Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority

Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E.

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Heidi Marx-Wolf
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , January
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is a book about what one might call spiritual zoology. As part of a robust ongoing discussion about Late Antique daemonology, Heidi Marx-Wolf explores how four Platonist thinkers from the third century CE (Plotinus, Origen, Iamblichus, and Porphyry) sought to order and manipulate the spiritual realm of daemons, angels, archons, heroes, and other spiritual species, a discourse that Marx-Wolf calls “taxonomy.” The focus is not simply on how these four thinkers described the spiritual biosphere. Rather, Marx-Wolf identifies a third-century discourse of spiritual taxonomy in which not only Platonists, but also “Gnostic” thinkers and various ritual practitioners positioned themselves as ritual experts and guides to salvation.

In chapter 1 (“How to Feed a Daemon: Third-Century Philosophers on Blood Sacrifice”), Marx-Wolf introduces the daemonology of her four major figures by focusing on sacrifice. Sacrifice raises questions of the species and qualities of spiritual beings, and invites questions about the taxonomist’s role as a ritual practitioner. We discover surprising constellations of opinion: Iamblichus approves of animal sacrifice, at least when theurgy is performed properly; both Porphyry and Origen eschew sacrifice. Porphyry thus agrees with Origen’s “Christian” position and disagrees with his fellow “pagan” Iamblichus. Clearly, theological positions with respect to daemons and sacrifice do not map neatly onto “religious” identities. Yet does this require, as Marx-Wolf suggests, that such identities were altogether unstable in the third century? Conversation, exchange, and even unexpected agreements or disagreements do not necessarily contradict strong notions of identity.

In her second chapter (“Everything in its Place: Spiritual Taxonomy in Third-Century Platonism”), Marx-Wolf turns to the third-century project which she terms “taxonomy.” This reader continued to wish for a more robust theorization of the term; the omission may reflect the fact that Marx-Wolf’s primary intervention is not about taxonomy as such, but about the ancient thinkers doing the taxonomizing. This chapter traces ways in which the taxonomic discourses articulated by Plotinus, Origen, Iamblichus, and Porphyry alternately resemble and differ from one another. Just as important are ways in which their spiritual taxonomies are destabilized. First, attempts to integrate existing theories create redundancy or disorder (for instance, Iamblichus’s inclusion of archons); these efforts suggest that taxonomy engaged a broader audience than is otherwise assumed. Second, the agentive “vitality” of matter itself occasionally upsets the tidiness of taxonomic hierarchies, especially when combined with the widely-shared ancient sense that even spiritual beings had bodies. Marx-Wolf’s insights about the mattered-ness of spiritual beings in ancient cosmology are particularly rich, and left this reader interested to learn more.

The remaining chapters focus on two sets of rival interlocutors from outside the Platonist philosophical sphere (although, especially in the case of “Gnostic” authors, some might also have viewed themselves as Platonists). In chapter 3 (“The Missing Link: Third-Century Platonists and ‘Gnostics’ on Daemons and Other Spirits”), Marx-Wolf addresses the first group. Although appropriately cautious about “Gnosticism,” Marx-Wolf considers several treatises from Nag Hammadi (in particular, the Apocryphon of John and Zostrianos, both identified in modern scholarship as “Sethian” works) as interlocutors for the third-century project of taxonomy. The ideas in such works, Marx-Wolf argues, compelled third-century Platonist taxonomizers (especially Plotinus and Porphyry) to engage questions of hierarchy and taxonomy in greater depth, and even to adopt elements which they otherwise might not have included (96). Attuned to the possibility that texts from Nag Hammadi may not be identical to treatises with similar names or content that were available to third-century thinkers, Marx-Wolf cautiously suggests that they were “relevantly similar”; this seems, however, merely to side-step the question of how similar is “similar enough” — especially given the evidence of textual development visible between even multiple copies of the same “work” in the Nag Hammadi codices.

Chapter 4 (“High Priests of the Highest God: Third-Century Platonists as Ritual Experts”) places third-century Platonists in conversation with the Egyptian ritual practitioners whom Marx-Wolf identifies as the originators of the Papyri Graecae Magicae and the Hermetic corpus. She argues that each of the four Platonist thinkers articulates a view of the philosopher as both “high priest of the Highest God” and ritual practitioner. Drawing on the work of David Frankfurter and Jacco Dieleman, Marx-Wolf offers an exceptionally lucid and nuanced discussion of the ritual handbooks and related writings from Roman Egypt as reflecting colonial hybridity and assimilation to exoticizing discourses. (This discussion might now also be placed in conversation with the recent monograph by Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Early Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2016), who addresses similar issues of self-authorization and ethnic coding of “religious” and ritual expertise.) The chapter focuses particularly on Iamblichus’s simultaneous appropriation and critique of Egyptian hieratic practitioners; the Greek and Demotic papyri themselves play a secondary role in the argument and might profitably have received more direct discussion. A brief conclusion summarizes the contributions of the monograph and, as a way of tracing the continued impact of discourses of spiritual taxonomy, employs John Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan to illustrate the ongoing role of spiritual taxonomy and the manipulation of spiritual beings as strategies of priestly legitimation well beyond the third century.

Marx-Wolf’s attention to third-century spiritual taxonomy offers fresh insights about both Platonist thinkers in the third century and the social world which they inhabited. By bringing together a number of textual corpora and scholarly conversations that often remain unnecessarily separate—“Gnosticism,” Late Roman “magic,” Hermetica, Late Antique philosophy, early Christian theology—this monograph depicts a third century characterized not by crisis or stagnation, but rather by vibrant intellectual exchange. Much more could be said about the intellectual and social contexts in which these figures coexisted; the political aspects of their intellectual activity likewise invite further exploration (129). These are not, however, deficiencies in this monograph, but rather directions for future research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeremiah Coogan is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heidi Marx-Wolf is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba.



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