Why I Am Not A Hermeticist

Eventually, I’m sure, I will tire of attacking the Hermetic basis of the vast majority of the Western Occult Tradition, but for the time being I am too caught up in my analysis thereof to simply content myself with what I have so far written. I realize that I have placed myself philosophically emphatically against Magico-Spiritual systems that rely upon essences, and, in doing so, strike out a broad swath of Magical Practice within the Western Tradition.

I think that part of the reason for the apparent dominance of Hermetic Style work is largely a result of the occult and pagan publishing houses. Hermetic Style Magic is appealing to a lot of people because it promises results straight out of the box. Indeed, for myself, that is why I have had a very difficult time abandoning the Golden Dawn rituals which I sharpened my teeth on. I do think that such sorts of Magic, properly practiced, being based so heavily on formulae and repetition can guarantee a certain sort of success without much other work. That said, I find a great deal of the underlying rhetoric to not only be reductive, but frequently offensive. I think it is too easy for a Hermetic Magician to reach beyond themself, and fail to apprehend the mechanisms in action behind their actions. I would argue that the foundations of Hermetic Magic are built on an abstraction at several removes from the basic functioning of magic, and the the power upon which it draws emerges from a source which is refined and denatured by the Hermetic frame work, to the point that the source itself is disguised beneath so many distortions that, to the practitioner, it becomes invisible. The framing of Hermeticism removes the ground from which it emerged.

I am so easily frustrated with the framing of a great deal of Occult and Spiritual writing that I find myself turning to Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for spiritual advice (or Foucault, when I’m in a particularly black mood). I suppose that in the end I am too aware of social and historical constructs which have produced the very specific sort of knowledge which we have recognized as Occult to ever be willing to accept such writings as either true or honest. I find something reprehensible as well in the very naming of such knowledge, which aims at truth and honesty, as Occult, meaning hidden, occluded, secret. The tradition which produced such themes relies primarily, even today with the great power of the internet, on restriction. That which is Occult only maintains its intensity as such by the maintenance of its secrecy. Surely the truth and honesty of being are immediately accessible regardless of the socio-historical frame which seeks to contain them. Being must subsume all such knowledge and be the primum mobile behind all such knowledge. Today’s Occult Knowledge is merely a rarefied and refined sort of secret entirely dependent upon the discrete cultural forces which shunted such knowledge into a very particular category: that which must not be known by the majority of society; that which is dangerous.

I think, today, that many people are content to assume that Hermeticism is and always was a discrete, intact, and perfectly recognizable system which, while it may have influenced the cultures around it, was entirely pure and uninfluenced throughout its emergence and refinement. I recently read a book, lent to me by a friend, The Secret Source, by Maja D’Aoust and Adam Parfrey, which I think quite succinctly encapsulates this issue. The first half of the book aims to reveal the late Victorian Occult origins of the Prosperity Gospel and the wave of self help demagoguery typified by The Secret, which I feel it honestly does quite well. However, the second half then delves into the deep history of the Hermetic Tradition which influenced Victorian Occultism, and hence a vast majority of the Modern Western Spiritual and Occult Movements, and in doing so, seeks to reinforce the basic Hermetic Myth that this particular form of knowledge predates all others and was handed down directly from the gods to quasi-god-men who maintained and secreted this knowledge through the ages to preserve it against the corruption of mankind in expectation of some Great Work yet to come. In that way, such a system is, by its nature, Apocalyptic, perpetually revolving around a system of secrecy and delay. Those who know where chosen to know, and it is incumbent upon them to protect and preserve such knowledge, while simultaneously using it to manipulate the world around them to their own enlightened ends toward an us yet unknown and potentially unknowable final agenda.

Enlightenment is incumbent upon secrecy. One can only become enlightened once one has gained the secret knowledge which they can only gain through the beneficence of those already enlightened. Such a system resembles a pyramid scheme: a spirituality of a knowledge which must be controlled and contained. Knowledge, then, is the root of spirituality in this system. A particular knowledge must precede spirituality. Spirituality is thus a secondary effect. One cannot be truly spiritual without first having access to a rarified and refined tradition which places itself at direct odds against the world in which it is embedded.

Hermeticism is essentially a spirituality of The Word. Hermeticism derives from a particular sort of knowledge which is not experienced, but acquired linguistically. The magic of Hermeticism is one which relies powerfully on linguistic abstraction and repetition. The speaking of words themselves is magical and all power is channelled through their annunciation. Hermetic Magic seeks to pronounce the world into a particular way of being: from abstraction to instantiation. The action of Hermeticism is profoundly based against the World.

Indeed, I would argue that systems such as Hermeticism posit language as preexisting the world. One would be hard pressed to find a text which better describes Hermetic thought than this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1, King James Bible

Yet, how many Hermetics would accept a Gnostic Christian basis for their beliefs? Very few in my experience. The argument could be made that Hermeticism pressed into early Christianity, but the reverse of that argument is equally powerful. The earliest sources of the most basic of Hermetic texts, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes only dates to the tenth century. We have no reason to believe that Hermeticism is anywhere near as ancient as it claims to be. Nor do we have any reason to assume that it is anything more than the product of a complex Magico-Spiritual milieu resulting from the cultural blending of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern thought during the expansion and proliferation of the Roman Empire.

