Source and Value of the Mysteries

by H. S. Olcott

[From The Theosophist, January 1888, pages 240-48]

That MUO, to shut the lips, to keep silence, is the Greek root of the word "Mysteries," everyone readily admits; but to signify what was to be kept silent by those who were admitted "behind the veil" of initiation, is now and has ever been impossible save to initiates.

The lampooners and denunciators of our time have as little succeeded in shaking the faith of believers in the reality and value of mystical initiation, as did their precursors in the olden times that of their believing contemporaries. It has been simply the array of conjecture against experience, of surmise against knowledge. The wise have had but a feeling of contemptuous pity for the army of critics whose conclusions have rested upon wholly mistaken premises, and whose verdict has been colored by exaggerated prejudice and foolish mistrust.

There is not an example recorded of anyone speaking irreverently of the course of initiation after having passed through it. On the other hand, the most divine characters in history who have been so blessed, have unanimously expressed their joy at having entered "The Path" and pursued it bravely to the end. Their testimony is that, until man has had this evolution, he cannot conceive of the nature of truth or the possibilities latent in humanity.

"Happy," says Pindar, who passed through the august mysteries of Eleusis, "is he who has beheld them, and descends beneath the hollow earth. He knows the end, he knows the divine origin of life." As, in Pantanjali's system of Yoga, the pupil goes gradually onward and upward, from the state of animal man, through the stages of self-mastery and psychic development, until he flowers into the true Yogi and unites his consciousness with the infinite, so in all the mystical schools of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other trans-Himalayan countries, he had to pass through a like education.

Porphyry tells us that his master, Plotinus, was so fortunate as to have six times during his life experienced this blessed union, while he himself had done so but twice. Human knowledge, he avers, has three ascending steps: opinion, science, and illumination.

The whole body of scientific critics, who have discussed the subject of the mysteries ab extra, illustrate the first category; they dogmatize upon a mere hypothesis. The second includes all seekers after and realizers of psychic powers, all phenomenalists — mesmeric, mediumistic, hypnotic, somnambulant, yogic. Of the latter, all who acquire one or more siddhis and have gone no higher. The third group embraces the illuminated seers, sages, and adepts, in their grades above grades, to the top of the mystical hierarchy.

A modern writer (in The New American Cyclopedia, XII, 75) says that the mysteries being "founded on the adoration of nature (!), the forces and phenomena of which were conceived by the imagination and transformed into the characters of the mythology, they appealed to the eye rather than to the reason." If any proof were needed of his critical incompetence, we have it here. He does not seem to comprehend that the

... rites of purification and expiation, of sacrifices and processions, of ecstatic or orgiastic songs and dances, of nocturnal festivals fit to impress the imagination, and of spectacles designed to excite the most diverse emotions, terror and trust, sorrow and joy, hope and despair ...

were but the incidents of the first threshold, tests to try the persistency, courage, unselfishness, purity, and intuitive capacity of the beginner. The calm, the peace, the inward elevation, the growth of spiritual insight, the majestic expansion of the petty ego or ahankara, toward universal consciousness, he does not picture to himself.

Would the blaze, the awe, and glitter of such ceremonials as shock the very core of the neophyte's being, extort from such masterful sages as Pythagoras, Plato, Iamblichos, Proclus, and Porphyry the reverently appreciative testimonies they have left on record? Those spectacular shows of the antechamber were designed, according to Iamblichos,

... to free us from licentious passions, by gratifying the sight, and at the same time vanquishing all evil thought, though the awful sanctity with which these rites were accompanied.

The plan was the very reverse of that of the would-be adept, who flees from mankind to the jungle and cave, where he may not see the objects that arouse evil passions.

In the mysteries, the neophyte had to see the most voluptuous female forms, and expose himself to their most seductive blandishments; had to look, fasting, upon the most luscious banquets; had to see that by putting forth his hand he could grasp incalculable treasures; had to witness the seeming triumph of his bitterest foe over those in whom he was most interested; had to see manifold phenomena apparently resulting from the universe of powers, seemingly realizable by himself, without much effort; and yet so keep his soul-mastery as to neither give way to lust, appetite, avarice, hatred, revenge, nor vanity.

