I love anything concerning Egypt, its rich and ancient
history, its beautiful artworks, and of course its ancient mysteries, especially concerning religious beliefs. Much of it we will never probably know, because
the secrets of the gods and goddesses were not meant for the public, but for the chosen few, perhaps similar to secret societies in the more "modern" era,
meaning A.D.! The materials discussed in this volume are way before the Christian era, some dating as far back as 5400 B.C.
Spence first supplies a general overview of his subject, then covers literary sources, mostly Greeks and Romans who lived in the early years of the Christian era. He then discusses the origins and philosophies of the mysteries, the mysteries in other lands, rituals and other topics. I will attempt to mention just a few interesting facts from each topic, although I tend to write long reviews of historical non-fictional books, because the material is so fascinating. Spence writes in a very uncomplicated and understandable style, making reading his work enjoyable.
In the Introductory chapter, Spence points out how modern religion has become too removed from nature and disconnected from the very "god" with whom we wish to commune. We have turned the mysteries of the Universe into mere science. Of the Egyptians, he says:
Into such a pit of error the priesthood of Egypt could not fall for the reason that it combined science with a true knowledge of and understanding of the supernatural. Nor did it make the mistake in which so many modern mystics indulge, in altogether neglecting science, knowing as it did that science is the handmaid of Magic, its concomitant and necessity.
He goes on to discuss the disconnection modern humans have toward "God:"
To early man God was much more real than to his successors. The modern ignorance of things divine is entirely owing to the confusion of thought which has regarded theology as necessarily a "science" capable of advancement and progression in knowledge, as well as to a neglect of the forgotten and disused methods of antiquity in apprehending, approaching, and communicating with deity. The outrageous confusion, social and ethical, to be observed in the modern world is, indeed, the consequence of the ignorance of and disbelief in that divine communion and personal fellowship with the Creator of which the early world was so conscious as affording mankind a much more certain foundation of thought and conduct than anything else.
Spence points out that early peoples viewed their gods as man, or "a magnified non-natural man." Still, gods of early civilizations were based on people who walked the earth. The Judeo-Christian God seems to be far removed from humankind, in my opinion. Simple truths of early peoples allowed them to see themselves and their gods as one and the same essence. He says:
It was only when they became degraded by the needless and fruitless elaboration of pseudo-philosophers that they were forgotten or were cynically set aside as the childish imaginings of a more primitive age.
Spence believed that the coming of Jesus was a means to
bridge the gap between human and the divine.
He also speaks about rituals, and how, if a certain formula was successful in obtaining the desired result, then it was repeated until it not only became ritual, but outworn and outdated, and eventually no one really knew why certain words or actions were performed. I remember this was a point elaborated upon when I read the wonderful history of Ancient Greece and Rome called The Ancient City.
Chapters II and III are both about literary sources, and, as expected, the information gleaned is sparse, simply because it was forbidden to discuss the mysteries. Some of the sources include Herodotus (484-406 B.C.), who was personally initiated. He discusses the different festivals held during the year, of which there were six. Plutarch (A.D. 50-120) was another source of information. He wrote a treatise on Isis and Osiris. There were many different versions of the stories surrounding these two very important Egyptian deities. It is also interesting to note that Egyptian deities had Greek counterparts, as Rome had deities similar to Greece.
And the stories, or myths of these gods could become quite complex, for instance, the journey of the sun god Ra, when he descended into the underworld at night. There were also many beliefs about the fate of those who died (who were not Pharaohs), and the obstacles they had to face, the magic they needed to know, in order to get to their final destination. The Book of the Dead (which is available as a free eBook) was written to teach people how to make their death-journey successful.
The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses (also available as a free eBook) was written by Apuleius, about his initiation into the mysteries, in the form of a novel. Wikipedia has a nice article on this intriguing work, written in the second century, A.D., along with some cool artworks.
The next chapter is about the Origins of the Mysteries. Spence believes magic "was of prehistoric origin." He gives the example of how Stone Age people must have wondered where humans went when they slept, seeming almost dead. He talks about the two kinds of magic: sympathetic, which is when a medicine man might perhaps have sprinkled water on the earth, hoping the rain deity would do likewise. The magic of wonder would be the other type, which Spence calls spiritistic, and consists of evocations.
Here he goes back to primitive peoples and briefly mentions that secret rites and initiations were the norm, for instance, in Native American cultures (both North and Central). Spence believes that these early peoples thought "that man formerly resided with the gods 'in the sky' and that he was cast thence to earth for misdemeanor or rebellion." Spence also believes that the Mysteries were an attempt to return to their place of divine origin. He says:
With this notion of a new life there is also unfailingly connected the corresponding idea of a return; in other words, the new life is really an old life restored to the initiate, who recovers, symbolically at least, that state of perfection and purity which he is supposed to have enjoyed originally as a spiritual being prior to what Greek mysticism regarded as the descent into generation.
Another way to perceive the "fall of man."
Also, I think many of us now embrace the idea of returning to our origins, particularly those who have been deeply involved in this intense energetic transition.
Spence continues to discuss how Greece was influenced by Egypt, and the new rites which arose there in the sixth century B.C., open to all people: citizens, strangers, and slaves. He also says that the idea of sacrifice (whose purpose was to appease the gods for a better material life while here, gave way to a new idea of closer communion with God, and looking forward to the better life, after death.
Spence also tells of a sort of "passion-play" held at Abydos in Egypt, reenacting the myth of Osiris. It lasted several days and the public participated. It is preserved in outline on a memorial stone of Ikhernofret, an officer of Sesostris III. Fifteen hundred years later, Herodotus witnessed a similar presentation.
Talk about a long-running play!
Herodotus also speaks of another play in Minerva, but this one he is not permitted to reveal too much, as it is not for the public, and is part of the Mystery.
Another interesting point is that while some may think these ancient gods were "invented" by imagination, more likely, they were powers or phenomena, given human characteristics, such as the sun.
Spence begins his chapter on The Philosophy of the Mysteries by somewhat scorning the scientific approach to the mysteries, because those who perceive them scientifically cannot even begin to grasp their true value.
The realm of spirit is properly closed to the profane. Not only is it fenced around by the walls and turrets of divine height and screened by the impenetrable fogs and forests of mystic terror, but it is denied to them by reason of their own invincible ignorance and by their inhibitions of pride and folly.
In this chapter, Spence discusses beliefs about the soul,
both Egyptian, and Pythagorean (Greek), which were very similar. He talks about transmigration. If a person had sinned, they were bound to suffer (30,000 years
perhaps) of development from the lowliest to highest forms, "enforced evolution from larval forms to divine apotheosis" (This was to be avoided.) Initiation
into the Mysteries was a form of protection to avoid this fate, but it wasn't open to everyone, just to royalty. If fact, immortality was not even believed
to belong to the common people.
The next two chapters are about Mysteries in Other Lands. They are mostly devoted to Greece and the surrounding territories in ancient times, and how their deities and rituals were borrowed from the Egyptians. Osiris and Isis became Dionysus and Demeter, for instance, and their stories were similar, too. In both the Egyptian and Greek versions, these two deities were related to the Earth and harvest. There is also just a bit about Mexico and Central America, and North American Indigenous People.
Spence mentions that the Greeks had a ritual for the birth of a holy child, and he notes that the ancient Mexicans did, too, and the two were quite similar. Though Christians sometimes get angry when I mention this, but it is true nonetheless, that most of their customs and rituals came from Pagan practice. In the case of the Mexican rite, it celebrated the birth of the maize-god, in fact, many of the rites in Egypt and Greece were about corn, also. Obviously, in those ancient times, local agriculture was the only source of daily food, so it would be natural that it would play a large role in their religion. In fact, their rituals were about natural elements of their lives, rather than today's religions that often separate "God" from our everyday lives. Spence quotes Miss Jane Harrison writing on the Eleusinian Mysteries:
"The religion of Orpheus is religious in the sense that it is the worship of the real mysteries of life, of potencies rather than personal gods; it is the worship of life itself, in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love."
Spence also quotes M. Maeterlinck, who sums up the Bacchic legend:
He says, "Dionysus, the child-god, slain by the Titans, whose heart Athene saved by hiding it in a basket, and who was brought to life again by Jupiter, is Osiris, Krishna, Buddha; he is all the divine incarnations; he is the god who descends into or rather manifests himself, in man; he is death, temporary and illusory, and rebirth, actual and immortal; he is the temporary union with the divine that is but the prelude to the final union, the endless cycle of the eternal Becoming."
And I would also add Jesus to this list.
I found Spence's commentary on the Mexican Nagualists interesting, especially since I write, in my own articles, a great deal about the fact that we once had the ability to master the physical world. I use Jesus as an example of one who could manifest something from nothing, but there are numerous indigenous peoples, Shamans or other specially gifted people, who could do the same. Here is an example:
But shape-shifting and witchcraft were not the only magical resources of the Nagualists. Their arts were manifold. They could render themselves invisible and walk unseen among their enemies. They could transport themselves to distant places and, returning, report what they had witnessed. Like the fakirs of India, they could create before the eyes of the spectator rivers, trees, houses, animals, and other objects. They would, to all appearances, rip themselves open, cut a limb from the body of another person, and replace it, and pierce themselves with knives without bleeding. They could handle venomous serpents without being bitten, as can their representatives among the Zuñi Indians of Arizona today, cause mysterious sounds in the air, hypnotize both men and animals, and invoke spirits who would instantly appear.
The next few chapters are much shorter than the previous ones, so I will just mention a few interesting points. In the chapter entitled The Ritual of the Mysteries, Spence, discusses different writers' perceptions of the rituals connected with initiations, some saying more than they were really permitted to do, as these were very secret and sacred. Here, he compares the initiation process with death.
This would seem to make it plain that the first steps of initiation into the Mysteries of Eleusis, were mimetic of the passage of the soul through Hades, and that these were based on the Egyptian tradition there is indeed no good reason to doubt.
It is interesting because I had been thinking as I read this
book how similar the treacherous journey through the underworld, complete with attacks and obstacles—the journey the Egyptians believed their
dead had to traverse in order to reach their final resting place—how similar this journey
has been for me, to reach enlightenment, what some call Nirvana, or higher states of consciousness, a journey I have been on for nearly forty years.
In the next chapter, The Ritual of Rebirth, Spence differentiates between the public dramas, similar to Medieval Christian Mystery Plays, and the reenacting of certain events that took place only among the initiated.
One secret drama for Osiris consists of twenty-four scenes, each performed at each hour, over a twenty-four hour period. Each god had their own rites. In the case of Osiris, his murder and dismemberment, reconstruction of the body by his wife Isis, and his rebirth make up the elements of his rite. He goes through different stages of rebirth: as a corn plant, an animal, then as a man. Of course, over twenty-four hours, this was a complicated ritual. The main recipient of the rite's benefits was the Pharaoh, or the initiates, but certainly not the common people. Also, it must be pointed out, that the details of these rites, as discovered by Professor Alexandre Moret, were early in Egyptian history, around or before the Eighteenth Dynasty (1543-1292 B.C.), so they no doubt went through changes through the ages.
One of the greatest difficulties to understanding these gods and rites, is that they were so changeable, and there were many versions of the stories. In addition, one god could transform into another, and that becomes even more confusing when you look at the Greek versions of the Egyptian myths. Again, even Christianity adopted many of the stories. For instance, form the chapter on Reconstruction:
The myth or allegory of Osiris in the Greater Mysteries was the basis of a still greater comprehension of the nature of the god, of his creation, of the fact that he sustained man, that man's flesh was mystically his, made so through communion by the material link of the pabulum of corn or wheat.
How similar is that to communion in the Christian Church?
The next chapter, Illusion and Phantasmagoria in the Mysteries contains surprising information. It seems that, during the period when the neophyte was undergoing the early period of initiation, and was locked in a dark "region of obscurity as profound as that of the infernal regions," he found himself surrounded by terrifying sounds and seeming hallucinations:
From the gloomy corners proceeded the hissing of wild beasts, prolonged and rendered more horrid by reverberating echoes.
But, ah, we find that the Egyptians were gifted with the
ability to create mechanical devises for that purpose, similar to theatric machinery! Yet, they didn't think of it as theatrics, but a means to enhance
the process of the neophyte experiencing death/near-death, and rebirth. Quite ingenious! This machinery also included that which could imitate thunder and
lightning, employed when the names of gods were spoken. In addition, images of gods were built that could move their heads and arms and appear to speak. They
were consulted for knowledge, and would answer through voice or gesture. It was no secret operation, however. The priests in charge of the statues were in
plain view. It was not meant to be fraudulent, and the people didn't perceive it that way. They believed that the priests were "inspired and animated by a
divine and higher power."
The Egyptians also created trick mirrors that could multiply, reverse, or even delete and image! It is also suspected that the initiates were given hallucinogenic drugs to further enhance the spectacles they experienced. This method was more dangerous, as some initiates were known to have died from the effect.
The third from final chapter, Temples and Sites of the Mysteries, gives a description of temples where the Mysteries took place. It is interesting to note that, as one entered the court, it was brightly lit, but temple itself, the Holy of Holies was pitch dark. The temple structures as a whole could be quite complex:
Surrounding the temple was the temenos, enveloped by a wall in which were situated other and smaller temples, with groves of sacred trees and birds, lakes on which the sacred barque floated, the dwellings of the priests, and sometimes palaces amid the gardens, Outside again were sacred ways that led in different directions, some branching from temple to temple; through cities, villages, and fields, while, at the side, steps sloped down to the Nile, where boats were anchored.
The Survival of the Mysteries discusses the fate of the Egyptian religion and deities after Rome conquered Egypt. The priests made their way to Greece, Rome, and other parts of Europe, and the result was that their beliefs and Mysteries were eventually embraced and adapted and "modernized" for their new culture. Unfortunately, the Europeans lacked the piety needed to continue the spirit of the religion:
If it retained its broad outlines, its doctrines certainly underwent a considerable change. Degeneration set in. The precision of the rite, the manner in which it was carried out, came to be considered of more importance than the theology which inspired it.
The final chapter, The Significance of Initiation, Spence sums up the purpose of these rites. He says:
Initiation is, indeed, an inward act of the soul, a "magical" act of the psychical entity in man, free, unfettered, determined, responsive, yet wholly self-inspired in the ultimate.
Words and forms he can reveal if he be so minded, and if he break his oath, but these would hold no meaning for the uninitiated, simply because he would be confronted with matters unterrestrial and outwith the scope and vocabulary or mundane knowledge and apprehension.
I agree, and that goes for all of us, even now, on a path toward
spiritual consciousness. And most of us do feel we are speaking a different language than the rest of the world.
In all, this is a quite interesting book from which I learned a great deal. It is no longer in print at Dover, but it is probably available elsewhere. As of this writing, however, they do carry another book by Spence called Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends.
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