On the True Face of Hermes, by Tim Pendry
March 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
Trying to pin down the archetype of Hermes is, by its very nature, absurd. Hermes in his many manifestations is Heraclitean flux turned into psychological form. Loki and Legba are analogues from other cultures. Quicksilver is the metallic analogue, a metal that behaves like a liquid and appears to be neither fully.
What is this archetype? – one of gaps and silences, shape-shifting, the hidden, movement, the flow of music, thought and being, exchange and acquisition, chance and the fleeting moment of decision or indecision, the momentary, the instinctual and so persuasion, illusion and trickery.
He/She is also the androgyne or hermaphrodite, median and mediator of opposites, specifically of sexual opposites, of that dominance and submission, sexually potent but immediate and sudden in its sexual choices which result in acts where after is never quite the same as before.
Hermes is the liminal, the guide into the unconscious at the borders of consciousness. He is who we may see at the moment of death or at the death of one’s old self and the creation of another and so transformation through the effect of words. This is why he is seen by many in dreams.
If we follow Jung, Hermes (Mercurius) is the entire inner life of a person – the microcosm operating with symbols and imagery derived from the external social and material world (macrocosm). This is a clue to an intellectual error in alchemy that makes it irrelevant to many.
Alchemy has created an untenable system of correspondences by which symbols are separate yet related to the material world when, in fact, symbols are (as social constructions) part of an integrated world of social interaction and matter, one universe into which we are thrown.
The inner life of the imagination is the microcosm that makes use of this more expanded vision of the macrocosm. We can ditch the early modern view of exact relationships between a limited palette of colours, planets, plants, metals and so on for a far richer universe of possibilities.
In a universe of exo-planets and science fiction, chemical dyes, Attenborough documentaries and the table of elements, the creative symbolic opportunities are vastly larger than anything that could be imagined in previous ages.
No doubt this imaginative palette of possible correspondences will continue to expand with social complexity and material discovery for aeons to come. The hermetic is thus not just the inner life but the appropriation of all reality by the inner life.
In a unification much sought by many people, we see the bringing together of all reality through its constant recreation in the perceiving and creating mind. It is, literally, the creation of the world moment by moment. We are, in this sense, gods.
This, in turn, leads Hermes into being the trickster of the text, the founder of the illusion that words can ever be truth, ends rather than means. In short, he is precisely an archetype without intrinsic meaning but only and always a means to meaning, a facilitator or catalyst.
The Symbolism of the Hermetic
Hermes is to be found everywhere and nowhere, unless invoked. An analogy with the mystic Judaeo-Christian God is also clear here, another trickster through texts, an illusion that is the means to meaning rather than holding any comprehensible meaning within its non-existent self.
The final trick is thus that Hermes, also, is not. It is Existence which is ‘not’ until we bring it to life by existing. All existence is potential rather than actual.
It requires Hermes (that is, Existence becoming aware of itself) to become existent. Yet this awareness can come only from the fact of it and our being embedded in matter and in the social, the symbological mediators between awareness and existence.
It is no wonder that the God-believers and essentialists sought to crush hermetic thought and then turn it in on itself, subjecting it to an alien theology of world-soul that made it acceptable to Judaeo-Christian hegemony.
The true hermetic experience lies in the soul of the person, the creative flash of awareness in oneself, often libidinous and ‘erotic’. Analogically, mercury, the metal of Hermes, represents mutability, absorbing a purifying gold, the most noble and aspirational of metals
Gold symbolises a state of perfection – or rather that fixed state of being to which humans always aspire but can never or only ever momentarily attain, perhaps perfectly only at the moment of death.
The symbol of Hermes is the ‘caduceus’, the rod used by the herald who would announce the news of what is to come or of what has happened – two snakes entwined around the penile and erect rod. This is definitely a male archetype and may speak to the male more than the female.
The snakes will swallow each other as the ourobouros, opposites that are one thing, the rawness of being. Symbolism surrounding Hermes is a gallant attempt to use imagery to try and create some rational understanding of a transformative process that is beyond all such understanding.
