Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hermes and the Tortoise


Alchemical philosophy deals with the art of transmutation by a series of stages. Whereas orthodox religious thought emphasized the repression of darkness and the worship of light exclusively, the hermetic approach embraced darkness with the belief that it was a necessary material in the evolutionary process. This is famously described in alchemical literature as the magical act of turning lead into gold.

Transformation of the elements could not be achieved without the philosopher’s stone. Jung writes in his groundbreaking book Psychology and Alchemy that this stone was known to alchemists as the great lapis lazuli, ruled by the power of the Greek god Hermes, corresponding to the planetary body that we call Mercury. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the ways in which this alchemical concept was carefully encoded into the framework of western music theory, in such a way that, over hundreds of years, even as countless genres have emerged and fallen away, the philosophical principle of the harmony of the spheres would remain in tact. 

Hermes appears to us a hermaphroditic god, containing both masculine and feminine aspects. The portrayal of androgynous consciousness as the ultimate transmutative medium suggests a nondual perspective of reality.

The seven classical planets were paired together in such a way that Mercury was the odd one out. Consider the orbital patterns of Mars and Venus, each positioned on the opposite side of Earth, yet not revolving around our planet. As heliocentric bodies, Mars and venus signify those masculine and feminine qualities of inner experience that revolve around the true source of consciousness, in contrast to the geocentric polarity of the Sun and Moon, whose existence are more apparent to the layman and were therefore considered closer to the cycles of mundane, human existence.
Due in part to the patriarchal bias of classical Western thought, we find that Jupiter and Saturn both traditionally correspond to male gods in the greek and European alchemical texts, signifying positive and negative aspects of the Father archetype respectively. These attributions are not absolute, as we find in the kabbalistic tree of life, where Saturn is placed with Binah, the ultimate archetypal feminine sphere.
However, these disagreements in gender-symbolism are due partly to the different cultures to which they belong. In both instances, Saturn signifies something dark in contrast to the light of Jupiter. 
These three planetary pairs exclude mercury, which appears at first glance to be without a partner. Like the opposable thumb, a lonely yet indispensable organ of individuation, Mercury was revered by alchemists as the ultimate signifier of intelligence and communication.
Alchemical emblems depict Hermes-mercury time and again with his magical weapon, the caduceus. Here we find a pair of serpents coiling upward along the axis of an upright staff, approaching what in many cases appears to be a winged, solar disc. The resolution of feminine serpent energy and the masculine rod reiterates the principle of nonduality, which in this case was the means by which hermes healed the sick and aided in the transmutation of lead into gold. It is interesting to note that a quiet parallel was often drawn between Christ and Hermes-Mercury as saviors of mankind.


Hermetic principles have informed the secret philosophies of many elite Greek, Islamic, and Christian societies through the ages. We find in Platonic texts the idea of a harmony of the spheres, dealing on the surface with ratios of spatial distance between planetary bodies, while signifying a deeper cosmological unity which to the archaic man could be understood only in terms of an architect or intelligent creative principle. 
The laws governing this harmony of the spheres were presented as a musical analogy. In fact, Plato often spoke of the music of the spheres interchangeably, though nothing existed at the time that resembled music as we know it today. He seemed to believe that each planetary cycle produced its own musical tone, like a finger circulating the rim of a glass of water, and that the consonance of our planetary system resembled a symphony of balanced sounds.
Alhough the greek concepts of astrological harmony were subordinated by the monotheistic doctrine of European church dogma, it seems that the fascination of these ideas never died. In fact, as the monophonic chants of medieval music developed during the 6th – 15th century into a secular form, known to musicologists as the common practice period, the astrological philosophy returned, hidden in plain sight.
To what degree the language and ideation of western classical music notation was intentionally astrological, it’s hard to say. There is almost no literature whatsoever on this topic, with the exception of some excellent texts published in the past decade by author Joscelyn Godwin. For this reason, the contents of this video are the result of reasonable speculation. We invite further commentary and insights into this question from all who wish to participate.
Because we make a study of western music, it follows that a look at the piano and its method of musical notation will be a reasonable starting point. We will explore first the impact of our trickster god Hermes-Mercury and the philosopher’s stone. 

The stone, as stated earlier, was compared to lapis lazuli, and was often referred to as the “water stone of the wise”. The attribution of liquid water to a solid stone presents an immediate paradox, one which could be elaborated through the anagram of the word Stone into the words Tones and Notes. In fact, the basic premise of the piano was that musical tones, a term signifying the aural acoustic phenomenon of sound vibration, could be turned to stone, into something quantifiable, that would then be called notes.
Anagrams are a frequent device in alchemical texts, perhaps because they encourage the consideration of multiple simultaneous perspectives on the same contents. Jewish and Greek mysticism encouraged a similar process through the art of gematria, the application of numbers to letters. The student was made to understand that the order of letters may generate new words, but they always added up to the same number. This may provide a hint to the logic that would inform 15th century alchemical musical philosophy.
Again, the fixed letters of the word stone were rendered mutable by means of the anagram method, invoking the power of mercury to create two new words, Tones and Notes, whose new meanings corresponded to a polarity. We are reminded of  the rod of Hermes’ caduceus and with the two serpents coiling around it.
Next, we consider the layout of a piano because of its importance as the master instrument for baroque music composition, and also because of its connection to the Hermetic principle. A standard grand piano consists of 88 keys. Our planet mercury requires 88 days to complete its orbital path around the sun. What is the likelihood that this number would be a coincidence? 
Furthermore, the piano is divided into sets of white and black keys. These sets follow a twelve-note pattern, consisting of seven whites and five blacks, and interesting asymmetry that resonates with both the Christian preference for light over darkness, along with the attribution of seven planetary bodies to the heavenly sphere and five elements to the earthly sphere. When seven and five come together, we arrive at the number twelve, the classical signifier of the Sun.

There are twelve months in a solar year, in contrast to the thirteen moons of a lunar year. Likewise, we discover twelve houses in the solar zodiac, twelve apostles around the solar Christ figure, twelve tribes of the solar monotheistic Israel, and so forth. The division of octaves into the number twelve is not entirely arbitrary, and can be traced to the Pythagorean tetractys, which later informed the platonic theory of the harmony of the spheres.

The tones produced by the piano are notated on staff paper, classically arranged into upper and lower parts called the treble and bass clefs. The very word staff invokes the image of the caduceus, the hermetic magical weapon of transformation. Ascending and descending melodies resemble the curving body of the serpents, and the two clefs are separated by an invisible yet functional middle ledger-line called middle-c. This note finds its orientation at the center of the piano.

Plenty of significance could be projected into the existence of this middle c. It resonates with the idea of a central pillar, of course. As the third letter of the alphabet, the letter C signifies the center between two pre-existing polarities, the letters a and b. In latin, the word cor implies the sun, as well as the core or center of system. Like Christ Consciousness, the middle C note orients the rest of the grand staff by means of a fixed position on the piano.
It may also be worth noting that the latin word for the staff was pentagramma, translating roughly to English as “five-lettered”. For most viewers, it will go without saying that pentagrams have a deeply magical signficance, and furthermore, that since the use of the staff includes not only the five lines of the musical staff, but also the spaces in between them, the explanation of “five-lettered” is not entirely accurate. There seems to be an almost overt occult implication in the creation of this musical staff.

One of the ancient masterpieces of Greek literature, the Homeric epics, depicts an encounter between Hermes and Apollo. The latter was the son of Zeus, a god of light, who also was a god who specialized in music. In the story, Hermes discovers a mountain tortoise which he proceeds to break apart, scooping away the inner body so that only the half-shell remains. Drawing the intestinal organs from a sacred cow, hermes fashions a set of strings and attached them to the turtle shell, creating a new instrument called the lyre.
This word, spelled l-y-r-e ironically acts as homophone for the word liar, a fitting joke played by the trickster god of the greek pantheon. Apollo is at first disgusted by Hermes’ offering, but upon hearing the instrument, he becomes spellbound and forgives Hermes’ sins.
At this point we make an acausal leap of association to the Chinese creation myth, which posits that a major portion of the asian race of humans emerged originally from a sacred mountain region called Changbai. The attribution of this ancestral cradle to a mountain informs the creation myth of their most influential philosophical mode, the I Ching. It is said that the I ching was discovered by Emperor fu-xi as he contemplated the shell of a tortoise.
Turtle shells literally resonate, so it is no surprise that musical resonance and philosophical psychic resonance have both been attributed to this slow and noble creature.
The I Ching consists of sixty-four hexagrams, the product of eight times eight trigrams. Here again we locate a variation on the Hermes-Mercury 88 theme. Each trigram is composed of three lines, resonating with the pentagramma musical staff mentioned previously. However, let’s not conflate resonance with equivalence. The structures are not identical. 

A trigram is composed of three lines, either broken or unbroken. Broken lines signify a feminine quality and unbroken lines a masculine quality. There are eight possible combinations of this binary-triplet system. The total possible combination of trigrams is represented as eight times eight, totaling sixty-four hexagrams. We will of course recognize the word hexagram as another magical word, be it the solomonic star of david hexagram or the unicursal hexagram of crowley’s occult herecies.
Something interesting happens when we consider these broken and unbroken lines as intervals rather than objects. In western music, the definition of a chords is simply the presence of three or more notes played simultaneously. These notes must be different from one another, otherwise they would be the same note. Therefore, it would be correct to say that the most simple chord consists of three notes which in relating to each other would be described as two intervals.

There are two fundamental chord types in western music. They are called major and minor chords. The major chord is typically associated with joy and the minor chord with sorrow. In alchemical terms, the major chord corresponds to the solar-masculine and the minor chord to the lunar-feminine. These chords are triadic, which is to say that they consist of three notes.
These three notes, as we just explained, relate to one another as intervals. In this way, the relationship between the lowest and the middle note exist as an interval, while the middle and upper note also exist as an interval. These intervals are classified with the same names given to the chords: major and minor.
However, the intervals are referred to with respect to their scale degree. This will be explained in a moment, but for now, understand that these intervals are called major and minor thirds. A major chord is composed of a major third under a minor third, whereas a minor chord is composed of a minor third under a major third. Does that sound like a bunch of technical jibberish to you? Let’s take a closer look.
Recall the seven white piano keys and how the eighth key is identical to the first, but at a higher octave. This seven note pattern is called a diatonic scale. These scales are numbered from beginning to end, so that the first note of the scale is called the first scale degree, the second note is called the second scale degree, and so on. There are seven scale degrees in a diatonic scale. Let’s not digress into the Masonic significance of the concept of ascension by degrees.
So when we talk about musical intervals of a third, we are referring to the spatial relationship between the first and third scale degree. If, on the other hand, we describe the interval of a fifth, we would be referring to the interval between the first scale degree and the fifth scale degree. This is easy enough to understand.
Returning to the creation of musical triad chords, the major third and minor third intervals are similar in that they both describe intervals of a third. They both consist of an interval between the first and third scale degree. However, they differ in the type of scale which is being played. A major third is derived from a major scale, whereas a minor third is derived from a minor scale.
What then, you may ask, is the difference between a major and a minor scale? Very simply, they both consist of seven scale degrees, but the intervals between each scale degree is different. A major third interval has a distance of five notes including the first and last scale degree. The minor third interval has a distance of only four notes. If this is all a bit confusing, understand simply that major and minor thirds exist as fixed measurements of musical intervals.
We’ve almost made it through this technical bit, so try to stay with it. What we’re pointing at here is that a major chord is composed of one major third and one minor third. The top note of the major third becomes the root of a second third, which is a minor third. Therefore the chord is considered to be balanced, containing one major and one minor third. In contrast, the minor chord consists of a minor third on the bottom, whose top note again becomes the bottom note of a major third.

In both cases, with major and minor chords, we find a combination of one major and one minor third. The difference is simply the order of position. There are two additional chord types, called augmented and diminished chords, which consist of either two major chords or two minor chords. Therefore, there are four possible combinations of triads. 
As you can see, the interval relations of the musical chord system deals with polarities of major and minor, a direct correlation to the interval system of the I ching, which deals with broken and unbroken lines. The trigrams of the I Ching can be said to correspond to the eight chords that would result from all possible combinations of triple-interval chords. 
If we were adventurous, we could also explore the rhythmic division of the whole note into eighth notes. The 64 hexagrams correspond to the 64 spaces on a chess board, which consists of black and white squares, corresponding to the strong and weak rhythmic beats of an eighth-note pulse.
However, by now we have enough understanding of the technical aspects of the correlation between music and the I ching, so that we can return to the mythic thread. Our Hermes-Mercury mountain tortoise, a creature of the water whose shell resembles a stone, upon which we discover the code to both I-Ching and musical grammar, is the ultimate resonant chamber, so potent that even Apollo could not resist its charm. 
Yet if we are honest, we know that mercury is a liar, the proverbial trickster, taking us through the underworld journey of the mental labyrinth of endless polarities, only to exhaust us into submission. We come out the other side understanding nonduality intuitively. Duality is revealed to be a highly mechanistic tendency of the mind, extinguishing the inspiration of our heart. Yet in the same breath, upon integrating an understanding of these polarity systems, we are given the opportunity to return to them and assert the pulse of our heart through creative artistic expression.
Our mind and heart are non-dual and must coexist within the unity of our body, which itself is an instrument of the cosmos. Thus the composer unites the mental understanding of music theory with the inspiration of her heart, drawing the music from the heavens down through the creative instrument of the body, into the instrument, captured on pentagrammic staff paper, sealing the water in the stone.