Freedom, Inspiration and Limitation: Hermes Trismegistus

Hermes. Early Classical period Greek Vase: 480-470 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In my PhD dissertation (2015), I assert that a playful sealing off of the ‘real world’ to create a confined psychological space is conducive to creativity. Interestingly, this claim, based upon a review of 20th & 21st century psychological creativity literature, has a precedent in Hellenic mythology:

During Hellenic times an amalgamation of [the trickster god] Hermes and Thoth was effected in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, “Hermes Thrice Greatest,” who was regarded as the patron and teacher of all the arts, and especially of alchemy. The “hermetically” sealed retort, in which were placed the mystical metals, was regarded as a realm apart — a special region of heightened forces comparable to the mythological realm; and therein the metals underwent strange metamorphoses and transmutations, symbolical of the transfigurations of the soul under the tutelage of the supernatural. (Campbell, 1993, p. 73)

The story of Hermes Trismegistus is the story of freedom-through-limitation (i.e., limitation with regard to time as well as space). As stated above, the Hellenic trickster/messenger god of Hermes was amalgamated with the Egyptian god of Thoth, representing a new deity not to be confused with the god Hermes alone.


Amongst other things, Thoth was the god of time/limitation, just as Chronos and Saturn were in classical Greece and Rome respectively. This correspondence is confirmed by the alchemical Latin name for Hermes Trismegistus of Mercurius senex;  the co-joining of the Roman trickster/messenger god Mercury (Hermes) with Saturn (Thoth), “ a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localised expression in time and space of the universal life” (Cirlot, 1971, p. 279).

This collision of the impish trickster with the ponderous devourer of his own children seems at first paradoxical, but is made possible by their common, though often overlooked, point of bisociation: that is, both gods relate to communication (though in quite different fashion).

The Bard’s two cents worth: Control and chaos

Prospero and Ariel. Statue by Eric Gill (1933) , BBC Broadcasting House.

The pairing of the elderly Saturn and youthful Mercury finds its echo in William Shakespeare’s characters Prospero and Ariel. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel’s mischievous powers are (at first) unwillingly and temporarily (i.e., for two days) limited by Prospero’s ‘arts’ and aligned to the will of ‘Providence.’ The result of this binding of forces — that would otherwise be discharged chaotically — results in a powerful transformation of consciousness for all the play’s key protagonists.

The theme of confinement, and the great power it can unleash, is a central one in The Tempest; a state of being that (the otherwise incompatible) Prospero and Ariel have in common. Butler asserts:

No other play creates a space which runs so entirely according to its own laws. This island setting – with its sharp boundaries, and magic that works here but nowhere else – makes its world seem isolated and self-sufficient, an autonomous theatrical laboratory with its own internal logic. (2007, p.xxii)

Likewise, the appropriate incongruity of combining supposedly opposite archetypes in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus results in Herme’s powers becoming ‘thrice great.’

Stravinsky on limitation and art

Stravinsky. Photo by Arnold Newman (1946)

The composer and virtuoso orchestrator Igor Stravinsky once commented on the necessity (Stravinsky, 1997 version) of binding himself tightly with limitations as a means to traverse the terrifying “abyss of freedom” where too many creative possibilities make creative action daunting. Within a field of limitations however, he states, the composer is not burdened by rules like a penitent, but rather “is in quest of his [sic] pleasure” (p. 192).

As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me…and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile. Will I then lose myself in this abyss of freedom? However…I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience…It is into this field that I shall sink my roots… (p. 194, bold emphasis added) 

The following observation made by Herbert Fleischer in 1931 demonstrates that Stravinsky’s framing of free play within chosen boundaries was not always lost on outside observers:

What a difference between Schoenberg’s pure, abstract constructivism and Stravinsky’s most natural music-making using earth soaked in blood! Stravinsky proves that the most stringent, almost mathematical construction and the most natural idea are not mutually exclusive opposites…(quoted in Cross, 2003, p. 243)

It was Stravinsky’s awareness that even arbitrarily chosen limitations/rules could facilitate great freedom that allowed him to adopt, and discard, a variety of compositional styles throughout his career (ranging from jazz to serialism!), just as, for example, an actor might a character’s costume and personae.

In his essay Poetics of Music (1997 version) Stravinsky simply likens the unprecedented ‘language’ of his so-called revolutionary music in The Rite of Spring to the breaking of a habit. But he qualifies that once such a break with the past has occurred, it must be replaced by a similarly constricting new framework: “The more art is controlled, limited…the more it is free” (p. 194).

Confinement and limitation in rock music

This analogy of a creative ‘field’ of limitations within which play can take place is also mentioned by King Crimson co-founder Robert Fripp. In a 1982 interview, he outlines the approach using the analogy of sports and the rules of the game:

I wish to determine the parameters of the band’s action. Not to be a dictator, but more like a guy saying, ‘This is the sports field; now go and play sports and I’ll play sports with you.’ It’s initiating a situation so you can concentrate energy…(Fricke, 1982, p. 25)

In the same interview, Bill Bruford, drummer with King Crimson, gives an illuminating account of how this approach feels from his perspective:

lt starts out as a stream of negatives first off, which cracks many a lesser man. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, and I suggest you don’t do this. By the way, I also recommend you don’t do that.’ You’re in a prison and you’ve got to find your way out of things. I quite like that. I must be a masochist or something, but I don’t feel right unless I’m imprisoned and told to find a way around it. That’s the challenge. (p. 25)


Neuroses, play and confinement

The multidisciplinary researcher/scholar Avshalom Elitzur states in his article “Humor, play, and neurosis – The paradoxical power of confinement” (1990) that “any form of perception or communication…by their nature require the elimination of the “noise” of irrelevant information” (p. 18). Elitzur argues that a common link between humour and play (as well as neuroses) is a “period of confinement.”

In other words, in order to play a game, or make a joke, one must temporarily limit or suspend key elements of awareness. However, in play the confinement to a ‘local logic’ (Ziv, 1984) is relatively longer than that experienced in the telling of a joke, so that, at least temporarily, the “play or the game becomes our entire world, and the broader realm of reality is mainly ignored…subject to denial, suppression, and other defenses” whereas, the neurotic is, at length, confined to a kind of pathological “enforced play” (Elitzur, 1990, p. 20).

Pink Floyd (1967). Syd Barrett centre.

Perhaps, this proposed link between neuroses and play could help explain original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett’s eventual pathological withdrawal from society in favour of a self-imposed artistic confinement (physical, as well as, cognitive he continued solitary painting, but not the more social music making) in the safety of his mother’s home in Cambridge, until his death in 2006 (Chapman, 2010).

Parrallels with Carl Jung’s Bollingen Stone

In 1922, after the death of his mother, psychologist Carl Jung purchased some land on the side of Lake Zurich near a small island where he and his family used to go camping. Soon after, starting off alone, he first built a modest circular stone tower, eventually enlisting professional help after the structure reached the height of about a metre (van Kralingen, 2018). Four major extensions were added over the next 30 or so years, with the last being in 1955 after the death of his wife. He reflects:

Words and paper did not seem real enough to me. To put my fantasies on solid footing, something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Put another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the tower, the house I built for myself at Bollingen. (Jung, 1963, p. 212)

Jung spent all his subsequent summers living at this stone house in Bollingen (it being too cold to inhabit during the winter). He felt that the structure and its gradual development somehow mirrored milestones with regard to his inner psychic life, and providing much-needed respite from the demands and quickening pace of 20th century life.

I have done without electricity and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple! Here, at Bollingen, the torrent of creation is lessened; creativity and play are close together. (p. 214, bold emphasis added)

In 1950, after he had ordered the delivery of stones cut to specific size, one large stone cube was delivered in error. Jung saw this “orphan stone” as a portent of sorts and demanded that it be left with him. He proceeded to inscribe three of its four sides, placing it prominently near the lakeshore and tower entrance. After completing the Orphan Stone, Jung told Maud Oakes, “I need not have written any books; it is all on the stone.” (Oaks, 1987, p. 88). The inscription by Jung (in Greek) reads: “Time is a child — playing like a child — playing a board game — the kingdom of the child. This is Telesphoros, who roams through the dark regions of the cosmos and glows like a star out of the depths. He points the way to the gates of the sun and to the land of dreams” (Jung, 1963, p. 227).

Like Stravinsky’s sinking roots down into a metaphorical “field of experience.” Jung is grounding his mercurial imagination here in something that is ancient, ponderous, resistant to change, seemingly eternal: stone. Herein lies the paradox, the more one constricts one’s actions, slows down, thinks less, the greater one’s capacity for turning Hermes’ dim, half-heard whispers into tangible creative acts. And tellingly, at the centre of Jung’s carved, sealed space (an eye or a mandala), who do we find? A playful child.

The (First and) Last Word: Shiva and Maya

It would seem that not only has self-limitation been acknowledged in the past as being capable of heightening creativity with a small ‘c’. According to a major Hindu tradition known as Shaivism – where Shiva (Siva) is proclaimed as the Supreme Being and creator/destroyer of worlds – self-limitation and playfulness are understood as being responsible for all of creation as we know it. Devadatta Kali Jaya (2008) explains:

The universe is Siva’s own self-expression, consciously projected out of his own overflowing joy, born of his own sense of wonder (camatkara), and willingly entered into in a spirit of spontaneous playfulness. Siva does this through the power of maya, which is his own power of self-limitation.

…Now, that’s creativity with a big ‘C.’ ‘Nuff said.


Please note: Portions of this article were presented in thesis form (not the mythological bits, that’s for sure) in the fulfilment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.

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