I’m returning to the reading of Iamblichus’s On The Egyptian Mysteries even though our group hasn’t met yet, because I keep thinking about what I said last time — that it’s difficult, based on how he talks about the gods, to determine if he’s talking about drug experiences, UFO encounters, faerie encounters, or meetings with medieval saints in visions. What’s going on here?
I’m reading from chapter five of Iamblichus for this, where he discusses the characteristics of gods and divine souls, while allowing us to imagine or extrapolate the conditions of the daemons and angels and demigods in between gods and divine souls.
But let me back up.
Earlier, in Chapter 3, Iamblichus (who is sometimes given the Egyptian name Abammon) appears to lay out a quite different case about what the gods are, or are not. He’s reluctant to let his questioner (nominally the Greek Neoplatonist, Porphyry) off the hook in saying “First of all, let’s grant that the gods exist.” The gods, Iamblichus says, don’t belong to that kind of category, where we can say for sure that they exist or that they don’t exist. Rather, they appear to be collections of experiences, emotions, and energies.
I spoke about this in one of my earlier entries on Iamblichus, where I contrasted our ideas (in many modern books on magic) about correspondences; a modern witch or magician might lay out some crystals or herbs associated with Mars, and put an iron knife on their altar, and those things represent Mars; they somehow call Mars-energy to that place. But Iamblichus seems to suggest that this is backward; rather, the magician or witch or their temple-space is touched by the god Mars, and consequently the magician or witch is moved to set out a variety of ingredients and objects that carry martial qualities. The communication is from the gods into our reality, rather than the other way around.
That’s a little disorienting.
So that now, when we get to chapter five, and we see how Iamblichus plays with this concept, it’s even more disorienting. Here, at the start of Part II, our author lays out several categories of beings or entities: Gods, Daemons, Demigods or Heroes, and elevated Souls.
- Gods, who are eternal, are wholly a class apart.
- Daemons are made entities, caused by the creative and generative faculties of the gods.
- Demigods or heroes are birthed entities, born out of the forces of life which emanate from the gods.
- Souls, which are brought to some state closer to perfection as a result of processes that draw upon both these forces.
And I wasn’t going to do this, but I don’t see any way around it just yet — which is to make paragraphs of bullet points that explore these four categories. All I’m trying to do here is summarize or bullet-ize Iamblichus’s identifying characteristics, like trying to assemble mugshots of the divinities:
- Gods are eternal beings, in a class apart (which I said already)
- Daemons are made entities, caused by the creative and generative faculties of the gods. They are effectors of purposes — that is, doers of deeds — and exercising guardianship. They bring things into existence, and oversee souls (Holy Guardian Angels? doesn’t say that, not yet), and help souls connect with bodies. Daemons are generally-distributed, they are found throughout the world, and they’re things accomplished by themselves (alone??).
- Demigods are birthed entities, born out of the forces of life which emanate from the gods. They’re involved in life-sustaining work, and promote the reasoning faculty, and direct or guide souls. They also ‘set free from the nativity’ — that is, contact with the heroes liberates souls from the fortunes that can be read in astrology. The heroes’ powers are not generally-distributed, but are concerned with putting similar things with similar ones.
- Souls are brought to some state closer to perfection as a result of processes that draw on the forces of daemons and demigods (to make that ‘both those forces’ more specific). They join like with like, and separate from the unlikeness, and have some powers that are persistent, and augment what they receive from the daemons and the demigods with their own growing powers, and develops through a process of similarity and otherness.
OK, I sort of get this, actually. If the gods are eternal, and are also persistent fields of energies, emotions, and processes, then the daemons are a creation of the gods — but made not begotten, in the same way that one makes a pot or a garment. The Daemons are a kind of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that are the result of the gods (or a god) making something. The Daemons run generative programs of various sorts… and my sense here is that these are sort of like technical skills — this daemon rules carpentry and that daemon rules sewing, and this other daemon knows basic computer programming. I understand the daemon work as having a kind of artifice to it: a making process, but maybe not a lively one. Under the influence of a daemon, you make things — but you tend to make the same things, not creative things but things according to a pattern or a procedure.
