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Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy

A literature which, in contrast to the Hermetic Corpus, had nothing ecumenical about it, and whose esotericism enchanted the Neoplatonists, who made it their bible. It presented itself as a revelation of oriental origin. It has been thought possible to state that they were for Babylonia what the Hermetic Poimandres was for Egypt, 'that is to say, indigenous beliefs were highlighted, and seasoned with a heavy proportion of philosophical ingredients' (F. Cumont).

Actually, these 'indigenous beliefs' remain very hard remain very hard to discern. It must be admitted, however, that the last pagans were receptive to the apocalyptic exoticism of these Logia, which were taken to contain the ultimate in wisdom attributed to the Mesopotamian Magi. At the end of his life, Porphyry took a passionate interest in them, notably in the means they offered for liberating a part of the soul that was likely to regain the astral light. Iamblichus makes reference to them in his Mysteries of Egypt, and is said to have devoted twenty-eight books to an in-depth commentary on the Logia. As for Proclus, of all the known great texts he claimed to want to remember only the Chaldaean Oracles and Plato's Timaeus. In both the West and the East we find them quoted directly or indirectly by Christians who had come from Neoplatonism, like Marius Victorinus, Synesius of Cyrene and the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The apologist Arnobius, who had sampled Hermetism before he was baptized, seems to have been curious enough to taste this other ambiguous source of theosophic paganism.

These oracles were ascribed Julian, known as the 'Theurge', who lived in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80). The Suda made him the son of a 'Chaldaean philosopher' of the same name, the author of a work on demons. He was said to have contributed by his occult talents to aiding the Roman army on the Danubian front; he was credited with the 'miracle of the rain' which Cassius Dio attributes to the Magus Arnouphis. But the celebrated Logia seem to have been forgotten for a century, except perhaps by the Neopythagorean Numenius (although the connections of his doctrine with that of the Chaldaean Oracles remains suspect). Apparently it was Iamblichus who inspired a major renewal of interest in them, and who led Porphyry to take account of them. There is no evident trace of Julian's Logia to be detected in the Philosophy of Oracles, written and published before Porphyry's meeting with Plotinus. Why this sudden passion for Chaldaeanism at the end of the third century? Iamblichus of Chalcis, who was related to the ancient priestly dynasty of Emesa and willingly played the role of hierophant or thaumaturge, was intent on sacralizing his philosophy. In his Mysteries of Egypt, he praises the virtues of theurgy and, like the stelae of Hermes Trismegistus, the Chaldaean Oracles served him as 'holy Scriptures', legitimizing his system in the names of the gods.

The Logia of Julian the Theurge involve a complex theology whose hierarchic structure is not limpidly clear, at least to judge by the fragments that have come down to us. It is the commentaries of the Neoplatonists, especially Damascius, and above all of Byzantine scholar Michael Psellos which help us to reconstruct part of the system. But many enigmas persist. What the Byzantine reveals to us is not always obviously consistent with the letter of the Oracles.

At the summit of the divine hierarchy, the alleged 'Chaldaeans' seem to have conceived a 'transcendental first Fire'. They call this 'Fire' the 'Father' or 'Hypercosmic Paternal Abyss'. This father 'has created all things in perfection': he has conceived them in the intelligible world. But this supreme God is a 'triadic monad'. He is simultaneously 'one and threefold', like the God of the Christians. In fact, he dominates the triad which he forms with a second Intellect and an intermediary 'Power', that the Oracles call Hecate. The second Intellect is the 'craftsman of the igneous world', a kind of demiurge of the Empyrean.

The scheme of this 'Father-Power-Intellect' triad which is typically Chaldaean but of philosophical origin, recurs frequently in the argumentation of the Neoplatonists. The 'Power' of Hecate both unites and dissociates the first and second Fires, which the oracles seem to identify respectively with the 'transcendentally One' (hapax epekeina) and the 'transcendentally Two' (dis epekeina), although Psellos in his Summary Outline of the ancient beliefs accepted 'among the Chaldaeans' places this triad after many others, taking his inspiration from an infinitely more complex theology, ascribable to Proclus and perhaps already reconstructed by Iamblichus. There is not even unanimity on the translation itself of the mysterious hapax and dis epekeina!

