The Hermetica are Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts from the 2nd century or earlier, which are mostly presented as dialogues in which a teacher, generally identified as Hermes Trismegistus, enlightens a disciple.
The texts form the basis of Hermeticism. The Hermetica discusses the divine, the cosmos, mind, and nature. Some touch upon alchemy, astrology, and related concepts.
The term particularly applies to the Corpus Hermeticum, Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation in fourteen tracts, of which eight early printed editions appeared before 1500 and a further twenty-two by 1641.
This collection, which includes Poimandres and some addresses of Hermes to disciples Tat, Ammon, and Asclepius, was said to have originated in the school of Ammonius Saccas and to have passed through the keeping of Michael Psellus: it is preserved in fourteenth-century manuscripts.
The last three tracts in modern editions were translated independently from another manuscript by Ficino’s contemporary Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500) and first printed in 1507. Extensive quotes of similar material are found in classical authors such as Joannes Stobaeus.
Parts of the Hermetica appeared in the 2nd-century Gnostic library found in Nag Hammadi. Other works in Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, and other languages may also be termed Hermetica — another famous tract is the Emerald Tablet, which teaches the doctrine “as above, so below“.
For a long time, it was thought that these texts were remnants of an extensive literature, part of the syncretic cultural movement that also included the Neoplatonists of the Greco-Roman mysteries and late Orphic and Pythagorean literature and influenced Gnostic forms of the Abrahamic religions.
However, there are significant differences: the Hermetica are little concerned with Greek mythology or the technical minutiae of metaphysical Neoplatonism. In addition, Neoplatonic philosophers, who quote works of Orpheus, Zoroaster, and Pythagoras, cite Hermes Trismegistus less often. Still, most of these schools do agree in attributing the creation of the world to a Demiurge rather than the supreme being and in accepting reincarnation.
Many Christian intellectuals from all eras have written about Hermeticism, both positive and negative. However, modern scholars find no traces of Christian influences in the texts. Although Christian authors have looked for similarities between Hermeticism and Christian scriptures, scholars remain unconvinced.
Character and antiquity
The extant Egyptian-Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of God, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Their concerns are practical in nature, their end is a spiritual rebirth through the enlightenment of the mind:
Seeing within myself an immaterial vision that came from the mercy of God, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind!
While they are difficult to date with precision, the texts of the Corpus were likely redacted between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. During the Renaissance, these texts were believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin and even today some readers, translators, and scholars believe them to date from Pharaonic Egypt.
Since Plato’s Timaeus dwelt upon the great antiquity of the Egyptian teachings upon which the philosopher purported to draw, some scholars are willing to accept that these texts were the sources of some Greek ideas. In that line of thinking, it has also been suggested that there are some parallels between Hermetic dialogues and Hellenic dialogues, particularly Plato.
Centuries before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, and based on archaic translations, classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) had argued that some texts, mainly those dealing with philosophy, betrayed too recent a vocabulary. Hellenisms in the language itself points to a Greek-era origin.
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 terminus a quo. Lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power. Thus, it would be fair to assess the Corpus Hermeticum as intellectually eclectic.
More recent research, while affirming the late dating in a period of syncretic cultural ferment in Roman Egypt, suggests more continuity with the culture of Pharaonic Egypt than had previously been believed. There are many parallels with Egyptian prophecies and hymns to the gods but the closest comparisons can be found in Egyptian wisdom literature, which is characteristically couched in words of advice from a “father” to a “son“.
Demotic (late Egyptian) papyri contain substantial sections of a dialogue of Hermetic type between Thoth and a disciple. Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie states that some texts in the Hermetic corpus date back to the 6th century BC during the Persian period.
Other scholars that also provided arguments and evidence in favor of the Egyptian thesis include Stricker, Doresse, Krause, Francois Daumas, Philippe Derchain, Serge Sauneron, J.D. Ray, B.R. Rees, and Jean-Pierre Mahe.
Many hermetic texts were lost to Western culture during the Middle Ages but rediscovered in Byzantine copies and popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. The impetus for this revival came from the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, a member of the de’ Medici court, who published a collection of thirteen tractates in 1471, as De potestate et Sapientia Dei.
The Hermetica provided a seminal impetus in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having a profound impact on alchemy and modern magic as well as influencing philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Pico Della Mirandola, Ficino’s student. This influence continued as late as the 17th century with authors such as Sir Thomas Browne.
Although the most famous examples of Hermetic literature were products of Greek-speakers under Roman rule, the genre did not suddenly stop with the fall of the Empire but continued to be produced in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Byzantine Greek.
The most famous example of this later Hermetica is the Emerald Tablet, known from medieval Latin and Arabic manuscripts with a possible Syriac source. Little else of this rich literature is easily accessible to non-specialists. The most gnostic Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in 1945, also contained one previously unknown hermetic text called The Ogdoad and the Ennead, a description of a hermetic initiation into gnosis that has led to new perspectives on the nature of Hermetism as a whole, particularly due to the research of Jean-Pierre Mahé.