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The Hermetica are texts attributed to the legendary Hellenistic figure Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. These texts may vary widely in content and purpose, but are usually subdivided into two main categories, the "technical" and "religio-philosophical" Hermetica.
The category of "technical" Hermetica encompasses a broad variety of treatises dealing with astrology, medicine and pharmacology, alchemy, and magic, the oldest of which were written in Greek and may go back as far as the second or third century BCE. Many of the texts belonging in this category were later translated into Arabic and Latin, often being extensively revised and expanded throughout the centuries. Some of them were also originally written in Arabic, though in many cases their status as an original work or translation remains unclear. These Arabic and Latin Hermetic texts were widely copied throughout the Middle Ages (the most famous example being the Emerald Tablet).
The "religio-philosophical" Hermetica are a relatively coherent set of religio-philosophical treatises which were mostly written in the second and third centuries CE, though the very earliest one of them, the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, may go back to the first century CE. They are chiefly focused on the relationship between human beings, the cosmos, and God (thus combining philosophical anthropology, cosmology, and theology). Many of them are also moral exhortations calling for a way of life (the "way of Hermes") leading to spiritual rebirth, and eventually to divinization in the form of a heavenly ascent. The treatises in this category were probably all originally written in Greek, even though some of them only survive in Coptic, Armenian, or Latin translations. During the Middle Ages, most of them were only accessible to Byzantine scholars (an important exception being the Asclepius, which mainly survives in an early Latin translation), until a compilation of Greek Hermetic treatises known as the Corpus Hermeticum was translated into Latin by the Renaissance scholars Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500).
Though strongly influenced by Greek and Hellenistic philosophy (especially Platonism and Stoicism), and to a lesser extent also by Jewish ideas, many of the early Greek Hermetic treatises do contain distinctly Egyptian elements, most notably in their affinity with the traditional Egyptian wisdom literature. This used to be the subject of much doubt, but it is now generally admitted that the Hermetica as such did in fact originate in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, even if most of the later Hermetic writings (which continued to be composed at least until the twelfth century CE) clearly did not. It may even be the case that the great bulk of the early Greek Hermetica were written by Hellenizing members of the Egyptian priestly class, whose intellectual activity was centred in the environment of the Egyptian temples.
The oldest known texts associated with Hermes Trismegistus are a number of astrological works which may go back as far as the second or third century BCE:
Other early Greek Hermetic works on astrology include:
Starting in the first century BCE, a number of Greek works on alchemy were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. These are now all lost, except for a number of fragments (one of the larger of which is called Isis the Prophetess to Her Son Horus) preserved in later alchemical works dating to the second and third centuries CE. Especially important is the use made of them by the Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (fl. c. 300 CE), who also seems to have been familiar with the religio-philosophical Hermetica. Hermes' name would become more firmly associated with alchemy in the medieval Arabic sources (see below), of which it is not yet clear to what extent they drew on the earlier Greek literature.
Many Arabic works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus still exist today, although the great majority of them have not yet been published and studied by modern scholars. For this reason too, it is often not clear to what extent they drew on earlier Greek sources. The following is a very incomplete list of known works:
Further information: Astrology in medieval Islam
Some of the earliest attested Arabic Hermetic texts deal with astrology:
Further information: Alchemy and chemistry in the medieval Islamic world
Contrary to the "technical" Hermetica, whose writing began in the early Hellenistic period and continued deep into the Middle Ages, the extant religio-philosophical Hermetica were for the most part produced in a relatively short period of time, i.e., between c. 100 and c. 300 CE. They regularly take the form of dialogues between Hermes Trismegistus and his disciples Tat, Asclepius, and Ammon, and mostly deal with philosophical anthropology, cosmology, and theology. The following is a list of all known works in this category:
Main article: Corpus Hermeticum
Undoubtedly the most famous among the religio-philosophical Hermetica is the Corpus Hermeticum, a selection of seventeen Greek treatises that was first compiled by Byzantine editors, and translated into Latin in the fifteenth century by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500). Ficino translated the first fourteen treatises (I–XIV), while Lazzarelli translated the remaining three (XVI–XVIII). The name of this collection is somewhat misleading, since it contains only a very small selection of extant Hermetic texts, whereas the word corpus is usually reserved for the entire body of extant writings related to some author or subject. Its individual treatises were quoted by many early authors from the second and third centuries on, but the compilation as such is first attested only in the writings of the Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellus (c. 1017–1078).
The most well known among the treatises contained in this compilation is its opening treatise, which is called the Poimandres. However, at least until the nineteenth century, this name (under various forms, such as Pimander or Pymander) was also commonly used to designate the compilation as a whole.
In 1462 Ficino was working on a Latin translation of the collected works of Plato for his patron Cosimo de' Medici, but when a manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum became available, he immediately interrupted his work on Plato in order to start translating the works of Hermes, which were thought to be much more ancient, and therefore much more authoritative, than those of Plato. This translation provided a seminal impetus in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having a profound impact on the flourishing of alchemy and magic in early modern Europe, as well as influencing philosophers such as Ficino's student Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597), Robert Fludd (1574–1637), and many others.
The Asclepius (also known as the Perfect Discourse, from Greek Logos teleios) mainly survives in a Latin translation, though some Greek and Coptic fragments are also extant. It is the only Hermetic treatise belonging to the religio-philosophical category that remained available to Latin readers throughout the Middle Ages.
Main article: Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius is a collection of aphorisms that has mainly been preserved in a sixth-century CE Armenian translation, but which likely goes back to the first century CE. The main argument for this early dating is the fact that some of its aphorisms are cited in multiple independent Greek Hermetic works. According to Jean-Pierre Mahé, these aphorisms contain the core of the teachings which are found in the later Greek religio-philosophical Hermetica.
In fifth-century Macedonia, Joannes Stobaeus or "John of Stobi" compiled a huge Anthology of Greek poetical, rhetorical, historical, and philosophical literature in order to educate his son Septimius. Though epitomized by later Byzantine copyists, it still remains a treasure trove of information about ancient philosophy and literature which would otherwise be entirely lost. Among the excerpts of ancient philosophical literature preserved by Stobaeus are also a significant number of discourses and dialogues attributed to Hermes. While mostly related to the religio-philosophical treatises as found in the Corpus Hermeticum, they also contain some material that is of a rather more "technical" nature. Perhaps the most famous of the Stobaean excerpts, and also the longest, is the Korē kosmou ("The Daughter of the Cosmos" or "The Pupil [of the eye] of the Cosmos").
The Hermetic excerpts appear in the following chapters of Stobaeus's Anthology (which is organized by subject matter, and contains in the same chapters many excerpts and doctrines attributed to others):
Further information: Nag Hammadi library
Among the Coptic treatises which were found in 1945 in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, there are also three treatises attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Like all documents found in Nag Hammadi, these were translated from the Greek. They consist of some fragments from the Asclepius (VI,8; mainly preserved in Latin, see above), The Prayer of Thanksgiving (VI,7) with an accompanying scribal note (VI,7a), and an important new text called The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (VI,6). They all share a bipartite rather than a tripartite anthropology.
The Oxford Hermetica consists of a number of short fragments from some otherwise unknown Hermetic works. The fragments are preserved in pages 79–82 of Codex Clarkianus gr. II, a 13th- or 14th-century manuscript held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The texts, anthologized from much earlier materials, deal with the soul, the senses, law, psychology, and embryology.
The Vienna Hermetica consists of four short fragments from what once was a collection of ten Hermetic treatises, one of which was called On Energies. The fragments are preserved on the back sides of two papyri, P. Graec. Vindob. 29546 recto and 29828 recto, now housed in Vienna. The front sides of the papyri contain fragments of Jannes and Jambres, a Jewish romance.
Written in Arabic and probably dating from the twelfth century, the Kitāb fi zajr al-nafs ("The Book of the Rebuke of the Soul") is one of the few later Hermetic treatises belonging to the category of religio-philosophical writings.
Fragments of otherwise lost Hermetic works have survived through their quotation by various historical authors. The following is a list of authors in whose works such literal fragments have been preserved:
Apart from literal fragments from Hermetic works, testimonies concerning the ideas of Hermes (likely deriving from Hermetic works but not quoted literally) have also been preserved in the works of various historical authors:
During the Renaissance, all texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were still generally believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin (i.e., to date from before the time of Moses, or even from before the biblical flood). In the early seventeenth century, the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) demonstrated that some of the Greek texts betrayed too recent a vocabulary, and must rather date from the late Hellenistic or early Christian period. This conclusion was reaffirmed in the early twentieth century by the work of scholars like C. H. Dodd. More recent research, while reaffirming the dating of the earliest Greek treatises in the period of syncretic cultural ferment in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, suggests more continuity with the culture of ancient Egypt than had previously been believed. The earliest Greek Hermetic treatises contain many parallels with Egyptian prophecies and hymns to the gods, and close comparisons can be found with Egyptian wisdom literature, which (like many of the early Greek Hermetica) was characteristically couched in words of advice from a "father" to a "son". It has also been shown that some Demotic (late Egyptian) papyri contain substantial sections of a dialogue of the Hermetic type between Thoth and a disciple.
In contradistinction to the early Greek religio-philosophical Hermetica, which have been studied from a scholarly perspective since the early seventeenth century, the "technical" Hermetica (both the early Greek treatises and the later Arabic and Latin works) remain largely unexplored by modern scholarship.
Some pieces of Hermetica have been translated into English multiple times by modern Hermeticists. However, the following list is strictly limited to scholarly translations: