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:

FireHot/dryYellow BileCholeric
EarthCold/dryBlack BileMelancholic

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. 


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.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 2)

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

Carl Jung was heavily influenced by Henry Corbin, a renowned 20th century scholar of Islamic esotericism. 

A central aspect of Corbin’s work was the idea of the imagination as both ‘cognitive and creative’. In line with the Persian philosophers whom he had studied, Corbin identified the human imagination as ‘an autonomous world of intermediaries, the mundus imaginals, where visions, apparitions, angels, and hierarchies occurred independently of any perceiving subject’. 

Corbin concluded that this world of hierarchies is as ‘real and objective’ as the material world in which we carry out our everyday lives. But because these intermediaries are not as dense as the material objects populating our everyday world, they are not easily perceptible. To access mundus imaginals, we must use our active imaginations rather than the sense of sight, smell, and touch, through which we usually navigate.

This, along with the work of other academics and scholars, leaves us with six fundamental characteristics of western esoteric spirituality: 

  1. Correspondence –  all constituent levels of being (stars, planets, humans, animals, plants, minerals, humours, and states of mind both healthy and diseased) are linked together through a series of correspondences. Imagine two violins. Sympathetic or corresponding  vibration occurs when two strings are tuned to the same pitch. When one is plucked, the other will sing out in ‘in sympathy’. The connection between these various levels of being is not causal, but symbolic. As Dr Liz Greene reminds us, the gods have left their traces in the material world for us to find and this is done through symbols. Humans don’t invent symbols. We discover them through our active imagination. Dr Greene says we use symbols to coax the gods to come down to earth and partake with us through ritual and this is precisely what Jung did whilst writing Liber Novus.
  2. Living nature – all things in nature are alive, full of divine energy or soul. It is through this divine energy or soul, that Marsilio Ficino, an accomplished magician and protégée of Cosimo de Medici, one of the most powerful men in Renaissance Europe, lived what he referred to as a ‘well-tempered’ life in cosmic harmony with the divine plan. This plan was charted in the heavens and so it is no surprise that Ficino was also an accomplished astrologer. In Ficino’s solar system, there were only seven planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto had yet to be discovered). Ficino believed that in order to thrive, soul needs exposure to each of those planets. For example, the Sun symbolizes the qualities – insight and imagination – that are uniquely human. Thus solar energy is associated with consciousness, rational thought, and the pursuit of truth and honour.  Cultivate solar energy through solemn music, all things gold coloured, nutmeg, heliotrope, myrrh, honey, crocus, corn, cinnamon, aloes, lions, swans, beetles, and chickens. Visualize a king on a throne in a yellow garment, along with a raven and the form of the sun.
  3. Imagination and mediations – as mentioned earlier, it is through our active imagination that we establish a cognitive and creative connexion with mundus imaginals. As Goodrick-Clark reminds us, where the mystic typically seeks a direct and immediate connexion with God, for the esotericist, this connection is made through the intermediaries that extend up and down the hierarchal ladder. In essence, this is magical thinking –  a unique type of consciousness – participative of mode of thought whereby participants gain awareness of the Inter relatedness of all things in the world by a means of simple , but we find, sense perception. In this sense, magic does not seek to fix or change the objective world.[1] Dr Greene reminds us that when we coax the gods to come to earth and partake with us through ritual , we have invoked them not to ‘fix’ our outer world, but instead to ‘fix’ our inner world – in other words, to transform us to live, as did Ficino, in harmony with the divine plan. 
  4. The experience of transmutation – as noted above, as the result of esoteric work we must expect to experience change in some uniquely manifest way. This is not an intellectual pursuit. For Jung, the arrival of his Philemon, his Saturnian daimon with Aquarian leanings, was a key moment in his life. Dr Greene suggests that Jung stopped working on Liber Novus in 1929-1932 because he needed to understand what was meant psychologically by Philemon as symbol of his ‘inner’ self.  As the result, he developed psychological models like perhaps synchronicity to explain what had resulted for him as the result of his esoteric work. Jung believed synchronistic experiences mirror deep psychological processes that further ‘individuation’ – the process by which we gain understanding of our place in the world. He believe that synchronistic experiences always involve an archetype. Consider the case of the Golden beetle. While Jung’s client was relating a dream which she’d received a gift of a Golden scarab (a large dung beetle held sacred in ancient Egypt), Jung heard a gentle tapping on the window. He opened it and caught a beetle whose green gold colour was the same as that of the Golden scarab his client had described. When Jung related that the scarab was a classic rebirth symbol depicting the archetype of self-transformation , exactly the issue with which she’d been struggling, the client was shocked enough to breakdown her resistance to therapy. Here you can see the connection between magical thinking (i.e. synchronicity), symbols, and personal change of transmutation.[2]
  5. Concordance – the idea here is that all of these western esoteric traditions (perhaps also some or all of the eastern traditions) are linked together in important ways and perhaps even stem from a single source (prisca theologia).
  6. Transmission – most esoteric traditions suggest that the fullness of their teachings can only be passed from master to disciple through an established path of initiation. In other words, book learning or even personal experimentation will never be enough.  

Finally, and very importantly, Corbin and other esoteric scholars have demonstrated that the esoteric traditions and ideals come back into fashion whenever the world order as we currently know it starts to fall apart. This is exactly what happened in the European renaissance revival of all of these traditions and we will see more examples of this in future blog posts.

(to be continued) 

[1] Campion, Nicholas, Editorial (p 1-8) 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] For more on this, see discussion at pp. 116-117 in The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, (Routledge, 2018) by Dr Liz Greene.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 1)

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

Western esoteric traditions have roots in religious thinking reaching far back into the Hellenistic era and before. In the Renaissance, ancient texts thought forever lost were rediscovered. This led to a revival of an interest in and the practice of magic, astrology, alchemy, and the Kabbalah. After the Reformation, this continues with the development of theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and for me, most importantly the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

As Dr Liz Greene makes clear in her scholarly study, The Astrological World of Jung’s Libre Novus: Daimon’s, Gods, and the Planetary Journey (Routledge, 2018), Jung used ritual magic and astrology in his own personal work which underlaid much of his psychological theories.

Jung’s most important spiritual guide in this work was known to him as Philemon, a Saturnian figure with Aquarian leanings (Saturn being the planetary ruler of Aquarius), who was not only a wise man but also a magician (in the sense of the tarot trump, The Magician). Interestingly, Philemon was also a gardener, who quietly cultivated tulips in his own garden as might any pensioner. Not only did Philemon guide Jung along his own spiritual journey in much the same way as did Virgil with Dante, but he also provided Jung with a much needed sense of spiritual meaning. 

Jung’s work with magic and astrology demonstrates not only is there a place for esoteric traditions in modern science but also, if we are to become all that we as men and women can be, an important link must be made between irrationalism and progressive rationalism. Indeed many Great Western thinkers such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have also expressed grave concerns about where progressive rationalism might take the human race.

As I hope to make clear in my blog posts over the next few months, a solid understand of western esoteric tradition is essential for anyone involved with an/ or interested in working with visions, apparitions, and even angels.

Indeed, it is the view of Dr Liz Greene (expressed in a series of lectures given in 2017 regarding Jung’s Liber Novus) that the current popularity of guardian angels is a substitute religious pursuit. As organised religion becomes less popular people become ever more desperate to find meaning and purpose in their lives, something that transcends the boundaries of their personal Egos.

But I hope this book will also give me more insight into the subjects and ideas that I addressed during my pursuit of my MA in Study of Religious and Mystical Experience at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Because first and foremost, according to Goodrick-Clarke, behind any work involving western esotericism lies a spiritual experience.

(to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 3)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996).

Daimon often comes to us as we are children with an unexplained fascination or unusual ways of play. I was taken very early with writing short storeys about my friends in my imagined exploits we would solve mysteries like Nancy Drew and her chums. Later I went on to become a lawyer in international tax com of all things. But as retirement loomed, I started writing fiction again with all the enthusiasm I once had as a child. In this, I was lucky. Others are not.

The point Hillman makes is not to squeeze this enthusiasm out of children using the excuse that they need to be socialised in order to perform from an early age as their parents and teachers would want. Just give kids enough room to experiment and grow into that oak tree that their individual acorns had laid out for their lives and not surprisingly, to accomplish this they need to put down some very strong roots in order to support future growth into their potential. 

