Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. 1964.
The great forward movements of the Renaissance all derive their vigour,
their emotional impulse, from looking backwards. The cyclic view
of time as a perpetual movement from pristine golden ages of purity
and truth through successive brazen and iron ages still held sway and
the search for truth was thus of necessity a search for the early, the
ancient, the original gold from which the baser metals of the present
and the immediate past were corrupt degenerations. Man’s history was
not an evolution from primitive animal origins through ever growing
complexity and progress; the past was always better than the present,
and progress was revival, rebirth, renaissance of antiquity. The classical
humanist recovered the literature and the monuments of classical
antiquity with a sense of return to the pure gold of a civilisation better
and higher than his own. The religious reformer returned to the study
of the Scriptures and the early Fathers with a sense of recovery of the
pure gold of the Gospel, buried under later degenerations.
These are truisms, and it is also obvious that both these great returning
movements were not mistaken as to the date of the earlier, better
period to which they turned. The humanist knew the date of Cicero,
knew the correct date of his golden age of classical culture; the
reformer, even if not clear as to the date of the Gospels, knew that he
was trying to return to the earliest centuries of Christianity. But the
returning movement of the Renaissance with which this book will be
concerned, the return to a pure golden age of magic, was based on a
radical error in dating. The works which inspired the Renaissance
Magus, and which he believed to be of profound antiquity, were really
written in the second to the third centuries A.D. He was not returning
to an Egyptian wisdom, not much later than the wisdom of the Hebrew
patriarchs and prophets, and much earlier than Plato and the other
philosophers of Greek antiquity, who had all—so the Renaissance
Magus firmly believed—drunk from its sacred fountain. He is returning
to the pagan background of early Christianity, to that religion of
the world, strongly tinged with magic and oriental influences, which
was the gnostic version of Greek philosophy, and the refuge of weary
pagans seeking an answer to life’s problems other than that offered by
their contemporaries, the early Christians.
The Egyptian God, Thoth, the scribe of the gods and the divinity of
wisdom, was identified by the Greeks with their Hermes and sometimes
given the epithet of “Thrice Great”. 1 The Latins took over this
identification of Hermes or Mercurius with Thoth, and Cicero in his De
natura deorum explains that there were really five Mercuries, the fifth
being he who killed Argus and consequently fled in exile to Egypt
where he “gave the Egyptians their laws and letters” and took the
Egyptian name of Theuth or Thoth. 2 A large literature in Greek
developed under the name of Hermes Trismegistus, concerned with
astrology and the occult sciences, with the secret virtues of plants and
stones and the sympathetic magic based on knowledge of such virtues,
with the making of talismans for drawing down the powers of the stars,
and so on. Besides these treatises or recipes for the practice of astral
magic going under the name of Hermes, there also developed a philosophical
literature to which the same revered name was attached. It is
not known when the Hermetic framework was first used for philosophy,
but the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum, which are the most
important of the philosophical Hermetica which have come down to us,
are probably to be dated between A.D 100 and 300.3 Though cast in a
pseudo-Egyptian framework, these works have been thought by many
scholars to contain very few genuine Egyptian elements. Others would
allow for some influence of native Egyptian beliefs upon them. 4 In any
case, however, they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by
an all-wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various
unknown authors, all probably Greeks, 5 and they contain popular
Greek philosophy of the period, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism,
combined with some Jewish and probably some Persian influences.
They are very diverse, but they all breathe an atmosphere of intense
piety. The Asclepius purports to describe the religion of the Egyptians,
and by what magic rites and processes the Egyptians drew down the
powers of the cosmos into the statues of their gods. This treatise has
come down to us through the Latin translation formerly attributed to
Apuleius of Madaura. 6 The Pimander (the first of the treatises in the Corpus
Hermeticum, the collection of fifteen Hermetic dialogues7) gives an
account of the creation of the world which is in parts reminiscent of
Genesis. Other treatises describe the ascent of the soul through the
spheres of the planets to the divine realms above them, or give ecstatic
descriptions of a process of regeneration by which the soul casts off the
chains which bind it to the material world and becomes filled with
divine powers and virtues.
Festugière has analysed the state of mind of the epoch, roughly the
second century after the birth of Christ, in which the Asclepius and the
Hermetic treatises which have reached us in the Corpus Hermeticum collection
were written. Externally that world was highly organised and at
peace. The pax Romana was at the height of its efficiency and the mixed
populations of the Empire were governed by an efficient bureaucracy.
Communications along the great Roman roads were excellent. The
educated classes had absorbed the Graeco-Roman type of culture,
based on the seven liberal arts. The mental and spiritual condition of
this world was curious. The mighty intellectual effort of Greek philosophy
was exhausted, had come to a standstill, to a dead end, perhaps
because Greek thinking never took the momentous step of experimental
verification of its hypotheses—a step which was not to be taken
until fifteen centuries later with the birth of modern scientific thinking
in the seventeenth century. The world of the second century was weary
of Greek dialectics which seemed to lead to no certain results. Platonists,
Stoics, Epicureans could only repeat the theories of their various
schools without making any further advances, and the tenets of the
schools were boiled down in textbook form, in manuals which formed
the basis of philosophical instruction within the Empire. In so far as it
is Greek in origin, the philosophy of the Hermetic writings is of this
standardised type, with its smattering of Platonism, Neoplatonism,
Stoicism, and the other Greek schools of thought.
