Hermeticism FAQ: Part III, Doctrine

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I and part II here), let’s continue today with Part III, on the various doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of Hermeticism!

Is Hermeticism monotheistic, or is it polytheistic?

Either or both, depending on your perspective.  It is true that the bulk of the Hermetic texts, especially the “philosophical Hermetica”, focus on a singular God as the One and the Good for the purposes of both cosmological structure as well as theosophical devotion, but it’s also true that the same Hermetic texts discuss the ensoulment of statues by the gods and encourage the worship of such corporeal gods as well as the many gods in heaven.  Whether one wants to consider there to be just one God and all other entities as angels subservient to this one God, or whether one wants to consider the One to be on an ontological level beyond the gods and the gods to have their own reality, Hermeticism may admit both or either perspective.  It is also helpful to consider the One to be a “god whom the gods themselves worship” or a “god beyond the gods”, a perspective that is evinced in magical texts from the same time period.

Is Hermeticism pantheistic or panentheistic?

It is perhaps most accurate to describe Hermeticism as panentheistic, where God is both immanent within and throughout the cosmos as well as transcendent of it.  All things in this cosmos come from God, and God is visible throughout all of creation by means of God’s creatures; at the same time, God is also infinitely beyond the cosmos.  God, however, should not be equated with the cosmos, which is a strictly pantheistic (and not panentheistic) perspective.  Although one may understand all things that exist as existing within God, it should be remembered that God can only be known in a way that extends beyond and outside the cosmos; one must rise above and beyond the cosmos to get on God’s own level in order to know God, which is also how we return to our own origin, which also lies beyond the cosmos.

Is there a demiurge in Hermeticism?

Depending on the specific text, yes, Hermeticism does teach that while God is the ultimate creator of all things, God creates worldly, material things by means of a demiurge.  The word “demiurge” (dēmiourgos in Greek) literally means “craftsman” or “artisan”, and in Hermeticism is seen to fashion the material, sensible, and perceptible world in accordance with the reason and will of God.  This perspective of the demiurge should not be confused with the demiurge of gnostic teachings, which tends to consider the demiurge in a much more negative light, ignorant of God and thus considered “blind” or “stupid”.  No such association is made with the Hermetic demiurge, who is considered a representative of the will and reason of God and in our cosmos is represented by (or, depending on the text, literally present as) the Sun itself.

Is there fate or is there free will in Hermeticism?

Hermeticism is essentially deterministic, with notions of free will (as generally thought of on a mundane level) being an illusion, but there is some nuance to this stance in Hermeticism.  There is a sort of chain that makes Hermeticism deterministic: 

  1. The fundamental ruling principle in all things is the will of God, also called Providence.  As the will of God, this is what establishes the high-level notions of what things are to be.
  2. Necessity, as a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the logical consequences and ramifications of Providence.
  3. Fate, as a “servant” of Necessity as Necessity is a “servant” of Providence, is what arranges the sequence of things that happen (and which must happen, either according to Necessity or to Providence).
  4. The powers of the stars, both the seven planets as well as the myriad fixed stars, facilitate Fate upon the things that exist in the world below from the directives of Fate above.

This is one of the reasons why the study of astrology is important for Hermeticism, since—as the study of the planets and stars—grants us insight into Fate and, thus, the very will of God.  It should be noted, however, that things only apply in the domains upon which they bear; thus, Fate only applies to the cosmos (and, more specifically, our material world).  Because of this limitation on Fate, it is proper to say that Hermeticism is only deterministic within the realm of the cosmos; beyond it, other rules apply.  That distinction of determinism or lack thereof between the encosmic and hypercosmic realms becomes important once one understands the nature of and the relationship between the soul and the body, and what the goal of the Way of Hermēs is.

What exactly is the soul in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The existence of the soul is taken for granted in Hermeticism, and is one part of the dualistic understanding of what a human consists of: a material, mortal body and an immaterial, immortal soul.  Of these two parts, it is the soul that is held to be the “true” human, the essence of a human being, and is made in the image of God as God’s own child (and can be considered a sibling to the Demiurge and the cosmos itself).  Being created directly by God and, thus, not as a product of the cosmos, the soul is essentially above Fate.

What exactly is the body in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The body is the material, mortal component of a human being, housing and being animated by the immaterial, immortal soul.  Unlike the soul, which has its origins directly in God and is made as an image of God, the body is a creation of the cosmos and is made as an image of the soul.  Because the body is a creation of the cosmos, the body is subject to Fate.  Unlike the soul, which provides its own “energy” and will, the body is driven by two energies: that of drive (thumos, the emotional and passion-based desires of the body-generated ego) and desire (epithumia, the physical needs and appetites of the body).

What is the relationship between the soul and the body?

The essential human, being soul and thus being immaterial, cannot directly interact with a material cosmos without a material body, which is why the soul is housed in the body, and the connection between soul and body is facilitated by means of spirit (pneuma, literally “breath” but also with connotation of the subtle powers of air in general).  Although the soul is nominally the master of the body, the body can sometimes overpower the soul if the drive and desire of the body is stronger than the intentions and will of the soul itself; because drive and desire are bodily, and because the body is subject to Fate, the overpowering of the soul by drive and desire thus afflicts the soul with Fate.  Even though the soul comes from a realm beyond the cosmos and is thus not necessarily subject to Fate, it can still be influenced and impacted by Fate due to the body, especially when the body is stronger than the soul that it houses.  It is part of the way of Hermēs to learn how to tame the drive and desire of the body so that they remain in service to the soul and not the other way around, thus minimizing the impact of Fate upon the soul and freeing the soul to act how it needs to.

