Some Traits of Hermetic language.

Gleb Butuzov

Within the framework of what once was defined as the language of the Tradition[1] I would like to mark out a phenomenon that might be called Hermetic language or language of the Hermetic tradition, the term ‘Hermetic’ in this case to be understood not in the sense that was imparted to it by the school of Alexandrian Gnosticism and that should strictly be applied only to the texts of Corpus Hermeticum, but in the sense that it acquired during Middle Ages and which, to my mind, is much closer to its primordial meaning, responding to the spirit of the Egyptian esoteric tradition before the overlay of Greek and Judaic strata.

            Despite the fact that many academic publications have recently raised the question of linguistic analysis of the Hermetic texts, and that some have given examples of such analysis, I am quite certain that the modern scientific apparatus cannot serve the above purpose in principle, because the very language of modern science belongs to a completely different paradigm. Any attempt to use it as an instrument instantly transforms the object of research into nothing but a corpse from the traditional point of view.

This short article by no means pretends to be academic or definitive. Its main goal is to point out a few general reference points for beginners and those who already taken a few steps on their way to understanding Traditional philosophy, but who, because of their education, intellectual inertia, limited reading or what–have–you, are mistaken as regards some of the key issues of the Hermetic doctrine.

            The main task I see here is to show that the basis of most mistakes and misinterpretations of Hermetic ideas lies in striving for classification. Such striving is not often recognized. In most cases it is subconscious, implanted in the thinking of modern man from early childhood. The analytical method finally crystallized in the works of Rene Descartes which laid the foundation of modern Western scientific thought is the apotheosis of an irreconcilable dichotomy, and it can be applied to such phenomena as the study of hermeticism with about as much success as that of using an axe to study Lepidoptera.

            Such a dichotomy, devoid of hierarchical attributes which might play the role of necessary fulcra within the world as manifestation of the One, utterly intangible and arbitrary, serves as the basis for modern analytical thought and, therefore, for classification. It lays the shaky foundation–beam which  will sooner or later cause the rest of the edifice to collapse, for all that it is what it is – profane physics, chemistry or philosophy. Further ‘development’ of such a science is simply endless repairing, covering over cracks and erecting annexes, while the actual problem remains untouched on the ground floor.

For example, during the many years of confrontation between the profane ‘materialistic’ and ‘idealistic’ philosophical schools, people have wasted time and effort inventing numberless arguments proving their own understanding to be ‘veridical’, when, in fact, both sides represent equally speculative conceptions that cannot even be called ‘philosophy’! There is nothing to argue about at all.

The abovementioned dichotomy, purely anti–traditional and devoid of any reality beyond conventional ‘science’, uses various guises and easily permeates any ‘isolated’ intellectual areas. For instance, long before Descartes, an arbitrary division of just this sort occurred within the framework of Taoism and led to the separation of Chinese alchemy into ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ (wai-dan vs. nei-dan), which phenomenon, eight centuries later, recurred in the Western esoteric tradition.

This is now considered to represent some natural classification of alchemy, while in fact it represents nothing more or less than a dissociation of the Hermetic tradition and a dangerous crack in its foundation. This is proved by the fact that this division has gradually been reduced to the subdivision of Hermetic knowledge into esoteric and exoteric (the latter allegedly becoming profane chemistry), and this, in turn, shows the purest dissociation, since hermeticism cannot be exoteric in principle.

To derive some imagined ‘external alchemy’ from the Hermetic teaching and then call it ‘exoteric’ actually means cutting a living branch from the tree of Tradition and then inoculating it with a weed. Naturally, this aspect of classification allows modern science to use Hermetic language more freely in order to create various speculative models and ‘interpretations’, giving flesh to phantoms that would have none at all in other circumstances[2].

Even superficial assessment, not one based on the arbitrary dichotomy of ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’, shows a differentiation between two such alchemies to be conditional and, in principle, groundless inasmuch as they represent crossed and complementary hierarchical levels of a sole reality (it is sufficient to recall that the result of ‘inner alchemy’ is material[3] and the result of ‘external alchemy’ has spiritual implications).

As already said, this article is not written for ‘scientists’; however, among those who consider themselves Sons of Hermes one often meets adherents of abovementioned classification. It allows certain individuals to dedicate their time to fruitless fantasies, calling this occupation ‘inner alchemy’, and also allows others to reject ‘obscurantism’ and ‘occult symbolism’ and absorb themselves in chemical experiments once performed in school laboratories but since long forgotten.

Of course, I’m not trying to eliminate the primacy of irreconcilable dichotomies from the consciousness of the reader because one cannot turn back the river without interrupting the natural course of events, but I am going to make an attempt to ‘press’ it a little on the subject of hierarchy.

‘Inner’ and ‘outer’, ‘materialistic’ and ‘idealistic’, ‘mental’ and ‘physical’, all these binary pairs are simply manifestations of one and the same dichotomy on different levels on the scale of reality,  and both of these — the scale and the reality — are simple attributes of our consciousness[4].

            After close examination, one can see that the lack of a clear hierarchy of conceptions and their chaotic mixture in the modern science, devoid of any valid metaphysical structure, is leading to tragic and at the same time ridiculous consequences. Attempts to ‘penetrate deeper into matter’ have successively eliminated all definition of the very matter they seek to penetrate. Ultimately, the basis of modern materialistic science appeared to be some ‘thing’ whose essence has somehow been lost— forgotten. This odd result is quite natural, and could have been predicted hundreds of years ago. If we refer to René Guénon, we’ll see that he most clearly formulated the upper dichotomy of the hierarchy in question, representing it with the pair essence-substance (which unfortunately sounds rather confusing in English). In the Aristotelian school of philosophy this corresponds to the pair eidoz - ulh[5]. Essence plays role of the ‘wand’ of differentiation raising the world up from the boundless sea of substance, that in its ‘profoundest’ substantiality is stripped of all characteristic to such a degree that it can be easily defined as nothing. Modern physicists, exploring ‘the depths of matter’ encounter just this problem, consequently declaring a ‘materiality of the vacuum’ or announcing that the universe is made up of various phantasmagoric sub-units, always turning out to be pure nothing after appropriate experiments. Such conclusions are close to the truth in some sense, but if profane researchers want to overcome the deadlock they will have forget the materiality of phenomena and turn back to their essence.

            Thus, going down the imagined ladder of ideas they might ultimately come to the pair of chemical elements sulfur-mercury, the reaction of which gives us a mellow red stone known as cinnabar, a symbolic name for the result of the Magnum Opus in all world traditions. The correspondence between this stone and the Philosophic Stone is exactly the same as that between chemical sulfur and Philosophic Sulfur or chemical mercury and Philosophic Mercury, and the distance between them is in fact just several steps on the hierarchical ladder.

As we move along the abovementioned scale of classification with a great deal of attention, we note certain errors and inconsistencies in so–called ‘commonsense judgments’ concerning it which have become the basis for some very enduring conceptions.

For instance, when speaking of spirit (pneuma), it is obvious that we cannot oppose it to the body. We have to remember that intermediate entity known as soul (psyche) that forms the two pairs: pneuma-psyche and psyche-soma. Then the contraposition of pneumatic and psychic typical of many Gnostic schools will assume a logical for us; moreover, interpretation of alchemy undertaken by so–called ‘depth psychology’ will look like the blatant fallacy it is since the Magnum Opus is essentially the cleansing of the Stone of a substance which is the very subject of that science[6].

            When our virtual ladder stands firmly on the earth with its top resting on the primal dichotomy, we have a sufficiently clear picture of the things. But in the actual Hermetic treatises we see just a part of the hierarchy of ideas, and its interpretation depends on what step the reader takes as a referential. I can explain this with a simple example. An old alchemical maxim aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi is usually interpreted as ‘our gold is not the one that you make your coins of’. This is completely true on some very high level of the hierarchy; but there are other levels, and the same maxim can be read somewhat differently on these. ‘The gold we start out with is not the one we are speaking of on the later stages’. I can give an even lower interpretation, if you like: ‘What we called vulgar gold is now dissolved in the primary Mercury’.

Here we should rather stop and consider some important notions. First, Hermetic language is characterized by an extremely precise terminology that never allows any liberties. A noun with the attribute after the word, a noun with the attribute before the word, a single noun – all define completely different things. The second notion relates to the adjective vulgar. Profane terms in the Hermetic language are extremely rarely used; one almost never comes across an actual chemical term in a Hermetic text. A reader, tired of ‘deciphering’ Hermetic symbols and having met ‘vulgar gold’ somewhere in a text, sighs with relief – he believes that there at last he has found some solid ground. This is rather widespread sort of error, but it is unfortunately not so. Everything depends on the hierarchical level to which the notion refers. In certain particular contexts quicksilver may correspond exactly to what in another context is called Mercury of the Philosophers, but the context where this term corresponds to the chemical mercury is very hard to imagine and would, in that case, have rather pejorative flavor. In other words, vulgar gold and vulgar gold are homonyms in Hermetic language, and this language contains a great number of such homonymic pairs.

I would also like to point out the fact that metastases of modern language[7] reach into the depths of our consciousness even in the Hermetic context, distorting our understanding of terms whose profane meaning we unfortunately know since our days in secondary school[8]. In most cases these words initially represented alchemical arcana, and, in their native Hermetic context, denote things that are entirely different from those that occur to a modern man. Concerning this I would like to quote Artephius, Hermetic philosopher of indisputable authority: ‘He who takes the words of the Philosophers according to the ordinary signification and sound of them, hee doeth already, having lost Ariadne’s thread, wander in the middest of the Laberinth, and has as good as appointed his money to perdition.’

            The third important feature of the Hermetic language lies in the mobility of the hierarchy of terms. Any stage of the alchemical Work (and the stages themselves are connected hierarchically) can be divided into three sub-stages: beginning, middle and end. These three phases answer to three classes of terms possessing corresponding inner hierarchies and causal dependencies, one to the other. In other words, hierarchies of alchemical terms are of a dynamic character. For the reader’s convenience here is a simple table which will somewhat clarify the above statement (hierarchy within the group is not shown):


Beginning             à              Middle of the process      à        End


Mercury of the Philosophers     Our Mercury                          Philosophic Mercury  

Sulfur of the Philosophers          Our Sulfur                            Philosophic Sulfur

Gold of the Philosophers            Our Gold                              Philosophic Gold

Stone of the Philosophers           Our Stone                             Philosopher’s Stone

Vulgar Gold                               Our Magnesia                       etc.

Vulgar Mercury                          etc.








We can now see why our gold is not vulgar. It is what was once called vulgar gold in the course of some Hermetic operation. But Hermetic texts are not always consist in such aphoristic sayings, and very often we know them only in translation by some person who presumed they could afford to drop the word ‘our’ before a term or to swap noun and adjective. In the case when an original manuscript was written not in Latin, and most translations during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were from Latin which was the international language of the learned, Latin translation took the place of the original for most translators, quite often resulting in a replication of mistakes and misreading where such were present in the Latin text. One can detect such distortions only by comparing translations with the original. For example, The Ancient War of Knights[9], an important anonymous treatise of XVII century, was originally written in German. This rare book was initially translated into Latin by some extremely careless translator, and then – preserving all errors – this Latin ‘original’ was carefully translated into French, and this latter translation achieved wide circulation in Europe. Decent French and English translations finally appeared almost a century later, clarifying many ‘dark places’ for Lovers of the Art who could not read German or did not have access to the rare first edition of the text. Thus, to avoid wasted labor and tiresome mistakes, one either has to read the originals of the Hermetic texts, or translations made by persons whose diligence is above question.  This sounds rather pessimistic, I know, but it is the reality and nothing can be done about it.

            The fourth important issue I would like to discuss relates to what we normally call punning and wordplay and, in the Hermetic context, mostly concerns French sources. Play on words, or phonetic cabala, represents other level of reading in a Hermetic text, and this level of the hierarchy of terms has been in use in French literature from the Middle Ages until the present day. Of course, the term cabala itself is a sort of pun. We have to admit that its understanding in a modern context refers to the Renaissance and is undoubtedly connected with Jewish Kabbalah which gained authority among Christian mystics and Western esoteric schools mainly owing to the efforts of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the end of XV century. However, the history of European cabala began much earlier, hundreds of years before the dissemination of Judaic esoteric teachings in Europe. The abovementioned pun lies in the fact that cabala has the same Latin root as caballus, which means ‘horse’, and, therefore, it refers to cabaliero and chevalier, i.e. ‘knight’. Here we see a hint to the medieval knightly orders, members of which in their verse used cabala to preserve esoteric knowledge. This can be said of troubadours, minnesingers, etc., and, in particular, to the order Fedeli d’Amore, to which belonged a certain Durante Aligiere, known to us these days as Dante. Thus, Jewish Kabbalah implies, besides the obvious meaning of the word, its numeric value on the one hand, and, on the other, possible words, contained in its letters that would allow a commentator to expand interpretation of the word up to several pages. In the case of the Hermetic cabala numerology also plays some role, but most important is the fact that the phrases, read aloud must be understood not just in the sense they have on paper, but also in that elusive sense they acquire on being ‘misheard’ (where, in common speech, we would ask our interlocutor to repeat the sentence, because we had heard something that seemed to be inappropriate to the context of the conversation).  This second – really esoteric – meaning is often irrelevant to the first, and people who neglect this level of the information–exchange actually read a very different book.

Phonetic cabala is thoroughly enough analyzed in the case of many French sources, especially in the works by Claude-Sosthène Grasset d’Orcet, Fulcanelli, Canseliet and others, but one comes across this type of coding in other languages too, in certain Greek, Italian and English sources for instance. It means that any translation (regardless of its quality) of such a text must irrevocably lose this dimension of meaning. Any endeavor to translate the phonetic cabala would potentially lead to the creation of an entirely new text, which fact is rather inexcusable in the framework of the Hermetic ethics.

            Thus, summarizing all I have said above, let me warn a beginner philosopher against two very serious mistakes: reading Hermetic sources without having rid themselves of the delusion of rational thinking, and understanding Hermetic terminology as a rigid set of fixed symbols that can simply be memorized, once and for all. And, if I may, let me take one more liberty and remind you that there is another level of understanding of Hermetic sources, namely to approach them as a code, using a key passed on in a line of initiation. However, we live in a world where the oral Tradition is virtually dead, and most of us have to be satisfied with the picklocks provided by our own intuition, which same – it must be said to our regret – are very seldom useful.

Ó2004 G.Butuzov.




[1]. A.G. Dugin. Philosophy of Traditionalism. Moscow,  2002.

[2]. I refer to various attempts of psychoanalytical interpretation of Magnum Opus as well as to experiments with metal ORMEs in the manner of D. Hudson.

[3]. It is well-known ‘body of light’; despite it represents ‘thin’ matter as distinct from gross one, matter is still matter.

[4]. In this article I purposely avoid employing terms of the Eastern tradition, preferring modern profane terminology.

[5]. eidoz in this context can be understood as a forming principle (close to scholastic understanding), while ulh represents pure substantiality, i.e. Materia Prima in Hermetic sense.

[6]. What in the Hermetic tradition is called faeces (and has to be got rid of in the process of alchemical laundering) makes up a major part of the so–called ‘psychic content’ that psychoanalysis and depth psychology deal with. This part of psyche is traditionally called anima bruta and is destined to be burnt up in the gehenna of the divine athanor.

[7]. As opposed to the language of the Tradition (see A.G.Dugin. Philosophy of Traditionalism.).

[8]. I’m speaking of such terms as Azoth (A/Alpha/Aleph Zed Omega Tau – ‘the beginning and the end’ of the Philosophers which has nothing in common with the chemical element N, for which this term was stolen), Arsenic (arsenikon, Greek for auri pigmentum and also the answer to the ancient alchemical riddle concerning 9 letters and 4 syllables), or Alcohol (‘thin powder’ in Arabic and in most cases equivalent to Sulphur Philosophorum), etc. 

[9]. Der Uralter Ritter-Krieg. Leipzig, 1604.