George Gemistos Plethon’s

Commentary on the Magical Oracles of the Magi of Zoroaster

Translated by Thomas Stanley, modernized by John Opsopaus1
©2020, John Opsopaus
(1) Seek thou the soul’s way, whence or in what rank
to serve the body; to that rank from which thou flowed,
thou mayst rise up again; join act with sacred word. (P 1, CO 110, K 51)2

The Magi, who are followers of Zoroaster, as also many others, hold that the human soul is immortal and descended from above to serve the mortal body, that is, to operate therein for a certain time, and to animate and adorn it to her power, and then to return to the place from which she came. And whereas there are many mansions there for the soul, one wholly-bright, another wholly-dark, others betwixt both, partly-bright, partly-dark, the soul, being descended from that which is wholly-bright into the body, if she perform her office well, runs back into the same place; but if not well, she retires into worse mansions, according to the things which she has done in life.

The oracle therefore says, Seek thou the soul’s way, or the way by which the soul flowed into you; or by what course (viz. of life), having performed your charge toward the body, you may mount up to the same place from which you flowed down, viz. the same track of the soul, joining act to sacred speech.

By sacred speech, it means that which concerns divine worship; by act, divine rites [teletên]. The oracle therefore says that to this exaltation of the soul, both speech concerning divine worship (prayers) and religious rites (sacrifices) are requisite.

(2) Incline not down. Beneath the Earth there lies a cliff,
which draws one down the seven steps …
beneath her is the throne of dire Necessity. (P 2, CO 164+, K 63)3

It calls the descent into wickedness and misery, a cliff; the terrestrial and mortal body, the Earth, for by the Earth it means mortal nature, as by the fire frequently the divine; by the place with seven steps, it means Fate dependent on the planets, beneath which there is seated a certain dire and unalterable Necessity. The oracle therefore advises that you not stoop down towards the mortal body, which being subject only to the Fate that proceeds from the planets, may be reckoned amongst those things which are not up to us [ouk eph’ hêmin], for you will be unhappy if you stoop down wholly to the body, and unfortunate and continually failing of your desires, in regard to the necessity that is annexed to the body.

(3) Thy vessel earthly beasts shall occupy. (P 3, CO 157, K 60)

The vessel of your soul, that is this mortal body, shall be inhabited by worms and other vile creatures.

(4) Enlarge not thou thy Destiny. (P 4, CO 103, K 50 #1)

Endeavour not to increase your Fate, or to do more than is given to you in charge, for you will not be able.

(5) Nought incomplete rolls from Paternal Principle. (P 5, CO 13, K 15)

For from the Paternal Principle, which is that of the Supreme God, nothing incomplete proceeds, so that you yourself might complete it; for all things proceeding from thence are perfect, as appears, in that they tend to the perfection of the Universe.

(6) But the Paternal Mind accepteth not her will,
until she flee oblivion, and pronounce a Word,
inserting memory of the pure paternal Sign. (P 6, CO 109, K 50)

The Paternal Mind (the Second God and diligent maker [dêmiourgos] of the soul) admits not her will or desire until she come out of the oblivion that she contracted by connection with the body; and until she speak a certain word, or conceive in her thoughts a certain speech, calling to remembrance the paternal divine symbol [synthêma] or watch-word, which is the pursuit of the good, and the soul recalling this hereby becomes most acceptable to her maker.

(7) You must make haste to light, and to the Father’s beams,
from whence was sent to thee a soul full-clothed with mind. (P 7, CO 115, K 52)

The light and splendor of the Father is that mansion of the soul which is circumlucid [amphiphaês], from whence the soul arrayed with mind [nous] was sent hither, wherefore we must hasten to return to the same light.

(8) Ha! Ha! The Earth bewails them, even to their children. (P 8, CO 162, K 63)

Those who don’t hasten to the light, from which their soul was sent to them, the Earth or mortal Nature bewails, for they, being sent hither to adorn her, not only don’t adorn her, but also blemish themselves by living wickedly; moreover the wickedness of the parents is transmitted to the children, corrupted by them through ill education.

(9) Those which expel the soul by breath are easily released. (P 9, CO 124, K 53)

The reasons [logoi], which expel the soul from wickedness and give her breath, are easily released, and the oblivion that keeps them in, is easily put off.

(10) Within the left side of the bed is virtue’s fount,
remaining all inside, nor losing chastity. (P 10, CO 52, K 28)4

In the left side of your bed, there is the power or fount of virtue, residing wholly within, and never casting off her chastity or nature void of passion, for there is always in us the power of virtue without passion which cannot be put off, although her energy or activity may be interrupted. It says the power of virtue is placed on the left side because her activity is seated on the right; by the bed is meant the seat of the soul, subject to her several habits.

(11) The human soul will somehow clasp God to herself,
and having nothing mortal, she is wholly drunk with God,
for she boasts harmony, where mortal bodies stand. (P 11, CO 97, K 48)

The human soul will somehow clasp God, and join him strictly to herself (who is her continual defense) by resembling him as much as she can possibly; having nothing mortal within her, she is wholly drunk with God, or replenished with divine goods, for though she is fettered to this mortal body, yet she glories in the harmony or union in which the mortal body exists. That is, she is not ashamed of it, but thinks well of herself for it; for she is a cause and affords to the All that, as mortals are united with immortals in humanity, the All is adorned with one harmony.

(12) Since Psychê, by the Father’s Power a Radiant Fire,
remains immortal, She is Mistress of all Life,
and holds Full-measures of the Cosmos’ many clefts. (P 12, CO 96, K 47)

The Second God, who first before all other things proceeded from the Father and supreme god, these oracles call all along the Father’s Power, his Intellectual Power, and the Paternal Mind. It says, therefore, that Psychê [the soul], procreated by this Power of the Father, is a radiant fire, that is, a divine and intellectual essence, and persists immortal through the divinity of its essence, and is Mistress of Life, viz. of herself, possessing life that cannot be taken away from her. For how can we be said to be masters of such things as may be taken from us, seeing that use of them is only allowed us? But of those things which cannot be taken from us, we are absolute masters. The soul, due to her own perpetuity [aïdiotêta], holds full-measures in the clefts [kolpôn] of the cosmos, or her diverse places in the world, which are allotted each time according to how she has led her life past.

(13) Seek Paradise5. (P 13, CO 165, K 65 #1)

The circumlucid mansion of the soul.

(14) Neither spirit do you stain, nor deepen down
the plane… (P 14, CO 104, K 64)

The followers of Pythagoras and Plato conceive the soul to be a substance not wholly separate from all body, nor wholly inseparable; but partly separable, partly inseparable; separable potentially, but ever inseparable actually. For they assert three kinds of Forms: [1] one wholly separate from matter, the Supercelestial Intelligences [Noes]; [2] another wholly inseparable from matter, having a substance not subsistent by itself but dependent on matter; together with which matter, which is sometimes dissolved by reason of its nature subject to mutation, this kind of soul is dissolved also and perishes; this kind they hold to be wholly irrational.

[3] Between these they place a middle kind, the rational soul, differing from the Supercelestial Intelligences, in that it always co-exists which matter, and from the irrational kind, in that it is not dependent on matter, but, on the contrary, matter is dependent on it, and it has a proper substance potentially subsistent by itself. It is also indivisible like the Supercelestial Intelligences, and performs some works in some manner allied to theirs, being itself also busied in the knowledge and contemplation of beings even unto the Supreme God, and for this reason is indestructible.

This kind of soul is always co-existent with an ethereal body as its vehicle, which she by continual approximation makes also immortal; neither is her vehicle inanimate in itself, but is itself animated with the other species of the soul: the irrational (which the wise call the image of the rational soul) adorned with imagination and sensation which sees and hears altogether as a whole, and is furnished with all the senses and with all the rest of the irrational faculties of the soul.

Thus by the principal faculty of this body, imagination, the rational soul is continually joined to such a body and by such a body sometimes the human soul is joined with a mortal body by a certain affinity of nature, the whole being enfolded in the whole vital spirit [zôtikô pneumati] of the embryo, this vehicle itself being of the nature of a spirit [pneumatikos].

The daimons’ souls differ not much from the human, only they are more noble and use more noble vehicles; moreover, they cannot be mingled with corruptible nature. Likewise the souls of the stars are much better than the daimons’ and use better vehicles, which are bright bodies by reason of the greatness of their active potentiality.

These doctrines concerning the soul the Magi, followers of Zoroaster, seem to have held long ago. Stain not this kind of spirit of the soul, says the oracle, nor deepen down the plane. He calls it planar, not as if it lacked a third dimension, for it is a body, but to signify its extraordinary rarity; nor make it become gross by accession of more matter to its bulk, for this spirit of the soul becomes gross if it declines too much towards the mortal body.

