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NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Hidden Pagan Mysteries
Article ID: 14722
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 636
Times Read: 2,722
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Author: Taliesin McKnight
Posted: August 28th. 2011
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The ancients held natural cycles and rhythms of nature as symbolic keys to the great cosmic mystery. We do know that the ancients had great pagan centers of learning—the great mystery schools. Unfortunately, we do not know the exact nature of their teachings. They had a secret knowledge, which was not taught to the multitudes of people.
There were two basic forms of religion in many pagan civilizations. There was the religion of the common individual, the worship of the gods and goddesses of the tribe or community. There was also a deeper knowledge taught only to the philosophical elite. This is evidenced in the writings of Plutarch and various other writers of late antiquity. Examples of such pagan centers of learning include the mystery cults of Isis and Osiris, of Mithras, and of Eluseus in Greece. Many scholars theorize that the basic doctrine was none other than the transformation of the soul or individual into the god-man or enlightened figure.
Although we do not know the exact nature of these mysteries, we do know that they were represented by the life of a god or goddess and, usually, the passage of the seasons. The cycles of winter, spring, summer, and autumn often served as the basic structure from which mythologies were built. This is easy to explain on practical terms, because the planting of crops and harvest were of supreme importance to the ancients. However, it would be short-sighted to conclude that this was the only possible reason for the religious observation of the seasons. It must have seemed to primitive man that the world was full of life, fertility and beauty during half of the year. Then, suddenly, the world is plunged in darkness. Foliage dies and the world seems to be filled with death and want. There appeared to have been a great fall from a former glory, something went terribly wrong with the world. From this, redemption comes and the cycle of life and renewal returns. This mysterious cycle was often portrayed as the birth, life, and death of the sun or some other deity.
The sun seems to have represented knowledge. Light, indeed, gives us the ability to see. Without light, we do not have sight; we are blinded. Thus, darkness is synonymous with ignorance and light with knowledge. We cannot see in darkness, but light gives us the ability to see the world for what it is. Therefore, the great fall may have represented a regression into a state of ignorance, and reaching gnosis or enlightenment attains redemption or salvation. Of course, notice that the word “enlighten” is simply the word “light” with “en” put on each end. Thus, to enlighten is the give forth light.
In the same way, when we meet a knowledgeable or intelligent individual, we may say that he or she is bright or brilliant. Keeping this in mind, it is quite possible that the sun is the soul or psyche or consciousness. Perhaps paradise may be obtained and we may reach a former glory by the obtainment of intellectual light. Mankind may reclaim his lost estate and all of nature is renewed. Thus, the Rosicrucian motto: Igne natura renovatur integra. This is a transformative knowledge. While this is not known for certain to have been the ancient doctrine of these cults, it is a thought-provoking theory. This would also imply that Hermeticism and Gnosticism might be survivals of the mystery cult teaching. This, however, might be a slight stretch.
It is known that the seasons, from fertility to death, often represented some kind of divine catastrophe. This is shown from the myths of the gods and goddesses that the cults celebrated. Thus, Osiris was betrayed, died, and resurrected. The Norse god Baldur the Beautiful was slain by the blind god of fate by the villainous Loki, and the gods sought a way to resurrect the god. Persephone, in the Greek mysteries of Eluseus, once existed in perfect bliss, but was stolen away by Hades and forced to be his bride. She eventually is rescued by her mother Demeter, but only for half the year (spring and summer) . These myths show explicitly, that whatever the mystery cults taught in connection with the seasons, it was some sort of divine tragedy, of which the initiate takes active part in the restoration of the god, or the redemption of the soul. How is it that we may bring the world or soul or self back to its formerly glory? Is this catastrophe a problem within the soul of humanity—something that must be made right or rectified?
One may also begin to question why the mysteries were secret. Why was this knowledge not taught to the uninitiated? Is the common individual a mere beast that is incapable of understanding the deeper wisdom of the ages? This tends to be the common explanation. Others have argued that the reason for secrecy was because it showed the common religion for what it was: a system of thought or paradigm that was created to control the masses and to keep the populations controlled. Thus, only the elite were taught the ancient arcanum of the pagan mysteries. Is it possible, that while the multitudes brought offerings to the god Pan, the wise recognized a symbol for the procreative power? This would also imply the possibility that the initiated saw the deities as symbols of an inward mystery of the human being. This, I believe, is not likely.
