HERMETISM designates the pagan corpus (written for the most part in the region of Alexandria) of the so-called Hermetica, which contains the pagan writings called Corpus Hermeticum (second and third centuries ce) attributed to the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistos (also Trismegistus), otherwise called Mercurius. Neo-Alexandrian Hermetism (henceforth often referred to as Hermetism also) designates the various philosophically and/or esoterically oriented adaptations and commentaries which that corpus has given rise to, particularly in the modern period (i.e., from the Renaissance up to the present time). Neo-Alexandrian Hermetism constitutes one of the modern esoteric currents and is the subject of most of this article. The term Hermeticism, which is more vague, frequently has been used as a synonym for esotericism and alchemy.
The Corpus Hermeticum had a strange destiny. In the Middle Ages, besides the Asclepius, only a few rare extracts were known, and yet their supposed author Hermes Trismegistos, clouded by an aura of mystery, never ceased to be a subject of great interest. Not until the dawn of the Renaissance did the writings come back to light, a rediscovery that gave rise to a considerable amount of interest.
Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
The Corpus Hermeticum (henceforth referred to as C.H. ) was written in the second and third centuries ce. It is a collection of eighteen treatises (I–XVIII). Annexed to it is the Asclepius (originally known in Greek as Logos Teleios and translated into Latin in the fourth century), which in early periods was falsely attributed to Apuleius of Madaura. Unlike the C.H. proper, the Asclepius has survived in an ancient Latin translation only (the original Greek version has never been found; a large part of it in Coptic translation surfaced only as late as the twentieth century, in the Nag Hammadi Library). The first (numbered I) of these eighteen treatises is the most famous. It deals with the creation of the world, whereas the rest are devoted to the soul's ascension through the celestial spheres and its divine sojourns, a process supposed to bring about the regeneration of the human being. Hermetism is characterized by an eclectic mentality, a philosophical attitude that favors the concrete and eschews ontological dualism. Philosophically, it stresses the positive, symbolic value of the universe. This can be seen, for example, in the treatise in which Nous (Mind) addresses Hermes, who is taught how to reflect the universe in his own spirit, seizing the divine essence of nature and impressing it on the interior of his soul. This process is made possible by the fact that the human being possesses a divine intellect. The predominate theme is the world as a mirror of the divine and object of contemplation (God is known through the contemplation of the world). Hence the focus of the C.H. (and of many of the Hermetica, for that matter) on the particular, the mirabilia, often to the detriment of the abstract and the general. The C.H. invites the reader to undertake the work of regeneration through a reascent, which can be accomplished either by means of the intellect via a connection with intermediary spiritual intelligences (such as intermediate spirits) that are used as spiritual ladders, or by theurgical means, or by both. Explicit in Hermetism is a belief in an astrological cosmos, often viewed as the scene of an initiatory journey.
The long trail of the Christian interpretation of philosophical Hermetism originates in the fourth and fifth centuries, namely with the works of Lactantius and Quodvultdeus on the one hand, and Augustine on the other. These men represent two opposing paradigms of response to the Asclepius. In his Divinae institutiones (304–313), Lactantius cited numerous fragments from the Asclepius. He devoted several laudatory lines to Hermes Trismegistos and detected in him a herald of Christ's coming. Lactantius interpreted the created world (the second god of the Hermetic hierarchy) as the Word made flesh. Augustine, although in agreement with Lactantius about the antiquity of Hermes Trismegistos (he lived "a long time before the wise men and philosophers of Greece"), in his De civitate Dei (415–417 ce, City of God, VIII, 13–26) he condemned the Asclepius because of passages that discuss magical processes intended to animate the statues of gods by making spirits descend into them. Augustine denied that daimones (demons) could be regarded as necessary mediators between gods and mortals, and he strongly distinguished Hermetic teachings from "true religion." Despite the unquestioned authority of Augustine, Lactantius's views generally prevailed in the Middle Ages, because the Tractatus adversus quinque haereses (c. 430) by Quodvultdeus, bishop of Carthage, who stood in Lactantius's wake, was included in a collection of works written by Augustine and therefore falsely attributed to the latter. Clement of Alexandria also mentioned (Stromateis 6.4) Augustine, to whom he attributed a great number of philosophical works.
Hermetism seems to have all but disappeared from the scene of Latin culture in the centuries between the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the twelfth century. But from the twelfth century on it resurfaced thanks to the few texts that had survived. Alan of Lille (c. 1128–1203) made frequent use of cosmological Hermetic elements. In his Summa Quoniam homines and Contra haereticos, he extols the Egyptian sage Hermes's knowledge about the unity of God. The Glosae super Trismegistum may be attributed, if not to Alan himself, then to someone who stood close to him. In this work, the author proposes that Mercurius, more than other philosophers, reflected upon the mysteries of the heavenly realities. Two texts in the thirteenth century were the subjects of much commentary. First, the Liber viginti quattuor philosophorum, attributed to Mercurius, contains a summary of definitions of God, as formulated by an assembly of twenty-four sages. It is in part the work of a Christian, who endeavors to demonstrate the congruence of Neoplatonic and Hermetic teachings with those of the Bible and of Catholicism. Second, the Liber de sex rerum principisi (written sometime between 1147 and 1175) deals with divine and natural causality and establishes a concord between the Platonic tradition and Arab sources.
Toward the end of the twelfth century, Hermetism underwent some changes. First, a number of theological and cosmogonical pseudo-epigraphs attributed to Mercurius surfaced. Second, translations from the Arabic and the Greek appeared that heralded a different kind of Hermetic literature characterized by an impressive number of writings devoted to forms of operational knowledge—that is, to practices like magic, astrology, alchemy, botany, medicine, and divination. This new trend developed alongside philosophical Hermetism without conflict, except in the works of William of Auvergne. This latter, bishop of Paris (1228–1249), was one of the most erudite theologians in such matters. Well-versed in the literature from Greece and Islam, he sharply criticized Hermetism, taking sides with Augustine against Lactantius (see, for example, his De Legibus, 1228), at least with regard to "magical" knowledge.
In the same period, Michael Scot in his Liber introductorius (1228–1235) and in his commentary on Giovanni Sacrobosco's De sphaera attests to the circulation of the Asclepius. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon (in his Opus maius and Metaphysica, both completed in 1267) displayed strong Hermetic leanings and showed himself to be an insightful reader of the Asclepius. Similarly, Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) tried to harmonize the philosophical elements of the Asclepius and the image of Hermes, in whom he saw the magus who has unveiled the secrets of nature and discovered the correspondence between heaven and earth (see for example his Liber de intellectu et intelligibili, 1260; De animalibus, c. 1260; De causis et processu universitatis, 1263–1267). In the fourteenth century Thomas Bradwardine, the famous mathematician and theologian at Merton College (Oxford), in his De causa Dei (1335–1344) cites Hermes as the first authority among the philosophers.
Among the authors of the fifteenth century, Nicholas Cusanus demonstrates a good knowledge of many of the available texts. His first reference to Mercurius appears in his Sermo I (1430), in which, drawing on Lactantius, he credits Hermes with the real knowledge of the divine Word. Moreover, his Christian interpretation of Hermetism is confirmed by numerous autographic glosses placed in the margins of his copy of the Asclepius (MS Bruxelles, Bibliothèque Royale 10054–10056). On several occasions in his De docta ignorantia (1440) he extols the Hermetic doctrine of God as "one and everything."
Finally, another famous text has to be mentioned within this short summary. It is the Tabula Smaragdina (The Emerald Tablet, or The Smaragdine Table of Hermes, henceforth referred to as T.S. ), also attributed to Hermes Trismegistos. Originally written in Greek (the original version is lost), its earliest extant version (934 ce) is in Arabic, set within a small alchemical and philosophical treatise entitled The Book of the Secrets of Creation. T.S. has lent itself to innumerable discussions and esoteric commentaries. Hugo Sanctelliensis, bishop of Tarazona (Spain) translated it into Latin from the Arabic for the first time in the twelfth century, along with the Liber de secretis naturae et occultis rerum causis quem transtulit Apollonius ex libris Hermes Trismegisti.
