The Mystery Schools Part 1: The History
“Because of this element of secrecy, we are ill-informed as to the beliefs and practices of the various mystery faiths. We know that they had a general likeness to one another”. Ernest William Barnes
In ancient, pre-axial age cultures, from Ancient Egypt to the British Isles to Vedic India and the Himalayas, to South America, Chaldea, Sumeria, Ancient Greece, Babylon and others, there were esoteric traditions of initiation that guided men and women to awaken as souls, then to awaken as the One, and then to embody that on earth.
These traditions of initiation were the Mystery Schools. The pyramids of Ancient Egypt and South America, the henges of the British Isles, the sanctuaries of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the ancient monuments of many other parts of the world were the temples and sanctuaries in which some of the rituals of initiation took place.
The Mysteries played a central role in ancient cultures as pathways of self-development, transformation and awakening through which many of those who would go on to play significant roles in society would pass. Indeed, we know that figures such as Herodotus, Pythagoras and Plato were initiates of the Ancient Egyptian mysteries. It was the oath of all who participated in them to remain silent about what they experienced. Indeed, in many cultures, this oath was punishable by death.
The Lesser and Greater Mysteries
“The ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good.” Plato
The Mysteries were the transformational highways for the initiates of the ancient world, and were available to the elite of society who were deemed developmentally equipped to participate in them. Their central focus was on first initiating individuals into the esoteric teachings concerning our deeper nature as souls in an essentially spiritual process of collective evolution, esoteric cosmology, purification, and then on actually awakening as a soul – a fragment of the One – and embodying that in empowered service in the world.
In the writings of ancient historians and from the esoteric teachings, we know the Mysteries were divided into the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries. The rituals, ceremonies and initiations related to these were conducted each year at particular astrologically determined times.
The Lesser Mysteries focussed on an individual’s entry onto the path, study, discipline, dedication and emotional and physical purification. This would allow them to set the foundation to later move into the transformational processes of awakening and embodiment that were the focus of the Greater Mysteries.
In his Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, Thomas Taylor writes: “The Lesser Mysteries were designed by the ancient theologists, their founders, to signify occultly the condition of the unpurified soul invested with an earthy body, and enveloped in a material and physical nature.”
And from The Mystery Schools, by Grace K. Knoche, “In Greece and Rome, nearly all the great men of historic note were initiates of one or more degrees of the Lesser Mysteries. This did not pertain to murderers or conquerors by the sword, for almost universally these were not initiates of the Mysteries, although in the declining days of the Roman Empire many applicants of indifferent caliber underwent the introductory rites in a more or less perfunctory fashion.”
The Greater Mysteries focussed on experiential awakening as a soul – a ray of the One Light, what it meant to embody that in daily life and service to one’s culture and society, and the full transfiguration of the being in the Light of the divine to emerge as a master. This section of the path was participated in only by those who were deemed developmentally worthy – those who had the heart, intelligence, courage, maturity and consciousness to be able to receive, awaken to and embody the deepest teachings available on the nature of the soul and Ultimate Reality.
The Solar and Lunar Mysteries
Within the teachings of the Mystery Schools there were the solar and the lunar mysteries. The solar mysteries were the initiations of ascent. They were about awakening as journeying spiritual beings – as souls – expressions of the Absolute One. The lunar mysteries were the initiations of descent. They were about journeying so deeply into the mysteries of matter, the body, sexuality and emotions that the essential divinity that is the core of every layer of our being – even the most embodied – was revealed.
The solar mysteries were generally the domain of the masculine, guided by communities of initiate-priests. Examples are the stories of Osiris and Horus in Ancient Egypt, of Krishna and Rama in Vedic India, of Quetzacoatl in Aztec Mesoamerica, and of all the dying and rising Gods in ancient mythology that stand for the divine aspect of our own being that ‘dies’ as it comes into incarnation in a physical body and eventually, after enough suffering and purification, rises again to stand as a god or goddess on earth.
The lunar mysteries were generally the domain of the feminine, guided by cults of initiate-priestesses. Examples are those of Isis and Hathor in Ancient Egypt, of Innana in Ancient Sumeria, the goddess worship of pre-Vedic and Vedic India, or Demeter and Persephone in Ancient Greece. A masculine example of the lunar mysteries would be the ecstatic rituals of Dionysus in Ancient Greece, or Bacchus in Ancient Rome.
The Initiations of the Mystery Schools
The focus on death present in the Mystery Schools deserves mention here. In modern culture it is often understood that the focus of the ancient Mysteries was attaining life after death. Examples of this belief are found in how many of the ancient temples and sanctuaries, such as the pyramids of Egypt and South America or the temples of Ancient Greece, are understood as tombs.
This is based on a misunderstanding of the esoteric teaching. In the teaching of the Mystery Schools and the Ageless Wisdom they represent, the incarnation of the soul in the physical body is understood as death, for as long as a soul journeys asleep in life prior to awakening. It is understood as death because as a soul incarnates and comes into the body, those who are not established in awakening forget and seemingly lose all connection with the true knowledge of our being as divine and united with the One (one crosses the River Styx, or the river of forgetfulness as in the Ancient Greek mythology). The life after death pointed to in the Mystery Schools is not another life after the death of the body, but rather the awakening of the soul whilst in the body.
