Iamblichus: Recognizing Spirits

I’m reading Iamblichus, On the Egyptian Mysteries, with some friends.  As a group, we’ve read the letter and chapter two, but time and circumstances have prevented us from meeting as often as we’d like to discuss the rest.  In the meantime, I’ve been reading ahead, and trying to get a sense of his thinking and philosophy.

IamblichusI’m currently working on chapters six, which is about the boastful nature of the gods, and about the origins of divination as a system of thought.

In chapter six, Iamblichus lays out a central problem, that the gods, nor their daemons and related demigods, heroes and ascended souls, ever pretend to be more than they are.  The honest ones are genuinely aware of their own abilities, and their limitations, and they discuss those limits with the Beholders (the attendees) of the Theurgic rites.


There are angels, spirits, daemons, and related demigods and heroes and ascended souls who don’t tell the truth.  These entities are boastful; they’re not always honest about who or what they are.  They do puff themselves up, and they do present themselves as being more important than their true place in the web of being might suggest.  I’m reminded of the entities in the Tripitika, and in The Monkey King, and in other Chinese Buddhist texts, where various entities are empowered as great and powerful deities, and have the capacities of powerful deities — but they’re specifically described as unenlightened, and thus unable to be entirely truthful with mortals about what their skills and powers are.  It’s only later, for example, that the Monkey King himself becomes a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint — he was already a deity, but at the end of the story he’s both a deity and an enlightened being.

In a similar vein, Iamblichus is saying that there are spirits and intermediary beings who have the powers of gods but don’t necessarily have the ethics, morals or honesty of the genuinely good.  This is ironic, of course, because given that these beings are genuinely able to see the larger reality, or at least more of it than humans do, they should be aware of some level of ethical responsibility, of the need to be honest about one’s identity.   Yet they’re not… which says something about the identity of daemons as a class, or about the reality of being human, or both.  Both, is my guess.

Accordingly, we have to learn to recognize the difference between gods, demigods, angels, archons, ascended souls and daemons… not by what they say, but by the light that they give off, by the experiences and emotions that they engender in us, and the transformations that they inculcate in the human observers.

So, we can observe:

  • The ‘thinness’ of the fire around the gods, felt but not seen; the host of archangels that precede them and follow them, and the host of angels that crowd them;
  • The archangels, preceded by angels in a line, and followed by them, and accompanied by them;
  • The angels, who show themselves capable of what Iamblichus calls ‘peculiar operations of their order’;
  • The good daemons, who present their own works for our contemplation and consideration;
  • the avenging daemons, who display forms of wrath and anger;
  • the other evil daemons, who appear as monsters, blood-sucking and fierce wild animals;
  • the ruling Archons, who appear as themselves along with whole regions of the cosmos;
  • the other Archons, who display the disordered chaos of matter;
  • the purified soul is seen as a complete shape, whole and without much form, but also clearly defined; it is luminous to the degree that it is purified; and shows itself not by its boasts but its operations.
  • the degenerate soul is also a complete shape, but it is bowed or hunched over, and bound by emblems of its punishment and torment, and weighed down by spirits pulling it into underworld realms;  and daemons surround them with the symbols of their own authority, showing that these souls are properly punished.

Now there’s a number of ways to interpret all of this.  One is to regard them as “lights in the sky’ or “lights in the wilderness” phenomena.  We could thus interpret these as UFO-type phenomena: a god, or giant light, is accompanied by a range of smaller lights, which are themselves surrounded by still-smaller lights — a ‘mother ship’ or ‘aircraft carrier’ surrounded by a flytilla of battleships, destroyers, PT boats and other semi-autonomous craft.   An Archangel is a single large light, with a string of smaller lights before and behind, and so on.

But this explanation breaks down when we look at the Archons and ‘lesser beings’ among these higher forms.  Because here, we have experiences that appear to be rooted in natural experiences, or hallucinations.  Are they drug-induced? Are these experiences of the gods obtained under the influence of entheogenic plants?   In some ways, it’s a better fit for the experience than UFOs in the sky: the Gods with their archangels and angels are seen in the midst of a crowd, rather like a head of state surrounded by their retinue of advisors and security personnel, are transcendent experiences involving encounters with multiple non-human entities in the same event; the encounters with daemons are nightmare experiences that frighten the observer/participant into a state of shock; the degenerate soul encounters little besides their own misery.

How is that you get one, and not the other, kind of experience?  How can we be assured of having the positive experience of the god, and not of the degenerate soul?  Iamblichus doesn’t really give an answer to this, except to say that the flaws which lead one to have a deceptive demigod or wrathful daemon are usually, the humans’ fault.  Some symbol wasn’t correctly placed during the rite, or it was left behind in the storage room, or it was left out from an earlier ritual instead of being put away.  It’s kind of like Timothy Leary’s idea of set, setting, and dosage.  If the setting is right, i.e., all the symbols placed in their correct places, and attention drawn to them in the right ways, the ritual brings us into contact with the god(s). Otherwise, we meet the wrong spirits — or maybe we DO meet the right spirits, but it’s by accident rather than by deliberate plan.

And on this point, Iamblichus appears to be firm.  It’s possible to meet the gods through acts of contemplation, but even then, it’s the gods’ reaching out to us which effects the transformation of the human being.  Our rites and rituals and playacting don’t change the gods’ relationship with us; it’s the god’s action which changes the relevant parts of the humans.  On the other hand, it’s the performance of the rites — the complete rites, not just the occasional performances — that draws us into the gods’ orbits, that involves the gods in our lives, that eventually draws us into the encounter with them.

Even though the performance of the rites doesn’t affect the gods at all, being constantly exposed to the symbols of the gods makes us susceptible to noticing them when they arrive. This is not about thinking your way into a relationship with a god or gods, it’s beyond the left of active thinking or intellectual discourse.  It’s about unconscious transformation of the self as a suitable Beholder of the gods.

It’s funny to me that Iamblichus says nothing about practice, nor about habitual attendance at the rites.  For him, it’s about the encounters with the symbols, the emblems of the gods, and the encounters with the intermediaries who regularly attend the rites.  It seems to me that Iamblichus is talking about the necessity of developing the habit of thought which make it possible to see the gods, by regular encounters with their insignia and emblems and symbolic actions.  But this isn’t how he explains it.


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