∼ The Nature of Theurgy ∼

Theurgy is the combination of ritual and contemplation to effect the deification of the soul. The following five steps of the process were outlined by Zeke Mazur (“Unia Magica: part 1", 32-35).

  1. The first is for the soul to recognise her own deified Self. This is achieved by the practice of psychic catharsis or spiritual purification.
  2. Next is for the soul to gain a pure vision of the divinity she worships. This is the natural result of mystic contemplation.
  3. The third is for these two, that is the holy soul and her deity, to come into a close contact with each other. This is called conjunction (sustasis).
  4. The fourth is the mingling of these two, resulting in a union (henosis). This is the result of spiritual ascent (anagoge).
  5. The final is the deification of the soul that results from the habit of engagement in the previous four activities.

∼ The Origin of Theurgy ∼

Linguistically, theourgia comes from two words meaning "divine/god" and "work/make". Together it may be rendered as "divine work", in that the operations involved aid the soul towards divinity, or as "the work of god" in that it is the divinity invoked that does the real work upon the soul. Alternatively, it may be translated as "making gods" in that the theurgist attempts to make his and other souls divine.

The term originated with the Chaldean Oracles, a set of poetic revelations which were, according to legend, "sent down from the gods" to Julian the Theurgist, whose his father, Julian the Chaldean Philosopher, had prayed, previous to his son’s birth, that his son should receive the soul of an archangel. Subsequently, the younger Julian was able to function as a medium to channel the Oracles from the soul of Plato (Lewy, Oracles).

The importance of theurgy for Platonism is both a spiritual and a political element. According to Plato, mankind once lived under the supervision and direction of the gods in a time known as the "Golden Age", but when mankind abandoned the gods, his world collapsed into barbarism and darkness. In order to return to this Golden Age, man needs to return to such a state in which he lives under the guidance of higher powers. (cf. Laws 716a-b, Republic 500c). Theurgy aims to reconnect us to those powers for the individual and for the sake of the society in which he lives.

∼ Theurgy contra Theology, Gnosticism & Magic ∼

We often learn things better by comparing and contrasting. So we may get a better understanding for what theurgy is by comparing it to what it is similar. (For the following distinctions, see Majercik's introduction to her Chaldean Oracles.)

First, for the ancients, the art of theurgy is more often contrasted against the art of theology, the latter is "talking" about divinity, while the former is actually "working" with them. They both bequeath knowledge, but one is acquired through vision, and the other through familiarity. It’s like knowing a sports, the knowledge of the audience who watches a game is much different from the knowledge of the players who play it.

Besides theology, we could compare theurgy to magic (goeteia). In this case the difference we find is in the goal and disposition of the practitioner. Magic is a supernatural technique of using ritual to generate manifest and intended changes, either benevolent or malicious, in the physical world or upon the psychologies of others. Theurgy, on the other hand, is the use of ritual, both physical and mental, to purify and elevate the soul, to harmonise her with the divine order, and effect a communion and union with the gods and ultimately with the One. Magic aims at getting the divine (even trying to coerce it) to do what we want, to service our will, while theurgy emphasises uniting our will with the divine will, allowing the gods to bless us by incorporating us into their own creative activity.

We may compare the Platonist's approach to theurgy with similar practices of other esoteric groups. The Gnostic tradtion, for instance, has a conception of the Divine which not the same as for a theurgist. They veiw God as separate and distant from an evil world and a sinning soul, and the Gnostic seeks by their rites and contemplations to find a release from the world. A proper theurgic conception of the divine is that the universe is foundationally good and directly emanated from the divine. The world is a theophany and therefore the gods and the cosmos are intimately connected. The theurgist connects with aspects of the world in his efforts to effect divine communication.

∼ Contemplation ∼

Theurgy is appears to be a combination of contemplation and ritual. Anne Sheppard believes that "higher theurgy" and contemplation are synonymous for Proclus ("Proclus' Attitude to Theurgy", 212-224). Perhaps the identification is not always 50/50, so the result can be a form of contemplative ritual or ritualised contemplation.

Contemplation is the stretching forth of the mind to touch and "know" an object, in this case a deity. Contemplation however by itself cannot effect the deification of the soul, which is the goal of Platonic ethics. The reason is that we are embodied souls, and as such our physical aspects must be addressed.

