Hermetism and other religions
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"Three Parts of the Wisdom of the Whole Universe"
Christianity and Hermetism have interacted in such a way that controversy surrounds the nature of the influence. Some, such as Richard August Reitzenstein believed that Hermetism had heavily influenced Christianity; while others, such as Marie-Joseph LaGrange, believed that Christianity heavily influenced Hermetism; most see the exchange as more mutual. Both religions hold redemption, revelation and focus on the knowledge of God as the meaning of humanity's existence. This knowledge of God comes upon a mystical experience dependent upon rebirth, the focal point of arguments for influence from one of these religions upon the other. The focus of this rebirth are the words "Life," "Light," and "Truth" as well as a moral attitude of the seeker in his attainment of higher knowledge. Both also share a dualistic philosophy which comes from a shared philosophical background in popular schools of Hellenistic thought. Early Christianity and Hermetism both are esoteric without having an excessive emphasis on secrecy, relying upon inward experience, assisted by instruction and ultimately the result of revelation by God. Former president of the American Academy of Religion, Catherine L Albanese, has theorized that Hermetic thought has had a profound influence in Mormonism, Unitarianism, Universalism, and the Shakers. In Prisci Theologi and the Hermetic Reformation in the Fifteenth Century, Lutheran Bishop James Heiser evaluated the writings of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as contributions to a “Hermetic Reformation."
The Fourth Gospel
The Fourth Gospel, or Gospel of John, is purported to have similarities with the Corpus Hermeticum in religious thought and religious questing. There are also, however, deep differences as well.
Both texts utilize the concept of Logos and emphasize that the followers of their respective religions are apart from the rest of the world, suitable for only a few followers. Each of the two texts stress the importance of redemption, revelation, and rebirth to find knowledge of God and contain striking similarity in the wording of how moral attitudes promote higher knowledge in general. Opposed to the basis of the contemporary mystery cults, both texts relayed that the core of religious practice should be done internally through the personal experience of the believer rather than externally through sacramental ritual. Dualism plays a strong part in each of the two works.
Mary Lyman also points out four distinct contrasts between the two works despite their similarities. First, that the Fourth Gospel is a homogeneous work while the Corpus Hermeticum is a work which is found in fragments which she suspects were written by many authors over a wide range of time. Second, cosmic speculation is paramount to the Hermetic work while the fourth Gospel focuses on issues of religion. Third, the Hermetic text focuses on the asceticism of the day while the Fourth Gospel ignores it completely. Fourth, the Gospel's figures are all unique and grounds itself in the life of Jesus of Nazareth while the Hermetic text uses an "elusive literary tradition" which does little to identify or separate its characters. Though she relays that a scholar named Angus believed that the two would be more similar if they had the same proportion of Hermetic writings as Christian writings.
A theory by John L. Brooke, an author and professor at Tufts University, suggests that Mormonism has its roots in Hermetism and Hermeticism after following a philosophical trail from Renaissance Europe. The early Mormons, most notably Joseph Smith, were linked with magic, alchemy, Freemasonry, divining and "other elements of radical religion" prior to Mormonism. Brooke attests correlations with the view that spirit and matter are one and the same, the covenant of celestial marriage, and the ability of humanity to become deified or ultimately perfect.
Further, Brooke argues that Mormonism can only be understood in conjunction with the occult and the Reformation-era sectarian idea of restoration. He sees ties to Hermeticism in Mormon support for Pelagianism, communitarianism, polygamy and Dispensationalism. He does however digress that there was a change since the 1860s in the LDS Church which has widely removed Hermetic influence. Catherine L Albanese picked up on Brooke's work and further claims that Smith's heavenly realm is derived from Emanuel Swedenborg's Divine Man and Hermeticism in general, linking it in with several American Christian movements which move Christianity in odd directions.
However, scholars at the LDS-owned Brigham Young University have denounced Brooke's work and even scolded the publisher, Cambridge University Press, for printing it[verification needed]. Philip I Barlow criticizes the work as carelessly seeking out relations to Hermeticism which Brooke knows better than Mormonism, and believes that Brooke's links to Hermeticism can be explained away with "a particular and selectively literal reading of the Bible." Albanese was criticised by Richard J Neuhaus as having denied Christianity the metaphysical in order to minimize its influence and that she is avoiding theology by calling her book a cultural history. Albanese believes that the metaphysical denial in scholarly research is due to its strong feminist qualities. Neuhaus believes American Christianity is more Gnostic in nature than Hermetic.
Albanese portends that several Christian denominations were affected by Hermeticism. The Shakers had been influenced in their belief of a dual God, being both male and female: Heavenly Father and Holy Mother Wisdom. She claims that Universalism was a clear mix of Christianity and Hermeticism where they come together, much like Rosicrucianism.
Hermeticism is closely related to Gnosticism. Both flourished in the same period in Alexandria, in the same spiritual climate, sharing the goal of the soul escaping from the material realm through true understanding, and emphasizing personal knowledge of God. Both were part of the third pillar of Western culture; representing the balance between Greek rationality and biblical faith along with the Cathars. Both groups saw the fundamental relationship between God and man was found through gnosis in a goal to "see" God and in some instances become one with God.
