Magic: Iamblichus and divination

Polyphanes over at Digital Ambler has a piece up today about working with ancestors, which is quite good and relevant. But he opens with a lengthy… Rant? Reminder? Reflection? … on the era, one upon a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t turn a circle on the internet without hitting a magical blog or six. Those Canaan days we used to know? Where have they gone? Where did they go?

I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone, of course, writing about sewing far more than magic of late. It’s been hats or private commissions, or making stuff for my Etsy website, or hawking my books or working to develop new business leads.

But The Hustle is not the same thing as the Great Work, though sometimes it feels like it. It’s the difference between thaumaturgy and theurgy (which autocorrect keeps wanting to turn into Thai maturity and the urge G — a sign of how far I’ve drifted from writing about magic, really).

Which is why I want to talk about Iamblicus.  As you may recall, some friends of mine and I formed a book group to read this Neoplatonist (maybe we should call him a late Platonist).  Some variety of issues both personal and worldly have prevented us from meeting for a while, but we were able to meet yesterday and unpack some more of his thoughts about divination.


It’s hard to tell if Iamblichus is a fan of divination or not.  He throws a great many systems of divination all together, by noting that reading entrails (haruspication), the flights of birds, or the movements of stars, are all much the same when it comes to interpreting the messages of the gods.  Later on, he allows that there are also systems of sortilege or divination from throwing barley meal, stones, sticks or beads… and such systems would presumably also include things like runes, Tarot, or other stochastic processes.  In the recent podcast where Gordon interviewed Robert M. Place, Place spoke of how games in the medieval period and before were about worshipping Fortune, and to some degree playing against God.  There was no clear mathematics of probability — game-playing involved taking your life in your hands (interview/podcast is here).

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Iamblichus thinks that the gods are not always themselves present, but that they’re surrounded by a spirit-court, of sorts, consisting of archangels and angels, archonic powers, spirits, daemons, intelligences, ascended souls, and demigods.  As a group, we’re a little unclear on what the hierarchy is, because Iamblichus seems to change it every other paragraph — a “god” appears to touch you with a transformative, life-changing experience rooted in a highly-personal awareness of the unity of all things; while daemons seem to carry with them a strong awareness of systems thinking, but don’t affect you in a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus sort of way. Angels and Ascended souls appear to leave you flushed and changed for a few hours, but not otherwise transformed.

When we do divination, Iamblichus suggests, we’re usually not getting a direct line to the god. We’re getting a line to the god’s spirit-court-house: “Please stay on the line with your prayers, your invocation will be accepted in the order it was received; your petition will be heard in … [click]… thirty minutes or less. Average wait time is [click]… six minutes or less.”  So when we lay out our cards in a Tarot spread or throw our Runes or toss our geomancer’s sticks, we’re connecting to the intermediary powers of our spirit court, the cloud of witnesses that surround a god like fanboys, fangirls, bouncers, media specialists and other members of a Hollywood celebrity’s entourage.

We (that is, my group) found ourselves disagreeing with Iamblichus a little strenuously about some aspects of his take on divination. For him, divination is wholly divine.  For Iamblichus, the act of vaticination (prophecy) is the result entirely of the god (or one of the god’s entourage) acting upon human activity in such a way that a message is revealed or expressed.  It doesn’t matter how much humans work at understanding and interpreting and exploring the meaning of any given symbol or symbol-system that’s used for divination, the divination is always a wholly-divine act — the result of one of the spirits “messing around behind the curtain,” in the inimitable phrase of one of our number.  Iamblichus’s world is filled with gods and their intermediate categories of servitor and allied spirits…. and humans don’t have the capacity of prophecy without their intermediation.

On the other hand, this is a common occurrence, isn’t it?  Who among the modern practitioners of divinatory arts like Tarot Geomancy, Astrology or Runes, Coelbren or Lenormand or what have you, hasn’t occasionally encountered a layout or a presentation of symbolism that’s been utterly befuddling and completely without recognizable meaning? Is that what Iamblichus is talking about? The gods being absent, and consequently the reading being without interpretation?

Maybe he is right… he at least has a language for discussing what’s going on, which is better than I can say with, “sorry, I just don’t know what any of this means” while I gesture vaguely at the chart I have before me.  On the other hand, I definitely feel as though I’m better at some forms of divination as a result of practicing them for so long.  Yet Iamblichus is pretty clear that even “moderate men of moderate accomplishment” can utter words of profound wisdom when speaking under the influence of the gods and their allied spirits…  At least Iamblichus doesn’t think that divination is the result of a disease in humans or of a defect in the mind.

[We also noted that the word vaticination, meaning “the act of prophecy” comes from the Vates, the Roman priests and soothsayers; it’s not clear if the Vates (2 syllables) in Latin are cognate or loan-words/roles with the Greek ouateis οὐάτεις , meaning a soothsayer or a prophet; and if these are also cognate or loans from the Celtic/Germanic Vates, from which modern Druidic orders (including my own) draw one of their grades or offices — that of the Ovate.  It’s also worth noting that the Latin Vates lived on the hill called the Vatican… the center of the Roman Catholic Church today, in other words, is on Rome’s ancient and historic “Prophecy Hill”.  That makes for an interesting set of overlays, yeah?]

Iamblichus ends his discussion of divination with a few words about false and true divination.  He asserts that prophecy, and goodness, both come only from the Gods of Truth, “as I once heard from the prophets among the Chaldeans.”  He allows that there are both mischievous daemons and evil-performing daemons, but that neither can stand the presence of the gods of truth or their servitors, and flee away from even the slightest sign of their approach. It’s for this reason, he suggests, that there are often purification rites to be performed before doing anything in the form of divination, prophesying, mediumship or the like:  first, energetic and physical cleanliness, and only then can the divination take place properly.

In the midst of this discussion about evil daemons, though, Iamblichus mentions the “profaners of temples” as a thing.  Evil daemons tend to congregate together, joining one another in circles and conspiring together in various ways; their presence can infect humans, it sounds like. It’s not clear if the “profaners of temples” are humans who are so afflicted, or if they’re somehow the daemons acting in the houses of the gods which are the temples.  Either way, Iamblichus seems to suggest that there are real, physical beings who go around trying to disrupt the rites of the pagan gods, and who have been brought up in a way that they don’t know any better. It’s kind of weird, really — here’s a leading pagan of the early Fourth Century AD saying, “there’s these guys who go around damaging temples and disrupting the rituals and shouting about evil daemons, and they’re apparently crazy under the influences of their own evil spirits — and they flee away from certain kinds of rituals, too; They are causing trouble in the temples, disrupting the rites, and defiling the sacred places…. and it’s because they’ve been raised in complete ignorance of the gods.”

It almost sounds like… he’s talking about the Christians.  It sounds like he’s saying that the Christians (who by the early 300s AD, when Iamblichus is writing, have been living in their own communities and with their own child-rearing, for several generations in a row) have become a low-grade threat to the rituals, the temples, and the training of the Platonists.  It’s kind of odd to find an off-hand and low-grade reference to these strange “temple defilers”, and know that just a few short decades from Iamblichus, those same “defilers” will be ruling the empire.  Huh.

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