Hermes and Hermeticism
The Corpus Hermeticum and Hermetic Tradition
In the following section we provide:
- The complete Corpus Hermeticum;
- Hermetic Excerpts and Fragments preserved in classical literature;
- A compilation of the Hymns of Hermes; and
- Hermetic texts from Nag Hammadi.
The Hermetic tradition represents a non-Christian lineage of Hellenistic Gnosticism. The tradition and its writings date to at least the first century B.C.E., and the texts we possess were all written prior to the second century C.E. The surviving writings of the tradition, known as the Corpus Hermeticum (the "Hermetic body of writings") were lost to the Latin West after classical times, but survived in eastern Byzantine libraries. Their rediscovery and translation into Latin during the late-fifteenth century by the Italian Renaissance court of Cosimo de Medici, provided a seminal force in the development of Renaissance thought and culture. These eighteen tracts of the Corpus Hermeticum, along with the Perfect Sermon (also called the Asclepius), are the foundational documents of the Hermetic tradition.
The texts presented here, below, are taken from the translation of G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis, Volume 2 (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1906); they are reproduced completely, with Mead's original footnotes. (The entire three volume text of Mead's Thrice Greatest Hermes, along with a full-text search function, is available in our online G.R.S. Mead Collection.)
In supplement to the Corpus Hermeticum, we have appended to this collection the important Hermetic texts discovered in 1945 within the Nag Hammadi Library.
Though written over a century ago, Mead's Thrice Greatest Hermes provides an excellent compendium and reference to the Hermetic literature. His commentary on the texts is unequalled. However for a modern reader there is a problem with Mead's translations: he often translates using an antique and formal-sounding English. But then, it must be understood the original Greek texts of the surviving Hermetic literature have an antique and elevated tone.
With his choice of language, Mead tries to convey both the ambiguity and the the visionary intensity of the material. He correctly understood the Hermetic writings as the distillations of profound spiritual and psychological experiences — experiences the texts themselves call "Gnosis". These are not philosophical tracts. Their core impetus was communication of a visionary reality. The tradition that produced the Corpus Hermeticum embraced an imaginative, prophetic voice common in Gnostic scriptures; and the insights this "Gnosis" produced are not easily expressed in Greek, or Latin, or any pedestrian dialect of English. But they can by understood, if one has an ear for the core experience. It is the desire to communicate their experience of interior reality that motivated these ancient authors.
For a more easily readable (and very reliable) modern print edition, we recommend the respected 1995 translation of the Hermetica by Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation.
What is the Hermetic tradition, and what did it teach?
To answer those common questions, we offer the following introductory resources:
- Begin with the introductory essay On the Trail of the Winged God: Hermes and Hermeticism Throughout the Ages. You might follow this with a reading of the small book by G.R.S. Mead, The Gnosis of the Mind (available complete here in the library) -- Mead wrote this meditation shortly after finishing his in-depth three volume work Thrice Greatest Hermes.
- Listen to an audio lecture by Dr. Stephan Hoeller introducing Hermes: The Thrice Great Hierophant of Gnosis; this lecture provides an excellent introduction to the Hermetic tradition. (The audio is in MP3 format and runs about 85 minutes).
- Read the "Poemandres, the Shepherd of Men", the first and key text in the Corpus Hermeticum; follow this with a reading of Mead'sCommentary on the Pymander.
- After that introductory tour, read the introduction and commentaries in Mead's classic work, Thrice Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis. You might wish to purchase Brian Copenhave's modern English translation for further reading of the texts themselves: Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation.
These are the opening words of the Poemandres, the first text of the Corpus Hermeticum; they provide a first insight into the visionary source of Hermetic Gnosis:
Upon a time while my mind was meditating on the things that are, my thought was raised to a great height, while the physical senses of my body were held back—just as are the senses of men who are heavy with sleep after a large meal, or from fatigue of body.
I thought I heard a Being more than vast—in size beyond all bounds—called out my name and say: "What wouldst thou hear and see, and what hast thou in mind to learn and know?"
And I said: "Who art thou?"
He answered: "I am Shepherd of Men, Mind of all-Masterhood; I know what thou desirest and I am with thee everywhere."
And I replied: "I long to learn the things that are, and comprehend their nature, and know God. This (I said) is what I desire to hear."
He answered me: "Hold in thy mind all thou wouldst know, and I will teach thee."
And with these words His aspect changed; and straightway, in the twinkling of an eye, all things were opened to me. And I saw a limitless Vision: all things turned into Light—sweet, joyous Light. And I became transported as I gazed....
-- Lance S. Owens
Translation by G. R. S. Mead
An Introduction to G.R.S. Mead's translation of the Corpus Hermeticum
by John Michael Greer
Texts of the Corpus Hermeticum are provided in two formats:
the full text published edition with footnotes, commentary and page numbering;
and, a simplified text only format.
Tract Full Text with Notes and Commentary Text only I. Poemandres, the Shepherd of Men (Text) II. To Asclepius (Text) III. The Sacred Sermon (Text) IV. The Cup or Monad (Text) V. Though Unmanifest God Is Most Manifest (Text) VI. In God Alone Is Good And Elsewhere Nowhere (Text) VII. The Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God (Text) VIII. That No One of Existing Things doth Perish (Text) IX. On Thought and Sense (Text) X. The Key (Text) XI. Mind Unto Hermes (Text) XII. About the Common Mind (Text) XIII. The Secret Sermon on the Mountain (Text) XIV. A Letter of Thrice-Greatest Hermes to Asclepius XVI. The Definitions of Asclepius unto King Ammon XVII. Of Asclepius to the King XVIII. The Encomium of Kings Ascl. The Perfect Sermon (The Asclepius)
Note: The historically important (but not entirely accurate) 1650 translation of the Corpus Hermeticum by John Everard is available at Adam McLean's Alchemy Web Site: The Divine Pymander in XVII books. London 1650. (Translated into seventeenth-century English by Everard from Marsilio Ficino's 1471 Latin translation, this version is not now considered a reliable rendition of the original textual material.)
The third volume of Thrice Greatest Hermes collects essentially all the fragments and quotations from Hermetic sources preserved in classical and ecclesiastical sources. Many of the longer fragments are gleaned from Stobaeus, a fifth century C.E. anthologizer of Greek literature. The remainder come from the early Church Fathers, embedded in polemics and doctrinal discussions.
This is an invaluable resource, and we provide a full-text search function to help in finding specific texts.
Excerpts and Fragments of Hermetic Texts
(in Volume Three, G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes)
Shortly after finishing his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and his masterwork Thrice Greatest Hermes, G.R.S. Mead wrote a brief essay in reflection on the liturgical hymn forms found in the Hermetic writings. The essay centers on the Poemandres. This beautiful meditation provides an important key-note to any reading of the material in the Corpus Hermeticum.
The Hymns of Hermes by G. R. S. Mead
The collection of Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 (known as the Nag Hammadi Library), includes a previously unknown and crucially important Hermetic document, The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth. Probably dating to the third century or earlier, this text appears to be an initiation rite into visionary journey. This document provides singular evidence of the liturgical and experiential elements within Hermetic tradition. It gives witness to the existence of a ritual genera of Hermetic writings previously unknown and now lost.
Also included in the Nag Hammadi collection is the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving, and an excerpt from the Asclepius. These texts, bound together in Nag Hammadi Codex VI with other classical Christian Gnostic texts (e.g., The Authoritative Teaching, The Thunder, Perfect Mind, The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles) evidence the ancient association of Christian and Hermetic Gnosticism -- at very least in the physical grouping of this literature together in the Nag Hammadi codices.