Podcast episode

Episode 114: Plotinus the Magician? Ritual Practice and Power in Platonism

[Corrigendum: around minute 32, ‘earlier Scipio’ should be ‘Elder Scipio’]

Plotinus is remarkable in many ways, but one often-overlooked way is the fact that he gives us some of our most important testimony as to how a scientifically-astute philosopher of the third century thought about the power of rituals. It turns out that they are astrally-powered, have a physicalist, causal basis, and they really work. However, they are also not really the concern of the philosopher, whose main focus is metaphysical rather than physical.

Also remarkable is the fact that we have Porphyry’s attestation to a number of occasions when Plotinus engaged with ritual practices during his daily life, including the famous ‘Séance at the Isium’, when his guardian daimôn was called into visible appearance … but it wasn’t a daimôn at all, but a god!

Theory meets practice, and our understanding of third-century ideas about effective ritual is immeasurably enriched.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestæ 21.14.5.
  • Plato: the All a single, living animal: Tim. 30d3-31a1. Assimilation to the divine as far as possible: Theæt. 176b. Cf. Laws X, 904d (postmortem deification).


  • The Mirror of Dionysus: IV.3[27]12.26, read as a philosophic αἴνιγμα.
  • The image of the noetic as a temple-sanctuary: e.g. I.6[1]8; VI.9[9]11.18-33; V.1[10]6.12-15.
  • The philosopher as priest: I.6[1]6.1-5.
  • The Gnostics improperly subject higher realities to low-level ‘magical’ effects: II.9[33]15.2-11.
  • Animating statues: IV.3[27]11.1 ff.

Porphyry: here is the Greek for Plot. 10 which we cite at length in the episode:
Τῶν δὲ φιλοσοφεῖν προσποιουμένων Ὀλύμπιος Ἀλεξανδρεύς, Ἀμμωνίου ἐπ᾽ ὀλίγον μαθητὴς γενόμενος, καταφρονητικῶς πρὸς αὐτὸν ἔσχε διὰ φιλοπρωτίαν· ὃς καὶ οὕτως αὐτῷ ἐπέθετο, ὥστε καὶ ἀστροβολῆσαι αὐτὸν μαγεύσας ἐπεχείρησεν. Ἐπεὶ δὲ εἰς ἑαυτὸν στρεφομένην ᾔσθετο τὴν ἐπιχείρησιν, ἔλεγε πρὸς τοὺς συνήθεις μεγάλην εἶναι τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς τοῦ Πλωτίνου δύναμιν, ὡς ἀποκρούειν δύνασθαι τὰς εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιφορὰς εἰς τοὺς κακοῦν αὐτὸν ἐπιχειροῦντας. Πλωτῖνος μέντοι τοῦ Ὀλυμπίου ἐγχειροῦντος ἀντελαμβάνετο λέγων αὐτῷ τὸ σῶμα τότε ὡς τὰ σύσπαστα βαλάντια ἕλκεσθαι τῶν μελῶν αὐτῷ πρὸς ἄλληλα συνθλιβομένων. Κινδυνεύσας δὲ ὁ Ὀλύμπιος πολλάκις αὐτός τι παθεῖν ἢ δρᾶσαι τὸν Πλωτῖνον ἐπαύσατο.

Ἦν γὰρ καὶ κατὰ γένεσιν πλέον τι ἔχων παρὰ τοὺς ἄλλους ὁ Πλωτῖνος. Αἰγύπτιος γάρ τις ἱερεὺς ἀνελθὼν εἰς τὴν Ῥώμην καὶ διά τινος φίλου αὐτῷ γνωρισθεὶς θέλων τε τῆς ἑαυτοῦ σοφίας ἀπόδειξιν δοῦναι ἠξίωσε τὸν Πλωτῖνον ἐπὶ θέαν ἀφικέσθαι τοῦ συνόντος αὐτῷ οἰκείου δαίμονος καλουμένου. Τοῦ δὲ ἑτοίμως ὑπακούσαντος γίνεται μὲν ἐν τῷ Ἰσίῳ ἡ κλῆσις· μόνον γὰρ ἐκεῖνον τὸν τόπον καθαρὸν φῆσαι εὑρεῖν ἐν τῇ Ῥώμῃ τὸν Αἰγύπτιον. Κληθέντα δὲ εἰς αὐτοψίαν τὸν δαίμονα θεὸν ἐλθεῖν καὶ μὴ τοῦ δαιμόνων εἶναι γένους· ὅθεν τὸν Αἰγύπτιον εἰπεῖν· μακάριος εἶ θεὸν ἔχων τὸν δαίμονα καὶ οὐ τοῦ ὑφειμένου γένους τὸν συνόντα. Μήτε δὲ ἐρέσθαι τι ἐκγενέσθαι μήτε ἐπιπλέον ἰδεῖν παρόντα τοῦ συνθεωροῦντος φίλου τὰς ὄρνεις, ἃς κατεῖχε φυλακῆς ἕνεκα, πνίξαντος εἴτε διὰ φθόνον εἴτε καὶ διὰ φόβον τινά.

Τῶν οὖν θειοτέρων δαιμόνων ἔχων τὸν συνόντα καὶ αὐτὸς διετέλει ἀνάγων αὐτοῦ τὸ θεῖον ὄμμα πρὸς ἐκεῖνον. Ἔστι γοῦν αὐτῷ ἀπὸ τῆς τοιαύτης αἰτίας καὶ βιβλίον γραφὲν Περὶ τοῦ εἰληχότος ἡμᾶς δαίμονος, ὅπου πειρᾶται αἰτίας φέρειν περὶ τῆς διαφορᾶς τῶν συνόντων. Φιλοθύτου δὲ γεγονότος τοῦ Ἀμελίου καὶ τὰ ἱερὰ κατὰ νουμηνίαν καὶ τὰς ἑορτὰς ἐκπεριιόντος καί ποτε ἀξιοῦντος τὸν Πλωτῖνον σὺν αὐτῷ παραλαβεῖν ἔφη· ἐκείνους δεῖ πρὸς ἐμὲ ἔρχεσθαι, οὐκ ἐμὲ πρὸς ἐκείνους. Τοῦτο δὲ ἐκ ποίας διανοίας οὕτως ἐμεγαληγόρησεν, οὔτ᾽ αὐτοὶ συνεῖναι δεδυνήμεθα οὔτ᾽ αὐτὸν ἐρέσθαι ἐτολμήσαμεν.


For Merlan, Armstrong, and Mazur, see Recommended Reading below.

  • E. R. Dodds. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968., Appendix III, A Séance in the Iseum, pp. 289-91.
  • Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg, editors. Defining Magic: A Reader. Routledge, London/New York, NY, 2014.

Recommended Reading:

  • A. H. Armstrong. Was Plotinus a Magician? Phronesis, 1:73–9, 1955.
  • M. J. Edwards. Two Episodes in Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus’. Historia: Zeitschrift für
    Alte Geschichte, 40(4):456–464, 1991.
  • Fritz Graf. Theories of Magic in Antiquity. In Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, editors, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, pages 93–104. Brill, 2002.
  • Wendy Elgersma Helleman. Plotinus and Magic. IJPT, 4:114–46, 2010.
  • Zeke Mazur. Unio Magica: Part One: On the Magical Origins of Plotinus’ Mysticism.
    Dionysius, New Series, 21:23–52, Dec. 2003.
  • Idem. Unio Magica: Part Two: Plotinus, Theurgy, and the Question of Ritual.
    Dionysius, New Series, 22:29–55, 2004.
  • Philip Merlan. Plotinus and Magic. Isis, 44(4):341–348, Dec. 1953.

On the bibliographic tradition in which Porphyry is writing, a good introduction can be found in

  • M. J. Edwards. Neoplatonic Saints: the Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students.
    Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000.

On late-antique ‘holy men’ as a type, see

  • Peter Brown. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. JRS, (61):80–101, 1971.
  • G. Fowden. The Pagan Holy Man In Late Antique Society. JHS, 102:33–59, 1982.

A good introduction to the ways in which Plotinus uses myths and poets in the Enneads:

  • V. Cilento. Mito e poesia nelle Enneadi di Plotino. Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, Tome V, pages 245–310. Fondation Hardt, Vandoevres/Géneve, 1960.

On the practice of klêsis in ancient magic, and various ways to make a daimôn or god appear in the room with you, see

  • Korshi Dosoo. Rituals of Apparition in the Theban Magical Library. PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 2014.



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