An introduction into Hermeticism

By Julian Ochoa

Hermeticism is a hidden tradition which has been accompanying western philosophy for the last two millennia. From Iamblichus to Giordano Bruno, Hermeticism has left a footprint on the western esoteric tradition. Elements of Hermeticism can be found in alchemy, Rosicrucianism, freemasonry, and other esoteric ideas and initiatic systems.

The term Hermetic which comes from hermeticism is loosely used. This term became gradually the synonym of something secret or occult, something that is completely concealed, locked away or hermetically contained. For at least 500 years the word hermetic has been linked to unorthodox ideas[1].

It is said that hermeticism can be traced back to ancient Egypt and perhaps further into the unknown ages. The story of hermeticism as we know it today begins in more recent times, the renaissance period in the Mediterranean. Hermeticism’s modern rise to fame started in Italy in the 1460s. Cosimo de Medici, the most powerful banker in Europe, living in Florence Italy, had hired Marcilio Ficino to translate from Greek into Latin, Plato’s works. Leonardo de Pistoia was working for Cosimo, searching for rare manuscripts around Europe, when in Constantinople, Leonardo came across a set of rare manuscripts called the Corpus Hermeticum. Finding the corpus Hermeticum at that time was no coincidence, the ottomans were at the doors of Constantinople, many scholars were fleeing from Constantinople to Western Europe taking with them books that had been kept in libraries across what was then Byzantium or better known as the eastern roman empire[2].

For Cosimo de Medici the corpus Hermeticum was a crucial book as it was thought that the hermetic writings predated platonic and Pythagorean teachings and that Plato and Pythagoras had learnt from the hermetic teachings all they knew. Therefore, translating the corpus Hermeticum took precedence over the translations of the platonic writings[3].

The corpus Hermeticum was a set of manuscripts written by the legendary Hermes-Trismegistus. According to Gary Lachman, St Agustin and Lactantius claimed the hermetic teachings to be older than Platonism[4]. It is said that Hermes was the creator of the Prisca Theologia, Prisca Theologia means that there is a primordial religion from which all religions came from, or from which all traditions were inspired, in other words, the ancient wisdom.

According to ancient sources, Hermes is a Hellenic God whose origin is connected to the ancient Egyptian god Tehuti, also known as Thoth. The other name by which Hermes is known is by Mercury which is the name the Ancient Romans gave to Hermes. Mercuries symbol is known as the caduceus which is the symbol that doctors and hospitals use today. In the Celtic pantheon, Hermes or Mercury is known as the God Lugus or Lughus. In modern times most people know Hermes by his typical description of being one of the Greek gods that are depicted painted with gold, wearing winged sandals and a winged helmet[5]. Today Hermes symbol is used in the shoe brand Nike, the tick sign represents the wings on the shoes, and there is also a luxury brand called Hermes, Hermes has appeared in contemporary movies.

The corpus Hermeticum was translated in 1471, from then until the 16th century, 16 editions of the books were printed. The corpus Hermeticum inspired many great minds of the renaissance, scholars such as Giordano Bruno, and Pico de la Mirandola took advantage of studying these manuscripts[6]. Many thinkers during this period claimed that Hermeticism was compatible with Christianity, but for Giordano Bruno, Hermeticism was a little bit different. According to Giordano, Hermeticism was literally the teachings of the ancient Egyptians and since Egypt was older and had its own magical and mythical past, Giordano saw Christianity and Judaism as a decadent version of the older Egyptian religion[7].

Bruno thought that with his Hermetic knowledge he could bring about change in Europe. He was clinging to an old prophecy in the corpus that said, that Egypt would fall and be taken over by darkness and ignorance but that in a distant future the ancient religion would rise again to be a light unto the world. Bruno thought his time was right to bring about these changes, but his ideas were radical for his time. Bruno even said that Jesus tried to restore the ancient Egyptian religion; Bruno believed that the earth and all the planets revolved around the sun, not the planets and the sun revolving around the earth as the church proclaimed at the time,  Such ideas led him into trouble and to an unfortunate end[8].

Depending on the scholarly source, the number of hermetic texts varies, some say that there are  from 20,000 to 1000 texts but all agree that the most common number of texts to be attributed to Hermes is 42. Since there are so many texts attributed to Hermes, it is possible that Hermes was not one person alone, but several writers that wrote different texts throughout the ages and put Hermes Trismegistus as the author. Marcilio Ficino only managed to get 15 texts which came from Constantinople, there is proof that there are more texts and that hermetic writings did exist as far back as the 1st or 4th centuries A.D. one example are the Gnostic gospels found in Nag Hammadi, these books contain a text of a conversation between Hermes and Asclepius. In addition, there is a side note from an ancient scribe apologising for not copying more hermetic texts, this alludes to the possibility that there were many more texts. Zosimus of propolis a Greek- Egyptian mentioned the hermetic texts in the third century; in the 6th century John Stobi edited some hermetic writings[9].

One of the most famous hermetic texts is the Tabula Smaragdina also known as the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. From this text comes the most famous dictum “As above so below”. The Emerald Tablet is the key to alchemy, astrology and all other occult lore, Eliphas Levi says that the emerald tablet contains all the magic you need to know[10].

There are a few legends about the provenance of the emerald tablet, one is that Sarah, Abrahams wife found the tablets in a cave where Hermes dead body was holding the tablets, another one says that Alexander the Great found the emerald tablet under the sphinx, one says that Apollonius of Tyana Wrote the emerald tablet.

There are many myths about who was Hermes Trismegistus, however, one has to take Hermes story as an allegory. One account says Hermes lived before the flood and wrote all the teachings in stele so they could survive the catastrophe. After the flood, another Hermes wrote the ancient wisdom into books and another built the Egyptian pyramids and other cities, another Hermes was Enoch, Adam’s grandson. Who had written all the Antediluvian wisdom in two columns which survived the flood, these columns were used to set up the new temple which was built by Noah, another Hermes built initiatic temples under the Egyptian cities. Cicero wrote of five Hermes and that one had traveled to Egypt from Greece to teach letters and laws. St Augustine says, that  Hermes was contemporary with Moses, In the Islamic tradition Hermes is known as Idris[11].

Like Zoroaster which was a Title given to Persian initiates of high degree, Hermes was also a Title given to high initiates. Thoth-Hermes was more of a ritualistic personification of a higher idea,  a concept which with time became personified. It is unknown when Thoth/Hermes appeared as a person if he did indeed was a human, but Thoth and Hermes do appear in mystery dramas, stories and rituals which are part of allegorical stories[12].

During the fall of the Western Roman Empire and  later the collapse of the city of Alexandria, many of the hermetic teachings survived under the Islamic empires, and out of the Islamic traditions the Druze religion emerged, the Druze religion contains hermetic and Neoplatonic teachings, for example, Plato and Proclus are Druze saints. Hermetic ideas traveled from Alexandria to Baghdad, its most ardent followers lived in a town near Baghdad called Harran. Harran`s populations principal religion was Hermeticism, once this community collapsed, the Hermetic texts and ideas were taken to Constantinople and finally from there the corpus was taken to Florence.

Hermes Trismegistus as Sage or God was known as the builder of nations, messenger of the gods, God of merchants and thief’s, responsible for medicine, chemistry, law, art, writing, astrology, music, magic, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, some called him the 1000 thousand times great. Manly Palmer Hall said that Hermes was the author of the book of Thoth, a book about human regeneration. Some say that his teachings were also transmitted via the tarot cards. Levi said that all the temples in Egypt contain in its walls some of his teachings[13].

Hermeticism came to Europe during the renaissance via the Alexandrian age. The most crucial time for Hermeticism and Egyptian religion happened during the age of Alexander the great. With the creation of Alexandria and the Ptolemaic succession, many people from as far as India, to Greece congregated in Alexandria. Where the biggest library of the ancient world instructed all its seekers. During the Ptolemaic age, all sorts of religions mixed; Egyptian religions, Greek, Roman, Jewish, eastern religions,  Christianity and finally islam; people from different religions lived in harmony, sharing ideas that slowly gave birth to new and different traditions. The God Hermes was likened to Thoth where Thoth-Hermes came about, and so all the teachings of both gods were combined into possibly a new tradition[14].

There are debates about whether the Hermetic tradition has any similarities to Egyptian teachings, and philosophy, what is certain is that it is not part of the Amonistic or Osirian philosophies. Nor do they have anything to do with the teachings of Akhenaten. Hermeticism could not have been written before Greek philosophy as the hermetic concepts are very similar to those contained in Greek philosophy[15].

The discovery that Hermeticism was possibly born in late antiquity caused controversy in Europe. The reformation was happening, a Christian scholars studied the Corpus Hermeticum and concluded that the writings were not ancient but were from around the 1st to the 3rdcenturies. This finding disillusioned many and the hermetic writings went into hiding. This just meant that Hermeticism was no longer mainstream, not long after, Rosicrucianism emerged in the 1600s which created a new impulse for hermetic studies.

Mysteriously Rosicrucianism emerged causing a sensation across Europe, but since the brotherhood was nowhere to be seen, it was also considered to be a hoax. Nevertheless, both traditions survived and influenced the creation and the enrichment of many groups, most particularly in the late 1600s when masonic lodges were popping up across Europe[16]. By the 1700s freemasonry was the new esoteric tradition which would give space for its members to study Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism.

In the 1800s writers like Eliphas Levi wrote about hermeticism, masonic writers linked freemasonry to hermeticism as part of an unbroken linage back to ancient Egypt and beyond. In 1877 H.P. Blavatsky, Co-founder of the Theosophical Society had published ISIS unveiled to which she dedicated around 30,000 words to hermeticism. Later biographers and critics have said that ISIS unveiled was a book inspired by western teachers and that her later book the Secret Doctrine was inspired by eastern Masters. Isis unveiled, was written to compare the similarities between the western and eastern traditions. Some say ISIS unveiled is a hermetic text. It can be said that for HPB to compare the east and west She had to use the hermetic tradition as it touched on ideas that are possibly older than Christianity or any other western esoteric ideas. It can be argued that Hermeticism influenced Christianity and all the other traditions that came out of the west. Blavatsky explains that hermeticism is part of ancient wisdom, she compared Hermes to Buddha and Jesus; Blavatsky went on to say that the Hermetic teachings were Vedantic in origin[17].

Since the late 1800s hermeticism has seen a type of revival, many groups have adopted Hermes name, groups such as The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor which was operated by French Occultist Max Theon, and Scottish freemason Peter Davidson. The Hermetic Society, was created by Anna Kingsford a member of the Theosophical Society in London, out of that society the Hermetic Order of the golden dawn came about and many other groups have come out since then using hermeticism as their name or inclination.

Many books on hermeticism have been written, most stories surrounding hermeticism are related to men, or groups of men but so far women have not been considered participants in this tradition, writers like Blavatsky and Anna Kingsford have not been mentioned as scholars of hermeticism, another more obscure writer Mary Anne Atwood left an important book about hermeticism, Atwood wrote A suggestive inquiry into hermetic mystery. Atwood along with her father were working on hermetic ideas, her father wrote a long poem about hermeticism. When she finished writing the book her father read it and said the book was an abomination and requested that all the copies of the book be burnt. He was envious of his daughter’s work as he was not a good writer. Luckily for future generations someone had bought one of the copies and that copy was subsequently reprinted after Mary Anne’s Death.

Hermeticism has been used to denote for most part the western mystery tradition. Since the Dawn of the Theosophical Society, there have been critics that say that the Society has only focused on eastern teachings, however if one looks carefully at Blavatsky`s writtings they are all inclusive. Hermeticism has been considered to be one of the most important traditions to represent the spiritual linage of the west. It doesn’t matter what date is attributed for the birth of hermeticism, if it’s the ancient Egyptian line or the Ptolemaic / Alexandrian age, hermeticism is not truly western or eastern, Hermeticism comes from old syncretism’s, the roots of which come from the ancient wisdom. The Ancient Wisdom, Theo-Sophia  or Hermeticism, is so ancient that it doesn’t make sense to give it a label of east or west, perhaps it is only good to add a label to it, just as a point of reference[18].

Bibliography

  • Besant, A, Giordano Bruno, The Theosophist office, (1913).
  • Blavatsky, H.P, ISIS Unveiled 1877, Global Grey (2013).
  • Blavatsky, H.P, The Secret Doctrin, Theosophical University Press Online Edition, (1888).
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica,(2021) Hermetic Writtings,2021: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hermetic-writings
  • Hall, M.P, The Secret Teachings of all ages, H.S Crocker Incorporated, (1928).
  • Lachman, G, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Floris Books, (2011).
  • Yates, F, Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Traditio, Routledge and Kegan Paul (1964).

[1] Cambridge Dictionary,2021 Hermetic, january 2021.

[2] Lachman, G, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Floris Books, (2011) pg: 11-12

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, pg: 10.

[5] Encyclopedia Britannica 2021 Hermetic Writtings, january 2021: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hermetic-writings

[6] Lachman, G, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Floris Books, (2011) pg:9

[7] Ibid: pg: 158-9

[8] Yates, F, Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition. Routledge and Kegan Paul (1964) Pg: 96

[9] Hall, Manly, P, The Secret Teachings of All ages, The life and Teachings of Thoth Hermes Trimegistus, H.S Crocker Inc, (1928) Pgs: 90-91

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lachman, G, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Floris Books, (2011) pg:14

[12] Blavatsky, H.P, The Secret Doctrine, Theosophical University Press online Edition, 1888, pg:308.

[13] Hall, Manly, P, The Secret Teachings of All ages, The life and Teachings of Thoth Hermes Trimegistus, H.S Crocker Inc, (1928) Pg: 91

[14] Lachman, G, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Floris Books, (2011) pg:15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Yates, France, Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition, Routledge and Kegan Paul (1964) pg:407.

[17] Blavatsky, H.P, Isis Unveiled 1877, Global Grey (2013)pgs:486-7

[18] Ibid.