Neoplatonic Cosmology and Astral Magic

Over the last two years or so I have taken an amateur interest in the writings of Plato and the later Neoplatonic thinkers, especially Iamblichus. At the same time, my research into the history of astrology has included readings of pre-modern texts on astral magic. One thing I have noticed is that the cosmology of astral magic during the medieval period clearly stems in large part from an earlier Platonic worldview, although of course there are other elements in the mix that reflect Ptolemaic and Aristotelian concepts. Understanding this cosmology is necessary to comprehend the theoretical metaphysical framework that underlies the efficacy of astral magic. My aim here is to provide a rough outline of Neoplatonic cosmology and how it relates to the practice of medieval astral magic. This is merely a digestion of a number of materials that I have studied over the years, as well as my own notes on the subject, so I would welcome any corrections or comments.

The cosmology at hand is a type of monism, i.e., a metaphysical framework that attributes existence to a single source. The process of Creation is undertaken in the Platonic universe by the Demiurge, who is the figurative crafter of our world. As explained in Plato’s creation myth, titled Timaeus, the Demiurge establishes time through the creation of the movements of the Sun and Moon. He is responsible for the crafting of the physical world and the life that inhabits it.

The Timaeus was the foundational work from which later Platonic thinkers, especially Plotinus during the third century CE, developed what we might call the Neoplatonic cosmology. The cosmos in said cosmology emerges as a continual emanative process, originating from what is called The One (to Hen), which is the first principle of reality. From this comes the divine Intellect, in which the forms (eidos) described by Plato are placed. This leads to the emanation of the Soul (psyche), which is the initial activation of the forms. This in turn leads to an expression of the Body, which is the material world. At this point in Creation, the emergence of a plurality of souls occurs from the earlier cosmic Soul. This process is equated to a single beam of light breaking down into multiple rays when it passes through a prism.

Engraving by C. Lasinio after Raphael, 1516.
Wellcome Collection.
There are gods that exist at the level of hypercosmic reality, although they operate outside time and space, since they are immaterial and not subject to movement as we are within material reality. One Neoplatonic aim is to achieve ascension into this state, which leads to liberation from suffering (indeed, the parallels with Buddhism have been noted many times in modern scholarship). The expression of these divinities extends downward into materiality.

At the height of the material cosmos are the archons, who are rulers of everything below them. These deities are equated to the planets. Until the adoption of a heliocentric worldview during the Renaissance, much of the world conceived of the cosmos from a geocentric perspective, in which the Earth is stationary while the seven planets (including the Sun and Moon) revolve around it. The planets were said to occupy concentric spheres surrounding the Earth, the ordering of which is traditionally called Chaldean (another name for Babylonian), which reflects the distance of the planets from the Earth from farthest to nearest: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol (Sun), Venus, Mercury, and Luna (Moon).

Although the planets in Greek were named after the Hellenic gods (Zeus, Ares, etc.), this process of denomination was just a way of assigning familiar names to the planetary deities of Mesopotamian religion. The Zeus of this astral religion is modeled after the Mesopotamian Marduk, hence this Zeus differs qualitatively from the Homeric Zeus in many ways. Zeus in the astral religion plays the role of judge, rather than being the lusty figure from Greek myths. That being said, the Hellenistic world blended together motifs from Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian sources. There was a deep process of amalgamating divinities from multiple cultures.

The planets as archons function as the intermediaries between the hypercosmic and material realities. They are the divine intelligences that design and govern our world, but they are akin to rulers who remain distant from their subjects. They are not directly involved in the labor of Creation. Such duties are assigned to their underlings, who in Neoplatonic writings comprise three classes of deities: angels, heroes, and daimons. The latter under Christian influence became what we know as demons, i.e., purely evil beings under the direction of Satan, but originally daimons were the functional intermediaries between humanity and gods, akin to what we might think of as spirits in modern terms.

Again, we can turn to Plato for an explanation of the daimons. There is a dialogue in his Symposium in which the priestess Diotima explains to Socrates the nature of Love, which is a daimon. The dialogue reads as follows (translation by Benjamin Jowett):

'What then is Love?' I asked; 'Is he mortal?' 'No.' 'What then?' 'As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.' 'What is he, Diotima?' 'He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.' 'And what,' I said, 'is his power?' 'He interprets,' she replied, 'between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy and incantation, find their way. For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of God with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar. Now these spirits or intermediate powers are many and diverse, and one of them is Love.