In the course of his trials, he would be made to think himself in peril of life from fire, water, lightning, earthquakes, precipices, savage beasts, assassins, and other catastrophes, yet all the while is expected to preserve an equal serenity and dauntless pluck.

This was the price exacted in exchange for the attainment of godhood, the ordeal for the discovery of the candidate's innate trustworthiness; this was initiation.

What wonder that the secret of the mysteries has been inviolably kept by initiates through all times and ages! To men of such stuff as that, the feeble chatter, the wretched persecutions, the "toy thunders" of bigotry, the physical anguish of torture-chambers; all that an ignorant brutal society could visit upon them to wrest their ineffable secret from their lips, were absurdly ineffectual. Where can we find a grander embodiment of this idea than in the story of the discomfiture of Mara, dread sovereign of evil, by our Lord Buddha, under the sacred tree at Gaya?

In this splendid epic is depicted the whole sequence of initiations accredited to the mysteries of Eleusis, Samothrace, Lemnos, Isis and Osiris, Mithra, Orpheus, Dionysos, Scandinavia, and the trans-Atlantic Mayas, Quiches and Peruvians. As there is but one secret of life, there could never have been more than one channel for attaining the highest knowledge of it.

If the preliminary ceremonials took on the local coloring of mythologies, there was but one truth hidden "behind the veil." Those who, in our own days, have been blessed with personal relations with the "Wise Men of the East," have found them teaching an identical philosophy, whether they were externally Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Parsi, or Mussulman as to social environment and nominal caste. And what they are now teaching is the same as that which was taught to students in all countries, at all preceding epochs.

It is for the purpose of illustrating this fact that occultists take so much interest in deciphering old temple inscriptions, poring over old manuscripts, studying old symbols carven on crumbling ruins, and trying to piece together the fragments of books which the vanished fraternities of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, succeeded in saving for us their posterity, when they fell victims to the cruel violence of their persecutors.

This is the reason why it is so well worth our while to read the Egyptian books of Hermes, the hieroglyphs in the ruined temples of Khemi, the fragmentary archives of the Rosicrucians, the poetry of the Sufis, the weird sagas of Northern Europe, the mural inscriptions of Central America, and to analyze and synthesize the folklore, legends, and folk songs of many lands. Those who devote themselves to this research are doing it less for their own profit than to collate for the benefit of the thinking public a mass of proof of the eternal unity of esoteric truth.

As the geographer traces the dripping cloud through a thousand streams to the river and the sea, and from the sea back to the sky, so do these investigators follow back the boundless ocean of occult truth to its divine source, through multitudinous wanderings of its branchlets among men.

It seems but a waste of energy to dispute as to the comparative antiquity of the mysteries. The end of all the speculation and research of the pandits and professors is that they can fix with certainty no date for their beginning. Reaching a certain point, they are forced to admit that beyond that conjecture alone is possible.

The most practical issue is whether the ancient mysteries subserved an immoral or a moral purpose, whether they were designed for the education of students in physical sciences, for supporting local religious beliefs, for enhancing the importance, emoluments and prerogatives of priests, for the overthrow of old and establishment of new theologies, or for the very purpose stated by the sages named, and others who had received full initiation.

Dr. Warburton admits, in his "Divine Legation of Moses," that "the wisest and best men in the Pagan world are unanimous in this; that the mysteries were instituted pure, and proposed the noblest ends by the worthiest means."

The encyclopaedist above quoted also testifies that:

the Eleusinian were the most venerable of the mysteries, and in every period of classical antiquity commanded the homage alike of the most distinguished poets, philosophers, historians, and statesmen.

Can anyone, then, believe that they were but a superior kind of tamasha, such as are gotten up to excite the wonder of the ignorant masses? Is it presumable that they could have been kept up through successive generations, always winning the same praise and arousing the same awe-begotten reverence in sober minds, if they had been what our modern critics, our Welckers and Maurys, our Magnussens, Vosses, Lobecks, and Prellers imagine, or, as Tertullian and other Fathers of the Church try to imply, a mixture of Christian and Pagan dogmas and ceremonies?

When one comes to look through the books written by these worthies, one is struck with the actual ignorance accompanied by hardy guessing, which all display. At the best, they seem but to be looking at the subject from afar through the telescope of conjecture, not even to be getting a peep from the threshold into the vestibule of the sacred caverns.

Most exasperating of all is it to read such works as Tom Moore's Epicurean, or A Day in Athens, and to see him first describing the experiences of a neophyte who has passed through a series of trials, the very recital of which shows how impossible it was to ascribe them to trickery, and then, when the attempt is quite useless, to try and make the reader believe them to have been produced by a lot of stage machinery, such as might catch the fancy of a theatrical audience.

One wishes, after reading such a book, that the author had been either more clever himself or less ready to doubt the reader's common sense. Either his neophyte never passed through such scenes, or the author's attempt at explanation is transparently absurd and childish. It reminds one of the endeavors of some prejudiced Orientalists to cramp and crowd Aryan history and literature into the iron frame of biblical chronology, and to trace the families of mankind to three sons of Noah who never existed.

The ancient mysteries, modern initiation, and all mystical occupation rest upon the doctrine that man can never learn through the bodily senses, the secrets of life and the problem of the universe.

The eye, the ear, and all other organs of the body are but avenues of perception of the gross physical world about us. Mechanically adapted to our exterior environment, they have no higher function than to record its impressions upon that lower part of ourself which is built out of matter, and destined to resolve into its elements, sooner or later. Reason is but the analyst and synthesist of these impressions. Between it and ultimate knowledge hangs numberless veils.

Man is a congeries of various "principles" — some say three, some four, some seven — but whatever the correct number, all are included between two extreme points, the one which is in contact with the grossest, the other, with the most sublime, consciousness.

So long as one's perceptions are restricted to sensuous experiences, one's knowledge will be proportionately small; to become truly wise, one must burst the bonds of illusion, tear away the curtain of Maya, break the chains of passion, learn the self and put it in command of our consciousness and our actions.

The neophyte is never in greater danger of falling a victim to delusion than when he has subjected his grosser passions and begun to develop his psychic sight, hearing, and touch. He is like the newborn babe getting its first lessons of cisuterine life, grasping at the pretty silver moon, clutching at fire and lamp, miscalculating distances, tottering upon its feeble legs.

He has forced himself into the vestibule of the astral world, as yet unprepared to understand his surroundings, ignorant of his latent powers of mastery and insight. If he gets himself out of the body and attempts phantasmal excursions, he is like the nestling trying its baby wings. "The viewless races of the air," the sprites of the elemental world, rush about him in all sorts of fantastic shapes, some alluring, some terrifying; the larvae, or undissolved astral bodies — D'Assier's "posthumous phantoms" — of human dead persons, float past and eddy around, like corpses in river-currents.

Then his inner ear opens to the mysterious sounds of this phantom world, and he recoils in affright from the awful tales, the groans and sighs, and other things he hears. Pictures impressed by vivid human thought upon the earth's astral envelope, and fresh ones created by his own untaught imagination, surround him with an unreal world, which yet has to him the actual semblance of reality. He is, as Patanjali describes it, under the influence of the "local gods." Now is his time to acquire psychic "science," to learn the laws of this middle region, and see through all illusions.

If he is under a guru's care — and supremely foolish is he who neglects this preliminary — he will be watched over and looked after, as the tender mother cares for her child. As the teacher eagerly helps the willing scholar to master the difficulties of his textbooks, so this greater master is ready to meet halfway the aspiring chela who tries, as the maxim of initiation inculcates.

But there are deeper mysteries of the penetralia which are never revealed by the initiator to the neophyte; they must be reached by his unaided effort; for they are personal, pertaining to absolute knowledge, and never capable of communication by third parties. As no description, however graphic, can convey the idea of visible nature to the man born blind, so no help can be given to understand the higher secrets save to him who has forced open the eyes of his inner self and uncovered its senses.

When this point is reached, one has arrived at the fifth of the seven stages of the fourth and last division of Yoga; Illusion has faded away like a mist, and the naked loveliness of Truth is exposed. But, while many attempt, few attain this final development.

There are fewer potential adepts in an epoch than the superficial imagine. The fate of those who tread this dizzy precipice of wisdom with weak and faltering steps may be readily inferred. What happens to the dizzy-brained and slippery-footed alpine climber? His brain turns, and he falls headlong into the chasm, with a last shriek and a clutching at the air.

So, too, falls the rash postulant who has ventured to force nature prematurely. Madame Blavatsky, whose eloquent and striking remarks upon the whole subject of the mysteries should be universally read, quotes from the Talmud, the story of four Tanaim, who enter the garden of delights, i.e., present themselves for initiation:

According to the teaching of our holy masters, the names of the four who entered the garden of delights, are: Ben Asai, Ben Zorna, Acher, and Rabbi Akiba ... Ben Asai looked and — lost his sight. Ben Zorna looked and — lost his reason. Acher made depredations in the plantation (i.e., mixed up the whole) and failed. But Akiba, who had entered in peace, came out of it in peace, for the saint whose name is blessed had said, "This old man is worthy of serving us with glory."

— Isis Unveiled, II, 119

Observe the word "old." The implication here is that Akiba had not foolishly exposed himself to lust-provoking "rites of purification" until the heat of young blood was gone.

In his most admirable work, Maimonides, the Hebrew adept, says that:

... it was considered inadvisable to teach it to young men; nay, it is impossible for them to comprehend it, on account of the heat of their blood and the flame of youth, which confuses their minds; that heat which causes all the disorder, must first disappear; they must have become moderate and settled, humble in their hearts, and subdued in their temperament; only then will they be able to arrive at the highest perception of God, that is, the study of Metaphysics, which is called Maaseh Mercabhah ... Rabbi Jocharian said to Rabbi Eleazar, "Come, I will teach you Maaseh Mercabhah."

The reply was. "I am not yet old," or in other words I still perceive in myself the hot blood and the rashness of youth. You learn from this that, in addition to the above-named qualities, a certain age is also required. How, then, could any person speak on those metaphysical themes in the presence of ordinary people, of children, and of women?

— Guide of the Perplexed, Trubner and Co., London.

Patanjali tells us that the

... local deities will assail such a Yogi [one who is only in the rudimentary stage], and will endeavor to divert him from the religious abstraction which he has attained, by bringing before him sensual gratifications, or by exciting in his mind thoughts of personal aggrandizement, but he should partake of these gratifications without interest, for if these deities succeed in exciting desire in the mind, he will be thrown back to all the evils of future transmigrations.

The next European philosopher who applies himself to the study of the mysteries, would do well to familiarize himself with the Yoga Philosophy before committing himself to such jejune hypotheses as were put forth by those who have been mentioned above.

But is there no recompense for those who fail in initiation through miscalculation of their power to realize the ideal psychic development? Certainly there is. The attainment of perfection is but postponed to a future birth. Every preliminary step in self-conquest and self-knowledge is so much experience and developed power, stored up psychic energy, for the use of the individuality in its next incarnation. The Divine Krishna answers Arjuna, who had put this very question:

Doth not the fool who is found not standing in the path of Brahm, and is thus, as it were, fallen between good and evil, like a broken cloud, come to nothing?

Krishna says:

A man whose devotions have been broken off by death, having enjoyed for an immensity of years the rewards of his virtues in the regions above [This idea is developed by Mr. Sinnett in Esoteric Buddhism.] at length is born again in some holy and respectable family, or perhaps in the house of some learned Yogi ... Being thus born again, he is endued with the same degree of application and advancement of his understanding that he held in his former body, and here he begins again to labor for perfection in devotion.

— The Bhagavad-Gita, Lecture vii.

Thus we see that the ancient mysteries were but a school of spiritual training and perfection in true wisdom; that the preliminary qualification was the purification of the heart from all sensual passions and false preconceptions; that, while the hand of the master might lead the neophyte through the dangers of the stage where, like the infant, he could not walk alone, he was obliged, in the higher paths, to learn to guide and guard himself, as the adult man has to do in ordinary life; that the ultimate goal was the expansion of the self into infinite existence and potentialities; and, lastly, that, however the initial forms and ceremonies may have differed in appearance, an identical aim was in view.

It is impossible to determine the priority of these occult schools until our philologists and antiquarians have proved to us where, if anywhere, was the cradle of the human race. If there was such an evolutionary center, then there must the adept guardians of mankind have first taught the way to the path.

Just now we are disputing whether India taught Egypt, and Egypt, Scandinavia and Yucatan, or whether Egypt was the primal center, or some other place. Finnur Magnusson attempts to trace a connection between the mysteries and the legends of his Frozen North, and certainly the sages embody an esoteric doctrine that strikes the attention of every student of occultism, and that our learned colleague, Mr. Bjerregaard, has begun to demonstrate in these pages.

There is also in progress a sharp controversy between Prof. Max Muller and other philologists as to whether the Aryan race came from Scandinavia or Central Asia, and, as above remarked, until this is determined, we need not discuss the priority of Northern, Southern, or Eastern mysteries. If the first is true, then we may well speculate as to why Apollonius and Pythagoras should have come to India to find masters in arcane science, when Norway was so much nearer.

That there are such teachers in each of the four quarters of the earth, is more than suspected, and quite naturally, for it is inconceivable — when we know what adeptship and occultism are, and what their relations to mankind in the mass — that any portion of the teeming earth should be left without those whose help "that great orphan, Humanity," so desperately needs.

Consider the book of Augustus Le Plongeon, Sacred Mysteries Among The Mayas and Quiches, 11,500 Years Ago: Their Relation to the Sacred Mysteries of Egypt, Greece, Chaldea and India (New York, 1886) This book, noticed in our December issue, deserves the most attentive study. It will be a shame to America if the discoveries amid the ruins of Uxmal and Chichen-Itza, the result of fourteen years of brave research, under the most trying difficulties, by his wife and himself, should not be appreciated at their enormous worth, as contributions to history.

One cannot even glance at the photographic and other illustrations in the book without realizing the intimate connection between the mystical schools of the two hemispheres. The hieratic alphabets of Egypt and the ancient Mayax country are placed side by side on the same page, and a look suffices to show their substantial identity. What Champollion did for Egyptological science, M. Le Plongeon seems to have done for Mayatic archaeology.

If it is any compensation for him in his time of sadness — consequent upon the rebuffs given him where he had every right to count upon honors and reward — to know that his labor is appreciated at least at Adyar, then let him know the fact.

Whether it should ultimately prove that the mysteries came to the Eastern from the Western Hemisphere, or vice versa, does not matter so much to us, personally, as the graver fact that he has placed within our reach the unmistakable evidence that one universal truth has been taught by an identical method, the world over.

When I first read Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan — now many years ago — I was struck by the occult significance of the mural stuccos and sculptured monuments in all the ruins he visited, among which may be recognized a picture of the very act of imparting the most divine of all mysteries to the neophyte, in the higher stage of initiation.

I was amused just now, upon referring to the copy of this work in the Adyar Library, to read of the perplexity and consternation felt by the Christian priests upon seeing a delineation — admittedly far older than Christianity — upon the altar-wall at Palenque, of the adoration of the cross by ancient Quichean hierophants. Says Stephens:

Our friends the padres, at the sight of it, immediately decided that the old inhabitants of Palenque were Christians, and by conclusions, which are sometimes called jumping, they fixed the age of the buildings in the third century!

