Before diving straight into the Emerald Tablet itself, it is best start with a brief history of Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice-Great Hermes, who supposedly authored the Hermetic Corpus. The Hermetica are ancient Egyptian-Greek dialogues in which a disciple is typically taught by Hermes himself, in a somewhat similar nature to Platonic dialogues, and at the conclusion, the student is enlightened. Hermeticism, the philosophical and religious tradition, is mostly based on these texts.
The figure of Hermes Trismegistus is a legend of the Hellenistic period that combines Hermes of Greek mythology and Thoth, an ancient Egyptian god, through interpretatio graeca, a comparative methodology that uses religious deities and concepts from Ancient Greece to attempt to understand the practices and mythology of other cultures. The comparison between the two figures may have been an easy one, as the psychopomps both had the role of guide for new souls journeying to the afterlife.
The Emerald Tablet is only a piece of the Hermetica that Hermes Trismegistus purportedly wrote, but it should be noted that the text first appeared in the middle of the eighth and sixth centuries in an Arabic book, and it was then translated into Latin a few centuries later. The Arabic book in which the text was first found is said to have been written by Balinas, and in the book, Balinas recounts his discovery of the ancient Hermetic wisdom in a vault in Tyana below a statue of Hermes. He states that a golden throne was inside of the vault, and on top of the throne sat a corpse that clutched the Emerald Tablet.
Hermes Thrice Great
There are different accounts of why Hermes Trismegistus was “thrice great.” It is thought to have first appeared at the Temple of Esna as the epithet of Thoth that calls him, “Thoth the great, the great, the great.” The piece of Hermetica known as the Emerald Tablet is one of the last known accounts of the honorific of “Thrice Great,” as on the Emerald Tablet, Hermes supposedly writes that he knows alchemy, astrology, and theurgy, which he states are three parts of the universe’s wisdom.
Of the surviving writings that are supposed to have come from Hermes Trismegistus, the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius are considered some of the most important, but when Isaac Casaubon dated the writings to the second century AD at the earliest, Hermeticism fell apart in the Renaissance. Rather than being a gift left from a legend, the texts were likely to have come from multiple Greek authors, as they include Greek philosophy that was popular during that period.
The Tabula Smaragdina, or the Emerald Tablet, is a small sliver of the Hermetic Corpus that is generally believed to hold the secret of Prima materia, which is an alchemical universal material that is said to be needed for the creation of The Great Work and alchemical magnum opus, the philosopher’s stone. This substance has legendary capabilities of changing base metals into gold, and is also believed to help one achieve immortality, representing one of the largest goals in alchemy. However, the meaning behind the text of the Emerald Tablet has also been associated with laboratory experimentation, and a correlation between microcosm and macrocosm. Sir Isaac Newton translated the text as well, and it was found with his alchemical papers, which are held at Cambridge University’s King’s College Library.
The text from the Emerald Tablet became an important part of Renaissance-era alchemy, and the desire to create the philosopher’s stone fueled the thought that its secrets were hidden within the Emerald Tablet’s text.
Ortolanus, an alchemist in the 14th century, interpreted the text, and there are still manuscripts that have survived with his commentary that date back to the 15th century. He viewed the tablet as a set of cryptic instructions that could produce the philosopher’s stone, and this view was the main European thought until around the 15th century.
Approximately one tenth of Sir Isaac Newton’s work was dedicated to alchemy, and he annotated many copies of others’ alchemical manuscripts. Cambridge University began cataloguing Newton’s papers in 1872, and while the institution kept a few, they returned a great number of them to the Earl of Portsmouth. Later in 1936, one of the Earl’s descendants sold the collection to approximately three dozen buyers. One of these bidders was John Maynard Keynes, who eventually reassembled around half of Newton’s alchemical papers and gave the collection to Cambridge University.
