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Michael Psellos


Byzantine diplomat, philosopher, theologian and historian. Born to a family of modest position in Constantinople, Psellos received an outstanding education. He made a career in civil administration. He belonged to a group of young and energetic intellectuals who had hopes of exercising real power under Constantine IX but had to resign in 1054. Psellos was forced to take the monastic habit at Mt. Olympos. Soon he returned to Constantinople and participated in political life. However, his claim of having played a crucial role under Constantine X, Romanos IV and Michael VII seems exaggerated; he was rather a court philosopher, holding the title of Hypatos ton philosophon. It is possible that Psellos left the capital under Michael VII, lived in relative poverty and died forgotten by the new generation. The date of his death is under discussion: an arbitrary identification with a certain Michael of Nikomedeia dates Psellos's death to 1078, whereas an attribution to Psellos of the introduction to the Dioptra of Philip Monotropus would suggest 1095 for his death.

Psellos was a polymath whose enormous oeuvre encompasses historical, philosophical, rhetorical, theological and legal texts and a collection of letters; several works attributed to him are spurious, e.g., the so-called De Daemonibus. As a philosopher Psellos emphasized the role of nature or physis, which, created as it was by God, functions according to its immanent laws, leaving a very limited place for the miraculous. The Chronography of Psellos, which was probably preceded by a very traditional short chronical, describes the years 976-1078 primarily from personal observations; Psellos presents events as the result of strong personal conflicts, emotions and intrigues, leaving no room for divine Providence. As a writer Psellos was consistently individualistic in his approach, he viewed the world from his own vantage point, sometimes seriously, sometimes ironically.

Psellos rejected the conventional aesthetic of black-and-white judgment, though he applied this method to his panegyrical portraits of Constantine X and Michael VII. He tried to conjure up complex and contradictory images, such as Constantine IX in his Chronography or the monk Elias in his letters. His psychological characterizations are rich and varied; he did not even avoid the theme of sexual desire. Even the past was perceived by Psellos not at a stream of events, but as a series of images, first of emperors and empresses, but also of their favorites and lovers. Psellos praised friendship and was a trustworthy friend, though he knew that the realities of Byzantine life often required submissiveness and compromises with one's conscience. He clearly understood the force of the written word.

Psellos's work interpreted the Greek spirit in a conspicuously Christian setting. He soon became controversial and was almost excommunicated from the church. Nevertheless, he insisted in his teaching and writings that philosophy and theology ought not be seen as two different disciplines but as one. The former lays the intellectual foundations upon which the latter builds its spiritual mansions philosophy is not a handmaiden of Christian theology, but a collaborator, Psellos was convinced that philosophy and theology in unison could give humanity the answers to its perennial questions. By revising the pursuit of philosophy and learning in Constantinople, Psellos single-handedly renewed the spirit of excellence, patterned on that of ancient Athens. This revival of classical study had long-standing effects for Psellos is considered the forerunner of the Italian Renaissance.

The extraordinary thing about Psellos is that, single-handedly, he was responsible for bringing back an entire group of occult authors and books whose existence had long been as good as forgotten. Between the time of Photios in the ninth and the arrival of Psellos in the eleventh century, one would be hard put to find in extant Byzantine sources any references to Hermes Trismegistus and the Hermetica, to Julius Africanus and the Kestoi, to Proclus' De arte hieratica, or to the Chaldaean Oracles, that is, the authors and works that were the classics in the field of mysticism and magic.

Psellos, both through scattered obiter dicta and through the medium of a number of specific expositions, has left a fairly full record of his own dealings with and attitudes toward the Chaldaean material. Without a doubt he was, of all Byzantines after the seventh century, the most familiar with this "bible" of the Neoplatonists, even if his knowledge seems to derive largely from the (now lost) commentary on the Oracles by Proclus. He has also left us an exegesis of some twenty pages, and several short summaries of the main doctrinal features, including one inserted in a theological treatise explicating a passage from Gregory of Nazianzus.

When we come to consider his outlook on the Oracles, it must be admitted that, depending on the context, he expresses two kinds of reaction that appear to be contradictory. One is the expected, typical repudiation of pagan nonsense that, in the normal course of events, need be seen as little more than a device to forestall charges of impiety; in unusual circumstances the same response could be turned into a weapon to use against somebody else. This is precisely what Psellos himself does in the course of a church-sponsored attack on Patriarch Michael Cerularios; in the document he drew up for the purpose, he refers to the Chaldaean system as a concoction of myths about oracles and various kinds of spirits and gods. In other words, it is an attack not just on the magical elements but on the theological content as well. That attitude, as suggested above, could be anticipated.

Less expected, and all the more noteworthy, therefore, is evidence from several quarters of a genuine interest in and an openness on his part to the content of the collection. In one instance he speaks of the "theology and philosophy" of the system. In another he reveals what we must take as one of the reasons for his positive disposition, namely, that the Oracles were embraced by a number of the philosophers whom he most respects. He comments that Plato and Aristotle accepted the majority of the doctrines; furthermore, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus subscribed to all of them, taking them without argument to be divine revelations. Not only were the ancients open to them, but he himself finds some of their ideas parallel to and in agreement with Christian doctrines. Further on in the same piece of exegesis, he concluded his comments on one of the passages with the observation "it is correct and full of Christian teachings." We can cap this in a sense by combining evidence from two autobiographical statements in two different works. In a long section of the Chronographia (Book VI, chaps 36-43), Psellos provides a detailed account of his intellectual and philosophical progress on a road that led him up, through several distinct and well-marked stages, to the "first" philosophy. His journey began with the study of logic and of certain commentators who then showed him the way to Aristotle and Plato. At the next level he concentrated on the major Neoplatonists: Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. This was followed by the mathematical quadrivium, "Which," to use his own words, "occupy a position midway between the science of corporeal nature . . . and the essences themselves, the objects of pure thought."

That should have brought him to the very summit, but quite out of the blue another stage is mentioned, introduced by the following words: "I had heard it said by the more adept philosophers that there is wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, when prudently inspired. Even here my resolution did not falter. I read some of the occult books and grasped their meaning, as far as my human abilities allowed, of course, for I myself could never claim that I had an accurate understanding of these things nor would I believe anyone else who said he had."

He does not identify further what these occult or mystic books are that contain a wisdom very close to the summit. There can be little doubt, however, that they included (perhaps above all else) the Chaldaean oracles. The supporting evidence comes from a letter to Patriarch John Xiphilinos in which Psellos offers a fighting apologia for his interest in ancient philosophical systems. One of these passages in the letter describes in detail the ascent of the mind to the summit, here symbolized by Mount Sinai, which culminates in final illumination. "These ideas," he informs Xiphilinos, "I have taken from the Chaldaean Oracles and have subordinated to our Christian scriptures."

So far we have been considering the books knowledge Psellos had of the magic-mystical Chaldaean material. We should also try to get an idea of his reactions to the more practical side of things, specifically his feelings about direct dealings in magic. Not that we are going to find the man himself involved in anything of the sort. It is true that he is not quite as averse to mystical thought as scholars have traditionally insisted, but he uses numerous opportunities to make it clear that his expertise in various suspect or forbidden subjects never involves belief. A good example is provided by the Chronographia in another of those self-centered digressions, this time when he speaks of his knowledge of astrology and horoscopes. While openly confessing his expertise in a pursuit that he acknowledges to be forbidden by the leaders of the church, he insists that he has never put it to improper use. It is his stated and, we might add, his hopeful view that nobody with any sense would fault a man who knew the theories but gave them no credence.

In another text, a short philosophical treatise for his students, he has occasion to mention in passing the manufacture of apotropaic figurines by Chaldaeans for the purpose of warding off diseases. Here he takes the notable precaution of refusing to divulge the method by which the various substances are to be mixed and the figurines made. He openly voices his concern that, lacking his discretion, they might pick up the method, put it to use, and then, in the event of trouble. He would be held responsible. He was obviously conscious of the canonical regulation that brands both the learning and the teaching of forbidden subjects as equally culpable. The same concern about the danger of misleading students and others crops up in a number of the writings of Psellos.

Finally, in the same context though on a somewhat different level, we will consider a curious case recorded in the Chronographia which must have entertained and intrigued many a reader. In the course of describing the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos, Psellos makes several digressions to concentrate on aspects of Empress Zoe's character and activities, especially in her later years. In one of these extended asides, after remarking that in general he did not find much to praise her, he concedes one very admirable trait, her piety and devotion to God. As a prime he then proceeds to describe a remarkable icon (commonly referred to as the "Antiphonetes"). This was an icon of Jesus which Zoe made (i.e. presumably commissioned), embellished with brilliant material, and rendered so lifelike that it responded to requests by means of its colors and revealed future events by changes in complexion. Psellos vividly recounts how he often saw the old empress, in moments of distress, alternately clasping the icon, talking to it as a living person, and addressing it in terms of endearment, or lying on the ground in a fit of tears and at her breasts. If she saw the face turn pale, she went away in dismay, but if it took on a high color and was all lit up, she immediately reported this to the emperor and forecast to him what was going to happen.

Immediately following this description comes a paragraph of comment that catches our attention, but does not seem, in all its elements, to be directly relevant to the icon episode:

From my reading of Hellenic literature I know that perfumes (aromata) give off a vapor which drives away evil spirits and which at the same time restores to the materials affected by it the presence of more benign spirits. In the same way in other cases stones and herbs and mystic rites induce apparitions of divinities. I neither accepted that theory when I first read it, nor did I at a later time believe in the practice; no, I totally rejected it. And that woman, in her worship of God, did not act in any Hellenic or magical way. Rather she was displaying the longing of her soul and offering up to God the things we regard as most precious and solemn.

It is not at once obvious why, in the context of the icon, Psellos launches into a bizarre excursion on perfumes, stones and herbs, and their theurgical associations. However, there may be a way to fit it in and establish a train of thought, if we can tie it to the section just above the description of Zoe's remarkable piety. Here we find the empress full of another kind of enthusiasm. She had no time at all, Psellos tells us, for the normal things that women do, such as spinning and weaving, but devoted her attention entirely to one pursuit: to making perfumes of all kinds. Her own apartment was converted into a workshop where braziers blazed winter and summer. Here servants helped Zoe and her sister measure out the herbs, boil the mixture and catch all the stream of perfume as it flowed off. Psellos' artful prose makes it all sound like an alchemist's laboratory.

It is true that in this account he does not directly tie the manufacture of the perfumes to the worship of the icon. However, some ninety chapters later into the reign of Constantine, he comes back to devote several pages to the empress, repeating, with added detail, a few of his earlier observations, including the fact that she despised any sort of ornament on her person. "She wore," he notes, "neither cloth of gold, nor diadems, nor lovely things about her neck," and a little further on: "She had no interest in the things that appeal to women - looms, distaff, wool or weaving. One matter above all claimed her attention and on this she expended all her enthusiasm - the offering of sacrifice to God. I am referring, not so much to the offering of praise or of thanksgiving or of penitence, but to the offering of perfumes (aromata) and of all those products which come into our land from India and Egypt.

Now, if Zoe had not the slightest interest in any type of bodily embellishment, it is not likely that perfumes were being produced for that purpose, but it would be reasonable to connect their manufacture with her special brand of devotion. To tie the two would also make good sense of Psellos' otherwise sudden and surprising reference to the special use of perfumes in pagan worship, immediately after his story of the "Antiphonetes."

However, even if we do not insist on the full concatenation of these three passages, and leave aside the laboratory episode, the others by themselves would support the following scenario: Zoe had a very special Jesus icon of her own which she consulted and used to predict future events; second, if we connect the phrase that Psellos uses at the end of the icon passage ("she offered up to God the things we regard as most precious and solemn") with the later statement about perfumes and products from India and Egypt, we may, with some right, conclude that she used perfumes and other aromata in the worship of the icon.

As we have seen, Psellos puts all of this down to the fervent piety of the empress, and who would we be to question her sincerity? Be that as it may, the response of Psellos is interesting; in fact, his defensive tone supports a feeling that Zoe was at least engaging in borderline activity. One could well imagine that, in other circumstances or in dealing with another individual, Psellos could easily turn the picture around and argue that an icon was being used in oracular and theurgical purposes, that physical substances were being employed to manipulate spirits and divinities, in other words, precisely the kind of activity associated with Chaldaeans. However, we must leave the question there.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest