Theurgic Ideas and Practices, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries
Edited by Claire Fanger
Theurgic Ideas and Practices, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries
Edited by Claire Fanger
“Invoking Angels makes an important contribution to the growing scholarly literature on medieval and early modern ritual magic.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Aside from the editor, the contributors are Harvey J. Hames, Frank Klaassen, Katelyn Mesler, Sophie Page, Jan R. Veenstra, Julien Véronèse, Nicolas Weill-Parot, and Elliot R. Wolfson.
“Invoking Angels makes an important contribution to the growing scholarly literature on medieval and early modern ritual magic.”
Claire Fanger is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. She is the editor of Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (Penn State, 1998).
Introduction: Theurgy, Magic, and Mysticism
I. Texts of the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries
1 Magic, Theurgy, and Spirituality in the Medieval Ritual of the Ars notoria
Julien Véronèse (English translation by Claire Fanger)
2 Uplifting Souls: The Liber de essentia spirituum and the Liber Razielis
3 The Liber iuratus Honorii and the Christian Reception of Angel Magic
4 Honorius and the Sigil of God: The Liber iuratus in Berengario Ganell’s Summa sacre magice
Jan R. Veenstra
5 Covenant and the Divine Name: Revisiting the Liber iuratus and John of Morigny’s Liber florum
II. Late Fourteenth- Through Sixteenth-Century Texts
6 Antonio da Montolmo’s De occultis et manifestis or Liber intelligentiarum: An Annotated Critical Edition with English Translation and Introduction
Nicolas Weill-Parot (in collaboration with Julien Véronèse)
7 Between the March of Ancona and Florence: Jewish Magic and a Christian Text
Harvey J. Hames
8 Language, Secrecy, and the Mysteries of Law: Theurgy and the Christian Kabbalah of Johannes Reuchlin
Elliot R. Wolfson
9 Ritual Invocation and Early Modern Science: The Skrying Experiments of Humphrey Gilbert
Theurgy, Magic, and Mysticism
This is the book by which God can be seen face to face in this life. This is the book by which anyone at all can be saved and unhesitatingly be led forth into eternal life. . . . This is the book which was the most precious thing given by the Lord—more precious than anything else except the sacraments. This is the book by which corporeal and visible nature can speak, converse, and be instructed by that which is incorporeal and invisible.
—from the final paragraph of the Liber iuratus Honorii
Naked as they may be, abstracted from context and presented in the evident innocence of their wish fulfillment, these claims, which conclude the fourteenth-century Sworn Book of Honorius,1 testify to the persistence of two fundamental questions central to this volume:
1. How may the divine be manifest in this world and in things that human beings can know?
2. How may human beings, unfit for direct knowledge of the divine, nevertheless engage with divine things in order to be saved?
There are other, more conventional responses to these questions in the later Middle Ages, but this volume is about some of the less conventional ones. The essays collected here look at a variety of alternative views of the relationship of human beings with the divine, as recorded in texts that engage traditional theologies and liturgies in unusual ways, sometimes weaving together sources from more than one religion and sometimes from sources commonly regarded as magical. Some of these texts were condemned by medieval and early modern theologians as being in the same class as demonic magic. Despite their status, then and now, outside the canon of medieval religious and devotional writings, these texts offer important perspectives on the study of religion in the Middle Ages. In general, they attest to the plurality of visions of religious practice, not only in the later Middle Ages but into the sixteenth century. They also demonstrate that this plurality included fertile cross-cultural exchange. Their abundance in manuscript attests to an increasing interest in alternative forms of access to the divine, and perhaps also to a parallel anxiety that ordinary liturgies and sacraments might not be sufficient to procure salvation. Finally, these various approaches to the divine also bear upon natural philosophy, science, and rationality, demanding more nuanced approaches to the relationships between scientific practices and devotional ones.
Until fairly recently, these works had remained almost untouched by historians. Starting in the late 1980s, there began to be a marked increase in scholarship on medieval ritual magic texts and, relatedly, on the broader problem of magic. Over the past ten years, the trickle of new articles, books, and editions of these texts has increased to something that might almost be called a spate. In my 1998 collection Conjuring Spirits, I complained that the area of texts and manuscripts of medieval intellectual magic still had too little coverage beyond what was available in Lynn Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science, completed in 1958.2 Now the area looks completely different. In fact, important new discoveries are coming so thick and fast that it is often difficult for publication to keep up—getting a new discovery into print before it is outdated is a challenge that can be both exhilarating and frustrating for those involved.3
For this book, I have solicited contributions from scholars whose work has made significant inroads into this former wilderness territory. Taken together, the essays collected here shed light on connections between the domains of religion and science as continuous aspects of habitus for writers and operators of these texts; they show how necessary it is to consider medieval and early modern epistemology as a whole, within the context of all the kinds of texts that concern it.
In the history of ideas, the “magical” has often emerged as a label for an idea or approach that apparently should have been broken away from earlier—a problem of fossilized thinking.4 Yet if modern science has tended to define itself by opposition to a magic that was in principle older, less knowing, and less progressive, at the same time the process of “normal science” has always pragmatically adapted itself to the modes of thought, explanation, and experimental practice of the time. So also has normal magic, of course. In different ways the cosmic infusion of knowledge sought by the liturgy of the Ars notoria (discussed by Véronèse), the spiritual cosmology detailed in Antonio da Montolmo’s De occultis et manifestis (discussed by Weill-Parot), and the spirit-conjuring diaries of Humphrey Gilbert (discussed by Klaassen) all show how medieval and early modern intellectual writers might associate the angelic worlds and the worlds of human knowledge at once experimentally, scientifically, and spiritually.
Another aspect of the premodern epistemology illuminated by these essays is the purposeful bricolage of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ritual elements that appear in these texts. While the mutual influences of medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writers on philosophy and science have long been a subject of examination for intellectual historians, the interaction between these groups on typological, angelological, and liturgical levels has been much harder to study, in part because of restrictions imposed by disciplinary boundaries, but more significantly because the data for such interactions depend so strongly on texts that are examined here in depth, in some cases for the first time. Many essays in this volume are concerned with key points of this intercultural and interreligious conversation. Topics range from the Latin Liber Razielis and Liber de essentia spirituum, discussed by Sophie Page, to new findings on the probable relationship between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim influences on the Liber iuratus Honorii, by Jan Veenstra and Katelyn Mesler, to analyses of the way Jewish and Christian identities are formed through and against ideas about each other’s liturgical practices, as shown in essays by myself, Harvey Hames, and Elliot Wolfson. It is only by opening up the history of ideas, as well as the various histories of science and spirituality, to contemplation of texts of this kind that we can begin to form a truly historical picture of medieval and early modern life.
I. Texts and Contexts
One goal of this book is to bring forward new research data for scholars who specialize in medieval manuscripts of magic; but it is also hoped that the book may provide some useful information to a broader audience of readers interested in contiguous areas of medieval social, cultural, and religious history. Because not all potential readers will be familiar with the texts under discussion in this volume, what follows is a brief conspectus, partly to give novice readers a thumbnail sketch of these relatively obscure texts, partly to indicate something of the way the historical narrative around them will be further changed by the essays in this book.
The Ars notoria or Notory Art
The Ars notoria was a text ascribed to Solomon containing a lengthy set of prayers and rituals practiced for the purpose of gaining knowledge from angels. It was one of the most common and popular works of medieval angel magic, yet until recently it had not been deemed worthy of a critical edition. According to Julien Véronèse, who has produced the first critical edition of the text and is the scholar most intimate with its history, it probably emerged in the late twelfth century in northern Italy, probably in the region of Bologna.5 Given that the period of emergence of the Ars notoria corresponds with the rise of the universities, it is perhaps unsurprising that the sought-for knowledge here is curricular knowledge: the work petitions angels to transmit knowledge of the seven liberal arts, philosophy, and theology in the order in which they were supposed to have been learned by the student. The operator of the ritual is aided in this quest by an elaborate set of meditative figures, the notae (or notes), whence, according to the text’s own etymology, is derived the word notoria.6 The word appears to be related to “notary,” and scribes do sometimes interchange the two spellings.7
The enormous appeal of the text may be judged not only by the number of manuscripts in circulation (there is also more than one early printed edition),8 but also by the number of theological warnings issued about it. Perhaps the most frequently repeated caveat had to do with the likelihood that the prayers using words in unknown languages might summon demons, despite all assertions to the contrary. Yet even though condemnations of the text were frequent, it is also clear (as will be seen below in the case of John of Morigny) that at least some people encountering it for the first time had no sense of it as a condemned or dangerous work but rather apprehended it, at least at first, as a viable set of prayers that sought reasonable benefits by legitimate means. The prayers themselves (at least those that do not use unknown names—there are many lengthy prayers in a medley of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic) use standard liturgical formulae and are indistinguishable from other Catholic prayers by style or content. Depictions of angels often decorate the pages.
Some part of the popularity of the Ars notoria was thus probably due to its self-representation as sacred; no doubt its proliferation was helped along, too, by the pragmatic nature of its advertised goals (which might potentially ease the expense of university study, reducing time spent on education and the overall cost of books and exemplars). By the late fourteenth century the text existed in several versions, and copies from this period can be found deriving from many European locations. The earliest, or “A,” version (as Véronèse labels it in his edition), is an unglossed ritual containing prayers, notae, and some mythohistorical context, but almost no ritual instruction; a slightly later version (the “B” version)9 includes the original prayers and notae and adds an extensive gloss containing ritual instructions and further mythohistorical context. The gloss offers clues to the use and reception of the basic liturgy, answering some important questions about how the ritual was supposed to be performed and how it was understood and thought about. Prior to the work of Véronèse, the relation between the various versions of the notory art was unknown, and the glossed version was essentially unread. In his chapter in this volume, Véronèse gives a descriptive and interpretive account of the glossed version, describing the operating instructions as represented in the glosses in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 9336, then zooming out to treat more broadly some of the operative resemblances between the Ars notoria, Neoplatonic theurgy, and Christian sacraments.
As was the common fate of many medieval liturgies, the notory art was frequently taken apart and its components repurposed; its prayers, verbal formulae, and structuring ideas were reused in other works, some more nearly and some more distantly related to it. The work that is most explicitly connected to it is the Book of the Flowers of Heavenly Teaching by John of Morigny.
John of Morigny
John was a monk of the Benedictine order at Morigny, educated at Chartres and Orleans and active in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. What is known about him comes almost entirely from his own Liber florum celestis doctrine (Book of the Flowers of Heavenly Teaching), which, in addition to containing a lengthy prayer text (modeled on the Ars notoria, and similarly designed to petition angels for the transmission of curricular knowledge), includes many autobiographical passages.10 John’s writings are a key source of information about the Ars notoria, since he describes his own and others’ experience of its operation before learning (via a vision induced by the Ars notoria itself) that the prayers in outlandish tongues had in fact been corrupted by subtle insertion of demonic invocations.11
By his own account, John discovered the Ars notoria when he was a student too poor to afford books. He had acquired a work of necromancy from a colleague and copied as much of it as he could, but he was beset by doubts about pursuing its rituals. After consulting a Lombard doctor named Jacob, he was directed to the Ars notoria, from which, according to the doctor, he might obtain all the knowledge he sought without danger to his soul.12 Guided by the doctor, John first approached the Ars notoria as a sacred text and a wholesome alternative to the demonic conjurations he had been contemplating.
As he used the art, he learned better. The Ars notoria opened vistas on a dark visionary landscape filled with nightmarish forms and demons masquerading as monks or persons of the Trinity. John was eventually helped to free himself by Christ, John the Evangelist, and especially the Virgin Mary. When he finally laid aside the Ars notoria, still wishing to obtain what he calls “the good part of his purpose,” he sought from the Virgin permission to compose his own art, similarly intended to infuse the operator with knowledge of the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology with only thirty simple prayers. The Virgin agreed, and the Book of Thirty Prayers (the primary liturgy of the Liber florum) was delivered, its express purpose to supplant and destroy the corrupt Ars notoria. It offered worthy seekers an alternative mode of obtaining knowledge through instruction from the Virgin.13
This text is a recent discovery. Unlike the Ars notoria (which, though chronically understudied in the past, has always been known to exist in printed books as well as manuscripts), the text of the Flowers of Heavenly Teaching was not actually known to survive at all much before the 1990s. In the Grandes Chroniques de France there is recorded for the year 1323 a somewhat sensational account of the burning of a work by a monk who attempted, claiming instruction from the Virgin Mary, to bring back the condemned Ars notoria in another guise;14 but it is not until 1987 that the first notice of a connection between the monk described here and an actual text in a manuscript in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek is suggested in a footnote to an article on the Ars notoria by Jean Dupèbe.15 In the 1990s, independent discoveries of several more manuscripts (by Sylvie Barnay in France, and myself and Nicholas Watson in Ontario)16 show that the Liber florum did not in fact come to the abrupt end that one might have been tempted to assume from the Chroniques account. Indeed, the work continued to be copied and used through the fifteenth century, largely in a monastic context, the latest known manuscript dating from the early sixteenth century.17
We are now aware that there are two surviving authorial versions of this text.18 The earlier version (or “Old Compilation”), which John completed between 1310 and 1313, culminates in a Book of Figures that may have incorporated as many as ninety-two figures to go with the prayers, probably intended to be used in similar fashion to the notae of the Ars notoria. Unfortunately, most of these are not included in the only known Old Compilation manuscript.19 In the later version (or “New Compilation”), dated 1315, John completely rewrote the text of the Book of Figures and cut the number down to eight: seven iconic images of the Virgin and one image of an apocalyptic Christ.
In my own contribution to this volume, I look at the way John casts the relation between the Old and New Compilation texts as parallel to the relation between the Old and New Testaments; his own Old Compilation thus becomes a text that has been superseded by the new work, which is its fulfillment but nevertheless remains sacred in its own right. I go on to compare the Liber florum with another work that, in one version at least, makes similar claims related to the idea of sacramental supersession: the Liber iuratus Honorii.
The Liber iuratus Honorii or Sworn Book of Honorius
As it turns out, the Sworn Book of Honorius, previously known only through the version found in a handful of manuscripts in the British Library, is extant in another version as well, as reported by Jan Veenstra in chapter 4 of this volume. This newly discovered version is witnessed in a manuscript of the Summa sacre magice, a massive compilation of magic texts circulating in Spain that was compiled in the first half of the fourteenth century by a redactor named Berengario Ganell. Like most of the works in this volume, the Summa sacre magice has only recently been found worthy of examination.20 Veenstra’s analysis of the Ganell version (as we will hereafter call it) demonstrates conclusively that it belongs to a different tradition of redaction—a tradition clearly prior to that in the English manuscripts that were, until now, the only known witnesses of the text. The date of origin of the Sworn Book has not been pinpointed with certainty (in fact, Veenstra’s discoveries have overturned some of what was thought to be known about it), but circumstantial evidence still points to the early fourteenth century, certainly for the London version and perhaps for the earlier one as well.21
Like the Ars notoria, the Sworn Book is fundamentally concerned with seeking heavenly knowledge from angels, though what is sought in this case is not knowledge couched in the hierarchical structure of the seven liberal arts but rather a transformative vision: it claims that its ritual will induce a vision of God, face to face, as Adam and the Prophets saw him. It opens with a reference to the “greate name of God which the Hebrues call sememphoras which dothe consyst of 72 . . . letters.”22 John of Morigny, too, refers to the “Semhemphoras,” glossing it as a Hebrew word meaning “most elect name of God” and noting it as another term for the tetragrammaton.23 This much was common currency for educated Christians from the works of Jerome and Isidore. The reference to the name of seventy-two letters, however, was not a patristic commonplace, and it seems to derive from some more direct contact with Jewish tradition.24 The seventy-two-letter name referred to here, together with a number of other aspects of the text, show that the master of the Sworn Book was drawing consciously, though not always in a fully informed way, on ritual information from non-Christian Abrahamic traditions.
Katelyn Mesler develops the relations between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic elements more fully in chapter 3, which maps out the interreligious aspects of the text by identifying specific aspects of Jewish and Islamic angelology that are discretely traceable in separate sections of the book. I will note here only that all of these angel magic texts (the Ars notoria, the Liber iuratus, and the Liber florum) seem to show certain generic family resemblances to a group of texts marking an early phase of Jewish mysticism known as the Hekhalot (from the Hebrew for “palace” or “temple”) literature. Emerging between the third and eighth centuries, the Hekhalot texts deal with the ascent through the heavens of postbiblical figures to visit the heavenly temples, to “behold the King in his beauty,”25 to obtain revelatory knowledge (often of the Torah), or to gain special magical powers (deriving from or connected to a new mystical knowledge of the Torah).26
While it is increasingly clear that the Ars notoria and its avatars are not derived from Hebrew texts and show no direct influence of the Hekhalot literature,27 they nevertheless clearly have essentially similar mystical goals. Within the Hekhalot traditions, as in the Ars notoria, a strengthening of memory, wit, and other intellectual faculties may be sought to arrive at the vision of God; similarly, too, all knowledge is understood to be of a piece with knowledge of God and, as such, as deliverable by God, as seen in biblical precedents (Adam, Moses, Solomon, etc.). For example, it is suggested near the beginning of the Hekhalot Zuhtarti: “When Moses ascended to God, he taught him as follows: If anyone finds that his mind is becoming confused . . . recite over it the following names: In the name of . . . let my mind grasp everything that I hear and learn, be it Bible, Mishnah, learning, halakhot, or haggadot. Let me never forget anything in this world or the next.”28 With the Ars notoria, the aim is similarly to strengthen the faculties to climb the ladder of the liberal arts to theology—that is, the four senses of scripture. The form of the work posits, at least implicitly, a transit through the angelic realms (an association clarified further in John of Morigny’s revision), where knowledge of theology is the culminating phase of a journey in which all knowledge is ultimately seen as of a piece with theology, the beginning and ending place of intellectual activity.29 While all of the medieval Christian angel magic texts share a collection of essentially similar attitudes and mythohistorical elements, it is in the Liber iuratus, in the London version, at least, that we have the clearest indications of a conscious attempt to draw upon Jewish precedents in its construction of the ritual.
Liber Razielis (Book of Raziel) and Liber de essentia spirituum (Book of the Essence of Spirits)
But if the Sworn Book of Honorius shows evidence of Jewish and Islamic influence, the question remains: where might this influence have come from? One source is probably commerce with living adherents of the Jewish and Islamic faiths; but this would not necessarily get the master of the Sworn Book any closer to records of their textual traditions. Few medieval Christian writers probably had much working knowledge of languages outside Latin or their own vernaculars (it seems doubtful, at least, that the master of the Sworn Book was a skilled reader of Arabic or Hebrew).30 Those few who did command several languages, however, were encouraged to spread knowledge through translation. Spain was a particularly rich area of linguistic interconnection and therefore a rich source of translations from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin. Thus it is of interest that Veenstra seems to suggest Spain as a potential place of origin for the Sworn Book.
As to textual sources of these traditions available in Latin, Sophie Page’s chapter in this volume offers a comparative descriptive study of two texts of spirit invocation, the Liber Razielis and the Liber de essentia spirituum, which derived, respectively, from Jewish and Islamic milieux and circulated in Latin in the later Middle Ages. Both of these texts are understudied. There is so far no edition of the Latin Liber Razielis, and no study comparing the Latin text with the Hebrew edition of this work. Page herself discovered and edited the only known copy of the Liber de essentia spirituum.31 Both texts are important, however, in recasting elements of Jewish and Islamic traditions for Christian consumption.
We know that the Latin Liber Razielis originated as a translation of an older Hebrew magic compilation that was commissioned in Spain in the court of Alfonse the Wise. The mythohistorical premise of the text is that the angel Raziel (Hebrew for “Secret of God”) appeared to Adam soon after the expulsion from paradise and delivered to him a book of magic revealing the mysteries of creation. The Alfonsine version consists of seven books, putatively brought together by Solomon, and a number of appended magic works as well.32 Sometimes individual books from this compilation were circulated separately, and some were separately known, like the Liber Semhemforas, which is among the texts that seem have to been known to John of Morigny33 and is discussed by Veenstra in this volume in the context of the Sworn Book. The availability of the individual books and annexations to the Liber Razielis makes this compilation a likely conduit for some of the evident Jewish influence noted on the theurgic texts dealt with in this volume.
The Liber de essentia spirituum is a text preserved only in one known, and seemingly incomplete, copy. Its date of origin remains uncertain, though it must have been circulating by the early thirteenth century as there is a suspicious and derogatory account of it in the writings of William of Auvergne, as Sophie Page notes in chapter 2. William’s complaints notwithstanding, the topos that guides the prologue is a familiar one from Christian hagiography: the retreat to solitude in the desert. The author, about whom nothing is known except that he claims to come from Seville, castigates those who remain ignorant of the perfection from which their souls are descended. During his time in the desert he received an image of “true light” from his communion with spirits, and it is this divinely received knowledge that he passes on in the book. The problem addressed by the revelation is also familiar, as the author seeks to explain why the incorruptible first essence is also the creator of (and contained within) diverse, imperfect, and corruptible things. The work goes on to discuss the levels of intermediary spirits between God and man, and the spirits’ degree of passibility, hence potential to be influenced by man. The text breaks off before getting very far into practical instructions in the use of spirits; it is nevertheless interesting inasmuch as it adumbrates a philosophical underpinning for magic that is very friendly to theurgic principles. It may have contributed to some of the ideas received by Cecco d’Ascoli and Antonio da Montolmo in the fourteenth century.
Antonio da Montolmo
Antonio da Montolmo was a doctor and astrologer writing in the second half of the fourteenth century; his Book of Occult and Manifest Things is extant in a single known manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Prior to the edition in this volume done by Nicolas Weill-Parot (in collaboration with Julien Véronèse), the work was little studied and had never been edited.34 Beyond the fact that Antonio’s work constitutes an interesting synthesis of principles extracted from a range of available magic texts, Weill-Parot notes that Antonio is one of the earliest authors of a magic book—that is, one of the first to write a book under his own name that openly professes to be about magic. As we have seen, medieval texts concerned with invocations of spirits tend either to be pseudonymously ascribed to biblical or legendary authors (as with the Ars notoria, Liber iuratus, Liber Razielis) or else carefully to eschew magical terminology for their own operations (as with John of Morigny). Antonio is one of the first writers (after the important precedent of Berengario Ganell) to lay claim to the production of a work of magic. Further, and perhaps more startling, by the word “magic” Antonio intends no safe or licit sense of “natural magic”; in fact, within the De occultis et manifestis, his use of the term “magic” exclusively designates actions with spirits. For those types of operation that might normally be thought of under the heading “natural magic” Antonio reserves the term “astronomical” or “astrological.”
The book opens on a philosophical note, with Antonio remarking the transitory and disappointing nature of earthly life and describing the kind of knowledge that is desirable and necessary for eternal life. He cites Aristotle to the effect that the person loves God who devotes himself to speculation, and adds that it is better to engage in contemplation of noble things than base ones. Intelligences, Antonio suggests, are created with knowledge and nobility; therefore, as noble things, they are appropriate objects of contemplation in accordance with the harmony and course of nature. Keeping an eye always on the natural aspect of his subject matter, Antonio shies away from mysticism; unlike the author of the Liber de essentia spirituum, he vaunts no divine revelations but merely indicates that he is going to describe what is known of the theory or “universal rules” of operations with spirits.
To do this, Antonio folds together in his synthesis two types of sources: on the one hand, the astrologically oriented kinds of works that were often ascribed to Hermes (and that modern scholars therefore often refer to broadly as Hermetic texts), whose primary conduit was translation from Arabic sources; and on the other, the works deriving from the Judeo-Christian tradition, constructed from endogenous Latin liturgies and often ascribed to Solomon (and therefore broadly referred to as Solomonic texts). Antonio gives a rough guide to spirit summoning that references both types of operation, noting that the most powerful actions implement both magical and astrological principles. Antonio’s work is interesting in its justification of magic through philosophical means; he brings together a spirit cosmology derived from a broad array of contemporary magic texts and does his best to pin the often confusing and contradictory aspects of his sources to an idea of universal natural laws. In his adoption of the word “magic” for something he would do himself, as well as in his theoretical and philosophical approach to the information he gleans from the magic texts he knows, he marks a step toward the author-magicians of the early modern period.
Many better-known writers were also engaged in projects that aimed to reduce diverse cultural phenomena to universally applicable laws. Both Ramon Llull, the Catalan philosopher and mystic (1232–1316), and Johann Reuchlin, the German philologist and Christian kabbalist (1455–1522), distinguished themselves in different ways by seeking universal shared principles by which those of other faiths could be united under a Christian banner. Both of them also have been associated with kabbalistic ideas.
In Llull’s case, the association is post facto, as Llull never claimed any association with Kabbalah; however, the term is associated with his work as early as Pico della Mirandola, who, in discussing a certain type of Kabbalah, said, “that which is called hohmat ha-zeruf [revolution or combination of letters] is a combinatory art and it is a method for gaining knowledge, and it is similar to that which we refer to as the ars Raymundi, although it proceeds in a very different manner.”35 Llull’s combinatory art, which he reworked over time, comes in both long and short versions and involves circular figures that reveal different possible combinations of principles represented by letters of the alphabet; the Ars brevis, or brief form of the art, has an “A” figure, a “T” figure, and two additional figures, one using a revolving wheel to allow different combinations to be made among the base principles.36 On the basis of the alphabetical meditations involved in these figures, as well as other suggestive similarities to practices of ecstatic Kabbalah, scholars have been arguing for decades about whether Llull’s apparent kabbalistic affinities were the conscious result of real exposure to Jewish mystical sources or a more or less accidental result of his endogenously received Neoplatonic tendencies. The most recent extended argument for the possibility of a real kabbalistic influence on Llull is made by Harvey J. Hames in his book The Art of Conversion, which examines Llull’s work against the multicultural conversations taking place in late medieval Barcelona, where Christians and Jews frequently came into contact.
Whether or not Llull consciously employed kabbalistic methods, it is of interest that both Christians and Jews associated his work with Kabbalah. Hames has uncovered a fifteenth-century translation of Llull’s Ars brevis into Hebrew, and he discusses this translation in chapter 7 of this volume. The translation, which apparently circulated among Jewish scholars in Pico’s circle, attests to considerable Jewish interest in this Christian text, which surely derives at least in part from the fact that Llull’s own concerns were already intercultural and universalizing. Llull intended first and foremost to facilitate conversion to Christianity by showing that the inherent nature of the supreme being was demonstrable through general principles acceptable to all three monotheistic faiths; these universalizing principles, however, seem to have made the Ars brevis palatable to its Jewish audience, who felt from it no clear pressure to convert. Hames reads the colophon of this translation to show how the work’s translator associates it with the mors osculi (“death of the kiss” or “death by kiss,” a term current in kabbalistic literature deriving from a Hebrew commentary on the Song of Songs), and explores the implications of this translation in the works of the Jewish writer Yohanan Alemanno.
The sixteenth-century German philologist Johann Reuchlin had an explicit interest in Kabbalah and the linguistic abilities necessary to make a genuine study of it. He had taught himself both Greek and Hebrew and was an admirer of the Florentine Neoplatonists with whom the Medici family surrounded themselves; the resuscitation of ancient learning appealed to him, and he was a follower of Pico della Mirandola. Reuchlin is responsible for two works that incorporate or depend on ideas found in the kabbalistic literature at his disposal, De verbo mirifico (1494) and De arte cabalistica (1517). The latter work was addressed to Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was famous for (among other things) his love of learning and had been schooled in the Florentine academy. In the decade between 1510 and 1520, Reuchlin became embroiled in difficulties in Cologne, where he ran into conflict with the Dominican inquisitors for failing to side with them in propounding the need to burn Jewish books. Reuchlin’s address to Pope Leo of this work on Kabbalah was evidently in part a bid to win his favor in the case by showing the applicability of kabbalistic literature to Christian concerns.37
Clearly Reuchlin’s use of Jewish ideas had strategic elements, and it is not to be expected that his readings of Hebrew texts would line up precisely with those of Jewish interpreters. But what was the real depth of his understanding of the kabbalistic works he had encountered? Was he pushing their sense out of shape or out of context, whether deliberately or inadvertently, to uphold a Christian message? In chapter 8 of this volume, Elliot Wolfson argues that Reuchlin understood the kabbalistic texts more deeply than is sometimes supposed. In a delicate reading of Reuchlin’s two kabbalistic works, Wolfson examines Reuchlin’s use of his Hebrew sources. He notes that Reuchlin does not escape the anti-Semitic presuppositions of his time—like all Christians, he tended to read Jewish texts in terms of supersession theology—but also that Reuchlin sees and deploys strong messianic threads that run through the kabbalistic writings, and that he does so in sensitive ways. In Wolfson’s words, he “astutely understood the intricate weave of prophetic visualization and eschatological salvation that had long characterized the mystical ideal proffered by kabbalists. . . . Reuchlin’s messianic interpretation of kabbalistic symbolism is not contrived or imposed from without.”
As was the case with both Ramon Llull and his Hebrew translator, a universalizing view of alternate esotericisms seems to be in play in Reuchlin’s work—a desire to take learning into the realm of a deeper truth that may be manifest in the religious practices of one’s neighbors. But Reuchlin pursues this desire through a genuine and learned engagement with Hebrew texts. Whatever eschatological presuppositions Reuchlin may have had about the role of the Jews or the superseded nature of their ceremonies, he took their learning very seriously indeed.
The sixteenth century witnessed an interest in the augmentation of knowledge of many kinds: the pursuit of linguistic, philosophical, and mystical studies into uncharted territories was contemporaneous with explorations of the geographical world beyond its familiar perimeters. Humphrey Gilbert, colorful half brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, is a figure well known to historians for his military service to Queen Elizabeth, his Discourse on the Northwest Passage, and his adventurous explorations of the New World. He is fodder for the popular imagination as well, and his adventures at sea have inspired a number of fictional or semifictional works, including a poem by Longfellow, a nineteenth-century children’s story, and two novels of speculative fiction.38 For all his adventurous appeal, however, Gilbert’s spirit-summoning diaries have had much less coverage. They occasionally garner brief footnotes in works on the more famous occult writings and practices of Dr. John Dee, and often go unmentioned in the popular and scholarly histories of his explorations.39 Unlike Gilbert’s Discourse on the Northwest Passage, which seems to have been almost continuously in print since the sixteenth century, the diaries have never been published.
In chapter 9 of this volume, Frank Klaassen offers the first real analysis of this British Library manuscript in which the crystal-skrying and spirit-conjuring operations are recorded. Gilbert performed these experiments along with several other figures in his household—a group that included not only Gilbert’s brother Adrian but also a young John Davis, later to become the prominent Elizabethan navigator and arctic explorer. Their story, as Klaassen gleans it from the pages of their diary, opens an interesting and informative window into the lives, thoughts, and fantasies of these Elizabethan gentlemen.
Their crystal-skrying operations are contemporary with the better-known angel conversations of John Dee, which serve as a useful comparison. Both Dee and Gilbert had scientific interests that they pursued with the same zeal they brought to their conjuring experiments, but Dee seldom admitted to resorting to medieval tracts of magic of either demonic or angelic kinds (despite having many such books in his library). The Gilberts, however, recorded a systematic pursuit of practices found in medieval grimoires for speaking with demons and angels. The records made of their operations show both the free-form use of these materials and the extreme care with which they documented their visionary results. Klaassen positions the skrying operations of the Gilbert household in the context of their more widely known activities in the service of science and education, examining their anti-Scholastic attitudes and experientially focused methods against the background of the social and intellectual history of ritual magic and early modern science.
The very difficulty of trying to categorize the Gilberts’ experiments—as theurgy, science, mysticism, or magic—shows how futile it may be to begin with a framework set up by such categories. Yet it is crucial for historians to be aware of the kinds of polemics that have been engaged in the vicinity of terms like “mysticism” and “theurgy” (and probably the term “science,” too), especially as these may have operated around texts of Christian angel magic. In what follows, I take some time to tease out the implications of one particularly important term for this book: theurgy.
II. Theurgy: Orientations and Definitions
I note that not all of the authors contributing to this volume use the word “theurgy” to refer to the mode of religious activity in their sources, but many do. I note, too, that usages may differ from one essay to the next. I have not imposed any single standard of definition or usage, although I have tried to ensure that all terminology is made clear in the specific context where it appears. However, I want to devote some space to an unfolding of this term here in my introduction, because it seems crucial that readers be able to position themselves quickly in relation to these different usages—whether pro-theurgic, anti-theurgic, modern, or late antique. The intellectual history of discussions of theurgy, within and outside Christianity, is long and complicated. The history of applications of the word “theurgy” to the kinds of texts under discussion here is relatively short term; but it is all the more important to lay the groundwork for a set of relations between these ancient and current understandings of the term, because the questions that arise around them are crucial to the narrative arc that, in one way or another, informs all the essays in the book.
Definitions of Theurgy
A Greek compound that translates literally as “god work,” the term is used in late antique philosophical writings in apposition with “theology” (“god speech”). As Georg Luck puts it, theurgy was “an activity, an operation, a technique, dealing with the gods, not just a theory, a discussion, an action of contemplation.”40 Even in its original late antique context, the term “theurgy” suffered from much the same kind of problematic construction as the word “magic,” and the two words have always had somewhat overlapping semantic fields.41 In turn, theurgic practices, sometimes condemned and sometimes defended, became a topic of philosophical conversation and argument among the Neoplatonic philosophers.42
In addition to the historical/ethnographic sense of the word “theurgy” in use by scholars attempting to reconstruct its original late antique contexts,43 the word has other senses in common use. Some further senses of the word in modern (mostly scholarly) contexts include its use (1) very loosely as a rough and ready synonym for “magic”;44 (2) in a slightly stricter theoretical sense as a term for a “special branch of magic” that is “applied to a religious purpose” (the definition perhaps too influentially formulated by E. R. Dodds);45 and (3) in a looser etic sense to refer to practices analogous (but not necessarily related) to the late antique Neoplatonic contexts in which theurgy originally comes up; in this sense, it has been adopted by some scholars of medieval Kabbalah, and more lately by some scholars of medieval Christian ritual magic.46
I note here three elementary structural traits of the types of rituals that seem to be recognized in most contexts of the term’s usage, whether positive or negative. At a basic level, theurgic operations (1) tend to involve rituals to effect the soul’s purification; (2) tend to involve fellowship with intermediary beings (gods, angels, daemones); and (3) tend to be oriented toward revelation, or experiences in which something is transmitted by the divine powers. In practice this means that they may induce visions.47 I mark these traits only as broad generic aspects of rituals that get called “theurgic.” They are not part of any definitive or essential early definition of theurgy (there is none); they are merely my own abstractions from a broad variety of contexts in which I have seen the word used. In the past, I have used the term “angel magic” to refer to medieval Christian texts, such as the Ars notoria, that have these generic traits, and I will continue my occasional use of the term “angel magic” as well.
It should be noted that these traits are functional, not theological; when theurgy is defended or justified in theological terms, different ideas come into play—for example, the idea that theurgy is necessitated by the weakness of the soul, or by the flawed perception of the soul in an embodied state, or by the idea that specific ritual practices are part of God’s plan, instituted by God to effect the human soul’s return. The concept that theurgy names certain ritual practices justified by divine institution is key in the Iamblichean defense of theurgy, just as it is for ideas of sacramental action in the Christian tradition as informed by the pseudo-Dionysius. These theological associations are, in turn, a primary reason for Julien Véronèse’s adoption of this term to label the form of religious activity in the Ars notoria.
Christian Theurgy and the Ars notoria According to Julien Véronèse
Véronèse has a carefully explicated rationale for his use of this ancient term to refer to a medieval Christian practice, and it is worthwhile to reiterate some of his main points.48 He writes:
Recourse to the notion of “theurgy” to grasp the mode of functioning and the nature of the Ars notoria is thus only a convenient means of extracting this addressative practice from the demonological complex put in place by medieval theologians, following Augustine, at the point where there is a question of signs addressed to superior intelligences outside a framework defined by the Church. As a methodological tool, it permits the creation, at the heart of the ensemble of ritual magic texts, of an objective distinction which, without being inoperative in the Middle Ages, was not thought of or formulated in these terms during this period.49
In other words, the advantage of the term for Véronèse is that it is not emic—the semantic field he uses the term “theurgy” to cover is not, in fact, produced by the culture that he is addressing, though it has certain analogues that would have been recognizable to that culture.
Véronèse is well aware that there may be pitfalls in attempting to map a set of high medieval practices onto a set of late antique ideas only notionally related to them, and he emphasizes that the analogy should not be pushed too far.50 He notes as well that the masters of the Ars notoria themselves attempted to frame their work with the term “sacrament.”51 Véronèse continues, “On the conceptual level, and whatever the bishop of Hippo might say, the affiliation in nature between theurgy and sacrament is incontestable. Jean Trouillard emphasized, for example, . . . that if it is abstracted from all context, the notion of theurgy . . . is closely akin to sacrament in its functioning, and prefigures, by instituting ‘an operative symbolism destined to rouse the divine presence and power,’ the efficacy of Christian sacraments and particularly that of the Eucharist.”52
I would note, however, that while the idea of divinely instituted operative symbolism is important in Iamblichus’s treatment of theurgy, this treatment surrounds the idea with a worked-out theology intended to argue for its necessity—a theology by no means universally accepted by Neoplatonic philosophers or by those who interpreted Iamblichus later. Thus the notion of “theurgy” cannot really be “abstracted from all context” without losing the very thing that makes it useful as a positive term. The affiliation between theurgy and sacrament lies not so much in any base abstract or essential idea of theurgy, as Trouillard suggests, but rather in the habitual means of theological justification of efficacious salvific rituals within theologies having a monotheistic framework.
Véronèse concludes this section by suggesting that the analogy with “sacraments” should not be pushed too far, either; in fact, he believes that the masters of the Ars notoria were careful not to be too precise in their use of the term to describe the mystery of this ritual divinely received by Solomon. For one thing, as Véronèse notes, Solomon, the pre-Christian receptor of the text, does not offer a point of origin that can be expected to map cleanly onto the notion of sacraments instituted during the lifetime of Christ (even though the names of Christ and the Trinity do occur in the prayers).53
Whatever may be the case with the Ars notoria itself, however, the idea of sacrament does get linked with medieval texts of this genre in the medieval period in ways that are sometimes more explicit and distinctive. For example, Peter of Abano brings forward the notion of sacrament explicitly in his early justification of the Ars notoria,54 while in roughly the same time period Thomas Aquinas explicitly declares that the Ars notoria is not divinely instituted and does not work like the sacraments of the church.55 And, as I note in my own essay in this volume, analogies with Christian sacramental theology are brought forward through the idea of covenant in two texts emerging somewhat later than the Ars notoria, but in same tradition: the Liber iuratus Honorii (which is coupled with the sacraments in my epigraph) and John of Morigny’s Liber florum celestis doctrine. For good or ill, this is a thread that may often find itself woven into the tapestry of receptions and explanations of theurgy in the Middle Ages as well as other periods.
Like Véronèse, I see the utility of the term “theurgy” as a label for the practices discussed in this book, in part because of the way the term both connects to, and remains distinct from, ideas of sacrament. Unlike Véronèse, however, I find it of interest not because it escapes the demonological problems associated with the term “magic” but rather because, on the levels of historical analogy, theological justification, and scholarly reception, it engages them in a certain way. That is, the theological problems relevant to these texts are analogous to those that tend to surface around theurgy in both patristic and pagan writings, and they usefully illuminate the tensions that come into play around the texts and practices under discussion here.
Christian Theurgy and the Problem of Magic: Augustine and Dionysius
As noted, the term “theurgy” has a long history of difficulty in Christian contexts—a difficulty that finds articulate expression in the works of Saint Augustine, who gave the anti-theurgic stance one of its most influential early formulations. While Augustine’s general equation of theurgy and goetia (demonic magic) is often quoted—indeed, is a familiar topos of scholarship on the Christian antimagical polemic—like many frequently iterated Augustinian ideas, it is not always well understood. It is worth looking at the context of these statements in a bit more detail.
In Augustine’s writings, theurgy is discussed extensively in the City of God, taking up much of books IX and X, in the context of a discussion of the pagan Neoplatonist philosophers, who were, in general, very important to Augustine, who had apparently been instrumental in his conversion from Manichaeism,56 and whom he clearly continued to admire despite the critique he proposes here. Much of this section of the book in fact amounts to a close mapping of Neoplatonic thought onto Christian thought, at the same time showing up points of deviation where they occur. He notes that the need for mediators between the human and divine is acknowledged by both pagan Neoplatonists and Christian thinkers, and Augustine’s arguments point in the direction that God intended us to have one mediator, Jesus of Nazareth—who was simultaneously human and divine—and the real and historical existence of this ideal mediator effectively rules out any possibility that the angels would be intended to perform a mediation leading to salvation.57 The tenor of his argument thus suggests that he sees theurgy as a pagan attempt to achieve through angels an equivalent to the mediation that Christians achieve through Christ.
The primary claim about pagan theurgy that Augustine was refuting (or revealing as different from Christian lines of thought in the same area) was the idea that theurgy could access any effective kind of divine mediation. The spirits invoked and addressed could not be efficacious either for the process of the soul’s cleansing or for its eventual salvation, both because they are not God and because they are not human. It should be noted that Augustine equates the “gods” of the Platonists with Christian angels and says that it makes no difference whether you call them “gods” or “angels” because the concept is the same relative to the supreme God. His eventual equation of theurgy and demonic magic or goetia is thus really not a simple equation of pagan gods and Christian demons but a more complex argument about the philosophical assumptions underlying the theurgic spiritual cosmology. For Augustine, theurgy seems to imply a worship of creatures, which at best amounts to angel worship, which misunderstands the true worship of God and of which the angels themselves could not approve. Moreover Augustine is unable to countenance the idea that angels might be subject to conjuration or passible, “perturbed and agitated by the emotions which Apuleius attributed to demons and men.”58
If angels in their divinity must be seen as sharing the impassibility of the Godhead, the corollary is that any passible angels actually encountered by practitioners of theurgy must be demons; because of this, and making the most of unresolved queries about the nature of the beings described as accessible to theurgic techniques in Porphyry’s “Letter to Anebo,” Augustine maintains that theurgy in practice is not really distinguishable from goetia or (demonic) magic. Even though Porphyry agrees that theurgy might work some kind of purgation of the soul, according to Augustine, “he does so with some hesitation and shame, and denies that this art can secure to anyone a return to God.”59 In deference to the coherence of these objections, the Latin Christian tradition after Augustine eschews the Greek word “theurgy” except as the name of a demonic practice.
A more positive idea of theurgia (if not the word itself) enters the Christian tradition by another route, however. The word theurgia and its compounds occur between forty and fifty times in the Greek corpus of the pseudo-Dionysius, roughly half of these in his liturgical commentary The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.60 Like Augustine, Dionysius clearly views God’s incarnation as the most important act of mediation between humankind and God—the act by which human salvation was intended to be effected. Unlike Augustine, however, Dionysius’s terminology for this divine mediation is the terminology of theurgy. God’s incarnation, his entry into the world, is his original theurgy on our behalf61—a theurgy that is forecast in the Old Testament, consummated in the New, and represented and celebrated by the sacraments, which enable the imitation of God.62 We are initiated into these “theurgic lights,” grasping them “in the best way we can, as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions [i.e., liturgies] cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses.”63 In other words, instead of thinking of theurgy as a religious practice involving angels as divine mediators (as Augustine did), Dionysius thinks of theurgy simply as a practice involving divine mediation and adapts its application to Christ and the Christian liturgies.
The difference between Augustine and Dionysius in regard to their terminology for Christ’s mediation is perhaps most simply understood as a product of the fact that Augustine had a strong philosophical affiliation with Plotinus and does not reference Iamblichus at all, whereas the pseudo-Dionysius was apparently familiar with the works of Iamblichus (the deft philosophical apologist for theurgy) and seems to have been influenced by him in his view of anagogical uplift, which he adapts for Christian use.64 Thus Dionysius was intimate with, and thought in terms of, an already fully theologized concept of theurgy as divine action, whereas Augustine did not. What is important, at least for the subsequent destiny of the term “theurgy” in medieval Christian culture, is that in the Latin translations of the pseudo-Dionysian corpus the word theurgia never appears: it is always rendered as some version of “divina operatio” or “operatio Dei,”65 which medieval readers would not have recognized in the Latin translations of this corpus as the same term equated with demonic magic, goetia, by Augustine.
Iamblichean and Dionysian Theurgy According to Gregory Shaw
While this is a straightforward explanation of the absence of any positivized version of the word “theurgy” in medieval sources, it may do less to explain the continuing resistance to the word in scholarship throughout the modern period. This resistance is probably due not only to the power of Augustine’s voice but also to the continuation of the problematics of theurgic rituals as at least potentially implying a passible Godhead—issues that Augustine was neither the first nor the last to finger. Scholars have shown a special discomfort in dealing with use of the term “theurgy” in the corpus of the pseudo-Dionysius because of the difficulty in divorcing this term, on the one hand, from its Augustinian association with goetia, and, on the other, from E. R. Dodds’s similar but differently motivated association of Iamblichean theurgy with irrationality, superstition, and spiritualism. Successive generations of historians and classicists have attempted to shore up a set of essential theological distinctions between the theurgy described by Iamblichus and that espoused by Dionysius.
Over the past two decades, however, these apparent differences between Dionysius and Iamblichus have gradually broken down, as scholars have gained an increasingly solid grasp, first, on the full extent of Dionysius’s debt to Iamblichus, and second, on the fact that Iamblichus himself never espoused a theurgy of human action upon God. Two landmark articles by Gregory Shaw have been useful in clarifying the way the problem of theurgy has emerged both historically, in the late antique context, and historiographically, in the scholarly contexts that have been built around it. In a 1985 article, “Rituals of Unification in the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus,” Shaw casts the first line through his argument about the nature of Iamblichean theurgy, not as a human action upon the gods but as a divine action divinely instituted by God to enable the human soul’s return to him. He also offers a historiographic overview of the gradual emergence of more positive and accurate ideas of Iamblichean theurgy from the more negative but still influential views propounded by E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational in 1951. Shaw notes that Dodds was “a lifelong member of Britain’s Psychical Research Society and attended many spiritualist séances. . . . [Dodds] explains the sacred rites of Iamblichus’ school by comparing them to modern spiritualist phenomena. For Dodds . . . theurgy was the ‘spiritualism’ of Late Antiquity, and represented the corruption of Platonic rationalism with oriental superstitions.”66 This may overread Dodds’s lack of sympathy for the irrational motivations both of spiritualism and of theurgy as he understood it; nevertheless it remains true that Dodds’s ideas about Iamblichus as purveyor of “magic applied to a religious purpose” seem to have remained influential somewhat past the point of their greatest utility.
In another important article, published in 1999, “Neoplatonic Theurgy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” Shaw continues to refine his arguments about late antique theurgy, pulling together the issues already shown to be at stake in treatments of Iamblichean theurgy and showing how they have colored the reading of pseudo-Dionysius.67 Summing up all the difficulties that have emerged around the Dionysian vocabulary choice, Shaw writes, “If Dionysius practiced theurgy, it would present a serious challenge to his ‘orthodoxy,’ for to have been a theurgist in the Neoplatonic sense would condemn the Areopagite in the eyes of all scholar-apologists. It is not surprising, therefore, that his theurgy has been described by two leading Dionysian scholars, Andrew Louth and Paul Rorem, as fundamentally different from Neoplatonic, i.e. ‘pagan,’ theurgy.”68
While Shaw makes a complex argument in this article, one of its central nodes is the overturning of Paul Rorem’s distinction between subjective and objective genitives. Rorem suggested that Dionysius “used the term ‘theurgy’ to mean ‘work of God,’ not as an objective genitive indicating a work addressed to God (as in Iamblichus, e.g. de Mysteriis I 2, 7:2–6) but as a subjective genitive meaning God’s own work . . . especially in the incarnation.”69 According to Shaw, this is a misreading, for even in Iamblichus, theurgy is not a work addressed to the gods, either in the place cited or elsewhere; for Iamblichus, too, the subject of the ergon theou must always be God.70 In fact, “Iamblichus clearly states throughout the De mysteriis that theurgy was not an attempt to influence the gods, not only because it would have been impious but impossible. Iamblichus is unambiguous on this issue precisely because the De mysteriis was written to address it.”71
If there is no cogent reason for treating Iamblichean and Dionysian theurgies as being based on opposing theological principles, then the primary difference between them boils down, as I have noted earlier, to an understanding of what divine mediation must entail and the corollary location of symbolic liturgies in an arena suitable for commemorating the entry of the divine into the world. Following James Miller, Shaw points out that liturgical/theurgical symbols for Dionysius are no longer found in the natural world but in the ecclesiastical world:
“while Dionysius preserved the Neoplatonic dynamics of prohodos and epistrophe that are ritually enacted in Iamblichean theurgy, in its Dionysian form the natural cosmos is replaced by ecclesiastic and angelic orders. This means that Dionysian theurgy is no longer an extension of the act of creation (in analogia with divine creation) but becomes something beyond or beside nature, in what the Church calls the ‘new creation’: the supernatural orders of the Church and its angels.”72
If Shaw is correct in his assessment of Iamblichean theurgy, his work would seem to lay to rest any idea that theurgy in the work of either of these important late antique thinkers involved a human attempt to manipulate or influence the gods. Yet it is pertinent to remember that the arguments laid out in Porphyry’s “Letter to Anebo,” against which Iamblichus and Augustine both so crucially reacted in their different ways, did embody a discomfort around the issue of the possibility that humankind could influence the divine. This problem is perennial and may not be subject to a final resolution. At the very least, the recurrent pitching of this accusation against those who defend a positive notion of theurgy suggests that we may not have seen the last of it.
It is of interest to note, however, that in the current usage of some scholars of Jewish mysticism, theurgy is still taken to mean “an operation intended to influence the divinity”—a usage conspicuously defined and adopted by Moshe Idel. Shaw sees this as a simple capitulation to Dodds’s definition, but it is demonstrable that while it may begin in the same place, the definition goes beyond Dodds’s in several ways.
The Jewishness of Theurgy According to Moshe Idel
In the scholarly discourse surrounding Jewish mysticism, the term “theurgy” is used in ways that are not always consistent, but they do all have one thing in common: the idea that theurgy is a component of a specifically Jewish religiosity, alien to Christianity. Moshe Idel’s understanding of the word is elaborated at some length in chapter 7 of his Kabbalah: New Perspectives. Idel argues against Scholem’s assumption that “‘the ritual of rabbinical Judaism’ was free of myth and mysticism, which were infused into it by the kabbalists.”73 Rather, he argues, “theurgic” tendencies have always been present in a certain stream of rabbinic Judaism.
