“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.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this passage to the study of the Ancient Mysteries and to the modern initiatic tradition, from Hermeticism and Freemasonry to Wicca and Neo-Paganism.
Because what we have here is the only first-hand account of the experience of the Mysteries left to us from antiquity. In this case, it is an ostensibly fictional account of an experience of the Mysteries of Isis in the second century CE as told in the novel Metamorphoses by the writer Lucius Apuleius. (As I said last time, scholars generally accept the details of Apuleius’ novel as genuine accounts of the worship and Mysteries of the Goddess.) Furthermore, this passage has served as the basis for many an initiation rite in the modern era. How many of us have been through rituals in which we were “conveyed through all the Elements?” Or perhaps a better question is, how many of us have not?
In the passage above, note that Lucius has given us no details of ritual; he has betrayed no secrets of the Mysteries. He merely hints for us about his experience. And that experience is not the true secret of the Mysteries, for “I have told you things about which, though you have heard them, it is inevitable that you must yet be ignorant.”
The truth about the Mysteries cannot be known except by personal experience of those Mysteries. I dare say, you could know all the ritual details, yet those details would tell you nothing about what your own Mystery experience would be like. In fact, I know that’s true. I belong to a group with a long initiatic tradition, which means many (but not all, she said mysteriously) of the rites and teachings of the group are readily available to the general public. Very often, new applicants will have read the rituals through which they will pass when they become Initiates. Yet their shining faces, freshly opened hearts, and the magic clearly flowing through them at the end of the initiation attest to the fact that the reading of a secret ritual is not at all the same thing as the experience of a sacred Mystery.
So when Lucius records the passage we’re discussing, he remains true to his vows to the Goddess; he does not betray Her secrets in the least. Nor will we if we try to tease out some of the Mysteries at which Lucius hints.
Many of the Ancient Mysteries seem to have involved an imitatio Dei, that is, an imitation of the Deity of the Mystery. Most scholars think that the Eleusinian Mysteries included a participation in a Search for Persephone, in holy imitation of Demeter. Thus would make good ritual sense for Isiac initiates to have participated in a Search for Osiris.
Egyptian tradition, in fact, has such a Search for Osiris. We hear of it in the funerary stele of an official at Abydos, the sanctuary of Osiris. The official, I-Khert-Nofert, took the part of “Chief of the Mysteries” in the annual Mystery play. The public participated as well—either on the team of Osiris or of Set. During the ritual battle between the “armies” of these two Gods, Osiris was lost. A search ensued accompanied by the lamentations of the women of the town. When the body of the murdered Osiris was finally discovered, officials playing the parts of Isis, Nephthys, Horus, Thoth, and Anubis prepared the God for burial, with “Isis” reciting magical formulæ to aid Her beloved. Next, Osiris was buried and enthroned in his new palace in the underworld. Finally, another battle took place, avenging the death of the God.
Plutarch mentions a Search for Osiris, which he tells his readers occurs at night when the robe-bearers and priests go down to the sea and
“bring forth the sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water which they have taken up, and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found.”
Yet in neither of these cases do the participants seem to specifically imitate Isis, except for the townswomen who lament Osiris. Instead, it is the entire community that searches for the God, led not by Isis, but by I-Khert-Nofret. Nor are these rites secret or as personal as the initiation of Lucius’ into Isis’ Greco-Roman Mysteries.
Unlike the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, which initiated thousands at once, Lucius seems to be the sole initiate in his Mystery rites. This focus on one initiate at a time is more similar to many modern initiation rites. This being the case, it seems more likely to me that the Deity being imitated in the Mysteries of Isis was Osiris Himself. Thus the initiate would become the Beloved of Isis and the Goddess Herself would take charge of the initiate’s transformation.
If Osiris died, the initiate of Isis “approached the confines of death.” He was “conveyed though all the Elements and returned.” This is generally taken as some form of elemental ordeals—of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Then the initiate has a personal experience of the Divine Ones. Perhaps he encounters the True Osiris, Who is the Sun at Midnight. Perhaps the Light signals his rebirth into Light and Life through Isis. In either case (or in some other case altogether), the initiate is drawn near to the Goddesses and Gods, above and below. Having passed the ordeals and seen the Divine Ones, the initiate now has a personal relationship with Them, having “addressed them face to face.”
And is that not what we want from our Mysteries—a closer relationship with the Divine? Yet if you want to know more of the Mysteries of Isis, you will have to experience them for yourself. You’ll find my imaginations of them in Isis Magic, where you can read all the Mystery scripts you like. But until you undertake them for yourself, until you develop your own relationship with Isis, “though you have heard them, it is inevitable that you must yet be ignorant.”
Ah…a note on Isis Magic. We are currently getting the printing quotes. The time is drawing near. I think you will really like the new edition. More about that later!