Curiouser and Mercurioser: Ruminations on a Hermetic Retrograde

The classic symptoms of Mercury Retrograde may be defined as ‘general fuckery within the domains of travel, communication, and technology’. During this phase of Mercury’s cycle, mishaps, misdirection, and miscommunication mysteriously abound. While Hermes is usually the guide who provides clarity, here he confuses and leads astray. 

On the surface, the following article provides a personal account of some particularly synchronistic encounters that occurred under the ægis of these Hermetic countercurrents. Underneath this guise, however, lies a deeper message about the revelations that ensue when we allow our direct and rational pathways to be utterly swept aside. At certain times, Hermes only leads us to clarity when we abandon our preconceived plans. As with the Greek principle of aporia, only when we reach the point of pathlessness can a new way open before us.

The Greek god Hermes with serpent entwined caduceus. Roman relief depicting an archaistic form of the god, integrating characteristics from Archaic Greek iconography (6th century BCE) mixed with contemporary Roman forms (1st century CE). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

 

A Hermetic Pact

Mercury is the god of transition and border-crossing. Three times a year he goes ‘retrograde’, a backwards movement during which the planet appears to retrace its steps before moving forward again. Although a retrograde is simply a celestial trompe l’œil from our earthly perspective—an optical illusion in which the planet masks its movements—we often feel its effect more distinctly during these phases. Illusion and reality are both effective forces. When things go awry, we pay attention.

In October 2014, during the full swing of a retrograde period, I passed through no less than seven cities on a journey that encompassed eleven international airports: Brisbane—Sydney—San Francisco—New York—Montreal—Halifax—Toronto—Washington Dulles—Seattle—Los Angeles—Melbourne—Brisbane. The prospect of navigating international travel, tight connecting flights, and border (in)security weighed heavily upon me, so I decided it would be wise to make peace with Hermes in order to smooth my travels. A direct supplication was in order. 

After some research I turned up a beautiful Hymn to Thoth, the Egyptian archetype of Hermes-Mercurius. While more famous invocations to Hermes-Mercurius are known from the Graeco-Roman world, the deeper historical origins of the Egyptian hymn appealed to me. What was more, further investigation revealed that that the original text of this hymn was located in New York City, which happened to be the first major stop on my journey. The hymn was a hieroglyphic inscription on a statue of Horamheb, scribe of Thoth-Hermes, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Given this synchronicity, the path seemed clear: read the Hymn to Thoth to the very statue upon which the hymn is inscribed. 

The reason for my New York trip was the International Jean Gebser Society’s annual conference, which I had co-coordinated with my good friend and colleague, Jeremy Johnson. Jeremy set the theme of the conference as Crisis and Mutation to explore how symptoms of deep cultural disintegration can be transformed into opportunities for crystallising consciousness into more integral forms. I presented a talk called ‘The Dissolution Solution’ in which I argued that, alchemically, dissolution is the first step towards this crystallisation, just as salts require a saturated (dis)solution in order to grow. 

Generally speaking, the conference went well, though it wasn’t entirely free of Mercurial interference. We covered everything from the imminent extinction of humanity to the Hermetic significance of Patrick Swayze movies. Because I was largely tied up with conference matters, it wasn’t until my last day in New York that I was free to seal my Hermetic pact. Despite my best efforts, however, the trip to the Metropolitan was uniquely thwarted. 

 

Horamheb and the Temple of Mercury

Grand Central Terminal, New York City. Flanked by Minerva and Hercules, Mercury is the central figure of the colossal Transportation, or The Glory of Commerce, by Jules-Felix Coutan (1914).   

I’d arranged to meet Professor Nicola Masciandaro, the conference Keynote speaker, outside the museum. It was a fine Monday morning, but I was running late, so took a cab to Grand Central Terminal in order to connect to the Met. Pulling up outside, I was struck to see a large statue of Mercury resplendent over the Madison Avenue entrance. Astounded, but also pressed, I entered the station. Caduceus ornaments flanked the doors as I made my way inside. ‘It’s fairly common for the imagery of Mercury to appear on places of travel or commerce’, I told myself. And yet, next to the caduceus ornaments I saw an ad featuring a baboon, an animal sacred to Thoth. As I navigated my way through the station, the fashion boutique Hermès confronted me like a crossroads, taunting me with lurid colours. Somehow I didn’t look up and see the fabulous turquoise and gold astronomical ceiling that the station is famous for. 

I catch my train and meet Professor Masciandaro at the Met, somewhat late, and briefly take in some antiquities. I say a quick hello to Sekhmet (the Lion-Faced Dakini), but after reaching some dead ends, we soon realise the gallery with Horamheb is closed off for the day. We meet Nicola’s wife Heather for lunch, who works for the Egyptology department. She shows us the drool-worthy libraries of the museum’s Egyptology institute. Nicola spots a copy of Schwaller de Lubicz’ Temples of Karnak just as he is wondering out loud if they have any of his works. We ask Heather if she can open up Horamheb’s gallery for us, and she leads us in via the back of the gallery and unlocks the doors. My excitement to gain exclusive access was quickly disappointed. A scene of disarray opened before us: wires hanging down everywhere; workmen on cranes rewiring the ceiling; Horamheb and the other statues are covered up with protective sheets and padding. For public safety reasons, we aren’t allowed any further. 

Pazuzu, king of wind demons. Bronze statuette, Mesopotamia (8th–7th century BCE). Musée du Louvre, Paris, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Pazuzu, king of wind demons. Bronze statuette, Mesopotamia (8th–7th century BCE). Musée du Louvre, Paris, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Exiting the museum, we pass Pazuzu from The Exorcist. Nicola and I stroll briskly across Central Park in search of the Nicholas Roerich museum, the Russian painter of vivid Himalayan mountainscapes. Our conversation ranges from Roerich’s art, to Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, to the idea of headlessness—one of Nicola’s research topics. I am reminded of the rite of the headless one (akephalos) from the Greek Magical Papyri, which I mention. Swept up in conversation, we’re more than halfway to the Roerich museum before we realise it’s closed Mondays. We change tack and emerge onto the streets of the Upper West Side, and immediately encounter the suitably Satanic Rosemary’s Baby building. A crazed homeless man tells us that the building’s gargoyles fly down at night to protect him while he sleeps. By this point, Nicola has to go, so we part ways, and I make my way to the Rubin Museum. It’s almost closed as I get there, but I manage to take in some Tibetan medical-alchemical Thangkas. I examine the caduceus-like meridians of the human subtle body in which the internal elixirs of tantric alchemy are cultivated. Dusk falls. 

Then it dawned on me that I was ‘thwarted’ for a reason. Horamheb may well hold the Hymn to Thoth that I planned to read in order to ‘make peace’ with Mercury during his retrograde period, but the Hermetic misdirections I received were actually messages in disguise. I had already entered his living temple: Grand Central Terminal. This station, with its overdetermined Hermetic emblems, is a veritable crossroads of travel, connectivity, and exchange. 

Main Concourse, Grand Central Terminal.

I walked the long haul back to the station as twilight deepened, saluting the statue of Mercury as I reentered the building. The place was packed. I took in the magnificent astronomical ceiling and read Horamheb’s Hymn to Thoth overlooking the station’s Main Concourse. The Hymn itself was not revelatory. But all the same it crystallised the deeper lesson here. By fixating on predetermined goals at the expense of important signals along the way to these goals, we are in danger of missing the mystery that would lead us to a living experience of the phenomenon we seek. This point was especially salient for me as a scholar whose instinct is always to go ad fontem, i.e., to the ancient sources above and beyond later expressions of the reality. What this showed me was something I already ‘knew’ but had glossed over due to fixation on an intellectualised goal. The living mystery of any divinity is ever-present. What we call ‘gods’ are living principles that continue to incarnate both in us and in the world around us in ways that elude rigidly theistic understandings. While the divine functions are perennial, the ‘bodies’ or ‘vehicles’ in which they are incarnated often take unexpected forms, speaking as much through the ‘profane’ world as through the recognisably sacred. Indeed, they speak to us most often where we are, and not where we expect to see or hear them. Hidden in plain sight, they appear in the universal language of symbol and synchronicity, which is not bound to time or place, but emerges through the amorphous interactions between our minds and the phenomenal world. 

As this was sinking in, I made my way to meet a long-standing Egyptological colleague who I’d known online for almost ten years, but who I‘d only met for the first time during my stay here in New York. We meet at Jaiya near 3rd Ave and 28th, which he claims to be the best Thai restaurant in NYC. I am not disappointed. In the true spirit of conjoining Aristotelian opposites, we sink cold beers with hot basil chili. 

My colleague then pulls a mysterious unpublished manuscript out of his bag. It is a previously unknown hieroglyphic lexicon by a famous Egyptologist, filled with rich esoteric correspondences. There are details about this text that I cannot reveal here, suffice it to say it is a story for another time. But the more obvious point is that the hieroglyphic script itself—the medu neteru—was traditionally invented by Thoth. So, right after I acknowledge Mercury’s living temple and read the Hymn to Thoth, I am effectively presented with a rare esoteric lexicon of Thoth’s divine script. As I thumb through the manuscript, it seems both real and unreal, like a gift from the gods. In fact, I feel so deeply immersed in synchronicity at this point that the fantastic appears almost normal. I discuss my vision for a publishing house and we concoct a pact to bring this mysterious lexicon to light. We then adjourn to Manhattan’s oldest pub and consume beers into the night.

 

Hermes Chthonios and the Nordic World-Ender

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, The Souls on the Banks of Acheron (1898). Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

The next day I crossed the Canadian border and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, via Montreal. I’d been invited by Professor Kyle Fraser, a Zosimos scholar and historian of science who teaches the history of magic and alchemy at King’s University, the oldest college in North America. Naturally we get to talking about things Lovecraftian, and Kyle begins telling me about his research into the divinity Nyarlathotep, a faceless deity with strong Egyptian overtones. I am reminded of my discussion with Nicola about the headless god, and I mention this to Kyle, along with my wranglings with Hermes in New York. Kyle then tells me about an important connection between Mercury Retrograde and the chthonic Hermes. This Mercury is Hermes as psychopomp—the god who guides dead souls through the netherworld. What is more, Hermes Chthonios is perfectly in accord with the ‘retrograde’ aspect of Mercury because he descends into the invisible realms just as the planet itself descends beneath the horizon, becoming invisible to the observing eye, and only rising again once his retrograde is complete. We discuss the permutations of the chthonic Hermes into the night over wine and Cointreau.

And then it sunk in. Hermes was clearly beckoning me. On a certain level this may seem obvious for someone who is a translator and scholar of Hermeticism and alchemy. Indeed, scholarship and translation in general, as well as alchemy and Hermeticism in particular, are arts placed specifically under the ægis of Hermes-Thoth. The Greek word for translator is hermēneus (whence hermeneutics), while Hermeticism itself encompasses the esoteric sciences of Hermes. To be sure, I had always been aware of such connections, but I never had any overarching affinity with him as a sentient entity, whether in his Egyptian, Greek, or Roman guises. 

But now he was beckoning me. Not only that, he was beckoning me specifically in his invisible, chthonic form. And this is what struck me. This Mercury is different. He is darker. He is the classical trickster. And most importantly, he has much more in common with another entity who I do have an abiding connection with—a god who appeared to me, or rather through me several years ago, as the Nordic world-ender, Loki. 

When I say Loki came through me I mean this quite literally. In the Antipodean Summer of 2006-2007 I had a kundalini-like experience in which my innate divine nature opened like lightning through the axis of my being, and I ‘became’ Loki. On one hand, this experience was simply the emergence of what was always present within me: a divine playfulness with a fantastically disobedient sense of freedom infused with cunning insight. On the other hand, it may also be seen as a form of theurgic ‘possession’ (mania) in which one is animated by a tutelary spirit, much as people are ‘ridden by the lwa’ in Haitian voudou. 

As Loki, I was the enthused Bringer of Fire, inspired with the creative spirit of cataclysm in the careening world of flesh and intoxication. My attitude was one of ecstatic abandon and recklessness tempered with a zestful insight into the Heraclitean nature of reality. I could perceive every single thing in a two-fold way, both as an anabasis and a katabasis, a ‘path up’ and a ‘path down’. ‘Bring it on’ seemed to be my mantra, and the apocalyptic climate of Dionysian liberation in which this experience took place naturally saw that this attitude was extended to the Weltuntergang as a whole. And yet in the deeper ecology of this deity’s divine function, the ‘twilight of the gods’ in which we find ourselves is also the dawn. 

I have written in detail on this experience elsewhere, in a private account, but wish to highlight one particularly significant theme that speaks to the heart of the present piece.

At some point I felt a distinct physical sensation emerge—radiant, sharp, yet curiously pleasant—emanating ardently, humming from certain points on my exposed arms. I was being bitten by mosquitoes. The experience proved revelatory on numerous levels. First of all, and most immediately, I experienced no annoyance whatsoever in being bitten; I experienced the sensation in complete purity. I told myself “all they want is a little of my blood; in return they give me some of their poison”. And here the second Leitmotiv of the evening emerged: « the poison is a Gift ». Through these words, a vital attitude was crystallised into a bilingual pun that pivoted on the German word for poison: Gift. I realised that everything that happens to us is exactly like the mosquito’s bite: a poison and a gift, i.e. neither exclusively “good” or “evil” but merely what is given—an offering—a gift that poisons and a poison that gives.

Taken in a sufficient spirit of purity, the mystery of this bivalent gift comes to belie the counterpole of giving: knowing how to receive. For every act of Being, every thing that constitutes our nature, is a gift and a giving that invariably comes back to us, to be received in the manner in which it was given (a gift or a poison). Now, a palpable sense of karma permeated this realisation, which became all the more poignant upon recalling the seditious nature of Loki, the god whom the gods bound and tortured for his fatal deeds, his poisonous gifts. Once bound, a serpent was placed over his head to drip venom into his face. Loki’s recompense is poison.

The Leaf of Immortality: Thirteen Refractions of Entheogenic Gnosis (2007).

The principle lesson imparted by the chthonic Hermes was in essence identical to Loki’s. The poison is a Gift. Retrograde actions, miscommunication, misdirection, delays, technical fuck-ups—all can be taken as gifts or poisons depending upon our conscious comportment. More than that, all are potentially revelatory experiences—if we can embrace the alchemy that engages and transmutes poison.

The next day, almost in response to my Hermetic return to this most unruly of spirits, Canada erupted into strange chaos with Parliament Hill being shot up. Abandoned guns were found on busses as I delivered a lecture on Paracelsus, Schwaller de Lubicz, and Spagyrics for Kyle’s course, Magic, Heresy and Hermeticism: Occult Roots of the Scientific Revolution

 

Astral Daimons and animated Statues

These connections to the animating theurgic daimon are not accidental. When the major Nordic divinities were transposed into their Graeco-Roman equivalents, Mercury was associated with Odin, the god who ‘takes up the runes’—the master of magical speech, eloquence, and writing. It is easy to see here how Odin is much like Thoth: god of hieroglyphs, magicians, and scribes. Now, while Loki was never given a precise interpretatio romana, he is nevertheless most closely associated with Odin, for they were blood brothers. 

Remember, Othin, in olden days
That we both our blood have mixed;
Then didst thou promise no ale to pour,
Unless it were brought for us both.
Lokasenna 9 (trans. Bellows). 

Some have even suggested that Loki is Odin’s dark side, although it can also be argued that Odin is dark enough on his own. Be that as it may, the transitional realm between Odin and Loki now became clear to me, for it mirrored the dynamic played out by the different natures of Hermes. Indeed, it was not Hermes as messenger (Hermes Angelos), Hermes as merchant (Hermes Agoraeus), or Hermes as trafficker and trader (Hermes Empolaios) that attracted me. It was Hermes Chthonios—Hermes as guide of souls through the netherworld. It was Hermes Dolios—Hermes as  cunning one: thief, schemer, and trickster, whose ways of integration are dark, circuitous, and very seldom straightforward. 

Before I left for New York, I was shown a medieval technique for determining what is known as the Almuten Figuris, the planetary divinity regarded as one’s personal genius or daimon. The tradition traces as far back as the sixth century Syrian theurgist, Iamblichus, who refers to a daimon (tutelary spirit) that is ‘established in the paradigm before the soul descends into the realm of generation’ and which ‘imparts to us the principles of all our thoughts and reasonings’ (Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, ‘§ 9, ch. 6, trans. Taylor).

