On Alchemy

The place to begin, I think, is obviously with the question "Who is Hermes Trismegistus?" What are we talking about here? I mean, this sounds so incredibly exotic to people. The Renaissance had the concept of what it called the Presqui Poaloque (sp?) and if my Latin and Greek irritates you, you have to understand you're dealing with a boy from a coal mining town in Colorado, so I do mangle these things. The Presqui Paoloque were Orpheus, Moses, and primarily Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes Trismegistus was the primary source, from the point of view of the Renaissance, of this whole mysterious tradition and, you recall from last night's lecture, this is based on a misunderstanding. The Renaissance believed that Hermes Trismegistus was older than Moses. We know now, thanks to Issac and Marik Casaubon, two philologists of the early 17th century, that definitely the Hermetic corpus was composed between the first and second centuries after Christ. The method of the Casaubons was to examine the philosophical language of the Corpus Hermeticum and show that there were words and phrases there that were post-Platonic and derivative of philosophers whose dates we have fully in hand.

Now, if you go to an occult bookstore you will find that, to this date, this error persists. There are people who still want to claim that this stuff is older than dyanstic Egypt. There are even books, I was in Shambala weeks ago, claiming to teach you how to change lead into gold. Well, from my point of view this just evokes a small smile. The old errors persist. The Puffers are still at it. But what Hermes Trismegistus is is a character who appears in many guises in these hermetic dialogs. The hermetic hymns are usually couched in the form of dialogs between Hermes and his son Thoth and Thoth takes the position of the uninitiated ingenue who is sitting at the feet of the master. Thoth asks questions: what is the true nature of the world, what is the true nature of man, and Hermes answers and the general form of these texts, with exceptions, because there are 20 of them, is an intellectual dialog which builds to an ecstatic revelation and then in the wake of the ecstatic revelation there is a hymn of praise to Hermes Trismegistus. Trismegistus means thrice-blessed and is sometimes called Hermes Triplex to distinguish this Hermes from all the other Hermes of early, middle and late Greek thinking. Hermes is of course the messenger god, the god of scribes. The reason this Ibis-headed being holding a staff is embossed on the cover of each of these books is because this is how Hermes Trismegistus, Thoth Hermes was imagined. He was associated with the scribe god of the Egyptian pantheon.

The two distinguishing factors that stand out, at least for me, that I think you need to incorporate into your thinking about hermeticism, two very important concepts. The first is the divinity of human beings-an extraordinarily radical idea in the context of late Hellenistic thinking. We all operate under the spell of the concept of the fall of man. Man is an inferior being, errors were made in the Garden of Eden and that we are far, far from the nature of divinity. All magic, and all magic in the West is derivative from this tradition, takes the position that man is a divine being, men and women are divine beings. The Corpus Hermeticum actually refers to man as God's brother and this is a double-edged perception. It gives tremendous dignity to the human enterprise but it also raises the possibility of the error of pride and hubris.

In the Renaissance, Marcello Ficino boiled this notion down to the aphorism "man is the measure of all things." And you may notice that this is the position of science, that man is the measure of all things, that it is up to us, we can decide the course of the cosmos. All magic stems from this position. This is why the church was so concerned to stamp out magic-because it assigns man an importance that the church would rather reserve for deity. So that's the first great division between Christian thinking and hermetic thinking. An entirely different conception of what human beings are and when we get into the text, I'll read you some of these passages.

Now, the second distinguishing factor, and notice that position on man empowers tremendous freedom, man is the measure of all things, the second distinguishing factor in hermeticism is the belief that we can control fate, that we can escape from cosmic fate. The late Hellenistic mindset, and what you get in the Gnostics, is the belief that because of astrology, because of the stars, we are subject to control from these exterior forces. In most Gnostic thinking the whole concern is to somehow evade what is called the hemarmeny (sp?), cosmic fate. And in the Gnostic systems, the only way it can be done is by ascending through the shells of cosmic, ordering forces-the archons, the planets, the planetary demons, and so forth and so on, and then beyond the hemarmeny, which is actually thought of as a place in space that you burst through when you transcend fate. What the hermetic thought is is that these fates become personified as the decans, as stellar demons, and then it is held that there is a magic, a magical system, which is possible where you can call these archangels to your side and work with them and not be subject to the inevitable working of the cosmic machinery and this burst like a revelation over the late Hellenistic world because there was such philosophical and emotional and political exhaustion that this comes, this is a counterpoint to the message of the New Testament, which is a similar message, that you can be saved in the body, that you can escape the inevitable dissolution and degradation laid upon us by time. So, these are the two distinguishing factors: the divinity of man and the possibility of using magic to evade the machinery of fate.

So, I want to read some of the Corpus Hermeticum to you to give you the flavor of it, but before I do, I want to say something about the history of these texts. You're all familiar, more or less I'm sure, with Apuleius' The Golden Ass, which is a novel of initiation which is late Roman. Apuleius also put together what is called the Asclepius and the Asclepius is true hermetic literature that was not lost. It was the only one that was available throughout the Dark and Middle ages. All the rest was lying untranslated in Syrian Monasteries until Gemistus Plethon in 1490 brought these manuscripts to Florence, to the court of the Di Medicis and then the translation project began. The only other hermetic material that was accessible throughout the high Gothic period was a book of magic called the Picatrix. And the Picatrix was probably written in the 1200's although this elicits screams of dissent from the burning-eyed faction. But reason dictates that we consider Picatrix 12th century so only the Asclepius and the Picatrix represented this strain of thought before the 1460's. And the importance of hermetic thinking can be seen by the fact that Gimistis Platho brought Plato to the Florentine council as well as Hermes Trismegistus. And when Marcello Ficino sat down to do this translation work Cosumo Di Medici said "Plato can wait, I'm getting old. You do the Hermetic Corpus first. That's much more important. We'll sort out this Plato business in a few years." And so it was done. It was completed in 1493 and in 1494 Cosumo died so he never saw the translations of Plato but felt that the Corpus Hermeticum was more important. I mention this to show you the importance that was attached to this stuff.

