Book Review: “Hermetic Spirituality and Historical Imagination”

In recent years, great strides have been made in the study of Hermeticism. Important new books shed new light on both the philosophical and the practical Hermetica. Because of these new insights, we now know that this distinction between a philosophical and practical approach is nonsensical. But this new understanding concerning Hermeticism is just the beginning.

One of the most important authors who sheds new light on the “Way of Hermes” is the Dutch professor Wouter Hanegraaff. Probably the greatest hermetic expert in the academic world.

In his new book “Hermetic Spirituality and Historical Imagination” Hanegraaff dares to delve deeper into the practical spirituality of Hermeticism. Something that has been neglected until now.

We don’t know if Wouter Hanegraaff sees it that way, but we think his book “Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022) is his magnum opus on the Hermetica. Hanegraaff seems to have incorporated in this book all the knowledge he has gained in recent years by reading the hermetic texts countless times.

In Egypt during the first centuries of the Common Era, men and women would meet discreetly in their homes, in temple sanctuaries, or in solitary places to learn a powerful practice of spiritual liberation. They thought of themselves as followers of Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary master of ancient wisdom. While many of their writings are lost, those that have survived primarily as philosophical treatises about theological topics.

As Wouter Hanegraaff writes in his foreword, he wants to demonstrate with his book that Hermeticism was not a theoretical philosophy, but a practical spiritual method. To this end, he goes against the prevailing views long held to be sacred in the academic world. Below we discuss what we think are the most important points Hanegraaff raises in his book.

Hermeticism as a practical mystical method from Egypt

For a long time, experts thought that the Hermetica were primarily philosophical treatises. Theoretical texts that rely heavily on philosophical movements such as Platonism and Neoplatonism, and may have even borrowed from Judaism and Christianity. Experts thought the texts were interesting, but they were not very important.

These serious, rational experts had a major problem with the references in the Hermetic texts to magical, superstitious acts. To keep the academic study of Hermetics acceptable, they divided the Hermetic texts into “philosophical” texts and “practical” texts. The latter category was not studied.

Many of the great scholars who studied the Hermetica were Western white men affiliated with respectable universities and fond of Greek philosophy and culture. They read the Hermetic texts through a Western, rational lens and often from a Christian background.

Throughout the texts they saw traces of the Christian God or the Christian Trinity. Firmly convinced that the “rational” Greek mind was superior to “barbarian” or “superstitious” cultures, such as that of Egypt, they did not take the Egyptian elements in the Hermetic seriously.

In his new book, Wouter Hanegraaff kicks this view down hard. Hermeticism is not a philosophy, but a practical mystical method. It is not a weak copy of Greek philosophy, but it does have a uniquely Egyptian character.

There were actual practitioners of the Way of Hermes

Because experts believed that Hermeticism was only a written philosophy, they never took seriously the idea that it was actually practiced. The model of the Hermetic texts are dialogues between a spiritual master and a single disciple or several disciples. Meditative exercises and trances are also described. But the idea that this was real was nonsense to many experts.

Until a new, unknown hermetic text was found at Nag Hammadi. The text had no title, but it has been given the title “Treatise on the Eighth and Ninth Heavenly Sphere“. In this text a ritual hermetic meeting is described in which several “brothers” are present and help. Along with other references in the Hermetic texts, such as eating a vegetarian meal after a meeting, or the times of prayer, no one could deny that Hermeticism was actually practiced.

After this conclusion, the logical next step is to map out what these practitioners did. What was the mystical Way of Hermes like? Wouter Hanegraaff makes an admirable attempt to answer this. But because the Way of Hermes was mainly an oral method, and was practiced by very small informal groups, nothing is known about them.

Wouter Hanegraaff is therefore forced to use the hermetic texts that have been preserved to reconstruct what may have been done in living rooms in Alexandria or Thebes 2000 years ago. This focus on a spiritual community and its experiences is not only new in the study of the Hermetic scriptures, but also very revolutionary and groundbreaking.

Hermeticism was not a negative method like Gnosticism but a positive one

Because experts read the Hermetic texts from a Christian or Gnostic point of view, they wanted to find a Fall of Mankind or original sin and a negative world view. The interpretation of Hermeticism therefore went wrong right away with the first book “Poimandres”.

This important Hermetic treatise describes how the first or “noetic” man, the Anthropos, falls in love with and embraces divine Nature. He leaves the heavenly sphere to create, in a loving embrace with nature, below in the sensory world. For this, he seperated into seven people, who are then seperated again into males and females. Everything was done with love for the divine and in collaboration with nature.

Man’s descent into the sensory world comes with a price. Because our physical body is composed by the planets, we are exposed in the descent to negative influences and to corruption by the passions. As Joni Mitchell sang: “We are stardust”.

But this embodiment is not to be seen as a deplorable fall into materiality, let alone a fall into sin, but as a divine gift.

Because we are soul and body, we can be active in all divine creation. From the highest heavenly sphere to literally standing with both feet in the clay. It is a gift that makes us unique, and gives us a heavy responsibility.

Indeed, there are passages in the Hermetic texts that describe the soul’s descent into the material world as something negative, as something traumatic. The embodiment of the soul makes us possessed by a great number of daimonic spirits that must be cast out. Fortunately, these ghosts can be chased away. By focusing his or her life on divine beauty and the divine light, the Hermetic disciple can evolve to eventually glimpse the divine Source of all.

Hanegraaff explains that in contrast to the Cave in Plato’s allegory, the Hermetic disciple should not leave the dark cave, but that he or she is in this world to create and experience beauty. The Hermetic initiates believed that in the sensory world they could free themselves from mental delusions and the casting out of evil spirits in order to gain the ability to see things as they really are. Waking up from the sleep of the material morphine.

Essential terms like “Nous”, “Logos” and “Gnosis” have been mistranslated until now

If you think that Hermeticism is a derivative form of Greek philosophy because the texts are written in the Greek language and use Greek philosophical terms, then you will also translate the texts as Greek philosophy. Experts therefore translated terms like “Nous” with “mind”, “intellect” or “ratio”, “Logos” with “order” or “speech” and “Gnosis” with “knowledge”. In this way Hermeticism became a rational Greek philosophy.

But the Hermetic texts state precisely that the Greek language is incapable of properly expressing the wisdom of Hermes. The Hermetic texts are written in the Greek language, because it was the main language around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago. And Hermeticism uses philosophical terms for want of better.

A revolutionary insight from Wouter Hanegraaff is that we cannot actually translate terms like “Nous”, “Gnosis” and “Logos”. We have no words for it. Take, for example, the term “Gnosis”. This is often translated as “knowledge”, especially rational knowledge. But there is a difference between how someone “knows” that 1 plus 1 equals two, and how someone “knows” his neighbor. These are two different kinds of knowledge.

There is a big difference between these two forms of “knowing”. The hermetic term “Gnosis” is closer to the second form of “knowing” above than the first – rational – form of “knowing”. The Sufi master Rumi expressed this beautifully in his poem about the three butterflies.

The essential Hermetic term “Nous” is even more complicated to translate. It is not something that is in our head, like our ratio or our mind. It is more the possibility of the divine light to experience itself within a human being. Nous therefore determines how and when it is experienced by a person. That is why Hermes says in Book 4 that Nous is a prize given by God to some people.

This prize is not won through competition with others, but only through competition with yourself. You get this prize when you finally get to know yourself (or your Self). Who you really are.

“Dead” Texts Can Still Carry Meaning

It is very difficult for experts to understand the practical methods of a spiritual community, such as the followers of Hermes Trismegistus, when these groups no longer exist and we find only scant traces of their practices in (sometimes poorly translated) texts. In the past, experts made the easy mistake of focusing only on the texts instead of trying to understand the practical methods.

Hanegraaff discusses at length an even more crucial question. How can we understand ineffable things that cannot be expressed by spoken words, much less by written texts, and also when they have been translated into languages ​​other than the original?

To answer this question, Hanegraaff uses the God Ammon’s warning to Thoth (Hermes). Plato wrote down this warning in his book Phaedrus. Ammon warns that written words do not help but damage human memory.

The written words are “echoes of echoes”, which anyone can read without proper preparation and are easily misunderstood. Better is the spoken word, which directly ‘engraves’ knowledge in the soul of the pupil. Ammon describes written texts as a “pharmakon”. But this word can mean both “poison” and “medicine”.

Through divine imagination, spiritual texts such as the Hermetica can pass on their medicinal power and spiritual significance through the generations and even when the texts themselves are no longer well preserved. A groundbreaking insight that can permanently change the study of history, especially spiritual history.


Wouter Hanegraaff’s book “Hermetic Spirituality and Historical Imagination” can rightly be called “epic”. Spanning more than 2000 years, it knocks down established academic opinions and offers a new interpretation of not only the Hermetic scriptures but also how we should approach ancient spiritual texts.

This makes this book groundbreaking not only in discussing Hermeticism in theory, but also in practice. And precisely because of this practical approach, this book is already a classic as far as we are concerned. It is a book that cannot and should not be missing from the bookshelf of anyone interested in spirituality, mysticism, self-development and self-realization. This is one of those books that can change your life.

The “children of Hermes” have left us not only a treasure trove of theoretical wisdom, but also a “pharmakon“, a medicine with which we can wake from a deep sleep, heal our souls and open our hearts to experience real reality. A reality consisting of divine Light, Life, Goodness and Beauty.

Order the book

The book is an academic edition. This means that it comes with a hefty price tag. Fortunately, it is possible to buy the book with a substantial discount of 20 percent. Use the following code for a 20 percent discount: ESSWE2022

You can order the book here:

Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff

If you would like to hear Wouter Hanegraaff yourself about his new book, we recommend that you listen to the interview below.

Translated by Google
Source: De Mystieke School

Start today with the Way of Hermes

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