The classical maxims ‘as above so below’ and ‘as within so without’ are traditionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Whether a historical figure or mythical fiction, Hermes had a prominent role in the esoteric teachings of ancient Egypt. The above mentioned sayings date back to the very dawn of recorded history and surely stand at the foundation of Eastern and Western philosophical thought.
Hermes Trismegistus is a Roman name given to the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was depicted either as a baboon or as an ibis headed man, and often held a pen and scroll, serving as a kind of patron god of Egyptian scribes. It is likely that he represented the Egyptian community of scribes as a whole. He may have embodied the wisdom and magic of ancient Egypt, entrusted to its scribes who were charged with recording it for subsequent generations.
The qualities of Thoth were likened to Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, and thus was born the name, ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ or ‘thrice-great Thoth’.According to Roman accounts, the original Hermetic writings were lost when the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed and fragments survived only in memory, which may have given rise to an oral tradition. When Constantine converted to Christianity and banned Egyptian worship, whatever was left of Hermes Trismegistus’ wisdom was either obliterated or assimilated into Christian doctrine.
The origin of Hermeticism stands mostly shrouded in mystery, emerging from the earliest chapters of recorded history. But the principles of ‘as above so below’ and ‘as within so without’ remain constant, like a golden thread running through the fabric of humanity. Whenever truth was expressed, in whatever fashion, the result echoed the very same truth mouthed by the ancient Egyptians.
As a late example, the poet William Blake began his poem “Auguries of Innocence” with the following stanza:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
As above so below and as within so without were not restricted to literary expressions of knowledge. The Khmer temple in Angkor Wat, for example, was designed as a human scale model of the Hindu cosmology. Man had designed and built a complete image under heaven, reflecting the above like a mirror.
To span the meaning of as above so below and ‘as within so without’ could take numerous written and illustrated volumes. It is not our aim to cover history, as it is to use the legacy of the ancestors to inspire the present.