Foundations of Modern Witchcraft: Hermetic Cosmology

Foundations of Modern Witchcraft: Hermetic Cosmology January 22, 2020

Religion often asks the questions: How was the cosmos created? by whom? and for what purpose? The answer to these questions typically begins with a cosmology, like the book of Genesis. How a religion’s story answers the existential questions becomes the paradigm upon which all other meaning and action are built. Within the ancient pagan religion of nature known as Hermetic Philosophy, we have a cosmological story known as The Pymander. It is the first book of the Corpus Hermeticum texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and its answers to the existential questions are Divine Love, evolution through learning, and reunion.

‘The Rosicrucian Order’ by John Augustus Knapp (1853-1938) – Public Domain

In this Foundations of Modern Witchcraft series of articles, we’ve answered the questions Who is Hermes Trismegistus? and What does Hermetic Philosophy teach? In this article, we’ll explore the cosmological vision given to Hermes, and how it establishes the science of Astrology, which informs Qabala, Tarot, Alchemy and Sympathetic magick. In future articles, we’ll take a side-road that diverged in 1908 America, and figure out where the “Seven Hermetic Principles” actually came from and what they teach us. Then we’ll follow how these Egyptian philosophies found their way into British Wicca. We’ll conclude with a look at why Hermeticism is important to Modern Witchcraft today.

The Pymander: An Occult Cosmology

The Corpus Hermeticum begins, as many holy texts begin, with a “Genesis” story called The Pymander, describing the creation of the Divine cosmos. At the end of this first book, Hermes is then given the mission to teach others what he learned during his vision of the creation of the cosmos. He was only to teach this wisdom to people worthy and prepared to receive this knowledge. Thus the tradition of the occult mystery school was born. It was long assumed that these were the magickal mysteries being safe-guarded by the legendarily powerful and advanced Egyptian Priests of Thoth.

Hermes Trismegistus was said to be meditating one day, when he was given a vision of the creation of the cosmos by “god.” These texts were written in Greek, and the Greek word used for this largest concept of divinity, The Source, is Nous.

I’ve seen ‘Nous’ translated as the Divine Mind, Supreme Mind, Glory of the Sovereign Mind, and Highest Intelligence. Nous is introduced to Hermes with the name Pymander, who then shows Hermes a narrated vision of the method by which The Divine Mind manifested as the cosmos by speaking The Word.

Sconosciuto, vissuto nel XVIII secolo [Public domain]

Thar be (Reasonable) Dragons!

Which word Pymander used to create the cosmos is subject to interpretation. That word was translated as “reason” by Manly P. Hall, in his work The Secret Teachings of all Ages [6].

Even more enticing is that in Hall’s version of the story, Pymander is originally described as being a Great Dragon.

“He beheld a figure, terrible and awe-inspiring. It was the Great Dragon, with wings stretching across the sky, and light streaming in all directions from his body. (The Mysteries taught that the Universal Life was personified as a dragon.)” Hall, Page 38

I rather like that idea, too, but then again, I’m a fantasy-nerd from way back, and this vision is far more appealing to my witchyness than “white-bearded dude with pointy finger of doom.”

Pymander’s Cosmology establishes Polarity within Divine Love

In the Hermetic Pymander, the first movement from Source established a polarity. In the chaos of creation, there was an “upward trending” movement of Light, elemental Fire and Air, which later comes to have a distinctly masculine vibe. Then there is a “downward trending” movement of Darkness, elemental water and earth that later has a distinctly feminine vibe. As they separate, Hermes hears an inarticulate “cry” from the light, and a “mournful echo”, from the water, as if it pained them to be divided.[13]

The Source – who is described as hermaphroditic, or containing all genders – gave birth to another Supreme Mind (Nous). Nous is “The Creator of the World,” who establishes the 7 celestial spheres which govern destiny, and sets into motion the never-ending cycles of nature. We’ll come back to that in the next section.

Book 1:11 “Nous, the creator, together with the Word, encompassing the spheres and spinning them round with a rushing motion… The rotation of these spheres, as Nous willed it, brought forth from the downward moving elements living beings without speech…and the air produced winged creatures, and the water swimming creatures. The earth and the water were separated from each other, as Nous willed, and the earth brought forth from herself what she possesses, four-footed animals, reptiles, beasts; wild and tame. (Page 19)” [14]

Nous the Creator, also all-gendered, goes on to form another God in Nous’ own image (so, also all-gendered) known as Universal Man, who is then granted all the powers of creation.

Being a witch, I equate this character of Universal Man in the story, with what other nature-based religions might call the Great Father God, or a Father Sky of light, air and fire. But with the interesting understanding that this being actually contained all potential gender. When I read “downward moving Nature” I find the familiarity of my Mother Nature of darkness, water and earth. Remember this is some really ancient poetry, and in no way mean to be taken literally.

Here is a passage from Pymander, the parenthetical additions are mine, for comparison to neo-pagan lingo.

“He (Father Sky) looked down through the harmony of the cosmos, and having broken through the sovereignty of the Divine Power, he showed to downward moving (Mother) Nature the Beautiful form of God. When she has seen the beauty which never satiates of him who had in himself all the energy of the powers and the form of God, she smiled with love, because she has seen the image of the most beautiful form of Man in the Water and his shadow upon the earth. He, seeing in himself a similar form to his own in the water, fell in love with her and wished to dwell there. No sooner wished than done, and he inhabited a form without speech. (Mother) Nature, having taken her beloved, enfolded him completely and they united, for they loved each other.” Page 20 [15]

When Sky Father merges with Mother Nature, another Hermaphroditic Man is then created, who has a dual existence as both matter and spirit, both immortal and mortal. However, having passed through the spheres of the heavens to dwell on earth, Hermaphroditic Man is now subject to the dictates of destiny.

Recap: Mama and Papa didn’t get it on to make this baby; They merged into a single being which had all of Their powers…Nous’ divine spirit, Universal Man’s (or Father’s) Thought (air) and Will (fire), merged with (Mother) Nature’s Physical Body (earth) and Emotion (water). An all-gendered, multiform divine being emerged. I call Them The Two Who Move as One.

Did you see that gorgeous symbolism of the Yin/Yang in this cosmology? The god showed himself to the goddess. And she recognized him from his reflection in her waters, and his shadow across her earth. And he saw her when he looked at his own reflection. The Two Who Move as One, each recognized the opposite within themselves!

The story goes on to say that They “immediately brought forth seven men corresponding to the seven natures of the seven powers beyond gender and sublime…the generation of those seven took place the following way: the earth was female and the water potent and from the fire came fruit, and from the ether nature received breath and produced the bodies according to the form of Man. From life and light Man became Soul and Nous…” [16]

It isn’t until Tractate 1:18, that all living beings, including this first hermaphroditic human, were eventually divided into biological sexes so they could physically procreate.

“…for all living beings, which were both genders, were parted asunder at the same time as Man and became in turn male and female. God forthwith spoke the Holy Word: ‘All that has been fashioned and brought into being…may you multiply and continue to multiply and may the man endowed with Nous recognise that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and may he come to know all things that are.’ ” (page 21)

So, like we already knew, gender and sex are two different considerations, and all beings are a custom blend of a range which contains both god and goddess. There being two sexes for the purpose of creation may be a thing, but in this story, it was the last thing and “all-gendered god” was concerned about.

Hermetic Philosophy – Creative Commons

Love is the Source and the Purpose of Living

Creation began with the Goddess and God differentiating from a single source to establish a scale of polarity, then falling in love. They were then reunited in love as The Two Who Move as One, giving nature and all beings within it a dual existence as both matter and spirit, empowered by Their DIVINE LOVE to keep evolving through an ongoing creation.

Mind you, this is all just poetic story-telling to express what the mystics have been intuiting forever. Just because some ancient mage named Hermes told a story in Egypt, doesn’t have to make it more true for you right now. However, it does speak to the Is-ness of human hopes and dreams that, deep down, when we inevitably ask the most important existential question: What is all this hokey pokey all about? We just know the answer should be LOVE. And the purpose of living should be REUNION.

Another version of Book I:14 “…and Nature, when she had got him with whom she was in love, wrapped him in her clasp, and they were mingled in one; for they were in love with one another.”


Wikimedia Commons: The scheme of the division of spheres. · The empyrean (fiery) heaven, dwelling of God and of all the selected · 10 Tenth heaven, first cause · 9 Ninth heaven, crystalline · 8 Eighth heaven of the firmament · 7 Heaven of Saturn · 6 Jupiter · 5 Mars · 4 Sun · 3 Venus · 2 Mercury · 1 Moon

Seven Celestial Spheres = Astrology

In this cosmology the mechanisms of the cosmos are laid out in detail, but remember that they are poetic, not literal. We now know the planet earth is NOT the center of the cosmos, and obviously there are not layers of cosmic domes literally encircling the planet, as the old Ptolemaic schematics showed. I mean, DUH. <eyeroll> This isn’t fundamentalism, folks! Hermetics employs symbolism to convey ideas.

The material earth is symbolized as being the core of a nested series of celestial spheres, with each layer being governed by one of the seven wandering gods or stars, as seen from the perspective of earth.

Book 3:2 “The vault of heaven appeared in seven circles, and the gods appeared in the form of stars with all their constellations, and heaven with the gods was complete in every detail. The universe was encompassed by air[18] and sustained on its circular course by divine spirit.” (The Way of Hermes, page 30)

Book 3:3: “Each god sent forth by his own power what had been appointed to him. There came into being four-footed animals, reptiles, fish and fowl; all prolific seed, and herb and the shoot of every flower. These had within themselves the seed of regeneration…Through their own wonder-working course the gods sent forth every soul clothed in flesh, so that men should survey heaven, the paths of the heavenly gods, the works of God and the activity of nature…” (The Way of Hermes page 30)

Book 3:4 “…So men began to live and understand the destiny assigned to them by the course of the the circling gods…” (The Way of Hermes page 31)

Of course we know these “stars” or “gods” are the other planets within the our solar system, the sun, and our satellite, the moon. The celestial spheres expand outward from earth, in order of distance to us: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. These also govern the order of the seven days of the week, for which they are named: Monday = Moon day, etc. So, there is another example of Hermetic Philosophy influencing every modern culture on earth today.

From our perspective, these wandering gods/planets move in spiraling patterns against the background of the fixed outer stars. Ancients divided the backdrop of stars into 12 equal sections, naming each section as the signs of the zodiac. Each celestial sphere and sign acted like a filter, a die or a mold, which cast into form the area of life and consciousness they govern.

Each sphere regulates one of the seven areas of consciousness, arenas of life, archetypes of divinity, chakras, parts of the body and health, our destiny, days of week, aspects of divinity, color in the spectrum, note in an octave, ad infinitum. Think of each sphere, with each moving planet, relative to the outer zodiac, being like a cog in a giant mechanism. There is constant movement, forming a specific interrelated fractal pattern in each moment, which repeats with the same information infinitely, just like a holographic plate (but that is a subject for another day.)

So each moment of creation reflects a unique, and cyclical pattern. The same cycles repeat infinitely throughout this mechanism: Macrocosm to microcosm. Each layer’s pattern mirrors all the rest of the layer’s patterns, and the same cyclical movements are evident in the physical plane, as well as the non-material aspects of the mental and spiritual planes. (Hermes’ Three World Model.) Thus, the Hermetic axiom states: As above, so below; As below, so above.

Hence, the stars aren’t “making things happen” just like god isn’t necessarily “making things happen.” The divine mechanism grinds on in a predictable manner, but god is within the mechanism, as the mechanism, not on the outside like some old dude pulling levers to arbitrarily mess with people. The astronomical movements do reflect the Divine Order of happening within that mechanism at a scale which is large and physical enough for us to see…and learn to read.

So, as Divinity descends through the celestial spheres to become any kind of new matter – whether that be human, other animal, vegetable or mineral – it is cast into form with both consciousness and spirit to eventually manifest as a multiform being. I can’t help but to think of the old Playdough factory toys of my childhood. The Divinity is like the playdough, and which mold plate is in place in the factory at that moment (natal chart), determines the form and purpose that squishes through to earth. The moment that being is born, its form and destiny are set into motion.

Reincarnation and the Sacred Cycle

Everything in existence therefore has a “natal chart” which describes at a macro level what purpose divinity is here to accomplish while in that form: body, personality, identity, consciousness, lessons needed to learn, those it is here to teach others, and a sacred mission. Because everything manifest is a part of the wholeness of Divine Mind, we are each fulfilling our part of a greater mission of learning and growth within Divine Mind. We take our turns being everything, before we began our journey through being everyone.

