views updated May 14 2018


"Hermeticism" is the outlook associated with the Hermetic writings, a literature in Greek that developed in the early centuries after Christ under the name "Hermes Trismegistus." Much of it is concerned with astrology, alchemy, and other occult sciences, but there is also a philosophical Hermetic literature. The treatise known as the Asclepius and the collection of treatises grouped as the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the philosophical Hermetica, though some other fragments are preserved in the anthology of Stobaeus. These writings are probably to be dated between 100 and 300 CE. They are an amalgam of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic, with other elements from the heterogeneous late antique culture. The Pimander, the first treatise in the Corpus Hermeticum, has obvious affinities with Genesis, suggesting an influence of Hellenistic Judaism. There may also be Persian influences, and the possibility of some contact with Christianity cannot be excluded. The ascription of their authorship to "Hermes Trismegistus," supposed to be an Egyptian priest, encouraged the belief that these writings transmitted ancient Egyptian wisdom; the Asclepius in particular has a strong pseudo-Egyptian coloring.

There is much difference of opinion among scholars as to the various elements that make up the Hermetica, which are the work of an unknown number of unknown authors; even individual treatises may often be a fusion of fragments. They have a certain unity of tone, however, since they all exhibit a similar type of philosophical-religious approach to the cosmos, involving regenerative experiences and outbursts of religious ecstasy. It has been suggested that they may be the literature of a gnostic sect. The philosophical Hermetica, with their lofty aspirations, cannot be altogether isolated from the magical and occult type of literature which also goes under the name of "Hermes Trismegistus," for the experiences of the Hermeticist, as described in the philosophical-religious treatises, take place within an astrological framework and imply, particularly in the Asclepius, a religious use of magic.


Although much is in debate concerning the Hermetica themselves, we are on firmer ground when we come to the history of their legend. In the fourth century Lactantius taught that these writings were the work of an Egyptian seer who lived not long after the time of Moses, whose account of creation he confirmed and, indeed, improved and whose mentions of a "son of God" were prophetic of Christianity and to be compared with passages in the Gospel according to St. John. Augustine also believed in the extreme antiquity of "Hermes Trismegistus," but he disapproved of the magical cult described in the Asclepius. Nevertheless, there was ample authority in Christian writers for an attitude of respect for Hermes. Lactantius places him with the sibyls as a Gentile prophet of Christianity. The myth of "Hermes Trismegistus," the Egyptian sage who was the actual author of all the writings assigned to him and who lived long before the Incarnation, which he prophetically foresaw, was to give great authority to the Hermetica.

The Asclepius was known in the Middle Ages in the Latin translation wrongly attributed to Apuleius of Madaura; certain pseudo-Hermetic writings were also known. The collection of treatises grouped as the Corpus Hermeticum seems to have been already known in this form to Psellus in the eleventh century but did not reach the West until the Renaissance.

Influence on Renaissance

The Hermetica made an impact on the Renaissance the importance of which has begun to be realized only in recent years. About 1460 a manuscript containing an incomplete Greek text of the Corpus Hermeticum was brought to Florence. Cosimo de' Medici ordered Marsilio Ficino to translate this at once into Latin, before beginning his translation of the works of Plato. This illustrates the Renaissance attitude, which treated the Hermetica as texts much more ancient than the Platonic writings and as the "Egyptian wisdom" believed to be one of the founts of prisca theologia that descended in an unbroken line to Plato and the Neoplatonists. When Ficino found scraps of Platonic philosophy in the late antique Hermetica, he assumed that he was dealing with the ancient Egyptian source of Greek wisdom. Like the interpretation of "Hermes Trismegistus" as a Gentile prophet, in which Ficino also firmly believed, this view of the Hermetic writings as a source of Plato and the Platonists depended on the misdating of those writings. To this most influential error is due the fact that there is a Hermetic core to Renaissance Neoplatonism. Ficino's work on astral magic is based on the magical passages in the Asclepius. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola opened his Oration on the Dignity of Man with a quotation from the Asclepius.

