“Of all the symbolic systems in which the truth has been enshrined none is so complete, so picturesque, and now so little understood as that of the “Hermetic Philosophers” or Spiritual Alchemists. This fact would itself be sufficient to justify us in examining some of the chief features of their symbolism. …
“The alchemical symbols, especially as applied to the mystic life, are full of often deliberate obscurity; which makes their exact interpretation a controversial matter at the best. Moreover, the authors of the various Hermetic writings do not always use them in the same sense. …
“The process of this work, sometimes describes in chemical, and sometimes in astrological terms, is more often than not disguised in a strange heraldic and zoological symbolism dealing with Lios, Dragons, Eagles, Vultures, Ravens and Doves: which is unequaled in its power of confusing the anxious and unwary inquirer.” ~Evelyn Underhill
Trying to understand Hermetic philosophy and Alchemical Mysticism by studying and interpreting the symbols used can be a daunting task. As Ms. Underhill notes, various writers on the subject can’t agree on the meanings of them. So what was the point of using such symbols?
The idea was to share teachings with the students without revealing the secrets to the uninitiated who could not be trusted to use such great knowledge and power wisely. This may even have resulted in different uses of a symbol by different teachers, or several symbols used to mean the same thing. That is why trying to understand spiritual truth by studying Hermetic symbols is like trying to find your way out of a jungle maze by studying the pebbles on the path. Still, it may be worth while looking at a few common ones.
Hermetic Seal of Light
This symbol, also related to Pythagorean teachings, combines the basic geometry symbols of a triangle, a circle, and a square. It is generally interpreted as a symbol of transformation that tells the student that body, mind, soul and spirit must all work together for enlightenment.
The Philosopher’s Stone, renames the Sorcerer’s Stone in the first Harry Potter book, was allegedly used by alchemists to turn lead into gold. This is all allegory. The spiritual or mystical alchemists were not concerned with making jewelry. They were trying to transform men and women from the lead state of materialism to the golden state of the spiritually enlightened. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it is known by other names and sometimes depicted as a luminous pearl. So the Philosophers stone was just another name for that Hermetic Seal of Light.
Hermetic symbols are still around today. We use them without realizing it. Some of them can be found in churches. Others are found in science, like the Caduceus used as a symbol of doctors or medicine. The twin snakes on this symbol represent a coming together of body and spirit for true health.
Understanding Hermetic Symbols
Trying to understand Hermetic symbols, or any of the symbology used by ancient mystery schools is impossible if you approach it in an intellectual and materialistic way. Such an approach almost always gives the wrong results, which is why some academics think the Caduceus is a poor choice as a symbol of medical care.
To really understand the symbology, you need to be a spiritual student, and a fairly advanced one. Such a student can look at those symbols and get the meaning with little or no explanation. So if you want to under stand hermetic symbols and alchemy, join a spiritual school.