Chaldaica & Procliana

Category: Neoplatonism

1 Pages in this category

2 The “Chaldaean Oracles”* and the Chaldaic corpus

The fragments of the Oracles composed by Julian the Chaldaean, also known as Julian the Theurge (2nd century CE), are some of the most beautiful poetry surviving in Ancient Greek. This effect is achieved through startling imagery, a highly idiosyncratic vocabulary and sublime philosophical teachings. No wonder that many of its readers accepted the claim of Julian that these verses were revealed to him by the gods—even though it was unusual, in the Greco-Roman world, to attribute oracles simply to “the gods”, rather than a specific deity like Apollon.

But what was a man with a Latin name, Julian, doing writing in Greek, when his byname tells us that he was somehow connected to the land of Chaldaea (=southern Iraq)? The answer is most likely that Julian—like his father of the same name, who was also a Chaldaean—were ritual experts working in a broadly Mesopotamian tradition (cf. Lucian, Philopseudes 11; Menippus 6), but living in the eastern Roman Empire, where Greek language and Roman names were adopted by people of many ethnic backgrounds.

This explains how “the Chaldaeans”—i.e., the two Julians, especially the son—came to compose a body of writings in Greek that is at once thoroughly Greco-Roman, yet clearly positions itself as standing outside and superior to the common mass of traditions. The Oracles revealed that humanity at large was ignorant of their divine Father, and pursued worthless or harmful rites. It was the god-taught theurges, people like Julian, whose ritual expertise could be relied upon, and the gods themselves who taught the truest philosophy.

Other ancient collections of oracles and manuals of “magical” practice were changed at will by scribes and continuously came in and out of circulation, as did many practical texts. But the corpus or oracular verse and prose treatises produced by the Chaldaeans was so impressive that it came to be canonized and copied with the same care as cherished literary works. The Neoplatonists, late antique philosophers from the late 3rd to the 6th century CE, relied upon them as sources of philosophical knowledge equal to, even greater than Plato, and as records of one of the most important traditions of hieratic art (i.e., ritual expertise), called “theurgy”.

That said, the common observation that the Oracles were the “Bible of the Neoplatonists” is misleading. The pagan philosophers never drew a hard and fast distinction between revealed/inspired texts and other important literature. Indeed, the Neoplatonists often quote the Oracles of the gods and the prose writings of the Chaldaeans alongside each other, as complementary authorities, and saw the Chaldaean tradition as a whole as being analogous to others, like the Greek (Orphic and Platonic), Egyptian or Phoenician traditions.

After the end of Neoplatonism, and of pagan intellectual culture at large, interest in the Oracles and Chaldaic treatises subsided. Copies were no longer made, and as with all texts that fail to be copied, they eventually disappeared. Their direct or indirect influence on medieval magic (whether Greek or Arabic) was also negligible. The many similarities that do exist are entirely explainable from the common Hellenistic or Ancient Mediterranean background. Yet the story does not end here.

Sometime in the 5th century CE, the Neoplatonist Proclus wrote a monumental compendium of Chaldaic doctrines and texts, including, it seems, both close textual analysis or exgesis as well as more freely composed sections. This work included quotations from the Chaldaic corpus, the commentary of earlier philosophers (especially Porphyry and Iamblichus), and Proclus’ own interpretations. Many topics that he only alludes to in other works seem to have been treated fully here. I say “seem to” because the compendium no longer survives; but the Byzantine polymath Michael Psellus (11th century CE) still had a copy, or at least parts of the compendium, and has preserved a great deal of information from it.

Between Psellus, the surviving works of Proclus, and some other late antique philosophers, we can still glean much of what was once found in the Chaldaic corpus, both the Oracles and other pieces, what they were understood to mean in late antiquity (if not always the original meaning), and how the Chaldaica were reconciled with the authorities of other traditions. This applies not only to the metaphysics, but also to the practical art of “theurgy”: while we do not have a single theurgic ritual instruction left in full detail, we have enough material to understand how theurgy was understood, and what kind of ritual practices it involved. Since Chaldaic/theurgic rituals seem not to have been too dissimilar from what we find in other sources, like the Greek Magical Papyri, Proclus and the other indirect Chaldaic sources still represent some of the best theory of Hellenistic ritual and magic. They have consequently been drawn on for centuries to make sense of the variety of Ancient Mediterranean “magical” traditions that come down to us.

* The term “Chaldaean Oracles” comes from the Latin ecclesiastical writer Augustine, bishop of Hippo (also known as St Augustine). In Greek, they are almost always called simply the Oracles, or sometimes the Chaldaic Oracles, since in Greek, “Chaldaean” (Khaldaîos) is the term used for people and “Chaldaic” (Khaldaïkós) for things. In English, this distinction also used to be observed (thus Thomas Stanley called his important 1662 book The history of the Chaldaick philosophy), and I think it ought to be again, for the sake of clarity and faithfulness to the Greek.

