Book Review: Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity

Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity. By Naomi Janowitz. Magic in History Series. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. xxviii + 161 pp. 

In Icons of Power: Ritual Practices In Late Antiquity, the author Naomi Janowitz explores the rich and dazzling power of ritual magic and theurgy throughout the ancient world in Jewish, Christian and Greek practices. She isn’t concerned with magic in general terms, but with specific practices of ancient cults, secret societies, Jewish and Christian mystics and Hermetic alchemists throughout the book such as chanting of heavenly liturgies to the utterance of barbarous, holy names, to the manipulation of magical amulets and the transformation of metals. I will quote specific passages in the book that jump out for my attention. In the first chapter, she makes it clear why magical practices were used in the first place, in the Introduction:

Some of these rituals presumed a vast cosmos with dizzying layers of heavens full of entourges of angels–the higher and farther away from earth and matter, the better. In this multiheavened cosmology, a trip upward was a means for traversing the cosmos and gaining access to the upper regions where the deity dwelt. Escape was the goal, escape from the bonds of earthly existence and life in the body, including fate, decay, and death.

In the first chapter, “Late Antique Theories of Efficacy”, Naomi goes on to describe these rituals (p. 1):

Paradoxically, rituals that claim to reveal divinity on earth can look to outsiders as if their purpose is to manipulate that same divine power. The difference is in the eye of the beholder. Similarly, distinguishing between the work of an angel and a daimon, between the work of good forces and evil forces is a subtle, if not impossible, task. (I am using the word “daimon” and not “demon” to emphasize that in Late Antiquity these beings were not always evil.)

Throughout the first chapter, Naomi makes some succinct observations in that Christians, Jews and Pagans all criticized one another as being secret practitioners of magic, in one form or another — whether it be the Jewish practice of fasting, Sabbath observance or animal sacrifice, or in that Christians practiced sorcery and Gnostic doctrines in a quasi-Masonic fashion, as Celsus writes in the True Doctrine:

Of associations some are public, and these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws; of this latter sort is Christianity. The Christians teach and practice their favorite doctrines in secret. They do this to some purpose, seeing they escape the penalty of death which is imminent; similar dangers were encountered by such men as Socrates for the sake of philosophy. Their “love-feasts” had their origin in the common danger, and are more binding than any oaths.

Such “love-feasts” are also heavily influenced by the cults of Dionysus and surrounding rumors of rapacious wine-fueled orgies of sex, murder and mayhem as Livy in Roman History exposes like a tabloid journalist.

Moving on, her discussion of theurgy brings up points that I’ve made in my previous post that touches on Iamblichus and Pophyry, when she writes (p. 5):

Rituals, Iamblichus explains, do not always make sense to humans, even to insiders, but they do make sense to the gods. The gods send down instructions to complete certain actions that look strange to humans but that “perfect” humans. These acts provide what the dialecticians lack in their investigation of divinity.

In her discussion of Iamblichus’s and Pophyry’s different stances on theurgy, she reveals that Iamblichus has much more negative view on such practices such as animating statues, earthly sympathies, idolatry and divination, which reveals his as Janowitz puts it “philosophical snobbery.” These are all merely human sciences while theurgy is not, but a “divine science.” This, I might add, is the same as Gnostic knowledge.

Janowitz also discusses Saint Augustine’s views on theurgy, which is the typical orthodox reaction against all forms of pagan “magic.” The orthodox believe that all magic, Right Hand Path or Left Hand Path, thaumaturgic or theurgic, is evil, because it relies on knowledge and the individual will rather than faith and God’s will. Theurgy for Augustine, is nothing but a clever con game of lying demons and attacks the heart of pagan ritual practice. Janowitz reveals that other Christian theologians like John Chrysostom advocated Christian rituals with words and prayers only.

Some magicians like Apollonius of Tyana did not even need prayers, sacrifices or even words to perform miracles, much like Jesus Christ, who relied entirely on his own innate divine powers while bringing down heaven to earth and driving out evil powers. Other philosophers and dialecticians like Plotinus dismissed external magical ritual and prayers altogether and ridiculed others, like the Gnostics for the sins of hissing, melodies, shrieks and barbarous magical chanting as well as telling myths of the fall of Sophia and the creation of the world and such. But Janowtiz also reveals that Plotinus himself only appears “rational” because he admits ignorance rather than engage in the telling of myths like the Gnostics do and his holy grail quest to be “god-like” and the realization of his “divine soul” is in actuality, irrational, by today’s materialist/secular standards. This is one of the better chapters in the book, IMHO. 

In Chapter 2, “The Divine name as Effective Language,” Jewish mysticism, the efficacy of words in the creation account of Genesis and the magical nation of the tetragrammaton YHWH is explored in great detail, with the “I am” proclamations and the like. She focuses more on Targums, rabbinic midrash and such to make her case. Janowitz rightly connects the creation of the world with the divine name itself, when she writes (p. 24):

The act of speaking created the world, and thereby the very possibility of speaking to the world. The “creativity” of all the other words and usages pales in comparison. All other creative speech is only secondary, reflected power that is dependent on the primal creative speech that established creation itself. Divine language sets the standard for creative power of language, and the most important word in the divine language is the name of the deity.

Janowitz also uses many instances in apocryphal works in how various Biblical patriarchs wielded the Divine Name like a sword in how King Solomon uses the Divine Name (Sabaoth specifically) to subdue and interrogate the demon Asmodeus with a magical ring as well as punishing the devil with the “fear of God” (The Testament of Solomon 24) or Moses, in killing an Egyptian with the Divine Name as described in Exodus Rabba 1.29. And yet the Divine Name could also reanimate life, such as the cases of medieval Kabbalists using it to raise the dead, or create a golem out of dead flesh or mud much like YHWH did with Adam in Genesis.

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. – Job 1:21 (KJV)

Up next in Chapter 3, “Thinking With the Divine Name,” Janowitz explores the Christian interpretation of the Divine Name through the Catholic theologian Origen and Dionysus the Areopagite. In Origen, we find him defending the Christian usage of divine names against Celsus, especially when invoking Jesus Christ’s name to heal the sick and lame, cast out devils and perform other miracles as advocated in the New Testament. As Janowitz points out, Origen also refutes Celsus’s perennial sounding argument in that all the diverse names for God are universal and hence, refer to the same deity.

According to Origen, this argument was planted by daimons, who “attribute their own names to the Supreme God so that they may be worshiped as the Supreme God” (Exhortation to Martyrdom 46).

Janowitz goes on to discuss how the nature of the divine names in themselves are automatic and not restricted on the intention of the speaker, whether it be for good or ill such as prayer and studying and hearing holy scripture of both the NT and the OT vs. speaking a pagan god’s name like Zeus that would inadvertently summon a powerful daimon. The various names and prayers attributed to YHWH must be recited in Hebrew if they are to have any magical effect on the person, so says Origen. Origen also compares God’s proclamation of “Let there be light” of Genesis with the Prologue of the Gospel of John‘s “In the beginning was the word.” The “word” or Logos also has a creative faculty and is further expanded upon by later Gnostic and Valentinian texts and teachers like Theodotus, Ptolemy, and Heracleon’s rich and mystical commentaries. In fact, it is these Gnostic teachers that were the first to make extensive exegesis on Christian scripture, anticipating later Orthodox Catholic exegetes like Origen and Clement of Alexandria, who are simply reacting to much earlier tradition and smears it all as “heresy” and “heretics” (in reality they are the real heretics here). That’s the name of the Orthodox game, however. She does not mention any of these Gnostic figures but she does discuss Marcus the Magician in the next chapter.

Dionysus the Areopagite or Psuedo-Dionysus is a mysterious theological figure without a concrete identity who uses Neoplatonic cosmology and dresses it all up with Christian language. His take on the Divine Name is Apophatic (Negative Theology) in that God is so good and wonderful that He does not even have a name and is content in calling Him the “Nameless One.” This idea is very similar to how Gnostic texts like the Apocryphon of John describe God and the Pleroma in terms of what God isn’t. Hesitation in labeling Dionysus as a Gnostic, however, is quite strong in this case. Philo, Justin Martyr and the authors of the Corpus Hermeticum also make similar mystical statements. Dionysus also makes some fascinating comparisons between the Christian Eucharist and theurgy by insisting that those who partake of this Christian ritual are deified as a miracle from God.

In Chapter 4, “The Meaning of Letters: From Divine Name to Cosmic Sounds,” begins on building on the previous chapter. This is probably my favorite chapter. Here Janowitz discusses Marcus the Magician’s practices and secret knowledge that apparently he received from a female heavenly figure akin to Sophia as described by Irenaeus in Against the Heresies (1.14.1). Much of Marcus’s teachings expand upon on the Johannite Prologue of the Gospel of John and are also quite similar to Hebrew Kabbalist texts like the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetsira) which discuss the creation of the world through letters and numbersa comparison in which Janowitz explores in great detail. Although she does not mention this author, Andrei Orlav in Divine Scapegoats: Demonic Mimesis in Early Jewish Mysticism, makes similar but more in-depth arguments about Adoil from 2 Enoch being similar to the Word, in that they both jump-start the visible process of creation.

Marcus was also big on the practices of sacred geometry, gematria, and isospephia, all of which involve words and corresponding numbers, such as how Jesus Christ’s name equaling to 888, revealing the divine nature of his name and how it corresponds to the Ogdoad, the eighth realm of Sophia. Vowels for Marcus were also equated with the planets. The highest-level name is actually beyond mortal comprehension and cannot be uttered by mere humans. The next name that can be uttered, though is Jesus Christ. As mentioned by Irenaeus, a Gnostic Ophite practice also involves numbers in adding up the letters of names that equal less than 100 means that it is “material” and is thus lesser value. Anything more would obviously be more valuable. There’s a lot more to be said here, but reading the book would be the next best thing.

Chapter 5, “Using Names, Letters, and Praise: The Language of Ascent,” is mostly about ascension mysticism, in yet again, a Jewish context. In particular, Janowitz focuses on Hebrew hekhalot (palace) texts or merkabah (chariot) texts, which describe the heavenly realms, liturgies of the heavenly chorus, prays to call down angels such as the Prince of the Torah (i.e. Metatron), etc. The ancient accusation by Celsus that the Jews were “addicted to sorcery” and were “angel worshipers” is made clear in this chapter. The Books of Enoch depicts similar accounts where Enoch is taken a celestial tour of Heaven and Hell, respectively. She also compares these texts to the Mithras Liturgy, which also involves bodily transformation of a mortal into the immortal high heavens. Comparisons are also made to Celsus’ Ophites who show magical “symbols,” “seals,” or “icons” to the gatekeepers or archons as they pass through the levels of heaven as well as the Ascension of Isaiah, which tells a similar story. These symbols might be related to the various Gnostic amulets that feature mystical terms and images of “IAO” “Abrasax” and the like. Although she does not mention this text (she could have easily done so), the First Apocalypse of James is all about the ascent of the soul and the astral journey through the cosmic spheres and the confrontational dialogue with the archons.

Janowitz makes it clear that the heavenly ascent is done through the repetition of vowel sounds, divine names and heavenly liturgy (angelic cults envisioning being involved with the cherubim and seraphim singing praises to God) as discussed in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. To engage in such activities meant that the participant would become immortal by being granted the Divine Vision. Most convincing is her comparison with the Gnostic text Marsanes, with these Jewish texts. There are many hymns, silences, the invocation of names, and the vocalization of stringed vowels that only make sense in the context of theurgy.

Chapter Six, “Combining Words and Deeds Angelic Imprecations in the Book of Secrets,” continues on with Jewish mystical tradition; only this time, the focus is placed on a Jewish witchcraft text the Book of Secrets or the Book of Raziel. Janowitz rightfully compares it with the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), as it has many practical spells — ranging everything from healing the sick, divining the future, influencing kings in your favor, binding yourself to a “great woman”, and speaking with the spirits, planets and stars. She has a very helpful table that lists all the spells in the book, too. Very nice. Instead of relying on demons or familiar spirits, the magician instead relies on angelic powers in legal oaths and pacts so that they may carry our your wishes and goals, which are often fueled by a personal and a financial drive for success.

Later in the chapter, Janowitz discusses how animal sacrifices in Judaism and other pagan religions are directed more towards lower spirits like the elementals, daimons and angels and not God, necessarily. This is why philosophers like Porphyry rejected animal sacrifice/the eating of meat and advocated vegetarianism because daimons or demons feed off of animal sacrifice. Origen and Celsus said the same thing where the daimons will even go as far as to steal a sacrifice made for a god or angel. It is interesting that both angels and demons are allured by the shed blood of the sacrifice — especially in context of both pagan Gentile sacrifice and Jewish-Israelite sacrifice as discussed by Origen in On the First Principles (1.8.1).

In fact, Jewish sacrifice is also very much intertwined with the “Divine Scapegoat” i.e. Azazel, who himself is a desert angelic demon or “serim”. Janowitz points out how many Rabbinic wizards throughout history have equated the sacrifice of a “scapegoat” for Azazel as a sacrifice to Satan, while we see Aaron in Leviticus 16:8 sacrifice “one” (a goat) for the Lord, and one for the “scapegoat” which is Azazel. Just as Jehovah makes a covenant or pact with Abraham and the children of Israel with shed blood, so does Azazel who also needs a contract, signed with blood with Israel as well. Although Janowitz does not mention this — stranger still, many church fathers throughout history have made several allusions and comparisons between Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the fallen angel and prototype Baphomet, Azazel — a subject in which will be examined in a future post.

The last chapter, “Transformation by Deed Alone: The Case of Alchemy” takes a quite different turn than the rest of the book, which seems to be mostly concerned with Jewish magic. The transformation of metals and substances are focused on as she is mostly concerned with the Gnostic-Hermetist Zosimos’s writings. These writings are both allegorical as well literal in the sense that these ancient theories linked the ritual transformation of metals with the spiritual transformation of the adept himself: “By means of fire, the metal makes a dramatic progression upward to another type of existence, exactly as human bodies can” (p. 119). Sacrifices are also involved, but the sacrifice isn’t concerned with animals, but with the initiate himself. In Zosimos’s Visions, Zosimos falls asleep and dreams that he walks seven steps of fleshy mortification that leads to the krater or altar shaped bowl with boiling water of wisdom.

The priest being Zosimos, is both the sacrifice and the sacrificer, as he learns that “casting off the body’s coarseness, and, consecrated by necessity” means that the priest has become “spirit.” Various metals like copper and silver are applied to men as one copper man has “his eyes turned to blood and he vomited up all his flesh. And I saw him as a mutilated image of a little man and he was tearing at his flesh and falling away.” Such ghastly and hellish visions that come straight out of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser or Dante’s Inferno relate to the state of Nigredo, the judgement and descent of the soul into Hell or Hades. This stage of the Second Death is necessary if the metallic souls are to reach their most purified state — the state of spirit and Gold, which is the rebirth.

It all relates directly to rebirth as described in Corpus Hermeticum XIII (with the 12 tormentors of the zodiac which must be transcended), as well as the symbolic cup or krater of Knowledge in Corpus Hermeticum IV (where the enlightened ones immersed themselves in). 
He filled a great mixing bowl with it and sent it below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: “Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be.” All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind participated in knowledge and became perfect people because they received mind.

Zosimos’s recipes of cooking and transforming metals illustrate as Janowitz writes, that there is no big enough gulf to separate the grossness of the flesh with the highest spirit of heaven. In our book Baphomet: The Temple Secret Unveiled, Tracy and I go into Zosimos’ literature and how it all relates to the Holy Grail and the bizarre and disturbing rituals of the Knights Templar as well.

Her “Concluding Note” chapter attempts to synthesize all of the materials addressed in the book. Her primary focus on Jewish temple ritual and domestic and consultant magic spells is apparent while the extraneous addition of Zosimos’s work is somewhat jarring and doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of the book. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily detract from her work either. It would have served her case better if she had made more comparisons with Gnostic texts in comparison with all of the Jewish mystical traditions that she certainly succeeds in analyzing. In fact, Zosimos’s alchemical work may be successfully compared to many sections of the Apocryphon of John, a Sethian Gnostic text. It illustrates how much Hermetism and Gnosticism were more than likely part of the same milieu or tradition. In any case, Janowitz is successful in bringing all these diverse magical traditions of the ancient world together with a careful and analytical eye. I would have to concur with David Frankfurter’s concluding words in his review of Icons of Power:

While it may leave the reader craving more explanation, more thoroughness in the ideas, Icons of Power captures a fascinating element of late antique ritual speculation, in which certain words, written or spoken, were imagined as connected intrinsically to the Divine and therefore subject to efficacious manipulation or utterance.

In a future post, we will explore an even more controversial book, Jesus the Magician by Morton Smith.

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