Throughout the sixteenth century the Hermetic writings were eagerly read in the many editions of Ficino's translation, and new editions and commentaries were published by Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, Symphorien Champier, F. Foix de Candale, Francesco Patrizi, and others. The first edition of the Greek text of the Corpus Hermeticum appeared in 1554.

The influence of this intensive study of the Hermetica can be traced throughout the Renaissance. It penetrated some types of Renaissance theology. Christian Hermeticists who wished to avoid the magic excluded the magical passages in the Asclepius from their canon. On the other hand, for Renaissance magicians and philosophers the animist and magical view of nature that they extracted from the Hermetic writings was the most attractive feature. A striking instance of Hermetic influence on a Renaissance philosopher is Giordano Bruno, who rejected the Christian interpretation of the Hermetica and regarded Hermeticism as a pure Egyptian religion and philosophy that he made the basis of his animist interpretation of nature.

In 1614 the great Greek scholar Isaac Casaubon dated the Hermetica as written in post-Christian times, thus shattering the myth of their ancient Egyptian authorship on which Renaissance Hermeticism had rested. With the rise of seventeenth-century thought the influence of Hermeticism receded, though there were many survivals of the Renaissance attitudes to the Hermetic writings. The part played in the immediately premodern period by Renaissance Hermeticism in the directing religious attention toward the cosmos and toward operating with cosmic powers has yet to be assessed.

See also Bruno, Giordano; Ficino, Marsilio; Literature, Philosophy of; Neoplatonism; Patrizi, Francesco; Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Renaissance.


texts and translations

Copenhaver, Brian P., tr. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Dodd, C. H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1963). Reprint, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Festugière, André Marie Jean. La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste. 4 vols. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1990. Reprint of the 2nd edition by J. Gabalda, 1950.

Festugière, André Marie Jean, and Arthur Darby Nock, eds. Corpus Hermeticum. 4 vols. Text and French translations of Corpus Hermeticum. Paris: Belles Lettres, 2002. Reprint of the 19461954 editions.

Georgi, Dieter, and John Strugnell, eds. Concordance to the Corpus Hermeticum. Cambridge, MA: Boston Theological Institute, 1971.

Nock, Arthur Darby. Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. First published by the Oxford University Press in 1933.

Reitzenstein, Richard. Poimandres: Studien zur grieschisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen literatur. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1996. First published by B. G. Teubner in 1904.

Salaman, Clement, Dorine van Oyen, William D. Wharton, and Jean-Pierre Mahé, eds. The Way of Hermes: New Translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definition of Hermes Trismegistius to Asclepius. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000.

works on hermeticism

Debus, Allen G., and Ingrid Merkel, eds. Hermeticism and Renaissance: Intellectual History and Occult in Early Modern Europe. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1988.

Dodd, C. H. The Bible and the Greeks (1935). Reprint, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1964.

Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Kloppenborg, John S., and Stephen G. Wilson, eds. Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Routledge, 1996.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar, ed. Supplementum ficinianum: opuscula inedita et dispersa (1937). Reprint, Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1973.

Lazzarelli, Ludovico, Francesco D. Ana, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, and Eugenio Garin, eds. Testi umanistici su l'ermetismo. Rome: Fratelli Bocca, 1955.

Valantasis, Richard. Spiritual Guides of the Third Century: A Semiotic Study of the Guide-Disciple Relationship in Christianity, Neoplatonism, Hermetism, and Gnosticism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Walker, Daniel Pickering. Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. First published by the Warburg Institute, University of London, in 1958.

Wilson, Robert McLachlan. The Gnostic Problem. New York: AMS Press, 1980. Reprint of the 1958 edition by Mowbray.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2001. First published by the University of Chicago in 1964.

