Sunrise Magazine Online

The Ancient Mysteries:
A Great Light, A Force for Good

By W. T. S. Thackara
It is probable that people in general do not realize that all who betake themselves to philosophy in the right way are engaged in one thing only, namely training themselves for dying and being dead. — Plato, Phaedo, 64a (Hackforth)
He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it. — Matthew 10:39

Timelessness often is proved to be a characteristic of wisdom. The essence of what the earnest seeker of truth experiences, when even moderately successful in his quest, has been reported with few dissimilarities, no matter what the epoch or culture. Only the language and symbols differ, each a product of the milieu in which it was expressed. The following descriptions and personal accounts of those moments of awakening, of the traditional patterns associated with them, and the institutions that were formed to assist the aspirant, belong to the ancient Mediterranean. In them we find not only the atmosphere of veneration toward philosophic pursuit, but also further testimony to the validity of the perennial Way. They are, in a word, timeless.

Philosophy — a Greek word that today conjures up for many a picture of dry intellectualisms — originally denoted "love of wisdom," its literal meaning; and those who had discovered the source of its nourishing truths experienced an alchemy of soul that forever changed them. Of this fact Plutarch wrote in his essay "Progress in Virtue":

. . . with the young man who has had a taste of real progress in philosophy, these words of Sappho are always associated:

"My tongue breaks down, and all at once A secret flame throughout my body runs";

nevertheless, you will see an eye untroubled and serene, and you would yearn to hear him speak. Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle against one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence, so too at the beginning of philosophy: about its portals also you will see great tumult and talking and boldness, as some boorishly and violently try to jostle their way towards the repute it bestows; but he who has succeeded in getting inside, and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened, adopts another bearing of silence and amazement, and "humble and orderly attends upon"* reason [logos] as upon a god.  — Moralia I.81.10 (Babbitt)
*Plato, Laws, 716a.

A taste of true philosophy, a great light, silence, amazement, and, as if following a well-established chain of cause and effect, there is born a deep humility in the soul. The seeker experiences a fundamental transformation which is described as resulting from an awareness of something so nobly grand that language cannot measure its fullness. Even Plato, though he composed about thirty dialogues devoted to the search for truth, could not speak directly of it; and he explains why:

For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. — Epistle VII, 341c (Morrow)

From this we begin to understand, in part, why Plato often used allegory and veiled reference, as did others, when alluding to these matters. "There is no writing of Plato's," he once wrote to Dionysius, "nor will there ever be; those that are now called so come from an idealized and youthful Socrates" (Ep. II, 314c). Thus we see the humble Socrates of the Dialogues, the classic philosopher, referring to himself not as one who could offer knowledge like a commodity exchanged in the marketplace, but as a midwife to the souls of Athens' "youths" — that is, to those of any age whose minds were not fixed by rigid opinion. He sought, through the use of reason, myth, and paradox, to help each person to bear his own spiritual-intellectual children: the truths that are in themselves and of themselves. For Socrates, the unexamined life was simply not worth living.

What, then, are these truths whose sum total is likened to a great light and a force for good? How are they brought to birth? In the ancient Mediterranean civilizations — Greece, Egypt, Syria, Rome — associations of men and women of all ages devoted to the original purposes of philosophy were formed to help individuals to answer such questions. These "colleges," their activities, and their teachings are referred to in classic and modern literature as the Mysteries, from the Greek mysterion meaning "secret thing." The most well known in Greece were those at Eleusis, near Athens, which were held for at least two thousand years.* Pythagoras, as the Neoplatonist Iamblichus informs us, was initiated in the Mysteries of Byblus, Tyre, Syria, Phoenicia, Babylon, and Egypt. There is little doubt that the doctrines taught in these sanctuaries were also transmitted at his philosophical community at Krotona, Italy. Plato, too, is reported to have taught unwritten doctrines at the Academy. His philosophy, Porphyry asserts, was illustrated in the Mysteries. The Kabeiric Mysteries of Samothrace, those of Isis and Osiris, and the teachings of the Orphic communities, also contributed significantly to the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life of the ancient world.

