In my blog post about reading Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, I said that theurgy is “basically a fancy word for traditional cultus.”
The post has gotten a lot of reach, with most referrals from Facebook (where I can’t see anything), but it was also posted to a Reddit board called r/Occult by someone.
A Reddit user commented on the post there at about the same time it was first linked to on that forum, and le said that I obviously had no understanding of what theurgy is and suggested that I “bring more laundry next time.”
Laundry notwithstanding (dust mite allergy here, so I’ve already reached peak laundry and then some, lol), I debated for a long time about what, if any, response was appropriate. Since people keep visiting from Reddit, though, I figure it’s worth a shot to make some clarifying remarks.
May Harmonia bless us all.
People (in this case, me) assume things based on our own perspectives, which can lead to miscommunication in a blog-like setting. Over the course of this post, I hope to fix that.
One of my blogging goals is to make things accessible when I talk about them. I am a nonspecialist talking to other nonspecialists, with the goal of getting people excited about and motivated to engage in religious study, but occasionally to work out my thoughts in a public setting. I’m excitable, occasionally embarrassingly wrong, an extrovert, and probably intellectually average in a statistical sense, so hopefully, what I write here is relatable.
In looking at the definition of theurgy, many people in the West (and especially those in Western esotericism and/or modern forms of occult practices) seem to use definitions based on how theosophists described theurgy, especially H. P. Blavatsky. Her emphasis is on drawing down higher beings, often with a goal of entering into communion or union with them. Others call theurgy a form of “white magic” due to its positive focus on the Gods, Angels, Daimones, and Heroes. Popular culture plays on the good/bad magic thing a lot, from the film Halloweentown to a lot of classic fantasy literature.
Scholars who study what the Platonic philosophers were even talking about fall somewhere in between. Crystal Addey, in Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods defines it after a disclaimer that theurgy is incredibly difficult to define.
As a working definition, theurgy designates a lifelong endeavour incorporating a set of ritual practices alongside the development of ethical and intellectual capacities, which aimed to use symbols to reawaken the soul’s pre-ontological, causal connection with the gods, operating primarily through divine love and, subordinately, through cosmic sympathy. The goal of theurgy was the cumulative contact, assimilation and, ultimately, union with the divine and thereby the divinisation of the theurgist; in other words, the ascent of the soul to the divine, intelligible realm and the manifestation of the divine in embodied life. This ascent to the divine is conceptualised as an ascent of consciousness. Iamblichus maintains that the highest purpose of theurgy is ascent to the One, which was thought to be beyond Being itself; yet this occurs only at a very late stage and to a few individuals. (Addey, p. 25)
Gregory Shaw discusses the definition of theurgy at the beginning of Theurgy and the Soul:
Theurgy, on the other hand, was a theion ergon, a “work of the gods” capable of transforming man to a divine status. Although the term theourgia, [sic] originated with second-century Platonists to describe the deifying power of Chaldean rituals — some of which were believed to be transmitted by the soul of Plato himself — it was Iamblichus who provided a philosophic rationale for the performance of these rites and ensured that theurgy would become an integral part of the Platonic vocabulary. (Shaw, p. 5-6)
Edward Butler discusses theurgy in “Offerings to the Gods: A Neoplatonic Perspective”; in the introduction, he refers to it as ritual activity, followed by a gradual unpacking of what offerings are actually like. I like this passage:
Furthermore, the type of ritual I shall be discussing is not of a sublime variety only suited to the philosopher—not, that is, some set of mystical exercises for an elite circle of initiates. Rather, it is the most basic sort of ritual known throughout the world, namely the presentation of offerings to a deity, which is illuminated by a passage from the commentary by Simplicius on Epictetus’s Encheiridion on the proper spirit in which to make offerings to the Gods (Butler, p. 3).
Within the scholarship that I have seen thus far (remember: as a nonspecialist), it seems like a lot of scholars are divided about whether theurgy was a specific set of rituals transmitted or if it was something else; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does indicate that they were special.
Generally speaking, most people I know on Twitter (note: I’m on hiatus and I have now blocked Twitter via Freedom in Locked Mode, so I can’t actually go there right now to check conversation histories) — and myself — more or less follow the idea that theurgy is what I called it — a fancy word for traditional cultus. In this view, people treat theurgy like it’s some exotic thing, and once we take the exoticism away, it’s really just representative of an informed, philosophically-grounded view of traditional ritual acts and what engaging in them means.
