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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Hermetica is the body of writings supposedly given
by God to Egypt's Hermes-Mercurius-Trismegistus,
also thrice-great Thoth, to disseminate among the wise
of all lands. In essence, it adopts the Platonic-Christian
idea that man must strive to transcend matter and rise
to heavenly purity. At the same time, the Hermetica
affirms a number of nonclassical, non-Christian ideas
about chaos and darkness as sources of life and about
man as divinely creative. Merging with similar ideas
of the ancient Near East to form, as it were, a “chaos
syndrome,” it has exerted a profound influence during
times of upheaval, serving as inspiration for innovators
of the Renaissance, as well as of the romantic and
modern periods.

The unorthodoxy of Hermetic thought is often over-
looked by scholars who detour the dark esotery of
pre-twentieth-century thought by insisting that sym-
bols of darkness and chaos, serpents, monsters, and the
like, were readily Christianized (Walker, 1953). If this
were so, Renaissance art, for example, would differ
little from medieval art. Evidence indicates, however,
that in a number of Renaissance works the powers of
darkness frequently suggest, not destruction, but fruit-
fulness, joy, and energy. One may say, in fact, that the
bloodstream of art, paling at the close of the medieval
and then the neo-classical and Victorian periods, is
revitalized by a transfusion from sources of the ancient
Near East.

We can study this process of cultural transfusion by
focusing on one of the more effective systems of esotery
used by Western writers, the Hermetica. Made up of
the corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius (wisdom im-
parted by Trismegistus to his son, Tat), and The Emer-
ald Table,
it was compiled by a number of unknown
authors of Hellenistic Egypt during the second or third
century A.D. Until the seventeenth century, Neo-
Platonists and alchemists encouraged the belief that
its wisdom was given by God to Trismegistus instead
of to Moses because the arcane had to be preserved
for certain wise men of Egypt, Phoenicia, and then
of Greece, Italy, and England. Kristeller and Yates
(1960, 1964) have documented the numerous transla-
tions from the original Greek as well as the references
and commentaries on them. All quotations in this arti-
cle are taken from the simple but complete translation
into English by J. Everard, The Divine Pymander of
Hermes Trismegistus
(1650). It contains the basic text,
the “Divine Pymander” or creation story, and the

In substance, the Hermetica shares a number of
unorthodox features with ancient cosmogonies of
Egypt, Babylonia or Chaldea, Persia, and the early
gnostic sects. Compiled from the ancient cosmogonies,
a list of nine such unorthodox features can be used now
to show the nature of the “chaos syndrome”:

(1) Creation is the result of a cataclysmic or sexual
encounter between at least two major forces. The
world is created from preexisting chaos.

(2) Creation includes elements of the grotesque and
the irrational.

(3) Mutability, darkness, mud are life-producing.

(4) Serpent and hybrid creatures, symbols of energy,
are often deified.

(5) Eternal Recurrence: Creation is an ever-renew-
ing process. As a living body, the world is perpetually
renewing itself.

(6) “As above, so below”: the doctrine of corre-
spondence: the divine descends to participate in human
affairs, alternating with humans as civilizing agents,
involved in wandering, lamentation, and suffering as
part of the creative process.

(7) Superbia: Man is exalted to the level of divinity.

(8) The Valuable Descent: a descent into the depths,
an encounter with monsters, provides the revitalizing
experience sought by men and gods.

(9) Stylistically, “chaos” writings are lavish as well
as confusing.

In contrast, the orthodox view sees chaos as a force
of evil only. Its God, without partner or helper, creates
from absolutely nothing, in a smooth and orderly man-


ner. Energy symbols are discredited, and the world,
created just once, is headed for ultimate dissolution.
Separated from God, man is essentially worthless, lim-
ited as an artist to imitating what he sees, and warned
to strive for rhetorical bareness. Such ideas predomi-
nate, not only in church fathers like Tertullian and
Augustine, and in Renaissance poets like Drayton,
Thomas Heywood, and Jonson, but in modern religious
leaders and non-Christian thinkers as well. For, despite
the decline of Christianity today, a negative attitude
towards chaos continues to dismiss disorder and mys-
tery as evil and, in the name of order and truth, en-
courages a chronic dread of dissenting groups and
strange ways of thought.

