Divine possession, also called divine inspiration or divine enthusiasm, occurs when one raises their soul so high that they are overwhelmed by the divine essence that they are participating in and the higher power naturally overcomes the practitioner. It is something that is typically associated with Oracles and others who do divination. As Iamblichus says, divine possession is true divination, as everything else involves some element of human interpretation and is therefore unreliable. However, with divine possession, one literally becomes a mouth of a God. With this practice, one can join with the Gods to feel a stronger kinship with them, prophesize on their behalf, and achieve henosis through unity with the divine.
Incarnate humans souls enter a material body as a means of animating it. This makes the human body the Agalma (shrine) of the human soul. While the human body houses the human soul, which is divine, the human soul is among the least divine of divinities, being weighed down by matter. The nature of a God’s soul is different than the nature of the human soul, however; instead of entering a body as a means of animating it, Gods don’t identify themselves with their bodies nor dwell inside them; instead, they command and control their bodies from the outside. Hence, whatever affects a God’s body does not affect the God, since their essence is elsewhere. If the sun were somehow destroyed, King Helios would be unaffected, as the Gods are immortal, perfect, and their essence is elsewhere. This is similar to how divine possession works; the God does not literally inhabit the body of the individual, but rather that individual becomes possessed through their participation in a God’s essence to the point where they are overtaken by the God.
Theurgy isn’t simply “divine action,” but it’s also demiurgy. Since it is also demiurgy, it thus must not only have a spiritualizing or theoretical element but must also be effective in the physical world. The possessed theurgist is not only in effect, but in actuality, an ensouled agalma (shrine) for the possessing God. Agalma means both a statue and shrine, and this is exactly what the possessed theurgist becomes.
The ensoulment of the God in the theurgist happens similarly as a God may ensoul a statue. By associating oneself with the tokens and symbols of a particular God, praying to that God, contemplating their divine image, eating sacred foods, and invocation. Because rituals to establish the God in the theurgist may involve material tokens, only the Encosmic and Sub-Lunar Gods participate in this activity. The Hypercosmic Gods don’t partake in divine possession as they have no connection to the physical world through a pneumatic vehicle.
Divine possession and what the God says have nothing to do with the ritual itself; but rather with the theurgist themselves, as well as animated statues. The process of divine possession is very similar to animated statues. This is because the human body is itself an eikon, ensouled by a human soul as a means of animating it. As said previously, living beings are the most beautiful things, and human bodies are created by the Encosmic Gods to be like their own, consisting of spheres. The closest embodied thing to the Gods is the human form. In short, if a material object is capable of becoming a synthema of the Gods, then a person most definitely can. After all, the human soul animating a body by entering it, which makes the body like an animated statue itself.
Through divine possession, the theurgist becomes a living amalgam of synthemata of the God. While the synthemata aren’t actual parts of the God, they participate the God’s essence, which ultimately means the possessed theurgist does as well. The key difference is that the theurgist has a rational soul which allows them to participate in the divine mind in a way non-human animals (which have irrational souls) and inanimate objects (which lack souls) are incapable of. This allows the theurgist to become a mouth and living shrine for the God and, ultimately, allowing genuine divination to occur.
It must be noted that this form of divination is dangerous. A God can be very overwhelming for a human body to comprehend. Oracles such as the Pythia that did divine possession took on a God in a manner that isn’t pleasant nor safe to offer herself as a spokesperson for the deity. Not only is it draining for the body to undergo, but descriptions of divine possession can even seem epileptic. Furthermore, the preparations for divine possession can themselves can be dangerous, with sleep deprivation involved.
The divine Iamblichus writes at length regarding possessory practices in his sacred work De Mysteriis (Chapter 7): “Either the divinity possesses us, or we our entire selves become the God’s own, or we are active in common with him. Sometimes we share the ultimate or last power of the divinity, at another time the intermediate, and sometimes the first. At one time there is a bare participation of these raptures; at another, there is also communion; and sometimes, again, there is a complete union. Either the soul alone enjoys, or it has it with the body, or else the whole living individual shares it in common.”
Iamblichus also describes behaviors of someone under divine possession. Some notable things are:
- Speaking in an unusual manner, sometimes musically, or periodic silence.
- Movement or dance is harmonious, and the body might appear to be “lifted up or increased in size, or borne along raised in the air.”
- Unaffected by pain.
Addey, Crystal. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.
Dunn, Patrick. The practical art of divine magic: contemporary & ancient techniques of Theurgy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2015.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Iamblichus. “Chapter 7. Origin of the Art of Divination.” Chapter 7. Origin of the Art of Divination – Theurgia or The Egyptian Mysteries By Iamblichos – Sacred Texts – Hermetic Library. March 20, 2017. Accessed September 29, 2017. https://hermetic.com/texts/theurgia/origin-of-the-art-of-divination.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
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Tanaseanu-Döbler, Ilinca. Theurgy in Late Antiquity: the invention of a ritual tradition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.