The ultimate human adventure and the most challenging is, and always has been, the pursuit of truth — the discovery of those truths that enable us to deal with the practical, social, philosophical, and scientific challenges that confront us. Clues to such truths await investigation in metaphor and symbols, in myths, in religious and philosophical writings, and in the world of nature. Ignored by the majority who are satisfied with worldly pleasures, these clues are sought by those who are willing to risk their all in quest of knowledge. To them it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.
H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine reveals many of the truths heretofore deeply buried, and explains how knowledge of the true nature of things was given mankind by the gods who millennia ago guided, helped, and taught us, their young brothers, the arts and sciences of civilization, and also the spiritual truths by which we humans may become divine. Herodotus and other historians told of "divine dynasties" that were succeeded, as men became capable of governing themselves, by demigods and heroes, and then by wise and compassionate rulers. In addition, sage counselors like Asuramaya and Narada of Indian tradition taught mankind the wonders of heaven and earth, giving mathematical figures of great cycles and cataclysms that mark changes in the spiritual, moral, and physical nature of the races of man.
There were spiritual hierophants, prophets, and priestesses like those at Delphi, who transmitted the advice of the gods; also successions of teachers, one following the other and often adopting the name of his predecessor. These were referred to in Greece as the Golden Chain of Hermes, in Persia as the illustrious line of ten or fourteen Zoroasters, in India as the ten or more avataras of Vishnu and, in Tibet, as the divine incarnations of the Ever-Living Buddha.
In every land, in every age, these teachings have been offered, in cave and forest, in pyramid, kiva, temple, and city building. At times the instructions were open to the public, but more often, and especially after they were used selfishly or for purposes of black magic, the higher teachings were given in secret to those who aspired and proved themselves trustworthy.
Mystery Schools still existed in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Syria, as well as in Britain and Europe, North and South America, Africa, and elsewhere at the beginning of our era. In the Graeco-Roman world multitudes were attracted to Eleusis and Samothrace, to be cleansed and inspired by participating in the sacred celebrations which combined music, dance, and dramatic presentations. These Lesser Mysteries were designed to develop higher faculties of heart and mind and give a spiritual perspective on a wide variety of subjects including astronomy, music, hygiene, geography, and mathematics.
A few only entered the sanctum for deeper instruction in the Greater Mysteries. Here neophytes learned by direct experience to distinguish between the true and the illusory both in this world and in the "dark and dangerous underworlds." Into those fearsome otherworlds they entered consciously during the initiations of higher degrees. Leaving their bodies entranced, they traveled through invisible lunar and planetary realms sunward — a journey vividly described in the Hermetic tradition as the Vision of Hermes. This solar rite was hinted at by the early church father, Origen: "the path of souls from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth passes through the seven planets." (Origen: Contra Celsum, Bk. VI, xxi.)
In addition to Mystery Schools there were at this time Platonic, Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and Stoic academies in which philosophical ideas were discussed and practiced. Recognizing the divine element within each individual, the Stoics sought to live their ideals. As Pliny the Elder wrote: "For mortal to aid mortal — this is God, and this is the road to eternal glory." (Historia naturalis [Natural History], ii, 7, 18.)
The members of one of these schools, founded by Ammonius Saccas, called themselves Philaletheans, "lovers of truth," another, the Analogeticists, was so named "because of their practice of interpreting all sacred legends and narratives, myths and mysteries, by . . . analogy and correspondence." (Alexander Wilder, "The Eclectic Philosophy," New Platonism and Alchemy, 1869; Wizards Bookshelf, 1975.) Ptolemy, second century Alexandrian astronomer and mathematician, introduced into Graeco-Roman thought Babylonian and Assyrian doctrines regarding the hierarchical structure of inter-acting worlds and beings. Then there was Hypatia whose brilliant explanations of once secret teachings captivated audiences — until she was brutally murdered by a Christian mob in 415 A.D.
During the long Dark Ages such philosophical ideas had of necessity to be studied in secret. Only the brave dared speak of them even in the veiled language of metaphor. The enthusiasm, however, of at least two Italians, Pico della Mirandola (463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), could not be silenced.
Pico, an outstanding scholar, was a protégé of Lorenzo de' Medici and of Marsilio Ficino who headed the Platonic Academy in Florence. Pico and Ficino sought out, translated and commented upon a number of newly discovered Platonic and Neoplatonic manuscripts. Pico's familiarity with the Hermetic tradition and Christian Cabala as well as with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic enabled him to lecture on a broad range of scientific and philosophical subjects. But his talks antagonized the Church so that Pope Innocent VIII accused him of heresy. Although Pico was later cleared of the charges, his untimely death by poison at the age of 31 remains suspect.
Giordano Bruno's eloquent talks and writings were welcomed at universities and private gatherings as he traveled through Europe and England. Metaphor was his method of veiling from the profane while revealing to the knowing the wisdom-teachings of the Neoplatonic and Hermetic-Cabalistic philosophy. Although Bruno's metaphor puzzled the populace, the early Rosicrucians or "Fire Philosophers," as they were called, understood his code and appreciated his insights. In an era when persecution threatened advanced thought, the word "magic" was adopted as being a safe umbrella under which to study and seek inspiration and, as such, Renaissance magic had no connection with parlor tricks, superstition, or the "black arts." The mystical writings of Iamblichus, Porphyry, Plotinus, and especially the hymns of Orpheus were studied under the heading of magic, as was the Hermetic tradition, which has ever been treasured precisely because it is not a religion. Having no dogmas or racial bias it deals with universal truths and can be applied with equal validity to the material, intellectual, and spiritual-divine planes of being.
