Hermetic tradition is an oversimplified form of Platonism that was spread from Egypt during the Hellenistic Period. It was a mystery tradition for selected initiates, with books and papers circulating among the chosen-ones, but those days have passed since Hermetism evolves and changes, adopting the currents of its time. This characteristic will always keep this tradition alive.
In the current article, I have tried to provide an image for ancient Hermetism, based on its texts, while the modern Hermetism is something different, that draws only the mentality and some basic teachings from the ancient Hermetism. From the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance and the later years, Hermetism became a magical tradition that incorporated relative esoteric and occult teachings.
Origin of Hermetism
Hermetismos (Ερμητισμός) or Hermetism was a spiritual philosophy which had practical magickal or religious aspects. It was a closed society of initiates who shared occult knowledge on science and the unseen world. According to the Polish-Russian classical philologist and professor Thedeaus Zielinsky, the roots of Hermeticism are in Arcadia of Peloponnese. We are speaking of years before the Archaic Period, to near Mythical. The same opinion is written by P. Raingeard in his essay, Hermes Psychagoge. Saint Kyrillos writes too that Hermes of the Hermetics is the son of Dias and Maia (Contra Julianum I, 30), which is another variation of the Arcadian myth.
Arkadia was a place of rocks and forests. It was the natural birthplace of Pan and Hermes. Hermes appears to be the father of Pan. Both are Gods of the shepherds. The lake Styphalis of Arkadia has tunnels in the bottom, which were believed to be passages to the Underworld, a place that Hermes could visit as a psychopomp God. Arkadians colonized Kyrenne (Lyvie of north Africa) and they carried their religion to Egypt.
Hermes is considered the giver of the alphabet, just like Thoth. He is also the God of magick and necromancy, as Thoth. The German classical philologist Richard August Reitzenstein found a papyrus and published it in the paper Swei religion geschichtliche Fagen (Strasburg 1901) where we find certain similarities between the Hellenic religion and the later Hermetic texts. The text is a proof that the theory of Hermetism originating in Arkadia is valid and it confirms what Zielinski wrote at the beginning of the 20th century "there is no doubt that Arcadian mysticism was transferred to Egypt" (Hermes Trismegistos, 1905).
In the original cult, three elements were added:
- theory of the elements (from Empedocles)
- theory of Logos (from Platon)
Hermes Trismegistos seems to be the Egyptian Thoth. The syncretism between the Egyptian and the Hellenic religion happened in Hermoupolis (it means the city of Hermes in Egypt). At that city, the main deity was Thoth. When the Hellenes came to live in Kmoun (later, Hermoupolis) they mixed their beliefs with the Egyptians and formed a unification we name Hermes Trismegistos. In a shell of the 2nd-century b.C. Thoth is also called Trismegistos. Since Thoth was unified with Hermes, magick and science had to be together at one belief system. This is why we see magickal aspects in the philosophical system of Hermetism. During the mix of both religions, we see elements from the Egyptian and elements from the Hellenic, being in harmonious bounds. The Egyptian magick influenced at a great degree the Hermetism.
At the 3rd century b.C. Alexandria had three major religions: Hellenic, Egyptian and Jewish. Jews who had been educated with the Hellenic spirit and were members of the Hermetic society, also influenced the Hermetic teachings. But we cannot be sure about anything, because, from the 36.525 Hermetic books that Manetho refers, we had only very few excerpts.
In the first dialogue, we meet Poimandres, which is similar to the Platonic and Neoplatonic Nous/Mind, the Ultimate God. In the second group of dialogues, we see Asclepios, the God of medicine and oneirotherapeia (healing through dreams). In the third group, we see Kore Kosmou (daughter of the world), which is Isis. The Goddess of magick will bring a group of Egyptian deities with Her (Horus, Osiris). Nous and Nous-Creator are going to be connected with Zeus and Hermes, accordingly. Hermes and Asclepios were humans first and then were worshipped as Gods.
Just like in Platonism, in Hermetism too, a human being can elevate and unite itself with the Gods, if he will have the mental abilities to overcome the sensible world. For that cause, God sends to the earth pieces of Poimandres or his Kerykes or Dioiketes (forerunners or commanders).
From the name, the ultimate God Poimandres is connected with Hermes, but it is not Hermes as we see in the first dialogue, where Hermes is the writer. "I am Poimandres, the Nous/Mind of the higher intelligence. I know what you want and I am with you everywhere." Poimandres seems to be unnamed, neither male nor female (Lecture A, 9). "When Hermes asked what is God, he responded: the creator of all, wisest Nous and eternal." (fragment 28, Stovaios, 1 ,1,2)
According to Poimandes, who created Logos, Logos created our world. Logos will be seen as Nous-Demiourgos (creator) or Nous-Father (Lecture A, 6). A few lines after, we read the human was created as equal to Nous-Father! Hermes is identified with Nous Demiourgos in later years.
Logos is identified with Nous-Demiourgos but in Lecture A, 10 we see that it was created by Nous Demiourgos, thus makes Logos, son of Nous Demiourgos, and then united with Him. Pan is identified with Logos in later years. Dioiketes Dioiketes or Commanders are seven and they rule the seven known planets. 36 Gods also appear, who are linked with the decans, so that explains the magical system and its use till today.
The Daughter of the World is Isis. Her son is Horus, her husband is Osiris. In the Egyptian addition, we find Tat, who is the son of king Ammon. Imouthes is identified with Asclepios and Pta with Hephestos.
Piety in Hermetism is the same as in Platonism, so our articles on Platonic piety, Platon and Atheism, Plato and the Gods, Viewing Gods with Porphyry etc. are very helpful. It is impossible to grasp the teachings of Hermetism without a basic understanding of its previous currents, especially Platonism. In many texts, we see clear Platonic teachings and sometimes Stoic and Epicurean. "Piety is the knowledge of God" (Lecture I, 4). Piety is one of God's seeds on us like virtue and Sofrosyne (Lecture I, 4). Hermetics prove the existence of God like the Platonics. "How can someone walk, talk, hear, see, smell, touch, breath without the existence of God? This is a Hermetic question Yet God remains invisible and cannot be seen by our eyes, except if we use logical thinking (Asclepius 41). The God is one and He is the biggest and wiser and the unborn Being in the universe, because "everything born is visible, but He is invisible" (Lecture N, 3). God's characteristic is being agathos, because he is the ultimate Agathon (Lecture N 8-9). This is a copy of Platonism! And it goes even further. In Hermetism there are seven sins and seven punishments, but also 6 cures for the soul, which when applied, the soul is renewed. Those are:
- Knowledge and happiness against sadness
- Temperance against debauchment
- Perseverance against desire
- Justice against injustice
- Society (when people cooperate) against greed
- Truth against fraud and envy
If I understand correctly the texts, those 6 cures, when applied, are bringing the human closer to the Cosmic Soul, thus they are gifts of the Cosmic Soul. So, devotees of Hekate, pay attention to those cures.
The religion of God is don't be evil (Lecture L, 23), that we read today in Wicca "do no harm". And yes, because God is only Agathos, the Ultimate Good. Another important teaching is that God does not change. "But the truth is only that is made by itself and stays pure as it is" (Fragment 2a, Stovaios, 3, 11, 31 11), which is also basic Platonic teaching.
Theoptia (θεοπτία) is a term that appears in Lactantius Divinae Institutiones (7, 9, 11) and it is the ability to view and understand God. It is possible for human beings only, because they have logos (speech) and logical thinking. It is a human privilege. It is based on the application of the virtues and the practice of Hermetism. Not all people have this ability, because some are chosen.
Theosis (θέωσις) is the purpose of Hermetism, to become one with God, which is similar to Platonism and Neoplatonism. Theosis is linked with immortality. And it is logical because if we are created by Logos/ Nous-Demiourgos or Nous-Father then we are made by His image and as He is immortal, we are too. One of the biggest evils is to be ignorant on God. This is something we read in the 7th lecture and is a direct connection with Plato's work of the Laws. The article on Plato and atheism is a must-read.
Death for Hermetics is a changing of form. The soul returns to its initial position and it is judged. If the person wasn't good enough, it cannot elevate, it will stay low and the soul will return to lower bodies. Hermetism provides a set of rules and teachings for the renaissance of the soul and the 6 cures are the basis of this procedure. For the Hermetics, the world is alive and humans should worship nature as it is the body of God. The Underworld is just a world we cannot see with our eyes.
Don't forget divine Platon's advice: "Be similar with the Gods."
See our articles on piety.
The Hermetic Society
In antiquity, magick was a part of religion and a part of society. In Hermetism, magick prevailed just like later in Neoplatonism. But the Hermetic current had its unique closed society of members, which were initiates. Something similar to the closed societies of the ancient mysteries of Hellas and Egypt. Only those who were chosen would take knowledge. They could understand and use it. In the Hermetic book of Asclepios, we see Hermes speaking to Ammon for a kind of hate. This is the religious hate towards those who are not ready to receive the teachings. Moreover, the temple had an adyton, a place where not everyone could enter. And the discussion continues in the adyton with king Ammon entering too.
In Hermetism, the initiates were those who had taken the knowledge and understood it. The initiation is the understanding of the knowledge of Hermes, that he wrote to his books. Hermetics kept the books for themselves and they used oaths of secrecy to seal their teachings. Hermetism had specific hymns, diets, beliefs, reading materiaL and a way of life for being immortal. Besides those, it had a tradition of magick, a blend of Egyptian and Hellenic, from which we can take a glimpse either with Hellenistic Astrology or the magickal book Kyranides (herb magic, divination, medicine, animal magick, crystal magic, letter magick).
The Hermetic Magick
The world is full of daimones, which are ruled by moon Gods and Goddesses like Hekate and Thoth (Hermes Trismegistos, Zielinski, 1905). The various barbarous words is a language that allows us to communicate with those daimons and Gods. The initiates of Hermetism know the names and the way to communicate effectively with the unseen entities.
The theory of the four elements is clear in the texts as well as that each element is a symbolic representation of a specific type of energy.
Alchemy is a Hermetic art dedicated to Isis and it seems to be initially an art of jewellery making objects gold-plated. This changed from the Hellenistic Era to the Middle Ages, but it still was the science of Hermes.
Astrology played probably the most important part in Hermetic Magick, along with ceremonial magick. It seems that the Hellenistic Astrology is Hermetic Astrology and that the main pioneers of Astrology were the main teachers of Hermetism. Ancient Astrology is different from our modern Astrology. It is still a new branch for our world and many people will start practising it in time, especially magicians who follow the Hermetic tradition. Having said that, let's return to the early antiquity.
The Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Persians who lived in Mesopotamia, studied the zodiac signs and the position of the planets in the ecliptic, but the Egyptians studied the diurnal rotation of specific stars and asterisms. The Egyptians came up with the 36 decans, which we find in the 6th fragment of Hermetic texts. The Hermetics believed that the decans influence our lives and those influences were called tanes, a word that derives from the verb teino, to tend. As Astrology was progressing, decans were considered as faces of the zodiac signs. Each sign takes 30 degrees in the ecliptics, divided by 3 decans per zodiac sign. Each part is ruled by a specific planet, enhancing some aspects of the zodiac signs. A similar practice of division is the terms, which were referred by Claudius Ptolemaios. The Egyptian Terms divided each zodiac by 5 uneven parts, where each part was ruled by a planet. Terms and face were added in the interpretation of the horoscope along with triplicity, exaltation, rulership of planets, which reduced or produce their positive or negative effects. Hermes is referring to the stars, the asterisms, the zodiac signs, the decans and the comets as signs that transfer messages from Gods for the future (Stovaios 1, 21, 9 16) There are also specific planetary meanings in the Hermetic texts (fragment 29, Stovaios).
During the 2nd century b.C. in Alexandreia of Egypt, a new school of Astrology (Hellenistic Astrology) seems to appear, based on the Hermetic tradition. At that time, the Hellene mathematician and astronomer Hypsicles introduces the new teaching of Horoscopos or Ascendant, which changed the Astrology. Moreover, we had similar discoveries by Hermes who changed the houses from 8 to 12. The 8 houses were a theory of Asclepios. The new astrological school was a fourfold system of planets, zodiac signs, aspects and houses. The same system that we have today in modern astrology. But new things were added like the 7 lots, which were also attributed to Hermes by Paulos of Alexandreia (4th century a.C.) The new school became public during the Roman Era but its secrets were hidden within the Hermetic Society and the books cause much confusion than responding to answers. We see famous astrologers, like Dorotheros of Sidon mentioning the Hermetic texts as sources of astrology in the 1st-century b.C. and later Vettius Valens (2nd-century a.C. and Firmicus Maternus (4th-century a.C.) carry characteristics of the Hermetic society like the oath of secrecy, initiation, occult teachings etc.
Theory of Correspondences
Except the very famous teaching from the Emerald Tablet: "anything that is below is like the one that it is above and what it is above is like the one that is below" we read that the Creator God (Nous Demiourgos) ordered the lower beings to be in a relationship of sympathy with the upper beings. Besides the Platonic theory of Methexis which is also found here, we see the theory of correspondences in the magickal book Kyranides.
