Why is Hermes Important?

Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton

Hermes, as the World Daimon, plays a crucial role in the lives of all human beings. It is he who is responsible for guiding us through our lives via our individual daimons at his command. Don’t forget, we are not speaking literally here; we are creating mythology. Since there is a correlation between the individual and the collective, microsom and macrocosm,  as above, so below, we can compare the roles of the World Daimon and the various invidual daimons. Their whispers in our ears come to us from Hermes, since he is responsible for guiding our souls  to their ultimate destinies. In fact, he is the guide of the collective soul, the Anima Mundi. In his role as collective psychopompos, he guides the decision-making process of the World Soul. We must have hope that humanity, as a collective, will heed his wisdom.

Hermes is Lord of the Metaxical, the in-between places where we so often travel in life; the neither-here-nor-theres that we so often encounter. It is Hermes that will guide us through these most difficult of places, if we listen to the still, small voice. It is usually just a hint of a whisper. We get so tangled in the affairs of everyday living that we forget many times to listen to those ever-so-slight nudges from inside ourselves. As Richard Stromer writes,

For myself, I think this last aspect of Hermes’ role as guide of souls—his role as the guide into and out of  those passages in our lives which are inherently liminal in nature—is the most powerful one. As someone  who has been dealing for the past several years with the particularly momentous life passage called  “midlife,” I have had considerable opportunity to experience this aspect of Hermes’ energy. As Stein  observes, “at midlife there is a crossing-over from one psychological identity to another” As a consequence, he writes (and I concur), “in our reflecting on the midlife transition and the experience of  liminality within it, the world of Hermes therefore immediately suggests itself as a mythic, archetypal  backdrop” (Hermes as God of Liminality and Guide of Soul, by Richard S. Stromer).

Just as Hermes leads souls to the place of the dead, to Hades, we, too, are sometimes led to the recognition of dead characteristics within ourselves that must be mourned for a time, and then buried forever.


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Alchemy: Raven’s Head

Nigredo – dal manoscritto Viatorium spagyricum, Herbrandt Jamsthaler, (1625)

In the “furnace of the cross” and in the fire, says the “Aquarium sapientum,” “man, like the earthly gold, attains to the true black Raven’s Head; that is, he is utterly disfigured and is held in derision by the world (Jung 353)…

There is much more to be said about black than what has been said. The blacker the black, the whiter the white will be. The blackest black provides the most fertile incubator for transmutation. It is said by the alchemists to be as a raven’s head (caput corvi). It is not that black is to be identified with literally, as we see in suicides; it is symbol, image. Remember, all is image.

The raven is a harbinger of death, the dying of the common, the old ways, the old paradigm. From this thickest of blackness, a diamond will be born. Many people believe that diamonds are formed from coal. This, however, is a popular misconception. Geologist, Hobart King, says the majority of the world’s “diamonds…were formed in the mantle and delivered to the surface by deep-source volcanic eruptions” (Hobart King, How Do Diamonds Form?). Creation takes place deep within the earth’s mantle, where black is absolutely black, where carbon material is pulverized beneath the continental plates, some ninety miles below the earth’s surface. The temperatures there reach at least 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. After being ground to the blackest powder, the earth creates these wondrous stones and thrusts them back up to the surface. As above, so below. This is a powerful image of how the Nigredo works within the human psyche. At times, our lives are thrust deep into the unfathomable depths of the Underworld, where we are crushed, pulverized, and annihilated until we are black as the raven’s head.

 The Nigredo is the ultimate process of deconstruction. Where health once was, now there is only sickness; where happiness and meaningfulness once were, now there is only intense melancholia and nihilism. The Latin word, nihil, literally means “nothing.” One becomes as nothing when one encounters the raven. Where life once was, now there is only death. James Hillman writes, “Like a black hole, it sucks into it and makes vanish the fundamental security structures of Western consciousness” (Hillman 1626). Furthermore,

Black breaks the paradigm; it dissolves whatever we rely upon as real and dear. Its negative force deprives consciousness of its dependable and comforting notions of goodness. If knowledge be the good, then black confuses it with clouds of unknowing…(ibid.).

The purpose of the Nigredo is to plant us firmly in the darkness and in the depths of the Underworld. This prepares us for the next stage of transmutation.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Jung, C.G. Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry Into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. trans, R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 14. Princeton: Princeton, 1963.

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Alchemy: Nigredo

Only in a physically reduced worldview, a worldview reduced to and by physics, can black be called a non-color, an absence of color, a deprivation of light (Hillman 1553).

What is it in the human psyche that views the color black as somehow evil? We associate black with evil, with death, with the morbid and the macabre. Think of how many examples there are in our culture, our language, our phrases, and our art of black representing the negative, the corrupt, the hideous, and the malevolent. We contrast it with the purity and holiness of the color white since white represent the white light of God and all his holiness. The properties we ascribe to white are absent in black. Black ends up being the privation of white, as the Church Fathers believed evil to be the privation of good.

