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Metaphysical symbols and their
function in theurgy

Algis Uždavinys

Thus the universe and its contents were created in order to make
known the Creator, and to make known the good is to praise it; the
means of making it known is to reflect it or shadow it; and a symbol
is the reflection or shadow of a higher reality. … Therefore, in
respect of our having said that a symbol worthy of the name is that
in which the Archetype’s radiation predominates over its
projection, it is necessary to add that the sacramental symbol
proceeds from its Source, relatively speaking, by pure radiation
(Martin Lings)1

Symbols as ontological traces of the divine
The contemporary metaphysical understanding of symbol—as opposed
to the neo-classical conception of mimēsis or “imitation”—is inherited
from the Neoplatonic theory of symbolic language. According to this
theory the symbol corresponds to that which, by definition, is beyond
every representation, “showing” the bodiless by means of bodies.
Moreover, the symbol is anagogic, serving as a ladder for ascent to the
divine. Our present task is to investigate the Neoplatonic notion of the
symbolic in the context of theurgy and in relation to the ancient
Egyptian theological doctrines, which were inherited, at least to a
certain extent, by the later Pythagorean and Platonic traditions.
In Neoplatonism, divine symbols have a transformative and elevating
power. Like the noetic rays of the divine Sun they are regarded as
demiurgically woven into the very fabric of Being; they are directly
attached and unified to the gods, which are themselves the symbolic
principles of Being. One should be wary of the Greek term sumbolon
(“symbol”), which has so many different meanings, sometimes far
removed from the realm of metaphysics. What is important is the

1 M. Lings, Symbol and Archetype: A Study of the Meaning of Existence, Cambridge:
Quinta Essentia, 1991, pp.1 &11.

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Eye of the Heart: A Journal of Traditional Wisdom


underlying theological and cosmological conception of the divine
principles and powers that appear and become visible through certain
images, things, numbers, sounds, omens, or other traces of presence.
The iconoclastic Amarna theology, established in Egypt during the
reign of Akhenaten (1352-1338 B.C), sought to abolish mythical
imagery; yet even in this theology, the sun-disc, Aten, is the One in
whom millions live; the Light of Aten creates everything and by seeing
this light, the eye is created. As Jan Assmann says:

God creates the eyes in order that they might look on him as he
looks on them, and that his look might be returned and that light
might assume a communicative meaning, uniting everything
existing in a common space of intervision. God and men commune
in light.2

The symbolism of light and sound are analogous, so that the light by
which God and man commune is the constant with the divine names by
which God communicates, which is to say, by which God creates. The
divine names constitute the whole “cultic” universe and ensure its
cyclic dynamics: procession and return, descent and ascent. The hieratic
realities articulated by the ineffable (or esoteric) symbols and tokens (ta
aporrhēta sumbola kai sunthēmata) of the gods are none other than the
“divine words” (medu neter, hieroglyphs) that constitute the entire
visible world. If the universe is a manifestation of divine principles, as
the Egyptian term kheperu indicates, then all manifested noetic and
material entities are nothing but the multiform images, symbols, and
traces of the ineffable One shining through the intellective rays of deus
revelatus, the demiurgic Intellect. The Neoplatonic theory of the
symbolic is only the late conceptualization—within the Hellenic
philosophical tradition of onto-semiotics—of those ancient
metaphysical doctrines, such as the Ramesside theology of bau powers,3
that constitute the theurgic foundation of ancient civilisations and
mythically express the dialectic of the One and the Many.

2 J. Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism,
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, p.185.
3 Ramesside theology developed during the Ramesside Age, XIX-XX Dynasties, 1295-
1069 B.C. (see Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 2002, pp.192-207).

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Uždavinys: Metaphysical symbols and their function in theurgy


gods may receive the allotment of multiple places at once, for example,
how Athena (Neith) is allotted both Athens and Sais in Egypt. As
Iamblichus says: ‘How would any part of the All be completely devoid
of God? And how would any place survive entirely unprotected by the
superior ones?’ (Proclus In Tim. I.145.5).18 Consequently, everything is
theophany, and all manifested reality is “full of gods” (panta plerē
theōn). The Logos which is in the Soul of All (ho logos ho en tē psuchē
pantos: Proclus In Tim. II.309.11) knows everything and rules
everything. The liberated ba of the theurgist is the Ba of the All.
Words and tokens give life to the realities by drawing into the
manifest existence the powers that are named or revealed in images.
The human figure (as a living statue) itself is the hieroglyph: its different
positions (like Tantric asanas and mudras) represent the dynamic ritual
of “writing,” which is tantamount to the manifestation of life (ankh).
The written word might be imbued with the life of the thing
represented like the animated hieratic statue or the human body, itself
being viewed as a sort of “written word.” Hieroglyphs were virtually
regarded as living things: demiurgic and theurgic tokens, able to embody
the powers (sekhemu) and “textual” epiphanies of the gods. Hieroglyphs
are receptacles of the divine powers, and like the statues whose shapes
imitate the forms of hieroglyphs, these powers have ‘a magical life of
their own.’19 Hieroglyphs function theurgically: not only within the
written text, but within the text-like universe as a whole.
Though symbols by definition stand for something more than they
depict or something other than they are as the manifested kheperu, the
Egyptian hieroglyphic script scarcely suggests a division between “inner”
and “outer.” At the same time, the Egyptian symbol clearly presupposes
the hidden (sheta) dimension, or the hidden meaning (huponoia, as it is
in the Hellenic hermeneutical tradition). Therefore, as Richard
Wilkinson remarks, it is most apt to describe symbolism as ‘a primary
form of ancient Egyptian thought’ and, moreover, to say that Egyptian
thought was symbolically oriented to ‘a degree rarely equalled by other

18 Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta, ed. & tr. J. M.
Dillon, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973, p.119.
19 R. H. Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, London: Thames and Hudson,
1999, p.150.
20 Ibid., p.7.

