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Plutarch – Reconstructing a Greco-Roman Spirituality

PostPosted: Mon Jun 18, 2018 2:24 pm
by Gaius Florius Aetius
Plutarch – Reconstructing a Greco-Roman Spirituality

by Gaius Florius Aetius
Sacerdos Apollini


The following essay is a sort of text archaeology, and it is mainly working on Plutarch's four writings, published in his “Moralia”, called “On Isis and Osiris”, “The Decay of the Oracles”, “Why the Oracles no longer speak in Rhymes” and the “E of Delphi”. Initially I was just reading them in my complete works of Plutarch's Moralia, but after a time I realized what an immense treasure these four writings are, they offer nothing less than the most detailed insight and speculation about Greco-Roman Spirituality that exists. That there even is a Roman or Greco-Roman spirituality is something that to many still would be controversial, but the writings of the Moralia highlight this very clearly.

One of the main problems of working on the text is, that the four books never aim to reveal a coherent and complete system of Spirituality or different versions of a spirituality, because the author assumes these are mainly known to the reader, since Plutarch was both a Priest of Apollo in Delphi and Initiated into various Mystery Schools, which apparently served as sources of spirituality. From the comments and the dialogues in some of the texts we must assume, all participants of these dialogues were initiated in the Mystery School, and looking at how much Plutarch assumes as given knowledge of his readers, we must further assume that many, if not the majority of the educated classes of Rome and Greece at his time were initiated in some Mystery Cults at least at some level. This is an indirect conclusion, but I think it is very plausible, and that alone sheds a whole new light on the view of Roman religiosity of his time. We must, unlike the view often held in the past, assume that the spiritual view propagated through the Mystery Schools was not a rare exception of the otherwise disinterested “worldly” Roman intelligentsia, but rather a commonly expected educational background. The writings clearly show, that Plutarch knew that his readers had a reference of knowledge about spiritual and supernatural topics all up to esoteric, occult and hermetic concepts.

Now one thing that helped me to see patterns, which are otherwise lost to a regular Historian, is that I am a member of a Hermetic Order for 30 years, based on the kabbalistic and Rosicrucian traditions, and after reading Plutarch's four books mentioned, I was astonished how many similarities exist between the spiritual teachings of the Hermetic Tradition of the West, and the concepts explained in these books from Plutarch. They go in fact so deep, that I can no longer assume these are merely coincidental patterns of two sources coming to so similar views. However, a regular Roman Cultor, who has no knowledge of the Hermetic Traditions, will have difficulties to see the patterns, nor will he know that all these basic concepts have in altered form in fact been preserved in the teachings of Hermeticism, Alchemy, Astrology and Kabbalah.

For many Roman Cultors, just claiming this, will sound like a heresy. The concept that the Roman Religion is entirely a hollow Orthopraxis, is such a widespread and strongly held concept, that shaking it will likely find the greatest resistance, especially given the Hermetic School is heavily influenced by the Hebrew Kabbalah, which naturally will create quite a resistance against even considering that there are greatly overlapping spiritualities here. The main reason of this resistance and denial to even try to connect Greco-Roman religion with Hermetic teachings stems in my opinion from the traumatic destruction of the Cult in the violent rise of Christianity, which seeded a deep enmity between Polytheists and Monotheists, and has since prevented all attempts to reconstruct a Polytheist Spirituality from comparison to those forms of spirituality, which are usually connected to Monotheism, namely the Rosicrucian Hermetic Orders and their use of the Kabbalah. Even I used to think of them as two largely disconnected systems.

I just remind the reader, that in Plutarch's double biographies “On Great Romans and Greeks”, the author has interspersed many hints about religious practices and ideas. The longest part is in his writing on the life of King Numa Pompilius, the founder of the Roman Cultus, where Plutarch writes that Numa and the way he organized the Cult and the Temples was largely influenced by numerological and spiritual views of the Pythagoreans. So the Temple of Vesta has a flame in the center, symbolizing the Sun, but also the Soul, the Spirit, the Inner Flame as a spiritual symbol, and the circular structure symbolizes the circular nature of eternal change. A motif that we find in the Moralia many times, the duality of Matter and Spirit, wherein Matter is the ever changing and Spirit the eternal and unchanging, a view handed down from Pythagoras to Socrates and Plato and their concepts of the “Eternal Ideas”, which in this light must be newly interpreted less as Philosophy and more as Spirituality or spiritual philosophy. Plutarch mentions several times how important such geometrical and numerological ideas were of importance to Numa and the early Roman Cult. Plutarch describes a circulation that was held around the altar in the earliest times, symbolizing the circular nature of the cosmic order, a general spiritual concept that has been preserved through the millennia in the Hermetic Orders and from there went to the creation of Wicca.

It was only when I began to read Plutarch at first, who frequently mentions elements of the Pythagorean teachings, that I began to doubt if that strong separation was truly not more hindering our understanding? Plutarch expounds at length in many of his writings on the tremendous importance of the Pythagorean System of Numerology, interpreting the world through numbers and geometric forms: the circle, the triangle, the square, the pyramid and so forth. Any student of the hermetic Kabbalah instantly recognizes the similar role numbers have there, and the more Plutarch explained the various numbers and their meaning, the more I found how similar they are. Not entirely identical, but the similarities are so clear, that we must assume that the Pythagorean Numerology and the Kabbalistic Numerology either came to existence by contact, influencing each other, or were created from a common source. Which of the two was the case can probably never be solved, though I presume a source behind. We read from Pythagoras hints from Plutarch, he learned basics of his system from the Egyptians, and we know the Hebrew people, whose origin is more mysterious than common scholarly view assumes, is quite likely strongly connected to the Egyptians. We also know the Chaldeans and Babylonians had concepts of Numerology and so called Sacred Geometry, and after reading Plutarch and comparing it with my knowledge of the Hermetic Kabbalah, I came to the conclusion that all these were just regional variants of One System of Numerology, whose actual origin we may never know for sure, but it is clear to me now that the scholarly view that the spiritual systems of the Greeks and the the Hebrews are entirely disconnected things, can no longer be assumed. As merely a side-note, this could also open entirely new avenues on how Christianity was created, and how and why it was apparently so quickly accepted. Past theories had always emphasized that Polytheism and Christianity were like fire and water, incompatible opposites, where one world view, the Pagan one, was replaced by a totally different one, Christianity. This perspective was largely set into the world by Friedrich Nietzsche's writings about Christianity, which had a tremendous impact on the Pagan view. After years of reading Cicero, Marc Aurel, Seneca, Plato and Plutarch, I no longer see this stark contrast. But that would be a topic for an entirely different essay, and I shall leave it with this hint.

I) On Isis and Osiris – The Sacred Trinity

The book “On Isis and Osiris” is the largest of the four books I shall comment on. The books are written in a very complex manner. The author describes a whole plethora of myths, legends, historic events and possible interpretations. In the later part, interpreting the meaning of Osiris and Isis – and later on Horus, thus completing the idea of the Sacred Triad, he gives no clear indication what his own belief was, but given he spents more time on this topic than on most other topics, we must assume the spiritual concept was of great importance to him, and we can assume it was not so alien to the Romans and Greeks of his time, that he would not waste such a long text on the issue for just a very small audience. We know the idea of the Sacred Trinity exists both in Roman and Greek Religion in variants, from Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto who are Kings of the three realms to the various Triads of Gods in Rome, like the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and other such Roman Triads. We know that this is a pattern all over the region: the Egyptians knew other triads besides Isis, Osiris and Horus, and so did the Sumerians and Babylonians with Anu, Enki and Enlil.

Before I go into the text itself, I need to make again a comment about the role of the Kabbalah in this. The Kabbalah is today regarded as a Jewish Mysticism, though I believe the Kabbalah is a remnant of the Polytheist past of the Hebrews; we can be quite certain due to current historic research, that Yahweh developed from a Polytheist religion, he even used to have a wife, Asherah, once. In the Kabbalah, the Hebrew God Yahweh has a number of manifestations, which are in later times just called “his other names”, like referring to different functions, but it seems clear to me this is the overlapping between the Polytheist and Monotheist change the Hebrew religion was going through and the Numerology and Kabbalah were the last spiritual remains of the Polytheist past of the Hebrews, which over the millennia the then Jewish people tried to forget or ignore.

Isis, Osiris and Horus are represented as Trinity, and here is a world view revealed, although in the outer form of the Egyptian religion, which is written in such a way, that we must assume it seemed at least a very plausible spiritual view to the Roman reader of the time, or as I assume, Plutarch actually wanted to demonstrate that the Egyptian spirituality is actually like THEIRS, which seems to me to be the actual purpose of the text. Plutarch is not showing something alien, some cultural customs and ideas which are strange to his audience, he writes as if the ideas behind the Trinity are very familiar to the Romans of his time.

He writes first on Osiris and explains his principle as the Pure Spirit or Mind. In this view there is no such strong separation between the concept of Reason and Spirituality, which is one of the main differences between the Hermetic View and the Greco-Roman Spirituality, as condensed here. The Hebrew-kabbalistic view usually emphasizes, that spiritual insights are not knowledgeable to reason, whereas the Greco-Roman view always indicates that the spiritual must also be comprehensible by reason. Though one with a greater knowledge of the Greek original terms would have to look for the nuances of these terms. The fact that Osiris dies several times but always lives, is interpreted that the Soul, the Spirit, lives on, untainted by any events in the material plane, so Osiris is in this spiritual view not a God of the Dead, but a God free of vices. Plutarch emphasized the connection of virtue and spirit many times in the four books. Then Isis is described as “Mother Nature”, as matter, material world in the most harmonic sense, and also Isis as the Sum or Essence of all Goddesses: she is earth, mother, maid, protector, healer, Moon Goddess and connects all the various female Deity qualities within her.

It is said the symbol of Osiris as Pure Spirit, and male counterpart is the All Seeing Eye, like the God Father is an all-seeing God, of which Plutarch writes, that so Osiris has the same role as Jupiter, who is also the all-seeing Father, represented in their syncretic God Serapis. Isis and Osiris form a duality of male-spirit and female-earth/matter that strongly resembles the Chinese idea of Yin and Yang: both are presented as counterparts, and like Yin and Yang the male-spirit principle is seen as the more ideal. The female-material-earth principle is not seen negative, but the male principle of the “Allfather” clearly is the superior, as in the entire four books the Spirit is always shown to be the better, the perfect, since the Spirit, like the Gods, is the Unchanging, whereas the Material world is the ever changing, and that is the lower world.

This goes entirely against the theory of Nietzsche, who claimed the spirit-world duality came into the West only through Christianity. Plutarch writes time and again that this view heralds back many centuries and is not merely a fashion of his time. He cites Plato and Pythagoras many times and the entire presentation is written in a tone as one presents a well known and for a long time established perspective, not as something exotic or new. The view that the Spirit is male, superior and the creative force and that matter is the receiving, nurturing and female principle, is reflected in the Hermetic Orders and large parts of the Kabbalah, where the female principle is the Shekinah.

II) Horus – Apollo – The Solar Son

The presentation of the Third Principle however was the most fascinating for me, partially because I am a Priest of Apollo, just as Plutarch was, but also because it sheds a whole new light on the spiritual view on Apollo. Plutarch identifies Horus with Apollo, and he does it so many times and so elaborate, that it seems much more than a fleeting “Roman list”, like equating Roman Gods with foreign Gods. Plutarch had a very spiritual view on Apollo, whom he regards as a central God, and not just one among many, as the other three books referred here, reveal.

Horus is the unification of Spirit (Osiris) and Matter (Isis), he represents the eternal change of the world, like an arbiter of change, of development, that puts a new dynamic into the otherwise steady elements of Spirit and Matter. Horus is the Prime Mover of the world, in which he like Apollo is a Sun God, representing the Light itself. About this identity of Apollo and the Sun I shall write in the following chapter when I deal with the other books. Plutarch claims the identification of Horus and Apollo goes back to Pythagoras, and Apollo-Horus represents the One-Ness or Unity, the Number One. So we have a triad were the upper forces of spirit (Osiris) mix with the lower forces of matter (Isis) to create a third power, Horus-Apollo the One, the Light, the Sun, which is the prime mover. Apollo-Horus is thus a representative, or rather THE representative of the Allfather Osiris-Zeus himself. As Zeus-Osiris govern as Father of all Things, so is the Divine Son who is also the Sun, sort of the First Representative of the God Father. It resembles so much the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit from the Christian theology, and it is no surprise that we must assume today, that the “Holy Spirit” originally was the Shekinah, the Female Face of God, also representing Nature, as we know today from interpreting Gnostic Writings. Plutarch writes at some length a numerological view on various numbers, which are largely identical to the kabbalistic interpretation of the numbers.

