philosophy, astrology, magic, alchemy.
The ancient Greeks identified their god Hermes with the Egyptian Thoth and gave him the epithet Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest,” for he had given the Egyptians their vaunted arts and sciences. A vast literature in Greek was ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus; the cited number of works ranges from 20,000 (Seleucus) to 36,525 (Manetho).
Clement of Alexandria knew of forty-two “indispensable” books. of these, ten dealt with the Egyptian priests and gods; ten with sacrifices, rites, and festivals; ten with paraphernalia of the sacred rites; and two were hymns to the gods and rules for the king. Four books dealt with astronomy and astrology, and six were medical in nature, concerning the body, diseases, medicines, instruments, the eyes, and women. Lactantius in the third century and Augustine in the fourth refer to the Hermetic writings and accept the legend of Hermes Trismegistus without question. Hermetic works on alchemy are cited by Zosimus, Stephanus, and Olympiodorus.
The so-called Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of religious and philosophical works, is best known and has received considerable attention from scholars and those interested in the occult. Most of its seventeen or eighteen works were probably written in the second century. While some Egyptian influence may be present in the pious spirit and words of the writers, the bulk of the philosophy expressed is Greek, largely Platonism modified by Neoplatonism and Stoicism. Christian thought is not evident; indeed, Augustine condemned “Hermes the Egyptian, called Trismegistus” for the idolatry and magic found in some of the writings.
The first and chief work of the Corpus is entitled Poimandres. It gives an account of the creation of the world by a luminous Word, who is the Son of God. A mystical hymn in this work was often recited by alchemists. Other works in the Corpus deal with the ascent of the soul to the divine when, for a chosen few, it has freed itself from the material world and become endowed with divine powers. The astrological control of man through the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac is prominent.
Besides the works of the Corpus, a work entitled Asclepius exists in a Latin translation. The work, a dialogue between Asclepius and Hermes Trismegistus, is of interest for its purported description of the ancient Egyptian religion. The work was attributed, probably incorrectly, in the ninth century to Lucius Apuleius of Madauros. The original Greek title was “The Perfect Word.” The Asclepius describes how the Egyptian idols were made animate by magic and contains a lament that the ancient religion of Egypt is to come to an end. There is also a reference to the “Son of God,” a fact made much of by Lactantius.
A strong Hermetic tradition persisted in the Middle Ages. Stobaeus the anthologist (late fifth century) preserved twenty-nine excerpts of Hermetica. Michael Psellus in the eleventh century knew of the Corpus Hermeticum, but in the medieval mind the name of Hermes Trismegistus was usually associated with alchemy and magical talismans. Albertus Magnus condemned the diabolical magic in some Hermetic works, but Roger Bacon referred to Hermes Trismegistus as the “Father of Philosophers.” Medieval chemistry was often called the “hermetic science.”
The magical and philosophical literature attributed to Hermes Trismegistus received widespread currency in the Renaissance. Traditional Hermetism was erroneously considered to be of ancient Egyptian origin and thus much older than the esteemed Greek philosophers who had been influenced by Egyptian beliefs. In the fifteenth century Georgius Gemistus (Plethon) and the Platonic Academy of Florence spread the view that Hermes, a contemporary of Moses, had founded theology. The Latin Asclepius was printed in 1469, and Marsilio Ficino published his influential Latin translation of the first fourteen books of the Corpus in 1471. The Greek text of the Corpus was published by Adrianus Turnebus at Paris in 1554.
Both philosophical and magical Hermetism declined rapidly in the seventeenth century after Isaac Casaubon showed in 1614 that the Hermetic writings were of the post-Christian era. Hermetism continued thereafter only among the Rosicrucians and other secret societies and occult groups.
The following are versions of the Corpus or parts of it: Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols. (Paris, 1945–1954): I, Corpus Hermeticum, I-XII, text verified by A. D. Nock and translated by A.-J. Festugière; II, Corpus Hermeticum, XIII-XVIII, Asclepius, text verified by A. D. Nock and translated by A.-J. Festugière; III, Fragments extrait de Stobée, I-XXII, text verified and translated by A.-J. Festugiere; IV, Fragments extrait de Stobée. XXIII-XXIX, text verified and translated by A.-J. Festugière, and Fragments divers, text verified by A. D. Nock and translated by A.-J. Festugière; A.-J. Festugière, La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (Paris, 1950–1954); G. R. S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes. Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, 3 vols. (London, 1906); Louis Ménard, Hermès Trismégistie, traduction compléte, précédée d’une étude sur l’origine des livres hermétiques (Paris, 1925); Gustay Parlhey, Hermetis Trismegisti Puemander (Berlin, 1854); R. Reitzenstein, Poimundres (Leipzig, 1904); and Walter Scott, Hermetica, 4 vols, (Oxford, 1924–1936).
Secondary literature includes M. Berthelot, Les origines de l’alchimie (Paris, 1885), pp. 39–45, 133–136, passim; Joannes A. Fabrieius, Bibliotheca graced (Leipzig, 1790), I, pt. 1. ch. 7; A.-J. Festugière. Hermélisme et mystique païenne (Paris, 1967); R L. Fleischer. Hermes Trismegistus an die menschliehe Seele, arabisch und deunch (Leipzig, 1875); Wilhelm Kroll, “Hermes Trismegistos,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encvclopädie, VIII, I (Stuttgart, 1966), 792–823; Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, I (New York, 1943). 288–292; and Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, 1964). A full history of Hermetism remains to be written.
Karl H. Dannenfeldt
"The thrice greatest Hermes," the name given by the Greeks to the Egyptian god Thoth or Tehuti, the god of wisdom, learning, and literature. Thoth was alluded to in later Egyptian writings as "twice very great" and even as "five times very great" in some demotic or popular scripts (ca. third century B.C.E.).
As "scribe of the gods," Hermes was credited with the authorship of all Greek sacred books, which were thus called "hermetic." There were 42 of these, according to Clemens Alexandrinus, and they were subdivided into six portions, the first dealing with priestly education, the second with temple rituals and the third with geographical matters. The fourth division treated astrology, the fifth recorded hymns in honor of the gods and was a textbook for the guidance of kings, and the sixth was a medical text.
It is unlikely that these books were all the work of one individual; more likely they represent the accumulated wisdom of Egypt, attributed in the course of ages to the great god of wisdom.
As "scribe of the gods," Hermes was also the author of all strictly sacred writings. For convenience the name of Hermes was placed at the head of an extensive cycle of mystic literature produced in post-Christian times. Most of this hermetic or trismegistic literature has perished, but all that remains of it has been gathered and translated into English. It includes the Poimandres, (Shepherd of Men), the Perfect Sermon, or the Asclepius, excerpts by Stobacus, as well as fragments from the church fathers and from the philosophers Zosimus and Fulgentius.
These writings were neglected by theologians, who dismissed them as the offspring of third-century Neoplatonism. According to the generally accepted view, they are eclectic compilations, combining Neoplatonic philosophy, Philonic Judaism, and Kabalistic Theosophy in an attempt to supply a philosophic substitute for Christianity. The many Christian elements to be found in these mystic scriptures were ascribed to plagiarism.
Examination of early mystery writings and traditions has shown that the main source of the Trismegistic tractates is probably the wisdom of Egypt and that they "go back in an unbroken tradition of type and form and context to the earliest Ptolemaic times."
Bell, H. Idris. Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1957.
Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Trans. by Joceyn Godwin. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Phanes Press, 1995.
Hermes Trismegistus. Hermetica. Edited by Brian Copenhaver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
——. Theological & Philosophical Works. Edited by J. D. Chambers. 2 vols. London, 1882.
Mead, G. R. S. Thrice-Greatest Hermes. London, 1906. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964.