by Stephan A. Hoeller
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.
Who, then, was Hermes, and what may be said of the philosophy or
religion that is connected with him? The early twentieth-century
scholar Walter Scott, in his classic edition of the Hermetic
texts, writes of a legend preserved by the Renaissance writer
They say that this
Hermes left his own country and traveled all over the world…;
and that he tried to teach men to revere and worship one God
alone, …the demiurgus and genetor [begetter] of all things; …and
that he lived a very wise and pious life, occupied in
intellectual contemplation…, and giving no heed to the gross
things of the material world…; and that having returned to his
own country, he wrote at the time many books of mystical
theology and philosophy.1
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.
The British scholar R.F. Willetts wrote that,
"in many ways,
Hermes is the most sympathetic, the most baffling, the most
confusing, the most complex, and therefore the most Greek of all
the Olympian gods."
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
The name Hermes appears to have originated in the word for "stone
heap." 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.
A mythological connection existed between these simple monuments and
the deity named Hermes. When Hermes killed the
many-eyed monster Argus, he was brought to trial by the gods.
They voted for Hermes' innocence, each casting a vote by throwing a
small stone at his feet so that a heap of stones grew up around him.
Hermes became best known as the swift messenger of the
gods. Euripides, in his prologue to the play Ion,
has Hermes introduce himself as follows:
wears on back of bronze the ancient
Abode of the gods in heaven, had a daughter
Whose name was Maia, born of a goddess:
She lay with Zeus, and bore me, Hermes,
Servant of the immortals.
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.
Versatility and mutability are Hermes' most prominent
characteristics. His specialties are eloquence and invention (he
invented the lyre). He is the god of travel and the protector of
sacrifices; he is also god of commerce and good luck. The common
quality in all of these is again consciousness, the agile movement
of mind that goes to and fro, joining humans and gods, assisting the
exchange of ideas and commercial goods. Consciousness has a shadow
side, however: Hermes is also noted for cunning and for
fraud, perjury, and theft.
The association of Hermes with theft become evident in the
pseudo-Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which tells in great detail
how the young god, barely risen from his cradle, carries off some of
Apollo's prize oxen. 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.
While Hermes is regarded as one of the earliest and most
primitive gods of the Greeks, he enjoys so much subsequent
prominence that he must be recognized as an archetype devoted to
mediating between, and unifying, the opposites. This foreshadows his
later role as master magician and alchemist, as he was regarded both
in Egypt and in Renaissance Europe.
One admirable quality of the ancient Greeks was the universality of
their theological vision. 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.
This was particularly true of Egypt, whose gods the Greeks
revered as the prototypes of their own. It was a truth frequently
recognized by the cultured elite of Greek society that some of the
Egyptian gods, such as Isis, were of such great stature that
they united within themselves a host of Greek deities.
The Romans, who were fully aware of the fact that their gods
were but re-baptized Greek deities, followed the example of
their mentors. As the Roman Empire extended itself to occupy
the various Mediterranean lands, including Egypt, the ascendancy of
the archetypes of some of the more prominent Egyptian gods became
evident. 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.
During this period, the Mediterranean world was undergoing a
remarkable religious development. The old state religions had lost
their hold on many people. In their stead a large number of
often-interrelated religions, philosophies, and rites had arisen,
facilitated by the political unity imposed by the Roman Empire.
This new ecumenism of the spirit was one that we might justly
admire. Though often derided as mere syncretism by later writers, it
possessed many features to which various ecumenicists aspire even
today. It is by no means impossible that the Mediterranean region of
the late Hellenistic period was in fact on its way toward a certain
kind of religious unity. 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.
An important feature of this era was the rise of a new worship of
Hermes. 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.
Of these three we shall concern ourselves here with Hermes. It was
during this period that the swift god of consciousness took his
legendary winged sandals and crossed the sea to Egypt in order to
become the Greco-Egyptian Thrice-Greatest Hermes.
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.
Thoth played a part in many of the myths of Pharaonic Egypt:
he played a role in the creation myth, he was recorder of the gods,
and he was the principal pleader for the soul at the judgment of the
dead. It was he who invented writing. He wrote all the ancient
texts, including the most esoteric ones, including The Book of
Breathings, which taught humans how to become gods. He was
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.
Most importantly, perhaps, for our purposes, Thoth acted as
an emissary between the contending armies of Horus and
Seth and eventually came to negotiate the peace treaty between
these two gods. His role as a mediator between the opposites is thus
made evident, perhaps prefiguring the role of the alchemical Mercury
as the "medium of the conjunction."
Thoth's animal form is that of the ibis, with its
long, slightly curved beak: statues of Thoth often portray a
majestic human wearing the mask of head of this bird; others simply
display the ibis itself.
It was to this powerful god that the Egyptian Hermeticists of
the second and third centuries A.D. joined the image and especially
the name of the Greek Hermes. From this time onward the name "Hermes"
came to denote neither Thoth nor Hermes proper, but a
new archetypal figure, Hermes Trismegistus, who combined the
features of both.
By the time his Egyptian followers came to establish their highly
secretive communities, this Hermes underwent yet another
modification, this time from the Jewish tradition. The
presence of large numbers of Jews in Egypt in this period, many of
whom were oriented toward Hellenistic thought, accounts for this
additional element. 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,
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.
portrait of Hermes Trismegistus, from the floor of the cathedral at
Giovanni di Maestro Stefano.
The legend beneath
the central figure reads,
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.
Customs of this sort have not been uncommon in mystical literature.
The Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar, currently
believed to have been written in the medieval period, claims to be
the work of Shimon bar Yohai, a rabbi of the second century
A.D. Two of the best-known Christian mystical classics, The Cloud
of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica, were written
The members of the Hermetic communities were people who, brought up
in the immemorial Egyptian religious tradition, offered their own
version of the religion of gnosis, which others propounded in a
manner more appropriate to the psyches of other national
backgrounds, notably Hebrew, Syrian, or Mesopotamian. Sir W.M.F.
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.
When it came to beliefs, it is likely that the Hermeticists
and Gnostics were close spiritual relatives. 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.
Judging by their writings and by the repute they enjoyed among their
contemporaries, the members of the Hermetic communities were
inspired persons who firmly believed that they were in touch with
the Source of all truth, the very embodiment of divine Wisdom
Indeed there are many passages in the Hermetic writings in which we
can still perceive the vibrant inspiration, the exaltation of
spirit, in the words whereby they attempt to describe the wonders
disclosed to their mystic vision. 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.
Until comparatively recently there was very little information
available concerning the method of spiritual progress that the
Hermeticists may have followed. 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
A Hermetic catechumen would begin with a process of conversion,
induced by such activities as reading some of the less technical
Hermetic literature or listening to a public discourse. A period of
probation, including instruction received in a public setting, was
required before progressing to the next stage.
This phase would be characterized by a period of philosophical and
catechetical studies based on certain Hermetic works. (The
Asclepius and the Kore Kosmou may be examples of such
study material.) This instruction was imparted to small groups.
The next step entailed a progress through the Seven Spheres
or Hebdomad, conducted in a tutorial format, one student at a
time. This seems to have been a process of an experiential nature,
aided by inspiring topical discourses. In this progression, the
candidate is envisioned as beginning his journey from earth and
ascending through the planets to a region of freedom from immediate
cosmic influences. (The planets were regarded mostly as influences
of restriction, which the ascending spirit must overcome.) One may
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.
The final step was what may be called the Mystery Liturgy of
Hermes Trismegistus, of which The Discourse of the Eighth and
the Ninth is often regarded as a good example. Here the
Hermeticist is spiritually reborn in a transcendental region
beyond the seven planets. His status is now that of a pneumatic, or
man of the spirit. (Note once again the similarity with Gnosticism.)
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 Hermeticists had their own sacraments as well. These
appear to have consisted primarily of a form of baptism with water
and an anointing resembling "a baptism and a chrism" as mentioned in
the Gnostic Gospel of Philip. 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.
The original number of Hermetic writings must have been
considerable. 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: in the first century A.D., Plutarch
refers to Hermes the Thrice-Greatest; the third-century
Church Father Clement of Alexandria says that the books of
Hermes treat of Egyptian religion;5
and Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry all
seem to be acquainted with Hermetic literature. Scott shows how the
ancient Middle Eastern city of Harran harbored both Hermeticists and
Hermetic books into the Muslim period.6
A thousand years later, in 1460, the ruler of Florence, Cosimo
de' Medici, acquired several previously lost Hermetic texts
that had been found in the Byzantine Empire. These works were
thought to be the work of a historical figure named Hermes
Trismegistus who was considered to be a contemporary of Moses.
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 most extensive collection of Hermetic writings is the Corpus
Hermeticum, a set of about
seventeen short Greek texts.
Another collection as made by a scholar named John Stobaeus
in the firth century A.D. Two other, longer texts stand alone. The
first is the Asclepius, preserved in a Latin translation
dating probably from the third century A.D. The second takes the
form of a dialogue between Isis and Horus and has the unusual title
of Kore Kosmou, which means "daughter of the world."
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!
Such, however, was not to be. One of the chief propagandists of
Hermeticism, the brilliant friar Giordano Bruno, was burnt at
the stake as a heretic in 1600, and although others continued with
their enthusiasm for the fascinating teachings of the books of
Hermes, the suspicions and doubts of the narrow-minded continued
to dampen any general ardor.
By the seventeenth century, the Hermetic books had enjoyed
intermittent popularity in Europe for some 150 years. The coming of
the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing religious strife,
however, stimulated a tendency toward rationalistic orthodoxy in all
quarter. 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
By the eighteenth century, the Hermetic teachings were
totally eclipsed, and the new scholarship, which prided itself on
its opposition to everything it called "superstition," took a dim
view of this ancient fountainhead of mystical and occult lore. There
wasn't even a critical, academically respectable edition of the
Corpus Hermeticum until Walter Scott's Hermetica
appeared in 1924.
If one needs an example of how egregiously academic scholarship can
err and then persist in its errors, one need only contemplate the
"official" scholarly views of the Hermetic books over the 150-year
period up to the middle of the twentieth century. The general view
was that these writings were Neoplatonic or anti-Christian
forgeries, of no value to the study of religion. 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.
Connection and the Hermetic Renaissance
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. Hermetic
elements are demonstrably present in the school of Jacob Boehme
and in the Rosicrucian and Masonic movements, for example.
It was not long before this tradition, wedded to secret orders of
initiates and their arcane truths, gave way to a more public
transmission of their teachings. This occurred initially by way of
the work of H.P. Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society
in the late nineteenth century.
G.R.S. Mead, a young, educated English Theosophist who became
a close associate of Mme. Blavatsky in the last years of her
life, was the main agent of the revival of Gnostic and Hermetic
wisdom among the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century
occultists. 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.
A half-century later, we find another seminal figure who effectively
bridged the gap between the occult and the academic. The British
scholar Dame Frances A. Yates may be considered the true
inaugurator of the modern Hermetic renaissance. 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.
While some decades ago it might have appeared that the line of
transmission extending from Greco-Egyptian wisdom might come to an
end, today the picture appears more hopeful. The discovery and
translation of the Nag Hammadi Library generated a great
interest in matters Gnostic that does not seem to have abated with
the passage of time. 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
Gnosticism and Hermeticism flourished in the same
period; they are equally concerned with personal knowledge of God
and the soul, and equally emphatic that the soul can only escape
from its bondage to material existence if it attains to true
ecstatic understanding (gnosis). 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.
There are apparent contradictions, not only between Hermetic and
Gnostic writings, but within the Hermetic materials themselves. Such
contradictions loom large when one contemplates these systems from
the outside, but they can be much more easily reconciled by one who
steps inside the systems and views them from within. One 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.
From a contemporary view, the figure of Hermes, both in its
Greek and its Egyptian manifestations, stands as an
archetype of transformation through reconciliation of the opposites.
(Certainly Jung and other archetypally oriented
psychologists viewed Hermes in this light.) 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!
ed., Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings Which
Contain Religious and Philosophical Teachings Ascribed to
Hermes Trismegistus (Boston: Shambhala, 1985 ), vol.
1, p. 33. The demiurgus mentioned here is clearly of the
Platonic rather than the Gnostic kind.
"Hermes," entry in Richard Cavendish, ed., Man, Myth and
Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural (New
York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1970), p. 1289.
Flinders Petrie, Personal Religion in Egypt before
Christianity (London: Rider & Co., 1900) pp. 50-65.
L.S. Keizer, ed.
And trans., The Eighth Reveals the Ninth: A New Hermetic
Initiation Discourse (Seaside, Calif.: Academy of Arts &
Humanities, 1974), pp. 54-63.
Alexandria, Stromata 6:14.
Scott, vol. 1,
Ibid., vol. 1,
Hermetis Trismegisti Poemander (Berlin, 1854).
Étude sur l'origine des livres hermetiques et translations
d'Hermès Trismegistus (Paris, 1866).
Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and
Gnosis (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1992 ).