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Thrice-Greatest Hermes




Little did I think when, years ago, I began to translate some of the Trismegistic tractates, that the undertaking would finally grow into these volumes. My sole object then was to render the more important of these beautiful theosophic treatises into an English that might, perhaps, be thought in some small way worthy of the Greek originals. I was then more attracted by the sermons themselves than by the manifold problems to which they gave rise; I found greater pleasure in the spiritual atmosphere they created, than in the critical considerations which insistently imposed themselves upon my mind, as I strove to realise their importance for the history of the development of religious ideas in the Western world.

And now, too, when I take pen in hand to grapple with the difficulties of “introduction” for those who will be good enough to follow my all-insufficient labours, it is to the tractates themselves that I turn again and again for refreshment in the task; and every time I turn to them I am persuaded that the best of them are worthy of all the labour a man can bestow upon them.

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Though it is true that the form of these volumes, with their Prolegomena and Commentaries and numerous notes, is that of a technical treatise, it has nevertheless been my aim to make them throughout accessible to the general reader, even to the man of one language who, though no scholar himself, may yet be deeply interested in such studies. These volumes must, therefore, naturally fall short of the precision enjoyed by the works of technical specialists which are filled with direct quotations from a number of ancient and modern tongues; on the other hand, they have the advantage of appealing to a larger public, while at the same time the specialist is given every indication for controlling the statements and translations.

Nor should the general reader be deterred by an introductory volume under the imposing sub-title of Prolegomena, imagining that these chapters are necessarily of a dull, critical nature, for the subjects dealt with are of immense interest in themselves (at least they seem so to me), and are supplementary to the Trismegistic sermons, frequently adding material of a like nature to that in our tractates.

Some of these Prolegomena have grown out of the Commentaries, for I found that occasionally subjects lent themselves to such lengthy digressions that they could be removed to the Prolegomena to the great advantage of the Commentary. The arrangement of the material thus accumulated, however, has proved a very difficult task, and I have been able to preserve but little logical sequence in the chapters; but this is owing mainly to the fact that the extant Trismegistic literature itself is preserved to us in a most chaotic fashion, and I as yet see no means of inducing any sure order into this chaos.

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To distinguish our writings both from the Egyptian “Books of Thoth” and the Hermes Prayers of the popular Egyptian cult, as found in the Greek Magic Papyri, and also from the later Hermetic Alchemical literature, I have adopted the term Trismegistic literature in place of the usual designation Hermetic.

Of this Greek Trismegistic literature proper, much is lost; that which remains to us, of which I have endeavoured to gather together every fragment and scrap, falls under five heads:

A. The Corpus Hermeticum.
B. The Perfect Sermon, or the Asclepius.
C. Excerpts by Stobæus.
D. References and Fragments in the Fathers.
E. References and Fragments in the Philosophers.

A. The Corpus Hermeticum includes what has, previous to Reitzenstein, 1 been known as the “Poimandres” 2 collection of fourteen Sermons and the “Definitions of Asclepius.”

B. The Perfect Sermon, or the Asclepius, is no longer extant in Greek, but only in an Old Latin version.

C. There are twenty-seven Excerpts, from otherwise lost Sermons, by John Stobæus, a Pagan scholar of the

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end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century, who was an immense reader and made a most valuable collection of extracts from Greek authors, though studiously avoiding every Christian writer. Some of these Excerpts are of great length, especially those from the Sermon entitled “The Virgin of the World”; these twenty-seven Excerpts are exclusive of extracts from Sermons still preserved in our Corpus.

D. From the Church Fathers we obtain many references and twenty-five short Fragments, otherwise unknown to us, and considerably widening our acquaintance with the scope of the literature.

E. From Zosimus and Fulgentius we obtain three Fragments, and from the former and Iamblichus, and Julian the Emperor-Philosopher, we obtain a number of valuable references.

Such are what at first sight may appear to be the comparatively scanty remains of what was once an exceedingly abundant literature. But when we remember that this literature was largely reserved and kept secret, we cannot but congratulate ourselves that so much has been preserved; indeed, as we shall see later on, but for the lucky chance of a Hermetic apologist selecting some of the sermons to exemplify the loyal nature of the Trismegistic teaching with respect to kings and rulers, we should be without any Hermetic Corpus at all, and dependent solely on our extracts and fragments.

