The popularity of Hermeticism soared around the same time as the first Tarot, even becoming a kind of decorative kitsch, with many flavors of esoteric rambling, sometimes aesthetic, sometimes artistically profound within and without the church. Scholars now agree that many things may have been grouped together under that label that were not originally related, leading to overly simple conclusions today – the most common one being that an old world had disappeared and a new one was forced into its place. Viewed from a perspective of power, this mistake is easy to understand, generally the view of the powerless does not easily accept a theory of significant change. But Hermeticism is stated up front as being dedicated to the good, and wisdom is its prize, and so it found homes in many different philosopher’s homes and became naturally entangled with them.
In the Renaissance, the Hermetic story becomes involved with a narrative of loss, memory, and longing for the return of balance. So it includes not only empires and famous figures, it can be found to compare paradises of pleasure to hells of warfare and corruption. A conflict not so much over a lost past, but a matter of lost understanding, and disconnection from nature.
The Emerald Tablet is a legendary piece of Hermetic lore. It was said to be the central object from an unspecified temple of Thoth, though Egyptologists have found no parallel to this legend in the primary sources. Hermes Trimestigus (Thrice-Great) was the name the Greeks gave to that Egyptian god, recognized as a different face for their own inventor of writing, but distinguished by a unique doctrine of ‘Thrice Greatness’.
The origin of the Emerald Tablet story can be traced to an esoteric tract floating around in the Renaissance era that scholars mainly agree, is most likely to have been originally written in Arabic, somewhere around the 8th Century, and was brought back in translation by Crusaders.
The timing of the document is suggestive of any number of sources, which could have made their way into a surviving scrap in Arabic. Justinian being a notable cause of such remainders, for closing the academies and banishing scholars from the precincts of Sophia, many of whom fled south and east to other learning centers. It was this imperial attack on its own scholars that led key source documents to drift away into other languages, where such works were preserved, even Aristotle, and only returned to the West later by way of another culture’s archives. One thing we can all have in common with humanists in the Renaissance, is in lamenting how much wisdom and connection has been lost, repeatedly, by the habit of unchecked power to destroy knowledge and limit the minds of humanity.
My impression of the brief Emerald Tablet is that it is from a very old academic and spiritual tradition, that strongly focused on comparison, union and intersection. One that possibly played a hand, before it was banished and erased, in the development of a church that some Renaissance humanists thought was an imperfect representation of a more timeless pursuit. As you will see a little later, at times they went as far as to describe it as a kind of coup. Scholars in the Renaissance dwelled on several major historical dispersals of their forebears, that contributed to this change in power and outlook – Caesar destroying the libraries of Alexandria, Justinian’s banishing of the Platonic Academies, and the Second Crusade where the armies for the Roman church devastated the capital of the Eastern church out of sheer greed and laziness, which led to the fall of Constantinople. Each event sent scholars spilling in every direction, looking for safe harbor.
By the time of the Tarot, yet another utterly endless war over dogma had spoiled the land and lives of the people, and the artwork’s attitude reflects having had quite enough. The popularity of Hermeticism then was not purely about the transmission of past wisdom, but also as a rebellious or balancing aesthetic. It was embraced by cultured, learned people to show they were not purely enslaved to official disputes and politics, and sought earnestly to protect themselves from both the toll of militarism and religious abuse that fueled it. Perhaps it was also a denouncement of the vanity of nobles, made by nobles, in an effort to win the public or protect themselves, and show they were not mere stooges in the thrall of internal warfare and conquest, but preferred to engage in culture and infrastructure building instead. The region’s use of allegory was traditional to avoid danger, but also served as a public declaration that they were no longer in hiding, and were free to nuance their own houses of faith.
In this way lore under the umbrella of Hermeticism was also a resistance movement pushing back new forms of tyranny – against the Inquisition which had made its first target the French region of Languedoc, at precisely the same time that Spain decreed its expulsion of Jews. Our Plutarch wrote that he was radicalized as young man, by watching the church participate in the sale of an entire population of Moors as slaves in Spain. The Hermetic flowering would eventually work its balance, though centuries passed before many felt its relief, and bad seeds in the church would no longer be able to easily incite open war on those who did not subscribe to their particular doctrines, or to murder women for healing or seeking their own choice in healers.
The cards first appear not long before the Inquisitor’s intolerant office was established, indicating the climate of the times. All Hermeticism really did to resist was to exalt humility, wisdom and nature – through art, literature and performance, and this found intellectual allies within all the major establishments. It was ultimately the church’s own extremists, who drove decisions to create an ever ‘more violent Christianity’ that can fairly be said to have caused it to splinter, even then taking many more innocents with them. Sadly, new voices like theirs continue to prey on people.
Text of the Tablet
So here is Sir Isaac Newton’s own translation from the Latin of the legendary Emerald Tablet of the Alchemists, which is written as a riddle:
- Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
- That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below, to do the miracles of one thing only.
- And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
- The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
- The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
- Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
- Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
- It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
- By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
- & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
- Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
- So was the world created.
- From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
- That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
Here is a Latin version printed in Nuremburg in 1541:
Now when it comes to Hermes the Thrice Great, there is an interesting theory about the first three Trumps, namely that each is a different face of Hermes, or are three criteria to confirm if something is a fit and can be called Hermetic. It’s interesting, because in occult legend, which holds the Tarot as a Book of Hermes, these first three cards are traditionally interpreted as different facets of one’s own self! As that goes, the Fool is one’s wild or simple state, the Magician one’s skillful state, and the Papess or High Priestess is one’s higher self.
But in being introduced as also being of these sorts of greatness, we have a new puzzle to solve. The first Hermes, then, is the Fool. We know that Hermes was a master of disguise, being young or old at will, handy for someone who is constantly traveling. There are many accounts of the fool being virtually naked, suggesting a humble manner, or just the preferred garb of a messenger. Standing stones, especially at crossroads, were thought of as his earliest images, also stone piles and grave markers, which add his reputation for being connected to travel to the other world of death. Such places were the haunts of travelers and hermits, places of shelter, in multiple senses of the term. Dwelling in the woods and sleeping by the side of the road, milestones themselves were associated. Certain types of standing stones, called Herms, are essentially a phallus or lingam, and played fertility roles. Perhaps the Wanderer card is indeed our Hermes of the Road.
A famous road story, recorded in Ovid and therefore well known in the Renaissance, was of Philemon and Baucis, in which a poor couple generously entertains two gods who arrive disguised as poor travelers. In thanks, they warn the couple that the village was going to be destroyed, but their lives would be spared if they climbed a certain mountain and did not look back.
Last but not least, the winged feet of course point to both light steps and swift movement, and mail in those days was conducted by messenger, so as a runner, and a skillful dancer as well. Everything about this character points to a person with few possessions but their wits, here, there and everywhere in between, a wanderer of humblest persuasion.
The second Hermes would be our Magician, and this is a perfectly good fit in a few ways. First of course is a reputation for magic, but also of business and fortune, of speedy returns. The Magician is an entertainer and in every card is in public, conducting business.
In some forms, he wears a winged helmet like a cauldron or crucible turned upside down, recalling amusing parallels between the mind and a boiling stew or a place to melt down the hardest metals. It is a modern view that genius is a possession, anthropologists have explained that genius was once more widely thought to be a visitor, another kind of possession.
The caduceus of course is archetypal of a magic wand in action. It is topped with various visual symbols ‘combining all of creation’, the twin headed crescent, the entwined serpents, or the eternal or love knot. In the middle of them, gathering or passing through them, a straight and simple wand, topped with a sphere, sometimes winged, to again denote the light and the swift. It is the sort of wooden support that painters have used for a long time, to reduce hand fatigue when painting details. It endures as an emblem of the medical world today, as serpents were symbols of medicine and healing in ancient times. Every emblem of this device points to creation and creativity.
Finding the third Hermes in the High Priestess might take a little imagination. Beyond the somewhat typical association with the soul or the sanctuary as feminine, the original title of Papess indicates a more formidable role. The most common association is with Isis, which has a unifying mother role, as both a mostly secret foundation of the patriarchal structure that had developed and a not so secret contributor to Marian culture. But to draw closer to the book’s subject and find a third face, the tradition of Hermaphroditus makes a closer fit. In myth, the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite was a beautiful androgyny. The surprise gender switch of a Papess card, in the midst of a society that did not acknowledge such a post, matches this idea well, there’s something impossible and yet of vital importance about the third card.
In a deck that moves on to familiar cycles, symbols and ranks, the first three cards start out as quite a strong statement with this combination of the male and female gods of sexual fertility. The third card would quickly be adapted to include two pillars, reinforcing a kind of balance inherent in its purpose. The book symbol could refer to the mythic role of the alphabet, or a statement about language itself. So we have a third card that points to balance, unity and combination.
If we were to use the first three cards to reflect on what was Thrice Great, one might then guess: humility, creativity, and unity. These correspond neatly to the three Great Principles, of cardinal, mutable and fixed.
But even if this theory of three faces is the intention behind the first three cards, and I’m not convinced that they are, we still have the initial imagery depicted to discuss. The actual imagery led some early interpretations to instead see three states of man – the pauper, the merchant, and then the noble ranks. But again, the Papess card throws a wrench in that idea, which doesn’t make such obvious sense. Indeed, none of the three are very typical of these suggested ranks. In the first Fool cards, we have depicted not a noble spiritual seeker, but a bedraggled person, an outcaste, a sin eater, or a person with mental challenges. Nearly all the first Magician cards are referred to as Jugglers, and are not displaying the four elements tidily, but a small table of various wares or tricks, that only later become uniform. And the Papess is not seated between two solemn columns, but was possibly someone very real to them, like a woman from a noble family, or author of the deck. In this case we derive not three noble principles, but three conditions of life, and none of them are usual – a beggar rather than a peasant, a conjurer rather than any other sort of merchant, and a woman of means and power (with an impossible title to prove it). Rather, we have three exceptions, so I don’t think they are representative of the states of life. I think it’s important to keep in mind the possible social and economic purposes the artist who devised the deck had in mind, and there may have been obvious connections now lost. See what I’ve written for each card for further speculations.
If that isn’t enough for one mystery, let me add one more, a poetic one, remembering that the Thrice Great refers specifically the the Ibis, whose footprints are said to be one inspiration for writing, and whose head looks like a stylus dipped in ink…. what if the three faces were as simple as a bird, a human, and a tree? Just for fun.
As we progress through the deck, we will find that many other cards possess some or all of these Hermetic principles, or personas that are part of the wider lore in various cultures and times, whose stories possess these principles.