Sacred Texts  Gnosticism and Hermetica  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1, by G.R.S. Mead, [1906], at

p. 17




We have now to consider the following interesting points:

The early Church Fathers in general accepted the Trismegistic writings as exceedingly ancient and authoritative, and in their apologetic writings quote them in support of the main general positions of Christianity.

In the revival of learning, for upwards of a century and a half, all the Humanists welcomed them with open arms as a most valuable adjunct to Christianity, and as being in accord with its doctrines; so much so that they laboured to substitute Trismegistus for Aristotle in the schools.

During the last two centuries and a half, however, a body of opinion was gradually evolved, infinitesimal in its beginnings but finally well-nigh shutting out every other view, that these writings were Neoplatonic forgeries and plagiarisms of Christianity.

Finally, with the dawn of the twentieth century, the subject has been rescued from the hands of opinion, and has begun to be established on the firm ground of historical and critical research, opening up problems of the greatest interest and importance for the history of Christian origins and their connection with Hellenistic

p. 18

theology and theosophy, and throwing a brilliant light on the development of Gnosticism.

The first point will be brought out in detail in the volume in which a translation of all the passages and references to Thrice-greatest Hermes in the writings of the Church Fathers will be given; while the last will be made abundantly apparent, we hope, in the general course of our studies. The second and third points will now demand our immediate attention, especially the third, for we have endeavoured with great labour to become acquainted with all the “arguments” which have tended to build up this opinion; and unless we have to change all our ideas as to the time-frame of so-called Neoplatonism, we are entirely unconvinced; for we find that it has been evolved from unsupported assertions, and that not one single work exists which ventures in any satisfactory fashion to argue the question (most writers merely reasserting or echoing prior opinions), or in which the statements made may not as easily prove the priority of the Trismegistic school to the Neoplatonic as the reverse.

We will then proceed to give some account of this chaos of contradictory opinions, picking out the most salient points.


That the early scholars of the revival of learning were all unanimously delighted with the Trismegistic writings, is manifest from the bibliography we have already given, and that they should follow the judgment of the ancient Fathers in the matter is but natural to expect; for them not only were the books prior to Christianity, but they were ever assured that Hermes

p. 19

had been a really existent personality, like any of the Biblical worthies, such as Enoch and Noah (as was unquestionably believed in those days), and further, that he was prior to, or a contemporary of, Moses. 1

Thus in the editio princeps of Ficino we read: “Whoever thou art who readest these things, whether grammarian, or rhetorician, or philosopher, or theologian, know thou that I am Hermes the Thrice-greatest, at whom wondered first the Egyptians and the other nations, and subsequently the ancient Christian theologians, in utter stupefaction at my doctrine rare of things divine.”

The opinion of Ficino, that the “writer” of the “Pœmandres” tractates was one who had a knowledge both of Egyptian and Greek, is of interest as being that of a man uncontaminated by the infinite doubts with which the atmosphere of modern criticism is filled, and thus able to get a clean contact with his subject.

Of the same mind were Loys Lazarel and du Preau, the first French translator; while the Italian Cardinal Patrizzi appends to his labours the following beautiful words (attributed by some to Chalcidius 2), which he puts in the mouth of Hermes:

“Till now, my son, I, banished from my home, have lived expatriate in exile. Now safe and sound I seek my home once more. And when but yet a little while I shall have left thee, freed from these bonds of body, see that thou dost not mourn me as one dead. For I return to that supreme and happy state to which the universe’s citizens will come when in the after-state.

p. 20

[paragraph continues] For there the Only God is supreme lord, and He will fill His citizens with wondrous joy, compared to which the state down here which is regarded by the multitude as life, should rather be called death.” 1

Patrizzi believed that Hermes was contemporary with Moses, basing himself upon the opinion of Eusebius in his Chronicum, 2 and thought that it would be to the greatest advantage of the Christian world, if such admirable and pious philosophy as was contained in the Trismegistic writings were substituted in the public schools for Aristotle, whom he regarded as overflowing with impiety.


And that such opinions were the only ones as late as 1630, is evident from the favour still shown to the voluminous commentaries of de Foix and Rossel. Nevertheless some fifty years previously, a hardy pioneer of scepticism had sturdily attacked the validity of the then universal Hermes tradition on one point at least—and that a fundamental one. For Patrizzi (p. 1a) declares that a certain Jo. Goropius Becanus was the first after so many centuries to dare to say that Hermes (as a single individual) never existed! But the worthy Goropius, who appears to have flourished about 1580, judging by an antiquarian treatise of his on the race and language of the “Cimbri or Germani” published at Amsterdam, had no followers as yet in a belief that is now universally accepted by all critical scholarship. But this has to do with the Hermes-saga and not directly with the question of the Trismegistic works,

p. 21

and so we may omit for the present any reference to the host of contradictory opinions on “Hermes” which are found in all the writers to whom we are referring, and none of which, prior to the decipherment of the hieroglyphics, are of any particular value.


It was about the middle of the seventeenth century that the theory of plagiarism and forgery was started. Ursin (Joh. Henr. Ursinus), a pastor of the Evangelical Church at Ratisbon, published at Nürnberg in 1661, a work, in the second part of which he treated of “Hermes Trismegistus and his Writings,” 1 and endeavoured to show that they were wholesale plagiarisms from Christianity, but his arguments were subjected to a severe criticism by Brucker some hundred years later. 2

This extreme view of Ursin was subsequently modified into the subsidiary opinions that the Trismegistic works were composed by a half-Christian (semi-christiano) or interpolated by Christian overworking.

