The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 4)

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.

Byzantine Legacy

After the fall of Rome in the 4th century AD, Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, became the new centre of culture and learning and, as the result, the Alexandrian Hellenistic esoteric tradition got a facelift with an Arabic rendition of Hermes Trismegistus, The Emerald Tablet. As such, the words ‘so as above, so as below‘ became cemented into Western esoteric tradition and with them, the idea that the same forces work on earth exactly as they do throughout heaven.

As Peter Marshall observes, The Emerald Tablet is nuanced version of the creation myth of ancient Egypt with Ra symbolised by the sun and told the names of creation by Thoth, symbolised by the moon, who by uttering them brought them into existence in the single act of adaptation by reversing, as did the ancient Egyptians, the familiar Western notion of ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Father Sky.’[1]

This opens the way for the alchemical allegory of the chemical wedding of the sun and the moon , Sol and Luna. More of alchemy in later posts, but for now it’s enough to set the scene for this development with a deep awareness of the beauty and magnificence of the creation as well as firmly cementing the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water into Western esoteric tradition.[2]

Marsilio Ficino and the Hermetic Revival

As the Byzantine Empire declined in the 15th century, the centre of culture and learning shifted westward, to the city of Florence where humanist thought paved the way for the revival of Platonism.[3] As wealth and patronage played such an important part in the advancement of learning in that time, it’s little wonder that with aid from Cosimo de’ Medici, the leading merchant-prince of the Florentine Republic, Marsilio Ficino now takes centre stage.

Ficino had been searching for a type of spirituality that fit his needs and in Plato’s work, he found it. With the backing of Cosimo, Ficino began to translate original Greek manuscripts into Latin. It was during this endeavour that he got his hands on a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum. At that time, it was believed the Hermeticum was much older that it has turned out to be. Thus Ficino and his followers regarded Hermes Trismegistus as a contemporary of Moses and as such, the work was seen as a philosophia perennis, which although predating Christianity, anticipated its arrival. Doubtless, this allowed the ideas in that work to be more palatable to the Church.

The result was an intriguing cosmology, or a psychologically spatial orientation of that which is ‘me’ as well as that which is other than ‘me’, that put God at the top of a hierarchy populated by orders of angels, the planets, and the elements as well as various types of plants, animals and minerals. 

But what made Ficino’s cosmology unique was the role to which he assigned to the human soul. In keeping with Plato’s Symposium, in which Socrates identifies love is an active force holding all things together, Ficino attributed this active influence of thought and love to the human soul, which he believed could reach out and embrace all things in the universe. More than just a formal intellectual model, this new cosmology acted as a map for the travels and ascent of man’s individual soul. In his own contemplative life, Ficino gave personal and practical slant to this idea and combined it seamlessly with his Christianity. 

For thus our soul becomes most like to God, who is wisdom itself. According to Plato, in this likeness consists the highest state of happiness. 

Ficino, a letter written to Cosimo de Medici 

Most importantly, in the hands of Ficino, the Hermetica offered the opportunity to gain power over nature, through what is now known as natural or sympathetic magic. For Ficino, this magic was most easily accomplished through astrology. He believed that the planets and all things celestial, sowed the seeds of God’s divine plan into the material world through archetypal energies resembling rays. Wisdom, one’s key to happiness, would come from judiciously absorbing as many different rays as possible.

By withdrawal from earthly things, by leisure, solitude, constancy, esoteric theology and philosophy, by superstition, magic, agriculture, and grief, we come under the influence of Saturn.”

Marsilio Ficino

As Dr Liz Greene reminds us, not only was Carl Jung very familiar with Ficino’s work, but he relied on it extensively in his own work in the Liber Novus. For example, the Old Scholar, with whom Jung communicated in that work, was a grief-stricken recluse, echoing the Ficino’s association of Saturn with grief and solitude.[4]  As noted in an earlier post, Jung’s most important spiritual guide in Liber Novus, who was known to him as Philemon, was a Saturnian figure with Aquarian leanings. As Dr Greene also reminds us, Philemon provided Jung with his wisdom, his insight, and his understanding of the workings of the psyche – in essence his own cosmology – which Jung then translated into his psychological theories. Philemon’s approach to all of this through astrology, is directly traceable to the work of Ficino. [5]

Pico della Mirandola and the Kabbala

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a contemporary of Ficino, upped the ante in developing an even more powerful variety of Renaissance magic by incorporating into Ficino’s approach, the Jewish Kabbalah, a mystical concept used by Kabbalists to signify the self-emptying aspect of the creator.

