On Native Egyptian Influence In The Corpus Hermeticum


For over a hundred years, from Reitzenstein’s Poimandres published in 1904, to Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes published in 1986, the question of Egyptian influence on the fourteen Greek texts – tractates {1} – collectively known as the Corpus Hermeticum has been much debated. The opinions of scholars, and of translators, have ranged from little influence (Festugiere) to insignificant influence (Myatt), to much influence (Mahé), to the more recent one (Fowden) of hermeticism being syncretic, combining elements of Hellenic culture with elements of Egyptian culture in various and still disputable proportions.

What, however, is often not explicitly defined is what ‘Egyptian’, and Egyptian culture, mean in the context of where and when the Greek texts of the Corpus Hermeticum were written; which was, to give the widest parameters, sometime between the end of the first century CE and the end of the third century CE when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire and where cities like Alexandria were places where Hellenic culture thrived and where people of Greek and of Roman descent lived in large numbers, some of whom no doubt had an interest in and knowledge of native Egyptian – ‘Pharaonic’ – culture and history. For centuries before that, most of Egypt had – following the conquests of Alexander the Great – been a Greek colony ruled by a succession of people of Greek origin such as the Macedonian Ptolemaios Soter who established what became known as the Ptolemaic dynasty (or Kingdom) whose last ruler was Cleopatra, herself of Greek origin, who desired that the native Egyptians of her time consider her as an embodiment of their native goddess Isis.

Thus for some three centuries before the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum were written Egypt was a thriving outpost of Greek culture; a place where the likes of Aristotle and Archimedes lived and flourished for many years.

It is therefore necessary to make a distinction between the ruling, Greek, elite – and the Greek aristocracy of people such as Aristotle and Archimedes – and native Egyptians; a cultural and an ancestral distinction. A relevant comparison is the British Raj in India who were British by heritage and culture and who, even if they were born and spent most of their life in India, could not – should not – be described as ‘Indian’.

Considered thus the relevant context of the Greek texts of the Corpus Hermeticum was the centuries-long Greek culture of such an aristocracy combined with the relatively recent culture of Rome from the time of Caesar to praefectus Statilius Aemilianus (270 CE). What is not particularly relevant is the culture of the natives, the ancestors of the fellaheen, some or many of whom no doubt continued to revere or at least remember the divinities of ancient Egypt such as the goddess Isis and most of whom would not have been able to read let alone write Greek.

Given the centuries-long Greek and Roman heritage of the ruling elite and the aristocracy – who could speak and read Greek and who were probably acquainted with the writings of Plato and Aristotle – and given why rulers such as Cleopatra desired, for the benefit of her subjects, to be identified with an ancient Egyptian divinity such as Isis, it is most probable that the authors of the Greek texts of the Corpus Hermeticum, resident as they were in the then Roman province of Egypt, sought to give their metaphysical speculations some local, Egyptian, colour by – among other things – naming the son (or the pupil) of the Greek Hermes after the Egyptian god Thoth.

As Myatt noted in the introduction to his translation of tractate IV of the Corpus Hermeticum:

“In respect of Τάτ, while there is no disputing that Thoth is meant, what may or may not be implied by the name Thoth is whether or not there is a primarily Egyptian genesis for the metaphysics and the cosmogony of this particular tractate. For what does ‘Egyptian’ mean in the context of the Corpus Hermeticum, written when Egypt was a post-Ptolemaic Roman province where Hellenism still thrived? That is, is the text propounding a metaphysics and a cosmogony primarily redolent of indigenous, pre-Alexandrian, times, with Hermes Trismegistus simply a Hellenic name for the ancient Dynastic deity Thoth, and thus with the Greek Hermes possibly being a son of that ancient Egyptian deity? Or is the text redolent of a classical metaphysics and a cosmogony; or of a Hellenic metaphysics and cosmogony; or of some syncretism of Egyptian (pre-Alexandrian) weltanschauungen with Hellenic mysticism? Or has the author (or authors) of Ἑρμοῦ πρὸς Τάτ ὁ κρατῆρ ἡ μονάς simply used the name of an ancient deity – Thoth – in order to appeal to an audience of Hellenized Egyptians, or Greeks/Romans dwelling in Egypt, or because it seemed to add some esoteric gravitas to the text? Or, as the title might be taken to imply – of Hermes to Thoth – is it a text intended to inform Egyptians (Hellenized or expatriate Greeks/Romans, or otherwise) about Greek/Hellenic metaphysics and cosmogony, with Thoth thus regarded, symbolically, esoterically, or otherwise, as the son of the Greek divinity Hermes?

In this matter, I incline toward the view – based on some forty years of study of the Corpus Hermeticum and similar mystical and esoteric texts, classical, Hellenic, medieval, Arabic and otherwise – that what is imparted in this tractate, as with the Poemandres and Ιερός Λόγος, is primarily a mystical, and – for centuries – aural, Greek tradition, albeit one possibly influenced, over time and in some degree, by the metaphysical speculations of later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.”

I therefore find myself in agreement with Myatt regarding the question of native Egyptian influence on those texts. That the texts present us with a Greek/Hellenic metaphysics and cosmogony, not with some Greek and Egyptian syncretion, and certainly not with a native Egyptian metaphysics and cosmogony slightly influenced by Hellenism.

For it is essentially a question of terminology: of what ‘Egyptian’ means in cultural and in ancestral terms. Of a perhaps an inhibition on the part of some modern scholars to differentiate between the ancestry and the culture of ‘the natives’ and the ancestry and culture of a ruling elite and aristocracy.

R. Parker

{1} Tractate is derived from the classical Latin tractatus meaning a discussion, ‘concerning’, a treatise; and was used by writers such as Cicero and Pliny. It was later assimilated into ecclesiastical Latin – qv. Augustine – where it denoted a homily or sermon. It is the basis of the modern English word tract.


List of works cited

A-J. Festugiere. La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste. 4 volumes. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1946-1954.

G. Fowden. The Egyptian Hermes. Princeton University Press, 1993

J-P. Mahé. Hermes En Haute Egypte. Tome I, 1978. Tome II, 1982. Presses de l’Université Laval.

D. Myatt. Corpus Hermeticum: Eight Tractates. CreateSpace. 2017.

R. A. Reitzenstein. Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen Literatu. Teubner, Leipzig, 1904

R. A. Reitzenstein & H. H. Schaeder. Studien zum antiken Synkretismus aus Iran und Griechenland. (Studien der Bibliothek Warburg), Teubner, Leipzig, 1926