The Greek Mysteries

Entries from Theosophical Glossaries

Note: all entries are from the Theosophical Glossary, unless otherwise noted.

Mysteries. Greek teletai, or finishings, celebrations of initiation or the Mysteries. They were observances, generally kept secret from the profane and uninitiated, in which were taught by dramatic representation and other methods, the origin of things, the nature of the human spirit, its relation to the body, and the method of its purification and restoration to higher life. Physical science, medicine, the laws of music, divination, were all taught in the same manner. The Hippocratic oath was but a mystic obligation. Hippocrates was a priest of Asklepios, some of whose writings chanced to become public. But the Asklepiades were initiates of the Æsculapian serpent-worship, as the Bacchantes were of the Dionysia; and both rites were eventually incorporated with the Eleusinia. The Sacred Mysteries were enacted in the ancient Temples by the initiated Hierophants for the benefit and instruction of the candidates. The most solemn and occult Mysteries were certainly those which were performed in Egypt by “the band of secret-keepers”, as Mr. Bonwick calls the Hierophants. Maurice describes their nature very graphically in a few lines. Speaking of the Mysteries performed in Philæ (the Nile-island), he says that “it was in these gloomy caverns that the grand and mystic arcana of the goddess (Isis) were unfolded to the adoring aspirant, while the solemn hymn of initiation resounded through the long extent of these stony recesses”. The word “mysteries” is derived from the Greek muô, “to close the mouth”, and every symbol connected with them had, a hidden meaning. As Plato and many other sages of antiquity affirm, the Mysteries were highly religious, moral and beneficent as a school of ethics. The Grecian mysteries, those of Ceres and Bacchus, were only imitations of the Egyptian; and the author of Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, informs us that our own “word chapel or capella is said to be the Caph-El or college of El, the Solar divinity”. The well-known Kabiri are associated with the Mysteries. In short, the Mysteries were in every country a series of dramatic performances, in which the mysteries of cosmogony and nature, in general, were personified by the priests and neophytes, who enacted the part of various gods and goddesses, repeating supposed scenes (allegories) from their respective lives. These were explained in their hidden meaning to the candidates for initiation, and incorporated into philosophical doctrines.

The Grecian Mysteries are wholly derived from the Brahmanical Vedic rites, and the latter from the ante-vedic religious Mysteries—primitive Buddhist philosophy.—Isis Unveiled, II:91fn

Bacchus [Bacchic Mysteries]. … “The original, pure Bacchic rites pertained to high initiation, in which the candidate becomes conscious of his oneness with divinity. Thus Bacchus, with his symbolic serpent and wine, stands for divine inspiration. But when the keys of the sacred science were lost and symbols were interpreted literally, the rites degenerated and often became profligate. Bacchus-Dionysos also figures as the inspirer of dramatic and representative art, inspiring the individual with the divine afflatus or mystic frenzy. Originally this meant the inner communion of the candidate with his own inner god and the consequent inspiration; on a lower plane it signifies the fleeting inspiration of poet and artist, and finally it degenerated into hysteria and morbid psychic states.”—Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary

Eleusinia (Gr.). The Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous and the most ancient of all the Greek Mysteries (save the Samothracian), and were celebrated near the hamlet of Eleusis, not far from Athens. Epiphanius traces them to the days of Inachos (1800 b.c.), founded, as another version has it, by Eumolpus, a King of Thrace and a Hierophant. They were celebrated in honour of Demeter, the Greek Ceres and the Egyptian Isis; and the last act of the performance referred to a sacrificial victim of atonement and a resurrection, when the Initiate was admitted to the highest degree of “Epopt” (q.v.). The festival of the Mysteries began in the month of Boedromion (September), the time of grape-gathering, and lasted from the 15th to the 22nd, seven days. The Hebrew feast of Tabernacles, the feast of Ingatherings, in the month of Ethanim (the seventh), also began on the 15th and ended on the 22nd of that month. The name of the month (Ethanim) is derived, according to some, from Adonim, Adonia, Attenim, Ethanim, and was in honour of Adonaï or Adonis (Thammuz), whose death was lamented by the Hebrews in the groves of Bethlehem. The sacrifice of both “Bread and Wine” was performed before the Mysteries of initiation, and during the ceremony the mysteries were divulged to the candidates from the petroma, a kind of book made of two stone tablets (petrai), joined at one side and made to open like a volume. (See Isis Unveiled II., pp. 44 and 91, et seq., for further explanations.)

Orphic Mysteries or Orphica (Gr.). These followed, but differed greatly from, the mysteries of Bacchus. The system of Orpheus is one of the purest morality and of severe asceticism. The theology taught by him is again purely Indian. With him the divine Essence is inseparable from whatever is in the infinite universe, all forms being concealed from all eternity in It. At determined periods these forms are manifested from the divine Essence or manifest themselves. Thus through this law of emanation (or evolution) all things participate in this Essence, and are parts and members instinct with divine nature, which is omnipresent. All things having proceeded from, must necessarily return into it; and therefore, innumerable transmigrations or reincarnations and purifications are needed before this final consummation can take place. This is pure Vedânta philosophy. Again, the Orphic Brotherhood ate no animal food and wore white linen garments, and had many ceremonies like those of the Brahmans.

Samothrace (Gr.). An island famous for its Mysteries, perhaps the oldest ever established in our present race. The Samothracian Mysteries were renowned all over the world.


Anaxagoras (Gr.) A famous Ionian philosopher who lived 500 b.c., studied philosophy under Anaximenes of Miletus, and settled in the days of Pericles at Athens. Socrates, Euripides, Archelaus and other distinguished men and philosophers were among his disciples and pupils. He was a most learned astronomer and was one of the first to explain openly that which was taught by Pythagoras secretly, namely, the movements of the planets, the eclipses of the sun and moon, etc. It was he who taught the theory of Chaos, on the principle that “nothing comes from nothing”; and of atoms, as the underlying essence and substance of all bodies, “of the same nature as the bodies which they formed”. These atoms, he taught, were primarily put in motion by Nous (Universal Intelligence, the Mahat of the Hindus), which Nous is an immaterial, eternal, spiritual entity; by this combination the world was formed, the material gross bodies sinking down, and the ethereal atoms (or fiery ether) rising and spreading in the upper celestial regions. Antedating modern science by over 2000 years, he taught that the stars were of the same material as our earth, and the sun a glowing mass; that the moon was a dark, uninhabitable body, receiving its light from the sun; the comets, wandering stars or bodies; and over and above the said science, he confessed himself thoroughly convinced that the real existence of things, perceived by our senses, could not be demonstrably proved. He died in exile at Lampsacus at the age of seventy-two.

Orpheus (Gr.). Lit., the “tawny one”. Mythology makes him the son of Æager and the muse Calliope. Esoteric tradition identifies him with Arjuna, the son of Indra and the disciple of Krishna. He went round the world teaching the nations wisdom and sciences, and establishing mysteries. The very story of his losing his Eurydice and finding her in the underworld or Hades, is another point of resemblance with the story of Arjuna, who goes to Pâtâla (Hades or hell, but in reality the Antipodes or America) and finds there and marries Ulupi, the daughter of the Nâga king. This is as suggestive as the fact that he was considered dark in complexion even by the Greeks, who were never very fair-skinned themselves.

Thales (Gr.). The Greek philosopher of Miletus (circa 600 years b.c.) who taught that the whole universe was produced from water, while Heraclitus of Ephesus maintained that it was produced by fire, and Anaximenes by air. Thales, whose real name is unknown, took his name from Thallath, in accordance with the philosophy he taught.

 


The Mysteries

The Samothracian Mysteries (“perhaps the oldest ever established in our present race”—H.P.B.)

Articles:

The Timeless Kabiri, Theosophy Magazine
Kabeiroi, from theoi.com
The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), p.36: the Myth of the Dying God, by Manly P. Hall

Books and Essays:

Theoroi and Initiates in Samothrace: The Epigraphical Evidence, by Nora Mitkova Dimitrova (2008)
Theoi Megaloi: The Cult of the Great Gods at Samothrace, by Susan Guettel Cole (1984)
Samothrace: A Guide to the Excavations and the Museum, by Karl Lehmann (1955)
Samothrace.  Excavations Conducted by the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, from 1959

Vol. 1:  Lewis, N. 1959. The Ancient Literary Sources, New York.
Vol. 2, Part I: Fraser, P. M. 1960. The Inscriptions on Stone, New York.
Vol. 2, Part II: Lehmann, K. 1960. The Inscriptions on Ceramics and Minor Objects, New York.
Vol. 3: Lehmann, P. W. 1969. The Hieron, Princeton.
Vol. 4, Part I. Lehmann, K. 1962.  The Hall of Votive Gifts, New York.
Vol. 4, Part II. Lehmann, K. and D. Spittle. 1964. The Altar Court, New York.
Vol. 5. Lehmann, P. W. and D. Spittle. 1982. The Temenos, Princeton.
Vol. 7. McCredie. J. R. et al. 1992.  The Rotunda of Arsinoe, Princeton.
Vol. 10. Frazer, A. K. 1990. The Propylon of Ptolemy II, Princeton.
Vol. 11. Dusenbery, E. 1998. The Nekropoleis, Princeton.
Forthcoming:
Vol. 9. Wescoat, B. D. et. al. The Monuments of the Eastern Hill.
Vol. 12. Clinton, K. The Religion of the Great Gods, Samothrace.

The Colonization of Samothrace, by A.J. Graham
An Archaic Inscription from Samothrace, by Nora Mitkova Dimitrova and Kevin Clinton

See also:

Selected Bibliography for the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace
Carl Fredrich & Friedrich Hiller, Inscriptiones Graecae XII.8 & XII.

Informational/Scholarly Sites:

Samothrace: Framing the Mysteries in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods (Emory University)
Samothracian Networks (Emory University, Scholarly Blogs)

See also:

Samothracian Temple Complex (wiki)
Cabeiri (wiki)
Theosophical References: SD II:3-4, II:106, II:362, II:390 etc., II:760.

The Eleusinian Mysteries (“the most famous and the most ancient of all the Greek Mysteries (save the Samothracian)”—H.P.B.)

Articles:

Quest of the Soul: The Eleusinian Mysteries, by William A. Savage
Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries: A “Thin” Description, by Jan N. Bremmer (2011), [published in: C.H. Bull et al. (eds), Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices,2011, 375-97]
The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Rites of Demeter, by Joshua J. Mark (2012) [Ancient History Encyclopedia]

Books and Essays:

A Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, by Thomas Taylor (1816)
Essay on the Mysteries of Eleusis, by Sergei Semenovich Uvarov, tr. J.D. Price (1817)
The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites, by Dudley Wright (1919)
Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, by George E. Mylonas (1974)
Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, by Karl Kerényi (1991)

Informational/Scholarly Sites:

Mysteries at Eleusis: Images of Inscriptions (Cornell University)

See also:

The Eleusinian Mysteries (wiki)
Theosophical References: Isis II:44, II:90, II:98-99, II:138, II:145-46, II:254.

The Orphic Mysteries (“these followed, but differed greatly from, the mysteries of Bacchus”—H.P.B.)

Articles:

On several particulars of the Orphic Mysteries and how they differ from the popular rites and mythology of Greece,” from History of the literature of ancient Greece, by Carl Otfried Müller (1847), pp. 231-238.

Books and Essays:

The Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor
A Dissertation on the Life and Theology of Orpheus, by Thomas Taylor
Orpheus, by G.R.S. Mead (original scan pdf | html)

Informational/Scholarly Sites:

See also:

Orpheus (universal theosophy biography)
Theosophical References: Isis I:341, II:129, …


General Works

The Mystery Schools, by Grace F. Knoche

Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, by Algis Uzdavinys

 


General Articles

The Greek Drama

The Greek Drama

Theosophy, October, 1939

The Golden Age of Greece lasted from the seventh to the fourth century B.C. During those three hundred years the Greeks laid the foundation stone of Western civilization, planted the seeds from which European science, philosophy and art sprang, and furnished models of education and government which have never been equalled, much less surpassed. These ideas did not originate in the minds of the men who presented them to the world. They were taken from the Mysteries, which in their turn were derived from the archaic Wisdom-Religion. The Mysteries were universities in the true sense of the word, teaching universal principles, demonstrating the fundamental unity of all life, showing the common source of all sciences, religions, philosophies and arts, proving the universal brotherhood of man.

The greatest philosophers of the Golden Age of Greece were Initiates of the Mysteries, and their doctrines were all echoes of the Mystery teachings. First came the three Initiates, Thales, Anaximander and Heracleitus, whose philosophical systems embodied some of the Mystery teachings concerning cosmogony. Then came Pythagoras and Plato, also Initiates, who demonstrated the practical value of universal principles when applied to the problems of education and good government.

In the Mysteries, universal principles were taught by means of dramatic representations. The Greek drama, therefore, is also the child of the Mysteries, and the first great dramatist, Aeschylus, was an Initiate.

One of the principal dramas enacted in the Eleusinian Mysteries was the story of Bacchus, or Dionysus. The legend relates that Bacchus, gazing into a mirror, became captivated by the reflection of his image. While thus engrossed he was seized by the Titans, who tore his body into fourteen pieces. Apollo, seeing this tragedy, collected the fragments and joined them together, restoring Bacchus to life.

The myth of Bacchus did not originate in Greece. It is as old as the world, having counterparts in the myths of the Egyptian Osiris, of the Phrygian Atys, the Syrian Tammuz and the Christian Christ. All of these “sun-gods” were murdered, descended into Hades and rose from the dead at the time of the vernal equinox, or “Easter.” The story of Bacchus shows how the reincarnating Ego beholds his image reflected in the waves of space, whispers, “this is I,” and thereby becomes entangled in the web of delusion. The incarnating soul becomes the “scape-goat” of atonement for all the sins committed by its many personalities.

