Exhibition: Master of Change: Images of Hermes TrismegistusDecember 22, 2014
Master of Change: Images of Hermes Trismegistus
The new exhibition opening in The Ritman Library on January 6th 2015 presents the iconography as it has developed around Hermes Trismegistus and the attributes that can be associated with him, such as the armillary sphere, the Tabula smaragdina, the ouroboros and the caduceus. Master of Change. Images of Hermes Trismegistus is based on works in the collection of The Ritman Library: printed books and manuscripts and prints ranging mainly from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries which show some facets of the philosopher-god who already in his first manifestation as the god Thoth in ancient Egypt was regarded as a ‘many-sided’ god. When Hermes eventually changed into the ‘patron saint’ of alchemy, he came to symbolize Mercury, a volatile metal which can form amalgams with almost all other metals. Mercury is also the beginning and end of the alchemical process and synonymous with the Philosophers’ Stone: ‘Est in Mercurio quidquid quaerunt sapientes’ – whatever the sages seek is in Mercurius.
The Egyptian Hermes
‘heart of Re… who gives life to men … the great magician… universal benefactor… splendid in speech… the thrice great…’
Epithets of Thoth in the hieroglyphs
The ‘prototype’ of Hermes Trismegistus was Thoth, the most diverse and popular of the Egyptian gods, who already occurs in the pyramid texts of ca. 2,400 BCE, the oldest collection of sayings from ancient Egypt. Initially, Thoth was regarded by the Egyptians as a moon god, and many of his properties were derived by association. Just as the moon was illuminated by the sun, so Thoth could claim authority from the fact that he was the scribe of the sun god Re. Being the moon god, he also became the god of time, of periodical change, of the cosmic order and the rhythm of everyday life. He was believed to have invented script, he was the god of letters and occult knowledge. Being the god of speech, he was also regarded as a demiurge who called things into being merely by the sound of his own voice – similar to the “creative speech acts” of God in Genesis: ‘and God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Because of his magical powers, he was also regarded as an eminent healer, and when men died, it was Thoth who guided them to the underworld, where he took the deceased to Osiris and officiated in the weighing of the heart. Thoth was usually depicted with the head of an ibis. His Egyptian name ‘Djehuty’ or ‘Tehuti’ is derived from the oldest name for the bird ibis, namely djehu / tehu. Another holy animal associated with Thoth was the baboon. Baboons were often shown wearing a crescent moon on their head, as a token of Thoth’s function as the moon god. The chief centre of Thoth’s cult was at Hermopolis Magna (present-day al-Ashmunyan).
The Greek Hermes
‘Hail, Hermes, giver of grace, guide, and giver of good things!’
Homeric hymn to Hermes
Initially, Hermes was an Arcadian god, but later the Greeks also came to associate Hermes with the moon, with medicine and with the underworld, and the way he was presented changed accordingly. Like the Egyptian Thoth, who guided the souls on their path in the afterlife, Hermes was often depicted as ‘psychopompos’, as the god who attended the souls on their journey to the underworld. Hermes was also the messenger of the gods and the interpreter of divine will.
In the early 18th century, the Dutch physician and poet David van Hoogstraten (1658-1724) summed up many of the characteristics of Hermes. He referred to Hermes as Mercurius (following the ‘interpretatio Romana’, Hermes was equated with Mercurius). Van Hoogstraten describes Hermes|Mercurius as a god who presents himself
…in the shape of a handsome youth, with a joyous countenance, and a clever wit … he has a winged hat, and shoes, carrying in his hand also a winged rod, coiled around with two snakes (…) the wings on his feet and hat, signify that being the Messenger of the Gods, he must not only run but also fly. (…) He is also credited with the invention of letters: he excelled in the art of eloquence, so that Hermes is known among the Greeks as the Interpreter or Exegete. (…). He had a wonderful talent for making peace, inspiring the hearts of Gods and men with concord.
Hermes is here presented as the god of eloquence and the inventor of script. The caduceus or staff of Hermes, which recurs in many woodcuts, engravings and prints in the exhibition, not only symbolized peace, but also protection and healing.
‘He knows all that is hidden under the heavenly vault, and beneath the earth’
Greek Magical Papyri, VIII, 14-15
The Greeks living in Egypt identified Thoth with Hermes, and so Hermes-Thoth eventually became Hermes Trismegistus, or the ‘Thrice Greatest’, an epithet which Hermes owes to his equally illustrious Egyptian predecessor. Thoth’s epithet ‘great’ (mega), was repeated two or three times by way of superlative (cf. Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’). The honorific title ‘Trismegistus’ was first applied to Hermes in texts of the second century CE.
In the Greek Magical Papyri, which were compiled in the 2nd c. BCE to the 5th c. CE, Hermes is also called the ‘ruler of the cosmos’, who is ‘in the heart’. He is invoked via the ‘circle of Selene (the moon goddess) which is both round and square’. He is also the ‘founder of the words of speech’ – these are all also qualities of the Egyptian Thoth. Specifically Greek in the papyri is the description of Hermes as ‘wearing a mantle, with winged sandals’.
Hermes Trismegistus came to be looked upon as a god, a king, or a priest and prophet, who was to have lived at the time of Moses (see Ficino in the preface to his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, first published in 1471). He was also credited with the inventions of Thoth, including the hieroglyphic script. His teachings were to have been inscribed on ‘pillars of Hermes’, and philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato were to have drawn from the hieroglyphs for their own wisdom.
These views of Hermes Trismegistus were still circulating in late classical Antiquity. The church father Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220) extolled Hermes as the ‘magister omnium physicorum’, the master of all natural things. The neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (ca. 275-ca. 330) described in his De mysteriis Aegyptiorum (On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Book VIII) a certain school of philosophy as ‘the way of Hermes’, while he also mentions that numerous books and sciences were attributed to this great ancient philosopher. Hermes Trismegistus was still known as the ‘pater philosophorum’, the father of all philosophers, as late as the 18th century.
Master of Change. Images of Hermes Trismegistus. 6 January – 31 July 2015. (prolonged until 28 August 2015)
The Ritman Library
1016 KV Amsterdam
Opening hours: Tuesday-Friday 10.00-12.30 and 13.30-17.00
Admission fee: € 5,-
Guided tours: available on request