What is a mystery school?
A mystery school is a particular type of spiritual school. In historical ancient Greek, Hellenic and Roman world mystery schools were very popular. They included the Eleusinian mysteries, the Dionysian mysteries, and the Orphic mysteries. Later in the Graeco-Roman world, the mysteries of Isis, Magna Mater, and the Mythraic mysteries became popular along with many others. There is also evidence of more ancient mystery schools in ancient Sumeria, Babylonia and Egypt.
Figure 1. Entrance to Eleusinian Mystery Complex. Reconstruction.
Why were they called mystery schools?”
According to scholars, they were called mystery schools because members, or initiates, were sworn to secrecy about the rites and inner teachings of the schools. The English word mystery itself comes from the Greek mystes for a mystery school initiate. They were called mystes because the initiates vowed to keep the rites and their experiences secret, or in other words to keep their mouths closed (myseis). Other scholars suggest that they were called mystes because they had had an experience of the divine that was impossible to describe in words- leaving the initiate with a “closed” mouth, or because they provided unusual, special knowledge that is “closed” to most people.
Secrecy and vows of secrecy can play many different roles in mystery schools. Perhaps the most interesting one is to preserve the spiritual power of a ritual. It is sometimes believed that common talk about rituals dissipate the energies they can invoke. Rituals or practices can come to create a strong energy field after many years of use in a school, through the specialized attention and intention of the officiants. Having ordinary types of attention focused on the rituals might weaken the effect of this accumulated historical intent. In talking about their spiritual experiences, initiates divert the transformational power of the practices into the ordinary social expressions of status, vanity, and self-importance, which makes it more difficult for the intiate to advance, at the same time forming a wrong impression of the mystery school in others.
From the term mystery school we get the modern term mystic- a person who seeks a transcendental, revelatory experience of the divine. The mystery schools taught that salvation comes from divine knowledge, or gnosis, and that religious or spiritual activities, including good works, intercession by divine or human agents, rituals, study of philosophy, cultivation of faith, practice of spiritual exercises, etc., are ultimately valuable only because they prepare the student for a direct experience. This direct experience bypasses the conceptual mind. This is good, because reality cannot be deeply known through the mediation of concepts, but it also makes things difficult because without concepts we cannot justify our knowledge, prove it, or make it easily understandable. Mystics are therefore sometimes thought to be superstitious, deluded or dishonest. They have also been accused of deliberately hiding valuable knowledge from people. Of course, all of these accusations are made without considering the central point of mystical experience- that it happens outside of the conceptual mind, which is all most people ever use to relate to the world. Because people cannot conceive that their mind as it is has a limited scope, and must expand before it can grasp the higher reality revealed in the mysteries, they expect to be able to learn about transformation the way they learn about anything else. Often times a considerable effort is spent in practices which allow the future initiate to see graphically for herself the limitations of her mind and the need for expansion.
Most people search for mystical experience because they have already glimpsed something beyond their conceptual mind. They recognize the importance and value of that direct perception, and seek out ways to regain and increase it. Because they have already had mystical experience, no one can convince them it is not real. Such people are also able to verify the value of a mystery school by the degree to which it helps them to go beyond concepts.
Figure 2. Çatal Hüyük sanctuary c. 9500 years ago. Horned aurochs deity. Reconstruction.
The origin of these schools is lost in time. Some mystery religions are traceable back to the first Mesopotamian city-states some 5,000 years ago. If mystery schools are older than this, we would have no way of knowing. There is an unusual human-like 13,000 year old wall painting in the cave at Trois-Frères, France. Many anthropologists believe it is a dancing masked sorcerer or deity, and that the cave was used for secret magical ceremonies. The figure has a human body and a horned animal head.
Figure 3. The Sorcerer of Trois-Frères Cave, c. 13,000 years ago. Photograph. Human body, horned animal head.