Spiritus Hermeticum: part two

An investigation of the origins of Hermeticism and the true teachings of Hermes Trismegistus


In the second of this series of twelve articles on Hermes and his teachings we consider the origins and extent of the literature dealing with Hermetic philosophy known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Our principal aim is to uncover the original truths the man Hermes taught to his disciples, and to distinguish these without fail from the half-truths and speculations grafted onto them over the centuries. For as we said in part one, it is the Truth and nothing but the truth that matters to us, and we hope, to our loyal readers, no matter how unpopular or unsaleable it may be to those who call themselves 'occultists' and 'magicians.'

In our afterword we continue our investigation of the colourful occultist known as 'Dr' Maurice Doreal who was responsible for composing and promoting the fraud known as The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean. As we said in our first article, these so-called 'tablets' first appeared in the 1940's, some 600 years after the manuscripts of the SINGLE Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus came to the attention of scholars. The further articles in this series were published at monthly intervals between June 2020 and March 2021. If you have not read part one, now is the time to do so, for this investigation forms an ascending scale of revelation which cannot be understood by skimming through individual articles in a haphazard and piecemeal manner.

The books of Hermes

We told you in part one that a number of utterly fantastic claims have been made over the centuries about what Hermes is supposed to have said and done. One example of this is the tale, related by Iamblichus, that Manetho (a supposed Egyptian priest who is said to have lived during the reign of Ptolemy I in the third century B.C.) stated that Hermes had written 36,252 books. This seems to be a rather tall order to us, even for a god! It is noteworthy that this figure is the same as that quoted by Manetho for the total number of years the thirty dynasties of ancient Egypt are supposed to have lasted. Iamblichus, as our regular readers will recall, was a man of great culture and learning, and renowned for his charity and self-denial. Amongst the works he is credited with having written is On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians reviewed elsewhere on our website. But this does not mean that he, any more than Manetho, was immune from error. So when he tells us, this time on the authority of the Greek philosopher Seleucus (ca. 190-150 B.C.) that the number of books written by Hermes was 20,000, we remain sceptical, despite the fact that his statement was echoed by the fourth century notable astrologer Julius Firmicus Maternus. On the other hand, his contemporary, Lactantius (ca. 250-325 A.D.), one of the leading 'lights' of the early Christian Church, confines himself to saying that Hermes wrote many books. You may take your choice, but we think Lactantius was nearer to the truth than either Manetho or Iamblichus, though our American readers may disagree as they do tend to favour anything really BIG!

We learn from Clement of Alexandria (ca.150-215 A.D.) that the books of Hermes were associated with the Egyptian religion. This is true, as we shall see later, though we dislike the word 'religion' in this context because it conveys a restricted scope at odds with the all embracing framework of occult scientific knowledge which the ancient Egyptian Sages encompassed and cultivated. Clement describes a religious procession, headed by a musician bearing some symbol of his art, who was required to learn by rote two of the books of Hermes, one of them containing hymns to the gods and the other psalms embodying the wisdom of the king. After him comes an astronomer bearing a horologe and a palm leaf in his hands, symbolic of the science of the stars. Clement tells us that this august personage was compelled to memorize and be able to recite the four books of Hermes which treat of this science, dealing severally with the orderly arrangement of the fixed stars, with the conjunctions and light of the sun and moon, and with their risings. In other words, a complete treatise on astronomy and astrology which, in those times, formed one unified science. Next in order comes the sacred scribe wearing feathers on his head, and carrying in his hand a papyrus and a closed palette, containing ink and a reed for writing. It was his business to know what are called the ten hieroglyphic books, dealing with cosmography, the course of the sun and moon, the course and properties of the seven sacred planets, geography, the topography of Egypt and the Nile, the nature and operations of the 'sacred ornaments' (presumably what we would now call scientific instruments), weights and measures, and many other things.

After him followed the steward of the sacred vestments, bearing the cubit, or measuring rod of justice and the libation-cup. It was his task to know all the educational books by heart, ten in number, which concern the worship of the gods and the Egyptian religion. Among the subjects Clement lists are sacrifices, first fruits, hymns, prayers, processions, festivals and the like. After these four comes the prophet with a water-clock clasped to his bosom, followed by the bearers of the processional loaves, emblematical of the Heavenly Manna, or True Teachings, though Clement does not tell us this. Now, a prophet or Hierophant in Egypt, was the chief of all those who preceded him in the procession and the president of the temple. His was the arduous task of learning by heart the ten books called 'hieratic', comprising the sacred, universal laws, the origin, nature and hierarchy of the gods and the whole education of the priests. He was also master of the distribution of the revenues of the temple over which he presided. Last of all came the six shrine bearers, each of which carried another book, though what was in them Clement does not say.

From this remarkable account it seems that the essential books of Hermes according to Clement numbered 42, 36 of which contained the whole philosophy of the Egyptians, and these had to be learned by heart by the aforementioned persons, and the remaining six by the shrine-bearers. Forty-two is a lot less than 20,000, never mind Manetho's truly astronomical total of 36,252! Now do you see why we are sceptical of such inflated claims and determined to find a clear path through the labyrinth of fictions, fantasies and exaggerated claims which cling like immovable barnacles to the man Hermes and his life and teachings? We hope so, for we shall have to dig through many more such obstructions to arrive at the simple, unadorned Truth. It is probably not without significance that 42 is also the number of the judges of the dead we discussed with you in our investigation of the Weighing of the Heart. This number, as we pointed out, adds to six. The Pythagoreans called this 'the Perfection of parts', because it is formed by the multiplication of the first (beyond unity) odd number and the first even number (2 and 3). The circumference of a globe has been fixed at 360 degrees, six sixties; the hour is divided into 60 minutes, each of 60 seconds. Forty-two, as we also explained, is seven short of 49, the number of man's seven principles or parts. Hence, if we regard the 42 books of Hermes as constituting the religious lore and occult scientific knowledge of the Egyptians, then the 'missing' seven is their author—Hermes himself. We put this forward as a suggestion only, not as a proven fact, though we are in no doubt that numbers, as we discuss in our article on Numerology, are the basis of all systems of religious mysticism and metaphysical philosophy, for as Pythagoras taught his disciples, "all is number."

The reason we have mentioned these 42 books at this point in our investigation is to exclude them from further review or discussion. Why do we say this? Because such books would naturally be purely Egyptian in both language and thought, whereas the books which have come down to us under the name of Hermes—the so-called Corpus Hermeticum mentioned in part one of our investigation—and which we are about to consider, are Greek in language and mainly indebted to Plato for their thought. For we must not lose sight of the fact that during the long history of Egypt which, even according to the most conservative estimates, spanned more than three millennia, there were numerous changes in both religion and thought. If you doubt us, pause here for a moment and consider what momentous changes in religion and thought have taken place in the British Isles over the same period. Have you done so? Three thousand years ago the wise Druids still dwelt in these islands. We told you about this august confederation of sages and the just laws and beneficent rule they introduced into Britain and Ireland in a previous article. What remains of them and their wisdom today? Nothing—nothing at all, except the quaint custom of kissing underneath the mistletoe!

So we have to be very careful when we read any books about the religion, laws, beliefs and customs of the Egyptians and their gods and goddesses. Do we mean the Egypt of the 1st Dynasty? The 5th or 12th? Or do we mean that of the 18th or 30th? Each of these dynasties would in many ways contradict the teachings and beliefs of any others, both as to gods and their functions and all the rest of the religious rites and customs during the thousands of years Egypt was a flourishing civilization. Unless we keep this firmly in mind at all times we are apt to fall into the same errors as all those so-called 'experts'—past and present—who have attempted to make sense of the teachings of Hermes, mostly with limited success. An example of this is the statement by Iamblichus that the works of Hermes were translated from the Egyptian by men acquainted with Greek philosophy, yet the Corpus Hermeticum presents every appearance of having been composed in Greek. What is more, even if any of the 42 books of Hermes were extant after all these millennia, even as fragments, and we know of none, who would make head or tail of them? Certainly not the Egyptologists who struggle to comprehend the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is widely regarded as a collection of 'spells' intended to protect the deceased in the Afterlife. Hence, for our purposes, we must exclude these books from our investigation and focus on those writings we do have access to. The most important of these is The Poemander, also written Poemandres, Poimandres, Pymander or Pimander. For the sake of consistency and convenience we shall use the word 'Poemander' throughout this investigation but this does not imply we favour it over any other variants of the name.

