Belief in the afterlife is prevalent in many religions and varies widely, even among followers of the same religion. This is particularly the case in Hellenism, where views on life after death can vary widely, ranging from a paradise the Gods would send the righteous to reside in, to terrifying scenes of punishment for those who had sinned in this life, to a more or less benign state of being that followed after death but was secondary to this life. So what is the truth? Here the doctrines of Plato and Iamblichus, the nature of the Gods, and our very own existence will be examined to find out the universal divine truth.
Upon death, our souls are released from our bodies and see judgment by Lord Serapis, Lord of the Gods of the underworld, who are the guardians and rulers of souls. It is here that one of two things can happen to the person.
Metempsychōsis (μετεμψύχωσις), also sometimes called Palingenesía (Παλιγγενεσία), is the process of reincarnation. Reincarnation of the soul is directed by the Gods into successive bodies to fulfill divine order, as we are born into bodies, and thus we can deduce it is the duty of souls to do their work in a body, and not remain idle after death. This is what most people endure through. Here, upon death the soul is separated from the body and punished, “some wandering among us, some going to hot or cold places of the earth, some harassed by spirits. Under all circumstances they suffer with the irrational part of their nature, with which they also sinned. For its sake there subsists that shadowy body which is seen about graves, especially the graves of evil livers” (Sallustius, XIX).
Eventually, the Irrational Soul, a Shade, is sent by the divine Serapis to undergo punishment in Tartarus, which is actually a process of purification impure souls go through for the next time the Irrational Soul is joined with the Rational Soul. After purification, the soul will descend again to be reincarnated into a new body.
In our corporeal life, people will develop identities built around things such as their wealth, profession, appearance, nationality, family, and possessions. None of these, however, will last beyond our deaths. Underneath our conscious minds, there lies subliminal memories which have formed from endless impressions and traits which have been formed from a countless number of life experiences, which all spring from the Rational Soul, our highest and truest divine selves, which holds the power of memory (mneme/μνήμη). These are the seeds which we carry into our next life that explain our character, such as why we have innate talents, why we have certain tendencies, and why our personalities have various unique qualities. In this relentless circle of births, we may have been male or female, rich or poor, lawgivers or criminals. We can often detect the remnants of past life experiences, such as when we experience déjà vu, the familiarity of having already performed something previously, love at first sight, and so on. We have subtle clues that somewhere deep within ourselves we carry the imprints of another time.
Metempsychōsis happens because the Celestial Demiurge, Zeus-Helios, who is perfect, created the universe perfectly, with all things that could be created having been created– thus meaning the number of souls in the universe is fixed. Birth is therefore never the creation of a soul, but only a transmigration of a soul from one body to another. If souls didn’t enter into new bodies again, they must either be infinite in number or God must constantly be making new ones. But there is nothing infinite in the world, for that which is infinite can never exist in that which is finite. Neither can new souls be made, for everything in which something new goes on being created, must be imperfect. And the universe, being made by a perfect author, ought to naturally be perfect (Sallustius, XX).
Spirits will always be reincarnated into the body of a similar creature. It is impossible for a human, which has a rational soul, to be reincarnated into the body of an animal, which is an irrational creature. This is because it’s absurd to speak of reason in connection with irrational animals. God didn’t create a superfluous creature since He created the world perfect, and thus He did not put a rational soul into cattle or wild beast, seeing that it would never have the opportunity to exercise its proper function. Instead, if the soul migrates to an irrational creature, it follows the body outside, similar to how a Personal Daimon follows a man (Sallustius, XX).
The cosmic journey our souls go through involves sampling and experiencing all aspects of the beauty incarnated in life, and although we experience much beauty, the mortal condition, where we are reborn continuously and time and time again experience death either through old age, sickness, or violence, is also inherently painful, and our Rational Soul longs for union with the divine.
If one is stuck in the permanent loop of reincarnation because of the impurities surrounding their soul, then the ultimate goal is to purify oneself– to reach perfection, as a means of breaking free of that cycle. The one who breaks this cycle frees themselves from such corruption and is able to bear witness to the divine realm. Upon the death of the body, the soul is freed to its immortal life. Living is being dead and after death we, our soul, come to truly live. This process is called henosis (ένωσης) meaning “divine union” or “unity with the divine.” In this case, Lord Serapis breaks our corporeal bonds and lifts us upwards towards divine union. The Rational Soul is brought into union with the World Soul, and the Irrational Soul separates from the body and becomes a Shade in Hades’ Realm. A good index here is the case of Heracles, whose Shade is said to inhabit Hades’ Realm, while another part of His immortal Soul resides among the divine Olympians, and has been married to Hebe, been adopted by Hera, and so on. This part of Heracles is a wholly perfected soul, and hence does not undergo reincarnation.
Henosis is union with the divine, from the Personal Daimon to the highest reality in the universe, the One, which is what from which everything else proceeds from. Henosis is the ultimate goal in life, and a soul who has attained henosis and returned to the One achieves union with the World Soul and does not descend again, at least, not in this world period– even theurgic sages such as Empedocles and Pythagoras recall previous incarnations, and expect future ones.
Even though breaking the cycle of infinite reincarnation is one of the results, it is a lesser important goal. The true end goals of achieving henosis are (Theourgia.org Catechism, 88):
- Withdrawal from alien things
- Restoration of one’s own essence
- Independence of will
- Ascent to and unification with the creative cause
- The demiurgic activity of conjoining of parts with wholes
- Contribution from the wholes to the parts of power, life, and activity
Henosis is a universal liberation; an experience of perfect understanding. Henosis is a true ascent, when the soul rejoins the bliss, wisdom and eternal perfection of its source, participating in the divine intelligibles, and through purification being gradually assimilated into the divine. The ultimate end goal of henosis is happiness. Only through restraint, virtue, and realization can we hope to achieve salvation. This is accomplished through theurgy.
Absolute union with the One is impossible. The soul is unique and individual, coming from and participating in Nous (The Divine Mind/Celestial Demiurge). The soul is distinct from the One and is somewhat locked in its ontological position as the lowest of divine beings, though it can rise, practically if not actually, to Angelhood. Henosis isn’t the obliteration of the psyche (the soul/the self) in union with the One. The soul is always itself: a particular soul with unique Being (Ousia), Powers, and Activities. Simultaneously the soul isn’t solitary; it’s still one part of a greater whole that it participates in. Thus henosis isn’t the merging of the soul into all this, but rather through rituals of purification that allows the soul to realize its own divine self, it is to find its place within it.
Furthermore, this act isn’t an act of subjugating itself to the whole. By remembering its unique self, the soul both comes to understand the activity proper to it and willfully engages in demiurgy in alignment with its natural place in existence.
“The whole of theurgy presents a double aspect. On the one hand, it is performed by men, and as such observes our natural rank in the universe, but on the other, it controls divine symbols, and in virtue of them is raised up to union with the higher powers, and directs itself harmoniously in accordance with their dispensation, which enables it quite properly to assume the mantle of the Gods. It is in virtue of this distinction, then, that the art both naturally invokes the powers from the universe as superiors, inasmuch as the invoker is a man, and yet on the other hand gives them orders, since it invests itself, by virtue of the ineffable symbols, with the hieratic role of the Gods.”
“The choice of souls was in most cases based on their own experience of a previous life… Knowledge easily acquired is that which the enduing self-had in an earlier life, so that it flows back easily.”
“You are everywhere at once; in the earth, in the sea, in heaven. You are not yet born, you are in the womb, you are old, a youth, dead, in an afterlife. Realise all of these things simultaneously, all times, places, things, qualities, and you can realize God.”
Dunn, Patrick. The Practical Art of Divine Magic: Contemporary & Ancient Techniques of Theurgy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Ekklesia Neoplatonismos Theourgia. “Ekklesia Neoplatonismos Theourgia Catechism.” Ekklesia Neoplatonismos Theourgia. Accessed July 17, 2017. http://theourgia.org/catechism/.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave (France) Wright. The Works of the Emperor Julian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Iamblichus. De Anima. Translated by John F. Finamore and John M. Dillon. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Iamblichus. De Mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living Theurgy: A Course in Iamblichus Philosophy, Theology and Theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Medieval Astrology Guide Editors. “Theurgy.” Medieval Astrology Guide. Accessed July 21, 2017. http://www.medievalastrologyguide.com/theurgy.html.
Remes, Pauliina. Neoplatonism. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the Soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Second ed. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014.