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2 January 2007

A Supremely Enigmatic Figure in the History of the Human Mind

A make-believe Egyptian with a grand tradition: Florian Ebeling of the Department of Egyptology, University of Heidelberg on "The Mystery of Hermes Trismegistos. A History of Hermeticism"

Hermes Trismegistos is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of the human mind. Although this legendary Egyptian sage has been regarded since antiquity as the author of a number of works on mysticism and magic, he never really existed. Hermes Trismegistos is a fiction born of the amalgamation of two very different deities, the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes. Despite all this, the history of so-called hermeticism that began back in antiquity has lasted to this very day. Renaissance philosophers celebrated Hermes Trismegistos (his name means "Hermes thrice-greatest") as the founder of philosophy, the Freemasons declared him one of their forebears, Enlightenment thinkers championed religious tolerance in his name.

He has also left his imprint on the present, both as one of the central figures of esotericism and in everyday language usage. "In ordinary language we refer to something as 'hermetic' if it is sealed off so completely that nothing can get into or out of it," says Florian Ebeling in his book The Mystery of Hermes Trismegistos. "Language or a text is 'hermetic' if it is initially incomprehensible. Although this everyday usage of the term ultimately goes back to the ethic of secrecy advocated in various hermetic writings, contemporary speakers normally use it without any specific reference to Hermes Trismegistos and the writings attributed to him."

There is no shortage of these, as Ebeling's interesting book amply demonstrates. It provides a generally comprehensible, though challenging overview of the "corpus hermeticum". The author from the Department of Egyptology of Heidelberg University supplies his readers with a lucid and approachable access to a subject that on closer inspection gets more mystifying all the time. Whereas some authors see hermeticism as nothing more than the history of alchemy, numerous esoterics and occultists draw upon it as a rich source of material to be tapped for dubious theories regarding hermetic doctrine as a theory of superordinate natural laws. This approach has put hermeticism (not to be confused with hermeneutics, the theory of understanding) squarely beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. In the view of some of its adherents, hermeticism even makes it possible to predict the future or change reality by way of magic.

Finding a method of approaching hermeticism in an intellectually serious manner was certainly no easy undertaking. But by limiting his purview to the writings explicitly attributed to Hermes Trismegistos the author has succeeded in writing a carefully substantiated history of the phenomenon. Ebeling supplies a valuable survey of the "corpus hermeticum", discussing individual writings and tracing the history of the reception accorded to hermetic thought from antiquity and the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and the present. Here we have the first scholarly introduction to the history of hermeticism that both disdains mystification and provides an interesting outline of one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of the human mind.

© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

Florian Ebeling: Das Geheimnis des Hermes Trismegistos. Geschichte des Hermetismus. C.H. Beck, Munich. 214 pp., 8 illustrations, € 12.90

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Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
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Irene Thewalt
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