Every once in a while, a history book comes along that really humbles me, that leaves me speechless not from its erudition, brilliance or sophistry, but from a certain hard-to-pin-down historical “X Factor”: a kind of connectedness in the thinking that yields rounded arguments but with a human dimension.

Some brief examples? Though critics may say he overreached his evidence, I found Carlo Ginzburg’s “Ecstasies” an amazing piece of work: Evelyn Welch’s “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” I found inspirational too. The first half of Rolf Willach’s “The Long Route to the Invention of the Telescope” was electrifying: and so forth.

And now to add to this list, here’s The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus” by Florian Ebeling (translated from the German by David Lorton), a book whose very subtitle flashes up a subject that you might well think obscure in extremis: “Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times“.

The book delivers everything you’d expect of it: it is patient, academic, marginal, cross-referencing, liminal, with a broad intertextuality to its reading, yet still managing to cover everything from Herodotus all the way through to Umberto Eco. In fact, the list of interesting / influential people somehow ensnared by the Hermetic ‘project’ seems to go on forever: Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, Sebastian Franck, Pico della Mirandola & Marsilio Ficino (of course), Paracelsus, Casaubon, Kircher, Newton…

Was there ever a “golden book” hidden in a monastery wall by Antiochus I, that told what Aristotle secretly taught Alexander the Great? No, not a hope: and, much as Casaubon pointed out, the whole Hermes Trismegistus thing doesn’t really stand up to close philological scrutiny – basically, it’s a crock (and I don’t mean a crock of gold).

However, I do think that the strange Hermetic-alchemical-mystical-revelatory dance helps to capture a lot of the edges of our cultural knowledge over the centuries – that its mixture of high claims and dodgy details is rather like a shiny (but non-shewing) shewstone, reflecting back people’s preoccupations and obsessions far more strongly than anything it reveals. And Ebeling’s book captures these brilliantly!

5 thoughts on “Review of “The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus”…

  1. Dennis on February 8, 2009 at 2:53 am said:

    Hi Nick! This sounds very interesting; I’ll want to read it! Hermeticism has always sounded intriguing, though I agree that its claims are doubtful.

    You ought to include your old joke about Hermes Trismegistus. 😉

  2. OK, OK – back by popular demand (but slightly abbreviated). 🙂

    Q. Why does Hermes Trismegistus always belch and fart at the same time?

    A. As above, so below!

  3. Diane on July 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm said:

    I can’t agree with Cas. on this one. The fault has been in western readers, who failed to recognise that the “thrice-great” thing was an absolutely literal translation from the Egyptian, in which very big/tall/important is expressed that way. So the “very tall/important” messenger figure is the one we keep seeing in the imagery, from ancient to medieval times. In the medieval manuscripts he’s usually identified with Michael.. one could say more, but who would care?

  4. Diane O'Donovan on November 23, 2012 at 4:39 am said:

    Still think so. Just saying.

  5. Tricia on June 1, 2013 at 9:19 am said:

    Yep. And now I’ve had to refer to same in relation to the Voynich – only because it may well be so, not because I’m looking forward to the inevitable reactions.

    Never did get around to reading Ebeling ~ guess I should, now.

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