Hermes Trismegistus

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Hermes Trismegistus (from Ancient Greek: Ἑρμῆς ὁ Τρισμέγιστος, "Hermes the Thrice-Greatest"; Classical Latin: Mercurius ter Maximus) is a legendary Hellenistic period figure that originated as a syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.[1] He is the purported author of the Hermetica, a widely diverse series of ancient and medieval pseudepigraphica that lay the basis of various philosophical systems known as Hermeticism.

The wisdom attributed to this figure in antiquity combined a knowledge of both the material and the spiritual world, which rendered the writings attributed to him of great relevance to those who were interested in the interrelationship between the material and the divine.[2]

The figure of Hermes Trismegistus can also be found in both Muslim and Baháʼí writings. In those traditions, Hermes Trismegistus has been associated with the prophet Idris (the Biblical Enoch).

Origin and identity[edit]

Hermes depicted with a kerykeion (caduceus), a kithara, a petasos (round hat) and a traveler's cloak, Vatican Museums
Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermès, N372.2A, Brooklyn Museum

Hermes Trismegistus may be associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.[1][3] Greeks in the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt recognized the equivalence of Hermes and Thoth through the interpretatio graeca.[4] Consequently, the two gods were worshiped as one, in what had been the Temple of Thoth in Khemenu, which was known in the Hellenistic period as Hermopolis.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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".[8] 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).[9]

Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena

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.[10] 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.[11]

The epithet "thrice great"[edit]

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, c. AD 64–141.[12] 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.[13] 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."[4]

Many Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, as well as Giordano Bruno, considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity.[14][15] 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[16][17] 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,[18] 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[19] on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher, and king.[19][20]

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."[21]

Hermetic writings[edit]

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Hermetica enjoyed great prestige and were popular among alchemists. Hermes was also strongly associated with astrology, for example by the influential Islamic astrologer Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi (787–886).[22] 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. The expression "hermetically sealed" comes from the alchemical procedure to make the Philosopher's Stone. This required a mixture of materials to be placed in a glass vessel which was sealed by fusing the neck closed, a procedure known as the Seal of Hermes. The vessel was then heated for 30 to 40 days.[23]

During the Renaissance, it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses. However, after Isaac Casaubon's demonstration in 1614 that the Hermetic writings must postdate the advent of Christianity, the whole of Renaissance Hermeticism collapsed.[24] 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.[25]

The French figurist Jesuit missionary to China Joachim Bouvet thought that Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster and the Chinese cultural hero Fuxi were actually the Biblical patriarch Enoch.[26]

Various critical editions of the Hermetica have been published in modern academia, such as Hermetica by Brian Copenhaver.

Islamic tradition[edit]

Pages from a 14th-century Arabic manuscript of the Cyranides, a text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus

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 Hijrah quickly identified Hermes Trismegistus with Idris,[27] the Islamic prophet of surahs 19.57 and 21.85, whom Muslims also identified with Enoch (cf. Genesis 5.18–24). According to the account of the Persian astrologer Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi (787–886), 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."[28]

The star-worshipping sect known as the Sabians of Harran also believed that their doctrine descended from Hermes Trismegistus.[29]

There are least twenty Arabic Hermetica extant. While some of these Arabic Hermetic writings were translated from Greek or Middle-Persian, some were originally written in Arabic.[30] Hermetic fragments are also found in the works of Muslim alchemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (died c. 806–816, cited an early version of the Emerald Tablet in his Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss)[31] and Ibn Umayl (c. 900 – c. 960, quoted and commented upon Hermetic sayings throughout his work, among them also a commentary on the Emerald Tablet).[32]

Baháʼí writings[edit]

Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Baháʼí Faith, identifies Idris with Hermes in his Tablet on the Uncompounded Reality.[33]


