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Inhabiting the Paradox: An Excursion into Resonance with Hermes

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’s herds.”

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 becau