Hermeticism is a primarily gnostic practice. It posits a linguistic world against the world of experience. Indeed, it seems to emerge from a culture which produced a variety of gnostic faiths. Hermeticism is just as bound by its cultural framing as any other religion. It is only useful as a spiritual practice as long as one maintains that awareness: whatever truth it contains is a very particular truth emergent from a very particular set of circumstances, and it can only speak within that framework.

The framing of Hermeticism also allows it access to a devouring syncresis, as particularly typified by the work of Dion Fortune. A friend and I were recently discussing Dion Fortune’s role in Modern Paganism in this regard. I think that one of the more destructive strategies of Modern Pagans striving for acceptance has been largely derived from her work. Within the Hermetic frame, all Divinity derives from the single Hermetic God, all other gods being mere aspects of that One Great God. Dion Fortune expounds these principles in great detail in her book The Mystical QabalahWithin that text, Fortune explains how all the various pagan deities relate to the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and thus seeks to unify all pantheons into not simply one pantheon, but One Great God in various emanations. Here, again, we have a vast array of Spiritual Experience being rewritten and altered to fit within a single framework which forcefully disregards the traditions and cultural backgrounds of each under the baseless assumption that Hermetic Knowledge preceded all other forms of knowledge, and is, therefore, the only true knowledge.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the traditions of the ancient world which Modern Pagans are attempting to return to have been so degraded and damaged by the incursion of Christianity that we simply do not have enough data to accurately reconstruct them. However, I do not think that justifies then turning to Hermetic and Golden Dawn based work, as such work is innately at odds with the individual power and cultural constructs which produced all of these discrete traditions. I know that it is asking a great deal to turn away from the structures to which we have become accustomed, but I also think that it is incumbent on us to understand the way these various institutions, spiritual or otherwise, interact, and the agendas which they carry with them.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Am Not A Hermeticist

  1. emjay says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for several days now. And I think I’ve managed to put my finger on at least a part of what bothers me (standby for a long-ish explanation):

    Pagans are, by and large, converts. They come to paganism(s) from the wider world of Western Judeo-Christianity, as practiced in America (at least, they do if they’re American, and that’s the group I have the best experience of, so I’m gonna run with it). Even if they’re not brought up in a religious family, sent to a religious school (or a Sunday school or CCD or something), or ever explicitly taught about the religion they were raised into, they bring with them into their paganism a perspective colored by Judeo-Christianity. As a convert to a new religion, particularly an eclectic paganism which requires by definition a ground-up construction by its practitioners, you should do research. You should know what you’re getting into, why it interests you, why it makes your soul sing or appeals to your aesthetics or satisfies your philosophical and theological curiosities. And, to know this, to answer these questions, you should have done research into where it is you’re coming from.

    There are several problems with this, from the viewpoint of most pagans–first, they believe we live in a largely secular society that could not have possibly tainted their pagan worldview with its inherently Judeo-Christian one. Second, they are often acting in outright rebellion against this tradition they refuse to acknowledge (or, maybe they do acknowledge it directly, if they come from a religious background), and so will not take the time to do the research they should (in my opinion, at least) because they are trying to leave it entirely behind, as though they could amputate it from their psyche. And third, like many people of the modern generation, they’re probably sort of clueless as to how to do this research and why they should bother taking the considerable time.

    Hermeticism, and the Golden Dawn tradition, fills this gap so nicely. It looks like research (although it is easily Googled and usually dressed up with dark purple backgrounds and spinning gifs of Stars of David), it feels like research, since the information is rather dense, and it dresses itself up with such grandeur, it can be hard to question. Very few people get around this by actually figuring out where it comes from, what its based on, and what its trying to accomplish, particularly when they’re using it to fill a small gap in practice or tradition. And while the founders of these paganisms that so readily butcher and incorporate parts of GD or Hermeticism will readily admit to having read Dion Fortune or Aliester Crowley or some such author, the average pagan…I sort of doubt it, not least because the books are hard to get a hold of in a mainstream bookstore or small-ish library.

    Of course, there are a whole bunch of people (who may or may not read this) who do accept the roots of this tradition, and embrace it whole-cloth, at least theologically. And there are those who accept the roots of the tradition and attempt a reconstruction of a pre-Christian Hermeticism (even if that’s fairly pointless, for the reasons you outlined above).

    But why are there so many pagans–not Hermeticists, or Golden Dawn initiates, or Rosicrucians, or Masons, etc–who are willing to accept these ill-fitting and awkward bits of GD in their tradition without question? And why are they so open to accepting the Hermetic worldview, which devalues all other practice, all other theology, as inferior to its own, and often attempts to explain itself as the inevitable “evolution” of theology or practice or Work? Why does this not grate at the pagan community at large?

    • eidolos says:

      Your final paragraph, all of those questions, has neatly compacted the issues that I tend to have with the presence of GD material in Modern Paganism. The GD and Hermeticism, while being heavily syncretic, are not sympathetic to syncretistic approaches to their own material, and, beyond that, denounce all other traditions as false, declined, or secretly actually Hermetic, if only the poor little dears knew.

      It doesn’t take much work to uncover this. I mean, Dion Fortune says outright in several of her books that all gods are secretly Jesus.

      • emjay says:

        But, that would mean actually reading Dion Fortune (not quoting her out of context to sound clever). Reading! A book, published before 1985!

        There are many pagans who have read Dion Fortune and the uber-syncretism that allows all gods to be Jesus doesn’t seem to bother them overmuch. Why? Just, why?

      • eidolos says:

        I am right with you and your frustrations. I wish I knew. It seems as though people just don’t realize the implications.

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