As it turns out, my Almuten Figuris was Mercury, which at the time was somewhat unexpected, but which now made increasingly perfect sense. While the Mercury of my natal chart is not retrograde (as might be expected), it is considered to be ‘under the beams of the sun’, which means that, like the chthonic Mercury, it is invisible. However, instead of being hidden by the earth and darkness, it is hidden by the light of the sun. 

After Halifax I spent a week in Toronto dividing my time between libraries, book sales, and Dharma centres. My host was Michael Putman, a theologian and classicist who was in town cataloguing for the Vatican. Both of our backgrounds traverse a strange Milarepa-like path from black magic to Vajrayana, bequeathing a unique intensity to our ability to turn poisons into gifts. While I’d known Michael online for thirteen years, this was our first meeting in person. This habit of bringing long-standing digital bonds to living manifestation now began to assert itself as a recurring theme. We smoked Camel cigarettes in the deepening Autumn and spoke too much about religion and politics.

Virgin and child, attributed to Pietro Lamberti, Venice (c. 1430). Late Gothic with early Renaissance traits. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. 

Michael insisted that I visit the Royal Ontario Museum, and after taking in a range of Egyptian, Greek, and Byzantine antiquities, I was transfixed by late medieval statue of Madonna and child. She was one among probably a dozen Virgin and Child statues in the museum, and while beautiful, she was neither unique nor notable in the broader sweep of art history. And yet I was utterly mesmerised by her. Spellbound, I spent perhaps half an hour in her presence; I tried to walk away three times and three times I returned. Photographs cannot convey the magnetic connection that I felt. 

I mention this because the same magical and theurgic traditions at the root the Almuten Figuris—and the practice of divine possession by Hermetic daimons—are also at the root of the rites of statue animation. Because one of my abiding research interests is the connection between the Egyptian rites for making animated statues and the origins of alchemy, I knew that these traditions had not only been practiced since the deepest antiquity, they continued down through hieratic Neoplatonism and the Hermetic tradition (arguably enduring in the principles of talismanic magic). The Egyptian rite was known as the Opet Re or ceremony for opening the mouth and eyes’; its purpose was to enable the dead and the divine icon to open its senses to the invisible. The Corpus Hermeticum describes statues that are ‘animated and filled with sense and spirit’ (Asclepius 23-4), and while I’d read about such statues, I’d never actually encountered one. And although Augustine had long made such rites a pagan heresy, here was a medieval Christian statue that lived and breathed with a palpably numinous presence.

By the time I left Canada, Mercury had already stationed direct, moving forward through the zodiacal degrees that he had just traced in reverse. These degrees are considered the ‘shadow’ of the retrograde, and offer significant preludes and epilogues to the retrograde period proper. Not surprisingly, Mercury continued to follow me on my travels in small, synchronous ways. At a Toronto book sale I found a rare French academic study, Mercure à la Renaissance, and met friends for coffee at Bar Mercurio. But more importantly, Mercury began to deepen my sense of trust not only in the uncertainties of travel, but of existence in general.

My flight from Toronto to Seattle went via Washington-Dulles airport in Virginia, which was anything but direct. The flight was delayed due to technical problems and I missed my connection, resulting in a five-hour wait in Washington-Dulles. However, precisely because of this I was able to meet another longstanding friend and colleague, Dr Mirco Mannucci, who was in fact supposed to present at the Gebser conference but was unable to make it. We bought shitty airport coffee, discussed rare alchemical texts, and sealed some deals for future publication projects. But more significantly we connected as human beings rather than online presences—something worth more than its weight in gold. Once again, by embracing the fluidity of our journey rather than the rigidity of our preconceived goals, we grant ourselves invaluable opportunities to enrich our reality in ways that we would otherwise miss. 

 

Alchemies Outer and Inner

Playing with fire. Making the Star Regulus of Antimony at Robert Allen Bartlett's Spagyricus Institute. (Tulalip, Washington, November 2014).

