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The Golden Builders
Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons
By Tobias Churton
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Tobias Churton
All rights reserved.
Hermes : Star of Alexandria
TAT : I will offer up the praise in my heart, as I pray to the end of the universe and the beginning of the beginning, to the object of man's quest, the immortal discovery, the begetter of life and truth, the sower of reason, the love of immortal life. No hidden word will be able to speak about thee, Lord. Therefore my mind wants to sing a hymn to you daily. I am the instrument of thy spirit. Mind is thy plectrum. And thy counsel plucks me. I see myself! I have received power from thee! For thy love has reached us. HERMES : Right, O my son.
(Hermetic Discourse on the Eighth & Ninth between Hermes and his pupil. 2nd cent. AD. From the Gnostic Library of Nag Hammadi).
As each new dawn raised the sun over Egypt, the victory of the light was celebrated; darkness departed and visible life returned. For Hermes, it was business as usual, for he was a god both of the night and the day, as content with the moon and the powers invisible as he was with the merchant and the sunlit groves of morning.
The cult of Hermes was already established in the Greek-speaking world before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded his city, Alexandria, in 331 BC. A century later, Greek settlers in that city had begun to apply the epithet megistos kai megistos theos megas to Hermes (roughly 'great and great the great god' Hermes). The settlers had doubtless derived this dignity from the epithet two times great, which, for as long as anyone could remember, had been applied to Hermes' Egyptian equivalent, the god Thoth. Thoth was a mega megastar : a popular god, the supreme master of trickery, magic, writing, the realm of the dead, the moon, medicine. The Graeco-Egyptian Thoth-Hermes stood - or flew - for the very spirit of inventiveness. Fleet of foot and quick of mind, Hermes was the divine messenger. A man who spoke with a message from the gods would be regarded as being in a sense possessed by Hermes. To be inspired by the powers of Hermes was to become Hermes. In this condition, one could write in his name. The name of the game was communication.
Sometime between the first century BC and the end of the first century AD, possibly under Jewish influence or perhaps to compete with other fashionable and venerated prophets and teachers, such as the long-since departed master-minds Zoroaster, Plato and Pythagoras, a new figure, Thrice Greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistos) began to appear in a series of knowledge-tracts. He appeared as an ancient patriarch of civilisation, a kind of relative of the exalted divinity, dwelling in a remote antiquity among the temples and pyramids of a pristine Egypt. Since many Greeks believed that their philosophy, especially in its spiritual aspect, derived in part from ancient Egypt, the ascendancy - or 'rediscovery' - of Hermes Trismegistos could be described as an astute enterprise by his literary progenitors. Having apparently overcome the test-of-time, the name Hermes could operate as a kind of intellectual designer-label.
The authority of Hermes Trismegistos was employed to dignify two main classes of writing. Firstly, a coterie of practical and theoretical lore relating to talismanic magic, astrology, astrological medicine and, notably, alchemy, and secondly, philosophical writings in dialogue-form. These latter tracts were concerned with the nature of God, man, and the cosmos. A veritable elixir, Hermes Trismegistos had an answer for everything.
Those works of Hermes which have always enjoyed the highest authority among their literary peers constitute the philosophical Hermetica, grouped together some time between c.AD 250-1050 into a body of writings now known as the Corpus Hermeticum. These texts seem to demonstrate an impatience with traditional philosophical methods and meet a hunger for a rational philosophy which could serve an essentially spiritual need. Going, they hoped, 'one better' than the philosophical schools, the 'ancient' teaching of Hermes Trismegistos was presented in the Corpus Hermeticum not as philosophical postulates in the traditional Greek sense, but as authentic revelation : ancient revelation which could be experienced by the student's identifying himself with Father Hermes' own experience, so acquiring gnosis or experiential knowledge of the spirit, making the student aware of his mind as a living fact. The texts were to operate like the Thrice Great Hermes' magical shoes : ready-made to follow in the divine footsteps - all the way to the mystical One : the journey fully vouchsafed and endorsed by centuries of assumed tradition.
Once on a time, when I had begun to think about the things that are, and my thoughts had soared high aloft, while my bodily senses had been put under restraint by sleep, - yet not such sleep as that of men weighed down by fullness of food or by bodily weariness, - methought there came to me a Being of vast and boundless magnitude, who called me by my name, and said to me, 'What do you wish to hear and see, and to learn and come to know by thought?' 'Who are you?' I said. 'I,' said he, 'am Poimandres, the sovereign nous [mind].' 'I would fain learn,' said I, 'the things that are, and understand their nature, and to know God. These,' I said, 'are the things of which I wish to hear.' He answered, 'I know what you wish, for indeed I am with you everywhere; keep in mind all that you desire to learn, and I will teach you." (Libellus I. Iff. The Poimandres).
