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Mysteries, Ancient

Each of the Pagan gods, says Warburton (Divine Legation I, u, 4), had, besides the public and open, a secret worship paid to him, to which none were admitted but those who had been selected by preparatory ceremonies called Initiation. This secret worship was termed the Mysteries. And this is supported by Strabo (book x, chapter 3) who says that it was common, both to the Greeks and the Barbarians, to perform their religious ceremonies with the observance of a festival, and that they are sometimes celebrated publicly, and sometimes in mysterious privacy. Noel (Dictionnaire de la Fable) thus defines them: Secret ceremonies which were practiced in honor of certain gods, and whose secret was known to the initiates alone, who were admitted only after long and painful trials, which it was more than their life was worth to reveal.

As to their origin, Warburton is probably not wrong in his statement that the first of which we have any account are those of Isis and Osiris in Egypt; for although those of Mithras came into Europe from Persia, they were, it is supposed, carried from Egypt by Zoroaster. The most important of these Mysteries were the Osiris in Egypt, the Mithraic in Persia, the Cabiric in Thrace, the Adonisian in Syria, the Dionysiac and Eleusinian in Greece, the Scandinavian among the Gothic nations, and the Druidical among the Celts.

In all these Mysteries we find a singular lusty of design, clearly indicating a common origin, and a purity of doctrine as evidently proving that this common origin was not to be sought for in the popular theology of the Pagan world. The ceremonies of initiation were all funereal in their character. They celebrated the death and the resurrection of some cherished being, either the object of esteem as a hero, or of devotion as a god. Subordination of Degrees was instituted, and the candidate was subjected to probations varying in their character and severity; the rites were practiced in the darkness of night, and often amid the gloom of impenetrable forests or subterranean caverns; and the full fruition of knowledge, for which so much labor was endured, and so much danger incurred was not attained until the aspirant, well tried and thoroughly purified, had reached the place of wisdom and of light.

These Mysteries undoubtedly owed their origin to the desire to establish esoteric philosophy, in which should be withheld from popular approach those sublime truths which it was supposed could only be entrusted to those who had been previously prepared for their reception. Whence these doctrines were originally derived it would be impossible to say; but Doctor Mackey was disposed to accept Creuzer's hypothesis of an ancient and highly instructed body of priests having their origin either in Egypt or in the East, from whom was derived religious, physical, and historical knowledge, under the veil of symbols.

By this confinement of these doctrines to a system of secret knowledge, guarded by the most rigid rites, could they may only expect to preserve them from the superstitions, innovations, and corruptions of the world as it then existed. "The distinguished few," says Brother Oliver (History of Initiation, page 2), "who retained their fidelity, uncontaminated by the contagion of evil example, would soon be able to estimate the superior benefits of an isolated institution, which afforded the advantage of a select society, and kept at an unapproachable distance the profane scoffer, whose presence might pollute their pure devotions and social converse, by contumelious language or unholy mirth." And doubtless the prevention of this intrusion, and the preservation of these sublime truths, was the original object of the institution of the ceremonies of initiation, and the adoption of other means by which the initiated could be recognized, and the uninitiated excluded. Such was the opinion of Warburton, who says that "the Mysteries were at first the retreats of sense and virtue, till time corrupted them."

The Abbe Robin in a learned work on this subject entitled Recherches sur Yes Initiations Anciennes et Modernes (Paris, 1870), places the origin of the initiations at that remote period when crimes first began to appear upon earth. The vicious, he remarks, were urged by the terror of guilt to seek among the virtuous for intercessors with the Deity. The latter, retiring into solitude to avoid the contagion of growing corrupttion, devoted themselves to a life of contemplation and the cultivation of several of the useful sciences. The periodical return of the seasons, the revolution of the stars, the productions of the earth, and the various phenomena of nature, studied with attention, rendered them useful guides to men, both in their pursuits of industry and in their social duties.

