By Christopher Bamford
Originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bamford, Christopher. “Green Hermeticism.” Quest 97. 2 (Spring 2009): 54-59, 63.
The physicist Werner Heisenberg once remarked that science happens when scientists talk. Perhaps the same is true of esotericists, as we may learn from the genesis of an embryonic but potentially far-reaching movement called Green Hermeticism. As one of the guiding spirits, Peter Lamborn Wilson, author of Sacred Drift and Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy, tells it:
In September 2003, a small conference on “Sacred Theory of Earth” was held in New Paltz, New York, where the idea of Green Hermeticism arose out of discussions among hermeticists, poets, Christians, Buddhists, neo-pagans, Sufis, and assorted heretics. At this meeting, the obscure and little-read text Novices of Sais by the German Romantic poet Novalis was presented as a virtual manifesto of Green Hermeticism, which might be defined as a spagyric approach to the environmental sciences (and their “crisis”), and empirical and magical.
Green Hermeticism, Wilson continues, has “a specifically green form of spirituality” that provides a much-needed sacred theory of Earth, the body, and Nature. At once shamanic, monotheistic, and angelological—and proposing “an empiricism of the Imagination,” “a proper form of paganism,” and an alternative to modern science—Green Hermeticism is astonishingly and paradoxically both primordial and postmodern.
Green Hermeticism, of course, is still a work in progress, but at least the work has begun. Pir Zia Inayat Khan of the Sufi Order International, who was a participant at the original conference, was so struck by the far-reaching implications of Green Hermeticism for the renewal of sacred science that he convened a series of weekend seminars dedicated to the subject at the Sufi Order’s Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York. And so the idea of Green Hermeticism was born as the present incarnation of a cosmological revelation that can be traced back to earliest times.
Called alchemy or Hermeticism (after the Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thoth), this doctrine pervades all historical cultures from Tantric India and Taoist China in the East to the Abrahamic West. Because it always adapts its practice to its context, its origins are lost in prehistory. Like nature itself, it is a golden thread connecting all times and places. Nevertheless, in the present great revival of esoteric teachings and practices, the question of such a sacred science has been left aside. Dazzled by modern science, we have studied and practiced the “inner” teachings of the saints and sages of past ages assiduously, but we have passed over their science of nature. Green Hermeticism proposes that it is time to explore the relevance not only of the masters’ “inner” science, but also of their science of nature. Because it is truly holistic, this science transcends and erases all separations such as inner and outer, spirit and matter, divine and human, earthly and heavenly.
As for its primordial origins, tradition holds that earlier human beings were less solid, the world less dense, and the Original Light still permeated all. Cognition was integral, intuitive, and imaginal. Heaven and earth, living and dead, angels and elemental spirits, were one world. Human beings lived as earthborn heavenly beings, woven into the symphonic light-filled music of creation. The stars and the heavens themselves, experienced as living beings, enclosed the earth as a fruit encloses as seed, caring for it like a mother. The cosmos was a single organism. There was no distance, only spiritual relationship. Human beings acted as friends of heaven, commissioned to nurture heavenly seeds planted on earth. The human task was circulation. Rising, humanity spiritualized matter; descending, it materialized spirit.
Gradually, however, it became evident that humanity would fall out of unity. To ensure the transmission of the salvific wisdom entrusted to the earth, the ancient mysteries arose. First, perhaps, were the mysteries of the stars, whose love guided the cosmos and laid down the patterns of wisdom on earth. Connected to these were the many-faced mysteries of the Great Goddess, the mother of the gods and all living things, mistress of animals and plants, queen of flowers. She was the Virgin, black and beautiful, the universal wisdom substance. Her mysteries were celebrated among rocks in caves, and in dark, damp places in the folds of the earth. Her symbols were birds, the waters, the Tree of Life, the labyrinth, the serpent. Hers were the mysteries of light and darkness, life, death, procreation, rebirth, transformation, generation and regeneration, continuity and transience. More concretely, hers were the agricultural mysteries of the seed, of fertility, germination, and growth, and of nourishment, fermentation, cooking, and healing.
Related mysteries emerged from the transmutation of substances: mining, metallurgy, and pottery. These mysteries concerned the sciences and arts having to do with fire and the transformation of the earth. Thus humans came to know that just as plants, animals, and humans were planted and grew on the earth’s surface, minerals and metals were likewise cosmic seeds planted in the earth. Left alone, any such seed would, over eons, become “gold”—that is, it would return to the Original Light. From at least the sixth millennium BC, certain reddish, bluish, greenish, or grayish stones were smelted until they oozed a substance which, formed into objects, could be polished so as to mirror this light. Small copper axes and items of jewelry, mirroring and emitting this light, began to be produced. Something new was emerging: a new culture and consciousness in which human beings sought a collaborative relationship with the gods. Instead of merely following nature’s rhythms, the new agriculturalists and metal workers aspired to bring to fruition what nature had begun.
From this knowledge the great civilizations of ancient China, India, Persia, Egypt, and Greece arose. Then, at the shift of the world ages characterized as the Axial Age (between 800 and 200 BCE), the direct connections to the ancient world were severed. Consciousness was evolving, but the wisdom was not lost. Transmission was maintained, not only orally and mind-to-mind, but above all in texts that ensured the further evolution of mystery wisdom: for instance, the Corpus Hermeticum, a sort of Platonized summation of Egyptian philosophy, and the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the holy scripture of alchemy. In this way, Greco-Roman alchemy and Hermeticism—at once gnosis, craft, philosophy, art, and religion—were born as the metamorphosis of the primordial sacred science of the ancient mysteries. The earliest practicing alchemists whose names we know—Ostanes, Pseudo-Democritus, Zosimos, Maria the Jewess, Kleopatra—all date from this period (300 BCE-300 CE).
But the period of the political foundation of Christianity was not favorable, at least initially, for Hermetic thought and cosmological research. Faced with political repression and persecution, alchemical thinking moved eastward through Syria into Persia. The transfer was providential: it meant that the fruit of the primordial sciences transmitted by Hellenism lay ready and waiting for Islam. Following Mohammed’s revelation, in a massive act of translation, the patrimony of the ancients was saved. The result was that, within 150 years of its founding, Islamic alchemy reached its height with Jabir and his school, whose immense oeuvre includes more than 3000 treatises. The Hermetic sciences, such as Pythagorean number theory, geometry, music, and astronomy, also flourished, especially among Ishmaili groups such as the Ikwan al-Safa, the Brethren of Purity.
Little by little, through Muslim Andalusia and Sicily and, later, through Venice by way of Byzantium, Hermetic alchemy began to return to the West, though the first work, A Testament of Alchemy by Morienus, did not arrive until 1144. Other translations followed. Franciscans took care of the transmission. Soon original works began to be written, and alchemy and Hermetic Platonism began a process of transformation. Cathedral schools like the school of Chartres began to lay a philosophical foundation, while figures like Artephius, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Raymond Lull, Roger Bacon, and Arnold of Villanova, grasping the depth and range of the Hermetic worldview, began to universalize it into a complete spiritual (and physical) path. Alchemy became the de facto sacred science of the West, preparing the ground for the explosive influence of Marsilio Ficino’s translations of original Hermetic, Neo-Platonic, and other esoteric texts. Beginning in 1463 with the Corpus Hermeticum, these translations launched the creation of a new magical and cosmological Christianity.
It remained only for great Renaissance masters from Paracelsus, Basil Valentine, Bernard Trevisanus, Limojin de Saint-Didier, and others up to Jacob Bohme, Jan Baptista van Helmont, and the seventeenth-century Rosicrucians to complete the project.
Thus, at the time of the birth of modern science, another participatory, gentle, compassionate science was available—a new alternative culture, not of matter and mechanism but of consciousness, life, light, and love. Although apparently defeated by the rise of modern science, the alternative view traveled underground through esoteric groups such as the Freemasons to surface in Romanticism and then, in a sense, to return full-blown in modern times through such figures as H.P. Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, C.G. Jung, G.I. Gurdjieff, as well as the French stream of alchemists and Hermeticists like Fulcanelli, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Eugène Canseliet, Henri Coton-Alvart, and the contemporary alchemical school known as the Philosophers of Nature. (Kevin Townley, one of the founders of this school, has been a participant at Green Hermeticism conferences.) In this sense, Green Hermeticism is a living tradition. But what is it?
