Mystery Schools

Perhaps some of the practices still followed today were invented or adapted by those first urbanized shamen. Those traditions originated millennia before the dawn of history, in a vastly different world, yet if present-day students of the mysteries met people from those ancient schools they might find that they felt closer to them than to many people of their own era.

Figure 4. Seal from Mohenjo-Daro. Male figure with horns seated in yoga posture, c. 4,000 years ago.

We don’t normally think of Indian religions like Buddhism or Hinduism as mystery religions, but their tantric practices often require vows of secrecy and simulations of death and rebirth. These religions may be traced back to the ancient Dravidian culture known as the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1300 BCE) whose main cities are known as Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro, and which has left us images that look to many experts like yogis in meditation posture or like Shiva the Lord of yogis.

Figure 5. Harrapan tablet. Bull sacrifice and horned figure in yoga posture, c. 4,000 years ago.

The ancient mystery schools of Europe and the Middle East were outlawed, along with most other ancient traditional types of religion, by the Roman emperor Theodosius in 391 CE. Today, as far as historians know, there are no surviving direct descendents of these schools. Yet they had a strong influence on many spiritual traditions, and similar types of schools have existed in many places and times, including our own. Some of their writings have been preserved and have had a strong influence throughout history. Many scholars believe they had an important influence on the modern European worldview. The Hermetic writings were significant influences in the European Enlightenment. Some people important in the development of science, including Roger Bacon, Giordano Bruno and Isaac Newton, studied the Hermetica, as did many poets and artists including William Butler Yeats and William Blake. So while the ancient mystery schools of the classical world may no longer be with us, their influence is.

In comparing different teachings, and different descriptions of the path to inner freedom, it is important to keep in mind that many wisdom schools hold enlightenment to be non-conceptual, that is, it is beyond any description in word/concept. Since most teachings attempt to describe or point to the goal of spiritual practice in some way, they inevitably develop a metaphor for enlightenment that reflects the spiritual approach of the school. These metaphors can appear to be different and even contradictory, but they are just maps of different aspects of the same higher reality. Two different maps of the same area can be different sizes, use different colors and symbols, and might even contain different information. Consider, for example, a topographic map, a map of political boundaries, and a road map of the same region, which look completely different from each other. The limitations of verbal formulation of mystery wisdom explain why the effectiveness of any school derives not from the recorded “metaphors” of the school, but from the realized minds of the teachers and students. The knowledge is handed down from person to person using words and books as aids.

One common metaphor in the ancient religion of the Middle East is ascent to the divine domain. The temple was understood as being heavenly territory, and the separation of the sacred from the mundane was created and protected by various rituals, such as washing in a sacred pool before entering the sanctuary. Love and gratitude toward divinity was cultivated. One aim of the initiatory rites of the ancient mystery schools was to give the initiate an experience of this divine reality. Walking into the temple was said to be entering the divine domain where live divine beings. Invoking the divine is also an important aspect of modern mystery schools.

Another metaphor from ancient mystery religion is spiritual death and rebirth. This terminology can be found in the New Testament. This was also a theme of the most ancient historical Middle Eastern religions, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, and in Greece, where a number of dead and resurrected gods were worshiped. This includes Dionysius in Greece, Osiris in Egypt, and Attis the consort of Cybele in the Middle East. In Tibetan Buddhism this approach to spiritual practice is found in the Bardo Thodol (Liberation in Transition, meaning between death and rebirth). Enlightenment is understood by the Sufis as “dying before you die”. Shamanic visits to the Other World, the Bardo, the Spirit World, which are found in many tribal cultures from around the world, are simply journeys of awakening by another name. These journeys are also a primary focus in modern Mystery Schools, which provide “Bardo Training” for conscious living and dying.

A common metaphor in ancient religion is redemption. Plato and some of the Greek and Roman mystery schools taught that human souls were fallen from the heavenly realms, which appear to have been understood literally as being up in the sky. Fallen into incarnation either as punishment for sin, or through ignorance, the soul needed redemption. Redemption could come in many ways- divine grace, spiritual practices, moral behavior, contemplation, etc. The transformed soul would return to the heavenly realms upon organic death.

A mystery school intends to help the student transform her soul to regain the divine world. The soul cannot be transformed without first being recalled, awakened or uncovered. People are understood to live, ordinarily, without direct contact with their own souls. Once recalled, or reawakened, through any one of the many methods used in schools, the soul is transformed through a natural process and attains awakening, liberation, freedom or enlightenment- all different names for redemption.

One transformational method used in ancient mystery temples was the invocation of divine presences, deities or angelic spirits, whose influence through subtle radiations causes transformation. The specific concept of angels enters the Western tradition through Judaism and Christianity as influenced by Zoroastrian religion; angels are immortal, supernatural beings similar to the minor deities of traditional religions, but reinterpreted within the framework of revealed monotheism. The ancient invocation of deities is described in detail, just as practiced in late antiquity, in Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis ; angelic entities are still invoked today in Sufi and other mystery schools.