November 22, 2019
Episode 75: The Chaldæan Oracles
[Another SHWEP field-recording. Special thanks to the Dublin police-department and the seagulls for soundtrack]
[Corrigendum: we describe Porphyry’s de regressu animæ as extant; it is sadly extant only in fragments, mostly cited in Latin by St. Augustine, but there are enough fragments to reconstruct quite a reasonable amount of the original, though of course not the original Greek.]
The Chaldæan Oracles weren’t Chaldæan, nor were they oracles in the traditional sense – they were something else entirely. This hexameter poem, surviving only in fragments, outlines a Platonistic metaphysics incorporating an ineffable first principle (the Father, a.k.a. ‘the Abyss’), a complex hierarchical reality with a demiurgic Nous, and a number of crazy intermediate beings (time-deities like the Aiôn, iunges, synocheis, teletarchai, daimones au go-go, and much more). The Chaldæan universe is a densely-populated place full of immaterial and quasi-immaterial entities with both metaphysical and personal character: the gods are principles, the principles are gods.
Lewy, Chaldæan Oracles and Theurgy Excursus VII gives a speculative reconstruction of the ontological hierarchy of the Oracles, as interpreted by the Late Platonist Proclus.
Better still, this poem also gave mysterious details as to the ritual practices available for the adept to navigate this forest of entities in the quest for ascent and immortalisation: the Chaldæan Oracles are, in fact, the locus classicus of the ancient practice of theurgy, ritual practices (many of them familiar from magical texts found among the Greek Magical Papyri) reframed with philosophic/metaphysical significance. ‘Magic’ isn’t just for making girls fall in love with you or cursing your enemies any more; now it has the highest possible goals – the philosophic ascent and salvation of the soul. Philosophic understandings of the importance of ritual would never be the same.
We discuss questions of authorship, the Nachleben of the Oracles – in Late Platonism, selected early Christian thinkers, and beyond – and the metaphysics/mythology of the Oracles. In the following episode we discuss the ritual practices outlined in the text for navigating this strange mythic/metaphysical landscape.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Chaldæan Oracles (all fragments follow the edition of des Places (2003). We use the translations of Majercik throughout the episode): Our first quote, fr. 1, on the ‘certain intelligible’, is from Damascius Dub. I.54.14-26, quoting Iamblichus’ work on Chaldæan Theology. The first god ineffable: fr. 37. ‘He’ has ‘wombs’: frr. 4, 28.
- Proclus: The two Juliani who lived under Marcus Aurelius: In rem pub. I.12.
- The Suda can be accessed at Suda Online.
- For the Oracles as ‘mediumistic’ transmissions, see E. R. Dodds. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968, p. 284.
- For the Oracles as ‘the Bible of Neoplatonism’, the first such characterisation seems to be: F. Cumont. Die orientalischen Religionen im römischen Heidentum. Teubner, Leipzig, 1914. p. 279, n. 66. Cf. Theiler (1942) in Recommended Reading below, p. 252.
- The argument that Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles is the same late work as his De regressu animæ is put forward by John J. O’Meara in two main works, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine. Paris, 1959 and Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Eusebius’ Præparatio Evangelica and Augustine’s Dialogues of Cassiciacum. Paris, 1969.
- Hans Lewy: we quote p. 3 from Lewy (1978) – see Recommended Reading below.
- For the ‘Underworld of Platonism’ see J. Dillon. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220. Duckworth, London, 1977, p. 384 ff. and Episodes 62 and 63 of the podcast.
Selected Publication-History of the Chaldæan Oracles:
The Oracles have a very long history in western esotericism — see now Graham John Wheeler, ‘Towards a Reception History of the Chaldaean Oracles’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 2020. Here is a print-publication history, selected for esoteric importance; note that many, many more printed editions of the Oracles, in various forms – with Plethon’s Commentary, without it, labelled as ‘of Zoroaster’, as ‘Magical’, as ‘Chaldæan’, and so on – appeared thick and fast from the sixteenth century onward. These curious fragments were very interesting to European readers.
Any additions or corrections to this selected bibliography are welcome.
- The East Roman scholar Michael Psellos (11th century) was very interested in the Oracles, and wrote extensively on them, preserving 36 otherwise-lost fragments for modern scholars to ponder, which may be found at Michael Psellus, Philosophica minora II, ed. D. J. O’Meara, Leipzig, 1989.
