Mists of time and mortal memory obscure awareness of the high and holy beings actively involved in the secret and sacred story of human evolution. Though their ubiquitous presence lies like a luminous arc across the illusory events of time, they leave no biographical tracings in mundane chronicles. Myth and legend essentially retain the efflorescence of their lives, veiled in the code languages of the Mystery temples and disfigured by generations of sectarian priests, pietists and scholars. Where details may be known, they are shrouded in archaic constellations of mystic metaphor and symbolic fable. In India, Narada and Vyasa appear in every age and cycle. In Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl was revered as god, archetypal man and ruler. In Chaldea, Oannes the Initiate was portrayed as a human-headed fish. And in Egypt, Hermes-Thoth sweeps through countless centuries as god, king, priest, teacher and Initiate.
The golden thread passing through and uniting all the guises of Hermes-Thoth is his veiled embodiment and vital teaching of primordial Wisdom. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, comprised of a variety of texts treating after-death states and the forces leading to diverse conditions of rebirth, Thoth is depicted in the great solar barque of Ra, standing opposite Maat. Here Ra is the solar creative force, the spirit of the Invisible Sun, while Thoth is its hidden wisdom and Maat, the feminine aspect of Thoth, is the law of noumenal Nature. According to the oldest known Egyptian cosmogony, Thoth utters the divine Word through which the whole cosmos emerges. When Atum, the golden sphere of light, arose in the incomprehensible Abyss of Nothingness, it differentiated itself into three creative aspects – Thought, Will and Command. While Ra is the divine idea of the universe to be, Thoth is the mysterious ideation which gives rise to the Word – Maat, the Law.
Thoth was called "Lord of Khemennu, the Self-Created One, to whom none hath given birth, the first god". As lord of Khemennu, later called Hemopolis, Thoth is lord of the City of Eight, chief of the eight great gods, whose correspondences include the seven sacred planets and the eighth sphere of the fixed stars. Like Hermes, the intimate friend of Apollo, Thoth is the wisdom that pervades all the spheres and descends in embodied form to earth. Thus Thoth is called "He who reckons in heaven, the Counter of the stars, the Enumerator of the earth and of what is contained therein, the Measurer of the Earth". Thoth is the Logos. He is invoked as "the Heart of Ra that cometh forth in the form of Thoth". As the judicious personification of wisdom and compassion, Thoth is portrayed as the scribe of the gods, the keeper of records, the recording judge of the dead. Thoth is the Lord of Books and "Mighty in Speech", for he has the power of the spoken Word, the force of creative action. Known as Tehuti in ancient times, the name was sometimes thought to derive from tehu, a name for the ibis, and ti, signifying the qualities and powers of the tehu. As scribe, Thoth was shown with the head of an ibis, a mystery to the uninitiated, intimating the fluttering of Spirit over the waters of precosmic matter, the motion which brings order to chaos. The Egyptians also derived the name from tekh, a sign for the heart. Though the connection of Thoth, primordial Wisdom, with the ibis and the heart remains a mystery to all save those who know, one cannot refrain from thinking of the spiritual injunction, "Bestride the Bird of Life if thou would'st know." The commentary from the Nadavindu Upanishad declares, "A Yogi who bestrides the Hansa (thus contemplates on Aum) is not affected by karmic influences or crores of sins."
Thoth is Aah, the Great Lord, the Lord of Heaven, who measures out the seasons and cycles and lays down the ultimate divisions of time. Thoth-Aah, therefore, stands behind all temporal distinctions and was called the Maker of Eternity and Creator of Everlastingness. As god of wisdom and the Logos in the cosmos, Thoth is also the reflection of that wisdom in the world and in the enlightened mind. Hermes-Thoth abides in the moon, the light whose borrowed radiance descends to earth to illumine the ways of men who dwell in darkness. His home in the bright side of the moon is the essence of creative wisdom, sometimes called the elixir of Hermes, but his abode in the moon's dark half is the secret wisdom of the highest Initiates. When a human being crossed the threshold of the Egyptian mysteries, he became Hermes, the human embodiment of the god at one level of consciousness. The coadunition of souls allows each being to reflect the pervasive Thoth on some plane of manifestation. When the second sacred degree of initiation was passed, the disciple became Hermes Twice-Great. When the third stage was reached, the individual realized his essential consubstantiality with the god and called himself – with full knowledge of what he was saying – Hermes the Thrice-Great, one with Hermes Trismegistus, Termaximus, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, the highest embodiment of wisdom possible in the world of gross manifestation.
