Ancient Hermetism and Esotericism

In: Aries

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.

  • 17

    E.g., Festugière, La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 4:54.

  • 19

    Petersen, ‘Alt kommer jo på øjet an, der ser’, passim.

  • 24

    Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes, 17–22.

  • 27

    Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 184–186.

  • 28

    Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes, 64–114.

  • 29

    See, e.g., van den Broek, ‘Religious Practices’, 77ff., 95; Quispel, ‘From the Hermetic Lodge’; idem, ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, 148, 156; idem, ‘Reincarnation and Magic’, 163, 170, 177, 186, 207; Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, 51ff.

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  • 31

    Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 168–173; Dieleman, Priests, Tongues, and Rites, 11ff.; Tait, ‘Theban Magic’, 169–182.

  • 33

    P. Vind. Gr. 12563. See Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 175; Kingsley, ‘Poimandres’, 56.

  • 34

    P. Herm. Rees 2–3. See Rees, Papyri from Hermopolis, 2–7; Matthews, The Journey of Theophanes, 19–23; Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 176, 192.

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  • 35

    Did. Alex., Trin. 2.3.26–28 (Seiler), 2.27, 3.1.776a (Migne); see Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 179f.; Cyr. Alex., C. Jul. 1.548b–549c, 2.580b, 2.597d–600b, and 4.701ab.; Damascius, Vit. Isid. 243.

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  • 36

    Kloppenborg and Wilson (eds.), Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World, 1; Martin, ‘Secrecy in Hellenistic Religious Communities’, 102ff. For useful surveys, see Ascough, Harland, and Kloppenborg, Associations in the Greco-Roman World, and the ongoing multi-volume Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary, published by de Gruyter.

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  • 37

    See Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 193.

  • 38

    See Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, 10–15.

  • 43

    Ibid., 12.1.

  • 44

    Ibid., 16.10–16; Stob. Herm. 6.10; Ascl. 5.

  • 48

    E.g., Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 171–173; classic passages include Ir. Haer. 1.2; Ap. JohnNHC II,1.9–10.

  • 50

    Ibid., 1.8.

  • 51

    Ibid., 1.14–16.

  • 53

    Ibid., 23.13.

  • 59

    Ibid., 13.8ff.

  • 60

    Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, 13.

  • 67

    Ibid., 13.1.

  • 68

    See Bull, ‘The Tradition of Hermes’, 206–236.

  • 70

    Ibid., 13.14.

  • 71

    Ibid., 13.11.

  • 72

    Ibid., 12.13.

  • 73

    See Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, ix–xvi.

  • 75

    Bull, ‘The Tradition of Hermes’, 21–28, 56–57; van den Kerchove, La voie d’Hermès, 50–55.

  • 76

    Von Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge, 25–42.

  • 79

    Mahé, Hermès en Haute-Égypte, 1:132; Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 97ff.; van den Kerchove, La voie d’Hermès, 66–72.

  • 83

    See Hammer, ‘Esotericism in New Religious Movements’, 449.

  • 84

    Dillon, The Middle Platonists, 389–392.

  • 85

    E.g., Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 275–276; Rudolph, Gnosis, 25ff.; Pétrement, A Separate God, 463–468.

  • 87

    E.g., Rudolph, Gnosis, 120–121.

  • 91

    Galen, De plac. 3.4.12; Luc. Vit. auct. 26; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 5.9.58; Iamb. Vit. Pyth. 17.72.

  • 93

    E.g., Corp. Herm. 1.29.

  • 97

    Hägg, ‘Canon Formation in Greek Literary Culture’, 111–113; Finkelberg, ‘Homer as a Foundation Text’, 91–96; Lamberton, Homer the Theologian.

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  • 103

    See Bull, ‘The Tradition of Hermes’, 375–469.

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