"As above, so below"...what's that now?

Perhaps you have heard this saying, and I wouldn't be surprised if you have because it has become on of the most well-known phrases used in Paganism, Hermeticism, Wicca and other related philosophical and spiritual paths as well as an accepted idiom in occult circles. Even if you haven't heard of it up to now, I'll try to explain it as best as I can! :)

But what does it actually mean? 

Let me bore you for a second with the full phrase which reads:
"That which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above is like unto that which is below, for the performing of the miracles of the One Thing."

This sounds a bit tiring, doesn't it? Well, that's why it was shortened (supposedly by Eliphas Levi - a French occult author, among other things. But going into his biography would take too long so if you want to find out more about him, have a look here).

Simply put, what this phrase means is "what is found in the heavens is reflected here on earth". Although, there are a few ways in which we can interpret this, but I'll get to that in a bit. 

Before giving any detailed interpretations, I would first like to talk about the origins of this interesting sentence which can be found in the 6th-8th century (although some claim it dates all the way back to antiquity). 

The Emerald Tablet

The full phrase mentioned above comes from the famous Emerald (also called the Tabula Smaragdina and the Smaragdine Tablet). It is a Hermetica (a Greco-Egyptian wisdom text from the 6th-8th century, although the majority of them were written in the 2nd/3rd century on papyri and are of a magical and/or religious character) which forms the basis of Hermeticism along with a few other texts. 

Hermes Trismegistus is named as the author of the text itself (which, by the way, was originally quoted to us in Arabic and translated into Latin in the 12th century). I will say more on the origins of the Emerald Tablet, but let me first say a few words about Hermes Trismegistus.

The Thrice Great Hermes

This is what "Hermes Trismegistus" translates to. But what do we know about him? What is he so great?

As it occurred in all cultures and religions, there came a time of syncretism of Egyptian and Greek beliefs. Syncretism (the fusion of beliefs, primarily those of a religious character) has been natural and always will be because people change, cultures change, we accept traditions, sometimes alter them a bit, but some things simply don't change; they get passed down from generation to generation and thus from era to era. In this case, the syncretism started during Egypt's Hellenistic period which started in 323 BC (the death of Alexander the Great who conquered Egypt) and ended in 30 BC (with the death of Cleopatra and the Roman conquest on Egypt).

But let us get back to the topic. I mention syncretism because this is how Hermes Trismegistus came to be. He was a fusion of the Greek god Hermes (a.k.a. the messenger of the gods) and the Egyptian god Thoth (who was also known as a mediator and to whom the Egyptians credited the invention of writing and alphabets). Upon their arrival in Egypt, the Greeks noticed these similarities as well as some other ones (e.g. both gods were psychopomps, both were connected to magic etc.) and came to the conclusion that Thoth was basically the Egyptian equivalent of their god Hermes. This is how the two deities came to be worshiped as one and were given a new name - Hermes Trismegistus. 

The Khnum temple of Esna
The adjective "Trismegistus" (thrice great) was added due to an unusual interpretation of a later Mycenaean clay tablet from Pylos where both the name Hermes and a similar adjective to the previous one (Thrisheros -  "triple hero") were found and simply put together in time. A very interesting explanation (and the one that seems the most logical to me) is that the adjective was simply transferred from Thoth to this syncretic deity. Namely, Thoth was described as "the great, the great, the great" (i.e. thrice great) in the Temple of Esna (a.k.a. the Greek city Latapolis which dates back to the Ptolomaic or Roman eras). This adjective is also mentioned in the Emerald Tablet itself where Hermes Trismegistus is said to know the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe: alchemy, astrology theurgy (the practice of rituals).