The Hermetic tradition was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the (omnipresent) mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere. In modern parlance, much of the philosophy exposed in the tracts was 'psychedelic', that is to say, soul-expanding. The Hermetic experience was cosmopolitan, yet rooted in the dream of a romantic antiquity : the perfect intellectual and syncretistic cult for an Empire groping for new (and old) certainties. The Hermetic writings brought gnosis to those (perhaps youthful) pagans in search of a thoughtful and spiritual salvation from the world. For it was to Hermes, the texts informed the reader, that there had once come the 'giants' of a mythical past, in their youth, for instruction and initiation into the authentic, pristine cosmic philosophy. Their names were given as Tat, (King) Ammon and Asklepios. The understanding reader was invited to join the august host of that spiritual élite who had, they were led to believe, benefited from the master's authentic voice the voice of "the authentic Nous [Mind]"- for century on imagined century.
TAT : O holy Gnosis, by thee am I illumined, and through thee do I sing praise to the noetic Light.... I rejoice in joy of mind; rejoice with me all ye Powers. .O. God, thou art the Father; O Lord, thou art Mind. HERMES : I rejoice, my son, that you are like to bring forth fruit. Out of the Truth will spring up in you the immortal generation of virtue; for by the working of mind you have come to know yourself and our Father. (Libellus XIII.18. 21.22a)
The setting of Hermetic philosophical discourse is mostly one of teacher and pupil, and both Garth Fowden and Jean-Pierre Mahé are convinced that this setting mirrors the situation in which the philosophical Hermetica were actually employed. That is to say that there may have existed in Egypt from about the late first century AD, schools of Hermetic discourse which aimed to take pupils to a direct experience of gnosis, combined with liturgical hymns and prayers. What inner voyager could fail to be, at least in part, seduced by the voice of a conception so abstract and timeless as the omnipresent and omniscient Mind?
Knowledge of the original pagan setting in which the texts were composed disappeared with the growth of Christianity in Egypt during the third century. From that time on, it would seem that the Hermetica represented a literary, spiritual path, divorced from the social and educational milieu of first and second century Alexandria. Anybody who could get hold of the texts could become a pupil of Hermes, or at least use his name and logia to endorse their own philosophical and religious 'products'. The texts simply became part of the corpus of ancient authorities in matters of antique spiritual and magical knowledge - and, as with all antiques, Hermes Trismegistos' reputation would grow again in direct proportion to the rarity of the texts which bore his name.
It was no great surprise to scholars of Gnosticism, such as Professor Hans Jonas, when our earliest manuscripts of the philosophical Hermetica, including a Prayer of Thanksgiving, were found among the documents of the now famous Nag Hammadi Library of 'Gnostic Gospels', buried in Upper Egypt by enthusiasts of Christian gnosis in the mid to late 4th Century. Jonas had long held that the Hermetica should be seen as integral to the phenomenon of Gnostic religion. Even Christian Gnostics had found these pagan writings congenial, and perhaps inspiring in the task of creating new gnostic documents. After all, if, as S. John's Gospel declared, Christ was the divine Logos -the creative mind or 'Word' of God, then it was a simple matter for Christian enthusiasts of the gnosis particularly in Alexandria - to reach the conclusion that the Christian 'Word' and the Hermetic 'Nous' were at the very least, similar in substance.
The Vision of Hermes
What is the principal message of the philosophical Hermetica? Firstly, the texts announce to the reader that in order to be saved from the ebb, flow, flux and corruption of material life, it is necessary to have perfectly pure vision. The stress is always on the state of mind of the pupil; the climax of spiritual growth is always accompanied by astonishingly increased powers of perception, breaking through from material to spiritual vision. The Hermetic teaching is to enable the pupil to see aright, and to 'see aright' is to have acquired what Catholic doctrine calls a 'sacramental vision' of the created order : the world manifests a visible experience which is the expression of far greater and more profound powers invisible to the organic eye but which are seizable by the enlightened eye of the mind - called the nous, a Greek word which can mean either 'mind' or 'spirit'.
While there is 'good news' for the Hermetic student within the tracts, the discourses are quite unlike the canonical gospels (with which the tracts perhaps competed), existing in a remote, yet 'clear' and timeless zone. There are no parables; there are repeated assertions of fundamental spiritual principles. There are no miracles; the cosmos is revealed as a continual miracle. There is no coercion; the pupil is free to choose the way of flesh or the way of nous. There is ultimately no master; the pupil must learn to become his own master. There is no end; it is an eternal life - the life of the aeons - which springs from the source of 'the All' (Pan).
