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Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus

Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus

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by Antoine Faivre, Joscelyn Godwin

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Hermes--the fascinating, mercurial messenger of the gods, eloquent revealer of hidden wisdom, and guardian of occult knowledge has played a central role in the development of esotericism in the West. Drawing upon many rare books and manuscripts, this highly illustrated work explores the question of where Hermes Trismegistus came from, how he came to be a patron of


Hermes--the fascinating, mercurial messenger of the gods, eloquent revealer of hidden wisdom, and guardian of occult knowledge has played a central role in the development of esotericism in the West. Drawing upon many rare books and manuscripts, this highly illustrated work explores the question of where Hermes Trismegistus came from, how he came to be a patron of the esoteric traditions, and how the figure of Hermes has remained lively and inspiring to our own day.

Editorial Reviews

Arthur Versluis
...[A] work of lucid scholarship [that reveals] the full range of Hermes' innumerable manifestations in European history....The figure of Hermes continues to move with ease among what may seem separate worlds, revealing anew the origins of culture, and indeed of meaning itself. —Parabola

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From Greek God to Alchemical Magus

By Antoine Faivre, Joscelyn Godwin

Phanes Press

Copyright © 1995 Antoine Faivre
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-736-1


Hermes in the Western Imagination

Introduction: The Greek Hermes

Just as the daylight penetrates at dawn through every crack and crevice, says the author of the Homeric Hymn, so Hermes slipped silently in through the keyhole of the cavern which gave him birth. How plastic, mobile, and ambiguous is the nature of this god, whose feminine companions are Hermione, Harmonia, and above all Iris, who precedes him with breezy feet and wings of gold! In Greek mythology, Hermes appears as an engaging and complex figure, in forms both mobile and definitive, so that one must first know these myths in order to follow his tracks through the long path of the Western imagination, from the Middle Ages to the present. They are the essential reference, like the omnipresent background of a picture: so familiar, or at least so accessible to us that there is no need here to retell the stories in which Greek Hermes, or Latin Mercury, plays the protagonist, the hero, or a walk-on role. We will just recall some of his characteristics that have been constantly repeated and emphasized from Antiquity to modern times.

Two of these traits stand out from the tangled undergrowth: first, his guiding function, linked to his extreme mobility; second, his mastery of speech and interpretation, warrant of a certain type of knowledge. Virgil, well aware of Mercury's plasticity, describes how the lively messenger of the gods controls wind and clouds with his magic wand, flying through them like a bird. But this traveler does not follow strict or planned itineraries: as Karl Kerényi suggests, he is more of a "journeyer" than a "traveler." Just as the geographical goal of a honeymoon is of little importance, so Mercury wanders about and communicates for the sheer pleasure of it. His route is not the shortest distance between two points: it is a world in itself, made of serpentine paths where chance and the unforeseen may happen. Hermaion means "fallen fruit" or "windfall." To profit from windfalls does not exclude the possibility of giving destiny a slight nudge, through tricks and subterfuges. Thus one sometimes finds Hermes unearthing hidden treasures; and it is only a short step from there to making off with them! "Hermes [Hermaion] in common!" said the Greeks on making a lucky find, just as one says in English "Equal shares all round!" In the same spirit, eclecticism is justified-and plagiarism, too; but "stealing" is not a good rendering of the Greek kleptein, which suggests rather the idea of a ruse, in the sense of a "secret action." (Compare the German word Täuschung, and the charming verb verschalken.J And is not hermeneutics all about bringing hidden treasures to light?

Hermes, unlike Prometheus, steals things only in order to put them back into circulation. Thus one could speak of his function as psychopomp as encompassing the "circulation" of souls. This function is dual, for Hermes is not content merely to lead souls to the kingdom of the dead: he also goes there to find them and bring them back to the land of the living (cf. Aeneid IV, 242, and many examples from the Middle Ages up to modern times). Through all his varied representations in folklore, art, and literature, the Western imagination has always stressed this relational aspect of Hermes, which is the common denominator of attributes that range from the transition of souls to thievery, also touching on commerce, magic, poetry, and learning.

Athenaeus and others ascribe to Hermes the glory of discovering the arts and sciences, while the Homeric Hymn (verses 25ff. J makes him the inventor of the seven-stringed lyre. He is the master of knowledge, or rather of a means of attaining to a knowledge that may be gnostic, eclectic, or transdisciplinary—or all of these at once. Perhaps he is largely indebted to Plato for this. Not long after the Plutus of Aristophanes, where Hermes appears in a comic role, Plato's Cratylus derives his name from the Greek word for an interpreter: "I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language" (Cratylus 408A, Jowett translation).

This is the only aspect retained by the New Testament, in Acts 14, where the inhabitants of Lystra take Paul for Hermes because they find him a master of words. Thus poets and philosophers also revere him. Virgil's contemporary Horace places himself under the special protection of Mercury. Lucian, in Fugitivi (XXII), shows Hermes accompanying Heracles and Philosophy in their pursuit of the Cynics, because Apollo says that it is Hermes who can best distinguish the true philosophers from the false ones. His is the role of the sage—even a facetious and playful one—rather than the hero: the trait emphasized by the Iliad. The world of that epic is definitely not that of Hermes, who does not even appear there to guide a soul, and keeps himself aloof from all heroic action. He opposes Leto, but dodges aside and will not face her. Zeus sends him to Priam, who wishes to get the body of his son back from Achilles; he is less a messenger than a guide, and it is he who prepares the escape by putting the guards to sleep. Wotan, who was already recognized by the Romans as comparable to Mercury (Tacitus, Germ. IX), also has characteristics of this kind. Furthermore, when this Germanic god finds himself in certain comical predicaments, we sense that Harlequin is not far away: the clown whose stick or wooden sword is nothing but a puny caduceus.

The Thrice-Greatest

Hermes-Mercury's plasticity allowed him to take on a special form at the beginning of our era, bringing out his most serious and least playful aspect. This was his manifestation as Hermes Trismegistus, which remains alive to this day. Two factors seem to have been involved in it. On the one hand, there was the allegorical interpretation of mythology that began with Homeric exegesis in the fourth century BCE, and tended increasingly towards euhemerism. (Euhemerus, third century BCE, saw the gods as actual human beings who were divinized after death.) This led to a belief in Hermes as a historic person who had been divinized: a tendency reinforced by Christian thought, which was resolutely euhemerist from the second century onwards. The second factor was the attraction of Graeco-Roman paganism towards ancient Egypt: part of the need that the Greeks felt for exalting Barbarian philosophy to the detriment of their own. This attraction was reinforced by the existence of a Greek culture in Alexandria, firmly installed on Egyptian soil in the land of pyramids and hieroglyphs. Around the beginning of our era, the Greeks justifiably saw in Thoth the first figuration of Hermes, or even the same personage under a different name. Aided by the euhemerist tendency, Thoth-Mercury was credited with a great number of books—uite real ones—under the general title of Hermetica. Almost all of them were written in Greek, in the Nile Delta region, from just before the Christian Era until the third century; they treat astrology, alchemy, and theosophy. The most famous ones, from the second and third centuries CE, are grouped under the general title of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which the Asclepius and the Fragments collected by Stobaeus have been included. But a more fantastic tradition attributed thousands of other works to Hermes Trismegistus.

The twenty-third Fragment of Stobaeus describes the court of the Lord, the builder of the universe, as it existed before the presence of mortals. Hermes appears there as "soul" (psyche), possessing a bond of sympathy with the mysteries of Heaven; he is sent by God into our lower world in order to teach true knowledge. The Lord commands Hermes to participate in the creation of mankind as steward and administrator. Thus one can see him as the principal actor, after the supreme deity, in the anthropogonic drama. He is a soul that has descended here as the first divine emanation, preceding the second emanation represented by Isis and Osiris, who are also sent to this lower world for the instruction of humanity. Here Hermes is not styled Trismegistus ("Thrice-Greatest"), but the other texts of the Corpus Hermeticum more than suggest that it is he. This is one of the numerous examples of shifting or transition between the figure of the sage Trismegistus, who is a mortal, and the god of Olympus. At this epoch, we have not only a euhemeristic process, but also a reverse euhemerism: Hermes Trismegistus is both the precipitation of Mercury into human history and the sublimation of history to Olympus. These fluctuations, or rather this twofold motion, favors a fluid genealogy and the presence of several Hermeses.

The most classic genealogy, contrived in the Hellenistic era during the third or second century BCE, starts the Hermes series with Thoth, who carved his knowledge on stelae and concealed it. His son was Agathodemon, who himself be gat the second Hermes, called Trismegistus, whose son was Tat. Apollonius Rhodius (Argonautica I, 640f.) tells us that Hermes, through his son Aithalides, was a direct ancestor of Pythagoras. But nothing is more uncertain than divine genealogies. According to the traditions presented by Plutarch, Isis was the daughter of Hermes; while Cicero (De Natura Deorum III, 22) counts no fewer than five Mercurys: the son of Heaven and Day; the son of Valens and the nymph Phoronis; the son of the Third Jupiter and Maia; the son of Nil us, whom the Egyptians will not name; and lastly "Theyt," who slew Argus, says Cicero, and taught the Egyptians laws and writing.

As for Saint Augustine, in the City of God he makes Trismegistus the great-grandson of a contemporary of Moses, and euhemerizes by regarding extraordinary human actions as the origin of Hermes and the other Greek gods. Isidore of Seville (sixth to seventh century), also a euhemerist, devotes many passages of his Etymologiarum sive libri XX to Hermes (e.g., VIII, XI, lff. XI. 45-49), seeing him as a pagan fiction based on the historical existence of a person who invented the lyre, the flute, conjuring and tricks ("Praestigium vera Mercurius primus dicitur invenisse"—"Mercury is said to have been the first inventor of illusions").

Although derivative from Isidore's Etymologia, the Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World of Adon of Vienne bears witness, like many other works, to the significant ambiguity of Hermes, as Mercury and/or Trismegistus. Adon writes: "It is said that in those times there lived Prometheus, who is supposed to have fashioned men out of mud. At the same time, his brother Atlas was considered a great astrologer. Atlas's grandson Mercury was a wise man, skilled in many arts, for which reason, after his death, the aberrations of his contemporaries placed him among the gods" (Migne, Patrologiae Cursus, series Latina CXXIII, col.35). Similarly, the Book of Treasure of Brunetto Latini numbers Mercury with Moses, Solon, Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, and the Greek king Phoroneus, as the first lawgivers to whom humanity is greatly indebted. Hermes-Mercury, in dual form, thus takes his place among the tutelary gods of civilization. Strabo says that he gave the Egyptians their laws and taught philosophy and astronomy to the priests of Thebes; Marcus Manilius goes so far as to see in him the founder of the Egyptian religion. For Jacopo of Bergamo, Minerva was the first woman to know the art of working wool, and Chiron the inventor of medicine; Hermes Trismegistus was the first astronomer, and Mercury the first musician, while Atlas taught astrology to the Greeks. There are similar attributions in Polydore Virgil: from Hermes, we learned the divisions of time, while Mercury taught the Egyptians the alphabet and knowledge of the stars.

The Arabic Idris and the Alchemical Mercury

The name of Hermes, whether or not qualified as Trismegistus, henceforth served as guarantee or signature for a host of esoteric books on magic, astrology, medicine, etc., throughout the Middle Ages, and this despite the fact that, with the exception of the Asclepius, the Corpus Hermeticum was unknown. At the same time, an inspired imagery unfolded in both Latin and Arabic literature in a succession of "visionary recitals" (as Henry Corbin calls them), constellated around this key figure. The ancient belief that Hermes was the founder of a city was much repeated, notably in the Picatrix, an Arabic text probably written in the tenth century, then translated into Latin. We learn there that Hermes was the first to construct statues, with which he was able to control the course of the Nile in relation to the movements of the moon; also a city, whose richly symbolic description has not yet yielded up all its secrets.

This literature, especially the Arabic part, is full of scenarios presenting a personage who discovers in a tomb of Hermes, beneath a stele, revelations of theosophy, astrology, and alchemy. Most of the texts employ the same topos: the First Hermes, who lived before the Deluge, foresaw the coming disaster; before the world was destroyed, he built the pyramids to enshrine the secrets of the sciences. This is the story as told in the Book of Crates, an Arabic text dating at the earliest from the sixth century. These texts, often very beautiful, also bear witness to the important role played by Egyptian local color and Greek influence in the Arab imagination after the coming of Islam to Egypt, that is, from 640 onwards. The short but very famous text of the Emerald Tablet ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus belongs to this literature; it is part of a group of writings in which Apollonius of Tyana rivals Hermes in importance. These two names are sometimes associated, for instance in the extraordinary Book of the Secrets of Creation, written at the latest in 750 and at the earliest in the sixth century.

