HERMES TRISMEGISTUS AND MAGIC
The Hermetic literature divides into two branches. On the one hand
there are the philosophical treatises, such as those in the Corpus Hermeticum,
and the Asclepius, to which can be added some other specimens of
this literature, particularly the fragments preserved in the anthology of
excerpts compiled by Stobaeus. 1 On the other hand there is the astrological,
alchemical, and magical literature, much of which also went
under the name of Hermes Trismegistus. These two branches cannot be
kept entirely separate from one another. 2 Not only do we have in the
Asclepius an actual description of magical practices in the admiring referencev bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb
to the methods by which the Egyptians “made gods”, but also
even the loftiest and most mystical of the philosophical Hermetic treatises
presuppose, as we have seen, an astrological pattern in the cosmos.
Gnosticism and magic go together. The pessimist gnostic needs to
know the magical passwords and signs by which he may rid himself of
the evil material power of the stars in his upward ascent through the
spheres. The optimist gnostic has no fear to draw down by sympathetic
magic, invocations, talismans, those same powers of the universe
which he believes to be good.
The methods of sympathetic magic3 presuppose that continual effluvia
of influences pouring down onto the earth from the stars of which
the author of the Asclepius speaks. It was believed that these effluvia and
influences could be canalised and used by an operator with the requisite
knowledge. Every object in the material world was full of occult
sympathies poured down upon it from the star on which it depended.
The operator who wished to capture, let us say, the power of the planet
Venus, must know what plants belonged to Venus, what stones and
metals, what animals, and use only these when addressing Venus. He
must know the images of Venus and know how to inscribe these on
talismans made of the right Venus materials and at the right astrological
moment. Such images were held to capture the spirit or power of the
star and to hold or store it for use. Not only the planets had attached to
each of them a complicated pseudo-science of occult sympathies and
image-making, but the twelve signs of the zodiac each had their plants,
animals, images, and so on, and indeed so had all the constellations and
stars of the heavens. For the All was One, united by an infinitely complex
system of relationships. The magician was one who knew how to
enter into this system, and use it, by knowing the links of the chains of
influences descending vertically from above, and establishing for himself
a chain of ascending links by correct use of the occult sympathies
in terrestrial things, of celestial images, of invocations and names, and
the like. The methods and the cosmological background presupposed
are the same whether the magician is using these forces to try to obtain
concrete material benefits for himself, or whether he is using them
religiously, as in the hieratic magic described in the Asclepius, for insight
into the divine forces in nature and to assist his worship of them.
Into the Hellenistic astrology which is the background of the philosophical
Hermetica an Egyptian element had been absorbed, namely the
thirty-six decans, or thirty-six gods who ruled over the divisions into
ten of the 360 degrees of the circle of the zodiac. 4 That strange people,
the Egyptians, had divinised time, not merely in the abstract sense but
in the concrete sense that each moment of the day and night had its
god who must be placated as the moments passed. The decans, as they
came to be called in Hellenistic times, were really Egyptian sidereal
gods of time who had become absorbed in the Chaldean astrology and
affiliated to the zodiac. They all had images, which vary in different lists
of them, and these lists of the powerful images of the decans had come
out of the archives of the Egyptian temples. The decans had various
aspects. They had definite astrological significance, as “Horoscopes”
presiding over the forms of life born within the time periods over
which they presided, and they were assimilated to the planets domiciled
in their domain, and to the signs of the zodiac, three decans going
with each sign as its three “faces”. But they were also gods, and powerful
Egyptian gods, and this side of them was never forgotten, giving
them a mysterious importance. The high place which the author of the
Asclepius assigns to the “Thirty-Six Horoscopes” in his list of gods is a
genuinely Egyptian feature of that work, and in one of the Stobaeus
fragments we hear, within the familiar framework of a conversation
between Hermes and his son Tat, of the great importance of the
We have said, my child, that there is a body which envelops the whole
ensemble of the world: you should represent it to yourself as a circular
figure, for thus is the All.
I represent to myself such a figure, as you say, O father.
Represent now to yourself that, below the circle of this body, are
ranged the thirty-six decans, in the middle between the universal circle
and the circle of the zodiac, separating these two circles, and, as it
were sustaining the circle of the All and circumscribing the zodiac,
moving along the zodiac with the planets, and having the same force
as the movement of the All, alternatively with the Seven. . . . Pay attention
to this: since the decans command over the planets and we are
under the domination of the seven, do you not see how there comes to
us a certain influence of the decans, whether through the children of
the decans, or through the intermediary of the planets? 5
The decans appear here as powerful divine or demonic forces, close to
the circle of the All, and above the circles of the zodiac and the planets
and operating on things below either directly through their children or
sons, the demons, or through the intermediary of the planets.
