THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES

OF EGYPT AND GREECE

W. Bro. D. McLaren, P.P.G.D. (Ches.)

Transactions of the Manchester Association for Masonic
Research - 1929


IN the explanation of the first T.B. it is stated that "the
usages and customs of Freemasonry correspond, in a great
degree with the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt," and there are
some Brethren who in their belief in the antiquity of our
Order, would derive its origin from these Mysteries.

It is generally believed that Egypt was the home of the
Mysteries, and I desire, as far as time will permit, to trace
shortly how these Egyptian Mysteries gradually found their
way into, and influenced the native religions of the nations
with which Egypt came in contact.

Probably, no other nation of that time was better fitted by its
mental structure, as revealed by what little we know of its
literature, and the comparatively advanced state of its
knowledge to become the home of mysteries.

The amount of knowledge acquired by the priestly caste and
revealed only to those chosen by them to share in that
knowledge was very extensive and, for these times, very
accurate. Living in a country where a yearly division of land
was necessary owing to the varying amounts of the Nile
floods, a knowledge of geometry was gradually attained
which included not only the geometry of areas, but also of
solids and conic sections.

Dr. Gow says in reference to this subject: "Beyond question,
Egyptian geometry such as it was, was the germ from which
grew that magnificent science to which every Englishman is
indebted for his first lessons in right seeing and thinking."

The scholars of the Nile Valley also possessed knowledge of
the rudiments of Trigonometry, and their approximation to
the value of "pi " was not improved for many centuries.
Ahmes, a scribe of the Hyksos Dynasty, 1900 B.C., gave the
value of pi = (16/9)^2 = 3.1605, a remarkably good
approximation for the period when geometry was little more
than mensuration.

"In matters arithmetical, they possessed a knowledge of the
three progressions, Arithmetical, Geometrical, and
Harmonic. In astronomy, without the help of accurate
instruments of observation at the disposal of modern
observers of the heavens, they had measured the obliquity
of the ecliptic, had explained the solar and lunar eclipses,
and at a very early date were in possession of a knowledge
of the precession of the equinoxes.

In arts and manufactures they attained to a very high
standard of excellence: as potters, they had few rivals, and
they knew how to blow glass, they used saws, levers, and
balances, and were skilful builders of ships. The gigantic and
wonderful Hall of Karnack and the Pillars of Luxor, not to
mention the Pyramids, testify that as masons they
accomplished feats which could hardly be achieved in our
mechanical and scientific age, and it is not too much to
assert that the measurements that Greece handed on to
Rome and to Europe, in the middle ages, were derived from
Egypt."

After the interesting paper read before the Association last
year in "The Life of Sethos," by W. Bro. R. E. Wallace
James, I do not consider it necessary to deal with any one of
the Egyptian Mysteries in particular. In general, candidates
for these mysteries and after purification by washing and a
time spent in darkness, had to give his assent to the rules of
the society, and an oath of fidelity was required of him, after
which he was restored to light. A password was given to him
and signs of recognition, and he was instructed in the names
and attributes of the gods, and received instruction in the
then known sciences. In some cases the highest honor
granted was participation in the election of a king, a belief in
the immortality of the soul was, no doubt, communicated to
those admitted to their mysteries. On the walls of the Temple
of Phylae were recorded the death, resurrection, and
ascension and deification of the god to whom it was sacred.

Not much is known of these mysteries, and what we do
know of them is derived from the writings of the Greeks, and
chiefly those of Iamblicus. But it may safely be said that they
never, in Egypt, developed into centers of orgiastic license,
such as made a byword of the Bacchanalia, at Rome, and
the Dionysiac ceremonies in Thrace.

All this knowledge was the possession of the priest-
astronomers who selfishly acquired a predominant power by
a policy of silence outside their order, even on these purely
scientific matters.

As regards their religion, Egypt suffered from a superfluity of
Gods and Goddesses. It has been said that an enumeration
of them would result "in compilations resembling census
returns." Herodotus tells us how a pharaoh of the 12th
dynasty undertook to build the Labyrinth as a temple to
accommodate all the gods and found it necessary to
construct no fewer than three thousand apartments.

Here, as in the other great religions of the world, is found a
Trinity, in this case consisting of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.
Osiris, variously styled, the Manifestor of Good, Lord of
Lords, King of the Gods, was the chief of the Gods
worshipped by the Egyptians, and represented the Nile and
the sun, on which the life of Egypt entirely depended. After
having conquered all Egypt and given it excellent laws, he
was overcome by his evil brother, Set, who by stratagem
enclosed him in a chest and threw him into the sea. His wife
Isis, having heard of this, set out in sorrow in search of the
chest, which was driven ashore at Byblos, and enclosed in a
tree which had suddenly sprung up. Isis eventually obtained
the chest and the body of Osiris which his brother had
divided into 14 pieces. This was restored to life, and he
afterwards became a judge of the dead. Isis was the chief
Goddess of the Egyptian mythology and as I have just said,
was the wife and sister of Osiris. Her worship was more
particularly associated with Memphis, but, at a later date, it
spread over all Egypt. The mysteries in connection with the
celebrations lasted for eight days and consisted of a general
purification by washing. Her priests were required to lead
chaste lives and accept celibacy.

The worship of the third member of the trinity, Horus, the son
of Osiris and Isis, was also general throughout Egypt. His
eyes were represented by the sun and moon ; the festival
took place on the 30th Epiphi. The images of Isis and Horus
became, in early Christian days, those of the Virgin and the
Child, and while one would not identify this trinity of deities
with the Christian Trinity, the underlying conception of a
divine Father, Mother, and Son, is perhaps akin to it. Among
the Egyptians was developed a fairly clear idea of a life after
death, of punishment and reward, dependent on the life led
previous to death. Pythagorus (569-470 B.C.), a former pupil
of the Egyptian Priests, taught the immortality of the soul.

According to Plutarch, the death of Osiris was celebrated
annually throughout Egypt towards the end of November,
when the Nile flood was subsiding. According to Herodotus
the grave of Osiris was at Sais in Lower Egypt, where there
was a lake on which the sufferings of Osiris were displayed
as a mystery by night. While the people mourned and beat
their breasts to show their sorrow for the sufferings of the
god, an image of a cow made of gilt wood with a golden sun
between its horns was carried out of the temple where it had
been placed at the termination of the previous year's
commemoration. This probably represented Isis herself in
her search for the dead body of Osiris. In the last day of the
ceremonials the priests, followed by the people, went down
to the sea, the priests carrying a shrine containing a golden
casket into which water was poured, accompanied with the
shout that Osiris was found. A small moon-shaped image
was then formed and robed and ornamented, signifying the
resurrection of the god. To show their joy, rows of oil lamps
were fastened to the outside of the houses and these burned throughout the night.

The origin of Egyptian History is lost in the mists of antiquity.
To fix its chronology is not easy.

Sometime about the third century before Christ an Egyptian
priest, Man-e-Tho, wrote a history of his native country and
divided the rulers of Egypt into thirty-one groups, or
dynasties. Historians, generally, have accepted this division,
although there is not yet agreement on the chronology.

The two leading schools of authorities in this connection, the
American and the Berlin, differ widely in dates prior to 1000
B.C. Mr. Davidson, who recently published an exhaustive
research volume on the great Pyramids and Egyptian
chronology, appears to refute both schools and to establish
a complete synchronism of ancient writers in accord with
Archbishop Usher's bible dates. For my present purpose,
namely of tracing the historical points of contact where the
influences of Egyptian knowledge and beliefs on the
surrounding peoples and more especially on the Jewish and
Greek nations, occurred I shall adopt that of Mr. Davidson.

It is generally agreed that Lower and Upper Egypt became
united into one kingdom under a powerful and warlike chief
who became the first Pharaoh and whose name was Menes,
about 3500 B.C. His capital was situated at Memphis. It is
also known that during the twelfth dynasty Egypt, which had
formerly been entirely agricultural, now became famous in
commerce and came into touch with Europe, as a
considerable amount of their trade was carried on with the
Island of Crete. Since 1894, archaeologists have been
carrying on excavations in that island and their discoveries
have upset the previous knowledge of historians for they find
that, at the time of their trading with the Egyptians, the
inhabitants of that island were more advanced in their arts
and sciences than were the Babylonians and the Egyptians.
Here, however, is the first point of historical contact between
Egypt and Europe, probably 2000 B.C., but of more interest
to us as Masons is the intercourse of Egyptians and the
Jews. In the Bible 200 references are made to Egypt and ten pharaohs are mentioned, although unfortunately their names are not mentioned.

The first mention of a pharaoh is found in Genesis XII, 10,
where Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew nation, had
migrated from Babylonia into the Land of Canaan, from
which famine forced him to visit the fertile land of Egypt. This
took place when Egypt was ruled over by the Hyksos or
Shepherd King, in the reign of the 17th dynasty.