Vettius Valens bemoaned the fact that he did not live in the days of the divine dynasties when Initiate-Kings ruled by the light of the sacred sciences and sages saw clearly the invisible Hermetic table of the unseen universe. In those days, Vettius says, individuals became self-consciously immortal through love of the Mysteries and were called Walkers of the Sky. The incarnation of Thoth as Hermes Trismegistus taught humanity all the arts and sciences, including writing, astronomy, astrology, agriculture, metallurgy, alchemy and jurisprudence. Thereafter, each soul who awoke to the mysteries of being and non-being became one in consciousness with Hermes and taught in his turn. These great beings are the pillars of humanity, rooted in the human virtues. They support the protecting canopy of Divine Wisdom under which the complex and largely unrecorded story of human evolution proceeds. These Teachers of Humanity left writings which were preserved amongst the Egyptians for millennia, but as successive generations slowly distorted the teachings through forgetfulness and the flux of dynastic preference for one theology or another, an incomplete body of writings fell into Alexandrian hands. There they were sometimes adapted to reflect more clearly the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, and sometimes mutilated to justify Christian dogma.
By the fourth century the collection of philosophical and ethical treatises known as the Corpus Hermeticum had been gathered together. Deeply appreciated by Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius and St. Augustine, they were lost to public memory with the closure of the Platonic Academies in Athens and Alexandria. Then, during the Italian Renaissance the Medicis sent agents throughout the Mediterranean world in search of classical wisdom. The Hermetic writings were brought to the Florentine Academy, where Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino translated and circulated them. These few fragments of the pristine wisdom provided the foundation for the mystical philosophies of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, inspired the alchemical science of the Rosicrucians and made possible the profound teachings of Robert Fludd and the early endeavours of the Royal Society. After being denounced as fourth-century forgeries in the late sixteenth century, their influence waned under the spreading overgrowth of mechanistic science, but in the twentieth century more discerning scholarship has detected strains of ancient doctrines among the heavily overlaid texts. In some treatises Hermes Trismegistus is taught by Thoth-Hermes, in others he instructs one of his sons, Tat or Asclepius, who are both disciples and yet aspects of himself. From the viewpoint of spiritual consciousness, the series of emanations from the Logos in the cosmos can be depicted as a personified genealogy, the Hermetic chain of teachers and their disciples.
The first treatise, called the Poimandres or Pymander, intimates the exalted state of consciousness required for the acquisition of the deepest knowledge.
In a state of profound meditation Hermes had come into contact with an aspect of himself that transcends all parameters of time, location and personality. His deep desire to comprehend Being, rather than the ephemeral realm of becoming, invoked that which knows and can reveal the mystery. Within 'the boundless magnitude' a cosmogonical representation is projected for Hermes to behold.
Hermes does not fathom what he has seen, as Poimandres explains.
The scene disappears to be replaced by a vast congeries of forces and powers, all part of the original Light, forming the architectonics of the world. This is the archetype of the visible universe. The prime Nous, Poimandres, "the Mind which is Life and Light", gives rise to a second Nous, a creative force which makes from fire and air seven cosmocratores or administrators of the cosmic order. These correspond to the seven sacred planets of the visible universe, whose intelligent revolutions constitute destiny. After forming these beings, who contain the watery substance which will become Nature, the Word is withdrawn and Nature is left devoid of reason. But the first Mind gave birth to Anthropos, archetypal man, who is consubstantial with itself, and in this sense made in the image of God. Anthropos took his place in the abode of the second, creative Mind, and there beheld the creation of his brother.
