Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

by Wouter J. Hanegraaff
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 400 pp., hardcover, $135.

Hermeticism is the ever-elusive philosophy. Since late antiquity, following a jagged and indirect path, the amalgam of Greek-Egyptian thought has promised seekers a whisper of the insights of primeval esotericism. This ideal grew pronounced in the Western mind with the rediscovery of Hermetic texts during the Renaissance.             

In the fifteenth century, many translators, clerics, scholars, and nobles believed that the resurfaced Greek dialogues—translated into Latin as the Corpus Hermeticum—represented the fabled prisca theologia: a theological “holy grail” codifying humanity’s earliest spiritual and cosmological insights. The fragmentary writings suggested a pantheistic view of creation emanating from nous, an infinite mind, which humanity, in its journey to transcendent awareness, could eventually rejoin.

The mysterious tracts, sometimes credited to the mythical psychopomp Hermes Trismegistus, held the promise of individual greatness: “See what power you have, what quickness! If you can do these things, can god not do them? So you must think of god in this way, as having everything—the cosmos, himself, (the) universe—like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like.”

These hopes were largely dashed in 1614 when linguist Isaac Casaubon demonstrated that the magico-cosmic works were written in the centuries immediately following the death of Christ and not the mists of deep antiquity. Its ancient vintage dispelled, the Corpus Hermeticum retained the devotion of a few stalwarts, including natural philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote in his 1643 Religio Medici: “The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible World is but a Picture of the invisible wherein.”

Following Casaubon’s exposure, few translations were ventured. Hermeticism was not widely heard of again until the late nineteenth-century occult revival instigated by H.P. Blavatsky. Her secretary G.R.S. Mead produced a pioneering English translation in his 1906 Thrice-Greatest Hermes. Still, most classicists continued to regard the Hermetica as little more than a late ancient retread of Neoplatonism with a conceit of Egyptian origin.

This viewpoint shifted in the 1970s as mounting evidence and discovery of earlier texts reestablished Hermeticism’s authentic, if syncretic, Egyptian roots. The rehabilitation culminated in 1986 with the publication of historian Garth Fowden’s work The Egyptian Hermes. New translations followed, including philosopher Brian P. Copenhaver’s 1992 Hermetica.

Into the byways and debates surrounding Hermeticism now steps a vital and perspective-shaping study by historian of esotericism Wouter J. Hanegraaff. “I could never shake off the uncomfortable feeling that somehow, something remained less than fully convincing about how these texts were being discussed in the scholarly literature or translated into modern languages,” Hanegraaff writes. “What, if anything, was missing?” He announces as his guiding principle the Latin maxim ad fontes—“to the sources.”

Through intensive study of the ancient Greek originals, Hanegraaff illuminates a truth that many scholars and interpreters overlook. What we call the Hermetica are, in fact, a disordered, reassembled, recopied, and sometimes tendentiously translated body of work tracing a messy arc from late ancient Alexandria (the originals are lost) to medieval and Renaissance-era copies whose insights were muddied and reworded along the way.

Hanegraaff issues an important caution to interpreters of the Hermetica, especially seeker-historians like me: “This means that precisely those elements in the Hermetica that strike us as familiar (those that make us feel comfortably ‘at home’ in our own mental world, surrounded by concepts and ideas that we readily know and understand) are most likely to lead us astray.” Material that may appear “familiar” or, I would venture, parallel to modern concepts, may seem so because ancient scribes adapted the Hermetic sources to which they had access to reflect rising norms, conceptions, and speech patterns of the day, which also populate the dominant classical and religious literature to which we’re accustomed. (There is the further issue of transcribers’ own prejudices and preferences.) Hanegraaff notes: “We tend to use interpretation so as to make these texts fit our own agendas rather than allowing those agendas to be challenged by the texts.”

For this reason, Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination is probably the most important analysis of the Hermetica since Fowden’s efforts restored the locus of Hermetic spirituality to late ancient Egypt. But Hanegraaff goes further than a critique. He probes the probable meaning of Hermetic literature to ancient acolytes.

Hanegraaff reasons that “the Way of Hermes was practiced in very small gatherings, probably not much larger than what we find in the texts themselves: one teacher and one to three pupils—hardly more.” A key part of Hermetic practice, he writes, entailed using the philosophical insights of the dialogues to attempt a “careful and attentive mental praxis, a way of training the mind.” He continues, “Our text holds out the promise that all those who choose to follow the Way of Hermes and persist to its very end will be able to immerse themselves wholly in the vessel of nous, thereby achieving gnōsis and human perfection.” For this, ancient seekers approached nous with reverence and petition for help.

Unlike some Gnostic sects, he suggests, the Hermeticists did not despise the body or materiality—in fact, sexuality was considered a transcendent gateway—but rather understood both selves, physical and ethereal, as core to human existence.

Hanegraaff’s perspective on this ancient therapeia hardly settles all questions. The extant texts harbor too many riddles, including the role of “cyclical recurrence,” an ambiguous concept—perhaps referencing reincarnation—which my correspondence with Hanegraaff leaves unresolved.

Ultimately, Hanegraaff endorses a reconciling point of view:

The core metaphysics of Hermetic spirituality, or so I have argued, should be understood in terms of radical nonduality. This means that the experiential world of multiple phenomena in which we find ourselves is not ultimately real, in the sense that how things appear to our dualistic consciousness is not how things really are. The human quest for enlightenment or gnōsis could be described as the individual soul’s hypnerotomachia, a dreamlike quest or strife for felicity driven by the power of erōs. And yet it was precisely by pursuing their passionate desires all the way through this worldly labyrinth of merely phenomenal experiences that souls could finally discover the ultimate oneness of true being—the secret that nothing unreal exists.

In this last phrase (italicized in the original), some readers may detect the wording of a core maxim from the modern channeled text A Course in Miracles. I regard this echo as unintentional but worth pausing over when considering parallel insights between old and new spiritualities. Hanegraaff is, in my reading, uncomfortable with such analogies. When pondering correspondences between the Hermetic concept of “cosmic consciousness” and Richard Maurice Bucke’s popular 1901 book of the same name, the historian notes both defensively and affirmingly:

This comparison is not meant to imply any quasi-perennialist claim about ancient Hermetic practitioners and modern transcendentalists dipping into “the same universal mystical experience,” an assumption for which we have no data. It indicates simply that descriptions as found in CH XI and XIII [of the Corpus Hermeticum] do not need to be dismissed as “narrative fictions” based on nothing but theory. We know that people can have intense visionary experiences; we know that these can involve a vivid sensation of boundless perception unrestricted by time and space; we know that these experiences can be strongly enhanced by alterations of consciousness; and we know that this can happen either spontaneously or be induced artificially by specific spiritual techniques.

gainst binary interpretations can, I believe, leaven his occasional archness about comparing ancient and modern thought systems. Even within the folds of his predilections, Hanegraaff opens new doorways—and slams shut none.  Indeed, Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination heralds a new phase of Hermetic studies with an intellectual demand to which scholars and seekers alike should rise.

Mitch Horowitz


Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian, writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library and TSA member whose latest book is Uncertain Places: Essays on Occult and Outsider Experiences (Inner Traditions).