A review of The Quest For Hermes Trismegistus

The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus

From the Ancient Egypt to the Modern World

Gary Lachman

Floris Books (2011)


Gary Lachman offers us a fascinating history of the myth of Hermes Trismegistus and the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. While today Hermes Trismegistus is little known except in esoteric circles, in the Middle Ages he was believed to be the very fount from which the teachings of the ages flowed. Lachman gives us a bird’s eye view of the contents of the corpus, its development and its mysterious author. The reality is stranger than fiction and while it seems patently unlikely that Trismegistus ever existed and that his works were compiled from many sources nevertheless his name is still one to conjure with. The teachings of the Corpus illustrate the interactions between Egyptian and Greek esoteric traditions as found within Alexandria. It is a fascinating exploration not only through the journey that the Corpus Hermeticum made to reach us but through its ideas and themes as well as the different things it meant to different peoples during different periods.

The central concept of Hermeticism is Gnosis; this is neither faith nor knowledge but a direct perception of truth. It took Plato’s concept of using reason to understand ideals or universals to a new level through the concept of direct perception via gnosis. The teaching of the Corpus are in the form of a dialog between either Hermes and Nous or divine mind or Hermes and a student. They are seemingly modelled on the Platonic dialectics or dialogues. Lachman does a great job putting the work in the context of other trends in spiritual and esoteric philosophy.

Lachman offers an extensive outline of the teachings found within the Corpus with obvious erudition. The central theme is as “above, so below” and the unity of all things is outlined through a range of different descriptions. At the same time the Corpus does not just focus on a philosophic vision but the process of achieving it. Lachman compares this vision with R.M. Bucke’s classic descriptions of Cosmic Consciousness. Many including Plato believed Egypt to the source of the wisdom traditions Jeremy Nadyler argues in Plato, Shamanism and Egypt that there was a unique Egyptian visionary practise which was passed into Greek philosophy. These is certainly a clear suggestion that the corpus and Plato’s Philosophy comes from the same source. Lachman also notes the similarities between the Egyptian and Homeric account of the soul complex. Further the Egyptian Duat is identified by both Nadyler and Lachman as Plato’s world of Forms and by default the Neters with Platonic Forms.

Chapter 3 offers an excellent evocation of what Alexandria would have been like during the time of the writing of the Corpus. It was an open society of great intellectual vigour both under the Greeks and the Romans; it was the Christians who destroyed this freedom as well as its legendary library. It is in Alexandria that the equivalence of Thoth and Hermes was made and new forms of the Mysteries arose. It is from the union of Hermes and Thoth that Hermes Trismegistus arose and the scattered works that were brought together to become the Corpus Hermeticum.

One of the later adaptations of Hermeticism was alchemy and the Emerald Tablet, which while celebrated as a Hermetic work cannot be traced back to a Greek original. At the same time it was Zosimos of Panopolis who first documented alchemy as an internal science of transformation. Surprisingly so much of what survives came via the Arab conquerors and their love of learning. Sadly over time a growing Muslim orthodoxy began to persecute those who followed the Hermetic tradition including the Sabians and Sufi mystics such as Suhrawardi who combined Hermeticism with Islam. Suhrawardi outlined an Imaginal world known as the Hurqalya which is essentially the same as the Duator Plato’s world of Forms. The tradition continued with Marsilo Ficino,Giordano Bruno and the Renaissance revival of Hermeticism, esotericism and Plato. Later Hermeticism went underground and became mixed with magic in the work of such figures as John Dee and movements such as thefollowers of the Rosy Cross. It is really with the Rosicrucians that the modernhermetic tradition begins and moves into ceremonial magical movement suchas the Golden Dawn. At the same time Manly Palmer hall sees a reflection inthe Masonic trials and the Egyptian book of the dead and hence decodes Hermeticism as being embodied in Freemasonry.

This is a comprehensive book covering all aspects of the tradition of Hermes, from the early periods through to modern explorations of Hermetic science as it resonates with altered states of consciousness. Lachman is an easy to read author yet has a near encyclopaedic knowledge of esotericism and is hence able to offer many different perspectives on the subject at hand. From the Egyptian influence on Greek philosophy to Islam and the Renaissance, Freemasons and the Rosicrucians this is a truly informative journey through all aspects of Hermes Trismegistus.

This review original appeared in Living Traditions.


 Email: livingtraditions@internode.on.net

4 thoughts on “A review of The Quest For Hermes Trismegistus

  1. The greatest compliment that I could bestow upon an author is that I do not wish to finish his book. One reaches a promontory on a mountain hike with a panoramic view and one wishes to remain more omniscient rather than return to the more limited views in the valley below. So I am reading on page 198 about Rilke and the desire to shelter the things of this world in the imagination, and I am thinking of Werner Herzog’s new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, concerning recently discovered 35,000 year old images of various animals, many of which have now become extinct. Perhaps the shamanic cave paintings were attempts to preserve species that were on the verge of extinction.

    One of the great revelations for me in this wonderful book was the notion of “quintessence”. Following Jung’s division of the psyche into four functions and the ancient Chinese notion of five rather the the Greek four essential elements, I have been writing about consciousness as a quadrivertical dynamic with a creative center.

    In reading page 105 concerning the ‘fifth essence’, I had an epiphany. What if ‘quintessence’ meant essence of five instead of fifth essence. What if essence resulted from a unification of four ways of knowing through a creative center rather than it being one of the five elements itself. The quintessential is not the fifth element that permeates all others, but rather essence results from the interactive unification and synthesis of five elements.

    The history of both human culture as well as the evolution of human consciousness could be seen as the way in which human beings have historically represented, defined,manifested,combined, and repressed these five elements of quintessence.

    In a world where the ancient teachings were suppressed and eradicated to make room for either Christianity or Scientific Materialism, both of which privileged one way of knowing by excluding or discrediting the other three ways of knowing, perhaps “Thrice Great Hermes”, was that individual who was great precisely because of his ability to access knowledge from the other three ways of knowing.

    After the reign of Rationality and Monotheism for the past 350 years, we return to Hermeticism as the evidence for the ever present origin of four ways of knowing, three of which have been suppressed by the hegemony of Monotheistic Religion and Rational Science. Gebser’s Integral Age would not exclude rationality but would seek to combine its way of knowing with those three ways of knowing exemplified by the Hermetic Tradition.

    It seems to me that in the Age we call ‘Modern’, the Myth of Certain Knowledge promulgated by both Biblical Fundamentalism and Scientific Materialism has replaced the certain knowledge of Mystery experienced by initiates within the Hermetic, Platonic, and Shamanic traditions.

    1. Dear Raymond,

      Many thanks for your comment. I think your take on quintessence is very interesting. It is similar to how Jean Gebser sees what he calls the “integral structure of consciousness,” which is a unifying and reconcilliation of the previous four structures – I talk aboutthis in my book A SecretHistory of Consciousness. I’m glad my work is getting to the right people and sparking some creative thought in them. All the best, Gary Lachman “Look,” he said, “and look hard! You must take lessons in abysses.”Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth https://garylachman.co.uk/

  2. I find it hard to put into words how glad I found you book. Here all the characters that have whispered their knowledge to me over the years I have found again. I am now not surprised that you mention them all! The new ones to study and learn from are delightful to me as well. A golden thread that ties them all together I have known in my heart, and don’t know if I am sensing exploitation or enthusiasm in the truth found in your book. I often wondered if I walked on this journey alone… so I thank you for your amazing research and the gifts also shared in this book… though I am not quite finished, it is a book that I will reflect upon and learn from for years to come..

    1. Dear Hudley,

      Many thanks for your warm words about the book. I am glad you are enjoying it and that it is inspiring you to look at Hermes T again. It is always encouraging to hear such things from readers. It lets me know I am reaching the right people. All the best, Gary

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