The term “Hermetics” encompasses a whole series of texts written in Greek and Latin, attributed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistus.
In its most ancient meaning, the word “hermeticism”, derives from the Greek name of the Egyptian god Thot, with the meaning of “the messenger”, “interpreter”, or “herald of the gods”. For the Egyptians, Hermes-Thot, as god of wisdom, represented the heart of Ra, and we find him personified, in the myth of Osiris, as scribe and lord of the Maat (of Justice and Cosmic Order), with the head of ibis.
However, the hermetic texts, as demonstrated by the scholar Isaac Casaubon, in 1614, come from Alexandria in the second and third centuries. According to Casaubon, these texts combined magic and astrology with Greek and Christian philosophy, so they could not be written by a sage of ancient Egypt. Such approaches gave the coup de grâce to the “hermetics” that, from that moment on, were considered to be forgeries.
Without a doubt, Isaac Casaubon was very right, since these are texts by various masters, attributed, as a sign of respect, to Hermes. Now, they are not impregnated by the initiatic teachings imparted in the “Houses of Life” of the ancient Egyptian temples, although filtered by the Greek wisdom.
The “Corpus Hermeticum”
There is evidence of hermetic literature from the first centuries before our era, as is the case of the astrological manual “Salmeschoianaka” (around the second and first centuries BC. ), attributed to Nechepo and Petosiris (one of the five great High Priests of Thot at Hermepolis Magna), or the “Liber Hermetis” (“The Book of Hermes“, of which only one manuscript has survived, which is preserved in the British Library -Codex Harleianus- dated 1431, probably a copy, of a manuscript from the 6th or 7th century AD.C. Its content derives from the astrology practiced in Egyptian temples, at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.).
Strabo (middle of the first century B.C., around 20 A.D.), in his “Geographia“, when describing Egypt, points out that in Heliopolis he was shown the residences of the priests and the schools of Plato and Eudoxus, affirming that both philosophers spent 13 years with the Egyptian priests (XVII 1,29). He also affirms that the priests of Thebes, considered by the wisest philosophers and astronomers, traced their wisdom back to Hermes: “They attribute to Hermes the knowledge of this genre” (XVII, 1,46).
However, he is the Greek philosopher and priest of Apollo at Delphi, Plutarch (46-120 AD), the first classical author to allude to the books of Hermes, in his treatise “Of Isis and Osiris“:
“According to the Books of Hermes, referring to the sacred names, the power that commands the circumvolution of the sun is called Horus…” (Plu. Isis and Osiris 61).
The importance of the hermetic teachings among the Neoplatonics is evident in the beginning of the book I “De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum” (“On the Egyptian Mysteries“) by the Greek philosopher, Jamblichus of Calcis (second half of the third century, around 330 A.D.) who writes that his philosophy must be interpreted “according to the ancient steles of Hermes, which Plato, already before, and Pythagoras, after reading them in their entirety, used to create their philosophy“. And he adds: “the [texts] that circulate under the name of Hermes contain hermetic opinions, even though they are often expressed in the language of philosophers; they have been, in fact, transcribed from the Egyptian language by people not inexperienced in philosophy” (Jamblichus, “De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum“). Such affirmation corroborates the idea that, although the “hermetics” that have come to our days come from the ancient Hellenic world, they are still teachings that derive from the initiatory schools of Egyptian.
In the first centuries of our era, the books of Hermes Trismegistus came to enjoy great authority within the Church of Rome. Lactantius, for instance, in the “Divinae institutiones” (a treatise in seven books, which he began to compose about 304 A.D., in which he expounds the principles of Christian doctrine) makes wide use of quotations from classical authors, especially Cicero and Virgil, also from the Sibylline Oracles and from the “Corpus Hermeticum“. Curiously, he rarely quotes the Bible. Lactantius considers Hermes Trismegistus (together with the Sibylline Oracles) as an anticipator of Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, for his part, (mid-second century, early third century AD), in his work “Stromata“, besides referring to various forms of divination, refers to a series of astrological books (42 volumes) written by Hermes Trismegistus, as well as other hermetic writings used during an Egyptian cult procession. The philosopher and theologian Pedro Abelardo (1079/1142), goes so far as to say that Hermes “without the aid of Revelation, but through the use of reason, has come to the knowledge of God, and even of the Trinity” (“Theologia summi boni“).
The “Hermetics” in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
After Augustine of Hippo’s attacks on hermeticism in the “City of God“, Hermes’ interest in sciences declines, although the flame is kept alive in small Byzantine philosophical circles, assimilating Hermes with Idris or the biblical Enoch.
In the 12th century, the massive arrival of Platonic texts in Europe caused a small group of authors (Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Thierry de Chartres, Vincent de Beauvais…) to turn with interest to hermetic texts, although the rise of hermeticism in Europe came with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the consequent exile of the wise, mainly to Italy. Along with the sages also came a whole series of hermetic books.
Until the Renaissance, the only book by Hermes that circulated in Europe was the “Asclepius“, of which there were numerous copies in Latin, at least since the 12th century.
Around 1460, through an agent sent by Cosimo de Medici to look for ancient manuscripts, a Greek text coming from Macedonia, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, arrives in Florence. It included copies of treatises I to XIV of the “Corpus Hermeticum” (the present Laurentianus LXXI 33 A). The Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino, commissioned by his patron Cosimo de Medici, translated it into Latin. Ficino sees these 14 hermetic treatises as chapters of a work he called “Poimandrés“. Later, Richard Reitsentein, in his version of “Poimandrés“, coined the name “Corpus Herméticum“.
Hermes Trismegistus was seen by humanists of the stature of Marsilio Ficino or Pico de Mirándola, as the model of sage, transmitter and restorer of sacred esoteric knowledge, as the depositary of an ancestral knowledge (previous to the Universal Flood), leading to the revelation of invisible worlds and the awakening of the true divine essence of the human being through a threefold alchemical transmutation of consciousness, as well as an entity capable of revitalizing the lost Christian esotericism. In this sense, it represented the spiritual force capable of transmuting the soul and provoking an inner rebirth through Knowledge (not the intellect, which only brings partial knowledge), starting from the fact that Knowledge can only be achieved by immersion in the “Crater” full of divine forces, to which the “Corpus hermeticum” alludes.