In the following section we provide:
The Hermetic tradition represents a non-Christian lineage of
Hellenistic Gnosticism. The tradition and its writings date to at least the first century B.C.E., and the texts we possess were all written prior to the second century C.E. The surviving writings of the tradition, known as the Corpus Hermeticum (the "Hermetic body of writings") were lost to the Latin West after classical times, but survived in eastern Byzantine libraries. Their rediscovery
and translation into Latin during the late-fifteenth century by the Italian Renaissance
court of Cosimo de Medici, provided a seminal force in the development of
Renaissance thought and culture. These eighteen tracts of the Corpus
Hermeticum, along with the Perfect Sermon (also called the Asclepius), are the
foundational documents of the Hermetic tradition.
The texts presented
here, below, are taken
from the translation of G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in
Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Volume 2 (London: Theosophical
Publishing Society, 1906); they are reproduced completely, with Mead's original footnotes. (The entire three volume text of Mead's Thrice Greatest Hermes, along with a full-text search function, is available in our online G.R.S. Mead Collection.)
In supplement to the Corpus Hermeticum, we have appended to this collection the important Hermetic texts discovered in 1945 within the Nag Hammadi Library.
Though written over a century ago, Mead's Thrice Greatest Hermes provides an excellent compendium
and reference to the Hermetic literature. His commentary on the texts is unequalled. However for a modern reader there is a problem with Mead's translations: he translates using an outmoded and pompous-sounding Victorian English. But then, it must be understood the original Greek texts of the surviving Hermetic literature have a rather outmoded and pompose tone, and their Greek syntax is often obscure.
With his choice of language, Mead tries to convey both the ambiguity and the the elevated, visionary intensity of the material. He correctly understood the Hermetic writings as the distillations of profound spiritual and psychological experiences -- experiences the texts themselves call "Gnosis". These are not philosophical tracts. Their core impetus was communication of a visionary reality. The tradition that produced the Corpus Hermeticum embrased an imaginative, prophetic voice common in Gnostic scriptures; and the insights this "Gnosis" produced are not easily expresssed in Greek, or Latin, or any pedestrian dialect of English. But they can by understood, if one has an ear for the core experience. It is the desire to communicate their experience of interior reality that motivated these ancient authors.
For a more easily readable (and very reliable) modern print edition, we recommend the respected 1995 translation of the Hermetica by Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation.
What is the Hermetic tradition,
and what did it teach?
To answer those common questions, we offer the following introductory resources:
These are the opening words of the Poemandres, the first text of the Corpus Hermeticum; they provide a first insight into the visionary source of Hermetic Gnosis:
Upon a time while my mind was meditating on the things that are, my thought was raised to a great height, while the physical senses of my body were held back—just as are the senses of men who are heavy with sleep after a large meal, or from fatigue of body.
I thought I heard a Being more than vast—in size beyond all bounds—called out my name and say: "What wouldst thou hear and see, and what hast thou in mind to learn and know?"
And I said: "Who art thou?"
He answered: "I am Shepherd of Men, Mind of all-Masterhood; I know what thou desirest and I am with thee everywhere."
And I replied: "I long to learn the things that are, and comprehend their nature, and know God. This (I said) is what I desire to hear."
He answered me: "Hold in thy mind all thou wouldst know, and I will teach thee."
And with these words His aspect changed; and straightway, in the twinkling of an eye, all things were opened to me. And I saw a limitless Vision: all things turned into Light—sweet, joyous Light. And I became transported as I gazed....
-- Lance S. Owens
The collection of Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 (known as the Nag Hammadi Library), includes a previously unknown and crucially important Hermetic document, The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth. Probably dating to the third century or earlier, this text appears to be an initiation rite into visionary journey. This document provides singular evidence of the liturgical and experiential elements within Hermetic tradition. It gives witness to the existence of a ritual genera of Hermetic writings previously unknown and now lost.
Also included in the Nag Hammadi collection is the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving, and an excerpt from the Asclepius. These texts, bound together in Nag Hammadi Codex VI with other classical Christian Gnostic texts (e.g., The Authoritative Teaching, The Thunder, Perfect Mind, The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles) evidence the ancient association of Christian and Hermetic Gnosticism -- at very least in the physical grouping of this literature together in the Nag Hammadi codices.