I Read Iamblichus’ ON THE MYSTERIES in a Laundromat and You Can, Too

TL;DR: The Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell translation is worth your time. It is a breeze to read, and you can get a used copy for around $30.

In a tweet I wrote on October 21, 2009, at 7:40 PM, I expressed significant optimism about how soon I would be reading On the Mysteries. It reads:

(Yeah, someone my mom was dating at the time gifted that, and I was too young to know I didn’t have to read it.)

This did not happen in 2009. After the 2016 election, On the Mysteries was one of my stress purchases. It languished on a bookshelf until I picked it up on May 15th, 2019, because I needed something to read at the laundromat. I finished reading it yesterday, so it is fresh in my mind.

For the rest of this post, I am going to discuss some of the reasons anyone who hasn’t read it might like to read it at the laundromat, too.

First, practical things. I’m coming at this from the position of someone who reads philosophers even though philosophy isn’t my field. I’m a librarian, so the jargon is totally different and a bit of a stretch, and I find that engaging. (To be honest, I read more outside of library science than I read in it. This makes conversations with coworkers more interesting.)

One of the reasons I tweet while I read, in addition to helping me mark out what I’m thinking while I’m reading nonfiction, is because I want to show that large books are not intimidating — that they can be fun and that you do not need a degree to get excited about something. (I mean, I’m solidly average — weird, but average. I’m not certain how much that comes across?) I think that peer engagement is a good way to show that said reading processes can be fun. In addition, I know a lot of us in the polytheistic community feel pressure about the amount of detailed information we all have to know (or feel like we do), and I think (and I hope) that doing live-tweeting reduces that, too.

That said, in my early 20s, others told me that On the Mysteries was essential reading. On the Kyklos Apollon listserv, many conversations revolved around philosophers and theurgy. Thomas Taylor’s translation was freely available online. I didn’t read it — my reading routine, to be blunt, was highly fucked in my mid- to late twenties due to a combination of how-do-I-even-adult-this-sucks stress, working through some mental health issues, and the focus-blunting effects of social media. It was what it was, and things are better now.

Now, content.

Have you ever had a fight with someone you know and love about things like the balance between innovation and tradition in religious practice, the necessity of grounding experiential things in said traditional context, why polytheists make sacrifices, anyway, and/or whether it’s healthy to think of gods in a hierarchical sense?

I have!

When I was reading On the Mysteries, the thought occurred to me more than once that Iamblichus had already addressed about 85-90% of every frustrating conversation I have ever had. Not only that, but he does so in a way that is not intimidating and that fundamentally shifts the language so that a reader understands that what he’s talking about is empowering, not disempowering. While there is certainly room to build on things to make them better — especially in some of the descriptions of the cosmos that draw on outdated physical cosmology, which I found challenging to read — he writes from the perspective of someone who genuinely does care about the people reading it. I have a mental model of Iamblichus as a very nice person.

On the Mysteries itself is divided into 10 books of variable length. It’s written by “Abamon” (Iamblichus) in response to a list of questions from Porphyry about the gods. The title says it’s about the mysteries of Egypt, but the contents are quite a lot broader than indicated — as the translators indicate in their introduction, it runs the gamut, and Platonism is at its core. Iamblichus studied with Porphyry, and most scholars believe that they had philosophical differences that prompted this exchange.

However, another interpretation (which I became aware of because of Edward Butler) is that Porphyry was playing devil’s advocate due to shit some people were saying — something like what I later described in this Twitter thread on June 22 (click on the hyperlinked date to see the full thread):

A lot of this book is about theurgy. Theurgy is essentially a fancy word for traditional cultus.

Book I begins with the discussion that there are gods; Book X ends by framing human happiness in terms of finding one’s place in the cosmological system. People spend so much time going in erroneous directions that just lead to division and unhealthy levels of strife; the gods are the place from which goodness comes. The true way to flourishing and happiness is through them, rather like a finger trap.

Data from Star Trek with a finger trap.

I thought that was clever, actually — the structure somewhat mirrors the cosmological system? Like — at first read, mind you, so please don’t take this too seriously, as I haven’t checked it against literally anything — you start with gods, and then go on to things in the middle, and end in matter with that discussion on happiness? And there are dreams and divinatory things in the middle, which matches the way that divination acts as a communicative glue; and then the discussion of names and cultic practices of connection.

But anyway.

95% of the time, Iamblichus uses friendship-centric language to describe the hierarchy that runs from the gods and out to the place of matter and embodiment where you are reading this, although the word being translated as friendship is probably philia/φιλία (and other related terms), so the actual concept has a slightly different semantic circle of meaning.

Look at how often friendship-oriented language is used in the translation here:

[P]rayer establishes links of friendship between us and the gods, and secures for us the triple advantage which we gain from the gods through theurgy, the first leading to illumination, the second to the common achievement of projects, and the third to the perfect fulfillment (of the soul) through fire. Sometimes it precedes sacrifices, sometimes, again, it comes in the middle of theurgic activity, and at other times it brings sacrifices to a suitable conclusion; but no sacred act can take place without the supplications contained in prayers. Extended practice of prayer nurtures our intellect, enlarges very greatly our soul’s receptivity to the gods, reveals to men the life of the gods, accustoms their eyes to the brightness of divine light, and gradually brings to perfection the capacity of our faculties for contact with the gods, until it leads us up to the highest level of consciousness (of which we are capable); also it elevates gently the dispositions of our minds, and communicates to us those of the gods, stimulates persuasion and communion and indissoluble friendship, augments divine love, kindles the divine element in the soul, scours away all contrary tendencies within it, casts out from the aetherial and luminous vehicle surrounding the soul everything that tends to generation, brings to perfection good hope and faith concerning the light; and, in a word, it renders those who employ prayers, if we may so express it, the familiar consorts of the gods. (p. 277)

Who wouldn’t want to pray if it leads to greater levels of connection, receptivity, and goodness?

Someone doing a friendship bracelet

In the context of how we talk about gods, hierarchies, and what our relationship to them even is, there’s a beautiful, complementary section earlier in the text:

Indeed, to tell the truth, the contact we have with the divinity is not to be taken as knowledge. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the unitary connection with the gods that is natural. We should not accept, then, that this is something we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are gods. (p. 12)

The term hierarchy carries a lot of baggage because people who see the word often think of human power structures. It’s difficult to talk about gods without analogy, and the hierarchy itself is actually an intuitive, unutterable thing that resists all of the words one tries to use to demarcate it.

In the case of the gods, the connection is natural and omnipresent according to Iamblichus. IMHO, this is why mystic poets in (possibly?) every religious tradition use paradoxical and imprecise imagery and language to triangulate talking about it, like how your GPS triangulates your location from three satellites. (I like centerless circles because it makes me think of bodies revolving around gravitational centers and/or dancing.)

You enquire, then, whether there is not some other road to happiness which we are ignoring; yet what other reasonable mode of ascent to it can there be apart from the gods? For if the essence and accomplishment of all good is encompassed by the gods and their primal power and authority, it is only with us and those who are similarly possessed by the greatest kinds and have genuinely gained union with them that the beginning and the end of all good is seriously practiced. It is there, then, that there occurs the vision of truth and intellectual understanding, and with knowledge of the gods follows a turning towards ourselves and knowledge of ourselves. (p. 345)

This passage, and many others in On the Mysteries, reminds me of the religious experience I had a few months ago. I’ve tried to type things to say after that sentence and failed quite a bit because words; perhaps it’s best to just note that it’s like snapping a wristwatch into place, the sound that the clasp makes.

Hopefully, the three passages above have been more enticing. I’m also embedding a link to the Twitter thread I made for some of it.

Finally, On the Mysteries is not heavy. The arguments are chunked into fairly nice sections within each book, so it’s easier to get to a quick stopping place so one can add more detergent to a large laundry machine.

So, go read, and I hope this review/reaction was useful! 😁

Incidentally, and this is in a quick note because it’s only slightly related, I had at least one interesting dream while reading this. On June 24, light woke me up at 5 AM. I had a dream about something with Iamblichus and a priesthood of Zeus. There was something about ritual attire, and I was reading a list of gods in a paragraph about temple cultus. It prompted me to look up Iamblichus himself because I was skeptical that Iamblichus had an overt connection to Zeus. When I investigated, I found that he is descended from a former royal family that held the priesthood for the solar deity El-Gebal, who is often syncretized with Helios and Sol Invictus.

That might explain — although it’s something I’ve seen in other authors I’ve read like Hermias — the amount of time Iamblichus makes analogies to light, analogies that I find highly accessible. As you can tell from the dream, though, I was doing a lot of processing. Maybe one of the reasons I find Iamblichus so personable is this.

8 thoughts on “I Read Iamblichus’ ON THE MYSTERIES in a Laundromat and You Can, Too

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