Hermetic philosophy of ancient Egypt

An appreciation of the Kybalion, and a short study of the Hermetic Wisdom of ancient Egypt


Ever since its first publication in 1908, speculation has been rife as to the identity of the mysterious 'Three Initiates' who wrote the Kybalion. We mentioned this in our review of the centenary edition of the book published by TarcherPerigree in 2018, but would like to say a little more in this article. Richard Smoley, an American author and 'philosopher' endorses these speculations in his introduction to the centenary edition, and so reinforces the prevailing contemporary consensus that William Walter Atkinson, an American pioneer of the 'New Thought' movement, wrote the book. In doing so, Smoley adds nothing of value to the book and encourages the almost universal opinion among those interested in Hermeticism that the book is a 'New Age' fraud. We know we go against a host of self-appointed 'authorities' when we say that nothing could be further from the truth. We would go further in pointing out that the fact that almost every contemporary would-be 'magician' dismisses the book as worthless is proof positive of its immense value and authenticity!

We suggest that the primary reason why the authors concealed their identity was to concentrate the reader's attention on what is written rather than who wrote it. But this explanation will be far too simple for those who adore mysteries of all kinds and expend enormous amounts of time and effort in pursuit of the unknowable for the titillation of the unthinking. This rather reminds us of the speculations of some Egyptologists as to how many snakes (and of what specific genus!) killed Cleopatra. We should say that the study of her life is of greater interest to thinking people than the manner of her death. Much the same applies to the anonymous authors of the Kybalion, who we fondly hope have long since departed to finer realms, where they can pursue their love of Wisdom and search for Truth, far from the bleating of the various sheep-like beings who harassed them on earth! Before we end this defence of the Three Initiates credited with authorship of the book, we would like to share the quotation which appears on the frontispiece of every edition with you:

The lips of Wisdom are closed, except to the ears of Understanding."

This profound statement is about as 'New Age' or 'New Thought' as the Book of Proverbs or the ancient Egyptian wisdom text known as the Teaching of Ptah-Hetep. In fact, this is exactly the type and style of maxim we find in both the aforementioned sacred texts. Of course, the authorities and 'magicians' mentioned earlier who regard the Kybalion as an imposture would no doubt tell you that Atkinson included this quotation to convince dim-witted readers that the book as an authentic exposition of the Hermetic Wisdom of ancient Egypt. To which we would say, the carping critics' loss is the open-minded reader's gain.

A genuine treatise on Hermetic Philosophy

the kybalion

The Kybalion begins with a dedication to Hermes Trismegistus, known to the Ancient Egyptians as "The Great Great" and "Master of Masters." Who was Hermes? Was there ever such a person, or is this simply the title of a class of Masters or Teachers, or even the personification of the Wisdom Teachings of ancient Egypt and Greece? Some scholars believe that the name is the syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes with the Egyptian god Thoth. If this is correct (and we do not say that it is), how and when were the two combined and why? These questions have exercised the minds of scholars and occultists alike for hundreds of years without any of them coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Of fantasy and speculation there is no end, but in keeping with our established policy, we do not wish to add to this muddy sea of misinformation and guesswork. So let us examine the very few facts in connection with Hermes and see whether these provide any answers. Fuller answers to these questions can be found in our follow-up to this article—Spiritus Hermeticum—a twelve part investigation of the origins of Hermeticism and the true teachings of Hermes Trismegistus published between 2021 and 2022.

Both Thoth and Hermes were gods of writing and of magic in their respective cultures. Later, the Greek god of interpretive communication was combined with the Egyptian god of wisdom as the father of alchemy as you can read in our occult studies course article on the Great Art of Transmutation. But there are differences between the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. In Egypt it was Up-Uatu, the "Opener of the Way", later merged into the god Anubis, who was the guide of the defunct in the afterlife in Amenta, whereas in the Greek copy of the Egyptian religious iconography this role was taken up by Hermes. In Egypt Thoth was the Divine Recorder of the gods, advocate of truth-speaking and the mediator between Horus and Set in their various battles. Hermes played no such role in Greek mythology.

