Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno: and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1964.

(excerpted by Clifford Stetner)


Chapter I





[n4 …Bloomfield, The Seven deadly Sins…“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 B.C.” the mystery cult theory is opposed by Festugière, 1, pp. 81 ff.]



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 standardized type, with its smattering of Platonism, Neoplatonism, Stoicism, and the other Greek schools of thought.


…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.


…through contemplation of the world or the cosmos, or rather through contemplation of the cosmos as reflected in his own Nous or mens


…familiar Gnostic revelation or experience of the ascent of the soul through the spheres of the planets to become immersed in the divine.



…a religious philosophy or philosophical religion containing a gnosis.


…the Renaissance imbibed from them…what is old is pure and holy…strong revival of Pythagoreanism… … remote and far distant is more holy… cult of the “barbarians”, of Indian gymnosophists, Persian Magi, Chaldean astrologers…


Above all, it was the Egyptians who were revered… … temples were still functioning…


…that the great Greek philosophers had visited it and conversed with Egyptian priests, had long been current…


…reflected in the Hermetic Asclepius with its strange description of the magic by which the Egyptian priests animated the statues of their gods…


“In that hour”, [the inevitable end of Egyptian religion] 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.



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.


This huge historical error was to have amazing results.


…implicitly believed by leading Fathers of the church, particularly Lactantius and Augustine.



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 may subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus.


…quotations from some of the treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum  and also from the Asclepius.


…thought that Hermes was a valuable ally in his campaign of using pagan wisdom in support of the truth of Christianity.


… Father is not infrequently used of the supreme being in the Hermetic writings.


… “Son of God” for the demiurge.


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.”



Thus the Asclepius, the work which contains the weird descriptions of how the Egyptians fabricated their idols and the Lament of the Egyptian religion, becomes sanctified because it contains a prophecy concerning the Son of God.


…the act of creation is said to be through a luminous Word, who is the Son of God.


…pointing out that the Greeks speak of Him as the Logos, and also Trismegistus.


In three passages of the institutes he cites Trismegistus with the Sibyls as testifying to the coming of Christ.



… Lactantius condemns the worshipping of images, and he also thinks that the demons used by Magi are evil fallen angels.  These things are, however, never associated by him with Trismegisuts…


…Lactantius became a favourite father for the Renaissance Magus who wished to remain a Christian.


Born circa A.D. 123, Apuleius was educated at Carthage and at Athens and later traveled to Egypt…


The Golden Ass, 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 him.


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 worshipped.


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.. . ." 1


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." 2


1 De civ. Dei, VIII, xxiii, quoted in the English translation by John Healey. The quotation is from Romans, I, xxi.


2 Isaiah, XIX, i.




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. 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 corrupted.


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. 2


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".


1 See below, pp. 169, 172-3.


2 De civ. Dei, XVIII, xxix; quoted in John Healey's translation.



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 Pimander.


About 1460, a Greek manuscript was brought to Florence form 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.



…Ficino… Cosimo, he says had handed over to him the works of Plato. For translation. But in the year 1463 word came to Ficino form Cosimo that he must translate Hermes first, at once, and go on afterwards to Plato… [n1 Dedication by Ficino to Lorenzo de’ Medici of his epitome and commentaries on Plotinus; Ficino, p. 1537.]


…probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies.


…knew the Latin Asclepius which whetted the appetite…


[n3 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. … 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. 48-9.]



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 [n3 Ficino’s preface to Pimander…].



[n1 In the Theologia Platonica, Ficino gives the genealogy as (1) Zoroaster, (2) Mercurius Trismegistus, (3) Orpheus, (4) Aglaophemus, (5) Pythagoras, (6) Plato… 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…]



The argumentum ends on a note of ecstasy…Ficino… 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 God.


[n1 In his work on the Christian religion (De Christ. Relig., XXV), Ficino [contra Augustine] puts Hermes with the Sibyls as testifying with them to the coming of Christ …]



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 form the Divine Mens, which would lead him to the original core of Platonism as a gnosis derived form Egyptian wisdom.

            Contemporaries shard with Ficino his estimate of the extreme importance of the Hermetic writings…


…magician… Respectable people might sometimes employ him surreptitiously and he was much feared. But he was certainly not publicly admired as a religious philosopher.


…often an adjunct of an esteemed Renaissance philosopher.



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 form the second century A.D. the incantatory magic supposed to have been taught by Orpheus, who comes second in the chain of prisci theology, was based on the Orphic hymns, most of which date form the second or third century A.D.


Chapter II





[n2 There is general agreement that the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Pimander, contains some Jewish elements but opinions differ as to the amount of the writers’ indebtedness to Hellenised Judaism.]


[n3 Most scholars are of the opinion that there is very little, if any, Christian influence in the Hermetica. Dodd, who stresses the Jewish influence, thinks that “features of the Hermetica in which Christian influence might be suspected, can be accounted for by Hellenistic-Jewish ideas which lie behind both the Hermetica and the New Testament”..]


These writings are really by different unknown authors and no doubt of considerably varying dates. Even the individual treatises …



The material world is under the rule of the stars, and of the seven planets, the “Seven Governors”. The laws of the nature within which the religious Gnostic lives are the astrological laws, and they are the setting of his religious experience.


Festugière has classified these writings as belonging to tow types of gnosis, namely pessimist gnosis, or optimist gnosis. For the pessimist (or dualist) Gnostic, the material world heavily impregnated with the fatal influence of the stars is in itself evil; it must be escaped form by an ascetic way of life …ascends, to its true home in the immaterial divine world. For the optimist gnostic, matter is impregnated with the divine, the earth lives, moves, with a divine life, the stars are living divine animals, the sun burns with a divine power, there is no part of Nature which is not good for all are parts of God.


(1) The Egyptian Genesis. Pimander. (Corpus Hermeticum I; partly optimist and partly dualist gnosis.)



Pimander, who is the Nous, or divine mens, appears to Tirsmegistus when his corporeal senses are bound as in a heavy sleep. Trismegistus expresses his longing to know the nature of beings and to know God.



“… When she saw that he had in him the inexhaustible beauty and all the energy of the Governors, joined to the form of God, Nature smiled with love, for she had seen the features of that marvelously beautiful form of Man reflected in the water and his shadow on the earth. And he, having seen this form like to himself in Nature, reflected in the water, he loved her and wished to dwell with her. The moment he wished this he accomplished it and came to inhabit the irrational form. Then Nature having received her loved one, embraced him, and they were united, for they burned with love.”