One could conclude that Hermes Trismegistus was simply a deity who, being attributed the invention of writing and being a mediator, was logically named as the author of many religious texts. But things aren't that simple. Some believed that he was a Pagan prophet (e.g. some important Christian scholars such as Augustine, Marsilio Ficino, Giordano Bruno etc.) who may have been Moses' contemporary or even an Egyptian priest king (which is possibly another reason why he was called "thrice great" as he would have been a priest, a kind and a philosopher). The theory of him being Moses' contemporary was abandoned during the Renaissance as it was discovered that the Hermetica dates from the 2nd/3rd centuries (at the earliest). 

Of course, deifying humans was not unusual so the fact that many people thought (and still do think) of Hermes Trismegistus as a historical figure must not be undermined. Other well-known Egyptian historical figures that really were deified were, for example, the scribe Amenhotep, the priest Imhotep and the wise man Teôs. 

Who Hermes Trismegistus was and when he lived still remains a mystery to us. But this aside, I would prefer to let you dwell on this problem and continue with the post. ;)

Origins of the Emerald Tablet

The text of the tablet is known to us through various translations and quotes, the oldest of which (at least in record) is the Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature) which is supposed to have been written in the 8th century. The author of this text, Balinus, claims that the tablet is a collection of ancient Hermetic wisdom and that he found it in a vault below a statue of Hermes in Tyana (modern day Kemerhisar, Turkey). There are even claims that it wasn't discovered by Balinus but by Abraham's wife Sarah (though this is a completely different story in which Hermes is one of Adam's sons). Another version of the story states that the tablet was found by Alexander the Great in Hermes' tomb at Hebron.

There are so many legends about the origins of the Emerald Tablet and nobody is really 100% sure about which of them is true (if any are). But they have all said similar things about the appearance of the Emerald Tablet. It is supposed to have been made out of an emerald (or some other green crystal; hence its name) and rectangular in shape. The writing on it was supposed to have been Phoenician or something similar to it. 

If you feel like reading more about the origins of the tablet, I would recommend you have a look at this page. After all, the main focus of this post isn't on the history but on interpreting the phrase "As above, so below". 


Yes, yes. I know I'm still circling around the main topic, but trust me when I say that it's necessary to explain this one last thing before interpreting the phrase! :)

So how does Hermeticism go hand in hand with this phrase? Simply put, Hermeticism takes those texts written by Hermes Trismegistus and puts them in the center of its philosophy. It is both a religious and a philosophical path which has once again become widespread in recent times as it was in the Renaissance and during the Reformation.

The associations brought to mind when someone says the word "hermetic" are that of something airtight, completely closed off, secretive and so on. In the 1630s, the adjective hermetic actually meant "dealing with occult science or alchemy". Its origins are in the Latin word hermeticus which was derived from the name of the Greek god Hermes (previously mentioned). But how on earth are Hermes and the adjective "hermetic" connected semantically? Hermes Trismegistus once more enters the scene. The invention of a special secret seal was attributed to him by the alchemists (by the way, Hermes Trismegistus was a patron of alchemy). This seal was important to them for the process of distillation because it was used to create an airtight glass tube. Now that we've cleared the etymology, let us go on.

At the center of Hermeticism is the Corpus Hermeticum - a collection of 18 chapters written by...(drumroll) Hermes Trismegistus! Other works make up the Hermetic philosophy such as The Perfect Sermon, The Kybalion (1912) and so on.

The philosophy of Hermeticism is centered around something they call the Absolute (God?). But this concept is far wider than either the monotheistic or polytheistic concept of "God" or "gods" because it includes us, other beings and basically the whole universe. From what I understood, everything is connected, everything is One.

The concept of "As above, so below" fits into this philosophy easily, as I will now explain.

The Meaning of "As above, so below"

The full maxim (translated into English by Dennis W. Hauck from the Emerald Tablet) reads: "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing."

Since everything is connected according to Hermetic philosophy, and since the Above reflects the Below, then every level of reality reflects itself on...well...every other reality (be it physical, emotional or mental; and keep in mind that there can be several of each according to this philosophy).