The Venetian philosopher and scientist Franciscus Patricius (1529-1597) believed that all the philosophical systems of the Greeks, the mystical mathematics of the Pythagoreans, the ethics and theology of Plato, the physics of Aristotle and the Stoics, were all derived from the works of Hermes. This seems perfectly reasonable to us given the hoary antiquity of Hermes who, whoever he may have been as a man, predated Greek civilization by many millennia. If we accept this premise then it follows that if the Hermetic writings are not derived from Greek philosophy, Greek philosophy must be derived from them. We say derived, not copied deliberately, for as we said in our discussion of the origins of Hermeticism in part one of this investigation, the popular notion that the Corpus Hermeticum is 'Plato according to the Egyptians' simply does not stand up to scrutiny. So where did the writings attributed to Hermes come from? This is one of the things we aim to discover in this investigation. The earliest author who shows acquaintance with our Hermes is Lactantius. He makes frequent allusions to, and employs quotations from Hermes Trismegistus, some of which we are able to verify by comparison with the extant works. The Greek biographer and essayist, Plutarch (46-119 A.D.) makes hearsay reference to the books of Hermes, but there is nothing to show that these are the same as those known to us. However, this does not necessarily mean that his references and quotations are wrong.

The Poemander

As we said earlier, the most important of the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus is the Poemander. The 20th century Theosophist G. R. S. Mead contended the name meant Shepherd of Man, and so it may do, for the Egyptians, as we shall see, regarded the man Hermes in that light, just as the Christians regard Jesus in the same light. But we have to be careful here, for Hermes, even as a god, was not regarded a saviour in the same way Jesus was. That role belongs to Horus and Osiris in the Egyptian mythos, not Hermes, who was considered as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom and the author of the sacred Hieroglyphic language of the gods.

The German classical scholar Johann Albert Fabricius (1668-1736) pointed out in his Bibliotheca Graeca (1705-1728) that in Greek mythology, Poemander (or Poimandros) was the son of Chaeresilaus and Stratonice. Fabricius tells us that Poemander was besieged by the Achaeans in a place called Stephon, for having refused to support them in the Trojan War. On the face of it there seems to be no connection between the Greek and Egyptian Poemander. This may well be one of those etymological coincidences like our words 'beer' and 'bier' which have no connection either, unless someone who is 'dead drunk' from the former is laid out on the latter! More recently, some Egyptologists have posited that the word is really Egyptian, being derived from an Egyptian phrase Peime-ent-Ra meaning "Knowledge of Ra" or "Understanding of Ra." This seems the more likely origin to us. As the god Ra was the source of Life and Light in the Egyptian religion and Poemander, as we shall see later on, brought light out of darkness as the illuminator of man, the connection between them is clear.

This view is also in accordance with what Plato tells us about a man's 'nous' in his Timaeus. We would interpret nous as the Higher Self illuminating the lower, as we discuss in the first of our articles on esoteric philosophy. From this it follows that the 'mysterious personage' who figures as the guide and instructor of Hermes in the Corpus Hermeticum can be no other than his own Higher Self in conjunction with the Divine Soul, for only this can lead to full understanding of all Wisdom so far as it is possible on earth. Although Poemander gives his name to the whole work, the Higher Self is only mentioned in the first and in the thirteenth chapter among the fourteen chapters of the first Latin edition of the book. Outside the first chapter, Hermes is rather the instructor of others. This confirms our contention that Poemander is a concealed reference to the Higher Self or Mind. Mysterious indeed, for no one has ever seen it, any more than anyone has ever seen the lower self, though both interpenetrate the physical body and use the brain for their separate purposes as we discuss in our Occult Studies Course.

The Poemander is said to have first seen the light of day in 1471, when it appeared in a Latin translation made by the Italian scholar and Catholic priest, Marsilius Ficinus (1433-1499) under the title Mercurii Trismegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei. It had been translated from a Greek manuscript which was brought from Macedonia to Florence by a monk named Leonardus of Pistoia, and given to Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464). Ficinus' Latin version was reprinted no less than 30 times between 1483 and 1600 in Venice, Paris, Leiden and Basle. During these and the following centuries it was touched up by a succession of editors. An Italian translation was made of Ficinus' Latin version in 1548, and a second edition printed at Florence in 1549, both by Tommaso Benci.

The first French translation was made by Gabriel du Preau at Paris in 1557. Another emended edition was made by Franciscus Flussas Candalla, at Bordeaux in 1579; and a later one, by Louis Menard, in Paris, in 1806. The work was translated into Dutch, from the Latin of Fabricius, by Nicholas van Rauenstein and printed in Amsterdam in 1643. No English translation was made until 1611 when an edition of Ficinus' translation was printed in London. This was followed in 1650 by John Everard's edition which we review and recommend elsewhere on our website. The first German translation was not made for another half century, when in 1706 Alethophilus published at Hamburg his Hermetis Trismegisti Erkäntnuss der Natur. A second German translation by Dietrich Tiedemann was published in Berlin and Stettin in 1781. In 1854, Gustav Parthey printed the 14 chapters of the Poemander based on revisions of Ficinus' Latin translation. In the last century the German philologist and scholar Richard Reitzenstein (1861-1931) published his pioneering study of the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum in Leipzig in 1904. This was followed two years later by G. R. S. Mead's Thrice-Greatest Hermes, published in three volumes, in London. More recent translations include Brian Copenhaver's Hermetica published in 1992, itself based on the French Budé edition of 1946-54, and The Way of Hermes by Clement Salaman, Dorine van Oyen, et al published in 2004.

The result of all this 'touching-up' is the Poemander as we have it today, and what a sorry mess it is! Do we really need to remind you of the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth? During the 400 odd years that elapsed since Ficinus presented the world with his Latin translation of the Greek MSS, there were limitless possibilities for legions of translators, elucidators, editors, manipulators, commentators, and other assorted clever-clogs, busy-bodies and nosey parkers to spoil the broth. If you have any experience of studying sacred texts you will be only too familiar with this dreadful 'touching-up' process which has left no ancient writing unscathed, save perhaps for the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the hieroglyphic texts of which have come down to us intact. But even this has now been 'translated' and 'edited' by at least four generations of Egyptologists who, with the exception of E. A. Wallis Budge, now sadly out of favour among his successors, are utterly incapable of grasping the complex esoteric allegories and well-nigh impenetrable symbols with which the book abounds.

We have not given you all these details (actually there are many more!) to flatter your vanity, much less to demonstrate our erudition. We have done so to show you how such works can be, and are, mutilated by the various hands they pass through, and to make you realise that not one of these books can be fully trusted. And yet today we find so-called 'occultists' arguing over particular verses, even individual words in the various popular modern editions of the Poemander which, in many cases, are even less trustworthy than the translations we have mentioned above. Hence the constant need to be on our guard; to take nothing on trust, least of all on the say-so of some self-appointed 'authority' or opinionated 'expert', and to use our critical faculties to sift truth from untruth and downright falsehood from half-truths. As we say on our Homepage "It is these distortions and misinterpretations of the great Occult Truths which do the most harm, and lead to so much confusion, disillusion and suffering among seekers after Occult Knowledge." In the next part of this investigation we aim to cut through these insidious tentacles of ignorance and lift the veil that has hitherto shrouded the true Teachings of Hermes from all but the eyes of the very few. But before then, we must complete our survey of the Corpus Hermeticum—a study which is not without profit, as we shall see.

The Asclepios

In addition to the Poemander we have the 'Asclepios', which exists only in a Latin translation attributed to the Platonist philosopher and rhetorician Apuleius (ca. 124-170 A.D.). This can be read in the edition made by Paul Thomas, of Leipzig, in 1908 (in Latin of course). We consider this work as even more important than the Poemander, for in it we find the Seven Universal Hermetic Laws described in the exact manner in which they work, and we know of no other work in the public domain of which this can be said. We shall come back to all this later on in this investigation which—you will remember—was published in 12 parts at monthly intervals during 2020 and 2021. Hence, we are not in a hurry and neither should you be, for the Teachings of Hermes are not for the impatient; they should play a computer game instead.

It is the profoundly esoteric teachings found in the Asclepios that may have been the real reason the French mathematician Franciscus Flussas Candalla (1512-1594) excluded them from his edition of the Corpus Hermeticum of 1579. As a faithful son of the Catholic Church, Candalla would have been only too well aware of the danger of publishing such passages as the following from the Asclepios. "It is the sun who preserves and nourishes all creatures; and even as the Ideal World which environs the sensible world fills this last with the plenitude and universal variety of forms, so also the sun enfolding all in his light accomplishes everywhere the birth and development of creatures, and when they fall wearied in the race, gathers them again to his bosom. Under his orders is the choir of the Genii, or rather the choirs, for there are many and diverse, and their number corresponds to that of the stars." This, and similar statements that occur throughout the book, must have terrified the pious scholar. Hence he rejected it with the specious but clever argument that "the work of the divine philosopher had here been tampered with by some impious pagan." On the other hand, he may genuinely have believed that the Asclepios was highly flawed. What is not in doubt is that he was far less able to judge the verisimilitude of the work before him than Apuleius, who at least could claim the rank of an initiate of the Mysteries of the Goddess Isis. Candalla, on the other hand, was schooled in the barren dogmas of the Catholic Church which regarded much of the Corpus Hermeticum with the deepest suspicion which, if widely known and accepted, might erode its authority.

The Asclepios in its Latin form was well-known to St. Augustine, who, in his The City of God includes long, verbatim quotations from it. He does not say that this Latin translation is the work of Apuleius, though he has occasion to mention that writer in the immediate context of the work, which may have suggested the idea to later generations that Apuleius was the author. On the face of it the Asclepios bears the unmistakable marks of being a translation from the Greek. A few fragments of the original have been preserved by Lactantius, which shows that the Asclepios is identical, so far at least as these fragments go, with the translation we have today in the Corpus Hermeticum.

Our Sources

The Asclepios can be found in The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus translated by Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland, published in London in 1884. It was subsequently reprinted in hardcover by Wizards Bookshelf as part of their Secret Doctrine Reference Series, in the USA in 1977 and re-issued in 2020. We review this edition elsewhere on our website but a digital copy can be accessed at the Internet Sacred Text Archive. The Poemander can be found under the title of The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, translated into English in 1650 by Dr John Everard. It is also available from Wizards Bookshelf in hardcover. In addition to these two books we also recommend G. R. S. Mead's monumental work, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, first published by the Theosophical Publishing Society, in London, in 1906. Despite the sometimes stilted phraseology employed, in our view this remains the most complete and accurate translation of the various writings which comprise the Corpus Hermeticum. It is for this reason that we have used it as our source for this investigation together with The Virgin of the World and Everard's The Divine Pymander.

Hermetic fragments

In addition to these three books and the fragments of Hermes preserved by Lactantius, there are others given by Cyril in his writings against Julian (433 A.D.) and some in Suidas—a 10th century Byzantine Greek historical encyclopaedia—including a remarkable passage on the Trinity which is found nowhere else. We think so highly of it that we quote it in full below.

"Before Intellectual Light was Light intellectual; Mind of mind, too was there eternally, Light-giving. There was naught else except the Oneness of this (Mind) and Spirit all-embracing. Without this is nor god, nor angel, nor any other being. For He is Lord and Father, and the God of all; and all things are beneath Him, (all things are) in Him. His Word (Logos), all-perfect as he was, and fecund, and creative, falling in fecund Nature, yea in fecund Water, made Water pregnant."

The Suidas, or Suda as it is now more commonly known, tells us that Hermes was an Egyptian Sage who flourished before the dynastic period which began some 6,000 years ago. We agree with this assertion as we told you in part one when we asked 'Who was Hermes?' He was called Thrice-greatest because he spoke of the Trinity, declaring that in the Trinity there is one Godhead, exactly as it appears in the extract just quoted above. We shall return to the Suidas when we come to discuss the Hermetic fragments in greater depth later on in this investigation. But before we reach that point we must complete our preliminary survey of the Corpus Hermeticum, for it is necessary to obtain a clear birds-eye view of the whole body before examining its parts, the most important of which, as we said earlier, are the Poemander and Asclepios.

Another very important writer on Hermes was Joannes Stobaeus, who is thought to have flourished during the fifth century A.D. He has left us various extracts from the writings of Hermes in his Anthologium, a series of extracts from Greek authors which was originally divided into two volumes known as the Eclogues and Florilegium respectively. These are now referred to by most modern scholars simply as the Anthology. We shall discuss these extracts later too. In addition to the Suidas and Stobaeus we have a host of writers such as Plato, Plutarch, Xenocrates, Clement of Alexandria, Diogenes Babylonius, Chrysippus, Diogenes, and a multitude of 'Hermeticists', so-called, all holding forth on the inner meaning of the various fragments of the Corpus Hermeticum that came into their hands, or in some cases, have clearly been fabricated by less than clean hands in pursuit of grubby agendas that have less to do with Truth and rather more to do with sacerdotal supremacy and personal power. As we warned you in part one, the literature called 'Hermetic' is a promiscuous potage of ingredients culled from many different sources that presents the sincere seeker with a maze of facts, fictions and fancies it is no easy matter to navigate and unriddle.

Those fragments which are today known and accepted as the doctrines of Hermes, and have been regarded as such for many centuries past, are so many and so curious as to make one doubt whether they all emanate from the same mind, despite the familial likeness which runs like a golden thread through the Corpus Hermeticum. This—as we told you in our introduction to the first part of this investigation—is our main aim; to discover where and how the true Teachings of Hermes differ from the spurious or merely speculative. Many readers will disagree with us when we reach that point in our work. Indeed, we firmly believe that the majority who call themselves 'Hermeticists' today will not have travelled with us even this far. Such remind us of a flock of owls in their somnolent unwisdom, being believed and parroted by their misled followers. What a strange, phantasmagorical spectacle arises before the writer's eye as he beholds the vituperative critics who will descend upon this discourse, their lips twisted with indignation and disbelief that anyone should dare to cast aspersions upon the sacred cows of Hermetic scholarship and the irrefutable conclusions reached by modern 'authorities' such as Clement Salaman, Timothy Freke, Gary Lachman and others. In all fairness, Lachman and Freke do have some understanding of the occult sciences, which cannot be said of Salaman.

But none of these translators and writers appear to have the wit to realize that a truly wise man, such as Hermes was, is able to deal with all things and understand them perfectly; for from the truly wise nothing is hidden, but this is emphatically not true of most of those who have tried and continue to try to interpret his words. Why is this? Because unless the Higher Mind of a man is in the driving seat he knows nothing whatsoever about anything real. He dwells in illusion, cut off from the Light of God which is the Truth. Therefore, when Hermes teaches he speaks with the authority of God who unveils Truth before his seeing eyes, insofar as any man may know Truth on Earth. But when the blind try to interpret the words of the truly wise in their own way according to their own preconceptions then there escapes from them a stream of errors which will deluge truth with speculations. But the familial likeness persists even then, for it is inevitable that some small particles of the Truths of Hermes must and will remain amongst all the dross from other minds, as we shall see in the next part of this investigation in which we examine the Poemander and Asclepios further.

© Copyright occult-mysteries.org. Article published 10 May 2020. Updated 24 December 2022.

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