Tag Archives: hermeticism

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)


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.

Jean Delville – The New Mission of Art: A Study of Idealism in Art


The Belgian Symbolist painter and writer Jean Delville (1867 – 1953) is considered a mystic, an idealist, and an occultist who sought to revive the ancient traditions of Cabbala, Magic, and Alchemy. In 1896, he founded the Salon d’Art Idealiste, which is considered the Belgian equivalent to the Parisian Salon de la Rose Croix and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in London.

Among his poetry and other literary works is La Mission de l‘Art (1900) in which he wrote extensively about the nature and purpose of Art, viewing it as a catalyst for the uplifting of mankind. He saw the true artist more in the likeness of a spiritual teacher or prophet.

Delville became committed to spiritual and esoteric subjects during his early twenties. In 1887 or 1888 he spent a period in Paris, where he met Sâr Joséphin Péladan, an eccentric mystic and occultist, who defined himself as a modern Rosicrucian, descended from the Persian Magi. Delville was struck by a number of Péladan’s ideas, among them his vision of the ideal artist as a spontaneously developed initiate, whose mission was to send light, spirituality and mysticism into the world. He exhibited paintings in Péladan’s Salons of the Rose + Croix between 1892 and 1895.

In 1895 Delville published his Dialogue entre nous, a text in which he outlined his views on occultism and esoteric philosophy. Brendan Cole discusses this text in his D.Phil. thesis on Delville (Christ Church, Oxford, 2000), pointing out that, though the Dialogue reflects the ideas of a number of occultists, it also reveals a new interest in Theosophy. In the mid or late 1890s, Delville joined the Theosophical Society. In 1896, he founded the Salon d’Art Idealiste. The Salon disbanded in 1898. In 1910 he became the secretary of the Theosophical movement in Belgium. In the same year he added a tower to his house in Forest, a suburb of Brussels. Following the ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, Delville painted the meditation room at the top, including the floorboards, entirely in blue. The Theosophical Emblem was placed at the summit of the ceiling. Though photographs and drawings still exist, the house no longer stands.

From 1907 through 1937 Delville taught at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

His work “A Mission de l’Art” is available for reading online; the link is at the bottom of this post.

Introduction to artist, mystic, idealist Jean Delville’s work “A Mission de l’Art” or The New Mission of Art: A Study of Idealism in Art.

“THE AUTHOR of the following treatise will be known by name to very few of his English readers, yet the book reveals a personality so distinguished that those hitherto unacquainted with M. Delville’s work may care to know something of the writer. The few to whom he is already known will be found among those who, possessing an interest in the arts, have lived a considerable time in Brussels or in Glasgow. In the former, because M. Delville is an artist of renown in his own country : in the latter, because about eight years ago he was appointed to the chief- professorship in the Glasgow School of Art. He worked there for half-a-dozen years and with such personal success that when he returned to Brussels and instituted the ” Atelier Delville” a large number of his former pupils went oversea to follow him. The world of art is hardly less variously peopled than the wider world of politics and affairs. No painter, no writer, can ever please all artists, and M. Delville, especially, by his unflinching adherence to idealism, has encoun- tered for many years much ridicule or abuse from the supporters of other schools. It is unfortunate that so small a number of men is capable of avoiding an extreme. No sooner is a certain style grown over-ripe than the next generation, dismissing the entire school as misguided, errs yet more markedly in the opposite direction. Here in England at the moment we read articles by men who declare that Burne-Jones knew nothing of his art or that there is nothing of sublimity in the work of Tennyson. In place of those formerly accepted and over-praised, they exalt some trifling fellow who, though deficient in a thousand ways, has yet no trace of the particular weakness which overcame the giant they would depose.

For reaction, useful as a corrective influence, is nearly always excessive, and its devotees quite readily mistake their own backwater for the full main-stream of art. Incapable of improving upon the achievements of a bygone school, they choose out themes and methods which were most likely rejected as unworthy by the painters they despise. The excessive praise of Whistler is now subsiding, but in its place has arisen the cult of those who consider clear colour to be the brand-mark of the commonplace, fair form the delight of an inferior taste. Nor do these bubble-movements lack believers among those who are fearful lest they should be stigmatised as unprogressive, for most men — critics or craftsmen — are carried along by the taste of their time, and few are those who, standing aside from the immediate, work on in the great traditions. Of such is M. Delville. Faults he has, but not the faults of our time. There is no affectation Jean Delville xv in his work : no superficial, catchpenny display of skill. With him, the picture has again become of more importance than the painter. For he is a poet, a thinker, a man who cares greatly for the welfare of the world. The eminent French poet who penned the introductory note to this book has shown how unavoidably a painter communicates his ” Weltanschauung ” to his work, and every phase of M. Delville’s mind is thus reflected. In early youth he was a materialist, and the dusty paintings of that period which hang from the walls of his studio would merit praise from some of those who call themselves, euphemistically, ” rationalists.”

Indeed, if anyone should search the great studio he might disinter examples of many contemporary methods. For even in the earliest of his student- days M. Delville possessed a facility so astonish- ing that before he had been working at the School of Art in Brussels for more than a week, the professor set up his canvas as an object- lesson to the assembled students. In after- years the paintings he produced readily reflected the rapid changes of his mind. For he did not rest easy in materialism, and, having experimented with spiritism, in spite of the usual chicanery he discovered what he considered overwhelming evidence of dis- incarnate existence. The pictures which accompany this phase are more terrible than beautiful — vast, lurid, and awful. During a few years he followed the faint stars of spiritism until they had brought him to the limitless horizon of theosophy, and it is to the inspiration of this world-old wisdom that his latter and important work is due. His adherence to that scheme of thought has cost him much, for in Belgium the Ecclesiastical Party, which is dominant, regards theosophy as a formidable menace, and has opposed him repeatedly. But M. Delville was born a fighter, and never flinches in his loyalty to a philosophy which is strangely abused and misunderstood. A keen student of contemporary science, an eloquent and fiery speaker, one who writes prose with vigour and verse with a rare beauty, he is well able to defend his convictions with a widely-cultured mind and with a range of ability that compels respect. Unfortunately, he shares with Rossetti a dislike of exhibiting his work, but the annual exhibitions at Brussels have occasional examples.

A stately picture, called ” L’Ecole de Platon ‘ was exhibited some years ago at Milan, where it won the Gold Prize. Most of M. Delville’s work is on a very large scale — indeed, his preliminary sketches are usually the size of most large pictures. A vast composition, which is named ” L’Homme-Dieu,” and repre- sents a multitude of men and women surging up, with gestures half exultant, half despairing, to the enaureoled Christ, occupies an entire wall in his ” atelier.” Yet he has said that he would like to re-paint it as large again if he could put it in a church. At present in his private studio, at Forest, a country suburb of Brussels, he is preparing a series of frescoes which are to decorate the walls of the Palais de Justice. Perhaps the designs for this national work are the most powerful and most complete examples of idealistic art which he has yet achieved, and it is safe to predict that the Belgians of the future will not regret the choice of the commissioners.

M. Delville was born in 1867 ; he never studied his art except in the school at Brussels, although when his student-days were over he spent some two years in Rome — a city which he felt to be strangely familiar, thus offering a theme for speculation to the believer in palin- genesis. His manner of life is simple, as befits a mystic ; the vegetarian may number him in the list of the enlightened ; and his pleasures are those of the intellect. Often might a friend, having walked through the little garden, come into the house to find him absorbed in a brilliant rendering of some Wagnerian masterpiece, or studying with the firmest concentration some recent work on evolution or biology. In these days, when life is losing continually more and more of its ancient dignity, when occultism, above all else, has fallen into the hands of commercial, unreligious, and vulgar persons, it is an inspiration to receive the friendship of a man like M. Delville, whose life is worthy of his great religion, who retains not a little of the grandeur which caused the occultists of old time to be so greatly honoured, who realizes the wonder of existence, the sublimity of the universe, and the potential godhead of man. Almost alone he is combatting, year after year, the inane but popular painting of our time, setting forth in daily life and in some of the best of the Belgian reviews that conception of art which he formulates in the present work. It is with deep interest that we who are his allies will watch the reception given to it in England.

It is a book which proclaims, not a new and unrelated art, but the necessity of applying some new inspiration to the incomparable traditions of the past : a book which opposes all that is commonly praised in the art of our period ; a book which we who are with him can only regard as the work of a great man who writes in a trivial and materialistic age.”

Clifford Bax

Some well-known and lesser well-known examples of Delville’s paintings




Jean Delville - Untitleduntitled

Jean Delville The LiberationThe Liberation

Jean Delville - Par Le Glaive Et La TorcheJean Delville – Par Le Glaive Et La Torche


Satan’s Treasures

 Link to full text at Archive.org http://www.archive.org/stream/newmissionofarts00delv/newmissionofarts00delv_djvu.txt

see also http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/delville.html

The Tarocchi de Mantegna

The Tarocchi of Mantegna is one of the earliest known tarot or Tarocchi packs, “being dated to c.1465, contemporary with the Visconti-Sforza deck of the mid-fifteenth century which is recognised as the earliest tarot.”

In the words of Adam McLean:

The symbolism of these cards, or perhaps we should say ’emblematic figures’, would seem to derive from the Hermetic tradition which is now recognised as underlying the Italian Renaissance of the mid-fifteenth century. It was during this period that the Platonic Academies of the Medici’s were set up and Ficino and other scholars began translating texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum and the works of Plato, some of which were brought to the Court of Florence from Constantinople by Gemistus Plethon (c.1355-1450), a Greek scholar who was probably an initiate of a ‘Platonic’ Mystery School in the East. This reconstruction of hermetic and neoplatonic esotericism is reflected in such ideas as the Muses, the Liberal Arts, the Cardinal Virtues, and the Heavenly Spheres, and it is my view that the Tarocchi of Mantegna should be seen as an ’emblem book’ of this hermetic current. The fact that its designs show parallels with the later tarot decks should therefore be of the greatest interest both to students of tarot and of Hermeticism.


For the full article, see here: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/mantegna.html

Alchemical Psychology – Old Recipes for Living in a New World

“An alchemist is seen in physical form below this magnificent scene wearing a coat of stars, white one side and dark on the other. He stands in a grove of trees, each of which bears a symbol of the planetary metals and twelve fundamental substances. The alchemist holds a twin-bladed axe in either hand reinforcing the division of opposites in the manifest world. Yet he stands upon the backs of two lions sharing one head. This indicates his powers of discrimination and freedom from the opposites.”

Hand Symbolism & Beliefs

Lots of information on Hand Symbolism on this page, from various cultures and belief systems.

“The ancients attached special occult significance to every part of the human body. The symbolism of the human hand alone may fill several volumes. Symbols may signify abstract or concrete concepts, imaginative or real events, natural or “supernatural” phenomena, spiritual or material principles. In what we have found, the ancient sages and philosophers made used of the hands to portray and symbolize many things of worth to the evolving soul. They taught many things using the hands as similitude, allegories, analogies, and examples.

The left and right hands were often represented for the many polarities that we find and experience in life. For instance, hot/cold, high/low, darkness/light, etc. ”


The Beautiful Inscrutable: Khunrath’s Fabulous Alchemical Exploratorium, ca. 1600

Some beautiful images here, and lots of helpful links

“While these Discontents continued, severall Letters past between Queene Elizabeth and Doctor Dee, whereby perhaps he might promise to returne; At length it so fell out, that he left Trebona and took his Iourney for England. The ninth of Aprill he came to Breame… Here that famous Hermetique Philosopher, Dr Henricus Khunrath of Hamburgh came to visit him.” – Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, (London, 1652), cited in Frances Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment


The Oracle of Delphi – Know Thyself

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.” – Richard Bach

I was watching a tv documentary last night by Michael Scott about the oracle at Delphi (link for UK readers http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00w4jtx ) and he was explaining how those who visited the Oracle should have paid more heed to the motto at the site, which read “Know thyself”.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, but many people don’t spend the time thinking about its meaning, and still less spend the time learning to “Know Thyself”.  It means understand yourself, but so much more than merely self observation.

The quote above from Richard Bach explains far better what Michael Scott was getting at – that the answers given by the Oracle were ambiguous, and could only be understood when a person interpreted them using their own intuition. It’s often said that we know the answers to our own questions, so why is it that we don’t trust our own answers?

Usually, this is because we have limiting beliefs about ourselves. We are basing our ideas about ourselves on what others say about us and others. A woman recently told me that her mother had always told her before a job interview that she wouldn’t be “what they are looking for”, regardless of the work. The mother’s limiting observations were not only related to interviews but to other areas of the woman’s life, and it was only many years later that she realised how much her mother’s words had affected her beliefs about herself.

We have all been affected by similar words from others, quite often without being aware of it, and we are also unaware that many of the beliefs we hold are not our own. So how do we undo this past conditioning? How does one “Know Thyself”?

We can start by listening to what we say, or write. Whenever you say “I am….” this or “I am…” that, stop for a moment and ask yourself if you really are, or if that is what you have come to believe, based on what others have said either about you or about other people.

What if you’re not sure? Start to become aware of your own emotions, your reactions to what people say or do around you – are those reactions genuine or conditioned? What pushes your buttons? When you notice what has pushed your buttons, then start to ask why?

You’ll be surprised at the answers you come up with. And when you begin to understand the answers, you’ll also begin to trust your own answers more, and will be on the way to understanding what the motto meant at the temple to the Oracle at Delphi. You already know.

For an earlier, more esoteric post on the subject of  to Know Thyself, see here: https://supersededotcom.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/stairs-of-gold-giorgio-tavaglione/