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"Three Parts of the Wisdom of the Whole Universe"
The Hermetica are Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, which are mostly presented as dialogues in which a teacher, generally identified as Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-greatest Hermes"), enlightens a disciple. The texts form the basis of Hermeticism. They discuss the divine, the cosmos, mind, and nature. Some touch upon alchemy, astrology, and related concepts.
The term particularly applies to the Corpus Hermeticum, Marsilio Ficino's Latin translation in fourteen tracts, of which eight early printed editions appeared before 1500 and a further twenty-two by 1641. This collection, which includes the Pœmandres and some addresses of Hermes to disciples Tat, Ammon and Asclepius, was said to have originated in the school of Ammonius Saccas and to have passed through the keeping of Michael Psellus: it is preserved in fourteenth century manuscripts. The last three tracts in modern editions were translated independently from another manuscript by Ficino's contemporary Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500) and first printed in 1507. Extensive quotes of similar material are found in classical authors such as Joannes Stobaeus.
Parts of the Hermetica appeared in the 4th-century Gnostic library found in Nag Hammadi. Other works in Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic and other languages may also be termed "Hermetica" - another famous tract is the Emerald Tablet, which teaches the doctrine "as above, so below".
All these are themselves remnants of a more extensive literature, part of the syncretic, intellectualized paganism of their era, a cultural movement that also included the Neoplatonic philosophy of the Greco-Roman mysteries and late Orphic and Pythagorean literature and influenced Gnostic forms of the Abrahamic religions. There are significant differences: the Hermetica contain no explicit allusions to Biblical texts and are little concerned with Greek mythology or the technical minutiae of metaphysical Neoplatonism. However most of these schools do agree in attributing the creation of the world to a Demiurge rather than the supreme being and in accepting reincarnation. Although Neoplatonic philosophers, who quote apocryphal works of Orpheus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and other figures, almost never cite Hermes Trismegistus, the tracts were still popular enough in the 5th century to be argued against by Augustine of Hippo in the City of God.
The extant Egyptian-Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of God, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Their concerns are practical in nature, their ends a spiritual rebirth through the enlightenment of the mind:
Seeing within myself an immaterial vision that came from the mercy of God, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind!
While they are difficult to date with precision, the texts of the Corpus were likely redacted between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE. During the Renaissance these texts were believed to be of ancient Egyptian origin and even today some readers believe them to date from Pharaonic Egypt. Since Plato's Timaeus dwelt upon the great antiquity of the Egyptian teachings upon which the philosopher purported to draw, scholars were willing to accept that these texts were the sources of Greek ideas. However the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) successfully argued that some, mainly those dealing with philosophy, betrayed too recent a vocabulary. Hellenisms in the language itself point to a Greek-era origin. Many lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power. Thus, it would be fair to assess the Corpus Hermeticum as intellectually eclectic.
More recent research, while affirming the late dating in a period of syncretic cultural ferment in Roman Egypt, suggests more continuity with the culture of Pharaonic Egypt than had previously been believed. There are many parallels with Egyptian prophecies and hymns to the gods but the closest comparisons can be found in Egyptian wisdom literature, which is characteristically couched in words of advice from a "father" to a "son". Demotic (late Egyptian) papyri contain substantial sections of a dialogue of Hermetic type between Thoth and a disciple. Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, states that some texts in the Hermetic corpus date back to the 6th century BC. during the Persian period. Some similarities between the Demotic texts and Platonic philosophy could be the result of Plato and his followers' having drawn on Egyptian sources.
Many hermetic texts were lost to Western culture during the Middle Ages but rediscovered in Byzantine copies and popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. The impetus for this revival came in the mid-1400s when Leonardo de Candia Pistoia a Byzantine monk, brought in 1460 the Hermetica manuscript and the 14 books called Corpus Hermeticum to the court of Cosimo de'Medici, ruler of Florence, who later requested the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino, a member of the de'Medici's court, who published a collection of thirteen tractates in 1471, as De potestate et sapientia Dei. The Hermetica provided a seminal impetus in the development of Renaissance thought and culture, having a profound impact on alchemy and modern magic as well as influencing philosophers such as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola, Ficino's student. This influence continued as late as the 17th century with authors such as Sir Thomas Browne.
Although the most famous exemplars of Hermetic literature were products of Greek-speakers under Roman rule the genre did not suddenly stop with the fall of the Empire but continued to be produced in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Byzantine Greek. The most famous example of this later Hermetica is the Emerald Tablet, known from medieval Latin and Arabic manuscripts with a possible Syriac source. Little else of this rich literature is easily accessible to non-specialists. The mostly gnostic Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in 1945, also contained one previously unknown hermetic text called The Ogdoad and the Ennead, a description of a hermetic initiation into gnosis that has led to new perspectives on the nature of Hermetism as a whole, particularly due to the research of Jean-Pierre Mahé.
John Everard's historically important 1650 translation into English of the Corpus Hermeticum, entitled The Divine Pymander in XVII books (London, 1650) was from Ficino's Latin translation; it is no longer considered reliable by scholars. The modern standard editions are the Budé edition by A. D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière (Greek and French, 1946, repr. 1991) and Brian P. Copenhaver (English, 1992).
The following are the titles given by John Everard: