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Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler-From ‘Theurgy In Late Antiquity’: Initiation & Ascent

Frontispiece of the ‘Zodiacus Vitae’, by Pier Angelo Manzolli a.k.a. Marcello Stellato, in Latin Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus. The 1722 Joannem Hofhout Rotterdam latin edition. Engraving by Goeree.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler’s impressive study, ‘Theurgy in Late Antiquity’, Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. Chapter 2, part 3, pages 29 to 33. It is a striking follow up with our preceding post, where professor Opsopaus commented upon Georgios Gemistos Plethon’s conception of Prayer with several quotes from the ‘Chaldean Oracles’ (which he calls ‘Magical Oracles’) with another analysis of the same in the scope of ritual theurgy here discussed. All on Board! Let’s go!

‘Chaldean Oracles’-Fragment 109: “But the paternal intellect does not accept its (i.e., the soul’s) desire until it comes out of oblivion and speaks a word, having placed in its mind the memory of the holy paternal token.”


Another type of ritual alluded to has already been touched upon above, namely the mention of τελεται, teletai, denoting here private rites necessary for the salvation of the soul. Another fragment addresses a μυστης, mystis, enjoining him to keep his silence. Apart from the more general sense of ‘special religious ceremony’, τελετη, teleti, can be taken to denote some form of mysteric initiation.

The hylic daimones tend to distract the initiands (person about to be initiated) from these rites. Against the background of anthropology of the ‘Oracles’, which holds that the souls have been sent down from high to serve the material universe freely and must ascend again to their empyrean home, but are threatened to be ensnared by nature (φυσις, phusis) and her daimones and to forget their true essence and homeland, the main goal of the rituals which the daimones oppose can be assumed to have been soteriological. This assumption is strengthened by another fragment, which enjoins upon the reader to ‘search for the channel of the soul, whence in a certain order it came down as a hireling of the body, and how you can lift it upward again to its order by uniting the ritual deed (εργον, ergon) to the holy word (λογος, logos).” εργα, erga, unspecified ritual actions, are mentioned in different fragments. They bring about not only the salvation of the soul, as seen above, but also a certain salvation or preservation of the body. They are closely connected with the fire which in the ‘Chaldean Oracles’ represent the divine substance that flows from the supreme entity, the paternal abyss, and permeates the whole cosmos reaching down into the material world through a variety of channels.

A line preserved by Proclus in the context of a discussion of theurgic prayer states that, “the mortal who has drawn near to the fire will receive light from God“; in the same passage he alludes to λογιον, logion, stating that the “thought warmed by fire” occupies the first place in ritual worship (θρησκεια, thriskeia). The soul is to be “set ablaze with fire” and “rendered light by a warm pneuma“. In one fragment, these “works of fire” are assigned to the careful guidance of a priest, which is the only mention of cult specialists in the extant ‘Oracles’. The mention of sprinkling with sea water (or perhaps salt) in these verses leads to assume some sort of purification ritual. Proclus, who is our source for the fragment, connects it with a τελετη, teleti, of Apollo; maybe we can conjecture a ceremony involving the sun, which is central to the Chaldean cosmology and soteriology.

For the ascent of the soul, certain tokens, συνθηματα, synthimata or συμβολα, symvola, are crucial. These tokens are said to have been sown throughout the cosmos by the paternal Intellect, the demiurgical entity of the Chaldean pantheon. Only if the soul can emerge from oblivion and remember them can they embark upon ascent. the two terms are used synonymously. Just what the συνθηματα, synthimata are, is not specified in the extant fragments. The mention of initiations, τελεται, teletai, prompts a comparison with traditional mystery cults: there συνθηματα, synthimata are formulae functioning as password for the initiates. Such mysteric passwords called συμβολα, symvola, are attested already on an Orphic-Bacchic lamella from Pherae dating from the fourth century B.C. They are part of the koine regarding ascent ideas in Imperial times and can be found in magical as well as Gnostic texts as means of legitimately passing the heavenly gates. There they often assume the form of unintelligible chains of letters or of foreign words. Such passwords are probably alluded to in the ‘Oracles’ fragment which forbids the change of the barbarian names. That the συνθημα, synthima, has something to do with utterances seems to be stated in fragment 109: “But the paternal intellect does not accept its (i.e., the soul’s) desire until it comes out of oblivion and speaks a word, having placed in its mind the memory  of the holy paternal token.” The soul must know the συνθημα, synthima and hold it present in its mind when it approaches the fiery channels. Can συνθηματα, synthimata be anything else than words or sound?

In his ‘De Magia’, Apuleius states that initiates in mystery cults are given certain secret objects as a token of their initiation; one might speculate if the συνθηματα, synthimata can also be objects with a cultic function. But in the ‘Oracles’, the συνθηματα, synthimata and συμβολα, symvola transcend the mere ritual use, or to put it more exactly, they can be used ritually because they are built by the demiurge into the cosmos. Therefore, one might think that not only strange words, but also different parts of the material cosmos could be considered συνθηματα, synthimata or συμβολα, symvola. It is tempting to view them in the light of the PGM, where the magician presents himself as knowing the symbols-σημεια, simeia, παρασημα, parasima or συμβολα, symvola-of each god, that is, a varied chain of animated and inanimate objects emanating from the god or connected to him.

The exact role of ritual in the ascent of the soul is not specified. Lewy asserted a distinction between the Chaldean elevation ritual on one hand and magical rituals on the other, and he attempted to reconstruct the elevation ritual from a variety of mostly later sources. Given the heavily poetic language, it is sometimes impossible to decide whether certain fragments concern a concrete ritual, a spiritual ascent analogous to philosophical meditation or an eschatological ascent of the soul. A good example for this ambivalence is fragment 2 of the ‘Oracles’:

Clad in the full armour of sounding light, having armed the intellect and the soul with three-edged strength, you should cast into your mind the whole token of the triad and not visit the fiery channels in a scattered manner, but fully collected.”

Identifying the fiery channels with the sunrays, in the light of the magical papyri, Lewy interprets the act of donning the armour of light as a preliminary purification ritual enabling the practitioner to make a ‘magical assault’ on the sunrays. Combining this fragment with other fragments which describe the ascent of the soul by means of and towards the light and its final union with the divine, he pieces them together as a description of one single ritual of ascent.

Nevertheless, all fragments could also be interpreted as stages of an inner process without any exterior physical action and could well be read as a poetical description of the Platonic encounter of the soul with the divine (which is also described using metaphors of light and fire). How far exactly the theurgical initiation leads in the ‘Chaldean Oracles’ must remain an open question; the highest principle, the intelligible described in fragment 1, which can be considered the summit of the ladder, is accessible only through philosophical meditation, not through ritual: contact with it can be achieved only by a preliminary κενωσις, kenosis, of one’s intellect and the awakening of its highest part, its ‘flower’; no actual actions or special setting are recommended for it, although it is also not impossible that specific actions might be considered as beneficial for reaching this stage of consciousness.


More about the Chaldean Oracles:
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler-From ‘Theurgy In Late Antiquity’: Initiation & Ascent

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