The Rediscovery of Hermes Trismegistos in the Renaissance
In Florence in 1450, Cosimo de' Medici the Elder (the ruler of Florence and a great patron of letters) entrusted Marsilio Ficino with the creation of a Platonic academy. One of their intentions was to have the available writings of Plato translated into Latin. Then, around 1460, an event occurred that assured the sudden, unprecedented influence of the Hermetic texts. A monk, Leonardo da Pistoria, brought to Florence a Greek manuscript containing fourteen treatises that constituted most of what would later be called the C.H. These treatises had already been gathered together in the eleventh century, and it was in that form that the Byzantine Platonist Psellus had known them. Da Pistoria, who had found the document in Macedonia, presented it to Cosimo de' Medici. The latter, having deemed it more urgent to translate the C.H. into Latin than Plato's works, assigned the task to Ficino. His translation of the fourteen treatises (C.H. I–XIV) was finished in 1463 and printed at Treviso in 1471 under the title Mercurii Trismegisti Pimander Liber de potestate et sapientia Dei, or Pimander, together with a prefatory argument (Argumentum ) by Ficino himself. In his Argumentum, Ficino also called attention to the Asclepius, which he considered as "the most divine" of this kind of literature (an edition had just been printed in Rome in 1469 as an insert in Apuleius's Opera ). By 1505 the C.H. and the Asclepius had been combined in a great number of editions. Later, a series of other Hermetic texts, the so-called Stobaei Anthologium (compiled c. 500 ce by Johannes Stobaeus of Macedonia) was added to that corpus (part of the Anthologium was published in Venice in 1536, another part in Zurich in 1543, and the rest in Antwerp in 1575).
The C.H. (often published under the title of the first treatise, Poimandres, rendered as Pimander since Ficino's 1471 translation) and the Asclepius enjoyed considerable success. Up to 1641, no fewer than twenty-four editions appeared, not counting partial ones or translations into other European languages. They became a central element in Renaissance culture and were most popular among the learned and prominent members of society. Anthony Woodville's English translation of a few of these texts in the anthology The dyctes or sayengis of the philosophers (Westminster 1477, the first dated book in the history of English printing), published by William Caxton, bears witness to the early, albeit discreet, presence of the C.H. in England. Woodville's anthology was later incorporated into other anthologies.
As had been the case prior to that period, the Hermetic treatises were considered the expression of a philosophy that had been transmitted over the sweep of centuries. Ficino called the philosophy prisca philosophia. Later it would be called, albeit in a slightly different sense, philosophia perennis. This term was introduced by an Italian Augustinian and Vatican librarian, Agostino Steuco (De perenni philosophia, Lyon 1540, new ed. 1590). Although staunchly attached to the Church's magisterium, he too tried to reconstruct the ancient philosophy as a foundation for restoring Christian unity. The C.H., the Asclepius, and Hermes Trismegistos were thus thought to belong to a far distant past, namely to the age of Moses or even earlier. Although pagan in character, they were considered to foreshadow Christian truths and so to give new depth to the Christian revelation. In his Argumentum, Ficino describes a "genealogy of wisdom"—explicitly referred to as prisca theologia —consisting of six main figures: Mercurius (Hermes) Trismegistos, Orpheus, Aglaophemus (an Orphic teacher of Pythagoras), Pythagoras, Philolaus, and Plato. That list was later to undergo various changes depending on the author who presented it. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oratio de hominis dignitate (1486) begins with a reference to the "Magnum, O Asclepi, miraculum" passage of the Asclepius (Ascl. 6). Pico combined the Hermetic philosophy with the Qabbalah, which he believed had been entrusted to Moses on Mount Sinai.
On Palm Sunday of 1484, Giovanni da Correggio, in bizarre dress and in strange company, appeared in Rome. On the banks of the Manara he put on a crown bearing the inscription "This is my son Poimandres, whom I have chosen" and made a speech in which he called himself the "angel of Wisdom, Poimandres, in the most sublime manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ." Then, making his way to the Vatican, he deposited diverse objects on the throne of Saint Peter. In 1496 he turned up again in Florence and then in Lyons. Lodovico Lazzarelli, who saw in Giovanni a new and divine prophet whom he considered as his mentor, has left a vivid description of this event in a manifesto titled Epistola Enoch, published probably in Milan c. 1490. Another text by Lazzarelli, Crater Hermetis (complete title: A Dialogue on the Supreme Dignity of Man, Entitled the Way of Christ and the Mixing-Bowl of Hermes which he wrote probably between 1492 and 1494 (it remained unpublished until Lefèvre d'Etaples edited it in 1505) is a fictitious conversation (very much in the form of the dialogues contained in C.H. ) between Lazzarelli, who plays the role of the initiator, and Ferdinand I of Aragon and his prime minister Giovanni Pontano, who are cast in the role of pupils. Crater Hermetis may be among the most interesting examples of Hermetic-Christian syncretism written during the Renaissance. It is certainly one of the important Hermetic texts of its time, if not for its direct influence, then at least with regard to the depth and originality of its contents.
In 1482, Lazzarelli, convinced of the equality of the Bible and the Hermetic writings, dedicated to Correggio a manuscript he had just completed. The manuscript consisted of three parts, each one opening with a dedicatory preface. The first part contained Marsilio Ficino's translation of the Pimander (1471, i.e., C.H. I–XIV). The second contained the Asclepius. The third contained the first Latin translation, by Ficino, of C.H. XVI–XVIII—that is, three extra treatises which he had apparently discovered in a separate manuscript (unfortunately not preserved). He titled these treatises Diffinitiones Asclepii ad regem Ammonem. Lazzarelli appears to be a pure example of a Christian Hermetist in the Renaissance (in addition to being one of the first noteworthy authors instrumental in the early development of a Christian Qabbalah). Strangely enough, Frances A. Yates almost passed over him in her ground-breaking books published in 1964, and not until recently have scholars (in particular, Claudio Moreschini and Wouter J. Hanegraaff) done him justice.
Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples's first edition of his Pimander (Paris, 1494) contains, besides Ficino's translation, a series of commentaries (Argumenta ) of his own (long attributed to Ficino). The second edition (Paris, 1505) was augmented with both the Asclepius and Lazzarelli's Crater Hermetis (in an abridged version). Interestingly, it was the first time that the Asclepius had been published with the C.H. Also at this time, Symphorien Champier, an admirer of Ficino and disciple of Lefèvre d'Étaples, did not hesitate to derive all of Greek philosophy from Hermes. He considered the famous passage from the Asclepius on magic and animated statues to be an interpolation by Apuleius and thus not to be attributed to Hermes. He goes as far as to include into the tradition of prisca theologia the doctrines of the Druids and elements drawn from the Qabbalah. His Liber de quadruplici vita: Theologia Asclepii Hermetis Trismegisti discipuli cum commentariis … (Lyon, 1507) contains Lazzarelli's translation of Diffinitiones Asclepii, among other texts, but Champier substituted a commentary of his own for Lazzarelli's prefaces.
As exemplified by Lefèvre and Champier, the French were generally much more cautious than their Italian or German counterparts regarding the "magical" elements of the C.H. and the Asclepius. This tendency to downplay the magical in favor of a more noble, essentially philosophical interpretation can be seen also in Pontus de Tyard, bishop of Châlons (Deux discours, 1578). Indeed, almost all French adherents of the prisca theologia dealt with Hermetism from the perspective of Christian apologetics. This is reflected, for instance, in Gabriel du Préau's Mercure Trismégiste ancient Thelogien & excellent Philosophe, de la puissance & sapience de Dieu … Auecq' un Dialogue de Loys Lazarel poëte chrestien intitulé le Bassin d'Hermès (Paris, 1549; new ed., 1557), the first edition in French of C.H. I–XIV, of the Asclepius, and (as the title indicates) of Lazzarelli's Crater Hermetis. Du Préau's book also contains abundant commentaries of his own, some of which were designed to establish parallels between the narrative of creation according to Moses and that of C.H. I (Pimander ).