Is there reincarnation in Hermeticism, or is there a Heaven and Hell, or other afterlife?

Reincarnation of the soul into different bodies is generally held to be the case in Hermeticism, at least up until the point where the soul is able to break free of the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the cosmos and rejoin with its origin in God beyond the cosmos.  This does not mean that incarnation is a punishment, but it is where we are all the same.  The bulk of Hermetic texts agree that the reincarnation of the human soul only occurs in human bodies, even if one’s conduct in their previous life can determine the quality of the next.  There is a strong similarity between these Hermetic notions and the doctrines of saṃsāra and mokṣa in Vedic religions like Hinduism.  There is no notion of a generic neutral afterlife of shadehood, like Haidēs for the Hellenes or Sheol for the Jews.  In most texts, likewise, there is no notion of a hell for sinners as in Christianity, although some texts like the Perfect Sermon do describe a punishment for souls who are unconditionally “stained with evil”, so it appears that this doctrine was being developed in later texts or which was added onto Hermeticism from outside sources, and is not generally common or a universally-held belief.

Why are we here to begin with?

It is difficult to question the reason behind the creation of God, but the explanation for humanity’s creation and incarnation is that God created the cosmos and thought it beautiful, since it was made according to the will of God and, thus, in an image of God.  In order to fully celebrate the creation of the cosmos, God also created humans, also in the image of God (but in a different way than the cosmos was created), so as to engage with, understand, and adore the creation of God that was the cosmos.  However, creating humans as immaterial soul alone was not enough for them to fully engage with the material cosmos, and so bodies were created to house the soul so as to fully immerse the human soul in creation as a human being consisting of both body (so as to interact with the cosmos) and soul (so as to know and comprehend the cosmos as a creation of God).  The problems begin to arise when we misunderstand the proper relationship between the soul and the body, or between humanity, the cosmos, and God; when this relationship is imbalance or misunderstood, we begin to depart from our original tasks and forget what it is we’re supposed to do and become while down here.  This is part of the goal and aim of the Way of Hermēs: to remember our divine origin, to remember what we truly are, and to fully engage in the work of creation as is right and proper for us, but only as is right and proper for us.

What exactly is gnōsis in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

The Greek word gnōsis literally means “knowledge” in English, but this is more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept.  In the Way of Hermēs, gnōsis is more the experiential, non-discursive knowledge of something true; it is not something that can just be arrived at through discourse or logical proofs (what might be called logos in Greek), nor something that is simply taught and believed (what might be called epistēmē).  Rather, gnōsis is more akin to a “divine revelation”, and the experience of gnōsis is something Hermeticists aim for achieving—usually multiple times.  The proper way to approach gnōsis (as evidenced in the Hermetic texts where such experiences are described) is one of care, through preparation and purification ahead of time and by means of unpacking and analysis afterwards, so as to properly integrate the experience and meaning of such an experience of gnōsis without misinterpreting it or going crazy because of it.  It is thus beyond mere insight or a hunch, and closer to a literal inspiration in the soul by God itself.

What exactly is nous in Hermeticism, and what role does it play?

Nous is the Greek word for “mind”, but this is not to be understood as what we generally or conventionally understood as our day-to-day thinking mind of thoughts and imagination.  As a technical term in Hermeticism, nous refers to a sort of divine awareness, the faculty that allows one to achieve gnōsis.  The specific nature of nous is not always clear in the Hermetic texts, and some Hermetic texts tend to describe it differently from others; as such, it is not clear whether nous is something external to the soul and “added onto/into” worthy souls that lack it and seek it, or whether it is simply a faculty preexistent in the soul but which lies dormant until awakened.  Either way, not all people have access to nous, and realizing that access (and the potential gnōsis it permits) is an early part of the Way of Hermēs.

Why is the cosmos described as “evil”?

Although the words “good” and “evil” are bandied about in the Hermetic texts, it’s important to remember that these were, for the most part, used in a philosophical sense and not a moral sense (although the moral senses of the words come about from the philosophical senses). Suffice it to say that the Good, as a philosophical concept, is equated with God, and anything that is not God is thus not Good; as a result, anything that is created by God is not Good, but because all things are in Good, all things are likewise in (or participate in) the Good. This can be expanded to notions of being able to be moved by passion, change, corruption, or the like, which are all discussed in the Hermetic texts, but this is the simple notion; thus, evil is just “not Good”.  When extended to morality, things are morally good if they draw one closer to God, and evil if they do not.  A single act done by one person may be morally good for them, depending on their fate and whether or not they do that thing in accordance with fate and with the awareness that nous confers, while that same act may be morally evil for another depending on their fate and awareness (or the lack thereof) that nous confers.  It can be a tricky subject to tackle at times, but in general, the more we align ourselves to act in accordance with our fate in this world and with the will of God directing our souls, the more good we do, since that is what helps us reach closer to the good.

Why did God create evil or allow it to exist?

It’s fair to give God in the Hermetic texts the usual “all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful” description according to the usual arguments of theodicy, but we also need to give God the descriptor “all-rational”, too; in that light, this is the best of all possible worlds, and all things that exist and happen do so according to the will of God (remember the Providence-Necessity-Fate chain described before).  Evil, in this light, doesn’t exist except as an illusion of duality, and the same generative and change-based processes that produce “evil” in the cosmos also purge the cosmos of that same “evil”.  Suffering, likewise, only exists as an artifact of sensation and ignorance, and it too is liable and obligated to pass away from existence just as much (and just as fast) as it passes into existence.  In this, moral evil and suffering exist as part and parcel of the cosmos in which we live just as much as moral good and pleasure, because both are part of the same overall creation, and the existence of one logically necessitates the existence of the other.  By coming to understand the processes of the cosmos, we also understand the nature of things and how they impact us, whether for weal or for woe; similarly, by coming to better understand the cosmos and our place in it, we also learn the means of rising above and beyond the cosmos, and thus away from suffering and closer to the peace of divinity.

In Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum, it says something weird about having children and how those who don’t have children are cursed. Um…?

This part has caught a number of people off-guard, seemingly out of place when it comes to Hermetic discussions, as it seems to imply a sort of divine retribution for not rearing children.  After all, not all people are willing or able to bear or raise children, sometimes for very good reasons (e.g. lack of means) and other times for reasons outside their control (e.g. infertility).  That being said, in order to maintain the good ordering of the cosmos, humanity is enjoined to continue reproducing itself, which Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum interprets to place a moral obligation on individuals to continue that work of reproduction and the continuation of the human race.  This text can just as much be said to apply to physical children as well as to spiritual children; thus, those who can manage to “increase by increasing and multiply by multiplying”, whether by having children of one’s own or by supporting the children of others, or by giving the gift of spiritual birth to those who seek the Way of Hermēs (since the spiritual womb that all have is used as a metaphor in several Hermetic texts) are all valid ways to fulfill this sort of obligation.  Further, one can also interpret this injunction to have children even more generally by interpreting all acts of creation to be one’s children, including the development of medicine, the cultivation of plants, the generation of art, the ensoulment of statues and talismans, the production of invention, and so forth; all of these are just as valid ways to engage in the work of creation in addition to bearing and raising children.

What about the Seven Hermetic Principles/Laws?

This is just more stuff from The Kybalion, and has no meaningful bearing on the study of Hermeticism.  Unless you’re actively engaged with The Kybalion as a self-help book, all they’re good for is getting more clicks on YouTube for badly-overdone video shorts on what miserably passes for “content” nowadays.

Something something gender?

We really don’t need any more bad or historical cis takes in spirituality at this point.  Besides the fact that the oft-vaunted “principle of gender” is nothing more than more tripe from The Kybalion, there’s also nothing—zero, zip, zilch, nada—in Hermeticism that teaches about any divine or essential notion of masculinity or femininity.  Rather, God is explicitly androgyne (which, in classical terms, is also equivalent to saying “genderless”), and as the essential human (i.e. the soul) is made in the image of God, so too is the essential human also androgyne (or genderless).  Even the original humans were considered to be bimorphic, consisting of both genders (in much the same way as Aristophanēs’ story regarding the origin of love in Plato’s Symposium) before they were split into distinct genders.  Gender only comes about in terms of physical bodies for the explicit and sole purpose of biological reproduction, and otherwise has no bearing on any Hermetic teaching or practice.  While some might find the notion of spiritual or divine gender comfortable or useful for their models of cosmology and theology, there is no such notion in Hermeticism, nor is one needed in order to make sense of the cosmos, of divinity, or of ourselves from a Hermetic standpoint.  If there is any indication at all regarding gender in Hermeticism, even when it comes down to the physical level, it is that they are to be held equal in power and ability, just with distinct roles to play in a small handful of acts related to procreation.

What about the role of women in Hermeticism?

It is true that the vast majority of Hermetic texts involve male characters, or characters which are grammatically described as male in the original Greek, Latin, or Coptic language: Hermēs Trismegistos, Asklēpios, Tat, Ammōn, Osiris, Poimandrēs, and the like.  The only woman who appears is Isis in the Korē Kosmou texts, where she appears as the mentor and instructor of Hōros taking on the same role that Hermēs did for his students.  The dearth of women in the Hermetic dialogs can be attributed largely to the culturally male-dominant milieu in which the Hermetic texts (and, for that matter, the vast majority of religious and philosophical texts of the time) were written, but this should not be construed to say that the absence of women is indicative of anything significant.  As mentioned earlier, neither sex nor gender have any role to play on any level except that of biological procreation; in all other respects, both in this world and in any other, women are just as important, valid, necessary, and powerful as men, because there is no fundamental distinction between them that matters on any level beyond the merely physical, and that for one concern only.  

What about the disagreements in doctrine amongst the Hermetic texts themselves?

It is true that not all the Hermetic texts agree on all details or on all points; after all, they were written by different teachers across several hundred years with varying influences, even if they all agreed on the same high-level things and participated in the same fundamental cultural, social, religious, and philosophical environment.  Sometimes this is a case where different teachers started with the same set of premises, but used different logical arguments or different perspectives to end up at different conclusions; other times, different fundamental premises were used that led to different conclusions, even if the overall logic was the same.  In some cases, different things were taught to students at different times, such as a simpler and more general model for beginner students but more complicated models with unexpected outcomes for more advanced students who are already comfortable with the general models; in other cases, one teacher’s takeaway from a mystic vision leads them to have information and conclusions that fundamentally change their perception of a particular teaching.  It is a fool’s errand to try to get all the different and differing points of doctrine in the Hermetic texts to agree with each other completely, even if they can be said to agree generally; these differences should be understood for what they are.  Such inconsistencies do not mean that Hermeticism is a fundamentally flawed form of mysticism, but that there is a wide variety of ways to perceive, reckon, and approach the cosmos and divinity even within the same overall milieu.

Did Hermetic doctrines or beliefs change over time?

To be sure, Hermeticism is not something necessarily fixed in time, as it continued to evolve through the millennia across several continents, adapting and adopting other beliefs and practices for its own ends just as much as it was adapted and adopted by other beliefs and practices for theirs. That being said, to trace the specific growth and evolution of Hermeticism through all these circumstances can be difficult.  As a result, such doctrines and beliefs definitely underwent change, but not all such changes were done in a way that furthered the logic of Hermeticism, and some such changes ended up causing even more difference or disagreement in doctrine than what was there previously, especially if it meant Hermeticism could be made more tolerable to otherwise intolerant religious communities or authorities.  Unless one is specifically focusing on a particular post-classical era or context in which Hermetic doctrines were present in some form or another, it is recommended to always draw things back to their origins and compare against the original fundamental Hermetic texts to get a better idea of what changed, how it changed, why it changed, and whether it is in accord with the original logic and goals of the Way of Hermēs.

Can I incorporate modern or non-Hermetic beliefs into Hermeticism?

It depends on the belief; if we use the classical Hermetic texts (the origin of the notion of “Hermeticism”) as a foundation to gauge the “Hermeticness” of something, then we can identify things that are compatible with Hermeticism and things that are incompatible with Hermeticism.  There’s a general rubric I like to recommend for things like this, whether or not such beliefs are modern:

  1. If a particular doctrine agrees with the doctrines of the Hermetic texts, both in means as well as in ends (i.e. they both end up at the same place and using the same road), then the thing can just be considered Hermetic as it is.
  2. If a particular doctrine does not agree with the Hermetic texts but does not disagree either (i.e. the Hermetic texts don’t talk about it at all and the logic of Hermeticism does not preclude it), then it can be used or adopted by Hermeticism within reasonable bounds, until extending such a doctrine begins to conflict with those of the Hermetic texts.
  3. If a particular doctrine disagrees with the Hermetic texts and relies on fundamentally conflicting assumptions, then it is not Hermetic, but may (with enough effort and changes) be altered or adapted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.

When discussing such doctrines that are added to or which extend the explicit doctrines of Hermeticism according to the Hermetic texts, it should be made clear what they are, why they are included, and whether and how much they agree with the explicit underlying doctrines or why they are permissible.  In other words, it is better to justify one’s approach in including such doctrines rather than simply adding them haphazardly in because one can.

A Word on the “Temple of the Hermetic One” (and that word is “nope”)

I’ve made a few (usually firebrand) posts in the past regarding social justice. Suffice it to say that I’m an ardent supporter of social justice in all its forms, that I believe and commit to the idea that Black Lives Matter, that trans rights are human rights, and so on and so forth. Besides seeing these things as just being a logical consequence of basic human decency, I also find that these things are justified by the ethics and morality espoused by Hermeticism and any true and proper path of divinity. I want to reiterate that sort of opinion today, of course, but in a different way than I have before. This is a rant, and specifically a denunciation, against a specific group: the Temple of the Hermetic One.

As a rule, I generally don’t like being specific or engaging in call-outs of specific people or groups, but today I need to break that rule and get specific to let the broader occult community know of something rotten, and that something is the so-called “Temple of the Hermetic One” (TotHO). This is a religious community that was founded in 2019, and though they don’t appear to be particularly large (consisting of maybe a handful of leaders and at least some number of initiates), they do seem to have a physical presence in addition to an online one, and appear to have candidates for admission or initiation in multiple places across the world, and have about 2.6k followers on Facebook. They appear (or at least claim) to have a set of teachings and practices based on Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions.

I bring them up today because one of their leaders by the name of Trismejustus (not the leader, but one of the high-ranking members who appears to have a position of authority within the organization) joined the Hermetic Agora Discord that I participate (and am a mod) in, announcing himself effectively as a representative of that community and saying he’d be happy to take any questions. One of the other mods (specifically the Reverend Erik Arneson, my friend and also owner of the Arnemancy website and podcast) began looking into their website and noticed a trend of troubling tenets, statements, and beliefs they had. I began looking into their website as well as their Facebook page, and also noticed other such disturbing trends. To summarize, we found notions of:

