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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 23

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 23.—What Hermes Trismegistus Thought Concerning Idolatry, and from What Source He Knew that the Superstitions of Egypt Were to Be Abolished.

The Egyptian Hermes, whom they call Trismegistus, had a different opinion concerning those demons.  Apuleius, indeed, denies that they are gods; but when he says that they hold a middle place between the gods and men, so that they seem to be necessary for men as mediators between them and the gods, he does not distinguish between the worship due to them and the religious homage due to the supernal gods.  This Egyptian, however, says that there are some gods made by the supreme God, and some made by men.  Any one who hears this, as I have stated it, no doubt supposes that it has reference to images, because they are the works of the hands of men; but he asserts that visible and tangible images are, as it were, only the bodies of the gods, and that there dwell in them certain spirits, which have been invited to come into them, and which have power to inflict harm, or to fulfil the desires of those by whom divine honors and services are rendered to them.  To unite, therefore, by a certain art, those invisible spirits to visible and material things, so as to make, as it were, animated bodies, dedicated and given up to those spirits who inhabit them,—this, he says, is to make gods, adding that men have received this great and wonderful power.  I will give the words of this Egyptian as they have been translated into our tongue:  “And, since we have undertaken to discourse concerning the relationship and fellowship between men and the gods, p. 160 know, O Æsculapius, the power and strength of man.  As the Lord and Father, or that which is highest, even God, is the maker of the celestial gods, so man is the maker of the gods who are in the temples, content to dwell near to men.” 320   And a little after he says, “Thus humanity, always mindful of its nature and origin, perseveres in the imitation of divinity; and as the Lord and Father made eternal gods, that they should be like Himself, so humanity fashioned its own gods according to the likeness of its own countenance.”  When this Æsculapius, to whom especially he was speaking, had answered him, and had said, “Dost thou mean the statues, O Trismegistus?”—“Yes, the statues,” replied he, “however unbelieving thou art, O Æsculapius,—the statues, animated and full of sensation and spirit, and who do such great and wonderful things,—the statues prescient of future things, and foretelling them by lot, by prophet, by dreams, and many other things, who bring diseases on men and cure them again, giving them joy or sorrow according to their merits.  Dost thou not know, O Æsculapius, that Egypt is an image of heaven, or, more truly, a translation and descent of all things which are ordered and transacted there, that it is, in truth, if we may say so, to be the temple of the whole world?  And yet, as it becomes the prudent man to know all things beforehand, ye ought not to be ignorant of this, that there is a time coming when it shall appear that the Egyptians have all in vain, with pious mind, and with most scrupulous diligence, waited on the divinity, and when all their holy worship shall come to nought, and be found to be in vain.”

Hermes then follows out at great length the statements of this passage, in which he seems to predict the present time, in which the Christian religion is overthrowing all lying figments with a vehemence and liberty proportioned to its superior truth and holiness, in order that the grace of the true Saviour may deliver men from those gods which man has made, and subject them to that God by whom man was made.  But when Hermes predicts these things, he speaks as one who is a friend to these same mockeries of demons, and does not clearly express the name of Christ.  On the contrary, he deplores, as if it had already taken place, the future abolition of those things by the observance of which there was maintained in Egypt a resemblance of heaven,—he bears witness to Christianity by a kind of mournful prophecy.  Now it was with reference to such that the apostle said, that “knowing God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man,” 321 and so on, for the whole passage is too long to quote.  For Hermes makes many such statements agreeable to the truth concerning the one true God who fashioned this world.  And I know not how he has become so bewildered by that “darkening of the heart” as to stumble into the expression of a desire that men should always continue in subjection to those gods which he confesses to be made by men, and to bewail their future removal; as if there could be anything more wretched than mankind tyrannized over by the work of his own hands, since man, by worshipping the works of his own hands, may more easily cease to be man, than the works of his hands can, through his worship of them, become gods.  For it can sooner happen that man, who has received an honorable position, may, through lack of understanding, become comparable to the beasts, than that the works of man may become preferable to the work of God, made in His own image, that is, to man himself.  Wherefore deservedly is man left to fall away from Him who made Him, when he prefers to himself that which he himself has made.

For these vain, deceitful, pernicious, sacrilegious things did the Egyptian Hermes sorrow, because he knew that the time was coming when they should be removed.  But his sorrow was as impudently expressed as his knowledge was imprudently obtained; for it was not the Holy Spirit who revealed these things to him, as He had done to the holy prophets, who, foreseeing these things, said with exultation, “If a man shall make gods, lo, they are no gods;” 322 and in another place, “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord, that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered.” 323   But the holy Isaiah prophesies expressly concerning Egypt in reference to this matter, saying, “And the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence, and their heart shall be overcome in them,” 324 and other things to the same effect.  And with the prophet are to be classed those who rejoiced that that which they knew was to come had actually come,—as Simeon, or Anna, who immediately recognized Jesus when He p. 161 was born, or Elisabeth, who in the Spirit recognized Him when He was conceived, or Peter, who said by the revelation of the Father, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” 325   But to this Egyptian those spirits indicated the time of their own destruction, who also, when the Lord was present in the flesh, said with trembling, “Art Thou come hither to destroy us before the time?” 326 meaning by destruction before the time, either that very destruction which they expected to come, but which they did not think would come so suddenly as it appeared to have done, or only that destruction which consisted in their being brought into contempt by being made known.  And, indeed, this was a destruction before the time, that is, before the time of judgment, when they are to be punished with eternal damnation, together with all men who are implicated in their wickedness, as the true religion declares, which neither errs nor leads into error; for it is not like him who, blown hither and thither by every wind of doctrine, and mixing true things with things which are false, bewails as about to perish a religion, which he afterwards confesses to be error.



These quotations are from a dialogue between Hermes and Æsculapius, which is said to have been translated into Latin by Apuleius.


Rom. 1.21.


Jer. 16.10.


Zech. 13.2.


Isa. 19.1.


Matt. 16.16.


Matt. 8.29.

Next: Chapter 24

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