The ‘Scientia’ of the Hermetic
The mythos has one go deep into the bowels of the earth, into one’s own metaphysical bowels where all things are pitch dark but where the precious metals that one wants are only to be found. Only Hermes is presented as able to guide you through the shit of one’s own mind safely.
The mythos grounds us always in matter, analogically in lead, in a process that has a natural bent towards differing degrees of self awareness, at any one of which we may become ‘stuck.
The medium of change of course is always fire which is mythologically various – not a single fire but many types of fire, each of which have their purpose in personal transformation. The mythos itself drifts into theology but we really have no need of God to understand what is going on.
This is where we depart from the traditional alchemical. The idea of an Anima Mundi, a Soul of the world, takes the make-believe too far. So far, the mythos accords with our experience of the world, thrown into it as Heidegger would say.
However, the invention of the Anima Mundi takes a symptom of transformation, an experience within the process of transformation, and stops us long before we can reach beyond the analogical silver to the analogical gold.
Here, we have to be careful of pseudo-scientific or vitalist explanations of the process. We are certainly in dispute with Frater Albertus about it being a science of the ‘raising of vibrations’.
A theory of vibrations suggests an invocation from within all matter each in its own form rather than just the invocation of the specific matter underpinning an evolved and individuated consciousness.
Theories of the Anima Mundi and of a world of vibrations are poor substitutes for mainstream scientific investigation of the material substrate under individual or social (or herd) consciousness. Adding quantum physics to the mix is just grasping at straws,
This is not to say that there are not connections between individuated things but only that only the individuated thing in itself can ‘know’ or invent those connections. Theories that postulate the simple urge to exist, though, are far from foolish.
This ‘will to be’ is the ‘quintessence’ within matter that drives individuated beings through the will to survive and maintain their existence and then build on that existence in order to know. It is the Will that drives us forward and it is the Will that invokes and seeks to command Hermes.
Traditional hermetic thought would have Hermes be the Will that penetrates a passive, receptive matter whereas an alternative would be that it is the conscious Will, operating beyond reason, which invokes the Hermetic (with all those confusing attributes outlined above).
The hermetic then works on and changes our own matter – alchemically. What is true in the theory of vibrations is its analogical understanding of ‘difference’. There are certainly no fixed conditions under which transformation takes place.
The Hermetic as Art
The presence of Hermes as all and everywhere means that each process of transformation is utterly different from the last or from that of another. This is why alchemy is not and never can be science – that is, involving the use of scientific method.
No particular experience can ever be a repeatable one, no universal laws are applicable or can be deduced from the operations. The spiritual alchemist adjusts his operations entirely to the conditions of his time of invocation.
But all operations have a common purpose – the acquisition of the Self’s own life force as consciously and immediately understood so that it can then be further refined through the process of ‘beyond thought-beyond -reason’, an internal experience on which we cogitate rationally.
This is the Hermetic Fire which is always existent within matter but which we spend most of our lives avoiding. Early scientific psychologists understood these strategies which included denial and displacement.
Later psychologists added the psychology of default thinking, the group-think that organises death camps, wars and tyrannies – as well as maintains more benign political, cultural and economic forms of organization.
Hermetic Fire is precisely where we should concentrate our energy because Hermetic Fire is the inner cogitation, personal revelations and intuitions that actively transform the spiritual alchemist. It is Hermetic largely because it is as slippery as Hermes.
The spiritual alchemist is exacting in his analysis because instead of seeing persons as alive simply by being human, he would see persons as being only a little more alive than the nearest higher animals (not that they do not have rights within their range).
We come more fully alive only through self-awareness, dissolving denial, displacement and default thought. The whole is often cast as a journey, maybe a dream journey, during which the inner psyche emerges, sometimes in terrifying form, to take over consciousness.
It is not so much that reason is stripped away (though that might be a temporary aspect of the case) but all learned modes of expression are brought up to scrutiny, the socially inherited modes of thought and habit questioned.