These recluse students invented certain signs to recall to the remembrance of the people the times of their festivals and of their rural labors, and hence the origin of the symbols and hieroglyphics that were in use among the priests of all nations. Having now become grudes and leaders of the people, these sages, in order to select as associates of their learned labors and sacred functions only such as had sufficient merit and capacity, appointed strict courses of trial and examination, and this, our author thinks, must have been the source of the initiations of antiquity. The Magi, Brahmans, Gymnosophists, Druids, and priests of Egypt, lived thus in sequestered habitations and subterranean eaves, and obtained great reputation by their discoveries in astronomy, chemistry, and mechanics, by their purity of morals, and by their knowledge of the science of legislation. It was in these schools, says M. Robin, that the first sages and legislators of antiquity were formed, and in them he supposes the doctrines taught to have been the unity of God and the immortality of the soul; and it was from these Mysteries, and their symbols and hieroglyphics, that the exuberant fancy of the Greeks drew much of their mythology.

Warburton deduces from the ancient writers from Cicero and Porphyry, from Origen and Celsus, and from others--what was the true object of the Mysteries. They taught the dogma of the unity of God in opposition to the polytheistic notions of the people, and in connection with this the doctrine of a future life, and that the initiated should be happier in that state than all other mortals; that while the souls of the profane, at their leaving the body, stuck fast in mire and filth and remained in darkness, the souls of the initiated winged their flight directly to the happy islands and the habitations of the gods.

"Thrice happy they," says Sophocles, "who descended to the shades below after having beheld these Rites; for they alone have life in Hades, while all others suffer there every kind of evil." And Isocrates de clares that "those who have been initiated in the Mysteries, entertain better hopes both as to the end of life and the whole of futurist.

Others of the ancients have given us the same testimony as to their esoteric character. "All the Mysteries," says Plutarch, "refer to a future life and to the state of the soul after death." In another place, addressing his wife! he says, "We have been instructed in the religious Rites of Dionvsius, that the soul is immortal, and that there is a future state of existence."

Cicero tells us that, in the Mysteries of Ceres at Eleusis, the initiated mere taught to live happily and to die in the hope of a blessed futurity. And, finally, Plato informs us that the hymns of Musaeus, which were sung in the Mysteries, celebrated the rewards and pleasures of the virtuous in another life, and the punishments which awaited the wicked. These sentiments, so different from the debased polytheism which prevailed among the uninitiated, are the most certain evidence that the mysteries arose from a purer source than that which gave birth to the religion of the vulgar.

We must not pass unnoticed Faber's notion of their arkite origin. Finding, as he did, a prototype for every ancient cultus in the ark of Noah, it is not surprising that he should apply his theory to the Mysteries. Faber says (begin of Pagan Idolatry II, iv, 5) The initiations into the mysteries scenically represented the mystic descent into Hades and the return from thence to the light of dan, by which was meant the entrance into the ark and the subsequent liberation from its dark enclosure. They all equally related to the allegorical disappearance, or death, or descent of the great father, at their commencement; and his invention, or revival, or return from Hades, at their conclusion.

Dollinger (Gentile and Jew I, 126) says, speaking of the Mysteries:The whole was a drama, the prelude to which consisted in purifications, sacrifices, and injunctions with regard to the behavior to be observed. The adventures of certain deities, the sufferings and joys, their appearance on earth, and relations to mankind, their death, or descent to the nether world, their return, or their rising again--all these, as symbolizing the life of nature, were represented in a connected series of theatrical scenes.

These representations, tacked on to a nocturnal solemnity, brilliantly got up particularly at Athens, with all the resources of art and sensual beauty. and accompanied with dancing and song, were eminently calculated to take a powerful hold on the imagination and the heart, and to excite in the spectators alternately conflicting sentiments of terror, and calm, sorrow and fear, and hope. They worked upon them, now by agitating, now by soothing, and meanwhile had a strong bearing upon susceptibilities and capacities of individuals, according as their several dispositions inclined them more to reflection and observation, or to a resigned credulity.