The French Catholic scholar Adrien Turnèbe published the first edition of the C.H. (Paris, 1554) in the original Greek, based on the manuscript used by Ficino and accompanied by the latter's Latin translation, as well as by Lazarelli's translation of the additional treatise. A preface by Angelos Vergerius emphasizes the resemblances of Hermetism to Christianity. In the wake of such scholarly publications, François Foix-Candale, bishop of Aire, near Bordeaux, authored another edition in 1574 (C.H. I–XIV, accompanied by some other hermetic texts). Five years later he produced very extensive commentaries of his own in French in his Le Pimandre de Mercure Trismégiste: de la Philosophie Chrestienne, Cognoissance du Verbe Divin … (Bordeaux, 1579, new ed., Paris, 1587), in which the Hermetic texts serve as topics for meditation on a variety of questions, such as the Soul of the World, the spirits of the elements, and the celestial bodies. Among various sources, Foix drew on the philosophia occulta of the Renaissance, and his book foreshadows some of the themes that Christian Theosophy would develop from the seventeenth century onward.
Ficino's Opera omnia also appeared in this decade (1576). Six years later at Anvers the Huguenot Protestant Philippe du Plessis-Mornay (called the Pope of the Huguenots) published his famous book De la vérité de la religion chrestienne … (Antwerp, 1581), written at a time when William of Orange was trying to establish religious tolerance at Anvers. Du Plessis-Mornay employed Hermetism in fashioning a religious position that stood above all religious conflicts, and which was close to that of Erasmus—but with an additional esoteric dimension. He compared the C.H. with the Zohar and made mention of Orpheus, Zarathushtra, and the sibyls, but especially of Hermes, "the source of them all." As is common among the French, his Hermetism is mystical and theological. This work was published several times in a Latin translation and proved to be influential in the development of Protestantism in France. Translated into English by Sir Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding in 1587, it is among the main expositions of Hermetism in the tradition of Ficino.
Along with Foix, some other important sixteenth-century authors, such as Giorgio, Bruno, and Agrippa, must be counted as influential in later Hermetism and esoteric literature. Francesco Giorgio (or Zorzi), who belonged to the Order of Friars Minor, authored De Harmonia Mundi totius Cantica tria (Venice, 1525; Paris, 1545, 1546; French translation by Guy Lefèvre de la Boderie, Paris, 1578) and In Sacram Scripturam Problemata (Venice, 1536; Paris, 1622). These two works represent an original construction aimed at making Ficino's Hermetic prisca theologia coincide with Neoplatonism, Qabbalah, astrology, and even alchemy. De Harmonia Mundi would enjoy a lasting success in several milieus, in particular among the representatives of most esoteric currents. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Guillaume Postel would be among his enthusiastic followers.
Giordano Bruno recommended a "new" philosophy founded on Hermetism. In his works he makes frequent use of the Hermetic texts (notably in Spaccio della bestia triomphante, 1584). In contrast to that of Ficino and the French, his Hermetism represented an aggressive return to Hermetic magic. Unlike most other Hermeticists of his time, Bruno was not a Christian and did not identify the intellectus and Filius Dei of the C.H. with the second person of the Trinity, and thus he did not share the hope nursed by others that general acceptance of Hermetism might effect a religious reconciliation. In fact, Bruno did not desire a reformed Christendom, but rather a return to the cults or beliefs of ancient Egypt as described in the C.H. and particularly in the Asclepius. In 1591 he tried to win over to his views Clement VIII in Rome, but his radical interpretations led him to the stake in 1600.
In Germany, some of Sebastian Frank's works attest to an interest in Hermetism. His Die Güldin Arch (Augsburg, 1538) presents itself as a collection of biblical sayings and paraphrases, together with extracts from "illuminated pagans and philosophers" such as Hermes Trismegistos. In Basel (1542), Frank translated into German both the Asclepius and C.H. I–XIV and included long commentaries dealing mostly with commonalities between the Bible and Nature. It remains unpublished; the manuscript is preserved in the Stadtbibliothek Augsburg. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Valentin Weigel, the father of Germanic Theosophy (of which Jakob Boehme was to be the greatest exponent at the beginning of the seventeenth century), cites the name of Hermes Trismegistos more than that of any other author of his time—more than Dionysius the Areopagite, Plato, or Augustine. Like Agrippa, however, Weigel invokes this prestigious name more often than he utilizes the Hermetic texts themselves. Traces of Hermetic influence are also noticeable in Copernicus, who cites Hermes in reference to the sun considered as the visible God. Another German, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa focused on the esoteric side of Hermes Trismegistos. Besides quite a few passages in his famous De Occulta Philosophia (1533), several writings of his are devoted to a hermeneutics of the C.H., particularly its third treatise: Oratio in praelectionem Hermetis Trismegisti de Potestate et Sapientia Dei (Cologne, 1535; an "oratio" given at the University of Pavia in 1515); Liber de triplici ratione congnoscendi Dei (1516); and Dehortatio gentiles theologiae (c. 1526, a text that, unlike his other two, distances him from Hermetism).
Despite the presence of a famous name like Agrippa, the Germanic countries in general had little part in the golden age of European Hermetism, which lasted approximately from Ficino to Kircher. Agrippa wrote his main works before the Reformation, and Kircher composed his main ones in Rome. This may be due in part to the fact that during this period humanism made only slight progress in those countries, hampered as it was by the barrier that Lutheranism had erected against it. Therefore, neo-Alexandrian Hermetism, by its very nature a legacy of ancient Greek literature, remained mostly a subject of study for the humanists, even after the C.H. had been translated into Latin by the Italian Ficino. As a consequence, over that period almost all the noteworthy commentators of the C.H. were French and Italian.
Not until the last two decades of the sixteenth century did two other authors of importance emerge. First, the Italian Capuchin Hannibal Rossel, whose Pymander Mercurii Trismegisti at six volumes (Cracovia 1585–1590) is not so much a commentary on the C.H. as an encyclopedic roll-call of a variety of philosophical themes, along with a presentation of C.H. I–VII and the Asclepius. This work was popular enough to require a second issue, this time in one volume (Cologne, 1630). Second, Francesco Patrizi's Nova de universis philosophia (Ferrara, 1591) contains C.H. I–XIV (as established by Turnèbe and Foix de Candale), the Asclepius, C.H. XVI–XVIII (Diffinitiones Asclepii ), the medieval so-called Theologia Aristotelis, and a new Latin translation of these texts. In the dedicatory preface, Patrizi asked Pope Gregory XIV to place the C.H. on the academic curriculum as an alternative philosophy. Indeed, he sharply criticized Aristotelian philosophy and wanted it to be ousted from Jesuit-run colleges. Patrizi portrayed the true magus as one who is devoted to God, and true prisca magia as the true religion. He claimed that a single treatise from the C.H. contained more philosophy than all of Aristotle, thereby advocating the study of Plotinus, Proclus, and the early Fathers while discouraging the study of the Scholastics. In the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, he took up the question of a new catechism and recommended the study of the C.H. to the Jesuits. He went so far as to suggest to the pope that Hermetic Platonism be assigned in all Christian schools as an aid to converting the Lutherans. In 1592, Clement VIII, won over to some of his ideas, called him to Rome to hold the chair of Platonic philosophy at the University La Sapienza, but once there, Patrizi incurred the displeasure of the Inquisition and his book was placed on the Index. Other reform-minded books followed, such as Mutius Pansa's De Osculo, seu consensus ethnicae et Christianae philosophiae tractatus (Marburg, 1605)—the "kiss" mentioned in the title being that which Hermetism and Christianity are supposed to exchange.
Religious Hermetism is Gnostic and irenic by nature. This partly accounts for the fact that in the 1590s, the Puritanism then flourishing in England weakened the theological syncretism that had favored such tendencies. With Edward VI, the English Protestants had already begun to break with the past, going so far as to destroy books and libraries. Under the reign of Mary, a Hispano-Catholic intolerance went even further in that direction. Puritan Anglicanism under Elizabeth lost all trace of Erasmian tolerance, and Hermetism suffered accordingly, at least in the official milieus of the Anglican Church and the universities. It continued to develop within private circles, however, such as those that formed around Sir Philip Sidney and Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, John Dee. In addition to Sidney and Dee, who were enthusiasts of Hermeticism and esoteric literature, is Richard Hooker, who often cited the C.H. in his work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which began to appear in 1593. Hooker, however, did not identify himself with the Hermetic tradition as such.
