The Secret Tradition, Part 9: Theurgy

By August 26, 2014

Here I continue this series that discusses the possibility of a higher rite of initiation in early Christianity that may have had similarities to the apocalypses, the mysteries, and perhaps some Plato.  Clement of Alexandria gave a number of hints in these directions.  Alexandria also gave rise to Neoplatonism and Christian Platonists and Neoplatonists were often in the same circles.  For instance, Plotinus, considered the founder of Neoplatonism, had the same tutor as Origen, a man named Ammonius Saccas.  Furthermore, the Neoplatonists would begin to practice their own secret deifying rite: theurgy.  Dominic O’Meara defines theurgy as “a process for making man god.”[1]

The term theurgy was first used in a text called the Chaldean Oracles written in the late second century.  “The need of pagan believers to enter into a direct contact with their gods,” explains Georg Luck, “led to the development of a certain technique or set of techniques.”  Theurgy was also called the “priestly art” and was seen as a mystery rite; “theurgy can be considered the ultimate development of the mysteries,” says Luck, “because it represents an initiation into the highest mystery of all, the union of man and god.”[2]  Such rites were secret, so we don’t know much about what the actual rite was like but it was considered a mystery rite that involved ritual purification and signs and tokens.[3]  “‘Symbols and tokens’ were passwords or guarantees that everything was all right,” explains Luck,  “the god would recognize the theurgist as a legitimate petitioner, and the theurgist would recognize the god as a real god, not just a demon or a hero.”  “The gift itself,” Luck explains further, “not just technical knowledge, was passed on in certain families, and it could be transmitted from teacher to disciple by the laying on of hands.”[4]

Such rites may have been practiced among the Ammonian community.  The Neoplatonist Iamblichus claimed that theurgy was Egyptian religion and even though they did not call particular rites theurgy, both Plotinus and Origen were interested in rites to gain power and to interact with supernatural beings.[5]  Thus theurgy had some similarities to the secret tradition.

Furthermore, the Christian Platonist pseudo-Dionyisus (c. 475-550) called the Christian sacraments theurgy: they were a process by which humans could become Gods.   Through the process, said Dionysius, “we shall become luminous and theurgic, perfected and able to bestow perfection.”[6]  He also spoke of being  “initiated in the sacraments of the sacred mystagogy by our hierarchy’s mysteries and traditions” but warned, “see to it that you do not betray the holy of holies.…  Keep these things of God unshared and undefiled by the uninitiated.”[7]


[1] Dominic J. O’ Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003), 129

[2] Georg Luck, “Theurgy and Forms of Worship in Neoplatonism,” in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and in Conflict, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 185-89.

[3] Ilinca Tanaseanu-Dobler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2013), 30.

[4] Luck, “Theurgy,” 193-95.

[5] Tanaseanu-Dobler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity, 49.

[6] Gregory Shaw, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7, no. 4 (1999): 573.

[7] Pseudo-Dionysius, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, 1.5; 1.1.

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