Sunday, May 1, 2011

Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles: 'A hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity'

In his Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis states the following of Michael Psellos: "He expresses contradictory opinions regarding the worth of the Chaldean Oracles and goes on at length about topics that he then suddenly dismisses as nonsense, which has been seen as a possibly 'hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity.'"

Kaldellis provides two references for this statement. The first is John Duffy's 1995 paper "Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos", while the second (from which Kaldellis has taken the words in quotes) is Katerina Ierodiakonou's 2002 paper "Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon".

The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from those works by Duffy and Ierodiakanou.

1. From John Duffy's "Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos", which comprises Chapter Five in the volume Byzantine Magic, edited by Henry Maguire (Dumbarton Oaks, 1995, (
Let us look more closely at the Chaldaean Oracles and Psellos’ association with them. They are a set of hexameter verses, composed probably in the second century A.D., but purporting to transmit a much older revelation about the universe and the hierarchies of powers that control it. The real author is not known, but there is a tradition that connects them with a father and son, both going by the name of Julian. Within the subject matter of the Oracles them- selves there are, from our perspective, two general tendencies which we may label the philosophical or theological, on the one hand, and the theurgical or magical, on the other. The first of these, the philosophical or theological, reveals a system of powers who rule the cosmos and are interrelated in a hierarchy that shows a marked preference for triadic arrangement. At the top of the hierarchy is a trinity consisting of (1) the Supreme Deity, (2) a Demiurge Intellect, and (3) a female divinity identified as Hecate. There follows a long series of beings who, as they descend in order of importance, come ever closer to the world of matter. At the higher end of the series is a triad of powers called iynges, synocheis, and teletarchs, each of which has a distinct role to play in governing the universe. At the lower end are various angels and demons, including good demons that assist the soul in its attempts to ascend to the Supreme Deity and bad demons which are responsible for evils such as sickness and disease.

The other side of the Chaldaean coin is the world of theurgy and magic, part of which is reflected in the surviving fragments, but it is most fully re- ported by people such as the Neoplatonist Proclus, who was an active practitioner of the hieratic art, and Psellos, who made it his business to find out everything he could about the subject. One of the chief aims of theurgy as an art, and of the rites performed in connection with it, is the purification and elevation of the soul toward union with the Supreme Deity. Since this process begins at the lower mundane level, theurgy is deeply involved in both attracting good demons and placating or repelling bad demons. It is not surprising, then, that Hecate, who already had these associations in much earlier times, is given a central magical as well as a leading theological role in the system. Also brought into the magical setting from the cosmological side and given a trans- formed identity are the iynges. In cosmology they function as thoughts or ideas emanating from the mind of the Supreme Deity, but in theurgy they are physical objects employed in magic.

One kind of iynx (also called a strophalos) is a magic wheel used by a theurgist for ritual purposes. Psellos himself explains that the strophalos known as the Hecatic was a golden ball with characters written all over it; it had a sapphire in the middle, was swung by means of a strap made from a bull’s hide, and was used during invocations.

In another type of ritual, again according to information supplied by Psellos, the theurgist used statues of specific deities in order to establish con- tact with them. The process of making contact involved, among other things, special stones, herbs, animals, and sometimes aromatic substances (aromata), which were placed inside the effigy. Stones and herbs were also used in other rituals to scare away bad demons or to purify the soul. lamblichus tells us that in the art of theurgy certain materials—specific stones, plants, animals, and aromatic substances (aromata)—were regarded as especially suitable for attracting the presence of divinities.

Psellos, both through scattered obiter dicta and through the medium of a number of specific expositions, has left a fairly full record of his own dealings with and attitudes toward the Chaldaean material. Without a doubt he was, of
all Byzantines after the seventh century, the most familiar with this “bible” of
the Neoplatonists, even if his knowledge appears to derive largely from the
(now lost) commentary on the Oracles by Proclus. He has also left us an exegesis of some twenty pages, as well as several short summaries of the main
doctrinal features, including one inserted in a theological treatise explicating a passage from Gregory of Nazianzus.

When we come to consider his outlook on the Oracles, it must be admitted that, depending on the context, he expresses two kinds of reaction which appear to be contradictory. One is the expected, typical repudiation of pagan nonsense which, in the normal course of events, need be seen as little more than a device to forestall charges of impiety; in unusual circumstances the same response could be turned into a weapon to use against somebody else. This is precisely what Psellos himself does in the course of a church-sponsored attack on Patriarch Michael Cerularios; in the document he drew up for the purpose,10 he refers to the Chaldaean system as a concoction of myths about oracles and various kinds of spirits and gods. In other words, it is an attack not just on the magical elements but on the theological content as well. That attitude, as suggested above, could be anticipated.