The most distinguished name among the early holders of the former opinion is that of Isaac Casaubon, 3 who dates these writings at the beginning of the second

p. 22

century; Casaubon’s opinions, however, were promptly refuted by Cudworth in his famous work The True Intellectual System of the Universe, the first edition of which was printed at London, in folio, 1678. 1 Cudworth would have it, however, that Casaubon was right as far as the treatises entitled “The Shepherd of Men” and “The Secret Sermon on the Mountain” are concerned, and that these treatises were counterfeited by Christians since the time of Iamblichus—a very curious position to assume, since a number of the treatises themselves look back to this very “Shepherd” as the original document of the whole “Pœmandres” cycle.

But, indeed, so far we have no arguments, no really critical investigation, 2 so that we need not detain the reader among these warring opinions, on which the cap was set by the violent outburst of Colberg in defence of orthodoxy against the Alchemists, Rosicrucians, Quakers, Anabaptists, Quietists, etc., of which fanatici, as he calls them, Hermes, he declares, was the Patriarch. 3


One might almost believe that Colberg was an incarnation of a Church Father continuing his ancient polemic against heresy; in any case the whole question of heresy

p. 23

was now revived, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century criticism of the Trismegistic works almost invariably starts with this prejudice in mind and seeks (almost without exception) to father the Trismegistic writings on Neoplatonism, which it regards as the most powerful opponent of orthodoxy from the third century onwards. Harles (1790) gives the references to all the main factors in the evolution of this opinion during the eighteenth century; 1 but the only argument that the century produced—indeed, the only argument that has ever been adduced—is that the doctrines of the Trismegistic writings are clearly Platonic, and that too of that type of mystical Platonism which was especially the characteristic of the teaching of Iamblichus at the end of the third century A.D., and which is generally called Neoplatonism; therefore, these writings were forged by the Neoplatonists to prop up dying Paganism against the ever more and more vigorous Christianity. We admit the premisses, but we absolutely deny the conclusion. But before pointing out the weakness of this conclusion of apologetic scholarship, we must deal with the literature on the subject in the last century. The eighteenth century produced no arguments in support of this conclusion beyond the main premisses which we have admitted. 2 Has the nineteenth century

p. 24

produced any others so as to justify the position taken up by the echoes of opinion in all the popular encyclopædias with regard to these most valuable and beautiful treatises? 1

If our encyclopædias deign to rest their assertions on authority, they refer us to Fabricius (Harles) and Baumgarten-Crusius. We have already seen that Harles will not help us much; will the latter authority throw any more light on the subject? We are afraid not; for, instead of a bulky volume, we have before us a thin academical exercise of only 19 pp., 2 in which the author puts forward the bare opinion that these books were invented by Porphyry and his school, and this mainly because he thinks that Orelli 3 had proved the year before that the Cosmogony of Sanchoniathon was invented by the “Platonici.” Moreover, was not Porphyry an enemy of Christ, for did he not write XV. Books against the Christians? All of which can scarcely be dignified with the name of argument, far less with that of proof.

p. 25


The same may be said of the short academical thesis of Hilgers, 1 who first shows the weakness of Möhler’s strange opinion 2 that the author was a Christian who pretended to be a Pagan and inserted “errors” on purpose. Hilgers finally ends up with the lame conclusion that Christian doctrine was known to the author of the “Pœmandres” cycle, especially the Gospel of “John” and Letters of Paul; but how it is possible to conjecture anything besides, he does not know. Of the possibility of the priority of the “Pœmandres” to the writings of “John” and Paul, Hilgers does not seem to dream; nevertheless this is as logical a deduction as the one he draws from the points of contact between the two groups of literature. But Hilgers has got an axe of his own to grind, and a very blunt one at that; he thinks that “The Shepherd of Men” was written at the same time as “The Shepherd of Hermas,” that simple product of what is called the sub-apostolic age—a document held in great respect by the early outer communities of General Christianity, and used for purposes of edification. Our “Shepherd,” Hilgers thinks, was written in opposition to the Hermas document, but he can do nothing but point to the similarity of name as a proof of his hypothesis. This topsyturvy opinion we shall seek to reverse in a subsequent chapter on “‘Hermes’ and ‘Hermas.’”

As to the author of our “Shepherd,” Hilgers thinks he has shown that “he was not a follower of the

p. 26

doctrines of the Christ, but of the so-called Neoplatonists, and among these especially of Philo Judæus”; in fact he seems, says Hilgers, to have been a Therapeut. 1


Here we have the first appearance of another tendency; the more attention is bestowed upon the Trismegistic writings, the more it is apparent that they cannot be ascribed to Neoplatonism, if, as generally held, Neoplatonism begins with Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, and Porphyry in the third century. Therefore, in this subject, and in this subject alone, we find a tendency in later writers to push back the Neoplatonists so as to include Philo Judæus, who flourished in the first half of the first century! On these lines we should soon get Neo-platonism back to Plato and Pythagoras, and so be forced to drop the “Neo” and return to the old honoured name of simple “Platonici.”

But already by this time in Germany the theory of Neoplatonic Syncretismus to prop up sinking Heathendom against rising Christianity had become crystallised, as may be seen from the article on “Hermes, Hermetische Schriften” in Pauly’s famous Real Encyclopädie der classischen Alterthumswissenshaft (Stuttgart, 1844), where this position is assumed from the start.

Parthey, however, in 1854, in his preface, ventures on no such opinion, but expresses a belief that we may even yet discover in Egypt a demotic text of the “Pœmandres,” which shows that he considered the original to have been written in Egyptian, and therefore not by a Neoplatonist.

p. 27


In France, moreover, the Egyptian paternity of the Trismegistic writings, and that too on very sensible lines, was asserted about the same time, namely, in 1858, by Artaud in his article on “Hermès Trismégiste,” in Hoeffer’s Nouvelle Biographie Générale, published at Paris by Messrs Firmin Didot. Artaud writes:

“In the mystic sense Thoth or the Egyptian Hermes was the symbol of the Divine Mind; he was the incarnated Thought, the living Word—the primitive type of the Logos of Plato and the Word of the Christians. . . .

“We have heard Champollion, the younger, giving expression to the formal opinion that the books of Hermes Trismegistus really contained the ancient Egyptian doctrine of which traces can be discovered from the hieroglyphics which cover the monuments of Egypt. Moreover, if these fragments themselves are examined, we find in them a theology sufficiently in accord with the doctrines set forth by Plato in his Timaeus—doctrines which are entirely apart from those of the other schools of Greece, and which were therefore held to have been derived by Plato from the temples of Egypt, when he went thither to hold converse with its priests.” 1

Artaud is also of the opinion that these Trismegistic treatises are translations from the Egyptian.


Nowadays, with our improved knowledge of Egyptology, this hypothesis has to be stated in far more

p. 28

careful terms before it can find acceptance among the learned; nevertheless it was evidently the conviction of Dévéria, who in a work of which he only succeeded in writing the first two pages, proposed to comment on the entire text of the Trismegistic Books from the point of view of an Egyptologist. For these Books, he declared, offered an almost complete exposition of the esoteric philosophy of ancient Egypt. 1

But by far the most sympathetic and really intelligent account of the subject is that of Ménard, 2 who gives us a pleasant respite from the chorus of the German Neoplatonic syncretism theory. And though we do not by any means agree with all that he writes, it will be a relief to let in a breath of fresh air upon the general stuffiness of our present summary of opinions.

The fragments of the Trismegistic literature which have reached us are the sole surviving remains of that “Egyptian philosophy” which arose from the congress of the religious doctrines of Egypt with the philosophical doctrines of Greece. In other words, what the works of Philo were to the sacred literature of the Jews, the Hermaica were to the Egyptian sacred writings. Legend and myth were allegorised and philosophised and replaced by vision and instruction. But who were the authors of this theosophic method? This question is of the greatest interest to us, for it is one of the factors in the solution of the problem of the literary evolution of Christianity, seeing that there are intimate points of contact of ideas between several of the Hermetic documents and certain Jewish and Christian writings, especially the opening verses of Genesis, the treatises of Philo, the fourth Gospel

p. 29

[paragraph continues] (especially the Prologue), and beyond all the writings of the great Gnostic doctors Basilides and Valentinus.

Such and similar considerations lead Ménard to glance at the environment of infant Christianity and the various phenomena connected with its growth, and this he does from the point of view of an enlightened independent historical scholar.

“Christianity,” he writes, “did not fall like a thunderbolt into the midst of a surprised and startled world. It had its period of incubation, and while it was engaged in evolving the positive form of its dogmas, the problems of which it was seeking the solution were the subject of thought in Greece, Asia, and Egypt. Similar ideas were in the air and shaped themselves into all sorts of propositions.

“The multiplicity of sects which have arisen in our own times under the name of socialism, can give but a faint idea of the marvellous intellectual chemistry which had established its principal laboratory at Alexandria. Humanity had set in the arena mighty philosophical and moral problems: the origin of evil, the destiny of the soul, its fall and redemption; the prize to be given was the government of the conscience. The Christian solution 1 won, and caused the rest to be forgotten, sunk for the most part in the shipwreck of the past. Let us then, when we come across a scrap of the flotsam and jetsam, recognise in it the work of a beaten competitor and not of a plagiarist. Indeed, the triumph of Christianity was prepared by those very men who thought themselves its rivals, but who were only its forerunners. The title suits them, though many were contemporaries of the Christian era, while others were a little later; for the succession of a religion only dates from the day when it is accepted by the

p. 30

nations, just as the reign of a claimant to the throne dates from his victory” (pp. ix., x.).

Ménard distinguishes three principal groups in the Trismegistic treatises, which he assigns to Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian influences. In them also he finds a link between Philo and the Gnostics.

“Between the first Gnostic sects and the Hellenic Jews represented by Philo, a link is missing; this can be found in several of the Hermetic works, especially ‘The Shepherd of Men’ and ‘The Sermon on the Mountain.’ In them also will perhaps be found the reason of the differences, so often remarked upon, between the first three Gospels and the fourth” (p. xliv.).

Next, the direction in which that “link” is to be looked for is more clearly shown, though here Ménard is, I think, too precise when writing:

“It seems certain that ‘The Shepherd’ came from that school of Therapeuts of Egypt, who have been often erroneously confounded with the Essenians of Syria and Palestine” (p. lvi).

But “instead of the physical discipline of the Essenians, who, according to Philo, practised manual labour, put the product of their toil into the common fund, and reduced philosophy to ethics, and ethics to charity, the ‘monasteries’ of the Therapeuts contributed to Christian propaganda a far more Hellenised population, trained in abstract speculations and mystic allegories. From these tendencies, combined with the dogma of the incarnation, arose the Gnostic sects. ‘The Shepherd’ should be earlier than these schools” (p. lviii.).

As to “The Sermon on the Mountain,” “it can be placed, in order of ideas and date, between ‘The Shepherd’ and the first Gnostic schools; it should be

p. 31

a little earlier than the founders of Gnosticism, Basilides, and Valentinus” (p. lxv.).

If Gnosticism be taken with Ménard to mean the Christianised theosophy of Basilides and Valentinus from the first quarter of the second century onwards, the oldest Trismegistic treatises are demonstrably earlier, for their Gnosticism is plainly a far simpler form; in fact, so much more simple that, if we could proceed on so crude an hypothesis as that of a straight-lined evolution, we should be forced to find room for intermediate forms of Gnosticism between them and the Basilidian and the Valentinian Gnosis. And of this Ménard seems to be partly conscious when writing: “We can follow in the Hermetic books the destiny of this Judæo-Egyptian Gnosis, which, during the first century, existed side by side with Christianity without allowing itself to be absorbed by it, passing insensibly from the Jewish school of Philo to the Greek school of Plotinus” (p. lxvii.).

Ménard here used the term Christianity for that tendency which afterwards was called Catholic or General Christianity, the body to which these very same Gnostics gave the principal dogmas of its subsequent theology.

But if the Gnostics were Therapeuts, and the Trismegistic writers Therapeuts, why should Ménard call them Jews, as he appears to do in his interesting question, “Where are the Jewish Therapeuts at the end of the second century?” Certainly Philo laboured to give his readers the impression that the Therapeuts were principally Jews, perhaps to win respect for his compatriots in his apology for his nation; but the Therapeuts were, evidently, on his own showing, drawn from all the nations and scattered abroad in very numerous communities, though many Jews were doubtless in

p. 32

their ranks—indeed, Philo probably knew little about their communities other than the Mareotic. If, then, the term “Therapeut” will explain some of the phenomena presented by these writings, the combination “Jewish Therapeuts” will certainly not do so. The very answer of Ménard himself to his question shows that even these Mareotic Therapeuts could not have been orthodox Jews, for the French scholar proceeds to surmise not only that, “some, converted to Christianity, became monks or Gnostics of the Basilidian or Valentinian school,” but that “others more and more assimilated themselves to Paganism.”

And by “Paganism” our author says he does not mean “polytheism,” for “at this period all admitted into the divine order of things a well-defined hierarchy with a supreme God at the head; only for some this supreme Deity was in the world, for others outside it” (p. lxxiv.).

Ménard’s introduction meets with the general approval of Reitzenstein (p. 1), who characterises it as feinsinnige, and agrees that he has rightly appreciated many of the factors, especially from the theological side; he, however (p. 116, n. 2), dissents, and rightly dissents, from Ménard as to any direct Jewish influence on the Trismegistic literature, and refuses to admit that the “Pœmandres” can in any way be characterised as a Jewish-Gnostic writing.

But the sensible views of Ménard were impotent to check the crystallisation of the German theory, which was practically repeated by Zeller, 1 and once more by

p. 33

[paragraph continues] Pietschmann in his learned essay, 1 based in part on A. G. Hoffmann’s article “Hermes” in Ersch and Grüber’s Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste2

An exception to this tendency, however, is to be found in the opinion of Aall; 3 who, though he adduces no proof, would on general grounds place the composition of the Hermetic literature (though whether or not by this he means our extant Trismegistic sermons is not clear) as far back as the second century B.C., and would see in it an offshoot from the same stem which later on supplied the ground-conceptions of the Johannine theology. 4


In England, as we have seen, the subject, like so many others of a similar nature, has been almost entirely neglected, but with the encyclopædic activity of the past generation we find it touched upon, and in the usual encyclopædic fashion. The German position is assumed, without one word of proof or reference to any, as an “acquired fact of science”! The “last effort of expiring Heathendom” theory is trotted out with complacency and with that impressive air of official knowledge which makes the pronouncements of the family physician a law unto all its members, from baby to father—until the specialist is called in. And

p. 34

unfortunately these ex cathedrâ encyclopædic pronouncements are all the general reader will ever hear. This is the case with all those three indifferent articles in our current dictionaries of reference. 1 We are assured that, “as all are generally agreed,” the writings are Neoplatonic, and this without any qualification or definition of the term, and that too in dictionaries where the term “Neoplatonic,” in articles on the subject, is applied solely to the “Chain” from Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus onwards. The presumption is plain that by Neoplatonic forgeries we are to understand a date of at earliest from the middle of the third century onwards.


And this although Justin Martyr (cir. 150 A.D.) bestows emphatic praise on these very same writings and classes their writer, “Hermes,” among the “most ancient philosophers,” a point which the German theorists and their English copiers have all discreetly shirked, but which, together with other considerations, has forced Chambers, in the preface to his translation (London, 1882), to give quite a new meaning to the term Neoplatonist, which he uses of Hermes in his title, 2 and to declare that our Hermes is entitled “to

p. 35

be considered the real founder of Neoplatonism.” 1 Chambers would still, in spite of Justin’s clear testimony, wedge in the earliest deposit of Trismegistic literature immediately between the time of composition of the new canonical books and Justin, and devotes nearly all his notes to fishing out every verse of the New Testament he can which bears the slightest resemblance to the Trismegistic text. 2 But if we closely compare these so-called parallels, we are compelled to acknowledge that if there be any plagiarism it is not on the side of Hermes; nay, more, it is as plain as it can be that there is no verbal plagiarism at all, and that the similarity of ideas therefore pertains to quite another problem, for the distinctive dogmas of Common Christianity are entirely wanting; there is not a single word breathed of the historical Jesus, not a syllable concerning the nativity, the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension or coming of Christ to judgment, as Chambers admits.


Let us now turn to the pronouncements of German encyclopædism on the subject. F. A. Brockhaus’ Conversations-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1884) does but repeat the old hypothesis. The Trismegistic writings are “the last monuments of Heathendom”; the writer, however, grudgingly takes in the date of Justin Martyr in the sentence, “presumably the majority of these writings belong to the second century,” but not a word is breathed of how this conclusion is arrived at.

A most valuable article, in fact far and away the

p. 36

very best that has yet been done, containing innumerable references to all the articles in the most recent transactions of learned societies and to the papers in scientific periodicals, is that of Chr. Scherer on “Hermes,” in W. H. Roscher’s Auführliches Lexikon der griechischen u. römischen Mythologie (Leipzig, 1884, etc.). Unfortunately this article deals solely with the Hermes of the Greeks, while for “Hermes Trismegistos” we are referred to “Thoth,” an article which has not yet appeared. This brings our summary of opinions down to the close of the last century; we have probably omitted reference to some minor opinions, for no up-to-date bibliography exists on the subject, but we doubt that any work of importance has escaped our notice.


The most recent work done in England on the subject, in the present century, is an article by Frank Granger, 1 who, in spite of some useful criticisms and suggestions on some points, is nevertheless in the main reactionary, and contends for a Christian origin of our most important tractates. The scope of his enquiry may be seen from his preliminary statement when he writes:

“We shall have little difficulty in showing, as against Zeller, that the book [? our Corpus, or the first Sermon only] is in the main homogeneous and of Christian origin. Not only so, our discussion will bring us into contact with the later Greek culture as it developed amid Egyptian surroundings, and will raise several problems of considerable importance. Among other

p. 37

things we shall have to trace the way in which Hermes passes over into Christian tradition, and how the Greek representations of Hermes furnished Christian art with one of its earliest motives. 1 We shall further find in it a bridge by which we may pass over from Greek philosophy and science to modes of thought which are properly Christian. And yet the writer retains so much of the antique spirit that he can hardly be mistaken for an apologist of Paganism.”

When, however, Granger attempts to prove his case, he breaks down utterly, being able to point to little besides the popular phrase “increase and multiply.” Towards the end of his enquiry, however, he sees that the traditional values of many factors will have to be altered by a study of our literature, as, for instance, when he writes:

“The traditional estimate of Gnosticism, then, requires to be reconsidered, in the light of the Poemandres. It belongs to a time when religious definitions were still in the making—a time, therefore, when the limits of free discussion were not yet straitly drawn. Hence the various permutations of religious belief which we find in Irenæus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, would not be admitted by their exponents to be in conflict with the Christian faith, but would rather be regarded as exhibiting new and fruitful applications of principles common to all. Ecclesiastical opinion ultimately settled down in one direction rather than another. But until this process was complete, each living system of belief might count upon a possible victory, 2 and so, among others, the system which may be traced in the Poemandres. And the Poemandres is so far from being a merely heretical production, that

p. 38

its relation to orthodox belief may fairly be indicated by saying that it answers to the earlier intellectual position of Clement of Alexandria.” 1

We should say rather that the difficulties in which our essayist is evidently involved by his hypothesis of Christian origin, would be considerably lessened by accepting the evidence on all hands which a more extended study of the Trismegistic and allied literatures affords, and by treating what he refers to as Gnosticism without qualification as the Christianised Gnosis, and not as Gnosticised Christianity.

We thus find Granger compelled, in keeping with the above, to guess the date of the “Pœmandres” as towards the end of the second century; but even so, he feels dissatisfied with himself, for he has to add: “Nor does this date preclude us from finding occasional traces of even earlier material.”

However we may dissent from Granger’s conclusions as to the “Pœmandres,” we agree with him in the importance he ascribes to the Gospel according to the Egyptians, in connection with which he writes 2:

“It is instructive to note that Salome, who plays so prominent a part in the Gospel according to the Egyptians, is the mother of St John, 3 and that the same Gnostic circles in which this gospel is current were also those in which we hear for the first time of the Fourth Gospel. That is to say, the Fourth Gospel comes to us from the hands of the Alexandrine Gnostics. The system of Valentinus is really a somewhat fanciful

p. 39

commentary upon the opening chapters of St John’s Gospel. 1 Heracleon, the first great commentator 2 upon St John, was both a Gnostic and at the same time was really the master of Origen, and through him helped to determine the development of the orthodox theology. Now, the key to the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel is to be found in the Gnostic ideas which underlie the Poemandres, ideas to which Heracleon furnishes the clue. But the commentators have refused the help which the Gnostics could give, and the Fourth Gospel has been consistently misunderstood owing to the exaggerated stress which has been laid upon the doctrine of the λόγος.”

I am not quite clear what the last sentence is intended to mean. Too great stress cannot be laid upon the doctrine of the Logos, for it is, as we shall show, the fundamental concept of Hellenistic theology; but too great stress can and has been laid upon the illegitimate claim that the Proem of the Fourth Gospel embodies a peculiarly Christian doctrine.

Moreover, if the Fourth Gospel emerges in Alexandrine circles and is so essentially Gnostic, how can it be ascribed, as Granger appears to ascribe it, to “St John”? A very different conclusion seems to follow from Granger’s premisses.

The conclusion of the most recent study by English scholarship on our “Pœmandres” is as follows:

“The Poemandres, then, is a very striking exponent of the religious and philosophical ideas amid which

p. 40

[paragraph continues] Alexandrine theology arose. On the one hand it is in touch with Greek mythology and science; on the other, with Jewish and Christian literature. The author is more sober than most of his Gnostic contemporaries; he is a more consistent reasoner than Clement.” 1

But if, as we shall show, the date of the “Pœmandres” must be pushed back demonstrably at least a hundred years, and if, as is exceedingly probable, it must go back still further, the whole problem is changed, and the relationship of all the factors alters proportionately.


But in the present century, by the publication of Reitzenstein’s Poimandres, the whole subject has been placed on a different footing and brought into a clearer light. Reitzenstein attacks the problem of the Trismegistic writings from an entirely objective, historical, philological, and literary standpoint. Being entirely emancipated from any theological preconceptions, he is always careful to point out that his conclusions are based solely on critical research in the domain of philology proper; he cannot, however, refrain at times from adding (somewhat slily) that these results are of the deepest interest to the theologian—indeed, we might say highly embarrassing if the theologian happens to be a traditionalist.

The general scope of Reitzenstein’s essay may be gathered from his sub-title, “Studies in Greek-Egyptian and Early Christian Literature.” Our Trismegistic writings form part of a large number of Greek written texts, the remains of a once exceedingly extensive Hellenistic theological literature; and by Hellenistic

p. 41

theology is meant the blending of Greek and Oriental religious thought and experience. This Hellenistic theology was most strongly influenced by Egyptian conceptions and traditions. The Egyptian religion is known to have spread itself over the Hellenistic world, and every scholar will at once recall to mind how many Greek writers have treated expressly of the Egyptian religion, and how many passages in Greek literature refer to Egyptian beliefs, as compared with the very few which treat of Babylonian, Persian, or even Syrian.

Nevertheless, the remains of this Hellenistic theological literature have never been treated as a whole from the point of view of philology; the cause of this has been the entire disregard of the subject by Christian theologians, coupled with the grotesque grounds on which the consideration of the Hellenistic-Egyptian religion is usually set aside—one famous theologian lately going so far as to assert that the Egyptian worship was despised on all sides, both by Jews and Greeks, as the lowest depth of human superstition.

As then Egypt had a provably dominant position in Hellenistic literature, so also must she have had in some sort a correspondingly strong influence on Hellenistic culture, and consequently on the development of Hellenistic religious experience. The evidence of this is afforded by the Early Christian literature.

We have, therefore, here in these Greek-Egyptian and Early Christian documents the possibility of methodical work, seeing that it is a question of the comparative study of two contemporaneous literatures; moreover, the language and typology of the Christian literature is bound to betray traces of the general Hellenistic theology of the time (pp. v., vi.).

The study of Reitzenstein is thus a consideration of

p. 42

our Trismegistic literature as a whole, and the analysis and comparison of two of the most typical sermons with other Hellenistic documents and with Early Christian writings.

This he does with praiseworthy and painstaking industry, with great acumen and admirable scholarly equipment; but his work is of no service to any but scholars, and that, too, to scholars who are specialists. It is a work bristling with technicalities of every description, and crammed with untranslated texts. Indeed, Reitzenstein belongs to that school of philological purists who think it a loss of dignity to translate anything; this is a very convenient convention, and I myself have often wished that I could have availed myself of it when face to face with innumerable difficulties of translation.

Reitzenstein, then, translates nothing, but busies himself with texts and the higher criticism of the subject. He, however, does not give us the text of our literature as a whole, or even of the Corpus Hermeticum, but only of four chapters and the fragments of a fifth. Moreover, the results of his investigations are very difficult to summarise; indeed, he nowhere summarises them himself in any certain fashion, his chapters being on the whole of the nature of studies in the Trismegistic literature rather than a complete exposition.

Nevertheless these studies are, beyond comparison, the most important and suggestive work that has yet been done on the subject; and as I shall avail myself of his labours on so many occasions in the sequel, I cannot refrain from acknowledging here the special debt of gratitude which all lovers of our sermons must feel to him, for compelling the attention of scholars to the first importance of the Trismegistic literature in the

p. 43

domain of the history of the development of religious thought in the first centuries.

The general scope of his studies will be seen from the titles of the main chapters:—I. Age of the “Poimandres”; by “Poimandres” R. means C. H., i. only. II. Analysis of the “Poimandres”; III. Fundamental Conception of the “Poimandres”; IV. “Poimandres” and the Egyptian Apocalyptic Literature; V. Expansion of the Hermetic Literature; VI. The Hermetic Corpus; VII. The Later “Poimandres” Document (The Prophet-Initiation).

The theory of plagiarism from Christianity must for ever be abandoned. The whole literature is based on the “Pœmandres” as its original gospel, and the original form of this scripture must be placed at least prior to the second century A.D. How much earlier it goes back we cannot at present say with any exactitude; before the beginning of the second century is the terminus ad quem—that is to say it cannot possibly be later than this; to seek, therefore, for traditional Christian thoughts in this document is henceforth deprived of any prospect of success (p. 36).

Reitzenstein tells us (p. 2) that these writings in the first place interested him solely through their literary form, but that this interest became deepened as he gradually learned to value them as important records of that powerful religious movement which, like a flood, overflowed the West from the East, and, after preparing the way for Christianity, subsequently bore it along with it; the best and surest evidence of this religious revival is to be found in the literary form of Hellenistic theology.

This in itself is of interest enough and to spare; and at a time when every scrap of contemporary literature is being so eagerly scanned for the smallest side-light it

p. 44

can throw on the environment and development of Christian origins, it is amazing that the Trismegistic writings should have been hitherto so studiously neglected.


But there is another and still more profoundly interesting side of the subject which we cannot expect to find treated in a purely philological, technical, and critical treatise. The more one studies the best of these mystical sermons, casting aside all prejudice, and trying to feel and think with the writers, the nearer one is conscious of approaching the threshold of what may well be believed to have been the true Adytum of the best in the mystery-traditions of antiquity. Innumerable are the hints of the greatnesses and immensities lying beyond that threshold—among other precious things the vision of the key to Egypt’s wisdom, the interpretation of apocalypsis by the light of the sun-clear epopteia of the intelligible cosmos.

Such greatnesses and such mysteries have a power and beauty which the most disreputable tradition of the texts through unknowing hands cannot wholly disguise, and they are still recognisable, even though thus clad in the rags of their once fair garments, by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

But to return to the points we raised in the opening of this chapter.


If we now re-state the problems we are considering in the interrogative form, we shall have to find answers to the following questions:

Why did the early Church Fathers accept the

p. 45

Trismegistic writings as exceedingly ancient and authoritative, and in their apologetic writings quote them in support of the main impersonal dogmas of Christianity?

Why, in the revival of learning, for upwards of a century and a half did all the Humanists welcome them with open arms as a most valuable adjunct to Christianity, and as being in accord with its main doctrines, so much so that they laboured to substitute Trismegistus for Aristotle in the schools?

Finally, why during the last two centuries and a half has a body of opinion been gradually evolved, infinitesimal in its beginnings, but well-nigh shutting out every other view, that these writings are Neoplatonic forgeries?

The answers to these questions are simple:—The Church Fathers appealed to the authority of antiquity and to a tradition that had never been called in question, in order to show that they taught nothing fundamentally new—that, in brief, they taught on main points what Hermes had taught. They lived in days too proximate to that tradition to have ventured on bringing any charge of plagiarism and forgery against it without exposing themselves to a crushing rejoinder from men who were still the hearers of its “living voice” and possessors of its “written word.”

The scholars of the Renaissance naturally followed the unvarying tradition of antiquity, confirmed by the Fathers of the Church.

Gradually, however, it was perceived that, if the old tradition were accepted, the fundamental originality of general Christian doctrines—that is to say, the philosophical basis of the Faith, as apart from the historical dogmas peculiar to it—could no longer be maintained. It, therefore, became imperatively necessary to discredit the ancient tradition by every possible

p. 46

means. With what success this policy has been attended we have already seen; we have also reviewed this growth of opinion, and shown its baseless character and the straits to which its defenders have been put.

From the clouds of this obscurantism the sun of Thrice-greatest Hermes and the radiance of his Gnosis have once more shone forth in the skies of humanistic enquiry and unprejudiced research. He is no longer to be called bastard, and plagiarist, and thief of other people’s property, but must be regarded as a genuine teacher of men, handing on his own, and giving freely of his substance to all who will receive the gift.


19:1 For a list of those who thought Hermes was prior to Moses, and even identical with Joseph, or even Adam, see Harles, p. 49 ff. and notes.

19:2 A Platonic philosopher who lived probably in the 4th century A.D.

20:1 Op. cit., p. 3a.

20:2 In which Patrizzi did but echo the opinion of his predecessors, such as Vergecius, the editor of the first edition of the Greek text, Candalle and many more.

21:1 De Zoroastre Bactriano Hermete Trismegisto Sanchoniathone Phœnicio eorumque Scriptis, et Aliis contra Mosaicæ Scripturæ Antiquitatem; Exercitationes Familiares, pp. 73-180—a book now very scarce.

21:2 Jacobi Bruckeri, Historia Critica Philosophiæ (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1767), i. 252 ff. Lib. ii., cap. vii., “De Philosophia Ægyptiorum.” See also Meiners’ Versuch über die Religionsgeschichte der ältesten Völker besonders der Egyptier (Göttingen, 1775).

21:3 De Rebus Sacris . . . Exercitationes ad Card. Baronii Prolegomena, i., n. 10 (London, 1614). Casaubon concludes that the whole book, i.e. the “Pœmandres,” is a pseudepigraph, the pure invention of some Christian or other, or perhaps better, of some semi-Christian (p. 56).

22:1 See his dissertation on Hermes and the Hermetic writings in the edition of 1820, vol. ii., pp. 128-155.