A little more than 200 years after, during the 18th dynasty,
that is 100 years before the reign of Tut-Ank-Amen, Jacob
and his sons were driven by famine to Egypt, to join Joseph,
who had married Asenath, the daughter of a high priest of
On, whose name was Potipherah, meaning the Gift of the
Sun God, where was granted them some land lying between
where Cairo now stands and where the Suez Canal has
been constructed-the Land of Goschen. This may truly be
termed the cradle of the Jewish race, for when the time
came for them to leave the land, their nation had increased
from 3 score and 6 to 2,000,000, counting men, women, and
children. Moses, the leader of the exodus, under the name of Osarsiph (according to some authorities), is said to have
held the office of High Priest of On. No one of the Hebrews
by training and education. could have been better qualified
to act as leader, and the laws laid down by him for a
guidance in morals and hygiene have not been surpassed.
These things became possible to him, no doubt, through his
training for the priesthood. The exodus took place in the 5th
year of the reign of Menephta, 1486 B.C.

The next point of contact between a Hebrew leader and an
Egyptian pharaoh is recorded in I Kings, III, 1, when
Solomon is stated to have married an Egyptian princess, a
daughter of one of the Pharaohs. Some authorities say that it
was from this marriage, and his dealings with his wife's
nation, that Solomon obtained his chief ideas of the plan of
the Temple at Jerusalem, dedicated about 1005 B.C. and
destroyed 588 B.C., and that the two Pillars which stood at
the porch way or entrance to the Temple erected by
Solomon, to keep ever before the eyes of the people a
memorial of the happy deliverance of their forefathers from
their Egyptian bondage, were merely copies of the obelisks
which were to be found at the entrance of every Egyptian
temple. The lions too, which decorated the thrones of the
Egyptian kings found a counterpart in the lions on each side
of Solomon's throne and the twelve on the steps leading
thereto.

Is it a mere coincidence that two of our Grand Masters whom
we associate, one with the opening of the first or Holy
Lodge, the other with presiding at the opening of the second
or Sacred Lodge, should be so intimately connected with this mysterious land of the pharaohs ?

As Masons, the later relations between the Pharaohs and
the Hebrews do not concern us. About 2000 years after the
journey of Abraham to Egypt, St. Paul makes a reference to
the wealth of that people. At varying periods during that time
intercourse between the two nations was fairly close and no
doubt it had a considerable influence on the customs and
beliefs of the Hebrews. To us, as Masons, the fact that many
of our Masonic secrets are expressed in the Hebraic or
Chaldeaic language adds an additional interest to the study
of the ancient history of these nations.

After the expulsion of the Shepherd Kings, Egypt reached
the zenith of her power. Her armies fought successful wars
not only in Africa, but extended their victories to Asia and
Europe, while her navy is said to have reached India. But her
success was the cause of her undoing. Luxuriousness and
indolence took hold of her peoples, and she had to submit to
oppression under Ethiopia, until the priests elected to be
king one of their own number, Sethos, who brought back
peace to the land. On his death the land was divided into
several states; over the province at the mouth of the Nile
was a ruler, Psammetichus by name, who engaged Greek
mercenaries in his armies, and was sympathetic to Greek
emigrants, and the Greek language, which resulted in Egypt
becoming more and more under the sway of Greece.

After a short period of Persian domination, Alexander the
Great added Egypt to his immense dominion and founded
Alexandria 330 B.C. This became the focus of Hellenistic,
Egyptian, and Eastern ideas. Here was established the
famous library which was burnt down by the order of Caliph
Omar in 642 A.D. The Greeks ransacked the scientific,
literary, and mystical treasures of the East and South and
with the accession of numerous Jews fleeing from the
powers of Syria, Alexander developed a mystical kabbalism
that penetrated the whole eastern Mediterranean and was
known to St. Paul. What is more important than the
employment of Greek mercenaries in the armies of Egypt is
the fact that, in order to receive further learning, Egypt was
visited by so many of Greece's greatest teachers and
philosophers, either, like Thales, who had no other teachers
and was the first Greek to go to Egypt for instruction from the
priests, or, like Pythagorus, Democrates, Anaxagorus,
Eudoxus, Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, to add to their learning
by becoming pupils of the priests.

But gradually Rome became in the ascendant. In 200 B.C.
Egypt first entered the arena of Roman politics. Speaking of
this period Livy makes use of a peculiar expression when he
says he feels as though he were carried into a bottomless
sea. Some see in this a reference to the fact that the sun
entered the Sign of Pisces a little before 200 B.C. Moreover,
at this date (i.e. about 250 B.C.), civilization began to hide
itself in symbolism and secret societies and that is why some
of the knowledge enshrined in the Greek mysteria and
Roman Collegia passed into the Christian Church and the
New Testament, so quietly, and is still so little recognised
there. St. Paul says that he was " a Stewart of the
Mysteries." About 30 B.C. Augustus imposed Rome's
Imperium on the fertile province of Cleopatra.

