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Hermetica

Hermetica

The term ‘Hermetica’ is used to cover a heterogeneous body of works attributed to the legendary philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic works are mostly philosophical, theosophical, astrological, magical or alchemical in nature. The treatises we now call the Corpus Hermeticum, which is today perhaps the best-known Hermetic work, were compiled mainly in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE and have been preserved in Greek codices (although Coptic fragments have also been recovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945). In the Middle Ages, only one Hermetic work, the Latin Asclepius (its Greek original is lost) was widely known. This changed when Marsilio Ficino in 1463 translated fourteen Greek Hermetic texts into Latin at the request of his patron Cosimo de Medici. The title he gave to this work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus was: Pimander, sive De potestate et sapientia Dei. ‘Pimander’ was the protagonist of the first treatise, after whom Ficino subsequently named the entire work: he believed the Corpus Hermeticum to be a single Hermetic text instead of a body of separate treatises. The – incomplete –  codex from which Ficino translated had been brought to Florence from Macedonia by an Italian monk, Leonardo di Pistoia. This Hermetic text aroused great interest, as Hermes Trismegistus at the time was perceived to be a pagan contemporary of the law-giver Moses. Thus the wisdom and revelations Hermes Trismegistus transmitted were regarded as pre-Christian and yet seemed to announce Christianity: as a result, Hermes Trismegistus was celebrated as a pagan prophesying the coming of Christ.

Hermetic treatises

The Hermetic texts in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius are not uniform in tone: they contain demonstrably Greek, gnostic and Jewish elements (e.g. discussions on the soul, or the parallel with Genesis in Corpus Hermeticum I, the nous in Corpus Hermeticum IV corresponding with the gnostic  pneuma). In addition, the treatises are also inspired by Egyptian traditions, as witnessed by the element of the transmission of teachings by a ‘father’ to his ‘son’; as in Egyptian hymns, there is mention of a God who is ‘All and One’. It is a postulate found in most of the Hermetic texts that because of his (divine) intellect, man is capable to behold the Cosmos in his mind, to comprehend the divine essence of nature and to imprint it on his soul. By beholding the Cosmos it is possible to know God: the universe is thus often presented as a text or a book which must be read or deciphered. A very representative Hermetic saying is: ‘God is an immortal man, man is a mortal god’.

Prisca theologia

The idea of a ‘prisca theologia’ originates in the Renaissance: a tradition of spiritual wisdom running from Hermes Trismegistus via Moses to Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras and Plato. The works of these ancient sages were regarded as divinely inspired and paving the way for Christ. Although Hermes Trismegistus was the first amongst these ‘prisci theologi’, Ficino also included Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras and the Pythagorean Philolaus of Croton.

Hermetica in the Early Middle Ages

The main authors with links to the Hermetica collected in this period are Boethius (480-ca. 525) and the neo-Platonist Dionysius (second half of the 5th century). The works of Dionysius (erroneously attributed to the Dionysius Areopagita occurring in Acts 17: 34) only became fully accessible to the West in the edition of Johannes Scotus Eriugena, who translated the entire Corpus Dionysiacum around 860.

Renaissance of the Hermetica in the 12th century

The influence of texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in the 12th century has been established in the works of theologians and philosophers such as Peter Abelard, Alain de Lille, William of Auvergne, Albertus Magnus and Thomas of York. The main Hermetic source text to be studied in this seminal period before the Italian Renaissance was the Asclepius (which was preserved in Latin), in addition to (pseudo-) Hermetic texts such as the Liber XXIV philosophorum, a collection of definitions and commentaries on the nature of God, and the cosmological Liber de VI rerum principiis. We also find in this period the first translations (mainly from the Arabic) of astrological and magical works, such as the Picatrix and the work of Al-Kindi  (800-866). Al-Kindi wrote in one of his works that he saw a work by Hermes Trismegistus on the unity of God which no philosopher can deny.

The ‘Italian Renaissance’ of the Hermetica

In addition to the Corpus Hermeticum, the works of the ‘prisci theologi’ were enthusiastically studied in the Italian Renaissance. An important person in this context is Georgius Gemistus, who called himself Pletho to express his reverence for Plato. Pletho’s deep admiration for Plato, the Platonists and Zoroaster caused Cosimo de’ Medici to found a Platonic Academy in Florence. The idea of a ‘prisca theologia’ as expressed by Ficino in the dedication to his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum probably derives from Pletho. Ficino’s main translating interests concerned Plato and the Neoplatonists (a.o. Plotinus). His own works were also greatly inspired by Neoplatonic thought.

Hermetica 16th-18th centuries

Hermetic thought is one of the factors contributing to the reform movement of (natural) philosophy and science spreading from Italy throughout Europe. The physician Paracelsus, a follower of Hermes Trismegistus (he was known as ‘Trismegistus Germanus’) was a key figure in this context. Paracelsus strongly believed in the power of the ‘arcana’ in the healing process. According to him, these hidden macrocosmic powers could work their effect on man, the microcosm, having the power to change, renovate and restore not only the body, but also the patient’s mind. The Englishman Robert Fludd, in whose work the divine light was a central theme, was a Paracelsist and a follower of Hermes Trismegistus – he often refers to Hermetic works, for instance in his Mosaicall philosophy.

In the 17th century Amsterdam was a haven for enlightened thinkers; the works of Spinoza a.o. are printed here. This subsection also includes the works of advocates of religious tolerance (e.g. Castellio, Comenius, Coornhert).

Hermetica 19th century-present

An impressive culmination of the Hermetic tradition at the end of the 18th century is to be found in the Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer. In the 19th and 20th centuries, too, the Hermetic texts remained one of the factors shaping Western thought. In the 19th century new Hermetic societies were formed claiming a Graeco-Egyptian (Hellenistic) origin. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (1887), for instance, drew its inspiration from Christian-Hermetic thought as well as Freemasonry and magic. The English scholar A.E. Waite has his own sub-section within the Hermetica because  he contributed to every conceivable esoteric field during his long and successful career. New editions of classical Hermetic texts as well as fresh philosophical, esoteric and literary interpretations and studies appear to the present day. The study of the Hermetica received a new impetus in the 20th century, while 19th-century editions of source texts are still frequently reprinted. Especially the publications of A.E. Waite and G.R.S. Mead have encouraged new scholarly studies to appear in the broader field of the Hermetica. In the 2nd half of the 20th century, a number of important Hermetic texts were discovered in European libraries, including the so-called Hermetica of Oxford and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus.