SOME NOTES ON THEURGY
By Frater R.C.S.
The word ‘theurgy’ is based upon the Greek words Theos (God) and Ergos (work), from which is derived the word theourgia – which means ‘works of God’ or ‘divine workings’1. In Latin this becomes ‘theurgia’, meaning ‘sacramental rite or mystery’.2 The Oxford English Dictionary states us that theurgy is “A system of magic, originally practised by the Egyptian Platonists, to procure communication with beneficent spirits, and by their aid produce miraculous effects...” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that theurgy... is really just magic with philosophical underpinnings. Francois Lenormant in his book Chaldean Magic and Sorcery states that Theurgy is: “the superstitious contortion of a philosophical religion...” 3 In an article entitled ‘Theurgy and its Relation to Neoplatonism’4, E. R. Dodds, states that:
“The last half-century has seen a remarkable advance in our knowledge of the magical beliefs and practices of later antiquity. But in comparison with this general progress the special branch of magic known as theurgy has been relatively neglected and is still imperfectly understood”.
Dodds’ article is important, because it seems to admit to a poorly formed yet common opinion, that theurgy was the creation of Late Neoplatonism, particularly under the influence of Porphyry and Iamblichus. And that it was a corruption of the disciplined philosophical system of spiritual development of Plotinus, and by implication, a corruption of the philosophy of Plato and all that his philosophy represented. Nowhere does he more clearly declare his beliefs than where he states:
“As vulgar magic is commonly the last resort of the personally desperate, of those whom man and God have alike failed, so theurgy became the refuge of a despairing intelligentsia...”5
Dodds then proceeds with grim intent to demonstrate that theurgy is little more than vulgar magic with religious pretensions. Its basic premise being that humanity is able to control cosmic powers and divine entities, and, acquire transcendental insight or experience through ceremonial magic, within the framework of Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean philosophy. Its main objective being either prognostication through the use of magical instruments or, the acquisition of oracles through the agency of a medium - what passes today under the heading of channelling. Its career, so it is thought, was short-lived, lasting not much longer than the Emperor Julian. Subsequently, in mainstream academic publications little has been printed about the subject of theurgy outside of this negative context. However, this is no bad thing, for those who understand it differently, should be ever grateful for such criticism, because a) some of it is true, and b) without it we would be less able to recognise the true theurgy from the false. In this field of endeavour it is not criticism that is to be feared but self-delusion! Bear this in mind as we continue, because the theurgy we have just been describing is a discipline many academics, scholars and theologians would have us believe emerged in the latter part of the third century under the influence of Porphyry and Iamblichus.
However, there is another theurgy, a theurgy that is concerned with the work of spiritual regeneration, that in every sense of the word is an ancient discipline, revered and nurtured throughout history by those few who know it, yet, barely acknowledged or understood by the many who do not. It is with this theurgic discipline that this paper is primarily concerned. However, before we engage with it I shall briefly outline the philosophical environment of Neoplatonism in which theurgy is currently thought to have developed, and give a short biography of the key figures involved.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary defines Neoplatonism as, “...a new synthesis of Platonic, Pythagorean, Aristotelian, and Stoic elements – which was the dominant philosophy of the non-Christian world from the middle of the third century to the closing of the pagan schools by Justinian in 529.” 6 This synthesis is believed to have developed over several centuries, with the first, preparatory phase commencing in the first century BC under the reforming influence of such people as the great Stoic Posidonius; and lasting up until the middle of the third century. The second, and more significant phase, begins in the middle of the third century with Plotinus (c 205–270 AD) whose teachings, contained in the Enneads, gave Neoplatonism its most recognisable form.
The third phase commences with Plotinus’ student and successor Porphyry. It is thought by some that through him Neoplatonism moved away from the pure philosophical disciplines of Plotinus towards the theurgic art of ceremonial magic such as is described in Iamblichus’ book De Mysteriis, a book central to the majority of debates about theurgy. The fourth phase involved the Syrian and Pergamene schools, which derived their teachings from Iamblichus and Iamblichus’ student Aedesius respectively. The final phase took place in the fifth and sixth century schools of Athens and Alexandria, wherein Neoplatonism culminated. The school in Athens was closed by Justinian in 529, and the school in Alexandria was absorbed by Islam in the mid seventh century.
Now most people would accept that the most singular and important influence upon Neoplatonism was Plotinus, who was born in Egypt at the beginning of the third century. For more than ten years he studied philosophy at Alexandria under the guidance of his master Ammonius Saccas. Eventually settling in Rome he quickly became the centre of an influential circle of spiritually minded people. He remained there for the duration of his life. He published nothing and as far as we know wrote only the various essays and lecture notes that constitute the substance of the Enneads. These were edited and published posthumously by his student Porphyry.
The essence of Plotinus’ teaching proposes three principle modes of being to which he applies the term Hypostases. The first Hypostasis he defines as The ONE, which is the prime source and principle of all being, the very ground of existence. The second is the DIVINE NOUS or Mind, in which exist the archetypal Ideas and prototypes of all Creation. The third, proceeding from the Divine Nous, is the WORLD SOUL, below which lies the realm of Nature, which constitutes the outer life of the World Soul, and last of all there is undifferentiated Matter - the last consequence of the outpouring of the ONE; it forms the lowest stage of the universe, and is thus understood to be the antithesis of the ONE.
Plotinus taught that the World Soul consisted of two parts, first; a higher celestial part through which it contemplates the Divine Nous and second; a lower terrestrial part, through which it generates the material cosmos according to the archetypal model contained within the Divine Nous. Individual human souls proceed from the World Soul, and like the World Soul may also be subdivided into two or more parts, for a human being, he taught, is a microcosm wherein the principles of the Hypostases are reflected as Spirit, Soul and body.
Grace Turnbull, in her book The Essence of Plotinus, puts it rather well when she writes: “We may discern three phases of the World-Soul in us: 1, The Intuitive Soul 2, The Reasoning Soul 3, The Unreasoning Soul, the Principle of animal-life....” (p15) the latter being that which is created through the soul’s conjunction with matter. Below the sphere of the soul lies the material world, in which the soul’s conjunction with matter and a material body takes place, and which Plotinus taught was a fall or descent from a higher state of being, in the sense that the soul chooses to attach itself to an inferior sphere of existence: thereby suffering as a consequence all that mortality implies. It is from this fall or descent that the soul seeks redemption, and, concerning which Plotinus devotes much of his attention; and concerning which, many of the basic ideas underpinning theurgy are erroneously believed to arise.
Porphyry (232-305 AD) is the best known disciple of Plotinus. It was he who undertook the difficult task of editing the lecture notes and essays of Plotinus, and publishing them under the title of the Enneads, and for which we shall ever be in his debt, particularly for Plotinus’ biographical details that he thoughtfully included in the Introduction. Porphyry was the author of more than seventy books, many of which were burnt during the latter part of the Fourth Century during the reign of Theodosius I. The majority of these books are now lost, and of those still extant, the most well-known are probably his remarkable book on vegetarianism entitled On Abstinence from Animal Food, and his treatise On the Homeric Cave of the Nymphs.
Iamblichus was born in Syria in the middle of the third century AD. He was a pupil of Porphyry and the author of several books, most of which are now lost. Fortunately his book, De Mysteriis survived. It is an account of a lengthy explanation of aspects of theurgy that is claimed to have been composed by the ‘Preceptor Abammon’, an Egyptian High Priest, in reply to a letter from Porphyry to a junior priest called Anebo. Written at a time when the ancient world was in a state of political, social and religious turbulence, but before Christianity had acquired political dominance, it is perhaps the most significant work concerning pre-Christian theurgic principles and dynamics still in existence. It has, over the course of time, been the focal point of a great deal of critical debate, both for and against. Iamblichus was later to found his own school in Syria, and his main disciple, Aedesius, was to found a further school in Pergamum. Iamblichus died c 325; not long after Constantine had become master of the Roman Empire.
