So, as if nothing has happened, I decided to come back to this blog. Actually, a lot has happened in my life, I started my PhD studies in History at the local university, I made tons of readings and had lots of classes, I wrote a few stuff and (fortunately) travelled widely. That’s why I kept this blog in hibernation.
It makes me very glad that people continued to read it even though no further content was added. It’s for these people and for — I hope — a lot more people that I’m writing again.
I decided to fulfill a promise I made a while ago of translating Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda. This is one of my favorite albums and surely is one of the greatest records in Brazilian discography. Also, it is about one topic I really like, which is Hermetism and all those crazy stuff. Let me just sketch a few comments about the album before I post some of the translations.
I really don’t know how a mythical figure from the Greek domination over the Egyptians in Late Antiquity could be studied by the librarians the library of Alexandria, then took by alchemists, magicians and scientists in the Renaissance as a topic of studies and — in the end — become the subject of Brazilian popular music, but that’s just what happened in A Tábua de Esmeralda.
As some of you may know, Hermes Trismegistus was a mythical priest from some esoteric traditions dating around the 3rd century B.C., when the Greek reinterpreted traditional Egyptian religion on their conquest of Egypt. The Hellenistic Greeks combined the gods Hermes and Thoth, who both presided over knowledge and communication. Trismegistus means “thrice great”, because Hermes was a summit of theology, alchemy, and astrology.
The figure of Hermes Trismegistus was attached to the texts known as Corpus Hermeticum. It comprises seventeen or eighteen mystical books attributed to the god. They spouse a philosophy in which the unity between heaven and what’s bellow heaven is a major principle. This dynamic unity between all things helps to understanding what was alchemy, as its basic tenet was that one element could be transformed into another. Hermeticism comes from mystical Platonism of Antiquity, as it deals over forms and ideal elements.
One interesting thing is its survival. During the Middle Ages, the Hermetic texts were translated to Arabian over the course of Muslim expansion, where they formed the major corpus of alchemia. It was in Arabian that alchemy’s major writing, the Emerald Tablet which Jorge Ben tackles here, first appeared. The work was later translated into Latin and adopted over the course of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
In Renaissance, the Corpus Hermeticum was held in high esteem by scholars, magicians, princes and…the Pope! Hermes was though to provide a prisca theologia, or a pristine theology, prior to that of the Bible and Moses. In this way, he was both a pagan figure and one that, because of all the talking about the One, prefigured Christianism. Egypt was then held, as in Antiquity, as the source of civilization.
The fame of Hermes in the Renaissance was so big that, as Frances Yates writes in her book about the Hermetic tradition, when Marsilio Ficino was translating Plato, he was interrupted by Lorenzo de’ Medici because they had just found the texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. So Ficino interrupted his translations of the nowadays famous Plato to translate the now obscure Hermes.
It was via Renaissance that the Corpus Hermeticum became available, and even though in late sixteenth-century it began to be disregarded as spurious writing, it survived in mystical circles. In the nineteenth-century, British magician Aleister Crowley used the Hermetic writings as base of some of his works.
And I guess it was because of Aleister Crowley, who was well known in the sixties (just look at Sgt. Peppers cover) that he got into contact with Hermes Trismegistus.
I won’t provide a translation of the Emerald Tablet because that’s just what Jorge Ben does in one of his songs, but as a side note it is interesting to note the presence of Aleister Crowley in some very mainstream characters from Brazilian music over the sixties and seventies. Raul Seixas used to read him and introduced some of his philosophy in his songs. This was done, of course, because of the influence of his creative partner, the now bestseller writer Paulo Coelho, but that’s a whole different story…
I hope you enjoy the translations and the comments I usually do here.