  1. ^ a b A survey of the literary and archaeological evidence for the background of Hermes Trismegistus as the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth may be found in Bull, Christian H. (2018). "The Myth of Hermes Trismegistus". The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World. Vol. 186. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 31–96. doi:10.1163/9789004370845_003. ISBN 978-90-04-37081-4. ISSN 0927-7633. S2CID 172059118.
  2. ^ Van den Broek, Roelof (2006). "Hermes Trismegistus I: Antiquity". In Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (ed.). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Leiden: Brill. pp. 474–478. ISBN 9789004152311. p. 474.
  3. ^ Budge, E.A. Wallis (1904). The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. 1. pp. 414–5.
  4. ^ a b Hart, G., The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2005, Routledge, second edition, Oxon, p 158
  5. ^ Bailey, Donald, "Classical Architecture" in Riggs, Christina (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 192.
  6. ^ Artmann, Benno (22 November 2005). "About the Cover: The Mathematical Conquest of the Third Dimension" (PDF). Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. New Series. 43 (2): 231. doi:10.1090/S0273-0979-06-01111-6. Retrieved 7 August 2016.
  7. ^ Thoth or the Hermes of Egypt: A Study of Some Aspects of Theological Thought in Ancient Egypt, p.166–168, Patrick Boylan, Oxford University Press, 1922.
  8. ^ De natura deorum III, Ch. 56
  9. ^ "Cicero: De Natura Deorum III". Retrieved 2015-06-25.
  10. ^ Fowden 1993: pp65–68
  11. ^ "Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth". Retrieved 2015-06-25.
  12. ^ Fowden, G., "The Egyptian Hermes", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, p 216
  13. ^ Copenhaver, B. P., "Hermetica", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p xiv.
  14. ^ Heiser, James D. (2011). Prisci Theologi and the Hermetic Reformation in the Fifteenth Century (1st ed.). Malone, Tex.: Repristination Press. ISBN 978-1-4610-9382-4.
  15. ^ Jafar, Imad (2015). "Enoch in the Islamic Tradition". Sacred Web: A Journal of Tradition and Modernity. XXXVI.
  16. ^ Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, pp 14–18 and pp 433–434
  17. ^ Hanegraaff, W. J., "New Age Religion and Western Culture", SUNY, 1998, p 360
  18. ^ Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, p 27 and p 293
  19. ^ a b Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, p52
  20. ^ Copenhaver, B.P., "Hermetica", Cambridge University Press, 1992, p xlviii
  21. ^ Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. xli
  22. ^ Van Bladel 2009, 122ff.
  23. ^ Principe, L. M., The Secrets of Alchemy, 2013, University of Chicago Press, p. 123
  24. ^ Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (1996). New Age Religion and Western Culture. Leiden: Brill. pp. 390–391.
  25. ^ Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition pp. 2–3
  26. ^ Mungello 1989:321
  27. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 168: "Abu Mas'har’s biography of Hermes, written approximately between 840 and 860, would establish it as common knowledge."
  28. ^ (Faivre 1995 pp. 19–20)
  29. ^ Stapleton, Henry E.; Azo, R.F.; Hidayat Husain, M. (1927). "Chemistry in Iraq and Persia in the Tenth Century A.D." Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. VIII (6): 317–418. OCLC 706947607. pp. 398–403.
  30. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 17, note 42.
  31. ^ Zirnis, Peter (1979). The Kitāb Usṭuqus al-uss of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (Unpublished PhD diss.). New York University. pp. 64–65, 90. Jabir explicitly notes that the version of the Emerald Tablet quoted by him is taken from "Balīnās the Sage" (i.e., pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana), although it differs slightly from the (probably even earlier) version preserved in pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana's Sirr al-khalīqa (The Secret of Creation): see Weisser, Ursula (1980). Das "Buch über das Geheimnis der Schöpfung" von Pseudo-Apollonios von Tyana. Berlin: De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110866933. ISBN 978-3-11-086693-3. p. 46.
  32. ^ Stapleton, H. E.; Lewis, G. L.; Taylor, F. Sherwood (1949). "The sayings of Hermes quoted in the Māʾ al-waraqī of Ibn Umail". Ambix. 3 (3–4): 69–90. doi:10.1179/amb.1949.3.3-4.69.
  33. ^ "Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh". Retrieved 2015-06-25.


  • Aufrère, Sydney H. (2008) (in French). Thot Hermès l'Egyptien: De l'infiniment grand à l'infiniment petit. Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 978-2296046399.
  • Bull, Christian H. 2018. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Leiden: Brill. (the standard reference work on the subject)
  • CACIORGNA, Marilena and GUERRINI, Roberto: Il pavimento del duomo di Siena. L'arte della tarsia marmorea dal XIV al XIX secolo fonti e simologia. Siena 2004.
  • CACIORGNA, Marilena: Studi interdisciplinari sul pavimento del duomo di Siena. Atti el convegno internazionale di studi chiesa della SS. Annunziata 27 e 28 settembre 2002. Siena 2005.
  • Copenhaver, Brian P. (1995). Hermetica: the Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation, with notes and introduction, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995 ISBN 0-521-42543-3.
  • Ebeling, Florian, The secret history of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from ancient to modern times [Translated from the German by David Lorton] (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 2007), ISBN 978-0-8014-4546-0.
  • Festugière, A.-J.,La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste. 2e éd., 3 vol., Paris 1981.
  • Fowden, Garth, 1986. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Princeton University Press, 1993): deals with Thoth (Hermes) from his most primitive known conception to his later evolution into Hermes Trismegistus, as well as the many books and scripts attributed to him.
  • Hornung, Erik (2001). The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801438470.
  • Lupini, Carmelo, s.v. Ermete Trismegisto in "Dizionario delle Scienze e delle Tecniche di Grecia e Roma", Roma 2010, vol. 1.
  • Merkel, Ingrid and Allen G. Debus, 1988. Hermeticism and the Renaissance: intellectual history and the occult in early modern Europe Folger Shakespeare Library ISBN 0-918016-85-1
  • Mungello, David Emil (1989), Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 0-8248-1219-0
  • Van Bladel, Kevin (2009). The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195376135.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-537613-5. (the standard reference for Hermes in the Arabic-Islamic world)
  • Van den Kerchove, Anna 2012. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Leiden: Brill.
  • Yates, Frances A., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1964. ISBN 0-226-95007-7.

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