Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

IV — Egyptian Mysteries

47. Antiquity of Egyptian Civilisation.—All Egypt is an initiation. A long and narrow strip of land, watered by immense floods and surrounded by immense solitudes—such is Egypt. Very high and steep rocks protected it from the incursions of the nomadic tribes, and thus a valley, a river, and a race sufficed to create, if not the most ancient, at least one of the most ancient and illustrious cultures, a world of marvels, at a time when Europeans went naked, and dyed their skins, as Caesar found the ancient Britons, and when the Greeks, armed with bows and arrows, led a nomadic existence. The Egyptians, many thousand years before the Trojan war, had invented writing, as is proved, for instance, by the hieratic papyrus of the time of Rameses II., full of recipes and directions for the treatment of a great variety of disease, and now in the Berlin Museum. They also knew many comforts of life, which our pride calls modern; and the Greek writers, whom the Egyptian priests called children, are full of recollections of that mysterious land, recording the father Nile, Thebes with its hundred gates, the Pyramids, Lake Meroe, the Labyrinth, the Sphinx, and the statue of Memnon saluting the rising sun.

48. Temples of Ancient Egypt.—Egyptian chronology, the reproof and paragon of all others, is graven on imperishable monuments. But those obelisks, sacred to the sun, by their conical form like that of the flame; those labyrinths; those human-headed birds, typifying the intelligent soul; those scarabei, signifying creative power; those sphinxes, representing force, the lion or sun, and man; those serpents, expressing life and eternity (70); those strange combinations of forms; those hieroglyphics—they long remained secrets for us, and perhaps always were a secret for the Egyptian people that in fear and silence erected the pyramids—all these symbols constituted the language of one of the vastest and most elaborate secret societies that ever existed.

Penetrating into those gigantic temples which seem the work of an extinct race, different from ours, as fossil quadrupeds are different from those now living; traversing those cloisters, which after many windings lead to the innermost sanctuary, we are seized by a singular thought—that of the silence and solitude which ever reigned within those edifices into which the people were not allowed to penetrate; only the few were admitted, and we moderns are the first profane that have set foot within the hallowed precincts. The temple of Luxor is the vastest on earth—six propylaea with long files of columns, and colossi and obelisks and sphinxes; six cloisters—every new generation of kings for seventy centuries added some new portion and inscribed on the walls the history of its deeds, and every new addition removed the faithful further from the seat of the god; the marvel and mystery increased. The sixth propylaeum is not finished; it is a chapter of history broken off in the middle, and will never be completed. The walls and pillars of the temples were covered with religious and astronomical representations, and from the fact of many of these pictures showing human beings in various states of suffering and under torture, it has been assumed that the Egyptian ritual was cruel, like the Mexican (85-89); but such is not the case; the pictures are only representations of the punishments said to be inflicted on the wicked in another life.

49. Egyptian Priests and Kings.—The priestly caste, possessing all the learning, ruled first and alone; but in its own defence it armed a portion of the population; the rest it kept down by superstition, or disarmed and weakened it by corruption. To Plato, who saw it from a distance, this government seemed stupendous, and he idealised it; it was for him the "city of God," the pattern republic. Nevertheless, as was inevitable, might rebelled against doctrine, the soldiery broke the reign of the priesthood, and by the side of the pontiffs arose the kings, or to speak more correctly, the two series proceeded in parallels; that of the priests was not set aside, it had its palaces, the temples, strong like fortresses, along the Nile, which were at the same time splendid abodes, agricultural establishments, commercial depots, and caravan stations; its members appointed and ruled the kings themselves, regulating the most minute acts of their daily conduct; they were the depositaries of the highest offices, and as the learned savants, magistrates, and physicians, enjoyed the first honours. Their chief colleges were at Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis, and Sais; they possessed a great portion of the land, which they caused to be cultivated; paid no taxes, but collected tithes. They formed indeed the elect, privileged, and only free portion of the nation.

50. Exoteric and Esoteric Doctrines.—The priests were no followers of the idolatrous faith of the people; but to have undeceived the latter would have been dangerous for themselves. The true doctrine of the unity of God, therefore, which was their secret, was only imparted to those that after many trials had been initiated into the mysteries. Their doctrines, like those of all other priesthoods, were therefore exoteric and esoteric; and the mysteries were of two kinds, the greater and the less, the former being the mysteries of Osiris and Serapis, the latter those of Isis. The mysteries of Osiris were celebrated at the autumnal equinox; those of Serapis at the summer solstice; and those of Isis at the vernal equinox.

