The 2nd Cold War – China vs. the United States

I’ve been lucky enough to be attending Cambridge University’s ‘Virtual Summer Festival of Learning Talks’ and even luckier to attend two talks given by Sir Tony Brenton (former British ambassador to Russia). The topic at hand in both is whether or not we can expect a new Cold War between the United States and China as the key players – and spoiler alert – the answer is yes. 

The Old Order

Let’s go back to the Yalta Conference – 1945 – where the key players were Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. Stalin wanted Eastern Europe, ostensibly  to keep the Germans from rearming again, and Stalin got what he wanted. Because Europe was in a fragile state after WWII and unable to stand up to Stalin alone, the Americans decided to help both with the Marshall plan and by committing to the military defence of Europe with NATO. In response, the Russians pulled together their Warsaw Pact. 

The stage is set – two major players are in place – two very distinct players – the East vs. the West – with wildly different and readily identifiable agendas. The West wanted democracy and capitalism to underpin the world order and the East, wanted communism and state run economy.

The ideological ‘confrontation’ went global when in 1949, China (led by Mao Zedong) goes Communist – one up for the (former) Soviet Union. For the most part, this Cold War avoided military intervention (Viet Nam and Korea being notable exceptions) because of the threat of nuclear war – which neither side was keen to unleash. 

Finally the (former) Soviet Union started melting down economically – their state-run economy turned out to be no match for capitalism – this in turn, brought down their military power. With the Reagan Era, when the Americans started to seriously push back against the Soviets, it all collapsed with the Berlin Wall (Berlin had been the centre of the attention right from the start back in 1945) falling in 1988 and the (former) Soviet Union splitting up into 15 individual states. 

Now there was one superpower – the United States and geopolitics as we’d known it post WWII came to a halt and the new status quo remained in place for the better part of 30 years.

The New Order

During most of this time, China kept a lower international profile – focusing on its own domestic stuff. Mao turned out to be a bit of a disaster with the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) where 35 million died and then again with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when it really goes all wrong again. Mao died in 1976. Enter Deng Xiao pin  (1978-1992) – who sets about making China ‘great again’ through pragmatic modernisation. His approach was that ‘we do what works’ – enough of idealism – and the economy starts to take off – ‘to get rich is glorious’. During this period, China was under no illusions that when opening up with the West some ‘flies’ (capitalism) will ‘get it’ – the price paid for progress. It worked. 

The Chinese are arriving fully back on the scene doing very well indeed and now, China may become the richest country in the world by the end of this decade – and so it becomes more assertive internationally – they want to reclaim their land – they want to be the major power in their region (again) and so are taking a firmer hand. Don’t you remember the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – oops – how did this happen? A Leninist government is a now a major economic power?

The trade deficit Yep, the Chinese economy is now booming and the trade deficit with the United States continues to get worse and worse (from the perspective of the Americans). So Trump gets nasty and China retaliates. American attempts to enlist the Europeans to help hasn’t been met with the enthusiasm the Americans had hoped. France and Germany do more business with China than the Americans and understandably are not keen to upset the apple cart.

Worse, North Korea starts to play ball too. That is not to say that China is rooting for North Korea because they are not keen for a unified Korea either. So they must fight their turf and they do. The Chinese are intent on taking the leadership role in their region and that means they are also intent on taking back that which they believe is their own – Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hong Kong

As the result of the Treaty of Nanking, the British took possession of Hong Kong in the 1841 as part of its imperialist push for world dominance – this time to push their opium trade. Back in 1997 when the British were required to return Hong Kong to the Chinese, another treaty was signed which was meant to guarantee certain freedoms to the residents of Hong Kong. But the Chinese are no longer keen to adhere to that and for the residents, it’s not good news. Sir Tony Brenton suggests that the West has no alternative but to abandon Hong Kong to its fate – the short answer is that there is little that can be done about it – although one clever tactic is when the British invited citizens of Hong Kong to resettle in Britain – it undermines China without be openly confrontational which quite honestly is likely to be the way the American would rather see it going.

Taiwan

When the Communists took over China in 1949, the Chinese nationalist party took refuge offshore to Taiwan. In the long-lasting fit against communism, understandably, the Americans support Taiwan. Now, the Chinese want it and the Americans want to ensure they don’t get it. Will the US use military force to support Taiwan as China keeps pressing reunification? Well, it is interesting to note that the Americans have never committed themselves to defence of Taiwan as they have through NATO for others like the UK. Sir Tony Brenton  suggests it’s almost inevitable that China will get Taiwan back and if China is sensible, they will take a soft-glove approach.