This may be very frightening because the questioning process may involve a loss of control and it is control that keeps our Self in order. To let loose our inner Self may show us a path in opposition to the social (if it is in opposition to the material, we are going mad).
The dissolution (we refer to the ‘nigredo’ below) may be, in effect, a brutal dismemberment by oneself of one’s own Self or rather by dream-projected agents of the Self – so much will be familiar from shamanistic practices. What is important though is the ‘putting back together’.
The crisis is that, if we defy the ‘given’ in society, there will be an attempt, depending on the nature of society’s own controlling system, to define us as mad or as the enemy. This will bring us back to ‘discretion’ later in this Note.
The Hermetic Process as Symbol
The stages of early modern alchemy are perhaps not to be taken too seriously but there are truths in the process represented analogically by creatures.
- The Dragon of Material Existence on which we all subsist and rely.
- The Raven of the ‘nigredo’ of decay and dissolution, of rotting and the bowels – this is the process of understanding that what we took to be true is not true and it can result in a ‘dark night of the soul’ of staggering pain which will deter all but the most determined.
- The Peacock – the sudden appreciation of a complete new world in which everything is seen in a new and positive light.
- The Swan – the stability of a new consciousness, a transformed awareness (but with the hidden danger of accepting the experience for the reality and not going on to the final stage).
The final stage is represented by the myth of the Philosopher’s Stone. It requires a patient observation of one’s own condition in order to slough off the final illusions that have accreted through the process of transformation.
It is this last stage that shifts a person from the inward to the outward, able to trigger the transformation of others by example because all desire for power or dominance over others (a sign of deep neurosis and anxiety) is lost.
Attention can now be given wholly to extending the Great Work from oneself to one’s community. The creature for this stage is the Phoenix.
The transformation when finally effected (and it may require many iterations and may never be entirely completed) begins to renew itself, spreads through the alchemist’s environment, triggering change at a personal and then higher levels of complexity.
Ultimately, limited only by the Dragon’s return as death, the five creatures are subsumed into the snake eating its tail, the ourobouros again.
The Instability of the Process
The literature is clear that, if achieved, this state is not one to be boasted about. Historically, this has been interpreted as fear of the authorities but I think this overly paranoid.
The ‘authorities’ are generally not collectively bright enough to understand what is going on until a Giordano Bruno arrives to face them off – then they will burn him.
The real reason is that the Phoenix state is unstable. It requires constant further processing so that any claim of stability and success indicates (another paradox) that no success or stability has been achieved.
An associated reason is more practical – the process can only be spoken of (as here) in terms that are philosophically difficult or analogical, and so as obscure, because they are not entirely logical or repeatable under all apparently similar conditions.
If the Phoenix state exists in one person, it is unlikely to be recognised as such by another person, perhaps even one in a similar Phoenix state appropriate to them.
Being circumspect is simply the avoidance of argument and enables the Phoenix to spread the opportunity for transformation by a form of osmosis based on personal conduct.
The point is critical here that no man or woman can be another’s transformation so alchemical thought is not and can never be the basis of a religion or a political movement.
Spiritual alchemists may play dynamic roles in both religion and politics – and business – if such institutions are not entirely crushing of the human spirit or have sufficient enclaves of freedom but that is a pretty tall order, given the human condition.
The very complexity of the process and the ethical duty not to drive any person into a process that cannot avoid the ‘nigredo’ state requires that spiritual alchemy does not preach but simply makes itself available.
Indeed, perhaps to an excess, this mode of thinking and the fact that it may disrupt traditional bonds and beliefs (and so integration into an existing community) sets up barriers that oblige those searching for transformation to show sufficient will that they will have to work to find it.
Personally, I think the barriers are too high, the history has added too much obscure symbolism, and a large amount of the accretions of two thousand years could be wiped away or perhaps simply enjoyed as a distinctive and rather beautiful engraved art form.
Pseudo-science is also no longer required even symbolically. Our societies are not only relatively free (certainly culturally). Few cannot have access to some form of education (if only through the internet and social media) while existential philosophies have created new mental frameworks.