To recap, I have briefly described the philosophical environment, and the principle influences, which many scholars today believe, gave rise to a theurgy generally defined as a quasi-religious philosophy with associated magical rites, that arose in the Graeco-Roman world during the ember days of the classical era. Attaining its perfection, so Lenormant believed, in the Late Neoplatonic Schools of Alexandria, and, to all intents and purposes beginning its decline with the death, in the year 363, of the Emperor Julian and subsequent ascendancy of Christianity. This I believe is a prejudiced viewpoint that is more the result of post-Darwinian attitudes than historical accuracy. It is the opinion of individuals steeped in a way of thinking alien to that of our ancestors, and whose philosophy presupposes that our ancestors’ beliefs were rooted in ignorance and superstition; which is simply not true!
Now, on the other hand our second ‘theurgy’ requires a different viewpoint. It requires a viewpoint that;
(a) Spans a far greater period of time that is commonly accepted today;
(b) Dispenses with post-Darwinian attitudes concerning evolution;
(c) Acknowledges that our ancestors were rational beings every bit as intelligent as we like to think we are now;
(d) Recognises that Theurgy, rather than being a quasi-religious philosophy with associated magical rites, is a sacred science of spiritual regeneration that has been passed on through succeeding generations.
Consider for instance, the people of Ancient Egypt, who built the Pyramids, they may have been pragmatic but they were not mechanistic humanists. To them life on this earth meant far more than mere survival, they recognised that the end of a human life was but a beginning of another different life. This much is obvious, even from a casual examination of the records they left for us to find carved upon the walls of Pyramids. These records or ‘Pyramid texts’, dating from the 3rd millennium BC constitute the oldest corpus of religious literature available to us. They contain a vast amount of information concerning the Egyptian understanding of the spiritual life that, among other things, demonstrates an intimate understanding of the ‘principle’ of spiritual regeneration. And what is more, outlines how this regeneration was accomplished through what may legitimately be described as ‘rites of transformation’. Consider the following quotations selected from the Pyramid Texts:
“Gather together your bones, make ready your members, throw off your dust, loosen your bonds. The tomb is opened for you, the doors of the coffin are drawn back for you, the doors of the sky are thrown open for you; ‘Greeting’ says Isis; ‘In peace’, says Nephthys..”7
“...this king goes to his double, to the sky. A ladder is set up for him that he may ascend on it in its name of ‘Ascent to the sky’; its ferryboat is ferried across for him by the staffs of the imperishable stars. The Bull of the sky has bent down his horns that he may pass over thereby to the lakes of the netherworld.”8
“O. King, you are this great star, the companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who navigates the Netherworld with Osiris; you ascend from the east of the sky, being renewed at your due season and rejuvenated at your due time. The sky has borne you with Orion, the year has put a fillet on you with Osiris, hands have been given to you, the dance has gone down to you, a food-offering is given to you...etc.”9
The processes, to which these quotations allude are essentially theurgic, being concerned with the creation of a spiritual body, a body of light drawn out of the physical, or perhaps I should say psychical body. The rites and the teachings involved in this metamorphic process were treated with the greatest reverence, and successfully maintained in absolute secrecy for many generations. Few people were privy to these mysteries, although it is on record that several non-Egyptians were given access to them, Moses being one. St. Paul informs us10 that Moses was taught of all the secrets of Egypt and thereby did the mysteries of ancient Egypt come into Israel. The same may be said of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries, already ancient some thousand years BC were, so it seems, reformed by the legendary Orpheus. And, although there is no hard evidence to support the notion that he received instruction in the Egyptian Mysteries, his teachings concerning the birth of the divine Eros echo much that was essential to the ancient Egyptians, particularly as expressed in the Pyramid texts. Consider the following Hymn, known as the Rhapsodic Theogony and attributed to Orpheus by pre-Christian Greeks:
"Chaos11 was and Night and black Erebos at first and broad Tartaros12, but there was no earth nor yet air nor sky. Then in the infinite bosom of Erebos first of all black-winged Night bore a wind-sown egg, from which in the circling seasons came Eros the much desired, his back gleaming with twin golden wings, swift as the whirling winds. He mingled in broad Tartaros with winged and gloomy Chaos hatched out our race, and brought us first to see the light. Before that there was no race of the Immortals, until Eros mingled all things together. Then from their mingling with each other was born Heaven and Ocean and Earth and the deathless race of the blessed gods. Thus are we far the oldest of the gods. . ."13
In substance this hymn is very close to that of the Hermo-politan cosmogony, of Ancient Egypt, which taught that the world originated in a cosmic egg that had been laid by an Ibis - the bird sacred to the god Thoth. An egg that contained Ra, the bird of light, who was to be the creator of the world. The connections are very suggestive.
