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(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination)
Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ contained in international copyright law.
Cover image: ‘The Alchemy of Happiness,’ by Abū Hāmid alGhazzālī 1308 Persian copy held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This Image is in the Public domain.
Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.
Island Twenty-Nine –Isle of Scribes, Athletes and Alchemists
[Hermes] is most likely the same dark depth of being from which we all originate…Perhaps for this reason Hermes can so convincingly hover before us, lead us on our ways, show us golden treasures in everyone through the split-second timing which is the spirit of finding and thieving—all of this because he creates his reality out of us, or more properly, through us …1 The master enchanter volatizes himself before our very eyes like a breath of wind.2
Not long after my son, Caleb, was born I wrote a number of poems later included in a digital chapbook entitled: Hermes and the Philatelic Construction of the Multiverse. The poems were inspired by my childhood fascination with stamp collecting. Only later did I realize that the poems were also permeated by the figure of Hermes, both a Greek god and, in alchemy, a kind of archetype for the medieval magician/alchemist (known as Hermes Trismegistus). Eight of the poems were published and a number were placed highly in competitions. I ended up feeling rather fond of Hermes, the mischief-maker God. The experience eventually made me look more closely at the Hermes archetype that had appeared so unexpectedly in my poetry. Given Jungians are always on the lookout for the archetypes that are ‘constellating’ in a person’s psyche I decided to purchase and read some of Jung’s books to see what he had to say about Hermes (i.e. in the context of Archetypal Psychology). Anyone who knows Jung’s work will laugh at my naivety. As it turned out, Jung wrote three large books3 on alchemy and psychology. Indeed he spent decades pondering obscure alchemy texts after his split with Freud. I discovered that Jung’s Archetypal Psychology merges Freudian psychoanalysis with pre-modern spiritual alchemy and Gnosticism. I also realized that the Jungian technique of ‘active imagination’—which I had adopted back in 1983 as a writing technique—was developed by Jung as a modern version of alchemical trance and meditation techniques.4 In an effort to track the ‘swift-footed God’, I purchased Jung’s three volumes along with key works on Hermes by other writers, e.g. Norman O. Brown, Antoine Faivre, Garth Fowden, Karl Kerenyi, and Rafael Lopez-Pedraze.5 I also bought modern translations of the ‘Hymn to Hermes’ as well as dozens of academic texts on alchemy.6
Kerenyi, Hermes: Guide of Souls, p. 97. Kerenyi, Hermes: Guide of Souls, p. 73. 3 Jung’s major works on alchemy are: Psychology and Alchemy, 2nd edition, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 12, Bollingen Series XX, 1980.; Alchemical Studies, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 13, Bollingen Series XX, 1968; and Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Opposites, 2nd edition, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 14, Bollingen Series XX, 1976. 4 Hermes is linked to a number of other mythical and legendary figures, notably: alchemy ’s Mercurius and Hermes Trisemegistus; the Egyptian god Thoth; the Babylonian scribe god Nebu; the Germanic deity Wotan/Woden and, say some, the Indian/Hindu God Shiva as well as a number of Celtic deities. 5 Kerenyi, Karl. Hermes: Guide of Souls, revised edition. Spring Publications, Inc. 2003. Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, 1986, Princeton University Press, 1993. Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, Phanes Press, 1995. Trans. Joscelyn Godwin. Brown, Norman O. Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth, Lindisfarne Press, 1990 (First Published 1947). Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Hermes and His Children, Spring Publications, 1977. 6 Around 2010 or so my research on Hermes and Alchemy morphed into studies of modern cosmology, quantum mechanics, biosemiotics information theory and contemporary biological theories. Ancient Hermes had led me a
In the winter of 2008—whilst holed up for a fortnight due to a nasty flu—I set about reading Jung’s three volumes on alchemy and psychology. I soon realized that Hermes was a profoundly important archetype to Jung. I also realized that Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus and Mercury (the Roman equivalent to Hermes) were at the very heart of the proto-science called ‘alchemy’. Kerenyi’s Hermes: Guide of Souls, which was concerned with the classical ‘traits’ associated with Hermes, was a revelation. According to Kerenyi, Hermes belongs, at least in part, to the night, to the unconscious and to death. His is a world (cosmos) that values obscurity and indefiniteness—qualities linked to the deity’s stealth, swiftness and capacity to move between various worlds. Similarly, Hermes is ‘volatile’ possesses the ability to make things happen ‘behind’ the scenes. Jung made use of these aspects of the Hermes archetype by linking the God to his concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ and also to the therapeutic and creative possibilities of dreams, symbols and transpersonal phenomena. As I read I became fascinated by the lessons creative artists might learn from the Hermes archetype. I began to see the Homeric Hymn to Hermes as an alternative (and obviously ancient) mythological narrative for creative men in particular (though the American modernist poet H.D. adopted Hermes as a kind of male muse figure). In this sense his approach to creativity contrasts with that of Apollo, Dionysus and Orpheus (the other crucial ancient Greek ‘creativity’ archetypes’). More importantly, as a Trickster God, he is kin to trickster figures found in myths, legends and folk-tales from all over the world (unlike Apollo and Dionysus). To understand the ‘world of Hermes’, as Kerenyi puts it, a brief biographical description of the God is in order.7 This, in turn, implies detours into Greek Mythology, Hermetism and the history of Alchemy. I ask in advance that readers bear with me as we track the trickster-comeconnection maker God across an island populated by athletes, alchemists, diplomats, psychotherapists, scribes, sheep-herders, thieves, traders/economists and travelers. Archaic Feature of Hermes—the Cardinal Hermetic Qualities Both Hermes and Thoth, in their respective traditions, were inventors of writing and protectors of scribes. They were also divine guardians of esoteric knowledge of all descriptions and, as a consequence, archetypal teachers. It is, however, in the figure of Hermes/Mercury that the impulses of the ‘psychologist/shaman’ fuse most seamlessly with the impulses of the ‘writer/poet’. This ancient fusion, goes back, at the very least, to Classical descriptions of Hermes. Those exhibiting the Hermetic disposition (unlike the Orphic or Dionysian dispositions) can be both healers of imbalances within and between souls and masters of story-telling, poetry and the like. Both faculties can coexist and enrich each other. Jung himself is evidence of this grand and ancient fusion, with his long commitment to both psychology and alchemy, and his life-long interest in art and literature. These days he is certainly known as one of the most
merry dance indeed! In the end I found him and his ‘trickster’ crew at the heart of a) the information/digital/internet revolutions; b) cultural postmodernism (via his influence over writing and language); and c) information exchange protocols fundamental to both organic life (‘biosemiotic Hermes) and perhaps even non -organic matter (i.e. information theories positing the Multiverse as a vast Quantum computer) 7 Of course, the synthesis here outlined represents, but one possibly alternative to the contemporary neo-liberal influenced ‘celebrity writer’ syndrome everywhere endemic—I have no doubt that other equally effective models for conducting the work of creativity could be explored.
creative of psychologists; i.e. one of the most in-tune with the creative imagination. Similarly, a figure such as the German poet Goethe can be seen as the most alchemical, and in modern terms ‘psychological’, of poets! Kerenyi’s book, Hermes: Guide of Souls, uncovers a rich classical history to the deity. To Kerenyi, Hermes is a fascinating but elusive deity since his modus operandi is saturated with qualities these days associated with what Jung called the ‘trickster archetype’. As God of thieves and trickery (though usually in the ultimate best interests of a community or individual) he possesses a charming though self-effacing personality as well as an unnerving capacity to move about as though invisible. He is also the God of travelers and is known as the ‘messenger god’ or divine ‘herald’. Hermes is also a figure of sudden abrupt change, of movement between worlds, specifically between Olympus, the mortal world and Hades. This capacity for psycho-spiritual (and metaphoric) ‘flight’ is famously symbolized by his winged sandals and winged traveler’s hat. This ancient association with thresholds and transitions also landed him the job of divine psycho-pomp, or leader of recently departed souls as they journeyed to Hades. In the Greek tradition death thus meant an inevitable encounter with Hermes (and his ‘caduceus’ or wand of serpents). He was also the god of good cheer, communality, fulfilled male domesticity, wealth and successful trade. In this sense he was often depicted as a friendly fellow, almost like a close male friend. This is how he manifests in Homer’s The Odyssey where he helps Odysseus escape various enchanted islands through his potions and diplomatic skills. The ‘caduceus’, or wand of entwined snakes (some say representing illness and recuperation), that Hermes is often depicted carrying, was also associated with Asclepius, the Greek healer God. As a sacred symbol it perhaps date back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Ancient Near-East. It has been argued that as archetypal ‘magician’—also as a key figure in many classical mystery traditions—Hermes presided over psycho-spiritual healing. This domain of influence, mediated later through the alchemical figure ‘Mercurius’, interested Jung greatly and by his account led to the development of Archetypal Psychology’. Four aspects of the classical Hermes are worth re-emphasizing with regard to their importance to modern writers and artists: 1) his association with the invention of writing and thus his close association with the craft of writing and thus with writers; 2) his association with music (interestingly he is said to inspire an embodied, sexual almost ‘shameless’ kind of music8) via the magical tortoise shell he purportedly gave, in the form of a lyre, to Apollo [‘Hermes was the first/ to manufacture songs/ from the turtle he encountered …]9 ; 3) his profound association with esoteric knowledge and magic of all descriptions; and 4) his association with three bee, or fate, goddesses, who ‘prophesied’ (sang like muses) when drunk on honey. Nor Hall, in discussing their relationship to creativity, writes: ‘These three fabled sisters whose ancient heads come up withered from pollen-filled flowers, are responsible for both poetic inspiration and madness’. In further discussing the ‘Thriae’, Hall informs us:
One represents madness, another clarity, and the third the brink, the place or phenomena of reversal … things turn into their opposites. 10
Hekate—with whom Hermes had many things in common—was said to have given similar gifts to the young Hermes. Like the Bee-Goddesses, he is often depicted as three-headed. The
See the Hymn to Hermes. From the Hymn to Hermes, as translated and discussed in Kerenyi, 2003. 10 Hall, Nor. The Moon and the Virgin: Reflections on the Archetypal Feminine p.215, 1981.
associations between poetic madness (for good or ill), the three female fates, and Hermes as ‘ruler of dreams’ (hegetor oneiron) have been noted by modern scholars of the imagination, as well as by depth psychologists. From Hermes Trismegistus to the Mercurius of the Alchemists There are some differences between the classical Hermes (who was perceived as a God) and the mysterious, though more or less human, figure of Hermes Trismegistus, legendary founder of Hermetic philosophy and the author of the ‘Emerald Tablet’—a key text in the Corpus Hermeticum. Many sections of the Corpus are believed to date back to at least the first century CE, perhaps earlier, though in Medieval times, they were believed to be older still, going back to Egyptian sources that preceded the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Apart from the deity/human divide, the other obvious difference between the two figures is that the Hermes Trismegistus of the Corpus comes across as an early adherent of a kind of pagan monotheism11— indeed Burckhardt notes that the Hermes of the Corpus believes in the ‘the transcendent principle of the intellect’12 At times this Hermes ‘thrice great’ appeared to initiates as absurd, at other times he seemed sublime. Hermes as deity, however, is by definition an invention of the polytheistic Greek mind. A blurring of the lines was inevitable, and thus no matter how much the Church fathers of the Medieval period attempted to see the Hermetic writings (like the writings of Plato), and thus Hermes Trismegistus, as ‘pre-Christian seeds of the Logos’13 the earlier figure of Hermes/Mercury was ever in danger of running the show—as is evidenced by the Medieval fondness for blurring the lines, pictorially speaking, between Hermes as polytheistic god and Hermes Trismegistus. This tendency is particularly evident, as we would expect, in the alchemical images and texts of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods—i.e. periods when church hegemony was threatened by firstly Humanism and later, Science. This tension between monotheistic, or at least monist, tendencies (though according to Walter Scott the books of the Corpus in no sense outline a Judo-Christian monotheism) and polytheistic tendencies shadows the entire Western Hermetic-Alchemical tradition, right through to the twentieth century. Indeed, one can sense it in Jung’s Archetypal Psychology, given many of his theoretical constructs are in dialogue with Renaissance and Early Modern alchemical texts. Hermes, however, was intent on further shape-shifting! The ‘Mercurius’ of Medieval alchemy is not quite Hermes Trismegistus, nor is he Hermes the Greek deity, rather he is best understood as a kind of ‘spirit of transformation’. In this sense he (though in many respects s/he might be a better designation given his association with the original hermaphroditic creation) is said to be the beginning, the middle and the end of the ‘Great Work’—in short an arch-daimon in
This is most obviously confirmed by the Hermetic creation myth outlined in ‘Libellvs 1’ of the Corpus (trans. in Walter Scott, Hermetica, p.117-125]—it is a very long way from the foundation polytheistic Greek creation myths we find in Homer, Hesiod, etc. In the Hermetic myth, God, the ‘Original Mind’, is described as bisexual and s/he gives birth to a second mind, a ‘Maker of things’ who in turn creates ‘Seven Administrators’ i.e. the Seven Planets, who of course at that time were associated with the classical Gods. Another female figure, Nature, who is described as ‘bereft of reason’, also figures prominently in the Creation process in that she falls in love with a creation of the Original Mind, i.e. man, and in a standard patriarchal trope, ‘man’ is seduced by, in this case, ‘Nature void of reason’ such that he becomes tangled in ‘matter’, ever -after a tragic dual being, partly of the immortal realm, partly of the realm of matter. Interestingly, however, the figure of Nature also creates ‘Seven [bisexual humans] according to the characters of the [Seven Planets]’ Immediately after their creation, however, these creatures are split apart into male and female by the Original Mind’s will—in short a second fall, the first being the seduction of man by Nature. 12 Burckhardt, T. Alchemy, p.37. 13 Ibid, p.37.
