A book called The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece by Three Initiates was published in Chicago in 1912. It presented seven fundamental working principles of Hermeticism. But, what is Hermeticism?
At the base of the occult tarot and especially the tarot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) lies a philosophical system or religious philosophy. It derives from a series of anonymous writers who used the nom de plume Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Blessed), a composite of the Greek Hermes, Roman Mercury, and their Egyptian counterpart, Thoth. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., the set of writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum brought about a brief renaissance of pagan thought. The writings are mostly in the form of dialogs between Hermes Trismegistus or Tot (Thoth) and a student seeking Wisdom. In the mid-15th century, Hermetic writings were brought to Italy where they became influential in the Renaissance schools of the de Medicis. Translated from the Greek by Marsilio Ficino, they were important to both him and Pico della Mirandola and later Giordano Bruno, among others. Modern translators and explicators of Hermetic works have included G.R.S. Mead, Walter Scott, Carl Jung and Frances Yates. Some of the original writings were found among the Nag Hammadi library. The picture on the right is of Hermes Trismegistus on the floor of the Cathedral in Siena, Italy. Since 1488 when this piece was completed, he has greeted the faithful as they enter.
Generally speaking, Hermeticism involves an intuitive, rather than rational, search for personal knowledge of the soul and of God (a One God who might, nevertheless be known polytheistically). It counsels experiential processes resulting in the removal of earthly and cosmic restrictions to reach an essential unity with the Divine in an ecstatic knowing or gnosis. In fact, Hermeticism and Gnosticism are related philosophies in which the former is considered essentially optimistic in nature, while the latter tends toward pessimism. Among the most famous Hermetic writings is the alchemical work, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, with its core idea, “As Above, So Below.”
While Hermeticism has had its influence on mystical Christianity, it is more of a philosophy than a religion. Its most direct effect has been on Western occultism including alchemy, ceremonial magic, astrology and tarot and on groups such as the Theosophists, Rosicrucians and Freemasons. It forms a major part of the base of a philosophical system known variously as the
- Secret Doctrine or Tradition
- Ageless Wisdom Tradition
- Perennial Philosophy
- Secret Teachings of All Ages
- Ancient Mysteries or Mystery Schools
- Western Esoteric Tradition
- Occult Metaphysics
- Underground Stream, and, more recently,
- is referenced in the Human Potential and New Age movements.
In its latest incarnation The Kybalion was re-interpreted for a new age by Doreen Virtue, in Divine Magic: The Seven Sacred Secrets of Manifestation (A New Interpretation of the Classic Hermetic Manual The Kybalion) (2006).
One of the authors (or the sole author) of The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece (1912) is most certainly the New Thought writer, William Walker Atkinson (see also my blog post on him), whose many books and magazines under various pseudonyms were published by a variety of publishing houses having the same address. Atkinson was known to have worked with both Paul Foster Case and L.W. de Laurence (who plagarized A. E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot). Atkinson regularly quoted both Waite and the magician Eliphas Lévi in his more occult books. An earlier series of anonymous books, undoubtedly by Atkinson, called The Arcane Teaching (1909) contained some of the same material found in The Kybalion.
No one seems to know the origin of the “Seven Hermetic Principles” (most assume it was with Atkinson), but I have found a major source (perhaps the source) in an introduction to a translation of Hermetic writings by Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland called The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus (1885), with which Atkinson would have been very familiar.
Anna Kingsford & Edward Maitland
Anna Bonus Kingsford (1846-1888) was one of England’s first women physicians (she got her M.D. degree in Paris as women could not attend medical school in England). Married to an Anglican minister, Kingsford converted to Roman Catholicism and lived separately from her husband and daughter. She promoted women’s rights, vegetarianism and anti-vivisection in magazine articles and books and, with her spiritual partner Edward Maitland, wrote on mystical Christianity and Hermeticism in The Perfect Way, Clothed with the Sun and The Virgin of the World. As first president of The Theosophical Society’s London Lodge Kingsford found she preferred the Western Tradition to Oriental teachings and adherence to a belief in the Mahatmas. So, Kingsford left the Theosophical Society to form her own Hermetic Society—“for the study of mystical philosophy.” Founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, William Wynn Westcott and S.L. MacGregor Mathers, regularly attended and spoke at Hermetic Society meetings. In fact, Anna Kingsford, who died the year the Order was founded, was behind many of the ideals of the Golden Dawn, inspiring the term “Hermetic” in its name and advancing the notion that men and women should work together as equals toward their metaphysical goal. And, when the Golden Dawn created its own tarot deck using the unusual imagery of Perseus and Andromeda for The Lovers card, it came directly from a mystical interpretation of the myth in Kingsford’s book The Perfect Way. (See also Alan Pert’s excellent biography of Kingsford.)