The followers of Orpheus understood that humanity consisted of two distinct natures – a physical mortal nature, derived from the Titans and a spiritual immortal nature derived from Dionysus. From this principle they taught that the soul, if it is to evolve, must free itself by sublimating the passionate titanic nature and regenerate the divine Dionysian nature that lies within. In short, the body is the tomb or prison of the soul, and salvation may only be attained by overcoming the demands of the mundane world and the restrictions of matter. A concept not so far removed from the Egyptian rites of creating a spiritual body of light, and which has ever been central to the theurgic work.
Pythagoras furthered the spiritually edifying work of Orpheus throughout Greek civilisation, as did Plato at the Academy, and his successors after him. Each in their own way contributing immensely to the theurgic work and spiritual life of the Mystery schools, particularly that of Eleusis, which was not a secret society as we might understand it. It may have started out as such, but had become over the course of centuries a civic institution that was venerated all over the known world. At Eleusis numerous Athenian citizens were initiated into the Mysteries, and inevitably many of those initiates were also students of the Academy, which functioned, deliberately or not, as both a preparatory and finishing school for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and, subsequently, for a public life serving the State.
Now, although we know little of what took place in the Mysteries of Eleusis, the same concern with the philosophical death and subsequent regeneration as a spiritual or divine being is suggested in the works of many contemporary writers, including those of Plato. And is nowhere summed up more eloquently than in the words of an inscription reported as being found at Eleusis, which reads as follows: ‘beautiful indeed is the Mystery given us by the blessed gods: death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing’14. Inspiring words that go right to the heart of the matter.
If we can accept that from a religious point of view our ancestors recognized that life here has one fundamental imperative; to become! to evolve, to regenerate an original state of perfection, that was in the beginning made in God’s image, then we are in with a chance of understanding the essence of theurgy, and in doing so rediscover the tradition of spiritual development that our ancestors knew and maintained. This tradition consists of an ancient teaching and method of spiritual transformation achieved through a system of initiatic rites and ceremonies. Giving a formal ceremonial expression to the axiom; “by names and by images are all things awakened and re-awakened in the sphere of sensation.” This dramatic expression of certain key principles in ceremonial workings varies according to the era and the culture involved. However, to those who have the eyes to see, the principle has always remained the same - whatever the form.
The sacred rites of spiritual transformation of the pre-Christian world were invariably based upon a hierarchical model similar to Plotinus’ Hypostases. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Plotinus’ model is based upon a hierarchical structure widely recognized in the pre-Christian world. This model has been described by different cultures in various ways. Regrettably we don’t have the time to explore them all; however, the model of the cosmic hierarchy given to us by Cicero in his Dream of Scipio will serve us well. Written in the middle of the First century BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a celebrated Roman orator, philosopher and Statesman, it gives us an insight to the pre-Christian thought of the Graeco-Roman, Egyptian, and Babylonian world.
Composed at the end of a millennium that was also the twilight of another world, the Dream of Scipio unspoiled by modern conceits, is a rare and important bridge connecting us to that ancient world. The following passage is taken from the Collectanea Hermetica edited by Wynn Westcott.
“...Africanus continuing said, “How long wilt thy mind remain riveted to the Earth? Dost thou not behold into how glorious a Temple thou art come? Now know that the Universe consists of nine circles or rather Spheres, all connected together, one of which is celestial and the furthest off15, embracing all the rest, the supreme Deity preserving and governing the others. In this sphere are traced the eternal revolutions of the Stars and to it are subject the seven spheres which revolve backwards with a contrary motion to that of the Celestial Sphere. The first (of these Seven) Spheres is occupied16 by the Star which on Earth is called Saturn. Next comes the sphere of that splendid Star, salutary and fortunate to the human race, called Jupiter. Then comes the Red Sphere, terrible to the Earth, which you call Mars. Following beneath these spheres, and in almost the middle region, is placed the Sun, the Leader, Chief and Governor of the other Lights, the mind17 of the World and the organising principle, - of such wondrous magnitude that it illuminates and impregnates every part of the Universe with its Light. The Spheres of Venus and Mercury in their respective courses follow the Sun as companions. In the lowest Sphere the Moon revolves illumined by the rays of the Sun. Below this in truth nothing exists which is not subject to death and decay, save indeed the Souls, which by the gift of the Gods are bestowed upon the human race. Above the Moon all things are eternal, but the sphere of the Earth, which occupies a middle place and comes ninth does not move: it is the lowest and to it all ponderable bodies are born by their own gravity.”
This is the ladder, the same ladder referred to by the Egyptians, by which souls were understood to come down to earth, and, by which they ascend in the process of regeneration. The incarnating soul descends to earth through the planetary spheres, gradually taking on the component parts of mortal existence from the different natures of the planets as it progressed downward. Concerning which Franz Cumont writes; “First receiving an ethereal garment of almost immaterial purity; then imagination being added to reason, a solar fluid surrounded it. Then a lunar integument made it subject to the passions and finally a carnal body was the cause of its ignorance of Divine Truths and of its blind foolishness. It successfully lost with these wrappings the inclinations or faculties which were bound with them, when after death it went back again to the place of its origin18.”
Cumont, however, fails to point out that finding one’s way back again is not so easy. There are many obstacles that the soul must overcome before it may return to its place of origin, and all of them lie within its own nature. Those proficient in these mysteries, such as the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks were well aware of this. Thus Porphyry writes:
“It is impossible that those who desire to be mindful of their return should accomplish their journey home from this terrestrial exile pleasantly and easily, as through some smooth plain. For no two things can be more entirely opposed to one another than a life of pleasure and ease, and the ascent to the gods.”19
For most souls this is an almost impossible task without the assistance of a guide, or psychopomp - which is an archaic title traditionally given to one who conducts the soul to its posthumous destination. Such guides were the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes, who were not only guides as such, but were also acknowledged as the originators of the core teachings of the mysteries of spiritual regeneration.
Often the true nature of the psychopomp is disguised in mythological forms, for instance Tiresias the blind Theban prophet who assisted Odysseus on his journey home, is an interesting symbol. In the Paradiso, both Virgil and Beatrice, the guides of Dante on his spiritual journey, are both revealing aspects of the psychopomp. In the Wisdom of Solomon you will find another wonderful example of the psychopomp, it is an example that merits close inspection. Many early Christians believed that the Archangel Michael was the guide who led the souls of the faithful into the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, angels have often fulfilled the role of dependable guides in the invisible world, one for example being the angel Antiel who led Enoch in his ascent to heaven. Looked at in another way the role of the psychopomp is more akin to that of a mid-wife assisting the soul in its process of spiritual regeneration. However, we must be careful about bestowing such a sacred office to every ‘friend’ we meet on the path, and that includes the interior as well as the exterior path.
However, returning to our purpose! All things come to an end, even civilisations. From the time of Alexander in the fourth century BC the days of the Old World were numbered. Greek civilisation was absorbed into the Roman Empire, as was the Egyptian and the Judaic. Rome became a melting pot of ideas, both new and old. Cultural reformations and developments were inevitable as different belief systems met under the Roman Eagle. The philosophical reformation of Platonism, which began in earnest during the first century BC, and which culminated in the philosophy of Plotinus under the heading of Neoplatonism was the inevitable consequence of the Greek schools adapting to the New Order. Plotinus sought to purge and reform the Mysteries from decadent forms of both philosophy and ritual practice. His teachings, evident in the Enneads, draw the student deeper and deeper into the interior life of the soul, to a dependency upon the indwelling godhead and the indwelling guide, rather than upon external affectations. This is consistent with core theurgic practices. Philosophy, from Plotinus’ point of view was never simply the philosophy taught in our universities, where the distinction and separation of the intellect from spiritual development would, I feel, have been anathema to him.
Plotinus was a deeply religious man, he was not a materialist, nor was he a humanist, and the assertion that he was not a lover of rituals, and that he found little use for magic in the training of a philosopher, I am sure would also have been disagreeable to him. Such ideas are based upon the fact that his writings the Enneads contain almost no material dealing with these subjects. But, we should be more cautious in our assumptions about Plotinus. We should note that his writings were only his notes for his lectures on the subject of Philosophy, which was not the full curriculum of his teaching. The lack of material dealing with magical practices in a philosophy class is to be expected, whilst the abundance of material dealing with the spiritual life supports the premise that he was indeed a theurgist, that is, if you accept theurgy as ‘sacred rites of spiritual transformation’. When considered in this light, the evolution of theurgic forms that we attribute to Iamblichus and Porphyry start to make sense. It serves us badly, if indeed we seek the truth, to measure the quality of their thought by our own misconceptions.
Finally, When Constantine empowered the Christian Hierarchy in the early years of the fourth century he effectively ended one era, and, started another. Evidently, whatever had gone before counted for little, because within a short period of time most of it would be gone. And with the closing of the Academy and the Mystery Schools, the fate of the old ways was sealed as traditional religious observances were proscribed and temples converted to Christian use. Yet, whilst the Mystery Schools slipped into obscurity to reform or die, the teachings of spiritual regeneration did not fade away, in fact quite the opposite occurred. The sacred rites were quietly and slowly integrated over the course of time into the observances of the New Order.
Looking back, one can see this integration beginning long before Plotinus or Iamblichus. If one looks carefully one might just see in the mists of the first century the invisible influence of St. Paul and his disciple Dionysius the Areopagite Hellenising the new Christian Faith, preparing the way for what was to come. They were not alone; Origen was another who prepared the way, as were Clement of Alexandria and St. Augustine, through whom much of the religion of the ancients flowed into the New Faith. Another great channel of the wisdom of the ancient world was the Pseudo-Dionysius, a title given to the unknown author of the Mystical Theology. For centuries this great work, which influenced Christian mystical thought for a thousand years or more, was attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. It is now believed to be the work of an unknown cleric who lived in the 5th – 6th century, hence the title Pseudo-Dionysius.
What is remarkable about this work is that it has been a continuing significant influence on the formation of the character of Mystical Christianity. Arguably, the Dionysian Corpus contains the essence of the Mystery School of Eleusis, the very essence of Graeco-Roman teachings concerning the rites of spiritual transformation, cast in a Christian mould. In this form the ancient tradition of spiritual regeneration, far from being lost, is still with us, hidden from the gaze of those who would trivialize or misappropriate its teachings. If we know what to look for signs may be found that will lead us to the hidden temple wherein we may begin the silent process of spiritual regeneration – the very heart of Christian Rosicrucianism.
- H.G. Liddell & R. Scott, A Greek – English Lexicon
- See C.T. Lewis & C. Short, Latin Dictionary, which states that the word ‘theurgia’ is late Latin, derived from the Greek Theourgia.
- Francois Lenormant, Chaldean Magic and Sorcery. p74.
- Reprinted in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, U.C.P. 1951. See Appendix II, ‘Theurgy’.
- ibid, p228
- N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (Ed.), Oxford Classical Dictionary. 1970 2nd ed., p727
- R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Utterance 676, p289.
- ibid. Utterance 568, p221.
- ibid. Utterance 466, p155.
- (Acts 7:22) also The Works of Philo trans. C.D. Yonge Pub. Hendrickson, USA 1993, p461-2
- Originally this word meant the ‘yawning’ or Abyss.
- The darkest part of Hades, which eventually came to be the place of torment and punishment for sinners.
- Aristophanes, The Birds.
- S. Angus, The Mystery Religions & Christianity. p140.
- Eight similar spheres enveloped in a ninth vast and glorious envelope.
- Note the distinction between the Sphere and the Planet pertaining to it.
- Mens; in ancient occult works, this word is of far higher import than our word, mind. Compare the Chaldaic philosophy in Stanley’s History of Philosophy.
- F. Cumont, The After Life in Roman Paganism p106.
- To Marcella, (tr. Alice Zimmerman)