Obscurantism can often be a form of exercise of power in its own right, a neurotic attempt to make believe that the ‘adept’ knows more than they really do when, in fact, they have been stuck in their ways without having gone very far through the ‘blood and shit’ stage themselves.
Thinking as Fire
But it is true that the alchemical and analogous way of thinking is also one step (like magickal ways of thinking) from the huckster. Discretion is often wise for this reason alone.
The symbolism begins to dominate a reality which is much simpler in its purpose than it appears – a process of internal reflection to be more than one was before. There are many searching, lonely and despairing people out there who fall prey to ‘quick fix’ occultists.
The honest alchemist is often deeply torn between wishing to assist and the knowledge that some people will simply not be able to cope with the first stage of ‘gnosis’ or will want the solution without the work.
This brings us back to fire, Elementary Fire, which is fire as you and I know it most commonly at one level but which is analogous to simple reality, the ordinary reasoning of men using the symbols given by their culture.
Education within one’s culture still keeps things grounded and logical and creates the framework for the inner imagination to work its magic.
Thinking starts slowly as a small spark but it grows with experience until it become an intense and warming blaze, creating the conditions for our ability to go beyond hackneyed thought into new territory.
The mastery of fire is analogically and symbolically the mastery of symbols, text, image, body language, cultural signs. Only with mastery of symbols can any ‘spiritual alchemist’ move beyond the symbols owning him or her into a higher level of creativity and existence.
This requires dedication, persistence, patience and an intensity of effort. The process cannot be rushed.
It is no accident that the alchemists refer to the ideal warmth of fresh dung. This is the creativity of a continuous and life-giving warmth, more than a spark but less intense or dangerous than a blaze.
This is the temperature of one’s own bowels, the analogical centre of one’s own self where one lives and where one’s self is situated. One’s true self can only grow out of the actuality of the body’s own material nature, its blood and shit.
I speak throughout, of course, of the true Hermetic and not that of would-be priests and philosophers seeking to obscure messages for the sake of their own authority and power.
The alchemical is always the paradoxical, attempting to fix the unfixable, requiring reason to liberate the mind from enslavement to reason. But mining is dangerous and the gold may never be found. Men and women generally also have other fish to fry. Life is short.
There is no absolute moral value to this business, just a preference or a need. Spiritual purity is a meaningless concept, an overhang from the God-thing dumped on alchemy by the priests, but a will to gold, greed, a very disreputable concept to the Judaeo-Christian mind, is essential.
One must not just want but be driven by the hunger for gold. Hermes is nothing more or less than the whole process of transformation from first will to death itself.
The inward flash of knowledge or ‘gnosis’ is what the spiritual alchemist is trying to hold on to and make permanent, to invoke the fleeting Hermes to stay a while and transform us through his archetypal and analogical presence.
Hermes being everywhere, the spiritual alchemist can invoke him everywhere and anywhere so long as he is allowed to follow his own practices.
He can of course be invoked sexually where the earth (our bodies) is used as a vessel for its own impregnation by hermetic experience and thus as vehicle for transformation.
But, however invoked, it is not invented from the world outside the person but comes from the uncovering, the discovery or unfolding of what is already there in persons. In this sense, the hermetic is ultimately egalitarian.
This makes it a profound threat to the existing order. A teaching assistant may have far more to uncover than a Prime Minister, an IT consultant than a priest.
No judgment can be made by one person on another about an inward process that is imperfectly communicable and often only through art, analogy and symbols. It may not even exist.
Tim Pendry, has been cited as an ‘astute observer’ in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations [BJPIR 2006 Vol.8 234]. His experience has included senior communications advice in some of the most significant takeovers & mergers in British corporate history as well as an advisory role during the Russian Mass Privatisation programme.
Since the mid-1990s, he has dealt with reputational issues arising out of private sector collateral damage during the ‘war on terror’.
He was a Founding Director of the British-Syrian Society, is a former Director of the Middle East Association, and currently acts as a non-Executive Director of the online investigative journalism website Exaro.