Towards the end of the 15th century, Marsilius Ficinus summed up the whole of « ancient theology » in six emblematic names: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos, and Plato. In his mind, these characters formed one and the same ‘sect of initiates’, transmitting knowledge, wisdom and secrets to each other.
The first link in this long chain of initiation was Hermes Trismegistus, « three times very great », of whom Plato himself is only a distant disciple.
Well after Plato, in the 2nd century AD, the Corpus Hermeticum appeared, supposedly bringing back the essence of this ancient knowledge. The first Book of the Corpus is called after Poimandres, a Greek name meaning « the shepherd of man ».
In this Book, Hermes tells of his encounter with Poimandres:
« Who are you then?
– I am Poimandres (the « shepherd of man »), the Sovereign Intelligence. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere.”
Poimandres then enlightens the mind of Hermes, who expresses himself in the first person to recount his vision: « I am living an indefinable spectacle. Everything became a soft and pleasant light that charmed my sight. Soon afterwards, a frightful and horrible darkness descended in a sinuous form; it seemed to me as if this darkness was changing into some kind of damp and troubled nature, exhaling a smoke like fire and a kind of gloomy noise. Then there came out an inarticulate cry which seemed to be the voice of light.”
« Have you understood what this vision means? » asks Poimandres. « This light is me, the Intelligence, – your God, who precedes the wet nature out of darkness. The luminous Word that emanates from Intelligence is the Son of God.
– What do you mean, I replied.
– Learn this: what you see and hear in you is the Word, the word of the Lord; intelligence is the Father God. They are not separated from one another, for the union is their life.
– I thank you, I replied.
– Understand the light, he said, and know it. »
We can deduce from the words of Poimandres that « vision » is only a glimpse of the mystery, not its end. Understanding is not knowing, and knowing is not understanding. This is an essential principle of Gnosis.
At the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was composed, the Roman Empire reached its apogee. The Pax romana reigned from Brittany (England) to Egypt, from Tingitan Mauritania to Mesopotamia. The emperor was considered a god. Marcus Aurelius had to fight against the Barbarians on the Danube front, but the invasions and serious crises of the 3rd century had not begun.
Christianity was still only a ‘superstition’ (superstitio illicita) among many others. The cult of Mithra dominated in the Roman armies, and the influence of the Eastern and Gnostic cults was significant. Hermeticism took its place in this effervescence.
Hermetic formulas undoubtedly originated several centuries earlier, and thus well before the Gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century AD.
But as transcribed in the Poimandres, these formulas are striking in the simplicity and ease with which they seem to prefigure (or repeat?) some of the formulas of the Gospel of John. According to John, Christ is the Word of God, His Logos. Christ is the Son of God, and he is also « One » with Him. Would John have been sensitive to any hermetic influence? Or was it the opposite, the hermeticism of Poimandres mimicking Christian ideas?
Hermetic formulas do not copy the Johannine metaphors, nor do they duplicate them in any way. Under the apparent analogy, significant discrepancies emerge.
Hermeticism, however heraldable it may be to certain aspects of Christian theology, is certainly distinguished from it by other features, which belong only to it, and which clearly refer to Gnosis – from which Christianity very early wanted to distance itself, without, moreover, totally escaping its philosophical attraction.
Poïmandres says, for example, that the Sovereign of the world shows the image of his divinity to the « inferior nature ». Nature falls in love with this image, an image that is none other than man. Man too, seeing in the water the reflection of his own form, falls in love with his own nature (or with himself?) and wants to possess it. Nature and man are therefore closely united by mutual love.
Poïmandres explains: « This is why man, alone among all the beings living on earth, is double, mortal in body and immortal in essence. Immortal and sovereign of all things, he is subject to the destiny that governs what is mortal; superior to the harmony of the world, he is captive in his bonds; male and female like his father, and superior to sleep he is dominated by sleep.”
Then comes man’s ascent among the powers and towards God. By uniting with man, nature successively generates seven « men » (male and female), who receive their soul and intelligence from « life » and « light », in the form of air and fire.
This succession of « men » is an allegory of the necessary evolution of human nature. Various human natures must succeed one another through the historical ages.
Man must finally reach the stage where he/she strips him/herself of all the harmonies and beauties of the world. With only his/her own power left, he/she reaches an « eighth nature ».
In this eighth stage the « powers » reign, « ascending » towards God, to be reborn in Him.
Poimandres concluded his speech to Hermes with the following words: « This is the final good of those who possess Gnosis, – to become God. What are you waiting for now? You have learned everything, you only have to show the way to men, so that through you God may save the human race.”
Then began the mission of Hermes among Humankind: « And I began to preach to men the beauty of religion and Gnosis: peoples, men born of the earth, immersed in the drunkenness, sleep and ignorance of God, shake off your sensual torpor, wake up from your foolishness! Why, O men born of the earth, do you surrender yourselves to death, when you are allowed to obtain immortality? Come back to yourselves, you who walk in error, who languish in ignorance; depart from the dark light, take part in immortality by renouncing corruption ».
Who was Hermes Trismegistus really? A syncretic entity? A Ptolemaic myth? A pagan Christ? A Gnostic philosopher? A theological-political creation?
Through his ideas, Hermes Trismegistus embodied the fusion of two cultures, Greek and Egyptian. He is both the god Hermes of the Greeks, messenger of the gods and conductor of souls (psychopompos), and the god Thoth of ancient Egypt, who invented hieroglyphics and helped Isis to gather the scattered members of Osiris.
I stand by the interpretation of Marsilius Ficinus. Hermes is the first of the « ancient theologians ».
One lends only to the rich. In the 4th century B.C., Hecateus of Abatea had written that Thot-Hermes was the inventor of writing, astronomy and the lyre.
Artapan, in the 2nd century BC, even saw in him a figure of Moses.
Hermes in fact spoke, like Moses, with God. He too was given the mission of guiding mankind towards the Promised Land, the land that has a name: the knowledge of immortality.