And then the Daemons can be contrasted with the demigods. The Demigods are birthed not made, they have a spark of life in them, and they carry not simply technical skills but creative skills. You’re interacting with a demigod — no, the demigod is interacting with you; (remember it’s a reversed paradigm about who’s doing the energy work) — and they direct or guide or inspire us, but don’t rule us. When I make a work bench to the specifications in a popular woodworking magazine, I’m following a daemonic approach; when I carve an elaborate mermaid into a piece of wood freehand and with my own creative abilities, I’m working with a demigod (I think).
When I carve a mermaid into one of the support posts of a new workbench, such that visitors see the workbench and the mermaid as one and the same thing, then I’m working with both the daemonic and the demigod approaches and methods. I’m engaging with both sides of the relationship. And that’s the process that elevates and awakens my soul — and elevates it higher than either the Daemon or the Demigod can go on its own.
What we have here is a Campfire’s Edge model, I think — a taxonomy of spiritual encounters where Iamblichus is able to say that some kinds of spirit encounters bring broad technological or artisanal skills, while others bring material of cultural relevancy. And the place where these two traditions intersect is in the Mysteries — where encounters with both the Daemonic and the Demigod energies and emotions and states of being results in the elevation of the soul. The cultural material is more lively but localized; the technological is more universal but more mechanical, more artificial; and different kinds of spirit-being provide access to new ideas in each of their spheres of influence.
That’s not something to be sneered at. It’s also borne out by what I know of the grimoire tradition: the various demons called through sigils are often called for “skill in geometry” or to help the conjurer “learn the agricultural arts” or to assist with “the scribal arts”. These are the kinds of mechanical/universal technologies that Iamblichus seems to indicate that the daemons bring. So we have a conserved tradition across time — use the mysteries to work with the daemonic line to learn technical and artisanal skills of various kinds, Iamblichus seems to say.
Yet the angels and archangels (which both seem to belong to the category of heroes or demigods as Iamblichus defines them) are called for guidance, and for artistic or social graces and energies. They’re handing out cultural advice; we call them for help with poetry, with music — not universals and mechanical arts, but skills that are more rooted in a culture’s ideas about what’s beautiful, what’s elegant, what’s lovely. This is where the mechanical and the technical and the artisanal is converted into the beautiful and the transcendent and the creative.
This has some bearing on why, in the grimoire tradition, the conjurer is often called upon to summon a controlling angel or higher spirit, who then assists in conjuring and commanding a daemon or lower spirit. The creative force is called first, and then the technical engineering team is put to work on the project. The muse is invited in at the beginning; the question of how and where to add the reinforced concrete to the Frank Gehry design comes later.
Just before going on to discuss the specific apparitions of the gods, demigods, daemons and elevated souls in the Epiphanies or sacred rites, though, Iamblichus lays out a final beautiful reminder of the capacity of the soul:
Every soul has already had numerous encounters with daemons and demigods alike. It’s already been …. attached to? infected by? suffused with? suffumigated by? … a variety of daemons and demigods. It’s part of the reason why the typical human has such a broad range of creative gifts, rational capacities, and emotional and social influences. The purpose of the mysteries, then — that is, the purpose of the initiatory rites — may thus be seen as a process for helping each person draw closer and closer to the sources of their gifts, and to be endowed with new ones… that is, to become more attuned to the creative and technical and rational capacities they already have, and to discover and improve new capacities fairly regularly.
He’s about to move into a discussion of how the awareness of the different kinds of spirits can be used to direct the Mysteries…. which means, Iamblichus is talking about conscious, directed experiments in spirit contact for the purposes of increasing human intelligence, developing human culture, and improving human technology.
He’s talking about using spirit contacts to build a university… no. To build a Library.