Hermes, Sabians, and Islam: Traditions of Hermes in Islamic and Pre-Islamic Sources

The following is an excerpt from Baphomet: The Temple Mystery Unveiled by Tracy R. Twyman and Alexander Rivera.


During the start of the Sassanid dynasty (the last pre-Islamic Iranian/Persian empire, which ruled from 224-651 AD), a translation of ancient Iranian writings was commenced that included works supposedly written by “Hermes the Babylonian, who had been king over Egypt.” This perhaps accords with the references made in the first century AD text Carmen Astrologicum by Dorotheus (originally written in Greek, then translated into Middle Persian before ultimately surviving only in Arabic), which mentions both “Hermes Trismegistus, King of Egypt,” and a “Babylonian Hermes.” At that time, the territory known as “Babylon” was part of the Persian Empire.

It would seem that the Persians had their own tradition of Hermes, which was influenced by the original Greek Hermetica, but which was also uniquely added to by them. It formed part of the basis for the traditions later proliferated in Arabic-language works. As Kevin Van Bladel put it in The Arabic Hermes:

What is certain is that the earliest appearance of Hermes in Arabic, in the eighth century, is from the Middle Persian tradition, not the Greek.

These traditions include the ones reflected in the Kitab an-Nhmt’n, translated into Arabic by Ibn Nawbaht. This text tells a story where a panel of twelve scholars corresponding to the houses of the zodiac is appointed by a tyrannical king to help govern the people from a group of twelve citadels situated in Iraq. When eventually their rule was rejected by the people, the sages scattered, and found new lands to rule over. One of these sages was Hermes. As it states:

He was among them one of the most perfect in intellect, most accurate in knowledge, and most subtle in investigation. He went down to the land of Egypt and ruled its people as king, civilized it, improved the conditions of its inhabitants, and revealed his knowledge there.


Hermes, Cock and Goat by Artus

Indeed, the legend of Hermes was well-known in Iraq during Sasanian times. A magical amulet found in Nippur and dated from this time is dedicated to “Hermes, Lord of the Universe.”

When most scholars think of Arabic and Hermetics, they think of Harran, a city once in Upper Mesopotamia, the remains of which are now in Turkey. This is because, as Van Bladel put it, “they are the only special group credited with possessing works attributed to Hermes and transmitting them into Arabic.” The Abbasid caliph Al-Ma‘Mun (from 813-833), demanded that the inhabitants of the city either claim themselves as one of the “People of the Book” or convert to Islam. Non-Islamic “People of the Book” included all Torah-based Abrahamic religions (such as Christianity and Judaism), as well as a group mysteriously referred to in The Koran as the “Sabians.” It is implied that the latter group might not be strictly monotheists, but are still close enough in their beliefs to be part of the family. Instead of being forced to submit to conversion, People of the Book simply submitted to a social status called “dhimmitude,” which involved paying a special tax. Other terms sometimes applied in Islamic Arabic texts to the “Sabians” mentioned in The Koran are “Magi” and “Hanifa.” Seemingly in order to avoid religious persecution, the people of Harran were declared “Sabians” and were spared.

So what exactly was the religion of the Harranians? This is a problem that Van Bladel decided to take up for himself, as, shortly after this Sabian declaration, the Harranians also began to proclaim that the prophet of their religion was none other than Hermes. This claim has been taken at face value, so that through the years, much has been written about the role of the Harranians in the spread of Hermeticism. Van Bladel has taken a critical view of this, and so has taken pains to show exactly what association if any the Harranians actually had with Hermes, and how these “Hermetic”? traditions clashed with what is considered today “Hermetic”? doctrine.

Author Michel Tardieu has written that from the sixth to tenth centuries, a Platonic academy was there, founded by Hellenic philosophers and then later maintained by Harranian Sabians. Scholar Jan Hjarpe also says that later a group of Harranian Neoplatonists moved to Baghdad. They were headed by Tabit ibn Qurra, an astronomer and translator attached to the court of Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tadid. He translated many Greek scientific and philosophical works into Arabic. Hjarpe has suggested that what is thought of as the “Hermetic doctrines of the pagan Sabians of Harran” were actually the beliefs of this one family and their followers. Writer Isetraut Hadot purported that by this time, the Harranian form of “Platonism” had become one and the same with “Hermeticism.” John Walbridge, in an article from 1998 in The Journal of the History of Ideas entitled “Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam,” wrote: “It seems that the ancient moon cult of Harran had evolved into a Hermetic sect that worshipped the planets. . . .”?

The notion that the Harranians worshipped the heavenly bodies is echoed repeatedly by many writers. Theodore Abu Qurrah, an Orthodox Christian Bishop living in Harran in the ninth century, stated:

They claim that they worship the seven planets—the sun, the moon, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus—and the twelve zodiacal houses, because they are the ones that create and govern this creation and give good fortune and prosperity in the lower world, and ill fortune and suffering. They said that their prophet in that is Hermes the Sage.

In more modern times, HE Stapleton, GL Lewis, and F. Sherwood Taylor, in their 1949 work The Sayings of Hermes Quoted in the Ma’ Al-waraqi of Ibn Umail, said: “The influence of the star-worshipping Sabaeans of Harran, to whom Thoth-Hermes was the god of all civilizing inventions, was widespread in the Islamic world?

Another popular idea is that the Harranians were responsible for “disseminating”? Hermeticism around the global Muslim ummah (community). Seyyed Hossein Nasr, writing in 1967’s Hermes and Hermetic Writings in the Islamic World, had the Harranians in mind when he said: “‘Hermeticism was propagated by the Sabaeans who made known to the Islamic world the writings that were attributed to Hermes”? The 1968 book The Thousands of Abu Ma‘shar by David Pingree tells us that the aforementioned account of the Babylonian Hermes from Ibn Nawbaht was influenced by “Harranians,”? and that the Harranians held Hermes, along with his colleague teacher, “Agathodaemon”? as their “prophets.”?

Even Sir Walter Scott, in his English translation and commentary on The Corpus Hermeticum, wrote of his belief that the text of the Corpus had appeared suddenly in Constantinople after 1000 years in obscurity just after the “Sabians”? (i.e., the Harranian immigrants practicing paganism) had left Baghdad under Muslim persecution. As he put it:

Is there not something more than chance in this? It may be that one of the Sabians of Bagdad, finding that his position under Moslem rule was becoming unendurable, migrated to Constantinople, and brought in his baggage a bundle of Greek Hermetica—and that our Corpus is that bundle. . . . The Pagans of Harran almost certainly possessed the whole collection of Hermetica (including many documents that are not now extant) in Greek, at the time when they adopted these writings as their Scriptures, in AD 830. . . .

Moreover, if we choose to indulge in further conjectures, there is nothing to prevent us from supposing that it was the arrival in Constantinople of a few such Sabian Neoplatonists from Baghdad, and the writings brought with them, that first started the revival of Platonic study.

The image of the Sabians of and from Harran that has been presented for historians to document indicates that they indulged in rituals to stellar and planetary bodies (which would seem, ostensibly, pagan), and held Hermes to be their prophet (who is spoken of as a wise sage and historical king figure but still has everything in common with the old Greek pagan deity as well). Yet they are still somehow monotheists and “People of the Book”? acceptable to Muslim society. The way that Al-Mubassir ibn Tatik’s Kitab Muhtar al-hikam (written in Fatamid Egypt) described the religion taught by Hermes certainly sounds compatible with this. As Van Bladel tells us:

It included feasts at astrological conjunctions and at the sun’s entry into a new zodiacal sign, as well as sacrificial offerings to the planets at the appropriate times. Hermes is also said to have commanded them ‘to perform prayers that he stated for them in ways that he described.’ On the other hand, the religious laws of Hermes given here bear close resemblance to Islamic law: they require ritual purity, abstinence from intoxication, gihad against the enemies of the religion, . . . and prescribe most of the punishments called hadd punishments in Islamic law. All this leads me to conclude that the “religion of Hermes”? described here was developed and described well after the establishment of Islam and Islamic law.

Van Bladel implies that perhaps the entire misfitted conglomeration of Islam, Platonism, and star-worshipping, as well as the claiming of Hermes as a religious prophet, was concocted (originally, perhaps, by Tabit ibn Qurra, his family, and their followers) to make the Harranians’ religious practices seem acceptable to their Islamic rulers. However, one very interesting detail put forward by the Kitab Muhtar al-hikam is the suggestion that the name “Sabian”? comes from “Sab”? one of the nicknames or epithets of Hermes’ son, Tat, to whom many of the Hermetic discourses are addressed. This notion is echoed by Al-Masudi (tenth century historian), by Al-Mubassir (eleventh century), and by Ibn Abi Usaybia (twelfth century scholar).


Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Sien

The question of whether the prophet Hermes should be considered identical to the deity on the Greek pantheon, or to the Egyptian god Thoth whose name was compounded with his, seems to be a matter on which none of the authors agree. Kevin van Bladel, whilst making a distinction between the two concepts (Hermes the God and Hermes the Prophet), nonetheless acknowledges that over time one became the other in the public mind, and in the opposite order than one would expect. Normally, historians write about the “deification”? of a historical figure through myth-morphing, or a leader being worshipped like a god by his people, not the other way around. But we could imagine that when Ibn Nawbaht wrote in the Kitab an-Nhmt’n of Hermes being one of twelve ancient ruling sages, corresponding to the twelve houses of the Zodiac, he might have been tapping into some underlying truth behind the myths of the twelve Olympic gods.

The question becomes further complicated when we realize that in several Hermetic works, we are told that there was not just one Hermes, but three, each born to Earth at a different time in history. Generally, it breaks down to there being one who came before the Flood, one after the Flood, and one who was born in Egypt much later. Of course, there are numerous variations on this theme.

One important source is the ninth century Book of the Thousands from Abu Masar, the greatest astrologer in the Abbasid court of Baghdad. The book itself is no longer with us, but we can read about it from other books, such as Ibn Abi Usaybia’s thirteenth century Kitab Tabaqat al-atibba (The Generations of the Physicians). Here the summary of Abu Masar’s Hermetic history is as follows:

The Hermeses are three. The first of them is Hermes who was before the Flood. The significance of “Hermes”? is a title, like saying “Caesar”? . . . . The Persians named him Wiwanghan, meaning “the Just”? in their biographies of the kings. He is the one to whose philosophy the Harranians adhere. The Persians state that his grandfather was Gayumart, that is Adam. The Hebrews state that he is Enoch, which, in Arabic, is Idris. . . . He was the first to give advance warning of the Flood, and he thought that a celestial catastrophe of fire or water would overwhelm the earth. His home was Upper Egypt; he chose that [place] and built the pyramids and cities of clay there. He feared that knowledge would pass away in the Flood, so he built the monumental temples. . . .

Several important notions are purported here. The first is that “Hermes”? is just a title, which would solve the god/prophet conundrum as well as the questions of whether or not the “Three Hermeses”? are all incarnations of the same soul (the interpretation taken by many modern Hermeticists, such as Dennis William Hauck in his book The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation). If we can accept that a “Hermes”? is a type of teacher of fundamental scientific wisdom such as that traditionally associated with the god Hermes, then it all makes sense.

The second important idea we find here is that this first Hermes is identical to the biblical figure of Enoch, known as Idris to the Muslims and mentioned by name in The Koran. (Sura 19:56-57: “And mention Idris in the Book. He was true, a prophet. We raised him to a high place.”?) This Hermes-Idris identification is thoroughly accepted through Islamic teachings, and is in no way controversial. Van Bladel says that the first Arabic-language reference to Hermes being Idris can be traced back to around 840 AD. He reckons it came from the (now lost) chronicles used as source material by the Christian historians Oanodorus and Annianus, working in Alexandria in the fifth century, since their goals were to synthesize various characters in history recorded at different times and places. The tradition that Idris was Enoch had already been established in the early eighth century by Wahb ibn Munabbin, who cataloged isra Iliyat (“Jewish traditions”?) in Arabic. He said Idris was the first to use a pen and that he received directly from God thirty scrolls of wisdom material that he was instructed to bring to humanity. Furthermore, Idris is also considered in Islamic lore to be the same as the mercurial character of the “Green Man”? Al-Khadir.

The connection between Enoch and Hermes seems logical when you consider that they both are purported authors of books containing the heavenly wisdom of the stars (Hermes with his alchemical Emerald Tablet, and Enoch the author of 366 books of divine knowledge). Enoch was indeed the first to give warning of the Flood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is what The First Book of Enoch is largely all about.

However, the Judeo-Christian tradition of Enoch also purports that he is a descendant of Adam’s third son Seth several generations removed. He is supposedly a completely different person from his cousin Enoch, the eldest son of Cain with the same name, who was born after Cain’s exile to Nod, and after whom Cain named the first city he built. Yet it seems to be implied by Ibn Abi Usaybia that it is the Cainite Enoch who is identified with Hermes and who warned of the Flood, because he states that the Persians call Hermes the grandson of Adam. This same genealogy of Enoch-Idris is also given by Mutahhar ibn Tahir al Maqdisi in the 966 AD. work The Creation and the Chronicle. Based on this evidence it can be speculated that both Enochs were originally one figure in earlier versions of the story. This would be one more piece of evidence indicating that. However, several other Arabic scholars clearly identify Idris with the Sethian Enoch, such as thirteenth-century Gregory Bar Hebraeus (a.k.a. Ibn al-‘Ibri), and before him, tenth-century Abu Hatin ar-Razi, who said that “between him [Idris] and Adam were five patriarchs”? Meanwhile, from a Latin translation of a Spanish translation of Al-Mubassir’s sayings from the thirteenth century, called Liber philosophorum moralium antiquorum, we read:

Hermes was born in Egypt, and he is called Hermes in Greek, Mercury in Latin, and in Hebrew, Enoch. He was the son of Jared, son of Machtalaleb, son of Quenam, son of Enoy, son of Sed, son of Adam.

“Sed,”? clearly, is Seth, with the rest corresponding essentially to the genealogy of the Sethian Enoch found in Genesis.

The third important point here is the idea that Hermes built the pyramids of Egypt, referred to here as the “monumental temples”? in order to preserve the scientific wisdom he’s taught for future generations after the Flood (which would, implicitly, be somehow written on the walls, encoded into the geometry, written on scrolls hidden inside, or something like that). This is a detail mentioned several times in other Arabic Hermetica. Ibn Abi Usaybia also writes that Abu Masar attributed another monument to the first Hermes. This is the “birba”? temple at Ankmim in Egypt, the city of the Priapian fertility god Min. Always shown with an erect phallus, Min was identified by the Greeks with their god Pan, thus the Greek name for the city, “Panopolis.”? (Recall, of course, that Pan was the son of Hermes in many versions of the myth.) The ruins of this temple have yet to be excavated but it is thought by historians to have actually been built during the reign of Ramses II. However, Ibn Abi Usaybia says that Abu Masar claimed it was the first Hermes who did it. The motivation, just as alleged with the pyramids, was supposedly to preserve fundamental knowledge through the coming cataclysmic Deluge. So he “chiseled out”? a mountain there:

. . . portraying in it in carvings all the arts and their uses, and pictures of all the instruments of the artisans, indicating the features of the sciences by illustrations, out of desire thereby to preserve the sciences forever for those after him, fearing that all trace of it would perish from the world.


The Egyptian god Min

The same exact thing was written by Said al-Andalusi in his eleventh century text Tabaqat al-‘Umam (Exposition of the Generations of Nations), but he specifies that this first Hermes was the Enoch descended from Seth, and gives his genealogy. The same details were seconded by Syriac writer Gregory Bar Hebraeus in the thirteenth century, who actually said there was only one Hermes, the Sethian Enoch. This is interesting, for Josephus wrote in Antiquities of the Jews that it was Seth who preserved the pre-diluvian knowledge of his father Adam by engraving the secrets on two columns, one of brick and one of stone, which were allegedly erected in a place called “Terra Seriadica”?

This notion of preserving knowledge through cataclysms with engraved pillars (one meant to withstand fire and the other built flood-proof) comes up repeatedly in mythology, and we find it in the lore of Freemasonry. Plato mentions Egypt as the place where the story of Atlantis was preserved, along with other ancient pre-Flood wisdom, in Timaeus and Critias. Also, in the Greek Hermetica, we read of the Egyptian goddess Isis (mistress of magic and wisdom) telling her son Horus that Hermes wrote down his extensive knowledge of the universe with hieroglyphs, which he hid for posterity.

So that, purportedly, was the legacy of the first Hermes. The job of the second Hermes was to recapture the preserved knowledge of the first Hermes and use it to rebuild human civilization. Not only that, they say this Hermes personally taught Pythagoras himself everything he knew! Note that the birth of this Hermes in Babylon probably links him up with the aforementioned “Babylonian Hermes”? identified by Dorotheus in the Carmen Astrologicum. As the text states:

The Second Hermes, of the people of Babylon: he lived in the city of the Chaldeans, Babylon, after the Flood in the time of Naburizbani, who was the first to build the city of Babylon after Nimrod the son of Kush. His student was Pythagoras the Arithmetician. This Hermes renewed the knowledge of medicine, philosophy, mathematics that was lost during the Flood at Babylon.

The third Hermes, as described by Ibn Abi Usaybia and Abu Masar, certainly seems less accomplished than his illustrious forebears. In fact, he almost doesn’t seem to qualify for the “title”? of Hermes. But what they say about him is in fact exactly the same as what all other Hermetica which purport the existence of three Hermeses tell about the third (the earliest such account being from Ibn Gulgul’s tenth century work, The Generations of the Physicians and Philosophers). They all agree that he was born in Egypt, he taught the science of alchemy, and he wrote a book called Poisonous Animals. To this, Ibn Abi Usaybia simply adds: “He had a student who is known, whose name was Asclepius?

Asclepius, like Hermes, is the name of a Greek god. He was always shown carrying a staff entwined with a single serpent (just one snake shy of a Hermetic caduceus). His nickname was “the Healer”? because he could resurrect the dead, and he was associated with the practice of medicine. His name was invoked in the original Hippocratic Oath. Even today the rod of Asclepius is still used as a symbol of healing by dentists and veterinarians (while regular physicians tend to use the double-snaked caduceus instead).

Consistently, Hermes has been said to have tutelary relationships with characters named Asclepius, Ammon, Agathodaemon, and Tat (a.k.a. “Sab”?). Tat is usually said to be the son of one of the Hermeses. The Book of Sothis–attributed to the second century historian Manetho, but probably forged more than 100 years later–says that Tat is the son of the second Hermes and the grandson of Agathodaemon through his father. The Greek Hermetica talks about Tat, “Asclepius-Imouthes”? and “Ptah”? (another spelling of Thoth) as being the first of Hermes’ “successors.”? The second-third century text The Asclepius: The Perfect Discourse calls Asclepius, Ammon, and Tat Hermes’ “disciples.”? Gregory Bar Hebraeus agreed that Hermes was the teacher of Asclepius.

This was all presaged by Plato’s Philebus, where he says that the Egyptian “god”? Thoth taught the Egyptian “god”? Ammon the craft of writing. Interestingly, it was Ammon, a ram-headed god, whom Alexander the Great claimed to be the biological son of, as revealed to him by the oracle at Siwa (the reason why Alexander was alleged to have had horns on his head). The Greek syncretists compounded Ammon’s name with that of Zeus, and showed the Olympian god with ram’s horns.

As for Agathodaemon, this was the name of a minor Greek deity of good fortune, as well as the name taken by the author of a third century Egyptian text on alchemy, The Anepigraphos. Jean Doresse, in her Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, suggests that the basis of both the god and the alchemist Agathodaemon can be equated to none other than Seth! This is an interesting idea when you consider that, again, Hermes, allegedly Enoch, is being listed as the son of Agathodaemon, allegedly Seth, when the Bible says that the Sethian Enoch is removed from Seth by several generations, and that the other Enoch’s father is Seth’s brother Cain. Others, such as Dennis William Hauck, have claimed that Agathodaemon is really the god Thoth.

