Category Archives: Symbolism

Hermetic Rebirth and the Cave of Initiation


Hermetism is often and wrongly confused with Gnosticism, which similarly originated in Egypt in roughly the same era. For present purposes, a few salient points of contrast will suffice. Like the God of Stoicism, the Hermetic God was omnipresent and omniscient through the material cosmos. In Gnosticism, by contrast, God was transcendent, and the physical universe was an evil place created by an evil Demiurge (van den Broek 1998). Hermetic ethics celebrated the divine within the world; Gnostic ethics were abstemious, ascetic efforts to escape from the world (Mahé 1998).

There were also differences in their valuations of visions. Jonas (1969) drew attention to the fact that the motif of heavenly ascension was originally intended, for example in Jewish apocalyptic literature, as an objective reality, but was subsequently transformed into an allegory of the mystical path. The mystical appropriation of the ascension motif was complete by the second century era of the Alexandrine Christian fathers, St. Clement and Origen (Danielou 1973).

The allegorical tradition was also present in the Gnostic literature of Nag Hammadi, although in a slightly different manner. Referring to experiences of visions in general, The Exegesis on the Soul 34 stated: “Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself….This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father” (Robinson 1988:196). For the Gnostics, as for the Alexandrine fathers, ascension was one among several literary tropes that could signify mystical experiences of highly varied manifest contents.

So far as I know, the Hermetic system was the earliest in the West to propose a mystical initiation, consisting of multiple experiences, that is simultaneously a journey through places and a series of changes in the ontology of the self. Its ascension to the sky compares with Jewish and Christian apocalypticism; but its division of ontological states compares with Neoplatonic distinctions among sensibles, intermediates or divisible intelligibles, and indivisible intelligibles.

This sequence, which can already be discerned in Iamblichus, was eventually formalized by Proclus as three mystical stages of purgation, illumination, and union. However, the Hermetists slotted imaginals into the middle position that Neoplatonism limited to empirically demonstrable arithmeticals and geometricals.

This substitution brought Hermetism to a position on visions that differed from the reductive skepticism of Neoplatonism, which treated visions as ideas that were misrepresented by the senses in the form of images.

The Hermetic position also differed from the pure projections that Gnostics held visions to be. For Hermetists, the imaginal was not a projection whose ever various and impredictable content becomes increasingly pure as one’s mind purifies in its progress toward God. The imaginal was instead topographical, an actual and predictable itinerary in a visionary topos that had ontological integrity and coherence.

Although The Discourse was not transmitted to the West in the Corpus Hermeticum, the Hermetic concept of ontologically distinctive locations along an itinerary has been integral to Western esotericism for centuries. Because the Hermetic tradition survived without apparent interruption from late antiquity to be taught at least as late as eleventh century Baghdad, it is not surprising that a series of initiatory experiences were portrayed as an itinerary across nine mountains in Suhrawardi’s Treatise of the Birds (1982).

Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154–1191)

To Suhrawardi, Sufism also owed the introduction of the ‘alam al-mithal, the “world of imagination” (Rahman 1964). The notion of an initiatory itinerary in the world of imagination was formalized, or at least made less esoteric, in the Sufism of Najm ad-Din al-Kubra (Merkur 1991:223, 234-35); and its passage from Islam to western Europe may be assumed.

Interestingly, Widengren (1950:77-85) demonstrated that the ancient motif of ascension to an audience before a heavenly god was replaced, in the Arabic Hermetic literature, by the motif of entering a subterranean chamber where Hermes sits enthroned, holding a book in his hand. Widengren suggested that the descent of Balinas (the Arabic Apollonius of Tyana) to acquire the Emerald Table of Hermes, along with variant narratives, blended the motif of an initiatory ascension with the motif, found in Egyptian and Hellenistic tales, of the discovery of a book in a subterranean chamber.

An illustration from an old collection of stories translated from Ancient Eyptian Literature. This scene depicts the character “Setna”, emerging from a tomb where he gambled to win a magical papyrus, known as the Book Of Thoth, the reading of which would empower him with all knowledge. Setna was based on a real person, Prince Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses II, who was a Holy Man of the highest order (Sem Priest) and credited as being a great magician. (It was this character from Ancient History that I give all credit to for embarking on my own Hermetic Journey – Jaq) Setna/Prince Khaemwaset

The motif of the cave of initiation, which found its widest audience through the tale of Aladdin in the 1001 Nights, may also have been influenced by Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs (Taylor 1969), in which a passage in Homer was allegorized as an image of the cosmos. Whatever its sources, the motif of an alchemical initiation by means of a subterranean itinerary is earliest attested in the writings of medieval Arabic Hermetists.

