Exegesis Volume 07 Issue #058

In This Issue:

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] the mythistory of Hermes; a review

Exegesis Digest Sat, 04 May 2002

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] the mythistory of Hermes; a review
Date: Sat, 4 May 2002 20:16:51 +1200

This is a review of the mythistory of Hermes, somewhat more in-depth than the earlier summary. My process of elucidating the Mercury archetype has followed the structure of Antoine Faivre's book. It effectively creates a dialectic, in which the focus oscillates between archetypal Mercury and mythical Hermes. [All quotations from "The Eternal Hermes: from Greek God to Alchemical Magus", A Faivre, 1995.]

"The title of this study calls, at the outset, for a precise definition of what is meant by myth, the mythical, and confluence. I use `myth' in the sense understood by anthropology, by comparative religion, and by formalistic and figurative structuralism. A myth is a metahistorical and foundational story concerning the origin, nature, and end of things; or, as is the case here, it is a story, generally initiatic, which features one or more divine heroes. The `mythical' here is everything that is left when explicit reference to the gods is omitted. Examples are literary myths such as those of Don Juan, Faust, Tristan and Isolde, who are not divine personages but belong to our own world; or the mythical in cities or in society, as treated by such as Pierre Sansot or Michel Maffesoli. `Confluence' designates the place of transition between myth and the mythical. Myth necessarily makes use of our own space and time, which favors the transition into the latter, hence into history, of the gods of mythology. Thus Hermes came to leave Olympus and descend from the *illo tempore* of myth to occupy an intermediate space and time under the name of Hermes Trismegistus, and sometimes even to come right down to earth where, as Hermes the god of crossroads, he at least seems less out of place than his peers."

"We are not concerned here with the presence of Hermes within ourselves, on the psychological plane, though others have spoken of him in this fashion, such as Ginette Paris, Jean Bolen, Willia G. Doty, and James Hillman. Mine is the more limited goal of gathering from the documents certain moments at which Hermes has been seen to leave Olympus and pass into the mythical realm, as defined above. Certainly the myth, as Gilbert Durand has recalled it, does not always carry Hermes's proper name; but this will enable us to pinpoint the confluence, the place where two Mercuries become distinguishable and rejoin, or separate and fuse together: they are respectively the Mercury of mythology, and an Egyptian priest of some historical substance: on the one hand, the god of the caduceus; on the other, Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the writings called the Hermetica."

"Considered as a mythical place, the city of Hermopolis deserves a lengthy study. We know that the local divinity of Khmonou (the modern Achmouein) in Middle Egypt was Thoth, called Hermes by the Greeks and credited with the role of *urbis conditor*, founder of the city. The tradition vacillates between identifying this personage with the god Hermes and with Hermes Trismegistus, a significant ambiguity which points to the meeting-place of Myth with History." Using several literary and cinematic sources, the author expands on "imaginal modes in which the god and the city have linked roles: (A) Hermes as *urbis conditor*, ruling from the heights the city which he has built and which he links to the cosmos and the archetypal world.. Utopias are projected into the future, not the past, but this city is, like them,static, its structure and symbols conferred on it by the divine image. (B) Hermes as initiator in the labyrinthine and expressionistic city.. psychopomp *par excellence*, favoring ruses and disguises.. an esoteric teaching: an `orientation' - an Orient - is possible thanks to the deciphering of the signs, helped by the best of guides. (C) Hermes exiled.. it is up to us to discover the discreet presence of mythological figures beyond the greyness and the misery of our real and figurative cities. (D) The transient Hermeses, degenerate or reduced to the role of tricksters in the mutable and mobile city.. the passing from a state of Fall to a Redemption or reintegration.. a process of metamorphosis based on myth.. Myth is the founder of all culture.. without it, a humanity that has forgotten its lost civilisation cannot make a new beginning."

"The Greeks are known to have given the name of Hermes to Thoth, a local divinity of Middle Egypt, worshipped at Khmonou (now called Achmounein), which they renamed Hermopolis. The assimilation of Thoth to Hermes had become official by the third century BCE, as attested by a decree of the priests of Rosetta (196 BCE): a Hermes in whom Thoth is to be understood under the name of Hermes the Great, the god who helped Horus to reconquer the Delta. From this point onwards, it seems justifiable to see resemblances between Thoth-Hermes and Hermes-Trismegistus. There is nothing fortuitous about their sharing a name in common: Thoth was the magician-god who appeared to Isis while she was trying to bring the members of Osiris back to life; he was also the "hypomnematographer" or secretary of the gods. Even today, Trismegistus has kept this dual function of assembler and maintainer, in an eclecticism inseparable from the Western notion of esotericism, and as the guarantee of a tradition."

"There is another striking connection. A little after the decree of 196 BCE, the Jewish writer Artapan assimilated Thoth-Hermes to Moses. The historian of Alexandrian Hermetism, A.-J. Festugiere, noticed this same amalgam reappearing in the 8th century CE with Cosmas of Jerusalem, and I will be citing some other comparable instances. This process of transition, by which a god slips into a historical personality, also occurs in the reverse direction: it seems in part to be the result of the activities credited to Thoth-Hermes. Hecateus of Abdera, who calls him Osiris's secretary, attributes to Hermes the invention of writing, astronomy, music, the games of the palaestra, eurhythmy, the three-stringed lyre, the cultivation of the olive - and interpretation. Not long after, taking his inspiration from Hecateus, Artapan tells us more: besides writing, Thoth-Hermes "taught the Egyptians navigation, the lifting of stones with cranes, weapons, water pumps, war machines, and philosophy"! In this way, the attributes gradually come together to make up a mythical figure: Hermes Trismegistus. Although it seems that one cannot say exactly when this figure became distinct from Hermes-Mercury, Artapan (circa 200 BCE) is an important reference point."

"In addition to this, there was in Egypt from perhaps the third century BCE an esoteric literature in Greek, particularly astrological, part of which seems definitely to have been ascribed to Hermes. This must imply the god Hermes, whose patronage may have increased the prestige of such texts. The Egyptian name of Thoth was such as to confer on them a more mysterious or occult flavor than that of Hermes-Mercury, already so evocative. Thus books of philosophy or theosophy under the name of Hermes could have been in circulation from the first century CE and perhaps even before, though it seems to have been from the third century onwards that they received serious attention. The point in common of all these Hermetic writings or Hermetica, treating astrology, alchemy, and theosophy, is that they present themselves as scriptures revealed by Hermes, who under the name of Hermes Trismegistus puts his definitive stamp - though not without ambiguity - on the so-called "philosophical" Hermetica written in the Delta in the second and third centuries CE. Essentially this means the collection known as the *Corpus Hermeticum*, plus the *Asclepius* and the Fragments known as Stobaeus's. The eighteen treatises of the *Corpus* are variously addressed: some by Hermes to his son and disciple Tat; others by Hermes to his disciple Asclepius and to other disciples; yet others, including the *Poimandres*, by the god Nous (Supreme Intellect) to a personage who may be Hermes, though this name does not appear here, nor in some other treatises. In these theosophic Hermetica, Hermes plays the role of initiator, being the epitome of a master of wisdom. The authors have introduced him not only to adorn their gnosis with the patina of antiquity, but also out of a need to link their doctrine to a sacred tradition."

"The author of the twenty-third Fragment of Stobaeus (*The Sacred Book of Hermes Trismegistus*, called "*Pupil of the World*" or *Kore Kosmou*, sometimes published under the title *The Virgin of the World*) describes the court of the Lord, maker of the universe, before mortals lived on the earth. Hermes appears there as "the soul [psyche] who possessed the sympathetic link with the mysteries of heaven: that is what Hermes was, who knew all things" (an interesting passage, recalling the biblical Book of Wisdom 7.17ff. and 9.11). God calls Hermes "soul of my soul, sacred intellect of my intellect." But the text does not explain the precise status of this `soul' or this `intellect' which constitute Hermes. It seems to be a case of one of those *psychai* that are not discarnate souls, but a sort of composite organism: probably a subtle body, since Hermes, Isis, and Horus accomplish acts that require a body. In any case, Hermes enjoys a privileged place among these entities, for it is he whom God sends to this lower world to teach it, to make known the gnosis and to abolish agnosia (i.e., voluntary ignorance, whereas *agnoia* is accidental ignorance), by addressing certain select disciples who, like him, are of divine origin - seeing that the earth was so far inhabited only by divine beings: Tat, Asclepius, Imouthes, and Hermes himself. These disciples, destined to perpetuate the Hermetic gnosis in obedience to the divine will, are not really celestial gods, but also not ordinary men, since humanity only appears later. It is more a matter of celestial emanations on the earth, charged with a divine mission, who will return to heaven when their task is done, as is generally told of Isis and Osiris."

"The beautiful text of the *Kore Kosmou* adds to this mission of Hermes another one: the Lord, having asked him to assemble the other gods in order to discuss the plan for creating mankind, then asks him to take part in this creation: "As for me, said Hermes, I declare that I will not only create the nature of mankind, but I will make them the gifts of Wisdom, Temperance, Persuasion, and Truth, and will give myself ceaselessly to Invention; moreover, I will always assist the mortal life of men born under my signs (for the signs attributed to me by the Father and Creator are at least sensible and intelligent), and all the more so, when the movement of the planets that rule them shall be in accord with each one's natural energy.""

"In this context, it is the planet Mercury who speaks, and as such it is not different from the other six planets. Nevertheless, it is tempting to interpret this text in the sense that Hermes found himself designated by the Master of the universe as his steward and administrator, even to the point of being the principal actor, after the supreme God, on the anthropogonic stage (as also in the text of the Strasburg Cosmogony), while Adrastea, the goddess with piercing eyes, is appointed `watcher' of the universe. Hermes is therefore a god, or a soul, or a *psyche*, that has come down as the first divine emanation, while Isis and Osiris represent the second emanation, also sent into this world to teach mankind. But Isis and Osiris were able to teach only because they had rediscovered the writings to which Hermes had consigned his gnosis."

"Since Hermes has a progeny, it is difficult to tell in each text which Hermes is intended, and which of them can be identified as Trismegistus. At every epoch, the documents seem to contradict each other. But if the number of Hermeses is variable, and if their identity is unstable, their number is three by definition whenever it is a question of the Trismegistus(es). This inclines to connect the latter with the tricephalus or three-headed Mercury (*tricephalos*, *triplex*), thus named to suggest his belonging to the three worlds: celestial, terrestrial, and infernal or subterranean. The epithet also evokes the three-sided stones erected on roads where three routes meet, which is natural enough, considering that Mercury is a god of the crossroads. Mercury has moreover been depicted with a three-pointed golden wand. Trismegistus, for his part, is "thrice great," *trismegistos* resulting from the marriage of a superlative in the repetitive Egyptian style, as in "great, great" (*megas*, *megas*). At the end of the third century CE, this superlative was translated into Greek, with reference precisely to Hermes, by the superlative pronounced three times."

"However, the coupling of "Hermes" with "Trismegistus" is rarely met with outside the Hermetic texts, that is, scarcely before the 2nd century CE. One cannot fail to associate this epithet with the alchemical ternary. In fact, an Alexandrian alchemist who saw Hermes as the first master of the Work, read his name as indicating that the operation should be done according to a three-fold ontological activity. The *Suda* (=Suidas) recognized it as the sign of the Trinity, an idea supposedly brought to mankind by Hermes. Bernard of Trevisan (*Liber de secretissimophilosophorum opere chemico*, 15th century) detects in it an allusion to the three realms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. In a treatise dated 1736 and published under the pseudonym of Pyrophilus, one reads that this number is an allusion to the three alchemical principles of salt, sulphur, and mercury. it is most often interpreted as meaning `great philosopher, priest, and king'."

Like most esoterica, this tradition may simply be speculation and the recycling of arbitrary correspondences. I reproduce it simply to demonstrate the consistency in the references to ternaries, to serve the hypothesis that the primary Mercury function is a trinity at the archetypal level.

"Trismegistus is a fictional personage who nonetheless "authored" some important books; his status is ambiguous precisely because he stands at the confluence of myth and the mythical. He is both the precipitation of Mercury into history, and the return of the historical to Olympus. These fluctuations, or if one prefers, this double movement, favors an open genealogy and the presence of more than one Hermes." One could also deduce a general principle: that any dialectic produces results on account of the third (tacit) component of the process. I refer to the mediating relation that performs the fluctuation between the two observables. This seems to be the main functional operation conducted by Hermes that we have identified in the tradition.

We can see that Hermes as historically represented embodies this function. He fluctuates between myth and history. It is true that, to a historian, he is not verifiably historic. From a cultural point of view, however, as we have seen, it suffices that he was generally believed to be historic. In terms of societal impact, therefore, his mythistorical fluctuation made him a more potent god, because it induced a collective dialectic in the mass mind.

"The most `classic' genealogy of Hermes in the Hellenistic era was set down in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. It begins the series of Hermeses with Thoth, who engraved his knowledge on stelae, then hid them. His son was Agathodemon, sometimes credited with the editing of his father's teachings, and their conservation. The son of Agathodemon was the second Hermes, who later, in the second century CE, was often called Trismegistus - although this word is not always enough for his certain identification in the succession of Hermeses. Lastly, the son of Trismegistus was Tat. Nothing is more uncertain than divine genealogies: one even finds Isis as a daughter of Hermes, according to traditions handed down by Plutarch. And however `classic' the above succession may be, it can only serve in certain cases. Cicero, in *De natura deorum* (Ill, 22), enumerates no fewer than five Mercurys: the son of Heaven and Light; the son of Valens and the nymph Phoronis; the son of Jupiter and Maia; the son of Nilus. The fifth, called "Theyt," is the one whom Cicero seems to intend as Trismegistus, for he says of him: "He is the one worshipped by the Pheneatae (in Arcadia) and who is said to have slain Argus, for which he fled to Egypt and there taught the Egyptians laws and writing." Lactantius later speaks of the son of Jupiter and Maia, but also of the son of Bacchus and Proserpine, and the son of Jupiter and Cyllene!"

"Relying on different sources still, Saint Augustine in the *City of God* makes Mercury the great-grandson of a contemporary of Moses: "In [King Saphrus's] time Prometheus (as some hold) lived, who was said to make men out of earth, because he taught them wisdom so excellently well, yet there are no wise men recorded to live in his time. His brother Atlas indeed is said to have been a great astronomer, whence the fable arose of his supporting heaven upon his shoulders: yet there is an huge mountain of that name, whose height may seem to an ignorant eye to hold up the heavens. And now began Greece to fill the stories with fables ... Some of the dead kings were recorded for gods, by the vanity and customary superstition of the Greeks ... and in these times also lived Mercury, Atlas's grandchild, born of Maia his daughter: the story is common. He was a perfect artist in many good inventions, and therefore was believed (at least men desired he should be believed) to be a deity. Hercules lived after this, yet was he about those times of the Argives: some think he lived before Mercury, but I think they are deceived. But, howsoever, the gravest historians that have written of them avouch them both to be men, and that for the good that they did mankind in matter of civility and other necessaries to human estate, were rewarded with those divine honors. (Civ. Dei. XVIII, 8)"