Crucial for my point is the emphasis upon the theurgical nature of the commandments, as against other significant ancient rabbinic tendencies that were indifferent to, or even opposed, this evaluation of the performance of the commandments. The term theurgy, or theurgical, will be used below to refer to operations intended to influence the Divinity, mostly in its own inner state or dynamics, but sometimes also in its relationship to man. In contrast to the magician, the ancient and medieval Jewish theurgian focused his activity on accepted religious values. My definition accordingly distinguishes between theurgy and magic far more than do the usual definitions.74
In the footnote attached to “usual definitions,” Idel cites only Dodds.75 But Idel’s definition is idiosyncratic not so much because, as he states, it “distinguishes between theurgy and magic far more than do the usual definitions,”76 but more because by “theurgy” Idel does not primarily mean to indicate a set of ritual practices analogous to late antique theurgy. Rather, the word “theurgy” points, in Idel’s usage, first and foremost to an idea or proposition about God: the proposition that the divine is a dynamic entity in need of human action in order fully to inhabit its correct relation to itself. In the section of chapter 7 titled “Augmentation Theurgy,” Idel discusses the interrelation between human acts and the augmentation of the divine Dynamis (Gevurah) as a key concept of rabbinic literature. Idel focuses on the assumption present in certain classical Jewish sources that the power of God is weakened or diminished by human transgression and augmented by the proper performance of the commandments; as an illustrative locus, he quotes the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana: “Azariah [said] in the name of R. Yehudah bar Simon, so long as the righteous act according to the will of heaven, they add power to the Dynamis. . . . And if they do not act [accordingly], it is as if: ‘you have weakened the Rock that formed thee.’”77
The notion that the quantity of power or glory of divinity has a dependence upon human action, Idel argues, is not a kabbalistic novelty but had always been present and integral to a certain stream of Jewish thought. For the kabbalists, however, the notion that humans could and indeed needed to influence intradivine processes was “the Archimedal point for the articulation of a full-fledged theurgical theory that interpreted the performance of the commandments as necessary for the divine welfare.”78 More than once, Idel refers to this theurgic concept as “mythic” (a term that is necessary to his argument against Scholem).79 In fact, however, in being a proposition about God, it is more essentially a theological than a mythic point. This definition of theurgy is shared with some scholars in the area of medieval Jewish Kabbalah, though others dealing with similar materials do not use the term at all, or seem to use it in more conventional or simply less well defined senses.80
As already noted, Shaw cites Idel as one of an array of scholars who have “adopted Dodds’ characterization of theurgy as an attempt to manipulate, influence, or coerce the gods.”81 However, though Idel does characterize theurgy as an operation “intended to influence the divinity,” his idea is actually distinct from Dodds’s inasmuch as his definition of “theurgy” is not a capitulation to a stream of practice that happens to exist despite rationalist proscriptions, but is rather a theological representation of the role of human religious action in relation to God’s Dynamis. In fact, “theurgy” is not quite fully read as “coercing” or “constraining” the divine, because Idel quickly moves to the idea that this “human influence” on the divine is actually part of what he calls an “intra-divine process”—the implication being not that God is influenced by a humankind whose will and action are held to be external to him, but rather that God and humankind are both involved a single system. As Idel uses the term, “theurgy” labels a conception of the human relation to God, which has always existed and which needs accounting for. He states that this “theurgy” is not a kabbalistic novelty but rather “a continuation of authentic Rabbinic traditions” that are “organic to Jewish thought.”82 Thus it cannot really be said that his notion of theurgy is nothing more than a reproduction of Dodds’s. In one sense, it may be said that Idel positivizes the radical aspect of the theurgic idea from which others try to escape when they seek to justify it.
In another way, however, Idel’s definition of theurgy addresses, if idiosyncratically, a difficulty that everyone else sees, too: the difficulty of conceptualizing the human relation to God that is implied by religious action when that action is conceived as necessary to anyone. For even if religious action is only necessary because human souls are weak, how could God be conceived as not wanting the return of every created soul? But also, how could God be conceived as wanting anything at which we ourselves could fail? If theurgy is defended as a divinely instituted action put in place on account of human necessity, acting upon the soul alone, the problem appears susceptible to resolution. But it is not a perfect resolution, inasmuch as, from either a Jewish or a Christian perspective, it is evident that any human being can choose not to be saved—can break the commandments, live an impure life, and ignore all God’s work on his behalf. There is bound to be occasional anxiety about the effect of these failures on a system in which God and humankind appear to be so closely linked.
Idel’s source texts may suggest an anxiety about this that runs through Judaism. It must be recognized, however, that, save for putting his finger on this theological anxiety, what he calls “theurgy” here remains distinct from what others have used the term to mean. A primary difference is that he does not, at least in this key locus, appear to refer to any of the structural indices I noted at the outset that trigger use of the term “theurgy” in other contexts: purification, fellowship of angels, revelation. His understanding of what constitutes the “organic” Jewishness of the theurgic concept, then, also differs from what others have understood by it. In order to understand the initial championing of theurgy as a quintessentially Jewish religious form, we need to revisit its beginnings in the work of Gershom Scholem.
The Jewishness of Theurgy According to Gershom Scholem
Gershom Scholem’s circumscription of the term “mysticism” in the first chapter of his landmark work, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, has in fact been a major influence on the way theurgy has been adopted as a defining character of Jewish mysticism—a character that has not changed despite the way this concept has been in many ways crucially reconfigured by Idel. Scholem’s enterprise explicitly involves recuperating the domain of Kabbalah, on the one hand, from unsympathetic earlier historians who dismissed this “magical” literature with too little examination,83 and, on the other, from occultists like Eliphas Lévi and Aleister Crowley, “charlatans and dreamers” whose magical sympathies did little to recuperate its reputation as “serious” religion.84
Setting his own work as a scholar firmly apart from that of both antimagical and magical students of Kabbalah, Scholem begins by elaborating a concept of “mysticism” that he adapts to cover the Hebrew texts in which he is interested. Following Evelyn Underhill and Rufus Jones, Scholem begins by defining “mystical religion” as a “type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God.”85 Scholem goes on to distinguish Jewish mysticism from the Christian variety (as propounded by Jones and Underhill), first and foremost on the grounds that Jewish mysticism is not primarily interested in “unio mystica”; Jewish mystics are more apt to speak in terms of “ascent of the soul to the Celestial Throne” than of “divine union.” If there are also Jewish apophatic mystics who do seem to be more interested in mystical union, according to Scholem this is “the same experience which both are trying to express in different ways.”86 Thus anagogical processes are elided with mystical union, which is a concept Scholem then allows to drop. As far as Scholem is concerned, in regard to Jewish mysticism, all paths were equally “mystical” insofar as their objective was some sort of “immediate awareness of relation with God”; but his immediate interest is in the stream that pertains to theurgy (understood within the boundaries of the functional sense outlined above).87
Of course, Christian angel magic may also be accused of lack of interest in “unio mystica” (or, alternatively, of a positive interest in visionary knowledge), and there are a number of other features Scholem indicates as distinctively characteristic of Jewish mysticism that are shared by Christian angel magic too, including its trope of Adamic knowledge;88 its positive view of the power of language;89 the fact that it is typically written and practiced by men rather than women, and (connectedly, according to Scholem) the lack of any trace of affective piety in it.90 Throughout Scholem’s discussion, however, he also insists on the importance of configuring all mysticisms in their historical context. Because of this, the centrality of all these strands of Jewish mysticism is established—and has largely been construed since—as if it were part of a historical distinction between Christian and Jewish religion, rather than a difference between the way in which scholars of Christianity and scholars of Hebrew and Judaic studies have constructed the term “mysticism”—in the former case as excluding, and in the latter as including, theurgic practices. As the present volume shows, there is really no dearth of this sort of thing in medieval Christianity, but it has never been conceived or studied as part of the domain of “mystical religion.” It was excluded from this category before Scholem ever adapted the term to cover Jewish theurgy. It is only beginning to be taken seriously enough to be studied at all. In fact, the situation from which Scholem endeavored to rescue the kabbalistic texts for serious study sixty years ago is very much parallel to that of medieval Christian theurgic texts until recently.
At this point, as many scholars are recognizing the need for more serious account to be taken of neglected or marginalized strands in religion, we may wish to think about broadening the study of Christian mysticism to include texts like the Ars notoria, the Sworn Book, and the Liber florum of John of Morigny. If we do so, we are likely to find that some of the base criteria for what makes a mystical text look Christian or Jewish will require further refinement. It may be added as well that there is surely room for this expansion in a field that has, since the time of Underhill, developed an increasingly nuanced understanding of what constitutes religious experience, and a more solid grasp on the role played by devotional practices in focusing and interpreting such experiences.91 Since some of the theurgic apologetics already explored can be seen to have other or broader applications to the study of religion,92 it is to be hoped that by drawing attention to these aspects of a largely ignored medieval theurgy, this book will begin to open out new connections between these texts and the study of other forms of religious practice.
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