Chaldean Oracles

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The Chaldean Oracles are a body of literature that consists mainly of Greek commentary on a single mystery-poem that was believed to have originated in Chaldea (Babylon).

Origin

The Chaldean Oracles were very likely composed by Julian the Theurgist, who served in the Roman army during Marcus Aurelius' campaign against the Quadi. Julian claimed to have saved the Roman camp from fiery destruction by causing a rainstorm (Dillon, pp. 392-393). The circumstances surrounding the writing of the Oracles are mysterious, the most likely explanation being that Julian uttered them after inducing a sort of trance akin to that of the classical oracles of Greece.

Whether or not they were composed by Julian, the oracles are mainly a product of Hellenistic (and more precisely Alexandrian) syncretism, and are believed to embody many of the principal features of Chaldean philosophy. They have come down to us through Greek translations and were held in the greatest esteem throughout antiquity, a sentiment which was shared alike by the early Christian Fathers and the later Platonists. The doctrines contained therein have been attributed by some to Zoroaster.

The date of the writing of the poem is not known. The problem is the same as that which confronts us in the Trismegistic literature, which can be pushed back in an unbroken line to the early years of the Ptolemaic period. Still, some believe the poem can be placed somewhere in the first or second century AD.

Importance of the Oracles

In her intimate contact with the Orient, Greece freely united with the mysterious and enthusiastic cults and wisdom-traditions of other nations. They became very industrious in philosophizing the mythology and religions, as well as the oracular utterances and initiatory lore, of other nations. The two nations that made the deepest impression on Greek thinkers were Egypt and Chaldea. Philosophy originating from these two areas was regarded as possessing knowledge transmitted from the most ancient wisdom traditions.

Chaldea is the term the ancient Greeks used for Babylon. It is the way they transliterated the Assyrian name Kaldū, which was an area that lay southeast of Babylonia on what was then the seacoast. The term "Oracles" was probably bestowed upon these writings to arouse the sense of their having a profound and deeply mysterious nature. The Chaldeans were known, however, to have had an Oracle that they venerated as highly as the Greeks did the one at Delphi.

In Egypt, the attempt to philosophize ancient religious content resulted mainly in the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The Chaldean Oracles are a parallel endeavour, on a smaller scale, to philosophize the wisdom of Chaldea. However, instead of having prose writings like those that came out of Egypt, the Chaldean Oracles originated from the fragments of a single mystery-poem, which has not been entirely preserved. By far the greatest number of the poem's known fragments are found in the books of the later Platonic philosophers, who from the time of Porphyry, and probably that of Plotinus, held these Oracles in the highest estimation. Iamblichus of Syria referred frequently to the Oracles and mingled their ideas with his own.

Metaphysics of the Oracles

The metaphysical schema of the Chaldaean Oracles begins with an absolutely transcendent deity called Father, with whom resides Power, a productive principle from which it appears Intellect proceeds. This Intellect has a two-fold function, to contemplate the Forms of the purely intellectual realm of the Father, and to craft and govern the material realm. In this latter capacity the Intellect is Demiurge.

The Oracles further posit a barrier between the intellectual and the material realm, personified as Hecate. In the capacity of barrier, or more properly "membrane", Hecate separates the two 'fires,' i.e., the purely intellectual fire of the Father, and the material fire from which the cosmos is created, and mediates all divine influence upon the lower realm.

From Hecate is derived the World-Soul, which in turn emanates Nature, the governor of the sub-lunar realm (Dillon, p. 394-395). From Nature is derived Fate, which is capable of enslaving the lower part of the human soul. The goal of existence then is to purify the lower soul of all contact with Nature and Fate by living a life of austerity and contemplation. Salvation is achieved by an ascent through the planetary spheres, during which the soul casts off the various aspects of its lower soul, and becomes pure intellect.

References

  • Wikipedia (2005). Chaldean Oracles. Retrieved July 11, 2005.
    • Dillon, J.M., The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977).

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