When the demise of traditional Egyptian religion took place is much debated. Some scholars have portrayed vibrant cults continuing well beyond the 4th century, embattled by Christianity, whereas others see a marked decline in the late 2nd and early 3rd century, leaving a blank slate for Christianity in the fourth century. The present contribution interprets the apocalyptic prophecy of Hermes Trismegistus in the Perfect Discourse to reflect a priestly insider’s perspective of the decline in temple-cult in the early 3rd century, and its projected catastrophic consequences for Egypt and indeed the cosmic order. Yet, despite the general neglect of temple-cult and literacy in the Egyptian priestly scripts, certain temples remained in use. The second part of the article is devoted to the survival and apparent rejuvenation of the temple of Osiris/Serapis in Canopus, in the second half of the 4th century. This case shows that at this late date there were still self-consciously traditionalist devotees of Egyptian gods, though our sources do not permit us to see to what degree their temple-cult corresponded to the old “standard model.” The temple’s alliance with the non-Egyptian Neoplatonist Antoninus suggests that the image of Egypt as the temple of the world is now championed in the language of Hellenism, and Antoninus updates the now nearly two-centuries-old prophecy of Hermes Trismegistus to predict the fall of the Serapis temples in Alexandria and Canopus after his death. Both the Perfect Discourse and Antoninus are testimonies of a literate elite that saw the great temples as the essence of Egyptian religion, and their demise as the end of Egypt and the world.
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.
The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (nhc vi,6) is a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and his son, during which they experience visions of the eighth and ninth spheres, above the seven planetary spheres. The paper aims to show that such experiences were not merely literary fiction, but actively pursued and allegedly obtained by those who followed the course of spiritual formation known as the Way of Hermes. A comparison with the Greek and Demotic magical papyri shows that these texts all show signs of “ritual realism,” meaning that correct ritual performance necessarily provides direct access to the divine realm, which should be experienced as real. It is furthermore argued that the Coptic translation of the text, and its presence in the Nag Hammadi codices, might be explained by the interest of Egyptian monks in visions of the divine.