Porphyry: Ancient Philosopher, Modern Perspective on Magic and Religion

Some modern theories on religion and magic posit that these are not objective phenomena. Rather, any occurrences generated through the use of ritual are actually the result of a change in the practitioner’s psychological state. This psychologicalization model suggests that ritual action changes one’s gestalt and thus ideated outcomes become a confirmation of reality. Similar to this view is that of Neurotheology, the idea that physiological changes occur as a result of ritual, and these physical components trigger the sort of outcomes associated with spiritual experiences.

In other words, it’s all in your head.

We tend to think of this as a very modern way of looking at spiritual phenomenon. There’s the view that, as a modern culture steeped in scientific advances, the way we view magic and religion is more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more objective than the view taken when people thought they were actually raising demons and placating the gods. How far we have moved beyond that!

But this view is not so new. In fact, the philosopher Porphyry was on about this stuff way back in the third century. In his Letter to Anebo, Porphyry sets forward a set of views about religion which are very similar to the ones we put forward as “modern” ways of looking at magic and spirituality.

Here’s what Porphyry has to say about some ancient religious practices (many of which today we would classify as magic):

“But, concerning the causes of divination, it is dubious whether a God, an angel, or a daemon, or some other power, is present in manifestations, or divinations, or certain other sacred energies, as is the case with those powers that are drawn down through you [priests] by the necessities with which invocation is attended.

Or does the soul assert and imagine these things, and are they, as some think, the passions of the soul, excited from small incentives?” (6-7) [emphases mine]

Porphyry lists these “small incentives” in an earlier paragraph. They are things like incantations, reading entrails, taking “potions” and olfactory stimulants—basically, any periphery agent used in the process of attaining the spiritual state.

Porphyry goes on to suggest that these outer “incentives” do not generate an outer phenomenon. Rather, any results, such as divining the future, actually arise from within the soul.

“Hence it must be said, that the soul generates the power which has an imaginative perception of futurity, through motions of this kind, or that the things which are adduced from matter constitute daemons, through the powers that are inherent in them, and especially things adduced from the matter which is taken from animals.” (7)

To prove this point, Porphyry uses the example of prophecies which come to one during sleep.

“For in sleep, when we are not employed about anything, we sometimes obtain a knowledge of the future. But that a passion of the soul is the cause of divination, is indicated by this, that the senses are occupied, that fumigations are introduced, and that invocations are employed; and likewise, that not all men, but those that are more simple and young, are more adapted to prediction.” (7)

Presumably, this is not the sleep of the ritualized incubation chamber, but rather the normal kind “when we are not employed about anything.” By noting this, Porphyry suggests that these prophetic dreams are not accompanied by the ritual actions described earlier. His chain-of-logic then goes something like this: If no outside stimulant is used to bring on such an experience, then the resulting effect is also not external, but self-generated. He also adds that, in ritualized settings, it is those more easily duped (i.e. children), who are prone to giving into the passions of the soul and providing these prophecies.

Porphyry levels his final blow against religion by criticizing its irrational motivations. His attack is one which reveals his intellectual approach to philosophy and theology. He suggests that without a rational investigation of religious practice, one will never know the gods—they will only know what they imagine the gods to be.

[With regards to religion not adopting a rational approach] “In this case, they will not be conversant either with Gods or good daemons, but with that daemon who is called fraudulent; or if this is not admitted, the whole will be the invention of men, and the fiction of a mortal nature.” (16)

To sum up, the result of religious practice is, in Porphyry’s view, false and generated by the fictions of the bodily senses. By using invocations, incantations, potions and other ritual techniques, ones alters the senses, not to commune with the divine, but to perpetrate a fiction upon oneself.

Now, while this is a heavily psychologized view of ritual, it remains a rather negative one. For Porphyry, there is no positive outcome from the experience; the whole process is fraudulent, and worse, obfuscates the true nature of reality. While this may ultimately be his final verdict on these practices, Porphyry’s observations illustrate that psychological and physiological models of magic and religion are not exclusive to the modern age. In fact, they can be quite ancient.


“The Epistle of Porphyry to the Egyptian Anebo.” In Iamblichus on the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians. Translation Thomas Taylor. 1821. Print

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