Hermeticism and the Underworld
What Lies Between Above and Below?
Egocentric creatures though we humans are, it seems someone in the last two thousand years might have noticed that there is something missing in the common interpretation of the Hermetic doctrine 'as above, so below': namely, a middle. It is customary to assume that the 'above' in reference is heaven, or the celestial realm of the cosmocrator, and that the below in reference is the sublunary realm of Earth and man. This assumption is easy enough to make, particularly if one believes that Hermetic cosmology was modeled after the Ptolemaic universe in which the Earth, and consequently man, is the center surrounded by the spheres of the starry world. Hermeticism, however, was not strictly Greek but rather was forged out of a syncretism between the rational and philosophic culture of ancient Greece and the magical, metaphysical religious traditions of Egypt and the near East. Weaving together then the cosmologies of the ancient near East, which tend to expand deeply and inwardly, with the Western cosmologies which move upward and outward, the doctrine of 'as above, so below' begins to look more like a bridge that traverses not only cosmos and psyche, but indeed, heaven and hell.
Limited, as always, by time and space (and mortality) I will use only two threads, as it were, in this small weave, to illuminate the broad cosmologies that inform Hermetic doctrine. Examining the myth of Celestial Ascent as it is presented in the Corpus Hermeticum, and combining it with the 'Descent of Inanna', a celestial myth from ancient Sumer, I hope to offer a perspective that places man not below the realm of the gods, but rather in that realm between worlds where he is imbued with the power to mediate and conciliate the forces of the heavens with those of the Underworld.
As with so many other things, the image of the Underworld has suffered gravelly from the dominance of the Judeao-Christian tradition. Seen as a place where the impious and wicked are forced to spend eternity in suffering and damnation, the Underworld seems shackled to it's hellish associations. However, as Inanna's descent will show us, as would countless other stories from ancient Greece and Egypt, the Underworld need not be a place of suffering and admittance there is certainly not eternal: there is always a return. Furthermore, if we are receptive enough to recognize the reflections of the heavens in the world underground, the Underworld of sleep and death and dreams can be imagined as a shadow realm, not in the sense of moral darkness or repressed inclinations but like Peter Pans' evasive shadow, the Underworld often escapes our grasp and leads us, in hasty pursuit, to the places where destiny intersects with life.
Though the famous Hermetic dictum 'as above, so below' surfaces in the middle ages with the legendary 'Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus', the philosophical underpinnings of the axiom are present in the earliest works of Hermeticism. The Corpus Hermeticum describes man's situation as follows:
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 creatures, 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 to destiny. (Scott 131)
Being a creature made by god in the likeness of god, man's situation is indeed contradictory and unique. Through his own will and desire, he breaks through the spheres of the planets and leaves behind the realm of the creator in order to embrace his true love, Nature. Inhabiting the surface of the Earth man is truly between worlds, only able to explore the most surface levels of natures secrets, and unable to completely understand the celestial spheres which govern his corporeal body.
The pursuit of Hermetic knowledge then, “is an ascent to heaven. The human soul is supposed to leave the body behind, to lose it's lower parts in the seven planetary spheres, and to enter the eighth, where it sings the praises of God and finally merges with him” (Ebeling34). The passage through the seven celestial spheres and the psychic divestiture that occurs at each reveals that it is not what man lacks that separates him from the divine, but it is what he has. Man must rid himself of the bonds of the planets by relinquishing the traits they bestow on him which make life on Earth possible, but life united with the creator impossible:
And to the first zone of heaven he gives up the force which works increase and that which works decrease; to the second zone, the machinations of evil cunning; to the third zone, the lust whereby men are deceived; to the fourth zone, domineering arrogance; to the fifth zone, unholy daring and rash audacity; to the sixth zone, evil strivings after wealth; and to the seventh zone, the falsehood which lies in wait to work harm. (Scott 129)
Each of the zones, associated with the following planets, respectively, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, is indeed a psychic reality that is dissociated from the ego until nothing but pure essence remains.
If the above in 'as above, so below' refers to the journey the soul must make at the end of life in order to reunite with the creator, then what does the below refer to? My argument is that the 'below' does not refer to the Earthly sphere of man but rather the lower worlds where dreams and spirits roam freely, where man can visit in order to obtain guidance and regeneration. The Underworld must then be a reflection of the Heavens if it is to serve as a place where man can attain a sort of temporary communion with the divine. By journeying to the Underworld, humans are given the opportunity to recognize the path towards liberation in their Earthly lives, and only after a birth in the Underworld can man experience a death of the lower parts of the spirit on his ascent to the heavens. The 'Descent of Inanna' shows how this death and rebirth in the world of the shades is necessary for not only Inanna's personal development, but for the whole of civilization as well.
