Tricky History Of The Hermetic Tradition

Tricky History Of The Hermetic Tradition Image
The basis for Hermetics and Hermeticism is the Greek god Hermes, also known by his Roman name Mercury. Hermes is one of the most interesting and diverse of the gods. He is also one of the trickiest and hardest to pin down. That's why I call him the liminal god. Since Hermes is, among many other things, the god of the crossroads -one of his symbols is a rock defining boundaries- liminal is an apt word to describe him.

Hermes is a messenger, a trickster, protector of travelers, a thief, a guide for souls after death and an orator. Many of these roles are related to the theme of boundaries. Connecting the living and the dead is an obvious example of this, as well as his association with travel and delivering messages for the other gods. He is also an expert at persuasion and oration, and his words are not necessarily true in the literal sense. In this regard he could be conceived as the god of lawyers. Or, to go back to the Platonic dialogues, where Socrates differentiates between true philosophy and sophistry, Hermes would seem to epitomize the latter.

What do we make of a god like Hermes, who seems to be morally ambiguous at best? Are tales about him meant to be mere entertainment -the ancient equivalent perhaps of contemporary soap operas, where some of the most interesting characters are borderline villains- or is there also a deeper meaning?

To answer this question, we can explore some of the teachings of the Hermetic Tradition. The very words "Hermetic Tradition" are almost as tricky and nebulous as Hermes himself. Many mystery schools, cults and modern day occult systems have sprung up over the ages claiming to be heirs to the "authentic" hermetic teachings. Some of these claim that their knowledge derives from the *real* Hermes, that is Hermes Trismegistus. This teacher is usually placed somewhere in distant antiquity, usually in Egypt (though sometimes Atlantis). He is sometimes referred to as the teacher of Moses. He is also equated with the Egyptian god Thoth.

In the early Christian era, some writings appeared that put down some Hermetic teachings. In later years, these documents were often said to be much older than they actually were. These writings, which are often referred to as Corpus Hermeticum reflected the syncretistic atmosphere of late antiquity in places like Alexandria. They were influenced by diverse sources, such as Christianity, NeoPlatonism, paganism and Gnosticism.

Over the years, Hermeticism has resurged, most notably in the Renaissance, when alchemy, the tarot and other esoteric teachings became popular. Then again, in the 19th Century, England, and to a lesser extent America, saw another wave of occult teachings surface with movements such as Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. Groups such as The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn popularized (at least to some extent; these were never mass movements) the belief that the Hermetic doctrine was an unbroken line that could be traced back to ancient times.

In the early 20th Century a small book called The Kybalion appeared, authored by someone (or several people) only identified as "Three Initiates." This book summarizes some mystical principles of Hermeticism, such as the most famous maxim of all, As Above, So Below. In this book we can also see an early version of doctrines such as The Law of Attraction.

Now, with the New Age movement, Hermeticism has found a new audience, though today people are more likely to combine it with the teachings of other traditions. In a way, this is fitting, as Hermeticism itself was born out of eclecticism.

If this (admittedly simplistic) summary of Hermeticism sounds a bit casual and perhaps skeptical, this is not entirely unintentional. I believe that there is great wisdom in the Hermetic Tradition, but that to gain the most from it requires a highly skeptical attitude towards all teachers, groups and dogmas. In this regard, we might see Hermeticism as the Taoism of the West. Anyone who has read the Tao Teh Ching probably recalls the first stanza, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao."

The wisdom of Hermeticism requires that you delve more deeply into the ambiguous nature of Hermes himself. You have to be able to come to terms with a world where truth and falsehood are often hopelessly mixed up. One of the "gurus" of the Hermetic Tradition, Aleister Crowley, certainly embodied this idea. With his controversial life and deliberately paradoxical teachings, you cannot take anything he says at face value. Yet you can't dismiss it as nonsense either. One of his books, in fact, was called The Book of Lies.

To borrow once again from the Chinese wisdom of Taoism, consider the Yin-Yang symbol. It is usually portrayed as a circle broken into halves, one black, one white, symbolizing the duality of Yin and Yang (or male and female, positive and negative, etc.). Yet the symbol has another quality; there is usually a black dot in the white half and a white dot in the black half. This is telling us that a thing always contains an element of its opposite. If you read The Kybalion, you will see that this is perfectly consistent with Hermetic Teachings.

There are tricksters in many traditions. The Norse god Loki and the Native American Coyote are two well known examples. These characters play important roles in the myths in which they reside. They seem to suggest that life itself is not always what it seems, and that the belief in purity, such as pure truth or pure falsehood is itself a myth. Hermes, or Mercury, is often associated with both The Fool and The Magician (both tricksters in their own ways) of the tarot.

So if you study the Hermetic Tradition, you need to be both skeptical and open-minded. Much of what you read may not be true at all. For example, there is no evidence that a man named Hermes Trismegistus ever lived. Yet his teachings may contain great wisdom all the same!

For more about the Hermes and the Hermetic Tradition, see Hermetic Wisdom [].

To further explore all things liminal, check out Liminal Worlds.

Source: Christopher

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