To Die, and to Become

By I. M. Oderberg

In past times, the people as a whole knew that in their lands there existed certain institutions called Mystery Schools. Each country had such centers, and the course of tuition was reportedly in two parts. In Greece, for instance, these were (1) the Lesser Mysteries in which, after a preliminary purification of character, students were taught via symbolic plays and ceremonies suggesting the nature and purpose of earth life and human destiny; and (2) the Greater Mysteries presenting a more direct form of instruction for those whose altruistic intent and capacity to undertake such an arduous course had been tested all along the line. The second section presumably imparted teachings about the composition and processes of the solar system and of mankind, and about birth and death viewed as two phases in the continuum of life. Such written references as have survived into our own time intimate that in the Mystery centers the self-conscious human being was shown to pass through many phases marking stages in the growth of the soul.

A major portion of instruction in the Greater Mysteries culminated in an "examination" called initiation that tested the candidate in every fiber of the character. Dr. Angelo Brelich has pointed out that "during the initiatic process, among almost all the peoples who practice initiation, the 'novices' must (ritually) die, before the (ritual) birth of the initiated. The initiatic death is realized in different ways which range from a very realistic dramatization to light symbolic allusions." The concepts about death received prior to this important moment in the drama of the soul were now to be experienced consciously, with the body held in an induced trance while every faculty of the inner being was alert to the processes taking place. In a sense, the soul was liberated from the clouding veils of the material life and could feel the changes taking place as well as perceive the reality behind the appearances of earthly existence. If the candidate succeeded in maintaining integrity and complete control during the conditions met with on such an inward "journey" into his deepest being, then on the third day when the "returning" soul reanimated its vehicle the body, the former neophyte would have flowered into an initiate capable of speaking as one who had acquired the authority of direct experience. Such a one was depicted in art as wearing an aureole of light, either around the head when it was called a "halo," or surrounding the body as in various kinds of Oriental representations.

In the case of the ancient Egyptian Mysteries, the teachings and their meanings were hidden in the myths, and in the geography of the transcendental country -- the terrestrial counterpart being its mirror-image. (This helps explain why places mentioned in the Pert-em-Hru, or "Book of Coming Forth Into Light" [miscalled "Book of the Dead"], appear to be on sides of the country opposite to their location on the actual map. Incidentally, in neo-Zoroastrian Platonism, the "Heavenly Earth" -- 'alam al-mitbhl -- is referred to in the same way; [cf. Dr. Henry Corbin's The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism]. William Blake, the English mystic, distinguished between the Heavenly Jerusalem and the city of the same name in Judea.) The former was watered by the "Celestial" Nile or "River of Heaven" of which the earthly river was but the symbol. The "Sacred Land" that was the real referent in the Pert-em-Hru, and in other old scriptures, was divided into three regions analogous to the three main stages of instruction: (1) Restau, the Territory of Initiation; (2) Aahula (or Elysium in the Greek system), the Territory of Illumination where the candidate received the White Crown; and (3) Amentet, the Place of Union with the unseen Father or source of our planetary life.

This has been expressed with insight by Dr. T M. Stewart:

the visible creation was conceived as the counterpart or reflection of the Holy Land, or the Unseen World, and this Unseen World was not postulated as a vague belief. The "way above" shows how the just, after passing through the portal of the tomb, go through (1) an Initiation, which gives them (2) an Illumination and (3) confers on them an endless union with LIGHT, the Great Creator. -- Symbolism of the Gods of the Egyptians, p. 11, passim.

This final, tremendous experience is described in the Pymander scripture of the Hermetica -- a translation of old Egyptian thought into Alexandrian Greek and using the idioms of the latter language. The narrator, described as a "son" -- i.e., disciple -- of Wisdom (Thoth), enters shortly into the "boundless light" of the universe, this temporary mergence being for him a joyous and puissant event the afterglow of which remains with him forever.

The Egyptian "way of life" distinguished between two temperaments: the "passionate man" and the self-disciplined, the so-called "Silent man." As Dr. H. Frankfort describes him, the passionate man is to be found in all times: egocentric, materialist, often ruthless. The silent man is patient and master of himself in all the situations of daily life. The ancient sage Amenemope contrasts the two types:

As for the passionate man in the temple, he is like a tree growing in the open. Suddenly [comes] its loss of foliage, and its end is reached in the shipyards; [or] it is floated far from its place, and a flame is its burial shroud.
[But] the truly silent man holds himself apart. He is like a tree growing in a garden. It flourishes; it doubles its fruit; it [stands] before its lord. Its fruit is sweet; its shade is pleasant; and its end is reached in the garden. -- Ancient Egyptian Religion, pp. 65-6

Frankfort finds that in our Western culture we may be apt to misunderstand the ideal of the silent man. It does not mean he is other-worldly in the sense of being impractical, or so submissive to others as to be a doormat. The silent man is really the most successful man because he is in complete command of himself and therefore of any situation involving himself. The high officials of ancient Egypt described themselves as "truly silent," the phrase being tinctured with a distinctively Egyptian wisdom. The chief insight into the meaning of the expression "silent man" is the system of training used in the Egyptian Mysteries where discipline preceded the instruction and was maintained throughout.

