- Hermes Trismegistus
- A collection of pseudonymous Greek treatises, believed during the Renaissance to be a distillation of the learning and religious wisdom of ancient Egypt and attributed to a mythical author named Hermes. Egypt in Hellenistic and Roman times produced a large body of religious and theosophical works and an even greater body of literature dealing with magical and medicinal spells, amulets, and images. Most of these writings were composed in Greek, and they were linked to the Egyptian god Thoth, a deity identified by the syncretistic Greek-speakers with their own deity Hermes. The epithet trismegistos ("thrice-greatest") was frequently applied to this deity, and the writings themselves were either attributed to the god himself or believed to be inspired by him. Although actually composed late in the history of ancient Egypt, contemporaneously with the spread of Christianity, they were believed to contain the secret wisdom of the Egyptian priests, whose beliefs and ceremonies were thought to go back to the very beginnings of human civilization. Strictly orthodox Christians opposed this literature as pagan, but some Christians regarded it as true wisdom, providentially designed by God to prepare the world for acceptance of Christianity.The magical Hermética are usually short texts, often little more than brief incantations. Most of this literature has been lost, but a large body of it still survives in either Arabic or Latin translations. These works were generally feared as having diabolical sources and spiritually dangerous consequences. Far more respectable were the so-called philosophical Hermética, of which 17 treatises (of widely varying philosophical content despite their false attribution to a single author) survive in Greek. One additional Hermetic tract, the Asclepius, of which only a few fragments survive in Greek, had already been translated into Latin by the fifth century, and it had been known to some medieval Latin authors. In addition, a collection of excerpts from other treatises that are now lost survived in an anthology compiled in the fifth century by Stobaeus. Most of the philosophical Hermetica reflected the influence of Neoplatonism on late Egyptian thought, especially in their tendency to denigrate the corporeal aspects of human nature and to glorify the spiritual. Despite their recent origin, they claimed to go back to the very beginnings of human civilization, even to antedate Moses.The revival of Greek studies in 15th-century Italy and the resultant interest in all sorts of Greek literature embraced the Hermetica, in large part because the one text already known in Latin, the Asclepius, was attractive to spiritually inclined Italian intellectuals who sought ancient religious enlightenment that could be fitted into a Christian world-view. In 1462 Cosimo de'Medici provided a Greek manuscript containing 14 of the treatises to his protégé Marsilio Ficino, who was already working on his Latin translation of the works of Plato. Ficino quickly prepared a Latin translation of these 14 tracts, which he labelled Pimander from the title of the first of them. The book was printed in 1471 and frequently reprinted, not only in Italy but also in France, where the influential humanists Symphorien Champier and Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples promoted interest in "Hermes" and published several of the treatises. Their Hermetic themes seemed, at least superficially, to be compatible with Christianity, and the allure of ancient Egyptian wisdom was irresistible. Not until the late Renaissance, in 1614, did the French Protestant humanist Isaac Casaubon apply philological criticism to demonstrate irrefutably the late date and questionable authorship of the Hermética. Even after Casaubon, a considerable but diminishing number of European authors still sought spiritual inspiration from the Hermetic treatises.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.