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Hermes Trismegistus – Pater philosophorum

Hermes Trismegistus – Pater philosophorum

Catalogue compiled by Frank van Lamoen, 2004

A Textual history of the Corpus Hermeticum


The dissemination of the Corpus Hermeticum
Thoth and Hermes

For the Egyptians, Thoth was a versatile god. Initially, he was worshipped as a lunar god and many of his functions were derived by association. As the moon is illuminated by the sun, so Thoth derived his authority from the fact that he was the scribe of the sun god Re. From a lunar god he eventually also became the god of time, seasonal change, the cosmic order and the rhythm of daily life. He was the inventor of script, the God of letters and esoteric knowledge. As such he was called ‘the mysterious one’ or ‘the unknown one’. Because of his magical powers he was looked upon as a physician and guide of the souls to the kingdom of the Gods.

The Greeks in Egypt identified Thoth with Hermes, who was also associated with the moon, medicine and the underworld. He was the messenger of the Gods and the interpreter of the divine will. Hermes became Hermes Trismegistus through his assimilation with Thoth. He derived his title ‘Thrice-greatest’ from his Egyptian predecessor, whose eptithet ‘great’ was repeated twice or three times by way of superlative (cf. Fowden).

Hermes Trismegistus was regarded as a God, a king, or a priest and prophet, who was to have lived in Egypt around the time of Moses. He was also credited with the talents and inventions of Thoth, including the hieroglyphs. His teachings were inscribed in this holy language on the ‘pillars of Hermes’. Philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato were to have derived their wisdom from the hieroglyphs.

These notions were still current in late-classical times. Tertullian (ca 160 – ca 220) respectfully calls Hermes ‘magister omnium physicorum’. Jamblichus (ca 275 – ca 330) describes in De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum a type of philosophy as ‘the way of Hermes’ and notes that the Egyptian philosopher was reputed to have been the author of a great many books.

The Hermetica

Modern research has made a division in the Hermetic texts. On the one hand we have the practical or technical Hermetic texts on astrology, magic and alchemy. These include the Iatromathematica, the Centiloquium, the Tabula smaragdina and the Tractatus aureus. On the other hand we can distinguish the so-called philosophical Hermetica. The most important works amongst these are: the Latin Asclepius, the translation of which was for a long time wrongly attributed to Apuleius of Madaura (ca 123), the Corpus Hermeticum, fragments of Hermetic texts from the anthology of philosophical works, compiled by Johannes Stobaeus (ca 500), fragments from Lactantius, Cyrillus and others and Hermetic texts from the gnostic library of Nag Hammadi, including Coptic fragments of the Asclepius and the Hermetic definitions (cf Mahé).

Characterization of the Corpus Hermeticum

The Hermetic texts acquired their present form in the first centuries of our era in Alexandria. It was a twilight period in which philosophy as a rational discipline seemed to be exhausted. Alternative ways were sought to attempt to find answers to problems. With an appeal to the cultivation of the intuitive force in man, philosophy was placed in the service of a religious way of life. Hermetic treatises came into existence in ‘Hermes-communities’ as a direct result of oral tuition, in which certain didactic formulas were commented on in the light of existing Greek, Egyptian and Jewish conceptions, resulting in a syncretic tract which offered a new view of reality.

It is far from simple to characterize the Corpus Hermeticum. The texts discuss the relationship between God, the Cosmos and man, dealing amongst others with the following themes and ideas: the divine origin of man, his fall into matter and the eventual return through the spheres to the Father (CH I); knowledge of the Cosmos leads to knowledge of God (CH III); the nous, the intuitive vision unveiling the coherence between things, is a gift of mercy from God (CH IV); God is invisible, but may be known through his works (CH V); the greatest evil is ignorance (CH VII); death is merely a word, in reality there is only transition (CH VIII); in order to know God one must accept the oneness of the All (CH XI); the necessity of rebirth (CH XIII); self-knowledge leads to knowledge of God (CH I) and ascesis: the physical impedes the return to the divine source (CH I). For a thematic analysis of the Hermetica see J. Kroll Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos (1928).

There have been attempts in the past to classify the discourses and characterize them as pantheistic, Platonic, or Peripathetic, or as dualistic-gnostic versus monistic. (For a survey see Grese, ch. 2).

The triumph of Hermes: Italy

Little is known about the Hermetica in the Middle Ages. A philosopher such as Albertus Magnus was naturally familiar with the Latin Asclepius, the Liber XXIV philosophorum, – on the question of what is God – and the Hermetic fragments as they have been handed down via authorities like Lactantius and Cyrillus.

Stobaeus probably did not know the Corpus Hermeticum in its present composition. The first to have referred to the text as we now know it is the Byzantine Platonist Michael Psellus in the eleventh century.

A few centuries later the Hermetic discourses are rediscovered by a certain Leonardo of Pistoia, a monk in the service of Cosimo de Medici. In 1460 he brings the writings of Hermes to Florence. In 1463 Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) translates the text, consisting of fourteen discourses, into Latin; his friend Tommaso Benci produces an Italian translation in the same year, based on Ficino’s Latin translation. Soon there are a great number of copies in circulation. The first edition of Ficino’s translation appears in 1471. The editions which follow are for the greater part based on this first edition, and not on the revised edition of 1472 (cf Purnell 1977).

A very early Spanish translation by Diego Guillen, from 1485, remained unpublished (Escorialensis cast. b.IV.29; cf Kristeller SF II, p.cxxx).


In the winter of 1491-92 a meeting takes place in Florence between the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Ficino. The latter draws Lefèvre’s attention to the works of Hermes, which in 1494 results in the first edition of Ficino’s translation in France, with added comments. In 1505 Lefèvre again publishes this translation, adding the Latin Asclepius. In his commentary on the Asclepius he denounces its magical passages.

Symphorien Champier concurred with Lefèvre’s judgement on these passages and thought of an elegant solution to retain the integrity of Hermes: the passages on magic were interpolations by Apuleius. Champier published a sequel to the Hermetic discourses in 1507, the Definitiones Asclepii (CH XVI-XVIII). Gabriel du Préau made the first French translation on the basis of an edition of Lefèvre.

In 1554 the first edition of the Greek text was published, edited by Adrien Turnèbe (or Turnebus), a Professor of Greek at the Collège Royal, whose students included amongst others Pierre Ronsard. References to the works of Hermes are numerous in the French literature of the sixteenth century (cf. Schmidt).

A new Latin translation with a corrected Greek text was published in 1574 by Foix de Candale, bishop and alchemist. In the same year his French translation was published. In an elaborate commentary, published five years later, he pointed to many correspondences with Christianity.

The Netherlands

For Ficino, the authority of Hermes sealed the synthesis between Christianity and Platonism. The bastion of the godless Aristotle could be pulled down using the works of Hermes. In this context Francesco Patrizi published a new Greek-Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum in his Nova de universis philosophia (1591). In it he argued that a single passage from the works of Hermes contained more true philosophy than the entire works of Aristotle taken together. Followers of Aristotle were as a result moved to contest the antiquity of Hermes and referred to chronicles in which the philosopher was not mentioned as a contemporary of Moses, but as a thinker from late-classical times, in a sense therefore a student of Aristotle (cf. Purnell 1976).

In the absence of a Platonic tradition, such a debate did not take place in the Netherlands. The great adversary of Aristotle in this country was Descartes. Some of his ideas, incidentally, allowed a mystical interpretation. This interpretation was systematically offered in the works of Pierre Poiret (1646-1719) and, without any system, in the works of Willem Deurhoff (1650-1716).

Philosophically, the Dutch seventeenth-century scholars were oriented on the Stoa and its ethics of stoicism. The most important theological contention concerned the doctrine of predestination. The works of Hermes offered no solution here.

The Dutch translations of the Corpus Hermeticum were produced in heterodox circles: a translation after the French of Foix de Candale (1574) from the circles of Plantin remained unpublished; the first printed version appeared in 1607, translated after the Italian of Tommaso Benci, by J.P. Schagen, a friend of the alchemist Cornelis Drebbel. The next translation was of A.W. van Beyerland, the driving force behind the publication of the works of Jacob Böhme. This translation carries an unmistakable Boehmist signature.

In both printed translations the nous, the intuitive faculty in man which offers insight into the coherence of things, is translated with ‘gemoed’ [mind], the seat of the affections. This makes for a Stoically or ascetically coloured intrepetation, in which the emphasis is laid on peace of mind and silence as a necessary condition to experience the presence of the divine.


In one of his church-historical works (1614) the philologist Isaac Casaubon demonstrated in passing that the works of Hermes were not as ancient as they were believed to be. He characterized the use of language as late-classical Greek, and consequently did not consider the Hermetic texts to be Egyptian in origin. Modern research has shown that Casaubon was only partly right: although the Hermetic texts were written in the first centuries of our era, they nevertheless contain Egyptian influences.

After suggestions by Tiedemann (1781) [no 67], Ménard (1866) [no 78] and Reitzenstein (1904) [no 83], this thesis was formulated most comprehensively in J.P. Mahé’s Hermès en haute-Egypte (1978-82) on the basis of the Hermetic texts in the gnostic library of Nag Hammadi.

In his perceptive essay Egyptian and Hermetic Doctrine (1984) the Egyptologist Erik Iversen pointed to the numerous neglected parallels between the Hermetic texts and a much older mythical-cosmological literature from Egypt. With this he confirmed an observation by Jamblichus on the origin of the Hermetic discourses in De mysteriis Aegyptiorum VIII.4: originally Egyptian concepts were to have been translated in the terminology of Greek philosophy, by people who were very familiar with these concepts.

Although Casaubon’s findings might have diminished the appeal of the Hermetic texts for seventeenth-century philologists, this was not the case for those interested in Hermetic philosophy. The first English translation appeared in 1650 and was reprinted seven years later, with the addition of the Asclepius.

Before that time readers only had access to the Latin translation. John Dee (1527-1608) used Ficino’s translation. His approach was largely magical, with an appeal to Platonic texts in the style of Jamblichus, Synesius, and Proclus. Ficino had also translated the works of these late-classical authors.

The Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd (1574-1637) incorporated the Hermetic discourses in his Paracelsist philosophy. He abundantly refers to the texts of Hermes in his Philosophia Mosaica (1638). The parallels between Poimandres (CH I) and Genesis, the first of the Mosaic books, were, after all, evident.


The first German translation appeared in 1706 on the basis of the Dutch translation of Van Beyerland and Patrizi’s Latin-Greek edition. This relatively late date of publication does not imply that there was no interest in the Hermetica in Central Europe. On the contrary: the physician and philosopher Paracelsus (1493-1541) fused the Hermetic philosophy into his own idiosyncratic system; Michael Maier (1568-1622) regularly referred to Hermes and his writings, notably in Symbola aureae mensae (1617), book I.

Modern editions

The renaissance of esoteric thought in the nineteenth century stimulated the study of the works of Hermes in the circles of mystics, Rosicrucians and theosophists. The close relationship between the Hermetica and gnosticism was observed and the hieroglyphs were deciphered (1822), which enabled research into the backgrounds of Hermes-Thoth (cf. Pietschmann 1875).

The first critical edition of the Corpus Hermeticum and related texts appeared in the years 1945-54. The Greek text was edited by A.D. Nock and translated into French by A.J. Festugière. On the basis of this edition a Spanish translation appeared in Barcelona in 1985 while an Italian version of the Poimandres was published in Venice in 1987. A recent English translation was supplied by Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica. The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius, Cambridge 1992; a German translation by Jens Holzhausen, Das Corpus Hermeticum Deutsch, Stuttgart 1995.

The Egyptian Arch-Gnosis

In the years 1960-65 Jan van Rijckenborgh, the spiritual leader of the Dutch Lectorium Rosicrucianum, published a comprehensive synthesis of spiritual insights, in four parts, under the title: De Egyptische Oer-Gnosis en Haar Roep in het Eeuwige Nù [The Egyptian Arch-Gnosis and its call in the Etarnal Present]. In his commentary, the author proclaims the actuality of a continuously renewing Hermetic gnosis, referring to the Tabula smaragdina and the Corpus Hermeticum. The Hermetic discourses are translated from the German, and interpret the concept ‘nous’ as ‘mind’ in the tradition of Van Beyerland and others.

The catalogue

The textual history of the Corpus Hermeticum is rather complicated. This catalogue is a first step towards a textual history on the basis of the standard bibliographies of Dannefeldt and Kristeller, the Dutch libraries in The Hague, Amsterdam and Leiden and the printed catalogues of the Bibliothèque Nationale, British Library and Library of Congress. The research yielded a number of works hitherto unknown in the literature on the Hermetica.

The catalogue at the same time attempts to offer the reader insight into the complex contents of the Corpus Hermeticum. To this end grateful use was made of the new Dutch translation by R. van den Broek and G. Quispel and their additional notes. The quotations from the Corpus Hermeticum are based on Brian P. Copenhaver’s recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

I am very grateful to Prof. Dr R. van den Broek for critically reviewing relevant parts of the text.