Exegesis Volume 07 Issue #055

In This Issue:

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] illuminating Mercury by examining Hermes

Exegesis Digest Sun, 21 Apr 2002

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] illuminating Mercury by examining Hermes
Date: Mon, 22 Apr 2002 00:21:26 +1200

By examining the cultural and political impact of Hermes, the social archetype, we can glean further insights into Mercury, the astrological archetype. [All quotations from "The Eternal Hermes: from Greek God to Alchemical Magus", A Faivre, 1995.]

"The interest in Hermes-Mercury in the sixteenth century went along with a rediscovery of Hermes Trismegistus, who now enjoyed a considerable vogue in Europe, even exceeding that of the Middle Ages. Suddenly he came to the front of the philosophical stage, at a moment when - partly thanks to him - those currents began to come together that would later be called collectively "esotericism." Two major events enabled esotericism to take on a specific form. One of these was the discovery of the Jewish Kabbalah, especially after the Diaspora of 1492. The other was the rediscovery of the *Corpus Hermeticum*, brought to Florence in about 1460 by a monk traveling from Macedonia (it had been unknown in the Middle Ages, except for the *Asclepius*). After Marsilio Ficino's Latin translation of the *Corpus* (1471) came innumerable editions in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as commentaries both erudite and enthusiastic by [cites 8 authors] and more."

"At the same time there was a frequent tendency to "apollonize" Hermes Trismegistus, as if to relegate to the background, even to obliterate, the magical and theurgical aspect of these Alexandrian texts. Trismegistus's success in the Renaissance certainly profited from the craze for Mercury, with the result that in the sixteenth century, Hermes entered forcibly into the cultural imagination under both forms, to the point of serving as a sort of catch-all."

"Finally, we note one of the most remarkable traits of this presence of Trismegistus - which is to say, of Hermetism,* in the precise sense of the term: editions, studies, and commentaries of the Corpus Hermeticum - as his irenical aspect. Wherever Hermes passes, religious tolerance prevails."

[* The use of "Hermetism" prevails now for designating the Alexandrian Hermetic texts (the Hermetica), as well as the works in their wake until the present time, while "Hermeticism" serves to designate much more generally a variety of esoteric "sciences," like alchemy. "Hermeticist" refers to both notions, particular and general (here, above, it connotes the general one); the context alone indicates which one is meant. In the particular narrow sense, "Hermetist" is sometimes used.]

Here we have a specifically implied peace-maker function for Mercury. The peace that breeds religious tolerance can only come from an infusion of pluralism that sufficiently dilutes the exclusivist tendencies of fundamentalism. We can therefore see that somehow Mercury functions between cultures in a way that defeats Saturn. It is a conduit for messages that cross boundaries. The significance of this relates to our earlier noted function of mediating between two realms. We may reasonably suspect that Mercury helps some people to see connections between religions, perhaps conveying insight into underlying spiritual relations and functions. Cosmic consciousness is one consequence of transcending traditional social schisms, and cynicism or pragmatism are other stances resulting when people free themselves from the brainwashing of religious ideology.

"Thanks to the rich variety of his attributes, and his intermediate position between religious and literary myth, Trismegistus had all the prerequisites for becoming the axial figure of a philosophical history of the human race. We have seen that ancient authors like Strabo, Marcus Manilius, etc., had already presented him as such. Roger Bacon accorded him an important place in this history, albeit a negative one. More than in the Middle Ages, the need was felt in the Renaissance for conceptualizing the idea of "Tradition" (in the esoteric sense, in which it has been understood since the 19th century). At that time it was called the *philosophia perennis* (perennial philosophy), a term defined by Agostino Steuco in 1540, in his book *De Perenni Philosophia*. The name of Trismegistus is linked inseparably with this. Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino prepared the way for Steuco by calling Hermes the "first theologian", and speaking of a *prisca theologia* (earliest theology), which began with Mercury and culminated with Plato. The typical roster, or "philosophical" genealogy, took shape as follows: Enoch, Abraham, Noah, Zoroaster, Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, the Brahmins, the Druids, David, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, the Sibyls."

"A curious aspect of this Western "Tradition" is that it continually confuses the mythological with the real. The extreme importance given to the idea of *prisca philosophica* sowed a certain danger from the start, making the authority of a text or doctrine depend on the guarantee of its great age. The inevitable consequence followed in 1614, when Isaac Casaubon discovered that the Trismegistic texts dated from no earlier than the second and third centuries of the Common Era."

This is a significant sociological point: that the esoteric tradition is mythic. Mythic components of culture perform a vital psychological function; they structure collective belief systems. The most prevalent current example is the Western myth of progress.

