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Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

Cambridge University Press 2022. xvi + 438 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-009-12306-8 (hb)

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In Egypt during the first centuries of the Common Era, men and women would meet discreetly in their homes, in temple sanctuaries, or in sol- itary places to learn a powerful practice of spiritual liberation. They thought of themselves as followers of Hermes Trismegistus, the legend- ary master of ancient wisdom. While many of their writings are lost, those that survived have been interpreted primarily as philosophical treatises about theological topics. Wouter J. Hanegraaff challenges this dominant narrative by demonstrating that Hermetic literature was con- cerned with experiential practices intended for healing the soul from mental delusion. The Way of Hermes involved radical alterations of consciousness in which practitioners claimed to perceive the true nature of reality behind the hallucinatory veil of appearances. Hanegraaff explores how practitioners went through a training regime that involved luminous visions, exorcism, spiritual rebirth, cosmic consciousness, and union with the divine beauty of universal goodness and truth to attain the salvational knowledge known as gnōsis.

Winner of the PROSE award for best academic book in Religious Studies published in 2022.

"This truly epic book may change lives and careers, and not of academics only" (Massimo Introvigne, review in Bitter Winter, 29 July 2022)

"In this learned and richly annotated book one finds something to think about on every single page" (Christian Wildberg, review in Aries 23:2 [2023]).

"One of the special strengths of this book is that Hanegraaff creates space for the texts themselves, allowing them to breathe, i.e. that he does not distort the Hermetica by means of the prejudicial (Christian-theological, moralistic, misogynic, existentialist, gnostic-fatalistic etc.) readings that have become standard in scholarship. In the wild growths of modern Hermetic scholarship since Reitzenstein, his claim is rather that of creating a similar new foundation that resembles an anthropological expedition through the jungle of Hermetic texts, so as to deconstruct the multiple traps and blind spots of research on the basis of his Hermetic-hermeneutical turn." (Guido Nerger, review in Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 31:1 [2023], 128-141).

"In this reviewer’s opinion, Hanegraaff's voice is not the only voice present in his text. ... There is something there in those pages, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to find that out for yourself if you let the spell do its work" (Craig "IV" Slee, review in Paralibrum, July 2022)

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