Any overview of neo-Alexandrian Hermetism must also give attention to the T.S., a short text that circulated in a Latin translation as early as the twelfth century. Its first printed edition, also in Latin and titled Tabula Smaragdina, appeared in a compilation of alchemical texts, De Alchemia (Nurnberg, 1541). Its brevity permits us to quote it here in full:
True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing. And as all things were by contemplation of one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation. The father thereof is the Sun, the mother the Moon, the Wind carried it in its womb, the earth is the nurse thereof. It is he father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world. The power thereof is perfect. If it be cast on to the earth, it will separate the element of earth from that of fire, the subtle from the gross. With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from earth to heaven. Again it doth descent to earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior. Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole word, and all obscurity will fly far from thee. This thing is the strong fortitude of all strength, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance. Thus was this world created. Hence will there be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this. For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistos, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the whole world. This is which I had to say about the operation of Sol is completed. (Linden, 2003, pp. 27–28)
In the sixteenth century, this rather enigmatic prose poem caused torrents of Hermetic, alchemical, and theosophical ink to flow (Faivre, Annuaire…, 1985–1997). To mention only a few remarkable commentaries in the esoteric literature of that time, the "T.S. tradition" was illustrated and enriched by such authors as Johann Trithemius (see his correspondence with Germain de Ganay in 1505) and Gérard Dorn (Artificii chymistici, 1569; often re-edited as Physica Trismegist; foreshadows the advent of the Theosophical movement).
Hermetic Developments and Reappraisals (1614–1706)
Isaac Casaubon, a Protestant minister in Geneva, set out to prove (in a chapter of his De rebus sacris ecclesiasticis exercitations XVI, London, 1614) that the C.H. had not been written prior to the second or third centuries ce and was therefore a forgery of the early Christian era. Although Casaubon's name has long been attached to that new dating, recent research (see especially Purnell, 1976; Mulsow, 2002) has shown that similar "discoveries" had already been made by other philologists as early as the 1560s. Nonetheless, the claim that the C.H. had been erroneously dated could only deal a heavy blow to its authority, since the authority of a text, even at that time, was highly dependent upon its age. But the Hermetic current did not disappear for all that; indeed, from then until now, many esoterically oriented authors and readers have preferred to ignore or to downplay the significance of the new dating of the Hermetic writings.
One of the first highly sympathetic exegetes of the C.H. in early seventeenth-century Germany was Heinrich Noll (Theoria Philosophiae Hermeticae, septem tractatibus, Hanover, 1617; Theoria Philosophiae Hermeticae, Copenhagen, 1617; and Panergii Philosophici Speculum, 1623, an initiatic novel). In Italy, Livius Galante, who authored Christianae theologiae cum platonica comparatio (Bologna, 1627) is noteworthy. Furthermore, a number of translations of the C.H. into European languages appeared. A few extracts were presented in German in "Verba Hermetis in Pimandro" (a section of the anonymous Occulta Philosophia, vol. II, Frankfurt, 1613). More importantly, under the title Sestien boecken … (Amsterdam, 1643; new ed., 1652), Abraham Willemsz van Beyerland published a Dutch version of sixteen treatises of the C.H., based on Patrizi's text. Beyerland, a theosopher who was also a translator of Jakob Boehme, added long, theosophically oriented commentaries of his own. His translation was used by the first translator into German (1706).
John Everard did the first translation of the C.H. in English (The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, in XVII Books. Translated formerly out of the Arabick into Greek …, London, 1650; new ed., 1657). This Anglican minister, a preacher at Kensington, had already produced in 1640 a detailed commentary (preserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford) on the T.S. He also authored short translations from similar texts and some works of his own (see his Some Golden Treasures, London, 1653). The title, and the preface signed J.F., attest to the ignorance of the editor, not least because he claimed that these books were originally in Arabic. The preface deals mostly with the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistos. Everard's book was very influential in the development of Hermetism in England.
Along with Paracelsianism, Hermetism became part of a medical debate principally represented by one of its proponents, the Dane Olaus Borrichius (Olaf Borch), who composed a vibrant apology for Hermetism and alchemy (Hermetis Aegyptiorum, et chemicorum sapientia, Copenhagen, 1674; see also his De Ortu et progressio chemiae, Copenhagen, 1688, which contains a detailed history of alchemical literature). Hermetis Aegyptiorum was meant as a counter-attack against the German Hermann Conring, in whose De Hermetica Aegyptiorum vetere et paracelsicorum nova medicina (Helmstedt, 1648; new ed., 1699) Hermetism and Paracelsianism had come in for their share of harsh criticism. Along these lines, Johann Heinrich Ursinus (in De Zoroastre bactriano, Hermete Trismegisto, Sanchoniatone Phoenicio, eorumque scriptis, et aliis, contra Mosaicae scipturae antiquitatem, Nürnberg, 1661) also tried to demonstrate that the C.H. was merely a collection of texts plagiarized from Christian sources. Both Conring's and Borrichius's works are of a particular interest because they depend not only on Paracelsianism and Hermetism, but also on alchemical literature. Nevertheless, the C.H. was rarely the object of commentaries in the alchemical discourses of the seventeenth century, although Hermes Trismegistos often appeared as the tutelary figure of that science, for instance in Michael Maier's Symbola Aureae Mensae Duodecim Nationum (Frankfurt, 1617).
In contrast, the T.S. continued to trigger a lot of alchemical commentaries. See, for example, Jacques Nuysement (Traictez … du Vray Sel, 1621) and Athanasius Kircher (in volume 2 of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus, Rome, 1653; and Mundus Subterraneus, Rome, 1664–1665). The German translation (by Johan Schaubert) of the T.S. appeared in 1600. Isaac Newton's commentaries on that text are highly developed and appear in the great quantity of alchemical manuscripts he left to posterity (King's College, Cambridge), and they have recently been the object of a number of scholarly studies. Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann produced another most original, albeit fantastic, "philological" commentary (Hermetis Trismegisti … Tabula Smaragdina, 1657).
Throughout the period and ever since, the tendency in Hermetic literature has been to blend Hermetism not only with alchemy, but also with Jewish or Christian Qabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and the philosophia occulta inherited from the Renaissance. Stellatus's (that is, Christoph Hirsch's) Pegasus Firmamenti, sive introductio brevis in Veterum Sapientiam … (n.p., 1618) associates Rosicrucianism with Hermetism, Paracelsianism, pansophy, and alchemy. Opponents of Hermetism also often grouped these currents together. Two examples may serve to illustrate this. First, one year after the new edition of Zorzi's (Giorgio's) Problemata (1622), the famous Catholic priest Marin Mersenne, bent on orthodoxy and a famous opponent of such orientations, published his Observationes et emendationes ad Francisci Giorgii Veneti Problemata (Paris, 1623) in opposition to Giorgio's work, as well as Hermetism, Rosicrucianism, and the works of Robert Fludd. The second example is Lutheran minister Ehregott Daniel Colberg's Das Platonisch-Hermetisches [sic] Christenthum … (2 vols., Leipzig, 1690 and 1691; new ed., 1710), which settles scores with the C.H. as well as with Rosicrucianism, theosophy, and mysticism, reproaching them for encouraging self-divinization of the human being.
Within esotericism, the Englishman Robert Fludd, particularly in Utriusque cosmi historia (Oppenheim, 1617–1621), was instrumental in propagating the "magical" tradition that had been represented by Paracelsus, Agrippa, John Dee, and the Rosicrucian manifestoes of 1614–1615. Fludd did not seem to know about Casaubon's philological criticism, or at least he pretended not to. He gives as much weight to the C.H. and the Asclepius as to Genesis or the Gospel of John (on almost every page of his works one can find a quotation from Ficino's Latin translation) in, for example, explaining the creation of the world, of which he gives a "chemical" description that draws on Pimander (C.H. I). He also frequently associates Hermetism with the Qabbalah, in an original synthesis.
