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Triptolemos between Demeter (left), who hands him ears of grain, and Persephone (right) blessing him (votive relief from Eleusis, c. 440-430 BC, National Archaeological Museum)

The mysteries (from Greekμυστήριον mysterion, which goes back to μύειν myein "to conclude") or mystery cults of the post-Atlantean period, which were cultivated at various mystery sites or mystery schools, served primarily to prepare the following cultural epochs. The teachings and rites were kept strictly secret, they were esōterikós (ἐσωτερικός), i.e. "internal", only "belonging to the inner realm"; betrayal of mysteries was usually punishable by death.

The Mysteries as Preparation for Future Cultural Epochs

One of the tasks of the Mysteries was to prepare, through the initiation of individual suitable spiritual disciples, abilities which in later cultural epochs, though then in a different way, would already be available to much broader sections of the population as a natural disposition.

„The first post-Atlantean cultural period, the ancient Indian, had to prepare in its womb the Urpersian, the ancient Persian in turn the Egyptian-Chaldean, and so on. And our fifth post-Atlantean cultural period must prepare the sixth cultural period of the next time. It has often been said that it is our spiritual-scientific task, through what we acquire, not only to gain spiritual material for our individual souls, which is quite right, but not the only thing - this is allotted to us for the eternal life of our souls - but it is also our task to prepare that which the sixth cultural period is then to have for its content, for its special external work. This is how it was in each of the individual post-Atlantean cultural periods. And those places in which that was always prepared which was the significant exterior for the next cultural period were the mystery places.“ (Lit.:GA 159, p. 301)

The Mysteries as the Source of Art, Science and Piety

In the ancient world, the Mysteries were the source of all art, science and piety, although at that time they were still linked into an inseparable unity.

„The mystery is the very birthplace of art. The mysteries were real, alive in the astral space. There one had a synthesis of truth, beauty and piety. To a great extent this was the case in the Egyptian Mysteries and those in Asia, also in the Mysteries of Greece, especially in the Eleusinian Mysteries. There the disciples really saw how the spiritual powers descended into the various forms of existence. At that time there was no other science than that which was seen. There was no other piety than that which rose in the soul when one contemplated the Mysteries. Nor was there any other beauty than that which one beheld when the gods descended.“ (Lit.:GA 96, p. 161f)

The Mysteries became particularly significant in the Egyptian-Chaldean period, when natural clairvoyance within humanity was extinguished in a very rapid dramatic process with the onset of the Kali-Yuga, the dark age, except for a few remnants. Through the mystery cults, the lost direct connection to the spiritual worlds was to be re-established through a spiritual training path inseparably linked with cultic elements.

The mysteries were not open to the public, but initially only to a narrow circle of initiates and their disciples, later also to wider circles. Admission to the Mysteries usually followed strict initiation rituals. The contents of the mysteries were kept strictly secret; betrayal of secrets was usually punishable by death.

In the Greco-Latin period, mystery cults were widespread. At the time when they were most widespread, large sections of the Greek and later especially the upper classes of the Roman bourgeoisie took part in mystery cults. Well-known cults in the ancient world were the Mysteries of Eleusis, the Samothracian Mysteries, the cult of Dionysus, the Mysteries of Ephesus, the cult of Liber Pater in Rome and southern Italy, the cult of Mithras, which was particularly widespread among Roman soldiers, the cult of Cybele and Attis, and the cult of Isis and Osiris. The little-known Hybernian Mysteries were also of particular importance.

Apuleius († around 170 AD) gives a concise, yet at the same time the most detailed account of the ancient mysteries in his initiation novel "The Golden Ass", in which he describes Lucius' initiation into the cult of Isis and Osiris:

„I went to the borderline between life and death. I entered Proserpinen's threshold, and after passing through all the elements, I returned again. At the time of deepest midnight I saw the sun shining in its brightest light; I beheld the lower and upper gods face to face, and worshipped them near.“

Apuleius: The Golden Ass, XI. Book[1]

Initiation in the pre-Christian and Christian Mysteries

„Man must be so prepared that during ordinary daily life he does those exercises prescribed by the schools of initiation, meditation, concentration and so on. These exercises are basically the same in all schools of initiation as far as their importance for man is concerned. They are only a little different from each other in that the further back we go into the pre-Christian schools of initiation, the more they are directed towards exercising, training the thinking, the powers of thought. The more we approach the Christian times, the more they are directed towards training the powers of the mind, and the nearer we come to the more recent times, the more we see how in the so-called Rosicrucian schools, conditioned by the demands and needs of humanity, a special kind of culture of the will, of exercises of the will, is introduced.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 53)

First Apocalyptic Seal

„In a man who does such, let us say, occult exercises, the astral body gradually shows the most manifold changes at night. It shows other light phenomena, it shows that plastic arrangement of the organs of which we have already spoken; and then it becomes more and more distinct and clear. The astral body gradually acquires an inner organisation such as the physical body has in its eyes, ears, and so on.