Unlike orthodox writings, the Hermetica, affirming
chaos and change, retains a singular importance for
the adventurous mind. It is true that it retains at least
two orthodox tenets: the all powerful God precedes
chaos, and love of body can be an “Error of Love”
(Everard, pp. 11, 17). In other respects, however, the
Hermetica belongs to the “chaos syndrome.” It derides
the idea of creating from nothing: “And all things are
made of things that are, and not of things that are not”
(p. 75); the chaos from which its world is created is
powerful and essential to the creative process: “infinite
darkness... abyss... bottomless depth” (p. 24) recall
the coeval chaos of pagan mythology as well as the
materia prima of alchemy (Jung, 1953, 1963).

In the opening of The Divine Pymander, Trismegistus
asks for understanding. Poemander, Mind of God,
begins the education, not with an explanation of
rationally ordered principles, but with a plunge, in-
stead, into the experience of creativity, a plunge as
sudden as the mystical twinkling of an eye in which
all things can happen. There is a darkness “fearful and
hideous,” then a moisture “unspeakably troubled,” then
a voice of the Son of God, “... unutterable...
mournful... inarticulate” (p. 10). From here on, the
idea is reiterated: the web of life consists of good and
evil, order and chaos, light and darkness. Unity cannot
exist without contrariety, “... for, of contraposition,
That is Setting One against Another, and Contrariety,
all Things must Consist” (p. 32).

Continuing to mirror the human experience, the
Hermetic cosmos lives and breathes: “The whole uni-
verse is material.... The whole is a living wight...”
(p. 33). Unlike the asexual Creator of the world by
world alone, the Hermetic God is male and female, “...
it is his Essence to be pregnant, or great with all things
...” (p. 46). The world is his womb of creation: Fire
weds Moisture, Air and Water copulate out of desire
(pp. 15-16), and new things are generated not me-
chanically or revengefully, as in the classical cos-
mogony of Hesiod, but from love and desire.

Hermetic man is created with love (p. 13), but when,
restless and searching, he wishes to separate from God
and fall to work on his own, he is not punished. When
he breaks through the Circles “to understand the Power
of him that sits upon the Fire” (p. 14), the Seven
Governors of the world share their divine natures with
him, and he finds, beyond the known, another form
of God in the beautiful shape of Nature, “... the
massive, elusive being” who is also in Plotinus and in
Spenser (Holmes, 1932). Himself a mystery, hermaph-
roditic, mortal and immortal, loved by God and the
Governors, falling freely without guilt or terror, and
loved by Nature as a man is loved by a woman, Her-
metic man loves the mystery and excitement of life.
Writers of titanic energy—Blake, for example—have
been fascinated by passages like the following:

... consider, O Son, how Man is made and framed in the
Womb; and examine diligently the skill and cunning of the
Workman, and learn who it was that wrought and fashioned
the beautiful and Divine shape of Man; who circumscribed
and marked out his eyes? who bored his nostrils and ears?
who opened his mouth? who stretched out and tied together
his sinews?...

(p. 45).

In contrast to the orthodox view, which posits a world
moving inexorably toward dissolution, the Hermetica
expresses the idea of Eternal Recurrence. The energy
of a world created from chaos is repeatedly renewed.
Change exists to provide a means of continuing purifi-
cation. Death is not destruction, but the dissolving of
a union that is endlessly renewable (pp. 26, 32, 87).

From a theory of creation that reflects man's experi-
ence with sexuality, darkness, and change, comes the
Hermetic theory of Eternal Connectedness between
God and man. The divine descends to participate in
the world and is called variously workman, painter,
carver (p. 46). In this connection, it is interesting to
note that writings sharing a view of the humanized
God tend to favor the messenger deity, Hermes or
Mercury. In contrast to the unsympathetic treatment
of Hermes as trickster and thief (Frothingham, 1916;
Brown, 1947), or as the first evil deity who must be
destroyed by Christ (Pico, 1507), Hermetically influ-
enced works present him instead as divine messenger,
worshipped in silence, praised for his understanding
and invention (Iamblichus, Cartari, Valeriano).
Spenser's Mercury saves the world from destruction;
Shakespeare expresses eloquence and fancifulness in the
beloved Mercutio and the alchemical vision of the
living statue in Hermione (The Faerie Queene, VII, vi,
14-17; Romeo and Juliet, I, iv, and The Winter's Tale).

The idea of Connectedness is crystallized in the
Doctrine of Correspondence, as it appears in the “Em-
erald Tablet of Hermes”:


What is below is like that which is above, and what is above
is like that which is below.... Ascend with the greatest
sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then again descend
to the earth, and unite together the powers of things supe-
rior and things inferior. Thus you will obtain the glory of
the whole world, and obscurity will fly far away from you

(Read, p. 54).

In The Divine Pymander, too, earth corresponds to
cosmos, the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of
the universe. Like the figure of Hermes, the derivative
symbols of chain and ladder between heaven and earth
suggest that man is neither separated from God as in
the medieval view nor chained to his link as in the
neo-classical. Instead, he is linked to God; divinely
creative, he ascends, “... he leaveth not the Earth,
and yet is above; So great is the greatness of his Na-
ture” (p. 40). The ladder he ascends is the same that
God descends, “... an Earthly Man is a Mortal God,
and... the Heavenly God is an Immortal Man” (pp.

Such ideas are far removed from the traditional
identification of macrocosm and microcosm as a solely
Platonic or Christian metaphor for the belief in an
otherworldly sphere, and a separation between man
and nature (Lovejoy, 1936; Tillyard, 1959). The Her-
metic philosophy suggests instead that God, matter,
and man are linked by an understanding of the life-
principle that inspired both the religious and artistic
impulses of man (Taylor, 1962). This, and not the tradi-
tional idea of separation, would have inspired that
quality of superbia with which we associate Renais-
sance man. In the Hermetica he found the authority
he needed for his breakthroughs as well as for his

Well documented as the primary source for alchem-
ical speculation and authors like Bruno and Vaughan,
the Hermetica has influenced also writers as varied as
Bernardus Silvestris, Spenser, Shakespeare, Boehme,
Milton, Sterne, Blake, and Longfellow. Ideas about the
primacy of chaos, the eternal presence of order and
disorder, the eternal renewability of the world, the
connectedness of God and man appear in Alberti,
Goethe, Wordsworth, Nietzsche, G. M. Hopkins, D. H.
Lawrence. One may go so far as to say that the
first significant treatment of Hermetic thought by
Bernardus Silvestris in the twelfth century, and then
a renewed application by Spenser in the sixteenth
century mark the inception and the development of
the European Renaissance. Silvestris (ca. 1150) incor-
porates a number of ideas that are antithetical to
Christian theories of creation, but remarkably close to
those of the “chaos syndrome.” He writes about the
two principles of all things, unity and diversity. The
primeval forest of De mundi universitate exists in an
ambiguous state of good and evil, fertile with plurality.
Since the world evolves by perpetual activity, it can
never weaken or be undone. During creation, spinning
whirlpools confound the forest, a fiery force emerges
from what was confused and turbid, earth settles down,
fire darts up, air and water take middle positions.
Physis, dreaming of the construction of man through
the power of nature, sees the radiance of Urania re-
flected much as Nature sees the reflection of man in
the Hermetica.

Four centuries later, Spenser was using both ortho-
dox and unorthodox materials to create a new mythol-
ogy and a Renaissance in English poetry (Feinstein,
1968). The Faerie Queene (the first three books ap-
peared in 1590) is filled with Egyptian imagery; the
hideous storm, stench of smoke and sulphur, and fearful
noise are examples in Book III. Sexual analogies for
creation and images of an eternal chaos that guarantees
renewal appear in the “Garden of Adonis” passages:

... in the wide wombe of the world there lyes,
In hatefull darknes and in deepe horrore,
An huge eternal chaos, which supplyes
The substaunces of Natures fruitfull progenyes.

(III, vi, 36).

Substance is eternal so that when life decays, form
does not fade or return to nothing, “But chaunged is,
and often altred to and froe” (III, vi, 37).

Hermetic ideas spurred Giordano Bruno to move still
further from medieval restriction. Like Spenser's Faerie
Bruno's Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast
(1584) repudiates the idea of Creation from Nothing
and exalts Nature and the eternally renewing capacity
that enjoys mutability and discordance as well as the

... if in bodies, matter, and entity there were not muta-
tion, variety, and vicissitude, there would be nothing agree-
able, nothing good, nothing pleasurable.

Another innovator to find affirmation in mystical writ-
ings, William Blake, in 1794, describes the God who
creates the tiger in terms very close to the Hermetic
God who creates man. Compare “who circumscribed
and marked out his eyes?... who stretched out and
tied his sinews?” to Blake's “In what distant deeps or
skies/ Burnt the fire of thine eyes?.... what shoulder,
& what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?”
A terrible God, yet human; a powerful God, yet a

We can mention only a few of the many who have
used the ideas of Hermetica: the fire and wheel imagery
of the seventeenth-century mystic Jacob Boehme
(1620); the observation by Alberti (1433-34) that there
is no light without darkness. Milton in “Il Penseroso”


(line 88) refers to “thrice great Hermes”; Longfellow
in “Hermes Trismegistus” captures the spirit of the
immortal man and the mortal God; the name of
Sterne's hero, Tristram, is a distortion of Trismegistus.
Nietzsche's belief in eternal recurrence is well known,
but the idea is in G. M. Hopkins as well (“Generations
have trod, have trod, have trod..../ And for all this,
nature is never spent”). D. H. Lawrence's apostrophe
to chaos (1928) is a central part of his philosophy.

But more important than listing citations, we need
to understand why writers of so many different coun-
tries and ages have borrowed from a complex of ideas
that move outside the mainstream of Western thought.
Perhaps we can say that innovators searching for a
sense of balance in their conceptions of life and cre-
ativity found in the esotery of the Near East, the
Hermetica in particular, an affirmation that was lacking
in orthodox doctrine. As a result, their writings broke
with tradition to embrace ideas of chaos as well as
order, and so came to show that this mutable world,
with all its chaos and change, is as meaningful as the
immutable realm of Heaven.


Leon Battista Alberti, “Libri della famiglia,” Opere
ed. Cecil Grayson (Bari, 1960), I, 31. Jacob Boehme,
Six Theosophic Points (Ann Arbor, 1958), pp. 12, 16, 27.
Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief (Madison, 1947), pp.
6-21, 53. Giordano Bruno, The Expulsion of the Triumphant
trans. Arthur D. Imerti (New Brunswick, N.J., 1964),
p. 89. J. Everard, trans., The Divine Pymander of Hermes
1650 (New York, 1953) by Rosicrucian Society.
Blossom Feinstein, “The Faerie Queene and Cosmogonies
of the Near East,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968).
A. L. Frothingham, “Babylonian Origin of Hermes the
Snake-God, and of the Caduceus,” Archaeological Institute
of America,
20 (1916), 175. Paul O. Kristeller, ed. Catalogus
... (Washington, D.C., 1960), I, 137-56. D. H.
Lawrence, “Chaos in Poetry” (1928), in Selected Literary
ed. Anthony Beal (New York, 1932). Arthur O.
Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Mass.,
1936). Gian Francesco Pico, “Hymn to Christ” (Hymnus
ad Christum,
Milan, 1507), English trans. Eve Adler from
the Latin. Bernard Silvestris, De mundi universitate, eds.
Carl S. Barach and Johann Wrobel, (Frankfurt am Main,
1964 reprint), Book I, iv, 25-29; II, xiii, 1-2. F. Sherwood
Taylor, The Alchemists (New York, 1962), p. 175. E. M. W.
Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York, 1959).
D. P. Walker, “Orpheus the Theologian and Renaissance
Platonists,” Journal of the Warburg Institute, 16 (1953),
105-07. Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago,
1966), p. 146.

The most penetrating studies of Bruno and Vaughan are
Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradi-
(Chicago, 1964), Ch. 1, and passim; Elizabeth Holmes,
Henry Vaughan and the Hermetic Philosophy (London,
1932); of alchemy in general, C. G. Jung, Psychology and
and Mysterium coniunctionis, Collected Works,
trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vols. 12 and 14 (New York, 1953 and
1963); and John Read, Prelude to Chemistry, An Outline
of Alchemy
(Cambridge, Mass., 1966), pp. 51-55; and of
English alchemy in particular, Allen G. Debus, The English
(New York, 1966).


[See also Alchemy; Creation in Religion; Hierarchy;
Macrocosm and Microcosm; Neo-Platonism; Renaissance