In many ways, Hermeticism is the grandparent of modern magic and mystery traditions. Stretching back all the way to 300 BCE, many of the ideas and philosophies of Hermeticism still linger in everything from the idea that “as above, so below,” to modern idioms like the phrase “hermetically sealed.”
If you follow a Western occult or magical tradition today, chances are you follow some Hermetic teachings.
What is Hermeticism?
Hermeticism is a philosophical system that’s drawn from the Hermetica, an anthology of Hermes Trismegistus’ teachings that spanned over 300 BCE to 1200 CE.
It appeared at around the same time as Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and early Christianity. The Hermetica covered topics ranging from divinity, to alchemy, to astrology, to the nature of good and evil.
While interest in it has waxed and waned over the centuries, it has experienced multiple historic revivals and continues on through modern magic.
Hermetic Beliefs & Philosophy
There are ultimately two forms of the Hermetica. One, the technical Hermetica, describes the three realms of understanding which one can use to comprehend the universe and refine the self: alchemy, astrology, and theurgy (divine magic).
The second, the philosophical Hermetica, outlines the tradition’s philosophy. It contains several interesting ideas:
- God is “All.” The ultimate Divine exists as creator and created. All things exist within the creator before creation, including itself. The Divine both transcends reality, and is reality. It’s referred to by many names, including God, Mind (Nous), the All, and the Creator.
- There is a single truth. Hermeticism holds that there is one truth that exists in all religions, which was given to humanity by God long ago.
- “As above, so below.” The sun affects the earth, and the moon affects the tides. This phrase is still often repeated in ritual magic today. There are correspondences between different planes of existence, and the macrocosm is ultimately reflected in the microcosm.
- Creation as good, stagnation as evil. One of the most interesting aspects of Hermetic philosophy is its definition of good and evil. Reason and understanding can be the root of either good or evil, depending on whether a person receives their ideas from a divine or demonic source. Demons cause all of the evil in the world by inducing people to focus on a material life. However, only God can be truly good. Since humans have bodies, they will always be somewhat focused on their material needs and wants, which prevents true goodness.
- Acknowledgement of reincarnation. Reincarnation is mentioned in the Hermetica, as Hermes Trismegistus asks “how many bodies have we to pass through” in order to reach God.
The practical Hermetica is the material expression of the philosophical Hermetica. Alchemy shows the process of refining and perfecting materials, much as its possible to perfect the self.
Astrology shows that the movements of the planets influence the Earth, and it’s possible to understand and respond to these influences.
Theurgy is divine magic, placing the user in alliance with higher forces for good.
Depending on who you ask, Hermes Trismegistus was either an Egyptian priest, or a syncretism of the Egyptian God Thoth and Greek God Hermes.
These Gods became syncretized via Greeks that lived in Egypt — they recognized the Egyptian deity as the equivalent of the Greek one, and so worshipped both as the same.
Tracing deities can sometimes be confusing, as a single name may refer to multiple different incarnations of the same figure. Therefore, there are many different Gods that bear the name Hermes, but whose legends differ based on the local culture of their worshippers.
One is described by Cicero as a deity worshipped in Arcadia, said to have killed Argos (Hera’s giant, many-eyed servant) and fled to Egypt, where he gave them laws and the written word and was called “Thoth.”
The name “Tirsmegistus” means “thrice great.” This most likely comes from a name of Thoth. He is the figure responsible for creating the Hermetica.
As described above, the Hermetica is a collection of writings that can be loosely divided into technical and philosophical teachings.
The best known of these is the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of Greek writings compiled by Byzantine authors. There are several other lesser-known writings of importance to Hermetic practice and philosophy:
- The Emerald Tablet, or Smaragdine Tablet, which is widely regarded as the foundation of the alchemical arts.
- The Ascelpius, a treatise that describes some of the religious and philosophical principles of Hermeticism.
- The Cyranides, a work describing healing magic, including the properties of various plants, animals, and stones.
- The Greek Magical papyri, which contain instructions for incantations and various spells.
- Greek and Arabic astrological Hermetica, which comprise multiple writings including the Liber Hermetis and Carmen astrologicum.