In his book, Alchemical Psychology, James Hillman says the distinction between the two colors arose in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the so-called Age of Light, where Reason was also coupled with the color white (ibid.). Hillman makes a stunning statement concerning European and American racism that, I must admit, had never really registered with me before:

Northern European and American racism may have begun in the moralization of color terms. Long before any English-speaking adventurer touched the shores of West Africa, fifteenth-century meanings of “black” included: “deeply stained with dirt; soiled; foul; malignant, atrocious, horrible, wicked; disastrous, baneful, sinister … ” When the first English-speaking sailors spied natives on West African shores, they called these people “black” (ibid.).

Why else would this have occurred, if not for the moralization of a color that appears many times in Nature? But why would the disdain for the color black ever arise in the first place? Apparently, the first time the word, “white,” was used to describe an ethnic group was in 1604, according to Hillman (ibid.). By this time, sailors had already traveled to what they later called  the “dark continent” and had attached all the stigma that had been linked with black to the inhabitants they met there.

 But this phenomenon was not unique to Western culture.

Disdain for black is not only contemporary, Western, and English. The color black in the Greek world, and in African languages also, carried meanings contrasting with white and red, and included not only the fertility of the earth and the mystery of the underworld, but also disease, suffering, labor, sorcery, and bad luck (ibid.).

Colors have always had symbolic significance in human cultures, but when white became associated with Caucasian Christianity, then those that didn’t fit into this group became laden with assumptions of evil, dishonesty, and disgust.

This is the working of a a very ancient archetype. Undoubtedly, unconsciousness is associated with black and consciousness with white, at least for the civilization of the past six to eight thousand years. It is indelibly etched in the human psyche. It is deeply connected to Nature, to the rising and setting of the Sun, day and night. We wake, we sleep. And sometimes we sleep the blackest of sleep, death. Death is the ultimate unconsciousness. 

In alchemy, black (nigredo) is the first stage in the magnum opus. The nigredo state is accomplished by work; it is not the original state of the soul, the prima materia. It is something that one has come to, and is a signal that one is ready to begin the journey. Just as coal has been worked upon by Nature to produce its black state, so is the nigredo soul a metamorphosis in progress. To get to this black condition, the soul has been working. It is in this condition that the real process begins.

How does one get to the nigredo state? In the language of alchemy, it is brought on by putrefactio and mortificatio, putrefaction and mortification. The original alchemical substances are subjected to these two processes to produce a blackened mass lacking all cohesion. Putrefaction is falling apart, decomposing. Mortification is a grinding down into smaller and smaller particles, to overwhelmingly punish and destroy. These two processes speak to the total breakdown of anything that is solid in one’s life. This is the soul pathologizing. It is a necessary step, even initiatory, that will eventually bring the gleam of gold to the soul. Hillman writes,

We can begin to see – through a glass darkly – why the color black is condemned to be a “non-color.” It carries the meanings of the random and the formless. Like a black hole, it sucks into it and makes vanish the fundamental security structures of Western consciousness. By absenting color, black prevents phenomena from presenting their virtues. Black’s deconstruction of any positivity – experienced as doubt, negative thinking, suspicion, undoing, valuelessness – explains why the nigredo is necessary to every paradigm shift (Hillman 1626).

Moreover, the nigredo state corresponds to Nietzsche’s assertion that nihilism is a necessary state one must arrive at before transformation is possible. I wrote about this recently in Nihilism as a Precursor to Transformation. The breakdown of all meaning is without a doubt one of the best examples of the nigredo. The soul brings one to this place of brokenness for a very good reason. In the blackest depths of the earth are where diamonds are born.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

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The Doctors of Soul: Plotinus

Plotinus, from The School of Athens, by Raphael

Plotinus was the greatest of Neoplatonists. He never called his philosophy Neoplatonism. The name was created in the 19th century by stuffy European historians who enjoyed splitting history into periods. He lived circa 205-270 C.E. Plotinus considered himself a Platonist, even though he developed his own brilliant philosophy. His magnum opus was The Enneads, which were written in Rome. In the ways of soul, he was a master.

On the surface, Plotinus did not seem to be very influential to Jung’s thought. According to James Hillman, “Jung’s references to Plotinus and Neoplatonism are few. Plotinus appears not to have been one of Jung’s direct or favorite sources, and at least two standard works on Plotinus in Jung’s library stand there still with pages uncut” (Hillman 149). However, the two shared a common concern: “what is the nature of psychic reality” (Hillman 150).

In his essay, Plotino, Ficino, and Vico as Precursors of Archetypal Psychology, Hillman presents several points in Plotinus’ thought that are common to depth psychology, and, specifically, to archetypal psychology. First, humans can act unconsciously. Plotinus believed the soul possesses memories which are unconscious. These can exist concurrently with consciousness. Plotinus has even been called “the discoverer of the unconscious,” by H.R. Schwyzer, in his work, Consciousness and Unconsciousness in Plotinus (379, 390). Also, Plotinus believed in one universal soul, which can be compared to what we know as the Anima Mundi.

Hillman’s next point concerning Plotinus’ teaching is that “consciousness is mobile and multiple.” By this he means that consciousness does not necessarily need to be tied to just one aspect of the psyche, such as the ego. Plotinus believed in the multiplicity of consciousness, just as archetypal psychology does. Plotinus says in (Plotinus I, 1, 9), “man is many,” meaning man possesses many sides, both good and bad. Jung, says Hillman, presents a similar multiplicity of consciousness in his idea of the dissociability of the psyche into many complexes each with its light of nature, its spark or scintilla” (ibid.).

Plotinus was probably the first thinker to distinguish between a strictly ego-consciousness, our daily, quotidian mode of consciousness, and the total human psyche, which includes symbolic modes of consciousness. He also believed that each soul is commensurate with the universal soul, as well. Referring to this notion, Hillman comments that “we become precisely the activity we enact, the memory we remember; man is many, Proteus, flowing everywhere as the universal soul and potentially all things” (Hillman 151). The idea of the protean human harkens back to the ever-changing fiery flux of Heraclitus’ world, and his idea of the unlimited depths of soul.

Plotinus believed the imagination is primary to the soul. In fact, conscious experience would not occur if not for imagination. It is similar to a mirror in that, “by means of it the reflection of consciousness takes place” (ibid.). Not only that, but “imagination is an active power of the soul alone, independent of organs, and thus a purely psychic activity” (ibid.). Jung was also of the mind that “every psychic process is an image and an ‘imagining,’ otherwise no consciousness could exist” (qtd. in Hillman, 152). So, it is not far from these assertions to say that Plotinus was very close to the notion of archetypes in the unconscious psyche.

Next, Plotinus believed in the identification of personal soul and world soul, which both Jung and Hillman assert. It is a paradoxical union, where there is, in fact, a slight distinction between personal and collective, but there really isn’t. The lines between collective myth and personal imaginings blur in metaxical, paradoxical beauty.

Finally, for depth psychologists like Jung and Hillman, as well as the ancient Doctor of Soul, Plotinus, the soul is foundational. It is the bedrock for all other learning, teaching, and philosophizing. Hillman says,

Plotinus and Jung share a root vision based on the primary metaphor of soul, so that everything said is both a statement of the soul and by the soul as well as a statement on and about the soul. Soul is both subject and object of their concern” (Hillman 153).

Of the Doctors of Soul covered so far, Plotinus is the one I know the least about. Doing the research for this article has opened up new avenues of thought and imaginings that I hope will bear much creative fruit. 


Hillman, James. Loose Ends. Irving: Spring, 1978.

Plotinus. The Six Enneads. Trans. by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page. http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.html

Schwyzer, H.R. Bewusst und unbewusst bei Plotin. in Les sources de Plotin. ed. E. R. Dodds, W. Theiler. (Geneva: 1957.  

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Ciphers of Nature

Photo by Pauk

…initial imaginative operation is to typify (tamthll) the immaterial and spiritual realties  in  external or sensuous  forms,  which  then  become  “ciphers”  for  what they manifest. After that the Imagination remains the motive force of the ta’wil which is  the continuous ascent of the soul In short, because there is imagination there is  ta ‘wll; because there is  ta ‘wll,  there is symbolism;  and because there is symbolism, beings have two dimensions (Alone with the Alone, by Henry Corbin).

Could it be that we, in this material world of self-aggrandizement, are really asleep? In our humdrum day-to-day existence of relying on the physical senses to perceive this world, truly a one-sided state of affairs, we don’t realize that we’re omitting the most important aspect of reality.

The Hermetic doctrine teaches,

For All things, are but two Things, That which Maketh, and that which is Made, and the One of them cannot depart, or be divided from the Other (Corpus Hermeticum, Book 17).

Every empirical object is not just an entity to be observed and measured. All things are two. These cannot be divided; they are actually one reality. This other corresponds to the physical object, but it is not observable by the physical senses.

Let’s take a concrete example and discuss a tree, since I like talking about trees. Let’s talk about an oak tree. The oak tree has spirally arranged leaves; its fruit is a nut called an acorn. Within this hard little nut is another tall, strong oak tree in potentia. The bark is hard to the touch. These are physical characteristics of the tree. Is this all there is to an oak? What about the awesome symbolism inherent in such a mighty tree? The spiral, which I have discussed on this blog, is a tremendous spiritual image. Each oak leaf is based on a spiral pattern, which expresses the famous Fibonacci series. Tremendous imagery! The acorn has been used by psychologist, James Hillman, in his book, Soul’s Code, to theorize individual human destinies. This is just scratching the surface of the rich depths of symbolism the oak possesses. 

When we begin to experience the depths inherent in Nature via imagination, our souls begin a journey back to their origin. This is all about imagination. Corbin talks a lot about ta’wil. This idea, taken from Islamic mysticism, is spiritual exegesis on, not only sacred texts, but also on the world around us. Through imagination, we experience the twin of all material things. The maxim, As above, so below, leads us to greater understanding of ourselves. That is why we can discuss, say, a flower, and discover a plethora of truths inherent in its reality. 

All manifested forms function as ciphers that, if read properly, will unveil their inherent truths. This is exactly how the ancients formulated their spiritual ideas. It is a hermeneutical, imaginative reading of Nature. Jung’s active imagination is very effective in this pursuit of truth.

So say those who have gone before us, if we follow this truth, our souls will also return to their rightful place in the universe.

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