— II, 347

These people have been on the "jump" all over the world, upon being confronted with evidences of the prior existence of emblems, ceremonies, fables and traditions, really the property of the race, but imagined by them to be exclusively Christian.

The works of Stephens, Le Plongeon, Dessaix, and other Central American explorers should be read together, if one would realize the relative importance of the conclusions reached severally by these authors.

Stephens does not explain the meaning of the cross at Palenque, nor that of the scenes represented pictorially and otherwise in the ruins, but says probably the hieroglyphics tell it all.

That they do so, Le Plongeon now proves by discovering the Mayatic and Quichean alphabet and reading the tablets. We learn from him that that most mystical emblem, the cross, was associated there as in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, India, Chaldea, Phoenicia, Britain, and Scandinavia, with the ceremonies of initiation. It was to those ancient Americans the symbol of rejuvenescence and freedom from physical suffering. In the Bacchic and Eleusinian mysteries it was placed on the breast of the initiate after his "new birth" was accomplished.

Exoterically, it was associated in Mayax with the appearance, at a certain period of the year, of the constellation of the southern cross in the perpendicular position above the line of their southern horizon — the sure harbinger of the rainy season.

Says Le Plongeon:

The mode of initiation, the use of the same symbols, with an identical signification ascribed to them, by peoples living so far apart, whose customs and manners were so unlike, whose religion, so far at least as external practices were concerned, differed so widely, show that these mysteries originated with one people, and were carried to and promulgated among the others. As we do not find mentioned anywhere that they originated either with the Egyptians, Chaldees, or Hindus, and we have seen that their primitive traditions have been derived from the history of the early rulers of Mayax, is it not natural that we should look for the institution of the mysteries among the Mayas, since we find the same mysterious symbols, used by the initiates in all the other countries, carved on the walls of the temples of their gods, and the palaces of their kings? Their history may afford the clue to the original meaning of said symbols, as their language has given us the true signification of the words used by the celebrating priest to dismiss the initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, or by the Brahmins at the end of their religious ceremonies, and as it has revealed the so long hidden mystery of the mystical tau.

(The Tau is the "Nature Cross," or curx ansata, of Egypt, which occupies the central place in the mystical seal of the Theosophical Society, and signifies the same thing as the six-pointed star, or sri jantara, of the Aryan, Chaldean, and Judaic secret doctrine.)

I am not sure that I am quite prepared to concur with M. Le Plongeon in the conjecture that the symbolical degrees of the world's course of mystical initiation, but preserve certain historical incidents in the life-history of the Royal House of Mayax, though he certainly brings together, with patient erudition, a number of facts going to show that the tragedies in question may have supplied the basis for certain of our Oriental mythologies, if even they were not the very scenes represented in the preparatory rites of the Eleusinian and Osiric mysteries.

It is curious to note that the ancient records of Mayax cantain an account of the fearful cataclysm in which the sinful people of Atlantis and their whole continent were engulfed in one day and night.

The description being "identical with that given by the Egyptians," he adds that "nearly all the nations living on the Western continent have kept the tradition of it." There is a passage in the Volus-pa, in the "Visions of Valla," which may covertly refer to this Atlantic cataclysm, or be, as Mr. Bjerregaard views it (see The Theosophist, VIII, February and July 1887), a figurative representation of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. It runs thus:

The sun turns to darkness, earth sinks into the deep, the bright stars vanish from out the heavens, fume and flame rage together, the lefty blaze plays against the very heavens.

True, this is written in the future tense, yet it is not absolutely certain that it was not the veiled narrative of a past event. The divinely majestic poem recounts the "first war in the world," when "they speared gold-weig (gold-draught), and burnt her in the High One's Hall; thrice was she burnt, and thrice reborn, though still she lives," but Mr. Bjerregaard tells us that "this myth is entirely lost."

I wish he would compare notes with M. Le Plongeon — who is living in the same city with him — and see whether the revelations of the mural records of Mayax throw light upon the mystical epopee of his native land. It is a point of great moment to decide. It may help to unravel the tangled skein of the "Mysteries."


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