But there is a fourth person involved, Typhon, the enemy of the Gods, a God himself, God of Chaos and disorder. Plutarch writes something very important, shedding a fascinating light on the role and view of “evil” in the Greco-Roman spirituality. Typhon is destructive and evil, in a sense. He is the power of disorder, that tries to destroy the order and harmony of Isis and Osiris, or Matter and Spirit. But its powers are not that sort of evil, that you just destroy and banish, they are the Lower Forces, in disorder, but through taming and control can be used and must be incorporated. Plutarch tells of the myth, how Hermes rips off the nerves of the slain Typhon and uses them to improve creation, thus symbolizing that the lower powers are not annihilated, but put into their place. It is a teaching that is identical to the teaching of the Rosicrucian-Hermetic and esoteric Kabbalistic lore of the Hermetic Orders. The Great Trump cards of the Tarot reflect this knowledge in its images, and that is the true meaning of the texts of Alchemy. The Tarot card “The Chariot” shows this the most clear: the two horses represent the wild animalistic forces, which the Charioteer tames and controls and thus moves the Chariot. It is a spiritual view that has survived the millennia and we can now see, the Hermetic view is not a late addition born from Christianity, it actually dates back millennia before.

III) The E of Delphi – The Five Worlds

This book has two separate topics which are of interest here: Apollo and the Five Worlds. While we get here also a plethora of legends, traditions and events, which are presented, I shall focus on the spiritual elements revealed in the text. The title, the “E” or “Ey” refers to an expression that was used as Delphi, an expression Plutarch says means “to be” or as an exclamation “exist”. It seems to indicate Apollo has a central role of a creative God and a God of Understanding.

Again Apollo is presented as Sun God, and from the writing here as well as the other texts who debate the matter, the author highlights that the question of Apollo was the Sun God or not, people still had different views at his time, but he writes that those who believe Apollo and the Sun to be the same were the vast majority at his time. He says nothing if this had been so a long time, or if this was a recent change. Apollo as Sun stands for the Number One, the One-Ness or Unity of things, as all Gods are completely perfect beings, so One is the Divine number per se. As such Apollo represents symbolically the idea of Divinity itself. Plutarch regularly calls him “THE God”; not in the sense to rule out other Gods, but clearly emphazising his elevated role.

There are many interesting paragraphs about numerology, like 2, the first even number and all even numbers also stand for the female, and all odd numbers stand for the male principle. He explains the superiority of the male odd numbers, that they always create something new: if you add two odd numbers, they create an even number, like 5 + 5 = 10. Whereas the female even numbers only replicate themselves, like 2 + 2 = 4, so the female principle is nurturing, supportive, whereas the male principle is innovative, creative. This interpretation from numerology is almost entirely identical with the hermetic and kabbalistic interpretation of numbers in relation of matter vs spirit or female vs male. The union of the female 2 (even) and the male 3 (odd) create the number 5 in a form of marriage, 5 being the number of harmony. Hence there are Five Worlds, and this goes back to Plato. Here all systems are organized in these 5 levels: Animals, Man, Heroes, Demons and Gods. (Note that Demons are not evil monsters as the Christian mythology says in this context, I shall go back to the topic of Demons later.) There are also five forces in humans: vegetative force, perception, desire, disposition and thinking.

Then Plutarch goes on to discribe the five worlds in such a way, that we have four basic worlds and the fifth serves as a sort of Primuum Mobile, the formless origin or Aether, and then there are the Four Worlds of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Now if you know anything about the Kabbalah, the description of the Four Worlds of Atziluth (material world), Briah (Angels), Yetzirah (Archangels) and Assiah (Divine Names), which are also related to the same four elements, that shows that the Pythagorean-Platoic world view is way too similar to major elements of the kabbalistic world structure, that coincidence can be ruled out by now. I shall compare the model of Plutarch/Plato with the kabbalistic four worlds in this chart:

Element ----- Plato --------- Kabbalah ------- Translated --------------------- Idea

