Hermeticism takes its name from the God Hermes Trismegistos, or "thrice-great Hermes". Hermes also has an association with the Egyptian God of Wisdom and Magic, Thoth. Thoth was consider the source of all sacred knowledge in Greece, and Hermes had the same stature in Greece and Rome, and in Renaissance Europe.
The texts that are relevant are the "Corpus Hermeticum", suppressed for years and finally brought back by some important thinkers in the Renaissance like Ficino. It was misunderstood during that time as being more ancient than Christianity, and as such could be seen as a precourser, which Christianity fulfilled. So, during the Renaissance there was a union of Christianity, humanism, magic, the Kabbalah, and hermetic thought.
The origin of Hermetic thought is in the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, reproduced in one (of many) translations below.
THE EMERALD TABLET OF HERMES
- I speak not fiction, but what is certain and most true.
- What is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below for performing the miracle of one thing.
- And as all things are produced from one, by the mediation of one, so all things are produced from this one thing by adaptation.
- Its father is the sun, its mother was the moon, the wind carried it in its belly, its nurse is the earth.
- It is the cause of all perfection throughout the whole world.
- Its power is perfect if it be changed into the earth.
- Separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, gently, and with judgment.
- It ascends from the earth to heaven, and descends again to earth, thus you will possess the glory of the whole world and all obscurity will fly away.
- This thing is the fortitude of all fortitude, because it overcomes all subtle things, and penetrates every solid thing.
- Thus are all things created.
- Thence proceed wonderful adaptations which are produced in this way.
- Therefore am I called Hermes Trismegistus, possessing the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
- What I had to say about the operations of the sun is complete.
This might not look like an auspicious start, but this document has been analysed by a host of people through the years. It develops two distinct traditions over time – an experimental tradition and a meditative tradition. First, the experimental tradition.
At the basis of all this is Aristotle's philosophy. There are 4 elements (earth, air, fire, water), and four qualities (cold, moist, dry, heat). All these elements are derived from something more primary, known as prime matter, or hyle. A statement on the theory itself is as follows (from Schumaker, Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, 170):
According to the Greek adepts, every natural body is formed of the same basic matter. To obtain a desired substance – for example, gold, the most perfect of metals, the most precious of goods – it is necessary to take analogous bodies, which differ from it only in some quality, and eliminate what characterizes them, in such a way as to reduce them to their first matter, which is the mercury of the philosophers. This can be obtained from ordinary mercury by removing from it, first of all, its liquidity, that is to say a water, a fluid and mobile element which prevents it from reaching perfection. It must also be fixed: its volatility, an air or an aerial element it contains, must be extracted. Finally, some authors affirm, as Geber was to do later, that the mercury must be freed from an earth, a terrestrial element, a gross slag, which is opposed to its perfect refinement.
The first matter of all metals having been prepared in this way – I mean the mercury of the philosophers – it remains only to tint it by sulphur and arsenic, words in which were confused metallic sulphurs, various inflammable bodies of the same class, and quintessential materials which the philosophers professed to draw from them.
Why mercury? Maybe because it is visually like silver, the metal thought to be nearest gold, plus the fact of its fluidity. It should be said that the method described doesn't work, which is why later variations get more and more complex. But it is also important to recognize that the whole thing relies on an assumption of the unity of all matter, in its origin and at its base. Here's another, more complex method:
- Calcination: start by purging the stone (the philosopher's stone, that is), by turning it from earth into water, then air, then fire, and back again. This takes over a year to do.
- Solution (or dissolution): reduce the "hard and dry compaction" to become thin and liquid.
- Separation: divides the "subtle from the gross", dividing the water from the oil, a process that requires water that has been distilled 7 times.
- Conjunction: Union of all the elements. The "woman" (mercury) is impregnated by the "man" (sulphur), and is left alone for 5 months.
- Putrification: Causing "the woman" to go to purgatory. This seems to be going through all the colours of the rainbow, and then coming back to white.
- Congealation: reducing the material to the consistency of water again.
- Fermentation: not well explained.
- Exaltation: It seems that the substances are vaporized by heat, and then chilled back to a liquid stage. The imagery is now of Christ who, when exalted, "will draw all things unto me".
- Multiplication: an increase "in colour, odor, virtue, and also in quantity". Dissolving and congealing, or subjecting the substance to repeated fermentation, which requires the addition of mercury.
- Projection: once the "medicine" has been prepared, it can be cast on metals that have been cleansed. They will be transformed, raised to a higher metal.
As mentioned, besides the experimental version of alchemy, there is also a meditative or mystical version. As for Gnosticism, there is the assumption of a vast and ancient literature that only adepts have access to. The goal of alchemy in this sense (and it is related to the later discussion of the Kabbalah as well) is to know the inner workings of God. Unlike the Kabbalah, though (at least the early stuff), this assumes that we get there by discovering the inner workings of the natural world.
The mystical symbolism of the Bible becomes part of alchemy. Stories are taken allegorically, particularly stories from books such as Song of Songs. Descriptions of Solomon's wives, for example, are interpreted as a search for prime matter ("virginity") through the "sweat and tears" (alchemical processes) of the lover's love, in the same way that Christ's restorative power is seen as an alchemical process.
There is also numerology involved, which may well have drawn upon the gematria of the Kabbalah. The point here is both to reveal and to conceal the alchemical doctrines. The mystical side of alchemy has a great number of analogies, some elaborate enough to be used in Rosicrucian or Masonic initiation. In fact, thinking by analogy was central and crucial to alchemy, as well as all esoteric pursuits.
Characteristics of Hermetic Thought
- Eclecticism: various traditions get brought into the fold, such as ancient mystery religions, the Kabbalah, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, other types of esoteric Christianity, Wicca, neo-Paganism, and Grail stories. Hermetic thought, then, must be able to entertain the idea of multiple realities and not attempt to rule out contradictions.
- Spiritual curiosity: hermetics are seekers, and as such are tolerant of the spiritual paths of others. The curiosity generally requires participation in the spiritual, rather than just academic reflection on it.
- Polytheism and ultimate monotheism: because of the pagan roots, hermeticism often has a strong sense of multiple deities. The divine makes itself known by many names and with many faces. Ultimately, though, there is a monotheism, to the extent that there is a unity beneath the plurality.
- As above, so below: the divine is both immanent and transcendent. So, there are things that happen on the spiritual level that are mirrored on the material. It is not causal, but a matter of equilibrium.
- All is divine: since the divine is in all things, all must be divine. We can know the divine, like with the gnostics, through reflection on the spark within.
- Nature reveals the divine. Nature is the divine teacher. The hermetic must serve nature as a priest or priestess. The physical world is a manifestation or vessel of divine love or power, and it is our job to care for it. The tie between the fall of Adam and the fall of nature often comes up. If we redeem Adam we redeem nature, and vice versa. In return for this care, nature reveals herself as a profound symbol for the journey. The cycles of nature become important as spiritual symbols, not just natural ones.
- The will to the light: humans have a unique place in the divine pattern because of our will. We can aspire to the divine. Our will drives us on.
- Access to the subtle realms: humans also have the ability to access non-physical realms – the psychic, the mental, the spiritual. We can enhance this in various ways, for instance through Theurgy, which is the working with the divine through ritual.
- The great work: humans have fallen away from a previous state that was more unified with the divine. Our work, then, is restoration (Tikkun - from Lurianic Kabbalah), but not just the restoration of what we lost, but a creation of a new state. We are returning to Eden, but not the same one we left.
Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Science in the Renaissance. U. of California