What is Theurgy? (And what *isn’t* it?)

As I discussed in my previous post in this series, theurgy is the means by which one who recognizes a potential for the redemption of the individual soul, goes about enacting that redemption, called henosis.

In order to keep that post focused on henosis, however, I admitted skipped over really explaining what theurgy actually is.

The YSEE in Greece, in their Standard Terminology for Hellenismos,defines theurgy (in Greek, ΘΕΟΥΡΓΙΑ ‘theourgía’) in this way:

“Theurgy refers to a divine work, as a ceremonial act, which aims at direct communication with the Theoi. Until theurgy was proposed as an alternative method by the Neoplatonists to gain gnosis of the Theoi, the more common philosophical approaches were meditation or contemplation. Theurgy does not mean compulsion or manipulation of the Gods as was proposed by Hopfner, who misinterpreted Iamblichus, who did not intend for theurgy to be misconstrued as ‘manipulation of the Divine.’ The key, instead, to understanding Iamblichus may be found in the second part of the word ‘theurgos’ (meaning: one who practices theurgy); namely ‘-urgos’, deriving from the same root as ‘demiurge’ (meaning: the one who produces work for common things), thus rendering the meaning of ‘theurgos’ or ‘theurge’ as ‘one who produces work for Divine things.’

More often than not, theurgy is translated by dictionaries as “magic.” This is not entirely incorrect, but it relies on a definition of “magic” that has become archaic to our contemporary ears. In this old sense, “magic” is simply an adjective form of the word “magos” or “mage,” which comes from a Greek word (ΜΑΓΟΣ) meaning, essentially, a wise man, skilled in sacred wisdoms. The word was often attributed to Persian holy men, and survives in this sense when we refer to the Three Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus as “The Magi Kings” (Magi being the Latinized version of Magoi, which is nothing more than the plural of ‘Magos’). I strongly advise against defining theurgy as “magic”, however, for much the same reason that it would be unwise to walk up to a stranger today and tell him/her “My, you look so gay this morning!” A century ago, that would have been a pleasant compliment, but now, the other individual could possibly be exceedingly offended. The meaning has changed completely.

More clarification. We today use “magic” to refer to two, distinct concepts, neither of which have nearly anything to do with theurgy. Theurgy is not slight-of-hand and card tricks meant for entertainment (one modern definition of ‘magic’) noris theurgy goety. In fact, theurgy and goety were often considered to be fundamentally antonymous. “Goety” from the Greek (ΓΟΗΤΕΙΑ-goēteía) is the proper term for ‘witchcraft/sorcery.’ It refers to the enaction of one’s personal earthly whim and desire upon oneself, others, or the surrounding world. Goety is deeply rooted in the mundane, and on the material world. It has no telos other than the satisfaction of the goete’s desire, whether for oneself or another, whether malevolent, or even noble. Regardless, however, goety is the antithesis of theurgy, because it is centered on the mundane, physical realm, which theurgic tradition considers illusory, and an impediment to spiritual growth.

So, to clarify so far, theurgy, by an outdated definition of the word, is “magic,” but it is a far cry from witchcraft. Theurgy, for soterial Hellenism, is a pinnacle of pious action. It was highly respected, practiced by the wisest philosophical minds, and indeed favored strongly by Emperor Julian. And here follows a sentence that I think needs to be spread around: Proper theurgy is fully pious, and was indeed an integral element of certain Hellenist traditions. In this sense, if you consider theurgy ‘magic,’ then ‘magic’ is indeed an element of certain soterial schools of Hellenic religion. However, theurgy is not witchcraft. It is the antithesis of witchcraft. While witchcraft looks downward, to the material world, and acts to glorify the Self and the Self’s wishes, and often has no belief in henosis, theurgy looks upward, to the Heavens and the Divine, and acts to dispel the illusion of the Self, to extinguish selfhood and egoism (which are considered the causes of the Fall, and of all living suffering) and re-unite the Soul spark back unto the Divine (achieve henosis). In this way, theurgy is actually very much like Buddhism. The tenets are almost identical, with nearly the same Four Noble Truths. 1. Earthly life is suffering. 2. Suffering is because of egoism. 3. Suffering can be made to cease. 4. Theurgy is the path to that cessation.

But alas, I still have not actually explained what theurgy is. This is difficult, and I think it best to explain by noting, as hinted at in YSEE’s definition, that there are effectively two methodological schools of theurgy. These are 1. the contemplative and 2. the sacramental. Theurgic philosophers in Antiquity argued with each other constantly over which was the superior method, particularly Porphyry (who favored the contemplative method) and Iamblichus (who favored the sacramental method). Without making things too complicated, the contemplative method of theurgy is one of study and of meditation. Along with the theurgic tenets, contemplative theurgy is nearly Buddha-less Buddhism. Like Buddhism, contemplative theurgy recognizes the existence of the Gods, and condones Their worship because They are the closest in being to the Monad Itself;  They are Its most imminent reflections. However, this liturgical religious practice is not seen as the best path to henosis, a spot held instead by contemplation and meditation, the goal being to shatter the illusion of the ego, realize divine nature, and achieve henosis. This is contemplative theurgy, the methodology favored by Porphyry, Plotinus and many Neoplatonists.

However, there is also sacramental theurgy, which likewise seeks to achieve henosis, but focuses instead on sacrament in order to achieve it. The Christian practice of the eucharist is, for example, a kind of sacramental theurgy. Sacramental theurgy does not deny the efficacy of contemplative theurgy at all. Indeed, meditation, study, and contemplation feature almost as heavily in most sacramental theurgy as they do in contemplative theurgy. However, sacramental-theurgic thought concludes that pure, ethereal contemplation, while effective for some individuals, may not be suitable for others’ dispositions. Instead, sacramental theurgy focuses on the conduction of various sacramental rituals and liturgical practices, all deeply and heavily imbued with religious mythos and soterial symbolism, in order to aid in the advancement of the Soul Spark toward henosis. As I mentioned, Iamblichus was a strong proponent of this kind of theurgy, and this methodology is also central to the Orpheo-Pythagorean religious tradition of Hellenism, which focuses primarily on the figure and mythos of Zagreus-Dionysus, reflected in active sacramental ritual and liturgy, in order to achieve henosis, but beyond that, Tumblr is not the place for such sacred discussion.


-theurgy is the path to henosis

-‘theurgy’ means, roughly ‘Divine/sacred doing’

-theurgy, by the old definition, is a kind of mageia

-theurgy is, however, not witchcraft, but its orientational inverse

-there are two basic kinds of theurgy: contemplative and sacramental

-contemplative theurgy, favored by Plotinus and Porphyry sees meditation as the path to henosis

-sacramental theurgy, favored by Iamblichus and Emperor Julian, sees sacramental ritual and active liturgy, likewise, as effective means to henosis


One comment

  1. Monte Plaisance · · Reply

    A most excellent explanation of Theurgy and the differences between it and Goety.

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