We know where magic comes from. When the Nephilim fell, they had children with humans, and taught them useful arts. One of these was magic. God drowned all of the children of the Nephilim in Noah’s Flood, although rumours persist that one of the wives on board had tainted blood, and magic continued through her. Assuming magic died out in the Flood, how was it reignited in the civilisations that rose from Noah’s sons?
The ancestor of Hermetic magic reappears in the kingdom of Noah’s grandson Mizraim: which is now called Egypt. Some early Christian writers claimed that the monuments of Egypt were created by the people before the Flood, and the land then resettled by Noah’s descendants. In this case, magic is relearned from written records.
The people who live in Egypt in 1220 do not believe this is correct. The Muslim view is that the vast, and slightly ridiculous, over-abundance of monuments in Egypt occurs because Allah wants it to be that way. This encourages humans to go to Egypt and view them, which also encourages them to head off to Mecca. Saying there are too many monuments in Egypt is kind of like looking at the Atlantic and saying “Seems like an unnecessary amount of water over there, God.” It’s a failure to deal with reality as created.
By the time of its recurrence, the people had fallen away from the God who would later rescue the Jews, and worshipped other deities. Most of these were potent faeries. The priesthood aligned to the Faerie Realm were served by a caste of magicians who created practical enchanted devices.
The earliest magicians we have clear evidence for is Imhotep, who was said to have invented many of the basic elements of architecture, and codified medicine. He was probably the first akh: the embodied immortals described in Lands of the Nile. Subsequent akhu are active in Mythic Europe, often acting as generals for the Black in its war with the Red. The tomb of Imhotep has never been found: he might be off anywhere, and he’s had at least two millennia to set up his places of power.
Thoth’s Grimoire, and the price of finding it, are described in an earlier podcast episode, called “Gods can’t see you in Mythic Europe.” Basically, it’s a saga-ending McGuffin. There are active Mercurians described in Faith and Flame.
I suggest the point where the magicians in Egypt switch over, so that practical magic becomes more politically significant than devotional magic, occurs when the Ptolemies arrive. Devotional magic continues, but the Ptolemies, who considered themselves successors to Alexander the Great, were not tied directly to the old cults. They primarily venerated Serapis, who was their familial divinity. The first High Priest of this new god might have been Mantheo, some of whose works survive to the current day.
At this point Ptolemy I founded the Great Library of Alexandria. The first librarian was Demetrius of Phalereum, a student of Aristotle. The librarians who followed were often astronomers of great skill. Cleopatra VII, effectively the last Ptolemy, was reputed a great sorceress and alchemist. Her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was raised in Rome, sent to rule Mauretania, and had a court with Egyptian, Hellenic and Roman magicians.
The Mythic Seas says that Hermetic magi have discovered proof that they aren’t descended from the Cult of Mercury:: actually they violently drove it to extinction. The local Jerbiton demands the Order be dissolved. Apparently he’s in favour of returning to the pre-Order chaos of all hunting all. I’d just ignore that.
The Roman history of the Order is described in the The Second Edition book “Order of Hermes”. Parts of it don’t congeal into a single narrative. It says that the Order is descended from the Cult of Mercury. This was founded by the Romans after they borrowed Hermes from the Greeks, as they were growing their Empire. They were not one of the most powerful priesthoods, but their rituals helped keep the Empire together. In the second century BC Plentarch of the Mercurian temple of Pompeii codified the thirty-eight rituals of the cult, but these books have been lost. The cult declined with the rise of Christianity, and was effectively mummery by 300 AD. When Constantine made Christianty the sate religion, the remaining magi moved out of the cities, and the Cult fell with Rome’s loss to barbarians.
This is poor historiography. Then again, it was written before Google, so we need to be forgiving. The Roman Empire begins, depending on your views, in 27 BCE. That’s hundreds of years after Plentarch. Let’s assume they meant the Republic? Mercury turns up in the Roman pantheon in the 4th Century BCE, so Plentarch might be an early leader. Note that Pompeii is not part of the Republic at this stage: it’s a sort of tributary. It was annexed by the Republic in 89 BC. Constantine doesn’t make Christianity the state religion. He just makes it legal to be Christian in 313 AD. It becomes the state religion in 380 AD. The Empire reached maximum size in 117 and Rome was sacked in 409. The timeline just doesn’t seem to work.
There’s further detail of the decline in the Iberia book, but in it the Cult falls because of an insistence among the magi that new recruits have pure, Roman blood. This is an idea which speaks strongly to a modern audience, but isn’t culturally congruent in the Roman context. This may be due to the line style at the time, which can be summed up by pointing out that book’s theme was Corruption, and there were demons under every rock.
Order of Hermes also suggests that there was once a civilisation of magical creatures living in the hollow of the Mediterranean basin. One of their number destroyed the dam across the Pillars of Hercules, flooding their lands. Survivors become the gods of Egypt and Greece, or the dragons, but faded from reality due to boredom. Human were their servants. The destroyer was Thoth, who does this because he’s ugly and jealous that he can’t get laid. I recall, at the time, thinking this was similar to the destruction of the Tanu in Julian May’s “The Golden Torc”.
We can do better than this with Atlantis, Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic (Heka) and the goddess who taught humans magic (Thoth’s wife Sheshet the Lady of the Libraries). I’m happy for it to be a theory among the Seekers: but with out modern research tools, we can do so much better than this.
How do we make the leap from these Romans to the Order? There are many possibilities. When we think about Trianoma and the witches of Thessaly, we often consider the spooky things which occur in the Golden Ass. We are interested in the necromancies of Erichtho. We might instead consider them as descendants of Aglaonike, an ancient astronomer. If she’s a descendant of the Alexandrians, then she’s a vector to get their ideas into the Order.
Mercere, the magus who works with stones and travel, seems a likely descendant of the pontifexes of ancient Rome. Their titles literally mean “bridge builders”. The Flambeau also seem to have had a strong Mercurian component to their practice, until this portion of the House was almost entirely destroyed in the Battle of the Tempest.
Matt Ryan tidies a lot of this up in Houses of Hermes : True Lineages. Bonisagus is born in Florence in 690, and is apprenticed by a wandering conjurer. He goes to all kinds of interesting places, and sees people performing various types of magic. He sees Osirian magicans. He finds a cache of Mercurian rituals. There’s no descent here, in any real sense: Bonisagus is doing something entirely novel. He is the great seculariser of magic. Various possibilities presented here work better for different styles of saga, but of them all, I like Matt’s best. It works better with our later designs for the Magic and Faerie Realms.