Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice-greatest Hermes”; Mercurius ter Maximus) is the purported author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that are the basis of Hermeticism.
Origin and identity
Hermes, the Greek god of interpretive communication, was combined with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. The Egyptian priest and polymath Imhotep had been deified long after his death and therefore assimilated to Thoth in the classical and Hellenistic periods. The renowned scribe Amenhotep and a wise man named Teôs were coequal deities of wisdom, science, and medicine; and, thus, they were placed alongside Imhotep in shrines dedicated to Thoth–Hermes during the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
A Mycenaean Greek reference to a deity or semi-deity called ti-ri-se-ro-e (“thrice or triple hero”) was found on two Linear B clay tablets at Pylos and could be connected to the later epithet “thrice great”, Trismegistos, applied to Hermes/Thoth. On the aforementioned PY Tn 316 tablet—as well as other Linear B tablets found in Pylos, Knossos, and Thebes—there appears the name of the deity “Hermes” as e-ma-ha, but not in any apparent connection with the “Trisheros”. This interpretation of poorly understood Mycenaean material is disputed, since Hermes Trismegistus is not referenced in any of the copious sources before he emerges in Hellenistic Egypt.
Cicero enumerates several deities referred to as “Hermes”: a “fourth Mercury (Hermes) was the son of the Nile, whose name may not be spoken by the Egyptians”; and “the fifth, who is worshiped by the people of Pheneus [in Arcadia], is said to have killed Argus Panoptes, and for this reason to have fled to Egypt, and to have given the Egyptians their laws and alphabet: he it is whom the Egyptians call Theyt”. The most likely interpretation of this passage is as two variants on the same syncretism of Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thoth (or sometimes other gods): the fourth (where Hermes turns out “actually” to have been a “son of the Nile,” i.e. a native god) being viewed from the Egyptian perspective, the fifth (who went from Greece to Egypt) being viewed from the Greek-Arcadian perspective. Both of these early references in Cicero (most ancient Trismegistus material is from the early centuries AD) corroborate the view that Thrice-Great Hermes originated in Hellenistic Egypt through syncretism between Greek and Egyptian gods (the Hermetica refer most often to Thoth and Amun).
The Hermetic literature among the Egyptians, which was concerned with conjuring spirits and animating statues, inform the oldest Hellenistic writings on Greco-Babylonian astrology and on the newly developed practice of alchemy. In a parallel tradition, Hermetic philosophy rationalized and systematized religious cult practices and offered the adept a means of personal ascension from the constraints of physical being. This latter tradition has led to the confusion of Hermeticism with Gnosticism, which was developing contemporaneously.
As a divine source of wisdom, Hermes Trismegistus was credited with tens of thousands of highly esteemed writings, which were reputed to be of immense antiquity. Clement of Alexandria was under the impression that the Egyptians had forty-two sacred writings by Hermes, writings that detailed the training of Egyptian priests. Siegfried Morenz has suggested, in Egyptian Religion: “The reference to Thoth’s authorship… is based on ancient tradition; the figure forty-two probably stems from the number of Egyptian nomes, and thus conveys the notion of completeness.” The neoplatonic writers took up Clement’s “forty-two essential texts”.
The Hermetica is a category of papyri containing spells and initiatory induction procedures. The dialogue called the Asclepius (after the Greek god of healing) describes the art of imprisoning the souls of demons or of angels in statues with the help of herbs, gems, and odors, so that the statue could speak and engage in prophecy. In other papyri, there are recipes for constructing such images and animating them, such as when images are to be fashioned hollow so as to enclose a magic name inscribed on gold leaf.
Fowden asserts that the first datable occurrences of the epithet “thrice great” are in the Legatio of Athenagoras of Athens and in a fragment from Philo of Byblos, circa AD 64–141. However, in a later work, Copenhaver reports that this epithet is first found in the minutes of a meeting of the council of the Ibis cult, held in 172 BC near Memphis in Egypt. Hart explains that the epithet is derived from an epithet of Thoth found at the Temple of Esna, “Thoth the great, the great, the great.” The date of Hermes Trismegistus’s sojourn in Egypt during his last incarnation is not now known, but it has been fixed at the early days of the oldest dynasties of Egypt, long before the days of Moses. Some authorities regard him as a contemporary of Abraham, and claim that Abraham acquired a portion of his mystical knowledge from Hermes himself (Kybalion).
Many Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity. They believed in the existence of a prisca theologia, a single, true theology that threads through all religions. It was given by God to man in antiquity and passed through a series of prophets, which included Zoroaster and Plato. In order to demonstrate the verity of the prisca theologia, Christians appropriated the Hermetic teachings for their own purposes. By this account, Hermes Trismegistus was either a contemporary of Moses, or the third in a line of men named Hermes, i.e. Enoch, Noah, and the Egyptian priest king who is known to us as Hermes Trismegistus on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher, and king.
This last account of how Hermes Trismegistus received that epithet is derived from statements in the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe.
Another explanation, in the Suda (10th century), is that “He was called Trismegistus on account of his praise of the trinity, saying there is one divine nature in the trinity.”
The Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the Hermetica, the surviving writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. During the Renaissance, it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses. However, after Casaubon’s dating of the Hermetic writings as being no earlier than the second or third century AD, the whole of Renaissance Hermeticism collapsed. As to their actual authorship:
… they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by an all wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various unknown authors, all probably Greeks, and they contain popular Greek philosophy of the period, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism, combined with some Jewish and probably some Persian influences.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Hermetica enjoyed great prestige and were popular among alchemists. The “hermetic tradition” consequently refers to alchemy, magic, astrology, and related subjects. The texts are usually divided into two categories: the philosophical and the technical hermetica. The former deals mainly with philosophy, and the latter with practical magic, potions, and alchemy. Magic spells to protect objects, for example, are the origin of the expression “hermetically sealed”.
The classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, in De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes XVI (1614), showed, through an analysis of the Greek language used in the texts, that those texts believed to be of ancient origin were in fact much more recent: most of the philosophical Corpus Hermeticum can be dated to around AD 300. However, the 17th century scholar Ralph Cudworth argued that Casaubon’s allegation of forgery could only be applied to three of the seventeen treatises contained within the Corpus Hermeticum.
See also: Idris (prophet)
According to ancient Arab genealogists, the Prophet Muhammad, who is also believed to have traveled to the heavens on the night of Isra and Mi’raj, is a direct descendant of Hermes Trismegistus. Ibn Kathir said, “As for Idris… He is in the genealogical chain of the Prophet Muhammad, except according to one genealogist… Ibn Ishaq says he was the first who wrote with the Pen. There was a span of 380 years between him and the life of Adam. Many of the scholars allege that he was the first to speak about this, and they call him Thrice-Great Hermes [Hermes Trismegistus]”. Ahmad al-Buniconsidered himself a follower of the hermetic teachings; and his contemporary Ibn Arabi mentioned Hermes Trismegistus in his writings. The Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya of Ibn Arabi speaks of Hermes’s travels to “vast cities (outside earth), possessing technologies far superior then ours” and meeting with the Twelfth Imam, the Ninth (generation) from the Third (al-Husayn the third Imam) (referring here to the Masters of Wisdom from the Emerald Tablet), who also ascended to the heavens, and is still alive like his ancestor Hermes Trismegistus”.
A late Arabic writer wrote of the Sabaeans that their religion had a sect of star worshipers who held their doctrine to come from Hermes Trismegistus through the prophet Adimun.
Antoine Faivre, in The Eternal Hermes (1995), has pointed out that Hermes Trismegistus has a place in the Islamic tradition, although the name Hermes does not appear in the Qur’an. Hagiographers and chroniclers of the first centuries of the Islamic Hegira quickly identified Hermes Trismegistus with Idris, the nabi of surahs 19.57 and 21.85, whom the Arabs also identified with Enoch (cf. Genesis 5.18–24). Idris/Hermes was termed “Thrice-Wise” Hermes Trismegistus because he had a threefold origin. The first Hermes, comparable to Thoth, was a “civilizing hero”, an initiator into the mysteries of the divine science and wisdom that animate the world; he carved the principles of this sacred science in hieroglyphs. The second Hermes, in Babylon, was the initiator of Pythagoras. The third Hermes was the first teacher of alchemy. “A faceless prophet,” writes the Islamicist Pierre Lory, “Hermes possesses no concrete or salient characteristics, differing in this regard from most of the major figures of the Bible and the Quran.” A common interpretation of the representation of “Trismegistus” as “thrice great” recalls the three characterizations of Idris: as a messenger of god, or a prophet; as a source of wisdom, or hikmet (wisdom from hokmah); and as a king of the world order, or a “sultanate”. These are referred to as müselles bin ni’me.
New Age revival
Modern occultists suggest that some Hermetic texts may be of Pharaonic origin, and that the legendary “forty-two essential texts” that contain the core Hermetic religious beliefs and philosophy of life, remain hidden in a secret library.
The book Kybalion, by “The Three Initiates”, addresses Hermetic principles.
Within the occult tradition, Hermes Trismegistus is associated with several wives, and more than one son who took his name, as well as more than one grandson. This repetition of given name and surname throughout the generations may at least partially account for the legend of his longevity, especially as it is believed that many of his children pursued careers as priests in mystery religions.
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