Hermes Trismegistus is the name given to the author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that are the basis of Hermeticism. The name is thought to be derived from the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.
Greeks in Hellenistic Egypt recognized the equivalence of Hermes and Thoth and consequently, the two gods were worshiped as one, in what had been the Temple of Thoth in Khemnu, which the Greeks called Hermopolis. Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of writing and of magic in their respective cultures.
Hermes, the Greek god of interpretive communication, was combined with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. Hermes Trismegistus became the patron of astrology and alchemy. Both were psychopomps, guiding souls to the afterlife.
Origins of Thoth
The Egyptian priest and polymath Imhotep had been deified long after his death and therefore assimilated to Thoth in the classical and Hellenistic period. The renowned scribe Amenhotep and a wise man named Teôs were co-equal deities of wisdom, science, and medicine; and, thus, they were placed alongside Imhotep in shrines dedicated to Thoth-Hermes during the Ptolemaic period.
A Mycenaean Greek reference to a deity or semi-deity called ti-ri-se-ro-e (Linear B: Tris Hḗrōs, “thrice ortriple hero”) connected to the later epithet “thrice great”, Trismegistos, applied to Hermes/Thoth. The majority of Greeks, and later Romans however, did not accept Hermes Trismegistus in the place of Hermes.
Cicero enumerates several deities referred to as “Hermes”: a “fourth Mercury (Hermes) was the son of the Nile, whose name may not be spoken by the Egyptians“; and “the fifth, who is worshiped by the people of Pheneus [in Arcadia], is said to have killed Argus, and for this reason to have fled to Egypt, and to have given the Egyptians their laws and alphabet: he it is whom the Egyptians call Theyt“. [De natura deorum III, Ch. 56]
Both of these early references in Cicero (most ancient Trismegistus material is from the early centuries AD) corroborate the view that Thrice-Great Hermes originated in Hellenistic Egypt through the syncretism between Greek and Egyptian gods.
As a divine source of wisdom, Hermes Trismegistus was credited with tens of thousands of highly esteemed writings, which were reputed to be of immense antiquity. Plato’s Timaeus and Critias state that in the temple of Neith at Sais there were secret halls containing historical records which had been kept for 9,000 years. Clement of Alexandria was under the impression that the Egyptians had forty-two sacred writings by Hermes, writings that detailed the training of Egyptian priests. Siegfried Morenz has suggested, in Egyptian Religion: “The reference to Thoth’s authorship… is based on ancient tradition; the figure forty-two probably stems from the number of Egyptian nomes, and thus conveys the notion of completeness.” The Neo-Platonic writers took up Clement’s “forty-two essential texts”.
The Hermetica is a category of papyri containing spells and initiatory induction procedures. The dialogue called the Asclepius (after the Greek god of healing) describes the art of imprisoning the souls of demons or of angels in statues with the help of herbs, gems, and odors, so that the statue could speak and engage in prophecy. In other papyri, there are recipes for constructing such images and animating them, such as when images are to be fashioned hollow so as to enclose a magic name inscribed on gold leaf.
Fowden asserts that the first datable occurrences of the epithet “thrice great” are in the Legatio of Athenagoras of Athens and in a fragment from Philo of Byblos, circa AD 64–141. However, in a later work, Copenhaver reports that this epithet is first found in the minutes of a meeting of the council of the Ibis cult, held in 172 BC near Memphis in Egypt.
Hart explains that the epithet is derived from an epithet of Thoth found at the Temple of Esna, “Thoth the great, the great, the great.” The date of Hermes Trismegistus’s sojourn in Egypt during his last incarnation is not now known, but it has been fixed at the early days of the oldest dynasties of Egypt, long before the days of Moses. Some authorities regard him as a contemporary of Abraham, and some Jewish traditions claim that Abraham acquired a portion of his mystical knowledge from Hermes himself (Kybalion).
Many Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity. They believed in a prisca theologia, the doctrine that a single, true theology exists, which threads through all religions. It was given by God to man in antiquity and passed through a series of prophets, which included Zoroaster and Plato. In order to demonstrate the verity of the prisca theologia, Christians appropriated the Hermetic teachings for their own purposes. By this account, Hermes Trismegistus was either a contemporary of Moses, or the third in a line of men named Hermes, i.e. Enoch, Noah, and the Egyptian priest king who is known to us as Hermes Trismegistus on account of being the greatest priest, philosopher, and king.
The Hermetic Trinity
This last account of how Hermes Trismegistus received that epithet is derived from statements in the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe, the three parts being alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. It was Marsilio Ficino who stated that “they called him Trismegistus because he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the greatest king”.
Another explanation, in the Suda (10th century), is that “He was called Trismegistus on account of his praise of the trinity, saying there is one divine nature in the trinity.”
The Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the Hermetica, the surviving writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. During the Renaissance, it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses. However, after Casaubon’s dating of the Hermetic writings, as being no earlier than the second or third century AD, the whole of Renaissance Hermeticism collapsed. As to their actual authorship:
… they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by an all wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various unknown authors, all probably Greeks, and they contain popular Greek philosophy of the period, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism, combined with some Jewish and probably some Persian influences.