Less expected, and all the more noteworthy, therefore, is evidence from several quarters of a genuine interest in and an openness on his part to the content of the collection. In one instance he speaks of the “theology and philosophy” of the system.” In another he reveals what we must take as one of the reasons for his positive disposition, namely,that the Oracles were embraced by a number of the philosophers whom he most respects. He comments that the majority of the doctrines were accepted by Plato and Aristotle; furthermore, Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus subscribed to all of them, taking them without argument to be divine revelations.’ Not only were the ancients open to them, but he himself finds some of their ideas parallel to and in agreement with Christian doctrines.’ Further on in the same piece of exegesis, he concludes his comments on one of the passages with the observation “it is correct and full of Christian teaching.” We can cap this in a sense by combin- ing evidence from two autobiographical statements in two different works. In a long section of the Chronographia [Book VI, chaps. 36-43], Psellos provides a detailed account of his intellectual and philosophical progress on a road that led him up, through several distinct and well-marked stages, to the “first” philosophy. His journey began with the study of logic and of certain commentators who then showed him the way to Aristotle and Plato. At the next level he concentrated on the major Neoplatonists: Plotinus, Porphyry, lamblichus, and Proclus. This was followed by the mathematical quadrivium,“which" to use his own words, “occupy a position midway between the science of corporeal nature... and the essences themselves, the objects of pure thought.”

That should have brought him to the very summit, but quite out of the blue another stage is mentioned, introduced by the following words: “I had heard it said by the more adept philosophers that there is a wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, when prudently inspired. Even here my resolution did not falter. I read some of the occult books and grasped their meaning, as far as my human abilities allowed, of course, for 1myself could never claim that I had an accurate under- standing of these things nor would I believe anyone else who said he had.”

He does not identify further what these occult or mystic books are that contain a wisdom very close to the summit. There can be little doubt, however, that they included (perhaps above all else) the Chaldaean Oracles. The sup- porting evidence comes from a letter to Patriarch John Xiphilinos in which Psellos offers a fighting apologia for his interest in ancient philosophical systems. One of the passages in the letter describes in detail the ascent of the mind to the summit, here symbolized by Mount Sinai, which culminates in final illumination. “These ideas,” he informs Xiphilinos, “I have taken from the Chaldaean Oracles and have subordinated to our Christian scriptures.”
[pp. 84-87]

2. From Katerina Ierodiakonou's "Byzantine Commentators on the Chaldean Oracles: Psellos and Plethon", which is Chapter Ten in the volume Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources (Oxford, 2002). (Here are two reviews that might also be of interest: (1) R.J. Hankinson writing for the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, and (2) Denis M. Searby writing for BMCR.)
To begin with Psellos, we notice straightaway that his interest in the Oracles and in Proclus' commentary is unduly vivid for a pillar of the Byzantine establishement. Intellectual--and even spiritual--curiosity is certainly to be detected at the root of his choice, but, to judge from his commentary, which nowhere deviates substantially from Christian orthodoxies, one comes to the conclusion that, if Psellos originally approached the collection in a spirit of unprejudiced enquiry, this must soon have given way to a desire to find in the work confirmation of his own faith. Thus Psellos often twists the meaning of the text to meet the dogmatic requirements of Christianity, as for example, when he equates the invariable female second principle of the Chaldean triad--the dynamis--with the Son (1144A-B = 141.15ff.); at other times he cannot withhold his joy at the discovery of points of undeniable agreement between the two creeds, as is clear from enthusiastic interjections of the type: 'Ημετερον και ἀληθὲς τὸ δόγμα! (1145A = 142.21). However, a closer--and less charitable--examination of the evidence might reveal a hypocritical compliance with the tenets of Christianity on the part of the commentator out of fear. In one instance he describes in great detail--and with obvious relish--a magical instrument, the strofalos of Hecate, only to end with the following pietist remark: 'all this is nonsense' (1132C = 133.4-6). Not περιεργασία but φιλομάθεια is his guiding principle as he approaches the Chaldean revelation.

When it comes to magical practices Psellos is wholly engrossed by his material and is eager to turn the slightest hint into a theory with multilple adaptations. Whether in this task he was guided by Proclus we cannot know. What is certain, however, is that the sheer amount of space that he devotes to the magical aspect of the Oracles betrays a considerable bias in this direction.
[p. 246]

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis' Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson's Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos"