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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and In Conflict

Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher (1989).
New York: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 0-19-505603-5

Description: Hardcover, xii + 294 pages.

Contents: Preface, introduction, 10 chapters divided into 6 parts: 1. Statement of the Problem, 2. A Case for Comparison, 3. Religion, Learning, and Magic in the History of Judaism, 4. Religion, Learning, and Magic in the History of Christianity, 5. Magic in Relation to Philosophy, 6. Religion, Science, and Magic in the Study of Society, Index to Biblical and Talmudic References, general index.

Contributors: Tzvi Abusch, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Susan R. Garrett, Moshe Idel, Karen Louise Jolly, Howard Clark Kee, Georg Luck, Jacob Neusner, Hans H. Penner, Stephen Sharot.

Note: Papers presented at a conference held at Brown University, Aug. 13, 1987.

George Luck

The need of pagan believers to enter into direct contact with their gods led to the development of a certain technique or a set of techniques codified during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, it seems, and given the name "theurgy." It was the subject of philosophical discussions within the Neoplatonist schools, and many followers of Plotinus accepted it enthusiastically, almost as a way of life. ...

The term theurgia can be explained in contrast to theologia. It is an activity, an operation, a technique, dealing with the gods, not just a theory, a discussion, an action of contemplation. As such it was considered a form of worship, possibly the best kind of worship, and it clearly had its own rewards for those who practiced it. (page 185)

... [in] later paganism, theurgy had acquired the status of the old mystery religions; in fact, theurgy can be considered the ultimate development of the mysteries, because it represents an initiation into the highest mystery of all, the union of man and god. Other names are "theosophy," "service," "ritual," "divine knowledge."

Philosophy and Theurgy

The basic doctrine of theurgy could be found, as I have said, in the Oracles, but it was greatly expanded and interpreted by the Neoplatonists-not all of them, but quite a few. The philosophers who belonged to the various schools of Neoplatonism can be divided into those who placed theurgy above thought, those who did not, and those who were undecided. (page 187)

... I have collected as many specific details as possible and tried to piece together a picture, but much of it remains a puzzle. One clearly had to be initiated, as Julian was himself, by a master. Part of the technique appears to have been a closely guarded secret handed down in certain families, but also in the philosophical schools-they were, after all, like families.

From the way in which these experiences are referred to-one may conclude that the technique usually worked, though failures occurred, it seems, and had to be explained. There also seems to have been a certain amount of fraud; at least this is alleged by outsiders and adversaries, such as the Christians; and even within Neoplatonism there were critics and sceptics. Some theurgists must have been better than others.

But assuming that something truly extraordinary happened, we must look for a plausible explanation in modern terms, and this I shall try to do at the end of my discussion, though I cannot claim to have found the solution; in this area all research must remain more or less tentative. (page 188)

The aim of all theurgical operations is clearly described in fragment 97 of the Oracles (though a few words in the text are hypothetical); it is, in one word, to embrace God and be embraced by God: "Having flown upward, the human soul will embrace God vigorously. Free of any mortal element, she will be wholly intoxicated by God." The theurgist aims at "unification with the unparticipated One," and it is the willingness of the gods to descend that makes theurgy possible.

Through the mystical union with the One and the release from the bonds of fate, humans become actually equal to the gods, at least for a short time; afterward they assume their human condition again. Theurgists rank higher than theologians, because they not only think and talk about the gods; they know how to act upon them. (page 189)

Any attempt at reconstructing the whole ritual must be tentative, as I have said. There are some elements that can be identified. ...

  1. Long periods of silence. This is an ascetic discipline, like fasting, forcing oneself to stay awake, praying for long periods of time. ...
  2. The "understanding warmed by fire", an enigmatic phrase that also occurs as a synonym for the whole art of theurgy. The divine fire that theurgists hope to see at some point will help them understand all of theology in a flash. ...
  3. Material things, such as herbs and stones, but also words uttered or written down, because words were considered just as real as any material things. ...
  4. Specific magical tools, such as the "bull-roarer" and similar objects that may look like simple magical toys to us but apparently produced the desired effects under certain conditions. ...
  5. In some cases drugs which were similar in their effects to mescaline or LSD may have been used. Very little is said in our sources about the ingestion of mind-altering substances, but there are allusions to heavy perfumes and aromatic vapors. ... (pages 192-193)

The Greeks believed that a certain psychic disposition was a necessary requirement; "only individuals who tend by their nature toward ecstasy will become possessed," says Plutarch. Not all so-called philosophers will experience this state, but a human being who is "beloved by the gods" and whose soul is "god-loving" will be privileged to experience visions and enjoy theophanies.

Plotinus was one of these privileged individuals, as it appears from Porphyry's Vita Plotini: four times during the years of Porphyry's discipleship the master succeeded in rising to the highest god. Plotinus himself defined ecstasy as an awakening of the soul from its physical nature. ...

Wine and other intoxicating substances were apt to bring about a trance, and Iamblichus compares trance to a state of drunkenness. I will consider later the possibility that the ancients used drugs comparable to hashish (used in Sufism), mescaline, or LSD. (page 195)

Again and again the descriptions emphasize the surpassing beauty of the visions and the inadequacy of language to do justice to it. This particular theme-the inadequacy of language to express the ultimate truth-is typical for Neoplatonism. We have seen how often terms like "ineffable," "inexpressible" occur in theurgical contexts.

It seems to me that an experience that may be primarily esthetic for a twentieth-century subject-though we hear about moving statues, masks, and so on-could very well be a religious one for a second-century person who had been programmed to expect it. The technique of programming was, of course, an essential part of theurgy, just as important as the technique of getting into trance or taking the right drug in the right doses. If anything was done improperly, things could go wrong and the visions were terrifying rather than blissful. It is true that no specific drugs are ever named, but the powers of herbs, stones, aromatic essences, and the like, are emphasized many times. ...

A typical feature of the mescaline phenomena is that the patterns, designs, scenes, and so forth, are always changing; they are a continuous kaleidoscope. But it is possible, in certain instances, to predict what vision will follow the one that the subject is having at a given moment. Smythies writes: "If one flash of the stroboscopic lamp is directed on my closed eyes, I will notice that the complex hallucinated pattern will immediately change to be replaced by a more primitive pattern." Therefore it seems entirely possible that the theurgist, working with a medium in trance, could, to a certain extent, influence the kind of hallucination the medium was to have. This may explain the uses of lamps and shiny objects in theurgic rituals.

Smythies refers very briefly and without elaborating to "alleged occult phenomena, such as apparitions of the recently dead, and to precognitive dreams. He is clearly aware of the perspectives that these experiments open up for our understanding of ancient religions: "persons in the early Christian era pursued hallucinatory experiences with . . . passionate intensity believing them to provide a direct method of communication with the supernatural world." Of course this pursuit had been going on for a very long time-think of Delphi and Eleusis-and it continued, as we have seen, to the end of antiquity and beyond. (pages 215-216)

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