Taking the Shape of the Gods

A Theurgic Reading of Hermetic Rebirth

In: Aries

Scholarship in the last few decades has corrected mischaracterizations of the Hermetica and Iamblichean theurgy as examples of the decline of Hellenic thinking, but questions remain of how to understand them, particularly since Iamblichus claims to follow the teachings of Hermes. This essay attempts to shed light on hermetic rebirth and the immortalization of the soul described in CH XIII and NH VI.6 by examining them according to the principles of Iamblichean theurgy. I argue that hermetic immortalization and rebirth did not culminate in an escape from the body and the world but were realized—to the contrary—as a divine and demiurgic descent into the world and one’s body. While this essay owes a great debt to Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes, my reading of hermetic rebirth does not follow his dualist understanding of hermetic metaphysics and soteriology. The culmination of both theurgic and hermetic mystagogy is non-dual: deification is realized in the world.

  • 1

    Borges, Labyrinths, 114.

  • 2

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 110–111.

  • 3

    Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, 1.2–2.3. All references follow the Parthey pagination preceded by Myst. (De Mysteriis). Translations will be based on the translation of Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell with modifications and by consulting the recent text and translation by Saffrey and Segonds of Jamblique: Réponse à Porphyre. The attribution of wisdom literature to a scribal god was also the practice among Egyptian scribes who attributed their literature to Thoth, the deity identified with Hermes. He was reported by Manetho to be the author of 36,500 books; see Jasnow and Zauzich, The Egyptian Book of Thoth, 2.

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  • 6

    Proclus, Plat. Theo. 1:5.16–6.3 (Saffrey/Westerink).

  • 8

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 110–111.

  • 10

    Ibid., 96.13–97.1. One can clearly see Iamblichus’ polemical edge against the “philosopher” Porphyry here and elsewhere in On the Mysteries.

  • 13

    Idem, Comm. Math. 69.26–29.

  • 14

    O’Meara, Platonopolis, 205.

  • 18

    Hanegraaff, ‘Altered States’, 128–163.

  • 19

    Ibid., 130.

  • 20

    Ibid., 133.

  • 21

    Ibid., 136.

  • 23

    Ibid., 132.

  • 36

    The characterization by Mahé, ‘Hermes Trismegistos’, 3943.

  • 38

    See van den Broek, ‘Religious Practices’, 80–84.

  • 40

    Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt, 217–237; as per Edward Butler’s suggestions in his Hermetic “tweets”: http://lemon-cupcake.livejournal.colm/36741.html. The figure in dialogue with Thoth may have received his name: ‘one who seeks knowledge’ from the Hellenic influence of the figure of the philosophos; see Jasnow and Zauzich, 13. See also Jan Assman’s astute analysis of the effect of social change on Egyptian priests in the Ptolemaic age and how they adapted under Greek influence: ‘In a certain sense the Egyptian mysteries functioned both as a successor institution to the pharaonic state and as a compensation for its loss’ (Assman, Religio Duplex, 20–22).

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  • 44

    Ibid., 7.11–12.

  • 45

    See Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, 7–8. Burns provides a nuanced history of the Orientalizing and “auto-Orientalizing” tendencies among Platonists; see Burns, Apocalypse, 20–28. He argues that Iamblichus and other Platonists interpret the Chaldeans and Egyptians according to Platonic and Pythagorean principles. The Pythagoreanizing of these traditions made them universally accessible, thus creating a new kind of religiosity in the late antique world, one that gave Platonic philosophy an Oriental mask.

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  • 50

    See Trouillard, ‘La théurgie’, 171–189.

  • 59

    Mahe, ‘Hermes Trismegistos’, 3940.

  • 60

    Copenhaver, Hermetica, xxxix.

  • 61

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 102.

  • 62

    Ibid., 107.

  • 63

    Ibid., 113.

  • 64

    Copenhaver, Hermetica, xxxix; my emphasis.

  • 65

    Mahé, Hermes en haute Egypte, 1:53.

  • 66

    Fowden, Egyptian Hermes, 99–100; 109–110, seems to nuance his judgment, noting that hermetic deification occurs while one is in the body and in the world; he also addresses the overlapping monist and dualist strands in the Hermetica (142–148) yet maintains that hermetic gnōsis is dualist.

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  • 69

    Ibid., 13.7.

  • 73

    Ibid., 144.

  • 74

    Ibid., 148.

  • 76

    Ibid., 218.10–13.

  • 77

    Ibid., 28.12–29.1.

  • 84

    Kingsley, ‘Knowing Beyond Knowing’, 22–23. Discursive thinking becomes transparent to the soul’s innate gnōsis.

  • 86

    Ibid., 9.9.

  • 87

    Ibid., 12.22–23.1.

  • 89

    Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 25.

  • 91

    Ibid., 34.6.

  • 92

    In Finamore and Dillon, Iamblichus De Anima, 130.

  • 94

    Simplicius, De anima, 223.26; he also says that according to Iamblichus the embodied soul is also ‘made other to itself’ (heteroiousthai pros heautēn), 223.31.

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  • 96

    In Finamore and Dillon, Iamblichus De Anima, 70.1–5 (my translation).

  • 97

    Ibid., 70.5–10.

  • 102

    Ibid., 13.19.

  • 108

    Ibid., 184.1–6.

  • 109

    Ibid., 41.4–11.

  • 111

    Dillon, Iamblichi Chalcidensis, 15; see the Platonic source for attributing this curriculum to Iamblichus: Westerink, The Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, ch. 26.15–16. The culminating dialogues are the Timaeus and the Parmenides, which Iamblichus designated as ‘perfect’ (teleious; 26.34), the former covering everything addressed in the ‘physical’ and the latter everything in the ‘theological’ dialogues.

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  • 113

    Ibid., 115.4–5.

  • 117

    Kingsley, ‘Knowing Beyond Knowing’, 23–24.

  • 119

    Mahé, ‘La voie d’immortalité’, 365; my translation and emphasis.

  • 121

    Clark, ‘Iamblichus’, 11–12.

  • 122

    Ibid., 12–13.

  • 127

    Ibid., 232.17

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