In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.
In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.
The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch, Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.
The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.
Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.
The Emerald Tablet
1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.