From the beginning of recorded history, we have mention of sacred teachings concerning the rebirth of humans into a Higher Consciousness. In classical literature, reference is frequently made to "the Mysteries," (ta musteria), which became the technical term for secret rites and methods known and practiced only by the priest/hierophants who had been initiated.
These sacred teachings were found in the empires of India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Mysteries were taught in specially created Schools by priest-hierophants who developed extraordinary techniques to assist select candidates achieve a higher state of consciousness.
It's difficult for us to understand just who these hierophants were, since our concept of priesthood is so different from those earlier times. In the Western world, a priest is merely a cleric who has studied his religion's scriptures and leads those who follow its dogmas. The concept of priesthood has degenerated to the point where some priests conform completely to the ideology of the secular state, even if the state, as in the case of Nazi Germany, is a fascist tyranny.
In the Mystery tradition, the title "hierophant" indicated that the priest had himself experienced initiation into all levels of the Mysteries. The Mystery priesthood therefore functioned as a closed elite whose knowledge and practices were held in secret.
Along with precise knowledge of the teachings and rites, hierophants were well versed in astronomy, engaging in observation, investigation, analysis and recording of solar, lunar and stellar phenomena. Hierophants were also skilled mathematicians and were knowledgeable in architectural and engineering sciences. They were healers with special skills in medicine and possibly surgery. They were also historians, since the records of each civilization were safeguarded in the temples.
The Greco-Roman public cults, celebrating civic and national deities, had fallen into general disrepute and in their place had arisen secret cults open only to those who voluntarily underwent special preparations. Most of the ancient Greco-Roman deities were worshipped in cults of this nature. The most famous were the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, under the patronage and control of the Athenian state, commemorating the worship of Demeter and her daughter Persephone.
The three oldest Mystery traditions were the Orphic Mysteries, associated with the name of Dionysus, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Serapis, and Persian Mithraism, which in the third century CE was widely popular throughout the Roman empire.
"It is only when we come to the first five or six centuries B.C., and to the palmy days of Greece and Alexandria, that we obtain a definite knowledge of the existence of the Mystery Schools, and of some of their more detailed teachings. This period is associated with such names as Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and later on, before the dominance of ecclesiastical Christianity had suppressed the Gnosis, and had plunged the Western world into the darkness and horrors of the Middle Ages, we have such names as Philo Judaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Valentinus, Origen, Proclus, Basilides, Iamblichus, and Plotinus, all speaking openly of the existence of the Mysteries and Mystery Schools, claiming initiation therein, and openly teaching as much of it as it was permitted for them to make public."
William Kingsland. The Gnosis or Ancient Wisdom
in the Christian Scriptures
The Mystery tradition was composed of two levels:
- The lower or public Mysteries
- The esoteric Higher Mysteries
All the Mystery temples were architecturally divided into two sections for the lower and Higher Mysteries.
The Lower Mysteries
At the public level, the Mystery teachings were suggestive and symbolic, rather than didactic or initiatory. The chief purpose of these public rites was to give to the votary a sense of mystic union with the deity and provide a conviction of immortality. The initiate was made to partake mystically in the passing of the deity through death to life and this union with the saviour-god became the promise of his own passage through death to an eternal life beyond.
The celebrations were preceded by rites of purification through which all the mystae had to pass. The rituals themselves were in the main a kind of religious drama, consisting of scenic representations illustrating the experience of the deity or deities, referring to old myths--allegories of Nature's creative forces and humankind's immortality.
These rites were combined with the recital of certain mystic formulae by the hierophant. The culminating point was the epopteia, or full vision, when the hierophant revealed certain holy objects to the assembly.
The Higher Mysteries
The Higher Mysteries were exclusive and secret. Only initiates selected by the hierophants could participate in the rites. Knowledge of what was said and done was so sacred that it was considered a sacrilege to divulge it to the uninitiated.
The initiation phenomenon was (and is) very different from what most people assume it to be. The objective of initiation into the Higher Mysteries was to relax the bond by which the spirit is held down by the body:
- To allow the spirit to reunite with the Higher Consciousness
- To release the spirit from the spell under which it is held in bondage in the body
- To bring the body and the mind to quiescence
- To free the Higher Consciousness from the enthrallment of the ego consciousness
- To reunite the spirit with its lost universality
- To separate the higher subtle feelings from the gross sense feelings
- To free the spirit from any misconceptions
- To allow the spirit to travel to higher realms
To accomplish this objective requires:
- The initiate seeking assistance from the hierophant
- Faith in the possibility of accomplishing this objective
- Fervent desire and consistency of purpose
- Humility in undertaking such a momentous endeavor
The processes involved include:
- Entrancing the senses through:
- The hiereophant giving suggestions of passivity
- The initiate gazing at a specified object
- The hierophant and the initiate conversing with the spirit within
- Setting the mental framework as the experience of the moment of death followed by rebirth
- The hierophant manipulating the Force Field with his hands
- To activate the psychic force field within which the initiate resides (this psychic life force is similar in conception to the gravitational and electromagnetic fields in physics)
- To bring all facets of this life force into harmonious interplay and homeostasis
- The hierophant's psyche leading the initiate's psyche through suggesting actions, feelings, and thoughts
Beyond the general features outlined above, the specifics of initiation cannot be designated because it must be carried out by a Perennialist teacher working with a fully-prepared initiate.
What is essential for us to understand is how initiation into the Higher Mysteries differed from more ordinary phenomena such as hypnosis, drug-induced altered states, and occult practices.
To examine these vital differences, we'll refer to a book written by Dr. Paul Brunton 1 entitled A Search in Secret Egypt. I have reasonable certainty that Brunton's accounts are reliable, because I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Brunton in person and get to see just what kind of person he was.
I had just completed my masters at Yale Divinity School and was about to enter Yale Graduate School for my work toward a doctorate in philosophy. I travelled from New Haven and met with Dr. Brunton in his New York City apartment.
During that visit, I got the distinct impression that he was a man of unimpeachable character. At the end of our session, we meditated together for a short time, at the end of which time Dr. Brunton told me that he had imparted a vital energy to my inner being which would remain with me.
Several of the characters whom Brunton met while preparing for his book on "Secret Egypt" possessed powers which are similar but not identical to initiation into the Higher Mysteries.
A hypnotist by the name of Eduard Ades worked with his wife, Madame Marguerite, as his subject. Under a deep somnambulistic trance, Madame Marguerite was able to read written messages while blindfolded. She was also able to tell the character and life situation of people just by holding the hand of someone who knew the subject.
Mr. Ades made these comments to Dr. Brunton: "The mysterious condition [hypnotic somnambulism] proves that consciousness can be divided and that what psychologists call the subconscious mind does exist. And it appears, from our demonstrations, that this subconscious is very clairvoyant and untrammeled by the bonds of matter. It is then able to do with the body what the person in a conscious state believes impossible. This shows that our belief in limitations is a false one, and that we are all capable of much more than we think. Hypnotism frees the subject of such handicapping notions.
"I merely say that we dare not set limits to the powers of the subconscious, and that clairvoyance seems to be one of its natural faculties. In other words, the subconscious has its own powers of seeing, hearing and feeling, and is not dependent on the physical organs, such as the eyes and ears, for its operation. The hypnotic condition draws the subject's attention away from these physical organs--from the whole body in fact--and thus concentrates it entirely on the subconscious mind, whose mysterious faculties thereupon come into play." 2
In reference to the Ades, Dr. Brunton made these comments:
"The Yogis of India gave me a somewhat similar explanation of these phenomena. They claimed that every man had an invisible 'soul-body' and that there were seven nervous centres in the latter, situated in an area approximating to the cerebro-spinal system and the upper brain, and that each of these unseen centres was the real controlling agency of our physical senses. Thus, they placed the first centre in the sacral region and this controlled smell; the second was in the spleen and governed taste; the third was at the navel and corresponded to sight, and so on. Their theory was that the external sense-objects are really perceived by this 'soul-body,' which is the internal agent whose co-operation is essential to the successful functioning of all man's physical senses. The latter are merely instruments and without such co-operation become incapable of performing their offices. In other words, sight, hearing, etc., are primarily mental faculties and only secondarily physical. The Yogis claimed that by conscious control of attention, as in profound concentration, the feats performed by hypnotized subjects can be done at will, without a hypnotizer." 3
The other person of interest whom Dr. Brunton met during the research for his book on "Secret Egypt" was the mysterious fakir Tahra Bey. His powers included:
- Being able to run spikes or knives through parts of his body (hands, throat, area over the heart) and afterward the sites healed immediately
- Being able to remain alive while buried under water or underground for hours or days
Tahra Bey performed these feats by putting pressure on certain nerve centres of the body: the back of the neck and temples. He was able to enter a cataleptic coma by swallowing his tongue. During the coma, his body was completely stiff.