If we wanted to think in the context of the esteemed philosophers and their teachings, what Watts says about Platonic schools in the 400s-500s shifting gears to teach (Watts says “train”) people “to be good pagans” (which they were probably doing before as part of the normal curriculum without having to prod people quite so much), I am in the exact target audience for that kind of instruction, like most people. There is definitely a difference between someone who focuses on being a “good pagan” than on someone who is actually a philosopher; I think that Plato is very clear about the high status of philosophers in incarnation cycles.
The definition of theurgy that I have seen most often among modern polytheists relies on knowing what traditional cultus is and what traditional cultus is in a religious and polytheistic theological sense.
If we look at what Marinus said about Proclus after his death, an enormous emphasis was placed on how Proclus upheld traditional ritual — the observances of the lunar cycle, the cultus of the gods, and methods of purification. If we look at the legends surrounding Iamblichus, many of them revolve around Iamblichus being very good at cultus and extremely holy as a result. His De Mysteriis provides a backbone for anyone who wants to approach cultus in a methodological, grounded way that puts the Gods at its center.
To use Iamblichus’ teachings as a jumping board, the traditional rituals, from the libations one does for the household Gods in the morning to prayers done to a specific God using the images, signs, and utterances sacred to lim to the more gatekept practices of trained oracular work are theurgy. Consistent bhakti (for lack of a better term) is the source of happiness and union. Whenever a person actively conducts household ritual, or a prayer for a God following the methods outlined for praising them and giving them sacrifice during the prayer, or a festival that honors the cycles that move us during the seasons of the year and the cycle of the moon, the correct outlook and focus on the Gods places the one(s) conducting the ritual in a state of receptivity towards the Gods. It’s a beautiful thing enabled by the rhythm, the cycles, and the benevolence of the Gods.
One of the reasons people online can get so shocked (and sometimes confrontational) when someone does things like ignore consumption taboos when giving offerings to Chthonic Gods, not doing khernips before prayer, and the like is that consistency, repetition, and behavior grounded in a tradition do matter when approaching the Gods. It does take some time to develop good ritual habits and a useful outlook, but the nice thing about rules is that they ultimately result in routines that help us all get out of our own way and focus on the Gods. See Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis V.26 where he discusses prayers or the part at I.15 where he refers to the sacred liturgy and the paragraph afterward about prayers of petition.
Other things matter for traditional cultus, too, which get at some of the purity language that Iamblichus and other philosophers use when they discuss an individual’s capacity. The process of building virtue and coming into a state of purity is difficult. In a ritual sense, mental purity is just as important (if not moreso) than physical purity. Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion, Volume I: Early Greek Religion discusses pre-Platonic ideas, and a person’s need to have purity even internally was even important early on. (The goal of the volume is to show that polytheists in Ancient Greece were actually pious by using proxy-information about how they handled inner purity according to the surviving source texts.)
In the introduction, Petrovic and Petrovic have this to say about some of the preliminaries, which are in accord with much of what I have said earlier about ritual states:
A worshipper’s phronein hosia—‘thinking religiously correct thoughts’—and sophronein—‘thinking safe thoughts’, as well as approaching divinities and performing rituals with a pure psyche, mind, heart, or thoughts—were perceived as directly determining the outcome of a ritual. A religiously correct inner disposition towards the gods, often formulated as the ‘purity’ of psychic or noetic organs or processes, marks out and complements ritual actions: it is a prerequisite for and facilitator of successful ritual communication. Conversely, an incorrect or a bad inner disposition, articulated as ‘impure’ or ‘polluted’, results in impiety, transgression, and ritual failure. The Greek gods, we propose, were thought to care greatly about the worshipper’s inner attitudes. What mattered in the performance of cult acts was, to a large extent, the state of mind of the actor. (Petrovic & Petrovic, p. 4-5)
When I’m tired or stressed and haven’t managed to do enough self-care, my 25-minute morning prayer cycle is more difficult to do because what I call a good state in ritual relies on being able to focus. Focus leads to the mind coming into a receptive state with regards to the God(s) to whom one is praying, AKA an agalma within the mind. Distracted, the ritual still gets done, and one’s duty to the Gods is still fulfilled, but I wouldn’t do a petitionary prayer on one of those days. I assume that many of us believe and understand the same thing, and the scholars are only confirming this through their examination of the evidence within the polytheistic society (AKA polytheistic Greek views) under study.
