In this lecture, Professor Wouter Hanegraaff from the University of Amsterdam discussed the relevance of entheogens to theurgy and ritual evocation in Roman Egypt, with special attention to the story of Thessalos, the so-called Mithras Liturgy, and the Neoplatonic practice of Iamblichus.
Professor Hanegraaff argued that if we deny or marginalize the clear evidence for entheogenic practice in these contexts-while acknowledging the spectacular visions and experiences that are claimed in the texts-it is hard to avoid traditional pathologizing interpretations of experiential practices that, in fact, can be rationally accounted.
CHARLES STANG: My name is Charles Stang. And I'm the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to the latest event in our year-long and wildly successful series on Psychedelics and the Future of Religion, co-sponsored by our friends at the Esalen Institute, the Chakruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines and the RiverStyx Foundation.
The next and perhaps, last event in the series will take place on April 21st from 5 to 6:30 PM. And it will be a panel discussion entitled, Between Sacred and Profane, Psychedelic Culture, Drugs, Spirituality in Contemporary America. . So please do join us for that event. As always, the best way to keep abreast of this series and everything else we do at the center is to join our mailing list.
It is my great pleasure to welcome to the CSWR Professor Wouter Hanegraaff from the University of Amsterdam for his title-- I'm sorry, for his lecture entitled, Reasonably Irrational, Theurgy, and the Pathologization of Entheogenic Experience.
Now Professor Hanegraaff is no stranger here he participated in our 2020 conference on Theosophy and the Study Of Religion. I am a huge fan of his work. And I spent the past week reading in preparation for this lecture. It's also my pleasure to let our very own J. Christian Greer give professor Hanegraaff a proper introduction.
Christian is a postdoctoral fellow here at the CSWR. He received his PhD in Western Esotericism from the History of Hermetic Philosophy Department at the University of Amsterdam with Professor Hanegraaff as his advisor.
Christian's research addresses the social history of new religious movements in the Anglo-American world, the formation of religious counterculture, and the popularization of esotericism in the digital era.
Now I will soon disappear from your screen only to reappear when we transition to the Q&A portion. So once again, welcome Wouter to the CSWR. And thank you for sharing your wealth of wisdom and learning with us. Christian, over to you.
CHRISTIAN GREER: Good afternoon, everyone. And good evening, Wouter. Today's lecture will be given by Wouter Hanegraaff, a professor of History and Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam, who is currently finishing a book about hermetic spirituality in Roman Egypt.
In this lecture, Professor Wouter Hanegraaff will be discussing the relevance of entheogens to liturgy and ritual invocation in Roman Egypt, with a special attention to the story of Thessalos the so-called Mithras Liturgy, and the neoplatonic practice of Iamblichus
Professor Hanegraaff will be arguing that if we deny or marginalize the clear evidence for entheogenic practice in this concept while acknowledging the spectacular visions and experiences that are claimed in the text, it is hard to avoid traditional pathologization interpretations of spiritual practices that, in fact, can be rationally accounted for.
On a more personal note, it's been precisely a year since I spent time with today's lecturer, when I had the honor of defending my PhD dissertation which he supervised at the University of Amsterdam. And so, it is truly a special and heartfelt honor to hear him discuss his new, and might I say, groundbreaking research today. With that Wouter, please take it away.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: OK. Thank you very much Christian and Charlie, for the very nice, very generous introductions. Ladies and gentlemen, it's very nice to be here. Thanks for the invitation. And it's a pity that I cannot see you when I speak. But at least, we will have an opportunity to have a little Q&A after this lecture.
Well, to begin with, I would like to ask you to time travel with me, time travel back to the first half of the second century of the Common Era and to the Egyptians city Thebes, nowadays Luxor. One day, a visitor from Asia Minor arrived here in search of a divine revelation.
The name of this young man was Thessalos And he had been a student of Medicine in Alexandria. And now my PowerPoint should change, but it doesn't do it, so one second please. There we go.
He had been a student of Medicine in Alexandria, which you see here. Now the Roman Empire at this time was a highly cosmopolitan world, with countless upwardly mobile young men like Thessalos traveling around restlessly in search of a good education, very much like university students in our own globalized world.
Thessalos was an ambitious student, given to exaggerating his own talents and his achievements. By the time he has almost finished his studies in Alexandria, he was getting ready to return home. One fateful day he came across a book in the library about the medical virtues of stones and plants, attributed to a legendary author, a certain Nechepso.
It made such an impression on him that even before he had tried out these prescriptions, he was already bragging to his family back home and to his fellow students about his incredible medical breakthrough. But to his enormous. distress, the prescriptions in the book proved worthless.
As a result, he found himself exposed to scorn and ridicule from his peers. And so humiliating was this experience that poor Thessalos no longer dared to return home. Therefore, he started wandering around Egypt, driven by a sting in my soul as we reach, and seeking to deliver on some aspect of my rash promise. He would rather commit suicide, he was himself, than return home as a loser. He clearly needed help.
"My soul always foretold me that I would speak with the gods. And so I kept stretching out my hands to heaven, praying to the gods to grant me some favor for dream vision, for the spirit of a God, so that I could proudly, and as a happy person, return to Alexandria unto my homeland."
Well, having arrived in Thebes, Thessalos began hanging out with the elders and priests connected to the temples, hoping for a break. Eventually, one of them promised to help him. After three days of fasting and abstinence, Thessalos was led to purified room, possibly at a temple. It may also have been a private house, we don't know for sure.
When the priest inquired whether he wanted to see a dead soul or a God, Thessalos answered that he wished to speak with no one less than the Great God, Asklepios. Here you have him, Imhotep himself. Face to face he said, I don't know.
Well, the priest wasn't pleased. But he told Thessalos, OK, sit down opposite the throne in which the gods will appear. Then he pronounced the ineffable names that would summon the gods, and then left the room and shut the door.
OK. . What followed is known as a ritual of apparition. Asklepios, Imhotep appeared according to our text, right in front of Thessalos. The god's facial expression and the beauty of his surroundings were so wondrous that Thessalos writes that he cannot describe them. But he felt that the spectacle "released him from body and soul."
The gods reached out his hands. And after some flattering remarks about Thessalos' greatness and his future success, offered to answer any questions that he might want to ask. Struggling no doubt to gather himself together, Thessalos managed to ask why Nechepso's prescriptions in the book he had found had failed. And Asklepios proceeded to instruct him about the true way of using the powers of plants.
The rest of the text is technical treatise about astrological plant medicine. After having finished his discourse, Asklepios ascended. Thessalos went looking for the priest. Some manuscripts claim that they ended up traveling to Alexandria together, where Thessalos tested the prescriptions and finally succeeded to convince all the skeptics. A success story.
Now rituals of apparition are extremely frequent in the large manuscript collection that is known as the Theban magical library. But to what extent can we trust them? In other words, is it possible that Asklepios actually saw the god? That's Thessalos, I mean that Thessalos actually saw the god Asklepios. And could the gods have spoken to him? Well, this question is seldom asked by specialists. But I believe it is worth asking.
Let's have a look at the situation. Thessalos badly needed an apparition. And the priest could provide one. This is what priests looked like. He probably expected to be paid for his service. But once Thessalos had to pay the fee to this priest, he would expect something serious in return for his investment. It wouldn't do for the priest to just leave him behind the closed room, hoping for Asklepios to somehow take care of the rest.
Now something impressive needed to happen. Now Thessalos was certainly in a receptive state. He had been fasting for three days, so he had an empty stomach. And he must have felt weak and dizzy. He also tells us how excited and apprehensive he was about the prospect of meeting the gods.
It's not easy for us, moderns, living in the 21st century, to take the required leap of the imagination. But it is crucial to understand that he was not playing around in any way. Our postmodern attitudes of ironic reserve would be alien to him. The gods were perfectly real. They were extremely powerful. And so the prospect of encountering the great deity like Asklepios face to face would be literally awe inspiring.
In short, Thessalos found himself alone in a dark temple, sitting in front of an empty throne, dizzy and hungry, hoping for something extraordinary to happen. But not just that, he was sitting there while inhaling the smoke of the burnt offering that was [? certainly ?] standard in all rituals of apparition at the time.
The smoke came from kuphi and incense, famous compounds used in temples of Egypt. Its ingredients have been analyzed in detail. And it appeared to have had narcotic properties, inducing a state of sleep-like reverie and relaxation in which the imagination-- the imagination is important here-- would be greatly empowered.
