A of the Emerald Tablet
A Hyper-History of the Emerald Tablet
Dennis William Hauck
The Emerald Tablet
The Emerald Tablet is one of the most revered documents in the Western World, and its Egyptian author, Hermes Trismegistus, has become synonymous with ancient wisdom. His tablet contains an extremely succinct summary of what Aldous Huxley dubbed the “Perennial Philosophy,” a timeless science of soul that keeps popping up despite centuries of effort to suppress it. The basic idea is that there exists a divine or archetypal level of mind that determines physical reality, and individuals can access that realm through direct knowledge of God.
The teachings of Hermes — the Hermetic tradition — is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world, and while no direct evidence links the Emerald Tablet to Eastern religions, it shares uncanny similarities in concepts and terminology with Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In the West, the tablet found a home not only in the pagan tradition but also in all three of the orthodox Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and many of the most heretical beliefs of the Gnostics are also openly expressed in it. Like the authors of the tablet, the Gnostics believed that direct knowledge of reality could be attained through psychological discipline and meditative exercises. They also shared a common view of the universe in which “All Is One,” a pattern of creation and decay symbolized by the Ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail).
Without doubt, the Emerald Tablet was the inspiration behind many other esoteric traditions, including over 1,700 years of alchemy. Most medieval alchemists hung a copy of the tablet on their laboratory wall and constantly referred to the “secret formula” it contained. In fact, during the sixteenth century, Hermes Trismegistus was such a revered figure that there was a movement to have his teachings replace those of Aristotle in European schools.
Five hundred years later, the tablet’s words are still held in the highest regard. “The Emerald Tablet is the cryptic epitome of the alchemical opus,” noted Jungian analyst Dr. Edward Edinger, “a recipe for the second creation of the world.” Ethnobotanist and consciousness guru Terence McKenna agrees, calling the tablet “a formula for a holographic matrix” that is mirrored in the human mind and offers mankind its only hope for future survival. “Whatever one chooses to believe about it,” sums up John Matthews in The Western Way (Penguin 1997), “there is no getting away from the fact that the Emerald Tablet is one of the most profound and important documents to have come down to us. It has been said more than once that it contains the sum of all knowledge — for those able to understand it.”
However, there is one nagging problem with the Emerald Tablet: Nobody seems to know for sure where it came from, or who really wrote it.
Timeless Myths and Church Politics
Part of the problem trying to figure out the origins of the Emerald Tablet comes from the many legends that cloud its history. In one of the earliest of these fabled scenarios, Hermes was a son of Adam and wrote the tablet to show mankind how to redeem itself from his father’s sins in the Garden of Eden. Jewish mystics identify the tablet’s author with Seth, who was the second son of Adam. They credit him with writing the Emerald Tablet, which was taken aboard the ark by Noah. After the Flood, Noah supposedly hid the tablet in a cave near Hebron, where it was later discovered by Sarah, wife of Abraham. Another version describes Hermes giving the tablet to Miriam, daughter of Moses, for safekeeping. She allegedly put it in the Ark of the Covenant, where it remains to this day. Occult historians generally agree that the tablet was found in a secret chamber under the pyramid of Cheops around 1350 BC. Another interesting legend describes Hermes as a philosopher traveling in Ceylon in the fifth century BC. He found the Emerald Tablet hidden in a cave, and after studying it, learned how to “travel in both heaven and earth.” This Hermes spent the rest of his life wandering throughout Asia and the Middle East teaching and healing. Oddly, the Hindu sacred book Mahanirvanatantra states that Hermes was the same person as Buddha, and each is referred to as the “Son of the Moon” in other Hindu religious texts.
Probably the only constant in all these legends is what the Emerald Tablet looked like. It is always described as a rectangular green plaque with bas-relief lettering in a strange alphabet similar to ancient Phoenician. It is made of emerald or green crystal, and the workmanship is exquisite. Caves, corpses, ancient Egypt, and secret wisdom are common themes in many of the stories.
The history of the tablet was further complicated when its alleged author became associated with the Corpus Hermeticum in the Middle Ages. The seventeen treatises of the Corpus expand on the principles of the Emerald Tablet and appear to be records of intimate conversations between Hermes and his disciples. For over three centuries, they were thought by the Catholic Church to be very ancient and held in the highest esteem. The church fathers believed the Corpus Hermeticum lent support to Christian doctrines, and the documents were required reading for European scholars. Images of Hermes adorned cathedrals all over Europe, and to this day, a giant fresco dominates the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican that shows Hermes, adorned with Hermetic symbols, walking in the company of Moses.
So it caused a great scandal in 1614 when Protestant scholar Isaac Causabon declared these documents forgeries written by “semi-Christians” sometime between 200 and 300 AD. He based his conclusion on a linguistic analysis that dated the writings to that era. For the next two hundred years, the Hermetic literature, which had been embraced by the early followers of Christ, was condemned by Christians everywhere. Although it was not officially part of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Emerald Tablet suffered the fate of all writings attributed to Hermes and went underground in a variety of secret organizations such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasonry.
The reverence with which these diverse groups continued to hold the Emerald Tablet is exemplified in the following paragraph from the Morals and Dogma of Freemasonry: “He who desires to attain the understanding of the Grand Word and the possession of the Great Secret, ought carefully to read the Hermetic philosophers, and will undoubtedly attain initiation, as others have done; but he must take, for the key of their allegories, the single dogma of Hermes, contained in his Table of Emerald.” There are other more veiled references to the Hermetic tradition in Freemasonry. For instance, their sacred name “Hiram Ibif” refers to the first Hermes (Hermes Ibis or Thoth), who, according to Masonic tradition, arrived “in the year of the world 2670.”
Today, most scholars agree that the Emerald Tablet is separate from or predates the Corpus Hermeticum and was probably the inspiration for them, and in this sense, the Corpus really does contain ancient writings. “In the mystic sense,” summarized the nineteenth-century French scholar Artaud, “Thoth or the Egyptian Hermes was the symbol of the Divine Mind; he was incarnated Thought, the Living Word — the Logos of Plato and the Word of the Christians. So the Corpus Hermeticum really does contain the ancient Egyptian doctrine of which traces can be discovered from the hieroglyphics which still cover the monuments of Egypt.”
Thrice Greatest Hermes
However, the question still remains: Who really wrote the Emerald Tablet and when? New evidence started to turn up in the late nineteenth century, when new discoveries about Egypt and the deciphering of hieroglyphics suggested that the principles exposed in the tablet go back at least 5,000 years. Some scholars suggested the date of origin for the Emerald Tablet to be around 3000 BC, when the Phoenicians settled on the Syrian coast. Phrases from the tablet, including references to the One Mind, the One Thing, and the correspondences between the Above and the Below, were discovered in many Egyptian papyrii, such as Papyrus of Ani and the Book of the Dead (1500 BC), the Berlin Papyrus (2000 BC), and other scrolls dating between 1000 and 300 BC. One early Hellenistic papyrus known as An Invocation to Hermes might refer directly to the Emerald Tablet and its author: “I know your names in the Egyptian tongue,” it reads, “and your true name as it is written on the Holy Tablet in the holy place at Hermopolis, where you did have your birth.”
That “true name” is the same name that all the Egyptian records point to as the author of the tablet: Hermes. But this person appears to have a threefold identity, which is why in the Latin translations of the tablet, he is called “Hermes Trismegistus” or “Hermes the Thrice Greatest.” If we follow the strict genealogical order in the Egyptian texts, Hermes is the son of the Agathodaimon, the great Thoth, who is the Egyptian god of all learning and hidden knowledge. According to those same texts, Hermes himself had a son, Tat, who was a scribe and lived in Alexandria around 250 BC. As mundane as all this sounds, there is something very disconcerting about the triple progression here. It descends from god to god/man to common man.
The Egyptians were the world’s most accomplished esoteric symbolists, and it is possible that this triple descendancy is a clue to understanding the true nature of Hermes. Yet to unravel this clue, it is necessary to forsake the traditional archaeological approach. In the words of the tablet itself, we need to “separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross.” Is it really possible to trace the origins of Emerald Tablet by moving to a higher level and following its spirit back through time? Could there be a grain of truth in the old legends that historians have ignored? In creating such a hyper-history, it is necessary to look at the psychology, philosophy, and beliefs of those associated with the tablet and the societies in which they lived.
Thoth: the First Hermes
There are tantalizing bits of evidence that suggest mysterious visitors came to Egypt over 12,000 years ago and brought with them a powerful spiritual technology, which they passed down to future generations in a time capsule of wisdom that became known as the Emerald Tablet. The Book of What Is In the Daat, the Book of the Deadand other Egyptian funerary texts, and numerous rebirth texts refer to a remote epoch known as the “Zep Tepi,” a time before the Great Flood when the godlike beings came to earth and established their kingdom in Egypt. They included Thoth, the “god” of science and mathematics, who is said to have written the Emerald Tablet and hid it in a pillar at Hermopolis to preserve it through the coming world deluge.
Thoth, who most sources agree was the “first Hermes,” is impossible to categorize intellectually because he transcends anything we normally think about gods and men. Usually depicted as a man with the head of an ibis (a wading bird with a long curved beak), this Egyptian neter (archetypal power) seems a simple personification of the powers of mind. He was said to be responsible for teaching men how to interpret things, arrange their speech in logical patterns, and write down their thoughts. As the inventor of hieroglyphics, Thoth instituted record keeping and founded the sciences of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. However, there are subtle clues in the many alternative names for this God of Thought that suggest he really represents the ultimate archetype of the Word of God (the One Mind) creating the universe.
Thoth is called the “Source of the Word,” the one god without parents who precedes all others. He is the “Soul of Becoming” whose creative willpower fashions reality. “What emanates from the opening of his mouth,” says an ancient Egyptian text, “that comes to pass; he speaks and it is his command.” As the “Reckoner of the Universe,” Thoth is the source of all natural law; as the “Shepherd of Men” and “Vehicle of Knowledge,” he is the higher mind in man that provides inspiration and inner knowledge. According to the Ebers Papyrus, a 68-foot-long scroll on alchemy that is the oldest book in the world: “Man’s guide is Thoth, who bestows on him the gifts of his speech, who makes the books, and illumines those who are learned therein, and the physicians who follow him, that they may work cures.” As the “Revealer of the Hidden” and “Lord of Rebirth,” Thoth is the guide to alternate states of consciousness and initiator of human enlightenment. One of Thoth’s scrolls, The Book of Breathings, supposedly taught humans how to become gods through breath control.
Paradoxically, Thoth embodies the rational powers of the Sun as well as the intuitive, irrational energies of the Moon. The ibis is the Egyptian symbol for the heart, and, as “Recorder and Balancer,” Thoth presides over the Weighing of the Heart ceremony, which determines who is admitted into heaven. Thoth is the final judge, who weighs individuals’ “true words,” the innermost intent in all of our thoughts and actions.
Just before the Great Flood, Thoth preserved the ancient wisdom by inscribing two great pillars and hiding sacred objects and scrolls inside them. Egyptian holy books refer to these sacred pillars, one located in Heliopolis and the other in Thebes, as the “Pillars of the Gods of the Dawning Light.” They were moved to a third temple where they later became known as the two “Pillars of Hermes.” These splendorous columns are mentioned by numerous credible sources down through history. The Greek legislator, Solon, saw them and noted that they memorialized the destruction of Atlantis. The pillars were what the historian Herodotus described in the temple of an unidentified Egyptian god he visited. “One pillar was of pure gold,” he wrote, “and the other was as of emerald, which glowed at night with great brilliancy.” In Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, Thomas Taylor quotes an ancient author who says the Pillars of Hermes dated to before the Great Flood and were found in caverns not far from Thebes. The mysterious pillars are also described by Achilles Tatius, Dio Chrysostom, Laertius, and other Roman and Greek historians.
In summarizing all the ancient wisdom and preserving it, Thoth the first scribe can be considered the true author of the Emerald Tablet. As a god, Thoth is the archetypal Hermes, the Hermes above, the first of three incarnations of Hermes Trismegistus.
Akhenaten: the Second Hermes
The “second Hermes” arrives on the scene sometime after the Great Flood. According to the Ebers Papyrus, such a person actually lived during the Amenhotep dynasty, and there is only one person who seems to have promulgated the spirit of the Emerald Tablet during those centuries. It was Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1364 to 1347 BC. Shortly after he took the throne, he suddenly changed his name from Amenhotep (meaning “Amen is Satisfied”) to Akhenaten (“He Who Serves the Aten”). His name change signaled his break with the powerful priests of Amen to set up a new monotheistic religion that recognized the sun as the One Thing, the source of all creative energy. The new Egyptian supreme god, called the Aten or simply “the Disk,” was never personified like previous gods but was thought of as an abstract energy. Pictures of the Aten show the Disk with rays coming down from heaven and terminating on earth in hundreds of tiny hands.
“The Aten is Radiant Energy personified,” wrote one twentieth-century Egyptologist, “that is to say, an all-pervading reality of an immanent character. Akhenaten deliberately brushed aside the distinction between the god, maker of the solar Disk, and the solar Disk itself, the distinction between creative energy and created matter. The Disk was, like all matter that falls under our senses, but a visible manifestation of something more subtle, intangible, everlasting — its essence. And the heat and light, the energy of the sun, was the manifestation of that One Thing of which the visible flaming Disk was yet another manifestation.”
Some occult authors have dubbed Akhenaten the “Extraterrestrial King,” and there is no doubt he possessed alien features. He had a thin face and a massive elongated bald head supported by a spindly neck, and his drooping shoulders, pear-shaped torso, lack of musculature, and scrawny legs certainly made him look like a space traveler. Akhenaten was also very androgynous in appearance, and respected scholars have accused him of being a homosexual or a woman masquerading as a man. Statues of Akhenaten have survived that show him naked with the breast of a woman and no male genitalia. It is known that this freakish pharaoh claimed one of the most beautiful women in the world as his bride, the lovely Nefertiti (whose family origins are still unknown to Egyptologists), and also shared the throne with a handsome young man by the name of Smenkhkare. Both of Akhenaten’s co-rulers shared the title “Beauty of All Beauties.”
Although traditional history makes no mention of it, our hyper-history suggests that Akhenaten rediscovered the Emerald Tablet at the beginning of his rule as pharaoh. According to at least one ancient papyrus, without the writings of Thoth the larger pyramids could not be built, so a great search throughout Egypt was conducted until they were found. Whether or not he found the tablet, Akhenaten stands as a candidate for the second Hermes because he tried to apply the tablet’s principles and spread its spirit throughout his reign. Known as the heretic pharaoh, he espoused the revolutionary concept of “living in truth” and acting in natural accord with cosmic principles that the tablet called the “Operation of the Sun.” He referred to this universal ideal as Maat, which meant the “real thing” or absolute truth, the original will of the One Mind. The agent of Maat was the One Thing, of which the physical sun, or the solar Disk, was the physical expression.
Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten is considered one of the best pieces of Egyptian lyric poetry ever discovered, and several scholars have noted its similarity in spirit to Emerald Tablet. A few lines reveal Akhenaten’s passionate belief in the One Mind: “How manifold it is, what You have made yet hidden from the face of man. Oh One God, like whom there is no other, You created the world according to your desire, while You were alone: all men, cattle, and wild beasts, whatever is on earth, going on its feet, and what is on high, flying with its wings.”
The principle of “living in truth” permeated every level of Egyptian society under Akhenaten. Most noticeable was the sudden change in the stiff and lifeless style that dominated Egyptian art. For the first time, Egyptian reliefs and paintings portrayed natural subjects such as plants and animals in exacting detail, and traditional scenes of sterile Egyptian society were replaced by such ungodly behavior as Akhenaten kissing his wife or bouncing his daughters on his knee. In another striking break with tradition, Akhenaten ordered the abandonment of the old capitol of Thebes and built a new capitol city, Akhetaten (“Horizon of the Aten”), on a desolate stretch of land along the east bank of the Nile near the modern Egyptian city of Asyut. Scandalously, villas in the 60,000-population city were constructed without separate quarters for men and women, and women in particular were treated with more respect there.
Yet for the disenfranchised patriarchal priests, Akhenaten might as well have been from another planet. After just seventeen years of rule, Akhenaten and Nefertiti disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and it seems likely that the former priests of Amen did away with them. Akhenaten was well aware of the brewing unrest among the priests but never hesitated spreading the precepts contained in the tablet. By some indications, one of those that took his ideas to heart was a man of god by the name of Moses. According to Exodus, Moses had fled to the land of the Kenites, which is what the subjects of Akhenaten were called. In the open court of the time, it can be assumed that Moses would have conferred with the pharaoh many times on behalf of his people. In Moses and Monotheism (1939), Sigmund Freud was the first to suggest that Moses appropriated the pharaoh’s idea of one supreme god and brought the new religion to the Jews. Perhaps all the legends linking Moses and tablet are not so far off.
In any case, the heretic pharaoh was eventually replaced by a ten-year-old boy. His given name, Tutankaten (“Servant of the Aten”), was changed to Tutankamen (“Servant of Amen”) after Akhenaten’s murder. The child pharaoh was tightly controlled by fundamentalist priests, who restored the capitol to Thebes, destroyed the city of Akhetaten, and erased all traces of monotheism from Egypt. Unlike the magnificent golden mummy of King Tut, the bodies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti were never found. Archeologist Sir Alan Gardner surmised that Akhenaten’s body had been “torn to pieces and thrown to the dogs.” The only written references to the Aten after the Akhenaten’s death were enigmatic allusions that associated the Disk with the great Sphinx on the Giza Plain.
