Corpus Hermeticum Preparing for the New Age of Egypt The Renaissance is remembered as an artistic style and social movement. But at the core, it was a social and religious programme of radical Reform, fought in several battles, to bring “Egyptianism” to the core of a New Europe.
by Philip Coppens
The initial “de Medici conspiracy” to change the face of Christianity through the reintroduction of Hermetic literature had failed. But if at first you fail, try again. The second phase of the conspiracy thus came to fruition in 1513, when Lorenzo de Medici’s son, Giovanni de Medici, was elected pope, taking the name of Leo X. The Medici control over the Papal office had obvious political and financial advantages, but Leo X’s main focus was integrating the Renaissance into Rome, making it a paradise for scholars and artists. The Florentine revolt could now be embedded at the heart of Christianity. The insurgents had won, it seemed. Alexandre Dumas (father) wrote that “Under his pontificate, Christianity assumed a pagan character, which, passing from art into manners, gives to this epoch a strange complexion.” Various “Florentine children”, including Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, migrated to Rome, where a period now known as the “High Renaissance” began. Pope Leo X Though the Renaissance under the cover of its art component was now in Rome, the dream of restoring the Catholic Church to its origins had, however, so far not been successful. Pope Leo X was a de Medici, but he died in 1521, even though two years later, his cousin Giulio di Giuliano de Medici became Pope Clement VII (1523–34). In total, the de Medici’s ruled the Church for two decades. Would it be sufficient?
Unfortunately not, as outside factors prevented them from fulfilling their dream. When the German troops of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in May 1527, it abruptly ended the humanist culture – and all hopes of an imminent return to original Christianity. Man turned inwards, towards the conservative, stable, less demanding Catholic religion, which seemed to provide “religious security” in a time of a social instability, rather than “seeking the inner god” that typified the Renaissance. Phase two had thus failed as well. Towards the end of the 16th century though, it seems that the Hermeticists were working towards a deadline they somehow “had” to meet. Would it be third time lucky?
In 1582, the Florentine born Giacopo Brocardo identified three stages of forty years that would lead to the overthrow of the Antichrist, which he identified with the Pope. It seems he was not specifically referring to then reigning Pope Gregory XIII, but more to the office, if only because he believed that this Antichrist would be defeated in the year 1600. He also identified Queen Elizabeth I as the “ruler” of the third stage and destroyer of the Church. The first stage had been ruled by the Florentine reforming monk Savonarolo, the second by the German reformer Martin Luther. Queen Elizabeth I Identifying Queen Elizabeth I as leader might seem bizarre at first, until we note that Brocardo belonged to a group of Hermeticists around the English Queen. He had arrived in England after having fled the Inquisition in Venice and, arriving in England, proclaimed that she would be the inaugurator of a new Golden Age. It may have been a clever ploy to gain her backing, but the facts are not so simple.
Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by a group of scholars who embraced Egyptianism – the belief that all things Egyptian were better and of higher value than anything else. She herself saw Egyptianism as a counterweight to papal authority, an institution that continuously tried to assassinate her. Elizabeth’s court as such became a centre of astrology and magic, which was fully supported by Elizabeth herself, whose personal astrologer was the infamous mathematician John Dee. Brocardo became a member of the “Dee circle” and it was another man in this entourage would that would become the most famous example of these “Hermetic reformers”: the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno. And if ever someone could bring down the Antichrist and bring about a new age of Egypt, it was felt it would be he. The scholar Frances Yates has described Bruno as embarking on a “Hermetic religious mission, in which his aim was a full restoration of Ficino’s magical religion”. And as such, Yates had identified the conception and what would hopefully be the go-live of the de Medici project. But whereas Ficino’s revolution was not overt, Bruno did openly condemn Christianity. He claimed that Christianity was a poor, bastardised version of the original enlightened universal religion that was detailed in the Hermetic writings. Like Ficino, Bruno believed that the cross was really an Egyptian sacred sign. Interrogated by the Inquisition at the end of his life, Bruno confirmed that he had read in Ficino’s books that the cross had been stolen by the Christians from the Egyptian cult of Serapis.
There are other hints that Bruno was fully aware of Ficino’s true belief and followed his example. Before the Inquisition he also stated that his belief in the Father and the Holy Ghost coincided with Christianity; his views on the Son did not. Like Pico della Mirandola, Bruno considered Jesus to be a Magus, an enlightened human being, but not the Son of God. But a genuine Egyptian influence came about when he declared that there were millions of suns in the universe and stated that many of these suns had planets that were inhabited by living beings. Building upon the Hermetic literature, he conceived of God as an omnipresent being and identified the triumphant beast of the Apocalypse as the Egyptian Apis Bull. Above all, though, Bruno proclaimed the supremacy of the Egyptian religion. And he set himself on a course that would try and bring about the restoration of the Egyptian religion: phase 3 of the project. Though there had been two previously failed attempts, Bruno seemed nevertheless convinced that it would be extremely simple to reform Catholicism to the Egyptian religion. He believed that as the Egyptian cross was already visible on top of every church altar, everyone would quickly accept his new interpretation. This was of course too simplistic reasoning for a man who was anything but. Unfortunately, many reformers believe that their reform will come about merely by revealing a final truth… but things don’t work like that. As could be expected, the Church promptly excommunicated him for these daring proclamations. In Bruno’s case, the truth did not set him free… Giardano Bruno Though a blow, it did not, however, harm his mission to re-install the Egyptian religion. Bruno acquired the patronage of the French king Henry III, the son of Catherine de Medici – showing yet another strand of the Medici thinking, whom had risen from bourgeoisie to royalty, not that finance was one thing, but royal power an even more important dimension. Indeed, Catherine de Medici was a key ingredient, for in her library, the French scholar Isaac Casaubon had shortly before found the so-called Syncellus manuscript, which contained references to the Egyptian calendar systems. None have, apparently, realised the importance of this discovery in light of Bruno’s future career. In 1583, one year after Giacopo Brocardo had declared the defeat of Christianity from England, Bruno came to England, where he stayed in the French Embassy, where he produced his most important and controversial works. If it had not yet been clear before, he now emerged as an apostle of the Hermetic Egyptian religion. In lectures and publications, Bruno continued to promote the need for a rejection of Christianity in favour of a return to the religion of Egypt, as they were written in the Corpus Hermeticum. He repeatedly wrote about how low the human race had fallen under Christianity, and that it was now at the lowest point of a cycle. He seems to have regarded it as inevitable that the cycle would begin to ascend, to then reach its height, where it had previously been in Ancient Egypt. Christianity, it seemed, had been a descent, but not unexpected, nor long-lasting. But to what cycle was Bruno referring?
In the second half of the 16th century, Joseph Scaliger was the first to study the Egyptian calendar systems. His analysis of the Ethiopian calendar, an adaptation of the original Egyptian calendar, showed that the Egyptian New Year (the First of Thoth, i.e. Hermes Trismegistus) coincided with August 29, which in the Christian calendar is the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist
Scaliger was, however, somehow aware of the existence of a manuscript written by Syncellus. He knew that this document contained quotes of Manetho’s lost books on Egyptian history. Through his friend Isaac Casaubon, he was able to locate the manuscript in the library of the French Queen Catherine de Medici. Scaliger’s analysis of the Egyptian calendars led him to the conclusion that the ancient Egyptians had used a calendar that had a cycle of 1460 years. It was built on the revolutions of the stars in the sky and used the brightest star, Sirius, as its main marker. This calendar system had a “Genuine New Year”, the 1st of Thoth, which happened every 1460 years, when Sirius rose over the horizon just ahead of the sun. He further learned that this “New Year” had last occurred in 139 AD; the next one would be in 1599. Interestingly, in 139 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who had identified Christianity as a perversion of the Serapis cult) was confronted with internal uprisings in Egypt over the sacred Apis Bull. It was this animal that according to Bruno had an important relationship to the end of the “cycle” and the consecutive New Age. It seems that Bruno believed that the reign of Christianity would be limited to one cycle, its ascent starting in 139 AD, its demise occurring in 1599 AD. Let us note that 1600 was also the year Brocardi had identified as the defeat of the Antichrist – the Church. Bruno and his international league of contacts in Italy, Germany and England considered this coming “New Year” to be the advent of a social transformation that would re-introduce Egyptian values into society. Historians have never realised the connection between the Egyptian religious calendar system and the actions of Bruno’s group and, unfortunately, it is a key ingredient that answers the why-question and the goal of the Renaissance, and beyond. Sir Francis Walsingham Part of why this key aspect is missed, is because historians have relied too much on appearances. During his two year stay in England, Bruno received diplomatic protection from the French king – but also from the English throne. Little known research has unveiled that Bruno during his stay at the French Embassy had contact with Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s closest confidante and leader of her secret service. Bruno acted as a spy for the Queen, against the French, who indeed feverishly plotted against her. But Bruno informed Walsingham of several plots against Elizabeth. From surviving correspondence, it has been learned that Bruno also met both Walsingham – and Queen Elizabeth herself. Can it therefore be a mere coincidence that Bruno’s focus on 1600 as the revival of the Egyptian religion is echoed in Walsingham’s belief of Elizabeth heralding a new Golden Age in 1600?
