Iamblichus: letter from Porphyry


I’ve joined a book reading group, of sorts… more specifically, we’re looking at some Neoplatonic thinkers and trying to get a handle on what they believed and how they go about interacting with their ideas. First up is Iamblichus, On the Egyptian Mysteries. Today was supposed to be our first meeting. We wound up having only two-thirds of the group present, and consequently we tried not to read very far.

We only read the first chapter, the “Letter from Porphyry to Anebo (Iamblichus)” which purports to be a letter from that important Neoplatonist to a Greco-Egyptian priest, asking him to explain what’s going on with the theurgical rites and rituals of ancient Egypt. Later on, Anebo/Iamblichus will respond, but for today, we focused on what the big questions are.

Porphyry has some big questions. First off, he says, (as we paraphrased) there are gods. Let’s not make any bones about their existence. But what are they, exactly? Are they superior beings, or figments of the mind? Why can some make visible apparitions, and some only affect us intellectually or in the imagination or folly? How is it that their rites require us to be in a state of sexual and dietary purity, to command them…. and yet we can then command the gods to give us access to all sorts of things that are supposedly unjust?

And why does divination work? I mean, first off what is it, and why does sortilege or astrology generate useful results some of the time, while at other times it’s junk? Why are some rites and rituals and ceremonies effective? Is it the invocations, or the position of the stars? Why are some rites inane, and others are full of deep meaning? Why do talismans, dedicated to gods or spirits or the mighty heroes, sometimes work? How is it that the gods and spirits do these things? And most of all, why is it that regular performance of these rites, and the use of these ceremonial objects, and the praying of these prayers, lead people into the knowledge of and communication with their guardian daemons? Let’s consider whether these daemons are real or fake… but why is it that the transformation in the person is real, regardless of the real or fake daemons? Why is it that, whether these be one spirit or many, that the person so granted knowledge becomes calmer, purer, and more fully himself or herself?

It occurred to us, first of all, that these were the questions we continue to ask today. That at their core, leaving aside Porphyry’s flowery language, the typical pagan or magician wonders about these things.

Second, I was reminded of Gordon’s recent course on the Solomonic grimoires. These are some of the same questions raised or implied there… what parts of these books work? Are the spirits real? Why do some invocations work, and some don’t? What belief system works here, and what parts of this are performative? Does visual appearance matter? Can you get good results even if the rite itself is inane and archaic? How do we command these forces which are supposedly beyond us anyway?

It’s a lot of good questions. And they’re questions that should be constantly raised by any magician or pagan… or even a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu. There’s no guarantee of answers, of course, but he questions themselves lead to many more questions than answers.

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