The Kybalion serves as an introduction to so-called Hermetic philosophy to many. However, after more study, it is clear that The Kybalion is not a book about Hermetic philosophy at all. It was published in the early 20th century and preaches a philosophy closer to that of the New Thought movement.
What is New Thought?
The New Thought movement originated in 19th century America, and was originally known by many other names, such as Christian Science and Mental Science. It is a popularized form of self-help psychology, relying on principles such as mind-over-matter and the law of attraction. These principles should be very familiar to readers of the Kybalion, where they are presented as “mental transmutation.” In fact, if you look at the principles espoused by the Kybalion in the context of New Thought philosophy, it is clear that many of its ideas originated there.1
Learning About Hermetic Philosophy
Hermetic philosophy, or Hermeticism, dates back to the first few centuries C.E., and probably has its roots in older Egyptian and Greek teachings. While there is some overlap between the teachings of the Kybalion and Hermeticism,2 there is a great deal more to this tradition. If the Kybalion sparked your interest, there is a whole new world of wonder to be found in the philosophies and teachings of ancient Hermeticism. Let’s look at some books to get you started.
The Corpus Hermeticum is the best collection of actual Hermetic writings, but it’s not an easy book to jump into. Instead, it is easier to start with The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. While it glosses over some of the nuances of Hermetic philosophy, it hits all the major points quite well. In addition, the authors make it clear where their inspiration came from, so you’ll know where to look to learn more.
If you’re more interested in history and how Hermeticism fits into modern philosophy and religion, check out The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World by Gary Lachman. The author was one of the founding members of Blondie, and has since gone on to write many books and articles about mysticism and the occult. His historical approach to Hermeticism is lucid, easy to follow, and informative.
Getting to the Juicy Parts
When you feel ready to really explore the meat of Hermeticism, it’s time to turn to the Corpus Hermeticum and other ancient writings, collectively known as the Hermetica. There are two great English translations of the Corpus Hermeticum available today. The first, published as The Way of Hermes, was translated by Clement Salaman and is more poetic without dwelling on the academic aspects. The second is called simply Hermetica, and was translated by Brian Copenhaver. This version includes the Asclepius, another important Hermetic work, but it’s a more challenging read with plenty of notes and commentary. The challenge, however, is worth it.
Chapel, Nicholas E. “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism.” Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition 3, no. 24 (March 2013). Accessed February 24, 2016. http://www.jwmt.org/v3n24/chapel.html. ↩
Chapel outlines some of them. ↩
I’m one of the administrators of the Hermes Trismegistus page, so I helped put the list together. ↩