By this route, the motif of ascension in late antique Hermetism was likely historically antecedent not only to such celebrated European alchemical motifs as the Cave of the Philosophers, but also to the climactic encounters in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1796) and Ferdinand Ossendowski’s Beasts, Men and Gods (1922).

Engraving from Baro Urbigerus Besondere chymische Schrifften, 1705.

Source: Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth

The Discourse on the 8th and 9th

The Corpus Hermeticum

Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154–1191)


Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand (1644) | The Public Domain Review


Is gesture a universal language? When lost for words, we point, wave, motion and otherwise use our hands to attempt to indicate meaning. However, much of this form of communication is intuitive and is not generally seen to be, by itself, an effective substitution for speech.

John Bulwer (1606 – 1656), an English doctor and philosopher, attempted to record the vocabulary contained in hand gestures and bodily motions and, in 1644, published Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand alongside a companion text Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, an illustrated collection of hand and finger gestures that were intended for an orator to memorise and perform whilst speaking.

For Bulwer, gesture was the only from of speech that was inherently natural to mankind, and he saw it as a language with expressions as definable as written words. He describes some recognisable hand gestures, such as stretching out hands as an expression of entreaty or wringing them to convey grief, alongside more unusual movements, including pretending to wash your hands as a way to protest innocence, and to clasp the right fist in the left palm as a way to insult your opponent during an argument.

Although Bulwer’s theory has its roots in classical civilisation, from the works of Aristotle, he was inspired by hundreds of different works, including biblical verses, medical texts, histories, poems and orations, in order to demonstrate his conclusions.

Source: Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand (1644) | The Public Domain Review

We are bees of the invisible… Rilke from a letter to Halewicz


“We are bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the invisible, to store it in the great golden hives of the invisible.”

Rilke often refers to the invisible, especially in his Duino Elegies, which he wrote during a particularly mystical period of his life. In a letter to his Polish translator Witold Hulewicz in November 1925, he wrote: ‘We of the present are never satisfied by the world of time…transience everywhere plunges into the depths of being…it is our task to print this temporal, perishable earth so painfully, passionately and deeply into ourselves, that its essence is resurrected again, invisibly, within us…the Elegies show this, the work of endlessly converting the visible, tangible world we love into the invisible vibrations and tremors of our own nature…’

He was quite passionate about the “Temple within” and the interior life, whereas he saw the outside world as transitory and fragile.

In another letter, written in 1925, commenting on his Elegies, he wrote: “‘…the Angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we perform, appears already complete.’ [..] ‘that being who attests to the recognition of a higher level of reality in the invisible – Terrifying, therefore, to us because we, its lovers and transformers, still cling to the visible’.

Here are some good links on Rilke’s work and his letters

I became a little (more) obsessed with Rilke after reading a chapter focusing on his work in this book:

(edited to include more details from comments)

originally posted 2012


The Romantic Symbolism of Trees

abbeydeadtreesCaspar David Friedrich, “Abbey among Oak Trees” (1809-10)

The Romantic Symbolism of Trees by Allison Meier

“As with the Victorian language of flowers, specific trees have their own symbolism. Reverend William Gilpin, an artist and cleric, stated it “is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest, and most beautiful of all products of the earth.” In the form of the tree, artists found expressions of life, death, and the great beyond.

A Dialogue with Nature includes work both from the Morgan’s works on paper holdings, and the Courtauld Gallery in London, and emphasizes this “cult of nature.” Here are some of the meanings of trees in Romantic art that are evoked in the exhibition, as well as in the landscape tradition of the time.”

Link to the full article

forest sunset

Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910) Sunset in a Forest

I wish I had time to upload my folder of Trees in art.. maybe in a future post.. ~ Jaq

