In recent years there has been an upswing of interest in Hermeticism, the metaphysical and magical system set down in a series of texts, collectively the Hermetica, composed in Hellenistic Egypt and attributed to the legendary Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus (‘Thrice-great Hermes’). After generations of being dismissed by academics as an irrelevance - a hangover of unsophisticated and superstitious thinking from the Middle Ages that was at best a distraction to some of the great minds of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment who had better things to be getting on with - there is a growing recognition and appreciation of its place in the development of Western culture, and indeed its contemporary relevance.
There is a particularly strong tradition of scholarship on the subject in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the home of the celebrated library, the Bibliotecha Philosophica Hermetica, with its associated Ritman Institute dedicated to researching the Hermetic texts. The University of Amsterdam even has a Chair in the History of Hermetic Philosophy. Consequently, much of the leading edge research is either only available in Dutch or takes a while to appear in other languages, which is a frustration to those of us non-Dutch speakers with a special interest in the subject.
This makes The Hermetic Link, written by Dutch cultural historian Jacob Slavenburg, especially appealing, since it draws on some of that otherwise hard-to-access research – and even this English translation has taken almost a decade to make it into print. Unfortunately, however, the book suffers from some major flaws, not all of which are Slavenburg’s fault.
First, the positives. As the subtitle implies, Slavenburg takes a basically chronological approach to the story of Hermeticism, opening in ancient Egypt and bringing it right through to the twenty-first century. This is a good way of showing the impact that Hermeticism had in different times and places, and why it was – and is – important. It also gives Slavenburg the opportunity address the many controversies in Hermeticism’s long history.
Not least among those controversies is its origin. Although until the seventeenth century there was universal agreement that the Hermetic texts came from the high point of the ancient Egyptian civilisation, since then they have been equally universally downgraded to a product of the Greek-dominated Egypt of the early centuries AD, and consequently seen as a development of Greek, not Egyptian, philosophical and theological ideas. However, in recent decades a growing body of historical evidence attests to the influence of home grown Egyptian traditions on the Hermetica; the controversy now is over the balance between the Greek and Egyptian material.
For Slavenburg there is no doubt about the Egyptian origins of the Hermetica: ‘It becomes more and more clear to me that the hermetic tradition… is a treasure with its source in ancient Egyptian literature.’ That was the literature of the wisdom-god Thoth – who also bore the epithet ‘three times great’ – although, as Slavenburg points out, there are differences as well as striking similarities between the writings attributed to Thoth and the Hermetica. These are due to the importation of Greek ideas during the gestation period of the texts, in which time Thoth was melded with the Greek Hermes, messenger of the gods, to produce the composite Hermes Trismegistus. But the source of the philosophy was Egyptian, even if it was given a Hellenistic twist: ‘Egyptian thought patterns and traditions have been poured into a Greek mold.’
There is a particularly valuable chapter, ‘Hermes in the Orient’, which goes deeper than most studies into Hermeticism’s influence on medieval Arab learning and science, the bridge being the rather mysterious Sabians of Harran, who kept the flame of Hermeticism burning after the suppression of pagan teaching in Christian Europe in the fourth century until the Islamic conquests of the seventh. Most of the material in this chapter is drawn from the research of Annine van der Meer into the Sabians. Even so, a lot remains to be discovered; as Slavenburg observes, ‘The history of the Arab Hermetica has yet to be written.’
Slavenburg traces the fragmentary survival of Hermeticism in Europe – questioning the widely-held notion that it was entirely without influence during the Middle Ages – until its celebrated ‘rediscovery’ in the mid fifteenth century, when an incomplete set of the major Greek texts, the Corpus Hermeticum, was brought to Cosimo de’ Medici’s Florence, an event that pretty much triggered the Renaissance. As Slavenburg puts it, the Latin translation by Cosimo’s favourite scholar, Marsilio Ficino, ‘led to a true expansion of consciousness.’
Slavenburg examines how Hermeticism was assimilated with Neoplatonic philosophy, the Kabala and other metaphysical systems to produce the ‘occult philosophy’ that was the driving force of the Renaissance, and explores the question of whether, after this process, it could still properly be called ‘Hermetic’, concluding ‘In the strictest sense… not entirely; in a wider sense, most definitely.’
The Hermetic Link goes on to show how the ‘central flame’ of Hermeticism passed from Italy to northern Europe – to the England of John Dee, and to the Rosicrucians of Germany – following it into the esoteric and Masonic worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Slavenburg emphasises the central role that Hermeticism has in the works of Madame Blavatsky, who sought to restore it to its original form by removing the ‘Christian, pseudo-mystical and Kabalistic elements’ that had been added during its Renaissance resurrection. He summarises Blavataky’s position as being that ‘the hermetic philosophy, together with the Vedic philosophy, form the foundation of all esoteric knowledge.’
The final chapter explores Hermeticism’s influence on modern thinking, particularly Jung’s psychological theories, and the revolution in Hermetic studies sparked by the Nag Hammadi discovery, which revealed a connection between Hermeticism and Gnosticism and made the former a fit subject for serious study again. Slavenburg concludes – as have many others in recent years – that the Hermetic philosophy offers a new path in an age in which we have become aware of the limitations of reductionist science.
As with any subject with such a diverse history, there are quibbles that some aspects have been skipped over or not explored in sufficient depth; we all have our favourite parts of the story. For example, the chapters on Giordano Bruno and Hermeticism’s place in Freemasonry are rather slight, and there is nothing on the Hermetica’s very real influence on the Scientific Revolution, as for example in its inspirational role for Copernicus and Newton. The realisation of how much more could be said, even though The Hermetic Link weighs in at over 400 pages, brings home just how rich and significant the Hermetic tradition is.
But there are some very real problems with the book.
First, it does require a fair amount of familiarity with the subject. It doesn’t begin with a clear definition of Hermeticism – rather assuming that the reader already knows what it is – or the Hermetica. We have to wait 130 pages for a definition of the latter, even though the term is used from the start. This, as well as the translation – of which more below – will make it hard going for the reader new to, or with a casual interest, in the subject, which is a pity as the straightforward chronological approach is an excellent way to introduce Hermeticism to a new audience. It is therefore hard to know exactly who the book is aimed at.
When Slavenburg gets to the composition of the Hermetica – after the scene-setting of Egypt, Thoth and the integration with Hermes – he breaks off from the chronological approach to spend a dozen chapters (all his chapters are short, few being more than 12-15 pages) outlining the principles of Hermeticism and showing how they were applied in fields such as astrology, healing and magic. Much of this technical material is extremely hard to follow, even with a fair amount of foreknowledge of the subject, and I fear it will lose newcomers completely.
A lot of the blame for this lies with the translator, and here lays the book’s biggest flaw: the translation is awful.
First, it reads as a direct and literal translation of the Dutch, without any attempt to render it into English fluidly. Since, to English ears, Dutch appears rather terse and curt, this creates a clunky, jarring effect that makes for a difficult read. Worse, however, is the use of the wrong terms, for example ‘decennia’ instead of ‘decade’, and the use throughout the book of ‘scientific’ and ‘scientists’ in place of ‘academic’ and ‘academics’. Often, but inconsistently, Dutch proper names are used, as for example in a discussion of the gnostic Gospel of Fillipus. There is occasional unintentional humour, as for example when we’re told that the meditating Hermes had visions of ‘unspeakable things’ (rather than ‘ineffable’), but overall such mistakes make the book hard going.
The poor quality of the translation doesn’t affect the sense of the chronological chapters too much, rather being a mild irritation. However, it is a major problem in the technical chapters, in which Slavenburg attempts to explain what are already complex and difficult topics, which the translator clearly doesn’t understand and exceeds their grasp of English. The result is not just hard to follow but often incomprehensible, sometimes resulting in baffling non sequiturs or complete contradictions that make it impossible to understand Slavenburg’s point. For example, I don’t believe that this paragraph accurately translates his original:
"Here we will discuss the Emerald Tablet because of the notable influence of the ‘philosophical’ Hermetica in the work, which will be discussed in the following chapters… This is not the case in the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet. Still, there are interesting similarities."
Or "The Corpus Hermeticum contains seventeen more-or-less independent treatises, but the same can definitely be said of the Fragments of Stobaeus" (the latter being, as the name suggests, a collection of thirty-odd extracts from Hermetic works).
The reader simply can’t be sure that the translation is reliable. For example, in the epilogue Slavenburg references the famous ‘mind of God’ quote with which Stephen Hawking closes A Brief History of Time. However, this appears – translated back out of the Dutch – as ‘spirit of God’, which of course in English has a rather different meaning. How many of Slavenburg’s technical terms, we wonder, have been similarly distorted?
The terrible translation undermines the potential value of The Hermetic Link for English-language readers, which is sad, as there is a lot of good material in the book, and Slavenburg makes many insightful observations on a subject which is clearly dear to his heart.