Something like A veil of secrecy conceals the manner whereby spiritual needs were satisfied for those within the older civilizations who sought a deeper religious and cognitive life than was offered by the religions of the people. We are led into the obscurity of enigmatic cults when we inquire into the satisfaction of these needs. Each individual who finds such satisfaction withdraws himself for some time from our observation. We see that the religion of the people cannot give him what his heart seeks. He acknowledges the gods, but he knows that in the ordinary conceptions of the gods the great enigmas of existence are not disclosed. He seeks a wisdom which is carefully guarded by a community of priest-sages. He seeks refuge in this community for his striving soul. If the sages find him mature they lead him step by step to higher insight, in a manner hidden from the eyes of those outside. What happens to him now is concealed from the uninitiated. For a time he appears to be entirely removed from the physical world. He appears to be transported into a secret world. And when he is returned to the light of day a different, entirely transformed personality stands before us. This personality cannot find words sufficiently sublime to express how significant his experiences were for him. He appears to himself as though he had gone through death and awakened to a new and higher life, not merely figuratively, but in highest reality. And it is clear to him that no one can rightly understand his words who has not had the same experience.
Thus it was with those persons who through the Mysteries were initiated into that secret wisdom, withheld from the people, and which shed light upon the highest questions. This secret religion of the elect existed side by side with the religion of the people. So far as history is concerned, its source fades into the obscurity where the origin of peoples is lost. We find this secret religion everywhere among ancient peoples insofar as we can gain insight concerning them. The sages of these peoples speak of the Mysteries with the greatest reverence. What was concealed in them? And what did they reveal to one who was initiated into them?
The enigma becomes still more puzzling when we realize that at the same time the ancients regarded the Mysteries as something dangerous. The way leading to the secrets of existence went through a world of terrors. And woe to him who tried to reach them unworthily. There was no greater crime than the betrayal of these secrets to the uninitiated. The traitor was punished with death and confiscation of property. We know that the poet Aeschylus was accused of having brought something from the Mysteries to the stage. He was able to escape death only by fleeing to the altar of Dionysus and producing legal evidence that he was not an initiate. 2Aeschylus was acquitted by the Areopagus on a charge of revealing the Eleusinian Mysteries. When charged with betraying the Mysteries, he replied, I said the first thing which occurred to me. Cf. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea III, 1. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata II, 14: Aeschylus, who divulged the Mysteries on the stage, was acquitted when being tried in the Areopagus on his showing that he had not been initiated.
What the ancients say about these secrets is rich in meaning and can be variously interpreted. The initiate is convinced that it is sinful to say what he knows and also that it is sinful for the uninitiated to hear it. Plutarch speaks of the terror of those about to be initiated, comparing their state of mind to a preparation for death. Initiation had to be preceded by a special mode of life. This aimed at bringing sensuality under the control of the spirit. Fasting, solitary life, mortification and certain exercises of the soul served this purpose. The things to which man clings in ordinary life were to lose all value for him. The whole course of his experience and feeling had to take a different direction. There can be no doubt about the meaning of such exercises and tests. The wisdom to be offered to the neophyte could produce the right effect upon his soul only if he had previously changed his lower world of experience. He was inducted into the life of the spirit. He was to behold a higher world. He could find no relationship to this world without previous exercises and tests. Everything depended just on this relationship. Whoever wishes to understand these things correctly must have known by experience the intimate facts of the life of cognition. He must know by experience that two widely divergent relationships are possible in relation to what is offered by the highest cognition. The world surrounding man is his real world at first. He feels, hears and sees its processes. Because he perceives them with his senses he calls them real and thinks about them in order to gain insight into their connections. On the other hand, what rises in his soul is not real to him at first in the same sense. It is mere thoughts and ideas. At most, he sees in them pictures of material reality. They themselves have no reality. One cannot touch them; one cannot hear nor see them.