It is also fascinating when you consider what was written by tenth century historian Abu l-Hasan al-Masudi, following up on the notion that the Hermeses built the pyramids at Giza. He took it a step further, writing:

One of the two pyramids is the tomb of Agathodaimon, the other one is the tomb of Hermes. Between the two 1000 years elapsed, Agathodaimon was the older one.
Could it be that the alleged “pillars of Seth”? are in fact the two large pyramids themselves, one believed at one point to house the body of Agathodaemon, who is Seth (and who may well actually be the same person as his purported brother Cain), and the other covering the body of his son Hermes, who is Enoch?

The Arabic traditions of Enoch’s trip to Heaven are fascinating when added and compared to the Judeo-Christian tradition of Enoch, as well as the known traditions of Hermes. According to seventh century Koranic scholar Abdallah ibn al-Abbas, the “angel of the sun”? gave Idris the secret name of God. He purportedly used it to ascend to the “Fourth Heaven”? (that of the sun).

Other chronicles give other interesting details. Abu Hatim ar-Razi said that God took Hermes-Idris to a high mountain in the center of the Earth, where an angel taught him astrology. Third-century historian and astrologer Manetho wrote that God took Enoch so “high”? up into the heavens that he could see and actually walk upon the celestial sphere. Thus he was able to see and understand the entire system of the zodiac and the planets. The Book of the Apple (Kitab at-Tuffaha)–author unknown but ascribed erroneously to Aristotle and dated sometime before the tenth century–simply says that “Hermes”? ascended to Heaven and came back, bringing down with him philosophy and other heavenly secrets from the “Noble Record”? shown to him by the angels. The tenth or eleventh-century author of the Hermetic ar-Risalaal-falakiya al-kubra (Great Treatise of the Spheres) also speaks of Hermes’ heavenly journey. Likewise, the Brethren of Purity, a secret society of Muslim philosophers in eighth-century Basra, Iraq, wrote in their encyclopedia of science and philosophy:

It is related about Hermes the Triplicate in Wisdom, who is Idris the prophet—peace be upon him—that he rose to the sphere of Saturn and turned together with it for thirty years until he witnessed all the states of the heavenly sphere.

As Van Bladel points out, in the astrology system they were using at the time, Saturn was the seventh and highest of the planetary spheres. Thirty years is amount of time it takes for Saturn to travel through all of the houses of the Zodiac. This is the source of the natal astrology term “Saturn’s return”? (a thirty-year cyclical pattern that people purportedly experience throughout their lives).

Incidentally, Van Bladel seems to think that after Hermes became identified with Enoch and assumed his biography, Hermes-Enoch-Idris’ trip to heaven began to be taken as the method by which he learned astrology. This accords with other traditions that Enoch was the first astrologer. One source of these is third century Syrian philosopher Bar Daysan, who credited Enoch with inventing the “Chaldean art”? of astrology himself. This is perfectly in line with Christian tradition. In The Second Book of Enoch 44:5, Enoch makes the following statement about himself:

I have arranged the whole year. And from the year I calculated the months, and from the months I have ticked off the days, and from the day I have ticked off the hours. I, I have measured and noted the hours. And I have distinguished every seed on the earth, and every measure and every righteous scale. I have measured and recorded them.

Incidentally, The Second Book of Enoch 1:217 also shows Enoch playing the role of the judge for the “measurement”? of each person at Final Judgement, much like Osiris did in the Egyptian pantheon, using the “Scales of Thoth.”? Here, Enoch says:

. . . In the great judgement day every measure and weight in the market will be exposed, and each one will recognize his own measure, and in it he will receive his reward. . . . Before humankind existed, a place of judgment, ahead of time, was prepared for them, and scales and weights by means of which a person will be tested.

Michael the Elder, twelfth century patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, also said that Enoch was the first to bring writing into the world, presumably from Heaven, just as Hermes and Thoth are credited with doing. In Christian tradition, Enoch is said to have written a total of 366 books, just one more than the number of years he purportedly lived: 365 (also the number of days in a solar year). The closeness of these two numbers (how many books he wrote and how many days he lived) seems to be a coincidence with some sort of meaning. So too is the fact that, according to Manetho, Hermes wrote 365,000 books. Perhaps also of note is the fact that the Gnostic entity of Abraxas, a composite chimera like Baphomet, with the head of a chicken and snakes for legs, is taken as a representation of the Demiurge and, for some reason, is associated with the number 365.


