Exegesis Volume 07 Issue #059

In This Issue:

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] a conclusion to the mythistory of Hermes

Exegesis Digest Mon, 06 May 2002

From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] a conclusion to the mythistory of Hermes
Date: Tue, 7 May 2002 06:42:26 +1200

This concludes a review of the mythistory of Hermes. My process of elucidating the Mercury archetype loosely follows the structure of Antoine Faivre's book. It effectively creates a dialectic, in which the focus oscillates between archetypal Mercury and mythical Hermes.

"Hermes was born from a secret union of Maia and Zeus." Maia was daughter of Atlas the Titan, and is one of the Pleiades. [All quotations from "The Eternal Hermes: from Greek God to Alchemical Magus", A Faivre, 1995.]

The author quotes a 17th century alchemist writer that "Mercury's mother Cybele (or Maia) is the `nurse' mentioned in the *Emerald Tablet*, where the text runs *nutrix ejus terra* ("its nurse is the earth"), Cybele having this meaning in Greek. The messages of the gods which Mercury carries day and night are his circulation in the vessel during the entire course of the work". Likewise, "the tuning of the instruments which Mercury invented indicates the proportions, weights and measures" of the materials of the Magistery and the degrees of fire. The psychopompic function attributed to him "signifies nothing other than the dissolution and coagulation, fixation and volatilization of the material of the work"."

"There is no lack of books attributed to Hermes. At about the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was being compiled, Manetho reported 36,525 books, and Seleucus, 20,000! lamblichus, towards 300 CE, suggested a more modest number. The testimony of Clement of Alexandria is instructive, as, writing in the same period as Manetho, he describes a contemporary Egyptian religious service. First appeared the cantor, who had to be able to recite by heart two of the books of Hermes, one containing hymns to the gods. He was followed by a celebrant who carried a palm branch and an instrument for measuring time, who must always have in his memory the Astrologumena of the four books of Hermes that treat of the planets. Clement enumerates "forty-two indispensable books of Hermes", of which thirty-six had to be known by heart by certain officiants "because they contain all the wisdom of the Egyptians", while the pastophoroi (bearers of the images of the gods) had to know the other six, which were medical, "treating the constitution of the body, maladies, organs, remedies, the eyes, and questions relating to women."

"None of these texts have come down to us. The presence of medical writings is especially interesting in view of the fact that Thoth was known for his medical activity: this could have suggested that Isis should have used him to help resuscitate Osiris. When Thoth also became an astrologer, namely at the time when astrology came into vogue in Egypt, books on this science were attributed to him, and not just medical ones." The author comments that the crediting of Thoth/Hermes with multiple authorship denotes the common perception of him as "historical personage". "A 12th-century text attributes to him a *Golden Bough* and a treatise on the astrolabe, while in the Renaissance the astrolabe is often given him as an attribute." The astrolabe was the early technology for measuring stellar altitudes, and thus time at night. "At the same time he did not only teach astrology and alchemy, but also magic.."

The "theme of the revelation of a book or a stele by fortuitous discovery is widespread in the literature of all lands. The revelation may take place in the course of a dream or ecstatic state, or an encounter with a god, or through a sign from heaven. But the name of Hermes is more often linked to the kind obtained from discovering an old book, hidden like a treasure.. This topos flourished in the Syriac, and even more in the Arabic, alchemical writings. Especially popular among the Arabs was the discovery of the document in a tomb: thus the first Hermes, who lived before the Deluge and foresaw it, built the pyramids in order to deposit the secrets of science there before the world was destroyed. This is how the Pseudo-Manetho makes the gnosis go back to the books which he has found in the adyta of the Egyptian sanctuaries where the second Hermes, father of Tat, hid them after writing them. In the *Kore Kosmou*, Hermes, before returning to heaven, engraved and hid his teachings, "so that every generation born after the world would have to search for them". One of the first Arabic texts of this genre, the *Book of Crates*, which dates at the earliest from the sixth century, is fairly typical. The influence of that Arabic literature on Medieval Latin Hermeticism persuades me to include this extract from it: "I suddenly felt myself swept up into the air, following the same path as the sun and the moon. Then I saw in my hand a parchment entitled ... : *That which repels the darkness and makes the light to shine*. On this parchment were drawn figures representing the seven heavens, the image of the two great shining stars, and the five wandering planets which follow a contrary path. Each heaven was surrounded by a legend written in stars. Then I saw an ancient one, the most comely of men, seated at a lectern; he was clothed with white raiment and held in his hand a board of the lectern, on which was placed a book. In front of him were wonderful vessels, the most marvelous I had ever seen. When I asked who this ancient one was, I was told: "He is Hermes Trismegistus, and the book that is before him is one of those that contains the explanation of secrets that he has hidden from men. Remember well all that you see, and retain all that you read or hear, to describe it to your fellow men after you."""

