Hermetic Writings

HERMETIC WRITINGS. A collection of religious and philosophical tractates, the main body of which is known as the Corpus Hermeticum, also cited as the Hermetica, prob. dating around the 2nd or 3rd cent. a.d.

The title of the lit. is derived from the name, Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice greatest Hermes”). The Gr. messenger of the gods, Hermes, was identified with the Egyp. god Thoth. The lit., which prob. originated in Egypt, but was written in Gr., was a typical product of Hel. syncretism. “Hermes” thus became a suitable appellation for the figure who revealed the secrets pertaining to man’s divine origin and salvation. Affinities are evident with Platonic thought, Stoicism, Philo, Gnosticism, the Gospel of John (with notable contrasts) and the OT, on which it is, in part, dependent.

The extant material is in various forms, ranging from the discourses and dialogues of the main corpus of eighteen works to a number of fragments, some of which are in the Gnostic library of Chenoboskion (the so-called Nag Hammadi texts). The best-known treatise is the Poimandres, the first in the corpus. The Asclepius, extant in Lat., shows dependence on the Poimandres. It is found, in part, in the Chenoboskion library, Codex VI. Περὶ Παλιγγενεσἵας (“Concerning Regeneration”) is another significant part of the corpus.

The meaning of the name Poimandres may be “Shepherd of Man” (Jonas) or “the knowledge of the Sun-God” (Scott, Dodd et al.). The latter suits the dominant theme, held in common with gnosticism, of religion as true knowledge. “Poimandres” is the spirit being who provides the information, recorded in the first tractate, on the origin of the world, the fall of man and his restoration through knowledge. The LXX of Genesis is reproduced in several details, but in a totally different cosmogony. This cosmogony involves the successive generation of intermediary beings, which include Light, identified with Nous (Mind), the Word or Son of God, and the Demiurge, who created the world. Through desire, man, the child of God, became mortal, but through gnosis (knowledge) his soul may pass through the spheres to the godhead. This restoration is described in Περὶ Παλιγγενεσἵας as a rebirth, during which the soul is cleansed from the things, characteristic of life in the material world, which were punishing him: lust, ignorance, wrath, etc. Each of these is countered by an appropriate “power” from God, who is Light and Life.

Following the conclusions of C. H. Dodd and others, it may be affirmed that the affinities with Christian thought forms, particularly those of John, need not imply dependence in either direction. The basic data of the Christian Gospel concerning the atoning work of Christ are conspicuously lacking.


C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1935); A. J. Festugière, La révélation d’ Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (1944-1954); A. D. Nock (ed.) and A. J. Festugière (trans), Hermès Trismégiste: Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols. (1945-1954, rev. 1960); C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1955), 10-55 and passim; G. Van Moorsel, The Mysteries of Hermes Trismegistus (1955); H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed. (1963), 147-173.