Foundations of Modern Witchcraft: The Kybalion, A Hermetic Philosophy

Foundations of Modern Witchcraft: The Kybalion, A Hermetic Philosophy February 1, 2020

The ancient Hermetic Philosophies, which were originally attributed to an Egyptian Priest named Hermes Trismegistus, came to heavily influence the New Thought movement during the late 1800’s in North America. This influence led to the 1908 publication of The Kybalion by Three Initiates. This little book is now undeniably proven to have been solely penned by a man from Chicago named William Walker Atkinson.

The Kybalion by William Walker Atkinson
William Walker Atkinson – Author of The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy 1908

In this Foundations of Modern Witchcraft series of articles, we’ve answered the questions Who is Hermes Trismegistus?  What does Hermetic Philosophy teach? and explored the Hermetic Cosmology story, The Divine Pymander. In this article, 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. In future, we’ll follow these Egyptian philosophies into British Wicca. We’ll conclude with a look at why Hermeticism is important to Modern Witchcraft today.

Authorship of The Kybalion

Witchcraft books will often make at least a passing mention of Hermes Trismegistus as the source of The Seven Hermetic Principles however, this is not the whole story. The Kybalion: A Hermetic Philosophy, claimed it was written anonymously by “Three Initiates,” with intimations that it was an ancient text passed down through some secret tradition. It is now irrefutably understood to have been authored alone by William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932).

Atkinson was a prolific and influential voice within the New Thought Movement in the early 20th Century. He was a lawyer, a renowned occultist, and publisher through his Yogi Publication Society in Chicago. Atkinson published as many as 100 books during the last 30 years of his life, under his own name. He also published under several pseudonyms, such as Yogi Ramacharaka, Magus Incognito, Theron Q. Dumont, and Three Initiates.

Four years after the original publication, Atkinson claimed to be the sole author in a 1912 entry in Who’s Who In America. Then, in a 1917 edition of the work in French, the translator’s introduction credits Atkinson as the original author.[1] It is possible that Atkinson’s choice to publish anonymously, and with such mystery, was a bid for greater acceptance of his ideas. At the turn of the 20th Century, everything ancient was perceived by the masses to be of greater value and credibility than anything modern.

William Walker Atkinson interpreted the paradigm and ideas he found in the ancient Corpus Hermeticum through the lens of what the philosophers at the turn of the 20th Century called “New Thought.” New Thought was heavily influenced by the religion of spiritualism, and the burgeoning sciences of Psychology, and “New Physics.” Atkinson boiled it all down and codified Seven Hermetic Principles, which shifted the Hermetic focus to align easily within their modern world view of spirituality at the time.

Atkinson’s Seven Hermetic principles became ubiquitous across the New Age Movement over the next 100 years. They made their way into all types of get-rich-quick schemes, cults, pop-culture, metaphysics and the occult:

  • Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes, founder of the philosophy that is carried on today by the Centers for Spiritual Living. [Edit: correction to founder’s name made 2/2/2020]
  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, influenced by Ernest Holmes.
  • The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
  • Doreen Virtue’s Divine Magic: The Seven Sacred Secrets of Manifestation
  • The Prosperity Gospel of Mega-church Billionaire “Christians” like Joel Osteen
  • Black-African centered teaching groups and Black Nationalist movements, who gave proper credit to the African origins of the Egyptian God Thoth, also known as Tehuti.
  • The official witch of Salem, Laurie Cabot, included the Hermetic principles of the Kybalion in her Power of the Witch, in 1990. Subsequently, her student, Christopher Penczak, taught this Hermetic-influenced Witchcraft through his Inner Temple of Witchcraft series of books in the 2000’s.

Suffice it to say, these ancient Graec0-Egyptian philosophies, as defined by William Walker Atkinson, are now a major influence within many of the metaphysical practices. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the business of the Greek Trickster God Hermes, himself, and he likes it this way!

