Been re-reading a little Hermetica to go with some of the Gnostic history I have been researching. (Just finished a great book on the Gospel of Judas. Great for the content… The writing is absolute rubbish.)
One of the reasons I ended up in Chaos Magic is it is one of the few systems that can incorporate an updated view of the world.
Any witch-flavoured Paganism, pure Thelema, Theosophy… They all have a more or less ‘frozen’ view of the universe and of mankind… One that froze at the end of the nineteenth century.
Take ‘True Will’.
Modern magic emerged during the same era that psychiatry was taking its first baby steps into the world… And there was some substantial cross over in notions about the human mind as well as existence in general. The ‘will’ was believed to be a higher faculty (most developed in white Europeans) that allowed one to discern and make reasoned judgments. It’s no surprise that magicians extended this idea beyond all logical conclusions. It was a very popular medico-political idea at the height of the Empire’s power.
Trouble is… According to the last 30 years of neuroscience it appears mankind doesn’t have any kind of will at all… Free… True… Whatever. We appear to be nothing more than a cluster of pre-wired stimulus response patterns.
This is also why I don’t call elements as part of my rituals and only include them in rare instances of spellcasting as convenient categories. When Paracelsus or whoever spoke about the four/five elements he wasn’t using them as symbolic or psychological concepts… That’s what he literally believed the universe was made of.
If they were supposed to be abstractions or metaphors they would have been described as such. But they’re not. They are laid out as the cutting edge science of their day.
This is my point:
- Medieval magic was based in cutting edge science (of the time).
- Modern magic is based in medieval science.
To me, that feels like we’ve missed a trick somewhere. If we dismiss the truly absurd racism and anti-Semitism of our magical predecessors, why are we clinging to their equally preposterous scientific understanding?
The briefest origin story of Hermetics on the internet
- Hermetic philosophy is based on a collection of different texts, written by different authors, most likely in Alexandria around 50 – 280 AD.
- It quite clearly contains more than a few fragments of Pharaonic religious belief from at least the New Kingdom and possibly earlier.
- It also clearly demonstrates the influence of the Gnostic and Greek philosophical beliefs of the time; principally the rejection of the physical in favour of the spiritual, an obsession with Platonic ‘forms’ as a description for how the universe works and the belief that you can use your mind to come to know God as a direct experience here on earth.
- This makes it a ‘belief soup’ that tastes like Alexandria in Late Antiquity. (Not literally, of course, because it doesn’t taste of goat urine mixed with slaves.)
Science and the Hermetica
The Hermetica uses the four elements to describe the make-up of the universe. It also makes references to the planets running in fixed paths in the sky. Basically, it’s ‘scientific’ view of the world is wrong.
And then I read this translation in a light, breezy -almost intro level- Hermetica book that I purchased on my recent trip to the South West:
Men looked with wonder and questioning,
and, having observed the Maker’s masterpiece,
wanted to create things for themselves.
Their father gave permission,
so the gods who administer the Cosmos
each shared with humanity a part of their power.
The Earth is kept in order
by means of humanity’s knowledge
and application of the arts and sciences –
for Atum willed that the universe
should not be complete
until man had played his part.
And I liked it.
I liked it because it sets up the exact relationship I want between science and spirituality.
It is a spiritual precedent to continue learning about and understanding the universe as an act of devotion.
The following chapter goes on to outline a deeply inaccurate vision of the manifest universe; complete with four/five elements, the zodiac, etc… But what should I expect? It was written almost two thousand years ago.
In my head, I like to think that the writers of this chapter -if they were incarnate as themselves today- would gladly update that vision based on recent scientific discoveries.
Whilst I recognise there is something contradictory in wanting an historic precedent -that I have dismissed due to its scientific inaccuracies- to give me permission to incorporate modern science into my magical worldview I’m still glad that it exists.
And I really think the underlying ‘scientific mechanics’ of most magical worldviews need a thorough going over. Maybe I’ll make a start on that. On my new phone.
In the meantime, everyone needs to make sure their New Scientist subscription is up to date.