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.
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.