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THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES
NO theories of the beginnings of Freemasonry have been more alluring than those which assume they are to be found among the Ancient Mysteries of Greece and Rome. The study of those societies is in itself entrancing. It leads the imagination into realms of enchantment - lands of pagan temples, white and mysterious upon lordly hills, and of sylvan glades bathed in moonlight and redolent of incense and flowers. It murmurs of tinkling cymbals, sensuous music and languorous antiphones, of chanting priests; it discloses garlanded youths and maidens dancing in mystic measures, altars alight with sacrificial fires and subterranean crypts were fear-struck neophytes tremble under solemn and portentous ordeals. Here the population of an Attic village streams out in procession, following the kalathos, or sacred basket, and shouting praises to Demeter, goddess of the harvest. There the adepts of a Pythagorean cult shroud themselves in secrecy and silence.
The sophisticated student will discover behind most of the ceremonials the operation of a mechanism which in all ages has driven occult associations along a well-defined system of development. If he be familiar with modern Masonic ritual and know something of the growth of the Fraternity, at almost every step he will stumble over a movement that is familiar, and contemplating these he is likely to neglect the concomitant observation that there are differences almost as important as the similarities.
It will be well for that student if he keeps always before his mind that sound Masonic precept which bids a man beware lest he be misled by resemblance or similitude. There is not one of the Ancient Mysteries which has not been solemnly nominated for the honor of being acclaimed the fount and origin of Freemasonry. Where candidates are so numerous and the vote is so evenly distributed, election must be difficult. It is simpler to dismiss the contest with the assumption that each society left its impress upon the social consciousness of the Graeco-Roman world and that Freemasonry is indebted to all of them. It must be remembered that with the coming of modern civilization these cults did not pass away, as night passes with the coming of day, but that they entered into new forms and continued, under other names and with other objects.
The cult influence which flowed into Europe from the Orient and the Levant came in two major streams. The older - and by older is meant the one which has ascertainable chronological precedence - came along the highway that entered the West through Greece. When Greek civilization gave way to Roman, Hellenic culture passed along what it had borrowed from the East, enriched by the embellishments wrought by Grecian genius and learning. Rome again tapped the Oriental store to add to what she had already taken from her illustrious neighbor. But when Roman religions and religious societies made way for new faiths, there was no clearing away of old cults. Rather there was gradual transformation in which old and new commingled. Thus that learned student of Mithraism, Franz Cumont, was able to condense much philosophical history into a single paragraph when, in The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, he said:
"About the time of the Severi the religion of Europe must have presented an aspect of surprising variety. Although dethroned, the old native Italian, Celtic and Iberian divinities were still alive. Though eclipsed by foreign rivals, they lived on in the devotion of the lower classes and the traditions of the rural districts. For a long time the Roman gods had been established in every town and had received the homage of an official clergy according to pontifical rites. Beside them, however, were installed the representatives of all the Asiatic pantheons, and these received the most fervent adoration from the masses. New powers had arrived from Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and the dazzling Oriental sun outshone the stars of Italy's temperate sky. All forms of paganism were simultaneously received and retained, while the exclusive monotheism of the Jews kept its adherents, and Christianity strengthened its churches and fortified its orthodoxy, at the same time giving birth to the baffling vagaries of gnosticism. A hundred different currents carried away hesitating and undecided minds, a hundred contrasting sermons made appeals to the conscience of the people."
An epoch of such seething mental and spiritual unrest was ideal for the development of cults. Wherever men could seize upon an ideal and build it into a religious, philosophical, ethical, social or industrial system, they were certain to do so. Withdrawing themselves from the profane, securing themselves from intrusion by secret methods of identifying the true believers, the members felt themselves free behind the tyled door which shut their own circle in and shut all others out. But each true leader among them was possessed of notions of how things should be done which he had learned in previous associations; he cast his ideas into the melting pot. Out of this in time emerged the distinguishing practices of the new society.
A cursory examination of the important traits of the Ancient Mystery is therefore of considerable importance in any serious effort to comprehend some of the phenomena of those times which afterwards were destined to play a part in the evolution of Freemasonry. It has additional virtue in that it throws light upon what has been a puzzle to many - the process by which the modern speculative society grew out of a medieval guild and by which the medieval guild doubtless grew out of earlier organizations.