Not surprisingly, the C.H. and its supposed author Hermes Trismegistos aroused the interest of the Cambridge Neoplatonists. They generally accepted Ficino's idea of an uninterrupted transmission of ancient wisdom from Moses to Hermes and passing through Zarathushtra, Pythagoras, Plato, and Orpheus. Among the main representatives of that philosophical school, Ralph Cudworth dealt most extensively with the C.H. (at least more so than did Henry More). His The True Intellectual System of the Universe (London, 1678) contains a lengthy commentary on its treatises, with a particular emphasis on cosmogony. In contrast to Casaubon, Cudworth stressed the presence of Egyptian elements, believing that the C.H. could well have preserved certain authentic Egyptian teachings. He also considered that in treating the C.H. as one single text (whereas it is actually a collection) arguments that discredit the great age of some treatises do not need to discredit the rest of them (least of all the Asclepius ).
With Woodville and others (Shumaker, 1972, pp. 236–247; Shumaker, 1988), Hermetism had already made its way into English culture in general. For example, John Milton cites Hermes Trismegistos three times (Il Penseroso, lines 87ff.; Ad Joannem Rousum, line 77; De Idea Platonica, lines 33ff.), and one finds many relevant passages in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (London, 1590–1596). This process continued well into seventeenth-century England, as documented by works of celebrated authors such as Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, Oxford, 1621), Sir Thomas Browne (Religio Medici, 1643), and Sir Walter Raleigh (History of the Word, 1614) who were not Hermetists but who gave its ideas a voice, albeit a modest one. Robert Burton mentions Hermes no fewer than thirty times, along with Ficino, Pico, Paracelsus, and Campanella, but he leaves the impression that mention of these names is merely a show of erudition in the context of an enlarged humanism. Sir Thomas Browne, a skeptical scholar as well as contemplator of the infinite, often evokes the famous Hermetic image of the sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. But he is in no way convinced that the ancient wisdom was superior to the modern. It was merely in his capacity as a collector of information and propagandist that he cited Hermes Trismegistos: "The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a Picture of the invisible" (Works, ed. Keynes, 1928–1931, vol. 1, p. 17). Indeed, "where I cannot satisfy my reason, I love to humour my fancy." One finds similar references in the works of William Gilbert (De magnete, 1600) and Henry Reynolds (Mythomystes, 1632).
The C.H. became part of many discourses marked by Egyptomania. Typical of that trend are works of the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, notably Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Rome, 1652–1654; see also his Prodromus coptus, Rome, 1636), in which he assigns almost as much importance to Hermes Trismegistos and the C.H. as Fludd does. Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus —one of the first works to stir the Egyptomania that swept Europe over the next three centuries—is replete with quotations borrowed from Ficino's translation, particularly from the Asclepius. Kircher readily associates Qabbalah and Hermetism and, like Ficino, sees Hermes as the inventor of the hieroglyphs. Following the example of Renaissance Hermetism, he interprets hieroglyphs as truths about God and the world, especially since Hermes Trismegistos was supposed to have originally written in hieroglyphs. Not surprisingly, most of the hieroglyphs that Kircher referred to were demystified when Jacques-Joseph Champollion deciphered them in 1824 (this was perhaps the second blow, after Casaubon's, delivered to the Egyptian myth). Kircher, however, was not a great admirer of the Hermetic literature and regarded Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, and Robert Fludd with great suspicion. He used the C.H. to make Catholicism palatable, mostly with a view to deterring his readers from Protestantism.
Interestingly, the French Jesuits and theologians involved in missionary activities in the Far East, particularly in China, shared a project similar to Kircher's, though not from an Egyptophile perspective (Walker, 1972, pp. 194–230). Apart from Rapine, these Catholic priests were not interested in Hermetism itself but used it as a tool for converting people to Catholicism. It was a matter of demonstrating that Confucius's teachings, for example, as well as those of Western pagan philosophers—primarily Plato and Hermes Trismegistos—were compatible with monotheism. This missionary program is exemplified by Paschal Rapine's Le Christianisme naissant dans la gentilité (Paris, 1655–1659), Paul Beurrier's Perpetuitas fidei, ab origine mundi … (Paris, 1666; French ed., 1680); Daniel Huet's Demonstratio evangelica (Paris, 1678; several re-editions); Philippe Couplet's Confucius Sinarum philosophus (1687), and several writings by Joachim Bouvet around 1700, notably his correspondence with Leibniz.
The Period of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism
Like Everard's English version, the first complete German translation of the seventeen treatises of the C.H. was to prove influential on later esoteric literature. Its author, who had had at his disposal the editions of Patrizi and Beyerland, signed himself Aletophilus (perhaps a pen name for Wolf Metternich) and titled his work Hermetis Trismegisti Erkänntnüsz der Natur und des darin sich offenbahrenden Grossen Gottes … (Hamburg, 1706; new edition, 1855). His long introduction to the book, in which he shows himself to be a Paracelsian, is noteworthy. He endorses the main legends surrounding the C.H. and tries to marry Hermetism with alchemy, extolling the Egyptian elements of the text over the Greek ones.
The T.S. exerts a strong influence on Aletophilus's book and, not surprisingly, on numerous other alchemical treatises of the period. Three other German works with long commentaries on the T.S. stand out: Ehrd de Naxagoras's Aureum Vellus (2 vols, Frankfurt, 1731–1733); the anonymous Vernünftige Erklärung der Smaragdenen Tafel … (s.l., 1760); and above all Hermann Fictuld's Turba Philosophorum (s.l., 1763) This latter work, which blends alchemy and theosophical outlooks, is one of the most important esoteric exegeses in the history of the T.S. tradition.
The Enlightenment also saw new German translations of the C.H. First came Dietrich Tiedemann's (C.H. I–XVIII), titled Poemander, oder von der göttlichen Macht und Weisheit (Berlin and Stettin, 1781). It was published three years after the first German translation of the Asclepius, at the press of Friedrich Nicolai, one of the most celebrated representatives of the German Enlightenment. Tiedemann's commentaries reflect the intellectual tenor of the Enlightenment and are replete with comparisons between the C.H. and Plato, Gnosticism, and Jewish Qabbalah.
Alongside these translations appeared more erudite studies. Some were Hermetic in character, like Hermann van der Hardt's "Poemander" (inserted in his book Antiquitatis Gloria, Helmstedt, 1737), a long paraphrase of C.H. I in which, for example, Jacob's dream (Gen. 28) is compared to Hermes's vision in C.H. I, 1. Other studies were more scholarly. The two that stand out are Johann Albrecht Fabricius's Bibliotheca Graeca (Hamburg, 1705–1728, see vol. I, 1708, lib 1, chapters VII–XII; new enlarged ed., 1790) and Jacob Brucker's Kurze Fragen aus der hermetischen Historie (Ulm, 1730–1736) and Historia critica philosophiae (Leipzig, 1743; see vol. I, chapters I–IV). Brucker's works provide a wealth of information on theosophical, alchemical, and Rosicrucian literature, including the C.H. and all that Brucker knew about the Hermetica in general (see notably Historia critica philosophiae, vol. I, lib 3. Brucker deals with works appearing as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century. He was not a proponent of any of these currents, but his very detailed—albeit not always unprejudiced—presentation ensured their continued influence, all the more so since the book of 1743 quickly became essential to most good libraries all over Europe.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Hermetism started at the top rung of the literary ladder in Germany with two texts by Johann Gottfried Herder. First, in Über die älteste Urkunde des Menschengeschlechts (Riga, 1774) he claimed he had found in ancient traditions, particularly in Hermes Trismegistos, keys capable of unlocking a number of mysteries and retrieving a long-lost knowledge. Second, "Hermes und Pymander" (in the journal Adrastea, 1801) is a dialogue (inspired by C.H. I) between Poimandres and his disciple discussing new scientific discoveries (including those by Isaac Newton) as well as spiritual and material light and the Soul of the World.
In Italy, although Hermetism had all but ceased to exert its presence as an esoteric current, it was still occasionally the object of publications (see for instance an 1820 reprint in Bologna of an edition of the C.H. that Carlo Lenzoni published in 1584). In the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson's The Dial (in particular the issues published from 1842 to 1844), a journal expressing the views of the Transcendentalist movement in the United States, published (in vol. IV) a number of "ethnic scriptures," as it called them, including extracts from Everard's translation of the C.H. Hermetism seems to have left its imprint, albeit a mostly indirect one, on a number of authors of pre-Romantic and Romantic literature in England and the United States (Tuveson, 1982). Frans von Baader, the main German theosopher in the Romantic period, although not strongly interested in Hermeticism or alchemy, nonetheless made frequent use (notably from 1809 to 1839) of some verses from the T.S., commenting on them and merging them with his theosophical approach. The middle of the nineteenth century saw new scholarly studies such as B. J. Hilgers's De Hermetis Trismegisti Poimandro commentario (Bonn, 1855) and Gustav Parthey's study of the Greek text of T.S., Hermetis Trismegisti Poemander (Berlin, 1854).
Hermetism in the Occultist Context
The occultist current flourished from around 1850 to around 1920 and drew upon the esoteric literature of earlier centuries. Hermetism is part of the referential corpus of the occultists. Marie Ragon de Bettignies's widely disseminated Maçonnerie occulte, suivie de l'Initiation hermétique (1853) blends Masonic symbolism, alchemy, mythology, and Hermetism. But the presence of Hermetism within the occultist current appears to be rather limited, except in England. In France, for instance, such important representatives of occultism as Stanislas de Guaïta or Papus rarely referred to Hermetism. They did, however, devote many pages to their understanding of the T.S., which they, like so many other representatives of the current, took to be one of the most essential referential documents in Western esotericism and Hermetism (see Stanislas de Guaita's Le Serpent de la Genèse, Book II, Paris, 1897). In Italy, the occultist Giuliano Kremmerz authored a long series of commentaries titled "Commento alla Tavola di Smeraldo" (in Commentarium per le Academia Ermetice…, Bari, 1910).
In Germany, the new edition of Aletophilus's translation of the C.H. (1706), along with a new introduction, appeared as Hermetis Trismegisti Einleitung ins höchste Wissen (Stuttgart, 1855) in the semi-popular series Das Kloster directed by J. Scheible, which from 1849 to 1860 offered new German editions of texts by Agrippa, Trithemius, Nostradamus, Paracelsus, J. B. Van Helmont, Eliphas Lévi, Catherine Crowe, and many others. Louis Ménard's Hermès Trismégiste: Traduction complète précedée d'une étude sur l'origine des livres hermétiques (Paris, 1866, several new editions) influence should not be underestimated. It is a new French translation of C.H. I–XIV (relying on Parthey's Greek edition), Asclepius, Kore Kosmou ("The Virgin of the World," part of Stobaeus's Anthologium ), and Patrizi's version of the Diffinitiones Asclepii (C.H. XVI–XVIII). The book also contains a long but sober introduction of 112 pages in which Ménard places these texts in the perspective of a comparative approach to religions. Triggered in part by Ménard's book, a flurry of new English editions of Hermetic treatises appeared, mostly in England and the United States, accompanied by esoterically oriented presentations and/or commentaries. Most of them have little scholarly value, but they are representative of the occultist current, and many were produced by people with a reputation in that field.
The first on this list is a reprinting of Everard's translation by the Rosicrucian Publishing Company in Boston (Hermes Trismegistus: His Divine Pymander. Also, the Asiatic Mystery, The Smaragdine Tablet, and the Song of Brahm, repr. Toledo, Oh., 1889). Its editor was the famous Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph. The strongly Rosicrucian-oriented "Prefatory Note" is signed by Alfred E. Giles and Flora Russell (who also give there a reprinted version of the Asiatic Mystery ; one of Randolph's Rosicrucian manifestoes). The "Song of Brahm" is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
There followed a new reprinting of Everard's translation by the Rosicrucian Hargrave Jennings (Madras, 1884, in the Secret Doctrine Reference series), who devoted most of his own prefatory text to Hermes Trismegistos and alchemical literature. This book contains the first public mention of the esoteric society the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Almost at the same time there appeared in the same series one of the most influential books of that publishing enterprise, namely The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus (London and Madras, 1885), edited by Anna Bonus Kingsford and Edward Maitland, which contains an English version of Kore Kosmou, here titled "A Treatise on Initiations" (in fact, a new translation of the Asclepius ), "The Definitions of Asclepios" (i.e., C.H. XVI–XVIII), plus further extracts from Stobaeus's Anthologium. In their translation and long introductions, Kingsford and Maitland drew heavily on Ménard's book. They saw in the Hermetic texts a survival of ancient Egypt and believed in a connection between them and Christianity, it being understood that Christianity itself represents, as they say, "a development from or reformulation of a doctrine long pre-existent." Along these lines, they considered their edition to be part of "the revival of Occult Science and Mystical, or Esoteric, philosophy." A new edition of Kingsford and Maitland's anthology soon followed (Bath, 1886), with an appendix on alchemy taken from Mary Anne Atwood's A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery (1850). The appendix was introduced by the famous John Yarker, author of many works in such domains, particularly in esoteric Freemasonry.
Given the number of such books, it is hardly surprising that Hermetism found expression in several esoteric periodicals. For example, we find Kore Kosmou (presented anonymously and in a different translation) in The Occult Magazine (Glasgow, see issues of 1885–1886). In 1894, William Wynn Westcott, who along with MacGregor Mathers had created the fringe-Masonic Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1887, inserted into the second volume of his series Collectanea Hermetica (London, 1893–1896) the Everard version of the C.H., here titled The Pymander of Hermes, with a Preface by the Editor. Westcott's preface, more enthusiastic than critical, emphasizes the commonalities between Hermetism, Freemasonry, and Christianity.
On the scholarly side, The Theological and Philological Work of Hermes Trismegistus, Christian Neoplatonist, Divine Pymander and Other Writings of Hermes Trismegistus (Edinburgh, 1882), edited by John D. Chambers, reflects a new scientific approach. But it was mostly George R. S. Mead's enterprise that paved the way for deeper and more extensive scholarly research. Three years before breaking with the Theosophical Society, of which he was a prominent member, the society published in three volumes his Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis (London and Benares, 1906; German trans., Leipzig, 1909). Never before had such a complete ensemble of the C.H. been gathered together, accompanied by copious notes, excerpts from testimonia of the Fathers of the Theosophical Society, and serious historical studies. Mead distanced himself markedly from the English-speaking occultists by displaying a great deal of objectivity in dealing with his material. That said, he did not disguise the fact that he was an esotericist ("To translate 'Hermes' in Greek," he writes in the introduction, "requires not only a good knowledge of Greek, but also a Knowledge of … gnosis."). Like his contemporary Arthur E. Waite, Mead was both a scholar and a full-fledged esotericist. His work, even more than Chambers's, heralds the development of twentieth-century critical research.
The last decades of occultism saw more Hermetically oriented publications, of which a few examples follow. The Shepherd of Men: An Official Commentary on the Sermon of Hermes Trismegistos (San Francisco, 1916) is by A. D. Raleigh, who called himself Hierophant of the Mysteries of Isis. Although the title of his book implicitly refers to the famous text of Late Antiquity, The Shepherd of Hermas, Raleigh's discourse is pervaded by the idea of a perennial philosophy and is blended with a fantastic history of human races, echoing some of the Theosophical Society's teachings. More situated within "classical" Hermetism is the thin volume The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus (n.l., 1923), which presents a short selection drawn from the Everard, Chambers, and Mead editions, along with some commentaries. It is in fact one of the "manuals" published by the Shrine of Wisdom, which was a ritual Order that ran a publishing house and a journal. The Shrine of Wisdom was largely inspired by the works of the Platonist Thomas Taylor.
In closing, a final volume must be mentioned: Manly Palmer Hall's oversized folio An Encyclopaedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Philosophy (Los Angeles, 1928) is another product of late occultism and one of the most popular summae of Western esoteric traditions. Hermetism is almost ubiquitous in that strange encyclopedia.
