Even the most high-tech of contemporary secret societies owe a large part of their rituals, ideals, and philosophy to the ancient mystery schools of Egypt.
For more than three thousand years, the mystery schools of Egypt have epitomized the very essence of the mysterious, the arcane, and the ultimate in secret wisdom and knowledge. As in ancient times, many modern cultists insist that the great teachers who presided over the Egyptian mystery schools came from some extraordinary place. Some believe that the wise masters were those who survived the destruction of the lost continent of Atlantis. Others suggest that such entities as the god Osiris were extraterrestrial astronauts from the Pleiades. There are conservative scholars, as well, who have a sense that the schools contained within their teachings knowledge that came from very ancient times, perhaps a mysterious unknown world in prehistory. The Pyramid Texts of Egypt (c. 3100 B.C.E.) contain many prayers quoted from a time far more ancient than they, and it is apparent that the prayers were used as magical formulas and spells.
The mysterious first initiator into these sacred doctrines was known as Toth and later, to the Greeks, by his more familiar name of Hermes. Hermes-Toth is a generic name that designates a man, a caste, and a god at the same time. Later Greek disciples of this secret tradition called him Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice greatest”) and credited him with originating the material contained in forty-two books of esoteric science.
In the time of the pharaoh Ramses (c. 1300 B.C.E.), seekers of the divine sciences came to Egypt from the distant shores of Asia Minor and Greece to study in the sanctuaries with magi and hierophants in hope of learning the secrets of immortality. The initiates of the mystery schools were well aware that they must accept without complaint the rigors of disciplined study and the training of body, soul, and spirit. In order to attain the mastery demanded by the priests, the neophytes would undergo a complete restructuring of their physical, moral, and spiritual being. According to the credo of the mysteries, only by developing one’s faculties of will, intuition, and reason to an extraordinary degree could one ever gain access to the hidden forces in the universe. Only through complete mastery of body, soul, and spirit could one see beyond death and perceive the pathways to be taken in the afterlife. Only when one had conquered fate and acquired divine freedom could one become a seer, a magician, an initiator.
Pythagoras, the great Greek philosopher-mathematician, learned the secret doctrine of numbers, the heliocentric system of the universe, music, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and geometry from the powerful Egyptian magi. Before he established his own school of philosophy in southern Italy, Pythagoras spent twenty-two years in the temples of Egypt as an initiate in the ancient mysteries.
For centuries the pharaohs themselves were the pupils and instruments of the hierophants, the magicians, who presided over the temples and cults of Osiris. Each pharaoh received his initiation name from the temple, and the priests were honored with the roles of counselors and advisers to the throne. Some have even referred to the rule of ancient Egypt as government of the initiates.
The Greek Mystery Schools
From Egypt, the hidden wisdom of the mystery schools traveled to Greece. The word mystery itself comes from the Greek word myein, “to close,” referring to the need of the mystes, the initiate, to close his or her eyes and lips and to keep secret the rites of the cult. The religion of ancient Greece was a sophisticated kind of nature worship wherein natural elements and phenomena were transformed into divine beings who lived atop Mount Olympus. There was no highly organized or formally educated priesthood, no strict doctrines. The followers of the religion worshipped the god or gods of their choosing and believed that they could gain these deities favor by performing simple ritual acts and sacrifices.
In addition to the religion to which every Greek belonged automatically at birth, there were also the “mystery religions,” which required elaborate processes of purification and initiation before a man or woman could qualify for membership. The mystery religions were concerned with the spiritual welfare of the individual, and their proponents believed in an orderly universe and the unity of all life with God.
The early mystery schools of the Greeks centered on ritual reenactments of the lives of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, and Demeter, divinities most often associated with the underworld, the realm of the dead, the powers of darkness, and the process of rebirth. Because of the importance of the regenerative process, the rites of the mysteries were usually structured around a divine female as the agent of transformation and regeneration. While the initiates of the mystery cult enacted the life cycles of gods who triumphed over death and who were reborn, they also asserted their own path of wisdom that would enable them to conquer death, accomplish resurrection in the afterlife, and undergo rebirth in a new body, in a new existence.
The aim and promise of the mystical rites was to enable initiates to attain union with the divine. The purifications and processions, the fasting and the feasts, the blazing lights of torches and the musical liturgies played during the performances of the sacred plays all fueled the imagination and stirred deep emotions. The initiates left the celebration of the mystery knowing that they were now superior to the problems that the uninitiated faced concerning life, death, and immortality. They knew not only that their communion with the patron god or goddess would continue after death, but that they would eventually leave Hades to be born again in another life experience.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
The sacred Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks date to the fifth century B.C.E. and were the most popular and influential of the cults. The cult of Eleusis centered around the myth of Demeter, the great mother of agriculture and vegetation, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the Greek underworld, goddess of death and regeneration. The drama symbolized the odyssey of the human soul, its descent into matter, its earthly sufferings, its terror in the darkness of death, and its rebirth into divine existence. In the temples and in the groves where the mysteries were celebrated, the aspirants were told that life was a series of tests and that after death there would be revealed the hopes and joys of a glorious world beyond and the opportunity for rebirth.
The rites of the mysteries took place near Eleusis, a small community fourteen miles west of Athens. Although the Dionysian and Orphic rites could be celebrated at any time, the Eleusinian rites were held at a fixed time in the early fall after the wheat and barley seeds had been planted in the fields. The rites were conducted by a hereditary priesthood called the Eumolpedie, the “singers of gracious melodies.”
Sometime in the month of September, the Eumolpedie removed the Eleusinian holy objects from Eleusis and carried them to the sacred city of Athens, where they were placed in the Eleusinion. Three days after the holy relics had been transported, the initiates gathered to hear the exhortations of the priests, who solemnly warned all those who did not consider themselves worthy of initiation to leave at once. Women and even slaves were permitted to join the mysteries of Eleusis, providing that they were either Greeks or (later) Romans. After the rites of purification had been observed, the initiates bathed in the sea and were sprinkled with the blood of pigs as they emerged. A sacrifice was offered to the gods, and a procession began to Eleusis, where, upon the arrival of the priests, the initiates were received by the high priest of Eleusis, the hieroceryx, or sacred herald, who was dressed as the god Hermes (Mercury, to the Romans) and held the caduceus, the entwined serpents, as a symbol of his authority. Once the aspirants had assembled, the sacred herald led them to a sanctuary of Persephone hidden in a quiet valley in the midst of a sacred grove. Here, the priestesses of Persephone, crowned with narcissus wreaths, began chanting, warning the neophytes of the mysteries that they were about to perceive. The initiates would learn that the present life they held so dear was but a tapestry of illusion and confused dreams.
For the next several days, the initiates fasted, prayed, and participated in cleansing rituals. On the evening of the last day of the celebration of the mystery, the aspirants gathered in the most secret area of the sacred grove to attend the Eleusinian drama, which reenacted the myth of the rape, abduction, and marriage of Persephone by Hades, god of the underworld, and her separation from her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain and vegetation. Essentially, the rites imitated the agricultural cycles of planting the seed, nurturing its growth, and harvesting the grain, which, on the symbolic level, represented the birth of the soul, its journey through life, and its death.
The Dionysian Mysteries
Next to the Eleusinian mysteries in popularity were the Dionysian, centered on Dionysus (Bacchus), a god of life, vegetation, and the vine who, because all things growing and green must one day decay and die, was also a divinity of the underworld. Those initiates who entered into communion with Dionysus drank heavily of the fruit of the vine and celebrated with orgiastic feasts that encouraged them to dress in leaves and flowers and even to take on the character of the god himself, thereby also achieving his power. Once the god had entered into union with the initiates, they would experience a spiritual rebirth. This divine union with Dionysus marked the beginning of a new life for the initiates, who thereafter regarded themselves as superior beings. And since Dionysus was the Lord of Death, as well as the Lord of Life, the initiates believed that their union with him would continue even after death and that immortality was now within their grasp. The earlier rites of Dionysus often featured the sacrifice of an animal—usually a goat—that was torn to pieces by the initiates, whose savagery was meant to symbolize the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the divinity.
The Cult of Orpheus
Orpheus may have been an actual historical figure, a man capable of charming both man and beast with his music. But whether he was a god or a human, he modified the Dionysian rites by removing their orgiastic elements. According to some traditions, he was the son of a priestess of Apollo, gifted with a melodious voice, golden hair, deep blue eyes, and a powerful magnetism that exerted a kind of magic upon all those with whom he came into contact. Then, so the legend goes, he disappeared, and many presumed him dead. In reality, he had traveled to Memphis in Egypt, where he spent the next twenty years studying in the Egyptian mystery schools. When he returned to Greece, he was known only by the name that he had received in the initiation rites, Orpheus of Alpha, hailed as “the one who heals with light.”
An essential aspect of the Orphic initiation was the process of the initiate’s absorbing the healing light of Orpheus and purifying the heart and spirit. Among the truths that Orpheus had learned in the Egyptian sanctuaries was that God is One, but the gods are many and diverse. Orpheus had descended into hell, the underworld, and braved its challenges and subdued the demons of the abyss. The disciples of the Orphic/Dionysian schools were promised the celestial fire of Zeus, the light retrieved by Orpheus, which enabled their souls to triumph over death. These things were enacted in the mystery play that depicted Orpheus descending into Hades and observing Persephone, the queen of the dead, being awakened by Dionysus and reborn in his arms, thus perpetuating the cycle of rebirth and death, past and future, blending into a timeless immortality.
While other schools of reincarnation see the process of rebirth as an evolution of the soul ever higher with each incarnation, the Orphic school introduced the concept of the soul as being gradually purged or purified through the sufferings incurred during each physical rebirth. As the soul inhabits the body, it is really doing penance for previous incarnations, a process that gradually purifies it. Between lifetimes, when the soul descends to Hades, it can enjoy a brief period of freedom, which can be pleasant or unpleasant. Then it must return to the cycle of births and deaths.
According to Orphic teachings, the only way out of the “wheel of birth,” the “great circle of necessity,” was through an act of divine grace that could possibly be obtained through the supplicant’s becoming immersed in the writing, ritual acts, and teachings of Orpheus and initiation into the mysteries of the cult. Once this had been accomplished, the initiates were given secret formulae that would enable them to avoid the snares awaiting the unwary soul as it descended to Hades and ensure them a blissful stay while they awaited a sign that their participation in the great circle of necessity had ended.
The mystery schools kept alive the practice of magic and the belief that secret rituals and sacred relics could command the presence of divinity. The ancient mystery rites dedicated to such gods as Osiris, Isis, and Dionysus, together with the magical formulas discovered by Hermes Trismegistus and other masters, compelled the gods to manifest and share their powers. The myths of the old gods and the holy scriptures of the Christians, the secret experiences of the ancients and the revelations of the apostles, the personal sense of God developed by the pagan cults and the promise of the Christian church fathers that one could know God through his son—all seem to some individuals to be completely harmonious. The rich inheritance of the pagan world seems to them too valuable to abandon when such mysteries could be so easily adapted and kept alive in new rituals throughout the ages.