The Mysteries flourished for many thousands of years throughout the ancient world. They were for the most part attached in secret to the main temples of the various countries, little recognized by the populace. Though their existence was intuited by some, few only were they who found their way to the places where the sacred rites were held — sometimes in temples or caves, or under the open sky as were those of the Druids and the Persians. In India there were special caves, those of Karli, Elephanta, and Saptaparna being good examples. Mysteries were held at Stonehenge, England; Carnac, Brittany; and in the pyramids of Mexico, Peru, and Egypt. Probably all countries had their Mystery centers, which were similar in intent, although the expression of teaching varied with the culture.
What was the foundation and subject matter of these Mysteries but the concordance of man's life and inner being with the inner being of nature of which he is the child. As G. de Purucker says,
The inmost of us is the inmost of the universe: every essence, every energy, every power, every faculty, that is in the boundless All is in each one of us, active or latent. All the great sages have taught the same verity: "Man, know thyself," which means going inwards in thought and feeling, in ever-greater measure allying ourselves self-consciously with the divinity at the core of our being — the divinity which also is the very heart of the universe. — Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 62
If, then, man can discover himself, he will discover the universe. This is the key to human evolution and the key that unlocks the Mysteries.
The ceremonial Mysteries portrayed the creation and evolution of cosmic being and the creation and evolution of man; and also man's return to godhood as a risen Christ. For mankind is embarked on an evolutionary pilgrimage of immense duration. As spiritual beings, we were there when the world began and "the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy," as the Bible beautifully expresses it. Over the cosmic cycles we have evolved through all the kingdoms of nature up to man — always unfolding and growing from within. As human beings, our destiny is to unfold or awaken our latent spiritual nature, to become in consciousness and awareness the god within, our spark of universal being.
To this end the Mysteries offered the man of discipline and pure nature the opportunity to experience the knowledge he had before only studied, for purity and discipline preceded every step in the Mysteries. The neophyte had to learn to "live the life" and to bring his inner nature into balance. Thomas Taylor remarks in his Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries that the "soul indeed, till purified by philosophy (philosophy here relates to the discipline of life) suffers death through its union with the body." This interesting use of the word philosophy gives us a wider picture of the early initiations where "the study of philosophy was applied."
Many of the finest minds of antiquity were initiates and spoke of the high morality of those institutions. The reverence in which they held the Mysteries is evidenced by the fact that the teachings were never revealed. In Greece, for example, a few hints are given about the Lesser Mysteries which to the general public were "The Mysteries." Behind these, however, were the real or Greater Mysteries, of which nothing ever has been or will be openly said. It is interesting to note that all true teachers taught both exoterically and esoterically, giving certain teachings to the public and conducting their Mysteries in private.
The Mysteries were divided into degrees, the number varying among different peoples and schools. If we consider the initiations as being seven in number, then the first three would form the Lesser Mysteries, composed of discipline and self-purification — what the Greeks referred to as katharsis — as well as teaching. The subjects of instruction included the history of the planet and the workings of physical nature which now fall under the headings of astronomy, music, and mathematics, meteorology, chemistry, and geology, zoology, and biology, as well as certain of the arts, including the canon of architecture. But this instruction, however important, progressed only in conjunction with the training and unfolding of the disciple's consciousness, his growth in purity, and his will to know the reality of being.
In the fourth degree came a change for, in order to know, we must experience. Here the neophyte was taught how to free the soul from the body and lower principles and was helped to pass to other spheres and planes in order to learn their nature by becoming them. With the Greeks this process was called muesis — initiation — the testing and trials in the Underworld. If successful, the initiant experienced the epopteia — "vision" of divinity. Epopteia comprised three stages: first, theophany (Called epiphany by the Christians) — the "appearance of a god" — when the mystic experienced the divine presence; second, theopneusty — the "breathing in or inspiration" of divinity. Lastly there was theopathy — the "suffering of a god" — when the neophyte became the selfless channel for his inner god. At this stage the personal self is absorbed, transmuted — all lesser characteristics vanish away like a cloud before the sun. Then the initiate enters the Silence and is seen no more unless, motivated by compassion, he returns, a bringer of light.
While each nation had its own Mysteries, they resembled one another because the truths about man and cosmos are the same: they all included the mystical death, the descent into the Underworld, the resurrection (generally after three days), and the glorification. These were incorporated into the early Christian Church as were a number of rites from the Mysteries, including the eucharist and baptism. But the knowledge of how to interpret them was soon lost and only the forms remain to this day. These religious ceremonies and events revolve around the fact that initiation and death are one. Why is this so? Because the inrolling of the string of life to the central spiritual point of ourselves is the same during the soul's pilgrimage after death as is the journey taken from the crypt of the initiatory chamber when the body is left undisturbed and the soul set free to follow its Ariadne's thread into the inner worlds. The essential difference is that at death we make the journey for the most part unaware of what we are passing through, whereas during initiation we do so consciously. One whose inner nature is pure and clear and whose awakened consciousness has gained supernal heights may pass through the upper planes of our earth, the other planets, and into the heart of the sun. In each world we leave those elements of ourselves which belong there, each gravitating to its own. In the Mysteries the neophyte learned to do this with full awareness (See G. de Purucker's The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 561 et seq., and Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, passim).
The divisions of the Mithraic initiatory system are revealing because they mention the planets. In Contra Celsum, Origen — Gnostic, Neoplatonist, and Christian Church Father — tells us:
Celsus states, like Plato, that the path of souls from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth passes through the seven planets. . . .
This doctrine Celsus says is sacred among the Mithraists of Persia, and is represented in symbolic form in the Mysteries of the god Mithras. In those Mysteries, says Celsus, the Mithraists had varied symbols representing the seven planets as well as the spheres of the so-called fixed stars, and also the path that the souls took through these eight spheres. The symbolic imagery was as follows: They used a ladder supposed to reach from earth to the heavens, which ladder was divided into seven steps or stations, on each of which was a portal of ingress and egress; and at the summit of the ladder was an eighth portal which was without doubt the representation of the passage into and from the stellar spheres. — VI, xxi, xxii
If the Mysteries were so essential to man's enlightenment and so widespread, why do we in the West know of only the ancient Mysteries? In Oriental and other cultures, the idea of Mystery schools is not unknown today, though the real Mysteries with their initiations are still withdrawn from public view. As early as 500 B.C. the luster of the Occidental Mysteries had begun to fade, and neophytes increasingly traveled East for the greater initiations. The first hour of final decline in the West coincided with Alexander the Great's invasion of the Near East and India in the fourth century B.C. At that time the Mysteries in Persia assumed a less conspicuous existence and quietly withdrew into the unknown places of the country. With Caesar's invasion of Gaul the sacred colleges of the Druids at Alesia and Bibractis, equal in stature to the Mystery centers of Egypt and Greece, were destroyed and with them the Mysteries were gone from Gaul. As the Druids had not committed their teachings to writing, little more than superstition was left to the Romans. The final hour struck in the sixth century A.D. when the Mystery schools in Greece were closed by Justinian as Europe descended into the Dark Ages. All this was, of course, a reflection of the people incarnating at the time. The Rev. Dr. J. Fort Newton comments in his introduction to Dudley Wright's The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites:
Once the sway of the Mysteries was well-nigh universal, but towards the end of their power they fell into the mire and became corrupt, as all things human are apt to do, the Church itself being no exception. Yet at their best and highest they were not only lofty and noble, but elevating and refining, and that they served a high purpose is equally clear, else they had not won the eulogiums of the most enlightened men of antiquity. — pp. 13-14
The Mystery schools existed because of the construction of man's inner being and the evolution of his soul in relation to the function and evolution of the Supreme Being in which he lives and moves. Many millions of years ago when the gods lighted the fires of mind in humanity, the elements of the Mysteries had their beginnings. Though the gods eventually withdrew, contact with the initiates of humanity never ceased, and when mankind had descended to the lowest point of material expression in the racial period preceding our present one, the initiates banded together for the protection of humanity, and the first Schools were born. Since then, from among this fraternity have come the great Saviors of mankind with their life-restoring message. The fountain-source of the Mysteries exists today and will continue to exist until every human being has passed the portals of awakening on his return to his spiritual home.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1984/January 1985. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)