“The greatest untold story is the evolution of God.”― G.I. Gurdjieff
The name Hermes is thought to derive from the Greek ἕρμα (herma), meaning a cairn or heap of stones, which served as boundary markers in ancient Greece – later developing into carved phallic columns dedicated in his name. Initially a deity of fertility, roads and boundaries, he in time took on many additional attributes, among them: prodigious messenger of the Gods, trickster teacher of mankind, god of travellers, merchants, thieves, luck and healing, as well as psychopomp. He presides over all transitions, transactions, changes of state; the Greek word hermêneus – ‘interpreter’ or ‘translator’ sharing a common root with his name.
Hermes’ dwelling place is at the threshold between one realm and another, understood both literally and figuratively. Travellers passing a herma would add a stone or make an offering, and pray to him for assistance in reaching their destinations; his aid would similarly be invoked when the spirit was departing from the body and returning to the starry realms. His planet, Mercury, is the fastest-moving in our solar system, orbits nearest to the Sun, and moves on what to an observer on Earth appears to be an irregular course, periodically seeming to reverse its direction. Whilst retrograde, the planet is said by astrologers to exert a deleterious effect on communications, travel and technology.
Hermes is hence something of an enigma; constantly in motion, assuming many forms, neither one thing nor another, and not to be entirely trusted. Sometimes depicted as a hermaphrodite, ‘he’ embodies paradox – transcending opposing polarities, or issuing from their union; the merging of polarities being expressed within the form of his staff. In English, by way of Latin, we may speak of two fundamental principles: Matter and Pattern – Mater (mother), Pater (father). These are often seen portrayed in Hermetic images: Matter as Moon, (also ‘Salt’ – 🜔), Pattern as Sun, (or ‘Sulphur’ – 🜍), with Hermes, (‘Mercury’- ☿), standing in-between them. Together they make up the Hermetic Trinity – the ‘Tria Prima’ of Paracelsus.
One may come to a sense of this Trinity through contemplating the three states of water. Ice, its most solid form, corresponds to crystalline Salt. Steam, its vaporous opposite, relates to burning Sulphur. And Mercury, as fluid, mediates between them. Expansion and contraction, evaporation and crystallisation, dissolution and coagulation – the fundamentals of Alchemy.
This can be illustrated further by way of the four elements. Earth (🜃) and Water (🜄), being more subject to gravity, are considered ‘fixed’ (hence their downward-pointing triangles), and relate to the Salt principle: cool moist Matter, the Prima Materia. Air (🜂) and Fire (🜁), on the other hand, being comparatively freer and possessing levity, are called ‘volatile’: the airy Pattern, or Spirit aflame. They correspond to Sulphur. Simultaneously, Mercury rules over the Water and Air, which both express a nature that is somewhat less defined than Earth or Fire. The hexagram (✡) is one of his symbols, signifying ‘Quintessence’ – the union of the four elements; another being three crossing lines, with the same shape as the Hagalaz rune in its ‘mother rune’ form (ᚼ), or the six-petalled rosette folk motif.
Trinitarian themes are to be found in the cosmologies of diverse traditional cultures. Most notably in the threefold structure of Upperworld, Underworld and Middle Earth; frequently represented through the image of the World Tree, with its three levels of branches, roots, and trunk. An eagle sits atop of Yggdrasil, exchanging messages with Nidhögg – the wyrm that lies at its roots – by way of the squirrel Ratatoskr, who inserts “slanderous gossip” into their content to provoke them both. Meanwhile the world itself is said to have arisen from the meeting of fire and ice in Ginnungagap.
In the Slavic mythos, Perun, the Thunderer, and his serpentine brother Veles, Lord of the Underworld, are engaged in constant battle with one other (something echoed in the stories of St. George and the archangel Michael battling the dragon, which may well account for their great popularity in Slavic lands). We also encounter ‘mercurial’ figures such as Woden or the Buddha undergoing initiatory ordeals at the base of the World Tree, through which they come to encompass the three worlds, thus attaining supreme wisdom. In Hellenistic Egypt, we find reference to a being named Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘thrice-greatest Hermes’, master of the three realms – who was equated with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, and to whom the authorship of the Corpus Hermeticum was ascribed.