The three main degrees mentioned earlier applied to (1) mortals or instructed probationers "who had not yet realized the inner vision"; (2) Intelligences, "who had done so . . . and had received the 'Mind"'; and (3) "Beings (or Sons) of Light who had become one with the Light" of the divine element within them (Stewart, op. cit., p. 14). In a sense, these classes correspond to the gnostic Paul's division of man's being into body, soul, and spirit, and just as these three aspects of the human essence are composed of their own elements, such as energy, emotional and mental entities, so the degrees had each its own subdivisions.

The well-known vignette from the Pert-em-Hru called the "Weighing of the Heart" depicts the soul of the candidate (usually described as the "heart of the deceased"), the ab or ib, weighed in the scales against the feather symbol of Maat ("truth"). A b is not only a term for the heart, a vital organ indeed, but also means the conscious entity that, in a sense independent of the outer form of the personality, is the "god in man." There is a special prayer in the scripture addressed to the "heart" during the weighing scene, which runs:

O my heart, my ancestral heart, necessary for my transformations, . . . do not separate yourself from me before the guardian of the Scales. You are my individuality within my breast, divine companion watching over my bodies.

This invocation was engraved upon a sacred scarab, Kheperu, symbol of the solar birth or rebirth in man, as well as having a cosmic application represented by the rising of the sun at dawn.

Dr. M. W. Blackden has presented the final Pert-em-Hru initiation ritual as the "soul" or candidate standing before the "Pillared Hall of the Two Truths," within which the shining forms of the "gods" or initiates are glimpsed. Anubis announces the initiant is at the door, and asks him to tell of the proving of his character. Then he is asked the name of the door. "Opener of Divine Light," is the answer. The hinges are named "Lord of Truth" for the upper, and "Lord of strength to bind the animal," for the lower. The Egyptians viewed names as important: knowing their full meaning gave the individual command over what they represented.

There is a beautiful passage in the Pert-em-Hru designated

The Chapter of entering into and of coming forth from Amentet: . . . the scribe Nebseni, victorious, says: "mortals.... I go in like the Hawk and I come forth like the Bennu bird . . . -- Papyrus of Nebseni, in The Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge, p. 61.

The Hawk is the falcon symbol of Horus, a high element in the constitution of man and cosmos. So this text means, among other things, that the candidate enters the experience as one who is aware of his innate spirituality, and leaves it as the carrier of divinity purged of the dross consumed in the purifying flame of atonement with the god within. In another text, the successful candidate says:

I am like the stars who know not weariness.
I am upon the Boat of Millions of Years.

For the Egyptians of the earliest dynasties, initiation meant the fostering of higher faculties that exist in us all, the system of training being based upon "right living" and "right thinking," to use more modern Buddhist terms. These ethical principles were the embodiment on the human plane of the laws of the goddess Maat who represented cosmic orderliness, justice, and duty expressed as responsibility. The fourth initiation was not the trumpery ceremony put forward by some present-day would-be teachers, but involved passing the "horizon of the Sun," i.e., confronting and being momentarily absorbed into or at-one with the solar splendor residing within the heart of everyone. This cannot be a lightly assumed undertaking, for the lower, self-aggrandizing tendencies in our nature must be overcome by ourselves alone. When the gates of the "Celestial Nile have been opened," then not only is the Atef-Crown of Illumination given, but the irradiated individual may now express more fully the higher mind and apply his whole being and labors to the betterment of his fellows. At this stage, the hierophant has touched the spiritualized intelligence of the individual who is then, as it were, given a new birth from above.

When that happens, everything within the universe, even the kosmos itself viewed as an organism through all the stages of consciousness and being down to the very smallest of its atomic particles, is seen to be an embryo in an egg. Because nothing is fully mature -- meaning final, finished, "perfect" in the absolute sense: completed or unchanging -- we are all incubating or being incubated. Consciousness pervades infinity, so "birth" into one aspect of it and departure or "death" from that particular phase cannot mean a first-time beginning or an eternal termination. To couple life and death as a pair in the way we normally do is a mistake, for the doorways into and from earth-life experiences are birth and death.

The whole process is an endless becoming, as the seed dies when it becomes a seedling which, too, leaves its early, helpless condition to become in time a plant in the fullness of its powers. Its inner qualities at the mature stage effloresce, producing flowers that express its innate beauty and the possibilities of the future. These various qualities in their several degrees develop out of the invisible essence within the heart of a tiny seed, out of something -- a mere speck -- that is born of the vast ranges of potentialities in SPACE, viewed by the ancient peoples as the Mother of all entities.


  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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