The Mysteries, which in Greece and Rome were frequently divided into two classes of Greater and Lesser, stood to the society of classical times much as religious denominations stand to that of our own age. Each had its peculiar set of ethical and religious dogmas, orders of priesthood, in many cases ranks or grades of members; they were frequently governed by official hierarchies and spread their beliefs in all possible places. A degree of secrecy usually attached to their ceremonies; when such was the case, admittance was by a ritual Of initiation. Among the most famous of them were those of Isis, Osiris, Serapis, Magna Mater, Mithra, the Cabiri, Adonis, Dionysos and the Eleusinia. It should be borne in mind that the Greeks did not use the word, mystery, in its modern sense, but rather as indicating a cleansing after pollution.
Of these perhaps the most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, a system of rites celebrated at Eleusis, originally a community apart from Athens but later a suburb of that city. They were observed in honor of Demeter, the Greek Ceres, and her daughter, Persephone, or Proserpina. In the course of centuries they underwent steady elaboration, so that what at first was a local and relatively simple rite became in time a complex and national religious institution.
Archeological discoveries indicate that the rites were performed at Eleusis long before the peoples afterwards known as Greeks came there from some northern or eastern region. In that prehistoric period they consisted of primitive magical practices, intended to increase the fertility of the land. Their magical character is inferred from the fact that the ceremonies did not at that time seek to inculcate a set of ideas to be believed, after the fashion of theology, but were made up of acts to be performed as a means of coercing the powers of nature into bringing about specific and practical results. These acts were considered as essential as the rude mechanics of plowing, sowing and reaping. The secrets of such rites were deemed to have what nowadays would be considered a money value, since to use them meant a plentiful yield of grain and to neglect them meant crop failure. In this early form the rites had the same general character and were as jealously guarded from outside knowledge as the secrets of the mason trade guilds came to be in later centuries.
As time passed, Eleusis was drawn into the environs of Athens, wheat fields gave way to city lots, the farmer was replaced by mechanics and tradesmen, deities once local became national gods and goddesses, and primitive customs of worship were transformed from their old pragmatic nature into the basis of a religious fraternity. There were no wheat growers to fight for the old secrets, but these relics of a simpler day served admirably as symbolical religious mysteries for the general welfare of the urban soul. In time the Eleusinia spread their influence beyond the confines of Athens and became the framework of a brotherhood for admission into which all Greeks were eligible.
At the stage of their highest development, the rites were divided into the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries. For the several weeks during which they were celebrated a general truce was proclaimed affecting all persons save those under penalty f or conspiracy or treason. Exiles could return home for the festival and none could be arrested for debt. Days were set apart for attendant amusements, such as athletic contests and horse racing, and there was a prolonged holiday of which the pleasure-loving Greeks took fullest advantage.
The mysteries proper were invested with such solemnity that any person not correctly introduced - the cowans and eavesdroppers of the times - might be punished with death for intruding upon them. Secrets of a solemn and inviolable character were intrusted to each initiate. If he revealed them he would be so accursed of the gods that it would be dangerous to dwell in the same house with him lest the roof fall. For betrayal of his trust he was liable to public and ignominious death. No individual could be admitted until after strict inquiry into his character to ascertain that he had not been guilty of murder or impiety. Men and women were admitted when the preliminary requirements had been satisfied.
Initiation began with a nine-day period of purification at Agrae. During this time the candidates had to keep themselves chaste and unpolluted. The primary stage - or first degree - concluded with a ceremony in which, wearing garlands and having under their feet the skin of some animal which had been slain on an altar of Zeus, the novices offered prayer and made sacrifices.
A year later the neophytes sacrificed a sow to Demeter and were then entitled to take higher degrees, thereby becoming known as Ephoroi and Epoptikoteroi. Wearing wreaths of myrtle, they repaired to their temple and underwent a symbolical purification by washing their hands in sacred water. The mystical lore was then read to them from a sacred book of two stones cemented together. After a brief catechism by the officiating priest, they were subjected to certain ordeals, in which terrifying objects were suddenly presented, the floors seemed to shake, lightning flashed on every hand and there were thunderous noises. When this ceremony of autopsia had been completed, the assemblage was dismissed in liturgical form. What Masons would call the Work of the evening was directed by a chief hierophant, who was assisted by three attendants, a torch-bearer, a crier and a person who, since he officiated at the altar, may be called a chaplain. There were various additional subordinate officials to look after incidental duties.
Striking as this evolutionary development of the Eleusinian cult must be considered, the story of Mithraism is even more remarkable. In it the historian traces a succession of religious and ethical theories from before the dawn of history almost to the present day. It alone Is sufficient to convince the skeptical that a well-defined cult or social movement is capable of adhering to a few simple basic ideas throughout innumerable transformations and to reproduce itself in countless forms and variations.
Mithra was one of the earliest of the gods of Iranian peoples, originally, it is believed, the god of light before dawn. As his name is close to the Sanskrit word mitra, for the sun, it is likely that he soon became identified with that planet and thus, in a fashion, was the Persian equivalent of Apollo. In Zoroastrianism he was exalted to the godhead, along with Ormazd. After the transfer of his worship to Phrygia, however, he was made the central divinity of a separate cult. The baptism of his followers in the blood of a young bull was a custom of Phrygian origin.
The image of this deity as venerated in Persia and earlier was hideous in the extreme, but this handicap was removed by some unidentified Greek sculptor of extraordinary genius, who devised the statue or plaque which ultimately became famous. In this the youthful god, with a Phrygian cap on his head and his garment thrown back, is shown resting his knee upon a bull prone on the ground. With one hand the god holds the creature by one horn while with the other he plunges a knife into its neck. As is usual with such symbolical representations, there are several interpretations. One is that Mithra represents the sun while the bull represents the earth, containing in its body the seeds of all fruitful things which the sun causes to spring forth. Another is that it represents the struggle of light with darkness, of good with evil. In most legendary accounts of the encounter the contest is placed in a cavern. In time the image became the most sacred object of a carefully organized cult, offering to its devotees a scheme of salvation backed by a long tradition, with its own priesthood, sacred books and ethical code. It appealed powerfully to men, especially to soldiers. Its place of assembly was called a mithreum.
The cult made its appearance in Italy in the first century before the Christian era, being carried thither by soldiers and itinerant merchants. It made rapid headway; in the course of time it attracted the most powerful and influential men of Rome, so that after Antoninus Pius most of the emperors became converts, with many famous philosophers, statesmen and literary men. With such prestige at the capital of the civilized world and with soldiers as evangelists, Mithraism soon spread to Northern Africa, made its way to England, Scotland, Germany and to the lands east of the Danube.
At the center of Mithraic theology stood a dual godhead similar to that on which Zoroastrianism was built. Ormazd was the chief deity on high; over the infernal regions reigned Ahriman, a Spirit of Evil. A divine trinity was created by the birth of Mithra, son of Ormazd, who in some versions was said to have been born of a mortal virgin. Ormazd and Mithra were represented as waging ceaseless warfare against the Spirit of Evil. The followers of Mithra were conceived of as a world army, led by the god, and military virtues were strongly emphasized in the moral teachings of the cult. A man entered this army by being initiated in a mithreum, usually a room built partly underground to represent the famous cave, scene of the god's struggle with the bull. There were usually seven grades of membership. A symbolical drama was performed at one stage of advancement and this represented death and resurrection, together with a baptism in the blood of a bull. Each local branch had its own officials, its own treasury and dispensed its own charity.
For a time Mithraism was a formidable opponent of Christianity, but it was gradually pounded to pieces by the missionary zeal of the Western Church. Internal discords weakened it still further, and it went into a decline. It was rescued from oblivion, however, by the followers of Mani, and underwent reincarnation as the cult of Manichaeism. Mani, according to Mohammedan tradition, was a Persian of Ecbatana, born in about the year 215 A.D. His theology revived the dualism which long had stood at the center of Mithraism, dividing the universe into light and darkness, good and evil, with a god of light on one hand and a god of darkness on the other. The cult, after gaining a foothold in Persia, passed on to Rome about the fourth century and there became a powerful rival of the Christian Church. There in due season it was demolished by Leo the Great, Valentinian III and Justinian.
Once more the scattered fragments of its loyal following were gathered together to reappear, with elements borrowed from gnosticism and Christianity, under the name of Paulicianism. This sect spread over Armenia and Asia Minor from the fifth century onward, taking its name, according to one of its traditions, from a certain Paul, a patriarch of the Christian Church at Antioch; another tradition asserts that a certain Constantine was founder. The first of its canons, according to F. C. Conybeare, was belief in the ancient divine dualism of the Iranians. Its adepts anathematized Mani, yet in substance adopted his dualistic theory, affirming that there is a heavenly father, who rules not this world but the world to come; and an evil demiurge, lord and god of this world, who made all flesh. In spite of violent persecutions - the Byzantine empress, Theodora, caused 100,000 to be slain - the cult profoundly affected Catholic theology, specially of the Eastern Church. It survived in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria, down to the thirteenth century. Five hundred years later it reappeared in Armenia and traces of it were found there early in the nineteenth century.
Meanwhile this strange compound of Catholicism, Manichxism, gnosticism and Zoroastrianism had sown the seeds of new religious cults in Europe. Among these were the Bogomiles, a Bulgarian sect, the Patarini of Italy and the various branches of the Cathari, which flourished in France from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. All of these retained a few traces of Manichaeism and its parent Mithraism, although in some instances they are not easily discovered. According to Albert Henry Newman, the Cathari rejected, after the manner of the Manichaecans, intercourse of the sexes. They asserted they held to nothing but the Scriptures, repudiated ceremonial marriage and the veneration of confessors, considered baptism, and especially the baptism of infants, useless, taught that a private room was as sacred as a consecrated place of worship and said altars were no better than other heaps of stones. They practiced austere self-denial and abounded in charitable deeds.
This heretical movement reached its flower in the sect of the Albigenses, who flourished to such power that Innocent III, taking alarm at their prosperity, organized a crusade against them. A large army under the fanatical papal legate, Arnold, hunted them to the death, sacking town after town, slaughtering and outraging the populations. The work of destruction went on for years. Some of the Albigenses fled to Spain were they were hunted down by the Inquisition. Others found asylum in the Netherlands.
It is a long and devious journey from nineteenth-century Armenia back to the Iranian cult of Mithra, or even from the French Cathari back to the same indistinct beginning. For him who would trace its course history sometimes offers but the frailest of clews. But it is a trip worth taking for the light it throws upon the intricate problem of cult inheritances. If it proves nothing else, it demonstrates that human societies may retain certain peculiarities through countless changes, and that these characteristics can be passed from group to group, although each successive heir may be utterly unconscious of the source from which they were derived.
Puritanism in England and in New England was in some respects a modern embodiment of the ancient dualistic theory; and the same general theory, to cite a cause nearer home, was mixed with all kinds of gnostic vagaries and built into the secret society known as the Order of the Illuminati. This system, which was allied with Freemasonry, was founded in Bavaria in the latter part of the eighteenth century by Adam Weishaupt. The Illuminati, along with other Masonic "higher grades" and pseudo-Masonic occultist societies which came into existence about the same time, undoubtedly derived their inspiration from a culture stream flowing from the Graeco-Roman period of a thousand years ago.
Other illustrations of this same tendency could be used. There was the stream of gnosticism; there was the stream of Jewish theosophic mysticism which culminated in the Kabbala; there was that other and better known stream, perpetuated by classic literature, the rediscovery of which gave rise to Europe's Renaissance; there was the stream of astrology, one branch of which took the form of alchemy and its attendant occultism; there was the subterranean stream of pagan belief which resulted in fairy cults and witchcraft cults and thoroughly saturated folk beliefs in England and Europe. Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, has not hesitated to give Christian interpretations to vague notions which awed the pagans of the past, and has even usurped and taken into its own service ancient rites and ceremonials, traces of which survive in the annual festivals of Christmas and Easter. In the spiritual confusion that was imperial Rome, when the old gods died and men sought new faiths in which to put their trust, eager minds were quick to grasp at every promise of hope, and society after society came into being, flourished and passed away, leaving always some essence of its philosophy or ritual to enrich or to complicate the thinking of posterity.
That Ancient Craft Masonry has in fact retained just such inheritances is clearly apparent from the extraordinary complexity of its symbolism. To cite a single instance, where many might be brought to attention, there may be found in its legends and ritual survivals of the Pythagorean philosophy of numbers and particularly of the number three, with its relation to the triangle. Both the equilateral and the right triangle have been venerated by the Craft from a day beyond which we possess no record. The oldest traditions mention Euclid and Pythagoras and the forty-seventh proposition of Euclid has long been regarded as a Masonic symbol of the first importance. But in spite of the attribution of Greek origin for this mathematical theorem, there is evidence to show it may have been known by the Egyptians long before Pythagoras. The Egyptians considered the base line as representing Osiris, the male principle; the vertical line as representing Isis, the female principle, and the hypothenuse as representing Horus, product of the two. Thus in the earliest times the problem had definite religious significance. It is not possible to say precisely how that idea was preserved and transmitted through many centuries until, in altered form and with its earlier meaning lost, it reappeared in the practices of medieval operative masons. The important thing to remember is that however the explanation of it had changed, it continued to be invested with mystical connotations. With the strange history of Mithraism in mind, the assumption must be that it was passed along from cult to cult until it reached an architectural association which from its calling was particularly likely to cherish it.
Pythagoras founded a cult in which there was an outer and an inner teaching, one for ordinary minds and the other for the truly intelligent. He made numbers into symbols for the divine mind. As all numbers rise from the number one, so he conceived all nature as rising from one Deity. Carrying the notion a step further, letting the Monad represent the active principle in nature, or God, the Duad represent the passive principle, union of the two produced the Triad, which represented the soul of the world, and the Quadrate or Square represented the perfection or completion of nature. Other combinations and elaborations of the same idea naturally afforded symbolical dress for the most abstruse metaphysical reflections.
The effect of such a doctrine upon an intellectual world already grown too wise to believe in the old gods was profound. It was based on the best science of the day, was plausible and intelligible. Best of all, it could be imparted only to minds competent to work out its subtle implications. Those who penetrated to its innermost arcana believed they had approached very near to the great objective of all religious cults, knowledge of the meaning and nature of God. Those who never quite reached that point had reason to feel they were on their way. As for less able or less curious minds, they were content with the belief that they were in the presence of secrets of incalculable potency, mere proximity to which gave them a decided advantage over their uninitiated neighbors.
Practically every one of these Pythagorean theories survives in some obscure form in modern Freemasonry. This has led incautious students to the conclusion that the Pythagorean cult was an early form of Freemasonry. Such an assumption is scarcely warranted by the facts. It is far more likely that in every important secret society of the Graeco-Roman world which attracted the adherence of learned men, Pythagoreanism had repercussions. Its teachings, often garbled and misunderstood, passed into the common stock of knowledge, theory and belief, which was worked over and over again into new legends and rituals.
It is of importance to remember, in this connection, that in the days of the emperors Rome was not only the military capital of the world but was also its chief center of intellectual energy. That section of the early Christian Church which established itself in the Eternal City rapidly became the most militant and most successful. Alexandria and Northern Africa, Antioch and Byzantium made priceless contributions to early Christian philosophy and literature, but Rome carried the banner of the Cross to the remotest confines of the known world and to the far-away islands of the seas. But Christianity, destined to become the greatest of Rome's religious systems, was not its only one. Indeed for centuries it was not the most important one from the standpoint of its popularity with the masses of Roman intellectuals.
With the break-up of the empire came a break-up of its social organizations. Such of the Ancient Mysteries as had continued to that time shared the common fate. The general culture they represented did not pass away with them, but persisted in many forms and through divers transmutations down into the Middle Ages and beyond. Somehow and at some undeterminable time Freemasonry emerged, bearing within itself traces of that culture. It is not unreasonable to suppose that data will at some future time be discovered, or other internal evidence will be found, to prove that certain specific rites in the Masonic system were definitely practiced at a time coincident with the Mysteries, or else with some of the private or local cults which in all essentials were at one with the Mysteries themselves.
If that should come to pass it may even turn out that the Legend of H.A. in its primitive form was a ceremony in some Ancient Mystery, perhaps in one of the colleges composed of workers in the building trades. The facts as now known are far from proving any such theory; but there may be some use - and certainly there can be little harm - in holding that possibility as a working hypothesis. It is impossible to believe that this legend could have been fabricated or first introduced during the Grand Lodge era in the early eighteenth century, when innovations of incalculably smaller moment were bitterly resented by operative Masons and in fact proved highly disruptive. Moreover it is difficult to believe that such a mystery - alien in its every aspect from the practical interests of medieval guilds - could have been fabricated by guild operative members. It would have been so much more natural for them to manufacture a legend out of materials nearer home.
In its essentials the Legend of H-A. bears a strange resemblance to rites of several cults of the greatest antiquity. It may well be that the guilds inherited it, along with many other ancient matters, from ancestors which flourished in the Graeco-Roman period and which in turn borrowed it from their ancestors.
At any rate it is plain that mystery cults of the classical period must not be regarded as something exceptional in that time, or as standing apart from general culture as Freemasonry today stands apart from other modern societies. If this be a true reading of the case, it explains the difficulties under which all those have labored who, from William Hutchinson and Dr. Oliver down, have tried to show that Freemasonry is the particular descendant of some particular Ancient Mystery. It is a hypothesis more easily defensible to suppose that in a sense it has descended from all of them, since all belong to one vast body of social experience.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014