The Arabic Legend of the Three Hermeses

It was common knowledge among pre-modern Arabic scholars that there were three separate and distinct Hermeses. Some scholars of the modern-day think that this legend comes from an Arabic imagining of the Greek epithet “Trismegistos,” commonly referred to in Arabic as “al-mutallat bi-l-hikma” (triplicate in wisdom). 

The first Hermes founded the sciences before the great flood, the second Hermes lived after the flood as a Babylonian, and the third lived even later in Egypt.

It was the first Hermes as the founder of philosophy, astrology, and medical practice that was identified with the Qur’ānic and Biblical figure Idrīs, or Enoch as he is known to the Jewish, Christian, and Western world.

This legend of the three Hermeses passed from Arabic-speaking countries into Europe during the Middle Ages via Andalusia and Western Asia and became, in part, the basis and background for the general reception of the Hermetic texts in Latin. Ficino finished his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1471 AD as Hermes was considered a philosopher more ancient and closer to God than Plato.

In the Book of the Thousands (886 AD), Abū Ma’shar wrote:

“The Hermeses are three. The first of them is Hermes who was before the Flood. The significance of ‘Hermes’ is a title, like saying ‘Caesar’ and ‘Husraw’ [which are titles]. The Persians named him Wīwanghān, meaning ‘the Just,’ in their biographies of the king (Fi Siyarihā). He is the one to whose philosophy the Harrānians adhere. The Persians state that his grandfather Jayūmart, that is Adam. The Hebrews state that he is Enoch, which, in Arabic, is Idrīs.”

In Greece, the legend of the three Hermeses went back even further:

“Now it remains to treat small passages from the writings of Manetho of Sebennytos concerning the dynasty of the Egyptians. In the time of Ptolemy Philadelphos, he was serving as a high priest of the temples of idols in Egypt, and, on the basis of monuments lying in the Seriadic land that were inscribed, as he says, in a secured language and priestly characters by Thoth, the first Hermes, and translated after the Flood from the sacred language into Greek with hieroglyphic characters, and committed to books, by the second Hermes, Agathosdaimon’s son, father of Tat, in the shrines of the holy places of Egypt.“

George Syncellus in Byzantine Greek, who worked in Constantinople between the years 808-810 AD. 

The legend of the three Hermeses is composed from just 3 main sources, two of which are pre-Islamic. This legend, in the Arabic world, sheds light on the academic atmosphere of early classical Baghdād, where scholars were actively translating and synthesizing every available and useful knowledge from all lands into the Arabic language and culture.

It also highlights the importance of the Arabic Golden Age of knowledge and the back-and-forth transmission and preservation of Hermetic knowledge between Arabic and Western countries during the European Dark Ages.

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