Mysticism, Magic and Initiation in the Hellenistic Period

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The old idea that magic is compelling the god, almost like an automatic spell, while religion involves personal devotion, seems to be incorrect and prejudiced. Many of these texts, as with the first, show that one could feel great devotion for the spirit upon whom one called. Magical texts contain all the elements we normally associate with religion, including the negative notion of cursing. It is safe to say that “one person’s miracle is another person’s magic” and vice versa.

In antiquity the subject of magic had little to do with the way the word is popularly used today, i.e., to refer to stage shows or tricks. Magic is a difficult area with which to deal. The line (if any) between religion and magic is unclear. The old idea that magic is compelling the god, almost like an automatic spell, while religion involves personal devotion, seems to be incorrect and prejudiced. Many of these texts, as with the first, show that one could feel great devotion for the spirit upon whom one called. Magical texts contain all the elements we normally associate with religion, including the negative notion of cursing. It is safe to say that “one person’s miracle is another person’s magic” and vice versa. In other words, if you dislike your opponent you will say his supernatural deeds are done through magic. He might charge the same about your “miracles”–the contest between Moses and the priests of Egypt in Exodus is a good example of this kind of controversy. Let us just say that magic involved serious dealings with the supernatural world—contacting various gods or spirits for various purposes. These magical materials seem to be more individual than cultic. In other words, there is no “church” of magic. It was a secret tradition passed down by adepts to disciples. Magic was illegal under Roman law.

Acquiring a Supernatural Assistant
Greek Magical Papyri

Pnouthios to Keryx, a god[-fearing man], greetings. As one who knows, I have prescribed for you [this spell for acquiring an assistant] to prevent your failing; as you carry out [this rite]. After detaching all the prescriptions [bequeathed to us in] countless books, [one out of all. . .] I have shown you this spell for acquiring an assistant [as one that is serviceable] to you . . . for you to take this holy [assistant] and only . . . O friend of aerial; spirits [that move]. . .having persuaded me with god-given spells . . . but [not] I have dispatched this book so that you may learn thoroughly. For the spell of Pnouthis [has the power] to persuade the gods and all [the goddesses]. And [I shall write] you from it about [acquiring] an assistant.

[The] traditional rite [for acquiring an assistant]: After the preliminary purifications;[abstain from animal food] and from all uncleanliness and, on whatever [night] you want to, go [up] onto a lofty roof after you have clothed yourself in a pure garment . . . [and say] the first spell of encounter as the sun’s orb is disappearing . . . with a [wholly] black Isis band on [your eyes], and in your right hand; grasp a falcon’s head [and . . . ] when the sun rises, hail it as you shake its head [and] . . . recite this sacred spell as you burn [uncut] frankincense and pure rose oil, making the sacrifice [in an earthen] censer on ashes from the [plant] heliotrope. And as you recite the spell there will be; this sign for you: a falcon will [fly down and] stand in front of [you], and after flapping its wings in [mid-air and dropping] an oblong stone, it will immediately take flight and [ascend] to heaven. [You] should pick up this stone; carve it at once [and engrave it later]. Once it has been engraved, bore a hole in it, pass a thread through and wear it around your neck. But in the evening; go up to [your] housetop [again] and, facing the light of the goddess, address to her this [hymnic spell] as you again sacrifice myrrh troglitis in the same fashion. Light [a fire] and hold a branch of myrtle . . . shaking it, [and salute] the goddess.

At once there will be a sign for you like this: [A blazing star] will descend and come to a stop in the middle; of the housetop, and when the star [has dissolved] before your eyes, you will behold the angel whom you have summoned and who has been sent [to you], and you will quickly learn the decisions of the gods. But do not be afraid: [approach] the god and, taking his right hand, kiss him and say these words to the angel, for he will quickly respond to you about whatever you want. But you; adjure him with this [oath] that he meet you and remain inseparable and that he not [keep silent or] disobey in any way. But when he has with certainty accepted this oath of yours, take the god by the hand and leap down, [and] after bringing him [into] the narrow room where you reside, [sit him] down. After first preparing the house; in a fitting manner and providing all types of foods and Mendesian wine, set these before the god, with an uncorrupted boy serving and maintaining silence until the [angel] departs. And you address preliminary (?) words to the god; “I shall have you as a friendly assistant, a beneficent god who serves me whenever I say, `Quickly, by your; power now appear on earth to me, yea verily, god!”‘

And while reclining, you yourself quickly speak about what you propose. Test this oath of the god on [what] you wish. But when 3 hours have passed, the god will immediately leap up. Order the boy to run [to] the door. And say, “Go, lord, blessed god; where you live eternally, as you will,” and the god vanishes.

This is the sacred rite for acquiring an assistant. It is acknowledged that he is a god; he is an aerial spirit which you have seen. If you give him a command, straightway he performs the task: he sends dreams, he brings women, men without the use of magical material, he kills, he destroys, he stirs up winds from the earth, he carries; gold, silver, bronze, and he gives them to you whenever the need arises. And he frees from bonds a person chained in prison, he opens doors, he causes invisibility so that no one can see you at all, he is a bringer of fire, he brings water, wine, bread and [whatever] you wish in the way of foods: olive oil, vinegar–with the single exception of fish–and he will bring plenty of vegetables; whatever kind you wish, but as for pork, you must not ever tell him to bring this at all! And when you want to give a [dinner], tell him so. Conjure up in your mind any suitable room and order him to prepare it for a banquet quickly and without delay. At once he will bestow chambers with golden ceilings, and you will see their walls covered with marble–and you consider these things partly real; and partly just illusionary–and costly wine, as is meet to cap a dinner splendidly. He will quickly bring daimons, and for you he will adorn these servants with sashes. These things he does quickly. And [as soon as] you order [him] to perform a service, he will do so, and you will see him excelling in other things: He stops ships and [again]; releases them, he stops very many evil [daimons], he checks wild beasts and will quickly break the teeth of fierce reptiles, he puts dogs to sleep and renders them voiceless. He changes into whatever form [of beast] you want: one that flies, swims, a quadruped, a reptile. He will carry you [into] the air, and again hurl you into the billows; of the sea’s current and into the waves of the sea; he will quickly freeze rivers and seas and in such a way that you can run over them firmly, as you want. And [especially] will he stop, if ever you wish it, the sea-runnning foam, and whenever you wish to bring down stars and whenever you wish to make [warm things] cold and cold things; warm, he will light lamps and extinguish them again. And he will shake walls and [cause] them to blaze with fire; he will serve you suitably for [whatever] you have in mind, O [blessed] initiate of the sacred magic, and will accomplish it for you, this most powerful assistant, who is also the only lord of the air. And the gods will agree to everything, for without him; nothing happens. Share this great mystery with no one [else], but conceal it, by Helios, since you have been deemed worthy by the lord [god].

And this is spoken next: “Hither to me, King, [I call you] God of Gods, mighty, boundless, undefiled, indescribably, firmly established Aion.; Be inseparable from me from this day forth through all the time of my life.”

Then question him by the same oaths. If he tells you his name, take him by the hand, descend and have him recline as I have said above, setting before him part of the; foods and drinks which you partake of. And when you release him, sacrifice to him after his departure what is prescribed and pour a wine offering, and in this way you will be a friend of the mighty angel. When you go abroad, he will go abroad with you; when you are destitute, he will give you money. He will tell you what things will happen both when and and what time of the night or day. And if; anyone asks you “What do I have in mind?” or “What has happened to me?” or even “What is going to happen?” question the angel, and he will tell you in silence. But you speak to the one who questions you as if from yourself. When you are dead, he will wrap [up] your body as befits a god, but he will take your spirit and carry it into the air with him.; For no aerial spirit which is joined with a mighty assistant will go into Hades, for to him all things are subject. Whenever you wish to do something, speak his name alone into the air [and] say, [“Come!”] and you will see him actually standing near you. And say to him, “Perform this task,” and he does it at once, and after doing it he will say to you, “What else do you want? For I am eager for heaven.” If you do not; have immediate orders, say to him, “Go, lord” and he will depart. In this fashion, then, the god will be seen by you alone, nor will anyone ever hear the sound of his speaking, just you yourself alone. And he will tell you about the illness of a man, whether he will live or die, even on what day and at what hour of night; And he will also give [you both] wild herbs and the power to cure, and you will be [worshipped] as a god since you have a god as a friend. These things the mighty assistant will perform competently. Therefore share these things with no one except [your] legitimate son alone when he asks you for the magic powers imparted [by] us. Farewell.

The address to the sun; requires nothing except the formula “IAEOBAPHRENEMOUN” and the formula “IARBATHA.”

Translation by Hans Dieter Betz, used with permission.

Mystery Religions
Lucius’ praise of Isis (Apuleius, Metamorphoses XI)

Queen of Heaven, whether you are Mother Ceres, the original mothering nurse of all fruitful things, who, after joyfully finding your daughter, abolished the uncivilized nourishment of the ancient acorn and demonstrated a more gentle food–you now decorate the Eleusian fields; or, whether you are Heaven’s Venus, who, at the time of primal origin, coupled together the sexes by the creation of love to bring about the eternal propagation of humanity and are now worshipped at the temples of Paphos; or, whether you are Phoebus’ sister, who with soothing medicines relieved birth pangs and brought safety into the world so many people and are now worshipped at the shrines of Ephesus; or, whether you are called dreadful Proserpine with nocturnal ululation, who by her triple face can thwart ghosts and seal and close the cracks in the earth . . . you who by your womanly light illumines all city walls, by your moist fire nourishes the joyful seed, and as the sun moves, dispenses your changing light–by whatever name you are called, and whatever rite, whatever face you are to be invoked–come; help me now in my terrible need; bolster up my catastrophic destiny; draw off the cruelty from my life, give me peace. Let there be enough of toils, enough of tribulations. Take away from me the abominable beast’s face, and return me to my own form, to be Lucius.

[Poor Lucius, in this fascinating and lusty story, has had misfortune after misfortune. Here he has his conversion to Isis, when all else has failed. He has been changed into an ugly donkey but by the power of the lovely goddess becomes human again.]

Initiation of Lucius into the Mysteries of Isis

[The text tells of Lucius’ devotion and preparation for his secret initiation. What follows takes place when he is alone in the innermost recesses of the holy place]

It may be, my studious reader, that you would very much like to know what was said there and what was done. I would tell you if it were lawful for me to tell, and you would know all if it were lawful for you to hear. But both tongue and ear would be infected as the consequence of such rash curiosity! Yet it may of course be a pious longing that torments you, and so I will torture you no longer. Here then and believe, for what I tell you is true. I drew near to the confines of death, treading the very threshold of Proserpine. I was borne through all the elements and returned to earth again. At the dead of night, I saw the sun shining brightly. I approached all the gods above and the gods below and worshipped them face to face.

[This is a precious text for us. Since mysteries were kept secret, we know little with certainy about the experience. Here we have one of our few hints at what might have gone on in the initiation into one of the mystery religions. This text is from Apuleius, Metamorphoses XI. His account on the whole seems to reflect an accurate knowledge of the Isis cult, so we can assume this text reflects in some way what the candidate was to experience, some kind of a cosmic journey that brought one immortality.]

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