In order to understand the Alchemical and Hermetic traditions, a lesson in symbology is essential. Often, groups operating under these guises would mask profound philosophical truths in the form of images. One such image is the Great Hermaphrodite.
The symbol deals with “Hierosgamos“, or the union of opposites. On a very base level you could interpret the Great Hermaphrodite as a western equivalent to the Ying-Yang symbol of the oriental traditions; but the rabbit hole continues deeper. The alchemists, in their quest for philosophical gold, considered the world to be influenced and manipulated by a multitude of paired forces: wet and dry, cold and hot, sun and moon, male and female, proton and neutron, etc. When these opposing forces are harmonized and balanced through synthesis, creation is commenced. The Great Hermaphrodite is an amalgam of this union.
However, the historical precedent reaches farther back then the European alchemists. In ancient Mesopotamia, the source of so much of the west’s occult theory, we see the first glimpses of the Great Hermaphrodite. One union not mentioned above was the joining of the divine with the earthly. The Mesopotamian king, considered the divine representative, would join with a hierodule (‘sacred prostitute’). The sexual union was seen as the mediator between the godly and the human. It was believed that this sexual encounter ensured that the wheels of creation kept spinning, and liberated the world from the cold and motionless grasp of matter. It is worth noting that Christians borrowed this belief; Christ being born from the union of Jehovah with the very human Mary.
Some modern authors speculate that the experiments of the early 20th century could be interpreted as attempts to dissolve the chemical marriage of cosmic forces. To some extent they are right. When the atom was split, and the forces isolated from the state of equilibrium, the vast potential energy, the very blood of cosmic matter, was released. Though this author has no way to verify the inner intentions of the physicists involved, it is an interesting parallel.
Currently, we are witnessing the union of an entirely new form; the human with technology. It is believed by many that total integration of man with machine is imminent. Machines, through linkage with human consciousness, may become self-aware; the spark of consciousness being transferred to what was once dead matter. And humans, their physical limits removed through union with the machine, may very well experience the closet thing to omniscience our species has yet encountered.