Before science defined the modern age, other powers, wondrous and magical, once governed the universe, their lore perfected within a lost capital of hieroglyphs, wizard-kings, and fabulous monuments, not Egypt -- but Ægypt.
What if it were really so?
In the 1970s, a historian named Pierce Moffett moves to the New England countryside to write a book about Ægypt, driven by an idea he dare not believe -- that the physical laws of the universe once changed and may change again. Yet the notion is not his alone. Something waits at the locked estate of Fellowes Kraft, author of romances about Will Shakespeare and Giordano Bruno and Dr. John Dee, something for which Pierce and those near him have long sought without knowing it, a key, perhaps, to Ægypt.
ElectricStory.com proudly presents the definitive text of John Crowley's Ægypt, newly edited and corrected in consultation with the author.
Read an Excerpt
"Remind me again," Julie asked him, "who Bruno was."
"Giordano Bruno," Pierce answered, crossing his hands on the placemat before him, which showed scenes of Italy, the dome of Peter's, the tower at Pisa. "Giordano Bruno, 1546 to 1600. The first thinker of modern times, really, to postulate infinite space as a physical reality. He thought that not only was the sun in the center of the solar system, but that other stars were suns too, and also had planets going around them, as far and far farther than the eye could see-infinitely, in fact; infinitely."
"He was burned at the stake as a heretic," Pierce said, "and since he had promoted the new Copernican picture of the heavens he's always been regarded as a martyr to science, a precursor of Galileo, a sort of speculative astronomer. But what he really was, was something much stranger. The universe he saw wasn't the one we see. For one thing, he thought that all those infinite stars and planets were alive: animals, he calls them. And they went around in their circles because they wanted to. Anyway . . ."
Anyway Kraft's book had proved to be on the whole pretty ordinary, all taken from secondary sources fleshed out with a tourist's impressions of the scenes of Bruno's frantic life: the monastery in Naples from which he fled, the universities and courts he haunted, looking for patronage, Venice where he was arrested, Rome where he died. The couple of hundred pages had neither the exactness of fiction nor the vividness of history. But midway through it Kraft divulged, or stumbled across in passing, or handed out without quite saying so, the key not only to Bruno but to the mystery Pierce pursued.
What was it, Kraft was wondering, that compelled Bruno and Bruno alone to break out of the closed world of Aquinas and Dante, and find an infinite universe outside? It could not (Kraft thought) have been the discovery of Copernicus alone, for Copernicus posited no such frightening thing as infinite space populated infinitely; his sun-centered world was still bounded, as bounded by a sphere of fixed stars as Aristotle's had been. Bruno always insisted that Copernicus hadn't understood his own discoveries.
No (Kraft wrote), the impulse must have come from elsewhere. Where? Well, Bruno seems to have looked into almost every book extant in his century, though certainly he didn't finish all the ones he opened. He was versed in the most esoteric of studies. He sought regeneration for himself and his church at the ancientest and most hidden of wells. Could he not have found a way out of the crystal spheres of Aristotle in the teachings of old Hermes the Thrice-great? Pierce read this, and stopped. Hermes? Was this the same Thrice-great Hermes that Milton outwatch'd the Bear with? Wasn't he a mythical sage of some kind in classical literature? Pierce had no clear memory. What teachings were these? Hermes teaches (Kraft went on) that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison, his heimarmene, his Fate. But man is a brother to those strong dæmons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this. There is a means, great Hermes says, to ascend up through those seven, unfooled by their angry shows of resistance, passing each one by means of a secret word which they cannot refuse; exacting, in fact, from each of them a gift, the gift of arising to the next sphere; until, at last, in the eighth sphere, the ogdoadic sphere, the released soul perceives Infinity and sings hymns of praise to God.