The Trinity is found in microcosm within the human being, in our thinking, feeling and willing faculties – outwardly expressed as ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hands’. To refine this a little further, we may also speak of a nerve-sensory system, a rhythmic-circulatory system, and a metabolic-reproductive system, and recall the Platonic image of the human as an inverted plant – with ‘head’ as root, ‘heart’ as stem and veins, and ‘hands’ as leaves and flowers. The more mineralised nervous system corresponds to Salt, the gaseous and fluid rhythmic-circulatory system to Mercury, and the acid and heat-producing metabolic-reproductive system to Sulphur. The Greek-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff articulated a similar idea, referring to humans as ‘three-brained beings’, distinguishing between ‘intellectual, emotional and moving’ centres.
It should be apparent that the ‘heart’, being in the centre of things, is best placed to facilitate communication between the three. To quote from the film ‘Metropolis’: “Head and hands want to join together, but they don’t have the heart to do it. (…) The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.” Similarly, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, connected by the corpus callosum, of which much could be said in this framework; as with the structure of the DNA double-helix.
Being an archetypal pattern, this Trinity can be employed to bring greater clarity to countless subjects. What it ultimately offers is a means through which to form an integrated system of knowledge, that places the sciences, the arts, and matters of spirit in relationship, rather than in conflict with each other. Here we may understand the Transcendentals ‘the True, the Beautiful, and the Good’ in their proper context. Hermeticism could be described as a science of qualities – which is not to say that it doesn’t deal in quantities, for its practical disciplines of Spagyrics and Alchemy attest to that – but that it anchors itself in the wisdom of the heart, and hence employs its language in articulating its findings.
The art of memory, known also as the method of loci (wherein our natural talent for spatial mnemonics is developed to great lengths, using techniques such as memory journeys and the construction of ‘memory palaces’) is something likewise rooted in such inner sensibility. In a fascinating book entitled ‘The Memory Code’, Lynne Kelly documents mnemonic techniques from various preliterate cultures, demonstrating how dance, story, song, and tactile devices were the means through which vast quantities of information were internalised and transmitted. The Hermetic Arts are similarly multisensory, layering associations and correspondences over a dense tapestry of symbolism and cosmology, making it possible to create associations and draw connections that are invisible to the compartmentalised mind.
I will now, perhaps somewhat foolishly, attempt a brief examination of the unfolding of human culture through the lens of the Tria Prima. I’ll approach this from the material pole (as is most familiar in our present culture) by first considering the influence of bioregional geography and ecology on the mentalities of disparate peoples. The difficulty with such an analysis lies in the fact that one must at the same time not forget its inverse – the spiritual pole. Hence, in more primal times – whilst simultaneously being influenced ‘from above’ by the spiritual beings they were in communion with, the environmental factor must have been significant: for example, those dwelling lowlands and valleys would have likely maintained a rather different relationship to the spirits of land and sky compared to those inhabiting hills and mountains.
Following this logic, there may well be some connection between the transition from ‘Magna Mater’ religions to those exalting a jealous, vengeful Sky Father in the progressively desertifying lands of what had once been the Fertile Crescent. These environmental changes were brought about in large measure through the combined effects of agriculture, overpopulation and deforestation. As a result, the previously moist and fertile earth became increasingly hot and dry, and with no more forests to create rain, harsh punishment and retribution began to issue from the sky – in turn necessitating ever more regimentation, ‘efficiency’, and top-down control. Which is not to say that the previous regime was any ‘better’ – both ‘mother’ and ‘father’ played their roles in creating the civilisational structures which we continue to be influenced by to this day.
