- The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science
Only a few other fictive personalities left such a lasting mark on Eurasian and North African cultures as did Hermes Trismegistus. He shows up in the imagination of ancient and medieval peoples of the [End Page 597] Near East, North Africa, Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond as a god, sage, prophet, scientist, possessor of occult knowledge, and the author of numerous works ranging from chemistry and medicine to talismans and divine revelations, who lived either before or after the Deluge. Hermetic thought currents (sometimes religion and other times philosophy) and literature attributed to this persona figured prominently in not only late antique thought in its pagan, Christian, and Islamic varieties, but also in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic occultism since medieval times. Not surprisingly, therefore, Hermes has been a subject of much scholarly as well as popular interest in the twentieth century. Yet, we still lack the necessary groundwork that would allow us a more nuanced and elaborate understanding of Hermes and Hermetica, and illuminate better the cross-cultural interactions on the vast geography of Eurasia and North Africa. By studying the representations of Hermes in the vast medieval Arabic literary corpus, Kevin van Bladel addresses a significant gap in our knowledge. The author should be commended for such a competent artisanship.
Divided into six chapters in two parts (the introduction and conclusion included) The Arabic Hermes represents the author's response to the following questions: Who did early Arabic writers think Hermes Trismegistus was, and how did they arrive at this concept? The introduction, a historiographical review (on this there will be more later), offers a brief survey of the reception of Hermes in Latin Europe and antiquity to ease the reader into the main subject of the study, the Arabic reception of Hermes. Given the terminological confusion in scholarship, the author duly clarifies in the introduction how he uses "Hermetism," "Hermetic," and "Hermetic tradition," which I will not indulge in this review.
Chapter 2 argues that the earliest Arabic image of Hermes originated in Sasanian Iran in Middle Persian translations of Hermetica, by and large concerned with astrology, which explains why his name was first associated with astrology when Abbasid bureaucrats of Persian origins began discussing him in the middle of the eighth century onward. Thanks to the Middle Persian refashioning of Hermes as a Babylonian sage who taught the Egyptians the sciences, the adoption of Greek and Indian sciences in post-Alexandrian Persia was seen as an act of bringing back home what Alexander had destroyed and scattered around that had originally belonged to Iran. The fact that this legend was articulated by Persian bureaucrats under the Abbasids, who incidentally are among the major sources of our information about Hermes in Sasanian Iran and Hermetica, testifies to its relevance to the political and social realities of the eighth-century Abbasid caliphate. [End Page 598]
Chapter 3 is devoted to Hellenistic Harran as another intellectual context shaping up the image of Hermes in Arabic literature. Around 600 c.e. the people of Harran seem to have venerated Hermes as one of the ancient philosophers and pagan holy men. By the early ninth century, as the testimony of Theodore Abu Qurra makes clear, Hermes was already elevated to the level of prophet by planet-worshipping Harranian pagans. Yet, van Bladel points out, important as the role of the Harran tradition in the emergence and development of the image of Hermes in Arabic literature might have been, it cannot be substantiated due to the lack of Greek Hermetic textual evidence belonging to the aforementioned tradition. Those evidence claimed to be coming from Harran, such as Corpus Hermeticum or related hermetic texts mentioned by al-Kindi, but now lost, cannot be attributed to Harran with any measure of certainty. Van Bladel concludes that, given the Muslim philosophers' unfamiliarity with the Greek Hermetic dialogues, if Muslim philosophers had any debt to Harran tradition, it was a minor one.
What really made...