Iamblichus’s doctrine that the immortal soul becomes mortal is puzzling for Platonic scholars. According to Iamblichus, the embodied soul not only becomes mortal; as human, it also becomes “alienated” (allotriōthen) from divinity. Iamblichus maintains that the alienation and mortality of the soul are effected by daemons that channel the soul’s universal and immortal identity into a singular and mortal self. Yet, while daemons alienate the soul from divinity they also outline the path to recover it. Iamblichus maintains that daemons unfold the will of the Demiurge into material manifestation and thus reveal its divine signatures (sunthēmata) in nature. According to Iamblichus’s theurgical itinerary, the human soul—materialized, alienated, and mortal—must learn to embrace its alienated and mortal condition as a form of demiurgic activity. By ritually entering this demiurgy the soul transforms its alienation and mortality into theurgy. The embodied soul becomes an icon of divinity.
For Neoplatonic philosophers, the Delphic oracle had authoritatively characterized their two great teachers, Iamblichus and Porphyry. Later Platonists cited the Pythia’s oracular pronouncement, “The Syrian is full of god; the Phoenican a polymath” as revealed wisdom. The Syrian Iamblichus, “full of god,” was more highly regarded in Platonic circles than the learned Porphyry, but because Iamblichus’ theurgical Platonism vanished after the sixth century, we are left with only “learned” reports about theurgic divination. Contemporary scholars are polymaths; we are the children of Porphyry. So, when Porphyry asks for a precise definition of theurgic divination, it seems entirely reasonable, and it is hard for us to appreciate Iamblichus’ barbed response. He chastises Porphyry for presuming that divination can be discursively explained and says he needs a talisman (ἀλεξιοφάρµακον) to protect him from his discursive addiction. Divination, he says, can only be known through experiences that awaken the soul to an innate gnosis that precedes dualist thinking. This paper will explore that talismanic gnosis.
A Theurgic Reading of Hermetic Rebirth
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.