- Greek and Arabic alchemical Hermetica. Many of the Greek alchemical writings of Hermes Trismegistus are lost, or preserved only as fragments. The Arabic alchemical Hermetica is largely responsible for establishing him as a source of knowledge on the topic.
- Greek and Arabic magical Hermetica.
The Corpus Hermeticum is a complication of seventeen Greek writings that were put together by Byzantine editors, then later translated into Latin.
Interestingly, despite the name, it doesn’t contain many Hermetic texts. The most well-known of these is Poimandres, which contains a dialogue between the narrator and a figured that calls itself Poimandres, and is described as something akin to God or the Mind.
The name “Poimandres” may derive from the Greek for “man shepherd.” Another possible origin comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Knowledge of Ra.”
7 Hermetic Principles
The seven Hermetic principles are the core ideas upon which the entire Hermetic philosophy is based. They come from The Kybalion, a 1908 book that purported to hold the essential teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. The principles are:
- The principle of Mentalism. This describes the Hermetic nature of God as a mind.
- The principle of Correspondence. This is the idea that “as above, so below.”
- The principle of Vibration. This explains that everything is in a constant state of motion, and is never truly at rest.
- The principle of Polarity. This is the idea that all things consist of a pair of opposites.
- The principle of Rhythm. This describes existence as constantly in flow from one pole to the other.
- The principle of Cause and Effect. This explains that nothing happens due to chance — everything has a cause, and every action has a consequence.
- The principle of Gender. Not to be confused with human gender expression, this describes the concept of the Masculine and Feminine as two poles, used in astrological, alchemical, and magical contexts.
These principles are considered to apply to all facets of existence. Practical applications like alchemy allow the observer to see how they are exemplified in the material world.
Following the principle of Correspondence, they can extrapolate this to themselves, the universe, and God. Astrology dictates that the planets have influence over Earth, but it’s possible to avoid being a slave to these influences.
The Hermetic concept of good and evil dictate that it’s impossible for humans to be wholly good, but it’s possible to employ the Hermetic principles to avoid being a slave to one’s material wants and desires.
Putting the principles into action on the physical and mental plane brings one closer to attaining divine understanding.
See article: 7 Hermetic Principles Explained.
Magical texts comprises a major component of the Hermetica. Incantations, spells, and rituals were one way for the student to better understand the universe and the divine Mind, and see the seven Hermetic principles in action.
Since the focus of Hermeticism was to better understand and align oneself with the divine consciousness, Hermetic magic focused on Theurgy. Theurgy is defined as magic that relies on communion with and aid from divine spirits. In a Hermetic context, it’s an extension of the practice of alchemy.
Hermeticism fell out of favor as the Christian church rose to prominence, and experienced a revival in the 19th century. From this revival sprang multiple modern magical societies and mystery traditions, like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
This group and its teachings went on to become a major influence on modern Western magic, and a few Golden Dawn orders continue to exist to this day.
Outside of the often-fragmentary texts of the technical Hermetica, it’s not really possible to know exactly how Hermetic magic was practiced in antiquity.
While one can certainly place the surviving incantations and spells in a Greek or Egyptian cultural framework, it’s important to remember that modern Hermetic magic draws on sources outside of Hermeticism.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, also incorporated astral travel, elements of Freemasonry, and a cabal of spiritual figures known as the Secret Chiefs.
While relatively few modern magical practitioners perform Hermetic magic today, occult movements and organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn have instilled its practices into almost all branches of magic.
Notable members like Aleister Crowley went on to create their own traditions, following the Golden Dawn’s initiatory structure. Even Gerald Gardner, who brought Wicca into the public eye, had a background in Hermetic practice through a Rosicrucian order.
Hermeticism has followed a long, winding path through history. Originating as the teachings of a syncretized God of communication and wisdom, these writings were fragmented by history, translated, reassembled, reinterpreted, revived, and recombined with other magical and philosophical ideas throughout history.
Part of the beauty of these teachings is their simplicity — despite their circuitous route through time, core truths, like “as above, so below,” continue to survive today.
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