We interpret Hermes as a figure associated with wisdom transmitted to man from divine sources. Historically, the name Hermes referred to several different personages:
The Greek god Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia messenger for Zeus god of commerce and the market; patron of traders, merchants and thieves the Divine Herald who leads dead souls down to the underworld inventor of the lyre, the pipes, the musical scale, astronomy, weights and measures, boxing, gymnastics and the care of olive trees
Thoth, Egyptian god of wisdom and science the moon-god, represented in ancient
paintings as ibis-headed with the disc and crescent of the moon the god of letters and the recording of time
The Roman god, Mercury, messenger of the gods messenger for Zeus had winged sandals, a winged hat, and a golden Caduceus, or magic wand, with entwined snakes and rising wings believed to possess magical powers over sleep and dreams
The mystic figure, Thrice-Great Hemes, who may have represented three different teachers in the Illuminist tradition described as a very powerful ancient mage, not a god in his writings, collectively called the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes describes himself as "Philosopher, Priest, and King" wrote the Emerald Tablet and taught Pythagoras, among other exploits
In his major work, The Sufis, Idries Shah states that "both the Sufis and the alchemists claim Hermes as an initiate of their craft." Many Sufis, including al-Farabi, Geber, and Roger Bacon, among others, were described as "Hermetic" or "Illuminist."
Hermeticism is one of the many streams of transmission of the Illuminist Tradition, the inner, secret teaching concealed within every genuine religion and philosophy.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. That which is above is like that which is below and that which is below is like that which is above, to accomplish the miracle of unity.
Everything is formed from the contemplation of unity, and all things come about from unity, by means of adaptation.
The father thereof is the Sun, the mother the Moon.
The wind carried it in its womb, the Earth is the nurse therof.
It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.
Its power is complete.
If it is cast upon Earth, it will separate the element of Earth from that of Fire, the impalpable separated from the palpable.
Through wisdom it rises slowly from Earth to Heaven.
Then it descends to Earth, combining in itself the force from things superior and things inferior.
Thus you shall have the glory of the illumination of all the world, and all obscurity will fly far from you.
This is the power of all strength--it overcomes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid substance.
This was the means of the creation of the world.
In the future wonderful adaptations will be achieved, and this is the way.
I am Hermes the Threefold Sage, so named because I hold the three elements of all wisdom. And thus ends the revelation of the work of the Sun.
Controversy remains as to the actual date of the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic>. In 1614 C.E., Isaac Casaubon, a Greek scholar, in his <italic>de rebus sacris et ecclesiaticis exercitiones XVI</italic>, argued that the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> could not possibly have been written by an ancient Egyptian sage--whether Hermes Trismegistus or anyone else. The Greek style of the <italic>Corpus</italic>, he maintained, was of the period of Plotinus (second and third Century C.E.) However, the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> as we have it now could have been a first to third century C.E. translation of extremely ancient writings. Casaubon's argument that the writings could not have been by Hermes Trismegistus because neither Plato nor Aristotle nor other pagan sources refer to him specifically, doesn't hold water. If we read Plato carefully we find him referring to ancient wisdom which has much in common with the the Hermetic writings.
The most famous of the Hermetic writings is the "Divine Pymander" or <italic>Poimandres</italic> (Gk. <italic>Poimen Anthropos,</italic> "the Shepherd of Men"). The first part of this treaties is given here:
Pimander, who is the Nous, or divine mens, appears to Trismegistus when his corporeal senses are bound as in a heavy sleep.
Trismegistus expresses his longing to know the nature of beings and to know God.
