HERMES TRISMEGISTUS (“Thrice-greatest Hermes”)
This name is a Greek adaptation of an Egyptian title, Thoth the Very Great, the Egyptian god-name Thoth being translated from at least the time of Herodotus to the Greek Hermes. The literature associated with Hermes Trismegistus is known as the Corpus Hermeticum and comprises some seventeen writings of diverse origin and authorship. There are also a discourse of Hermes to Asclepius, Hermetic writings in the anthology of Stobaeus, and miscellaneous fragments.
This literature is generally thought to have originated in Egypt between the second century B.C. and the third century A.D. Scholars have attempted to show connections with Egyptian religion, Hellenistic mystery religions, gnosticism, Christianity, and even Iranian and Far Eastern religions. There is no consensus regarding such relationships, although most agree that there was some type of Hermetic community and cultic activity associated with the literature. The theology of the Corpus Hermeticum is diverse and not easily subjected to systematic analysis.
The first tractate, “Poimandres,” is an apocalyp- tic theogony, including the creation of the world and a Gnostic account of salvation. Most of the following tractates are discourses or dialogues with two disciples, Asclepius and Tat, concerning metaphysics, ethics, salvation, and related themes. Tractate 13 is a dialogue on rebirth, and some have seen Christian influences in that particular writing. The last tractate is an essay on music and musicians, emphasizing their role in praising God.
The Latin Asclepius text contains a book of Hermes Trismegistus given to Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon. The setting is a sanctuary in which the four men were inspired and Hermes discoursed on various theological matters, including creation, the cosmos, man, salvation, and immortality.
The Hermetic excerpts in the anthology of Stobaeus likewise contain dialogues between Hermes and Tat and between Hermes and Ammon on the subjects noted above, together with miscellaneous teachings of Hermes. There are lengthy passages recorded by Hermes as discourses of Isis to Horus, and they are cast into apocalyptic dialogues relating to heavenly councils, creation, reincarnation, and the salvation of the souls of men.
Throughout the Corpus Hermeticum, elements of the pre- Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle mingle with Gnostic, Jewish, and Christian ideas prevalent at the time of the composition of the tractates. No undisputed connection exists between the Hermetic literature and Egyptian Christianity during its first three centuries, but Egyptian Christian leaders quoted widely from these documents from the fourth century onward.
- Grese, W. C. Corpus Hermeticum XIII and Early Christian Literature. Leiden, 1979.
- Mead, G. R. S. Thrice-Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Being a Translation of the Extant Sermons and Fragments of the Trismegistic Literature, with Prolegomena, Commentaries, and Notes, 3 vols. London, 1949.
- Nock, A. D., and Festugière, A.-J. Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols. Paris, 1954-1960.
- Reitzenstein, R. Poimandres. Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen Literatur. Leipzig, 1904.
- Scott, W., ed. and trans. The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings Which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, 4 vols. Repr. Boston, 1985.