The Importance of Secrecy

The hermetic texts contain numerous references emphasizing the need for secrecy in handling the truths being taught. In this article, we explore the various reasons why secrecy was, and maybe still is, important in the Hermetica.

The hermetic texts, despite their pedagogical nature, consistently emphasize the necessity of secrecy in the transmission of their profound teachings. The exhortations to secrecy serve multiple purposes. First, they aim to preserve the reverence and sanctity of the knowledge being shared, guarding it from the profane influence of the masses. Second, secrecy serves as a form of protection, shielding the divine mysteries from unauthorized disclosure and ensuring severe consequences for those who betray them.

Secrecy for protecting the divine mysteries

At the beginning of the Asclepius, once all three pupils have entered the sanctuary where the lesson is to occur, Hermes admonishes that no one else should be admitted to their discussion. He cautions that the presence and interference of the many would profane this most reverent discourse on such a great subject. It is an irreverent mind, he adds, that would make public, by the awareness of many, a treatise so very full of divine majesty.

At Tat’s entry Asclepius suggested that Hammon also be present. Trismegistus said, ‘No ill-will prevents Hammon from joining us, for I well remember that many of my writings have been dedicated to him, just as many discourses on natural philosophy and countless public discourses have been dedicated to my most loving and beloved son Tat. But on this treatise I shall inscribe your name. Call no one except Hammon lest a conversation worthy of such reverence and on such a profound subject be profaned by the arrival and presence of many people. For it is the mark of an irreligious mind to bring to the notice of a crowd of people a discourse that is totally filled with the whole majesty of the divine spirit.’


In chapter 32 of the Asclepius, Hermes orders all three pupils to hide these divine mysteries among the secrets of their hearts and shield them with silence. The Coptic Hermetic treatise entitled Ogdoad and Ennead goes even further by explicitly imposing severe penalties on anyone who divulges its contents.

Where you see birth, there you see delusion. So you see, Asclepius, where we stand, what we are engaged upon and what we dare to attain. But to you, O Highest God, I give thanks, for Thou hast illumined me with the light of the Divinity that is to be seen. And you, O Tat, Asclepius and Hammon, hold these divine mysteries in the secrecy of your heart. Cover them with silence and conceal them with quiet.


After a lofty exposition of divine truths in Corpus Hermeticum XIII, Hermes claims that it was a difficult choice for him to divulge the ensuing hymn of praise. He describes it as a “secret to be kept in silence” that “cannot be taught.” At the end of the hymn, Hermes again asks Tat to promise to keep silent about this miracle and to reveal the tradition of rebirth to no one, lest they be seen as betrayers.

Secrecy for fear of persecution

Fear of ridicule and persecution seems to have motivated some of the Hermetic attitudes toward the secrecy of their teachings. Corpus Hermeticum IX.4 explains why “those who are in knowledge” (i.e., the Hermetic adepts) do not please the common crowd. They are perceived as mad and become targets of hatred, scorn, and potentially even murder.

The stakes involved are hinted at in two instances. Stobaeus fragment 11.4 (see below) implies that the survival of Hermetic teachings was already questionable, even as they were being written. Additionally, in the “Apocalypse of Egypt” section in the Asclepius, Hermes laments the downfall of Egyptian divine worship and foresees the only testament to the pious deeds of his countrymen being inscriptions on stone once foreign gods take over.

No one will have any regard for heaven and a spiritual person will be deemed mad, and a materialist, wise. An angry man will be considered strong and the most evil regarded as good.


Secrecy for moral considerations

In addition to the fear of persecution, there is another motivation for secrecy born out of moral considerations internal to Hermetic doctrine. One of the central Hermetic teachings relates to the essential combination of Fate, Necessity, and Providence, which are linked through a sort of astrological determinism concerning the material world.

But shun conversations with the common crowd. I do not want you to begrudge people; but to the common crowd, you will appear ridiculous. Like is received by like, and unlike things are never friends. These teachings convince precious few listeners, or perhaps it will convince not even a few. These teachings contain something peculiar. They incite evil people toward evil. Therefore these teachings must be kept from the common crowd who do not understand the excellence of what is said.

Stobaean Hermetica 11.4

Hermes explains in Stobaeus fragment 11.4 that his teachings have a singular property: they excite evildoers to do evil because they misunderstand of what is taught. This view suggests that most people (“the common crowd”) are naturally inclined to avoid responsibility for their actions if they believe that their actions are governed by an incontrovertible fate. Hermetic teachings on astrology and fate could easily be misunderstood in that direction, hence the cautious exhortations to secrecy.

Secrecy for protecting authenticity

There is another explanation for the secrecy of Hermetic teachings, which is related to the authenticity of the Egyptian influences on the Hermetica. In Corpus Hermeticum XVI (see above), Asclepius explains to King Ammon that Hermetic teachings are already unclear in their native Egyptian language, although some misunderstand them to be simple. He argues that the teaching will become entirely unclear when the Greeks attempt to translate them, resulting in the greatest distortion and lack of clarity.

For my teacher, Hermes, often used to say to me privately and also in the presence of Tat, that the composition of my books would appear most simple and clear to those who read them. He added, however, that they are obscure and keep the meaning of the words hidden. He said they would become even more obscure later when the Greeks decide to translate our language into theirs, which will lead to even greater distortion and obscurity.

Corpus Hermeticum XVI

In conclusion, the exhortations to secrecy within the Hermetica serve multiple purposes, including reverence, protection, safeguarding against misinterpretation, and the preservation of authenticity. The fear of ridicule, persecution, and the potential misuse of the teachings necessitates caution in sharing the divine mysteries. The Hermetic tradition, therefore, continues to thrive among a select few who appreciate the profound wisdom and responsibility it entails.

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