The sayings as above so below and as within so without are traditionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Whether an historical figure or a mythical being, Hermes had a prominent role in the esoteric teachings of ancient Egypt. Thus, these two sayings date back to the very dawn of recorded history and stand at the foundation of Eastern and Western philosophy.
Hermes Trismegistus is a Roman name given to the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was depicted either as a baboon or as an ibis headed man, and often held a pen and scroll, serving as a kind of patron god of Egyptian scribes. It is, therefore, quite likely that he represented the Egyptian community of scribes as a whole, rather than an historical individual. He may have embodied the wisdom of ancient Egypt in its entirety, entrusted to its scribes who were charged with recording it for subsequent generations.
The qualities of Thoth were likened to Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, and thus was born the name, ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ or ‘thrice-great Thoth’.
According to Roman accounts, the original Hermetic writings were lost when the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed and only fragments survived as word-of-mouth relics, which may have given rise to an oral tradition. When Constantine converted to Christianity and banned Egyptian worship, whatever fragments were left of Hermes Trismegistus’ knowledge were either obliterated altogether or translated into Christianity.
Not much more than this is known about the origin of Hermeticism, emerging, as it did, from the earliest chapters of recorded history. But the principles of as above so below and as within so without remained constant, like a golden thread running through the fabric of humanity. Whenever truth was expressed, in whichever fashion that may have been, the result echoed the very same truth mouthed by the ancient Egyptians.
A late example was the poet William Blake, who began his poem “Auguries of Innocence” with the following stanza:
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
As above so below and as within so without were not restricted to literary expressions of knowledge. The Khmer temple in Angkor Wat, for example, was designed as a human scale model of the Hindu universe. Man below had designed and built a complete mirror of the heavens above.
Thus, to span the history of as above so below and as within so without would take numerous written and illustrated volumes. But it is not so much our aim with this site to cover history, as it is to use the legacy of our ancestors to inspire us in the present.