Discuss the origins and practices of hermetic or ceremonial magic, and how they have influenced Neopaganism.
The story of hermetic magic begins far back into the ancient history of Egypt and the god Thoth. According to Egyptian mythology Thoth “… brought the idea of creation into existence by uttering the thoughts of the creator; Ptah then put those spoken words into effect” (The Book of Thoth). Because of his roles within Egyptian culture, Thoth was also seen as the god of records or writing as well. It is believed that he wrote down his secrets of magic and the universe. There is some debate about if these writings were in the form of a book, scrolls, tablets, or a set of cards. The original form has been lost to the sands of time.
However, when the Greek ruler Alexander the Great added Egypt to the rule of Greece in 331 BCE (Mark), Hermes became associated with Thoth and the Book of Thoth because both deities were associated with writing and magic. As many could not read the hieroglyphs, which made up the Egyptian writing system, the Book of Thoth was translated into Greek. Thoth took on the name Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice-greatest Hermes” (Wikipedia Foundation). The Book of Thoth became known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Over time even this translation was lost as Christian influence began to outlaw such texts of magic knowledge.
During the Renaissance, a version of the Corpus Hermeticum appeared. As this was a time of ‘enlightenment’, those seeking ‘true ancient wisdom’ quickly latched it onto. It is believed that during this time that many of the various versions or ‘translations’ of the Corpus Hermeticum came about, the most notable being:
· Corpus Hermeticum (Divine Poimandre),
· The Asclepius,
· Excerpts in Stobaeus’ Anthologium,
· Fragments found in Cyril, Lactantius and others, collectively called the Testimonia.
Many of these books and writings are more than likely heavily influenced by early Christian Gnostic writers, not based on the original translation of the Book of Thoth into Greek. This could explain parts of the modern philosophy behind what we know today as Hermeticum.
One of the most principle beliefs in modern Hermeticum is that “… the ultimate reality is referred to variously as God, the All, or the One. God in the Hermetica is unitary and transcendent. He is one and exists apart from the material cosmos. Hermeticism is therefore profoundly monotheistic…” (Wikipedia Foundation). This belief has been taken by many to mean that all gods are a reflection of one true god but that we too are part of that god, so we are divine by nature. It is through the principles of Hermeticism that we modern Pagans have also gained one of the most popular phrases ‘As above, so below’. “The actual text of that maxim, as translated by Dennis W. Hauck from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, is: "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing" (Wikipedia Foundation). Through time this developed into many of the modern practices of Alchemy, Astrology, and Magic. According to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, there are two kinds of magic in our universe: Goetia (black magic driven by evil spirits) and Theurgy (magic driven by the power of god).
When we look at these principles that make up much of what we know today as Hermeticism, it is easy to see that many modern Pagan traditions have been greatly influenced by the writings and translations, which were heavily influenced by early Christian mentality and beliefs. Because so many of the early modern writers based their own learning and philosophies on these obviously faulty translations, we have lost much of what it must have meant to be truly Pagan according to our ancestors.