The Isis Initiation
The Isis Initiation
Thousands of years before Christ, Egypt reached its greatness. Asclepius, a young student of the mysteries, looking around at the marvels of Egyptian architecture and art, was told by Hermes-Thoth: “O Egypt, Egypt! For future generations, nothing will remain of thee but unbelievable tales and words carved in stone!” In those days, water lapped around the base of the Sphinx, the early representation of the terrestrial Isis. In the history of the Heavens, the Human Being is born of the spirit; in the history of the Earth, the Human Being emerges from Nature – in particular, animal nature. Thus the Sphinx shows both animal and human characteristics.
The culture of the god Ammon-Ra flourished in those early years, until the great invasions of the Hyksos, the so-called Shepherd-Princes, an Asiatic people who overran most of Egypt, and drove the keepers of the mysteries underground. Indeed, the Hyksos made a great contribution to the cultural and economic life of Egypt during the nine hundred years of their rule, but once they were overthrown, the ancient mysteries that had been kept hidden were unchanged. Men had come to learn them, and if successful, to maintain them, from those schools that were the preparatory colleges for the greater mysteries.
The student of the mysteries needed more than an overwhelming thirst for knowledge if he were to become successful. He who put himself into the hands of Hermes Trismegistus needed courage and steadfastness. He would already have known something of The Book of the Dead, and the voyage of the immortal part of the human being after death; the review of one’s life, the region of fire, burning away the imperfections gathered in life; the purification of the astral body or soul; the meeting with two pilots, the good pilot who looks forward and the evil pilot whose face is turned to the side; the trial before the forty two judges of earthly life and the defence conducted by the god Thoth. If at the end of this journey the weight of the soul was in balance in the scales with the ostrich feather of Isis, then it would be admitted into the light of Osiris. But were things really as was described in The Book of the Dead? “Isis and Osiris know!” was all the answer the novice received, and the names were not spoken aloud but whispered.
Knowing the contents of The Book of the Dead had a profound effect on some of those familiar with it. Those who wished to penetrate the mysteries to their very depths would eat no meat or fish, and remain chaste. A revolution in the moral life was necessary if one was to undertake such a path of enlightenment. The French esotericist and researcher Edouard Schuré described fully the path of the postulant in his book The Great Initiates.
The novice would arrive at the great Temple of Osiris at Thebes, and be led by servants to an inner court. There, the hierophant would welcome him, and ask him about his family, where he had come from and where his studies so far had been conducted, and who had taught him. So deep and piercing was the gaze of the hierophant that the novice, or postulant, would feel it going through him searchingly, reading the deepest secrets of his being. If the postulant were found wanting, the hierophant would simply point to the door, and the interview would be concluded, and any hope of his learning the secrets of the temple was dashed. If he were successful, he would be led through the temple precincts to a statue of Isis, life size, and veiled, with the inscription beneath: ‘No mortal has lifted my veil.’
Behind the statue was a door, flanked by two columns; one red, the other black. The red column signified the ascent to the light of Osiris, but the other indicated the death and annihilation of the human spirit in matter.
“Here you stand at the portal. To go through this door means madness to the weak, and death for the wicked. Only those whose strength of purpose is allied to good will may find life beyond this threshold. Think: have you the courage? Have you the purity of soul? If there is any doubt in your mind, go back now. Once this door closes behind you, there is no return.”
Thus the hierophant addressed the novice, and it was a brave man indeed who would dare to take the next step, through the gateway to initiation. But more preparation was necessary before the door would be opened to him. If he were still wishing to take the lonely step through the portal, he would be taken back through the temple complex and required to join the servants, with whom he would spend a week, working diligently and speaking to no-one. Silence was an absolute demand of the postulant, as he performed the most mundane and dirty of tasks; his only connection to those mysteries that he wished to master was the music of the holy psalms, borne on the warm air to him in the midst of his drudgery.
At last the evening arrived when he would face his greatest ordeal. Two acolytes led him back to the door behind the statue of Isis. Here was a long, dark corridor, with no visible way out, and shadowy forms on either side of the dim passageway of human bodies with animal heads, large and forbidding in the darkness, each one appearing to watch his every step in silent mockery at his presumption.
At the end of the corridor were two more silent figures, one a mummy, the other a human skeleton. Between these two was a hole. The two acolytes bade farewell to the novice here.
“You can still turn back,” one of the acolytes said. The other added: “There is still time.”
But the novice had come so far. Fear and the dedication to know the truth wrestled within him. At last, he knew that to turn back now was a defeat that would weigh heavily on him for the rest of his life.
“I shall go forward,” he said.
