The Hermetica—or the collection of mystical teachings that form the basis of Hermeticism—was traditionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus: "thrice-greatest Hermes", the Egyptian god Thoth, who was known as Mercury by the Romans and as Hermes from the time of Herodotus onwards. A distinction was made between the Greek Hermes and this earlier and quite different god by adding Trismegistus to the latter. In fact, many appellations were used by writers: "great-great" on the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian texts and "five times great" in Ptolemaic times. At some stage the Greeks settled on "thrice greatest", possibly as a translation of "very great-great".
Also called the "scribe of the gods", Hermes was taken to be the inventor of writing. Texts that covered religion and philosophy were said to be due to him, as well as those on magic, alchemy and astrology. It is the former that make up Hermeticism, however; the latter have nothing more in common with them than their being credited to Hermes. Nevertheless, it was common practice to ascribe a text to Trismegistus in order to give it more credibility.
It was thought by Renaissance translators that Hermeticism could be traced back to the Egyptian mystery schools, through the Neoplatonists and Kabbalists, but some of the texts have been shown to be contemporaneous with early Christianity. There are four classes of extant Hermetica:
- The Corpus Hermeticum;
- The Asclepius;
- Excerpts in Stobaeus' Anthologium;
- Fragments found in Cyril, Lactantius and others, collectively called the Testimonia.
We shall consider each of these in turn.
The Corpus Hermeticum
The first is a collection of approximately seventeen MSS (Scott counts nineteen; others twenty (Scott, 1993)) in Greek, reckoned to be by different writers. It is often (incorrectly) called the Poimandre (or Divine Poimandre), this being but the first part. It was brought to prominence by Ficino's translation of 1471, in which he claimed of Hermes "eo tempore quo Moyses natus est". As a Neoplatonist, Ficino had concluded that the similarities between the philosophy of the Hermetica and the dialogues of Plato implied that Hermes had lived at the time of Moses; but this reverses the direction of any historical connection.
The study of the Corpus was recommended by Patrizzi to Pope Gregory XIV as containing "more philosophy than all the works of Aristotle taken together". Casaubon realised that it was of a later date, putting it around the first to second century CE. He thought that the treatment of subjects also found in early Christian literature meant an influence there from, but instead there was a similarity of thought in Christian and Pagan Platonists of that time. The unfortunate result of Casaubon's scholarship was that, shorn of the esteem due to ancient texts, the early C.E. Corpus largely fell from consideration.
In the early part of the twentieth century the Corpus again came to prominence with Reitzenstein's Poimandres and G.R.S. Mead's translation and sympathetic study. Even Flinders Petrie contributed a theory on the dating of the collection, although his suggestion that the period between 500 and 200 B.C.E. is likely was not taken seriously. Scott made the important point that the texts do not represent a joint body of doctrine but only "a certain general similarity". They treat of many religious and philosophical topics, with even a cursory reading confirming Scott's observation.
The Greek original of the Asclepius was lost, but not before its translation into Latin. It takes the form of a dialogue attributed to Apuleius and is the combination of several MSS, most dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Textual analysis reveals corrections by many different hands, and also that the dialogue is composed of three separate sources that do not overlap.
The first concerns the relationships between God, Earth and Man, aimed at the practical goal of exhorting men to live according to divine order. In particular, the corruption of philosophy is held to be due to the coveting of worldly goods and the wise man is called upon to renounce them. It echoes much of Plato in its cosmology but shows no Christian influence, which, along with other textual clues, places its (Greek) authorship between 100 B.C.E. and 300 C.E.. The place of man is analysed:
[Man] is linked to the gods, inasmuch as there is in him a divinity akin to theirs; he scorns that part of his own being which makes him a thing of earth; and all else with which he finds himself connected by heaven's ordering, he binds to himself by the tie of his affection. He raises reverent eyes to heaven above; he tends the earth below. Blest in his intermediate station, he is so placed that he loves all below him and is loved by all above him. (Scott, 1991)
We will return to this idea of man's place later.
The second part concerns evil, trying to account for its existence and origin. It is very brief, but an interesting excerpt addresses the problem of evil:
You must not then, my pupils, speak as many do, who say that God ought by all means to have freed the world from evil. To those who speak thus, not a word should be said in answer; but for your sake I will pursue my argument, and therewith explain this. It was beyond God's power to put a stop to evil, and expel it from the universe; for evil is present in the world in such sort that it is manifestly an inseparable part thereof. But the supreme God provided and guarded against evil as far as he reasonably could, by deigning to endow the minds of men with intellect, knowledge and intuition. It is in virtue of these gifts that we stand higher than the beasts; and by these, and these alone, are we enabled to shun the traps and deceptions and corruptions of evil. (Scott, op cit.)
The third text of the Asclepius is a muddled concatenation of fragments heavily reliant on Plato, particularly the Timaeus. There are also clear Stoic and Hellenistic Egyptian influences. The hostility to Christianity, along with the powerful prophecy of the fate awaiting Egyptians and their religion with its rise, strongly indicate a dating in the region of 300 C.E.. Scott convincingly narrowed this estimate to 268—273 by comparing the details in the text with the Palmyrene occupation of Egypt (Scott, ibid). On this evidence, the attribution to Apuleius is taken to be in error. Part of this famous prophecy runs thus:
... this land, which once was holy, a land which loved the gods, and wherein alone, in reward for her devotion, the gods deigned to sojourn upon earth, a land which was the teacher of mankind in holiness and piety—this land will go beyond all in cruel deeds. The dead will far outnumber the living; and the survivors will be known for Egyptians by their tongue alone, but in their actions they will seem to be men of another race. O Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only the stones will tell of thy piety. And in that day men will be weary of life, and they will cease to think the universe worthy of reverent wonder and of worship. And so religion, the greatest of all blessings—for there is nothing, nor has been, nor ever shall be, that can be deemed a greater boon—will be threatened with destruction; men will think it a burden, and will come to scorn it. They will no longer love this world around them, this incomparable work of God, this glorious structure which he has built, this sum of good made up of things of many diverse forms, this instrument whereby the will of God operates in that which he has made, ungrudgingly favouring man's welfare, this combination and accumulation of all the manifold things that can call forth the veneration, praise, and love of the beholder. Darkness will be preferred to light, and death will be thought more profitable than life; no one will raise his eyes to heaven; the pious will be deemed insane, and the impious wise; the madman will be thought a brave man, and the wicked will be esteemed as good. As to the soul, and the belief that it is immortal by nature, or may hope to attain immortality, as I have taught you—all this they will mock at, and will even persuade themselves that it is false. No word of reverence or piety, no utterance worthy of heaven and of the gods of heaven, will be heard or believed. (Scott, op cit.)
The Anthologium and Testimonia
Stobaeus' made his collection of pagan writings in four books at approximately 500 C.E., taken from works he had seen and arranged by subject. All take the form of dialogues, either lessons from Hermes to another or between Isis and Horus. From 300 C.E. onwards the Hermetic writings were familiar to many scholars and are mentioned in their writings—from Lactantius through to the Muslims and beyond. The collection of these excerpts is known as the Testimonia. Interestingly, perhaps, the early Pagan Neoplatonists paid little attention to them.
Hermeticism from the Renaissance
Hermetic texts and philosophy came to prominence during the Renaissance when Ficino began translating manuscripts that his patron Cosimo de Medici had obtained from the East. Opinion of that time, supported by Ficino's analysis of the texts, held that they were prophetic of the eventual triumph of Christianity. Such was the resulting importance attached to this assumption of antiquity that, near to death, Cosimo ordered Ficino to set aside his translation of Plato to work on the Hermetica.
Already a blend of Egyptian and Greek philosophies and theology, Renaissance scholars added elements of natural magic and Kabbalah, particular with the work of Pico della Mirandolla, one of Ficino's students at his Florentine Academy. From the seventeenth century and the advent of Rosicrucianism, together with Freemasonry in the eighteenth and alchemy from its beginnings, Hermeticism became suffused with the Western esoteric tradition as a whole.
