The Mysteries existed for a simple reason: to satisfy the desire of those who wished to know the truth of who we are, what happens at death and what Divinity is. Certain Mysteries achieved widespread fame: those of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis for example (dating from at least the 6th century BC), and those of Isis and Osiris (from perhaps thousands of years earlier). Then there were the Mysteries of Mithras, of Dionysus, Bacchus, Orpheus, the Great Mother and many others. And as evidence slowly emerges, even the Great Pyramid is being seen as a place of initiation rather than burial.
A classical writer, Themistios wrote that when death comes, “the soul suffers an experience similar to those who celebrate great initiations. Wanderings astray in the beginning, tiresome walking in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere… And then some wonderful light comes to meet you…” (Burkert.W. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge (Mass.) 1987, p.91 and p. 162.n. II)
The Mysteries demanded complete secrecy from its initiates. This demand was taken very seriously at Eleusis. Those who failed to keep their vow to do so would face the death penalty. For this reason we have no direct ‘inside’ information giving details of the rituals, passwords, texts and inner meaning of the symbolism of the secret rites. We have only fragments from observers who saw those of the events which occurred beyond the inner sanctum and a few tantalizing hints from initiates or from scholars who had gleaned a little of what the secrets involved.
Know thyself-, nothing in excess; remember to keep silent. From the Mysteries of Eleusis, Greece.
The only ‘insider’ account is by an initiate into the mysteries of Isis, author Lucius Apuleins of Madaura. Even so, he does not violate his oath of secrecy. Nevertheless, he does reveal what occurred:
“…listen, and believe that what you hear is true. I approached the very edge of death and stood upon Proserpine’s doorstep, I returned home traveling through all the elements; in the middle of the night I saw the sun, a bright shining and glittering light; I entered the presence of the gods of the lower-world and the go& of the upper-world and adored them from close by.”
(from Metamorphoses, author’s Trans.)
His request for us to listen has a deeper meaning. The Latin word Audi, translated as ‘listen’ has the further meaning of ‘to learn’ or ‘understand’. Apuleius is challenging us to listen behind the words and symbolism to know the true meaning of this short ,exposure’. He traveled to the gates of death Proserpine (in Greek, Persephone) was the wife of Hades, king of the Underworld. There, in the middle of the night, he experienced the bright mystical light; he was humble in the presence of Divinity. Born again, he celebrated the next day as his birthday by a banquet with his friends.
Parallels with Freemasonry
While we cannot argue that Freemasonry directly derives from the ancient mysteries, or even that it has retained certain practices carried down through the centuries (it might have done, but we cannot point to any proof of this) we can show that many parallels of symbolism exist. In some way Freemasonry shares a symbolism in common with these ancient rites. And how much does Freemasonry share the understanding of that symbolism? We cannot answer this question definitively but it is certainly plausible to suggest that an understanding of the hidden meanings managed to survive the centuries.
The mystical rites of Eleusis lasted for three days. We can see a similarity in our own rituals: each of the three degrees in Freemasonry is a symbolic day; each is opened at sunrise in the east for work by the Master and closed with sunset m the west by the Senior Warden. And there is a further mysterious parallel here, of course, which relates to Christian mysticism and the three days of Easter.
The Temple Of Edfu
Inside, standing in front of the far wall, is the naos, the carved shrine for the statue of the god. This is a finely shaped and polished solid block of stone several yards high. But this naos at Edfu is curious, the rear of it is rough and unfinished; just as it was when it was taken from the quarry This combination of rough unfinished stone, out of which emerges the visible smoothed and highly polished structure suggests a parallel symbolism with the rough and the smooth ashlars present in every lodge.
In Freemasonry, the rough ashlar symbolizes the unrefined and ignorant man. The smooth ashlar represents the man who, by virtue of his Masonic progress, has become refined and perfected: able to support the harmony of society. It is reasonable to ask whether the ancient Egyptians at Edfu had in mind a similar symbolism of an initiate’s progression when they carved the naos for Horus.
For the Mysteries touched the very center and source of life itself, that too is Freemasonry’s aim if we take the Third Degree charge seriously. It would be very odd indeed if our symbolism did not carry some of those same hidden meanings which were most valued by the ancients.