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.[1] These texts may vary widely in content and purpose, but by modern convention 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 that were written mostly in the second and third centuries, though the very earliest one of them, the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, may go back to the first century CE.[4] 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.[5] The treatises in this category were probably all originally written in Greek, although some of them survive only in Coptic, Armenian, or Latin translations.[6] 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).[7]

Though strongly influenced by Greek and Hellenistic philosophy (especially Platonism and Stoicism),[8] and to a lesser extent also by Jewish ideas,[9] many of the early Greek Hermetic treatises also contain distinctly Egyptian elements, most notably in their affinity with traditional Egyptian wisdom literature.[10] 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) 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 Egyptian temples.

Technical Hermetica


Greek astrological Hermetica

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:

Greek alchemical Hermetica

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.[21] 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.[22]

Greek magical Hermetica


Many Arabic works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus still exist today, although the great majority of them have not yet been published or studied by modern scholars.[26] 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:

Arabic astrological Hermetica

Further information: Astrology in medieval Islam

Some of the earliest attested Arabic Hermetic texts deal with astrology:

Arabic alchemical Hermetica

Further information: Alchemy and chemistry in the medieval Islamic world

Arabic magical Hermetica

14th-century Arabic manuscript of the Cyranides

Religio-philosophical Hermetica

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.[57] 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.[58] The following is a list of all known works in this category:

Corpus Hermeticum

Main article: Corpus Hermeticum

First Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, translated by Marsilio Ficino, 1471 CE

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).[59] Ficino translated the first fourteen treatises (I–XIV), while Lazzarelli translated the remaining three (XVI–XVIII).[60] 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).[61]

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.[62]

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.[63] 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.[64]


Main article: Asclepius (treatise)

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.[65] It is the only Hermetic treatise belonging to the religio-philosophical category that remained available to Latin readers throughout the Middle Ages.[66]

Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius

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.[67] 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.[68]

Stobaean excerpts

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.[69] Among the excerpts of ancient philosophical literature preserved by Stobaeus are also a significant number of discourses and dialogues attributed to Hermes.[70] 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").[71]

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):[72]

Hermes among the Nag Hammadi findings

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.[73] 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).[74] They all share a bipartite rather than a tripartite anthropology.[75]

Oxford and Vienna fragments

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.[76]

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. 29456 recto and 29828 recto, now housed in Vienna. The front sides of the papyri contain fragments of Jannes and Jambres, a Jewish romance.[77]

Book of the Rebuke of the Soul

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.[78]

Fragments and testimonies

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:[79]

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:[81]

History of scholarship on the Hermetica

During the Renaissance, all texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were still generally believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin and 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 early Christian period.[82] Other authors made similar criticisms of the Hermetica, largely as a means of undermining various religious and esoteric movements of the time that drew inspiration from them. By the end of the century most scholars had ceased to regard them as sources of primeval wisdom.[83]

Studies in the early twentieth century sought to discern who had written the Hermetica. Richard Reitzenstein first argued that the Hermetica were a product of a coherent religious community whose ideas derived from Egyptian religion, although in later years he thought Hermetic beliefs were largely Iranian in origin, a position that received little support.[84] Scholars in the middle of the century, such as Arthur Darby Nock, C. H. Dodd, and most influentially André-Jean Festugière, argued that the intellectual background of the Hermetica was overwhelmingly Greek, with possible influences from Iranian religions and Judaism, but little connection with authentic Egyptian beliefs.[85] Festugière believed the philosophical Hermetica had only slight connections to the technical Hermetica, and that the former originated with a small philosophical school rather than a religious community.[86] Birger A. Pearson has argued for the presence of Jewish elements in the Hermetica,[87] while Peter Kingsley discounts Christian influence in favor of Greek and Jewish elements.[88]

More recent research suggests a greater continuity with the culture of ancient Egypt than had previously been believed.[89] In the 1970s and 1980s, Jean-Pierre Mahé analyzed the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius together with the recently published Hermetica from Nag Hammadi.[90] Mahé pointed out that the earliest Greek Hermetic treatises contain many parallels with Egyptian prophecies and hymns to the gods, and that 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".[91] Soon afterward, Garth Fowden argued that the philosophical and technical Hermetica were distinct but interdependent, and that both were products of complex interactions between Greek and Egyptian culture.[92] Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich have identified fragments of a Demotic (late Egyptian) text that contains substantial sections of a dialogue between Thoth and a disciple, written in a format similar to the Hermetica. This text probably originated among the scribes of a "House of Life", an institution closely connected with major Egyptian temples.[93][94] Christian Bull argued in 2018 that the Hermetica were in fact written by Egyptian priests in late Ptolemaic and Roman times who presented their traditions to Greek-speaking audiences in Greek philosophical terms.[95]

In contradistinction to the early Greek religio-philosophical Hermetica, which have long been studied from a scholarly perspective, the "technical" Hermetica (both the early Greek treatises and the later Arabic and Latin works) remain largely unexplored by modern scholarship.[96]

See also


  1. ^ A survey of the literary and archaeological evidence for the background of Hermes Trismegistus in the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth is found in Bull 2018, pp. 33–96.
  2. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii; Bull 2018, pp. 2–3. Garth Fowden is somewhat more cautious, noting that our earliest testimonies date to the first century BCE (see Fowden 1986, p. 3, note 11).
  3. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 17.
  4. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xliv; Bull 2018, p. 32. The sole exception to the general dating of c. 100–300 CE is The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, which may date to the first century CE (see Bull 2018, p. 9, referring to Mahé 1978–1982, vol. II, p. 278; cf. Mahé 1999, p. 101). Earlier dates have been suggested, most notably by Flinders Petrie (500–200 BCE) and Bruno H. Stricker (c. 300 BCE), but these suggestions have been rejected by most other scholars (see Bull 2018, p. 6, note 23).
  5. ^ Bull 2018, p. 3.
  6. ^ E.g., The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (Coptic; preserved in the Nag Hammadi library, which consists entirely of works translated from Greek into Coptic; see Robinson 1990, pp. 12–13), the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius (Armenian; see Bull 2018, p. 9), and the Asclepius (also known as the Perfect Discourse, Latin; see Copenhaver 1992, pp. xliii–xliv).
  7. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xl–xliii; Hanegraaff 2006, p. 680.
  8. ^ Bull 2018, p. 2.
  9. ^ See, e.g., Pearson 1981, and the copious references in Bull 2018, p. 29, note 118.
  10. ^ Mahé 1978–1982. Mahé also demonstrated numerous other Egyptian influences on the Hermetica (cf. Bull 2018, pp. 9–10).
  11. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii; Bull 2018, pp. 387–388.
  12. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 163–174; cf. Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii. On the identification of Nechepsos with Necho II and of Petosiris with Petese, see the references in Bull 2018, p. 163, note 295.
  13. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 167–168.
  14. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xlv.
  15. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii; Bull 2018, pp. 385–386.
  16. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii; Bull 2018, p. 168.
  17. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii.
