BMCR 2007.11.04

The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times. Translated from the German by David Lorton

, The secret history of Hermes Trismegistus : hermeticism from ancient to modern times. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Itaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiii, 158 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780801464829. $29.95.

This book is a revised version of Ebeling’s dissertation (the Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann was his supervisor) and it offers a concise history of Hermeticism from antiquity up to and including the twentieth century. It is a wide-ranging subject that is competently covered by the author.

The first chapter begins with a clear declaration of principle: “The eponymous patron of Hermeticism never existed: Hermes Trismegistus was a fiction, a fruitful fiction with lasting effects” (3). This chapter deals with the origins and early history of Hermetic thought and literature in antiquity. Ebeling rightly stresses the variety of ideas within the Corpus Hermeticum and highlights the still undecided debate over the primary background of the Hermetic movement (Egyptian or Greek?).

In chapter 2, E. argues that Hermetic literature was better known the Middle Ages than has often been assumed. The fact that some of the early Church Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, et al.) quoted from Hermetic writings because they admired Hermeticism in that they regarded it as a prelude to Christianity facilitated medieval acceptance of Hermetic ideas, in spite of Augustine’s criticism. “Hermes was understood as a sage, often even as a prophet of Christ, and Plato and his school were seen as a part of Hermes’ tradition” (44). The Arabic accounts of Hermes as rescuer of antediluvian wisdom and science also furthered interest in the Hermetic tradition.

As the next chapter, on the Renaissance, makes clear, a new and powerful impulse to this interest came from the first translation of the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin by Marsilio Ficino (1463). But here E. introduces an important and new distinction. He convincingly argues that in fact from the 15th century onwards there were two currents of Hermeticism in Europe: The Hermeticism of the Italian humanists (Giordano Bruno et al.), which spread from Florence throughout Europe, was based on the Corpus Hermeticum and understood itself as a religious philosophy in search of the prisca theologia, whereas another current (esp. Paracelsus, the ‘second Hermes’) was based primarily on the early medieval Tabula Smaragdina and other originally Arabic Hermetic texts and understood itself as a practical alchemical-medical science . This second movement had its centre north of the Alps, mainly in Germany. “This Hermeticism is not to be understood as the heir of Ficino’s translation and commentary of the Corpus Hermeticum, but rather as a synonym for alchemy, which was candidly called the Ars Hermetica. Notwithstanding some connections, neither the discourse of the Ars Hermetica nor its origin and theological and natural philosophical legitimation can be understood as deriving directly from Renaissance humanism ” (70).

This is an important distinction that should be taken seriously by scholars of Western esotericism. E. also shows that the adherents of this northern tradition passionately opposed Aristotelian philosophy in the name of Hermes Trismegistus; they saw it as inspired by the devil because it took the superficial to be absolute and thus could not discern the hidden essence of things.

Chapter 4, on the 17th century, describes the demise of Hermeticism in scholarly circles after Isaac Casaubon had demonstrated in 1614 that the Corpus Hermeticum was not a product of the most remote antiquity but was composed pseudepigraphically in the first centuries of the Christian era. This dating was widely accepted and Hermes Trismegistus no longer enjoyed the legendary status he had in previous centuries. But although Casaubon’s dating had largely won the day, it did not mean the end of Hermeticism. Some simply ignored his insights and continued to propagate their by now outdated views of Hermeticism as primeval, divine revelation. But the newly emerging natural sciences were a counterforce that gradually forced Hermeticism to become peripheral in scientific discourse. In the 18th through 20th centuries the new critical view of Hermeticism prevailed, even though in some circles the Ars Hermetica continued to enjoy great prestige, especially in esoteric movements.

Although on the whole this book is a pleasure to read, the classical philologist will find reasons to frown. E. has a habit of quoting from or referring to ancient authors without mentioning the sources. On pp. 8-9 one finds quotes from Homer and Ovid and references to Clement of Alexandria, but the reader is left guessing where one can find these passages. On p. 10 a letter of Hadrian to Servianus is quoted, but it is only the expert reader who will recognize it as a passage from the Historia Augusta. Twice (11, 22) E. refers to the Greek Cyranidi, which should be Cyranides. When he quotes from the Hermetica, the reference is to the German translation by C. Colpe and J. Holzhausen, which is strange in an English book – why did the translator not use Brian Copenhaver’s translation? And why is the standard edition of the Corpus Hermeticum by Nock and Festugière never mentioned? On p. 30 the names of Festugière, Mahé, and Stricker are mentioned, but without any reference to their publications. Twice (26, 71) Zosimus is mentioned as “the first author of an alchemical text whom we can identify,” but this is not true; Zosimus himself repeatedly refers to and quotes from an earlier work by the Jewish alchemist Maria.1 Probably the fact that the names of two German scholars are badly garbled on p. 43 note 8 (Heinrich instead of Heinrici and von Dobscheits instead of von Dobschuetz) is rather an error of the translator than of the author. And so there is more that is irritating and could easily have been corrected. It would be unfair, however, to end on a negative note. For readers who are interested in the mostly esoteric undercurrent of Hermetic ‘wisdom’ in the history of European civilization, this book is a very good start.


1. See my “Maria Alchemista, the First Female Jewish Author,” in my book Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Studies on Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity (Leuven: Peeters, 2002) 203-206.