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Gamers' Grimoire

Thoth: God of Magic, Language and Roleplaying Games

by Anituel
Apr 21,2005

 

Thoth: God of Magic, Language and Roleplaying Games

Today, I'm going to talk a bit about Hermetic magic. I'm not going to cover the Golden Dawn in this article, though they are coming up very soon. Instead, I'm going to talk a bit about the Grecco-Egyptian tradition which spawned all of what we call magic in the West (and Middle East).

Hermes Trismegistus

The Egyptian god Tahuti (Thoth) was known to the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus or the Thrice Great Hermes. The Hermetic philosophy is based upon written material which he himself supposedly authored to aid in humanity's growth. The single most important magical work ever written (insofar as nearly all forms of occultism are based around it and borrow from it), in fact, is a short and enigmatic poem attributed to Hermes Trismegistus entitled "Tabula Smaragdina", or "The Emerald Tablet":

It is true, without falsehood, and most certain.
What is below is like that which is above; and what is above is like that which is below: to accomplish the miracle of the one thing.
As all things were formed from one, by the thought of one, so all things are born from the one thing, by choice.
Its father is the Sun, its mother the Moon, the Wind carries it in its belly, its nurse is the Earth.
It is the author of all perfection throughout the World.
The power is strong when changed into Earth.
Separate the Earth from the Fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with care.
Ascend from Earth to Heaven, and descend again to Earth, to unite the power of higher and lower things; thus you will obtain the glory of the whole World, and the shadows will leave you.
This has more strength than strength itself, for it overcomes all subtle things and penetrates every solid.
Thus the world was framed.
Hence proceed wonders, which means are here.
Therefore I am Hermes Trismegistus, having the three parts of world philosophy.
That which I had to say of the operation of the Sun is perfected.

--(Three Books of Occult Philosophy, by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, translated by James Freake, edited and annotated by Donald Tyson, pg 711)

This is just one version of the Tablet, there being several different translations, each with different wording, though all seem to come-out to the same meanings. Don't worry if you don't know what that poem means; nobody does. We all just take from it what we need. It's even been proposed that, when studying "The Emerald Tablet", each student receives only what knowledge he or she needs from it at that time. If the author really was Tahuti, god of language, it stands to reason that the poem would contain numerous different meanings encoded into the wording!

The Power of Language

I'm sure that many of my readers have heard of the idea of gaining power over somebody by finding their 'true name'. This idea is handled in some pretty interesting ways in Storm Front by Jim Butcher (and the other novels in the Dresden Files series). Essentially, one needs to have a true name in order to perform magic at all (the true name being symbolic, or indicative, of sentience or possession of a soul), and an entity's true name must be known before it can be summoned or in other ways called-upon for magical aid. This includes gods who, in Egypt, having numerous different names, all related to specific forms each god takes and, thus, different aspects of its power.

It should be stated that this very idea is the source of what we call 'spells'. They are termed spells because it is thought, if you spell something correctly according to Hermetic formulae, that the mere writing or pronunciation of that word will be magically potent. These formulae are known as 'words of power'. You all are probably quite familiar with one of them: ABRACADABRA. This word is now used to denote any sort of magic, though in Hermeticism, it has very specific uses. The most common such use is as a protective charm against disease and other threats to personal health, when written in a pyramidal fashion:

A
BB
RRR
AAAA
CCCCC

...and, well, you get the idea. As you can see from this example, not only was the word itself considered to be powerful, but permutations of the word, geometric shapes and designs and so forth all added to its power, and helped to focus exactly how it was to be potent.

Obviously, this kind of thing is a bit much when you're using it as background material in a roleplaying game, but it serves to illustrate just how exacting Hermetic magic is; in a game, you can play-up this mathematical and grammatical exactitude in order to give Hermetic magic a more scientific, and a more classical, feel than other available styles of magic. Shamanism, when compared to Hermeticism, looks to be entirely without rules or logic. Of course this isn't so, but it makes the two seem to be complete opposites, as far as their dramatic props in-game.

