The establishment of medieval hermeticism

Authored by: Charles Burnett

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:


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The mystical gnostic religion of Hermes Trismegistus was one of several cults that thrived in the late Classical period. Its roots lay in Egypt, and its sacred texts were first written in Coptic and Greek, but were soon translated or imitated in several languages of the Mediterranean basin. From the beginning they comprised both theoretical texts, concerning the bases of the Hermetic religio-philosophy, and practical (or technical) texts, giving instructions for the rituals or forms of divination. By the eleventh century a corpus of eighteen theoretical texts had been assembled in Greek. This Corpus Hermeticum first became available in the West through the Latin translation of its first fourteen texts by Marsilio Ficino in 1463. 1 Up to that date the only Latin theoretical Hermeticum translated directly from a Greek source was the Asclepius, whose earliest existence in the form known in the Middle Ages is attested by its use by St Augustine. 2 The Asclepius travelled with the second-century Apuleius of Madaura’s ‘On the god of Socrates’ (De deo Socratis) and ‘On Plato and his doctrine’ (De Platone et eius dogmate) and his translation of the Pseudo-Aristotelian ‘On the World’ (De mundo) – works which shared the Asclepius’ concern about gods and ‘demons’ (daemones); this combination was probably already known to Augustine. In the twelfth century this collection of texts began to be copied again in a significant number of manuscripts. 3 It is the contention of this chapter that this new interest in the Asclepius can be associated with a renaissance of Hermeticism, when a concerted attempt was made to supplement from Arabic sources the dearth of theoretical and technical Hermetic works in Latin. 4

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