Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

Ancient Egyptian Religion – Part III

This is the third post of a three part series the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Part one can be read here and Part two can be read here


Temples were a part of Egyptian history from the very beginning, and could be found in most towns at the height of Egyptian civilization. There were both mortuary temples designed to serve the spirits of deceased pharaohs, and temples dedicated to patron deities, although the difference wasn’t always clear because the concepts of divinity and kingship were so intimately intertwined.

For the most part, state-run temples were not meant to be places for the general public to worship. Instead, these temples functioned as houses for the deities, whose physical images, like statues, acted as their surrogates, and were cared for and given offerings accordingly. These services were considered necessary to sustain the deities, so that they, in turn, could maintain the universe itself. Thus, temples were fundamental to Egyptian society, and vast resources were devoted to their upkeep, which included both large estates of their own, and donations from the monarchy. Pharaohs often expanded temple estates as part of their obligation to honor the deities, which resulted in many temples growing to enormous size. However, not all deities had temples dedicated to them, as many deities who were considered important in official theology were only minimally worshipped otherwise, and many household deities were the focus of universal reverence rather than temple ritual.

The earliest Egyptian temples were small, short-lived structures, but through the Old and Middle Kingdoms they became more elaborate, and were increasingly built out of stone. By the New Kingdom, the standard temple was built along a central processional way that led through a series of courts and halls to a sanctuary, which housed a statue of the temple’s deity. Admittance to this most sacred part of the temple was restricted to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests. In addition to the actual temple itself, temple complexes also included workshops and storage areas, and a library where the temple’s sacred writings and everyday records were kept, and which also served as a center of learning.

In theory, it was the duty of the pharaoh to carry out temple rituals, since he was Egypt’s official representative to the deities. In reality, priests almost always carried out these ritual duties. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, there was no separate class of priests; instead, many government officials served in this capacity for several months out of the year before returning to their secular duties. It was not until the New Kingdom that professional priesthood become widespread, although most lower-ranking priests remained part-time. Temple staff also included many people other than priests, such as musicians and chanters for temple ceremonies. Outside the temple itself were artisans and other laborers who helped supply the temple’s needs, and farmers who worked on temple estates. All were paid with portions of the temple’s income. As a result, large temples were very important centers of economic activity, sometimes employing thousands of people.

Egyptian Temple Rituals 

State religious practice included both temple rituals involved in the cult of a particular deity, and ceremonies related to divine kingship. Among the latter were coronation ceremonies and the Sed festival, a celebration and ritual renewal of the pharaoh’s strength that took place after he had held the throne for thirty years, then every three or four years after that.

Temple rituals included rites that took place all across Egypt, and rites limited to single temples or to the temples of a single deity. Some were performed daily, while others took place annually or occasionally. The most common temple ritual was the morning offering ceremony, performed daily in temples across Egypt. In it, a high-ranking priest, or sometimes the pharaoh, washed, anointed, and elaborately dressed the deity’s statue before presenting it with offerings. Once the deity had consumed the spiritual essence of the offerings, the items themselves were distributed among the priests.

There were still quite a few less frequent temple rituals, or festivals, with dozens occurring every year. These festivals often went beyond simple offerings to the deities, and could involve anything from reenactments of particular myths to the symbolic destruction of the forces of chaos. Most of these events were likely celebrated only by the priests and took place only inside the temple. However, the most important temple festivals, like the Opet Festival celebrated at Karnak, usually entailed a procession carrying the deity’s image out of the sanctuary in a model barque to visit other meaningful sites, such as the temple of a related deity. Commoners would gather to watch these processions, and sometimes received portions of the unusually large offerings given to the deities on these occasions.

Sacred Sites, Magic, and Oracles

At many sacred sites, the ancient Egyptians worshipped individual animals, which they believed to be manifestations of particular deities. These animals were chosen based on specific sacred markings, which were believed to demonstrate their suitability for the role. Some of these cult animals retained their positions for the rest of their lives, as with the Apis bull worshipped in Memphis as a manifestation of Ptah. Other animals were chosen for much shorter periods. These cults grew more popular in later times, and many temples began raising stocks of such animals from which to choose a new divine manifestation.