(15)6 Of the resplendent place, the image has a piece. (P 15a, CO 158 v.2, K 61)

It calls the image of the soul that irrational part that is joined to the rational part and depends upon the vehicle thereof. Now it says that this kind of image has a piece of the resplendent [amphiphaonta, circumlucid] place, for the soul never lays down the vehicle adherent to her.

(16) Leave not the dross of matter on a precipice. (P 15b, CO 158 v.1, K 61)

It calls the mortal body the dross of matter, and exhorts us not to neglect it through misfortune, but take care of it while in this life, to preserve it in health as much as possible, so that it may be pure and in all other respects correspond with the soul.

(17) Do not release, lest going forth she have something. (P 16, CO 166, K 5)

Do not release, meaning the soul, out of the mortal body lest by going forth you incur some danger, implying as much as to carry her forth beyond the laws of Nature.

(18) If thou extend the fiery mind
to piety’s work, the flowing body thou shalt save. (P 17, CO 128, K 54+61)

Extending up your divine mind to the exercise of piety [eusebeias] or to religious rites [tên eusebê teletên], and you will preserve the mortal body, making it more sound by performing these rites.

(19) From the cavities
within the Earth spring earthly dogs who never show
a sign that’s true to mortals … (P 18, CO 90, K 45)

Sometimes to many initiates [teloumenôn] there appear, during rites [teletas], some apparitions in the shape of dogs and several other figures. Now the oracle says that these issue out of the receptacles [kolpôn] of the Earth, that is, out of the terrestrial and mortal body, and the irrational passions planted in it that are not yet sufficiently adorned with reason. These are apparitions of the passions of the soul in performing divine rites, mere appearances having no substance, and therefore not signifying anything true.

(20) And Nature prompts belief that daimons are all pure,
and evil matter’s offspring are both kind and good. (P 19, CO 88, K 44)

Nature or natural reason prompts belief that daimons are all pure, and that all things proceeding from God who is in himself good are beneficial; and the very offspring of evil matter, or the forms dependent upon matter, are such. Also he calls matter evil, not as to its substance [ousia] (for how can the substance be bad the offspring of which are beneficial and good?), but as it is ranked last among the substances and is the least participant of good, which littleness of good is here expressed by the word “evil.” Now the oracle means that if the offspring of “evil matter,” viz. of the last of substances, are good, then much more so are the daimons such, who are in an excellent rank as partaking of rational nature and being unmixed with mortal nature.

(21) Avengers, the restraints [agkteirai] of people. (P 20, CO 161, K 62)

The avengers or the vindictive daimons clasp people close or restrain and drive them from vice and excite them to virtue.

(22) Let lead the soul’s immortal depth; and all thine eyes
extend quite upward. (P 21, CO 112, K 32)7

Let the divine depth of your soul govern and lift all thine eyes or all your knowing faculties upward.

(23) O human, thou machine of boldest Nature! (P 22, CO 106, K 50)

It calls the human the machine of boldest Nature, because people attempt great things.

(24) If thou speak’st often to me, thou shalt see what’s said,8
for neither then appears the heavens’ concave bulk,
nor shine the stars; the brilliance of the Moon is hid;
the Earth stands not; all things appear as thunderbolts. (P 23, CO 147, K 57)9

The oracle speaks as from God to an initiate [teloumenô]: If thou speak’st often to me or call me, thou shalt see that of which you speak, viz. me whom you call everywhere, for then you will perceive nothing but thunderbolts all about, fire gliding up and down all over the world.

(25) Call not on Nature’s self-conspicuous image. (P 24, CO 101, K 49)

Seek not to behold the self-seeing Image [autopton agalma] of Nature, that is, the Nature of God, which is not visible to our eyes. For those things that appear to initiates, such as thunder, lightning, and all else whatsoever, are only symbols [sumbola], not the Nature of God.

(26) From all sides to the pristine soul stretch reins of fire. (P 25, CO 127, K 53)

Draw unto yourself from all sides the reins of fire that appear to you during the rite [teletên] with a sincere soul, one that is simple and unsoiled with knavery.

(27) But when you see the very holy Shapeless Fire,
which shines by leaps and bounds throughout the whole World’s depths,
attend the Fire’s Voice… (P 26, CO 148, K 58)

When you behold the divine fire devoid of figure brightly gliding up and down the World and graciously smiling, listen to this voice, which brings a most truthful foreknowledge [prognôsin].

(28) Paternal Mind implanted symbols into souls. (P 27, CO 108, K 50)10

The Paternal Mind [Nous], viz. the attentive Demiurge of the substance [ousias] of the soul, has implanted symbols or the Images of Intelligibles into souls, by which every soul possesses in herself the reasons of beings.

(29)11 Learn the noetic, which exists beyond thy mind. (P 28a, CO 1 v.13, K 11)12

Learn the noetic (intelligible), because it exists beyond thy mind [nous], that is, in actuality. For though the images of intellectual things are planted in you by the Demiurge, yet they are in your soul only potentially, but it behooves you to have knowledge of the intelligible in actuality.

(30) There is a thought known only by the flower of mind. (P 28b, CO 1 v.1, K 11)

The Supreme God, who is perfectly one, is not conceived after the same manner as other things, but by the flower of the mind [tô tou nou anthei], that is, the supreme and singular part of your understanding [noêseôs]. [The verbal resonances cannot be preserved in the translation: “There is a thought [noêton] known [noein] only by the flower of mind [noou].”]

(31) … all things were born of the One Fire. (P 29, CO 10, K 15)13

All things were generated from One Fire, that is, God.

(32) The Father finished14 every thing and handed them
to Second Nous, whom you, the human tribe, call First. (P 30, CO 7, K 14)

The Father finished every thing, viz. the intelligible species (for they are absolute and perfect) and delivered them over to the Second God next after him to rule and guide them; so that if anything be brought forth by this God, and formed after the likeness of him and the other intelligible substance, it proceeds from the Supreme Father. This other God the human tribe call First; that is, they think him the Demiurge of the Cosmos, to whom there is none superior.

(33) The Iynges, thought by Father, also think themselves,
by his unutterable counsels moved to understand. (P 31, CO 77, K 40)

It calls Iynges the Intellectual Species [ta noêta eidê] which are conceived by the Father; they themselves also conceiving, and exciting conceptions or notions [noêseis], by unutterable or unspeakable [aphthegktois] counsels. By motion here is understood intellection not displacement, but simply a relation to notions [nooumena], and so unspeakable counsels also means unmoved, for speaking consists in motion. The meaning is this, that these forms have an unchangeable relation to notions, not transient like the soul’s.

(34) Oh how the World hath rigid intellectual Guides! (P 32, CO 79, K 40)15

The most excellent of the Intelligible (Noetic) Ideas [noêton eidôn], and of those which are brought down by the Immortals into this heaven, it calls the Intellectual (Noeric) Guides of the World [noerous anochêas kosmou], the Coryphaeus [chorus leader] of whom it conceives to be a god, who is the second from the Father. The oracle saying that the World hath rigid Guides, means that it is incorruptible.

(35) … the Father snatched Himself away,
and didn’t close His Fire in Noeric Power. (P 33, CO 3, K 12)

The Father has kept himself apart from all others, not including himself either in his own Intellectual (Noeric) Power [δύναμις νοερά], i.e., in the second God who is next after him, or limiting his own fire, i.e., his own divinity. For he is absolutely uncreated and himself existing by himself, so that his divinity is separate from all others, as it is incommunicable to any other, although it be loved by all. That he doesn’t communicate himself is not out of envy, but only by reason of its impossibility.

(36) The Father makes not fear, but pours persuasion on. (P 34, CO 14, K 15)

The Father makes no impression of fear, but pours on persuasion or love; for he, being extremely good, is not the cause of harm, and therefore frightening, but is the cause of all good to all; whence he is loved by all.

☉☉☉

These Oracles of Zoroaster many eminent persons have confirmed by following the like opinions, especially the Pythagoreans and Platonists,16 since these oracles of the disciples of Zoroaster, to whom Plutarch refers when speaking of Zoroaster, also seem to be in complete agreement with Plato’s writings. Plutarch says17 Zoroaster would divide beings [onta] into three. Over the first part of these beings presides Hôromazês, who is called Father by the Oracles; over the last is Ahriman; Mithras is over the middle, and he is the one called Second Intellect [Noun] by the Oracles. Hôromazês, on one hand, has removed himself three times as much from the sun, which in Persian is also called “Cyrus” [Kyros],18 but Mithras, the one who comes after Hôromazês, by twice as much. Now, this is also very much in agreement with these words of Plato:
Related to the King of All are all things, and for his sake they are, and of all things fair he is the cause. And related to the Second are the second things and related to the Third the third.19

As for the three parts into which Zoroaster and Plato have divided beings, the first is the one that is eternal [aiônion]; the second is the one that is temporal [egchronon], but which is everlasting [aïdion]; the third is the mortal [thnêtên] part. Zoroaster, says Plutarch, is someone so ancient that it is said that he lived five thousand years before the Trojan War.

 


Bibliography

des Places, É., Oracula Chaldaica [Oracles chaldaïques], introd., ed., transl., and comment. É. des Places, Paris 1971, 1996.

Kroll, W. De Oraculis Chaldaicis. Hildesheim 1962.

Lewy, H., Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy, Paris 1978.

Majercik, R., The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation, and Commentary, Leiden-New York-København-Köln 1989.

Opsopoeus, J. Oracula Magica Zoroastris cum Scholiis Plethonis et Pselli. Paris 1589.

Stanley, T., The Chaldaick Oracles of Zoroaster and his Followers with the Expositions of Pletho and Psellus, London 1661.

Tambrun-Krasker, B., Μαγικὰ λόγια τῶν ἀπὸ Ζωροάστρου μάγων – Ἐξήγησις εἰς τὰ αὐτὰ λόγια (The Magical Oracles of Zoroaster’s Magi – The Explanation of the Oracles) [Oracles Chaldaïques. Recension de Georges Gémiste Pléthon. La recension arabe des Μαγικὰ λόγια, ed. M. Tardieu], introd., ed., transl., and comment. B. Tambrun-Krasker & M. Tardieu, Ἀθῆναι-Paris-Bruxelles 1995.



 Endnotes

1 Plethon’s commentary is titled The Magical Oracles of Zoroaster’s Magi (Μαγικὰ λόγια τῶν ἀπὸ Ζωροάστρου μάγων). Of course these oracles do not come from the Magi (as Plethon believed), and they are more widely known as the “Chaldean Oracles,” which is equally a misnomer. The translations of the oracles are my own; the commentary is by Plethon, translated by Stanley, modernized by me and checked against the Greek text in Tambrun-Krasker. The oracles are numbered as they are in the manuscripts (if they are numbered at all). In each case, the number after “P” is the oracle’s number in recent editions of Plethon’s commentary, such as Tambrun-Krasker; the number after “CO” in its number in collections of the Chaldean Oracles such as des Places and Majercik; the number after “K” is its place in Kroll. 

2 Plethon’s text of this oracle differs in a few respects from that in modern editions.

3 Contemporary scholars do not consider the third line, which is not in verse, to be part of the oracle.

4 Plethon’s text has κοίτης (bed, couch) where modern editions have ῾Εκάτης (Hekate), in which case the first line can be translated “Within Hekate’s left flank virtue’s fount exists.”

5 Paradeisos, a Persian word for “park.”

6 Oracles 15 and 16 are quoted by Synesius as one oracle (but in the order 16, 15), and so recent editions of Plethon’s commentary label them 15a and 15b (the “P” numbers here). Psellus, like Plethon, gives them as separate oracles in this order 15, 16. (Majercik, 1989, p. 108)

7 Plethon had different text for this oracle from that accepted now. Plethon had ἡγείσθω for the first word, but with οἰγνύσθω, the translation would be “Unclose the soul’s immortal depth.” His interpretation still holds.

8 Plethon has λέκτον whereas recent editions have λέοντα, in which case the first line is “If thou speak often to me, thou shalt see a lion.”

9 Contemporary editions have a slightly different text, “all things appear by thunderbolts.”

10 Instead of Plethon’s ταῖς ψυχαῖς, the modern text has κατὰ κόσμον, which would be translated “Paternal Nous implanted Symbols in the World.”

11 Oracles 29 and 30 in Plethon’s list (numbered 28a and 28b in recent editions) are single verses from a longer oracle (CO 1, K 11).

12 Plethon’s text differs from ours, but has the same meaning.

13 Stanley did not translate this oracle or Plethon’s commentary on it.

14 “Finished” (ἐξετέλεσσε) means to perfect or bring to a perfect end; that is, the Father thinks the Model perfectly, and passes it on to the Demiurge (Majercik 144). The Demiurge is often mistaken for the First God, because His work is more manifest to us.

15 Current editions have a somewhat different text, but with a similar meaning, “The World entire hath rigid intellectual Guides.”

16 Stanley did not translate the remainder of this last part of Plethon’s commentary.

17 Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, §46–47 (369E, 370A).

18 Plutarch, Ataxerxes I, 1012a. However Old Persian Kūruš (Cyrus) does not mean “sun.”

19 Plato, Epist. II 312e1–4, tr. Bury.

This page: http://omphalos.org/BA/PCOMO.html. Updated: 2020/09/11.