First of all, let me make clear that it is everyone’s right to do his or her own interpretation of this truly sacred text. Its nature is very obscure and its axioms open to interpretation. This has its advantages, but also naturally disadvantages. One such advantage is that it can evoke a creative discussion and debate, something I hope this essay expresses. But on the other hand it is my firm belief that the true interpretation of the Tablet was and still is reserved for advanced initiates of the Hermetic Arts and Sciences. But as I don’t count myself to this latter category, I have to resort to my own personal understanding of it.
The most cited and renowned axiom of the Emerald Tablet is its first line, which in my opinion is the most important, and also the axiom used by the astral initiation camp to rationalize its use of long distance initiation. According to Paul Foster Case’s rendition of that first sentence, which was the first translation that I learnt, it reads:
True, without falsehood, certain and most true, that which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above, for the performance of the miracles of the One Thing.
The Neophyte Ritual of the Golden Dawn in the Outer reads:
The things that are below are a reflection of the things that are above.
Recently the esoteric community was blessed by a fresh translation from the Arabic text of Apollonius of Tayana and his Book of Causes. The full translation of the first four pages of Apollonius’ Book can be read here. Please read the second paragraph of the Tablet for comparison. In my opinion they all concur with the notion of the necessity of uniting the heavenly spirit with that of terrestrial matter. It connects to the old Qabalistic saying of:
Kether is in Malkuth, and Malkuth is in Kether.
Now, the astral initiation camp contest against this and claims that the axiom of the Tablet actually confirms the notion that the mental precedes the material – of Spirit over Matter. Now, in my opinion both interpretations are “true”; one perspective doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. But one often forgets the last line in that axiom, namely that Spirit (the “above”) and Matter (the “below”) are both manifestations of miracles or wonders of the One. The Tablet clearly states that both matter and spirit are manifestations of a third or casual principle, or at least this is how the words of Hermes speaks to me. Or rather, both matter and spirit are parts of the One; there exist no real distinction between above and below, as it’s all just one fabric or substance – the One.
Again read the new translation of the works of Apollonius of Tayana. It clearly states – that which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above. It also states that all works of wonders is from the One.
This incredible sentence actually states that neither spirit nor matter is in a causual relation to each other. The true causual principle is the One, which is neither spirit nor matter, but manifest as both.
In this instance I remember the words of an anonymous and contemporary Master Alchemist:
ALL is ONE and thus neither “matter” nor “spirit” exist, but only one unique stuff, which through alchemical elaborations in various stages be transmuted from gross to subtle and vice versa.
To underscore this sentiment the Emerald Tablet further states (according to Paul F. Case):
And as all things are from One, by the mediation of one, so all things have their birth from this One by adaptation.
The new translation from Arabic (according to Apollonius) instead says that the One is the essence and that all things issued from this essence through projection. It also further states that the One is the “principle part” and “custodian” of the world. So, the true essence is not spirit. Actually, spirit is part of the world and the One is its custodian.
Perhaps this is the actual meaning of the axiom of spirit over matter? Perhaps this is what is implied by the Pentagram surmounted by Quintessence? Is this Quintessence the essence spoken of in the Emerald Tablet? I believe so. The principle of Quintessence (symbolized by the wheel with eight spokes) is the uniting principle, in the same manner as the One is described in the Tablet.
So, does all this contradict the Hermetic axiom of “mentalism”, of which New Age philosophies like the newest hype “Law of Attraction” is based upon? No, not actually. But, reading the seminal work of The Kybalion, which clearly formulates this principle of “mentalism”, everything is a manifestation of the mental projection of the One. Both “matter” and “spirit” are part and contained within the “thought-form” of God.
In my opinion, the promulgators of astral initiation are nurturing sentiments which reflects Gnosticism rather than Hermeticism, i.e. the extreme dualism between matter and spirit which is a great fallacy. Let us remember that the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, clearly is a Hermetic text, not Gnostic.
I started off this essay with the rendition of the Tablet by Paul Foster Case. I did that on purpose. Paul Foster Case is said to have been the co-author of The Kybalion, together with William Walker Atkinson (a.k.a. Yoga Ramacharacka) and Michael Whitty. According to tradition these three personages were the real identities behind the pseudonym “Three Initiates”.
Now, William Walker Atkinson was the most prominent force behind the movement during the early 20th Century called New Thought, the forerunner to New Age. Atkinson is according to some the father behind the principle of “mentalism”. He was also, according to others, a Rosicrucian initiate and it’s therefore no surprise that he under the pseudonym of “Magus Incongnito” also wrote the classic work The Secret Doctrines of the Rosicrucians, which again is permeated by the mentalist attitude of The Kybalion. Actually these two books are very alike, or almost like two different versions of one and the same text.
Now, I also believe that Atkinson was a Rosicrucian initiate, but all of this is very obscured by a veil of mystery. This is however not the case with Paul Foster Case and Michael Whitty. They were both initiates of the Rosicrucian Order of Alpha et Omega (the 20th Century version of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). As a matter of fact, Whitty was the Chief-Adept of the Alpha et Omega in America, and later for a short time was succeeded by Paul Foster Case. Case however soon started his own rendition of the Rosicrucian Order, called The School of Ageless Wisdom, later renamed as Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.).
The principles of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and Mentalism permeate Cases writings he did for the B.O.T.A. As a matter of fact I was taught its principles myself through B.O.T.A., which starts off with the correspondence course called “Seven Steps in Practical Occultism”. Watching the movie “The Secret” I was baffled by the many similarities between the teachings of Paul Foster Case and The Secret.
But one big – and I mean BIG – difference between the New Age notion of “the Law of attraction” and the Hermetic view on “Mentalism” is…that there is no actual difference of importance or hierarchy between matter (or physical action) and spirit (or mental action). Paul Foster Case often speaks in his B.O.T.A. courses, and also in his published works, about the Superconscious, Self-conscious and Subconscious. This kind of esoteric or occult psychology is also present in The Kybalion and The Secret Doctrines of the Rosicrucians, but in the former case it speaks of the objective and subjective minds – the objective mind being analogous to Self-consciousness and subjective to the Subconscious.
Now, how the Law of Mentalism actually works is more or less like this: Everything that the mind focuses on becomes imprinted in the mental universe and soon manifests in the world of action. This is because of the receptive nature of the Subconscious to Self-conscious suggestions; the work of Self-consciousness is to focus on perceptions and ideas and to implant them as seeds in the womb or matrix of the subconscious, which in turn will work them out and manifest them in everyday life. But Paul Foster Case further states – and this is highly important – that physical action creates the most strongest of suggestions.
Basically, if you wish for something to happen and then act contrary to it in everyday life, the subconscious matrix will follow the lead of your actions, not your mental intentions. Well this is of course no news for everyone prone to introspection and honest self-analysis. Sigmund Freud, who himself was a master of self-analysis and honest self-scrutiny, had opinions about the psyche which are very reminiscent of the Hermetic principles of consciousness as proposed in the above two mentioned works by Atkinson. Freud speaks of the conscious and unconscious, and in his later works about the ego and id. Now, to simplify matters, ego belongs to the conscious realm and id to the unconscious. Freud further clearly states that ego-consciousness in the early beginnings within the infant practically is a consciousness of body. This notion later follows the adult person, who very much and intuitively identifies himself with his body.
Basically, according to psychoanalysis, the five physical senses belongs to the realm of the conscious self. It is the self, not the subconscious, which interacts with the world of action. So, both Paul Foster Case and Sigmund Freud clearly states that one cannot separate the self from the world of action, i.e. matter.