*See George Mylonas's Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, for an excellent and detailed compilation of archaeological and historical data; also Thomas Taylor's Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, 4th edition, with notes by Alexander Wilder, m.d. This dissertation, which has been reprinted in Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, edited by Kathleen Raine and George M. Harper, gives one of the finest philosophic interpretations of the Mysteries.

Like all composite things in nature, the formally established organizations which sought to impart the Mysteries were subject to the repetitive cycle of birth, ascendancy, decline, degeneration, and passing from public view, with notable examples of periodic renewal such as the Orphic revivals of the 6th and later centuries bce and the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria in the 3rd-4th centuries ce. However much the outer forms may have eventually crystallized and decayed, becoming more ceremony than substance, the inner content of the Mysteries remained as immortal as the truths it taught of man's spirit — perhaps because it had, as Cicero put it, the "sanction of universal religion" (Tusculan Disputations, XIV, Yonge). After Justinian closed the last school of philosophy in Athens in 529, many inspired individuals and also qabbalistic, alchemical, rosicrucian, and masonic organizations have appeared to give continuing testimony to the ancient theosophy that illumined the Mysteries.

Of what the philosophic Mysteries really consisted has in general been poorly understood. This is primarily because the deeper teachings were never revealed except to those who had been initiated. Although it was permissible to make certain general statements about the content, usually symbolically, initiation (muesis, "to close") required each individual to pledge irrevocably never to divulge the keys of interpretation lest the knowledge thereby gained be misunderstood and quite possibly abused by persons deficient in moral and philosophical discipline. We do know clearly, though, that the Mysteries had a profound influence on the most gifted and well-known people of that period. Fame or lofty intellect, however, was not a requirement for entrance; rather, in the days of purity of the Mysteries, it was essentially moral integrity that counted. Initiation, then, was a matter of self-election of him who was earnest. Among those of historical record who participated are Solon, Pericles, Empedocles, Plato, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Plutarch; also the emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Julian. Cicero, who was initiated at Eleusis, wrote:

Much that is excellent and divine does Athens seem to me to have produced and added to our life, but nothing better than those Mysteries by which we are formed and moulded from a rude and savage state of humanity; and, indeed, in the Mysteries we perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only to live happily, but to die with a fairer hope. — On the Laws II. 14

As one reads through the treasury of letters, essays, dialogues, and other fragments of thought inherited from those who lived in classical times, particularly as these pertain to the fundamental issues of why we live and why we die, it is difficult not to be impressed by how modern they sound. In spite of the technological advances we have made collectively as a civilization, and the more universal outlook that we have thereby acquired, these same problems remain essentially personal: each individual must still find the answers concerning the meaning and purpose of life and death within himself. This requires persistence and depth of search, and the willingness to put aside opinions when they are found incorrect. We are told by all the great Teachers that, if the inquiring spirit natural to man is not overly hampered by himself, these things can be known.

In Plato's Myth of the Cave (Republic, Bk. VII) is to be found one of the clearest allegories of this truth: "Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move." The light is dim; behind a fire burns, casting dancing shadows of themselves onto a wall in front. These phantoms are the only things that interest the inhabitants of the cave; and, because they know nothing else, they think these are the "realities" of life.

But Plato added an essential feature to the narrative: one of the prisoners is liberated from the chains. He stands, turns around, then walks and looks toward the light streaming down from the entrance of the cave; he suffers sharp pains and the glare at first distresses him. In time, however, he overcomes his confusion and begins the steep and rugged ascent to discover the source of the light, gradually accustoming himself to a brightening existence. And once outside, lo! here is the real world, illumined by a great sun. How could he have ever believed in the fantasy-shadows shed by the small fire in the cave? The thought reminds him of his former friends still imprisoned, and he is overcome with pity. Precisely as in the story of the Buddha's awakening under the Bodhi tree, the newly-enlightened man is challenged by the thought that to return would be to face ridicule, if not martyrdom; the inhabitants of the cave would hear strange "theories" and become fearful of the man who carried a piercing light in his eye. Nevertheless, he finds himself compelled to return, accustom himself again to the darkness, partake of the labors in the den and, because he has "beheld the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good in their truth," to help his fellow men by providing a vivifying spiritual influence.

In this parable we can see not only the basic paradigm of ascent to spiritual-intellectual illumination, but also the rationale for the existence and purpose of the Mysteries. Impelled by compassion and necessity, those who have already trodden the path to the summit return to help mankind on its upward evolutionary journey. Among the efforts of these "wise men" is the establishment of schools, centers of light, in different parts of the world, to help those who thirst for truth. This does not mean a person is to be "carried" up the path, thereby weakening him, but rather to be aided by those who work, as did Socrates, in the capacity of "midwife." In this context was the symbol of the spiritual birth used. Under the watchful care of his mentors, the candidate "labored" through several degrees of initiation into ever greater intelligence and spirituality, to bring to birth a fuller consciousness of the "great Mystery."

The cycle of awakening has two basic phases. Plotinus writes:

For all there are two stages of the path, . . . The first degree is the conversion from the lower life; the second — held by those that have already made their way to the sphere of the Intelligibles, have set as it were a footprint there but must still advance within the realm — lasts until they reach the extreme hold of the place, the Term attained when the topmost peak . . . is won. — Enneads I.3.i (MacKenna)

In Plato's allegory just mentioned, these divisions correspond, first, to the ascent within the cave and, second, to the exploration of the world without.

In the Eleusinian Mysteries, of which we have perhaps the greatest abundance of information, this twofold pattern was exemplified by the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries. The Mikra or "smaller" Mysteries were held yearly at Agrae near Athens, about the time of the spring equinox, representing youth. The rites consisted primarily of purifications (katharsis), and it is probable that certain myths containing inner truths were publicly enacted. This was symbolic of the first spiritual birth. Later, in the same but more likely in a subsequent year, at the autumnal equinox, the time of harvest and also of new planting, those who had qualified assembled at Athens and proceeded along the road to Eleusis, about fourteen miles away. Outside the city, the road became the Sacred Way, which led to the Telesterion where initiation into the Greater rites (telete) were begun. Here the myth of Demeter and Persephone, sacred to Eleusis, was dramatically enacted with much pageantry. The myth itself, which Sallust tells us is symbolic of the soul's descent from spirit into material experience, can be found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In addition to the dromena, the dramas, instructions were given and other preparations made to ready each initiant for the consummation of the entire celebration: the second spiritual birth. This was the epoptic revelation, conducted during the course of the night by the chief hierophant ("revealer of the sacred"). Because of the well-kept secrecy of the Greater Mysteries, we do not know what exactly happened at Eleusis. However, by inquiring of the philosophy associated with the Mysteries, we discover some things pertinent to the nature of the Epopteia.

The Grand Relief of Eleusis: Demeter with scepter instructs the Eleusinian youth Triptolemus. Standing behind is Demeter's daughter, Persephone, investing him with the "crown" of the Mysteries. Pentelic marble, Attic, 450–440 bce

The teaching of Platonism and Orphism concerning man — and as it is similarly found in Gnostic Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism — is that he is a composite being. In essence, he is of divine quality, a god. His soul is its offspring, which expresses itself in a body. Pneuma, psyche, soma: spirit, soul, body. Following a cycle of necessity, the soul "separates" from its divine parent and, descending from its celestial home in a state of innocence, of unself-consciousness, enters imbodiment on earth for the purpose of acquiring what it needs in order to "wake up." Here it must labor, as did Hercules, to clean the Augean Stables of itself of the burdensome and unhealthy animal "matter" (e.g., the passions of greed, lust, envy, hate, anger, etc.) that it accumulated in its descent; and thus, purified of dross and interiorly strengthened, it can then ascend self-consciously to a reunion with its divine parent who waits "in secret." This pattern of innocence-fall-birth into matter-sin-redemption-conscious ascent-rebirth into spirit is a universal mythos or reminder of the cycle of intelligent life. It may be applied to a man's life or to the larger panorama which encompasses evolution through the human kingdom, and to even grander cycles involving the birth, death, and renewal of galaxies and universes. Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld, Theseus wrestling the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Christ's birth, travail, and passion, the "Hymn of the Pearl" in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the Jataka Tales of the lives of Gautama Buddha, Krishna's periodic avataric incarnations, the "crucifixion" in space of the second god in Plato's Timaeus: these are but a few variations of the one transcendent theme.

That the Redemptive Myth was enacted in the early degrees of the Mysteries is significant. With suitable explanation of its deeper philosophic and scientific meanings, it no doubt served as a "chart" of the inner universes of man and cosmos, and of the routes through underworlds and heavens that the candidate would follow in the Greater, the spiritual, "rites of passage" that belong to the actual, not the symbolic, Epopteia. We may presume that something more than external ritual occurred in the higher degrees of the Mysteries, that there was a genuine psycho-spiritual event. Plutarch hints as much in his theosophical essay On Isis and Osiris, when he writes that the

very name of her Temple clearly promises both the communication and the understanding of That which is — for it is called the "Ision" ("the entering-place," as if derived from the Greek), inasmuch as That which is shall be known if we enter with intelligence and piously into the sacred rites of the goddess. — II (King)

It is extremely unlikely, with this kind of promise held out, that the mature minds of the ancient world would have been satisfied with symbolic teaching only. On the contrary, their testimony indicates that quite something else occurred. Philosophers such as Plato understood well that to be simply told or exteriorly shown the truth was insufficient. Words, formulas, and phenomena were not realities in themselves, but only shadows of Reality. Rather, the only possibility to actually know the truth was to become that truth. From the initial vow, a student entered a lengthy gestation period in which he assembled in himself the moral, intellectual, and spiritual faculties necessary to sustain him through the difficult trials of the epoptic experience, his "birth" into the new world of "That which is."

Each candidate had been taught in the lower degrees that the hero of the Redemptive Myth was himself. It was he that had "fallen," and his "salvation" — knowledge of his immortal Self and the primacy of spiritual life — depended upon his own efforts of unfoldment. To know divinity required him, in increasing degree, to become as divinity. There was no satisfactory proof other than firsthand experience. Thus he learned of the mystic "death" in order to complete the cycle. Bringing with him nothing but the strength of his inner credentials, he would follow the soul's postmortem journeys, at the climax of which he would meet, if successful, the "Mysterious Presence" that watched and waited in its own celestial sphere. Of this sublime homecoming, Plotinus has written with evident nostalgia:

Therefore we must ascend again towards the Good, the desired of every Soul. Anyone that has seen This, knows what I intend when I say that it is beautiful. . . . so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments [of body and personality] worn before, and the entry in nakedness [of the soul] — until, passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God, each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from Which all things depend, for Which all look and live and act and know, the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being. — Enneads I.6.7 (MacKenna)

What, then, is the "great Mystery" of man and his universe? For each who entered the temple of himself, it was clearly the god within, the Sun of Truth who remained "in secret" until those moments of transcendence when the veil lifted. Then was he given to know more fully of his spiritual heritage and the deeper significance of his sacrifices. As he had "died" to his lesser elements in order to find the truth of life, so the living god within him "died" in a portion of itself to radiate the light by which that truth could be known. In other words, what each man gave of himself became the fuel by which the divine fire within him was nourished and the mystic union strengthened. Yet, from what we can glean of the ancient writings there are indications of mysteries far grander than the holy visions of the Epopteia — insights that drew out of the aspirant a more universal wisdom and compassion that might make him appear to us greater than a man.

In the phraseology of ancient Egypt, successful initiation conferred on such as these the title "Sons of the Sun." Born into an even brighter light, the resurrected man arose from the altar of his spiritual travail transfigured with the solar glory. But, of what could he speak? Of what should he speak? Perhaps the most compelling reason for secrecy in the Mysteries relates to the intimacy of the divine communion — of whatever degree. To speak of this too openly would nullify the sustaining quality that it imparted. Rather it were better for each who had realized the goal of his quest to be reticent, to bear with humility the light which shone in his eye, and, without ceremony, to partake of the labors before him in the world of his fellow man.

Back Issues Menu