Imagine for a moment that you’re a young child or a teenager, and after finding that the religion you were raised with wasn’t working for you, you took your first steps into other religious beliefs. You looked into other sects of your own faith, and half a dozen World Religions, but you eventually concluded that none of them were right for you. Over a few months or even years, you find yourself in the realm of alternative spirituality. The first thing you would probably notice is the sheer mass of books, resources, websites, and groups – all of them declaring their uniqueness, but many of them with much of the same basic beliefs and themes. And being a teenager, you are drawn to all this variety, because as a young person, you are exploring all of the different experiences you can, in an attempt to find what means the most to you.
Over time, you’ll find yourself going through several different paths, eventually finding one that suits you, and though you’ll still be involved in the larger community, you’ll gradually gravitate closer an closer to a more select group of people with a similar spirituality. In time, you’ll eventually discover that the community at large full of “special” people, who despite their motivations to the contrary, are labelled by society as pretty much the same thing: Pagan/New Age/Occult. You’ll find that though some people are proud and devoted to their chosen paths, that many will drift into a vague classification – likely Eclectic Neopaganism, New Age, or Occultist – without any specific group affiliation or the maintenance of in-depth discussion.
For most of us into alternative spirituality, this is a strongly repeated scenario. So much in fact that those who do eventually pick a solid path, whether it is Alexandrian Wicca or Hellenismos or Rosicrucianism, are in the strong minority. Most of the people in our community are so vague in their path, that even the terms Neopagan or Occultist are too much of a label for them – sometimes offensively so. Now, you could certainly argue that this attitude is fostered through isolation and prolonged frustration, and though you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that, it’s not the whole story. This attitude extends far further into the substratum of our culture than it ever does our psychology or metaphysics. This has to do with the history of those beliefs, and what shaped them.
If you look at most modern alternative belief systems, you’ll find that there are two main branches:
The first branch includes Polytheistic Reconstructionist traditions such as Asatru, Hellenismos, Kemetic Polytheism, Religio Romana, Natib Qadish, Mesopotamian Polytheism, Rodnovery, and the like. It also is thought to include African Diasporic Traditions such as Voodoo and Santeria, as well as Traditional Witchcraft, which despite it’s modern appeal, is rooted in oral tradition in Europe extending back to the Middle Ages.
The second branch includes Wicca, Druidism, Golden Dawn, Thelema, New Age, and every other modern occult tradition or modern mystical tradition you can think of. Though these paths have several important historical antecedents, they are clearly modern reinterpretations of ideas, and most of them do not make reservations to the contrary.
The important feature of both branches is their European bias. Alternative forms of spirituality as we know them, are a product of European culture and society – most notably in Britain, but extending into most if not all of Western Europe. Though things like Wicca and Druidism have a decidedly polytheistic flavor in comparison to ceremonial magick traditions like the Golden Dawn, they all invariably share their roots in the same early occult traditions of the late 19th century, which were themselves inspired by the Renaissance. The second, and most vital quality that connects all these paths together, is their emphasis on magical practice – often in tandem with or in replace of traditional religious or devotional practice. Bearing this in mind, you start to realize that most all of Neopagan and Occult paths are essentially following a line back to the core of what has been dubbed The Western Esoteric Tradition. This has been used to describe everything from Qabalah to Egyptian Magic, but what that effectively translates to, at least in the minds of those who practice it, is Hermeticism.
But that begs the question: What is Hermeticism?
Hermeticism itself is used as a buzzword to describe Hellenistic views during the late Roman empire leading into the Christian era – also called the Hellenistic Period. Hermeticism is used so frequently because of it’s ubiquity in modern thinking, and because of the proliferation of Post-Renaissance occult interpretations, which rely (at least in some part) in Hermetic teachings. But Hellenistic, as the more appropriate term here, includes not only Hermeticism, but Greek Mysteries such as Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and Orphic Tradition, but also the cult of Mithras, Christian and Persian Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Mysticism.
