The Chaldean Oracles have survived as fragmentary texts from the 2nd century AD, and consist mainly of Hellenistic commentary on a single mystery-poem (which may have been compilations from several oracular sources, considering the random subject changes) that was believed to have originated in Chaldea (Babylonia). They appear to be a syncretic combination of Neoplatonic elements with others that were Persian or Babylonian in origin. Later Neoplatonists, such as Iamblichus and Proclus, rated them highly. The 4th-century Emperor Julian suggests in his Hymn to the Magna Mater that he was an initiate of the God of the Seven Rays, and was an adept of its teachings. When Christian Church Fathers or other Late Antiquity writers credit "the Chaldeans", they are probably referring to this tradition.
An analysis of the Chaldean Oracles demonstrates an inspiration for contemporary gnostic teachings: fiery emanations initiate from the transcendental First Paternal Intellect, from whom the Second Intellect, the Demiurge comprehends the cosmos as well as himself. Within the First Intellect, a female Power, designated Hecate, is, like Sophia, the mediating World-Soul. At the base of all lies created Matter, made by the Demiurgic Intellect. The matter farthest from the Highest God (First Father / Intellect) was considered a dense shell from which the enlightened soul must emerge, shedding its bodily garments. A combination of ascetic conduct and correct ritual are recommended to free the soul from the confines of matter and limitations, and to defend it against the demonic powers lurking in some of the realms between Gods and mortals.
The origins of the texts are unknown and mysterious. Some have claimed that the Chaldean Oracles, in the form in which they survive, were attributed to Julian the Theurgist and his father, Julian the Chaldean. Julian the Theurgist served in the Roman army during Marcus Aurelius' campaign against the Quadi. Julian claimed to have saved the Roman camp from a severe drought by causing a rainstorm. At least four other religious groups also claimed credit for this rainstorm. The circumstances surrounding the writing of the Oracles are mysterious, the most likely explanation being that Julian uttered them after inducing a sort of trance akin to that of the archaic oracles of Greece.
Whether or not they were composed by Julian or whether they are in any sense translations from supposed Chaldean originals, the oracles are mainly a product of Hellenistic (and more precisely Alexandrian) syncretism as practiced in the cultural melting-pot that was Alexandria, and were credited with embodying many of the principal features of a "Chaldean philosophy". They were held in the greatest esteem throughout Late Antiquity, and by the later followers of Neoplatonism, although frequently argued against by Augustine of Hippo. The doctrines contained therein have been attributed by some to Zoroaster.
Importance of the Oracles
The essence of Hellenistic civilization was the fusion of a Hellenic core of religious belief and social organization with Persian-Babylonian ("Chaldean"), Israelite and Egyptian cultures, including their mysterious and enthusiastic cults and wisdom-traditions. Hellenistic thinkers philosophized the mythology and cults, as well as foreign oracular utterances and initiatory lore. Philosophy originating from these two areas, or simply attributed to them, was regarded as possessing knowledge transmitted from the most ancient wisdom traditions.
In Egypt, the attempt to philosophize and synthesize ancient religious content resulted in part in the writings conventionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The Chaldean Oracles are a parallel endeavour, on a smaller scale, to philosophize the wisdom of Chaldea. However, rather than the prose writings that came out of Egypt, the Chaldean Oracles originated from the fragments of a single mystery-poem, which has not been entirely preserved. By far the greatest number of the poem's known fragments are found in the books of the later Platonic philosophers, who from the time of Porphyry, and probably that of Plotinus, held these Oracles in the highest estimation. Iamblichus of Syria referred frequently to the Oracles and mingled their ideas with his own.
"Chaldea" is the term the 4th century and later Greeks used for Babylon. It is the way they transliterated the Assyrian name Kaldū, which was an area that lay southeast of Babylonia towards the coast of the Persian Gulf.
Metaphysics of the Oracles
The metaphysical schema of the Chaldaean Oracles begins with an absolutely transcendent deity called Father, with whom resides Power, a productive principle from which it appears Intellect proceeds. This Intellect has a twofold function, to contemplate the Forms of the purely intellectual realm of the Father, and to craft and govern the material realm. In this latter capacity the Intellect is Demiurge.
The Oracles further posit a barrier between the intellectual and the material realm, personified as Hecate. In the capacity of barrier, or more properly "membrane", Hecate separates the two 'fires,' i.e., the purely intellectual fire of the Father, and the material fire from which the cosmos is created, and mediates all divine influence upon the lower realm.
From Hecate is derived the World-Soul, which in turn emanates Nature, the governor of the sub-lunar realm. From Nature is derived Fate, which is capable of enslaving the lower part of the human soul. The goal of existence then is to purify the lower soul of all contact with Nature and Fate by living a life of austerity and contemplation. Salvation is achieved by an ascent through the planetary spheres, during which the soul casts off the various aspects of its lower soul, and becomes pure intellect.
Beneath the world of the Intelligible Triad of Father, the Magna Mater or Hecate and Intellect, lie the three successive descending Empyrean, Ethereal and Elemental Worlds. A Second Demiurgic Intellect represents the divine power in the Empyrean World, a Third Intellect represents the divine power in the Ethereal World. An Elemental World is ruled by Hyperzokos or Flower of Fire.
State of the text
The original poem has not come down to us in any connected form, and is known through quotations in the works of the Neoplatonists.
W. Kroll published an edition arranging all known fragments in order of subject, and this is the basis of most later scholarly work. It does not purport to be a reconstruction of the original poem.
Summaries of the poem (and of the related "Assyrian Oracles", not known from elsewhere) were composed by Psellus, and attempts have been made to arrange the surviving fragments in accordance with these summaries: Westcott's translation (above) is an example of such an attempt. These reconstructions are not generally regarded as having scholarly value, but sometimes surface in theosophical or occult use.
- "The Relation between Gnosticism and Platonism" in Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition, p.40
- Lewy, H., Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy, Études Augustiniennes, Paris 1978: "The particular character of the Chaldean Oracles is evinced by the existence of accurate data concerning the biography of their authors." (q.v. for references and historical challenges.)
- Dillon, pp. 392-393.
- Dillon, p. 394-395.
- Dillon, J.M., The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977).
- Lewy, Hans, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy, Cairo 1956 (mostly consulted and quoted from the revised edition by Michel Tardieu, Revue des Études Augustiniennes 58 (1978)).
- Des Places, Édouard, Oracles chaldaïques, 3d edition revised and corrected by A. Segonds, Paris 1996 (Greek text, facing French translation; introduction and notes; also contains editions of works by Psellos on the Chaldaean oracles).
- Majercik, Ruth, The Chaldaean Oracles, Studies in Greek and Roman Religion, vol. 5. Brill, Leiden etc. 1989 (Greek text, English introduction, translation and commentary).
- Fernández Fernández, Álvaro, La teúrgia de los Oráculos Caldeos: cuestiones de léxico y de contexto histórico / tesis doctoral dirigida por José Luis Calvo Martínez. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2011.