From the beginning of life there has been an outward path of evolution and differentiation, but at the same time there has been a path of return to the fountainhead of life. The return path leads to spiritual actualization and freedom. By retracing our psycho-genetic make-up we are able to actualize all that is within ourselves so that we become who we really are, recognizing and manifesting the gifts, talents, and knowledge that are the basis of individuality. These gifts have a magnetic power that attracts people who have not actualized their own talents. Our own ego can become involved in desires for advantage from others if we are not careful. We must also overcome this magnetic power. Otherwise, our egos will make us insufferable beings.
When we have actualized our internal contents and learned not to identify with them in a personal way we have the opportunity to conjoin with the Spirit that hovers over the waters of potentiality at the inception of time and personality. After this we return to the world an actualized vessel through which the spirit works.
This threefold path of self-actualization, egoic death, and rebirth in the Spirit is built into the fabric of our genes and into the natural world. The trail is recorded in the alphabet of Nature, the plants and animals, stones and rivers, each of which tells a story of properties needing actualization, or challenges needing to be overcome, or lives needing rebirth. Nature is a living being filled with Wisdom.
This path has always been with us since the beginning of time and therefore it is called the Old, Old Path. Very few take it now. When I was there I saw a barely visible indentation in the leaves on the forest floor, proclaiming to the trained eye that someone, some time had taken that path.
The Old, Old Path
The Primordial Waters
The alphabet of Nature is written in the landscape and its inhabitants. In many cultures life is said to have arisen in the primordial waters. Scientists believe that life originated in the primordial waters of ancient earth. In the Bible, the Spirit of God broods over the waters to create.
The primordial waters represent the source of genetic life. We need to retrace our genetic existence back to the origins of creation itself, if we desire to return to the primal waters on the Old, Old Path. We must relive and release attachment to our personal, familial, and racial prejudices. Tracing back through our genes or ancestors we release our unconscious programming. Some of this is worthless, but most constitutes qualities that we need to manifest in our social lives.
Visionary space intersects with practical existence and therefore the primordial waters can be a real place, not just an idea. For me, the primordial waters are a lake I visited several times as a canoe guide in my early twenties. It sits on the international boundary, as it happens. I always felt a mysterious presence in the wind that rustled over the reedy marshes and waters of that lake. Many years latter I returned with a friend of mine, an Indian man whose family had a cabin on the lake. It was also for him a sacred place: the genetic place of origin of his people. This was not because they came down from the stars or up from the underworld on that spot but because they were traders living at the halfway spot on a great inland water highway that transversed the continent. The genes of his people were always changing as new people came and went; only the location stayed the same.
Returning to the primordial waters is not an everyday affair. When I really need to visit that place I am brought there is dreamtime. First I hear a drumming in my ears. I realize it is a pounding sound and see two old native women pounding grain or mahnomin. Then I feel the grinding of the grain in my testicles and I know that the individualized life of myself, my ancestors, and my people is being reduced to undifferentiated genetic material (is there such a thing? It must be pre-genetic material). Then I know that I can go beyond personal attachment to unravel the problem I need help with.
The Three Cranes
Crane is an ancient medicine bird. The motif of the three cranes is found throughout Eurasia. The symbol of the Paris Guild of Physicians down to the early thirteenth century was a shield with three cranes on it, each one holding a sprig of marjoram in its beak. A skinned crane is still used as a medicine bag in Siberia and Crane is a well known medicine bird among the native people of North America.
Crane is the king of the water birds and because of this he brings the Spirit from the other world to this world. That is because spirits arise in the primordial water of the beginning of time. He also brings them back the other way. Therefore, Crane is the friend of shaman, helping him or her on the Old, Old Path.
The reason why there are three cranes is because there are three great journeys to be made between this world and the Spirit world. The first is the journey of the new born infant. This is why we still say that the "stork brings the baby." The second is the journey from life back to the spirit world. Here too, Crane is the messenger. That is why the medicine of the elderly (geriatrics) derives its name from the crane (Greek geranos,crane). The third journey is from death to life, or the journey of the shaman. Thus, a skinned crane is used as a medicine bag.
