Podcast episode

Episode 108: Anna van den Kerchove on the Hermetic Way in Antiquity

Anna van den Kerchove has made a major impact on the study of ancient Hermetism with her 2012 book La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques and numerous other publications. Her position is one of a scholar of religions attempting, with care, to reconstruct what we can of the movement behind the theoretical Hermetica.

We ask about her take on what constitutes a Hermetic text, the relationship (possibly) between technical and theoretical/philosophic Hermetica in antiquity, and the question of ‘dualist/pessimist’ vs ‘monist/optimist’ Hermetica (which distinction van den Kerchove rejects as the product of anachronistic ways of thinking). We then get a courageous take on the core doctrines of the Hermetica, namely that

  1. There is one true god (though there may be many subsidiary entities also called ‘gods’), and
  2. Human beings have a partly-divine nature, and the duty to strive to return to their divine source.

Van den Kerchove paints a picture of relatively small groupings of Hermetists, quite possibly also belonging to a broad range of other religious and/or philosophical traditions, gathering from time to time in ‘lodges’ to engage in discussions, but also to bring themselves back to the divine source. The primary ritual practice is the dialogue between master and student, as depicted in so many Hermetica, which she interprets as a performative ritual institution, perhaps enacted as an act of reading-aloud, with the passages in Hermetica where Hermes addresses his disciples by name marking especially important points for the transmission of the Hermetic logos.

Interview Bio:

Anna van den Kerchove is Titulaire de la chaire d’histoire du christianisme ancien et patristique de l’Institut Protestant de Théologie in Paris. Her superb work spans pretty much all of our favourite fields in late-antique religion and the places where it meets philosophy, including lots of important work on aspects of ritual and performativity in ancient religion (and ‘magic’), studies on the Chaldæan Oracles, the Hermetica, the esoteric fringes of Orthodox Christianity, and so on, and more. She is involved in a number of really cool scholarly projects, including the amazing online database of voces magicæ/nomina barbara CENOB, and the Platonismes de l’Antiquité Tardive website, both of which provide unique and essential tools for scholars.

Works Cited in this Episode:

  • Mahé suggests that the C.H. was put together by Michael Psellos: Hermès en Haute-Égypte: le fragment du discours parfait at les définitions Hermétiques arméniennes (NH VI, 8.8a). Number 7 in Bibliotèque Copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes. Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1982, p. 19. Compare H. Hornik. The Philosophical Hermetica: Their History and Meaning. Atti della Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, 109:343–91, 1975, pp. 351-2 and K.H. Dannenfeldt. Hermetica philosophica. In O. Kristeller, editor, Catalogus translationum et commentariorum: Medieval and Renaissance Latin Translations and Commentaries, pages 137–51. Washington D.C., 1960, p. 137, who support the Psellos attribution but do not give any evidence. Festugière leaves the question open, thinking that Psellos may well have known our Corpus, but that there is no evidence that he copied it, had it copied, or otherwise transmitted it (La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944-1954, vol. II, p. 2).
  • Pierre Hadot, What we call contradictions are not necessarily contradictions for the ancients: Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 2nd edition, 1981, p. 52 and 56.

Recommended Reading:

  • Anna van den Kerchove. La voie d’Hermès: Pratiques rituelles et traités hermétiques. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
  • Idem. Poimandrès, figure d’autorité dans la tradition hermétique. Revue de l’histoire des religions, 231(1):27–46, Jan.-Mar. 2014.
  • Idem. La mystique dans les écrits hermétiques. In H. Seng, L. Soares Santoprete, and C. Ombretta Tommasi, editors, Formen und Nebenformen des Platonismus in der Spätantike. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, 2016.
  • Idem. Papyrological Hermetica. Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 83(1):97–115, 2017.
  • Idem. The Notion of Truth in Some Hermetic Texts and Chaldaean Oracles. Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies, 3:34–53, 2018a.
  • Idem. Le corps comme agent dans les prières hermétiques. In Chiara Cremonesi, Ferdinando Fava, and Paolo Scarp, editors, Il corpo in scena. Tecniche, rappresentazioni, performance, Libreria universitaria, Limena, pages 479–95.
  • Idem. “Comment convient-il, mon père, que je prie ?” Les prières des hermétistes. In Philippe Hoffmann and Andrei Timotin, editors, Théories et pratiques de la prière à la fin de l’antiquité, volume 185 of Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, sciences religieuses, Brepols, Turnhout, 2020, pages 91–108.


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