Casaubon and the exposure of the Hermetic corpus

Today I learned from a post by Jim Davila that Isaac Casaubon, the celebrated 17th century philologist, determined that the works transmitted from antiquity under the name of Hermes Trismegistus were not the ancient items that they professed, but rather belonged to the Hellenistic era.  I knew that the “Hermetic corpus” was bogus, but not why.  This has lead me to investigate.

Rather pleasingly, I find online here a PDF of an article by the ever-readable Anthony Grafton: Protestant versus Prophet: Isaac Casaubon on Hermes Trismegistus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 78-93.  I was interested, indeed, to learn from a footnote that the best work on Casaubon’s life and thought remains that of Mark Pattison, the Dean of Oriel in the 19th century, whom we meet as a character in the essays of Augustine Birrell, and whose curious and rather sad life is given in Tuckwell’s gossipy Remniscences of Oxford.

Grafton’s discussion of how Casaubon went about examining the text, and how he saw, as he read it, that it used language quite different from that of the real archaic Greeks, and terminology more like that of Dionysius the Areopagite, is well worth a read and I will not spoil the story. 

One paragraph did catch my eye, tho.  At one point, the text pretends that it was originally written in Egyptian, in a manner that makes plain that this is merely for effect.  Casaubon commented on this, and Grafton summarises:

Here the Corpus Hermeticum was firmly set into its real context, as part of the pullulating mass of pseudo-ancient, pseudo-Eastern literature that does such discredit to the minds of its Hellenistic Greek authors and readers. No one has since managed to remove it from that unpleasant position. 

We think at once of the Greek Zoroaster literature; but likewise of Greek magical papyri, gnostic texts, alchemical texts, and indeed cults like the Roman cult of Mithras, unconnected with Zoroastrianism but quite happy to use the Greek names “Mithras” and “Areimanios” (which had meant the Zoroastrian figures Mithra and Ahriman) and attach them to freshly made up non-dualist stories of their own imagination.  Indeed I think we may confidently say that if the author of the cult had called his deity “Ostanes” rather than “Mithras”, then no-one would have associated his cult with Persian Mitra at all.  Such is the power of borrowed names.

The problems with Hermes had been apparent before Casaubon, of course.

Indeed, even in late antiquity some readers evidently found it hard to believe that the Hermetica were genuine translations from the Egyptian. Jamblichus wrote defensively in De mysteriis VIII. 4 that ‘The works that circulate under the name of Hermes contain Hermetic views, even if they often use the language of the philosophers; for they were translated from the Egyptian language by men who had some knowledge of philosophy’.


Leave a Reply