But that would still not lead to seeing much, especially not in the human being of today. However, man already perceives some things when his inner organs have been developed for a while. Then he begins to have a consciousness during sleep. Spiritual environments dawn out of the other general darkness. What man can perceive there, what he perceived in the older times in particular, for today it is already rarer, are wonderful images of plant life. These are the most primitive achievements of clairvoyance. Where once there was only the darkness of unconsciousness, there rises something like a dreamlike living, but real, of a kind of plant life. And much of what is described to you in the mythologies of the ancient peoples has been seen in this way. When it is described in legends that Odin, Vili and Vé found a tree on the beach and that they formed man from it, this indicates that it was first seen in such an image. In all mythologies you can perceive this primitive kind of seeing, the plant-like seeing. The depiction of such seeing is also Paradise, namely with its two trees of knowledge and of life; that is the result of this astral seeing.“ (S. 54)

„So that is the first thing. But then, in the pre-Christian mysteries, something special had to occur [...].

It is not enough that the organs are formed in the astral body. They must be imprinted in the etheric body. Just as a signet prints its letters in the sealing wax, so the organs of the astral body must be imprinted in the etheric body. For this purpose, in ancient initiations, the disciple to be initiated was placed in a very special position. For three and a half days he was brought into a state similar to death. We will recognise more and more that this condition can and must no longer be carried out today, but that other means of initiation are now available. I will now describe the pre-Christian initiation. In this initiation, the person to be initiated was brought into a death-like state for three and a half days by the one who understood it. Either he was placed in a kind of small chamber, in a kind of tomb. There he rested in a state of deathly sleep. Or else he was tied to a cross in a special position with his hands outstretched, for this promotes the occurrence of that state which one wanted to achieve.“ (S. 55f)

Second Apocalyptic Seal

„"During this death-like state at least a part of the etheric body left the physical body, so that a part of the etheric body, which was otherwise inside, was outside in this state. As you know, this is described in more exoteric lectures by saying that the etheric body is pulled out. That is not really the case. But we can only make these fine distinctions now. Thus, during these three and a half days, during which the priest-initiator well supervised the initiate, we have the human being in a state where only his lower part was united with the etheric body. This is the moment when the astral body with all its organs is imprinted in the etheric body. At this moment enlightenment occurs. When the initiate was awakened after three and a half days, then what is called enlightenment had occurred, that which had to follow the purification, which consists only in the formation of the organs of the astral body. Now the pupil was a knower in the spiritual world. What he had seen before was only a preliminary stage of seeing. This world, which consisted of a kind of formations that preferably imitated plants, it now supplemented itself with essentially new formations.“ (S. 56)

„The initiate who experienced the great moment when the astral body was imprinted into the etheric body, first got to see the most important group souls. If we look back into the ancient times of humanity, we find everywhere that the present I has developed out of such group consciousness, group-I, so that for the seer, when he looks back, the individual human beings flow more and more together into the group souls. Now there are mainly four types of group souls, four archetypes of group souls.“ (S. 58)

„Now what about that which comes out during sleep in the ordinary human being, what about the astral body and the I? These are also not conscious during the night. In the ordinary human being, nothing is experienced within the astral body during night sleep. But think now if you practised the seven stages of St. John's initiation, these significant moments of Christian initiation. Then you would not only experience what has been described so far. Quite apart from the fact that you can develop clairvoyant power when the astral body touches the etheric body, something else would occur. The human being becomes conscious of the spiritual characteristics of the astral world and of the Devachanic world, from which he was born according to his soul. And in addition to this image there is a still higher symbolism which seems to fill the whole world. To this symbolism of the old initiation something is added for the one who goes through the St. John initiation stages, which is best represented by the first seal. As a clairvoyant apparition he sees the priest-king with a golden belt, with feet that seem to be made of cast metal, his head covered with hair as if of white wool, a fiery sword flaming from his mouth and in his hand the seven stars of the world: Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus.

The figure in the middle of the second seal picture was only indicated in the old initiation as the fifth of the group souls. It is that which was present in the humanity of the old time only in the germinal stage and only emerged in the Christian initiation as that which is also called the Son of Man, who rules the seven stars when he appears before man completely in his true form.

Thus it should be clear to us, through this symbolic representation, that what appears in the human being of today as the separation of the various members - physical and etheric body on the one side, astral body and I on the other - can be treated in such a way that both are sovereign, can be treated in such a way that both can, so to speak, contribute their share to initiation, first through the form of initiation in the contact of the astral body with the etheric body, where the four group souls light up, then in the treatment of the astral body, so that it becomes seeing in particular. In former times, actual seeing in the supersensible world had reached at most a kind of vegetable living through of the world. Through Christian initiation that is given which signifies a higher stage of initiation in the astral body and which is symbolically indicated by the second image.“ (S. 63f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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  1. Apuleius: Der goldene Esel, ins Deutsche übertragen von August Rode, S. 113