The Theosophical Forum – March 1951


Real initiation cannot be considered apart from the Mystery Schools of antiquity, as they constitute its historical foundation. It is well known that in the sixth century a.d. the last of the Mystery Schools as a state institution was closed by Justinian. This may have been caused by their degeneration, or at the request of the schools themselves. At any rate, they have been regarded as "dead" ever since, despite evidence that such was not the case. The simple fact is that the Mystery Schools at that period "went underground."

The sceptic will deny that these Mystery training-centers were anything other than popular spectacles at best, or at worst where licentious orgies took place. Fortunately, abundance of unimpeachable evidence to the contrary from the most ancient times, as well as the researches of modern authorities, absolutely disproves such a gross misconception. Modern theosophy has said the last word to date on this subject, through the writings of the theosophical leaders; but as their testimony is not needed to make a strong case the writer has purposely based his thesis exclusively on non-theosophic sources. As far as possible the direct words of these sources are given that the reader may judge for himself how far-reaching was the belief in these Mystery Schools.

Humanity would be in a helpless state indeed were initiation not a real fact — were not the primal and universal truths about man and the universe passed on from hierophant to initiate from age to age, so that the body of Great Teachers of humanity may be recruited and maintained. Every day some few are taking the first step on the path which leads thereto. Just as initiation has been possible in all ages, so it is to be had today if it is searched for in the right place, and with sufficient intensity of purpose. But only after many lives of continuous effort may the final goal be attained.

Initiation is a vast subject, about the arcana of which little is known. That the Mysteries have existed from time immemorial, among all peoples, is the universal verdict of myth, legend, and history. The philosophy by whose assistance these Mysteries were developed is coeval with the universe itself, and however much its continuity may be broken, it will always reappear again. All so-called "revelation" proceeds originally from the same source. Plutarch is for us one of the best authorities for the statement that all religions are fundamentally one, under different names and practices. He says:

It is clear from the Orphic poems and the Egyptian and Phrygian writings, that the archaic natural science, both among the Greeks and non-Greeks, was for the most part hidden in myths — a secret and mysterious theology containing an allegorical and hidden meaning. — De Daed. Frag. IX, 1, 754

And Clemens Alexandrinus remarks:

All who have referred to divine things, whether Greek or non-Greek, have veiled the primal principle and have spoken the truth in riddles, symbols, allegories, metaphors, and similar figures. — Stromata, v, 4

And from Herodotus the following is pertinent:

I can by no means allow that it is a mere coincidence that the Bakchic ceremonies in Greece are so nearly the same as the Egyptian. . . . The rites called Orphic and Bakchic are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean. — II, 49, 81

Whether Eleusinian, Orphic, Bacchic, Samothracian, Phrygian, Phoenician, or Egyptian, the Mysteries were all the same, as evidenced by this epigram of Ausonius:

Greece calls me Bakchos;
Egypt thinks me Osiris,
The Mysians name me Phanax,
The Hindus consider me Dionysos;
The Roman mysteries call me Liber,
The Arabian race Adonis.
     — Epigram, xxx

The Eleusinian were the most celebrated of all the Mysteries. Every act, rite, and person engaged in the lower degrees was symbolic, and the person revealing them we are told was "put to death." This seems to have been a universal custom. "Every initiate," says Agrushada Parakshai, "to whatever degree he may belong, who reveals the great sacred formula, must be put to death."

In his History of Magic, Ennemoser makes the following observation:

How comes it, it may be asked, that so little has become known of the mysteries, . . . through so many ages and amongst so many different times and people? The answer is, that it is owing to the universally strict silence of the initiated. Another cause may be found in the destruction and total loss of all the written memorials of the secret knowledge of the remotest antiquity. — II, 11

That some have been put to death for divulging the mysteries is undoubtedly true, although as regards the higher mysteries, the phrase "put to death" could have had a secret meaning. There is no doubt that the hierophants of all the old religions and mysteries intentionally "swaddled up" the religious texts in coils of insuperable difficulty, the keys to which were held only by the high Initiates. As one modern writer put it:

The initiate received the keys which unlocked the elaborate system of mythology. The Mysteries explained not only the spiritual factors behind material action, but the universal principles behind the theogomes of the exoteric religions. — Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion

In the Mysteries it was required that all candidates should be admitted first to the Lesser Mysteries. It may be said that these "initiates" were to be found "a dime a dozen," as anyone of good moral character, free from crime, was eligible for admittance. After a process of fasting and other purifications, such as abstaining from flesh foods, they were called mystae, or "initiates." The dramatic spectacles of this degree were designed to signify occultly the condition of the unpurified soul invested with an earthly body, in which state it was considered to die, as far as a soul could die, and that upon the death of the body it would experience a death still more permanent. Thus, the secrets of the Underworld, so prominent in all the Mysteries, had a twofold meaning. For the initiates of the first degree only, the Earth was the Underworld into which unembodied souls were born from a previous state and locality of bliss. Plato considered the body as "the sepulcher of the soul," and Empedocles truly says:

The aspect changing with destruction dread,    
She makes the living pass into the dead.

After a year's probation, the initiate could enter a degree in which he learned the secret meaning of the rites he had previously beheld. There is not space to go into a description of these rites. The basis of part of them was the old agrarian cult dealing with the myth of Ceres or Demeter, and Persephone. These rites have been discussed repeatedly by modern scholars, and numerous hypotheses have been put forward, some intelligent, others fantastic, none of them certain or even probable. The symbolism is fairly well known from vase-paintings, some of the formulae, for instance, having come down to us in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

One such formula has been preserved by Clement of Alexandria, as follows:

I have fasted: I have drunk of the kykeon: I have taken from the chest, and having worked, have laid down in the basket, and from the basket into the chest. — Protrepticus, ch. ii

Theon of Smyrna, in his Mathematica, divides the mysteries into five parts. The first three we may pass over, except to say that the last act of the Lesser Mysteries was the muesis, denoting the separating or veiling" of the initiate from the former exoteric life. The fourth is the binding of the head and the fixing of the crowns." The fifth, and most aweful is, "friendship and interior communion with God." Christian authors have denied the pretensions of the "pagans" to such communion with God, affirming it reserved for Christian saints only. The candidate by a system of gradual education, purification both physical and moral, and religious experience, finally approached the supreme test (which few could stand) through which he was united in actuality with God, or his own Higher Self. To the higher degrees only a select number obtained admission, those attaining the highest degree, or epopteia, being very few indeed. The Hierophant, or highest, was bound to celibacy and expected to consecrate his entire life to his sacred office.

Those who attained the degree of epopteia were the "perfect" or "twice-born." The apostle Paul proclaimed himself to be such when he said:

I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell God knoweth,) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. — 2 Corinthians, xii, 3, 4

H. P. Blavatsky says Paul was the only one of the Apostles who was initiated. There is little doubt that Paul referred to himself, being prevented from speaking openly by his oath of secrecy. In the same Gospel he says "we speak wisdom among them that are perfect," i.e. initiated. Porphyry says that Plotinus had this ecstatic experience six times during his life, and he himself three times. But this experience could not be had without long training, great self-control, and great purity of life. Ammonius Saccas says:

The Egyptian priests used to tell me that a single touch with the wing of their holy bird could charm the crocodile into torpor, it is not thus speedily that the pinions of your soul will have power to still the untamed body. The creature will yield only to watchful, strenuous constancy of habit. Purify your soul from all undue hope and fear about earthly things, mortify the body, deny self, and the inner eye will begin to exercise its clear and solemn vision.

In the Scriptures it is written: "He that conquereth himself is greater than he who taketh a city."

From what has been said, it may be inferred that the most sublime part of the Mysteries, the epopteia, or final revelation, consisted in beholding the Inner God (or the Gods also) invested in a resplendent light. And this God, under whatever name he may have been known, was considered as being the Sun. Pythagoras regarded the Sun as the highest revelation of the Supreme Being. We are reminded of that wonderful chapter in the Bhagavad Gita, "Vision of the Divine Form as including all Forms" —

The mighty Lord of mysterious power, showed to the son of Pritha his supreme form, . . the glory and amazing splendor of this mighty Being may be likened to the radiance shed by a thousand suns rising together into the heavens The son of Pandu then beheld within the body of the God of gods the whole universe in all its vast variety. — ch. xi

Of this ecstatic state which was the reward of those initiates who were pure and strong enough to stand this final unveiling and thus become absorbed into their divine Parent, Plato said:

In consequence of this divine initiation, we became spectators of entire, simple, immovable, and blessed visions, resident in a pure light, and were ourselves pure and immaculate, being liberated from this surrounding vestment, which we denominate body, and to which we are now bound like an oyster to its shell. Being initiated in those Mysteries, which it is lawful to call the most blessed of all Mysteries, . . we were freed from the molestations of evil which otherwise await us in a future period of time. — Phaedrus, 64, Taylor trans.

The reference to being "freed, etc." clearly indicates that the initiate of the highest degree had some, at least, "of his sins washed away," i.e. he was newly born, or twice-born, dwija, as the Brahmans say. This was what Jesus meant when he said: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John, iii, 3)

In his Commentary on the Republic of Plato, Proclus makes this observation:

In all the initiations and Mysteries, the gods exhibit many forms of themselves, and appear in a variety of shapes, and sometimes, indeed, a formless light of themselves is held forth to the view, sometimes this light is according to a human form, and sometimes it proceeds into a different shape — p 380

From this, it may be inferred that the epopteia, or final revealing, was symbolic of those transporting visions which the virtuous soul will constantly enjoy in a future state, and of which it is able to gain temporary glimpses even while yet connected with the cumbersome body. As explained by da Costa, in Dionysian Artifices:

The initiation rites were always directed towards restoring the rulership of the higher nature over the lower self. Once the complete union of the lower and higher is achieved in the Mysteries, it is no longer possible for materiality to take away the reason of the soul. — xlviii

As mentioned earlier, the Underworld or Hades had an additional significance in the Greater Mysteries over what it had in the Lesser Mysteries. The more important secrets of the epopteia revolved around what was called the "Descent into the Underworld" — which is known to everyone, but without being understood by any but the choice few. But very broad hints have been given out by some who had, without doubt, made the journey. We may mention Pindar, Homer, Pythagoras, Plutarch, Plotinus, Plato and Vergil, among the many whose writings show that they had the knowledge; but the one who has perhaps spoken to us in the clearest language is Vergil. The whole of the sixth book of the Aeneid deals with this subject:

Facilis descensus Averno — Easy is the descent to Avernus; night and day the door of black Pluto stands open, but to retrace thy step, this is the labor, this the toil. A few, whom glowing merit has raised to the heavens, have been able to do it. — vi, 126

From this we get an idea of the extreme peril encountered by one who undertook to pass the final initiation. In moral purity he must indeed be like Sir Galahad, "whose strength was as the strength of ten. . . ."

Said Iamblichus:

The soul has a twofold life, a lower and a higher. In sleep the soul is freed from the body and enters as one emancipated on its divine life. The nobler part of the soul is thus united to its higher nature and becomes a participant in the wisdom and foreknowledge of the gods. The night-time of the body is the daytime of the soul.

Thus the experiences of the soul of the initiated in the Underworld are the same as those it has when the body is sleeping, and after the body is dead. There is good reason to believe, from the descriptions of ancient writers, that when the highest initiation was taken in the Mysteries, the body of the Initiate remained in a death-like trance of longer or shorter duration, while the soul underwent its journey in the Underworld and other places. And that the soul, upon returning to the body, impressed upon the brain a recollection of what it had passed through. There is a famous passage in an ancient Egyptian text relating to the worship of Osiris which speaks of the loyal votary of the God after death:

As truly as Osiris lives shall he live;
as truly as Osiris is not dead shall he not die;
as truly as Osiris is not annihilated shall he not be annihilated.

The one who has passed the final initiation is to share eternally in the divine life; indeed, he does already share it. "Blessed is he who, having seen those common concerns in the underworld, knows both the end of life, and its divine origin from Jupiter," said Pindar (quoted by Clemens Alexandrinus in his Stromata, bk. iii). And again, as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter runs:

Happy is he who has seen this. Who has taken part in the initiations will not have the same lot after death in the gloomy darkness.

Sophocles repeats the same idea in these words:

Those who have seen the Mysteries are thrice happy when they go to the Underworld.

From this we are to understand that after death all go to the Underworld and that those who have taken a high initiation are much happier, because freer, than others. Of these others, much has been said by the initiated poets and philosophers. In the Phaedo Plato reminds us: "Those who instituted the Mysteries appear to have intimated that whosoever shall arrive in Hades unpurified shall lie in mire: but he who arrives there pure and initiated shall dwell with the gods."

As he who in this life pursued realities, would, after death, enjoy the highest truth, so he who pursued deceptions would hereafter be tormented with fallacies and delusions in the extreme: as the one would be delighted with true objects of enjoyment, so the other would be tormented with delusive semblances of reality. — Ficinus: De Immortal. Anim., book xviii

This conviction of a happier lot in the Underworld which filled the minds of the initiated sprang from ancient roots, the worldwide idea that the other life is a repetition of this one. Four centuries before Jesus, in the Phrygian Mysteries, the worshipers sang:

"Take courage, ye initiated, because the god is saved; to you also will come salvation from your troubles."

In ancient times each degree of initiation was considered to be a new birth; in the highest the initiate became truly reborn, his past railings, so far as their results were concerned, becoming to a large extent neutralized. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Although the secrets of the Eleusinian and other mysteries were supposed to be kept as carefully as are those of true Freemasonry today, Christian writers like Origen, Clement, and Arnobius, knew something about them. Only those who gave no heed to the duty of silence have given information concerning the secret rites. Quoting again from Nilsson:

Their testimony is subject to the gravest doubts In the first place, what did they know? Had they any first hand knowledge? Had they themselves been initiated? Clement lived in Alexandria, the others in Asia or Africa. It is much more probable that what they related was only hearsay. Ecclesiastical writers did not trouble themselves much about truth and about such questions of fact if only they could succeed in impressing upon their hearers or readers, a sense of the contemptibility of the Mysteries. — Greek Popular Religion

Some of the noblest passages referring to the Mysteries were written by the great poets. Pindar, Homer, and Vergil have been mentioned, but many more bear the unmistakable signs of initiation, of whom may be included Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. In a Greek Anthology we find the following from the pen of Krinagoras:

     Go thou to Attica,
Fail not to see
     Those great nights of Demeter,
     Mystical, holy!
There thou shalt win thee a mind
     That is carefree
Even while living
And when thou joinest
     The major assembly
Light shalt thy heart be.
     With hallowed hands,
With mind and tongue both pure and true,
Come, enter in, not cleansed by bath
But washed white in spirit,
For from wickedness the ocean wide
With all its floods can not the stain
Wash clean away.

From Euripedes:

Pass ye, and cleanse with the pure spray-rain
Your bodies, or ever you enter the fane
Set a watch on the door of your lips, be there
Nothing but good in the secret word
That ye murmur to them whose hearts be stirred
To seek to the shrine,
That they seek not in vain. — Ion, 96-101

To quote again from Krinagoras:

Come pure in heart, and touch the lustral wave
One drop sufficeth for the sinless mortal,
All else, e'en ocean's billows cannot lave

The mystic "Pagan" eucharist of the fifth century b.c. is thus described by Euripedes in his Bacchae:

In the God's high banquet, when
Gleams the grape-blood flashed to heaven
To all that liveth His wine he giveth,
Griefless, immaculate.
Yea, being God, the blood of Him is set
Before the Gods in sacrifice, that we
For his sake may be blest.
Then in us verily dwells
The God himself, and speaks the things to be,
The Lord of Many Voices,
Him of mortal mother born,
Him in whom man's heart rejoices,
First in Heaven's sovereignty.

A most interesting Orphic Confession of Faith, dating from the fifth century b.c, has been preserved from the lost "Cretan" of Euripedes:

In one pure stream
My days have run, the servant I,
Initiate of Idean Jove, I rove
Where midnight Zagreus roves,
I have endured his thunder-cry,
Fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts,
I am set free, and named by name
A Bakchos of the Mailed Priests.
Rob'd in pure white I have borne me clean
From man's low birth and coffined clay,
And exiled from my life away
Touch of all meat where life hath been.

Further proof of the existence of the Eucharist in the Mysteries is given in the explicit statements of the early Christian Fathers, in Justin Martyr (Apologies, c. Ivi), and in Tertullian (De Praes. cxi). But it is Apuleius who has given the most unreserved description of initiation in his Metamorphoses, from which we extract a brief selection:

The gates of the realms beneath, and the guardianship of life, are placed in the bands of the Goddess [Isis], and the initiation into her mysteries is celebrated as bearing a close resemblance to a voluntary death, with a precarious chance of recovery. — Book xi, 237

Hear, therefore, but believe what is the truth. I approached the confines of death, and having trod on the threshold of Prosperpine, I returned therefrom being borne through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining with its brilliant light; and I approached the presence of the Gods beneath, and the Gods of heaven, and stood near, and worshipped them. — Book xi, 239

Thomas Taylor records that Apuleius was initiated into the Mysteries of Isis at Corinth. He could never have written the above had it not been so, but he says later on that he had taken the initiation of Isis only and not those of the great God Osiris.

We have dealt almost exclusively with the Mysteries of Eleusis, mentioning but the diffusion of others in other lands and times. There is plenty of evidence, however, that they existed as widely spread in various parts, including ancient America, North and South. The North American Indians had them, as well as the Incas, Toltecs and Mayas. In the Popol Vuh, the saga of the Quiche Indians of Guatemala, we find a picture of the initiation-tests of two hero-gods on entrance to the native Hades.

There is confirmation of Initiation throughout the Christian scriptures. The Book of Job is a masterly allegory of the initiation-trials. We have it also in the words of Jesus that the initiation-teachings were given to the multitudes in symbol and parable, and that the "chosen ones" alone had the keys. In three of the four Gospels we find almost these identical words:

It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. . . . Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. — Matthew, xiii, 11, 13

We cannot close this brief exposition of Initiation and the Mysteries in a better way than to quote from Thomas Taylor. Neo-Platonism was the direct successor (exoterically) of the Mysteries, after they were closed by Justinian, and Thomas Taylor of all modern scholars has most justly appreciated the inner spirit of the Mysteries. In his Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries he writes:

As to the philosophy, by whose assistance the Mysteries are developed, it is coeval with the universe itself; and, however its continuity may be broken by opposing systems, it will make its appearance at different periods of time, as long as the sun himself shall continue to illuminate the world. It has, indeed, and may hereafter, be violently assaulted by delusive opinions; but the opposition will be just as imbecile as that of the waves of the sea against a temple built on a rock, which majestically pours them back — "broken and vanquished, foaming to the main."

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