Monday, January 16, 2012

The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster

Book Review: The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster  (compiled) by W. Wynn Westcott (1895) – based on translations by 18th century Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor

The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster are basically a collection of aphorisms and cosmological principles said to have been originally collected from the Chaldean, or Babylonian/Persian Wisdom tradition. They were collected and published in the Renaissance. Their origin in Chaldea and association with Zoroaster has been disputed. They were admired and expanded on by Neoplatonists such as Porphyry, Plotinus, and Iamblichus of Syria. It is thought that they form a Hellenistic Age Alexandrian synthesis similar to the lore associated with Hermes Trismegistus. They are thought to be fragmentary and probably “bastardized” with later Neoplatonist ideas. There are apparently several varying versions of the text from the Renaissance and Westcott does well to note which phrases came from which versions to some extent. Some of the adages may be as late as Renaissance time as some suggest. I must also say that I found them to be quite cryptic. Cosmological principles can be cryptic as it is but these seem jumbled around as well. It is nice to read the text as is but would perhaps be more useful with commentary, although preferably with detailed commentary with someone knowledgeable both philosophically and academically, knowing both the esoteric tradition and the continuing history of the peoples and places involved. Westcott was a Theosophist and Golden Dawn Hermeticist so his introduction is helpful and I guess he does provide some pretty useful line by line commentary.

Some of the early part has cosmological principles similar in styles and layout to the Hebrew Qabala and there may well be a connection. Whether the Oracles influenced the Qabala or vice versa is unknown but I think the Jews’ captivity in Babylon and subsequent liberation by Cyrus the Persian emperor had a profound influence on their doctrines and Qabalistic doctrine may have may have emerged from such a synthesis.

The translations come from the Greek. Zoroaster may have been a generic term for “Prince of the Magi” and may have referred to any of six teachers varying widely in time as Westcott notes. Westcott lists the available versions from 1563 to 1835, about 13 in all, some which included some commentary. Chaldean thought is thought to have had a big influence on Ancient Greek thought – perhaps even influencing Plato. The same has been noted concerning Persian ideas and forms. Babylonian astronomy and philosophy was said to be transferred by Berosus but that may have been the “official” version of things.

Taylor divided the aphorisms into those thought to have been produced by a “Zoroaster” from antiquity and those thought to have been composed by Julian and other Neoplatonic Theurgists during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Antonius who took their authority from Plotinus. Attributing to them the word “oracles” is thought to have been an honorific term to give them a sense of sacredness rather than to be oracular though the Chaldeans are certainly thought to have had oracles and omens – especially astronomical ones – they being the likely originators of predictive astrology.

From Diodorus, it is noted in the intro that Chaldean philosophical wisdom was passed from father to son in family lineages of Magi. Westcott notes that it is best studied in relation to Qabalah and Tarot symbolism. He provides comparison tables of the Four Worlds of the Qabalistic framework to the World/Minds of the Chaldean system. The comparisons, while not exact – have some clear parallels. Both are oriented from subtle to gross, from unmanifest to manifest, not too unlike the Vedic cosmology which may have been their distant source. No doubt Westcott noticed this among similar schemes in Theosophy. The World of Supramundane Light, or Paternal Depth/First Mind corresponds to the Qabalistic World of Atziluth, or God, which is composed of Ain, Ain Soph, and Ain Soph Aur (Negativity, Limitless, and Limitless Light). The parallel of Light is most pronounced here. The  Empyrean World, or Second Mind of the Chaldean system is linked with the Qabalistic World of Briah, composed of the Three Supernals, the sephira Kether, Chokmah, and Binah. The Chaldean Ethereal World is corresponded to the World of Yetzira, or Formation. The Elementary World, called the Flower of Fire in the Chaldean System, as the Earth Matter, is a clear parallel to the World of Assiah, the Earth Matter of Qabala which contains the sepheroth Malkuth.

The Chaldean scheme of beings or hierarchy of intelligences in the universe goes from Archangels to unzoned gods to zoned gods (zonei, or planetary gods) to higher demons , ie. Angels to human souls then to lower elementals of the four types and finally to the so-called evil demons, Lucifugous, or kliphoth.

There is a notion of the seven spheres (indeed the seven being a powerful Babylonian number), one emanating from the Empyreal World, and three each in the Ethereal and Elemental Worlds. These are said to be not the same as the seven planetary forces, though the planetary forces are said to represent them on a lower plane.

“The Oracles speak of the "Paths of the Soul," the tracings of inflexible fire by which its essential parts are associated in integrity; while its various "summits," "fountains," and "vehicula," are all traceable by analogy with universal principles.”

Each of the Worlds is said to be ruled by an intelligence, a Monad, but also to contain a Triad. The Monads of the Four Worlds has a clear parallel in the Qabala where the worlds are represented by the four letter name of God as Tetragramaton with a president for each letter.

