Legend of Hermes Trismegistus

Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes Thrice Great”), the legendary founder of the Hermetic tradition and the inventor of astrology, alchemy, medicine, and magic, was literally a figure to conjure with from the dawn of the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century. In Greek, Hermes is the messenger of the gods. In Latin, he is known as Mercurius, and Mercury, the volatile, changeable matter, plays a vital role in alchemical thinking and practice. Hermes was also identified with Thoth Hermes or Tehuti, the god of wisdom, learning and literature, the Egyptian scribe of the gods. This meant that he was naturally associated with learning, the world of spirits and with lunar cycles. The Hermetic arts – alchemy, astrology and magic – were thought to have been revealed to humanity by Hermes in the mythical time before recorded history. Most of this Hermetic or Trismegistic literature has perished, but all that remains of it has been gathered and translated into English. It includes the "Poimandres, " the " Perfect Sermon, " or the " Asclepius, " excerpts by Stobacus, and fragments from the Church Fathers and from the philosophers, Zosimus and Fulgentius. The Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the Hermetica, writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which survive. In 1612, the writings ascribed to him were later dated by Isaac Casaubon to the first centuries after Christ, although the wisdom they contain may be much older.

Medieval writers disagreed about his place in history; some claimed that he was the same person as Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, who was lifted up into heaven to become the great angel Metatron, while others held that he was the wisest of the Egyptians and lived at the time of Moses. According to the early Christian writer Eusebius, he wrote 36 books on philosophy and theology and 6 more on astronomy.

The facts behind the legend are as interesting as the legend itself. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and installed a Greek ruling class there, Greek philosophy and Egyptian spirituality mingled freely on the banks of the Nile. In the hybrid culture that emerged, the Greek god Hermes took on many of the attributes of Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian god of wisdom, whose traditional titles included “Thrice Great.” Just as Egyptian magical writings from the pharaonic past claimed Thoth as their author, many of the astrological, alchemical, and mystical writings produced in Hellenistic Egypt were attributed to Hermes the Thrice-Great. The origin of the description Trismegistus or "thrice great" is unclear. Copenhaver reports that this name is first found in the minutes of a meeting of the council of the Ibis cult, held in 172 BCE near Memphis in Egypt. Fowden however asserts that the earliest occurrence of the name was in the Athenagora by Philo of Byblos circa 64–141 CE. Another explanation is that the name is derived from an epithet of Thoth found at the Temple of Esna, "Thoth the great, the great, the great."

In the last few centuries of the Roman Empire, these writings had a wide circulation and were pressed into service by the proponents of many different traditions. Several of the early theologians of Christianity, including Augustine of Hippo, quoted the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and thus guaranteed that later generations of Christians would remember him as a wise man of the distant past. One dialogue attributed to Hermes, the Asclepius, survived into the Middle Ages in a Latin translation, and this and the references in old Christian sources helped build Hermes’ medieval reputation.

Most of the other writings attributed to Hermes vanished forever in the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. In 1453, however, a manuscript volume containing 18 short books attributed to Hermes surfaced in Greece. Translated by Marsilio Ficino, one of the greatest scholars of the age, this collection – the Corpus Hermeticum – launched the tradition of Renaissance Hermeticism and, directly or indirectly, became the core inspiration for most of the occult secret societies of the next 400 years.

Illustration of Hermes Trismegistus

The famous proverb, ‘As above, so below’ is from the Hermetic writings, known as the Corpus Hermeticum. This is actually a conflation of ‘That which is above is like that which is below’, which is taken from the Emerald Tablet, said to have been found in Hermes’s tomb, clutched in the bony hands of the departed teacher. Part of its influence derives from the fact that it is said to contain the sum of all knowledge in its dozen or so verses. The text runs as follows:

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus

"True it is, without doubt, certain and most true.That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above to accomplish the miracles of the one thing.

And as all things were made by the contemplation of one, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.

Its father is the Sun, its Mother is the Moon.

The Wind carried it in its womb, its nurse is the Earth.

It is the father of all miracles throughout the whole world.

Its power is perfect.

If it is cast onto Earth, it will separate the element of Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross.

With great sagacity it ascends gently from Earth to Heaven, and it descends again to Earth, uniting in itself the forces from above and from below. Thus you will possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly from you.

This thing is the strength of all strengths, for it overcomes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing.

In this way the little world was created according to the great world.

In this manner marvellous adaptations will be achieved.

For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold the three parts of wisdom of the whole world.

What I have to say about the operation of the Sun is finished."

At the end of the text Hermes vows to break free of the prison of the material world to help his fellow beings reach enlightenment.

To Renaissance occultists, Hermes was an ancient Egyptian sage whose writings, older than the Bible, offered access to a purer spirituality than the Christianity of their own time. The spirited defense of magic in Hermes’ writings also made it easier for Renaissance mages to justify their own practices and condemn the intolerance of their persecutors.

Both the medieval and the Renaissance traditions surrounding Hermes had an impact on early Freemasonry and, through it, on many other secret societies. The old medieval Masonic constitutions all refer to Hermes as one of the traditional founders of architecture and the building trades, and refer to a legend that he found and deciphered one of the two great pillars made before the Flood. These references to Hermes made it easy for the gentlemen scholars who became the first accepted Masons to read occult secrets into the medieval symbolism of Masonic initiations and reshape the old operative Masonry into modern Freemasonry. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, references to Hermes in the old constitutions inspired the proliferation of high degrees containing magical, alchemical, and astrological teachings.

Ironically, all this came about after the historical status of Hermes himself had been convincingly debunked by British scholar Isaac Casaubon, who showed in 1612 that the Corpus Hermeticum, far from being more ancient than the Bible, was a product of the first few centuries of the Common Era. As a result, the occult secret societies of the next few centuries, while they drew much of their philosophy from the Hermetic writings and most of their practices from Renaissance Hermeticism, avoided references to Hermes himself. Neither the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H.B. of L.) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, two of the most influential magical orders of the nineteenth century, made use of the legends around Hermes Trismegistus.

Alchemy and Alchemists by Sean Martin;
Encyclopedia of Ancient and Forbidden Secrets by Nye;
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies: "The Ultimate A-Z of Ancient Mysteries, Lost Civilizations and Forgotten Wisdom" by John Michael Greer;

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