The Greek tragedy sprang from the myth of Bacchus. The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek tragos, or “goat,” which refers to the “scape-goat” that every Ego becomes as soon as it assumes a body. The first Greek tragedies were always presented during the spring festival in honor of Bacchus, or Dionysus. At first they were merely recitations given by one man, in which the virtues of Dionysus, the spiritual Ego, were extolled. Later a second actor was added, who was called the “hypocrite.” Between the dialogues a chorus entered, chanting a lamentation for the condition into which the soul had fallen, or a eulogy on the divine Ego itself.

At that period of Greek history, when there were no public buildings save a few temples and law courts (these frequently being identical) no one would have dreamed of erecting a special building for the production of plays. The setting of the first Greek theater was laid before a convenient hillside, where the people gathered. At the foot of the hill was a flat circle, known as the “orchestra,” where the acting and singing took place. Behind the orchestra was a booth, or skene, where the actors changed their masks. In the course of time wooden seats were installed on the hillside, then stone and marble seats which, in the theater in Athens, accommodated some seventeen thousand people. The crowd assembled at sunrise for the first play. The mornings were given over to tragedies, the afternoons to comedies, in which dignitaries of the day were caricatured.

In 525 B.C., just fifteen years before the Eleusinian Mysteries began to degenerate, Aeschylus, the first great dramatist, was born in the city of Eleusis. He was of royal birth, tracing his ancestry back to the last King of Athens, and his father was connected in some capacity with the Mystery School. After his own initiation Aeschylus had a symbolical dream in which Bacchus appeared, inspiring him to write tragedies. Recognizing the voice of “Bacchus” as the voice of his own inner self, he took up his work and composed seventy dramas before he died.

Aeschylus’ best known work is Prometheus Bound. The myth immortalized in this poem is, as Bunsen says, “older than the Hellenes themselves.” It is the most ancient of all allegories, the grandest of all myths, being concerned with what is probably the most important event which has ever taken place upon this planet — that which Theosophy describes as the “lighting up of Manas.”

In order to understand the real meaning of this poem, we must first go back to the beginning of this globe, when there was no earth as we know it now, but only the image of the earth reflected in the æther of space, and the images of such man-forms as had been developed upon the Moon chain. Seven times this misty, fiery earth turned and whirled, growing more dense with each gyration. Again seven times it rotated, its matter becoming gaseous, the man-forms denser shadows. Another sevenfold gyration produced astral matter and the astral forms of men. These forms were huge, without mind, sex, or speech. Trying to describe them, Aeschylus says,

                    Seeing, they saw in vain;
Hearing, they heard not; but like shapes in dreams
Through the long time all things at random mixed.

For long ages the building of these forms went on, until at last they were as perfect as they had been on the former chain of globes. Then, in the second race, some of the wiser gods who had watched their building settled within the forms in order to guide and help them. Other gods, less wise, spurned the forms, declaring them unfit for habitation. But finally the Law forced these lesser gods to enter the forms and continue their journey of evolution. Thus, by incarnation, the Egos lighted up the latent spark of mind, and so man became a thinking being.

The story of Prometheus, who gave the fire of mind to man, is the tale of humanity itself. The Greeks declared that Prometheus came of a divine race. Compared with the body he occupies, Prometheus, the reincarnating Ego, is a God. By arousing the thinking faculty in those hitherto mindless forms, Prometheus also aroused the memory of the knowledge they had possessed on the moon-chain, thus giving them the “boon” of which the Chorus sings.

While saving him from mental darkness, Prometheus brought to man all the tortures which accompany self-consciousness: the knowledge of his responsibility to the whole of nature; the painful results of all wrong choices made in the past, since free-will and the power of choice go hand in hand with self-consciousness; all of the sorrows and sufferings — physical, mental and moral — to which thinking man is heir. Prometheus accepted these tortures as inevitable under the Law, knowing that the soul can develop only through its own experience, willing to pay the price for every experience gained.

When Zeus (who in this case represents the lower hosts that built the forms) saw that Prometheus had made man a god through his gift of mind, he chained the Titan to a rock on Mount Caucasus, helpless victim of the vulture of unsatisfied desire, of regret, and despair, coupled with the “dream-like feebleness which fetters the blind race of mortals.” In the midst of his suffering Heracles came to him and told him that “the soul of man can never be enslaved save by its own infirmities, nor freed save by its own strength and own resolve and constant vision and supreme endeavor.” But Prometheus, “he who sees before the event,” knew that men would never arrive at that condition before the end of the Dark Age. He prophesied that a mighty race would arise, “the kingly race born in Argos,” in which a great Avatar would appear. But this Argos is not the Argos of Greece. The Argos of Aeschylus is the mystery name of that region which extends from Kailas mountain nearly to the Schamo desert. It was there that physical humanity was born. It is there that the Kalki Avatar will appear some 427,000 years hence.