Bunsen (God in History II, book iv, chapter 6), gives the most recent and the most philosophic idea or the character of the Mysteries:

They did indeed exhibit to the initiated coarse physical symbols of the generative powers of Nature, and of the universal Nature herself, eternally, self-sustaining through all transformations; but the religious element of the Mysteries consisted in the relations of the universe to the soul, more especially after death. Thus, even without philosophic proof, we are justified in assuming that the Nature symbolism referring to the Zodiac formed a mere framework for the doctrines relating to the soul and to the ethical theory of the universe. So likewise, in the Samothracian worship of the Kabiri, the contest waged by the orb of day was represented by the story of the three brothers, the seasons of the year, one of whom is continually slain by the other two, but ever and anon arises to life again. But here, too, the beginning and end of the worship were ethical. A sort of confession was demanded of the candidates before admission and at the close of the service the victorious God. Dionysius was displayed as the Lord of the spirit. Still less, however, did theorems of natural philosophy form the subject-matter of the Eleusinian Mysteries, of which, on the contrary, physical conceptions were the beginnings and the end. The predominating idea of these conceptions was that of the soul as a divine, vital force. held captive here on earth and sorely tried, but the initiated were further taught to look forward to a final redemption and blessedness for the good and pious, and eternal torment after death for the wicked and unjust.

The esoteric character of the Mysteries was preserved by the most powerful sanctions. An oath of secrecy was administered in the most solemn form to the initiate, and to violate it was considered a sacrilegious crime, the prescribed punishment for which was immediate death, and we have at least one instance in Livy of the infliction of the penalty. The ancient writers were, therefore, extremely reluctant to approach the subject, and Lobeck gives, in his Aglaophamus (volume i, appendix 131, 151; ii, 12, 87), several examples of the cautious manner in which they shrunk from divulging or discussing any explanation of a symbol which had been interpreted to them in the course of initiation. I would forbid, says Horace (Epistles iii, Ocles 2, 26), that man who would divulge the sacred Rites of mysterious Ceres from being under the same roof with me, or from setting sail with me in the same precarious bark.

On the subject of their relation to the Rites of Freemasonry, to which they bear in many respects so remarkable a resemblance, that some connection seems necessarily implied, there are five principal theories. The first is that embraced and taught by Doctor Oliver, namely, that they are but deviations from that common source, both of them and of Freemasonry, the patriarchal mode of worship established by God himself. With this pure system of truth, he supposes the science of Freemasonry to have been coeval and identified. But the truths thus revealed by divinity came at length to be doubted or rejected through the imperfection of human reason, and though the visible symbols were retained in the Mysteries of the Pagan world, their true interpretation was lost.

There is a second theory which, leaving the origin of the Mysteries to be sought in the patriarchal doctrines, where Brother Oliver has placed it, finds the connection between them and Freemasonry commencing at the building of King Solomon's Temple. Over the construction of this building, Hiram, the Architect of Tyre, presided. At Tyre the Mysteries of Bacchus had been introduced by the Dionysian Artificers, and into their fraternity Hiram, in all probability, had, it is necessarily suggested, been admitted. Freemasonry whose tenets had always existed in purity among the immediate descendants of the patriarchs, added now to its doctrines the guard of secrecy, which, as Doctor Oliver himself remarks, was necessary to preserve them from perversion or pollution.

A third theory has been advanced by the Abbe Robin, in which he connects Freemasonry indirectly with the Mysteries, through the intervention of the Crusaders. In the work already eited, he attempts to deduce, from the ancient initiations, the orders of chivalry, whose branches, he says, produced the Institution of Freemasonry.

A fourth theory, and this has been advanced by the Rev. C. W. King in his treatise on the Gnostics, is that as some of them, especially those of Mithras, were extended beyond the advent of Christianity, and even to the very commencement of the Middle Ages, they were seized upon by the secret societies of that period as a model for their organization, and that through these latter they are to be traced to Freemasonry.

But perhaps, after all, the truest theory is that which would discard all successive links in a supposed chain of descent from the Mysteries to Freemasonry, and would attribute their close resemblance to a natural coincidence of human thought. The legend of the Third Degree, and the legends of the Eleusinian, the Cabiric, the Dionysian, the Adonic, and all the other Mysteries, are identical in their object to teach the reality of a future life; and this lesson is taught in all by the use of the same symbolism, and, substantially, the same scenic representation.

And this is not because the Masonic Rites are a lineal succession from the Ancient Mysteries, but because there has been at all times an aptness of the human heart to nourish this belief in a future life, and the proneness of the human mind to clothe this belief in a symbolic dress. find if there is any other more direct connection between them it must be sought for in the Roman Colleges of Artificers, who did, most probably, exercise some influence over the rising Freemasons of the early ages, and who, as the contemporaries of the Mysteries, were, we may well suppose, imbued with something of their organization. We conclude with a notice of their ultimate fate. They continued to flourish until long after the Christian era; but they at length degenerated. In the fourth century, Christianity had begun to triumph. The Pagans, desirous of making converts, threw open the hitherto inaccessible portals of their mysterious rites. The strict scrutiny of the candidate's past life, and the demand for proofs of irreproachable conduct, were no longer deemed indispensable.