God (known as Ain Soph) withdraws his Light in order to create a vacuum allowing a single thread of his Light to traverse the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth – collectively known as The Tree of Life.  Each Sephira, connected by twenty-two pathways, acts as a vessel containing some of His Light; thus each represents an aspect of God.

For the Kabbalist, the ‘Tree’ is not only a diagram of God’s unfolding creative impulse, but also a path for spiritual union with the Divine.  Legend has it that after the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, angels brought the Kabbalah down from Heaven to teach Adam how to recover his primal bliss.

Although primarily a system of contemplation, the Kabbalah also has a magical side. As a means of approaching the Sephiroth, seventy-two angels could be invoked by one knowing their names and numbers as well as the appropriate arrangement of Hebrew words, letters, and/or signs.

According to Pico , Ficino’s natural or sympathetic magic was weak and ineffective unless used in combination with the Kabbalah. He said that whereas natural magic aims no higher than operating upon the material world and the stars, the Kabbalah can be used to operate beyond – to influence the super celestial spheres of angels, archangels and God (the first cause), Himself. Such practise however, could be dangerous and the ecstasy that results may cause the death of the body, a way of dying known as the “Death of the Kiss.”

Not surprisingly, Jung’s spirit guide, Philemon, was also knowledgeable with the Kabbalah. It was shortly before Jung’s kabbalistic vision of uniting the divine male and female, that he’d experienced a serious heart attack in 1944.[6] Indeed, the English occultist, Dion Fortune, attributed her well known book, The Mystical Qabalah, to the wisdom that Philemon had communicated to Jung.[7]

I would commence my mental rehearsal up the sacred names, and would suddenly find that I was aware of mental pictures only… I maintained my concentration on the images arising in consciousness, and did not allow it to wander… Out of the Sky over the water a vast angelic figure began to form, and I saw what I felt to be an archangel bent over me in a vast curve.

Dion Fortune

In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico marked the change between the medieval mind and the modern mind; man alone has been given by God the freedom to make of himself what he will, and it should come as no surprise, drawing on the that overwhelming message of the Corpus Hermeticum, that in doing so he should strive to become like God, to know God as an equal – because only like understands like. The stage is now set for the develop of further invocational magic.

(to be continued)



[1] Marshall, Peter. The Philosopher’s Stone: A Quest for the Secrets of Alchemy. London; Macmillan (2001).

[2] As Peter Marshall suggests, nothing stands more powerfully than the words of the Emerald Tablet themselves:

  1. True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing. 
  2. And as all things were by the contemplation of the one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
  3. The father is therefore is the Sun, the mother the Moon. 
  4. The wind carried it in its womb, the Earth is the nurse thereof. 
  5. It is the father of all the works of wonder throughout the whole world. 
  6. The power therefore is perfect. 
  7. If it be cast on to the Earth, it will separate the elements of the Earth from that of Fire, the subtle from the gross. 
  8. With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from Earth to Heaven.
  9. Again it doth descend to the Earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior.
  10. Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly from thee.
  11. This thing is the strong fortitude of all strength, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance. 
  12. Thus was the world created. 
  13. Hence there will be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this. 
  14. For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the whole world. 
  15. That which I had to say about the operation of the Sol  is completed.

[3] As Louis Dupre explains in his excellent book, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. P. 96-97 and 149), underlying the humanist movement in all its variations, is the idea of human responsibility for bringing all creation to its destined perfection. Since the 15th century humanists were focused on finding the right models for telling an essentially unchanging story, it’s not surprising that in their hands, ancient learning again takes centre stage in new form.

[4] For more on this, see discussion at pp. 75 in The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, (Routledge, 2018) by Dr Liz Greene

[5] Ibid, p. 119.

[6] Ibid,  p. 99.

[7] Ibid, p. 101.

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