Concerning his ability to survive being buried alive, Tahra Bey told Dr. Brunton:
"I need not tell you that thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, as in ancient India, the same feat was performed quite commonly. . . In those days the universal materialism which prevails today had scarcely begun; everyone believed in the soul and, therefore, experiences such as mine were thoroughly understood. Everyone believed then, as we fakirs do today, that it is the soul which mysteriously guides the life of the body and the consciousness of the mind. We believe that the soul can live apart from the body, that if the chemical atoms which compose the body return to earth in the form of carbon, potassium, hydrogen, oxygen and so on, then the soul, which is their vital force, returns to its source, the Unknown Force, which is eternal. I need hardly tell you, further, that the danger of modern materialism is that it gives false habits of thinking which deprive men of that incalculable force, the power of the soul. So much for theory.
"In brief, I may say that by the profoundest cataleptic entrancement physical life is suspended,-but the unseen spark of the soul continues, nevertheless, to function. To demonstrate this demands a long and severe training, which is usually begun at a very early age. I mentioned that my own father began to train me when I was only four months old. Now I can allow myself to be buried for a few days, if I desire and emerge quite unharmed."
As indicated earlier, we are examining these unusual people 4 to distinguish between their powers and the effects which took place during initiation into the Higher Mysteries. The major difference in effect is that in initiation the person remains conscious throughout, totally aware of the shunting off of the body and the ascent to the Higher Consciousness.
In most hypnotic trances, channelling trances, or special comas such as that entered into by Tahra Bey, the subject does not retain consciousness. As Tahra Bey acknowledged:
"The trouble is that when we fakirs escape from the body we pass into a condition similar to that of sleep-walkers, that is we are unconscious of our existence and yet we exist, and when we return to bodily life we are unable to remember anything of our apparently supernatural adventure. It may be that we have explored the regions of the world of spirits, but as we do not remember our experiences we can say nothing of that world."
"Now of the process of re-birth there is and always has been a definite and exact science, the knowledge of which has been the property of the smallest of minorities and, for adequate reasons, has not been suffered to be promulgated to the multitude, although individuals who earnestly sought for it never failed in discovering it.
The Mystery-schools of antiquity, at least before the days of their degeneracy, possessed and administered it; it was the raison d'etre of their existence, as was well known to the public of the time, any member of whom, prepared to abandon secular life and apply himself to the higher vocation, could seek admission therein. The Christianity of the first two centuries took over the doctrine and the science, confirmed and expanded as they became by the advent of Christ, but eventually lost them and put in their place the ecclesiastical machinery and dogmatic theology which have ruled throughout the subsequent centuries of European history, with the result that popular Christianity has for long known nothing of them.
With the enjoinder of the assured necessity for regeneration proclaimed by the Master of their faith it and its theologians and pastors are well familiar. But can it be said that 'Ye must be born again' means for them more than a vague, mysterious, metaphoric counsel of perfection capable of being satisfied by living the ordinary natural life as far as possible in accordance with the standard of conduct indicated in the Gospels? Are the words accorded more than a value for ethical purposes, to the total neglect of the possibility of their literal practical fulfilment?"
Walter Leslie Wilmhurst, Introduction to M. A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy
During initiation into the Higher Mysteries of Egypt, the initiate was plunged into an altered state in which he was deprived of every semblance of bodily life. While the body remained inert, the soul (or Higher Consciousness) retained its full awareness of what was taking place. The whole purpose of the initiation was to teach the candidate that "There is no death!"
He learned this truth in the clearest and most practical way possible: through experiencing within himself the actual process of dying and spiritually entering into a Higher World of Being. The initiate's altered state was so deep that in some instances he was placed inside a colorful, inscribed mummy-case whose lid was closed and sealed, as we saw with the burial of Tahra Bey. When the period of entrancement had elapsed, the case was opened and the initiate was re-awakened by special methods.
The initiate participated in the symbolic scattering of the pieces of Osiris's body which were then put together again as he was brought back to life. The mythological resurrection of Osiris was actually the literal psychic death and resurrection of the Osirian initiate in the Higher Mysteries.
"The High Priests could do even more . . . than modern hypnotists; for they knew how to keep the candidate's mind awake even when his body was entranced and to provide him with a series of supernormal experiences which he did not fail to remember on his return to normal consciousness."
Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret Egypt
"When the Egyptian Book of the Dead speaks of the deceased, it really refers to the living-dead--men entranced as profoundly as in death, with bodies still and motionless, with souls loosed into another world. It refers to Initiation. . .
"Although this process of initiation bore all the outward semblance of expert hypnotism, it was something that went far beyond the entrancement methods of our modern experimenters, who tap the subconscious mind of man but who cannot make their subjects conscious of still profounder planes of existence." 5
"In consequence of this divine initiation we became spectators of single and blessed visions, resident in a pure light; and were ourselves made immaculate and liberated from this surrounding garment which we call the body and to which we are now bound like an oyster to its shell." Plato, Phaedrus, 250c
"What were the greatest secrets that the successful candidates learned in the Mysteries ?
"That depended on the degree through which they passed, but all their experiences could roughly be condensed into two results, which formed the core of the revelations they received.
"In the earlier degrees, the candidates were made acquainted with the human soul, pictured as a little bird-man in the system of hieroglyphs; they solved the mystery of death. They learned that it was really disappearance from one state of being, only to reappear in another; that it affected the fleshly body, but did not destroy the mind and the self. They learned, too, that the soul not only survived the destruction of its mortal envelope but progressed onwards to higher spheres.
"In the advanced degrees, they were made acquainted with the divine soul; they were brought into personal communion with the Creator; they stood face to face with the Divine. They were first instructed in the true explanation of the Fall of Man from his original spiritual state. They were told the inner history of Atlantis, a history so intimately associated with the history of the Fall. Then they were lifted up, sphere beyond sphere, until they found themselves in the same highly spiritual consciousness as Man had enjoyed at the beginning. Thus, while yet on their pilgrimage in time, they had gathered the spoils of eternity." 6
"Moreover, to confuse such a sublime experience with the mental handiwork of the modem hypnotist would be a grave error. The latter plunges his subject into a strange condition which neither fully understands, whereas the hierophant of the Mysteries was in the possession of a secret traditional knowledge which enabled him to exercise his power as one fully armed with complete understanding. The hypnotist taps the subconscious mentality of his entranced subject down to a certain level, without himself sharing the change of condition, whereas the hierophant watched and controlled every such change by his own percipient powers. Above all, the hypnotist is only able to elucidate from his subject such matters as concern our material world and life, or to perform abnormal feats with the material body. The hierophant went deeper, and could lead the mind of the candidate step by step through an experience involving the spiritual worlds--a feat beyond the power of any modern hypnotist to achieve."
The Highest Mysteries
"There existed an exalted and final degree of initiation where the souls of men were not merely freed temporarily from their bodies in a condition of simulated death, in order to prove the truth of survival, after the great change, but where they were actually carried up to the loftiest spheres of being, to the realm of the Creator Himself. In this marvellous experience the finite mind of man was drawn into contact with the infinite mind of his superior divinity. He was able for a brief while to enter into silent, spell-bound communion with the Father of All, and this fleeting contact of incomparable ecstasy was enough to change his entire attitude towards life. He had partaken of the holiest food that exists in life. He had discovered the ineffable ray of Deity which was his true innermost self, and of which the soul-body which survives death was merely the intangible vesture. He was, in verity and fact, born again in the highest sense. He who had thus been initiated became a perfect Adept, and the hieroglyphic texts speak of him as one who could expect the favour of the gods during life and the state of paradise after death.
"Such an experience came with an entrancement which, although outwardly similar, was inwardly completely different from the hypnotic entrancements of the earlier degrees of initiation. No hypnotic power could ever confer it, no magical ceremony could ever evoke it. Only the supreme hierophants, themselves at one with their divinities, their wills bent with his, could by their astonishing divine force arouse the candidate to consciousness of his superior nature. This was the noblest and most impressive revelation then possible to Egyptian man, and still possible, albeit through other ways, to modern man." 7
1 Paul Brunton (1898-1981), published this book in 1936. During a successful career in journalism, he developed an interest in comparative religion, mysticism and philosophy. He travelled extensively in the Orient, living among yogis, mystics and holy men.
2 A Search in Secret Egypt, p. 103
3 A Search in Secret Egypt, p. 104
4 Persons with similar powers continue to appear even at the present time.
5 A Search in Secret Egypt, p. 171
6 A Search in Secret Egypt, pp. 172, 173
7 A Search in Secret Egypt, p. 173