But, says Sir Tony Brenton, eventually the patience of the Chinese  will wan and then the US will have to take a stance. Chances are good the American public will push for a tough stance that could start WW3. To date, relations between the United States and China have not improved under Biden but there remains hope. Biden has good advisors who know what they are doing – but the economics of the situation may well push the agenda and we all know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men. Watch this space for the G20 conference in Rome in early October 2021 (if it happens). Biden has a chance to make new moves.

The Russians

Will they support the Chinese? Sir Tony Brenton is of two minds on this – one side, Russia thinks of itself as European – in a push, they’d want to side with Europe against China. The Russians do not want to be part of China. But then Russia does take a different stance on other issues than the Europeans and if we keep loading  sanctions (and upsetting  Putin) they may just think – why side with the Europeans?

Also, Russia needs China’s trade – Russia produces raw materials and China needs them – well, that cements the two together economically and economics is the name of the game these days. Finally, the westerners are on a messianic crusade for ‘human rights’ and the Russians well -know they are on the wrong side of that – and that does push them closer to China.


Summary

It’s highly likely that we will see a 2nd Cold War that will play out very differently than the last one. The issues are not so clear cut as they were before – and some players like Germany and France do more trade with China than the United States. The ideologies that drove the first Cold War are no longer in play – however much the Americans might think otherwise. Economics is now the name of the game and whilst the (former) Soviet Union went down because of that, it’s more likely that this time the Americans will meet the same fate – it’s more than likely that by the end of this decade, the Chinese economy will have surpassed that of the United States and, as happened with the (former) Soviet Union, when the economy fails, so does military power – and at the end of the day, there is nothing else left. 

The Hermeneutics of Allegory – Homer’s Odyssey in Context

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey carry hidden meaning beyond that which is simply symbolic. Naturally, it’s important to understand what a piece of literature or poetry or art might mean (symbolically) – but then comes the next question – what am I meant to do with that? 

Over the centuries, there have been many approaches to answer this question but one that I really like is a four level of hermeneutic approach (traced back to the 3rd century as a method for Christian thinkers like Origen and Thomas Aquinas to grasp spiritual meaning from the scriptures).

Let’s assume that the Odyssey is an allegory (extended metaphor) about ‘finding one’s way back home’ – not unlike the theme of many popular stories/ films like The Wizard of Oz which, themselves may be underpinned with Biblical messages about returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden. 

Application of the four levels of hermeneutical interpretation to the allegory this allegory might go along something like this:

  1. Literal – the letter teaches you the facts – this level presents that which is an objective truth to be observed and verified. On the way home from ‘work’ (the Trojan war), Odysseus got lost and although he really wanted to get home (and ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’) this didn’t prove to be easy because the gods blocked him at every turn.
  2. Allegory – what you should believe – this level expands the literal sense by pairing observed objective truths (see above) to subjective life events. ‘Home’ is a factor in all our lives although not all cultures think of ‘home’ in the same way. But usually we consider ‘home’ as a safe place where we ‘feel’ that we are ‘wanted’ and where we ‘belong’. In this sense, the concept of ‘home’ usually carries lots of emotional baggage and so with that comes the concept of nostalgia – bittersweet memories and longing for that safe space. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek words (1) nostos or ‘return journey’ and (2) algos or ‘pain’. Lots of people get lost – it happens every day – and although more often than not they aren’t too happy about it, they do tend to remember the experience for the rest of their lives So what might we gather from that? A quote by Henry David Thoreau might shed light – “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Put Thoreau together with notions of ‘home’ as a place where we feel we belong and the idea arises that being homeless carries painful (nostalgic) feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ and that we might not have appreciated what ‘belonging’ really meant to us (‘the infinite extent of our relations’) until we experience this.
  3. Trope –  how you should act – this level reveals the context of the interpretation and allows you to interact with it. The term ‘trope’ comes from the Greek tropos, to turn, as in the tropic of the Sun’s turning at the Solstices.  Moved by the literal and allegorical ‘truths’ you’ve observed and interpreted, you now turn toward that ‘truth’ and take the necessary actions to implement it. Odysseus was in a difficult situation – ‘a fish out of water’ – he wanted to return to feelings of ‘belonging’ – but some force more powerful than him (i.e. the gods) denied this to him. What actions did he need to take to overcome the gods? I suggest that he had to become ever more cunning and crafty than ever before – and in this regard, the cunning and crafty goddess Athene helped him. In other words, he needed to learn new skills and develop certain aspects of himself that he might have otherwise ignored and/or disregarded. The idea might be that when we feel lost and alone – presented with obstacles we could never have expected – we need to turn within and with divine help take stock of our personal strengths and weaknesses, polishing up the former and shoring up the latter. 
  4. Anagoge – what to hope for – this level, signifying the symbol as something through which the turn of the trope turns, is reflected in our desire to predict.  Here we enter the world of the daemon which manifests as a power from outside rather like providence or fate. Because the Greek word anagoge suggests a “climb” or “ascent” upwards, there’s a higher spiritual meaning in play here relating directly to mankind’s destiny in the greater scheme of thing. What then, might we expect (or predict) for ourselves from the homecoming that Odysseus? Most certainly it did not manifest as he’d planned. Although he was finally ‘home’ in the sense that he could now ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’, he is still a fish out of water. At least he’d been warned by the ghost of Agamemnon (murdered by his wife and her lover when he returned home from ‘work’ – the Trojan war). But still it isn’t easy. As one commentator notes, the homecoming half of The Odyssey is the least read because it is so gruellingly painful. Whilst people love reading a tale of adventure (the first half of the The Odyssey), they don’t like reading about about mass murder and civil unrest. Yet this is exactly what happened. We might be tempted to say that Odysseus brought this on himself and, at some level, that may well be true. But remember that here we’re looking for some spiritual meaning in regards to what mankind might expect as the result of undertaking an odyssey such as did Odysseus. Returning to parallels of this story to that of returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden, we must remember that in Greek, the world ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’. Escapist illusions leading to embracing utopian ideals – i.e. there is a place called ‘home’ to which if only we might return, our lives will be shiny and bright again – usually lead to serious disillusionment. Whilst it is true that ‘there’s no place like home’, the Moody Blues made an important point in their hit song from the 1970’s – ‘You Can Never go Home’. Check out the lyrics and let me know what you think what this might mean.

