Corpus Hermeticum The Spheres and the Labyrinth
Bringing down the energies of Heaven to Earth and ascending to the Heavens is a vital key in many esoteric traditions: “As above, so below.” But how was it done? The simple answer is that sacred geometry helped in establishing these uplinks/downlinks. Today, various models lie scattered in books, cathedrals and elsewhere, there to be interpreted for what they truly were.
by Philip Coppens
Robert Fludd’s “Diagram of the Spheres”, published in “Utriusque Cosmi” between 1617 and 1624 is one of the most famous occult symbols reproduced. Reproduced, but not explained. Most often, we are merely given descriptions. We are told that this is a series of concentric circles – though, to be more precise, they are spirals – that consist of angels, stars and elements, mapping a hierarchy descending from God. In academic papers, we are informed that Fludd’s scheme was the same as the one laid down in the early Renaissance by the likes of Pico della Mirandola, a pupil of Marsilo Ficino, who in 1460 had translated the Hermetic texts into Latin, introducing a body of ancient knowledge into Western Europe that helped shape the Renaissance. Throughout Fludd’s books, there are quotes from Ficino’s Latin translation, confirming this conclusion. Pico himself is credited with adding the Kabbalah – a Jewish mystic tradition based on the Tree of Life – to the Hermetic texts. So even though the diagram of the spheres is often linked with Fludd, he was “merely” the one who created a depiction that was published and survived the test of time – he was one in a long line of magi that investigated this sacred science of correspondences.
Fludd’s diagram starts with the Cosmic Mind, followed by the nine orders of angels (seraphim, cherubim, dominations, thrones, powers, principals, virtues, archangels and angels). Below these are the stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon, followed by the four elements, in order, fire, air, water and earth. Fludd’s vision of reality was like any other magus: two worlds, a greater and a lesser, intersecting, working together as a whole: as above, so below. It was an age-old concept: there was our world and another world, populated by otherworldly beings – the gods. The doctrine was paramount in the Renaissance, as it was where it was reborn, but it was born in a distant past and found in many ancient civilizations. Whether it is ancient Egypt or the Hopi Native Americans of Arizona, all these cultures made it apparent that at some time in the past, these two worlds were more intricately linked than they are now. As a result, the gods resided on planet Earth, before they disappeared to their home realm.
The imagery used to illustrate this separation was that of a veil. But contact between the two worlds remained possible. In the Celtic tradition, it was said that the veil was thinnest at Halloween – October 31 – though contact with the otherworld was possible at other Celtic festivals too. But it were equally the times when one had to be more careful, for those who did not wish to fall in e.g. the land of the fairies unwillingly. Not everyone was destined to become a traveler between worlds. In short, what Fludd was drawing was a diagram of how the various worlds – of man, angels, elements and God – intersected and how one ascended, and how the commands of God came to Mankind. Contact with the Otherworld was a common theme through myth and folklore, but on a number of occasions, some, like Fludd, tried to approach the problem of these two worlds from a more scholarly perspective. As mentioned, Fludd’s diagram is a spiral, from God spiraling to the Earth, through a series of concentric circles, 22 in total. As it so happens, the Jewish Kabbalistic design of the Tree of Life is a similar concept, of energies traveling from the divine realm to ours, and vice versa, and in this case, the number of paths one can take in progressing from one realm to the other is also said to be 22. In short, they are two different expressions of the same, age-old dogma.
When I looked at Fludd’s diagram, however, what struck me was the comparison with the labyrinths of the medieval Gothic cathedrals, specifically the Chartres design, which attracts many thousands of pilgrims each year, who come there from all over the world to walk it. Chartres is an eleven-circuit and is based on the notion of connecting the mundane world with the divine, the outside world with the inner world. As it is placed within a church, one might not see it for what it is, but it is now well-established that labyrinths date back to pre-Christian times and were seen as devices through which one could experience the world of the divine – the Heavenly Jerusalem – directly. This was – and remains – little appreciated by the Church, whose premise is that God should and could only be experienced through the intercession of the Church – a priest. As a result, the Church has fought, for centuries, to control and eradicate labyrinths from its churches, in most cases, successfully.
The Chartres labyrinth design may seem the odd-on out in our series, but actually it is not. It is 11 circuits to connect the mundane with the divine, and another 11 to exit the labyrinth, returning to the earthly realm. In all of these traditions, the master number is 22, a vital number in many esoteric traditions.
But so is one, linked with The One, God, and the center. The center of the labyrinth was seen as a space which was for experiencing the divine. Long before the advent of Christianity, there was a universal tradition that stated that spirits could not penetrate into the center of a labyrinth. It is why the so-called ley lines that one can find in ancient landscapes – roads that were built in a straight line and/or buildings that lined up – were “dead straight”, as the spirits of the dead were said to be only able to travel in straight line. The opposite of a straight line, was a curved line, or a circle, and at its core, the circle represented God, as well as a point outside of time. A circle could hold a spirit and whereas it kept away interference from the world outside (the horizontal plane), it allowed for communication with the world above and below (the vertical plane), that axis mundi along with the spirits travelled. Three different models – the Fludd diagram, the Tree of Life and the labyrinth – but in each case, we come across the same pattern: connecting two worlds. In esoteric thinking, Hermes Trismegistus, after whom the Corpus Hermeticum was named, was seen as the messenger of the gods and therefore collected frequent travel miles as he walked between both worlds. He stated that “God is the center of everything whose circumference is nowhere to be found.” Both the labyrinth and Fludd’s diagram play with this notion and, most importantly, visualize it. Robert Fludd Whether a Tree of Life, a labyrinth or Fludd’s diagram, all of them are visualizations of how the two worlds interconnect. And this knowledge was applied in a number of different ways. The Tree of Life was used in the oeuvre of Bérenger Saunière in Rennes-le-Château – his church – and parts of the gardens of Versailles, where it features in the time slip incidents that occurred there. It was also incorporated into the design of cities, most famously London and Washington. Fludd’s diagram, too, was practically applied and featured in the art of memory, which were mnemonic techniques especially helpful for actors remembering plays. According to Frances Yates, Fludd’s art of memory was actually applied to the layout of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Fludd revived the Pythagorean theory of the harmony of the spheres, which held that a man’s soul had to be attuned to the laws of the universe. With the design of the Globe Theatre, we are therefore returning to the old mystery plays of ancient civilizations such as Greece and Egypt, which were indeed performed for that precise purpose: informing and attuning the viewer to the divine.
What each system tried to do was reveal – sometimes openly, sometimes succinctly, but in each case through sacred design, that everything was connected to everything else by hidden influences and correspondences which it was the task of magi like Fludd to elucidate. What we find in Fludd’s diagram is one the most memorable renditions of this, as Fludd was one of the last Hermetic philosophers. It was based on the notion that every action had a reaction in the other realms, “as above, so below”, which was the basis of all magic. What he left us, was a model, which showed how Michael among the Archangels emanates as the Sun among the planets, as the heart in the body and as gold among metals. It was a tool so that Man could ascend to the heavens, and communicate with the divine, and vice versa. In the end, Fludd’s diagram itself is a mnemonic device, to help us realize our place in the universe and how our actions influence the rest of the world, and vice versa.