The ancient Egyptians used oracles to ask deities for knowledge or guidance. These oracles are known mainly from the New Kingdom onward, although it’s likely they appeared much earlier. People of all classes, including the pharaoh, asked oracles questions and, especially in the late New Kingdom, their answers could be used to settle legal disputes or inform royal decisions. The most common way to consult an oracle was to pose a question to the divine image while it was being carried in a festival procession, and then interpret an answer from the barque’s movements. Other methods included interpreting the behavior of cult animals, drawing straws, or consulting statues through which a priest apparently channeled. The means of discerning the deity’s will conferred a great deal of influence onto the priests who channeled and interpreted the deity’s message.

Popular religious practices included ceremonies marking important transitions in life, such as birth – because of the danger involved in the process – and naming, because the name was believed to be a crucial part of a person’s identity. The most important of these ceremonies were those surrounding death, because they ensured the soul’s survival beyond it. Other religious practices sought to discern the deities’ will or seek their knowledge. These included the interpreting of dreams, which could be viewed as messages from the divine realm, and the consulting of oracles. People also attempted to affect the behavior of the deities, in order to benefit themselves, through magical rituals.

The word “magic” is the closest translation of the ancient Egyptian term heka. Heka was considered a natural phenomenon, the force that created the universe and which the deities used to work their will. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans could also use heka, and magical practices were closely intertwined with religion. In fact, even the regular rituals performed in temples were considered to be magic. Individuals also frequently used magical techniques for personal goals. Although these purposes might harm others, no form of magic was considered harmful in itself. Instead, magic was seen primarily as a way for humans to prevent or overcome negative occurrences.

Soma and the Holy Grail: What Role Have Psychedelics Played in the Mysteries?

Soma and the Holy Grail: What Role Have Psychedelics Played in the Mysteries?

In the past two decades, the world has seen a renaissance in research on psychedelics, after being completely banned for the previous twenty-five years. Continuing the research that was done in the 1950s and 60s, scientists are further validating that the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic context has a high success rate for treatment of various mental disorders, ranging from addiction to depression and social anxiety. The research seems to indicate that it’s possible to treat, or in some cases perhaps cure, long-term mental disorders with only a short series of psychedelic-assisted therapeutic sessions. 

Psychedelics are arguably much more fascinating than any other class of psychopharmacologicals, in that the action which produces the healing effects is not simply an alteration of mood, but rather the creation of a radically altered, non-ordinary state of consciousness, leading to an acceleration and exacerbation of dormant or subconscious mental processes, which the patient can then face and deal with, to ultimately resolve the underlying psychological issue. It also includes, in some cases, the manifestation of the classical mystical experience, which has a healing power all it’s own. This last case is perhaps the most interesting as it relates to freemasonry, hermeticism, alchemy, and gnosticism, and the ancient mysteries to which we trace our origins.

Among the stories and legends of the esoteric mystery traditions are various clues and indications that psychedelics have played a role. So, how great a role have these magical substances played in the origins of Freemasonry and related occult sciences? 

Ancient Psychedelic Use: Shamans to Kykeon

stoned ape theory psychedelicsIf current indigenous peoples are any indication, we can be fairly certain that humans have been utilizing psychedelics perhaps since we became human. The Stoned Ape Theory, though considered radical by many evolutionary theorists, posits that psychedelic consumption may even have been a primary contributing factor to our development of language, culture, abstract thought, and everything that we typically regard as uniquely human.

