The esoteric traditions of the West: part III: Hermeticism

In the Renaissance there was an occult revival and many people were interested in different cultures and philosophies. In 1439 Cosimo de Medici (1389 – 1464) founded his “Platonic Academy” in Florence (Italy) for these studies.
Then in 1460 the monk Leonardo of Pistoia (?? – ??) came back from his journey through Macedonia bringing a Greek handwriting which he handed over to De Medici. The scripture contained 14 tracts/treaties and De Medici was thrilled. He told his brilliant pupil Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499) to stop his translations of Plato to start translating the new found texts. De Medici and others believed the texts to be written by the most ancient teacher of mankind, the Egyptian wiseman Hermes Trismegistos. In the times of De Medici they were not completely sure when Hermes would have lived, either in times a long, long time ago, around the time of Moses or a few generations after Moses. This also sets the idea behind this article. Sometimes Hermeticism is regarded as the oldest esoteric tradition descending from the earliest dynasties of Egypt, at other times originated in Alexandria, the Greek city in northern Egypt somewhere around the beginning of our counting of years.

Already in the fifth century BC Herodotus identified the Egyptian god Tehuti/Thoth with his own Greek Hermes. Thoth was the bringer of writing, science and culture and in Egyptian writings (such as the Rosetta Stone) called the “big and big” Thoth and in a Greek translation from 165 BC found in 1966 in Saqqara “the great and the great and the great god Hermes” (Egyptian doesn’t have superlatives). This became the ‘thrice greatest’ and eventually in Greek ‘Trismegistos’ which means the same.

In 1462 Ficino was asked to start to translate the first found Hermetic scriptures and in a few months time (summer 1463) he was finished. Parts of it went around in interested circles and in 1471 the translation became available in printing for the first time and being reprinted countless times in the next centuries.
The first treaty was called “Poimandres” and Ficino thought that the other treaties were chapters of a book that he named “Pimander”, a book with 14 chapters. Later more scriptures were found that could belong to the “Corpus Hermeticum” (‘Hermetic body of writings’ so to say). In 1507 for example a scripture was published in Ludovico Lazzarelli’s (1450 – 1500) Latin translation which we now know as treaty XVI “Aphorisms”. The first time the original Greek texts were published was in 1554 by Adrianus Turnebus (or Adrièn Turnebe 1512 – 1565) which has 17 treaties and three fragments that he found in a compilation of Greek quotes by Johannes Stobaeus (1580 – 1646). The Frenchman François de Foix de Candale (1502 – 1594) republished the Greek texts of Turnebus with some corrections and a new translation in Latin. He left out the tracts XVII “Images” and XVIII “Oration For Kingdom” and mistakingly made the Stobaeus quotes chapter XV. Later people recognised the mistakes, left out tract XV again and re-added XVII and XVIII, which is the reason that current editions of the Corpus Hermeticum count from I to XIV and from XVI to XVIII.

During the Renaissance nobody had doubts about the authenticity of the Corpus Hermeticum. Moses, Plato, Pythagoras, every big philosopher or religious reformer in the past or current time had been influenced by Hermes and his teachings. The oldest scriptures ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos were the ancient magical papyruses from the time of Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD). These magical writings are one kind of scriptures ascribed to Hermes. Another group are astrological writings which resulted in medicine, botany and other writings about subjects that could be influenced by moving stars. Much later in the Roman periode also alchemical writings were ‘added’ to the Hermetic scriptures and the last writings of Hermes were of a more philosophical nature.

Sometime somehow people started to compile writings ascribed to Hermes. An early work called “The Hermetic Definitions” is one, the neo-Platonist Porphyrius (322 – 305) wrote his wife a letter somewhere around the year 300 in which he compiled a lot of (Hermetic) sayings and also the “Teachings Of Sylvanus” (that was found with other old writings near Nag Hammadi in 1947) is one of these. The earlier mentioned Stobaeus made his compilations in the 5th century.
The oldest handwritings of what we now know as the “Corpus Hermeticum” are from the 14th century. Different versions were found with different numbers of treaties. It is known though that the 11th century Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus (1018 – 1078) already knew the scriptures in collected form and Stobaeus again knew a lot of Hermetic scriptures, but there is no proof that he owned them in one binding. In Vienna/Wien in Austria -though- there are fragments of papyruses of around the start of the 3rd century with Hermetic texts naming them “tract 9” and “tract 10” so they definately should have been part of a larger compilation.

The name of Hermes (“Trismegistos”) and the Hermetic scriptures themselves suggest that the wisdom originated in Egypt, but in 1614 the Swiss protestant scholar Isaac Casaubon (often called Casaubonus) (1559 – 1614) published his “Exercitationes ad Cardinalis Baronii prolegomena ad Annales” (‘investigation of the “Annales Ecclesiastici” of cardinal Cesare Baronio (or Baronius)’ the cardinals history of the Christian church). Casaubon especially opens his attack on pre-Christian heretics and he totally devestated the idea that the Hermetic scriptures are ancient-old and have Egyptian origins using very good arguments and proof. After this there has always been some reservedness to ascribe ancient texts to Hermes. Also looking at the writings himself the Egyptian origins is dubious. There are Greek and Jewish influences in many texts suggesting the strong ‘hellinised’ Jewish influences of Alexandria. Of course this was a city in Egypt and a lot of Egyptians lived there as well, so Egyptian influences are not unlikely, but translations from ancient Egyptian texts?
However none of the tracts can be precisely dated, it is almost certain that many of them were written in the ecclectic community of Alexandria. The influences are Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, Gnostic and even slightly Christian at times. It seems that around the year 300 there were already so many Hermetic scriptures that nowadays scholars think that most of them were written in the three centuries before.

So, rediscovered in the Renaissance, this fact suggests that when the young and rapidly upcomming religion of Christianity gained power and destroyed the Alexandrian libraries in 392 AD, Hermeticism went underground for a thousand years. Like I said in the article about Alchemy it were the Muslims that has kept the Hermetic tradition alive absorbing it in their own esoterica. The Muslims kept both Hermetic and alchemical writings and in the periode of peace during their reign over southern Europe a lot of writings were translated back and came back in the hands of Europeans. The now so famous “Tabula Smaragdina” was discovered in the writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 – 803 in the west known as Geber) in the 16th century. And as the opener of this article said a compilation of Hermetic texts fell in the hands of the Italian occultist Cosimo de Medici.

Actually the Alchemical and Hermetic stories have been perpetually mixed up. Alexandrian Hermeticists were probably often also alchemists or maybe you can say that Hermeticism was spiritual alchemy in contradition to the more practical forms of alchemy. The students of both traditions in the times after De Medici are often the same: Ramon Lull (1235 – 1315) Christian alchemist and active writer, probably also forerunner of the Christian Cabala; Johannes Reuchlin (1455 – 1522) a German Hermeticist and Kabbalist; Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486 – 1535) an allround occultist/magician and writer; John Dee (1527 – 1608) actively writing UK occultist; Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) philosophical alchemist (Hermeticist) who was burnt at the stake; Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) Franciscan friar involved in the early Rosicrucian movement; Michael Maier (1569 – 1622) alchemist and early Rosicrucian or Robert Fludd (1574 – 1637) another English Rosicrucian.

As you can see the Renaissance revival led to new Hermetic movements such as the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. After that Hermeticism has been slumberingly existant until the current time. Here and there slowing a tip of the iceberg such as in the 1960’ies occult revival. After the time of Newton (1642 – 1727 who was an active alchemist himself by the way) alchemy has fallen from grace and become ‘science in childs-years’, so more spiritual western traditions found it easier to survive and nowadays there are some Crowlegian Hermetic groups, but also more ‘traditional’ Hermeticists or people interested in the tradition. The few texts that are left are often very well available and this article is largely based on the introduction to the Dutch translation of the “Corpus Hermeticum” that the two scholars Roel van den Broek en Gilles Quispel made for the Dutch “Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica” founded by Joost Ritman in 1957 in Amsterdam and having an impressive collection of Hermetic (and other) writings to keep the tradition alive and available in our times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × 9 =