Read an Excerpt
The Postmodern Magical Papyrus of Abaris
By Stephen Edred Flowers
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1995 Stephen Edred Flowers, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
The kind of magic and philosophy we now call "Hermetic" is most clearly seen in documents dating from the first four or five centuries C.E. The epicenter of Hermetic ideas was Alexandria in the Nile Delta. This is where the ancient Greek (or Hellenic) culture and that of Egypt were most completely and powerfully brought together. A secondary site of this activity was in the Fayyum. These are the places where the two cultures most easily mixed—in both ethos and ethnos.
Our most important source for the study of operative Hermetic magic is the body of text known as the "Greek magical papyri." These will be discussed in more detail below. For now it is important to clarify that this body of writings is not entirely "Hermetic" in the strict philosophical, or even "theological" definition of the term. Our thesis is that the Hermetic path was one of gradual intellectualization or spiritualization of initiation. As the Hermetic initiates came closer to their goal, the techniques became progressively more focused on purely Hermetic imagery and language, but in the earlier stages of the work, it was more eclectic in its tastes and more practical in its methods.
The complex Hermetic tradition has a dual heritage. This is clear when we look into the origin of the name "Hermetic." The school is named after the Greek god Hermês (Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), who is widely thought to be at least in part a Greek reinterpretation of the Egyptian god Thoth. The actual Egyptian form of his name is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] dhwty [jhuty]. This, the chief Hermetic god, was known in the tradition as Hermês Trismegistos—the Thrice-Greatest. In truth he is an amalgamation of the magicians' god of the Greeks and Egyptians—but also contains the seeds of all the other "gods of magic" from the Hebrews, Babylonians, and Persians as well.
If we look to the very deepest roots we can uncover the dual heritage of the Hermetic tradition. One of these roots underlies the Greek or Hellenic culture: the Indo-European. The other is that of the Semito-Hamitic or Egyptian culture. In the Hermetic magical system these two distinct, and usually distant, cultures have been brought together in a pagan context. This original synthesis then becomes the model for any and all future amalgamations of magical traditions under the code name "Hermetic."
Ultimately all of these texts are Hermetic in the sense that they are examples of operative magic, and Thoth-Hermês is the god of magic par excellence. His patronage would have been understood as being essential to the whole process in the time and place the papyri were produced.
The Hellenic Root
We conveniently call "Indo-European" the descendants of that great mass of folk speaking a related dialect and worshipping a certain pantheon of related gods and goddesses. The original homeland of these people was somewhere in the region north of the Black and Caspian Seas over 6000 years ago. One branch of this culture made its way into the southern part of the Balkan peninsula (present-day Greece) as early as 1900 B.C.E. Other independent groups of these folk later formed the Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, and Italic peoples. The most notable of the Italics were the Romans. These Indo-Europeans also spread at an early date into central and southern Asia, where they called themselves Irani and Aryans.
The ancient Indo-Europeans had a three-fold structure of the divine. The pantheon was divided into three levels: the first of sovereign power, the second of physical power, and the third of productive or generative power. The first of these was further refined into two factors. One ruled the forces of law and order (among the Greeks this was originally the purview of Zeus). Later some of Zeus' characteristics were absorbed by Apollo. The other factor was ruled by the forces of magic and mantic activities of the mind. This was, at the oldest stage, the realm of Hermês. Later his function was absorbed by other gods and goddesses, including both Apollo and Dionysius. Hermês was the inventor of writing and the great communicator.
Of course, like all peoples, the Indo-Europeans had their magical traditions. Some of these can be gleaned through comparative study of the oldest levels of Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Greek, and Indo-Iranian magical practices.
The Hermês of the Greeks, the Mercury of the Romans, is the god of communication; the god who is in charge of transporting the souls of the dead to realms beyond the earth (a psychopomp); the god of inspired intellect and quick wit. The magic of Hermês is rooted in the intellectual faculty of humanity—in the part of the mind which understands the forms of symbols and can put them into inspired words of poetry. Hermês has the power to synthesize the contents of the right and left sides of the brain, and to put them into communicable forms, both verbal and nonverbal (signs, symbols, gestures, music, and so on).
The Hellenic spirit, exemplified in Hermês, is one which can take elements from a wide variety of sources and synthesize them into a harmonious whole. Since their early history, the Greeks had brought together elements from every exotic culture or civilization with which they had come into contact—the Aegean (Minoan), Anatolian, Persian, Hebraic/Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian. This was made possible through the intellectual facility present in the genius of Hermês.
It was the intellectual spirit of Hermês that the Greeks brought to Egypt. This spirit confronted the Egyptian gods and goddesses and the kinds of magic done in their names, and from the synthesis of the two systems, Hellenic and Egyptian, the Hermetic tradition was born. Even in the latest phases of the Hermetic tradition, the Greek Hermês and the Egyptian Hermês were distinguished at a certain level. The Greek god was called Hermês Logios and was the focus of magical attention outside Egypt. Theurgically, his cult seems just as "Hermetic" as that of Trismegistus, "the Egyptian."
The Egyptian Root
The importance of Egyptian magic and philosophy in the origins of the Hermetic tradition can not be overestimated. One of the chief reasons for this is that probably most, if not all, of the actual authors of the magical papyri were ethnic Egyptians—although they were highly Hellenized. They had learned the Greek language and wrote and spoke it fluently; they had absorbed Greek philosophy and modalities of thought. One of the chief signs of this Hellenization is the enormous eclecticism of the technical Hermetic tradition. This is totally foreign to the purely Egyptian mentality, which is intrinsically highly xenophobic.
Hellenic culture began to influence Egypt strongly from about 660 B.C.E., when Gyges, the king of Lydia, sent mercenary troops to help secure the reign of Psammethichus I. After the war, the Greek soldiers were settled in Egypt. But the strongest Hellenistic influence is historically traced to the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. For several centuries, even millennia, preceding this date, however, there had been a long period of cultural exchange between the Greeks and Egyptians. Greek philosophers and magicians often cited Egypt as the ultimate source of their knowledge. The romantic allure of Egyptian origins has been an enduring motif in the history of western esoterica.
Egyptian thought and magical technology must be considered the basis of Hermetic, or actually, Thothian, philosophy and magic. Over this Egyptian base, Hellenistic philosophy and intellectual conceptions were laid to create a new synthesis which is the essence of the Hermetic tradition itself.
The Egyptian god commonly called Thoth was the patron of magic because he was the embodiment of Intelligence and the chief architect of the process of communication. These two elements are essential to the practice of mageia. Even the Greeks thought of the Egyptian Hermês as the exemplary model of the magician, and thought that the books of Thoth had been translated into Greek at an archaic period of time—"after the Flood."
In many ways the intellectual content of Egyptian philosophy remains obscure. The conceptual world of the ancient Egyptian and the modern European are sufficiently different to make substantial understanding difficult. The Hellenizing of Egyptian thought allows easier access to the intellectual world of Egypt as it existed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods—although it had by that time become significantly "westernized" or "Europeanized" in the process. Egyptian magic is somewhat easier to comprehend because it conforms in most respects to the internal logic of magical operations throughout history. In the
Egyptian religious tradition magic plays a large and often official role in the cult of the gods and goddesses.
The Hermetic Tradition
Many scholars would like to divide the Hermetic literary tradition into two distinct types: the philosophical (exemplified in the Corpus Hermeticum) and the technical or magical (one example of which is the Greek magical papyri). The philosophical tradition, they say, is worthy of serious attention, while the magical tradition is "rubbish." Attitudes such as this are merely indicative of the disease I call "modernosis." One who suffers from this disease believes that "magic" is a primitive stage of "religion," which has now given way to the new and improved way, to the true form of knowledge known as "science." In retrospect we can now see that magic is as much with us today as it was in ancient times, and that in fact some ancients were often every bit as "scientific" in their thought as moderns.
The magical tradition is merely the operative branch of the philosophy, which is more analytical or illustrative. In ancient times the two branches worked together in individuals and their schools of thought. Each had its place in the whole scheme of human endeavor—and so it should be again today in this postmodern world. In fact the very division between the two is an obviously modern invention. It has helped us to understand certain aspects of the tradition, but it has limited us in important ways too. Even scholars have begun to realize the limitations, and are coming to realize more and more that the "operative," "technical," and "philosophical" genres of Hermetic literature are really facets of a whole. A clarification of this problem is provided by Garth Fowden in his landmark study The Egyptian Hermês.
