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3.3.4 Hermeticism

The gods worshiped during the Hellenistic period (the Eleusinian Gods and Goddesses, Dionysus, Isis, etc.) continued to exercise their influence long after they were banned in the 4th century AD. Hellenistic philosophy (Stoicism, Cynicism, Neo-Aristotelianism, Neo-Pythagoreanism, and Neoplatonism) provided key formulations for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophy, theology, and mysticism through the 18th century. Hellenistic magic, theurgy, astrology, and alchemy remained influential even after the Renaissance; they drew their inspiration from the Hellenistic mystery cults, Hermeticism (Greco-Egyptian astrological, magical, and occult movement), and Gnosticism. Theosophy and other forms of the occult, Christian, and Muslim sectarian groups continued the theologies of many of the Hellenistic religions (especially dualistic modes of thought). Many of the symbols and legends associated with Hellenistic deities persisted in folk literature. The basic forms of worship of both the Jewish and Christian communities were heavily influenced in their formative period by Hellenistic practices, and this remained fundamentally unchanged to the present time. Finally, the central religious literature of both traditions -the Jewish Talmud, the New Testament, and the literature of the early Church Fathers- are characteristic Hellenistic both in form and content. The best-known Hermetic documents, HERMETICA, are works of revelation on occult, theological, and philosophical subjects. The author is said to be the Egyptian god Thoth (Greek Hermes Trismegistos or Hermes the Thrice-Greatest), who was believed to be the inventor of writing and the patron of all the arts dependent on writing. The collection, written in Greek and Latin, probably dates from the middle of the 1st to the end of the 3rd century AD. They are of two types:

  • “Popular” Hermeticism, which deals with astrology and the other occult sciences
  • “Learned” Hermeticism, which is concerned with theology and philosophy.

From the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century, popular Hermetic literature received little scholarly attention. More recent study has shown that its development preceded that of learned Hermeticism, and that it reflects ideas and beliefs that were widely held in the early Roman Empire. They are therefore significant for the religious and intellectual history of the time. In the Hellenistic age there was a growing distrust of traditional Greek rationalism and a breaking down of the distinction between science and religion. Hermes-Thoth was but one of the gods and prophets to whom men turned for a divinely revealed wisdom. In this period the works ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos were primarily on astrology; to these were later added treatises on medicine, alchemy (Tabula Smaragdina [“Emerald Tablet”], a favourite source for medieval alchemists), and magic. The underlying concept of astrology -that the cosmos constituted a unity, and that all parts of it were interdependent- was basic also to the other occult sciences. To make this principle effective in practice, it was necessary to know the laws by which the parts of the universe were related. As these laws could not be discovered by ordinary scientific methods, divine revelation had to be brought in. The aim of Hermeticism, like that of Gnosticism, was the deification or rebirth of man through the knowledge (gnosis) of the one transcendent God, the world, and men. The theological writings are represented chiefly by the 17 treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum, by extensive fragments in the writings of Stobaeus, and by a Latin translation of the Asclepius, preserved among the works of Apuleius. Though the setting of these is Egyptian, the philosophy is Greek. The Hermetic writings, in fact, present a fusion of Eastern religious elements with Platonic, Stoic, and Neo-Pythagorean philosophies. It is unlikely, however, that there was any well-defined Hermetic community, or “church”. Hermeticism was popular with the Arabs, and through them it reached and influenced the West. There are frequent allusions to Hermes Trismegistos in late medieval and in Renaissance literature. As an alternative interpretation of man’s fatal involvement with time, the tragedy of the human situation has also been explained in terms of the soul’s involvement with the physical universe. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is taught that, by accepting the physical world as reality, the soul becomes subject to the process of time. Concentration on the soul’s involvement with matter as being the cause of the misery of human life has generally stemmed from a dualistic view of human nature.

The drawing of a sharp distinction between spirit and matter has lead to the conclusion that spirit (or soul) is intrinsically good and of transcendent origin, whereas matter is essentially evil and corrupting. Through his body, man is seen to be part of the world of nature, sharing in its processes of generation, growth, decay, and death. How his soul came to be incarcerated in his corruptible body has been a problem that many myths seek to explain. Such explanations usually involve some idea of the descent of the soul, or its divine progenitor, from the highest heaven and their fatal infatuation with the physical world. Salvation has thus been conceived in this context as emancipation from both the body and the natural world. In Gnosticism and Hermeticism, and in the teaching of St. Paul, deliverance was sought primarily from the planetary powers that were believed to control human destiny. Hermes was a Greek god, son of Zeus and Maia; he is often identified with the Roman Mercury and with Casmilus or Cadmilus. The earliest centre of his cult was probably Arcadia, where Mt. Cyllene was reputed to be his birthplace. There he was especially worshipped as the god of fertility. Both in literature and cult Hermes was constantly associated with the protection of cattle and sheep, and he was often closely connected with deities of vegetation, especially Pan and the nymphs. In the Odyssey, however, he appears mainly as the messenger of the gods and the conductor of the dead to Hades. Hermes was also a dream god, and the Greeks offered to him the last libation before sleep. In many respects he was Apollo’s counterpart; like him, Hermes was a patron of music and was credited with the invention of the kithara, and sometimes of music itself. He was also god of eloquence and presided over some kinds of popular divination. The sacred number of Hermes was four, and the fourth day of the month was his birthday. In the myth of Osiris, Thoth protected Isis during her pregnancy and healed the eye of her son Horus, which had been wounded by Osiris’ adversary Seth. He weighed the hearts of the deceased at their judgment, and reported the result to the presiding god, Osiris, and his fellow judges. Thoth’s sacred animals were the ibis and the baboon. The Greeks identified Thoth with their god Hermes and termed him “Thoth, the thrice great” (Hermes Trismegistos).  Hermes Trismegistos, the Greek name for the Egyptian god Thoth, was the reputed author of treatises that have been preserved. Thoth was the scribe of the gods, the inventor of writing, and the patron of all the arts dependent upon writing. These treatises are not exactly mystery texts, but they are works of revelation on occult subjects and on theology. Because the pagan mysteries had no official creed, each congregation of initiates was free to construct a theology of its own, and to change it again. The Hermetic writings were attempts to provide a theology for a particular community; the texts give an instructive picture of spiritual life in mystery communities.

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