Podcast episode

Episode 133: A Word to Conjure With: On ‘Theurgy’ in Late Antiquity and Beyond

Not your grandma’s theurgy.

In this episode we pull back the focus: before we can really approach one of the most important (and loaded) terms associated with late-antique esotericism, and notably with the essential De mysteriis of the great Iamblichus – we refer, of course, to theurgy – we need to get our bearings. It turns out that, not only is late-antique theurgy difficult to define, it is sometimes used by the very scholars attempting to define it in ways which are clearly influenced by a long reception-tradition within western esotericism. Matters are made more interesting by the fact that, already in late antiquity, numerous competing definitions of theurgy were in play.

We enter the labyrinth, document some of the fascinating trajectories of the term theurgy from the Chaldæan Oracles to modern-day ritual magick (and saxophone performance), and look at some of the major lines of scholarship attempting to describe ancient theurgy.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Augustine on theurgy, goeteia, and magic: De civ. dei X.9.1.
  • Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine on Theurgy: Emperor Julian on the theurgists: II 35; Fire & the Magi: I 81n “living fire” of the theurgists: I 311, 338, 344. The Key to Theosophy, London, 1889, we cite pp. 2, 21.
  • Stephen Clucas. John Dee’s Angelic Conversations and the Ars Notoria: Renaissance Magic and Mediaeval Theurgy. In Stephen Clucas, editor, John Dee: Interdisciplinary Essays in English Renaissance Thought, volume 193, pages 231–274. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 2006.
  • Claire Fanger, editor. Invoking Angels: Theurgic Ideas and Practices, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2012.
  • Edward John Langford Garstin. Theurgy or the Hermetic Practice: A Treatise on Spiritual Alchemy (London: Rider and Co, 1930).
  • Markham J. Geller. Jesus’ Theurgic Powers: Parallels in the Talmud and Incantation Bowls. Journal of Jewish Studies, 28:141–155, 1977.
  • Randall Hall on the Theurgic Saxophone.
  • Wouter J. Hanegraaff, editor. Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. Brill, Leiden, 2005.
  • Paul-Henri Dietrich, Baron de Holbach. Le christianisme dévoilée, ou examen des principes et des effets de la religion chrétienne (London, 1766): Christian sacramentalism as “puerile and ridiculous ceremony” which was biting on the “true theurgy” (pp. 123-124, cited in Fernández-Fernández, p. 8).
  • Iamblichus on theourgia versus goeiteia: De myst. I.12; 14; II.6; 11; III.1; 10; 18; IV.2.
  • Löbeck, Aglaophamus (Königsberg, 1829). Chapter 14 deals with the Chaldæan Oracles and theurgy.
  • Nicomachus of Gerasa: Excerptis de musica p. 277 Jan. Maybe our earliest quasi-datable reference to ‘theurgists’. Here is Shaw’s translation (1995, p. 184): ‘Indeed, the tones of the seven spheres, each of which by nature produces a particular sound, are the sources of the nomenclature of the vowels. These are described as unspeakable (arrhēta) in themselves and in all their combinations by wise men, since the tone in this context performs a role analogous to that of the monad in number, the point in geometry, and the letter in grammar. However, when they are combined with the materiality of the consonants, just as soul is combined with body, and harmony with strings) the one producing a creature (zoon), the other notes and melodies), they have potencies which are efficacious and perfective of divine things. [Thus whenever the theourgoi are conducting such acts as worship they make invocations symbolically with hissing, clucking, and inarticulate and discordant sounds].’ The square brackets indicate suspect text.
  • Gershom Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Shocken Books, New York, NY, 1941, we cite pp. 56-57.
  • Jake Stratton-Kent. Geosophia: the Argo of Magic. Encyclopædia Goetica Volume II: From the Greeks to the Grimoires. Bibliothèque Rouge/Scarlet Imprint, 2005.
  • Thomas Taylor, ‘The Chaldæan Oracles’, in The Monthly Magazine, 1797 [English translation by the indefatigable English Platonist, later re-published in his Collectanea (1806), and again, with additions and corrections, in the Classical Journal 16, 1817, pp. 333–44–18 and 17, 1818, pp. 128–33 and 243–64].
  • On Westcott’s (Sapere Aude‘s) ‘translation’ of some Chaldæan materials for the Golden Dawn initiatory degree of Theoricus, see Israel Regardie, The Golden Dawn 6th ed. (Llewellyn, 1989), 170ff.


  • É. D. Des Places. Oracles chaldaïques. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2003.
  • Dodds, “Appendix II: Theurgy” in The Greeks and the Irrational, 285.
  • S. Eitrem. La thèurgie chez les nèo-platoniciens et dans les papyrus magiques. Symbolae Osloenses, 22:49–79, 1942.
  • Christian H. Bull. The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: the Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom. Brill, Leiden, 2018
  • Dillon and Finamore on theurgy: Iamblichus. De anima. Brill, Leiden, 2002. Greek text edited with and English translation by John F. Finnamore and John M. Dillon., p. 7.
  • Garth Fowden. Late Polytheism. In Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsley, and Averil Cameron, editors, The Cambridge Ancient History, Second Edition, Volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193-337, pages 521–72. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, we cite p. 532.
  • Naomi Janowitz. Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2002, we cite p. 4.
  • Sarah Iles Johnston 1997 (see below), we cite p. 168 and 174, n. 30.
  • Peter Kingsley. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995., we quote pp. 301-2.
  • Lewy 1978 (see below) on the Platonists’ citations of the Oracles: pp. 443 ff.
  • Georg Luck. Theurgy and Forms of Worship in Neoplatonism. In Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, and Paul V.M. Flesher, editors, Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict, pages 185–225. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1989., we cite p. 185.
  • Marshall 2016 (see below), we cite p. 137.
  • Tanaseanu-Döbler 2013 (see below): we cite pp. 15-16.

Recommended Reading:

For a literature-review and general orientation, see Sergio Knipe. Recycling the Refuse Heap of Magic: Scholarly Approaches to Theurgy Since 1963. In Peter Brown and Rita Lizzi Testa, editors, Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire: The Breaking of a Dialogue (IVth – Vth Century AD), pages 163–70. LIT Verlag, Berlin, 2011.

Also of interest:

  • Crystal Addey. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Ashgate, Dorchester, 2014.
  • E.R. Dodds. Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism. Journal of Roman Studies, 37(1+2):55–69, 1947.
  • John F. Finamore. Plotinus and Iamblichus on Magic and Theurgy. Dionysius, 17:83–94, 1999.
  • Alvaro Fernández-Fernández. La teúrgia de los Oráculos caldeos: cuestiones de léxico y de contexto histórico. PhD thesis, Universidad de Granada, 2011.
  • Sarah Iles Johnston. Rising to the Occasion: Theurgical Ascent in its Cultural Milieu. In P. Schäfer and H.G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, pages 165–94. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
  • Sarah Iles Johnston. Animating statues: A Case Study in Ritual. Arethusa, 41:445–77, 2008.
  • Idem. Magic and Theurgy. In David Frankfurter, editor, Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, pages 694–719. Brill, Leiden, 2019.
  • Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
  • Ruth D. Majercik. The Chaldean Oracles: Text, translation, and commentary. Brill, Leiden, 1989.
  • Nicholas Marshall. The Meaning of Theurgy: A Minimalistic Approach to Theurgy and Previous Understandings of the Term in the Study of Late Antique Religion. PhD thesis, Aarhus Universitet, 2016.
  • Helmut Seng and Michel Tardieu, editors. Die chaldaischen Orakel. Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg, 2010.
  • Gregory Shaw. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1995.
  • Andrew Smith. Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: a Study in Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism. Martinus Nijhoff, den Haag, 1974.
  • Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler. Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, Germany, 2013.
  • Carine Van Liefferinge. La théurgie: Des “Oracles chaldaïques” à Proclus. Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique, Liège, Belgium, 1999.


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