My Magical Menagerie: Hermetic Musings

by A. C. George


Anyone interested in Western esoteric traditions and with an attention span of more than three minutes has probably heard of the word “hermetic” used in that context. If not, they are probably aware of the word in the context of air-tight containment. Those are, in fact, the two main interpretations of the word one would find in the Oxford Dictionary. There is the definition of “relating to an occult tradition encompassing alchemy, astrology and theosophy”, and there is the idea of something sealed “air-tight” in a container. From the definitions, one can surmise that “hermetic” refers to something protected and/or insulated- occulted- from outside influences.

It is noteworthy that the mundane context arises from the esoteric one. To shed light on the esoteric context we need to go back into ancient Greek prehistory and the traditions surrounding the god Hermes and the pile of stones said to be the origin of his name*. The pile could be found at crossroads and boundaries, including graves where the world of the living and that of the dead were side by side. From the same name “Hermes” thus came words for mediation, negotiation and interpretation.

The piles themselves literally grew, stone by stone, at crossroads as markers. Each passer-by would simply throw a stone at the designated spot and the pile would form over time and then be maintained. There were also piles marking boundaries between settlements, where representatives would meet and negotiate. The piles were testimony of agreement, marking the meeting place as hallowed ground, thus protecting each side from treachery.

Goods would be bartered at boundary markers, and eventually market places would emerge there. The Roman version of Hermes known as Mercury, was also the patron of merchants and exchanges of money, goods and services. His name is, furthermore, linked to the Indo-European root word for “boundary/border”. Eventually, the pile was replaced with a single marker, and later with a stone pillar topped with a bust of the god and his trademark phallus sticking out.

Personally, I disagree with the view that the phallus was emphasized due to the god’s fertility status. Hermes was not usually associated with masculine genital prowess and/or fertility in any case. Instead the issue reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Sanskrit word lingam, used for phallus, but properly meaning “pillar/column”, and often expressed in an esoteric context.

Lingam, literally means “mark”, and was identified with the Indian god Shiva (essentially the male or active existential principle). While most gods were depicted in human form, Shiva (among the males) was an exception. It is widely accepted that the lingam was not an object of phallic worship. On the other hand, rather than thinking that someone is calling a cock a column, we are probably dealing with the reverse: a pillar being allegorically compared to a phallus.

The pillar is associated with the phallus to emphasize its power. Otherwise a pillar is just a pillar, but a phallus represents the male side of the potency of procreation. This power doesn’t just mark boundaries as a notation device. It authorizes them as places of power, where distinct elements are kept apart, but also allowed to come together under controlled conditions. This is precisely what goes on in alchemy, another interesting word to explore. Alchemy is probably the area of occult knowledge and practice that comes uppermost to mind when identifying the specifics Hermetic wisdom. It is a word said to come from the ancient Egyptian word khem, meaning “black”. It is also the native name for Egypt.

Personally, I am partial to the interpretation as “The Work of the Sun” (chamah = “sun” in Hebrew). The designation is expressed in the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes the Thrice Great. Notice that chemi is also the Hebrew word for “hot”. Here the proverbial “Work of the Sun” is associated with the sacred pillar of power that marks and negotiates boundaries (including those of life and death), with the power being that of a sacred heat associated with a/the divine pillar. Kundalini anyone?

In the understanding of yours truly, Hermetic Wisdom is all about the application of knowledge toward esoteric cultivation. It isn’t so much about secrets, or the notion that the nature of esoteric wisdom is “occult” (concealed). Instead, this wisdom is all about the power of boundary conditions, transitions and transformations as well as exchange and circulation of the power/force of life itself.

Hermetic Wisdom can be but isn’t exclusively about the performance of magical feats. However, one of the results of esoteric cultivation or alchemy, is the awakening of capacities through which feats of magic can be accomplished. I want to be careful, however, when throwing words such as “feats” around.  The latter term tends to summon forth images of crowds gathered in expectance of something that will knock their socks off and probably solve all their problems in the process. When that doesn’t happen, the crowd turns into a mob and the smell of barbequed human is likely to waft through the air.

Drama aside, my point with this rant was to continue my elaboration of my own conceptual collection of esoteric themes, to further tie them together so that a hint of implications regarding dynamics of application could be discerned. My premise, which I plan to continue developing, is that magic is successfully applied through preparation, preparation and preparation, a word that conceals unfathomable depth of possibility. To me that is not scouring the market place for the right incense to burn, although I highly respect such proclivities.

It is more about cultivating the latent dynamics of our very humanity that we have erroneous associated with miracles and the supernatural. Even Augustine of Hippo said: “Miracles are not contrary to nature but only contrary to what we know about nature.” Magic, therefore, is only natural. Whether it’s scientific or not, however, is another story, and one that may be addressed in these pages…someday.


* Google Translator works surprisingly well for converting Greek text to English.