by Stephan A. Hoeller
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 Valentin 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 Vergicius:
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
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.
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."2 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 life?
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:
Atlas, who 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 rebaptized 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, proferring 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, 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 portraite 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.
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 anonymously.
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. Petrie3 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 himself.
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 era.7
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 Parthey8 and Louis Menard9 began to raise objections to the forgery theory, but it took another 50 years for their views to gain a hearing.
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 Hermetic material.
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!