Another important and fundamental aspect of our theoretical and practical magical studies are the so-called “Hermetic Texts”. By this we mean both alchemical treatises and (mainly) a collection of writings which has probably been entitled “Corpus Hermeticum” for over 1,500 years. These texts do not represent a book or a completed work in today’s sense, but rather a collection of different texts, a conglomerate of diverse text fragments, which to a large extent and at first glance are not in any discernible connection and which to this day mainly causes many of its readers to shake their heads in disbelief or disparagement. Still others, who at least dealt with these writings and tried to interpret them, confused them more than they brought enlightened, deep insights, let alone enlightened. The reason: a poor understanding of the sometimes profound, inherent, philosophical hermeneutics or “spiritual alchemy” with its eclectic roots and references to Gnostic, neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean colours.
Freed from any esoteric presumptions and mythological imprints, the Corpus Hermeticum is nowadays placed by experts (historians, religious scientists) in the period from the 1st to the 6th century BCE; mind you: the time of origin of the text collections, not the content of the handed down texts, which can have originated quite some centuries before Jesus’ birth.
The Corpus Hermeticum today consists of 17 Gnostic and pantheistic treatises – a pitiful remainder, considering that they are finally handed down to us from the Alexandrian Library of King Ptolemaios I (305-282 BCE), the once most famous and largest library in the world, which at Caesar’s time contained about 700,000 rolls of books. Unfortunately, this once world’s largest collection of books was destroyed by fire during the Alexandrian War (47 BCE) and later by a Christian church father who considered it “heretical”. Two of these texts – the so-called “Kybalion” and the “Smaragd Tablet” (Tabula Smaragdina Hermetis) – might still or again be familiar to the esoteric and occultist of today. The latter two, however, do not belong to the aforementioned 17 treatises, but are listed separately.
The spiritual ancestor of the corpus is the legendary Hermes Trismegistos (translated: three times largest Hermes), who is said to have already been worshipped by the Egyptian pharaohs as a deity (ibis-headed Thoth). These texts of neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean character in turn had a great influence on Western lodges and orders and famous alchemists, occultists and magicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. The aforementioned Hermes Trimsegistos has the function of a physician, chemist, sage and legislator in the hermetic literature – which we will illuminate in detail later. Hermes Trismegistos mentioned above derives his name from the Greek god Hermes (Latinized Mercurius), but is not identical with him. If one wanted to assign the “three times greatest Hermes” to a pantheon, it would be the Egyptian ibis-headed Thoth – god of magic, wisdom, science and the art of writing.
Historical Evidence & Myths
According to the Egyptian priest and scholar Manetho and Jamblichus of Chalkis (~250-300 BCE), a neo-Platonic Syrian philosopher, Hermes Trismegistos reigned an incredible 3,226 years and allegedly left 36,525 books on the “laws of nature”. The Christian church father Clemens of Alexandria (150-215) mentions in his Stromateis (VI, 4,35-38) “only” 42 books of wisdom (philosophy), 6 of them about medicine, which he had seen with his own eyes. They were presented in a solemn procession of an Egyptian.
But for this one must know the following: In general, said hermetic books – rather loose-leaf collections – were kept in the corresponding temples and only carried in holy processions and played a special role in funeral processions. On the processions these books were guarded with Argus eyes. Under the term “books” we must, however, in this context – in the ancient sense – primarily imagine individual main sections or chapters of a larger oeuvre. Unfortunately these “books”, which Clemens himself must have known exactly, have been lost.
Today their content can only be reconstructed fragmentarily from papyri written in Greek and Latin and provided with Egyptian character – if at all. Julius Ruska (1867-1949), however, at least in his Tabula Smaragdina (“Tabula Smaragdina: A Contribution to the History of Hermetic Literature”, Carl Winter’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung, 1926), has given us a German translation of the relevant passage from Clement von Alexandrien’s work Stromateis, already mentioned above. Pythagoras (570-510 BCE) is even said to have succeeded – due to the knowledge of their contents – in receiving the priestly ordinations which he needed in order to be initiated into the deeper secrets (arcana) of the Egyptians. As is well known, at that time only “priests of the first order”, as the Greek philosopher Plutarch (~46-120) tells us in his writing “About Isis and Osiris”, were allowed to be initiated into the top secret knowledge of the Egyptian natural philosophy. Thus only initiated priests were allowed to practice medicine, and consequently only they had a correspondingly high degree of experience.
The Corpus Hermeticum
The Corpus Hermeticum is a collection of two different writings from different sources that can be described as eclectic: on the one hand, ancient Greek writings, and on the other, Latin texts written in letters, dialogues and sermons.
It is most likely a pitiful remnant of anonymous writings that represent set pieces from Egyptian, Greek and Persian philosophy on the one hand, and mythology, cosmogony and cosmology on the other. Today we can unfortunately – as already mentioned – only assume that in the oldest hermetic writings, besides
Grimoire-like magic formulas and magic practices, also spagyric healing recipes and factual chemical formulas were dealt with. Unfortunately not a single complete – i.e. coherent – script has been handed down to us.
For the first time these Hermes writings become historically comprehensible with the pagan Gnostic and Eastern Roman historian of the Upper Egyptian Panopolis: Zosimos (5th – 6th century), as well as with the Greek pagan and historian Olympiodoros (5th century), who came from Thebes, who also belonged to the “School of Zosimos” and was mainly interested in alchemy. But also here the sources are still more than poor: besides some chemical recipes Olympiodoros describes us in his comments about this “holy art” some ideological views, here quoted by the already mentioned Julius Ruska:
“So Hermes calls man a small world by saying that everything that the great world possesses is also possessed by man. The big world has land and water animals, man has fleas, lice and worms. The great world has rivers, springs, seas, man has intestines, veins and body outlets. The great world has air animals, man has mosquitoes, etc. The great world possesses spreading currents such as winds, thunder and lightning, man possesses flatulence, diseases and dangers. The great world has sun and moon, man has two eyes, the right one compared to the sun, the left one to the moon. The great world has mountains and hills, man bones and flesh. The great world has the sky and the stars, man has his head and his ears. The sky has the twelve signs of the zodiac from the ram to the fish, man has the same from the head to the feet […]” (2, p. 15-16)
These sentences clearly reflect the old macro-microcosmic thinking of Indo-Iranian origin, which did not originate primarily on Egyptian soil. The Hermes literature thus continues certain views and ancient traditions from Egypt’s Persian past. Already in the oldest texts handed down to us this form of eclecticism can be found – through all centuries up to our time – as a guideline of this literary genre.
We may assume that the first alchemical authors, but especially the already mentioned Zosimos, still knew the original Hermes literature, which, summarized as Corpus Hermeticum, represented a religious secret doctrine or even in coded form the Egyptian religion itself.
Ruska is quoted again: “Let us now turn to the history of hermetic literature. What is the justification for its limitation to Greek and Latin script? There is no question that a good part of its sources can be traced back to genuine Egyptian property – I remember Clemens Alexandrinus once again. The ancient relationship of all arts and all knowledge to the Egyptian gods, the deliberate secretiveness of the priests and heads of the temple workshops is a fact. So we will not only from the beginning consider a mystical-religious framing or clothing of technical regulations to be possible, even after the separation and independence of scientific literature the need will have remained to give the secret activity a theosophical background, it will have remained a permanent incentive to dress something new in the old form and to use it as wisdom of the Agathodaimon (= good demon, in the Ggs. to the Kakodaimon = evil demon), the Hermes and other gods and prophets. Victory Christianity has overcome and destroyed the redemption doctrine based on Hermes, as so many others have, while astrology and alchemy have never completely defeated it. A new hermetic literature of occult-religious character is formed in the Orient and travels back to the Occident through the mediation of Islam”. (2, S. 36-37)
Hermes Trismegistos was thought to be the founder of all these teachings, which were later called “hermetic”, since they were attributed to him. Nobody thought it possible or dared to question the authenticity of this mythical writer.
The Renaissance Of Hermetic Writings
An ancient Greek manuscript of hermetic content – the Codex Laurentianus – was discovered around 1460 by the monk Brother Lionardo of Pistoja in Bulgaria (Macedonia) and brought to Florence, where it was finally translated into Latin by the Florentine philosopher and humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) on behalf of Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) in 1463 and printed for the first time in 1471 under the title “Poimandres”. Cosimo was so interested in the translation of this writing that he ordered Marsilio to stop his current work immediately – the first translation of Platonic writings into Italian.
These treatises deal partly with moral, partly with mystical and philosophical ideas of this early epoch, which in places also remind us of Gnostic literature and ideas and above all fascinated and captivated the humanists of the 15th and the following centuries, which is why individual texts of the Corpus Hermeticum were repeatedly subjected to new compilations. The most famous of these writings bears the above-mentioned title “Poimandres”, which means “the shepherd of men”. However, some passages of this scripture show a striking resemblance to the Gospel of John in the New Testament. The Greek title of the Scripture itself (Poimandres – the shepherd of men) also suggests that these already few writings handed down to us could have originated in early Christianity.
To the Corpus Hermeticum we count some Latin and Coptic writings, which have been handed down to us as so-called “Hermetica”. The Hermetica begin with the Poimandres, named after the Greek word for “shepherd of men”, the “spirit of the heavenly power”, who appears here as revelation mediator. The Hermetica represent a collection of Persian-Egyptian writings. The Poimandres reports about the development of the world and mankind with the Iranian trains of thought of the primitive man, of the cosmic Fall and the redemption by the Gnostic ascent of the soul into the seven planetary spheres, until it praises “the Father with those who are there” in an eighth circle, to finally unite with him beyond that.
The same speculations are already known to us from the pagan gnosis, a mixture of Greek, mainly Platonic, thought with Persian, Near Eastern, Egyptian and especially Semitic cabbala elements. In addition, there is the chemical knowledge of the time, which fits into the Gnostic-scientific teaching as a new factor. Alexandria and probably also the Eastern Persian region became the special centre of alchemy during the time of its origin, as we know from recent research results. After the decay of Alexandria, knowledge came to the Arabs and the Syrians. From Arab sources, improved by Arab and Persian alchemists working under Arab rule, the doctrine of the art of metal transformation reached the West, as did other branches of science. Another route from the Syrians via the Byzantines to the West was the same as that of Florentine neo-Platonism in the 15th century.
The fate of Poimandres, the content of which was saved up to the present day and first reopened to interested circles by the classical philologist Richard Reitzenstein (1861-1931), was decisively influenced by the aforementioned statesman and philosopher Michael Psellos (1018-1076/79), known as the author of numerous writings on Greek medicine. He brought together this strange collection of 18 writings which are still handed down to us today. The writings, probably written around the 2nd to 3rd centuries A.D. in Gnostic or New Platonic circles, were already sources for the alchemical speculations of Zosimos. Their influence reaches into the high Middle Ages. They were also familiar to the Arabs, and scholars such as the scholastic philosopher and theologian Petrus Abaelardus (1079-1149) and Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) studied them thoroughly. In the 14th century they worked at the Neuplatonic Academy in Florence. Copernicus (1473-1543) acquired many ideas about the philosophy of light, which is an essential part of Poimandres.
The Philosophy Of Hermetic Writings
In this respect, all text fragments of the Corpus Hermeticum – like the writings of alchemy, by the way – are always allegorical, parable and exemplary (up to transmutative) cosmologies, but never direct ones. We also encounter these ideas in the ancient Greek and Ionic schools of philosophy (7th century BCE), in Thales Miletus and Heraclitus (6th century BCE), in the Pythagoreans (5th and 4th centuries BCE) and in Plato (5th and 4th century BCE):
In the center of the universe is the earth. In this sphere called “sublunar” there is a constant change, i.e. the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – are in a permanent interaction with each other and are transmutable into each other (see alchemy). The planets and stars, however, are, so to speak, “translunaric”, i.e. of a non-irdic nature, are fixed, not changeable and move in fixed orbits around the centralistic earth: their essence is the “fifth element”, which is foreign to the earth, the quintessence, the paracelsian and thus spagyric and alchemical “quinta essentia”. Furthermore, man represents the so-called “microcosm” as the small image of the “macrocosm”, i.e. the rest of creation.
This micro-macrocosmic analogy can also be found, for example, in the hermetic Tabula Smaragdina and many alchemical writings from the 16th to 19th centuries. again: “[…]what is below is equal to what is above, and what is above is equal to what is below for the purpose of preparing the One Thing […]” The influence of the macrocosm extends not only to man alone, but also to animals, plants, minerals and metals, which are attributed the ability to change (transmutation) or to grow and develop.
Another symbol that is obvious in this context is the philosophical egg of the alchemists, in which the entire creation repeats itself on a small scale. The connection of the (macrocosmic) planets with the metals, for example (see above), is therefore also shown in the assignment of the metals to the (then seven) planets, the scents, the colours, etc. – In other words, on a spiritual level, the aim of hermetics (of man) is to find its way back to the origin and to overcome the discrepancy (Abyss) between the material (sublunar) and the spiritual world (translunar) in order to restore a unity of the whole, i.e. the harmony between body (action), soul (feeling) and spirit (thinking), or the “Ruach Elohim” of the Hebrews and the “Logos” of the Greeks.
Relativize respectively Refutation
Here now a certain Isaac Casaubonus (1559-1614) is responsible; a universal scholar Protestant and humanist, who in his treatise “De rebus sacris ecclesiasiasticis exercitationes XVI” (1614, London) makes the quite conclusive, but nevertheless not unequivocally provable assertion that the Corpus Hermeticum around the 1st to 3rd century was written by Greek and Christian authors in Egypt after the turn of the time. Casaubonus: “[…] Writing style, choice of words and the frequent Christian references and quotations do not permit any other conclusions […]”.