The most common interpretation of this phrase is in the sense of macrocosm and microcosm. The macrocosm can be God, the universe, man, atoms etc. all depending on what the microcosm is. For instance, man is a microcosm if the universe is a macrocosm. The important thing is that they all reflect each other, that they are all intertwined and can all be understood through each other. In this sense, man can understand God if he understands himself (!!!). Although this isn't nearly as simple as it sounds.

Now that we've covered all the basics and that you understand the essential meaning of this phrase, you might be asking yourselves what this has to do with Paganism or Wicca? After all, this is a Pagan blog. This leads us to the next subtitle of this post! :)

The Maxim in Rituals and Magic

Rituals and magic make up a significant part of Pagan and Wiccan practices. Rituals can be both devotional and magical (that is, the focus can be on a religious aspect or a deity, or a magical work, although many Pagans and Wiccans don't practice magic at all). This maxim is valid for both types of ritual and I will explain why.

"As above, so below" is most often connected to magic. As I have defined it before, magic is the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with will. When someone performs a magical act, they first have to have an intention and will power. They have to strongly believe that the change will occur. If they don't, then nothing happens. It's as simple as that. The implications of "As above, so below" enable the practitioner to make sense of the universe and make magic logical. If everything is connected, if everything is One, then there is nothing stopping channeled energy (which is sent by the practitioner as a part of a magical act) from reaching its target. There are no barriers. 

Let me use this analogy to explain. Imagine that the energy a practitioner sends is a car. The universe through which the energy (car) has to travel to reach its target is an endless road. If everything was separate, then the road would have many tollbooths and, more importantly, it would still have parts missing (as if it wasn't completely built). You would have to attempt to jump a huge gap in the road to reach the other side, and your chances of success would be slim to none. 

But if you believe that everything is connected, then there are no obstacles, no gaps in the road and nothing to stop the energy from reaching its goal. A very interesting scientific take on this is the theory of quantum entanglement.

As for rituals, their main purpose is to connect the practitioner to the higher force(s) (be it a God, Goddess, several gods, the Universe or whatever the name is). This is why Pagans invoke the God and the Goddess. The invocation is the culmination of the ritual itself. If you consider the logicality of the "As above, so below" principle, then you can understand why it makes invocation easier. If every reality really is mirrored, then God exists in this reality also. If microcosm does reflect macrocosm, then man reflects God. Basically, we are all connected with God or perhaps even are partially gods ourselves. As Pagans like to see it, the Higher Power (call it as you wish) is already a part of us. During rituals, we reflect its actions and it reflects ours. This statement is often said aloud during Pagan rituals in order to emphasize its importance (often during consecrations, for example, of the food and drink which is in itself seen as a contact with the God and Goddess, of their influence on our lives and a metaphor for their unity in the form of the Great Rite).

This maxim also explains the possibility of astral travel and the existence of an astral body and so on. The astral is a different reality from ours, but according to this principle, all thought forms are manifested in all realities (as well as this one). So our thought forms are reflected in the astral reality. But you can read more on astral travel in another section of my blog.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone's book Progressive Witchcraft:

"A true spiritual cosmology is a graphic interpretation of the magical levels of reality. Such a map must include a physical, psychological, energetic, and spiritual approach, creating a holistic view of the cosmos, and abide by the old magical law “As above, so below.” In practice, this means that you should be able to stand in a witch’s circle and see the worlds around you on all levels."
Witch's Cat

3 komentara:

  1. Beautifully explained! An educative post spiced up with little bit of historical facts and philosophy! Keep up the good work! :D

  2. Woah. Just, woah. Decided to start reading through some of the blogs on the PBP from earlier in the year, and I gotta tell you, this one really stands out! I absolutely love how you tie in everything together so that us readers can REALLY understand what you're talking about. Thank you! I am going to save this blog as something I need to re-read as well :)

    1. Dear Kali,
      thank you very much for the compliment. It means a lot to me. :) if you have any suggestions, questions or comments, don't hesitate to contact me or post wherever. :) Hope you enjoy the other posts!


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