The prospect of writing this essay on the mysterious figure of Hermes Trismegistus has me tingling with excitement and full of awestruck trepidation- a sure sign of adventure. After all, as the presiding deity of western alchemy, their very nature belies pinning down in any fixed sense. No stuffy scholarly work claiming linear and absolute positions on the mercurial dimensions of Hermes will suffice. Indeed, my lived experience of opening up to the Hermetic Mysteries, and allowing them to infuse and unite my magical and mundane lives has this message to communicate: Beware of Absolutes.
Which is to say- Hermes Trismegistus, and the mythic emanations of Hermes through the ages, is deeply interested in the subjective, unconscious realms that is the human imagination. This is where individual symbols and metaphor fuse with universal ones to create the wonder-filled experience of oneself as myth, simultaneously personal and transpersonal. And myth, far from being mere fiction, is in the words of the late Joseph Campbell, “the final terms of wisdom - that is, the wisdom of the deep mysteries of life.”
So let’s begin - not quite at the “beginning” - with the ancient Greeks, where Hermes is best known, among other things, as the messenger of the gods. The union of Zeus and Maia, daughter of Atlas, gave birth to Hermes, half-sibling to Apollo. As soon as they were born, Hermes showed himself to be something of a trickster and mischief-maker, mercurial from the outset:
“The babe was born at the break of day,
And ere the night fell he had stolen away
Apollo hadn’t been paying attention; Hermes playfully seized the chance to usher his herds away and hide them from his brother at a different pasture. Paying attention, cultivating presence and awareness is a fundamental instrument of alchemy and magic. Within the Greek mythic pantheon, this is one of the first glimmers of Hermes as patron of the alchemist-magician, along with his birth at the threshold between night and day. He inhabits the liminal space of both/and, rather than either/or - the messenger between worlds. Mercury, as he was later known by the Romans, is equally at home as liquid and metal, poisonous and precious. Zeus made the naughty Hermes return his brother’s herds, and Hermes made amends with Apollo by presenting him with a lyre that he had just made out of a tortoise shell. This early gift of music - the ability to transform imperceptible etheric vibrations into the sensory experience of sound - is another clue towards the nature of this messenger-god with the alchemical ability to make the subtle gross, or the volatile fixed - and back again.
A depiction of the Greek Hermes as The Magus from the Thoth Tarot Deck
While Hermes was referred to as male by the Greeks, my experience of him is really more of a them, something many would attest to. Hermes is the archetype of deliciously playful queerness in all that they embody and represent, not least in their refusal to sequester themselves in just one dimension of reality - be it Mount Olympus, Earth or Hades. In the spirit of alchemy then, and in deference to his mercurial nature, I shall oscillate between referring to them as he and them. Which segues into this precious alchemical-mythic-arcanum: Hermes and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty, had a tryst and their offspring was Hermaphroditus. In alchemy, the symbol of the Divine Hermaphrodite, or the Rebis, is the result of the successful Magnum Opus or Great Work. It represents what Carl Jung called the Mysterium Coniunctionis, the crystallization of an inner state known as the Union of Opposites. Hermes is the mercurial vivacity of non-dual awareness or attention (referred to as the One Mind - The Above - in the Emerald Tablet, which is the embryonic cornerstone of western alchemy).
Aphrodite is the perception of Beauty in all manifest reality - known as the One Thing (The Below) in the Emerald Tablet. The fusion of the One Mind (The Above) and the One Thing (The Below) in this way gives birth to the Union of Opposites, symbolized in the Divine Hermaphrodite. Another way of saying this is that the work and practice of developing a Hermaphroditic consciousness - what today’s pioneering physicists would call a Quantum consciousness - is striding towards Mysterium Coniunctionis. And if you’re interested in the Hermetic arts of alchemy and magic, this brings you into resonance with the Philosopher’s Stone. Hermes brought Persephone back to her mother, Demeter from the Underworld domain of Hades. No other god could safely make this journey between worlds, and Zeus tasked his favorite Hermes with the responsibility. Many such examples exist of Hermes’ ability to navigate between the worlds which, seen from the psychological perspective, describes an agility of consciousness, one that is in the process of mastering the endless, cyclical art of inhabiting the Paradox: the alchemical symbol of the Ouroboros.
The Alchemy of Change through Unifying the Opposites from the Thoth Tarot Deck
I could merrily continue on the multifarious resonances of the Greek god Hermes with alchemy and magic but I’ll stop there, and travel back in time to ancient Egypt: the birthplace of what is now western alchemy and esotericism.
Here, Hermes was revered as Thoth, the Ibis-headed scribe-god, patron of writing, commerce and of the hidden - or occult- wisdom of alchemy. Thoth was known as the “first Hermes”, child of the Agathodaimon. (Related aside: the ancient Greeks conceived of the Agathodaimon as a person’s tutelary spirit, their genius. In western magical traditions, this gender-fluid principle is known as one’s Holy Guardian Angel, in the ancient Vedas of India, the Atman).
Much like Hermes son of Zeus, Thoth was also tricky to pin down with rigidly objective definitions, as Dennis William Hauck notes in his brilliantly comprehensive The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation:
“Thoth is impossible to categorize because he transcends anything we normally think about gods and men. At first glance, he seems a simple personification of the powers of logic, for he was said to be responsible for teaching men how to interpret things, arrange their speech in logical patterns, and write down their thoughts. As the inventor of hieroglyphics, Thoth...founded the sciences of mathematics, astronomy and medicine.”
But also, continues Hauck, “As the ‘Revealer of the Hidden’ and ‘Lord of Rebirth’ Thoth is guide to alternate states of consciousness and initiator of human enlightenment….Thoth embodies the rational powers of the Sun as well as the intuitive, irrational energies of the Moon...In summarizing all the ancient wisdom, Thoth became known as the true author of the Emerald Tablet. As a god, Thoth is the archetypal Hermes.”
The Hermit card from the Thoth Tarot Deck: the lone figure with an Ibis-like head is pursued by Cerberus, the many headed-hound of Hades as he/they bring(s) back the fertilizing light of transpersonal wisdom from the Underworld/the Imaginal.
As author of the Emerald Tablet, the foundation of Hermeticism, and of the vast body of work known as the Corpus Hermeticum, Thoth is the abiding symbol of western alchemy and magic. They were said to have reincarnated (at least) three more times, each time bringing this precious occult knowledge back to humans. Hermes Trismegistus - or Hermes Three Times Greatest - is the mythic figure most closely associated with resurrecting the Emerald Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum into antiquity through the human Balinas, who was born in a region of Turkey in 16 C.E. According to Hermetic lore, Balinas discovered the physical Emerald Tablet in an underground crypt-chamber. It was nestled in the lap of the mummified figure of an old bearded man, Hermes Trismegistus. The young Balinas had been told how to find his way into and through the crypt by his Agathodaimon in a dream.
“I am your own being perfect and subtle,” they said to the dreaming boy, after giving him instructions on how to fashion a glass lantern to navigate the dark and treacherous cave.
As Hauck tells it:
“ ‘Oh Balinas,” the man called out. ‘Rise and enter into this chamber to gain knowledge of the secrets of creation, so as to obtain a true representation of nature!’
‘I can see nothing in that darkness’, replied Balinas, ‘and the winds that blow there put out every flame.’
‘Balinas! Put your light into a glass vessel!’ suggested the man. The boy had never seen such a lantern, but he knew at once the idea would work.” Balinas was instructed to put his light into a glass vessel - that is, the keen brilliance of his illuminated, transpersonal consciousness. Balinas’ light, thus ensconced in a glass vessel, is symbolic of the alchemical athanor: the axis mundi of the alchemical process. With the help of his lantern, Balinas penetrates the subterranean cave and finds the mummified person of Hermes Trismegistus, seated on a gold throne. The Emerald Tablet glimmers out from their lap. At their feet were four books, also authored by Hermes:
“The first three books contained advanced instruction in mathematics and astronomy. The last book carried the inscription This is the secret of the creation and the knowledge of the causes of all things. That fourth elaborated on the meaning of the Emerald Tablet, which revealed a hidden relationship between man and the universe.” These books were the earliest members of the Corpus Hermeticum or the Body of Hermetic Knowledge.
Balinas travelled far and wide after this, including to India, teaching, learning, initiating and being initiated into. His ‘powers’ were legendary and his life’s work was the dissemination of the knowledge contained in the Emerald Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum. Eventually, he became known as Apollonius of Tyana - the bringer of light. There are stories of Alexander the Great and the Emerald Tablet that date back to before the time of Balinas; and forward to the 16th century and the European Renaissance, where a revival of interest in alchemy brought forth translations of the Emerald Tablet. Isaac Newton, among many other notables through the ages, have offered translations of this work - which, if deciphered from the non-linear plane of knowing, is the map to the Stone of the Wise. This body of knowledge is Hermes’ undying gift to humanity - and its relevance now is more crucial than ever. Like it or not, we are moving through an end-times of sorts. The dying of old, one-sided ways of being, knowing, and relating; the myopia of either/or is coming to an end. The Hermetic arts, like Indigenous traditions, speak of a both/and perspective, inhabiting the paradox - which can seem impossible simply because we have been (dis)enchanted into the repressive dullness of forgetting. Hermes is Mercury that transmutes the energy of Sulfur into the matter of Salt, and back, endlessly, over and over like the serpent eating her tail; Hermes is Krishna who counselled Arjun on the eve of the epic battle in the Mahabharata; Hermes is the trickster Raven bringing light to Earth; Hermes is the Shaman who straddles worlds, bringing back wisdom-visions; Hermes is Quantum Physics.
We are in the liminal place of dying to be reborn. And Hermes is the hidden ‘other’ in you, waiting for you to forget to forget that the spark of True Imagination is your creative - and destructive- birthright.
This essay is intended as an initial primer on the figure of Hermes, Hermeticism and alchemy.
- Rohini Walker
1: Mythology: Timeless Tales of God and Heroes, Edith Hamilton
2: The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation by Dennis William Hauck
Rohini Walker is a British-Indian writer, poet and teacher-practitioner of existential alchemy, who is entering her eighth year of living in the Mojave high desert. She works one-on-one with clients, using alchemy and mythology as tools for inner-decolonization, and as a movement towards re-membering the soul’s indigenous wisdom. You can find out more about her work here.
She’s also co-creator of the Arts + Literary print periodical, Luna Arcana.