This knowledge acquired in Egypt became the common
possession of the pupils who sat at the feet of these doctors
of Egyptian philosophy. Facts show clearly a contact
between Egypt and Greece lasting some 1500 years.

In addition, Greek tradition fixes the foundation of Tyre and
Sidon by Phoenix from Thebes, in Egypt, the foundation of
Athens by Cecrops, from Sais, in Egypt, of Thebes in Central
Greece by Cadmus, from Egyptian Thebes, and of Argos by
Danaus from Libya about 1582 B.C.

Tradition refers the institution of the Greek Mysteries to
Orpheus or Dionysus whose legendary date I believe to be
1600 B.C. The chief of these, the Eleusinian Mysteries in
Attica, was said to have been imported by King Erechtheus,
who in a time of scarcity, like Jacob's sons, sought corn for
his country in Egypt, and to have been instituted according
to the writers, Diodorus and Isocrates, by order of Demeter,
the Great Mother, herself.

Historically, it would seem that the mysteries were
re-established, consequent upon the invasion of Greece,
about 1000 years B.C., by fierce Dorian tribes from the
north. Greek and Phoenician colonies began to intermingle
as early as 700 B.C., perhaps earlier, and Greece's great
struggle against Persia at Marathon, 490 B.C., is evidence of
much connection with the East via the Ionian Islands and
Asia Minor. Certainly from the fifth century B.C., the Egyptian
Trinity of Isis, Osiris and Horus, were represented in Greece
by Demeter, Dionysus and Apollo respectively.

It is not to be assumed that Greek initiates, though they took
vows of secrecy, were as uncommunicative, in their best
period, to the educated world, as were the Egyptians. Such a
babbling race, as gave democratic ideas to Europe, was well
able to throw out hints, before the dark hand of pagan Rome
made secret societies dangerous; and as a matter of fact,
the Eleusinian schools were open to all free men,
indiscriminately, and included the most distinguished
statesmen and philosophers of the 5th and 4th centuries
B.C. Egypt is almost certainly the home of mysteries, but the
Greeks imparted to their representations a measure of art
and beauty.

The public observances of the initiates consisted of
sacrificial ceremonies (orgia) and purifications to avoid some
calamity in this life ; but private and personal purifications
were enioined. against danger in a life to come. At Athens,
violation of the mysteries was indictable under the
jurisdiction of the Archon or chief magistrate with a jury of
initiates. The mysteries celebrated were those of Zeus in
Crete, Hera in Argolis, Athene and Dionysus (i.e. Bacchus)
in Athens, Artemis (i.e. Diana) in Arcadia, Hecate in AEgina ;
and those of the Cabiri in Samothrace. But by far the most
famous, and the only ones with which I shall deal, were
those at Attica in honour of Demeter and Persephone,
mother and daughter. These were considered most holy and
venerable throughout Greece, and laid hold on the popular
imagination as did no worship of the Olympians. The
Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that Demeter, sister and
wife of Zeus, had a daughter Persephone, whom Hades
(God of the Unseen) carried off while she gathered flowers in the Nvsian Plains in Asia Minor. Demeter, Mother of Earth,
and Goddess of the Seedtime and Harvest, now cut off fruits
from men till Zeus sent Mercury, his winged messenger, to
Hades, to recover Persephone on condition that she had
eaten nothing in the Kingdom of Hades. But Hades, that very
morning, had caused her to eat some grains of a
pomegranate. Hence, she still spends one half of the year
with Hades and one half only in the upper air.

Latin poets placed the seizure of Persephone in the
Ashphodel Meadows of Sicilian Enna.

This legend has a wonderful fascination, and if it can be said
to enshrine any divine truth it would be that of a divine
mother and daughter, a feminine counterpart of the Christian
father and son; the daughter also "descending into hell" till
rescued by the son in the form of the word (Mercury). Now I
think that all religions, anciently, were based on prophecy of
a divine feminine revelation. To the ancients, a goddess
mother was no difficulty. Demeter, Cybele, Isis, Magna
Mater, and the Virgin Mother are all akin : and only
Protestants in cold Latitudes would see anything strange in a
"Jerusalem, Mother of us all." However that may be, the
worship of Demeter and Persephone was of Catholic
acceptance in Greece and by numerous testimonies was of
a moralising and uplifting nature. This is borne witness to by
the Greek writers, Pindar, Sophocles, Isocrates, Plutarch,
and Plato. The mysteries were of two kinds, the Lesser and
the Greater. Both kinds included spectacles as grand and
impressive as painting, sculpture, music, and dancing could
make them. The priests were called kerukes or heralds. The
lesser Eleusinia were held at Agrae, on the Ilissus Stream, in
honour of the daughter, Persephone, alone.

