Prisca Theologia

Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena

This brief article is intended as an introduction to a much larger study of the relationship between enlightened wisdom versus narrow-minded dogma. In the process, I will focus on the Universal approach to religion as taught by Zoroaster and demonstrated by the extraordinary tolerance and benevolence of Darius I,  king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian Empire at this time included most West Asia, the Caucasus,  Thrace, -Macedonia, and Paeonia. It also reached the Black Sea coastal regions, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia

Darius was the author of the first bill of rights, was the liberator of the Jews, banishment of slavery and subscribed policy of noninterference with the religions of other groups.  This meant that the religion of Zoroaster had been spread through most of the known world. long before Alexander.

The Prisca Theologia is one of the most important ideas in the history of at least the last two millennia. This is true for a number of reasons. First and foremost it frees the mind to consider all sources of wisdom on an equal basis – without pre-conceived ideas. If we can allow that all religions might be called Pagan by somebody, even if they don’t match the definition. The most problematic religious beliefs are the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A girl watches over her sheep and goats as they graze before one of the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas.

The problem lies in an extraordinary and ingrained intolerance in virtually all forms of these religions. With particular reference to the last two, it is common for one sect to be at war with others, even though the differences in thought do not seem extreme enough to warrant the degree of conflict we see on an ongoing basis. Sufis have a reputation for deep and benign mysticism expressed through music and art, including dancing. Yet Sunni Muslims destroy their shrines in Pakistan and parts of Africa.

Afghanistan used to be a Buddhist country, but in the contemporary nation of Afghanistan, under the Taliban, saw fit to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas. The religious scholars could not distinguish art from idolatry. In my mind, the inability to distinguish shows a spiritual blindness. This paranoid mindset has dogged us through the centuries, sapped our creativity as well as our acceptance of other points of view and other values as well. It is both ironic and inevitable that these qualities have ultimately lead to a preference for atheism.and secularism.

The Abrahamic religions tend to take the position of ‘us and them.’ Certainly, something like astrology takes more than it’s fair share of abuse, even though all three Abrahamic religions support at least some forms of astrology. Rigid religious think has never been capable of expressing great creativity and closed minds are considered safe minds. If it could be shown that all true wisdom comes from a single source, we could no doubt diminish conflict. However, it is not true that all paths lead to Paradise. The latter is a New Age view which is patently false. We make little or no progress by pretending that all paths as laid down are the same, but we make the ultimate progress when we discover common roots and through the process of learning and inspired discernment, we can indeed find the pearl of great price. The metaphor of the pearl and also the that of the mustard seed show us what needs to be done.

If we turn the clocks back to the European Renaissance and the fortunate fall of Byzantium the means by which the opening of an inexhaustible mine of wisdom and inspiration became apparent.  The details of the various traditions will be spelled out in further articles, although some have already been covered in some depth.

The philosophy of Plotinus, a Neo-Platonist, is full of imagery – such as a fountain of light – that provide powerful insights into the nature of creation and the divine.  Plato himself, as well as Pythagoras, claimed connections with the Magi. Judaism would be almost unrecogbizable if the Zoroastrian influence was somehow removed.

Zoroastrian sky burial

The Hermetic Philosophy is so radically compatible with neo-Platonism, Pythagoreanism, Gnosticism, mystical Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, that it can come as no surprise that Marsilio Ficino put everything else aside to translate the Hermetica – this included putting some of the translations of Plato aside to focus on the translation of the new prize. This is highly significant because Ficino’s ultimate creation was his Theologia Platonica. He was fascinated by what was alleged to be Plato’s astrological chart. it would be exceedingly difficult to find anyone with a greater devotion, some would say obsession with all things Platonic.

Recently, I had the good chance to come upon a paper on the subject of the Hermetica. The author was clearly well versed in the many traditions that shadow or are informed by the tradition. I had only recently written a modest piece on Zoroastrian magic.  Ficino is usually studied with an understanding of his fascination with the prisca theologia or “ancient theology,” the doctrine that asserts that a single, true theology exists, was drawn from a common divine source. The term appears to have been first used by  Ficino.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure that it is well understood how right Ficino really was!

There are essentially two sources of knowledge regarding the date of Zoroaster and the first revealed monotheistic religion. The first is Greek. It tells us he was born in about 6,000 b.c. The second is also Greek and places him at around 600 n.c. The latter appears to be a fairly arbitrary date prior to the invasion of Alexander the Great. There is no actual evidence for the latter date whatsoever. The earlier date was the one accepted by Plato, Pythagoras and others who clearly had contact with magi and Zoroastrians. What we lack in incontrovertible facts, we have in abundance the testimonies of ancients and the unmistakable similarities that point us to a single source. I admit that this requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the usual alternatives are not available. If we consider the earlier date, then the earliest Hindu writings and the person of Abraham may be considered as deriving from Zoroastrianism.  It has been said that Abraham and Sara are Ram and Saraswati. We may never know and that is part of the point.

Cristian Violatti provides an excellent and concise account of the arguments for an earlier date from classical; sources: “The dates of Zoroaster are also discussed by some classical authors. Herodotus, who we would expect to deal with this issue, does not mention Zoroaster. Plutarch estimated that Zoroaster lived 5,000 years before the Trojan War; the ancients believed that the date of the Trojan War was 1184 BCE (according to Eratosthenes’ estimations), which would make 6184 BCE a date consistent with Plutarch’s opinion. In the 3rd century CE, Diogenes Laertius, based on a claim of Xanthos of Lydia (a contemporary of Herodotus), places Zoroaster’s life 6,000 years before Xerxes’ military campaign against the Greeks, which took place in 480 BCE. Thus, according to Diogenes, 6480 BCE was the time when Zoroaster lived.” (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

One of Ficino’s most brilliant students was a young scholar named Pico della Mirandola. He is most famous for his Oration on the Dignity of Man In it, he addresses ‘the fathers’ – representative of the religious and moral establishment  — with a fiery, eloquent and extraordinarily erudite oration. He was just 22 years of age,  The flowering of the Italian Renaissance was in some respects more impressive that the Classical culture it wanted to emulate. It was like a precious bloom that fell as a result of its own weight.

Girolamo Savonarola

It is necessary here to make a mercifully short digression. The world that had meant to be a renaissance of the Platonic Academy and more was to fall by way of a very stupid, possibly psychotic priest named  Girolamo Savonarola (Italian: [dʒiˈrɔːlamo savonaˈrɔːla]; 21 September 1452 – 23 May 1498). He was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. He gained a reputation prophecy and was clearly strongly charismatic. He was obsessed with the destruction of secular art and culture. He managed to terrify Florence to such an extent that its citizens jettisoned books and magnificent works of art on the original bonfire of the vanities. He managed to get the population to turn on itself. Sexuality was demonized and creativity suspected of evil intentions. Whenever and wherever these thoughts become dominant, death of all kinds is at hand. Creativity and sexuality are part of a healthy life.

Not for the last time in history, reason, creativity, and passion were swapped for mortification of the flesh, morbid and delusional fears, mixed with paranoia and absurd accusations (read projections). A salivating lunatic, barking mad as he obviously was, convinced the mobs that he was a holy man. Eben Pico succumbed. Savonarola effectively snuffed one the greatest flourishings of art and culture. It seems particularly ironic that his central prophecy was that a second Darius would come from the North and restore Christianity. When the French king invaded, he saw that as proof that his prophecy had been genuine.

The Middle Persian word ʾhlmn’ (Ahreman) in Book Pahlavi script. The word is traditionally always written upside down as a sign of contempt..

The most tragic element here is that there was an early chance for Christianity to take its place as a cherished expression of the prisci theologia, confident enough to stand without wanting to see everyone else fail. The ensuing years saw the fracturing of the Church, a Reformation that for the most part only made things worse, while inadvertently creating the perfect soil for nutty extremists who saw witches behind every tree. The cult of accusation is always evil. It always seeks a guilty verdict no matter what. A decent Christian or Zoroastrian would see the evil for what it was. The witch hunts didn’t only target witches. It was an easy way to appropriate land and wealth while inflicting the most awful suffering. We see this same spirit at work today.

The ugly religion of Savonarola and his ilk would be considered symptomatic of dark forces and druje in Zoroastrianism.: Jayaram V points out that “Angra Mainyu is the architect of evil, the anti-God principle, who represents evil, untruth, arrogance and death and subjects people to torment once they come under his influence, Ahura Mazda created the twin spirits, the good Spenta Mainyu and the other named Angra Mainyu or Ahirman.”  (Zoroastrianism, The Battle Between Good and Evil).

Some years ago, when Pakistan acquired the atomic bomb, I recall a young man in Islamabad stating “the Christians have the bomb, the Hindus have the bomb and now the Muslims have the bomb.’ The celebrations around this event were quite extraordinary, but my first thought was that this young man and many others. saw the world as being divided up by religions – not as a matter of choice, but as a matter of birth. Hindus were not like Muslims. This kind if thinking should have extinguished itself centuries ago, but in fact, it is strong and unlikely to reverse anytime soon. It’s obvious that the world is still reeling under the weight of massively scaled conflicts. These conflicts are migrating and attempts at multiculturalism on a grand scale fail largely due to religious intolerance.

The beginning of wisdom might be a revisiting of Ficino’s vision with both a mystical and a practical eye.  Ficino was an ordained priest. He was the mentor of Botticelli, Raphael, a score of poets, scholars, and philosophers. He had part of his villa painted with astrological images. His medical knowledge was commendable. It isn’t easy to understand that before Ficino, all but a few, relatively unimportant works by Plato and none of the Corpus Hermeticum was available to the west  His wealthy patrons arranged for the purchase of valuable greek texts that survived the fall of Constantinople. Intellectual and scholarly life before and after Ficino were entirely different.  Italian scholars finally had what they needed to revive something of the Classical world.

[Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.]

Nevertheless, the Judeo Christian heritage wasn’t something to be ignored and Pico had no qualms about Moses imbibing from the same source as Hermes. This was most easily done by reference to the Kabbalah. It is however surely noteworthy that Moses is not a central character in the co,[osition. Aristotle was no longer the last Classical word and the mystical quality of Plato became the preferred mode. The famous painting of The Academy shows Aristotle pointing toward the Earth while Plato points to the Heavens. This point in time was the first in which a prisci thelogia could have realistically been envisioned since antiquity.

In 1320 Dante Alighieri completed his Divina Commedia one year before he died. He was considered progressive insofar as he wrote literature in the vernacular. Beyond that, he lived in a Latin world, minimally touched by Greek thought. He had a degree of sympathy with only one Pagan and that was Virgil, a fellow poet and a Roman one at that. Most tellingly, Virgil plays an increasingly small role in

Dante Alighieri

the Comedia after leaving the Inferno. By the end of the people, he is given no voice at all. The Roman Catholic Church must have had the sense of perfect dominion in Europe, even it was threatened on other fronts. As in the works of Chaucer, there is a sense of Europe under a fairly comfortable siege. The notion os a Universal religion or a Prisci Theologia could not have found a footing during those times. A simple comparison of the two periods yields a great deal of insight into the massively expanded view of the late 15th Century.

Let’s take one more example. Dante had placed Guido Bonnati in the Inferno in Canto XX.  He was to be eternally punished for seeking to see the future, in keeping with Dante’s ideas of Divine Retribution. Fortune Tellers and Diviners have their heads on backward and their eyes are full of tears. These are the souls who, on Earth, tried to see too far ahead of them, and thus will spend eternity forever looking behind with blurred vision. Following the teachings of the papacy, the theme of religion is broached, because the papacy did not approve of sorcery in any form.” This is the most perverse hatred and fear of vision. That such a punishment could be considered either wise or just is abundantly symptomatic of a religious view putrid to the core. .

Ficino, on the other hand, was an ordained priest who practised astrology and astrological medicine. He could hold to the Christian faith while being a mage and drawing inspiration from several Pagan sources. It needs to be said that Ficino didn’t need to mention the historical Jesus in his Theologia Platonica, which would rule him out as a Christian in the minds of some. Ficino was so well protected from attacks by extraordinarily wealthy and powerful patron, including ones in the church itself, that we can imagine that a blind eye might have been turned towards his eccentric life.

However, it was by no means that cut and dried. For the most part, the upper echelons of the Church were as enamored with Ficino’s circle of artists, philosophers, magi, statesmen and poets as the Medici themselves. It was a period of extraordinary learning. Latin scholars had been common since Rome itself, but greek ideas, texts, and the language enriched theology to the point that Marsilio Ficino could write The Theologia Platonica in the first place. Logos and Word were interchangeable, except that the word logos has both more specific and more general meanings. Consider this phrasing: “Grant us your favour, My Lord,  show us this day your star,  the one once you showed to the Magi. The star that led the Magi to Christ, may lead us to Christ’s mysteries.” De Stella Magorum

The figure who embodies the greatest number of traits and qualities of this magical Prisci Thelogia was Zarathustra. But how could he be distinguished from Hermes Trismegistus? We know that what the Renaissance scholars were reading was probably a third-century work. However, reading the essence of the Hermetica, it takes no imagination to see Zoroastrian elements as well as Pythagorean and Platonic ones. At this point in history, this ought to come as no surprise. But one of the greatest pitfalls to knowledge has been the weird insistence of linear time and inevitable progress.

There are many interesting twists and turns on the theme of Prisca Theologia. A good example is to be found in Michelangelo’s Bacchus. The unnamed writer at Michelangelo.org writes:

Mechelangelo – Baccus

“The statue of Bacchus was commissioned by the banker Jacopo Galli for his garden and he wanted it fashioned after the models of the ancients. The body of this drunken and staggering god gives an impression of both youthfulness and of femininity. Vasari says that this strange blending of effects is the characteristic of the Greek god Dionysus. But in Michelangelo’s experience, [the] sensuality of such a divine nature has a drawback for man: in his left hand the god holds with indifference a lionsksin, the symbol of death, and a bunch of grapes, the symbol of life, from which a Faun is feeding. Thus we are brought to realize, in a sudden way, what significance this miracle of pure sensuality has for man: living only for a short while he will find himself in the position of the faun, caught in the grasp of death, the lionskin. ”

What the patron had understood as an image of lewdness and inebriation, is subtly turned on its head, as it were. The creative process has brought into play to reveal that the Michelangelo of the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel are not so far removed from the theme of Dionysius or Baccus.

The traditions of Platonism, Hermetical, Qabala, Pythagoreanism and Zoroastrianism, all describe a universe in which humanity has the freedom to choose and create. All of these and other traditions integrate the reading of the heavens. In the next part of this article. I would like to address the consequences of a history of the western world that has mostly ignored the contribution made to augury and astrology itself by the cultures of Northern Europe – in particular, that of the Druids

2 thoughts on “Prisca Theologia

  1. lampmagician says:

    Great read, Thanks a lot :) <3

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