Ficino, in his commentary on this treatise, is immensely struck by remarkable resemblances to the book of Genesis. “Here Mercurius is seen to be treating of the Mosaic mysteries”, he begins, and then goes on to make obvious comparisons. Moses saw a darkness over the face of the abyss and the Spirit of God brooding over the waters: Mercurius sees a darkness and a Word of God warming the humid nature. Moses announced the creation by the powerful Word of God. Mercurius actually states that that shining Word, which illuminates all this, is the Son of God.



And if it is possible to ascribe to a man born before the Incarnation such knowledge, he saw the Son being born of the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. He saw the creation being made by the Divine Word, and man being made in the image of God, then his fall from the intelligible sphere into the body. He actually uses almost the same words as Moses when describing God's command to the species to increase and multiply. Then he instructs us how we may rise again to that intelligible and immortal nature from which we have degenerated. Moses was the law-giver of the Hebrews, Mercurius of the Egyptians, and he gives holy advice to his flock on how to live, praising the Father of all with hymns and thanksgivings and contemplating the life and the light.


As the above abstract of the commentary on the Pimander shows it was above all what he took to be the resemblances to Moses (not so much to Plato) in this work which profoundly impressed Ficino. This was why, so he must have thought, the Fathers made such a point of dating Trismegistus in relation to Moses, because he seemed like an Egyptian Moses. Ficino continued to ponder over these marvels in later years; in the Theologia Platonica he actually allowed himself to wonder whether, after all, Hermes    Trismegistus was Moses. After speaking in that work of the account of creation in the Timaeus he adds: "Trismegistus Mercurius teaches more clearly such an origin of the generation of the world. Nor need we wonder that this man knew so much, if this Mercurius was the same man as Moses, as Artapanus the historian shows with many

conjectures." [n2 Theologia Platonica, VIII, I (Ficino, p. 400). Ficino probably got his information about Artapanus from Eusebius, De praeparatione evangelicae, IX, 27, 6. Artapanus was a Hellenised Jew; see Festugière, I, pp. 70, 384.]


And Trismegistus is even better than Moses because he saw, long before the Incarnation, that the creative Word was the Son of God.



Thus an odour of sanctity surrounds the author of the Egyptian Genesis, who is so like Moses, who prophesies Christianity, and, who teaches a devout way of life in loving devotion to God the Father.­


Nevertheless it is most obvious that there are, as Ficino significantly fails to point out, radical differences of many kinds between the Mosaic Genesis and the Egyptian Genesis. Particularly do they differ most profoundly in their account of the nature of Man and the character of his Fall.


It is true that the Mosaic Genesis, like the Egyptian Genesis, says that Man was made in the image of God and was given dominion over all creatures, but it is never said in the Mosaic Genesis that this meant that Adam was created as a divine being, having the divine creative power. Not even when Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden before the Fall is this said of him. When Adam, tempted by Eve and the serpent, wished to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and become like God, this was the sin of disobedience, punished by the exile from the Garden of Eden. But in the Egyptian Genesis the newly created Man, seeing the newly created Seven Governors (the planets) on whom all things depend, wishes to create, to make something like that. Nor is this treated as a sin of disobedience. [n1 Festugière thinks that though man's desire to create was not a fault, since permission to do so was given to him by the Father, yet his entry immediately afterwards into the  demiurgic sphere of the Seven Governors was already a punishment, a beginning of his fall into matter (Révelation, III, pp. 87 ff.). Dodd's interpretation (op. cit., p. 153) is similar. Both writers stress the difference between Hermetic man and Mosaic man, the one created divine, the other created out of the dust of the earth. The fall of Hermetic man is more like the fall of Lucifer than the fall of Adam.] He is allowed into the society of the Seven Governors who love him and impart to him their powers. This Egyptian Adam is more than human; he is divine and belongs to the race of the star demons, the divinely created governors of the lower world. He is even stated to be "brother" to the creative Word-­Demiurge—Son of God, the "second god" who moves the stars.


It is true that he falls, but this fall is in itself an act of his power. He can lean down  through the armature of the spheres, tear open



their envelopes and come down to show himself to Nature. He does this of his own free will moved by love of the beautiful Nature which he himself helped to create and maintain, through his participation in the nature of the Seven Governors. He was moved to do this by love of his own image, reflected in the face of nature (just as God loved Man, seeing in him his own beautiful image). And Nature recognizes his power, the powers of the Seven Governors in him, and is united to him in love.

            It is true that this is a Fall which involves loss, that Man in coming down to Nature and taking on a mortal body puts his mortal part, under the dominion of the stars, and it is perhaps punished by the separation into two sexes (after the curious period of the Seven sexless men engendered by Man and Nature). But man’s immortal part remains divine and creative. He consists, not of a human soul and  a body, but of a divine, crative, immortal essence and a body.


magnum miraculum (with which Pico della Mirandola was to open his Oration on the Dignity of Man):


What a great miracle is Man, O Asclepius, a being worthy of reverence and honour,. For he passes into the nature of a god as though he were himself a god; he has familiarity with the race of demons, knowing that he is issuedfrom the same origin; he despises that part of his nature which is only human, of rhe has put his hope in the divinity of the other part.


(2) Egyptian Regneration. The secret Discourse on the Mountain of Hermes Trismegistus to his Son Tat. (Corpus Hermeticum, XIII; dualist gnosis.)



When his regenerative experience is completed, Trismegistus leads Tat out of the “tent” (translated tabernaculum by Ficino) under which he had been and hich ws constituted by the circle of the zodiac. As Festugière explains, the twelve vices or “punishments” come form te twelve signs of the zodiac which oppressed Tat when he ws still amterial and under the influence of matter.


…seven vices …the planets.



In his commentary on this treatise, Ficino compares the driving out of the ultores and their replacement by the Potestates Dei with the Christian experience of regeneration in Christ, the Word and the Son of God. In fact, as Festugière points out, this Gnostic experience does seem to be something like a gift of grace which cancels the predestination of the stars.



(3) Egyptian Reflection of the Universe in the Mind. The Mind to Hermes. (Corpus Hermeticum XII; optimist gnosis.)


(The  mens is supposed throughout to be addressing Hermes.)


Eternity is the Power of God, and the work of Eternity is the world, which has no beginning, but is continually becoming by the action of Eternity. Therefore nothing that is in the world will ever perish or be destroyed, for Eternity is imperishable.

            And all this great body of the world is a soul, full of intellect and of God, who fills it within and without and vivifies the All.



Say no longer that God is invisible. Do not speak thus, for what is more manifest than God. He has crated all only that you may see it through the beings. For that is the miraculous power of God, to show himself through all beings. For nothing is invisible, even of the incorporeals. The intellect makes itself visible in the act of thinking, God in the act of creating.



…differs fundamentally from the preceding revelation (based on a pessimist type of gnosis). In the revelation of Hermes to Tat, matter was evil and the work of regeneration consisted in escaping form its power through the infusion into the soul of divine Powers or Virtues. Here the world is good, for it is full of God.


In the one the adept is released by his vision from evil powers in matter and there is a strong ethical element. In the other, the vision is of God in nature, a kind of pantheism…


For the Renaissance enthusiast, believing all to be the work of one man, the most ancient Egyptian, Hermes Trismegistus, these distinctions would be blurred.


(4) Egyptian Philosophy of Man and of Nature: Earth Movement.

Hermes Trismegistus to Tat on the Common Intellect. (Corpus Hermeticum XII; optimist gnosis.)


… O Tat… All men are subject to destiny but those in possession of the word, in whom intellect commands, are not under it in the same manner as others. God’s two gifts to man of intellect and the word… If man makes right use of these, he differs in no way from the immortals.

The world, too, is a god, image a greater god. United to him and conserving the order and will of the Father, it is the totality of life. There is nothing in it, through all the duration of the cyclic return willed by the Father, which is not alive. The Father has willed that the world should be living so long as it keeps its cohesion; hence the world is necessarily god. How then could it be that in that which is god, which is the image of the All, there should be dead things? for death is corruption and corruption is destruction, and it is impossible that anything of God could be destroyed.

Do not the living beings in the world die, O Father, although they are parts of the world?

Hush, my child, for you are led into error by the denomination of the phenomenon. Living beings do not die, but, being composite bodies they are dissolved; this is not death but the dissolution of a mixture. If they are dissolved, it is not to be destroyed but to be renewed. What in fact is the energy of life? Is it not movement? What is there in the world which is immobile? Nothing.

But the earth at least, does it not seem to be immobile?

No. on the contrary, alone of all beings it is both subject to a multitude of movements and stable. It would be absurd to suppose that this nurse of all beings should be immobile, she who gives birth to all things, for without movement it is impossible to give birth. All that is in the world, without exception, is in movement, and that which is in movement is also in life. Contemplate then the beautiful arrangement of the world and  see that it is alive, and that all matter is full of life.

Is God then in matter, O Father?

Where could matter be placed if it existed apart form God? Would it not be a confused mass, unless it were put to work? And if it is put to work by whom is that done? The energies which operate in it are parts of God. Whether you speak of matter or bodies or substance, know that these things are energies of God, of God who is the All. in the All there is nothing which is not God. Adore this Word, my child, and render it a cult.



This philosophy, in which divine man through his divine intellect participates in the intellect infused throughout the living world of divine nature, is the ideal philosophy for Man as Magus, as the Asclepius will show.


(5) Egyptian Religion. The Asclepius or The Perfect Word (that the latter is the correct title would have been known form Lactantius who calls it Sermo Perfectus; optimist gnosis).


Hermes Trismegistus, Asclepius, Tat, and Hammon meet together in an Egyptian temple. No others were admitted, for it would be impious to divulge to the masses a teaching entirely filled with the divine majesty.



The union of gods with men is not for all men but only for those who have the faculty of intellection.



Not only does he progress towards God, but he makes gods.

            Do you mean the statues, O Trismegistus?

            Yes, the statures, Asclepius. They are animated statures full of sensus and spiritus who can accomplish many things, foretelling the future, giving ills to men and curing them.


What we have said about man is already marvelous, but most marvelous of all is that he has been able to discover the nature of the gods and to reproduce it. our first ancestors invented the art of making gods. They mingled a virtue, drawn form material nature, to the substance of the statures, and “since they could not actually create souls, after having evoked the souls of demons or angels, they introduced these into their idols by holy and divine rites, so that the idols had the power of doing good and evil.” These terrestrial or man-made gods result form a composition of herbs, stones, and aromatics which contain in themselves an occult virtue of divine efficacy. And if one tries to please them with numerous sacrifices, hymns, songs of praise, sweet concerts which recall the harmony of heaven, this is in order that the celestial element which ahs been introduced into the idol by the repeated practice o the celestial rites may joyously support its long dwelling amongst men. That is how man makes gods. Hermes adds as examples of such gods, the worship of Asclepius, of his own ancestor, Hermes, and of Isis (implying the cult of the statues of these divinities); and he mentions here, too, the Egyptian worship of animals.



Yet the religion of Egypt, and its wise and true cult of the divine All in One, is destined to pass away.




There will come a time when it will be seen that in vain have the Egyptians honoured the divinity with a pious mind and with assiduous service. All their holy worship will become inefficacious. The gods, leaving the earth, will go back to heaven; they will abandon Egypt; this land, once the home of religion, will be widowed of its gods and left destitute. Strangers will fill this country, and not only will there no longer be care for religious observances, but, a yet more painful thing, it will be laid down under so-called laws, under pain of punishments, that all must abstain from acts of piety or cult towards the gods. Then this most holy land, the home of sanctuaries and temples, will be covered with tombs and the dead. O Egypt, Egypt, there will remain of thy religion only fables, and thy children in later times will not believe them; nothing will survive save words engraved on stones to tell of thy pious deeds. The Scythian or the Indian, or some other such barbarous neighbour will establish himself in Egypt. For behold the divinity goes back up to heaven; and men, aban­doned, all die, and then, without either god or man, Egypt will be nothing but a desert. . . .


Why weep, O Asclepius? Egypt will be carried away to worse things than this; she will be polluted with yet graver crimes. She, hitherto most holy, who so much loved the gods, only country of the earth where the gods made their home in return for her devotion, she who taught men holiness and piety, will give example of the most atrocious cruelty. In that hour, weary of life, men will no longer regard the world as 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 they will despise and no longer cherish this whole of the universe, incomparable work of God, glorious construction, good creation made up of an infinite diversity of forms, instrument of the will of God who, without envy, pours forth his favour on all his work, in



which is assembled in one whole, in a harmonious diversity, all that can be seen that is worthy of reverence, praise and love. For darkness will be preferred to light; it will be thought better to die than to live; none will raise his eyes towards heaven; the pious man will be thought mad, the impious, wise; the frenzied will be thought brave, the worst criminal a good man. The soul and all the beliefs attached to it, according to which the soul is immortal by nature or foresees that it can obtain immortality as I have taught you-this will be laughed at and thought nonsense. And believe me, it will be considered a capital crime under the law to give oneself to the religion of the mind. A new justice will be created and new laws. Nothing holy, nothing pious, nothing worthy of heaven and of the gods who dwell there, will be any more spoken of nor will find credence in the soul.


The gods will separate themselves from men, deplorable divorce. Only the evil angels will remain who will mingle with men, and constrain them by violence-miserable creatures-to all the ex­cesses of criminal audacity, engaging them in wars, brigandage, frauds, and in everything which is contrary to the nature of the soul. Then the earth will lose its equilibrium, the sea will no longer be navigable, the heaven will no longer be full of stars, the stars will stop their courses in the heaven. Every divine voice will be silenced, and will be silent. The fruits of the earth will moulder, the soil will be no longer fertile, the air itself will grow thick with a lugubrious torpor.


Such will be the old age of the world, irreligion, disorder, con­fusion of all goods. W'hen all these things have come to pass, O Asclepius, then the Lord and Father, the god first in power and the demiurge of the One God, having considered these customs and voluntary crimes, endeavouring by his will, which is the divine will, to bar the way to vices and universal corruption and to correct errors, he will annihilate all malice, either by effacing it in a deluge or by consuming it by fire, or destroying it by pesti­lential maladies diffused in many places. Then he will bring back the world to its first beauty, so that this world may again be worthy of reverence and admiration, and that God also, creator and restorer of so great a work, may be glorified by the men who shall live then in continual hymns of praise and benedictions. That is what the rebirth of the world will be; a renewal of all good things, a holy and most solemn restoration of Nature herself,



…for Ficino and his readers, what they thought to be the Mosaic piety of the Egyptian Genesis, and the Christian piety of Egyptian regenerations, would have rehabilitated in their eyes the Egyptian religion of the Asclepius. They would observe that much of the same philosophy and general outlook of works in the Corpus Hermeticum is repeated in the Asclepius. Thus the latter work would seem the revelation of the religious cult which went with the “religion of the mind”, or religion of the mind in relation to the world, which this holy Egyptian, both in various passages in the Corpus Hermeticum, and in the Asclepius, associated prophetically with the “son of God”.


And that cult involved the practice of astral magic. The statues in the temples, the “terrestrial gods”, were animated by knowing the occult properties of substances, by arranging them in accordance with the principles of sympathetic magic, and by drawing down into them the life of the celestial gods by invocations. So it would become a legitimate practice for  a philosopher, even a devout practice associated with his religion, to “draw down the life of the heaven” by sympathetic astral magic, as Ficino advised in his work on magic, the De vita coelitus comparanda.

            The rehabilitation of the Asclepius, through the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum, is, I believe, one of the chief factors in the Renaissance revival of magic.



[Contrary to] Augustine …could begin to seem like an injunction to infuse into a decayed Christianity something of the Egyptian spirit of piety and morality.


Chapter III





The Hermetic literature divides into two branches. On the one hand the 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. 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. Not only do we have in the Asclepius an actual description of magical practices in the admiring reference 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.



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.



The decans appear here as powerful divine or demonic forces, close to the circle of the All, and above the circle so the zodiac and 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 form 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 zodiac; others on which plants go with the signs of the planets; a book of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius on the occult virtues of animals [n4 Festugière… discussing the “Livre court medical d’Hermès Trismégiste selon la science astrologique et l’influx naturel des animaux publié à 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]; 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 form the star which has been causing the trouble or bringing in influences form another star.

            The name of Hermes Trismegistus seems to have been particularly strongly connected with the lists of images of the decans.



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 role in magic, 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. 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.


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”. 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.



Ficino and his friends would be able to recognize in the Picatrix many of the ideas and philosophico-religious sentiments expressed by the wonderful author of Pimander, the Egyptian Moses and the prophet of Christianity…


Giovanni Francesco Pico, nephew of the great Pico, shows some knowledge of it in a work written after his uncle’s death. 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 borroweed form it. 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 reuererend pere en Diable Picatris, recteur de la faculté diabologique”.



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 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 heavens.


The order of nature is further expounded in two passages. God or the prima materia is without form. There derives from the formless incorporeal One the series of


Intellectus or mens


Material, or material nature, the elements and the elementata.



…influx of spiritus into material.

            The most important of the means of doing thesis through the making of talismans, images of he 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.



…one very striking passage in the fourth book of Picatrix


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 form all so that no on could see him, although he was with it. it was he, too, who in the east of Egypt constructed a City twelve miles (millaria) 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 western 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.




…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.



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.


…Peter of Abano, who lists the decan images, and  whom Ficino cites by name 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”.



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.


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 tits 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, 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.



We must not forget that the other prisci theologi, such as Orpheus or Zoroaster, were also Magi, and also authorized 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.



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 eh divides every one of these twelve by thee, so as to make thirty-six gods in all.


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.



Yet even Augustine lent his support to the colossal misdating of [Asclepius] by which Hermes appears as prophesying the coming of Christianity, though he had this knowledge through the demons.


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 form 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.


Chapter IV





Ficino… Libri de Vita… is intended primarily for students who are liable through over-intense application to their studies to grow ill or melancholy. This is because the nature of their occupations brings them under the influence of Saturn, for contemplation and hard abstract study belong to Saturn who is also the planet of the melancholy temperament, and the star which is inimical to the vital forces of life and youth.



…Plotinus at Ennead, IV, 3, xi…


I think . . . that those ancient sages, who sought to secure the presence of divine beings by the erection of shrines and statues, showed insight into the nature of the All; they perceived that, though this Soul (of the world) is everywhere tractable, its presence will be secured all the more readily when an appropriate receptacle is elaborated, a place especially capable of receiving some portion or phase of it, something reproducing it and serving like a mirror to catch an image of it.

            It belongs to the nature of the All to make its entire content reproduce, most felicitously, the Reason-Principles in which it participates; every particular thing is the image within matter of a Reason-Principle which itself images a pre-material Reason-Principle: thus every particular entity is linked to that Divine Being in whose likeness it is made. . . .



We seem to have here the two main topics of which Ficino is speaking, but put in a different order, which makes the thought-sequences a little clearer. (1) How the ancient sages who understood the nature of the All drew down divine beings into their shrines by attracting or securing a part of the soul of the world. This corresponds to Ficino’s mention of magic links or spells, described by Zoroaster or Synesius, which are congruities between reasons in the soul of the world and lower forms. Ficino follows this by the mention of star images, a s though these were a part of the magical linking system, and indeed stating that form the ordering of these celestial images the forms of lower things depend. (2) The outline of Neoplatonic theory—which Ficino puts before the allusion to magic, and Plotinus after it—of the reflection of the Ideas in the divine intellect in their images or forms in the soul of the world, whence they are again reflected (through the intermediaries in the soul of the world) in material forms.


What would make sense of Ficino’s introduction of the reference to celestial images in his commentary on the Plotinus a passage would be if he thinks that such images are in some way organically related to those “seminal reasons” or “reason principles” in the soul of the world which are the reflection in that “middle place” of the Ideas in the divine mind. Hence such images would become forms of the Ideas, or ways of approaching the Ideas at a stage intermediary between their purely intellectual forms in the divine mens and their dimmer reflection in the world of sense, or body of the world hence it was by manipulating such images in this intermediary “middle place’ that the ancient sages knew how to draw down a part of the soul of the world into their shrines.



Thus the priestly Magus plays a semi-divine role, maintaining by his understanding of the use of images the circuit which unites the highest divine world with the soul of the world and the world of sense.


In his article on “Icones Symbolicae” E. H. Gombrich has analysed the mode of though, so difficult for a modern to understand, by which, for a Renaissance Neoplatonist, an “ancient” image, one which reached him from traditions going back, so he believed, into a remote past, did actually have within it the reflection of an Idea. An ancient image of Justice was not just a picture but actually contained within it some echo, taste, substance, of the divine Idea of Justice.


mens, anima mundi, corpus mundi


Thus Ficino’s commentary on the Plotinus passage becomes, by devious ways, a justification for the use of talismans, and of the magic of the Asclepius, on Neoplatonic grounds…


Ficino returns to the commentary on the Plotinus passage with which he had begoun the book, and now he states that Plotinus in that passage was merely imitating or repeating, what Hermes Trismegistus had said in his Asclepius.



An interpretation of this passage is that Ficino used to agree with Thomas Aquinas, who explicitly condemns as demonic the magic in the Asclepius, but since eh ahs read Plotinus commentary he understands that, though there may have been bad Egyptian priests who used demonic magic, Hermes Trismegistus was not one of them.



Hence, celestial images would have their power form the “world” not form demons, being something in the nature of shadows of Ideas, intermediaries in the middle place between Intellect and Body, links in the chains by which the Neoplatonic Magus operates his magic and marries higher things to lower things.


…Celsus… magical religion) is respect to invisible ideas and not, as most people think, to ephemeral animals.” [Origen]



…W. Gundel, the great authority on decan images, who thinks that Ficino’s partiality for planet images reflects a traditional rivalry between decan and planet images which Ficino decides in favour of the latter. … One wonders if this choice was related to the avoidance of demonic magic. By avoiding the images of the decan demons and by using planet images—not to evoke the demon of the planets by only as images of “mundane gods”, shadows of Ideas in the Soul of the world—the pious Neoplatonist could perhaps believe that he would be doing only a “world” magic, a natural magic with natural forces, not a demonic magic.


[n2 The images of the decans are shown in the astrological scheme on the walls of the Salone at Padua…derived from Albumazar. Cf. J. Seznec,  The Survival of the Pagan Gods, trans. B. F. Sessions, New York, 1953, pp. 73-4.]



The force of the heavens is greatest when the celestial rays come down perpendicularly and at right angles, that is to say in the form of a cross joining the four cardinal points. The Egyptians hence used the form of the cross, which to them also signified the future life, and they sculptured that figure on the breast of Serapis,. Ficino, however, thinks that the use of the cross among the Egyptians was not so much on account of its power in attracting the gifts of the stars, but a s a prophecy of the coming of Christ, made by them unknowingly. Thus the sanctity of the Egyptians as prophets of Christianity through their use of the cross as a talisman comes in as an appropriate introduction to the list of talismanic figures.


In short, by devious means, Ficino has extracted his use of talismans from blame. I believe that he is thinking primarily of planetary talismans, and of these used not in a “demonic” manner but, as Walker has said, with “spiritual” magic, a magic using the spiritus mundi, to be attracted mainly through groupings of plants, metals, and so on, but also through use of planetary talismans which address the stars as world forces, or natural forces, and not as demons.


“Why, then, should we not permit ourselves a universal image, that is an image of the universe itself? From which it might be hoped to obtain much benefit form the universe.”




He then says that the figure of the world may be constructed so as to reproduce the motion of the spheres, as was done by Archimedes, and has been done recently by a Florentine called Lorenzo. He is here referring to the astronomical clock made by Lorenzo della Volpaia for Lorenzo de’ Medici which contained representations of the planets. Such a figure of the world, says Ficino, is made not only to be gazed at bt to be meditated upon in the soul. It is obviously a different kind of object to the one previously hinted at. It is a cosmic mechanism.


Finally, someone may construct, or will construct:


on the domed ceiling of the innermost cubicle of his house, where he mostly lives and sleeps, such a figure with the colours in it. and when he comes out of this house he will perceive not so much the spectacle of individual things, but the figure of the universe and its colours.


In short, these unfortunately so vaguely hinted at works of art are functional; they are made for a purpose, for magical use. By arranging the figure of the world and its celestial images with knowledge and skill, the Magus controls the influences of the stars. Just as Hermes Trismegistus arranged the images in the City of Adocentyn…



…so Ficino’s “figures of the world” would be calculated to regulate the influences in the direction indicated in the Libri de Vita, towards a predominance of Solar, Jovial, and Venereal influences and towards an avoidance of Saturn and Mars.


The man who stares at the figure of the world on his bedroom ceiling, imprinting it and its dominating colours of the planets on memory, when he comes out of his house and sees innumerable individual things is able to unify these through the images of a higher reality which he has within. This is the strange vision, or the extraordinary illusion, which was alter to inspire Giordano Bruno’s efforts to base memory on celestial images, on images which are shadows of ideas in the soul of the world, and  thus to unify and organize the innumerable individuals in the world and all the contents of memory.


Gombrich discusses the “Primavera” in relation to such a disposition of the stars, suggesting that the Mercury on the extreme left is a planetary image, raising and dismissing the possibility that the Three Graces might be Sol, Jupiter, and Venus, and emphasizing that the central figure is certainly a Venus.




Though painted earlier than the De vita coelitus comparanda was written, or at least published, Botticelli’s “Primavera” is surely such an object, designed with such a purpose.


…in the context of the study of Ficino’s magic the picture begins to be seen as a practical application of that magic, as a complex talisman, an “image of the world” arranged so as to transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, anti-Saturnian influences to the beholder. Here, in visual form is Ficino’s natural magic, using grouping of trees and flowers, using only planetary images and those only in relation to the “world”, not to attract demons; or as shadows of Ideas, in the Neoplatonic hierarchy. And, whatever the figures on the right may represent mythologically, is it not the spiritus mundi which blows through them, blown form the puffed cheeks of the aerial spirit, made visible, in the wind-blown folds of the draperies of the running figure? The spiritus which is the channel for the influences of the stars has been caught and stored in the magic talisman.