Only Barbarians were excluded. The initiated were named
Mystae and they had to wait a year before admittance to the
greater mysteries. The candidate took and washed a sow,
then sacrificed it, symbolising that he purposed not to "
return like a sow to his wallowing in the mire." He was then
sprinkled with water by a priest (Hydranos) and a
Mystagogus, (Hierophant or Prophet) administered an oath
of secrecy. He was not admitted at once to Demeter's
Shrine, but remained during subsequent instruction in the
porch or vestibule. Aristotle, however, asserts that no
instruction was given to the Mystae but that while in a state
of receptivity-a psychic state-their emotions and character
were acted upon, The rape of Persephone having taken
place in the winter, the lesser mysteries were held in
February.

The greater mysteries were held annually for nine days in
September, Athens being thronged with visitors from all
parts. The first day was that of assembling. On the second, a
solemn "Pomp" or procession wended its way to the coast
with the cry "Mystae, to the sea," and purificatory rites were
performed. The third day was a day of fasting. In the evening
a frugal meal was taken of sesame and honey, and
sacrifices offered of fish and barley. Some maintain that
there was a nine days' fast. On the fourth a procession
displayed the "Sacred Things of Demeter," including
pomegranates and poppy seeds in a basket. The fifth day
became famous. The Mystae, led by torch bearer, went in ,
the dark evening with torches to the Temple of Demeter at
Eleusis to search (in imitation of her) for Persephone.
Claudian gives a poetic picture of the shores and Bay of
Eleusis, lit up by a myriad lamps in the gloom. They
remained all night. The sixth day was sacred to Iacchus, son
of Demeter, the Bacchus or Dionysus "Lord of Earth." His
statue was carried along the sacred road amid joyous shouts
: 30,000 spectators was nothing uncommon. In the night of
the sixth and seventh the Mystae were initiated into the
greater mysteries and became " Seers " (Epoptae), " Seers
of Future Things," as St. Paul says, using the same word. In
the lighted sanctuary they were shown (Autopsy) what none
but Epoptae ever saw - a dramatic representation to the
accompaniment of ancient hymns of the death and
resurrection of the Holy Child, Iacchus and of the life of the
gods. These mystic sights are described as divinely
ineffable. On the same night, they performed a sacrament
with the words, " I have fasted and I have drunk the Kukeon.
I have taken from the chest. After tasting I have deposited in
the basket and from the basket into the chest." The words of
dismissal were "konx ompax." On the seventh day they
returned to Athens with happy jests, in imitation of those with
which the sorrows of Demeter had been lightened. " A
mystical drama," says Clement of Alexandria. Athletic games
were held, the prize being a full corn in the ear. On the
eighth were initiated those who were unable to be present on
the sixth. The ninth was the day of full cups. Two cups were
filled with water or wine and the contents were thrown, one
to the east, and one to the west. These Eleusinian mysteries
long survived the independence of Greece. The general
belief of the ancients was that they opened a comforting
prospect of a future life. The most Holy and perfect of the
rites was to show an ear of corn mowed down in silence.
One can not but think of the text, " Except a corn of wheat
fall to the ground and die." In my opinion it is certain that the
mysteries were, in a measure, a "praeparatio evangelica" for
had I time I could indicate very much mystery phraseology in
the Epistles and Book of Revelations.

Gradually, the Egyptian gods, notwithstanding fierce
persecution raged for a time against their worshippers,
ousted the old religion of Rome, until its Emperors were
found filling their houses with the Egyptian Gods and
building temples to them in the public parks of Rome, while
soldiers of the Sixth Legion indulged in Isiac worship in York.

And so it comes, as Dill, in his " Roman Society " says: "The
scenes which were so common at Rome, or Pompeii, or
Corinth, the procession of shaven, white-robed priests and
acolytes marching to the sound of chants and barbaric
music, with the sacred images and symbols of a worship
which had been cradled on the Nile ages before the time of
Romulus . . . . . . were reproduced in the remote villages on
the edge of the Sahara and the Atlantic, in the valleys of the
Alps or the Yorkshire dales."

 

         

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