The Romans came to believe that the god Hermes was responsible for all human knowledge, based on what they knew about the Egyptian god Thoth. An important rival to early Christianity, the cult of Hermes was extraordinarily popular. Many magical ideas from the Renaissance up to the present day were spawned by the cult. Here is an overview of Hermes, Thoth, and how they were relevant in ancient Egypt and Rome.
Before The God Hermes: The Egyptian God Thoth
Although he would subsequently take many forms, the original Egyptian god Thoth was a lunar deity with very ancient roots. He is usually portrayed as a baboon, an ibis, or a man with an ibis head. He is one of the oldest Egyptian gods, and evidence for his worship goes back to at least the early Old Kingdom Period (2686-2160 BC), if not before.
As is often the case with lunar deities, he was associated with hidden knowledge. Thoth’s remit eventually included many areas of study, including philosophy, law, and magic. He was celebrated as a wise figure who presided over the dead. One of his primary consorts, Ma’at, represented divine balance and order.
There are many divergent traditions about him in the Egyptian sources, but he is consistently shown using his wisdom to pass judgment on disputes between the gods.
The cult of Thoth in Egypt was centered on the city of Khumunu. As with many ancient Egyptian cities, civic life revolved around the temple there. Magical spells and amulets were pedaled in his name. The god Thoth was particularly important to scribes and appears to give a helping hand, in baboon form, in many places.
When the Greeks came to Egypt after the conquests of Alexander the Great (late 4th century BC onwards) they absorbed many important Egyptian deities into their pantheon. The god Thoth was one of them.
The Greeks assumed that Thoth and the god Hermes must be the same person. As with many other gods and heroes in the Greek pantheon, Hermes was transformed because of his association with the Egyptian deity.
The god Hermes had many similarities with Thoth, he was a guide, a patron of writers, and the god of words. Hermes took on a trickster role on occasion in Greek mythology, using his quick wits to outsmart people and gods alike. Famous for his winged shoes, he was known for being quick both physically and mentally. Like Thoth, the god Hermes was often a guide, a messenger, and an espouser of wit and learning.
The merger of Thoth and Hermes’ respective stories led the Hellenic Greeks to wonder: had this god once roamed the earth dishing out knowledge to Humans?
Greco-Roman Egypt would flourish as the global center for intellectual achievement with its new great library in Alexandria. It is perhaps no surprise that the god of writing and learning would become the subject of intense devotion in this highly literate pagan melting pot. Kumunu in Egypt was renamed Hermopolis, the city of Hermes.
Hermes’ reputation soared, and he came to be known as Hermes Trismegistus, which means “the three times great.”
The Roman God Hermes: From The Melting Pot Of Egypt
What happened next is obscure. We don’t know quite how Hermes was transformed under Greek rule, but Greek Egypt soon fell to the Romans.
The Romans loved their new Hermes-Thoth. The god Hermes and the god Mercury were already interchangeable to the Romans, who were quite happy to incorporate multiple versions of the same god into their religious traditions. What they found In Egypt was a god who was soon credited as a sort of wandering wise man, who gave writing, theology, and other learned disciplines to the peoples of the world.
The Romans knew of many myths that the ancient Greek philosophers had traveled to Egypt to get some sort of education. As a result, by the late Roman period they were absolutely fixated on the idea that the Egyptians were the source of some sort of primordial philosophy or theology.
This ancient knowledge they believed, had been passed down a long line of philosophers for thousands of years, starting with the god Thoth.
Under the Romans, it wouldn’t take long before texts appeared claiming to contain this primordial philosophy, written by Hermes himself. The “writings of Hermes,” known as the Hermetica, attracted a cult following, and were influenced by Egyptian Religion, Jewish and early Christian ideas, and Greek philosophy.
The Hermetic Writings
One of the earliest mentions of the god Hermes Trismegistus as a writer comes from the Christian thinker, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD). He believed that Hermes wrote 42 sacred books containing all the world’s knowledge. The pagan philosopher Iamblichus (245-325 AD) would say he wrote 20,000. By the late period, Hermes had definitively gone from messenger god to an important cult figure with his own religious and philosophical tradition.
Writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus became enormously popular, and they are discussed by many late Roman thinkers, both Christian and pagan. The Romans appear to have been torn on whether Hermes Trismegistus was a god, a man, or a demi-god. Some held that he was a sage so great and so clever that he became the god Thoth in the Egyptian Pantheon.
The dates of the texts we have are disputed, but they are generally dated to Roman Egypt, starting from the 1st century AD. They most certainly were not what they claimed to be, the relic of a sage from the time of the great Pharaohs.
These writings remain extremely controversial because they include many mystical ideas that may or may not have genuinely come from ancient Egyptian practices. Some believe the writings may tell us something about the early cult of Thoth. The texts themselves have all the hallmarks of religious traditions which lean heavily on altered states of consciousness. There is an emphasis on the unity of all things and on transcendental mystical experiences.
Others flatly deny their antiquity; the ideas expressed in the corpus are clearly heavily influenced by Plato. It is quite possible that some of the ideas in the texts come from the priestly traditions of Egypt, but the vast majority of the content is heavily indebted to Greek philosophy.
Rise Of The Mystics: A Rival To Jesus
What was in the writings of the god Hermes that made them so compelling to so many people? There are a great many ideas in these texts which have had remarkable longevity.
The loftier end of the Hermetic corpus gives a sort of popular spin on Platonic philosophy. They discuss concepts such as contemplation, reincarnation, purification of the soul, and ultimately — divine salvation. The texts are written in dialogue, with Hermes receiving divine knowledge from the Nous, the divine mind. He then teaches his knowledge to various Greek and Egyptian gods and mythological characters.
The cult of the god Hermes was essentially a form of pagan Gnosticism – a belief system that holds, divine knowledge can be received directly by a worthy acolyte. The deserving seeker comes to “know God” directly, through religious experiences.
Hermes’ popularity in the late Roman era reflects the mood more generally, which swung wildly towards more mystical and transcendental religious ideas. People’s concept of what a god is was rapidly changing.
Thoth-Hermes is mentioned quite frequently by the early church fathers, as a sort of rival to the Christian religion. Christianity gained enormous momentum very quickly in Roman Egypt, and so did many other mystical traditions.
Some Christians believed Hermes was a man, not a god, a contemporary of Moses and that he may even have foreseen the birth of Christ. Some ideas from Hermetic religion are quite close to Christian ideas. As in the Christian bible, the Hermetic writings speak of the fall of man. In the Hermetic version, man becomes enamored with nature, and consequently becomes trapped in an earthly prison. Turning away from vice leads to immortality.
On the other hand, the corpus roundly defends pagan ideas, especially the worship of idols. By late antiquity, Jesus was in competition with a number of other popular movements, and the cult of Hermes was one of them.
Magic And Writing
The other key to Thoth’s long-term success was his association with magic.
It is not an accident that Thoth was the god of both magic and writing. From the earliest times, the act of writing has been seen as a magical or occult practice. Perhaps because not many people could read or write, and those who could were seen as powerful. The creation story in the Hermetic writings, just like the Hebrew Bible, starts with the divine “word.”
Ancient traditions held that sounding out words or vowels had some sort of magical impact, or that writing words down strengthened the intention behind them, imbuing them with magical energy.
Magic was an important part of personal religion during the Roman Empire and spells sold in Roman Egypt are found quite frequently by archaeologists. A complex grassroots belief system sprung up alongside the organized theology of the temple system.
Popular Magic And Astrology
The central magical concept that comes from the Hermetic corpus is the idea that everything is a reflection of the divine mind. Nature is an imperfect reflection of God.
Astrology is one of the key components of this idea and is discussed in the writings of Hermes.
The seven spheres, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, were held to govern a range of different desires on earth. The planets represent divine principles, but also a range of personal failings. Tracking their movements can tell us our fate here on earth and what flaws we may have to overcome. The aim of the followers of the god Hermes was to understand and escape this fate and return to the divine, becoming godlike and immortal.
Most of the followers of Hermes in the ancient world were probably looking for spiritual nourishment rather than magic tricks. Nonetheless, the ideas central to the Hermetic writings would become some of the cornerstones of magical thought. In theory, a magician could alter the world around him by understanding the divine blueprint of creation. During the Renaissance, the practice of alchemy would be attributed to Hermes.
As the world became increasingly Christian, Hermes Trismegistus was condemned by some as a dark magician, a spreader of various forms of pernicious demon worship. Hermetic ideas would forever be labeled as part of this underground belief system that eventually became western occultism.
Magical Afterlife: The God Hermes Lives On
Thoth-Hermes would have a very long magical afterlife.
The church fathers had a lot to say about Hermes Trismegistus which meant that medieval and Renaissance people were particularly fascinated with this taboo corpus of writings. The writings were also known to Muslim scholars from an early date. In later Christian Europe, the god Hermes was just an ancient wise man, but a potentially valuable one.
When the writings were rediscovered during the Renaissance, they had a long afterlife, popular with those interested in magic, but also mystical religious ideas.
There are many fake versions of the Hermetic writings from the medieval period and beyond. This is because Thoth or Hermes came to be associated with every kind of magic imaginable, especially alchemy and astrology. Tarot cards are sometimes called the book of Thoth, although they actually come from a Renaissance card game.
In the present day, a quick google search for Hermes Trismegistus can lead you to some worrying (and fictional!) places. Nevertheless, the ideas which come from the Hermetic writings are extremely interesting and influential.