Throughout the ages the wise have understood that man has a high purpose, that though born into a bodily vehicle of clay, he/she is in reality a spirit. According to this view, the earth, with all its delights and pains, is but a temporary abode for the everlasting "soul", which is the inner essence of the person. This soul, it is said, comes originally from God and is therefore imbued with creative potential. Yet in coming into birth on planet earth, it loses sight of its origins and falls into a state of torpor analagous to sleep. It is in this trance-like state that most of us live our entire lives, only dimly aware of of our own potential for growth.
Ancient Egyptian philosophers addressed this problem and sought on the one hand to put together a system of ideas to explain creation and on the other to define a path leading to enlightenment or Gnosis. This is what was taught in their schools, fragments of their wisdom having passd down to us in our own times. One of the most important collections of these writings is the Hermetica (re-published by Solos Press), which covers most of the issues of interest to scholars and students of the Gnosis. The first chapter of this collection, the Poimandres or "Shepherd of Men" lays out the fundamental issues involved. It describes a conversation between Hermes Trismegistus (the Greek name for the Ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth), and "Higher Mind". The conversation takes place whilst Hermes is in a trance-like state and is, in effect, his initiation. It begins:
"Once on a time, when I had begun to think about the things that are, and my thoughts had soared high aloft, while my bodily senses had been put under restraint by sleep,yet not such sleep as that of men weighed down by fullness of food or by bodily weariness,methought there came to me a Being of vast and boundless magnitude, who called me by my name, and said to me,
'What do you wish to hear and see, and to learn and come to know by thought?' 'Who are you?' I said. 'I,' said he, 'am Poimandres, the Mind of the Sovereignty.' 'I would fain learn,' said I, 'the things that are, and understand their nature, and get knowledge of God. These,' I said, 'are the things of which I wish to hear.' He answered, 'I know what you wish, for indeed I am with you everywhere; keep in mind all that you desire to learn, and I will teach you.' "
Poimandres describes how Heaven and earth were made by the action of the Logos or ‘word’ on a primeval, watery substance. He then goes on to explain how the solar system was brought into being by a "Second Mind" (viz. the demi-urge or Solar Logos)
"And the first Mind, that Mind which is Life and Light, being bisexual, gave birth to another Mind, a Maker of things; and this second Mind made out of fire and air seven Administrators, who encompass with their orbits the world perceived by sense; and their administration is called Destiny.
And forthwith the Word of God leapt up from the downward-tending elements of nature to the pure body which had been made, and was united with Mind the Maker; for the Word was of one substance with that Mind. And the downward tending elements of nature were left devoid of reason, so as to be mere matter.
And Mind the Maker worked together with the Word, and encompassing the orbits of the Administrators, and whirling them round with a rushing movement, set circling the bodies he had made, and let them revolve, travelling from no fixed starting point to no determined goal; for their revolution begins where it ends."
As in Genesis, the demi-urge (which can be compared with the Elohim of the Bible) goes on to create plant and animal life on the face of the earth. Meanwhile "God" or the First Mind is busy creating man in his own image:
"But Mind the Father of all, he who is Life and Light, gave birth to Man, a Being like to Himself And He took delight in Man, as being His own offspring; for Man was very goodly to look on, bearing the likeness of his Father. With good reason then did God take delight in Man; for it was God's own form that God took delight in. And God delivered over to Man all things that had been made. And Man took station in the Maker's sphere, and observed the things made by his brother, who was set over the region of fire; and having observed the Maker's creation in the region of fire, he willed to make things for his own part also; and his Father gave permission. having in himself all the working of the Administrators; and the Administrators took delight in him, and each of them gave him a share of his own nature.
And having learnt to know the being of the Administrators, and received a share of their nature, he willed to break through the bounding circle of their orbits; and he looked down through the structure of the heavens, having broken through the sphere and showed to downward-tending Nature the beautiful form of God. And Nature, seeing the beauty of the form of God, smiled with insatiate love of Man, showing the reflection of that most beautiful form in the water, and its shadow on the earth. And he, seeing this form, a form like to his own, in earth and water, loved it, and willed to dwell there. And the deed followed close on the design; and he took up his abode in matter devoid of reason. And Nature, when she had got him with whom she was in love, wrapped him in her clasp, and they were mingled in one; for they were in love with one another.
And that is why man, unlike all other living creatures upon earth, is twofold. He is mortal by reason of his body; he is immortal by reason of the Man of eternal substance. He is immortal, and has all things in his power; yet he suffers the lot of a mortal, being subject to Destiny. He is exalted above the structure of the heavens; yet he is born a slave of Destiny. He is bisexual, as his Father is bisexual, and sleepless, as his Father is sleepless; yet he is mastered by carnal desire and by oblivion.'"
This, according to the Hermetic philosophers, is the dilemma facing mankind. The path, or ‘way’, as it is usually called is the journey of the soul towards enlightenment and, eventually, reunion with God. However, it is not a straightforward journey as such, rather it is a process of growing or transmutation, like the metamorphosis of an insect from the larval to the adult form. This process of self-development through personal effort is often referred to as the opus or ‘work’ and is the real subject under discussion in most Renaissance Alchemical texts, the language of Alchemy being used as a cloak for the Hermetic tradition at a time when to speak openly about such things could result in persecution and death.
Today there is much more openess about such matters and in most parts of the world we are free to read and study texts such as the Hermetica without fear of being burned at the stake like Giordano Bruno, who was martyred by the Inquisition for his Hermetic beliefs in 1600.