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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Hermes Trismegistus, or Mercurius

( ῾Ερμῆς, ῾Ερμῆς, Τρισμέγιστος ), the putative author of a large number of Greek works, many of which are still extant. The Greek Hermes was in the time of Plato identified with the Egyptian Thot, Thoth, or Theut (as it was also with the Alexandrian Thoyji), a mythical personage regarded as the discoverer of all sciences, especially as the originator of language, of the alphabet, and of the art of writing; of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, etc. In Egypt, all works relating to religion or science bore the name of Thot or of Hermes. According to a passage in Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 1. 5), two of Hermes's books contained the hymns of the gods and rules of conduct for the kings, four related to astrology, etc. The expressions used by Clement of Alexandria imply that there was a much larger number of so-called Hermetic books than he mentions. As for the 36,525 mentioned by lamblichus (De Myst. Egypt.), a number which corresponds to the great sacred period of Egypt, Goerres supposes it to refer to verses, not to books. All this leads to the belief that Hermes Trismegistus was but a personification of the Egyptian priesthood. According to Champollion junior, Hermes Trismegistus was, like Horus, represented by a hawk's head. The surname of Trismegistus (thrice great) appears to have been given to him on account of the many discoveries attributed to him. Looked at in the mystical sense, Thot, or the Egyptian Hermes, was the symbol of divine intelligence, thought incarnate, the living word-the primitive type of Plato's Logos.

It appears clear that a certain number of the books bearing the name of Hermes Trismegistus were translated into Greek about the time of the Ptolemies. The authenticity of the fragments of these translations which have come down to us is more doubtful. It was the time when so many supposititious works of Orpheus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, etc., were composed. Leaving aside Augustine's testimony (De civitate) ei. 1. 8:c. 26), Champollion junior considers the books of Hermes Trismegistus as containing really the old Egyptian doctrines, of which some traces can be found in the hieroglyphics. Besides, a careful examination of these remaining fragments discloses a theological system somewhat similar from that of Plato in his Tinaeus; a doctrine which differs entirely from those of all the other Greek schools, and which therefore was supposed to have been brought by him from Egypt, where he had been to consult with: the priests of that country. They are written in a barbarous Greek, in which it is easy to perceive the effort made by translators to follow literally the text of the original rather than the sense. Menard, a recent translator of Hermes, views the Hermetic books "as representing the final aspirations of the higher Greek wisdom, dimly anticipating the fuller revelation of the Christian faith; as a mystical system, hovering between the negations of Greek thought and the dogmas of the Christian faith" (An. Pres. Rev. January, 1869, p. 195). The following works, attributed to Hermes, have been published: Λάγος τέλειος ; the Greek original, quoted by Lactantius (Div. Instit. 7, 18), is lost, and there remains only a Latin translation of it, attributed to Apuleius of Madaura, and which is entitled Asclepius, or Hermetis Trismegisti Asclepius, sive de natura deorumus diulogns. This work appears to have been written shortly before the time of Lactantius, and in Egypt, probably at Alexandria. It is in the form of a dialogue between Hermes and Asclepius, his disciple, on God, the universe, nature, etc. The spirit of this work is thoroughly Neo-Platonic, and though the writer directs it against Christianity, he evidently borrowed many Christian doctrines to serve his end. The Asclepius was embodied in several editions of Apuleius, and in those of the Paemander by Ficinus and Patricius. These latter editions, and the Pcemander of Adrian Turnebus, contain Οροι Ἀσκληπίου πρὸς ῎Αμμωνα βασιλέα, probably a translation by the author of the preceding work, and treating also of God, matter, and' man. ῾Ερμοῦ τοῦ Τρισμεγίστου Ποιμάνδρης is an extensive work. The title Ποιμάνδρης, or Paemander, from Ποιμήν, pastor or shepherd, seems to be imitated from the Ποιμήν or Pastor of Hermas. (See HERMAS).

Indeed, the latter has sometimes been considered as the author of the Paemander. It is written in the form of a dialogue, and could hardly have been composed before the 4th century. It treats of nature, creation, and God. These different subjects are viewed from the Neo-Platonic stand-point, but intermingled with Christian, Jewish, and Eastern notions. The Paemander was at first published as a Latin translation by Ticinus, under the title Mercurii Trismiegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei (Treves, 1471, fol.; often reprinted at Venice). The Greek text, with Ficinus's translation, was first published by Adr. Turnebus (Paris, 1554, 4to; latest edit., with a commentar, Cologne, 1630, fol.). It was translated into French by G. du Prdau, under the title Deux livres de Mercurii Trismesgiste, un De la Puissance et Sapience de Dieu, l'autre De la Volonte de Dieu (Paris, 1557, 8vo); and by others: Ι᾿ατρομαθηματικὰ περὶκατακλίσεως νοσούντων προγνωστικὰ ἐκ τῆς μαθηματικῆς ἐπιστήμης πρὸς ῎Αμμωνα Αἰγύπτιον; this treatise, much less important than the preceding one, gives the means of foretelling the issue of a sickness by means of astrology: De Revolutionibus nativitatum, another treatise on astrology (Basle, 1559, fol.): Aphorismi, sive centum sententiae astrologicae, called also Centiloquium, supposed to have been written originally in Arabic, but of which we possess but the Latin translation (Venice, 1492, fol.; latest edit. Ulm, 1672, 12mo): Liberphysicomedicus Kiranidum Kirani, id est regis Persaruns, vere aureus gemeus, another astrological work, which is known to us only in the Latin translation published by Andr. Privinus, though the Greek text is yet extant in MS. at Madrid. Some of the books bearing the name of Hermes Trismegistus were evidently productions of the Middle Ages; these are Tractatus vere aureus de Lapidis philosophici Decreto, i.e. on the philosopher's stone (Latin, by D. Gnosius, Leipz. 1610,1613, 8vo; and translated into French by G. Joly and F. Habert, Paris, 1626, 8vo); Tabula smaraydina, an essay on the art of gold-making, published in Latin (Nuremburg, 1541,.4to; Strasb. 1566, 8vo); Περὶ βοτανῶν χυλώσεως, published at the end of RBther's edition of L. Lydus's De Miensibus, with notes by Bihr; Περὶ σεισμῶν, a fragment consisting of sixty-six hexameters, attributed by some to Orpheus: it is to be found in Maittaire's Miscellanea (London, 1722, 4to), and in Brunck's Analecta, 2, 127. All the extant fragments of Hermes are given in French by Menard, Hermes Trismegiste (2nd edit. Paris, 1868). See J. H. Ursinus. Exercitatio de Mercurio Trismegisto, etc. (Nuremb. 1661, 8vo); Roeser, De Hermete Trismegisto litterarum inventore (Wittenb. 1686 4to)*; Colberg, De libris antiqugitatem menteltibus, sibkyllarum, Hermletis, Zoroastris (Greifswald, 1694, 8vo); G. W. Wedel, De Tabula Hermmetis smaragdina (Jena, 1704,4to); Baumgarten Crusius, De Librorum Hermeticorum Origine, etc. (Jena, 1827, 4to); Fabricius, Bibl. Graeca, 1, 46, 94; F. Hoefer, Hist. de la Chimie, 1, 244; Pauly, Real-Encyklop.; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Gé neralé, 24, 377; Smith, Dictionary of Mythology and Biography, vol. 2; Warburton, Divine Legation, 1, 442; Mosheim, Commentaries, 1, 290; Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Hermes Trismegistus, or Mercurius'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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Hermes, Georg