This world of the second century was, however, seeking intensively
for knowledge of reality, for an answer to its problems which the
normal education failed to give. It turned to other ways of seeking an
answer, intuitive, mystical, magical. Since reason seemed to have failed,
it sought to cultivate the Nous, the intuitive faculty in man. Philosophy
was to be used, not as a dialectical exercise, but as a way of reaching
intuitive knowledge of the divine and of the meaning of the world, as a
gnosis, in short, to be prepared for by ascetic discipline and a religious
way of life. The Hermetic treatises, which often take the form of dialogues
between master and disciple, usually culminate in a kind of
ecstasy in which the adept is satisfied that he has received an illumination
and breaks out into hymns of praise. He seems to reach this
illumination through contemplation of the world or the cosmos, or
rather through contemplation of the cosmos as reflected in his own
Nous or mens which separates out for him its divine meaning and gives
him a spiritual mastery over it, as in the familiar gnostic revelation or
experience of the ascent of the soul through the spheres of the planets
to become immersed in the divine. Thus that religion of the world
which runs as an undercurrent in much of Greek thought, particularly
in Platonism and Stoicism, becomes in Hermetism actually a religion, a
cult without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone, a religious
philosophy or philosophical religion containing a gnosis.
The men of the second century were thoroughly imbued with the
idea (which the Renaissance imbibed from them) that what is old is
pure and holy, that the earliest thinkers walked more closely with the
gods than the busy rationalists, their successors. Hence the strong
revival of Pythagoreanism in this age. They also had the impression that
what is remote and far distant is more holy9; hence their cult of the
“barbarians”, of Indian gymnosophists, Persian Magi, Chaldean astrologers,
whose approach to knowledge was felt to be more religious
than that of the Greeks. 10 In the melting-pot of the Empire, in which all
religions were tolerated, there was ample opportunity for making
acquaintance with oriental cults. Above all, it was the Egyptians who
were revered in this age. Egyptian temples were still functioning, and
devout seekers after religious truth and revelation in the Graeco-Roman
world would make pilgrimages to some remotely situated Egyptian
temple and pass the night in its vicinity in the hope of receiving some
vision of divine mysteries in dreams. 11 The belief that Egypt was the
original home of all knowledge, that the great Greek philosophers had
visited it and conversed with Egyptian priests, had long been current,
and, in the mood of the second century, the ancient and mysterious
religion of Egypt, the supposed profound knowledge of its priests,
their ascetic way of life, the religious magic which they were
thought to perform in the subterranean chambers of their temples,
offered immense attractions. It is this pro-Egyptian mood of the
Graeco-Roman world which is reflected in the Hermetic Asclepius with
its strange description of the magic by which the Egyptian priests
animated the statues of their gods, and its moving prophecy that the
most ancient Egyptian religion is destined to come to an end. “In that
hour”, so the supposed Egyptian priest, Hermes Trismegistus, tells his
disciple, Asclepius, “In that hour, weary of life, men will no longer
regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence.
This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the
past, the present, and the future, will be in danger of perishing; men
will esteem it a burden; and thenceforward this whole of the universe
will be despised and no longer cherished, this incomparable work of
God, glorious construction, all-good creation made up of an infinite
diversity of forms, instrument of the will of God who, without envy,
lavishes his favour upon his work, in which is assembled in one all, in a
harmonious diversity, all that can be seen which is worthy of reverence,
praise and love.” 12 Thus Egypt, and its magical religion, becomes
identified with the Hermetic religion of the world.
So we can understand how the content of the Hermetic writings
fostered the illusion of the Renaissance Magus that he had in them a
mysterious and precious account of most ancient Egyptian wisdom,
philosophy, and magic. Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical name associated
with a certain class of gnostic philosophical revelations or with
magical treatises and recipes, was, for the Renaissance, a real person, an
Egyptian priest who had lived in times of remote antiquity and who
had himself written all these works. The scraps of Greek philosophy
which he found in these writings, derived from the somewhat debased
philosophical teaching current in the early centuries A. D., confirmed
the Renaissance reader in his belief that he had here the fount of
pristine wisdom whence Plato and the Greeks had derived the best that
This huge historical error was to have amazing results.
It was on excellent authority that the Renaissance accepted Hermes
Trismegistus as a real person of great antiquity and as the author of
the Hermetic writings, for this was implicitly believed by leading
Fathers of the Church, particularly Lactantius and Augustine.
Naturally, it would not have occurred to anyone to doubt that these
overwhelmingly authoritative writers must be right, and it is indeed a
remarkable testimony to the prominence and importance of the
Hermetic writings and to the early and complete success of the Hermes
Trismegistus legend as to their authorship and antiquity that Lactantius,
writing in the third century, and Augustine in the fourth, both accept
the legend unquestioningly.
After quoting Cicero on the fifth Mercury as he “who gave letters
and laws to the Egyptians”, Lactantius, in his Institutes, goes on to say
that this Egyptian Hermes “although he was a man, yet he was of great
antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that
the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of
Trismegistus. He wrote books and those in great number, relating to
the knowledge of divine things, in which he asserts the majesty of the
supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names
which we use—God and Father.” 13 By these “many books”, Lactantius
certainly means some of the Hermetic writings which have come
down to us, for he makes several quotations from some of the treatises
of the Corpus Hermeticum and also from the Asclepius. 14 The very early date
at which Lactantius would place Hermes Trismegistus and his books
may be inferred from a remark in his De ira Dei where he says that
Trismegistus is much more ancient than Plato and Pythagoras. 15
There are many other quotations from, and references to Hermes
Trismegistus in Lactantius’ Institutes. He evidently thought that Hermes
was a valuable ally in his campaign of using pagan wisdom in support
of the truth of Christianity. In the quotation just made, he has pointed
out that Hermes, like the Christians, speaks of God as “Father”; and in
fact the word Father is not infrequently used of the supreme being in
the Hermetic writings. Still more telling, however, was Hermes’ use of
the expression “Son of God” for the demiurge. To demonstrate this
remarkable confirmation of the truth of Christianity by this most
ancient writer, Lactantius quotes, in Greek, a passage from the Asclepius
(one of the quotations which has preserved for us fragments of the lost
Hermes, in the book which is entitled The Perfect Word, made use of
these words: “The Lord and Creator of all things, whom we have
thought right to call God, since He made the second God visible and
sensible. . . . Since, therefore, He made Him first, and alone, and one
only, He appeared to Him beautiful, and most full of all good things;
and He hallowed Him, and altogether loved Him as His own Son.” 16
The Perfect Word, or Sermo Perfectus, is a correct translation of the original
Greek title of the Asclepius, 17 and the passage which Lactantius quotes in
Greek corresponds roughly to a passage in our Latin translation. Thus
the Asclepius, the work which contains the weird description of how the
Egyptians fabricated their idols and the Lament for the Egyptian
religion, becomes sanctified because it contains a prophecy concerning
the Son of God.
It was not only in the Asclepius that the Hermetic writers used the
expression “Son of God”. At the beginning of Pimander, which is the
Hermetic account of creation, the act of creation is said to be through a
luminous Word, who is the Son of God. 18 When discussing the Son
of God as the creative Word, with quotations from the Scriptures,
Lactantius brings in Gentile confirmation, pointing out that the Greeks
speak of Him as the Logos, and also Trismegistus. He was doubtless
thinking of the passage on the creative Word as the Son of God in the
Pimander, and he adds that “Trismegistus, who by some means or other
searched into almost all truth, often described the excellence and the
majesty of the Word.” 19
Indeed, Lactantius regards Hermes Trismegistus as one of the most
important of the Gentile seers and prophets who foresaw the coming
of Christianity, because he spoke of the Son of God and of the Word. In
three passages of the Institutes he cites Trismegistus with the Sibyls as
testifying to the coming of Christ. 20 Lactantius nowhere says anything
against Hermes Trismegistus. He is always the most ancient
and all-wise writer, the tenor of whose works is agreeable to Christianity
and whose mention of God the Son places him with the Sibyls
as a Gentile prophet. In general passages Lactantius condemns the
worshipping of images, and he also thinks that the demons used by
Magi are evil fallen angels. 21 These things are, however, never associated
by him with Trismegistus, who always appears as a revered
authority on divine truths. It is no wonder that Lactantius became a
favourite Father for the Renaissance Magus who wished to remain a
Augustine was, however, a difficulty for the Renaissance Magus who
wished to remain a Christian, for Augustine in the De Civitate Dei delivers
a severe condemnation of what “Hermes the Egyptian, called
Trismegistus” wrote concerning idols, that is to say of the passage in
the Asclepius, which he quotes at length, on how the Egyptians in their
magical religion animated the statues of their gods by magic means, by
drawing spirits into them. 22 Augustine is using, not a Greek text of the
Asclepius, as Lactantius had done, but the same Latin translation which
we have, and which must therefore be at least as early as the fourth
century. 23 As mentioned before, this translation used to be attributed to
Apuleius of Madaura.
The context in which Augustine makes his attack on the idolatrous
passage in the Asclepius is important. He has been attacking magic in
general and in particular the views on spirits or daemones held by
Apuleius of Madaura. 24
Apuleius of Madaura is a striking example of one of those men,
highly educated in the general culture of the Graeco-Roman world
who, weary of the stale teachings of the schools, sought for salvation
in the occult, and particularly in the Egyptian type of the occult. Born
circa A. D. 123, Apuleius was educated at Carthage and at Athens and
later travelled to Egypt where he became involved in a lawsuit in
which he was accused of magic. He is famous for his wonderful novel,
popularly known as The Golden Ass, 25 the hero of which is transformed
by witches into an ass, and after many sufferings in his animal form,
is transformed back into human shape after an ecstatic vision of the
goddess Isis, which comes to him on a lonely seashore whither he has
wandered in despair. Eventually he becomes a priest of Isis in an
Egyptian temple. The whole mood of this novel, with its ethical
theme (for the animal form is a punishment for transgression), its
ecstatic initiation or illumination, its Egyptian colouring, is like the
mood of the Hermetic writings. Though Apuleius was not really the
translator of the Asclepius, that work would certainly have appealed to
Augustine calls Apuleius a Platonist, and he attacks him for the views
on airy spirits or daemones which he held to be intermediaries between
gods and men in his work on the “demon” of Socrates. Augustine
regards this as impious, not because he disbelieves in airy spirits or
demons but because he thinks they are wicked spirits or devils. He then
goes on to attack Hermes Trismegistus for praising the Egyptians for
the magic by which they drew such spirits or demons into the statues
of their gods, thus animating the statues, or making them into gods.
Here he quotes verbally the god-making passage in the Asclepius. He
then discusses the prophecy that the Egyptian religion will come to an
end, and the lament for its passing, which he interprets as a prophecy
of the ending of idolatry by the coming of Christianity. Here too,
therefore, Hermes Trismegistus is a prophet of the coming of Christianity,
but all credit for this is taken away by Augustine’s statement that
he had this foreknowledge of the future from the demons whom he
Hermes presages these things as the devil’s confederate, suppressing
the evidence of the Christian name, and yet foretelling with a sorrowful
intimation, that from it should proceed the wreck of all their idolatrous
superstitions: for Hermes was one of those who (as the apostle says),
“Knowing God, glorified Him not as God, nor were thankful, but
became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was full of
darkness. . . .”26
Yet, continues Augustine, “this Hermes says much of God according to
the truth”, though in his admiration for the Egyptian idolatry he was
blind, and his prophecy of its passing he had from the devil. In contrast,
he quotes a true prophet, like Isaiah, who said, “The idols of
Egypt shall be moved at His presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt
in the midst of her.” 27
Augustine says nothing whatever about Hermes’ mention of the
“Son of God”, and his whole treatment of the subject is perhaps, in
part, a reply to Lactantius’ glorification of Hermes as a Gentile prophet.
Augustine’s views on Hermes naturally presented a difficulty for the
many devout admirers of the Hermetic writings in the Renaissance.
Various courses were open to them. One was to affirm that the idolatrous
passage in the Asclepius was an interpolation made in the Latin
translation by the magician, Apuleius, and was not in the lost Greek
original by Hermes. This course was adopted by several Hermetists of
the sixteenth century, as will be seen later. 28 But to the Renaissance
Magus, the magic in the Asclepius was the most attractive part of the
Hermetic writings. How was a Christian Magus to get round Augustine?
Marsilio Ficino did it by quoting Augustine’s condemnation, and
then ignoring it, though timidly, by practising magic. Giordano Bruno
was to take the bolder course of maintaining that the magical Egyptian
religion of the world was not only the most ancient but also the only
true religion, which both Judaism and Christianity had obscured and
There is another passage on Hermes Trismegistus in the De Civitate
Dei, widely separated from the one on the Egyptian idolatry and in
quite a different context. Augustine is affirming the extreme antiquity
of the Hebrew tongue and that the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs are
much earlier than any of the Gentile philosophers, and the wisdom of
the patriarchs earlier than the Egyptian wisdom.
And what was their [the Egyptian’s] goodly wisdom, think you? Truly
nothing but astronomy, and such other sciences as rather seemed to
exercise the wit than to elevate the knowledge. For as for morality, it
stirred not in Egypt until Trismegistus’ time, who was indeed long
before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea and Moses also; for at the time when Moses
was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’ brother, a great astronomer, living,
and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury, who
begat the father of this Trismegistus. 29
Augustine thus confirmed with the great weight of his authority the
extreme antiquity of Hermes Trismegistus, who was “long before the
sages and philosophers of Greece”. And by giving him this curious
genealogy, whereby he is dated three generations later than a contemporary
of Moses, Augustine raised a question which was to be
much debated concerning the relative dates of Moses and Hermes. Was
Hermes slightly later than Moses, though much earlier than the Greeks,
as Augustine said? Was he contemporary with Moses, or earlier than
Moses? All these views were to be held by later Hermetists and Magi.
The need to date him in relation to Moses was stimulated by the
affinities with Genesis which must strike every reader of the Hermetic
From other early Christian writers, more about Hermes Trismegistus
could be learned, 30 particularly from Clement of Alexandria, who, in
his striking description of the procession of the Egyptian priests, says
that the singer at the head of the procession carried two books of
music and hymns by Hermes; the horoscopus carried four books by
Hermes on the stars. In the course of this description, Clement states
that there are forty-two books by Hermes Trismegistus, thirty-six of
which contain the whole of the philosophy of the Egyptians, the other
six being on medicine. 31 It is very improbable that Clement knew any
of the Hermetica which have come down to us, 32 but the Renaissance
reader believed that he had in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius
precious survivors of that great sacred library of which Clement
About 1460, a Greek manuscript was brought to Florence from
Macedonia by a monk, one of those many agents employed by Cosimo
de’ Medici to collect manuscripts for him. It contained a copy of the
Corpus Hermeticum, not quite a complete copy, for it included fourteen
only of the fifteen treatises of the collection, the last one being missing.
33 Though the Plato manuscripts were already assembled, awaiting
translation, Cosimo ordered Ficino to put these aside and to translate
the work of Hermes Trismegistus at once, before embarking on the
Greek philosophers. It is Ficino himself who tells us this, in that dedication
to Lorenzo de’ Medici of the Plotinus commentaries in which he
describes the impetus given to Greek studies by the coming of Gemistus
Pletho and other Byzantine scholars to the Council of Florence, and
how he himself was commissioned by Cosimo to translate the treasures
of Greek philosophy now coming into the West from Byzantium.
Cosimo, he says, had handed over to him the works of Plato for translation.
But in the year 1463 word came to Ficino from Cosimo that he
must translate Hermes first, at once, and go on afterwards to Plato;
“mihi Mercurium primo Termaximum, mox Platonem mandavit
interpretandum”. 34 Ficino made the translation in a few months, whilst
the old Cosimo, who died in 1464, was still alive. Then he began on
It is an extraordinary situation. There are the complete works of
Plato, waiting, and they must wait whilst Ficino quickly translates
Hermes, probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies.
What a testimony this is to the mysterious reputation of the Thrice
Great One! Cosimo and Ficino knew from the Fathers that Hermes
Trismegistus was much earlier than Plato. They also knew the Latin
Asclepius which whetted the appetite for more ancient Egyptian wisdom
from the same pristine source. 36 Egypt was before Greece; Hermes was
earlier than Plato. Renaissance respect for the old, the primary, the faraway,
as nearest to divine truth, demanded that the Corpus Hermeticum
should be translated before Plato’s Republic or Symposium, and so this was
in fact the first translation that Ficino made.
Ficino gave his translation the title of Pimander, which is really the
title of only the first treatise in the Corpus Hermeticum, but which he
extended to cover the whole Corpus, or rather the first fourteen of its
items which were all that his manuscript contained. He dedicated the
translation to Cosimo, and this dedication, or argumentum as he calls it,
reveals the state of mind, the attitude of profound awe and wonder, in
which he had approached this marvellous revelation of ancient
In that time in which Moses was born flourished Atlas the astrologer,
brother of Prometheus the physicist and maternal uncle of the elder
Mercury whose nephew was Mercurius Trismegistus. 37
So the argumentum begins, with a slightly garbled version of the Augustinian
genealogy of Hermes, which at once places him in extreme
antiquity, and almost in a Mosaic context.
Augustine has written of Mercurius, continues Ficino, also Cicero
and Lactantius. He repeats the information from Cicero that Mercurius
“gave laws and letters” to the Egyptians, adding that he founded the
city called Hermopolis. He was an Egyptian priest, the wisest of them
all, supreme as philosopher for his vast knowledge, as priest for his
holiness of life and practice of the divine cults, and worthy of
kingly dignity as administrator of the laws, whence he is rightly called
Termaximus, the Three Times Great. 38
He is called the first author of theology: he was succeeded by
Orpheus, who came second amongst ancient theologians:
Aglaophemus, who had been initiated into the sacred teaching of
Orpheus, was succeeded in theology by Pythagoras, whose disciple
was Philolaus, the teacher of our Divine Plato. Hence there is one
ancient theology (prisca theologia) . . . taking its origin in Mercurius
and culminating in the Divine Plato. 39
It is in this preface to the Pimander that Ficino gives for the first time
his genealogy of wisdom which he worked out, not mainly from
Gemistus Pletho, who does not mention Trismegistus, but from the
Fathers, particularly Augustine, Lactantius, and Clement. He was to
repeat the genealogy of wisdom many times later: Hermes Trismegistus
always has either the first place in it, or is second only to Zoroaster
(who was Pletho’s favourite as the first priscus theologus), or is bracketed
first with Zoroaster. 40 The genealogy of the prisca theologia forcibly demonstrates
the extreme importance which Ficino assigned to Hermes as
the fons et origo of a wisdom tradition which led in an unbroken chain to
Plato. Much other evidence could be quoted from his works of Ficino’s
unquestioning belief in the primacy and importance of Hermes, and
this attitude impressed an early biographer of the Florentine philosopher
who says that “he (Ficino) held it as a secure and firm opinion
that the philosophy of Plato took its origin from that of Mercurius,
whose teachings seemed to him closer to the doctrine of Orpheus and
in certain ways to our own Theology (that is, to Christianity) than
those of Pythagoras.” 41
Mercurius wrote many books pertaining to the knowledge of divine
things, continues Ficino in his preface to the Pimander, in which he
reveals arcane mysteries. Nor is it only as a philosopher that he speaks
but sometimes as a prophet he sings of the future. He foresaw the ruin
of the early religion and the birth of a new faith, and the coming of
Christ. Augustine doubts whether he did not know this through the
stars or the revelation of demons, but Lactantius does not hesitate to
place him among the Sibyls and the prophets. 42
These remarks (which we have paraphrased, not fully translated,
from the argumentum) show Ficino’s effort to avoid Augustine’s
condemnation of his hero for the Egyptian idolatry in the Asclepius,
which he does by emphasising the favourable view of Lactantius. He
next goes on to say that of the many works which Mercurius wrote,
two principally are divine, the one called Asclepius, which Apuleius the
Platonist translated into Latin, and the one called Pimander (that is the
Corpus Hermeticum), which has been brought out of Macedonia into Italy
and which he himself, by command of Cosimo, has now translated into
Latin. He believes that it was first written in Egyptian and was translated
into Greek to reveal to the Greeks the Egyptian mysteries.
The argumentum ends on a note of ecstasy which reflects those gnostic
initiations with which the Hermetica are concerned. In this work, so
Ficino believes, there shines a light of divine illumination. It teaches
us how, rising above the deceptions of sense and the clouds of fantasy,
we are to turn our mind to the Divine Mind, as the moon turns to the
sun, so that Pimander, that is the Divine Mind, may flow into our
mind and we may contemplate the order of all things as they exist in
In the introduction to his edition of the Hermetica, Scott outlined
Ficino’s attitude to these works as follows:
Ficino’s theory of the relation between Hermes Trismegistus and the
Greek philosophers was based partly on data supplied by early Christian
writers, especially Lactantius and Augustine, and partly on the
internal evidence of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius of
Pseudo-Apuleius. He saw . . . that the resemblance between the Hermetic
doctrines and those of Plato was such as to imply some historical
connection; but accepting it as a known fact that the author of the
Hermetica was a man who lived about the time of Moses, he inverted
the true relation and thought that Plato had derived his theology,
through Pythagoras, from Trismegistus. And his view was adopted, at
least in its main outlines, by all who dealt with the subject down to the
end of the sixteenth century. 43
This is undoubtedly a fact, and one which all students of the
Renaissance Neoplatonism which Ficino’s translations and works
inaugurated would do well to bear in mind. It has not been sufficiently
investigated what was the effect on Ficino of his awestruck approach to
the Hermetica as the prisca theologia, the pristine fount of illumination
flowing from the Divine Mens, which would lead him to the original
core of Platonism as a gnosis derived from Egyptian wisdom.
Contemporaries shared with Ficino his estimate of the extreme
importance of the Hermetic writings for, as P. O. Kristeller has pointed
out, his Pimander had an immense diffusion. 44 A very large number of
manuscripts of it exist, more than of any other work by Ficino. It was
printed for the first time in 1471 and went through sixteen editions to
the end of the sixteenth century, not counting those in which it
appears with the other works. An Italian translation of it by Tommaso
Benci was printed at Florence in 1548. In 1505, Lefèvre d’Etaples
brought together into one volume Ficino’s Pimander and the translation
of the Asclepius by Pseudo-Apuleius. The bibliography of the editions,
translations, collections, commentaries on the Hermetic writings in the
sixteenth century is long and complicated, 45 testifying to the profound
and enthusiastic interest aroused by Hermes Trismegistus throughout
The ban of the mediaeval Church on magic had forced it into dark
holes and corners, where the magician plied his abominated art in
secrecy. Respectable people might sometimes employ him surreptitiously
and he was much feared. But he was certainly not publicly
admired as a religious philosopher. Renaissance magic, which was a
reformed and learned magic and always disclaimed any connection
with the old ignorant, evil, or black magic, was often an adjunct of an
esteemed Renaissance philosopher. This new status of magic was
undoubtedly mainly due to that great flood of literature which came in
from Byzantium, so much of which dated from those early centuries
after Christ in which the reigning philosophies were tinged with
occultism. The learned and assiduous reader of such authors as Iamblichus,
Porphyry, or even of Plotinus, could no longer regard magic as
the trade of ignorant and inferior persons. And the genealogy of
ancient wisdom, which Ficino did so much to propagate, was also
favourable to a revival of magic, for so many of the prisci theologi were
prisci magi, and the literature which supported their claims also really
dated from the occultist early centuries A. D. To the most ancient Zoroaster,
who sometimes changes place with Hermes as the earliest in the
chain of wisdom, were attributed the Chaldean Oracles, which were not,
as supposed, documents of extreme antiquity but dated from the second
century A. D. 46 The incantatory magic supposed to have been
taught by Orpheus, who comes second in the chain of prisci theologi,
was based on the Orphic hymns, most of which date from the second
or third century A. D. 47 Thus Hermes Trismegistus was not the only
most ancient theologian or Magus whose sacred literature was badly
Nevertheless it is probable that Hermes Trismegistus is the most
important figure in the Renaissance revival of magic. Egypt was traditionally
associated with the darkest and strongest magic, and now
there were brought to light the writings of an Egyptian priest which
revealed an extraordinary piety, confirming the high opinion of him
which the Christian Father, Lactantius, had expressed, and whom the
highest authorities regarded as the source of Plato. It was, almost certainly,
the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum, which demonstrated the
piety of Hermes and associated him so intimately with the reigning
Platonic philosophy, which rehabilitated his Asclepius, condemned by
Augustine as containing bad demonic magic. The extraordinarily lofty
position assigned to Hermes Trismegistus in this new age rehabilitated
Egypt and its wisdom, and therefore the magic with which that
wisdom was associated.
1 Festugière, I, pp. 67 ff.
2 Cicero, De nat. deor., III, 22.
3 C. H., I, p. v. (preface by Nock); Festugière, III, p. 1.
In the first volume of his work, La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 8
4 As Bloomfield says, “Scholarship has veered from one extreme to the other on this
question of the Egyptian elements in Hermeticism” (see M. W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly
Sins, Michigan, 1952, p. 342, and the references there given). Festugière allows hardly
anything to it and concentrates almost entirely on the Greek influences in the Hermetica. A
cautious summary by Bloomfield (op. cit., p. 46) is as follows: “These writings are chiefly
the product of Egyptian Neoplatonists who were greatly influenced by Stoicism, Judaism,
Persian theology and possibly by native Egyptian beliefs, as well as, of course, by Plato,
especially the Timaeus. They were perhaps the bible of an Egyptian mystery religion,
which possibly in kernel went back to the second century •. •.” The mystery cult theory
is opposed by Festugière, I, pp. 81 ff.
5 According to Nock and Festugière; see C. H., loc. cit.; Festugière, I, pp. 85 ff.
6 The attribution, which is incorrect, dates from the ninth century; see C. H., II, p. 259: on
the Coptic version, see below, p. 470, note 128.
7 It is not known when the Corpus Hermeticum was first put together as a collection, but it
was already known in this form to Psellus in the eleventh century; see C. H., I, pp. xlvii– l
(preface by Nock).
8 Festugière, I, pp. 1 ff.
9 Ibid., I, pp. 14 ff.
10 Ibid., I, pp. 19 ff.
11 Ibid., I, pp. 46 ff.
12 C. H., II, p. 328.
13 Lactantius, Div. Inst., I, vi; English translation by W. Fletcher, The Works of Lactantius,
Edinburgh, 1871, I, p. 15.
14 On quotations by Lactantius from the Hermetica, see C. H., I, p. xxxviii; II, pp. 259,
15 Lactantius, De ira Dei, XI; Fletcher’s translation, II, p. 23.
16 Lactantius, Div. Inst., IV, vi; Fletcher’s translation, I, p. 220. Lactantius is quoting from
Asclepius, 8 (C. H., II, p. 304).
17 See C. H., II, pp. 276– 7.
18 See below, p. 24.
19 Lactantius, Div. Inst., IV, xi; Fletcher’s translation, I, p. 226.
20 Lactantius, Div. Inst., I, vi; IV, vi; VIII, xviii; Fletcher’s translation, I, pp. 14– 19; 220– 2;
The Sibylline Oracles themselves were no more genuinely antique than the Hermetica.
Forged Sibylline prophecies of Jewish origin appeared at some uncertain date, and were
later manipulated by the Christians. It seems difficult to distinguish what is of Jewish and
what is of Christian origin in the Oracula Sibyllina. See M. J. Lagrange, Le judaisme avant JésusChrist,
Paris, 1931, pp. 505– 11; A. Puech, Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, Paris, 1928,
II, pp. 603– 15; and the note by G. Bardy in Oeuvres de Saint Augustin, Desclée de Brouwer, Vol.
36, 1960, pp. 755– 9.
21 Lactantius, Div. Inst., II, xv.
22 Augustine, De civ. Dei, VIII, xxiii– xxvi. He is quoting from Asclepius, 23, 24, 37; see C. H.,
II, pp. 325 ff.
23 C. H., II, p. 259.
24 De civ. Dei, VIII, xiii– xxii.
25 This is the title of the sixteenth-century English translation by William Adlington.
26 De civ. Dei, VIII, xxiii, quoted in the English translation by John Healey. The quotation is
from Romans, I, xxi.
27 Isaiah, XIX, i.
28 See below, pp. 189, 192– 3.
29 De civ. Dei, XVIII, xxix; quoted in John Healey’s translation.
30 See the collection of Testimonia in Scott, Vol. I.
31 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, iv, xxxv– xxxviii. Cf. Festugière, I, pp. 75 ff.
32 Clement does not mention the Hermetic writings, from which Scott concludes (I, pp.
87– 90) that either he did not know them, or knew that they were not of very ancient
33 The manuscript from which Ficino made his translation is in the Biblioteca Laurenziana
(Laurentianus, LXXI 33 (A)). See Kristeller, Studies, p. 223; the eleventh chapter in
this book is a republication in revised form of an article which Kristeller first published
in 1938 and which was the pioneer study of Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.
All students of Hermetism in the Renaissance are deeply indebted to Kristeller’s work.
34 Dedication by Ficino to Lorenzo de’ Medici of his epitome and commentaries on
Plotinus; Ficino, p. 1537.
35 “Mercurium paucis mensibus eo uiuente (referring to Cosimo) peregi. Platonem tunc
etiam sum aggressus”; Ficino, loc. cit. Cf. Kristeller, Studies, p. 223; A. Marcel, Marsile Ficin,
Paris, 1958, pp. 255 ff.
36 In order to understand this enthusiasm, a history of Hermetism in the Middle Ages and
in the Renaissance before Ficino is needed. For some indications of the influence of the
Asclepius in the Middle Ages, see C. H. II, pp. 267– 75. Interest in Hermetism (based chiefly
on Asclepius and on the pseudo-Hermetic Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI rerum principiis is
one of the marks of the twelfth-century Renaissance. For the influence of these works on
Hugh of St. Victor, see the Didascalicon, translated Jerome Taylor, Columbia, 1961, introduction
pp. 19 ff. and notes.
Many of the magical, alchemical, and astrological writings going under the name of
Hermes were of course known in the Middle Ages, see below, pp. 51– 2.
37 Argumentum before Ficino’s Pimander (Ficino, p. 1836).
38 This explanation of the meaning of “Thrice Great” is found in the Middle Ages; see
below, pp. 51– 2.
39 Ficino, loc. cit.
40 In the Theologia Platonica, Ficino gives the genealogy as (1) Zoroaster, (2) Mercurius
Trismegistus, (3) Orpheus, (4) Aglaophemus, (5) Pythagoras, (6) Plato (Ficino, p. 386).
In the preface to the Plotinus commentaries, Ficino says that divine theology began
simultaneously with Zoroaster among the Persians and with Mercurius among the
Egyptians; then goes on to Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Plato (ibid., p. 1537).
This equating of Zoroaster with Hermes brings Ficino’s genealogy into some conformity
with that of Gemistus Pletho, for whom the most ancient source of wisdom is
Zoroaster, after whom he puts a different string of intermediaries to those given by
Ficino, but arrives eventually, like Ficino, at Pythagoras and Plato. See the passages quoted
from Pletho’s commentary on the Laws and from his reply to Scholarios in F. Masai, Pléthon
et le Platomisme de Mistra, Paris, 1956, pp. 136, 138.
For a valuable study of Ficino’s genealogies of wisdom, see D. P. Walker, “The Prisca
Theologia in France”, J. W. C. I., 1954 (XVII), pp. 204– 59.
41 Vita di Ficino, published from a manuscript of circa 1591 in Marcel, op. cit., p. 716.
42 In his work on the Christian religion (De Christ, relig., XXV), Ficino puts Hermes with
the Sibyls as testifying with them to the coming of Christ (Ficino, p. 29).
43 Scott, I, p. 31. The end of the sixteenth century is too early a date at which to put the
ending of this illusion; see below, chapter 21.
44 Kristeller, Studies, pp. 223 ff.; Suppl. Fic., I, pp. lvii– lviii, cxxix– cxxxi.
45 Scott, I, pp. 31 ff., and see further below, pp. 190, 199, 201– 2.
46 Pletho firmly believed in the extreme antiquity of these Oracles (see Masai, op. cit.,
pp. 136, 137, 375, etc.) which are for him the early fount of Zoroastrian wisdom the
streams from which eventually reached Plato. This exactly corresponds to Ficino’s
attitude to the Hermetica. It was not difficult for Ficino to mingle the waters of these
two pristine founts, since they were roughly contemporaneous and similar in their
atmosphere. Speaking of the Hermetica, Nock says, “Comme les Oracles Chaldaïques,
ouvrage du temps de Marc-Aurèle, ils nous révèlent une manière de penser, ou plutôt
une manière d’user de la pensée, analogue à une sorte de procédé magique . . .“ (C. H.,
I, p. vii).
The Chaldean Oracles were edited by W. Kroll, De oraculis chaldaicis in Breslauer Philolog. Abhandl.,
VII (1894), pp. 1– 76.
47 On the Orphica in the Renaissance, see D. P. Walker, “Orpheus the Theologian and the
Renaissance Platonists”, J. W. C. I., 1953 (XVI), pp. 100– 20.