The Astrology of July 2021

SUMMARY – The action-packed – and let’s face it – difficult T square with Mars/Uranus/Saturn colors the entire month, especially the first week.  If you play games with people, then don’t be surprised if they play games back and win! If this happens, you might well take it as a message that you don’t always need to win and that sometimes, the best approach is to drop back, give ground, and find another way to tackle the problem.

  • 1 July – Mars opposes Saturn – this is about the battle of wills and clashes of authority – me and my ideas and values are better than yours kind of thing – if you’re pushing too hard in any aspect of your life during this time, it can blow up. But if you’re careful and work diligently and ethically with the energies at hand, you can get much accomplished.
  • 3 – 4 July – Mars perfects his square with Uranus – breakthroughs are now possible where you’ve previously had only constraints. Thus this might be a most invigorating and action-oriented time. Just beware of macho releases of energy. Don’t deliver ultimatums with which you can’t afford to follow through. 
  • 5 – 6 July – Mercury squares Neptune one last time – this can be a romantic and fluid period – especially for creative pursuits – this can also be mystical and magical and don’t be surprised if you have special insights – weird synchronicities – that turn out to be spot on. Yet at the same time be extra vigilant of falling victim of deception and unclear thinking (your own and that of others). Remember that, more often than not, we hear and believe what we want to hear and believe whether it’s true or not.
  • 6 – 7 July – Venus opposes Saturn and then makes a square to Uranus – and if you’ve arrived at serious crossroads in love and friendships, it’s a time you can deepen them through mature thinking. This is also a great time for waking up the more erotic elements in our relationships. Equally, it could also be a time to get serious about also health and/or creative projects and endeavours. 
  • 13 – 14 July – Mars and Venus conjoin in the sign of Leo – during this time, we could be rewarded for all our hard work to date – this is perfect energy for mending that which has been broken especially with our romantic relationships. It’s also perfect for moving forward and finding solutions to other pressing problems – this is a very positive time. Enjoy!
  • 17 July – Sun opposes Pluto – perfect for releasing pent-up potential – I can see clearly now – major turning points – also perfect for starting new projects – dig new ground.
  • 22 July – Venus enters Virgo and remains there until the middle of August – during this time, all things Venusian take on a Mercurial air – it’s time to get rational and technical about our relationships and creative projects as well as mundane things like personal care products – thinking like this doesn’t always sit easily with the more sensual nature of Venus – but if you go with the flow, the end result is likely to be practical. However lovely your current shampoo smells, in the not helping if it leaves your hair feeling brittle and dry! 
  • 22 July – Sun moves into Leo where it is dignified and happy –it’s a great time to consider what you can do where you comfortably move into the spotlight and be appreciated for the special person that you are. If your life trajectory needs some adjustment to get back on that path, now is a great time to take actions to make it happen.
  • 22 July – Venus opposes Jupiter – OK, don’t get carried away here – you could spend too much money – eat and drink too much – even get carried away with a health regime. Sure enough with Venus now in Virgo, it’s a good time to get realistic but don’t go overboard. Think before you take action – this is always good advice but especially relevant today!   
  • 28 July – Jupiter slips back into Aquarius – OK, well, he’d been moving forward into Pisces from mid-May through now and we might have gotten our hopes up that we were well and truly on our way. Now, we will find ourselves back to where we were at the beginning of this calendar year. At first, this shift may feel constrictive – but over time, you’ll come to realise that you’re getting a second chance to get accomplish what you set out to do in January. The good news is that now have until the very end of this calendar year to do just that. Hard work and due diligence almost always pay off and they are especially likely to do so with Jupiter in Aquarius.

