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Hermes Trismegistus (Ancient Greek: Ἑρμῆς ὁ Τρισμέγιστος, "thrice-greatest Hermes"; Latin: 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 Trismegistus may be a representation of the syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. In Hellenistic Egypt, the Greeks recognised the congruence of their god Hermes with Thoth. Subsequently the two gods were worshipped as one in what had been the Temple of Thoth in Khemnu, which the Greeks called Hermopolis.
Both Thoth and Hermes were gods of writing and of magic in their respective cultures. Thus, the Greek god of interpretive communication was combined with the Egyptian god of wisdom as a patron of astrology and alchemy. In addition, both gods were psychopomps, guiding souls to the afterlife. The Egyptian Priest and Polymath Imhotep had been deified long after his death and therefore assimilated to Thoth in the classical and Hellenistic period. The renowned scribe Amenhotep and a wise man named Teôs were equally deified as gods of wisdom, science and medicine and thus placed alongside Imhotep in shrines dedicated to Thoth-Hermes during the Ptolemaic period.
A Mycenaean Greek reference found on two Linear B clay tablets at Pylos to a deity or semi-deity called ti-ri-se-ro-e (Linear B: 𐀴𐀪𐀮𐀫𐀁; Tris Hḗrōs, "thrice or triple hero") could be connected to the later epithet "thrice wise", 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, appears the name of the deity "Hermes" as e-ma-ha (Linear B: 𐀁𐀔𐁀), 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.
The majority of Greeks, and later Romans, did not accept Hermes Trismegistus in the place of Hermes. The two gods remained distinct from one another. Cicero noted several individuals referred to as "Hermes": "the fifth, who is worshipped by the people of Pheneus [in Arcadia], is said to have killed Argus, 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." In the same place, Cicero mentions a "fourth Mercury (Hermes) was the son of the Nile, whose name may not be spoken by the Egyptians." 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 one viewed from the Greek-Arcadian perspective (the fifth, who went from Greece to Egypt), the other viewed from the Egyptian perspective (the fourth, where Hermes turns out "actually" to have been a "son of the Nile," i.e. a native god). Both these very good early references in Cicero (most ancient Trismegistus material is from early centuries AD) corroborate the view that Thrice-Great Hermes originated in Hellenistic Egypt through syncretism with Egyptian gods (the Hermetica refer most often to Thoth and Amun).
The Hermetic literature added to the Egyptian concerns with conjuring spirits and animating statues that inform the oldest texts, Hellenistic writings of Greco-Babylonian astrology and the newly developed practice of alchemy (Fowden 1993: pp65–68). In a parallel tradition, Hermetic philosophy rationalized and systematized religious cult practices and offered the adept a method of personal ascension from the constraints of physical being, which has led to confusion of Hermeticism with Gnosticism, which was developing contemporaneously.
As a divine source of wisdom, Hermes Trismegistus was credited with tens of thousands of writings of high standing, reputed to be of immense antiquity. Plato's Timaeus and Critias state that in the temple of Neith at Sais, there were secret halls containing historical records which had been kept for 9,000 years. Clement of Alexandria was under the impression that the Egyptians had forty-two sacred writings by Hermes, encapsulating all the training of Egyptian priests. Siegfried Morenz has suggested (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 Neo-Platonic writers took up Clement's "forty-two essential texts".
The Hermetica is a category of papyri containing spells and initiatory induction procedures. In the dialogue called the Asclepius (after the Greek god of healing) the art of imprisoning the souls of demons or of angels in statues with the help of herbs, gems and odors, is described, such 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 name were in the Legatio of Athenagoras of Athens and a fragment from Philo of Byblos, circa AD 64–141. However, in a later work Copenhaver reports that this name 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 name is derived from an epithet of Thoth found at the Temple of Esna, "Thoth the great, the great, the great." The date of his sojourn in Egypt in 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 some Jewish traditions 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 a prisca theologia, the doctrine that a single, true theology exists, which threads through all religions, and which 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, according to the fathers of the Christian church, 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, or "thrice great" on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher and king.
This last account of how Hermes Trismegistus received the appellation "Trismegistus," meaning "Thrice Great," is derived from statements in the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe. The three parts of the wisdom are alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. The Pymander, from which Marsilio Ficino formed his opinion, states that "they called him Trismegistus because he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the greatest king".
The Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the Hermetica, writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which survive. During the Renaissance it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses, however after Casaubon’s dating of the Hermetic writings as 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 writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, known as 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 issues of philosophy, and the latter with practical magic, potions and alchemy. Spells to magically 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 which were 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, flaws in this dating were discerned by the 17th century scholar Ralph Cudworth, who argued that Casaubon's allegation of forgery could only be applied to three of the seventeen treatises contained within the Corpus Hermeticum. Moreover, Cudworth noted Casaubon's failure to acknowledge the codification of these treatises as a late formulation of a pre-existing oral tradition. According to Cudworth, the texts must be viewed as a terminus ad quem and not a quo.
In Islamic tradition
Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin has pointed out that Hermes Trismegistus has a major place in Islamic tradition. He writes, "Hermes Trismegistus is mentioned in the Qur'an in verse 19:56-57:"Mention, in the Book, Idris, that he was truthful, a prophet. We took him up to a high place". The Jabirian corpus contains the oldest documentable source for the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, translated for the Hashemite Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid the Abbasid. Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber), a Shiite, identified as Jābir al-Sufi, was student of Ja'far al-Sadiq, Husayn ibn 'Ali's great grandson. For the Abbasid's and the Alid's, the knowledge of Hermes Trismegistus was considered sacred, and an inheritance of the Ahl al-Bayt. These writings were recorded by the Ikhwan al-Safa, and subsequently translated from Arabic into Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Russian, and into English by Isaac Newton. In the writings, the Master of Masters, Hermes Trismegistus is identified as Idris (prophet) the infallible Prophet who traveled to outer space from Egypt, to heaven, where Adam and the Black Stone he brought with him when he landed on earth in India, originated.
According to ancient Arab genealogists, Muhammad the Prophet, who also is believed to have traveled to outer space on the night of Isra and Mi'raj to the heavens is a direct lineal 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-Buni considered 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 his 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) (Amiruddin 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".
Antoine Faivre, in The Eternal Hermes (1995) has pointed out that Hermes Trismegistus has a place in the Islamic tradition, though 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.
In the Bahá'í writings
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.
Spiritualist writer Tom DeLiso claims that Hermes Trismegistus taught him in out-of-body states and that Hermes Trismegistus is a newer incarnation of Thoth. Both are conscious energy constructs without bodies.
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.
In popular culture
In the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne the narrator's father wishes to call his newborn son Trismegistus (after Hermes Trismegistus) because he considers the name particularly auspicious. Unfortunately, his wife's maid bungles the pronunciation of the name and the child is instead baptised Tristram, a name the father particularly despises. This episode is also recounted in the 2006 film adaptation of the novel, A Cock and Bull Story, in which Steve Coogan plays both Tristram and his father.
- Emerald Tablet
- Hermetic (disambiguation)
- Hermetic Qabalah
- Herbert Silberer
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- Hart, G., The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2005, Routledge, second edition, Oxon, p 158
- Bailey, Donald, "Classical Architecture" in Riggs, Christina (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 192.
- '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.
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- (Scully p. 322)
- Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. xlviii
- Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. xli
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- (Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition pp. 2–3)
- Cudworth, Ralph - The True Intellectual System of the Universe. First American Edition by Thomas Birch, 1837. Available at Googlebooks.
- Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis, p.46. Wheeler, Brannon. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002
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- Kevin Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes. From pagan sage to prophet of science, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 168 "Abu Mas'har’s biography of Hermes, written approximately between 840 and 860, would establish it as common knowledge."
- (Faivre 1995 pp. 19–20)
- Stapleton, H.E.; R.F. Azo & M.H. Husein (1927). Chemistry in Iraq and Persia in the Tenth Century AD: Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 8. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal. pp. 398–403.
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- 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.
- Yates, Frances A., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1964. ISBN 0-226-95007-7.
- 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
- CACIORGNA, Marilena e 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.
- Aufrère, Sydney H. (2008) (in French). Thot Hermès l'Egyptien: De l'infiniment grand à l'infiniment petit. Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 978-2296046399.
- 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.
- Hornung, Erik (2001). The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801438470.
- Media related to Hermes Trismegistus at Wikimedia Commons
- Works written by or about Hermes Trismegistus at Wikisource
- Greek Wikisource has original text related to this article: Ἑρμῆς ὁ Τρισμέγιστος
- Corpus Hermeticum along with the complete text of G.R.S. Mead's classic work, Thrice Greatest Hermes.
- Hermetic Research is a Portal on Hermetic study and discussion.
- Dan Merkur, "Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth"
- Asclepius - Latin text of the edition Paris: Henricus Stephanus 1505.
- Pimander - Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, Milano: Damianus de Mediolano 1493.
- THE DIVINE PYMANDER of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus in English
- Online Galleries, History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries High resolution images of works by Hermes Trismegistus in .jpg and .tiff format.
- The Great Pyramid and the 153 Fish in the Net Mathematical Explanation of where he got his name