O V E R V I E W
The true title of this treaty is: Answer
of master Abammon to a letter sent by Porphyry to Anebon and solution of
the difficulties which can be found there. The subtitle De mysteriis
Aegyptiorum (On the Egyptian Mysteries) can be found in a secondary
manuscript and was adopted instead if the true title by the first translators:
Marsile Ficin (Venice, 1497), and Nicolas Scutellius (Rome, 1556).
The title On the Egyptian Mysteries
is not adequate because the work studies many other questions, and the
"Egyptians" only appear in the last two books.
The authenticity of the De mysteriis
was without question to the first translators and editors. Only in the
19th century the editor Zeller, following others (Meiners, 1781; Harless,
1858) declared itself against the authenticity of the work and attributed
it to a disciple of Iamblichus. But in 1911, K. Rasche gave decisive arguments
in favor of the attribution to Iamblichus: 1) the testimonies made by Proclus
and Damascius, and 2) the comparison between the language used in the De
Mysteriis with other works by Iamblichus which authenticity is out
of question. After this demonstration, further doubts are rare.
The Date of Composition
This treaty about Theurgy was composed by
Iamblichus before the death of Porphyry which happened in 304 CE.
The De mysteriis is divided into
ten books. As the title indicates, it is an answer to the letter by
Porphyry to Anebon. In this "Letter", Porphyry attacks Theurgy and
specially the forms of divination practiced by the ministers of the new
art. The answer by Iamblichus takes the defense of Theurgy.
Iamblichus, as is his usual, uses many sources.
He quotes four fragments from Heraclitus; several platonic expressions
and a complete line from the Banquet. The quotes from Plotinus are
frequent, but not literal. On the contrary, complete quotes from Porphyry
are found; mainly from the De abstinentia and naturally from the
Another influence is the Corpus Hermeticum
and volume III and IV of The revelation by Hermes Trismegistus.
This double parenthood (the neoplatonic
in one hand, and the Hermetism and the magical literature in the other
hand) allows us to situate Iamblichus as the author of the De mysteriis.
In one hand, when Plotinus and Porphyry
search only in philosophy the way to communicate with the superior beings,
Iamblichus has recourse to Theurgy, and the De mysteriis is the
But he ceases not being neoplatonic, and
the fusion of the two aspects of his personality has nothing of artificial;
it is made with all sincerity, and W. Scott and M. P. Nilsson underline
with reason the historical importance of this fusion between Greece and
In more then one aspect he makes progress
in relation with Porphyry; thus, to the sensualistic form which Porphyry
gave to the theology of the Egyptians, following the stoic Cheremon, the
apologist of the mysteries opposes one conception in his opinion more exact,
the one of a platonic hermetism, which places the pure Intelligence above
the visible world and the celestial spheres (Bidez, 1937).
In the other hand, if, as in the Recipe
of immortality and book XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, Iamblichus
talks about one attraction of the divine force, he sees not in it,
as is suggested in the Recipe, a magical constraint of the Gods.
Following the example of the hermetism, he sees this action as a spontaneous
illumination made by the Gods, one infusion in ourselves of their virtue
(dunamis energeia) with which the Gods shape in us a new being.
The Chaldean Oracles
The famous Chaldean Oracles were written
in the 2nd century CE.
This works, of a profound mysticism, are
really what they proclaim: ancient beliefs are allied with hellenistic
theories, and particularly the most important ideas of the chaldean cult
to Helios are there formulated.
The authors were "Chaldeans", disciples
of the Babylonian priests; more precisely, under Mark-Aurelius, they were
Julian the "Chaldean", or his son Julian the "Theurgist", or both in collaboration.
Half-oriental and half-hellenic, the Chaldean
Oracles inspired Iamblichus. He was the first neoplatonic to consider the
khaldaika as a sacred book, and was its enthusiastic commentator.
In the De mysteriis, which Iamblichus
published to defend Theurgy, the Chaldean Oracles are not evoked. This
is understandable because it was not question of talking about the Chaldeans
when answering to the questions posed by Porphyry to the Egyptian priest
Anebon. But, if the Chaldean prophets mentioned in the beginning of Book
III 31 are the two Julians, then the doctrine subsequently exposed is originate
in the Chaldean Oracles, even if the polemic against Porphyry concerning
the best kind of mantic belongs to Iamblichus itself.
And the Oracles also inspired other
extracts. Even if they are expressed rarely in the terminology, a general
influence of the Chaldean Oracles in the De mysteriis is undeniable.
The influence of the De mysteriis
has been important and more particularly in the emperor Julian, Sallust,
Proclus and the last neoplatonic thinkers: Hermias, Damascius and Simplicius.
It flourished again, side by side with Plato, in the italian Renaissance
of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The De mysteriis has been translated
in English by Th. Taylor (1821, 1895) and A. Wilder (1881-1885, 1911 and