Psellus, one of the later interpreters of the oracles considered man to be composed of three kinds of souls: divine soul, rational soul, and irrational (passional) soul – residing according to Plato’s scheme in the head, heart, and stomach zone respectively. The divine soul is considered immortal, the rational soul could become immortal, and the irrational soul is equated to the astral body. If one considers it – this is not far off from soul component conceptions among Eurasian shamanic traditions. Spiritual life is more or less concentration on the subtle soul work and not getting caught up in the wiles and passions of the irrational soul. The astral or irrational soul was equated to the imaginal realm and lunar sphere (as in Qabala).

Chaldean Theurgy was said to involve communicational magic with planetary forces and star clusters (constellations) in a sort of celestial yoga:

“Unto the Planets, too, colour and sound were also attributed;, the planetary colours are connected with the ethers, and each of the Planetary forces was said to have special dominion over, or affinity with, one or other of the Zodiacal constellations. Communion with the hierarchies of these constellations formed part of the Chaldæan theurgy, and in a curious fragment it is said: "If thou often invokest it" (the celestial constellation called the Lion) "then when no longer is visible unto thee the Vault of the Heavens, when the Stars have lost their light the lamp of the Moon is veiled, the Earth abideth not, and around thee darts the lightning flame, then all things will appear to thee in the form of a Lion!"

Perhaps this is the source of Crowley’s injunction to “Invoke often.”

Visions and oracles from dreams were watched closely. The Chaldeans may well have had a well developed notion of karma as cause and effect link to the soul’s path through live(s). The Chaldean Magi were said to be ascetics of a sort – though Zoroastrianism itself was less ascetic in nature. They were said to live simple lives close to nature and be nourished on cheese, herbs, and bread. The so-called Persian Magi may have originally been the Medians subjugated by the Persians from the south and so have had a different philosophical bent than the Zoroastrian Persians of the empire. Chaldea also came to include Persia and Arabia in later times. The notions of the dualistic battle between light and darkness inherent in both Zoroastrian and Gnostic lore is also present in the Oracles.

The importance of Will in the Yogic/Alchemical process of Theurgy is recounted here in the intro:
“Will is the grand agent in the mystic progress; its rule is all potent over the nervous system. By Will the fleeting vision is fixed on the treacherous waves of the astral Light; by Will the consciousness is impelled to commune with the divinity: yet there is not One Will, but three Wills--the Wills, namely, of the Divine, the Rational and Irrational Souls--to harmonize these is the difficulty.”

The chapters are arranged as: The Oracles of Zoroaster, Ideas, Particular Souls, Matter, Magical and Philosophical Precepts, and Oracles From Porphyry.

The first oracle notes God as having the head of a hawk in both elder and younger forms. Westcott links this to the Egyptian Horus: there was both an elder Horus and a Horus the younger so two forms of Horus. Taylor linked this oracle with later Theurgists and the God with Kronos, or Saturn, though the Horus linkage is rather infallible one would think. This unbegotten God is said to emanate a spiral force. The Eternal Aeon is mentioned as a support for life. This is a bit similar to the Thelemic renderings of Pan-Aeonic forces – or the all-pervading Aeon that transcends time. As the first of rather obvious Hellenistic deity syncretism we see the oracle:

“6. The Chaldæans call the God Dionysos (or Bacchus), Iao in the Phœnician tongue (instead of the Intelligible Light), and he is also called Sabaoth, signifying that he is above the Seven poles, that is the Demiurgos.”

IAO is a magickal formula used extensively in Crowley’s Thelemic system.

The various levels of souls emanating from the Paternal Mind are said be feminine and fiery. The Three Supernals are even mentioned by name and one would have to assume that this refers to that World of the Qabala. There is recounted the unfolding of Monad, Dyad, and Triad in the manner of Neoplatonism and here Westcott makes a note:

“What the Pythagoreans signify by Monad, Duad and Triad, or Plato by Bound, Infinite and Mixed; that the Oracles of the Gods intend by Hyparxis, Power and Energy." 

Regarding the section on Ideas we have notions of the soul, the senses, and symbols entering the world from the Paternal Intellect (guarded by the Three Supernals?). As in Platonism all emanates from the One, the Monad, so this all seems to follow the Platonic Monotheistic system. This descent seems to coincide with the breakup of the One into subject-object dualism, not unlike the Indian notions.

Concerning the Triad of the Second World Westcott offers the following commentary:

“The Second Order of the Platonist philosophy was the "Intelligible and Intellectual Triad." Among the Chaldæans this order includes the Iynges, Synoches and Teletarchs. The Intellectual Triad of the later Platonists corresponds to the Fountains, Fontal Fathers or Cosmagogi of the Chaldæans.”

Here are also introduced some curious Hellenic symbolatry of the bosoms of both Hecate and Rhea which carry the “Life Bearing Fire.” Hecate is mentioned several times in this regard. Also in the section explaining the world of the lower elementals we see from Greek mythology that Python, Typhon, and Echidna, being the children of Gaia and Tartaros, and being united by Uranos, are given guardianship of the disordered lower forces after a similar Chaldean Triad not mentioned. Irrational demons and Water elementals are also mentioned.

This God as Father is referred to as animator – placing Mind in the Soul and both of these in the human body. In the Soul he placed symbols. The “Divine Spark” is said to have been made from a mingling of Mind, Divine Spirit, and Holy Love.

Here is an Oracle given in the words of Proclus:

“98. The Oracles delivered by the Gods celebrate the essential fountain of every Soul; the Empyrean, the Ethereal and the Material. This fountain they separate from (Zoogonothea) the vivifying Goddess (Rhea), from whom (suspending the whole of Fate) they make two series or orders; the one animastic, or belonging to the Soul, and the other belonging to Fate. They assert that the Soul is derived front the animastic series, but that sometimes it becometh subservient to Fate, when passing into an irrational condition of being,. it becometh subject to Fate instead of to Providence.”

The section on Matter concerns the orders of the elements and the heavenly bodies. Nymphs and water are associated with the lunar and celestial, filling the abysses – as matter pervades the world. There is mention of ‘The Seven Firmaments of the Kosmos’ which we see in Hermetic/Neoplatonic/Alchemical diagrams. Kronos is given as the Sun Assessor and as the pole lord. The Goddess (I am assuming Rhea here) collects the cycles of the “chiefs of the air”: the Melody of the Ether, the Sun, and the Spirit of the Moon.
In the section on Precepts which is quite cryptic in parts we see that placing too much faith in divination is discouraged. We see the Gnostic style revulsion of the darkness:

“145. Stoop not down unto the Darkly-Splendid World; wherein continually lieth a faithless Depth, and Hades wrapped in clouds, delighting in unintellible images, precipitous, winding, a black ever-rolling Abyss; ever espousing a Body unluminous, formless and void.

146. Stoop not down, for a precipice lieth beneath the Earth, reached by a descending Ladder which hath Seven Steps, and therein is established the Throne of an evil and fatal force.”

Here we can perhaps see the earliest renderings that later became the Judeo-Christian-Islamic notions of Hell. These notions are well thought to have been derived from Persian dualism. The seven steps seem reminiscent of the Ziggurat in reverse or with Inanna’s descent.

There is mention of the barbarous Names of Evocation and the injunction not to change them – which securely places the Theurgists in the ceremonial magic tradition. Divinity (at least at the 3 lower souls level) in the form of fire or sacred fire emanating from Divinity rather squarely does associate the Oracles with Zoroastrian notions at least outwardly. That the father sent forth a soul full of mind in the form of feminine fire is a recurring theme.

There is much of the notion of descending flame-soul, perhaps similar to the descent of the Qabalistic lighning bolt, but there is also perhaps a notion of the path of returning to the subtle as the following adages suggest:

“170. Having put on the completely armed-vigour of resounding Light, with triple strength fortifying the Soul and the Mind, He must put into the Mind the various Symbols, and not walk dispersedly on the empyræan path, but with concentration.

171. For being furnished with every kind of Armour, and armed, he is similar to the Goddess.”

172. Explore the River of the Soul, whence, or in what order you have come: so that although you have become a servant to the body, you may again rise to the Order from which you descended, joining works to sacred reason.”

These notions would be akin to the Qabalistic Path of Return or perhaps the Egyptian and other Near Eastern cults of Ascension back to the Celestial Realms.

There is advice to bridle the soul but also to apply sacred fire to heal and purify the body. There is the suggestion that the work of the Theurgist is to transcend Fate (and the Furies) – presumably through Will and perhaps as well though the intelligence of proper method.

This whole section has no commentary. It contains cryptic ritual suggestions, visions, and curious lore about Hecate again.

The final section is Hymns from Porphyry which basically describe God. Here the Monotheistic nature of the cosmology is emphasized. This Monotheism current probably did much to permit Neoplatonic thought to permeate and influence Early Christianity and later Islam, especially Sufism.

“2. There is in God an Immense Profundity of Flame! Nevertheless, the Heart should not fear to approach this Adorable Fire, or to be touched by it; it will never be consumed by this sweet Fire, whose mild and Tranquil Heat maketh the Binding, the Harmony, and the Duration of the World. Nothing subsisteth but by this Fire, which is God Himself. No Person begat Him; He is without Mother; He knoweth all things, and can be taught nothing.

He is Infallible in His designs, and His name is unspeakable, Behold now, what God is! As for us who are His messengers, We are but a Little Part of God.”

This is a classic and very important text in the occultism of the western esoteric tradition. There may well be “initiated” commentaries on it in various fraternal orders and mystery schools – whether from Renaissance times or reintegrated more recently. It is now in public domain and free from – Sacred Texts – as well as free on Kindle.

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