What were these Mysteries, about which so much has been said? The mysteries of the ancients are a point of contention among savants. While the majority admit that they were in all probability sacred festivals, for the most part celebrated at regular recurring periods, not one says that he knows either their real meaning or even the nature of the ceremonies followed. That these Mysteries date from untold aeons of years in the dark, unknown past is granted grudgingly; that they had an aim and purpose beyond that of duping the polloi and hoodwinking the profane is supported by a few; that they professed to be, and once were, the opening of the spiritual nature of the neophyte by strange and holy ways is generally denied.
Human nature, in essentials, is probably no different today from what it was tens of millennia ago. As long as man has possessed his present intricate and composite nature, his human characteristics must have been what they are now, and this leads us right into prehistory. The first settlers on the banks of Sihor, Egypt's flooded stream; the ante-Dravidian occupants of the Peninsula of Hindustan; the forgotten peoples covering Central Asia with flourishing cities; and those ancient and unknown Americans who preceded the Toltec and Maya builders; even those races whose portraits we have on Easter Island — where among any do we find evidence, historic, geologic, ethnologic, or other, that man was not far back in prehistoric night just what he is today in all that makes him human?
So it must be from the time when man, like Enoch, walked with the gods, that he has been a seeker after truth and that his spiritual nature has forced a demand for recognition upon him, at times imperatively, so that the essence of Being was sought out as the summum bonum of life. It was once upon a time known by intimate personal experience that man is as much a part of universal Being, of the absolute vibrant life-energy of the universe, as he is finite in his lower nature. And in the adyta of antiquity the rites were established after his Fall from his pristine high spiritual estate, and the teachings and powers resurrected, which would confer upon him his forgotten heritage. Therein were enacted those mystical ceremonies, and imparted those doctrines, which made of him a Master of Life, not a blind creature of sense and passion but initiate in the Wisdom of Isis. Hence the veneration in which these Mysteries were held. Hence the reason these things were so carefully guarded from intrusion that war and desolation were accounted as incomparably of less moment than the preservation of the holy flame: that flame burning not only upon the altar of the temple but likewise in the heart of the resurrected.
In these initiations there were stages of progress for the seeker. To know, to will, to dare, and to be silent were the passwords peremptorily demanding admittance into the brotherhood of humanity's saviors; and they were never refused, for he who came carrying their burden in his heart, and manifest in his life, came by divine right and was already in spirit a member. Veil upon veil was lifted to him; there remained veil upon veil behind.
Besides these Arcana there were the outer halls of knowledge. Woe betide him who had not passed beyond the veil separating the two. Not yet an initiate, but a probationer; not yet a master, but a disciple pledged to the cause of humanity's spiritual progress. Dark demons of doubt still held their sway over his soul; still was he subject to his self. If it so happened that his daring carried him beyond his strength to fulfill, so that he failed those above him in the cause, then his doom came upon him swiftly, not by order but by the law under whose dominion he had so placed his life.
What life more significant in this connection than that of Julian, called the Apostate because he left the shell and form of exoteric Christianity to seek the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world? The Law fostered him and carried him along in its own working; perhaps a sadder cry was never heard than his: gathering his blood in his hand from the wound in his body, he launched it upwards with the cry, "Galilean, thou hast conquered!" The church today takes these words one way, but it can also mean that it was the voice of human despair, acknowledging not the starry Christos but the iron hand that was to fall so heavily on man's heart.
With him died the Mysteries — that is, their formal recognition by men. But there is hope; there is atonement, known among hierophants of the old-world wisdom. Humanity has been passing through a Baptism of Blood and the day has come now, in cyclic time, when wisdom shall again reclaim her children. The religions of earth are the children of the sacred Mysteries of antiquity. Study of the facts shows us clearly that at times of great dearth and stress, at times when the flow of spiritual life is at its ebb, there appear messengers whose mission it is to preach a "new" gospel to the people. They come like shooting stars into our midst, and when they vanish a new religion has been founded, a new philosophic school has been instituted.
These religions, these philosophies, were born in and of the sacred Mysteries. Time marks off the epochs; the Mysteries are profaned by the turmoil of the outer world and are withdrawn from sight; the temples become the dens of priestcraft and human terrors until the cyclic course of destiny brings forth the deliverer, the regenerator. He outlines his doctrine publicly; he gives the key to those who have been tried and proven faithful beyond doubt. The Mysteries are then reborn, to last for a time.
Who today can read the full meaning of the Mystery language of the old initiates? No Egyptologist has understood the recondite meaning of the temple writings of Egypt. They are scarcely to blame, for who of them knows that these picture writings must be read not merely in signs, but also in color; in juxtaposition to each other; and by certain formerly well understood rules regulating their interpretation, whether in a religious, civic, mystic, or historical sense?
In those old days, part of the knowledge communicated to the neophyte in the Mysteries is today common in every school. Such were geography, astronomy, the science of numbers and mathematics in general, chemistry, alchemy, divine astrology and, above all, history. The secret bearing of these sciences on man's destiny was explained and demonstrated, while the future of races to come was proven by these very branches of human knowledge. They went further; that is, the gifts to man in ages far gone, conferred by great souls who came to this state of life for that purpose, were then given with a key, now forgotten, but which was then a reality. It is easy to hear the thinkers of our day scoffing and deriding this idea but, after all, what proof have they to offer that it was not so? Is man the only being in this universe endowed with willpower and intelligence? If he is, how comes he by such divine powers? If he is not, where are they who are sharers with him therein? They must be above and below him; and our answer is there.