The acolytes took their leave. They closed the door of the entrance with a loud bang that echoed through the passage and smote the novice’s heart. He had now to crawl on hands and knees through a low, downward-sloping passage with nothing more to light his path than the flickering naphtha lamp in his left hand, and that hardly illuminated anything, but rather seemed to allow shapes to loom up from the darkness. Voices resonated through the darkness, repeating the same warning: “They perish here that lust for knowledge and power.”
The passage grew wider, but sloped more steeply downwards until he came to a shaft that fell before him into blackness. In the sputtering light of his naphtha lamp, he could make out the rung of a ladder down into the abyss. No other way presented itself to him. Slowly he made his way down, trying not to drop his lamp as he held on to the rungs.
The darkness below him was profound. He could see nothing in those depths. His foot reached down for the next rung, but – there was none! The ladder finished here, but the abyss went on seemingly for ever into the blackness. What could he do? There was no way back. What was demanded of him now? Was this the end of his search, alone in this subterranean darkness? With an effort, he moved his lamp to this right hand as he looked around in the gloom. Here, to his right was a crevice. If he was careful, he could make his way from the ladder into it.
He managed to manoeuvre his way from the metal rungs into the crevice, and now his lamp showed him a flight of steps; a spiral staircase cut into the living rock. He began to climb, every step taking him away from that dreadful abyss.
At last he stood before a grating of bronze, and beyond it was a great, well-lit hall, with pictures or scenes painted on the walls in two groups of eleven.
A priest, new to the novice, opened the grating, and led him into the hall.
“Well done, my son. You have passed the first test,” said the priest, and led him past the frescoes, stopping at each one to explain its meaning. Each one was associated with a letter and a number, and each picture had a triple meaning; one that had its echoes in the divine world; one that referred to the world of the human spirit, or intellect; and one that was to be understood with reference to the world of nature, the physical world. Thus, the keys to understanding at this level of initiation were threefold. The first of these was the Magus in a white robe of purity and golden crown of light, with the sceptre of authority in his hand. He symbolized in the divine realm, Absolute Being from which all creation flows; in the realm of the spirit, the original unity, the synthesis of all numbers; in the world of nature, the human being who alone among created beings in the world can will his evolution as a being of spirit. This and the other twenty-one pictures constituted the first book of the teachings of Hermes-Thoth. Gradually, the novice came to understand the meanings of them all; Isis of the Heavens, the Tower struck by lightning, the Chariot of Osiris, the Star; all the way to the Crown of the Illuminated Ones.
“This crown must be well understood,” the priest said: “those who are able to join their will to the Divine in the furtherance of Truth, Justice and Harmony after life in the world of Nature have the reward of free spirits; to enter into the realm of those who participate with the gods in guiding the forces of creation.”
The novice listened to these words with a mixture of awe and reverence. Something was beginning to dawn in his understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life on Earth. It opened up before him in a mighty picture, whose meaning was love.
But now the time came for further trials. The priest led the novice to a door and opened it. At the end of a corridor was a flaming furnace.
“If you are of good courage,” said the priest, “the flames of the fire will be for you no more than the rose flowers in a garden.”
Borne up by the vision of love that the novice had received, he went forward. “If I am unworthy,” he thought, “let me be consumed by the flames indeed.”
The door closed behind him, and he approached the fire. But it was no more than the appearance of fire, made by daylight falling through sheets of wood cut into diamond shapes on an iron framework, and so thin as to allow the passage of light through them, colouring the light with fiery hues.
Illusion though it was, the effect on the novice was profound. He hurried through the path of fire, and came at once to a pool of stagnant water, in a chamber as dark as the previous one had been bright. The flames behind him cast eerie reflections on the blackness of the water. He waded in, the cold water becoming deeper and deeper, until at last he reached the far side.
Gasping and fearful, he was pulled out of the chill water by two acolytes who dried him and anointed him with sweet-smelling unguents, and told him to wait. The chamber was dim, lit by a bronze lantern. He waited, resting on a couch, and the tenth picture from the Book of Hermes-Thoth came into his mind; a wheel placed between two columns, upon which, on one side, was Anubis, spirit of good, and on the other, Set, the evil one, falling head downwards towards the abyss. Above the two sat the Sphinx, holding a sword. But what had this image to do with the place where he now found himself?
All at once, he heard the strains of melancholy music of harp and flute. And then, coming towards him, he saw a woman. She was tall and graceful, an Ethiopian beauty, all in diaphanous dress of red. He rose to meet her. She held in her left hand a cup, which she offered him. As she offered it, she smiled, and he realised that she was offering herself with the wine. This beautiful woman would be a fitting reward indeed for all that he had gone through. Her lips parted in a fresh smile as she offered him once more the cup. Her eyes were luminous in the shadowy chamber. Desire arose in him like flames. He formed the thought: ‘I am on fire with desire.’ And the memory of what he had just been through came back to him. She sat on the couch and raised the wine cup again, her right hand smoothing down her dress over her breast and belly, as if in invitation. He found himself moving towards the couch, but once again, the image of the Wheel arose in his mind’s eye, and Set on the left hand, chained forever to the abyss.
