Hermes (1) Trismegistus. Under this title we have a variety of writings of uncertain date and unknown authorship originating in Egypt. The name "Hermes Trismegistus" never belonged to any single writer. Jamblichus, at the beginning of his treatise de Mysteries, tells us that "Hermes, who presides over speech, is, according to ancient tradition, common to all priests; he it is who exists in all of them. That is why our ancestors attributed all discoveries to him, and issued their works under the name of Hermes." There was, in fact, a long-continued series of books called "hermetic," extending over several centuries. Tertullian, however ( cont. Valent. c. 15), speaks of Hermes Trismegistus as a master in philosophy; and the extant hermetic books have, whatever their date, philosophical and spiritual relations of a very interesting kind. They belong, as is now generally agreed, to the neo-Platonic school; and gather up in a synthesis, the artificiality of which is not at first sight apparent, large elements of all the different factors of religious belief in the Roman world or the 2nd and 3rd cents. The two principal are the Ποιμάνδρης (the "Shepherd of Men"), and the Λόγος τέλειος (or "Discourse of Initiation"), otherwise called "Asclepius." These two works, together with a variety of fragments, have been translated into French by M. Louis MÃ©nard (Paris, 1867), and accompanied with a preliminary essay of much interest on the hermetic writings and their affinities generally. His most important fragments are from a work entitled Κόρη κόσμου (the "Virgin of the World"), a dialogue between Isis and her son Horus on the origin of nature and of animated beings, including man. Other less noticeable works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus are named in D. of G. and R. Biogr. (s.v.).
It is not to be assumed that these, the Ποιμάνδρης , and Λόγος τέλειος , are by the same author; but from their great similarity of tone and thought, this is possible. Both works are quoted by Lactantius (who ascribed to them the fabulous antiquity and high authority which the early Fathers were wont to attribute to the Sibylline books); and must have been written before c. 330, when Lactantius died. The historical allusions in the Asclepius distinctly point to a time when heathenism was about to perish before the increasing power of Christianity. Hence both these works were probably written towards the close of the 3rd cent.
Three motives are discernible in them. First, the endeavour to take an intellectual survey of the whole spiritual universe, without marking any points where the understanding of man fails and has to retire unsatisfied; this is a disposition which, under different forms and at different times, has been called Pantheism or Gnosticism (though the Gnostic idea of an evil element in creation nowhere appears in these treatises). The ideas of the author are presented with a gorgeous material imagery; and, speaking generally, he regards the material world as interpenetrated by the spiritual, and almost identified with it. The power and divine character which he attributes to the sun and other heavenly bodies are peculiarly Egyptian, though this also brings him into affinity with Stoic, and even with Platonic, views. Secondly, this Pantheism or Gnosticism is modified by moral and religious elements which certainly some degree be paralleled in Plato, but to which it is difficult to avoid ascribing a Jewish and even a Christian origin. Great stress is laid on the unity, the creative power, the fatherhood and goodness of God. The argument from design also appears (Poemander, c. 5). Even the well-known terms of baptism and regeneration occur, though in different connexions, and the former in a metaphorical sense. One of the chapters of the Poemander is entitled "The Secret Sermon on the Mountain." The future punishments for wrongdoing are described with emphasis, but there is no moral teaching in detail. Thirdly, these intellectual and religious elements are associated with a passionate and vigorous defence of the heathen religion, including idol worship, and a prophecy of the evils which will come on the earth from the loss of piety. They are thus the only extant lamentation of expiring heathenism, and one that is not without pathos. But for the most part the style is hierophantic, pretentious, and diffuse. See further Fabric. Bibl. Graec. vol. i. pp. 46â€“94; Baumgarten Crusius, de Lib. Hermeticorum Origine atque Indole (Jena, 1827); and Chambers, The Theol. and Philos. Works of Her. Tris. (Edin. 1882).