Much of modern-day Egyptian-based magico-philosophy stems from the mingling of religious and philosophical literature which developed between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE. In reality, the Hermetica, which is often passed off as the font of all classic Egyptian wisdom, is a collection of writings by an unknown Christian scholar, combining neo-Platonic, Qabalistic and Christian elements.
As a result, no one is sure of their origin (or even if they are fakes, according to Eva Shaw), since there has been a continuing debate about their authenticity from the time of the Renaissance. The works are referred to as Hermetica because the principal character in them is usually Hermes Trismegistus. The name Trismegitus (thrice-greatest) shows that this is the Egyptian god Thoth (Tahuti) who, by this period in history (500BCE), had been equated with the Greek Hermes. The epithet relates directly to an inscription in a temple at Isna, near Thebes: “Djeyeuty pa aa, pa aa, pa aa = Tahuti, the great, the great, the great”
Hermetic writings are in the form of dialogues in which the chief characters are Thoth/Tahuti himself in his Egyptian guise, the healing god Asclepius and his Egyptian counter-part Imhotep, Osiris, Amun, Isis and Horus. Their purpose is to teach the understanding of God, man and the universe, with the authority of the ancient wisdom of Egypt. But they rarely make full use of the pretence that the speakers are Egyptian gods and demi-gods, and there is little genuine early Egyptian tradition contained in the text.
According to the Hermetica there are three grades in the Egyptian Mysteries of Hermes/Thoth/Tahuti, which do bear a remarkable (if unintentional) insight into the old stellar beliefs of the pre-dynastic period:
Mortals - those who are instructed but who have not yet gained inner vision.
Intelligences - those whose vision enabled them to tune into other life forms within the universe
Beings of Light - those who have become light.
The entry in the occult encyclopaedia, Man, Myth & Magic, openly states that originality is not a virtue of the Hermetica since the writings contain scarcely a paragraph which cannot be considered as a development or continuation of older and more original ideas. “Almost all the material is drawn from Greek philosophy, with a little from ancient Egyptian beliefs and Mesopotamian astrology ... often debasing or even mutilating the original thought. Like most magical or mystical writings it is not remarkable for consistency of thought or uniformity of terminology, and the versions which have come down to us are crowded with obscurities and contradictions.”
Other widely used source material comes from the Egyptian Mysteries of Iamblichus (first published in 1911) which are another series of ‘dialogues’ although little is known about the author or precisely when it was written. Occult lore appears to accept the author as being a ‘representative of the Alexandrian School’ and a neo-Platonist, giving the date of the text as being 4CE. Modern research into the text refutes these claims, however, since the content ‘deals with eternal mystical and philosophical questions of the creation of the cosmos …’ neither does it contain any fragments or references to an initiation ritual as is often claimed by occultists.
Iamblichus was recognised as an accomplished sorcerer who would have been familiar with the initiation rites of Egypto-Coptic mysteries, the theosophical doctrines, religious beliefs and magical rituals. Nevertheless, contemporary scholars find that his work bears no resemblance to the famous initiatory text On the Mysteries, particularly those of the Egyptians, Chaldeans & the Assyrians, usually attributed to him. Neither do the translations of Iamblichus by Taylor (1821), Quillard (1895) and Hopfner (1921) contain ‘a single passage which is related to or identical with’ the text claimed to have been preserved by the 4th century CE sorcerer.
This is not to say that there is nothing worthy of note in the Weiser version of the Egyptian Mysteries. It does smack, perhaps too conveniently, of a massaged text that now identifies easily with the 22-Paths of the major arcana of the Tarot. Especially when the translator is identified as Jean-Baptiste Pitois, a student of Eliphas Levi, the great 19th century magus whose greatest contribution to modern occultism was - the Qabalistic discoveries relating to the 22-Paths of the Tarot! Unlike the translation of the The Leyden Papyrus, which dates from around the same time, Egyptian Mysteries must be viewed with a hefty pinch of scepticism.
The Hermetica, The Egyptian Mysteries and The Leyden Papyrus offer up Greek influenced records from the beginning of the Christian era and therefore only reflect magico-religious practice from a decayed Egypt. Judging by the confusion from the end of the New Kingdom over the country’s traditional cultural identity, it is highly doubtful whether these late records can claim any degree of authority as to the ‘pure’ esoteric practices of the Early Period. The Leyden Papyrus is believed to be the textbook of a practising sorcerer of the period, including spells, sex magical rituals, incantations and various other occult information which may be of more practical use to the neophyte interested in magic rather than philosophy.
Part II to follow …