The vile and the vicious were indiscriminately, and even with avidity, admitted to participate in privileges which were once granted only to the noble and the virtuous. The sun of Paganism was setting, and its rites had become contemptible and corrupt. Their character was entirely changed, and the initiations were indiscriminately sold by peddling priests, who wandered through the country, to every applicant who was willing to pay a trifling fee for that which had once been refused to the entreatie9 of a monarch. At length these abominations attracted the attention of the emperors, and Constantine and Gratian forbade their celebration by night, excepting, however, from these edicts, the initiations at Eleusis. But finally Theodosius, by a general edict of proscription, ordered the whole of the Pagan Mysteries to be abolished, in the four hundred and thirty-eighth year of the Christian era, and eighteen hundred years after their first establishment in Greece.

Clavel, however, says that they did not entirely cease until the era of the restoration of learning, and that during a part of the Middle Ages the Mysteries of Diana, under the name of the Courses of Diana, and those of Pan under that of the Sabbats, were practiced in country places. But these were really only certain superstitious rites connected with the belief in witchcraft. The Mysteries of Mithras, which, continually attacked by the Fathers of the Church, lived until the beginning of the fifth century, were the last of the old mysteries which had once exercised so much influence over the Pagan world and the Pagan religions.

Doctor Mackey's conclusions in the preceding article have not been materially weakened by later writers. Some additions may be made to support his position and briefly increase the amount of information he has submitted. The word Mystery must here be strictly reserved for these ancient religious rites of the Greeks and Romans, the name coming from two Greek words, the one meaning an initiate, and the other to close the mouth. There is another word Of ystery, or Mistery, meaning a trade and in the opinion of Professor Skeat applied to the medieval plays because they were performed by the Craftsmen (see Mystery).

So far as the Mysteries of antiquity have especial interest to us in the relation of their ceremonies to those of Freemasonry, we are compelled to obtain our knowledge rather by inference, more or less remote, than otherwise. What we know of the initiations and of the ritualistic instructions is limited by the very same concealment that in these modern times reserves such information from the profane, those without the fold. yet here and there we catch a glint and a glow of the inner light that radiated from these centers of such wisdom as in that day and era was at the service of the candidates. There were peculiar resemblances to prove anew to us that profound initiation moves on parallel lines in all the ages. Only those specially prepared might join in the solemn rites, only then after probation and purification, in charge of a guide and instructor who led the candidate on to further light. There was more than prayer and sacrifice. there was communication, some explanation, a revelation, an investiture probably as spiritual as it was a material one, and at least something stronger than a suggestion appears to us that the whole ceremonial included a dramatic conception of a sacred play.

We readily see from the writers of the time how glowing was the poetic ritual. From certain hints we can get an inkling of the ceremonies, in fact there is a trace of two Degrees, one preliminary to the other. There is also an intimation of a rebirth, holy objects and scenes were shown, the brotherhood breaking of bread together, a common partaking of food, the illuminating use of symbolism here and there, the instruction to be remembered for a life of contentment and a hereafter of happiness, these were in all probability impressed as we can reasonably infer by splendor of stagecraft, regal raiment, stately action, the solemn solace of holy sacraments. That there were Mysteries less creditable than others from our modern stand point is doubtless true, just as all secret societies are not the same today in merit. Secrecy then and now does not always mean sufficiency.

Nevertheless, we may well glean and study such fragments of worth as are thus available from the scanty records of these our forerunners of Freemasonry. For further information consult Brother Goblet d'Alviella's Eleusinia, Andrew Lang's Myth, Ritual and Religion, Doctor Jevons' Introduction to the Study of Religion, Franz Cumont's Mysteries of Mithra, Dudley Wright's Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Passages from classical literature relative to the Mysteries are found in C. A. Lobeek's Aglaophamus, and L. R. Farnell's Cults of the Greed States.

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