In North America Crane is one of the most important dodems, >or clan groups of the Anishinabe Ojibwe. From the Crane Clan are chosen the leaders who speak for the people and treat with outsiders. It is said that Crane Clan people have loud voices, like the bird itself. Crane is also known as Businase, the "echo-maker," because the shrill cry echoes off the rocky shores of the northern lake country where the Anishinabe live. A person who has dreamed of Crane has the right to call the spirits in certain ceremonies.
In Europe the medicine animals became the gods of ancient pagan religion. Crane because Hermes or Mercury, the "messenger of the gods." Thus, Hermes was known as the "psychopomp" or "guide of souls," who brought the soul of the departed one safely back to the spirit world. Hermes was also the god of communication, a Crane function.
In Egypt the connection between the original medicine animal and the god is more evident. Thus, the analog of Hermes is Thoth, the Ibis-headed god. The northern crane is replaced by the great water bird of Africa, the ibis. The crane or the ibis was known in Africa as the medicine animal that brought the people language and dance, because the contortions of the long legs of the water bird looked like an alphabet, or like a dancer.
The Egyptian Hermes or Thoth was known as "Hermes Trismegistos," or "Thrice-Greatest." Supposedly, the reasons for this name have been lost in the shrouds of time, but if we know how to read the universal 'language of Nature' then we realize why Hermes is Thrice-Greatest. Nature Wisdom is universal.
The Hermetic Tradition
As the pagan era drew to an end Hermes became one of the rallying points of the adherents of the Old Religion. Various wisdom writings reflecting pagan spiritual and religious aspirations appeared under the name Hermes. This was the origin of the Hermetic Writings. These Neoplatonic documents reflect a consistent view of the world, in which Nature is seen as a revelator of Wisdom from God. Everything in the natural world is a reflection of some divine attribute. We ourselves are but incarnations of these attributes. They are the gifts we need to awaken or actualize within ourselves. Knowledge of the divine attributes or archetypes constitutes a spiritual teaching, a spiritual path, a way of knowing Nature, and a system of healing based on restoring the attribute or archetype.
The Hermetic Writings survived by a circuitous route. When the eastern Roman provinces were surrendered to Persia in 367 ACE, following the death of the last of the pagan emperors, Julian the Apostate, the city state of Harran was still a bastion of the old pagan religion. When Mesopotamia was overrun by the Muslims in the seventh century Harran, still pagan, fell under their sway.
In the ninth century the Caliph of Baghdad was on his way to fight the Christians of Byzantium when he noticed some people in the crowds along the road that were dressed in an unusual fashion. "Find out who these people are," he demanded of his servants. They came back and told thim they were the "pagans of Harran." The Caliph stopped, gathered some of the people, and told them, "if you are not one of the three protected people guaranteed life by the Holy Koran then, when I return, I will have you all killed."
The pagans of Harran asked a Muslim legal expert what they should do. He told them that Mohammed made peace treaties with the three protected religions, Jews, Christians, and Sabeans. Each of these people all had a scripture or holy book. "Nobody knows who the Sabeans are any more, therefore you should adopt the name Sabean and find a holy scripture and you will be a protected people."
As it happens, the original Sabeans were followers of John the Baptist. Even to this day they live on the remote western frontier of Iraq and continue to follow their old ways. They are called the "Sabean Mandians." However, this was not widely known, so the Harranians adopted the name and the Hermetic Writingsbecame their holy scripture. This is the origin of the so-called "Sabeans of Harran."
Ironically, Harran is the city where Abraham was born and from which he was called to sojourn. Thus, it is the birthplace of Islam and the three protected religions because Abraham was the father of Isaac, the ancestor of the Jews, and also the father of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Muslims. The Christians and the Mandians Sabeans arose from the Jews.
And so, the last bastian of paganism continued to exist. The wise men and women of the city studied their holy scriptures, the writings of Hermes, while the general population worshipped at the age old temple of the moon.
The end of Harran came in a dramatic but unforeseen fashion in the eleventh century, and it was not due to religious persecution, as one might expect. As the Mongols spread across central Asia and parts of the Middle East they obliterated whole cities. In other cases, they wanted cities destroyed for strategic reasons. Thus, the Khan of the Mongols wrote to the citizens of Harran that their city was in a strategic spot that could not be tolerated and they would have to either vacate their home or have it annihilated by the Mongol armies. In the blink of an eye, Harran ceased to exist.
It seems likely that stragglers carrying copies of the Hermetic Writings sought safety in Byzantium and thus brought the texts to the seat of the emperors in Constantinople. Here they were well received by the Greeks.
Byzantium lasted another three or four centuries. Weakened by the Catholic crusaders in the beginning of the thirteenth century, the remnant empire succumbed to invasion by the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople and the great Church of the Hagia Sophia fell in 1457. Stragglers again brought the Hermetic Writings, along with some of the works of Plato, to Cosimo d" Medici, the fabulous Duke of Florence, who valued esoteric knowledge and literature. Here they were translated by Marsilio Ficino, one of the leaders of an Hermetic restoration.
The Hermetic literature was, one again, available to European intelligentsia. It was even thought that Hermes, as a wise man of Egypt, was either a mentor or predecessor of Moses, and was therefore an ancient prophet. His picture appeared in churches.
One of the Hermeticists of the next generation was Trithemius, the abbot of Spanheim, and one of his students was Paracelsus. It was the latter who brought about a general renovation in the Hermetic tradition.
Paracelsus (1493-1542) enunciated a worldview in which the Light of Nature was mentor. The light of the divine world shines through Nature. The archetypes of Nature manifest as different species, types, or individuals in the world. By tracing back through the Light of Nature we can know the alphabet or language of Nature. Through understanding Nature we may be invited to take the Old, Old Path, which none can seek and none can refuse who have been called.
The next great oracle of the path of Nature Wisdom was a humble cobbler from Gorlitz, a German town now on the frontier of Poland and the Czech Republic. Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was a self-taught visionary who undertook to "justify the ways of God to man." He had a great vision in 1600, in which he saw the origins of God and Nature. He constructed a comprehensive theology that identified the places of God the Father (Creator), God the Son (Redeemer), and God the Holy Spirit (Expander of Understanding). He described how the attributes of God were reflected back to God by Wisdom or Sophia, so that God could see and understand himself. At the same time, Sophia operated as the source-ground of creation, the attributes of God becoming to archetypes of Nature.
In addition to teaching an orthodox Christian theology, Boehme taught several other paths to spiritual knowledge and fulfillment, including the Old, Old Path. He traced one current of energy that started in the abyss of creation and moved outwards, ever-differentiating and evolving into Nature, while another current returned back to the primal source-ground. The first current of energy created individual selfhood and self-will, thus alienating the creatures one from another and from God. The second current created peace and self-understanding. This caused a light that shines from the abyss to illuminate the path of all peoples; also a love to unite them. The light shines through Nature, hence the Wisdom of Nature, or Natura Sophia, which Boehme elaborated upon.
Although Boehme recognized the Wisdom of Nature as a legitimate spiritual path he stated that it was the path of the "Heathen Wise" and that, though they stared on the face of God, they did not know what they were seeing. For this the would have needed a knowledge of the Trinity and the Christian Mysteries of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Boehme was unusually tolerant for a Protestant Christian of his era. Having suffered persecution at the hands of hypocrites and fake Christians he excused the Jews and Muslims for not belonging to a group that was so riddled with hatred and arrogance. He also suggested that the newly discovered American Indians must have a religion of their own, which brings them close to God.
All teachings on Nature Wisdom or Sophia derive from the courageous and profound insights of Jacob Boehme. His two methods, intuition and imagination help us perceive the archetypes of creation, bringing our mind back to their source-ground in Sophia and from thence to peace in the eternal tranquility.
We hope eventually to offer a 'Natura Sophia' mystery school online through this web site, but naturasophia.com will act as a repository of writings on the subject.
-- Matthew Wood MS (Herbal Medicine)
Registered Herbalist (American Herbalists Guild)