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 words used interchangeably in DM (and in the second-century Chaldean Oracles, an important source for Iamblichus and subsequent Neoplatonists), which are often translated as “symbols” or “tokens.” (Shaw suggests “signatures,” which I also find useful, since they bear the mark of their creator.) But the general function of σύμβολα/συνθήματα is to join things together through a process akin to cosmic sympathy.


In Book II, Iamblichus explains the efficacy of σύμβολα/συνθήματα. They are expressions of divine power that are “sown” by the divine intellect (νοῦς) “throughout the cosmos” (Chaldean Oracles fragment 108), as well as into the human soul, at the moment of the world’s creation. They are both cosmogonic and anagogic; i.e. they are the means by which the world is created, as well as the means by which the soul is led back up to its divine origin. We will explore the nature of σύμβολα/συνθήματα below. For now, it is enough to stress that these symbols come from the divine; human ritual practitioners serve merely to enact them, with the goal of the purification and (ultimately) divinization of the soul. Book II also goes into detail on the hierarchy of intermediate beings, which include gods, archangels, angels, heroes, and δαίμονες. We see here a proliferation of Plotinian ontological levels, with many new classes of intermediaries to fulfill the ritual functions of the theurgist.


Book III, the most lengthy in the treatise, goes into great detail on the different types of divination (μαντική). He examines dream divination, varieties of divine possession, and divination by drawing down light (φωταγωγία). These good (i.e. theurgic) practices are distinguished from various dubious forms of divination (such as standing on magical characters [χαρακτῆρες]) and from inductive or intuitive abilities (such as a doctor’s prognosis of an illness and some animals’ instinctual sense for the imminence of earthquakes or rain).


Book IV deals with the sticky problem of the origin of evil, concluding that even in a universe that displays self-similarity (συμπάθεια) at multiple levels, the constraints of corporeality create (the illusion of) evil from the standpoint of the individual, whereas the same activity is salutary and good from the standpoint of the whole. Drawing on the two cosmic principles of Empedocles, Iamblichus writes that love (ἔρως or φιλία) and strife (νεῖκος) operate as complementary activities at the level of the whole cosmos, while becoming passions (παθήματα) at the level of individual participants.


Books V and VI address sacrifice and prayer, and it is here that Iamblichus explains the functioning of various kinds of σύμβολα/συνθήματα (discussed below) in the greatest detail. Book VII looks at these using specific examples derived from the Egyptian symbols of “mud” (the primeval waters of Nun), the solar bark, and the child-god Harpocrates sitting on a lotus. It also examines the efficacy of divine names and the sacrality of language. Egyptian themes continue in Book VIII, where Hermetic astrology is discussed alongside Neoplatonic metaphysics dressed in Egyptian garb. Most notably, “Kmeph” (the Egyptian god Amun Kem-Atef, “he who has completed his moment”) – a serpent-god that appears also in the Greco-Egyptian “magical” papyri and is mentioned by Plutarch and Porphyry – is called the “intellect thinking itself” and “turning his thoughts toward himself,” and is envisaged as the primordial cosmic serpent swallowing its own tail (the οὐροβόρος of early Greek alchemical texts). Book IX briefly examines the personal δαίμων, the “genius” of Socrates and the entity invoked in such elaborate theurgic rituals as PGM 13, called “The Eighth Book of Moses.” In Book X, Iamblichus reemphasizes that the only true good is mystical union with the gods (also called γνῶσις of the gods), and the only path to such union is theurgy.


Theurgy as Demiurgy

Gregory Shaw correctly characterizes the divinization and mystical union brought about by theurgy as ultimately demiurgic in nature. As intimated above, it comes down to a question of perspective, and for the most part this can be understood to be a perspective on matter and embodiment. For Iamblichus, matter (ὕλη, or in this context, its functional equivalents γένεσις, σῶμα, or φύσις) was ultimately the culmination of a long process(ion) (πρόοδος) of the “creative dispersion” of the One. Analogously, the body can be understood as the final “point of condensation” of ψυχή (which itself is a “condensation” of νοῦς, etc.). In other words, matter is “connatural” (συμφυής) with soul, mind, and the One. It is the final expression of the cosmic procession, and the key to the soul’s return. The material body is not an extrinsic addition, but rather the ultimate “moment” of an ongoing cycle of creation.