According to Herodotus the Orphic Mysteries, from which the hymns derived, had been brought from India. Of all esoteric orders they prescribed the purest morality and the strictest asceticism which were deemed essential if one would gain liberation from this worldly "cycle of necessity" and attain divine awareness. The hymns were believed to attract beneficent influences to earth from the planets, stars, and from the gods.
Dame Frances A. Yates reveals connections between Bruno, the Dutch scholar Erasmus, and the German artist Albrecht Durer; also with Henry Cornelius Agrippa, whose De occulta philosophia, a handbook of Renaissance occult science, deeply influenced European thinking, and Martin Luther whose public protests against Church abuses brought about the much needed Reformation. Luther and his followers frequently attended Bruno's lectures at the University in Wittenberg, and Yates wonders if it was by chance or purpose that his emblem, a cross within a rose, is so similar to that of the Rosicrucian order, a rose placed on a cross.
In England Bruno's talks on the Mysteries of the Egyptians fascinated both Freemasons and members of the chivalrous cult of Knighthood, each organization incorporating his teachings into their ceremonial rituals. Later, in the 17th century, the Cambridge Platonists, then under the leadership of Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, inspired by Bruno, immersed themselves in studying Hermetic-Cabalistic mysteries, Pythagorean mathematics, and the writings of Plato and the Neoplatonists. Commenting on reincarnation Henry More wrote:
In Egypt, that ancient Nurse of all hidden sciences, that this Opinion (i.e. that the soul pre-exists) was in vogue amongst all the wise men there, those fragments of Trismegist do sufficiently witness . . . of which Opinion not only the Gymnosophists and other wise men of Egypt were, but also the Brachmans of India, and the Magi of Babylon and Persia; . . . To these you may adde the abstruse Philosophy of the Jews, which they call their Cabbala, of which the Soul's Prae-existence makes a considerable part; as all the learned of the Jews do confess. And how naturally applicable this Theory is to those three mysterious chapters of Genesis. . . . — cited by Frances A. Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, pp. 423-4.
It was undoubtedly due to Mirandola's and Bruno's influence that many secret fraternities sprang up in Europe. The names of a few are familiar: Illuminati, Templars, Odd Fellows, and Foresters. From each of them various splinter groups branched off, preferring to devote their energies to social or political reforms rather than concentrate on such esoteric teachings as the processes of death and the life thereafter, reimbodiment, and the workings of cosmic law in the spiritual and material cosmos. Evidence suggests that these then clandestine ideas inspired the scientific genius of such men as Columbus, Copernicus, and Galileo.
Truth has been passed down the ages in many and diverse ways. Artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and others expressed in paint and marble the inspiration they drew from sacred lore. Writers, poets, dramatists, and musicians have sought to reveal the splendor of things as they really are. To share their enthusiasm and insights one need but read the immortal lines of John Milton or Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene; listen to the music of Beethoven, Wagner, or Mozart, whose Magic Flute stirs the soul with its representations of Egyptian Mysteries, the High Priest, Zarastro, bringing alive by his name the Zoroastrian blend of the Hermetic tradition.
Real drama awakens higher understanding, and in this Shakespeare excels. His plays immortalizing the soul of the Greek Mystery plays are mines of buried wisdom. His works, furthermore, parodied the ever popular cult of witchcraft and sought to reestablish the spiritual teachings of the Hermetic tradition in the hearts of his audiences.
This struggle continues. As long as the degrading elements of selfish and pseudo-occultism survive, there exist, and must exist, individuals and groups who devote their lives to elevating the thoughts of the world and exposing what is fraudulent. Today perceptive minds are seeking to break through the barriers of false education. Physicists are speculating on the presence of intelligence in the universe and some are questioning how an electron can pass through a brick wall "without leaving a hole behind it. The electron, in effect, disappears from one side of the wall and reappears on the other." (James Trefil, "Quantum Physics' World: now you see it, now you don't," Smithsonian 18(5), August 1987, pp. 67-75.) Quantum mechanics have brought us to the threshold of a new frontier — new to science but not to mystics who for centuries have spoken of appearing and disappearing angels, gods, and daemons. It is not new to parapsychologists either. Their current experiments indicate that life and intelligence continue after the death of the body for, as the ancients and also St. Gregory said: "Things visible are but the shadow and delineation of things that we cannot see."
This is a theme upon which the Hermetica throws illumination:
Matter becomes; formerly it was, for matter is the vehicle of becoming. Becoming is the mode of activity of the uncreate and foreseeing God. Having been endowed with the germ of becoming, matter is brought into birth, for the creative force fashions it according to the ideal forms. Matter not yet engendered, had no form; it becomes when it is put into operation . — Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland, trans., The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, pp. 133-4.
Anna Kingsford explains: "The idea here is that the material of the world is in its essence eternal, but that before creation or 'becoming,' it is in a passive and motionless condition." That is to say invisible: after its "creation," or its being brought into visible operation, "it 'becomes,' that is, it is mobile and progressive" — and visible.
These ideas are but a sampling of the knowledge that has been passed down the ages, challenging, uplifting, and inspiring those who have sought to find truth. But the "finding" is never enough. Sooner or later we realize that truth is not something outside us. It is part of ourselves. We know it instinctively when we discover ideas that express it. Therefore we need to take these ideas into our souls, give them time to unfold and express themselves in our lives, as they will — benefiting ourselves, and all others.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)