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The Chaldæan Oracles



The Chaldæan Oracles (Lógia, Oracula, Responsa) are a product of Hellenistic (and more precisely Alexandrian) syncretism.

The Alexandrian religio-philosophy proper was a blend of Orphic, Pythagoræan, Platonic, and Stoic elements, and constituted the theology of the learned in the great city which had gradually, from the third century B.C., made herself the centre of Hellenic culture.

In her intimate contact with the Orient, the mind of Greece freely united with the mysterious and enthusiastic cults and wisdom-traditions of the other nations, and became very industrious in “philosophizing” their mythology, theosophy and gnosis, their oracular utterances, symbolic apocalypses and initiatory lore.

The two nations that made the deepest impression on the Greek thinkers were Egypt and Chaldæa; these they regarded as the possessors of the most ancient wisdom-traditions.

How Hellenism philosophized the ancient wisdom of Egypt, we have already shown at great length in our volumes on Thrice-greatest Hermes. The Chaldæan Oracles are a parallel endeavour, on a smaller scale, to philosophize the wisdom of Chaldæa. In the Trismegistic writings, moreover, we had to deal with a series of prose treatises, whereas in our Oracles we are to treat of the fragments of a single mystery-poem, which may with advantage be compared with the cycle of Jewish and Christian pseudepigraphic poems known as the Sibylline Oracles.

The Great Library of Alexandria contained a valuable collection of MSS of what we may term the then “Sacred Books of the East” in their original tongues. Many of these were translated, and among them the "Books of the Chaldæans." Thus Zosimus, the early alchemist, and a member of one of the later Trismegistic communities, writes, somewhere at the end of the third century A.D.:

The Chaldæans and Parthians and Medes and Hebrews call him [the First Man] Adam, which is by interpretation virgin Earth, and blood-red Earth, and fiery Earth, and fleshly Earth.

And these indications were found in the book-collections of the Ptolemies, which they stored away in every temple, and especially in the Serapeum

(H., iii 277).

The term Chaldæan is, of course, vague and scientifically inaccurate. Chaldæan is a Greek synonym for Babylonian, and is the way they transliterated the Assyrian name Kaldū. The land of the Kaldū proper lay S.E. of Babylonia proper on what was then the seacoast. As the Encyclopœdia Biblica informs us:

The Chaldæans not only furnished an early dynasty of Babylon, but also were incessantly pressing into Babylonia; and, despite their repeated defeats by Assyria, they gradually gained the upper hand there. The founder of the New Babylonian Kingdom, Nabopolassar (circa 626 B.C.), was a Chaldæan, and from that time Chaldæa meant Babylonia...

We find “Chaldæans” used in Daniel, as a name for a caste of wise men. As Chaldæan meant Babylonian in the wider sense of a member of the dominant race in the times of the new Babylonian Empire, so after the Persian conquest it seems to have connoted the Babylonian literati and became a synonym of soothsayer and astrologer. In this sense it passed into classical writers.

We shall, however, see from the fragments of our poem that some of the Chaldæi were something more than soothsayers and astrologers.

As to our sources, the disjecta membra of this lost mystery-poem are chiefly found in the books and commentaries of the Platonici - that is, of the Later Platonic school. In addition to this there are extant five treatises of the Byzantine period, dealing directly with the doctrines of the “Chaldæan philosophy”: five chapters of a book of Proclus, three treatises of Psellus (eleventh century), and a letter of a contemporary letter-writer, following on Psellus.

But by far the greatest number of our fragments is found in the books of the Later Platonic philosophers, who from the time of Porphyry (fl. c. 250-300) - and, therefore, we may conclude from that of Plotinus, the corypheus of the school - held these Oracles in the highest estimation. Almost without a break, the succession of the Chain praise and comment elaborately on them, from Porphyry onwards - Iamblichus, Julian the Emperor, Synesius, Syrianus, Proclus, Hierocles - till the last group who flourished in the first half of the sixth century, when Simplicius, Damascius and Olympiodorus were still busy with the philosophy of our Oracles.

Some of them - Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus - wrote elaborate treatises on the subject; Syrianus wrote a “symphony” of Orpheus, Pythagoras and Plato with reference to and in explanation of the Oracles; while Hierocles, in his treatise On Providence, endeavoured to bring the doctrine of the Oracles into “symphony” with the dogmas of the Theurgists and the philosophy of Plato. All these books are, unfortunately, lost, and we have to be content with the scattered, though numerous, references, with occasional quotations, in such of their other works as have been preserved to us.

