Thoth was among the most diverse and popular of all the Egyptian gods. Like many of his colleagues he was a composite, even an accumulation, rather than a figure cast whole and unambiguously defined. In particular, Thoth was regarded even in the most primitive period as the moon-god; and from this lunar association arose many of his most distinctive functions. Just as the moon is illuminated by the sun, so Thoth derived much of his authority from being secretary and counselor to the solar divinity Re. The moon, 'ruler of the stars, distinguishes seasons, months and years'; and so Thoth became the lord and multiplier of time, and the regulator of individual destines. Indeed, so important were the moon's phases in determining the rhythms of Egyptian life, that Thoth became regarded as the origin both of cosmic order and of religious and civil institutions. He presided over almost every aspect of the temple cults, law and the civil year, and in particular over the sacred rituals, texts and formulas, and the magic arts that were so closely related. To him, as divine scribe, inventor of writing and lord of wisdom, the priesthood attributed much of its sacred literature, including, for example, parts of the Book of the Dead. Of occult powers latent in all aspects of the cult of the gods, Thoth was the acknowledged source. By extension he became regarded as the lord of knowledge, language and all science-even as Understanding or Reason personified. Esoteric wisdom was his special preserve, and he was called 'the Mysterious,' 'the Unknown.' His magical powers made of him a doctor too; and when the body finally succumbed to mortality, it was Thoth who conducted the dead person to the kingdom of the gods, and sat in judgment on his soul. However, it was at Hermoupolis Magna, the main center of his cult, that Thoth attained the pinnacle of his glory-indeed, his distinctly Hermoupolitan character was recognized throughout Egypt. Naturally enough his clergy were eager to aggrandize their patron; and the obvious way to do so was through the development of a distinct cosmogony, Hermoupolis being widely regarded as the oldest place on earth. So it was that Thoth acquired a leading role in the drama of creation itself, as a demiurge who called things into being merely by the sound of his voice. Besides the common near Eastern idea that speech has creative power, we can surely detect here the influence of Thoth the god of Magic.
Perhaps, though, it was to be his role as guide of souls and judge of the dead that Thoth most owed his popularity with ordinary people. He continued to inspire strong popular devotion throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. His was an inescapable presence; and it is easy to see why foreign settlers in Egypt were tempted to try to establish some sort of link with him. The second-century BCE Jewish romancer Artapanus, for instance, wrote an account of the life of Moses in which he assimilated his hero to 'Hermes' (i.e. Thoth), making him responsible for introducing the Egyptians to ships, machines, weapons, and philosophy; for dividing the country up into nomes, each with its own divine patron; for inventing the hieroglyphs; and for assigning lands of their own to the priests. And the Greek settlers, also, identified Thoth with their god Hermes. Like Thoth the classical Hermes was associated with the moon, medicine and the realm of the dead. Furthermore, both had a reputation for inventiveness and trickery, and both functioned as messenger of the gods, which in Hermes's case prepared him as well for his characteristic function in the Hellenistic period, as the logos or 'word', the interpreter of the divine will to humanity. This Hellenistic Hermes-logos was a thoroughly cosmopolitan divinity: The Lycaonians, who were sufficiently un-Hellenized to have retained their native language, had no difficulty in recognizing the apostle Paul as Hermes come down to earth, 'because he was the chief speaker.' The Stoics assigned Hermes a still more central role in their theology, magnifying his function from the merely expressive to the creative, and regarding him as both logos and demiurge. It may even be that this development owed something to the Egyptian understanding of Thoth as creator.
Hermes Trismegistus, then, was the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Hermes, Egyptianized through his assimilation to Thoth, and in fact known throughout the Roman world as 'the Egyptian' par excellence. To some extent this intermingling of Egyptian and Greek theology and Hellenistic philosophy produced a sum that was greater than its parts, a divinity who could deservedly be placed among the dei magni of the pagan pantheon that presided over the Roman world. Yet around and within the Egyptian Hermes there persisted serious tensions, mirroring the peculiarities of the Graeco-Egyptain mileu that had produced him.
In the beginning it had no doubt seemed enough to say that the Greek god Hermes was equivalent to the Egyptian god Thoth, and leave it at that. But the temptation to provide a mythological explanation could not be resisted forever; and that was one of the reasons why Cicero was eventually able to enumerate no less than five individuals who claimed the name Hermes, the third being the familiar offspring of Zeus and Maia,
while the fifth, who is worshipped by the people of Pheneus [in Arcadia?], is said to have killed Argus, and for this reason to have fled to Egypt, and to have given the Egyptians their laws and alphabet-he it is whom the Egyptians call Theyn [Thoth].