Frances A. Yates (1967)

Bibliography updated by Kevin Moore (2005)


views updated May 21 2018


HERMETICISM. Hermeticism was a philosophical movement that arose in Alexandria around the first century c.e. Influenced by Platonism, Gnosticism, Egyptian thought, and probably both Jewish and early Christian thought, Hermeticism represented a syncretistic response to foreign domination, appropriating and transforming philosophical ideas in a manner congenial to native Egyptians. The most influential texts for the Renaissance, the Hermetic Corpus, purported to be conversations between Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes), an ancient Egyptian priest, and various interlocutors, particularly Pimander (the demiurge), Hermes' son Tat (a Romanized form of the Greek Thoth and the Egyptian Theuth), and Asclepius (to the Romans, Aesculapius). These texts proposed a theurgical (god-influencing), mystical, and magical philosophy similar to Neoplatonism. Many early thinkers believed Hermes to be approximately contemporary with Moses; most importantly, Lactantius (c. 240320), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150211 or 215), and Augustine (354430) granted his antiquity, though the latter considered him "amicably disposed towards [the] mockeries of the demons" (City of God VIII, 23). The Greek texts, long lost, were rediscovered in 1460 in Macedonia, whence they were transported to Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, who in 1463 commissioned Marsilio Ficino (14331499) to translate them, interrupting the latter's work on Plato. Ficino too accepted Hermes' claims, and later thinkers generally followed his opinion; many considered Hermes the fountainhead of pagan learning, even claiming that all learning derived ultimately either from the tradition of Moses or from that of Hermes.

Renaissance Hermeticism had its heyday in the sixteenth century, when references to "the divine Hermes" became commonplace, often marking anti-Aristotelian and otherwise counter-mainstream philosophies. One early exemplar was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494), who drew on both Hermeticism and Cabala and argued that the two might bring about a renovation of learning.

An essential doctrine for Renaissance Hermeticism was the idea of the microcosm, which suggested that between universe and man existed a powerful analogy, such that each could be interpreted in light of the other. This bore fruit in alchemy, in which transmutation of base metals into gold within a universelike crucible effected a parallel transmutation of the alchemist's soul. Thus the name of Hermes became a banner for occult and mystical philosophies.

Hermeticism clearly encouraged the Renaissance interest in Egypt, which influenced speculations on language and linguistic philosophy, particularly in the seventeenth century, when the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (16011680) published voluminous works on hieroglyphs. More generally, Hermes served as an inspiration and justification for radical explorations of nature and divinity, notably by Paracelsus (14931541), Giordano Bruno (15481600), and John Dee (15271608).

The English scholar Dame Frances Yates famously proposed that the Hermetic revival also encouraged the success of the scientific revolution, arguing that Egyptian sun worship promoted Copernican heliocentrism, and that theurgy encouraged emphasis on "man as operator" upon nature. While scholars now agree that Yates overstated somewhat, the "Yates Thesis" has merit; a notable example is the immediate acceptance of William Harvey's 1628 presentation of the circulation of the blood by the English physician and mystic Robert Fludd (15741637), who believed that this demonstrated the microcosm because the heart was like the sun, with blood circulating like the planets.

Despite the 1614 proof of the late origin of the Hermetic texts by the French scholar Isaac Casaubon (15591614), Hermeticism continued to influence thinkers as late as the Enlightenment, although this effect shifted largely (as seen in the cases of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry) into the political sphere.

See also Alchemy ; Cabala ; Freemasonry ; Magic ; Occult Philosophy ; Paracelsus ; Rosicrucianism.


Primary Source

Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation with Notes and Introduction. Translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. Cambridge, U.K., 1992. The most useful of many translations.

Secondary Sources

Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Translated by Joscelyn Godwin. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1995. Translation of six separate articles in French, covering a wide range of historical, philosophical, and bibliographical material.

Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1993. Brilliant study of the Hermetic texts in their original context.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964. The most important and influential of Yates's many works.

Christopher I. Lehrich


views updated May 29 2018

Hermeticism. System of gnostic thought known from the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of philosophical and magical texts dating from the 2nd and 3rd cents. CE. The Egyptian God, Thoth, is identified with the Greek Hermes who is called ‘Thrice Greatest’, i.e. Trismegistus.

Hermeticism and the Corpus became immensely influential in the Renaissance when most of the texts were translated in Italy. The Corpus was correctly dated by Isaac Casaubon in 1614, and the texts rapidly waned in influence.