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The above diagram is the best explanation of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes because it stimulates right brain responses. It arouses intuition, imagination and insight. Any verbal explanation is inadequate, but it gives us a starting point. Let us look at the diagram carefully. Around the outside there is a Latin saying. What does it mean? Centuries ago, a student asked his master, Basilius Valentinus, "What is the secret of alchemy?" The master replied, "In VITRIOL is the answer." Observe:
Next, let us look at the symbols. Overall, there is a circle and it brings to mind unity, wholeness, completeness and perfect Oneness. It is the stone, rectified.
Inside the circle at both left and right there is a hand pointing inwards. This indicates polarity and this is the key to the Art. We must unite the duality of our being in the Chymical Marriage. Above the two hands are the 7 planets. The Sun and the Moon are pouring their life substance into a chalice, thus uniting their opposite natures. The chalice is supported by Mercury the hermaphrodite, both male and female. Another union of opposites. We are reminded of the alchemical koan that the Great Work consists of the union of the Sun and the Moon with the aid of Mercury. More material for meditation. To the left are Mars and Saturn and to the right, are Venus and Jupiter. These planets are also arranged in a balanced and polarised fashion.
Below them are 3 shields, standing for the 3 alchemical principles of Sulfur (Lion), Salt (7 pointed star) and Mercury (Eagle). Note that alchemical Mercury is related to astrological Mercury, but they are not the same. If we change our point of view, we can take the chalice as the element Water, the lion as Fire, the eagle as Air and the star as Earth. Finally, there are 2 spheres (Heaven and Earth) which emphasise the polarity of the Above and the Below, which must also be united. In the very centre is a ring which symbolises the microcosm inside the macrocosmic circle. A reminder of the Above and the Below.
Have you noticed the last symbol? Below the ring and above the shield of the star, is the alchemical symbol of VITRIOL. It is on the opposite side of the ring to Mercury. So what? The hidden stone arises out of the conjunction of these two. It emerges in the centre of the empty ring. That is the focus of our meditation. Truly, in VITRIOL is the answer.
The entire diagram must be used for meditation and visualisation. That is its primary function and that is how its true value will be revealed. Let us now look at the text of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes.
VERBA SECRETORUM HERMETIS.
1. It is true, certain, and without falsehood, that whatever is below is like that which is above; and that which is above is like that which is below: to accomplish the one wonderful work.
2. As all things are derived from the One Only Thing, by the will and by the word of the One Only One who created it in His Mind, so all things owe their existence to this Unity by the order of Nature, and can be improved by Adaptation to that Mind.
3. Its Father is the Sun; its Mother is the Moon; the Wind carries it in its womb; and its nurse is the Earth.
4. This Thing is the Father of all perfect things in the world.
5. Its power is most perfect when it has again been changed into Earth.
6. Separate the Earth from the Fire, the subtle from the gross, but carefully and with great judgement and skill.
7. It ascends from earth to heaven, and descends again, new born, to the earth, taking unto itself thereby the power of the Above and the Below.
8. Thus the splendor of the whole world will be thine, and all darkness shall flee from thee.
9. This is the strongest of all powers, the Force of all forces, for it overcometh all subtle things and can penetrate all that is solid.
10. For thus was the world created, and rare combinations, and wonders of many kinds are wrought.
11. Hence I am called HERMES TRISMEGISTUS, having mastered the three parts of the wisdom of the whole world.
12. What I have to say about the masterpiece of the alchemical art, the Solar Work, is now ended.
Some general observations
There are 12 statements. This immediately alerts us to the connection between astrology (which explains the Above) and alchemy (which explains the Below). But what relates the Above to the Below? The magus, who bears within himself the 12 astrological/alchemical body functions and who performs the 12 Disciplines. This is why Hermes is called Thrice Greatest, he is alchemist, magus and astrologer, all in one. He combines the three functions because he (as the divine spark) directs the three vehicles of consciousness: the physical body (as the alchemist), the soul (as the magus) and the spirit (as the astrologer). Let us see these functions together, relating them to the 12 statements of the Emerald Tablet:
However if we follow a disciplined path of intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual development, we shall change so profoundly, that we shall be completely transformed. This process of self-transformation is called the Great Work. It has four stages that correlate with the four alchemical elements in their macrocosmic form and the four levels of reality of kabala. Here are the stages of the Great Work.
Clearly, the 12 statements of the Emerald Tablet are a partial description of the First stage of the Great Work. There is a great deal more than this in the other stages, but we must begin at the beginning with disciplined action.
But what justification do we have for thinking that there is a three-fold function personified as the astrologer (the Above), the alchemist (the Below) and he who reconciles them, the magus? Let us look closely at the text of the Emerald Tablet. There are 3 processes that have a total of 8 steps:
Let us see this more clearly; 3 processes by 8 steps:
What does all this mean? The numbers 3 and 8 resonate with the Tree of Life. It has 3 pillars; Mercy, Severity and Grace. At the centre of the Tree is the sefira Tiferet and there are 8 paths that lead to it. Using the sefirot as our point of reference, we note that the path from Keter to Tiferet is attributed to a double letter. We shall return to it. All of the other 7 paths are attributed to single letters. Thus the single paths are qualitatively different from the double path.
Let us take the first process of 4 downward steps. Since they go from the Above to the Below, they are the way of the astrologer. They are the paths from, Chakhmah to Tiferet; Binah to Tiferet; Chesed to Tiferet; Gevurah to Tiferet. These paths are also connected to the function of our vehicle of consciousness, the spirit.
The second process is 3 upward steps, from the Below to the Above. They are the way of the alchemist. These are the paths from, Netzach to Tiferet; Hod to Tiferet; Yesod to Tiferet. They are connected with our vehicle of consciousness, the body.
The third process is a re-descent, from the Above to the Below. It is the double path from Keter to Tiferet; the way of the magus. This is a double path because by it, the magus can move in both directions and unite the Above with the Below. It is connected with our vehicle of consciousness, the soul. It is the soul that connects the spirit Above, with the body Below.
What does all this mean? First, all 8 paths converge on Tiferet. It is like an electrical powerhouse. The double path from Keter, has the quality of reversing the flow of energy, like an alternating electric current. The other paths are one way flows of energy, like direct electric current, either 'on' or 'off'. Both types of flow are an example of polarity. Secondly, Tiferet is attributed to the Sun and the Emerald Tablet refers to the Solar Work. Thirdly, the 3 processes personified as alchemist, magus and astrologer, are seen in their proper relationship to each other and lead us to understand our 3 vehicles of consciousness. Fourthly, the One Only One, referred to in the text, is a clear reference to the divine spark, that is our true "I". The One is the focus of the 3 processes and the 8 steps of the Emerald Tablet and the 8 paths on the Tree of Life. The Tree is a visual explanation of the Tablet. But what does it all mean?
Our general observations are the
starting point for the Great Work. We have a lot to do. Let us
begin that work with a detailed consideration of the text, noting
that this is in itself, a guided visualisation. This is not a
left brain exercise in logic and rationalism. The text is a meditative
guide to insight.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes
The fundamental point being made is that truth and reality can only be grasped by analogy. The Above is not the Below; it is like the Below. That is, we can only understand by symbols, metaphors, parables, poems, mandalas and koans. We can only approach reality indirectly to accomplish the Great Work.
Unity is the only truth. All else is illusion. And yet, the One becomes the Many and the Many must return to the One. But when they do, they are improved. The secret is adaptation to the one mind. What is this adaptation? Precisely what we are doing by contemplating the diagram and using the text as a guided visualisation. The point is that when we realise our true nature as a divine spark, we shall do so in full awareness and in the complete development of our spirituality.
The One becomes the Many and so, it differentiates into 4 separate steps; Above Þ Below, personified as the astrologer. Heaven sets the pattern for earth. On the Tree of Life, Tiferet is the Sun, Chakhmah is the Zodiac, Binah is Saturn, Chesed is Jupiter and Gevurah is Mars. Again, these are guides for visualisation. It is no use talking about it, we must experience it.
The one thing is the Prima Materia. It is connected with the Stone of the Philosophers and with the Philosophers' Stone. What are they? It is for the seeker to discover. Meditate!
It must descend from the Above to the Below; it must be changed into earth. That is, this truth must be realised by us here and now.
This is the alchemical koan: solve et coagula. The Prima Materia must be separated into its constituent parts, rectified and reunited. This is the work of the alchemist, Below Þ Above. It is in 3 steps and on the Tree of Life, Netzach is a lower form of Sulfur, Hod is a lower form of Mercury and Yesod is a lower form of Salt. They all go to Tiferet. Of course it takes great judgement and skill. Do we really understand what it means to separate the One Thing, let alone reunite it? Meditate!
After the alchemist ascends to heaven, now comes the magus who descends again to earth via the double path on the Tree, from Keter to Tiferet. New born within the magus is the power of the Above and the Below, rectified and reunited. When we achieve this state, we too shall be thrice great.
This state of unified consciousness can only be symbolised by the absence of darkness, that is, light. That is why this state is called "enlightenment".
Consciousness is the only reality. All else is illusion no matter how solid things may appear. But this is the unified consciousness of the divine spark. It is not the increasingly limited awareness that functions through our vehicles of consciousness from spirit, through the soul and into our body. The whole point of the diagram and the text of the Emerald Tablet, is to give us a guide for the work we must do in order to re-unite our fragmented awareness. This is indeed a Great Work.
Hermes, the personification of our true "I", by 4 steps of descent, 3 steps of ascent and 1 step of re-descent, performed the Solar Work. By analogy, like this way but not in this way, we must do the same. Are you confused? Good! That is why the concept of analogy is so important. It is a subtle and sophisticated process that can only be grasped by meditation and visualisation. That is the true work.
Hermes is the divine spark. He is consciousness, fully self aware, unified and complete in its fullness. Hence he can control his vehicles of consciousness: spirit as the astrologer; soul as the magus; body as the alchemist. Of course he is Thrice Great. So shall we be, when we learn what analogy is, what it does and what it means to say that the Above is like the Below.
Fundamentally, the Solar Work is alchemical because it is about getting us from Malkhut, on the Tree of Life, to Tiferet. Malkhut is the place of the 4 elements in their microcosmic aspect and Tiferet is the place of the Sun. When we get from the Below to the Sun, we then can continue the Great Work by rising to the Above. But that's another story.
Solve et Coagula
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