51. Egyptian Mythology.—Though want of space does not allow me fully to enter upon the vast subject of Egyptian mythology, yet a few words thereon are necessary to render its bearing on the mysteries clear, and also to show its connection with many of the rites of modern freemasonry.

That all the symbols and ceremonies of all the ancient creeds originally had a deep and universal cosmic meaning, has already been shown (9, 10); but at the time when the mysteries were most flourishing that meaning was to a great extent lost, and a merely astronomical one substituted for it, as will be seen from the following explanations:—

Osiris, represented in Egypt by a sceptre surmounted by an eye, to signify him that rules and sees, symbolises the sun. Osiris is evidently derived from Iswara, an epithet of Brahma, and means the Supreme Lord; it is therefore a title, and not a proper name. The same adventures are attributed to Osiris that are related of Brahma. Osiris is killed by Typhon; a serpent engendered by the mud of the Nile. But Typhon is a transposition of Python, derived from the Greek word [*], "to putrefy," and means nothing else but the noxious vapours arising from steaming mud, and thus concealing the sun; wherefore in the Greek mythology Apollo—another name for the sun—is said to have slain Python with his arrows, that is to say, dispelled the vapours by his rays.

Osiris having been killed by Python—to which, however, the wider meaning of the sun's imaginary disappearance, or death, during the winter season, was attached—Isis, his wife, or the moon, goes in search of him, and at last finds his body, cut into fourteen pieces; that is to say, into as many parts as there are days between the full moon and the new. She collects all the pieces, with one important exception, for which she made a substitution, which gave rise to a worship resembling that of the lingam in India, and which in Egypt was called that of the phallus. Among the Sidonians, Isis was called Ashtaroth, meaning "flocks," "riches," i.e., the plenty of the earth; and hence we so frequently find "asherah" and "ashtaroth" mentioned together. In the Bible asherah is translated "grove," but this is an error; asherah means "pillar," or the phallus, the mast of the ship of Isis, which was carried in procession at Egyptian religious festivals.

But although to the vulgar crowd Isis was only the moon, to the initiated she was Hathor, the Universal Mother, the primordial harmony and beauty, called in Egyptian "Iophis," which the Greeks turned into "Sophia," whence the Virgin Sophia of theosophy. Hence also the many names by which Isis was known (58), indicating the multifarious aspects she necessarily assumed. Her image was worshipped at Sais under the emblem of "Isis veiled," with this inscription: "I am all that has been, all that is, and all that will be, and no mortal has drawn aside my veil."

Apis, or the Bull, was an object of worship throughout all the ancient world, because formerly the zodiacal sign of the Bull opened the vernal equinox (81).

52. The Phoenix.—The Egyptians began the year with the rising of the dog-star or Sirius. But making no allowance for the quarter of a day which finishes the year, the civil year every four years began one day too soon, and so the beginning of the year went successively through every one of the days of the natural year in the space of four times 365, which makes 1460 years. They fancied they blessed and made all the seasons to prosper by making them thus to enjoy one after another the feast of Isis, which was celebrated along with that of Sirius, though it was frequently very remote from that constellation; wherefore they introduced the image of dogs, or even the real and living animals, preceding the chariots of Isis. When in the 1461st year the feast again coincided with the rising of the star Sirius, they looked upon it as a season of plenty, and symbolised it by a bird of singular beauty, which they called Phoenix (deliciis abundans), saying that it came to die upon the altar of the sun, and that out of its ashes there arose a little worm, that gave birth to a bird perfectly like the preceding.

