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Representation of a mystery school. Source: leks_052 / Adobe stock

Initiation to Secrecy: Unravelling the Truth Behind Mystery Schools

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As the great Irish esotericist John Heron Lepper wrote, one could say that the existence of secret or closed societies [namely mystery schools] – in which certain teachings or practices are passed on to chosen individuals who must undergo a series of tests – responds to a very general predisposition of human nature. This is unquestionably true, but this is not an exhaustive explanation, since the birth and the diffusion, in the ancient world, of rites of mysterious nature founded on the principle of initiation as a prerogative for the access to a certain knowledge, cannot be explained only through an anthropological and sociological perspective.

Ezio D’Intra, in his introduction to the Italian edition of the work of Victor Magnien Les Mystères d'Eleusis. Leurs origines. Le rituel de leurs initiations , has rightly pointed out that, “The ancient man in general, especially the spiritual hierarchies of the past, had access to the experiences of the Sacred with a frequency, certainty, and lucidity that made them absolutely not akin to those, - poor, rare, and transitory, or falsified from prejudices, or artificially self-induced by strange inner thoughts - mostly unhealthy, of the modern spiritualism”.

In the classical world and in the pre- Christian era, men were closer to the gods and, at the same time – in a real communion – the gods were closer to them. It was from the gods that mankind had received precise teachings, rules, and doctrines, and the answers to the greatest questions that the human beings, since they had left the caves, had begun to wonder: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go?

The Mystery Schools: Rites of Passage and Initiations

By “mystery” we mean a series of cults, religious practices, and rites developed and spread in antiquity throughout the Greek and Mediterranean world, in the ancient Near East, and later throughout the Hellenistic area and in the Roman Empire , whose roots are to be found in the Pre-Greek cultures of the Aegean, Cretan, and Anatolian coasts. Cults, religious practices, and rituals were characterized by an initiatory path, which gave gradual access to knowledge and to a following personal advancement. Essential to them was a strict vow of silence, to which all initiates were voted: the uninitiated were not allowed to have access to the teachings, to the revelations, and to everything that happened in the context of these ceremonies.

The word derives from the Greek μυστήριον (mysterion), then later Latinized in mysterium. The etymology of the word goes back to an Indo-European root ( my-)of onomatopoeic origin, which means “to shut up” (from which the word “mute” derives). The Greek words μύω [ myo] (“being initiated into the mysteries”), μύησις [ myesis] (“initiation”), and μύστης [mystes] (“the initiated”) come from this etymological root. The verb myo was used with the meaning “to keep your mouth shut” or “to keep your eyes shut”, expressions that clearly show the esoteric nature of certain rites which, as Aristotle confirms to us, “They were called mysteries because the listeners had to shut up and not tell any of these things to anyone”.

Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael's 1509 fresco, The School of Athens. Both Plato and Aristotle were involved in mystery schools. (Raphael / Public domain)

Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael's 1509 fresco, The School of Athens. Both Plato and Aristotle were involved in mystery schools. (Raphael / Public domain )

The ancient mysteries, as Piero Coda has pointed out, has generally the following features:

1) They require an initiation (μύησις);

2) There are precise rites;

3) The commitment not to talk about what it is seen nor spoken out;

4) Sharing salvation (σωτηρία) through the communion (of the initiated) with a suffering fate (πάθη) and the rebirth of the deities;

5) The community of the initiated are strictly separated from that of the uninitiated;

6) They ensure immortal life.

As Aimé Solignac wrote, “The unifying principle of the multiple meanings of the words μυστήριον, μύστις, μύστης, μύστικός, μύστικώς, and their equivalents, is the idea of ​​a more or less immediate communication from gods to men, and from a mysterious initiation of men to the gods, to their action and to their essence”.

Secrecy Above All Else

The mystery religions are an extremely complex and articulated phenomenon. Depending on the places and times where and when they have developed, some differences can be found, but there is always a common background, – the six points listed above – the most important of which is secrecy. A feature that, moreover, has always been present in the Mediterranean area since ancient times.

In ancient Egypt, a rather explicit inscription in the Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the god Horus, reported by the Egyptologist Émile Chassinat, states: “Do not reveal in any way the Rites you see in the Temples, in the most absolute Mystery”.

Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the ancient Egyptian god Horus, where inscriptions point to evidence of mystery schools in Egypt. (marabelo / Adobe stock)

Temple of Edfu, dedicated to the ancient Egyptian god Horus, where inscriptions point to evidence of mystery schools in Egypt. ( marabelo / Adobe stock)

And Chassinat, in a famous essay, refers to another emblematic inscription, found inside the tomb of a priest of Osiris: “ I am a priest instructed in the mysteries, my chest will not let out the things I have seen”.

And the Turba Philosoforum , a collection of ancient alchemical and hermetic texts of different origins, – that had a lot of influence inside many mystery religion societies during the Renaissance – states: “He who has ears, should open them to listen. He who has a mouth, should keep it shut”.

In his work The Reply of the Master Abammon to “Porphyry's Letter to Anebo”  better known as  On the Mysteries of the Egyptians – and translated by Marsilio Ficino with the title De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldaeorum, Assyriorum – Iamblichus states: “It would be in conformity with the divine law to preserve memory of the human and divine precepts exposed by Pythagoras, and not to share their wisdom with those who do not have a purified soul. Because it is not right to reveal to these people what has been acquired with great efforts, as it is not right to reveal the Eleusinian Mysteries to the uninitiated. Those who do it are equally impious and ungodly”.

Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis, where an Eleusinian mystery school sanctuary can be found. (Henryk Siemiradzki / Public domain)

Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis, where an Eleusinian mystery school sanctuary can be found. (Henryk Siemiradzki / Public domain )

Only the Initiated Could Understand

For the ancient Greeks it was unconceivable to think that anyone could learn not only the principles of religion and of the spiritual doctrines, but also philosophy, science, and art. It was a prerogative of the initiated.

Göbekli Tepe, eastern Turkey: this is the most ancient mystery school religion sanctuary ever known, already functioning over 12,000 years ago. (Provided by the author)

Göbekli Tepe, eastern Turkey: this is the most ancient mystery school religion sanctuary ever known, already functioning over 12,000 years ago. (Provided by the author)

Pausanias, who was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries , thought that all the wise men of Greece had always expressed themselves in enigmas (using a symbolic and allegorical language) to allude to certain truths, hiding the true meaning, thus that only the initiated could understand them.

In my opinion, one of the most beautiful metaphors about initiation comes from Diodorus Siculus, who, in his Bibliotheca Historica (Library of History ), speaking of the Muses: “Men have given the Muses their name from the word muein, which signifies the teaching of those things which are noble and expedient and are not known by the uneducated”.

As we have seen, myèin means “to shut up”, while myesis means “initiation”. Well, how can the Muses teach something if their name means “to shut up”?

They manifest themselves and teach only to the initiated, who can perceive them, to see them and to receive their message. The “noble and expedient things” metaphorically explained by Diodorus are the initiatory teachings. And when, with this clever pun, he says that such things are not known by the uneducated , he metaphorically affirms that they are not known because they are not understandable by those who have not been initiated!

We must remember what Flavius Sallustius– who received in Eleusis the salt of life and was one of the closest and most faithful friends of the emperor Julian – says: “Besides, to wish to teach the whole truth about the gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy”.

The Roman emperor Julian who reigned between 361 and 363 AD and was known to be involved in mystery schools. ( Giovanni Battista de Cavalieri / CC0)

The Roman emperor Julian who reigned between 361 and 363 AD and was known to be involved in mystery schools. ( Giovanni Battista de Cavalieri / CC0)

The Secret Made it More Precious

Another great Initiated, Plutarch, wrote that the secret itself makes what one learns more precious; an overly explicit exposure degrades the subject of the teaching.

The Greek astrologer Vettius Valens, a great initiated as well, who lived during the second century AD in his Anthology, talks about the necessity of secrecy:

“I adjure you, my most precious brother, and you, initiates into this mystic art, by the starry vault of Heaven and by the twelve-fold circle, by the Sun, the Moon, and the five wandering stars by whom all of life is guided, and by Providence itself and Holy Fate, to preserve these matters in secret and not to share them with the vulgar, but only with those worthy of them and able to preserve and requite them as they deserve. I adjure you to bestow on me, Valens, your guide, eternal and noble fame, particularly since you are aware that I alone ungrudgingly illuminated this part of the truth which had never before been explicated by anyone” .

Plotinus, the supreme Platonic Philosopher, who was initiated into the Sacred Mysteries of the Two Goddesses, in his Enneads wrote:  “ This is the purport of that rule of our mysteries: Nothing Divulged to the Uninitiate: the Supreme is not to be made a common story, the holy things may not be uncovered to the stranger, to any that has not himself attained to see” .

In the Greek world and in the Aegean-Mediterranean area in general, all the arts – from metallurgy, intended as fusion and metalworking (subject to secret, elitist, and mysterious brotherhoods), to buildings construction, from medicine to ship building – as Victor Magnien has noticed, were not accessible to anyone. According to Eustathius, there were secret arsenals in Rhodes, to which the public had no access, and those who violated their doors without authorization were put to death.

Even the poets expressed themselves in a barely accessible language, not easily understandable by the simple men. In fact, Maximus of Tyre, rhetorician and philosopher and an initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, stated that: “All things, indeed, are full of enigmas, both among poets and philosophers, whose reverence of the truth I much more admire then the liberty of speech adopted by the moderns. For a fable is a more elegant interpreter of things which are not clearly seen through the imbecility of human nature...”.

Relief representing Demeter, Kore-Persephone and Triptolemus from the Eleusinian mystery school. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Relief representing Demeter, Kore-Persephone and Triptolemus from the Eleusinian mystery school. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Then again: “The human soul, in its boldness, appreciates less what is within its reach, and admires what is far from it. Trying to guess what it cannot see, and pursuing it with its inner actions, before reaching it, it is full of ardent aspiration to find, and, when it has achieved it, the soul is full of love for what it has done” .

According to this philosopher, poets taught the same teachings of the wisemen and the philosophers. They: “under the name of poets, there are philosophers, who use a fascinating art instead of obliquely divulging things whose knowledge is difficult to understand for us .”

And, even though he has excluded poets from his ideal state, Plato wrote in his work Ion that they “are merely the interpreters of the Gods” .

The Exclusivity of the Mysteries: Truth Can’t Be Perceived Without Effort

Even the secrets of medicine for the ancient Greeks, and subsequently also for the Romans, was comparable to those of the mysteries. Indeed, there was a strong link between medicine, science, and philosophy and religion and mystery traditions. As we shall see later, it is no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, the greatest physicians, and the greatest scientists of antiquity were initiated into mystery religions, and into the Eleusinian Mysteries in particular.

A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian mystery school, discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis (mid-4th century BC). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian mystery school, discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis (mid-4th century BC). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The secrets of the mysteries, as well of philosophy, science, or medicine, as Magnien has noticed paraphrasing the great emperor Julian, was justified in the thought of the ancients by the fact that: “Nature itself loves to hide, and truth cannot be perceived without effort: those who have found this truth must not reveal it with excessive ease to others and expose it in too explicit words. The truth, divine by nature, and which gives great power to those who possess it, is too high for vulgar and vile men; they do not deserve to possess it, and moreover they may despise it, if they achieve it without any effort: therefore, it must be kept away from them. The truth surpasses the faculties of ordinary men: only well-prepared and well-educated men can be aware of it” .

Top image: Representation of a mystery school. Source: leks_052 / Adobe stock

Excerpt taken from ‘ From Eleusis to Florence: The Transmission of a Secret Knowledge ’ by  Nicola Bizzi. Available at Amazon and Aurora Boreale .

By Nicola Bizzi

References

Aristophanes. c.405 BC. The Frogs (Βάτραχοι). 456, scholium. n.p.

Coda, P. 2003. Il Logos e il Nulla . Ed. Città Nuova, Rome.

Chassinat, E. 1918. Le Temple d'Edfou . Ed. Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, Le Caire.

Chassinat, E. 1966. Le Mystère d'Osiris au mois de Khoiak . Ed. Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, Le Caire.

Magnien, V. 1996. I Misteri di Eleusi . Ed. Ar, Padova.

Maximus of Tyre. 1642. Discorsi di Massimo Tirio filosofo platonico, tradotti dal Signor Piero De Bardi, Conte di Vernio, Accademico Fiorentino . Ed. Appresso i Giunti, Venice.

Maximus of Tyre. n.d. The Dissertations . X, 5. n.p.

Lepper, J. 1933. Les Sociétés Secrètes de l'Antiquité à nos jours . Ed. Payot, Paris.

Plato. n.d. Ion. 534e. n.p.

Pausanias. n.d. Description of Greece . VIII, 8, 3. n.p.

Plutarch. n.d. Life of Homer . 92. n.p.

Plotinus. c.270 AD. Enneads. VI, 9, 11. n.p.

Ruska, J. 1931. Turba Philosophorum: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Alchemie . Ed. J. Springler, Berlin.

Sallustius, F. c.350 AD. On the Gods and the Cosmos . III, 4. n.p.

Siculus, D. c.60 BC. Library of History . IV, 7, 4. n.p.

Sodano, A. 2013. Giamblico: I Misteri Egiziani . Ed. Bompiani, Milan.

Solignac, A. 1983. Mystère. In Mystère et Mystique . Beauchesne. D.S. n. 12.

Valens, V. c.150 AD. Anthology. IV, 11. n.p.

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

But how then to create social harmony without enlightening the masses? No, secrecy is always bad.

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