Another relationship to the world exists. A person who clings at all costs to the kind of reality described above, will hardly grasp it. It enters the lives of certain people at a certain moment. Their whole relationship to the world is reversed. They call truly real the images which arise in the spiritual life of their soul. They assign only a lower form of reality to what the senses hear, touch and see. They know they cannot prove what they say. They know they can only recount their new experiences. And they know that in recounting them to others they are in the position of a man who can see and who imparts his visual impressions to one born blind. They undertake the communication of their inner experiences, trusting that they are surrounded by others, who, although their spiritual eye is still closed, have a logical understanding which can be strengthened through the power of what they hear. They believe in humanity and wish to open spiritual eyes. They can only offer the fruits their spirit itself has gathered; whether another sees the fruits depends upon whether he has comprehension for what is seen by a spiritual eye. c4It is said above that those whose spiritual eyes are opened can behold the realm of the spiritual world. It should not, however, be concluded from this that a logical judgment about the results of initiation can be formed only by one who himself has spiritual eyes. These are necessary only for research. When the results of the research are communicated, everyone can understand who allows his intelligence and unprejudiced sense of truth to speak. Such a person also can use these results in life and gain satisfaction from them without as yet possessing spiritual eyes himself. Something existing in man at first prevents him from seeing with the eyes of the spirit. First of all he is not here for this purpose. He is what his senses represent him to be, and his intellect is only the interpreter and judge of his senses. These senses would fulfill their mission badly if they did not insist upon the truth and infallibility of their evidence. From its own point of view, an eye must uphold the absolute reality of its perceptions, otherwise it would be a bad eye. The eye is quite right, so far as it goes. It is not deprived of its rights by the spiritual eye. This spiritual eye allows us to see what the material eye sees, but in a higher light. Nothing the material eye sees is denied. But a new radiance, hitherto unseen, shines from it. Then we know that what we first saw was but a lower reality. We see this still, but it is immersed in something higher, in the spirit. Now it is a question of whether we experience and feel what we see. Whoever is able to bring living experience and feeling to the material world only, will regard the higher world as a Fata Morgana or as mere phantasy-images. His feelings are directed entirely toward the material world. When he tries to grasp spirit images, he seizes emptiness. When he gropes after them, they withdraw from him. They are mere thoughts. He thinks them; he does not live in them. They are pictures, less real to him than fleeting dreams. Compared with his reality they are like images made of froth which vanish as they encounter the massive, solidly-built reality of which his senses tell him. It is a different matter for the person whose experience and feelings with regard to reality have changed. For him that reality has lost its absolute stability, its unquestioned value. His senses and his feelings need not become blunted. But they begin to doubt their absolute authority; they leave space for something else. The world of the spirit begins to animate this space.
At this point a dreadful possibility exists. A man may lose his experience and feeling of direct reality without finding any new reality opening before him. He is then suspended in a void. He seems to himself dead. The old values have disappeared and no new ones have taken their place. The world and man no longer exist for him. This is by no means a mere possibility. At some time or other it happens to everyone who wishes to attain higher cognition. He reaches a point where to him the spirit interprets all life as death. Then he is no longer in the world. He is beneath the world in the nether world. He accomplishes the journey to Hades. It is well for him if he is not submerged. It is well for him if a new world opens before him. Either he disappears, or is confronted by a new self. In the latter case a new sun and a new earth appear to him. Out of spiritual fire the whole world has been reborn for him.
Thus the initiates describe what happened to them through the Mysteries. Menippus relates that he journeyed to Babylon in order to be taken to Hades and brought back again by the successors of Zoroaster. He says that on his travels he swam across the great water and that he passed through fire and ice. We hear that the mystics were terrified by a drawn sword and that blood flowed. We understand such sayings when we know the point of transition from lower to higher cognition. We ourselves have felt how all solid matter, all the material world, has dissolved into water; we have lost the ground from beneath our feet. Everything we had previously experienced as living has been killed. The spirit has passed through material life as a sword pierces a warm body; we have seen the blood of sensuality flow.
But a new life has appeared. We have climbed up from the nether
world. The orator Aristides relates, I thought I touched the god
and felt him draw near, and I was then between waking and sleeping. My
spirit was so light that one who is not initiated cannot
speak of it nor understand it. This new existence is not subject
to the laws of lower life. Growth and decay do not affect it. Much may
be said about the eternal, but one's words will be but sound and
Faust, Part I, 34563458: Feeling is all in all;
Name is but sound and smoke,
Beclouding Heaven's glow.
Priest translation, 1941, p. 101 who does not speak of the same thing as those who speak of it after the journey to Hades. The initiates have a new conception of life and death. Now for the first time they are entitled to speak about immortality. They know that whoever speaks of immortality without the knowledge gained through initiation does not understand it. The uninitiated attribute immortality only to something which is subject to the laws of growth and decay. The mystics did not desire to gain the mere conviction that the kernel of life is immortal. In their view, such a conviction would be worthless. This is because they believed the non-mystic simply does not have the eternal living within him. If he were to speak of the eternal, he would speak of nothing. The mystics seek the eternal itself. They must first awaken the eternal within themselves; then they can speak of it. Therefore Plato's severe saying has full reality for them: Whoever is not initiated is submerged in the mire, c5The sinking into the mire of which Plato speaks must also be interpreted in the sense of the previous comment. and he alone enters eternity who has experienced mystical life. Only in this way can the words in the fragment from Sophocles be understood:
“Thrice happy they, who, having seen these rites,
Then pass to Hades: there to these alone
Is granted life, all others evil find. 1Sophocles, Fragment 719.”
Are not dangers described in speaking of the Mysteries? Is it not robbing men of happiness, of the most valuable part of life, to lead them to the gate of the nether world? Terrible is the responsibility incurred by such an act. And yet, may we shirk this responsibility? These were the questions the initiate had to ask himself. In his opinion his knowledge was to the soul of the people as light is to darkness. But in this darkness dwells innocent happiness. The mystics were of the opinion that this happiness should not be interfered with wantonly. For what would have happened in the first place had the mystic betrayed his secret? He would have spoken words, nothing but words. Nothing at all would have happened through the experiences and feelings, which should have evoked the spirit from these words. For this, preparation, exercises, tests and the complete change of sense-experience would have been necessary. Without these, the hearer would have been flung into emptiness, into nothingness. He would have been deprived of what gave him happiness without being able to receive anything in exchange. It might be said that one could not have taken anything from him. For certainly mere words could not change his life of experience. He could only have experienced reality through the objects of his senses. One could have given him nothing but a dreadful, life-destroying apprehension. This could be regarded only as a crime. c6What is said about the impossibility of communicating teachings of the Mysteries refers to the fact that they cannot be communicated in the form in which the initiate experiences them to anyone who is unprepared. But they always have been communicated in the form in which they could be understood by the non-initiate. For example, the myths provided the ancient form for communicating the content of the Mysteries in a generally comprehensible manner. The above is no longer fully valid today for the acquisition of spiritual cognition. The latter can be understood conceptually because modern man has a capacity to form concepts which the ancients lacked. Today people can be found who have cognition of the spiritual world through their own experience; they can be confronted by others who comprehend these experiences conceptually. Such a capacity for forming concepts was lacking in the ancients.
Ancient Mystery wisdom is like a hothouse plant which must be cherished and cared for in seclusion. To bring it into the atmosphere of everyday conceptions is to put it in an element in which it cannot flourish. It withers away to nothing before the caustic verdict of modern science and logic. Let us therefore divest ourselves for a time of all the education we have received through the microscope, telescope and the ways of thought derived from natural science; let us purify our hands which have become clumsy and have been too busy dissecting and experimenting, so that we may enter the pure temple of the Mysteries. For this a truly unprejudiced mind is necessary.