Regardless of whether psychedelics were critical for our evolution to homo sapiens, there is no question that psychedelics have played a critical role in human life, particularly as it relates to the religious, or sublime. Shamans have been using these compounds for various purposes ranging from healing to divination, initiation, and ritual communion with spirits presumably from the time humans first gathered in tribes. This pattern extends even to this day, including the Ayahuasceros of the Amazon rainforest, the far Northern Sami using amanita muscaria mushrooms, the indigenous people of Central America’s consumption of psilocybin mushrooms, and in the depths of Africa where Iboga and other plant medicines are still used for healing and initiation rites. These are simply some of those ancient traditions which have survived to modern times, but we can reasonably infer that untold numbers of other cultures, now wiped out by colonialism and religious persecution, have utilized psychedelics for spiritual and other purposes from time immemorial. 

psychedelic somaAmong the history of what we refer to as civilization, we have evidence that the shamanic thread continued and evolved as a component of some earlier human societies. Perhaps the oldest example is that of Soma, a mysterious drink consumed by the Brahmins of India, who are the highest priestly caste in traditional Indian culture. Soma was also used by Zoroastrians of ancient Mesopotamia, meaning it extended beyond the boundaries of modern India. Some of the most ancient texts of the Vedic religions speak at length about Soma and its effects, which included mystical experiences, feelings of bliss, lightness of being, inspiration, and visionary states. Although there is no consensus or absolute proof of exactly what the ingredients for Soma were, the descriptions of its effects certainly fit the bill of a psychedelic. This doubtlessly influenced the philosophies and traditions of India, which ultimately have impacted the Western mystery traditions to some extent.

eleusinian mysteries kykeon
Another famous ancient psychedelic brew a bit closer to home for the Western mysteries is
Kykeon. Kykeon was a visionary drink which was imbibed at the ancient rites of Eleusis, commonly known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The most popular theory on its ingredients is that it was made from barley infested with the fungus ergot, which contained alkaloids similar to LSD. No one knows with absolute certainty what happened in these rites, but they involved the participant going into an underground cavern or structure to drink the Kykeon and undergo a death and rebirth, an experience which was said to free the participant from fear of mortality. These psychedelic rites were undergone by great philosophers and influential figures including but not limited to Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, Aristotle, many playwrights, and the highest hierophants and priests of the day. Plutarch wrote:

“Because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries…we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal…when a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions.”

These are some of the most famous examples of psychedelic use in ancient civilizations, and it seems to me that there are clearly symbolic correlations to the Eleusinian Mysteries in modern masonic ritual, at least in general theme of death and rebirth. 

Psychedelic Traces Left by Egyptians and Hebrews?

Perhaps most significant to freemasonry, alchemy, and hermeticism are the clues of possible ritual psychedelic use in ancient Egyptian, and even Hebrew cultures. However, these cultures’ psychedelic traditions are also the least popularly explored, or supported by evidence. While there is some speculation about the Egyptians’ use of blue lotus, which does have psychoactive properties, this particular plant is not known to be psychedelic at any dosage. Rather, it has a more mild, sedative effect. What is far more interesting is the possibility, though only supported by scant clues, of the Egyptian and perhaps Hebrew ritual use of acacia.

Egyptian acaciaAcacia’s significance is attested to throughout ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writings, where some even believe that it is equivalent to the Ished Tree, or the Tree of Life. Historians believe that Egyptians used acacia for a wide variety of medicinal applications, including the treatment of wounds, eye problems, and skin disease. Mythologically, the first Gods of Egypt were born beneath, or emerged from the acacia. In one version of the death of the God Osiris, he was buried in a coffin of acacia, out of which a new acacia tree sprouted, and Horus emerged. This is commonly regarded as one of the possible origins of the story of Hiram Abiff.

It just so happens that this plant so revered both medicinally and mythologically by the Egyptians also contains large quantities of the single most potent psychedelic known to man, n, n-dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. This has been referred to by some as The Spirit Molecule, and is also thought to possibly be produced naturally in the pineal gland of the brain, which was also theorized by Descartes to be the “Seat of the Soul.” 

moses burning bush acaciaIn the Hebrew tradition, acacia is likewise regarded as sacred, and one controversial Israeli scholar even thinks that Moses may have had a psychedelic experience, possibly arrived at through the use of acacia, when he saw the burning bush on Mount Horeb. The acacia would likely have been combined with other plants which are also native to the region, which would add MAOIs to render the DMT orally active. If true, this would be a middle-Eastern analog to the ayahuasca of the Amazonian rainforest shamans, using different plants which are native to the Middle East, but with the same active components. 