Blue Stock Certificate from International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)

Moving along, we find another account of Hermes’ heavenly journey in The Book of the Secrets of Creation (Kitab Sirr al-haliqa), written in Arabic between 813 and 833 AD and falsely attributed to the authorship of Apollonius of Tyana (a.k.a. Balinas). This was the name of a Cappadocian mystic who lived at the time of Christ and had a surprisingly similar biography, including a career of healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, casting out demons, and the claim of his followers that he ascended to Heaven bodily at the end of his life. The book purports to tell the story of how, as a youth, Apollonius discovered the tomb of Hermes in a secret underground chamber, and in it the Emerald Tablet, with its unsurpassed alchemical mysteries inscribed upon it. It also describes what seems to be the story of Hermes rising to Heaven, but at the same time it resembles a description of a substance being transmuted from a lower, denser matter into the higher, subtler form of the Philosopher’s Stone. In this sense, Hermes seems to be equated with the transmuted substance itself.

The story of Apollonius, and how he allegedly used the tablets wisdom to perform miracles, is told in great detail in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by second to third-century Greek Sophist Flavius Philostratus. Dennis William Hauck’s The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation gives a shortened version (also drawing from other, more imaginative modern sources such as twentieth-century Theosophist GRS Mead). Hauck claims that Apollonius was himself the Third Hermes, on unclear authority.

However, Ibn Nubata, in his eighth-century Commentary on the Epistle of Ibn Zaydun, does say that Apollonius was Hermes’ student, and traveled with him personally. He also says that “Asclepius”? was another name for Apollonius. As for which of the three Hermeses Apollonius was apprenticed to, Ibn Nubata quotes varying sources that name each of the three. None of his sources seem to agree on that detail. He didn’t say that Apollonius was a “Hermes,”? but he did say, “The Sabians claim that Asclepius had the prophethood after”? his teacher, as though he was in the same line of “apostolic succession”? as the Hermeses. He also said people thought Apollonius was an angel or descended from angels, that he was taken to Heaven “on a pillar of light”? at the end of his life, and that “Euclid traced his ancestry to him.”?


Asclepius resurrecting a soul from the underworld.

The issue of the alleged “Hermeticism”? of the Sabians of Harran, as discussed previously, has been a cause celebre among modern multiculturalist occultists and other writers looking to pointing out contributions from any seemingly “Islamic”? source to the history of humanity in general and Western mysticism (largely based on Hermetics) in particular. This cause has also been embraced by certain authors with Islamic backgrounds looking to put a pleasant face on the often harsh fundamentalist image of the religion’s traditions by pointing out the heterodox variety of belief systems that have operated under the umbrella of “Islam”? (often under threat of persecution from fundamentalists). Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote in 1967 that, “In the Muslim world, Hermeticism must be considered as one of the most important factors which aided in the construction of the Muslim worldview.”? Complaining about the desperate reaching on some of the commentators about this subject, Kevin van Bladel has said:

In the context of Arabic literature, modern scholars generally use the word Hermetic to refer not just to works associated with the name Hermes, but also to all manner of works with allegedly “Gnostic,”? “Neoplatonic,”? “Neopythagorean”? or “esoteric”? tendencies or practically any early Arabic pseudepigraph. Above all, it is used to refer to the beliefs of the Sabians of Harran.

As we have already discussed more briefly above, in order to be accepted by Islamic rulers, the Harranians adopted the moniker “Sabian”? from The Koran to claim a protected status in their society. Literature was circulated which purported that they were followers of a prophet named Hermes, and that his teachings were compatible with Islam. As we demonstrated earlier, this may have begun with the family of Harranian Tabit ibn Qurra, who immigrated to Baghdad. Ninth century philosopher Ysaf al-Kindi quoted from a book he had access to called Chapters of Hermes on the Doctrine of Monotheism, which he wrote for his son most expertly. The word At-tawhid,? translated here as “monotheism,”? is most often used to indicate Muslim belief specifically. This idea of Hermes as a proto-Islamic prophet had become the accepted norm. Then in the thirteenth century, Al-Mubassir ibn Fatik’s Liber philosophorum moralium antiquorum reported the following:

Hermes left Egypt and went around the whole world. . . . In seventy-two languages he called the people of the entire earth’s population to worship the Creator, the Mighty and High. God granted him wisdom so that he spoke to them in their different languages, taught them and educated them. He built for them a hundred and eight great cities, the smallest of which is Edessa. He was the first who discovered astrology, and he established for each region a model of religious practice for them to follow which corresponded to their views. Kings were his servants, and the whole earth’s population and the population of the islands in the seas obeyed him.

Note that the number of cities be built (108) corresponds with the number of suitors Penelope had in The Odyssey, who, in an alternate version of the story, all combined their semen in her womb to conceive the god Pan, elsewhere thought to be a son of Hermes the god. The next paragraph of Liber philosophorum makes the worship of the creator that this Hermes taught seem very Islamic indeed:

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, mankind’s worship [of God], . . . and saving souls from punishment. He incited [people] to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war (jihad) against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from [their] possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, ass, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

Al-Mubassir goes on to add that at one point, everyone in the world converted to this religion, which was called din al-qayyima (“the right religion”?), and that they prayed to the south along the line of the meridian. As Van Bladel notes, “We encounter here again the notion that the religion of Hermes was the universal, primordial religion.”? The phrase din al-qayyima comes from The Koran, Sura 98, Verses two through five, where it says that this doctrine would be preached by:

. . . an apostle from God reciting purified scrolls in which are right scriptures. Those who received the book went their separate ways only after the clear proof came to them. They were ordered only to worship God, sincerely practicing his religion as hunafa, and to practice prayer and to bring alms. That is the right religion. . . .


The implication in The Koran is that Mohammed learned his teachings from divinely-written scrolls, just as The Book of the Apple says Enoch-Idris-Hermes learned his wisdom from reading the “Noble Record”? in Heaven. Al-Mubassir’s implication is that the doctrine taught by Hermes is the same one found by Mohammed on the purified scrolls, or that the apostle referred to in Sura 98 is not Mohammed but Hermes.

In The History of Learned Men from twelve to thirteenth century Egyptian scholar Ibn al Qifti, a document is duplicated called Testament of Ammon, which shows Hermes giving advice to Ammon on how to be a just and effective king. It makes him into a defender of a rather harsh form of Islamic sharia (law).

. . . Take care not to delay battle and holy war (jihad) against those who do not believe in God—His name is most high—and those who do not follow my custom and my law (sunnati wa-sari’ati), because of your desire that they enter into obedience to God the Exalted. . . . Whoever defames your rule, decapitate him and make it known so that others will beware. Whoever steals, cut off his hand. Who robs on a path, cut off his head and crucify him so that news of it spreads and your roads be safe. Whoever is found with a male like himself, fornicating with him, must be burned in fire. Whoever is found with a woman committing adultery with her, strike him with fifty lashes and stone the woman with a hundred stones after establishing sure proof of it.

Van Bladel, who believes this text was written by a Harranian Sabian trying to “argue for the legitimacy of his religion”? among Muslims, writes sneeringly:

Here we seem to have found at last an example of the “Hermeticism”? of the Harranians in Baghdad so much speculated about. Instead of cosmic sympathies and revelatory initiations, we find corporal punishments, holy war. . . .

These aren’t the only sources to make Hermes seem somewhat less than politically correct by modern standards. Ninth to tenth-century Iranian writer Al-Tha’alibi says that Hermes “was the first to make use of weapons, make war and capture people as slaves.”? It seems that these texts’ authors were eager to present Hermes as the primordial prophet, king, and lawgiver, whose students (the Harranian Sabians who attended court in Baghdad) were fit to be advisors to kings, like Aristotle had been to Alexander. Therefore the type of law he was seen as promoting was whatever Islamic potentates of the day wanted to hear, to make them feel like they were doing it right. Thus the declarations quoted above were cobbled together with the sayings of other known philosophers, but here all attributed to Hermes, in order to establish his wisdom bona fides.

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