22:2 Though Reitzenstein (p. 1) speaks of the”schneidende Kritik“ of Casaubon.

22:3 Vol. i., p. 89, of the following amply entitled work, Das Platonisch-Hermetisches [sic] Christenthum, begriffend die historische Erzehlung vom Ursprung und vielerley Secten der heutigen Fanatischen Theologie, unterm Namen der Paracelsisten, Weigelianer, Rosencreutzer, Quäker, Bohmisten, Wiedertäuffer, Bourignisten, Labadisten und Quietisten, by M. Ehre Gott Daniel Colberg, 2 vols. (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1690, 1691).

23:1 Op. supr. cit.; the most “advanced” writer on the subject being Tiedemann, to whose work we have already referred; but unfortunately we have not been able to procure a copy, and the British Museum is without it. Tiedemann thinks that none of the Trismegistic writings existed before the fourth century, while Fabricius himself, whose summary of prior opinion is overworked by Harles, assigns them to the time of Porphyry and Iamblichus, though Harles dates the earliest of them from the end of the first to the middle of the second century (p. 48, n.).

23:2 It may be worth while here to record the opinion of Gibbon, who would ascribe a Christian origin to some of the Trismegistic writings, and impatiently dismisses the subject by classing Hermes with Orpheus and the Sibyls as a cloak for Christian forgery (vol. ii. p. 69, Bury’s ed.).

24:1 How the public is catered for may be seen from any popular “knowledge”-digest. The following will serve as a specimen, taken from the article “Hermes Trismegistus,” in The American Encyclopædia: a Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, edited by Ripley and Dana (New York, 1874): “In the conflict between Neoplatonism and Christianity, the former sought to give a profounder and more spiritual meaning to the pagan philosophy, by combining the wisdom of the Egyptians and the Greeks, and representing it as a very ancient, divine revelation.”

24:2 Delivered before the University of Jena at Pentecost, 1827, by Lud. Frid. Otto Baumgarten-Crusius.

24:3 Orelli (J. C.), Sanchoniathonis Fragmenta de Cosmogonia et Theologia Phœnicorum (Leipzig, 1826).

25:1 Hilgers (B. J.), De Hermetis Trismegisti Poimandro Commentatio (Bonn, 1855), suggested by the appearance of Parthey’s text in 1854.

25:2 Möhler (J. A.), Patrologie, pp. 950-951—a brief note on Hermes. Ed. by F. X. Reithmayr (Regensberg, 1840).

26:1 Op. cit., pp. 16-17.

27:1 The whole of this article has been lifted, without acknowledgment, by M‘Clintock and Strong in their Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York, 1872).

28:1 Pierret, Mélanges d’Archéologie égyptienne et assyrienne, i. (1873), p. 112; R. 1, n. 1.

28:2 Op. sup. cit., 1866.

29:1 The popular Christian solution, Ménard should have said.

32:1 Gesch. d. griech. Philos., III., ii., 225 ff. Zeller, while recognising the Gnostic nature of C. H. i. and C. H. xiii. (xiv.), treats the rest of our Corpus as an expression of declining Paganism. So also Erdmann (Hist. Philos., i. 113, 2, Tr.), who deals with our Corpus only, and assigns its sermons to different authors and times. He contends that C. H. xiii. (xiv.) shows a Neo-pythagorean tendency, a term far vaguer than Neo-platonic even.

33:1 Hermes Trismegistos n. ägyp., griech. u. oriental. Überlieferungen (Leipzig, 1875).

33:2 A laborious article replete with references, but dealing solely with the Hermes-saga and not with our writings.

33:3 Aall (A.), Geschichte der Logosidee in der Philosophie (Leipzig, vol. i. 1896, vol. ii. 1899), ii. 78, n. 4.

33:4 Cf. Reitzenstein, Zwei religionsgeschichtliche Fragen (Strassburg, 1901), p. 93, n. 3.

34:1 Art. “Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus,” by L. Schmitz, in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (London, 1870), a work which is now entirely out of date; Jowett’s art., “Hermes Trismegistus,” in the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th ed., London, 1880), repeated in the recent reprint without alteration; and Mozley’s art., “Hermes Trismegistus,” in Smith and Wace’s Dictionary of Christian Biography (London, 1882); to both of which articles, if not to the works themselves, the above remark also applies.

34:2 The Theological and Philosophical Works of Hermes Trismegistus, Christian Neoplatonist.

35:1 Op. cit., p. xii.

35:2 In this repeating de Foix, who attempted the same task more than three hundred years before.

36:1 “The Poemandres of Hermes Trismegistus,” in The Journal of Theological Studies, vol. v. No. 19, April 1904 (London).

37:1 Namely, that of the Good Shepherd.

37:2 This is a reflection of Ménard’s sensible view.

38:1 Ibid., p. 406.

38:2 Ibid., p. 411.

38:3 I have never come across this statement before, and so regret that G. has not given his authority. If such were the tradition, it would be exceedingly instructive. Salome, however, in the fragments of this Gospel preserved to us, says categorically that she has never “brought forth.”

39:1 It is not, even if the “opening chapters” be reduced to the Proem. Heracleon, one of the disciples of Valentinus, comments directly on this Proem, but from the point of view of a quite independent tradition.

39:2 The first commentator of any kind of which we have any knowledge, rather.

40:1 Ibid., p. 412.

Next: III. Thoth the Master of Wisdom