Iamblichus: Initiatory Benefits

IamblichusI’ve been reading Iamblichus, though my little reading group hasn’t met in a while.  Near the end of chapter five, the Egyptian neoplatonist has some things to say about the benefits of initiation:

Moreover, the benefits acquired from the manifestations, are neither all alike, nor do they have the same fruits. The advent of the god imparts to us health of body, virtue of soul, purity of mind, and indeed, to speak to the point, the leading of everything in us upward to its own first principles. It not only takes away the cold and destructive quality in us, but it augments the vital warmth and makes it more potent and predominant. It likewise brings everything into accord with the soul and mind. The light not only shines in the mental constitution, but it also exhibits that which is not body as body; to the eyes of the soul through those of the body.

So, when we’re in the presence of the (a?) god, we get bodily health, soul virtue, mental clarity, and a kind of decontamination of our selves and our souls.  We grow warmer and less destructive, more human, less cold.  A certain light shines out of the eyes; we’re more bodily aware, more filled with light.

Yeah… there’s a pattern emerging here.  From a psychological standpoint, when we’re in the presence of certain symbols, certain emblems of a god to whom we have a generally positive emotional connection, that connection is going to be heightened.  We’re going to feel healthier, more soul-balanced, more aware, more holy, more caring and compassionate, more affected by the apparent presence of that god.

But that’s not what Iamblichus is saying.  Rather, he’s saying that the presence of the god comes first, remember?  That the people who are able to perceive the god in a given mystery are overcome by these energies, these emotions which are the hallmarks of the god’s presence. Thus, these Beholders (the humans witnessing the rites and rituals) receive these benefits from the presence of the god: health, soul wholeness, virtue, mental clarity, decontamination, and so on.  The person relaxes, becomes more themselves, more integrated, less uncaring or unfeeling.

Iamblichus suggests that the presence of the god has a permanent affect upon the soul of the beholding human.  This very much sounds like an invincibility, a permanent effect, such as Gordon describes in The Chaos Protocols.  Interesting.  No, rather thought-provoking, I’d say.

It’s not all fun and games, though:

The coming of the archangels likewise brings the same benefits, but it does not give them at all times, nor to all persons, nor such as are sufficient, or complete, or that may not be taken away; nor does the light shine in a manner equal to what is beheld at the manifestations of the gods. The presence of the angels dispenses benefits as if making a distribution of them, and the energy through which it is manifested comes far short of including in itself a perfect light.

Again, this hierarchy reveals its head.  The archangels have similar effects to the gods, but not everyone present receives those effects.  Those effects aren’t permanent; they’re long-lasting, but they can be disrupted.  The angels have a limited quantity of these gifts to dispense; so some get all of them, while some get none, and some get a range in between.

Again, I’m reminded of drug-trips, and UFO encounters.  Some encounters with unusual molecules are utterly strange and utterly transformative. Some are less transformative, and still others are only partially transformative. And some of these experiences can in fact be forgotten, becoming only hazy memories.

The hierarchy continues:

That of the dæmons weighs down the body and chastens it with diseases, drags down the Soul into the realm of nature, and also fails to remove from bodies the sensibility born with bodies, detains in this region those who were hastening toward the fire, and does not set free from the bonds of Fate. The appearing of the half-gods is similar in various respects to that of the dæmons, but it differs in this respect, that it arouses the individual to noble and important deeds.

And also, aren’t some people who encounter UFOs or take massive quantities of the weird atomic structures also afflicted with disease? Some chemistries are carcinogenic; so, allegedly, are some UFO contactee populations.  Some molecules (in some people) cause fascinating side effects like arousal or heightened perceptions of touch or taste or smell or sight; or cause alterations of these experiences. These mysteries are, effectively, entertainments, aren’t they?  The people who encounter daemons are not encountering divine forces, and they’re not being hauled out of ordinary reality, though Iamblichus allows that some individuals become awakened to their potential as humans and go on to do good and great things as a result.  There’s a transformation, but less of one than we might suppose.

So is Iamblichus talking about psychoactive substances or is he talking about gods and spirits?  Is there a difference?  How do we tell, from two thousand years on from his time?

And what about ‘bad trips’? Do the gods ever cause bad trips?  Yes, actually, it appears that they do:

The display of the cosmic archons at the autopsia imparts advantages of a general character and everything pertaining to the business of life; and that of the archons of the realm of matter extends benefits incident to the sphere of matter, and such works as pertain to the earth. Still further, moreover, the Vision of the Souls that are uncontaminate and established in the order of angels is elevating in its influence and salutary to the soul. It likewise imparts a sacred hope and bestows those benefits to which a sacred hope aspires. But the Vision of Souls of a different quality produces a tendency downward into the sphere of generated existence, corrupts the fruits of hope, and fills the Beholders with Perturbations that nail them fast to corporeal conditions.

The cosmic archons, the archons of the realm of matter, general character advantages, and the business of life…. is Iamblichus talking about ‘social networking’ here?  “Remember me? We attended the Egyptian mysteries in the consulate of Gaius Julius, and we had a great party.”  That feels like what he’s talking about in the first part here, almost like fraternity brothers who, as a result of a shared partaking of a mystery become more closely aligned with one another and less likely to engage in terrible behavior, at least toward one another…

On the other hand, uncontaminate souls and “souls of a different quality” and certain kinds of daemons cause strong sense perceptions and fill the observers with perturbations, with hopeless imagery, and with weariness at ‘generated existence’.  The term ‘generated existence’ feels a bit like an idiom for something…  I think about other generated existences, like the world inside of a CAD/CAM architectural diagram, and I wonder if he’s not talking about the kind of strong hallucinations that lead one to believe that the world is some sort of an artifact… a made thing.

Is Iamblichus talking about the kinds of experiences that lead one to have a perception of the handiwork of the Demiurge, the craftsman/artisan deity who makes the world?  Isn’t this a kind of drug-trip experience that’s pretty common?

Maybe it would help to review a few of the drug encounter stories I know about, and see if there’s a parallel here.  I remember reading a number of books about ayahuasca trips, (Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice comes to mind) which sounded like this sort of experience — if I remember correctly, Plotkin had weird visions on his ayahuasca encounters in which he was terrorized by cars.  He returned to America and in the book established a variety of carbon-offset schemes, by which Americans could purchase forest land equivalent to their driving habits. He did this as a result of his frightening visions of cars, and of the ‘little green people’ in those visions who warned him that doing something about cars soon was essential.  This seems to have something in common with the Demigod experience — frightening visions, but also the impetus to do something noble.

What others? Strong sensory experiences.  Sounds a bit like Hunter S. Thompson.  Divine changes — godlike encounters that lead to permanent brain change. Stanley Krippner, Jefffrey Kreipl.  There’s an identifiable range here, isn’t there?

What about UFOs? Thanks to Gordon for continually expanding my reading list, of course, but Encounters with Star People by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke (and the successor volumes) has reams of stories that fit into all of these categories, too.  Those are all collected from American Native peoples, but it’s a common feature of the genre of story — from highly-sensory and terrifying visions of vivisection, of sexual and rectal examinations, all the way through encounters with beings who almost echo the angelic “be not afraid” message… or the transformative display of lights and color and action and beauty and LOVE! and Compassion! that accompanies some of these stories.  Again, there’s a range.

Overall, I think that Iamblichus is laying out a typology of forms of consciousness, and specifically consciousness-types as they’re experienced in ritual. There’s no evidence that he’s talking about the appearance of gods and deities specifically… but given that we can’t tell whether he’s talking about drug-hallucinations, or visions of UFOs or Faeries… it’s apparent to me at least that he’s less concerned about the physical expression of these entities, than what these entities suggest about the nature of reality.  But by presenting these states of consciousness as reactions to the presence of objectively real (more real than us) external beings, he’s identifying that the varieties of sacred experience have a reality all their own.

There’s an ordinary, everyday consciousness.  There’s a range of consciousnesses ‘above’ and ‘below’ that.  The ‘above’ ones are usually visions of light and energy and strong emotion, leading to changed emotional and physical states. The ‘below’ ones are strongly sensual and experiential, rooted in bodily experience and horrifying visions.  Some of these states of consciousness lead people to change their fate; some don’t.  Some of these states of consciousness awaken people to heroic possibilities; some don’t.

In a sense, Iamblichus is saying that we’ll know that the gods are present by the fruit which grows out of their worshippers.


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