But as Hillman points out, allowing this is difficult for us in the West, because we cling so strongly to what calls the ascensionist model – in other words – up is good and down is bad. Yet this is not the way of Damon or soul. As the Zohar, the main Kabbalist book, makes clear, zimzum, or the self-emptying aspect of the God, known as Ain Soph, traverses downwards through the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth, collectively known as The Tree of Life. 

Likewise, Plato and his Myth of Er emphasizes this downward assent. Having arrived from previous lives, all the souls mill about in a mythical world awaiting their new lot, or portion of fate. For example, the soul of a mighty warrior chooses the life of a lion whilst that of a young woman runner, choose a lot of an athlete. When each of the souls have chosen their new lives according to their lots, they are assigned a daimon and without looking back, descend to earth to enact their lot. 

It should come as no surprise that in keeping with the Myth of Er, Hellenistic astrologers devised clever ways to delineate one’s lot using his or her natal chart. Some of these techniques have come down to modern astrologers, notably, the Lot of Fortune (or the Moon) and the Lot of Spirit (or the Sun). The former pertains to the natural flow of events in our lives whilst the latter describes change that occurs because of our intention. So, for example, if the Lot of Fortune describes how much money we are likely to make, the Lot of Spirit describes how we will choose our vocation and answer our calling. 

Hillman reminds us that the decent down into earth for soul is painful and costly and riches and fame never seem to really compensate. He uses Judy Garland as a case to illustrate his point. Judy was born into a showbiz family and at age 2 1/2 years of old, she had her first successful performance singing Jingle Bells. The immediate rapport she garnered from her audience cemented her calling, which she herself said “was inherited”. As Hillman also reminds us, it was the superlatives that betrayed her. According to one and all, during the height of her success, Garland was the best of everything. Even Garland herself said “I’ve done everything to excess.”

Yet as Hillman also points out, Judy Garland may have grown up but she didn’t grow down, as is required for soul. Always, she held on to America’s most treasured drug – the myth of innocence – the psychology of denial. Hillman tells us Garland’s acorn belonged “over the rainbow” and it was little wonder that her real life of drugs and chronic loneliness ended on a toilet the night of 21-22 June, the apogee of the solar year, the brightest light and the shortest night. 

Looking briefly at Garland’s natal chart, we see that her Lot of Fortune is at 21 Capricorn 15, and is thus very strong. Not only is in angular (7th house) but its ruler, Saturn, is very strong (angular, exalted, and in rulership by triplicity and term). Saturn also benefits from the rays (by sign) of three of the four benefics (Sun, Moon, and Jupiter). It is however, out of sect (Saturn is a diurnal planet and is in the nocturnal part of this chart). This suggests that in the natural flow of events, such as making money, Garland would do very, very well – which of course, she did  – but with Saturn being out of sect, this success would also be out-of-balance tending toward harmful excess, which of course was the case. Her Lot of Spirit, at 0 Capricorn is likewise strong also being ruled by Saturn. 

Perhaps it is only when we look at her daimon, which because Cancer is rising is the Moon, that we can understand fully why her life took such a tragic course. At 29 Sagittarius, Garland’s Moon (or daimon) is in an anaretic degree. Planets in the anaretic degree are known as ‘destroying’ planets, often causing difficulties, crisis, overcompensation, and poor choices. Perhaps this is an example of what Hillman has already promised to discuss, a situation where daimon is not good but instead bad?

I wonder why it happens to some and not others – definitely worth investigating further, don’t you think?

(to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 2)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that according to Plato and his Myth of Er, the soul of each of us is allocated a daimon, or soul guide, before we are born. This this comes part and parcel with extras: our physical bodies, our parents, and the place and circumstances into which we are born. Although this was our soul’s choice, upon birth we have forgotten it. And so during our lifetimes, we are driven by daimon to reconnect with our choices and reawaken to our calling. This can come to us in any number of ways. Although it may be possible to temporarily defer our calling, or even to only partially live it out, it’s never possible to completely avoid it for if there is one of which we can be certain, daimon can never successfully be ignored.

