BY JOSÉ B. ACUÑA
(Reprinted from The Theosophist, June 1952, p. 175 – 182)
1. RELIGION AND THE MYSTERIES
It is a fact, very well known to all students of Theosophy, that Religion has been and is the main source of culture and civilization, because Religion is the channel through which the great Teachers of the world have sent Their messages for the upliftment of humanity. On the other hand, present-day ethnologists and anthropologists acknowledge also the fact that Religion is not only the main source of all culture but it is the unique manifestation of culture in primitive peoples.
In the past, each Religion, according to our Theosophical knowledge, was started by the World Teacher during one of His several incarnations. Either Himself or His followers embodied His teachings in a set of doctrines or sacred texts, and at the same time they laid the foundations of the special type of worship connected with that particular Religion. The forms of doctrine and worship were so constructed as to provide instruction for the great mass of the people (exoteric religion), but also they provided enlightenment for the advanced students who could develop the vision of the inner worlds and have direct knowledge of spiritual verities even to the vision of God Himself (esoteric religion).
These presentations of Truth constituted in some parts of the world the Mysteries, especially in India, Persia, Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome and the Keltic Druids.
But in this essay we are concerned only with these Ancient Mysteries from which our western culture has derived knowledge of Religion, Philosophy and Science, as it has derived the fundamental features of rites, pageantries, and even civilian etiquette.
The most important Mysteries of Ancient Europe, from the point of view of their influence upon our western civilization, are those of Greece and Rome, on the one hand, and of Egypt and Persia, on the other. In Greece the most famous were the so-called Eleusinian Mysteries, because they were celebrated in the City of Eleusis. But the most ancient and honourable were those of Samothrace and the Orphic Mysteries, the latter originally established by Orpheus and later reproduced by Pythagoras in his School of Krotona.
The Egyptian Mysteries are known to us through the writings of the Neo-Platonic philosophers of Alexandria, especially Iamblichus, better known to Theosophists as the Master Hilarion, and through Proclus, a past incarnation of the Master the Prince.
The Mysteries of Persia, called the Mithraic Mysteries, spread throughout the Roman Empire but finally died out and were replaced by the growing churches of Christendom. It is very likely that in Christianity there also were Mysteries because we still have rituals in which phrases and symbols belonging to some of the other Ancient Mysteries are still preserved.
The esoteric purpose of the Ancient Mysteries was to unfold in the candidates who were mature for such growth, the vision of the superphysical worlds, the capacity for using the spiritual forces, and finally the ecstatic vision of the One.
They were naturally divided into three stages, which have been preserved in Europe in the threefold division of the Schools connected with learning, either with higher forms of knowledge or with arts and handicrafts. For example, our Universities still give three titles – the degrees of Bachelor, Master and Doctor. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the Guilds of craftsmen and workers were divided into Apprentices, Fellowcraftsmen and Masters of the trade or profession. The real or esoteric basis for such divisions is that they represent the stages of growth of the candidates in the Mysteries.
2. STAGES IN THE MYSTERIES
The first stage, Akoustikos, Hearers or Learners, corresponded to that degree of growth in man in which he is only capable of understanding and grasping mentally the facts connected with the inner life, such as post-mortem states of consciousness, planes and sub-planes of nature, schemes of evolution, the general outline of the Universe, and the spiritual downfall of man (the Monad) into matter and his regeneration or return to the source whence he came. The students of this grade were taught orally and they had to learn almost by heart the knowledge received; a similar custom is preserved even today in India, where the student learns by rote-memory the teachings of his Guru. But in order to make it more clear, certain aids were used such as representations or pictures. The representations were in the nature of what today is known as a drama.
The second stage in the Mysteries was that of the Epoptai, meaning a Visioner or Seer who has developed his psychic powers in such a way that he can see or perceive the truth of that which he had previously learnt in a dramatic or purely memoristic way. A description of what he saw is given by Plato in his Phaedro, where he describes what the Soul of man beholds in the inner worlds before he comes into incarnation. The Egyptian Mysteries added to this vision what they called Theurgy or the Invocation of the Gods, by means of which the Initiate not only saw the habitats in the inner worlds but the inhabitants of them ranging from the Souls waiting in Devachan, the elementals and the devas, to the vision of the Masters. Iamblichus explains in full the power of those ancient invocations, the rationale of them, and the effects produced in the apparitions of the invisible beings known by the Greek name of Epiphanes (Manifestation or Apparition).
Finally, the third stage was that of Unity with the Divine. After having transcended all the phantasmagoria of the material and invisible worlds, whose glory was great but still illusory, the union with God made the candidate a God himself. He was illumined and identified with the Light that is in every man and which at the same time is the Light from above.
3. DECAY OF THE MYSTERIES
Madame Blavatsky, especially in Vol. 5 (Adyar ed.) of The Secret Doctrine, relates how the Ancient Mysteries around the Mediterranean basin slowly died out, and she states that when Julius Caesar destroyed the City of the Bibractis in ancient Gaul, the last of the Mysteries in Europe disappeared. But it seems that, for a long time before that, the teachings imparted in the Mysteries had become more and more materialized, due possibly to the lack of Initiates who had direct knowledge of the inner worlds. The process of materialization showed itself in the use of purely mechanical means of teaching, such as drama or similar kinds of representation, or in mere verbal expositions somewhat akin to our modern ways of lecturing. The neophyte was no more in touch, through his higher vision, with the inner worlds. By degrees the Mysteries became purely political or social institutions in which the leaders of the nation were trained for the purposes of State administration. The real knowledge had vanished from the inner sanctuaries, yet the exoteric teachings (and by this I mean knowledge that can be gained by the mind and upon which our reasoning faculties can be exercised) were imparted by different means, not to the Initiates of the Mysteries but to the world at large.
4. GREEK TRAGEDY
The first stage of the Mysteries, that in which verbal instruction was imparted to the Hearers or Akoustikos, gave rise to the popular representations known as religious ceremonies and dramas. Among the most important religious ceremonies, from which a dramatic art sprang up in Greece under the name of tragedy, were the rites connected with the cult of Dionysus or Bacchus. This God was popularly known as the divinity of Wine and Harvest, and was represented in the figure of a goat (tragus, or goat, from which the word “tragedy” is derived). I will not elaborate in any detail the origin of Greek tragedy because it is very well known to all students, but in those representations first of the life of Dionysus (who was also the God representing the Second Aspect of the Divinity whose death and resurrection is commemorated in all religions) and afterwards of other Gods as well, teachings belonging to the Mysteries were revealed to the general public who attended the tragedies at the Theatre.
H. P. Blavatsky describes how Aeschylus gives in his Prometheus Bound an account of our Fifth Root Race, the hero being not a saviour of humanity but a personification of our race, endowed with mind. Let us remember that Aeschylus was accused of divulging the teachings of the Mysteries. We can say that religious ceremonies were the beginning and antecedent of a form of art, which in capable hands reached a great height of development and became what is known as Dramatic Art. The Drama is an offspring of the Mysteries. But not only was drama evolved from these ancient ceremonies; it is known that many of the Degrees in Masonry came from the Ancient Mysteries and are direct remnants of the past.
5. CEREMONIAL AS ART
H. P. Blavatsky said that the Theosophical Society is a modern revival of the Ancient Wisdom as taught in the Mysteries secretly, but openly in certain Schools of Philosophy, such as the Neo-Platonic or Alexandrian School, in which for the first time the word “Theosophy” was used, a word which we have borrowed from them. Theosophy of today is a revival of the Ancient Wisdom. It is the proper channel through which the light of the spiritual life can be restored, as well as the vision of the superphysical worlds and the union with God.
The ceremonies which today survive from the Ancient Mysteries can be re-enacted by every one of us, in the Church, in Masonry, and in other forms of ritual, for the same purposes as they had originally. In other words, ceremonies can be performed as a form of religious art. One of its purposes clearly stated by Aristotle is that the tragedy served as a means of purifying the soul. This purification he called Catharsis. It was his idea – taken from the Mysteries, in which the stage of Akoustikos was linked with purification of the mind, the emotions and the physical body – that the seeing of the Drama, accompanied by an emotional participation in its happenings, produced in the mind and the emotions of the spectator an effect which was felt at the end of the process as a sort of purging of the soul from vice and fear. A tragedy was therefore like a bath, in which after many changes of temperature and massaging of the body, it was finally cleansed of all its impurities. The idea of Aristotle is accepted today by modern psychologists, who not only use the word “catharsis” in the Aristotelean sense but who have also discovered a mechanism of the mind by means of which a person, identifying himself with a hero, feels a sort of release from his limitations, fears and worries. This mechanism is clearly seen in the great success that books of adventure, detective stories, cowboy pictures and such, obtain with the general public.
The Theosophist of today can make real that purpose of ancient ceremonial, by living the ceremonies in such a way that he will become one with them, and use them as a channel for the outflow or sublimation of his desires and repressed emotions, the force of which causes anxiety in the ordinary paths of life, but which once released from the fetters of selfishness can be thrown out into the pure stream of divine power.
Another ideal which the Theosophists can bring back into ceremonial is that of using it as a means of carrying down (there is no sense of direction in the spiritual life except metaphorically) the power that is within us. When we release that power we are at the same time releasing the power of the Universe because the individual self is only a fiction created by our mind. Artists, mystics and so-called magicians (in ancient times known as Theurgists of the Divine) are in one accord in stating that when they reach the highest expansion of consciousness they are no more separate selves, that the ocean of cosmic power pours through them. In other words, we can bring back into ceremonial work the ideal of the second stage of the Mysteries, in which vision of the inner worlds was opened in order to enable the Soul to go from one world of reality to another until it reached the summit. The summit was Union with the Divine, which made man a Theopator (one with God).
The stage of Union is thus described by Iamblichus:
“After the Theurgic discipline has conjoined the Soul individually with the several departments of the universe and with all the divine Powers that pervade it, then it leads the Soul to the Creator of the world, places it in His charge, and frees it of everything pertaining to the realm of matter, uniting it with the sole Eternal Reason (Logos). What I am saying is this: That it unites the Soul individually to the One, the Father of Himself, Self-Moving. He who sustains the universe, spiritual, who arranges all things in order, who leads it to the Supreme Truth, to the Absolute, the Efficient Cause and other creative powers of God: Thus establishing the Theurgic Soul in the energies, the conceptions and creative qualities of those powers. Then it inserts the Soul in the entire Demiurgic God. This with the Egyptian Sages is the end of the Return, as taught in the Sacred Records.”
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