As a young man, Edward Maitland (1824-1897) followed the gold strikes from California to Alaska to Australia, returning to England in 1857 to become a humanitarian writer and novelist. He eventually met Anna Kingsford, twenty-two years his junior, and became her spiritual partner in the mystical journey, co-authoring many books with her and writing her biography after her all-too-early death. Maitland recounts how, sometimes, when they were simultaneously under divine inspiration Kingsford’s writing would suddenly end exactly at a point where Maitland’s own, supposedly separate, text would begin—as if it were one continuous piece.
In this short introductory essay to The Virgin of the World (1885), called “The Hermetic System and the Significance of its Present Revival” we find nearly the same seven (unnumbered) laws, doctrines or principles that are found in The Kybalion.
The Seven Laws or Principles of Hermetic Philosophy
Here are the seven laws or principles as given in “The Hermetic System” introduction to The Virgin of the World. Not all are named “Law of . . . ” in the text, although most are. I have included some succinct explanations from the text, with some additional information from later in the book.
• The Law of Unity of Spirit/Mind. “However various the manifestation of the universal consciousness, or being, whether as regards its different planes, or its different modes on the same plane, they all are according to one and the same law, which, by its uniformity, demonstrates the unity of the informing spirit, or mind, which subsists eternally and independently of any manifestation. For: “The Essence of all is One.” . . . [It is] not made or generated; but is unapparent and unmanifest. . . . It is not life, mind, substance, but the cause of these. [Kybalion: The Principle of Mentalism]
• The Law of Correspondence. From the oneness of original Being comes, as a corollary, the law of correspondence between all planes, or spheres, of existence, in virtue of which the macrocosm is as the microcosm, the universal as the individual, the world as man, and man as God. . . . An earthly man, is a mortal God, and the heavenly God is immortal man.” [Kybalion: The Principle of Correspondence]
• The Law of Duality. It consists of principles inherently antagonistic; and also those which arise out of the kindred conception of non-consciousness as having a positive existence. . . . Total unconsciousness is thus not-being; and bears to consciousness the relation of darkness to light, the latter alone of the two being, however reduced, positive entity and darkness being non-entity. [Kybalion: The Principle of Polarity]
• The inexorable Law of Cause and Effect in things moral, in virtue of which man’s nature and conditions in the future are the result of the tendencies voluntarily encouraged by him in the past and present. [Kybalion: The Principle of Cause and Effect]
• The Law of Gravitation [or Affinity] pervades all planes, the spiritual as well as the physical; and it is according to his spiritual density that the plane of the individual is determined. . . . [The Soul] following the universal law of affinity, straightway gravitates to its proper level, sinking to its similars, and drawn to its analogues. [Kybalion: The Principle of Vibration]
• The Law of Gender/Generation. The relation of the sexes [symbolizes] the loftiest divine mysteries, and enjoins their exercise as a duty, the fulfillment of which, in some at least of his incarnations, is essential to the full perfectionment and initiation of the individual. The Hermetic system [is superior to pseudo-mystical systems] in its equal recognition of the sexes. . . . This law of generation is contained in Nature, in intellect, in the universe, and preserves all that is brought forth. The two sexes are full of procreation, and their union, or rather their incomprehensible at-one-ment, may be known as Eros, or as Aphrodite, or by both names at once. [Kybalion: The Principle of Gender]
Later in the book (not in the Introduction) we find the following:
• The Law of Eternal Movement in Equilibrium [& Recurring Seasons]. He has once for all bestowed life on all living creatures by an immutable law which I will expound to thee. The movement of the universe is the life of eternity; the sphere of this motion is the eternity of life. The universe will never cease from movement, nor will it ever become corrupt. . . . The effect of its motion is double; it is vivified by the eternity which encompasses it, and, in its turn, it vivifies all that it contains, diversifying everything according to certain fixed and determined numbers and seasons. All things are ordained in time by the action of the sun and the stars, according to a Divine law. Terrestrial periods are distinguished by the condition of the atmosphere, by the alternatives of heat and cold; celestial periods by the revolutions of the constellations, which return at fixed intervals of time to the same places in the heavens. The universe is the stage of time, the course and movement of which maintain Life. Order and time produce the renewal of all things in the world by recurring seasons. [Kybalion: The Principle of Rhythm. This was originally Atkinson’s Arcane Teaching Principle of Cycles, that included Kingsford and Maitland’s Doctrine of Rebirth. It later merged with The Principle of Rhythm so that Atkinson could add the Principle of Mentalism to The Kybalion.]
Importance to Tarot
Those interested in the tarot according to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Case’s Builders of the Adytum or the New Thought tradition of Eden Gray will find in both The Kybalion and in Kingsford & Maitland’s the Virgin of the World the core Hermetic principles that lie behind the conceptualization and interpretation of Golden Dawn and Waite-Smith-based decks and the “Secret” or “Ageless Wisdom” Tradition.
UPDATE: Richard Smoley has written an article for New Dawn magazine with even more material about the possible sources of this work.