The essential teaching of Hermeticism is:
As Above, So Below.
Hermes is the God of boundaries, and also, therefore, the God of crossing boundaries. This is fitting for the God who travels freely between mortal humans on earth and the Gods in the heavens. Just as it is also fitting for the God who successfully blurred the distinctions between the ancient religious traditions of the Egyptians, Hellenes and Romans, and who successfully navigated the treacherous journey from ancient to modern Paganism.
Hermes is also the God of theft and deception. He was even born in deception, for Zeus wished to keep his liaisons with Maia (from which resulted the child Hermes) a secret from the Divine Queen Hera. Maia is a Goddess herself, but by choice she lives in solitude in a deep shady cave, where Zeus visited her at night while Hera slept. It is said the Hermes was born at dawn, and by noon that day he was playing a lyre (the very first lyre, in fact, which he had made himself from a tortoise shell). The Homeric Hymn to Hermes describes him as
a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.
One of Hermes’ most famous acts was the theft of some of Apollo’s sacred cattle, which he accomplished on the evening of the day he was born. By next morning, however, Hermes was back asleep in his own crib “as if he were a feeble babe”. Only one old man, out tending his vineyard, had observed any of this, but Hermes had sworn him to secrecy:
Old man, digging about your vines with bowed shoulders, surely you shall have much wine when all these bear fruit, if you obey me and strictly remember not to have seen what you have seen, and not to have heard what you have heard, and to keep silent when nothing of your own is harmed.
However, his own Goddess mother had, in fact, noticed his coming and going, and she warned him sternly of the dire consequences of angering Apollo. Hermes replied that it was Apollo who had better look out for himself, and, besides, he had no intention of spending his life living in this “gloomy cave” far away from the other Gods.
Naturally it wasn’t long before Apollo discovered what had been done and who had done it. When Hermes saw Apollo approaching in a rage, he “snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes … like a new born child seeking sweet sleep.” Apollo, not impressed by Hermes’ little act, searched the cave and, finding no trace of his cattle, threatened the little thief:
Child, lying in the cradle, make haste and tell me of my cattle, or we two will soon fall out angrily. For I will take and cast you into dusty Tartarus and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk.
Hermes replied that Apollo’s cattle were not among his concerns, which mostly consisted of sleeping and feeding at his mother’s breasts, and, besides, he was only born yesterday, so he had no idea what a cow looked like, or even what such a thing was!
Now Apollo was impressed – by the ease and skill with which Hermes lied:
I most surely believe that you have broken into many a well- built house and stripped more than one poor wretch bare this night, gathering his goods together all over the house without noise.
Apollo is only placated once Hermes plays for him on the lyre, a sound, Apollo proclaimed “the like of which I vow that no man nor God dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known.”
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that when the worship of the old Gods was made a crime punishable by death, Hermes was nevertheless able to fool the book-burning monotheists into believing he was one of them, and that his sacred books were not only to be spared the flames, but were even deserving of honor and respect, to be preserved with care in Christian libraries alongside their “Bible”.
It should, but unfortunately does not, go without saying, that any resulting (genuinely) Christian versions of Hermeticism are worse than useless, except, perhaps, to Christians themselves. I suppose even they might be able to learn something from him. And perhaps he is the perfect Pagan God for them, since they are averse to any truths outside their own narrow creed, and Hermes can only too easily oblige those who will only accept and learn from him if he is disguised as someone other than himself. But, fortunately for the rest of us, many of those Medieval “Christian” Hermeticists (and Alchemists, and Qabalists, and Rosicrucians….), like the true devotees of the son of Zeus and Maia that they were, skillfully feigned adherence to that other creed and cunningly hid the ancient teachings of Hermes Logios beneath the swaddling clothes of that other infant God.
Sadly, for far too many Pagans today, what was once well and safely hidden is now lost, and these are unable to tell the false Shepherd from the true. Despite the fact that the Shepherd in question is himself the great master of deception and disguise, one still has to wonder at such widespread confusion. As Above, So Below. Is there any hint in those words of a world-denying world view? Is it not obvious that these words refer to a vision of the Divine that is both immanent and transcendent, and that any other Divine vision is abominably hobbled? Can anyone possibly believe that the philosophy of the Emerald Tablet is a dualistic philosophy, when Hermes’ own words proclaim that “all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one” (in Isaac Newton’s translation)?
[The colorful Alchemical images in this post are from The Gallery at the Alchemy Lab website – please visit it!]