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Hermetic Writings

HERMETIC WRITINGS, a collection of religious and philosophical treatises, also known as Hermetica, which was traditionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistos (Hermes the thrice-great). The Hermetica contain cosmological, ethical, and eschatological discourses, based on the assumption that only selected spirits may achieve bliss and salvation of the soul through gnosis (esoteric knowledge). In addition to this gnostic basis, Platonic and eastern religious elements may be discerned. The Hermetica, which are of late origin (4th–11th century C.E.), were produced on Egyptian soil by men of Greek speech and culture, although part was written in Latin. Some Jewish influence may be traced in the Hermetica. Some of the accounts of the ascent of the soul through the celestial spheres, given in the hermetic writings, have affinities with similar notions in the literature of the *Merkabah mystics. The writers of Book 1 (the Poimandres) and Book 3 knew the Mosaic account of the creation; they were also acquainted with Stoic cosmology, and tried to harmonize the one with the other, to "reconcile" Genesis to science: "When the period was completed … all living creatures, having until then been bisexual, were parted asunder … and so there came to be males and females. And God spoke in holy speech: 'Increase and multiply abundantly, all ye that have been created and made'" (1:18). "And each god (element) by his separate power, put forth that which he was bidden to put forth. And there came forth four-footed beasts and creeping things and fishes and winged birds, and grass and every flowering herb, all having seed in them according to their diverse natures … [and God ordained the] births of men, and bade mankind increase and multiply abundantly …" (3:3). Jewish elements in the doctrines of the Poimandres include teachings which originated in Jewish Hellenistic circles closely connected with the school of Philo, such as ideas about the Logos and the Anthropos. Anthropos in the Hermetica is more than the Adam of Genesis, the ancestor of the human race; he is a transcendental being, the personification of humanity, a notion evolved out of a combination of data from Genesis with the Platonic concept of the idea of Man. The rabbis, too, endowed Adam with superhuman qualities: His body filled the world from end to end and he shone with a heavenly radiance (Ḥag. 12a; BB 58a).

Hermes Trismegistos

Hermetic literature, as can be judged from its many translations, exercised some influence even in antiquity, the Slavonic Book of *Enoch possibly reflecting such influence. It left its mark in the Christian world, on the literature of Syrians and Arabs and, in some measure, on early Jewish writings. Hermes Trismegistos was identified in Hellenized Egypt with the Egyptian deity, "thrice-great" Thoth. To him were attributed not only the Hermetica proper, but also various writings on astrology, magic, and alchemy. Much hermetic literature existed in Arabic translation in the Middle Ages and it is through this literature that it reached, and sometimes influenced, Jewish thinkers. *Judah Halevi includes Hermes with Asclepius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among those supposed – by medieval neoplatonic philosophy – to be able to achieve the soul's ascent and its unity with the Active Intellect (Kuzari, 1:1). The treatise "Teachings on the Soul," by Pseudo-*Baḥya, appears to be influenced by the Hermetica. In his famous letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, *Maimonides includes the books of Hermes under the rubric of ancient (i.e., pre-Aristotelian) philosophy, the study of which is a waste of time (see A. Marx, in JQR, 25 (1934/35), 380). In the Guide of the Perplexed (3:29), Maimonides mentions a work ascribed to Hermes among the compositions which spread the knowledge of idolatry throughout the world. Aside from stray references in books translated from Arabic and despite the huge literature extant in Arabic, there seems to be only one book translated into Hebrew which is ascribed to Hermes. Profiat *Duran, in Ḥeshev ha-Efod (quoted by Judah Muscato in his commentary to the Kuzari), identifies Hermes with Enoch, and regards him as the originator of the calendar.


Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, index; Krauss, in: Ha-Goren, 7 (1907), 29–34; J. Kroll, Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos (1914); D. Cassel (ed.), Das Buch Kusari des Jehuda ha-Levi (1920), 26n.; W. Scott (ed.), Hermetica, 4 vols. (1924–36); J. Heinemann, Die Lehre von der Zweckbestimmung des Menschen… (1926), 25ff., 39ff.; M. Plessner, in: EI2, S.V. Hirmis; A.J. Festugière, La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (1949–54).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.