Communing with the Gods: John “Apollonius” Opsopaus on Theurgy and Henosis

Introduction

Renowned occult scholar John “Apollonius” Opsopaus traces his lifelong fascination with magic and the paranormal back to his childhood encounters with folklore books and occult texts. We explore the events and literature that opened his mind to hidden realities.

Dr. John “Apollonius” Opsopaus has practiced magic, divination, and Neopaganism since the 1960s. He has more than 40 publications in various magical and Neopagan magazines and designed the Pythagorean Tarot and wrote the comprehensive Guide to the Pythagorean Tarot (Llewellyn, 2001). He is the author of The Oracles of Apollo (Llewellyn, 2017) and The Secret Texts of Hellenic Polytheism (Llewellyn, 2022). Opsopaus frequently presents workshops on Hellenic magic and Neopaganism, Pythagorean theurgy, divination, and related topics.

To learn more about Dr John “Apollonius” Opsopaus please visit his website here. For additional resources please visit this page.

Background

PAA: What first sparked your interest in magic and the occult as a child? Were there any books or films that were particularly influential.

John Opsopaus: That is hard to say, since as long as I can remember I have had an interest in magic and occult phenomena. I do recall in middle school spending a lot of time in my grandparents’ library, which contained several old (Victorian era) folklore books, in which I found some magical practices described. Around this time I compiled my own grimoire (long since lost), writing spells I had collected on tea-aged paper that I bound in birch bark. This would be in the early 60s. Somewhere around this time I encountered Crowley’s Magic in Theory and Practice, which I spent some time exploring.

Later, when I was in college, my roommate and I discovered an out-of-the-way room in the university library that was filled with old occult and magic books, donated by an old lady when she had died. We went wild! I remember that we found a first edition of the MacGregor Mathers translation of The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, which we attempted to work while still attending classes and doing other typical student things.

PAA: You mentioned doing parapsychological experiments as a teenager – what motivated your interest in ESP and psychic phenomena at that time?

John Opsopaus: I was interested in all the spooky stuff (and the rest of my family were accepting of it), and in fact I was fascinated by anything that pushed the boundaries of our minds and understanding. In middle school I read all the books from J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke University. Eventually (still in middle school!) I corresponded with Rhine and his colleagues, obtained a set of official Zener cards, and started doing my own experiments. I was also experimenting with hypnotism around this time. I thought the development of psychic ability and skill with self-hypnosis were both very important for personal growth.

PAA: Who were some of the key figures or writers that shaped your early understanding of occult subjects?

John Opsopaus: In high school I recall being interested in C. H. Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension, which taught one how to visualize a fourth spatial dimension. This led me to P. D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum, which I studied seriously, and introduced me to the Gurdjieff work. All of these things loosened my mental fetters and allowed my natural mental faculties to develop, but without abandoning my interest in science. Also, some time in high school I picked up Jung’s Man and his Symbols and Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which began my interest in archetypal psychology.

Development of Spiritual Path

PAA: How did you initially get connected with the wider neopagan community? What was it like finding others who shared your spiritual interests?

John Opsopaus: Like many young people, I was captivated by Greek and Roman mythology. The first book I bought in elementary school, when the “book mobile” came to our school, was a thin paperback of Greek myths. At that time, or perhaps on the next visit, bought a paperback of world mythology, which I still have. Later in high school (late 60s) I plowed through my father’s copy of the one-volume abridgment of Frazer’s Golden Bough, which introduced me to Frazer’s views of magic and ritual. By the time I got to grad school, I was a devotee of ancient Greek mythology, literature, and philosophy. I had decided that I was more at home in the ancient Greek world than the modern world.

I also started studying Ancient Greek (Homeric Greek at first, since at that time Homer and Hesiod were closer to my view of the gods). At that time I was aware that there were Neopagans around, but I didn’t pay too much attention to them, except for a certain comradery from bucking the mainstream religions and belief systems. Later, in California around 1980, as I continued to immerse myself in ancient Pagan thought, I had that awakening and homecoming that so many modern Pagans have, and I acknowledged to myself that I was Pagan and began to practice Hellenism consciously.