In this brief introduction it would take too long to discuss the “literature” of the Oracles; and indeed this is all the more unnecessary as until the work of Kroll appeared, the subject had never been treated scientifically. Prior to Kroll it had been, more or less, generally held that the Oracles were a collection of sayings deriving immediately from the Chaldæan wisdom, and even by some as direct translations or paraphrases from a Chaldæan original.

This was the general impression made by the vagueness with which the Later Platonic commentators introduced their authority; as, for instance: The Chaldæan Oracles, the Chaldæans, the Assyrians, the Foreigners (lit., Barbarians or Natives), the God-transmitted Wisdom, or Mystagogy handed on by the Gods; and, generally, simply: The Oracles, the Oracle, the Gods, or one of the Gods.

Kroll has been the first to establish that for all this there was but a single authority - namely, a poem in hexameter verse, in the conventional style of Greek Oracular utterances, as is the case with the Sibyllines and Homeric centones.

The fragments of this poem have, for the most part, been preserved to us by being embedded in a refined stratum of elaborate commentary, in which the simple forms of the poetical imagery and the symbolic expressions of the original have been blended with the subtleties of a highly developed and abstract systematization, which is for the most part foreign to the enthusiastic and vital spirit of the mystic utterances of the poem.

To understand the doctrines of the original poem, we must recover the fragments that remain, and piece them together as best we can under general and natural headings; we must not, as has previously been done, content ourselves with reading them through the eyes of the philosophers of the Later Platonic School, whose one preoccupation was not only to make a “harmony” or “symphony” between Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato and the Oracles, but also to wrest the latter into accommodation with their own elaborations of Platonic and Plotinian doctrine.

When we have done this, we shall have before us the remains of a mystery-poem, addressed to “initiates,” and evidently forming part of the inner instruction of a School or Community; but even so we shall not have the clear original, for there are several interpolations, which have crept in with the tradition of the text from hand to hand of many scribes.

What is the date of this original poem? It was known to Porphyry. Now Porphyry (Malek) was a Semite by birth and knew Hebrew; he may also have known “Chaldæan.” At any rate we know he was a good scholar and had good critical ability, and that he was at pains to sift out “genuine” from spurious “Oracles,” thus showing that there were many Oracles circulating in his day. The genuine ones he collected in his lost work entitled, On the Philosophy of the Oracles, and among them was our poem.

Kroll places this poem at the end of the second century or the beginning of the third, chiefly because it breathes the spirit of a “saving cult,” and such cults, he believes, did not come into general prominence till the days of Marcus Aurelius (imp. 161-180). But saving cults had been a commonplace of the East and in Alexandria for centuries, and this, therefore, does not seem to me to afford us any indication of date.

The two Julians, father and son, moreover, the former of whom Suidas calls a “Chaldæan philosopher” and the latter “the Theurgist,” adding that the son flourished under Marcus Aurelius, will hardly help us in this connection; for the father wrote a book On Daimones only, and, though the son wrote works on theurgy and also on the oracles of theurgy and the “secrets of this science,” Porphyry did not associate him with our Oracles, for he devoted a separate book of commentaries (now lost) to “The Doctrines of Julian the Chaldæan,” while Proclus and Damascius dissociate this Julian from our Oracles, by quoting him separately under the title “The Theurgist” (K. 71).

Porphyry evidently considered our Oracles as old, but how old? To this we can give no precise answer. The problem is the same as that which confronts us in both the Trismegistic and Sibylline literature, which can be pushed back in an unbroken line to the early years of the Ptolemaic period. We are, therefore, justified in saying that our poem may as easily be placed in the first as in the second century.

It remains only to be remarked that, as might very well be expected with such scattered shreds and fragments of highly poetical imagery and symbolic and mystical poetry, the task of translation is often very arduous, all the more so owing to the absence of truly critical texts of the documents from which they are recovered. Kroll has supplied us with an excellent apparatus and many emendations of the tradition of the printed texts; but until the extant works of the Later Platonic School are critically edited from the MSS (as has been done only in a few instances) a truly critical text of our Oracle-fragments is out of the question. Kroll has printed all the texts, both of the fragments and of the contexts, in the ancient authors, where they are found, in his indispensable treatise in Latin on the subject, but, as is usual with the work of specialists, he does not translate a single line. With these brief remarks we now present the reader with a translation and comments on the fragments of what might be called “The Gnosis of the Fire.”

Comparative Fragments

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