It is the intention of this essay to show that the terms
initiation, mystery and salvation are deeply interrelated within the
context of the teachings of the ancient Graeco-Roman mystery schools. The
main thesis is that the three terms combine to create a sacred triad which
forms the esoteric teaching of rebirth found in most initiatic
A proper understanding of the words initiation, mystery and salvation
is not an easy task, however, and requires serious examination of their
application in the ancient rituals of mystery cults, the way in which
their meaning was described by ancient thinkers, including the biased
exposes of early Christian critics, and their etymology[i].
While it is difficult to determine exactly what occurred within the
rituals of the ancient mystery schools, numerous mystical texts and
ancient commentaries regarding the lessons taught within the mystery
schools are available to us, which along with etymological knowledge can
provide useful insight. As a precaution, however, it should be noted that
most interpretive endeavors to categorically attach meaning to ancient
terms and usages must necessarily be speculative and should not be treated
as anything more than stepping stones on the path of discovery.
The term "initiation" comes from the Latin word initiare, which is a
late Hellenistic translation of the Greek verb myein. The main Greek term
for initiation, myesis, is also derived from the verb myein, which
means "to close." It refers to the closing of the eyes which was possibly
symbolic of entering into darkness prior to reemerging and receiving light
and to the closing the lips which was possibly a reference to the vow of
silence taken by all initiates. Another Greek term for initiation was
telete. In his Immortality of the Soul
Plutarch writes that “the soul at the moment of death, goes through the
same experiences as those who are initiated into the great mysteries. The
word and the act are similar: we say telentai (to die) and telestai (to be
initiated).” The fact that myein means "to close" and its
translation, initiare, is derived from the earlier inire, which
means to "to go in" or "to begin,” further
suggests that a notion of endings and beginnings was inherent to
the ancient understanding of these terms.
The term "mystery," mysterion in Greek, is also derived from the Greek
verb myein. The plural mysteria, was first used in application to the
The Greek terms for initiation, myesis and telete, also became first
widely used at the Eleusinian cult of Demeter. It should be noted that
while the modern meaning of the term mystery seems simply to mean
something unknown, to the ancients mysterion meant something divine,
deeply profound and worth knowing.
The term "salvation" comes from the Greek word soteria which is
derived from the word soter meaning “savior.” It appears that the
most important gods were all worshipped in search of salvation. Egyptian
gods in general were referred to by the Greeks as soteres, or saviors.
And there are numerous references in primary source materials, of gods
"saving" the initiate from moral vices or physical dangers. As the common
era progressed, the concept of salvation became more closely identified
with Christianity, as the main role of Jesus Christ was the salvation of
In the cult of Isis the notion of salvation was specifically applied
to the current life as salvation from vice and passion. Book 11 of The
Golden Ass, by Apuleius Madauros,[iii]
clearly depicts how the goddess Isis saves man from his animal passions.
Lucius, the main character in the story, having through false notions
and desires completely become an animal, is saved from this state by the
grace of the goddess. In his quest to regain his real self, or
symbolically his purity, Lucius makes his way to a quiet beach late one
night in complete despair. He invokes blessings under the full moon and
in his sleep he is approached by a vision of the beautiful goddess who
reveals herself as Isis and assures him of salvation. In the morning,
Lucius approaches a ceremonial procession of her cult and when the
Hierophant sees Lucius he takes him with them to their temple. Lucius
regains his true form, is initiated into the mysteries of the cult, and
becomes a devout servant of the goddess Isis. This is the text from which
we receive the greatest knowledge of the Hellenistic cult of Isis, as the
novitiate period and the initiation are described in some detail.
In The Golden Ass, as well as other writings, the goddess Isis was said
to be able to free her followers from fate. This particular trait is
important because it can be interpreted to mean that as one's natural
condition is subject to arbitrary dangers and is inherently full of vice
and temptation, one can transcend this condition and be saved through
devout service to the goddess.
The Persian god Mithras, the Redeemer, also offered salvation to his
followers. A salvation which could be achieved through inner
transformation based on the strict adherence of his initiatic rites and
passage through the mysteries of the seven degrees.
The more one continues to examine the terms initiation, mystery and
salvation the more interrelated they appear. Within the Graeco-Roman
context, one had to be initiated into the mysteries of life and death in
order to attain salvation. It should be noted, however, that initiation
into the mysteries was not simply a means of attaining intellectual
knowledge, or "learning" (mathein). Aristotle wrote that it
was actually the "experience" (pathein), and not knowledge learned, that
allowed the initiate to comprehend the secret meaning of the mysteries.
This enlightening, transformative experience has generally been termed
rebirth (renatus) and appears to be the central theme of the most
important rituals of almost all the ancient mystery schools as well as
modern initiatic organizations.
At Eleusis, the teaching on rebirth was revealed through the symbolism
of Kore's descent into the underworld, her ascension from it and the
subsequent return of fertility. In the cults of Osiris, Dionysus, Attis,
and Adonis, the main rite is their violent death and rebirth. In
Mithraism, we find representations of Mithras slaying a bull whose blood
turns into grain. In Christianity, the unjust crucifixion of Christ leads
to the ultimate redemption of mankind. And within Freemasonry we learn of
the murder of our beloved Grand Master Hiram Abiff by three impatient
craftsmen and his subsequent raising.
According to many enlightenment thinkers the three strikes to our Grand
Master’s body symbolize the same vices that combined together to slay
Christ. Namely, the corruption of the church, the oppression of the
state, and the ignorance of the mob. Whether or not the blows are indeed
symbolic of the same social vices that had combined to take the earthly
life of Christ is probably a matter of opinion, but what is clear is that
the ruffians had not been able to “subdue their passions” and were thus
driven by them to commit the terrible act. Because the Fellowcrafts
allowed themselves to be governed by their passions they murdered the
qualities of a Master within themselves. It is for us therefore to learn
to subdue our passions so that the Master within each of us may be
Masonic ritual informs us that the Master’s murder leads to the loss of
the Word, leaving it to be discovered in future ages. This may suggest
that mankind is yet to find the key to its salvation as a whole, while at
the same time revealing the path to individual enlightenment within the
allegory of the legend. But however one may wish to interpret the Hiramic
Legend, it is clear that the death and raising of Hiram presents some
kind of teaching on rebirth. It only follows then that the doctrine of
rebirth is something every dedicated Mason should become familiar with.
But before proceeding to rebirth, it may first be necessary to
understand what causes the death in the first place. It appears that all
the violent deaths—of Osiris, of Christ, of Hiram—have something in
common. They symbolize vice, ignorance and chaos, inevitably slaying the
pure self and thereby making rebirth necessary for salvation. These
legends reveal the nature of our circumstances and enlighten us to the
trials that we must overcome. Only through the death of one's imperfect
self, the leaving behind of the old and acceptance of transcendent truth,
can one truly be reborn into a new self, no longer tainted by the sins of
one's past. In a certain sense, and depending on one’s perspective or
religious background, rebirth or regeneration is a process that is
constantly occurring. With such an understanding, which is certainly in
accord with the modern scientific notion of constant biological
regeneration, it is up to the initiate to ensure that he is constantly
transforming into something better than he was before.
It should be recognized that the doctrine of rebirth as a means of
regaining one’s purity or rediscovering one’s true self has had great
influence on the Christian doctrine of original sin. Christianity teaches
that because of the Fall following the transgression of Adam all humanity
has inherited a state of sin, with rebirth in Christ the Savior as the
only way to salvation. Within Islam, on the other hand, the doctrine of
original sin is rejected because Allah accepted the repentance of Adam
after the Fall (Qur’ân
2:36-37) and thereby showed that each man
is responsible only for his own actions, though still subject to
temptation and folly. While it seems unclear which understanding is
closer to what was taught in the various mystery schools of the ancient
world, it does seem clear that regardless of the tradition one looks at,
most would agree that man is constantly subject to temptation and almost
always gives in sooner or later.
