Iamblichus: The Essence of Gods

My book group is meeting again today to discuss Iamblichus, and I’m re-reading various sections to see what I think about this and that. Iamblichus

Today, we’re beginning the discussion of Iamblichus/Abammon proper, instead of just the introductory letter.  The first portion of this part of the book discusses the substance and essence of the gods, the demigods, the half-gods, the heroes, the archangels and the angels, as well as that of the soul.

I’ve read the equivalent of about 60 pages of text here, and the first portion, about the essences, is not very interesting to me.  Still, we tried to make sense of it.

The Essence of the Gods

First off, Iamblichus/Abammon takes issue with Porphyry, who says, “let’s admit the existence of the gods.”  I/A responds by saying, it’s not really an issue of existence or non-existence. We’re contingent, dependent beings, us humans — and the gods, aren’t. They’re not in the same categories that we are, and we aren’t really in a position to judge who or what they are.

He goes on to say that, when we look at Gods, Demigods, Demons and Souls, we can identify a range of characteristics, but it’s still not a matter of rationality or discussion points.  There aren’t a series of contingent or dependent classes — this isn’t a Great Chain of Being situation, it’s more like a series of fundamental particles (though he doesn’t use the language of fundamental particles, that’s on us, this reading group).  We tend to think of the gods as summations of powers, but really we have to think of the powers and emblems of the gods as consequences of their presence

One of our number is an astrologer, and we came up with the following example that we think Iamblichus would like.  When someone picks up a saw, and starts cutting wood by hand (as opposed to with power tools), they get hot and sweaty and red in the face.  They may get fierce or frustrated and angry that the wood isn’t cutting as fast as they’d like.  There is a lot of energy and motion that goes into the cutting, too.  And in an astrological sense, all of this work gradually invokes the powers of Mars — who represents hot and sweaty and red and anger and cutting.

But Iamblichus says this isn’t the case.  Rather, he indicates the opposite.  When Mars the god is present, you’re likely moved to cut wood — to get hot and sweaty — to use muscle power — to work out — to get fierce or angry.  The energies, essences and motions of Mars become present, because the god isn’t substance — he’s energy and power and action.  But these aren’t signs of the god’s presence (which is how we might think of it today); these actions and energies and movements are the god’s presence.

It’s a very different way of thinking about the world — and you can sort of see where our modern list of correspondences comes from, which are ways of appealing to the gods to notice your prayers and your work… but they’re also ways that a given spirit’s energies manifest in the world.

Transcendance and Immanence

The energies, the emotions, the actions are transcendent; the way they manifest in human behavior is through a series of intermediaries: demigods, daemons, archons, angels, archangels, heroes, and uncontaminate souls (Iamblichus uses the word psyche for soul, so psychic powers  are soul powers).  There’s an unbroken, whole ‘chain of being’ from each of the gods through daemons, demigods, and uncontaminated souls into our lived experience as contingent beings, both changing other things and subject to change. The gods, Iamblichus asserts, are timeless and eternal and unchanging, and belong to a unity — while we souls who manage bodies and live in a world of changes are of time, and subject to life and death, and constantly changing.

As our conversation progressed, I realized that a lot of this sounded like the very little that I know about voudoun and other traditions where a human ‘horse’ is ridden by a spirit being of some kind, a ‘rider’.  The spirit rides on the human, and the human is transformed. Iamblichus talked about the ‘otherness’ and the ‘lack of knowledge’ that is involved when one is in a state of union with the divine; our scientist spoke about how the search for fundamental particles keeps resolving into smaller and smaller units, smaller and smaller building blocks: first it was atoms, and then atoms were shown to be the ‘horse’ to the ‘riders’ of ‘protons’ and ‘electrons’ and ‘neutrons’, and now these particles are shown to be horses themselves for the riders called ‘quarks’, and these quarks are the horses to still other riders with names like bosons and mesons…   Our astrologer pointed out that in traditional astrological magic, one puts on a series of costumes and performs a series of activities at specific times or in specific places to bring about one’s alignment with the god(s) or planetary spirits, in order to induce them to assist you.  This aligns you with them, and calls their energies, powers, and actions into you; but it also puts you more in alignment with them, such that’s it’s harder and harder to see them at work.

Coming back to the Voudoun (Voodoo? Voudou? Voudon?) analogy, I found myself sensing that for Iamblichus, he’s arguing or exploring the idea of layers or levels of possession:  when you’re talking with a friend about deep matters of religion, the gods, the soul, the spirit, you’re both possessed by the spirit of Hermes, or one of the intermediate daemons, gods, demigods, heroes or souls that mediate the conversation.  Hermes is, in a sense, the conversation itself.  Except it’s not Hermes, precisely:  if the conversation profoundly and permanently changes both of you, then maybe it’s the god himself; if it just engenders a long-term but not permanent change, then maybe its one of the demigods or archons that acts on Hermes’ behalf.

Hierarchies and Degrees of Possession

What we’re seeing here is the idea of a hierarchy… and the idea of legions of spirits under a range of presidencies and dukes and governors and princes.

We’re also seeing a kind of big-table animism at work, a web of eternal powers who stretch out an unseen web that is capable of vibrating and tuning the world of human perceptions.

We didn’t get as far as chapter 6, and while I read up through Chapter 5 in the Alexander Wilder translation I use, we didn’t discuss this later material in any detail in our group.  But I still found myself stunned by some material.  Here’s why.

Grays or Gods?

In these sections, Iamblichus/Abammon is discussing the apparitions of the various classes of spirit at the rites of initiation — which themselves appear to be of various kinds, one of which makes you one of the Mystae, or dedicants; and one which makes you an acolyte or lower than the Mystae.  And then there are the Epopts, those who have gone through the highest level of initiation; and it is at these rites that the gods, half-gods, daemons, heroes, and elevated souls appear.

So first, we have a hierarchy of human initiates (lowest to highest):

  1. acolytes, title not given
  2. Mystus-Mysta-Mystae, the dedicants of the mysteries
  3. Epopt, the innermost or uppermost initiate.

And second we have a hierarchy of spirits (sorta-lowest to sorta-highest):

  1. Daemons
  2. Souls
  3. Heroes
  4. Angels
  5. Archangels
  6. Half-Gods
  7. Gods

Of late, I’ve been thinking about Gordon’s assertions in Star.Ships (Amazon) and Chaos Protocols (Amazonand elsewhere that if you squint in the right way at visions of Saints in the middle ages, and at 20th century reports of UFOs and alien encounters, and at faerie stories from Germany and England and Ireland and Scotland and elsewhere, you are able to see emerging similarities by a kind of analogy or categorical thinking.

Think about the typical alien encounter.  A tremendous light emerges from the sky, and approaches a moderately reliable witness.  There is a craft or a ship, or a thing being ridden, and the light disobeys the normal rules of physics as presently understood. The vehicle lands, and a being approaches the witness. There is a message of hope and goodwill (or sometimes terror and chaos), and some subtle or extraordinary contact.  The  visit ends suddenly with flashes of light and memory gaps.

Think about the typical encounter with a medieval saint.  There is a flash, and a holy person surrounded by a nimbus of light appears. There is a message of peace and of holiness, there is a curing of a disease sometimes, sometimes enemies are put to flight, and there is a mass hallucination as the saint ascends into the skies or some other wonder appears.

Think about the typical encounter with a faerie. There’s a flash of light, and a door opens in a mountain or a hillside, and a stream of faerie beings emerges from the golden doorway, each shimmering with light. There is a conversation between the witness and the faerie king or the faerie queen, perhaps there is a challenge or a contest, there is a victory and a reward (or a punishment, in far too many stories).  There are gaps in the memory, strange encounters, and the faerie return behind the door in the mountain, which is never again located.

That’s what this part of Iamblichus reads like, to me.  That’s what I’m reading.  I’m reading about a series of rites or rituals in which the gods, demons, angels and archangels and higher souls, are conjured and pled into attending (especially at the elevation of the Mystae to the ranks of the Epopts), somehow. And then these higher spirits appear.

Each of the classes of beings has their own particular normative set of experiences, too.  The presence of the gods invokes in the attending Mystae a sense of peace, an unshakable calm, and an extraordinary (and permanent) serenity that can never be shaken.  The gods are immobile, but endowed with extraordinary inherent beauty, and those who see the gods come down are forever after changed.  The Archangels and the Angels have similar effects in the candidates for initiation, but the serenity is not always permanent, the calm not always inviolate, the immobility not completely sure.  Likewise, the Heroes and the Elevated Souls bring only a temporary calm, a temporary peace.  The Demons bring violent mobility and terror and chaos.

Cladistics of Spirit Encounters

Maybe he’s not just talking about encounters with otherworldly beings, either. Maybe Iamblichus/Anebo is also talking about drug experiences: each of the classes of spirit is awakened or invoked by the presence of a particular drug in the candidate’s blood stream (or delivered through the incenses burned during the rituals).  The god-rituals cause permanent brain-change that results in initiates having an extraordinary calm and peaceful demeanor that remains sure for the rest of their lives; the demon-rituals call forth violent mobility and experiences of deep terror.  We’ve all certainly heard stories about people who’ve experienced amazing drug-trips, who seem permanently and happily changed by the experience; and the news has practically made an industry out of horrifying drug-trips-gone-wrong.  So I hear what Iamblichus/Anebo is saying, through the eyes and ears of a modern reader — and I see a lot of things going on here from the culture’s modern fringe reporting, whether The Golden Legend of the Middle Ages,  or the faerie stories of the fringes of the British Isles, or the counter-cultural acid trips of the 1960s.

In any case, here Iamblichus is starting to lay out a cladistics of spirits.  Cladistics, of course, is a thing in evolutionary biology. It’s the process of classifying plants and animals according to percentages of shared characteristics, usually at the genetic level but sometimes at the level of visible traits.  Iamblichus isn’t taking the DNA of these entities, but he is laying out a methodology for determining if you’re handling a god or a demon, an angel or a soul.

But he’s not just talking about spirits, either. He’s talking about the effects the spirits have on an observer or a group of observers.  These encounters are not (usually) uniform — people react to the presence (or possession?) of the gods in varying degrees.

If you see these kinds of effects, it might be an angel; but these other kinds of effects are probably an uncontaminated soul.  These other kinds of effects belong to demigods and gods, but this sort of thing is probably a demon.

It’s thought-provoking to me that he cares not at all about the manifestations we care about in UFO encounters or faerie stories — the appearance of the entity is less important than the effects on the witness:  an indwelling sense of calm and peace, the soul visible in the eyes, the light of the eyes, the sense of otherness or otherworldliness present, and so on.

Gordon has reminded me (all of us) that it’s often the case that in the search for the nuts and bolts of UFO encounters, we forget to inquire of the witnesses what the far-reaching effects are of their encounters. Sometimes it’s a permanent horror and terror; sometimes it’s long-lasting effects that make the witness into a better human being; sometimes it’s a life-long quest to achieve certain kinds of goals or objectives.  Iamblichus is speaking to that phenomenon.  Encounters with the gods and spirits, for him, are about the change in the viewer, not in the gods (who are transcendent and unchanging, in any case).

This is also the case with Near Death Experiences (NDEs), again as I’ve learned from Gordon in his blog and podcast at Rune Soup. NDEs don’t result in the death of the patient, but often result in long-term or permanent changes in the personality, life goals, and mindset of the person who experiences death and return — either in an initiation, or in a chance encounter with death and rebirth.

And part of me feels like I’m finding a set of procedures for assessing and understanding these kinds of encounters with deities, spirits, souls and otherworldly beings here in a book nearly two thousand years old.

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