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The Mystery Schools

The Mystery Schools

The great Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to the early part of the second millennium b.c.e., portrays an ancient Mesopotamian king's quest for immortality and his despair when he learns that the gods keep the priceless jewel of eternal life for themselves. From clay, the gods shaped humankind and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. What a cruel trick, then, to snatch back the wind of life at the time of physical death and permit the wonderful piece of work that is man to return once again to dust. The destiny of all humans, regardless of whatever greatness they may achieve or however low they might sink, is the samedeath.

Throughout all of humankind's recorded history, there have been those who have sought to guarantee a dignified way of death and to ensure a stylish and safe passage into the afterlife. Many of these individuals who sought to approach death on their own terms formed secret societies and cults which are known by the general name of "mysteries," which comes from the Greek myein, "to close," referring to the need of the mystes, the initiate, to close the eyes and the lips and to keep secret the rites of the cult.

All of the early mysteries and mystical traditions appear to center around a kind of mystery play or ritual reenactment of the life of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, and Demeter, divinities most often associated with the underworld, the realm of the dead, the powers of darkness, and the process of rebirth. Because of the importance of the regenerative process, the rites of the mysteries were usually built around a divine female as the agent of transformation and regeneration. While the initiates of the mystery cult enacted the life cycle of the gods who triumphed over death and who were reborn, they also asserted their own path of wisdom that would enable them to conquer death and accomplish resurrection in the afterlife, with rebirth in a new body in a new existence.

The origin and substance of the state religion of ancient Greece was a sophisticated kind of nature worship wherein natural elements and phenomena were transformed into divine beings who lived atop Mount Olympus. If the Judeo-Christian tradition proclaimed that humans were fashioned in the image of God, their creator, then it must be said that the gods of ancient Greece were created in the image of humans, their creators. Like the humans who worshipped them, the Olympians lived in communities and had families, friends, and enemies and were controlled by the same emotions, lusts, and loves. The pantheon of the gods of ancient Greece were not cloaked in the mysterious, unfathomable qualities of the deities of the East, but possessed the same vices and virtues as the humans who sought their assistance. Although the Olympians could manifest as all-powerful entitiesespecially when a rival god wasn't interferingnone of them were omnipotent. Although they were capable of exhibiting wisdom, none of them were omniscient. And they often found themselves as subject to the whims of Fate as the humans who prayed for their guidance.

The Olympians were worshipped by the Greeks most often in small family groups. There existed no highly organized or formally educated priesthood, no strict doctrines, no theologians to interpret the meaning of ambiguous scriptural passages. The followers of the state religion could worship the god or gods of their choosing and believed that they could gain their favor by performing simple ritual acts and sacrifices.

In addition to the state religion into which every Greek belonged automatically at birth, there were also the "mystery religions," which required elaborate processes of purification and initiation before a man or woman could qualify for membership. The mystery religions were concerned with the spiritual welfare of the individual, and their proponents believed in an orderly universe and the unity of all life with God. The relationship of the mystes, the initiate, was not taken lightly, as in the official state religion, but was considered to be intimate and close. The aim and promise of the mystical rites was to enable the initiate to feel as though he or she had attained union with the divine. The purifications and processions, the fasting and the feasts, the blazing lights of torches and the musical liturgies played during the performances of the sacred playsall fueled the imagination and stirred deep emotions. The initiates left the celebration of the mystery feeling that they were now superior to the problems that the uninitiated faced concerning life, death, and immortality. Not only did the initiates believe that their communion with the patron god or goddess would continue after death, but that they would eventually leave Hades to be born again in another life experience.


Delving Deeper

cotterell, arthur, ed. encyclopedia of world mytholo gy. london: dempsey parr, 1999.

ferm, vergilius, ed. ancient religions. new york: the philosophical library, 1950.

fox, robin lane. pagans and christians. new york: alfred a. knopf, 1989.

gordon, stuart. the encyclopedia of myths and leg ends. london: headline book publishing, 1994.

walker, barbara g. the woman's encyclopedia of myths and secrets. san francisco, harper & row, 1983.


Dionysian Mysteries

Next to the Eleusinian mysteries in importance and popularity were the Dionysian, which were centered around Dionysus (Bacchus), a god of life, vegetation, and the vine who, because all things growing and green must one day decay and die, was also a divinity of the underworld. Those initiates who entered into communion with Dionysus drank large amounts of wine and celebrated with feasts that encouraged them to dress themselves in leaves and flowers and even to take on the character of the god himself, in an attempt to achieve his power. Once the god had entered into union with the initiates, they would experience a new spiritual rebirth. This divine union with Dionysus marked the beginning of a new life for the initiates, who, thereafter, regarded themselves as superior beings. And since Dionysus was the Lord of Death, as well as the Lord of Life, the initiates believed that their union with him would continue even after death, and that immortality was now within their grasp.

The rites of Dionysus were conducted on a much lower level than those of Eleusis, and often featured the sacrifice of an animalusually a goatthat was torn to pieces by the initiates, whose savagery was meant to symbolize the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the divinity. Although the cult was not looked upon with high regard by the sages and philosophers of the day, amulets and tablets with fragments of Dionysian hymns upon them have been found dating back to the third century b.c.e. These magical symbols were buried with the dead and meant to protect the soul from the dangers of the underworld.


Delving Deeper

brandon, s. g. f. religion in ancient history. new york: charles scribner's sons, 1969.

ferm, vergilious ed. ancient religions. new york: philosophical library, 1950.

Eleusinian Mysteries

The sacred Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks date back to the fifth century b.c.e. and were the most popular and influential of the cults. The rites took place in the city of Eleusis, a small community 14 miles west of Athens, but it was the ruler of Athens, together with a specially selected committee, who was in charge of the general management of the annual event. Although the Dionysian and Orphic rites could be celebrated at any time, the Eleusinian rites were held at a fixed time in the early fall after the seeds had been entrusted to the fields, and were conducted by a hereditary priesthood called the Eumolpedie.

Sometime in the month of September, the Eumolpedie removed the Eleusinian holy objects from Eleusis and carried them to the sacred city of Athens, where they were placed in the Eleusinion temple. Three days after the holy relics had been transported, the initiates gathered to hear the exhortations of the priests, who solemnly warned all those who did not consider themselves worthy of initiation to leave at once. Women and even slaves were permitted to join the mysteries of Eleusis, providing that they were either Greeks or Romans, but it was required that all those wishing to be considered as initiates had first undergone the lesser mysteries held in Agrae, a suburb of Athens, six months before. After the rites of purification had been observed, the initiates bathed in the sea and were sprinkled with the blood of pigs as they emerged. A sacrifice was offered to the gods, and a procession began the journey to Eleusis, where, upon the arrival of the priests and the initiates, a midnight feast was celebrated and the new members of the cult were made one with the gods and goddesses by partaking of holy food and drink and enacting the ritual drama.

The Eleusinian drama reenacted the myth of the rape, abduction, and marriage of Kore (Persephone) by Hades, god of the underworld, and her separation from her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain and vegetation. When, in her despair, Demeter refuses to allow the earth to bear fruit and brings about a time of blight and starvation that threatens to extinguish both humans and the gods, Zeus recalls Persephone from Hades. Filled with joy at the reunion with her daughter, Demeter once again allows the Earth to bear fruit. Persephone, however, will now divide the days of each year between her husband, Hades, in the underworld, and her mother, ensuring a bountiful harvest.

Essentially, the rites imitated the agricultural cycles of planting the seed, nurturing its growth, and harvesting the grain, which, on the symbolical level, represented the birth of the soul, its journey through life, and its death. As the seed of the harvest is planted again and the agricultural cycle is perpetuated, so is the soul harvested by the gods to be resurrected. Membership in the mysteries of Eleusis was undertaken to ensure initiates a happy immortality.


Delving Deeper

ferm, vergilious, ed. ancient religions. new york: philosophical library, 1950.

gaster, dr. theodor h., ed. the new golden bough. new york: criterion books, 1959.

larousse dictionary of beliefs and religions. new york: larousse, 1994.


Hermetic Mysteries

The Hermes Trismegistus (the thrice greatest Hermes), who set forth the esoteric doctrines of the ancient Egyptian priesthood, recognized the reincarnation of "impious souls" and the achievement of pious souls when they know God and become "all intelligence." Hermes was the name the Greeks gave to the Egyptian god Thoth, the god of wisdom, learning, and literature. To Hermes was given the title "scribe of the gods," and he is said to have authored 42 sacred books, the Hermetic Mysteries, which contained a wide assortment of secret wisdom. These divine documents were divided into six categories. The first dealt with

the education of the priesthood; the second, temple ritual; the third, geographical knowledge; the fourth, astrology; the fifth, hymns in honor of the gods and a guide for the proper behavior of royalty; the sixth, medical commentary. Legend has it that these sacred texts contain all the accumulated wisdom of ancient Egypt, going back in an unbroken tradition to the very earliest time.

As the Hermetic texts continued to influence the growth of European alchemy, astrology, and magic, the author of the books was said to have been Adam's grandson, who built the great pyramids of Egypt; or an Egyptian magician who lived three generations after Moses; or a magus from Babylonia who instructed Pythagoras. The Hermetic text decrees against transmigration, the belief that the souls of humans may enter into animals: "Divine law preserves the human soul from such infamy."


Delving Deeper

gordon, stuart. the encyclopedia of myths and leg ends. london: headline house, 1993.

Orphic Mysteries

Orpheus may have been an actual historic figure, a man capable of charming both man and beast with his music, but god or human, he modified the Dionysian rites by removing their orgiastic elements. Dionysus Zagreus, the horned son of Zeus (king of the Gods) and Persephone (daughter of Zeus and Demeter), was the great god of the Orphic mysteries, who was devoured by the evil Titans while Zeus was otherwise distracted. Athena managed to save Dionysus Zagreus's heart while the enraged Zeus destroyed the Titans with his thunderbolts. Zeus gave the heart of his beloved son to the Earth goddess Semele who dissolved it in a potion, drank thereof, and gave birth to Dionysus, the god of vegetation, whose cycle of birth, death, and rebirth reflects the cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth seen in nature. Orpheus preached that humankind was created from the ashes of the Titans who devoured Dionysus Zagreus; therefore, the physical bodies of humans are formed from the evil of the Titans, but they also contain within them a tiny particle of the divine essence. Within this duality a constant war rages, so it is the duty of each human to repress the Titanic element and allow the Dionysian an opportunity to assert itself. The final release of the divine essence within, the redemption of the soul, is the utmost goal of the Orphic process. This process may best be obtained by the soul reincarnating in a number of physical bodies in different life experiences.

While other schools of reincarnation see the process of rebirth as an evolving of the soul ever higher with each incarnation, the Orphic concept introduces the aspect of the soul being gradually purged or purified through the sufferings incurred during each physical rebirth. As the soul inhabits the body, it is really doing penance for previous incarnations, a process which gradually purifies the soul. Between lifetimes, when the soul descends to Hades, it can enjoy a brief period of freedom that can be pleasant or unpleasant. Then it must return to the cycle of births and deaths. How many lifespans must the soul endure before the process of purification is completed and its final release is obtained? Plato (c. 428348 b.c.e.) envisioned three periods of a thousand years each as a possible answer.

According to Orphic teachings, the only way out of the "wheel of birth," the "great circle of necessity," was through an act of divine grace that could possibly be obtained by the supplicant becoming immersed in the writing, ritual acts, and teachings of Orpheus and receiving initiation into the mysteries of the cult. Although there are no available texts clearly setting forth the process of initiation, it likely included fasting, rites of purification, and the reciting of prayers and hymns. It also seems quite certain that the initiates would have enacted a play depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Dionysus Zagreus. In addition, records suggest that a horned bull was sacrificed and the initiates partook of a sacramental feast of its raw flesh as a holy act that brought them in closer union with the god. Once this had been accomplished, the initiates were given secret formulas which would enable them to avoid the snares awaiting the unwary soul as it descended to Hades and would ensure them a blissful stay while they awaited a sign that their participation in the "great circle of necessity" had ended.

Delving Deeper

ferm, vergilious, ed. ancient religions. new york: philosophical library, 1950.

gaster, dr. theodor h., ed. the new golden bough. new york: criterion books, 1959.

Pythagoras (c. 590c.520 b.c.e.)

Pythagoras, one of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of the sixth century b.c.e., is reported to have been the first of the Greeks to teach the doctrine that the soul, passing through the "great circle of necessity," was born at various times to various living bodies. Pythagoras believed in the soul as a "thought of God," and he considered the physical body to be simply one of a succession of "receptacles" for the housing of the soul. Many of his followers became vegetarians, for he taught that the soul might live again in animals.

Because of his importance to early Greek culture, Pythagoras is among those individuals given the status of becoming a myth in his own lifetime. Therefore, the philosopher was said to have been born of the virgin Parthenis and fathered by the god Apollo. Pythagoras's human father, Mnesarchus, a ring merchant from Samos, and his mother consulted the Delphic Oracle and were told that he would be born in Sidon in Phoenicia and that he would produce works and wonders that would benefit all humankind. Wishing to please the gods, Mnesarchus demanded that his wife change her name from Parthenis to Pythasis, in order to honor the seeress at Delphi. When it was time for the child to be born, Mnesarchus devised "Pythagoras" to be a name in which each of the specially arranged letters held an individual sacred meaning.

Pythagoras is said to have traveled the known world of his time, accumulating and absorbing wisdom and knowledge. According to the legends surrounding his life, he was taught by Zoroaster (c. 628c. 551 b.c.e.), the Persian prophet, and by the Brahmans of India. Although his teachings on past lives formed the essence of so many of the mystery religions, he was initiated into the Orphic, Egyptian, Judaic, Chaldean, and many other mystery schools.

At last Pythagoras formed his own school at Crotona in southern Italy. An unyielding taskmaster, he accepted only those students whom he assessed as already having established personal regimens of self-discipline. To further stress the seriousness of his study program, Pythagoras lectured while standing behind a curtain, thereby denying all personal contact with his students until they had achieved progress on a ladder of initiatory degrees that allowed them to reach the higher grades. While separated from them by the curtain, Pythagoras lectured his students on the basic principles of music, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.

Pythagoras called his disciples mathematicians, for he believed that the higher teachings began with the study of numbers. From his perspective, he had fashioned a rational theology. The science of numbers lay in the living forces of divine faculties in action in the world, in universal macrocosm, and in the earthly microcosm of the human being. Numbers were transcendent entities, living virtues of the supreme "One," God, the source of universal harmony.

Devoted to his studies, his travels, and his school, Pythagoras did not marry until he was about 60. The young woman had been one of his disciples, and she bore him seven children. The legendary philosopher died while exercising authority over his strict standards of admittance to his school. He denied a man acceptance because it was apparent that the would-be student had an unruly temper that could easily become violent. The rejected follower fulfilled Pythagoras's negative evaluation by angrily leading a mob against the school and burning down the house where the teacher and 40 students were gathered. Some accounts state that Pythagoras died in the fire; others have it that he died of grief, sorrowing over how difficult a task it was to elevate humanity.

Delving Deeper

schure, edouard. the great initiates. trans. by gloria raspberry. new york: harper and row, 1961.

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