Thus Hermes (Kraft wrote, Pierce read), and what if Bruno, having taken to heart this ancientest and most sacred of myths, and opening Copernicus's book one starry night in Paris, in London, suddenly put the two together: and felt within his buzzing brain the puzzle solved? For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all. The way to ascend through the spheres that hem us in was to know that we had already so ascended, and were on our way, in motion unstoppably. No wonder Bruno felt a titanic dawn approaching, no wonder he felt compelled to cry it across Europe, no wonder he laughed aloud. Mind, at the center of all, contains within it all that it is the center of, a circle whose circumference is nowhere, stretching out infinitely in every direction he could look in or think about, at every instant. Dare you say men are as gods? the shocked inquisitors in Rome would ask him. Can they change the stars in their courses? They can, Bruno answers; they can; they have already.
Here Pierce had put down the book for a moment, surfeited and laughing himself, wondering what his twelve-year-old self could ever have made of all that; and when he raised it again, he found a footnote.
Whether or not (the footnote read) this understanding which we have ascribed to Bruno is the true secret teaching intended to be discerned in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus (Oh hm, Pierce thought, that name) we leave to others to pursue. The interested reader might begin with Mead, who writes: Along this ray of the Trismegistic tradition we may allow ourselves to be drawn backwards in time towards the holy of holies of the Wisdom of Ancient Egypt.
"And there it was," Pierce said. "There it was."
"Trizma-what?" asked Julie.
"Just listen," Pierce said. "Here it comes."
The book of Mead's to which Kraft directed him (and perhaps his young self once too, who knew) was unfindable: Thrice-greatest Hermes, by G.R.S. Mead (London and Benares; the Theosophical Publishing House, 1906; three volumes). Looking for it, though, led Pierce to some strange places, the shops and shows of cranks and mystics he had not realized were quite so numerous, places he could not wholly bring himself to enter and yet could not deny must have some connection to the place he sought. Certain at least that he had not made it all up, he withdrew from their imaginings as from a private ritual; he turned away into better-lit places. And he was getting warm. History of ideas, History of Magic and Experimental Science, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, which he had thumbed in graduate school.
He was definitely getting warm. There were others on the path suddenly, greater scholars than he; they were finding things out, they were publishing. Gratefully Pierce turned away from Bruno's Opera omnia latine which he had glimpsed far down a stack at the Brooklyn Public, and into the shallow waters of Secondary Sources: and at length the University of Chicago mailed to him (he had been awaiting it more eagerly than he ever had any golden decoding ring of Captain Midnight's) a book by an English lady who-Pierce knew it even before he tore the brown paper from the volume-had trekked his lost land from mountain to sea, and returned; returned, at the head of a caravan of strange goods, maps, artifacts, plunder.
"And this," Pierce said, feeling just for a moment like the helpless narrator of that old endless campfire joke, "this is the story that she told." He drank again, and asked: "Do you know the word 'hermetic'?"
"You mean like hermetically sealed?"
"That, and also hermetic, occult, secret, esoteric."
"Oh yes sure."
"Okay," said Pierce, "this is the story:
"Sometime in the 1460s, a Greek monk brought to Florence a collection of manuscripts in Greek which caused a lot of excitement there. What they purported to be were Greek versions of ancient Egyptian writings-religious speculations, philosophy, magical recipes-that had been composed by an ancient sage or priest of Egypt, Hermes Trismegistus: Hermes the Three Times Very Great, you could translate it. Hermes is the Greek god, of course; the Greeks had made an equivalence between their Hermes, god of language, and the Egyptian god Thoth or Theuth, who invented writing. From various classical sources they had-Cicero, Lactantius, Plato-the Renaissance scholars who first got a look at these new manuscripts could find out that the author was a cousin of Atlas, the brother of Prometheus (the Renaissance believed that these were real ancient people), and that he was not a god but a man, a man of great antiquity, who lived before Plato and Pythagoras and maybe even before Moses; and that these writings were therefore as old as any in the history of mankind. "A terrific stir was started in Florence by the arrival of these Egyptian writings. They'd been rumored to exist, even in the Middle Ages: Hermes Trismegistus was one of those shadowy ancients who had a medieval reputation as a great wizard, along with Solomon and Virgil, and various Black Books and treatises were ascribed to him-but here was the real original thing. Here was Egyptian knowledge older than the Romans and the Greeks, older maybe than Moses-in fact there would be speculation that Moses, raised an Egyptian prince, got his secret wisdom from this very source.
"See, what you have to remember in thinking about the Renaissance is that they were always looking back. All their scholarship, all their learning, was bent toward re-creating as best they could the past in the present, because the past had necessarily been better, wiser, less decayed than the present. And so the older an old manuscript was, the older the knowledge it contained, the better it must turn out to be, once it had been cleansed of the accretions and errors of later times: the closer to the old Golden Age.
"So can you see how exciting this must have been? Here was the oldest knowledge in the world, and what do you know? It sounded like Genesis; it sounded like Plato. Hermes must have been divinely inspired to foreshadow Christian truth. Plato himself must have drunk at this source. In dialogues between Hermes and his pupil Asclepius and his son Tat you can see not only a philosophy of ideas like Plato's but a philosophy of light like Plotinus and even an incarnated Word like the Christian logos, Son of God, creative principle. Hermes practically became a Christian saint. A rage for Egypt and Egyptian stuff began that runs right through the Renaissance.
"More, though. These Egyptian dialogues are intensely spiritual, pious, abstract; they talk a lot about escaping the power of the stars, about discovering the soul's power to be like God, but there's almost no real practical advice about that stuff. Where there was practical advice, though, was in those old magic books the Middle Ages had transmitted and ascribed to Hermes; and who knew, maybe they were the practical side of the abstract principles. Corrupted, of course, and terribly dangerous to use, but still containing the power of the good ancient Egyptian magic of Hermes. So Hermes was responsible for serious people taking up the practice of magic in a big way."
"Wow," Julie said. "Huh." Her eyes had begun to shine in a way he remembered; her finger idly wiped the sugar from the rim of her daiquiri. He had her now.
"And the new science too," Pierce said. "If man is brother to dæmons, and capable of anything, what's to stop him working in the world, doing amazing things? If the whole plentitude of Nature can be ordered and reflected in the knowing mind of man, like Bruno believed? I think Brunodid get encouragement from Hermes to take up the Copernican system, not because the idea was evidentially more convincing, but because it was more marvelous, more wonderful, the true secret Egyptian view come back again."
"Well," Julie said, "everybody knows the Egyptians knew the earth went around the sun. They kept it secret, but they knew."
Pierce stopped in his spate, mouth open. Julie's eyes were still ashine with intelligence and attention. "So go on," she said, and licked her finger. "Well but remember," Pierce said. "Remember now, there was almost nothing really known then about the culture and beliefs of ancient Egypt. Even before the Roman era the understanding of hieroglyphics had disappeared; they wouldn't be understood again until the nineteenth century. Nobody in the Renaissance knew what was written on obelisks, or what the pyramids were for, or anything. Now, in the light of these intensely spiritual, semi-Platonic magical writings, they began studying. Hieroglyphics: they must be some sort of mystic code, picture-story of the ascent of the soul, aids to contemplation, maybe hypervalent, like Rorschach blots or Tarot cards. . . ."
"Sure," Julie said.
"And pyramids, obelisks, temples-they ought to contain encoded Egyptian science, geometry older than Euclid, secret proportions and magical properties maybe now able to be unlocked. . . ."
"But it's not so!" Pierce cried, displaying his palms. A diner at the next table cast a cool eye in his direction, lovers' spat probably, don't show them you noticed. "It's not so! That's the most wonderful and amazing and strange thing. These writings which the Renaissance ascribed to the god-king-priest Hermes Trismegistus, and from which they got their whole picture of ancient Egypt, weren't really ancient at all. They certainly weren't written by one man. They weren't even Egyptian…"
Table of ContentsAuthor's Note
The Prologue in Heaven
The Prologue on Earth
Part I: Vita
Part II: Lucrum
Part III: Fratres