Hermes is a legendary figure, a God even. He is identified with the Egyptian Toth. The texts attributed to him deal with magic, astrology, alchemy and philosophy. The philosophical Hermetica are essentially religious neo-platonic texts dating from the first centuries of the Christian era. The article below starts with the Egyptian Hermes-Toth, the renaissance translations of the Corpus Hermeticum by Ficino and concludes with the doctrines from the Corpus Hermeticum as found in Poimondres.
Theos causes Aeon;
Aeon causes Kosmos;
Kosmos causes Chronos;
Chronos causes Genesis.
The essence of Theos is Agathon - THE GOOD;
that of Aeon is identity;
that of Kosmos is order;
that of Chronos is change;
that of Genesis is life and death.
The energies of Theos are Nous and Psyche;
those of Aeon are immortality and duration;
those of Kosmos are restoration and substitution;
those of Chronos are growth and decay;
those of Genesis are quality and magnitude.
So, Aeon is in Theos;
Kosmos is in Aeon;
Chronos is in Kosmos;
Genesis is in Chronos.
Mists of time and mortal memory obscure awareness of the high and holy beings actively involved in the secret and sacred story of human evolution. Though their ubiquitous presence lies like a luminous arc across the illusory events of time, they leave no biographical tracings in mundane chronicles. Myth and legend essentially retain the efflorescence of their lives, veiled in the code languages of the Mystery temples and disfigured by generations of sectarian priests, pietists and scholars. Where details may be known, they are shrouded in archaic constellations of mystic metaphor and symbolic fable. In India, Narada and Vyasa appear in every age and cycle. In Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl was revered as god, archetypal man and ruler. In Chaldea, Oannes the Initiate was portrayed as a human-headed fish. And in Egypt, Hermes-Thoth sweeps through countless centuries as god, king, priest, teacher and Initiate.
The golden thread passing through and uniting all the guises of Hermes-Thoth is his veiled embodiment and vital teaching of primordial Wisdom. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, comprised of a variety of texts treating after-death states and the forces leading to diverse conditions of rebirth, Thoth is depicted in the great solar barque of Ra, standing opposite Maat. Here Ra is the solar creative force, the spirit of the Invisible Sun, while Thoth is its hidden wisdom and Maat, the feminine aspect of Thoth, is the law of noumenal Nature. According to the oldest known Egyptian cosmogony, Thoth utters the divine Word through which the whole cosmos emerges. When Atum, the golden sphere of light, arose in the incomprehensible Abyss of Nothingness, it differentiated itself into three creative aspects Thought, Will and Command. While Ra is the divine idea of the universe to be, Thoth is the mysterious ideation which gives rise to the Word Maat, the Law.
Thoth was called "Lord of Khemennu, the Self-Created One, to whom none hath given birth, the first god". As lord of Khemennu, later called Hemopolis, Thoth is lord of the City of Eight, chief of the eight great gods, whose correspondences include the seven sacred planets and the eighth sphere of the fixed stars. Like Hermes, the intimate friend of Apollo, Thoth is the wisdom that pervades all the spheres and descends in embodied form to earth. Thus Thoth is called "He who reckons in heaven, the Counter of the stars, the Enumerator of the earth and of what is contained therein, the Measurer of the Earth". Thoth is the Logos. He is invoked as "the Heart of Ra that cometh forth in the form of Thoth". As the judicious personification of wisdom and compassion, Thoth is portrayed as the scribe of the gods, the keeper of records, the recording judge of the dead. Thoth is the Lord of Books and "Mighty in Speech", for he has the power of the spoken Word, the force of creative action. Known as Tehuti in ancient times, the name was sometimes thought to derive from tehu, a name for the ibis, and ti, signifying the qualities and powers of the tehu. As scribe, Thoth was shown with the head of an ibis, a mystery to the uninitiated, intimating the fluttering of Spirit over the waters of precosmic matter, the motion which brings order to chaos. The Egyptians also derived the name from tekh, a sign for the heart. Though the connection of Thoth, primordial Wisdom, with the ibis and the heart remains a mystery to all save those who know, one cannot refrain from thinking of the spiritual injunction, "Bestride the Bird of Life if thou would'st know." The commentary from the Nadavindu Upanishad declares, "A Yogi who bestrides the Hansa (thus contemplates on Aum) is not affected by karmic influences or crores of sins."