- Marsilio Ficino produced the first Latin translation of Plethon’s Commentary on the Oracles some time in the 1460’s, surviving in manuscript (e.g. Vat. Ottob. lat. 2955).
- Ludovicus Tiletanus (Jean Loys de Thielt), Oracula Magica, Paris, 1563. The printed editio princeps,based on Plethon’s text.
- Francesco Patrizi (Franciscus Patricius). Nova de Universis philosophia. Ad calcem adiecta sunt Zoroastri oracula cccxx. ex Platonicis collecta … Ferrara. 1591, Venice 1593. [An improvement on Plethon’s edition with much extra material culled from Proclus, Hermias, Simplicius, et al. Full-bore esoteric Platonistic perennialist Christianity].
- F. Morel. Zoroastris, seu magorum qui à Zoroastre prodierunt, oracula heroica: latinis versib. eiusdem generis expressa, & notis atque coniectaneis aliquot illustrata, per Fed. Morellum. Paris 1597 [a printed Latin translation of Morel’s earlier Greek edition, Paris 1595].
- J. Opsopoeus. Sibylliakoi chresmoi, hoc est Sibyllina oracula ex vett. codd. aucta, renovata, et notis illustrata a D. Iohanne Opsopoeo Brettano … Paris, 1599. [A Greek-Latin edition of the Sybilline Oracles, also featuring collected Chaldæan fragments under the title Oracula Magica Zoroastris. Includes the Commentaries of Pletho and of Psellus in Latin].
- Otto Heurnius. Barbaricæ Philosophiæ antiquitatum libri duo, 1600.
- Thomas Stanley. The Chaldaick Oracles of Zoroaster And his Followers With the Expositions of Pletho and Psellus Edited and translated to English by Thomas Stanley. London: Thomas Dring, 1661. [The first English translation.]
- 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].
- Wilhelm Kroll. De Oraculis Chaldaicis. Wilhelm Koebner, Breslau, 1895. [The first modern critical edition of the text; this was actually Kroll’s 1894 Habilitationsschrift].
- Wynn Westcott. The Chaldæan Oracles of Zoroaster, volume 6 of Collectanea Hermetica. Theosophical Publishing Society, London, 1895. [In the same year as our first solid philological edition, the London occultist Wynn Westcott brought out this English translation of various Oracles culled from Renaissance printed editions. A new generation of esotericists gets busy with the Oracles].
- É. D. des Places. Oracles chaldaïques. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2003, first ed. 1971. [The scholarly standard. While much refinement and discussion has occurred in the mean time (and a few fragments been added and a few subtracted), des Places’ edition, translation, and discussion set the bar high].
- Ruth Majercik, editor. The Chaldean Oracles. Brill, Leiden, 1989. Greek text based on Des Places (1971) with translation and introduction. [Hugely useful, with good discussion of theurgy, metaphysics, and the Middle Platonist context of the Oracles. Not an edition per se, but an excellent work].
- Crystal Addey. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Ashgate,
- Dylan Burns. ‘The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, Hekate’s Couch, and Platonic Ori-
entalism in Psellos and Plethon’. Aries, 6(2):158–79, 2006.
- Friedrich W. Cremer. Die Chaldäischen Orakel und Iamblich de mysteriis. Anton Hain,
Meisenheim am Glan, 1969.
- E. D. Des Places. Oracles chaldaïques. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2003.
- E. R. Dodds. ‘New Light on the “Chaldæan Oracles”’. Harvard Theological Review, 54
(4):263–273, Oct. 1961.
- Wilhelm Kroll. De Oraculis Chaldaicis. Wilhelm Koebner, Breslau, 1895.
- C. Lackeit. Aion: Zeit und Ewigkeit in Sprache und Religion der Griechen, I Teil: Sprache.
PhD thesis, Königsberg, 1916. [for all kinds of lore about the figure and concept of Aiôn].
- Arien Lecerf, Lucia Saudelli, and Helmut Seng, editors. Oracles Chaldaïques: fragments
et philosophie. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, 2014. [lots of useful chapters]
- Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
- Ruth Majercik, editor. The Chaldean Oracles. Brill, Leiden, 1989. Greek text based on
Des Places (1971) with translation and introduction.
- David Potter. ‘Review of The Chaldæan Oracles by Ruth Majercik’. JRS, 81:225–227,
- Gregory Shaw. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Pennsylvania
State University Press, University Park, PA, 1995.
- Willy Theiler. ‘Die Chaldäischen Orakel und die Hymnen des Synesios’. Schriften der
Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, 18:1–41, 1942.