  • Racism, xenophobia, the right of races to self-separate and exclude others from their traditions and practices, striving to uphold genetic/ethnic purity and identity, how we should remove “foreign aspects that were detrimental” from the practices of our ancestors, and statements against racial/ethnic mixing but with no according mention of notions of minority, oppression, or power structures
  • Paganism is, for them, “religiously inclusive but ethnically exclusive”, and kept citing the downfall of Hellenistic/Ptolemaic Egypt because of how corrupt it had become due to ethnic mixing
  • A support of theocracy and absolute rule of the few over the many, while also saying that democracy is a mistake and how Athens was great “in spite of their democracy”
  • Heteronormativity and puritanism, how only sex between men and women for procreation is moral, how philosophers like Plato “engaged in some nasty acts”
  • Anti-vaxx sentiments, how people should use religious exemptions to refuse mandatory vaccinations and how we should instead trust in nature an divinity, how “overcoming ailments naturally is the better option”, and how we should refuse scientific investigation and medical testing regarding the efficacy or safety of vaccines out of hand (notably with no encouragement for those who are willing or able to get the vaccine to do so)
  • Heated, passionate vitriol against anything and everything Abrahamic in any form, even to the point of saying that the Greek Magical Papyri aren’t worth studying due to all their Yahwisty bits (though for some reason being a supporter of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin, a well-known European grimoire, because it’s “not really Abrahamic”)

None of these views made us feel particularly sanguine about their group, so we posed a series of questions asking for clarification on these points in the server’s public chat to the TotHO member, who himself had found the Discord link on the /r/Hermeticism subreddit. After all, the mod team on the Hermetic Agora Discord does actually moderate the community to the point of curating its members, and we do strive to form a place where we can all engage in conversation and discussion on a level terms in a safe environment where we don’t make people feel uncomfortable, but given the tenets and stated beliefs of TotHO, we felt that an explanation was due to clarify, especially as many of these beliefs and stances are prevalent in the more extreme wings of our culture and occulture today using the same lines of thought and argument as what TotHO was appearing to use.

While waiting for their representative to get back to us, another member of TotHO joined the Discord server, since apparently the link was shared in their community as well. They began to answer the questions we posed to the leader who had earlier joined, and it did…not go well. In the course of trying to defend an ethnicity’s right to self-identify/separate/exclude, they also upheld the notion of preventing races from mixing in general while also not clearly answering questions regarding whether or not they supported racial supremacy to the effect that they showed that they did, indeed, support it. They were subsequently banned for not only engaging in racist dialog and ideology on our server, but also for disrespect towards some of our members (they cussed them out for raising a reasonable objection to some of the things this person was saying).

Shortly after this other member of TotHO was banned, the earlier representative of TotHO got back to the chat and began answering the questions we had posed. While defending the conduct of the earlier member, they refused to answer the objections we had raised regarding their statements on racial/ethnic purity or against racial/ethnic mixing. While using tokenism several times (“we have a black member!” “we have a gay member!”), also said some pretty awful stuff regarding queer folk, not just that:

Being gay, as a personal matter, is fine. However, we do have a big issue with the modern LGBT movement (as does this member im speaking of) because its a tornado of lust situated on disgusting and profane acts to the body. Thus, being gay should be a personal matter and not a widely socially acceptable faucet.

And yes, they are entirely degenerate and I will vote for any law that would restrict their operations.

Hilariously, they also said that:

Weak spined people are the reason Paganism, and even Hermeticism, gets laughed at. There’s a reason why you guys hang out in a discord all day and never accomplish anything.

I can tell by the mannerisms of this entire group that you all probably watched a few E.A Koetting videos and looked up Trismegistus on a quote website.

(Cute, right? I thought so, too. Strange that they’d end up mocking a server they only just joined of their own accord, but then, it’s a tactic that’s all too common by particular unsavory users on the Internet.)

When mentioned as a leader of TotHO (given that they stated that their position was as a magister), they said that they are “not the Leader” but that they “serve the Leader”, which is not just cryptic but also unsettlingly creepy. After many people in the server began raising objections left and right to the things they were saying and how they were saying it, they ended up resorting to the usual troll tactics of mocking, denying earlier statements made, and the like. Perhaps needless to say, they were banned.

Now, I’m not usually in the habit of telling people who or what organizations they should associate with, but in this case, I have to make it clear my thoughts on this “The Temple of the Hermetic One”. Based not only on their stated tenets and beliefs on their website and public social media presence but also on the stated opinions, actions, and behaviors of their members (both in leadership as well as non-leadership positions), this is not an organization I could ever recommend to anyone, and instead recommend all those to stay away from this group. We all know that the past few years have seen a strong surge in fascist, far-right, authoritarian, and conspiracy theory-laden groups obsessed with playing the victim as well as trying to take power for themselves, and it would appear that TotHO is another such group, which is unfortunately playing at pretentions of being a spiritual or religious organization and is making a mockery of the Neoplatonic and Hermetic virtues they claim to cherish so much. They inspire no confidence in me and, beyond this denunciation I make of them, are not worth the time or effort to speak of. I make this denunciation for the benefit of the occult community as a whole, given their inclinations towards some pretty shitty views and approaches to humanity, and would hope that none that I know would deign to be a part of them. And, likewise, I hope that any such members of TotHO who happen to read my blog reconsider their membership and what it means to be a decent fucking human being, and that I hope that anyone who would persist in maintaining or holding these abominable views on their fellow humans has anything they use from my writings blow up in their face until they learn how to be a better human being. After all—and I want to make this clear—I don’t make enemies out of others nor do I want or care to, but TotHO has made themselves an enemy to me and to the well-being of humanity as a whole. I hope for their hearts to be enlightened in wisdom and sense, and that they learn to move past the mistakes they’re making and to heal the hurt they’re causing.

I mean, hells below, I’d rather give the Kybalion a full license to appropriate the term “Hermetic” compared to whatever miasmatic bullshit this group manages to use it for.

TL;DR: stay the fuck away from this community of racist, homophobic assholes.
End rant.

EDIT: It’s not just me and Erik that have picked up on this, but others have as well. In a review left on their Facebook page on June 21, 2020, someone made the following remarks:

This page displays some knowledge of Orphic, Platonic and Hermetic texts and ideas. However, the authors of this page do not appear to be able to comprehend these texts in the original language in which they were written. Nor do they have an appreciation for the methods of Platonic Philosophy, which involve using dialectical logic to reach knowledge, and building on such knowledge using the same logic. This is what Plato did and what later Platonists did by building on the logic based knowledge provided by Plato using logic. Instead, the authors of this page rely on belief and dogma. These two deficiencies – apparently not understanding the language in which the texts were composed and replacing dialectical logic based knowledge with belief and dogma – lead the authors into misinterpretations and misrepresentations of the tradition they claim to uphold and present. The racialist/nationalist position this page promotes is one example of such an error.
One of the questions I posed to Trismejustus (which went unanswered) was what the qualifications were for him and his fellow leaders to start initiating people as priests, what scholarly or academic background they might have, whether they have had any formal training as priests by any external pagan community like Cherry Hill, or the like. Someone else I was in contact with on Twitter who knew the founder of TotHO noted that they were earnest, though young and precocious, and for them to leap to priesthood on their own appeared to be jumping the gun. All told, it just looks like this is a group that is not just racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and fascist, but also are woefully underresearched and unprepared to actually engage with the matters of philosophy and religion and mysticism in any serious way that they deserve. Again: just don’t bother.

Hermeticism FAQ: Part II, Texts

Continuing our Hermeticism FAQ series (see part I here), let’s continue today with Part II, on the texts that inform our studies of Hermeticism!

What is “the Hermetica?”

There is no one single classical text called “the Hermetica”, although this term is sometimes used to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period.  Confusingly, however, several modern authors and scholars have used the term “the Hermetica” to title their own books containing Hermetic texts:

  • Brian Copenhaver, “Hermetica”, containing translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Perfect Sermon
  • M. David Litwa “Hermetica II”, containing translations of the Stobaean Fragments, Oxford Fragments, Vienna Fragments, and various other fragments and testimonia of Hermetic doctrine
  • Walter Scott, “Hermetica” (in four volumes), containing his (highly edited and amended) version of the Greek and Latin Hermetic texts along with his thorough analysis of them
  • Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, “The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs”, containing their (heavily remixed, reordered, and re-Egyptianized) version of Hermetic texts

While one may use “the Hermetica” to refer to the collective body of Hermetic texts from the classical period, in order to reduce confusion, it is recommended to use a different term, e.g. “the classical Hermetic texts” generally or the name of a specific such text instead.  When referring to one of the above texts, it is better to clarify by stating the author’s name, e.g. “Copenhaver’s Hermetica”.

What is the “Divine Pymander”?

When Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin from Greek in the 15th century CE, he used the title of the first “book” (what we might call a “chapter” nowadays) as the title for the entire translation.  This was like titling the Old Testament “Book of Genesis”.  A few later translators working off Ficino, like John Everard, also used the same title.  Depending on the context, “Divine Pymander” may refer to either Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum (the technically correct meaning), or to later translations of the Corpus Hermeticum as a whole.  As a result, to reduce confusion, it is recommended to refer to Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum as just that, and refer to the specific translations by their authors, e.g. “in Ficino” or “in Everard”.

What are the “philosophical Hermetica”?

There are plenty of different Hermetic texts available to us from antiquity, and although the distinction isn’t always so clear or fixed as some scholars would like to believe, one group of texts is known as the “philosophical Hermetica” (or the “theoretical Hermetica”).  These texts focus on the religious, philosophical, cosmological, theosophical, and otherwise doctrinal side of Hermeticism, and generally consist of dialogues or letters between Hermēs Trismegistos and his students.  Although they may mention them at a high level, the “philosophical” texts generally lack any details regarding anything practice-oriented, like the study of astrology, the consecration of talismans, the ensoulment of statues, or the like; in other words, there is little “magic” or “ritual” in the “philosophical Hermetica”, even if such things are assumed.  Examples of “philosophical Hermetica” include (but are not limited to) the Corpus Hermeticum, the Stobaean Fragments, and the Perfect Sermon.

What are the “technical Hermetica”?

As opposed to the “philosophical Hermetica”, the “technical Hermetica” (or the “practical Hermetica”) focus on the practical, technical, or skill-oriented parts of Hermeticism; rather than being more about belief and doctrine, these are about practice and technology.  As such, these have the bulk of the “magic” and “ritual” that the “philosophical Hermetica” lack.  However, due to the overall distaste many historians and scholars have had for studying magical things, the “technical Hermetica” have received much less attention than the “philosophical Hermetica”.  This isn’t to say that they don’t exist or haven’t been translated, but aren’t as codified and haven’t received as much popular attention as the “philosophical Hermetica”, and due to the messy nature of magic and magical texts, there are plenty of overlaps between explicitly Hermetic practices and implicit ones.  Further, “technical Hermetica” continued to be produced well after the last of the “philosophical Hermetica” were written, so “technical Hermetica” can also reasonably include post-classical and modern texts.  Examples of “technical Hermetica” include the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios, and the Picatrix.

