Perfect Nature: Encountering The Self As A Spiritual Guide In The Arabic Hermetica

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Ibn Umail describes a statue of a sage holding the tablet of ancient alchemical knowledge. Illustration from a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi's book Al-mâ' al-waraqî (The Silvery Water), Islamic miniature probably from Baghdad (Public Domain)

Perfect Nature: Encountering The Self As A Spiritual Guide In The Arabic Hermetica

The Pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica are a core subgroup of Arabic Hermetic texts which take the form of discourses and letters of the philosopher Aristotle to Alexander the Great. The texts concern an array of subjects, including cosmology, the fabrication of amulets and talismans, and astrological knowledge. In these texts, Aristotle claims to have originally learned the knowledge that he passes on to Alexander from the legendary sage Hermes Trismegistus, who was also the central figure of a body of philosophical, astrological, and alchemical writings composed in Greco-Roman Egypt between roughly 300 BC and 400 AD. Although the Pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica (hereafter PsAH) and related writings have been dated to the ninth century AD, these Arabic texts are now proven to have carried over and reformulated certain concepts found in more ancient Hermetic writings.

Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena (Public Domain)

Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena (Public Domain)

It has been proposed that the core treatises of the PsAH cycle—including the Kitāb al-Isṭimākhīs, Kitāb al-Isṭimāṭīs, Kitāb al-Hādhīṭūs, and Kitāb al-Ustuwaṭṭās—derive from a single original work entitled Kitāb ʿIlal al-rūḥāniyyāt (Book on the Causes of Spiritual Forces). This treatise was abridged as the Kitāb al-Madīṭīs and drawn upon by later texts including the Kitāb al-Shuʿrā al-yamāniyya, the Dhakhīrat Iskandar (Treasury of Alexander), and the Sirr al-asrār (the source text of the Latin Secretum Secretorum). Significant passages from the PsAH cycle were also included in the Arabic occult compendium the Ġāyat al-Hakīm (Latin: Picatrix) compiled in the tenth century AD. Another text that has been associated with the PsAH cycle—even though it does not mention Aristotle—is the Giranis, an Arabic translation of a Greek version of the technical Hermetic treatise the Kyranides (originally composed between the second and fourth centuries AD), which holds the honor of being one of the earliest instances of a Hellenistic text translated into Arabic.


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