Thoth is Aah, the Great Lord, the Lord of Heaven, who measures out the seasons and cycles and lays down the ultimate divisions of time. Thoth-Aah, therefore, stands behind all temporal distinctions and was called the Maker of Eternity and Creator of Everlastingness. As god of wisdom and the Logos in the cosmos, Thoth is also the reflection of that wisdom in the world and in the enlightened mind. Hermes-Thoth abides in the moon, the light whose borrowed radiance descends to earth to illumine the ways of men who dwell in darkness. His home in the bright side of the moon is the essence of creative wisdom, sometimes called the elixir of Hermes, but his abode in the moon's dark half is the secret wisdom of the highest Initiates. When a human being crossed the threshold of the Egyptian mysteries, he became Hermes, the human embodiment of the god at one level of consciousness. The coadunition of souls allows each being to reflect the pervasive Thoth on some plane of manifestation. When the second sacred degree of initiation was passed, the disciple became Hermes Twice-Great. When the third stage was reached, the individual realized his essential consubstantiality with the god and called himself with full knowledge of what he was saying Hermes the Thrice-Great, one with Hermes Trismegistus, Termaximus, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, the highest embodiment of wisdom possible in the world of gross manifestation.
Vettius Valens bemoaned the fact that he did not live in the days of the divine dynasties when Initiate-Kings ruled by the light of the sacred sciences and sages saw clearly the invisible Hermetic table of the unseen universe. In those days, Vettius says, individuals became self-consciously immortal through love of the Mysteries and were called Walkers of the Sky. The incarnation of Thoth as Hermes Trismegistus taught humanity all the arts and sciences, including writing, astronomy, astrology, agriculture, metallurgy, alchemy and jurisprudence. Thereafter, each soul who awoke to the mysteries of being and non-being became one in consciousness with Hermes and taught in his turn. These great beings are the pillars of humanity, rooted in the human virtues. They support the protecting canopy of Divine Wisdom under which the complex and largely unrecorded story of human evolution proceeds. These Teachers of Humanity left writings which were preserved amongst the Egyptians for millennia, but as successive generations slowly distorted the teachings through forgetfulness and the flux of dynastic preference for one theology or another, an incomplete body of writings fell into Alexandrian hands. There they were sometimes adapted to reflect more clearly the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, and sometimes mutilated to justify Christian dogma.
By the fourth century the collection of philosophical and ethical treatises known as the Corpus Hermeticum had been gathered together. Deeply appreciated by Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius and St. Augustine, they were lost to public memory with the closure of the Platonic Academies in Athens and Alexandria. Then, during the Italian Renaissance the Medicis sent agents throughout the Mediterranean world in search of classical wisdom. The Hermetic writings were brought to the Florentine Academy, where Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino translated and circulated them. These few fragments of the pristine wisdom provided the foundation for the mystical philosophies of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, inspired the alchemical science of the Rosicrucians and made possible the profound teachings of Robert Fludd and the early endeavours of the Royal Society. After being denounced as fourth-century forgeries in the late sixteenth century, their influence waned under the spreading overgrowth of mechanistic science, but in the twentieth century more discerning scholarship has detected strains of ancient doctrines among the heavily overlaid texts. In some treatises Hermes Trismegistus is taught by Thoth-Hermes, in others he instructs one of his sons, Tat or Asclepius, who are both disciples and yet aspects of himself. From the viewpoint of spiritual consciousness, the series of emanations from the Logos in the cosmos can be depicted as a personified genealogy, the Hermetic chain of teachers and their disciples.
The first treatise, called the Poimandres or Pymander, intimates the exalted state of consciousness required for the acquisition of the deepest knowledge.
Once when I had begun to think upon the things that exist and when my thoughts had soared high aloft, my bodily senses had been restrained by a kind of sleep which is not that of weariness or overindulgence in food. It seemed there came to me a Being of vast and boundless magnitude and who called me by name, saying, 'What do you yearn to hear and see, to learn and come to know by thought?'
'Who are you?' I said.
'I am', he said, 'Poimandres, the Mind (Nous) of the Sovereignty.'
'I would learn of the things that exist', I answered, 'and I wish to understand their nature and gain knowledge (gnosis) of Deity. These are the things I desire to hear.'
'I know what you wish', Poimandres said, 'for in truth I am with you everywhere. Keep in mind all that you would learn, and I will teach you.'
In a state of profound meditation Hermes had come into contact with an aspect of himself that transcends all parameters of time, location and personality. His deep desire to comprehend Being, rather than the ephemeral realm of becoming, invoked that which knows and can reveal the mystery. Within 'the boundless magnitude' a cosmogonical representation is projected for Hermes to behold.
I beheld a boundless view: all was changed into a mild and joyous light, and I marvelled when I saw it. Eventually there came to be in one region a descending darkness, terrible and grim. I saw the darkness become a watery substance unspeakably tossed about, giving forth smoke as from a fire. I heard it make an indescribable sound of lamentation, for it emitted an inarticulate cry. But from the light there came forth sacred Speech which established itself upon the fluid substance. This Speech seemed to be the Voice of the light.
Hermes does not fathom what he has seen, as Poimandres explains.
That light is I, Nous, the first god, who was before the watery substance appeared out of this darkness, and the Word which emanated from the light is the son of God. . . . Learn my meaning by looking at what is within yourself, for in you also Speech is son, and the mind is father of the Word. They are not separate from one another, for Life is the union of Word and Mind.
The scene disappears to be replaced by a vast congeries of forces and powers, all part of the original Light, forming the architectonics of the world. This is the archetype of the visible universe. The prime Nous, Poimandres, "the Mind which is Life and Light", gives rise to a second Nous, a creative force which makes from fire and air seven cosmocratores or administrators of the cosmic order. These correspond to the seven sacred planets of the visible universe, whose intelligent revolutions constitute destiny. After forming these beings, who contain the watery substance which will become Nature, the Word is withdrawn and Nature is left devoid of reason. But the first Mind gave birth to Anthropos, archetypal man, who is consubstantial with itself, and in this sense made in the image of God. Anthropos took his place in the abode of the second, creative Mind, and there beheld the creation of his brother.
When Anthropos looks upon blind Nature, Nature responds to that which is like itself in origin and forms herself into a mirror. Thus Anthropos looks upon himself, and taking that image for Nature, is drawn towards her. He passes through each of the seven spheres of the planets and gains their powers as he moves. Yet since he is one with Nous, the first god, originator of the creative Mind, his descent is self-limitation and a fall from his true being. As he descends through the sphere of Saturn, he learns to think 'I' in a separative sense and thus is cursed by the lie in the soul. The sixth sphere, Jupiter, gives him the wish to expand and acquire a richer sense of the personal selfhood. Mars adds impulse and rashness to this urge, and the fourth sphere of the sun gives him a false sense of arrogance at his success. The third region of Venus adds lust to impulse, and the second, Mercury, gives the cunning necessary to pursue it. With the capacity for deceit firmly fixed in the fallen Anthropos, he passes through the zone of the moon, the symbol of increase and decrease, fluctuation and change, and thus man falls into Nature, deprived and depraved by that which promised fulfilment.
Poimandres has not revealed an accidental anthropogenesis, however, a pointless tragedy called human existence, for the immersion of man in Nature gives Nature articulation. Nature is no longer blind, but made intelligible and intelligent through the mystic marriage. Man is not bound to keep to the bride's abode; he may return whence he came and all Nature will be elevated in the process.
If, being made of Light and Life, you learn to know that you are made of them, you will go back into Light and Life. . . . Let the man who has mind in him recognize himself.
By turning towards the divine Self, one can rise through the seven spheres and gain their virtues, their redemptive powers. In turning from the world of change, one gains the steadiness required for ascent. From Mercury comes intelligence to see the way, and from Venus the embracing love of all that lives. One then enters the realm of the sun, acquiring self-rule and therefore the rule of all Nature. This enables the energy of Mars to rise to sublimest heights, past Jupiter, where the domains of self are discovered to be the universe itself, and ultimately through Saturn, where "the universe grows 'I'".
And thereupon, having been stripped of all that was wrought upon him by the structure of the heavens, he ascends to the substance of the eighth sphere, being now possessed of his own proper power. . . . This is the Good, this is the consummation for those who have acquired gnosis.
In Hermes Trismegistus the primordial revelation has become a living reality, who abides with Nous even while imprisoned in the tenement of flesh. He is the Teacher par excellence, for he is one with the permanent individuality in each and all. In the text A Secret Discourse, Tat, the son of Hermes, asks, "What is real, Trismegistus?" Hermes answers:
That is real which is not sullied by matter, my son, nor limited by boundaries, that which has neither colour nor shape, which is without a vesture, is luminous, is apprehended by itself alone, changeless and unalterable, that which is good.
When Tat doubts that he has the power to apprehend the incorporeal, Hermes teaches that the power is within: "Will it, and it comes to be." This rebirth in the real Self requires a purification of one's whole being. Hidden within the twelve signs of the zodiac lies the secret tenfold circle of the stars. Similarly within the twelve torments of the soul are ten liberating powers.
Ignorance, my son, is one of the torments. The second is grief, the third is incontinence, followed by desire, injustice, covetousness, error, envy, fraud, anger, rashness and, the twelfth, malice.
Reflection reveals in this passage the logical outlines of a psychology of self-destruction. But within the human being are purificatory powers which may be summoned to banish the torments. The first is knowledge of one's divine nature, which cuts ignorance at the root. This will give joy to banish grief, and joy is the basis of continence. Endurance is now possible, and through this power desire is overcome. With the transcendence of desire one reaches "the tribunal on which Justice sits enthroned". The sixth power is unselfishness, which will eradicate every trace of covetousness, and this is the foundation of truth which removes error. Thus the Good appears, and before it all the torments flee and are destroyed.
This earthly tabernacle, my son, has been put together by the working of the zodiac, which produces manifold forms of one and the same thing to lead men astray. As the signs of which the zodiac consists are twelve in number, the forms produced by it, my son, fall into twelve divisions. But at the same time they are inseparable, being united in their action; for the reckless vehemence of irrational impulse is indivisible. It is with good reason, then, that they all depart together, as I said before. And it is also in accordance with reason that they are driven out by ten Powers, that is, by the Decad; for the Decad, my son, is the number by which soul is generated. Life and Light united are a Unit; and the number One is the source of the Decad.
When the Logos appears within, man becomes a god, and "it is no longer a body of three dimensions that he perceives, but the incorporeal". Tat, having been shown all these things, says:
I see myself to be the All. I am in heaven and in earth, in water and in air. I am in beasts and plants. I am a babe in the womb, and one that is not yet conceived, and one that has been born. I am present everywhere.
And Hermes endorses this realization in the simple response, "Now, my son, you know what rebirth is." Hermes is shown bearing the caduceus, emblem of the teaching of ascent and descent, of the power to work in the world and abide in universal consciousness. This is the wand of the Magician, whose power lies in the ability to focalize the Logoic light in the world of passing shadows. The power of the Magician is the potency latent in every human being, the forces of Nature which reflect the Logos in the cosmos, the son of the first Nous. Man shares the highest sphere when he chooses to assume his proper station. The path of human evolution is at once magical and ethical, ontological and psychological, for all is ultimately the reflection of one Substance-Principle. In the words of the Smaragdine Tablet, the veiled key to alchemy and self-regeneration:
What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of one thing.
As all things were produced by the mediation of one being, so all things were produced from this one by adaptation.
Its father is the sun, its mother is the moon.
It is the cause of all perfection throughout the whole earth.
Its power is perfect if it is changed into earth.
Separate the earth from the fire, the subtile from the gross, acting prudently and with judgement.
Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then descend again to earth, and unite together the power of things inferior and superior; thus you will possess the light of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly away from you.
This thing has more fortitude than fortitude itself, because it will overcome every subtile thing and penetrate every solid thing.
By it the world was formed.
Introduction based on the entry 'Simon Magus' in the Dictionary of Western Esotericism and Gnosis. The rest of the text is Copyright 2000 Theosophy Library Online (rescued from oblivion and for Eclectic Theosophical History, June 2006)