For the mystic, everything depends primarily upon the frame of mind in which he approaches what he feels to be the highest, the answers to the enigmas of existence. Particularly in our time, when only things pertaining to physical science are recognized as deserving cognition, it is difficult to believe that for the highest things, everything depends on a frame of mind. Cognition thereby becomes an intimate concern of each personality. For the mystic, however, it is so. Tell someone the solution of the world-enigma! Hand it to him ready-made! The mystic will consider it nothing but empty sound if the individual does not confront this solution in the right manner. The solution is nothing in itself; it disintegrates if it does not kindle in his feeling the particular fire which is essential. Let a divine being approach you! It may be nothing or everything. Nothing, if you meet it in the frame of mind in which you confront everyday things. Everything, if you are prepared and attuned to it. What it is in itself is a matter which does not concern you; the point is whether it leaves you as you were or makes a different man of you. But this depends solely on you. You must have been prepared by the education and development of the most intimate forces of your personality so that what the divine is able to evoke may be kindled and released in you. What is brought to you depends upon the reception you prepare for it. Plutarch has given an account of this education; he has spoken of the greeting the mystic offers the divine being who approaches him: For the god addresses each one of us as we approach him here with the words Know Thyself, as a form of welcome, which certainly is in no wise of less import than Hail; and we in turn reply to him Thou art, as rendering unto him a form of address which is truthful, free from deception and the only one befitting him alone, the assertion of Being. The fact is that we really have no share in Being, but everything of a mortal nature is at some stage between coming into existence and passing away, and presents only a dim and uncertain semblance and appearance of itself; and if you apply the whole force of your mind in your desire to apprehend it, it is like unto the violent grasping of water, which, by squeezing and compression, loses the handful enclosed, as it spurts through the fingers; even so Reason, pursuing the exceedingly clear appearance of every one of those things that are susceptible to modification and change, is baffled by the one aspect of its coming into being, and by the other of its passing away; and thus it is unable to apprehend a single thing that is abiding or really existent. It is impossible to step twice in the same river are the words of Heraclitus, nor is it possible to lay hold twice of any mortal substance in a permanent state; by the suddenness and swiftness of the change in it there comes dispersion and, at another time, a gathering together; or, rather, not at another time nor later, but at the same instant it both settles into its place and forsakes its place; it is coming and going. Wherefore that which is born of it never attains unto being because of the unceasing and unstaying process of generation, which, ever bringing change, produces from the seed an embryo, then a babe, then a child and in due course a boy, a young man, a mature man, an elderly man, an old man, causing the first generations and ages to pass away by those which succeed them. But we have a ridiculous fear of one death, we who have already died so many deaths, and still are dying! For not only is it true, as Heraclitus used to say, that the death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water, but the case is even more clearly to be seen in our own selves: the man in his prime passes away when the old man comes into existence, the young man passes away into the man in his prime, the child into the young man, and the babe into the child. Dead is the man of yesterday, for he is passed into the man of to-day; and the man of to-day is dying as he passes into the man of to-morrow. Nobody remains one person, nor is one person; but we become many persons, even as matter is drawn about some one semblance and common mold with imperceptible movement. Else how is it that, if we remain the same persons, we take delight in some things now, whereas earlier we took delight in different things; that we love or hate opposite things, and so too with our admirations and our disapprovals, and that we use other words and feel other emotions and have no longer the same personal appearance, the same external form, nor the same purposes in mind? For without change it is not reasonable that a person should have different experiences and emotions; and if he changes, he is not the same person, he has no permanent being, but changes his very nature as one personality in him succeeds to another. Our senses, through ignorance of reality, falsely tell us that what appears to be is. 5Plutarch, Moralia, De E apud Delphos, 392 AE. (The E at Delphi, 17 and 18.)
Plutarch often shows himself to be an initiate. What he portrays for us here is an essential condition of the life of a mystic. Man acquires a wisdom by means of which his spirit sees through the illusory character of material life. Everything the material nature regards as existence, as reality, is plunged into the stream of evolving life. And man himself fares the same as the other things of the world. He disintegrates before the eyes of his spirit; his totality is dissolved into parts, into transitory phenomena. Birth and death lose their distinctive significance; they become moments of coming into existence, and decay like everything else which happens. The highest cannot be found in connection with growth and decay. It can only be sought in something truly lasting, which looks back to what has been and forward to what is to come. To find what looks backward and forward is a higher stage of cognition. It is the spirit, which is revealed in and through the material world. This spirit has nothing to do with material growth. It does not come into existence nor decay in the same manner as do sense phenomena. Whoever lives only in the world of the senses has this spirit latent within him; whoever sees through the illusory character of the world of the senses has it as a revealed reality within him. Whoever achieves this insight has developed a new organ within him. Something has taken place in him, as in a plant which at first has only green leaves