Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1894.
With the advent of Later Platonism, or ‘Neoplatonism’ as coined by a German historian in the eighteenth century, a religious practice referred to as theourgia, ‘theurgy’ began to achieve a status of reverent acceptance amongst an elite circle of pagan philosophers seeking to achieve direct contact with their gods. Theurgy can be described as a set of philosophical treatises and mystical rites that are executed by theurgists with the intention with the henôsis, ‘union’, with a divine manifested current or being. It was first codified during the reign of Marcus Aurelius by a man called Julian the Theurgist, and the code itself was referred to as the Oracula Chaldaica. Despite some Greek philosophers not being sympathetic to it, many Neoplatonic philosophers embraced it enthusiastically and some made it a way of life with the upmost sense of fervour.
The concept of theurgy can be understood, in comparison to theologia, ‘theology’, as embodying a mystical set of techniques seeking communion with the gods, instead of it being merely a collection philosophical queries and debates. However, I am not implying that theurgy did not have a theoretical framework from which it extended or that the theurgists did not engage in deep acts of philosophical contemplation. The remains of primary and secondary literary sources, and the many references to the extensiveness of such literature regarding the philosophy and praxis of theurgy are evidence for the contrary.
Despite the opinion of early Christian authors, such as Gregory of Nazianzus, theurgy was an exceptional form of worship and many have rightly claimed that it was a higher form of magic, but not resembling what the Greeks labelled as goêtia, ‘goetia’, for in the eyes of theurgists, such as Iamblichus, these goêtes were merely ‘makers of images’ who produced only false apparitions of the gods for a monetary price. According to Iamblichus’ defence of theurgy,
It is not thought that links the theurgist to the gods; else what should hinder the theoretical philosopher from enjoying theurgic union with them? The case is not so. Theurgic union is attained only by the perfective operation of unspeakable acts correctly performed, acts which are beyond all understanding, and by power of the unutterable symbols intelligible only to the gods.
Many theurgists actually saw themselves as belonging to a priestly caste and for this reason they labelled theurgy hieratikê technê, ‘priestly art’. Other terms used were theagôgia, literally meaning ‘evocation of a god’, and phôtagôgia, ‘evocation of light’. A more general application of a term was erga eusebeias, which indicated the sacred duty of theurgy. Judging from other terms that were applied to theurgy, such as orgia, mystêria, teletai, and mystagôgia indicated that theurgy of Late Antiquity had acquired the status of the old mystery religions. For some, theurgy itself could be seen as the ultimate development of the mysteries as it represented an initiation into the greatest mystery of all, henôsis.
An elaborate description of the basic doctrine of theurgy was presented by Franz Cumont,
Following Plato, the Chaldean theurgists clearly opposed the intelligible world of ideas to the world of appearances which are perceptible by the sense... At the top of their pantheon they placed the intellect whom they also called the Father. This transcendent god who wraps himself in silence is called impenetrable and yet is sometimes represented as an immaterial Fire from which everything has originated. Below him are, on various levels, the triads of the intelligible world, then the gods who reside beyond the celestial spheres or who preside over them... The human soul is of divine substance, a spark of the original Fire, has of its own will descended the rungs of the ladder of beings and has become imprisoned in the body... When it is freed of all material wraps by which it is burdened, the blessed soul will be received in the fatherly embrace of the highest God.