He approached her, and reached for the cup. Taking it from her, he overturned it, letting the perfumed wine spill over the floor.
“The bliss of the body is the darkness of the soul,” he said, and turned away from her. She rose and left the chamber, and no sooner had she left than twelve acolytes entered, bearing torches. They led him to the sanctuary of the Temple, where the initiated priests of Osiris welcomed him. Before him in the sanctuary was a large statue of Isis, draped in velvet, a golden rose at her breast, and in her arms the child Horus. There, before the image of Isis and Horus, he was bound to silence by the most stringent of oaths. He had succeeded in the next trial. Had he submitted to the desires of the flesh, he would have been a slave to the temple for life. Any attempt to escape would have meant death.
Even now, though no longer a novice, he stood only at the threshold of knowledge. His studies began into the world of nature, the physical laws of the world. His ‘teachers’ hardly spoke to him, answering his questions sometimes with what seemed a brusque indifference, sometimes with the injunction: “Be patient. Work.” Doubt began to torment him. He felt as though he was in a desert, with no one to help him to slake his thirst.
In calmer moments he realised that the trials he had undergone were a foretaste of what he was experiencing now. His bodily desires were still strongly burning within him. The extent of his ignorance was greater than the dark abyss that he had escaped. The cold water was less of a torment than the doubts that assaulted him. If he could meet those trials then, could he not overcome the trials that his own nature set before him now?
Nevertheless, he still had moments when he despaired of ever learning anything of the knowledge that Hermes-Thoth possessed. His teachers remained distant.
“Who knows if you will ever be permitted to see the light of Osiris? It depends on you. Perhaps one day the lotus will rise from the depths of the pool; perhaps never in this lifetime. Be patient. Do your work diligently.”
With the passage of years, the postulant felt changes take place within him. The desires of his bodily nature burned less fiercely, and impatience and doubt gave way to a reverence for nature and the spirit. This grew into a deep piety that was noticed by the initiated priests, and one day, he was approached by the hierophant, the chief priest of the temple, he who led the postulant forward for the higher initiation.
“The time has come, my son,” said the hierophant: “Through the purity of your heart, your power of self-denial and your love of truth, you have gained the right to be one among the company of the initiated.”
The brotherhood of the initiated accompanied the postulant to the lower crypt of the temple. There lay a cold stone sarcophagus into which the postulant climbed. He lay as one dead, and the cold began to spread through his body. He began to lose consciousness as the hymn for the dead, sung by the priesthood, echoed in that subterranean chamber.
“None escapes death. All living souls are destined for resurrection. He who goes into the tomb alive may enter the light of Osiris. As you lie here, wait for the light. You shall go through the gates of fear, and you shall attain to the mastery.”
Thus spoke the hierophant as the postulant felt pain like the death agony take hold of him. The priests filed out, and the singing rose in volume. They left behind them a lamp that gradually flickered and went out.
Now the postulant saw his life pass before him as in a great tableau. Everything he had ever done, everything that he had thought was plainly to be seen in this great picture. What had taken place in time now appeared in space. His consciousness became less and less distinct, as though borne away on a stream of time…
The last thing he recalled was the appearance of Isis, as she was depicted in the sanctuary, but younger, though still veiled. She carried in her hand a papyrus in which was the scroll of his life, his past lives, though pages were left blank for future lives.
“There shall come a time,” she said, “when I shall unfold all before you. But for the time being, know me now as the sister of your soul. I shall come when you call upon me.”
Now, with a pain like birth, he found himself wrenched back into his temporal being, lying in the cold sarcophagus. He lay in his body, unable to move a finger, seized by a deathly lethargy, able only to open his eyes. There before him was the hierophant.
“You live again, one initiated in the light of Osiris,” he said, and the priests helped him out of the stone coffin. They gave him a cup of cordial to help him revive, as he felt life coursing through his veins again.
“Tell us of your journey,” said the hierophant. Most of what was revealed to the pupil of the Thrice-Great Hermes remains a deep secret, and we must leave it so.
 In a later epoch of Egyptian history, if a person wished to take a terrible revenge on an enemy even after that enemy’s death, he would deface a picture or carving of his dead foe, removing the nose. This was a piece of magic meant to deprive the deceased of breath in the afterlife. Thus, whether it was a French cannon that destroyed the Sphinx’s nose in the 19th century, or the Sufi Saim al Dahr in the 14th century, it was an unwitting blasphemy of a high order.
(From A Rosslyn Treasury)