But even with our Hermetic Corpus before us we should never forget that we have only a fraction of the Trismegistic literature—the flotsam and jetsam, so to say, of a once most noble vessel that sailed the seas of human endeavour, and was an ark of refuge to many a pious and cultured soul.

References to lost writings of the School will meet

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us abundantly in the course of our studies, and some attempt will be made later on to form a notion of the main types of the literature.

As for the rest of the so-called Hermetic works, medico-mathematical, astrological and medico-astrological, and alchemical, and for a list of the many inventions attributed to the Thrice-greatest—inventions as numerous as, and almost identical with, those attributed to Orpheus by fond posterity along the line of “pure” Hellenic tradition—I would refer the student to the Bibliotheca Græca of Joannes Albertus Fabricius. 1

For the Alchemical and Mediæval literature the two magnificent works of Berthelot (M. P. E.) are indispensable—namely, Collection des anciens Alchimistes grecs (Paris, 1888), and La Chimie au Moyen Âge (Paris, 1893).

In close connection with the development of this form of “Hermetic” tradition must be taken the Hermes writings and traditions among the Arabs. See Beausobre’s Histoire Critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme (Amsterdam, 1734), i. 326; also Fleischer (H. L.), Hermes Trismegislus an die menschliche Seele, Arabisch und Deutsch (Leipzig, 1870); Bardenhewer (O.), Hermetis Trismegisti qui apud Arabes fertur de Castigatione Animæ Liber (Bonn, 1873); and especially R. Pietschmann, the pupil of Georg Ebers, who devotes the fourth part of his treatise, entitled Hermes Trismegistus nach ägyptischen und orientalischen Überlieferungen (Leipzig, 1875), to a consideration of the Hermes tradition, “Bei Syrern und Araben.”

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Reitzenstein treats very briefly of the development of this later Hermetic literature on pp. 188-200 of his Poimandres1


From the fragmentary nature of the remains of the Trismegistic literature that have come down to us, it will be at once seen that a critical text of them is a complicated undertaking; for, apart from the Corpus, the texts have to be collected from the works of many authors. This, however, has never yet been done in any critical fashion; so that a translator has first of all to find the best existing critical texts of these authors from which to make his version. This, I hope, I have succeeded in doing; but even so, numerous obscurities still remain in the texts of the excerpts, fragments, and quotations, and it is highly desirable that some scholar specially acquainted with our literature should collect all these together in one volume, and work over the labours of specialists on the texts of Stobæus and the Fathers, with the added equipment of his own special knowledge.

Even the text of our Corpus is still without a thoroughly critical edition; for though Reitzenstein has done this work most admirably for C. H., i., xiii. (xiv.), and (xvi.)-(xviii.), basing himself on five MSS. and the printed texts of the earlier editions, he has not thought fit to give us a complete text.

A list of the then known MSS. is given in Harles’ edition of Fabricius’ Bibliotheca Græca (pp. 51, 52); while Parthey gives notes on the only two MSS. he used in his edition of fourteen of the Sermons of

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our Corpus. It is, however, generally believed that there may be other MSS. hidden away in Continental libraries.

All prior work on the MSS., however, is entirely superseded by Reitzenstein in his illuminating “History of the Text” (pp. 319-327), in which we have the whole matter set forth with the thoroughness that characterises the best German scholarship.

From him we learn that we owe the preservation of our Hermetic Corpus to a single MS. that was found in the eleventh century in a sad condition. Whole quires and single leaves were missing, both at the beginning (after ch. i.) and the end (after ch. xvi.); even in the remaining pages, especially in the last third, the writing was in a number of places no longer legible.

In this condition the MS. came into the hands of Michael Psellus, the great reviver of Platonic studies at Byzantium, probably at the time when his orthodoxy was being called into question. Psellus thought he would put these writings into circulation again, but at the same time guard himself against the suspicion that their contents corresponded with his own conclusions. This accounts for the peculiar scholion to C. H., i. 18, which seems at first pure monkish denunciation of Pœmandres as the Devil in disguise to lead men from the truth, while the conclusion of it betrays so deep an interest in the contents that it must have been more than purely philological.

And that such an interest was aroused in the following centuries at Byzantium, may be concluded from the fact that the last three chapters, which directly justify polytheism or rather Heathendom, were omitted in a portion of the MSS., and only that part of the Corpus received a wider circulation which corresponded

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with what might be regarded at first sight as a Neoplatonism assimilated to Christianity. The text was reproduced with thoughtless exactitude, so that though its tradition is extraordinarily bad, it is uniform, and we can recover with certainty the copy of Psellus from the texts of the fourteenth century.

These Trismegistic Sermons obtained a larger field of operation with the growth of Humanism in the West. Georgius Gemistus Pletho, in the latter part of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century, brought Neoplatonism from Byzantium into Italy as a kind of religion and made a deep impression on Cosimo Medici; and Marsiglio Ficino, who was early selected by the latter as the head of the future Academy, must have made his Latin translation of our Corpus, which appeared in 1463, to serve as the first groundwork of this undertaking. Cosimo had the Greek text brought from Bulgaria (Macedonia) by a monk, Fra Lionardo of Pistoja, and it is still in the Medicean Library.

It was not, however, till the middle of the sixteenth century that the Greek text was printed; and meantime, with the great interest taken in these writings by the Humanists, a large number of MSS. arose which sought to make the text more understandable or more elegant; such MSS. are of no value for the tradition of the text.


We will now proceed to give some account of the texts and translations of the Trismegistic writings, a bibliographical labour which the general reader will most probably skip, but which the real student will appreciate at its proper value. 1

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The best account of the texts and translations up to 1790 is that of Harles, who has entirely rewritten the account of Fabricius (op. cit., pp. 52 ff.). 1

The editio princeps was not a text but a Latin translation by Marsiglio Ficino (Marsilius Ficinus), published in quarto in 1471. 2 Both the name of the publisher and place of publication are lacking, but the British Museum catalogue inserts them in parenthesis as “G. de Lisa, Treviso,” presumably on the authority of Harles. This translation consisted of the so-called “Pœmandres,” in fourteen chapters, that is to say fourteen treatises, under the general title, Mercurii Trismegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei (or The Book of Mercury Trismegist concerning the Power and Wisdom of God). The enormous popularity of this work is seen by the fact of the very numerous editions (for a book of that time) through which it ran. No less than twenty-two editions have appeared, the first eight of them in the short space of a quarter of a century. 3

In 1548 there appeared an Italian translation of Ficinus’ Latin version of the “Pœmandres” collection, entitled Il Pimandro di Mercurio Trismegisto, done into Florentine by Tommaso Benci, printed at Florence in 12mo. A second edition was printed at Florence in 1549 in 8vo, with numerous improvements by Paitoni.

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The first Greek text was printed at Paris, in 1554, by Adr. Turnebus; it included the “Pœmandres” and “The Definitions of Asclepius,” to which the Latin version of Ficino was appended. The title is, Mercurii Trismegisti Pœmander seu de Potestate ac Sapientia Divina: Aesculapii Definitiones ad Ammonem Regem; the Greek was edited by P. Angelo da Barga (Angelus Vergecius).

In 1557 appeared the first French translation by Gabriel du Preau, at Paris, with a lengthy title, Deux Livres de Mercure Trismegiste Hermés tres ancien Theologien, et excellant Philozophe. L’un de la puissance et sapience de Dieu. L’autre de la volonte de Dieu. Auecq’un Dialogue de Loys Lazarel, poete Chrestien, intitulé le Bassin d’Hermés.

This seems to be simply a translation of an edition of Ficinus’ Latin version published at Paris by Henr. Stephanus in 1505, to which a certain worthy, Loys Lazarel, who further rejoiced in the agnomen of Septempedanus, appended a lucubration of his own of absolutely no value, 1 for the title of Estienne’s edition runs: Pimander Mercurii Liber de Sapientia et Potestate Dei. Asclepius, ejusdem Mercurii Liber de Voluntate Divina. Item Crater Hermetis a Lazarelo Septempedano.

In 1574 Franciscus Flussas Candalle reprinted at Bourdeaux, in 4to, Turnebus’ Greek text, which he emended, with the help of the younger Scaliger and other Humanists, together with a Latin translation, under the title, Mercurii Trismegisti Pimander sive Pœmander. This text is still of critical service to-day.

This he followed with a French translation, printed in 1579, also at Bourdeaux in folio, and bearing the title, Le Pimandre de Mercure Trismegiste de la Philosophie

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[paragraph continues] Chrestienne, Cognoissance du Verb Divin, et de l’Excellence des Œuvres de Dieu. This we are assured is translated “de l’exemplaire Grec, avec collation de très-amples commentaires,” 1 all of which is followed by the full name and titles of Flussas, to wit, “François Monsieur de Foix, de la famille de Candalle, Captal de Buchs, etc., Evesque d’Ayre, etc.,” the whole being dedicated to “Marguerite de France, Roine de Navarre.”

Twelve years later Franciscus Patricius (Cardinal Francesco Patrizzi) printed an edition of the text of the Sermons of the Corpus, of “The Asclepius,” and also of most of the Extracts and of some of the Fragments; he, however, has arranged them all in a quite arbitrary fashion, and has as arbitrarily altered the text, which generally followed that of Turnebus and Candalle, in innumerable places. To this he appended a Latin translation, in which he emended the versions of Ficino and de Foix, as he tells us, in no less than 1040 places. These were included in his Nova de Universis Philosophia, printed at Ferrara, in folio, 1591, and again at Venice by R. Meiettus, in 1593, as an appendix to his Nov. de Un. Phil., now increased to fifty books.

This Latin translation of Patrizzi was printed apart, together with the Chaldæan Oracles, at Hamburg in 12mo, also, in 1593, under the title Magia Philosophica. The latter edition bears the subscription on the title-page, “jam nunc primum ex Biblioteca Ranzoviana è tenebris eruta,” which Harles explains as a reprint by plain Henr. Ranzou, who is, however, described in the volume itself as “produx.” It seems to have been again reprinted at Hamburg in 1594 in 8vo.

Meantime the Carmelite, Hannibal Rossellus, 2 had

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been laboriously engaged for many years on an edition of the “Pœmandres” with most elaborate commentaries. This was printed at Cracow by Lazarus, in six volumes in folio, from 1585 to 1590. Rossel treats of philosophy, theology, the Pope, the scriptures, and all disciplines in his immanibus commentariis, inepte as some say, while others bestow on him great praise. His title is Pymander Mercurii Trismegisti. This was reprinted with the text and translation of de Foix in folio at Cologne in 1630, under the title Divinus Pimander Hermetis Mercurii Trismegisti.

Hitherto nothing had been done in England, but in 1611 an edition of Ficinus’ translation was printed in London. This was followed by what purports to be a translation of the “Pœmandres” from Arabic, 1 “by that learned Divine, Doctor Everard,” as the title-page sets forth. It was printed in London in 1650 in 8vo, with a preface by “J. F.,” and bears the title The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, in xvii. Books. Translated formerly out of the Arabick into Greek [!] and thence into Latin, and Dutch, and now out of the Original into English. There was a second edition of Everard’s version printed at London in 1657, in 12mo. There are also reprints of the 1650 edition by Fryar of Bath, with an introduction by Hargrave Jennings, in 1884; 2 by P. B. Randolph, Toledo, Ohio, 1889; and by the Theosophical Publishing Society, in the Collectanea Hermetica, edited by W. Wynn Westcott, in 1893.

To what Dutch translation Everard refers I cannot discover, for the only one known to me is that printed

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at Amsterdam in 1652 in 12mo. It is a translation of Patrizzi’s text, and bears the title, Sestien Boecken van den Hermes Trismegistus. . . . uyt het Griecx ghebracht . . . met eene . . . Voorede uyt het Latijn von F. Patricius in de welcke hij bewijst dat desen . . . Philosoph heeft gebleoyt voor Moyses, etc. Harles says nothing of this edition, but speaks of one printed at Amsterdam in 1643 in 4to, by Nicholas van Rauenstein, but I can find no other trace of it.

The first German translation was by a certain Alethophilus, and was printed at Hamburg in 1706 (8vo) under the title Hermetis Trismegisti Erkäntnüss der Natur, etc., containing seventeen pieces; this was reprinted at Stuttgart in 1855, in a curious collection by J. Schieble, entitled Kleiner Wunder-Schauplatz1 The title reads Hermetis Trismegisti Einleitung in’s höchste Wissen von Erkentniss der Natur und der darin sich offenbarenden grossen Grottes, with an appendix concerning the person of Hermes, etc.

But why Schieble should have reprinted Alethophilus’ translation is not clear, when in 1781 a new translation into German, with critical notes and valuable suggestions for emending the text, had appeared by Dieterich Tiedemann (Berlin and Stettin, in 8vo), entitled Hermes Trismegists Pœmander, oder von der göttlichen Macht und Weisheit, a rare book which, already in 1827, Baumgarten-Crusius 2 laments

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as almost unfindable in the republic of letters, and of which the British Museum possesses no copy. 1

It is remarkable that of a work which exhausted so many editions in translation and was evidently received with such great enthusiasm, there have been so few editions of the text, and that for two centuries and a quarter 2 no attempt was made to collate the different MSS. and editions, until in 1854 Gustav Parthey printed a critical text of the fourteen pieces of “Pœmandres,” at Berlin, under the title Hermetis Trismegisti Pœmander, to which he appended a Latin translation based on the original version of Ficino successively revised by de Foix and Patrizzi. Parthey’s promise to edit reliqua Hermetis scripta has not been fulfilled, and no one else has so far attempted this most necessary task.

Reitzenstein’s (p. 322) opinion of Parthey’s text, however, is very unfavourable. In the first place, Parthey took Patrizzi’s arbitrary alterations as a true tradition of the text; in the second, he himself saw neither of the MSS. on which he says he relies. The first of these was very carelessly copied for him and carelessly used by him; while the second, which was copied by D. Hamm, is very corrupt owing to very numerous “corrections” and interpolations by a later hand—all of which Parthey has adopted as ancient readings. His text, therefore, concludes Reitzenstein, is doubly falsified—a very discouraging judgment for lovers of accuracy.

In 1866 there appeared at Paris, in 8vo, a complete translation in French of the Trismegistic treatises and

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fragments by Louis Ménard, entitled Hermès Trismégiste, preceded by an interesting study on the origin of the Hermetic books, of which a second edition was printed in 1867. This is beyond question the most sympathetic version that we at present possess.

Everard’s version of the “Pœmandres” being reprinted in 1884 by Fryar of Bath, the rest of the treatises were retranslated by Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland from Ménard’s French version (including his notes), and appeared in 1885 (in 4to), published by Fryar, but bearing a publisher’s name in India, under the general title The Hermetic Works: The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus. Meantime, in 1882, J. D. Chambers had published (at Edinburgh, in 8vo) a crabbed and slavishly literal translation of the “Pœmandres,” together with the Excerpts from Stobæus and the Notices of Hermes in the Fathers, with an introductory Preface, under the title, The Theological and Philosophical Works of Hermes Trismegistus, Christian Neoplatonist. Indeed, the loose and erroneous version of Everard is far more comprehensible than this fantastically literal translation.

For the last six years I have myself been publishing, in the pages of The Theosophical Review, translations of the Trismegistic Sermons and also a few of the studies now included in these Prolegomena; all of the former, however, have been now carefully revised, and the latter have for the most part been greatly enlarged and improved.

Finally, in 1904, E. Reitzenstein of Strassburg published at Leipzig his illuminating study, Poimandres, in which he gives the critical text of C. H., i., xiii. (xiv.), (xvi.)-(xviii.), based on five MSS. and the best early printed editions, with all that minute care, knowledge of palæography, and enthusiasm for philology which

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characterises the best textual-critical work of modern scholarship. Why, however, Reitzenstein has not done the same good service for the whole of the Corpus as he has done for the selected sermons, is a mystery. He is the very man for the task, and the service he could render would be highly appreciated by many.

So much, then, for the existing partial texts and translations of the extant Trismegistic literature. Of the translations with which I am acquainted, 1 Everard’s (1650), the favourite in England, because of its dignified English, is full of errors, mistranslations, and obscurities; it is hopeless to try to understand “Hermes” from this version. Chambers’s translation (1882, from the text of Parthey) is so slavishly literal that it ceases to be English in many places, in others goes wide of the sense, and, in general, is exasperating. Ménard’s French translation (1866, also from Parthey’s text) is elegant and sympathetic, but very free in many places; in fact, not infrequently quite emancipated from the text. The most literally accurate translation is Parthey’s Latin version (based on the Latin translation of Ficino, as emended by Candalle and Patrizzi); but even in such literal rendering he is at fault at times, while in general no one can fully understand the Latin without the Greek. To translate “Hermes” requires not only a good knowledge of Greek, but also a knowledge of that Gnosis which he has not infrequently so admirably handed on to us.


3:1 Reitzenstein (R.), Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen Literatur (Leipzig; 1904).

3:2 Variously translated, or metamorphosed, as Pœmandres, Pœmander, Poemandre, Pymandar, Pimander, Pimandre, Pimandro. Already Patrizzi, in 1591, pointed out that only one treatise could be called by this title; but, in spite of this, the bad habit inaugurated by the editio princeps (in Latin translation) of Marsiglio Ficino has persisted to the last edition of the text by Parthey (1854) and the last translation by Chambers (1882).

5:1 Vol. i., lib. i., cap. vii. See the fourth and last edition (Leipzig, 1790), with up to that time unedited supplements by Fabricius and G. C. Heumann, and very numerous and important additions by G. C. Harles.

6:1 For the Hermetic writing in Pitra, Analecta Sacra et Classica, pt. ii., see R., pp. 16, n. 4, and 259, n. 1; and for reference to the Arabic literature, pp. 23, n. 5, and 172, n. 3.

8:1 This study was published in the Theosophical Review, May 1899, and is independent of Reitzenstein’s work.

9:1 S. F. W. Hoffmann’s Bibliographisches Lexicon der gesammten Litteratur der Griechen (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1839) simply copies Harles, while his appendix of “Erläuterungsschriften” is of no value.

9:2 R. (p. 320), as we have seen, gives the date as 1463, but I have found no trace of this edition.

9:3 The dates of these editions are as follows, though doubtless there were other editions of which we have lost record: 1471, ’72, ’81, ’83, ’91, ’93, ’94, ’97; 1503, ’05, ’16, ’22, ’32, ’49, ’52, ’54, ’61, ’70, ’76, ’77; 1611, ’41. They were printed at Venice, Paris, Basle, Lyons, and London.

10:1 The writer has painfully perused it, for, more fortunate than the British Museum, he possesses a copy of this rare work.

11:1 These on perusal prove of little value.

11:2 R. 322 calls him a Minorite.

12:1 It is clear, however, that Everard translated from Ficinus’ Latin version, and that the “Arabick” is a myth.

12:2 Of which only 200 copies were issued to subscribers, as though, forsooth, they were to come into great “occult” secrets thereby.

13:1 Part of the full title runs: K. W.-S. d. Wissenschaften, Mysterien, Theosophie, göttlichen und morgenländischen Magie, Naturkräfte, hermet. u. magnet. Phil., Kabbala, u. and. höhern Kentnissen, and much more in the same strain, but I have no doubt the reader has already had enough of it. From 1855 to 1857 fourteen parts appeared, mostly taken up with German translations of Hermes, of Agrippa’s Philosophia Occulta from the Latin, and of The Telescope of Zoroaster from the French.

13:2 Op. inf. cit., p. 10.

14:1 I have, therefore, not been able to avail myself of Tiedemann’s labours. R. 322 speaks highly of them.

14:2 The last edition prior to Parthey’s was the reprint of Flussas’ text, at Cologne in 1630, appended to Rossel’s lucubrations.

16:1 As already remarked, I have not been able to see a copy of the German of Tiedemann.

Next: II. The History of the Evolution of Opinion