16. Isis – Initiation -- The Trials

In the time of the Rameses, Egyptian civilization was shining in the fullness of its glory. The Pharaohs of the twentieth dynasty, pupils and sword-bearers of the sanctuaries, bore the battle against Babylon like real heros. The Egyptian archers harassed the Lybians, Bodons and Numdis to the center of Africa. A fleet of four hundred sailboats pursued the league of the schismatics to the mouth of the Indus. Better to withstand the attack of Assyria and its allies, the Rameses had laid out strategic routes as far as Lebanon, and had built a system of forts between Mageddo and Karkemish. Endless caravans moved through the desert from Radasieh to Elephantine. Architectual activity continued without a break and occupied workers from three continents. The nypostyle room of Karnak, each pillar of which reaches the height of the Vendome Column, was repaired; the Temple of Abydos was adorned with sculptural wonders, and the Valley of the Kings with grandiose monuments. Building went on at Bubast, Luksor and Speos Ibsambul. At Thebes a victory pylon commemorated the taking of Kadesh. At Memphis the Rameseum arose, surrounded by a forest of obelisk statues and gigantic monoliths.

In the midst of this feverish activity, this glittering life, more than one foreigner seeking the Mysteries, coming from the distant shores of Asia Minor, the Mountains of Thracia, landed in Egypt, attracted by the reputation of its temples. When he arrived in Memphis, he was struck with amazement. Monuments, spectacles, public festivals, all gave him the impression of wealth and grandeur. After the ceremony of royal consecration, which took place in the secrecy of the sanctuary, he would see the Pharaoh leave the temple before the crowd and climb upon his shield carried by twelve flag-bearing officers of his staff. Before him twelve young Levites carried the royal insignia on gold-braided cushions: the ruler's sceptre with a ram's head, the sword, bow and collection of arms. Behind him came the royal household and the priestly schools, followed by the initiates in the major and minor Mysteries. The pontiffs wore the white tiara and their chests glowed with the fire of symbolic jewels. The dignitaries of the crown wore decorations of the Lamb, Ram, Lion, Lily and Bee, suspended from massive chains, intricately worked. The guilds brought up the rear of the procession with their emblems and flying banners. At night magnificently decorated boats carried the royal orchestras over artificial lakes. On the boats dancers and musicians were outlined in hieratic poses.

But this overwhelming pomp was not what the traveler was seeking. A desire to penetrate the secret of things, a thirst for knowledge, is what brought him from so far away. He had been told that magi and hierophants, in possession of divine science, lived in the sanctuaries of Egypt. He too wanted to fathom the secret of the gods. He had heard a priest of his country speak of The Book of the Dead, of its mysterious scroll which was placed beneath mummies' heads like a viaticum, and which related in symbolic form the voyage of the soul after death, according to the priests of Ammon-Ra. With avid curiosity and a certain inner fear mixed with doubt, he had followed this long voyage of the soul into the after-life, witnessing expiation in a burning region, the purification of its sidereal covering, its encounter with the evil pilot seated in a boat with his head turned aside, and with the good pilot who looks forward. He observed the soul's appearance before the forty-two terrestrial judges, its justification by Toth and finally its entry and transfiguration in the light of Osiris. We can imagine the power of this book, as well as the total revolution that Egyptian initiation sometimes effected upon human minds, from this passage of The Book of the Dead:

"This chapter was found at Hermopolis in blue writing on an alabaster stone, at the feet of the god Toth (Hermes) in the time of King Menkara, by Prince Hastatif, when he was on a trip to inspect the temples. He carried the stone into the royal temple. O great secret! He no longer saw, he no longer heard, when he read that pure and holy chapter; he no longer went near any woman and no longer ate meat or fish."

But what truth was there in this disturbing account, in these hieratic pictures, behind which glistened the terrible mysteries of after-life? "Isis and Osiris know," he was told. But who were these gods about whom one spoke only with one's finger upon one's lips? It was to learn this that the stranger knocked at the door of the great temple of Thebes, or of Memphis.

Servants led him beneath the portico of an inner court, whose great pillars seemed like gigantic lotus supporting the solar ark, the Temple of Osiris, with their strength and purity. The hierophant approached the new arrival. The majesty of his countenance, the tranquillity of his face, the mystery of his dark, impenetrable eyes, filled with an inner light, were already enough to disquiet the postulant. That gaze pierced like an awl. The stranger felt that he was facing a man from whom it would be impossible to hide anything. The priest of Osiris questioned the newcomer about the city of his birth, his family and the temple which had instructed him. If in this brief but penetrating examination he was considered unworthy of the Mysteries, a silent but irrevocable gesture pointed to the door. But if the hierophant found in the aspirant the sincere desire for truth, he asked him to follow him. They passed through porticos and inner courts, then through a corridor carved in the rock, open to the sky and bordered with stelae and sphinxes, until they reached a small temple which served as an entrance to the underground crypts. The door was disguised by a life-sized statue of Isis. The goddess, seated in an attitude of meditation and contemplation, held a closed book in her lap. Her face was veiled. Beneath the statue one could read, "No mortal has lifted my veil."

"This is the door to the hidden sanctuary," said the hierophant. "Look at these two columns. The red one represents the ascension of the spirit into the light of Osiris. The black one signifies its captivity in matter, and this fall can continue into annihilation. Whoever approaches our science and teaching risks his life. Madness or death is what the weak or the wicked find; the strong and the good alone find life and immortality. Many reckless ones have entered this door, and have not come out alive. It is an abyss which leads only the fearless to the daylight once again. Therefore, consider carefully what you are about to do, the dangers you will face, and if your courage is not equal to every ordeal, give up the quest. For once this door is closed behind you, you will no longer be able to turn back."

If the stranger persisted in his wish, the hierophant would lead him into the outer court and commend him to the temple servants, with whom he was required to spend a week, obliged to perform the most menial tasks, listening to the hymns and performing ablutions. He had to observe the strictest silence.

When the evening of the ordeals arrived, two neocoros, or assistants, led the candidate for the mysteries to the door of the secret sanctuary. They entered a dark corridor without any visible exit. On the two sides of this dismal room, in the torchlight, the stranger saw a row of statues with men's bodies and animals' heads, -- lions, bulls, birds of prey, and serpents -- which seemed to watch his progress while they mocked him. At the end of this sinister passage, which was crossed in complete silence, a mummy and a human skeleton stood opposite each other. And with a silent gesture, the two neocoros showed the novice a hole in the wall in front of him. It was the entrance to a corridor so low that it could be entered only by crawling on hands and knees.

"You can still turn back," said one of the assistants. "The door of the sanctuary is not yet closed. If you do not turn back now, you must continue on your way and cannot return."

"I shall go forward," said the novice, summoning all his courage.

He was then given a little lighted lamp. The neocoros turned around and closed the door of the sanctuary with a loud bang. The novice could no longer hesitate; he had to enter the corridor. Hardly had he eased through by crawling on his knees when he heard a voice at the end of the tunnel, saying, "Fools who covet knowledge and power perish here!" Because of a strange acoustical phenomenon, this sentence was repeated seven times by echoes at various points. Nevertheless, he had to move forward; the corridor became wider, but inclined downward more sharply. At last the daring traveller found himself before a shaft which led into a hole. An iron ladder disappeared into the latter; the novice took a chance. As he hung upon the lowest rung of the ladder, his frightened gaze looked downward into a terrifying abyss. His poor naphtha lamp which he gripped convulsively in his trembling hand, cast its dim light into endless darkness. What should he do? Above him, -- impossible return; below, -- a drop into the blackness of awful night. In his distress he noticed a crevice on his right. Stretching forward with one hand on the ladder, and his lamp held out with the other, he saw steps. A staircase! Safety! He climbed upward, escaping the abyss. The staircase cut through the rock in the form of a spiral. Finally, the aspirant found himself in front of a bronze grating leading into a great hall, supported by huge caryatids. On the wall could be seen two rows of symbolic frescoes. There were eleven groups on each side, softly lighted by the crystal lamps which the beautiful caryatids bore in their hands.

A Magus called a pastophor, a guardian of sacred symbols, opened the grating for the novice and welcomed him with a kind smile. He congratulated him upon having successfully passed the first test. Then, leading him across the hall, he explained the sacred paintings. Under each of these paintings was a letter and a number. The twenty-two symbols represented the twenty-two first Mysteries and constituted the alphabet of secret science, that is, the absolute principles, the universal keys which, employed by the will, become the source of all wisdom and power. These principles were fixed in the memory by their correspondence with the letters of the sacred language and with the numbers associated with these letters. Each letter and each number expressed in this language a ternary law, having its repercussion in the divine world, the intellectual world, and the physical world. Just as the finger touching the string of a lyre causes a note of the scale to resound and all its harmonics to vibrate, so the spirit which contemplates all the virtualities of a number, the voice which utters a letter with the knowledge of its meaning, evokes a power which echoes in the three worlds.
Thus the letter A which corresponds to number 1, expresses in the divine world, Absolute Being from which all beings emanate; in the intellectual world, the unity, origin, and synthesis of numbers; in the physical world, Man, the head of related beings, who, through expansion of his faculties, rises into the concentric spheres of infinity. The arcanum was represented among the Egyptians by a Magus in a white robe, a scepter in his hand and wearing a gold crown. The white robe meant purity, the scepter, authority and the gold crown, universal light.

The novice was far from understanding everything he heard that was strange and new, but great perspectives opened before him at the words of the pastophor before the beautiful paintings, which looked at him with the impassive gravity of the gods. Behind each of them he glimpsed a series of thoughts, and pictures suddenly were called forth. He surmised for the first time the interior of the world through the mysterious chain of causes. Thus, from letter to letter, from number to number, the teacher explained to the pupil the meaning of the arcana, and led him past Isis Urania to the Chariot of Osiris, past the Thunderstruck Tower to the Flaming Star, and finally to the Crown of the Magi. "Mark well," said the pastophor, "what this crown means: all will which is joined to God in order to manifest truth and to effect justice after this life, enters into participation with divine power over beings and things, attaining the everlasting reward of liberated spirits." While listening to the teacher's words, the neophyte experienced a mixture of surprise, fear and rapture. These were the first lights of the sanctuary, and the truth seen in part, appeared to him to be the light of a divine recollection.

But the trials were not over. When he finished speaking, the pastophor opened a door leading to another long, narrow corridor, at the end of which glowed a red-hot furnace. "Why that is death!" exclaimed the novice, looking at his guide fearfully. "My son," said the pastophor, "death frightens only weak minds. I once crossed this fire like a bed of roses." And the gate of the hall of secrets closed behind the postulant. Upon approaching the fiery furnace, he saw it reduced to an optical illusion created by a light interlacing of resinous wood placed over iron lattice work in quincunxes. A path through the middle allowed him to pass by quickly. The trial by water followed the trial by fire. The aspirant was forced to go through a stagnant black pool, lighted by naphtha flames which flashed up behind him in the room of fire. After this, two assistants led him, still trembling, into a dim grotto where a soft couch could be dimly seen, lighted by the mysterious flickering of a bronze lamp hanging from the vault. He was dried, his body was bathed in exquisite essences, he was dressed in fine linen and was left alone after being told, "Rest and wait for the hierophant."

Weak with fatigue, the novice stretched himself upon the sumptuous bed. After his varied emotions this moment of calm seemed sweet. The sacred paintings he had seen, all those strange faces, the sphinx, the caryatids, again passed before his eyes. But why did one of the paintings keep coming back to him like an hallucination? Again and again he saw arcanum X represented by a wheel suspended on its axis between two columns. On one side sits Hermanubis, genius of good, -- handsome as a young Ephebe; on the other, Typhon, genius of evil, falls head downward into the abyss. Between the two, on top of the wheel, sits a sphinx holding a sword in its paw.

The tones of lascivious music which seemed to come from outside the grotto, caused this picture to fade. The sounds were light and undefinable, of a sad, penetrating languor. A metallic tinkling reached his ear, mixed with vibrations of the harp and the sounds of a flute, along with panting sighs like a torrid breathing. Wrapped in a dream of fire, the stranger closed his eyes. Upon reopening them, he saw an overwhelming vision of life and infernal seduction a few steps away from his bed. A Nubian woman, clothed in transparent dark-red gauze, a necklace of amulettes at her neck, similar to the priestesses of Mylitta, was standing there embracing him with her glance, holding a cup crowned with roses in her left hand. She was of the type whose intense, strong sensuality embodies all the powers of the female animal: high, prominent cheekbones, nostrils dilated, full lips like a delicious ripe fruit. Her dark eyes shone in the dusk. The novice had leapt to his feet in astonishment, not knowing whether he should tremble or rejoice, instinctively crossing his hands on his chest. But the slave moved toward him, slowly lowering her eyes. In a low voice she murmured, "Are you afraid of me, noble stranger? I bring you the reward of conquerors, the forgetfulness of troubles, the cup of happiness." The novice hesitated; then, as though overcome with lassitude, the Nubian woman sank upon the bed, enveloping the stranger in a pleading look as in a humid flame. Woe to him if he did not defy her, if he bent over that mouth, if he became drunk with the heavy perfumes arising from these bronzed shoulders! Once he had touched that hand and had placed his lips upon that cup, he was lost. He turned upon his bed, entwined in a burning grasp . . . But after the wild satisfying of his desire, the liquid he had drunk plunged him into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he found himself alone and in anguish. The lamp cast a ghost-like light upon his disordered bed. A man was standing before him; it was the hierophant. He said to him:

"You were victorious in the first trials. You triumphed over death, fire and water, but you have not learned to conquer yourself. You who seek the heights of the mind and knowledge succumbed to the first temptation of the senses and fell into the abyss of matter. One who is a slave to the senses lives in darkness. You preferred darkness to light; therefore remain in darkness. I warned you of the dangers to which you were exposing yourself. You saved your life, but you have lost your freedom. You are to remain a slave of the temple, under penalty of death."

If, on the other hand, the aspirant had overturned the cup and repelled the temptress, twelve neocoros armed with torches would have come to lead him triumphantly into the sanctuary of Isis where Magi, ranked in a semi-circle and dressed in white, awaited him in a plenary assembly. In the depths of the temple he would see the colossal statue of Isis in cast metal, splendidly lighted, a gold rose at her breast, and wearing a crown of seven rays. She held her son Horus in her arms. The goddess and the hierophant clothed in velvet, would receive the newcomer, and under the most awesome oaths, make him pledge silence and submission. Then he greeted him in the name of the entire assembly as a brother and future initiate. Before the august teachers, the disciple of Isis thought himself in the presence of the gods. Grown beyond himself, he entered for the first time into the sphere of truth.


17. Osiris: Death and Resurrection

The Great Initiates