We are progressing in evolution through increasing levels of complexity, though millions of incarnations, throughout countless billions of years, in a never ending cycle of birth (cardinal), maturity (fixed), and decline into death, transmuting into rebirth as something else. (mutable.) This is the divine mechanism. Each spirit is a cog in that machine performing an individual task, but ultimately we are all contributing knowledge and growth within ONE divinity.

Also, this paradigm affirms that all beings have the worth of gods, with an inherent dignity. Any judgey hatefulness based on dividing folks by what they look like, social status, where they are from, or who they love…accepting some, and condemning others…holds no validity within Hermetic religion. None. We are all god/dess, baby! It is radically inclusive, or should be, anyway.

Moral of the Story: Hermetic Cosmology Founds Modern Magick

All of this cosmology and mechanics given to Hermes Trismegistus in a vision, supposedly back in 2100 BCE, is what Hermetic Philosophers since developed into the metaphysical sciences known as astrology. From astrology, systems of understanding the lessons of life have been symbolically codified into the Hermetic Qabala Tree of Life. From Qabala, each possible experience along that crooked path of evolution is symbolized within the Tarot Cards.

From the notion that all matter has a spirit and divine powers, as cast by the seven spheres, is why witches might speak of the power of a stone or plant according to it’s astrological make-up. For example, Hematite stone is high in iron, and is governed by the planet Mars (which is also comprised of iron); therefore, Hematite has a Mars-like, masculine, fiery, protective power, etc.

Mapping matter to the 7 wandering gods/planets establishes all the magickal formulary, sympathetic correspondences between material things and areas of consciousness. Alchemy developed Hermetic methods of extracting the spirit of various materials for healing and magick. Today we know these as tinctures, essential oils, etc.

The purpose of the Hermetic system of reincarnation is so that Divine Mind as a whole, can experience every possible lesson of what it means to exist, love, and unite. The illusion of separateness created by the material world after Divine Mind is cast into various forms, is so it can interact with itself as a means of exploration and growth. We are here to learn and grow through our diversity and the way we challenge each other, or how we unite with each other. Viva La Difference!

While we are incarnating, our individual spirits work on evolving consciousness into an ever-more enlightened state. Eventually we cease needing a body at all, moving on to non-corporeal forms, as we consider the Bodhisattva, angels, and gods to be. At the end of the very long road, we’ll reunite as pure energy with our Source, The Divine Mind.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, where we take a side-trip through 1908 America, to figure out how the Hermetic philosophies of ancient Egypt became the Seven Hermetic Principles. Spoiler Alert: pulling back the curtain to find clandestine white dudes.

Thanks for reading along!

Continue reading the next article here:

Foundations of Modern Witchcraft: The Kybalion, A Hermetic Philosophy

References for this series

[6] Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of all Ages. XXXVII-XL
[7] Scott, Sir Walter. Hermetica. Page 6.
[8] Ebeling, Florian. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus. Page 9
[10] Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages, XXXVII-XL
[11] Corpus Hermeticum Book 13:8.
[12] Corpus Hermeticum Book 13:7
[13]The Way of Hermes. Corpus Hermeticum, Book 1:4 Page 17
[14] The Way of Hermes. Corpus Hermeticum, Book 1:11 Page 19
[15]The Way of Hermes. Corpus Hermeticum, Book 1:14 Page 20
[16]The Way of Hermes. Corpus Hermeticum, Book 1:16

[17] The Way of Hermes. Corpus Hermeticum, Book 1:11, page 19

[18] We obviously now realize that our atmosphere of “air” surrounds our planet, but not the entire universe. When these were written, planet earth was the whole universe to them. However, “air” in a hermetic sense represents thought, so if the cosmos is composed of Divine Mind, then poetically, this bit of metaphor still bears truth.

About Heron Michelle
Heron Michelle is a witch, high priestess, mom, artist and shopkeeper living in Greenville, North Carolina. Connect with her on Facebook: Witch on Fire, and follow her on Twitter @HeronMichelle13. You can read more about the author here.

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