The Ancient Mysteries of Egypt and Greece

Masonic Articles and Essays

The Ancient Mysteries of Egypt and Greece

W... Bro... D. McLaren, P.P.G.D.

Date Published: 4/5/2022                        

It is often said that the Craft of Freemasonry is descended from the Ancient Mysteries. In historical terms, this means we can trace a line from the cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece to the practice of our rituals today. What keys to the mystery of Freemasonry do the rites of these lost cultures hold?

In the explanation of the first T.B. it is stated that "the usages and customs of Freemasonry correspond, in a great degree with the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt," and there are some Brethren who in their belief in the antiquity of our Order, would derive its origin from these Mysteries. It is generally believed that Egypt was the home of the Mysteries, and I desire, as far as time will permit, to trace shortly how these Egyptian Mysteries gradually found their way into, and influenced the native religions of the nations with which Egypt came in contact. Probably, no other nation of that time was better fitted by its mental structure, as revealed by what little we know of its literature, and the comparatively advanced state of its knowledge to become the home of mysteries. The amount of knowledge acquired by the priestly caste and revealed only to those chosen by them to share in that knowledge was very extensive and, for these times, very accurate. Living in a country where a yearly division of land was necessary owing to the varying amounts of the Nile floods, a knowledge of geometry was gradually attained which included not only the geometry of areas, but also of solids and conic sections. Dr. Gow says in reference to this subject: "Beyond question, Egyptian geometry such as it was, was the germ from which grew that magnificent science to which every Englishman is indebted for his first lessons in right seeing and thinking." 

The scholars of the Nile Valley also possessed knowledge of the rudiments of Trigonometry, and their approximation to the value of "pi " was not improved for many centuries. Ahmes, a scribe of the Hyksos Dynasty, 1900 B.C., gave the value of pi = (16/9)^2 = 3.1605, a remarkably good approximation for the period when geometry was little more than mensuration. "In matters arithmetical, they possessed a knowledge of the three progressions, Arithmetical, Geometrical, and Harmonic. In astronomy, without the help of accurate instruments of observation at the disposal of modern observers of the heavens, they had measured the obliquity of the ecliptic, had explained the solar and lunar eclipses, and at a very early date were in possession of a knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes. In arts and manufactures they attained to a very high standard of excellence: as potters, they had few rivals, and they knew how to blow glass, they used saws, levers, and balances, and were skilful builders of ships. The gigantic and wonderful Hall of Karnack and the Pillars of Luxor, not to mention the Pyramids, testify that as masons they accomplished feats which could hardly be achieved in our mechanical and scientific age, and it is not too much to assert that the measurements that Greece handed on to Rome and to Europe, in the middle ages, were derived from Egypt." 

After the interesting paper read before the Association last year in "The Life of Sethos," by W. Bro. R. E. Wallace James, I do not consider it necessary to deal with any one of the Egyptian Mysteries in particular. In general, candidates for these mysteries and after purification by washing and a time spent in darkness, had to give his assent to the rules of the society, and an oath of fidelity was required of him, after which he was restored to light. A password was given to him and signs of recognition, and he was instructed in the names and attributes of the gods, and received instruction in the then known sciences. In some cases the highest honor granted was participation in the election of a king, a belief in the immortality of the soul was, no doubt, communicated to those admitted to their mysteries. On the walls of the Temple of Phylae were recorded the death, resurrection, and ascension and deification of the god to whom it was sacred. Not much is known of these mysteries, and what we do know of them is derived from the writings of the Greeks, and chiefly those of Iamblicus. But it may safely be said that they never, in Egypt, developed into centers of orgiastic license, such as made a byword of the Bacchanalia, at Rome, and the Dionysiac ceremonies in Thrace. All this knowledge was the possession of the priest- astronomers who selfishly acquired a predominant power by a policy of silence outside their order, even on these purely scientific matters. As regards their religion, Egypt suffered from a superfluity of Gods and Goddesses. It has been said that an enumeration of them would result "in compilations resembling census returns." 

