Apparently this is an infodump trigger for me, and I didn’t realize it until today. In a private Facebook group of which I’m a member, the admin asked “What does the phrase ‘as above so below’ mean to you? How do you parse it?” As I composed my response, I could feel myself wanting to fall down multiple rabbit holes of explanation and exposition and had to exert a not-insignificant effort to keep it to what I felt was really necessary. (Thanks, ADHD.) Despite that I still ended up writing quite a wall of text, which I present to you now verbatim.
This is going to be long and winding but I promise I’m going to answer this properly at the end of it. I’m almost compelled to go at length here since Hermetic philosophy is pretty central to my spiritual practice.
Hokay, zo. The axiom “as above, so below” is paraphrased from a section of the Emerald Tablet, one of the central texts of Hermetic philosophy. The verse in question from the Latin translation is, “Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est sicut quod est superius. That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.” (As an aside, this translation makes a small but significant departure from the earliest known version of the text which appears in Arabic, and uses “from” in place of “like to.”)
In any case, most scholars agree on the interpretation of this axiom recognizing the ontological similarity of the macrocosm, or the wider universe; and the microcosm, or the individual experience. A slightly different interpretation uses the concepts of the material and the astral planes in place of the macro- and microcosm. Thanks to occultists like Blavatsky, this axiom exists in various forms throughout most of the Western Esoteric Tradition. Over the ages, the Emerald Tablet as a whole has been associated with the practice of alchemy, specifically with the finding or creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, and/or the transmutation of base metals into gold.
Of important note is the full verse and a couple following, for which I’ll use the the translation from the Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss al-thānī (ca. 850–950) attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan: “That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one [thing]. As all things were from One.” Here we see a reference to the Monad—which is variously considered as a Supreme Being (i.e. God), divinity, or the totality of all things—and a somewhat obscure reference to what was termed in alchemy the magnum opus, or Great Work.
Now, on the surface, the Great Work is often seen as the aforementioned goals of artificial gold production and the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. But like most things when it come to magic and mysticism, these are arguably allegorical for a more spiritual experience. Theurgy rather than thaumaturgy, especially in the sense of henosis, or union with the divine. And it becomes somewhat obvious in that sense when we consider the alchemical symbol for gold, ☉, is also used to represent the Sun and, further, God and/or the divine. (Is it any wonder then that Leos, the sign ruled by the Sun, are considered to have God complexes? 😛 Not to mention the gold-divinity connection is a fairly common cultural phenomenon.) The process of turning lead to gold, then, is a metaphor for the process of transcending the mundane and coming in contact, if not fully unifying, with the divine. Enlightenment, in a sense. The search for the philosopher’s stone is much the same, which we can examine in light of the gospel of Jesus via Mark 10:29-30: “’Yes,’” Jesus replied, “’and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.'”
(I’m getting there, I promise!)
So given all this background, we come back to the phrase “as above, so below.” This, along with some principles purported to be Hermetic in nature, implies a dual nature to existence. There is one thing, and something else. There is the Self, and the Other. But on a deeper level, it recognizes the ILLUSION of duality or separation. And in this sense it seems to reflect the fractal nature of existence.
Consider a fractal, visually: at different levels of magnification, a fractal exhibits self-similarity—that is, a part of the fractal is identical to the “whole” (insofar as such a fractal could be imagined as having an upper limit). We can conceive of the act of zooming in and out on a fractal as movement “up” and “down” through it. So no matter how far “up” or “down” we go, we see the part reflected in the whole, and vice versa. All is One, and One is All.
Thus I see this axiom as an exhortation of sorts, combining aspects of “be the change you want to see in the world” and “put yourself in their shoes.” The Great Work then, is in my view the constant, successive, repetitive reflections on and recognition and acceptance of the apparent external nature of things and what parts of oneself reflect that, with the ultimate goal of achieving unity with the All. Somewhat co-incidentally, this is almost exactly the plot of one of my favorite short stories, “The Egg” by Andy Weir, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it already.