Here is one of the key passages on man's nature. This is from Book one of the Corpus Hermeticum: "But mind the father of all, he who is life and light gave birth to man, a being like to himself and he took delight in man as being his own offspring for man was very goodly to look on, bearing the likeness of his father. With good reason then did God take delight in man for it was God's own form that God took delight in and God delivered over to man all things that had been made." This is the basis of the Ficinian statement man is the measure of things. "And man took station in the Maker's sphere and observed the things made by his brother who was set over the region of fire. And having observed the Maker's creation in the region of fire he willed to make things for his own part also. And his father gave permission having in himself all the workings of the administrators." This is a reference to the angel heirarchary "And the administrators took delight in him and each of them gave him a share of his own nature."

So man is the brother of God and a creature at home with the angels. This idea is echoed in the Asclepius which you'll recall was available throughout the Middle Ages. "The range of man is yet wider than that of the demons" meaning the angels - this term is transposable in its hermetic thought "The individuals of the human kind are diverse and of many characters. They, like the demons, come from above and, entering into fellowship with other individuals they make for themselves many and intimate connections with all other kinds" and then the famous passage "man is an honor then, Asclepius, honor and reverence to such a being. Man takes on him the attributes of a god as though he were himself a god. And he is familiar with the demonkind for he comes to know that he is sprung from the same source as they. And strong in the assurance of that in him which is divine, he scorns the merely human part of his own nature. How far more happily blended are the properties of man then those of other beings. He is linked to the gods inasmuch as there is in him a divinity akin to theirs. He scorns that part of his own being which makes him a thing of earth and all else with which he finds himself connected to by heaven's ordering he binds to himself with the tie of his affection."

So this is an incredibly radical conception of what it means to be human. So radical that it is unwelcome even in the present context. Notice the modern feeling of this stuff. This is not biblical rhetoric. This is philosophical discourse as we know it and carry it out ourselves. This is a passage on the adept and initiation. Let me see who's speaking here, Thoth speaks to Pimondres, this is book one, "But tell me this too, said I, God said 'let the man who has mind in him recognize himself' but have not all men mind?" And then Pimondres replies "Oh man, said mind to me speak not so, I even mind come to those men who are holy and good and pure and merciful and my coming is a succor to them and forthwith they recognize all things and win the father's grace by loving worship and give thanks to him praising and hymning him with hearts uplifted to him in filial affection." Again the reference to being God's brother in filial affection. "And before they give up the body to death which is proper to it they loathe the bodily senses knowing what manner of work the senses do." This introduces the theme of asceticism.

Like the Gnostics, there is in much of hermetic literature a kind of horror of the earth, a desire to ascend and to get away from it. Scott makes the distinction between what he calls pessimistic Gnosis and optimistic Gnosis. And within the 20 texts of the Corpus Hermeticum you get vacillation on this point. In some cases the Mandaean, the Cebian(?) tendency is there and the world soul is invoked and the whole of creation is seen as a living being involved in this soteriological process, this process of salvational mechanics through magic. In other texts this Gnostic horror of matter is strongly stressed. It's very clear that the Hellenistic mind was ambivalent on this point. Even as we are ambivalent on this point. It's a real question, are we here to be the caretakers of the earth or are we strangers in the universe and is our task to return to a forgotten and hidden home no trace of which can be found in the Saturnine world of matter. It's very hard to have it both ways. You're going to have to take a position on that and these people were forced into the same dilemma. There's no middle ground between those two positions and so that dichotomy, that conundrum, haunted a lot of hermetic thinking.

Here is the hermetic creation myth. This is book three, paragraphs one through a few, and you'll see the comparison and similarities with the Christian creation myth but with extraordinary differences. "There was darkness in the deep and water without form and there was a subtle breath, intelligent, which permeated the things in chaos with divine power. Then, when all was yet undistinguished and unwrought, there was shed forth holy light and the elements came into being. All things were divided one from another and the lighter things were parted off on high, the fire being suspended aloft so that it rose unto the air and the heavier things sank down and sand was deposited beneath the watery substance and the dry land was separated out from the watery substance and became solid. And the firey substance was articulated with the gods therein and heaven appeared with its seven spheres and the gods, visible in starry forms, with all their constellations and heaven revolved and began to run its circling course riding upon the divine air. And each god by his several powers set forth that which he was bidden to put forth. And there came forth four-footed beasts and creeping things and fishes and winged birds and grass and every flowering herb, all having seed in them according to their diverse natures for they generated within themselves the seed by which their races should be renewed." And then it goes on to describe the birth of man.

This kind of thinking is what alchemy seized upon in it's ambitions. One way of thinking of what alchemy came to attempt is, the thinking went like this - since man is God's brother, the purpose of man is to intercede in time and it was believed that ores, precious metals and things like this grew in the earth. It was a thorough going theory of evolution that reached right down into the organic realm. It was thought that gold deposits in the earth would actually replenish themselves over time. It's passages like this that give permission for that kind of thinking. In line with that, we're now in book four and remember the tone changes slightly from book to book, they were, after all, written over a 300 year period by various people.