Hermes Trismegistus

Hermes Trismegistus*

derives its name from the Greek name for Thoth, also known as Thoth-Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus, or Thrice-Great Hermes. Thoth is an Egyptian god who was believed to have invented writing and who is portrayed as a scribe, teacher, god of magic, and as the `psychopompos’, the soul’s guide to the underworld. Hermeticism is an ancient philosopical tradition that emphasizes the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis, rather than that of pure rationalism or doctrinal faith. It has often been said that western culture is based on the two polarities – of Greek rationality on the one hand, and biblical faith on the other. But there has always been an important third current in western culture, characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either of these polarities, and Hermeticism plays an key part here, along with other philosophies such as Gnosticism, and the Hermetic revival of the Italian Renaissance, etc.

Very briefly, Hermeticism – unlike the dualist sects like the Cathars, for example – is described in the Hermetic writings as a worldview of One Reality, where all dichotomies, all distinctions between body and soul, spirit and matter, etc., are integrated as a part of one whole. Everything was seen as being interconnected with everything else, and such relationships rested on the principle of analogy. Reality, in the Hermetic way of thinking, is ultimately holistic and is a vital, living web of correspondences. Thus, the famous Hermetic maxim of “As above, so below”. The aim of Hermeticism, like Gnosticism, was the deification or rebirth of man through the knowledge (gnosis) of the one transcendent God, the world, and humanity.

Since the scientific mechanization of the world and the rationalism of the 18th century, the Hermetic philosophy, including its revival in the Renaissance, has been largely ignored in academic circles. But, during the last few decades, this has started to change, as it is now acknowledged that ignoring this material may be blinding us from important aspects of the cultural past in the west, thus depriving us of a more complete picture of history. For example, few people today may realise that many of the early Church Fathers studied, respected, and wrote about the books of Hermes in their writings, even if they didn’t agree with eveything in them per se. But the fact that they took them seriously in their time, says something in itself. Today, the branch of theological study in seminaries that deals with the art and history of textual interpretation is called “hermeneutics”, after Hermes.

The Hermetic writings, also called Hermetica, is the name given to an extraordinary collection of writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek name for the Egyptian Thoth. This collection, written in Greek and Latin, probably dates from the middle of the 1st century to the end of the 3rd century AD. It was written in the form of Platonic dialogues. In about 1460 AD, a Greek manuscript of 17 treatieses called the Corpus Hermeticum came into the possession of Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Florence. Then, as patron, he ordered Masilio Ficino (1433-1499), the central figure of the Florentine Platonic Academy, to leave aside the works of Plato and concentrate instead on translating these “lost works of Hermes”, such did he value their importance. Today, the term “Hermetism” refers to the Hermetica writings, and also to those inspired by it during the medieval and Renaissance periods. “Hermeticism” tends to imply a broader definition which includes other traditions and/or currents of thought, such as Alchemy, Kabbalah, Astrology, etc.

The theological writings of Hermetic thought are represented mainly by the Corpus Hermeticum, by extensive fragments in the writings of Stobaeus, and by a Latin translation of the Asclepius, preserved among the works of Apuleius. Although the setting of these writings is Egyptian, the philosophy is Greek. Alexandria was known as an important early center of Hermeticism, and unfortunately for posterity, many important books were destroyed with the burning of the famous library of Alexandria – a cultural loss from which the world has yet to recover. Hermetic writings also owe a debt to the east, however, as they uniquely combine Platonic, neo-Pythagorean and Stoic philosophies, with some eastern religious elements. Hermeticism was extensively studied by the Arabs and, like many such philosophies, through them it eventually reached the west. The emphasis in Hermeticism tends to be on systematic instruction “in the way of Hermes”, leading to a mystic experience, a reunion of the soul with God. At the core of Hermetic writings is the principle that, ultimately, it is not philosophical reasoning that leads to the Truth, but divine relevation.

Dr Karen Ralls


To get started…

some general works on Hermeticism:

  • Baigent, M., & Leigh, R., The Elixir and the Stone, Viking Penguin: London, 1997
  • Roob, A., Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum, Taschen: Koln, 1997
  • Yates, F.A., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Univ. of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1964

Picture from: Historia Deorum Fatidicorum

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Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.

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