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Hermes Trismegistus

Under the head of "Hermes," reference is made to Hermes (or Mercury), a mythologic character, and to Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary wise man of ancient Egypt. At the time those paragraphs were written it was still generally believed that Medieval occultism consisting of alchemy, astrology, and the Kabbala, was collectively called Hermetism because it claimed a mythologic descent from the god Hermes, or else from the ancient Egyptian sage; it is now al most certain that the reference was to neither but to a book or collection of writings entitled Hermes Trismegtstus, a fact which explains why a majority of the Medieval occultists (there never were any large number of them) gave as their authority fragments of old texts. They could not have read Egyptian hieroglyphics; a god would have written no book; but they could read fragments or chapters of a book that had been written in Greek and translated into Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew.

When the early bishops of Christian Churches in Italy and Greece began their systematic destruction of Greek and Latin schools and colleges, arts, sciences, and books, believing it their mission to destroy the "old world" in order to build a new one in its place, mathematicians, scientists, artists, architects, scholars, and philosophers became greatly alarmed lest the whole of civilization be obliterated. This alarm reached such a height at Alexandria, Egypt, the Greek-speaking city which was the center of civilization at the time, that a group of scholars there began a counter-propaganda; and one of them, or possibly a group of them, collected or wrote and published the Hermes Trismegistus as a defense of civilization and as a plea to men-everywhere not to destroy the age old culture of the Mediterranean world.

This attempt to save civilization did not succeed; even the thousand-year-old University at Athens was destroyed; Alexandria itself was burned; illiteracy became universal in Europe; the Dark Ages came on, and lasted between two and three hundred years. But the Hermes did not disappear. It was a favorite book among some of the Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church, who had not approved the destruction of civilization, and in after times a homily modeled on one chapter of it, called Postor Hermes, became one of those pseudepigraphical books which are still ranked second only to the Bible; and it was read by Arabic scholars, from whom portions of it made their way into Europe through Spain.

Hermes was a name given to the mind, and in its larger and more usual sense denoted intelligence, skill, culture. Trismegistus, which etymologically meant "thrice-greatest," was a eulogistic adjective meaning fine, or very fine; the title Hermes Trismegistus carried the general meaning of fine arts, of culture, of civilization. Men of many parties and religions "believed in Hermes"; that is, they fought to save civilization against fanatics in the Church, who were followed by the barbarians from the north. Perhaps the best nontechnical account of Hermes Trismegistus is the essay in Literary Remains of the Late Emanuel Deutsch, published by Henry Holt; New York; 1874. Deutsch, on the staff of the British Museum for some sixteen years, was one of the most brilliant scholars of Nineteenth Century England. Two chapters in his book on the Talmud and four papers on the Vatican Council of 1870 which declared the infallibility of the Pope also are of exceptional value to Masons. It may be taken as a practical certainty that the source of the reference to Hermes in the Masonic Old Charges was Hermes Trismegistus the book, and not faint rumors of an ancient Greek god. At the period when the Old Manuscripts were written very few Freemasons had ever heard of Greek mythology, and least of all of a god named Hermes.

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