Plotinus, in his discussion of the descent of the soul (Ennead 4.8), sees an optimistic view of the soul’s embodiment in Plato’s Timaeus but a pessimistic view in dialogues such as the Phaedo and Phaedrus. His answer to this core problem of reconciling Platonic cosmology with Platonic psychology is to acknowledge, and even to emphasize, the negative view of embodiment while stressing that the soul never completely descends into the body. Iamblichus, on the other hand, fully acknowledges the soul’s descent, but solves this same problem through a shift in perspective. The first perspective – the pessimism concerning embodiment in the Phaedo and Phaedrus – involves a gradual purification of the soul from the body with the goal of achieving a proper relationship to the universe and its daimonic intermediaries. The second perspective is that of the Timaeus, in which each individual soul participates in the World Soul by identifying itself with the cosmic Demiurge and, by means of theurgy, takes part in the ongoing creation of the universe. Thus, embodiment is only a problem from the point of view of the individual who doesn’t understand his or her true nature. In fact, the cosmogonic law that caused the soul to “fall” into the body is simultaneously the means of salvation, in that the “signatures” (σύμβολα/συνθήματα) of this cosmogenesis are present throughout matter (as well as throughout ψυχή). For the accomplished theurgist, the cosmos becomes a temple, one in which the ritual procedures are established by the Creator (through his intermediaries) and sewn throughout the cosmos, as well as into the human soul. This reflects the general Platonic view of the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm.


The Tools of Theurgy: σύμβολα/συνθήματα

The σύμβολα/συνθήματα touched on in the chapter outline above constitute the primary ritual tools of the theurgist and consist of three primary types: (1) material, (2) intermediate, and (3) noetic. Material συνθήματα consist of such things as stones, plants, animals, and incense. A given material corresponds to a certain god, group of gods, or other divine entities. Some of these may be explainable as a natural metaphor: heliotropic plants correspond to solar deities (Ἀπόλλων or Ἥλιος); iron is associated with Ἄρης because of the common color of iron rust, the planet Mars, and blood. Indeed, catalogs of “astrological botany” and “mineralogy” assigning types of plants and stones to the planetary gods go back at least to around 200 BCE. Nevertheless, some συνθήματα have a hidden meaning known only to the gods, from whom their power derives. Intermediate συνθήματα are of two subtypes: visual and verbal/vocal. Visual συνθήματα are statues or other images of the gods, as in the image of Harpocrates emerging from the lotus mentioned above. Verbal/vocal συνθήματα are divine names (ὀνόματα βάρβαρα) or strings of vowels (possibly representing hymns), the seven Greek vowels being correlated to the seven planetary deities. Again, sometimes the power (δύναμις) of these symbols is known, sometimes it hidden or even unknowable, but their efficacy as ritual tools remains unimpaired. Shaw speculates that noetic συνθήματα consist primarily of mystical Pythagorean numerical constructs, but because no explicitly theurgic rituals are extant, this can be considered conjecture at best. Others have written of “ritualized inhalation of sunlight,” as seen, for example, in the so-called “Mithras Liturgy” (PGM IV. 475 ff.).


These συνθήματα function in three ways: (1) they have the power to purify not only the body but even more so the soul; (2) they prepare the human mind for participation (μετουσία) in and vision of the Good, and release the mind from any obstructions that prevent this; and (3) they enable mystical union (ἕνωσις) with the gods. Whether or not the three types of συνθήματα proposed above correspond directly to these three functions is unclear; there may be some overlap. What is important, however, is that the συνθήματα of various types derive their power from the gods, and thus Iamblichus stresses that theurgy is different from vulgar magic (γοητεία). These divine συνθήματα are properly the instruments of the gods themselves, the means through which the process of creation (πρόοδος) is enacted, and simultaneously the anagogic means of return (ἐπιστροφή, ἀποκατάστασις) for the soul of the practicing theurgist. There is no coercion of the gods (as magic is commonly understood) on the part of the theurgist. Therefore, to classify theurgy as a “special branch of magic,” as Dodds and others have done, is misguided at best.


Relevance for the Study of Late-Antique Religion

The modern scholarly reception of DM has been mixed. The general trend has gone from dismissing the text as a “manifesto of irrationalism” (Dodds, 1951) to praising it as a “manifesto of the miraculous” (Clarke, 2001). In the current author’s opinion, Iamblichus’s exposition of theurgy provides a hermeneutical framework with which to understand a broad range of ritual practices in Late Antiquity. DM has been used by scholars to shed light on ritual texts of the Gnostics, those belonging to Hermetic circles, and the so-called Greek Magical Papyri, many of which include rituals that Iamblichus certainly would have considered theurgic. This raises the bigger question of whether Iamblichus might also describe the practices of those he purports to describe – namely, the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians (or Chaldeans) – as theurgic. One serious obstacle to this assertion is the presence of Neoplatonic metaphysics throughout the work of Iamblichus. However, at least in a Hellenized context, Iamblichus can be said to preserve authentic Egyptian priestly lore. His frequent appeal to Hermetic writings should be taken seriously, as Garth Fowden, David Frankfurter, and others have shown. Shaw reminds us that Egyptian cult appealed to Iamblichus precisely because it imitated cosmogenesis, bringing us back to the theme of “theurgy as demiurgy.”


Purchase Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell’s (2003) translation of this fundamental theurgic text at Amazon.com.



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