Episode 100: Thrice-Greatest Hermes

There has been a Hermes-shaped hole in the SHWEP until now; this is partly because we wanted to save something special for Episode 100, and who better than the primordial Egyptian sage (for it is he), and partly because, while we have numerous Hermetica attested from the Hellenistic period onward, it is in late antiquity that the Hermetica known and loved by western esotericism were written. Unless, that is, they were written much earlier, which is by no means an impossibility based on the evidence.

In this episode we introduce and muse on the figure of the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes, his extended and ramified reception-tradition in western esotericism, his many writings (down to the twentieth century), and more. What is a Hermetic text, in antiquity and later? What is the Corpus Hermeticum, what makes it special, and what other texts do we have which cast light on the possible thought-world lying behind the Corpus? What, on the other hand, do we mean by ‘Hermetic tradition’, ‘Hermetic philosophy’, and similar terms? How ‘Hermetic’ is western esotericism as a whole? And what is the single funkiest expression of the Hermetic tradition on record?

All of these questions and more are answered, and we introduce a long series of interviews and episodes revolving around Hermes and his many publications in antiquity.

Note on the number of texts in the Corpus Hermeticum: There are 18 of these, as the Corpus is normally understood – 17 Greek texts and the Latin Asclepius. In this episode I sloppily mention 18 Greek texts. What gives? Well, the Greek Hermetica are numbered 1-18, but there is no tractate 15 in modern editions. Copenhaver 1992, p. xlix explains this situation:

‘Adrien Turnebus published the first Greek edition in 1554, using a complete manuscript of the Corpus and including Angelo Vergezio’s Suda entry on Hermes as well as three pieces from Stobaeus. In 1574 Frangois de Foix de Candale put out a new Greek text, actually the edition of Turnebus improved by Joseph Scaliger but without C.H. XVII and XVIII; it was accompanied by a Latin translation and included as a fifteenth treatise the Suda entry along with the Stobaean excerpts that Turnebus had published. Although this extra material dropped out in later editions, the numbering of the later treatises as XVI-XVIII continued, so that our Corpus has no fifteenth logos.’

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary (in order mentioned in the episode):

  • Zeus to Hermes: Homer, Iliad XXIV.334-5.
  • Artapanus on Hermes/Moses: cited Euseb. Præp. Ev. IX.27.6.
  • Cicero on five Mercurii: De nat. de. III.22.
  • Iamblichus refers to Hermetic doctrine of matter (and Proclus suggests that Plato probably got his doctrine of matter from Hermes): In Tim. II, ap. Proclum (fr. 38 in John Dillon, editor. Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta. Brill, Leiden, 1973): ‘And indeed the tradition of the Egyptians has the same account of it (Matter); at least, the divine Iamblichus relates that Hermes wishes materiality (τὴν ὑλότητα) to be created out of substantiality (ἐκ τῆς οὐσιότητος); and indeed it is likely that it is from this source that Plato derived such a doctrine of Matter.’
  • Clement on the 42 books of Hermes: Strom. VI.4. Cf. Iamblichus, Response to Porphyry/De mysteriis VIII.1, who inflates the numbers considerably: twenty thousand books of Hermes, according to  Seleucus, or thirty-six thousand, five hundred and twenty-five according to Manetho.

Secondary (alphabetical):

  • The Hermetic Library website can be accessed here.
  • Isaac Casaubon. De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes XVI. Eliot’s Court Press ex officina Nortoniana apud Ioan. Billium, England, 1614.
  • Marsilius Ficinus. Mercurii Trismegisti liber de potestate et sapientia dei, e græco in latinum traductus a Marsilio Ficino. Treviso, 1471.
  • Fowden 1986 (see below), citing p. 17.
  • Lazzarelli’s translation: Lodovico Lazzarelli made a Latin translation of CH XVI-XVIII, which he presented as a gift to his master Giovanni da Correggio in 1482 (Viterbo cod. II D I 4). These ‘extra’ Hermetica then remained in MS until published by Symphorien Champier in Liber de quadruplici vita Theologia Asclepii hermetis trismegistri discipuli cum comentariis eiusdem Simphoriani. Impressum expensis Stephani gueynardi & Jacobi huguetãni: arte et industria Jannot de campio, Lugduni, 1507; at this point the whole of the Corpus Hermeticum as we know it was in print.
  • Three Initiates. The Kybalion. Yogi Publication Society, Chicago, IL, 1908.
  • Frances A. Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1964.

Recommended Reading:

For the theoretical Hermetica, the best edition (for now) is

  • A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, editors. Corpus Hermeticum. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1947-1954, featuring Greek and Latin text with French translation,

recently supplemented by

  • Jean-Pierre Mahé, editor. Hermès Trismégiste: Paralipomènes. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2019,

which presents the Armenian Hermetica, NHC VI, MS Clarkianus Oxon. 11, and other fragments and suchlike missed out by Nock-Fest.

In English translation we have Copenhaver’s 1992 rendering of the Corpus Hermeticum, now supplemented by Litwa’s 2018 Hermetica II, which translates the Stobæus-fragments and other loose theoretical tractates from antiquity. You might also want to try The Way of Hermes: New Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Ascelepius. Translated by Clement Salaman, Dorine van Oyen, William D. Wharton, and Jean-Pierre Mahé. Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT, 2000.

On the figure(s) of Hermes and his reception(s), Faivre 1995 is a great introduction, fine-tuned for lovers of western esotericism.

Generally Useful:

  • Brian P. Copenhaver, editor. Hermetica. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
  • Florian Ebeling. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2007.
  • Antoine Faivre. The Eternal Hermes, from Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995.
  • A.-J.  Festugière. La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, second edition, 1981. 4 vols. Recently republished 2014 as a single volume on onionskin paper with extra notes and appendices and other useful backmatter.
  • Garth Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
  • M.D. Litwa. Hermetica II. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018.

On the Figure and Origins of Hermes the God:

  • Walter Burkert. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 2011, pp. 241-45.
  • Samson Eitrem. Hermes 1. In Wilhelm Kroll, editor, Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, volume 8.1, col. 738–792. Alfred Druckenmüller Verlag, Stuttgart, 1912.
  • Karl Kerényi. Hermes der Seelenführer. Das Mythologem vom männlichen Lebensursprung. Rhein Verlag, Zurich, 1944.
  • Pierre Raingeard. Hermès psychagogue. Essai sur les origins du culte d’Hermès. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1935 [If you want a comprehensive survey of cultic sites, evidence for religious cult, and basically everything Græco-Hermes, this massive tome is the one-stop shop].
  • J. Toutain. Hermès, dieu social chez les Grecs. Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses, 12:289–299, 1932.
  • Jean-Pierre Vernant. Hestia-Hermès: Sur l’expression religieuse de l’espace et du movement chez les Grecs. L’Homme, 3:12–50, 1963.

Later Hermetica and ‘The Hermetic Tradition’:

The Hermetic tradition is an idea far broader in its scope than anything the ancients would have understood by ‘Hermetic’, and no recommended bibliography will do more than scratch the surface. Nevertheless, here are a few interesting and useful books, leaving alchemy for the most part to one side:

  • The Hermes Latinus series published by Brepols is a first-stop for the many Latin-language Hermetica of the middle ages.
  • F. van Lamoen, editor. Hermes Trismegistus: Pater Philosophorum. Tekstgeschiedenis van het Corpus Hermeticum. Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amsterdam, 1990.
  • Francis E. Peters. Hermes and Harran: the Roots of Arabic-Islamic Occultism. In Emilie Savage-Smith, editor, Magic and Divination in Early Islam, pages 185–215. Variorum, Trowbridge, 2004.
  • Kevin van Bladel. The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.


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