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Brian Alt on Iamblichus, Late-Antique Egypt, and Ritual

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The general topics of our continued discussion are the question of the ‘fiction égyptienne’ and Alt’s well-argued reasons for thinking that there is a lot more Egyptian material in the De mysteriis than is usually credited in scholarship. Among specific discussions are:

  • The curious absence of the Chaldæan Oracles in the De mysteriis,
  • The question of whether Iamblichus went to Egypt,
  • The De mysteriis read as a Hermetic text,
  • The large number of fascinating parallels to be found not only between Iamblichean theurgic ideas and texts collected in the PGM, but also between Iamblichean metaphysical ideas and Egyptian theological notions, notably as found in the Theban story of creation (which is where we find the god Kmeph, as the Greeks knew him, who appears prominently in DM Book VIII),
  • An interesting aside on possible Egyptian elements in Clement’s discussion of Basilides’ theory of ‘prosthetic pneumata’ which attach to the soul,
  • The usefulness of modelling Iamblichean theurgy in terms of the ‘interiorisation’ and ‘miniaturisation’ of temple-ritual, and
  • Some thoughts on the decline of temple-based cults in late antiquity (and in Egypt in the third century in particular).

Interview Bio:

Brian P. Alt is an independent teacher and researcher specializing in ancient languages, the intersections of philosophy and religion in Græco-Roman Egypt, and the history of magic. His PhD (2020) focused on Iamblichean theurgy and its interaction with Greco-Egyptian ritual practice. His forthcoming book on the Græco-Egyptian magical papyri (PGM) will be available to pre-order soon on the website.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Saffrey and Segonds (2012, cited below) do indeed consider the Egyptian provenance of the name Anebo in their discussion of the ‘fiction égyptienne’ (pp. xix-xxxviii), bowing to the Egyptological expertise of Elsa Oréal, who suggests (p. xxxiii) an Egyptian etymology for Anebo meaning ‘Great-is-his-master’ (we do not reproduce the Egyptian phonetics here, as our computer cannot type them at the present state of play. Please see Saffrey-Segonds for more detail).


Chæremon: see Episode 44.
Clement of Alexandria:

  • on the 42 books of Hermes: Strom. VI.4.
  • Clement on Basilides: Strom. II.112: ‘Those around Basilides are accustomed to call the passions ‘attachments’ (προσαρτήματα), <and assert> that these exist as certain pneumata according to their essence, having been attached to the rational soul through some disorder or primal breach (σύγχυσιν ἀρχικήν), and that still other bastard and foreign types of pneumata grow parasitically upon these, as [pneumata] of wolf, ape, lion, billy-goat …’. [As we discussed in Episode 132 , Couliano 1991 (see below), p. 193, cites this passage as evidence for astral accretions in Basilides, and I questioned how astral the passage is; Alt thinks that in the Egyptian context these animal-forms may well refer to planetary/timekeeping lore].

Eunapius on Iamblichus encountering Alypius, the small philosopher from Egypt: VS 460 Wright.


  • On Kmēph: DM.VIII 3. Cf. PGM III 142, IV 135-140, 1705.
  • The Hermaïc doctrine of two souls: DM VIII.6.

Papyri magicæ græcæ:

  • The ‘Oracle of Serapis’ = PGM 5 1-53.
  • ‘The 12 Hours of the Day Ritual’: There are two rituals in the PGM which mention the twelve hours specifically, PGM III 494-611 (a systasis with the sun) and the ‘Consecration Rite for all Purposes’, PGM IV.1596-1715 (which you can find online in Alt’s translation).


  • Brian Alt. Correspondences and Invocations: Sacred Materials, Divine Names, and Subtle Physiology in Iamblichus and Related Literature. PhD thesis, University of Indiana, 2020.
  • A. H. Armstrong. Iamblichus and Egypt. Les études philosophiques, 2(3):179–88, 1987
  • Hans Dieter Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, volume 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
  • I.P. Couliano. Out of this World: Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Shambhala, Boston, MA/London, 1991.
  • Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2022.
  • Edward O. D. Love. Code-Switching with the Gods: The Bilingual (Old Coptic-Greek) Spells of PGM IV (P. Bibliothèque Nationale Supplément Grec. 574) and Their Linguistic, Religious, and Socio-Cultural Context in Late Roman Egypt. De Gruyter, Boston, 2016.
  • Ian S. Moyer and Jacco Dieleman. Miniaturization and the Opening of the Mouth in a Greek Magical Text (PGM XII.270-350). Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, 3(1):47–72, 2003.
  • H.D. Saffrey and A.-P. Segonds, editors. Porphyre: Lettre à Anébon l’Égyptien. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2012.

Recommended Reading:

  • Akindynos Kaniamos. The Personal Daimōn in Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis: Astral Origins, Ritual and Divinization. In John F. Finamore and Mark Nyvlt, editors, Plato in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. Selected Papers from the Seventeenth Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, pages 27–58. Prometheus Trust/ISNS, Lydney, 2020.
  • Radcliffe G. Edmonds. Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019.
  • David Lorton. The Theology of Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt. In Michael B. Dick, editor, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East, pages 123–210. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 1999.