The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam: a Rich Collection of Works on The Egyptian Humanistic Tradition
by Rachad Mounir Shoucri
The following article appeared in Watani International on February 23rd, 2003.
The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) was founded in 1957 by Joost R. Ritman in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) with the aim of documenting the cultural heritage related to the philosophy of Thoth/Hermes, better known in the West under the Greek name of ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ (Thrice-Great) and in the East under the Arabic name of the ‘Prophet Idriss’ (mentioned twice in the Holy Quran (XIX, 57; XXI, 85)).
The BPH holds the largest collection in the world of manuscripts and printed books relevant to the Hermetic tradition. It contains around 20.000 works related to Hermetic Philosophy, Mysticism, Alchemy, and Rosicrucians. The BPH has recently published a number of important books and beautifully illustrated catalogues dedicated to the Hermetic tradition in the West, among them we mention:
- Roelof van den Broek, Cis van Heertum (editors): From Poimandres to Jacob Bohme: Gnosis, Hermetism and the Christian Tradition (Amsterdam, in de Pelikaan 2000).
- Sebastiano Gentile, Carlos Gilly, Marsilio Ficino and the Return of Hermes Trismegistus (Florence, Centro Di 1999, 2nd rev. ed. 2001).
- Carlos Gilly, Cis van Heertum (editors), Magic, Alchemy and Science from the 15th-18th Centuries, the Influence of Hermes Trismegistus (Florence, Centro Di 2002).
The activities of the BPH have greatly augmented the interest of scholars and the general public in the Hermetic tradition. The University of Amsterdam has for instance established a new Chair (HHP) in Hermetic Philosophy and related currents in the year 2000.
The Writings of Thoth
The writings attributed to Thoth/Hermes , written or translated into Greek with clear Egpytian background in the first centuries CE (but apparently reproducing older teachings), have preserved important aspects of the religious traditions of Pharaonic Egypt. Thoth is considered as the founder of natural theology, the way to discover the unique God through the contemplation of his work in nature. The writings of Thoth that have come down to us include:
- The Corpus Hermeticum, the standard books 1-18;
- The Asclepius, dialogue between Hermes and his son; Fragments from Stobaeus, an anthology including also Hermetic excerpts compiled by the scholar John of Stobae in the 5th century CE;
- Hermetic texts discovered in the Coptic library of Nag-Hammadi in 1945;
- Hermetic texts on alchemy, like the work of the Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (Akhmim, Upper Egypt, 300 CE), that have arrived down to us conserved in their Arabic, Latin, or Greek translations.
- Fragments that have found their way to us derived from various quotations by different authors.
Influence on Christian and Islamic Writers
Many Church fathers have praised the philosophy of Thoth, among them we mention Justin Martyr, Lactantius, Quodvulteus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Ephraim Syrus, Dydimus the Blind, Cyril of Alexandria. According to Lactantius:
[…] “Piety is nothing else but the Knowledge of God, as Trismegistus most truly defined it […] Trismegistus Hermes is a befitting witness, who agrees with us, that is with the Prophets whom we follow as much in facts as in words”.
According to Cyril of Alexandria:
“This Hermes then, him from Egypt, is always found mindful of the things of Moses, and if not altogether rightly and completely yet still in part. For he hath profited, and he hath made mention of him also in his own writings, which he having composed for Athenians, are called Hermaica fifteen Books”.
Although the Church fathers agree on the high antiquity of the teachings of Thoth, they disagree on whether those teachings are older or younger than the teachings of Moses.
The Arab philosopher Al-Kindi (9th century CE) is reported to have seen writings attributed to Thoth/Hermes/Idriss on the unity of God, it is said that he added that he as a Muslim thinker cannot express it in a better way. It is through the teachings of the Egyptian Dhu’l Nun Misri (from Akhmim, Upper Egypt, 9th century CE) that important Hermetic influences were introduced in the Islamic Sufi tradition. There is a strong similarity between passages of Fusus al-Hikam (The Bezels of Divine Wisdom) by the Sufi Ibn El-Arabi (12th century CE) and the fifth treatise of Thoth’s Corpus Hermeticum, as well as evident Hermetic influences on Ibn al-Arabi’s work al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations), the Epistles Rasa’il of Ikhwan al-Safa (10th century CE), the work of the Sufi Ibn Sab’in (13th century CE), and the important influence on The Philosophy of Illumination of Shahab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, who was executed by the Order of Salah el-Din (12th cen-tury CE).
“The historical context of the textual history of the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum has taken me from a sense of wonder to a feeling of admiration, and has afforded me direct access to those persons and spiritual movements that have made these texts available again and again. It has caused me to acknowledge the extent to which the spiritual force of the Egyptian Arch-Gnosis has pervaded history” – Joost R. Ritman
Some writings attributed to Thoth/Hermes like the Asclepius, the Picatrix and the Tabula Smaragdina (these two texts were translated from Arabic), were known during the late Middle Ages and had important influence on European intellectuals. St. Albert the Great (13th century CE) explains that Thoth/Hermes had ‘the intuition of God’, he refers to Thoth as ‘the Father of Philosophers’ (Pater Philosophorum). Thoth/Hermes is quoted at least 109 times by name in the work of St. Albert the Great. It is the translation from Greek into Latin of the first 14 treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum by Marsilio Ficino in Florence (Italy), published in 1471 CE, that renewed the interest in Hermetic philosophy in Europe during the Renaissance period. During the wars of religion in Eu- rope in the 16th century between Catholics and Protestants, many humanists found that the writings of Thoth/Hermes were a major source of inspiration to preach toleration and love between people. It is hoped that those writings can serve the same purpose in our contemporary world. In this respect modern scholars should consider the translation of the writings of Thoth/Hermes/Idriss into various languages as a priority.
It is hoped that the BPH will extend its future activities, in collaboration with the newly founded Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, by preparing interesting publications on the tradition of the Prophet Idriss in the Islamic literature. The extensive Hermetic literature that exists in Arabic has not yet received adequate attention from specialized scholars. Equally important is the documentation of the influence of the philosophy of the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus (3rd century CE) who remained deeply attached to the ancient Egyptian religion, he has also preserved for us important aspects of the ancient Egyptian philosophy. Plotinus has exerted an important influence on both the Christian and the Islamic religious literature.