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Connections Between Theurgy, Philosophy and Magic in the Ancient World.


The source of Western theurgy (literally God-work; commonly defined as a kind of spiritual magic)
is found within the philosophical texts of Neoplatonism specifically the later philosophers Porphyry,
Iamblichus, and Proclus. The first recorded use of the term is found in a mid-second century text
dubbed The Chaldaean Oracles and runs as follows: For the theourgoi do not fall under the fate of
the governed herd.1 Yet the extent to which theurgic practice was involved with, or connected to,
magic is obscure. However, evidence does suggest that theurgy was primarily, if not exclusively, a
Neoplatonic practice and if it is indeed some form of spiritual magic then the connections between
theurgy and magic must begin with Neoplatonist philosophy. For this reason this paper shall focus
primarily on the connections between theurgy, philosophy, and magic within Neoplatonism, while
also briefly considering its relationship with both public religion (Oracle Sanctuaries) and secret
religion (Mithraism).
An analysis of theurgy, philosophy, and magic within Neoplatonism necessarily involves a definition
of the terms involved. It also necessarily incorporates an analysis of religion as theurgy, magic, and
even philosophy seem to have a role within the religious institutions of the ancient world, as will be
made clear toward the end of this paper. However, defining magic within the ancient world,
specifically in its relationship to philosophy or religion, is notoriously problematic. Robert Fowler
(2000) has provided a recent, in-depth examination of their relationship, and explains that any
attempt to distinguish magic from religion[] founders at once when approached from purely
anthropological, sociological, or semiotic grounds, as exceptions can always be found to counter
any formulation, making them wholly inadequate.2 It seems impossible to state where magic is
always opposed to religion, leaving us to conclude that: one mans magic is another mans religion. 3
This concession is fundamental to this exploration of magic, philosophy and religion in the ancient
world; and it is important to establish at the outset that this paper does not accept a strict definition
of magic, or religion. The essential interconnectedness of these terms becomes more apparent
when theurgy and philosophy are included into the mix as this essay will demonstrate.

1 Fragment 153 c.f. Hans Lewy (1956) Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy, Cairo: 421-466 (largely
quoted from the revised edition by Michel Tardieu, Revue des tudes Augustiniennes: 58 (1978)).
2 Robert L. Fowler (2000) Greek Magic, Greek Religion, in, Buxton, R. (ed.) Oxford Readings in
Greek Religion: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 322; 336.
3 Fowler: 340-341.

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In a similar vein, an in-depth understanding of what precisely theurgy was or entailed, as well as
how or if it was related to magic, has divided scholastic opinion. Theurgy itself has been variously
defined, and variously understood. Proclus Lycaeus (412CE-485CE) himself, one of the last major
Neoplatonist philosophers, described theurgy as: a power higher than all human wisdom embracing
the blessings of divination (), the purifying powers of initiation (), and all the operations
of divine possession ().4 While a more recent definition explains that: spiritual magic, or
theurgy, was based on the idea that one could reach God [or Godhood] in an ascent up the scale of
creation [the cosmic spheres] made possible by a rigorous course of prayer, fasting, and devotional
preparation.5 Here, Thomas suggests that the principles of theurgy were based upon Neoplatonic
metaphysics (the scale of creation), while its practice consisted of some kind of ritualistic, perhaps
even religious, acts (prayer, fasting and devotional preparation) which were intended to unite ones
soul with The One ( ) the primeval Source of Being. However, according to Proclus theurgic
practices also involved another dimension which involved initiation () and divine possession
(), hence Pierre Riffards definition that: Theurgy[] consists of a set of magical practices
performed to evoke beneficent spirits in order to[] animate a statue, to inhabit a human being
[], or to disclose mysteries [].6 In this way theurgy can be understood as being
bidirectional, the rituals and practices enabled both mans ascent to the divine in a spiritual form, as
well as divine descent to man for the purposes of communication, in a similarly spiritual manner. In
short, theurgy was twofold, concerned with both soteriology, and prophecy. First, a brief outline of
what precisely soteriological theurgic practice may have entailed will be provided, before exploring
how prophecy connected Neoplatonic philosophy to public and mystery religions.
*
Neoplatonic theurgy seemed to require the practice of magic, or ritual, in order to achieve the
desired outcome be it communication with the divine, or ascent to it. But what this magic or ritual
specifically entails is a matter of some obscurity. Anne Sheppard has provided an exploration of
what precisely theurgy entailed in her 1982 article: Proclus attitude to theurgy. Sheppards analysis
is built combines both the works of modern scholarship 7 with an analysis of the texts of Hermias

4 Proclus Platonic Theology: 1.26.63.


5 Keith Thomas (1971) Religion and the Decline of Magic, London: Penguin: 320-321.
6 Pierre A. Riffard (1983) Dictionnaire de lesoterisme, Paris: Payot: 340.
7 Hans Lewy (1956); L. J. Rosan (1949); and Andrew Smith (1974).

