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Hermes Trismegistus

Hermetic Religion

Hermes Trismegistus · Thoth · Poimandres

Corpus Hermeticum · Kybalion

Three Parts of the Wisdom of the Whole Universe
Alchemy · Astrology · Theurgy

Influence and Influences

Hermetic Movements

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn · Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor · Hermetic Brotherhood of Light

Topics in Hermetism
Qabalah Occult and divinatory tarot Hermetists and Hermeticists
John Dee . Aleister Crowley · Israel Regardie
Thābit ibn Qurra · Paracelsus
Giordano Bruno · Samuel MacGregor Mathers · William Westcott
Franz Bardon

Hermeticism or the Western Hermetic Tradition is a set of philosophical and religious beliefs[1] based primarily upon the Hellenistic Egyptian pseudepigraphical writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus who is the representation of the congruence of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes. These beliefs have heavily influenced the Western Esoteric Tradition and were considered to be of great importance during the Renaissance.[2]


The term Hermetic is from medieval Latin hermeticus, which in turn is derived from the name of the Greek god Hermes. It is attested in English since the 17th century as the adjective Hermetic (as in "Hermetic writers" e.g. Franz Bardon). The synonymous Hermetical also occurs in the 17th century. Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici of 1643 wrote-

Now besides these particular and divided Spirits there may be (for ought I know) a universal and common Spirit to the whole world. It was the opinion of Plato , and is yet of the Hermeticall Philosophers. R.M. Part 1:32

The term Hermetic is from the Greek word Herm, which refers to a pillar or post used in pre-classical Greece "of square shape, surmounted by a head with a beard. The square, limbless "Hermes" was a step in advance of the unwrought stone."[3] The origin of the word Hermes relates to a stone pillar used to communicate with the deities and the use the names beginning with Herm in Greece dates from at least 600 BCE. The God Hermes is a generic term used by the pre-classical Greeks for any deity, and was only later associated with the God of Knowledge in Athens in the 2nd Century CE.[4] The word Hermetic was used by Dr. Everard, 1650 in the English translation of The Pimander of Hermes.[5] Mary Anne Atwood mentioned the use of the word Hermetic by Dufresnoy in 1386.[6][7]


Late Antiquity

Hermes Trismegistus depicted in a medieval rendering.

In Late Antiquity, Hermetism[8] emerged in parallel with Gnosticism, Neoplatonism and early Christianity, "characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith".[9]

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

The extant Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of God, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Many lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power.

The predominant literary form is the dialogue: Hermes Trismegistus instructs a perplexed disciple on some point of hidden wisdom.


After centuries of falling out of favor, Hermeticism was reintroduced to the West when, in 1460 CE, a man named Leonardo[10] brought the Corpus Hermeticum to Pistoia. He was one of many agents sent out by Pistoia's ruler, Cosimo de'Medici, to scour European monasteries for lost ancient writings[11].

In 1614 CE Isaac Casaubon, a Swiss philologist, analyzed the Hermetic texts for linguistic style and claimed that the Hermetic writings attributed to Trismegistus were not the work of an ancient Egyptian priest but in fact dated to the Christian Era[12][13]. Walter Scott places their date shortly after 200 CE, while Sir W. Flinders Petrie places them between 200 and 500 BCE[14]. Plutarch's mention of Hermes Trismegistus dates back to the first century CE, and Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry are all familiar with Hermetic writings[15].

In 1945 CE, Hermetic writings were among those found near Nag Hammadi, in the form of one of the conversations between Hermes and Asclepius from the Corpus Hermeticum, and a text about the Hermetic mystery schools, On the Ogdoad and Ennead, written in the Coptic language, the last form in which the Egyptian language was written[16].

Hermeticism as a religion

Not all Hermeticists take a religious approach; some consider it to be a philosophical system only. In Hermetic religion the supreme Deity, or Principle, is referred to variously as 'God', 'The All', or 'The One'. Many Hermeticists also align their beliefs and mystical ideas with other religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, mainstream Paganism, or Islam. Many hold that all great religions have equivalent mystical truths at their core, and that all religions share an understanding of esoteric tenets with Hermeticism.

Tobias Churton, scholar of obscure religious movements, states that "the Hermetic tradition was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the (omnipresent) mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere"[17].

Religious and philosophical texts

Though many more have been falsely attributed to the work of Hermes Trismegistus, Hermeticists commonly accept there to have been forty two books to his credit. However, most of these books are reported to have been destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandria was razed.

There are three major works which are widely known texts for Hermetic beliefs:

The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work most widely known and is the aforementioned Greek texts. These sixteen books are set up as dialogues between Hermes and a series of others. The first book involves a discussion between Poimandres (also known as Nous and God) and Hermes, supposedly resulting from a meditative state, and is the first time that Hermes is in contact with God. Poimandres teaches the secrets of the Universe to Hermes, and later books are generally of Hermes teaching others such as Asclepius and his son Tat.

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus is a short work which coins the well known term in occult circles "As above, so below." The actual text of that maxim, as translated by Dennis W. Hauck is "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing"[18]. The tablet also references the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe. Hermes claims his knowledge of these three parts is why he received the name Trismegistus (thrice great, or Ao-Ao-Ao meaning "greatest"). As the story is told, this tablet was found by Alexander the Great at Hebron supposedly in the tomb of Hermes[19].

The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy, is a book published in 1912 CE anonymously by three people calling themselves the "Three Initiates". Many of the Hermetic principles are explained in the book.

There are additional works that, while not as well known as the three mentioned above, have an important place in Hermeticism and its study.

A Suggestive Inquiry into Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy written by Mary Anne Atwood, and originally published anonymously in 1850. This book was withdrawn from circulation by the author but was later reprinted after her death by her longtime friend Isabelle de Steiger. Isabelle de Steiger was a member of the Golden Dawn and this book was used as the basis for the study of Hermeticism by the Golden Dawn which resulted in several published works by members of the Golden Dawn.[20]

Arthur Edward Waite, member and later Head of the Golden Dawn, wrote the "Hermetic Museum" and later the "Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged" and did the editing for "Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus" that was published as a two volume set. Arthur Edward Waite considered himself an Hermeticist and was instrumental in adding the word "Hermetic" to the official title of the Golden Dawn.[21]

W. Wynn Westcott, a founding member of the Golden Dawn, edited a series of books on Hermeticism called the "Collectanea Hermetica" published by the Theosophical Publishing Society.[22]

Why Thrice Great?

The 'Prisca Theologia'

Many Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity[23]. They believed in a 'Prisca Theologia', the doctrine that a single, true, theology exists, which threads through all religions, and which was given by god to man in antiquity [24][25]. In order to demonstrate the verity of the 'prisca theologia' Christians appropriated the Hermetic teachings for their own purposes. By this account Hermes Trismegistus was either, according to the fathers of the Christian church, a contemporary of Moses[26] or the third in a line of men named Hermes i.e. Enoch, Noah and the Egyptian priest king who is known to us as Hermes Trismegistus[27] or thrice great on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher and king[28][29].

This last account of how Hermes Trismegistus received the name "Trismegistus," meaning "Thrice Great," is derived from statements both in the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe[30]. The three parts of the wisdom are alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. The pymander, from where Marsilio Ficino formed his opinion, states that "they called him Trismegistus because he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the greatest king"[31].

Another explanation, in the Suda (10th century), is that "He was called Trismegistus on account of his praise of the trinity, saying there is one divine nature in the trinity"[32].

The three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe

Alchemy — The Operation of the Sun — is not simply the changing of physical lead into physical gold[33]. It is an investigation into the spiritual constitution, or life of matter and material existence through an application of the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection[34]. The various stages of chemical distillation and fermentation, among them, are aspects of these mysteries, that, when applied quicken Nature's processes in order to bring a natural body to perfection[35]. This perfection is the accomplishment of the Magnum opus (Latin for Great Work).

Astrology — The Operation of the Moon — Hermes claims that Zoroaster discovered this part of the wisdom of the whole universe, astrology, and taught it to man[36]. In Hermetic thought, it is likely that the movements of the planets have meaning beyond the laws of physics and actually holding metaphorical value as symbols in the mind of The All, or God. Astrology has influences upon the Earth, but does not dictate our actions, and wisdom is gained when we know what these influences are and how to deal with them.

Theurgy — The Operation of the Stars — There are two different types of magic, according to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Apology, completely opposite of each other. The first is γοητεια, Goëtia, black magic reliant upon an alliance with evil spirits (i.e. demons). The second is Theurgy, divine magic reliant upon an alliance with divine spirits (i.e. angels, archangels, gods)[37].

Theurgy translates to "The Science or art of Divine Works" and is the practical aspect of the Hermetic art of alchemy[38]. Furthermore, alchemy is seen as the "key" to theurgy,[39] the ultimate goal of which is to become united with higher counterparts, leading to the attainment of Divine Consciousness[38].

Hermetic beliefs

Hermeticism encompasses both panentheism and Monistic-polytheism (Soft Polytheism) within its belief system, which teaches that there is The All, or one "Cause", of which we, and the entire universe, are all a part. Also it subscribes to the notion that other beings such as gods and angels, ascended masters and elementals exist in the Universe as parts of the All.

Classical elements

The four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire are used often in alchemy, and are alluded to several times in the Corpus Hermeticum.

As above, so below

The Magician displaying the Hermetic concept of as above, so below.

These words circulate throughout occult and magical circles, and they come from Hermetic texts. The concept was first laid out in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, in the words "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing"[18].

In accordance with the various levels of reality: physical, mental, and spiritual, this relates that what happens on any level happens on every other. This is however more often used in the sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm is oneself, and the macrocosm is the universe. The macrocosm is as the microcosm, and vice versa; within each lies the other, and through understanding one (usually the microcosm) you can understand the other[40].


There are mentions in Hermeticism about reincarnation. As Hermes states:

"O son, how many bodies we have to pass through, how many bands of demons, through how many series of repetitions and cycles of the stars, before we hasten to the One alone?"[41].

Morality, good, and evil

Hermes explains in Book 9 of the Corpus Hermeticum that Nous brings forth both good and evil, depending on if he receives input from God or from the demons. God brings good, while the demons bring evil. Among those things brought by demons are:

"adultery, murder, violence to one's father, sacrilege, ungodliness, strangling, suicide from a cliff and all such other demonic actions"[42].

This provides a clearcut view that Hermeticism does indeed include a sense of morality. However, the word good is used very strictly, to be restricted to use to the Supreme Good, God[43]. It is only God (in the sense of the Supreme Good, not The All) who is completely free of evil to be considered good. Men are exempt of having the chance of being good, for they have a body, consumed in the physical nature, ignorant of the Supreme Good[44].

Among those things which are considered extremely sinful, is the focus on the material life, said to be the only thing that offends God:

"As processions passing in the road cannot achieve anything themselves yet still obstruct others, so these men merely process through the universe, led by the pleasures of the body"[45].

It is troublesome to oneself to have no "children". This is a symbolic description, not to mean physical, biological children, but rather creations. Immediately before this claim, it is explained that God is "the Father" because it has authored all things, it creates. Whether father or mother, one must create, do something positive in their life, as the Supreme Good is a "generative power". The curse for not having "children" is to be imprisoned to a body, neither male (active) nor female (thoughtful), leaving that person with a type of sterility, that of being unable to accomplish anything[46].


The tale is given in the first book of the Corpus Hermeticum by God's Nous to Hermes Trismegistus after much meditation. It begins as the ALL creates the elements after seeing the Cosmos and creating one just like it (our Cosmos) from its own constituent elements and souls. From there, the ALL, being both male (Divine Father) and female (Universal Mother), holding the Word (the logos), gave birth to a second Nous, creator of the world. This second Nous created seven powers, or deities, (often seen as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon) to travel in circles and govern destiny.

The Word then leaps forth from the materializing elements, which made them unintelligent. Nous then made the governors spin, and from their matter sprang forth creatures without speech. Earth then was separated from Water and the animals (other than Man) were brought forth from the Earth.

The Supreme Nous then created Man, androgynous, in his own image and handed over his creation. Man carefully observed the creation of his brother, the lesser Nous, and received his and his Father's authority over it all. Man then rose up above the spheres' paths to better view the creation, and then showed the form of the ALL to Nature. Nature fell in love with it, and Man, seeing a similar form to his own reflecting in the water fell in love with Nature and wished to dwell in it. Immediately Man became one with Nature and became a slave to its limitations such as gender and sleep. Man thus became speechless (for it lost the Word) and became double, being mortal in body but immortal in spirit, having authority of all but subject to destiny.

The tale does not specifically contradict the theory of evolution, other than for Man, but most Hermeticists fully accept evolutionary theory as a solid grounding for the creation of everything from base matter to Man[47].

Hermetic brotherhoods

Once Hermeticism was no longer endorsed by the Christian Church it was driven underground and a number of Hermetic societies were formed. The Western esoteric tradition is now heavily steeped in Hermeticism. The work of such writers as Pico Della Mirandola, who attempted to reconcile Jewish Kabbalah and Christian mysticism, brought Hermeticism into a context more easily understood by Europeans in the Renaissance.

A few primarily Hermetic occult orders were founded in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissancecitation needed. Hermetic magic underwent a nineteenth century revival in Western Europe,[48] where it was practiced by people and within groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aurum Solis, Ragon, Kenneth M. Mackenzie, Eliphas Lévi, Frederick Hockley, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Machen[49]. Many Hermetic, or Hermetically influenced, groups exist today, most of which are derived from the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry.


Rosicrucianism is a Hermetic/Christian movement dating back to the 15th century. Some[who?] believe it ceased to exist sometime during the 19th century, though Rosicrusians claim[50] that it merely fell into complete secrecy. It consists of a secretive inner body, and a more public outer body under the direction of the inner body.

This movement is symbolized by the rose (the soul) and the cross (the body of 4 elements). In other words, the human soul crucified on the cross of the material plane.

The Rosicrucian Order consists of a graded system (similar to The Order of Freemasons) in which members move up in rank and gain access to more knowledge. There is no fee for advancement. Once a member is deemed able to understand the knowledge, they move on to the next grade.

There are three steps to their spiritual path: philosophy, qabbalah, and divine magic. In turn, there are three goals of the order: 1) the abolition of monarchy and the institution of rule by a philosophical elect, 2) reformation of science, philosophy, and ethics, and 3) discovery of the Panacea.

The sources dating the existence of the Rosicrucians to the 17th century are three German pamphlets: the Fama, the Confessio Fraternitatis, and Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. [51] Some scholars believe these to be hoaxes,[52] and that antedating Rosicrucian organizations are the first appearance of any real Rosicrucian fraternity.

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Unlike the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was open to both sexes, and treated both as equal. The order was a specifically Hermetic society, teaching the arts of alchemy, qabbalah, and the magic of Hermes along with the principles of occult science. Israel Regardie claims that there are many orders, who know what they do of magic from what has been leaked out of the Golden Dawn, by what he deems "renegade members."

The order maintained the tightest of secrecy by severe penalties for loose lips. Overall, the general public was left oblivious to the actions and even existence of the Golden Dawn, making the policies a success[53]. This secrecy was broken first by Aleister Crowley, in 1905, and later by Israel Regardie himself in 1940, giving a detailed account of the order's teachings to the general public[54].

Esoteric Christianity

Hermetism and Hermeticism remains influential in Esoteric Christianity, especially Martinism.

See also

  • Renaissance magic
  • Sex magic
  • Thelema
  • Thelemic mysticism
  • Theurgy
  • John Dee


  1. Churton p. 5
  2. "Hermeticism" The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions
  3. The Religion of Ancient Greece by Jane Ellen Harrison pgs 17-19
  4. The Religion of Ancient Greece by Jane Ellen Harrison pgs 21-30
  5. Collectanea Hermetica Edited by W. Wynn. Westcott Volume 2
  6. See Dufresnoy,Histoire del' Art Hermetique, vol. iii. Cat. Gr. MSS.
  7. A Suggestive Inquiry into Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy by Mary Anne Atwood 1850
  8. van den Broek and Hanegraaff (1997) distinguish Hermetism for the tradition of Late Antiquity from Hermeticism for the Renaissance revival.
  9. van den Broek and Hanegraaff (1997), p. vii
  10. This Leonardo di Pistoia was a monk [1], not to be confused with the artist Leonardo da Pistoia who was not born until c.1483 CE.
  11. The Way of Hermes, p. 9
  12. (Tambiah Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality pp. 27–28)
  13. (The Way of Hermes, p. 9)
  14. (Abel and Hare p. 7)
  15. (Stephan A. Hoeller, On the Trail of the Winged God — Hermes and Hermeticism Throughout the Age, Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 40, Summer 1996))
  16. (Way of Hermes, pp. 9–10)
  17. (Churton p. 5)
  18. 18.0 18.1 (Scully p. 321)
  19. (Abel & Hare p. 12)
  20. "A Suggestive Inquiry into Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy" with introduction by Isabelle de Steiger
  21. "Hermetic Papers of A. E. Waite: the Unknown Writings of a Modern Mystic" Edited by R. A. Gilbert
  22. "The Pymander of Hermes" Volume 2, Collectanea Hermetica" published by The Theosophical Publishing Society, 1894.
  23. Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, pp 9–15 and pp 61–66 and p 413
  24. Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, pp 14–18 and pp 433–434
  25. Hanegraaff, W. J., "New Age Religion and Western Culture", SUNY, 1998, p 360
  26. Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, p 27 and p 293
  27. Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, p52
  28. Yates, F., "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition", Routledge, London, 1964, p 52
  29. Copenhaver, B.P., "Hermetica", Cambridge University Press, 1992, p xlviii
  30. (Scully p. 322)
  31. Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. xlviii
  32. Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. xli
  33. (Hall The Hermetic Marriage p. 227)
  34. Eliade The Forge and the Crucible p. 149 and p. 155–157
  35. Geber Summa Perfectionis
  36. (Powell pp. 19–20)
  37. Garstin p. v
  38. 38.0 38.1 Garstin p. 6
  39. Garstin p. vi
  40. (Garstin p. 35)
  41. (Way of Hermes p. 33)
  42. (Way of Hermes p. 42)
  43. (Way of Hermes p. 28)
  44. (Way of Hermes p. 47)
  45. (Way of Hermes pp. 32–3)
  46. (Way of Hermes p. 29)
  47. (Way of Hermes pp. 18–20)
  48. (Regardie p. 17)
  49. (Regardie pp. 15–6)
  50. AMORC —
  51. Yates, Frances (1972). The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710073801. 
  52. Prof. Carl Edwin Lindgren, "The Rose Cross, A Historical and Philosophical View" —
  53. (Regardie pp. 15–7)
  54. (Regardie p. ix)


  • Abel, Christopher R. and Hare, William O. (1997). Hermes Trismegistus: An Investigation of the Origin of the Hermetic Writings. Sequim: Holmes Publishing Group. 
  • Anonymous (2002). Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 
  • Budge, E. A. Wallis (1895). The Egyptian Book of the Dead: (The Papyrus of Ani) Egyptian Text Transliteration and Translation. New York: Dover Publications. 
  • Churton, Tobias. The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2002.
  • Copenhaver, B.P. Hermetica, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
  • Garstin, E.J. Langford (2004). Theurgy or The Hermetic Practice. Berwick: Ibis Press.  Published Posthumously
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. On the Trail of the Winged God: Hermes and Hermeticism Throughout the Ages, Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 40, Summer 1996). Also at "Hermes and Hermeticism". Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  • Powell, Robert A. (1991). Christian Hermetic Astrology: The Star of the Magi and the Life of Christ. Hudson: Anthroposohic Press. 
  • Regardie, Israel (1940). The Golden Dawn. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications. 
  • Salaman, Clement and Van Oyen, Dorine and Wharton, William D. and Mahé, Jean-Pierre (2000). The Way of Hermes: New Translations of The Corpus Heremticum and The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius. Rochester: Inner Traditions. 
  • Scully, Nicki (2003). Alchemical Healing: A Guide to Spiritual, Physical, and Transformational Medicine. Rochester: Bear & Company. 

External links

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