Now, please don’t misinterpret me. I of course also believe that it is possible to transcend the outer manifestations of matter and to experience mystical states of eternal bliss with the One or Source of All. But for a magician to experience true magical manifestation it requires action on his or her behalf; not simply making action through magical ritual but also in everyday life. Also, I am not saying that creative visualization doesn’t work. It does. Believe me. But for an inner and passionate intention to manifest, this also involves the body and matter, and conscious actions in daily life. On this point, Paul Foster Case is very specific. Again, let me reiterate: Inner notions must be reflected by bodily actions, and vice versa. The inner and the outer must be conjoined, united.
This is, or so I assert, the very essence of the doctrine of the Emerald Tablet. This is the Alchemical Marriage, the joining of the King with his Queen. This is the marriage of Heaven and Earth, the Hieros Gamos.
Now we must study the principles of Alchemy to fully understand initiation, as Alchemy is the applied science and art of Hermeticism. Now what is Alchemy all about? Again the Emerald Tabled gives us the answer:
Thou shalt separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, suavely, and with great ingenuity.
This of course is a reference to the Solve et Coagula principle of Alchemy and Spagyrics. In my personal experience of both outer or spagyrical Alchemy and internal Alchemy, the process is very much concerned with the material aspect, the Salt-principle. In the spagyrical operation the alchemist separates the essence or Sulphurous and Mercurial principles of the matter through sublimation or distillation, while letting the Salt-principle remain in the cucurbit. This Salt is then calcinated with fire and purified with water, as the Child of Earth is duly purified and consecrated with lustral water and fire in the Neophyte Ritual. So basically, the candidate is the Salt-principle – the Child of Earth – which is purified and calcinated within the crucible of the Temple.
This calcination and purification of the Salt separates the fine from the gross. In matter it is very easy to discern what parts are the gross and what are of the finer nature; in spagyrics you simply combine the residue from the calcinations (the ashes which remains) with distilled water. This water-salt solution is then filtered. That which remains in the filter is the part that cannot be dissolved in water, the gross particles which has to be discarded as the Caput Mortum. I personally compare this Caput Mortum, the gross matter, with the Qabalistic notion of Qlippoth. Hence the alchemical process is no other than the Qabalistic notion of “restoration” – Tikkun ha-Ohlam.
So, during the Neophyte Ritual, there is a cleansing of the body from the Qlippotic gross elements, the raising of vibrations of the physical and energetic body of the candidate. This has to involve the candidate being physically present. Astral initiation can be compared to the manipulation of a substance without taking care to purify the Salt-principle properly. Alchemy always involves matter. Likewise in initiation.
So what we again sadly see in the New Age market is a diluted version of and misunderstanding of old Hermetic principles, which – as I see it – has spilled over into some modern representations of the Golden Dawn. So in my opinion, astral initiation sadly lacks the true and older, or traditional, understanding of Alchemy and Hermetic principles. This is mainly due to the modern interpretations of so-called “spiritual” alchemy, which discards the physical body and solely focuses on the spirit. I contest that this is a fallacy, likewise as materialistic disrespect for the spiritual within man is a fallacy based on ignorance. In Hermeticism, at least how I have interpreted the old texts and axioms, one has to involve both “matter” and “spirit” and regard them as two aspects of the One.
So, in conclusion, I partly concur with the astral initiation camp that initiation involves the astral. But contrary to them I say that initiation likewise, and perhaps more so, involves the physical (and etheric) or the Salt-principle within man.
So let me reiterate my views from my previous essay,which deals with the question of astral initiation, in the light of this alchemical understanding:
- Initiation simultaneously works on several planes and affects the spirit (Mercury), soul (Sulphur) and body (Salt) of the candidate. According to the Emerald Tablet one plane also affects the other. But most of all, the etheric energy body (Sphere of Sensation), the more subtle aspect of the physical body, is affected during initiation. This body will not take the full impact from Astral Initiation as it also requires the impact of the physical forces akin to the etheric plane. This also involves letting magical current flow through the body, which is most readily done in physical proximity.
- The invocation of magical forces and current is the main purpose of hermetic ritual initiation, which is done by the collective efforts of the initiating team lead by the Hierophant. This magical current directly manipulates the energetic and astral subtle bodies of the candidate, who is - as it were - trapped within a sphere or crucible, created by the Temple, where the subtle is separated from the gross. Not being inside of this magical sphere of the Temple the long distant candidate cannot benefit entirely of its potential ability to adjust the energy levels and alignment between the subtle bodies, or constituent parts (i.e. body, soul and spirit), as the Salt-principle or body isn’t involved in this process. Astral Initiation can, through the magical link created, only affect the Mercurial and Sulphurous.
- It is imperative that the Hierophant is physically present with the candidate as he projects current through his energy body towards or into the energy body of the candidate, which in turn affects the separation of the subtle from the gross within the Sphere of Sensation and body of the candidate. This Sphere of Sensation of the candidate can be likened to a microcosmic crucible, and one of the tasks of the Hierophant is to kindle the secret fire of the candidate to create this calcinatory process within him or her for the separation of the subtle from the gross.
- When the candidate is physically present during the initiation his or her senses observe everything with a heightened awareness. This creates a psychological overwhelming sensation. This also opens up his or her psyche to the magical influences of the ritual. But it also creates an altered level of consciousness, affecting both mind and emotions, imparting a though form or idea into the candidate.
So, to summarize my point of view, I regard the physical body or the Salt-principle of man to be the main object of focus in the early stages of the initiatory path, as the first steps makes dramatic readjustments to the physical body and its energetic counterpart. It therefore comes as no surprise then that the initiate starts off his or her ascension on the Tree of Life on the first and lover level of Malkuth, i.e. the terrestrial Zelator Grade and its Earth Element. All in accordance with the axiom of the Hermetic Tablet – the separation of the finer from the gross.
But let us again come back to the first sentence of the Emerald Tablet, i.e. “that which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below is as that which is above”. These principles of “above” and “below” can easily be translated to “outer” and “inner”. This takes us to the equal important aspect of the initiatory process, i.e. the blending of existential and psychological phenomena or the Jungian concept of “synchronicity”. According to Carl Gustav Jung synchronicity deals with outer events or material phenomena which has a psychological significance and a direct bearing to inner processes, without there being any actual causual relation between these two.
So what the Emerald Tablet also speaks about is the correspondence between the microcosm and macrocosm. This is greatly enhanced in the modern translation of the book by Apollonius of Tayana, where it specifically speaks of the microcosm as being created in accordance with the creation of the macrocosm. My own experience of initiation is that the border or wall between the microcosm and macrocosm are weakened; suddenly the initiate experiences a conversation with his or her own God through life’s experiences.
I believe that the actual manipulation of body and sphere of sensation, both by the forces invoked in the ritual, and the projection of energy between the energetic bodies of Hierophant and candidate, are crucial for this process to occur. Create a change in the microcosm and you will create an equal change in macrocosm of the candidate. I also believe that the ritual in the hands of an experienced initiator actually seals a covenant between the macrocosmic forces invoked during the ritual and the corresponding microcosmic energetic and astral bodies of the candidate.
As I have said before, all levels of the microcosm (Mercurial, Sulphurous as well as Salty), needs to be manipulated during the alchemical process of initiation, especially the Salt or Body, if we are to believe the Emerald Tablet when it admonishes us to “separate the subtle from the gross”. An astral initiation will only affect the even subtler aspects of the candidate, i.e. the Mercurial and Sulphurous, and therefore fails to create the optimal conditions for a synchronistic initiatic situation to occur.
Furthermore, considering the above mentioned hermetic principle of “mentalism” this also gives a new meaning to the dramatic aspect of ritual that serves to “program” or manipulate the psyche of the candidate to conform to a cognitive and emotional idea within him or her. This idea will then imprint on the macrocosm and create a corresponding synchronistic event in the life of the candidate.
So in conclusion, there exists no contradiction or paradox between the old Hermetic beliefs of mentalism and the belief that All is One. On the contrary, the one notion necessitates the other.