whom the dualisms and contradictions of everyday existence were somehow resolved. Some alchemists also saw Mercurius as a personification of the Imagination. There is no doubt that elements of Hermetic philosophy were central to alchemy (the figure of the hermaphrodite for example), but the alchemical obsession with the elements, the planets, and of course the physical processes involved in transforming the prima materia, base metals and so on, grounded alchemical activities in ‘Nature’ to such a degree that the more transcendental aspects of Hermetic philosophy were often subsumed under a philosophy of immanence, that eventually helped birth scientific materialism. The Lessons of Hermes Concerning ‘Creativity’ After reading everything I could on Hermes and alchemy I paused for a time to work out what I’d learnt from studying the archetype closely. I realised: a) that I possessed an ‘alternative’ archetype associated with male creativity; b) that the archetype much more closely resembled my own creative personality, c) that mutations to the archetype were a driving force behind what is known as ‘cultural postmodernism’ (with its obsession with language codes and zones between worlds). I came to the conclusion that a postmodern/Hermesian understanding of the writer/poet’s social role had a great deal to offer. Recall that as God of mediation Hermes implies a commitment to ego diminishment through acts of literary social service (understood in part as political engagement aimed at affirming the role of the arts and the imagination in any quest for personal and social integration)—a wonderful antidote to the ego enlargement agenda that is so much a part of the modern literary world. I also suspect that Hermes—in his transformed, rebuslike state—is no friend of oppressors.14 I’m also interested in precisely the dimension to Hermes that Jung was interested in, i.e. his association with psycho-spiritual healing founded on the creative imagination. Classically Hermes mediates a role for the creative imagination that stands between (but does not exclude) Orpheus/Apollo and Dionysus, though a poetic arising out of his influence would be necessarily unique in numerous ways—specifically he points to a less individualistic i.e. more ‘relational’ understanding of the literary calling. As a consequence the problem ‘ego inflation’ (‘writer/creative artist as genius’ or ‘celebrity’) is in direct opposition to a poetics inspired by Hermes since the archetype’s roles as mediator, facilitator of healthy relationships and ‘world glue’ would be diminished by any exclusionary, hierarchical and ego-driven poetics. The key ‘creative arts’ epiphany associated with Hermes is that literature should make people realise their dependence upon the many other life forms with which they share the planet. Other epiphanies follow, e.g. the Hermetic writer sees him/herself as: 1) a servant to the global Community of Souls—which is to say an advocate for a non-oppressive, interspecies poetic; 2) non-conformist and anti-authoritarian (since Hermes was the most democratic of the Olympian gods); 3) an advocate for a poetics of the infinite, expansive, transpersonal present— since Hermes implies the existence of other worlds and other ways of seeing/knowing;
Interestingly, as Kerenyi notes, antiquity has left us only a handful of depictions, among many thousands, of Hermes acting in an aggressive manner.
4) a devotee of meaningful learning in the humanities, social sciences, creative arts and ‘creative sciences’ (inspiring what I term works of ‘fundamental creativity’). This also implies a commitment to learning in the service of healing and socio-cultural harmony. Conclusion Around 2008, out of curiosity, I began linking key moments in my own life to domains over which Hermes traditionally exerts influence. I managed to tick off involvement, at some level, in most of his traditional areas—only commerce, sheep-herding and thievery were absent from my list!15 Hermes is traditionally described as an invisible presence (or friend) who ‘points the way’ and offers assistance (or gifts) during periods of crisis or transition. After my visit to the island over which he (democratically) rules, I set sail with a number of mementos given to me on the island: 1) a digital poetry chap-book entitled Hermes and the Philatelic Construction of the Multiverse; 2) a non-fiction book entitled Hermes (Unheralded) God of the Postmodern Transition; 3) another digital poetry chap-book entitled The Alchemical Sequence; 4) numerous publication credits in journals and anthologies; and, most importantly, 5) a deeper appreciation of the creative value of comedy and humor—for Hermes is a trickster God, and thus loves a good belly laugh.
Author Bio (as at June 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.
Though I did, for a time, study towards a Bachelor of Commerce at Auckland University (NZ) in the early 1980s.
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