Plato taught us to be holistic about our affairs in the world and with the gods. For instance, he believed that medicine, which he understood to be of divine origin, must be used to treat the whole person, both the body and the soul, if it is to be effective (cf. Charmides 156d ff., in which terms "whole person" and "soul" are interchangeable, the body is seen as a "part" of the soul. Thus, from one perspective at least, the one cannot just remove the body and be left with a complete soul.)

To transition from simple vision to direct involvement needs more than just contemplation, and this is where ritual comes in. For theurgy, it is not a matter of choosing ritual or contemplation, rather both support and complete each other.

∼ The Effectiveness of Ritual ∼

According to Zeke Mazur (op cit.) and others, philosophers like Plotinus (who are not known to endorse ritualised practices) attained union (henosis), but their methods were theurgic. Theurgy is not a matter of choosing ritual or contemplation, rather both support and complete each other.

The effectiveness of theurgic ritual is explained by either (a) cosmic "sympathy", (b) the presence of "tokens" within all things, and the ability of "symbols" to activate them, or (c) as being manifestations of the supernatural.

a. Sympathy

Porphyry believed that theurgic rituals worked through a principle called "cosmic sympathy" (Epistle to Anebo II.5d, 18d). It is the interconnection that holds the universe together. Pull on one part of the universe, and other parts are affected accordingly. It forms the basis for such concepts such as systems theory, holistics, and quantum mechanics.

The theurgists, as well as magicians and modern physicists, hope to create some change in their environment by influencing an object which has a special relationship or connect to the objects you hope to change. The difference between the theurgist and the others is that the effect they hope to create is vertical, rather than horizontal, meaning, that they hope by using a ritual to make beneficial change in their souls by aligning it with the gods, rather than making an impact in the world (though by divinising themselves in such a way, they do benefit the world in far more subtle ways).

b. Tokens and Symbols

Mnay of the Neoplatonists, like Iamblichus and Proclus, believed that within every object, there are elements which have connections with higher orders of reality. Higher powers, as they create and maintain the lower physical reality, leave their mark, a trace of themselves, within their creations or those aspects of the world in which they have particular dominion. These elements or traces are called by the Greeks "tokens" (sunthemata).

Tokens are seen and activated by the "flower of the mind", that part of our soul which is the most divine. We open this "flower" by the use of symbols.

Some objects, because of the tokens they carry, are especially close to certain gods and creative forces. By choosing and surrounding ourselves with these objects, we strengthen the bond between us and the god which oversees these objects.

These symbols can be physical or spiritual or intellectual, and their efficiency depends on the quality of the persons and the deity he is seeking.

c. Epiphany

Iamblichus rejected the idea that theurgy works because of cosmic sympathy, because cosmic sympathy is a simply a natural mechanism of the universe, and so any practices that use it are either natural sciences or unnatural (para phusin) sorcery. (The whole of De Myst. can be seen as a refutation of this understanding of theurgy. Cf. Clarke, Iamblichus' De Mysteriis: a manifesto of the miraculous., chapter 2.) Rather, theurgy works because it is essentially the supernatural (huper phusin) manifestation of divine activity (cf. Clarke).

∼ Worship appropriate to the God ∼

Everyone works at the level he is at. Iamblichus wrote that "Each man performs his service to the Holy according to what he is, not according to what he is not; after all, the sacrifice must not surpass the proper measure of the worshipper" (De Myst. V.15). Not everyone approaches religion intellectually or materially.

Gregory Shaw writes that we have "different theurgies to match the different types of men, who, as Iamblichus said, have different cultic needs…What Iamblichus in fact was pointing out in his discussion of different sacrificial modes for different types of people was that the ritual performed should be suited to the person who performs it" ("Theurgy", 25-26). Accordingly, Iamblichus is saying that "there is nothing better about silent prayer than animal sacrifice" (cf. "Theurgy", 23). Each theurgist must be honest with himself and worship the gods in accordance with the state of his soul.

Even though we worship at the state we are at, that state develops. We must proceed in an orderly way (according to taxis), from the most elementary to the intermediate to the higher.

In addition to the different levels of men, every layer of the universe has gods appropriate to it, so the gods are worshipped according to their properties of their domain. Gods which oversee the more physical parts of the universe are worshipped in physical ways; those gods which operate in the intelligible world receive worship which is less physical and more intellectual, for instance. Thus, there exists levels in theurgy.