Is the Corpus Hermeticum the Bible of Hermeticism?

Given the popularity and fame this collection of texts has received over the past 600 years, it sure seems so, doesn’t it?  Of course, the Corpus Hermeticum is just one of several collections of Hermetic texts, and despite its importance for the study and practice of Hermeticism, should not be considered the most or only important such collection.  It is unclear whether there ever even was such a “primary text” of Hermeticism.  That being said, considering Book I’s role in the Corpus Hermeticum as giving us the founding myth and initial revelation of Hermēs Trismegistos, even if it was never intended to be a “Bible” for Hermeticism, it may be considered as such by those who choose to do so—though it is best taken together with similar texts such as the Perfect Sermon and the Stobaean Fragments for a more comprehensive reading and study.

What about The Kybalion?

Despite how much this book loves to call itself Hermetic, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text.  Rather, it is an invention of William Walker Atkinson, a prolific author and an early pioneer of New Thought, an early New Age movement, and who wrote under the pen name “The Three Initiates” (along with his other pen names like “Theron Q. Dumont” and “Yogi Ramacharaka”).  Although The Kybalion claims to be based on an ancient Hermetic book (also called “The Kybalion”), no such text has ever been discovered, the doctrines within it do not match with those of either the philosophical or technical Hermetica, the terminology used within it is foreign to classical texts of any kind but rather match cleanly with New Age terminology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, and generally lacks any notion of theology or theosophy present in the actual Hermetic texts.  Although many modern occultists love the Kybalion and despite many people becoming interested in Hermeticism because of The Kybalion, The Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, and is only “Hermetic” in the sense that it has been adopted by many modern Hermeticists rather than by any virtue of its own.  The best discussion regarding The Kybalion and its (non-)Hermetic nature is the essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes: An Early 20th Century Text’s Dubious Association with Hermeticism” by Nicholas E. Chapel.  This isn’t to say that The Kybalion is entirely without worth—for some people, New Thought can be profoundly useful—but the fact remains that it is not Hermetic, and so there’s no need to discuss it in a Hermetic context or as a source of Hermetic doctrine or practice (not that there’s much practical stuff in it to begin with).

What about The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean, and is it the same text as the Emerald Tablet?

The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean is another entirely modern and New Age creation, much like The Kybalion, and so is also not Hermetic, and also goes pretty far afield into extremely New Age topics and discussions that are nowhere found in actual Hermetic texts to the point of it being sci-fi.  The name is based on the Emerald Tablet (or Tabula Smaragdina), a short extract of a medieval 7th century CE Arabic book on natural philosophy and alchemy called the Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqā) attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.  The Emerald Tablet is a fascinating, though exceedingly dense and cryptic text, and has received much attention over the centuries since its first translation into Latin in the 12th century CE, though it is entirely unclear if this was a creation of Islamic Hermeticism or medieval Islamic alchemists, or whether it is a translation of something earlier from the classical period.

What’s the deal with the Emerald Tablet, anyway?

The Emerald Tablet is a well-known Hermetic text, though exceedingly short, and is less of a discourse and more of a cryptic poem.  Due to its crypticness, it’s received much attention since it entered the European mindset, and much ink has been spilled about how it might have any number of mystical or mythical origins, including a supposed ancient Chinese antecedent.  It is something of a puzzle, but it relies on early Islamic alchemical symbolism (which was the basis of much of Western and European alchemy) in order to communicate a notion of how to achieve the Philosopher’s Stone by means of transmutation of the four elements.  It is this text that the famous adages “‘tis true without lying” and “as above, so below” come from.

Are the Hermetic texts corrupted or incomplete?

It is true that, over the past 2000 years, we have lost some Hermetic texts, and those Hermetic texts that have survived have not always done so in a pristine state; sometimes there are lacunae in the texts, sometimes marginalia or external notes have become incorporated with the texts, or sometimes the language is so garbled as to be rendered difficult to comprehend.  While these are definite problems, our understanding of the texts (with the help of modern scholarship and comparison with related texts in similar or contemporary religious and philosophical traditions) is better than ever, and many of these problems have been resolved in a way that preserves (or recovers) the original meaning of the Hermetic texts themselves.  So, while some parts of the Hermetic texts are corrupted or incomplete, they are uncorrupted and complete as a whole, and are still quite understandable today with the same meaning and impact as they had 2000 years ago.

What about the Hermetic texts that we’ve lost?

We only have what has survived the knife of time and the redactor’s pen.  We know for a fact that there were more Hermetic texts written than what we have today, and we even know that some of the texts we do have are missing parts (like how Book II of the Corpus Hermeticum is missing its entire introduction, and the title applied to Book II is actuall the title of a separate text that originally came before what we have today as Book II).  We can only hope that there are still manuscripts out there, whether hidden away in desert sands or preserved still in mouldering monastery libraries or museum collections, that contain as-yet undiscovered Hermetic texts.  Until then, we make do with what we can, and try to fill in the gaps as reasonably as we’re able.

What are the core texts of Hermeticism?

The “beating heart” and root of much of Hermeticism are found in the classical Hermetic canon, which can be thought of as consisting of the following texts from the “philosophical Hermetica”:

  • The Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of 17 short texts
    • This is the most famous and most well-known collection of Hermetic texts today
  • The Perfect Sermon, also called the Asclepius
    • This is also the most famous Hermetic text along with the Corpus Hermeticum, especially before the recovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in western Europe in the 15th century CE
    • The most popular version of this text is preserved only in Latin.
    • Sections 21 through 29 of the Latin Asclepius is also preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.8)
    • The final thanksgiving prayer is also present in Coptic in the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.7) as well in Greek as part of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM III.590—611)
  • The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, a collection of 49 “definitions” or summary-teachings preserved in Armenian and translated into French and English in the late 20th century CE
  • The Stobaean Fragments, a series of 29 Hermetic extracts of varying lengths by John of Stobi in his 5th century CE Anthology
    • One of the most famous series of Hermetic texts in the Stobaean Fragments is the Korē Kosmou (“Virgin of the World”), preserved in the 23rd through 26th Stobaean Fragments
  • The Oxford Fragments, a series of five Hermetic extracts 
  • The Vienna Fragments, two badly-preserved Hermetic texts
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a short text describing a ritual of spiritual elevation and divine ascent preserved in Coptic as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (NHC VI.6)

As regards the “technical Hermetica”, however, there is much more variability in terms of what texts one should consider as “core” to Hermeticism, especially given the varied nature of them and how well they may or may not integrate or harmonize with the “philosophical Hermetica”.  Important among these, however, can be considered (though by no means are limited to):

  • The Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greek magical rituals, spells, and invocations as practiced in a Greco-Egyptian context
  • The Demotic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Demotic Egyptian and containing a stronger Egyptian pagan presence
  • The Coptic Magical Papyri, a similar collection of magical rituals but preserved in Coptic Egyptian and containing a stronger Christian presence
  • The Centiloquium of Hermes Trismegistus, a series of 100 propositions regarding astrology
  • The Picatrix, or the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a medieval collection of rituals, prayers, and recipes from Islamic esoteric traditions preserving aspects of earlier Sabian, Harranian, and Hermetic practices and beliefs

In what order should I read the texts?

One after the other, usually from the front towards the back.  More seriously, though, because each text is considered a single treatise on its own, and because none of the collections build upon each other, it doesn’t generally matter what order you read them in (at least as far as the “philosophical Hermetica” are concerned).

What are the differences between different translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius, etc., and which should I get?

As a rule, always go with more modern translations instead of older ones.  It is true that the translations of Ficino, Everard, and Mead were greatly important in the history of Western esotericism, but we have more texts at our disposal today with better contextual understanding than what was available to earlier translators.  As a result, modern translations (especially those based on the critical Greek edition of the Corpus Hermeticum produced by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière) are going to use more source material with better ability to understand and transmit the text than what was done in earlier times.  To that end, the best English translations available today of classical Hermetic texts are those produced by Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, and J.-P. Mahé (as well as including more notes and references that further help elucidate the translated text, usually missing from earlier translations).  Older translations may be used, but should be cross-referenced with modern translations when possible to make sure that the meaning of the text is properly understood.

What happened to Book XV of the Corpus Hermeticum?

The earliest translations of the Corpus Hermeticum did not always follow the same convention as what modern translations use, and depending on the underlying texts that Ficino or other translators used, different Hermetic texts might be present not part of the usual collection of the Corpus Hermeticum.  As a result, Book XV of these early translations contained a Hermetic text that properly belonged to a separate collection and was not part of other Corpus Hermeticum manuscripts.  In order to maintain the convention of numbering certain books from the Corpus Hermeticum the same for the purposes of ease of reference, no modern text in the Corpus Hermeticum is counted as “Book XV”.  It’s not that “Book XV” is a “missing Hermetic text”, just that we conventionally don’t mark any text as “Book XV” (like how some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but immediately go from floor 12 to floor 14).

What else should I read to learn more about Hermeticism?

Plenty!  Many works of Hellenistic time period, including those regarding Stoicism, Platonism (whether early or middle or new), Aristotelianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Egyptian religion and philosophy, and the like are helpful for getting a better contextual background for approaching and understanding the Hermetic texts.  Similarly, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and related texts like the Books of Jeu are also helpful to see similar influences at play that played out differently from the path that Hermeticism took.  In addition to these source texts, modern scholarship is also helpful to understand more subtle shifts and developments in these texts and the traditions that produced them that are not immediately apparent from the source texts themselves.  Some scholars and authors to read on these fronts include, in no particular order nor is this an exhaustive list by any means:

  • Brian Copenhaver
  • Clement Salaman
  • Jean-Pierre Mahé
  • Charles Harold Dodd
  • Walter Scott
  • Arthur Darby Nock
  • André-Jean Festugière
  • Wouter Hanegraaff
  • Gilles Quispel
  • Roelof van den Broek
  • Garth Fowden
  • Kevin van Bladel
  • Christian Bull
  • Christian Wildberg
  • Peter Kingsley
  • Antoine Faivre
  • Hans Dieter Betz
  • Eleni Pachoumi
  • Algis Uzdavinys
  • Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  • Zlatko Pleše
  • Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
  • Jonathan Peste

Hermeticism FAQ: Part I, Overview and History

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.

Why “Thrice-Great”?

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?

No.

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.