3 Hekate and the Pophyrian oracles

Hekate, it is clear from the Neoplatonic sources, played an important role in the Chaldaic corpus. But based on this, it has also come to be accepted as possible, even probable, that a number of other oracles ascribed to Hekate are Chaldaic—even though none of the authentic Chaldaic Oracles seem to be in her voice, but are all attributed to the gods in general. (With one possible exception.)

There are, admittedly, a few Chaldaic lines spoken by the Soul (albeit still attributed to the gods in general by the ancient writers quoting them). This was once considered to amount to the same thing as Hekate, but the theory that Hekate is the World Soul in the Chaldaic system has been abandoned even by its most prominent erstwhile supporter, Sarah Iles Johnston. (Why her popular book Hekate Soteira, which argues forcefully for this mistaken interpretation, nevertheless continues to be in print without any revisions, I am at a loss to say.)

The Hekatic oracles wrongly grouped as Chaldaic are nevertheless important, and when taken in their real context (as part of a collection of oracles made by Porphyry, On the Philosophy from Oracles) rather than an imaginary one, they constitute an important point of comparison with the fragments of the Chaldaic corpus, the theories of the Neoplatonists (which are often meant to be applicable generally, not exclusively to Chaldaic beliefs and practices), and other sources of “magical” practice, like the so-called Greek Magical Papyri.

4 “Theurgy”

Theurgy (‘god-working’) is a confusing topic, and can only be approached meaningfully if we distinguish two basic meanings of the word. On the one hand—in Porphyry as well as the later Neoplatonists like Proclus and Damascius (5th/6th centuries CE)—, “theurgy” refers to certain rites (teletaí) practiced only by the theurges, as outlined in the works of Julian the Chaldaean, and those who followed them.

On the other hand—in Porphyry’s student Iamblichus and some of his 4th-century CE followers—it can be a synonym for ritual observances or the “priestly art” or “priestcraft”, hieratikḗ tékhnē, in general. This includes what some would call “magic”, although Damascius defines hieratic more broadly and more appropriately as “service (therapeía) of the gods” (Philosophical History fr. 3 Zintzen), or in other words, worship. The hieratic art includes Chaldaic theurgy, but also such things as the works of itinerant Egyptian priests or the observances at the Oracle of Delphi.

Porphyry of Tyre (3rd–4th century CE) was, as far as we can see, the first Neoplatonist to engage with theurgy. We do not have his commentaries on the works of Julian the Chaldaean, but there are significant fragments of his work On the Return of the Soul, in which he argued that the Chaldaeans’ theurgic arts, and the rites (teletaí) they involved, differed from illicit magic or sorcery (goēteía). The latter bound the soul to the body; the former could purify, if not the immortal soul itself, then the pneuma or spirit, the subtle intermediary between the human body and the soul. This would not guarantee a return of the soul to its divine Father, but it would lead to a better fate after death.

Chaldaic theurgy was not the only kind of ritual practice with which Porphyry concerned himself intellectually. He also created his own collection of oracles (from various sources, but not including the Chaldaic Oracles) with original exegesis, called On the Philosophy from Oracles. In this, he treated many points of what he called “practical theosophy” (i.e., the hieratic art). The perspective of this work was largely Greek. In the Letter to Anebo, he critically engaged with Egyptian priestcraft, and priestcraft in general, by pointing out a number of philosophical problems raised by the prevailing practices.

Iamblichus of Chalcis (3rd–4th century CE), Porphyry’s student, also wrote a commentary on the works of Julian the Chaldaean, which again does not survive. What does survive is his Response to Porphyry (better known by the misleading title “On the Mysteries”, which was coined in the Renaissance), in which he addresses the problems raised in Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo. He does this by giving a general theory of ritual, based on Platonism (as articulated by Plotinus), the Chaldaic teachings and some Egyptian sources. He distinguishes what he indifferently calls hieratic or theurgy from illicit sorcery (goēteía), as did Porphyry, but for him the category of permissible ritual is larger, and he strongly believes that it can do more than merely purify the spiritual vehicle of the soul. In his view, it is capable of actually bringing the soul into connection with the gods.

In Proclus (5th century CE), the most important late Neoplatonist, the meaning of the word “theurgy” is again restricted to Chaldaic rites (teletaí); the generic term is hieratic. Much of his theory of hieratic, to be sure, is inspired by the Chaldaic corpus, but it is meant to hold across the different traditions. Hence, for example, we have a short essay or extract from Proclus On the Hieratic Art According to the Greeks—which some, confusedly, have called a text about theurgy, although it is explicitly about the Greek, not the Chaldaic tradition.