Like all spiritual traditions, Hermeticism is complex and not to be systemized. Nevertheless, to gain some idea of its relevance to our present evolutionary moment (that is, why it is “green”), it may be examined under at least four different aspects: as a science of nature and the cosmos; as a craft or practice dedicated to the transformation of matter; as an art of healing, whose goal is a universal medicine able to heal humanity, nature, and the cosmos; and finally as a civilizational paradigm.
Pherecydes of Syros, a teacher of Pythagoras, taught that “Zeus, when about to create, changed himself into love; for in composing the order of the world out of the contraries he brought it to concord and friendship, and in all things he set the seed of identity and the unity which pervades everything.” The Corpus Hermeticum similarly reveals that the cosmos “is one mass of life, and there is not anything in the cosmos that is not alive.” Pherecydes’ love is Hermetic life, and life is relationship: harmony, identity, and unity. The cosmos is thus a living being pulsing with life, but it is not itself the source of life. As the Corpus Hermeticum tells us, the source is “immortal life,” which produces all things through the movement of the cosmos: “Like a good husbandman, it gives them renewal by sowing seed. There is nothing in which the cosmos does not generate life; and it is both the place in which life is contained and the maker of life.”
The cosmos—nature—is thus both alive and a unity. Its science, Hermeticism or alchemy, is a science of seeds—a kind of spiritual agriculture. As the Egyptian goddess Isis famously advises Horus: “Go, then, my child, to a certain laborer and ask him what he has sown and what he has harvested, and you will learn from him that the one who sows wheat also harvests wheat, and the one who sows barley also harvests barley. . . . Learn to comprehend the whole fabrication and generation of things and know that it is the condition of man to sow a man, of a lion to sow a lion, of a dog to sow a dog. . . . See, there is the whole of the mystery.”
For the ancients, life (which we have already identified with love, harmony, and relationship) was also, and perhaps primarily, Light and inseparable from matter. According to this teaching, Light exists in two states: Original Light and optical light. Original Light is the Light of the fiat lux that instantly fills the Abyss. Spontaneously created by God, Original Light is free, direct, unmediated, and omnipresent; it is not generated by the transformation of something else. By contrast, optical light is secondary; it always comes from something else. We know it as a form of energy: mechanical, chemical, electric, or radiant. These four forms of what we might call “Second Light” are always dependent on some kind of matter, which they always seek to escape. In fact, they seek to return to the Original Light and would do so if some new “matter” did not interpose itself, refracting, reflecting, or absorbing it, trapping it again as electrical, chemical, or mechanical energy. To restore this Original Light to its rightful place, then, the alchemist seeks to recover what we might call “original matter”—the original receptacle, Plato’s chora, the feminine divine “waters” of wisdom over which the spirit hovered in the first verses of Genesis—and to make the two one.
From this point of view, the task of the Hermeticist is to redeem and unite the original ground and the Original Light—to make them one, not two: a unity.
A famous image from a Hermetic text known as The Goldmaking of Kleopatra expresses the idea to perfection. The ouroboros serpent with its tail in its mouth encloses the motto Hen to pan, “One the All.” The cosmos is closed: one only, non-exteriorized, and recursive. Everything is connected to everything else. The Hermetic universe, the Hermetic work, and the human subject are one and the same. “Everything is the product of one universal creative effort,” writes Paracelsus, while the Hermetic text known as the Asclepius teaches, “The human being is all things; the human being is everywhere.” To know this is to be able to become all things. As Hermes/Tat says in this text: “Now that I see in mind, I see myself to be the All. I am in Heaven and on Earth, in Water and in Air; I am in beasts and plants; I am a babe in the womb, and one that is not yet conceived, and one that has been born; I am present everywhere” (Corpus Hermeticum, 13).
One must become what one would know: such is this science. Only like may know like. Becoming like God, one comes to know like God: and the same is true of rock, plant, or ecosystem. As all things are in God, so they must also be in the human being. But where is that? Things are not in God visibly, but invisibly, beyond space and time. To know them, we must therefore withdraw from psychological space and time, sensory matter and motion, personal desire and memory.
To realize this vision requires a transformation of the way we know and perceive. What is required is a schooling of the senses—a cleansing of the doors of perception so that our senses may become active organs of true vision. Achieving this, one comes to see with the heart. Paracelsus terms this faculty “true Imagination,” the star in the human being. “True Imagination,” writes Maurice Aniane, “actually ‘sees’ the ‘subtle’ processes of nature and their angelic prototypes. It is the capacity to reproduce in oneself the cosmogenic unfolding, the permanent creation of the world in the sense in which all creation, finally, is only a Divine Imagination.”
To understand this, one must go beyond the idea of a single, unique act of creation and assume a state of continuous creation, metaphysical in nature, outside ordinary space and time. According to this view, creation is continuously in process, and consciousness may always know its states by virtue of the principle whereby “the One is the All.”
Hermetically, then, to know a god—and all things are gods—is to penetrate to a specific creative phase or relationship. The world is not temporal, as our psychological consciousness presents it to us. It occurs in wholes, which our senses conceal. But there are gaps or openings in perception which meditation can reveal. Through these, the “gods,” who are themselves both causes and effects, may be known. The process is “vertical,” for in the realm of phenomena—the horizontal plane—there are only sequences of events without cause.
Simply put, Hermeticism is the sacred science of realizing and enhancing the subtle states of both the human being and the universe, which correspond to each other. Realization is thus achieved along the axis of nondual light that unites the universe and connects the human being and nature with the source of all.
Though there sometimes seem to be two Hermetic paths—one mystical and inner, and the other practical, empirical, and external—the two are really one. Uniting inner and outer, the alchemist becomes a universal priest celebrating a kind of universal Eucharistic transubstantiation whose species are not just bread and wine, but nature in its entirety. To achieve this transubstantiation, the alchemist, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “follows nature in her mode of operation.” The rest is a gift of God: grace.
Phenomenologically, the Hermeticist starts with the unity of existence: the unity of matter and consciousness and the unity of all phenomena of consciousness—consciousness always being identifying consciousness. “If you would know the rose, become the rose. Become the rock. Become the plant. Become the metal,” as Schwaller de Lubicz tells us in Nature Word. Everything in nature—bird, tree, or flower, just as forest, meadow, or geological formation—is a question containing its own answer, meaning, and explanation. All phenomena—light, color, sound—and all natural processes—germination, growth, digestion, and fermentation—contain the power to evoke in the prepared observer the true response that is their meaning. Here is the foundation of a true science of phenomena, dispensing with all instrumentation and relying on consciousness alone. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe puts it: “The best of all would be to realize that every fact is already theory. The blue of the sky shows us the principles of color. We need not look for anything behind phenomena: they themselves are the teaching.” By this means, Hermetic science is thus able to understand such phenomena as life, light, space, time, matter—which modern science cannot fathom—because it is able to experience phenomena as such, as God knows them.
Thus, in this view, the universe, nature, every phenomenon is a concrete presence of the powers that govern it, and the Hermetic art is the raising of phenomena into their living angelic archetypes—and not an inner act, but it in reality. The alchemist sees with the eyes of the spirit and confirms his theory through higher perception or Imagination. Such is true Imagination: it “sees,” that is, confirms, verifies, and collaborates in the subtle processes of nature, which are the continuous creation of the world: the Divine Imagination.
Hermetic science is thus a discipline of mind and body. It strives for a qualitative, unifying exaltation of the relation of the knower to the known in the phenomenon through the act of knowing. Rather than the objectification and control of the known by the knower, it seeks unification and identity—transformation of the knower through the known as perceived and experienced. Each phenomenon is thus unique, single, and personal: an act of grace manifesting in the confluence of the right gesture at the right moment.
For Hermetic science, then, the whole universe is sacramental, embodying and proclaiming the process of the revelation of unity. This unitary vision, acknowledged by all the traditional men and women of "knowledge,” is founded not upon a sensory material unity of nature, but on a spiritual unity.
Here the twentieth-century French alchemist Henri Coton-Alvart gives us a few precious clues. First, there is the mystery that the world is: the mystery of being. Second, there is the mystery of movement, metamorphosis, or manifestation, not only “outwardly” in space and time (which movement creates), but also “inwardly,” so that everything is born, grows, and dies, i.e., evolves and transforms. For the Hermeticist, movement arises as being encounters resistance, nonbeing. Between the two—between one and two—consciousness arises: relationship. Third, there is the mystery of intelligence. Movement is not disordered or chaotic. It is ordered. Everything—whether a falling body, the courses of the stars, or the growth of a plant—moves, transforms, according to a pattern of metamorphosis. This is the pattern that connects: the thinking that is nature or the cosmos, which our ordinary consciousness granulates into bits and pieces in time and space. This third mystery is the mediator, the human function: gnosis, which is life and light.
Working with these principles—which are the principles of creation as they are of the human being—the alchemist practices a spiritual discipline that allows him to participate in the world process. To do so is the Great Work. It is called the Great Work because it works to bring creation to its natural perfection, just as a gardener does in the garden or as a doctor does with the body. In other words, this is a very practical wisdom. It heals.
As doctor, the alchemist works to heal creation because, from the alchemical perspective, nature is “sick.” It contains in it a principle hostile to it. This principle, the cause of the “fall,” is still active, causing the dramatic mixture of life and death, wisdom and folly, renewal and decay that we see wherever we turn. One can neither deny the sickness that has penetrated creation nor the marvelous solicitude that preserves it. All the natural kingdoms are sick; yet they perpetually renew themselves. Everywhere poison and remedy are in conflict—in our time, more so than ever.
The guiding principle of alchemy is the efficacious, curative, and omnipotent intervention of Unity—that is, spirit—to overcome the pathology of the world, its death principle.
To do so, the alchemist works with the perpetual movement of the transformation of the Original Light of the world, which makes the seed germinate, grow, transmute food, and make new seeds. He works with the agent of metamorphosis, which is the dance of spirit and substance, to enhance Life. Above all, the alchemist seeks in all things the healing ferment, the internal spiritualizing agent that underlines all transitory, discontinuous phenomena, the source of the metamorphosis of the four elements. This ferment is a “fifth element.” It is the quintessence in all things. Universally present, it would act unhindered according to its place or milieu—following the inspiration of the spirit, which guides it—were it not for the “hostile” principle. The Hermetic alchemist, God’s right hand, seeks to overcome this pathology so as to allow spirit to flow without restriction in all living things—minerals, plants, animals, and humans. Thereby it reinstates our dying earth into the living cosmos.
Much of Hermetic alchemy can sound arcane. The masters have their own language, which they use in a different way than we are used to. Our language, based as it is on a dualistic worldview, is denotative. Words have fixed meanings and appear to point to things. Hermetic-alchemical language is connotative, contextual. It is its own reality. You have to understand the context to understand the meaning of individual words—whose meaning can vary considerably according to context. Double and triple meanings abound. The texts are full of wordplay and puns. Often the very obscurity can tempt us to give up. Yet we need this tradition. Our earth and our humanity need it. For it teaches us the way to fulfill our human, earthly task as mediators, pontiffs, between heaven and earth. It is the path of ultimate service: to aid the divine powers in the task of true world evolution.
On this basis, Green Hermeticism seeks to found a new, truly spiritual ecology: a new Hermetic culture, in which the earth will once again become the temple of the cosmos, with every human being a healing priest or priestess. In practice, this means a renewed understanding of the earth as a cosmic being that awaits human collaboration to awaken to its true destiny. There is much that already can be done, beyond the understanding that the earth and humanity as a whole and in detail constitute a single spiritual-physical organism with the cosmos. Biodynamic agriculture, spagyric and alchemical tinctures and preparations, phyto- and astro-regeneration, conscious collaboration with elementals, earth, mineral, plant, animal and angelic beings—all provide ways of beginning.
At the same time, such an ecology is not only a science and a spiritual path but also an art. Not only is everyone called to be a priest, everyone is called to be an artist. We need new public art forms—Hermetic gardens and parks, earth sculptures, and sacred poems inscribed as living beings in the landscape. All of these will begin to renew the Renaissance dream, as the seventeenth-century Italian magus Tommaso Campanella put it, so that “the earth will become a sun.”
Christopher Bamford is editor-in-chief of Steiner Books and Lindisfarne Books and senior editor of Parabola. His works include The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity (Lindisfarne) and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West (Codhill Press). With Peter Lamborn Wilson and Kevin Townley, he is also coauthor of Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology (Lindisfarne), which contains an extensive and useful bibliography for those wishing to research Green Hermeticism for themselves.