From Ancient Egypt to Modern Science: The Forgotten Link

hermes

By LYNN PICKNETT & CLIVE PRINCE

The ‘Scientific Revolution’ describes the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century watershed in the basic attitude to the scientific method, laying the foundations for the modern technological age. Starting when Copernicus went public with his heliocentric theory in 1543, and ending when Isaac Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1687, textbooks say there was a window of just 150 years when European thinking was transformed from superstition to science.

But that’s not the way it was. In reality, science owes its origins to beliefs that the high priests of modern science such as Richard Dawkins would regard as even more irrational than Christianity. Far, far worse to them would be the fact that the particular ‘superstitions’ in question were unprecedentedly influential.

In fact, the Scientific Revolution was driven by a very specific magical philosophy and cosmology, set out in a set of texts that inspired all the pioneers of science, directly or indirectly.

The Books that Really Changed the World

Bluntly, these texts have had a greater influence on Western civilisation than any other set of texts apart from the Bible – and the greatest effect on modern Western civilisation than any texts including the Bible. The scandal is that so few people today have even heard of them.

They are a collection known as the Hermetica, setting out an uncompromisingly magical and mystical philosophy and cosmology. Their name comes from their attribution to the legendary Egyptian teacher, Hermes Trismegistus (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’). According to the Hermetica, he was a descendant of the god of that name – Hermes in Greek, identified with the Egyptian god of learning, Thoth, scribe to the gods.

In medieval Europe, with the exception of the one treatise Asclepius, they had been lost, thanks to the fourth-century crackdown on pagan learning by Christian zealots. However, the books survived in the Middle East, becoming the foundation for the famously advanced medieval Arab science. All knowledge-hungry Europeans could do was hope – and pray? – that they might be rediscovered.

Eventually they were. In 1463 an agent of the great patron of the early Renaissance, Cosimo de Medici, returned to Florence with a set of 14 Hermetic treatises, written in Greek, which he had acquired in Macedonia. Famously, Cosimo’s top scholar, Marsilio Ficino, was working on the first translation of the complete works of Plato into Latin – but Cosimo, beside himself with excitement at the new discovery, ordered him to drop it in favour of the Hermetic books.

Through his translation – the Corpus Hermeticum – and allied esoteric writings, Ficino is a major figure in the restoration of Hermeticism, setting it at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. And thanks to the sensational new technology of the printing press, the Hermetic books fomented the greatest furore among European intelligentsia. It is impossible to overstate their impact, both then and much, much later. Hermeticism influenced everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Shakespeare, and can be said without exaggeration to have kick-started the Renaissance. But the Hermetic books’ significance has always been downplayed by academics, particularly historians of science and philosophy.

The Hermetic works were so enthralling largely because they were believed to preserve the wisdom of the most ancient period of the Egyptian civilisation, that of the pyramid builders, predating even the Old Testament. But the most important reason for their huge impact was the image of humankind they presented – diametrically opposite to Man-the-doomed-worm so beloved of the Vatican.

According to the Corpus Hermeticum human beings are brilliant, amazing creatures of unlimited potential. Treatise X even declares that “the human is a godlike living thing,”1 reinforced by the Hermetic adage ‘Magnum miraculum est homo’ (‘Man is a great miracle’). This also applies to women: the Hermetic tradition had great respect for the feminine – a reason by itself for the Catholic Church’s horrified reaction to this audacious philosophy.

Although to the Church it was bad enough to promote ideas of a divine-spirited Man, to include women as inherently god-like was considerably worse. Some clerics were still debating whether they had souls, and here come these vile pagans with outrageous beliefs that women were dazzling beings of ultimate light…

Many authors have written at length about the Hermetica’s influence in generating the surge of self-confidence that inspired the great flowering of art and literature that is the Renaissance. We, however, take it further and link this Hermetic epiphany with the history of science.

Copernicus’ ‘Visible God’

The Scientific Revolution famously began with Nicolas Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres (1543), which set out the sensational theory that the Earth circles the Sun and not the other way round. But where did he get the idea?

A rather large clue is there on the very page showing his celebrated diagram of the Earth and other planets orbiting the Sun. Just four lines below, he explicitly references the Hermetica in relation to the metaphysical implications of the diagram, quoting a passage where Hermes Trismegistus describes the Sun as the ‘visible god’.

This is no coincidence. All Copernicus’ radical notions can be found in the Hermetica.

Copernicus’ famous proposition is found several times in the Corpus Hermeticum, for example, in Treatise XVI: “For the Sun is situated at the centre of the cosmos, wearing it like a crown.”2 And “Around the Sun are the six spheres that depend from it: the sphere of the fixed stars, the six of the planets, and the one that surrounds the Earth.”3 ‘Spheres’ correspond to our ‘orbits’…

Essentially, Copernicus was claiming to have found mathematical and physical proof for principles that are set out – without proof – in the Hermetic books. Contemporary Hermeticists certainly regarded him as a hero for vindicating their sacred texts.

The Hermetic influence spread and spread. There isn’t a major character in the Scientific Revolution who wasn’t steeped in the tradition: Kepler, Tycho Brahe, William Gilbert, William Harvey, Leibniz. The list even includes the likes of Galileo and Francis Bacon, generally considered proto-reductionists.

The list of the discoveries either taken directly from the Hermetica or discovered indirectly by applying its basic principles to particular problems is truly impressive. Apart from the world-changing theory of heliocentricity, they include:

The circulation of the blood

The Earth as a magnet

The concepts of an infinite universe and that the stars are in fact distant suns

The idea of other inhabited worlds, some with more advanced inhabitants

The basic principles of computer science and information theory

Most of these were actually developed by the great Hermetic genius Giordano Bruno, as we will explain in our next article.

Perhaps the Hermetica’s greatest – but most deliberately downplayed – impact was on the work of Isaac Newton who first put forward the theory of gravity and the other laws of motion in his Principia Mathematica in 1687: the apotheosis of the Scientific Revolution and the real start of the modern world. However, although his admirers today tend to humour his obsession with alchemy – usually very condescendingly – the extent to which he was influenced by Hermeticism is still rarely mentioned.

Briefly, by Newton’s day the new reductionist, mechanistic thinking developed by René Descartes in the mid-seventeenth century was all the rage in scientific circles. Undoubtedly Newton began his own academic career as a mechanist but in the mid-1670s he became heavily influenced by a group of philosophers at Cambridge University known as the Cambridge Platonists.

In fact these ‘Platonists’ were the spiritual heirs of Ficino’s Academy in Florence, founded on Hermetic principles at the very beginning of the Renaissance, the initiators of a magical brotherhood that transmitted the Hermetic tradition from Florence to Cambridge, and to Newton… And they changed his thinking – but in the opposite way to what is usually claimed. American historian of science and Newton biographer Richard S. Westfall, wrote that, as a result of his contact with the Cambridge group “the Hermetic influence bade fair to dominate his picture of nature at the expense of the mechanical.”4 Instead of moving from magic to mechanics, he moved from mechanics to magic.

A few, such as Westfall, now acknowledge that Newton’s breakthroughs came from applying the Hermetic principles – to understand the mystery of gravity, for example.

Newton didn’t make his great discoveries despite his occult beliefs, but because of them.

The same is true of all the great figures of the Scientific Revolution – really the Hermetic Revolution – a very different picture from steady march of rationalism painted by the likes of Dawkins. Science’s real origins were occult and therefore, according to the modern misunderstanding, irredeemably irrational. And deeply embarrassing.

It was only after Newton that science as we know it emerged, through the gradual separation of Hermeticism from the scientific method. History was then rewritten to pretend the magic had never been there in the first place, or that it was only ever a derisory novelty.

However, it was the magic that did the trick. It’s often stated that if Newton had never written the Principia the modern technological world would not exist – but the fact is if he had never read the Hermetica he would never have written the Principia. For that alone we owe the ancient texts a huge debt. But did these momentously influential books really come from ancient Egypt?

Out of Egypt

As we saw above, when they were rediscovered everybody believed the Hermetic books originated at the most venerable period of the Egyptian civilisation, the pyramid age. Depending on one’s viewpoint, they were either humanity’s purest wisdom or devil-inspired pagan occultism, but either way their immense antiquity was accepted.

Then in 1614 the French scholar Isaac Casaubon compared the Hermetica’s language and style to other Greek texts, arguing that they were of relatively late composition. He also believed that the Hermetic writers had borrowed from Greek philosophy and sections of the New Testament, concluding they were a second- or third-century hoax, although – to him, laudably – one that was intended to bring Egyptian pagans to Christianity.

Hermeticism’s enemies, particularly among French Catholics (then fiercely combating its academic influence) seized on Casaubon’s work as ammunition. Meanwhile, Hermeticists, naturally, were slower to acknowledge his reasoning. Although accepting his linguistic arguments, many – particularly the Cambridge Platonists – argued that, while the books may have been written during the Greek period, their ideas were much older.

While most historians still agree that the Hermetica came from Egypt during the period of Graeco-Roman domination, they now only accept the part of Casaubon’s case based on the style, considering his conclusion that the Hermetic writers borrowed from the New Testament a particular howler. In fact, it is now known that the gnostic theology in question pre-dated Christianity (although Casaubon couldn’t have known that). The consensus now is that the texts were written a few centuries earlier than Causabon thought. But when were their ideas first developed?