Cosmology

In Hermetic magic, the universe (called the Cosmos, or World) is made-up of the four traditional elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. These elements, however, are not to be taken literally. Earth represents those things which are solid, certain and unchanging (or slowly changing). Air is intellectual; it is in the realm of Air that most spirits dwell, having bodies composed mostly of only the subtlest matter. Water is emotional and imaginative; it is similar to Air in behavior, though much denser. Fire is the closest thing to pure energy imaginable in material manifestation. There is a quintessence, or fifth element, though it is generally considered to be too nonphysical to truly be elemental. It is called Aether; you can think of it as the backdrop for all of the other elements, or that upon or in which they manifest. Later derivations of Hermeticism (for instance, Alchemy) added material to the elemental philosophy; I'll cover Alchemy and others in detail in later articles.

Humanity is not the most elevated form of life in Hermetic magic, though it is the most elevated form of material life. Above humans are Daimons and Angelos, and beyond them are the Gods. Daimons, in the Hermetic tradition, have gotten a bad rap from Christianity. Not all of them are evil; there are Good Daimons (Agathodaimons), Bad Daimons (Cacodaimons) and neutral entities called just Daimons. In any case, the term Daimon refers to nearly any non-human, non-angelic, non-God, non-physical entities. Thus, the demons of Jewish and Christian mythology belong in this category (mostly as Cacodaimons) just as much as elemental spirits and forest nymphs.

Angelos can also be thought of as Daimons, but a very specific sub-class: they act as direct messengers between the Gods and humanity. If an Earth Elemental approached one of the PCs with a message from Gaia, for instance, this Earth Elemental would be acting in the office of an Angel. Some Gods may have a very particular class of beings which might only be known as 'Angel of Zeus' or 'Messenger of Isis'.

The Gods themselves are seen as divine beings, though not all-powerful or all-knowing. Most Gods are only even close to omnipotent and omniscient within their particular specialties; Hermes would know a lot about thieving, flying, language, magic and medicine, but require the aid of Aphrodite in matters of love and sex. Hermetics referred mostly to Greek and Egyptian Gods, and drew a great many lines between them. Hermes and Tahuti (Thoth), for instance, where thought of as the same God, as seen through different cultural filters; the same was thought of Isis and Aphrodite, Typhon and Seth, and so forth. One symbolic legend to this effect stated that the Greek Gods, tired of the same old scenery, escaped to Egypt and disguised themselves as animals. Probably the best way to explain the Hermetic view of the Gods is that they were viewed as extremely powerful teachers; each one has lessons to teach and powers to give, but this power and knowledge comes at the price of work and study on the part of the magician. Some Gods, it's interesting to note, were considered to be primordial intelligences, created to take charge of very specific facets of reality (or being the very mind of those facets of reality), while others were thought to be humans who had evolved so rapidly as to become Gods themselves. Nut, Geb, Shu, Typhon and Tahuti are examples of the former, while Isis, Osiris and such half-castes as Hercules are amongst the latter.

Daimons, Angels and Gods were all thought to be composed of extremely subtle stuff, not quite dense enough to be matter, yet not quite pure enough to be energy. The Arabs described it as 'smokeless fire' (that is, fire which is so purely energetic that it gives off no waste product, such as smoke or ash; it can perhaps be thought of as light), while the Greeks themselves described Daimons as 'aerial', or composed of Air. What this really means is that these beings are not quite physical in the same sense that we are, yet they're certainly far less physical than anything which we encounter regularly. You can think of a gradient with the Gods at one extreme, and all inert matter on the other extreme, with various Angels, Daimons and biological lifeforms falling somewhere in the middle, toward either extreme depending upon how evolved a being it is.

Beyond even the Gods is a nameless (though there are words of power termed 'Divine Names' which refer to aspects of it, as manifest in Nature), formless 'something-yet-nothing' which can be called the Divine, the Infinite, or just God. Never did Hermetics define or limit what the Divine is, or does, but they all expressed the opinion that there is nothing in existence, physical or otherwise, which is not simultaneously part of God, and to some degree separate from God. The more evolved a being is, the closer to 'being God' it is.

One legend (either based upon "The Emerald Tablet", or the other way around) has it that Kaos (Chaos, duh) existed before anything. This is referred to as 'the one thing' or 'the first matter'. God is 'the one mind' which literally created itself (or became conscious of itself, thus taking on a separate existence) out of this formless Kaos. Soon thereafter, the Mind of God discovered that it had the ability to manipulate Kaos in any way it so chose, thus making Kaos the Body of God, and the Womb of the Universe. This is very similar to the Egyptian genesis, as well as numerous other mythologies worldwide, involving generation out of the Primordial Ocean, an unformed sea of Light, and so on.

Howling, Magic, God... and You

Hermetics split magic up into three general categories: goeteia (goetia), mageia, and theourgia (theurgy).

Goeteia is what most people think of when you bring up historical and fantastic magic; in goeteia, the magician causes change by manipulating aspects of the outside universe. Pronouncing an incantation while performing a hand motion and inscribing words of power onto a strip of papyrus in order to heal the sickness of a friend, for instance, or breaking the bone of a rat while chanting a prayer to Hermes for the purpose of being liberated from a jail cell, are examples of goetiea. Thus, most of what wizards do in fantasy roleplaying games, and what evil cultists do in horror games, falls under the heading of goeteia. The word itself is thought to come from an archaic Greek root meaning 'howling'.

Mageia can be thought of as what most magicians seek to master. Once a practitioner of magic has a firm foundation in words of power, sympathetic correspondences (see Sympathetic Mechanics) and other elements of spellcasting and magical ritual, he or she can begin to experiment with more rarefied techniques. The magician seeks to cause change through the efforts of his or her will alone; words of power are used to more tightly define the magical flow, but in mageia, the magician chooses not to call upon the aid of Daimons and other beings in favor of developing his or her own abilities. A fine example of this idea in a roleplaying game is that, in GURPS, as a wizard character gains a higher and higher skill level in a particular spell, he or she requires less 'magical energy' and fewer ritual gestures to cast that spell until, eventually, the spell requires no ritual gestures or spoken words at all! (See GURPS Fourth Edition Basic Set: Characters, pg 237, or GURPS Fourth Edition: Magic, pp 8 & 9.) The word 'mageia' comes from the name of the Iranian priesthood, who were practitioners of magic. It is thought to mean 'wisdom' or 'knowledge', while magos (the Greek source of our words 'magician' and 'mage') is said to mean 'one who knows' or 'one who is wise'.

Theourgia is something of a synthesis of the above two. Goeteia takes advantage of communication with spirits of various sorts, the occult connections between material things, and symbols; Mageia takes advantage of the magician's inner strength, understanding of fundamental principles and level of development. This being true, Theourgia takes advantage of the experience and knowledge gained through both practices, and uses them together in an attempt at becoming him- or herself a God or divine being. Generally, this includes making very strong alliances with Gods and Daimons in order to borrow of their power, though unlike in goeteia, this power is not begged or prayed for, but freely taken (and given in return) as a service to fellow evolving souls. This is where the idea of a pact with a demon or devil comes from, for it was thought of as a free exchange between two intelligent beings and, in the practice of magic, one's soul truly is on the line whether Daimons become involved or not! If a magician fails in his or her quest for real understanding, severe damage can be done; if a magician succeeds, however, divine exaltation and eternal life are achieved. Such is the philosophy of Hermetic magic. The word 'theourgia' means 'God-work'.

Whew!

I know, I know, that's a lot of stuff there! The subject of Hermetic magic is a complex and varied one; a full treatment of it would take us far afield to Gnosticism, early Christianity, the Jewish Kabbalah, Greek and Egyptian mythology and medieval Alchemy. I intend on covering many of these subjects independently in future articles, so what I've said about Hermetic philosophy above ought to be more than enough for some good RPG inspiration.

Probably the best and simplest use of Hermetic magic in your games is as a model for the most scholastic and/or scientific types of wizardry found in most fantasy games. When magic is both personalized and precise, Hermeticism will serve as the perfect foundation. If using it this way, remember that Hermetic magic is very formulaic, but not to the point of being dry and never-changing. It is personalized by each magician who learns it, and is ultimately meant for pragmatism. Hermetic magicians tend to believe that there is little point in being a magician if you can't make it work for you, in your circumstances or, as an acquaintance of mine once put it, "If you can't do it naked, in a desert, it ain't real magic!"

If you want to use Hermetic magic in a very realistic way, taking detailed information from the real world, you'll be forced into a great deal of research! Greek and Egyptian mythology, Christian Gnosticism, Plato, Pythagoras and a lot more.

