Sacred Texts  Gnosticism and Hermetica  Index  Previous 
Buy this Book at

Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 2, by G.R.S. Mead, [1906], at



The titles in the Latin MSS. vary. The heading preferred by Hildebrand is “Asclepius, or a Dialogue of Thrice-greatest Hermes”; while in the Bipontine edition, the title stands: “Thrice-greatest Hermes Concerning the Nature of the Gods; A Sermon addressed to Asclepius.” Ménard, the French translator, prefers: “A Sermon of Initiation, or Asclepius.”

The treatise begins with a transparent gloss, in all probability originally the marginal note of some scribe,

p. 391

or student, which has improperly crept into the text. It runs: “This Asclepius is my Sun-god”; that is to say, apparently: “This Sermon ‘Asclepius’ has illumined me”; from which it is evident that the title lying before the scribe was “Asclepius” simply, as may be seen from § 2: “It is, however, with thy name I will inscribe this treatise.” Stobæus, moreover, in quoting from the original Greek (of xxvii. 4), heads his extract simply, “Of Hermes from the [Sermons] to Asclepius.”

On the other hand, the Church Father Lactantius, writing at the beginning of the fourth century, and quoting from the Greek original, says twice, categorically (D. I., iv. 6 and vii. 8): “Hermes in illo libro qui λόγος τέλειος inscribitur”; that is, “Hermes in the Book entitled ‘The Perfect Sermon,’ or ‘The Sermon of Initiation’”; while Johannes Laurentius Lydus on three occasions quotes from this “Perfect Sermon” of Hermes, and on each occasion so names it.

I have accordingly preferred this as the main title, and added “The Asclepius” as an alternative.


Of the Greek original we have quotations or references by Lactantius (see viii. 1 and 3; xxv. 4: xxvi. 1; xli. 2), Johannes Laurentius Lydus (see xix. 3; xxviii. 1; xxxix. 1, 2), and Stobæus (see xxvii. 4).

If we compare these Greek quotations with our Latin translation, we shall find, not only that the Latin is an exceedingly free rendering of the Greek, showing many expansions and contractions, and often missing the sense of the original, but also that even in Greek there were probably several recensions of the same text. 1

p. 392

Indeed, the free rendering of our translation is of such a nature that it is impossible to base upon it any certain conclusions as to the date of the original or its precise worth in the history of religion. 1

That, however, our Latin translation is an ancient one is proved by Augustine’s verbal quotations from it (see xxiii. 1; xxiii. 3-xxiv. 2; xxiv. 3; xxvii. 1-4). It was thus in existence about 400 A.D. at least. 2

Tradition, however, has assigned to it a far higher antiquity, attributing it to no less distinguished a writer than Appuleius, and so referring it to the first half of the second century.

This attribution has, of course, for long been questioned by modern criticism, and Reitzenstein, though he does not discuss the subject, accepts the adverse verdict and refers us to a “Pseudo-Appuleius.”

Hildebrand, whose minute acquaintance with Appuleius’ peculiar style and neologisms is a guarantee of his competence, has thoroughly gone into the matter; and though he sums up against tradition, it is in a half-hearted way. The translation, if not by Appuleius, is at any rate in old African Latin, and there is nothing in the style which absolutely forbids the possibility of its being by the author of The Golden Ass and the initiate of Isis. The strongest point, other than philological, against tradition is that Augustine does not say the translation was by Appuleius; but this seems to me to be unworthy of serious consideration.

It is, of course, difficult to turn possibilities into probabilities, but I see no reason why the Greek original of our Sermon should not be assigned to the

p. 393

earlier Hermes-Asclepian dialogues as well as to any others. That it was one of the most famous is evident by its wide quotation, and by the fact that several recensions of the Greek text were in circulation.


The Latin translator retains a number of the original Greek technical terms, and if we could only rely on his translation giving us the substance of the original in all cases, we should be presented in several passages with phenomena which would persuade us that the writer of the original intended his readers to think he was an Egyptian, and that his native nomenclature was other than Greek, as is also the case in C. H. (xvi.).