In an important passage, the Platonic philosopher Plutarch writes about Kuphi. And he says that the imaginative faculty, susceptible to dreams, it brightens like a mirror. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Thessalos beheld Asklepios in some kind of altered state of consciousness.
But what could he have seen? Well, most probably, the apparition took the shape of a form of an-- the shape of a bright light, a phenomenon that was known as photogogy. It is mentioned frequently into Theban magical library. The light would announce the arrival of the deity, who would then appear within it, entering its shining through it, taking form within it somehow.
Against the background of Plutarch's reports about how Kuphi enhances the imaginative faculty the light would function like a kind of reflective mirror in which a drowsy Thessalos beheld what he expected and hoped for, the luminous shape that was impossible to describe exactly, but could not be anything other for him than the body of the gods.
Where then did that light come from? Well, we have seen that the priest needed an impressive event to make sure that Thessalos will walk out satisfied and properly impressed. It wouldn't do if he just dozed off into darkness and then demand his money back afterwards.
Now the Platonic philosopher Iamblichus, to whom I will come back later, describes explicitly that Egyptian priests had various technical means at their disposal for producing luminous effects. Again, the key to such epiphanies lay in the human faculty of the imagination or phantasia.
What happens, according to Iamblichus is that the external light has an effect on the luminous vehicle of the soul, the Ochema. This effect makes it possible for the gods who are acting by their own volition to take possession of the imaginative power in us.
In other words, the human imagination is not seen here as an agent of illusion. But it is seen as a faculty of perception, a faculty of perception that allows us to see the gods. The priests are merely facilitating their appearance by using procedures and techniques that are known to be effective.
Now against this background, so we could approach to wider question of how to account for the impressive visionary experiences described in countless ancient texts within the wider use of Greek and Roman antiquity.
Iamblichus refer to such practices in the context of theurgy. This term maybe translated as God working or the activity of the gods, gods at work, divine acts, [NON-ENGLISH], or the workings of the gods, [NON-ENGLISH].
The term was meant to make a specific point. Although theurgical rites were performed by human beings, it was the gods themselves who were directing the work. They were doing it. Therefore, it is incorrect to see-- incorrect to see such practices, attempts by magicians to gain power and control over invisible entities, such as gods or demons.
It is much more correct to see them as ritual procedures whose goal was to create suitable conditions for the gods to-- for the gods to manifest themselves. The ritual setting had to be right. You had to follow the right procedures. You had to be in the right mental state.
To create such conditions, you did not need to start from scratch or to proceed by trial and error on your own for there where ancient traditions and trained practitioners around who could tell you what to do and how to do it. And a lot of this is oral.
Next to rituals of apparitions, we find descriptions of ritual of ascent, [NON-ENGLISH] In which the practitioner himself is carried upwards to heaven and see spectacular visions. A particularly famous example is the so-called Mithras Liturgy.
It describes how a practitioner seeks to guide his "only child or woman whom he addressed as his daughter, how he guides her up first to the heavens and into the realm of the immortal gods."
In preparation of the ascent, seven days of purity are required. Then after a lengthy invocation to the supreme sort of Helios Mithras, the divine source of light, the author instructs this pupil to draw in breath from the race three times, drawing in as much as you can.
After that, she will feel herself lifted upwards until reaching a position in mid-air. At this point, she will find herself surrounded by utter silence while watching the planetary constellations. She won't see them just as physical planets. She will see them as deities and [INAUDIBLE] of agency and intelligence, the text says.
Now at this point, we may begin to wonder how such information is to be understood. We find the same procedure of inhaling sunlight in a foundational collection of theoretical texts, the Chaldean Oracles. And it is clear that this sunlight means that divine pneuma, the breath or the spirit that is emanating from the supreme source of light.
As an effect of inhaling solar pneuma, the vehicle of the soul becomes illuminated. Literally, it will be having the appearance of light. The gods have now taken possession of it. And they lift the soul upwards. That is what the authors of the Mithras Liturgy and the Chaldean Oracles are telling us.
But how are we to understand it? To be more precise, what could possibly happen to the practitioner that would convince her that she was actually drifting upward to the air, and at a great silence and beheld the heavenly bodies as awesome living beings.
Now this question, I want to suggest, is the famous elephant in the room of modern scholarship from theurgy. So here's the elephant in the room. Almost without exception-- there are a few exceptions-- but almost without exception, even the most knowledgeable and perceptive specialists seem to ignore or avoid this question.
But this [? sign ?] is remarkable, because at least in this particular case, it so happens that the key for a plausible solution is readily available. We have seen how the gods appeared to the theurgists. They did it by taking possession of his luminous vehicle, the ochema, and activating its imaginative powers. The medieval Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellus writes that according to Iamblichus, successor of Proclus, the vehicle is empowered or purified by means of "stones, herbs, and incantations."
The Chaldean says really, we [? read ?] here, "that we cannot be born upwards towards God unless we strengthen the vehicle of the soul by material sacraments, material sacraments. For he believes that the soul is purified by stones, herbs, and incantations, and consequently, becomes more agile with a view to the ascension."
In fact, such a use of herbs is confirmed explicitly by the author of the Mithras Liturgy. The author writes, "it is necessary for you, oh, daughter to take the juices of herbs and drugs which will be made known to you at the end of my sacred treatise.
In short, there is really no mystery here. Some kind of herbal concoction was required that would enable the pupil to actually Inhale solar pneuma into her soul vehicle so that the gods would empower its imaginative faculties. And not only that, the author is true to his word. For we do in fact find a detailed recipe affixed to the Mithras Liturgy.
It takes up about one fifth of the complete text. But it has been peculiarly ignored or sidelined in scholarship. This is what you need to do. First, you must prepare a cake from honey and a fruit pulp of a lotus. You feed this to sun scarab. It will kill the scarab who must then be thrown into a glass vessel with high quality rose oil.
Having placed his vessel on sacred sand, a consecration must be spoken over it during seven days. After this, the scarab must be buried in a piece of lining together with myrrh and [? Mendecian ?] wine. And this will finally result in an ointment that can be used for the ritual of ascent.
Now it is known that Egyptian blue Lotus had narcotic and hallucinogenic properties. And myrrh is described in the demotic magical papyrus component of an eye paint prescribed for visionary applications. Indeed, that is exactly what the author of the Mithras Liturgy appears to have in mind too except that one more ingredient is added.
We read, "get the juice of the herb called Kentritus and smear it along with the rose oil around the eyes of whomever you wish. And he will see so clearly that he will be amazed."
Now this Kentritus plant and several other ingredients-- and I'm sorry to disappoint you here-- they have so far resisted identification. But it is clear that the authors of the papyri knew them. And we're able to prepare the ointment.
Apart from this substance that was to be rubbed into the eyes or smeared around it, we are also told about the letters that must be written on the leaf with an ink made of Kentritus, honey and myrrh and then licked of it. The author claims that he has done this often himself and has been totally amazed. That's a literal quotation by the effect.
These instructions make perfect sense for the Greek magical papyri contained literally dozens of references to myrrh not only as a psychoactive agent but also as a component of black ink for the writing of ritually important words, characters, or pictures.
Sadly, we cannot decipher all the components of these recipes. Therefore, the exact psychological effects of combining myrrh, lotus, and Kentritus, and perhaps other ingredients, must remain a matter of speculation.
But we know from other contexts that even while specific separate substances may have little effect or none at all, in certain cases, it is the combination that makes them psychoactive. Particularly good example is the effect of so-called MAO inhibitors.
Although we cannot recreate these concoctions, we are told enough to inspire confidence that they would have a strong impact on the state of consciousness of theurgic practitioners. In particular, they seem to have made them highly sensitive and receptive to suggestion while inducing powerful visual and possibly auditory hallucinations.
Now to properly understand the theurgic process from such a perspective, it remains important to emphasize the crucial importance of mental expectations and the ritual context, also known as set and setting, for it is known that these are largely responsible for what is actually seen and heard in any drugs-fueled experience.
Since our female practitioner in the Mithras Liturgy has been told that she is about to see the gods, she is prepared for awe-inspiring experiences of fire and light. She must have expected to be overwhelmed and deeply impressed.
And we know that the exact content of her experience will have been determined by how the objective impacts of a specific psychoactive compound interacts with the subjective contents of her own mind or belief in the gods, the stories she knows about them, fears about their awesome powers, and so on.
Furthermore, she is being guided through the experience by a ritual leader who gives a precise step-by-step instructions about what to do and say at any moment, while probably helping her interpret her experiences as she goes along.