Herodotus tells us how a pharaoh of the 12th dynasty undertook to build the Labyrinth as a temple to accommodate all the gods and found it necessary to construct no fewer than three thousand apartments. Here, as in the other great religions of the world, is found a Trinity, in this case consisting of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Osiris, variously styled, the Manifestor of Good, Lord of Lords, King of the Gods, was the chief of the Gods worshipped by the Egyptians, and represented the Nile and the sun, on which the life of Egypt entirely depended. After having conquered all Egypt and given it excellent laws, he was overcome by his evil brother, Set, who by stratagem enclosed him in a chest and threw him into the sea. His wife Isis, having heard of this, set out in sorrow in search of the chest, which was driven ashore at Byblos, and enclosed in a tree which had suddenly sprung up. Isis eventually obtained the chest and the body of Osiris which his brother had divided into 14 pieces. This was restored to life, and he afterwards became a judge of the dead. Isis was the chief Goddess of the Egyptian mythology and as I have just said, was the wife and sister of Osiris. Her worship was more particularly associated with Memphis, but, at a later date, it spread over all Egypt. The mysteries in connection with the celebrations lasted for eight days and consisted of a general purification by washing. Her priests were required to lead chaste lives and accept celibacy. The worship of the third member of the trinity, Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, was also general throughout Egypt. His eyes were represented by the sun and moon ; the festival took place on the 30th Epiphi. The images of Isis and Horus became, in early Christian days, those of the Virgin and the Child, and while one would not identify this trinity of deities with the Christian Trinity, the underlying conception of a divine Father, Mother, and Son, is perhaps akin to it. Among the Egyptians was developed a fairly clear idea of a life after death, of punishment and reward, dependent on the life led previous to death. Pythagorus (569-470 B.C.), a former pupil of the Egyptian Priests, taught the immortality of the soul. 

According to Plutarch, the death of Osiris was celebrated annually throughout Egypt towards the end of November, when the Nile flood was subsiding. According to Herodotus the grave of Osiris was at Sais in Lower Egypt, where there was a lake on which the sufferings of Osiris were displayed as a mystery by night. While the people mourned and beat their breasts to show their sorrow for the sufferings of the god, an image of a cow made of gilt wood with a golden sun between its horns was carried out of the temple where it had been placed at the termination of the previous year's commemoration. This probably represented Isis herself in her search for the dead body of Osiris. In the last day of the ceremonials the priests, followed by the people, went down to the sea, the priests carrying a shrine containing a golden casket into which water was poured, accompanied with the shout that Osiris was found. A small moon-shaped image was then formed and robed and ornamented, signifying the resurrection of the god. To show their joy, rows of oil lamps were fastened to the outside of the houses and these burned throughout the night. 

The origin of Egyptian History is lost in the mists of antiquity. To fix its chronology is not easy. Sometime about the third century before Christ an Egyptian priest, Man-e-Tho, wrote a history of his native country and divided the rulers of Egypt into thirty-one groups, or dynasties. Historians, generally, have accepted this division, although there is not yet agreement on the chronology. The two leading schools of authorities in this connection, the American and the Berlin, differ widely in dates prior to 1000 B.C. Mr. Davidson, who recently published an exhaustive research volume on the great Pyramids and Egyptian chronology, appears to refute both schools and to establish a complete synchronism of ancient writers in accord with Archbishop Usher's bible dates. For my present purpose, namely of tracing the historical points of contact where the influences of Egyptian knowledge and beliefs on the surrounding peoples and more especially on the Jewish and Greek nations, occurred I shall adopt that of Mr. Davidson. It is generally agreed that Lower and Upper Egypt became united into one kingdom under a powerful and warlike chief who became the first Pharaoh and whose name was Menes, about 3500 B.C. His capital was situated at Memphis. It is also known that during the twelfth dynasty Egypt, which had formerly been entirely agricultural, now became famous in commerce and came into touch with Europe, as a considerable amount of their trade was carried on with the Island of Crete. Since 1894, archaeologists have been carrying on excavations in that island and their discoveries have upset the previous knowledge of historians for they find that, at the time of their trading with the Egyptians, the inhabitants of that island were more advanced in their arts and sciences than were the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Here, however, is the first point of historical contact between Egypt and Europe, probably 2000 B.C., but of more interest to us as Masons is the intercourse of Egyptians and the Jews. 

