Sunday, May 2, 2021

Hermeticism and the debate between Myth and Science

Two seated philosophers, labeled Ptolemy and Hermes, engage in a spirited discussion on this fragmentary plate. A woman stands behind each man, gesturing and partaking in the exchange. The woman on the left is identified as Skepsis. Above the two seated men, an unidentified enthroned man is partially preserved. The scene on this plate has been interpreted as an allegory of the debate between Myth and Science: Ptolemy, the founder of the Alexandrian school of scientific thought, debating Hermes Trismegistos, a deity supporting the side of myth. - J. Paul Getty Museum

Hermes Trismegistus, "Hermes the Thrice-Greatest" or Mercurius ter Maximus in Latin, is a legendary Hellenistic figure that originated as a syncretic combination of the Greek god of interpretive communication, Hermes, and the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth. He is the purported author of the Hermetica, a widely diverse series of ancient and medieval texts that lay the basis of various philosophical systems known as Hermeticism. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Hermetica enjoyed great prestige and were popular among alchemists. Hermes was also strongly associated with astrology, by scholars including the influential Islamic astrologer Abu Ma'shar (787–886). The "hermetic tradition" consequently refers to alchemy, magic, astrology, and related subjects. The texts are usually divided into two categories: the philosophical and the technical hermetica. The former deals mainly with philosophy, and the latter with practical magic, potions, and alchemy, including the procedure to create the famed Philosopher's Stone that was capable of turning base metals into gold and theoretically could be used to achieve immortality.

Image: Silver plate possibly depicting the debate between Myth and Science, Byzantine from the eastern Mediterranean, 500-600 CE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.


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