and then puts forth a colored blossom. Certainly, the forces through which the flower developed were already latent in the plant before the blossom came into existence, but they became reality only when this latter took place. Divine spiritual forces also are latent in the purely material man, but they are a revealed reality only in the mystic. Therein lies the transformation that has taken place in the mystic. By his development he has added something new to the existing world. The material world has made a material man of him and then left him to himself. Nature has fulfilled her mission. Her potential connection with the forces working within man is exhausted. But these forces themselves are not yet exhausted. They lie as though spellbound in the purely natural man, awaiting their release. They cannot release themselves; they vanish into nothing if man himself does not grasp them and develop them further, if he does not awaken to real existence what slumbers hidden within him. Nature evolves from the least to the most perfect. Nature leads beings by an extensive series of stages from the inanimate through all forms of life up to material man. Man in his material nature opens his eyes and becomes aware of himself in the material world as a real being, capable of transforming itself. He still observes in himself the forces out of which this material nature is born. These forces are not the object of transformation because they gave rise to the transformation. Man bears them within himself as an indication that something lives within him, transcending his material perception. What may come into existence through these forces is not yet present. Man feels something light up within him which has created everything, including himself; and he feels that this something will spur him to higher achievement. It is within him; it existed before his material appearance, and will be there after it. Through it he has come into being, and he may grasp it, and himself participate in his creation. Such feelings lived in the ancient mystic after initiation. He felt the eternal, the divine. His deeds will become a part of the creative activity of the divine. He may say to himself: I have discovered a higher I within me, but this I surpasses the boundaries of my material growth; it existed before my birth, it will exist after my death. Creatively this I has worked throughout eternity; creatively it will work in eternity. My material personality is a creation of this I . But it has incorporated me within it; creatively it works in me; I am a part of it. What I am now able to create is something higher than the material. My personality is only a medium for this creative force, for this divine, within me. In this way the mystic experienced his apotheosis.
The mystic named the force thus kindled within him, his true spirit. He was the result of this spirit. It seemed to him as though a new being had entered him and taken possession of his organs. This was a being which stood between his material personality and the Sovereign Power of the cosmos, the Godhead. The mystic sought his true spirit. He said to himself, I have become man in the great natural world. But nature has not completed her task. I myself must take over this completion. However, I cannot do this in the gross realm of nature to which my material personality also belongs. Whatever can develop in this realm has developed. Therefore I must escape from this realm. I must continue to build in the sphere of the spiritual, where nature has stood still. I must create for myself a breathing space which cannot be found in outer nature. This breathing space was prepared for the mystics in the Mystery temples. There the forces slumbering within them were awakened; there they were transformed into higher creative spirit-natures. This transformation was a delicate process. It could not endure the rough elements of the outdoors. When the process was completed, through it man had become a rock grounded in the eternal, able to defy all storms. But he was not permitted to believe that he could communicate his experiences in their direct form to others.
Plutarch informs us that in the Mysteries it is possible to gain the clearest reflections and adumbrations of the truth about the daemons. 6Plutarch, Moralia, De defectu oraculorum, 417 C. (The Obsolescence of Oracles, 14.) And from Cicero we learn that those occult Mysteries ... when interpreted and explained prove to have more to do with natural science than with theology. 7Cicero, De natura Deorum I, 119. From such communications we see clearly that for the mystic there existed a higher insight into natural science than the religion of the people could give. Moreover this shows that the daemons, that is, the spiritual beings, and the gods themselves required explanation. Beings are approached who are of a higher nature than the daemons and gods. And this is in the nature of Mystery wisdom. The people pictured gods and daemons in images taken entirely from the world of material reality. Surely one who could penetrate the essence of the eternal was bound to lose confidence in the eternalness of such gods! How could Zeus, as the people pictured him, be eternal when he had the characteristics of a mortal being? One thing was clear to the mystic: man attains his idea of the gods in a different manner from his ideas about other things. An object in the external world compels me to form a definitive idea of it. In contrast to this the formation of ideas of the gods has something free, even arbitrary, about it. The compulsion of the external world is lacking. Reflection teaches us that with the gods we imagine something for which there is no external control. This puts man into a state of logical uncertainty. He begins to feel that he is the creator of his gods. He even asks himself: How do I come to transcend physical reality in my world of ideas? The mystic must devote himself to such thoughts. The doubts which then beset him were justified. He could think to himself: Let us simply look at all these ideas of the gods. Are they not similar to the creatures we meet in the world of the senses? Has not man created them by mentally adding or subtracting this or that quality essentially belonging to the world of the senses? The barbarian who loves hunting creates a heaven for himself in which the most glorious hunts of the gods take place. The Greek peoples Olympus with divinities having their prototype in the reality which is well known to him.
The philosopher Xenophanes (575480 B.C.) referred to this fact with crude logic. We know that the older Greek philosophers were absolutely dependent on Mystery wisdom. This will be demonstrated in relation to Heraclitus in particular. For this reason the saying of Xenophanes can be accepted without reservation as a conviction based on mystic knowledge. He says:
“But men have the idea that gods are born,
And wear their clothes, and have both voice and shape.
But had the oxen or the lions hands,
Or could with hands depict a work like men,
Were beasts to draw the semblance of the gods,
The horses would them like to horses sketch,
To oxen, oxen, and their bodies make
Of such a shape as to themselves belongs.” 8Xenophanes, Elegaic Poems 14, 15.
Through such insight man may become doubtful of everything divine. He may reject the legends of the gods and acknowledge as reality only that which his material perceptions compel him to acknowledge. But the mystic did not become such a doubter. He understood that the doubter was like a plant which said to itself: My colored blossom is vain and worthless, for I am complete in my green leaves; what I add to them only increases the illusory appearance. But neither could the mystic remain content with the gods thus created, the gods of the people. If the plant could think, it would understand that the forces which had created the green leaves are also destined to create the colored blossom. And it would not rest until it had investigated these forces for itself in order to see them. So it was for the mystic in relation to the gods of the people. He did not deny them nor declare them to be vain, but he knew that they were created by man. The same natural forces, the same divine elements which work creatively in nature also work creatively in the mystic. In him also they engender ideas of the gods. He wishes to see this force which is creating gods. It is not like the gods of the people; it is something higher. Xenophanes also indicates this:
“One God there is, 'midst gods and men supreme;
In form, in mind, unlike to mortal men. ”9Xenophanes, Elegaic Poems (On Nature) 23.
This God was also the God of the Mysteries. He could be called a hidden God, for nowhere so it was thought is He to be found by the purely material man. Direct your gaze outward toward objects; you find no divinity. Exert your intelligence; you may understand the laws by which things come into existence and decay, but your intellect shows you nothing divine. Saturate your fantasy with religious feeling; you can create pictures of beings which you may take to be gods, but your intellect dissects them for you, for it proves to you that you yourself created them, and borrowed the material for their creation from the material world. Insofar as you, as intellectual man, consider the things about you, you must deny the gods. For God is not there for your senses or intellect, which explain material perceptions. God is magically concealed in the world. And you need His own force in order to find Him. This force you must awaken within yourself. These are the teachings which a neophyte of ancient times received. Then began for him the great cosmic drama in which he was engulfed alive. This drama consisted of nothing less than the release of the spellbound God. Where is God? This was the question the mystic put before his soul. God is not, but nature is. He must be found in nature. In nature He has found an enchanted tomb. The words, God is Love, are grasped by the mystic in a higher sense. For God has carried this Love to its uttermost. He has given Himself in infinite Love; He has diffused Himself; He has divided Himself into the manifold variety of natural things; they live, and He does not live in them. He rests in them. He lives in man. And man can experience the life of God in himself. If he is to let Him come to cognition he must release this cognition creatively in himself. Man now gazes into himself. As a hidden creative force, as yet unincarnated, works the divinity in his soul. In this soul is a place where the spellbound divinity can come to life again. The soul is the mother who by nature can conceive the divinity. If the soul is fructified by nature it will give birth to a divinity. Out of the marriage of the soul with nature a divinity will be born. This is no longer a hidden divinity; it is revealed. It has life, perceptible life, and walks among men. It is the released spirit in man, the offspring of the spellbound divinity. It is not the great God, who was, is and will be, but it can be taken as His revelation in a certain sense. The Father rests in concealment, the Son is born to man out of his own soul. Thus mystic cognition is a real event in the cosmic process. It is the birth of an offspring of God. It is an event as real as any other natural event, only on a higher level. This is the great secret of the mystic, that he himself creatively releases his divine offspring, but he also prepares himself beforehand to acknowledge this divine offspring created by himself. The non-mystic lacks the experience of the father of this offspring. For this father slumbers under a spell. The offspring appears to be virginally born. The soul appears to have borne him without fructification. All its other offspring are conceived by the material world. In their case the father can be seen and touched. He has material life. The divine offspring alone is conceived of the eternal, hidden Father God Himself.