Man’s Relationship with his Gods

Reading Homer’s Iliad, it is clear that not only did the gods – or immortals – meddle in every aspect of the lives of important men and women – but that those men and women were quick to blame their misfortunes on the gods, often failing to take any personal responsibility for their lives, as we might be expected today.

So what might have might have been going on?

I suggest it’s all to do with man’s perceived relationship with his gods. Further, I suggest that this is nicely explained in Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In that work, Jayne’s proposed that until about 3000 years ago, human consciousness consisted only of voices that, because the two hemispheres of the brain didn’t communicate, were perceived as coming from the gods.

In essence, these ancient men lacked self-consciousness as we know it today. They could not perceive themselves as separate from – and thus ‘in relationship with’ – the gods. Instead, they had a type of cosmic consciousness which gave them imaginal – almost telepathic – access to the greater cosmos. Everything they saw and heard was to them, objectively real.

Jaynes suggests that in effect these ancients were what we might call ‘signal-bound’, responding constantly in a stimulus -response manner, completely controlled by cues. To get a sense of what this means, we need only to look at artwork from this period. I am most struck by the early Cycladic art, which I suggests demonstrates these people had a symbiotic relationship with their divinity, the Great Goddess and Earth Mother. This was the Age of Taurus, one in which men and women moved with and through the flow of nature, at one with the natural world.

Jaynes suggests this bicameralism began to break down during 2nd millennium BCE  – about the time of that the Trojan War is thought to have occurred. This was the Age of Aries and so during this time, the focus shifts to individualised achievement and conquest. The world was no longer slow moving and rural, but hierarchically organised and maintained by brute force. This required a cold, hard, calculated response. The gods no longer spoke to every individual, so the truths of cosmic consciousness were expressed in the form of the great narrative epics and divine commandments, of which the Old Testament of the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are excellent examples.

After mankind’s ‘fall’ from the garden of Eden, which you might view as a loss of cosmic consciousness, men had to become increasingly devious in order to survive. Again, when we look at the early artwork of the ancient Middle East at the beginning of the period, we see kings standing side by side with their councillor gods effortlessly gaining divine wisdom. But by the end of that age – ‘after the fall’ – the kings were on their knees begging for guidance.

Thus consciousness of ‘I’ – as separate and ‘in relation with’ the gods developed and the rational problem-solving man, with which we are familiar, is born. It’s interesting that our familiarity with our humanity increased as our familiarity with the gods decreased.

Next, the distant imperial divinities were replaced the local gods and great mythic narratives. The old cosmic consciousness had nearly faded from memory, although it was revived from time to time by mystery religions.

Here we find the right brain intuition just starting to interact with the left brain thinking, although even today we can’t be sure of the degree of the quality of such interaction. It’s not surprising that this period produced such a diametrical divinity like Jesus Christ – a mortal man who died – but didn’t really die- and because of that, was worshipped like an immortal God. This was the Age of Pisces.

What might we expect next, in the coming Age of Aquarius? I suggest that man will reposition himself vis a vis God through scientific endeavours.  In essence, man reaches for the stars –  not so much by playing God – but through creating reality. It’s ideas that drive us. We’ve always known this. But until now, we’ve been held back by our mortality.

In the post-human era, characterised by artificial intelligence and uploaded consciousness (or the transfer of the human mind to an artificial substrate), we will eliminate these distinctions, which interestingly were all man made in the first place.[1] .

Hence in the post-human era, we will transcend our bodies and become immortal like the gods. Aquarius is all about communication and through it the three aspects of the mind, cautiousness, unconsciousness, and super-consciousness will seek simultaneous expression. If we look carefully at the glyph for Aquarius – two parallel WAVY lines – I suggest that represents our new status with God.[2]

Nor surprisingly, this idea has already been presented by Nietzsche in writings about the Ubermensch or overman, in which he suggested that ‘man is something that must be overcome’ and that the highest truth is being born within man through the self-creating power of the will. To accomplish this, man’s present limited ‘self’ must be destroyed. The truth isn’t to be proved or disproved but instead, to be created. Nietzsche believed that man’s striving toward the future will result in the birth of a new being who would incarnate the meaning of the universe and thus impose redemptive order on the chaos of a meaningless universe without the gods.


[1] At the beginning of the Piscean age, Plato first formatted the distinction between the sensory (the earth plane) and the eternal world (of ideas).

Early Christian theologians renamed this external world Heaven with its guiding principle as God. The Christians further borrowed from Aristotle the notion of God as the Prime Mover of the cosmos and the First Cause of everything that exists. Amazingly, those notions had never been seriously challenged until relatively recent by the modern philosophers. 

Take Descartes. When new scientific discoveries made him wonder ‘what can I know for certain’, he came to the famous conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’. But his matrix still kept God as the first cause of – and the only link between – a bicameral universe where subjectivity – ‘I think’ –  was isolated from objectivity – ‘the world which I perceive’.

Next comes Hume who claims that the only thing that we can be certain of is the fact that there is an unbroken stream a subjective images and ideas. Under his ‘radical scepticism’, we can’t even be certain that there is something called the mind to contain these ideas because the mind is itself just another idea.

For Kant, one could only know the sensory world and only believe in any realm beyond that. Finally, Nietzsche came along and pronounced the ‘death of God’. This was a turning point where we could no longer legitimately argue that anything lies beyond the earth plane in which we live. This was the ‘dawning of the Age of Aquarius’.

[2] In Descartes’s matrix, which still underlies most modern thinking, the problem is due to the difference in kind between the mind and the body. While the non-spatial mind and the mechanistic body shouldn’t interact, they do so in the human body. In post-humanism, this problem is reworked and the distinction between subject and object is collapsed, with the mind considered to be no more than a material function of the body. Thus we will become both creator and the created.

The Astrology of June 2021

This is a big month with an eclipse, the summer solstice, a Mercury retrograde, and Saturn coming into square with Uranus. Overall, it’s a good time to make lemonade when life delivers you lemons – and if have the patience to do it well, you might discover that lemonade is tastier than ever you could have imagined.

  • 2 -3 June – Venus moves from into Cancer and almost immediately makes a potent trine with Jupiter. This is a very beneficial time. Perhaps you make a new friend or align yourself with a powerful ally. Expect positive social connections which means you will likely have an easier time than usual getting along with others. In need of some good news? This trine could bring it with you. But beware. There really can be too much of a good thing and with Jupiter involved, it’s easy for this to happen.
  • 5 June – Mars moves into opposition with Pluto. This could be a difficult time and coming off the good feelings of a couple of days ago, we may refuse to see it coming. Bad things coming into forefront – scandalous – exposure – volatile energies exploding. But to be honest, it’s now time to confront that which we’ve been avoiding – emotional catharsis is in the cards. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. Think of this period like experiencing a violent thunderstorm in mid-summer – scary and potentially dangerous – yet after it’s over, the air is clearer and everyone feels better.
  • 10 June – Solar eclipse – in Gemini on the same day that Mercury goes cazimi (i.e., Mercury’s centre moves with 17 minutes of arc of the centre – the heart – of the Sun) – this is big news for the Gemini area of your natal chart. It’s a moment of rebirthing – resetting – and moving forward again. With a new moon in Gemini, we can concentrate on starting anew –  especially with things involving technology and  communication – a new way of doing things – especially of doing business – use this time to launch new venture!
  • 11 June – Mars moves out of its fall In Cancer  (where it has been since the end of April 2021) and into Leo. This is a huge shift in energy – and especially for those with Leo rising. Nonetheless, all of us will benefit. This is a wiser Mars – like fine wine, Mars has been ageing well – lessons have been learned and processed. Now all things Mars (i.e., asserting yourself) go easier. When you stand your ground, you’ll make fewer (or less violent) waves. Just try to avoid taking self-aggrandising stands – and/or belabouring a point just to bask in the sun for little bit longer. Come from the heart in service to all, and you’ll do just fine.
  • 14 June – Stay cool – muster your patience – be flexible and curious – this could be the biggest event of the month. Saturn forms a challenging square to Uranus. If you’ve been feeling like every time you’re ready to really move ahead – make serious progress – break barriers and then out of the blue, someone or something comes along and you are held-back, know that’s exactly how it should be. This is because Saturn and Uranus are playing an unfriendly game of push and pull skittles on and off all calendar year: rebellious energy hits the conservative brick wall. It’s all around us and it’s also in our personal lives. The next time these two planets come together like this will be in December 2021. In that moment, you’ll finalise what began at the beginning of 2021 calendar year. Now is NOT the time to let your frustrations get the better of you. If you push through blockage regardless, you’re likely to break something that could have turned out to be quite valuable. Instead, consider that this ‘obstacle’ may be actually working in your behalf – delay now is a good – and not a bad – thing. You’ll find out how it plays out in December and so for now, the better you can roll with these punches, the better it will turn out and – here’s the really cool thing – it might well turn out to be much better than ever you  could have imagined.
  • 20 June – Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere – but even for those in southern hemisphere – know that the symbolic point here is that the Sun is crossing a major point of transition. This is the case for all of us – wherever we are geographically. The long and short of it is that this is a major turning point in the year. This is an excellent time to start something new – launch a new chapter in your life. Plan ahead and use this energy to your best advantage. 
  • 21 June – Jupiter turns retrograde and starts moving back toward Aquarius. OK, here’s the deal. We’ve been enjoying the happy fruits of Jupiter in Pisces (its home sign of rulership) since mid-May, which has functioned in large part as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. The energy will shift back again (until end of December 2021) – so take care. If during the past month you’ve been pushing your luck and getting away with it, that might now all come to a screaming halt! Forewarned is forearmed.
  • 23 -24 June – Venus now opposes Pluto just did Mars earlier in the month. Quite possibly some healing is now available – especially for women and/or the feminine. This also brings deep change (intensity) in our relationships – home, hearth, and family – potential catharsis yet also potential power plays. Tread lightly. A little goes a long way. Get out of the way of the steamroller well in advance and take extra care that you don’t unwittingly join forces with a steamroller.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 7)

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.


Jung’s work in alchemy is key to the development of his psychology and his writings on alchemy filled more than three volume of The Collected Works.[1]

Alchemical texts are notoriously difficult and often filled with lush imagery (Sun and Moon headed human figures, Kings, Queens, copulation, hermaphrodites, Mercuries, wolves, lions, birds and dragons in recurrent shades of green, black, white, and red) which is less than illuminating to newcomers or, perhaps, even downright purposefully misleading. 

Likewise, it is less than clear that all alchemical texts even attempt to interpret this imagery in the same way and for the same reasons. Finally, although spiritual alchemy was the focus of some alchemists, this was not always the case and indeed, there is much evidence that Jung, himself, was not so interested in the spiritual elements of the practice.

In many ways, Jung considered Paracelsus, the founder of depth psychology. But his own work was built on that of several earlier 19th and 20th century psychoanalysts, most notably Herbert Silberer, with whom Jung regularly corresponded. Silberer had worked extensively on ideas relating the symbols and processes of alchemy to the processes of psychoanalysis, and the building of a new ego through alchemical symbolism by freeing it from its old ties.

In Memories Dreams and Reflections, Jung comments that he found ‘the experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences and their world was my world’. He added that ‘only after I had familiarised myself with alchemy did I realise that the unconscious is a process’. This led him to the central concept of his psychology, the ‘process of individuation’, which in keeping with the thinking of Paracelsus, was a process during which a person gains a sense of his or her wholeness in opposition to the diversity of his or her instincts.

Also, like Paracelsus, Jung concluded there were four elements in man’s functional design: (2) feeling, (2), thought, (3), intuition, and (4) sensation. These were joined together by sexual drive, or the libido.

Jung argued that alchemy was a kind of collective conscious dream and that the Philosopher Stone was a symbol for the Self (and in its own way, perhaps also a symbol for Jesus Christ, Crucified). Indeed, Jung argued that Christianity (focused on the dichotomy of good vs. evil) was so fundamentally incapable of dealing with psychological processes, that alchemy (the collective dream) had developed to compensate that. It’s important to remember that for Jung, the Self is not the ego (i.e., the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions of which a person is aware), but instead, always lays just outside consciousness. This means the only way to get in touch with Self is tangentially, through dreams that are full of symbolism, which, not surprisingly, can be interpreted with help from alchemy. 

Further, not unlike Paracelsus, Jung concluded that the way to health was through increased inclusiveness, perhaps through ‘true knowledge’, a reflection of unity (to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ and all of creation). Indeed, Jung did emphasise that some aspects of alchemical practice such as imaginal workings or even praying to God could further the process of individuation. 

Finally, like Paracelsus and Western occultists before him, in helping men to work toward individuation – achieving wholeness in a world fraught with dichotomy, Jung believed that psychology offered man a tool to perfect that which Nature (and by implication, God) had left imperfect, but in this sense for Jung, ‘perfection’ was meant to mean ‘wholeness’.  As Paracelsus and prior esoteric occultists like the Renaissance man, Marsilio Ficino, had concluded, Jung also believed that in essence, health comes as the result of being as celestial as possible (so above, so below). Let us not forget that Jung, himself, was like Ficino, an accomplished astrologer, who used astrology extensively to better know himself.

(to be continued)


[1] For this blog post, many thanks to John Marshall and his paper Jung, Alchemy and History: A Critical Exposition of Jung’s Theory of Alchemy (2002).

