Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": NEOPLATONIST PHILOSOPHER

ON THE ARTS AND EFFECTS OF ECSTASY



(Iamblichus, 'On the Mysteries,' III, 4-6)

lamblichus was born in Syria and lived from ca. 250 to 325 A.D. His book On the Mysteries is in the form of a reply by a certain Abammon to a letter by Porphyry addressed 'To Anebo' and is a defence of ritualistic magic or theurgy. Iamblichus' presentation of Neoplatonism fell far below the high teaching of Plotintis and incorporated much popular superstition.

(4) Among the signs by which those who are truly possessed by the gods may be known, the greatest is the fact that many [of those who experience ecstasy] are not burned, though fire is applied to them, since the deity breathing within them does not permit the fire to touch them; many, though burned, are unaware of it, since at that moment they are not dwelling in the body [literally, not living an animal life]. Many have daggers thrust through their bodies without feeling it; others have their backs cut [open] with hatchets, or cut their arms with knives, without taking any notice. The activities in which they are engaged are not of a human kind, and since they are borne by God they can reach places which are inaccessible to men; they pass through fire unharmed; they tread upon fire and cross over streams, like the priestess in Castabala [who walked barefoot on snow and hot coals]. This proves that in their enthusiasm [i.e., their state of inspiration] they are not aware of what they are doing and are not living a human or bodily existence as far as sensation and volition are concerned, but live instead another and diviner kind, which fills them and takes complete possession of them.

(5) There are many different kinds of divine possession, and there are different ways of awakening the divine spirit; consequently there are many different indications of this state. For one thing, there are different gods from whom we receive the spirit [i.e., are inspired], and this results in a variety of forms in which the inspiration manifests itself, further, the kinds of influence exerted are different, and so there are various ways in which the divine seizure takes place. For either the god takes possession of us, or else we are entirely absorbed in him, or else [thirdly] we co-operate with him. At times we partake of the lowest power of God, at others of the middle [power], at still others of the highest [i.e., first]. Sometimes it is a mere participation, again it is a communion [fellowship or sharing], or again it becomes a union of these [two] kinds. Now the soul enjoys complete separation; again it is still involved in the body, or [else] the whole nature is laid hold of (and controlled].

Hence the signs of possession are manifold: either movement of the body and its parts, or complete relaxation; [either] singing choirs, round dances, and harmonious voices, or the opposite of these. [The] bodies have been seen to rise up, grow, or move freely in the air, and the opposite has also been observed. They have been heard to utter [different] voices of equal strength, or with great diversity and inequality, in tones that alternated with silence; and again in other cases harmonious crescendo or diminuendo of tone, and in still other cases other kinds of utterance.

(6) But the greatest thing [about this experience] is that the one who thus draws down a deity beholds the greatness and the nature of the invading spirit; and he is secretly guided and directed by him. So too he who receives a god sees also a fire before he takes it into himself Now and then the god manifests himself to all who are present, either as he comes or as he goes. From this it is made known, to those who have the knowledge, wherein his truth and his power chiefly consist and his place [in the divine hierarchy], and what qualifies him by his nature to make known the truth; and also what power he is able to grant or to maintain. Those, however, who without this beatifying view invoke the spirits are merely reaching out and touching things in the dark, and do not know what they are doing, save for certain minor signs in the body of the possessed person and other indubitable, visible symptoms; but the full understanding of divine possession is denied them, being hid in the invisible.


Translation and introduction by Frederick C. Grant, in his Hellenistic Religions (New York, 1953), PP. 173-5

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