Pimander's aspect changes, and Trismegistus sees a limitless vision which is all light. Then a kind of obscurity or darkness appears, out of which comes a kind of fire in which is heard an indescribable sound, like a fiery groan, while from the light issues a holy Word, and a fire without mixture leaps from the moist region up to the sublime, and the air, being light, follows the fiery breath. "That light," says Pimander, "is I myself, Nous, thy God and the luminous Word issuing from the Nous is the Son of God. "
Trismegistus then sees within himself, in his own Nous or mens, the light and an innumerable number of Powers, a limitless world and the fire enveloped in an all powerful force. He asks Pimander, "Whence then arise the elements of nature?" and Pimander replies, "From the Will of God, which received into itself the Word. . . . And the Nous-God, existing as life and light, brought forth a second Nous-Demiurge, who being the god of fire and breath, fashioned the Governors, seven in number, who envelop with their circles the sensible world." The Word united itself with the Nous-Demiurge, being of the same substance, and the Nous-Demiurge conjointly with the Word moves the Seven Governors on which all the lower elemental worlds depend.
After the Nous-Demiurge-Word of fire and breath had fashioned the Seven Governors and set them in motion, there comes in Trismegistus' account the creation of Man, which is the direct action of the Nous-Father.
Now the Nous, Father of all beings, being life and light, brought forth a Man similar to himself, whom he loved as his own child. For the Man was beautiful, reproducing the image of his Father: for it was indeed with his own form that God fell in love and gave over to him all his works. Now, when he saw the creation which the Demiurge had fashioned in the fire, the Man wished also to produce a work, and permission to do this was given him by the Father. Having thus entered into the demiurgic sphere, in which he had full power, the Man saw the works of his brother, and the Governors fell in love with him, and each gave to him a part in their own rule. Then, having learned their essence and having received participation in their nature, he wished to break through the periphery of the circles and to know the power of Him who reigns above the fire.
Then Man, who had full power over the world of mortal beings and of animals, leant across the armature of the spheres, having broken through their envelopes, and showed to the Nature below the beautiful form of God. When she saw that he had in him the inexhaustible beauty and all the energy of the Governors, joined to the form of God, Nature smiled with love, for she had seen the features of that marvellously beautiful form of Man reflected in the water and his shadow on the earth. And he, having seen this form like to himself in Nature, reflected in the water, he loved her and wished to dwell with her. The moment he wished this he accomplished it and came to inhabit the irrational form. Then Nature having received her loved one, embraced him, and they were united, for they burned with love.
Man having taken on a mortal body, in order to live with Nature, is alone of all terrestrial beings of a double nature, mortal through his body, immortal through the essential Man. Although in fact immortal and having power over all things, he has also through his body the condition of mortality, being under Destiny and the slave of the armature of the spheres. "Now," says Pimander, "I will reveal to you a mystery which has been hidden until now. Nature being united to Man in love produced an amazing prodigy. Man, as I said, had in him the nature of the assembly of the Seven, composed of fire and breath. Nature from her union with Man brought forth seven men corresponding to the natures of the Seven Governors, being both male and female and rising up towards the sky." The generation of the seven first men was made in the following fashion. Female was the earth, water the generative element; the fire brought things to maturity, and from ether Nature received the vital breath,! and she produced the bodies with the form of Man. As for Man, from life and light which he had been, he changed to soul and intellect, the life changing to soul and the light to intellect. And all the beings of the sensible world remained in this state until the end of a period.
At the end of this period, continues Pimander, the link which bound all things was broken by the will of God. Man and all animals, which till then had been both male and female, separated into two sexes and God spoke the word, increase and multiply.
Then Providence, through destiny and the armature of the spheres, established the generations, and all living things multiplied, each according to their species.
Pimander gives Trismegistus advice as to how he is to comport himself in life in view of the mystery which has been imparted to him. He is to know himself, because "he who knows himself goes towards himself," that is towards his true nature. "You are light and life, like God the Father of whom Man was born. If therefore you learn to know yourself as made of light and life ... you will return to life." Only the man who has intellect (not all men have it) can thus know himself. And Trismegistus must live a pure and holy life, rendering the Father propitious to him through filial love and uttering benedictions and hymns.
Trismegistus gives thanks to Pimander for having revealed all things to him, but wishes also to know about the "ascension." Pimander explains that at death the mortal body dissolves into its corporeal elements but the spiritual man goes up through the armature of the spheres leaving at each sphere a part of his mortal nature and the evil it contains. Then, when entirely denuded of all that the spheres had imprinted on him, he enters into the "ogdoadic" nature, hears the Powers singing hymns to God and becomes mingled with the Powers.
Trismegistus is now dismissed by Pimander, "after having been invested with powers and instructed in the nature of the All and the supreme vision." He begins to preach to the people urging them to leave their errors and to take part in immortality.
Plato's <italic>Timaeus</italic> and <italic>Critias</italic> indicate that about 560 B.C.E. in the temple of Neith at Sais in Egypt there were secret halls containing historical records which had been kept for more than 9,000 years. Proclus gives the name of the high priest with whom Plato spoke in Sais as Pateneit. Illuminist literature, then, would have been available to Plato in these ancient archives in Egypt. The high priest of Egypt, Psonchis, teacher of Pythagoras, is said to have referred to sacred registers which spoke of a collision of the Earth with a giant asteroid in a remote past.
After the rise of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 323 B.C.E in Egypt, Greek and Egyptian teachings came together in Alexandria, making it the intellectual, scientific, philosophic and religious center of the Hellenistic World. Manetho, the Egyptian priest of Heliopolis--whose hieroglyphic name meant "Gift of Thoth"--was famous for translating the Babylonian and Egyptian mysteries into Greek. He lived during the final years of the fourth and first half of the third centuries B.C.E. in the reign of the last two Ptolemies.
The <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic>, then, was likely a compilation of ancient wisdom by scholars in Alexandria in the second or third century C.E. which survived in Greek libraries and later in the Arab world. It was, however, lost to the West except for the hints and allusions that bled through from Arabic sources. The Illuminist, al-Farabi (890-954 C.E.), is described as "Hermetic," and it is likely that the alchemical writings of Geber (721-766 C.E.), Rhazes (850-924 C.E.) and Avicenna (980-1036 C.E.) draw on the <italic>Corpus</italic> to some extent.
The Arab Illuminist writings began to filter into Europe following the Papacy of Sylvester II (999-1003 C.E.) and were eventually disseminated in such a manner that the legend of Hermes the Thrice-Great achieved a certain degree of recognition. The <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> did not become available to the West until 1460 C.E., when documents salvaged from Constantinople surfaced in Florence. Their translation in 1471 C.E., by Marsilio Ficino, set off the great explosion of Western interest in Hermeticism as represented by Dee, Trithemius, Agrippa, and Paracelsus.
The copy of the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> belonged to Cosimo de Medici. Cosimo also had the manuscripts of Plato in his possession. But he ordered Ficino to translate the work of Hermes Trismegistus before beginning on the Greek philosophers.
"It is an extraordinary situation There are the complete works of Plato, waiting, and they must wait whilst Ficino quickly translates Hermes, probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies. What a testimony this is to the mysterious reputation of the thrice Great One! Cosimo and Ficino knew from the Fathers that Hermes Trismegistus was much earlier than Plato. They also knew the Latin <italic>Asclepius</italic> which whetted the appetite for more ancient Egyptian wisdom from the same pristine source. Egypt was before Greece; Hermes was earlier than Plato. Renaissance respect for the old, the primary, the far-away, as nearest to divine truth, demanded that the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> should be translated before Plato's <italic>Republic</italic> or <italic>Symposium</italic>, and so this was in fact the first translation that Ficino made."
Frances A Yates. <italic>Giordano Bruno and
the Hermetic Tradition
One of the influential works, which bears on Hermeticism, is the <italic>Picatrix</italic>. Originally written in Arabic, probably in the twelfth century, it is not attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but speaks of him and provides a startling view of his supernatural powers. The Picatrix states that Chaldeans masters of the art of magic saw Hermes as an early, powerful nature magician who constructed images by means of which he could regulate the Nile relative to the motion of the moon. The Picatrix also relates that Hermes built a "Temple to the Sun" in which he could become invisible. Hermes is said to have fashioned animal images into which he introduced spirits which spoke with voices.
The Picatrix represents the magical formulation of the Hermetic tradition and is not a subject which we will pursue in this book. The magical rendition of the Illuminist tradition requires special knowledge and skill and is beyond the purview of this introduction to Western Illuminism. For those who want to pursue the magical tradition, I would recommend these three books:
Idries Shah. Oriental Magic, 1956
Arkon Daraul. A History of Secret Societies, 1961
Idries Shah. The
Secret Lore of Magic, 1970
Most of the perennial themes of Illuminism are contained in the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic>. We shall see that many of the Illuminist teachers, including Plato, Shahabudin Suhrawardi, and Giordano Bruno refer to Hermes as a predecessor within their spiritual lineage.
This interesting passage occurs in Hermetic Tractate 7.
That the Greatest Human Evil is Unacquaintance With God
People, where are you rushing, so intoxicated and having so fully drunk the strong wine of reasoning unaccompanied by acquaintance? You cannot hold it; already you are about to throw it up. Stop, get sober! Look up with the eyes of the mind--and if you cannot all do so, at least those of you who can! For the imperfection that comes from unacquaintance is flooding the entire earth, corrupting the soul along with the body that encloses it and preventing it from putting in at the havens of salvation.
"So do not be swept away by the main current! Rather, you who can must avail yourselves of a countercurrent, take to the haven of salvation, put in there, and look for a leader to show you the way to the doorway of acquaintance, where there is bright light, pure from darkness, where no one is intoxicated, but all are sober, fixing their eyes on that being who wills to be seen--with the heart, for that being cannot be heard or told of or seen by eyes, only by intellect and mind.
"But first, you must tear off the tunic that you are wearing, the robe of unacquaintance, the foundation of imperfection, the bond of corruption, the dark enclosure, the living death, the perceptible corpse, the portable grave, the resident brigand, who acts in hatred through what he loves and with his instruments of hatred causes corruptions.
"Such is the tunic, the enemy, that you have put on, which strangles you and pulls you down toward itself, lest by looking up and beholding the beauty of truth and the good that lies in it you should come to hate the body's imperfection, once you know about its plot that it has plotted against you in rendering insensible the higher sensory organs by stopping them up with a mass of matter and filling them with loathsome pleasure: to keep you from hearing what you ought to hear, to keep you from seeing what you ought to see."
I have quoted and summarized some of the important passages of the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> to illustrate the correlation between its teachings and those of later Illuminist thought. For example, the discussion of the divine <italic>Nous</italic>, the creation of man, and the seven Governors in <italic>Poimandres</italic> likely refers to man's development of understanding during earthly life and the life beyond. The seven circles or spheres represent humankind's evolution to higher levels of wisdom.
These are probably the teachings which later became distorted and corrupted in gnosticism, resulting in the idea of hundreds of spheres and a multiplicity of archons or rulers. Within the Illuminist tradition, there is the teaching that humans achieve various levels of understanding, during earthly life and beyond. We see this teaching, for example, in the writings of Betty and Stewart Edward White who distinguish between the levels of understanding of the various Invisibles with whom they communicate.
A constant theme within the Hermetic writings is the idea that we are trapped in a bodily prison from which we must escape. In <italic>Hermetic Tractate 7</italic>, the body is seen as a "robe of unacquaintance, the foundation of imperfection, the bond of corruption," "rendering insensible the higher sensory organs by stopping them up with a mass of matter and filling them with loathsome pleasure." Our goal is to put off this "portable grave" of the body and regain the higher organs of perception.
As I suggested earlier, scholars in Alexandria in the second or third century C.E. probably compiled the fifteen tractates of the <italic>Corpus Hermeticum</italic> as a treasury of ancient wisdom. This repository survived in Greek libraries and later in the Arab world. With the rediscovery of Greek sources and the influence of the Arab teachers and scholars, the Illuminist teachings, in their Hermetic rendering, became available in the West in the fifteenth century C.E. Since Hermes likely represents several teachers and teachings, we can best interpret this figure as a dynamism involving the transmission to humankind of divine wisdom.