Now if you read the text with this information in mind, then we discovered that contrary to standard scholarly opinion, he does not actually begin by asking his daughter to just Inhale the solar pneuma Rather, what happens is that he recites the long opening invocation while simultaneously anointing her face with a mystery. That is to say, with the hallucinogenic ointment.
The invocation must take some time. It is rather long. It must take some time. So as to allow the ointments to take effect. The daughter instructed to do the inhalations three times in succession, drawing in as much as you can.
The drugs must be responsible for the ensuing sensation of ascending upwards and floating weightlessly in mid-air What follows could be described as one of the most extensive trip reports from late antiquity, although it has very seldom been recognized as such. So here we go.
Having been enveloped by a sense of deep silence, initially, the practitioner feels threatened by the awesome presence of the divine powers. We read that they are glowering [INAUDIBLE] and that's her. They seem ready to attack her.
To keep them at bay, she must put her right finger on her mouth and say, silence, silence, silence, symbol of the living, imperishable god, guard me, silence, [NON-ENGLISH]. The meaning of those words is unknown. Then she has to hiss at them, to make a popping sound followed by a longer formula of incomprehensible words, all of which will have the effect of restoring them to peace.
Likewise, when disturbed by a sound of crashing thunder, we read, she has to repeat the same words, reassuring the gods that she is no alien intruder but an immortal being like themselves. I am a star, she says, wandering around with you.
Now the sun will start expanding, yet another fearsome event to which she must respond with the same formulas, the hissing and popping sounds. Then multiple five-pronged stars will proceed from the sun and fill the air to which she can respond to like manner.
All of this makes perfect psychological sense. Whenever some new phenomenon threatens to throw her off balance in her fragile state, she can hold onto the formula and the sounds to restore some sense of balance and control. Finally, she will see the sun opening up in front of her. And she will notice great doors, we f inside that are tightly shut.
Now she has to recite a long prayer including strings of incomprehensible words to so-called [NON-ENGLISH], asking for the doors to open. She must repeat all this seven times for each of the seven planetary gods.
Until finally, with a great noise and shaking, to which she can respond again with the silence formula, the doors will open. Then she will behold the world with gods inside. And this spectacle will give her great pleasure and joy.
Next she must invite the gods to come forward before the gates by inhaling more pneuma, keeping her gaze fixed on the sun's inner space and pronouncing a new formula with many incomprehensible words. Finally, a beautiful young god will appear. Greeting him with the proper words, she asks him to announce her presence to his father, the greatest god, pointing out that although born as a mortal human being, today she has been reborn as an immortal one.
In other words, again, they should not claim that she has no business being here. She is a god. Without losing sight of the gods, she is instructed to make a strong bellowing sound, exhaling all the breath whilst squeezing her loins, kissing her protective amulets and asking for protection.
Now watch out. Seven virgins with the faces of asps and carrying golden wands will emerge from the deep within, followed later by seven gods with a face of black bulls carrying gold and diamonds. She has to greet all of them with the correct formulas.
Finally, the great called Helios himself appears as a youthful golden entity of enormous size. And again, the practitioner must respond to with bellowing sounds, full acceleration of breath and kissing of the protective amulets. After having implored the gods to dwell in her soul and not abandon her, she then asks him for a revelation, to which you will respond immediately by pronouncing an oracle in verses.
After he departs, the practitioner will be left behind feeling weak in her soul and quite beyond herself, speechless and wondering how to comprehend the message, state of mind, it seems perfectly compatible to me, with the process of coming down after the height of a psychedelic trip. Later on, her father or a guide, assures her she will find all the details of what happened back in her memory.
Now when scholars discuss texts of this kind, they often feel compelled to distance themselves from the content. They use disparaging qualifiers such as murky, bizarre, abstruse, sub-philosophical, superstitions, or irrational.
I can't help thinking that in the context of academic discourse, such words, such words work very much like apotropaic formulae. Their function in an academic discourse is to ward off the suspicion of their colleagues who might think that they take it all-- that you might take it all too seriously.
A variant of the same defensive reflex mechanism consists in overemphasizing the presumably magical nature of such rituals. In those cases, the intended effect is to distance these practices from the greater degree of legitimacy that would be implied by using the adjectives such as religious or priestly, no, it's magic.
We speak of the Theban magical library and the Greek medical papyri. But I think that this terminology is unfortunate and should be rejected. These papyri were not presented as magical. These adjectives come from the early German standard translation by this man, by Karl Preisendanz who interpreted everything as magical by default.
Whenever the text mentioned praxis or [NON-ENGLISH]. He translated this as magical act, [NON-ENGLISH]. Botanai, plants, became magical plants. [NON-ENGLISH], signs, became magical signs. [NON-ENGLISH], songs, became magical songs. [NON-ENGLISH], names, became magical names, and so on.
By such translation procedures, scholars have actually-- have actually been actively creating magic in the text rather than finding them in their sources-- and finding it in the sources. In reality, the Egyptian authors of the papyrus simply did not share the opinion of their Roman occupiers that magic, [NON-ENGLISH], was something negative, nonreligious, or shameful.
On the contrary, they consistently described it as a holy and divine pursuit for which there are perfectly positive terms available in their own language. So when we refer to the Mithras Liturgy as containing murky, abstruse, or bizarre forms of magic or superstition, we are still speaking like Romans, not like Egyptians. It is the language of suspicion and contempt.
The famous Theban magical library and the magical papyri should, in my field, better be referred to as the Theban priestly library and priestly papyri simply because they documented activities of Egyptian priests. Referring to these practitioners as magicians while pretending to take them seriously, is very much like heaping insults on a person while claiming to be neutral. It is simply not consistent, and it has never worked.
Interestingly, there seems to be a reverse logic at work in the virtual taboo on discussing psychoagents in such texts psycho-- sorry, there isn't reverse logic at work and a virtual taboo on discussing psychoactive agents in such text as the Mithras Liturgy.
Most scholars keep pushing the term magic in spite of its pejorative connotations. But at the same time, they seem to avoid mentioning drugs because it carries negative connotations.
Now this fact, I think can be explained from the history of the field. Since the 1980s, a new generation of excellent scholars began challenging old battles of prejudice against theurgy and finally succeeded to restoring it to academic agendas.
Now it is one thing to convince your colleagues that theurgy is governed by a rationality of its own. But then having to tell them that it involves drugs is something else entirely. This might easily lead your colleagues to conclude that those old prejudices were perhaps not so wrong after all, and that those alternative rationalities might not be so rational.
The effect of any reference to drugs can have on nonspecialist is even harder to control. And the truth is that very few scholars have been willing to take the risk, especially in the field of ancient religions where several established academics have seen their-- have seen their reputation impaired or even the ruined by mediatized sensationalism about religion and drugs.
One example would be the classicist Carl Ruck who collaborated with iconic figures of the psychedelic movement such as Gordon Wasson and Albert Hofmann in a controversial underground classic about the Eleusinian mysteries.
Or think of the biblical scholar John Allegro who belonged to the original team that investigated the Dead Sea Scrolls but destroyed all his intellectual credit by publishing a book describing Christianity as a mushroom cult.
So it may be understandable that many scholars would like to avoid the topic, even to such an extent that almost all specialists, modern specialists, including the author of the standard edition of the Mithras Liturgy pretty much ignore the psychoactive recipe as if it weren't there. But the recipe is there. That's just how it is. It takes up about 1/5 of the complete text. And so it is our task, I think, to take it seriously.
Now finally, I come to the central figure of neoplatonic theurgy. This is Iamblichus of Chalcis Of course, we do not know what you looked like. This is a later picture. He was born between 200 to 250 Common Era in a very wealthy and politically influential noble family from Northern Syria.
He left his native country to study philosophy but eventually returned to Syria where he became the center of some kind of philosophical school or spiritual community in Apamea and died in 325 or 26. Now we know almost nothing about Iamblichus' movement. But the most likely scenario I think is that after leaving home, he first studied in Alexandria with a philosopher named Anatolius.
Then he went to Italy to continue his studies in the circle of Plotinus pupils in Rome. And this is where he met Plotinus' famous pupil Porphyry, a Syrian like himself. He then moved back to Alexandria, where he made his name as a teacher.
Finally, he decided to return to Syria where he continued his teaching activities even more successfully in Apamea. Now I give you this map here because I know that specialists in this audience will be aware of the fact that my scenario here goes straight against the standard opinion that you will find in most books about the topic.
Many important and influential great scholars seem intent, for some reason, on keeping Iamblichus out of Egypt at all costs, regardless of the evidence. I cannot go into the details here. But let me just say that I'm not speculating about Iamblichus time in Egypt.
My proof comes from the biography of Eunapius, who describes Iamblichus' meetings with the Alexandrian philosopher Alypius. You can look it up. I see no reason for any doubts that Iamblichus was in actual physical contact with Egyptian priests, including circles that were practicing the spiritual way of Hermes Trismegistus
After Iamblichus has returned from Italy to Alexandria, back in Alexandria, Plotinus' successor Porphyry, back there in Rome, must have been left with many unanswered questions about how his Syrian colleague saw the exact relation between philosophy and theurgy.
So he wrote him a letter with a series of questions, to which Iamblichus responded in a long treatise that is popularly known as De Mysteriis, on the mysteries of the Egyptians. The debates between Porphyry and Iamblichus may seem very technical and abstract, and it is. But it is extremely important.
It is about an extremely important difference between two ways of understanding the essence, the very essence, of platonic wisdom. I would try to show that this difference has far-reaching implications for the question of entheogenic religion and altered state and alterations of consciousness. So please bear with me and give me your full attention. This is going to be a little bit technical.
We'll begin with Porphyry. Porphyry was prone to depression He was deeply pessimistic about the utter meaninglessness of life here on Earth. It appears that he read about his master Plotinus was in fact "ashamed of being a body." What truly made philosophy so attractive to him was that it held a promise of direct experiential knowledge of our true spiritual essence, knowledge that could lift us beyond our embodied condition.
The theoretical justification for such aspirations lay in Plotinus doctrine that "the human soul does not fully descend into matter" but some part of it stays, always up there in the noetic world. This is very important. But what does it mean?
Well, here we have a picture. Originally before incarnation, the soul, you see it up there, is in a state of crystal clear consciousness. But then as it begins to descend into matter, it loses that clarity. And it enters into a sleep-like state of reduced awareness and confusion. In other words, all of us live, all of us right now are living, and the whole of our embodied lives quite literally, in an altered state of consciousness right now.
However, the soul's connection to the noetic realm is never lost completely. This is why we may sometimes wake up from the dream of this life, reconnect with the undescended part of our soul up there and thereby see reality as it really is. Plotinus claim that this has happened to him many times. Even while being in the body, still, his soul retains the capacity of revealing its true essential nature to him.
Now it's about this precise point that Iamblichus disagreed with Porphyry. The difference lies at the heart of what theurgy was all about. Iamblichus believes that the soul descends completely so that no part of it stays in the noetic realm, as you can see.
Everything comes down. Embodiment means full immersion in matter. The entire soul plunges into a state of reduced consciousness and utterly loses its connection to the divine. Think of it as bungee jumping without a rope.
For Iamblichus, this meant that we could not find liberation by means of philosophy. Whatever Plotinus might have been experiencing in his moment of ecstasy then, it could not possibly mean that his soul has reconnected with its true essence up there in the noumenal realm.
Now for Porphyry-- for Porphyry in Rome up there, the pessimist, for Porphyry, this was a shocking thought. If Iamblichus was right then did this mean that Plotinus had been deluding himself and his pupils about the liberating potential of philosophy?
Iamblichus completely [? descended ?] soul looks to Porphyry like a spiritual entity hopelessly lost in matter, cut off, utterly unable to cross the abyss and save himself by finding the way back to its source. Porphyry was prone to severe depression, as we already saw, and deeply pessimistic about what he called the tragicomedy of this mindless life.
And to him, Iamblichus doctrine meant that even philosophy itself would be an ultimately pointless pursuit. If the liberating knowledge to which it aspired was unattainable for human beings because our soul cannot connect with the divine, then no hope was left in this life.
However, Iamblichus saw the situation very differently. His doctrine of the completely descended soul was intended to [? send ?] highly positive constructive world affirming response to Pophyry's otherworldly pessimism. The essential point is that Iamblichus did not read Plato from a dualist perspective. That's essential.
To understand the all-important difference between Porphyry and Iamblichus, let's have a quick look at Socrates. In his famous discussion with the priestess of the mysteries, Diotima as told in Plato's Symposium, the essential passage is easily overlooked in modern translations.
It goes as follows, "you see, Socrates, she said, love is not exactly the desire for beauty as you think. Well, Socrates says, what is it then? It is begetting and giving birth in beauty. I suppose you're right, I said. Of course, I'm right, she said."
Well, when Diotima speaks of beauty, then she means the great ocean of ultimate reality, the eternal forms or ideas that the lover of wisdom may finally behold after climbing all the stairs with Diotima's letter from the indirect to reflect the beauty of physical bodies up to the ultimate beauty that is the source of everything good and true.
Now Iamblichus was correcting and Porphyry at exactly the same way as Diotima had been correct in Socrates. The point is not to escape from the cave of embodied existence to a bodily state of pure, spiritual bliss as in this famous picture. Quite the contrary, she says. It is our task to bring beauty into the world.
For outer discourse, Diotima used the language of conception, pregnancy, and giving birth. Her way towards wisdom for love is not about the infinite desire for some unattainable beauty that can exist only in an utterly transcendent realm beyond the senses.
Think of the stereotypical male hero who leaves the cave to ride off into the sunset. No, on the contrary, it is all about staying here, participating in creation and making an active contribution to our world down here, so as to make it better, more beautiful, and more true. It is not about leaving the cave behind she says. It's about giving birth in the cave, metaphorically, of course.
OK. So much for the theory. But how was that supposed to work? Because our soul does not itself have the means to reascend, Iamblichus argues, it needs divine assistance. The descent into embodiment is admittedly painful and difficult for the soul. It changes us not just externally but in our very substance.
As the body encloses our soul from all sides, our consciousness gets altered, darkened, as [? if ?] by the walls of a prison cell. Our soul's vehicle, the ochema, suffer serious trauma and damage while entering the dominion of our [INAUDIBLE] fate where it gets exposed to constricting demonic energies and powerful, irrational passions. And perhaps most important of all, we lose our very connection with the realm of divinity.
This is why the gods who are supremely powerful, needs to come to our aid, [INAUDIBLE]. And that is what theurgy was all about, the healing work of our activity of the gods on the earth. So for Iamblichus, this work is not about lifting the soul beyond the realm of suffering, rather it's about alleviating suffering itself by working creatively on improving the world and ultimately, perfecting it.
One might say that Iamblichus is telling Porphyry to toughen up. Yes, embodiment is hard, I know. It is difficult and painful. But there is simply no other way for goodness, beauty, and truth to be born, literally, to get incarnated in this world. Human beings should not seek to evade their responsibility by dreaming of escape. They must accept the burden of suffering and work diligently in the body while serving the divine.
Only by being creative in the world by healing its afflictions and helping all beings move towards spiritual perfection, will they be able to find healing and fulfillment for themselves as well. So unlike Porphyry, Iamblichus did not see the world as a spiritual desert deprived of divinity but as a splendid theophany.
As formulated by Greg Shaw, "gods were everywhere, in plants, in rocks, in animals, in temples, and in us. But their presence had to be revealed. Their voices had to be made audible." And that is what theurgy did. By means of ritual practices in which the gods appeared to human beings.
Iamblichus spent so much energy correcting Porphyry's misconceptions that-- the misconception that theurgists are trying to evoke, to command, or otherwise exert power over the gods. On the contrary, he insists, no, the gods are wholly superior. They are infinitely more powerful than we are. They appear to us wholly by their own free volition. And in fact, it is only they who are actually accomplishing the work of theurgy.
In theurgical ritual, the gods themselves where giving dazzling demonstration of their power and their will, making their presence known through luminous epiphanies and other spectacular phenomena. The practitioner was facilitating their appearance and needed to make himself receptive.
So what was really happening in those rituals of theurgy which Iamblichus insists were absolutely the only way, the only way, for the soul to find peace and happiness. In one way or another, theurgical practice involves visible manifestations or revelations of divine light.
Incorporeal lights, for example, consists the all-encompassing reality of the gods. Like the light of the sun, it is universally present everywhere while always staying firmly with itself.
It appears that whatever techniques they may have been using, theoretical ritual could induce powerful alterations of consciousness that allowed participants to be possessed by the gods as luminous beings.
Depending on the kinds of gods that were present-- for Iamblichus insists there are multiple, they cannot be reduced to just one single divine essence-- depending on the kind of gods that were present, divine possession could take different outward forms.
Quite reminiscent of what happens in contemporary Ayahuasca rituals, practitioner's bodies would start making involuntary movements. They might find themselves dancing to the harmony of inspirational music. Sometimes they would be singing, but they could also be shouting and cursing, as I would explain in a minute.
