Hermes Trismegistusand HERMES TRISMEGISTUS (Ἑρμῆς and Ἑρμῆς Τρισμέγιστος), the reputed author of a variety of works, some of which are still extant. In order to understand their origin and nature, it is necessary to cast a glance at the philosophy of the New Platonists and its objects. The religious ideas of the Greeks were viewed as in some way connected with those of the Egyptians at a comparatively early period. Thus the Greek Hermes was identified with the Egyptian Thot, or Theut, as early as the time of Plato. (Phileb. § 23; comp. Cic. de Nat. Deor. 3.22.) But the intermixture of the religious ideas of the two countries became more prominent at the time when Christianity began to raise its head, and when pagan philosophy, in the form of New Platonism, made its last and desperate effort against the Christian religion. Attempts were then made to represent the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians in a higher and more spiritual light, to amalgamate it with the ideas of the Greeks, and thereby to give to the latter a deep religious meaning, which made them appear as a very ancient divine revelation, and as a suitable counterpoise to the Christian religion. The Egyptian Thot or Hermes was considered as the real author of every thing produced and discovered by the human mind, as the father of all knowledge, inventions, legislation, religion, &c. Hence every thing that man had discovered and committed to writing was regarded as the property of Hermes. As he was thus the source of all knowledge and thought, or the λόγος embodied, he was termed τρὶς μέγιστος, Hermes Trismegistus, or simply Trismegistus. It was fabled that Pythagoras and Plato had derived all their knowledge from the Egyptian Hermes, who had recorded his thoughts and inventions in inscriptions upon pillars. Clemens of Alexandria (Strom. 6.4. p. 757) speaks of forty-two books of Hermes, containing the sum total of human and divine knowledge and wisdom, and treating on cosmography, astronomy, geography, religion, with all its forms and rites, and more especially on medicine. There is no reason for doubting the existence of such a work or works, under the name of Hermes, at the time of Clemens. In the time of the New Platonists, the idea of the authorship of Hermes was carried still further, and applied to the whole range of literature. Iamblichus (De Myst. init.) designates the sum total of all the arts and sciences among the Egyptians by the name Hermes, and he adds that, of old, all authors used to call their own productions the works of Hermes. This notion at once explains the otherwise strange statement in Iamblichus (De Myst. 8.1), that Hermes was the author of 20,000 works; Manetho even speaks of 36,525 works, a number which exactly corresponds with that of the years which he assigns to his several dynasties of kings. Iamblichus mentions the works of Hermes in several passages, and speaks of them as translated from the Egyptian into Greek (De Myst. 8.1, 2, 4, 5, 7); Plutarch also (De Is. et Os. p. 375e.) speaks of works attribute to Hermes, and so does Galen (De Simpl. Med. 6.1) and Cyrillus (Contr. Jul. 1.30). The existence of works under the name of Hermes, as carly as the second century after Christ, is thus proved beyond a doubt. Their contents were chiefly of a philosophico-religious nature, on the nature and attributes of the deity, on the world and nature; and from the work of Lactantius, who wrote his Institutes chiefly to refute the educated and learned among the pagans, we cannot help perceiving that Christianity, the religion which it was intended to crush by those works, exercised a considerable influence upon their authors. (See e. g. Div. Instit. 1.8, 2.10, 7.4, 13.) The question as to the real authorship of what are called the works of Hermes, or Hermes Trismegistus, has been the subject of much controversy, but the most probable opinion is, that they were productions of New Platonists. Some of them appear to have been written in a pure and sober spirit, and were intended to spread the doctrines of the New Platonists, and make them popular, in opposition to the rising power of Christianity, but others were full of the most fantastic and visionary theories, consisting for the most part of astrological and magic speculations, the most favourite topics of New Platonism. Several works of this class have come down to our times, some in the Greek language and others only in Latin translations; but all those which are now extant are of an inferior kind, and were, in all probablility, composed during the later period of New Platonism, when a variety of Christian notions had become embodied in that system. It may be taken for granted, on the whole, thatnone of the works bearing the name of Hermes, in the form in which they are now before us, belongs to an earlier date than the fourth, or perhaps the third, century of our era, though it cannot be denied that they contain ideas which may be as ancient as New Platonism itself.
WorksWe here notice only the principal works which have been published, for many are extant only in MS., and buried in various libraries.
Div. Instit. 7.18), but we now possess only a Latin translation, which was formerly attributed to Appuleius of Madaura. It bears the title Asclepius, or Hermetis Trismegisti Asclepius sive de Natura Deorum Dialogus, and seems to have been written shortly before the time of Lactantius. Its object is to refute Christian doctrines, but the author has at the same time made use of them for his own purposes. It seems to have been composed in Egypt, perhaps at Alexandria, and has the form of a dialogue, in which Hermes converses with a disciple (Asclepius) upon God, the universe, nature, &c., and quite in the spirit of the New Platonic philosophy.
EditionsIt is printed in some editions of Appuleius, and also in those of the Poemander, by Ficinus and Patricius. The latter editions, as well as the Poemander, by Hadr. Turnebus, contain:
Ποιμάνδρης, or Poemander (from ποιμήν, a shepherd, pastor) seems to have been chosen in imitation of the ποιμήν, or Pastor of Hermas [HERMAS], who has sometimes even been considered as the author of the Poemander. The whole work was divided by Ficinus into fourteen, but by Patricius into twenty books, each with a separate heading. It is written in the form of a dialogue, and can scarcely have been composed previous to the fourth century of our era. It treats of nature, the creation of the world, the deity, his nature and attributes, the human soul, knowledge, and the like; and all these subjects are discussed in the spirit of New Platonism, but sometimes Christian, oriental, and Jewish notions are mixed up with it in a remarkable manner, showing the syncretism so peculiar to the philosophy of the period to which we have assigned this work.