Magic and mysticism

I will start out by saying this: I am a big fan of demystifying mysticism. By that, I mean that I like to take the time to explain what mysticism is in a way that sounds approachable and less “mysterious” or “occult-like.” Occult simply means hidden. What I am talking about is “hidden” knowledge through personal gnosis, meditation, and practice.

People often hide their mystical practices because a) not many people understand the need to have a personal connection to the gods minus a priest or a holy text and b) because many people don’t know much or anything on mysticism, and what they don’t know or understand, they fear. Hellenists were and are very rational beings who follow a religion which they feel to have a strong sense of piety and values, but they also balance that with the need for a personal connection to whom they pray.

Mysticism refers to this personal connection or experience with the gods. It is to have some sensory experience which can be as blatant as a lightning-flash epiphany, or as subtle as a sunset. It definitely doesn’t mean that the gods show up in human form and physically speak to you. You don’t even have to “hear” them in your head. It doesn’t even have to be a huge experience; it is whatever transforms you at that moment and makes you feel something else, something wonderful, and to know that it is from the gods.

The ancient Greeks were often informal with the gods they honored most. According to Walter Burkert in his book Greek Religion, “A Greek can address his god as his dear god, philos. ‘Dearest Apollo’ cries the master of the house in excitement while looking at the the statue which stands in front of his house door” (p 274). It is this informality with mindfulness of the distance that yet stands between us and the gods that I believe makes Greek religion the beautiful tapestry that it is, and as meaningful today as it was yesterday. Regardless of how much we pray, whether or not the gods grace us with personal experiences or even their presense is as always entirely up to them regardless of how they addressed Apollo, for instance, in the above example.

And therefore one might ask, “Would addressing a statue as representing the god be mysticism?” My response is perhaps, but not necessarily. Simply addressing the god is prayer. If one were to address the statue in the way that the man did in Burkert’s book, and experience any of the following examples: a strong feeling afterwards of love or being loved, a strong surge of energy within you, “see” that the statue appeared to smile, or just have this knowing sense that Apollo heard you, that is mysticism. That is a personal experience with the gods, or a particular god. Dodds writes about these experiences as expressed by the Greeks in her book The Greeks and the Irrational, and I highly recommend it for those wanting a bird’s eye view of how the ancient Greeks saw their personal experiences with the gods.

Every religion has its mystical practices, their purpose being to help us to be more open towards having those experiences. I must make perfectly clear that these practices will not bring those experiences to you. The gods are the ones who decide in the end how and in what nature they will respond to your prayers, if at all. Practicing some form of mystical ritual or meditative practice will simply open one to having such experiences in the event that a god wishes one to have it. Remember as it is said by the ancient Greeks, “Hermes will help you get your wagon unstuck, but only if you push on it.”

What would make a mystical practice of ours truly Greek would be if it contained methods which are a) ones which have been derived from research and b) make sense in the context of what we know about Greek religion as far as its practices and beliefs are concerned. I have a number of books in the recommended reading list which either discuss mysticism or the Mysteries, and I believe that using a combination of them could help us reconstruct a practice that would be useful for Hellenists to have their own personal practice which would bring them closer to the gods.

Such practices typically involve some form of ritual or meditation. Practicing forms of esoteric ritual for spiritual purposes such as this is referred to as theurgy or literally “god-work.” Essentially when it comes right down to it, all that “spiritual magic” is, is a form of contemplative prayer, introspection, and self-psychology. In opening oneself up to receiving such experiences, one changes their mind, their lifestyle, and their lives. In modern day Hermetic philosophy, if one changes themselves they change their life. In changing their lives, they change themselves. As above, so below.

Challenges to mysticism and personal experience of religion refuted:

  1. Theurgy is also about “commanding the gods” and hence is hubris. Didn’t Iamblicus himself say that?
    No, he didn’t. In fact, in reply to Porphyry’s criticism, “But invocations
    are addressed to the gods as if they were subject to external
    influence, so that it is not only daemons that are thus subject, but
    also gods,” Iamblichus replies (De Myst. I.12, tr. Clarke & al.):

      • “In fact, however, your assumption is not correct. For the illumination that comes about as a result of invocations isself-revelatory and self-willed, and is far removed from being drawn down by force, but rather proceeds to manifestation by reason of its own divine energy and perfection, and is as far superior to (human) voluntary motion as the divine will of the Good is to the life of ordinary deliberation and choice. It is by virtue of such will, then, that the gods in their benevolence and graciousness unstintingly shed their light upon the theurgists, summoning up their soul to themselves and orchestrating their union with them, accustoming them, even while still in the body, to detach themselves from their bodies, and to turn themselves towards their eternal and intelligible first principle. …
      • “But not even in the case of the invocations is it through the experiencing of passion [by the gods] that they link the priests to the gods; it is rather in virtue of the divine love which holds together all things that they provide a union of indissoluble involvement — not, as the name seems immediately to imply, inclining the mind of the gods to humans, but rather, as the truth of things itself desires to teach us, disposing the human mind to participation in the gods, leading it up to the gods and bringing it into accord with them through harmonious persuasion. And it is for this reason, indeed, that the sacred names of the gods and the other types of divine symbol that have the capacity of raising us up to the gods are enabled to link us to them.”
  2. People who are involved with mysticism ignore regular worship and emphasize gnosis over practice.
    Untrue. Although there may be a select minority of individuals who feel that personal gnosis is more important than religion, most who are both Hellenic reconstructionists and mystics believe in having a balance between the two and in having a firm footing in Hellenic piety and regular devotional practice.
  3. People in the ancient world didn’t have “patron deities”, and this is a modern concept brought on by Wicca.
    Untrue. There are various examples of people in the ancient world who were drawn towards a particular deity and expressed that in writing, essays, or poetry. Proclus and Sappho are two such examples. Frequently such people wound up becoming priests and priestesses of that particular god in order to honor that connection which they felt.
  4. People who have patron deities or any form of “personal” experience feel “elevated” and that they have been given a “special status”, hence they must be prone to hubris.
    Also untrue. People who have patron deities do not feel any differently from people who do not, nor do they feel that they are somehow “better” or “special.” I think that much of this attitude comes from people who do not have patron deities, and therefore do not understand what it is like. I would say that people who have a patron deity are not elevated nor special, but have more expected of them. It is not all fun and frolic and “Whee! Apollo/Athena/Aphrodite loves me!” It frequently means being active in your community, and performing public festivals and service on behalf of the god–in other words, being a priest and having the responsibilities and even stresses of doing such. And not everyone is called to the priesthood! Not every Hellenist needs to be a priest nor do they need to have a patron deity, and I would urge those who feel that they have especially strong ties to a particular deity to examine the possibilities of becoming modern day Hellenist clergy. For those who do not have a patron deity, I wouldn’t sweat it, nor would I waste my time elevating nor demeaning others who do. We have just as much need for laypeople as we do clergy.  More on patron deities here.
  5. All that anyone should do in order to communicate with the gods is prayer and worship. All else is hubris.
    I don’t know about this. I think that how one can honor the gods through prayer and worship in ways that go beyond the “leave offerings here and go off into the rest of your life” scenario. Meditate. Learn ancient Greek. Compose music. Write. Make note of your dreams if they pertain to the gods. If you have a “gut instinct” about something that you need to do in regards to your personal practice which does not contradict anything in Hellenismos, follow it! This isn’t hubris; this is making your entire life into a devotion to the gods. You can experience the gods in any aspect of your life, not just during ritual. And that is really the point that needs to be gotten across. I’m with the Delphic Maxims on this one: “Accomplish thy limit” and “Follow god”
  6. I’m a traditionalist Hellenic polytheist, and hence don’t believe in practicing any of this.
    That’s perfectly fine. 🙂 In this situation, we’ll agree to disagree in what our personal practices entail based on our individual styles of reconstructionist practice and belief.

It also goes without saying that you do not have to be a mystic in order to experience your religion. I think that non-mystics and mystics need to stop fighting and insulting each other over their individual practices. Neither side is better than the other, more spiritual than the other, nor a more pious Hellenist than the other. I think that what it boils down to is a lack of understanding which can breed an unwarranted contempt of the other side of the coin.

In regards in reconstructionism, I am concerned that in an attempt to make our religion pure of any neo-pagan influences, we have thrown out the potentials for things which are not only vital to any religion, but our religion as well. This is not to say that everyone should be a mystic, but rather that every religion should have a mystical outlet for those who wish to experience the gods on other levels. As this topic has been of intense debate recently, I have accelerated my research. I have discovered two excellent chapters in two separate books which cover this topic: Sarah Iles Johnson’s Hekate Soteira has a chapter entitled “Hekate and Theurgy” in which it is explicitly stated that methods of divination and magic that do NOT involve the gods were expressely prohibited in Chaldean theurgy. The intention was to connect and pray to the gods, not for personal power or ambition.

    “Who controlled these processes, both ritualistic and spiritual? Did the theurgist, as traditional witches and magicians were said to, coerce the divine into cooperation? According to Iamblichus, he very definitely did not. Theurgy and its goal–the unification of man’s soul with the divine–were activiated by the divine alone; the soul’s role was strictly preparatory.” (pg 85)

And directly from Iamblichus, De Mysteriis. VI.5-6:

    • “But no one threatens the gods, nor does such a manner of invocation occur in relation to them. Hence, among the Chaldeans, by whom language used for the gods alone is preserved in its purity, threats are never uttered. The Egyptians, however, who combine addresses to daemons with divine symbols, do sometimes use threats.” [VI.7]

This meant as I stated before, that all theurgy is, is to prepare and open oneself to the gods, but does not “force” them to respond. Theurgy is a receptive practice which is highly focused on eusebeia, or Hellenic piety. One cannot take on a spiritual practice without being pious. If theurgy is without eusebeia, without regard to honor to the gods, does not give to the community, and disregards the ancestors–among many other tenets of eusebeia–one cannot truly be a theurgist.

And in regards to artifical means of prophecy or magic that did not involve the gods:

    “Astrology, bird auspices, and haruspicy are called ‘toys, the supports of a deceptive trade,” and the theurgist is urged to ‘flee from all of them,’ if he intends ‘to enter the holy paradise of happiness, where virtue and wisdom and good laws meet together.’ This indicates a distrust of artifical methods of divination (methods in which the gods did not speak directly to the theurgist)” (pg 86).

The entire chapter is excellent and I have no desire to quote it here. Then there’s the work Magika Hiera by Christopher Faraone, particularly the chapter by Fritz Graf on “Prayer in Magic and Religious Ritual”. Here’s an interesting quote from there:

    “The function of the voces magicae, at least, is clear. They are not used, as some have claimed, to force the divinity; they take the place of, and serve as, the credentials, an ample display of knowledge. In several instances, the papryri state that these names were secret, that the gods enjoys being called by them and helps out of joy: as the gods themselves who had revealed them. The magician behaves not very differently from an initiate of a mystery cult: both claim a special relationship with their respective gods, based on revealed knowledge–this can explain why parts of mystery rituals were taken over into the prayers of the magical papyri” (pg 192).

There is definitely support for some form of mystical practice involving contemplative prayer, ritualistic prayer, spiritual esoteric practice, and the gods. Needless to say, mysticism is not for everyone. There are those who believe that it is inappropriate for their practice, and I both support and respect that. Ancient Greek religion was diverse, and so it shall be in modern times.

I run a Facebook group on Hellenic Mysticism and Magic for further discussions on these and related topics. I also have a growing reading list which can help you to read up on the subject and other topics related to it. Also, here is a brief list of people to research who were involved in ancient Greek mysticism in one way, shape or form:

  • Apollonius of Tyana
  • Parmenides
  • Empedocles
  • Pythagoras
  • Iamblichus
  • Proclus

Additional Resources on Greek Mysticism

Greek polytheism 101