The Turning Sky | Lapham’s Quarterly

“The god Horus is a falcon (the word for which in hieroglyphs is qhr, the falcon’s cry). In the third surviving column of text, remarkably, the falcon is marked with a triangle, the hieroglyphic designation for the star Sirius. As if it were a mathematical proof unfolding before my eyes, I saw that if the falcon marked by the triangle is Sirius, the fire is the light of dawn in which the gods—the things marked holy by the hieroglyphic prayer flags—are stars. The baboon’s penis is in actuality a familiar sight: the Sword of Orion (the three stars under Orion’s belt), which rises directly before Sirius on the path of rising stars. The hieroglyphic lines on the wall express an immediate, visual moment in the physical world: the dawn rising of Sirius signaling the rising of the Nile, the key moment of the Egyptian agricultural year. The clear, repetitive, and simple hieroglyphic lines read not as a magic spell but as a finely machined poetic riddle: The Sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky. Before the doors close the gate to the path over the fire Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark, As a falcon flies, as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire, Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark. They make a path for Unis. Unis takes the path. Unis becomes the falcon star, Sirius. That this was the case was borne out by the text as I translated further. Beautifully constructed verses presented one vivid astronomical reference after another: Taurus (“Would that the bull break the fingers of the horizon of earth with its horns. / Come out. Rise.”), the full moon (“the face, the head, the eye”), the North Star (“the axis at the center of the wheel”), the Dippers (“the arms of night”), the Milky Way (“the ladder to heaven”). The verses of the Pyramid Texts map the night sky as a detailed seasonal clock reliably predicting the most critical resource of all: water. Egyptian civilization came out of radical climate change—cattle herders whose grazing land was rapidly becoming desert as the water dried up in the climate shift of the Neolithic, much as is happening in Texas and around the world today.

The verses present a sequence of poetic images in which the human body is transformed back into its elements in the visible universe of the turning sky. The remnant essence of a human life rises as a star in the east: “moses” (the hieroglyphic word for infant) in “the field of rushes” (the eastern stars at dawn). The infant star is the child of “she who gave birth but did not know it” (the sky). The sky is a flood of cool darkness across which sail the stars: Sirius and its evil twin, “the detested wild dog Set,” the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus, the rising of which signals the autumn rains with their deadly flash floods and thunderstorms. Through this glittering wetland of stars wanders the golden calf, the golden crescent horns of the moon.

This extraordinary convergence of poetry, science, and religion resides not only in the writing but in the pictures within the words themselves. Osiris is a phonetic rendering of a hieroglyphic rebus: the seat of the eye, the universal corpse in which resurrection is not a religious mystery but an inevitability of nature. In the Pyramid Texts, hieroglyphic vocabulary is rich with images: The body is a tree. The snake is the life in it. The fruit of the tree is the eye. What is being expressed is the intelligence of nature itself in the ongoing process of creation: the death, decay, and rebirth of plant and animal life in the cyclical year. One familiar religious trope after another appears not as literal historical fact used to proscribe, threaten, and dictate the parameters of human life but as poetic imagery used to bring to life the awareness of our fragile and beautiful world. The richness of these images is echoed in the Book of Job: “As for the earth, out of it cometh bread, and under it is turned up as it were fire. The stones of it are the place of sapphires, and it hath dust of gold.” The Pyramid Texts are not magic spells or religious prescription any more than this. Instead, the text takes up a key question: Where shall wisdom be found?

…over the fire
Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark,

As a falcon flies, as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire,

Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark.

They make a path for Unis. Unis takes the path.

Unis becomes the falcon star, Sirius.


Would that the bull break the fingers of the horizon of earth with its horns.

Come out. Rise.

Poetry and religion arise from the same source: the perception of the mystery of life. Early Egyptian writing belongs to this eternal language. The vehicle at work is associative thinking, in which metaphors act as keys to unlock a primeval human sense of the integrated living world. The meaning may not come across on the pedantic level, but on the poetic level it is transparent.”

Source: The Turning Sky | Lapham’s Quarterly

Susan Brind Morrow

Susan Brind Morrow’s translation and analysis of the Pyramid Texts, The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts, was published in 2015. She received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2006.

Visualization in Medieval Alchemy – alchemy as a science and an art aimed at the transformation of species

In Arabic classifications of science and philosophy, which were adapted in the twelfth century, alchemy was defined as a sub-branch of natural philosophy (scientia naturalis), sharing this definition, above all, with medicine. Thus, about ten years after the first translation of an alchemical text into Latin (Morienus, De compositione alchimie), Dominic Gundissalinus described alchemy as belonging to physics in his De divisione philosophiae (ca. 1150).[6] It was a science and an art aimed at the transformation of species

In the thirteenth century, representatives of Platonically-oriented cosmology and natural science such as Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) defended a systematic use of geometrical representation. Following Grosseteste, “all causes of natural effects must be expressed by means of lines, angles, and figures, for otherwise it is impossible to grasp their explanation”.[24] The corresponding theory of knowledge was neo-Platonic and Augustinian. The intelligible order underlying the physical, corporeal world was thought to be apprehensible by the divine part of the soul, by the ‘eye of the soul’, and geometrical figures (as well as number patterns) were used as ‘ladders’ leading to eternal truths.