53. The Cross.—Among the astronomical symbols we must not omit the Cross. This sign really signifies the fire, as we have seen (11, ix.), but in Egypt it was simply the Nilometer, consisting of an upright pole with a cross-bar, that was raised or lowered according to the swelling or decrease of the river. It was frequently surmounted by a circle, typifying the deity that governs this important operation. Now, the overflow of the Nile was considered the salvation of Egypt, and hence the sign came to be looked upon with great veneration, and to have occult virtues attributed to it, such as the power of averting evil; wherefore the Egyptians hung small figures of the cross, or rather the letter T, with a ring attached to it, the crux ansata, round the necks of their children and of sick persons; they applied it to the string or fillets with which they wrapped up their mummies, where we still find it; it became, in fact, an amulet (amolitio malorum). Other nations adopted the custom, and hence the cross or the letter T, whereby it was symbolised throughout the ancient world, was supposed to be a sign or letter of more than ordinary significance.

In the mysteries, the crux ansata was the symbol of eternal life. But the cross was worshipped as an astronomical sign in other countries. We have seen that in India the neophyte was sanctified by the sign of the cross (42), which in most ancient nations was a symbol of the universe, pointing as it does to the four quarters of the compass; and the erection of temples on the cruciform principle is as old as architecture itself. The two great pagodas of Benares and Mathura are erected in the form of vast crosses, of which each wing is equal in extent, as is also the pyramidal temple of New Grange in Ireland. But the older and deeper meaning of the cross is shown in (11); it refers to the fire, and the double quality everywhere observable in Nature. The triple tau is the Royal Arch Mason's badge.

54. Places of Initiation.—In Egypt and other countries (India, Media, Persia, Mexico) the place of initiation was a pyramid erected over subterranean caverns. The pyramids, in fact, may be looked upon, considering their size, shape, and solidity, as artificial mountains. Their form not only symbolically represented the ascending flame, but also had a deeper origin in the conical form, which is the primitive figure of all natural products. And the Great Pyramid, the tomb of Osiris, was erected in such a position, and to such a height, that at the spring and autumnal equinoxes the sun would appear exactly at midday upon the summit of the pyramid, seeming to rest upon this immense pedestal, when his worshippers, extended at the base, would contemplate the great Osiris as well when he descended into the tomb as when he arose from it triumphant.

55. Process of Initiation.—The candidate, conducted by a guide, was led to a deep, dark well or shaft in the pyramid, and, provided with a torch, he descended into it by means of a ladder affixed to the side. Arrived at the bottom, he saw two doors—one of them barred, the other yielding to the touch of his hand. Passing through it, he beheld a winding gallery, whilst the door behind him shut with a clang that reverberated through the vaults. Inscriptions like the following met his eye: "Whoso shall pass along this road alone, and without looking back, shall be purified by fire, water, and air; and overcoming the fear of death, shall issue from the bowels of the earth to the light of day, preparing his soul to receive the mysteries of Isis."

Proceeding onward, the candidate arrived at another iron gate, guarded by three armed men, whose shining helmets were surmounted by emblematic animals, the Cerberus of Orpheus. Here the candidate had offered to him the last chance of returning, if so inclined. Electing to go forward, he underwent the trial by fire, by passing through a hall filled with inflammable substances in a state of combustion, and forming a bower of fire. The floor was covered with a grating of redhot iron bars, leaving, however, narrow interstices where he might safely place his feet. Having surmounted this obstacle, he has to encounter the trial by water. A wide and dark canal, fed by the waters of the Nile, arrests his progress. Placing the flickering lamp upon his head, he plunges into the canal, and swims to the opposite bank, where the greatest trial, that by air, awaits him. He lands upon a platform leading to an ivory door, bounded by two walls of brass, into each of which is inserted an immense wheel of the same metal. He in vain attempts to open the door, when, espying two large iron rings affixed to it, he takes hold of them; but suddenly the platform sinks from under him, a chilling blast of wind extinguishes his lamp, the two brazen wheels revolve with formidable rapidity and stunning noise, whilst he remains suspended by the two rings over the fathomless abyss. But ere he is exhausted the platform returns, the ivory door opens, and he sees before him a magnificent temple, brilliantly illuminated, and filled with the priests of Isis clothed in the mystic insignia of their offices, the hierophant at their head.

