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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Hermeticism

A philosophical and mystical tradition traced to the writings of HERMES TRISMEGISTUS (Hermes the Thrice-Greatest), a mythical personage identified with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes. Today, the core of this philosophy is mainly preserved in a collection of tractates known as the Corpus Hermeticum, translated into English by G. R. S. Mead and several others. Although these works are believed to be written about the 2nd century CE, they are actually compilations from the secret and esoteric teachings that go back to the early dynasties of ancient Egypt. The archaeologist Champollion-Figeac affirmed that the Books of Hermes “. . . . truly contain a mass of Egyptian traditions which are constantly corroborated by the most authentic records and monuments of Egypt of the hoariest antiquity” (Égypte ancienne, quoted in CW XIII:233). This body of literature has earned the highest respect of the early Christian fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine. Augustine devoted several chapters on the Hermetic philosophy in his The City of God. Later, Kabbalism, Alchemy, and ROSICRUCIANISM were all influenced by the Hermetic philosophy.

The most well-known statement of the Hermetic philosophy is the Emerald Tablet (Smaragdine Table) discovered in a cave in Hebron (in present day Israel). It is from this that we have the famous Hermetic maxim “As above, so below.” The other writings compiled into the Corpus Hermeticum consist of teachings about cosmology and the nature of the cosmos, human soul and divinity. The most well-known of the tractates is the “Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.” Poimandres was a celestial being who appeared to Hermes and taught him about how the universe including humanity evolved.

Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote that despite apparent distortions of the Poimandres text by later editors, it still contained enough of the original teachings that showed the Hermetic teachings to be essentially identical with The Secret Doctrine.

In reply, for example, to the question on how the elements of nature came into being, Poimandres replied:

To this He answer gives: From Will of God. [Nature] received the Word (Logos), and gazing upon the Cosmos Beautiful did copy it, making herself into a cosmos, by means of her own elements and by the births of souls.
And God-the-Mind, being male and female both, as Light and Life subsisting, brought forth another Mind to give things form, who, God as he was of Fire and Spirit, formed Seven Rulers who enclose the cosmos that the sense perceives. Men call their ruling Fate. (G. R. S. Mead translation).

Here we recognize the Logoic doctrine where the unmanifested Logos “God-the-Mind” brought forth the Creative Logos (“another Mind”), who formed in turn the “Seven Rulers” or Seven Planetary Logoi.

Blavatsky regards the Emerald Tablet as the only surviving real Hermetic document of the ancients. “All the others, including Poimandrês, are in their present form merely recollections, more or less vague and erroneous, of different Greek or even Latin authors, who often did not hesitate to palm off their own interpretations as genuine Hermetic fragments. And even if by chance these latter did exist, they would be as incomprehensible to the ‘Masters’ of today as the books of the alchemists of the Middle Ages” (CW XI:549).

Theosophical writers regard theosophy as essentially identical with the Hermetic philosophy. The Mahatma KOOT HOOMI, in Letter 120 of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, agreed that the Theosophical Society should be regarded as “a Philosophical School constituted on the ancient Hermetic basis.” He also stated that Hermetic philosophy is “universal and unsectarian”:

Hermetic Philosophy suits every creed and philosophy and clashes with none. It is the boundless ocean of Truth, the central point whither flows and wherein meet every river, as every stream — whether its source be in the East, West, North, or South. (ML, p. 410)

“Our work,” wrote Blavatsky, “then is a plea for the recognition of the Hermetic philosophy, the anciently universal Wisdom-Religion, as the only possible key to the Absolute in science and theology” (IU I:vii).

In 1884, a Hermetic Lodge was formed in London for the study of KABBALAH and Hermeticism under the leadership of Dr. Anna B. KINGSFORD. This later became an independent Hermetic Society.

V.H.C.

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