Ok, buckle in. This is another post where I will attempt to condense a huge amount of information into a blog post, whereas you can read volumes of books on this. And if this post interests you, you should read those volumes of books.
The Hermetic system of theology, philosophy, and tradition is based on writings (collectively referred to as the Hermetic Corpus) by the pagan prophet Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes Trismegistus was possibly a real person, or possibly a collection of people writing, depending on who you ask.
And, its not likely we’ll actually really know this, as the writings attributed to him are difficult to truly date and could have been written anywhere between approximately when Moses was alive and the 1st or 2nd century CE.
Regardless of when the writings of Hermes Trismegistus actually were composed (which I think is probably not an incredibly important point to argue right now), they contain a wealth of esoteric information that is credited with creating or organizing the beginnings of things such as:
- ancient occult practices
- foundations of Western esoteric magickal traditions
- the basis of modern Western astrology
- spirit conjuring/invoking/evoking
- probably the foundations or inspiration of almost every occult or ‘secret’ society we know of
- plenty more arcane magickal subjects
Many people actually believe that Hermes Trismegistus was actually a humanized figure representing the combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth being syncratized, as they represented similar characterizations to these two cultures which borrowed and overlapped each other heavily during the period of antiquity.
The term ‘hermetic’ is also often used interchangeably with the term ‘occult’, which means hidden or obscured.
I hesitate to call these tenets in the formal and rigid sense, as one of the overarching principles of Hermeticism is a denial of or resistance to complete ‘doctrinal faith.’
(Meaning, they saw the emergence of the major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, then Christianity, and, finally, Islam, as problematic to their findings that there was one universal deity present in all religions, rather than only one religion with a deity that was ‘real’, whilst all others were ‘wrong.’)
God is everything and within us but also apart from us
This belief essentially states that the universal unifying force of all beings, matter, thoughts, and so on is god. And this force is both within us and apart from us. We are god, but we are also apart from god. And everything else is too.
This makes Hermeticism a monotheistic system, however, it also recognizes that there can be other deities and beings born of that ‘god,’ which seems contradictory initially, but when you understand that these other deities are also ‘god’ and ‘not god,’ then I guess it begins to make sense 😉
There are some beliefs within Hermeticism that are based on texts found describing the universal force of god creating the other gods and goddesses to rule over various aspects, areas, planets, or concepts. Which, again, still falls within the framework of a monotheistic ‘supreme creative force’ view.
As Above, So Below
This is where many people got this extraordinarily famous saying. It comes from the Emerald Tablet, a writinng of Hermes Trismegistus.
The Hermetic writings teach that whatever happens on one plane of existence, also happens on all other planes of existence. Also, whatever has already happened, will happen again. And we can know what will happen on Earth if we can know what has already happened throughout the universe (the stars and other planets).
This is also a commentary on the microcosm and macrocosm concept. What has happened around us will also happen within us, and we are the universe, therefore what happens within us, also happens across the universe. Everything is god, and inter-connected.
Astrology Can Be Harnessed to Understand Our Lives
One of the central concepts taught is that what the stars and planets do are influenced by the universal god, and their influence can be studied and understood to better understand how to operate our lives in synchronicity and symbiosis with our current world, and the universe around it.
Alchemy as a Symbol of Life Cycles
The study alchemy is heavily symbolic, and, apart from literally trying to change lead or other less precious metals into gold, it also speaks to the metaphor of birth, life, death, and reincarnation into the next life cycle, all the while, the energy of the spirit, interconnected as it is with the greater consciousness and the universal god, remains intact. Reincarnation is obviously a key point and belief within Hermetic philosophies.
Theurgy vs. Goetia
Hermetic principles state that the study of magick and accessing it through higher spirits such as angels and gods, is the noblest of studies. The study or pursuit of ‘black’ magick through association with demons or dark spirits is viewed as undesirable, and thought not to lead to spiritual enlightenment.
I think this is a point of contention with some who argue over the definition of ‘demon,’ and what type of being or spirit specifically qualifies as this based on historic and modern interpretations.
Reincarnation and Physical Embodiment
Another central part of the Hermetic belief system is that of the physical embodiment of spirits is due to the universal god being displeased with the souls or spirits in their original form and sentencing them, for lack of a better word, to life in the physical world as a trial the souls must undergo in order to achieve higher levels of spiritual growth, so that, eventually, they can fulfill the requirement of purity to be able to exist permanently on the spiritual plane.
Until each soul reaches that enlightenment, it will continue to reincarnate in human form and undergo the trials and struggles that which is human life.
I would like to point out here that Hermeticism was initially tolerated, and even embraced by, some early Christian sects and churches, as it was actually quite compatible with the early Christian teachings.
It wasn’t until the Christian religion began to organize and stamp out competing views, or views which give too much power to the common man to commune directly with deity or spirit, did Hermeticism come under fire and disappear from mainstream, becoming an ‘occult’ or underground practice until very modern revival in the late 18th century through present.
The Christian church was particularly disturbed by any religious approach that encouraged the common person from knowing and entering into enlightenment, scholarly undertakings, direct communication with a deity, religious education, and critical thinking, which might lead to their rebellion against a quite controlling religious organization and carefully crafted doctrine designed to place the communication with a supreme god squarely in the hands of only a select few, rather than make it accessible to all.
At this point, I want to reiterate that you should read many many sources on this subject if you’re interested in learning more.
As an ecclectic witch, I borrow from and work with concepts of many different schools of thoughts or paths of teaching, and I think the Hermetic philosophy is probably equally as influential in many of the paths we consider ‘modern’ as other sources.
A large part of the Wiccan system is based on Hermetic principles, as is chaos magick, shadow magick, and green witchcraft. You can see elements of the Hermetic system appear almost universally, which is probably not coincidence, given its core belief that everything is interconnected.
A great, short, and mostly easy-to-understand book to whet your appetite further is The Kybalion, as well as you can purchase translated copies of the Corpus Hermeticum, which is the compilation of some of the more important writings of Hermes Trismegistus, at least the main ones that have been translated.