In the Latin countries, one should mention the romance of Perceval where the hermit named Trevizrent—that is, "threefold knowledge"—reveals the history of the Graal. Modern research has suggested a possible origin of the word "Graal" in the Greek krater (bowl), referring to the Bowl of Hermes of which the Corpus Hermeticum makes mention. Among the Saracen gods there is, moreover, a "Tervagant" who has been identified as our "Hermes ter maxim us," and who appears notably in the Mystery of Barlaam and Josaphat (sixth century).

Hermes has a most significant place in the Islamic tradition. Admittedly, his name does not appear in the Quran; but the hagiographers and historians of the first centuries of the Hegira quickly identified him with Idris, the nabi mentioned twice in the sacred book (19.57; 21.85). This is the Idris whom God "exalted to a lofty station," and whom the Arabs also recognize as Enoch (cf. Genesis 5.18-24). Idris/Hermes is called "Thrice Wise," because he was threefold. The first of the name, comparable to Thoth, was a "civilizing hero," an initiator into the mysteries of the divine science and wisdom that animate the world: he carved the principles of this sacred science in hieroglyphs. (Even the Arabic term for "pyramid," haram, is connected with the name of Hermes, Hirmis.) The second Hermes, who lived in Babylon after the Deluge, was the initiator of Pythagoras. The third one was the first teacher of alchemy. Thus the figure of Hermes links Muslim consciousness with the pagan past; but it is no more graspable than that of our Western Trismegistus. "A faceless prophet," writes the Islamicist Pierre Lory, from whom I have borrowed the elements of this synthesis, Hermes possesses no concrete or salient characteristics, differing in this regard from most of the major figures of the Bible and the Quran.

It is no different in the Corpus Hermeticum, which presents Hermes sometimes as a god, sometimes as a sage, and at other times as a disciple of the Nous or Divine Intellect. According to the Arab tradition, his life is simultaneously physical and transtemporal, after the example of Elijah's, and even in his body he manifests a state of eternity. Pierre Lory recalls that Idris/Hermes is said to have Written poems, particularly odes, in Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac; thus he rises "above sectarian divisions, transcends religious mysteries and chronological time," and speaks "the languages of heaven, of earth, and of man in the integral state, namely Arabic." The Emerald Tablet is known to have been transmitted in that language. Lastly, this personage belongs to a delightful tradition, a magnificent example of the myth of the "redeemed Redeemer": A certain angel, having incurred the divine wrath, had had one of his wings cut off and found himself exiled on a desert island. He went to beg Hermes/Idris to intercede with God on his behalf. After Hermes/Idris had succeeded in this mission, the angel gave him the power to enter Heaven while still living in the Seventh Sphere.

It is scarcely surprising that Hermes, whether or not qualified as Trismegistus, was considered as the founder of alchemy as early as Alexandrian times. Greek, which is to say Alexandrian, alchemy certainly disappeared towards the sixth century, but from the seventh and eighth centuries onwards the Arabs took up the thread. It was their translations of these Greek Hermetic texts that were the main inspiration of the Latin-speaking authors of the twelfth century and after, the period of alchemy's blossoming in Europe. Very many writers on the Great Work, whether Arabic or Latin, even up to the twentieth century, use the name of Hermes or Mercury not only as that of a personage, but, especially in the case of Mercury, to designate a substance or property of things, in expressions like "Mercurial spirit." Mercurius is both the "first matter" and the "last matter," and even the alchemical process itself. As an entity, he is "mediator" and "savior"—C. G. Jung would call him the Mercury of the Unconscious. As the substance of the Arcanum, he is mercury, water, fire, the celestial light of revelation; he is soul, life-principle, air, hermaphrodite, both puer and senex. He is the tertium datum.

Excerpted from THE ETERNAL HERMES by Antoine Faivre, Joscelyn Godwin. Copyright © 1995 Antoine Faivre. Excerpted by permission of Phanes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
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Hades.....whta is going on i ask puzzled
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sweet ive always wanted a bro
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Sorry wrong god um this is ackward you see i like hades but i also love water because i swim all the time ummm yeah ill be at the 10th result if anyone needs me" my face bright red
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. Jeez cant you take a joke
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lucy? Wait she my sister but they do like each other.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Falls back on her bunk bleeding heavily
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have to do a report on hermes i am going to use it for a referance