Iamblichus: Divination

Iamblichus 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.  I’m about to start in on chapter seven, which is an examination of divination in the context of what Iamblichus has been talking about — the presence of the gods in the Theurgic Rites.

First of all, Iamblichus says that divination or prognostication of the future is a divine capacity rather than a human one; that it’s improved by frequent attendance or performance of the Theurgic Rites; and that it’s not the result of a person having a peculiar nature nor resulting from side effects of a peculiar nature — that is, it’s not the result of psychic or physiological gifts, gender, sexual orientation, or mental weirdness.  Neither is it the product of mental training or intellectual study. Nor is it the byproduct of racial upbringing, nor of bloodlines.  It’s a thing that comes from the gods, first of all, and that is improved by more frequent contact with the gods through Theurgical rituals.


The first form of divination considered is the dream. Iamblichus allows that some dreams are false, and other dreams are true, and that we are often able to distinguish the highly-memorable ‘god-sent’ dreams that provide foreknowledge of the future from the false dreams.  The ‘god-sent’ dream usually involves a sense of spirits standing in a circle around the bed; or sometimes a single spirit encompasses a sleeping human in a circle so that the spirit is invisible to all. These god-sent dreams are sometimes accompanied by a rustling sound; they set us free from the ill conditions of soul or of mind or of body; they come upon us during the period between full sleep and full wakefulness.

And they are sometimes accompanied by torpor or seizures of stillness.  A light suffuses the eyes, such that the person cannot move their eyes even after achieving wakefulness. The senses come awake, and the person is able to perceive the god or gods or intermediary spirits, but not move in their presence.

Iamblichus is talking about sleep paralysis as a divine mystery.  We usually associate sleep paralysis with the ‘hag attacks’ which are a more common variant of this experience, but Iamblichus is exploring this idea not as a frightening monster coming upon us, but the presence of a god surrounding and suffusing us — perhaps a terrifying experience, but one which should be regarded as a source of healing and wholeness, of personal transformation toward healthiness of mind and body.  That’s very different than the literature of modern occultism and psychic research, which tends to view these incidents as dangerous or exceptionally frightening.

Iamblichus concludes this section by warning us against assuming that the dream world is somehow more real than the waking world; or assuming that the waking world is more real than the dreaming world. They are of a piece with one another.  We should not assume “we are asleep” when we’re awake, or that the gods are not capable of increasing our perceptiveness in the dreaming world.   What we affect or change in the dreaming world, we affect to a degree in the waking world.  He compares the dreaming life to an ideal in which we are separated from the body in the same way that a prisoner is freed from his fetters. We have capacities of movement and effectiveness that are greatly enhanced, just as the prisoner has greater freedom by the removal of his fetters.

And here, Iamblichus gets really NeoPlatonic, I think.  For him, the soul contains all of the principles of the whole sphere of generated matter — that is, the cosmos.  The mind can only hold some of this at a time, or the whole of it for short periods of time; but the capacity for foretelling the future arises from the fact that we carry this set of first principles in our souls, and are capable of working with that model a little bit at a time to understand the future a little bit at a time.  When we work with this set of principles on our own, we’re capable of understanding the future in a limited capacity; when we unite these capacities which we have, with the capacities of the gods, we are able to achieve a degree of startling insight into the future.  We are capable of healing diseased bodies through divine sleep, or uncovering new arts or new sciences, and to gaze into deep time both forwards and backwards.  We’re also able to think categorically about events in time and space, and to resolve our opinions about events in new ways by comparison and categorization and managing those ideas. We come to conclusions about the institution of new customs, too; or make decisions about questions of law and justice.  Divine sleep makes the disorderly, orderly; and resolves chaotic matters into clear processes.


And then Iamblichus starts talking about possession, contrasted with sleep.  The divine rapture of possession is similar to sleep, in that the person ceases being aware of themselves on some level; but is also attuned to the god’s activity.  They’re fully awake, and yet not fully engaged in sensing the experience of their own lives.

How is the true possession to be understood?

First, Iamblichus says, they’re giving their lives up as a vehicle or organ for the gods who inspire them.  They exchange human life and experience for the divine life, or carry on their own life as an expression of the divinity.  They don’t act exclusively by sense. They’re not watchful in the same way that those are who have had their bodily senses turned up.  They don’t study the future. They’re deliberate rather than impulsive.  On the other hand, they’re not self-aware, either of their past existence as people or as present-tense humans.  They don’t use their intelligence on their own behalf, and they don’t put forth any superior knowledge of their own.  THey’re not burned by fire, or if they are, they don’t notice it.  THey’re not animalistic, in the sense that they’re not aware of their human-animal nature.  They don’t experience pain in the same way that people aware of their humanness do: when spitted on spikes, they don’t feel that; they don’t feel axes biting into their shoulders; they don’t feel knives cutting their arms; none of these things upset them and they barely notice these things happening.  They go places that humans can’t normally go, like into fires or raging rivers.  Their minds are so wholly given over to the god that they have no thought for themselves, but the divine presence settles on them in such a way that they can do things, and avoid feeling things, that would wreck them in their ordinary mind-state.