In tracing the wanderings of Io, the “cow-horned maid,” Aeschylus shows how Egypt owes its civilization to India. Io was told to go to a land near the river Ethiops, where she would find a dark and swarthy race. She was instructed to take some of these people to the “three-cornered land” and found a colony. The river Ethiops of which Aeschylus speaks is the Indus, sometimes called the Nila because of its dark blue color. The dark and swarthy people were the Eastern Ethiopians, who went from India to settle in Egypt. The three-cornered land is the Egyptian delta. The river Nile in Egypt received its name from the “blue river” in India, near which the Eastern Ethiopians dwelt.

How did Aeschylus know the history of these early races? He must have learned it in the Mysteries, where the true history of these early races formed part of the instructions. Both Cicero and Clement of Alexandria declare that this history was taught in the Sabasian Mysteries. These writers are also the only ones who attribute the condemnation of Aeschylus by the Athenians to its real cause. Aeschylus was a pledged Initiate, and in his Prometheus he refers to those dark crypts of initiation where a man became “as one newly born.” Aeschylus spoke cautiously of these things. Aristophanes spoke more boldly in his immortal satire on Heracles’ descent into Hades. (The Frogs.) Aeschylus was charged with sacrilege and condemned to be stoned to death, because the Athenians believed that he had profaned the Mysteries by exposing some of their teachings on the public stage. He is said to have been saved from an angry mob by the appeal of his brother, a hero of Salamis.

Sophocles, the second great dramatist of ancient Greece, was about thirty years younger than Aeschylus. Being exceptionally talented in music, he was chosen to lead the chorus in the victory of Salamis when he was only sixteen years old. At the age of twenty-eight, he competed with Aeschylus in a dramatic contest, winning the prize which, for a full generation, had gone to the older poet. Aeschylus belonged to the stern generation of Marathon, Sophocles to the sunny age of Pericles. Both reflect the underlying spirit of their generation in their writings. Aeschylus stresses the unrelenting justice of Karma; Sophocles, its mercy. Aeschylus depicts the struggles of the soul in harsh and rugged lines. Sophocles paints them in softer and more delicate colors. Although Sophocles is not known as an Initiate, in Electra he calls the Eleusinian School the “edifice of the gods.” In his Oedipus, he attempts to solve the riddle of the Sphynx. He tells how the Sphynx, half animal and half human, sat on a rock accosting every traveller with a riddle, which only Oedipus was able to answer. Oedipus, therefore, must be the symbol of the perfected man who has solved all the riddles of life, and is therefore freed from the necessity of reincarnation.

Euripides, the last of the great trio of tragic poets, appeared a generation later than Sophocles. He also wrote of Bacchus, of Jason, of Hercules and his labors, of the Trojan War and its heroes. Once again the age-old theme of the Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared in the Attic tongue, reminding the Greeks of the trials of life which must be met and conquered before man may, in truth, be called Man.

During the life-time of these three tragic poets the theater of Greece advanced steadily. Sophocles brought a background into the play, and was the first to introduce scenery, in the modern sense of the word. Euripides moved the chorus from the stage to the background, making the actors the chief center of interest. He was a great friend of Socrates, who never missed a performance of any of his plays. He was also one of the most versatile of the Greeks, being a famous athlete, a painter, a rhetorician, and a pupil of both Anaxagoras and Protagoras.

The popularity of the Greek drama was due to the fact that all educated Greeks of that period were thoroughly familiar with their classical writers. When the Pan-Athenean festivals were celebrated every fourth year, the people listened to the passages from the Odyssey and Iliad with full understanding, for most of them had studied these works when they were children and could repeat long passages by heart. Where in our day could we find an audience of 17,000 people who would eagerly listen to, say, a twelve-hour performance of Shakespeare, and who would know the lines by heart? We are greatly impressed when we listen to an orchestra of a hundred men, regarding the symphonies they play as one of the fruits of our modern civilization. Yet, a musical festival took place in Athens in 250 B.C., in which five hundred musicians played a magnificent symphony in five movements!

The “musical” education of the Greeks is stressed by all writers. It must be remembered, however, that the word “music” had a much wider application at that time than it now has. The Greek word mousike at first referred to the arts of the nine Muses. Gradually its meaning was extended to include everything connected with the training of the mind, just as the word gymnastike included everything pertaining to the training of the body. To speak of a Greek as having a good “musical education” is equivalent to saying that he was trained in all the liberal arts, including mathematics.

The Greek ideal of education was based upon the idea of universality, of the integration of all branches of learning. That is an ideal which our modern educators could well emulate. Hendrik van Loon, in his recent volume The Arts, makes an observation which finds an echo in the heart of every Theosophist who is interested in the subject of education. “There is one thing we can do,” he says, “and there the Greeks can be our masters and teachers, as they have been our masters and our teachers in so many other things. They can show us the way back to a consciousness of that universality that underlies all human achievements. They can make us once more realize that nothing in this world exists quite in and by and for itself, but that everything pertaining to the human spirit is correlated and interrelated with everything else. And by so doing they can once more give us a feeling for something that is in truth the beginning and end of all wisdom.”

The Greek Mysteries

The Greek Mysteries

Theosophy, February, 1939

AT the time of the early Third Race, high Intelligences from previous periods of evolution incarnated upon this globe in order to form a nursery for future Adepts. These “Sons of Will and Yoga” taught infant humanity the arts and sciences and laid the first foundations for those ancient civilizations which still puzzle our modern scholars. Some of the men instructed by these Divine Teachers preserved their knowledge in all its purity. Others materialized and degraded it. By the time the first Atlanteans appeared, mankind had already separated into two distinct divisions — the righteous and the unrighteous. The former worshipped the invisible spirit of Nature, a ray of which they felt within themselves. The latter separated themselves from the Great Mother, anthropomorphized her natural forces, and established the dark beginnings of all those subsequent religions which, as a Teacher says, “are the chief cause of nearly two-thirds of the evils that pursue humanity.” This simple fact affords a clue to the origin of evil by showing that man himself separated the One from its two contrasting aspects, and must continue to reap the consequences until he himself repairs his work.

After the submersion of the last remnant of Atlantis some 12,000 years ago, an impenetrable veil of secrecy was thrown over the sacred teachings lest again they be desecrated. It was this secrecy which led to the re-establishment of the Mysteries, to preserve the ancient teachings for the coming generations under the veil of symbol and allegory.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Mysteries did not originate either in Egypt or in Greece, but can be traced at least to pre-Vedic India. The Greek Mysteries were the last surviving relics of the archaic wisdom enacted under the guidance of high Initiates. With their loss, the Dark Ages of Europe began.

Within the sacred crypts of the Mystery Schools the hidden secrets of nature and man were unfolded. Clement of Alexandria says that the evolution of the entire universe was divulged in the Greater Mysteries, “for in them was shown to the initiated Nature and all things as they are.” Their moral value was stressed by Epictetus, while Plato asserted that their real object was to restore the soul to its primordial purity, that state of perfection from which it had fallen.

Herodotus informs us that the Mysteries were introduced into Greece by Orpheus, the son of Apollo, from whom he received his seven-stringed lyre, or the sevenfold mystery of initiation. Although Orpheus is commonly described as a “mythological” character,

This alone may be depended upon, from general assent, that there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, who was the founder of theology among the Greeks; the first of prophets and the prince of poets; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom the divine muse of Homer and the sublime theology of Pythagoras and Plato flowed. (Thomas Taylor: Mystical Hymns of Orpheus.)

Orpheus was a generic title, the name of one of those early instructors of the Third Race, which passed from teacher to pupil for untold generations. The Greek Orpheus is identified with Arjuna, the disciple of Krishna, who went around the world establishing the Mysteries. The word Orpheus, which means the “dark skinned,” points to the Indo-Aryan ancestry of that Teacher, while the purely Eastern character of his philosophy indicates the real source of the wisdom of Greece.

According to Orpheus, all things may be traced back to a great Principle to which men have tried to give a name, although it is really indescribable and ineffable. Following the Egyptian symbolism, Orpheus speaks of this Principle as “thrice-unknown darkness, in the contemplation of which all knowledge is refunded into ignorance.” Proclus, one of the most scholarly commentators on the philosophy of Orpheus, says he taught that a progeny of principles issued from the original Principle, each one of which was stamped with the occult characters of Divinity.

The Orphic system describes the Day and Night of Brahmâ as the Great Year of the Universe, at the end of which “Kronos squares the account of the gods, and re-assumes dominion of the most primeval Darkness.” Orpheus declares that man’s evolution is accomplished by means of innumerable reincarnations. Plutarch expresses the opinion that the myth of Bacchus, which was enacted in the Orphic Mysteries, “is a sacred narrative concerning reincarnation.” In the sixth book of the Aeneid, which is an allegorical record of some of the Mystery rites, Virgil speaks of the time elapsing between earth lives:

All these souls, after they have passed away a thousand years, are summoned by the divine ones in great array, to the Lethean river. In this way they become forgetful of the former earth-life, and re-visit the vaulted realms of the world, willing to return again into living bodies.