These levels vary according to different theurgists. For Proclus, Anne Sheppard (op cit.) proposed three levels: (1) that which is similar to "white magic", (2) that making "the soul intellectually alive" by elevating her to a level within the intelligible realm, and (3) that being a non-ritual "internal" theurgy. This level involves activating the "one of the soul" to effect a union with the supreme One.

∼ Types of Ritual ∼

The rituals of theurgy can be divided into two types. The first are rites of invitation, in which a deity is called down through what Porphyry calls "persuasive necessity" to animate a lifeless form or to possess a living being. The second type are rites of elevation, which deals with the ascension of the soul to the gods.

a. Rites of Invitation

Telestics refers to the art of animating statues. Often the rite involves placing certain sacred stones, gems, herbs, and/or living animals (all of which are specific to the deity being called upon) inside the cavity of an idol to establish, through cosmic sympathy, a "complete and pure recepticle" (as Iamblichus states) for the god, in which the god is persuaded to appear, often in the form of light.

Emperor Julian says that everyone should "worship the gods as though he saw them actually present." "When we look at the images of the gods, let us not indeed think they are stones or wood, neither let us think they are the gods themselves." "He who loves his son delights to see his son's statue, and he who loves his father delights to see his father's statue. It follows that he who loves the gods delights to gaze on the images of the gods and their likenesses, and he feels reverence and shudders with awe of the gods who look at him from the unseen world." "Our fathers established images and altars…as symbols of the presence of the gods, not that we may regard such things as gods, but that we may worship the gods through them." "Even though God stands in need of nothing, it does not follow that on that account nothing ought to be offered to him" (A Letter to a Priest).

For an example of the telestic rite, in an oracle related from Hekete, the goddess of crossroads who represents the Cosmic Soul, says: "But execute my statue, purifying it as I shall instruct you. Make a form from wild rue and decorate it with small animals, such as lizards which live about the house. Rub a mixture of myrrh, gum, and frankincense with these animals, and out in the clear air under the waxing moon, complete this (statue) yourself while offering the following prayer…" (Chaldean Oracles, fr. 224, Majercik 137).

Possession, also called "binding and loosing", involves bringing down a god into a human medium. Often voces mysticae are used in initiate the process. The medium himself may break the possession by turning his thoughts to "earthly things." Before the rite, the theurgist(s) would purify themselves and don special garments. The presence of the god would be known by a number of unusual elements, for instance, levitation, odd movements, paralysis, changes in voice, immunity from fire, or "self-manifestions", that is, the presence of luminous apparitions, etc.

Another famous ritual involved the use of the "Wheel of Hekete". It is a golden sphere, engraved with magical characters and embedded with a sapphire, was swung around by means of a leather strap. With it, the theurgist imitates the motion of the heavens, and attracts to himself the cosmic forces (the Iynges) which would form a bridge between him and the gods.

b. Rites of Elevation

Sustasis refers to the "conjuction", "communication", or "contact" between the theurgist and his chosen deity. It is not the same as union (henosis), though. Sustasis is facilitated by invocations, in which the theurgist "calls upon" a god by the use of voces mysticae, chants consisting of a strings of vowels and consonants, often lengthy, which carry within them patterns of letters and numerology which are believed to be quite potent. Rituals are also used to gain sustasis with a deity.

Anagoge ("leading upwards") refers to the "ascent" of the soul. This anagoge has two parallel aspects: one is the theurgical purification of the lower soul (or the "vehicle" of the soul); the other is the contemplative or intellectual purification of the higher soul (cf. Majercik, 40).

It is a contemplative process in which the soul becomes purified and elevated to the first principles. It does this by purifying the "vehicle" of the soul, which is that part of us that binds the soul to the material world. When the "vehicle" is sufficiently cleansed, the soul is liberated.

The contemplative aspect operates under theurgic "Faith" (pistis), which is the activity of the "flower of mind" (anthos nou), the synthema of the One in the soul. It is Faith "which properly engenders that 'silence' within the soul which is the appropriate mode of response to the 'silence' of the noetic 'deep' where the One (of Father) resides" (Majercik, 40).

Proclus calls Union, "the undivisible contact and fellowship in the divine joy" (On Plato's Parmenides, 679, Morrow and Dillon).

c. Ritual as Divine Act

The two types of ritual mimics the two types of divine creation. The rites of Invitation follows the divine activity of Procession, while the rites of elevation mirror the activity of Reversion.

