Since he is the central figure of the Hermetic writings, the supposed founder and namesake of the cult, and the figure upon whom the entire cult of Hermeticism depended, it seems logical to begin with an account of Hermes Trismegistus himself in any attempt to understand the Hermetic system.
Who was Hermes Trismegistus?
While many Greek and Roman gods took different names in different spheres of influence, they also tended to keep the same consistent characteristics through most of those spheres, and the major difference lay in the addressing of the god (one would invoke the god with a different name depending on the situation - for example, Zeus Soter was not remarkably different in characteristics from the generic Zeus), Hermes Trismegistus - if he was a god - was not quite the same god as the traditional Greek Hermes.
Traditionally, Hermes was a herald and messenger, an inventor (and an ingenious one at that) and a thief. In just a few of his mythological escapades, Hermes helped Hercules triumph in Hades, helped Perseus slay the Gorgon, helped Zeus destroy the Titans, invented the lyre, stole a herd of sacred cows, and imprisoned Apollo (Carlier and Milanzeli, 287). And Hermes Trismegistus keeps some of these qualities - his intelligence, and his willingness to provide assistance, for example - but loses others. Hermes Trismegistus is not the thief and trickster that the traditional Hermes had been. So who was he?
The first question to settle is obviously one of simple identity - was there a figure called Hermes Trismegistus, and who and what was he? There was a general tendency among ancient scholars to assume a historical Hermes actually existed, and this tendency also appeared in early modern studies of Hermeticism (Stock, 626), but once we examine the Hermetic writings themselves and note the period of time over which they were composed and the chronologically diverse number of influences on them, it seems more likely that there may not have been a historical Hermes - the body of Hermetic literature was composed at different times by different authors (Mahé, 289). There may have been a historical Hermes who founded the cult or who wrote some of the texts, but he was not the sole author. As for who he would have been, the answer depends on who one asks - Hermes Trismegistus can variously be:
- A Greek (Hermes) or Egyptian (called Hermes or Hermanubis, but associated with Thoth or Anubis) god in his own right, or
- A Hellenized combination-god, based partly on the Greek Hermes (and, of course, the Roman Mercury) and partly on the Egyptian Thoth, or
- The grandson of the god Hermes, referred to on occasion as "the younger Hermes" (Stock, 626), or
- A spiritual figure, possibly a god, who reincarnates several times through history, maturing, developing his doctrine, and progressing further in the ideal of Hermetic self-realization each time.
There seems to be no definitive way of settling which of these options, if any, describes the "real" Hermes Trismegistus - each one is justified, and each is supported by the Hermetic writings and doctrine.
Also, the origin of the name "Trismegistus" has more than one possible explanation. "Trismegistus" means "thrice-blessed" or "thrice-greatest", but its origin and nature (whether it is a proper name or a title) have varying stories accounting for them. According to some sources, it originated as the title, "Great, great, great", which appeared on the Rosetta Stone (Williams, 691). According to others it came from a rendering into Greek of an Egyptian epithet used to refer to Thoth - the Egyptian "aa aa ur
" became the Greek "megistos kai megistos theos, megas Hermes
", meaning "greatest and greatest god, great Hermes", and which evolved over time to the shorter "Hermes Trismegistus
", "thrice greatest Hermes" (Mahé, 287). And according to yet another source, "Trismegistus" comes from a story that Hermes reincarnated three times in Egypt, each time remembering and recognizing himself for who and what he was (Mahé, 288) And finally, an Egyptian priest named Manethon taught that "Trismegistus" was simply the last name of a Hermes who was the son of an Egyptian god (Mahé, 287). The scholarly conclusion, however, seems to be that "Trismegistus" was a title, originating from the "thrice greatest" epithet, and that the other accounts of its origin came from later stories and interpretation after the original meaning of "Trismegistus" was forgotten (Mahé, 287).
Characteristics of Hermes Trismegistus
Whoever or whatever he was, or even if he never existed at all, there is one characteristic which can be fairly universally associated with Hermes Trismegistus. In almost all of Hermeticism, Hermes is presented as a teacher figure; even as a god, he is not a "normal" Hellenistic god. Where a traditional Hellenistic god would be concerned with such things as ruling over his sphere of influence and enforcing proper worship and invocation of himself, Hermes Trismegistus is almost always presented as a teacher or an example. Much like Asclepius, he is concerned with helping humanity, although where Asclepius helped us through miraculous healings and cures in his temples, Hermes Trismegistus helps us by imparting his wisdom, giving us true knowledge of the world, the nature of man, and how we can better ourselves and our situation. Many of the Hermetic writings take the form of dialogues, sometimes between Hermes and one of his disciples, sometimes between a divine figure of some sort and a human who has wisdom revealed to him, and sometimes between a seeming "master" and "initiate", who call each other "my father" and "my son" (Mahé, 290).
Since the Hermetic writings tend to be either scientific or philosophical in nature, it is hard to find many (consistent) specifics about Hermes Trismegistus himself in them, but the general tone of the father or teaching figure holds, and fits well with not only the Greek god Hermes, who could be depicted as ingenious and an inventor of things as well as a messenger and herald, and with the Egyptian Thoth, who was generally emphasized as a god of learning, with particular emphasis on writing (Thoth was considered to be the god of scribes).
Characteristics of the Hermetic God
While it is difficult to elaborate on Hermes Trismegistus himself, it is not so difficult to describe the God of the Hermetic belief system, who may or may not be Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic view of God or gods seems to vary, leading one source to describe it as "polytheistic, pantheistic, and monotheistic" (Stock, 629), but there is an idea of a highest figure, "God" for sake of convenience, which recurs throughout Hermeticism. This God is very much in an ideal realm - see the section on Hermetic beliefs for an explanation of the dualistic Hermetic reality - and is always portrayed as an intellect, and more often than not, the Greek term nous - literally, "intellect" - is used in reference to this God. He/She/It exists in a highest heaven or level of reality, and brings about the structure and nature of the cosmos as we perceive it (one version of the creation by this intellect-God is in the Poemander). In this sense, the Hermetic "God" is extremely dissimilar from the traditional Hellenistic notion of a god, and is much more similar to conceptions of God in the Judeo-Christian traditions.