In these alchemical papers, Newton’s translation of the Emerald Tablet was found, and it reads:
Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
It is no wonder that scholars have sought for the meaning behind this cryptic text. While certainly some could easily dismiss it entirely as pure nonsense from another time — it is, after all, thought to concern alchemy — it is entirely possible that the text has some other meaning that has been lost to its own codified language.
The Philosophy of Hermeticism
Hermeticism views an ultimate reality as God, the One, or the All. This God in the Hermetic tradition is transcendent and exists separately from the material plane. Hermeticists believe that there is one true theology, and that it exists within all religions, and this was given to man by God in ancient times. This theological belief also rings true in Christianity, and leads some to believe that Hermes and Moses were contemporaries.
The text as translated by Isaac Newton reads: “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing.” From this passage, a philosophy sprang about the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. That is, the universe is viewed as the macrocosm, and the self is viewed as microcosm. With the mantra of “As Above, So Below,” Hermeticists believe that what affects one, affects the other, and through this relationship comes understanding.
The Philosophy of the Whole World
Hermes Trismegistus states that he has “three parts of the philosophy of the whole world,” or alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. In the text of the Emerald Tablet, it is necessary to understand these practices within Hermeticism.
The Hermetic tradition includes an account of the All recalling creation of the cosmos in the Corpus Hermeticum’s first book. In the tale, the All separates earth, fire, water, and air from the primary matter that makes up the cosmos, and sends the elements to the seven heavens. The seven heavens are then made to spin and speechless creatures came to life, and then man was created in an androgynous form. Man showed Nature the form of the All, and it is then said to have fallen in love with the All. Man, in a similar tradition of Narcissus, then saw his reflection in the water, thus falling in love with not himself, but nature. In this love, man wished to stay with Nature, and became encumbered by it, requiring things like sleep or sex for procreation. Man is seen to have split, having a mortal body but a spirit that is immortal, and because of this belief, reincarnation is a part of the Hermetic religious associations.
There is also another account of the Hermetic creation story that consists of God creating divisions in the universe as well as assigning gods and goddesses to govern these regions. Then God created the human soul out of a mysterious substance that had a transparent quality, and these souls were then tasked to create life on Earth. The souls created animals and other physical life forms, but became prideful and wanted to be higher beings. As a result, it is said that Hermes was called upon to construct bodies for the souls as punishment, and humans were told they could return to the astral region if their actions were deemed worthy, but life on Earth would be filled with suffering for their crime. If the humans did not live up to their divine origin while on Earth, they would be condemned to repeat life on Earth in and endless cycle of reincarnation.
The Hermetic Religion
The tradition of Hermeticism was one that offered religious and philosophical flexibility. It originally offered spiritual seekers positive encouragement in their endeavors. Of the surviving Hermetic texts, there are three major portions that cover the doctrines of Hermeticism.
- The Emerald Tablet contains the maxim of, “As above, so below,” that is important in Hermetic culture. In the text written on the Emerald Tablet, Hermes recounts how he became known as Trismegistus, or Three Times Great, by having his knowledge of the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
- The Corpus Hermeticum is an 18 chapter text that consists of dialogues between Hermes and other characters, including Poimandres identifying as God. In the dialogue, Poimandres discloses to Hermes the universe’s secrets, which he then teaches to others.
- The Asclepius, which is also known as the Perfect Sermon. This work takes on similar context to that of The Corpus Hermeticum.
Hermes states that nous is knowledge and reason, and further explains that nous can conjure up good or evil, depending on communication with God or demons, as God would bring forth good, and demons evil. In this thought, man cannot be completely good, as he fell in love with Nature and was given a body. Having the material world as a focal point is thought to be an offense to God in the Hermetic culture. It was also thought that the act of creation from man was a positive force that mimicked the generative power of God. There was also a belief that one may become sterile if one does not create.
There are many different scholarly resources available for diving deeper into the Hermetic tradition as well as understanding its place in history and relation to other religions and cultures. Many of the Hermetic texts have also been translated into English for further exploration of the subject.