divine Consciousness.
As stated above In Hermetic religion the supreme Deity, or Principle, is referred to variously as 'God', 'The All', or 'The One'. The absolute is the central focus of Hermeticism and therefore it is difficult to assign it a position among the traditional Theistic religions, or along the monotheistic and polytheistic spectrum.
Hermeticism transcends both Monotheism and Polytheism as well as Deism and Pantheism within its belief system, which teaches that there is a transcendent God, The All, or The One, of which we, and the entire universe, participate. Also it subscribes to the notion that other beings such as gods and angels, and elementals exist in the Universe.
These words circulate throughout occult and magical circles, and they were recorded in Hermetic texts, although they originate in the Vedas:
Vedic philosophy quotes “Yad Pinde Tad Brahmande” as the important principle. “As in microcosm so in macrocosm.” The concept was later laid out in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, in the words "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing".
In accordance with the various levels of reality: physical, emotional, and mental, this relates that what happens on any level happens on every other. This is however more often used in the sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm is oneself, and the macrocosm is the universe. The macrocosm is as the microcosm, and vice versa; within each lies the other, and through understanding one (usually the microcosm) you can understand the other.
There are mentions in Hermeticism about "metempsychosis" or the multiple occurrences of a being through the manifestation, before he gets liberated from any condition. As Hermes states:
O son, how many bodies we have to pass through, how many bands of demons, through how many series of repetitions and cycles of the stars, before we hasten to the One alone?
Hermes explains in Book 9 of the Corpus Hermeticum that Nous brings forth both good and evil, depending on if he receives input from God or from the demons. God brings good, while the demons bring evil. Among those things brought by demons are:
adultery, murder, violence to one's father, sacrilege, ungodliness, strangling, suicide from a cliff and all such other demonic actions.
This provides a clearcut view that Hermeticism does indeed include a sense of morality. However, the word good is used very strictly, to be restricted to use to the Supreme Good, God. It is only God (in the sense of the Supreme Good, not The All) who is completely free of evil. Men are exempt from having the chance of being good, for they have a body, consumed by their physical nature, ignorant of the Supreme Good.
Among those things which are considered extremely sinful, is the focus on the material life, said to be the only thing that offends God:
As processions passing in the road cannot achieve anything themselves yet still obstruct others, so these men merely process through the universe, led by the pleasures of the body.
It is troublesome to oneself to have no "children". This is a symbolic description, not to mean physical, biological children, but rather creations. Immediately before this claim, it is explained that God is "the Father" because it has authored all things, it creates. Whether father or mother, one must create, do something positive in their life, as the Supreme Good is a "generative power". The curse for not having "children" is to be imprisoned to a body, neither male (active) nor female (thoughtful), leaving that person with a type of sterility, that of being unable to accomplish anything.
The tale is given in the first book of the Corpus Hermeticum by God to Hermes Trismegistus after a meditation. It begins as God, by an act of will, creates the primary matter that is to constitute the cosmos. From primary matter God separates the elements: Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Then God ordered the elements into the seven heavens (often seen as the spheres of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon) to travel in circles and govern destiny.
The Word then leaps forth from the materializing elements, which made them unintelligent. Nous then made the governors spin, and from their matter sprang forth creatures without speech. Earth then was separated from Water and the animals (other than Man) were brought forth from the Earth.
The God then created Man, androgynous, in his own image and handed over his creation. Man carefully observed the creation of his brother, the lesser Nous, and received his and his Father's authority over it all. Man then rose up above the spheres' paths to better view the creation, and then showed the form of the ALL to Nature. Nature fell in love with it, and Man, seeing a similar form in his own reflection in the water fell in love with Nature and wished to dwell in it. Immediately Man became one with Nature and became a slave to its limitations such as gender and sleep. Man thus became speechless (having lost the Word) and became double, being mortal in body but immortal in spirit, having authority of all but subject to destiny.
Once Hermeticism was no longer endorsed by the Christian Church it was driven underground and a number of Hermetic societies were formed. The Western esoteric tradition is now heavily steeped in Hermeticism. The work of such writers as Pico Della Mirandola, who attempted to reconcile Jewish Kabbalah and Christian mysticism, brought Hermeticism into a context more easily understood by Europeans in the Renaissance.
A few primarily Hermetic occult orders were founded in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Hermetic magic underwent a nineteenth century revival in Western Europe, where it was practiced by people and within groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aurum Solis, Ragon, Kenneth M. Mackenzie, Eliphas Lévi, Frederick Hockley, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Machen. Many Hermetic, or Hermetically influenced, groups exist today, most of which are derived from the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry.
Rosicrucianism is a Hermetic/Christian movement dating back to the 15th century. It consists of a secretive inner body, and a more public outer body under the direction of the inner body.
This movement is symbolized by the rose (the soul) and the cross (the body of 4 elements). In other words, the human soul crucified on the cross of the material plane.
The Rosicrucian Order consists of a graded system (similar to The Order of Freemasons) in which members move up in rank and gain access to more knowledge. There is no fee for advancement. Once a member is deemed able to understand the knowledge, they move on to the next grade.
There are three steps to their spiritual path: philosophy, qabbalah, and divine magic. In turn, there are three goals of the order: 1) the abolition of monarchy and the institution of rule by a philosophical elect, 2) reformation of science, philosophy, and ethics, and 3) discovery of the Panacea.
The sources dating the existence of the Rosicrucians to the 17th century are three German pamphlets: the Fama, the Confessio Fraternitatis, and Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Some scholars believe these to be hoaxes, and that antedating Rosicrucian organizations are the first appearance of any real Rosicrucian fraternity.
Unlike the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was open to both sexes, and treated both as equal. The order was a specifically Hermetic society, teaching the arts of alchemy, qabbalah, and the magic of Hermes along with the principles of occult science. Israel Regardie claims that there are many orders, who know what they do of magic from what has been leaked out of the Golden Dawn, by what he deems "renegade members."
The order maintained the tightest of secrecy by severe penalties for loose lips. Overall, the general public was left oblivious to the actions and even existence of the Golden Dawn, making the policies a success. This secrecy was broken first by Aleister Crowley, in 1905, and later by Israel Regardie himself in 1940, giving a detailed account of the order's teachings to the general public.
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