The primary principle which the student of the texts is enjoined to understand is to "know thyself". What is the essential nature of man? The Hermetic doctrine is unequivocal :
Man is a great miracle, O Asklepios, honour and reverence to such a being! Because he takes in the nature of a god as if he were himself a god; he has familiarity with the demon-kind, knowing that he issues from the same origin; he despises this part of his nature which is but human, because he puts his hope in the divinity of the other part. O what a privileged blend makes up the nature of man! He is united to the gods because he has the divinity pertaining to gods; the part of himself which is of the earth he despises in himself; all those other living things which he knows himself to be tied in the virtue of the celestial plan, he binds them by the tie of love. He raises his sights towards heaven. Such therefore is his privileged role as intermediary, loving the beings who are inferior to him and is loved by those above him. He takes the earth as his own, he blends himself with the elements by the speed of thought, by the sharpness of mind he descends to the depths of the sea. Everything is accessible to him; heaven is not too high for him, for he measures it as if it were in his grasp by his ingenuity. What sight the spirit shows to him, no mist of the air can obscure; the earth is never so dense as to impede his work; the immensity of the sea's depths do not trouble his plunging view. He is at the same time everything as he is everywhere. (Asclepius 6a. ff).
Here is an almost Edenic Man in all the fiery finery of his potential energy : airy, wise, loving, and free. The passage reads, and has been read, as a prophecy of a time when human-beings will throw off the shackle of their shadow and fear and take their place as bridges between the two worlds, seen and unseen. For the Hermetist, an intellectual appraisal of this vision of man is insufficient. One must see it for oneself; one must be reborn. The process involved here (palingenesia) purports to come from recognising, through an inner ascent experience, how far the passions of the world envelop the soul, like heavy coats of dull and dense material which hold the vision in darkness. These 'coats' or 'passions' are called "the irrational torments of matter". The passions keep man from gnosis of his true identity.
The twelve causes of "ignorance" (agnosis) are listed as follows : ignorance itself; grief; incontinence (obsession with sex); desire; injustice; covetousness; deceitfulness; envy; fraud; anger; rashness; malice. (Libellus XIII. 7bff.) Having risen above these in the nous, the pupil comes to a vision of the "Eighth and Ninth", beyond the control of the seven planetary spheres (which exist both within and without), and as the reborn Man - sharing in the vision of the original Anthropos (Humanity as pristine archetypal principle), who, according to Libellus I's account of the Fall into irrational Nature, fell into his reflection in the waters of the earth - the reborn one perceives "not with bodily eyesight, but by the energy of nous".
HERMES : Even so it is, my son, when a man is born again; it is no longer body of three dimensions that he perceives, but the incorporeal. TAT : Father, now that I see in mind, I see myself to be the All. I am in heaven and in earth, in water and in air; I am in beasts and plants; I am a babe in the womb, and one that is not yet conceived, and one that has been born; I am present everywhere. (Libellus XIII. Treatise on Rebirth)
It should be understood that while this Hermetic vision of spiritual life combined with abundant nature was intended to have universal applications - and indeed has achieved this historically - there is a serious strain in the philosophical Hermetica of rooting the vision within the magical and devout land of Egypt herself. Egypt had a mystique to western antiquity which while undoubtedly dimming to the vaguest flicker of antique fire at the end of the Roman Empire, (when she was repeatedly invaded by hostile forces from the east), nonetheless returned with great vigour in the fifteenth century Renaissance and has never since left the European scene. In fact, the rebirth of the Egyptian mystique during the Renaissance was precisely due to the re-appearance in the west of once-lost Hermetic writings -the bulk of the Corpus Hermeticum - which were then joined to extant Latin translations such as this powerful lament for a disappearing world, composed between c.260 and 310 AD:
Or are you ignorant, O Asklepios, that Egypt is the image of heaven? Moreover it is the dwelling place of heaven and all the forces that are in heaven. If it is proper for us to speak the truth, our land is the temple of the world. And it is proper for you not to be ignorant that a time will come when Egyptians will seem to have served the divinity in vain, and all their activity in their religion will be despised. For all divinity will leave Egypt and will flee upward to heaven. And Egypt will be widowed; it will be abandoned by the gods. For foreigners will come into Egypt and they will rule it. Egypt! Moreover, Egyptians will be prohibited from worshipping God. Furthermore, they will come into the ultimate punishment, especially whoever among them is found worshipping and honouring God. And in that day the country that was more pious than all countries will become impious. No longer will it be full of temples, but it will be full of tombs. Neither will it be full of gods, but it will be full of corpses. O Egypt! ... And the barbarian will be better than you, O Egyptian, in his religion, whether he is a Scythian, or the Hindus, or some other of this sort. ... And Egypt will be made a desert by the gods and the Egyptians. And as for you, O River, there will be a day when you will flow with blood more than water. And dead bodies will be stacked higher than the dams. And he who is dead will not be mourned as much as he who is alive.... And in that day the world will not be marvelled at ... it will be despised - the beautiful world of God, the incomparable work, the energy which possesses goodness, the many-formed vision, the abundance that does not envy, that is full of every vision. Darkness will be preferred to light and death will be preferred to life. No one will gaze into heaven. And the pious man will be counted as insane, and the impious man will be honoured as wise. The man who is afraid will be considered as strong. And the good man will be punished like a criminal.
Excerpted from The Golden Builders by Tobias Churton. Copyright © 2002 Tobias Churton. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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