I arrive in Seattle just in time for Halloween, and much happens here that is of great consequence—but like the hieroglyphic manuscript, it is a story for another time. My ostensible reason for being here is to travel out to an Indian reservation in Tulalip to attend Robert Allen Bartlett’s course on mineral and metallic alchemy. Now, it hardly needs mentioning that alchemy is the Hermetic art par excellence because it hinges on Mercury as both a metaphysical and material principle. Given my recent revelations about the chthonic Hermes, however, I was particularly intrigued when Robert began explaining the significance of Mercury’s dual nature at the level of laboratory praxis. Even here, Mercury has two broad natures, one active and one passive. Like Loki, Mercury is frequently an archetype of androgyny, a shapeshifter capable of taking on male and female forms. In Hermetic philosophy, as in astrology, Mercury is the precise transition point between sun and moon, male and female, day and night. In the metallic kingdoms, this unfolds through his role as mediator between the ‘red’ and ‘white’ metals: gold, copper, and iron on one hand; and silver, tin, and lead on the other. From one Mercurial essence arise two natures, and these natures gives rise to the double elixirs of alchemy: the white and red essences of silver and gold. 

Two days later I depart for Los Angeles, where I hang with talismanic astrologers and alchemical psychologists before departing for Australia. I was kindly hosted by Austin Coppock, who was deeply immersed in writing his 2015 Almanac, Interregnum. We discuss the many crossovers between alchemy, astrology, and talismanic magic before I head down to Laguna Beach to meet alchemical scholar and practicing Jungian psychologist, Dr Thom F. Cavalli. Conversation naturally encompasses psychology, alchemy, and Egyptology over divine south Indian curries prepared by his equally engaging soror mystica, Cynthia. I was particularly struck when Thom told me that the purpose of his psychological practice is exactly that of the mouth opening ritual: to open peoples mouths so that they can speak from their place of power.

As I’m riding against the current of time back to the godforsaken Antipodes, I look out the window to see the atmosphere bathed in an uncanny turquoise light. I was directly on the divide between day and night, the Barzakh or threshold of light and darkness made by the sun’s shadow upon the earth. Why this mercurial juncture par excellence was green is inexplicable, but nevertheless significant in terms of Goethean colour theory, in which green takes the Mercurial role of mediator between the primordial polarities red-yellow (warmth) and blue-violet (coolness). 

The golden embryo as Buddha Nature (Tathāgatagarbha).

My last stop before I return ‘home’ is Central Victoria. Even here, in rural Australia, I manage to find Tibetan Buddhist Astrologers, Platonic Philosophers, Hermetic Gardeners, Alchemists, and Pythian Seeresses. I catch up with Alchemical Traditions contributor, Kim Lai, at his fabulous estate in the rolling hills of Harcourt North. We dined with a very serious laboratory alchemist, discussing Hermetic arcana deep into the night. Now, among other things, Kim spoke to me about a secret practice in Tibetan tantric alchemy in which the refined essences of the subtle body—the red and white drops traditionally associated with the blood of Shakti and the semen of Shiva—are united in the body’s central channel. The semen of Shiva has always been associated with metallic mercury, just as the uterine blood of the goddess has always been associated with mineral sulphur. And just as actual sulphur and mercury react to form cinnabar in the external world, so too do they form an ‘internal cinnabar’ in the microcosm: the embryo of the imperishable vajra body.

This precise form of internal alchemy was the exact subject of the medical-alchemical Thangkas that I witnessed at the Rubin Museum in New York, just before I reentered Mercurys temple. This is of more than passing significance because it not only affirms the central role of Mercury in both eastern and western alchemies, it also emphasises the continued currency of its internal and external manifestations. This double presence—East and West; inner and outer—exemplifies Mercury’s perennial ability to straddle dualities. Per the Hermetic maxim ‘as above so below’, Mercury’s ultimate function is to permeate the boundaries of microcosm and macrocosm, and to translate each reality into its opposite. Like the liquid nature of the metal itself, it is precisely the undetermined fluidity of Mercury that allows him to cross male and female forms, to take on solar and lunar natures, and to transcend subject-object duality. Formlessness opens the path to all possibilities.

 

Stalking the Centre

Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979.

Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979.

By way of conclusion, I would like to draw attention to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Taoist masterpiece, Stalker. In this film, the eponymous character guides the protagonists to the centre of a wish-fulfilling ‘Zone’, a mysterious realm long abandoned after a nuclear meltdown, and inexorably reclaimed by nature. The Zone has the magical power to incarnate the imagination, but it cannot be approached directly. It must be circumscribed through circuitous, side-winding deviations that blur the distinction between deeply subjective dimensions and treacherously objective territory. And yet these apparent detours bring us to the very core of our being.

The chthonic Hermes is a similar guide. By taking us on indirect, unexpected, and circuitous routes, he brings us face-to-face with parts of our natures that we have neglected through an overemphasis on rational self-determination. The short-sighted excesses of our so-called free will have all but destroyed the most important layers of our being—those that can’t be mapped, planned, or controlled. While ‘nature’ comes to reclaim and preserve them, she only permits our return with caution, when we abandon the very attitudes that endangered these primal layers in the first place. 

Unfortunately we are far too concerned with what we ‘want’, and put more effort into assuaging our ego’s desires than refining and deepening them to discover the liberating force that lies at their root. Our own ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’ runs deeper, operates unconsciously, and speaks a mysterious language. We must silence ourselves before we can hear it, even though its tributaries may be bubbling all around us in an abundance of synchronicities.

To silence ourselves is to open our senses to the invisible—to open our mouths and eyes to the ever-present—yet ever-occulted—symbols that live all around us. If we do this whole-heartedly, our world becomes animated like a divine icon. But if we can’t let go of our need for rational certitude at every step of the way, we risk being lead further astray that we could possibly imagine. 

 

Postscript—The Hymn to Thoth

Translated by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, 102-103.

The Pharaoh Horemhab as scribe, bearing the Hymn to Thoth on his knees. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty (c. 1323–1295 BCE). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Adoration of Thoth, Son of Re, Moon,
Of beautiful rising, lord of appearings, light of the gods,
By the Prince, Count, Fan-bearer on the King’s right,
Great Troop-commander, Royal Scribe, Haremhab, justified,
  he says:
 
Hail to you, Moon, Thoth,
Bull in Khmun, dweller in Hesret,
Who makes way for the gods!
Who knows the secrets,
Who records their expression,
Who distinguishes one speech from another,
Who is judge of everyone.
Keen-faced in the Ship-of-millions,
Courier of mankind,
Who knows a man by his utterance,
Who makes the deed rise against the doer.
Who contents Re,
Advises the Sole Lord,
Lets him know whatever happens;
At dawn he summons in heaven,
And forgets not yesterday’s report.
 
Who makes safe the night-bark
Makes tranquil the day-bark,
With arms outstretched in the bow of the ship.
Pure-faced when he takes the stern-rope,
As the day-bark rejoices in the night-bark’s joy,
At the feast of crossing the sky.
Who fells the fiend,
Sunders western lightland.
The Ennead in the night-bark worships Thoth,
They say to him:  “Hail, [Son of] Re,
Praised of Re whom the gods applaud!”
They repeat what your ka wishes,
As you make way for the place of the bark,
As you act against the fiend:
You cut off his head, you break his ba,
You cast his corpse into the fire,
You are the god who slaughters him.


Nothing is done without your knowing,
Great one, son of a Great one, who came from her limbs,
Champion of Harakhti,
Wise friend in On,
Who makes the place of the gods,
Who knows the secrets,
Expounds their words.
 
Let us give praise to Thoth,
Straight plummet in the scales,
Who repulses evil,
Who accepts him who leans not on crime.
The vizier who settles cases,
Who changes turmoil to peace;
The scribe of the mat who keeps the book,
Who punishes crime,
Who accepts the submissive.
Who is sound of arm,
Wise among the ennead,
Who relates what was forgotten.
Counselor to him who errs,
Who remembers the fleeting moment,
Who reports the hour of the night,
Whose words endure forever,
Who enters dat, knows those in it,
And records them in the list.


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This account now features alongside other revealing tales of divine encounter in the recently released book, The Leaf of Immortality (Rubedo Press, 2017).

In this short but zesty volume, Dr Cheak explores the intersection of Nordic theurgy, Hermetic philosophy, and cunning linguistics to reveal a uniquely alchemical lesson: how to play with poison in order to find its hidden gift.

Through richly layered references to the sinister theologies of Loki, Hermes, and Seth-Typhon, Cheak shows how divine gnosis ultimately dissolves the duality between our inner and outer worlds.

Second edition available soon exclusively through Rubedo Press


Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. He has appeared in a number of academic and esoteric publications, including Alchemical Traditions (2013), Clavis (2014), Diaphany (2015), Heretic (2015), Octagon (2016), and Lux in Tenebris (2017). He presently resides in Auckland, New Zealand.