Now we can turn to their discussion of Pythagoras for some other things:
We must pay close attention to the phrasing in our passage, and especially to the aspect and the tense of the verb: one is to approach the gods and perform the sacrifice not just with a ‘pure soul’ but with a soul that is, as the present participle suggests, actively pursuing purity in the moment of the encounter with the divinities and the performance of the ritual: τὴν ψυχὴν ἁγνεύουσαν. If the formulation is genuine, Pythagoras might well have in mind here the active and conscious mental processes which are performed in the moment of sacrifice. ψυχὴ ἁγνεύουσα might denote what one thinks, feels, and perhaps utters during the encounter with the gods and the performance of the ritual. The noun hagneia and the related verb hagneuo denote not just ritual purity in absolute terms, but also specifically a state of freedom from pollution. A person who is in the state of hagneia is a person who is abstaining from contact with pollutants and has established a temporal distance from them. This is why adjective hagnos and verb hagneuo are often followed in Greek by a qualifier in the genitive: one is pure from specific pollutants. In the case of the soul, it lies at hand to suppose that it should be pure from polluting thoughts or feelings. (p. 61-62)
And from someone else who was mistakenly thought to be a Pythagorean:
Furthermore, the same idea of inner purity as a prerequisite for successful sacrifice was attributed to Zaleucus of Locri, a shadowy mytho-historical lawgiver whom Diodorus mistakenly holds to be Pythagoras’ disciple. Diodorus quotes the following statement as belonging to the general preamble to Zaleucus’ legislation (D.S. 12.20.2):
σέβεσθαί τε τοὺς θεούς, ὡς πάντων τῶν ἐν τῷ βίῳ καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν αἰτίους ὄντας τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, ἔχειν δὲ καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν καθαρὰν πάσης κακίας, ὡς τῶν θεῶν οὐ χαιρόντων ταῖς τῶν πονηρῶν θυσίαις τε καὶ δαπάναις, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν δικαίαις τε καὶ καλαῖς ἐπιτηδεύσεσι.
[Men] should worship the gods as the origin of all that is beautiful and good for humans. They should hold the soul pure (psychen katharan) from every evil (pases kakias), since the gods do not rejoice in either the sacrifices or costly gifts of the wicked people, but in the just and noble practices of good men.
The similarities between this passage and the statements of Xenophon’s Socrates and Plato are remarkable, in so far as Zaleucus also stresses the difference between the sacrifices of the wicked and those of good men. The Pythagorean statement, by contrast, contains manifold references to realities of ritual purity, and is oriented towards the instruction of what should be done, whereas in the passage attributed to Zaleucus, as in Xenophon and Plato, the thought is more general and represents a critique of popular misconceptions about the divine, rather than instructions for the correct preparation for the sacrificial ritual. (p. 65-66)
I’m working right now to improve my focus, attentiveness, and mental purity in direct response to reading the Platonists (and it’s more important now that I’m reading some of the pre-Platonism things like the book I quoted from above). I am not at 100%. I work in a basement office, so my circadian rhythm is never sure what it is doing in the low-sun season of the year. One does what one can, and if we were all perfect at all times, we wouldn’t be here.
Just as not everyone can go to a gym and automatically deadlift several hundred pounds, what happens in ritual is (to a large degree) based on practice, repetition, and a person’s current capacity. While there are deeper things that can be done than daily offerings — very intense rituals for Dionysos, Apollôn, and basically any God, culminating in silence and (if all goes well) the opening of the mind like a flower to receive fire — such things are not everyday activities for most people. I think it’s easy, especially before building good, consistent ritual habits, to fall into a perspective of exoticizing ritual or thinking that all of them need to be very complicated or advanced to be effective. This is harmful.
So, in sum, when defining theurgy, it is admittedly important to name the environment one is working in. I tend to use theurgy in a positive sense, informed by the community usage around me, where the rituals performed and offerings given every day empower people to come into contact with the Gods.