The Ageless Wisdom teachings tells us that on this path there were a series of initiations that men and women passed through in the ancient Mystery Schools, leading from and to:
1) A neophyte’s first recognition of themselves as a soul – a fragment of the One – and their entry onto the path
2) The processes of purification, testing and cleansing necessary to embody their true divine nature
3) An eventual transfiguration of their being with the light of God and their establishment of their embodiment of soul
4) Their renunciation of all that limits their expression as the One
5) Their full embodiment of mastery as the One
The first two of these were the focus of the Lesser Mysteries. The final three were the focus of the Greater. Obviously far fewer individuals passed through the latter than did the former.
The Demise of the Mysteries
With the advent of the Axial Age, the Mysteries, once a core part of ancient cultures, started to both be enacted openly in front of humanity as a whole, and simultaneously became so persecuted that they either died out or went underground. As an example of this, in 396AD, the last sanctuaries or houses of the Mysteries from the Greco-Roman world were wiped out as Christians fighting under Alaric, King of the Goths, destroyed the old sites.
Coincident with this demise was the emergence onto the world stage of a number of extraordinary masters who’s lives revealed the awakening at the core of the mystery schools to humanity as a whole through their embodiment of it. And so came forth Buddha, Plato, Confucius, Lao Tze, and Jesus – the founders of what would go on to be some of the world’s major religions.
The traditions and pathways they founded made the path of awakening available to those able to access the esoteric cores of the different religions. This was so long as those esoteric cores, where the transformational practices and teachings of the traditions are held, remained intact and were allowed to exist and function in their respective cultures. Of course there are a number of examples of where the culture or even the tradition became actively hostile to the esoteric teachings, practices and practitioners. One example is Christianity, where at a very early stage, the Gnostic teachings on transformation, awakening and the mystical significance of Jesus’s life for all who walk the path were branded as heresy.
Indeed, what the Gnostics and those familiar with the path of initiation taught in the Mystery Schools understood was that in the five major events of Jesus’ life – birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion and ascension, he enacted the five initiations that embodied the core of the Mysteries (particularly the solar form) for all humanity to see. In doing so, he took the path of awakening into union with the divine and mastery on earth, which formed the deepest levels of the Mystery Schools, to humanity as a whole.
Schwaller de Lubicz, a scholar of the mysticism and temple architecture of Ancient Egypt has suggested that in the Ancient Egyptian sages’ reading of the stars, which the zodiac on a temple ceiling at Dendera shows they had information on for three precessions of the equinoxes, which that is roughly 78,000 years! – they foresaw this. He suggests that as the birth of the Common Era drew closer, they knew the end of their civilisation was coming and that the mysteries that had been the focus of exploration for an initiate elite at the centre of their culture would be taken to humanity as a whole. Hence them opening the doors to allow the Greeks entry into participating in their Mystery Schools, such as Pythagoras, Plato and Herodotus, something that had previously not been the case.
Sadly, in the early politicisation of Christianity, particularly by the emperor Constantine, many of the more esoteric truths embodied in Jesus’ life became co-opted into a system of social domination and control. At the Council of Nicea (325AD), Jesus was figured to be God incarnate rather than a man who had awakened to God. With this, the possibility for all human beings who came into contact with the Gospel to know it was their birthright to walk the same path became significantly occluded. Just as the forces of awakening and light have always been present on our planet, so also have the forces that seek to hide and distort that light.
The Mysteries go Underground: Freemasonry
While the essence of the solar mysteries was being openly enacted in the life of such figures as Jesus and Gautama Buddha, the forms, symbolism and ceremonies that embodied the physical rituals in which the esoteric truths of reality and our being could be enacted and remembered, went underground. While humanity evolved in consciousness, culture and society under the influence of the major religions, from tribes to feudal empires to nation states, the rituals and symbolism of the mysteries were kept alive by secret societies, such as the Templars and Freemasons in the West.
Indeed, just as many of those who participated in the Ancient Mysteries went on to play significant roles in stewarding social and cultural evolution in their respective societies, so also is this the case in relation to Freemasonry. Many of those who have played huge roles in the West have been Freemasons, including a number of American presidents: George Washington, James Monroe, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. It is true that the Masonic order has struggled to maintain the purity of ideals and embodied action that are embedded in its ancient roots, and yet there have been many Fellows of the Craft that have embodied those ideals, which are the very same as those of the ancient Mystery Schools: to awaken to know oneself as an expression of the Godhead, to embody that in daily life, and to serve the evolution of humanity.
The ancient monuments and architecture previously mentioned, such as the pyramids and obelisks of Egypt and South America, the henges of the British Isles, the Nasca lines of Peru, and many others, have also continued to stand as landmarks of the ancient Mystery Schools, shrouded in enigma as to what they truly are still to this day.
Over the course of the last 2000 years, while humanity as a whole has had the chance to develop and grow in consciousness, culture, technology, science, infrastructure, and in many other ways into the global interconnected society we have today, the Mysteries remained in the background. It is the position of the Ageless Wisdom teachings that I have spent time with, that in our current times and the impending future, a re-emergence is unfolding. These teachings suggest that now, a new, updated form of the Mystery Schools – one that can once again establish centres around the world that can act as superhighways of transformation and awakening for those of humanity who are ready, and who can go on to play significant roles in the governance and guidance of a now global culture – is on the verge of manifesting again. This will be the focus of Part 2.