Christian Gnostics, however, felt that there was something seriously wrong with Nous, a part of The All; to them, it seemed that the concept could be stretched so far as to say that by bringing the world into existence, God had to remove himself from it at the same time. They also differed on the basis of theology, cosmology, and anthropology. Though both agreed in God's transcendence over the Universe, Hermetists believed that God could still be comprehended through philosophical reasoning, in agreement with philosophers and Christian theologians, but Gnostics felt God was completely unknowable. While the Gnostics indulged in mythological references often, Hermetic texts are generally void of mythology, with Poimandres as an exception. Hermetism is optimistic about God, while many forms of Christian Gnosticism are pessimistic about the creator (a different being from their conception of God): Several Christian Gnostic sects saw the Cosmos were the product of an evil creator and thus evil itself, while Hermetists saw the Cosmos as a beautiful creation in the image of God. Both view that mankind was originally divine and has become entrapped in the material world, a slave to passion and distracted from divine nature. However, the Gnostics often held a pessimistic view of mankind as a result while the Hermetic belief is generally positive towards mankind just the same. Rather, Hermetists believed that the human body was not bad in itself, but materialistic impulses such as sexual desire were the cause of evil in the world.
In 830 CE, a group of Hermetic pagans in Harran needed protection by being either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Sabian. They took the Corpus Hermeticum as their scripture and Hermes Trismegistus as their prophet, and decided to call themselves Sabians. As no one was sure what the Qur'an meant by Sabian, they were accepted as being such having a monotheistic scripture and a prophet. This group played a large role in Baghdad's intellectual life from 856-1050.
The most famous of the Harranian Sabians was Thabit ibn Qurra, who made great advances in alchemy, astronomy, and mathematics, citing his paganism as the reason for his ability. The author Antoine Faivre theorizes that Hermes Trismegistus is mentioned in the Qu'ran as well, under the name of Idris. Idris is also identified with Enoch, who is also identified with Hermes. He is called "Thrice Wise," relating to Hermes' title "Thrice Great."
Khalid ibn Yazid was an Umayyad prince, who took an interest in alchemy early in Islamic history. The works of Jabir ibn Hayyan would be heavily influenced by Hermetic philosophy, as would Ismaili beliefs and theology.
This identification paved the way for the exchange and melding of ideas between Judaism and Hermetism during the Middle Ages. The most prominent interrelation between the two systems is in the development of Kabbalah which developed into three separate brands: a Jewish stream, a Christian stream (Cabala in Christianity), and a Hermetic stream (Qabalah in Hermeticism). Medieval Hermetism, aside from alchemy, is often seen as analogous to and was heavily influenced by these Kabbalistic ideas.
Hermetism and Kabbalah arose together in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Practical Kabbalah also relied upon magic and astrology but focused more on the Hebrew language in its incantations than the general language of Hermetism in general.
Secondly, Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages attempted to make use of treatises on astrology, medicine and theurgy as a justification for practicing natural magic forbidden by a number of commandments in the Torah and reinforced by prophetic books codified by rabbinic authorities. They noted the wonders performed by celebrated biblical figures such as the patriarchs and King Solomon and which were seen as a God-given and condoned use of natural magic. They attributed these arts to divine knowledge imparted by Jewish heroes to gentiles such as the Indians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks, and felt that by approaching magic from a religious standpoint would legitimize their use of the sciences. In particular, they believed the Hermetic teachings to have its origins in ancient Jewish sources.
These Jewish scholars, particularly the ones who distrusted Aristotelian rationality, looked to Hermetism as a backing to discuss theological interpretation of the Torah and the ten commandments. Fabrizo Lelli writes: "As for Christians and Muslims, so likewise for Jews, Hermetism was an alternative to Aristotelianism--the likeliest prospect, in fact, for integrating an alien system into their religion. This was because the response of the Hermetica to intellectual problems was generally theosophical."
In the use of these Hermetic treatises, these Jewish scholars, though at times inadvertently, introduced Hermetic ideas into Jewish thought. Shabbetay Donnolo's 10th century commentary on the Sefer Yezirah shows Hermetic influence, as well as the 13th century texts later compiled into the Sefer ha-Zohar, and in the contemporary Kabbalistic works of Abraham Abulafia as well as of other Jewish thinkers influenced by Kabbalah such as Isaac Abravanel who used Hermetic Qabalah to affirm the superiority of Judaism. Lelli suggests that it was natural for these Jewish Kabbalists to elevate Hermetic teachings to a major role in Jewish thought in a time when they began to produce their own "antirationalist--exegesis of scripture." This was despite the fact that many Hermetic works were ascribed to Aristotle in the time through pseudepigrapha; these scholars saw that as a justification to give the same elevated authority to the medical, astronomical, and magical Hermetic texts.
