The Order of the White Road is an ancient institution, passing seemingly through the shadows of time. The travelers of the Path have found their way into almost every culture and civilization throughout the long ages. In that time, the Order has picked up many influences and, finding the truth hidden among these views and ideas, she has incorporated them into her makeup. This is a fact which every student of the Order can realize. Dominant strains of thought in the Order come from Judaism, Christianity, Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Hermeticism.
Students who are more interested in the occult studies the Order offers naturally find themselves drawn to the latter two (Kabbalah and Hermeticism). It is primarily these two systems that put the mystery in the Order’s mysticism. Consistent with any enigma, it is natural that students of all stripes would ask questions about these systems and be curious about their founders.
According to tradition, the founder of Hermetic philosophy (Hermeticism) was a sage known as Hermes Trismegistus. And depending on what source documents you are reading, he was a wizard, doctor, alchemist, prophet, and god. Quite the illustrious resume for one person.
There are several problems if one wishes to accept Hermes Trismegistus as a historical figure. His title, Trismegistos, translates in Greek to the “Thrice-Great”, which is confirmed by some of the first mentions in Greek literature of the great mage in the document Linear B. This Mycenaean Greek script refers to him as “the Thrice-Great” or the “Thrice Hero.”
This title could tell for us if we wanted to trace the identity of the great teacher historically back through source materials. Unfortunately, the earliest mention we have of anything even remotely similar to the Trismegistus title is found in an ostracon written by Hor of Sebennytos, going roughly back to the 190s BCE.
“From the scribe of the Nome of Sebennytos, Hor, son of Harendjiotef. No man shall be able to lapse from a matter which concerns Thoth, the god in person who holds sway in the temple in Memphis, and likewise, Horthoth. The benefit which is performed for the ibis, the soul of Thoth, the Three-Times Great, is made for the hawk, the soul of Ptah… the soul of Horus.”–Hermetica, Bryan B. Copenhaver, Page XIV
Here, Hor, a scribe serving the temple of Thoth, is recording this title in connection with the god Thoth, which also adds to the confusion of who the great Trismegistus really was. Because his philosophy and cult grew exponentially between the 2nd century BCE and 5th century CE/AD, during which time, owing to the earlier conquest of Alexander the Great of Egypt, the two cultures (Greek and Egyptian) were in a state of increased fusion.
Yet other authors and mystery groups claim that the Emerald Tablet (said to be the premier work by Trismegistus himself) were written as early as 36,000 BCE.
“The history of the Emerald Tablet is strange and beyond the belief of modern scientists. Their antiquity is stupendous, dating back some 36,000 years B.C.” – The Emerald Tablet of Thoth, M. Doreal
This would seem to stand over and against modern archeology and paleontology which would tell you that 38,000 years ago humankind was verily even cave-painting, and writing great works of spiritual and mystical philosophy. While Order masters are the first ones to point out that the origins of human history are much deeper than modern historians have yet to discover, it is difficult, while being also intellectually honest, to date the work of the Emerald Tablet, much less the title Trismegistus of the man who wrote it, farther back than about 2,200 years.
This leaves us with a quandary: if Hermes Trismegistus was a real being who once walked the face of the earth but his cult and philosophy didn’t gain traction until the 2nd century BCE, are we left to simply assert that Hermes was a mythical character with no basis in historical fact?
Of course, this entire problem could be gotten around by simply chalking the great Trismegistus up to the mythical past, writing him off as the great self-created Thoth who was worshipped in the Egyptian Prehistory Era, and taking it no further than that.
But that does leave some level of intellectual dissatisfaction. Without being able to place Hermes in time or space, there’s something about him that becomes less real, and that makes him harder to respect than he would otherwise be; a teacher without a sense of reality that you could bite into.
If we wanted to regain Trismegistus as a flesh and blood man (however deified he later became), we will have to do better and scour history for a candidate that could be our long-lost sage. Luckily, if one studies carefully, there is another option for our great mage, and this is the option the Order espouses in its class and instruction. That is the great Imhotep.
At this stage, there will be no shortage of hermetists, Golden Dawn alumni, and arm-chair historians who raise their voice in objection. They will quote passages from the Roman-era work, The Asclepius, claiming that Hermes was the teacher of the great god and therefore couldn’t possibly be Imhotep. But a careful study of the historical events that brought much of the Corpus Hermetica to the Roman world and a survey of Old-Kingdom Pharaonic history could be informative on just how Imhotep, Thoth, and Hermes Trismegistus were, at least by the Hellenistic period, all referring to the same man.
Imhotep was a priest, doctor, architect, and chancellor of Egypt. Living in the 27th century BCE, he served the Pharaoh Djoser and was the chief architect credited with the development of Egypt’s crowning achievement of forming the first pyramid, the stepped pyramid found in the Saqqara Necropolis. Thanks to this and other achievements, eventually Imhotep became deified and worshipped in and around Egypt.
Eventually, Imhotep became equated with the god Thoth. Like Thoth, Imhotep was a doctor, scholar, and in his capacity as chancellor, he was also a recorder of deeds. The proof that Imhotep was eventually considered synonymous with Thoth can be found at the burial place of the great architect, which, while not located specifically, is believed to be near the pharaoh whom he served at Saqqara.
There are caves and catacombs near the stepped pyramids where, for centuries, pilgrims came to pay homage to Imhotep for healing. Given his great achievements, it’s not surprising that people worshipped the architect, but it’s what they offered him: mummified ibises.
