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AdsbyProjectWonderful!Youradcouldbehere,rightnow. An Introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum An Introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum by John Michael Greer by John Michael Greer

Thefifteen tractatesof theCorpusHermeticum,alongwiththe PerfectSermonorAsclepius,arethe foundationdocumentsof the Hermetic tradition. Written by unknown authors in Egypt sometime before the end of the third century C.E., they were part of a once substantial literature attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenistic fusion of the GreekgodHermesandtheEgyptiangodThoth.

This literature came out of the same religious and philosophical ferment that produced Neoplatonism, Christianity, and the diverse collection of teachings usually lumped together under the label “Gnosticism”: a ferment which had its roots in the impact of Platonic thought on the older traditions of the Hellenized East. There are obvious connections and common themes linking each of these traditions, although each had its own answer to the major questionsofthetime.

The treatises we now call the Corpus Hermeticum were collected into asingle volume in Byzantine times,and a copy of this volume survived to comeinto the hands of Lorenzo de Medici’s agents in the fifteenth century. Marsilio Ficino, the head of the Florentine Academy, was pulled off the task of translating the dialogues of Plato in order to put the Corpus Hermeticuminto Latin first. His translation saw print in 1463, and was reprinted at least twenty-two times over the next centuryandahalf.

Thetreatisesdivideup intoseveralgroups.Thefirst(CHI),the “Poemandres”, isthe account ofa revelationgiven toHermes Trismegistus by the being Poemandres or “Man-Shepherd”, an expressionof theuniversal Mind.The nexteight (CHII-IX), the “General Sermons”, are short dialogues or lectures discussing various basic points of Hermetic philosophy. There follows the “Key” (CH X), a summary of the General Sermons, and after this a set of four tractates – “Mind unto Hermes”, “About the Common Mind”, “The Secret Sermon on theMountain”, andthe”Letter ofHermesto Asclepius”(CHXI-XIV)-touching onthemoremystical aspectsofHermeticism. The collection is rounded off by the “Definitions of Asclepius unto KingAmmon” (CHXV), which maybe composedof three fragmentsoflongerworks.


ThePerfectSermonorAsclepius,whichisalsoincludedhere, reachedtheRenaissancebyadifferentroute.Itwastranslated into Latin in ancient times, reputedly by the same Lucius Apuleius of Madaurawhose comic-serious masterpiece The Golden Assprovides some of the best surviving evidence on the worship of Isis in the Roman world. Augustine of Hippo quotesfromtheoldLatintranslationatlengthinhisCityofGod, and copiesremained in circulation inmedieval Europe allthe way up to the Renaissance. The original Greek version was lost,althoughquotationssurviveinseveralancientsources.

The Perfect Sermon is substantially longer than any other surviving work of ancient Hermetic philosophy. It covers topics which also occur in the Corpus Hermeticum, but touches on several other issues as well – among them magicalprocessesfor themanufactureofgodsandalongand gloomy prophecy of the decline of Hermetic wisdom and the endoftheworld.


TheCorpusHermeticumlandedlikeawell-aimedbombamid the philosophical systems of late medieval Europe. Quotationsfrom the Hermetic literaturein the Church Fathers (who were never shy of leaning on pagan sources to prove a point)accepted atraditionalchronologywhichdated”Hermes Trismegistus,”asahistoricalfigure,tothetimeofMoses.Asa result, the Hermetic tractates’ borrowings from Jewish scripture and Platonic philosophy were seen, in the Renaissance, as evidence that the Corpus Hermeticum had anticipated and influenced both. The Hermetic philosophy was seenas aprimordial wisdomtradition, identifiedwith the “Wisdomof theEgyptians”mentioned inExodusandlaudedin Platonic dialogues such as the Timaeus. It thus served as a useful club in the hands of intellectual rebels who sought to break the stranglehold of Aristotelian scholasticism on the universitiesatthistime.

It alsoprovided oneof themost importantweapons toanother majorrebellionoftheage-theattempttoreestablishmagicas a socially acceptable spiritual path in the Christian West. Another body of literature attributed to Hermes Trismegistus wasmade upof astrological,alchemical andmagical texts.If, as the scholars of the Renaissance believed, Hermes was a historical person who had written all these things, and if Church Fathers had quoted his philosophical works with approval, and if those same works could be shown to be wholly in keeping with some definitions of Christianity, then the wholestructure of magicalHermeticism could begiven a second-handlegitimacyinaChristiancontext.

This didn’t work,of course; the radicalredefinition of Western Christianity that took place in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation hardened doctrinal barriers to the point that people were being burned in the sixteenth century for practices that were considered evidences of devoutness in the fourteenth. The attempt, though, made the language and concepts of the Hermetic tractates central to much of post-medievalmagicintheWest.


ThetranslationoftheCorpusHermeticumandPerfectSermon given here is that of G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933), originally published as Vol. 2 of his Thrice Greatest Hermes (London, 1906). Mead was a close associate of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder and moving spirit of the Theosophical Society, and most of his considerable scholarly output was brought out under Theosophical auspices. The result, predictably, was that most of that output has effectively been blacklistedinacademiccircleseversince.

This is unfortunate, for Mead’s translations of the Hermetic literature were until quite recently the best available in English.(Theyarestill thebestin thepublicdomain; thustheir use here.) The Everard translation of 1650, which is still in print,reflectsthestateof scholarshipatthetimeit wasmade-which is only a criticism because a few things have been learned since then! The Walter Scott translation – despite the cover blurbon therecentShambhala reprint,this isnot theSir WalterScottofIvanhoefame-while morerecentthanMead’s, is a product of the “New Criticism” of the first half of this century, and garbles the text severely; scholars of Hermeticism of the caliber of Dame Frances Yates have labeled the Scott translation worthless. By contrast, a comparison of Mead’s version to the excellent modern translation by Brian Copenhaver, or to the translations of CH I (Poemandres) and VII (The Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God) given in Bentley Layton’s The Gnostic Scriptures, shows Mead as a capable translator, with a usually solid grasp of the meaning of these sometimes obscuretexts.

There is admittedly one problem with Mead’s translation: the aestheticsofthe Englishtext.Meadhoped,as hementionedat the beginning of Thrice Greatest Hermes, to “render…these beautiful theosophic treatises into an English that might, perhaps, be thought in some small way worthy of the Greek originals.”Unfortunately for thisambition, he was writingat a time when the last remnants of the florid and pompous Victorian style were fighting it out with the more straightforward colloquial prose that became the style of the new century.Caught in thistangle like so manywriters of the time, Mead wanted to write in the grand style but apparently didn’t know how. The result is a sometimes bizarre mishmash in which turn-of-the-century slang stands cheek by jowl with overblown phrases in King James Bible diction, and in which mishandled archaicisms, inverted word order, andpoeticcontractionsrenderthetextlessthangraceful-and occasionally less than readable. Seen from a late twentieth century sensibility, the result verges on unintentional self-parody in places: for example, where Mead uses the Scots contraction “ta’en” (for “taken”), apparently for sheer poetic color, calling upan image of HermesTrismegistus in kiltand sporran.

The”poetic”wordorderisprobablythemostseriousbarrierto readability;it’s agoodrule,whenever thetranslationseemsto descend into gibberish, to try shuffling the words of the sentence in question. It may also be worth noting that Mead consistentlyuses”forthat”inplaceof”because”and”aught”in place of “any”, and leaves out the word “the” more or less at random.

Finally, comments in (parentheses) and in [square brackets] arein Mead’s original;those in are my own additions.

Previous Previous | | Index Index | | Next Next

Index Index | | Introduction Introduction | | The Corpus Hermeticum The Corpus Hermeticum : : I. I. | | II. II. | | III. III. | | IV. IV. | | V. V. | | VI. VI. | | VII. VII. | | VIII. VIII. | | IX. IX. | | X. X. | | XI. XI. | | XII. XII. | | XIII. XIII. | | XIV. XIV. | | XV. XV. | | XVI. XVI. | | XVII. XVII.




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