It is known that Bruno visited the circles of John Dee, which included such people as Walter Ralegh, Philip Sidney, who were also friends of William Shakespeare, all of whom shared the entourage of the highest circles of royalty, including Walsingham and the Queen. But England was literally and figuratively an island in the European revival of the Egyptian religion. It was an outsider in the game of the Church, whose real battle was played in Italy and to some extent in France. So to pin the hopes on Queen Elizabeth as the person who would end the Church was a gamble – but perhaps the only pawn left to play in the game. After all, had Martin Luther not shown that a relative outsider like Germany could reform the Church too?
When Bruno arrived in England, John Dee, the Queen’s trusted advisor, had left England for Prague, bringing his “magical reformation” to Eastern Europe. Some years later, Dee had to flee back to England, to a country where Walsingham had died and the Queen, without her chief advisor, knew the time of her demise – and of her “Egyptian court” – was imminent. Bruno had only stayed in London for a short time and once back on the European mainland, in 1592, Bruno was incarcerated on religious charges. In 1594, Bruno’s close friend Walter Ralegh was arrested. Though the charges were eventually dropped, it was clear that the Egyptian Revival team was in a precarious position.
Indeed, with Bruno imprisoned and many of his allies warned off, little happened in 1599, the year that they hoped would bring about the culmination of their campaign. The Hermetic scholar Tommaso Campanella, who shared many friends with Bruno, did organise a revolt in Calabria. He declared that the time had come to build “Utopia”, the divine City of the Sun, a concept that was based on Egyptian ideas. The uprising was, however, soon contained.
Though no-one was therefore able to meet their date with destiny, the European authorities were still left with the fact that Bruno and his colleagues would continue their revivalist movement. Hence in 1600, the Church decided that Bruno would have to burn at the stake. For centuries, the opinion has reigned that Bruno’s execution was a result of his heliocentric views. However, it is now known that this is not the case: Bruno was executed because he worshipped the sun. He identified God with the sun, which is, of course, a direct parallel of the Egyptian religion. His execution in 1600 was the Church’s answer that they, not the revivalists, were still firmly in charge in the year that was prophesised as heralding in the Golden Age. Upon Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James IV of Scotland became James I of England. James I did not licence astrology and magic and immediately started a clean-up operation of the “Egyptian court”. Sir Walter Ralegh, Bruno’s former friend, was almost immediately convicted of plotting to murder the king. This was a trumped up charge, as no real evidence that such plotting occurred was – or has since been – found. He was nevertheless imprisoned for 13 years, eliminating him from any further participation in any possible Egyptian revival. Sir Walter Ralegh But even though phase 3 had failed, even though a key date had passed, it was clear that the Hermeticists would continue to plot against the Church. A final solution had to be sought and one was found. If someone is beating you with a hammer, try to get the hammer. So, in 1614, Casaubon’s interpretation of the Corpus Hermeticum as a post Christ collection of Greek writings deprived any possible revivalists from their “bible” – their hammer, with which they had beaten the Church with. Though Casaubon has been seen as a juggernaut of science, he was in fact not motivated by science, but by religion. In fact, King James I, in his efforts to eradicate Egyptianism, used Casaubon to help and destroy it, by labelling the Hermeticum as non-Egyptian in origin. Casaubon dedicated this study to King James I, who repaid the service: when Casaubon died, Casaubon received the privilege of being buried in Westminster Abbey, where his body rests to this day. A superficial analysis of history might suggest that the desecration of the “Bible of Original Christianity” also signalled the end of all future Egyptian revivals. In fact, history does not seem to have a record of any subsequent attempts. But the cause did survive… and this in perhaps a rather bizarre format: The Royal Society.
The Royal Society today is seen as the fortress of scientific thinking. At first, its relationship with the magical world of the Renaissance seems distant. And, indeed, the Royal Society attempted to advance science, or “experimental learning” as they described it, removed from any religious and magical framework. The Royal Society had decided to exteriorise and make public what had previously been secret knowledge. For a Hermeticist, science and magic went hand in hand, but all attempts to push science and magic forward as a package had failed. And after three failed attempts, a modification had to be made. As the world would never accept magic on its own, science was the only option. Specifically astronomy, void of worshipping the sun but nevertheless placing it in its rightful position, at the centre of the solar system, would be an important victory.
That there was a Hermetic dimension to the Royal Society can be interpreted from a little-known statement about this Society, written at its foundation and it reads as such: “If now this Enterprise shall chance to fail… the world will not only be frustrated of their present expectation, but will have just ground to despair of future labours…” Most ominously: “This will be the last great endeavour that will be made in this way, if this shall prove ineffectual; and so shall not only be guilty of our own ignorance but of the errors of all those who come after us.” “The last great endeavour” definitely suggests that there had been previous attempts… This bastion of science had officially stripped its magical dimension away… but did it privately continue to practice it? In secret? Several authors argue that the Society may have given rise to Freemasonry and some practices performed by the society do correspond to Freemasonic rituals, as Robert Lomas has pointed out in The Invisible College.
Freemasonry today is but a distant echo of the original idea; it is currently little more than a social gathering of like-minded people, the equivalent of a service club. But this was definitely not the case almost three hundred years ago. Though Freemasons now also argue that they are not a religion, this is not entirely true – and was definitely not true in the beginning of their existence. Freemasons have to believe in “God”, which they have termed “The Great Architect of the Universe”, for which they have a specific set of rituals and prayers. A modern Freemason stated that they closed their “Masonic working year on June 24”, the summer solstice and feast of John the Baptist as such: “The celebration takes place in the Temple, during which we are reminded of our Masonic ideal of spiritual purification, the symbolism of light, the light that is present in each and every person, which enlightens the earth and originates from the Great Architect of the Universe.”
Freemasons make little of the reference to “The Great Architect of the Universe”, but it is in Plato’s Timaeus where the first reference to “Great Architect of the Universe” has been discovered. This book was one of the major philosophical works that influenced the Platonic Academy of Cosimo de Medici and Ficino and thus is at the foundation of the Renaissance.
It is not the only piece of evidence that a Renaissance, Hermetic environment was present in Freemasonic societies. The central figure in Masonic rituals, Hiram Abiff, has been the cause of great speculation. According to Masonic legends, Hiram Abiff was the architect of the Temple of Solomon. Architect – Abiff being an architect – as a science was largely absent in Europe, apart from two instances: the Florentine Renaissance and with John Dee, who believed that architecture was Hermetic. John Dee furthermore mentioned Plato’s reference to the “Great Architect of the Universe”, stating he was “Master over All”. Masonic historians have concluded that Abiff is a mixture of the Egyptian god Osiris and Hermes Trismegistus, or Thoth. Can one get more Hermetic than this?
Finally, Freemasonry was a secret society, revealed for the first time to the world in 1717, though known to have existed in England for approximately one century before – and thus dating back to the 1600 attempted revolution that set to occur in that very country and which involved a “secret cabal” around John Dee. Several authors, like Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Temple and the Lodge, have argued that Freemasonry was introduced into England from Scotland, when James I became king of England in 1603. This at first seems logical, as it would explain why it was only then, with the Stuarts attaining the English throne, that there are more and more references to Freemasonry discovered in England. But we note that 1600 was also the watershed event that signalled the end of the third great attempt; was Freemasonry the secret continuation of these conspirators for social reform? Was the Royal Society one public statement, followed in 1717 by the public revelation of the Freemasonic tradition?
For the commonly accepted version to work, the question is why Freemasonry would be a secret society, hiding from the authorities, if it had the backing of King James I? Might it not be more logical to assume that it did not have the backing of the King – but was a survival of the secret societies that were soaked in Egyptianism and that had been established by Walsingham around Queen Elizabeth I, James I’s predecessor? This seems far more logical, and would also explain why Freemasonry resembles both Renaissance ideas and Egyptian ideas. Even Baigent and Leigh have to accept that “it was Dee, who, in effect, set the stage for the emergence of Freemasonry”. No-one, apart from Frances Yates in a side-note, has ever concluded that it is most likely that Freemasonry originated in England amongst those who heard the Egyptian message that was preached by Bruno and Dee during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Upon her death, it seems only logical that these groups would have gone underground, as otherwise the members would face imprisonment, like Walter Ralegh, or worse. Though there is no surviving evidence surrounding the origins of Freemasonry, it is clear that the Renaissance circles of Elizabeth, immersed with their Egyptian religion, is the most likely source from which the secret society originated. Many have stressed the Egyptian content of the Freemasonic rituals and some lodges would sit well within the line of Egyptian temples. It is particularly Osiris in his role of a dead god that is central to the Freemasonic rituals. Some Masonic historians have, however, gone beyond merely pointing out that the rituals of the encoffined Osiris resemble the Freemasonic rituals. One such historian was Schiller, who stated that the mysteries of Isis and Serapis had been the models for the order of Freemasonry. As we know that these mysteries were known to the Hermeticists of the 15th and 16th century, this is entirely possible. Another Masonic historian, Godfrey Higgins, went even further and claimed that these mysteries were Masonry itself. Interestingly, he then depicted quite a garbled account of how this was the case, which has since failed to impress many. Higgins, however, stated that he would only use some of the evidence that was available to him… he would not use that evidence that was part of his Masonic oath not to reveal that information. It therefore seems Higgins was entirely convinced of the fact that the Freemasonic rituals and the Serapis rituals were identical, but could not use the best available evidence – as he respected the oath not to divulge this. He therefore used only material he could talk about, but which, in the final analysis, was unconvincing to the reader. It seems, unfortunately, that no one has picked up the fact that he, like many other Masons in the last century, either knew or were firmly convinced that the origins of Freemasonry was the Serapis cult. Hiram Abiff Modern researchers, like Brigid Brophy, have also come to the conclusion that Freemasonry was based on the rituals of the mysteries. She points out that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was a Mason, used this time in his highly Masonic opera, The Magic Flute, where one of the musical numbers is actually titled Isis and Osiris.
It could thus be argued that the Freemasons adapted an Old Testament story of the Temple of Solomon to make their doctrine look Christian, introduced the fictional character of Hiram Abiff and gave him attributes that cast him in the role of Osiris. Should their rituals be discovered, this would allow them to claim they were, after all, Christian, not heretical – which is exactly the tactic they used. As their rituals, however, lost meaning, it seems that the Masons themselves forgot the true origins of this ploy, having fallen victim to it themselves.
In the 17th and 18th century, though, this was not the case. When the first explorers set sail to Egypt, to unearth the mysterious remains of ancient Egypt, most of those “explorers” were Freemasons. It is also a historic fact that they had been inspired by their Masonic background. Egypt, however, would not become the promised land of Freemasonry; that role would go to the United States of America… as Europe was obviously not prone to social reform according to the Hermetic model, the American continent was looked towards as virgin soil where a Hermetic society, a “Heliopolis”, a City of God, could be established more easily.