There also seems to be some evidence that the use of psychoactive ritual incense of various sorts was a very common method of communing with God or various supernatural beings, which the Hebrews (among other ancient peoples) brought with them from Egypt as they wandered the desert. This tradition was possibly even revived temporarily by King Solomon, according to a speculative interpretation of certain biblical passages about the dedication of Solomon’s temple. If true, presumably the sacred acacia might be among the plants used as this sacred incense for divine communion, given it’s highly psychedelic contents. 

While the theory of Egyptian and Hebrew use of acacia for its psychedelic properties is not heavily supported by concrete evidence, the more well-established fact that both cultures regarded the plant as extremely sacred and medicinally useful should lead us to at least ask the question: Was their reverence for the sacred acacia purely because of its medicinal and perhaps symbolic significance? Or did it also represent for them a gateway to other realms, in which they could die and be reborn, or connect with supernatural intelligences?

A Psychedelic Thread Through History

Because of the prevalence of the use of psychedelics in rites and rituals in various civilizations throughout ancient history, we must ask ourselves: Did they simply stop, and their use in civilization die out until their rediscovery by Albert Hoffman, Gordon Wasson, and others in the mid-20th century? This seems like a strange idea, and if true, requires some explanation. Certainly, from a historical perspective, the spread of the Abrahamic faiths correlated to a decline, or more accurately, a persecution and religious cleansing of all psychedelic rites and rituals, particularly in Europe. This was certainly the reason for the fall of The Eleusinian Mysteries, and all similar “pagan” rites in general, whether involving psychedelics or not.

phoenix of the mysteriesAt least by outward appearances, the ancient mystery traditions seem to have been crushed beneath the heel of dogmatic empires, and to have disappeared from mainstream knowledge. Yet, you and I both know that they did not disappear, they merely went into hiding during the millennia of Abrahamic regimes. 

Could the same be true of the ritual and sacramental use of psychedelics? Have traditions such as alchemy and hermeticism kept the use of some types of psychedelic compounds alive secretly, or are their practices the symbolic echoes of ancient psychedelic rites? Certainly, figures such as the controversial hermeticist Aleister Crowley employed drugs of various kinds in ritual and magical use, but there is no known use of substances like this, or even much discussion of it, in organizations like Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, or Freemasonry. 

In lieu of any direct evidence of the ritual use of psychedelics in the more widespread modern mystery traditions, I present to you an alternative hypothesis: Could it be that these traditions hand down to us ritual structures which were originally based on psychedelic use, and that these ritual structures so painstakingly preserved through the millennia are like a holy grail, a container into which the sacred waters of psychedelic experience are waiting to be poured?

Certainly, based on what we know about psychedelics through both modern science, ancient shamanism, and the explorations of modern psychonauts, the ritual experiences of death and rebirth so emphasized in these traditions would almost certainly be given an exponential increase in potency, if undergone in a psychedelic state. On the other hand, the legal and ethical ramifications of doing so right now would be extremely prohibitive; however, perhaps someday in the future, when the therapeutic and religious ritual consumption of psychedelics is more widely accepted, as it is no doubt destined to be by the march of progress, this could be a possibility. 

 I’ll leave you with this passage from P. D. Newman, a Brother of the Scottish Rite:

The principle goal of Alchemy was (and is) the production of the lapis philosophorum. The Alchemical axiom states that the coveted stone is made “not of stone, not of bone, not of metal.” That is to say, it comes not from the mineral kingdom and not from the animal kingdom. It must, therefore, be deduced that the true stone of the philosophers is to be found only within the vegetable kingdom… the production… [was said to be derived] from the mysterious prima materia, or first matter… Truly, acacia is referred to precisely as the prima materia by both Cagliostro and Melissino in the respective Alchemico-Masonic rites authored by them. The same is true of the Fratres Lucis

“The search for physical immortality proceeds from a misunderstanding of the traditional teaching. On the contrary, the basic problem is: to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view. Immortality is then experienced as a present fact.” …The Alchemists purport that the stone of the wise has the power to give its possessor the knowledge of his very immortal soul. Hence, it’s also being called the stone of projection. For, the soul of its possessor is the very thing that appears to be projected upon the stone’s proper application.