Thus the philosophical Hermetica belong into the same framework of
thought as the practical Hermetica, the treatises on astrology or alchemy,
the lists of plants, animals, stones and the like grouped according to
their occult sympathies with the stars, the lists of images of planets,
signs, decans, with instructions as to how to make magical talismans
from them. The following are only a few examples from this vast and
complex literature ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. There is a treatise
supposedly by Hermes on the names and powers of the twelve signs of
the zodiac6; others on which plants go with the signs and the planets7;
a book of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius on the occult virtues of
animals8; a treatise on astrological medicine dedicated by Hermes to
Ammon the Egyptian which describes how to treat illnesses caused by
bad stellar influences by building up links with the methods of sympathetic
magic and talismans to draw down, either an increase of good
virtue from the star which has been causing the trouble or bringing in
influences from another star. 9
The name of Hermes Trismegistus seems to have been particularly
strongly connected with the lists of images of the decans. The Liber
Hermetis Trismegisti, 10 a treatise on astrology and astrological magic which
has been brought to light in recent years begins with the decans, and
the Liber Sacer, 11 or sacred book, of Hermes, is a list of decan images, and
of the stones and plants in sympathy with each decan, with instructions
as to how to engrave the images on the correct stone, which is to
be fixed into a ring together with the relative plant; the wearer of the
ring must abstain from all foods antipathetic to the decan.
In short, Hermes Trismegistus is indeed a name to conjure with in
all this type of literature concerned with occult sympathies and talismans.
Again in his capacity as Hermes-Thoth, inventor of language, of
words which bind and unbind, he plays a rôle in magic, 12 and some of
the magical prayers and invocations assigned to him are like those in
the Corpus Hermeticum.
The name of Hermes Trismegistus was well known in the Middle
Ages and was connected with alchemy, and magic, particularly with
magic images or talismans. 13 The Middle Ages feared whatever they
knew of the decans as dangerous demons, and some of the books
supposedly by Hermes were strongly censured by Albertus Magnus as
containing diabolical magic. 14 The Augustinian censure of the demonworship
in the Asclepius (by which he may have meant in particular,
decan-worship) weighed heavily upon that work. However, mediaeval
writers interested in natural philosophy speak of him with respect;
for Roger Bacon he was the “Father of Philosophers”, 15 and he is
sometimes given a genealogy which makes him even more ancient
than Ficino or the designer of the Siena mosaic thought. In the preface
to a twelfth-century translation of an alchemical work, it is stated that
there were three Hermeses, namely Enoch, Noah, and the king, philosopher,
and prophet who reigned in Egypt after the Flood and was
called Hermes Triplex. The same genealogy of “Hermes Mercurius
Triplex” is also given in a thirteenth-century treatise on astrology, and
the same explanation of why he is “three-fold”. 16 It will be remembered
that Ficino in his argumentum before the Pimander gives a similar
explanation of “Trismegistus” as referring to Hermes in his triple capacity
of priest, philosopher, and king or law-giver. The mediaeval
genealogy, however, takes Hermes Triplex back before Moses to the
time of Noah.
There is an extremely comprehensive treatise on sympathetic and astral
magic, with particular reference to talismans, which goes under the
name of Picatrix. Though the authorship of Picatrix is not assigned to
Hermes Trismegistus, the work frequently mentions him with great
respect and it is important because it may have been one of Ficino’s
authorities on talismans and sympathetic magic.
Like many of the magical works attributed to Hermes which reached
the Western Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Picatrix was originally
written in Arabic, 17 probably in the twelfth century. There was a big
influence of Hermetic and gnostic literature and ideas on the Arabic
world and particularly among the Arabs of Harran. Talismanic magic
was practised by these Arabs, and the influence came through the
Sabeans who were immersed in Hermetism, in both its philosophical
and religious, and its magical aspects. Picatrix is by an Arabic writer
under strong Sabean, that is to say, Hermetic, influence, and he gives
his lists of magic images, his practical advice on magical procedures, in
an elaborate philosophical setting, the philosophy expounded being in
many respects similar to that which we find in some treatises of the
Corpus Hermeticum and in the Asclepius. Ficino and his friends would be
able to recognise in the Picatrix many of the ideas and philosophicoreligious
sentiments expressed by the wonderful author of Pimander, the
Egyptian Moses and the prophet of Christianity, and yet here this philosophy
is in a context of practical magic, how to make talismans, how
to draw down the influences of the stars by establishing the chains of
links and correspondencies with the upper world.
The Latin translation of Picatrix18 is shorter than the Arabic text; in the
proem it is stated that the work has been translated from Arabic into
Spanish by order of Alfonso the Wise, but this Spanish translation has
not survived. The Latin Picatrix was certainly circulating a good deal in
the Italian Renaissance. 19 There was a copy of Picatrix in Pico della
Mirandola’s library. 20 It was known to Ludovico Lazzarelli, 21 a most
ardent Hermetist contemporary with Pico. Giovanni Francesco Pico,
nephew of the great Pico, shows some knowledge of it in a work
written after his uncle’s death. 22 Symphorien Champier, who edited a
new edition of the Hermetica but was anxious to dissociate Christian
Hermetism from the magic of the Asclepius, speaks of Picatrix (in 1514)
with disapproval and accuses Peter of Abano of having borrowed from
it. 23 The popularity of this text-book of magic is attested by the fact that
Rabelais directed one of his shafts at it when he spoke of “le reuerend
pere en Diable Picatris, recteur de la faculté diabologique”. 24 The
secretive way in which such a book circulated is described by
Agrippa D’Aubigné in a letter written between 1572 and 1575 in
which he says that King Henri III of France had imported some
magical books from Spain which he was allowed to see, after much
difficulty and not without solemnly swearing not to copy them;
amongst them were “les commantaires de Dom Jouan Picatrix de
Thus there is a good deal of evidence that this Picatrix, though it was
never printed, had a considerable circulation in manuscript during the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since there is no manuscript of it
earlier than the fifteenth century, 26 it is possible that it began to circulate
in the same century as that which saw the apotheosis of Hermes
The Picatrix opens with pious prayers and promises to reveal profound
secrets. For knowledge is the best gift of God to man, to know
what is the root and principle of all things. The primal truth is not a
body, but it is One, One Truth, One Unity. All things come from it and
through it receive truth and unity in the perpetual movement of generation
and corruption. There is a hierarchy in things, and lower things
are raised to higher things; and higher things descend to lower things.
Man is a little world reflecting the great world of the cosmos, but
through his intellect the wise man can raise himself above the seven
From this short sample of the philosophy of Picatrix, it can be seen
that the magician bases himself upon a gnosis, an insight into the
nature of the All.
The order of nature is further expounded in two passages. 27 God or
the prima materia is without form. There derives from the formless
incorporeal One the series of
Intellectus or mens
Materia, or material nature, the elements and the elementata.
Spiritus descends from the above to the below and resides in the place
where it is caught (ubi captus est). Or, as it is put in another chapter28 “the
virtues of the superior bodies are the form and power of the inferiors,
and the form of the inferiors is of a material related to the virtues of the
superiors; and they are as it were joined together, because their corporeal
material (of terrestrial things) and their spiritual material (of the
stars) are one material.” The whole art of magic thus consists in
capturing and guiding the influx of spiritus into materia.
The most important of the means of doing this is through the making
of talismans, images of the stars inscribed on the correct materials,
at the right times, in the right frame of mind, and so on. The whole of
the first two long and complicated books of Picatrix is devoted to this
most difficult art which demands a deep knowledge of astronomy,
mathematics, music, metaphysics, and indeed practically everything,
for the introduction of spiritus into talismans is a most tricky business
and no one can succeed in it unless he is a resolute philosopher.
Lists of the images suitable for use on talismans are given, of which
the following are a few examples from the lists of planet images. 29
Two images of Saturn.
“The form of a man with a crow’s face and foot, sitting on a throne,
having in his right hand a spear and in his left a lance or an arrow.”
“The form of a man standing on a dragon, clothed in black and
holding in his right hand a sickle and in his left a spear.”
Two images of Jupiter.
“The form of a man sitting on an eagle, clothed in a garment, with
eagles beneath his feet. . . .”
“The form of a man with a lion’s face and bird’s feet, below them a
dragon with seven heads, holding an arrow in his right hand. . . .”
An image of Mars.
“The form of a man, crowned, holding a raised sword in his right hand.”
An image of Sol.
“The form of a king sitting on a throne, with a crown on his head and
beneath his feet the figure (magic character) of the sun.”
An image of Venus.
“The form of a woman with her hair unbound riding on a stag, having
in her right hand an apple, and in her left, flowers, and dressed in
An image of Mercury.
“The form of a man having a cock on his head, on a throne, having
feet like those of an eagle, with fire in the palm of his left hand and
having below his feet this sign (a magic character).”
An image of Luna.
“The form of a woman with a beautiful face on a dragon, with horns
on her head, with two snakes wound around her. . . . A snake is wound
around each of her arms, and above her head is a dragon, and another
dragon beneath her feet, each of these dragons having seven heads.”
As can be seen from these examples, the magic images of the planets
are usually recognisably related to the classical forms of these gods and
goddesses but with strange and barbaric additions and modifications.
There is a full list in Picatrix of the images of the thirty-six decans, 30
grouped with the signs of the zodiac to which they belong.
The images of the decans of Aries.
First decan. “A huge dark man with red eyes, holding a sword, and
clad in a white garment.”
Second decan. “A woman clad in green and lacking one leg.”
Third decan. “A man holding a golden sphere and dressed in red.”
And so the list goes on, for all the thirty-six decans belonging to the
twelve signs, all with weird and barbaric images.
Having fully dealt with talismans and their manufacture in his first
two books, the author of Picatrix discusses in his third book31 what
stones, plants, animals, and so on go with the different planets, signs,
and so on, giving full lists, what parts of the body go with the signs,
what are the colours of the planets, how to invoke the spirits of the
planets by calling on their names and powers, and so on. The fourth
book32 deals with similar matters, and with fumigations and ends with
orations to the planets.
The work is thus a most complete text-book for the magician, giving
the philosophy of nature on which talismanic and sympathetic magic is
based together with full instructions for its practice. Its objects are
strictly practical; the various talismans and procedures are used to gain
specific ends, for the cure of diseases, for long life, for success in
various enterprises, for escaping from prison, for overcoming one’s
enemies, for attracting the love of another person, and so on.
Hermes Trismegistus is often mentioned, as the source for some
talismanic images and in other connections, but there is in particular
one very striking passage in the fourth book of Picatrix in which
Hermes is stated to have been the first to use magic images and is
credited with having founded a marvellous city in Egypt.
There are among the Chaldeans very perfect masters in this art and
they affirm that Hermes was the first who constructed images by
means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion
of the moon. This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew
how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he
was within it. It was he, too, who in the east of Egypt constructed a City
twelve miles (miliaria) long within which he constructed a castle which
had four gates in each of its four parts. On the eastern gate he placed
the form of an Eagle; on the wester gate, the form of a Bull; on the
southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed
the form of a Dog. Into these images he introduced spirits
which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City
except by their permission. There he planted trees in the midst of
which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation. On the
summit of the castle he caused to be raised a tower thirty cubits high
on the top of which he ordered to be placed a light-house (rotunda) the
colour of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it
returned to the first colour, and so the City was illuminated with these
colours. Near the City there was abundance of waters in which dwelt
many kinds of fish. Around the circumference of the City he placed
engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their
virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all
wickedness and harm. The name of the City was Adocentyn. 33
Passed through the vivid imagination of the Arab of Harran, we seem
to have here something which reminds us of the hieratic religious
magic described in the Asclepius. Here are the man-made gods, statues of
the animal- and bird-shaped gods of Egypt, which Hermes Trismegistus
has animated by introducing spirits into them so that they speak with
voices and guard the gates of this magical Utopia. The colours of the
planets flash from the central tower, and these images around the circumference
of the City, are they perhaps images of the signs of the
zodiac and the decans which Hermes has known how to arrange so
that only good celestial influences are allowed into the City? The lawgiver
of the Egyptians is giving laws which must perforce be obeyed,
for he constrains the inhabitants of the City to be virtuous, and keeps
them healthy and wise, by his powerful manipulation of astral magic.
The tree of generation in the City may perhaps also mean that he
controls the generative powers, so that only the good, the wise, the
virtuous and the healthy are born.
In his striking passage about the City of Adocentyn, the author of
Picatrix soars above the level of his utilitarian prescriptions of individual
talismans as cures for tooth-ache, aids to business progress, means
for downing rivals, and the like, to a wider view of the possibilities
of magic. One might say that this City shows us Hermes Mercurius
Triplex in his triple rôle of Egyptian priest and god-maker, of
philosopher-magician, and of king and law-giver. Unfortunately no
date is given for the founding of Adocentyn, so we have no means of
knowing whether this took place in the time of Noah and soon after the
Flood, or in the time of Moses, or not much later than Moses. But the
pious admirer of those two “divine” books by the most ancient
Hermes—the Pimander and the Asclepius—might surely have been much
struck, by this vivid description of a City in which, as in Plato’s ideal
Republic, the wise philosopher is the ruler, and rules most forcibly by
means of the priestly Egyptian magic such as is described in the Asclepius.
The City of Adocentyn in which virtue is enforced on the inhabitants by
magic helps also to explain why, when the magical Egyptian religion
decayed, manners and morals went to rack and ruin, as is so movingly
described in the Lament. And in the prophecy in the Asclepius, after the
Lament, of the eventual restoration of the Egyptian religion, it is said:
The gods who exercise their dominion over the earth will be restored
one day and installed in a City at the extreme limit of Egypt, a City
which will be founded towards the setting sun, and into which will
hasten, by land and by sea, the whole race of mortal men. 34
In the context of the Asclepius, the City of Adocentyn might thus be seen,
both as the ideal Egyptian society before its fall, and as the ideal pattern
of its future and universal renovation.
The author of Picatrix also states, at the beginning of the passage
quoted above, that Hermes Trismegistus built a Temple to the Sun,
within which he presided invisibly, though this Sun Temple is not
explicitly connected with his City. Hermes as a builder of a Temple to
the Sun could also connect in the mind of the pious reader of Pimander
(by which I mean, of course, the fourteen treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum
which Ficino included under that title) and of the Asclepius, with the
many passages on the sun in those works. For example, in the Corpus
Hermeticum V it is stated that the sun is supreme among the gods of
heaven35; in the Corpus Hermeticum X, the author, using Platonic terminology,
compares the sun to the Good and its rays to the influx of the
intelligible splendour. 36 And in the list of the gods of Egypt in the
Asclepius the Sun ranks as far greater than one of the planets. 37 He is
above the thirty-six horoscopes in the list of gods, and the thirty-six are
above the spheres of the planets. To find Hermes Trismegistus in the
Picatrix as the builder of a Temple of the Sun, would thus accord perfectly
with the teaching of that holy priscus theologus in the Pimander and in
When Marsilio Ficino began to dabble in his magic, which included a
tentative use of talismans, there were plenty of mediaeval authorities
which he might have used who give lists of talismanic images, amongst
them Peter of Abano, who lists the decan images, and whom Ficino
cites by name38 in his treatise De vita coelitus comparanda, a possible translation
of which might be “On capturing the life of the stars”. He would
also find much encouragement for the practice of magic in certain of
the Neoplatonic authors whom he studied and translated, particularly
Proclus, or Iamblichus “On the Egyptian Mysteries”. Nevertheless, as D.
P. Walker has shown, his chief incentive or exemplar was almost certainly
the description of magic in the Asclepius. 39 Walker has suggested
Picatrix as among the possible sources for Ficino’s practical magic, 40 and
as the above analysis of that work has shown, the pious admirer of the
“divine” Pimander and the “divine” Asclepius would find much in this
practical treatise on talismanic magic to remind him of the utterances
of the most ancient Hermes Trismegistus in his two divine books. It
could have been the Picatrix, read in the context of his Hermetic studies,
which enabled the pious Christian Neoplatonic philosopher to make
the transition to a practice of magic.
Magic had never died out during the Middle Ages, in spite of the
efforts of the ecclesiastical authorities to exercise some check over it
and to banish its more extreme forms. Nor was it by any means only in
Florence and under cover of Ficino’s Neoplatonism, that the interest in
the magic images of the stars was reviving in Italy. On the other side of
the Appenines, in Ferrara, the Duke Borso d’Este had covered a great
room in his palace with a cycle of paintings representing the months of
the year and showing, in its central band, the signs of the zodiac with
the images of the thirty-six decans most strikingly painted. In this
room, the decoration of which was finished before 1470,41 we may
see, in the lowest band of the frescoes the omniform life of the court of
Ferrara and above it the images of the thirty-six strung out along the
zodiac. The series begins with the three decans of Aries and their sign
(Pl. 1a); though their forms are slightly variant from the images which
we quoted from the list in Picatrix they are easily recognisable as in the
main the same, the tall dark man in white (Pl. 1b), the woman who is
hiding under her skirts the unfortunate fact that she has only one leg,
the man holding a sphere or circle. Despite their charmingly modernised
costumes, these are really the Egyptian gods of time, the demons
banned by Augustine.
We are not, however, here concerned with revivals of star images in
other centres and outside the main current of Florentine Neoplatonism.
We are concerned with how it was that Marsilio Ficino, who took
such extreme care to present the revival of Plato and Neoplatonism as a
movement which could be accorded with Christianity, allowed a
fringe of magic to penetrate into this movement, thus inaugurating
those philosophies of the Renaissance in which magical undercurrents
are never far absent. The theory of the prisca theologia, of the piety and
antiquity of Hermes Trismegistus, priscus theologus and Magus, offered an
excuse for Ficino’s modern philosophical magic. The attraction of the
Asclepius had probably already been exerting its pull in the earlier
Renaissance, 42 and when Ficino—dropping Plato in order to translate
the Corpus Hermeticum first—found here a new revelation of the sanctity
of Hermes and a confirmation of Lactantius’ high opinion of him as
the prophet of the “Son of God”, he felt authorised to adopt the Lactantian
view and tried to evade the Augustinian warning. The presence of
Hermes Trismegistus inside the Duomo of Siena in the character of a
Gentile prophet which Lactantius had given him, is symptomatic of the
success of this rehabilitation.
We must not forget that the other prisci theologi, such as Orpheus or
Zoroaster, were also Magi, and also authorised by their antiquity
revivals of forms of magic. Yet Hermes Trismegistus is the most
important of the prisci magi from the point of view of the incorporation
of magic with philosophy, for in his case there was a body of supposedly
most ancient philosophical writings to be studied, and these
writings, in addition to their echoes of Moses and their prophetic
understandings of Christianity before Christ, also prophetically
shadowed the teachings of the divine Plato.
Lactantius wrote his Divine Institutes in the context of the rather superficially
Christianised Empire of Constantine, and his apologetics in that
work are directed towards persuading pagans to become Christians by
emphasising how much in paganism is close to Christianity, or prophetic
of Christianity. Between Lactantius and Augustine there had taken
place the pagan reaction under the apostate Emperor Julian, with its
attempt to drive out the new upstart religion by a return to the philosophical
“religion of the world” and to the mystery cults. In his “Hymn
to Helios”, Julian worships the Sun as the supreme god, the image of
the intelligible Good; and he says that there are also in the heavens a
multitude of other gods.
For as he (the Sun) divides the three spheres by four through the
zodiac . . . so he divides the zodiac also into twelve divine powers; and
again he divides every one of these twelve by three, so as to make
thirty-six gods in all. 43
Throughout Origen’s reply to Celsus it is evident how large a part
Egyptianism had played in the type of Neoplatonic religion which
came back in the pagan reaction. Celsus argues about how much “one
may learn from the Egyptians”, and Origen quotes the following
passage from his lost work:
They (the Egyptians) say that the body of man has been put under the
charge of thirty-six daemons, or ethereal gods of some sort. . . . Each
daemon is in charge of a different part. And they know the names of
the daemons in the local dialect, such as Chnoumen, Chnachoumen,
Knat, Sikat, Biou, Erou, Erebiou, Rhamanoor, and Rheianoor, and all
the other names which they use in their language. And by invoking
these they heal the sufferings of the various parts. What is there to
prevent anyone from paying honour both to these and to others if he
wishes, so that we can be in good health rather than ill, and have good
rather than bad luck, and be delivered from tortures and
To this Origen replies:
By these remarks Celsus is trying to drag our souls down to the daemons,
as though they had obtained charge over our bodies. He has
such a low opinion of paying an undivided and indivisible honour to
the God of the universe that he does not believe that the only God who
is worshipped and splendidly honoured is sufficient to grant the man
who honours Him, in consequence of the actual worship he offers to
Him, a power which prevents the attacks of daemons against the righteous
person. For he has never seen how, when the formula “in the
name of Jesus” is pronounced by true believers, it has healed not a few
people from diseases and demonic possession and other distresses.
. . . According to Celsus we might practise magic and sorcery
rather than Christianity, and believe in an unlimited number of daemons
rather than in the self-evident, and manifest supreme God. . . . 44
Writing after the pagan reaction, Augustine cannot accept Lactantius’
hopeful view of Hermes Trismegistus as the holy prophet of Christianity,
and utters his warning against the demon-worship of the Asclepius.
