Hermes Trismegistus is at once an energetic deity in ancient mythology and an enigmatic figure credited with writing a body of texts in the ancient world. This book presents newly translated texts that translator Charles Stein subsequently explores for connections and ideas relevant to contemporary times. As the author states, Hermetic initiations “seek to liberate people from cosmic, ecclesiastical and political hierarchies” (pg 87), restoring the individual to freedom of thought and being that have been lost or suppressed. The goal Hermeticism is to guide the individual toward a mystical union with the Divine.
The collection includes related texts that have never been published together and include:
Theogony of Hesiod
Homeric Hymn to Hermes
Poem of Parmenides
“The Vision of Isis” from the Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) of Apuleius
“On Divine Virtue” by Zosimos of Panopolis
The Preface provides the author’s reasons for selecting texts that cover the period from the 7th c BCE through the 4th c CE. The translations, done by Stein over fifty years, are poetic rather than critical. In the Introduction, Stein emphasizes the modern relevance of Hermetic thought as a springboard for a contemporary world view through a “new imagination of intelligence” that can “heal the inescapably discordant multiplicity of the world.” (pg 3)
The introductions to each translation place it in historic, cultural and/or philosophical context. As the collection covers roughly one thousand years of ancient thought, Stein’s remarks on a text’s origins are immensely helpful to readers making their first approach to these works. The commentaries that follow each text are meaty and highly intellectual, presenting Stein’s cogitations and deeper insights into these works. I particularly savored the author’s remarks about the nature of fate and time on pp 105-109. End matter includes a bibliography and an index. The book has the high quality editing, formatting, and design elements I’ve come to anticipate and enjoy from Inner Traditions publications.
I’m intimately familiar with the Loeb edition of Theogony and The Homeric Hymns (Loeb editions present English and Greek side by side on sequential pages) and have read older translations of the other works. These new translations are refreshing to read in part because the English is more contemporary but also because the translating task was approached with poetic and spiritual intent. As each translator makes careful decisions about word choice and phrase structure, each translation conveys a slightly different gloss than an earlier version. I’m grateful to have access to the author’s thoughts on each work as he has spent many decades reflecting on this content. Every return to the Hermetic well yields fresh bursts of inspiration.
These translations are a joy for the contemporary reader, but I must admit that Stein’s introduction and commentaries was the most enlightening part of the literary experience for me. I’m a bit envious because new readers who start with this excellent edition don’t have to wade through the century-old translations by Mead or Evelyn-White. Readers unfamiliar with Hermeticism may wish to read Hermetic Philosophy and Creative Alchemy: The Emerald Tablet, the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Journey Through the Seven Spheres By Marlene Seven Bremner from the same publisher. (Clicking on the previous text will open a link to our review.)
Highly recommended as an unusual grouping of Hermetic texts as well as a source of contemplations on those texts for more advanced readers.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Charles Stein
Inner Traditions, 2022
352 pages. $40.00 hardback