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

they knew.


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

Greek original):


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

Plato. 35


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

Egyptian wisdom.


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 Renaissance.


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,

276– 7.

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;

468– 9.

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.