It is probable that the gods and goddesses were seen as external mysteries to a certain extent. The very way in which mystery cults centered on devotion to a particular deity causes the argument to fall apart, at least in my view. Now, while this may appear as mere intellectual masturbation, I think the searching for what may have been the basis for a civilizing force in the ancient world is pertinent to understanding the history of those who came before.
Why should this knowledge remain lost forever?
The investigation into the ancient mysteries may be more easily understood if one were to look at the occult systems of astrology, Qabalah, magick and other arcane sciences. It seems that a lot of the ancient wisdom may be hidden behind these things. Alchemy, in the occult understanding of medieval philosophers, was symbolic of the transformation of the self into the divine magus. Also, the Qabalah seems to have this as a primary goal, however, as a system of mysticism, this would be expected. Magick seems to not only be about the ability to create or cause material change by supernatural or supra-physical means. It also dealt with a kind of theurgy, or union of the individual with a divine power or powers.
This is the magick that was supported by Iamblichus and others, the divine magick. The priestly caste of the Brahmins seems to be a sort of mystery school, with its mystical, hidden knowledge passed on through initiation—Always from master to pupil. The Sufi sect of Islam tends to do the same. In every one of these cases, the nature of these ancient pathways to knowledge seems to be based in the transformation of the person into the divine individual. This is the transformation of the soul or consciousness.
Many modern societies claim to be based in the ancient mystery schools. The Western Mystery Tradition also often makes such a claim. If this is to be taken at its word, then this would also imply that the nature of the mysteries were the gradual process of self-awakening into the enlightened figure, such as the Buddha or Jesus. All these cases seem to point in this general direction. Unfortunately, this is all conjecture, and we truly have no way of knowing.
Our quest is like that of a detective, trying to piece together the clues, to discover or uncover something from the past. The problem is made worse by the fact that the object of investigation is separated from us by an immense passage of time.
If the above observations are taken as a possible theory as to the content and nature of the mysteries, then the next question or object of inquiry is what the process was that granted this transformation by knowledge or gnosis. How is this process undertaken? Within the mysteries seems to be a cycle of death and rebirth. Life comes only from death. This would imply the death of one aspect of being in order that the renewed individual may rise. It would also imply that the soul of mankind once existed in a higher state, a higher order of things.
The Gnostics and Hermeticists believed that the soul of humanity is a truly spirituous thing. Its true abode is in the higher spiritual realms, not in the world of matter, which is alien to it. The doctrine that we have the imprisonment of consciousness, which is finally liberated by reaching enlightenment or some kind of special knowledge, has been given as a theory by many scholars.
Therefore, it goes to reason that the process of transformation involves an intellectual teaching as well as a special kind of intuitive knowledge obtained through various practices. These practices probably took the form of meditation or other ways in which the logical or cognitive powers may be held in suspension, so that the higher nature may burst through. If this were the case, then the Eastern practices of Yoga and Zen Buddhism could be viewed as a type of mystery school.
At any rate, the profane were not revealed the true mysteries of occult science. The word “profane” here is meant in its original content from the Latin “pro fanum, ” meaning “before or outside the temple.” The rites of these ancient mysteries seem to be a divine ritual drama, in which the initiate "lives" the myth of the god or goddess. It would seem logical that such an experience would cause the myth of the deity to naturally become internalized on some level, impressed by experience on the inner life of the person.
In the end, no one knows the teachings of the ancient centers of pagan mystery cults. We can only conjecture and theorize. The transformation of the individual is the focus of the Western Mystery Tradition and many initiatic societies that claim lineage to the mystery cults. We have the writings from the learned of late antiquity. This is all that can be pieced together. Perhaps one day Isis will once again be unveiled for all to see.
Location: Dallas, Texas
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Bio: Taliesin McKnight is a researcher, lecturer, and writer on the subjects of Comparative Religion, philosophy, the Qabalah, magick, psychology, and the occult. His studies have brought him to share ideas and knowledge with those of like mind. He is a licensed inter-faith minister. He speaks Spanish, English, French, and Italian. Taliesin's videos and articles are published on more than 20 different websites. He currently resides in Dallas, Texas.
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