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Hermetica
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Hermetica

Hermetica refers to a category of popular Late Antique literature purporting to contain secret wisdom, and generally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Several such texts, in Greek, were compiled into a Corpus Hermeticum by Italian scholars during the Renaissance. Other Hermetic works, however, existed in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, and other languages.

Table of contents
1 Character of the Texts
2 The Corpus Hermeticum in the Renaissance
3 Contents of the Corpus Hermeticum
4 References
5 External Links

Character of the Texts

The subject-matter of Hermetic books is wide-ranging. Some deal with alchemy, magic, and related concepts. Others contain speculation reminiscent of gnosticism or Neoplatonism.

Dating

While they are difficult to date with precision, the texts of the Corpus were likely composed between the first and third centuries AD.

During the Renaissance, these texts were all believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin, and even today some believe them to date from pharaonic Egypt. However, by studying the vocabulary of the texts, the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon showed in 1614 that some of the texts (mainly those dealing with philosophy) betrayed a vocabulary too recent to be so old. Recent research, while affirming the late dating, suggests more continuity with the culture of pharaonic Egypt than had previously been thought (see Fowden, 1986).

Influences and Style

The books now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were part of renaissance of syncretistic pagan thought that took place around the 2nd century AD. Other examples would include Neoplatonist philosophy, the Chaldaean Oracles, late Oprhic and Pythagorean literature, as well as much of Gnosticism.

Unlike Gnostic writings, the Hermetica contain no explicit allusions to Jewish or Christian texts - and this choice seems deliberate. They do, however, contain some unconscious echoes of Biblical themes, underscoring the close if uneasy intermingling of Jewish, Greek and Egyptian in Hellenistic Alexandria. Unlike Orphic literature, they are unconcerned with the genealogical tedia of Greek mythology. And compared with Chaldaean Oracles and Neoplatonist philosophy, the Hermetic texts dwell far less on the technical minutiae of metaphysical philosophy: their concerns are practical in nature.

The predominant literary form is the dialogue: Hermes Trismegistus instructs a perplexed disciple on some point hidden wisdom. The dialogue itself is played out upon a spectral canvas of hoary temples marked with hieratic inscriptions, most of which the authors of these works would have been unable to read.

Authorship and Audience

Although they often claim to be copies of Egyptian priestly texts or reports of conversations in Egyptian, all evidence points to the Hermetica 's original language being Greek. Nevertheless, it is likely that the pseudonymous authors considered themselves Egyptians rather than Alexandrian Greeks, since there are many affirmations of the superiority of the Egyptian language, and the Asclepius contains a bloody prophecy about the expulsion of "foreigners" from Egypt.

Renaissance enthusiasts often pointed to Hermetic documents as the apex of pagan thought. Several factors, however, suggest that the tracts had a more popular character. For example, Neoplatonist philosophers - who happily and prolifically quote apocryphal works of Orpheus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and other legendary figures - almost never cite Hermes. The anti-Greek and anti-Roman attitudes present in the texts reinforce their subaltern character. The Corpus Hermeticum therefore offers us an almost unparalleled view into the religious thinking of non-elite and politically marginal pagans under the Roman Empire.

Another question persists: did the "Hermetists" who produced and read these books constitute a kind of "sect", comparable to Gnostic groups? Certainly, Hermetic writings were of interests to members of alternative religious communities: parts of the Hermetica appeared in the Gnostic library found in Nag Hammadi. On the other hand, the diffuseness style and subject matter, the widespread distribution of the texts, and also as the ease with which anonymous tracts can be produced, would suggest that a great many of the texts were produced by lone individuals or small groups without formal organization.

Hermetica Outside the Corpus

Although the most famous exemplars of Hermetic literature were products of Greek-speakers under Roman rule, the genre did not suddenly stop with the fall of the Empire, nor was it confined to the Greek language. Rather, Hermetic literature continued to be produced, in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Byzantine Greek. The most famous example of this later Hermetica is the Emerald Tablet, known from Medieval Latin and Arabic manuscripts, with a possible Syriac source. Sadly, little else of this rich literature is easily accessible to non-specialists.

The Corpus Hermeticum in the Renaissance

Although they were once popular enough to be argued against by St. Augustine, Hermetic texts were lost to the West during the Middle Ages. They were, however, rediscovered from Byzantine copies and popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. The impetus for this revival came from the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, a member of Cosimo de Medici's court. Their translation and availability provided a seminal force in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having had a profound influence over alchemy and modern magic, as well as impacting philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola, Ficino's student.

John Everard's historically important 1650 translation into English of the Corpus Hermeticum, entitled The Divine Pymander in XVII books (London, 1650) was from the Ficino Latin translation.

Contents of the Corpus Hermeticum

The following are the titles given to thirteen of the eighteen tracts, as translated by G.R.S. Mead.

  1. Poemandres, the Shepherd of Men
  2. To Asclepius
  3. The Sacred Sermon
  4. The Cup or Monad
  5. Though Unmanifest God Is Most Manifest
  6. In God Alone Is Good And Elsewhere Nowhere
  7. The Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God
  8. That No One of Existing Things doth Perish, but Men in Error Speak of Their Changes as Destructions and as Deaths
  9. On Thought and Sense
  10. The Key
  11. Mind Unto Hermes
  12. About the Common Mind
  13. The Secret Sermon on the Mountain

See also:
Hermeticism

References

External Links