The people of the late ancient Mediterranean world thought about and encountered gods, angels, demons, heroes, and other spirits on a regular basis. These figures were diverse, ambiguous, and unclassified and were not ascribed any clear or stable moral valence. Whether or not they were helpful or harmful under specific circumstances determined if and what virtues were attributed to them. That all changed in the third century C.E., when a handful of Platonist philosophers—Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus—began to produce competing systematic discourses that ordered the realm of spirits in moral and ontological terms.
In Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority, Heidi Marx-Wolf recounts how these Platonist philosophers organized the spirit world into hierarchies, or "spiritual taxonomies," positioning themselves as the high priests of the highest gods in the process. By establishing themselves as experts on sacred, ritual, and doctrinal matters, they were able to fortify their authority, prestige, and reputation. The Platonists were not alone in this enterprise, and it brought them into competition with rivals to their new authority: priests of traditional polytheistic religions and gnostics. Members of these rival groups were also involved in identifying and ordering the realm of spirits and in providing the ritual means for dealing with that realm. Using her lens of spiritual taxonomy to look at these various groups in tandem, Marx-Wolf demonstrates that Platonist philosophers, Christian and non-Christian priests, and gnostics were more interconnected socially, educationally, and intellectually than previously recognized.
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. How to Feed a Daemon: Third-Century Philosophers on Blood Sacrifice
Chapter 2. Everything in Its Right Place: Spiritual Taxonomy in Third-Century Platonism
Chapter 3. The Missing Link: Third-Century Platonists and "Gnostics" on Daemons and Other Spirits
Chapter 4. High Priests of the Highest God: Third-Century Platonists as Ritual Experts
"Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority is an original and thoughtful work, and one that will be of considerable interest to a range of scholars. Tracing the interactions among figures who have traditionally been perceived as operating within separate spheres—pagan Neoplatonists, Christian Platonists, Egyptian ritual experts, and gnostics—Heidi Marx-Wolf makes a persuasive and stimulating argument for how these thinkers used their expertise to establish their social authority."—James Rives, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill