Hermes Trismegistus
 Siena Cathedral, floor mosiac

CORPUS HERMETICUM (Hermetic Books). A collection of Greek and Latin religious and philosophical writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (‘Hermes the Thrice-Greatest’), a later designation of the Egyptian God, Thoth, who was believed to be the father and protector of all knowledge. Hermes (or Mercurius as he was sometimes called in Latin) was variously regarded as a predecessor, teacher, or relative of Moses; and in some legends was identified with Moses.  Thus these texts were regarded as a "secret wisdom" confided only to spiritually advanced sages of remote antiquity.

In fact the hermetic texts are a gnostic collection considerably later than both Judaism and Christianity, dating from between the middle of the 1st and the end of the 3rd cents. AD.  They represent a fusion of Platonic, Stoic, Neo-Pythagorean, and eastern religious elements, including Judaism and possibly early Christianity, and imitate in form the Platonic dialogues. The aim of their mystic teaching was the deification of man through ‘gnosis’, i.e. the knowledge of God and the secrets necessary to ascend through the heavenly spheres after death. The most important of the writings, Poimandres, contains much cosmological and astronomical teaching and describes the ascent of the soul to God through the seven spheres of the planets.

The Greek texts were gathered into a single volume in Byzantine times, and came to Florence during the 15th century through agents of Lorenzo de Medici.  Marsilio Ficino, head of the Florentine Academy was told to defer his translation of Plato in order to make the Corpus Hermeticum available as soon as possible, which appeared in Latin in 1463.  The tremendous enthusiasm of the Florentine Platonists for the hermetic texts was based on their mistaken assumption that these were the "wisdom of Ancient Egypt", a primordial wisdom tradition predating (and thus superior to both) both Judaism and Christianity.  Their Florentine supporters imagined the hermetic texts could therefore be used to counteract Christian scholasticism and to radically reinterpret the history, texts, and theology of both Judaism and Christianity.  The texts also supported and encouraged the practice of magic, describing spells and rituals intended to draw spirits into statues that could be both worshipped and made to serve the purposes of the magician.

Hermetic writings were among the works discovered at Nag Hammadi.

 Corpus Hermeticum, ed. A.D. Nock, with Fr. tr. by A.-J. Festugière, OP (Collection Budé, Paris, 4 vols., 1945–54). Elaborate edn. by W. Scott, Hermetica (4 vols., Oxford, 1924–36), with Eng. introd. and notes, suffers from the editor’s over-drastic emendation of the text. The texts found at Nag Hammadi are ed., with and full introd., by J.-P. Mahè, Hermés en Haute-Égypte (Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, Textes, 3 and 7; Quebec, 1978–82). A.-J. Festugière, OP, La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste (Études bibliques, 4 vols., 1944–54). G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A historical approach to the later pagan mind (Cambridge, 1986). C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1935), pt. 2 (pp. 97–248, ‘Hellenistic Judaism and the Hermetica’); id., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953), pp. 10–53. G. van Moorsel, The Mysteries of Hermes Trismegistus: A Phenomenological Study in the Process of Spiritualisation in the Corpus Hermeticum and Latin Asclepius (Studia Theologica Rheno-Traiectina, 1; Utrecht, 1953); K.-W. Tröger, Mysterienglaube und Gnosis in Corpus Hermeticum XIII (TU 110; 1971); W. C. Grese, Corpus Hermeticum XIII and Early Christian Literature (Studia ad Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti, 5; Leiden, 1979). L. Delatte and others, Index du Corpus Hermeticum (Lessico Intellettuale Europeo, 13; Rome [1977]).

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