Some Ideas

In many of my own games, I flavor descriptions of magic and magical paraphernalia with ideas taken from real-world magic. As stated above, the formal-yet-practical magic of most fantasy wizards can be emphasized by using the props and terminology of Hermetic magic. Calling someone a powerful magos, for instance, is a bit more colorful than saying, "He's a good spellcaster." Further, talismans made of Greek letters on papyrus, the scent of frankincense and sandalwood and a wand made of brass all add atmosphere to a magician's hidden laboratory.

A system of magic can be easily devised to emphasize 'words of power'. The basis of the system would be letters or syllables, each with a specific magical effect. Spellcasting, then, would no longer be about choosing the right spell for the occasion, but creatively stringing the different magical 'words' together to create a spell on the spot. The wizard character making use of such a system is assumed to have skill in different aspects of magical manipulation, rather than specific 'spells'. Wonderful examples of such systems include Mage: The Ascension and the optional Syntactic and Symbol magic systems of GURPS (see GURPS Fourth Edition: Magic, pp 202 - 209). Of course, you wouldn't actually have to write-down each syllable and what it does; it's safe to assume that the character in question has a pretty firm idea. Just come-up with a number of 'nouns' and 'verbs', making each one an independent skill (or making it cost a certain amount of magic points, or whatever is appropriate to the game system you're using). 'Attack' might be a possible verb, as would be 'Heal', 'Find' and 'Command'. Nouns would include 'Humanoid', 'Object', 'Place' and so forth, inserting a specific target for each. 'Command Orc' could form a spell to force an orc to leave the building, or to answer a question about his warlord's plans in full honesty.

In my current GURPS game (based in France in the 1620s), I have rules allowing magicians to perform magical ceremonies instead of simply casting a spell (their choice) in exchange for which they receive bonuses to the spellcasting. The only thing which differentiates a ceremony from a normal spellcasting is that, during the ceremony, an appropriate number of colored candles would be lit, along with an appropriate incense, and any number of other correspondences, each of which provides a specific bonus. Thus, magical sympathy is optional, and often not useful in a pinch (such as combat), but can work wonders in divination spells, healing and other magic done between the bulk of the action.

Spirituality is a theme which can be emphasized in Hermetic magic, as well. In most fantasy, magic and religion are seen as two very different realms of activity; while priests may gain spells from their gods, they are usually limited to spells which are very closely associated with the god in question, and which are actually cast by the god, through the priest much like biblical accounts of miracles. Hermetic magic, however, is an example of how most magical practitioners world-wide view them. To most magicians, Hermetic magicians included, religion is sort of a watered-down version of a magical tradition, made understandable for the masses. Magic is reserved for those with the tenacity to pursue it. Thus, everybody is allowed to go as far as they need to go; it is understood that the truth of religion may seem very different from the truth of magic, but only because those who haven't experienced both can't see the deeper connections. Hermetic magic, then, is a combination of scientific and religious modes of thought, to the end of perfecting one's self and becoming a divine being. A magical priesthood, who has both magical spells and special abilities granted by communion with the Gods would be a possible interpretation of Hermetic magic for fantasy fiction. Unlike the standard priest, who can only learn those spells granted to him, the Hermetic magician can study and practice to learn and create new spells; unlike a standard fantasy wizard, the Hermetic magician could also ask for aid from those Gods to whom he or she is closely allied, and have divine aid come in the form of turning undead creatures, or blessing your friends with good fortune in your next battle with unclean foes.

I hope that I've given you some ideas, and a fair bit of information on Hermetic magic, as it can serve as a wonderful backdrop for magic in your game world. I'll be doing more articles in the future on topics tangential to Hermetic magic, so stay tuned if you're interested! Next time, we'll discuss a more modern subject: cyber- and techno-magic.

Oh, one last thing: my e-mail address has changed. If you want to e-mail me privately, please send to anituel@gmail.com. Of course, you're still welcome to post stuff to the public commentary forum below!

May you live in interesting times,
Anituel

Non-Fiction Hermetic Magic by Stephen Edred Flowers, PhD The Seven Faces of Darkness by Don Webb Ceremonial Magic and the Power of Evocation by Joseph C. Lisiewski, PhD

Mood Music Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Original Sound Track by Michiru Yamane "The Emerald Law" by Wino and Probot (from the album Probot) Anything by Beethoven

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