Mystic Death, Marriage, and Rebirth

By Ida Postma

The topic of initiation in any culture covers a wide range of experience. All such mystic rebirths, of course, have as their archetype those sublime initiations in which a spiritually advanced individual, his body in trance, descends into the "underworld," a sphere of life more material than our own, bringing to those who dwell there in darkness the light of his wisdom and compassion. Thereafter, making an ascent through the "heavens" or realms higher than ours (through the planets to the sun, as the ancient traditions say), he encounters his inmost Self, and perhaps is temporarily inspired by, or briefly becomes at one with, his solar logos. When the "twice-born" returns to earth, the glory of that event is shed on the whole of mankind and is, unconsciously, shared by all. Naturally, at the present stage of evolution there are very, very few indeed who can rise to such lofty heights.

The initiations of the Mediterranean Mysteries show the same basic pattern. The Greek term mysterion derives from the verb muein, meaning to close the mouth or the eyes — a going into the darkness therefore, as the candidate or mystes after purification or katharsis withdrew into the mysterion, the darkness of the initiation chamber, where he suffered a symbolic death, to be reborn into the light of a new revelation, called the epopteia.

With all that has been written on the subject by authors both ancient and modern, there is no record of what precisely did happen during the ceremonies. Not only were the initiates pledged to secrecy, but also what transpired was perhaps too experiential to be translated into words. Whether any of the truly great initiations took place within the temple precincts we can only surmise, but these must have been exceptions, since then as now only the rare person was fit for adepthood. Some of those who went through the rites we know not to have been of pure or noble character, especially in later days when the Mysteries had vastly declined. The great merit of the Mystery Schools was that they made the universal wisdom-traditions available to anyone capable of grasping them and allowed the initiate to live with understanding and to die without fear, as Cicero tells us.

The elements of the mystic death and rebirth can be traced in systems of initiation all over the world, including those of Africa. Here too, the concept of initiation has a broad spectrum of meaning, from being a social requisite (though never divorced from religion), to serving as an avenue to the invisible or to divinity. For a hundred years or so, much study has been made in the West of ceremony and ceremonial objects of Africa, but the approach is perhaps too academic to grant that to the Africans these can have a spiritual significance equal to that claimed for the accoutrements and manner of worship of Occidental faiths. Many things dealing with initiation have been classified under the blanket headings of magic (superstition, in other words) or rites of passage — both deemed too primitive for the Western mentality to understand. And so, in our inquiry, we have seldom penetrated the barrier of outer customs which, without understanding of their rationale, can appear foreign enough to justify our preconceptions.

In this context it is interesting to note a few similarities between some of these aspects of African initiatory rites and those of the Mysteries of ancient Greece and Asia Minor. Though some of the information may well stem from evil gossip on the part of the early Christians, we are told that in Phrygia candidates were subjected to "prolonged fasts, absolute continence, severe bodily mutilations and painful flagellations, uncomfortable pilgrimages to holy places." (S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity, Dover Publications, New York, 1975; p. 84.) If in Africa practically all ceremonies are accompanied by blood sacrifices, the Greeks were not without these, as in Eleusis, for example, a young pig was slaughtered after the initiants had bathed in the sea. Furthermore, the mystes sometimes smeared his body with lime or plaster or received a new name and a new robe, like many African youths during and after puberty rites. The Greek hierophants, in some instances, wore masks as do their African counterparts; and sacred dances were also part of the Mysteries.

No material accessories or outer forms, however, have any intrinsic importance compared to that which they are deemed to help evoke in the consciousness of the initiant, so that he may go through a psychological or spiritual quickening process. Circumcision, cicatrization, and other suffering inflicted on the body, apart from having hygienic or esthetic value in some cases, mainly constitute a sacrifice of one's own flesh, which is thought to lead to control over the lower nature — a form of discipline or mortification practiced by ascetics and aspirants of all ages, for, as the Greeks explained, if one wishes to share in the joy of the deity, one first has to suffer with him.

The most widely observed initiation rites on the African continent are those that usher the individual into the responsibilities of adult life. Among some peoples these are relatively simple ceremonies; in other cases a long seclusion is involved, with difficult trials and instruction. Perhaps there are no further initiations after these, or else other rites may follow later in life as among the Gikuyu, for instance, on the occasion of marriage and death for both men and women. Men are initiated several more times before death than women, since first they become elders of a junior grade, then active elders and, finally, elders of the third grade (L. S. B. Leakey, The Southern Gikuyu before 1903, Academic Press, New York, 1977; I, 3-5).

In tribal life such rites are well thought-out and proven methods to help a human being cross the threshold from one phase of his existence into the next. Always there is the emotional experience of a "death" of the "old" man (or woman), an ending of the foregoing period, marked by a time of retreat and isolation in the bush, into caves or even artificial excavations. There in the womb of nature, as it were, the initiant "can 'grind up' his old personality in order to form another one out of it." (Dominique Zahan, Religion, Spiritualite et Pense Africaines, Payot, Paris, 1970; p. 46.) The subsequent rebirth is marked by the return to family and community. At such times also the hair is shaven off, "another act symbolizing and dramatizing the death of one state and rising again of another . . . old hair must be shaven off to give way to new hair, the symbol of new life." (John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, N.Y., 1970; p. 150.) Frequently new garments are donned or a new name assumed and, to emphasize the clean break with the past, objects used during retreat are burned or disposed of in other ways.

Also initiations into various cults are based on the classical pattern of death and resurrection. P. Amaury Talbot describes some of the cults and ceremonies as he found them among the Ibibio around 1912. It was his personal conviction that this tribe living in Southern Nigeria, off the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, is "one of the most ancient peoples in this or perhaps any part of Africa." (P. Arnaury Talbot, Life in Southern Nigeria, the Magic, Beliefs and Customs of the Ibibio Tribe, Macmillan and Co., London, 1923; p. 5.) His informants told him that the most important of their cults, the Egbo, had been given to them "in high and far-off times, by a divine woman, . . ." (ibid., p. 170). reminiscent of the Mysteries of Eleusis, brought to mankind by Demeter, mother of the gods. Many Ibibio cult ceremonies involved human sacrifices.

The entry into the Idiong cult Talbot compared with that into modern Freemasonry. The ceremony begins with offerings to the ancestors which are left out in the open. The priest then watches for the vultures to come, for these are not regarded as mere predatory birds but as representatives of the ancestors. When they do arrive, this is a propitious sign. The head priest thereupon approaches the candidate saying, "I am about to kill you," and having symbolically fulfilled this, he solemnly announces, "Thou art dead." Other cult members give the "deceased" a burial and go through the motions of mourning for him. The priest endows a twig of a plantain tree with the power of bringing the "dead" man back to life, and the latter after having been struck seven times with the stem of the twig indeed rises, whereupon the priest whispers a prophecy into his ear. At a later point in time, further ceremonies are performed which have the aim of endowing him with second sight. We are left with the impression that this was more a ritual gesture than an actual event, although a high-ranking member of the cult once told Talbot that during such an initiation he had been "sent to the spirit world in order to commune with the ghosts — a power which had remained to him after he had returned to earth-life." (Ibid., p. 178.) Even if a certain degeneracy has crept into these rites, they are vestiges of an original knowledge of the ancient wisdom-traditions.

In Dahomey, entry into any cult is accompanied by prolonged instruction. In that country cults have sprung up around the various main deities, and often its members had been promised to such deities by their parents, perhaps as a repayment when the gods granted a child to a hitherto barren mother. Membership can also be inherited. The ceremonies begin with a public dance, followed by forty-one days of secret ceremonies. The novice is then symbolically "killed," and remains in the cult house for seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, or sixteen more days when he or she is regarded as having "died." Now a "resuscitation" has to take place and the family members, who have come to "mourn" the candidate, are asked what sins the "dead" had committed. All the gods are asked for forgiveness, and in the case of a man a cock is sacrificed; for a woman a hen. The initiant is brought back to life by the priest calling out the name fifteen times. A period of seclusion follows of three, five, or seven months, during which a secret language is taught, also ritual dances, songs sacred to the god, and the right method of worship. All this time the family does not know whether their relative is dead or alive, since indeed it happens on occasion that people do die during this "spiritually critical time." (Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey, an Ancient West African Kingdom, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1967; 11, 184.) At the end of this period the initiant is shown the objects of worship and told how his god is to be worshiped. He receives many secret instructions. In a final ceremony one of the gods "declares war on him," i.e., takes possession of him, which happens during the beating of the drum. A dance marks the end of the isolation. The cult member receives a new name and is considered completely reborn. As a culmination, the newly initiated cry out to their god: "My husband, I worship you," for regardless of their sex they are now the mystic consort of the deity.

This type of initiation in Dahomey also shows all the elements of the symbolic death, sacred marriage, and rebirth, and at the climax the candidate is infused with the presence of the god or, to use the Greek term, becomes "enthused." The entire procedure is carefully and there is little of an induced state of ecstasy, for the dancer "is most rarely, if ever, completely in a trance." (Ibid., p. 199.) Skeptics among the Dahomeans themselves say that the reasons for becoming a cult member can be many; some, for instance, regard it as a chance for a rest from their daily activities, others enjoy the prestige it confers, or are motivated by curiosity. But even these skeptics admit that a real "mystery" can be experienced.

Such persons feel an exaltation, a sense of awe and of unity with the god that, though held in check between ceremonies, wells forth at once if the proper songs or drum rhythms are heard. On such occasions, as the vodunsi* stand ready to dance, a figure taller than any human stands before them, the left hand outstretched to touch their heads. This is the vodu. And when the hand touches them, they feel a great strength. As they dance, they are no longer themselves, and they remember nothing of what happened when the vodu finally leaves them. But when they regain consciousness of the world outside, and are themselves once more, they feel as though something heavy had left them. — Ibid., p. 200 (*the concept vodu includes the vodu or deity itself and its 'force,' located in its cult house; a vodunsi is a cult member of any specific vodu)

Among the Bambara initiation is a learning process that takes many years of a man's life. While he will gain much practical knowledge, above all things he will work toward improving and, indeed, rebuilding his character, particularly during actual initiation periods. These Sudanese people have six societies or schools, the first five leading up to the sixth or Kore society. The initiants undergo great physical suffering and arduous trials, using their body as a humble instrument to gain control over themselves as a means to learn to endure, to be steadfast, and to have watch over their tongue and emotions. The Bambara think of silence as being centripetal, leading man to his inner self, whereas words are centrifugal and can uselessly scatter the life force. Silence is no lack of sound, but the "mother" of the word, which is the creative force.

The Kore prepares the initiant for death itself. During the first initiation all stages of physical death and birth are gone through symbolically: for instance, the candidate is put in an animal skin with irritating materials signifying his being placed in the tomb; he walks over hot ashes indicating how he is purified, etc. Subsequently he is "born," ceremonially washed, so that his spirit will be unobscured, is oiled to engender spiritual pleasure in his contact with the Invisible — to mention but a few steps. During the second initiation he relives the period of the newly born until the end of the circumcision, marking his progress toward becoming an incarnated son of the deity.

Parallel with this is a more profound apprenticeship in which his consciousness is taught about his ascension toward his god. This is done in eight "classes." The first teaches him about his animal nature; the second trains him in spiritual quietude; the third in equilibrium, while the fourth is called the "fire bearers," referring to the divine fire which consumes the "old" man. In the fifth of the series he experiences joy and pleasure about his union with his god as in a marriage; in the sixth class this marriage is consummated. The initiant takes his place beside his god in the seventh stage, as enjoying the royal power of his divine spouse. In the final and eighth stage he becomes identic with the divinity: "the same as the Other, or rather the same and the Other." (Zahan, p. 217.) As with the Dahomeans, the initiate has become the divine bride.

The whole sequence of training is so rich in symbology of the union of man and his inner god, that there is no doubt that it has its roots in a real and pure knowledge of the universal wisdom-traditions. How the psychological and spiritual alchemy is wrought in the individual consciousness is a mysterion that belongs to the Bambara. Evidently it is not an ecstatic experience, but "the result of a long labor of the adept to conform to an invisible model inculcated with the aid of rites." (Ibid., p. 218.) Like Cicero, the initiate gains equanimity toward suffering and death and "a new dimension without which the perspective on humanity would find itself reduced to the proportions of an anguishing slightness." (Ibid., p. 223.) Thus liberated from concern about his mortality, he returns to a state of innocence and freshness of mind as of a child. He then goes back to his daily life, for the experience does not turn him into a recluse but from now on he projects his knowledge and vantage point into his own life, into that of the community and of humanity in general.

The essence of initiation is, of course, never confined to organized systems, for in the life of each one of us are those difficult, often excruciating, experiences we have to face, seemingly bereft of guidance. When we manage to live through them with courage and in a positive frame of mind, we sometimes gain a wonderful new insight, and in a sense we feel that a part of ourselves we had never known about has been born from our suffering. This is the theme song of evolution: the struggle between spirit and matter, in which hopefully the light side wins out. For our inner growth no initiatory couch, no ceremony is needed, and the crypt is our situation here and now, our higher self the hierophant. The more consciously we ally ourselves with the light and try, willingly and knowingly, to work toward the unfolding of our higher potential, the more illuminating will be our epopteia — for us personally and for all mankind.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)


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