Why Egyptian Antiquity Holds the Spiritual Key You’ve Been Seeking

‘Up, Up O ye gods!’

Mitch Horowitz
Aug 6, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo: clu/Getty Images

Does life grant us second chances? I believe it does. One of mine arrived when I rediscovered the so-called Hermetic literature, a body of mystical writing produced during the final stages of Egyptian and Greek antiquity.

These magical-philosophical tracts revolutionized my search for spiritual and ethical power and eased the tension and occasional contradiction I felt among my varying spiritual commitments.

In 2019, the Hermetic writings drew me to the ruins of ancient Egypt (you can check out footage from my trip here) where I was able to decipher correspondences between my own instincts and practices and some of the symbolical ideas of the ancients. I believe that rediscovering the intellectual lineage of Hermeticism may provide a path for the radical ecumenism and spiritual empowerment that many of us seek today.

Mind you, it is not easy to find a family tree of connection between ancient and contemporary religious ideas. This is particularly true of the Hermetica, a catchall term for the late ancient Greek-Egyptian mystical texts attributed to the mythical man-god Hermes Trismegistus, which translates to “thrice-greatest Hermes.” Hermes Trismegistus was a title of veneration that the Ancient Greeks ascribed to Egypt’s god of wisdom, Thoth. Today, I sometimes suspect that we deploy the word “Hermetic” — which seems steeped in the mists of antiquity — as a kind of marker intended to connote a venerable ancestor to modern mysticism, thus giving our current spiritual pursuits the weight of historical gravitas.

But, the truth is, Hermeticism is a living philosophy that ought to be read, debated, and engaged in. The Hermetic texts, mostly those found in the 17 tracts of the Corpus Hermeticum, a Renaissance-era translation of the original texts, can serve the needs of a 21st century person in search of metaphysical ideas, ethical power, and philosophical clarity. The path of Hermes can, I believe, work a revolution in your life. It has in mine. (It’s worth noting that the numbering of the tracts in the Renaissance-era translation can be confusing. The Corpus Hermeticum numbers from I to XVIII, but you’ll see that tract XV is missing; historical consensus holds that it consisted of latter-day material and over time it got cut, but the original number scheme was preserved.)

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This ain’t no green screen: Mitch in Egypt in 2019. (Photo by Ronni Thomas.)

Originally written in Greek but preserving older Egyptian oral traditions, the writings of the Corpus Hermeticum represent a kind of spiritual-ethical code that can reconcile our various mystical, occult, and religious traditions. Hermeticism accommodates the views of seekers ranging from chaos magickians and new thoughters to mystical Christians and modern gnostics.

Hermeticism’s value is obscured, much like the more arcane or symbolical books of the Old Testament. Although certain Hebrew rites, rituals, and genealogical record keeping may seem period-bound, or of little more than liturgical significance to any but the religiously orthodox, such passages provide a framework for ethical and spiritual insights. Similarly, elements of the late-Egyptian Hermetic books also reflect traditions of formalism, ritual, and recital — yet these elements likewise frame passages of penetrating relevance to current seekers. This truth has not always been clear due the longstanding paucity of quality translations, a deficit that is slowly being readdressed in our time.

The central and most enduring theme of the Hermetic literature (and the theme that placed its mark on the ancient and Renaissance worlds, and, indirectly, on our contemporary spiritual culture) is that the human intellect is a concentric extension of Nous, or the Higher Mind, which serves as the divine creative force behind all that is. As such, it possesses the same creative powers within our own physical framework.

This perspective finds particular resonance in Books I and XI of the Corpus Hermeticum. In Book I, sometimes called the Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus, we learn of the mind’s causative abilities: “Your mind is god the father; they are not divided from one another for their union is life.” (This comes from Brian P. Copenhaver’s translation.) As we come to realize our creative capacities, we grow closer in nature and perspective to the Eternal: “He who has understood himself advances toward god.”

Book XI goes further in urging the individual’s awareness of how his or her mind, through its abilities to visualize all things, originates new concepts and surpasses physical boundaries, reflecting innate divinity:

“See what power you have, what quickness! If you can do these things, can god not do them? So you must think of god in this way, as having everything — the cosmos, himself, (the) universe — like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like. Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand god. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing.”

In the student-teacher dialogue called Asclepius, which is often grouped as an adjunct to the Corpus Hermeticum, the individual’s estimate is even further elevated. We first learn that “one who has joined himself to the gods in divine reverence, using the mind that joins him to the gods, almost attains divinity.” Using a variant of the famous Hermetic formula, “as above, so below” (found in a Latin-Arabic text called The Emerald Tablet, whose antiquity is more complicated and controversial), this dialogue counsels: “Forms of all things follow kinds… Thus, the kind made up of gods will produce from itself the forms of gods.” This adds a deeper resonance to the individual being made in God’s image, as found in Hebrew scripture.

Hermes goes on to teach his disciple Asclepius that the individual, at his or her highest, is actually on par with the gods, saying: “Because of this, Asclepius, a human being is a great wonder, a living thing to be worshipped and honored: for he changes his nature into a god’s…”

Hermes ultimately evaluates the individual being as even greater than the gods because while a god’s nature is fixed in immorality, the striving and aware person is ever in the process of becoming and fulfilling his or her highest nature. According to the text: “In short, god made mankind good and capable of immortality through his two natures, divine and mortal, and so god willed the arrangement whereby mankind was ordained to be better than the gods, who were formed only from the immortal nature…”

Moreover, when the seeker is reverent and worshipful, he or she performs the necessary acts of care taking of the gods: “He not only advances toward god; he also makes the gods strong.”

This comports with an observation by philosopher William James in 1895, who said, “I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.”

In matters of human potential, the modern reader of Hermetic literature may find him or herself facing a question that also confronts contemporary students of New Thought or positive-mind metaphysics: If you ascribe causative powers to our minds, as I do, and believe that thought relates to the highest source of creation, why do we suffer physical decline, illness, and bodily death? Indeed, the most Hermetic of all New Thought teachers, Neville Goddard (1905–1972), instructed that your mind is God, and everything you experience is the product of your imagination. So, again, why are we “as gods” only to “die as princes,” as the Psalmist puts it?

The Corpus Hermeticum offers a reconciling response: Humanity, for all its potential greatness, is nonetheless conscripted to dwell within a cosmic framework where physical laws must be suffered and limitations experienced. “The master of eternity,” Hermes tells Asclepius, “is the first god, the world [or great nature] second, mankind is the third.”

In other words, humans may be the greatest beings in the schema of creation but nonetheless we remain bound to other aspects of the creative order on this planet. This is why mental laws are not always experienced in their full boundlessness. For example, imagine thought as gravity. Gravity is experienced based on context: Gravity’s impact is different on Earth than on the moon, while in space it seems absent. Although ever-operative, gravity is affected by mass. A related dynamic holds true for our minds because we are limited by our current physical reality. In Book I, we learn that “mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate” — fate being a term for nature’s governance — “thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it.”

These views of humanity’s greatness and weakness, the forces in which we function and our higher possibilities, are considered with surprising adroitness in a 1908 occult-Hermetic classic called The Kybalion. Published under the tantalizingly Hermetic pseudonym Three Initiates, this slender but powerful guidebook is a reasonable iteration of certain Hermetic concepts combined with the author’s personal insights into New Thought psychology. The Kybalion adds specific and compelling techniques to the overarching Hermetic principle that the mind of the individual is an adjunct to the Infinite Mind, through which the individual may not only create but also aspire to his or her eventual return to the source of creation.

Although I recommend exploring Hermetic literature hand in hand with Neville, The Kybalion, and other mature New Thought or mind-metaphysics works, one point must be made: Hermeticism is not a direct ancestor to New Thought. The rarity of translations and the rural surroundings of most of America’s New Thought pioneers in the mid-to-late 19th century placed these ideas off their path. Early New Thoughters were largely independent investigators who arrived at their insights about the mind’s causative abilities chiefly through self-experiment. But aspects of Hermeticism do represent a distant historical parallel. Indeed, these philosophies, Hermeticism and New Thought, provide remarkably concurrent insights from across vast stretches of time.

I believe that ideas separated by culture, distance, and time, yet which nonetheless evince practical and idealistic concurrences, point us toward a perennial psychology. These concurrences are disregarded or overlooked by the majority of academicians, whose aperture is too limited. Ancient parallels are profoundly important. Truth, if is truth at all, must be universal.

Within the Hermetic book called Asclepius there appears a poignant and veritably accurate prophecy of Ancient Egypt’s decline:

“O Egypt, Egypt of your reverent deeds only stories will survive… Only words cut in stone will survive to tell of your faithful works… No one will look up to heaven. The reverent will be thought mad, and the irreverent wise.”

But with today’s renewed interested in Hermeticism, and the arrival of a new generation of supple translations and informed seekers, we are entering a phase of Hermetic rebirth. This, too, was foreseen in Asclepius:

“Then he [Hermes] will restore the world to its beauty of old… the people of that time will honor the god who makes and restores so great a work. And this will be the rebirth of the world: a reformation of all good things and restitution.”

This renewal arrives with a caveat: If Hermes is to be resurrected, such an alchemical operation must occur within you. By exploring the ideas of Hermeticism, by working with Hermetic meditations and practices, and by experimenting with the prospect that the individual interplays with extra-physical forces — forces which, in the form of personified energies, may be lonely for your attention — you effectively facilitate and experience the resurrection of Hermes. You fulfill the vision of one of the last of the ancient Hermeticists, the Greek writer Stobaeus, who wrote in 500 A.D.: “Up, Up O ye gods!… The dawn of a new day of justice invites us.”

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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