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Hermetica is a category of popular Late Antique literature purporting to contain secret wisdom, and generally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, "thrice-great Hermes", a syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. A collection of several such Greek texts from the second and third centuries,[1] survivors from a more extensive literature, were compiled into a Corpus Hermeticum by Italian scholars during the Renaissance. Other Hermetic works, however, existed in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and other languages.


Character of the texts

Most of the texts are presented in the form of a dialogue, a favorite form for didactic material in Antiquity, in which Hermes-Thoth enlightens a disciple. The subject-matter of Hermetic books is wide-ranging. Some deal with alchemy, magic, and related concepts. Others contain speculation reminiscent of gnosticism or Neoplatonism. Though there are many parallels with Egyptian prophecies, hymns to the gods or mythological texts, and direct allusions, the closest parallels can be found in Egyptian wisdom literature, characteristically couched in words of advice from a "father" to his "son".[2]


While they are difficult to date with precision, the texts of the Corpus were likely composed between the first and third centuries.

During the Renaissance, these texts were all believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin, and even today some readers believe them to date from pharaonic Egypt. However, by studying the vocabulary of the texts, the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon showed in 1614 that some of the texts (mainly those dealing with philosophy) betrayed a vocabulary too recent to be so old. Recent research, while affirming the late dating, suggests more continuity with the culture of Pharaonic Egypt than had previously been thought (see Fowden, 1986), though it would be fair to assess the corpus Hermeticum as intellectually eclectic [1].

Influences and style

The books now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were part of a renaissance of syncretistic and intellectualized pagan thought that took place around the 2nd century. Other examples of this cultural movement would include Neoplatonist philosophy, the Chaldaean Oracles, late Orphic and Pythagorean literature, as well as much of Gnosticism.

Unlike some Gnostic writings, the Hermetica contain no explicit allusions to Jewish or Christian texts — and this choice seems deliberate. They do, however, contain some unconscious echoes of Biblical themes, underscoring the close if uneasy intermingling of Jewish, Greek and Egyptian currents in Hellenistic Alexandria. Unlike Orphic literature, the works of the Hermetica are unconcerned with the genealogical tedia of Greek mythology. And compared with Chaldaean Oracles and Neoplatonist philosophy, the Hermetic texts dwell far less on the technical minutiae of metaphysical philosophy: their concerns are practical in nature, their ends a spiritual rebirth through the enlightenment of the mind:

Seeing within myself an immaterial vision that came from the mercy of god, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind!"[3]

The extant Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of god, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Many lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power.

The predominant literary form is the dialogue: Hermes Trismegistus instructs a perplexed disciple on some point of hidden wisdom. The dialogue itself is played out upon a spectral canvas of hoary temples marked with hieratic inscriptions, most of which the authors of these works would have been unable to read.

Authorship and audience

Although they often claim to be copies of Egyptian priestly texts or reports of conversations in Egyptian, Hellenisms in the language itself point to the Hermetica 's original Greek. Nevertheless, it is likely that the pseudonymous authors considered themselves Egyptians rather than Alexandrian Greeks, since there are many affirmations of the superiority of the Egyptian language, and the Asclepius contains a bloody prophecy about the expulsion of "foreigners" from Egypt.

Renaissance enthusiasts often pointed to Hermetic documents as the apex of occult philosophy. Several factors, however, suggest that the tracts had a more popular character. For example, Neoplatonist philosophers, who happily and prolifically quote apocryphal works of Orpheus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and other legendary figures, almost never cite Hermes. The anti-Greek and anti-Roman attitudes present in the texts reinforce their subaltern character. The Corpus Hermeticum therefore offers us an almost unparalleled view into the religious thinking of non-elite and politically marginal pagans under the Roman Empire.[citation needed]

Another question persists: did the "Hermetists" who produced and read these books constitute a kind of "sect", comparable to Gnostic groups? Certainly, Hermetic writings were of interest to members of alternative religious communities: parts of the Hermetica appeared in the 4th-century Gnostic library found in Nag Hammadi. On the other hand, the diffuseness in style and subject matter, the widespread distribution of the texts, and also the ease with which anonymous tracts can be produced, would suggest that a great many of the texts were produced by lone individuals or small groups without formal organization.

Hermetica outside the corpus

Although the most famous exemplars of Hermetic literature were products of Greek-speakers under Roman rule, the genre did not suddenly stop with the fall of the Empire, nor was it confined to the Greek language. Rather, Hermetic literature continued to be produced, in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Byzantine Greek. The most famous example of this later Hermetica is the Emerald Tablet, known from medieval Latin and Arabic manuscripts, with a possible Syriac source. Sadly, little else of this rich literature is easily accessible to non-specialists. The mostly gnostic Nag Hammadi Library discovered in 1945 also contained one hermetic text previously not known to scholars. This treatise called The Ogdoad and the Ennead contains a very lively description of a hermetic initiation into gnosis, and has led to new perspectives on the nature of Hermetism as a whole, particularly due to the research of Jean-Pierre Mahé.[4]

The Corpus Hermeticum in the Renaissance

Although they were still popular enough in the fifth century to be argued against by Augustine of Hippo in the City of God vii.23–26, Hermetic texts were lost to Western culture during the Middle Ages. They were, however, rediscovered from Byzantine copies and popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. The impetus for this revival came from the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, a member of Cosimo de Medici's court, who published a collection of thirteen tractates in 1471, as De potestate et sapientia Dei.[5] Note that the last three tractates contained in modern editions were missing from Ficino's manuscript. They were translated independently from another manuscript, by Ficino's contemporary Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500), and first printed in 1507. The availability of Hermetica provided a seminal force in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having had a profound influence over alchemy and modern magic, as well as having an impact on philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola, Ficino's student.

John Everard's historically important 1650 translation into English of the Corpus Hermeticum, entitled The Divine Pymander in XVII books (London, 1650) was from Ficino's Latin translation, but is no longer considered scholarly reliable. The modern standard editions are the Budé edition by A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière (Greek and French, 1946, repr. 1991) and Brian P. Copenhaver (English, 1992).

Contents of the Corpus Hermeticum

The following are the titles given to thirteen of the eighteen tracts, as translated by G.R.S. Mead.

  1. Poemandres, the Shepherd of Men
  2. To Asclepius
  3. The Sacred Sermon
  4. The Cup or Monad
  5. Though Unmanifest God Is Most Manifest
  6. In God Alone Is Good And Elsewhere Nowhere
  7. The Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God
  8. That No One of Existing Things doth Perish, but Men in Error Speak of Their Changes as Destructions and as Deaths
  9. On Thought and Sense
  10. The Key
  11. Mind Unto Hermes
  12. About the Common Mind
  13. The Secret Sermon on the Mountain

The Following are the titles given by the edition.

  1. The First Book
  2. The Second Book. Called Poemander
  3. The Third Book. Called The Holy Sermon
  4. The Fourth Book. Called The Key
  5. The Fifth Book
  6. The Sixth Book. Called That in God alone is Good
  7. The Seventh Book. His Secret Sermon in the Mount Of Regeneration, and
  8. The Profession of Silence. To His Son Tat
  9. The Eighth Book. That The Greatest Evil In Man, Is The Not Knowing God
  10. The Ninth Book. A Universal Sermon To Asclepius
  11. The Tenth Book. The Mind to Hermes
  12. The Eleventh Book. Of the Common Mind to Tat
  13. The Twelfth Book. His Crater or Monas
  14. The Thirteenth Book. Of Sense and Understanding
  15. The Fourteenth Book. Of Operation and Sense
  16. The Fifteenth Book. Of Truth to His Son Tat
  17. The Sixteenth Book. That None of the Things that are, can Perish
  18. The Seventeenth Book. To Asclepius, to be Truly Wise

See also

  • Hermeticism
  • Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn


  1. ^ ne of the oldest survining Hermetic manuscripts, Papyrus Vindebonensis Graeca 29456, dates to the end of the second century CE.
  2. '^ Jean-Pierre Mahé, "Preliminary Remarks on the Demotic "Book of Thoth" and the Greek Hermetica" Vigiliae Christianae 50.4 (1996:353-363) p.358f.
  3. ^ Corpus Hermeticum XIII.3.
  4. ^ Mahé, Hermès en Haute Egypte 2 vols. (Quebec) 1978, 1982.
  5. ^ Among the treasures of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam is this Corpus Hermeticum as published in 1471.
  • Copenhaver, Brian P. (Editor). Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction (Cambridge) 1992. ISBN 0-521-42543-3 The standard English translation, based on the Budé edition of the Corpus (1946-54).
  • (Everard, John). The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus (English), Translated by John Everard, Printed in London, 1650
  • Fowden, Garth, The Egyptian Hermes : a historical approach to the late pagan mind (Cambridge/New York : Cambridge University Press), 1986.
  • Mead, G.R.S. (Translater) Thrice Great Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Volume II (London: Theosophical Publishing Society) , 1906.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Hermetica". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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