Remember that Thoth is the great ibis-headed god. Ibises themselves were considered being holy birds, the children of Thoth. Later, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, the rise of the Ptolemies, and the fusion of Hellenistic and Egyptian culture, the Greeks who came in increasing numbers to colonize northern Egypt fused the two religious systems.
The Greeks considered native Egyptians as second-class citizens and when these fusions took place; they were accordingly in the Greeks’ favor. After the fall of native Pharaonic rulers, Egyptian culture began a slow, steady decline. So much so that by the end of the 5th century AD, the art of writing and reading hieroglyphs, the holy language of the Egyptian cults, were all but forgotten.
One fusion of Greek and Egyptian mythology that came out of this time period was the combination of the gods Thoth with Hermes and Imhotep with Asclepius. What the somewhat arrogant Greeks failed to understand, though, was the Egyptian concept of ensoulment. There wasn’t an actual name for this practice in ancient Egypt, but the practice was definitely enshrined for thousands of years in various religious texts such that the belief was a key tenant of Egyptian magical theory.
Essentially, this idea said that the ka or soul could be commanded by magic to inhabit inanimate objects or even other bodies. This idea worked for the gods as well and was the primary method by which temple priests animated the god statues inside of temples such that the statues were thereafter synonymous with the gods.
The concept of ensoulment gives us a way to reconcile the self-contradictory concept that the Egyptians might have seen Imhotep as Thoth, even though Thoth clearly predated Imhotep’s cult by thousands of years.
Owing to the many similarities between the aspects of Imhotep and Thoth, and Imhotep himself being a priest and therefore privy to the sacred rituals of ensoulment themselves, it could’ve been easily seen that during his lifetime, Imhotep was ensouled by the great ibis.
In other words, Imhotep was deified not because he built great monuments. There were many architects in ancient Egypt that were not. Instead, he was deified because, during his lifetime, he was an avatar to the great god Thoth, having his intellect joined with that of the god’s.
Adoption of this idea helps us to have plausible answers to the tradition that Thoth was on earth among men, wrote the Emerald Tablet with his own hands, and instructed in the ways of healing, the sciences, and the various magical arts.
But what are we to make of the Roman Asclepius, which is now a mainstay of the Hermetic tradition?
If Imhotep is a different god than Thoth and Hermes a different god than Asclepius, then how can we use the avatar theory to explain these problems away?
Simple: we recognize that religious traditions are apt to evolve and in stages. We then consider the historical state that the Greeks and Egyptians found themselves in during the Ptolemaic period. And once all this is done, we find our answer.
Hermes was a much more important god to Greek culture than Asclepius and had been worshipped a great deal longer. When Greek settlers first colonized northern Egypt (circa 332 BCE), they made connections between Hermes and Thoth. This is because as a divine messenger, both gods had aspects that included intermediary with the divine, writing, and science.
Later, as healing cults sprouted in the new Greco-Egyptian culture, Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, was equated with Imhotep, who was also worshipped for healing because he was a doctor during his lifetime. In the Egyptian mind, Imhotep was already equated with Thoth and therefore, all four gods (Hermes, Thoth, Imhotep, and Asclepius) became synonymous with each other. The lines between them broke down and the natural inclination was to create traditions that justified this combination so that in the minds of the believers of the new Hermetic cults, it could appear as if this was always so.
Thus was born much of the philosophic Hermetica, which itself was also combined with Neo-Platonism, which was the fashionable philosophy among scholars of that age. The Egyptian contribution to Hermeticism was the technical Hermetica, which, while absorbing considerable influences from Hellenistic culture, was a way in which the declining Egyptian religious traditions could see itself survive.
“In short, the evidence for substantial continuities between the Egyptian priestly literature and the technical Hermetica is patchy, not surprising in view of Egypt’s successive exposure to Babylonian influences at the time of the Persian supremacy, then to the Greek world because of Alexander’s conquest. But Greco-Egyptian magic, which was to a large extent conceived of as Hermetic, can certainly be seen in terms of translation and interpretation of native materials; and if the same could not be said of Hermetic alchemy and astrology, it is clear that Hermes’ patronage of such disciplines was modeled on Thoth’s patronage of ancient Egyptian science.”–The Egyptian Hermes, Garth Fowden, Page 68
To sum up, there is very good historical evidence for believing that the ancient great teacher Hermes Trismegistus has a basis in fact. That he, Imhotep, was a great avatar for one of the most ancient of gods who, with the help of such magical secrets, departed unto man, like Prometheus, the fires of scholarship, medical knowledge, and the practice of theurgy. This may have even resulted in the writing of a document very similar to the emerald tablets and even if one assumes that the Emerald Tablet itself was born of later evolving tradition, one could easily see how the great maxim, which is the hermetists’ greatest takeaway from that document, “As above, so below” could’ve easily be coined by Imhotep himself.
While modern Hermeticism is most definitely the result of a fusion of philosophical and magical traditions finding their main expression between the 2nd century BCE and the 5th century AD, thanks to the conquest of Egypt by Rome and the subsequent preservation of these early works by the Western Catholic Church which sprang out of that empire, modern scholars can now find the historical roots of the great Trismegistus.
Decoupling Imhotep with Trismegistus does not lessen the achievements and genius of this great Egyptian sage. Instead, combined with the belief and the reality of magick, it brings an increased glory to the deep antiquity of this real-life figure. It means that modern students of the occult can look back to Imhotep and see a man who started as they are: as a flesh and blood human being. And who was eventually joined through the work of magick to the higher realms and touched humankind in a way very few before or since ever have.
Touching the reality of Trismegistus means we can follow in his footsteps and that, more than believing everything that was ever written in the 1st century, is what true Hermeticism is all about.