Hermeticism is based on the teachings of a mysterious man named Hermes Trismegistus. He is portrayed as a wise teacher, a powerful magician, and a skilled mystic. He has been seen as a teacher of Moses, the inventor of alchemy, and the founder of occult schools throughout history.
Hermes Trismegistus is a composite of several mythological figures. He arose in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where the mishmash of Hellenistic and Egyptian culture bred dozens of interesting cults, religions, and deities. Early on, the Hellenistic deity Hermes became associated with the Egyptian deity Thoth.1 Both were inventors of writing and gods of magic. Both were also psychopomps, responsible for guiding souls in the afterlife. As a result, over the centuries they became identified with each other and were even worshiped together in certain Egyptian temples. In fact, Khmun, the Egyptian center for the cult of Thoth, became known as Hermopolis under the Ptolemies.
Because of this, Hermes Trismegistus, as a legendary teacher of magic and mysticism, was probably a humanized syncretization of Hermes and Thoth. His legacy has been immense.
Even though Hermes Trismegistus was a mythical figure, many ancient writers wrote about him as if he was a real person. This produced disagreements and confusion. At some point, it began to be assumed that there were two Hermes. In Asclepius, Hermes Trismegistus talks about his grandfather:
Is it not true that my grandfather Hermes, after whom I am named, resides in his eponymous town whence he aids and cures all those who come to him from every land?
This passage indicates that the Grandfather Hermes is in fact identical with the deity Hermes, residing at Hermopolis.3 Ancient writers invented additional Hermes to fill in the gaps. In fact, it could be that the title “Trismegistus” refers to many great Hermes characters, a line of sages and mystics bringing the Hermetic teachings to humanity over many generations.4
Astrologer, Magus, Alchemist
The Hermetica that we read and write about most often are not the only ancient books ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Multiple important early works on astrology were also attributed to the legendary sage. The link between Hermes and astrology is also clear in the Hermetic fragments of Stobaeus. The Greek magical papyri and texts such as the Cyranidi make it clear that Hermes Trismegistus was seen as a master of thaumaturgy, demonology, and other magical arts. Finally, Hermes is also the legendary source of alchemy, through such works as the Emerald Tablet and the works of Zosimos of Panopolis.5
Many Roles for a Legend
It is clear that the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus has served many purposes. Perhaps, like other legendary personalities, his real meaning is to be determined by each of us individually. As Hermeticism focuses on the experience of gnosis, it could be that Hermes Trismegistus himself is a concept that needs to be personally experienced to be fully understood.
Ebeling, Florian. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern times. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. 6-7. ↩
Salaman, Clement, trans. Asclepius: The Perfect Discourse of Hermes Trismegistus. London: Duckworth, 2007. 94. ↩
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 28-9. ↩
Lachman, Gary. The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus: From Ancient Egypt to the Modern World. Floris Books, 2011. 16-8. ↩
Ebeling. 21-7. ↩