The oldest Mystery School of Greece was situated on the island of Samothrace, which was first colonized by the Pelasgians, those Atlanto-Aryan immigrants who were the first settlers of Greece. The most famous of the Mystery Schools, and the last to be destroyed, was the Eleusinian, located in the hamlet of Eleusis, not far from Athens.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into the Lesser and the Greater. The former were held at Agrae where, after a period of probation, the neophytes were known as the Mystae, or the “veiled.” The latter were held at Eleusis, and those who were initiated therein were known as the Epoptae, or those who saw “face to face.”

The Eleusinian Mysteries, from one point of view, were schools of Eastern psychology, in which the students learned the true nature of the soul, its relation to the body, and the method by which it could be purified and redeemed. The Lesser Mysteries illustrated, through dramatic performances, the condition of the unpurified soul, still entangled in the meshes of its own Karmic actions. The Greater Mysteries demonstrated the bliss of the soul which had been purified through spiritual vision and Self-realization.

In the Lesser Mysteries the neophytes were shown that the soul, when invested with a body, undergoes a form of death. “It is death to the soul,” Plotinus wrote, “to be wholly immersed in a body and wholly subjected to it.” This was demonstrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries by a dramatization of the myth of Ceres and Proserpine.

Ceres was one of the Immortals who dwelt on Mount Olympus. As a cosmic symbol she represented the fructifying principle in the all-pervading Spirit which quickens every germ in the material universe. As an individual symbol she typified the immortal Spirit which sheds its radiance upon every human being and which, being rooted in the Unknowable Causeless Cause, is both omnipotent and omniscient. Her daughter Proserpine symbolized the reincarnating Ego which, under Karmic law, descends into matter and slowly works its way back to the Source of All, taking with it the results of all experiences gained on the way. This myth is a magnificent description of the method by which the soul which has not yet incarnated upon this globe descends for the first time into a body of flesh.

Fearing that her daughter would be polluted by contact with matter, Ceres confined her in a house built by the Cyclopes, after which she returned to her own dwelling place among the gods. Jupiter, knowing that Proserpine’s time for incarnation had arrived, sent Venus to tempt her out of the house. Venus found her weaving the net of destiny in which the embodied soul becomes entangled. Led on by the goddess, Proserpine went out into the fields where Pluto, the god of the nether world, saw her and desired her. Picking her up, he carried her down to his own world and shut her up in a dark cavern. There, with Night as a witness, he married her, and the soul and body were united.

One night Ceres dreamed of Proserpine, who begged her mother to come to her aid. Girding herself with a Serpent, and carrying two lighted torches in her hands, Ceres started out to find her daughter. After travelling throughout the world, she finally returned to Greece. Weary and sad, she sat down on a stone, where she remained in meditation for nine days and nights. The place where she sat became the site of the Eleusinian School, in which the final initiations occupied nine days and nights. Homer says that this period refers to the nine spheres through which the soul descends into the body. It also has reference to the nine months of pre-natal life which the soul needs to form its body.

After these nine days of meditation Ceres returned to Jupiter and begged him to release her daughter. Jupiter consented, provided that Proserpine had not eaten any food during her life with Pluto. But when Mercury, the messenger of Jupiter, reached the underworld, he found that Proserpine had sucked the sweet juice from a pomegranate which Pluto had given her, showing that she had tasted the fruits of earthly life and found them sweet. That was enough to prevent her complete release. A compromise, however, was effected, allowing Proserpine to spend one half of her time with Ceres, the other half with her husband, Pluto. So, from its first incarnation, the soul communes with its Higher Self during deep sleep and after death, while its waking hours and the years of its earthly life are spent wedded to the body and its interests.

The condition of the unpurified soul after death, which also formed part of the instructions in the Lesser Mysteries, is described by Virgil. After crossing the Stygian lake, Aeneas meets the three-headed monster Cerberus, who symbolizes Kama Loka and the beings detained there. Thomas Taylor classifies them as infants who have met an untimely end, executed criminals and suicides. Aeneas is then taken to the Elysian Fields, or Devachan, where he finds the souls occupied “in employments proper to the spiritual nature, in giving free scope to the splendid and winged powers of the soul, in nourishing the higher intellect with substantial banquets of spiritual food.”

As the ultimate purpose of the Mysteries was to free the soul from the dominion of the flesh, the neophytes were shown the difficulties of the Path which lay before them. “Easy is the path that leads down to Hell,” Virgil says, “grim Pluto’s gate stands open night and day. But to retrace one’s steps and escape to the upper regions, this is a work, this is a task.” But however great the difficulties, Virgil assures us that they are not insurmountable, since “some few, whom illustrious virtue advanced to heaven, have effected it.”

The first task undertaken by the probationary disciples at Agrae was that of purification: “For the Mysteries are not imparted to all who are willing to be initiated. It is necessary that those who are not excluded from initiation should first undergo certain Purifications.” (Theon of Smyrna: Mathematica.) In this degree of the Mysteries the student learned to control his appetites, to restrain his emotions, to discipline his mind through the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Only when the lower nature is under control, Plotinus says, “will the inner eye begin to exercise its clear and solemn vision.”

The student who had passed through this period of probationary discipline successfully was then admitted to the Greater Mysteries of Eleusinia. Where at Agrae he had been permitted to see things “through a glass, darkly,” he was now ready to see “face to face.” Where before he had observed life through the eyes of Proserpine, the unpurified soul, he was now ready to look through the eyes of Ceres, the Higher Self. He was now prepared to have the myth of Ceres and Proserpine explained to him, and its different aspects unveiled in philosophical doctrines.

The instructions in the Greater Mysteries were given out by a high Initiate who was known as the Hierophant, or Interpreter. He was a sage, bound to celibacy, who devoted his entire time to this holy task. None of the students contacted him personally, and no one was allowed to mention him by name. The instructions were read from a book made of two stone tablets, known as the Petroma. They were imparted to the candidate orally, “at low breath,” and were received under the pledge of secrecy, the breaking of which meant death.

The initiations took place in dark underground crypts, and were described as the “descent into Hades.” After remaining in “Hades” for three days and nights, the candidate was then transported into the “Elysian Fields,” after which he was considered as “one newly born,” an Epoptes. This compound word means both a spectator and a Master Builder. The latter title, as found in Freemasonry, came directly from the Mysteries. When St. Paul spoke of himself as a Master Builder, he declared himself an Initiate of the Mysteries, having the right to initiate others.

The first initiation of the Mysteries was that of purification. The second was called the “tradition of the mystery.” The third was known as “inspection.” The fourth was called the “binding of the head and the fixing of the crowns,” which Plato says is equivalent to having the ability to lead others to knowledge. The fifth and most awe-inspiring of the Mystery rites is described as “friendship and interior communion with God.” Plato says that in that initiation he found himself liberated from the body and united with his Higher Self. At that time, he says, he became the spectator of “blessed visions, resident in pure light.” Proclus hints as to what these visions really were by declaring that the gods “exhibit themselves in many forms and appear in a variety of shapes.” The eleventh chapter of The Bhagavad Gita gives much light on this last and highest initiation of the Mysteries.

The Mysteries were not designed merely to initiate a chosen few into the secrets of nature, setting them apart from the rest of mankind. Their true purpose was rather to enable students to acquire an understanding of the ancient wisdom in order to be the better able to help and teach others. Every one initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, therefore, bound himself by the age old pledge: “I swear to give up my life for the salvation of my brothers, who constitute the whole of mankind, and, if called upon, to die in the defense of truth.”

For many centuries the Mysteries of Eleusinia shed their bright rays over the land of Greece. But the day finally came when dark clouds of ignorance and selfishness began to obscure the light. In 510 B.C., on the advice of Aristogeiton, the State decided to use the Eleusinian School as a source of income. From that time on, every one who entered the School paid an admission fee. By breaking the occult law that spiritual truths cannot be bought or sold, the Mysteries began to degenerate, and by the end of the second century A.D. any one who had the price could become an “initiate.” During those six hundred years, the epoptae disappeared one by one, leaving only the mystae behind. These half-knowing ones, who had never fathomed the depths of the secret teachings nor experienced union with the Higher Self, laid the foundation stones of modern Masonry. And from the uninitiated Freemasons Christian ritualism was born.

Although the less important Mystery Schools completely disappeared under the cruel and revengeful hand of the Christian Emperor Theodosius, the Mysteries of Eleusinia were not so easily abolished. But in the year 396 the vast Temple of Eleusis, one of the most famous buildings of the ancient world, was reduced to a pile of ashes. So perished the Mysteries of Greece.

But, although the Greek epoptai are no more, we have now, in our own age, a people far more ancient than the oldest Hellenes, who practice the so-called “preterhuman” gifts to the same extent as did their ancestors far earlier than the days of Troy. (Isis Unveiled II, 102.)

The Sacred Pilgrim in Greek Thought

The Ancient Mysteries: A Great Light, A Force for Good

Ancient Landmarks: The First Greek Philosophers

For more on Greek Philosophy, see:

The Pythagorean School

The Platonic Academy

The Neoplatonists

The Writings of Thomas Taylor

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