Earth--------Humans-------- Atziluth ---------- Material World ---------------- Mortals
Water-------Heroes---------- Briah ------------ World of Angels --------------- Guardians
Air ----------Demons -------- Yetzirah -------- World of Archangels ---------- Guides
Fire -------- Gods ------------ Assiah ---------- Divine Names of God -------- Divine

Plutarch describes the four worlds as ever finer and more subtle worlds, exactly as the four realms of the Kabbalah are described. A Heros or Demigod is half God, half Man, or maybe a sort of Superman or Overman, a figure like Heracles or Achilles. A word is to say about the term “Demons”. In the writing of Plutarch they have a generally neutral connotation, though in the debate in the latter text “The Decay of the Oracles” it is argued whether Demons are either always good, or how they can sometimes experienced as seemingly harmful, but their role is clearly defined as Servant and Helpers of the Gods, so there is a great similarity to the role of an Archangel, a spirit very close to the God, and as an Archangel can get angry, so can the Demon, or as we may call it now Daimon.

The role is expounded in Plutarch's “The Decay of the Oracles”, where a group of people debate, why there are so fewer Oracles in their time, and within the debate they agree on the view, while done under the blessing and guidance of the God Apollo, the everyday work is done by a local working Daimon, and those Daimons may move on, alter their will, if the people seem less worthy of their attention. Now while a God like Apollo would always be willing to listen and would never be petty, the intermediate spirits are needed to tend the various Oracle places, the Daimons, and if over time the people of the area neglect their duties, the Daimons may decide to cease their work in the region. This clearly gives the Daimons a role like an Archangel, and many of the people debating in the text highlight, that the Gods are always good, and that tales which indicate the Gods acting “too human” are usually Daimons - Servants of that God acting on their behalf, since a Daimon still has some not entirely perfect and ideal characteristics, which a God, being perfect, has not.

Finally, one important thing he mentions is, that each being can rise to higher level, by living a life of virtue, so a Human can be reborn as Heros or Demigod, then live as a Daimon and finally rise to the Divine. (He would probably not become a God, but be close to the Divine.) Plutarch writes very clearly that these views were known already in the time of Plato and Pythagoras, and they clearly indicate the idea of an unending reincarnation. One may ask, how does this get together with the Greek Mythology, stories like Homer, where there is one life and then the unending bleak realm of Hades? We have to assume that the stories of Homer, Hesiod and Ovid were much more for common entertainment, only retaining some archaic parables, but never had the function to serve as literal view on the world, on the way a Biblical story would be regarded by a Christian. Also, we may assume there was a stark contrast between the religious view of a rural simple farmer and the educated populace of the towns and cities. For a farmer without education, there was one life and then nothing he looked forward to, while for the educated people of the cities, we must assume a much more refined spirituality. Both Plutarch and Cicero speak of reincarnation as something plausible, Cicero as a series of a few new lives, to complete ones tasks, Plutarch as a never ending series of eternal change and eternal new forms; a view, he says, which goes back to Plato and before. How many actually held that view is hard to say, but it clearly was more than a small niche view, and it also refutes this idea, Greco-Roman Pagans had a bleak view on the afterlife and no concept of a soul rising upwards, but merely an ever revolving circle, where no ascend of the soul is possible. It is interesting to read, that living a virtuous life is regarded as requirement for rising in level. I find this of the greatest importance, because this gives us a vehicle to open more to the Roman or Greek Polytheist than just doing the Cultus, but a real outlook for personal, spiritual growth and a rise to beyond the mortal world of men, something I think would be very important to develop or integrate into modern Polytheism, as apparently it was no alien element to the Polytheists/Pagans of the past.

IV) The Decay of the Oracles – Apollo as Sun God of central importance

The topic of Apollo and his special role is also begun in the previous books, but mostly emphasized here. As mentioned before, Plutarch emphasizes Apollo represents the idea of Divinity per se, as the One-Ness or Unity, the Number One. (I though of how “Number One” is the nickname of Commander Riker, the second in Command on the Enterprise, so Captain Picard would be Zeus, if you allow me this Star Trek analogy, that comes to my mind.) (Sidenote: The book itself attributes the decay of the Oracles mostly to the changing times. The seers are not as educated and pure as those of the past, and people ask mostly mundane questions now, but also it is attributed to the more changing nature of the Daimons, the intermediates between Gods and Men. It is clearly said, that the Gods inspire the Seer, give images into their minds, but the mind of the Seer itself forges it usually into a specific expression. But that is not such a relevant topic for this essay.)