What knowledge have we today that is not derived from what our forefathers had? Our systems of weights and measures, our jurisprudence, our codes of ethics, our forms of government, the very languages we speak are all derived from antiquity: the ancients were our precursors in all that we now lay claim to. Music, numbers, art, architecture, government, lawmaking, industries — in short, everything we know was known and practiced before ourselves. On the old monuments and in the signs of Egypt may be seen the shoemaker drawing his twine, the jeweler at his task, the glassmaker blowing his glass, just as we may see them today. Why should the conceited fantasy of the age fancy that our knowledge is self-created, and that it symbolizes a civilization such that the records of past time have no parallel to it?
Among the Mysteries of antiquity, none perhaps are so well known to us, through rumor handed down, as those of Eleusis. Of prehistoric beginning, the Eleusinia took place at the time of the harvesting of grapes each year in the month of September, called the month of Boedromion, and lasted for a period of seven days. The Eucharistia was one of the oldest rites: Ceres signified bread and Bacchus wine, the former exemplifying life regenerated from the seed, and the wine or grape emblematic of wisdom. Jesus the Christ said , "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman," referring here to the secret and mystic knowledge of things that he could reveal. This again shows the standing of Jesus spiritually; for the pledged disciple might receive, but was not empowered to, and could not, impart or initiate.
So much for what were termed the Eleusinia "the greater." These were celebrated between harvest and the seedtime. Then there were the Eleusinia "the lesser," which were held ceremonially in the early springtime. Here at Eleusis, in Pelasgic times, were enacted the wondrous Mysteria, the "things veiled" from the eyes of men, in and during which the inner eye of the prepared neophyte recovered its power and the Fields Elysian were opened to his searching gaze. He saw life as it is; he saw Being uncovered from its enshrouding veil of matter, his soul bathed in the radiant light of pure truth. He was reborn, for he had received the baptism and then had undergone the rite of the "laying on of hands"; he was confirmed in the life spiritual. Christos was henceforth his name, for he was one of the "anointed"; the mantle of the Chrestos — the servant, the disciple — was laid aside. Here he received the sacred teachings, the doctrine, to preserve which from the knowledge of the people he promised on his life, and to serve it faithfully for the saving and healing of the people. Hence was he addressed as Kyrios, Lord; and as Soter, Savior.
The institutions of all past time were based upon what filtered out through many channels from the veiled Mysteries. Little was understood, for may it be said that the people of any day are born spiritual metaphysicians? So what was before their eyes was misunderstood. Divisions arose as to the meaning of this or that Logos, or doctrine; division or sectarianism grew apace among those into whom the good seed fell; and the result came to be division in all branches of life and thought. The teeth of the Dragon of Wisdom had been treacherously sown here and there and, to follow the legend, the teeth produced armed warriors who turned upon one another, and rent and tore.
What remains of this ancient wisdom has been surveyed by the historian in its corruption among barbarous nations or during the decline and fall of Greece and Rome. It may be said that the doctrines of this theologia, this divine theology of the Mysteries, was no less scientific than sublime. It celebrates the immense principle of natural things as even superior to being; as being exempt from all, though nevertheless the source of all. From this unnamable source proceeded a progression of beings, growing by their nature more and more material as they neared man. The course of growth was spiral in character, and man might mount to whence he had come, and higher still, by the use and development of the spirit within him. And as he mounted back, all nature was carried along with him, so that the ultimate of all creation was a sublime reentering into divinity.
This was not the case during what we may call the archaic period of known history. The Mysteries had already felt the impelling force of destiny: men had drunk from the iron cup of karma, of nemesis. Pythagoras, Plato, and others — even he who drank the deadly hemlock, Socrates, though not an initiate — were a living proof, by the very nature of their teachings, that the Mysteria had been withdrawn; for while conveying truth, they taught publicly and established their schools and coquetted with the State. They came as messengers to help the people, but they came almost alone and reft of the mighty protective power of the Mysteries.
From Eleusis sprang the hidden life which made Greece and adjoining peoples great. To Eleusis went they who sought the light, and who were called to go; they returned as leaders of men. From the downfall of the Mysteries, and from the stock of these latter, sprang into life two vigorous shoots: exoteric Christianity and the body now called Freemasonry. On the face of each is found the imprint of its origin. Nor should it be forgotten that woman held a place in the Mysteries of old, and that her status in the sight of men felt the shock of the loss of the Mysteries, possibly more than any other aspect of society.
Sans the central spiritual life, sans the fountainhead of true wisdom, and sans the knowledge of the secrets of life and of man's complex nature — which the Hierophants of old represented — religion became in the Occident what we have it today, and what it has been: warring, antagonistic, sectarian. No more is it a beacon light but a will-o'-the-wisp, possessing just enough of the old fire and flame to seduce man's intelligence and to blind his eyes to the eternal spiritual sun of truth and righteousness which cometh with healing in its wings.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1989/January 1990. Reproduced from a School of Antiquity paper, published at Point Loma, California, 1904. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)