"These writings nonetheless enjoyed a long career up to our own day, if a more discreet one; but there was now a tendency to seek elsewhere than in the Hermetic texts for the mythic reference-point that supposedly guaranteed authenticity. This went to the extreme of completely inventing histories and rituals, which may have been reponsible for the appearance of the Rosicrucians at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and of speculative Freemasonry a century later. As for Paracelsus and his followers, and the great Christian theosophy of Germany which manifested with Jacob Boehme, they owe little to neo-Alexandrian Hermeticism, and give only a modest place to Trismegistus."

Once a venerable tradition comes to seem too obviously mythic, it begins to lose influence, but only on certain types of people. Others will continue to believe in it, and some to exalt it, demonstrating the inertial effect typical of a ruling paradigm. When a myth functions as a paradigm, it shapes whatever cultures it has infiltrated.

"In 1488, only ten years after the publication of the *Corpus Hermeticum* in Ficino's Latin translation and a dozen years after Botticelli's *Primavera*, an artist inlaid the pavement of Siena Cathedral with a marvelous panel, still visible: it shows Hermes Trismegistus himself in the form of a tall and venerable bearded man, dressed in a robe and cloak, wearing a brimmed miter, and surrounded by various persons, with the inscription "*Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus Contemporaneus Moysii.*" Not long after, Pope Alexander VI, the protector of Pico della Mirandola, commanded Pinturicchio to paint a great fresco in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican, abounding with Hermetic symbols and zodiacal signs: one can see Hermes Trismegistus, for once young and beardless, in the company of Isis and Moses."

"Mercury belongs not only to painting and emblems, but also to the political and literary imagery that follows the course of historic and regional circumstances. This served especially to remythologize, or to remythify, the role bestowed on the sovereign. Thus in England there is the theme of the magician-king or -queen. From Spenser and Elizabeth I until Pope and Queen Anne, the planetary god Mercury was identified with the monarch, often serving to represent his or her magic power. In Spenser's *Fairie Queene* (1590), Gloriana (that is, Elizabeth) revives in the very bosom of Protestantism the Medieval notion of a World-Emperor who will restore the Golden Age by repairing the ravages caused by Adam's Fall. Queen Elizabeth herself did not hesitate to turn for advice to the magus John Dee (author of *Monas Hieroglyphica*, 1564), just as King Arthur took counsel with Merlin. It is to the credit of Douglas Brooks-Davies that he has drawn attention recently to the consequences of the identification, in England, of monarchy and magic, using precisely the images of Mercury and Trismegistus. This identification justified the pretension of realizing an ideal realm or Empire, differing little from the Arthurian model. Here again, different "traditions" came together in an interesting syncretism. On the one hand, following many of his countrymen, Spenser saw England as a kind of Egypt. On the other, the anti-Roman Hermeticism of Giordano Bruno (particularly of his book *Spaccio de la bestia triomfante* [The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1585] acted as a ferment in this country, where the tradition of the Druids (supposed to be the descendants of Noah by his son Cham) was still kept alive by those in power, and tied to the notion of the king's sacerdotal and magical role. As we have mentioned, the Druids were often included, at this period, in the tradition of the *prisci theologi*, despite the absence of any writings surviving from them - or perhaps because of that. This is why the English monarch, as a more or less complete incarnation of these disparate elements, tends like Mercury to represent a tension between Heaven and Earth, the scepter being regarded as a caduceus, or vice versa. For this reason, too, the Wisdom of Trismegistus is attributed to him or her. in the seventeenth century, and following the work of Spenser, there are numerous works that carry this imagery, such as Ben Johnson's *Mercury Vindicated* (1616), a panegyric of the Mercurial and magical monarch that was performed at Court; and *Il Penseroso* (1645) of Milton, which transmits the idea of a terrestrial and reformed monarchy, evoked by a poet whose role in this instance is that of the visionary intermediary, like an inspired Merlin beside his King Arthur."

Lest the reader miss the point, which is made more implicitly than explicitly by the author, the political correlation illustrates a key afore-mentioned function of Mercury. It may not be over-stating the case to put it this bluntly: Mercury was mid-wife to the emergence of protestantism. How? Remember the mediating function that provides a means for conceiving intelligent relations between separate domains. Typically, one domain is obvious, the other less so, or even hidden. Thus the relation of gnosticism to christianity, for example, or, more to the point, that between the latter and the prior (universal?) paganism. Hermes as source of cosmic wisdom illuminates the dichotomy between what christians preach and what they practise. On a personal level, who needs a priest as mediator between you and God if you discover you can perform your own mediation?

"It required Carl Gustav Jung to discover a new fruitful perspective on Hermes, this time more from the anthropological point of view. In his essay "The Spirit Mercurius," Jung summarizes the multiple aspects of the alchemical Mercury as follows: 1) Mercurius consists of all conceivable opposites. He is thus quite obviously a duality, but is named a unity in spite of the fact that his innumerable inner contradictions can dramatically fly apart into an equal number of disparate and apparently independent figures. 2) He is both material and spiritual. 3) He is the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual, and vice versa. 4) He is the devil, a redeeming psychopomp, an evasive trickster, and God's reflection in physical nature. 5) He is also the reflection of a mystical experience of the artifex that coincides with the opus alchymicum. 6) As such, he represents on the one hand the self and on the other hand the individuation process and, because of the limitless number of his names, also the collective unconscious. (Hence the designation of Mercurius as mare nostrum.)"

Jung here seems to be unable to see beyond the dichotomies and apparently blames Mercury for presenting them; a superficial view which fails to advance our understanding.

The author wonders "is a myth identifiable by a particular name? At least twice, in Dante's Virgil and Rabelais' Panurge, we have come across Hermes under a pseudonym. We can recognize him equally well in other literary works, and by no means minor ones, such as Thomas Mann's *Zauberberg* (Magic Mountain, 1924). Gilbert Durand, on the other hand, answered this question in the negative, in a valuable and meticulous work of 1985 (see Bibliography), where he evokes the "permanencies and derivations of the myths of Mercury." Saying that a caduceus alone does not make a Mercury, Durand gives the following elements as the essential signals: (a) the power of the very small (it is true that Mercury is sometimes tiny, as in several of Montfaucon's illustrations and alchemical figures; when his phallus is large, it signifies spiritual fecundity); (b) the function of intermediary; (c) the function of conductor of souls."

Here we encounter a new element, with a surprising relevant correspondence to developments at the leading edge of science. The "power of the very small" is a basic feature of chaos theory, now known as the science of complexity, which came to prominence in the late '80s. The sensitive dependency upon initial conditions of non-linear (natural) systems is one of the main findings brought to light by the scientists who discovered chaotic behaviour. Small differences tend to multiply in natural systems, and this was popularised in relation to weather prediction, via the now-common saying that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings can change the weather a few days later. The intermediary function of Mercury is also seen in one of the other main discoveries, which is that creativity emerges in nature at the interface between two domains. New forms manifest at the boundaries, due to the characteristics of the interaction between the two realms.

"In this way, Gilbert Durand was able to define a series of "explosions" of Mercury, i.e., moments at which the myth intensifies. The first ones stretch over long periods: half a millenium, or eight hundred years, in Egypt (Thoth); then Greek Antiquity, and Roman Antiquity. But in Rome, Mercury was not really a Latin god: Caesar regarded him as more a Gaulish or Celtic one, as many Celtic temples and place-names attest. He is basically Semitic: Phoenician, Carthaginian, Hebrew, Arab-in other words, linked to peoples inclined to commerce and mobility."

So perhaps Mercury emerges into society via mobility between cultures and the commerce that results. This points to the cultural function of the trader, someone who buys from others and sells to others. In ancient times inter-tribal and inter-civilisational trading was the norm, as exemplified by the Asian caravan routes that functioned for millennia. The trader, thus mediating between cultures, was the channel for cross-fertilisation of goods and associated technology. Other than military conquest, this was the main way that knowledge crossed cultural boundaries in the ancient world. We can see that each such trade involved the trader acting as mediator between otherwise separate cultures; the trader therefore functioning as linking channel in the bipolar exchange of valuables.

"More illustrative of the process of "explosion" are the next four moments, as given by Gilbert Durand: (A) the "Gothic Renaissance" of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, when alchemy flourished with personages such as Arnold of Villanova and Albertus Magnus. Mercury then appeared as the great agent of transmutation, the "intermediary" of the Work, often associated with the moon (silver being the lunar state, and quicksilver the planetary rapidity of that body). This was the age of Saint Bonaventura and of Joachim of Fiore (the ripening of the Age of the Holy Spirit!); but it would all collapse in the fourteenth century, with economic chaos, the Black Death, and the Great Schism. (B) The Humanist epoch, in which Mercury as intellectual seems to preside over printing and information. Here he is "mercurial" rather than mercurian. But this world collapsed, at the same time as Hermeticism, in the face of the Enlightenment. (C) The end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, when Mercury is ambiguous, veiling as much as he reveals, as in the craze for hieroglyphs and secret societies. Besides, the whole style of the epoch has Mercury's ambiguity: the language of the Enlightenment serves the Illuminists themselves for speaking of obscure matters, until at the end of the nineteenth century scholars such as Marcellin Berthelot (author of *Les Origines del'Alchimie*, 1885) turn Hermes-Mercury to Promethean purposes by considering alchemy merely as the ancestor of chemistry! The epoch of positivism and materialistic science obviously stands under the patronage of Prometheus. (D) Reacting against this, the epistemological revolution of our time (especially the second half of the twentieth century) calls on intermediaries, extending the relational concept to every field of science and the mind (relativity, pluralism, polarities, polysemiology, information exchange, etc.), and explores the various possible paths of the inner quest as no era ever before. This kind of revival of Hermes favors a form of "angelism", in the sense that Hermes is called a messenger (angelos): a Byzantinism, but a creative one, suited to times when institutions are crumbling, and the Barbarians are at the gate of the West."

"The reader will perhaps agree that such a view of history stimulates reflection. There is no doubt that it was Hermes who presided over those periods so perceptively singled out by Gilbert Durand." More to our point, Durand suggests general principles relevant to our search, even if insufficiently specific.

"But at the same time, one feels the ambiguity of the very notion of "myth" as applied to a mythological and literary character, whether it is Prometheus or Hermes, Faust or Don Juan. This tracing of Hermes through history, trying to single out the cultural traits which he anonymously inspired, or the signifiers of certain constants of the imagination, comes down in practice to a summary history of esotericism itself - not that the pertinence of that is in question here. This is esotericism as understood from a perspective broad enough to include the Philosophy of Nature, in the Romantic sense, and the synthesizing eclecticism of Pico or Ficino, as well as traditional theosophy and alchemy. The enterprise is a perfectly legitimate one, in so far as esotericism, thus encompassed, is altogether under the sign of Hermes, and considering that this quicksilver god transcends its boundaries (Durand also speaks of the seafaring and commerce of the sixteenth century). But in the process, one runs the risk of a certain number of images disappearing from the canvas, some of them cherished ones, simply because they do not fit the three signalling traits that Durand proposes. It was not "specific" of Hermes to disguise himself as a bishop; to be the founder of Germany; or to double as god (Mercury) and mortal (the Trismegistus of the euhemerists). The two methods are not exclusive: differing in methodology, they complement and enrich one another. One should, and can, discover the name of Hermes-Mercury through every epoch, while at the same time searching for his active presence in places where his name and explicit attributes are wanting."

"Court de Gebelin, on the basis of a Celtic etymology, suggested that one read in "Mercury" the words "sign" (merc) and "man" (cur). Thus he would be the signbearer, the marker, the lighter of beacons; the one who helps us interpret history and our own lives by giving us symbolic landmarks. His signs are never abstract or rigid; their mediating function reflects the nature of *medicurrius* or *medius currens* (as Saint Augustine and Servius said) - of that which "runs between," or "in the middle." "Ever a transitional figure," writes William G. Doty, "Hermes divinizes transition. He calls eternally into question any simplistic gendering, any reductionist separation between this world and another, any other. Hermetically one opens out endlessly, never losing down nor attaining the point of stasis, but always evincing anticipations of futures all the stories of the past have only begun to intimate." These paths and ways, unknown to vagabonds and ideologues, knit together the opposites in ever novel configurations. And if, on the way, Hermes sometimes steals the substance of what his rod touches, it is only to regenerate it through circulation."

This last point is exemplified by the circulation of trade secrets in our time. Oft stolen, they regenerate the economies that receive them. The point about paths that combine opposites in novel configurations corresponds to our prior reference to the discoveries from chaotic systems. Most important though, is the etymological suggestion from de Gebelin that Mercury means `the signifier'. A semiotic function must be added to our accumulating list of essential catalytic modes of operation of the Mercury archetype.

It seems that the intermediary function of Mercury, when combined with the binary relation between the two domains or fields that it mediates, is fundamental, and also that it manifests in a considerable number of influential ways both in the psyche and in society. When Mercury presents us with a sign, whatever the context, it is an informational signal that we must decode to obtain the intelligence that is delivered by this transmission process. When our psyche is one domain, and society, or some other part of the cosmos is the second domain, Mercury's function is to inform us by providing information to our mind about that other domain - regardless of whether we consciously observe it, learn about it via an intermediary informational channel (internet, telephone, book, conversation, etc), or receive intuition about it from our subconscious.

Dennis Frank


End of exegesis Digest V7 #55

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