Thursday, October 20, 2011

What should I know about Hermetica?

PART ONE - The Alexandrian Legacy of the Tarot

The Original Universal Light of the Egyptian Alexandrian World

‘The school of Alexandria was the principal source from which the secret societies of the West arose.’
Papus, Tarot of the Bohemians.
Lets start our exploration of Hermetic Initiation with the Tarot, known as the fundamental tool of initiation in the west. But before examining the Tarot let’s first consider the general background to occult history. I do not mean of the evolution of the Tarot itself, but in a more general manner pertaining to history behind all esoteric teachings both ancient and present.

First let’s consider what I consider to be the grand theme of all spiritual history. Here I want to lay the foundations setting into the readers’ mind how a Universal School once arose in our ancient past and how that has resurrected in our modern times.

Our school teaches the philosophy of the heart, and the Tarot is an aid in cultivating knowledge. Everyone seeks ‘ancient knowledge’ and for some the more ancient something is the more ‘authentic’ it becomes as well. But we must consider how this word ‘ancient knowledge’ today has become more like a throw around label, not unlike popular sports wear labels used for commercial selling. I mean that today there are so many things that claim to be ancient and simply are not. Many things that are ancient are also misunderstood and appear in a very different form than they did long ago. The Tarot is at the centre of this problem in that it is not ancient, but evolved through history, starting in ancient Egypt and transformed in every age until it metamorphosed into the system we know today. By understanding this chapter, which gives a general survey of Alexandrian history, you shall be provided with a basic understanding of the surroundings, people and culture behind the roots of the Alexandrian Tarot. It shall also lay a foundation for the next two chapters, which cover the use of symbols throughout the ages and their evolution into the form of the present Tarot because the Tarot is indeed an evolution of ancient glyphic-symbols. So, let’s first understand the Alexandrian people themselves and their legacy for today.

Alexandrian refers to a period in time that started well before the arrival of the Roman Empire. During this period in history many civilisations became ‘Hellenized,’ meaning they adopted Greek culture, language and its ways. This came about as a result of the Greek colonisation of other countries. Hellenistic Greece actually began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC to its annexation of the Greek heartlands by Rome in 146AD. (Some say it went until 250AD because the Greeks continued cultural influence on Roman civilisation.) This period is largely known as the Hellenistic era. Yet here we do not refer to the Hellenistic era, but instead pay attention to what I call the Alexandrian era. This era begins with the foundations of the Great Library of Alexandria, located in Egypt, until its destruction and the similar closing of the Great Mystery Temples.

Alexander the Great himself had established Greek rule over the known world, having conquered lands including Asia Minor, Assyria, Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Media, Persia and India. Through international trade and with the spread of Greek language came the intermingling of traditions. A universal culture was born as the cultures mixed together.

We know for example, that for the first time in recorded history women had equal rights as with their fellow men, and were treated equally in every spiritual way. Indeed many books and religions speak about a lost golden age of humanity. The Alexandrian period is the closest thing in recorded history we might have had to an actual golden age, ripe with cultural exchanges, excluding of course the forgotten age of Utopian Paradise.  

During this time the Egyptians and Greeks started worshiping their gods as one and the same pantheon, recognising that the gods of one people were the same as their own. Many Egyptian deities suddenly took on Greek form, wearing Roman or Greek dress. This is seen in the excavated tombs underneath the ancient city of Alexandria. There we find Anubis guardians, jackal headed protectors of the dead, but strangely wearing Roman amour and carrying Roman spears. In Alexandria the god Serapis was considered to be Osiris to the Egyptians and Hades to the Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus affirmed reports that the Greeks were adopting Egyptian deities as their own as well. So when I speak about Alexandrian period, it’s not only that everyone adopted Greek language and ways as regularly assumed to have happened during the Hellenistic era, but also that Greeks themselves became ‘Egyptianised.’ This is the flavour you shall see unfold in our Alexandrian Tarot and all other books in this Timeless Wisdom series.

To examine this mixing further, consider how archaeological evidence from the 4th century BCE shows that Athens was basically a centre of Egyptian religion, and shrines to Isis, both public and private, were erected in many parts of Greece at that period. In Magna Graecia, the monuments found in Sicily show a centre of the worship of Egyptian deities. Southern Italy contained many Isis temples, and the remains of statues, etc, found in Reggio, Puteoli, Pompeii, and Herculaneum prove that the worship of Egyptian deities was very widespread. Most Neo-Pagans today seem to also forget that the names Isis and Osiris are not their original Egyptian names. Their real Egyptian names, in the ancient Egyptian language, were Isa and Asar, meaning that in many ways, pagan revivalist who today consider themselves worshipers of Egyptian gods, creating modern Isis and Osiris temples, have in fact adopted its more Alexandrian form, such as when everyone in Egypt spoke the Greek language.

We also find that ancient Egyptian religious practices were mirrored in Greece, for example, as confirmed by the Greek father of history Herodotus who wrote that ‘It was the Egyptians too who originated, and taught the Greeks to use ceremonial meetings, processions, and processional offerings: a fact that can be inferred from the obvious antiquity of such ceremonies in Egypt, compared with Greece, where they have been only recently introduced. The Egyptians meet in solemn assembly not once a year only, but on a number of occasions.[1] And affirming Herodotus’ writings, Plutarch also states in Moralia, Isis and Osiris, ‘Among the Greeks also many things are done which are similar to the Egyptian ceremonies in the shrines of Isis, and they do them at the same time.’[2]

That is why I wish to be clear that in our Alexandrian Tarot you could well refer to Mother Earth as Isis, or Demeter, or Gaia, or whichever name you prefer. The Mystica Aeterna, adopting this Alexandrian mode of thought, recognises that no matter which path is for you, it is universally accepted in oneness with all others.

In ancient Egyptian cosmology the goddess Isis represented the power responsible for the creation of all living creatures. Accordingly, ancient Egyptians called her ‘Isis with the 10,000 Names and Attributes’. Plutarch took note of that and wrote in his Moralia Vol V that;

Isis is, in fact, the female principle of Nature, and is receptive of every form of generation, in accord with which she is called by Plato the gentle nurse and the all-receptive, and by most people has been called by countless names, since, because of the force of Reason. She turns herself to this thing or that and is receptive of all manner of shapes and forms.’

The ‘many names’ of Isis were adopted throughout the Alexandrian Empire, in Greece and in Italy, Spain and beyond. During the Alexandrian period, it was not uncommon to attend the rites of Isis in Rome or anywhere in the realm that had been established by Alexander the Great. Thus the Alexandrian Greeks and Romans identified her frequently with Selene, Demeter, Ceres, and with several goddesses of crops and of the harvest in general. She was also regarded as an Earth-goddess, and as such was the mother of all fertility and abundance. Some of her attributes caused her to be identified as Aphrodite, Juno, Nemesis, Fortuna, and Panthea. It is this sort of cross-universalism you will see in the Alexandrian Tarot we have published, whereby you, as the Tarot-user, are free to identify whichever gods and culture you wish to apply to the images presented in your Alexandrian Tarot deck. One card might represent Isis for you, for another it might mean Freya or Artemis depending on which gods you like. Even better draw your own based on our deck!

This kind of mixing of Isis with Greek and Roman goddesses shows the hallmark universalism of these ancient times. At one point in this period, it became so syncretic that the Romans identified the Norse pantheon with their own gods. At this time Germany had become ‘Germania,’ a Roman colonisation and a part of the greater Roman Empire. The deity Odin was suddenly equated with Mercury and the god Thor became known as Mars. According to Rudolf Samekh this occurred in the 1st century CE, bringing the Nordic gods well within the range of the Alexandrian period. While this process of equating gods with each other is known today as syncretism in the ancient world it was originally named ‘Interpretatio Gaeca’ meaning: ‘a Greek Interpretation of the greater Universe.’
One of the most important aspects of the Alexandrian era for our Tarot studies is that of the symbols they used. During Alexandrian times they did not have Tarot cards. But the ancient Egyptians for thousands of years had been recording glyphic-symbols based on their natural environment and world around them. Many of those glyphs represented scorpions, humans, dogs, hawks and beetles. But the Egyptians in Alexandria did not speak Egyptian as their official language, by Alexandrian times it was Greek. This is why the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptian dynastic civilisations were also interpreted in a Greek Platonic manner. Therefore one begins to see that during Alexandrian times the hieroglyphs studied in the Great Library of Alexandria were each considered much in the same way as we consider Tarot cards today. The next chapter is devoted to studying what the Alexandrian Greeks and Egyptians taught about the symbolic meaning of hieroglyphs. Then later in my book I will show how this can be used to understand Tarot and how this was the original Tarot idea.

The subject of the Mystery Schools also deserves a serious study for any student of the Alexandrian tradition. They were extremely popular at the time, were considered to contain the highest revelations of the period, apparently a vision of the Great Goddess, and were also protected by the state. We learn from the ancient Greek and Roman historians that the Mystery Schools, such as the rites of Eleusis, Egyptian Isis and Roman Mithras cults etc largely accepted initiates from across the far reaches of the earth. Slave and the aristocrat were accepted equally into the initiation Mysteries. Distinctions between class, position, race or religion played no important role in being invited to partake of this worship.

What were those Mysteries? What was so importantly sacred, that by Greek law it was forbidden to ever reveal the secret seen inside the walls of the Eleusis temple? To spoil the mystery, not many people actually know today. However some scholars have uncovered some definite facts. Others have also produced some outlandish ideas, and then again, some of those outlandish theories have proven to be correct. For us, the Alexandrian Tarot is one key to providing the answers to those lost and forbidden secrets. What lays here before you is a Tarot system adopting the Alexandrian approach, of universalism and cross-paganism and mystical thought studied through Mystical Hermetic Kabbalah, being a Greco-Egyptian version of Kabbalah (and perhaps therefore more original). By cross-paganism I mean that like the Alexandrian Greco-Egyptians, you will find that the Alexandrian Tarot is based Greek gods, Egyptian gods, animals and mythical beast from all Alexandrian cultures. Here we adopt the Alexandrian approach of fusing together the best elements that were within the Alexandrian empire, and the several cultures came under that empire.

At the centre of this empire was the Great Library of Alexandria which was considered ‘the eighth wonder’ of the ancient world. Established by one of Aristotle’s own students, this library was charged with collecting all the worlds’ knowledge. As a central institute of learning it was visited by Egyptian priest, Isis priestesses, Persian astrologers, Yogi from India and Greek philosophers alike. The library even offered food and lodging for its most learned scholars. Magi and philosopher gathered and exchanged openly, often debating and offering critique on written tomes. But, alas, it was destroyed, according to different sources either by Julius Cesar himself or the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 391. It is known that this Christian ruler largely destroyed the library along with many Roman, Greek and Egyptian temples worshiping pagan gods. According to history ‘the Great Library itself was blazing brightly, as 400,000 priceless scrolls were reduced to ashes.’ His wish was to wipe out anything Mystical, and to remove what I call the Mystical Science of the Alexandrian world, which included all the varying schools of philosophy that came under it.

But, as legend would have it, the knowledge of the Alexandrian Library did survive. An Egyptian sage, named Hermes, according to the Egyptians, recorded all the ancient knowledge in one volume. It became known as the famous Book of Thoth. In it were contained all the secrets of the universe, the earth and heavens, and every manner of powerful magical formula. Some sources stated that this Book of Thoth was buried with a pharaoh prince, in the City of the Dead. The reader of this scroll would have been able to know the language of nature, cast spells and was able to enchant the natural elements, controlling the sky and winds, earth and rain. No wonder the book was also said to be very dangerous.

Because it was so dangerous the Book of Thoth was said to be hidden inside a golden box, which is contained inside another silver box, yet inside a box of ivory, encased in a sycamore box, which is found in a bronze box, still yet contained in an iron box! (Those Russian dolls probably were also for hiding something very important… like top shelf Vodka.) The myth adds that the keys for each box were scattered across Egypt by the gods and were hidden in hard to reach places. Some of them were placed under the guard of Minotaurs and beasts, along with protecting curses and every other thing intending to prevent it being discovered.
Key point: Alexandrian Age
Stream: Universal School
Symbols used: Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Secret: the Book of Thoth is deposited in hidden location

[1] Histories, Book 2: 107
[2] [378-9, 69],

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. My mind all but shut down when you mentioned Tarot coming from Egypt, and then I saw the tie-in. Looking forward to reading more.