A good source for Freemasons to examine in the quest to overcome vice
and temptation and understand rebirth is cited in the Cooke manuscript of
the Old Charges to operative Masons in England (1450)[iv].
This manuscript regards Hermes Trismegistus as the principal patron of the
Craft. Some writers have even speculated that the name Hiram Abiff
actually comes from Hermes Ibis. While this seems unlikely, this
connection may have merit only if Hiram is considered to be a symbol of
the knowledge professed by Hermes that has become lost for most of
humanity due to the vices of men.
The main body of surviving Hermetic Wisdom is called the Corpus
Hermeticum and incidentally, book 13 of the Corpus is entitled On Rebirth.
The text is in the form of a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and his
son Tat. Tat begins by asking his father to reveal the teaching on
rebirth, by saying that he is now “ready to become a stranger to the
world,” as this was the condition that Hermes had previously set forth.
Hermes then explains that all things come from God and are one with God
and it is His will only that determines who shall achieve rebirth. The
dialogue continues with Hermes teaching Tat that it is only through
mastery of self and transcending of the senses that the divine intellect,
or Nous, can be discovered.
Eventually, Hermes gives an account of the way in which the
transformation of rebirth is to be attained by laying out clearly the
inherent vices of man and the illusions of the material world that must be
conquered and replaced with the qualities of a virtuous life. The
following excerpt from Corpus HermeticumXIII: On Rebirth is taken from the
Everard translation (1650)[v]:
Tat. Now, O Father, thou hast put me to silence for ever and all
my former thoughts have quite left and forsaken me, for I see the
greatness, and shape of all things here below, and nothing but falsehood
in them all. And since this mortal Form is daily changed, and turned by
this time into increase, and diminution, as being falsehood; what
therefore is true, O Trismegistus?
Hermes. That, O Son, which is not troubled, nor bounded; not
coloured, not figured, not changed; that which is naked, bright,
comprehensible only of itself, unalterable, unbodily.
Tat. Now I am mad, indeed, Father; for when I thought me to have
been made a wise man by thee, with these thoughts thou hast quite dulled
all my senses.
Hermes. Yet is it so, as I say, O Son, He that looketh only upon
that which is carried upward as Fire, that which is carried downward as
Earth, that which is moist as Water, and that which bloweth or is subject
to blast as Air; how can he sensibly understand that which is neither
hard, nor moist, nor tangible, nor perspicuous, seeing it is only
understood in power and operation; but I beseech and pray to the Nous
which alone can understand the Generation, which is in God.
Tat. Then am I, O Father, utterly unable to do it.
Hermes. God forbid, Son, rather draw or pull him unto thee (or
study to know Him) and He will come, be but Willing, and it shall be done;
quiet (or make idle) the Senses of the Body, purging thyself from
unreasonable brutish torments of matter.
Tat. Have I any revengers or tormentors in myself, Father ?
Hermes. Yes, and those, not a few, but many and fearful ones.
Tat. I do not know them, Father.
Hermes. One Torment, Son, is Ignorance, a second, Sorrow, a
third, Intemperance, a fourth Concupiscence, a fifth, Injustice, a sixth,
Covetousness, a seventh, Deceit, an eighth, Envy, a ninth, Fraud or Guile,
a tenth, Wrath, an eleventh, Rashness, a twelfth, Maliciousness.
They are in number twelve, and under these many more; some which
through the prison of the body, do force the inwardly placed Man to suffer
And they do not suddenly, or easily depart from him, that hath
obtained mercy of God; and herein consists, both the manner and the reason
For the rest, O Son, hold thy peace, and praise God in silence, and by
that means, the mercy of God will not cease, or be wanting unto us.
Therefore rejoice, my Son, from henceforward, being purged by the
powers of God, to the Knowledge of the Truth.
For the revelation of God is come to us, and when that came all
Ignorance was cast out.
The knowledge of Joy is come unto us, and when that comes, Sorrow shall
fly away to them that are capable of it.
