Psellus’ intro to the Chaldaeans

Category: Neoplatonism > Chaldaica & Procliana

1 Introduction

Michael Psellus was a Christian philosopher of 11th-century (CE) Constantinople / Byzantium. But his role is quite unlike that of other Christian intellectuals in the transmission of Neoplatonism, since he was neither a ferocious critic, nor simply appropriated the elements he liked. Instead, he was in the first instance a scholar, keenly interested in the thought of Proclus and other Platonists, including Chaldaica (in whatever form exactly he had access to them), despite serious disagreements with them. Even when he is being dismissive of their value, he can usually be relied upon to paraphrase his sources accurately (although not, unfortunately, to give precise bibliographical references).

For an excellent account of Psellus’ position as a philosopher and a Christian, see Graeme Miles, “Psellos and his Traditions”, in: Sergei Mariev (ed.), Byzantine Perspectives on Neoplatonism, 2017. This conscientious and level-headed essay is far preferable to those commentators who, in a paranoid mode of interpretation, wish to make Psellus the crypto-pagan his most hostile contemporaries accused him of being.

The present text shows us especially clearly how Psellus represented the Chaldaeans and Chaldaic lore to his students, in the course of a broader overview of philosophy. He touches on a number of subjects he discusses in more detail elsewhere, but forefronts his own judgment of the Chaldaic doctrines, while in other works his feelings typically remain more subdued.

2 Translation

Another (wisdom) is that of the Chaldaeans, a people who were convinced of a strange polytheistic piety, and also made a more precise study of astronomy (astrologia) than all others. There is also a certain theology which was put together by them in ineffable (writings), consisting of hexameter verses (i.e., the Chaldaic Oracles), which has a meaning impenetrable for the masses.

They say (in the Chaldaic Outlines) that there are seven cosmoi, of which the last/lowest is the material, chthonic, and light-hating one (misophaês), but the first is fiery and most summital. And their theology claims many other strange and unbelievable things [some text missing]. For they make the virtues have their essence from her (i.e., Hecate), and have the souls descend from her, situating her as the middle one of all the gods, being filled with the primary gods and herself filling the secondary gods. But why should I say much about her? For I fear I would hinder you more than help you, because the account of her is ineffable (or ‘unspeakable’, here also in the sense of ‘awful’?). They further believe in the One before all things, and introduce matter as producer of evil (kakías ergátis, perhaps an expression from the Oracles).

They also invented the hieratic art, introduced animal-sacrifice, honored the underworld (katakhtoníoi) gods, and decreed to sacrifice this way or that way. And they lead down those (held to be) gods by them through songs, and bind and release them, as Apuleius compelled Heptáktis (‘the seven-rayed’) not to come to the theurge. This (theurge) was Julian, who accompanied the emperor Marcus (Aurelius) when he campaigned against the Dacae, and who helped the emperor in putting many other things right, and pushed back the Dacae from the Roman borders. For he set up the face of a man made of clay so as to look at the barbarians; and when they drew near it, they were driven away by unendurable lightning bolts cast from it.

The soul, they “drag from the pedestal of seven steps” (i.e., the planetary spheres) – I am now quoting their Oracles – and they command those ascending “not to leave behind the dregs on the precipice of the Earth”. (These are slightly paraphrased quotations from the Oracles, quoted elsewhere in slightly fuller and more comprehensible form, counted as frr. 164 and 158 des Places, respectively).

By mixing assorted things with different materials and forming figurines, they create objects averting (apotrópaia) sicknesses. (Cf. Psellus, What Pagans Believe About Daemons.) But I would rather not tell you the manner of creating them; for you might not follow my model, and actually make use the art after you have learned about it, and then I will appear to be the cause of the evil outcome. For that reason, I set aside further details of their ineffables, since I think this will suffice.

3 Greek text (ed. J. M. Duffy, Michaelis Pselli philosophica minora, from op. 3)

Ἡ δέ γε τῶν Χαλδαίων, γένος οὗτοι εὐσεβεῖν ἀναπεπεισμένοι ἀλλόκοτον καὶ πολύθεον, ἀστρολογίαν δὲ κάλλιον ἁπάντων ἠκριβωκότες. ἔστι δέ τις καὶ θεολογία παρ‘ αὐτοῖς ἐν ἀπορρήτοις συλλεγομένη, δι‘ ἐπῶν μὲν ξυγκειμένη, ἄβατον δὲ τοῖς πολλοῖς νοῦν ἔχουσα.

Φασὶ δὲ καὶ κόσμους ἑπτά, ὧν τὸν ἔσχατον τὸν ὑλαῖον καὶ χθόνιον καὶ μισοφαῆ, πρῶτον δὲ τὸν πύριον καὶ ἀκρότατον. καὶ θεολογοῦσι δὲ πολλὰ μὲν καὶ ἄλλα ἄτοπα καὶ παράδοξα <***>· ἀπὸ γὰρ ταύτης καὶ τὰς ἀρετὰς οὐσιοποιοῦσι καὶ κατάγουσι τὰς ψυχάς, μέσην τε τιθέασι πάντων τῶν θεῶν πληρουμένην μὲν τῶν πρώτων, πληροῦσαν δὲ τὰς δευτέρας. περὶ ἧς τί ἂν πολλὰ λέγοιμι; δέδοικα γάρ, μὴ μᾶλλον ἐντεῦθεν ὑμᾶς βλάψαιμι ἢ ὀνήσαιμι, ἐπεὶ ὁ περὶ ταύτης λόγος ἀπόρρητος. οὗτοι καὶ τὸ πρὸ τῶν πάντων ἓν δογματίζουσι καὶ τὴν ὕλην εἰσάγουσιν ὡς κακίας ἐργάτιν.

Καὶ τὴν ἱερατικὴν τέχνην συνέστησαν καὶ ζῳοθυσίαν εἰσηνέγκαντο καὶ καταχθονίους θεοὺς ἐσεβάσθησαν καὶ τοιῶσδε ἢ τοιῶσδε θύειν ἐθέσπισαν. κατάγουσί τε τοὺς παρ‘ ἑαυτοῖς θεοὺς θελκτηρίοις ᾠδαῖς καὶ δεσμοῦσι καὶ λύουσιν, ὥσπερ τὸν Ἑπτάκτιν ὁ Ἀπουλήιος ὅρκοις καταναγκάσας μὴ προσομιλῆσαι τῷ θεουργῷ· οὗτος δὲ ἦν Ἰουλιανὸς ὁ συστρατεύσας Μάρκῳ τῷ βασιλεῖ ἐπὶ Δάκας στρατεύοντι, ὃς δὴ ἕτερά τε πολλὰ τῷ βασιλεῖ συγκατώρθωσε καὶ τοὺς Δάκας τῶν Ῥωμαϊκῶν ὁρίων ἀπώσατο. πρόσωπον γὰρ ἀνθρώπου πλασάμενος ἐκ πηλοῦ ἔθηκε βλέπειν εἰς τοὺς βαρβάρους· οἱ δὲ ἐπειδὰν αὐτῷ πλησιάσαιεν, κεραυνοῖς ἀφορήτοις ἐκεῖθεν ἐκπεμπομένοις ἠλαύνοντο.

Οὗτοι τὴν ψυχὴν ‘ἑπταπόρου σύρουσι κατὰ βαθμίδος’ – τοῖς γὰρ ἐκείνων λογίοις χρήσομαι – , παραγγέλλουσί τε τοῖς ἀναγομένοις ‘μηδὲ τῷ τῆς γῆς κρημνῷ σκύβαλον καταλείπειν’. μιγνύντες δὲ τὰ μεμερισμένα καὶ διαφόροις ὕλαις ἀνδρείκελα πλάττοντες ἀποτρόπαια νοσημάτων ἐργάζονται. τὸν δὲ τρόπον οὐκ ἂν εἴποιμι ὑμῖν τῆς πλάσεως· οὐ γάρ με ἴσως μιμήσεσθε, ἀλλὰ μαθόντες χρήσεσθε τῇ τέχνῃ, κᾆτα ὑμῖν αὐτὸς τοῦ κακοῦ φανήσομαι αἴτιος. διὰ τοῦτο καὶ τὰ πλείω τῶν ἀπορρήτων τούτων παρῆκα, ἀρκεῖν καὶ ταῦτα ἡγούμενος.