The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 3)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

As noted earlier, all western Traditions are based on the cosmology so as above so is below with a more or less direct connection between the divine reality (logos) and our human lives in the earthly realm. 


As might be expected, it all began in ancient Egypt around the time that Alexander the Great (332BC) founded the city of Alexandra. Cultural change (urbanisation and the Greek rationalism which made gods too difficult for most people to relate to) brought in the first of these traditions, Alexandrian Hermeticism. 

The city of Alexander was a melting pot of cultures so it only makes sense that its spiritual tradition followed suit quickly becoming a clearing house for both Greek and Eastern ideas , myth, and religious practises and beliefs. The best known texts of this period are those attributed to Hermes Trismegistus – whose attributes were also a melting pot of the Egyptian god, Thoth and the Greek god Hermes (known as Mercury in ancient Rome). 

Thoth was a lunar deity in service to the solar god, Ra, and for the ancient Egyptians, everything lunar was vital not least because the moon was considered responsible for the periodic flooding of the River Nile. It’s little surprise then that Thoth was at the top of divinity heap, considered to be the supreme law giver especially regarding magical and occult powers. Likewise, Hermes, the psychopomp (the spiritual guide of a living person soul) was also a lunar deity and considered responsible for the timely functioning of everyday life.

Although both Thoth and Hermes had serious clout, they also had a lighter more playful side in the sense they were identified as trickster gods. This allowed people to relate with them more easily than they had been able with other gods.

In time, Hermes became associated with the concept of Logos, one of the most complex concepts of the Hellenistic world meaning nothing less than the natural order of things –  the very rhyme and reason of creation. Thus it was through Hermes that the people could find Logos, or divinity,  within themselves, as did Carl Jung through his connection with Philemon, his spirit guide in Liber Novus, who, as Dr Liz Greene reminds us, was also a hermetic figure. 

The primary text of Alexandrian Hermeticism is the Corpus Hermeticum, which itself is a collection of 17 different treatises written in Greek in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Throughout most of these treaties, the character Hermes Trismegistus, plays the role of initiator to various other characters into wisdom and mysteries. However in the famous first book Poimandres (The Divine Pymander), Hermes receives a lecture from the god Nous (Supreme intellect).

 “Because of this, unlike any other living thing on earth, mankind is twofold – in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it.”

(Book 1 (Discourse) of Hermes Trismegistus: Poimandres, [15].

The overwhelming message of Corpus Hermeticum is that it is the work of humans to become like God, to know God as an equal – because only like understands like.

This is to be accomplished through contemplation of the divinity that pervades the whole of nature. Look for symbols because all symbols point to God. Learn how to read the symbols, and you will know God.

Therefore according to the hermetic tradition, the purpose of esoteric (spiritual) practise is to find our own divinity, our own connection with God, through our intellect. This is achieved through discourse with the hierarchical entities (mundus imaginals). In essence, it is this initiation, development, and maintenance of bonds and relationships between revealed and concealed worlds that is known to us as magic.

It is this ‘essential man’ (or spirit) that Nous mentioned (see above) that we are attempting to reconnect. Eventually, by climbing that hierarchal ladder with help from the various entities, we will transmute the baseness of the material world and once again become one with God.[1]


Closely related to Hermeticism, is pagan Neoplatonism, which like Hermeticism, perceived the primary aim of man is to tread a spiritual path allowing him to ascend to his divine origins, from which he’d fallen into earthly existence. Neoplatonism flourished between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD and was especially popular with the wealthy inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

According to Plotinus, a leading figure in this moment, the hierarchy of Hermeticism could be divided into three readily discernible parts: (1) the Higher Soul (World Soul and that of individuals), (2) Intellect, and (3) Lower Soul or Nature. Each level was a constituent part of living, breathing Logos and each consisted of exactly the same stuff, albeit the lower down the ladder, the more imperfect that would be.

As with Hermeticism, Plotinus believed the point of all esoteric practice (i.e. magic) was the purification and ascent of the soul into unity with the Divine through use of correspondence, or sumpatheia (sympathy). As Dr Liz Greene explains, sumpatheia means ‘happening with’, or ‘experiencing with’; ‘two apparently unrelated events, conditions, or objects that occur simultaneously and reflect a shared hidden meaning, root, pattern, or divinity. According to Dr Greene, this is precisely what Jung meant when he coined the new term ‘synchronicity’, in order to make the old magical ideas more palatable to the scientific community. [2]

Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus, added the flourish of strict asceticism to the process whilst Iamblichus, a disciple of Porphyry, streamlined and formalised the process with formulaic (theurgical) manipulation of symbolic objects as well as methodology to achieve ‘divine possession’ of the gods through mediumship.

According to Iamblichus, ‘the eyes of the body’ cannot tolerate a vision of the gods except through the mediation of perceptible symbols such as gemstones. As Dr Greene also reminds us, although we still do not understand why humans respond psychologically to certain gemstones (and in particular to their colours), nevertheless, we do. Like all symbols, gemstones have potency and consumers are more willing than ever to accept this at face value. [3

Proclus, the last major pagan Neoplatonist strengthen the connection between spiritual ascent and properly focused theurgy, thus laying the groundwork for Renaissance magicians like Ficino.


A major current in Christian thought, Gnosticism follows a game plan of achieving spiritual knowledge (gnosis) of God and the higher realities (archangels, cherubim, seraphim, guardians, et al) that operate in the same plane as God.

But although one may aspire to know God, God remains always unknown and unknowable. Gnosis is as close as you’ll get, and for some Gnostics, that could only be achieved through redemption through Jesus Christ.

Also in contrast to Hermeticism, wherein there was no duality in the sense that everything in the world is recognised as of divine origin, with the Gnostics comes the concept of good vs. evil.

For the Gnostics, the material world (one of illusion) populated by humans was not a creation of God, but instead of an inferior (or perhaps even evil) being known as the demiurge.

Overall, Gnosticism is a pessimistic view of the fallen nature of man and a rejection of the fundamental good of all God’s creation.

(to be continued)

[1] It is worth nothing that in this sense, spiritual, unlike the common English usage, refers to a material substance, the Stoic conception of a higher, finer matter that sustains life, movement, and thought. See Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation with notes and introduction by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p 99, note 1.5.

[2] See The God in the Stone: Gemstone Talismans in the Western Magical Traditions by Liz Greene (pp 48); in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015.

[3] Greene, The God in the Stone, p. 51.

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