The Hermetic books are clearly an Egyptian and Greek mix. As western academia has always been biased in favour of classical Greece, regarding it as the fount of all things worthwhile in philosophy and science, the Greek parts have been traditionally considered more important than the Egyptian. However, during the twentieth century it became increasingly obvious that native Egyptian ideas played a larger part than previously thought. Today it’s not a question of if there’s an Egyptian influence, but of how much. One faction even argues that the books are mostly Egyptian, with ideas from Plato and other Greek thinkers being crowbarred in only to help explain the underlying concepts to that particular audience.5

The evidence is considerable: the books fit the Egyptian model of wisdom literature more obviously than the Greek tradition; the authors remain anonymous and attribute their works to Hermes – typically Egyptian – whereas Greek writers sought personal celebrity; the texts use the Egyptian, rather than Greek, system of astrology.

Perhaps most compelling, though, is the fact that the Hermetica are not only populated with Egyptian gods and goddesses – either ‘straight’ Egyptian deities such as Isis, Thoth and Horus or Greek gods that were specially venerated in Egypt such as Asclepius and Hermes himself – but also rely on Egyptian concepts of divinity. Although Greek Hermes is customarily identified with the Egyptian wisdom-god Thoth, scribe of the gods, the two did not share identical characteristics – and Hermes Trismegistus’ are those of Thoth, not Hermes.

The honorific ‘Trismegistus’ also makes sense as a Greek rendering of a characteristically Egyptian custom. In Egypt a person or deity was venerated simply by repeating the glyph for ‘great’, either twice or, for exceptional greatness, three times. It would be natural for a Greek translator to render a text literally reading ‘great great great’ as ‘three times great’ – or ‘Trismegistus’.

Indeed, the practice seems to have been reserved for Thoth himself (left). An inscription from Saqqara in 160 BCE calls him “the three times great” – repeating the Demotic character for ‘great’ three times.6 Not only is this the earliest known inscription using the ‘three times great’ form, but it comes from the period of Greek domination when the Hermetic books were being composed, making the link to Thrice-great Hermes even more compelling.

The case for a native Egyptian influence on the Hermetica is now so persuasive that many specialists believe the books originated with a specific Egyptian wisdom-cult – which obviously honoured Thoth. Borrowing ideas from Greeks such as Plato would have helped make alien Egyptian concepts seem more familiar, and ensuring Egyptian traditions were inveigled into the Greek conquerors’ own literature would have effectively preserved them for posterity. But who created the Hermetica?

From the City of the Sun

A clue comes from another movement that emerged in Greek-dominated Egypt and which is closely entwined with Hermeticism – and may be regarded as Hermeticism’s esoteric twin.

Academics may have called this school, off-puttingly, ‘Neoplatonism’ – because it borrowed some concepts from Plato’s more mystical writings – but the movement is entrancingly profound and very Egyptian: a magical system intended to reconnect directly with God during life – rather than after death – and empower the practitioner.

It is known that the school was founded on the works of the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus (c.205-270 CE), pupil of the mysterious Egyptian sage Ammonius Saccas. And although originally it was thought to be entirely Greek-based, the presence of other influences, including native Egyptian, was acknowledged. And now some argue that the core ideas are wholly Egyptian and the Greek parts just a veneer.

One of the main proponents of the latter is the German-born American professor of religious history Karl W. Luckert, who argues in Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire (1991) that rather than Neoplatonic the philosophy should be called ‘neo-Egyptian’. He declares: “Plotinus has given us Egyptian religion [and] theology in the linguistic garb of Hellenic philosophy.”7 The most obvious example is Plotinus’ account of a two-part soul, corresponding exactly with the well-known Egyptian ka and ba, but failing to match any Greek beliefs.

And now there’s a huge amount of evidence that Neoplatonism preserves spiritual traditions that go right back to the very foundations of the Egyptian civilisation. Luckert has found compelling parallels between the Neoplatonic writings and the beliefs expressed in the famous Pyramid Texts. The oldest known religious writings in the world, these are inscribed on the walls of pyramids constructed between 2500 and 2200 BCE, but are unquestionably just examples of writings that originated many centuries earlier. In fact, they encapsulate the beliefs of the religion whose cult centre was at Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, close to Giza – which inspired the building of the great pyramids.

The similarities between Neoplatonism and Hermeticism have been obvious since Ficino’s day, and clearly they are simply alternative expressions of the same worldview. For example, Iamblichus of Syria (c.245-c.325 CE), labelled a Neoplatonist philosopher by contemporary historians, opens his masterwork On the Egyptian Mysteries with an appeal to Hermes “who presides over true knowledge of the gods,”8 showing the close connection with Hermeticism. Significantly, too, Iamblichus emphasises the custom of Egyptian writers of attributing their books to Hermes while remaining anonymous.

Given the close association of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism they obviously share a common source. And if Neoplatonism derives from ancient Heliopolis – then so must the Hermetica. Indeed, a comparison of the latter’s core spiritual and cosmological ideas does reveal them to be very similar, if not identical, to the Pyramid Texts.

To the Heliopolitans, the universe was not merely an emanation from the creator-god Atum but also as an emanation of Atum. This fits both the Hermetic concept of the cosmos as God’s thought and the part-divinity of humanity. It also parallels the Hermetic belief in an evolving, expanding and growing universe, becoming ever more complex and multidimensional as it develops from the spiritual to the material.

And in the Heliopolitan system, as the cosmos evolves Atum generates eight other deities, representing new forces and levels of complexity, which make up the Great Ennead – nine gods – the most famous of which are Isis and Osiris, and of which Atum is the chief. But a second ‘octave’, repeating the pattern on the level of physical matter, is generated through Isis and Osiris’ child Horus, who has the same relationship with the material universe as Atum does to all creation, and is therefore god of the material world. Not only does this seem to be the origin of Gnostic (and Platonic) ideas of the Demiurge or lesser god of this world, but also, through Horus’ association with the Sun, of two important ideas that Copernicus picked up on. The first is the Sun as the ‘visible god’ (as opposed to the invisible one, Atum). The second is that, since Atum is the centre of the entire universe, the Sun must be at the centre of our solar system.

Although Egypt’s most ancient religion, the Heliopolitan tradition survived throughout the civilisation’s three-millennia history. In early Egypt mystical and religious wisdom were not separate from practical, technical and scientific knowledge. Both were the preserves of priests, a practice that continued through to classical times, as witnessed by the association of the great libraries, such as that of Alexandria, with temples. Even by the time the Greek traveller Herodotus visited Heliopolis in the fifth century BCE it was still considered to be “where the most learned of the Egyptians are to be found.”9 The famed third-century BCE priest and sage Manetho (‘Beloved of Thoth’) was a priest of Heliopolis – who worked to preserve his land’s religious beliefs by making them more accessible to the new Greek rulers, the very same motive ascribed to the writers of the Hermetica. But there is another important clue to the origins of the Hermetica at the very beginning of the civilisation’s history, in the person of the earliest recorded priest of Heliopolis.

This was Imhotep, priest of Heliopolis and the genius who conceived and oversaw the building of the first great pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, in 2650 BCE. He was so endowed with genius and divine gifts that he was worshipped by later generations – making him the perfect role model for the Hermetic belief that humans can achieve godhood through their endeavours.

Imhotep’s cult survived through the ages. The second-century-BCE inscription to ‘three times great Thoth’ discussed above was written by a priest named Hor (Horus) who belonged to the ‘chapel of Imhotep’ in the city of Heliopolis.

Imhotep also lives on, thinly disguised, in the pages of the Hermetica. The major character of the treatises is Hermes’ pupil, Asclepius – a descendant of Asclepius, Greek god of healing. The Greeks identified Asclepius with Imhotep – and in the Hermetic work that bears his name, the identification with Imhotep is heavily reinforced.

So the latest scholarship vindicates the belief of the Renaissance Hermeticists such as Ficino and Bruno that their revered texts contained the wisdom of Egypt’s pyramid age. But this also means that the Scientific Revolution – and therefore the whole basis of modern science – was also inspired by the authentic wisdom of the ancient Egyptians. Where they might have got it from is quite another question, sadly beyond the scope of this article…

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Footnotes

1. Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 36.

2. Ibid., 59.

3. Ibid., 61.

4. Richard S. Westfall, ‘Newton and the Hermetic Tradition’, in Allen G. Debus, Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, Science History Publications, 1972, vol. II, 194-5.

5. A major figure in this development was the French orientalist Jean-Pierre Mahé, in his Hermès en Haute-Egypt, published in two volumes in 1978 and 1982. Another important study is British professor of antiquity Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes (1986).

6. See J.D. Ray, The Archive of Hor, Egypt Exploration Society, 1976.

7. Karl W. Luckert, Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire: Theological and Philosophical Roots of Christendom in Evolutionary Perspective, State University of New York Press, 1991, 257.

8. Iamblichus (trans. Clarke, Dillon and Hershbell), De mysteriis, Brill, 2004, 5.

9. Herodotus (trans. de Sélincourt and Burn), The Histories, Penguin, 1972, 130.

LYNN PICKNETT & CLIVE PRINCE’s joint career began with Turin Shroud: How Leonardo Da Vinci Fooled History and – eight books later – they published The Forbidden Universe. They are best known for their 1997 The Templar Revelation, which Dan Brown acknowledged as the primary inspiration for The Da Vinci Code. As a reward for their contribution they were given cameos in the movie (on the London bus). They also give talks to an international audience. Lynn & Clive both live in South London. Their website is www.picknettprince.com.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 129 (November-December 2011).

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