Apollo as God of Music stands for all the Harmony of the World, and thus functions as a sort of main regulator. While he does not usurp the role of “God Father” Zeus, he clearly is described as the “God Son” in the central role.

Here Plutarch mentions that all the people in the dialogue are initiated into Mystery Schools, which explain the concept of the Daimons in greater detail, but it would be something he had to be silent about. Still, we do learn that the nature and maybe communication with the Daimons was apparently an integral part of the Mystery Schools, so what they did was seemingly not limited to the passive exposure to rituals, but also complex teachings and maybe even occult or shamanistic techniques. The fact that Socrates claimed to have a personal Daimon which would “speak” to him, something like a personal “Holy Guardian Angel”, is quite revealing about how similar the role of these Daimons were regarded to the teachings of Hermetic Orders of our time.

The book goes on theorizing there will likely exist more material worlds like this, and that our Gods would manage them in maybe other forms, but still be the same Gods.

Again there are some paragraphs about Numerology. One is the One-Ness, Spirit, Mind, the Soul, Gods, the Divine, Purity. Two is the duality, change, matter, the world but also discord and struggle. Three is structure and harmony. Now struggle (Number 2, chaos) and harmony (Number 3, order) form a balance with number 5, which is the World-Number. Plutarch argues that Penta (five) and Panta (all) have the same root. The world is created through the number 5, with the number 10, two times 5, representing the completeness of all possibilities. All this, Plutarch writes, goes back to Plato.

Finally there is an interesting paragraph about why Apollo is identical with the Sun, or in what way. He writes, Apollo is not identical with Sol, but Apollo and Sol are like Soul and Body; Apollo is the inner Light and the Sun is the Outer Light, both standing for the ability to see: Apollo for the ability of the soul to see, Sol for the ability of the physical eyes to see. So Apollo is quasi the soul of the Sun, or the Sun in the higher form, they are to be seen as the same, but in a way two different manifestations. Interesting is this duality, how the incorporeal Soul or Spirit is seen as imprisoned in the Body, and like the rays of the sun are hindered by a fog, so does the body limit the perception of the soul. The body is not so much defined as evil or sinful, but clearly a sort of hindrance, an ulterior system. That is why the incorporeal Daimons on the Oracles see more clearly: having no physical body, they have only few passions which distract their perception. In the Oracles, a human being can clear his mind and open himself to the Gods and the Daimons, and learn to “see with his soul's eyes”, in two ways. First, by living a virtuous and peaceful life, calming the excessive passions of the soul, which have a bit a Buddhistic ring to it. And on the other hand through excessive enthusiasm induced by drugs, a quasi shamanistic way of going into a trance.


I had filled many papers with handwritten notes working through these books, and it was a fascinating opening of a new perspective. After looking through my notes I thought “Oh woe, how much greater were the Ancients than we even yet knew, were we yet just play like children with their knowledge!” The restoration of a Greco-Roman or generally speaking a Classic Era Spirituality will be no easy task. What we have here are mere fragments. But I think they are enough to proof once and for all that the many spiritual systems around the Mediterranean Sea and the Levante were connected, and that the Hermetic Traditions have preserved much more than we knew. The entire tone, the basic concepts, all are so close to the perspectives of the Hermetic Lore, that it filled me with great happiness, and myself being a member of such an Order for 30 years, I feel like I haven't done it all so entirely wrong.

The idea that the Soul rises through reincarnations and the chance to put Apollo in a central role of a spiritual version of the Greco-Roman Religion open up huge opportunities for a very attractive spirituality. Such an essay can of course only grasp the basics, but for me it has opened a door, things formerly seen as disconnected feel together like puzzle pieces. I regard this as a big opportunity to develop our Cultus Deorum Romanorum, and that it is much less a reform as indeed a TRUE restoration, not one cut in half and looking only at the exoteric Orthopraxis, as worthy as it is, but finally coming to terms the Roman Religion offers a deep, complex, and personal spirituality.