Mysteries. The word has manna. Depth. Intrigue. It smells of magic.

At the autumn equinox, as we begin the slow solar slide into the darkness of the year, I find my thoughts often turn to Mystery and The Mysteries, for as Dionysos (a Mystery God Himself) says in Euripides’ The Bakchai, “Darkness inspires awe.”

The always Mysterious sphinx; love this pic, don’t know anything about it, unfortunately

Today, when we speak of the mysteries of this or that, we usually are referring to something important, yet a bit vague, unknown, or ill understood: the mysteries of the origin of the universe, the mysteries of life, the mysteries of the human psyche.

Yet the Mysteries that have my attention right now are the ancient Mysteries of the Goddesses and Gods. And while it’s true that our understanding of these Mysteries is incomplete, somewhat vague, and much is indeed unknown, when the ancients themselves spoke of The Mysteries, they had something rather specific in mind.

A fresco from Herculaneum (Pompeii’s neighboring town) showing worship at the Temple of Isis

To them, The Mysteries were initiatory ritual and the secrets of the Mysteries were secrets of ritual and personal experience of that ritual.

For more than a thousand years, the Mysteries were an important part of Pagan spirituality for countless numbers of women, men, and children. We know also that the Mysteries involved many layers of meaning. Their ancient origins gave them a foundation in nature religion. They honored the workings of the Goddesses and Gods through life and death, sex and birth, growth and decay. There were aspects of fertility magic in a number of the Mysteries. Myth, nature allegory, and cosmology were other important symbolic layers.

There were a number of famous Mysteries in the ancient world. Most prominent were the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, the Mysteries of Dionysos/Orpheus, the Mysteries of the Great Mother Kybele and Attis, the Mithraic Mysteries, the Samothracian Mysteries, and, of course, the Mysteries of Isis.

The ancients had specific hopes and expectations about their participation in Mysteries. They expected a deepening of their relationship with the Deity of the Mysteries. They might also be initiated to get a fresh start in life or for healing. Very importantly, Mystery initiation offered hopes of a better life after death. I venture to say that modern initiates might heartily agree with these as very good reasons for initiation.

To this day, the Mysteries have kept most of their secrets. We do not know for certain what the initiatory ritual of any of the Mysteries was like. We have found no ancient ritual scripts. The initiates themselves were sworn to secrecy and have kept their vows. In fact, some of the few precious hints we have about the Mysteries have often come from those hostile to the Mysteries: early Christian writers who were unconcerned about the secrecy and revealed Mystery tidbits in order to mock them. (Imagine how easy our own rites would be to laugh at: “and then they cut an apple in half and reveal the seeds inside! The big mystery is an apple!” Hardy har har!)

Yet with clues like these, as well as literary references and archeological information, we can form a picture of some of the Mysteries. For instance, scholars have reason to believe that many or even most of the ancient Mysteries had the initiates participate in an imitation of the Goddess or God of the Mysteries. Thus the Eleusinian initiate might have imitated Demeter’s search for Persephone and celebrated Her joy in finding Her daughter. The Isiac initiate would have a good subject for Divine imitation in Isis’ search for Osiris.

Lucius Apuleius, probably an initiate of the Mysteries of Isis

The best source of information about the Mysteries of Isis comes from a novel, Metamorphoses, also called, The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius. Apuleius was a Romanized North African writer with a keen interest in religion and Mysteries. The last chapter of his book (which is the only ancient novel to survive in its entirety, by the way) is all about how Isis saves the character Lucius and Lucius then becomes an initiate of Her Mysteries. Scholars generally agree that Apuleius’ descriptions of Isiac worship and Mysteries are an insider view.

Like any good Mystery initiate, Apuleius does not reveal the secrets of his initiation. Yet what he does tell us has become famous as a statement hinting at what the experience of initiation into the ancient Mystery traditions may have been like:

“Hear then, but believe, for what I say is true. I have approached the confines of death and, treading the threshold of Proserpina, I was conveyed through all the Elements and returned; I have seen the sun flashing with brilliant white Light at midnight. I have drawn very near to the gods above and the gods below, and I have addressed them face to face. Behold, I have told you things about which, though you have heard them, it is inevitable that you must yet be ignorant.” (Translation by Adam P. Forrest)

In the many centuries since Apuleius wrote this, this statement has become the backbone for many, many initiatory rites—from some forms of Freemasonry to modern Neo-Pagan circles and temples. If you like, you might meditate on this passage and next time we’ll look at some possible interpretations of what this hint at the Mysteries of Isis can tell us.

Isis appearing to Lucius (yes, he’s the donkey) in The Golden Ass