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 adaptations1. 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 before2, 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 constituent3. Although Hellenized, the traces of the Egyptian tradition remained evident in Hermetism4. It represented a traditional science of health, whose practical aspect was expressed by the arts of alchemy5 and astrology6. The most immediate aim consisted in the search for medicine7 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 wisdom8. 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.”9

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 objects10; while in the heavens, Isis corresponds to the Moon11. From the reading of the hermetic texts elaborated in the 2nd and 3rd century AD12 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 light13.

The Great Work, or Magnus Opus, the process of realization offered by the alchemical method, begins with the blackening, or nigredo14, 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 Osiris15. 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 science16 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 elements17 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 knowledge18. 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 Trismegistus19, took on a form that imitated the prophetic literature of the Bible, thus masking its Egyptian priestly origin20.

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 origin21. It is in this larval form that Hermetism was transmitted to the early Middle Ages.

Gian Giuseppe Filippi

  1. From Cosmos to Chaos,“5. The Historical Approach”.
  2. From Cosmos to Chaos, “27. The esoterism-exoterism separation in the primitive Church”.
  3. The use of Egyptian and hieroglyphics instead of Greek language. Thanks to the ecumenical spirit of the Roman rule, the Egyptian initiation was present in all the main cities of the Roman Empire, starting from its very capital. Apparently, it took the mysteric forms known by the name of Mysteries of Isis and Osiris. However, although non-Egyptian subjects were admitted, these initiations cannot be defined as hermetic yet, being genuinely administered by priests from Egypt. Apuleius in his Metamorphoses (XI) testifies to the presence of an Egyptian priestly college had been established in Rome since the time of Sulla.
  4. Academic scholars of Hermetism, affected by classical prejudice, tend to downsize its Egyptian origin, unable as they are to conceive other civilizations, other than the Hellenic one, worthy of being considered such. However, it would be sufficient to consider the three phases of the hermetic initiation, the ‘work’ in ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘red’, to recognize its authentic source. Let’s take another important component of the hermetic doctrine as an example, namely the distinction between the ‘dry way’ and the ‘wet way’. Far from representing the initiatic and mystical way, they refer to what in Hinduism are called devayāna and pitṛyāṇa. In the Book of the Two Ways, one of the many texts on the post mortem of Egyptian antiquity, a category of souls immediately after passing away, goes through the heat of the desert to reach the immortal kingdom of Horus, from which ‘will no longer return’. Another category of souls, however, rises in the air in the form of water vapour. These vapours are pushed by the winds towards the south, going up the Nile towards its sources, until reaching the mythical mountains of the Moon (the Castle of the Moon). After having settled there in the kingdom of Osiris, the dead god or dead’s King, the souls of the dead, condensed in the form of clouds, with the change of the wind return to the land of Egypt, precipitating with torrential rains and causing the flood of the Nile. With the flood, the souls of the dead return to the earth where they are reborn (Eadweard Khimsc (Ed. By) The Egyptian Book of the Two Ways, Tricase (LE), Youcanprint, 2014). This doctrine, very similar to what King Pravahaṇa taught to Āruṇi (BU VI.2.2 et seq.; CHU V.3.4 et seq.), Also explains why Hermetism is considered a Royal Art.
  5. By science one must understand a doctrine (sskrt. vāda) and with art its method (sskrt. prakriyā). Thus, even the Indian health science of Āyurveda, among its various practices features that called rasa vidyā, or Indian alchemy, which is often assisted by the vedāṅga jyotiṣa, that is astrology.
  6. It is a method based on the powers of the different celestial bodies, of which the judicial astrology of horoscopes is a secondary and exterior application altogether.
  7. This medicine, starting from the Middle Ages, was defined elixir, word taken from al-´athir, Arabic corruption of the Byzantine ‘ether’ (αἰθήρ, read aithīr). Some argue that it derives from the other Arabic term al-iksīr, ‘essence’, of uncertain etymology.
