philosophy, astrology, magic, alchemy.
The ancient Greeks identified their god Hermes with the Egyptian Thoth and gave him the epithet Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest,” for he had given the Egyptians their vaunted arts and sciences. A vast literature in Greek was ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus; the cited number of works ranges from 20,000 (Seleucus) to 36,525 (Manetho).
Clement of Alexandria knew of forty-two “indispensable” books. of these, ten dealt with the Egyptian priests and gods; ten with sacrifices, rites, and festivals; ten with paraphernalia of the sacred rites; and two were hymns to the gods and rules for the king. Four books dealt with astronomy and astrology, and six were medical in nature, concerning the body, diseases, medicines, instruments, the eyes, and women. Lactantius in the third century and Augustine in the fourth refer to the Hermetic writings and accept the legend of Hermes Trismegistus without question. Hermetic works on alchemy are cited by Zosimus, Stephanus, and Olympiodorus.
The so-called Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of religious and philosophical works, is best known and has received considerable attention from scholars and those interested in the occult. Most of its seventeen or eighteen works were probably written in the second century. While some Egyptian influence may be present in the pious spirit and words of the writers, the bulk of the philosophy expressed is Greek, largely Platonism modified by Neoplatonism and Stoicism. Christian thought is not evident; indeed, Augustine condemned “Hermes the Egyptian, called Trismegistus” for the idolatry and magic found in some of the writings.
The first and chief work of the Corpus is entitled Poimandres. It gives an account of the creation of the world by a luminous Word, who is the Son of God. A mystical hymn in this work was often recited by alchemists. Other works in the Corpus deal with the ascent of the soul to the divine when, for a chosen few, it has freed itself from the material world and become endowed with divine powers. The astrological control of man through the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac is prominent.
Besides the works of the Corpus, a work entitled Asclepius exists in a Latin translation. The work, a dialogue between Asclepius and Hermes Trismegistus, is of interest for its purported description of the ancient Egyptian religion. The work was attributed, probably incorrectly, in the ninth century to Lucius Apuleius of Madauros. The original Greek title was “The Perfect Word.” The Asclepius describes how the Egyptian idols were made animate by magic and contains a lament that the ancient religion of Egypt is to come to an end. There is also a reference to the “Son of God,” a fact made much of by Lactantius.
A strong Hermetic tradition persisted in the Middle Ages. Stobaeus the anthologist (late fifth century) preserved twenty-nine excerpts of Hermetica. Michael Psellus in the eleventh century knew of the Corpus Hermeticum, but in the medieval mind the name of Hermes Trismegistus was usually associated with alchemy and magical talismans. Albertus Magnus condemned the diabolical magic in some Hermetic works, but Roger Bacon referred to Hermes Trismegistus as the “Father of Philosophers.” Medieval chemistry was often called the “hermetic science.”
The magical and philosophical literature attributed to Hermes Trismegistus received widespread currency in the Renaissance. Traditional Hermetism was erroneously considered to be of ancient Egyptian origin and thus much older than the esteemed Greek philosophers who had been influenced by Egyptian beliefs.