Hermes : Magician & Psychopomp

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralHermes Trismegistus in the Cathedral of Siena

Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus – Cathedral of Siena

Among the many joys of practising traditional astrology, is the opportunity to fully explore the inner planets. When the going gets deep, the shallow resort to ‘higher octave” delusions. The formula seems to be if it’s deep, make sure it’s as far away from the Sun as possible which strikes me as perverse.

mercury (1)Being personal doesn’t mean it can’t also be universal. Let’s take Mercury for example. Mercury has the be the most skimmed over of all planets. This is really unfortunate because Mercury in his many manifestations has perhaps the richest set of attributes of all.

Everyone interested in astrology knows Mercury is about communication and short journeys and not much else. In fact, he is probably best known for the Mercury retrograde effect.

Let’s begin with the glyph. The Semi-Circle, Luna symbol  is Soul. The Solar circle is Spirit. They are above the Cross of Matter.

Although Mercury is usually referred to in the masculine, *he* is in fact the primal hermaphrodite that takes on the gender of it’s sign and position. However, it’s Mercury’s nature to communicate both the Solar and Lunar Self. As the Magician, he channels this energy to the world of Matter, symbolized by the Cross.

The image of Thoth (below) embodies the nature of Mercury. He has the Solar – Lunar disk above him. He is in the form of the Ibis. There has been much contention about why the Ibis was chosen as representative, but the most important issue is that it represents Spirits of the Air or intellect. No matter which form he takes, whether Mercury, Hermes or Thoth, he is a winged deity.images (7)

Thoth and Hermes were credited with the revelations of writing, mathematics, magic, astrology, astronomy, medicine, and  the almost completely forgotten role of Psychopomp, conductor of souls to the next world.

When we consider all of these, Hermes takes on a redemptive quality. Yet Modern astrologers have ascribed all of these qualities to the outer planets, mostly Uranus and Pluto. Now that he is virtually ignored, or written off in a sentence or two as the most boring planet,  we can see the extent of the loss.

As messenger to the two luminaries, he was held in very high regard. He is also credited with revealing the musical spell to bring Osiris back to life. In the earliest Egyptian sources he is a self created god.

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Relief from a carved funerary lekythos at Athen – Hermes as Psychopomp Cconducts the Deceased Myrrhine to Hades C 430-420-BCE-National Archaeological Museum of Athens

There is great import in the seemingly simple sentence :

“Do You not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven, or, to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to Earth below ?” (Asclepius III, 24b.)

These words of Hermes contain the essential dictum of “As Above, So below.” However the precise way that we comprehend this will depend on which model we are using to reference. For example, it is completely in keeping with Plato’s doctrine of the Forms, the idea that meterial, physical reality is not the ultimate one.

If we follow this essential teaching  through the Works of Plotinus, we have a complete system of thought that is mystical. A key image in the Enneads is the fountain of light, from which all originate and ultimately return.

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Arabian Hermes

In the magical tradition of Hermes Trismegigstus, Pico dell Mirandola uses the image of Hermes wedding Earth to Heaven.

Mercury is a winged god, renowned for his speed. Sometimes refered to as Quicksilver, the protean shape shifter resembles the mind itself from the point of view of, say, Buddhism. Mercury is also the Triskster. I’m particularly interested in how Hermes was transmitted to Iranian and Arabian culture and the Abassid astrologers in particular

The early Abbāsid court astrologer Māšā allāh (fl . 762–ca 815) has been called the Prince of Astrology by Robert Zoller. He was “an associate of Umar ibn al-Farruxān aṭ -Ṭabarī, cites Hermes as an authority in his own Arabic works. He may well have known works of Hermes in the Middle Persian original; being a learned Iranian Jew, Māšā allāh could have had access toAramaic and Persian sources as well as Arabic’ (Pingee, Masa’ allah 1973. pp. 159 – 62). Several other Arabian astrologers including Al Biruni are discussed in Kevin van Bladel’s The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science.

It’s fair to say that Masa’Allah was the most erudite of scholars at the Abbasid court as well as the finest astrologer. How he received Hermes therefore has resonance in European and Arabian astrology, particularly prior to the Renaissance. Their sources were Middle Iranian and not Arabian in origin. The Persians had taken and translated Hermes into their own language, and as is the case in all cross cultural receptions, Persian elements were attached. However, as can be seen by the photo of the “Arabian Hermes” he has all the same attributes, albeit in what contemporary Greeks might have thought an exotic fashion.

First, we see Mercury is winged, holding the Solar and Lunar elements. The downward triangle remains the symbol of descent into matter to this day. There is however nothing to suggest that he is merely ‘Earth bound.” The two heads certainly have a more Persian design, but it’s quite easy to see the reference to the caduceus, with the two ‘serpent’ heads (perhaps birds in this case.)

There is still plenty of room for cultural interpretation. The role of psychopomp will of course differ in understanding depending on belief in the afterlife. For one it might mean ascension and to another successfully crossing the River Styx. However, the role of spirit guide doesn’t have to change. In the words C.G. Jung:

“From the earliest times, Hermes was the mystagogue and psycho pomp of the alchemists, their friend and counselor, who leads them to the goal of their work. He is “like a teacher mediating between the stone and the disciple.” To others the friend appears in the shape of Christ or Khidr or a visible or invisible guru, or some other personal guide or leader figure.” Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – CW 9i (1934–1954) (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1)

Alchemical art from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit

Alchemical art from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit

Hermes is much more than Magician and Psycopomp, but I believe these are the most ignored attributes in our time. Finally, we have the beautiful Alchemical illumination from the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit on the left.

This has remained mysterious, although of course many scholars have had their theories. The image is very similar to the previous Arabian illustration, certainly not in style but in substance. Here the Mercurial figure is female. As mentioned, Mercury can be both genders, but is rarely portrayed as a woman. The caduceus- like form is there, with the Sun and Moon, but it’s reversed. She forms an ascending triangle. This image gives much to contemplate regarding the feminine attributes of Hermes.

Mundane Astrology & Janus Geminus

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The Roman god known as Janus Geminus has a number of attributes, but the most salient is that he has two faces, usually one young and one old, looking into the past and the future at the same time. I find this to be a most apt image to describe the essence of Mundane Astrology, referred to as the jewel in the crown of astrology because it is the most difficult form, requiring many years of practice to master. It is also extremely useful in its predictive capacity.

Prediction, however requires hindsight, or rather, a great deal of knowledge about what is being predicted. To begin with a couple of simple examples: let’s say we want to be able to predict when a volcano might erupt. You don’t have to be an expert vulcanologist, but you do need to know some basic facts about volcanos. With that as a given we need to know what the astrological indicators of volcanoes are. The only way to do this properly is to look at past volcanic eruptions.

I’ve personally had occasion to study major volcanic eruptions of the past, and find that there are recurring themes. You can see my article on Mt. Pelee where I provide some specifics if you wish.

Next, I have to take some geographic notes. It’s pointless to predict anything if it cannot happen. We have expansive zones, such as the Ring of Fire and some which seem more localized. For example Iceland is very prone to volcanic eruptions, while Greenland has none at all. This may sound like a simple matter and it is, but there is no virtue in predicting a volcanic eruption if the geography doesn’t allow for it. So we now have the global ‘where’ The next step would be to localize the event, let’s say Jakarta, Indonesia and environs It wouldn’t hurt to have some knowledge of the tides and other elements800map

This where the greatest astrological skills come into play. Knowing the conditions most likely to coincide with volcanic eruptions, paying particular attention to Eclipses and the visibility of the Eclipse. Which zodiacal degree is most potent in relation to the eclipse? The number and nature of the elements we examine will not be identical each time at all. Each moment has it’s own power.

Doing all this isn’t at all easy and for most cases we would require some hint or change in a volcano so that we can look at a very precise situation. Some years ago, a friend in Mexico was disturbed by the increased activity of a nearby volcano. According to the astrology I used,it wasn’t going to explode and it didn’t

davfullcardio Courtesy Stanford University

Leonardo da Vinci – Anatomical Drawing – Courtesy of Stanford University

Let’s look at another example: we would all consider the accurate prediction of plagues and epidemics to be very useful. This is of course more difficult than predicting eruptions. This is a highly specialized application of medical astrology writ large.  There is no need to rehearse what we have already stated about methodology and volcanoes.

Some of you might be interested in my article on the Astrology of the Bubonic Plague for a practical example.. Certainly a knowledge of medical astrology is required and some knowledge of epidemiology wouldn’t be amiss either. Some resources such as a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, the two volume Oxford Companion to Medicine and of course  Hippocrates’ writings on epidemics. Again, we look back at historical epidemics to prepare us for predicting future ones.

Volcanoes, earthquakes and particular epidemics are extremely destructive of human lives. We know that one plague killed one in every two people in Europe and the Spanish Flu killed more people than WWI. The great effort taken to learn the prediction of epidemics is indeed daunting, but within the purview of astrology.

In all cases we need to look at the past to see the future. But there is a lot more to it than that. Whether or not I’m looking at a coup in Kazakhstan or an earthquake in Chile, I also need to know what planets are related to which parts of the world. Ptolemy mentions several in the Tetrabiblos which can be download free of charge in the File section. Unfortunately that isn’t enough though. Obviously he cannot make mention of that which he is unaware of. This includes the Americas, Australia and good deal more. For these we rely on more modern accounts,  but by ‘more modern’ we mean the Renaissance is some cases

Religions also have planetary association as do ethnic groups. A wonderful source of much material is found in the works of Mash’allah  It is very useful to know that Islam is under the governance of Venus or that Wales is Jupiterian.

Finally, we can see that a Mundane Astrologer should be familiar with a wide range of things. These include history, relevant philosophy, geography and medicine. It is possible to specialize of course, but the various disciplines often overlap. A very simple example would be a war in Thailand: it’s very helpful to know something of the political structure, the history and it’s astrological significations.

Many modern Mundane astrologers treat all areas as if they were the same. Much of Mundane astrology sees the United States as the centre of the world. Check any popular astrological magazine and you will see how this is so much par for the course, that editors take it as it is.  While it’s true that it feels like the centre of the world for its inhabitants, it fosters a perception that would implicitly deny, for example, that a Madagascan may feel the same way about her own country.

Crucially, the use of outer planets is counterproductive if only because of their very slow (apparent) movement. On top of that, the traditional attributes of the planets has been unceremoniously given to the outers.

This does two things. It distorts or weakens the use we can make of reading the traditional planets, which are to many modern astrologers nothing more than a secondary concern. The attributions which are supposed to belong to the new planets have all been stolen from the traditional ones. It ignores an ancient and highly effective system of astrology based on light (see my post “into the Outer Darkness’)

It’s very easy to say after the fact that the Arab Spring was caused by Uranus, but we then have to ask why the effect wasn’t global. Modern astrology cannot answer that because, as already noted, no distinctions are made from one culture or continent to another