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The Hermetic Writings: Survival of Ancient

Egyptian Beliefs
By Jo Hedesan. Published on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 in

During the Renaissance, scholars were convinced that the surviving Hermetic
fragments – notably the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet – originated in
ancient Egypt. They believed that the Hermetic manuscripts were authored by a sage
called Hermes Trismegistus, who was contemporary to the Biblical Moses and the
great Pharaonic civilization. The Renaissance thinkers hence regarded with reverence
the Corpus, and brilliant scholars like Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola,
Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and others sought to unveil the perennial
wisdom contained in the Hermetic writings. A veritable revolution of ideas and
letters was unleashed, with a flourishing of alchemy, magic, astrology and kabbalistic

However, in 1614, a French classical scholar named Isaac Casaubon destroyed the
magic of Hermes Trismegistus. He maintained, upon careful analysis of the Corpus
Hermeticum, that the writings were not originating from ancient Egypt but from the
200-400 AD Greek circles, and that Hermes Trismegistus, far than being a
contemporary of Moses, was rather a contemporary of the late Roman emperors.
Undeniably, there are elements in the Corpus Hermeticum that mirror late antique
Greek philosophy.

Casaubon’s deconstructive analysis may have dealt a deadly blow to the Renaissance
belief in the antiquity of Hermetic writings, but it did not stop esoteric groups and
thinkers from regarding them highly. Nevertheless, academic scholars avoided the
analysis of the Corpus Hermeticum until the middle of the 20th century.

The first author to dabble into the Hermetic writings was, ironically, another French
classical scholar – A.J. Festugiere, who wrote an impressive four-volume work only to
re-affirm the purely Greek origins of the Corpus(1). He believed that the Hermetic
fragments were commonplace Greek speculation that had no real value except as
reiteration of late antique beliefs. Nevertheless, the pioneering work of Festugiere
should not be discounted lightly, as it offers a wealth of information on the world of
late antiquity and the intertwining of Hermeticism with other currents like
Neoplatonism, Gnosticism or Stoicism. Moreover, Festugiere’s work may have helped
a revival in Hermetic studies. Yet a new impetus was given after the World War II,
particularly due to the discovery of additional Hermetic fragments in the Gnostic
Library of Nag Hammadi, and also thanks to the seminal work of Frances Yates,
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, which sparked a new scholarly interest
in Hermetic writings (2). It is a new generation of Hermetic scholars, notably J.P.
Mahe, G. Fowden and P. Kingsley that are changing the ways we perceive the Corpus
Hermeticum (3,4,5).

What have they discovered?

It now appears that while the Corpus Hermeticum may have been written down in
late antiquity, its roots do trace back into Pharaonic Egypt. Scholars have shown that
much of the Corpus Hermeticum is profoundly Egyptian in outlook and practices.
The charismatic figure of Hermes Trismegistus himself originated in the Egyptian
reverence for the god Thoth, the god of scribes and esoteric understanding.
Moreover, the texts found at Nag Hammadi have pointed to the fact that, far from
being secondhand philosophical speculation – as Festugiere and others believed –
the Corpus Hermeticum may have been the center of an entire Egyptian belief system
with adepts that were initiated in its mysteries. The Corpus Hermeticum may have
been philosophical in style, but it was profoundly religious and initiatory in nature. At
the same time, the Hermetic worldview had the ability of absorbing and
reinterpreting related philosophical currents. Perhaps a balanced conclusion might
be that Hermetic writings betray purely Egyptian beliefs that have intertwined
creatively with late antique speculation. In the end, the views of Renaissance scholars
might be, at least partially, vindicated.

The Hermetic fragments, as they now stand, can be divided into three types:

• Metaphysical – concerning the nature of the divine, the universe, and man;
• Mystical / initiatory – concerning the ability of man to accede into the divine
realm and be transformed;
• Magical – including magical recipes and incantations.

Most early scholars, such as Festugiere, thought to clearly differentiate between the
‘lower’ (magical) Hermetica and the higher (philosophical) Hermetica, which were
supposed to be unrelated. It was only recently that scholars have accepted the fact
that there is a continuum between the lower and higher Hermetica, as representing
different stages of initiation. It is a Hermetic belief that the enlightenment of man
proceeds according to steps, out of which knowledge of the natural world – including
magic, alchemy and astrology – must be gathered in the process.

In the next installment I will attempt to analyze the figure of Hermes
Trismegistus and his Egyptian roots in the mysterious figure of the ibis-
headed god Thoth.


(1) Festugiere, A.J. (1944-1954). La Révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste, 4 vols. Paris:
Librairie Lecoffre.

(2) Yates, F. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London: the University of
Chicago Press.

(3) Mahe, J.P. (1998). “A Reading of the Discourse on the Ogdoad and the Ennead”,
in Gnosis and Hermeticism, ed. R. van den Broeck & W.J. Hanegraaff. Albany,
NY: SUNY Press, pp. 79-84.

Mahe, J.P. (1978-1982). Hermes en Haute-Egypte, 2 vols, Quebec.

(4) Fowden, G. (1986). The Egyptian Hermes. A Historical Approach to the Late
Pagan Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(5) Kingsley, P. (1993). ‘Poimandres:the Etymology of the Name and the Origin of the
Hermetica’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 56, pp.1-24.

The best updated English-language translations of the Corpus Hermeticum are either
B. Copenhaver’s Hermetica and the recent (1999) translation of the Corpus
Hermeticum, called The Way of Hermes:
Copenhaver, B. (1992). Hermetica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Way of Hermes: The Corpus Hermeticum, trans. by Clement Salaman, Dorine
van Oyen and William D. Wharton, The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to
Asclepius, trans. by Jean-Pierre Mahé. (1999). London: Duckworth.