The early fifteenth-century Aurora consurgens marks a further step in the elaboration of pictorial metaphors combined with glass vessels. The oldest and most spectacular copy of this document dates from the 1420s (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, ms. Rh. 172). On a purely pictorial level, an inventive and high-quality artist developed a core of recurrent alchemical metaphors that relate to human and animal procreation, the dismemberment of bodies (symbolizing calcinations and putrefaction) and motifs such as the eagle and the dragon, which denote mercury as a volatile and as a solidified substance, respectively.[75] In and around glass vessels, the artist metaphorically depicted stages of operation relating to the alchemical art of transformation as well as cosmological and philosophical principles of the art, such as “two are one” and “nature vanquishes nature”. Two or more principal metaphors are frequently combined within a single picture, reflecting the increasing use of chains of metaphors. For instance, one of the illustration combines the motifs of Mercury decapitating the sun and the moon with a vase filled with silver and gold flowers

Figure 11: Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, ms. Rh. 172, fol. 27v. Aurora consurgens (ca 1420-30). Mercury in the form of a serpent decapitating the Sun and the Moon. Gold and silver flowers in a vessel on the fire.

For the full article from which these extracts were taken, go to the link below

Source: HYLE 9-2 (2003): Visualization in Medieval Alchemy

The Redemption of Saint Anthony | The Public Domain Review

Gustave Flaubert, best known for his masterpiece Madame Bovary, spent nearly thirty years working on a surreal and largely ‘unreadable’ retelling of the temptation of Saint Anthony. Colin Dickey explores how it was only in the dark and compelling illustrations of Odilon Redon, made years later, that Flaubert’s strangest work finally came to life.

via The Redemption of Saint Anthony | The Public Domain Review.

The Hermetic Papers of A. E. Waite and his idea for The Hermetic Text Society



The Hermetic Text Society was a pipe-dream of Waite’s that never proceeded further than the issuing of this breathtaking prospectus’, A.E. Waite’s bio-bibliographer R.A. Gilbert intriguingly observed with reference to a 14-page pamphlet issued by Waite in 1907.  Searching the Internet for ‘The Hermetic Text Society’ only yields a few references, all to the now sadly defunct American periodical Cauda Pavonis: The Hermetic Text Society Newsletter.

Of Waite’s Hermetic Text Society’s ‘pipe-dream’ there is not a trace on the world wide web; in print, fortunately, there is Gilbert’s brief but informative description of Waite’s ‘grandiose affair’ in the biography which he published in 1987.

At the time Waite laid down his plan for a Hermetic Text Society, he had already been in control for a few years of the Isis Urania Temple of the collapsed Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he had re-named ‘The Independent and Rectified Rite’ (with the implicit and tacit addition of ‘of the Golden Dawn’). Waite had diverted the Order away from magic towards mysticism, altogether in line with his belief that there was a secret tradition underlying all esoteric paths, whether mystical, alchemical, kabbalistic, Rosicrucian, masonic or other, which led to direct experience of God. On the professional side of his life, he was wrapping up his career as a commercial manager for Horlick’s, manufacturers of malted milk. Waite wrote in his autobiography Shadows of life and thought that at this time, prospects ‘of a new life’ opened before him: these prospects were related to definitively establishing himself as an authority and an exponent of the ‘secret tradition’. His Hidden church of the Holy Graal, published in 1909, was to be its first product.

Gilbert writes that the idea for the Hermetic Text Society had been suggested to Waite by the gnostic scholar G.R.S. Mead, who had reviewed Karl von Eckartshausen’s The cloud upon the sanctuary in the translation of Isabelle de Steiger for the Theosophical Review in 1903. Waite had written an Introduction for the book, which had caused Mead to enthuse: ‘If only someone – and why not the scholarly mystic who writes this Introduction? – would play Max Muller to the “sacred books” of the Christian mystics from the XIVth to the XVIIIth centuries, what a feast there would be for hundreds of thousands of starving souls!’ – Cis van Heertum for The Ritman Library

more on the above at the Ritman Library

The Introductory Notes below are taken from “Hermetic Papers of A.E.Waite”, edited by R.A Gilbert (Aquarian Press,1987).
 The text of “What is Alchemy?” by A. E. Waite reproduced here is scanned from the periodical “The Unknown World”, and formatted and corrected by hand at[] Alchemy pdf
THERE are certain writers at the present day, and there are certain students of the subject, perhaps too wise to write, who would readily, and do, affirm that any answer to the question which heads this paper will involve, if adequate, an answer to
those other and seemingly harder problems- What is Mysticism? What is the Transcendental Philosophy? What is Magic? What Occult Science? What the Hermetic Wisdom?
For they would affirm that Alchemy includes all these, and so far at least as the world which lies west of Alexandria is concerned, it is the head and crown of all.
Now in this statement the central canon of a whole body of esoteric criticism is contained in the proverbial nut-shell, and this criticism is in itself so important, and embodies so astounding an interpretation of a literature which is so mysterious, that in any consideration of Hermetic literature it must be reckoned with from the beginning; otherwise the mystic student will at a later period be forced to go over his ground step by step for a second time, and that even from the starting point.
It is proposed in the following papers to answer definitely
by the help of the evidence which is to be found in the writings of the Alchemists the question as to what Alchemy actually was and is.

Jung’s Active Imagination | Reality Sandwich

“More abstractly,  it’s a method of consciously entering into a dialogue with the unconscious, which triggers the transcendent function, a vital shift in consciousness, brought about through the union of the conscious and unconscious minds. Unexpected insights and self-renewal are some of the results of the transcendent function. It achieves what I call that elusive ‘Goldilocks’ condition, the ‘just right’ of having the conscious and unconscious minds work together, rather than being at odds. In the process it produces a third state more vivid and ‘real’ than either; in it we recognize what consciousness should be like and see our ‘normal’ state as at best a muddling-through”

by Gary Lachman

Jung’s Active Imagination | Reality Sandwich.

Those heights are not conceivable or comprehensible by minds not completely free

I’m re-posting this old nugget as it is directly related to the 2 most recent that I have posted; Know Thyself: self-observation for the purpose of understanding ourselves “both as Individuals and Part of the Whole.”

This was Tavaglione’s introduction to his tarot deck. In creating the Stairs of Gold Tarot, he was inspired by these words from Dante’s Paradiso, “I saw a stair the colour of gold, on which shone a ray of Sun, which raised itself so high that my eyes could not see the top….”

“I would do nothing else but pick flowers, and wander through meadows and gardens, gathering all the beautiful and most coloured my eyes and my spirit could see…but it happened that when I picked the first coloured diamonds, my curiosity flew up and I would “know” and I would “learn”.  And while at first my questions were limited only to their aspect, and I would know many Petal-Facets had the Diamond-Flowers I was picking, later I would know their Inmost Secret Light, their Why.

As I could not study all the Flowers my eyes took in, I devoted myself to the nearest ones, trying to understand with them, all the others, seeking inside them the Key that would permit me to open every other Door.
And then I realized that the more I penetrated the “Particular”, the more I descended to the “Depth”, the more I rose to the “General”.  So to understand that infinity of the Flowers around me, I began to study, with great care, One of Them, that could mean the most to me, the nearest one: myself.
And I tried to discover how many facets had that Flower-Diamond; its Cut, its Axis, it’s Colours, its Transparency, its Scent, to penetrate its innermost recesses, the “Secret Rooms” where are preserved the Most Intimate Values, the Hidden Treasures concealed by Veils.
To reach them I found it was anything but simple, because still before entering, I should curb the Beast that guarded them, the Animality always excluded from any Architecture, and any Rationality of Thought, bestial and resentful, because of its inferiority, it must be subdued by Fight and physical Strength or by Command and Moral Strength: once curbed it will be a tractable companion, but like every subdued wild beast, it will always assault us, when hesitating.
After the Beast, there is the Labrynth, consisting of 78 rooms, and 3×7 = 21 Gates; in every Room there are Prizes and Traps, Traps playing on what remained inside us, of the false ideas or the mental distortions that follow us from the preceding rooms, with which we must do away, and the Prizes playing on our Intuition and Illuminations that let us know, on the grounds of what we have learnt till now, what awaits us in the next room and that will be clear only in the future.
The 21 Gates are unforeseen gleams on the future and though one can find some difficult ties to reach and pass them, he has the Certitude of his Growth and the Consciousness of his accomplished conquest, that instill new life into his desire to go on Knowing and infuse him with new courage to face future difficulties.
The Utmost Gate, that closes the Utmost Room, the Sancta Sanctorum, is the Gate of Totality, the Conclusion that leads to our Essence, complete of everything Spiritual and Material.  When we will overcome that Utmost Barrier, we will be Ourselves, at the height of our Beings conscious of our Liberty, both as Individuals and Part of the Whole, Then behind the Veil, stretched between the Two Colums, the Black one and the Red, we will foresee the Roots of the Tree, that through its 10 points, will lead us up to heights where neither the most presumptuous of men can imagine, because those heights are not conceivable or comprehensible by minds not completely free.”
– Giorgio Tavaglione: Introduction to The Stairs of Gold Tarot Deck.
12 Pendu