acacia freemasonry

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

The Brotherhood of the Crypt

Imagine yourself as a citizen of the Roman empire. It is 52 BC and a warm summer night’s breeze brushes across your cheek, ruffling the tails of the blindfold tied tightly around your head. Perhaps you are a merchant or a sailor, possibly a soldier between campaigns. You are being led swiftly along a jagged rocky path, your hands bound, deep into the woodlands close to your home town. You come to a stop and you hear a series of passwords exchanged between your escort and a second voice. The words you recognize but their emphasis and arrangement is strange to you. Your escort tugs at your arm and you resume your brisk pace but as you step forward a few paces the unmistakably dank, cool air of a subterranean refuge fills your nostrils. After several twists and turns, your escort once more pulls you to a stop and says to you:

“I can bring you no further, neophyte. You must meet him alone.”

With a gentle push between your shoulder blades, he propels you forward into the unknown labyrinth. Your heart hammers against your rib cage as you take you first step into formless dark. Your foot meets nothing but air and you are plunged headlong into a pool of impossibly cold water. After negotiating several more trials of a similar nature, you feel an unnatural warmth on your skin and you begin to hear the crackling of a fire and the echoes of chanting ahead of you. As you step forward into this room, you are seized at either arm and rushed forward and pushed down on your knees. You are beginning to regret your foolish decision when suddenly your hoodwink is removed. You are blinded by the light of burning braziers and as your vision readjusts to the new light you see a man standing before you garbed in a black robe and wearing a fearsome mask. Behind him is a towering stone stele depicting a man astride a writhing bull, plunging his dagger into its breast. Plants appear to be growing from the wound and various animals are depicted as sharing in the feast. The entire scene is bordered by the zodiacal sigils and cornered by effigies of the Four Winds. The man in black begins to speak:

“When the peace of our world was threatened by the great demon Ahriman, humanity had no hope of prevailing against such a potent force of violence and despair. Ahriman sought to destroy this world by inducing drought, thirst and starvation. Not a drop of moisture remained in the kingdoms of the plants and animals and the whole world cried out in desperation. In our darkest hour, the great hero Mithras, sprang forth from the stone of the world and took up the orb of the Cosmos in his protective embrace. From his bow he let fly an arrow that struck the earth and from this wound came a renewing spring, which rejuvenated the Earth, if only temporarily. Still the threat of destruction persisted and with the assistance of the moon-mother, Selene, the vital fluid essence of life itself was secreted away in a giant bull on Earth. A raven, acting as the messenger of the Sun, came to Mithras and told him of the forest in which the bull was hiding. Mithras burned away the withered and desiccated trees and forced the great bull out in the open. He captured the bull and dragged it underground into the bowels of the Earth where he wrestled it into submission and plunged his dagger into its breast. Trees sprang from the wound, bees were born from the droplets of blood and all of the earth was rejuvenated by this great sacrifice.”

The man in black steps forward and cuts you free of your bonds and takes your right hand in his and, clasping it firmly, declares, “Behold the grip of Mithras. It shall ever identify you as being in allegiance with your brethren as Mithras and Helios were united in like manner. Rise, Raven, and take your rightful place amongst your Brethren!”

The Dawn of Mithras

Although embellished with artistic license, the above account is close to the experience that the novice initiate into the Roman cult of Mithras would have had. Mithraism has its roots in the dawn of civilization, a deity named Mitras making an appearance in the Vedas as the bringer of the light of dawn nearly 2,000 thousand years before his bull-slaying counterpart would appear in Iran. From Persia, Mithras made his way to Greece through Mithradates Eupator VI, a grizzled naval commando of the ancient Mediterranean Sea and king of the Cilician Empire who helped the Greeks repel the attempted conquest of

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Mithradates Eupator VI

Rome. Mithradates was the first to establish Mithras at the head of a mystery religion. This fraternity, created and led by Mithradates himself, functioned as a sort of ancient special forces to be used in piratical incursions across the Mediterranean. The Cilician navy rose to infamy and came to dominate the Mediterranean slave trade after the dissolution of the Carthaginian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. These “pirates of Mithras” also carried out an enterprise of kidnapping Roman magistrates and their families, most likely under the direction of Mithradates himself for political motives as well as profit.

