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The Chaldaean Oracles Alexopoulos, Lampros


The “Chaldaean Oracles” comprise a body of fragments, survived through quotes and commentary by Neoplatonic writers, of a lost text from Graeco-Roman antiquity. The text is supposed to consist of utterances coming directly from the gods themselves, as well as from the soul of Plato. Originally composed in Greek language, the text uses the poetic form of dactylic hexameters, which was the traditional metre that was used both for divine oracles and for epic poetry. The authorship of the “Oracles” is a controversial issue. They are usually attributed to a father and son by the names of Julian the Chaldaean and Julian the Theurgist, who are believed to have lived during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE), or perhaps that of Trajan (98–117 CE). The place of origin of the “Oracles” remains unknown. The fact that the text is written in Greek makes it likely that it originates from the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The term “Chaldean” attributed to the text goes back to antiquity: philosophers in the Platonic tradition venerated Chaldaea –a name that Greeks of the 4th century BCE and later used for Babylon– as a source of religious enlightenment. The region had a wider reputation in Graeco-Roman antiquity as the home of astrology and other esoteric doctrines and practices, while it is possible, by the time of the composition of the text, that the term “Chaldean” designated “magician” or “practitioner of mysterious arts”. The content of the “Chaldean Oracles” is abstruse, mystical and not necessarily self-consistent. It makes metaphysical claims about the structure of reality and refers to techniques of practical ritual magic. The “Oracles” embrace the basic Platonic division between a higher spiritual realm (Intelligible World) and an inferior material realm (Sublunar World). Presiding over the Cosmos is a divine trinity: Father, Mind and Power. Beneath these divinities are to be found a variety of lesser spiritual beings. The “Oracles” affirm that the divine realm is accessible to human beings. Through the use of meditation and magical ritual practices, the soul of the worshiper can ascend upwards from the world of matter to the world of spirit and can achieve communion with the divine. Neoplatonic philosophers, from Porphyry (c. 234–c. 305) to Damascius (480–c. 550), considered the “Oracles” as authoritative revelatory literature, equal in importance only to the “Timaeus” of Plato. Other ancient Neoplatonists who used the “Oracles” in their writings include Plotinus, the Emperor Julian, Syrianus, Hermias, Hierocles, Simplicius, and Olympiodorus. The Byzantine monk and scholar Michael Psellus (1018- 1078) made the “Chaldean Oracles” a pillar of his philosophy. Ηe wrote commentaries on the “Oracles”, for the composition of which he drew from Proclus. Psellus’s commentaries profoundly shaped the way in which other Byzantine writers engaged with the “Oracles”, including Michael Italicus (d. before 1157), Nicephorus Gregoras (c. 1292–c. 1360), Gregory Palamas (c. 1296–1359) and George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355–c. 1450). The “Chaldaean Oracles” entered Western European culture at the Renaissance and influenced Italian philosophers, such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The first printed edition of the “Chaldean Oracles” went on sale in Paris, in 1538, published by Ludovicus Tiletanus (Jean Loys de Thielt), and it was based on the work of Plethon. The esoteric use of the Oracles began to gather steam in the late eighteenth century. It has been suggested that they might have influenced Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” (1791), while they formed part of the work of Thomas Taylor (1758–1835), the Platonic philosopher who was one of the first people in modern British history to embrace revived paganism as a philosophical and religious system.

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