The Ink in the Sand


Iamblichus thought that humanity is composed mainly of fallen souls, but that the gods have sent some wise men like Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, or Hermes here to help them. Iamblichus also boasted being knowledgeable about theurgy.

What is theurgy? It is the idea that the human can unite with the divine through special practices. The soul is called, by means of intense religious gestures, initiation rites, sacrifices, invocations aimed at ecstasy, to unite degree by degree with beings of a higher nature, heroes, « demons », angels and archangels, and ultimately with the One, the ineffable God.

In the Mysteries of Egypt, a book devoted to Chaldeo-Egyptian wisdom, Iamblichus evokes the idea of a progressive « degradation » of man, of his fall from the divine plan. The hierarchy of this fall includes divine beings, archangels, angels, demons, heroes, archons. Human souls are at the end.

Iamblichus also describes two kinds of ecstasy, analyses the causes of evil, the theurgic power of sacrifice and presents the symbolic mystagogy of the Egyptians as well as hermetic theology and astrology. Every soul is guarded by a « demon » who helps it to reach its goal, happiness, union with the divine.

Unity is possible, but not through knowledge. « Actually, it is not even a knowledge that contact with the divinity is. Because knowledge is separated by a kind of otherness. »i

The contact with the divine is difficult to explain. « We are rather wrapped in the divine presence; it is it that makes our fullness, and we take our very being from the science of the gods. « ii

Iamblichus uses well-documented Egyptian metaphors and symbols, such as silt, lotus, solar boat. These are effective images to explain the background of the case. « Conceive as silt all the body, the material, the nourishing and generating element or all the material species of nature carried by the agitated waves of matter, all that receives the river of becoming and falls with it (…) Sitting on a lotus means a superiority over the silt that excludes any contact with it and indicates an intellectual kingdom in the heavens (…) As for the one who sails on a boat, he suggests the sovereignty that rules the world. » iii

Through the magic of images, the silt, the lotus, the boat, the whole order of the universe is revealed. Why go looking elsewhere for distant and confused explanations? Just look at the Nile.

Where does the anaphoric, anagogic power of these images come from? They are the equivalent of divine names. « We keep in our souls a mystical and unspeakable copy of the gods, and it is by the names that we lift our souls to the gods. »iv

Names have this magical, mystical and theurgic power because they have the ability to touch the gods, even if only in a tiny way, in a language that is their own, and that cannot leave them indifferent. « As the entire language of sacred peoples, such as the Assyrians and Egyptians, is suitable for sacred rites, we believe we must address to the gods in the language known to them, the formulas left to our choice. »v

All the religions of the region, from the Nile to the Indus, the religion of ancient Egypt, the Chaldean religions, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Vedism, have multiplied the names of God.

Each of these names represents a unique, irreplaceable way of knowing an aspect of the divine.

Men use multiple invocations, prayers, formulas. Religions give free rein to their imagination. What really matters is not the letter of prayer. The important thing is to place yourself on the field of language, the language « connatural to the gods ». We don’t know this language, of course. We only have a few traces of it, such as names, attributes, images, symbols.

Of these minute traces, we must be satisfied. In the early 1970s, an archaeologist, Paul Bernard, headed the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, and conducted research in Ai Khanoun, at the eastern end of the Bactria River, near the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

This city, located at the confluence of the Amu Darya River (the former Oxus) and the Kokcha River, had been nicknamed « Alexandria of the Oxus » by Ptolemy. The archaeological team uncovered the ancient Greek city, its theatre and gymnasium.

In a room of the great Greco-Indian palace of Ai Khanoun, invaded by the sands, Paul Bernard found « the traces of a papyrus that had rotten, leaving on the sand, without any other material support, the traces of ink of the letters. Wonderful surprise! The traces of papyrus fragments were barely visible in the corners, but the text in Greek could still be read: it was the unpublished text of a Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s disciple, who had accompanied Alexander on his expedition! »vi

The communist coup d’état, supported by the Soviet army, ended the archaeological work in 1978. The result of the excavations, deposited in the Kabul Museum, was heavily damaged by successive bombings, and a little later was vandalized by the Taliban.

Have the tiny traces of ink finally disappeared?

iMysteries of Egypt, I,3.

ii Ibid. I,3

iii Ibid. VII, 2

iv Ibid. VII, 4

vIbid. VII, 4

viCf. P. Bernard, Fouilles d’Ai Khanoun I, Paris, 1973. Qoted by Jacqueline de Romilly. Petites leçons sur le grec ancien.

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