This series of articles deals with the interpretation of symbolism and mythology, and in introducing this subject it will be advisable to give a brief summary of those Theosophical teachings most concerned therewith. And while it is not possible to expound and demonstrate these teachings within the necessary limits, the inquirer will find what he needs in this respect in the Theosophical literature which is so readily available.
Theosophy is the recent presentation of a body of doctrine known as the Secret Doctrine, the Wisdom-Religion, the Esoteric Tradition, etc., which has existed in all ages, and which constitutes the basis of all religious and philosophical systems. This knowledge concerns the deeper mysteries of man and the universe, and was communicated to the early races of mankind by man's divine ancestors. It has been handed down throughout succeeding ages by those qualified to be its guardians, by whom it is still preserved at the present day.
There have been times in past history when this knowledge was commonly known; and other times, including the present, when it has been esoteric or hidden from public view. But in this latter case, the Wisdom-Religion is communicated to mankind by Messengers, who are the founders of great religions or the teachers of great philosophies. Theosophy accords to the human race, and even to civilization, a far greater antiquity than is allowed by our timid scholars, not yet emancipated from the narrow purview to which theology has accustomed us. But when this prejudice has been overcome, it will be possible to give due value to the evidence of archaeology, which conflicts with the foregone theories of science, but supports the teachings of Theosophy.
Humanity has been on earth for many millions of years, during which the earth has witnessed the rise and fall of countless races and cultures, succeeding each other like waves. It follows from this general plan of cyclic evolution that some of the races of antiquity have been further advanced in knowledge and culture than we as yet are; we stand, towards such ancient races, in the same relation as a child stands to its parent; the child belongs to a more advanced stage of evolution, but the parent has attained greater maturity. Hence we, though at a more advanced stage in evolution, can learn from our ancestry because they had reached greater maturity in their cycle than we have in ours.
The course of evolution is, broadly speaking, double: there is an evolution upward from below, and an evolution downward from above. (1) The result of this twofold action is that humanity first descends from spirit into matter, and then reascends from matter into spirit. The earliest races of mankind (represented by Adam in Eden) lived in the presence of God (so to speak); they were in a Golden Age of innocence. In subsequent races, the natural course of evolution led man to become less spiritual and more material (represented by the expulsion from Eden and the acquisition of 'coats of skin'). The spiritual faculties became latent as the physical faculties developed. Man had no longer direct communication with the Gods, and this communication was kept up indirectly by the means of divine instructors. The traditions of these divine instructors are preserved in allegorical form in the ancient mythologies, which tell of Gods, God-men, Heroes, the founders of cities and civilizations, the teachers of arts agricultural or technical. In still later stages, the progress of materialization had so far supervened that even this means of communication was no longer open. In these ages knowledge was kept alive by the sending out periodically of Messengers, from the Lodge of Initiated Adepts who preserve the sacred knowledge, to reawaken the light among men by founding schools of the Mysteries, which schools afterwards became the great religious systems which we find today, or great philosophical schools like those of Pythagoras and Plato.
Thus man is essentially a God, having latent within him the germs of divine faculties, which are ready at some time to germinate and fructify. And this germinating is effected by the action of other men, of more advanced evolution, who act as teachers and pass on the light which they themselves have received, kindling in their pupils and successors the latent spark of knowledge that is within all men. This is the esoteric tradition in one sense of the term; light is handed down from man to man and from race to race; and history shows us that progress of all kinds is due to the inspiration imparted by individuals and by the movements which they start.
But for our present purpose there is one particular mode of preserving the esoteric tradition which most concerns us; and that is the method of symbolism and sacred allegory. Before H. P. Blavatsky wrote her great work The Secret Doctrine in 1888, various scholars had studied this subject and become convinced that there is a system of symbols common to all religions, diffused over the globe, identical in essence among the most widely scattered and diverse peoples; and that the mythologies of Greece, India, Egypt, Scandinavia, etc., have a common basis. But the works written by these scholars were few and sporadic, not generally known, and merely contributing to the rare exotics of literature. It was H. P. Blavatsky who put together these scattered fragments, wove them into a consistent whole, and gave them their real significance; for they are not mere items of curious lore, but facts of the most important character; and in our endeavor to interpret some of these myths and symbols we shall show their bearing upon an understanding of the mysteries of the life we all have to lead.
There are certain broad general truths which transcend the power of expression in ordinary verbal language; and this must necessarily be the case. For verbal language is the instrument of a certain portion of the mind which has limits; the knowledge of which we are speaking relates to powers of the mind which transcend those limits; and therefore they are beyond the power of words. Such profound ideas are expressed by symbols; the full meaning of these symbols has to be grasped intuitively by the exercise of higher faculties of the mind; but we can approximate to such a comprehension by studying the various meanings which the symbol conveys, and holding all these meanings in the mind, until finally we gain some sense of the real underlying meaning.
It is these symbols which constitute the mystery-language; which thus becomes at once a means of preserving and conveying the knowledge, and a means of concealing it. For mysteries are revealed to those who have eyes to see, and doors are opened to those having the keys. The classical mythology is a much altered form of ancient mystery-teachings which were conveyed to the public in the guise of dramatic presentations. For the Mystery-Schools had outer and inner mysteries, the inner for candidates for initiation, the latter for the public; just as Jesus had private instructions for his disciples, but spoke to the multitude in parables. In the course of our interpretation of symbols, we shall give illustrations of the real meaning of these classical myths and of similar myths in other lands.
1. We do not enter here into the distinction between evolution and involution, in order not to confuse the beginner with too many details. (return to text)
The Theosophical ForumTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE