Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism

In: Aries
Christian H. Bull University of Oslo

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The Hermetic treatises have played a considerable role in the history of Western Esotericism. However, according to the influential definition of Antoine Faivre, Western Esotericism is a historical phenomenon originating from the fifteenth century, when Marsilio Ficino translated the Greek Corpus Hermeticum into Latin. The question, then, is if the term “esotericism” has any utility for understanding the original context of the Hermetic treatises, in the first centuries of the Common Era. The present contribution aims to give a summary account of research into ancient Hermetism, and consider the Hermetic treatises in light of the six elements of Faivre’s conception of Western Esotericism. These six elements can serve as heuristic tools to single out certain salient features of the treatises, but do not really help us gain a deeper understanding of them or the greater phenomenon of Hermetism. However, recalling the work of Hugh Urban, it will be suggested that we should use “esotericism” as an analytical term designating a social strategy, characterized by the creation of a closed social space, a claim to possess a superior faculty of knowledge, and rites of initiation to obtain this faculty and become a new human. The advantage of this second approach is that it permits us to compare the social strategies operative in the Hermetic treatises with those of other esoteric traditions, including those that do not have any historical affiliations with Hermetism.

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