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Iamblichus’s “On the Mysteries”



The following is an introduction to the ancient text at the absolute center of any historical reconstruction of theurgy, Iamblichus’s “On the Mysteries.” The version pictured is the highly recommended recent translation by Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell (2003).



Historical Introduction and Significance

The De mysteriis (hereafter DM) of the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus (c. 240 – c. 325 CE) is one of the most important texts for the study of Late Antique philosophy. It represents a definitive break from the systems of his immediate forebears, Plotinus (204/5 – 270 CE), generally considered the founder of “Neoplatonism” (a term coined in the late eighteenth century), and his student Porphyry (234 – 305 CE). The latter is believed to have been one of the teachers of Iamblichus, and it is to Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo that DMis a response. The seeming rivalry between Iamblichus and his former teacher may be due in part to their closeness in age. Regardless, Iamblichus, writing under the guise of an Egyptian priest named Abamon, takes Porphyry severely to task for his misunderstanding of and attack on the “priestly art” (ἱερατική τέχνη) or “mystical system” (μυσταγωγία) of theurgy (θεουργία).


The break with earlier Platonism can be summarized in two statements: (1) Iamblichus was the first of the Neoplatonists to challenge the Plotinian doctrine of the undescended soul, and indeed all subsequent late-antique Neoplatonists would follow him in this. (2) Because the soul has completely descended into the body, simple contemplation (the famous Plotinian “inward turn”) is not enough to achieve ἕνωσις, or mystical union with the One. Rather, various ritual practices – the content of theurgy – become necessary. Iamblichus distinguishes theurgy (roughly, “god-work”) from theology (mere “god-talk”), the latter being insufficient to achieve the goal of Platonic philosophy as understood by Iamblichus: ὁμοίωσις θεῷ – being made like God. How this worked – the tools and techniques of theurgic practice – will be discussed below.


The revised doctrine of the soul and the corresponding emphasis on ritual would influence not only all subsequent Neoplatonic philosophy until the closing of the philosophical schools by Justinian in the sixth century, but would also be an important influence on the development of Renaissance thought, represented by thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, who translated (or paraphrased) Iamblichus’s text into Latin in the fifteenth century. It was Ficino, in fact, who gave the text the title by which it is now most widely known, De mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldaeorum, Assyriorum, a title only slightly less unwieldy than the original title of the work: The Reply of the Master Abamon to the Letter of Porphyry to Anebo, and the Solutions to the Questions it Contains. Notable among his more immediate successors were Proclus (c. 411 – 485 CE) and Damascius (c. 460 – 540 CE), both of whom became the head of the reconstituted Platonic Academy in Athens, and both were strong proponents of theurgic Neoplatonism. When the academy was closed in 529, Damascius and six of his colleagues would seek refuge in Persia, where Iamblichean Platonism would eventually pass into the hands of Arab philosophers, among whom it thrived until the tenth century. Also notable is the Christian theurgist Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (late fifth or early sixth century; influenced directly by Proclus), whose written work has had a strong influence on the development of Christian mysticism.


Most of what we know of the life of Iamblichus is from the biography (or hagiography) by Eunapius in his Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists. Eunapius writes of an “illustrious birth,” while Damascius reports that Iamblichus came from a royal line of priest-kings of Emesa in western Syria. Iamblichus, however, was born in Chalcis, some dozens of miles north of Emesa. After studying briefly with Porphyry in Rome or Sicily, Iamblichus founded his own school of philosophy in Apamea in Syria, not far from Antioch. Apamea was a city known for famous philosophers, having previously been the home of the Stoic Posidonius and the Neopythagorean Numenius, and Plotinus’s pupil and successor Amelius retired there. It seems as though Iamblichus’s school did not survive him, but his voluminous written works, few of which are extant, were revered by those who studied them, including the Roman emperor Julian, the so-called “apostate” and the last non-Christian emperor, whose rule ended in 363 CE. In the twenty short months of his imperium, Julian attempted to reverse the momentum of the quickly spreading Christian religion that had first been adopted and legalized by his uncle Constantine. Chief among his weapons was the work of “the divine Iamblichus,” in which Julian saw the perfect union of cultic ritual and philosophical rigor, and he attempted to reform the various non-Christian priesthoods along Iamblichean lines.


Outline of the Contents of De Mysteriis

DM was artificially divided during the Renaissance into ten books of quite uneven length, but the divisions have been retained by modern scholars, despite the fact that they somewhat obscure the intended structure of the work. Nevertheless, the divisions occur in natural breaks in Iamblichus’s prose, so each of the ten books will be briefly summarized here. Iamblichus begins by invoking Hermes (understood to be the Egyptian god Thoth) as his muse and patron of priestly knowledge and rational discourse. He then lays out the spectrum of divine entities, with the Good as the greatest divine being and the soul as the least. In order for one to be able to know the other, then, an entire panoply of intermediate beings is necessary. He then begins to describe theurgy as the system of techniques that purify the soul and allow the theurgist to ascend incrementally toward the gods. The tools that enable this process he identifies as varieties of σύμβολα or συνθήματα, two