For instance, in vii. 2, “the man ‘essential,’ 1 as say the Greeks,”—but this may be a gloss of the Latin translator.

Again, in x. 2: “So that . . . ‘World’ seems most fitly called ‘Cosmos’ in Greek,”—which seems to be the original.

Yet again, the “multifarious reasoning” of xii. 3 reminds us strongly of “the philosophizing of the Greeks—the noise of words,” in C. H., xvi. 2.

On the other hand, the phrase, “which we in Greek (græce) believe to be the Cosmos,” would seem to make the original author forget his Egyptian rôle.

While “its bottom . . . is called in Greek A-eidēs,” coupled with “in Greek they are called Hades . . . in Latin Inferi” (xvii. 3), may be assigned to a gloss of the translator.

In xxiv. 1, however, the sentence, “Dost thou not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is the image of the Heaven? . . . This land of ours is shrine of the whole world”—coupled with the rest of the chapter, and Ch. xxv.

p. 394

[paragraph continues] —could hardly have been written by a Greek. In xxviii. 1, moreover, the “weighing of the merit” of the soul is strongly Egyptian, and so with the image and animal-cult.

As to the persons of the dialogue, I would suggest that originally the sermon was addressed to Asclepius alone, and that the slight narrative indications were added later to adapt it to wider circles.

The chief disciple is evidently Asclepius; he it is who is already “well versed in Nature,” according to C. H., xiv. (xv.) 1; that is to say, he has progressed beyond the stage of Hearer, for he questions Hermes, whereas Tat does not ask questions, but listens only, he is “the one who is to hear” (i. 1). To them is added Ammon on the proposal of Asclepius; and Ammon is admitted on the ground that he had already had much written to him, but apparently had not yet been admitted to oral teaching.

The teaching is delivered in solemn surroundings in the holy place or shrine (i. 2), and teacher and pupils constitute the “sacred four.” Hermes teaches in a state of exaltation; the place is filled with “God’s goodly presence,” and “Love Divine” instructs them, through Hermes’ lips, in answer to the Pure and Single Love of Philosophy in their hearts (cf. xii. 3; xiv. 1).

The same hand that wrote the warning against revealing the sermon to others in i. 2 also probably wrote: “And ye, O Tat, Asclepius and Ammon, in silence hide the mysteries divine within the secret places of your hearts, and breathe no word of their concealment!” (xxxii. 4); he also, presumably, glossed “Asclepius” (xxxiv. 2) with “and ye who are with him,” and added the naïve whisper of Asclepius to Tat (xli. 1).

This redactor (if our analysis is correct), moreover,

p. 395

was a member of a select 1 ascetic community, judging at any rate by his last sentence (xli. 5); in which case Ammon can hardly be equated with any King Ammon, but must be taken as standing for some grade of the community. I would suggest that this grade was similar to that of the Exoterici of the Pythagoreans or the outer circles of the Essenes, of which the members still lived in the world, but received instruction. In this case, however, the “we” of the last sentence would have to be taken as referring to Asclepius and Tat, and not to Ammon.

As to the dependence of our sermon on the rest of the literature, I find more points of contact between it and C. H., x. (xi.), “The Key” sermon addressed to Tat; none of the references, however, which I have given in the notes, show any literal dependence.


In the general doctrine the stress laid on the concept of the Will of God 2 is to be specially noticed. This Will seems to be almost personified, and is, of course, a fundamental doctrine of the Trismegistic religio-philosophy. 3

In xxvi. 1 it is identified with the Goodness 4 of God, and the Nature of God. 5 But what it seems to correspond to most nearly is the Æon or Eternity-idea which is set forth very clearly in xxx.-xxxii.—in fact, more clearly than anywhere else in the Trismegistic

p. 396

literature. God and Æon are the sources of all things; and Æon is “the Eternity of God, in Truth itself subsisting, the Fullness of all things” (xxxii. 1). The Will of God is thus the Æon or Plērōma, the Wisdom, the Energy, the Spouse of the Supreme.

This Will rules Cosmos with Law and Holy Reason (xl.); Cosmos being the Order of things involved in Fate and Necessity the instruments of the Divine Will. 1

Our sermon is also characterized by the frequent use it makes of the terms Spirit and Sense.


The Spirit is evidently Cosmic Life (vi. 4; xxvii. 1) and individual life (x. 4). 2 The exposition of it begins with xiv. 2; Spirit and Matter, or the Nature of the Cosmos (xiv. 3), are practically regarded as the Positive and Negative, or Masculine and Feminine Energies of the Divine.

Spirit is the Ruler (xvii. 1) of all things in Cosmos or Nature; it is the immediate Instrument of the Will of God (xvi. 3); and is, indeed, loosely identified with that Will (xix. 4); while in still looser fashion Spirit seems to be symbolized by “Heaven” and the Sensible Cosmos by “Earth” (xix. 2).

It is very probable that this doctrine of Spirit as Divine Breath is fundamentally Egyptian, and owes nothing to immediate Semitic influence. However this may be, the use of the term Sense, as apparently in some way superior to Reason (vi. 4; x. 4), is very striking, and, as in some cases opposed to the exaltation of the Reason found elsewhere in our tractates, under the influence of this leading idea of Greek philosophy, discloses an Egyptian point of view.

p. 397

We have already noticed this use of the term in some of our tractates, but in our present sermon it is brought into great prominence. This Sense is not the differentiated senses, but a Unit or Cosmic Sense.

It is “the Divine Sense of intelligence,” and is found only in God and in man’s reason (vii. 1; xxxii. 2).

It is the “Higher Sense (with which Celestial Gift mankind alone is blest)”—characterized as the “feeder of the mind” (xviii. 1); yet on the other hand this “Higher Sense” is that “which by good chance a man perceives by mind, when out of all his senses.”

This Sense is in some fashion closely connected with Nature and Cosmos (xxi. 1); through it man “disciplines his soul,” and “cures his intellect,” thus gaining “intelligence of God-like Reason” (xxii. 1), and finally “mingling himself with the All-sense of the Divine Intelligence” (xxix. 2).

This All-sense is the same as the “Whole Sense of Divinity,” and is the Likeness of God; it is “in its own self immoveable,” and yet “doth set itself in motion within its own stability” (xxxii. 1). Man must make himself like unto this Likeness.

This Likeness is evidently the Æon or Intelligible Cosmos; for the “Cosmic Sense is the Container of all sensibles” (xxxii. 2).

In man its chief normal characteristic is the retentiveness of memory, “through which man is made ruler of the Earth” (xxxii. 2). This Sense is then man’s continuum, the germ of everlastingness in him, the root-ground of consciousness (xxxii. 3), the Single Sense of the intelligence (xli. 4), which is fully brought to birth only when a man “is wholly plunged in consciousness of life (in sensu vitæ)” (xxxvii. 3),—the “spiritual life” of the Christian Gnostics.

The fact that we have only a translation to deal with

p. 398

prevents us laying too much stress on details, but the general idea is clear enough; so too with the rest of this, the longest of our sermons, we must be content to refer only to general points, the chief of which are the “prophetic” utterances.


These present us with problems of very great difficulty, and, so far, I have neither seen any solution nor has any occurred to me.

So much work has been done on contemporary prophetic utterances of this nature, especially on the Sibylline Literature, that it may be said that the scholastic mind has reached certain general criteria with regard to such pronouncements—the chief of which is that the hypothesis of genuine prophecy is not to be entertained.

In the Sibylline literature, indeed, this is clearly established; for much of it consists of traditional history written in the prophetical tense, so to say; when the history comes to an end the date of the “prophetical” writer is at once detected, for all that follows has no longer any relation to historical events.

In the case of our “prophecies,” however, we have nothing of this nature to guide us. All we can say is that they seem to have been written, most probably, at a time when the Trismegistic communities were being persecuted.

