from Gnosis Website
The article first appeared in Gnosis:
A Journal of Western Inner Traditions
(Vol. 40, Summer 1996)
There are few names to which more diverse persons and disciplines lay claim than the term "Hermetic."
Alchemists ancient and contemporary apply the adjective
"Hermetic" to their art, while magicians attach the name to
their ceremonies of evocation and invocation. Followers of
Meister Eckhart, Raymond Lull, Paracelsus,
Jacob Boehme, and most recently
Tomberg are joined by academic scholars of esoterica, all
of whom attach the word "Hermetic" to their activities.
The early twentieth-century scholar Walter Scott, in his classic edition of the Hermetic texts, writes of a legend preserved by the Renaissance writer Vergicius:
Until relatively recently, no one had a clear picture of either the authorship or the context of the mysterious writings ascribed to Hermes.
Descriptions such as the one above are really no more than a summary of the ideal laid down in the "Hermetic" writings. The early Christian Fathers, in time, mostly held that Hermes was a great sage who lived before Moses and that he was a pious and wise man who received revelations from God that were later fully explained by Christianity.
None mentioned that he was a Greek god.
If Hermes is the
god of the mind, then these qualities appear in an even more
meaningful light. For is the mind not the most baffling, confusing,
and at the same time the most beguiling, of all the attributes of
Probably since prehistoric times there existed in Crete
and in other Greek regions a custom or erecting a herma or
hermaion consisting of an upright stone surrounded at its base
by a heap of smaller stones. Such monuments were used to serve as
boundaries or as landmarks for wayfarers.
Hermes is thus of a double origin. His grandfather is Atlas, the demigod who holds up heaven, but Maia, his mother, already has a goddess as her mother, while Hermes' father, Zeus, is of course the highest of the gods.
It is tempting to interpret this as saying that
from worldly toil (Atlas), with a heavy infusion of divine
inspiration, comes forth consciousness, as symbolized by Hermes.
Consciousness has a shadow
side, however: Hermes is also noted for cunning and for
fraud, perjury, and theft.
The enraged Apollo denounces Hermes to Zeus but is mollified by the gift of the lyre, which the young Hermes has just invented by placing strings across the shell of a tortoise. That the larcenous trickster god is the one who bestows the instrument of poetry upon Apollo may be a point of some significance.
Art is bestowed not by prosaic rectitude, but by the
freedom of intuition, a function not bound by earthly rules.
This foreshadows his
later role as master magician and alchemist, as he was regarded both
in Egypt and in Renaissance Europe.
Unlike their Semitic counterparts,
the Greeks claimed no uniqueness for their deities but freely
acknowledged that the Olympians often had exact analogues in the
gods of other nations.
Here we are faced with the controversial phenomenon of
syncretism, which plays a vital role in the new manifestation of
Hermes in the last centuries before Christ and in the early
centuries of the Christian era.
The world religion that might conceivably
have emerged would have been much more sophisticated than the
accusation of syncretism would have us believe. Far from being a
patchwork of incompatible elements, this emerging Mediterranean
spirituality bore the hallmarks of a profound mysticism, possessing
a psychological wisdom still admired in our own day by such figures
as C.G. Jung and Mircea Eliade.
Proceeding from the three principal Egyptian archetypes
of divinity, we find three great forms of initiatory religion
spreading along the shores of the Mediterranean: the cults of the
Mother Goddess Isis, the Victim God Osiris, and the
Wisdom God Hermes, all of which appeared under various guises.
The Egyptian god Thoth, or Tehuti, in the form of an ibis.
With him is his associate, the ape, proffering the Eye of Horus.
From E.A. Wallis
Budge's Gods of the Egyptians.
The Greek Hermes found his analogue in Egypt as the ancient Wisdom God Thoth (sometimes spelled Thouth or Tahuti).
This god was
worshiped in his principal cult location, Chmun, known also
as the "City of the Eight," called Greek Hermopolis.
There is evidence that this location was a center for the worship of
this deity at least as early as 3000 B.C.
He wrote all the ancient texts, including the most esoteric ones, including The Book of Breathings, which taught humans how to become gods.
connected with the moon and thus was considered ruler of the
night. Thoth was also the teacher and helper of the ancient
Egyptian trinity of Isis, Osiris, and Horus; it was under his
instructions that Isis worked her sacred love magic whereby she
brought the slain Osiris back to life.
In many of the Hermetic writings, Hermes appears less as an Egyptian or Greek god and more as a mysterious prophet of the kind one finds in Jewish prophetic literature, notably the Apocalypse of Baruch, 4 Esdras, and 2 Enoch. Still, when all is said and done, the Jewish element in the Hermetic writings is not very pronounced.
The Hermes that concerns us is primarily
Egyptian, to a lesser degree Greek, and to a very slight extent
Jewish in character.
A Renaissance portrait
of Hermes Trismegistus, from the floor of the cathedral at Siena, 1488;
attributed to Giovanni di Maestro Stefano.
The legend beneath the central figure reads,
"Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, the contemporary of Moses."
Who, then, actually wrote the "books of Hermes," which, since their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, have played such a significant role in our culture? The writings are all anonymous: their mythic author is considered to be Hermes himself.
The reasoning behind this
pseudonymous approach is simple. Hermes is Wisdom, and thus
anything written through the inspiration of true wisdom is in
actuality written by Hermes. The human scribe does not matter;
certainly his name is of no significance.
presents us with a study of such Pagan monks and hermits who
gathered together in the deserts of Egypt and other lands. He tells
us of the monks' attention to cleanliness, their silence during
meals, their seclusion and meditative piety. It would seem that the
Hermeticists were recluses of this kind. Unlike the Gnostics, who
were mostly living secular lives in cities, the Hermeticists
followed a lifestyle similar to the kind Josephus attributes
to the Essenes.
The two schools had a great deal in common, their principal difference being that the Hermeticists looked to the archetypal figure of Hermes as the embodiment of salvific teaching and initiation, while the Gnostics revered the more recent savior figure known as Jesus in a similar manner.
Both groups were singularly devoted to gnosis,
which they understood to be the experience of liberating interior
knowledge; both looked upon embodiment as a limitation that led to
unconsciousness, from which only gnosis can liberate the human
spirit. Most of the Hermetic teachings closely correspond to
fundamental ideas of the Gnostics. There were also some, mostly
minor, divergences between the two, to which we shall refer later.
Like the Gnostics, of whom Jung
said that they worked with original, compelling images of the deep
unconscious, the Hermeticists experienced powerful and
extraordinary insights to which they tried to give expression in
their writings. Intense feeling generated by personal spiritual
experience pervades most of the Hermetic documents.
The Nag Hammadi Library,
discovered in 1945, contains at least one scripture whose content is
unmistakably Hermetic. This is Tractate 6 of Codex VI, whose
title is usually translated as The Discourse on the Eight and the
Ninth. On the basis of this discourse, one of its early
translators suggested a scheme of progress that was followed by some
of the schools of Hermeticists.4
note a close resemblance of this gradual ascent to similar
ascensions outlined in various Gnostic sources, as well as to the
later Kabbalistic patchwork on the Tree of Life.
This level entails an experience of a very profound, initiatory
change of consciousness wherein the initiate becomes one with the
deeper self resident in his soul, which is a portion of the essence
of God. This experience takes place in a totally private
setting. The only persons present are the initiate and the initiator
(called "son" and "father" in this text). The liturgy takes the form
of a dialogue between these two.
The Corpus Hermeticum
mentions an anointing with "ambrosial water" and a self-administered
baptism in a sacred vessel, the krater, sent down by
Hermes from the heavenly realms.
A good many of these were lost during the systematic destruction of non-Christian literature that took place between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D.
Ancient writers often indicate the existence of such works:
Scott shows how the
ancient Middle Eastern city of Harran harbored both Hermeticists and
Hermetic books into the Muslim period.6
Translated by the learned and enthusiastic Marsilio Ficino
and others, the Hermetic books soon gained the attention of an
intelligentsia that was starved for a more creative approach to
spirituality than had been hitherto available.
The reaction of the Christian establishment to these writings was ambivalent.
It is true that they were never condemned and were even revered by many prominent ecclesiastics. An authoritative volume of the Hermetic books was printed in Ferrara in 1593, for example. It was edited by one Cardinal Patrizzi, who recommended that these works should replace Aristotle as the basis for Christian philosophy and should be diligently studied in schools and monasteries.
The mind boggles at the turn Western
culture might have taken had Hermetic teachings replaced
Aristotelian theology of Thomas Aquinas as the normative
doctrine of the Catholic Church!
Another factor was the work of the scholar Isaac Casaubon,
who used internal evidence in the texts to prove that they had been
written, not by a contemporary of Moses, but early in the Christian
wasn't even a critical, academically respectable edition of the
Corpus Hermeticum until Walter Scott's Hermetica
appeared in 1924.
By the middle
of the nineteenth century, such scholars as Gustave Parthey
and Louis Menard
began to raise objections to the forgery theory, but it took
another 50 years for their views to gain a hearing.
Hermes Trismegistus and the creative fire that unite the polarities.
D. Stolcius vn
Stolcenbeerg, Viridarium chymicum, Frankfurt, 1624
Although the Hermetic system has undeniably influenced much of the best of Christian thought, the most abiding impact of Hermeticism on Western culture came about by way of the heterodox mystical, or occult, tradition.
Renaissance occultism, with its alchemy, astrology, ceremonial magic, and occult medicine, became saturated with the teachings of the Hermetic books. This content has remained a permanent part of the occult transmissions of the West, and, along with Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, represents the foundation of all the major Western occult currents.
elements are demonstrably present in the school of Jacob Boehme
and in the Rosicrucian and Masonic movements, for example.
Mead first became known for his translation of
the great Gnostic work Pistis Sophia, which appeared in
1890-91. In 1906 he published the three volumes of Thrice
Greatest Hermes, in which he collected all the then-available
Hermetic documents while adding insightful commentaries of his own.10
This volume was followed by other, smaller works of a similar order.
Mead's impact on the renewal of interest in Hermeticism and
Gnosticism in our century should not be underestimated.
Beginning with a
work on Giordano Bruno and continuing with a number of
others, Yates not only proved the immense influence of
Hermeticism on the medieval Renaissance but showed the connections
between Hermetic currents and later developments, including the
Rosicrucian Enlightenment - itself the title of one of her books.
Because of the close affinity of the
Hermetic writings to the Gnostic ones, the present
interest in Gnosticism extends to Hermeticism as well. Most
collections of Gnostic scriptures published today include some
It was once fashionable to
characterize Hermeticism as "optimistic" in contract to Gnostic
"pessimism," but such differences are currently being stressed less
than they had been. The Nag Hammadi scriptures have brought
to light a side of Gnosticism that joins it more closely to
Hermeticism than many would have thought possible.
key to such paradoxes is the likelihood that the words in these
scriptures were the results of transcendental states of
consciousness experienced by their writers. Such words were never
meant to define supernatural matters, but only to intimate their
impact upon experience.
If we are inclined to this view, we should rejoice over the renewed interest in Hermes and his timeless gnosis.
If we conjure up the famed image of the swift god, replete with winged helmet, sandals, and caduceus, we might still be able to ask him to reconcile the divisions and contradictions of this lower realm in the embrace of enlightened consciousness.
And since, like all gods, he is immortal, he might be
able to fulfill our request as he did for his devotees of old!