However, the principal sign of divine possession was that both the director of the procedure and the person about to be possessed, or sometimes even outside spectators too, would be able to see the god's fiery spirits, pneuma, come down as a luminous form and enter the practitioner's body.
In a fascinating passage, Iamblichus explains how it is possible for us to observe such phenomena in a conscious, although profoundly altered, state. It is possible because the divine light leaves our soul's faculties of attention, prosoche, and thinking, dianoia, unaffected.
So they're still there. But our faculty of imagination, our phantastikon, is woken up by the gods to modes of operation that are totally different from what human beings are accustomed to.
You will remember Plutarch's remarks about the effects of kuphi incense on the imaginative faculty. And kuphi was certainly used in theurgical rituals too. But furthermore, precisely in the same passage, Iamblichus refers twice to otherwise unspecified drugs or potions.
We would love to know more about it. Unfortunately, it does not spill any entheogenic secrets. We don't know. What it does make clear is that like ritual possession trance and many other theories of cultural context, the essential purpose of theurgy was healing.
As I explained a while ago, the descent into the body was understood by Platonists as a deeply traumatic event that damaged the soul, even transformed its very substance. This is why during theurgic ritual, the gods themselves would enter practitioner's body to fill them with divine light and return them to harmony. [? Or ?] they even allowed human souls temporarily to leave their bodies and return to the noetic realm during the theurgical ritual.
"The gods, in their benevolence and graciousness, generously shed their light upon the theurgists, called their souls towards themselves and allowed them to unite with themselves. And they accustomed their souls, human souls, to leave the body even while still being incarnated and turn towards their eternal noetic principle.
That's what we are presently talking about as salutary for the soul. That it is salutary for the soul is showed by the facts themselves. In fact, when the soul contemplates those felicitous visions, it changes its life for another, another one. And it begins another kind of activity. It then thinks it is no longer human and rightly so. For often, having abandoned its own life, it has received in exchange, the infinitely blessed activity of the gods."
Now despite these claims, what Plotinus and Porphyry's philosophy could not do, the gods actually, by their own activity, could. do. During the ritual, they allowed the soul to leave the body-- I try to visualize this here-- to leave the body at least for a while, so that it could turn towards its noetic origin and unite with the life of the gods. During such a period of disembodiment, the soul enjoys an ineffable experience of divine bliss.
Returning from this spiritual vacation trip refreshed and energized, it would then find its body feel purified, cleaned, by the divine lights that have been filling it during its absence. And theurgists could do their part to keep it pure by observing dietary rules combined with physical exercises, visualizations, and prayers.
Moreover, during rituals, the theurgists themselves would be working together with gods or good [INAUDIBLE] on healing the physical body too. Iamblichus writes that, "we clean it of old impurities or free it from diseases and fill it with health or remove from it what is heavy and sluggish, while giving it lightness and energy."
Finally, theurgy was therapeutic in a psychological sense also, providing emotional relief for controlled catharsis. In response to Porphyry's puzzled questions, Iamblichus explains why secret rituals could even involve such vulgar elements as the shouting of obscenities. He sounds like a psychoanalyst here. And again, one cannot help being reminded of what happens in modern Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Here we go, "if the powers of human effects that are in us remain completely contained, they become more violent. But if they are pushed towards a brief action and up to a certain measured degree, they find a pleasure and satisfaction within measure. And once they are purified profoundly, they are brought to peaceful persuasion and without violence.
In the sacred rites it by ugly spectacles and sounds that we are delivered from the damage that results from practicing those ugly things. These rites are therefore practiced in view of healing our soul, to moderate the evils that have become attached to it because of the fact of generation, to liberate it, and to relieve it from its chains."
In sum, theurgy was an integrated practice of healing both body and soul. It seems they have worked for the ritual induction of altered states in which unspecified herbs or potions played some kind of role, undoubtedly next to kuphi incense.
These alterations of consciousness made it possible for the gods to enter the practitioner's bodies and purify them, while their souls were visiting the divine realm to come back re-energized. All of this so that they could be as effective as possible in the great task, the task of channeling spiritual energies, into the external world and make life better more beautiful and more true.
Again, the goal was not to escape from the world. The goal was to heal practitioner's bodies and souls so that they could be more effective in this world. The function of philosophy was just to provide theoretical justification for this spiritual practice.
OK. Now I would like to finish this lecture with a simple conclusion. In the scholarly literature, experiences such as Thessalos' vision, the Mithras Liturgy, and Iamblichean theurgy have typically been described as weird or irrational superstitions.
Such descriptions fit perfectly with prevailing prejudices about Egypt as the source of the dark, magical occult practice, a primitive heart of darkness, depicted as the absolute negative counterpart of Greek science and rationality.
These long-standing patterns of anti-Egyptian and anti-magical prejudice on the part of scholars of religion seems to find confirmation in the extreme weirdness and irrationality of divine apparitions, ecstatic ascents, or divine possession. Modern scholars have been thinking by themselves, well, nobody in their normal mind could possibly have had such experiences.
Unless we were dealing just with invented stories, they would reason, there had to be something wrong with those people. If you claim those things, divine apparitions, ecstatic ascents, divine possession, there must be something wrong with you if you experience such things.
To see gods appear in front of you, to think that you are lifted up to heaven, that you have conversations with the sun god, to imagine yourself possessed by luminous entities, to have your whole body shaking, and to find yourself shouting, singing, dancing, or swearing uncontrollably, if you aren't making it all up, but really experience that stuff, it can mean only one thing, you must be crazy.
Normal people don't experience such things. Normal people don't act like this. Now, you can see the effect of this argument. Since Roman Egypt seemed full of such weird practices and irrational experiences, what resulted in mainstream scholarship maybe described as I would say, nothing less than the systematic pathologization of an entire culture.
The Greeks were rational and sane. The Romans are sober and pragmatic. Their Christian successors were moral. But their pagan and oriental counterparts, the Egyptians, most of all, they were delusional.
Now this basic argumentative logic has been extremely influential in academic scholarship. But it is deeply flawed. We have overwhelming clinical evidence that when you expose perfectly normal, sane, healthy individuals to specific entheogenic substances, this will result, predictably, in exactly the kinds of radical experiences and forms of behavior described in the texts that I have been analyzing.
This means that entheogens provide us with perfectly reasonable explanations for a wide range of religious experiences and patterns of behavior that used to be dismissed as irrational and crazy. Now all of this does not mean, and I want to insist on this, it does not mean that I see entheogens as the exclusive explanation of these experiences. Far from it.
Rather my arguments give central importance to alterations of consciousness in a broad and inclusive sense. Such alterations of consciousness can and have been induced by many other factors than entheogenic substances alone in Rome in Egypt and elsewhere. And all of those mind altering factors and that combinations needs to be taken into account. It's very complex.
In short, alterations of consciousness are key, entheogenic substances, I think, are just one part, although an underestimated part perhaps, of that broader phenomenon. Still, the bottom line remains the same.
As scholars, we must stop referring to such radical experience and practices as arguments for pathologizing practitioners and theorists, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether directly or indirectly. Thank you for your attention.
CHARLES STANG: Wonderful, Wouter. Thank you so much. So first of all, before we get into the question, Wouter, I just want to say thank you so much. Your work on this is really exciting to me. And this is obviously the material I work on, but you have opened up a new vista for me in thinking about it.
And I would not have thought until today to constellate Thessalos, the Mithras Liturgy, and the debate between Iamblichus and Porphyry. I also want to note that our very dear friend Greg Shaw, who you mentioned, is a participant.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: I'm very happy, Greg, that you are here.
CHARLES STANG: So Greg, if you want to ask a question, please, please, please do so. And some other familiar faces are here too, including Jeff [? Greghall. ?] So let me go straight to the questions in the queue.
This is a-- I'm going to read out a question, a version of which I feel like we get every time we have a lecture on entheogenics or psychedelics, which is what do you damn scholars know? Which, the version of it is slightly better put than that.
But here's the question from-- it reads, can a contemporary scholar of ancient theurgy really call themselves committed to the study if they haven't tried phenomenological research with entheogens themselves?
That is to say, without experience of the sorts of altered states being described in these states, how can scholars purport to understand them or even describe them accurately? So Wouter, you want to take that up
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Yeah, well, yeah. This is kind of the standard question indeed that's often asked. But it's always a good question. And the first thing I would say is that it depends on what you want to know, or what kind of questions you want to answer.
There are many-- there are many questions about entheogen's practice for which I don't think it makes much of a difference whether people have personal experiences with these things or not.
There are other questions that have to do with really with the more-- the details of what's going on, in which it might be useful, I would think advantageous, for us to have some experience with these kind of things. And so then I don't think it is actually absolutely a plus.
But a second thing I'd like to say is that certainly, we talk about stuff like, the things in late antiquity, I mean, there's one fundamental point about drugs or entheogens, or whatever you would call them, and that they are different. They are not all the same.
And there is no such thing as the drug experience. I mean it is not the same whether you talk about MDMA or about LSD or about, you know, I've mentioned any other kind of substances.
And so even if contemporary scholars have some experience with psychedelics themselves, then it doesn't necessarily mean that I have experienced anything similar to what people experienced in late antiquity. Because we do not know what exactly they were using and how it worked. We do not know what Kentritus was.
And so it remains very difficult. So it is not necessarily the case that let's say, I have had some experience down here the 21st century that is helping me understand what happened in Roman Egypt, not necessarily. It might even have the disadvantage that I might project my own experiences back on late antiquity.
So I think in that department that I do not even mention the other aspects which is what I wanted to emphasize, the fact that certain setting are essential. And it is already difficult for us to find out what kind of things people may be using at the time, but what exactly the ritual context of theurgy was, how it works, and what kind of impact it would have had on the minds is very, very difficult for us to recreate.
So I have to say that I think the real experiential dimension of what happens in this time is probably beyond our reach. All we have is the text. And we can make analogies to things that are happening now, but it's not the same thing. And we cannot assume that it's the same thing. So this is a bit of a complicated answer to a simple question, but I hope it makes sense.
CHARLES STANG: OK I'd like to jump in on that as well, Wouter. Because I feel as if this question is also motivated by what I sometimes regard as psychedelic literalism or psychedelic fanaticism as if entheogens or psychedelics are the only means of access to altered states consciousness.
You have said very straightforwardly at the end of your talk, you refuse this. I refuse this too. I think this is actually a real liability in the study of psychedelics in the contemporary humanities, is that some people are committed to the idea that psychedelics are somehow the golden road to ecstasy. And they are simply not. They are one among the variety of, to borrow the phrase from [? Mechialli, ?] archaic techniques of ecstasy.
So let's not-- so even if you are committed to the idea that any scholar who should approach these texts should be familiar with altered states of consciousness, we cannot reduce altered states of consciousness just to experience with psychedelics or entheogens. There's a variety of techniques and exercises.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: I agree completely. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
CHARLES STANG: OK. So let's go with-- there's so many-- the questions are multiplying. And by the way, I should say those of you who are here, this will be recorded and will be up on our website. I know a number of you have asked that. So if you have to leave, please know that we'll have it up within a week or two.
CHRISTIAN GREER: Charles, can I jump in real quick with a question?
CHARLES STANG: Please, Christian. please
CHRISTIAN GREER: Wouter, thanks for the fantastic lecture. Always a pleasure to hear you talk on these subjects because you're so careful. It's clear that you are so into these sources. It's a pleasure. I'd like to know if you've noted any indication of the contemporary prejudice against drug-induced alteration of consciousness in late antiquity?
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Whether I-- whether I've seen examples of that?
CHRISTIAN GREER: Yes. Any polemics against this particular ritual practice as opposed to other entheogenic techniques?
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Oh, these. These particular practices. Let me think. Nothing comes to mind immediately. I mean, in the case of Thessalos, I don't think nobody has ever suggested anything in this direction anyway. Theurgy, in theurgy, I cannot-- well, now I can hardly think of nay people who have talked about it or polemicized against it.
Mithra's Liturgy, a little bit more. There are a few people have mentioned things, but not polemicized it. Whether there are a few people who mention it as a possibility, David Litwa writes about this sharply in a book about deification. And there is, what's his name, the classicist [? Lucke-- ?] not Ruck, but [? Lucke, ?] who's written really about entheogens in antiquity. He was one of the very few who talks about this.
There's not much, but no, polemicizing no. I don't know. What, what, what-- what strikes me rather is the silence. It's simply the fact that really strikes me about the Mithra's Liturgy, it's 1/5 of the text. One-fifth of the text, it's there. It's not-- it's not speculative. The recipe is there. Well, I gave the evidence. I don't have to repeat it. But it's right there. Why not talk about it? Yeah.
CHARLES STANG: OK. Let's go. Forgive me. I'm going to jump to Natalia Schwein's question. I just lost it. OK. Pardon me. Here we go. OK. First of all, she praises you. And Natalia is a student here at Harvard Divinity School. She thanks you. And she says, I'm wondering if you could speak to the role of non-human personhood in these entheogenic experiences?
I would love to know if any of your sources speak to the plants directly? I suppose she means address the plants, as if you could address the plant. Do any of them address the plant? Oh, god. I just lost the question again. Here it is. Or engage with them directly as persons or agents rather than tools or conduits? Thank you.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: A Very interesting question. And I don't have the answer. I don't have an answer. I don't know. In what I've seen, I cannot think of anything, of an example. But I have to say that there are-- of course, I mean, I'm not a specialist in the Greek magical papyri.
This is a huge field. There are people who are spending their whole lives doing nothing but studying these papyri. Some of my friends are studying this deeply. It's very technical and difficult.
And once you ask this question, I think this is a question that should be asked to deep specialists, who know the papyri extremely well, and who could maybe look at the text from that perspective and see whether there are elements like that there.
But I wouldn't know. You would have to ask the specialist, as somebody who's much more deep into these materials than I am, and somebody who can read the languages fluently and know some of the critical problems that have to do with that. But from what I know I haven't encountered anything like that. It's an interesting question. Yeah.
CHARLES STANG: Thank you. OK. Well, here's a very specialist question from Phillip Newman. Fragment 224 of the Chaldean Oracles--
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Oh, dear.
CHARLES STANG: Don't worry. Don't worry. It's not that kind of question. notes the use of wild rue in the consecration of Hecate statues. Wild rue is commonly believed to be Syrian rue, peganum harmala, if I'm saying that right, which contains M-A-O-I as opposed to traditional rue given the preoccupation of the Platonists with the Chaldean Oracles, might this be an indication of the type of drugs Iamblichus may have been using in his theurgy?
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Yeah. Maybe. There's so little-- I would love to say more, but we are constrained by the text. It's very interesting. This Syrian rue, of course, MAO inhibitor, I said something about the importance of drug combinations. And MAO inhibitors are crucial.
I mean, if you think of Ayahuasca, that's the best known example. I mean, that consists of two components. One of them doesn't do that much, not really spectacularly, if taken alone. Then if combined with an MAO inhibitor, then you have Ayahuasca. And it makes all the difference.
And the same goes if you combine it with psilocybin, then the psilocybin trip will be 5 to 10 times as strong. And it will last 12 hours or longer. And so it has an enormous effect. So it's anybody's guess.
CHARLES STANG: Yeah.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: If you would speculate that Syrian rue or something like that would be involved in these potions and how it would interact with this unknown plant like Kentritus, anybody's guess, we do not know. I wish-- there is a description, of course, of the Kentritus plant in the Mithras Liturgy. There is some botanical description.
And Albrecht Dieterich, the first scholar who studied this has tried. And I showed him the passage on the slides. He's tried to find out, but it couldn't be identified. He didn't succeed. But this description is still there. And perhaps nowadays, maybe there are people with good botanical knowledge, botanical knowledge, who might be able to make a better guess at what it could be.
Yeah. But you need a specialist there. And then, you would have-- and then Syrian rue, as far as I know, it's not mentioned in the Mithras Liturgy context. So you would have to speculate that it's there. It's all extremely speculative. You just don't know.
CHARLES STANG: So I recently, in the context of Brian Muraresku's book, The Immortality Key, I've been in conversation with some of the people who do ancient botany or archaeochemistry, and one of the things that they've driven home to me is that even if we can identify the plants in a particular in ingredient list, then there's the question of how are those plants prepared, or how are the ingredients prepared, how were they combined.
Oftentimes, these recipes don't give that level of specificity. And this was-- this was the revelation for me. And I'm wondering if anyone, Wouter or Christian or anyone here can confirm this, but these plants will have wildly different properties depending on where they are grown, and how they are harvested.