The Chaldean Ritual of Philosophic Death

According to Ruth Majercik (Oracles, 36-39), the main Chaldean rite went something like this:

First, the lower soul, the "vehicle" of the soul, is purified and strengthened through the use of material rites, including the use of stones, herbs, incantations, prayers, magic wheels and lustrations. Following the rites of purification, the theurgist elevates his soul on the "rays" of the sun in the "central Chaldean sacrament" (as Lewy called it).

The initiate is ritually buried, in imitation of death, in which the elements of the body dissolve, releasing the soul. The head was left uncovered, as this was the seat of the rational soul.

The initiate would draw in the rays of the Sun, "inhaling" the "flowering flames" that come down from "the Father". The priest overseeing the rite would also being calling forth the soul from the body.

After the soul's release, the soul would be led along the rays of the sun through various spheres and elements, reversing her descent. The ascent to the celestial realms would aided by the singing of hymns, prayers, chanting the voces mysticae (which are the synthemata and symbola "sown throughout the cosmos by the Father"), and the guidance of the priest, ministering angels, and the three Teletarchs (Love, Truth and Faith).

∼ Inner Ritual? ∼

If, as some scholars believe, theurgy and philosophical contemplation converge at some point in a supra-noetic state, when soul has become more purified and the gods one seeks are more supercelestial, the theurgy becomes less physical. (Yet it never stops being so, because we are still embodied.)

The Oracle states: "There exists a certain Intelligible which you must perceive by the flower of mind. If you should incline your mind towards it and try to perceive it as if perceiving a specific thing, you would not perceive it. It is the power of strength, visible all around, flashing with intellectual divisions. Therefore, you must not perceive that Intelligible violently but with the flame of mind completely extended which measures all things, except that Intelligible. You must not perceive it intently, but, keeping the pure eye of your soul turned away, you should extend an empty mind toward the Intelligible in order to comprehend it, since it exists beyond mind" (fr. 1, Majercik).

Concepts and Idols as Symbols

The vision of the god in the mind is an icon, a symbol. The mind will then go beyond the image and reach the reality with which the image is connected.

An example of concept as symbol, Plotinus: "Let us make a mental picture of our universe: each member shall remain what it is, each part distinct, yet all composing a complete unity, so that whatever comes into view shall show as if it were the surface of the orb over all." This image will begin to comprise the earth, sea, sun, all the stars, everything of the cosmos. "Bring this vision before your mind. Let there be in your mind the gleaming representation of that universe," some at rest, some in motion. "Keep this sphere before you, and from it imagine another, a sphere stripped of size and dimension," casting out all sense of material quality. "Call on the god who make this sphere whose image you know hold, and pray him to come. And may he come bringing his own universe with all the gods within him -- he who is one god and all gods, where each is all, blending into a unity, distinct in powers, but by that one manifold power, they are all one, or rather, the one god is all..."

The ultimate goal is union with the One. Since the One is the origin and source of all else, its token is found in all things. This token is their Unity. The sacred word or token (synthema) of the One in the soul is the "flower" or "spark" of the mind. It has the power to "focus" and "elevate" the soul, ultimately "binding" and uniting her with god. In the Chaldean Oracles, this faculty is also called the soul's "strength", specifically the "three-barded strength", which "binds us with god" and "excites us towards the flight up there" (fr. 119, Majercik).

Conceptual symbols for the One include Light and the Centre of concentric circles. Proclus calls union, "the undivisible contact and fellowship in the divine joy" (In Parm. 679, Marrow & Dillon 62).

Token in the Soul

The One is apprehended by that part of the soul which is most like it. This is the token (synthema) of the One in the soul. Proclus calls this not the "flower of the mind" but "the flower of the whole soul". Thus, the complete range of theurgy is integrative, involving the whole of our being, not just its highest parts (cf. Majercik).

Silent Theurgy

To join with the One, you must join it "there". Rituals are silent, solitary and still.

Concerning Proclus, Majercik writes, that "the higher levels of ascent would involve not only a process of intelligible or noetic contemplation, but a type of 'higher' theurgy as well, this latter involving the use of 'perfect' prayer, synthemata, noetic hymning, sacred silences, theurgic 'faith', the anthos nou - all of which had the power to elevate the soul and effect union with various aspects of the intelligible world, including the One itself" (Oracles, 43).

It is not just being silent or still, but making that silence and stillness a ritual by which you seek it. The height of the mystic enterprise is that of silent hymn, or the perfect prayer: a prayer beyond silence, an activity of the soul beyond motion.