The idea of secret elements embedded within Masonic ritual is a very old one, most famously exemplified in A.E. Waite’s excellent 2 volume set, The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry (1911). There, Waite points to a secret chivalric Christian mystic ceremonial (à la the C.B.C.S.) within the Masonic degree structure. Not to rehash old themes, but I am currently working on a book project about the “secret spirit” in Freemasonry. In this book, I am less interested in tracking a secret influence historically as I am in drawing to the consciousness of modern-day Masons many extant esoteric elements, symbolic and instructive, which are currently part of Masonic ceremonial, but which are often ignored or forgotten. What follows in this blog post is a sketch of some of that research, which will be fleshed out in the book.
I want to look at the influence of Egyptian religion and its mystery rites on the 3rd degree of our Gentle Craft. I know this can be a controversial subject, but the resonances between the two symbolic systems are so strong that I felt the need to write up a comparison. Of course, it is well known that the official “party line” of most Masonic scholars is that there is no connection between the Egyptian Mysteries and Speculative Freemasonry, since the latter arose out of the medieval stonemasons’ guilds on the British Isles within the last 1000 years or so. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Essentials of Freemasonry (2006), prominent Masonic scholar S. Brent Morris writes that “while there have been many theories (largely discredited) that Freemasonry originated in Egypt, and while Egyptian decorative motifs have been used by some lodges, the obelisk, sphinx, and pyramid, finished or not, have no official sanction in the pantheon of Masonic Emblems” (Morris, 20). This may be the case, yet I am wondering about some of the ritual elements, particularly in the 3rd Degree, which find strong resemblances to the Osirian Mysteries of Ancient Egypt celebrated from the 12th of the month Khoiak to the 30th of the same month, during which (among other things) the martyrdom of Osiris was commemorated. My argument, however, is not an attempt to trace the lineage of Masonry to Egyptian origins, but rather to contend that the early Masons who codified and developed the degrees, many of whom were classically trained intellectuals, were more conversant with this material than we are today, and thus wove these philosophies and practices into the early Fraternity.
Regarding the use of the term Osirian Mysteries, which I will use throughout, I have noticed another misconception regarding Ancient Egypt and Freemasonry which may have further added to misrecognition. I have heard this echoed by other Masons and I have come across it in some current Masonic publications—the idea that the Ancient Egyptians did not have Mysteries, only funerary rites. This is simply not true; they did have Mysteries. Perhaps the source of this inaccuracy can be traced to the comparative religionists of the mid-20th century, of which some were, in fact, Masons.
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), one of the most influential comparative religionists, is now almost completely unused and uncited among religious scholars for a variety of reasons. In The Eliade Guide to World Religions (collated by Couliano from among Eliade’s writings in 1991 for HarperCollins), in their chapter on Mystery Religions, it states plainly, “there were no… Egyptian mystery religions, as some scholars in the past have claimed” (189). But as we will see, this is not the current view, as the Egyptians certainly did have Mysteries, Osirian ones as a matter of fact. It is, of course, still a controversial subject as to whether Egyptians had Mystery Religions proper, like the Greeks and Romans, and whether they did “initiation” ceremonies, but recent finds such as the sunken relics recovered from Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion are educating modern Egyptologists about the ceremonies and secret rites which absolutely took place in Ancient Egypt. Those who underwent such ceremonies were alive; that is to say, they were not mere funerary rites performed on the dead. The Osirian Mysteries were performed on spiritual individuals who were advancing in the priesthood.
This is part of my larger thesis that Masonry, while apparently not a religion, seems to pride itself and engage in lots of comparative religious study in order to educate its members about the content of the degrees; however, the methods and information typically consulted and imparted is often archaic, antiquated, outdated, and just plain incorrect. Masonry urgently needs to update its files, as it were, if it intends to continue engaging in the practice of comparative religion (which I think it should). Much has changed over the last few decades, and modern Masons are both missing out on and being deluded by adhering to antiquated sources.
My thoughts on this matter were prompted by my recent visit to the “Osiris: Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” exhibit at the Museum Rietberg in Zürich, Switzerland. As you can see, right there in the name of the exhibit we have Egyptian Mysteries touted, and this by archaeologists involved in leading, cutting-edge Egyptological research. Of course, I just had to have a look at this exhibit.
But before I discuss what I found there, some background information is necessary. One of the most detailed descriptions of what took place within the secret Egyptian Mysteries is preserved in the Metamorphoses, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, the only Latin novel to have survived in its entirety (according to St. Augustine). This ancient novel, as it is called, was written by Apuleius (ca. 124-170 CE), a Berber in North Africa who wrote a variety of philosophical treatises and was initiated into various cults and mysteries, including the Isiac and Osirian Mysteries, of which he left veiled descriptions in his Metamorphoses.
This ancient novel describes the raucous adventures of Lucius, who experiments with black magic and is accidentally turned into a donkey, a representation of the lower, animalistic self. Toward the end of the story, after which Lucius has experienced much suffering in his animal form, he collapses on the beach at nightfall, hopeless and exhausted. In a famous passage, he offers up a prayer to the rising moon, to the goddess Isis, imploring her to change him back to a human:
Not long afterwards I awoke in sudden terror. A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at this secret hour that the Moon Goddess, supreme sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore I resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortune seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.
Jumping up and shaking off my drowsiness, I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the Supreme Goddess:
“Blessed Queen of Heaven … you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of His rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, and by whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, make me Lucius once more…”
When I had finished my prayer and poured out the full bitterness of my oppressed heart, I returned to my sandy hollow, where once more sleep overcame me. I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea…” (Robert Graves translation, pp 261-263)
The goddess Isis then appears in her recognizable form, bearing the sistrum, a mirror, a boat, and all the other symbols with which she is associated. Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE), who wrote On the Worship of Isis and Osiris, a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites, describes Isis as “a goddess exceptionally wise and a lover of wisdom, to whom, as her name at least seems to indicate, knowledge and understanding are in the highest degree appropriate.” Plutarch also recounts the famous myth of the dismembering (and re-membering) of Osiris, a symbolic enactment of which he wrote: “In Egypt, Osiris is the Nile uniting with Isis the earth, and Seth is the sea into which the Nile rushes, disperses, and vanishes” (Isis and Osiris, 32). He tells us that a statue of Athena in Sais was identified with Isis, inscribed “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered.”
When the great goddess appears to animalistic Lucius over the moonlit sea waters, she instructs him on how to reverse the magical spell he is under, by ingesting rose petals from the wreath of roses carried by the priests of her religious celebrations the following day. He soon encounters the procession of the Isiac Mysteries in the city, with its fuming incense, chanting, and bald-headed Osirian priests, and ingests the wreath of roses, changing him back to a human. He is so grateful and overjoyed that he decides to join the temple of Isis and become an initiate of her Mysteries. At length, with great anticipation, Lucius is initiated into the two main degrees of the Isiac priesthood. While he is sworn to secrecy regarding the details of the secret rites, he offers the following intriguing description, the best he can do without violating his vows:
I approached the very gates of death and set one foot on Persephone’s threshold, yet was permitted to return, rapt through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining as if it were noon; I entered the presence of the gods of the underworld and the gods of the upper-world, stood near and worshiped them (Graves, 280).
Clearly, the experience was one of coming into full conscious awareness of his own soul and its definite immortality. What most likely took place was what religious scholars commonly refer to as the practice of “incubation,” which was utilized by the mystery religions of the ancient world. Incubation refers to a ceremonial period of sleep or rest in silence, usually in a pastos or coffin-like receptacle—or else in a standing or prayerful position—during which a vision is attained, perhaps like those of modern-day near-death experiences, while secret teachings are imparted, always under a strict veil of silence. April Deconick, Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, Texas, describes the initiation practices of the ancient Gnostics as beginning “with incubation, when initiates reclined on a special couch called a bridal bed,” a coffin-like bed where the initiate could be put into a sleep state for a period of incubation (Deconick, Gnostic New Age, 235; 257). She further explains that the Gnostics understood that “the initiate literally has to stop thinking about the incomprehensible God, who cannot be grasped with reason and can barely be known through revelation. As he follows instructions and withdraws into himself, the initiate comments that he actually feels the stillness of silence bodily within himself. As he does this, he notes that he comes into direct contact with his true self. In this way, the unknown God is revealed to him gradually, at higher and higher, deeper and deeper levels. His spirit is transformed into a divinity like the one he is contemplating” (Deconick, Gnostic New Age, 183-184).
While Apuleius’ allusions to his personal experience in the Isiac Mystery rites, spoken through the character Lucius, are veiled and ambiguous, it is to such practices of incubation that he is apparently referring. At the very end of the novel, after Lucius has attained the two degrees of initiation and is living at the temple, he is approached by one of the elder priests and learns that there is a 3rd degree, into which he will soon be initiated. Lucius is quite astonished by this information. “I had already been twice initiated,” he thinks, “so what mystery still remained undisclosed?” He then has a vision in which a “kindly god” explains to him: “Rest assured that the holiness of the number three spells an eternal blessing for you and that it is necessary for you to undergo a third initiation.” He soon has another vision, in which this “kindly god” reveals himself in his true form as Osiris, “the most powerful of all gods,” and tells Lucius that he has been chosen to “assist” in his “sacred rites,” the Osirian Mysteries of the 3rd degree.
While the novel ends at this point, Apuleius alludes to the third initiation as being the fullness of the Isiac Mysteries, which enter into the Osirian Mystery rites. As we will see, these Osirian rites most certainly involved the reenactment of the slaying and rising of the god Osiris, his death and resurrection, likely involving a participatory drama reenacting the myth and a longer incubatory session in a coffin-like container. It seems to me that this degree structure—two preliminary degrees inculcating immortality of the soul and its divine nature, followed by a capstone 3rd Degree regarding the drama of death and resurrection—appears closely linked to that of the Ancient Craft Degrees of modern Freemasonry. Every Mason, in my opinion, should be thoroughly familiar with the Metamorphoses narrative, so if you don’t have a copy go out and pick up Robert Graves’s very readable translation right away.
To be continued…