God is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere – Book of the 24 philosophers
God is an immortal man, man is a mortal god – Corpus Hermeticum
‘Hermes, star of Alexandria’ – The Golden Builders, Tobias Churton
Written down in Alexandria some 2,000 years ago, the works attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus are still read and studied today and continue to inspire poets, novelists and artists. To name only two: Sigmar Polke’s Hermes Trismegistus I-IV, acquired by Museum De Pont in Tilburg, Dan Brown’s Inferno: both works were directly inspired by the ‘thrice-greatest’ philosopher. In Dan Brown’s 2013 novel, Robert Langdon encounters Hermes Trismegistus as he reads the enigmatic Emerald Tablet; Polke (1941-2010), one of Germany’s most celebrated modern painters, reworked the famous representation of Hermes Trismegistus in the floor mosaic of Siena’s Cathedral into a contemporary artwork.
What is it about the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus that they still appeal today? ‘That which is above, is like that which is below’, is one of the most pregnant lines of the Emerald Tablet, referring to the close bond between the macrocosm and the microcosm. In the Renaissance, when the Corpus Hermeticum was ‘redisovered’ and translated from Greek into Latin (first edition Treviso 1471), Hermetic thought led to a redefinition of man’s place in the universe. Renaissance readers could read already in the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum that man is ‘twofold; mortal because of body, but immortal because of the essential man’. But reading the works of Hermes Trismegistus also made them realize that ‘All religions are one’, as William Blake would later write. A spiritualist like Sebastian Franck told his readers he had read the Hermetic works with great enthusiasm as Hermes Trismegistus:
… contains everything within him which is necessary to know for a Christian, described so masterfully, as ever did Moses or any prophet; with it I have learnt, that the impartial God (who does not regard any person, but he who is righteous amongst all peoples and fears the Lord, he is agreeable to Him) is also the pagans’ God, and has always been so.
It led to a fascination with the works of Hermes Trismegistus which persists to this day.
The Emerald Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum are not the only works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Alchemy, philosophy, magic, astrology, medicine: they are only a few of the fields covered by this most versatile of legendary philosophers.