Survival and Debates in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
Most of the editions of and commentaries on the Hermetic texts published during the height of occultism were reprinted in the second half of the twentieth century, which did not lacked for original publications, although they were fewer in number. Among them are The Gospel of Hermes, edited and translated from the Greek and Latin Hermetica, introduced by Duncan Greenless and published in 1949 by the Theosophical Publishing Company. More famous is Jan van Rijckenborgh's De Egyptische oergnosis en haar roep in het Euwige Nú … (Haarlem, 1960–1965), an interpretation of the C.H. in the light of the teachings of an initiatory order (the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, of which he was the founder). In his book, ancient Gnosticism, neo-Catharism, Paracelsianism, and Boehmism are blended in an original way. Since its first publication, van Rijckenborgh's book has gone through countless reprints and translations, sponsored worldwide by the Lectorium Rosicrucianum. Noteworthy is the space he devotes to the T.S. He uses the text to support the tenets of his own teachings and does not hesitate to claim that it was written ten thousand years ago.
Thus, neo-Alexandrian Hermetism, as one of the several esoteric currents in modernity (i.e., from the Renaissance until the present), has naturally found itself historically intertwined with alchemy, Christian Qabbalah, Rosicrucianism, occultism, and other esoteric movements. In this respect, it is interesting to see how far and in which directions these relationships have developed. For example, despite their commonalities, Hermetism and Christian theosophy (which appeared later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century) have had few contacts and little influence on each other. One reason is that Hermetism, originally a branch of humanism, remained mainly dependent upon ancient sources, notably Greek ones, whereas the theosophical current is rooted in Paracelsus and Jakob Boehme, who represent a German, "barbaric" trend all but devoid of erudite leanings. Even long after the Renaissance, the foremost representatives of theosophy, such as Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin or Franz von Baader, practically never drew on the Hermetic writings. Although Titus Burckhardt, who stood within the so-called perennialist current (or Traditionalist School) has authored one of the most interesting commentaries of the T.S. (in his Alchemie—Sinn und Weltbild, Olten/Frieburg, 1960), Hermetism cannot be said to have merged with that perennialist current. Other representatives of the perennialists, (such as René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon) do not show much interest in Hermetism (or other Western esoteric currents, for that matter).
Hermetism, considered over the sweep of a little over five centuries, is of great interest to the historian of ideas (and of literature), not least because it reflects the various contexts within which it has taken on ever-changing aspects. It is impossible to define it as a set of fixed, unchanging beliefs. Rather, its manifold manifestations evince a spiritual attitude that contains within itself a principle of constant readjustment. Not surprisingly, it has flourished in times and countries hospitable to religious tolerance. Although its representatives have been people desiring to reform religious systems, the reforms they had in mind were not dogmatic in character and very rarely were designed to overthrow established churches. They rather tended to enrich the churches by prompting them to return ad fontes, that is, both to ancient foundational texts and to specific forms of meditation. Far from stressing a war between Good and Evil or Light and Darkness, as is often the case in Christian thought, their discourses have expressed a generally optimistic conception of the inborn powers of humankind, which are able to liberate and expand individual consciousness.
Hermetism continues to thrive. One of the prominent members of the Lectorium Rosicrucianum in the Netherlands, Joost R. Ritman, has founded a library in Amsterdam, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (open to the public since 1984), which is by far the richest in the world in terms of esoteric literature, including manuscripts from the early Renaissance to the present, not to mention a wealth of more ancient materials. This institution is especially noteworthy because Hermetic literature in the proper sense represents its fundamental core, as demonstrated not only by its holdings, but also by its exhibitions and publications. Its editorial board includes such reputable scholars as Frans A. Janssen and Carlos Gilly.
Furthemore, Hermetism is occasionally revived by philosophers who see in the C.H. the paradigm of an alternative philosophy able to enrich mainstream philosophy with new insights, or to replace it. For example, Ralph Liedtke's book Die Hermetik. Traditionelle Philosophie der Differenz (Paderborn, 1996) calls for a return to older modes of thinking. The author considers the contents of the C.H. to be one of the best possible introductions to a desirable and drastic reappraisal of mainstream contemporary trends in philosophy. The philosopher Françoise Bonardel, who brings together Hermetism and alchemy into one common perspective, sees in a "fertile Hermetism"—and in an attitude of mind that she calls hermésienne (hermesian)—"much more than a system of representation among others," for "the amazing continuity of Hermetic thought bears witness to the fecundity of a gnosis which is timeless because it is inherent in an ever reactualized hermeneutics" (Bonardel, 2002, pp. 179–180). And so, just as Renaissance Hermetism brought about reforms within the Catholic Church, it has become a means of "reforming" philosophy. Also, efforts are made to use it as a method for the fruitful completion or enrichment of psychology. For example, Lietaert Pierbolte (Poimandres … vertaald met een transpersonalistische beschouwing, Deventer, 1974) presents C.H. I in Dutch and explains why it should be used as a method for practicing the kind of transpersonal psychology that he advocates. Moreover, in a manner reminiscent of the New Age movement, the T.S. is occasionally interpreted and commented on as a practical guide to spiritual growth. See, for example, Dennis William Hauck's The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1999).
The number of scholarly works on Hermetism increased considerably over the twentieth century and include research by such distinguished historians and philologists as Richard Reitzenstein, Walter Scott, A. D. Nock, A. J. Festugière, Gilles Quispel, Roelof van den Broek, Jean-Pierre Mahé, and Brian P. Copenhaver. Frances A. Yates's book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) has been highly instrumental in calling attention to the importance and significance of Hermetism in the history of the Renaissance. Although not without precedent, many scholars whose research is dedicated to Renaissance Hermetism stand in its wake. Even when they do not endorse Yates's views, they are directly or indirectly indebted to her writings. Yates's book has paved the way for an ongoing academic recognition, even institutionalization, of modern Western esotericism as a specialty in its own right. In addition, it has caused a flurry of debates, first over what Robert S. Westman (1977) called the "Yates Thesis" (concerning the relation between Hermetism and the scientific revolution), and more recently over what Wouter J. Hanegraaff (2001) has referred to as "the Yates paradigm." As Hanegraaff pointed out, Yates's book contains a "grand narrative" based on two main assumptions: First, the existence of what she calls "the Hermetic Tradition," understood as a more or less autonomous tradition based upon a covert reaction against both Christianity and the rise of scientific worldviews. Second, however paradoxical it may seem, the extent to which the tradition of "magic"—which she sees as essentially non-progressive—has been an important factor in the development of the scientific revolution. Now, even if neither of these two tenets has proved resistant to close scrutiny, the opinions that gave rise to the "Yates paradigm" will probably cause more ink to flow.
Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Broek, Roelof van den, and Gilles Quispel, eds. Corpus Hermeticum. Amsterdam, 1990. Dutch translation with introduction and notes by the editors.
Broek, Roelof van den. "Hermes and Christ: Pagan Witnesses to the Truth of Christianity." In From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition, edited by Roelof van den Broek and Cis van Heertum, pp. 115–144. Amsterdam, 2000.
Broek, Roelof van den. "Hermetic Literature" and "Hermes Trismegistus" (Late Antiquity). In Dictionary of Western Gnosis and Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, et al. Leiden, 2005.
Copenhaver, Brian. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Aslcpeius in a New English Translation with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.
Festugière, André Jean. La Révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. 1st ed. 1949–1954; reprint, Paris, 1981.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.
Gilly, Carlos. "Die Überlieferung des Asclepius im Mittelalter." From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition, edited by Roelof van den Broek and Cis van Heertum, pp. 335–367. Amsterdam, 2000.
Lory, Pierre. "Hermetic Literature." In Dictionary of Western Gnosis and Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff et al. Leiden, 2005.
Lucentini, Paolo. "L'edizione critica dei testi ermetici latini." In I moderni ausili all'Ecdotica, edited by Placella, Vincenzo, and Martelli. Naples, 1994.
Lucentini, Paolo, and Vittoria Perrone Compagni. I testi e i manoscritti di Ermete (Appendice I: Antonella Sannino, Le stampe ermetiche. Appendice II: Pinella Travaglia, I manoscritti arabi ). Naples, 2001. A summary presentation of the texts and manuscripts.