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(c.410CE c.450CE) and concludes that theurgy consisted of three levels of practice.8 According to
Sheppard, the three part theurgic ascent of the practitioner was also connected to the four types of
as laid out in Platos Phaedrus.9 In short , the lowest form of inspiration, draws
the discordant parts of the soul together within the Body, while unifies the soul at the
level of the Mind, prophetic madness ( ) then brings the soul to the level of the One,
while finally joins the One in the soul to the divine One ( ).10 For Sheppard, the
ascent through the four types of is also connected to the distinction between the skilled and
inspired forms of prophecy, claiming that the lesser, merely skilled prophecy suggests white magic
while the truly inspired prophecy involved theurgic practice, until the practitioner reaches the level of
which makes possible the ascent[] to mystical union.11 Sheppard seems to suggest
that basic prophecy is akin to white magic both rather benign and unskilled, while the three higher
are operated through theurgy, an altogether more skilful practice. However the following
explanation, based on the twofold purpose of theurgy (soteriology and prophecy) suggests that
magic and theurgy were not so separable.
According to both Proclus and Riffard, theurgy evoked spirits to inhabit a human being, in other
words, to possess the practitioner () and enable prophecy (). Leaving prophecy aside
for one moment, ritual would be required in order to generate divine possession of the practitioner.
Such a ritual seems to have involved magic, as examples from the Greek Magical Papyri suggest
various rites and formulas used to evoke divine possession. Such as: O Helios BERBELOCH
CHTHOTHOMI ACH SANDOUM ECHNIN ZAGOUEL, bring me into union with you. Then anoint
yourself and you will have a direct vision.12 Other spells concerning direct vision, or requesting
(dream) oracles all seem to imply a visitation or possession by a deity. In these visitations the
various deities are said to reveal, answer, appear, come in, or show, though it is not specified
whether or not these visitations are within the mind, body or soul of the practitioner, or if indeed they

8 Anne Sheppard (1982) Proclus attitude to theurgy, in, The Classical Quarterly, New Series
Vol.32 No.1: 217
9 Sheppard: 215; Plato Phaedrus 244a-245c.
10 Sheppard: 215; Hermias Commentary on the Phaedrus: 89.20 90.2 (all references to Hermias
are page and line of the edition by Couvreur, P. [1971] Hermias Alexandrinus. In Platonis Phaedrum
scholia 2nd Edn New York: Hildesheim.).
11 Sheppard: 219-220.
12 PGM Va.1-3 c.f. Hans Deiter Betz et al. (1986) The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation:
Including the Demotic Texts Vol.1 Second Edition Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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refer to a physical or material visitation. Given the incorporeal nature of the cosmic divinities, and the
state of unconscious required for a dream visitation, and what we understand of oracular visions, it
seems most likely to be the former that the deity in a sense possesses or enters the body/mind of
the practitioner, rather than physically manifesting. Hence, in the Pythagoras papyrus, the angel
enters in the form of your friend, presumably entering into the dream state that is the
unconscious mind within the body.13 These examples, when understood as possessive visitations,
are further suggested by the expression in PGM Va 1-3: bring me into union with you. 14 In short,
theurgy seemed to rely upon magical rites and formulae in order to generate divine possession
().
As we have seen, according to Plato and later explained Neoplatonically by Hermias, there are four
types of which are increasingly inspired, increasingly powerful, and increasingly harder to
obtain. The least powerful poetic has been obtained by all the great poets who have been
inspired (that is possessed) by the Muses or Apollo, such as Homer or Hesiod. According to
Hermias, poetic draws the discordant parts of the soul together at its own level (89.20-22),
thus creating a unity of soul within the body. In order to achieve this divine inspiration/possession the
Muse, or deity chose their spokesperson and form a relationship with them, suggesting that it is not
entirely bidden. The second type of is which Hermias associates with theurgy
(89.22-31) so we can assume that; first, one needs to unite the discordant parts of the soul via
poetic which one presumably achieves through virtue and/or philosophical knowledge.
Secondly then, one has the spiritual power (due to the souls unity) required to practice the theurgic
or magical rites, such as those outlined within the PGM, in order to request or demand specific and
immediate visitation from a particular divinity. According to Hermias, this second type of makes
the soul intellectually active, or in terms of Neoplatonic metaphysics, at the level of Mind (Nous). For
Plotinus, the Nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind, whilst also in a way being
intellect personified.15 In accordance with Neoplatonian metaphysics, the ability to summon a divinity
through theurgy seems logically to rely on first being able to summon the World-Soul - the gatekeeper between the phenomenal and hypercosmic worlds. In Pythagoras dream oracle the holy
angel ZIZAUBIO is summoned who rise[s] above the earth of the whole cosmic region in the same
way that the Platonic world-soul both permeates and surrounds the hypocosmic realm (both also

13 PGM VII.795-845.
14 Other spells include; PGM III.633-731; VII.319-334; VII.335-47; VII.795-845; XII.144-52;
XII.153-60.
15 Plotinus Enneads III.7.10.

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seem to be associated with fire-breathing). 16 Thus, the ability to compel divine possession at will
accords the practitioner with the second type of and enables spiritual ascent past the WorldSoul to the Nous. This explains why the next type of prophetic allows the practitioner
to demand oracular or dream prophecies which will also allow them to disclose mysteries in the
words of Riffard (above). This suggests that any practitioner who is able to prophecy is at a
heightened spiritual level, able to access the Nous or the intellectual reflection of . Finally then,
the practitioner will reach the fourth type of known as which allows the Soul of
the practitioner to reach itself. According to all Platonic, and indeed all ancient religious magic,
like attracts like this is the main principle of . Therefore, once the practitioner has
achieved they have achieved the qualities of faith, truth, and love (pistis, altheia,
ros) which resonate directly with divine goodness (theourgik dunamis), divine wisdom (theia
philosophia), and divine love/beauty ( ) respectively. Which are the three ways to
mystical union with as outlined by Proclus.17
The Neoplatonic understanding of outlined above also resolves the apparent contradiction of
the term found within the Platonic corpus. Platos description of in the Phaedrus praises it as a
divine inspiration associated with philosophers as Socrates becomes increasingly inspired
throughout his speech (i.e. he ascends the four types of i in a similar manner to that explained
above). Suggesting that the true is a philosopher. Yet this seems to contradict his
treatment of in other dialogues which present philosophy as rational and as irrational.18
How can both classify the philosopher as mad, and yet avoid calling him irrational? This
apparent contradiction is immediately resolved when the Neoplatonic understanding of
(above) is taken into account, along with perhaps a more literal understanding of Platos terminology.
Plato describes poetic as a possession from the Muses who seize the soul of the poet: And a
third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses. This takes hold upon a gentle and
pure soul, arouses it and inspires it.19 Similarly, in 250a the philosopher seized by is
described as , often translated as amazed or out of control. Later in the Phaedrus
Socrates again emphasises that is the (foolish) aspect of the Mind and a kind of

16 PGM VII.835-840; for a discussion of the Platonic World-Soul as a cosmic gatekeeper see: Safari
Grey (2013) The Mithraic Mysteries: a religious manifestation of Platonic soteriological cosmology.
17 Proclus Platonic Theology: 1.25.
18 For example; Plato Ion: 533d-536d; 536e-542a.
19 Plato Phaedrus: 245a.

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(madness).20 These all seem to suggest that the inspired person is mad or irrational, a
negative quality for any Platonist. Yet, when taken literally these terms assume a whole new
meaning. The philosopher is not amazed or out of control if is taken literally to mean
driven away from, or expelled from oneself. 21 The literal translations of and mean
similarly out of ones mind or mindless. Taken in this manner the possessed philosopher under
quite literally leaves his body and his mind, and is literally without reason because,
in the Neoplatonic sense, he has achieved henosis mystical union. This literal understanding of
Platonic both escapes the apparent contradiction of an irrational philosopher, while also
bringing the Platonic concepts of soul and closer to the Neoplatonic understanding of henosis
and theurgy.
In short, theurgy can be defined as the magical rites and formulae (such as those found in PGM)
used by the Neoplatonist practitioner or initiate in order to instigate divine possession or . The
purpose beingto unify the soul and ascend to , which enables henosis with .
Theurgy then is quite literally god-work the work required to access the One within and achieve
godhood (the equivalent of union with god; ). It would seem however that the first
involves an unbidden possession by a god of a poet (or philosopher), yet it is not clear how precisely
a state worthy of possession is achieved. However, the fact that such people are often described as
excel[ing] in intellectual prudence, and in an accurate knowledge of every virtue suggests that they
must first be educated in philosophical practice, and actively live virtuous and pious lives. 22 This then
ties philosophy intuitively with theurgic, that is magic, practices as only a philosopher can be
possessed and thus begin theurgic ascent. But the connection between theurgy (as spiritual magic
used to induce ) and philosophy runs deeper than this, while also playing on the relationship
between philosophy and religion as this final section shows.
*
This final section will briefly consider the relationship between theurgy, philosophy and religion. As
we have seen the relationship between magic and religion in the ancient world was complicated,
and in many ways paralleled to the relationship between theurgy and philosophy. In other words,

20 Plato Phaedrus: 266a.


21 Plato Phaedrus: 250a. From drive away; be out of ones senses; amazed (James
Morwood and John Taylor [eds.] [2002] Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary Oxford: Oxford
University Press: 104).
22 Porphyry De Antro Nympharum: 18.