These early Mithraists, who were in nearly constant opposition to the forces of Roman imperialism, conceived of themselves as a sort of hidden militia of Mithras, the cryphii or ‘hidden ones’. They recognized Mithras as a god of righteous warfare, of resistance to oppressive force. Eventually the iron hand of the Roman general Pompey shattered the rule Mithradtes VI and his fraternal mercenaries were scattered to the winds. A few of these Mithraic pirates were captured and paraded through the streets of Rome as part of Pompey’s tribute, the general then installing them as beekeepers in province of Apulia. From here, Mithraism was rekindled and slowly spread northwards to the teeming and lively marketplaces of Rome and found welcome among the Roman collegia, associations of tradesmen and merchants. Mithraism further ingratiated itself into the fabric of Roman society as the cult spread like wildfire among the legions, similar to the expansion of Freemasonry in the 19th century throughout the military of the British Empire. At the height of the Roman imperial period, followers of Mithras ranged as far afield as the scorching fringes of the Sahara to the windswept moors of Hadrian’s Wall.

mithras

Mithras slaying the bull

The Cult of the Invincible Sun

Mithras was a solar deity and bore the title of Sol Invictus, “Invincible Sun”, in reference to his pact with the Sun to restore the Earth. Very few Mithraic liturgical texts have made their way into contemporary hands, as befits a secret society, but a few scraps do remain. Some scholars, such as Robert Turcan in ‘Cults of the Roman Empire’ (1996) speculate that in performing the duties that the Sun was normally responsible for (duties that Helios was somehow prevented from fulfilling), Mithras assumed his throne by his act of heroism. Within the mithraeum, Mithras’ position was always in the south, representing the Sun at full strength at the meridian. On the entrance of the Mithraic crypt and within the mythology of the fraternity, Mithras is flanked by two attendants, Cautes and Cautophates, who represented the Sun at dawn and sunset respectively. Cautes holds a torch pointing upwards while Cautophates directs his towards the ground. They have also been taken as representing the vernal (ascending) and autumnal (descending) equinoxes, which along with the winter and summer solstices, were of the utmost importance to the Mithraic cult.

Mithraism was a religion of the crypt and unlike other Roman mystery religions, had no exoteric function. They held no public ceremonies and the mithraeum were strictly off-limits to outsiders. Because they took no public tithing, Mithraism had to adapt to the circumstances of the individual chapters. The mysteries of Mithras were held in tent’s on the battlefield, discreet taverns and, when possible, in custom built subterranean temples financed by wealthy patrons of the brotherhood. These lavish temples, such as the mithraeum of Ostia, would have been ringed in statuary depicting the seven classical planets and had ceilings painted a deep sky blue, daubed with white stars. The regular meetings of the Mithraic brotherhood were known as “magic banquets” and were held weekly if not daily. They consisted of the brothers entering the temple in procession determined by rank of initiation and taking up places around the edges of the mithraeum. The master of the temple fulfilled the symbolic role of Saturn and sat in a throne wreathed in solar symbols. On occasions that required no extraordinary ceremonies, the proceedings began with a lecture upon spiritual and moral philosophy, no doubt illustrated by the symbolism and astrological allegories of the myth of Mithras. Following this period of study the brethren would participate in a symbolic meal of bread and wine, similar to the Catholic Eucharist, as a symbol of the feast shared by Mithras and Helios, followed by a communal meal.

leontocephaline-ostia

A drawing of Aion found at the mithraeum of Ostia

Under the Canopy of Heaven

The study of time and astronomy were of central importance to the mysteries of Mithras. One of the dominant artistic figures of many mithraeum, the lion-headed deity Aion watched over the proceedings of the mystery cult. At Ostia, he was depicted as holding the twin keys of wisdom, the scepter of royal power and the thunderbolt with the tools of a smith, a rooster and a pine cone at his feet. He also has a serpent wrapped around him, the snake’s ability to shed its skin representing infinity. Aion represented unbounded time, in contrast to the limited and linear form of time personified by the Saturnian deity Kronos and was often encircled by the zodiac. Mithraism came into being in the same era as the discovery by Grecian astronomer Hipparchus of the phenomenon now known as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by the subtle wobble of the orientation of the Earth’s axis and takes 25,920 years to complete. It has astrological significance in that every 2,160 years the Sun rises on the summer solstice in alignment with a different zodiacal constellation. The Mithraic mysteries were conceived in the midst of a change in ages. Mithras, as the newborn ‘Sol Invictus’, represents the victory of the fire-sign Aries over the previous age of Taurus the Bull. The twin aspects of Cautes and Cautophates symbolizing the addition of Gemini to the retinue of the Sun, the astrological age of Gemini having preceeded that of Taurus. In the tauroctony scene that could be found in every mithraeum, several animals are shown feasting on the bull, including a dog, a lion and a scorpion. These animals surely represented constellations though their exact symbolism and interplay within the Mithraic myth has been lost to history.

The Degrees of the Crypt

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An artist’s interpretation of the initiation ritual of the degree of Soldier

 

The mysteries of Mithras were divided into seven degrees, each connected to one of the seven classical planets. The initiation of the first degree gained the initiate the title of Raven. This oracular bird who could speak like a man occupied a position between the worlds and was thus the first point of contact between the neophyte and the ineffable. Candidates of the grade of Nymphus wore the flammeum, the bridal veil worn by Roman women on their wedding day. At the crescendo of the ritual, the veil was removed to reveal some particular arrangement of ritually significant objects. The words, “Look Nymphus! Hail, Nymphus! Hail young light!” were spoken, these phrases suggesting that the candidate held a lantern. The title of “Nymphus” implies that this degree represented a intermediate stage between the novice state of the Raven and the mastery implicit in the rank of Soldier. The Soldier bore a mark, either tattooed or branded, as a sign of his commitment to the militia of Mithras. During his initiation, the Soldier would have been presented with a crown on the point of a sword. He was then required to divert the crown to his shoulder, declaring that Mithras was his only true crown. The consecration of the degree of Lion was a ritual bathed in fire. The emblems of this degree are the fire-shovel, the sistrum of Isis and the heavenly fire of the thunderbolt. Fire being the enemy of water, the candidate’s hands were washed with honey to ensure his purity. The ritual itself consisted of physical trials by fire, presumably similar to the fire-walking stunts of the Hindu fakirs.  The candidate for the rank of Persian also had his hands washed in honey but for a different symbolism. The Persian was granted the privilege of harvesting the fruits grown by the grace of Mithras’ sacrifice. His emblems were thus the sickle and the Phyrgian cap of liberty. We know nothing of the ritual of the Heliodromos, the Sun-runner, other than that the symbols of his grade were the torch, a radiant crown and the flail. The Father, adorned in a headdress likening him to Mithras, led the proceedings of the temple and it has been speculated that he and a Heliodromos fulfilled the roles of Mithras and the Sun in the ritual re-enactment of the celestial feast.

There is one gift that the mysterious brothers of Mithras gave to the world that has survived to modern times. Every time we clasp hands with a friend, a colleague or a stranger in a handshake, we recognize them as brothers initiated into the mysteries of the cave-dwelling god of sacrifice. The modern handshake was birthed from the cult of Mithras and has endured millennia in its original form. It is obvious, from what scraps of their rituals remain, that some core concepts of Mithraism have survived in modern Freemasonry. It would be irresponsible to attribute the origin of Freemasonry to this cult or that society but it is beyond doubt that certain aspects of many ancient fraternities have been folded within the embrace of Speculative Freemasonry. The Mithraic obsession with utter secrecy concerning the whereabouts and operations of their temples is certainly echoed in Freemasonry, as is the practice of greeting brothers by certain handshakes. As Freemasons, an examination of Mithraism and similar ancient mysteries will surely bring us closer to timeless and unwavering truths glimpsed by so many throughout the vast expanse of time.

“When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart: ‘By the same powers that you are slain, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hands shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the Tree of Heaven.'”

-Khalil Gibran, Lebanese poet and Freemason