But the ceremonies of initiation do not cease here. The candidate is subjected to a series of fastings, which gradually increase for nine times nine days. During this period a rigorous silence is imposed upon him, which if he preserve inviolate, he is at length fully initiated into the esoteric doctrines of Isis. He is led before the triple statue of Isis, Osiris, and Horus,—another symbol of the sun,—where he swears never to publish the things revealed to him in the sanctuary, and first drinks the water of Lethe, presented to him by the high priest, to forget all he ever heard in his unregenerate state, and afterwards the water of Mnemosyne, to remember all the lessons of wisdom imparted to him in the mysteries. He is next introduced into the most secret part of the sacred edifice, where a priest instructs him in the application of the symbols found therein. He is then publicly announced as a person who has been initiated into the mysteries of Isis—the first degree of the Egyptian rites.

56. Mysteries of Serapis.—These constituted the second degree. We know but little of them, and Apuleius only slightly touches upon them. When Theodosius destroyed the temple of Serapis there were discovered subterraneous passages and engines wherein and wherewith the priests tried the candidates. Porphyry, in referring to the greater mysteries, quotes a fragment of Cheremones, an Egyptian priest, which imparts an astronomical meaning to the whole legend of Osiris, thus confirming what has been said above. And Herodotus, in describing the temple of Minerva, where the rites of Osiris were celebrated, and speaking of a tomb placed in the most secret recess, as in Christian churches there are calvaries behind the altar, says: "It is the tomb of a god whose name I dare not mention." Calvary is derived from the Latin word calvus, "bald," and figuratively "arid," "dried up;" pointing to the decay of Nature in the winter season.

57. Mysteries of Osiris.—These formed the third degree or summit of Egyptian lay initiation, for there was yet the higher initiation into the priesthood, described in the following section. In these the legend of the murder of Osiris by his brother Typhon was represented, and the god was personated by the candidate. (As we shall see hereafter, the Freemasons exactly copy this procedure in the master's degree, substituting for Osiris, Hiram Abiff, one of the three grand-masters at the building of Solomon's temple.) The perfectly initiated candidate was called Al-om-jak from the name of the Deity (43), and the dogma of the unity of God was the chief secret imparted to him. How great and how dangerous a secret it was may easily be seen when it is borne in mind that centuries after the institution of the mysteries, Socrates lost his life for promulgating the same doctrine. According to Iamblichus, all initiated into the highest esoteric mysteries became, as it were, dead to their own selves; they were absorbed in the Deity; they enjoyed the beatific vision. Neither fire nor steel could hurt them; no natural obstacles could stand in their way; the afflatus of the Divine spirit encompassed them. We have, in fact, in those ancient pagan imaginations all the fancied privileges of the Christian mystics, all the raptures of canonised saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

58. Isis.—The many names assumed by Isis have already been alluded to. She was also represented with different emblems, all betokening her manifold characteristics. The lucid round, the snake, the ears of com, and the sistrum represent the titular deities of the Hecataean (Hecate, Goddess of Night), Bacchic, Eleusinian, and Ionic mysteries; that is, the mystic rites in general for whose sake the allegory was invented. The black palla in which she is wrapped, embroidered with a silver moon and stars, denotes the time in which the mysteries were celebrated, namely, in the dead of night. Her names, to return to them, are given in the following words, put into her mouth by Apuleius in his "Golden Ass," which is a description of the mysteries under the guise of a fable:

"Behold, Lucius, I, moved by thy prayers, am present with thee; I who am Nature, the parent of things, the queen of all the elements, the primordial progeny of the ages, the supreme of divinities, the sovereign of the spirits of the dead, the first of the celestials, the first and universal substance, the uniform and multiform aspect of the uncreated essence; I who rule by my nod the luminous summits of the heavens, the breezes of the sea, and the silence of the realms beneath, and whose one divinity the whole orb of the earth venerates under a manifold form, by different rites, and a variety of appellations. Hence the early Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, mother of the gods; the Attic aborigines, Cecropian Minerva; the floating Cyprians, Paphian Venus; the arrow-bearing Cretans, Diana Dictynna; the three-tongued Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and the Eleusinians, the ancient goddess Ceres. Some also call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, and others Ehamnusia. The Ethiopians, the Arii, and the Egyptians, skilled in ancient learning, honour me with rites peculiarly appropriate, and call me by my true name. Queen Isis." From this it is quite clear that Isis was not simply the moon to the initiated. In the sanctuary the multifarious forms are reduced to unity; the many idols are reduced to the one divinity—i.e., primeval power and intelligence.