So what people are really getting at with all of this vague labeling, whether they want to admit it or not, is that they are basically practicing Greek Magic. Though that may seem a bit broad of a generalization, it’s important to realize that all of these mystical traditions, all of the ceremony, the tools, the hierarchies, the orders and covens, etc… they all are rooted in Greek or at least Greco-Roman cultural ideas about spirituality and especially mysticism – the very word mysticism is Greek. Despite all the ways people try to make their paths appear differently, they all come back to this older time and older way of dealing with things.
All that being said however, it’s important to realize that the Hellenistic Period played host to a myriad of different traditions – as was evidenced by my above statements. It was a time in the late Roman Period, where lots of different faiths and traditions were in contact, and despite how much the Greeks and Romans “hellenized” these ideas, they were pretty diverse. As it happens though, from both a technical and mythological perspective, Hermeticism is probably the most syncretic as well as distinct form of magico-religious belief system that came out of the Hellenistic Period. It is not only well-suited for magical practice, but is designed for it – so much in fact, that it created a religion around it.
And there in lies the essential point of what I’m getting at here:
Hermeticism is a religion – albeit one that has evolved considerably over time, but one that still exists to this day. It exists in modern occult traditions like the Golden Dawn and Thelema, in lineaged and even solitary forms of Wicca and Contemporary Witchcraft, in New Age philosophy, and even some forms of Druidism. Hermeticism is not only a religion centered around magic, but is a wholly syncretic tradition that preaches universalism over cultural consistency, and uses a metaparadigm as an over-arching framework to contextualize all of the different mythologies it incorporates.
The problem is that many people in both the Pagan and Occult community are in denial. Neopagans get upset with Reconstructionists because they are too traditional and less universal, and freeform Occultists get mad at the initiated because they follow a structured code, and respect the gods and spirits, instead of being morally ambiguous and apathetic. What little Hermetic philosophy still exists in these traditions is largely discarded in favor of ego. Instead of following a Wiccan Rede or the Hermetic Quaternary, so many fluffy-bunnies and stagnating neophytes have no rules, and broadcast their once secret magical traditions to all those who pay attention. The amount of those who claim to have power, but accept no code of conduct or responsibility, despite how close their paths are to Hermetic concepts, greatly outweigh those who do.
Though I am personally a devotional Polytheist, and I don’t ascribe to Hermetic philosophies, I do practice mysticism and magic when needed – much of which is inspired by the Greco-Roman world. I read books, do lots of research, and use my creativity and intuition to design rituals suited for the often difficult task of creating effective spiritual change – when mysticism and magic presents itself as the ideal solution to a task or problem. I have my own religious beliefs, and they help ground my mystical practices, but so many modern Neopagans and Occultists do everything they can to deny religion in favor of magical practice. What they fail to realize is, the Hermetic ideals that link them to Greco-Roman culture also link them to Greek and Roman Religion, where things like philosophy and mysticism were other layers or aspects of Religion, but they were largely separate from public religion. It is this kind of practical separation that is lacking in alternative spirituality – that kind of discretion and propriety is lost on many of those we associate in our community, and it needs to be welcomed back into the fold.
Some final thoughts:
It is my opinion that Hermeticism, as a philosophy of belief, conduct, and magical practice, are needed for the newer generation. Not just for Contemporary Witches and Occultists, but for all those who are interested in studying reliable concepts of mysticism. It’s influence on modern society is immense, and should not be taken for granted – now more than ever. It is my belief that all of the hyper-sensitivity among Pagans and Occultists is largely due to their inability to find a balance between their desire to be unique and their desire to be together. So much of their core philosophy is rooted in the universalism of mankind, but the distrust and fear many of them have harbored has displaced those noble virtues from their hearts. The best way to heal that kind of resentment is to learn and grown. Accept that things are much bigger than us, and realize that our path to understanding is not just about our own wants and desires, but about connection – between ourselves, our families, our friends, and our gods.