However, most Medieval Jewish scholars aware of the Hermetic tradition did not mention Hermetism explicitly, but rather referred to them through Hermetic ideas that were borrowed from Islam or brought Hermeticism up only to reject it. While scholars such as Moses ibn Ezra, Bahya ibn Paquda, Judah ha-Levi, and Abraham ibn Ezra specifically brought up Hermeticism to integrate into their philosophies, others such as Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) specifically rejected anything Hermetic as being responsible for counterparadigmic views of God. Maimonides warned his readers against what he viewed as the degenerative effect of Hermetic ideas, particularly those of the Sabians, and was effective in persuading many Jewish thinkers away from Hermetic integration, known as Hebrew Hermetism.
Scholars, such as Abraham ibn Ezra, felt justified in invoking the authority of Hermes to offer esoteric explanations of Jewish ritual. This culminated in a wide use of Hermetic texts for the use of theurgy and talisman construction. The Jewish version of the theurgic practice of drawing divine spirits down to Earth was horadat haruhaniyut, "the lowering of spirituality." Books such as the Sefer Mafteah Shlomoh, Sefer Meleket Muskelet, Sefer ha-Tamar and Sefer Hermes. The Hermetic texts most valued by Jewish scholars were those which dealt with astrology, medicine, and astral magic; however shunned by Maimonides as dangerous and destructive.
Despite Maimonides' denunciation of Hermetism, Jewish scholars in the Renaissance struggled to reconcile his beliefs with those of the proponents of Hermetic thought within Judaism. Renaissance scholars argued that the rationalism of Maimonides drew upon the prisca sapienta that had both Mosaic and Hermetic origins and that Abraham ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch was evidence that they shared the same views on the relationship between religion and science.
However, scholars such as Averroist Elijah del Medigo carried on Maimonides' crusade. Medigo claimed that the theurgic practices of Hermetism were against the teachings of the Torah. Others, such as Yohanan Alemanno, claimed that the Hermetic teachings were part of a primordial wisdom of the ancients and put the writings of Hermes as being equal to those of King Solomon. Hermetism was also prominent in the works of David Messer Leon, Isaac Abravanel, Judah Abravanel, Elijah Hayyim, Abraham Farissol, Judah Moscato and Abraham Yagel.
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Much of the Western Esoteric tradition is based on a blend of Hermeticism and the Kabbalah Ma'asit, so called magical or practical Kabbalah. Occultism uses the Hermetic and Kabbalistic theory of creation and angelic/demonic forces, as a basis for ritual magic, and theurgy. Most magic theory involves the manipulation of Yetzirah, the world of Formation, and letting the effect trickle down to the physical universe (in accordance to the Hermetic concept of "as above, so below"). This includes the communication and manipulation of inhabitants of Yetzirah, angelic or demonic forces. The spelling of "Qabalah", is generally referred to as the Hermetic Qabalah, often having a magical or occult slant. While "Kabbalah" refers to the traditional Jewish branch.
These beliefs were influential in European occult lore, especially from the Renaissance forward. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, magicians wrote grimoires which show a major influence from both Hermeticism and Kabbalah and have since become a basis for most practical occultism. In more recent times, magical orders such as The Golden Dawn have revived and revised these traditions.
Catherine L Albanese theorized that Transcendentalism has Hermetic influence. Among Transcendentalist thinkers, she especially points to Ralph Waldo Emerson who has ideas of humankind transcending into deification similar to those of Joseph Smith. She also points to the spiritual narcissism of Henry David Thoreau.
Neopaganism is directly related to Hermeticism. The Renaissance Hermetists Plethon and Ficino are the foundation of the Western Mystery Tradition from which contemporary Neopaganism arose. Wicca, one of the earliest and most famous of the Neopagan religions, honours a Goddess and a God, who are seen by some as being aspects of a single greater deity. See Wiccan views of divinity. Silver Ravenwolf expresses this in terms of the Qabalistic Tree of Life:
- "Down we go then, to the first two branches of the tree, right below the All. Each branch is exactly the same, one on the right side of the tree and one on the left. Totally balanced in every respect to each other. They represent the God and the Goddess, or the Lord and the Lady. Separate yet equal, together they combine into the essence of the All."
Ravenwolf holds that the God and Goddess are merely the masculine and feminine aspects of The All, and that both in turn express themselves through sub-aspects as the gods and goddesses of the various pantheons, just as in Hermeticism archangels, angels, and demons are all seen as embodying aspects of God.
Zoroastrianism plays a large role in influencing Hermeticism. In 525 BCE, Egypt was conquered by the Persian Empire, bringing Zoroastrian ideas along with it. In obscure texts, Hermes claims to look to Zoroaster as a spiritual father, having learned much of the zodiac from him. It is further said that Zoroaster had penetrated the mystery of the zodiac more than any other. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Zoroaster (like so many others) and Hermes are one and the same. However, it is possible that this was from a faked Zoroastrian text. Theurgy is often called Zoroastrian Magic as well.
- (Lyman p. 265)
- (Lyman p. 268)
- (Lyman p. 269)
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