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 6)

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 with the rest of the western esoteric traditions, alchemy originated in Egypt but quickly fell in line with Hermetic tradition absorbing the four elements of Aristotelian tradition. This allowed one element to transmute into another based on the attribute they shared in common. 

Jabir, a pioneering 8th century Arab alchemist, proposed a theory whereby all metals were all were composed of two elements: sulphur and mercury (Mercury equals Hermes equals Hermetic tradition). Not surprisingly, the Emerald Tablet again comes into play – “so as above, so as below”. Therefore, by transmuting and transforming metals, you could transform yourself. 

The prize of all alchemical work was the philosopher’s stone which outwardly turned base metal into gold and inwardly turned the baseness inherent in man (having fallen from the Garden of Eden) into the state divine grace.

Enter Paracelsus in the 16th century. His alchemical work inspired a new and ‘radical’ approach to science – experimentation and observation. His ideas spread as he travelled extensively throughout Europe during which time he enlisted as an army surgeon (i.e., the wars in Venice, Holland, Denmark). This allowed him to add to his new bow of medical arrows, the traditional medicinal practises of the herbalists, gypsies, and magicians he encountered along the way. Understandably, however, his new approach didn’t endear him to those whose interests lay in maintaining the status quo and so it wasn’t until 1526 when Paracelsus arrived in Strasburg that he flourished in influential humanistic circles of Protestant reformers there and also in Basle.

In his work Paragranum (1529-1530), Paracelsus argued that medicine should be naturally based, and this included it should be influenced by astronomy and alchemy. His major work, Opus Paramirum (1531), brought alchemical ideas as well as the work of Galen into the wider medical community.[1] There were four elements inherent in man’s functional design and each one controlled on of four functions (1) the processes of digestion and nutrition,(2)  the sexuality and reproduction functions of women, (3) diseases caused by “tartar” (stone), and (4) psychic phenomenon illnesses arising from the imagination.

Alchemy played heavily into all the work of Paracelsus. As far as he was concerned, making gold wasn’t the point. Instead, man should be perfecting what nature had left imperfect and, in this regard, he was inspired by the Renaissance Neoplatonic ideas of the unity of heaven and earth. In this endeavour, logic and rational thought were rejected in favour of “true  knowledge”, a reflection of that unity . In other words, to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ – and in this regard direct experience was essential. Partake in the fullness of the universe using all your senses and pay attention to everything that you see and hear. At that time, the prevailing idea was that the everything universe was full of ‘spirit’ and so this was easier to accomplish for Paracelsus and his colleagues then it might be for us today. 

In turn this led to medical reforms that put homoeopathy in the frontline. The belief was that sickness was the result of being out of balance with celestial influences and that alchemy was absolutely essential to help restore that balance.

(to be continued)


[1] Along Empedocles, Hippocrates, Galen developed humoural theory based on the ancient and medieval physiology and medicine. It’s all to do with the four block or ‘roots’ of the material world that manifest in certain humours and their related temperaments:

ELEMENTQUALITYHUMOURTEMPERAMENT
FireHot/dryYellow BileCholeric
EarthCold/dryBlack BileMelancholic
WaterCold/wetPhlegmPhlegmatic
AirHot/wetBloodSanguine

Humoural theory had a significant effect of Early Modern Drama, as for example, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (regarding the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead, Hamlet is referring to humoural theory.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 5)

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.


By the 16th century, the distinction between Ficino’s natural magic and demonic magic starts to blur. 

First stop, is the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who builds on Ficino’s magic and Pico’s work with the Kabbalah.  Now the power of words, figures, secret rites, and holy names comes to the fore and teachings in Hebrew become justified in the Christian community. 

Next up, is monastic abbot, Johannes Trithemius, who was a follower of Reuchlin and his work. Now, Christian humanists turned their attention to angelic magic, and Trithemius gives precise instructions on how to summon angels to gain knowledge from them as well as use them to send long distance messages.[1]  His 3 book treatise, Steganograhia, dealt with progressively more powerful spirits demonstrating how they are invoked by prayer, incantation, and precision timing:

  1. in his first book, he warns about the dangers of dealing with the spirits of air because they are both arrogant and rebellious,
  2. in his second book, he enumerates the spirits governing each hour and day,
  3. in his third book he connects all of the Angels and spirits with the seven (visible) planets.

Trithemius also dabbled in prediction and prohecy. His message was that each progressive age (measured in Platonic months of 2480 terrestrial years each with reference to the procession of the equinoxes through the 12 Zodiac signs), would be governed by a particular angel. Knowing his angels, as he did, this allowed him to envisage major currents in political and religious change throughout human history. His underlying thesis was that God, as the first intellect, had delegated these various angelic governors to oversee these fixed periods.

As far as history was concerned, Trithemius was unfortunate. In the end, his notoriety became confused with the legend of Doctor Faustus, which became world famous through the 17th century play (of the same name) by Christopher Marlowe.

Enter Henry Cornelius Agrippa, born in Cologne in 1486, who ushers in the 2nd Golden Age of Hermetic and Christian Kabbalistic practice. Not only does he spread the word through his travels and teachings, but having finally settled in Northern Italy, he is involved with the translation of more ancient works that become accepted into mainstream Christian thought and practice. In his mind, this was only right, convinced as he was that these writings would bring men back from intellectual pride and despair into humble acknowledgement of God’s goodness. The benefit of this approach is clear: with such mastery and revelation, men would regain the upper hand over nature, which had been lost with the antics of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

As Dr Liz Greene points out, Jung was familiar with Agrippa’s work on angels and it did influence his work with Philemon, his ‘daimon’, in Liber Novus. In this, Jung took the view from Jewish magic that ‘guardian angels’ could be pretty much the same thing as one’s daimon, which could be determined from one’s natal or birth chart.[2] This conclusion, however, was harder for him to reach than one might think, given that, as Dr Greene notes, guardian angels are usually understood to be ontologically separate from the human soul. The idea that one’s guardian angel may also be found within is on the fringe, although it is found in the work of Agrippa, where it was demonstrated that through appropriate theurgy (in keeping with the mundus imaginalis of Iamblichus) one is able to invoke his or her angelic ‘higher Self’.

Unfortunately for Agrippa, he (along with other adherents of this 2nd Golden Age) gets caught out in the crossfire of the Reformation, wherein with the new Protestant ideal, the focus is now on the frailty of man and no longer on his confident, hubristic Neoplatonist magic. Nonetheless, Agrippa’s legacy lives on, which leads us to the next link in the chain, England’s John Dee and Edward Kelly.

As advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee enjoyed support and great freedom. Hence, he was a major intellectual force in Elizabethan England. This makes perfect sense. He possessed a library of over 2,500 printed books and 170 manuscripts including the complete works of Marsilio Ficino an edition of the Corpus Hermeticm. As a result, there is no doubt  he was well versed in the current state of the hermetic and kabbalistic arts. Yet as his own major work, Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558), made clear is real interest lay Arabic and mediaeval Oxford natural science, suggesting as he did that the celestial influence on the everyday lives of men on earth was direct cause and effect rather than sympathetic.  “Whatever exists in actuality spherically projects into each part of the world rays, which fill up the universe to its limit.” 

Overtime , however, hermetic and kabbalistic thought did leave its mark on his work, most famously in Monas (1564) which scholar, Frances Yates, suggests was really a type of magical amulet infused with astrological power, its purpose to bring the human psyche into unity. It’s important to note that other scholars offer a similarly interesting yet competing analyses of that work. 

That his personal library included work by Johannes Trithemius about spiritual (angelic) planetary governors as noted above, did suggest that he was interested in Angel magic . But because he lacked the clairvoyant gifts, he needed intermediaries hence entered, Edward Kelly, a talented medium who most certainly had a reputation for walking on the dark side. There is evidence that the believed that the noises come of voices, operations, and even dreams that he had during the period of working with Kelly were indeed the good Angels bearing genuine messages from God. He felt confident in this given that his experience tallied with those recorded by Agrippa. Reuchlin, and Trithemius.

Interestingly, although the stigma of being a conjurer finally did stick to Dee, there’s little evidence that either he or Kelly attempted to command the angels with whom they were in contact, to do their personal bidding. Although there is plenty of evidence that Dee was much more interested in learning the secrets of creation through his angelic encounters than in obtaining spiritual illumination. This does, then, leave a suggestion that like Kelly, Dee had been drawn to the darker end of the occult spectrum.

(to be continued)


[1] The word angel is derived from the Greek aggelos, or ‘one going’ or ‘one sent’, a ‘messenger’. Aggelos is sometimes used in translation for the Hebrew mal’akh, or ‘messenger’. Biblical applications of the word, both in Hebrew and Greek, refer to certain heavenly intelligences. Whom God employs in the office of messengers to carry out his will amongst humanity. Not surprisingly, the Christian conception of angels stems from much earlier Jewish ideas of God enthroned in a celestial palace, with various coming and goings on heavenly journeys with chariots. For more, see, Angelomorphism and Magical Transformation in the Christian and Jewish Traditions by Alison Greig (pp 129-144); 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

[2] Green, Liz; Jung’s Studies in Astrology: Prophecy, Magic, and the Qualities of Time. London: Routledge (2018), pp.104-105.

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.

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. 

Hermeticism

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]


Neoplatonism

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.

Gnosticism

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.