And so even if you can identify a particular ingredient, if you don't know its provenance and its cultivation or its harvesting, then these are things that can really change their properties. So that's not just-- this is all to say there's some real limitations we have in getting to these ancient psychedelic recipes. even with archaeochemistry, although I think archaeochemistry is opening up some of that as of now.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: And I think it's important to emphasize those limitations. We do not know more than we do. And I think one of the things that are working against getting this dimension taken seriously by academics is precisely the fact that so many enthusiasts are over-interpreting the evidence and wants to see evidence and proof for psychedelic use everywhere, and just that doesn't help. Because it confirms the kind of stereotype that all of this is just fantasy.
So I think we have to be careful to stick with the evidence and be able to accept the fact that in most cases, we simply don't know, rather than speculate wildly and thereby giving food to this stereotype.
Well, it's a well-founded stereotype that people who are interested in psychedelics in antiquity are all psychedelic enthusiasts who just see them everywhere and who think that Jesus was a mushroom cult and , all this kind of or the stone-age theory, and so on and so forth.
So I think we have to be careful. We have to be-- we have to-- I've been trying to push the evidence that I can look as far as I can and not making and building some bridges that could be contested in bringing things together. But the evidence is slight. I mean, in the Iamblichus' De Msyteriis, there's two mentions of potions or drugs. That's it. And that's what we have.
CHARLES STANG: Wouter, I was really excited to hear you mention Carl Ruck and John Allegro in this context. And I'm curious. You are pioneering work here with the Mithras Liturgy. Do you think that in some way help scholars recover their work that has largely been marginalized? Or do you think they belong amongst those who are making wild speculations?
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Oh, that's a tricky question. Yeah. Let me say something, if that's OK, about these two people, and how I look at that because it's interesting. And I do not claim to be a deep specialist in this in any way but from what I know, this is my idea.
Starting with Ruck. If you read the Road to Eleusis, I think it's a pretty solid arguments that he makes. It's credible [? authority. ?] I mean, he knows his stuff. He's a classicist. He knows some languages. It's not nonsense, but he made a mistake and a political mistake.
And that is publishing it with Wasson and Hoffman. You know, politically, it was not a good move because it means that you associate yourself with the icons of the counterculture. And therefore, you get perceived as an enthusiast and all that.
And it's really interesting, I find, because there is some well-known discussion of this same hypothesis of The Road to Eleusis, in a book by Walter Burkert who was one of the towering scholars of antiquity, one of the greatest scholars in the fields in the 20th century, and with an enormous, incredibly well-earned authority.
And he writes about this and dismisses the whole hypothesis very quickly, very easily. And I mean, I have an enormous respect for Burkert. But there you see, the Burkert, yeah, he's not a-- he's a specialist in so many things but not on psychedelics.
And what you see is that, he looks at the hypothesis. It's clear from his evidence that he argues the Eleusinian mysteries thing, that cannot work because we know he says that drugs do not create social cohesion. And I mean, it's not difficult to guess what's behind it. Because what Burkert thinks of the drugs, he thinks of things like heroin, heroin addicts, et cetera who get socially isolated.
That's a perception. So that's not a very well-founded argument. And of course, Burkert has the authority, again, for very, very good reasons. And therefore, the result is that people say, well Burkert has proven Ruck wrong. He hasn't actually.
And so you know, and then there's the other case of Allegro, who, again, is a very solid specialist. What I find interesting about Allegro, I mean, I think he was not very smart about how he went about all this. And I mean, there are many stories you could tell about it. I mean, but I won't go into that.
But what's interesting is that at the end of Allegro's book, is an enormous appendix with the philological comparisons of ancient languages. And that's what he knows. That's what he does.
And I wonder whether anybody has ever, with the expertise, to read these languages, has ever bothered to actually read that appendix and actually study it and evaluates the arguments on the philological basis that Allegro himself was insistent on.
And I'm not saying that then, suddenly, he will prove to be right. Far from it. I think that from what I understand of it, I think it's a wildly improbable kind of hypothesis. Nevertheless, it rests, according to himself, on a very, very technical philological basis that as far as I can tell, nobody has ever bothered to study.
And it would be-- it would be nice. It would be good to find somebody who has those languages who can spend a couple of weeks, basically, at least, analyzing this, and saying, OK, this is what he does. And maybe this is where he goes wrong, and this is where he over-interprets, et cetera. et cetera. But the work has to be done. And it hasn't been done as far as I know.
CHARLES STANG: Wouter, I want to give the last slot-- I think this-- I think this question will take some time to answer, so it may be the last-- to our very own--
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: I don't think I will hurry you.
CHARLES STANG: OK. Great. That's wonderful. Mimi Winick is WSRP research associate here at HDS. And it's also part of a reading group that Christian and I are in. So she knows-- she's been part of our conversations, actually about psychedelics in the ancient world, among other things. Here's her question. It's about the place of your research in intellectual history.
She asks, or she says, I really appreciated your account of the apotropaic terms historically used to refer to texts like the Mithras Liturgy. And it leads me to ask, why do you think scholars like yourself and me are turning to these research questions now? Part of it seems to be the so-called second wave of psychedelic research in the sciences.
Maybe the humanities are catching up. But thinking of the humanities and your account of how magic was introduced in translations in ways that delegitimize these ancient texts and protected scholars from association with them, what role have critiques of the construction of magic and other forms of so-called bad religion played in these research developments? How important are they to you?
So in some sense, it's an invitation to historicize yourself or for us to historicize ourselves, why are we taking this material seriously in a way that scholars for generations distanced themselves from it? Can we turn that gaze on ourselves?
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: That's a fascinating question. Why are we doing this? Let me say first--
CHARLES STANG: Christian, too, may have thought on this.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Yeah, yeah. Well, OK. Most of my work is in the study of Western esotericism. And Western esotericism, the way I understand it, and what I define it, is basically, the reservoir of rejected knowledge in Western culture. And I mean, we've rejected knowledge, I mean, not anything that has been rejected at any time.
But what I mean is the whole reservoir or the waste basket, as I call it, of stuff that has been discarded, dismissed, since the 18th century, basically, with the rise of the Enlightenment and academic professionalization, et cetera.
So I feel that it's important to put all this stuff that has been discarded as rubbish and nonsense and so on back on the table and study it seriously, not in order to say that this stuff [INAUDIBLE] some rights or anything like that. It's not an apologetic agenda. But it's about saying, listen, this is a very important part of Western culture, a part that we have-- not been taken seriously.
And if you actually bring it back on the table, and you reintroduce it into our set of narratives of what's Western culture is all about, then you find that this completely changes the picture of our culture, of the culture, and our-- I speak now of people in let's say, Europe, America. I mean this is a bit of a Western-centric kind of perspective.
Where does that come from? Where does our culture come from? Where does our history come from? And I think that we've been fed completely misleading narratives for generations about Western culture as a whole. That has to be thoroughly revised.
One way of doing that is by reintroducing all this rejected stuff. And that's what I'm trying to do. And why does that become easier nowadays? And why are people more open to that than in the past? I think this has partly has to do with the new kind of maybe, if you will, kind of a postmodern-- are suspicious of the grand narratives, and the grand narratives of modernization, of progress, of imperialism, you name it.
All this triumphant grand narratives are quite rightly being criticized. And so we are looking for other alternative, or other narratives, for looking at what has been dismissed incorrectly, what have overlooked and so on. And how can we make sense in a different way of Western culture? This is how I would see it.
And I think this-- it seems to me that whether it's explicit or perhaps even conscious or not, I think a lot of scholars nowadays are interested in these things because of a perceived lack of convincingness, if that's a good word, in how we think about Western culture, basically. And so it has to be, as far as I'm concerned, it has to be reconstructed completely.
I'm not in favor of deconstructing Western culture entirely. I'm In favor of reconstructing it by seeing it in a different way. So one way I do that is by looking at esoteric stuff that has been rejected, and putting it back on the table and then see how the narrative changes. And I think psychedelics is another aspect. Not psychedelics as such, but altered state of consciousness, more particularly.
And at the moment, I'm finishing a book on the hermetic spirituality, psychology in antiquity. This, what I can talk about this, is part of the book basically. And this current is all about gnosis the search for direct spiritual knowledge that is impossible to express in words and so on, gnosis, higher or absolute knowledge, spiritual knowledge.
And I do not think that's all the generations of scholars were very well equipped to actually even approach that question of what gnosis is all about because experience, and religious experience-- well, let me be careful about what I say-- religious experience was not placed at the center of attention in the way it should be.
And I have to be careful here because there has been a lot of discussion of religious experience in [INAUDIBLE]. But then, the discussion was always about the religious experience, like a universal thing. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is taking experiential dimensions and the practices that go with it very seriously and putting them in the center of the materials that we study.
