Jack's Note: While attempting to write an article on distinctions between ancient magic and religion, I've decided to blog about the areas where the two subjects coincide to illustrate that the line between the subjects was far more permeable, and far more interesting than many people realize. This is more for my own peace of mind – so I don't derail what little I have to say in the article – than for any other reason. I do hope, however, that long time readers of my blog find it interesting. Also, the title of this article exists primarily for my own amusement.
A Cult with Heavenly Lamps.
Between 1965 and 1970, an excavation by a team from University of Texas headed by James Wiseman made an interesting discovery in the ancient city of Corinth: it was an underground bath, filled to the brim with terra-cotta lamps!
The excavators took to calling the remains the Fountain of the Lamps, and all things told they found over four thousand of the lamps. David Jordan, in his excellent article Inscribed Lamps from a Cult at Corinth in Late Antiquity, writes:
“The strikingly large number of lamps suggested to the excavators some after-dark cult that evidently practiced there for almost a hundred years until around the middle of the sixth century, when either an earth-quake or human efforts sealed off the entrance to the room. […] Four of the lamps have graffiti, the texts of which, as published by James Wiseman, invoke angels and Eros and mention Jesus and Jews. ”
We will return to Wiseman's inscribed lamps in time, but for now just let that information settle into the back of your mind.
|Asklepios visits a dreamer at his temple.|
“What did it mean for a real flesh-and-blood person in ancient Greece - not some Mythical or Legendary figure - to make a journey consciously, deliberately, knowingly into another world?
And in particularly: how could such a person go down or claim to go down into the world of death while still alive, touch the powers that live there, learn from them, and then come back to the world of the living?
The answer is extremely simple.
There was a specific and established technique among various groups of people for making the journey to the world of the dead; for dying before you died.
It involved isolating yourself in a dark place, lying down in complete stillness, staying motionless for hours or days. First the body would go silent, then eventually the mind. And this stillness is what gave access to another world, a world of utter paradox; to a totally different state of awareness. Sometimes that state was described as a kind of dream. Sometimes it was referred to as like a dream but not a dream, as really a third type of consciousness quite different from either waking or sleeping.
There used to be a whole technical language associated with the procedure; an entire mythical geography. And there was a name that the Greeks, and then the Romans, gave to this technique.
They called it Incubation.”
— Peter Kingsley, Reality. (P. 30 - 31.)
One might pause here to note that Kingsley has conflated Katabasis (“to go down”) rites aimed at the Underworld and Incubation, but the practices were readily interchangeable and this tendency can be at least apologized for. Despite this:
It was extremely wide spread and best associated with the cult of Asklepios, who made use of it for the purposes of healing. An excellent report on the 'dreams' provided by sleeping on the floor of Asklepios' temple is one such as this:
“(I dreamed) that I should proceed in the following way: first, mounting the chariot, I should go to the river which flows through the city and then, when I reached the spot where it leaves the city, I should perform the ἱερἀ ἐπιβόθρια [i.e., sacrifices in the ritual pits]; for thus he [s.c. Asclepius] named these rites. Having dug the pits, then, I should perform the sacred rites over them to whomever of the gods it is most fitting. Next, turning back and taking up small coins, I should cross the river and throw them away. And I believe he gave me some other instructions in addition to these. Afterwards, I should go to the holy shrine and offer perfect sacrificial animals to Asclepius and set up holy craters and distribute holy portions to all the fellow-pilgrims. And (he indicated) that it was also imperative to cut off part of the body itself in behalf of the safety of the whole. This, however, would be too great a demand, and from it he would exempt me. Instead, I should take off the ring which I was wearing and offer it to Telesphorus. For this would do the same as if I offered the finger itself. Furthermore, I should inscribe on the band of the ring “Son of Cronus.” After this there would be salvation.”
— Aristides, Oratio XLVIII. 27
Daniel Ogden notes that it was probably one of the most common psychic tactics for contacting ghosts (of all varieties) in the ancient world:
“But what “really” happened after a consulter had performed his rites at the tomb? How did he experience the ghost? There is no direct evidence, but there is a strong circumstantial case for believing that he went to sleep and dreamed (“incubation”), perhaps on top of the tomb, and perhaps on the flece of the sheep that he had just jugulated for the ghost and immolated for the nether gods. Curiously, the Greeks and Romans tended to attribute the practice of incubation on the tombs of the ordinary dead to other races or religions, but in so doing at least demonstrated their familiarity with the custom. It is ascribed to the Libyan Nasamones (first by Herodotus) and Augilae, the Celts, and eventually, in the fifth century A.D., to the Christians and Jews. The Pythagorean Apollonius of Tyana's consultation of Achilles coincided with him spending the night on his barrow; Philostratus implies that he slept there (enucheusein). Plutarch's tale of the Pythagoreans discussed above may imply that Theanor slept at Lysis's tomb to receive his prophecy; Pythagoras had himself wittily affirmed that the dead spoke to the living in dreams. [...]”
— Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy. (P. 11.)
Later on, when discussing the tactic more extensively, he adds:
“It is not surprising that ghosts should have been sought in dreams,since they often visited the living spontaneously in this way. This was, for example, how Patroclus appeared to Achilles in the Iliad, how Diapontius appeared to Philoaches in Plautus's Mostellaria, and how his dead son visited Epicrates in the first-century A.D. Nakrason in Asia Minor.”
— (Ibid, P. 75.)
