I admit that I’ve been quiet as of late; between enjoying something of a hiatus (both from reading as well as writing), plenty of gaming, and just generally tending to my own self and my own affairs, things have been quiet indeed, even on this blog. (It also doesn’t help that WordPress.com got rid of its classic editor in every which way, forcing me to learn its new block editor, which I hate and am constantly confused by.) Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve been doing absolutely nothing; even if some of my blogging ideas are kinda dry at the moment, most of my typing lately has been going towards the Hermetic Agora Discord, which has continuously been a source of great conversation and discussion on several fronts. I also do keep tabs on the /r/Hermeticism subreddit, which although I’m not as active on as I was before, still also provides great fodder for discussions.
That said, I’ve noticed something of a trend lately on that subreddit. Over the past few months, the same questions seem to get asked over and over again, which is certainly attributable to a growth in that subreddit’s community and a constant influx of new people who want to know where to start. Of course, it’d help if people would learn to browse the records of discussion or use the search feature before making new posts, but that’s a problem with any and every online community, I suppose. It got to the point where I mused for a bit about considering the worth of a sort of “Hermeticism FAQ”, and realizing that nobody else was likely to write one, I shrugged and got on with it myself. To that end, I compiled a list of questions that I see frequently, both on the subreddit and on the Discord, as well as asking others about what they think are reasonable questions regarding Hermeticism. The list of questions, of course, ended up taking quite a few pages on their own, and even giving each question just a single paragraph to answer, there’s plenty there to talk about. Because the list was far too long for a single Reddit text self-post, I decided to keep them around as blog posts, so that they’d be more easily accessible and referenceable, to say nothing of serving as both good blogging content as well as a reasonable beginner’s introduction to Hermeticism.
To that end, we’ll start this short series off by starting at the high level: a general overview, origins, history, and other high-level questions regarding Hermeticism!
What is Hermeticism?
Hermeticism, or “The Way of Hermēs” as we know and understand it today, is a general religious, philosophical, and mystical movement that arose in Hellenistic Egypt in the early part of the Roman Empire, attributed to the teachings and practices of Hermēs Trismegistos. By combining Egyptian religiosity and Greek philosophy, Hermeticism seeks to come to know the underlying divine reality of all creation, and by that coming to work towards the salvation of the soul as well as the maintenance and well-ordering of the world we live in. This was achieved not only through works of ritual purity, spiritual elevation, and divine ascent, but also through the skills of astrology, alchemy, theurgy, and other magical and religious practices. As Hermeticism spread after the classical period, various aspects of Hermeticism were left behind in favor of the salvatorial elements of Christianity or Islam, and other aspects were emphasized, such as the practice of astrology or alchemy. The history of Hermeticism is long and complicated, but at its core, the central aims and goals of Hermeticism remain the same today as they were 2000 years ago.
Who was Hermēs Trismegistos?
“Hermēs Trismegistos” (sometimes spelled in a more Latin-friendly “Hermes Trismegistus” or a Latin “Mercurius Ter Maximus”) is the “prophet” and founding teacher of Hermeticism. Although in the Hermetic texts he is described as a human being descended from the gods and named after his divine forebear, Hermēs Trismegistos was also celebrated and worshipped in ancient Hellenistic Egypt as either the Greek Hermēs, the Egyptian Thōth, or the syncretic Hermēs-Thōth. In some (generally later) traditions of Hermeticism, as in Arabic and Islamic traditions immediately following the classical period, there was a series of “multiple Hermēs”, each teaching in a different time period, sometimes based on or building upon the teachings of their forebears.
The historical reason why Hermēs is described as “thrice great” (the literal meaning of “trismegistos” or “ter maximus”) is because of how the ancient Egyptian language worked: a common epithet of Thōth in Egyptian texts was “the great, the great, the great”, and repetition of an adjective in Egyptian served to intensify the adjective into a superlative, in this case meaning “greatest”. This was literally translated as “thrice-great” in Greek. Later, more symbolic interpretations of “thrice-great” were applied to Hermēs as a sort of folk etymology, sometimes reflecting his supposed mythic role as king-priest-magician or being a master of the three arts of astrology, alchemy, and theurgy.
Did Hermēs Trismegistos ever really exist?
Some believe he did, some don’t believe he did. What we all agree on is that Hermēs Trismegistos is held to be the teacher of the doctrines and practices of Hermeticism, regardless of the historicity or divinity of any such figure. Although it was popular several centuries ago to believe that Hermēs Trismegistos was an actual human being who was a contemporary or teacher of Moses, no such human likely ever existed except as a figure of myth. That being said, some doctrines of Islam equate Hermēs Trismegistos with the prophet Idris, himself associated with the biblical patriarch Enoch. Other Hermeticists believe that the figure of Hermēs Trismegistos is the syncretic god Hermēs-Thōth, or alternatively the Greek Hermēs and/or the Egyptian Thōth, giving Hermēs Trismegistos more of a divine presence than a historical one. To quote Alan Moore’s Promethea issue #17:
That ain’t important, whether he really existed. What’s important is that he exists. What he means, the symbol. That’s true. That’s real. That’s happenin’ right now.
So is Hermēs Trismegistos a god?
In many ways, yes. Although Hermēs Trismegistos himself in the Hermetic texts describes himself as a human with human forebears, it is also true that the very notion of the character “Hermēs Trismegistos” is rooted in the Greco-Egyptian syncretic god Hermēs-Thōth, each of whom were considered equivalent to each other from the Hellenic understanding (to the point where “Hermēs” was considered the translation of the name “Thōth”). Likewise, even outside of a strictly Hermetic context and in a more Egyptian pagan one, Thōth is sometimes rendered into Greek as “Hermēs Trismegistos”. Whether one considers Hermēs Trismegistos a god or a human (or a demigod or a deified human), however, is generally immaterial, only taking on importance should one engage in a polytheistic approach to Hermeticism and venerating Hermēs Trismegistos as a god instead of as an ancestor-teacher (if even that).
Is Hermeticism Greek, or is it Egyptian?
It’s both! Although Greeks have been in Egypt since the 7th century BCE, the Hellenistic conquest and invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and the establishment of the Ptolemaic Kingdom firmly established and blended Greek culture, religion, and philosophy into the preexisting Egyptian ones. This is when Egypt became “Hellenistic”, and although the Egyptianness of Egypt never went away, it did adapt and grow in new and interesting forms, and continued after the rise of the Roman Empire. In addition to various new cults and traditions springing up in this context, this blending and fusing of Greek and Egyptian entities into a single Greco-Egyptian one also produced the doctrines and texts of Hermeticism. As a result, Hermeticism is both Greek/Hellenic/Hellenistic and Egyptian, and both aspects of it should be understood and cherished together as one.
Is Hermeticism a philosophy?
Not really. Hermeticism can be thought of as a philosophy, but it lacks many of the same hallmarks of philosophy that e.g. Stoicism, Platonism, or Epicureanism have (e.g. no set axioms, no strict reliance on logical deduction, no central authority, no systematic way of deducing truths, etc.), and so Hermeticism can be better thought of as theosophy (in the etymological sense of the word) or as a type of mysticism rather than as a philosophy. There is a distinct notion of ecstatic devotion and piety in Hermeticism that “pure philosophy” itself tends to lack, so to call Hermeticism a “philosophy” can only be done in the same way as one might call Buddhism a “philosophy”: with an extremely broad (and generally misleading) notion of what a “philosophy” is or does.
Is Hermeticism a religion?
Kinda! Although many modern people are scared or wary of the word “religion”, we should remember that many modern people’s conception of religion is colored by Christianity and Islam, when the case is much different for Hermeticism (and, indeed, many pagan religions). Hermeticism is focused on God and the gods, and how to rise up to them in order to secure the salvation of the soul; in this, Hermeticism bears much in common with many religions. However, Hermeticism (or what we have of it) doesn’t give us much in the way of fixed litanies or worship services, even though some can be constructed. In its original context, Hermeticism was not meant to supplant or replace existing religions or religious cults, but to supplement them; for those who wanted more than just attending the usual temple sacrifices, Hermeticism would give more of a chance for profound spiritual experiences in a sort of extracurricular or after-hours setting.
What does Hermeticism have to do with ceremonial magic (the Golden Dawn, Franz Bardon, etc.)?
Due to the complicated history of Hermeticism and the adoption of Hermetic beliefs and practices by various groups, the word “Hermetic” has been applied to various different groups and their individual practices. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, famed for their integration of various kinds of Solomonic and grimoire-based magic in a qabbalistic framework with Egyptian elements, but other magicians like Franz Bardon in his “Introduction to Hermetics” have also taken inspiration from the various arts of Hermeticism. In this, these things do have reason to be called “Hermetic”, although they are not necessarily representative of the core of Hermeticism itself. As a result, ceremonial magic should not be thought of as synonymous with Hermeticism, but may be influenced by certain arts and practices associated with Hermeticism or with Hermēs Trismegistos as their founder or ancient teacher.
What about Freemasonry?
Although the mythic history of Freemasonry begins in primordial times with Adam and also includes the influence Egypt by means of Euclid, masonic lodges only truly began with the development of masonry guilds and trade organizations in the early modern period of Europe starting in the 16th century CE, and afterwards began to incorporate other influences such as Rosicrucianism. Due to their massive influence in modern Western civilization, many subsequent magical orders and organizations took on a Freemason-inspired lodge-based system. It is also the case that, as with many esoteric groups and disciplines of the time, that Hermeticism influenced the symbolism held sacred by the Freemasons, which was compounded when other non-Freemason-but-Freemason-inspired lodges took on more Hermetic influence that then fed back into Freemasonry. As a result, while Freemasonry may have Hermetic influence, it is not directly related to Hermeticism, though different types or styles of Freemasonry may incorporate Hermeticism or Hermetic symbolism to varying degrees.
What about gnosticism?
In many ways, Hermeticism and gnosticism can be thought of as sisters, since they arose from largely the same cultural and religious background in response to the same spiritual, religious, and philosophical problems. Some Hermetic texts and their doctrines are identical to those of gnosticism, and there was definite influence from Hermeticism on gnosticism to the point where Hermetic texts were known, studied, and cherished by gnostics (as evidenced by the find of Hermetic texts in the Nag Hammadi Library). However, as a whole, gnosticism tended to be both more dualistic, more world-negative, and more Abrahamic than Hermeticism, which tended to be somewhat less dualistic, less world-negative (to the point of being world-positive at times), and more resolutely pagan or otherwise non-Abrahamic. In a sense, Hermeticism can be considered a kind of “pagan gnosticism”.
Is Hermeticism just Neoplatonism?
Nope! In fact, the advent of Neoplatonism came after the bulk of the classical Hermetic texts were already written. It is true that Iamblichus referenced the Hermetic texts, and so Neoplatonism can be said to have (at least a little) Hermetic influence, but Hermeticism itself is a blend of Egyptian religion and spirituality with Greek philosophy, most notably Stoicism and (early and middle) Platonism. Although Hermeticism does play nicely with Neoplatonism for the most part, that can be understood as being Neoplatonism accommodating and incorporating Hermeticism rather than the other way around.
Is Hermeticism based on Christianity or Judaism?
No, or at least not in any major way. It is true that in some of the earliest Hermetic texts available to us there is some influence from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible), and in the early years of the Roman Empire there was an interesting cross-cultural phenomenon of “pagan monotheism” all across the Mediterranean world (though to what extent this occurred and what the nature of this was is hotly debated). However, although there was influence from Hellenistic Judaism on the early development of some Hermetic beliefs, Hermeticism as a whole is not based on Judaism or any Abrahamic faith. At its core, Hermeticism is and has always been pagan.
Is Hermeticism satanic/witchcraft/devil-worshiping/a conspiracy?
Is Hermeticism compatible with other religions?
It depends on those other religions. As noted earlier, Hermeticism was never intended to be a religion unto itself that one would have to exclusively convert to, but a supplemental or additional path of spirituality and mysticism that builds on other religions (originally Egyptian or Greco-Egyptian pagan religion). Over the past 2000 years, various philosophers, mystics, and magicians have incorporated Hermeticism into other religious and spiritual traditions in various ways, some taking just symbolic or stylistic influence while others fully integrating it as an entirely new syncretic religious path. Depending on how similar or different Hermeticism is in doctrine or practice from another religion, there may be some difficulty in meshing the two together, and in some cases it’s better to keep Hermeticism as a separate “thing one does” rather than merging it with something else.
Is most (or all) occult and religious knowledge based on Hermeticism?
Although this is a common claim, especially with the Renaissance doctrine of prisca theologia, this is not at all true. Hermeticism is just one of many spiritual paths that arose in the classical world, and though it had an outsized influence on many other fields of religion, mysticism, magic, and the occult in the Mediterranean and European worlds in the centuries that followed, it was not the sole or even primary factor in their development. In more modern times, as the myth of Hermēs Trismegistos continued to grow based on not only the Hermetic texts themselves (added to constantly over the centuries) as well as bad history and a faulty understanding of it, it was common enough to claim that Hermēs Trismegistos is the primordial founder of any number of world religions or mystical traditions, despite how disrespectful it is to such religions and traditions that have their own sacred histories.
Who were the ancient Hermeticists?
Truth be told, there never were any—at least, not by that name. The first time we know of someone ever used the word “Hermetic” to describe themselves only came about in the 16th century, where Ludovico Lazzarelli in his Crater Hermetis claimed “Christianus sum, ô Rex, & Hermeticum simul esse non pudet” (“I am Christian, o King, and it does not shame me to also be Hermetic”). In the classical period, those whom we might consider “Hermeticists” today (with the benefit of our modern understanding of the word) were simply called “Egyptian” by others, given the overall origin and popularity of such thought as being considered hailing from Egypt (regardless of the Hellenistic components thereof). Thus, although we might consider there to be Hermeticists in the classical world, to call them “Hermeticists” is technically an anachronism; they espoused Hellenistic Egyptian belief and philosophy, and so were simply “Egyptian”.
Was there a classical school or lodge of Hermeticism?
Not that we know of. Although the Hermetic texts suggest that there were indeed Hermetic communities, there’s no evidence that there was any centralized authority or central school promulgating Hermetic doctrines and practices. What was much more likely the case were different teachers who taught and engaged in more-or-less the same overall religious and philosophical milieu to small groups of students across a wide geographic area in Egypt, whose texts were circulated across the Mediterranean in the classical period. This is why different Hermetic texts disagree on different points of doctrine, even if they all agree in the overall high-level aims and goals of Hermeticism. Thus, although “Hermeticism” wasn’t a single thing in the classical period like how Platonism was a thing or like how Catholicism is a thing, we today can still engage with the tradition as a whole with the benefit of looking backwards and seeing overall trends in beliefs and practices.
So there was no one single school of Hermeticism?
Basically! That being said, although there was no single one school or tradition of Hermeticism (we only can talk of “Hermeticism” with the benefit of looking backwards in history from our modern perspective), that doesn’t mean there weren’t people engaging in this stuff in groups. Rather than the Hermetic texts being solely the private musings of independent mystics, there do appear to have been something resembling a decentralized group of teachers with their own sets of students that participated in roughly the same kind of mystic work towards the same mystic ends, each group managing to initiate others into their groups and sharing in the same mysteries of those groups. While this is too loose to be considered a single systematic school unto itself like how the Platonists were a school of philosophers centered in the Academy and Lyceum, the same would be the case for most kinds of pagan religion that differed from town to town or from tribe to tribe across the ancient world.
Are there modern Hermetic groups?
Depending on one’s notion of what makes a group “Hermetic”, or based on how closely they adhere to the core beliefs (if not the practices) of Hermeticism, sure. However, it should be noted that there is (almost certainly) no living community today that preserves a living unbroken lineage from the classical period from classical teachers; that being said, the teachings and texts that were preserved from the classical period have continued to influence a variety of communities since then into the modern period. Sufi orders, Golden Dawn-style groups, and similar communities can be said to be “Hermetic” in one sense or another, and groups like the Hermetic Federation are engaged in a reconstructionist-like effort to rebuild the practices contemporary with the classical Hermetic texts to implement their beliefs and doctrines.
What’s the difference between “Hermeticism” and “Hermetism”?
Some scholars use a distinction between the terms “Hermeticism” and “Hermetism” to reflect different stages of the development of Hermetic belief and practice, or otherwise different focuses in different contexts. In general, “Hermetism” reflects the development of Hermetic belief and practice in the classical period, roughly up to 500 CE, with a focus on ritual practice for securing the salvation of the soul. “Hermeticism”, when used as a general term, can also include this, but when contrasted with “Hermetism” refers to the post-classical development of Hermetic belief and practice, generally with a greater focus on the technical arts of alchemy and magic.
Why should we bother engaging with something so old in our modern age?
Despite generally-held notions of humanity having “evolved” or “progressed” from earlier, stupider, or more superstitious stages of religion and thinking, there is nothing to suggest that we don’t suffer from the same exact problems that people 2000 years ago also suffered from, nor is there anything to suggest that the same solutions and approaches used by them won’t work for us today. There is much for us to learn from the ancients, not least their very worldview and how they considered the world and their place in it.
What about “modern Hermeticism”, or post-classical developments of Hermeticism generally?
Classical Hermeticism began (and, indeed, anticipated) its downfall roughly along the same time periods as the rise of Christianity and the fall of paganism generally in the Roman Empire, which only continued under the influence of Islam in North Africa and the Near/Middle East. That said, many of the teachings and arts attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, when not outright decried by religious authorities, were sometimes reanalyzed or appropriated in ways according to the new dominant religious cultures that they found themselves in. As a result, much of Hermetic doctrine and belief has been furthered or developed, but generally under other religious climates than the one that spawned the original tradition. This process of reanalyzing, reintegrating, and appropriating Hermetic beliefs and practices has continued into the modern day to various ends, sometimes furthering the core logic and rationales of Hermeticism itself and sometimes supplanting or overwriting them with external influences that disagree with older doctrines of Hermeticism. While these newer traditions may be considered “Hermetic” to various degrees, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge the “Hermeticness” of these changes, and so we turn to the core founding tradition of Hermetic doctrine and belief as a baseline. This is not to say that no modern changes are allowed in the study of Hermeticism, but that the classical aspects of the tradition should remain central and centered to its study, with other changes understood in their own contexts and applied (or not) according to one’s understanding and personal context. In other words, don’t update what doesn’t need updating.
Can I study or practice Hermeticism if I’m gay/trans/queer/etc.?
Yes, absolutely! There is nothing in the Hermetic texts that says otherwise, nor anything regarding much along the lines of sexuality to begin with beyond a few high-level descriptions of biological reproduction in humans. It’s important to remember that, in Hermeticism, there is no essential or divine notion of masculinity or femininity, and that the whole point of Hermetic doctrine is that you are not your body and the only thing that’s of importance (from a Hermetic standpoint) is the soul, which is held to be androgyne/genderless, to say nothing of God likewise being androgyne/queer. Hermeticism is quite amenable to being queered, if not already queer form the start depending on your interpretation of the texts. That being said, individual groups that profess Hermeticism may not permit you to join based on concerns over sexuality or gender identity, in which case you can bother with them or not (though it’s probably best to not).
Are there moral or ethical rules to Hermeticism?
Sorta, but nothing so formal as the Ten Commandments or anything like that. There is a general push in the Hermetic texts for students of Hermēs Trismegistos to learn how to behave in a way that is not evil, to let go of the irrational torments of the body, and the like, which can be thought of as high-level guidelines or warnings away from behaving in ways that do harm to one’s soul and the cosmos generally. These high-level guidelines can be meditated on or expanded into formal systems of morality and ethics, even to the development of rules or prohibitions, but such things are not explicitly present in the Hermetic texts themselves.
Is Hermeticism a closed practice/tradition?
No. The notion of a “closed practice” or “closed tradition” is a messy one that’s made all the more complicated by bad understandings proliferated online by people who have more interest in chasing clout than actually getting involved with anything serious, and has contaminated many legitimate discussions of religion, spirituality, and the occult, even to the point of sidelining things that actually are closed. To be sure, there are good and worthwhile discussions to have regarding particular traditions along these lines, but this is a simple case: Hermeticism, as a whole, is not closed, since there is no fundamental barrier to approaching it for study and practice along any lines. Individual groups professing Hermetic doctrine and practice may be closed based on initiation, where you must undergo initiation in order to be part of the group with all the benefits, teaching, training, and license that membership of that group confers, but this does not necessarily reflect Hermeticism as a whole.
Can I borrow Hermetic practices/doctrines in my own non-Hermetic thing?
From its very inception, Hermeticism was a cosmopolitan spiritual and mystical phenomenon, and was the result of a variety of influences including (but not limited to) Egyptian, Greek/Hellenistic, Roman, Jewish, Gnostic, and Babylonian beliefs and practices rubbing shoulders and mixing together to create something new. In addition, Hermēs Trismegistos (as befitting his Greek origin of the trickster son of Zeus and Maia) has appeared countless times in countless texts as both a primordial god, a Babylonian priest, an Egyptian alchemist, a Renaissance astrologer, and the like. As a result, Hermeticism has been a huge influence, whether directly or indirectly, on much of Western occultism and esotericism over the years (though far from the only one, or even being a main one). There is no such thing as religious/cultural appropriation when it comes to Hermeticism in general. Although it is possible to appropriate from specific Hermetic groups or traditions like Sufism or the Golden Dawn, everything in Hermeticism itself is fair game for anyone to participate in, take influence from, or take inspiration from, however best it might serve them. Thus, studying and engaging with Hermeticism is not useful only for those who strive to follow the Way of Hermēs itself, but as well as for the students of many other traditions and religions who might want to engage with Hermeticism as a means to deepen their own belief and practice in their own tradition or religion. Just make sure whether it’s actually alright to do so in your own non-Hermetic tradition or religion!
Who can practice Hermeticism?
Anyone, so long as they are willing and able to engage with it. Hermeticism is not a “closed” practice; certain aspects about it may have been held secret as mysteries, in the same sense that the cult at Eleusis or the Mithras cult were “mystery religions”, but since there is no living community today that has preserved any such mystery from classical times, individual groups or practitioners are free to pick up Hermeticism as much as they feel appropriate to them and engage with it on their own terms, though preferably in a way that is in accord with the teachings and goals of Hermēs Trismegistos according to the extant texts.
Do I need a teacher for Hermeticism?
Having a teacher in anything is always preferred to self-study and self-work, and Hermeticism is no exception; it always helps to have someone who has already walked the way to show you the way and to guide you along it, rather than you trying to figure it out on your own, which can be costly and dangerous at times. That being said, as noted earlier, there is no surviving lineage of Hermeticism, so there is no teacher that has learned from an unbroken chain of Hermeticists dating back to the classical period. You can certainly find someone who can teach you, or you can join a group under a mentor/initiator who can guide you in the practices and beliefs of that group insofar as they profess Hermeticism, but in general, given the present state of Hermetic studies and practices in general, most people in Hermeticism are self-taught, and tend to find study groups or like-minded communities with which they can learn and practice together.
How can I find a Hermetic group or lodge?
As in all things, connections are everything. Ask around and see amongst your friends, online colleagues, and the like if anyone knows anything about such a group, and see if that group is open to being contacted. In some cases, such a group has a public webpage or similar public “face” that can be contacted directly, but in general, personal connections tend to work better. Learn what you can about that group, listen to what you can hear being said about that group, listen to how that group talks about itself and the other people in it, spend time with members of that group. See whether that group is right for you and whether you are right for them before you even consider asking to join. Don’t be hasty and rush into a group that only seems good but is actually trash with a pretty mask covering it up. Some groups are quite legitimate and helpful, even if they don’t have a historical pedigree; some groups, even with a solid pedigree, are also out to make victims out of potential candidates for initiation. Use your best judgment and pay attention, as with all such groups.
Is Hermeticism right for me?
Everyone has their own path to follow in life, and the Way of Hermēs is hard, even for those who have walked it for years. It is not a path meant for everyone, as not everyone has the maturity and capability of keeping up with the work that Hermēs teaches, and some people need preliminary training and study just to get up to the point to even begin it. That being said: if you are willing to learn about the nature of yourself and the world and of divinity, if you are willing to find a way to reduce or eliminate the suffering of your own life specifically and the world generally, if you are willing to follow the way to become divine, and if you are willing to engage in the work of the salvation of the soul, then Hermeticism may well be right for you, and I encourage you to begin its study and practice and see where this Way leads you.