That this was in the course of the fourth century, however, as Reitzenstein (p. 213) supposes, seems to me to be, so far, destitute of any sure objective confirmation; it not only compels us to suppose that the prophecies are later interpolations (which they may possibly be), but that these interpolations are later than Lactantius; whereas there is every probability that

p. 399

the Church Father had the text of them before him, 1 and his date is the beginning of the fourth century.

On the other hand, Zosimus, writing somewhere about the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century, breathes no word of persecution, and leads us to suppose that the community was still flourishing. We are thus still in the gravest uncertainty.

The first of our “prophecies” is in xii. 3: “For I will tell thee as though it were propheticly”—addressed to Asclepius, and, therefore, probably not due to the redactor who we have supposed added the narrative sentences.

The lament of the writer is that “the Single Love, the Love of Pure Philosophy,” is fast disappearing from the world; he can hardly have had Christianity in mind when writing these words, for he contrasts the “Pure Philosophy” with “multifarious reasoning” and “divers sciences,” and the latter can hardly be said to be characteristic of General Christianity.

If, however, his words may be said to include also Gnostic Christianity, then he was clearly not in sympathy with it; but this can hardly be the case, seeing that the resemblances between the Trismegistic and Christian Gnosis are of a very intimate nature.


Turning next to xxiv. 2, we meet with the clear statement that the worship of the Gods will be legally proscribed by the “barbarian” masters of Egypt (also xxv. 3).

Such a general proscription in this emphatic sense took place in Egypt only with the destruction of the Serapeum by the Christians themselves in 389 A.D.

p. 400

[paragraph continues] Of persecutions of the Christians by the Roman authorities in Egypt prior to this we get clear indications in the writings of the Christian Gnostic Basilides, who flourished at Alexandria at the beginning of the second century, and wrote specially of martyrdom. But this will little help us for the proscription of a cult that favoured the worship of the Gods and of their images.

Can it, then, be possible that these prophetic utterances were written at a time when many of the same nature were being penned by Jew and Christian? For our author, as for Jewish and Christian writers, the “End of the World” was at hand; his expectation is in this precisely the same as that of the writers of the New Testament documents.

The cause of this dire event is that Egypt, the “shrine of the whole world,” the “Holy Land” 1 par excellence, will be polluted with all iniquity and violence. The Cult of the Gods will cease, and the Gods will leave the Earth and mount to Heaven. The man’s whole heart is bleeding for Egypt, even as the heart of a Jew for Jerusalem.

If there is any immediate historical references in these heartfelt utterances, we must seek them in such phrases as: “This holiest land, seat of our shrines and temples, shall be choked with tombs and corpses” (xxiv. 3); “the tale of tombs shall far exceed the number of the quick” (ibid., § 4) 2; and “Egypt shall be made the home of Scyth or Indian, or someone like to them—that is, a foreign neighbour.”

It is true that the Christians were ever reproached

p. 401

with worshipping the dead, and building churches over the bones of the dead—an act of utter pollution according to all Pagan notions; but the words of our author, even allowing for all hyperbole, can hardly be construed in this sense.

People like Scyths or Indians, again, if we are to suppose any historical reference, can hardly be imagined to refer to the Romans; while the Goths under Alaric, who ravaged Greece in 395, 396 A.D., are too late even for Reitzenstein. Moreover, we have already in our notes pointed to the strange conjunction of Scyth and Barbarian in our text as being also found in Colossians.

On the other hand, nothing but the entire State suppression of the Pagan Religion in all its forms can satisfy xxv. 3, and this just suits the end of the fourth century.

If, however, we cannot entertain so late a date, and I do not think we can, there seems nothing for it but to give the writer some credit for his prognostication of the future; for eventually things certainly turned out for him and all he held most dear very much as he imagined or feared they would.


At any rate the last hope of the Pure Love, the Religion of the Mind, is in the Trismegistic Communities, if indeed it is so permitted to interpret xxvii. 3:

“Yea, they who rule the earth shall be distributed [through all the lands], and finally be gathered in a state,—at top of Egypt’s upper part,—which shall be founded towards the setting sun, and to which all the mortal race shall speed.”

We need not insist upon details, for our translator

p. 402

may have gone wide of the original; for instance, the “race” may, instead of being “mortal” in the original, have been the “Race” of which we have already heard so much in Philo and these tractates; but the similarity of the idea cannot fail to remind us of Philo when, in writing of the Redeemed of Spiritual Israel, he says:

“Those who were but scattered in Hellas and non-Grecian (Barbarian) lands, over islands and over continents, shall rise up with one impulse, and from diverse regions flock together unto the one spot revealed to them.” 1

And with this further compare the famous passage on the Therapeuts:

“Now this Race of men is to be found in many parts of the inhabited world, both the Grecian and non-Grecian world, sharing in the Perfect Good.

“In Egypt there are crowds of them in every province, or nome as they call it, and especially round Alexandria. For they who are in every way (or in every nome) the most highly advanced, come as colonists, 2 as it were, to the Therapeutic fatherland.” 3

Moreover, just as the Therapeuts in the immediately following lines of Philo are said to have their community on a hill, so too in our text we immediately find mention of the Trismegistic communities as having their chief centre on the Libyan Hill,—a community which is spoken of as “very large” in numbers, and so is somewhat of a contradiction to the numbers of the Pious given in xxii. 1, where we are told “they may be counted even in the world,” unless the sentence is to be taken as rhetorical.

p. 403

This Hill is called the Libyan Mount, a vague enough title; nor is this vagueness removed when we find it again referred to (in xxxvii. 3) as the place of burial of the body of the First Asclepius, and obtain the additional information that it is “hard by the shore of crocodiles,” for this can hardly refer to Crocodilopolis in the Fayyūm, the most northern of the towns so named, seeing that the Libyan Mount is “at the top of Egypt’s upper part,” and “towards the setting sun.”

This, however, corresponds admirably with the location of Philo’s Therapeut community on the southern shore of Lake Mareotis, just south of Alexandria; but few indeed will be found to entertain the possibility even that Philo and our author may be speaking of the same people from different standpoints and under different names.

As far as I can see, there is no certainty in the matter; and, therefore, I leave it as a problem of immense interest that has not as yet found a solution.


391:1 See R. 195, 2.

392:1 The so-founded opinions of Bernays and Zeller are characterized by Reitzenstein (p. 195) as of as little value as the opinions which made the whole of our literature dependent on New Platonism.

392:2 Augustine’s date is 354-430 A.D.

393:1 Cf. C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 14.

395:1 Cf. for references to the “few,” xxii. 1; xxiii. 1; xxxiv. 3; xl. 1.

395:2 Cf. vii. 3; viii. 2; xi. 4; xiv. 1; xvi. 3; xix. 4; xx. 3; xxii. 4; xxv. 2; xxvi. 1, 2 and 3.

395:3 Cf. especially C. H., iv. (v.) 1; x. (xi.) i.

395:4 In the Greek text of Lactantius this is “the Good.”

395:5 Cf. vi. 1; xiv. 3.

396:1 Cf. also C. H., xiii. (xiv.) 19, 20, and R. 39, n. 1.

396:2 Cf. C. H., x. (xi.) 13, and Commentary.

399:1 See xxv. 4, and note.

400:1 The “image of the Heaven”; cf. K. K., 46-48.

400:2 This is very different language from the more moderate tone of C. H., ix. (x.) 4, where we are told about the Gnostics, “they are thought mad and laughed at; they’re hated and despised, and sometimes even put to death.”

402:1 De Execrat., § 9; M. ii. 435, 436; P. 937 (Ri. v. 255).

402:2 Cf. in our Sermon, xxv. 1: Egypt, “the sole colony of holiness.”

402:3 D. V. C., C. 56 ff; M. i. 474; P. 892. Cf. F. F. F., 69.