The term Hermetic is from medieval Latin hermeticus, in English attested since the 17th century as the adjective to Hermeticism (as in "Hermetic writers", Franz Bardon) The synonymous Hermetical also occurs in the 17th century.
The books now known as the Corpus Hermeticum were part of a renaissance of syncretistic and intellectualized pagan thought that took place around the 2nd century. Other examples of this cultural movement would include Neoplatonist philosophy, the Chaldaean Oracles, late Orphic and Pythagorean literature, as well as much of Gnosticism.
The extant Greek texts dwell upon the oneness and goodness of God, urge purification of the soul, and defend pagan religious practices, such as the veneration of images. Many lost Greek texts, and many of the surviving vulgate books, contained discussions of alchemy clothed in philosophical metaphor. And one text, the Asclepius, lost in Greek but partially preserved in Latin, contained a bloody prophecy of the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the resurgence of pagan Egyptian power.
The predominant literary form is the dialogue: Hermes Trismegistus instructs a perplexed disciple on some point of hidden wisdom.
In 1614 CE Isaac Casaubon, a Swiss philologist, analyzed the Hermetic texts for linguistic style and claimed that the Hermetic writings attributed to Trismegistus were not the work of an ancient Egyptian priest but in fact dated to the Christian Era. Walter Scott places their date shortly after 200 CE, while Sir W. Flinders Petrie places them between 200 and 500 BCE. Plutarch's mention of Hermes Trismegistus dates back to the first century CE, and Tertullian, Iamblichus, and Porphyry are all familiar with Hermetic writings.
In 1945 CE, Hermetic writings were among those found near Nag Hammadi, in the form of one of the conversations between Hermes and Asclepius from the Corpus Hermeticum, and a text about the Hermetic mystery schools, On the Ogdoad and Ennead, written in the Coptic language, the last form in which the Egyptian language was written.
Tobias Churton, scholar of obscure religious movements, states that "the Hermetic tradition was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the (omnipresent) mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere.
There are three major works which are widely known texts for Hermetic beliefs:
The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work most widely known and is the aforementioned Greek texts. These sixteen books are set up as dialogues between Hermes and a series of others. The first book involves a discussion between Poimandres (also known as Nous and God) and Hermes, supposedly resulting from a meditative state, and is the first time that Hermes is in contact with God. Poimandres teaches the secrets of the Universe to Hermes, and later books are generally of Hermes teaching others such as Asclepius and his son Tat.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus is a short work which coins the well known term in occult circles "As above, so below." The actual text of that maxim, as translated by Dennis W. Hauck is "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing. The tablet also references the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe, to which Hermes claims his knowledge of these three parts is why he received the name Trismegistus (thrice great, or Ao-Ao-Ao meaning "greatest"). As the story is told, this tablet was found by Alexander the Great at Hebron supposedly in the tomb of Hermes.
The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy, is a book published in 1912 CE anonymously by three people calling themselves the "Three Initiates". Many of the Hermetic principles are explained in the book.
Alchemy - The Operation of the Sun - is not simply the changing of physical lead into physical gold. It is an investigation into the spiritual constitution, or life of matter and material existence through an application of the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection. The various stages of chemical distillation and fermentation, among them, are aspects of these mysteries, that, when applied quicken Nature's processes in order to bring a natural body to perfection. This perfection is the accomplishment of the Magnum opus (Latin for Great Work).
Astrology - The Operation of the Moon - Hermes claims that Zoroaster discovered this part of the wisdom of the whole universe, astrology, and taught it to man. In Hermetic thought, it is likely that the movements of the planets have meaning beyond the laws of physics and actually holding metaphorical value as symbols in the mind of The All, or God. Astrology has influences upon the Earth, but does not dictate our actions, and wisdom is gained when we know what these influences are and how to deal with them.
Theurgy - The Operation of the Stars - There are two different types of magic, according to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Apology, completely opposite of one another. The first is γοητεια, Goëtia, black magic reliant upon an alliance with evil spirits (i.e. demons). The second is Theurgy, divine magic reliant upon an alliance with divine spirits (i.e. angels, archangels, gods).
Theurgy translates to "The Science or art of Divine Works" and is the practical aspect of the Hermetic art of alchemy. Furthermore, alchemy is seen as the "key" to theurgy, the ultimate goal of which is to become united with higher counterparts, leading to the attainment of Divine Consciousness.
These words circulate throughout occult and magical circles, and they come from Hermetic texts. The concept was first laid out in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, in the words "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing.
