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Hermetic Ism Part I by John Nash

Hermetic Ism Part I by John Nash

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Winter 2009
Copyright ©
The Esoteric Quarterly
, 2009.
Hermeticism: Rise and Fall of an Esoteric System:Part I
John F. NashSummary
hat we now know as Hermeticism wasborn when texts appeared, early in theCommon Era, believed to contain revelationfrom the god Thoth/Hermes/Mercury andteachings of the ancient Egyptian priesthood.Taking an historical approach, this article ex-plores the growing interest in Hermeticism inthe Middle Ages and even greater interest dur-ing the Renaissance. The Hermetic texts werethought to prophesy the coming of Christ—orpossibly the renewal of Christianity by the in-corporation of elements of Egyptian religion.For several centuries Hermeticism—with astrong basis in talismanic magic and signifi-cant emphasis on astrology and alchemy—wasthe dominant system of esotericism in Chris-tian Europe.Part I explores the evolution of Hermeticismfrom its origins in antiquity through its “goldenage,” which came to a close with the executionof Giordano Bruno in 1600. Part II, which willappear in the next issue, continues the story byexamining specific applications of Hermeti-cism, its decline in the mid-17th century, andthe revival of interest in modern times.
The Hermetic Texts
uring the period from about 200 BCE to300 CE, esoteric texts attracted attentionin the Greco-Roman world. They found fertileground in the cultural environment of late Pla-tonism, which had already taken on a religio-mystical dimension that would play out overtime in the Essene and rabbinic schools of Ju-daism; in pagan and Christian Gnosticism; and,by the end of the period, in Neoplatonism. Ex-otic ideas, beliefs, and religious practices werevalued by the intelligentsia of the Roman Em-pire. Well-to-do Greeks and Romans madepilgrimages to Egypt, and sometimes to otherparts of the Middle East, to savor ancient wis-dom and religious rituals.Apocalyptic and “Wisdom” literature emergedin Hellenic Judaism and was incorporated intothe Greek Septuagint—though not in the He-brew Bible approved by the Sanhedrin. The
 Books of Enoch
supposedly described mysticalexperiences of the biblical prophet Enoch, sonof Jared and great-grandfather of Noah.
Kab-balistic texts were believed to preserve oralteachings from Moses or even Abraham.
Sibylline Oracles
presented a mixture of clas-sical mythology and Judeo-Christian sacredstories. The
Chaldean Oracles
claimed to pre-sent the teachings of Zoroaster. Finally, and of concern to us here, the so-called Hermetictexts professed to communicate the secret wis-dom of the ancient Egyptian priesthood.That wisdom was attributed to the Egyptiangod Thoth. Depicted in art as a man with thehead of an ibis, he was the scribe of the gods,his long beak suggestive of a quill. Thoth al-legedly gave his countrymen their laws andbestowed on humanity the gifts of languageand writing. Writing clearly brought greatbenefits, but it was not universally welcomed.King Thamus complained to the god: “[T]his
discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in
About the Author
John F. Nash, Ph.D., is a long-time esoteric student,author, and teacher. Two of his books,
Quest for theSoul
The Soul and Its Destiny
, were reviewedin the Winter 2005 issue of the
 Esoteric Quarterly
.His latest book,
Christianity: The One, the Many
,was reviewed in the Fall 2008 issue. Further infor-mation can be found in the advertisements in thisissue and at http://www.uriel.com/.
Copyright ©
The Esoteric Quarterly
, 2009
40the learners’ souls, because they will not usetheir memories.”
Then, in ancient Greece, theOlympian god Hermes, son of Zeus, becameidentified with Thoth. Upon the Hellenic con-quest of Egypt, in the fourth century BCE, theEgyptian Thoth became Hermes. Eventuallythe Romans identified their messenger-godMercury with Thoth/Hermes, and the threegods were conflated into a single multiculturaldeity.Most important of the Hermetic texts were the
Corpus Hermeticum
and a companion book,the
. Less well-known was
The Defi-nitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
.Authorship of all three was credited to “Her-mes Trismegistus” (“Thrice-Great Hermes”).Much of the material was formatted as teacher-disciple dialog, typically between Hermes andhis favored disciple Asclepius or his son Tat.Hermes Trismegistus was held in high regard;for instance, one student proclaimed:“[E]verything is possible to you as master of the universe.”
For more than 1,500 years,Hermes was assumed to be the godThoth/Hermes/Mercury or at least his incarna-tion in human form. Some accounts assert thatHermes was Moses’ teacher, or even Abra-ham’s, while others suggest that he lived at thetime of Noah or Zoroaster. There may havebeen more than one Hermes. The
 mentions a grandfather and grandson, both so-named, and asserts that the texts were writtenby the grandson.
Perhaps there was a triplicityof Hermeses, providing one explanation of “Trismegistus.”
Asclepius has sometimesbeen identified with the Egyptian Imhotep.
 The classical Hermetic texts purported to re-veal new details of Egyptian religion. How-ever, none was written in hieroglyphic, hier-atic, or even demotic script. The
Corpus Her-meticum
was written in Greek. Only a Latintranslation and an abbreviated Coptic transla-tion of the
survived, though theoriginal version was also believed to have beenin Greek.
The Definitions of Hermes
was pre-served in Coptic and Armenian manuscripts.Another important text was the
 Emerald Tab-let 
, believed to have been inscribed on “emer-ald” by Hermes himself.
According to leg-end, Alexander the Great discovered the tabletin the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, supposedlyHermes’ tomb. But the earliest verifiable ver-sion, which dates from the eighth century, ison paper—in an Arabic work by the Islamicalchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. The text is shortand cryptic:It is true without lying, certain and mosttrue. That which is Below is like thatwhich is Above, and that which is Aboveis like that which is Below to do the mira-cles of the Only Thing. And as all thingshave been and arose from One by the me-diation of One, so all things have theirbirth from this One Thing by adaptation.The Sun is its father; the Moon its mother;the Wind hath carried it in its belly; theEarth is its nurse. The father of all perfec-tion in the whole world is here. Its force orpower is entire if it be converted intoEarth. Separate the Earth from the Fire, thesubtle from the gross, sweetly with greatindustry. It ascends from the Earth to theHeavens and again it descends to the Earthand receives the force of things superiorand inferior. By this means you shall havethe glory of the whole world and therebyall obscurity shall fly from you. Its force isabove all force, for it vanquishes everysubtle thing and penetrates every solidthing. So was the world created. From thisare and do come admirable adaptations,whereof the process is here in this. Henceam I called Hermes Trismegistus, havingthe three parts of the philosophy of thewhole world. That which I have said of theoperation of the Sun is accomplished andended.
 The famous second sentence: “That which isbelow…” is usually abbreviated to “As above,so below.”The
was also written in Arabic. Itsoriginal Arabic title could be interpreted as“Goal of The Wise.” Dated from around 1000CE, the
took the form of a handbook,or
, of talismanic magic. The exis-tence of Arabic Hermetic texts draws attentionto the penetration of Hermetism into MiddleEastern as well as European cultures. In par-ticular, the Sabians—whose descendents maybe the modern Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran—
Winter 2009
Copyright ©
The Esoteric Quarterly
, 2009.
41are believed to have embraced beliefs similarto western Hermetism.An issue of terminology needs to be addressedat this point. Distinctions customarily are madebetween the
of late antiquity andthe
of the Middle Ages and be-yond. The former term refers to teachingsbased on the
Corpus Hermeticum
, the
 Ascle- pius
, and
The Definitions of Hermes
, as theywere understood in the Greco-Roman world.
refers to the much broader teach-ings that reflected medieval additions to theliterature—a category that would include the
and possibly the
 Emerald Tablet 
—andthe incorporation of concepts and practicesfrom other traditions. For example, it would beaccurate to speak of “Renaissance Hermeti-cism” or “Christian Hermeticism” but inaccu-rate to speak of “Renaissance Hermetism” or“Christian Hermetism.” Corresponding toHermetism and Hermeticism are
, referring to individuals who studyand/or practice the respective disciplines.
Classical Hermetic Teachings
he literature of classical Hermetism of-fered a blend of philosophy, magic, andastrology; it also included some prayers andprophecies. These last, which became of inter-est to Christian apologists, will be discussed indue course. Magic was the most conspicuousfeature in the texts, and considerable attentionwas paid to human potential.In the
, Hermes made the bold state-ment: “Man is a great miracle, a being adoredand honored.”
Man is partly mortal andpartly immortal, occupying a position interme-diate between God and nature. By raising hisconsciousness, man “passes into the nature of God as though he were God… [H]e is in thefortunate middle position: he loves thosethings that are below him and is beloved of thebeings above.”
The Definitions of Hermes
 described three levels in the human constitu-tion: body, soul, and
(Greek: “Mind”).“Nous,” it explained, “is the maker of soul, andsoul the maker of the body.”
Moreover, “Thebody increases and reaches perfection…Every man has a body and a soul, but not everysoul has Nous.”
Nous spans the divide be-tween God and his creation. People with theproper disposition and who committed to theproper training could acquire Nous and be-come effective magi. They could also achieve
, or enlightenment.Hermetism “saw the entire Cosmos as onegreat, interconnected Being, a system based onintricate harmony, sympathy, and correspon-dence, both spiritual and material.”
Theteachings affirmed the divine nature of theplanets and fixed stars and their influence onhuman affairs. The zodiac, the backdrop forboth the planets and the stellar constellations,was divided not only into the familiar 12 signsbut into 36 decans, each of 10
of arc. Everydecan was the domain of a powerful spirit,some of which were benevolent and othersmalevolent. As the vault of the heavens rotatedduring the 12-hour day, and during the solaryear, each resident spirit held sway in turn.The planetary deities exerted influence as theplanets moved in relation to the zodiac. In con-trast to the malevolent disposition of some de-can spirits, all seven planetary deities—or“governors”—were benevolent, though theinfluence of, say, Mars or Saturn was very dif-ferent from that of Venus or the Sun.The
Corpus Hermeticum
presented a creationstory that recalls the account in
:[I]n the abyss was infinite darkness, water,and fine intelligent spirit. By the power of God were these within the chaos. A holylight was sent forth, and the elements fromthe watery substance solidified under theEarth… [T]he light elements were thenseparated off and raised on high, and theheavy were founded firmly upon the wa-tery sand. All was distinguished by fire, allwas raised up to be supported by the breathof life. The vault of heaven appeared inseven circles, and the gods appeared in theform of stars with all their constellations;and heaven with the gods was complete inevery detail. The universe was encom-passed by air and sustained on its circularcourse by divine spirit.
 Animals, plants and people were created,whereupon “men began to live and understandthe destiny assigned to them by the course of 

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