For a few years I developed my Hellenic religious practice as a solitary. After moving to Tennessee in the late 80s, however, I remember hearing Margot Adler talk about the wider Neopagan and Wiccan movements, and I decided to get involved in the Pagan community so I could participate in group rituals. I joined several Pagan and magical organizations. Since followers of Greek and Roman paths were a relative minority within the Neopagan and Wiccan community, around 1990 I set up the Omphalos as a networking organization through which Greco-Roman Neopagans could contact one another, trade rituals and information, and organize group rituals and festivals. It originally operated through postal mail, but moved online in the early 90s.

PAA: In what ways have you seen the neopagan community grow and evolve since you first became involved in the 1980s?

John Opsopaus: One of the biggest changes is the availability of resources on the Internet. To learn how to
practice in the 1980s, you either had to find and join a local group, which was difficult in many parts of the country, especially for less popular traditions such as Hellenism, or you had to learn it from books. Now, aside from there being many more Neopagan individuals and groups throughout the world, there is a cornucopia of online courses, videos, and other resources on the Internet. The quality is extremely variable of course, but good material is out there. Rare old occult texts, which were expensive and difficult to find or only available in bad reproductions, are widely available online. Accurate historical information and scholarly studies are also much more accessible through the internet. (We’ve moved on from abridged editions of The Golden Bough and Robert Graves!)

PAA: What inspired you to start creating reconstructed Hellenic rituals? How did you go about adapting ancient practices for modern times?

John Opsopaus: When I recognized that I was a Hellenic Neopagan in the 1980s, most groups worshiping the Greek gods were doing “Wicca with Greek god names,” that is, worshiping the God and Goddess through Wiccan ritual but with some Greek trappings. This is certainly a valid spiritual path, and I got a lot from engaging in these rituals, but I was also aware that it didn’t have much in common with ancient practice. Fortunately we know a great deal about ancient religious practice in Greece and Rome — as opposed to other ancient Pagan religions, which are less well documented and studied — and so I decided to base my practice on ancient models.

Of course this doesn’t solve all the problems. What we know most about are the large civic rituals, which are less appropriate now, but we know less about household religion and the mysteries, which are more suited to Neopagan practice today. Also, we live in a different culture, and shouldn’t expect to do things exactly the same as in Athens two or three millennia ago. For example, most of us would not want to do blood sacrifice. All the Greek cities had their own traditions anyway, and living religions evolve. Also, although a lot is known about ancient practice, there are gaps in our knowledge that have to be filled. So I decided that I would base my rituals on ancient practice, but updated for the late twentieth century, filling in gaps in what seemed to be the best way based on my knowledge of religious practice and ritual construction in general. But in my rituals I have tried to document what is based on ancient sources and
scholarship and what is my own invention, with an explanation of my choices. That way, if someone disagrees with my decisions, they can try something else. The ancient Greeks debated religious ritual and made changes; the key point is to do it in an informed and thoughtful way. Divine inspiration is valuable, but it needs to be evaluated.

Greek Gods and Archetypes

PAA: Many today see the Greek gods as mere myths or stories, yet you have devoted your life to connecting with them on a deep spiritual level. What convinces you that these gods represent real divine forces worthy of invocation?

John Opsopaus: From my study of ancient Greek religion I learned that in ancient religion orthopraxy (right action) was more important than orthodoxy (right belief), and this seemed very reasonable to
me, for people have argued about the nature of the gods for millennia, but what is most important is that we acknowledge them and live in accord with them. Therefore in my religious practice I treat the gods as absolutely real, and during worship I set aside any doubts and quandaries I might have about their exact nature. Of course, from a philosophical standpoint I’m interested in these questions, and in particular how the gods fit into the world revealed to us by science, but my ideas are provisional.

Over the years I have gradually come to accept a Platonic view of the gods, in that the eternal gods are Platonic Forms that exist in a non-physical realm. However, because they are eternal, they are unchanging and impassible, and therefore don’t have much direct interaction with us as individuals. However some of these Forms are personified and part of the Form Homo sapiens. They are inherent parts of the human psyche, and they become embodied in our brains when we are born. They are governors and regulators of normal (i.e., characteristic of the species) human behavior.

So we have these innate patterns of behavior — dynamic images of the gods — in our unconscious minds. These unconscious regulating forces are in fact the archetypes of the collective unconscious described by Jung. So I think it is correct to view the gods as archetypes, but that does not make them any less real, for they are images of the eternal gods that are inherent in us and also powerful influences in our lives. When we interact with the archetypes we are indirectly interacting with the eternal gods. The gods are not fictions or figments of our individual imaginations or arbitrary inventions of story-tellers. That is my current belief, in any case.

PAA: Could you explain your process of invoking a goddess like Aphrodite? What signs or indications might you look for to know your invocation is succeeding? How do you experience her archetypal essence?

John Opsopaus: My technique is based on Neoplatonic theory and practice but also Jungian active imagination. Typically I use various material symbols of the goddess, such as a statue or other divine image, with appropriate incense, flowers, fruit, etc. as offerings. I use a traditional invocation or compose one that mentions her epithets and alludes to myths in which she has helped mortals and to situations in when she has helped me. The purpose of these symbols is to attune my mind to the particular divine energy of the goddess. I usually conduct the invocation in ritual space and wearing ritual garb, but this again is to put me in the proper frame of mind. Often in my imagination I enter some sacred space, often where I have encountered her before. When I have made my invocation, I rest in a state of quiet expectation. Usually the arrival of the deity is signaled by some change in the environment: a change in the temperature, signs of animation, phenomena of lights, a sound, etc. Then I welcome the goddess and begin communicating with her.

Sometimes I communicate in my imagination, the true imagination (vera imagination), which is the part of our souls most in contact with the gods, not the confabulating imagination. Sometimes I communicate via an ensouled statue, which may appear to move. One sign of success is that the encounter goes in surprising (and sometimes unpleasant or difficult) directions. (Sometimes someone you didn’t invoke shows up, and I have found it is important to engage with them.)

PAA: In your view, do the gods reveal themselves differently today compared to how they did in ancient Greece? How do we avoid simply projecting our own assumptions onto them?

John Opsopaus: In the Chaldean Oracles the goddess tells us that the gods put on particular appearances for our benefit. For me, the gods and goddesses typically appear as they do in ancient art, but I believe they do this because it’s what I expect. I have also seen them in modern garb or in animal form. So in this — I think unimportant — sense we are projecting our expectations onto them. One indication that we are engaging with forces beyond our conscious selves is that the gods violate our assumptions and expectations. Certainly, we might be communicating with personal daimons (which is OK and often desirable), and what they say may be personal and peculiar to us (so-called “unverified personal gnosis”), and so we should avoid assuming it applies to everyone. Also, as humans with a divine spark ourselves, we should avoid blind obedience to any god, but negotiate, which is facilitated by theurgy.

Divination and Esoteric Systems

PAA: The Pythagorean Tarot brilliantly syncretizes numerology, alchemy, and archetypes into the tarot structure. As the deck’s creator, could you choose a couple cards and analyze their esoteric symbolism for us? What new layers of meaning does Pythagorean philosophy reveal?

John Opsopaus: I had been studying and using the tarot for a number of years when I began work on the
Pythagorean Tarot around 1990. It began with my use of Pythagorean numerology in the
interpretation of the pip cards in the Minor Arcana. Later I applied Pythagorean, alchemical, and
Jungian ideas to my interpretation of the courts and Majors.

Making one’s own tarot deck is also a magical and even initiatory practice (e.g., in BOTA, HOGD), and so began creating cards. However, I thought a specifically Pythagorean Tarot should be based on ancient Greek philosophy, mythology, and symbolism rather than the nineteenth-century occultism of most esoteric tarots. So this led to some changes. But I felt that in order to be correctly called a “tarot,” it had to maintain some consistency with the existing tradition of tarot design and interpretation. Therefore in the design of my cards and their organization I looked to the early history of the tarot in the Renaissance, when the classical world was being rediscovered.

Therefore the interpretation of most Pythagorean Tarot cards is not radically different from other
esoteric tarots, but realigned to conform to the Pythagorean and alchemical structures and Jungian archetypes, and then projected back into ancient Pagan, Hellenistic culture.

PAA: You revived the ancient Greek alphabet oracle in a modern context – what divinatory power do you believe resides in this ancient system? As a divination tool, what makes the alphabet oracle unique compared to other oracles?

John Opsopaus: I take essentially the Neoplatonic view that divination is a kind of theurgy and thus a means of communicating with the gods. Divinatory devices, such as the Alphabet Oracle, are just tools to
facilitate this communication. Therefore, I use it and other systems in the context of a divination ritual, which I believe is important for successful divination. The Alphabet Oracle in particular is designed for addressing everyday, practical issues.

Many people have told me that they have found it to be amazingly effective (as have I), in spite of its simplicity. Several dozen copies of it have survived from ancient times, so it was apparently quite popular in the ancient world. In many respects the Alphabet Oracle is like rune casting, but we are fortunate in that we have the ancient key for interpreting it. As a Hellenic Pagan I have preferred techniques that were actually used in the ancient Greek world to divination systems from other cultures or to modern inventions. However, I also find value in other divination systems, such as the I Ching and tarot (other decks as well as the Pythagorean Tarot), and use them regularly.

PAA: Drawing from your extensive scholarship, what evidence convinces you that the ancient Greeks had a robust tradition of theurgy and esoteric spirituality that we are continuing today? What significance do you see in this unbroken line of magical transmission?

John Opsopaus: We have it in Plotinus and it is described explicitly in Iamblichus and Proclus. We have parallel magical practices in the Greek magical papyri in this same timeframe. But if you know what to
look for, we have indirect evidence as far back as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Parmenides.

Kingsley documents this very well in Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic. He and other scholars have traced it back to west Asian shamanism and other sources. After Proclus it goes underground, although it continues in Christianized form in pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. It is also absorbed into the mystical traditions of Judaism and Islam. It emerges again explicitly with Ficino and Renaissance Platonism, where it eventually feeds into Renaissance and early modern magic (Agrippa, Dee, et al.). We certainly don’t have all the ritual details of ancient Neoplatonic theurgy.

No doubt much was taught orally, and much has been modified over the centuries and adapted to historical circumstances and religious context. However, I believe we have a good understanding of the theory and a reasonably good understanding of the practice, filling in gaps from parallel practices around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. It’s not so much an unbroken line as a web of branching and intersecting paths through the wilderness that has reached us.

Ritual and Theurgy

PAA: Traditional theurgy aims for henosis or union with the divine. From your experience, what state of awareness or consciousness is achieved when ritual allows the gods to fully possess us? How does individuality subsist within that union?

John Opsopaus: I understand henosis as the endpoint of a lifelong striving toward unification with The
Inexpressible One, which if we are lucky, we may experience directly on rare occasions. It cannot be willed, for that very unification involves a surrender of the individual conscious will to the greater One. I understand this as an experience of oneself as just an image of The One, unique as a person but in essence identical to everyone else, that is, an experience of the universal and even of the universe. The experience is of course fundamentally inexpressible, which is the value of experiencing it. My practice more often is the “lower theurgy” in which I am interacting with particular gods or with daimons in their lineage (seira).

Since they are emanations or images of The Inexpressible One, I am doing a sort of piecemeal henosis (an
oxymoron, I know!). In this theurgy, although in a trace, I’m my conscious self because I’m interacting with independent beings. In my experience of possession (both invited and not), however, the god or daimon takes some degree of control over my consciousness. I do not lose consciousness, but I’m more of a witness than in control, and I might not have a clear recollection afterwards of exactly what happened. Sometimes it’s hard to believe! Did that really happen?

PAA: You place great emphasis on visualization in ritual – could you explain how you understand the imagination serving as an intermediary between our senses and higher faculties? What practices hone the skill of true spiritual visualization?

John Opsopaus: In common with many other spiritual traditions, Neoplatonism takes the “true imagination” to be the principle medium for interacting with spiritual beings. For example, Plethon says the imagination is the highest faculty of the lower soul that resides in our aetherial body, which attaches our immortal higher soul to our physical body. Spiritual beings that exist in time and space, such as daimons and celestial gods, have only aetherial bodies, and so we most easily interact with them through our aetherial bodies. I think there are two goals in training the imagination for theurgy.

The first is to increase imaginative power (in all the sensory modalities) by practicing vividly imagining specific things, as if often done in magical training. The second is to practice imaginative receptivity by clearing the mind and allowing images to arise in the imagination and to follow their own course without conscious influence; this is part of the practice of theurgical purification. These practices effectively increase the bandwidth and decrease the noise in our channel to the gods. Expanding and cleaning the lens — pick your metaphor! Together they improve our “fitness” (epitêdeiotês) for theurgy.

PAA: Thank you very much for your time and insightful answers.


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