In accordance with the various levels of reality: physical, mental, and spiritual, this relates that what happens on any level happens on every other. This is however more often used in the sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm is oneself, and the macrocosm is the universe. The macrocosm is as the microcosm, and vice versa; within each lies the other, and through understanding one (usually the microcosm) you can understand the other.
Some say this refers to the various rebirths in one's spiritual nature, rather than the physical body.
This provides a clearcut view that Hermeticism does indeed include a sense of morality. However, the word good is used very strictly, to be restricted to use to the Supreme Good, God. It is only God (in the sense of the Supreme Good, not The All) who is completely free of evil to be considered good. Men are exempt of having the chance of being good, for they have a body, consumed in the physical nature, ignorant of the Supreme Good.
Among those things which are considered extremely sinful, is the focus on the material life, said to be the only thing that offends God:
It is troublesome to oneself to have no "children". This is a symbolic description, not to mean physical, biological children, but rather creations. Immediately before this claim, it is explained that God is "the Father" because it has authored all things, it creates. Whether father or mother, one must create, do something positive in their life, as the Supreme Good is a "generative power". The curse for not having "children" is to be imprisoned to a body, neither male (active) nor female (thoughtful), leaving that person with a type of sterility, that of being unable to accomplish anything.
The Word then leaps forth from the materializing elements, which made them unintelligent. Nous then made the governors spin, and from their matter sprang forth creatures without speech. Earth then was separated from Water and the animals (other than Man) were brought forth from the Earth.
The Supreme Nous then created Man, androgynous, in his own image and handed over his creation. Man carefully observed the creation of his brother, the lesser Nous, and received his and his Father's authority over it all. Man then rose up above the spheres' paths to better view the creation, and then showed the form of the ALL to Nature. Nature fell in love with it, and Man, seeing a similar form to his own reflecting in the water fell in love with Nature and wished to dwell in it. Immediately Man became one with Nature and became a slave to its limitations such as gender and sleep. Man thus became speechless (for it lost the Word) and became double, being mortal in body but immortal in spirit, having authority of all but subject to destiny.
The tale does not specifically contradict the theory of evolution, other than for Man, but most Hermeticists fully accept evolutionary theory as a solid grounding for the creation of everything from base matter to Man.
Using the teachings and imagery of the Jewish Kabbalah and Christian mysticism, Hermetic Theurgy was used effectively and in a context more easily understood by Europeans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
A few primarily Hermetic occult orders were founded in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Hermetic magic underwent a 19th century revival in Western Europe, where it was practiced by people such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aurum Solis, Ragon, Kenneth M. Mackenzie, Eliphas Lévi, Frederick Hockley, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Machen. An example of a society existing as recently as the 1960s would be the Sacred Fraternity of the Cross.
Rosicrucianism was a Hermetic/Christian movement dating back to the 15th century. It is believed to have ceased to exist sometime during the 19th century, though some claim it merely fell into complete secrecy. It consisted of a secretive inner body, and a more public outer body under the direction of the inner body.
This movement was symbolized by the rose (the soul) and the cross (the body of 4 elements). In other words, the human soul crucified on the cross of the material plane. This may be similar to the Egyptian use of the ankh.
The Rosicrucian Order consisted of a graded system (similar to The Order of Freemasons) in which members moved up in rank and gained access to more knowledge, for which there was no fee. Once a member was deemed able to understand the knowledge, they moved on to the next grade.
There were three steps to their spiritual path: philosophy, qabbalah, and divine magic. In turn, there were three goals to the order: 1) the abolition of monarchy and the institution of rule by a philosophical elect, 2) reformation of science, philosophy, and ethics, and 3) discovery of the Panacea.
The only sources dating the existence of the Rosicrucians as far back as the 17th century are three German pamphlets: the Fama, the Confessio Fraternitatis, and Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Some scholars believe these to be hoaxes, and that antedating Rosicrucian organizations are the first appearance of any real Rosicrucian fraternity.
Unlike the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was open to both sexes, and treated both as equal. The order was a specifically Hermetic society, teaching the arts of alchemy, qabbalah, and the magic of Hermes along with the principles of occult science. Israel Regardie claims that there are many orders, who know what they do of magic from what has been leaked out of the Golden Dawn, by what he deems "renegade members."
The order maintained the tightest of secrecy by severe penalties for loose lips. Overall, the general public was left oblivious to the actions and even existence of the Golden Dawn, making the policies a success. This secrecy was broken first by Aleister Crowley, in 1905, and later by Israel Regardie himself in 1940, giving a detailed account of the order's teachings to the general public.