Diotima remarks that all prophecy and sorcery are the workings of daimons, a concept that generally defined the mechanics of magic until the nineteenth century when other ideas were proposed and widely embraced.

In the Platonic worldview, phenomena within material reality are supervised, influenced, shaped, and/or directed by daimons. The classes of divine beings, however, multiplied in later centuries. Daimons in classical Neoplatonic cosmology function as the laborers or custodians under specific divine hierarchies. They carry out the micro-management necessary for Creation to operate (this includes affecting emotional states of beings). They are also the enforcers of fate, so to speak, which is why the eleventh house in horoscopy was called the “good daimon”.

Daimons each fall under a hierarchy that stretches up to one of the archons. All activities in the sublunar world (i.e., Earth) are under the direction or co-direction of these hierarchies. The angels and heroes also have their roles in serving their divine hierarchies. Angels and archangels form a class above that of the daimons. This angelic class generally does not descend into generation (our material world), but the daimons do.

Some thinkers, such as Plotinus, believed that one ought to escape the influence of daimons in order to transcend fate and ascend to a permanently divine state beyond the material world. Others, such as Iamblichus, sought to proactively work with them and modify reality according to one's will, which is connected to the magical practice of theurgy, a ritual framework designed to bring about ascension of the person into the higher realms.

The issue with daimons is that they compel the cosmic design to continue unfolding, which is called generation, i.e., the natural world in which we find ourselves with all its disorder and suffering. Animal instinct, for instance, is under the daimonic domain. Animals and one half of humans (according to Iamblichus) are governed by instinct. This instinct is embedded in beings by design and reflects a principle of a higher hypercosmic design (that is to say, everything in material reality is an expression of the divine forms). The faculty of reason, which human nature possesses as its other half, is divine, and so it is through reason that one can become a fully autonomous being, rather than simply obeying that which has been fated, which is characterized by the natural passions we experience, as well as normal mortal life.

How does this relate to astral magic?

Moving forward to the medieval period, since we do not have treatises on astral magic from Antiquity, we see mature treatises on astral magic, such as the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm from around the tenth century. This work in Arabic was translated into Spanish between 1256 and 1258 at the court of Alfonso the Wise (1221–1284), and sometime shortly thereafter a Latin translation of the Spanish was produced.

Although astral magic can at times be explained in materialist terms, for instance the theory of planetary rays, in general the efficacy of talismanic magic and petitions assumes some kind of negotiation or interaction with spirits or gods. The practice of astral magic works within this worldview in an attempt to negotiate fate through the employment of petitions directed to the planets or the production of talismans.

In the case of the former, the magician identifies their aim and determines the planetary deity under whose domain the matter at hand falls. Love would be Venusian. Military matters would be Martian. Longevity would be Saturnian. The magician then gathers to himself or herself the appropriate ingredients necessary for the ritual.

The substances prescribed in spells directed at specific planets in the Picatrix and other works sometimes have identifiable sources in Antiquity. For example, in the Greco-Egyptian papyri, we see some documents that assign specific metals and stones to each of the planets (Betz PGM CX 1–12): the Sun is associated with gold, the Moon with silver, Saturn with obsidian, etc. Similarly, PGM XIII. 17–22 associates the planets with different types of incense. Such associations between planets and substances clearly started quite early.

In later “mature astral magic” that we see attested only from the early medieval period in languages such as Arabic and Syriac (the Latin translations come later in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), all organic and inorganic substances and creatures are said to be ruled by one or sometimes two of the planets. This is a totalizing system that assigns planetary rulers to everything in the physical world. This extends even into diseases and emotional states.

How are the substances in offerings used? Suffumigation (burning) is the preferred method of activating material offerings in the Picatrix, although in East Asia some fragments of Iranian astral magic reveal spells that require an altar to be set up, atop which one places an image of the planetary deity, plus offerings and incense appropriate to them. The latter is more of a basic cult offering, whereas the former requires a much more complex ritual framework, recipe, and most importantly exact timing that considers planetary configurations (an astrological election).

Determining an election requires advanced knowledge of horoscopy, since once has to calculate the positions of the planets relative to the constantly mobile zodiac signs. In fact, even determining planetary hours requires careful calculation, since these are what we call seasonal hours. The Greeks divided the day into twenty-four hṓra or hours, but these differ from the modern convention of each hour consisting of sixty minutes (equinoctial hours). This model of seasonal hours divides daytime (sunrise to sunset) and nighttime (sunset to sunrise) respectively into twelve hours of equal duration each. The length of daytime or nighttime hours will therefore vary according to latitude and the time of the year. One must also understand concepts such as latitude and know how to calculate for it. In other words, determining elections was a demanding but essential component to astral magic.

Returning to the concept of suffumigation, there are various ways one might conceivably explain the efficacy of it from an emic perspective (that is to say, from the viewpoint of an astral magician).

Iamblichus explained that the commonest link between humans and the divine is through people and the daimons. This would be akin to meeting a lowly underling of a king or queen. All but a few human beings have ever directly met with a god, although meeting an angel or archangel is conceivably more realistic in this worldview, albeit still rare. This means that when people pray to a god and sense a response, it is normally interaction with a daimon, not the god itself.

The daimons possess little autonomy, and merely carry out the tasks assigned to them (in ancient Greco-Egyptian magic, interestingly, the magician would compel and coerce these entities to do his or her bidding using the names of their superiors, but entities up the hierarchical chain become less susceptible to such compulsion). The daimons are also the intermediaries between material offerings and the gods they serve.

There were different metaphysical speculations on how precisely this occurs. How does an archon benefit from a person offering them incense and foodstuffs, or blood sacrifices? One idea was that the daimons actually feed on the fumes of the material offerings. In effect, one was nourishing the underlings of a god or goddess. If this proved ample and sufficient, then the hierarchy became aware of the act and hopefully one’s prayers would be transmitted up the chain of command, at which point fate might be adjusted at the discretion of the divinity.

Ritualized offering of substances under the rulership of a given planetary deity effectively constitutes an act of giving unto the ruler the fruits of their administration. The qualities of the substances are critical in this respect: one would not give unto Saturn, who is associated with bitter and fermented flavors, something sweet like honey, which is Venusian in quality. Saturn rules over substances such as lead and styrax (a type of incense), animals such as crows, and processes such as decay and fermentation. Saturn co-rules olives with the Sun. Each of the planets also possess their own sigils, which can considerably differ according to the manuscript or textual tradition (see the comparison above). All such lore is necessary in designing spells directed toward one’s aims. The explanation thus far can be illustrated on the following figure:

The advanced petitions explained in the Picatrix basically open a direct channel to a divinity, rather than relying on a simple prayer, which conceivably would normally only be heard by a daimon of the divinity to which one has issued a request. The election is essential because if unfavorable, then the divinity in question is similarly thought to be in an ill position to grant a favor, whereas if the election is precisely tuned, they are likely to respond favorably.

The worldview of astral magic illustrated by this concept of elections is characteristically feudal (you ought to meet with the King or Queen when they are in a good mood), but this is by no means a medieval adaptation, since it is clear that such concepts of rulerships and subordinate deities were a core component in earlier Platonic cosmologies.

Talismans are another wing of astral magic aside from petitions. This is an art of enchanting an object with the influence or spirits of a planetary hierarchy. Again, there are different emic explanations for metaphysically how this occurs. Some explain that the rays of the planet become embedded in the enchanted object, such a ring. Other traditions say that the spirits of the planet come to reside in the talisman.

Saturn, seven-armed and cross-legged. Manuscript 373.
Wellcome Collection.
These talismans can be used to benefit oneself or curse others (or curse a specific location). For instance, the Picatrix provides a spell to banish all dwellers of a place (p. 100, Greer and Warnock translation): one acquires a lead plate and on it one produces a string of specific characters with pig brains upon the day and hour of Saturn when Saturn is rising in the second decan of Capricorn. People will avoid dwelling in the place in which the plate is deposited. Here the idea is that one harnesses the divine influence of Saturn to achieve a specific aim.

To sum up, astral magic is premised on the concept of fate. Fate constitutes divine will or organization. Numerous types of magic and religious practices are directed at affecting or changing fate through ritual means, petitions, and prayers.

The magician utilizes their faculty of reason in coordination with a wide array of natural forces to produce a desired change. Astral magic necessitates interaction with the planetary deities. In Antiquity these figures were understood as archons or divine rulers of the world.

According to Iamblichus, humans are in a unique position in that they possess souls comprised of both animal and rational components. Animal instinct is primarily governed and compelled by force of fate. This fate is expressed through the activity of daimons. The faculty of reason that we possess enables us to observe, analyze, and even modify fate. The practice of astral magic was conceived of as a tool with which the hard aspects of fate could be negotiated or modified.

Kleśas and Pathos

Iamblichus and Śubhakarasiṃha
Over the years of reading Buddhist and Stoic writings, I've noticed that authors from both traditions refer to what, in my mind, is essentially the same concept. What the Buddhists call "kleśa" is what the Stoics understood as "pathos". Sanskrit "kleśa" is usually translated as affliction or vexation. Pathos from the Greek means suffering, emotion, feeling, or calamity. The former are produced from desire and ignorance of reality (i.e., wrong views). The latter are produced from irrationality, which is effectively the mind left untrained and unlearned, which in the Stoic context means being unable to internally accept and assent to all external experiences.

The Buddhist and the Stoic both aim to understand the causes of mental (not physical) suffering, and then through persistent mental training and contemplation sanitize the mind of all such experiences, leading to an irreversible state of contentment. This is not happiness, but simply the absence of desires, fears, sorrow, anger, etc.

Śākyamuni Buddha represents the Buddhist ideal: a sage freed from all kleśas. He neither weeps nor expresses anger, even if it seems warranted according to mundane reasoning. Such a hero would have been immediately appreciated by a Stoic, whose idealized figure would comparably have been freed from all such emotions and fears, albeit with a different conception of the cosmos.

Stoics believed in a fate crafted by an intelligent force beyond human comprehension, symbolized by Zeus the Demiurge. Buddhists, however, believed sentient existence was a recurring cycle caused by karma (action) generated throughout immeasurable past lives. Nevertheless, Buddhists and Stoics were both chiefly interested in the question of suffering.

The Neoplatonist Plotinus, I imagine, would have appreciated the teachings of the Buddha. Plato and all later Platonists believed in reincarnation (in Greek metempsychosis). Plotinus believed the world of materiality had to be abandoned in order to achieve an elevated and permanent divine state. To engage with matter was to become enmeshed within it, resulting in the perpetual cycle of misery experienced past and present.

I feel that Plotinus' ideal is comparable to that of the arhat in Buddhism. The arhat is an enlightened being who has purged all kleśas from his or her mind, and consequently permanently halted the cycle of rebirth. The arhat at death will not return to existence in this or any other higher realm.

One of Plotinus' successors, Iamblichus, argued that the material world and all its hardships are, in fact, by the design of the Demiurge, and therefore such a skilled crafter of Creation would not make a mistake. The wise aimed to become extensions of the Demiurge themselves through the practice of theurgy (rituals), in which they positively engaged with the world of matter, rather than attempting to flee from it.

Rather than eliminating disagreeable experiences, one was to become a sort of custodian over all such things by exercising the divine or rational part of the soul to manage the other half, which was animal and governed by base instinct. This animal part of the soul was by divine design and as equally necessary as one's faculty of reasoning. In other words, instinct and reason were equally important.

The end result was ascension into divinity, but remaining present as an active member of the cosmic order, in contrast to some of his predecessors who sought a permanent escape. Many such sages were believed to act in a benevolent manner, assisting other souls and facilitating their eventual ascension into the divine.

Iamblichean Neoplatonism brings to mind the Buddhist Mahāyāna, in which the ideal is to become a bodhisattva or awakened being, dedicated to benefiting other beings. The bodhisattva remains active in the ordinary world, but does not suffer, since they possess wisdom, but at the same time they do not flee the world, since they possess unconditional compassion.

Of course, there were stark ethical differences between these two schools. Theurgy, like most ritual practices of Antiquity, appears to have practiced blood sacrifice, whereas Buddhism expressly forbids this. Also, Buddhism rejects the concept of a Creator deity, whereas Platonists conceived of a polytheist pantheon that collectively could be understood as a Demiurge or Creator. Buddhists placed their sages above the gods (devas), whereas Platonists, as far as I know, generally did not assert that a human soul could ever surpass a god.