In the Bible 200 references are made to Egypt and ten pharaohs are mentioned, although unfortunately their names are not mentioned. The first mention of a pharaoh is found in Genesis XII, 10, where Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew nation, had migrated from Babylonia into the Land of Canaan, from which famine forced him to visit the fertile land of Egypt. This took place when Egypt was ruled over by the Hyksos or Shepherd King, in the reign of the 17th dynasty. A little more than 200 years after, during the 18th dynasty, that is 100 years before the reign of Tut-Ank-Amen, Jacob and his sons were driven by famine to Egypt, to join Joseph, who had married Asenath, the daughter of a high priest of On, whose name was Potipherah, meaning the Gift of the Sun God, where was granted them some land lying between where Cairo now stands and where the Suez Canal has been constructed-the Land of Goschen. This may truly be termed the cradle of the Jewish race, for when the time came for them to leave the land, their nation had increased from 3 score and 6 to 2,000,000, counting men, women, and children. Moses, the leader of the exodus, under the name of Osarsiph (according to some authorities), is said to have held the office of High Priest of On. No one of the Hebrews by training and education. could have been better qualified to act as leader, and the laws laid down by him for a guidance in morals and hygiene have not been surpassed. These things became possible to him, no doubt, through his training for the priesthood. The exodus took place in the 5th year of the reign of Menephta, 1486 B.C. The next point of contact between a Hebrew leader and an Egyptian pharaoh is recorded in I Kings, III, 1, when Solomon is stated to have married an Egyptian princess, a daughter of one of the Pharaohs. 

Some authorities say that it was from this marriage, and his dealings with his wife's nation, that Solomon obtained his chief ideas of the plan of the Temple at Jerusalem, dedicated about 1005 B.C. and destroyed 588 B.C., and that the two Pillars which stood at the porch way or entrance to the Temple erected by Solomon, to keep ever before the eyes of the people a memorial of the happy deliverance of their forefathers from their Egyptian bondage, were merely copies of the obelisks which were to be found at the entrance of every Egyptian temple. The lions too, which decorated the thrones of the Egyptian kings found a counterpart in the lions on each side of Solomon's throne and the twelve on the steps leading thereto. Is it a mere coincidence that two of our Grand Masters whom we associate, one with the opening of the first or Holy Lodge, the other with presiding at the opening of the second or Sacred Lodge, should be so intimately connected with this mysterious land of the pharaohs? As Masons, the later relations between the Pharaohs and the Hebrews do not concern us. About 2000 years after the journey of Abraham to Egypt, St. Paul makes a reference to the wealth of that people. At varying periods during that time intercourse between the two nations was fairly close and no doubt it had a considerable influence on the customs and beliefs of the Hebrews. 

To us, as Masons, the fact that many of our Masonic secrets are expressed in the Hebraic or Chaldeaic language adds an additional interest to the study of the ancient history of these nations. After the expulsion of the Shepherd Kings, Egypt reached the zenith of her power. Her armies fought successful wars not only in Africa, but extended their victories to Asia and Europe, while her navy is said to have reached India. But her success was the cause of her undoing. Luxuriousness and indolence took hold of her peoples, and she had to submit to oppression under Ethiopia, until the priests elected to be king one of their own number, Sethos, who brought back peace to the land. On his death the land was divided into several states; over the province at the mouth of the Nile was a ruler, Psammetichus by name, who engaged Greek mercenaries in his armies, and was sympathetic to Greek emigrants, and the Greek language, which resulted in Egypt becoming more and more under the sway of Greece. After a short period of Persian domination, Alexander the Great added Egypt to his immense dominion and founded Alexandria 330 B.C. This became the focus of Hellenistic, Egyptian, and Eastern ideas. Here was established the famous library which was burnt down by the order of Caliph Omar in 642 A.D. The Greeks ransacked the scientific, literary, and mystical treasures of the East and South and with the accession of numerous Jews fleeing from the powers of Syria, Alexander developed a mystical kabbalism that penetrated the whole eastern Mediterranean and was known to St. Paul. 

What is more important than the employment of Greek mercenaries in the armies of Egypt is the fact that, in order to receive further learning, Egypt was visited by so many of Greece's greatest teachers and philosophers, either, like Thales, who had no other teachers and was the first Greek to go to Egypt for instruction from the priests, or, like Pythagorus, Democrates, Anaxagorus, Eudoxus, Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, to add to their learning by becoming pupils of the priests. But gradually Rome became in the ascendant. In 200 B.C. Egypt first entered the arena of Roman politics. Speaking of this period Livy makes use of a peculiar expression when he says he feels as though he were carried into a bottomless sea. Some see in this a reference to the fact that the sun entered the Sign of Pisces a little before 200 B.C. Moreover, at this date (i.e. about 250 B.C.), civilization began to hide itself in symbolism and secret societies and that is why some of the knowledge enshrined in the Greek mysteria and Roman Collegia passed into the Christian Church and the New Testament, so quietly, and is still so little recognised there. St. Paul says that he was " a Stewart of the Mysteries." About 30 B.C. Augustus imposed Rome's Imperium on the fertile province of Cleopatra. This knowledge acquired in Egypt became the common possession of the pupils who sat at the feet of these doctors of Egyptian philosophy. Facts show clearly a contact between Egypt and Greece lasting some 1500 years. In addition, Greek tradition fixes the foundation of Tyre and Sidon by Phoenix from Thebes, in Egypt, the foundation of Athens by Cecrops, from Sais, in Egypt, of Thebes in Central Greece by Cadmus, from Egyptian Thebes, and of Argos by Danaus from Libya about 1582 B.C. Tradition refers the institution of the Greek Mysteries to Orpheus or Dionysus whose legendary date I believe to be 1600 B.C. The chief of these, the Eleusinian Mysteries in Attica, was said to have been imported by King Erechtheus, who in a time of scarcity, like Jacob's sons, sought corn for his country in Egypt, and to have been instituted according to the writers, Diodorus and Isocrates, by order of Demeter, the Great Mother, herself. 

Historically, it would seem that the mysteries were re-established, consequent upon the invasion of Greece, about 1000 years B.C., by fierce Dorian tribes from the north. Greek and Phoenician colonies began to intermingle as early as 700 B.C., perhaps earlier, and Greece's great struggle against Persia at Marathon, 490 B.C., is evidence of much connection with the East via the Ionian Islands and Asia Minor. Certainly from the fifth century B.C., the Egyptian Trinity of Isis, Osiris and Horus, were represented in Greece by Demeter, Dionysus and Apollo respectively. It is not to be assumed that Greek initiates, though they took vows of secrecy, were as uncommunicative, in their best period, to the educated world, as were the Egyptians. Such a babbling race, as gave democratic ideas to Europe, was well able to throw out hints, before the dark hand of pagan Rome made secret societies dangerous; and as a matter of fact, the Eleusinian schools were open to all free men, indiscriminately, and included the most distinguished statesmen and philosophers of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. 

Egypt is almost certainly the home of mysteries, but the Greeks imparted to their representations a measure of art and beauty. The public observances of the initiates consisted of sacrificial ceremonies (orgia) and purifications to avoid some calamity in this life ; but private and personal purifications were enioined. against danger in a life to come. At Athens, violation of the mysteries was indictable under the jurisdiction of the Archon or chief magistrate with a jury of initiates. The mysteries celebrated were those of Zeus in Crete, Hera in Argolis, Athene and Dionysus (i.e. Bacchus) in Athens, Artemis (i.e. Diana) in Arcadia, Hecate in AEgina ; and those of the Cabiri in Samothrace. But by far the most famous, and the only ones with which I shall deal, were those at Attica in honour of Demeter and Persephone, mother and daughter. These were considered most holy and venerable throughout Greece, and laid hold on the popular imagination as did no worship of the Olympians. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that Demeter, sister and wife of Zeus, had a daughter Persephone, whom Hades (God of the Unseen) carried off while she gathered flowers in the Nvsian Plains in Asia Minor. Demeter, Mother of Earth, and Goddess of the Seedtime and Harvest, now cut off fruits from men till Zeus sent Mercury, his winged messenger, to Hades, to recover Persephone on condition that she had eaten nothing in the Kingdom of Hades. But Hades, that very morning, had caused her to eat some grains of a pomegranate. Hence, she still spends one half of the year with Hades and one half only in the upper air. Latin poets placed the seizure of Persephone in the Ashphodel Meadows of Sicilian Enna. This legend has a wonderful fascination, and if it can be said to enshrine any divine truth it would be that of a divine mother and daughter, a feminine counterpart of the Christian father and son; the daughter also "descending into hell" till rescued by the son in the form of the word (Mercury).

Now I think that all religions, anciently, were based on prophecy of a divine feminine revelation. To the ancients, a goddess mother was no difficulty. Demeter, Cybele, Isis, Magna Mater, and the Virgin Mother are all akin : and only Protestants in cold Latitudes would see anything strange in a "Jerusalem, Mother of us all." However that may be, the worship of Demeter and Persephone was of Catholic acceptance in Greece and by numerous testimonies was of a moralising and uplifting nature. This is borne witness to by the Greek writers, Pindar, Sophocles, Isocrates, Plutarch, and Plato. The mysteries were of two kinds, the Lesser and the Greater. Both kinds included spectacles as grand and impressive as painting, sculpture, music, and dancing could make them. The priests were called kerukes or heralds. The lesser Eleusinia were held at Agrae, on the Ilissus Stream, in honour of the daughter, Persephone, alone. Only Barbarians were excluded. The initiated were named Mystae and they had to wait a year before admittance to the greater mysteries. The candidate took and washed a sow, then sacrificed it, symbolising that he purposed not to " return like a sow to his wallowing in the mire." He was then sprinkled with water by a priest (Hydranos) and a Mystagogus, (Hierophant or Prophet) administered an oath of secrecy. He was not admitted at once to Demeter's Shrine, but remained during subsequent instruction in the porch or vestibule. Aristotle, however, asserts that no instruction was given to the Mystae but that while in a state of receptivity-a psychic state-their emotions and character were acted upon, The rape of Persephone having taken place in the winter, the lesser mysteries were held in February. 

The greater mysteries were held annually for nine days in September, Athens being thronged with visitors from all parts. The first day was that of assembling. On the second, a solemn "Pomp" or procession wended its way to the coast with the cry "Mystae, to the sea," and purificatory rites were performed. The third day was a day of fasting. In the evening a frugal meal was taken of sesame and honey, and sacrifices offered of fish and barley. Some maintain that there was a nine days' fast. On the fourth a procession displayed the "Sacred Things of Demeter," including pomegranates and poppy seeds in a basket. The fifth day became famous. The Mystae, led by torch bearer, went in , the dark evening with torches to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis to search (in imitation of her) for Persephone. Claudian gives a poetic picture of the shores and Bay of Eleusis, lit up by a myriad lamps in the gloom. They remained all night. The sixth day was sacred to Iacchus, son of Demeter, the Bacchus or Dionysus "Lord of Earth." His statue was carried along the sacred road amid joyous shouts : 30,000 spectators was nothing uncommon. In the night of the sixth and seventh the Mystae were initiated into the greater mysteries and became " Seers " (Epoptae), " Seers of Future Things," as St. Paul says, using the same word. In the lighted sanctuary they were shown (Autopsy) what none but Epoptae ever saw - a dramatic representation to the accompaniment of ancient hymns of the death and resurrection of the Holy Child, Iacchus and of the life of the gods. These mystic sights are described as divinely ineffable. On the same night, they performed a sacrament with the words, " I have fasted and I have drunk the Kukeon. I have taken from the chest. After tasting I have deposited in the basket and from the basket into the chest." The words of dismissal were "konx ompax."

On the seventh day they returned to Athens with happy jests, in imitation of those with which the sorrows of Demeter had been lightened. " A mystical drama," says Clement of Alexandria. Athletic games were held, the prize being a full corn in the ear. On the eighth were initiated those who were unable to be present on the sixth. The ninth was the day of full cups. Two cups were filled with water or wine and the contents were thrown, one to the east, and one to the west. These Eleusinian mysteries long survived the independence of Greece. The general belief of the ancients was that they opened a comforting prospect of a future life. The most Holy and perfect of the rites was to show an ear of corn mowed down in silence. One can not but think of the text, " Except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die." In my opinion it is certain that the mysteries were, in a measure, a "praeparatio evangelica" for had I time I could indicate very much mystery phraseology in the Epistles and Book of Revelations. Gradually, the Egyptian gods, notwithstanding fierce persecution raged for a time against their worshippers, ousted the old religion of Rome, until its Emperors were found filling their houses with the Egyptian Gods and building temples to them in the public parks of Rome, while soldiers of the Sixth Legion indulged in Isiac worship in York. And so it comes, as Dill, in his " Roman Society " says: "The scenes which were so common at Rome, or Pompeii, or Corinth, the procession of shaven, white-robed priests and acolytes marching to the sound of chants and barbaric music, with the sacred images and symbols of a worship which had been cradled on the Nile ages before the time of Romulus . . . . . . were reproduced in the remote villages on the edge of the Sahara and the Atlantic, in the valleys of the Alps or the Yorkshire dales.”

More Masonic Articles

Explore articles and essays written by Freemasons about Freemasonry.

Read More

Interested in becoming a member of the worlds oldest Fraternal organization?

Read More
"If I have seen further than
others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants."


Comasonic Logo

Co-Masonry, Co-Freemasonry, Women's Freemasonry, Men and Women, Mixed Masonry

Copyright © 1975-2024 Universal Co-Masonry, The American Federation of Human Rights, Inc. All Rights Reserved.