I’m reminded, as I read this, of grainy YouTube videos of Voudon and Santeria ceremonies where people are ridden as ‘horses’ by the Lwa.  It feels like we’re reading here, in a Graeco-Egyptian text about 2000 years old, about spiritual practices that are common in the African diaspora today.  Or Spanish men getting incredibly worked up and pushed into altered states during the celebration of Holy Week.  Or Shia devotees cutting themselves during the spiritual reënactments of the murder of Ali and his followers.  Or modern Aztecas enacting folk dances for their Catholic saints which are so intense that they become mind-altering.  Which means that there’s not really as much of a divergence between Mediterranean and European practices around magic and religion, and African practice, and American practice. It’s really no different among Evangelical Christians of certain stripes, who begin speaking in tongues or writhing on the floor during certain states of ecstasy.  Which I suppose isn’t unusual, but it’s probably unexpected among some readers. Still, people are people no matter where they are; the cultural framework around the event may be different, but some of the underlying experience is probably not.

These states of being, Iamblichus says, are multiplied, as the divine inbreathing may be observed as a state of rising into the air, or the body changing shape, or the voice becoming either more or less musical, or becoming alternately silent or irregular. There is a perfection observed in movement either in dance or in ordinary movement, an intensity of experience, in the person who is divinely possessed; or they may shriek and howl in ways that are totally unlike music.

Yeah, this all sounds familiar when we consider the wide variety of religious experience, doesn’t it?  It’s interesting to me that Iamblichus hasn’t said anything about the presence of drugs or plants liquified and consumed, or smoked or inhaled, in these Theurgic Rites — but his discussions of the presence of the Gods is mostly about altered states of consciousness so far.  And this alternate state of consciousness is achieved in many ways — through the performance of rituals for the gods, or through the use of dance or dream, or through induced experiences…. the method of reaching the altered state appears to matter less than the state itself.

Iamblichus goes on to discuss how the Beholders (the attendees of the sacred rites) are aware of the descent of the god or gods into the people attending the rites. They are able to observe the divine are descending, and taking over the person who winds up being ridden by the god (It’s interesting to me that, although Iamblichus doesn’t make use of the metaphor of the horse and rider in the same way that I understand that metaphor in the context of Voudoo or Candomblé, it’s hard to escape from that metaphor which exists in modern theurgical practice [though not in my own theurgical practice, per se]).  The person possessed has little or no sense of what’s happening, can do little of his own volition, and is usually also ignorant of what the god does with him and his body during the rite ( I say him, but my sense is that this can happen to anyone of any gender).

When the Beholders observe the fire, either entering or departing from one of the attendees, it’s appropriate to complete the rite with the adepts, or declare certain truths.  I think that Iamblichus is expressing himself in a roundabout way here, to say that the presence of a god in a person during the rite allows for certain activities to be carried out during the ritual that would otherwise not occur.  I can contrast it to the Christian “when two or three are gathered together” or the Jewish minyan… “when the God is present, the rites may be completed.” The presence of the gods possessing people is a thing that is required for the rite to be completed.


This isn’t about real excitement.  This is enthusiasm as a sign of divine possession. And here, Iamblichus notes that learning how to let go and be possessed is not itself a sign of success or greatness.  Under some circumstances, the divine possession can be thought of as a disease.  Learning how to be overshadowed by a god is a great step in theurgy… but it’s not enough.  It looks like a carrying-away of the human soul by a god or a daemonic influence, but that’s false.  The human understanding has to be trained up to a level where it can be overshadowed by the god, and still function as human.

The goal is to learn how to be possessed by the god, and then return to human clarity in a superior state of mind, with a greater degree of intelligence and mental capacity.  Achieving the divine ecstasy, and then returning to a state of mental disjointedness and confusion, is a step backward or a failure.  More than this, it’s possible to achieve this superior state — of being able to achieve divine ecstasy, and return to greater human mental clarity — and yet not be able to instruct others on how to achieve this state.

Part of the problem is that many humans want to claim these powers as their own, and that’s just not so (say Iamblichus).  The person who learns how to be possessed, and then return to humanity in a state of greater power and capacity, remains overshadowed by divinity.  They’re capable of performing vaticinations (foretellings) with greater accuracy or lack of untruthfulness. But these are capacities of the elevated soul that’s been overtaken by a god, rather than capacities of the human soul in and of itself.  When the human soul becomes overly attached to the body or begins before the god engages with the question, the divination often becomes tumultuous or false. The inspiration can be jumbled or tumbled, and its truthfulness disrupted.

This has gotten very long, so I’m going to end here, and return to chapter seven at a later time.

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