Hermes and caduceus, Loulan tapestry, 3rd century BC (Wikimedia Commons)

The Riddle of Hermes

How much do we really understand about ancient Hermeticism? Review of Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s ‘Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination’

Mitch Horowitz
6 min readApr 13, 2023

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Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Cambridge University Press, 2022, 400 pp., hardcover, $135.00.

Hermeticism is the ever-elusive philosophy. Since late antiquity, following a jagged and indirect path, the amalgam of Greek-Egyptian thought has promised seekers a whisper of the insights of primeval esotericism. This ideal grew pronounced in the Western mind with the rediscovery of Hermetic texts during the Renaissance.

In the 15th century, many translators, clerics, scholars, and nobles believed that the resurfaced Greek dialogues — translated into Latin as the Corpus Hermeticum — represented the fabled prisca theologia: a theological “holy grail” codifying humanity’s earliest spiritual and cosmological insights. The fragmentary writings suggested a pantheistic view of creation emanating from nous, an infinite mind, which humanity, in its journey to transcendent awareness, could eventually rejoin.

The mysterious tracts, sometimes credited to the mythical psychopomp Hermes Trismegistus, held the promise of individual greatness:

See what power you have, what quickness! If you can do these things, can god not do them? So you must think of god in this way, as having everything — the cosmos, himself, (the) universe — like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like. (Hermetica, book XI, translated by Brian P. Copenhaver, Cambridge University Press, 1992)

These hopes were largely dashed in 1614 when linguist Isaac Casaubon demonstrated that the magico-cosmic works were written in the centuries immediately following the death of Christ and not the mists of deep antiquity. Its ancient vintage dispelled, the Corpus Hermeticum retained the devotion of a few stalwarts, including natural philosopher Sir Thomas Browne who wrote in his 1643 Religio Medici: “The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible World is but a…

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China