 

The Kybalion’s Teachings

The Kybalion claimed to be based on an ancient, yet unpublished, Hermetic tractate, which supposedly outlined seven Universal laws that govern creation, and summarized the principles of Classical Hermeticism. However, it was clearly a product of the New Thought movement’s philosophies.

Atkinson successfully syncretized Hermeticism, Neo-platonism, Transcendentalism, and New Thought philosophy with the advances in sub-atomic physics and mental science, which was the emerging field of psychology. During the same era, the term Panentheism also emerged from the same Transcendentalist and New Thought roots.

But was the Kybalion actually an extension of Hermeticism, as Atkinson claimed? Modern Hermeticists don’t necessarily think so. Nicholas Chapel, who wrote an article called The Kybalion’s New Clothes, for the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition in 2013, drew this conclusion:

 “Hermeticism has long appropriated ideas and even entire systems which have not originated from within its own milieu. As a heavily syncretic movement both in ancient and modern times, it incorporates an eclectic mix of topics. To the original Graeco-Egyptian pagan gnosticism of the Corpus Hermeticum, Renaissance scholars added Jewish Kabbalism and angelic magic. John Dee contributed an entire scheme of Enochian thought and practice. In the seventeenth century, Rosicrucianism flourished under the banner of Hermes Trismegistus. The Golden Dawn contributed its para-masonic ritual influence and provided a coherent structure the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia four and a half centuries earlier. Even these, however, represent the logical evolution of the Graeco-Egyptian magical literature of the so-called “technical Hermetica,” and evince a focus on the divine that is entirely lacking in The Kybalion. [2]

Yule RItual Meditation: Light Breathing
CC0 Creative Commons – Pixabay

Atkinson Shifts Focus from Outer to Inner Divinity

The Kybalion outlines, with commentary, seven universal principles which govern the function of the Cosmos on all levels. Whether or not Modern Hermeticists today like it much, Atkinson did derive his principles from the Corpus Hermeticum. The fingerprints of these principles may be easily found throughout.

What is absent from Atkinson’s 1908 filtering of the philosophies, is the notion that our material bodies are an “evil” to be conquered. Remember that the cosmology story in The Pymander, says we received our bodies and desires from the goddess, so this notion would surely be problematic for God/dess worshiping witches!

There is no hint in Atkinson’s Hermetic Principles that human life is an imprisonment of the Spirit within lustful human flesh, as is rife within the original Hermetic tractates. Neither is there mention of “demons” which torture us with the shadowy aspects of human desires. Atkinson shifts the focus away from the heavy emphasis of re-merging someday with a distant God (Nous), and more to realizing that is already our inner divinity. The Kybalion gave practical tools on how to living here on Earth successfully while on that journey toward enlightenment. There are valid reasons for Atkinson to evolve Hermetic perspectives, to keep up with the rest of human evolution.

In the Corpus Hermeticum, there is a great deal of emphasis on denying their bodies, so that upon death they could escape the bonds of destiny, and transcend beyond the cycles of reincarnation, to re-merge with the Divine Mind (Nous), singing hymns of praises among the outer stars for eternity. Not only is that incompatible with a nature-based witchcraft, but it smacks too much of the “denial of the flesh” adopted by Christianity, which witches ignore on purpose.

Instead, the New Thought philosophy, by way of The Kybalion, allowed the spiritual seeker on earth a means to shift their focus to effectively being human, right now. How to enjoy the bliss, beauty and joy of life. The Kybalion proposed a Hermetic understanding of the order of the cosmos, but gave a means to work effectively WITHIN that order toward becoming the captains of our own destiny. It gave these “master keys” by which we could “unlock the temple doors” and understand all the mysteries, then use them to play the game of life really well.

The Law of Attraction and The Secret

It is from the New Thought movement’s interpretation of the classic Hermetic teachings on Mental Transmutation, that we get “The Law of Attraction” as made enormously popular within the New Age scene that emerged in the last few decades, and was made popular through the books and movie called “The Secret.”[3]

The Law of Attraction is based on the Hermetic notion that the Universe is made of thoughts, and that by properly envisioning a desired outcome, focusing our thoughts in alignment with that outcome, like will attract like. Our realities will eventually manifest to mirror that vision. In the passage quoted above it does day, “Like is understood by Like.” In this way, physical disease could be cured, mental and emotional illnesses re-balanced, happiness, wealth, love and spiritual attainment could all be realized. In short, anything was possible. While Hermeticists might agree with that bit, they would say that the Kybalion confuses ”the means with the end.[4]

In regards to this “Law of Attraction,” Nicholas Chapel goes on to say:

“But the mind spoken of in The Kybalion is not the Mind of the Hermetica. The Hermetica distinguishes between Mind (nous) as the Supreme God, the One, the Good—and the second God or demiurge called the logos. The thought of The Kybalion is decidedly focused on logos, and this is a central distinction between Hermetic thought and that of The Kybalion. [5]

Despite that shift of emphases, it was clear throughout the Hermetic texts that mental transmutation was the goal of a practice based in Hermetic philosophy.

“Of the 22 instances in which traits and abilities are ascribed to ‘the Masters’…every one of them pertains to the ability to control their mental world: to dominating their moods, transmuting and mastering their mental states, attaining emotional stability, and developing powers to control the world around them [6]…”

To every witch and magus who’s come across these notions over the last century, we clearly heard the Cosmic Truth ringing throughout: these Principles, whether they be ancient or a blend of 1900’s ideas, were a reiteration of Witchcraft’s most sacred truths, stated succinctly and powerfully. There was an tangible, demonstrable Is-ness within these principles.

Seven Hermetic Principles of the Kybalion:

To summarize the Kybalion’s teaching about the human purpose for us here in the incarnate world:

  • Accept and learn from material reality.
  • Live! Use the following seven principles to rise from a lower vibration of existence to a higher vibration.
  • Do the best you can under the circumstances arising each day.
  • Live up to our highest ideals and ideas.
  • Attend to your Spiritual Development, which is the realization and manifestation of the Spirit within us.

“We are all on THE PATH – and the road leads upward ever, with frequent resting places.”[7]

1. The Principle of Mentalism:

“THE ALL is MIND; The Universe is Mental.” — The Kybalion.[13]

The Cosmos exists in the Mind of Deity. Everything in the Cosmos is a thought within this Divine Mind. The ALL is a way of referring to Divinity in its largest and most inclusive aspect, and the source from which all else emanates. Divine Mind contains a blend of all gender. The Greek word used in the Corpus Hermeticum is Nous, translated as Supreme Intelligence.

The poetry here is that we would then be thoughts and dreams within the Divine Mind. All of Creation is made of Divine Mind, and we are interconnected within that dream to form the body of Divinity. We think divine thoughts, we are dreamers within the dream. The illusion is our separateness, but in truth we are one. Salvation within Hermeticism is to realize this truth; if we can just remember our inherent Divinity, we can embrace our power of creation and put it to good use.

“The Universe, and all it contains, is a mental creation of the ALL. Verily, indeed, ALL is MIND! The Kybalion Def. Ed. Page 92[14]

“The infinite mind of the ALL is the womb of the Universe.” The Kybalion.

In other words, if we are made of Divine Thought, we can think our way back to Divinity. Remember in Hinduism, they call the illusion of separateness Maya, and “enlightenment” is the ability to see past that illusion, to remember that we are all ONE.

Neurons of a mouse brain by Mark Miller, beside the computer simulation by astrophysicists of a map of the cosmos. Original Credit New York Times.

