Orpheus and the Golden Chain: The Golden Chain of Marsilio Ficino. (Part Two)


Marcello Provenzale’s Orpheus Mosaic (Cardinal Scipione Borghese as Orpheus). 1608. (Source.)

“Ficino believed that the ancients and their Muslim and Christian commentators spoke with a more or less unified voice on subject of magic. In an effort to revive the magic of the ancients, he sought to demonstrate the harmonies between a diverse range of Christian and pagan sources. Ficino’s debt to Neoplatonic and Scholastic philosophy in the De vita coelitus comparanda has been well documented. He justified the use of astrological images through a synthesis of arguments from Aquinas’s De occultis operibus naturae and Plotinus’s fourth Ennead. While one might question Ficino’s interpretation of Aquinas, his reading is founded on long-standing theoretical tradition, extending from NeoPlatonism through al-Kindi and Scholastic figures like Albertus Magnus, whom he regarded as the author of the Speculum astronomiae. […] In a rather clever interpretation of Aquinas, Ficino vindicated the practice of magic as orthodox. By synthesizing the interpretation with ideas from Plotinus, Ficino situated it within the fashionable Platonic ideas of the Renaissance.”
– Frank Klaasen,
The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance. (P. 190 – 191.)

The Golden Chain (Aurea Catena)

For Marsilio Ficino, Orpheus was hardly alone in terms of veneration. Ficino justified his magical practices by looking backwards, towards what he considered the traditional founders of magic. The “Golden Chain” that this series refers to is in fact a set of seven figures that for Ficino were magicians to whom all others owed their knowledge:

Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaus and Plato.

It is perhaps fitting that the Chain begins with Zoroaster, the founder of Magianism. A religious figure in his own right, it is from the Greek views of Zoroastrian priests in antiquity that we gain the word “magician.” The Magi – that is the Priests of the Magian religion – were initially viewed with respect by at least some segments of the Hellenic population. Later, the word came to have a dual association: it could refer to oriental (Persian and Iranian) magicians who worked as street-peddlers of potions and spells, and to the Priests themselves. By the era of Herodotus, it could even be used as an insult. Morton Smith, writing in Jesus the Magician, notes:

“In the drama of the later fifth century magos can mean ‘quack;’ the ‘arts of the Magi‘ can be equated with ‘the use of drugs‘ and ‘the deceits of the gods.‘” (p. 71)

Whether or not Ficino was aware of this is rather irrelevant, but it is rather important to note, as this dual role played by “magicians” occurred even during the Renaissance. On the one hand, we have the Theurgists of the period who, like Ficinio, steeped themselves in the theurgical practices of the past. On the other hand, we have the recurrent non-problem (which was hardly viewed as such at the time) of
Goetes, who continued to ply their trade with practices that others frowned on… And would undoubtedly land in a world of trouble if they were caught doing so.

Regardless: to Zoroaster goes the first link in the Golden Chain. Ficino gave the figure this key role for both his theurgical thoughts – or at least what the Neoplatonic theurgists of his era could get their hands on – and due to a central misunderstanding that continued well into the 19th and early 20th centuries. (In particular, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn aided and abetted in the continuance of this mistake.) It was this: segments The Chaldean Oracles had survived well into the Renaissance through quotations by Neoplatonists. Ficino and others of his era had mistakenly assumed, both due to their name and some of the contents that they had translated, that the Chaldean Oracles were to be attributed to Zoroaster himself. In this regard, they were quite wrong. More recent academic work by Hans Lewy and others has offered corrections to this mistaken conclusion. The general appraisal of the Oracles as a positive force can be traced back as far as Iamblichus, who incorporated elements received by Julian the Chaldean and his son, Julian the Theurgist during their work with the deities who speak in their Oracles.

The second link of the Golden Chain resounds in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, the “Thrice Blessed” Hermes of the Corpus Hermeticum. During the Renaissance individuals such as Ficino believed that the Thrice-Blessed Hermes had been an actual individual, rather than a mythic Priest-King referred to by crafty magicians to hide their very mortal hands. In fact, the “trick” of attributing one’s personally discovered magical practices (or those handed down by a secretive group) to a mythical figure is a long-standing tradition amongst magicians and can be seen in abundance amongst the Grammars (Grimoires) of Magic. Very few, if any, of such texts were actually written by the figures they are attributed to. And in point of fact we might well call into question how often treatments of figures such as Hermes Trismegistus or even Orpheus were done so in a tongue-and-cheek fashion, or if they were treated as such as a means of venerating the “spirit” of the wonder-workers, and “magicians” of the past. Given that even Cicero refers to the “image of Orpheus” being with his spirit frequently, we might question whether academic approaches that assume literal views of these figures were routine are correct, or if the assumption has been made from place of ignorance.

The third link in the Chain is Orpheus, who was encountered in the last entry in this series. One important note to add is that Ficino particularly prized Orpheus because he believed that Orpheus had demonstrated ancient magical and theurgical beliefs:

The Orpheus of the hymns and of the Orphic epic Argonautica was revered by Ficino precisely for giving voice to the divine truth of theology through a poetic mythology and the singing of hymns. In this Orpheus provided the key to Ficino’s Christian Platonism. In naming Jupiter as the supreme creative principle, the ‘beginning, middle, and end of the universe’, Orpheus demonstrated his understanding of one of the fundamental assertions of the ancient theology, that the whole of creation is constantly being regenerated in a never-ending movement towards unity: ‘all things first flow from that eternal source when they are born; then they flow back again to it, when they seek their own origin; and finally, they are perfected, after they have returned to their source.’ (Ficino, De Amore II.1)

As Poet, priest, prophet, and lover, Orpheus embodied the four conditions on which God depended, the four frenzies or madnesses in which the human soul was lifted beyond its earthly condition and achieved spiritual possession.”
Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy. Edited by Michael J.B. Allen, Valery Rees, and Martin Davies. (P. 230.)

Next we see Aglaophemus, who Ficino believed was an Orphic initiate. It appears that his selection of this figure depends entirely on two quotations of Iamblichus (it is perhaps startling that Iamblichus was not himself a part of the chain) De vita Pythagorica (“On the Pythagorean Way of Life”), at least according to the editors of above quoted book. Alas, I know next to nothing about Aglaophemus, and can say little specifically about the figure.


Pythagoras is Ficino’s next vital link in the chain. During this era, Pythagoras was venerated not only as a magical Saint, but also thought of as an initiate of the mysteries of Orpheus. The mathematical genius was subsumed into a continuation of a school of thought that Ficino and other Renaissance figures linked back to Orpheus (and in Ficino’s case, further back to Zoroaster as the great “founder,” although in historical reality, he was not).

Following Pythagoras is Philolaus, who wrote what may very well have been the first Pythagorean text,
On Nature. Philolaus is especially important to the Golden Chain due to his discourse on Harmonia, and the use of Orphic hymns by Ficino, Giovanni Pico Mirandola, and others to “illuminate” their souls through music. The Pythagorean “music of the spheres” was not simply thought – at least during the Renaissance – to be used to determine the distance of the planets using musical measurements, but to illuminate the soul itself and set it adrift amongst the Celestial spheres where it could be heard. (Hence, Agrippa tells us: “Now Muses are the souls of the celestial spheres, according to which there are found several degrees, by which there is an attraction of superior things to inferior.”)


Finally we have Plato. The Neoplatonists of Ficino’s era were well aware of their debt to Plato, and devoured whatever of his works they could get their hands on. In this case, not much has changed, as even today there are magicians and philosophers alike who devour the aforementioned works. And it might be noted that Plato has always had plenty of philosophical discourse which is of use to theurgical magical practitioners, not to mention devout polytheists of a purely religious sense.

Of course, one should hazard a final note: the Golden Chain that Ficino posited to justify his interests, and his use of religious materials outside the domain of Christian sources, does not imply that his views are in any way historically accurate. Rather, they hint at a broad project maintained by several individuals, if not a school of thought, during the Renaisance: to reinvigorate Christendom by infusing it with Neoplatonic – or what they thought were Neoplatonic – materials and fuse the glory of antiquity with the era in which they lived. In doing so, however, they opened the door for today’s polytheists to look at the “roots” that were postulated and formulate our own means of tying ourselves backwards to those essential essences. Thus I suggest that even if the Christian overlay existed in places, it still creates a metaphorical chain whereby we might see what we do at different points in history, and come away with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, venerated the same figures that we do, with no less devotion than our own. Ficino’s Golden Chain is not important because it is historically accurate – which it certainly is not – but rather because it creates a bridge between the past and present and means to cross that bridge, even if today some of us abandon the Christian elements that permeate his views. Likewise, it is a means of seeing that the antagonism between different classes of practitioners need not be persistently stressed in such a way that is detrimental to the work, overall. Whether you venerate many deities, or espouse Monism or Panentheism, you can still look to the glorious moments of the past and the figures embodied within it as you trek forward. That said, I am admittedly biased towards a polytheist stance.


[And it is here that I must pause again, as rooting through footnotes and books has taken its toll on me. Thus I shall have to hold off on the Orphic Hymns in the Renaissance, and how and why they were used, until the next time I write here.]

Jack Faust is a polytheist magician, crazed stoner, and blogger at the Dionysian Atavism blog over at blogspot. When not digging through dusty and archaic texts, he spends time singing Orphic Hymns to cats, moths, and anything that is willing to put up with his bizarre antics.


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