"Settling in Egypt from 640 onwards, the Arabs found manuscripts and inscribed tablets in the pyramids. The Arabic manuscripts mention the edifice Abou Hermes at Memphis, in which Hermes (the father of Thoth!) was reputedly buried; it comprised two pyramids, one for him and one for his wife. In the 10th century, all the conditions were therefore present for the elaboration of tales of the discovery of a tablet of instruction in a tomb of Hermes, while at the same time alchemy had become fashionable among the Arabs. One of these revelations is called *The Treasure of Alexander*: an Arabic treatise on astrology and alchemy, it also contains reflections on the microcosm and the macrocosm, talismans, and mentions Hermes as well as Apollonius of Tyana."

"The short but very celebrated text of the *Emerald Tablet* belongs to this literature. Compared to the long narrative of *The Treasure of Alexander*, its brevity makes it seem, in Julius Ruska's words, like "a grain of sand beside a mountain." It was E. J. Holmyard who discovered the oldest known version, which dates from the 8th century: it was inserted in a text of the Arab Geber, called *The Elementary Book of Foundation*, which was certainly translated from the Greek. Without presenting a full scenario, this mentions Balinus, i.e. Apollonius of Tyana, as having discovered an engraved tablet in the hand of Hermes. Thus it is the first known document which mentions an inscription on an emerald tablet, found in a tomb of Hermes. Apollonius's appearance in this kind of story is almost natural: he had long been familiar through the account of his life by Philostratus (170-230 CE), which was widely distributed - in which, however, there was no mention of Hermes. The stories of this thaumaturge, a rival to Trismegistus in the Hermetic imagination, are largely set in Syria. The idea of placing the tomb of Hermes at Tyana and of having Apollonius discover Hermetic texts there, as happens in several of these narratives, could only have occurred after all precise historical knowledge of him had vanished. We also find the text of the *Emerald Tablet* as the 4th part of another Arabic writing that can scarcely date from before the 12th century, attributed to the Christian priest Sagijus, a fictitious character." This priest gives the following account of Balinas, who penetrated a secret chamber... "I went forward until I reached an ancient man, seated on a golden throne and holding a tablet of emerald in his hand. It was written in Syriac, in the original language, and it read: [here follows the text of the *Emerald Tablet*]." Sagijus comments "such be the plan of Hermes, on whom be the threefold grace of wisdom".

Faivre follows this up... "Syriac was then regarded as the primordial language of mankind, so that if Hermes was supposed to have lived before the Deluge, of course he would have used it!" This Arabic account "is almost identical to the one which we have in the Latin translation of Hugo Sanctalliensis, done in the 12th century. Only the preamble varies substantially. From Hugo's text we learn that Hermes buried these secrets to keep them away from those of insufficient learning, and erected a statue above them."

"Thanks to the rich variety of his attributes and to his intermediary position between myth and the mythic, Hermes Tismegistus fulfilled all the conditions necessary for becoming an axial personality of a philosophical history of the human race. Strabo already said of Mercury that he gave laws to the Egyptians, and taught philosophy and astronomy to the priest of Thebes, while Marcus Manilius went so far as to see in him the founder of the Egyptian religion. These were bold visions, to be taken up again by Dom Perndty in the eighteenth century. The most daring chronologies are sometimes the most interesting ones. We cite two of them. According to Roger Bacon, intellectual history began with a plenary divine revelation, of which the Patriarchs were the beneficiaries. The knowledge thus acquired declined because of the sins of humanity, the invention of magic by Zoroaster, and the corruption of wisdom in the hands of Nimrod, Atlas, Prometheus, Aesculapius, Apollo - and Hermes Trismegistus. Bacon is a noteworthy exception in the gallery of guardians of a tradition in which Trismegistus holds a dominant place. He goes on to say that wisdom, restored with Solomon, suffered a new decline that lasted until Thales and Aristotle put philosophy back on its feet again."

"This term `tradition', much in vogue today, has been current since the last century, and increasingly so since Ren Gu non adopted it in the first half of our own. its underlying idea contains a history that has yet to be written. It seems that the need to conceptualize `tradition' was felt in the sixteenth century, when it went under the name of *philosophia perennis*; and that it was Agostino Steuco, long before Leibniz, who explained with relative clarity what it consists of. Now, it is a remarkable thing that at the very moment it appeared, the name of Trismegistus was inseparably linked to it. Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino prepared the way for Steuco, who called our Mercury the "first theologian," and had him succeeded by Orpheus, who then initiated Aglaophemus into his teachings. Then followed Pythagoras, whose disciple was Philolaus, the master of the divine Plato - in whom culminated aprisca theologia that began with Mercury. The typical list, being the common denominator of a very large number of those proposed in the course of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th, seems to go as follows: Enoch, Abraham, Noah, Zoroaster, Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, the Brahmins, the Druids, David, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Sibyls. Among several authors with interesting views on the subject, we single out that of Symphorien Champier. The chain of transmission varies somewhat from one of his works to another, but generally one finds, in order: Hermes Trismegistus, Asclepius, Zoroaster, Orpheus, Musaeus, Abraham, Moses, Daedalus, Homer, Lycurgus, Solon, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Eudoxus, Democritus, the Magi, the Gymnosophists, the Hebrew Prophets, the Sibyls, the Druids, Plotinus, Numenius, Philo, and Augustine."

"Not the least curious aspect of this version of the Western tradition is its pervasive confusion of the mythological with the real. The need for this distinction had not, in fact, yet been felt, whereas it was thought very important to affirm the existence of an intellectual and spiritual tradition that was unique, or at least relatively homogeneous." This reminds us that the concept of history as `factual' is little more than a century old. For most of history myth and history were indistinguishable, and even today it is often a matter of opinion which is which.

"This need for a chain of authorities manifested most notably at the very same moment as the emergence of what would later be called esotericism, i.e., towards the end of the 15th century. The discovery of the Jewish Kabbalah, especially after the Diaspora of 1492, was one of the major events after which this esotericism lost no time in taking on its specific form. The other one is the rediscovery of the *Corpus Hermeticum*, brought to Florence in about 1460 by Leonardo da Pistoia, a monk returning from Macedonia. The Middle Ages had not known of it, though they did have the *Asclepius*. Ficino translated the *Corpus* almost in its entirety; it was published in 1471, and had no fewer than 16 editions before the end of the sixteenth century, not counting partial ones. Before its discovery, Ficino had conceived the ambition of translating Plato: the insistence of Cosimo de' Medici that he set the Platonic texts temporarily aside, those of the *Corpus* being considered more urgent, is some indication of the tenor of the times."

"In the Renaissance, commentaries on the *Corpus Hermeticum* and texts inspired by it are virtually innumerable. Some authors or publishers attributed to Trismegistus texts and teachings that did not even come from the Alexandrian milieu. The Middle Ages had already practised this kind of amalgam, but now it took on different forms. Texts of iatro-mathematics, for example, were often published under the signature of Trismegistus. Conversely, certain commentators struck out passages that did not please them, calling them interpolations. This was especially the case with the *Asclepius*, which contained passages of magical content, particularly the one about statues, that had already scandalized Saint Augustine. Symphorien Champier, acting as the interpreter of many authors, attributed to Apuleius, or even to Geber, the texts that shocked him by being too theurgical. It was in fact precisely in the periods when Hermetic magic was represented as infamous, e.g., in the Latin countries during the Renaissance, that Hermes Trismegistus was made Apollonian."

"This `Apollonization' of Trismegistus could be seen as an important trait of the imagination of the epoch. It occurs in exemplary fashion in the collection titled *Champ Fleury*, where the author, on the authority of Boccaccio, makes Mercury the messenger of Light (Jupiter). Mercury comes to rescue Io (Letters) from the prison of Argus (Night), the servant of Juno (Wealth), thus putting back into circulation a knowledge that has been blocked by the guardians of the established intellectual order (Argus), and abolishing fruitless hoarding. Thus Mercury represents the new spirit of Humanism. In the same epoch, one can see even in Ficino how Mercury annexes the figure of Saturn and presents himself in the form of a wise old man, bearded like Moses, thereupon identifying himself with Trismegistus! The fortunes of the latter profited greatly in the Renaissance from the general enthusiasm for the god Mercury. Gilbert Durand has enumerated seven appearances of this enthusiasm, or this event, the last of them occurring in the 19th century. Certainly, the 16th century saw Hermes enter the cultural imagination forcibly under his two forms, Mercury and Trismegistus, to the point of serving as a catch-all for a number of derived forms."

"Finally, one of the most striking traits of this influence of Trismegistus in the Renaissance is his irenic aspect: in the circles where Hermes passes, one can be sure that tolerance reigns." The hermetic tradition catered to minds capable of transcending the duality of good/evil, facilitating the escape of the mentally agile from the conceptual prison created by the christian church.

"In 1614, the inevitable happened - and it is astonishing that it happened so late - when a Genevan protestant, Isaac Casaubon, discovered and proved that these Trismegistic texts were no earlier than the first centuries of the Christian Era."

In the 16th century Francois "Rabelais knew Hermes well.. had heard tell of the oracle of Hermes at Pharae. He mentions the Fountain of Mercury in Rome and the mercurial plant described by Pliny. He alludes to the Gallic Mercury, to a statue of the god in solid quicksilver, and several times mentions the relevant planet."

"Hermes Trismegistus obviously possesses several of the essential attributes of this god Hermes: mobility, mutability (eclecticism), discourse and interpretation (hermeneutics), the function of crossroads (tolerance, irenicism). Most important, it seems, is this role of the middle term, held by both figures: Mercury holds the equilibrium between Apollo and Dionysus, while Trismegistus is a catalyst for the union of reason and inspiration, the logos and the Sibyls, history and myth. Omnipresent in certain circles such as the Florentine Academy, he does not even have to appear by name: one can sense his spirit in Botticelli's *Primavera*, at the crossroads of mythologizing academicism and the heights of esoteric inspiration, or in a Ficinian talisman. Like Hermes-Mercury, he runs between various currents, linking the separate, skimming over oppositions while stealing their substance, so as to get the Chariot moving, which is the Seventh Arcanum of the Tarot. He is *medicurrius* or *medius currens*, as Saint Augustine and Servius said, while suggesting their own interpretations as given above, hence "he who runs between two" or "in the middle": a fluid place, occupied by an ungraspable personage. But he is not a kind of quicksand or devourer, nor a figure of pure fiction like the masonic Hiram, whose role is merely to function inside a narrative (but with whom he has sometimes been identified). As the place of theosophic, astrological, and alchemical convergences - as the binder of cultural epochs and currents - Trismegistus has been adorned with human and spiritual dimensions according to the requirements of a tradition which he readily symbolizes. Certainly Mercury is more than a messenger - one can see in him a `conductor' - but it is far more to Trismegistus, who is not merely the Medieval pharmacist attentive to the virtues of the peony, that is due the role of `regenerator'. The passage from the first to the second, from Olympus to history, corresponds to a fruitful form of reverse euhemerism."

"The gods would remain invisible without our aptitude to receive them. Their luminous source passes through various channels, or mirrors, thanks to which they become intelligible to us. The Hermetic works are one of the mirrors of Hermes-Mercury, who signs them as "Hermes-Trismegistus," the figure who holds the armillary sphere." The armillary sphere, as the dictionary tells us, was the physical model of the cosmos used in those days to show the motions of the heavenly bodies.

One presumes, then, that the symbolic meaning of such illustrations was that Hermes symbolizes the route to (or agency of) planetary/stellar information, and thus functions as the channel for cosmic wisdom.

Dennis Frank


End of exegesis Digest V7 #59

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