  18. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiii.
  19. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiv. On this work, see Piperakis 2017, Piperakis 2022a, and Piperakis 2022b.
  20. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiv.
  21. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxiv.
  22. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 17.
  23. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xxxiv–xxxv. The Greek text was edited by Kaimakis 1976. English translation of the first book in Waegeman 1987.
  24. ^ The Arabic translation of the first book was edited by Toral-Niehoff 2004. The Arabic fragments of the other books were edited by Ullmann 2020. The Latin translation was edited by Delatte 1942.
  25. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xxxv–xxxvi.
  26. ^ According to Van Bladel 2009, p. 17, note 42, there are least twenty Arabic Hermetica extant.
  27. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 28.
  28. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 28–29.
  29. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 27–28. The Arabic text and its Latin translation were edited by Kunitzsch 2001. See also Kunitzsch 2004.
  30. ^ Bausani 1983; Bausani 1986. On the dating, see Ullmann 1994, pp. 7–8.
  31. ^ Edited by Weisser 1979.
  32. ^ Kraus 1942–1943, vol. II, pp. 274-275 (c. 813–833); Weisser 1980, p. 54 (c. 750–800).
  33. ^ Kraus 1942–1943, vol. II, pp. 270-303; Weisser 1980, pp. 52–53.
  34. ^ Kraus 1942–1943, vol. II, p. 1, note 1; Weisser 1980, p. 199.
  35. ^ Norris 2006.
  36. ^ Ebeling 2007, pp. 46–47.
  37. ^ Edited by Hudry 1997–1999. On its later influence, see Asl 2016.
  38. ^ Edited by Weisser 1979.
  39. ^ Weisser 1980, p. 46.
  40. ^ See Hudry 1997–1999, p. 152 (as part of the Latin translation of the Sirr al-khalīqa; English translation in Litwa 2018, p. 316); Steele 1920, pp. 115–117 (as part of the Latin translation of the Sirr al-asrār); Steele & Singer 1928 (as part of the Latin translation of the Liber dabessi, a collection of commentaries on the Tablet). On the Latin translations, see further Colinet 1995, Mandosio 2004, Caiazzo 2004, and Mandosio 2005.
  41. ^ Principe 2013, p. 31.
  42. ^ Dobbs 1988; Newman 2019, pp. 145, 166, 183.
  43. ^ Edited by Vereno 1992, pp. 136–159.
  44. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 181-183 (cf. p. 171, note 25). Edited by Vereno 1992, pp. 160–181.
  45. ^ Ruska 1926, pp. 68–107; Raggetti 2021, p. 287. See further Alfonso-Goldfarb & Abou-Chahla Jubran 1999 and Alfonso-Goldfarb & Abou-Chahla Jubran 2008.
  46. ^ Edited by Steele & Singer 1928. On this text, see further Colinet 1995; Mandosio 2004, pp. 683–684; Caiazzo 2004, pp. 700–703; Mandosio 2005.
  47. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 101-102, 114, 224. A small fragment from the Kitāb al-Isṭamākhīs was published by Badawi 1947, pp. 179–183. See also Saif 2021.
  48. ^ A dating proposed by Saif 2021, pp. 36–44.
  49. ^ Weisser 1980, pp. 68–69.
  50. ^ Plessner 1954, p. 58.
  51. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 101–102.
  52. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 224.
  53. ^ Edited by Burnett 2001.
  54. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 17, note 45, p. 21, note 60. The Arabic version of the first book was edited by Toral-Niehoff 2004. The Arabic fragments of the other books were edited by Ullmann 2020.
  55. ^ Ullmann 1994; cf. Van Bladel 2009, p. 17.
  56. ^ Bonmariage & Moureau 2016.
  57. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xliv; Bull 2018, p. 32. The sole exception is The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, which may date to the first century CE (see Bull 2018, p. 9, referring to Mahé 1978–1982, vol. II, p. 278; cf. Mahé 1999, p. 101). Earlier dates have been suggested, most notably by Flinders Petrie (500–200 BCE) and Bruno H. Stricker (c. 300 BCE), but these suggestions have been rejected by most other scholars (see Bull 2018, p. 6, note 23). Some Hermetic treatises of a generally religio-philosophical nature were written in later periods (e.g., the Kitāb fi zajr al-nafs or "The Book of the Rebuke of the Soul", dating from the twelfth century; edited by Bardenhewer 1873 and by Badawi 1955, pp. 53–116; English translation of Bardenhewer's Latin translation in Scott 1924–1936, vol. IV, pp. 277-352), but these appear to be rather rare, and it is not clear whether they bear any relation to the early Greek treatises; see Van Bladel 2009, p. 226.
  58. ^ Bull 2018, p. 3.
  59. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xl–xliii.
  60. ^ See Hanegraaff 2006, p. 680. The Chapter no. XV of early modern editions was once filled with an entry from the Suda (a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia) and three excerpts from Hermetic works preserved by Joannes Stobaeus (fl. fifth century, see below), but this chapter was left out in later editions, which therefore contain no chapter XV (see Copenhaver 1992, p. xlix).
  61. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xlii.
  62. ^ See, e.g., the English translation by Everard, John 1650. The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus. London.
  63. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xlvii–xlviii.
  64. ^ Ebeling 2007, pp. 68–70.
  65. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. xliii–xliv.
  66. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xlvii. On this work, see also Parri 2011.
  67. ^ Armenian text edited by Mahé 1978–1982 and Mahé 2019. English translation in Mahé 1999, French translation in Mahé 2019.
  68. ^ Mahé 1999, pp. 101–108; cf. Bull 2018, p. 9.
  69. ^ Litwa 2018, p. 19.
  70. ^ English translation in Litwa 2018, pp. 27–159.
  71. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xxxviii; cf. Bull 2018, pp. 101–111.
  72. ^ As listed by Litwa 2018.
  73. ^ Robinson 1990, pp. 12–13.
  74. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. xliv. These were all translated by James Brashler, Peter A. Dirkse and Douglas M. Parrott in: Robinson 1990, pp. 321–338. Edition and French translation in Mahé 2019, German translation in Gall 2021.
  75. ^ Roig Lanzillotta 2021.
  76. ^ Paramelle & Mahé 1991 (reprint with French translation in Mahé 2019). English translation in Litwa 2018, pp. 161–169.
  77. ^ Mahé 1984. English translation in Litwa 2018, pp. 171–174.
  78. ^ Van Bladel 2009, p. 226. Edited by Bardenhewer 1873 and by Badawi 1955, pp. 53–116; English translation of Bardenhewer's Latin translation in Scott 1924–1936, vol. IV, pp. 277-352.
  79. ^ These are listed and translated by Litwa 2018, pp. 175–256 (Greek originals of the majority of Litwa's fragments in Nock & Festugière 1945–1954, vol. IV, pp. 101–150), except Ibn Umayl, whose Hermetic fragments have been collected and translated by Stapleton, Lewis & Taylor 1949 (Arabic originals in Turāb ʿAlī, Stapleton & Hidāyat Ḥusain 1933).
  80. ^ Collected and translated by Stapleton, Lewis & Taylor 1949. Arabic originals in Turāb ʿAlī, Stapleton & Hidāyat Ḥusain 1933.
  81. ^ These are listed and translated by Litwa 2018, pp. 257–339.
  82. ^ Copenhaver 1992, p. l; Ebeling 2007, p. 92.
  83. ^ Ebeling 2007, pp. 113–114.
  84. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 4–6
  85. ^ Copenhaver 1992, pp. liii–lv
  86. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 7–8
  87. ^ Pearson 1981. See also the copious references in Bull 2018, p. 29, note 118.
  88. ^ Kingsley 1993, p. 14 (reprinted, with additions and updates, in Kingsley 2000).
  89. ^ Kingsley 1993, p. 1 (reprinted, with additions and updates, in Kingsley 2000).
  90. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 9–10
  91. ^ Mahé 1996, 358f.
  92. ^ Fowden 1986, pp. 74, 153
  93. ^ Jasnow & Zauzich 1998
  94. ^ Jasnow & Zauzich 2014, pp. 1, 47, 49
  95. ^ Bull 2018, pp. 456, 459
  96. ^ Van Bladel 2009, pp. 9–10, 17.


English translations of Hermetic texts

Some pieces of Hermetica have been translated into English multiple times by modern Hermeticists. However, the following list is strictly limited to scholarly translations:

Secondary literature

Editions of Hermetic texts