Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 13, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2007
The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus, Florian Ebeling. Cornel University Press; Ithaca, NY, 2007. 158 pages. $29.99 USD.
review by J. S. Kupperman
Ebeling’s Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus, represents a new and possibly unique approach to the academic study of Hermetisim, Hermeticism and Hermes Trismegistus. Instead of writing a history of “The Hermetic Tradition”, typically focusing upon the Florentine Hermeticism of Renaissance Italy, Ebeling discusses Hermetic traditions, which are tentatively identified through their recourse to primarily either philosophical/theological or practical Hermetica.
The Secret History discusses several streams of Hermetic thought in both areas. First, however, the history of the idea of Hermes Trismegistus, the eponymous founder of Hermeticism, is explored. It is here that we see the development of Hermes through Alexandrian Egyptian thought, through the middle ages and into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Not only is Hermes himself expounded and explained, but the two types of texts associated with Hermetic thought are discussed as well. On the one hand are the philosophical/theological texts such as the famous Corpus Hermeticum, on the other are the practical texts on astrology, alchemy and magic, such as the Tabula Smaragdina. The identification of these kinds of texts turns out to be quite important as those who turned to one rarely turned to the other.
The Secret History then examines three periods of development within Hermetic thought; the late antique through the Medieval periods, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment up to the early 20th century. The Renaissance is the most recognized, and written about, period of Hermetic growth, due largely to the translation and publication of the Corpus Hermeticum by scholar and priest Marsilio Ficino. It is this that sparked the Florentine schools of Hermeticism. However, aside from the Asclepius, it has largely been assumed that Hermetica were unknown in the Middle Ages. Ebeling shows that not only is this untrue, but that to a certain degree, Hermetic texts were both well known and employed by both the intelligentsia in general, but by the Church fathers, sometimes quite favorably. Several dozen Medieval Hermetica are now known to exist and so we find in the Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus a portion of Hermetic history that was almost lost has been regained.
Beyond his discussion of Medieval Hermetic texts and their uses, Ebeling’s great contribution to the study of Hermeticism in this book is his exploration of the Northern European Hermetic traditions, especially those found in Germany. Ebeling shows how these traditions have largely been ignored by Hermetic studies because they are not of the type of Hermeticism founded during the Italian Renaissance. Instead of utilizing the philosophical texts that were essential to understanding Hermes and the cosmology associated with him by the Florentines, the German Hermeticists employed texts interested in practical applications such as alchemy, astrology, medicine and magic. Whereas previous scholars have considered such Hermetica to be superstitious in nature and thus “false” forms of Hermeticism, Ebeling shows how their authors and followers considered such texts to be inspired by Hermetic hermeneutics and as fully a part of the Hermetic stream of thought. Chief amongst the traditions discussed here is that of the German alchemist Paracelsus, who called himself the second Hermes.
Ebeling does not simply paint a rosy picture of Hermeticism in Secret History. Not only are the ideas within the various Hermetic movements examined, so are the controversies and criticisms they have engendered through the centuries. Throughout the book Ebeling presents a balanced view of the arguments both for and against various aspects of Hermetic philosophy. This ranges from the dating of Hermes Trismegistus himself to the portrayal of Hermetic wisdom as both ancient and anticipating Christian theology to the legitimacy of Paracelsian alchemists referring to their science as Hermetic. It is the image of Hermes Trismegistus throughout the ages that was most striking here. Though the dates of his supposed life and the precise things he focused upon varied over time and place of presentation, the overall image remains the same: Hermes was an ancient sage, either human or divine, who knew the wisdom of the Adamic age and preserved it through the use of hieroglyphic writing that only the initiated could understand. It is this image of Hermes that has been relied upon regardless of the overall focus of the Hermetic tradition in question.
Florian Ebeling’s The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus should be lauded for its innovative approach to the study of Hermeticism. The text is not only informative about areas of study often left neglected but also provides insight into the ideologies and processes that went into the development of various forms of Hermetic thought. Perhaps, however, the most important part of this book is its honesty about itself. Ebeling admits to the enormity of Hermetic traditions, each with their own unique history. Thus it is with, perhaps, humility that, despite the title of the text, The Secret History is not presenting the history of Hermeticism but a history of Hermeticism. Almost equally important is that Ebeling shows that these histories are by no means exhausted and that Hermetic thought continues into the 20th century and into the 21st. Thus does the Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus look not only into the past but also upon the present and towards the future.