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Eye of the Heart: A Journal of Traditional Wisdom


The Egyptian universe of symbols simultaneously exhibits different
meanings and shows different hermeneutical perspectives, even
consciously encouraging the ambiguity and theological polysemy in their
own symbolism. When we translate this metaphysical language of medu
neter (the language that constitutes millions of kheperu: images, signs,
symbols, breaths of life, heliophanies) into the Neoplatonic
philosophical discourse, we can say along with Plotinus that ‘all things
are filled full of signs’ (sēmeiōn: Enn. II.3.7.12), or rather that all things
are signs and images of the vast ontological Text. The multiplicity of
gods (neteru) is the multiplicity of symbols, images, and names of the
hidden God (Amun), the One who is one in the many as Ba which
assumes form in the many gods and, simultaneously, remains concealed
from them. As Oiva Kuisma remarks:

Since all things are ultimately dependent on the One, each and
every thing can be thought of as hinting at it either directly or via
mediating stages. Every particular thing in the hierarchy of being is
in this sense a sign, which points towards its causes, either because
of similarity or because of analogy.21

Like the Neoplatonic term to hen, the Egyptian name Amun
(meaning “hidden,” “invisible,” transcendent”) is merely an epithet
which, nevertheless, might be regarded as the supreme sunthēma of the
ineffable Principle, simply because every divine name is a name of this
hidden God. He is called Ba, the paradigm of all life-bearing bau that
constitute millions of forms (kheperu), millions of symbols, but really
there is no name for him: ’His hidden all-embracing abundance of
essence cannot be apprehended.’22
In the language of late Neoplatonism, the ineffable One, regarded as
pure unity, is above dunamis, power, be it creative or revealing, because
it is above division and above the first noetic duality (like Atum’s Heka,
hen on, is above Shu and Tefnut in the Egyptian theology). But the One
is also the source of manifestation (ellampsis) and the source of duality
of dunamis, which results in Being, regarded as “mixture” (mikton) that
is posterior to the principles of Limit and Unlimited. This triad is

21 O. Kuisma, Proclus’ Defense of Homer, Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1996, p.54.
22 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p.197.

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theology, the worship allegedly was reduced to the religio mentis, an
entirely intellectual process.41
However, it seems that Saffrey is subtly incorrect in this respect,
because even in pharaonic Egypt hieroglyphs functioned as the “divine
names” in the form of agalmata, be it visualized mental figures, written
pictures or the divine statues made of stone and precious metals. The
divine names are objects of adoration like the statues of the gods,
because the demiurgic Intellect produces each name as a statue of the
gods, according to Proclus:

And just as theurgy by certain symbols (dia dē tinōn sumbolōn)
invokes the generous goodness of the gods with a view to the
illumination of statues artificially constructed (tēn tōn technētōn
agalmatōn ellampsin), so also intellective knowledge related to
divine beings, by composition and divisions of articulated sounds,
reveals the hidden being (tēn apokekrummenēn ousian) of the gods”
(Plat. Theol. I.29.124.12-125.2 Saffrey-Westerink).

In his Commentary to Plato’s Cratylus, Proclus speaks about the
eikastikē dunamis, the certain power by which the soul has the capacity
to make images and assimilate itself to the gods, angels, and daimons.
For this reason the soul makes statues (agalmata … dēmiourgei) of the
gods and superior beings. Likewise, it produces out of itself (with the
help of lektikē phantasia, linguistic imagination) the substance (ousia) of
the names. Proclus says:

And just as the telestic art by means of certain symbols and
ineffable tokens (dia dē tinōn sumbolōn kai aporrhēton sunthēmatōn)
makes the statues (agalmata) here below like the gods and ready to
receive the divine illuminations (ellampseōn), in the same way the
art of the regular formation of words, by that same power of
assimilation, brings into existence names like statues of the
[metaphysical] realities (agalmata tōn pragmaton: In Crat. 19.12-16).

41 H. D. Saffrey, ‘From Iamblichus to Proclus and Damascius’ in Classical
Mediterranean Spirituality. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, ed. A. H. Armstrong, London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, p.253.

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Accordingly, the names are images and symbols of the gods as well as
intellective statues (agalmata) of the divine realities: primarily they are
the names of the noetic Forms and secondarily the names of sensible
forms. As the “vocal statues” (agalmata phōnēenta), these names are
identical with the theurgic sumbola and sunthēmata. As Gregory Shaw
points out:

Neither Iamblichus nor any of his Platonic successors provide
concrete examples of how names, sounds, or musical incantations
were used in theurgic rites. There is a great wealth of evidence from
nontheurgical circles, however, to suggest that theurgists used the
asēma onomata according to Pythagorean cosmological theories and
a spiritualization of the rules of grammar.42

By these incantations and contemplations that constitute the complex
set of the hieratic “work” (ergōn), the theurgist tried to join the gods
through his inner ascension and assimilation to the Demiurge, thereby (by
means of the ineffable symbols) entering the solar barque of Ra.

42 Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, p.183.

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