Sunday, January 15, 2006

Hermes Trismegistos

by Adrian Gilbert

Throughout history intelligent men and women have searched for a higher meaning to life, something over and above the daily struggle for survival. In the past, this quest for truth mostly took place within the confines of organized religion.

It was generally believed that, living within the religious community, there were wise men who knew the way and could therefore guide others towards the goal of enlightenment. For millennia such initiates, as we must call them, were accorded high status amongst the communities that they served.

It goes without saying that the philosophy of the ancient world was very different from that of today. Science, art, literature, music and drama were almost entirely the province of the priesthood.

The object of these endeavors was very seldom concerned with novelty for its own sake, and still less with the cult of personality, but rather with the preservation of knowledge. It was believed, as a matter of faith, that in the dim and distant past the gods themselves had walked the earth.

In Egypt in particular these mighty beings were looked upon by the faithful as human avatars of divine intelligence who had come from the stars. The gods Osiris and Isis were credited with having brought civilization to Earth at a time when mankind was steeped in barbarism.

However, they were not alone. The god Thoth (or Tehuti as his name should more properly be pronounced) had a cult at least as important as that of Osiris. In later traditions he was called the “recorder of souls”. In this function he is often shown on Egyptian papyri attending the “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony. This, however, was only one of his many functions. He was the Egyptian god of intelligence and among other things was credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing, mathematics and astronomy.

Shortly before the time of Jesus, Thoth’s works — or at least works attributed to his pen — were studied closely by the Greek Egyptians of Alexandria in schools somewhat similar to Plato’s Academy in Athens. The Greeks recognised that Thoth had much in common with their own Hermes. He was the Greek god of the written word, who is perhaps better known by his Roman name of Mercury. However, in recognition of the special attributes of the Egyptian Hermes they gave him the epithet Trismestos meaning “Thrice Greatest.”

Thereafter, written documents purporting to contain the teachings of Hermes Trismegistos were known as Hermetica. The religious beliefs on which these were based was called Hermeticism. The people who studied these esoteric teachings were called Hermits. Though hidden, Hermeticism has been one of the major currents of ideas that has infused later Western thinking right up until the present.

The Philosophical code that underpins Hermeticism is, at core, very simple and not much different from what is taught in the Bible. This is that the First Man (and here we are referring to the collective soul of mankind) was made in the image of his maker. Unfortunately for this First Man (though perhaps in fulfilment of some greater plan), he transgressed. Either through pride or youthful folly he desired creative power: he wanted to act like one of the planetary gods. He descended from his place at the side of God and, passing down through the planetary spheres, fell into the embrace of Nature. For this transgression mankind as a whole was punished.

Thereafter, the souls of men and women were to be imprisoned in animal form as the earthly primate we call homo sapiens. Thenceforward, men and women, whose souls had previously lived as discarnate entities in an abode above the stars, were condemned to live, die, and be reborn in seemingly endless cycles of reincarnation.

Men and women were blind to their true origins. However, according to the Hermeticists, in each and every human there was the possibility of “waking up." With proper training, even while still alive, they could achieve gnosis: “knowledge of the divine.” If this “waking up” occurred and man remembered who he really was, he could receive spiritual food from God. This food was Light and the person so fed became “enlightened.” His “subtle-bodies,” made of Light, would grow within him.

On death, his soul would be stripped of its physical shell but he would not be naked. Clothed in his Light Body it would be able to ascend through the astral spheres surrounding the earth and once more join God in spheres “above” the stars. This liberation of the soul was, and is, the ultimate goal of all true schools of Hermeticism.

In the Hermetic Schools of Alexandria, Thoth/Hermes was revered not so much for his god-like qualities but as the first such initiate to have made this journey. He was credited with writing many books, including what is now generally referred to as The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

There is a long tradition (spoken of, for example, by the fourth century writer Ammianus Marcellinus) that Pythagoras and others learned their philosophy by studying the secret writings of Hermes. These, he tells us, were inscribed on the walls of subterranean chambers. “There are certain underground galleries and passages full of windings, which it is said, the adepts in the ancient rites (knowing that the flood was coming, and fearing that the memory of the sacred ceremonies would be obliterated) constructed in various places, distributed in the interior [of the buildings], which were mined out with great labour. And levelling the walls, they engraved on them numerous kinds of birds and animals, and countless varieties of creatures of another world, which they called hieroglyphic characters.” [1]

There is another reference to secret writings of Hermes in a passage contained in a collection of Alexandrine writings today called the Hermetica. These predate Marcellinus by several centuries:

“ ‘They’ ” [Isis and Osiris], said Hermes, “will get knowledge of all my hidden writings, and discern their meaning; and some of these writings they will keep to themselves, but such of them as tend to the benefit of mortal men, they will inscribe on slabs and obelisks.” [2]

Hermes Trismegistos was not entirely forgotten when the traditional religion of Egypt gave way to Christianity during the 5th century AD. Later commentators, such as the Christian Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria (AD 412-44), still held Hermes Trismegistos in high regard. He writes: “…have you not heard that our Hermes divided the whole of Egypt into allotments and portions, measuring off the acres with the chain, and cut canals for irrigation purposes, and made nomes [i.e. provinces], and named the lands [comprised in them] after them, and established the interchange of contracts, and drew up a list of the risings of stars, and the proper times to cut plants; and beyond all this he discovered and bequeathed to posterity numbers, and calculations, and geometry, and astronomy, and astrology, and music, and the whole of grammar?” [3]

The above, in its talk about Hermes measuring out the land of Egypt, hints at another most important idea that dominates all Hermetic thinking throughout the ages. This is the theory of correspondences.

This doctrine is most clearly expressed in an alchemical document, which being translated into Arabic survived the burnings of libraries that characterized the Dark Ages and eventually found its way back to Europe. This document is called the "Emerald Table of Hermes" and was highly regarded by 17th century alchemists. It begins: “True, without deceit, certain and most true. What is below, is like what is above, and what is above is like that which is below, for the performing of the marvels of one thing.”

This is not the place to discuss the finer points of the philosophy contained in the Emerald Table, suffice it to say that the Alchemy or "Al-Chemia", from which our modern science of Chemistry derives, takes its name from Al-Khem or Khemmis, the ancient name for the Delta region of Egypt. In this sense we could say that Hermes is the patriarch of modern Chemistry as well as all the other achievements listed by Cyril of Alexandria.

It cannot be stressed enough that the doctrine of correspondences, "As above, so below," dominated Egyptian thinking and indeed that of most other philosophical traditions right up until fairly modern times. It was taken for granted that the workings of heaven were—or should be—reflected in what happens on earth. This indeed is the subtle meaning contained in the Lord's Prayer where it is said "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven". To the Egyptians, trained as they were in the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences, such a statement was both obvious and to be taken quite literally. The way this was done was by ordering the land of Egypt so that it would be a more perfect reflection of the stellar landscape of heaven.

Thus, we read in another Hermetic document, the Asclepius, of Hermes upbraiding a pupil called Asclepius: "Do you not know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven, or, to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to earth below? Nay, it should rather be said that the whole Kosmos dwells in this our land as in its sanctuary." [4]

In another intriguing extract from G.R.S. Mead's Thrice Greatest Hermes, he quotes from an author called W. Marsham Adams [a former Fellow of New College, Oxford] whose The Book of the Master, or the Egyptian Doctrine of the Light born of the Virgin Mother was published in 1898. In this book Adams claims to be drawing on textual sources which unfortunately he does not cite. Nevertheless, what he says is very interesting in the possible light it throws on Hermetic mysteries.

According to Adams, the true name for the texts now called The Book of the Dead is The Book of the Master of the Secret House. He says that the "Secret House" is the Great Pyramid, otherwise called the Light. In the paragraph before, Mead quotes from Adams' book in a section headed “The Holy Land of Egypt and its initiates,” he tells us the following:

"The Holy Land of those who had gone out from the body, watered by the Celestial Nile, the River of Heaven, of which the earthly river was a symbol and parallel, was divided into three regions, or states: (1) Rusta, the Territory of Initiation; (2) Aahlu, the Territory of Illumination; and (3) Amenti, the Place of Union with the Unseen Father.” [5]

Quoting Adams, he then goes on:

“In the religion of Egypt, the deepest and most fascinating mystery of antiquity, the visible creation, was conceived as the counterpart of the unseen world. And the substance consisted not of a mere vague belief in the life beyond the grave, but in tracing out the Path whereby the Just, when the portal of the tomb is lifted up, passes through successive stages of Initiation, of Illumination, and of Perfection, necessary to fit him for an endless union with Light, the Great Creator.” Mead himself adds to this:

“Thus we are told that at a certain point in Aahlu, the Territory of Illumination, the Osirified, the purified soul, has achieved the ‘Passsage of the Sun’ — that is to say, has passed beyond the mortal mind-plane; he opens the Gates of the Celestial Nile and receives the Atf-crown [viz. normally worn by the god Osiris], fashioned after the form of the Zodiacal light, the glory of supreme heaven.This is presumably the ‘crown of lives’ referred to in our sermons, which he receives in the sphere called ‘Eight,’ and with which he goes to the Father. The guide and Conductor through all these grades was Thoth the Eternal Wisdom.” [6]

Doubtless we would know much more about all this if we had before us the original “Books of Thoth” transcribed from the walls of whatever secret chamber in which they may lie hidden. But, even without this help, we are able to see that the Egyptians really did take these teachings into account when building such structures as the Pyramids of Giza.

In 1994 I co-authored, with Robert Bauval, a book called The Orion Mystery. This presented a novel theory for why the Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza. We argued that they were a symbolic representation of the Belt of Orion. This is a group of bright stars, named Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, which are arranged in a row in the center of the Orion constellation. Alnitak and Alnilam are aligned, while Mintaka is slightly off-set. The first two are also somewhat brighter than the last. In a corresponding manner, the two largest pyramids, Khufu (the Great Pyramid) and Khafre (the Central Pyramid), are aligned on their diagonal axes, while the third, smaller pyramid is slightly off-set from this line.

This arrangement of pyramids implied to us a Hermetic intention underlying their design. The correlation between these bright stars of Orion on the “banks” of the celestial “river,” the Milky Way, and the building of the pyramids on the banks of the Nile was obvious. It was a clearly a case of the Hermetic dictum in action: “As Above, So Below.”

The Memphite Necropolis and the Giza Plateau in particular seems to have been the “Territory of Initiation,” i.e. ‘Rusta’ or Rustau. The role of the Great Pyramid in Hermetic initiation was further made clear by the orientation of the “air shafts”: narrow passages proceeding from the King’s and Queen’s Chambers inside the pyramid itself. In particular, the southern shaft from the King’s Chamber pointed towards the culmination point of the Belt of Orion.

We know from other sources that Orion, or Sahu as the Egyptians called this constellation, was looked upon as the star-form of their god Osiris. We know also that Sahu was the name they gave to the golden body of Light, the highest accomplishment in personal self-transformation. From this, we can read that the region of Orion was what they called “Amenti, the Place of union with the Unseen Father.” How the soul would get there, and what the ancients meant by the “opening of the gates of the celestial Nile,” will be the subject of a future article.

Copyright 2004 Adrian Gilbert. Reprinted from Phenomena Four.

For more on this subject and details of how to buy some of the books mentioned, visit Adrian’s website at

1. G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes, vol. I, pp. 77-8, Watkins, London, 1906.

2. Walter Scott (trans.), Hermetica, Dorset, 1992, p. 191.

3. Thrice Greatest Hermes, Vol III, p. 162.

4. Hermetica, p. 136

5. Thrice Greatest Hermes, Vol I, p.49

6. Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. You have a very interesting site and many interesting links, I will definately be returning to your blog.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.