The best book on the subject of hermetic writing at the moment appears to be Hermetica : the Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation, with notes and
introduction by Brian P. Copenhaver. (Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1992).
The writings of the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus (and those of his followers) focused primarily upon astrology, medicine, alchemy, and magic (largely interchangeable disciplines at that time). While these dialogues and polemics are given an Egyptian setting, the underlying philosophy presents a heady brew of Eastern religious elements with Platonic, Stoic, and Neo-Pythagorean philosophies.
It seems unlikely however, even given the wide circulation and influence these gospels gained around the Mediterranean, that there was ever any well-defined Hermetic community, or "church." The sheer unorthodox
nature of their thought would disallow strict religious observance; that the physical world constitutes "a unity" where all parts are interrelated. It was therefore "necessary to know the laws of sympathy and antipathy by which the parts of the universe were related," not via ordinary
scientific method but rather divine revelation. This search for revelation would eventually lead, through gradual enlightenment, to the transformation of man through the knowledge (gnosis). Pico della Mirandola's oration Of the Dignity of Man exemplifies the early modern adaptation of this ancient tradition.
Works of a hermetic nature (which proclaim revelation on
occult, theological, and philosophical subjects) were frequently ascribed to the Egyptian god Thoth, an attendant of Isis and repository of all wisdom - the
deity of scribes, writing, communication and learning- and who was later transformed and adapted to the Greek pantheon as Hermes Trismegistos, which
became in the Latin writings of the Renaissance, Hermes Tresmegistus. Hermeticism, while lacking concrete dogma or religious doctrine, nevertheless
developed into a popular enough ethos in Antiquity to be of major intellectual sway in the early Roman Empire (c.400 BC) as distrust of Greek
rationalism spread in many circles and the clear break between science and religion evaporated. Hermeticism also developed a profound influence on
the scholars of Islam when Arab cultures began to be exposed to the same texts (C. 400 AD). These Arab translations, where the original texts were
frequently obtained from Egypt or Persia, were then re-introduced to Europe later through Moorish Spain (C. 1000 AD). Subsequently, there are
multiple references to Hermes Trismegistos in late medieval and in Renaissance literature.
Among the other mysterious books attributed to Hermes
Trismegistos (which were then collated in Arabic) were the Book of the Zodiac of the Mandaeans (a Gnostic sect still existing in Iraq and
Khuzistan) and The Book of the Bee in Syriac.
1. The most notorious example may be the Tabula Smaragdina, the "Emerald Tablet", a critical text for medieval alchemists (see Atwood's Hermetic philosophy and alchemy / New York : 1984). This short treatise made its way from the Greek alchemists was to the Arabs
as the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos, and it opens with "That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like
to that which is above." The text itself was first noted by scholars in 150 BC. The Emerald Tablet was later incorporated into a much more
elaborate compendium called Book of the Secret of Creation, appearing in Latin and Arabic manuscripts. This text was (according to the Muslim
alchemist ar-Razi) complied at the Bait al-Hikmah(The House of Wisdom) under the reign of Caliph al-Ma'mun (AD 813-833), though the work has also
been attributed to the 1st-century-AD pagan mystic Apollonius of Tyana. The existing versions of the Book of the Secret of Creation have been carried
back only to the 7th or 6th century.
2. The pagan mysteries, by maintaining no official creed, allowed each cell or community to construct a theology of its own. Writings were simply
attempts at solidifying the beliefs of a particular community (see The theological and philosophical works of Hermes Trismegistus, Christian Neoplatonist / translated from the original Greek, with preface, notes, and indices, by John David Chambers. (Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 1882)
Without authorized interpretation, doctrine was in constant metamorphoses, though
the texts themselves provide a crucial historical image of spiritual life in mystery communities.
3. Thoth was also a god of the moon, of reckoning, of learning, and the creator of languages, the scribe, interpreter, and adviser of the gods,
and the representative of the sun god, Re. The cult of Thoth was based in Khmunu (Hermopolis; modern al-Ashmunayn) in Upper Egypt. According to
the traditional mythos, Thoth was the one who protected Isis during her pregnancy and healed the eye of her son Horus, which had been wounded by
Osiris' adversary Seth. Thoth was also present in the underworld, as it was his responsibility to weigh and tally the hearts of the deceased at their
judgment, and to then present the figures to Osiris and his fellow judges. Thoth's sacred animal was the ibis and apparently millions these birds have
been found mummified in cemeteries near Hermopolis and Memphis. Thoth was usually represented in human form with an ibis's head. The Greeks identified
Thoth with their god Hermes and termed him "Thoth, the thrice great" (Hermes Trismegistos). Hermes later became Mercury under the Romans, and then
Mercury is seen largely as the doctrinal inspiration for Lucifer, the fallen angel in early Christianity.
1. Hermes Trismegistus. Iatromathematica Hermetica, the ancient Greek and Latin writings
which contain religious or philosophic teachings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (Oxford,
The Clarendon press, 1924-36) 3v.
2. Hermes Trismegistus. Il Pimandro di Mercurio Trimegisto (Milano : , 1944.)
3. Llull, Ramon, 1232?-1316. Secreta secretorum, Raymundi Lullii, et Hermetis : in libros
tres divisa / Cum opusculo D. Thomae Aquinatis, De esse & essentia mineraralium & Cornelii Alvetani Ansrodii ... De conficiendo divino elixire libellus ... Omnibus medicinae & chymiae studiosis fore utilissimus .... (Coloniae : Apud Gosvinum Cholinum, 1592.)
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