"In the same *City of God*, Augustine suggests an etymology for the name `Mercurius' which he says means *medius currens* (running in the middle), "because language 'runs' like a sort of mediator between men." Elsewhere he returns to the genealogy of Hermes with a reprise of the above, which interests us for two reasons. First, Augustine is a euhemerist in that he sees outstanding human acts (on whose historical reality he casts no doubt) as the origin of the Greek gods; thus Mercury now ascends from humanity to Olympus, whereas before we saw him descend thence to incarnate into a mythical personage. Augustine leaves open the question of whether Hermes Mercury and Hermes Trismegistus were originally one and the same personage, but one has the impression that he thinks so, and that he thinks it a human being. He cites the discourse of Hermes to Asclepius (a text contained in the *Asclepius*), where the latter is presented as the grandson of another Asclepius or Aesculapius. The grandfather is buried in a temple "on a mountain of Libya, not far from the bank of the crocodiles", but from heaven "he now assures the sick of receiving through his superhuman power all the succour which he was wont to give them through his medical art." It is on this occasion that Hermes actually introduces himself to Asclepius as the descendant of another Hermes: "Hermes, my ancestor, whose name I bear..." (compare the quotation above). Saint Augustine comments: "This was Hermes, the elder Mercury, buried (they say) in Hermopolis, the town of his sumame. Behold now, here are two new gods already, Aesculapius and Mercury; for the first, the opinion of both Greeks and Latins confirms it. But the second many think was never mortal: yet he says here that he was his grandfather, for this is one and that another, they both have one name. But this I stand not upon: he and Aesculapius were both made gods from men, by this great testimony of his grandson Trismegistus." In other words, Trismegistus is the grandson of the divine or human Hermes of Hermopolis. One can see how the shift took place: it is this very ancestor whom many other authorities attest to having been Trismegistus, and not the descendant who talks with Asclepius."

"The other reason for our interest in the genealogy of Hermes as presented by Augustine is that it would serve more or less as a prototype in the following centuries, copied in this form or presented in a more or less fragmented or contradictory fashion. The book believed to be the earliest Latin work on alchemy, dated 1144, includes a preface by the translator from the Arabic original (Robert of Chester), who writes: "We read in the ancient histories of the gods that there were three Philosophers who were all called Hermes. The first was Enoch, whose names were also Hermes and Mercury. The second was Noah, also called Hermes and Mercury. The third was the Hermes who ruled Egypt after the Deluge and long occupied that throne. Our predecessors called him Triplex by reason of his threefold virtue, bestowed on him by God. He was king, philosopher, and prophet. It was this Hermes who after the Deluge was the founder of all the arts and disciplines, both liberal and mechanical.""

"From the 13th century, we call on three witnesses. The *Summa Philosophia*, sometimes attributed to Robert Grosseteste, tells us that Atlas had a nephew called Mercury, whose grandson was our hero. The author repeats Saint Augustine's statement, adding to it from other sources. Daniel of Morley distinguishes between "two most excellent authorities," the "great Mercury" and his nephew "Trismegistus Mercurius". Lastly, a Hermetic text that roughly repeats this information adds that the third Hermes was the first to provide an explanation of astronomy. Naturally all this recurs at the Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino is followed by many other authors, including Ludovico Lazarelli. The latter tells us that Moses was born in *anno mundi* 2374 (1598 BCE): [At that time] "there flourished a most expert Astrologer named Athlas, the brother of Prometheus, a man much esteemed in Physics, and ancestor on the maternal side of the great Mercury, whose nephew was Mercury Trismegistus the present ambassador, surely a man of singular and memorable virtue, a most noble and excellent Mathematician, as Saint Augustine has fully told... The Egyptians called the first month of the year by his name. They also dedicated to him all the books which they wrote, calling him the inventor of all things, prince, and author of wisdom and eloquence. Likewise he built a city, which to this day bears his own name and is called Hermopolis.""

There appears a certain irony that Saint Augustine, usually promoted by Catholics as their all-time greatest theologian, not only concedes the significance of the hermetic tradition, but also documents what we have seen is a primary archetypal function of Mercury!

(to be continued)

Dennis Frank


End of exegesis Digest V7 #58

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