In other words, the story that was produced-and widely circulated-to explain the emergence of Hermes Trismegistus invoked a relatively human Hermes who was recognized to be distinct from the messenger of the gods. So it is not surprising to find that people of Greek culture did not always envisage Trismegistus in the same terms as did those of a more Egyptian background.
It is in the Greek magical papyri, rather than in the Hermetica, that we most clearly discern the lineaments of Hermes Trismegistus, and that the Egyptian aspects of his identity are given the fullest rein. In a country as renowned for its magic as was Egypt, that was only to be expected. The Papyri presents the new syncretistic Hermes as a cosmic power, creator of Heaven and earth and almighty world-ruler. Presiding over fate and justice, he is also lord of the night, and of death and its mysterious aftermath-hence his frequent association with the moon (Selene) and Hecate. He knows 'all that is hidden under the heavenly vault, and beneath the earth', and is accordingly much revered as a sender of oracles-many of the magical spells that are addressed to Hermes aim to elicit arcane information, frequently by inducing the god to appear in a dream. In this capacity, Hermes often becomes involved in the minutiae of his devotees' everyday existence. The Hermes of the magical papyri is a cosmic deity, but one who may also dwell within the heart of individuals; and the magician often assumes towards him a tone of intimacy shading off into self-identification. One magical invocation begins: 'come to me, Lord Hermes, as fetuses into the wombs of women'; and after a shopping-list of gifts that the god is supposed to bestow, ends with the assertion that: 'I know you Hermes, and you know me. I am you and you are me.' On occasion the magician might even impersonate Thoth-Hermes (or any other god) to put pressure on one of his divine colleagues. This self-identification with a god, common in the magical papyri, is an authentically Egyptian trait. It highlights both the variety of the magician's approach to his gods, and the persistence of Egyptian ways of thought. The traditional Greek Hermes, clad in chlamys and winged hat and sandals, is not unknown to the magical papyri, but the autochthonous Thoth is commoner; and if Hermes succeded in becoming a dynamic element in Graeco-Egyptain popular religion, it was largely thanks to his alliance with his native counterpart, which allowed him to be thought of as more Egyptian than Greek. At first Hermes Egyptianized by translating, either literally or metaphorically, the attributes of Thoth. One can see this in his titulature, as well as the celebration of the Hermaea that came to coincide exactly with one of the major festivals of Thoth. With time, naturally enough, this carefulness bred of unfamiliarity came to seem less necessary. As far as Hermes was concerned, the popularity of his cult at Hermoupolis must have contributed a great deal to the dissolving of cultural barriers and the evolution of the composite Hermes Trismegistus of late antiquity. We can see the same process at work in the centuries-long accumulation of pious inscriptions and graffiti left by pilgrims Egyptian, Greek and Roman of all stations of life, at the temple of Thoth-Hermes Paotnouphis at Pselchis (al-Dakka) on the Nubian frontier; and in a mid-third-century soldier's votive inscription at Panopolis to 'the Great god Hermes Trismegistus'. By the later Roman period there had emerged a koine of Graeco-Egyptain religious discourse; and of this koine Hermes Trismegistus was a central constituent. But, for all that, the native Thoth as never wholly absorbed. He was too commanding a figure. Even in the Greek literary milieu there were those prepared to take the line of least resistance and propagate a version of Trismegistus that was scarcely Hellenized at all except in name. Cyril of Alexander quotes a good example of this approach from a Hermetic text that he says was composed at Athens. The author presents 'our Hermes as seen through the eyes of an Egyptian priest. He is an adept of the temple cults, a law-giver and an authority on astronomy, astrology, botany, mathematics, geometry, the arts and grammar. He it was who divided the country into nomes and other units, measured it, cut irrigation canals and established the exchange of contracts. In short, the anonymous Athenian Hermetist depicts Hermes in the same unmistakably Egyptian terms as those in which Artapanus had envisaged Moses.
However, most of those who looked at things from a Greek point of view had a rather different image of Hermes Trismegistus, which to some extent played down specifically Egyptian elements and assumed that, in origin at least, Hermes had been human. After all, Plato had queried whether even Thoth was a god or just a divine man. Ammianus Marcellinus mentions Trismegistus, alongside Appollonius of Tyana and Plotinus, as an example o a human endowed with a particularly strong guardian spirit; and it is usually in human or at most heroic company that Hermes appears when cited as one of a string of authorities by late antiquity writers. So too in the philosophical Hermetica. Hermes is a mortal who received revelations from the divine world and eventually himself achieves immortality through self-purification, but remains among men in order to unveil to them the secrets of the divine world. It is significant how many of the philosophical Hermetica are presented in epistolary or dialogue form. In this way the Hermetist, while preserving the divine and revelatory character of his doctrines, imparts to their expositions a certain air of historical reality, stirring in his audience, perhaps, echoes of Socrates and his circle as depicted in the Platonic dialogues.
Yet if once Hermes had been mortal, that had been in remote antiquity, and he had long since been assumed into the company of the gods. The technical Hermetica are studiously vague, usually envisaging Trismegistus as a sage who lived at a remote period and conversed freely with the gods, though on occasion they speak of him as a divine being. The Kore kosmou, which Stobaeus included in his selection of Hermetic philosophical texts for his Anthologium, but which was considerably influenced by technical Hermetism, treats Hermes straightforwardly as a god, and surrounds him with an unashamedly mythological narrative. The figure of Thoth, the divine author of the Egyptian temple literature, lurks only just below the surface of the Kore's Hermes, all-knowing revealer of wisdom to humanity-and in general Egyptian ideas are particularly prominent in this text.
The ambiguity of a figure who hovered between the divine and human worlds will have struck many as an advantage and attraction. Late paganism cultivated with enthusiasm such figures as Heracles, Dionysus, Asclepius and Orpheus. Hermes was one more of these intermediaries, who were much in demand in a world increasingly fascinated by the transcendental quality of the divine. But not everybody relished such ambiguities. Just as what seemed to some the simplistic identification of Hermes with Thoth was eventually 'explained', so too the tension in Trismegistus's character between the venerable and remote figure of Thoth and the more human Hermes of the Greeks had to be accounted for, if only to clear up the doubts of those who, like the Christian writer Lactantius, were not sure whether to treat the Hermetic books as divine revelation or human speculation. So at some point the Hermetists began to propagate the idea that there had been two Egyptian Hermes, grandfather and grandson. In the Perfect Discourse (Asclepius), Hermes Trismegistus refers to the tomb of his grandfather and namesake Hermes in Hermoupolis, 'the city where he was born (patria) and which is named after him'. Clearly the author envisages Hermes I as identical with Thoth-and the Egyptians were indeed used to the idea that gods might be born and then die, not in the euhemeristic sense, but as part of a perpetual process of regeneration. The identification is made explicit in a passage from a text attributed to the early Ptolemaic priest and historian Manetho, but certainly of a much later date, in which reference is made to 'stelae inscribed in the sacred languages and with hieroglyphic characters by Thoth, the first Hermes'. Who was his grandson, the second Hermes?
The Hermetists, while insisting that their compositions had indeed been written in Egyptian, and inscribed on stelae in hieroglyphic characters, were also well aware that they could not have been rendered into Greek without losing the authority that attached to sacred texts in the native language-'for the very quality of the sounds and the [intonation] of the Egyptian words contain in itself the force of the things said'. A translation would require, at the very least, the active assistance of the priestly guardians of the originals. Iamblichus, for example, records that an Egyptian priest named Bitys was supposed to have translated some of the hieroglyphic texts of Thoth into Greek, and had made use of (Greek) philosophical vocabulary in doing so. These texts Bitys had found 'in temples at Sais in Egypt', which of course is where Solon was supposed to have encountered Egyptian priests more learned in the history of Greece than any Greek, and to have translated parts of their archives. Iamblichus also tells us that Pythagoras and Plato, during their visits to Egypt, 'read through' the stelae of Hermes with the help of native priests. Whether these stories are true is not important for this discussion. What is important is first, that the Hermetists wished it to be believed that their compositions were books of Thoth rendered from Egyptian into Greek; and secondly that the legitimacy and prestige of these books depended on the finding of a plausible explanation of how this translation had been brought about. Hence the last twist in the evolution of the myth of the Egyptian Hermes, namely the presentation of none other than Hermes the younger as the translator of the Thoth texts. At any rate, this appears to be the idea underlying the obscure and corrupt pseudo-Manetho passage already mentioned. After referring to the hieroglyphic texts inscribed by Thoth, the first Hermes, pseudo-Manetho goes on to assert that 'after the Flood they were translated from the sacred language into Greek, and deposited in books in the sanctuaries of Egyptian temples by the second Hermes, the son of Agathos Daimon and father of Tat. That the Thoth-literature was believed to have been rendered into Greek at such an early date has struck modern scholars as so improbable that they have emended the passage. However, Plato had spoken of the translation of Greek records into Egyptian after the deluge(s); and anyway this was exactly the sort of claim that Hermetists had to make if they were to overcome the well-known inadequacies of translations from Egyptian into Greek.
Thus the two Hermes in the Asclepius now stand revealed as separate emboidments of the divine Egyptian and more human Greek dimensions of the composite deity Hermes Trismegistus. This not only provided a mythological explanation and sanction for the existence of a Hermetic literature in Greek, rather than in the sacred tongue of Egypt, but also left the Greek Hermes flexible enough to play his traditional role of intermediary between God and men.
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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest