Hermes Thrice-Blessed, or Roman Priests of Who?

By Kenneth Hite

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When looking at the rules and supplements to Ars Magica, one becomes aware of two great truths. The first is that the authors have put together an incredibly good role playing game that captures perfectly the feel of medieval magic, especially as seen through our 20th-century lenses. The second is that the authors have no idea who "Hermes" is, in the context of medieval magic.
They seem to think that what is referred to as the "Hermetic tradition" descends from the worship of the Greek god Hermes through the cult of his Roman eidolon Mercury to the post-Roman survivals of knowledge in the Middle Ages.
This is incorrect. The "Hermetic tradition" of Western magic, which is one of the most powerful forces in the "underground stream" of Western culture, has less to do with the Roman god Mercury than it does with hermetic sealing.

The "Hermes" referred to is Hermes Trismesgistos "Hermes the Thrice- Great", who was conflated with the Egyptian god Thoth.
When the Greeks came to Egypt, they were incredibly impressed by the ancient wisdom of the Egyptian priests. So impressed, that they immediately plastered their gods' names all over the older Egyptian ones in the grand old syncretic Greek tradition.
Hence Amon became Zeus-Amon and Thoth, god of letters and sciences, became Thoth-Hermes (since Hermes invented the Greek alphabet, don't you know).

Here is where Game Truth and Historical Truth diverge. In Game Truth (where diseases are caused by an imbalance of humors and the sun goes around the Earth) Hermes Trismesgistos was a very powerful ancient mage. He was _not_ a god. No reputable medieval magus believed in polytheism -- most, like John Dee, were devout (if goofy) Christians. In his writings, collectively called the Corpus Hermeticorum, Hermes describes himself as "Philosopher, Priest, and King". Hence, he was human. An incredibly powerful sorceror, to be sure, but not a god. His exploits included building the Pyramids, designing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, teaching Pythagoras, and generally doing everything worth doing in antiquity. He also invented the Egyptian alphabet and while doing that and building the odd pyramid, became the inspiration for the legends of Thoth. After his death (or occultation) he was worshipped as a god, much as Alexander the Great was. Speaking of Alexander the Great, it was he who discovered the Emerald Tablet (on which was written the whole knowledge of magic in about two paragraphs -- apparently it wasn't what he said, it was how he said it) clenched in the mummified hands of Hermes Trismesgistos him self. Other legends say he discovered it in the hands of the ancient magician Apollonius of Tyana, but since Apollonius as born four hundred years after Alexander died, most scholars doubt this theory. Still other legends say the Tablet was discovered by Sarah, wife of Abraham, which would make Hermes dead before he built the Hanging Gardens. Anyway, the knowledge on the Tablet and in Hermes T's other writings (17 or so known books plus commentary) was what was called "Hermetic Science".

In Real History, the whole thing was faked up about 200 AD by the Gnostic community in Alexandria who were big with the alchemists who lived around there and then.

Either way, the Corpus survived in Greek libraries and later in the Arab world. It was, however, lost in the West except for the hints and allusions that bled through from Arabic contacts. The itinerant occultist adept al-Farabi (890?-954) is described as "Hermetic", and it is likely that the alchemical writings of Geber (721-766), Rhazes (850-924) and Avicenna (980-1036) draw on the _Corpus_ to some extent. The Arab alchemistic writings began to filter into Europe following the Papacy of Sylvester II (999-1003)
and were eventually disseminated such that the legend of Hermes Trismesgistos achieved a certain degree of recognition. The actual Corpus did not become available to the West until 1460, when the documents salvaged from Constantinople surfaced in Florence. Their translation in 1471, by Marsilio Ficino, set off the great explosion of Renaissance magic personified by Dee, Trithemius, Agrippa, and Paracelsus.

This then, in a nutshell, is the "Hermetic Tradition": either the Game Truth (2500 BC Hermes T builds Pyramids, is Thoth, lives until c 550 BC when he finished off the Hanging Gardens, trained Pythagoras, and died in a cave clutching his Emerald Tablet.
Discovered by Alexander, put in Library, alchemists study it, knowledge lost with Fall of Rome, rediscovered in Dark Ages by Vergil/Bonisagus/Aethelstan, spread by Order to this day) or the Real Truth (200 AD Heretical alchemists work out consistent philosophy, ascribe it to mythical figure to get credibility, knowledge survives in alchemical tradition in Arab lands, stored in Byzantium, filters into Europe c900-1250 AD from Spain, Crusades, Sicily, rediscovered in 1471, all hell breaks loose).

This is so much cooler that one wonders why anyone would drag those stuffy old Roman priests into it at all. "Hermetic sealing"
by the way, comes from an alchemical practice named for Guess Who.

As above, so below.
Kenneth Hite, LHN





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