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Hermes Trismegistus is an ancient sage whose story is steeped in mystery. Some scholars believe he invented the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, others that he built the pyramids, created the Greek alphabet and even wrote the Chinese divinatory book of I Ching. To early Christians, he was a great savant, who preceded Moses and received revelations from God. In wider terms he is often seen as the founder of civilisation, the creator of medicine, law, mathematics and philosophy. He is accredited as the author of the foundational mystical writings known as the Hermetica. The Christian saint and theologian, Clement of Alexandria, attributed forty-two books to him in total although some academics suggest the number may run into the tens of thousands. The name Trismegistus means ‘thrice great’. It refers to Hermes knowledge of the three essential aspects of universal wisdom: astrology, alchemy and magic. The key to unravelling the mystery of Hermes Trismegistus is to be found in Hellenistic Egypt.
For many modern esotericists, Egypt is the birthplace of ancient mysticism and hidden wisdom. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. During his nine year reign he established the city of Alexandria. The bustling metropolis quickly developed into an economic powerhouse. It became an academic and cultural centre. Numerous religious cults rubbed shoulders with each other. Differing beliefs and practices intermingled in Alexandria’s syncretic melting pot. Over time, the Greek god Hermes became associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. This was a perfectly natural interconnection as both were gods of writing who aided travellers on the journey to the afterlife. It was from the union of these two divinities that Hermes Trismegistus was born.
The most famous work in the Hermetica is called the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. This book seeks to reveal universal truths through the exploration of subjects such as astrology, alchemy and immortality. It is in the Emerald Tablet that the reader first encounters the phrase ‘as above, so below.’ This refers to the principle of correspondences between the physical, mental and spiritual planes. The Hermetica also contain the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum. These explore the nature of divinity and the cosmos. Some scholars consider these to be the most important works in the collection. Although attributed solely to Hermes Trismegistus, the Hermetica are believed to have been authored by a number of anonymous adepts.
It is from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus that the doctrines of Hermeticism have developed. Hermeticism is a spiritual tradition involving a journey to higher consciousness through the development of inner awareness. The hermetist seeks what is termed as ‘gnosis’. This is an elemental oneness with the cosmos, a consciousness of an ultimate reality that is inexpressible in words. Gnosis is founded on the principle that the inner self is an aspect of the divine.
The writings of Hermes Trismegistus have formed the foundation for much of modern esoteric thought. Hermetic wisdom attests to the existence of a prisca theologia. This is the doctrine that a fundamental truth was given to humanity by the divine and that fragments of this truth have been scattered among all religions. The influence of Hermes Trismegistus still remains today and interest in him has had something of a resurgence. Hermetic principles can be seen in movements such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the esoteric Christian Martinists and modern New Age groups. Whatever we might think about this mysterious figure, his influence on our notions of spirituality remains powerful.
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