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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: January 2021

1 - Hermeticism, the Cabala, and the Search for Ancient Wisdom


When Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) translated the ancient Corpus Hermeticum in 1460 and unlocked the secrets of the mysterious figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, he discovered a wellspring of knowledge that promised to transform humanity’s understanding of both the world and its Creator. He and many others believed that the writings of Hermes conveyed the prisca sapientia, or ancient wisdom, once vouchsafed to Adam in the Garden but then lost after humanity’s fall from divine grace. The philosophical tradition known as hermeticism quickly spread across Renaissance Europe, alongside renewed interest in the mystical Judaic practice of the Kabbalah, another source of wisdom that sought to reveal the hidden traces of God in the universe. These traditions of learned magic inspired the archetypal Renaissance magus, the English philosopher John Dee (1527-608), in his quest for knowledge. He conversed with angels and advised some of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, but like the fictional figure of Faustus, who dabbled in dark arts and damned himself for eternity, Dee had to contend with the distrust and fear of contemporaries who believed that magic was the work of demons.

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