2. The Principle of Correspondence:

“As above, so below; as below so above.” — The Kybalion.[15]

Everything at the Macrocosm level of the Universe, mirrors the Microcosm levels of the Universe. There are repeating patterns throughout the planes of reality, that correspond in harmony and agreement to one another. These three planes are defined by Hermeticism. I would correlated these with the shamanic paganism three-world view as:

Physical Plane = Middle World
Mental Plane = Underworld and Astral
Spiritual Plane = Upperworld and Heavens

There are 7 celestial spheres, governed by the 7 classical planets, which mirror interconnected patterns like “octaves” repeating infinitely through the three great planes. These are each further subdivided by 7 sub-planes. On the Mental Plane, there are sub-planes for the mineral mind, plant mind, and animal mind, among the planes for the elemental minds and human mind.

3. The Principle of Vibration:

“Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.” — The Kybalion.[16]

Everything in the Universe is in a constant state of motion, nothing rests, it is all in a state of cycle and change. The only difference between states of matter, thought, energy, and spirit are their rate of vibration. This is where The Secret took one obvious notion, capitalized it, and built an empire. Like attracts Like Vibrations.

The modern science of physics informs us that matter and energy are the same, just vibrating at different frequencies. The lower frequencies merely come into perceptible form, and then we start to call it matter.

 

CC0 Public Domain ~Pixabay
Yin Yang CC0 Public Domain ~Pixabay

4. The Principle of Polarity:

“Everything is Dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.” — The Kybalion.[17]

Everything in the Universe emerges through the tension created by dual poles. All exists as a blend of this spectrum. Every quality has it’s opposite, but they are ultimately identical in nature. So, in this way of looking at the world, rather than “good versus evil” as though it is an either/or distinction, this principle implies that good and bad are not absolutes, they are all relative and on a scale. You can work to transmute any quality along that polarity. For example, fear can be transmuted to love, just as heat can be transmuted to cold, but they shift along a single pole. The tendency of nature is to move in the direction of the dominant activity of the positive pole.

In Taosim, this principle is symbolized as the Yin and Yang. The mystery revealed is that while there are two opposites held in cycles of swirling balance, that they cannot be separated into absolutes. The dot held within each side is their strength. That dot is also the key-hole to accessing the true power of any mystery.

pentagram
CC0 Creative Commons – Pixabay

5. The Principle of Rhythm:

“Everything flows, out and in; everything has its tides; all things rise and fall; the pendulum-swing manifests in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates.” — The Kybalion.[18]

Everything in the Universe is subject to cycles, which are in consistent balance of ebb and flow. There is a natural and equal swing between extremes, like a pendulum. All paradoxes may be reconciled. These natural rhythms repeat in a cycle on all levels: birth, growth, maturity, attainment, decline, death, rebirth.

The Principle of Rhythm also speaks to the challenges and rewards of human experiences. Change is inevitable, struggle is an option. This applies to our mental states, too. There is a rhythm to the cycles between our conscious and subconscious thoughts and emotions. The swing in one direction determines the swing in the other direction. So, if you enjoy something amazing, there must also be times of suffering something awful. If you never feel pain, then rhythm compensates with very little happiness. Our individual capacity for pleasure and pain are balanced.

6. The Principle of Cause and Effect:

“Every Cause has its Effect; every Effect has its Cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is but a name for Law not recognized; there are many planes of causation, but nothing escapes the Law.” — The Kybalion.[20]

Every effect in the Universe was the result a reasonable, logical cause, and vice versa. There is no such thing as chance, even when that causal relationship isn’t obvious to us here on the physical plane, there was still a cause triggering this effect from either the mental or spiritual planes.

Moreover, within Divine Mind, all our lifetimes are considered one big path that our spirit is treading upward as we evolve, so the effect in this life could very well be caused by something in a previous life. This isn’t so much a “karma” thing, as that implies a judgement. This is more instinctual than that…more like shooting a game of pool.

For example: In one life you lined up a great shot and made your move, and that ball is set into motion. However, it might take until the next life to feel the effect of the ball slamming into that corner pocket, just like you called it. Not so much a “reward” for good behavior, but the natural result of your efforts.

“Nothing can rise higher that its source – nothing is evolved unless it is involved – nothing manifests in the effect, unless it is in the cause.” The Kybalion Definitive Ed. [21]

A Love Message for Women - Witch on Fire
CC0-Public Domain – Pixabay

7. The Principle of Gender:

“Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes.” — The Kybalion.[22]

According to the old Hermeticists, everything in the Universe is manifested through Masculine and Feminine principles, on all planes, because all was created from the original separation of goddess into earth and water, and god into air and fire, who then remerged in love to become the material world.

Projective qualities are considered Masculine, and receptive qualities are considered Feminine. However, do not confuse this concept of Mental Gender with physical sex. These are not the same thing. Physical sex is only one way that this principle can be seen, on only one layer of the physical plane. Even there, they are held in unique balance of polarity which is a range of possibility. It is more like a slider-bar that completely depends on relative relationship. This makes all the room we need for every manner of gender identity and sexual expression.

Moral of the Story:

The bottom line is that an understanding of the Seven Hermetic Principles works, and that any system of magick that works, will also be in accord with these principles. Just like any of the Physical Laws, such as Gravity, whether or not you’ve ever stepped into a science classroom to hear this term in your life, you’re still just as stuck to the earth.

The same is true of these Seven Cosmic “laws.” If a witch performs any kind of magick and it works, they’ll find that they successfully employed these principles, even if that witch was completely unaware of them. The wise student of magick will learn these principles well, and then put them to beneficial use in their lives with purpose.

Frankly, I’m thrilled by Atkinson’s contributions to Hermetic philosophy, as their shift of focus is in much better alignment with my Witchcraft’s ideals. There was way less emphasis on discovering a Supreme Being beyond the stars, and way more emphasis on embracing our own inner divinity through the obvious panentheism of the Hermetic Cosmos. The Kybalion’s philosophy is the epitome of “seek the truth within.” This is the welcome shift that appeals to witches. So rather than being upset that Atkinson corrupted Hermetics, I see the hand of Hermes guiding that inspiration into an ever-evolving era of thought.

As always, I recommend to all student of magickal craft to read the original sources for yourself. The Way of Hermes by Clement Salaman et al, is a recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. The Kybalion: The Definitive Edition: William Walker Atkinson, Three Initiates, edited by Philip Deslippe contains an excellent history and commentary, as well as additional writings by Atkinson.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, where we follow the path of the Hermetic Philosophies from ancient Egypt into British Wicca, and conclude with why these philosophies are important to Modern Witchcraft today.

Hail Hermes!

~Heron

References:

[1] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[2] Atkinson, William Walker. The Kybalion Definitive Edition, Page 92

[3]  http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[4] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[5] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[6] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[7] The Way of Hermes, Page 56

[8] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[9] The Kybalion Definitive Edition, Page 87.

[10] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[11] Atkinson, William Walker. The Kybalion Def Ed.

[12] www.Cosmometry.net

[13] Amazon.com: The Kybalion: The Definitive Edition (9781585428748): William Walker Atkinson, Three Initiates, Philip Deslippe: Books”. amazon.com. Retrieved May 23, 2019

[14] Chapel. Nicholas E. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition No. 24, Vol. 3. “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” Vernal Equinox 2013

[15] https://www.thesecret.tv/law-of-attraction/ accessed May 23, 2019

[16] Chapel. Nicholas E. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition No. 24, Vol. 3. “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” Vernal Equinox 2013

[17] Chapel. Nicholas E. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition No. 24, Vol. 3. “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” Vernal Equinox 2013

[18] Chapel. Nicholas E. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition No. 24, Vol. 3. “The Kybalion’s New Clothes:
An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” Vernal Equinox 2013

[20] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

[21] Atkinson, William Walker. The Kybalion Def Ed. Page 87

[22] http://www.kybalion.org/kybalion.php?chapter=II

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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