Category: Philosophical theories

Plato and the Chaldean Oracles

A collection of oracles with theological, cosmological and soteriological content created during the late 2nd century AD. It was regarded as a revelation derived from Plato’s bodiless soul and met with a tremendously favourable response in the context of the late Neoplatonic movement.

Origin

The Chaldean Oracles is a collection of oracles written in dactylic hexameter (the metre of the Delphic oracles and the divinely-inspired poetry of Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus). They were supposedly dictated by the gods themselves and/or the bodiless soul of Plato himself to two blood relatives and namesakes that lived and were active during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-189 AD): Julian the Chaldean (the father) and Julian the Theurgist (the son). The former’s title indicates a rather specialized knowledge of magical practices rather than any possible origin from Babylon, a fact corroborated by a reference in the Suda (I 434 Adler) that he was the author of a work bearing the title On demons (a work comprised of 4 books). The son’s title, if attributed to him while still alive, is probably the oldest appearance of the term theurgos (hence theurgy) which is also found in contemporary Pollux (Onom. 1.14, cf. Nicomachus, Excerpta 6.13).

We know few things about the manner in which the oracles were composed and collected. The most probable view is that Julian fils (who seems to have written also the Theourgika and Telestika [Suda I 435 Adler]) acted as a medium and, in an altered state of consciousness, dictated rhymed oracles that his father eventually wrote down. This method corresponds to the verified magical and theurgic practice of systasis.

The Julians’ ethnic origin is not known; yet it is likely that they came from Syria.

Sources

The actual text of the Chaldean Oracles has not been saved. The collection at our disposal, which is the outcome of considerable philological labour, comprises 226 fragments some of which are of disputed authenticity or of unattributable authorship. Most of these are single-verse fragments whereas the most extensive one comprises seventeen verses. They come from various authors of late antiquity, especially Proclus (the 4/5 of the entire collection) and Damascus. We also find an important list of entries in the work of the important Byzantine scholar Michael Psellus in his extant works entitled Interpretation of the Chaldean Oracles and Exposition of the Chaldean dogmas. The late-Byzantine philosopher Gemistus Pletho collected and commented on 36 oracles in three saved written works of his.

Content

The Chaldean Oracles were written in a particularly obscure, elaborate and overwrought language whereas the fragmentary nature of the saved verses hinders interpretation. However, the philological efforts exerted in the past hundred years have yielded the rough outline of a theological, cosmological and eschatological system that the oracles presupposed or presented themselves.

The primary principle of the system is an absolutely transcendent god perceived in terms of nous [intellect] (fragment 7, 39, 49) and characterized as patêr [father] (frag. 7 and 14), monas [monad] (frag. 11, 26, 27) and pêgê [spring] (frag. 13, 30, 37). The Demiurge, a second divine nous, derives from the first transcendent god. According to an oracle testimony, humankind worships by mistake this derivative god as the primary deity. The transcendent (first) god is characterized as ὁ ἅπαξ ἐπέκεινα [the primarily transcendent], a fact that accentuates his complete unity in himself and radical difference from the created, material world. The second nous is called ὁ δὶς ἐπέκεινα [the less {second order} transcendent one], which points to his involvement in multiplicity and discreet immanence in the created world. Dynamis [power] lies between these two deities as the bond that unites them and the eternal spouse of the primary god. She stands for a primary female principle occasionally identified with Hecate, and serves to enable the complete distinction of the two gods as well as the one between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. Hecate is the name by which is also denoted the cosmic Soul, the divine entity that animates the entire sensible universe.

The theology of the Chaldean Oracles is both monistic and triadic. Apart from the triadic structure of god as such, this is discernible in the hierarchical distinction of three worlds, the fiery (i.e., intelligible) one, the ethereal (i.e., heavenly), and the material (i.e., sub-lunar and earthly) one. It is also evident in the system’s divine creatures of an inferior order: the Iynges, the Synocheis and the Teletarchae.

The Iynges are the forces that connect humans to the world of the deities and, at the same time, the Platonic Forms within the paternal Mind. The Synocheis are the forces that cohere the universe and allow for the sympatheia of its constituent parts. And, finally, the Teletarchae (i.e., the masters of ritual ceremonies) are the three supreme Chaldean principles (pistis [faith], alêtheia [truth], erôs [love]) and, at the same time, the spiritual leaders of the three worlds: the Aeon is the ruler of the fiery world, the Sun is the lord of the etherial world and the Moon is the leader of the earthly world. The Chaldaic system also accepted archangels, angels and demons (perhaps heroes, as well) as supra-sensible beings superior to humans yet inferior to the gods above in terms of the mundane rank.

This labyrinthine system is teeming with details that elude us. Its aim was the liberation of the human soul from the world of material creation and decay and its salvation through beholding, or unison with, the divine nature. Its soteriological orientation, which formed the quintessence of the elaborate cosmology of the Chaldean Oracles, was firmly grounded in the notion that the coveted redemption can be attained by means of appropriate rituals that allow for the coordination of the theurgist’s soul with some divine presence. Various magicoreligious practices were developed or revived within this context, such as the systasis, the anagogê (i.e., the ritualistic elevation towards a god), the ensouling of statues etc. All these were comprised in theurgy and ultimately aspired to the achievement of theopsy (i.e., the mental viewing of god) and theôsis (deification).

Elective affinities with other philosophical and religious currents

The Chaldean Oracles form a peculiar synthesis of Platonic metaphysics (including some Stoic admixtures), oriental beliefs (Babylonian astrology, Persian fire-worship, and Syrian sun-cult) and magic. The presence of some characteristic middle-Platonic doctrines (e.g., the interpretation of Platonic Forms as concepts born within the divine mind) is particularly stressed in the surviving fragments. The views held by Numenius (a contemporary of the Julians) seems to have had an even greater impact on the philosophy of the oracles. The acceptance of a superior (absolutely transcendent) and an inferior (semi-immanent) god most probably derives from him. But there are more elective affinities. The system of the Chaldean Oracles is related to the so-called Hermetic Corpus as well as some parts of the diverse and multifaceted literature of the Gnostics.

Impact

Plotinus was probably not aware of the Chaldean Oracles. His editor and student Porphyry was, however, interested in this work to the extent that he authored one or two studies on it. Nevertheless, he would not value them more than Apolline oracles. The huge influence that the Chaldean Oracles as a sacred text (exceeding in importance even Plato’s Parmenides or the Orphic theogonies) exerted on late Neo-Platonism is due to Iamblichus. Especially with regard to the Athenian Neo-Platonic School, the annotation of the Oracles was seen as the supreme point of a philosopher’s prowess. Their prestige reached the Italian Renaissance. It is only in modern times, when the study of Plato was detached from the Platonic tradition of late antiquity, that the Chaldean Oracles were treated as but one more facet of the so-called “populist Platonism,” which flourished in the imperial era.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Van Liefferinge, C. La théurgie: des Oracles Chaldaïques à Proclus. Liège, 1999.
  • Athanassiadi, PFrede, M. ed. . Pagan monotheism in late Antiquity. Oxford, 1999.
  • Johnston, S.I., Finamore, J. FGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity,τόμος 1ος.. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Johnston, S.I. Hekate Soteira: a Study of Hekate’s Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. Atlanta, 1990.
  • Lewy, H. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy: Mystic Magic and Platonism in the Later Roman Empire3. Paris, 2011.
  • Majercik, R. The Chaldaean Oracles2. Dilton Marsh, 2013.
  • Tanaseanu-Döbler, I. Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition. Göttingen, 2013.
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