THEURGY (from the Greek theourgia ) means literally something like "actuating the divine" and refers to actions that induce or bring about the presence of a divine or supernatural being, whether in an artifact or a person. It was a practice closely related to magic—not least in its ritual use of material things, sacrifices, and verbal formulas to effect the believer's fellowship with the god, demon, or departed spirit. It is distinguished from ordinary magical practice less by its techniques than by its aim, which was religious (union with the divine) rather than secular. Use of the term theourgia —as well as of the related theourgos, referring to a practitioner of the art—arose in the second century ce in Hellenistic circles closely associated with the birth of Neoplatonism. The practice was commended and followed, in the third and later centuries, by certain Neoplatonist philosophers and their disciples.
The origins of this movement can be traced, in all probability, to a work called the Chaldean Oracles, plausibly attributed to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180). A collection of obscure and pretentious oracular utterances written in Homeric hexameters, this work, now known only in fragments, was apparently assembled (if not composed) by one Julian the Chaldean or (perhaps more likely) by his son Julian the Theurge. Much of its content is quasi-philosophical, and its account of the first principles shows affinities with the thought of the Pythagorean philosopher Numenius, who was teaching around the middle of the second century. It also contained, however, prescriptions for theurgic rites and indications of the "sights" that they produce, for example, "a formless fire whence a voice proceeds" (frag. 146).
Concerning the value of such practices, there was significant disagreement among Neoplatonist thinkers. Plotinus himself, it is now agreed, either knew or thought nothing of the Chaldean Oracles. His way to human fulfillment in the divine was the way of theoria ("contemplation"), not that of theourgia. It was his disciple Porphyry who was the first among philosophers to give some status to the practice of theurgy. In spite of the severe criticisms of it that he had leveled in his Letter to Anebo, Porphyry came, according to Augustine (City of God 10.9f.), to acknowledge a theurgy whose aim was purification of the soul and that produced "appearances of angels or of gods." At the same time Porphyry insisted that the value of such practices was strictly limited. What they purified was not the intellectual soul, but only its lower, pneumatic adjunct, which is adapted to visions of spirits, angels, and inferior deities; they had no power to bring people into the presence of Truth itself. Presumably Porphyry continued to believe, with Plotinus, that it is only the practice of virtue and of philosophical contemplation that raises the soul to fellowship with the supreme God.
This conviction was not shared, however, by Porphyry's own disciple, the Syrian Iamblichus (d. 325), who, in his long treatise On the Mysteries, replied to the strictures expressed by his teacher in the Letter to Anebo. According to Iamblichus, there exists, in theurgy, a mode of fellowship with the divine that is independent of philosophical thought and that "those who philosophize theoretically" do not achieve. "What effects theurgic union is the carrying through of reverently accomplished actions which are unspeakable and transcend any intellectual grasp, as well as the power of mute symbols which only the gods understand" (On the Mysteries 2.11).
This debate, however, did not end with the exchange between Iamblichus and his teacher. In his youth the emperor Julian was a disciple of the philosopher Eusebius, who taught that "the important thing is purification [of the soul] through reason" and who condemned wonder-working. Julian, however, was more impressed in the end by the teaching of one Maximus, who, by burning incense and reciting a formula in the temple of Hecate, caused the statue of the goddess to smile and the torches in her hands to blaze; the emperor-to-be accordingly adopted Maximus as his teacher (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists 474).
What the practice of theurgy involved becomes plain from the text of Iamblichus's treatise itself. There he defends and interprets a variety of rites and practices that involve either the use of offerings or tokens of some sort or the various phenomena that accompany divine possession. It is plain, however, that in his mind the practices he explains can be understood and entered into—and indeed function—at more than one level. True theurgy, he suggests, is, "the summit of the priestly art" and is reserved "to a very few"—those, indeed, who "share in the theurgic gods in a way which transcends the cosmos," because they "go beyond bodies and matter in service of the gods, being made one with the gods by a power which transcends the cosmos" (On the Mysteries 5.20–5.22). For all this, however, there is little new or unfamiliar in the phenomena he alludes to, from the "enthusiasm" of the Corybantes to the sacrifice of animals. He refers, for example, to levitation as one manifestation of possession by a god. He is also familiar with situations in which the theurgist makes use of a medium (ho dechomenos ), and both he and the medium—and sometimes the assembled spectators—see the "spirit [pneuma ] which comes down and enters" the one who is possessed (3.6). In another vein, he refers to theurgic use of hollow statues that are filled with "stones, herbs, animals, spices, [and] other such holy, perfect, and godlike things," so as to create a receptacle in which the god will be at home (5.23). Though this practice seems to have been especially favored by late classical practitioners of theurgy, it clearly draws on widespread and ancient practices of sympathetic magic.
What is interesting and new, then, in Iamblichus's account of theourgia, as over against theoria, is precisely the terms in which he understands and defends it. For one thing, it is plainly his conviction that theurgy is not a matter of manipulating the gods. Over and over again he denies that material objects or circumstances, or psychological states of human subjects, can supply the explanation of theurgic phenomena, which by their nature transcend the capacity of such causes. Similarly, he denies that the power of the gods is compelled by human agency. The presence of the human soul with the gods is effected through a gift of divine agencies—through their universal self-bestowal. It is this self-bestowal that empowers the invocations and actions of the theurgist, which reach out to the transcendent by reason of "assimilation and appropriation" to their object (3.18). Behind this conception there lies, of course, a rationalized concept of universal sympathy, which emphasizes not merely the interconnectedness of things at the level of the visible cosmos but also the presence and participation of all finite realities in their immaterial ground, the divine order. At the same time, however—and somewhat paradoxically, in view of this insistence on the mutual indwelling of the various levels of reality—Iamblichus insists that "the human race is weak and puny … possessed of a congenital nothingness," and that the only remedy for its error and perpetually disturbed state is to "share as far as possible in the divine Light" (3.18). Thus the practice of theurgy, through which the gods themselves bestow their light and presence, is the one hope of humanity. Iamblichus had lost not the philosophy so much as the faith of a Plotinus.
In Christian circles, the term theourgia and its derivatives came into use in the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius), himself a student of the Neoplatonist Proclus, who, after Iamblichus, was the weightiest philosophical advocate of theurgic practice. In Dionysius, however, the term is employed in the sense required by the Christian doctrine of grace: theurgy is not the effect of a natural and universal sympathy between different orders of being, but the self-communicating work of the divine. For Dionysius, Jesus is "the Principal [archē ] of all hierarchy, holiness, and divine operation [theourgia ]." The priesthood, by imitating and contemplating the light of the higher beings—who are, in their turn, assimilated to Christ—comes to be in the form of light, and its members are thus able to be "workers of divine works [theourgikoi ]." The operative sense of Dionysius's use of the term is captured later by Maximus the Confessor, for whom the (new) verb theourgein means "to divinize"; he uses it in the passive voice to denote the effect of divine grace conferred through Christ.
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