Paper: Orientalism in The Mysteries

Many of you know that this year I undertook a directed reading project on the Hermetica. My initial intent was to focus on ascent experiences in these texts and get into ideas of  gnosis in antiquity. However, an offhand comment about Orientalism changed all that.

Oh, Orientalism.

For those who don’t know what Orientalism is, this term refers to way the Orient is discussed and portrayed. These depictions often lend “the Orient” (places like Egypt and the Middle East) an exotic mystique which has little merit in reality. This is a problem. That said, I find Orientalism fascinating, especially because it’s so prevalent in occultism. Have you ever invoked Ra at daybreak to reinforce your secret pact with the gods? Does covering your head like King Tut make your ritual stronger? Or, I don’t know, do you enjoy gazing upon the Stelae of Revealing because those hieroglyphs clearly contain sacred power? If you’ve done any of these things (and really, who hasn’t!), you’ve done Orientalism. (Hail Ra!)

By now it should be obvious: My Hermetica research paper ended up not being about the Hermetica at all. Instead, I focused on Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries of the Egyptians and the Orientalizing discourses Iamblichus utilizes in his discussion with Porphyry.

So what is this paper about? This paper is about Egyptian religion, and it is not. It is about Platonic philosophy, and it is not. It is about theurgic practice, and it is not.

This paper is about what Iamblichus talks about when he talks about Egypt.

For those of you who have hung in thus far, here is a teaser:

            Egyptian religion was a mystery in the Greco-Roman Empire. For those outside the culture, Egyptian practices were a source of fascination and inspiration which fueled the imagination of Greek philosophers and historians. One philosopher who was taken with a fanciful view of Egypt was Iamblichus, a Syrian Neoplatonist best known for combining Platonic philosophy and Eastern ritual into a system called theurgy. His treatise, On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, is both a defence of theurgy as well as a reply to the major philosophical approach at the time, namely the hyper-rationalism of Porphyry and Plotinus which dominated Neoplatonic discourse in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Claiming to be able to understand and access the hidden meaning of foreign rituals, Iamblichus maintained that theurgy was a superior method of accessing the gods, especially in contrast to Greek rationalism. In making his case for his system’s validity, Iamblichus relies on an Orientalizing discourse which authenticates theurgy within Platonic thought. This can be seen in his explication of Egyptian theology and especially in his discussion of the so-called barbarous words.

In the following examination of The Mysteries, I wish to focus on how Egyptian elements function to create a specific style of discourse, one couched in a veil of “Oriental” secrecy which legitimates Iamblichan thought in the face of rationalistic Neoplatonic criticism. In The Mysteries, there are two social theories operating in tandem which serve to legitimate Iamblichan theurgy. On the one hand, there is the concept of Orientalism, the idea that Eastern locales—places like Egypt and Babylonia—are perceived as exotic worlds filled with mystery and special knowledge. On the other hand, there is the notion that this special knowledge can be used as a unit of social currency. Both these concepts suggest there is a possessor of information who maintains a privileged position through this possession. My argument is that, in The Mysteries, Iamblichus becomes this privileged possessor of knowledge by engaging an Orientalist discourse which designates his philosophy as otherworldly, privileged, and esoteric (i.e. limited to an in-the-know elite). This gives his ideas value against an opposing dominant trend in philosophy. By situating his system of theurgy as a continuance of ancient Oriental practices in line with Platonic thought, Iamblichus imbues it with an inarguable foundation. An examination of The Mysteries, specifically the discussion of Egyptian practices in Book VII, will serve to illustrate this.

These are the opening paragraphs. For those who wish to read more, the full paper can be found here. The paper has been taken down because it is pending publication! You’ll get to read a newer, more fabulous version in the near future! In the meantime, why not read one of my other papers?

Photo by Muninn.

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About Sarah Veale

Former journalist, current student of ancient religion. My first peer-review article, "Orientalism in Iamblichus' The Mysteries," was recently published in The Pomegranate:The International Journal of Pagan Studies.
This entry was posted in Academic, Ancient, Hermetica, mysticism, Occult, Philosophy, Thelema. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Paper: Orientalism in The Mysteries

  1. I definitely plan to read the paper, but I just want to shake my head first over the common practice of lumping Egypt in with the “Orient.” That’s just weird: IT’S IN FLIPPNG AFRICA YOU GUYS! GET A GLOBE! Longitudinally, If Egypt is “East,” so is Greece. Actually, though, that solves a lot of problems: Athens and Alexandria as the Orient-facing centers of the Mediterranean word.

  2. Sarah says:

    Perhaps it will help just a wee bit to empathize with the ancient Greeks–after all, we have little-to-no evidence that they had globes!

    As to why this view is perpetuated “post-globe discovery” this has to do with how Western academia is fundamentally based on Greek and Roman models and sources. The whole thing is rather insidious, and yes, flawed.

  3. OK, I finally got time to read it. Good paper, and food for thought about other Orientalizing tendencies in more recent occult work [Bla-vat-skeeeeeee].

    It’s also clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to stomach being a scholar of the Mystery tradition. I’d have too much of a tendency to stop mid-discourse and say, “Just try this, it works.”

    {BTW, you misused “ascribes”:: it should have been “Plato subscribed to …”]

  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks! And yeah, there is Orientalism pretty much everywhere in occultism.

    Yes, I completely misused that term. Good eye! I’ll be sure to correct it at…well, some point.

  5. Another amusing thing we do, and have done approximately forever, is “orientalize” the past. I might be forgetting a convenient term for that (let me brag about how good my memory used to be :-).

  6. Pingback: Egypt and Magic – some links | Magic of the Ordinary

  7. I am no religious scholar but found your article on Iamblichus writing to be of interest. When he lived and wrote it seemed there was a hodge-podge of various Hermetic and Gnostic systems from Egypt up through the Greeks and Romans, plus even the exchange of far eastern ideas via the Silk Road, that i do not know how scholars can keep it straight. As a witch being trained in a ceremonial system that obviously came down through the later Hermeticism of the QBL, Blavatsky, Freemasons, Golden Dawn, Crowley, and the Romantic reconstructionists I definitely feel the tie back to Egypt. Isis to me is The Primal Goddess. Thank you.

  8. Sarah says:

    Honestly, I spent the last year trying to make sense of all the gnostic/Hermetic currents in the ancient world. That said, I am no closer to untangling any of the influences, either!

  9. And i think one of the biggest obstacles to modern scholars is that ultimately most were “mystery religions” that only the initiated experienced in full understanding, and they were sworn to silence. So your work is cut out for you. I think even if we practice a mystery religion today that our ideas of what they did in the past are mostly our own projections, or a trying to read between the lines of what they did reveal.

  10. I used to be confused about what I would do if offered “temporary” use of a time machine, but the past three years have convinced me that my first jaunt would be to Alexandria in about 270 CE. I would want to fine-tune that date to make sure it was before the first appearance of “Christian mob” in the local news.

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