We may then say that there were (or are) two distinct 'Hermes' and it is no easy matter to disentangle them in the Hermetic literature that has come down to us. There is the Greek Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, who is described by Euripides in his play Ion:

"Atlas, who wears on back of bronze the ancient
Abode of the gods in heaven, had a daughter
Whose name was Maia, born of a goddess:
She lay with Zeus, and bore me, Hermes,
Servant of the immortals."

Then there is the Egyptian Hermes, or Thoth, whom the Renaissance writer Vergicius may have had in mind when he wrote: "They say that this Hermes left his own country and travelled all over the world...and that he tried to teach men to revere and worship one God alone...and that he lived a very wise and pious life, occupied in intellectual contemplation...and that having returned to his own country, he wrote at the time many books of mystical theology and philosophy."

Now this sounds very much like a real individual rather than a god, perhaps a great Egyptian Sage or Master, who spread the True Teachings abroad. As we suggested earlier, it is not unusual for a teacher to become identified with the Divine Wisdom he teaches and be given the name of the god that presides over it by posterity. We can see an example of this in the Oera Linda Book, which we discuss in the afterword to our article on Good and Evil, in which the Frisian Priestess Nyhellenia is deified long after her death as the Roman goddess Minerva (herself a copy of the Greek goddess Athena). In this way great men and women are transformed into gods by crafty priests who stand to profit from such theological sleight-of-hand, the better to control the masses. No wonder scholars find it impossible to agree on who or what Hermes was or stands for!

We ourselves incline to the opinion that there were probably many 'Hermes' during the long history of ancient Egypt, each of whom taught the Wisdom of the GOD Hermes, or Thoth, most of which wisdom fell on deaf ears then, just as it does today, to be distorted and misinterpreted by later generations, until almost nothing remains of the pure, original doctrine. So we have now answered the question we posed earlier. Hermes was most likely the title of a class of teachers or Sages who taught their carefully chosen disciples the true laws and principles of the universe. But was there ever a 'first' Hermes from whom these Sages inherited their knowledge of the Hermetic Philosophy? We discuss this possibility and much more in our 12-part investigation—Spiritus Hermeticum.

It is sufficient that these few clues lead us to a body of knowledge called the Corpus Hermeticum that bears the unmistakable stamp of the Ancient Wisdom and Divine Truth. Some of this Truth can be found in the Kybalion. Nor does it matter a rap who the anonymous authors were. It matters even less that the language employed is sometimes rather stilted, repetitive and not particularly elegant. What matters is that we have this book and may profit from it, if we are capable and willing of doing so. As the authors themselves say in their introduction to the book:

"Our intent is not to erect a new Temple of Knowledge, but rather to place in the hands of the student a Master-Key with which he may open the many inner doors in the Temple of Mystery through the main portals he has already entered."

The Seven Universal Hermetic Laws

The basic thesis of the Kybalion is that the universe arose out of Mind, and not the other way around, as modern science teaches us. Once this simple truth is grasped we start to see the world with new eyes. We can then use the seven universal laws the book describes to unlock the hidden meaning of any philosophical or occult text, and also apply them to any area of our life; health, relationships, work, etc., for our own benefit in particular and that of the world in general. The seven laws or principles described in the Kybalion and the main propositions that derive from them, are:

  1. Mentalism. All is derived from Mind and the universe is the result of the operation of mental forces. In this first law are concealed the meaning and operation of all the rest of the Hermetic laws. This truth is echoed in the famous Tabula Smaragdina, or "Emerald Tablet" of Hermes Trismegistus, which states: "And as all things were produced by the meditation of one Being, so all things were produced from this one thing by adaptation."
  2. Correspondence. There is a specific correspondence between all things. This law is enshrined in the well-known Hermetic maxim: "What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing", which is the 2nd sentence in the "Emerald Tablet" mentioned above. But correspondence is not the same thing as comparison, though the two words are often confused. A man corresponds to a god, for a god is an Immortal mortal and a man a Mortal immortal. Likewise, an atom corresponds to a solar-system but heat compares to cold, for they are simply polarities of the same principle (see Law 4—Polarity). If you cannot see the distinction read and think, and then read and study some more until the difference becomes clear to you.
  3. Vibration. Everything in the Universe is in constant motion, both internally and externally, even material forms we may consider to be inanimate. All moves and vibrates in accordance with fixed laws, most of which are entirely unknown to material science. Any change in one's mental state alters the vibration of every living particle within us. In this lies the key to health and disease, success and failure, strength and weakness.
  4. Polarity. Everything in the Universe is dual; positive and negative, light and dark, hot and cold. In addition, a Higher state or principle is positive in relation to a lower one and vice versa. This law is responsible for sympathy and antipathy, attraction and repulsion and its application is the key to achieving Inner Peace and harmony in our lives. Opposites both repel and attract one another depending upon the nature of the forces or principles involved and the plane or realm of their activity. In this way we may reconcile all contradictions and paradoxes, whenever and wherever we encounter them, leading to a complete understanding of ourselves and our purpose and place in the Universe.
  5. Rhythm. Everything in the Universe is subject to rhythm. Rising and falling, backwards and forwards, fast and slow in measured movement. In this law lies the key to understanding and controlling all activity, whether mental or physical, both within ourselves and in our environment. An example of this is the well-known saying that a wise man bends to the storm; a fool resists and is broken.
  6. Cause and Effect. There is a cause for every effect within the Universe and an effect for every cause, though in many cases we are not consciously aware of the underlying cause that has produced a specific effect. This law is summed up very succinctly in the Hermetic axiom which states: "that which comes up has always been sown; not all that has been sown comes up." Consequently, there can be no such things as chance or coincidence, which are merely words that describe any activity or event of which the cause is not known or perceived. In this law lies the key to such misunderstood doctrines as 'Karma', which we discuss in our occult studies course of the same name.
  7. Gender or Sex. Gender is a universal principle throughout the manifested Universe. Not an atom nor an angel is devoid of it. The Masculine and Feminine principles manifest on all planes and apply to all states of consciousness. The Masculine or Father principle may be considered as the active and positive force, whilst the Feminine or Mother principle is the passive and negative condition. Both are necessary for creation. We find these two principles represented in the theological philosophies of all the great religions. In India, Brahma the Creator is complimented by Shiva the Destroyer. In ancient Egypt these two principles were sometimes symbolised by Horus and Set, who in this context may be regarded as a feminine principle. We should add that we are discussing universal archetypes here and not their material and physical manifestations such as human men and women. An individual woman can be just as 'positive' and 'creative' as any man (and sometimes more so), and a man may be negative, passive and destructive (and often is!). It all depends on the degree or extent of the Masculine and Feminine qualities present in any particular individual, and this varies enormously among mankind.

The application of the Hermetic Laws

From the foregoing it will be seen that these Seven Universal Hermetic Laws describe and explain all material and spiritual phenomena, such as material science cannot do, for it continues to deny the existence of any such thing as 'spirit' or a Divine Source. You can read more about the differences between the true laws taught by Occult Science and the speculations of material science in our article "Why study Occult Science?"

He who fully understands the Seven Universal Hermetic Laws in all their manifold interactions and is able to apply them, may be considered to be a Master in the best and highest sense of this much misunderstood word. Those of us who are not Masters, or even Initiates, can still benefit from a deep and thorough study of these laws. In the degree that we are willing and capable of doing so, we can change ourselves for the better, and by force of example the lives of those around us, leading to an improvement in worldly conditions for all.

Take then, what you can from the Kybalion, and apply it in your thinking and acting. And if something you read is not clear to you, read it again and again, and meditate silently on what you have read until the light of your Higher Self reveals what unaided intellect can never grasp. In addition to the centenary hardcover edition published in 2018, there is a PDF produced by the Yogi Publication Society which is free to read and download for those who can't afford the printed book or prefer to read online texts.


Article added 24 January 2015 — © Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Updated 5 February 2024.

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