To this we might add that the most likely event that took place when one approached the Trophonius' katabastion (“place of descent”), was that following specific rites such as the offering honey-cakes to the snakes that inhabited the cavern, one most likely slept. Indeed, the situation becomes all the more interesting when one takes a glance over at Peter Kingsley's Reality and In the Dark Places of Wisdom. In both of those works he traces incubation practices to the cult of Apollo. In particular, he connects the practices to the Iatromantis and the cult of Apollo Oulios (“Apollo the Destroyer”; Kingsley indicates this can also be understood as “Apollo the Healer”)!
“Iatromantis figures were a breed apart among the ancient Greeks.They were specialists at invoking other states of awareness, in themselves and others.And apart from being famous because of their poetry, one particularly technique they were well known for was the incantatory device of repeating the same words.This point has very real significance. You may have noticed that at the start of his poem Parmenides keeps on repeating the same words over and over again.”
— Kingsley, Reality (P. 34.)
By Kingsley contention – and I suspect his more correct than incorrect, his reliance on Harrison's Themis aside – Parmenides proem is not merely a quaint story where a Goddess explains Reality Itself to a dumb mortal. It is far, far more: if Kingsley is correct, it is one of the most ancient Incubation reports we have available, and it demonstrates just how far the practices had spread. It was being used by those visiting necromantic oracles, by those incubating the ghosts of heroes on their tombs, by the cult of Asklepios, and by the Iatromantis figures who were adepts at incantatory poetry!
And there is another group who was using such rituals, one that long-time readers of this blog have probably already guessed about: the itinerant magicians and Goetes who wandered the ancient world.
Lamp (Corinth Type XXIV), 1st century A.D.
Ceramic. (Note: this is a lamp from Corinth, but not one of the inscribed ones discussed above and below.)
Magic Lamps & Underworld Descents
There are a number of magical spells from the PGM for inspiring a 'direct vision.' These manipulate all manner of impliments to cause the spell to work, ranging from words written on leaves or recited over seeds, to inscribed magical lamps whose light inspires magical visions when one sleeps beneath them.
One of these that I have mentioned before occurs in PGM LXX. 4 – 25:
“ASKEI KATASKEI ERŌN OREŌN IŌR MEGA SAMNYĒR BAUI (3 times) PHROBANTIA SEMNĒ, I have been initiated, I went down into the underground chamber of the Dactyls, and I saw the other things down below, virgin, bitch, and all the rest.” Say it at a crossroad, turn around and flee, because it is at those places that she appears. Saying it late at night about what you wish, it will reveal it in your sleep; and if you are led away to death, say it while scattering the seeds of sesame, and it will save you.”
— Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (P. 297.)
Betz, in his Fragments from a Catabasis Ritual in a Greek Magical Papyrus, suggests that it fell into magical hands through the mystery schools and that it has Orphic elements. This, rather than Georg Luck's suggestion that it may be an invocation of Orpheus, seems rather likely.
Of key note are the lines:
“Saying it late at night about what you wish, it will reveal it in your sleep; and if you are led away to death, say it while scattering the seeds of sesame, and it will save you.”
In conjunction with these lines, Betz himself states that:
“Parallels in the Greek catabasis literature, however, show that the phrase points to a situation in the netherworld, where visitors must expect sudden attacks by underworld demons in charge of the punishments. Protection against such attacks is advisable for those who dare enter the land of Hades, whether as visitors or on that last journey of the soul. At the moment of such an attack, the operator is advised to identify himself with the goddess Ereschigal by pronouncing this formula [...]”
We find a similar dual purpose in the inscriptions left behind at Corinth: some appear to be requests for benevolence and aid, while others themselves salute Deities and Angels:
The above is the first inscription, and not terribly interesting, despite the reference to Angels and water. I include it just for the sake of doing so, frankly.
The second, however, is far more fascinating and finds a direct parallel in the PGM:
This inscription, dedicated to Sabaoth (“Lord of the Hosts”) and the Angels is paralleled in PGM VII. 1009-16 (to be inscribed on Laurel leaves rather than on a lamp):
“I call upon [you], SABAŌTH, Michael, Raphael and you, [powerful archangel] Gabriel, do not [simply] pass by me [as you bring visions], but let one of you enter I and reveal [to me] concerning the NN matter, AIAI ACHĒNĒ IAŌ.” Write these things [on leaves …] of laurel and place them by your head.“— (“Divination By Means of a Boy.” Betz, P. 145)
The third and final inscription is one of the most intriguing, given that it falls outside the two above:
My suggestion as to what the cult was practicing, given the parallels, is that it was divine and angelic incubation using the lamps in the bath as mediatory devices. I could, of course, quote at least a dozen more PGM spells for the lamps (those with the time, check out PGM I. 262 - 347 for a lamp dedicated to Apollo that will allow you to “summon heavenly gods and chthonic daimons”) comparisons and how they tie together, but it would become tedious and boring. Chances are, I will revisit this topic again, anyway.
Now, given the above: if we have early Christian cultists, magicians of varying stripes, and all manner of mystics and poetry fueled madmen performing incubation, katabasis descents and the like is this: where do we draw the line at what is 'religious' and what is 'magical'?
I'll return to this question again if I visit several other topics it occurs when I think about, but the question itself plagues me. Where did the lines between mysticism, religion, and magic get drawn? And, in light of actual historical evidence, do they appear to be nothing more than arbitrary lines in the sand to anyone else?
Be seeing you,