Lucentini, Paolo. "Hermetic Literature" and "Hermes Trismegistus" (Middle Ages). In Dictionary of Western Gnosis and Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff et al. Leiden, 2004.
Mahé, Jean-Pierre. Hermès en Haute-Egypte, 2 vols. Laval, Québec, 1978–1982.
Nock, Arthur D., and André-Jean Festugière, eds. Poimandres. Traités I–XVIII. Asclepius. Fragments extraits de Stobée. Paris, 1954–1960; reprint, 1981. Greek original and French translation with commentaries and notes.
Quispel, Gilles, ed. Asclepius. De volkomen openbaring van Hermes Trismegists. Amsterdam, 1996. Dutch translation of the Asclepius with introduction and notes by the editor.
Scott, Walter, ed. Hermetic: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, 4 vols. Oxford, 1924; reprint, Boston, 1983–1985. An English translation with notes by the editor (and a long study devoted to the ancient testimonia ).
The Early Modern Period
Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.
Blanco, Antonio Gonzàlez. "Hermetism: A Bibliographical Approach." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt …, edited by W. Haase, vol. II, 4, pp. 2240–2281. Berlin and New York, 1984.
Bonardel, Françoise. La Voie hermétique. Paris, 2002.
Broek, Roelof van den, and Cis van Heertum, eds. From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition. Amsterdam, 2000.
Burke, John G. "Hermetism as a Renaissance World View." In The Darker Vision of the Renaissance, edited by Robert S. Kinsman, pp. 95–118. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1974.
Faivre, Antoine. "La Table d'Emeraude." In Annuaire (Résumés des conférenes et travaux), Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, vols. 94–105. Paris, 1985/1986–1996/1997
Faivre, Antoine, and Frédérick Tristan, eds. Présence d'Hermès Trismégiste. Cahiers de l'Hermétisme. Paris, 1988.
Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1995.
Ford, Margaret Lane, and Frans A. Janssen, eds. Christ, Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, Vol. 1, 2 Pts. The Dawn of Printing. Catalogue of Incunabula in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. Amsterdam, 1990.
Garin, Eugenio, et al., eds. Testi umanistici su l'Ermetismo (testi di Ludovico Lazarelli, F. Giorgio Veneto, Cornelio Agrippa di Nettesheim). Rome, 1955.
Garin, Eugenio. Ermetismo del Rinascimento. Rome, 1988.
Gentile, Sebastiano, and Carlos Gilly, eds. Marsilio Ficino and the Return of Hermes Trismegisto. Florence, 1999. Bilingual English and Italian.
Gilly, Carlos. "Das Bekenntnis zur Gnosis von Paracelsus bis auf die Schüler Jacob Böhmes." In From Poimandres to Jacob Böehme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition, edited by Roelof van den Broek and Cis van Heertum, pp. 385–426. Amsterdam, 2000.
Gilly, Carlos, and Cis van Heertum, eds. Magic, Alchemy and Science 15th–18th Centuries: The Influence of Hermes Trismegistus, 2 vols. Florence, 2002. Bilingual English and Italian.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. London, 2002.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity." Aries 1:1 (2001): 5–37.
Janssen, Frans A. "Dutch Translations of the Corpus Hermeticu. " In Theatrum Orbis Librorum, edited by Tom Croiset van Uchelen et al., pp. 229–241. Utrecht, 1989.
Kahn, Didier. Hermès Trismégiste, La Table d'Emeraude et sa tradition alchimique. Paris, 1998.
Kristeller, Paul Oskar. "Marsilio Ficino e Lodovico Lazzarelli: Contributo alla diffuzione delle idee ermetiche nel Rinascimento." Annali della R. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Lettere, Storia e Filosofia 2 (1938): 237–62. Reprinted in Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters 1, pp. 221–247. Rome, 1956.
Lamoen, F. van. Hermes Trismegistus Pater Philosophorum: Textgeschiedenis van het Corpus Hermeticum. Amsterdam, 1990.
Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge, 2003.
Mahé, Jean-Pierre. "La Renaissance et le mirage égyptien." In From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition, edited by Roelof van den Broek and Cis van Heertum, pp. 369–384. Amsterdam, 2000.
Merkel, Ingrid, and Allen G. Debus, eds. Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe. London and Mississauga, Ontario, 1988.
Moreschini, Claudio. Dall' Asclepius al Crater Hermetis. Pisa, 1985.
Moreschini, Claudio. Storio dell' Ermetismo cristiano. Brescia, 2000.
Mulsow, Martin, ed. Das Ende des Hermetismus:Historische:Kritik und neue Naturphilosophie in der Spätrenaissance. Dokumentation und Analyse der Debatte um die Datierung der hermetischen Schriften von Genebrard bis Casaubon (1567–1614). Tübingen, 2002.
Neugebauer-Wölk, Monika. "'Denn dis ist möglich, Lieber Sohn!' Zur esoterischen Übersetzungstradition des Corpus Hermeticum in der frühen Neuzeit." In Esotérisme, gnoses & imaginaire symbolique: Mélanges offerts à Antoine Faivre, edited by Richard Caron et al., pp. 131–144. Louvain, 2001.
Oort, Jan van. "Gisbertus Voetius, Hermes Trismgistus en Jacob Böhme." In De hermetische Gnosis in de loop der eeuwen, edited by Gilles Quispel, pp. 383–394. Baarn, Netherlands, 1992.
Purnell, Frederick, Jr. "Francesco Patrizi and the Critics of Hermes Trismegistus." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, VI (1976): 155–178.
Ruska, Julius. Tabula Smaragdina. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hermetischen Literatur. Heidelberg, 1926.
Schmidt, Charles B. "Perennial Philosophy: From Agostino Steuco to Leibniz." Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 502–532.
Schmidt, Charles B. "Prisca Theologia e Philosophia perennis: due temi del Rinascimento italiano e la lora fortuna." In Atti del V. Convegno internazionale del Centro di Studi Umanistici; Il Pensiero italiano del Rinascimento e il tempo nostro, pp. 211–236. Florence, 1970.
Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Pattern. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1972.
Shumaker, Wayne. "Literary Hermeticism: Some Test Cases." In Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, edited by Ingrid Merkel and G. Allen, pp. 293–301. London and Mississauga, Ontario, 1988.
Sladek, Mirko. Fragmente der Hermetischen Philosophie in der Naturphilosophie der Neuzeit. Bern, 1984; French translation, Paris, 1992.
Sozzi, Lionello. "Nexus Caritatis : l'Ermetismo in Francia nel Cinquecento." In L'Ermetismo nell'Antiquità e nel Rinascimento, edited by Lisa Rotondi and Secchi Tarugi, pp. 113–126. Milan, 1998.
Trepp, Charlott, and Hartmut Lehmann, eds. Antike Weisheit und kulturelle Praxis Hermetismus in der Frühen Neuzeit. Göttingen, 2001.
Tuveson, Ernst Lee. The Avatars of Thrice Greatest Hermes: An Approach to Romanticism. Lewisburg, Pa., 1982.
Vasoli, Cesare. "Ermetismo e Cabala nel tardo Rinascimento e nel Primo '600.'" In La Città dei segreti: Magia, astrologia et cultura esoterica a Roma (XV–XVIII), edited by Fabio Troncarelli, pp. 103–118. Milan, 1985.
Vasoli, Cesare. "Hermetism in Venice: From Francesco Giorgio Veneto to Agostino Steuco." In Magic, Alchemy and Science 15th–18th Centuries: The Influence of Hermes Trismegistus, edited by Carlos Gilly and Cis van Heertum, pp. 51–67 (English), pp. 31–49 (Italian). Florence, 2002. A bilingual edition.
Walker, D. P. The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the 15th to the 18th century. London, 1972.
Westman, Robert S., and James E. McGuire. Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution. Los Angeles, 1977.
Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964 (several reprints).
Yates, Frances A. "The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science." In Art, Science and History in the Renaissance, edited by C. S. Singleton, pp. 255–274. Baltimore, 1967.
Antoine Faivre (1987 and 2005)
"Hermetism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hermetism
"Hermetism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hermetism
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