To cut a long story very short, we later see this Levantine Sky Father faith being brought to Europe – which had itself experienced its fair share of agriculture-related ecological upheaval. Nonetheless a damper, cooler climate and lower population meant that the damage wrought was not as severe or permanent, as the soil was better able to recover from maltreatment. Therefore, the soils of Europa were in most cases still comparatively vital at that time, and the earthly pole must have continued to play a significant role in the psyche of her inhabitants.
And so, despite the coercion and brutality with which the new faith was often introduced, what we witness is the widespread adoption of the Marian cult. There is likewise the reported familiarity of many Europeans with deities that shared the attributes of the dying-and-resurrecting solar being of Christ. (Here it should be mentioned that our Sun, with its annual fluctuations and its influence on the plants, might also be considered to be ‘mercurial’.) Meanwhile, the parallels between the ‘One Almighty God’ of the Christians and ‘Deus Pater’, or whichever god aligned to him in the local cosmology, were surely not overlooked. It was over such a syncretic mythopoeic landscape that the Pontifex Maximus of the Church of St. Peter attempted to preside, by way of his ecclesiastical authorities and their footmen. It seems curious that for all the wanton cultural destruction enacted in the name of this new Roman Empire, the three facets of the Tria Prima continued to be represented within the new order.
Moving on to the beginnings of the Renaissance, we find the authority of Peter’s Rock rapidly eroding. An emerging individuated consciousness felt the need to come to its own understanding of truth, rather than have it dictated from on high – and here both scientists and mystics were allies. We see this represented in the archetype of Dr Faustus, whose story demonstrates both the enormous potential and great danger it brought. Here it is worth recalling the Jungian maxim ‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.’
An example of this being that the rediscovered Corpus Hermeticum was popularised through the de Medici banking family of Florence, who patronised a significant proportion of Renaissance culture. As Michael Hoffman points out in ‘The Occult Renaissance Church of Rome’, this in turn resulted in the highest levels of the Catholic church being populated with Hermeticist-Cabbalists, who saw fit to undermine the church’s restrictions on usury. Alongside a similar trajectory within Protestant cicrles, this change would lead to disastrous consequences for Europe, and ultimately the whole world. What Hoffman’s ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ traditionalism fails to see, however, is that old societal structures were no longer adequate for containing this individuating consciousness.
The growing schism expressed itself in the discipline of science (the words are related) and Protestantism. During the decades that Bruno burned and Galileo sat under house arrest, the visions of a real-life Dr Faustus, John Dee, for a ‘British Empire’ began to be realised by Francis Bacon and his followers in the Royal Society – ultimately paving the way for the Atlanticist Empire of today. While continental Rosicrucians called for an integration of science, art, and religion in accordance with the Hermetic principle ‘as above, so below’, the members of the Royal Society of London (most famously Isaac Newton), despite actively studying the Hermetic arts in private, appear to have decided to publicly extol the virtues of the scientific method in isolation from all else. It might be argued that it was this onesidedness that gave rise to the multitude of travesties since enacted in the name of so-called ‘Reason’. Let us not forget that Hermeticism is a double-edged sword – for Hermes is a double-edged god.
The Austrian spiritual scientist Rudolf Steiner, in his system of cultural epochs, named the period 1413 A.D. – 3573 A.D. the epoch of ‘consciousness soul’ (and incidentally a period during which the English and German-speaking peoples would have a vanguard role in world destiny). Steiner perceived the history of humankind as a cosmic struggle, with two beings he identified as Lucifer and Ahriman playing the role of adversaries. According to his vision, their qualities relate closely to the two poles of the Hermetic Trinity – Lucifer to Sulphur, Ahriman to Salt.
Where Lucifer beckons mortals to forget about the Earth and their bodily existence, and instead to dissolve into realms of light, Ahriman seeks to destroy in us any ability to perceive the spiritual, so that we would identify entirely with matter and the body. Redemption from either extreme was for Steiner found in the incarnation of the Christ-Logos (who he described in very different terms to the church of Rome) and according to him, has become visible within the etheric biosphere of the Earth in the last century to those with spiritual sight. He also stated that Ahriman would have a physical incarnation in the West in our time, as Lucifer had done in the East in the third millennium B.C.
