The idea of travelling to the celestial bodies has been with us for a long time, and this is why it is important to remember Hermes Trismegistus. In the Corpus Hermeticus, one of the great repositories of ancient mysticism, Hermes says to Tat that we humans have to traverse the celestial spheres (the Moon, Sun and the Planets) in order to get to God (CH, 4:8) This pilgrimage across the cosmos is symbolic and it is based on the astrological meanings of the planets. For example, in order for a human to be initiated in the mysteries of change in the Universe, he would go to the ever-changing Moon, or in order for him to be initiated in the mysteries of solitude and old age he would go to Saturn, god of time and paternity.
This imaginal pilgrimage is recorded in what is considered one of the greatest works of Earth’s literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the third book, Paradise, Dante travels across the cosmos in the direction of God, visiting every single celestial body of the solar system that was known at the time. In each of the planets he encounters specific kinds of souls, which are there in accordance with their good deeds.
Today we are no longer talking about a symbolic pilgrimage, and it is interesting to consider the meaning of literally going to Mars for Hermetic philosophy. In his seminal work Against Method, the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend imagines how a mystic might perceive the Moon mission:
But let us look at the matter from a different point of view, and it becomes a ridiculous exercise in futility. It needed billions of dollars (…) to enable some (…) contemporaries to perform a few graceless hops in a place no one in his right mind would think of visiting (…) But mystics, using only their mind, travelled across the celestial spheres to God himself… (Feyerabend, 1993: 229)
It is interesting to think that due to technology and other social constraints we have shifted the way we think about this pilgrimage from a symbolic to a literal one. We now want to literally go to the planet and settle there. But we can still see mythology surrounding the Mars mission. If we briefly look at Elon Musk’s statements, in them we can be reminded of the American ‘frontier myth’, the promise of freedom, exploration and hope for renewal with a fresh start in an unknown land. But we can also find mythologies of escape and refuge, as in Musk’s recent comments defending that the point that the colonization of Mars is of the utmost importance to save our species from a third world war.* Musk seems to project onto Mars the resolutions of his various anxieties, namely war and the destruction of our planet. It is in this context that it is worth thinking about what is it that we, as symbolically and spiritually inclined beings, are looking for in Mars. Where do the literal and the symbolic meet in this enterprise?
It is easy to imagine Hermes horrified because we got it all wrong, telling us that his visit was to a religious and mystical Mars, and not to the red rock orbiting above us. But we must acknowledge that the relationship between the literal and the symbolic has always been promiscuous in Western culture. While Hermes discussed the elevation of the soul to higher planes, many wizards attempted the creation of talismans that contained in their material body the symbolic power of a god or angel. In the Renaissance many important philosophers, like Marsilio Ficino, have discussed how the divine properties of the planets may be found in herbs and gems. If mystics allow that certain herbs and gems may contain the power of a symbolic planet, then they would certainly allow that the planet itself could be a talisman for its symbolic counterpart.
This completely reframes the tension between the symbolic pilgrimage and the literal one. The desire to go to Mars brings to a literal plane the spiritual aspiration of leaving Earth and travelling the celestial spheres. But to explore this interpretation we need to look at what the astrologers of old associated with Mars. William Lilly, a 17th century English astrologer and mystic, describes Mars as “In feats of Warre and Courage invincible”, “a Pratler without modesty or honesty, a lover of Slaughter and Quarels”, “Violent”, “Inhumane”, and“Unthankful”, and he explains that the people born under Mars’ influence are “Oppressors” and “New conquerors” (Lilly, 1647: 66).
With these excerpts we become aware that the mythology surrounding the colonization of Mars is actually in accordance with Western Martial mythology. The desire to go to Mars to be safe from war is a homeopathic impulse— like cures like—and reminds us of the soul in the Corpus Hermeticum which travels the spheres to be initiated in the mysteries of each planet and become one with God. Tired of war, violence and the destruction of the environment, we seek to be initiated into the benefic side of Mars. In this perhaps lies our desire to go there literally: to find peace in the planet of war; to colonize the great conqueror; to ask Mars, like Orpheus did one day, to teach us how to stop fighting and use the weapons in the field to plant crops and honor Ceres.
In this way, we can think of the greatest off-world scientific enterprise of history as a mythological quest, a symbolic pilgrimage that we forgot how to make so long ago that we feel only a literal journey to Mars can recover it. Let us hope that in the future we re-learn to navigate the cosmos with our heart, so that our communities off-Earth are never alone, and the mysteries live on.
* The relevant video can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/11/elon-musk-colonise-mars-third-world-war
Copenhaver, B. P. (2002), Hermetica, Cambridge University Press.
Feyerabend, P. (1993), Against Method, Verso.
Lilly, W. (1647), Christian Astrology, Skyscript. Online facsimile annotated edition available at http://www.skyscript.co.uk/pdf/CA_pages_57_68.pdf last accessed on 28/05/2018.
Simão Cortês is an aspiring mystic and academic who left his work in a laboratory in order to study Myth, Cosmology and the Sacred in Canterbury Christ Church University. His main interests are Western wisdom traditions, especially when considered in relation to the present.