The Veil of Isis (Part 2)
How Hermetic Adepts Use the Mystery at the Heart of Creation for Magic & Self-Mastery
Continued from The Veil of Isis (Part 1).
Hermeticism and the Accursed Sciences
What is hermeticism, besides a trendy word in some new-age circles?
It’s been called “the accursed science,” though it’s not precisely a science the way the word is commonly used today.
Today’s scientists tend to explore the world on the “horizontal” dimension — the extended reality of kickable objects that we can measure.
(In fact, it’s when scientists stay from the horizontal, that other scientists start getting nervous. They either jump in to pull them back down, or, if that fails, shun the outliers altogether. Ah, the risks of stepping off the garden path.)
In contrast, Hermeticism is a science that deals with the vertical dimension. It seeks to understand how creation occurs, as well as the implications of that knowledge for life on Earth. Its ultimate goal is “reunion” with the Divine.
Even more specifically, hermeticism is a tradition that includes “accursed sciences” like astrology, alchemy and theurgy.
When you hear the word “astrology,” you’re probably imagining the modern, “hey baby, what’s your sign?” type that’s pervasive in pop culture. And, astrology as sun-sign horoscopes or personality-find-your-destiny descriptions is certainly fun and entertaining. But it’s not really how the ancients thought about the “cosmic science.”
To them, the study of the motions of the planets was a glimpse into the workings of the Divine mind: the astro-logos.
The essential two of Astrology are Day and Night, represented by the Sun and Moon.
(And before you scoff, even modern-day science recognizes that the Sun and Moon are necessary for life to have arisen on Earth. The Sun provides the energy and heat that drives growth; the Moon provides a gravitational tug, that churns the oceans and stabilizes the climate for the aeons required for evolution to occur.)
Sky watchers observed the seven “wandering stars” (planētes asteres in Greek) — Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — moving in predictable patterns.
Then they created a model of the cosmos based on these patterns, encoding it with their understanding of the mathematics of polarity, rhythm, and growth.
Consequently, astrology generated a system of correspondences that classified everything in the manifest world. This “grand unified theory” served as the backbone of medicine, weather prediction, and other scientific inquiries for nearly 100 generations.
Astrology even co-evolved with Stoicism, to create a philosophy on how to cope with a changing world.
It left a legacy so profound, that its tendrils surround us even today.
For example, in school, we memorized seven colors of the rainbow because Isaac Newton wanted a color for each planet.
And we have seven days of the week, one named for each planet, so every planetary god had its own holy day.
Not to mention adjectives like lunatic, martial, jovial, mercurial, saturnine and venereal. Yep, planet words, all of them.
Now, if astrology studied the divine mind, and how it expresses in the manifest world, alchemy was its complementary opposite. Alchemists studied the manifest world, and how it creeps back toward the divine.
Alchemy begins with the belief that metals, if left in the ground long enough, will evolve toward gold, the “perfect” metal. And so lead transmutes into tin, tin becomes iron, and so on, until eventually they evolve into gold.
The alchemist sought to understand this natural process, so she could replicate— and speed up — the process.
(And I say “she” here, because tradition holds that the first alchemist was a woman, and she wasn’t the only one.)
The theory goes that, through a series of chemical transformations using the primal pair sulfur (for fire) and mercury (for water), the alchemist could transform gross matter into more rarified states.
Or, to paraphrase the psychologist Thomas Moore, “to start the alchemical reaction, you first need a hot mess. And if you don’t have one already, you’re going to create one.”
(Again, before you scoff, modern chemistry and physics have indeed learned that one element can transform into another. The stars are the natural fusion furnaces that create all the elements from which we are made. Not to mention all of the useful chemical processes the alchemists discovered along the way, things we still rely on today.)
But, that’s just the outer mechanics of alchemy. As the psychologist Carl Jung pointed out eloquently, the alchemical journey is an ideal metaphor for the human psychological process of he called individuation.
As we learn to observe and transmute our inner landscape, we become more whole. Or, in the language of the ancients, more divine-like.
Theurgy & Tarot
The third Hermetic science was Theurgy, a word that translates as “god-work.” It’s a set of rituals and practices to enable the Hermetic adept to unite with the Divine — essentially the Western path to enlightenment.
Now, the reason you probably haven’t heard the word Theurgy, is that the concept was, for obvious reasons, not encouraged by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Church preferred to keep its monopoly on mediating the Divine.
Astrology and alchemy at least had practical applications that the medieval world needed; their more “esoteric” meanings could be downplayed or obscured. But not so with theurgy; some ideas are just too glaring to hide.
Nevertheless, even if you haven’t heard the word theurgy, its practices haven’t disappeared. As I mentioned earlier, some of its ideas are preserved in Stoicism. Others found root in the Catholic monastic traditions, for example, in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Order.
But there’s still one place in pop culture that’s preserved the theurgic tradition: it’s encoded in the images of the Tarot cards.
Even if you don’t know much about “the wicked pack of cards,” I’m sure you’ve seen Tarot cards used on television and in movies. They’re certainly a convenient plot device, and they look really cool.
The secret of what makes them so powerful and compelling is what they are tapping into: they are a pictorial guide to the Western path to enlightenment.
Or, put another way: when you have the keys to understand the images in the Tarot, you have a map for how to reconnect to the Divine within you, and tools to help you on the journey.
(I’ll pause a moment here to let that sink in.)
A little history here will help. The cards are the brainchild of the Italian Renaissance. They’re essentially a precursor of a modern-day playing card deck, with an extra, fifth suit of trump cards.
These trump — or “triumph” — cards are likely inspired by the Italian poet Petrarch’s triumphal processions. These described one virtue winning out over the one before it, in order to produce an ever more virtuous human.
The earliest Tarot decks likely appeared in Milan in northern Italy. They were hand-painted and used as a card game among the nobility, with various virtues and medieval figures joining the precession.
Meanwhile, over in Florence, the Italian scholar and philosopher Marsilio Ficino was beginning his translation of Plato, Plotinus and the Hermetica into the Latin for the first time. This ancient philosophy was all the rage in Florence, studied not just by other philosophers, but by poets and artists, too.
So, here in Northern Italy, we have super trendy new ideas about cosmology and the human condition, bumping into a super trendy new card game…
Click, Boom and It Happens.
The Tarot eventually found its way to Marseilles, France, where it was mass produced on another snazzy new invention, the printing press. Over the next few centuries, French occultists recognized the Hermetic threads woven into the cards. They added reflections on card meanings from the Hermetic tradition, and began to use the cards for divination.
In the Marseilles Tarot, the cosmic duo is represented by the Trickster, or Rogue, and the Papess, a female pope.
As you can probably tell by their names, there’s something a little heretical about the pair.
Now, we explored the trickster in my previous articles, so let’s give the Papess her due.
The High Priestess
The Papess card features a crowned woman in flowing robes, seated before two pillars, with a veil stretched between them.
In the Middle Ages, there was a persistent legend of Pope Joan, a cross-dressing woman who had risen through the ranks of the Church and been elevated to the papacy. She would have continued her ruse, save that Joan died in childbirth in the middle of the Easter procession.
Talk about turning the establishment order on its head. This story, as well as real-life accounts of women in religious leadership roles, tapped into gnostic and dualistic ideas deemed heretical by the Church.
Years later, when Arthur Edward Waite, of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, set about to redraw the Tarot cards to tie even more closely with the order’s philosophy, he adopted other names for the cosmic duo. He called them Magician and the High Priestess.
Waite’s version adds more detail to the card. The High Priestess is crowned with the horns of Isis. Her blue-and-white robes flow around her, spilling over a crescent Moon by her feet.
The two pillars behind her are colored back and white, representing the cosmic polarity of Yin and Yang. They are labelled “B” and “J” for “Boas” and “Jachin,” a reference to Masonic tradition about the pillars in front of the temple of Jerusalem.
She sits in between the two pillars, because the High Priestess understands both polarities are equally important in the Creation of the world.
Behind her, stretched between the pillars is a veil embroidered with palm trees and pomegranates, representing masculine and feminine principles. The Veil of Isis separates the outer Temple from its holy inner sanctum.
Behind the veil you can glimpse the ocean, a metaphor for the One — or the Absolute, as Itzhak Bentov calls it in his work Stalking the Wild Pendulum. To paraphrase: “The Absolute is the result of infinite speed, which appears as absolute rest. And therefore infinite potential.”
On her lap lies a scroll labeled “Tora.” It’s both a reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, a word meaning law, guide or teaching, as well as an anagram for Tarot.
The Scroll remains closed — a silent truth, and a reminder that it’s the spirit of the law that matters and that revelation comes through direct experience, not language.
Well, as you can tell by now, the High Priestess card is richly symbolic and multi-layered…
But perhaps more than anything, she’s a promise that the Cosmos is far grander than physical appearances, and, that with the right understanding, one can reunite with that Divine realm once again.
When paired with the Magician, she reminds us of the Duality in all things:
The Magician is standing; the High Priestess is seated.
The Magician is power in action; the High Priestess is power in contemplation.
The Magician seeks; the High Priestess lets herself be found.
But never forget, it’s the High Priestess who serves as the gatekeeper and guardian of the two realms, material and immaterial.
The Magician may create wonders in the world with the energy of the Divine, but the pathway to the return to the Absolute leads through intuition, not through reason.
What’s in it for You?
I know, right? That’s a lot of really cool information! But what you can do with it is even more amazing.
On the physical level, you’ll quickly realize that your body is a chorus of interlocking cycles of activity and rest — waking and sleeping, your heartbeat, your breath. You need both, and in balance, or you get sick. Or die. (Talk about a feedback loop.)
On the psychological level, you’re also balancing in between your conscious awareness and unconscious mind, or the verbal and non-verbal parts of yourself.
Believe it or not, science suggests the verbal part of our mind processes about 40 bits of information per second. While, the non-verbal part of our brain processes about 11 million bits of information per second.
The author Daniel Kahneman explores this duality at length in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Goleman explores the implications on our ability to Focus in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.
The lesson of both books is that the hard-charging, constant busy-ness of modern culture is doomed to fail. Without recognizing the need to rest, take breaks, tap into our intuition, you can never reach your full creative potential.
In other words, it’s our intuition which permits contact between our consciousness and the world of pure mystical experience. Intellect that is not fertilized by the imagination and intuition is sterile.
And that’s just the implications on the physical and psychological levels.
You can go “further up and further in” into the spiritual realms. And that’s what Hermeticism is designed to do.
Three Hermetic Principles
As I mentioned earlier, in addition to Hermetic philosophy, there are practical, spiritual exercises to help you on your path.
There’s a handy little book called the Kybalion, written about a hundred years ago, that can help you get started. Hermetic principles derived from the Cosmic Duality include the principles of Vibration, Polarity and Rhythm.
The Principle of Vibration says: “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.”
That means you can learn to raise or lower your personal vibrations, which allows you to resonate with different groups of people, Nature, or Spirit.
I know that sounds new-agey, but it’s also literally true. With the help of a biofeedback device, you can watch your own brainwaves, heart rate, and skin conductivity — vibrations all — change with your state of awareness. Meditation and self-hypnosis are the royal road to learning to tune your inner radio, so to speak.
The Principle of Polarity says: “Everything is Dual… opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths.”
In our incredibly polarized world, the implications of this principle are profound.
But let’s keep it focused on you for a moment. This Principle holds a key to your emotional self-regulation.
There are actually no hard lines between emotions, only degrees of intensity, flavor and direction. When you can think of emotions this way, you can imagine you have a slider, or a tuner, that you can gently move between emotional “stations.”
In other words, if you don’t like what’s playing on your emotional radio, change the station. In this way you can master your own emotional responses rather than allow them to run away with you.
The Principle of Rhythm says: “Everything has its tides; things rise and fall; the pendulum-swing manifests in everything.”
All things have a season. It is natural law to swing from one to another, but the Hermetic adept learns to use the principle, rather than to be used by it.
This was one of the early purposes of astrology, and its spiritual practices are preserved in Stoicism and elsewhere — including my own Coven.
For the moment, embrace the paradox, on all levels.
Whew, I know, that was an epic article. But this seems like a good place to break. You’ve got a lot to process, especially on those deeper layers of yourself.
In the next chapter in our journey, we’ll explore the fruits of the union of cosmic duo, the sacred marriage of Eros and Logos in the material world.
Let’s go play in the Garden. I’ll have an apple waiting for you.
This article is the transcript from Episode 003 of the Magic and Mastery podcast.
If you’d like to check out the podcast audio, the “Principle of Polarity” experiment you can try out on your own, or sign up for email notifications when new episodes are released, check out the Episode 003 show notes.