Episode 76: The Chaldæan Oracles and Theurgy

[As in the last episode, all quotations are from the translation of Majercik (1989), and fragment numbers correspond to the edition of des Places (2003)]

In this episode we look primarily at the fragments of the Oracles, seeing what we can piece together of the ritual practices outlined therein. Inevitably, a lot of comparative material is used from later Platonist theurges, since they tell us a lot more about theurgy (or their idea of theurgy) than the surviving fragments of the Oracles do. It is unclear how much of the material discussed in this episode was considered ‘theurgic’ in antiquity, but it is clear that all of it was discussed in the Oracles.

We break the subjects discussed down into headings:

  • Preliminaries (purification and stuff like that),
  • Invocations (κλῆσις, the summoning of a god or daimôn, the question of an esoteric corpus of Chaldæan voces magicæ, the fascinating figure of the δοχεύς, and the rites of binding and loosing),
  • Stuff (magical paraphernalia, especially the Wheel of Hekate, which may be the same thing as the iunx),
  • σύστασις (a practice attributed to the Chaldæans in a few sources, but well-known from the Greek magical papyri, which probably involved linking the soul of the practitioner with other powers such as daimones or souls of the dead to boost his power),
  • Scrying and Epiphany (we look at the extraordinary types of visions a Chaldæan practitioner can expect to see),
  • τελεστική (animation of statues, with some discussion of why a theurge might want an animated statue about the place)
  • αναγωγή (the practice of ascent of the soul, the reference to loosing the soul through inhaling in a comparative context with the Mithrasliturgie [see the following episode for more on this text], and the question of what the Chaldæan symbola and synthemata are), and
  • ἀπαθανατισμόs, Immortalization of the Soul (some introductory discussion of theories of lower and higher souls, toward a model of ancient immortalisation, which would seem to be the end-goal of theurgic ascent).

[Note: for an example of how theurgy plays out in modern, avant-garde esoteric saxophone composition, check out our interview with Randall Hall.]

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

  • The Chaldæan Oracles: Two types of people, theurgists and the ‘herd’, who are subject to fate: frr. 153-4.
  • Augustine on theurgia, goëtia, and magia: civ. dei X, 9, 1.
  • Damascius: On the philosophic vs. hieratic distinction: in Phd. 123, 113 ff. On arming oneself for the ascent with synthemata: fr. 2=Damascius Dub. I, 155, 11-15.
  • Iamblichus: On theurgy vs goëteia: de myst.1.12, 14; 2.6; 3.1, 10, 18; 4.2. On animating statues: de myst. 5.83.
  • Marinus on Proclus’ ritual sea-bathing (between once and three times a month): Vit. Proc. 18. Proclus uses a iunx to make it rain: Vit. Proc. 28. He uses the Chaldæan ‘conjunctions’: Vit. Proc. 28.
  • Porphyry argues that this immortalisation through theurgy is impossible: de regressu an. p. 32, 2 (see also 28, 20) purgatione theurgica … animam … immortalem … non posse fieri. Numenius does not think humans have a tripartite or double soul, but two separate souls, the rational and irrational; Porph. ap. Stob. I 350, 25 f.
  • Proclus: On theurgy’s precedence over philosophy: theol. Plat. 1.25. On lustration/sprinkling: fr. 133=in Crat. 101, 3-8. On the ‘shape of the light’: fr. 145=in Crat. 31, 12-14. Various visions attendant on Chaldæan ritual: in rem. pub. I, 111, 1-12. On the paternal Nous’ symbola sown throughout the cosmos: fr. 108=in Crat. 20, 31-21, 2. On immortalisation of the soul: in rem. pub. I, 152, 10: τὸν παρὰ τοῖς θεουργοῖς τῆς ψυχῆς ἀπαθανατισμόν.
  • Psellus: On breathing out the soul: fr. 124= P.G. 122, 1133 c 9. On the ‘voice of the fire’: fr. 147=P.G. 122, 1133 b 5-8. Do not change the nomina barbara: Fr 150=P.G. 122, 1132 c 1. On animating statues: P.G. 122, 1132 a. ‘Those who, by inhaling, drive out the soul, are free’: Fr. 124=P.G. 122, 1144 c 4. The ‘pure, paternal synthema’: Fr. 109=Psellus P.G. 122, 1148, a 12-14.

Secondary:

  • Dillon and Finnamore, introduction to Iamblichus. De anima. Brill, Leiden, 2002. We cite p. 7.
  • Johnston 1997 (see below). We cite p. 165.
  • Lewy 1978 (see below), we cite pp. 240-60 on Chaldæan fire-visions as manifestations of Hekate.

Recommended Reading:

  • C. Addey. ‘The Role of Divine Providence, Will and Love in Iamblichus’ Theory of Theurgic Prayer and Religious Invocation’. In Eugene Afonasin, John Dillon, and John F. Finnamore, editors, Iamblichus and the Foundations of Late Platonism, pages 133–150. Brill, Leiden, 2012.
  • Idem. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Ashgate, Dorchester, 2014.
  • P. Boyancé. ‘Théurgie et télestique néoplatoniciennes’. Revue de l’histoire des religions, (147):189–209, 1955.
  • E. D. Des Places. Oracles chaldaïques. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2003.
  • E.R. Dodds. ‘Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism’. Journal of Roman Studies, 37(1+2):55–69, 1947.
  • Álvaro Fernández Fernández. La teúrgia de los Oráculos caldeos: cuestiones de léxico y
    de contexto historico. 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.
  • Arien Lecerf, Lucia Saudelli, and Helmut Seng, editors. Oracles Chaldaïques: fragments et philosophie. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, 2014. [plenty of useful discussions]
  • Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
  • Carine van Liefferinge. La théurgie: des Oracles Chaldaïques à Proclus. Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique, Liège, 1999.
  • Ruth Majercik, editor. The Chaldean Oracles. Brill, Leiden, 1989. Greek text based on Des Places (1971) with translation and introduction.
  • Gregory Shaw. ‘Theurgy: Rituals of Unification in the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus’. Traditio, 41:1–28, 1985.
  • Idem. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1995.
  • Anne Sheppard. ‘Proclus’ Attitude to Theurgy’. CQ, New Series 32(1):212–24, 1982.

Themes

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