Think Out as Well as Up: Ecosystems in Hermeticism

This is a continuation of last week’s essay on Seven Spheres and the Great Chain of Being. I do advise you to read that one first, and this simply picks up where it left off.

Before I go headfirst into my proposed model of magical activity, I want to be clear that all the stuff I am arguing in favor of can be found in Hermeticism. I am in no way arguing that Hermeticism itself is somehow lacking, in this pair of posts. Instead, I am arguing against the way that contemporary religious modeling and magical practice emphasizes one thing more than another. The GCB is not in itself bad, and Hermeticism is not inherently reliant on the GCB either.

The Earth in Hermeticism

Classical Hermetic texts don’t all agree on detailed points, but it’s worth pointing out that the Earth is important in the Hermetic system. As polyphanes of the Digital Ambler points out regarding Fr. RO’s conjuration system, it also includes the conjuration of elemental spirits as well as planetary spirits. The book Seven Spheres doesn’t mention that at all, but it’s in the system. And while the four classical elements are not the same as the planet we’re standing on, that planet does consist of those elements, just as we do. Sources might disagree on whether fire is a part of the Earth we live on, and whether air is the interface between the heavens and earth and also not part of the Earth itself, but to some degree, a Hermetic conjuration system that begins with the four classical elements is grounding the magician before sending them up. And it’s a kind of running joke in magical systems that people want to rush the grounding rituals, which are often the most important fundamental workings you’ll do in a system.

Polyphanes has told the story several times about his water conjuration rituals. Every time he did it, he got sick, something moist, like colds or influenzas. His metaphysical makeup wasn’t used to working with that element, so he was to some degree overwhelmed by the sudden influx. This example is really important later, so keep it in mind.

At its core, the system of SS and Fr. RO’s other work is about integrating many influences into yourself and your own life, shoring up weak Venusian currents here while opening to greater Jupiterian influences there, as well as learning where each should go and how they should work together. I may have grumbled last week about Fr. RO’s defaulting to the language of capitalism to describe Venus, but it demonstrates that “production” isn’t separate from intake and output – they’re all aligned, at least.

Ecosystem Model

The model I want to propose for consideration is an ecosystem model. Rather than thinking of the various planetary and elemental currents as a great chain, leading up to divinity, think of them as all coexisting and interplaying within a bounded system – you. The story of the creation of humans in the Corpus Hermeticum says that, as humans passed from heaven to earth, they partook of each planetary influence. Therefore, we are all made up of the planetary currents. We are acculturated to think of those as above, but they are also within.

Again, this is not in opposition to Hermeticism. It’s not even a new thought. It is different than it (maybe, more on that below), but Hermeticism also implies at points that the world is divine. In the Definitions of Hermes to Asclepius, we find that

there are three worlds on the whole: two units make up the sensible and one is the intelligible; one is after the species, and the third is after its fullness. The entire multiple belongs to the three worlds; two of them visible: the sensible and man, that destructible world; and the intelligible is this God: he is not visible, but evident within the visible. (Way of Hermes p. 109).

So in some sense the Hermetic God is visible through the world. The world is a medium through which one experiences the divine.

To reiterate, this is not a repudiation of Hermeticism so much as a centering of things that, in my opinion, are often marginalized in the study and practice of Hermeticism, particularly given the influence of the Great Chain of Being and works such as Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy on the field.

Think of it this way: ecosystems are finely balanced, functioning systems. The interplay of plants, animals, soil, air, water, and heat, among other things, are tuned in together in a way that’s incredibly complex. Change – change, never mind remove! – one element, and everything else changes. Once upon a time, an ecological study claimed to have found that mosquitoes were totally outside their ecosystems: they added nothing to the system. But bats eat them, yes? People hate wasps, but then they get confused as to why their gardens are ruined by aphids, which wasps eat. Agriculture is even starting to catch up, even with something as simple as companion planting (please note that agricultural history is its own thing and, often, the experts have known a lot of this for a lot longer than people have been putting it into practice; and also some groups have known about it longer than that. It’s a gross oversimplification and colonialist statement to say all indigenous groups knew how to do this and no one listened. However, there are a bunch of individual cases where that’s absolutely true).

Magical currents can be conceived and modeled as ecosystems. The fine interplay of elements, planets, and other influences lead to me, and another fine interplay leads to you. If, as Voltaire said, somewhat satirically, we should tend our gardens, we shouldn’t overplant Venus and ignore Saturn.

It is part of my claim that the cultural overfocus on the Great Chain of Being can lead to statements like “Saturn is optional.” It is another part of my claim that ecosystem thinking avoids it. I’m sure ecosystem thinking has its own foibles, but like all magicians, I know we can hold two disparate thoughts at the same time. I propose the ecosystem model not as a replacement for the Great Chain of Being, but as a companion to it. Consider ecosystem thinking as a companion plant to the GCB: each supports the other so both flourish.

They went together in other traditions, after all. Consider Alexander Pope’s poem dedicated to it:

See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high, progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below!
Vast chain of being! which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no man can see,
No glass can reach; from infinite to thee;
From thee to nothing—On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours;
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:
From nature’s chain, whatever link you strike,
Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll,
Alike essential to the amazing whole;
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.
(Pope, "The Great Chain of Being")

“Were we [to]… in the full creation leave a void, / Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroy’d: / From nature’s chain, whatever link you strike, / Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.”

Every single link in the “chain” is necessary to the existence of the chain. An ecosystem model just shifts that idea to the foreground, by reminding us that things die when certain elements are missing. And yes, that includes Saturn. An ecosystem with a part that grows and grows without ever stopping or dying isn’t health, it has cancer.

The Outer Limit

It’s hard to know how to wrap up a pair of posts like this pair. I’ve iterated and reiterated so hard that I sound like a game dev. But to do it one more time, in an attempt to head off people who will get mad at things I didn’t really say: Hermeticism is bound up with the Great Chain of Being, because to some degree it privilege that which does not change, and only one end of that chain can be described that way. So Hermeticism is traditionally about trying to go up, not just to improve things – you can improve things down, or out, or in or anywhere else a mouse can go. This is not, on its own, bad, but it can lead to bad consequences sometimes. One such consequence is the idea, in an otherwise good intermediate Hermetic magical text, that Saturn is optional. It is not. Ecosystem modeling helps us to re-envision the Hermetic world as one in which all things inter-are, not to disprove Hermeticism, but to more carefully map the ways that we might use and explore it in our lives.

I am not saying Hermeticism is bad. I am not even quite saying the GCB is bad, even though usually it is true that I don’t care for it personally. I am also not saying that a fully modern ecosystem model is present in classical Hermetic texts. Absolutely not. The authors didn’t have access to those models, and therefore couldn’t make use of them. I am saying that we can improve our experience of this form of magic by layering on another model or holding them side by side. We’re magicians, we can do this.

A follow up to this post is in the works, so if you found it interesting, look forward to that!

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4 thoughts on “Think Out as Well as Up: Ecosystems in Hermeticism

  1. Pingback: The Hermetic Garden Plot: Hermeticism and Ecosystem Companionability – G Conley: Magic Arts

  2. Pingback: Para-Hermeticism: Goofy Name, Common Experience – G Conley: Magic Arts

  3. Pingback: G Conley: Magic Arts

  4. Pingback: Development, Tree Branches, and Justness – G Conley: Magic Arts

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