The Way of Hermes or “Hermeticism” can be understood as the religious, spiritual, philosophical, and magical movement or milieu (if not quite a tradition properly, and not exactly a centralized or standardized thing) initiated by Hellenistic (or Hellenically-conversant) Egyptian priests operating in a Hellenistic context and attributed to the mythological figure Hermēs Trismegistos, which produced a series of religious, spiritual, philosophical, and magical texts.
It’s important to note that “Hermeticism” is a term that was only first used to describe such a thing starting in the Renaissance, and was never used in the classical period, whether by people inside or outside this movement; for them, it was just generically “Egyptian”. Hermeticism only started to be seen as its own thing starting in the (specifically Italian) Renaissance with the rediscovery of the Corpus Hermeticum.
Some scholars like to draw a distinction between the terms “The Way of Hermes”, “Hermeticism” and “Hermetism”. When a difference is acknowledged, it generally falls along the lines of the “Way of Hermes” being the authentic tradition practiced in antiquity, “Hermetism” being specifically the stage of things in the classical era (basically to say that it predates the Emerald Tablet) while “Hermeticism” is more broad and general and includes things both from and after the classical period.
Christian Bull (in his excellent book “The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus”) gives the definition of “Hermetism” as “a designation for the ritual tradition of the “Way of Hermes”, i.e. the “way of immortality” described by Hermēs Trismegistos according to the texts attributed to him from the classical period.
That being said, the word “Hermeticism” is problematic. Especially due to the influence of not just the Renaissance but also modern scholars in the early 20th century, the term “Hermeticism” has flourished as a vague and confusing umbrella term “comprising not only the general belief in an ancient wisdom from the Orient transmitted through the Platonic tradition…but also the general fascination with traditional arts or sciences such as astrology, alchemy, and natural magic” (in the words of Wouter J. Hanegraaff, who advises we drop the term entirely).
Partially this is due to the result of misunderstanding by Francis Yates, but it’s also attributable to the long and complicated history of the influence of Hermēs Trismegistus across several continents over two thousand years in different cultures that lead to different uses of the word “Hermetic” to refer to anything vaguely woogity and old.
In the sense that Christianity is based upon the teachings of Christ, Hermeticism can be said to be based upon the teachings and practices of Hermēs Trismegistos. To know what those teachings and practices are, we turn to the beating heart and living root of Hermeticism, which is the Hermetic texts themselves. In my view:
- So long as something agrees with those texts, both in means as well as in goals (i.e. they both end up at the same place philosophically/religiously/etc. and using the same road), then we can say that that thing can be considered Hermetic or at least used aptly within a Hermetic context, even if not actually tied to or related to Hermeticism directly.
- If something does not agree with those texts but does not disagree either, then it can be used or adopted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.
- If something disagrees with those texts, then it is not Hermetic, but may (with enough effort and changes) be altered or adapted by Hermeticism for Hermetic ends.
Is the Kybalion hermetic?
Nicholas Chapel’s excellent essay “The Kybalion’s New Clothes” describes how stark the differences are between the Kybalion and the Hermetic texts. Not only does the Kybalion not originate from any Hermetic text, but the teachings of the Kybalion either completely miss the teachings of the Hermetic texts or outright goes against them.
The last three paragraphs of the essay in the conclusion are perhaps the most punchful for this, but the whole essay is excellent, so please give it a read.
What makes Franz Bardon’s Initiation to Hermetics or the Golden Dawn hermetic?
A justification for the “Hermeticness” of the Golden Dawn can be found in Chic and Tabitha Cicero’s “The Essential Golden Dawn: An Introduction to High Magic”. They are aware of the differences between Hermetism and Hermeticism, and devote the entire first chapter of the book to the development of Hermetism through the ages and how it influences the Golden Dawn.
Although, to be sure, the Golden Dawn has many influences and traditions of magic and spirituality mingling together, C&T Cicero explain how the Golden Dawn’s approach and goals are influenced by Hermetic notions of salvation, divinity, cosmology, and the like.
As Chapel noted in that essay about the Kybalion linked earlier, Kabbalah and angel magic, Rosicrucianism and Enochian magic, Freemasonry and lodge magic were all combined and added together over the years under the banner of “Hermeticism” and altogether “represent the logical evolution of the Graeco-Egyptian magical literature of the so-called ‘technical Hermetica’, and evince a focus on the divine” present in the ‘philosophical Hermetica’.
If you want to understand what the beating heart of Hermeticism (or, properly, Hermetism) is and why/how certain things don’t receive a pulse from it, we strongly encourage you to read:
- Garth Fowden, “The Egyptian Hermes”
- Kevin van Bladel, “The Arabic Hermes”
- Christian Bull, “The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus” (along with his many other scholarly articles on Hermetism and Hermeticism)
- Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity’ (below is a video with a good introduction)
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