At the close of August, after reading Proclus’ Parmenides commentary, I spent a few days with the Chaldean Oracles fragments as translated by Ruth Majercik. The ChalOr¹ are quoted a lot by Proclus and other Late Platonists — I read the last third of the Parmenides commentary in the span of about two and a half weeks, and the actual context of the ChalOr was a significant lingering question for me.
Majercik has composed a sizable introduction and extensive endnotes to introduce the fragments and their context. To me, it looked like the focus was overly on Gnosticism and Early Christianity, but as I recall, the late 1980s to mid 1990s were a buzzing time for research and popular-facing books about Gnosticism based on the publication dates of the books I was reading in high school back in the early 2000s (mostly focused around my question of “what the fuck happened in Late Antiquity”). I remember Elaine Pagels in a foreword or afterword to one of her writings on Gnosticism talking about the modern experience of going to church, and my mind set this in that context.
Late Platonists are also discussed a lot, but occasionally/often with less positive word choice — they’re appropriating and adapting the ChalOr to Platonism, and I wonder if sometimes, the judgments about the “appropriateness” of what they’re doing are overly informed by modern biases and the route that history took.
Despite that (and those were relatively minor points — I gave the book five stars on Goodreads), I’m happy that I now have some context and understanding of the system that is being cited. The ChalOr were generated by a father-son team and constituted received wisdom from the gods, informed by the philosophical schools of the period (late 2nd cent. CE) and a bunch of fun syncretism. (Oracles 110-128 are just wow, incidentally. I really enjoy that section.)
Finally, in the introduction, Majercik legit turns the word “informed” into a pun.² I have so much respect:
… the Supreme God is beyond all categories of form whereas, at the lowest level, it means that matter, as utter sterility (see Frr 100 and 134), is devoid of all form and, thus, needs to be informed. In the Oracles, this informing process is depicted dynamically in terms of the Second or Demiurgic Intellect hurling the Ideas (as thunderbolts) into the “wombs” of the World Soul.
(Introduction, p. 19)
She is also trying to to contextualize ritual work against contemplative work in the introduction; much of this happens on or around p. 40. I find it interesting that she didn’t push as deep into comparative analysis as she did several pages earlier while talking about breathwork/pranayama — she contextualized what might have been happening in the Chaldean system against what is known from other traditions, but she didn’t do so on p. 40 while wondering why Proclus and Iamblichus don’t distinguish between theurgy and contemplation as strictly as she’d like (in the context of the higher and lower souls needing different types of purification). Many religious traditions and subsets thereof include physical actions that culminate in silence and contemplation; I don’t think it’s so odd that the flip from lower to higher is more of a gradient move than an abrupt transition. My favorite times to do deep contemplative meditation (with a religious focus) are immediately after I’ve done purification rituals because the contemplation is better. I know that some scholars are religious, and I wonder if this is something one wouldn’t grasp intuitively without having that specific background?
Here are a few of my favorite fragments:
For there exists a certain Intelligible which you must perceive by the flower of the mind. For if you should incline your mind toward it and perceive it as perceiving a specific thing, you would not perceive it. For 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 towards the Intelligible in order to comprehend it, since it exists outside of (your) mind.
This is one of the passages that really reminds me of the Yoga Sūtras.
And you do not know that every god is good. O, drudges, sober up …
According to the endnotes, this is referring to being drunk on the world. Elsewhere, one is usually intoxicated in more positive senses.
[…] breaking themselves on the bodies of the worlds.
The slice of 37 above is a part of a larger fragment chunk, but I love this part specifically — the imagery reminds me of waves breaking on new worlds.
<Taking wing>, the soul of mortals will press God into itself. And possessing nothing mortal, the soul is completely intoxicated <by God>. Therefore, boast of the harmony under which the mortal body exists.
Urging yourself onward to the center of the clamorous light,
Again, the imagery. Love it.
To some, (God) has granted (the ability) to apprehend the symbol of light through instruction. Others, however, he has fructified with their own strength while they are sleeping.
This is interesting because it seems to be talking about two different types of aptitude.
To a mortal tarrying (in prayer), the blessed ones are quick (to act).
Now for the takeaways that go beyond just finally having context.
My biggest practical takeaway from reading the ChalOr is that I need to get on track with my meditation practice. There were several points while reading where it was clear that the types of ritual ascent being described relied on cultivated self-discipline. As I said above, some fragments are not extremely different conceptually from writings like the Yoga Sūtras; it would be nice if we found a complete copy of the ChalOr just so I could say that definitively, as piecing the fragments together is like clutching at smoke.
To me, meditation (or at least the form I practice outside of ritual, which is Headspace) is not generally a gods-centric thing. It’s a growth thing, meaning that it trains oneself to do better at focusing and getting into unified states, regardless of context — sometimes, I’ll meditate for 2-3 minutes before doing household ritual if I feel scattered, for example, or at work if I’ve had a taxing morning and feel like my brain is oozing out from my ears. My favorite part of meditation is that moment towards the end (of a longer session, say 10-20 minutes) when I let go of following the breath. I will describe the aftermath as the tactile sensation of the sharp edge of a knife and a transient, flowering limitlessness. It’s a very delicate feeling, one that doesn’t always happen.
In ritual, when one does an extended prayer that culminates in certain types of silence, it seems like having fit contemplative “muscles” would make the honing of the attention and subsequent receptivity a bit easier.
My second takeaway is about fire. There is so much fire and light in these fragments, and I find it all delightful for reasons that I won’t relate on the Internet to parasocial strangers. Again, I’d love to see the full set. Maybe it will come to light one day …
 Yes, this is a pun. Les Oracles chaldaïques is how the Oracles are referred to in French, so my brain wants to pronounce “ch” as “sh,” so ChalOr sounds almost like chaleur, which means heat, and fire/light is implicated in heat, especially if one goes beyond the visible part of EM radiation, and — 😂🤓.
 As a correction (4 Sept 2019), I have since been informed (😁) that this usage of informed is common in philosophy. It’s less common in popular usage, which is probably why I noticed it and found it delightful. (The OED is in agreement that said usage dates back to at least the 12th century in English.) In addition — and this is anachronistic because the book came out in 1989 — Cosmological Koans at one point describes objects as made of particles that are likely, according to modern physics, to be units of information. It’s still clever wordplay to me because all of these layers of meaning coexist in the same word and make connections with one another that are unexpected and fun, and the humor/delight comes out of that convergence. I find a lot of technical vocabulary amusing, but I’m easily amused by words, and my sense of humor is very simple.
Also, as a tiny note, today is my 3-year WordPress anniversary for the KALLISTI reboot. Thank the gods for all of their benevolence. 🙏 I hope that all of those following my blog are enjoying the posts, and hopefully, we have many more years together. ❤️