So at the moment when I'm studying the hermetica. I'm not studying them as philosophical texts primarily. I'm studying them as testimonies of spiritual practices in which experiential phenomena are central. And so I think that's another aspect of the puzzle.
And I'm still-- hopefully, I'm still answering the question. Because the whole-- taking this kind of radical experiences seriously, well, that has some that has become more or less taboo, more or less, with the rise of Christianity, basically. Because if you have such experiences, they must be acceptable in an orthodox framework.
And if they do not fit there-- you can do it in a monastery, you can have mystical experiences whether you are-- whether you are a nun or a monk and so on, but if you're not, then it might be illegitimate. And so the whole range of direct spiritual experience like visions, et cetera, I think has been neglected as a kind of another form. Of rejected knowledge for far too long.
So that's another part of the puzzle. So I'm looking at the rejected knowledge. And I'm looking at the rejected forms of spiritual experience, if you will, and their role in history. And once you start looking at them, then the picture starts to change. And antiquity doesn't look the same anymore, and so on. It doesn't look the same anymore. It becomes a different thing.
So I hope I'm still answering the question. What I mean is that why is it important, and why do I think it's important, it is considered important, hopefully, by more and more people, is because we have to revise our concepts of history radically, and I mean, especially cultural history.
And I'm talking here now of Western culture. But of course, you could make the same argument for other cultures all over the world. And it has to be revised and questioned and reconstructed in a very fundamental way. And this is part of it. That's a way of [? seeing ?] it.
CHARLES STANG: Christian, do you want to take a stab at Mimi's question?
CHRISTIAN GREER: Yes. Once again, I'd like to thank me for offering such a pointed question. I also think there's been major changes within the academy in the last 70 years. I'm thinking, for example, of Frances Yates' contribution to Renaissance scholarship. I think you've had a number of very bold scholars present alternative thesis with irrefutable evidence.
Now there is problems with Francis Yates' work. I think Wouter, you've written about this. However, the claim is nonetheless important of recognizing alternative forms of spirituality as key to Western culture and its development. And when we start recognizing some of these aspects, they open up other fields of experience. And all of a sudden, we have a reworking of the canon.
And I think that that's what makes scholarship so fascinating. The story is not over. In fact, it's always going to be rewritten when new people are brought into the academy, new perspectives, new backgrounds. And so that's why I'm very enthusiastic about the history of the study of weird things, the history of the study of psychedelics, and the future of a religion.
Because far from having a clear view, I think it is scholarship like Wouter's and yours, Charles, that is allowing us to review history in ways that reveal our everyday life, I think, in a more complex way, revealing the complexities that we gloss over today.
That's the value of-- people can ask, oh, why study the ancient world? It's precisely through these interventions that everyday life today becomes clearer. So that would be my argument in a nutshell.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Yeah, absolutely. This is exactly what I was trying to say. I mean, one example, Plato. I just talked about platonic thinkers. We have a lot of ideas about Plato. I think there's whole dimensions of Platonism that we haven't understood yet. And this is one of the most fundamental traditions, foundations, of Western culture.
And I think are aspects of it that we have hardly begun to understand in spite of libraries full of scholarship. And a lot of things we understand extremely well, but other aspects we don't. And like I said, it's one of the foundations of our culture.
And there are many examples like those. I mean, by the way, when you mentioned the term alternative spiritualities or alternative, you know, that in itself is already a telltale term. I mean, we think of alternative with respect to the normative. But what's the normative? This is not actually-- this is not actually about alternative spirituality. It's about something more radical.
It's similar to-- I mean, the terminology that is being used nowadays, of occulture. And Christopher Partridge will talk about occulture is ordinary. And what it means is that this is not alternative, strange, weird stuff for outsiders at the margins of society. It was all over the place. It was normal. It was ordinary.
And so also, alternative spiritualities, I think, in many cases, were perhaps not so alternative at all. But today we may have made an alternative because we were not interested, and we have other agendas. So yeah. So there's work to be done.
CHARLES STANG: You know, I'm reflecting on this question myself. And I think I was initiated into the study of antiquity first through a very Christian frame, that is, I'm studying early Christianity. And I found myself drawn to mysticism and metaphysics. And certainly, there's ample archives of extraordinary experiences. And I was encouraged to lean into those.
But to keep that world at arm's length or to keep that distant from the contemporary world, where people are doing extraordinary ecstatic practices, having extraordinary experiences, developing mystical paths and metaphysical frames to understand them, but at a certain point, I realized I couldn't keep-- I didn't have any good reason to exclude the contemporary. And I had to account for my present.
And that changed my reading of the past in this way. Because today, because psychedelics and entheogens have become such a central part of our culture's conversation about mysticism and metaphysics, then I thought-- then I became interested in whether that was recoverable in antiquity.
And I think now I feel between a rock and a hard place. Because on the one hand, there are the older generations of scholars who still persist in regarding this as an illicit question. They want us now just to put it in the dust bin of rejected knowledge.
On the other hand, you have enthusiasts who are prone to overexaggerate the evidence and create narratives. But I don't think, actually, really help our appreciation of psychedelics in antiquity, or really, at any time. And so you end up, really, between these two communities. And it's not always easy.
And I feel that actually, that this series has become-- performed that, where we have-- especially people who are frustrated with scholars not willing to go far enough, or presuming scholars are squares and don't have any access to the altered states of consciousness. They know nothing of what they speak. We're just bookworms. And that's fine. But that's not-- that's not actually any more accurate than the demonization of psychedelics.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Oh, absolutely. And yeah. I think that scholarship should be courageous. I mean, we are after knowledge. I don't believe at all in the kind of fashionable idea that knowledge is a chimera, or something like that. We offer knowledge. We try to understand. We try to understand and to learn and to gain knowledge.
And in order to do that, our commitments should not be to what our colleagues think of it, or whether people think this is crazy, our commitment-- I mean, I'm using big words here-- but our commitment is to the truth. And yeah, we have to find out, to get a little bit closer to the truth about these matters. And that is what we need to do. That's our job.
And yeah. You know, I like what you say about the contemporary perspective and how this relates to-- you know, I'm a big fan and a big admirer of the German philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer who is really a big inspiration to me.
And I thought about that. I mean, you cannot reach these ancient texts without your own horizon, in his terms. You need your own contemporary horizon in order to even be able to read anything at all, and which means that you always bring your own prejudice in reading those texts. But prejudice is actually a creative force in reading ancient texts.
And then you have to challenge, you have to allow these texts to challenge your own prejudices, and to challenge your own horizon and expand your horizon. And then you expand your horizon, and you look at these ancient texts again, and you read them different again. And then they keep challenging your writing.
And in this way, you get into this hermeneutical circle. And you learn more about yourself as you'll learn more about antiquity, in this case. And I think it's been-- I think you cannot, I think it's an illusion to think that you can study only antiquity, or antiquity, while leaving your contemporary perspective out of the door. That's just methodologically naive.
But at the same time, that is also another recipe for forgetting the enormous difference between our own prejudices and in this case, antiquity. And because we have to realize how incredibly different these cultures were from ours.
But that encounter between what we know, the familiarity of our culture, and the unfamiliarity of something very far, far away, that encounter, that's where you can learn. That's where the-- where the development comes. Because it challenges us, and it challenges us to look at a different way at what's happened then. And that for me, is all the excitement.
CHARLES STANG: I think that's a wonderful place to end with the invitation, to allow yourself to be challenged, and allow yourself to be challenged by something that don't immediately domesticate something from the far past or from another culture to the certainty of your own frame, whether that is a materialist frame, whether it's a secular, materialist, or whether it's a wild, psychedelic frame, and you feel like you have certain access to the truth.
Show some humility and approach these topics with curiosity and wonder, but also humility. And I think, Wouter, you have modeled that with these ancient texts today, and that oscillating between antiquity and modernity, between the ancient and the contemporary.
So listen, I want to say, thank you all for hanging in there. There's 165 souls who are still with us. Thank you for attending. And Christian, thank you for introducing Wouter. It's wonderful to have you both on the screen.
The next event in the series will actually be Christian's to host. I mentioned it earlier, Between Sacred and the Profane. It will have to do with psychedelic culture in contemporary America.
So once again. Wouter, thank you so much. And I will be in touch. We will be in touch because I think our paths are going to cross and recrossed many times, or so I hope.
WOUTER HANEGRAAFF: Well, thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be here. I really enjoyed this. And thank you for having me. Yeah. We'll stay in touch, definitely.