The operative tradition is mainly encoded in the magical papyri. These were recorded in Egypt and there are three major types of them linguistically: Greek, Demotic Egyptian, and Coptic. The technical tradition covers what appears to be a scientific field as this encompasses descriptions of natural phenomena in the context of the hidden sympathies which exist between and among them. The technical Hermetica include treatises on alchemy and astronomy (or astrology). The philosophical tradition is contained in a body of independent texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum.
Hermetic philosophy and operative technology is a combination of every major stream of thought present in the eastern Mediterranean region in the first few centuries after the birth of Jesus. It brings Gnosticism together with Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, and places them all in an Egyptian cultural matrix. It assimilates elements from the religious and philosophical systems of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians, and Persians. The concepts contained in Greco-Roman as well as Egyptian mystery schools were encompassed, as were some formulas and ideas taken from the fledgling Christian system. In the main, however, the genius of the Hermetic system was a dynamic and non-dogmatic assimilation of the two major esoteric cosmologies of the day: Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism.
Hermetic magic is in essence an operationalizing of the philosophy within the technical matrix. The same cultural and philosophical elements are assimilated and synthesized in the magical papyri as in the Corpus Hermeticum. But magic is something one does, or eventually which one is, not merely something one contemplates. But through a combination of action and thought the actual essence of a person can be raised qualitatively—and with that rise in quality true understanding can grow. A few of the ancients understood this—most modernists have forgotten it—but some post-modernists are beginning to remember.
The Ancient Phase
Development of the HerHermetic Tradition
Much of the development of the HerHermetic tradition is lost in the relatively undocumented centuries before the birth of Jesus. It is clear that the tradition was being developed over these centuries, and that what we have in the oldest of the magical papyri is in fact a mature synthesis of the various magical and philosophical streams that had been crisscrossing the Nilotic culture for centuries.
The most significant development in the final stages of the history of ancient Egypt was its conquest by the Romans in 30 B.C.E. With this development, Hellenic and Egyptian cultures were forced together more than they had been before during the Hellenistic period—now both were subject peoples in the Roman Empire. In some respects the Hermetica could be considered philosophical reactions to cultural oppression.
By about 200 C.E. a well-documented combination of elements had come together which became the basis for the continuing development of the Hermetic tradition. This is the basis for the texts which serve as the original foundation for the magical operations presented in this book.
During the period when our source texts were being recorded, there appears to have been a gradual development in the ideological content away from the ancient Egyptian models and more and more toward the Hellenistic models. This is simply because the old culture of Egypt was retreating increasingly into the background—knowledge of hieroglyphics and the cultic forms of the gods and goddesses of the Nile slowly gave way to more foreign features. Among these foreign influences was the growing presence of Christian material.
The vast majority of the magical papyri we have date from this period (200-400 C.E.). Their contents are certainly older, but the actual dates of most of the papyri themselves fall within this time frame. Technical Hermetica were being written perhaps as early as the middle of the second century B.C.E. These were for the most part "scientific" treatises on hidden sympathies between natural phenomena, and here too was the beginnings of alchemy, later to become a dominant aspect of Hermeticism.
The ideological content of the papyri form a relatively stable mixture of elements. The three main components of this mixture are the Egyptian, Greek, and Hebraic mythological and magical traditions. The Hermetic magician-philosophers used these elements in ways independent of any of the official traditions themselves. They were neither simply Egyptian or Greek pagans, nor were they Jews, and they were certainly not Christians. They had formed their own eclectic philosophical and operative religion and spiritual technology.
The magical traditions developed in three different strata of the written record: there were Demotic Egyptian magical papyri (whose contents are mostly Egyptian and, we must suppose, most representative of the ancient Egyptian magical technologies), Coptic magical papyri (beginning around 100 C.E. which come to embody a Her-meto-Christian synthesis) and the Greek magical papyri, which are essentially pagan and cosmopolitan.
With the eventual development of dogmatic, institutionalized Christianity, the Hermetic tradition was increasingly suppressed in the geographical regions controlled by the church. Hermetic magic and philosophy, like that of all other "non-Christian" systems, was ruthlessly persecuted.
Excerpted from HERMETIC MAGIC by Stephen Edred Flowers. Copyright © 1995 Stephen Edred Flowers, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.