I call unto Joy, the power of Temperance, a power whose Virtue is most
sweet; Let us take her unto ourselves, O Son, most willingly, for how at
her coming hath she put away Intemperance.
Now I call the fourth, Continence, the power which is over
Concupiscence. This, O Son, is the stable and firm foundation of Justice.
For see, how without labour, she hath chased away injustice and we are
justified, O Son, when Injustice is away.
The sixth Virtue which comes into us, I call Communion, which is
And when that (Covetousness) is gone, I call Truth ; and when she
cometh, Error and Deceit vanisheth.
See, O Son, how the Good is fulfilled by the access of Truth; for by
this means, Envy is gone from us; for Truth is accompanied with the Good,
together also with Life and Light.
And there came no more any torment of Darkness, but being overcome,
they are all fled away suddenly, and tumultuarily.
Thou hast understood, O Son, the manner of Rebirth; for upon the coming
of these Ten, the Intellectual Generation is perfected, and then it
driveth away the twelve; and we have seen it in the Generation itself.
Whosoever therefore hath of Mercy obtained this Generation which is
according to God, he leaving all bodily sense, knoweth himself to consist
of divine things, and rejoiceth, being made by God stable and immutable.
The Corpus Hermeticum, often called the cornerstone of the Western
esoteric tradition, is truly one of the most significant volumes of wisdom
coming from the ancient world and deserves attention in its entirety.
Albert Pike wrote the following: “He who desires to attain the
understanding of the Grand Word and the possession of the Great Secret,
ought carefully to read the Hermetic philosophers, and will undoubtedly
attain initiation, as others have done; but he must take, for the key of
their allegories, the single dogma of Hermes, contained in his Table of
Judging by the Dumfries No. 4 catechism[vii],
another manuscript of the Old Charges, seventeenth-century Masons may have
equated the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple with the two legendary pillars
of Hermetic knowledge identified with the Emerald Tablet. One part reads:
Q. Where [was] the noble art or science found when it was lost?
A. It was found in two pillars; the one would not sink the other would
The two pillars of Hermetic knowledge, supposedly of Egyptian origin,
have often been described by notable authorities throughout history as
being made in such a way that one would not burn and the other would not
sink. The pillars were said to be inscribed by Thoth, who is
traditionally equated with Hermes, prior to the Great Flood as a means of
preserving the highest wisdom of the ancients.
It appears that the ancient conception of the terms initiation,
mystery and salvation and the wisdom contained within the Hermetic
tradition is of vital importance to understanding the doctrine of rebirth
as it relates to Masonic initiation and ritual.
Initiation, to once again consider its Greek parent myein, "to close",
and its Latin counterpart initiare, "to begin", is essentially equivalent
to renatus, "rebirth." To be initiated is to die and to be born again—to
begin a new life. It is an experience, a transformation of the self. And
it is also the goal of the Masonic quest.
For a discussion of Greek initiatic terminology consult:
Burkert, Walter, Ancient Mystery Cults (Harvard Univ. Press, 1987); and
Meyer, Marvin W., The Ancient Mysteries (HarperCollins 1987)
For the principal works on the mysteries practiced at Eleusis in ancient
Mylonas, G.E., Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton Univ.
Press, 1961); and
Kerenyi, Carl, Eleusis (New York, Bollingen Foundation, 1991)
Meyer, Marvin W., The Ancient Mysteries (HarperCollins 1987) p.
Cooke MS dated to approximately mid-fifteenth-century. Under
custodianship of British Museum.
A newer and more comprehensive translation can be found in:
Salaman, van Oyen, Wharton and Mahé, The Way of Hermes: New
Translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and The Definitions of Hermes
Trismegistus to Asclepius (Inner Traditions 2000)
Pike, Albert, Morals and Dogma (Supreme Council SJ, 1871) p. 777.
MS from Dumfries Kilwinning Lodge No. 53 (early 1700s?). Hermetic
connection discussed in:
Stevenson, David, The Origins of Freemasonry (Cambridge Univ. Press
1988) p. 146.