Yet even Augustine lent his support to the colossal misdating of that
work, by which Hermes appears as prophesying the coming of Christianity,
though he had this knowledge through the demons.
Believing in the immense antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum and the
Asclepius, and following Lactantius’ estimate of their holy and divine
character, the pious Christian, Ficino, returns in his study of them, not,
as he thinks, to the antiquity of a priscus theologus who prophetically saw
into Christian truth (and authorised the practice of magic), but to the
type of pagan philosophical gnosis with Egyptianising and magical
tendencies, which characterised the anti-Christian reaction under
Julian the Apostate.
The type of magic with which we are to be concerned differs profoundly
from astrology which is not necessarily magic at all but a
mathematical science based on the belief that human destiny is irrevocably
governed by the stars, and that therefore from the study of a
person’s horoscope, the position of the stars at the time of his birth,
one can foretell his irrevocably foreordained future. This magic is astrological
only in the sense that it too bases itself upon the stars, their
images and influences, but it is a way of escaping from astrological
determinism by gaining power over the stars, guiding their influences
in the direction which the operator desires. Or, in the religious sense, it
is a way of salvation, of escape from material fortune and destiny, or of
obtaining insight into the divine. Hence “astrological magic” is not a
correct description of it, and hereafter, for want of a better term, I shall
call it “astral magic”.
It is in a very timid hesitating and cautious manner that Ficino
embarks on a mild form of astral magic, attempting to alter, to escape
from, his Saturnian horoscope by capturing, guiding towards himself,
more fortunate astral influences. Yet this comparatively harmless
attempt at astral medical therapy was to open a flood-gate through
which an astonishing revival of magic poured all over Europe.
1 Text of the Stobaeus fragments, with French translation, in C. H., vols. III and IV.
2 Scott tried to make such a separation, treating the philosophical Hermetica as quite
distinct from, and infinitely superior to, the “masses of rubbish” going under the name
of Hermes (Scott, I, p. 1). Festugière, on the other hand, devotes the first volume of his
Révélation to “L’Astrologie et les Sciences Occultes” in which he treats of the magical and
astrological texts as the necessary preliminary to the study of the philosophical Hermetica.
Cf. also Thorndike, I, pp. 287 ff.
3 For a good summary of the subject, see Festugière, I, pp. 89 ff.
4 On the decans, see Festugière, I, pp. 115 ff.; Bouché-Leclercq, L’Astrologie grecque, Paris,
1899, pp. 215 ff.; F. Boll, Sphaera, Leipzig, 1903, pp. 15 ff., 176 ff.; O. Neugebauer, The Exact
Sciences in Antiquity (Princeton, 1952), Harper Torchbook Reprint, 1962, pp. 81 ff. The
specialised study of the decan images is that by W. Gundel, Dekane und Dekansternbilder,
Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, XIX, 1936.
5 C. H., III, pp. 34, 36 (Stobaeus Excerpt, VI). In the notes to this passage (ibid., p. L),
Festugière explains the children or sons of the decans as demons. Cf. also Révélation, I, pp.
118– 20; Scott, III, p. 374 (where a diagram is given to illustrate the fact that, according to
this passage, the decans are outside and above the circle of the zodiac).
6 See Thorndike, I, p. 291; Festugière, I, pp. 111– 12.
7 Thorndike, loc. cit.; Festugière, ibid., pp. 143 ff.
8 Festugière, ibid., pp. 207 ff., discussing the “Livre court médical d’Hermès Trismégiste
selon la science astrologique et l’influx naturel des animaux, publié à l’adresse de son
disciple Asklépios.” As can be seen from this French translation of the title, this type of
treatise often brings in the same characters as those whom we meet in the philosophical
Hermetica. This treatise on animals is addressed by Hermes to Asclepius, like the
9 See Thorndike, I, p. 291; Festugière, I, pp. 130– 1.
10 Festugière, I, pp. 112 ff. The Liber Hermetis was discovered by Gundel and published by
him in 1936.
11 Festugière, I, pp. 139 ff.
12 Ibid., pp. 283 ff.
13 Thorndike, II, pp. 214 ff.; Festugière, I, pp. 105 ff.
14 In his Speculum astronomiae; see Albertus Magnus, Opera, ed. Borgnet, X, p. 641; and cf.
Thorndike, II, p. 220. Albertus Magnus is one of the mediaeval writers who perhaps
knew the Latin Asclepius (see C. H., II, pp. 268– 9).
15 Thorndike, II, p. 219.
16 Ibid., pp. 215, 222. These are perhaps echoes of the twelfth-century pseudo-Hermetic
Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI rerum principiis, which has been published by Th. Silverstein
in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, 1955 (22), pp. 217– 302. On the
influence of this work, see above, p. 13, note 3.
17 The Arabic text of Picatrix, ed. H. Ritter, is published in Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, Vol.
XII, 1933, A German translation by H. Ritter and M. Plessner of the Arabic text is
published in Studies of the Warburg Institute, University of London, Vol. 27, 1962; an outline
in English of the contents of the Arabic text is given in this volume.
Besides these editions, see on the Picatrix, H. Ritter, Picatrix, ein arabisches Handbuch
hellenistischer Magie, in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1922; Thorndike, II, pp. 813 ff.;
Festugière, I, pp. 389, 397 (in the appendix on Arabic Hermetic literature by Louis
Massignon); Garin, Cultura, pp. 159 ff.
18 Of this Latin translation there is as yet no edition. But it is the Latin translation which
was used in the Renaissance, not the Arabic original, and, since it differs somewhat from
the Arabic original, it must be used by students of Renaissance writers.
The manuscript of the Latin Picatrix which I have used is Sloane, 1305. Though a
seventeenth-century manuscript, it corresponds closely to earlier manuscripts (see
Thorndike, II, p. 822) and it has the advantage of being written in a clear and legible
19 E. Garin, Medioevo e Rinascimento, Florence, 1954, pp. 175 ff.; Cultura, pp. 159 ff.
20 P. Kibre, The Library of Pico della Mirandola, New York, 1936, p. 263; cf. Garin, Cultura, p. 159.
21 See Ludovico Lazzarelli, “Testi scelti”, ed. M. Brini, in Test. uman., p. 75.
22 G. F. Pico, Opera, Bâle, 1572– 3, II, p. 482; cf. Thorndike, VI, p. 468.
23 In his criticism of the errors of Abano; cf. Thorndike, II, p. 814; V, pp. 119, 122.
24 Pantagruel, III, 23; cited by Thorndike, II, p. 814.
25 Agrippa d’Aubigné, OEuvres completes, ed. E. Réaume and F. de Caussade, Paris, 1873, I, p.
26 On the manuscripts, see Thorndike, II, pp. 822– 4.
27 Picatrix, Lib. I, cap. 7, and Lib. IV, cap. I (Sloane 1305, ff. 21 verso ff.; ff. 95 recto ff.).
28 Picatrix, Lib. II, cap. 12 (Sloane 1305, ff. 52 recto ff.).
29 The planet images are listed in Lib. II, cap. 10 (Sloane 1305, ff. 43 recto ff.).
30 The lists of decan images are in Lib. II, cap. 11 (Sloane 1305, ff. 48 verso ff.).
31 Sloane 1305, ff. 37 recto ff.
32 Sloane 1305, ff. 95 recto ff.
33 Picatrix, Lib. IV, cap. 3 (Sloane 1305, f. III recto). In the Arabic original, the name of the
City is “al-As•münain”; see the German translation of the Arabic text (cited above, p. 49,
note 2), p. 323.
34 Asclepius (C. H., II, p. 332).
35 C. H., I, p. 61; Ficino, p. 1843.
36 C. H., I, p. 114; Ficino, p. 1847.
37 Asclepius (C. H., II, pp. 318 ff.). Jupiter, as the heaven, and the Sun, rank as the highest
gods in the list, followed by the thirty-six decans; last and below these are the planets, in
which Jupiter and Sol figure again but now only in a lower capacity as planets. See above,
pp. 36– 7.
38 See below, p. 77.
39 See below, pp. 70– 1.
40 Walker, p. 36; Garin, Cultura, pp. 159 ff.
41 P. D’Ancona, Les Mois de Schifanoia à Ferrara, Milan, 1954, p. 9. The identification of the
strange images grouped with the signs of the zodiac as being the images of the decans
was first made by A. Warburg, “Italienische Kunst und Internationale Astrologie im
Palazzo Schifanoja zu Ferrara”, Gesammelte Schriften, Leipzig, 1932, II, pp. 459 ff.
42 E. Garin, Medioevo e Rinascimento, p. 155, mentions Salutati and Manetti as writers
influenced by the Asclepius before Ficino’s revival of Hermetism.
43 Julian, Works, Loeb edition, I, pp. 405, 407.
44 Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 58– 9; translated H. Chadwick, Cambridge, 1953, pp.