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none of the terms are entirely inclusive nor are they mutually exclusive. This section will show the
role theurgy had to play in religion through a brief exploration of the mystery cult Mithraism and the
practice of state Oracles. In the earlier study of and the prophetic element of divine
inspiration was overlooked, it is here that it gains relevance. Theurgy was primarily a tool to aid
henosis, yet this divine possession also involved a prophetic element inasmuch as the salvation of
the soul consists of becoming like the divine[and] oracles[] could assist in the salvation of the
soul, since the philosopher sees the oracles as the words of the gods. 23 In the ancient world,
prophecy was also publically institutionalised in the Oracle Sanctuaries such as those at Didyma,
Delphi, and Claros.24 While one might claim that public Oracles were religious, while private oracles
were magical or philosophical, such a strict definition does not entirely fit the evidence. Instead, the
evidence suggests that public Oracles, while religious, had much in common with mystery cults (at
least one of which was based on Neoplatonic metaphysics and philosophy). Inscriptions at Apollos
Oracle at Didyma suggest that mystery rituals and initiations () formed an element of the
cult.25 Similarly, epigraphic evidence at Claros suggests that the visitors to the Oracle were initiated
into mystery rites: a citizen from Charax in Asia Minor gathered in the oracles and was initiated
while the delegates of Neocaesarea consulted the oracle after having been initiated. 26 In the
opening of Porphyrys Philosophy of Oracles, knowledge gained from Oracles is described as
unutterable secrets.27 This is the same language used to describe mystery
cults whose rites were not only clandestine, but also so esoteric as to be unutterable. 28 While this
may connect religious Oracles to mystery cults, it does not necessarily connect them to philosophy.
However, Porphyry was a Neoplatonist who wrote an allegorical treatise concerning the Mithraic
Mysteries, De Antro Nympharum, a cult which was also built on . The
connection to Mithraism is important when one considers that it was a mystery, or religious, cult built
upon Neoplatonic philosophy and metaphysics. While Neoplatonic theurgy was concerned with
spiritual ascension to the divine, members [of Mithraism] sought their salvation in a manner of

23 Crystal Addey (forthcoming) (2014) Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the
Gods, Farnham: Ashgate, chapter 2: 8.
24 Capitalised Oracle refers to publically established institutions, while oracle refers to any privately
induced prophecy.
25 Addey: ch2.14.
26 C.f. Addey: ch2.14-15.
27 Porphyry Philosophy of Oracles: 305F.
28 For a further discussion of Oracles and Mystery Cults see Addey, chapter 2.

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spiritual ascension through the planetary spheres until they reached the World-Soul guardian who
could escort them across the eighth gate into the realm of the Demiurge beyond. 29 There may even
be a parallel here between the Mithraic klimax heptapylos and the labyrinth underneath the
sanctuary of Claros which consisted of seven turns. 30 It seems therefore that there is little difference
between the religion of mystery cults or public Oracles, and the theurgic practices of the
Neoplatonist philosophers.
In conclusion, Neoplatonic theurgy was a form of magic associated with spiritual henosis, and
divinely inspired prophecy. This philosophy was actively practiced with tenable, achievable,
soteriological goals in mind. In this manner it was similar to the public Oracles, which also utilised
divine possession, and possibly theurgic rites. These Oracles were themselves very similar to the
more clandestine religious practices of the mystery cults, one of which was intimately connected to
Neoplatonic philosophy and metaphysics. Like Neoplatonic theurgy, the Mithraic Mysteries were also
soteriological and sought to unite souls with the Platonic One. In short, the theurgy of Neoplatonic
philosophy utilised magic primarily to achieve henosis, like the Mithraic/Platonic mystery cult, and
secondly to generate prophecy, like the public Oracles; while both Oracles and Mystery Cults
themselves also consisted of secrets ( ), rites, and mysteries () which
had a distinctly metaphysical, Neoplatonic air.

29 Grey, The Mithraic Mysteries: a religious manifestation of Platonic soteriological cosmology.


30 Aude Busine (2005) Paroles dApollon: Pratiques et traditions oraculaires dans lAntiquit
tardive Leiden: Brill: 194.

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WORD COUNT: 2959

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Addey, C. (forthcoming) (2014) Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the gods, Ashgate
Studies in Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity Farnham: Ashgate.

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