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Occult Time Capsule

A slender thread of connection between Ancient Egypt and modern occultism appears in a short book from a century ago

Ancient Egypt has been a perennial source of fascination to Westerners since the Renaissance — and spiritual seekers in particular dream of uncovering a primeval theology beneath the layers of Egypt’s past.

Although it’s difficult to locate, and is commonly exaggerated and misunderstood, there is a veritable and slender thread of connection between today’s alternative and gnostic subcultures and the magical and existential religions of late-ancient Egypt, particularly from within the Greek-Egyptian philosophy called Hermeticism.

Attributed to the mythical man-god Hermes Trismegistus, Hermeticism was an epic and somewhat diffuse effort on the part of Greek-Egyptians in Alexandria to codify the ancient land’s magical philosophies into Greek writing in the generations immediately following Christ. Translated into Latin during the Renaissance, the Hermetic manuscripts represent not only a time capsule of Egyptian oral tradition, but they have generated a thought ripple that has endured within modern alternative spiritual culture.

One of the most widely read vessels of Hermeticism — or, rather, fragments of it — is a pseudonymous early twentieth-century occult work called The Kybalion. I once dismissed The Kybalion as little more a turn-of-the-century occult novelty with Hermetic window dressing. But I recently came to detect authentic congruities between certain of the book’s ideas and authentic expressions of Hermeticism, as they have reached Western readers.

In this recent lecture in New York City, “The Magic of The Kybalion,” I explore the historical and theological retentions of this oddly alluring short work.

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