Even to a doubting Thomas such as myself, Steiner’s narrative presents an intriguing picture. In contrast to the cyclical, inexorable decline from primordial unity articulated by the Perennialist school, it finds purpose in Man’s painful process of individuation. Steiner (along with Oswald Spengler) was much influenced by Goethe’s description of morphology – derived from his study of the growth of plants, in which he perceived archetypal processes expressing themselves. Steiner likewise found something authentic within Hegel’s articulation of the dialectic, which was itself based on the Hermetic Trinity. (Indeed, a good number of pioneering German thinkers of that time were influenced by Hermetic teachings – many through coming into contact with the ideas of Jakob Boehme and Paracelsus.)
Hence it might be worth posing the question as to which archetypal processes best lend themselves to describing nature of human consciousness. Perennialism literally refers to an annual cycle of growth, seeding, and decay. In the case of a deciduous perennial such as a tree, it sends out flowers and leaves in the spring, in summer grows its body and bears its fruit, drops its leaves in the autumn, and concentrates its sap in its roots over winter. This is the annual cycle, and reflects the Traditional narrative of the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron Ages. Nonetheless, there is rather more to it than that.
Within each fruit is a seed, containing a new combination of genetic material. Typically, the vast majority of these seeds will not grow into new plants. However, some – those that find the right conditions, will, and the strains best suited to these conditions will thrive the most. This being the familiar story of ‘natural selection’. Meanwhile the (admittedly fragmentary) fossil record suggests that new species periodically ‘evolved’ at various points in time. This, materialistic science ascribes to ‘random mutation’ – seemingly overlooking the fact that coherent forms must surely be the result of coherent in-form-ation (Matter and Pattern once again).
Could novel ‘mutations’ in human consciousness – which has over time ‘evolved’ from a dreamlike collective consciousness to a more wakeful and individualised consciousness – have a similar character? As if so, then the impetus becomes not simply the preservation of ‘Tradition’, but crucially, how best to cultivate these precious strains within such changing conditions, that they might overcome the antagonism of their circumstances to become strong, tall trees themselves, and in time forests. Such a challenge would necessarily demand the creation of new social forms in which the individual can find their proper place.
Further, the current degree of maturity of the human species must also be called into question. Some Rosicrucians suggest that as a species, we are in the 21st century at an age corresponding to the transition from adolescence to young adulthood in the human individual – an idea that will perhaps surprise some. What this implies, is that the history of recent centuries constitutes an attempt – admittedly not an especially graceful one – to free ourselves from childhood authority structures and conditioning, and to begin to act as conscientious adults. What is proposed here is that humans of millennia past were highly clairvoyant, and hence the Gods thought through them, directing them as parents do a child. And that in order to learn to think for ourselves and come to understand the meaning of freedom, we have had to gradually lose this clairvoyance and pass through an Age of Darkness, or a Dark Age of the Soul. If true, then it remains unclear whether or not we will be able to survive such a transition – the early 20s often being a precarious time in the life of the individual.
Collectively, we stand on the edge of a precipice. But equally, as Blake declared, “without contraries, there is no progression.” The world conspires to polarise and hence disintegrate us – the adversarial Divide et Impera now enacted on a global scale. In such trying times, one might once again heed the wisdom of Hermes and his cohort, whom we invoke within the temple of our hearts. I conclude with a thoroughly Hermetic piece of advice from C.S. Lewis:
“I feel a strong desire to tell you – and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me – which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
An Introduction to Anthroposophy: Rudolf Steiner’s World View by Francis Edmunds
Green Hermeticism by Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, et al.
The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science by Henri Bortoft
The Zelator: A Modern Initiate Explores the Ancient Mysteries by Mark Hedsel