In his lyrical and visionary book The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, William Thompson treats 'The Descent of Inanna' as a myth which illuminates how the dichotomies inherent in the universe are the cause and sustenance for human governance over the land and (to what extent we will never know) their own lives:
In fact, it is precisely this relationship between above and below that the myth explores. By the raising of a lowly shepherd to become a consort of the goddess, the mediating institution of human kingship is created. In descending into a mortal's embrace and in stealing the laws of civilization, the me's, away from the gods to bring them to the city of men, Inanna has brought Heaven and earth together in ways that make civilization possible. (Thompson 174)
By securing the borders, as it were, of the mortal realm with the complimentary worlds of the divine above and below, man becomes what Carl Jung calls the transcendent function, the necessary liberation of energy that exists within the tension of opposites. This powerful bursting forth of energy is, essentially, mans impulse and will to not only live on earth, but to create civilizations and to promote communion with the divine. “But as such a mediation of opposites, civilization is a threat to the position of both extremes, and so what Inanna's descent sets out to discover is just how above and below can be articulated into a human cosmos (Thompson 175).” Or, more accurately, how the human cosmos can be satisfied with its place, wedged safely between the divine realms above and below.
Like the primordial man of Hermetic creation, Inanna descends to the Underworld of her own accord and her journey also requires a passage through seven gates, or an opening of seven seals, wherein she is de-robed of her worldly identity and possessions. Interestingly, Inanna's stripping down is literal, an actual removal of physical items from her personage. This is necessarily different from the psychic and spiritual stripping down that occurs in the Hermetic celestial ascent:
The opening of the seven seals, or the opening of the chakras in the yogic tradition, is the process of initiation, the descent into the subconscious as the necessary prelude to the ascent to a higher consciousness. To be an initiate one cannot rest in the normal consciousness of the shopkeeper; one must go both lower, into the subconscious, the repressed, the functions of the autonomic nervous system excluded from consciousness, the instinctive; and the higher into the superconscious, the realm beyond subject and object, into samadhi... the civilizational process depends on society's having someone who can connect the two worlds. (Thompson 176)
The goal of Innana's quest however, is not a unifcation with the creator, but rather, an integration with her sister, Ereshkigal, who is believed by some to be a complimentary aspect of Inanna herself. It is because of this slight difference between Inana's story and Hermeticism's primordial man that some distinction between the Underworld and the celestial Heavens might be made: the Underworld is a place where we go to meet ourselves, whereas Heaven is where we go to forget. Indeed it is no wonder that the Underworld has become a place of such fear.
After being stripped of her Earthly identity, Inanna receives the eye of death from her sister and dies for three days and three nights. She is saved by the Sumerian trickster god Enki, who sends messengers bearing the water and food of life to revive her. Thompson interprets “the water of life sent by Enki to be the male semen, and the food of life to be the female blood that feeds the embryo when the woman does not menstruate during pregnancy. What Enki is offering to Inanna in her bardo state is really incarnation (Thompson 179).” It is never guaranteed that one will leave the Underworld in the same state in which they entered, and it is indeed the likelihood of complete transformation that has given the Underworld journey an air of mysticism and intimidation. But as we shall see from the conclusion of Inanna's journey, the departure to the Underworld from our posts as Man (who is far more than a puppet of cosmic forces) is like a holy baptism from which we return refreshed and reawakened to our own divine nature.
Inanna returns to the world of the living to find her husband Dumuzzi not mourning her death but ruling in her place, and enjoying it a little too much. Having angered Erishkigal by her escape, Inanna must find a replacement for herself in the Underworld; inevitably that replacement turns out to be Dumuzzi.
In the marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi we saw a commensurate relationship bewtween heaven and earth, but now in the fall of Inanna into hell, the relationship becomes incommensurate. Each one 'lives the other's death, dies the other's life'...when one half of the soul is incarnate, the other half remains above. Therefore, as Inanna is resurrected and rises, Dumuzi is doomed and must descend into hell. (Thompson 179)
Although Inanna's rage is the immediate reason for Dumuzi's exile to the Underworld, the recreation of the incarnation of the soul is the deeper and more meaningful aspect of the divorce of the two, man and goddess. Moving below the realm of humans, where he rightfully ruled but did so unjustly and ignorant of the sacrifice the divine must make for human kingship to be affirmed, Dumuzi makes manifest the dark side of human civilization: “Ultimately, 'Inanna's Descent' embodies the tragic vision that humanity in a civilization can only be awakened by a violent apocalypse, a tearing of the veil, the rending of the very fabric of reality (Thompson181).” Before humanity can ascend to the great heights reserved for our species alone, we must descend to the divine darkness below.
Much in the way a serene pond perfectly reflects the starlit sky above, making the division between the water and the heavens almost impossible to see, the world below is indeed so much like the world above. It is, as always, only when man muddles with things, skipping stones across the surface or dipping down for a midnight swim, that the Underworld becomes no more than a place of hallucinations and phantasms. Ironically, as technology disturbs the sacrosanct untouchability of the cosmos, the Heavens become equally illusory and fleeting. It would be unfortunate if man, unsatisfied with his place in the 'in between' made a mess of heaven and hell; in many ways we already have. Though if there is any wisdom to be learned from the tales of those who bravely journey to the worlds above and below (which indeed there is, an unfathomable amount) then the descent that humankind is either at the nadir of, or only just beginning, is simply a reflection of and preparation for the inevitable ascent that is our birthright.
Ebeling, Florian. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. 2007
Scott, Walter. Hermetica. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. 1924
Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. New York, NY: St. Martins Press. 1981