Podcast episode

Episode 137: The Esoteric Iamblichus

[N.B: we forgot to mention that all English translations of Iamblichus’ De mysteriis in this episode are from Clarke, Dillon, Hershbell 2003 (see below), unaltered except for our usual practice of changing ‘intellectual’ to ‘noetic’, ‘intellect’ to ‘nous’, and so forth.]

In this episode we explore different elements of esoteric discourse (understood according to our standing definition, to be found in the SHWEP glossary) in the work, and even the teaching-practice, of Iamblichus. Under discussion are:

  • The life of the late-antique polytheist sage and wonder-working holy man who also runs a philosophic seminar,
  • The barbarian and Hellenic strands of wisdom-tradition constructed by Iamblichus, and his own willingness to identify with the barbarian over the Greek,
  • His construction of perhaps his most enduring legacy, the ‘tradition’ of theurgy,
  • And his employment of tropes of unsayability/ineffability.

Works Cited in this Episode:

On the complicated ways in which Iamblichus’ De mysteriis/Response to Porphyry are cited in scholarship, see the note to Episode 134.


The Hermetic Asclepius on the kosmic significance of ancient Egyptian religion and language: see the so-called ‘Apocalypse’, sections 24-27 Nock-Festugière; cf. CH XVI 1.


  • ‘Occasionally, however, he did perform certain rites alone … when he worshipped the Divine Being’: Eunap. VS 458.
  • The ancient Pythagoreans go underground and preserve the teachings of the Master in secret conclaves: VP 35. 252-3.
  • The vulgar crowd and their ‘standing on charaktērēs’: De myst. III.13. Cf. e.g. PGM III. 292-303; VII. 586; XIII. 1003.
  • The mass of men versus the (theurgic?) elite: De anima §29 Finamore-Dillon.
  • The ‘True Tradition’ (ἀληθῆ παράδοσιν): e.g. De myst. II.11.
  • On the solidity of the ‘ancient barbarian peoples’ and the flightiness of the Greeks: we cite passages from De myst. VII.4 and 5.
  • The Assyrian language inherently sacred: De myst. VII.4.
  • Orpheus and Aglaophemus transmit wisdom to Pythagoras: V.P. 146.
  • Pseudopythagorica in Iamblichus: see the Protrepticus for some choice uses of this body of work.
  • Iamblichus assumes that Aristotle was in agreement with Plato on the subject of the Forms: Elias/David, In Categorias, 123.2–3.
  • The theurgists are purified of every evil and impassible: De myst. III.31.
  • They are superior to ordinary religious folks: De myst. III.20.
  • They can behold the gods directly, not in images: III.28; cf. II.10, where the gods reveal to them the autoptikon pyr, the ‘self-visible fire’.
  • They use the power of arcane symbols [την δυναμιν την aπορρητων συθνημaτων] to command kosmic entities, etc: De myst. VI.6.
  • ‘little pebbles, rods, or certain woods, stones, wheat, and barley meal’: De myst. III.17; cf. V.23.
  • The ‘meaningless names’ (ἄσημα ὀνόματα): De myst. VII.4.

Plato: ‘O Solon, Solon …’: Tim. 22b45.
On the three Valentinian grades of soul, see Episode 83.


  • Wilmer Cave Wright. Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists. William Heinemann/Putnam, London/New York, NY, 1922.
  • E.C. Clarke, J.M. Dillon, and J.P. Hershbell, editors. Iamblichus on The Mysteries. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2003.

Recommended Reading:

  • Peter Brown. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. JRS, (61): 80–101, 1971.
  • Sarah Iles Johnston. Overtime in the Afterlife; Or, No Rest for the Virtuous. In Ra’anan S. Boustan and Annette Yoshiko Reed, editors, Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, pages 85–102. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
  • H. Lewy, ‘The Meaning and the History of the terms ‘Theurgist” and “Theurgy”‘, Excursus IV in Oracles, pp. 461-66. Cf. however F. Cremer. Die chaldaikhen Orakel pp. 19-36.
  • Nicholas Marshall. The social function of secrecy in iamblichus’ de mysteriis. Master’s thesis, University of Aarhus, 2011.
  • Peter T. Struck. Speech Acts and the Stakes of Hellenism in Late Antiquity. In Paul A. Mirecki and Marvin W. Meyer, editors, Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, pages 387–403. Brill, Leiden, 2002.


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