After the first triad comes intelligible and intellectual triads, the Iynges or 'diviners', the 'Assemblers' who unify 'the processions of the plurality of beings' (Psellos) and the Teletarchs, 'masters of consecration' or 'perfection', who apparently preside over the perfecting of creation. Psellos subordinates to these triads the 'Source-Fathers' or Cosmagi ('guides' or 'conductors of the worlds'), then three 'Implacable ones' (Ameiliktoi) and a seventh god who is said to be 'girded below' (Hypezôkôs). Next, the 'demiurgic Sources', the generating principles of life, the archangels, the 'azonal' gods established above the visible gods which are the stars, the Zônaioi or gods who control the celestial 'girdles' (zônai), angels, demons, and heroes occupy different grades of this convoluted chain which fills the vast abyss separating the incarnate soul from the intelligible Father: a hierarchy that reminds us of the demonology set out by Iamblichus in his book of the Mysteries.

For the soul that has issued from the paternal Fire, salvation obviously lies in turning its gaze away from the tangible world, inclining towards the Intelligible by purifying its intellect or concentrating it towards the light. Man must be 'consecrated' body and soul in order to escape evil demons. Theurgy precisely permits the purification of the 'pneumatic' part of the soul, the irrational breath which serves it as a luminous vehicle to transport it after death across the aerial space separating this lower world from the ethereal places where the angels reign. In Book X of his City of God, St. Augustine argues copiously about and against Porphyry's De regressu animae, in which he speaks of the teletes or rites of consecration by the Sun and Moon. These kinds of Chaldaean sacraments insured the 'spiritual' ('pneumatic' in Greek) part of the soul against the demons lying in wait along the celestial route; they made it fit 'to welcome the angels and see the gods'. But Porphyry, who appears to have been somewhat reserved or skeptical about the effects of this theurgy, quoted the instance of a 'Chaldaean' who was foiled by an envious colleague whose action was said to have paralyzed the 'powers conjured up by the sacred prayers' (Augustine, City of God, X, 9). However, the 'spiritually' and intellectually purified soul eludes sidereal destiny, like the theurges.

This theology of fire, and more precisely of fire as 'artist', recalls that of the Stoics. The two Julians, the 'Chaldaean' and the 'Theurge', would seem to have made use of their talents in the Antonine era, that is, at a time when the ideas of the Stoa enjoyed their greatest success and even, with Marcus Aurelius, a kind of imperial blessing. Fire is, so to speak, omnipresent in the Oracles, either as lightning, or the creative and life-imparting breath, or the dazzling or scintillating light in the multiplicity of souls and beings. The allegedly Babylonian origin of the two Julians has suggested that their religious world of imagination might bear the stamp if a country where naphtha 'catches fire by the very radiation of light, and often burns the intervening air' (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 35, 1). Reading through the preserved fragments of the Logia, one glimpses nothing but flames, raging storms, lightning flashes, 'implacable' thunderbolts, sparks, blazes, 'flaring' torches or 'flowers of fire', gushes and rumblings, floods, torrents, whirlwinds. These visions have the contrasting bursts of light of a weird, wild moving picture.

The paternal Intellect 'inseminates' in all its works 'the heavy bond of the fire of Love' and spreads it like a 'flower'. This image of genital seed giving life to the world like the pneuma.-fire of the Stoics is implied in several fragments. The ideas that 'gush out humming' from the paternal source are compared to swarms which 'gather in abundance the flower of the fire'. Of course, one thinks of the bees which, in Virgil (Georgics, IV, 220ff), in a passage heavily tinged with Stoicism, are said to possess a particle of divine intelligence and an emanation from the Empyrean. One also remembers Porphyry (The Cavern of the Nymphs, 18) who, according to Numenius (?) Identifies the bees born of the bull - as in the bougonia of Aristaeus (Virgil, Georgics, IV, 554ff) - with souls that have entered the world of creation. The pneuma dear to the Stoic philosophers appears in the Oracles as the imparter of life to beings and the material world. The Father has 'breathed into the seven firmaments of the world', as if they were so many balloons!

The dualism of the Logia and their theology of the Ideas that emanated from the paternal Intellect would seem to refer us rather to Plato. This mixture of Stoicism and Platonism (in the same way as the application of universal sympathy in the hieratic art of the theurges) would steer us in the direction of Posidonius of Apamea, whose influence on the moderate Platonism of the Antonine period should not be underestimated. But this oracular literature, in any case, incorporates a multiple and very composite philosophical heritage, with a scholastic jargon enhanced by imagery that may have a religious origin.

The 'Power of the Father', Hecate, is 'girded below'. This particular detail of clothing brings to mind the garment which tightly enwraps the Artemis of Ephesus, and which also has bees on it, those souls who drink the nectar of the fire flower. A line in the Logia says precisely that 'the flower of the fire has donned a girdle', which identifies it with Hecate. This goddess, whom another lne seems to confuse with Rhea, is the source of souls and virtues. Martianus Capella (Marriage of Mercury and Philology, II, 205) calls her 'Spring-Virgin' (fontana virgo), which matches an oracle quoted by Psellos. But she also bears the warrior attributes of Athena, and Martianus Capella precisely gives Pallas the title 'flower of the fire' (flos ignis). Again, Martianus Capella mentions the gleaming veil woven by Pallas to envelop the head of Jupiter, perhaps symbolizing the luminous firmament of the heavens. Now, the Oracles speak of 'what the intellective light of the Father had woven': was this not the work of the armed Virgin whom Martianus extols as the 'source of ethereal light' (aetherius fomes)?

Still in the field of pagan imagery, one is tempted to compare the oracles in the Aiôn, drawing from the Father the fire and intelligence that give life to the worlds, or on Kronos (?) from whom are launched the 'implacable thunderbolts', with the Mithraic representations of the Lion-head spitting flames. The image of the lion is associated with the thunderbolt in Fragment 147. It is true that the leonine symbolism of fire is not peculiar to Mithraism or Chaldaeanism.

In any case, on a first reading, the religious imagination of the Oracles has nothing specifically Babylonian or even oriental. The Hurrian-Hittite gods of the thunderbolt have nothing to do with the visions of lightning and storms that permeate them. The iconography of the armed goddess Allat, of the Artemis-Hecate of Ephesus, even the Heliopolitan triad, with its Father-God and Son-God separated by a girdled Atargatis, was probably know to Julian the Theurge. But did he have it in mind when he was compiling the Logia? This cannot be stated with any certainty. But intellectuals who were steeped and passionately interested in Greek philosophy, as the Hellenized Orientals of the second century AD inevitably were, could not observe these idols without rethinking them from the doctrinal and allegorical viewpoint, following the approach of Porphyry, a hundred years later, in his treatise on images.

The worship of fire and the dualism, even the demonology, of the Oracles have been laid at the door of Mazdaeism. In fact, there is nothing in the Chaldaean system that cannot be explained according to Greek philosophy. Even the image of the deity girt about below its chest, which I have compared to the girded idols, is to be found in Philo of Alexandria (The Descendants of Cain, 14): God has fastened beneath him all the things of becoming without being himself contained by any of them. In the World of the Pseudo-Aristotle an antithesis appears between the essence and the power of God who gives life to all that emanates from him: the idea of power, in this sense, is certainly of peripatetic origin. But in the time of Marcus Aurelius Greek philosophy was no longer sufficient unto itself. By then, syncretic and theosophic constructions that had derived from it required a mysterious oracular consecration and a pseudo-oriental coloring like that of Chaldaean theurgy.

Theurgy was a 'divine action', which 'acted on the gods' because it was divine. It therefore required on the part of those who practiced it consecration through piety and purification which brought them close to the gods, an initiation that would make them fit to enter into contact with those gods. So theurgy was contrasted with magic, with which certain apparent procedures might encourage a comparison. For theurgy did not consist in pure thoughts or mystical prayers:

It is the religious fulfillment of ineffable acts whose results outdo any effort of intellect, as well as the power of mute symbols, heard by the gods alone, which effect the theurgic union. So it is not our thought which carries out these acts; for then their effectiveness would be intellectual and would be dependent on us. Without our thinking about it, indeed, the signs (synthemata) themselves, by themselves, effect their own work, and the ineffable power of the gods, whom these signs concern, itself recognizes its own images by itself, without being awoken by our thought.(Iamblichus, The Mysteries of Egypt, II, 11)

In other words, the theurgy makes himself known to and recognized by the gods, like the mysta in his initiation, by means of 'symbols', signs or passwords (synthemata). It is no longer a matter, as it was for Plato, of reaching and imitating God by the elevation of the mind to pure Ideas. As for Sallustius the telete puts us in communion with the gods and the world they mysteriously fill with their power, theurgy was a ritual which caused a current to pass between the human and the divine. Better still, it endowed man with something of the divine. Theurgy, as Iamblichus proceeds to explain to us (ibid, IV, 2), presents a double aspect: it is practiced by men, but 'with the support of divine signs [synthemata], by their means it rises to the superior beings with whom it unites, the used by Sallustius, and takes its direction harmoniously following their command, whereupon it may rightfully assume the form of the gods'. The theurgy 'in some way, through the ineffable symbols, dons the hieratic garb of the gods'. This 'ceremonial robe-donning' also refers to mystery rituals.

First among the 'symbols' come the divine names. The synthemata are sacred phrases of recognition, like those that had to be uttered in order to be consecrated in the initiatory cults or to identify oneself as a mysta among mystae. After death, the soul needs to be recognized by the gods. A Logion makes allusion to this:

The paternal Intellect does not receive the will of the soul unless the latter has emerged from forgetfulness and proffered a word, remembering the pure paternal symbol. (Fr. 109)

These voces mysticae by themselves have a sovereign efficacy.

'Never change barbarian names', says an Oracle. In this respect the Logia remained true to oriental traditions. Iamblichus (The Mysteries of Egypt, VII, 5) justifies at length the advantage of 'barbarian' names which are in no way conventional, for the 'language of the sacred peoples' is secretly, inexpressibly, in harmony with 'the superior beings'. Unlike the Greeks, who were fired by a taste for innovation

the barbarians, for their part, being constant in their customs, keep solidly to their old ways of talking: so they are looked upon kindly by the gods, and offer them speeches which please them.

On this point Iamblichus is echoing Origen (Against Celsus, I, 24) who, citing the names Sabaoth, Adonai and 'all the others held in great veneration among the Hebrews', states that they proceed from a 'mysterious divine knowledge attributed to the Creator of the Universe' and that for the same reason

These names are effective when they are spoken in a particular sequence which interweaves them, in the same way as other names uttered in the Egyptian tongue and addressed to certain demons . . . or others in the Persian dialect addressed to other powers.

In many respects, evidently, pagans and Christians shared the same convictions.

The symbola also included animals, plants, herbs, stones, images, talismans, charakteres or sacred letters (the seven vowels, for example). A whole system of 'channels' or connections was held to put men in communication with the gods, the earth with the heavens. Conversely, a law of antipathies was supposed to be able to thwart a maleficent influence, like that of the demons of the air who hindered the soul's return to God. An admirable page On the Hieratic Art by Proclus helps us to understand the enthusiasm that this alchemical theurgy could arouse:

Why, indeed, does the heliotrope move in accord with the Sun, the Selenotrope with the Moon, both forming a retinue, as far as they are able, to the two luminaries of the world? For all beings pray according to the rank they occupy; they hymn the leaders who preside over their entire range . . . Thus the heliotrope moves as much as it is capable of moving, and if one could but hear how it beats the air while twisting on its stem, one would realize from the sound that it is offering a sort of hymn to the King, insofar as the plant can sing one . . . Do we not see the stones themselves breathe in time with the exhalations of the stars? . . . . Hence, for example, the large number of heliacal animals, such as the lion and the cock.

The masters of the hieratic arts had thus discovered in this network of cosmic and hypercosmic sympathies 'the means of honoring the powers above' by the creation of 'symbols' that were acceptable to the divinity. With its appearances of magic, theurgy at the time seemed like a kind of thanksgiving or act of pantheistic piety. The Chaldaean Oracles gave it their enigmatic backing:

For the Intellect of the Father has sown the symbols throughout the world, he who conceives the Intelligibles which are called inexpressible beauties.

Theurgy consecrated men. It also consecrated statues, and by the same processes, so that they were filled with the divine influx. This technique bore the name 'telestic'. It had long been known in Egypt, and the magic papyri bear that out. It claimed to 'animate' idols and penetrate them with a 'divine presence', to use Iamblichus' expression (Photius, Bibliotheca, 215, p. 173b), by enclosing in them some sacred name on a gold strip or the residue of a sacrifice, 'sphragids' or magic intaglios of the kind I have mentioned. The Ascelpius (24) speaks of them as statues having a soul, conscious, full of the breath of life and which accomplish an infinity of marvels: they know the future, and predict it by means of spells, prophetic inspiration, dreams and many other methods.

But for a Hermetist, it was a matter if 'terrestrial gods'. Their power resulted from a

composition of herbs, stones and spices which in themselves contain a power of divine efficacy. And if one seeks to please them with numerous sacrifices, hymns, songs of praise, concerts of very sweet sounds that recall the harmony of the heavens, it is so that the celestial element that has been introduced into the idol by the repeated practice of celestial rites may joyfully endure this long sojourn among men.(Ascelpius, 38)

The ingredients for the hollow idol had to be appropriate to the god or goddess it represented, by virtue of the 'sympathy' which mystically linked them with this or that mineral or plant, in keeping with the system explained by Proclus, following the 'channels' of connection joining the Earth to the Sky. Heraiscus, a Neoplatonist who remained faithful to the very end to his gods of Egypt, claimed to recognize immediately an idol that was 'animated', according to the sensations he felt in its presence.

Clever subterfuges could also impress the credulous. Thus the theurgy Maximus of Ephesus was credited with making the statue of Hecate smile and it seems that her torches caught fire spontaneously. Two centuries earlier, in the Persian sanctuaries of Hierocaesarea and Hypaipa in Lydia, Pausanias (Description of Greece, V, 27, 6) had witnessed Magi light altars from a distance by atoning 'barbarian' chants. On this point, it is not inconceivable that the Chaldaean theurges made use of a secret from an ancient oriental tradition. But the example of Maximus (who was from Ephesus) - just life the 'Hecatic' fantasies of Proclus (Marinus, Life of Proclus, 28) - confirms fr us the preponderance of Artemis-Hecate in these 'mysteries' of Chaldaean Neoplatonism, which seems to have had a liking for light-connected rites.

Telestics had the prestige of a science that put the crown on philosophy. It consecrated idols and men. When Plotinus taught that one must 'sculpt one's own statue' by purifying the soul (Enneads, I, 6, 9), he was already evoking something of the theurgy which, starting with Iamblichus, dominated Neoplatonism. The last pagans made much ado of this hieratic art. In vain Nicomachus Flavianus had statues of Jupiter erected on the Alps, 'consecrated by who knows what rites', wrote St. Augustine (City of God, V. 26), to halt the offensive of the Christian Theodosius. On the other hand, an idol consecrated at Rhegium (Reggio di Calabria) to divert Etna's lava flows was said to have prevented the Visigoth Alaric from getting into Sicily to ravage it (Olympiodorus, in Photius, Bibliotheca, 80, p. 58a).

The Chaldaean Oracles left a profound mark on the great intellects of latter Neoplatonism, to a degree that is hard to conceive and whose importance is difficult to measure. It is no surprise to learn that the emperor Julian, greatly enthused by the prestidigitatory talents of Maximus of Ephesus, was an avid reader of the Oracles. It is even more surprising, though perhaps wrongly so, to discover that these Logia rubbed off strongly on Marius Victorinus - a converted Neoplatonist, it is true - and on the bishop of Cyrene, Synesius, another Christianized Neoplatonist. Synesius quotes them in his Treatise on Dreams, and in his reasoning on the luminous spectre of the 'pneumatic' soul, he builds his theory of the glorious body on the basis of a Chaldaean doctrine.He sings to God sublime hymns whose mystic esotericism is studded with Chaldaean expressions.

In the West, the African rhetor Martinus Capella, author of an encyclopedia of the seven liberal arts which enjoyed a prodigious success throughout the Middle Ages, w as absolutely filled with the doctrine and vocabulary of the Oracles. To marry Mercury, Philology submits to the immortalizing rites of theurgy, before reaching the Empyrean by traversing the seven planetary spheres. She invokes the divine traids, the 'transcendentally One' and the 'transcendentally Two', the Spring-Virgin and the 'Flower of the Fire'. These prayers are uttered, writes Martianus, secundum Platonis mysteria. The Chaldaean Oracles thus served as the hieros logos for these 'mysteries of Plato' which theurgy had become.

At the close of the fifth century, Proclus was deemed to have benefitted from the luminous epiphanies of Hecate. Using a strap cut from the hide of a sacrificed bull, he shaped a gold rhombus containing a sapphire, made sacred by magic inscriptions, in order to cause rain to fall on the soil of Attica. This Hecate sphere or top had the name iunx.

The Chaldaean writings, or those with Chaldaean leanings, survived Justinian's prohibitions. The whole literature was kept secretly and passionately devoured by good Christians such as Michael Psellos, thanks to whom we know a little more than through scattered quotations and allusions. In the eleventh century, an archbishop is even said to have carried out a 'theagogy' or summoning of the gods (or 'demons' for a Christian), keeping to the rules of Chaldaean theurgy: a singular homage of Byzantium to the 'barbarian' wisdom. With an interval of some six centuries, from Proclus to the archbishop, the religious distance was less, all in all, than from Marcus Aurelius to Iamblichus.

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Last modified: Mon Mar 04, 2002 / Jeremiah Genest