Ficino’s Orphic magic was a return to an ancient prisci theologica, like his talismanic magic with its disguised, or revised return to Hermes Trismegistus. Orpheus comes second after Trismegistus  in the Ficinian lists of prisci theologi. The collection of hymns known as the Orphica, which was the main though not the only source of Orphic hymns known to the Renaissance, dates probably form the second or third century A.D., that is from roughly the same period as the Hermetica. They were probably hymns used by some religious sect of the period. Their content is usually to call upon a god, particularly the sun, by his various names, invoking his various powers, and there is more than a touch of the magical incantation in them. Ficino and his contemporaries believed that the Orphic hymns were by Orpheus himself and were of extreme antiquity, reflecting the religious singing of a priscus magus who lived long before Plato. Ficino’s revival of Orphic singing has deep importance for him because he believes he is returning to the practice of a most ancient theologian and one who foresaw the Trinity. It thus has underlying it the same type of historical error as that which induced his profound respect for the Hermetica.


Ficino used to sing the Orphic songs, accompanying himself probably on a lira da braccio. They were set to some kind of simple monodic music which Ficino believed echoed the musical notes emitted by the planetary spheres, to form that music of the spheres of which Pythagoras spoke. Thus one could sing Sun hymns, or Jupiter hymns, or Venus hymns attuned to those planets, and this, being re-enforced by the invocation of their names and powers, was a way of drawing down their influences.




The incantatory magic raises the same problem as the talismanic magic, namely, is it a natural magic, addressed to the gods as powers of the world, or a demonic magic, invoking the demons of the stars. The answer here is probably the same as in the case of the talismanic magic…




In spite of all his precautions, Ficino did not avoid getting into trouble for the Libri de vita, a we learn from his Apologia for that work. People had evidently been asking questions such as, “Is not Marsilius a priest? What has a priest to do with medicine and astrology? What has a Christian to do with magic and images?” Ficino counters by pointing out that in ancient times priests always did medicine, mentioning Chaldean, Persian, and Eguyptian priests; that medicine is impossible without astrology; that Christ Himself was a healer.


…the contrast is again most striking between the new elegant magic, recommended by the fashionable physician, and that old dirty magic.




And yet there is absolute continuity between the old magic and the new.


The phenomenon is parallel with that other phenomenon which Warburg and Saxl discovered and studied, namely how the images of the gods were preserved through the Middle Ages in astrological manuscripts, reached the Renaissance in that barbarised form, and were then reinvested with classical form through the rediscovered and imitation of classical works of art. In the same way, astral magic comes down in the mediaeval tradition and is reinvested with classical form in the Renaissance through the rediscovery of Neoplatonic theurgy.


Yet the substance of it reached him through Picatrix, or some such similar text-books, and was transformed by him back into classical form through his Greek studies. one might say that the approach through the history of magic is perhaps as necessary for the understanding of the meaning and use of a Renaissance work of art as is the approach through the history of the recovery of classical form for the understanding of its form.




And yet, just as a pagan Renaissance work of art is not purely pagan but retains Christian overtones or undertones (the classical example of this being Botticelli's Venus who looks like a Virgin), so it is also with Ficino's magic. This cannot be regarded as a purely medical practice which he kept quite separate from his religion because, as D. P. Walker has emphasised, it was in itself a kind of religion. Walker has quoted a passage from Ficino's close disciple and imitator, Francesco da Diacetto in which this comes out most clearly. Diacceto describes how one who wishes to acquire "solarian gifts", should robe himself in a mantle of solarian colour, such as gold, and conduct a rite, involving burning of incense made from solar plants, before an altar on which is an image of the sun, for example "an image of the sun enthroned, crowned, and wearing a saffron cloak, likewise a raven and the figure of the sun." This is the solar talisman in the De vita coelitus comparanda which we thought might be derived from Picatrix. Then, anointed with unguents made from solar materials he is to sing an Orphic hymn to the Sun, invoking him as the divine Henad, as the Mind, and as the Soul. This is the Neoplatonic triad under which the Emperor Julian worshipped the Sun. As Walker says the triad is not actually mentioned in the De vita coelitus comparanda. But it is alluded to by Plotinus in that passage in the Enneads on which Ficino's work is a commentary, as the example of the hierarchy of the Ideas. Diacceto's solar rites thus bring out something which is implicit in the De vita coelitus comparanda and they probably reflect Ficino's own practices. If so, Ficino's magic was a religious magic, a revival of the religion of the world.


[n3 "The sun of that sphere. . . is an Intellectual-Principle, and im­mediately upon it follows the Soul depending from it . . . the Soul borders also upon the sun of this sphere, and becomes the medium by which it is linked to the over-world"; Plotinus, Ennead, IV, 3, XI; McKenna's translation, p. 270.]




How could a pious Christian reconcile such a revival with his Christianity?


The moving force behind this revival was probably, as Walker has suggested, Ficino’s deep interest in the Egyptian magical religion described in the Asclepius. It was on this, and only secondarily on Plotinus, that the De vita coelitus comparanda was a commentary, seeking to justify it by finding a “natural” and Neoplatonic basis for it.




Chapter V




PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA, contemporary of Fi­cino, though younger, began his philosophical career under Ficino's influence and imbibed from Ficino his enthusiasm for magia naturalis which he accepted and recommended much more forcibly and openly than did Ficino. But Pico is chiefly important in the history of Renaissance magic

because he added to the natural magic another kind of magic, which was to be used with the magia naturalis as complementary to it. This other kind of magic which Pico added to the equipment of the Renaissance Magus was practical Cabala, or Cabalist magic. This was a spiritual magic, not spiritual in the sense of using only the natural spiritus mundi like natural magic, but in the sense that it attempted to tap the higher spiritual powers,

beyond the natural powers of the cosmos. Practical Cabala in­vokes angels, archangels, the ten sephiroth which are names or powers of God, God himself, by means some of which are similar to other magical procedures but more particularly through the power of the sacred Hebrew language. It is thus a much more ambitious kind of magic than Ficino's natural magic, and one which it would be impossible to keep apart from religion.


For the Renaissance mind, which loved symmetrical arrange­ments, there was a certain parallelism between the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian Moses, and Cabala which was a Jewish mystical tradition supposed to have been handed down

orally from Moses himself.




In common with all Cabalists, Pico firmly believed in this extreme antiquity of the Cabalistic teach­ings as going right back to Moses, as a secret doctrine which Moses had imparted to some initiates who had handed it on, and which unfolded mysteries not fully explained by the patriarch in Genesis. The Cabala is not, I believe, ever called a prisca theo­logia for this term applied to Gentile sources of ancient wisdom, and this was a more sacred wisdom, being Hebrew wisdom. And since, for Pico, Cabala confirmed the truth of Christianity, Christian Cabala was a Hebrew-Christian source of ancient wis­dom, and one which he found it most valuable and instructive to compare with Gentile ancient wisdoms, and above all with that of Hermes Trismegistus who particularly lent himself to Pico's essays in comparative religion because he was so closely parallel to Moses, as the Egyptian law-giver and author of the inspired Egyptian Genesis, the Pimander.


Looking at the Hermetic writings and at Cabala with the eyes of Pico, certain symmetries begin to present themselves to our en­raptured gaze. The Egyptian law-giver had given utterance to wonderful mystical teachings, including an account of creation in which he seemed to know something of what Moses knew. With this body of mystical teaching there went a magic, the magic of the Asclepius. In Cabala, too, there was a marvellous body of mystical teaching, derived from the Hebrew law-giver, and new light on the Mosaic mysteries of creation. Pico lost himself in these wonders in which he saw the divinity of Christ verified. And with Cabala, too, there went a kind of magic, practical Cabala.


Hermetism and Cabalism also corroborated one another on a theme which was fundamental for them both, namely the creation by the Word. The mysteries of the Hermetica are mysteries of the Word, or the Logos, and in the Pimander, it was by the luminous Word, the Son of God issuing from the Nous that the creative act was made. In Genesis, "God spoke" to form the created world, and, since He spoke in Hebrew, this is why for the Cabalist the words and letters of the Hebrew tongue are subjects for endless mystical meditations, and why, for the practical Cabalist, they contain magical power.    Lactantius may have helped to cement the union between Hermetism and Christian Cabalism on this point, for, after quoting from the Psalm "By the word of God were the heavens made, and from St. John, "In the beginning was the Word", he adds that this is supported from the Gentiles.




…theologians raised an outcry over some of the theses, necessitating an Apology or defence which was published in 1487 together with most of the oration on the Dignity of Man, with which the debate was to have opened. That oration was to echo and re-echo throughout the Renaissance, and it is, indeed, the great charter of Renaissance Magic, of the new type of magic introduced by Ficino and completed by Pico.


In the following pages I shall be using Pico’s theses, or Conclusiones, his Apology, and also the Oration.




But what is certain is that Pico is saying that it is the magical signs which are operative. Therefore his natural magic is more than the arrangement of natural substances and includes such magical signs.




It therefore seems that the Natural Magus, as envisaged y Pico, would use the same kind of methods as the Ficinian natural magic, natural sympathies, natural Orphic incantations, magic signs and images naturally interpreted. Amongst these procedures would almost certainly be the use of the talisman as Ficino interpreted it.




Nulla nomina ut significatius, & in quantum nomina sunt, singular & per se sumpta, in Magico opera uirutem habere possunt, nisi sint Hebraica, uel inde proxime deriuata.


This twenty-second magical conclusion is hard on a poor magician who is weak in Hebrew, like Ficino who only knew a few words of that language.




The Cabala as it developed in Spain in the Middle Ages had as its basis the doctrine of the ten Sephiroth and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.


…the ten names most common to God and in their entirety they form his one great Name.”


The creative aspect of the Sephiroth involves them in a connection with cosmology, and there is a relationship between the Sephiroth and the ten spheres of the cosmos, composed of the spheres of the seven planets, the sphere of fixed stars, and the higher spheres beyond these.


…it reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world and the creative language of God. Creation form the point of view of God is the expression of His hidden self that gives Itself a name, the holy Name of God, the perpetual act of creation. In contemplating the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and their configurations as constituents of God’s name, the Cabalist is contemplating both God himself and his works through the Power of the Name.




Abbreviations of Hebrew words, by the me4thod of Notarikon, or transpositions or anagrams of words by the method of Temurah, were also potent. One of the most complicated of the methods used in practical Cabala, or Cabalist magic, was Gematria which was based on the numerical values assigned to each Hebrew letter involving a mathematics of extreme intricacy, and by which, when words were calculated into numbers and numbers into words the entire organization of the world could be read off in terms of word-numbers, or the number of the heavenly hosts could be exactly calculated as amounting to 301,655,172. the word-number equation is, like all these methods, not necessarily magic and can be purely mystical; but it was an important feature of practical Cabala through its association with names of angels.




Amongst the eager activities which Pico undertook for his total synthesis of all knowledge —made at the age of twenty-four—was the learning of Hebrew which he seems to have known quite well.


He seems to have had some knowledge of the Zohar and of the mystical commentary on the Song of Solomon.


His seventy-two Cabalist Conclusiones are introduced as “confirming the Christian religion form the foundations of Hebrew wisdom”. The sixth conclusion states that the three great Names of God in Cabalist secrets, within the quaternary Name (the Tetragrammaton), refer to the Three Persons of the Trinity. And the seventh conclusion affirms that “No Hebrew Cabalist can deny that the name of Iesu, if we interpret it according to Cabalistic principles and methods, signifies God, the Son of God, and the wisdom of the Father through the divinity o the Third Person.”



…the miracles of Christ could not have been done by way of cabala. (The seventh of the magical conclusions states that Christ’s miracles were not done either by Magia or by Cabala.)



This, the eleventh conclusion, is certainly profoundly mystical. In a supreme trance, in  which the soul is separated form the body, the Cabalist can communicate with God through the archangels, in an ecstasy so intense that it sometimes results, accidentally, in the death of the body, a way of dying called the Death of the Kiss. Pico was greatly preoccupied with this experience and mentions the mors osculi in his commentary on Benivieni’s poem.


The operations of pure Cabala are done in the intellectual part of the soul. This immediately marks them off form the operations of natural magic, which are done only with the natural spiritus.



After the opening quotation form Trismegistus on man, the great miracle, comes the main eulogy of natural magic, after which the speaker passes on to the mysteries of the Hebrews and the secret tradition stemming form Moses. The oration is full of secrets not fully revealed. The Egyptians sculptured a sphinx on their temples to show that the mysteries of their religion must bye guarded under a veil of silence. The Cabala of the Hebrews contains mysteries handed on under a seal of silence.


Sometimes he comes near to revealing a secret:


And if it is permissible, under the veil of enigma, to mention in public something of the most secret mysteries . . . we invoke Raphael, the celestial doctor that he may liberate us with ethics an dialectics like a salutary physician. In us, now restored to good health, will dwell Gabriel, the force of the Lord, who leading us through the miracles of nature and showing us where dwell the virtue and power of God, will present us to Michael, the high priest, who, after our service to philosophy, will crown us, as with a crown of precious stones, with the priesthood of theology.



And perhaps it is also chiefly in this imaginative and artistic sense that we should understand the influence of the Renaissance magic of the type inaugurated by Ficino and Pico. The operative Magi of the Renaissance  were the artists, and it was a Donatello or a Michelangelo who know how to infuse the divine life into statues through their art.


…and in the Orphic conclusions, the “hymns of David”, that is the Psalms, are spoken of as incantations as powerful for the work of Cabala, as the hymns of Orpheus are of value for natural magic.


Sicut hymni Dauid operi Cabalae mirabiliter deseruiunt, ita hymni Orphei operi ueri licitae, & naturalis Magiae.



The problem is perhaps insoluble, but in thinking of it wer are in the presence of a problem which was to agitate later controversies about religion in reklation to magic, namely, should a religious reform involve putting more magic into religion, or taking the magic out of it? if one puts the problem, not only in these terms, but in terms of magical and wonder-working images in Christian churches the possible relevance of this tremendous Renaissance emphasis on religious magic to the Reformation and its iconoclasm is a questin which begins to raise its head.


The connection between magic and Christianity in Pico’s formulations is made even closer and more formidable by his extraordinary claim that Magia and Cabala help to prove the divinity of Christ.


Nulla est scientia, que nos magis certificet de diuinitate Christi, quam Magia & Cabala.


What exactly he meant by this amazing statement is nowhere fully explained, but this was the conclusion to which most exception was taken, which raised a storm of protest, and which he concentrated on apologizing for and defending in his Apology.




If Magia and Cabala have such power, was it by these means that Christ did his wonderful works? No, says Pico with the utmost emphasis. But later magicians were to take up this dangerous thought.


There is yet another aspect of Pico’s crucially important position in the history of our subject. The Magia of the oration is ultimately derivable form the magic of the Asclepius, a derivation which Pico boldly emphasizes when he begins the speech with Hermes Trismegistus on the great miracle of man. Thus, in yoking together Magia and Cabala, Pico was really marrying Hermetism to Cabalism, a union—which, as emphasized earlier in this chapter, Pico was the first to bring about—from which was to spring a progeny of Hermetic-Cabalists, composers of works of vast complexity and infinite obscurity as numerous as they are baffling.



Moreover, the two theoretical contexts in which the two kinds of magic revive in the Renaissance—namely the Hermetica and Cabala—are both Gnostic in origin. The Hewrmetica are collections of documents of pagan Gnosticism of the early centuries A.D. in some of which (particularly the account of creation in Pimander) there is Jewish influence. And, as the researches of G. Scholem has recently emphasized, there is a strong Gnostic influence in early Jewish Cabala, and underlying the Neoplatonism with which it was mingled in the Spanish Cabalism of the Middle Ages.



For Pico this remarkable essay in comparative religion would not take the critical form of a recognition of Gnostic elements in Cabala comparable with Hermetic gnosticism. For him the comparison would be a rapturous realization that what the Egyptian Moses, Trismegistus, teaches about the Powers and the Punishments is the same as what Moses, as reported by the Cabalists, teaches about the Sephiroth and their opposites.


Much new work has been done in recent years on Hermetism in the Renaissance and it may eventually become apparent that both Ficino’s Neoplatonism and Pico’s attempted synthesis of all philosophies on a mystical basis are really, at bottom, an aspiration after a new gnosis rather than a new philosophy.



The Fathers of the Church had placed man in a dignified position, as the highest of terrestrial beings, as spectator of the universe, as the microcosm containing within himself the reflection of the macrocosm. All these orthodox notions are in the oration on the Dignity of Man, but the Dignity of Man as Magus, as operator, having with in him the divine creative power, and the magical power of marrying earth to heaven rests on the Gnostic heresy that man was once, and can become again through his intellect, the reflection of the divine mens, a divine being. The final revaluation of the magician in the Renaissance is that he becomes a divine man. once again one is reminded of a parallel with the creative artists for this was the epithet which their contemporaries awarded the great, of whom the often speak as the divine Raphael, or the divine Leonardo, or eh divine Michelangelo.



In the next century, Archangelo de Burgo Nuovo wrote a defence of Pico against Garcia (printed at Venice in 1569), and these two works—Garcia’s and Archangelo’s—may be said to epitomize the arguments for and against the connection of magic with religious practices which raged in the sixteenth century and to which D. P. Walker has drawn attention in his book. The basic case for this controversy is the Pico case, and the arguments used by Pico’s attackers and defenders.


Unlike his predecessor, the Borgia pope was not at all averse to astrology and magic, but, on the contrary, was deeply interested in those subjects, and he came most impressively to the rescue of Pico’s orthodoxy. The bulls for Pico’s absolution which Lorenzo de Medici had failed to obtain form Innocent VIII, in spite of repeated appeals, were promulgated by Alexander VI… 1493…



This letter was printed in all the editions of Pico’s works., thus encouraging readers to accept, on the highest authority, the writer’s views as of unimpeachable orthodoxy. And this would include the view which was the chief cause of the outcry against Pico, and of the commission which Alexander quashed, that Magia and Cabala are valuable aids to Christianity.



This would be the usual Hermes-Moses comparison with which we have become so familiar in our study of Magia and Cabala.


Why did the Pope have such a programme painted early in his reign, a programme which glorifies the Egyptian religion … shows the Egyptian Apis bulls worshipping the Cross… associates Hermes Trismegistus with Moses? The answer to this question is, I believe, that the Pope wished to proclaim his reversal of the policy of his predecessor by  adopting Pico della Mirandola’s programme of using Magia and Cabala as aids to religion.



Chapter VI




Saint Dionysius the Areopagite was, for Ficino, both culmen of Platonism, and the saint whom St. Paul had met at Athens, and whose vision of the nine angelic hierarchies, unquestioningly accepted by Thomas Aquinas and all the doctors of the Church, had become an integral part of orthodox Christian theology. Saint Dionysius is constantly referred to in Ficino’s Theologia Platonica and De Christiana Religione, the two works in which he set out his synthesis of Platonism with Christianity, and indeed, not ony for Ficino but also for all later Christian Neoplatonists, Dionysius was one of the main  Christian allies.