49. The origin of Hermetism
Certainly, it is not easy to define exactly what was meant by Hermetism over the centuries. In fact, depending on the periods and traditional areas, this term has taken on different meanings. As it has already been pointed out, all the traditions that flourished in the West have had a predominantly cosmological imprint. Prisoners of the unsurpassed conditions of time and space, they have been marked profoundly by continuous changes. Therefore, even in the case of Hermetism, we cannot ignore the historical perspective in order to appreciate its consecutive adaptations. We will therefore proceed to tackle this elusive topic by following its developments throughout history. What is certain is that Hermetism undoubtedly originated from the ancient Egyptian tradition. This was still alive during the reign of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty (323-30 BC), established in the land of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. As we have already illustrated before, a nucleus of Pythagorean-Platonic Greek philosophers had formed in Alexandria, where they became acquainted with Egyptian doctrines, on which they commented in numerous texts after operating a Hellenization of their original symbolic forms.
When Egypt fell under Roman rule, Alexandria became a cosmopolitan centre, a meeting point between different cultures and traditions. Alongside the Hermetic, Neoplatonic and Christian theurgic gnosis, the most diverse forms of syncretism developed, such as the various sects of Christian, Jewish and Chaldean Gnosticism, among others. This does not mean that the authentically Egyptian tradition did not continued to exist, distinguished from the other currents by its exclusive linguistic constituent. Although Hellenized, the traces of the Egyptian tradition remained evident in Hermetism. It represented a traditional science of health, whose practical aspect was expressed by the arts of alchemy and astrology. The most immediate aim consisted in the search for medicine that would allow to achieve longevity or “eternal youth”. Having obtained a healthy and more long-lived body, the initiate could devote himself to more specifically spiritual practices.
To prepare the Elixir of Long Life, it was first necessary to find the Philosopher’s Stone in the inner “cave” of the body or in the underground tunnels and mines of the earth. The stone had the triple power; to lead to longevity and bodily health, to the transmutation of base metals into gold and to the achievement of initiatic wisdom. Originally, this was only a representation of the inner path to be taken in life. In fact, at the moment of death, “[the initiate leaves his] material body to the natural forces of alteration, in the same way that the substance of his bodily senses and the lower faculties return to their respective cosmic sources. Then, the “man” darts himself heavenwards through the planetary spheres, stripping himself of the energies, passions and impulses that derived from them; from the lust of Venus to the craving for wealth of Jupiter, from the wrath of Mars to the insidious lies of Saturn. And so – finally “devoid of the effects of the ensemble of the spheres” and of the fatality determined by the configurations of the celestial zodiac – he can reach the Eighth Heaven and continue even further. He can surrender himself to the divine “powers” and become himself a dúnamis, a specific “power” of the upper world, being definitively reborn in God.”
It is evident that Hermetism originally represented a path of knowledge of the non-Supreme (sskrt. Aparabrahma vidyā), with strong characteristics comparable to the Indian śākta Tantrism. In fact, the initiatic power evoked in the quotation was personified by the goddess Isis, the divine maiden (Kóre). Kóre in Greek also indicates the eye pupil, the window through which the soul perceives external objects; while in the heavens, Isis corresponds to the Moon. From the reading of the hermetic texts elaborated in the 2nd and 3rd century AD it is clear, however, that the doctrinal expression was not matched by any alchemical methodical technique of similar loftiness. In fact, the attainment of knowledge (or gnosis) of reality beyond its illusory appearances – that is to say true immortality – remained a mere chimera, since no reference was ever made to any method other than the ritual one. Therefore, true gnosis is lowered to the degree of relative immortality (sskrt. āpekṣika amṛtatva), in a state of permanent association with the divine light.
The Great Work, or Magnus Opus, the process of realization offered by the alchemical method, begins with the blackening, or nigredo, the initiatic death under the guidance of Anubis, the jackal God of death; follows the whitening, or albedo, a ritual purification based on a complex symbolism, whose guiding divinity is Isis. Finally, the reddening, or rubedo, in which the rituals are internalized following the lead of Osiris. The three phases are represented by the celestial bodies Saturn, Moon and Sun and by the metals lead, silver and gold. However, all attention is focused on Isis and her redundant cosmological symbolism. It should also be considered that even rubedo, which allegedly represents the transmission of the entire Egyptian priestly knowledge, is called “work” (sskrt. karma). Therefore, the transition from Egyptian tradition to Hermetism has led to the loss of the ars sacerdotalis (sskrt. brahma jñāna). This explains in which sense the alchemical ars regia must be understood.
There is another further consideration to be made to answer the question of how an initiatic path of the non-Supreme could have been transplanted from one tradition to another; namely, from the Egyptian tradition to the Greco-Roman, the Hebrew, the Christian, and the Islamic ones. The fact is that although the Corpus Hermeticum alludes to direct meditation (aliṅga upāsanā), the alchemical method never goes beyond the symbolic level. The meaning of symbols is never explained, giving to the hermetic texts their characteristic involute, impenetrable and artificially mysterious aspect: hermetic, indeed.
After the first Alexandrian flowering, Hermetism migrated, then, to other traditions, no longer as a complete way of the non-Supreme, but resizing itself to become a particular science and art. Only by taking the form of a craft way can a particular science be transferred and integrated into a complete tradition. Medicine, pharmacopoeia, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, metalworking, carpentry, weaving, pottery, tailoring, etc., do not need the connotation of a defined traditional form. Arts and crafts are integrated into a tradition by the simple fact that they operate on objects composed of the five elements and therefore are shared by everyone regardless of the faiths professed. In this process of adaptation and self-limitation, Thoth, the Egyptian Deity who oversaw the intermediate sciences and whom the Greeks recognized as equivalent to their God Hermes, was transformed into a human figure.
It was called Hermes Trismegistus (lat. Mercurius Termaximus), the ‘thrice-greatest Hermes’; while the Gods Isis and Osiris, in this perspective, changed into his first two human disciples. According to this new version, Hermes Trismegistus would have been an Egyptian prophet contemporary of Moses, or somewhat more ancient. Thanks to his self-realization, he had succeeded in transcending any contingency, meeting the God ‘shepherd of men’, Poimandres, and in receiving His knowledge. In this way, starting from the 3rd century, Hermetism gradually changed its appearance incorporating itself into monotheisms. The very texts, the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, took on a form that imitated the prophetic literature of the Bible, thus masking its Egyptian priestly origin.
In the aftermath of the Theodosian decrees (380 AD), which declared the illegality of pagan cults throughout the Roman Empire, Hermetism further adapted to the new circumstances. However, this adaptation did not only imply the limitation of the doctrinal scope described above, but leaned more on the Theurgy, which the previous hermetic gnosis had used as a support to its method. Christianized Hermetism gradually lost its initiatic content to decline towards magic, with the drafting of horoscopes, the manufacture of amulets and talismans, and the search for the creation of gold to acquire wealth. The decline worsened due to the hostility of Christian Churches towards magic of pagan origin. It is in this larval form that Hermetism was transmitted to the early Middle Ages.
Gian Giuseppe Filippi