That’s just the point.

In modern western medical circles, soul – or destiny – or daimon – is ignored.  It doesn’t fit nicely into existing personality and psychological theories. Although Hillman doesn’t say explicitly why this might be the case, he seems to suggest fear plays a large part. Is it not frightening to a civilisation such as our own, a civilisation that has lost touch with its own divinity, to suggest there is something driving us that is beyond our intellectual, physical, and/or scientific grasp? 

Hillman is quick to remind us this doesn’t mean we’ll find the fix to this conundrum by going to church. Instead, we need to go back to Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. Least you think that our western civilisation has grown beyond these ancient Hellenistic foundations, take a philosophy course or two and think again. For the reality as presented by these ancients is that we each are here on earth for a reason and until that reason is fulfilled, here on earth is where we will remain. Have you ever had a close call with death – maybe inattentively ready to step off the kerb and be hit by a passing taxi-cab – only to have a complete stranger pop out from nowhere and pull you back from the brink? I have and I now know why. 

This does not mean that demon is always ‘good’. As Hillman points out, there can be an ‘evil’ or less fortunate aspect to daimon. More on this later, but for the time being consider how other societies and cultures have viewed the concept of daimon –  i.e. Guardian Angel (Christian), Lady Luck or Fortuna (ancient Roman), genie or jinn (Middle Eastern), ka or ba (Egypt) and animal and totem spirits (American Indian).

But for the most part, daimon is here to look out for us, to ensure that we are OK. Imagine how much more satisfying would be our lives if we could think of ourselves as fundamentally being cared for like this rather than standing alone up against the cold, harsh world? If we were to accept this point of view, we would necessarily need to jettison one  of our of our most treasured western motifs – that of the self-made hero. What a trade-off, right? Well, according to Hillman, we can still be heroes – albeit of a different type – at least we can be if we listen to daimon. This will be a lot easier if we are both curious about ourselves in our world and unwilling to succumb to being wedged into the statistically convenient psychological slot.

One by one, Hillman debunks a variety of well-known psychological theories demonstrating how much more beneficially daimon would operate instead. He uses a variety of fascinating case studies including that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well-worth reading but sadly, I’ve got neither time nor space to relate them all to you here and now.

 (to be continued)

Character & Calling (Part 1)

My winter reading: James Hillman’s classic The Soul’s Code – In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, New York, 1996). 

Hillman reminds us that theories don’t do our lives justice. Statistics don’t either. Each of us has a unique calling – something that calls us – a call which we will or will not take.

Do you believe in fate?

Wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time kind of thing?

Is this accident, synchronicity, or something else altogether? That’s what this book is about and yet when you try to use its wisdom going forward in time, it seems to stall. So can we only use it in reverse to make sense of our lives in retrospect? I think maybe – but Hillman says not. This is because he believes our entire lives are about our character and had we not ought to be able to suss that out in advance? Not sure, are you?

Nonetheless Hillman reminds us that we are more than our memories – more than people have told us that we are (or aren’t). So how is it that we can take our own measure and profit by it? Stay tuned and maybe together, we’ll find out!

First step is to forget everything you’ve been told about psychological theories. After all they’re only made up from man-made observations rather than any kind of cosmic road map. We’re looking for a unique personal narrative here – not a standardised genre or traditional 3-Act story plot. Okay, sure – an oak tree does come from an acorn – I mean, how else could it be? But the acorn doesn’t tell how that oak will or will not actually develop or even where it takes root.

Try to think of this less prosaically – more poetically.

Because they have so little, children must rely on imagination rather than experience.   

Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

If I hadn’t made a left hand turn – if you hadn’t made a right – if I’d waited just a moment more – if you missed the light…

Dory Previn, Children of Coincidence 

But OK, back to that acorn carrying the genetic code of that oak – in each of our individual acorns, we will find own genetic code in the form of our character which, according to the old stories, was given to us as gift from the gods at our birth.

This is good stuff, Plato, The Myth of Er – daimons and soul guides and no, Hillman wasn’t some kind of new age nutter – he was a Jungian analyst and a scholar and he taught at Yale, Syracuse University, as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Dallas.

 (to be continued)