The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science

The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science

The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science

The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science

Synopsis

This is the first major study devoted to the early Arabic reception and adaption of the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary Egyptian sage to whom were ascribed numerous works on astrology, alchemy, talismans, medicine, and philosophy. Before the more famous Renaissance European reception of the ancient Greek Hermetica, the Arabic tradition about Hermes and the works under his name had been developing and flourishing for seven hundred years. The legendary Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus was renowned in Roman antiquity as an ancient sage whose teachings were represented in books of philosophy and occult science. The works in his name, written in Greek by Egyptians living under Roman rule, subsequently circulated in many languages and regions of the Roman and Sasanian Persian empires. After the rise of Arabic as a prestigious language of scholarship in the eighth century, accounts of Hermes identity and Hermetic texts were translated into Arabic along with the hundreds of other works translated from Greek, Middle Persian, and other literary languages of antiquity. Hermetica were in fact among the earliest translations into Arabic, appearing already in the eighth century. This book explains the origins of the Arabic myth of Hermes Trismegistus, its sources, the reasons for its peculiar character, and its varied significance for the traditions of Hermetica in Asia and northern Africa as well as Europe. It shows who pre-modern Arabic scholars thought Hermes wasand how they came to that view.

Excerpt

This is the first in-depth study devoted to Hermes Trismegistus—the legendary ancient Egyptian sage to whom numerous works on astrology, alchemy, talismans, medicine, and wisdom were attributed—as he is represented in early Arabic literature. By comparison with the now-standard work on the ancient Greek Hermetica (Fowden 1993a), built on decades and even centuries of modern research, this book is a foray into relatively uncharted territories. Readers who are already familiar with the ancient Greek and Latin Hermetica (works attributed to Hermes) will be aware that they played a significant role in the development of late antique thought, both pagan and Christian, and later formed part of the very foundation of medieval, Renaissance, and modern occultism in Europe. The substantial and widespread Arabic tradition of Hermetica, however, has never received much attention, despite a general awareness among Arabists that these Arabic Hermetica did exist and were influential. For specialists in Greek and Latin who have little interest in Arabic tradition as such, the Arabic Hermetica promise to contain important information related to and bearing on their own subjects. The myth of Hermes Trismegistus also serves as a prime example of the complicated and wide-ranging adaptation of ancient Greek learning in early Arabic that commenced in the eighth century.

The project began with simple questions. Who did early Arabic writers think Hermes Trismegistus was, and how did they arrive at this concept? What is the relationship of the numerous works attributed to Hermes surviving in Arabic manuscripts to the better-known Greek and Latin Hermetica? Are the Arabic Hermetica in fact translations of Greek works, or are they inventions in Arabic? In the latter case, what motivated their authors to attribute these texts to Hermes? No determined and comprehensive attempt had hitherto been made to answer these questions, despite the scholarly interest and even popularity of the ancient Hermetica among European and American scholars for several centuries. With a number of important exceptions, I have found mostly speculation about the Arabic Hermetica in scholarly literature. As the project developed, it became clear that the edition, translation, and study of the still mostly unpublished Arabic Hermetica, upon which . . .

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