Texts that were collected and studied intensely over this period include the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes, the Hermetic Museum drawn up by A.E. Waite, the anonymous Hermetic Arcanum and many works in alchemy that built upon the Hermetic ideas found in the Emerald Tablet. This was analysed by a continuous stream of Hermeticists, alchemists, philosophers, Kabbalists and magicians, including Newton as part of his voluminous studies of alchemy and related subjects, all of them attempting to divine its meaning. Although there are many extant translations, one reads thus:
1) This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth:-
2) As below, so above; and as above so below. With this knowledge alone you may work miracles.
3) And since all things exist in and eminate from the ONE Who is the ultimate Cause, so all things are born after their kind from this ONE.
4) The Sun is the father, the Moon the mother;
5) the wind carried it in his belly. Earth is its nurse and its guardian.
6) It is the Father of all things,
6a) the eternal Will is contained in it.
7) Here, on earth, its strength, its power remain one and undivided.
7a) Earth must be separated from fire, the subtle from the dense, gently with unremitting care.
8) It arises from the earth and descends from heaven; it gathers to itself the strength of things above and things below.
9) By means of this one thing all the glory of the world shall be yours and all obscurity flee from you.
10) It is power, strong with the strength of all power, for it will penetrate all mysteries and dispel all ignorance.
11) By it the world was created.
12) From it are born manifold wonders, the means to achieving which are here given.
13) It is for this reason that I am called Hermes Trismegistus; for I possess the three essentials of the philosophy of the universe.
14) This is is the sum total of the work of the Sun.
Some consider the Emerald Tablet to be the earliest known alchemical work, with Needham placing its origin in China. Whatever the case, it gives an example of the dictum that would come to characterize Hermeticism: "as above, so below".
Hermeticism as a system
In spite of the existence and study of the texts discussed above, Hermeticism has no sacred books and no doctrine. Hermeticists have historically disagreed with one another and were never encouraged to defer to the opinion of specific authorities. Much like some philosophers of religion today when trying to come to terms with the plurality of religions and their competing truth claims, Hermeticists believe that Hermeticism represents the common centre of all forms of religion. The general idea is that the esoteric core of religions are the same; the exoteric shells, however, differ due to the regional, environmental, historical and other factors at work at the time of their creation or development.
Hermetic groups exist today, both openly and in relative secrecy, within religions and without. As a rule they do not make themselves known, although academic treatments (such as Frances Yates' studies or Copenhaver's criticisms) are becoming more frequent. The significance of Hermeticism in the histories of science, natural philosophy and magic is becoming familiar, although its syncretism and incorporation of so many disparate philosophies, religions and traditions means that it remains difficult to determine the direction of influence. In particular, the famous Rosicrucian Manifestos (the Fama Fraternitatis of 1614, Confessio Fraternitatis of 1615 and the Chemical Wedding of 1616) represented a continuation of Hermetic ideas and were seized upon by scholars across Europe in a general wave of excitement at the workings of hidden or occult ideas made public (McLean, 1991). The effect of the Hermetica on Ramon Lull and Giordano Bruno, with the manifestos adding to the intellectual climate of a world ready to open up and reveal its secrets. Kepler studied the Poimander at length, suggesting that either Pythagoras was a Hermeticist or Hermes was a Pythagorean but disagreeing with the latter on most points (Field, 1988). The Picatrix or Ghayat al-Hakim linked Hermeticism with Arabic occult ideas, echoes being found in Agrippa, Rabelais and even the Venetian Inquisition in explaining the arrest of Casanova (Kiesel, 2000) The writings of Newton on alchemy and related subjects are well known (cf. Westfall's biography and similar), and he summed up the spirit of the age when he wrote in his notes to the Principia that:
... the Philosophers loved so to mitigate their mystical discourses that in the presence of the vulgar they foolishly propounded vulgar matters from the sake of ridicule, and hid the truth...(Newton, c. 1690)
Thus it is that Hermeticism has traditionally been thought to represents the so-called perennial philosophy (a term first used by Liebniz and adopted by Huxley), passed down through the ages by word of mouth or in writings that require a lifetime of effort to understand fully. In his discussion of it, Huxley identified four "fundamental doctrines":
- "First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the world of things and animals and men and even gods—is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.
- "Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
- "Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
- "Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground." (Huxley, 1990)
As explained in the caveat previously, these may have been believed by Hermeticists but they did not take the character of doctrine. The first tells us that plurality is only apparent: reality is ultimately a unity, which manifests itself through a hierarchy symbolised by the Sephiroth of Kaballah and similar systems in other religions. The second says that this ultimate reality may be known, not by thought and reason but instead through a direct intuition. This assumption is thought to be common to all religions and it was often claimed that by forcing reality into conceptual categories we cut off the possibility of understanding it as a whole. The third is also well known, while the fourth speaks of the spiritual evolution of Man. In particular, this last was the goal of all alchemists: although many maintained working laboratories, talked of practical benefits and there exist documented claims of the transmutation of base metals to gold (for example, the 1942 demonstration by Sarma in Delhi, witnessed by national leaders and attested to by an inscribed plaque in the Laksmi Narayana temple. A previous incident in 1941 is similarly recorded, including a description of the processes involved. (Mukherji, 1998)), the accepted interpretation of alchemical texts, from the ancient through to Fulcanelli and the contemporary, is of alchemy as a spiritual quest.
Huxley called these the "highest common factor" of religions. An additional aspect is the injunction already introduced: "as above, so below". The importance of this dictum, which has a distinguished pedigree, has been emphasised by those scholars who see Hermeticism as a significant current in the rise of science. For the Hermeticist, it implied that the microcosm and macrocosm are linked such that order in one reflects order in the other. Harmony in the heavens, then, would suggest that the Hermeticist look for a similar harmony on Earth; likewise, it is proposed that the belief in a unity of (God-given) purpose for men on Earth could have inspired Copernicus and others to seek simplicity in place of complexity in the heavens. With the role of natural laws as a necessary condition in the development of science well established, it is easy to see why Hermeticism should be deemed worthy of further study. Another way in which it was understood was to see man as embodying the universe on a smaller scale—man as symbolic of all mysteries or the "measure of all things". Rudolf Steiner wrote at length on this issue.
Examples of the application of Hermeticism are quite easy to find: in the Tarot, Masonic engraving, and interpretations of tales such as the Golden Fleece. It is also straightforward to find criticism: Hermeticism is ad hoc, or unfalsifiable, since its very syncretism and fundamental tenets mean that it can survive difficulties by ascribing them to exoteric differences while maintaining the esoteric core unchallenged. Similarly, these same tenets are exclusively metaphysical and hence not subject to any kind of verification. By claiming parts of existing religious traditions, Hermeticists leave themselves open to the charge that they add nothing significant to them and are hence rendered irrelevant. More importantly, they also make it almost impossible to point to the impact of Hermeticism over history. In general, Hermeticists do not concern themselves with responses to these objections and go—quietly—about their business. It is hoped that further textual, comparative and philosophical analysis of religious documents will give scholars more to go on, but is seems that the nature of Hermeticism is such that the ultimate truth remains so whether agreed upon or not.
Newton, Gregory MS 247, Royal Society
Kiesel (ed.), Picatrix (Seattle: Ouroboros Press, 2000)
Godwin (trans.) and McLean (intr.), The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1991)
Scott, Hermetica (Boston: Shambhala, 1993)
Ficino, Mercurii Trismegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei (Treviso, 1471)
Patritius, Nova de universis philosophia... (Venice, 1593)
Casaubon, Exercitationes XVI (London, 1614)
Reitzenstein, Poimandres. Studien zur griechisch-aegyptischen und fruh-christlichen literature (Lepizig, 1904)
Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964)
Copenhaver, Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
Mukherji, The Wealth of Indian Alchemy (Delhi: Indian Books Centre, 1998)
Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (Perennial, 1990)
The Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1973-74)