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 CHXIII and NHVI.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.
IamblichusOn the Mysteries1.2–2.3. 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 36500 books; see Jasnow and Zauzich The Egyptian Book of Thoth 2.
FrankfurterReligion in Roman Egypt217–237; 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).
See ShawTheurgy and the Soul7–8. 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.
FowdenEgyptian Hermes99–100; 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.
DillonIamblichi Chalcidensis15; 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.