  8. Julius Evola, La Tradizione Ermetica, Roma, Ed. Mediterranee, 2006, pp. 61-62. Besides the imaginary symbolic descriptions, even the Philosopher’s Stone actually had to be forged in the cavity of the alchemical furnace, the athanor (arab. at-tannūr). Titus Burckhardt, Alchemie, Sinn und Weltbild. Olten, Walter Verlag, 1960, ch. XIII. If we include the Forgerons et Alchimistes by Mircea Eliade (Paris, Flammarion, 1950) to the works of Evola and Burckhardt, one will soon realize how exceedingly easy it is to get lost in the mazes of symbology. While dealing with the same subject, the three authors only manage to express their individual inclinations. For Evola, Hermetism is heroic magic; for Burckhardt, it is a borrowing from Sufism, defined in a suspect way as “spiritual alchemy” (an occultic expression indicating sexual magic); for Eliade, it is the experience of the blacksmiths’ shamanic trance!
  9. Davide Susanetti, La via degli dei, Roma, Carocci, 2017, p. 222.
  10. La via degli dei, cit., p. 227.
  11. This concept corresponds exactly to the puruṣa (or viśva) in the eye, identified in the heavens in the Sun (Virāṭ) of the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad Śaṃkara Bhāṣya (I.III). However, the hermetic point of view differs from the Vedāntic one in one important detail: it replaces the God with the Goddess, the sun with the moon. As already mentioned, this closely resembles the Hindū Śaktism, in whose perspective the active entity is the Śakti, while the God Śiva appears inert; idea that is expressed iconographically by the Goddess dancing on the God’s lifeless body. Also in the ancient Egyptian tradition Isis was the dynamic divinity, while his consort, Osiris, was a dead God. This is another detail that reinforces the hypothesis of an archaic Indian origin for a current of the Egyptian tradition, which has already been mentioned on this Site (From the Order to the Chaos, “8. Atlantis: other sources (II)”).
  12. André-Jean Festugière O.P., La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 4 voll., Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1950-1954, I vol. pp.85-88.
  13. La via degli dei, cit., P. 223. “… to attain this second kind of knowledge, which is the result of certain upāsanās [meditations] aiming at achieving identification (abhimāna) with a particular divinity, it is necessary that the zealous disciple strives continually to contemplate that devatā [divinity] as an object of meditation (upāṣya viṣaya), preventing the interference of any idea, thought, feeling and emotion.Svāmī Satcidānandendra Sarasvatī, La Via della Conoscenza e le altre Vie, Milan, Ekatos Ed. Pr., 2019, p. 51. This is the description of meditation beyond the symbol (aliṇga upāsanā).
  14. In Coptic (late Egyptian), black was called kem-it. From this term comes the Arabic al-kīmyā´. Kem-it, the ‘black earth’, was also the name of Pharaonic Egypt.
  15. Note the inversion of the white and red colours with respect to the order of the Sāṃkhya’s guṇas. The latter appears doctrinally more correct, being black the absence of colour, white the concentration of all colours, and red a median one.
  16. In this case, the term ‘science’ meant the doctrine that had taken the form of a ‘natural philosophy’, so as not to conflict with revelation-based theology. As will be seen later, the split of science from art, that is to say from method, will really give birth to a theoretical philosophy or speculation. Hermetic philosophy substituted the absence of the method with ceremonial magic, prudently redefined Theurgy and Angelology. We are, therefore, witnessing here the first signs of the faith-science fracture that has undermined western intellectuality.
  17. It would more accurate to say four, as for hermetists the fifth element had changed into a mysterious elixir that one aspires to obtain artificially.
  18. La via degli dei, cit., pp. 219-221.
  19. These texts are a collection of works from different sources and eras, harmonized and certainly reworked by the alchemist Zosimos (3rd-4th century AD), the most learned representative of the Alexandrian hermetic gnosis.
  20. In fact, Lactantius repeatedly affirmed that Hermes Trismegistus was a pagan prophet who had foretold the coming of Jesus, son of God (Divinæ Institutiones, I.6; IV.6; VIII.18). On the contrary, Saint Augustine severely condemns Hermes as a magician and summoner of pagan Gods (De Civitate Dei, VIII.23-26).
  21. A serious blow was inflicted with the closure of the Academy of Athens decided by Emperor Justinian in 529. This measure was motivated precisely to hit certain pre-Christian and magical resurgences that posed a threat to Christianity.