The origins of Hermetics
Prisca Theologia and The Crimes of Casaubon
‘Prisca Theologia’, is a term which refers to a belief, or idea, of a single, true theology or wisdom that threads through all religions and and has been given to man in antiquity.
In this first section, we delve into the gripping story of how Hermetic wisdom was introduced to the Western world, only to have its ancient origins challenged by the religious and political climate of the time. We trace back to 1460, when a monk named Leonardo of Pistoia brought a codex of treatises—attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus—to Florence, under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici. This collection of texts, known as the Corpus Hermeticum, was immediately hailed as the ‘Prisca Theologia,’ a term suggesting a singular, primordial wisdom threading through all religions.
However, the authenticity and antiquity of these texts were questioned by the Swiss Calvinist, Isaac Casaubon, in 1614. Arguing from a socio-religious agenda, Casaubon contended that these works were of more recent Hellenistic origin, thereby discrediting their status as ancient wisdom.
In this module, we challenge Casaubon’s claims by examining:
- The theological motivations that influenced his scrutiny, considering his Calvinist background.
- The role of Alexandria as a hub of learning and translation, which complicates the dating of original ideas based on manuscript evidence.
- The speculative nature of Casaubon’s claims, inviting a more impartial reevaluation.
By re-examining these facets, we reopen the path to considering the Hermetic texts as possible ancient wisdom, a component of the ‘Prisca Theologia’ that could have informed various religious and spiritual traditions.
Join us as we journey back in time to explore these foundational questions, thereby setting the stage for a deeper understanding of Hermetic wisdom.
Religion, and Philosophy and even our sciences, as they are organised and practiced, might be trying to touch the eternal, but are ultimately mutable human constructs, not actually divine revelation / instruction, and always influenced by cultural and geopolitical control.
When a culture or people are conquered, colonised or greatly influenced by a dominant culture, the gods, religious symbols and narratives of the new culture are infused, while strongly subscribed or emotive elements are retained, but window-dressed to align / legitimise, to better survive.
After time, given the dominance of the new culture / language /influence and the successive introductions of new influences, the lines, especially origins and lineages get blurred over time.
Example: The Syncretic Architecture of Christianity (Catholicism)
Greek Philosophy: Concepts from Platonic and Stoic philosophies, such as the idea of a rational, ordered cosmos and the immortality of the soul, are incorporated into Hermetic teachings.
Egyptian Mysticism: Given its roots in Egypt, Hermeticism also incorporates the esoteric and mystical teachings associated with Egyptian religion, including concepts related to life, death, and the afterlife.
Gnostic Elements: There are similarities between Gnostic and Hermetic views on spiritual transcendence, the material world, and the quest for hidden knowledge (gnosis).
Jewish and Christian Influences: Some scholars argue that Hermeticism was influenced by early Jewish thought and perhaps even early Christian mysticism. This is seen in its ethical concerns and possibly its cosmological ideas.
Alchemy and Astrology: Hermeticism also incorporates alchemical and astrological concepts, which themselves are syncretic disciplines combining elements from various traditions.
Spiritual Practices: In terms of spiritual practices like theurgy, prayer, and meditation, Hermeticism integrates techniques that are found in other mystical traditions.
Cosmology: Hermetic cosmology, which describes the structure of the Universe and the forces operating within it, borrows from multiple sources, creating a unique but composite view of how the Universe works.
Moral and Ethical Framework: Hermeticism offers a set of ethical principles that are not tied to a single religious doctrine but are instead a fusion of various moral philosophies.
Universality: One of the key tenets of Hermeticism is the concept of a single, underlying truth that can be discovered through the study of nature and the cosmos—a belief that inherently invites a syncretic approach.
Conclusion,and where we begin our exploration.
For centuries the prevailing academic perspective was that Hermetics is a syncretic work influenced by existing and prevailing spiritual and philosophical concepts. The claim or possibility we sit with as we continue our exploration is that it is actually the Prisca Theologia and that all the lines of correlation noticed and the conclusions drawn from these are exactly back to front.
In challenging the long-standing views on the origins of Hermetic wisdom, we open up new avenues for understanding its profound impact on a myriad of spiritual traditions. It’s not just a historical exercise, but a rediscovery of ancient wisdom that could very well reshape our understanding of spirituality today.