Apollonius: The Third Hermes
Our hyper-history continues with the life of another Egyptian pharaoh, a Greek who became pharaoh when he conquered Egypt in 332 BC — Alexander the Great. As pharaoh, he gained access to all the treasures of Egypt, including the whereabouts of Hermes’ (Akhenaten’s?) tomb. Convinced it was his destiny to reveal the ancient secrets, Alexander immediately headed across the Libyan desert to an ancient temple at Siwa near where the tomb was located. According to Albertus Magnus and others, that is where Alexander found the Emerald Tablet.
Alexander took the tablet and scrolls he found in the tomb to Heliopolis, where he placed the scrolls in the sacred archives and put the Emerald Tablet on public display. Construction of the city of Alexandria to house and study the Hermetic texts was begun immediately, and he assembled a panel of priests and scholars to prepare Greek translations. According to esoteric historian Manly P. Hall, the mysterious Emerald Tablet caused quite a stir. One traveler, who had seen it on display at Heliopolis, wrote: “It is a precious stone, like an emerald, whereon these characters are represented in bas-relief, not engraved. It is esteemed above 2,000 years old. The matter of this emerald had once been in a fluid state like melted glass, and had been cast in a mold, and to this flux the artist had given the hardness of the natural and genuine emerald, by his art.”
When Alexander left Egypt, it has been suggested that he took the original tablet with him and hid it for safekeeping before going on to conquer Babylonia and India. Meanwhile, copies of the tablet became primary documents at Alexandria, and according to some reports, scholars issued revised Greek translations in 290 BC, 270 BC, and 50 BC. Several papyrii in the British Museum mention a canon of Egyptian teachings that included the writings of Hermes that was still in existence at the time of Clement of Alexandria (around 170 CE). Fortunately, before Alexandria’s libraries were destroyed in successive burnings by the Romans, Christians, and Muslims, copies of the Emerald Tablet had made their way into Arabia and from there eventually reached Spain and Europe.
After Alexander died from a fever on his return from India, his body was interred in a tomb somewhere in the Egyptian desert, although to this day, no one knows where. Yet someone did discover the hiding place of the Emerald Tablet. It is said that a brilliant Syrian youth named Balinas found it hidden in a large cavern just outside his hometown of Tyana in Cappadocia. It was Balinas who absorbed the tablet’s teachings and once again brought them to light in the Western world. The youth became known as Apollonius of Tyana (after Apollo, Greek god of enlightenment and brother of Hermes). Respected for his great wisdom and magical powers, Apollonius traveled throughout the world and eventually settled in Alexandria.
Unfortunately, Apollonius was a contemporary of Christ, and early Christians felt he was much too like their own Son of God. By 400 AD, every one of the scores of books Apollonius wrote in Alexandria and all of the dozens of temples dedicated to him were destroyed by Christian zealots. But Apollonius still stands as the third Hermes in our hyper-history, because he did more than any other person in the modern era to assure that the Emerald Tablet and its principles survived.
The earliest surviving translation of the Emerald Tablet is in an Arabic book known as the Book of Balinas the Wise on Causes, written around 650 AD and based on Apollonius’ Alexandrian writings. It also appears in the eighth century Kitab Sirr al Asar, an Arabian book of advice to kings. Another Arabic text, written by alchemist Jabir Hayyan around 800 AD, contains a copy of the Emerald Tablet and also gives Apollonius as the source. In all these texts, Apollonius describes finding the Emerald Tablet in the underground cavern in Tyana. He never claims credit for it, though he spent the rest of his life writing about it and demonstrating its principles to anyone who would listen.
What have we learned from our attempt at hyper-history? Can we even tell if the author of the Emerald Tablet was a man or a god? The answer down through the ages has always been both, and whether portrayed as man or god, Hermes is always the revealer of ultimate knowledge hidden to mankind. He is like a spirit who reincarnates through time to guide us in our struggle toward enlightenment. It is a tradition that goes all the way back to the first Hermes, the god Thoth, who was said to inspire people with direct perception of truth. “May Thoth write to you daily,” utters the 3,500-year-old Papyrus of Ani.