Theurgy (gr. θεουργία theourgía, lat. theurgia), also called the theurgical art (gr. θεουργική τέχνη theourgikḗ tekhnē, lat. theurgica ars or discīplīna), is a term of ambiguous meaning, further obscured by frankly obscurantist scholarship. The two main senses are the following:

  1. A specific tradition of ritual practices, apparently originating with a group called the theurges or Chaldaeans (most famous for the Chaldaic Oracles), and later adopted by the Neoplatonists.
  2. Ritual in general, as theorized by the Neoplatonists, and especially Iamblichus. Later Neoplatonists largely use the term ‘hieratic (priestly) art’ for this, restricting ‘theurgy’ to the first meaning.

Through systematic mistranslation of ‘hieratic’ as ‘theurgy’, and pervasive conflation of both senses in the secondary literature, the subject has become extremely confused in modern times, although it is fairly transparent in the primary sources.

On the present page, I will largely discuss the first sense; see Hieratic for the more general, Iamblichean meaning.


It has often been thought that the nature of theurgy can be extracted from its etymology; but this is a dead end. Being composed of θεός (theós, ‘god’) and ἔργον (érgon, ‘work, activity’), its literal meaning is as vague as ‘practice relating to the gods’. It does not indicate anything so specific as ‘working with the gods’ or ‘through the gods’, nor ‘divine working’, or any of the other interpretations offered by modern scholars.

The ordinariness of the formation is confirmed by the first attestation of ‘theurges’ (θεουργοί theourgoí), which is in a list of names for “the servants of the gods”. The section also includes the words hierourgoí (ἱερουργοί) for ‘sacrifice/ritual officiants’ and theománteis (θεομάντεις) as a doublet of mánteis (μάντεις), ‘diviners’.[1] In other words, apart from being a neologism, there is nothing novel about it morphologically; theo- and -ourgos are commonplace.

It is, in fact, probably its nonspecificity on an etymological level that made Iamblichus adopt the term in the second, generic meaning, as a counterpart to theology: ‘practice relating to the gods’ as opposed to ‘discourse relating to the gods’.[2] But with his successors, the usage established by the Chaldaeans prevailed.


The only straightforward definition in an ancient lexicon is that of Hesychius:

“Theurgic (art): that which makes gods appear.”[3]

Evidently, this explanation is not spun out of the etymology, but based on the practices taught by the Chaldaeans, as we also find them described in the reports of other writers. It is, however, less precise than we might want, because the theurges were not the only ones who ‘made the gods appear’. The specific term for such a practice would actually be theagogy (‘drawing the gods’). And not all Chaldaic rituals were theagogic, nor was theagogy an aim in itself. Rather, theurgic ritual promised a kind of salvation, by means of ritual purification of the soul.

In short, theurgy is no one thing but all that the theurges practiced, and taught in their writings. Those have perished long since, but we have a great deal of information about their contents from later writers (chiefly Neoplatonists and their readers), so that we are not forced into silence about them.


  1. Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 1.14 (ed. E. Bethe): οἱ δὲ τῶν θεῶν θεραπευταὶ ἱερεῖς, νεωκόροι, ζάκοροι, προφῆται, ὑποφῆται, θύται, τελεσταί, ἱερουργοί, καθαρταί, μάντεις, θεομάντεις, χρησμῳδοί, χρησμολόγοι, χρησμοδόται, παναγεῖς, πυρφόροι, ὑπηρέται, θεουργοί· ποιητικώτερον γὰρ τὸ θυηπόλοι.
  2. Used as such in Iamblichus, Response to Porphyry 1.2; 3.22; 10.2.
  3. Hesychius, Lexicon θ 313 (ed. K. Latte): θεουργική· θεοὺς ποιοῦσα ἀπαντᾶν.