Masonic Articles and Essays
Woman's Part in the Mysteries
Bro... J. Page
A fascinating article detailing the role of women in the Ancient Mystery traditions, from the 1925 edition of “Freemasonry Universal: The Official Journal of Universal Co-Masonry."
The oldest mystery Rite of which we have any detailed information is that of the Ishtar in ancient Babylon, the Sumerian records of which pre-date the Egyptian records by at least 1,500 years.
The story relates how Ishtar, Goddess of Love and War, followed the setting sun into the Underworld of Aralu in search of her lost lover Dumuzi, "the only begotten." This was the same being whose name was later corrupted into Tammuz, and who is the spirit of Corn and Vegetation.
Ishtar passed through seven gates, and finally appeared before the throne of Nin-Ki-Gal, the Goddess of Death and Queen of the Underworld. She refused to surrender to Ishtar the lost one, and instead flung her into a dungeon, but ultimately the high Gods obtained her release and she returned with Dumuzi, at whose coming Spring appeared on earth.
Here we have the age-old story of a Myth which becomes an that allegory of the Quest of the Soul after the Divine, and the lesson triumphs over Death and rises therefrom transfigured by the Sufferings through which it has passed. Although many details are lacking which we should like to know, the fact that the two main characters are Male and Female makes it fairly certain that even in those early days this was a mixed rite.
When, however, we turn to the famous Mysteries of Eleusis we are in possession of abundant evidence that women were admitted on term of equality with men. If we had no other evidence the famous passage in the " Frogs," by Aristophanes, wherein he says that he observed in the procession at Eleusis a pretty girl, would settle the question once for all. But there are numerous other references in the Classics to the fact.
In this Rite there were, roughly speaking, three degrees, the first, consisting of the Lesser Mysteries of Agrae, took place at Athens. The second degree was held at Eleusis, and the initiates to had to go in procession from Athens to that place in order receive For the third degree they had to wait at least a year, and this also took place at Eleusis.
In the second degree, i.e., the first at Eleusis, the initiates had to identify themselves with Demeter, and like her seek for the lost Persephone along the sea-shore, bearing torches in their hands.
As a result of these various ceremonies they were shown the working tools of a field laborer, the most important of which was the winnowing fan, and to these the hierophant attached a symbolic meaning. The final point in the ceremony consisted, in showing them an ear of corn, and at the same moment water was poured on the ground. This cannot fail to remind us of certain incidents in the F.C. degree.
The third degree consisted of a dramatic representation of the story of Persephone, wherein the initiate identified himself with the Goddess, and like her passed triumphant through Death and the Underworld to the resurrection.
The Orphic Rites dealt with the same theme but from a slightly different angle, the chief character being Dionysius or Bacchus. It came from the East, probably from Asia Minor, and for Freemasons is of peculiar interest in that Strabo informs us that the Dionysian Artificers had a mystery rite associated with that God. It is possible that the Dionysian Artificers are the ancestors of modern Freemasonry, and therefore the fact that in the Orphic Rites women as wen as men were admitted is of considerable importance. It may surprise some readers to learn that a worn-down version of these Rites still survives among the Macedonian peasantry of to-day.
Dionysius represents the corn that is buried to rise as the young wheat, and as late as 1908, the peasantry for several days each year enacted a Mystery drama wherein the chief incidents in the death and resurrection of the God were depicted. Facts like these should make us hesitate to deny the possibility of a direct connection between Freemasonry and the ancient Mysteries.
Another important Rite was the Mystery Rite of Cybele, or the Great Mother 'Its chief center was at Rome and the hero who died and rose again was her lover, Attis. There were both exoteric ceremonies, which took place at the Spring Equinox, and also secret initiation rites, among which one of the most important was baptism in the blood of the bull. The initiates were made to identify themselves with Attis, and, like him, symbolically rose from the grave. Here again there is undoubted evidence that both women and men went through these ceremonies, and records exist showing that very often husband and wife went through them together.
There still remain several important rites, but these must be left for the next number. Before leaving the subject, however, it seems desirable to point out that there were a number of Rites, such as that of Sabazius, about which we know little, but which nevertheless catered for a very considerable number of people who desired something more intimate than the exoteric official groups.
Indeed, any spiritually-minded man or woman was almost certain to be a member of one of them, and only in one case have we reason to believe that women were excluded, namely, from the Rite of Mithra. Even here the matter is disputed by some authorities, although the general consensus or opinion is that while there may have been an adoptive rite connected with Mithraism which admitted women, they were excluded from the actual mystery of Mithra itself. The reason for this exception seems to have been purely practical. The Mithraic Rite was peculiarly associated with the Roman Army and was particularly strong among the legions on the frontier of the Empire where the troops were stationed among a comparatively barbarous peasantry, among whom few suitable women candidates would be found.
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