Magick in Hermetism is always good magick because the initiate is also a philosopher and he will "satisfy its double origin, to adore and worship the divine things and take care and govern the earthly things" (Asclepios I, 8).
The Hermetic tradition had specific techniques for ensouling statues. It is a ceremony where a soul of a spirit or daimon or angel or God is placed inside a statue, animates it and gives it special powers. The technique was passed from teacher to student. In the Hermetic texts, Hermes teaches Asclepios.
The statue had its own will and it manages the fate of people who come and ask for its aid. But, this is not any kind of evil magick, although when the spirit comes to matter, it will become angry, that's why specific offerings will be asked, even not common things. After all, the Hermetics believed that matter caused the evil in the world. In the book of Asclepios, we read that Gods are connected with herbs, scents and rocks and they often like sacrifices like hymns and nice sounds (Asclepios 38), which is similar with nowadays practice of offerings.
Oracles, dream divination, bird divination, guts divination, oak divination and other methods were used, besides astrology, to take a glimpse from the future of transfer the messages of Gods to humans. According to the Hermetic lectures, the messages could be received only by souls that had developed their logical part, else the essence of God had no place to stay and communicate its message. This is something we have written in this website many times and is often neglected in nowadays oracular practices and new age channelling or spiritism.
From the Middle Ages to our Ages
In antiquity, students of the Hermetic teacher attributed their works to their masters or the founders of the school. So, the texts of Hermes or Asclepios or Nechepso or Petosiris are real texts of different people. The ancient Hermetics wrote on alchemy, astrology, herb magick, crystal magick, ritual magick, talismans and theology. Hermeticism incorporated Platonic, Stoic and later, Neoplatonic philosophy. During the Middle Ages, the texts were available as they have been translated by Marsilio Ficino. Ficino used magic that was natural magic, just as it is described in the ancient texts. His student, Pico della Mirandola incorporated Jewish Kabbala in the Hermetic tradition. Kabbalah became a magical tradition after the influence of Henry Cornelius Agrippa in the 15th century from his famous de Occulta Philosophia. Those two indluences are going to open the door for angelic and demonic invocations and evocations. A student of Mirandola, Ioannes Reuchlin wrote on the Pentagrammaton, on Tetragrammaton and basically he incorporated christianism into Kabbalah. In the 17th century, the texts became even more famous as they influenced the Rosicrucian current (at it was influenced by it) and in the next century, we notice that Freemasonry also influenced Hermeticism. Although Hermeticism practices magick, those 2 new influences: Rosicrucian and Freemasonry, don't. As nature hates void, a new Order will come to cover that ellipsis. That will lead us to the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn in the 19th century (1888) and the occult meanings of the Tarot de Marseille in France, by French occultists. The teachings of the Golden Dawn became so important to other magickal traditions, that even if their member's don't know, they follow basic Golden Dawns structures.
"Magic combines in a single science... faith and reason, science and belief, authority and liberty."-Eliphas Levi, The History of Magic
Hermes Trismegistos, Lectures 1-11, απόδοση: φιλολογική ομάδα εκδόσεων, Κάκτος 2001
Hermes Trismegistos, Lectures 1-18, απόδοση: φιλολογική ομάδα εκδόσεων, Κάκτος 2001
Hermes Trismegistos, Asclepios, απόδοση: φιλολογική ομάδα εκδόσεων, Κάκτος 2001
Hermes Trismegistos, Fragments, Attestations, απόδοση: φιλολογική ομάδα εκδόσεων, Κάκτος 2001
Hermes Trismegistos, Kyranides, απόδοση: φιλολογική ομάδα εκδόσεων, Κάκτος 2001
Thadaeus Zielinski, Hermes Trismegistos, 1905 / Ερμής Ο Τρισμέγιστος, μτφρ. Ολέγ Τσυμπένκο, Εκάτη 2001
Francoise Bonardel, L’ Hermetisme, Presses Universitaires de France, 1985, Ο Ερμητισμός, μτφρ. Αθανάσιος Δ. Στεφανής, Καρδαμίτσα 1994
Cris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, Amor Fati Publications, 2017
Helena Avelar and Luis Ribeiro, On the Heavenly Spheres, American Federation of Astrologers 2010
Chic Cicero & Sandra Tabatha Cicero, The Essential Golden Dawn, Llewellyn 2004