Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great) was the Hellenistic Greek name for the Egyptian god of wisdom and letters, Thoth, who was identified with the Greek Hermes or Roman Mercury. In antiquity a vast literature of magic, astrology, alchemy, philosophy, and theology (perhaps better "theosophy") was associated with his name. In a narrower sense the Hermetic literature consists of three groups of philosophico-religious materials that originated in Egypt and were first written in Greek, not, as was once thought, in Egyptian. Though the dating of none is certain, it seems safe to assign them to the 2nd and 3rd centuries a.d. with the possibility that some are even earlier. They do not all stem from the same author, though they have a common religious viewpoint. Hermeticism should not, however, be thought of as a school or sect.
Classification of Hermetic writings. The first group of 18 writings, libelli, mostly in the form of dialogues between Hermes and one of his sons, Tat, and with Asclepius, is found in manuscripts dating from the late Middle Ages and is called the Corpus Hermeticum. It has sometimes been named after the first treatise in it, the Poimandres, which does not mention Hermes but is clearly Hermetic. This name probably reflects, not the Greek ποιμὴν ἀνδρ[symbol omitted]ν, "shepherd of men," but the Coptic p-eime-n-rē, "the knowledge of the Sun-God." Poimandres is presented as a semi-divine figure, "the mind of the sovereignty."
The second part of the Hermetic literature is the Asclepius, a treatise once erroneously assigned to Apuleius and preserved among his works. It is extant in Latin, in which it was known and cited by St. Augustine. Fragments of the Greek original also survive under the title Λόγος τέλειος. The third group of writings is a large collection of excerpts and citation preserved in the works of Stobaeus, including the revelations of Isis called the Κόρη κοσμο[symbol omitted].
To this literature we must add several works in Coptic translation that have appeared in Codex VI of the Chenoboskion manuscripts. One of these is a more archaic version of part of the Asclepius [J. Doresse, "Hermès et la Gnose. A propos de l'Asclepius copte," Novum Testamentum 1 (1956) 54–69].
Evaluation. The Hermetic writings represent on one side the confrontation of Platonic and Stoic philosophy, and on the other the mingling of Greek ideas with Eastern religions, including Judaism. The whole constitutes what can best be described as a pagan form of visionary Gnosticism. The Hermetica contain many resemblances to Philo (e.g., the notion of a Logos) and to Christianity, especially to the Fourth Gospel (God as Life and Light, the cosmic role of the Logos, the idea of rebirth, etc.), but most modern scholars deny any direct influence in either direction with regard to either source. Despite some polytheistic and strongly pantheistic passages, the Hermetic writings evidence a doctrine of one transcendent God, who is all good, the Father and Creator of all. The Genesis account of creation is adapted in the Poimandres and elsewhere, and sometimes intermediaries such as Nous and the Logos are involved in the process. Salvation for man consists in knowledge (gnosis) of God, the world, and men, i.e., of the Hermetic doctrines. This knowledge leads to liberation and ultimate divinization, characterized as rebirth in Corpus Hermeticum XIII.
See Also: chenoboskion, gnostic texts of; gnosticism.
Bibliography: Texts (very freely emended) and tr. w. scott and a. s. ferguson, eds., Hermetics 4 v. (Oxford 1934–36). Texts (critical ed.) and Fr. tr. a. d. nock, ed. Corpus hermeticum tr. a. j. festugiÉre, 4 v. (Études bibliques Paris 1945–54). r. m. grant, Gnosticism: A Sourcebook (New York 1961) 209–233. Studies. a.j. festugiÉre, La Révélation d'Hermés Trismégiste, 4 v. (Études bibliques, Paris 1944–54). c. h. dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London 1935; reprint 1954) 99–248; The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, Eng. 1953) 10–53. h. jonas, The Gnostic Religion (2nd ed. Boston 1963) 147–173. w. kroll, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 8.1 (1912) 792–823. h. gundel, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 21.1 (1951) 1193–1207. g. van moorsel, The Mysteries of Hermes Trismegistus (Utrecht 1955).
[g. w. macrae]