When Anthropos looks upon blind Nature, Nature responds to that which is like itself in origin and forms herself into a mirror. Thus Anthropos looks upon himself, and taking that image for Nature, is drawn towards her. He passes through each of the seven spheres of the planets and gains their powers as he moves. Yet since he is one with Nous, the first god, originator of the creative Mind, his descent is self-limitation and a fall from his true being. As he descends through the sphere of Saturn, he learns to think 'I' in a separative sense and thus is cursed by the lie in the soul. The sixth sphere, Jupiter, gives him the wish to expand and acquire a richer sense of the personal selfhood. Mars adds impulse and rashness to this urge, and the fourth sphere of the sun gives him a false sense of arrogance at his success. The third region of Venus adds lust to impulse, and the second, Mercury, gives the cunning necessary to pursue it. With the capacity for deceit firmly fixed in the fallen Anthropos, he passes through the zone of the moon, the symbol of increase and decrease, fluctuation and change, and thus man falls into Nature, deprived and depraved by that which promised fulfilment.
Poimandres has not revealed an accidental anthropogenesis, however, a pointless tragedy called human existence, for the immersion of man in Nature gives Nature articulation. Nature is no longer blind, but made intelligible and intelligent through the mystic marriage. Man is not bound to keep to the bride's abode; he may return whence he came and all Nature will be elevated in the process.
By turning towards the divine Self, one can rise through the seven spheres and gain their virtues, their redemptive powers. In turning from the world of change, one gains the steadiness required for ascent. From Mercury comes intelligence to see the way, and from Venus the embracing love of all that lives. One then enters the realm of the sun, acquiring self-rule and therefore the rule of all Nature. This enables the energy of Mars to rise to sublimest heights, past Jupiter, where the domains of self are discovered to be the universe itself, and ultimately through Saturn, where "the universe grows 'I'".
In Hermes Trismegistus the primordial revelation has become a living reality, who abides with Nous even while imprisoned in the tenement of flesh. He is the Teacher par excellence, for he is one with the permanent individuality in each and all. In the text A Secret Discourse, Tat, the son of Hermes, asks, "What is real, Trismegistus?" Hermes answers:
When Tat doubts that he has the power to apprehend the incorporeal, Hermes teaches that the power is within: "Will it, and it comes to be." This rebirth in the real Self requires a purification of one's whole being. Hidden within the twelve signs of the zodiac lies the secret tenfold circle of the stars. Similarly within the twelve torments of the soul are ten liberating powers.
Reflection reveals in this passage the logical outlines of a psychology of self-destruction. But within the human being are purificatory powers which may be summoned to banish the torments. The first is knowledge of one's divine nature, which cuts ignorance at the root. This will give joy to banish grief, and joy is the basis of continence. Endurance is now possible, and through this power desire is overcome. With the transcendence of desire one reaches "the tribunal on which Justice sits enthroned". The sixth power is unselfishness, which will eradicate every trace of covetousness, and this is the foundation of truth which removes error. Thus the Good appears, and before it all the torments flee and are destroyed.
When the Logos appears within, man becomes a god, and "it is no longer a body of three dimensions that he perceives, but the incorporeal". Tat, having been shown all these things, says:
And Hermes endorses this realization in the simple response, "Now, my son, you know what rebirth is." Hermes is shown bearing the caduceus, emblem of the teaching of ascent and descent, of the power to work in the world and abide in universal consciousness. This is the wand of the Magician, whose power lies in the ability to focalize the Logoic light in the world of passing shadows. The power of the Magician is the potency latent in every human being, the forces of Nature which reflect the Logos in the cosmos, the son of the first Nous. Man shares the highest sphere when he chooses to assume his proper station. The path of human evolution is at once magical and ethical, ontological and psychological, for all is ultimately the reflection of one Substance-Principle. In the words of the Smaragdine Tablet, the veiled key to alchemy and self-regeneration: