Hermes the Thrice-Greatest
(In the world of occultism, something that regularly pops up is the word “Hermetic”, usually referring to practices of “Theurgy” or “High Magic”. The term itself derives primarily from a series of ancient writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum, attributed to a mysterious author called Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes the “Thrice-Greatest”. The following is an edited snippet from a paper I wrote for one of my college classes. The general scope of the paper was the Christian-Hermetc synthesis of the Renaissance. However, the passage below deals specifically with our buddy Hermes.)
Renaissance man believed very strongly that ancient times were far preferable to their current world state. A myth had been propagated, even back during the early centuries AD, that the yonder halcyon days of yore were wondrous times indeed, and that the world had degenerated considerably, both intellectually and morally, since then.
“The men of the second century were thoroughly imbued with the idea (which the Renaissance imbibed from them) that was is old is pure and holy, that the earliest thinkers walked more closely with the gods than the busy rationalists, their successors. Hence the strong revival of Pythagoreanism in this age.” -Fracis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
Such a myth of antiquitorial supremacy was pushed even further by those of the Renaissance who avidly read the Bible, which claimed astonishingly long life spans for its ancient patriarchs, especially those only a few generations away from Adam.
Egypt held as much of an air of mystery and antiquity during the Renaissance as it does now. Perhaps even more so, since hieroglyphs had yet to have been deciphered, and what little the learned folk of the Renaissance knew about ancient Egypt they had most probably gleaned from the writings of Plato, Plutarch, and the Old Testament. This changed, however, when the writings of what they believed to be ancient Egypt fell into the lap of a certain Florentine man fluent in Greek by the name of Marsilio Ficino.
Sometime around 1460 or so, an agent of Cosimo de Medici, a monk by trade, or so the stories go, brought back with him from Macedonia a collection of manuscripts that he had acquired for the wealthy patriarch. Within this collection was contained fourteen of the fifteen books deemed to be the Corpus Hermeticum – the supposed writings of the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus.
Although Ficino had already been hired by Cosimo to translate the scores of Greek manuscripts the Medici family had collected of the works of writers such as Plato and Plotinus, now more readily available since the “Great Turk” had conquered Byzantium, Cosimo ordered Ficino to cease his translations of these other manuscripts at once, in order to dedicate all of his time and energy towards the decipherment of these Hermetic treatises. It is said Cosimo knew that he was near the end of his life, and wanted to read the treatises before he died. Ficino finished the translation within a few months (and a few years prior to the passing of Cosimo in 1464), and the resulting work, quickly disseminated throughout Europe, was to ignite a philosophical fire in the minds of many Renaissance thinkers, occult-oriented or otherwise.
It should be noted that the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, or at least, the legend of them, had already been spreading throughout Renaissance Europe through two rather unlikely sources. Early Christian Church fathers Lactantius and Augustine had written about Hermes in the third and fourth centuries AD, respectively, and their Latin treatises had been, by the time of the Renaissance, well-circulated and well ready by both clergy and intellectual Christian alike. In fact, the writings of both of these Christians propagated the myth that Hermes Trismegistus was not only one specific person, but from an ancient, forgotten past. Lactantius, who occasionally quotes sections of the Corpus Hermeticum, claims in his De ira Dei that Hermes is considerably more ancient than both Plato and Pythagoras (and as we have mentioned previously, antiquity was a major intellectual turn-on to the Renaissance mind), and Augustine even places him shortly after the time of Moses, yet simultaneously far earlier than the Greek philosophers.
Unlike Augustine, who seemed rather blatantly critical of just about everything that was not Judeo-Christian in nature, Lactantius seems to have made a habit of quoting generously from certain Pagan philosophical texts in order to support what he deemed the wisdom of the Christian religion, and the writings of the Thrice-Greatest were simply chock full of references that could very easily be interpreted as “Christian” in nature. For instance, Hermes somewhat commonly refers to the God of Creation as “Father”, as well as refers to the Demiurge as the “Son of God”. In the Hermetic text Pimander, it is said that the act of creation occurs through the power of a luminous Word, the Logos, in a similar manner to the Gospel of St. John. As such, Lactantius places his blessing upon the writings of the Corpus Hermeticum as God-inspired works before the coming of Christ.
“Indeed, Lactantius regards Hermes Trismegistus as one of the most important of the Gentile seers and prophets who foresaw the coming of Christianity, because he spoke of the Son of God and the Word. In three passages of the Institutes he cites Trismegistus with the Sibyls as testifying to the coming of Christ. Lactantius nowhere says anything against Hermes Trismegistus. He is always the most ancient and all-wise writer, the tenor of whose works is agreeable to Christianity and whose mention of God the Son places him with the Sibyls as a Gentile prophet.” – Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
It would be this favorable light shed upon the writings of Hermes that would spark and inspire the Renaissance occultists to embrace what would from then on be considered, in many circles, Hermetic magical philosophy. As an added bonus, they could do so without fear of divine (or ecclesiastical) retribution, since a well-respected and prolific member of the early Church had given his sanction to the study of what would be considered, under different circumstances, blasphemous texts.
So seemingly compatible were the writings of Trismegistus to the Renaissance Christians, and so revered by the Church father Lactantius and contemporary scholars alike, that the unthinkable happened: a Pagan image was engraved upon Holy Ground, within Siena’s cathedral itself.
“In the middle of the pavement one finds a representation of Hermes portrayed as a huge old man with a long beard, dressed in a flowing robe. Under his feet is found the inscription: ‘HERMES MERCURIUS TRISMEGISTUS CONTEMPORANEUS MOYSI’. With his right hand, he extends to a deferential wise man an open book with the words: ‘SUSCIPITE O LICTERAS ET LEGES EGIPTII’ – ‘Support thy letters and laws, O Egyptians’.” -Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus
Also included in the representation are the images of a man dressed in Renaissance garb witnessing the event, as well as a table set upon two sphinxes which holds an abbreviated (and somewhat modified) passage from the Latin version of the Asclepius, which roughly translates to:
“God, the Creator of all things, made the second visible god and made him first and alone, [the second god], in whom He was well pleased, He loved deeply as [he was] His own son, who is called Holy Word.” -Peter J. French, John Dee…
This was done specifically to show that Hermes was actually a prophet of the coming of Christ, as opposed to a mere heathen mystic.
Hermetic fever had spread throughout all of Christendom. Ficino’s translations were instant hits, and by the 16th century, hundreds upon hundreds of the Renaissance’s leading intelligentsia owned copies of the Corpus Hermeticum and related works. These were not limited to occultists such as Ficino, Pico Della Mirandola or Giordano Bruno, but even the likes of the Catholic King Phillip II of Spain, Sir Walter Raleigh, and theologian Philippe Du Plessis-Mornay owned and wrote about the many Hermetic treatises that were then being disseminated throughout all of Europe.
Though the myth was that the Hermetic treatises were written by a single enlightened master way back in the ancient times of the biblical patriarchs, in truth, they appear to have post dated not only Pythagoras and Plato, but Christ as well. Scholars date their composition sometime between 100 and 300 AD, during the Roman occupation of Egypt. Their authors were most probably Greek-speaking Egyptians of various philosophical backgrounds, following a relatively Platonic format. Willis Barnstone, talking about the Hermetic book known as Poimandres, explains:
“Although the author (or authors) of the Poimandres is aware of Judaism and Christianity, this syncretic work is basically Pagan, deriving from Egyptian Hellenistic Platonism.. False attribution in order to lend authority to a text was a common practice in antiquity – we have many poems incorrectly attributed to Sappho, Plato, Anacreon, and Theognis – as it also was among European bookprinters until very recently. As for religious texts, the practice was the rule.” -Willis Barnstone, The Other Bible
Those interested in reading the Corpus Hermeticum can find it here.